By Nathan Cofnas
In the 1990s, Kevin MacDonald wrote a trilogy of books arguing that Judaism is a “group evolutionary strategy,” and the pursuit of this strategy by Jews had far-reaching consequences for world history. In A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (1994) he proposed that, since its inception, Judaism has promoted eugenic practices favoring high intelligence, conscientiousness, and ethnocentrism. As a consequence, the contemporary Jewish population (at least the Ashkenazi population) is marked by a high level of these traits, including a mean IQ of 117 (weighted on verbal intelligence). In Separation and Its Discontents: Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism (1998b) he argued that anti-Semitism is a reaction by gentiles to competition for resources with less populous but more organized and competent Jewish groups. In The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (1998a), he argued that post-Enlightenment Jews who abandoned the religion of Judaism invented a substitute: liberal political, intellectual, and scientific movements with the same social and organizational structure as Judaism, and the same ultimate purpose to promote the evolutionary success of Jews.
According to The Culture of Critique, the most influential of these intellectual movements—Boasian anthropology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Frankfurt School critical theory—were headed by charismatic and authoritarian leaders (analogous to rabbis), they placed great value on verbal brilliance and internal consistency rather than testability or agreement with external reality (analogous to Talmudic scholarship), and they promoted Jewish group interests at the expense of gentiles. The movements advocated separatism and ethnocentrism for Jews, discouraged ethnic identification among white gentiles (in order to prevent group consciousness among white gentiles that might lead to a sense of competition with Jews and thus anti-Semitism), undermined and destabilized traditional European culture to weaken resistance to Jewish control, “pathologized” anti-Semitism, and denied that Jewish behavior plays a role in anti-Jewish attitudes.
MacDonald argues that Jewish intellectual and political movements were responsible for major trends in twentieth-century scientific, political, and demographic history. These movements, he says, were responsible for the rejection of Darwinian thinking among most mainstream social scientists, and also for large-scale nonwhite immigration to European and European-colonized countries (the United States, Australia, etc.).
Do MacDonald’s Theories Merit Scholarly Attention?
MacDonald’s books received some positive and some mixed reviews. Eysenck (1995) called A People That Shall Dwell Alone “a potentially very important contribution.” Masters (1996), while enthusiastic about the prospect of analyzing religions as evolutionary strategies, raised concerns about the depth of the author’s familiarity with the history of religion. Figueredo (1999) gave Separatism and Its Discontents a generally positive assessment. In a favorable review of The Culture of Critique, Salter (2000) attributed “much of the criticism of MacDonald [to] ignorance of his scholarship and a confounding of political and scientific issues.”
[D]oing battle against some of them is a tacit acknowledgement that those have enough merit to exceed the onerous threshold of attention-worthiness. MacDonald’s ideas, as presented in summaries that would serve as a basis for further examination, do not pass that threshold . . . (Pinker 2000: unpaginated).
Given this fact—that ideas need to meet an “onerous threshold of attention-worthiness”—what justifies giving attention to MacDonald’s theories, published two decades ago and, with just a few exceptions (e.g., favorable treatment in Wilson 2002; criticisms in Atran 2002:230–33), largely ignored in mainstream literature?
Even if Pinker was right that MacDonald’s theories did not have enough prima facie merit to warrant attention in 2000, developments in the past 18 years have changed the situation. There are at least three reasons to give MacDonald a hearing.
First, some respected psychologists and evolutionary theorists have reported that they found value in MacDonald’s work. For example, David Sloan Wilson endorsed the ideas in A People That Shall Dwell Alone and strongly criticized the representatives of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society who rejected MacDonald: “Even evolutionary psychologists, who have experienced their share of persecution in academic circles, seem more concerned to protect their own reputations than to defend the work of their colleague” (quoted in Salter 2000). Wilson is also thanked in the acknowledgments sections of all three books. And, as noted, Eysenck, Figueredo, Salter, and others have publicly given positive evaluations of some or all of MacDonald’s trilogy. There are also a number of serious scholars who are attracted to MacDonald’s ideas but will not endorse or even comment on them publicly because they fear that they will be perceived as anti-Semitic. This amounts to at least some degree of prima facie evidence that MacDonald’s theory should be considered.
Second, it is an undeniable fact that, in the past few hundred years, Jews have had a disproportionate influence on politics and culture in the Western world, if not the whole world. It might be worthwhile to investigate this phenomenon from a biosocial or evolutionary perspective. So far there have been only a handful of such investigations, including Cochran et al.’s (2005) study on the evolution of Jewish intelligence, Dunkel et al.’s (2015) report of high mean levels of the “general factor of personality” among Jews, and, what is by far the most ambitious, MacDonald’s (1994, 1998a, 1998b). The idea that Jewish influence resulted, at least in some cases, from their pursuit of a group evolutionary strategy cannot be dismissed a priori. Since MacDonald has defended this theory, he seems to provide a starting point for anyone wishing to investigate the understudied issue of Jewish influence. If he is wrong, it may be useful to know why and how.
Third and perhaps most important, though, is that MacDonald’s work has been influential—enormously so—in a certain segment of the lay community, namely, among anti-Semites and adherents of the burgeoning movement known as the “alt-right.” It is hard to overstate his influence among this group. Some years ago Derbyshire (2003) called him “the Marx of the anti-Semites,” and with the advent of the alt-right his audience has grown substantially. Richard Spencer, whom the New York Times calls “the leading ideologue of the alt-right movement” (Goldstein 2016), introduced MacDonald at a conference with one sentence: “There is no man on the planet who has done more for the understanding of the pole around which the world revolves than Kevin MacDonald” (Spencer 2016). Andrew Anglin, who runs the most popular alt-right/neo-Nazi website, says in his “Guide to the Alt-Right” that “MacDonald’s work examining the racial nature of Jews is considered crucial to understanding what the Alt-Right is about” (Anglin 2016). The New York Times describes MacDonald’s trilogy as “a touchstone” for the alt-right, a movement encompassing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people (Caldwell 2016). MacDonald is also editor of the Occidental Observer, a fairly popular magazine that is devoted largely to interpreting current events in the light of his theories about Jews. Anglin (2016) lists the Occidental Observer as one of eight “sites and people” playing a key role in the alt-right movement.
The refusal of scholars to engage with MacDonald has had unintended negative consequences. Many of his enthusiasts see him as credible because there has never been a serious academic refutation of his theories. The strategy employed 18 years ago—declaring his work to be anti-Semitic and/or to not reach the threshold to warrant scholarly attention—had the doubly unfortunate effect of intimidating scholars with a legitimate interest in the topic of Jewish evolution and behavior, and creating a perception among some laypeople—even if it was false—that MacDonald was being persecuted by the academic community.
This paper attempts to give MacDonald’s theories a fair hearing. It focuses on the argument of The Culture of Critique. This book builds on the previous two, so the whole trilogy stands or falls on its merits. It has also been the most influential of the three books. It defends a radical, interesting hypothesis, and the topic it addresses (Jewish overrepresentation in intellectual movements) is worthy of study in any case. The conclusion, however, will be that the argument of The Culture of Critique is built on misrepresented sources and cherry-picked facts. The evidence actually favors a simpler explanation of Jewish overrepresentation in intellectual movements involving Jewish high intelligence and geographic distribution.
Jewish High IQ and Geography: An Alternative, Simpler Theory That Explains More of the Data?
The mean Ashkenazi Jewish IQ appears to be around 110 (Lynn and Kanazawa 2008)—moderately lower than MacDonald’s estimate of 117. Jewish intellectual accomplishment is consistent with higher mean intelligence. The basic facts are well known. For example, though never more than 3% of the US population (Pinker 2006), Jews constitute 31% of US Nobel laureates in chemistry, 50% in economics, 37% in physics, 39% in physiology or medicine, and 33% in literature (jinfo.org). Lynn and Kanazawa (2008) give a good review of their overrepresentation in high-IQ occupations and in leadership positions in the arts, science, and industry.
But a mean IQ of 110 is not enough to explain Jewish achievement (Nisbett 2009:181). It is likely that Jews also have a geographic advantage. Since the Enlightenment and particularly in the twentieth century, European Jews have been highly concentrated in major urban centers (Warsaw, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris, New York City, Los Angeles, etc.). These areas tended to have the infrastructure to support intellectual achievement. Indeed, even without postulating high Jewish IQ, from their location alone we would expect them to be overrepresented in intellectual endeavors.
The combination of the aforementioned factors suggests an alternative theory—what could be called the “default hypothesis”—of Jewish involvement in twentieth-century liberal movements, namely: Because of Jewish intelligence and geography—particularly intelligence—Jews are likely to be overrepresented in any intellectual movement or activity that is not overtly anti-Semitic. The qualification that Jews are not overrepresented in overtly anti-Semitic movements is important because, in the twentieth century, a higher proportion of right-wing than left-wing movements were overtly anti-Semitic. According to the default hypothesis, Jewish involvement in politics has been somewhat skewed to the left in recent history, but Jews are also overrepresented in right-wing movements that are not anti-Semitic.
The default hypothesis seems to have more explanatory power and to be more parsimonious than MacDonald’s because it posits only two factors—IQ and geography—to explain Jewish overrepresentation in all (non-overtly anti-Semitic) intellectual activities: The two factors explain why Jews are more than half of world chess champions (Cochran et al. 2005) and why they comprised “[a]lmost one-half” of the elite American intellectuals in Kadushin’s (1974:23) sample (MacDonald 1998a:3). Of course, explanatory power and parsimony are not the only consideration: Agreement with empirical evidence is the ultimate arbiter. This paper attempts to determine whether the evidence favors MacDonald’s thesis or the default one.
The default hypothesis is not tied to any particular explanation of the cause of above-average Jewish IQ. Some researchers favor a genetic explanation. In an influential paper, Cochran et al. (2005) argued that during the Middle Ages Ashkenazim were selected for the intellectual ability to succeed in white-collar occupations. However, it is theoretically possible that the Jewish–gentile IQ gap is due at least in part to some yet-to-be-identified cultural factor (Nisbett 2009). Whatever the cause, high Jewish IQ presumably plays a role in Jewish overrepresentation in cognitively demanding activities.
Overview of Some Problems with the Arguments in The Culture of Critique
[I]ndividuals who strongly identified as Jews have been the main motivating force behind several highly influential intellectual movements that have simultaneously subjected gentile culture to radical criticism and allowed for the continuity of Jewish identification. Together these movements comprise the intellectual and political left in this century, and they are the direct intellectual ancestors of current leftist intellectual and political movements, particularly postmodernism and multiculturalism (1988a:213).
While Jewish intellectual movements vary in their details, they have (according to The Culture of Critique) the same broad agenda to (a) subject gentile society to radical critique that undermines its traditional institutions, (b) attack white gentile ethnocentrism and unity (in order to weaken the potential for organized gentile resistance to Jewish domination), (c) “pathologize” anti-Semitism and obscure the fact that anti-Jewish attitudes may be a response to Jewish behavior, and (d) promote multiculturalism for white gentiles (in order to weaken gentile power) while promoting separatism for Jews and racial purity in Israel. Jewish movements are alleged to have been responsible for banishing Darwinian thinking from social science, promoting environmentalism as an explanation for individual and group differences in behavior, and proscribing the study of group differences in psychology. As noted, the way in which Jewish intellectual movements are organized—headed by charismatic, authoritarian leaders such as Freud and Boas—is supposedly analogous to the organization of traditional Judaism.
There are several categories of questionable argumentation in The Culture of Critique. The following is a preview—more detailed examples will be given in later sections.
The Same Behavior Is Interpreted Differently When Exhibited by Jews or Gentiles
A common pattern throughout The Culture of Critique is that the same behavior is given a different interpretation depending on whether it is performed by Jews or gentiles. For example, when gentiles assume leadership positions in radical movements (e.g., John Dewey, Carl Jung), it is because “gentiles have . . . been actively recruited to the movements . . . and given highly visible roles . . . in order to lessen the appearance that the movements are indeed Jewish-dominated or aimed only at narrow Jewish sectarian interests” (1988a:4). MacDonald calls this phenomenon “a major theme” of his book. Another explanation he gives for gentile involvement in radical politics is that “once Jews have attained intellectual predominance, it is not surprising that gentiles would be attracted to Jewish intellectuals as members of a socially dominant and prestigious group and as dispensers of valued resources” (1988a:3).
Of course, it is possible that in all these cases where Jews and gentiles were both involved in radical politics, the Jews were acting as ethnic activists while the gentiles were being manipulated. But this theory requires strong positive evidence to be credible. As shall be argued, MacDonald never provides such evidence.
Sources Are Cherry-Picked and Jewish Involvement in Anti-Jewish Activism Is Ignored
MacDonald says that “there is a broad Jewish consensus [in the US] on such issues as Israel” (1988a:305). Nowhere in the book does he acknowledge that a great deal of Jewish involvement in politics across time and place has been decidedly opposed to narrow Jewish interests, including Israel. The most influential Jewish radical in history, Karl Marx, held extremely anti-Jewish views (Marx 2010). The most influential Jewish radical alive—when The Culture of Critique was published and still to this day—is Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is mentioned one time in The Culture of Critique—in an endnote where MacDonald comments simply that he “could . . . be regarded as someone whose writings were not highly influenced by his Jewish identity and specifically Jewish interests” (1988a:154, n. 15). There is no mention of Chomsky’s extreme anti-Israel positions and opposition to Jewish nationalism. George Soros—possibly the most politically influential Jewish financier in the world and a major promotor of liberalism/multiculturalism—dissociates himself from the Jewish community and opposes Jewish interests (as MacDonald conceives them). He is not mentioned once in the book. MacDonald paints a picture of Jews as hypocrites who impose liberalism on gentiles and adopt nationalism for themselves, but he ignores the fact that many of the most influential Jews seem to promote liberalism and multiculturalism for both gentiles and Jews.
