The Difference between Left and Right Radicalism? Violence

The Difference between Left and Right Radicalism? Violence

Violence is not the only factor distinguishing left and right radicalism, but it's the single most important one.

I just dropped a fresh episode of the pod with two of my new co-hosts, Kate Kizer and Hunter Marston. You should listen to the entire episode because it's just a righteous, informed, good-time antidote to status quo foreign policy shit.

But in that episode, I discussed some pretty remarkable data about political violence in the United States, which all comes from Dr. Caroline Orr Bueno at the University of Maryland. The upshot is that there’s overwhelming evidence—overwhelming—that far-right radicalism is vastly more responsible for all forms of political violence than left-wing radicals (however defined).  I run through some of the particulars here:

I feel like just relaying this data to others is a huge service. But what jumped out to me is how consistent this general finding is with my own understanding of how leftists view the world. Any political ideology can be appropriated to excuse violence, but all ideologies are not equally prone to it. The left is way, way less violent than the right on average. Why? Multiple reasons.

First, the left tends to view security ecologically and as a political condition that you might describe as just or fair. This lends itself to intersectional and/or relational understandings of how to go about making security. Leftist policy preferences can’t help but respond to the world as they find it, but how they respond is shaped by a recognition that we are all connected, in ways literal, metaphorical, and quantum. This is why solidarity (whether to the working class, democratic regimes, or to all) is a principle of left-progressive foreign policy.

Second, violent means are generally a terrible way of realizing non-violent ends—especially peace, democracy, and equality (which are prerequisites to durable security). A commitment to anti-militarism (which is not pacifism) is an attribute of left-progressive thinking, and a major dividing line between them and liberal internationalists on foreign policy. This is not because violence is abhorrent (though it is); it’s because it’s not an effective way of realizing progressive political goals. As Bertrand Russell said:

To advocate democracy by war is only to repeat, on a vaster scale and with far more tragic results, the error of those who have sought it hitherto by the assassin’s knife and the bomb of the anarchist.

Third, somewhat the flip side of the second, violence is a means that favors reactionary goals (preserving exclusions and hierarchies—whether on the grounds of race, class, gender, or something else). Unfair conditions—like colonialism, minority rule, or extreme concentrations of wealth astride extremely widespread precarity—have to be enforced against the will of others to be sustained. Violence is a rational means of enforcing an exclusionary or oppressive status quo.

Zooming out, and perhaps getting meta, this is why the antifascist movement in the United States has been “responsible” for only one recorded death in the last 30 years (in 1993), whereas the far right stormed the f’ing Capitol and attempted to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

So once again, it’s not that the left is incapable of violence or has never given rise to terrorism. It has. But the scale, organization, and seriousness of that “threat” does not hold a candle to the other side. For the most part left populism or radicalism tries to use democratic means to realize democratic ends. Right populism or radicalism tries to use any means necessary to retain power to the exclusion of others…and that means violence.