Anti Fascism: 100 Years in the Streets
A review of
M. Testa, Militant Anti-Fascism. AK Press, 2015; and Dave Hann, Physical Resistance. Zero Books, 2013.
“Make America Great Again.” It was as if no one saw it coming until the rhetoric of palingenetic ultranationalism, what Roger Griffin labeled the core “nationalist myth” that drives true fascist movements, was repackaged in right-populism and delivered to the American Heartland. Donald Trump’s campaign has borrowed from the anti-immigrant rhetoric of VDARE, the “racial awareness” of European pan-nationalism, and the surprising numbers of David Duke’s and Pat Buchanan’s campaigns of the 1990s.
Those who are critical of anti-fascist organizing often say that violent racist organizations are waning and that domestic struggles are not comparable to those in European countries. However, as the demographics of North America shift radically, we have seen a reactionary core reclaiming fascist traditions. While white nationalism is rapidly increasing, its new reliance on pseudo- academic rhetoric and internet subcultures mean that it often goes under the radar for the radical left. Those on the anti-racist left are scrambling to redefine an anti-fascist movement that is both effective and ideologically grounded as the opposition becomes a chameleon. Movements allied with feminism, queer liberation, anti-racism, and other intersectional movements are touched by this growing reactionary force, which sees each of these struggles as enemies in their battle to retain dominance. As violence continues to explode at Trump rallies and as white nationalists become more emboldened to come out of the shadows, even beyond the confines of the American border, the anti-fascist movement has erupted and grown far beyond the parameters of its history. This struggle is not a new one, nor is organized racism new to Europe, Canada, or the US, which places the new tactics and ideas of anti-fascism and anti-racism inside a continuity that traces itself to before WWII.
In a sort of serendipity, Militant Anti-Fascism was released about a year after Physical Resistance, which was published after the author, Dave Hann, passed away. The similarity of the two books, both examining “100 years of resistance,” is not surprising. Both authors come out of the British anti-fascist movement, as seen in the later pages of each volume. Each book surveys early European anti-fascist struggle before heading into an extensive analysis of the British movement in the post-war era. Chronicling the resistance that developed in interwar Europe and focusing on the radical kernels inside Britain, Austria, Germany, Spain, and Italy, both books attempt to tell the story of European fascism from those who dedicated themselves to the street battle against the rising tide of reactionary militarism, both in Axis nations and those who only had a sympathetic minority of right-wing cadres. The first half of each book looks deeper into the history, while the latter half brings us into more recent stories of how neo-fascist movements evolved in Europe as an iconoclastic force looking to reclaim their failed revolutions. While some see the goose-stepping Nazis of newsreel footage as fundamentally different from the gang-styled skinheads of urban terrorism, both books present them as the same movement that changed depending on its level of cultural success.
Both volumes are superb as records, rather than narratives, and lack characters and ow as a chronological tale of the spirit of resistance. What they provide is a reference point, a compiled volume of research and argument that can be used for organizing strategy and history. Unfortunately, getting through certain parts of each volume can be trying as the density of actions and clashes outlined in the book would be better served by grounding it in more fully realized characters and story arcs. With both books, which convey a relatively unknown history rather than deep analysis and political argument, bringing in that narrative thrust would have added to the readability. In Physical Resistance, interviews with organizers on the anti-fascist left dominate, and in the later chapters, it hops between massive interview snippets so large it feels as though it is a catalogue of oral histories.
In looking at these two books, we are provided with two sets of eyes making out the same portrait: the anti-fascist movement of Europe, coalescing in Britain as the post-war reactionaries attempt to redefine themselves. Both offer concrete, in-depth analysis not just of these fascist tendencies, but also of the radical left that defined a tactical approach to consistently put them on their heels. It’s through this expanded view, which comes from considering the works together, that we can get a three-dimensional look at the perspective and tactics of the British anti-fascist movement that has, in some ways, defined Antifa’s development across the globe. When looking reflexively at a movement that is often shrouded in security culture, these books are some of the best ways to understand the organizing choices made for those outside of those movements. Understanding is critical as the mythology about Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) is often different than the reality, and the books together allow for the image of this movement to be refashioned by factual accounts. What this lacks, at times, is the spirit that drove much of these decisions. The authors’ preoccupation with hard details often neglects the intimate fear and rebellion that is at the heart of an anti-fascist movement.