Just as problematically, in a number of cases MacDonald fails to report that Jews whom he identifies as ethnic activists took stands against Israel and other Jewish interests (again, defining “Jewish interests” in MacDonald’s terms as ethnic self-preservation).
The Failure of Jews to Support Overtly Anti-Semitic Movements Is Interpreted as Evidence of Extreme Jewish Ethnocentrism
Many twentieth-century Jews ostensibly abandoned their Jewish identity and sought to assimilate. MacDonald points out that these Jews often did not support gentile nationalist movements—which he acknowledges were anti-Semitic—and he argues that this is evidence that these Jews were insincere in their desire to assimilate and were actually engaging in “Jewish crypsis” (his term).
It is highly questionable whether this inference is justified. Twentieth-century anti-Semitic nationalist movements were generally not welcoming of ethnic Jews regardless of their desire to assimilate. And even if they were, it seems unreasonable to question a Jew’s desire to reject Judaism because he did not want to kill, expel, or oppress his (probably still-Jewish) family and former friends.
Sources Are Misrepresented
In numerous places in The Culture of Critique, references are given to support a claim but no support can be found in the original source, or the original source is misrepresented. Because the present paper is focused on the argument of the book, it only reports some of these misrepresentations where they significantly affect the argument. Also, for considerations of length, it only reports cases of mishandling of sources where the problems can be clearly exposed in a reasonable amount of space. Despite the fact that only some instances of mishandling of sources are reported here, these cases alone raise serious questions about MacDonald’s research practices.
No Evidence Is Ever Acknowledged to Count against the Theory
In many places, MacDonald himself brings up facts that seem to go against the predictions of his theory. While these individual facts may not in themselves necessarily refute his hypothesis, rather than revising his ideas or acknowledging that he cannot explain everything, he dogmatically insists that the apparent counterexamples actually support his views.
For example, he claims several times that Jews are opposed to affirmative action because it is against their ethnic interests (1988a:101, 105, n. 16, 308, 313, 315; see also 240–41). He says that affirmative action policies “would clearly preclude free competition between Jews and gentiles” (1988a:101) and, elsewhere, that they “would necessarily discriminate against Jews” (1988a:315). In a parenthetical, he notes that when an anti-affirmative action measure was put on the ballot in California, Jews voted for it “in markedly lower percentages” than other white groups (1988a:311). That is, Jews voted to support affirmative action. His explanation for this is that “because of their competitive advantage” among whites, “Jews may perceive themselves as benefiting from policies designed to dilute the power of the European-derived group as a whole on the assumption that they would not suffer any appreciable effect.” Again, he shows a facile tendency to spin an apparent disconfirmation of his theory as actually a verification of it.
Hundreds of Years of Gentile Radicalism Are Ignored
The reader of The Culture of Critique who has no knowledge of history is led to believe that European society was traditionally marked by “hierarchic harmony” (1988a:315) and naive, happy acceptance of traditional religion, institutions, and family relations. Then, after the Enlightenment, Jews emerged from the ghettos and commenced what was to be a 300-year war on the foundations of European culture. MacDonald ignores a long history of radical and critical gentile thought from the ancient Greek philosophers to Rousseau to the Social Gospel Movement to French existentialism to Bill Ayers to Peggy McIntosh and countless other examples.
Boasian Anthropology, Environmentalism, and Opposition to the Study of Race Differences
American culture [was] overly homogeneous, hypocritical, and emotionally and esthetically repressive (especially with regard to sexuality). Central to [their] program was creating ethnographies of idyllic cultures that were free of the negatively perceived traits that were attributed to Western culture. Among these Boasians, cultural criticism crystallized as an ideology of “romantic primitivism” in which certain non-Western cultures epitomized the approved characteristics Western societies should emulate (1988a:28–29).
This passage and others throughout the chapter suggest that Boasians were the first to romanticize primitive cultures as “idyllic” and not subject to the ills of Western civilization. In reality, by Boas’s time this had been a major theme among many gentile intellectuals for more than 150 years. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who popularized the romantic image of “savages” in the eighteenth century, is mentioned once in The Culture of Critique—in passing, in an endnote (1988a:211, n. 35). According to Rousseau:
The more one reflects on it, the more one finds that this state [of primitive life] was the least subject to upheavals and the best for man, and that he must have left it only by virtue of some fatal chance happening that, for the common good, ought never have happened. The example of savages, almost all of whom have been found in this state, seems to confirm that the human race had been made to remain in it always (Rousseau 2011:74).
Not all eighteenth-century European intellectuals agreed that civilization was a mistake. But virtually all seemed to accept Rousseau’s characterization of primitive life as idyllic. His ideas, including his critique of Western civilization, played an important role in triggering the French Revolution and (later) in the development of socialism, especially by Marx. All in all, he was quite probably the most influential thinker of the eighteenth century in both the short and the long run (Durant and Durant 1967).
So, contrary to what is suggested in The Culture of Critique, the tradition of critiquing Western civilization by comparing it unfavorably to traditional cultures was neither developed nor made popular by Jews. But even if he was not its inventor, could it be that Boas promoted the Rousseauian view of “romantic primitivism” to advance Jewish interests? It is true that many of Boas’s students were Jews (e.g., Alexander Goldenweiser, Melville Herskovits, Robert Lowie, Paul Radin, Edward Sapir, and Leslie Spier)—not particularly surprising given the high concentration of Jews at Columbia University at the time. But the most effective and indefatigable “Boasians” were not Jewish. MacDonald (1988a:26) notes that the students of Boas who “achieved the greatest public renown” were the gentiles Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. He expounds: “As in several other prominent historical cases . . ., gentiles became the publicly visible spokespersons for a movement dominated by Jews.” According to MacDonald (1988a:27), Boas “strenuously promoted and cited” Benedict and Mead as part of a ruse to hide the fact that the whole movement was designed to promote Jewish interests.
But MacDonald does not supply any compelling reasons to think that Benedict and Mead were under the control of Boas. Even if we accept that Boas’s commitment to Jewish interests biased his science and made him critique Western society and promote environmentalist, culture-based explanations of human behavior, both Benedict and Mead were strong-willed, charismatic iconoclasts who seemed to be self-directed. Although MacDonald sees them as puppets of Boas, another possibility is that Benedict, Mead, and Boas were leaders of a somewhat misguided scientific movement, with Boas being technically the “teacher” because he happened to be a few years older, and Mead being the most influential. Criticizing Boas’s scientific standards, MacDonald says that he “completely accepted” Mead’s conclusions derived from a few months of fieldwork in Samoa and “uncritically allowed Ruth Benedict to distort his own data on the Kwakiutl” (1988a:28). But, taking MacDonald’s description of the facts at face value, this suggests that Mead and Benedict were, at least in these cases, taking the initiative to distort science for ideological ends. Perhaps it was the Jewish Boas who made them do this. Or perhaps, in the absence of compelling evidence to suggest otherwise, both Jews and gentiles occupied leadership roles in this movement in anthropology.
According to The Culture of Critique, Boasian anthropology was only the first Jewish salvo against hereditarianism and the study of race. A major theme in the book is that Jews were responsible for tabooing research on race differences, particularly in intelligence. MacDonald ignores the fact that influential gentiles have been well represented among environmentalists studying race differences in intelligence, and Jews have been clearly overrepresented among prominent hereditarians.
Herrnstein essentially wants the world in which clever Jewish kids or their equivalent make their way out of their humble backgrounds and end up running Goldman Sachs or the Harvard physics department, while Murray wants the Midwest in which he grew up—a world in which the local mechanic didn’t care two cents whether he was or wasn’t brighter than the local math teacher.
(Incidentally, Ryan’s article was published in the New York Review of Books—a journal that MacDonald repeatedly identifies as being an organ of Jewish interests.) This illustrates a blatant double standard applied to Jews and gentiles by MacDonald. The Jewish Richard Herrnstein, then head of the psychology department at Harvard, was the most prominent academic defender of hereditarianism regarding race differences in intelligence since WWII. Instead of accepting that Herrnstein is an example that does not support his thesis, MacDonald spins the facts by implying that Herrnstein supported the theory of race differences in intelligence because it would promote his ethnic interests. In contrast, the gentile Murray is portrayed as having no such sinister motivations—only a wish, in MacDonald’s words, for “a society with harmony among the social classes and with social controls on extreme individualism among the elite” (1988a:314).
A reasonable list of the most high-profile advocates of hereditarianism might be the following: Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, Linda Gottfredson, J. Philippe Rushton, and the aforementioned Herrnstein and Murray. Eysenck had a Jewish mother, making him Jewish by both Jewish law and MacDonald’s standards. Jensen was one-quarter Jewish, so he can be counted as a gentile. That means that two out of seven of the most prominent hereditarians were Jewish, making Jews extremely overrepresented in this group relative to their numbers in the general population.
Freud and Psychoanalysis
According to The Culture of Critique, “There is . . . evidence that Freud conceptualized himself as a leader in a war on gentile culture” (1988a:117). Psychoanalysis was a pseudoscientific movement designed to pathologize anti-Semitism and undermine gentile culture and social cohesion by attacking institutions regulating love and sex. “Psychoanalytic assertions [that sexual repression prevented relationships from being based on love and affection] were never any more than speculations in the service of waging a war on gentile culture” (1988a:126). Jews, led in the US by the “New York Intellectuals,” turned Freudianism into a secular religion, using it to attack the philosophical and institutional foundations of Western culture.
Let’s consider first Freud’s influence via the New York Intellectuals. MacDonald notes that of the top 21 American intellectuals according to peer ratings in the 1970s (Kadushin 1974), 15 were Jewish (and most were New York Intellectuals). Eleven of these 15, he says, were “‘significantly influenced by Freudian theory at some point in their careers,’” and 10 of those 11 held “liberal or radical political beliefs at some period of their career” (MacDonald 1998a:141, quoting/citing Torrey 1992:185). The implication is that these influential Jewish intellectuals promoted Freudianism to undermine gentile culture and advance their ethnic interests. But MacDonald leaves out some crucial information.
The 15 Jews among the top 21 intellectuals were (1) Daniel Bell, (2) Chomsky, (3) Irving Howe, (4) Norman Mailer, (5) Robert Silvers, (6) Susan Sontag, (7) Lionel Trilling, (8) Hannah Arendt, (9) Saul Bellow, (10) Paul Goodman, (11) Richard Hofstadter (Jewish father), (12) Irving Kristol, (13) Herbert Marcuse, (14) Norman Podhoretz, and (15) David Riesman. A closer look shows that only two or three of these cases support MacDonald’s thesis, and several are clear counterexamples. First off, five of these intellectuals are, by MacDonald’s criteria, unambiguously anti-Israel and therefore opposed to Jewish interests. Chomsky was (and still is) arguably the world’s leading critic of Israel. Mailer tended to sympathize with the Palestinians (Theodoracopulos 2015). When Sontag accepted the Jerusalem Prize in 2001, she used the occasion to condemn Israel (Cockburn 2001). Marcuse (who will be discussed in more detail below) advocated the return of Arab refugees to Israel, ending Jewish control of the country (Marcuse 2005:181). Arendt was the student, promoter, and lover (in a romantic sense) of the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. She was best known for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt 1963), in which she argued that Israeli laws were comparable to the Nazi Nuremberg laws and that holocaust-orchestrator Eichmann had been given a “show trial” and was not a particularly bad person (just that he was prompted to do bad things by circumstances beyond his control—though she faults him for not being brave enough to protest). In 1948, Arendt (along with Einstein, Sidney Hook, and 24 other prominent Jews) signed a letter to the New York Times which described the political party of Menachem Begin as “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties” (Shatz 2004:65).
Another intellectual on the list, Saul Bellow, was a conservative who opposed feminism, multiculturalism, and political correctness. Bellow urged Allan Bloom, another Jewish academic at the University of Chicago, to write The Closing of the American Mind (Bloom 1987), one of the most influential pro-traditionalist academic books in the past few decades (Ahmed and Grossman 2007).
The link between psychoanalysis and the political left, as well as the critical role of Jewish-controlled media in the propagation of psychoanalysis, can be seen in the recent uproar [over] Frederick Crews’s critiques of the culture of psychoanalysis. The original articles were published in the New York Review of Books . . . (1988a:141).
