“A demand that radicals tell the truth”: on three way fight politics and why it matters

Abstract painting with triangle composed of multiple shapes in different colors against a blue-green background

Interview with rowan

Editor’s note: This interview with a friend of the Three Way Fight project was conducted during the run up to the November 2020 election. Rowan lives in Portland Oregon where they parent a young daughter. They have participated in left wing politics and social movements since the late 1990s, and have complicated feelings about it.

3WF: Please tell us something about your political background and how you came to be interested in three way fight politics.

Rowan: I got politicized as a teenager through the anarchist punk rock scene in the 1990s. In 2000 I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I was active in the local post Seattle anti-authoritarian radical scene. Following September 11th, 2001, I was involved in trying to build a radical anti-imperialist pole in the anti-war movement. From 2003 until its dissolution in 2012, I was a member of Bring the Ruckus, a national political organization that sought to develop and implement revolutionary politics and that fought white supremacy as central to the fight against capitalism and oppression. From 2004 until 2012 I was a member of a local copwatch organization that engaged in training folks about their rights, cop watching, participating in protests, and developing a police abolitionist politics.

I think I first encountered the three way fight political perspective when Don Hamerquist and J. Sakai’s book Confronting Fascism came out in 2002. Some folks from Chicago Anti-Racist Action actually ended up doing an event out here where they talked to local activists about the book. That was probably how I was introduced to this political framework.

Several of my political mentors were radical men who had participated in driving neo-nazi skinhead gangs out of Portland in the early 1990s. As a result, anti-fascism has been a central part of my political landscape throughout my adult life. I’ve been involved in various mobilizations against the far right throughout the 2000s and early 2010s.

Bring the Ruckus, the national “revolutionary cadre” group I participated in, was one of the proponents of a kind of three way fight politic. We applied this framework to international questions in the context of the “war on terror” and increasingly also to US politics as the Portland local prioritized anti-fascist work. Veterans of the Sojourner Truth Organization were a significant influence on our thinking and debates, and while there were real differences around the priority of anti-fascist organizing, we generally agreed with the perspective that fascism was an autonomous political threat and not merely a strategy of the ruling class. Since that time of my membership in Bring the Ruckus and my high level of political activity, I’ve become a parent and stepped back some from political engagement, but the importance of three way fight politics and the struggle against right-wing violence has only become more urgent.

3WF: What does a three way fight approach mean to you? What do you find most significant or helpful about it?

Rowan: In many ways what feels important about the three way fight perspective is as much about how we do politics as it is about the particular content of those political positions. As much as the three way fight is an intellectual orientation, it feels like in some ways an ethical stance toward political struggle. Amilcar Cabral, in the anti-colonial struggle in Guinea-Bissau, urged his comrades to “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” Similarly, the three way fight asks us to forsake triumphalist sloganeering and to instead engage in sober analysis and face difficult and uncomfortable truths about the world.

Too often “radical left” politics in the US consists of platitudes and posturing. Fascism has functioned as a nasty word we call folks we don’t like, and “strategic analysis” is whatever set of slogans makes us feel righteous. Too often in the interests of simplicity we argue that “cops and klan” are always “hand in hand,” that all of our enemies are the same enemy. It is incredibly attractive to believe that the world is neatly divided with bad guys on one side representing oppression and exploitation, racism, patriarchy, bigotry, empire, and fascism, and good guys on the other representing liberation, feminism, decolonization, and a free society.

Perhaps the most important thing to me about the three way fight approach was that it was a demand that radicals tell the truth.

This orientation toward truth and humility also asks us to take our enemies seriously in ways that we often fail to do. We must not only pay attention to our enemies (both state and fascist) strength, but also listen to and learn from what they say about themselves and the world. A lot of the time it feels like radical analyses of the far right just start from the assumption that they’re lying. Thus, when folks on the right oppose economic exploitation of the working class, prioritize ecology and defending the earth, or even oppose white supremacy, leftists often dismiss these as lies or attempts to trick people. The three way fight perspective helps us to listen, to be open to the possibility that they speak the truth about their visions, and to recognize that our enemies are complex, which makes them all the more dangerous as we struggle to defeat them.

The three way fight perspective also helps radical leftists to critique ourselves and sharpen our political perspectives. I certainly think that any kind of horseshoe theory that equates “extremism” on the left and right should be rejected. That said, I do think that three way fight politics can help us see the potential ways that radicals can betray our own political commitments to liberation.

In recognizing that the right often is critical of the neoliberal global order of inequality and exploitation (for its own reasons), we can see the overlaps that do exist between the politics of the far left and right. This recognition can help us clarify how our own (liberatory anarchist/communist/etc.) critiques of capitalist civilization contrast with those of our rebellious enemies. From anti-Zionism that singles out Israel for its Jewishness, to eco radicalism that is disdainful of the survival of vulnerable people to Stalinist anti-imperialisms that fetishize militarism and nationalism, to populisms that celebrate the forgotten “common people” in opposition to parasitic metropolitan elites, leftist talking points can if we’re not careful echo those of the right. By recognizing and combating this danger we can strengthen our movements and develop perspectives and visions that point more clearly to a free world.

On the other hand, three way fight politics stands in uncompromising opposition to official society and the dominant order. We must reject, and distance ourselves from any kind of official “anti-fascism” that serves to defend this murderous system from its enemies on the right. Anti-fascist politics that fail to break with and oppose capitalist civilization too often serving as the foot soldiers or private investigators on behalf of power. This not only fails to fight against exploitation and for a better world, but actually serves the fascists by proving their narrative that they are the true rebels against this wretched order.