Violence plays its character throughout these stories of anti- fascist resistance. The concept of “physical resistance” grounds the analysis of the movement. Physical confrontation, is not only a common part of Antifa organizing, but is central to its praxis. The Antifa project itself is founded on a “no platform” principle, which means halting fascist organizing, speech, and public expression through any available means. This tactic is not meant just to create a counter-narrative, but to sever fascist access to any form of speech and to keep militancy as a central tenet. Both authors create a clear picture of how this strategy of organizing has been successful through the early days of the National Front, into the veneer of respectability with the British National Party (BNP), and later into groups like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), the English Defense League (EDL), and the UK Independence Party (UKIP). These nationalist groups were founded through connections between the mainstream British political sphere on the one hand, and violent racist street gangs on the other. Militant Anti-Fascism even cites David Hann in looking at how the neo-Nazis of Combat 18 acted as foot soldiers to protect the BNP’s meetings.
Known anti-fascist direct action movements like AFA and Red Action in the UK have not been fully replicated in the US or Canada. This is not to say, however, that anti-racist organizing has not been successful. In the US, the racial street terrorists primarily take the forms of various incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi skinheads. There certainly has been a history of crossover into pseudo-academic and political movements, notably with organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens’ connections to the KKK and the American Freedom Party with Golden State Skinheads in California. Those connections are real, but the political organizations they prop up have little to no actual crossover into the general political sphere. The fact that the BNP takes representative positions in white working class areas of London shows the measurable result of their presence. At the same time, violent urban or rural “cell-based” racist organizing is on the decline in the US and Canada, meaning that open violent confrontation is relatively rare. Today, anti-fascist organizing often prepares for physical confrontation, but the numbers of people willing to engage in this type of action are few. This dynamic comes from a lack of known history of anti-fascist struggle as well as disparate political backgrounds where movements lack a consensus about the necessity of targeting racist organizing.
What becomes clear when looking at Antifa broadly, is that the shift towards violent action is not merely a tactical decision, but also a moral one. Organizers need ideology that is opposed to fascism on principle, but also need to match the intensity of the threat by going further than might seem reasonable in other left spheres.
Fascism is inherently violent and secures itself politically through the use or threat of it, so it is inevitable that anti-fascists have to countenance some involvement in violence themselves during the struggle. This is not to say that anti-fascists should like violence or seek it out; for many militant anti-fascists, violence is an unpleasant method to achieve a greater political goal. It is not fetishized the way that fascism fetishizes violence, but passive resistance, what Trotsky referred to as “flabby pacifism,” is not a viable option in these circumstances.
In the contemporary context a problem arises, especially in the US and Canada, when few people are willing to engage in the type of physical confrontation that the authors reference. AFA in Britain has a history tracing back before WWII and has the active memory of what fascism looks like when it takes state power, so recruiting militancy from the broad working class may be more possible. AFA actions in the US and Canada are organized as a venue for physical resistance, yet they fail to recruit the large of numbers of people required to physically enforce the “no platform” idea. The rest of the people are not engaged because the only tactic presented by many anti-fascist organizations and associated propaganda is one of disruption, therefore, both physical resistance and effective protests or movement building are impossible. The broad-based protests that do occur at AFA actions often have few people because the Antifa model is one that operates through insular, trusted groups of organizers who are committed to strategies of confrontation rather than broader movement building.