Silvers is the longtime editor of the New York Review of Books, and one of the 11 whom MacDonald identifies as being influenced by Freud.1
Bell, Hofstadter, and Riesman were liberals, though not particularly extreme, not known for promoting Freud, and not seriously involved in Jewish causes. (Bell 1962:16 described his perspective as “anti-ideological, but not conservative,” and he criticized utopian schemes such as Marxism as well as aspects of the prevailing social order.) Trilling may have been a nominal Marxist in the 1930s (D. Sidorsky, personal communication), though he evinced little interest in Jewish causes and his ethnic awareness seemed to be triggered mainly when he faced anti-Semitism. Goodman had no apparent interest in his fellow Jews, though he identified as an anarchist, so by MacDonald’s criteria might be considered an enemy of gentile culture. Howe was a liberal who supported as well as criticized Israel. That leaves the neoconservatives Kristol and Podhoretz. Kristol and Podhoretz became decidedly anti-liberal, though later in their careers they openly and aggressively supported Israel, Jewish interests, and, in Podhoretz’s case, unfettered immigration to the US.
Of these [15 Jewish intellectuals], only Noam Chomsky could possibly be regarded as someone whose writings were not highly influenced by his Jewish identity and specifically Jewish interests. The findings taken together indicate that the American intellectual scene has been significantly dominated by specifically Jewish interests and that psychoanalysis has been an important tool in advancing these interests (1988a:154, n. 15—partially quoted earlier).
But the evidence reviewed above suggests that this is a serious distortion of the facts. Even if it is true that 11/15 of these intellectuals were influenced by Freud “at some point in their careers,” virtually none of them comes close to conforming to MacDonald’s paradigm of a Jewish radical. Only one—Podhoretz—could be accused of hypocritically advocating different immigration policies for the US and Israel, though he was/is not a liberal and Freudianism played no meaningful role in his thinking. On the other hand, we clearly find that several people on the list—a list cited by MacDonald himself to support his thesis—are serious counterexamples to the theory of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. We find on this list possibly the world’s leading critic of Israel (Chomsky), a liberal who advocates the same immigration policies for the US and Israel (Marcuse), a leading advocate of traditional Western values (Bellow), and several others who, to varying degrees, were opposed or indifferent to Israel and Jewish interests.
MacDonald brings voluminous evidence that Freud strongly identified as a Jew. Based on numerous sources, he argues that Freud was unconditionally committed to promoting Jewish interests, that he “pathologized” anti-Semitism, and that he attacked gentile culture because he saw it as a threat to Jews (1988a:146). MacDonald emphasizes numerous times throughout the book that “scientist-activists” like Freud developed theories to show that “Jewish behavior [is] irrelevant to anti-Semitism” (1988a:17; see also 142, 146). He claims that Moses and Monotheism “contains several assertions that anti-Semitism is fundamentally a pathological gentile reaction to Jewish ethical superiority,” citing Freud (1967:114–17) (MacDonald 1998a:120). However, while pages 114–17 of this edition of Moses and Monotheism do discuss anti-Semitism, there is nothing about ethics/morality at all, let alone the ethical superiority of Jews or Judaism. (MacDonald did not respond to an email asking what he was referring to.)
Although Freud certainly did have a Jewish identity—if only because he was continually reminded of it by anti-Semites—MacDonald does not tell the full story. Consider the following incident (not described in The Culture of Critique). In 1929, Jews attempted to erect a partition screen to separate men and women at the Western Wall. In response, Arabs killed 29 Jews in Hebron, which led to riots in which 120 Jews and 87 Arabs were killed. A representative of the Zionist organization Keren Hayesod asked Freud to sign a petition condemning the Arabs for initiating the violence. Freud refused to sign, explaining that the Jews were partly responsible for inviting violence on themselves: “I concede with sorrow that the unrealistic fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust” (Freud 2004). This episode undermines MacDonald’s caricature of Freud as a monomaniacal activist dedicated to excusing Jewish behavior and pathologizing anti-Semitism.
The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory
Chapter 5 of The Culture of Critique is titled “The Frankfurt School of Social Research and the Pathologization of Gentile Group Allegiances.” It focuses on the alleged hypocrisy of members of the Frankfurt School in advocating for collectivism among Jews in both Israel and the diaspora, and pathologizing any feelings of group allegiance in white gentiles. MacDonald sees the Frankfurt School as having influenced the field of psychology particularly through the publication of The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al. 1950), a book published as part of a series called Studies in Prejudice. He concludes that “the agenda of the Frankfurt School” was to facilitate “radical individualism . . . among gentiles while retaining a powerful sense of group cohesion among Jews” (1988a:215). “[T]he central agenda of The Authoritarian Personality is to pathologize gentile group strategies while nevertheless leaving open the possibility of Judaism as a minority group strategy” (1988a:172). The Frankfurt School influenced the humanities through the development of “critical theory.”
The main problem with MacDonald’s argument is that he interprets criticism of nationalism in gentile groups to indicate approval of Jewish nationalism as long as the latter is not explicitly condemned. He never cites positive evidence that representatives of the Frankfurt School approved of Jewish nationalism, and he ignores evidence that they in fact disapproved of it. Leaving aside the question of the scholarly merits of the Frankfurt School or The Authoritarian Personality, there is no positive evidence that members of the Frankfurt School were hypocrites who condemned collectivism in gentiles and promoted it for Jews.
In his critique of The Authoritarian Personality, MacDonald emphasizes “the double standard in which gentile behavior inferred from high scores on the F-scale or the Ethnocentrism Scales is viewed as an indication of psychopathology, whereas precisely the same behavior is central to Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy” (1988a:168). But nowhere does he present evidence that Adorno et al. approved of this behavior in Jews, which is what would be necessary for them to have a “double standard.” MacDonald just assumes that they approve of this behavior because they were Jewish. Regarding the claim in The Authoritarian Personality that anti-Semitism is associated with a strong in-group ideology, MacDonald comments that “the implication is that strong ingroup ideologies should be reserved for Jews and are dangerous in others” (1988a:170). But nowhere is this actually stated in The Authoritarian Personality. It seems the “implication” is strong in MacDonald’s mind because of the nefarious motives he attributes to the Jewish authors. This does not count as evidence.
R. Nevitt Sanford . . . finds that affiliation with various Christian religious sects is associated with ethnocentrism, and that individuals who have rebelled against their parents and adapted another religion or no religion are lower on ethnocentrism. These relationships are explained as due to the fact that acceptance of a Christian religion is associated with “conformity, conventionalism, authoritarian submission, determination by external pressures, thinking in ingroup-outgroup terms and the like vs. nonconformity, independence, internalization of values, and so forth” (Adorno et al. 1950:220). Again, individuals identifying strongly with the ideology of a majority group are viewed as suffering from psychopathology, yet Judaism as a viable religion would necessarily be associated with these same psychological processes (MacDonald 1998a:174–75).
MacDonald cites Sanford out of context and totally misrepresents his conclusion. First, when Sanford refers to “conformity, conventionalism, authoritarian submission . . .,” he is notcharacterizing Christian belief. He says that to understand the relation between religion and ethnocentrism, we must consider what psychological factors play a role in the individual’s acceptance or rejection, such as “conformity, conventionalism, authoritarian submission.” He is not talking specifically about Christianity, and he says explicitly that these factors do not play a role in “genuine” Christianity. He clearly distinguishes between nominal Christians who adopt the religion of their parents or of the majority simply because they tend to submit to authority, and those “whose religion would appear to be ‘genuine,’ in the sense that it was arrived at more or less independently of external pressure and takes the form of internalized values” (Adorno et al. 1950:220). Sanford says that the latter—the “genuine” Christians—“tend to score low, often very low, on ethnocentrism.”
Second, Sanford characterizes traditional Christianity in a positive, not a negative, way. He refers to “Christian humanism which works against prejudice” (Adorno et al. 1950:215). He writes that “in America today,” the “traditional Christian values of tolerance, brotherhood, and equality” appear to be “more firmly held by people who do not affiliate with any religious group,” though “genuine” Christians low in ethnocentrism “probably predominate in [certain] Protestant denominations” (Adorno et al. 1950:219–20). Thus Sanford identifies the values promoted by the Frankfurt School with Christianity, not Judaism.
[I]t is precisely the policy aiming at a permanent majority which is self-defeating. . . . To be sure, Israel would be able to sustain a Jewish majority by means of an aggressive immigration policy. . . . [L]asting protection for the Jewish people cannot be found in the creation of a self-enclosed, isolated, fear-stricken majority, but only in the coexistence of Jews and Arabs as citizens with equal rights and liberties (Marcuse 2005:181).
Again, by MacDonald’s own standards, this makes Marcuse anti-Israel and opposed to Jewish interests.
One Jewish radical who is conspicuous for not being labeled an ethnic activist in The Culture of Critique is the most influential of them all: Karl Marx. Marx not only rejected his Jewish heritage, he went out of his way to express and promote viciously anti-Semitic views. In private correspondence, he smeared his socialist rival Ferdinand Lassalle (another Jew) with extremely anti-Semitic slurs and described Lassalle’s physical appearance, mannerisms, and habits as exemplifying unflattering Jewish characteristics (Gilman 1984:37). (The target of these obloquies, who was a major figure in his time, also held anti-Jewish views. In Lassalle’s words: “I do not like the Jews at all. I even detest them in general. . . . I have no contact with them”; Gilman 1984:37.) Most notorious is Marx’s 1844 essay, On the Jewish Question, which contains the famous lines: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. . . . An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible” (Marx 2010:170).
According to MacDonald (1998a:54), Marx held that “Judaism, freed from the principle of greed, would continue to exist in the transformed society after the revolution (Katz 1986:113).” However, page 113 of Katz (1986) makes no reference or allusion of any kind to Marx or his ideas. In regard to Marx’s views on Jewish peoplehood, Katz (1986:122) cites only his view that (in Katz’s words) “Jews qua Jews would become liberated from their Judaism to take up their place as human beings in the socialist society of the future.”
Marx, Lassalle, and many other Jewish radicals who espoused anti-Semitic views might seem to be counterexamples to the thesis that Jews are uniquely ethnocentric. In any case, although MacDonald says little about Marx himself, he sees Marx-inspired ideologies, particularly Bolshevism, as bona fide Jewish intellectual movements designed to undermine gentile society and preserve Jewish separatism. The evidence for this claim, however, is not compelling.
[E]ven assuming that these ethnically Jewish communists did not identify as Jews, such an argument fails to explain why such “de-ethnicized” Jews (as well as Jewish businessmen, artists, writers and scientists) should have typically been overrepresented in leftist movements and underrepresented in nationalist, populist, and other types of rightist political movements: Even if nationalist movements are anti-Semitic, as has often been the case, anti-Semitism should be irrelevant if these individuals are indeed completely deethnicized as Pipes proposes. Jewish prominence in occupations requiring high intelligence is no argument for understanding their very prominent role in communist and other leftist movements and their relative underrepresentation in nationalist movements.
This response to Pipes seems unconvincing. First, anti-Semitic nationalist movements generally targeted Jews regardless of their self-identity. Jews who identified as “Russian” or “Polish” would still have been discouraged, if not outright prohibited, from joining these movements as equal participants. Second, even “de-ethnicized” Jews might find it difficult to accept anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews due simply to their close contact with Jewish family and former friends.
Even the most highly assimilated Jewish communists working in urban areas with non-Jews were upset by the Soviet-German nonaggression pact but were relieved when the German-Soviet war finally broke out . . .—a clear indication that Jewish personal identity remained quite close to the surface (1988a:62).
On the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact:
The nonaggression pact provoked a great deal of rationalization on the part of Jewish [Communist Party USA] members, often involving an attempt to interpret the Soviet Union’s actions as actually benefiting Jewish interests—clearly an indication that these individuals had not given up their Jewish identities. Others continued to be members but silently opposed the party’s line because of their Jewish loyalties (1988a:73).
Again, he interprets any objection to anti-Semitism—even silent opposition—as evidence that Jews are uniquely ethnocentric.
The core members of the security service came from the Jewish communists who had been communists before the establishment of the Polish communist government, but these were joined by other Jews sympathetic to the government and alienated from the wider society. . . . Jewish members of the internal security force often appear to have been motivated by personal rage and a desire for revenge related to their Jewish identity (MacDonald 1998a:66).
However, MacDonald leaves out a key fact noted by Schatz (1991:225), which is that 40% of the victims of the secret police were Jewish. Since the Jewish population of Poland at the time was miniscule (less than half of 1% of the population in 1949; see Schatz 1991:208), Jews were extremely disproportionately likely to be attacked by the security service. These data are more consistent with the thesis that Jews were simply more likely to be in positions of power—more likely to be in the position to persecute others, and more likely to be perceived as rivals by those in power, so more likely to be persecuted. There is no convincing evidence supporting the tale of Jews qua Jews victimizing gentiles for revenge on a significant scale.
Diversity and Immigration
Dewey was highly influential with the public at large. Henry Commager described Dewey as “the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people; it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken” (in Sandel 1996:36). Dewey was the foremost advocate of “progressive education” and helped establish the New School for Social Research and the American Civil Liberties Union, both essentially Jewish organizations (MacDonald 1998a:250).
MacDonald concludes that Dewey “represented the public face of a movement dominated by Jewish intellectuals.”
Of course, any intellectual in late-nineteenth-to-mid-twentieth-century New York City was going to have a lot of Jewish associates. Where is the positive evidence that Dewey’s monumental success was the result of being propped up by Jewish ethnic activists? MacDonald (1988a:250) quotes Sandel’s (1996:35) opinion that Dewey’s “lack of presence as a writer, speaker, or personality makes his popular appeal something of a mystery.” But one explanation for Dewey’s success is that people were taken with his ideas rather than with his personal charisma. This would explain how he came to be extremely influential in China, where he was known as “a Second Confucius” (Grange 2004), even though there were no Jews there to promote him.
