Language and history are more important than ever.
The discourse on Antifa and Anti-Fascism has bubbled to the top of American discourse with President Trump declaring Antifa a ‘terrorist organization’ yesterday. Undoubtedly, Trump is doing this to paint a broad stroke against all dissent and access the extra judicial power afforded by the Patriot Act to fight ‘terrorism.’ If his declaration passes legal muster, we may find ourselves in a country where any action or statement supportive of Anti-Fascism is deemed illegal. A nightmare scenario for all. That is why it is important to understand the origins of Antifa, who ‘they’ are, and whether we should be collectively aligning the group with popular movements.
First, there is no one Antifa organization. In many ways, it is an abbreviation that has mutated into a moniker describing a counter-culture phenomena: a left wing political movement. But that still says nothing. Like punk-rock, it is easier to identify than define. And as with any American counter-culture movement, it has identifying iconography, social mores, and what appears to be a strict dress code. Dietary restrictions are now making their way into the canon.
The left-wing militant political movement is made up of dozens of autonomous activist groups that share much in common yet vary in structure, ideology, and membership. In many ways, Antifa is more a strategy than a group of people. The ideological leanings of the varying groups are often incongruent and range from anarchism, anarcho-communism, libertarian socialism, and anti-globalism. Antifa practices virtually zero participation in the democratic process. Yet the common denominator between all the various groups are their anti-capitalist sentiments and a willingness to engage in violence to achieve political aims. The Black Bloc, a loose collection black hoodie and ski mask clad militants seen at protests, amounts to the Republican Guard of this non-hierarchical, decentralized movement. These are the ones who come to fuck shit up. They’re not necessarily good guys or bad guys but, let’s be honest, they are mostly white guys.
Antifa members claim their lineage through European anti-facist activists from the early 20th century. There remains no recorded link between the European anti-fascists of the early 20th century and American Antifa. Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, writes that the modern American Antifa movement started in the 1980s with a group called Anti-Racist Action — “Its members confronted neo-Nazi skinheads at punk gigs in the American Midwest and elsewhere.” The European anti-fascists of the early 20th century have far less sanctimonious origins.
Originating in Italy and Spain, these original anti-fascists rose up from disaffected populations seeking to fight the creep of fascism across the European continent. This temporarily advantageous alliance between anarchist and communists was short lived yet with the Soviets absorbing many of the communists and the anarchist militias dissolving after World War 2. There were ‘anti-fascist’ groups in the U.S. preceding World War 2 yet they had no ideoloigical or organization connections to the anarcho-communists of Europe. Anarchist movements in early 20th century America were antithetical to communists who advocated for a worldwide state.
To be anti-fascist in the U.S.A. once the war began was basically to be an American patriot. With Italy and Germany under fascist dictatorships, declaring oneself to be anti-fascist then would be analogous to a modern American declaring “ya know, I really hate that damn Al Qaeda!”
At that same point in history, Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union declared themselves anti-fascist as was demonstarted by the millions they lost fighting Nazi Germany. But they were also anti-capitalist, anti-Jew, anti-merchant, anti-gay, anti-free speech, and basically anti-dissent. To be clear, worldwide communism was allied with fascism until the final years of the war. Meanwhile, Churchill and Roosevelt fancied themself as anti-fascist as did Mao. Even before the war began, Muslims in Palestine repeatedly denounced fascism in their daily newspaper Filastin. So with so many diametrically opposed groups claiming the anti-fascist label, is everyone who resists fascism ‘Antifa?’
To claim that Antifa and anti-fascism are analogous is not only an inaccurate statement but highly Euro-centric. Sure, Antifa is very anti-fascist yet their ideology is imbued with many principals irreconcilable with our current racial crisis. First and foremost, Antifa views racism inextricably tied to capitalism. This makes Black liberation secondary to the abolition of capitalism. Most of its adherents claim that once capitalism is abolished, racism will wither away with it. This, of course, stands in complete contrast with recorded history. It needs no mention that the whole of human history is replete with racism and tribalism. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade preceded the advent of capitalism by 200 years. Systemic racism is present in every system of government from theocracy to socialism. It is also a fair question to ask whether a 100 year old European tradition is suitable for addressing racial issues in modern America. Emanating from U.S. punk culture and state college dormitories, members are largely of European descent and removed from the struggles of many subjugated African-Americans. Social media is currently humming with video and posts from Black protestors pleading with Antifa types to cease vandalizing and looting.
Again, this loose constellation of activist movements often hold incongruent and contradictory ideological beliefs. The Three Arrows logo, originally introduced by the German Iron Front group in the 1930s and used by various Antifa groups, serves as a manifestation of such contradictions. Originally representing anti-monarchy, anti-fascism, and anti-communism – the third precept has just about been dropped from their curriculum. Modern-day Antifa groups have softened on their opposition to communism and many have adopted the hammer and sickle as part of their iconography. Language and slogans directly from early Bolshevik movements have been adopted including calling each other ‘comrade’, railing against landlords, and chanting ‘eat the rich.’ They are basically larping 1918 characters.
To be fair, self-described Antifa members do some good when they are not throwing bricks. Many offer food service to the disenfranchised, participate in mutual aid programs, and work positively within their communities to address social justice causes. But it is the fact that they are non-hierarchical and loosely affiliated with one another that makes them so problematic. With no structure or membership guidelines, self-styled Antifa members can engage in any acts and there is zero recourse. Without any central point of communication, they are unaccountable and there is no real way to address concerns to them. This, unfortunately, does not make them suitable allies for a liberation struggle that needs communication, accountability, and cohesion. I am not sure America needs another mostly-white paramilitary organization anyways.