Responding to George Lakey on Why Nonviolence is Not Enough to Defeat Fascism

Mass nonviolent struggles including general strikes will play a critical part in dismantling the capitalist status quo and replacing it with a socialist alternative, but this is not to say that the working-class should not be prepared to take measures to defend themselves and their gains.

However, among people who have made their careers out of training others in the use of nonviolence, the adoption of such a duel strategy remains a contentious issue. This is evident in the latest article published by “Waging Nonviolence” — a blog that remains popular with liberals all over the world.

The article in question was titled “How to take on fascism without getting played” (December 20) and was written by George Lakey, a world-famous proponent of nonviolence.

Lakey begins well, explaining that “inequality is generated by the policies of the economic elite, the 1 percent who dominate our country.” He even acknowledges how a representative of this elite “Billionaire Warren Buffett let the cat out of the bag when he revealed to The New York Times in 2006 that the 1 percent has been waging, in his words, ‘class war.’”


But Lakey then betrays his own stunted appreciation of the nature of this class war by adding: “As I see it, that’s been going on at least since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.” Needless to say, the class war is as old as capitalism itself, so it is rather problematic for Lakey to say that the ruling-class had only launched this class war in recent decades!

In order to attempt to draw some lessons from history, Lakey takes his readers back to the early twentieth century, to a time when the class war was being waged with particular desperation by capitalist elites – especially given the recent success of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. He argues that the vital lesson to learn from Hitler’s rise to power should be that the working-class should not directly confront fascist violence with their own violence. As Lakey writes:

“[T]he left in Germany and Italy got distracted by the right-wing extremists. Historian Laurie Marhoefer describes the violent leftist response to Nazi provocations in Germany. Battles between left and right inside taverns surged into the streets. The German middle classes became alarmed at the rising amount of violent chaos and went along with their economic elites’ decision to hand state power to Adolf Hitler.”

Moreover it gets worse, as the article Lakey links to bolster this point – Laurie Marhoefer’s “As How should we protest neo-Nazis? Lessons from German history– also mangles history by arguing that violent counter-demonstrations against the once marginal Nazi Partyhelped the fascists enormously” such that: In 1933, riding a wave of popular support, it seized power and set up a dictatorship.”

This is a gross distortion of history, intended to provide ideological support for a purely nonviolent approach to social change.  This leads Marhoefer to conclude that the best way to oppose Nazi demonstrations is to effectively ignore them. She advises:

“Hold a counterevent that doesn’t involve physical proximity to the right extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a helpful guide. Among its recommendations: If the alt-right rallies, ‘organize a joyful protest’ well away from them. Ask people they have targeted to speak. But ‘as hard as it may be to resist yelling at alt-right speakers, do not confront them.’”

To be clear, Marhoefer is adamant: “This does not mean ignoring Nazis. It means standing up to them in a way that denies them a chance for bloodshed.” That is, standing up to them in a way that allows them to inflict bloodshed on those who are not at any nonviolent counterevents!

Lakey, for his part, is not one to settle for merely criticising socialists. Thus, in contrast to what he believes were mistakes of the left in Germany and Italy (and there were many that he ignores), Lakey raises what he refers to as the successful examples of nonviolent resistance to the rise of the Nazis, most particularly in Norway and Sweden. Lakey states they “pulled off the closest thing yet to a democratic revolution that changed class power relations and installed an alternative economic model centering the worker instead of capital.”

What Lakey glosses over is that the powerful socialist movements of the 1920s and ‘30s that defeated the far-right in Norway and Sweden actually did so by betraying the Marxist ideas that led to the success of the Bolshevik Revolution. That is, the Social Democratic leaders ditched the ongoing class war to come to a temporary rapprochement with their class enemies.

Likewise, while Lakey idealises the once radical socialist and trade union movement in Norway he neglects to problematise the fact that when they assumed power in 1935 they preferred to court favour with Stalin’s murderous regime than with his leading socialist critic, Leon Trotsky (for more on this see “Trotsky in Norway”).

Lakey displays the same shortcomings when it comes to understanding what happened in Sweden. So, to quote another more critical Swedish historian, we might observe that during the 1920s and ’30s Sweden’s Social Democrats “gradually abandoned the divisive language of class and class struggle in favor of the language of ‘folk’ that served to create political bridges to both the rural peasantry and the urban middle classes.” (September 17, The Nation)

In this way the Swedish historian Lars Trägårdh continued, “it was possible in the 1930s for the Social Democrats to successfully harness the power of national feeling, to become democratic nationalists and fight off the challenge from domestic right-wing nationalists in the Nazi mold.” He thereby concludes:

“By abandoning the rhetoric of class struggle, they also placed themselves in a position to build ties with the Swedish industrial elite, finding legendary expression in the so-called Saltsjöbaden agreements of 1938 that set in place a corporatist order of peaceful and constructive relations between labor unions and big business, crucial to the construction of the welfare state.”

Despite its limitations, the services rendered by this welfare state are worth defending (and extending). But with Social Democratic parties across Europe (including in Sweden) having been content to act as willing overseers of the destruction of the idea of a welfare state, it is precisely these parties that should be held to account for preparing the ground for the current rise of the far-right.


For a useful history, see Per Olsson, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (a member of the Committee for a Workers International in Sweden), “Is Sweden Socialist? The Rise and Fall of the ‘Swedish Model’,” November 10, 2009.

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