A Historian of Antifa Explains America's Punchiest Leftist Movement
We talked to the guy who literally wrote the book on anti-fascism.
Protesters in Berkeley on August 27. (AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images
Last week, during one of Donald Trump's trademark unruly rallies, he invoked the name of the right wing's latest bogeyman: antifa, or "an-teee-fah," to hear the president pronounce it. It's a term that has been thrown around with increasing frequency these days, though even seasoned journalists and media pundits have struggled to understand who makes up the current anti-fascist movement and what their motivations are.
With his new book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, Dartmouth professor Mark Bray is hoping to help allay some of the many misconceptions surrounding the modern anti-fascist resistance movement—including the pronunciation of the word itself, which, contra Trump, does not rhyme with "Queen Latifah."
Antifa—short for anti-fascism—is not a formal organization or a gang; one can't "join," and it is most certainly not funded by George Soros. Rather, antifa is a political movement born from European Marxist and anarchist traditions; what distinguishes it from other left-wing factions is its militant opposition to fascism and far-right ideologies and a "by any means necessary" approach. It has existed since the 1920s but has sparked recent mainstream interest thanks to a series of high-profile confrontations between antifa and various far-right groups. In Charlottesville, antifa joined the counter-protest to the Unite the Right rally, and as Cornel West has recounted, stood guard between a group of clergy and the armed white supremacists inside Emancipation Park. At a far-right "No to Marxism in America" rally in Berkeley this past weekend, reports of vicious fights between antifa and allegedly peaceful Trump supporters dominated the discussion around the protest.
Each clash has elevated fears around the rise of violent protest in Trump's America. As the far-right continues to organize publicly, it's become a common expectation that antifa will be there to oppose them.
When I called him, Bray was (and still is) in the midst of a whirlwind press tour, the intensity of which seems to have come as something of a surprise to the former Occupy Wall Street organizer and longtime activist. As an anarchist organizer in New York, I'm familiar with a lot of what Bray discusses in the book but still learned quite a lot once I dove in. The book is everywhere (he even landed on NBC's Meet the Press earlier this month), but as he told me, he has also been dealing with a veritable avalanche of negative feedback—including from his own university.
VICE: As a historian who's been following this movement for a long time, how do you think Charlottesville has changed the conversation around anti-fascist resistance—and also, how it is going to impact the way antifa themselves organize?
Mark Bray: Obviously, it changes how the far right is understood. I think the veneer of the term "alt-right" that was intended to present fascist and white supremacist politics in a more kind of middle-class, respectable veneer been seriously tainted, at least for now. Things can always change—that's why it's incumbent on us to be vigilant, but for now I think the efficacy of that term has been tainted. On the other side, the conversation about what to do about the far right is part of a larger shift.
Now we're at the point where, compared to what the Nazis did in Charlottesville, killing someone, there are people marching around with T-shirts that say "punch a Nazi," and even that is considered much more of a justified and contextually legitimate tactical response to the threat of the far right than we could have ever imagined ten years ago.
In the book, you mention that there's a lot of literature about dealing with fascism in the UK and in Western Europe, but very little concerning the United States. Over there, people still remember living under that threat. In the States, it's been a bit more abstract. Now that we've seen Nazis and the KKK march through the streets of a small Southern city and murder someone, though, it seems like it's become harder for people to brush it aside.
That's entirely correct. We've heard comments from Holocaust survivors of how eerie this feels in terms of similarities to their experience. And what you point to is there is a really dangerous sort of historical amnesia that is worse in the US than it is in the Europe, and a really strong, concerted effort to distance eras of historical developments both on the right and on the left—[the idea that] Nazism was definitively defeated in 1945, and the civil rights movement allegedly marked the end of kind of struggles against racism. To me, the anti-fascist argument makes sense if you believe in historical continuity, and you believe that lessons from the past matter, and you see there is no necessary upward trajectory of progress.
A lot of Americans think of it in terms of, Oh, that's done, you're being alarmist. It's just some knuckleheads in the park, and that's tragically what Charlottesville helped to demonstrate. Something that should have been self-evident to everyone (that was of course self-evident to people of color, and queer and trans people who are facing this kind of brutality both from the state and from far-right groups more regularly) is that we have not surpassed the danger, and it's always there, whether we see it or not. I still think there's a barrier that people think there's a danger in taking white supremacy too seriously, which I can't understand. If we're overdoing it in that direction, I'm OK with that.
