Review of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray
A couple of weeks ago 9k suggested that I post a review of a book I was reading – Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray. Here it is. No doubt brief and incomplete but my take based on an initial reading. Not sure that I’ll be rereading it anytime soon though.
Mark Bray is a historian of human rights, terrorism, and political radicalism in Modern Europe and was one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street. He teaches at nearby, to me at least, Dartmouth College.
The book appears to be well researched with copious references and notes, and uses interview material with activists in the USA and Europe. However the author is at pains to note that antifa is also active throughout the rest of the world. Some of the interviews were conducted anonymously using pseudonyms, and some of these through secure and encrypted channels for an element of intrigue and mystery. The book’s release was hurried in response to Trump’s election and it shows in its abrupt ending, and that it is more of a detailed history and discussion of the movement than a Handbook in the mode of Rules for Radicals.
On opening the book sets out to define fascism and anti-fascism – or antifa. It proposes that fascism is hard to pin down. That it isn’t doctrinal but charismatic, is united by faith and myth, and often co-opts left ideology, strategy, imagery and culture when it suits. Like many things, fascism is best understood in retrospect but several key features are noted for the sake of subsequent understanding. Fascism:
- Is political behavior obsessed with community decline, humiliation and victimhood
- Is compensated by a cult of unity, energy and purity
- Is mass-based, nationalistic and militant, and in uneasy collaboration with traditional elites
- Abandons democratic liberties and pursues redemptive violence without ethical or legal restraints with the aim of internal cleansing and external expansion
The KKK is defined as fascist, and the Jim Crow south.
Bray says that it would be too simple to define anti-fascism as opposition to the definition and examples above since it obscures an understanding of anti-fascism as a method of politics, a locus of individual and group self-identification, and a transnational movement that adapted preexisting socialist, anarchist, and communist currents to a sudden need to react to the fascist menace.
Antifa is presented as part of a continuum of Revolutionary Socialism from the mid 19th century, through the early 20th, interwar years and beyond. It is Marxist with heroes and icons such as Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League. It rejects bourgeois liberal democracy. It is an illiberal politics of social revolutionism applied to fighting the Far Right, not just literal fascists.
Pre WW2 was a time of many factions on the right and left with often as much infighting over doctrine and symbols as against the other side. Note is made of a Soviet policy change in the mid 1930s towards encouraging the left to participate in liberal democracies and not ferment revolution. And that was typical of the swings, confusion and fragmentation on the left that gave fascism room to grow.
Post WW2 saw some resurgence of right wing street militancy in UK and Europe that was met head on by antifa but it involved small groups on either side and went without much notice. The post Soviet collapse saw the growth of skinheads, football hooligans and neo-Nazis in Europe, particularly in the former communist bloc but also in the Nordic countries. Youth unemployment and immigration were likely catalysts.
Skinheads joined the antifa side too and along with others were often based around particular squats and pubs and clubs, with many groups forming and joining together and then dissolving. Overall numbers were small on both sides with many antifa not being members of a group at all but autonomen who coalesced spontaneously for counter demonstrations. Concern was expressed over the inherent machismo of young men spoiling for a brawl, on both sides, and with or without a deeper motive. Feminist antifa, or fantifa is seen as an antidote.
Like Occupy, neo-nazis and antifa are largely street movements. The fascist’s goal is to be an intimidating presence in a neighborhood or on-the-street and antifa’s is to physically oppose them by pre-occupying the space, blocking or otherwise preventing access to the space or disrupting the fascist’s occupation of the space. In traditional freedom of speech countries like the UK and USA the authorities will only intervene in demonstrations if there is a breach of the peace. Antifa often tries to provoke that breach in order to force the authorities to intervene and disperse the fascists.
It was noted that as neo-nazis move into participatory politics – e.g. the Front National in France – street conflict of the Black Bloc kind doesn’t work and can be counterproductive. Also that in the case of Trump, there needs to be different approaches to those who voted for him because of his misogyny, raceism, ableism and Islamaphobia and those who did in spite of.
As for the Slippery Slope and Who Decides arguments that antifa is anti free speech the author presents, without saying if he agrees with them or not, several counter arguments and justifications:
- Fascists have no right to speak or be heard
- There can be no toleration of intolerance and no platform for fascists
- Antifa are stopping organizing and therefore the possible growth of dangerous fascism and not speech as such
- For discriminated against and marginalized groups, to be merely tolerated, grudgingly accepted or accepted with criticism is still to be harmed, and they have a right to silence those doing the harm
- Historically antifa have been good judges of fascists having often been victims of them or close to victims of them, and although anti-capitalist and revolutionary they have usually stopped after their immediate targets have been defeated or withered away. They have not then gone after the next most right wing target and instead have retreated to other activities or disbanded. They aren’t very good revolutionaries
- And besides antifa is disdainful of liberal free speech where the right to speak and not be heard is worthless to all but the powerful. …rights promoted by capitalist parliamentary government are not inherently worthy of respect
- Free speech is abstract – the fight against white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, class oppression, genocide is real
- Antifa have no tolerance for agreeing to disagree. They can’t accept intolerant opinions as simple political disagreements
- Also that Antifa’s revolutionary, anarchistic, utopian, bottom-up aims are fundamentally in favor of real free speech
A discussion of liberal anti-fascism, or the belief in the inherent power of civil society and government institutions to stop full-blown fascism, considers why the threat is not taken more seriously. The author proposes that most people see fascism as an all or nothing prospect. That is full-blown Nazi Germany and genocide or not at all. Few believe a fascistic regime will emerge in the USA, and the author agrees that this belief is probably justified in spite of the left’s hand wringing over Trump, but small doses still hurt victims and should be resisted forcefully. It was also noted that historically, perhaps counter intuitively, fascism tends to rise with the success of the politically participating left.
The closest the book comes to a handbook is a list of five historical lessons and many pages of advice from those interviewed.
Five historical lessons:
- Fascist revolutions have never succeeded. Fascists gained power legally
- Interwar anti-fascists mistakenly treated fascism as a variant of counter revolutionary politics
- Socialist and communist leadership were slower to recognize the threat of fascism than their rank and file
- Fascism steals from left ideology, strategy, imagery and culture
- It doesn’t take many fascists to make fascism
Some suggestions for effective activism not involving physical Black Bloc violence include:
- Working with marginal groups to prevent them being co-opted by fascists. Interestingly, Furbies, Bronies (men who like My Little Pony apparently) and football fan clubs were specifically mentioned – something Freudian there
- Providing support to vulnerable and marginalized groups
- Doxxing or outing of identified fascist individuals and pushing the culture to shame and disown them, and/or get them fired
- Pressuring venues to cancel fascists events
- Boycott businesses associated with fascists
- Participating in training and propaganda
- Contesting the dismantling of taboos against the oppression of feminism, black liberation and queer liberation
- A goal would be to make those who voted for Trump uncomfortable to share that they did. You can’t always change beliefs but you can make them politically, socially, economically, physically costly to articulate
An interesting read but I’m still inclined to believe that antifa and those they oppose are very small and marginal groups with minimal influence even if they garner lots of press coverage occasionally.
(9/9/17 – a few edits for readability)