The President’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization (1953:92–93) cited five experts who submitted testimony denying innate race differences in psychology. Two of these experts were Jewish (Ashley Montagu and Philip Hauser). One of the three gentiles was Mead. Another gentile—former president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Ralph L. Beals—reported that the AAA unanimously rejected innate race differences. To MacDonald (1998a:254), the followers of Boas were using the “ideology of racial equality [as] an important weapon on behalf of opening immigration up to all human groups.” (Boas himself died in 1942.)
The new immigration . . . contained a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken, and the mentally crippled of all [European] races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish Ghettos. Our jails, insane asylums, and almshouses are filled with this human flotsam, and the whole tone of American life, social, moral, and political, has been lowered and vulgarized by them (President’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization 1953:92).
MacDonald repeatedly cites Grant complaining that Jews opposed his (Grant’s) ideas. But in opposing the theory of Nordic superiority, Jews were effectively promoting, not undermining, white unity. Of course, many “Boasian” Jews argued that there were no differences between any races, but in the early twentieth century they were advocating immigration from all white countries whereas their opponents wanted to restrict immigration from non-Nordic white countries such as Italy and Poland.
Whereas American Jews have been in the forefront of efforts to ensure ethnic diversity in the United States and other Western societies, 40 percent of the [Israeli] Jewish respondents [in a 1988 survey reported in Smooha (1990:403)] agree that Israel should encourage Israeli Arabs to leave the country, 37 percent had reservations, and only 23 percent objected to such a policy. . . . Moreover, immigration to Israel is officially restricted to Jews (1988a:321).
Hypocrisy is when a person or group espouses values but applies them inconsistently. In order to attribute hypocrisy to people, it is necessary to identify the inconsistency in those people. MacDonald says that American Jews support multiculturalism, then cites a survey suggesting that many Israeli Jews advocate policies that are inconsistent with multicultural values. To justify the charge of hypocrisy it is necessary to find individual Jews advocating multiculturalism for the US and opposing it in Israel. Such Jews may exist, but there is no evidence that this is the norm. MacDonald treats the positions espoused by one Jew or group of Jews as a statement on behalf of the Jewish community and concludes that Jews are hypocrites because different Jews advocate policies that are mutually inconsistent. An alternative interpretation of the data is that Jews vary to some extent in their views among individuals and groups, in a way typical of other ethnicities.
Furthermore, the claim that immigration to Israel is restricted to Jews—even nominal Jews—was and is false. Since 1970, Israel will give automatic citizenship to anyone with one Jewish grandparent and their non-Jewish spouse and children (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2013). Hundreds of thousands of gentiles were granted Israeli citizenship because of this policy (Felter 2009). (An exact estimate is difficult to give since Israelis with no Jewish ancestors, or only a distant one, may identify as Jewish in surveys.)
It is also false that liberal Jews do not promote ethnic diversity in Israel. MacDonald says that Jews have supported black integration in the US “because such policies dilute Caucasian power and lessen the possibility of a cohesive, nationalist anti-Semitic Caucasian majority . . . while pursuing an anti-assimilationist, nationalist group strategy for their own group” (1988a:257). “American Jews have had no interest in proposing that immigration to Israel should be . . . multiethnic” (1988a:320). The Culture of Critique makes no mention of the fact that many of the same liberal Jews who advocate on behalf of blacks in the US pushed for the immigration of large numbers of nominally Jewish Ethiopians who have no genetic relation to other Jewish populations (Lucotte and Smets 1999). Israel, with around six million self-identified Jews (including at least a few hundred thousand who are not halachically Jewish), now contains a rapidly growing population of more than 135,000 Ethiopians (Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute 2015). Alan Dershowitz, whom MacDonald (1998a:244, 318) identifies as an ethnic activist, played a leading role in pressuring the Israeli government to accept Africans who identify as Jews. In Dershowitz’s (2007) own words: “we have filed lawsuits, helped raise money, pressured leaders, and argued in the court of public opinion in favor of increased [multiethnic] immigration into Israel.”
At the end of The Culture of Critique, MacDonald asks what the ultimate consequences of Jewish-instituted liberal policies are likely to be in America. He suggests: “An important consequence—and one likely to have been an underlying motivating factor in the countercultural revolution—may well be to facilitate the continued genetic distinctiveness of the Jewish gene pool in the United States” (1988a:318). It is difficult to square this claim with the fact that Reform and unaffiliated Jews—the ones who participated in these liberal/multicultural movements—have an intermarriage rate of 50% and 69%, respectively (Pew Research Center 2013:37). (This may be an underestimate of intermarriage rates since Reform converts were counted as Jewish in Pew’s survey.) In fact, it is only those Jews who, as a group, were much less involved in national politics—the orthodox—who have low intermarriage rates and high fertility. MacDonald states that Jewish activists have increasingly started to see traditional Judaism as a better means of preserving group continuity. “Reform Judaism is becoming steadily more conservative, and there is a major effort within all segments of the Jewish community to prevent intermarriage. . . .” But contemporary Reform Judaism defines “intermarriage” as marriage between someone who identifies as a Jew and someone who identifies as a non-Jew. They care nothing for ethnic purity, and MacDonald never provides any evidence to the contrary.
Conclusion: Evidence Favors the Default Hypothesis, and MacDonald Does Not Represent Evolutionary Psychology
As anti-Semitism develops, Jews begin to abandon the very movements for which they originally provided the intellectual impetus. This phenomenon may also occur in the case of multiculturalism. Indeed, many of the most prominent opponents of multiculturalism are Jewish neoconservatives, as well as organizations such as the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which have a large Jewish membership (1988a:313).
After arguing so strenuously that liberal movements were designed to advance a Jewish group evolutionary strategy, he acknowledges that Jews are also in the vanguard in the fight against those same movements.
In recent years, Jews have continued to produce examples favoring the default hypothesis. The most high-profile opponent of liberal activism in social science is, without question, Jonathan Haidt (see Duarte et al. 2015), who is Jewish. The most high-profile advocate of incorporating Darwinism into the social sciences is another Jew, Steven Pinker (e.g., Pinker 2002). The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)—the most prominent organization that defends free speech on campus, primarily the speech of conservatives—was founded by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, both Jewish. There is reason to believe that Jews played a significant role in Donald Trump’s election and, specifically, in his anti-immigration policies (Dolsten 2017). The term “paleoconservative,” referring to a pro-white, pro-Western-tradition political doctrine, was coined by Herbert Marcuse’s PhD student Paul Gottfried, who is Jewish. Gottfried was also the first person to publicly use the term “alternative right” to refer to a race-conscious conservatism that opposes immigration and multiculturalism (Siegel 2016). The only major white nationalist organization that is not anti-Semitic is American Renaissance. Out of the 10 invited speakers at the first American Renaissance conference in 1994, four were Jewish (American Renaissance 2017).
Salter (2000) notes that many of the sources cited in The Culture of Critique are “mainstream.” Indeed, while the Judaism-as-a-group-evolutionary-strategy trilogy has the accoutrements of sound scholarship, such as detailed endnotes and extensive bibliographies to sources that are themselves credible, the evidence reviewed here suggests that this is a smokescreen. MacDonald’s theory is built on misrepresented sources, cherry-picked facts, and assiduous refusal to consider the more parsimonious default hypothesis that the evidence actually supports.
Finally, let us turn to the question of MacDonald’s relationship with evolutionary psychology. Some opponents of evolutionary psychology have taken his conclusions as the more or less inevitable outcome of applying evolutionary theory to Judaism. Some supporters of evolutionary psychology (such as D. S. Wilson and others listed earlier) have also claimed that MacDonald is correctly applying evolutionary psychological thinking to Judaism. But misrepresenting sources and distorting history are not part of the methods of evolutionary psychology, or any other legitimate academic discipline. Those who have competently applied insights from evolutionary theory to the study of Judaism (e.g., Goldberg 2009; Konner 2003) have come to very different conclusions than we find in The Culture of Critique. It is they, not MacDonald, who should be treated as representatives of evolutionary psychology and biosocial science.
MacDonald’s (1988a:154, n. 15) list of the four who were not influenced by Freud does not include Silvers.
Thanks to Jonathan Anomaly, Steven Pinker, Neven Sesardić, David Sidorsky, and two reviewers for Human Nature for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
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The far-right media circuit has turned “Antifa,” whatever they think that means, into their catch-all boogeyman. This movement has its roots into the fight against the rise of interwar fascism, the battle against the National Front in Britain and neo-Nazis in post-war Germany, and Anti-Racist Action in the U.S.
This new documentary sheds light on the reality of Antifa, speaking with experts like Mark Bray and the One People’s Project’s Daryle Lamont Jenkins.
Patriot Prayer isn’t known for its good taste.
The far-right organization, known for linking up “Patriot” militias with Alt Right white nationalists, became notorious for taking up the “free speech” rally model started by Lauren Southern in the “Battle for Berkeley.” In Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding suburbs, their organizer, Joey Gibson, instigated violent clashes with leftist protesters as he refused to tone down the “America First” rhetoric. In May, Jeremy Christian, a man who eagerly joined Patriot Prayer’s events, murdered two on Portland public transit in an Islamophobic frenzy. Gibson’s response was to hold his June 4th rally just a couple of weeks later in a federal park, which drew over three thousand protesters in a show of unprecedented antifascist unity.
On August 26, in the wake of the savage race riot and vehicular murder in Charlottesville, Gibson decided to bring his act down to the Bay area, where a number of far-right provocateurs were intending to join him. This would start with a “Freedom Rally” along the waterfront, which activists countered with a mass “poop in” by bringing their dogs to the beach without waste bags. The following day they the “anti-Marxist” message would be brought to the streets, picking up on the white supremacist conspiracy theory that modern “progressive” values are actually the result of subversive Jewish “Cultural Marxism.”
Patriot Prayer’s plans sparked one of the quickest engagements of mass organizing in years as coalitions formed around the city with everything from radical art shows to a mass marches to disallow Gibson access to the streets or city parks. While the Bay’s progressive line-up began their plans, it was the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 that stepped out in front to lead this community revolt. Just days before the Alt Right was to descend on the city, Local 10 passed the “Motion to Stop the Fascists in San Francisco,” calling for “all unions and anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations to join us defending unions, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and all the oppressed.” ILWU was instrumental in raising the antifascist coalition’s profile enough to force Gibson to cancel the event, and when he tried to move it to San Francisco’s Alamo Park, the union took to the streets and helped form a block to prevent entry.
Right now, labor in the United States is being pushed to a state of execution. With the political power in the hands of the beltway right, attacks on public sector unions, collective bargaining, exclusive representation, and the rights of workers to organize, are forcing labor to look past immediate contractual gains and to the larger contradictions the working class faces. Capital’s attack on unions is happening at the same time as a radical right populism is sweeping the U.S., with Trumpism ushering in what the Freedom Party brought to Austria, Brexit offered to the UK, and what Le Pen could have leveled on France. With the Alt Right as the militant fascist edge of this movement, organized labor is placed where it is often put in times of crisis: uniquely targeted and decisively necessary.
“Then they came for the trade unionists…”
Looking at the historical fascist movements that rose to power in interwar Europe, labor is crushed swiftly and decisively. As the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the SS took control of the trade unions in 1933, banning them as working class institutions and molding their organs into the German Labor Front. With 7 million members, Germany had one of the largest labor movements in the world, bolstered by the social democrats and the revolutionary German Communist Party (KPD). In Italy, Mussolini took a different approach and captured the unions entirely, creating large Fascist Trade Unions with over four million members. These organizations were extensions of the fascist state, losing their ability to fight for workers interests as Mussolini gained power by cruelly crushing socialist and anarchist partisans. The attack on unionists was, largely, an extension of the fascist attack on the organized left as leaders rightly understood that both sides had the ability to pull heavily from the experiences of the working class. While Hitler and Mussolini appealed to the bourgeois classes by suppressing worker movements, it was an appeal to the broad masses that gave fascism its power. The class conflict implicit to capitalism is then suppressed in favor of mediated class collaboration; the fire for change the fuels class struggle then rechanneled into reactionary battles between identities, racial, sexual, and otherwise.
The unions themselves were, at the time, the largest and most successful results of social movements, a hundred years of struggle to create massive organizations that took on the interests of the oppressed classes. That strength, rooted in the ability to withhold labor, could bring the country to its knees, and its nature is rooted in the working class unity that necessitates antiracism. If the unions are weakened, removed as militant vehicles for the desires of working people, then mass movements lose one of their key strategic vessels.
Unions today are often defined by their concessions, what was allowed to them by the state during the 1920s and 1930s. But a union is more that Collective Bargaining Agreements and grievance procedures. It is simply an expression of unified class power, the ability of a group of workers to exert power through solidarity. For workers today (and throughout the history of organized labor), their subjective experiences of class and identity are more than just pay scales, but include everything from racial discrimination by management to the fear of violence they have leaving their houses in the morning. For non-white workers, that violence continues, both from the state as police murders continue unchallenged, and through vigilantes, from the KKK in earlier generations to the Alt Right terrorizing campuses and city centers today. Unions can expand their conception of working class struggle to take on issues not only at the bargaining table, but also throughout the world that workers inhabit, something that is only becoming more necessary as those traditional rights are legally eroded. With a larger financial infrastructure than most left organizations and the growing injection of labor into broad coalitions, they have the tools and membership to be active in directly undermining the radical right surge.
