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Feb 7, 17

Trotsky meets Alex Jones: Against Smear Tactics

After the successful disruption of Milo’s talk at Berkeley, Trump memorably took to twitter to complain about “professional anarchists” and “paid protesters.” But Trump and his supporters aren’t the only ones who’ve been peddling conspiracy theories about antifa: the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) recently published a pair of hit pieces aiming to spread the myth that “significant numbers of the hooded anarchists who rioted in Berkeley were police agents or informants.”

This kind of lie can have serious consequences, even coming from a relatively obscure and cranky source like the WSWS, so it’s worth taking the time to address it properly. It’s important to be open to legitimate criticism, and listen to arguments over tactics and strategy, and anarchists and other anti-state communists have never been shy about offering criticisms of antifa, or saying when they think specific tactics like the black bloc can at times be carried out without strategy. But trying to characterise people as police agents goes way beyond this. Accusing people – whether specific individuals or vague categories like “the black bloc” – of being undercover agents isn’t a way of opening up a discussion, but of closing it down. You don’t calmly talk over your differences with people you think are police officers, you exclude them from your spaces, forcefully if necessary. The WSWS are open about their intentions here: they ask their readers to “identify these provocateurs before they can do their dirty work and throw them out.”

Of course, no-one could object to actually unmasking real undercovers, like the people at that protest in Oakland in 2014, or the various people who’ve done the hard and painful work of identifying infiltrators in their groups and even their personal lives. Providing resources to help people identify and deal with real infiltrators, as anarchists have done in the past, is important. But this has nothing in common with just painting broad political tendencies you dislike as being police agents.

Needless to say, the tactic of trying to discredit dedicated working-class militants and anti-fascists by accusing them of being secret agents was wrong then, and shouldn’t be seen as any more acceptable today.

I’m sure there are some undercover agents in some antifa groups and some black blocs; after all, since at least Cointelpro, if not earlier, the state’s put a great deal of effort into getting agents everywhere it can. Just off the top of my head, I can also think of undercover agents or informers who’ve spied on totally liberal peace groups, the families of people murdered by racist or state violence, a collective that provided humanitarian relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people working to save the lives of death row inmates, and the RMT railworkers’ union. We wouldn’t let these well-documented examples of real state agents make us think that everyone involved in liberal anti-war protests, working with bereaved families affected by racist violence, helping out after a disaster, trying to prevent an execution, or active in a union must be working for the state, and the same logic should apply to antifa and black blocs – and that’s before we get onto the fact that the WSWS don’t even offer any proof to support their assertions, they just proceed on the basis of “I don’t like these people, therefore they must be state.”

There’s an interesting little irony here, for those who know their history: in the 1930s and 1940s, the Stalinist Communist Parties disagreed with the early Trotskyists, in part because the Trotskyists supported the Spanish revolutionaries against the Republic, and encouraged workers in the Allied countries to go on fighting for their own interests instead of sacrificing everything for the war effort (and so for the defence of the USSR). Rather than arguing these differences out openly and honestly, they preferred to just say that all Trotskyists were secretly working for Hitler. It’s remarkable how much the WSWS’s call to “identify these provocateurs before they can do their dirty work and throw them out” sounds like it could’ve come straight from an old anti-Trotskyist smear like “Clear Out Hitler’s Agents!”

Needless to say, the tactic of trying to discredit dedicated working-class militants and anti-fascists by accusing them of being secret agents was wrong then, and shouldn’t be seen as any more acceptable today.

As the Twin Cities General Defence Committee have pointed out, this kind of “badjacketing” has in fact been used by real, actual state infiltrators before, and one some occasions, as with the sad story of American Indian Movement militant Anna Mae Aquash, has actually led to people losing their lives. When we see how destructive these charges have been to our movements in the past, we can appreciate just how serious they are, and how totally irresponsible it is for the WSWS to throw them around without proof.

The other leg of the WSWS’s faulty argument, beyond just trying to smear militants as being infiltrators, is to claim that anarchists “are fully subordinated to the Democratic Party and the capitalist system,” with the proof of this apparently being that the New York Times ran an article about anarchists and anti-fascists that wasn’t a total smear job. Of course, this one article hardly outweighs the huge amount of attacks and scare stories the media have printed about anarchists in the past, but the WSWS insist that “the real question is, why is the Times promoting this “fringe movement” as some kind of serious contender in the “battle of ideas?”’

Before attempting to answer, it’s worth taking a moment to enjoy the irony of the World Socialist Website – a publication of that totally mainstream organisation which is in no way fringe, the International Committee of the Fourth International* – using the term “fringe movement” as a pejorative. But to answer the question, the New York Times is being forced to take anarchists and anti-fascists seriously because they (along with others, I’m certainly not trying to claim that anyone who takes militant action automatically becomes an anarchist) have acted in bold and decisive ways that have had real effects – in this case, by forcing the cancellation of Milo’s talk. I’m sure that if the WSWS and their readership took similarly effective direct action more often, they’d also find themselves getting a higher profile; or they can continue to prioritise maintaining a website filled with smears and rotten politics, with no real ties to any real-world organising efforts, and see where it gets them. Up to them, really.

It’s remarkable how the WSWS managed to run two separate stories, both ostensibly dealing with anarchists, and so totally avoid engaging with what anarchists actually say at any point. One piece tells us that “The politics of these movements are thoroughly reactionary, based upon a visceral hostility to any struggle to mobilize the working class and youth in an independent political struggle against the capitalist system and for socialism. They attract demoralized and disoriented elements from the middle class, along with a sizable number of police provocateurs who hide behind hoods and masks and egg on the violence to provide an excuse for repression”, and the other says “Anarchist groups such as ANTIFA are politically reactionary. They represent demoralized sections of the middle class that are hostile to any struggle to politically educate and mobilize the working class and youth against the capitalist system. Their tactics, gratuitous violence and destruction of property, flow from and reflect their bankrupt politics.”

At no point do they try and justify these two almost-identical assessments up by attaching them to any consideration of any actual quotes from real anarchists. Since our words are not exactly hard to find for anyone who’s interested, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that this isn’t just because of laziness, but active dishonesty; I suspect the authors are well aware that it’d be hard to read, say, “For a United Working-Class Defence of Muslim Communities” and come away thinking there was much truth to the portrait they’ve painted.

The smears coming from the WSWS are so absurd that it’s hard to take them seriously. But, from the murders of “Trotsky-fascist” POUM militants during the Spanish Civil War to the role of similar smears in destroying the movements targeted by Cointelpro, there’s a long history of ridiculous lies having serious consequences. If you spot anyone giving out WSWS/ICFI literature in the near future, I would suggest asking them if they really believe that you are a “provocateur” who needs to be “identified… and thrown out”, and pressing them to be very clear about what exactly that means.

*seriously, who puts the same word in their name twice? Like, really, who does that?

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