Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What is anti-fascism?

The word "antifa" - not so long ago an arcane term in English, used mainly by anarchists to refer to a very specific form of militant anti-fascism that comes out of the German autonomist tradition - has, in the age of Trump, become a widely used, but also widely misunderstood and misused term. The right has done most to popularise the term. For them, "antifa" (often illustrated by fake pictures) are the "real fascists", because they cover their faces and advocate violence.

Liberals, centrists and smart anti-Trump neocons have jumped on the same bandwagon, arguing that antifa are at least just as bad as the alt-right. Meanwhile, over on the brosocialist dirtbag/Salon/Baffler/Intercept edge of the (alt-?)left, anti-fascists are condemned for attacking Trump and the alt-right when, as we all should know, the real problem is Hillary Clinton and centrism (some examples documented by Comrade Motopu here). Most recently, ageing celebrity anarchist professor Noam Chomsky has weighed in, condemning antifa as a gift to the right and bizarrely equating it to the New Left terrorist cell the Weather Underground (see this excellent critique from libcom here).

The sudden interest in anti-fascism in general and antifa in particular has driven a spike in clicks on - and frenzy of edits to - the Wikipedia pages about these topics. I started contributing to the editing there, but it's a bit too confusing, so I thought I'd write this instead.


First, anti-fascism is something more specific than opposition to fascism.

The term "fascism", in our broad culture, has become almost meaningless. When everyone calls whoever they like least a "fascist", opposition to fascism is the mainstream ideological norm, but tells you nothing. Anti-fascists, in contrast, are obsessive about precision in defining and understanding fascism, in limiting its meaning. (Six months ago, I gave some pointers to that effort here.)

Anti-fascism, although not homogeneous, is a movement with a commitment to a particular body of ideas; it has a specific body of traditions, a specific literature, a distinct genealogy.


Second, anti-fascism cannot be reduced to antifa.

Antifa, in my view, should be seen as a specific current within militant anti-fascism. Militant anti-fascism has many sources and has had many manifestations over the years. In the UK, which I'm most familiar with, that runs from the Battle of Cable Street to the 43 Group to the 62 Group to the  Battle of Lewisham to Anti-Fascist Action and beyond. (This recent AK book is about their story, and also about the parallels in other countries.) The "antifa" current - although its history is longer than is often realised - is just a chapter in this larger narrative.

Militant anti-fascism is defined primarily by its willingness to physically resist fascism - but it is not a form of thrill-seeking adventurism. It takes violence seriously and does not resort to it lightly. And militant anti-fascists always engage in ideological struggle against fascism as well as physical force. If you're criticising individual thugs who beat up random strangers for next to no reason, you're not criticising anti-fascists, you're criticising individual thugs who think it gives them licence for their thuggery.

And militant anti-fascism is itself only one of the main forms anti-fascism has taken, alongside liberal anti-fascism. (Liberal anti-fascism is exemplified by figures such as Benedetto Croce, Primo Levi and Norberto Bobbio.) There are also examples of conservative anti-fascists, such as the group of anti-appeasement Tories, some associated with the Spectator magazine, who chose in 1938 to work with Communists and anti-Munich Labour politicians such as A.D. Lindsay rather than their own party leadership. And there has also been Christian anti-fascism and feminist anti-fascism.


How, then, can we describe this diverse but distinct thing, anti-fascism? Thanks to Doug Weller for the following quotes from Christopher Vials' 2014 Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States on what he calls "American antifascism", which capture it well:
Though the variants of American antifascism are many, it generally posits fascism as a force slumbering in the very bones of all modern nations, a menace that arises as reactionary social movements create vast public spaces for those who overidentify with the dominant hierarchies. Though originating in the 1930s, it has changed shape over time to meet new historical conditions and has resisted full incorporation into the celebratory narratives of the Greatest Generation and the American way."
Vials also mentions briefly the attempt (which I would think of as analogous to the regressive left's equation of conservatives such as George Bush with Hitler) by groups such as the Tea Party to label the left as fascist or George Bush conflating Saddam with Hitler: "The fundamental novelty of recent rightist meldings of Hitler and Obama is their place in the cultural field: they are heard more loudly because left-wing antifascism has diminished in volume as the social movements that produced and sustained it recede from memory." Recovering that memory is therefore urgent.

Weller says Vials discusses the American anti-fascism (as opposed to Communist antifascism) of Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, which drew on  the antiifascist tradition "as a frame to interpret populist, right-wing nationalism". Vials writes that:
Antifascism in the sense I use the term does not refer to just any aversion to Nazis, Blackshirts, and their perceived American equivalents. The antifascism I trace is a more specific modality, more familiar to Europeans than to North Americans, marked off from other rejections of fascism by its intensity and historicity. By intensity I mean it is not a reflex aversion, nor does it use fascist as a casual slur. 
For antifascists, fascism is not one problem among many but a force so menacing and so present that it requires concentrated effort to check. It is an urgency that inspires the creation of serious, detailed cultural work aimed at revealing its social bases and possible sites of emergence in civil society. And what I call antifascism possesses historicity in the sense that it comes within range of accurately identifying its target."
The historian Dan Stone makes a related argument in his account of anti-Stalinist German and Italian exiles in Britain in the 1930s, such as Aurel Kolnai, Franz Borkenau and Sebastian Haffner, whose sharp, experience-honed understanding of continental fascism helped, via platforms like the Left Book Club, to shape British militant and liberal anti-fascism.


Anti-fascism has been at times co-opted by Stalinism (although at various points in its history Stalinism actively collaborated with the Nazis - see this thread on Twitter and the pplswar thread it links to). This enables conservatives, liberals and centrists to equate anti-fascism with totalitarianism and fascism itself.

Heterodox Marxist historian Enzo Traverso rejects this equation carefully, as quoted here by Alan Wald:
“It is certainly possible to criticize the intellectuals who maintained the myth of the USSR for having lied to themselves and contributed to deceiving the antifascist movement, making themselves propagandists for a totalitarian regime instead of the antifascist movement’s critical conscience.”... Acutely conscious that an amnesiac socialist tradition is a fragile one, Traverso makes no bones about affirming that, even in the mid-1930s, “it was possible to be both antifascist and anti-Stalinist, and that the fascination exercised by Stalinism at this time over the antifascist intelligentsia was not irresistible.” (267)
Retrieving the anti-fascist tradition requires a reckoning with this complex enmeshing - neither shrugging it off (as too many on the left do), nor using it to dismiss the anti-fascist legacy.


Finally, a caveat: as my friend Jim Wald pointed out, the potential danger in drawing too close a line between today's anti-fascists and those of some earlier periods is that it can glamourise the contemporary far right, who are far less significant than the fascists of yesteryear. Despite the undeniable rise and increasing boldness of the far right in recent years, I really don't think we are in some kind of 1938 scenario. However, it is wrong to think of the old fascists as somehow "real" and the new ones as somehow "not real". Today's fascists are not on the verge of power - but they are a real and present danger.