Not your grandfather’s anti-fascism: Challenges facing the anti-fascist movement in the age of Trump
Platypus Review 100 | October 2017
An earlier version of this article is available with full links and citations at cwc.im/antifascism.
FOLLOWING THE CLASHES IN CHARLOTTESVILLE on August 12th, and massive anti-fascist demonstrations afterwards in Durham, Boston, the Bay Area, and elsewhere, the struggle against fascism has arrived in the consciousness of the general public. Tens of thousands of people are realizing that the fight against fascism did not end in 1945. Today, as increasingly authoritarian governments collude with ascendant fascist movements all around the world, this battle is more pressing than ever.
It is worth taking a moment to review what anarchists and anti-fascists have accomplished since Donald Trump was elected. Despite harassment and attacks from fascists and law enforcement, what was initially a few hundred people without financial resources has grown into the foundation for a massive social movement.
After the election, while liberals were immobilized by shock, anarchists immediately went on the offensive in order to destabilize the Trump regime before it could normalize a new level of tyranny. By acting decisively to disrupt the inauguration and helping to shut down airports in response to the Muslim ban, anarchists showed that there could be no business or politics as usual under Trump. This created fractures within the halls of power. If not for these immediate, massive expressions of defiance, judges might not have dared to block the Muslim ban, or White House employees to leak information.
Anarchists also acted immediately to shut down fascist recruiting. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, an anarchist was shot while protesting a speech by far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos in Seattle; two weeks later, anarchists shut down Milo’s event in Berkeley. On April 15, fascists rampaged through Berkeley, recording video footage of themselves beating people to use for recruiting purposes. Fascist momentum reached a peak on the weekend of August 12th when the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia brought out nearly one thousand neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists. Outnumbered and outgunned, anarchists and other anti-fascists nonetheless forced the city to shut down the rally. In retaliation, participants murdered protester Heather Heyer and injured dozens more. In response, tens of thousands around the US turned out to subsequent anti-fascist demonstrations, tearing down Confederate statues and shutting down far-right rallies in San Francisco, Berkeley, and elsewhere.
Imagine if the “Unite the Right” rally had taken place without resistance and a thousand white supremacists had been able to march around Charlottesville unopposed. In that scenario, emboldened fascists could have presented themselves as a legitimate part of the political spectrum, while preparing the way for more murders like the ones in Charleston and Portland. In that case, the government with Trump at the helm would have been able to present itself as the only possible solution to fascist violence, and the general public would have been forced to seek assistance from the very authorities that are already implementing most of the white supremacist agenda. Fortunately, long before Charlottesville, anarchists and other anti-fascists were doing the thankless work of monitoring fascists and mobilizing against them.
Now that the struggle against fascism has arrived on a massive scale, it’s time to come to grips with the limitations the movement faces. Every victory generates new challenges. Let’s explore the obstacles that the anti-fascist movement will have to overcome to succeed in creating a world free of authoritarianism.
The swinging pendulum of polarization
U.S. society has been splintering and polarizing for years now, since the recession of 2008, if not before. The movement against police and white supremacy that burst onto the national stage in Ferguson in 2014 as Black Lives Matter generated a far-right backlash, which inspired a resurgence of anti-fascist organizing. In response, fascists gave angry liberals and anti-fascists a central place in their strategy, seeking to provoke them into reactive behavior that could be used to further mobilize the right-wing base. Milo Yiannopoulos used this strategy until it blew up in his face in February, when a black bloc of hundreds shut down his event in Berkeley.
Various fascist and fascist-friendly organizers also used this approach, baiting leftists and anti-fascists with a series of “free speech” rallies in Berkeley, Portland, and elsewhere around the country that won the nascent fascist movement notoriety and momentum. This movement appeared fully formed for the first time in Charlottesville—but the shockwaves of that debut drew more people into the movement against fascism, changing the balance of power once again. The “free speech” rallies scheduled afterwards in Boston and the Bay Area were total washouts for the fascists.