IWW General Defense Committee
For many syndicalists, the IWW has been a centerpiece of this radical experiment for a century, starting as an alternative to the increasingly compromised AFL models of negotiated labor. The IWW continues to explode at moments of contradiction, organizing that stretches models to the point of redefinition. The non-contract campaigns of the Burgerville Workers Union, the prison organizing of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and solidarity networks are windows into what is possible when the strictures shackling organized labor are ignored and the basic principles of organizing are opened up to the imagination.
It is no wonder that the IWW then looked to the past to rebuild a project that could extend the reach of the organization into the increasingly caustic world of tenancy, police violence, and insurrectionary racist threats. The General Defense Committee (GDC) was first started in 1917 as a technically-separate organization from the broader IWW to take on issues like state repression of members around anti-war protests and during later red scares. Because it was a legally separate entity, it could take some shelter from state attacks on the IWW that seemed imminent. The GDC was brought back to take on issues that were not strictly workplace derived, and antifascist work has become the brand it is best known by. The Twin Cities branch chartered a GDC in 2011, yet their antifascist committee started long before that as members had previous experience as founders of Anti-Racist Action in the 1980s and the Torch Network that is known for linking up Antifa organizations. The GDC has grown to over 200 members with committees being chartered across the country.
The Twin Cities GDC Local 14 started by confronting a 2012 appearance of David Irving, the notorious WWII historian turned Holocaust Denier, building the praxis that would instruct their later work. As opposed to the close-knit and highly secretive format that describes most Antifa organizations, the GDC has used a “mass antifascist” approach. This means focusing on bringing in large coalitions of people, generally being public about their image, and trying to do popular education and engagement. This still results in the battle over “contested spaces,” music venues, public arenas, and college campuses. This can also mean in direct engagement, forcing the neo-Nazis out of their speaking event or meeting spaces, but it is done through appeals to huge community contingents. Mixing a radical analysis, direct action, and broad community involvement are the same principles that have made the Wobblies such a success in workplace organizing, and it those winning methods that they are using to turn entire neighborhoods and social networks into mass antifascist forces. Since the rise of the Alt Right starting in 2015, the GDC has been present in almost every major action, from shutting down far-right agitator Milo Yiannoupolous in Seattle, De Paul, and the University of Wisconsin, challenging Infowars at the Republican National Convention, and shutting down fascist neofolk artists like Blood + Sun.
Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective
In Portland, a group of trade unionists whose roots in militant antifascism went back thirty years came back to that anti-racist organizing by looking exactly at where they work. In places like the Carpenters Union, workers were regularly forced to interact coworkers who were openly adorned with neo-Nazi iconography, such as portraits of Hitler in visible tattoos. For many neo-Nazis who had been involved in skinhead gangs and were felons, building trade unions provided a pathway to a good and stable job that often shielded them from political fallout and did not penalize them for criminal histories. Organizers from the Carpenters Local 1503, Ironworkers Local 29, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) Local 10, and antifascist organizers came together to form the Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective (PNWAWC) to confront the influx of the far-right from inside of the labor movement.
One of PNWAWC’s key strategies was to put through antifascist resolutions in union locals whose membership may actually have some allegiances to white supremacist formations. IUPAT Local 10 and the Carpenters Union Local 1503 passed this resolution, next attempting to build antifascist committees internal to the local. IUPAT went as far as forming an Anti-Racist Mobilization Committee that will be used to get union members to support antiracist community actions and to reach out to other trade unions to do the same.
Their work extends to antifascist strategies that are often well known to Antifa and Anti-Racist Action groups, which many of their members started in. This includes organizing as a coalition with groups like Rose City Antifa to confront far-right assemblies, especially in “contested spaces,” refusing access. Doxxing, information dissemination, and popular education are all a part of this, as well as committing many of their members to act as community defense and security in situations that could result in fascist intimidation. After a local public-sector union had been hosting antifascist events from groups like the Portland Assembly and Demand Utopia, threats began coming down on the union hall. When several alleged far-right agitators showed up, donning masks, the collective coordinated unionists and organizers to surround the building, refusing to allow them on the property.
Portland Labor Against Fascists
Many organizers with some relationship to PNWAWC came together to form the Portland Labor Against Fascists coalition to have a labor presence at the growing number of collisions between far-right rallies and the public. When Patriot Prayer announced its June 4th rally despite the pleas of the city, including the Mayor’s office, multiple groups organized to surround the event. On one side was a more mild-manner coalition of progressive groups brought together by the International Socialist Organization, while adjacent to the in the park was the united Antifa block. On the south side of the far-right rally was the labor coalition, organized, in part, by Trotskyist organizations like the Internationalist Group and Class Struggle Workers, and with members from the various building trades as well as Amalgamated Transit Union 757, CWA 7901, and different AFL-CIO affiliates.
The rhetoric here was simple: destroying the narrative that the Patriot militia and blue-collar white power groups have, that they are acting in the interests of the white working class. With Ironworkers and IBEW electricians on the megaphones, they were able to speak to worker exploitation, not from “mass immigration” or affirmative action, but from mega-corporations that are crushing wages and collective bargaining. Since some participants in the Alt Right come from those represented trades, hearing from people in the same professions and workplaces makes a difference. This has been the strategy of non-labor specific organizations like Redneck Revolt, who use the language of gun-rights and government mistrust to speak to the same crowd that the militia movement recruits from.
As the cultural wave of reactionary anger turned into a Trump presidency, many in the broad labor movement were forced to speak up out of the crisis of circumstance. With the heavy focus of Alt Right groups like Identity Europa on campus recruitment, student and faculty groups have found common cause in confronting their threat. The Duke Graduate Student Union and the University of California Student Workers have come out to endorse student projects like the Campus Anti-Fascist Network, which is using a nationally coordinated approach to long-term mass antifascist movement building. As Patriot Prayer’s event loomed on the horizon in Berkeley, a large coalition formed for the Bay Area Rally Against Hate that would link up a huge swath of community and labor organizations. This again drew from unions with an association with education and college campuses, including the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, AFSCME Local 3299 (a UC Berkeley local), SEIU Local 1021, and UAW Local 2865, as well as a contingent of Berkeley student workers. The Alameda Labor Council and San Francisco Labor Council both signed as endorsers, a success for such a highly partisan affair. ILWU Local 10 was a leader in the effort to block Patriot Prayer, bringing out retired members who had joined the movement against South African apartheid in the 1980s. IUPAT Local 10 voted in a resolution and public statement that put their full support behind the ILWU’s decision in the bay, saying that they take from their example “in the struggle for workers’ rights against racism, war, and police repression.”
While many large unions have avoided using the language of antifascism, there has been an impetus for many to rise up on the primary issues of racial victimization in the Trump era. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka joined the Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff in a “categorical rejection” of Islamophobia, and after the comments Trump made after the Charlottesville violence he decisively pulled out of the American Manufacturing Council. Trumka is far from a radical unionist, but it shows the tone that is shifting inside large labor institutions. In years past, the rhetoric of “America First” echoed into union halls as jobs were being offshored. This attempt to stoke a subtle racism while mobilizing workers against de-industrialization lost them the ability to effectively fight the experiences of racism that workers face, and there are signs this decision is being reversed as they continue to lose ground with their attempts at class collaboration. The movement by many unions, from UNITE HERE Local 2850 to National Union of Healthcare Workers, to become “sanctuary unions” is another turn, acknowledging the horror of ICE deportations that are entering into their member communities. Local 2850 has been working to add protections for immigrants into contracts as well as going for local and statewide resolutions in support of their immigrant workforce.
The role of large labor organizations is more mixed than militant unions, but with their large memberships and financial infrastructure there are opportunities they can lend to antifascist movements. This may end up more passive than anything, the allying of resources, buildings, and participation in coalitions, while leaving the more open antifascist work to organizers free from the strictures of non-profit status. As unions have increasingly diverse membership, they will be pressured to stand up for the issues that fascist ideologues have owned, confronting mass deportations, the victimization of racial and gender minorities, and the increased threat that far-right politics represent to their membership.
The position of unions as a conceptual force is even more central as its mechanisms of class power are some of the most profound in history. The ability to use solidarity to dethrone the authority in a workplace can be expanded to the community, and the mass base, the ability to strike and worker empowerment can all be pivoted to see not only institutional injustice, but also the insurrectionary violence of white supremacy, as a target. Fascist politics splits the working class, a fragmentation that spells defeat in even the most class reductionist sense, and there is every reason for union members to be on the front lines.
By Mike Isaacson
Back in August, I wrote an article for Red Pepper magazine asserting the synonymy of the alt-right and its historical antecedents in the eugenics movement. The breadth of the movement’s influence at its height in late 2016 had it reaching in political spheres well beyond its original core in the white nationalist movement connected to Richard Spencer. That I catalogued this reach into GamerGate earned me quite a bit of impotent ire on the r/KotakuInAction Reddit where they claimed I didn’t know what eugenics, the alt-right, or GamerGate are.
One of the more worrying claims on the Reddit was that my account and rejection of eugenics rejects evolutionary biology and sociology. Barring a restriction to literature from before 1950, little could be further from the truth. In actuality, these disciplines widely reject the key claims of biological determinism made by eugenicists by accounting for existing legal, economic, and political institutions. What follows is a list of readings that articulate contemporary critiques of eugenics.
Article has been republished with permission from author’s blog, Vulgar Economics.
By scott crow
Notions of Defense
The world has been in tumult for decades, with more crises still ahead of us—from ecological and economic to political oppression and wars. These slow disasters will demand new approaches and open new possibilities. I think it’s time for all of us within civil society to think about how we want to respond, autonomously and collectively, without waiting to be saved by the same reactionary governments and corporations that have produced the crises in the first place.
In this essay, I will try to sketch a set of potential practices, praxis, and thinking centered on the narrow use of what I name as liberatory community armed self-defense. This distinct concept draws upon the histories of community self-defense, as practiced by various groups of people worldwide, and from the liberatory principles derived from anarchist and antiauthoritarian traditions.
The concept of community armed self-defense is a distinct development from grassroots social and political organizing models and notions of community defense, which at their core assert the right of oppressed peoples to protect their interests “by any means necessary.” That would include signing petitions and voting on one end of the spectrum to extralegal means of direct action, insurrection, or rebellions on the other. The Black Panther Party, for example engaged in community defense not only through their armed patrols but also through their survival programs, which opened health clinics and free schools in poor black neighborhoods otherwise lacking these kinds of services. This essay is an attempt at a critical reassessment of liberatory community armed self-defense: to re-envision the histories and analysis, to examine the praxis and bring these lessons forward to future engagements, and to broaden and strengthen our tactics and responses to crisis.
A Working Definition
Liberatory community armed self-defense is the collective group practice of temporarily taking up arms for defensive purposes, as part of larger engagements of collective autonomy in keeping with a liberatory ethics.
I am proposing liberatory community armed self-defense as a distinct idea borne out of a reassessment, spanning decades, of the historical experience of armed struggle and broader theories of the right of self-defense.
Self-Defense usually describes countermeasures employed by an individual to protect their immediate personal safety, and sometimes their property. Within the US, self-defense is discussed almost exclusively in legal terms relating to “rights” recognized by governments or constitutions, and only occasionally as human rights. By limiting the discussion to the rights attached to individuals, this framing fails to consider community interests, structural violence and oppression, and collective actions. The discourse thus completely neglects the defense of communities as such, and especially leaves out the political demands of people of color, women, immigrants, queers, and poor people.
Community self-defense in any form is not defined by laws but by ethics based in need (to protect) and the principles of anarchy (whether people call it that or not) by which groups of people collectively exercise their power in deciding their futures and determining how to respond to threats without relying on governments.
As a concept, Liberatory Community Armed Self-Defense attempts to take into account unrecognized types of violence and the limits marginalized groups face in their ability to determine their own futures or collectively protect themselves. For example, in 1973, when the American Indian Movement took up arms to defend “their people” in the occupation at Wounded Knee, they did so to bring attention to the horrible living conditions on the reservations and the violence their communities faced both from a lack of basic services and from armed vigilante squads. The town of Wounded Knee was not itself under attack, but it represented what First Nations were facing everywhere. AIM’s stand was a clear example of community armed self-defense, but it doesn’t fit neatly into existing typologies of self-defense.
Some Important Distinctions
Liberatory community armed self-defense is different from other forms of armed action for two major reasons. The first is that it is temporary but organized. People can train in firearms tactics and safety individually or together but would be called on more like a volunteer fire department—only when needed and in response to specific circumstances. Second, and possibly more importantly, power-sharing and egalitarian principles are incorporated into the group ethics and culture long before conflict is ever engaged. These two overarching ideas separate it from most armed conflicts.
For instance, right-wing militias—like the anti-immigrant patrols of the Minutemen Militia along the U.S./Mexico border, or the racist Algiers Point Militia operating in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—have nothing to do with the type of community armed self-defense rooted in collective liberatory principles. These militias are built on abstract fears and racist beliefs, conspiracy theories, and a macho culture where the strongest or loudest is the leader. They are typically organized in military-type hierarchies with no real accountability to the people in civil society and the communities they operate within. These types of militias are far too similar to the types of the groups liberation movements have had to defend themselves against.
