The obviously obvious obvious.

Seen on Facebook:

Wasn’t John Brown ‘antifa’? Who today would object to his actions?

Here’s the reasoning as I understand it. Obviously, John Brown was cool. But John Brown was like antifas, and antifas are like John Brown. Therefore antifas are cool. QED. It’s obvious. Obviously obvious. Who would even think of denying it? Except racists, I mean?

Here is Wikipedia on the Pottawatomie massacre, one of John Brown’s ‘actions’:

Some time after dark, the party left their place of hiding and proceeded on their “secret expedition”. Late in the evening, they called at the house of James P. Doyle and ordered him and his two adult sons, William and Drury to go with them as prisoners. (Doyle’s 16-year-old son, John, who was not a member of the pro-slavery Law and Order Party, was spared after his mother pleaded for his life.) The three men were escorted by their captors out into the darkness, where Owen Brown and one of his brothers killed them with broadswords. John Brown, Sr. did not participate in the stabbing but fired a shot into the head of the fallen James Doyle to ensure he was dead.

Brown and his band then went to the house of Allen Wilkinson and ordered him out. He was slashed and stabbed to death by Henry Thompson and Theodore Winer, possibly with help from Brown’s sons.[6] From there, they crossed the Pottawatomie, and some time after midnight, forced their way into the cabin of James Harris at swordpoint. Harris had three house guests: John S. Wightman, Jerome Glanville, and William Sherman, the brother of Henry Sherman (“Dutch Henry”), a militant pro-slavery activist. Glanville and Harris were taken outside for interrogation and asked whether they had threatened Free State settlers, aided Border Ruffians from Missouri, or participated in the sack of Lawrence. Satisfied with their answers, Brown’s men let Glanville and Harris return to the cabin. William Sherman was led to the edge of the creek and hacked to death with the swords by Winer, Thompson, and Brown’s sons.

Who today would object to those actions? Except a racist, I mean? C’mon, people, let’s go punch some nazis.

(Warning: Irony)

3 thoughts on “The obviously obvious obvious.

  1. A high school American history teacher’s response: Antifa is pretty much doing street theater; John Brown wanted to start a civil war; so no, antifa is not John Brown.


    • Michael and I had an email exchange on the events in Charlottesville (including antifa), but neither of us had the time at the time to translate that into blogging. I haven’t read enough about antifa to have firm opinions about it. Part of the problem is that the term “antifa” has now become a moving target to be used (as confusingly as possible) in a narrow and a broad sense–the narrow sense referring to a set of anarcho-communist street thugs, and the broad sense referring to any obstreperous set of left-leaning protesters who happen to be outside and yelling.

      On a side note, I’m covering definitions by genus and difference in a critical thinking class I teach for a cohort of “non-traditional” students, i.e., working adults in their late 20s, 30s and 40s wanting to get a bachelor’s degree in business. One of the terms I had them define for homework was “fascism” (along with “doxxing,” “ghosting,” “personal hotspot,” and “table.”) I found it both remarkable and dismaying that the term “fascism” meant absolutely nothing to them: neither historical associations, nor connotations, nor informative definitions. Having looked the word up online, it became clear to them that “fascism” had something to do with centralized political authority and repression, but that was about it. If you’d listed paradigmatically fascist regimes alongside non-fascist ones, they couldn’t reliably have picked out the fascist ones.

      After pressing them, they were content to associate “fascism” with “Hitler,” but they were equally content to associate fascism with Stalin, and at any rate, the inference from “Nazism” to “fascism” was far from immediate. As for the association of fascism with nationalism and racism; the traditional clash between fascists and communists; or Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy as paradigmatic fascist regimes: all of this was lost on them.

      In other words, they were operating with a conceptual scheme involving a very broad genus of “bad regimes” as contrasted with “good regimes,” with no sense of how to differentiate species within either genus–and no sense that anyone had ever thought to. Equally problematic: they had no sense of the criteria for differentiating good from bad regimes except the conventional one of relying on the distinction between “regimes like ours” and “regimes not like ours,” equating the first with “good” and the second with “bad.”

      I realize this is a long tangent from your original point, but I found myself wondering how people operating with this conceptual scheme and level of historical/political knowledge would process the debate about antifa (or antifa-in-Charlottesville, etc). Can you think cogently about “antifa” if you don’t know what fascism is? And what does it mean that a cohort of middle class adults doesn’t know what “fascism” is?