3WF: What do you think three way fight politics offers that the U.S. left needs? Are there particular issues or struggles where you see this approach as particularly important?

Rowan: When the three way fight perspective emerged out of the experiences of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements of the early 2000s, few on the radical left saw anti-fascism as being at the center of their perspective.

It’s my sense that the current historical moment is a terrifying validation of this perspective. Leaving aside semantic battles over whether Trumpism is fascist, it does seem clear that we are seeing the emergence of right-wing movements that speak to the crisis of capitalist civilization.

What feels important right now is to understand that the escalating conflicts that we are witnessing and participating in are not static or permanent, but instead are evolving aspects of an unfolding historical process. We can debate all day about whether Trump is a fascist or just a particularly unpleasant Republican, whether he’s system loyal, system oppositional, or just self loyal. These attempts to understand the current terrain and array of forces are of course incredibly important. However, it’s also important to recognize that the current terrain and forces are not permanent, but shifting. What if we are in fact in the early stages of a period of instability, polarization, and escalating violence and upheaval. Trump, rather than being our period’s Mussolini, may be one of the conditions that shapes the horrors to come.

It seems likely to me that the right that is today storming capitals, street fighting with anti-fascists, and plotting to kidnap governors, may well look tame and sweet in comparison to the right-wing movements to come. The obvious possibility is that the right (or sections of it) may coalesce around leaders who are master strategists and cunning political thinkers as opposed to Donald Trump’s clownish narcissism. Also of concern is the possibility that participants and leaders of the right to come may be drawn not only from their traditional bases, but also from folks who are currently on the left but become disillusioned, or that even entire sections of the current “left” may be won over to alliances with and participation in right-wing social movements. Thinking through the potential convergences between left and right is for us not a liberal opposition to extremism, but rather an attempt to sharpen the liberatory content of our own extremism in opposition to both official society and its supremacist enemies.

3WF: Have you witnessed or experienced examples of people applying three way fight politics in concrete political situations?

Rowan: I certainly feel like Portland right now is a place where we are absolutely watching a three way fight play out. Portland has a dynamic and inspiring radical left that has been confronting Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys in the streets for years. Over the summer radicals took to the streets to engage in mass and militant action in defense of Black lives and in opposition to police violence, gentrification, and heavy handed federal interventions by the Trump regime. While I wasn’t able to be very involved in the uprising in the streets, from where I stand, it definitely looks like radical leftists in Portland have been fighting a three way fight against multiple enemies. On the one hand the movement has targeted, and faced repression from, Mayor Ted Wheeler, a neoliberal who serves the interests of developers and real estate interests, and oversees the brutal and racist Portland Police Bureau. On the other hand, right-wing groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys have engaged in street violence against the left, often motivated by loyalty to Trump and opposition to liberal elites like Wheeler. Wheeler’s (and the police’s) hostility toward the left is understood by some as him siding with the far right. Three way fight politics allows us to understand the possibility that instead we face multiple enemies contending for power and influence with competing visions. It may not be a pretty or comforting reality, but only by facing reality can we organize to win.

On a larger scale I think that US politics in general right now is taking the form of a three way fight between an emerging radical left (consisting of rebels for Black lives, “antifa,” folks engaged in mutual aid efforts, and some electorally oriented socialists), the defenders of the collapsing neoliberal status quo (Biden and the Democrats), and a diverse far right, which in recent years has often but certainly not been always oriented around loyalty to Trump. The contending visions of these forces are expressed in many ways, including through their approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic. The right is engaged in straight up denialism whether suggesting the virus is a hoax or conspiracy, and violently opposing public health interventions like masks or shutting down some businesses. Meanwhile, the centrists and liberals have largely settled for some minimal economic shutdowns, but mostly a campaign of public shaming and blaming of individuals who don’t properly engage in social distancing in their personal lives. They demand we go to work and face immense risks in workplaces and prisons), but blame us if we go out after work. Finally, we on the left need to develop a response to this apocalypse (and those to come) rooted in mutual aid, radical solidarity, and a recognition of our interdependence. This response includes mutual aid to help those thrown into crisis, organizing by nurses, teachers, and other “essential workers,” and perhaps even some demands on the state backed by militant action and organizing rooted among the communities most vulnerable to this genocidal pandemic and their allies.

3WF: Do you see problems or limitations with three way fight politics? Issues it could do a better job with?

Rowan: Three way fight politics is essential for developing a revolutionary left that can both fight and think to win. But this framework is, of course, useful as a tool, not as a dogma. There is always a danger of applying any categorization in vulgar and mechanical ways that can actually undermine our critical thinking. In the case of the three way fight politics, this might potentially mean assuming that any political struggle must have only three sides that fit with the predetermined theory. Trumpist right-wing militant patriots, right-wing Islamist guerrillas, and authoritarian anti-imperialist governments may all be both our enemies and the enemies of the neoliberal imperialist order, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all part of the same political pole. Our politics is one that seeks to grapple with complexity and nuance in order to tell the truth to understand the world to win liberation. Any theory or framework can end up being an obstacle to that. 

Image credit:

 Wassily Kandinsky, Multi Colored Triangle, 1927, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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