That said, the adoption of armed tactics in any conflict or threat situation always has the potential to morph temporary defensive measures into permanent military hierarchies unless conscious efforts to counter that tendency and share power are maintained. A liberatory approach is necessary to minimize, or at the least mitigate, that danger.
The armed component should never become the center; otherwise we risk becoming standing militaries. To avoid that, and to equalize power as best we are able to, a liberatory analysis is necessary to nurture those who are learning to exercise their power, and for those who need to be accountable to their groups or communities. The liberatory framework is built on anarchist principles of mutual aid (cooperation), direct action (taking action without waiting on the approval of the authorities), solidarity (recognizing that the well-being of disparate groups is tied together) and collective autonomy (community self-determination).
Defensive arms should be used only for the goals of collective liberation and not to seize permanent power, even if their use could potentially, and possibly necessarily, escalate conflicts. In any case, arms are not the first line of defense and are only taken up after other forms of conflict resolution have been exhausted.
The use of arms is only effective for the long term if it is part of a dual power framework. Dual Power means resisting exploitation and oppression, while also developing other initiatives toward autonomy and liberation as part of other efforts in self-sufficiency and self-determination.
Those engaged with guns should hold the same power as others involved in other forms of community defense or self-sufficiency. Carrying arms should be seen as a privileged task, with the same importance as childcare, growing food, or taking out the garbage—and not more. To maintain a balance of power, rotate all armed tasks and training among all those willing to participate. All firearms training needs to include dynamic and evolving liberatory ethics and practices in addition to how-to and safety. Within any training or operation, there should be an emphasis on challenging internalized assumptions about class, gender, and race to interrupt typical gun culture.
Reflections and Questions Toward a Theory
These notes are only a beginning. Many questions remain, including those concerning organization, tactical considerations, the coercive power inherent in firearms, accountability to the community being defended and to the broader social movement, and ultimately, one hopes, the process of demilitarization. For example: Do defensive engagements have to remain geographically isolated? Are small affinity groups the best formations for power-sharing and broad mobilization? How do we create cultures of support for those who engage in defensive armed conflict, especially with respect to historically oppressed people’s right to defend themselves? What do those engagements of support look like? Additionally there are many tactical considerations and questions to be discussed and debated to avoid replicating the dominant gun culture. How do we keep arms or arms training from becoming the central focus, whether from habit, culture, or romanticization?
There can be an end to the senseless violence for domination or resources. But if we want to transcend violence in the long term, we may need use it in the short term. We thus need to ask ourselves some tough questions about our approaches and our methods. When is armed engagement appropriate? How would we want it to look? How do we create cultures of tacit or direct support and include people who would never themselves engage in armed defense? How will we keep from centralizing power? When do the consequences outweigh the benefits? There are no blueprints; we have to create this together, step by step. We need to challenge ourselves and overcome our self-imposed limitations and shed our preconceptions of what resistance and liberation are like. When we do, we will gain confidence in potentially using deadly tools with a liberatory consciousness. That means we have to understanding that the values of power-sharing and openness are every bit as important as the power of carrying loaded weapons.
Arms will never offer the only answer to exercising or equalizing power. Only we can do that, but they can be a deterrent against real threats, and can greatly expand our tools of liberation. Community armed self-defense opens up the possibility of changing the rules of engagement. It doesn’t always make situations less violent, but it can help to balance the inequity of power among individuals and diverse communities. I am not calling for us all to rise up in arms but to rethink how we defend ourselves. We can dream, we can build new worlds, but to do so we must not forget to resist on our own terms.
All revolutions start as the basic refusal of an oppressed person to follow along with the rules of their own subservience. The autonomous Marxist tradition breaks from many understanding of economics and history to say that it is what it calls “Working Class Self-Activity” that brings about crisis. In 2007-8 we saw an economic collapse not just because of the nefarious actors on Wall Street, but because an entire working class decided to refuse to go along with the destruction of real wages and living standards. Through de-industrialization, attacks on labor unions, and the depletion of the social safety net through neoliberalism, the actual wealth of the collective working class was set ablaze. Debt soared, and workers began to, en masse, take out loans they couldn’t pay back, buy houses they couldn’t afford, and run up credit cards they didn’t care to pay off. They refused to play by the rules of the system that was forcing them into economic and social retreat.
That principle has echoed through history. The crisis of the Civil War came after decades of increasing slave revolts. The similar principle can be seen in peasant revolts across the world, the story of the labor movement and its insurgent actors, and the student uprisings starting in the 1960s.
Kevin Van Meter dives deep into this phenomenon, which he calls “everyday resistance.” This is the kind of resistance that happens no matter if someone is attuned to revolutionary class politics or not. It is the kind of resistance that comes as an act of survival. Stealing from work. Clocking in your friend who is late. Creating mutual aid networks to care for kids. Fighting back against abusive husbands. These are all acts of resistance, and they are, as Van Meter asserts, the foundation of all radical and revolutionary politics.
The question here is how to mobilize this everyday resistance into a fully formed mass movement, and how antifascism and the resistance to Trumpism can build on the instinct towards survival.
The below talk was given at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.
The history and theory of antifascist resistance were forged both out of the integral battle against fascist forces, as well as the intersections of radical left politics that wanted to go beyond acting simply as a station of resistance. The rise of the Alt Right, Donald Trump, and identitarianism and right populism throughout the West has made this more relevant than anyone would have guessed only a few years ago.
Within that, two authors have written books that dive deep into how to understand the rise of fascism in the 21st century, and the growing mass antifascist movement. Historian Mark Bray wrote Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook analyzing the history, strategy, and theory of ‘militant antifascism,’ a movement that sees direct resistance as necessary. Journalist Shane Burley just released Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It breaking down the key ideas, history, and tactics of American fascists, and how mass antifascism is rising to stop it.
Both authors came together in Portland, Oregon at the historic Powell’s City of Books to discuss the books, fascism in the age of Trump, and what can be done to stop white nationalism.
With today being Samhain (Halloween), we thought we would share this now classic essay/zine on the radical history of this holiday and tradition. We have reposted the version found at Mask Magazine, including their photo selection, and have also included a link to the zine version below.
By Bradly Stroot
Origins of the Halloween Spirit
Though widely recognized across North America, the origins of Halloween are poorly understood by many of its celebrants, likely due to their dark, unsavory, and disorderly nature. Its calendar date and etymology are undeniably Christian (from “All Hallows’ Evening,” the night before All Saints Day on November 1st), but the spirit that animates this “Halloween machine” is widely thought to originate from the pagan New Year celebrations of the Keltoi people (or Celts) of Ireland.
The Keltoi, whose name is likely derived from kel-, the Indo-European prefix for the “hidden,” were a diverse constellation of Celtic-speaking tribes that spread across much of Europe and the British Isles between the Iron Age and Early Middle Ages, even occupying Rome for a period of time around 400 BCE. Because of these hidden people’s refusal to commit their oral history and scholarship to written records, much of the most spectacular accounts of these “primitive” pagans and their “bloodthirsty” human sacrifice have been written by their imperial enemies like Julius Caesar and thus should be considered suspect at best.
What is known almost for certain, however, is that many Keltoi of the British Isles believed in an afterlife called Tir na tSamhraidh, or the “Land of Summer.” The doors to this Other world were only opened once a year on Samhain (pronounced SOW-in), the period between the two nights of October 31 and November 1. According to Nicholas Rogers, the author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night,
“Samhain beckoned to winter and the dark nights ahead. It was quintessentially ‘an old pastoral and agricultural festival […] It was also a period of supernatural intensity, when the forces of darkness and decay were said to be abroad, spilling out from the sidh, the ancient mounds or barrows of the countryside. To ward off these spirits, the Irish built huge, symbolically regenerative bonfires and invoked the help of the gods through animal and perhaps even human sacrifice. […] In Celtic lore, it marked the boundary between summer and winter, light and darkness. […] It represented a time out of time, a brief interval ‘when the normal order of the universe in suspended’ and ‘charged with a peculiar preternatural energy.’”
These liminal interludes, as Barry Cunliffe calls them in The Celts, were particularly dangerous because “they were times when anything could happen and it was only by careful adherence to ritual and propitiation that a precarious order could be maintained.” Lisa Morton, another Halloween scholar and the author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, crucially adds that this was the only time of the year with a relative abundance of food and alcohol which contributed to Samhain’s festive and mischievous atmosphere. She also adds that, in addition to Beltane on May 1st, it was one of the two most important days in the Keltoi’s often frightening heroic folk tales, like that of,
“the Formorians, a race of demonic giants who have conquered Ireland after a great battle, demand a yearly tax of two-thirds of the subdued survivors’ corn, milk, and children, to be paid each year on Samhain. The Tuatha de Danann, a race of godlike, benevolent ancestors chronicled in Celtic mythology, battle against the Fomorians for years, but it takes the Morrigan, a mother god, and the hero Angus Og to finally drive the monsters from Ireland – on Samhain, of course.”
In these multiple accounts of Samhain, we can find themes that will come to define Halloween and follow it through its long history – particularly those of liminality, excess, celebration, mischief, darkness, fire, demons, and, perhaps most important to this essay, rebellion. When I obsessively began researching Detroit’s Devil’s Night a month ago, it was not immediately clear what its connection with this larger tradition would be, but as a began to work backward I began to uncover a genealogy that I couldn’t ignore. From the anti-Christian heresy of the medieval British Isles to the widespread arson of 1980s Detroit, we will see as this spirit of Halloween will continue to intersect with several notable subversive moments throughout its long life, constantly re-inventing itself to evade the forces of law and order.
The Witch Hammer, c. 700-1590 CE
Though Samhain provided Halloween with these raw, disorderly materials, it actually gave the holiday very little in terms of concrete practices or symbolism, excepting bonfires. These traditions, including the name of Halloween, came later in the Medieval period with the violent imposition of Christianity and its holy days, All Souls’ and All Saints’ Day.Originally celebrated on May 13 as a remembrance of Christian martyrs who had died at the hands of pagans, Lemuria (as it was previously known) was moved to November 1st by the Pope and rebranded as a more palatable, positive celebration of “all the saints.” Later, the early Church added All Souls’ Day on November 2, conveniently bookending the celebration with an opportunity to pray for the souls of the deceased that were trapped in Purgatory. According to Morton, however, “it seems more likely that the gloomy, ghostly new celebration was added to cement the transformation of Samhain from pagan to Christian holiday.”
Three centuries later, this gloomy and ghostly nature of All Souls’ Day transformed from an exceptional, temporary celebration to the daily reality of most Europeans as the Black Death began to spread throughout the western hemisphere. Beginning in 1346 and peaking around 1350, the plague killed as much as 60 percent of Europe’s population and left the surviving population with an unavoidable preoccupation with death. This, coupled with the simultaneous spread of the printing press, led to the mass circulation of Danse Macabre imagery and a generalized perception of Death as a personified subject, which one can still see in modern celebrations of Halloween. Though the figure of Death was originally portrayed as an animated skeleton, the opportunity was quickly seized by the Church and early capitalists to re-purpose this body of enmity in order to target a rebellious subject whom they had both long considered a threat but were now finally strong enough to destroy: the witch.
According to Arthur Evans’ recently republished 1978 book, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture,
“Despite its contempt for magic, the early church did not organize a full-scale attack against magicians and witches because it was not yet strong enough. The Christianity of the early middle ages was largely an affair of the King and the upper class of warlords. The rest of society remained pagan. In addition, early medieval Christians were hampered by a general breakdown of centralized authority in both church and state. Anarchy favored paganism.”
However, as Evans continues,
“By the early thirteenth century, […] the church was much better organized and ready to act. Its immediate target was heresy: the numerous and widespread attempts to combine traditional Christianity with elements of the old religion. To deal with this, the church launched crusades and started the Holy Inquisition. […] Now it began to look at the historical sources of heresy – the surviving old religion that modern historians view as ‘folklore,’ ‘peasant fantasy,’ and ‘strange fertility rites.’ Feeling its privilege, power, and world view threatened by these sources, the fifteenth-century ruling class fantasized that Satan was conspiring to overthrow the power of Christ’s church on earth.
With this consolidation of sovereign power and the figurative marriage of Satan and witches began what came to be known as The Great Witch-Hunt. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici traces the lineage of this mass genocide beyond just the Christian elite’s fear of paganism but to a whole world of generalized peasant revolts and the powerful, undomesticated women who likely organized them. Though this population was likely quite heterogeneous and their activities today may be likened to those of midwives, abortionists, sex workers, and popular healers among others, their enemies were able to collapse their commonalities into the identity of the witch, which could then be surgically targeted for removal.
According to Evans, the early Church “turned homosexuality into heresy” and began to collapse the two identities so that to call someone a heretic was to call them a homosexual, and vice versa. And “because of the methods of the Inquisition, […] great numbers of Lesbians and Gay men must have lost their lives.” We can also assume that the many individuals who today might have self-identified as transgender were likely also targeted for extermination. Besides the story of Joan of Arc: Transvestite and Heretic, there is unfortunately very little other research into this history and, therefore, my only reference point for this period will be Federici’s figure of the witch-as-woman.
