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.

All emphases in this post are mine.

Recent related posts:
1. On punching fascists
2. A bit more on punching fascists
3. Defining fascism
4. The ethics of punching fascists, continued


In lieu of anything more to add; I send an 'up vote' with thanks.
There are two kinds of fascists: fascists and anti-fascists.
Ennio Flaiano
bob said…
Contentious Centrist-
That quote seems like a complete non-sequitur to me, analogous to Gilad Atzmon's claim that there are two kinds of Zionists, Zionists and anti-Zionists. Anti-fascists are, quite simply, not fascists, any more than anti-communists are communists or anti-feminists are feminists. The quote, if taken seriously, means George Orwell, Abba Kovner, Charles De Gaulle, Hannah Arendt, Hannah Szenes, Winston Churchill, Jean Moulin, the Bielskis and the ŻOB were fascists - an offensive claim
I'm speculating that is because you have a romantic view of anti-fascism which I don't share not having been indoctrinated into any political ideology as a young person.

Flaiano made this statement responding to Italian realities during the 70's:

In May 1974, a bomb exploded during an anti-fascist demonstration in Brescia, killing eight and wounding 102 by a neo-fascist group.

In 1972 the Red Brigade was founded to battle “against the imperialist state of the multinationals.” In 1972 their manifesto was clear “Hit one to educate 100. All power to the armed people.” They were committed to robberies, bombings and kidnappings.

Is there any essential difference between these two groups? They are both infatuated with ideals about radically changing society (that don't want to be changed in this way) and they are both inebriated with the idea of gaining power through sheer violence, terror, intimidation.

Currently self-declared "Anti-Fascist" movements like BLM, ANTIFA and BDS are no different from current fascist movements in their reliance on all-encompassing ideology, disgust with large parts of humanity, expressed goals or means. Intersectionalism, their more recent invention, is the very stuff of which fascism is made of.

The difference in their reception is due to the glory and romance of the historical term 'anti-fascism' which included the people in your list who were opposing real evil apocalyptic forces let loose upon the world during the thirties and forties.

I find your attempt to draw Arendt, George Orwell, Abba Kovner, Charles De Gaulle, Hannah Szenes, Winston Churchill etc into the same (im)moral sphere as the Red Brigade, Baader-Meinhof Group, FARC, Shining path, Abu Nidal, etc etc quite offensive.

Flaiano is quoted in Oriana Fallaci's "The Rage and the Pride," Corriere della Sera,29 September 2001.

I notice that your list of authors and leaders who opposed totalitarian thinking and behaviours didn't include her name, despite her proven record as a resistor of Nazi and Naziesque thinking. How come?
bob said…

Apologies for losing your comment in moderation for a while, and for the slow reply here. I pretty much disagree with every sentence you write here and am not sure where to start.

Is there an essential difference between the Red Brigades and Ordine Nuovo? Both clearly fall under the categories of terrorism and of totalitarianism. But only one falls under the category of fascism. All things that are not fascism are not exonerated from guilt for whatever crimes they commit by virtue of their not being fascists. Fascism has a specific meaning, and the word should be reserved to those who fit its meaning, and not just for all perpetrators of political violence. In blurring all distinctions, I think Flaiano was fundamentally wrong.

(It is worth adding, I think, that in the years of lead, while the terrorists of the right and the terrorists of the left were indeed morally equivalent, they were not symmetrically balanced: the terrorists of the right, who had a far higher death toll in the Anni di Piombo, had the active support of the Italian state (and of the US state), which is why the Brescia bombers have not properly faced justice, while the both guilty and innocent leftists had a far higher rate of incarceration.)

Were the Red Brigades "anti-fascists"? They might have described themselves as such, although it was certainly not their primary self-definition. They are never considered as part of the history of anti-fascism by the actual anti-fascist movement. They have been loathed by the vast majority of anti-fascists in Italy and globally. The story of anti-fascism is Italy is the story of Giustizia e Libertà, la Resistenza and partigiani and the Action Party. Fallaci is indeed part of this story. The Red Brigades are emphatically not. The same is true of Baader-Meinhof Group, FARC, Shining path, Abu Nidal. If you want to find an ideological underpinning to them, look to anti-imperialism and Leninism and not to anti-fascism. Your attempt to draw that sort of scum into the same (im)moral sphere as the movement acknowledged by pretty much everyone else to be the anti-fascist movement (Orwell etc) is deeply offensive.

Your amalgam of 'self-declared "Anti-Fascist" movements' (with inexplicable capital letters) stretching from the BR to "BLM, ANTIFA and BDS" bears no resemblance to a reality 99.99% of anti-fascists would recognise. BLM and BDS, despite the capital letters which make them look like proper nouns, are looser movements than you imply, and antifa (only capitalised by those who try and portray it as an organisation) is looser still. Of those, only one, antifa, is self-declared as anti-fascist. (BLM defines itself as anti-racist and BDS, to the extent that it is a group of people and not a strategy, is anti-Zionist.)

Far from relying on "all-encompassing ideology", these movements are pretty heterogeneous, stretching from liberalism to anarchism. "Intersectionalism", as you call it, is not an all-encompassing ideology, nor that recent, and not in any way fascist. I have some criticisms with some of the half-baked ways the ideas of intersectionality have been applied (e.g. in the Chicago Dyke March or the anti-Zionist posturing of the Women's March organisers - note, neither of those were anti-fascist events) but these have been misapplications of intersectionality's principles, not problems with the core ideas. (My friend Rokhl is very good on that: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.721439 )

bob said…
Finally, Fallaci. I fully acknowledge she belongs on the list with Arendt and Kovner. Most of the people on that list had faults. Orwell never fully overcame his antisemitism (or his homophobia). Churchill was a monster in lots of ways. Similarly, Fallaci's later years, from that essay on, do not show her in her best light, as Christopher Hitchens among others have written. I left her off the list because she did not spring to mind. There were many others I could have listed too - Marek Edelman, Primo Levi, Asia Ramazan Antar, Irena Sendler, Vahida Maglajlić, Sophie Scholl, Vera Atkins, Noor Inayat Khan, Morris Beckman... Equating them with fascism, or with the Red Brigades, is just appalling.
I don't see that you and I disagree on much except these two issues:

1. That fascism is a term to be applied narrowly only to movements that identify themselves as such.
2. That Intersectionalism is not an ideology.

I consider fascist any manifestation from any organized group of people that aims at denying any other group rights, freedoms, legitimacy, decency, well-being by means that are anti-democratic, by intimidation, by shouting the louder, by shoving the more forcefully.

Intersectionalism can't be described as diverse or heterogeneous because the principle underlying it is bringing as many grievance movements to back each other unquestioningly, regardless of any commonality of cause, in order to form a solid opposition to what they consider their oppressors. Thus you will not find any room there for anti-antisemitism activists or pro-Israel advocates. As illustrated in your example about the Dyke march.

Intersectionalism demands strict discipline of obedience and silence. Those who protest or disagree with the "fasces" principle find themselves kicked out, shamed. This is fascist ethics 101. Resistance is futile.

There is precedent to this. Deconstructionism was born as a methodology. It has gradually evolved into an ideology. I may not agree with this evolution. I may even find merit in using deconstruction as a tool in literary analysis but academics will not understand what I'm saying as they have become so deeply invested in the notion that deconstructionism is an ideology.