An answer to this problem could be diversifying tactics, rather than being rigidly stuck to many of the models developed around street confrontations. This suggestion is not meant to negate confrontations, but to take “no platform” as a principle into a new tactical set. More specifically, it could mean drawing from movements like solidarity networks, where pressure campaigns could be created to shut down venues and business contracts dealing with white nationalists. At the same time, resurrecting a more inclusive direct action model that recruits, trains, and educates around confrontational anti-fascist tactics could increase numbers to the direct action sector of the anti-fascist movement. It also bridges the Antifa of the 1980s-’90s to movements like Black Lives Matter, which are confronting racism in massive numbers today.
The recent confrontations in Sacramento between anti-fascist organizers, the Traditionalist Youth Network, and other neo-Nazis shows the strength of mass action mixed with a radical contingent prepared for militant confrontation. Here, the preparation for a protest action was staged, while the direction was decidedly towards shutting down the event. This approach enhanced inclusivity while also bridging the di erent areas of the community, adding to a larger demonstration of anti-fascist solidarity. The increased militancy seen at Trump rallies, especially from movements that emerged out of struggles against police repression and racist immigration policy, have not connected with the Antifa brand of struggle. The expansion of tactics and movement building possibilities can allow the anti-fascist movement to mobilize in concert with those that are focusing on shutting down this rising racialist populism at any cost.
Militant Anti-Fascism creates a distinction between what it labels “militant,” “state legislative,” and “liberal” methods of confronting fascism. The state legislative route involves people pursuing hate-crime or hate-speech legislation to hinder fascist organizing. However, state legislation is often disconnected from grassroots organizing and direct action. These laws also uphold the apparatus of the state, therefore reinforcing state methods that could easily be turned against radical leftists later. Liberal anti-fascism, alternatively, is understood as useful for coalition- building and increasing media presence. This approach could be described as the “mass movement” model of building large scale anti-fascist marches and actions. However, they typically disallow more militant methods that are critical for actually confronting and forcefully dismantling the fascist organizations that are up against them. If there was a combinative approach that utilized a truer inclusion of “a diversity of tactics,” which would mean bridging the mass movement and militant anti-fascist approaches, you could build a large-scale movement that effectively tied anti- fascist organizing to anti-racism and anti-capitalism more broadly. An example of this combination of tactics could be challenging a fascist organization in a community, rallying community members to use escalation campaigns that are often seen in labour organizing to remove them. A combination of tactics is simultaneously effective at both pushing out the racist element and empowering and educating the public. At the same time, militant tactics — such as those deployed by the AFA — need to be employed because public protest tactics will not always be effective at shutting down creeping fascism; militancy needs to be cultivated if there is a fascist seizure of power.
The two books work together to develop a historical continuity between the anti-fascist movements of the interwar period and Nazi occupation, and the broad anti-fascism in the decades since. A key part of the analysis presented connects modern Antifa organizing to resistance movements leading up to WWII. Militant Anti-Fascism begins with a more conventional history of WWII resistance, one that focuses on the role of the ideological left. It then takes us through a modern history of urban street battles making the case that more recent confrontations are the modern equivalent of earlier insurrectionary movements. Therefore the anti-fascism movement was ideological from the beginning, with resistance coming from the working class movements of the European radical left. This ideological foundation is especially clear in the history provided by Hann, where we see the British Communist Party leading the opposition into mass urban conflicts with Mosley and varying fascist apologists in Britain. The framing of a continuous anti-fascist history provides context for work happening today, which the authors allude could be activated into a revolutionary movement if an open fascist seizure of power were to take place.
Both authors note that fascist organizing and resistance to it rises primarily during periods of collapse and crisis, rather than sustaining a consistent level of activity. Arising largely out of the German Communist Party in response to the Nazi groundswell, the vanguard of the interwar and post-war anti-fascist struggle was the anti-capitalist left. Organized anti-capitalism was central to the strategy that separated Antifa and the radical wing from the reformist one. The roots of fascism were seen as deeply laid in social inequality driven by capitalist exploitation, meaning that smashing reactionary politics required working-class revolution. This ideological foundation meant that oppression, crystallized in fascist politics, was understood as multi-faceted, both interpersonal and institutional, and the result of a socially stratified society. This core focus on oppression meant that there was always a struggle inside anti-fascist organizations to confront any interpersonal bigotry that took place, which was often exaggerated by the masculinist behavior found in “street battle” direct action organizations. Both books have the advantage of examining the development of anti- fascism through the 20th century, and how militant feminist and LGBT struggles became necessary correctives to a more vulgar class reductionist organizing model.