The authorities obsessed over that these witches largely lived alone, relied on public assistance, were sexually “promiscuous,” and encouraged non-procreative sex (by means of contraception and abortions). Because these activities interfered with male supremacy, heteronormativity, population growth, compulsory labor, domestication, and order – in a word, civilization – the witch started being painted as a threat to life itself. According to Federici, “Witches were accused of conspiring to destroy the generative power of humans and animals, of procuring abortions, and of belonging to an infanticidal sect devoted to killing children and offering them to the devil.”
But, according to Federici, these accusations did not spontaneously generate from the witches’ own neighbors overnight. Instead, a highly-organized campaign of indoctrination was introduced from above and spread from to village to village traveling public officials. All this was only possible with the mass generation of propaganda using the most advanced technology of the day – the printing press. Of particular importance to re-imagining these rebellious women as demon-worshipping baby killers were the widely circulated copies of the Malleus Maleficarum and the evocative images created from the engravings of Hans Baldung Grien. In his most famous work, Witches’ Sabbath, one can see precursors to images of witches we still can find on Hallmark cards today – deformed bodies gathering around a bubbling caldron with their animal familiars (later portrayed as black cats), and flying through the air to their subversive meetings with the devil.
Of special significance to the history of Halloween is this last component – the mass gathering of witches at the Sabbath, or Sabbat. Though widely exaggerated by its enemies, some historians have speculated that the Sabbat was an actual nocturnal gathering of thousands where peasants plotted popular revolts against ruling social enclosures.
Given the potentially subversive nature of these massive gatherings, it should be of no surprise then that the “witches” who attended became a target of extermination to the forces of order. Curiously, according to Morton, this is about the same period when a term closely resembling “Halloween” first begins to appear in the English language.
“The choice of All Hallows’ as a major holiday for witches and devils was no doubt coerced from the accused with a political agenda in mind. […] A spectacular witch trial took place during the reign of the Protestant king James I: in 1590, dozens of Scots were accused of having attempted to prevent James from reaching his queen-to-be, Anne of Denmark, by gathering on Halloween night and then riding the sea in sieves while creating storms by tossing live cats tied to human body parts in the water. After the infamous North Berwick Witch Trials, as they were called, Halloween was forever to be firmly associated with witches, cats, cauldrons, brooms, and the Devil.”
Mischievous Nights c. 1600-1900 CE
After this brutal erasure of an entire population and the undomesticated form of life that they represented, one can see a marked change in the culture surrounding the celebration of Halloween, particularly in its embrace of romance, parlor games, and tempered mischief in place of unbridled revolt. According to Rogers, one popular tradition of this era was a public choral performance that encouraged marriage and procreation with refrains celebrating “the wise virgins awaiting the coming of the bridegroom.” These public affirmations of marriage also announced the beginning of the seasons of Christmas and misrule, a temporary period of permitted mischief wherein urban leaders were ritually usurped from power in mock coups by impersonated sheriffs and mayors.
Simultaneously in the countryside, according to a sixteenth century account written by Philip Stubbs, large groups of drunken revelers would parade the churchyards with their horses, singing and dancing “with such a confused noise that no man can heare his own voice,” and demand contributions from their neighbors in order to continue their “Heathenrie, Devilrie, and Drunkennesse.” According to David J. Skal, the author of Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, it is also within this era that the tradition of the jack-o’-lantern develops, complete with a Christian folk etymology of harmless mischief:
“Jack was a perennial trickster of folktales, who offended not only God but also the devil with his many pranks and transgressions. Upon his death, he was denied entrance into both heaven and hell, though the devil grudgingly tossed him a fiery coal, which Jack caught in a hollowed turnip and which would light his night-walk on earth until Judgement Day. Jack’s perpetual prank is decoying of hapless travelers into the murky mire.”
In this new era of “civilized” Christianity, previous bloody wars between pagans and early Christians were replaced by relatively minor inter-religious skirmishes between Protestants and Catholics – that is, until November 5, 1605. Successfully recognized by its simple injunction to “Remember, remember the fifth of November!”, this was the day that Guy Fawkes, a Catholic malcontent, was caught placing thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a vault beneath the protestant House of Lords, later known as the Gunpowder Plot.
Fawkes was soon publicly hanged as a Catholic traitor and the date of his failed attack was chosen by the Parliament as “a holiday forever in thankfulness to our God for deliverance and detestation for the Papists.” Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night (as it came to be dually known) co-existed peacefully for about 40 years until, in 1647, Parliament banned the celebration of all festivals excepting the anti-Catholic celebration. It was then, due to their relative proximity of one another, that November 5 began to take on many of the sinister and mischievous elements of Halloween. Young people would spend weeks preparing for the night by going house-to-house dressed in rags and demanding firewood or money for the massive bonfire roasts of Pope effigies that would come to define the night, a tradition that some historians consider as the origin of trick-or-treat, which will be discussed later. According to Rogers, if no firewood or money was given, it was “considered quite lawful to appropriate any old wood” from these households.
It also around this same time, according to Rogers, that the oldest recorded use of “Mischief Night” is noted by a headmaster to describe his school’s theatre performance that ended in “an Ode to Fun which praises children’s tricks on Mischief Night in most approving terms.” Though originally celebrated on May 1, it eventually found it’s home on in Great Britain on November 4, the night before Bonfire Night, and later in the US on October 30. According to Rogers, it was during this transitional time that Halloween itself began to reappear in the British Isles as a festival distinct from Bonfire Night while still retaining some its most disorderly practices such the targeted destruction of private property, particularly by young, working class men in Scotland and Ireland.
“Mimicking the malignant spirits who were widely believed to be abroad on Halloween, gangs of youths blocked up chimneys, rampaged cabbage patches, battered doors, unhinged gates, and unstabled horses. In nineteenth-century Cromarty, revelers even sought out lone women whom they could haze as a witch. […] ‘If an individual happened to be disliked in the place,’ observed one Scot in 1911, ‘he was sure to suffer dreadfully on these occasions. He doors would be broken, and frequently not a cabbage left standing in the garden.’ Such was Halloween reputation as a night of festive retribution that in some parts of Scotland the imperatives of community justice prevailed over private property, to a point that the Kirk-session found it impossible to enforce law and order.”
These accounts of masculine mob attacks to deliver “community justice” to “unpopular” neighbors and “lone women” are not included as an endorsement for their obviously proto-fascist and misogynistic nature; instead, these moments illustrate how, by means of the witch-hunts and other violent forms of domestication, women had been excluded from the sphere of rebellion and continued to be a target of attack. It is also important not to overlook these moments’ qualities of retribution and ungovernability that will better situate the widespread vandalism of Irish-American immigrant youth and Detroit’s prolific teenage arsonists.
Black Halloween, 1845-1945 CE
Much like the Black Plague of the fourteenth century, the potato blight of 1845 dramatically impacted the course of Halloween’s evolution as it spread across Ireland, killing both the country’s staple food crop and over one million Irish peasants from the resulting starvation. Over the course of the next seven years, one million more Irish would leave their homes, many sailing to North America where they soon outnumbered all other immigrant groups combined. It is not surprising then that this is also the context in which that Halloween celebrations and revelry, long disdained by earlier Puritan settlers, begin to appear in the United States. As Lesley Pratt Bannatyne writes in her book Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, “Wherever the Irish went, […] Halloween followed along.”
In their new homes across North America, Irish immigrant youth continued to experiment, innovate, and spread new forms of devilry during the Halloween season, often creatively adapting to the idiosyncrasies of each environment. In some Midwestern towns, this took the form of removing farmers’ gates to free their animals, while on the East Coast, this took the form of weaponizing the relatively abundant supply of cabbages. Lamenting that “gangs of hoodlums throng[ing] the streets” had replaced the “kindly old customs” with “the spirit of rowdyism,” William Shepard Walsh, a nineteenth-century historian details that:
“Mischievous boys push the pith from the stalk, fill the cavity with tow which they set on fire, and then through the keyholes of houses of folk who have given them offence blow darts of flame a yard in length. […] If on Halloween a farmer’s or crofter’s kail-yard still contains ungathered cabbages, the boy and girls of the neighborhood descend upon it en masse, and the entire crop is harvested in five minutes’ time and thumped against the owner’s doors, which rattle as though pounded by a thunderous tempest.”
In keeping with Halloween’s long tradition of liminality, Tad Tuleja posits in his essay Trick or Treat: Pretexts and Contexts that these attacks on rural households:
“may be seen as an attack on domestic borders. The majority of popular pranks were ‘threshhold tricks’ that assaulted, if only temporarily, ordered space. […] Buggies, which provided cohesion to far-flung rural communities were ‘dysfunctionalized’ by being placed on barn roofs. Even the popular custom of tipping over outhouses served metonymically as an attack on the house-as-home.”
Though many of these mischievous deeds against rural neighbors were treated with a wide berth of tolerance by the authorities of the day, the tactics of urban immigrant youth soon sharpened and escalated to the alarm (and beyond the control) of fledgling police forces, taking on a character resembling something closer to asymmetric urban warfare. After the collapse of the American stock market on October 24th, 1929 (or Black Tuesday, as it came to be known), the next few years saw Halloween mobs specifically targeting symbols of luxury and the infrastructure of the metropolis, with a notable peak in 1933 (uncoincidentally at the height of America’s Great Depression) that came to be known as Black Halloween.
According to multiple accounts by Lisa Morton, Nicholas Rogers, and David Skal, this period was marked by youth gangs ripping down street signs, sawing down telephone poles, opening fire hydrants, disabling streetlights, barricading streets with stolen gates and refuse, dragging tree stumps onto railroad tracks, removing manhole covers, tearing up the boards of wooden sidewalks, smashing storefront windows, holding shopkeepers hostage, unhooking poles from the tops of streetcars, spreading grease on trolley car tracks, putting empty barrels over church steeples, attacking the police, and burning “almost anything they could set afire.” Rogers adds that as the celebration of Halloween started to spread westward, so did these flames. In 1908, anonymous vandals in Belton, Texas burned several freight cars, houses, and 1000 bales of cotton which in total cost the city upwards of $6 million in today’s money, when adjusted for inflation.
Many of these attacks were focused around immobilizing the movement of commerce through the metropolis but specifically, as Rogers observes, “the new symbol of prosperity, the automobile, became the object of destruction. Revelers soaped windows, deflated tires, and at busy intersections unceremoniously ‘bounced’ cars, or rocked them from the back to the discomfort of the passengers.” Skal also notes the class antagonism to be found within these accounts, adding that,
“one report took special notice that a car overturned by a ‘mass attack’ of hoodlums was a ‘sedan of expensive make.’ The stucco of America’s social contract was likewise severely chipped by the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, and in a small way, the customs of Halloween pranking reflected more generalized anxieties about civil unrest.”
Skal goes on to write, in a notable account of multiracial rebellion, that
“on Halloween 1934, the pranks of masked children parading through the streets of Harlem rapidly escalated from harmless flour and ask pelting to rock throwing to automobile vandalism. The police estimated that four hundred youngsters, both black and white, were involved in the various melees, which culminated with a car being heisted and rolled down a fifty-foot embankment in Riverside Park, where its tires were slashed.”
Though it would be pleasant to imagine that these sorts of multiracial conspiracies were common in this period, it should not be surprising that not only was this rare, but actually antithetical to many of Roger’s accounts of non-white participation in these mobs. In fact, three years earlier on Halloween night of 1931, a violent street battle developed between 400 black and white adults on the same streets of Harlem. As urban youth began to materially sabotage the fragile economy, white mob attacks began to develop into larger race riots, and widespread looting overtook the Halloween celebration of the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, it was not to be long before the forces of order would have to once again intervene to restore order to the holiday.
The Taming of Halloween, c. 1945–1960
After three decades of annual insurgency by tireless immigrant youth, it became obvious to authorities that the rebellious spirit of Halloween had to be severed from the holiday once as for all. As Skal writes, “although Halloween never even registered in the national debate, the many local controversies surrounding the holiday echoed much larger political themes about anarchy, order, and wealth distribution.” He continues, citing the accidental death of a young girl (after her dress caught fire from a Jack-o’-Lantern) as another source of public unease regarding Halloween, which,
“to many observers, seemed nothing but an invitation and excuse for social disaster. Fear of a seething underclass was a strong subtext of other reform movements of the early 1930’s; film censorship campaigns, for example, got especially worked up about the Halloweenish content of horror and crime movies, each genre anarchic in it own way. Such entertainments were widely viewed as demoralizing threats to public order, October 31 all year long.”
This particular passage is striking because it likens to the desperate counter-revolutionary concessions of the Roosevelt’s New Deal with the concerted efforts to “civilize” Halloween by police, schools, politicians, churches, and civil groups. While this certainly took on forms of updated strategies from previous centuries – erasure in the form of film censorship, romance as costume balls, parlor games as church lock-ins, and so on – it also presented a newly available option in the post-Depression era: consumption. Rogers explains that “by making Halloween consumer-oriented and infantile, civic and industrial promoters hoped to eliminate its anarchic features. By making it neighborly and familial, they strove to re-appropriate public space from the unorthodox and ruffian and restore social order to the night of 31 October.”
Though there is evidence that Halloween rebels were being bought off with candy as early as 1920, it is not until after the Halloween unrest of the mid-1930’s and post-WW2 production boom that we begin to see trick-or-treat being explicitly promoted as a tangible solution to restore order to the reviled holiday.
