Its no secret that the taxonomical spread of the American far right is longing for an apocalyptic confrontation with antifa. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, like Louise Mensch and her agents of Russian influence, they see antifa everywhere. This is developing into an obsession. They think about antifa at the shooting range. They think about antifa at the gym. The nazis overestimate antifa, the antifa overestimate the nazis, and a general ratcheting up occurs until some moron fires the first shot. Large scale conflicts and civil wars often creep up this way, insidiously, everybody waiting for John Brown to pop out of the bushes and “accelerate the contradictions.” Fire the first shot of the race war, BABY!
It has been bizarre to watch the American right discover and latch onto antifa in the past two years, as if they actually understood it or its premises. To hear Trump shout Aunttttieee-fa! with stank on his breath at a Phoenix rally and listen to the crowd of several thousand previously-normal suburban Republicans go wild, it’s hallucionagenic. For most previous presidential administrations, anarchists were a mosquito-like annoyance to be left to the police, but the Europe-watchers at Breitbart have imported that most "cosmopolitan" of European phenomenons across the pond and now Trump is talking about “black clad goons.”
Antifa as a thing on the US left is also a relatively new development. In the long hangover between the WTO riots of Seattle and Occupy, only a small clique talked about antifa; those that did were largely expats returned from extended European squatter vacations with mullets and St. Pauli t-shirts. Last August, 350,000 people signed a Whitehouse.gov petition calling for antifa to be re-classed as a terrorist organization. Politico has published a report citing anonymous sources that claims the Department of Homeland Security quietly put antifa on a domestic terror watch-list during the 2016 presidential campaign. About a year ago, a monument in Wisconsin to the republican volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, was graffiti’d with Antifa Sucks, Trump Rules and swastikas.
Antifa has no reliable social base. In spite of all the videos and memes and the suddenly-fascism-obsessed Trump Resistance, they are self-marginalized, making them an easy scapegoat for an administration that has fought an uphill battle in their efforts to squeeze other groups.
Since Trump’s victory, we live in a golden age for totalitarianism experts. Previously-hermetic fascism scholars and commentators have been mainstreamed as sought-after public intellectuals and cable talking heads. Liberal commentators now casually debate the Weimar Republic and the abortive Spartacist uprising with red-rose DSA avatars on Twitter.
Into this sewer, this state of social sepsis, enter Dartmouth antifa scholar and former Occupy organizer Mark Bray. After the riots in Berkeley and Charlottesville, the liberals badly needed someone to explain antifa for them. The antifa, of course, were unwilling to do this themselves. As a telegenic young lecturer with Ivy credentials and a perfectly timed book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, he was tapped by the producers to be the Official-Antifa-Whisperer. As both an ethnographer of the faction and a true believer himself, he offered a glimpse into the thrilling subculture of masked heroes, ‘brickbats’ and rationalized nazi-punching. He took on the unenviable task of explaining the motives of a media-allergic tendency to the liberal commentariat.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single expert appear and debate and be interviewed on such a wide range of media platforms in such a short amount of time. Bray performed his duties as unofficial antifa-spokesman admirably, sparring with skeptical magazine editors and pundits. The discourse around antifa’s tactics has been predictably binary, basically a re-hashing of the “black bloc anarchist” debate under a new names. Now that we live under “fascism” there’s a bit more public sympathy for “resistance.” Still, little interesting gets said and the bulk of commentary falls into two categories: condescending liberal pedantry (There’s no excuse for violence, the Civil Rights movement is a preferable model, these people are not representative) or dyed-in-the-wool triumphalism (brave antifa! brave nazi-punchers! Remember the Battle of Cabal Street!) “No platforming” is what the most vocal and angry ultra-radical faction are into, so who the hell are we to criticize the stupid things they do? Diversity of tactics!
There is nothing liberals like more than being explained a previously-unknown underground culture or tendency by an insider; they feel like they are getting in early on the Next Big Thing. And liberal public opinion compulsively assumes that whatever the telegenic young ultra-radicals have coming down the pipe must be cool new thing, must be correct, because its new and exciting. The ultras, being the youngest and farthest to the left, and most vocal, are automatically assumed to have the coolest and most exciting analysis.
Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook is intended as a breezy historical primer for the uninitiated, who want to brush up on the origins and rationale behind antifa. Anti-fascism before 1945 is given a quick gloss, while the bulk of the book is dedicated to a lower-frequencies oral history of the subcultural skirmishes between the international, mostly Western-European antifa and neo-nazis since the 1970s. Even for someone familiar with the concepts and history, it is interesting to watch and read Bray, for how he so studiously toes the antifa line. There of course is no “official” antifa line, but you basically already know what it is: present antifa as a “self-defense” vanguard for marginalized people (using the relative diversity within coastal, insurrectionary anarchist circles to claim antifa speaks for the subaltern), explain and rationalize their tactical decisions or lack thereof. If there is an argument to be had, it is probably with a strawman non-violent liberal rambling on about Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and democratic norms. When all else fails, just shrug and say: its autonomous, no one is in control, mistakes get made because people are angry.
Bray claims that antifa’s hyper-vigilance springs from the fact that they’re aware that many leading fascists started out as laughable, marginal figures and they want to to reckon with them while they’re still in utero.
He also fetishizes the noble left-wing failure: Occupy, Paris 1968, Italy’s Autonomia, the banlieue riots, the periodic militant solar flares bursting out from Athens’ anarchist-controlled neighborhoods. The anecdotes and stories all follow a similar utopian story arc: some brave, autonomous souls in Italy, Germany, Utah, or Indiana anti-racists got together in their city and violently resisted fascists in the streets. By putting undecided local people into a polarizing situation, they even garnered a modicum of support from local shopkeepers and youths, who joined in the throwing of cobblestones and dumping of chamber pots. Then, they melted back into the alleyways and punk clubs, having driven the neo-nazi scourge back into their hives of villainy. Like a good movie plot, it pulls the heartstrings and checks all the boxes that make you feel good.
Then, a brief, muttered footnote, like the ultra-fine-print at the bottom of a contract: The far-right actually temporarily harvested political gains from the aforementioned action or endeavor. The aftermath and success of these fleeting nazi-bashings isn’t seriously analyzed or reflected upon because the unpleasant truth is that it made fascists stronger. Oh well, onto the next barricade.
For many people with faith in antifa and nazi-punching, there is a premise that reactionary hate is a nearly protean force—it periodically rises inexplicably in society, like a malignant tumor, and the job of antifa is to be the white blood cells that put it down before it spreads. “How many murderous fascist movements have been nipped in the bud over the past seventy years by antifa groups before their violence could metastasize? We will never know,” he writes, with enviable optimism. This argument smudges and blots out the fact that reaction can be spurred forward by the political and strategic failures of the left.
Small groups of punks and skinheads beating and stabbing each other outside of Utah punk clubs in the 90s is interesting to me personally, but in this time of great political earthquakes and re-alignments, should the small and obscure be focused on and reified in such a way? The little skirmishes between pro-nazi punks and anti-fascist anarchists of the last 30 years are the faint burning embers and smoke in the aftermath of a great conflagration. It is unfortunate that Bray breezes so quickly over the most important period of anti-fascism, the 1930s and 1940s—when the stakes were the highest and anti-fascism ascended to the level of mass armed guerilla resistance and in certain countries was made official state ideology.
Fascism emerged in direct response to the tsunami of revolutionary ardor after the success of the Bolshevik revolution. All roads to fascism lead back to a panicked desperation of desiccated old regime elites, nationalist veterans, and industrialists as they struggled to contain the Soviet bacillus to Eurasia. Its hard to overemphasize the impact the Bolshevik revolution had Western European and American revolutionaries and the fear that must have gripped the hearts of elites when they realized that this problem wouldn’t go away in six months. The Bolsheviks were gambling and spending heavily so that Germany, Italy, Poland, China, Hungary would all overthrow their regimes and the world revolution could link up in the rubble of empires. In 1920, Lenin wrote to Stalin that the “revolution in Italy should be spurred on immediately… Hungary should be Sovietized, and perhaps also the Czech lands, and Romania.”