One issue that is not made clear in these two books is exactly what the demographics were of those engaged in militant anti- fascist organizing. Antifa as a project has often been taken up by white communities as a form of “self-policing,” where white allies and anti-racists primarily make up the direct action contingents. Conceptually, this comes from the notion that the fascists across the barricades were often people from their racially homogenous neighbourhoods. At the same time, there has often been a belief that putting people of colour at the center of “community defense” organizing against neo-Nazis and other white supremacists exposes these already marginalized groups to increased levels of racialized violence. This debate is not explicitly present in either work and, in a sense, not ongoing in historical discussions in anti-fascist circles. With movements like PEGIDA and the EDL focusing on Muslim immigrants, much in the same way the National Front did in the early 1980s, much of the leadership in the broader anti-racist movements has started to come from those immigrant communities and create a more diverse anti-fascism that could be ready for physical resistance in the streets.
The lack of diversity of those mentioned in both Militant Anti- Fascism and Physical Resistance reveals much of the internal dynamics at play in the radical left. Though Physical Resistance does a great job at highlighting non-male and non-white comrades during interviews, neither book highlights how the movement diversified their constituency. The inclusion of an intersectional view of oppression in the movement developed alongside anarchism’s adaptation to a multi-faceted range of movements, from queer liberation to feminism. The radical right itself is intersectional: it attempts to establish essential hierarchies in all areas of social life. A dynamic anti-fascism is, therefore, one that mobilizes reactionary elements as they apply to race, gender, sexual orientation and presentation, body type, and a myriad of other modes of identity. This can be seen clearly in the development of “Men’s Rights” and “manosphere” movements that take an essentialist far-right view on gender, and use a hierarchical and biologically determinist understanding of human value. Class struggle has always been a part of developing contemporary anti-fascist theory, since it was this ideological core that formed the resistance to fascism as a revolutionary program.
In recent years, nationalism has seen huge shifts towards a reclaiming of intellectualism, spirituality, and many other ideas commonly associated with the left like radical environmentalism and anti-capitalism. Much of this comes as a response to the growing acceptance of Third Positionist fascist politics, the move towards racial paganism, “blood and soil” ideas about ecology, and the need to reclaim hierarchical socio-religious traditions and the identity of pre-Christian Europe. What this means is that for militant anti-fascism to survive, it has to reassess its targets and broaden its engagement with the public so that the threat of fascism can be more commonly understood. Militancy should not be abandoned or even put on the secondary tactical lists, but we must find ways of creating a multifaceted understanding of “no platform” so we can better collabourate with and support movements for housing justice, alternative labour, and Black Lives Matter. The books themselves act as a tactical testament to the histories and futures of anti-fascist organizing, which makes them invaluable to organizers today. Each volume provides not only a blueprint for how to organize an effective counter-strategy to creeping fascism but also offers a solid foundation for why a “no platform” approach is critically important to anti-fascist organizing and beyond. If fascism is allowed to grow under a belief that white supremacist ideas are absurd to the general public or that this type of racism is not as critically important as institutional forms of white supremacy, then we are at risk of allowing the creation of a force that can be mobilized during points of crisis through radicalized populism.
Since these books are mere chapters in what the authors see as an ongoing story of anti-fascist resistance, we are writing later volumes as we build movements on the ground. It is up to us to not only take inspiration from this past century of anti-fascist organizing, but also to learn from our history, so we can reignite the fighting spirit today. Militant Anti-Fascism and Physical Resistance urge anti-fascism to become a revolutionary movement, one that needs to grow in the public as racist violence becomes just as explicit as it has been implicit to North American society, and as we see the need to strike back against creeping fascism with every available tool.
1. Militant Anti-Fascism, pp 7.