      On antifa and John Brown: whatever the similarities and differences involved here, I don’t think the distinction between “doing street theater” and “wanting to start a civil war” is a useful one. Yes, there is a distinction between doing political street theater and actually starting a civil war, but most civil wars begin with street theater that functions as a dress rehearsal for civil war. The Klan engaged in plenty of rural street theater, but went on to terrorize the South; the Nazis started as street theater buffoons before they took over the Weimar Republic. (The Beer Hall Putsch is a classic hybrid of street theater and prelude to civil war.) In a sense William Lloyd Garrison belonged to the street theater wing of the abolitionist movement, as John Brown belonged its military wing–but the point is, they belonged to the same movement, and the movement was responsible in part for starting the Civil War. What this specifically implies for antifa, however, I don’t know.

      The most obvious historical parallels to antifa, however, are not comparisons to the abolitionists, but comparisons to communist attempts to co-opt liberal resistance to fascism. The communists often claim (and get) credit for civil rights successes in the American South and in apartheid South Africa–successes that they chalk up in part to their working class ideology, and in part to their willingness to smash racist-fascist heads, mere liberals being too squishy and squeamish for this sort of thing. (My first political theory professor in college, a Marxist, used to take this line.)

      Something similar is true of Communist resistance to the Free Corps in Weimar Germany; the point (the Communists’ point) was that the Social Democrats were ineffective (i.e., insufficiently brutal and/or antifascist) by comparison with the Communists at dealing with fascists. I guess the epitome of this attitude is the view that the Red Army was more anti-fascist than the Allied Armies in World War II. And it is true that they suffered more casualties and did more fighting. Granted, they helped the Nazis start the war, and eventually rivaled the Nazis in mass murder and repression, but I mean, you can’t have everything.

      The point of this meandering history lesson is that while I’m unsatisfied by just about everything I’ve read and heard about antifa, I don’t know enough about them to say anything more specific than I have.


      • In the circles I move in, the understanding is that ‘antifa’ names a specific kind of opposition to fascism and other right-wing ideologies: the kind of opposition that explicitly condones and actually adopts violence, especially (but not only) coordinated violence, and especially (but not only) coordinated violence in response to demonstrations, protests, and other public gatherings of fascists/right-wing ideologues. That might be pretty vague, but it’s not too vague.

        I don’t think arguments of the following form are worth much: X’s usually start out as Y’s; therefore the distinction between X’s and Y’s is not useful. That seems to be the reasoning behind your judgment, unless I’ve misunderstood it. But just consider: radical Islamists usually start out as ordinary Muslim believers; therefore the distinction between radical Islamists and ordinary Muslim believers is not useful. Not a conclusion I’m willing to draw on that basis.

        In the particular case, too, I think the distinction between antifa as street theater and John Brown as an agitator for civil war more or less hits the mark. The express goal of most antifas is to defend people against attacks by fascists and their cousins and intimidate them so that they shut up, go away, and are afraid to express their fascist ideas. Though antifas engage in plenty of non-violent opposition to fascists, their endorsement of violence is what distinguishes them from other sorts of opposition: see the analysis here:

        Now, you’re of course perfectly right that antifas could turn into agitators for civil war. But they’re not, right now, agitators for civil war. This isn’t their goal, and even when we can’t ask them to find out, the methods they use aren’t the methods by which one intentionally starts a civil war. John Brown’s, by contrast, were: murdering pro-slavery people and seizing control of a federal military arsenal in order to lead a revolt are. So far as I know, antifa groups haven’t pulled any fascists of their houses at night and slaughtered them and haven’t tried to seize control of instruments of the federal government. Describing them as engaged in “street theater” is — by the intention of my colleague, I think — a bit dismissive, and we might prefer the kinds of descriptions that self-proclaimed antifas give (e.g., defending people against fascist violence, preemptively if necessary). But so far, at least, what antifas do is quite different in severity, in methods, and in aims. The similarity is: using violence, even preemptively, to fight racists. I think even from a pro-antifa perspective, the differences are at least equally important.

        For what it’s worth, I think the most important historical parallel to antifa is antifa: the people calling themselves antifa here and now in the U.S. are explicitly appropriating the language and methods of European anti-fascist groups, as Bray’s article details. This is, of course, the same parallel you cited; it’s just that what today’s self-identified antifas would have us believe is that they are just the contemporary representatives of the same movement.

        My view on this is straightforward, predictable, and boring: self-defense is great, but initiating violence against people for publicly endorsing racist and other noxious political views is not self-defense, it’s (at best) pre-emptive strike, and while there may be some circumstances in which pre-emptive strike is justified, and justified on something broadly like self-defense (preventing harm to oneself), I don’t see any reason to think that Charlottesville or other recent white supremacist demonstrations come anywhere close to such cases.

        But of course I’m not going to defend that assertion, because I’m supposed to be working. Whoops.


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