As Russia fought a grinding civil war and made pushes into Poland and Ukraine, a wave of strikes and uprisings tore across Europe in 1917-1919—the Spartacist uprising, Bienno Rosso in Italy, civil war in Finland, Hungary—it was precisely in this moment that what we know today as ‘fascism’ was born. The Bolsheviks were waiting on German revolutionaries to take over, opening the door to the rest of Europe. Armed young Great War veterans threw themselves into desperately snuffing out their local revolutionists, making inroads with old regime conservatives and industrialists; Social Democrats sold their erstwhile comrades down the river in an attempt to maintain order. Even after the German and Hungarian revolutions were put down with the help of proto-fascist World War I veterans, Lenin kept looking for a door or a window to ignite the Soviet wave in Europe.
Just as there could be no Civil Rights Act without the black power movement, there would be probably be no modern European social democracy or its perverse doppelgänger—corporatist fascism—without the implicit threat of armed communists linking up with the Soviet colossus and taking power. Modern social democracy as we know it emerged directly from big bad Bolshevism banging at the door—suddenly, the industrialists and bosses were willing to share profits, make a class compromise with workers—it wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts, it was heart-rending fear.
Strangely, Bray claims that left-wing violence played no part in the rise of fascism—this is a kind of whitewashing to make the modern antifa a bit more palatable to the faint of heart. Embedded inside of the communist risings was, of course, violence, the threat of violence, expropriation, armed communist bands and reactionary bands were in the streets. Fascists preyed on widespread desire for law and order. When push comes to shove, most average people want peace and stability and aren’t ready to get totally on board with revolutionary left-wing risings—they turn back towards moderates and reactionaries, back toward the warm embrace of comforting stability. Bray claims it wasn’t about left-wing violence, it was about communist electoral success. But fascists fed on both real and perceived fears of armed left-wing violence like yeast feeds on sugar—it was their central plank, their raison d’etre. Desiccated old regime elites and industrialists made a devils bargain and were ultimately outmaneuvered, blackmailed and won over by populist-fascist outsiders. Our populism is your best bet for survival. This was the reasoning and the implicit threat, and its not much different from the way the “good Republicans” are presently being held hostage by the Trump base.
Accordingly, the first partisan fighters and first victims of fascists were not just random citizens, they were communist party members. Other groups were smeared and subject to hate, but weren’t directly targeted and hunted until later, and at first for the reason of being potential communist collaborators.
Fascism and communism were and are bound together in a cycle of action and reaction, that reached its Wagnerian crescendo in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a bloodbath unlike any the world has ever seen. Bray seems to think that part of the image issue antifa face is that people don’t understand they are socialists, communists, and anarchist revolutionaries. This doesn’t give people enough credit. People know what antifa is about behind the “anti-fascism”—they just don’t like it.
Bray’s argument is at its weakest when he mounts a lengthy defense of “no platforming” fascist free speech and against legally restricting hate speech: Why be all worked up about antifa restricting nazi free speech, he seems to be saying, when American history is a history of speech denied to the marginalized. In the space of a couple of pages he goes into a relativistic rabbit-hole of American horrors: COINTELPRO, slavery, Dred Scott, the genocide of Native Americans, the Palmer Raids, Guantanamo Bay, Citizens United, Facebook, corporate control of media…did these not restrict speech? Its not that Bray is wrong. It’s that this argument is as politically unconvincing as going after Christopher Columbus. “America was never great” is almost as bad a rallying cry as “America is already great.”
As Joseph Goebbels’ Brunhilde Pomsel said in a documentary just before she died in 2017: “People nowadays… say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.”
Despite its shortcomings and an overall sense of whitewashing antifa as a knight in shining armor, Bray has done good yeomen work as an educator and popularizer with his books and public appearances. It is all food for thought, and given that the tit-for-tat media and street war between the left and the far-right in America is only growing more polarized, these are important questions to mull over. But the elephant in the living room is avoided: Did it actually do anything or did it just make people feel good? Did it build anything long lasting? Does this hurt or help?*