The precise origins of the tradition itself are disputed by some historians, but many agree that it partially arose from Depression-era “house-to-house parties” that some neighbors would co-operatively host on Halloween to save money. Morton notes that one of the first national mentions of the term “trick-or-treat” can be found in a 1939 article entitled A Victim of the Window Soaping Brigage?, which specifically names the practice as “a method of subverting rowdy pranking.”
“Whatever its specific sources, inspirations, or influences,” writes Skal, trick-of-treating “became widely known and adopted as a distinct property protection strategy during the late Depression.” However, he continues,
“it is the postwar years that are generally regarded as the glorious heyday of trick-or-treating. Like the consumer economy, Halloween itself grew by leaps and bounds. Major candy companies like Curtiss and Brach, no longer constrained by sugar rationing, launched national advertising campaigns specifically aimed at Halloween. […] The begging ritual was modeled for millions of youngsters in the early fifties by Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie in Disney’s animated cartoon ‘Trick or Treat,’ accompanied by a catchy, reinforcing song of the same title.”
In addition to promoting trick-or-treat as a subtle alternative, Rogers also cites this specific Donald Duck cartoon as a propaganda piece critical for “the taming of Halloween,” explaining that “rather than experience real-life shenanigans, children could find them in a Walt Disney cartoon.” By the late 1950’s the enmity that had come to define October 31st had been almost completely supplanted with a fabricated ethic of consumption, whether in the form of candy or experiences. This “generation by models of a real without origin or reality,” as Jean Baudrillard conceived of a hyperreality, was apparently so effective that one police sergeant in Los Angeles publicly expressed his confusion about the disappearance of teenage rebels after an oddly peaceful Halloween in 1959.
Of course, these measures were not applied uniformly across the entire continent, and in some places the destruction previously associated with Halloween were simply displaced to the day before, on October 30th. As Rogers recorded of an older man’s prouds remarks of his boyhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, “there was only mischief. The adult world could not buy us off with candy or shiny pennies. They didn’t even try.” In these small pockets of lingering mischief, particularly in the newly developed suburbs of the period, the vandalism took on a decidedly less class-conscious tone, reverting to a previous form of pranks that targeted “unpopular” or stingy neighbors by smashing their pumpkins or stealing their gate. And because of their relative isolation to one another, many of the areas developed hyper-localized terms for their own sports, like Vermont’s Cabbage Night, Montreal’s Mat Night, upstate New York’s Gate Night, New Jersey’s Mischief Night, and Detroit’s infamous Devil’s Night.
The Demonization of Halloween, c. 1967-Present
On July 23rd, 1967, after the police raided a party for two returning Vietnam GIs at an illegal speakeasy on the Near West Side of Detroit, crowds made up mostly of black residents soon gathered outside and began throwing bottles and stones in retaliation. The police were forced to retreat and the remaining crowd quickly seized the opportunity to pillage a nearby clothing store. The incident quickly widened into full-scale looting throughout the entire neighborhood. Sidney Fine, in his book Violence in the Model City, recorded accounts from witnesses that described this moment as possessing a “carnival atmosphere” of multiracial looting, in which the police were totally outnumbered and were forced to watch this “gleefulness in throwing stuff and getting stuff out of buildings” from a careful distance. By the next afternoon, the first fire had been set at a nearly grocery store and a small mob blocked a firetruck from putting out the flames. According to historian Herb Colling, the local media initially refused to report on the unrest for fear of it spreading to other parts of the city, but the unavoidable smoke of a burning Detroit soon began to fill the city’s skyline.
Over the next 24 hours, the fires and looting spread across the entire city targeting both black and white-owned businesses, notably resulting in 38 handguns and 2,498 rifles being appropriated by the rebels. In response, President Johnson was forced to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 that could authorize the use federal troops to put down an insurrection against the U.S. Government. Beginning at 1:30am on July 25th, over 8000 Michigan Army National Guardsman and 4700 U.S. Army paratroopers descended upon the city to violently put down the uprising. In the following three days, countless horrors of brutality, sexual assault, and assassination were visited upon those who continued to fight against the forces of order.
By July 28th, after the last fire has been set, the troops began to slowly withdraw from the city and authorities began to survey the damage. All told, the five-day period between July 23-28 resulted in 2509 stores being looted or burned, 7231 arrests, 1189 injuries, and 43 deaths, 33 of whom were black residents. Unlike the 1943 Detroit race riot, however, observers noted a high participation of white residents in looting stores, setting fires, and sniping cops which raised questions about whether the uprising could be simply categorized as a ‘race riot.’ The Great Rebellion, as it came to be known instead, set off a wave of unrest that would continue to spread to over two dozen cities and return to Detroit the following year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is following this period of social upheaval and counterinsurgency that one finds the development of a diffuse anxiety within the white population over “inner city issues,” and their subsequent mass exodus to the suburban peripheries, later known as white flight. In these shiny new refugee camps for the white middle class, an alienating fear of the Other lingered and would soon prove to be a death knell for trick-or-treat, one of their children’s last remaining sources of autonomy and comradery outside the family unit. Much in the way that authorities were forced to suppress the mischief they initially promoted in place of unbridled revolt, they now found themselves losing control over the unrestrained throngs of begging children that they created to replace the uncontrollable vandals before them. As Morton argues:
“Given trick or treat’s almost universal suburban popularity, its emphasis on representation of outsiders, and the way it empowered its participants, it was perhaps inevitable that trick or treat was about to experience a backlash. Adults, it seemed, were unwilling to grant their children that power after all. In 1964, a New York housewife named Helen Pfeil was upset at the number of trick or treaters whom she thought were too old to be demanding candy and handed them packages of dog biscuits, poisonous ant buttons, and steel wool. Within three years, the urban legend of children being given apples with hidden razor blades surfaced, and parents began to worry about Halloween.”
Though only two deaths (both of which were later attributed to family members) and a small number of injuries were reported over two decades of “Halloween sadism,” the media was quick to portray the holiday as rife with poison, satanic cults, and stranger danger. As one 1975 Newsweek article leading up to Halloween claimed,
“If this year’s Halloween follows form, a few children will return home with something more than just an upset tummy: in recent years, several children have died and hundreds have narrowly escaped injury from razor blades, sewing needles and shards of glass purposefully put into their goodies by adults.”
Civic groups and churches again rushed to this opportunity for a decisive social enclosure, that is, of removing youth from the street once and for all. Across the continent, thousands of “alternatives to trick-or-treating” were suddenly being hosted at shopping malls, museums, zoos, schools, spook houses, and community centers while some hospitals continued to reinforce the paranoia of Halloween sadism by offering to x-ray the die-hard trick-or-treaters’ candy for dangerous metal objects.
These “tales of Halloween sadism,” Rogers eloquently argues,
“were measured against the vision of a stable, congenital decade of trick-or-treating in the 1950’s. This was a decade of Cold War politics and Red scares. Yet beyond the zone of leftist agitation, it was also a decade of relative social peace, of continuing baby boom, of consumer affluence and suburban development. The 1960’s and 1970’s, however, posed new challenges to the social and political fabric of the United States. This was the era of civil rights agitation, of urban ghetto riots, of student and antiwar protest, of youth countercultures, of feminism and gay liberation, of Watergate. In the South, African-Americans defeated Jim Crow, but in the North they faced de facto resegregation as whites fled to the suburbs in the wake of rioting in Watts, Newark, and Detroit.”
Within five years of The Great Rebellion, the composition of Detroit’s population had completely changed, producing a majority black inner city ringed by a hostile periphery of white suburbs. “In the aftermath of the riot,” As Ze’ev Chafets explains in his once controversial 1990 book Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit, “Detroit became the national capital of disingenuous surprise. People suddenly discovered what should have been obvious – that beyond the glittering downtown, the leafy neighborhoods, the whirring computers, there was another city: poor, black, and angry” that “seethes with the resentments of postcolonial Africa.” This comparison was clearly not lost on those who would soon be tasked with recycling counterinsurgency measures developed against anti-colonial uprisings to be used against a new form of annual black insurgency – that of Devil’s Night.
Although 1983 is widely recognized as the official beginning of Devil’s Night because of its dramatic increase in dumpster fires, there is evidence to suggest that there was an already low-level insurgency associated with Halloween dating back to at least 1979 and, conceivably, to 1967 itself. It was only in 1984, probably due to a combination of the widespread media hype of the 1983 arsons and the World Series victory by the Detroit Tigers on October 31st, that there was a marked increase in building fires. With over 297 fires on October 30th alone, 1984’s Halloween season set the high water mark for destruction with “the worst fire scenes I’ve seen since the riots of 1967,” according to a former Detroit Fire Department chief.
This last statement should also not be overlooked, because within it is a glimpse of authorities’ conceptual framework for viewing Devil’s Night – that is, not as an isolated incident, but as an aftershock of The Great Rebellion that rivaled its destruction and, therefore, should be eligible for the same levels of counterinsurgency. But to do would require more than just a single comparison; it would require resorting to racist and supernatural tropes to target an opaque and population that had long been mystified the white population. Much in the same way that the witch was manufactured to target a heterogeneous population with the figure of a supernatural, life-stealing Other, the figure of the Devil had also been revived to literally demonize the insurgent black youth of Detroit. According to Carole Nagengast’s Violence, Terror, and the Crisis of the State, “the goal of state violence is not to inflict pain; it is the social project of creating punishable categories of people.”
Though many residents and politicians speculated about the circumstances that produced the widespread arson of 1984, David Skal notes that the influential Detroit Free Press newspaper noticeably avoided any sociological analysis in the months after, instead favoring a “law-and-order approach to Halloween Eve arson and crime, including gun control, aggressive prosecution, and more jail cells.” According to the authors of an enlightening research paper entitled Preventing Halloween Arson in an Urban Setting, it was the following that Mayor Coleman Young then created a “Devil’s Night Task Force,” tasked with goals of “reduced arson, raised community awareness, and increased involvement in the fight against arson” over the next decade. Each spring, appointees from the mayor’s office, Detroit Neighborhood City Halls, city departments (including public health, fire, police, youth, public lighting, law, recreation, information technology, planning, among others), community organizations, churches, public schools, and the private sector would convene to begin creating strategies based on insights gleaned from previous years.
With these in hand, fire and police officials from each neighborhood would collaborate with neighborhood snitches and influential clergy to create “decentralized action plans” to enact a larger eight point, city-wide strategy: Deployment of Public Safety Personnel, by means of mobilizing all available police, firefighters, and helicopters; The Elimination of Arson Targets by means of towing abandoned cars, removing tires from dumping sites, and demolishing thousands of vacant homes and buildings; Volunteer Training by means of offered orientations to Adopt-A-House volunteers who wanted to guard abandoned buildings or Neighborhood Patrols who wanted to seek out arsonists on foot; Media and Communications by means of an aggressive PR campaign to convey “the dangers of arson”; Activities for Children and Teenagers by means of church and city-sponsored movie marathons, dances, carnivals, etc.; Youth Curfew in the form of a 6pm curfew for those under 18, whose violators would face expedited processing at temporary nighttime courtrooms; and Prohibition on the Sale of Fuel by means of criminalizing the sale of dispensing of gasoline into portable containers.
In each of these eight headlines, we can find almost perfectly mirrored strategies depicted in Kristian Williams’ essay The Other Side of COIN, many of which he directly cited from U.S. Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency and British brigadier Frank Kitson’s strategies against anti-colonial movements in Kenya, Cypress, and Northern Ireland. Of particular significance to many of these strategies is the goal of “monopolizing the use of force” and establish legitimacy in doing so, which the Army field manual asserts as “the main objective.” One can particularly see this in the conflicting strategy of guarding and demolishing abandoned homes, a clearly desperately attempt to re-establish control over a territory that had subverted its monopoly on destruction by self-immolating. As part of maintaining its fragile legitimacy, however, the city couldn’t simply call in the National Guard again; instead it had to source its army from the remaining loyal segments of the city’s population to do its bidding. This “Halloween anti-arson intervention,” when viewed through Williams’ simple equation reveals its obvious and undeniable nature: Community Policing + Militarization = Counterinsurgency.
Between 1985-1996, largely by means of these counterinsurgency strategies and anti-gang initiatives, the city of Detroit was able to considerably reduce Halloween-time arson within the city. Though it is tempting to conclude that this may have been the moment when the rebellious spirit of Halloween was finally killed, to do so would deny the almost constant low-intensity insurgency that remained and would later spread to other cities like Camden and Cincinnati. In 1994, after the new mayor of Detroit publicly declared the death of Devil’s Night and mobilized a significantly smaller number of citizen patrols, the numbers of arsons dramatically rose, forcing him to mobilize an army of 30,000 “Angel’s Night” volunteers the following October. Given this constant obligation to douse its flames, perhaps we should not speak of the death of Halloween, but instead, its temporary imprisonment.
But if the history presented here is any indication, moments of disorder are not only unpredictable but evasive by their very nature of disrupting of linear time and ordered space. As the rare moments of social peace between upheavals become ever shorter and the fires of Detroit blends into Camden and Ferguson’s into Baltimore, it’s possible to conceive of the spirit of Halloween returning not as a discrete moment in October, but, in the words of one old revolutionary, “a holiday without beginning or end.”
October 31, all year round.
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