The section on German anti-fascists and PEGIDA really chilled me, because you mention the phrase "pinstripe Nazis"—something that's terrifyingly familiar now that we're seeing white supremacist groups showing up to political rallies in golf club chic. What do you think is the greatest danger of the "dapper Nazi"?
Really, I think what gets missed in the public debate about how to respond to fascism is that the liberal argument of ignoring them does not take into account that the way that they grow is by becoming normalized and legitimate and family-friendly and acceptable, and in a certain sense, almost blending in. The danger is in their way of luring people into racist and xenophobic positions without even thinking they're being racists, or not acknowledging they're being racist. That's how these things grow and take over, and affect social norms, and affect discourses and standards of how we assess questions of justice. It's always important to clarify that anti-fascism is not just against textbook fascism, but against the far-right, and is undergirded by a social revolutionary politics that isn't just interested in drawing arbitrary distinctions between right-wing positions, but also wants to create a new world.
Most media folk and pundits now called upon to discuss antifa seem like they're missing a broader point—that when they question antifa's apparent disregard for fascists' right to assemble or freedom of speech, they are talking about people who are anti-authoritarian, generally anti-state, and certainly don't believe the Constitution is sacred the way many liberals do.
Exactly. There is an assumption that this is some thought experiment that some crazy kids came up with to "disrupt people they disagree with," and of course, if you know the history and the politics, it is a whole sort of world unto itself. I've gone to great lengths to explain to journalists that when you see a direct action, that's really the tip of a bigger iceberg, and try to explain some of that iceberg.
I was very interested to learn the kind of range of responses that anti-fascists give to that question, and to see that there are some that essentially take the line of saying, "We're not the government. We're not censoring anyone. It's an irrelevant question." Others say, "We're against organizing, not speech per se." Others say more directly, "No free speech for fascists." All of them, regardless of which position they take, will say that this is a liberal framing of the question. "We are socialist and revolutionaries. This is a political struggle. We want to shut down fascism. That's just the way it is. We're trying to create a society where all sorts of people can share their opinions and perspectives, but fascism is an enemy to that society." There are really interesting nuances to how people explain it, but it all comes back to it being an illiberal revolutionary politic that is just not especially that concerned with that part of it.
Another point that bears repeating was your reminder that, historically speaking, fascism largely gained power through legal, electoral means. Why do you think so many people believe that this is something that can be fixed through the ballot box?
For starters, it's a reflection of the fact that most Americans simply cannot conceive of politics beyond elections. That's the challenge of legitimating direct action politics under any circumstance, and it takes an especially dire turn when we think about how fascists have obtained control of states. Most people agree that there was a point when taking up arms against Mussolini and Hitler was legitimate. The question is, when did that point come, and how bad does it have to get, and might it not be a good idea to do what we can to stop them before we have to do that?
Another misconception is that anti-fascists are interested in spiraling into violent confrontations, when the whole politics is based on stopping threats before you get to a civil war. There is a lot of work to do be done in really explaining to people that the ballot box cannot always save you from fascism, or necessarily from anything else. I think that when we take a look at how the police have been MIA or complicit in far-right violence, and how Heather Heyer was killed, and also the precedent set by Black Lives Matter of the police as murderers of black people, helps to make the case that the police are not the answer.
You've been very actively promoting your book on social media. How has that been going?
I've been getting the usual range of death threats and troll responses. Unfortunately, there are all too many people who can relate. Also, I appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday morning, and the next day Campus Reform misrepresented my take on anti-fascist work to the president of Dartmouth College, who is my current employer. The president issued a very rash statement and misrepresented my views in the most one-dimensional way possible. The number of threats has accelerated since then, but I will add that there has been a letter of support signed by more than 100 faculty at Dartmouth College supporting my claim that this was a misrepresentation of my views and calling on the president to respond.
Silencing leftist academics is a dangerous game, and a slippery slope—and ironically, defending speech on campus is a favorite right-wing talking point. Do you see any danger of American anti-fascism heading down its own "slippery slope"?
I was very struck by the fact that when you speak to anti-fascists and ask, "When was your group created?" [you hear] "It was created in 2007." "Why was it created?" "We had this local problem." "When did your group end?" "It ended in 2011." "Why?" "Because the local problem was gone." People who have done this work recognize that this not just a thought experiment, and to some extent, that's true of all leftist work. [Laughs] They'd rather just have full communism and go to the beach.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.