In each of these cases, when the pendulum of polarization swung to one side, the opposing side was able to use that victory to draw more sympathizers into action. So long as this pattern persists, every anti-fascist victory will produce an even greater threat from the far-right and the government. To break out of the pattern, anti-fascists have to strike blows in ways that don’t enable fascists to cash in on the resulting fear, or find a way to draw in large swathes of the population more rapidly than their competition on the right. This demands outflanking hostile media narratives, debunking popular misconceptions about anti-fascist self-defense, resisting the tendency to consolidate anti-fascist organizing around a specific network or identity, and other tasks we will explore below.
Corporate media back the fascists
One of the most obvious obstacles facing anti-fascists is the hostility of the corporate media. The Washington Post titled their coverage of the August 27th demonstration, “Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley.” It isn’t surprising when Fox News publishes barefaced propaganda, but it is more unsettling to see supposedly liberal outlets parroting fascist talking points.
The image at the top of the Washington Post article showed a right-wing demonstrator apparently being shoved by an anti-fascist with a shield. (Three weeks later, the Wall Street Journal used the same photo to illustrate their article “How Antifa Violence Has Split the Left.”) Yet several videos show the same far-right demonstrator pepper-spraying people at random immediately before the photo was taken. If you look closely, the attacker is wearing a shirt that celebrates Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet for murdering dissidents by dropping them out of helicopters. The Washington Post chose a photo in which the assailant’s right hand is not visible, so readers would not see the pepper spray he holds in it.
When the Washington Post portrays such fascists as “peaceful,” suggesting that they are victims even as they attack people and glorify mass murder, this gives them legitimacy, securing space for them to recruit and to promote and organize further attacks. Why would liberal media outlets do this? It appears that media outlets across the spectrum had decided in advance to report the anti-fascist demonstration in Berkeley as an expression of violent excess. As it turned out, the demonstration was largely peaceful; even the worst clashes were considerably less violent than the fighting on April 15th. Despite this, corporate media outlets that had ignored April 15th altogether devoted considerable space to a few isolated incidents in which anti-fascists scuffled with fascists or other Trump supporters.
Clearly, their intention was to impose a limit on the amount of popular legitimacy anti-fascists would be permitted to accrue after the events in Charlottesville. Heather Heyer’s murder had taken corporate media by surprise, interrupting their conventional narratives and proving that the threat anti-fascists had supposedly been blowing out of proportion was all too real. For two weeks, anti-fascists received positive coverage as various members of the clergy came forward to praise their actions in Charlottesville and Trump’s refusal to explicitly condemn white supremacists outraged even liberal commentators. Corporate editors used the events in Berkeley as an opportunity to regain control of the discourse, reimposing their old stereotypes as if Heather had never been killed.
This should put an end to any illusions that corporate media could side with anti-fascists. Outlets like the Washington Post aspire to position themselves against both Trump and his adversaries in the streets—to occupy what some call “the extreme center.” They are gambling that the current polarization of society is temporary, that they can be the beneficiaries of disillusionment with both sides.
Anti-fascists have to strategize about how to legitimize our efforts to the general public without the benefit of positive media coverage. This is no easy task. At the minimum, it will demand our own grassroots media, at the same time that this media is under systematic assault from right-wing trolls and the government itself.
The Myth of Symmetry
The allegation that fascists and anti-fascists are equally bad was advanced most famously by Donald Trump himself in his response to the events in Charlottesville. He suggested that the problem was an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” refusing to say a word about the fascists who murdered Heather Heyer.
This tells us a great deal about the vested interests of those who describe fascists and anti-fascists as symmetrical.
Anti-fascists fight for freedom and equality, building grassroots networks to defend targeted groups against violence and state oppression. Fascists want an autocratic state to enforce hierarchies through murderous violence. To equate the two with each other because they both take action in the streets is a way to reserve legitimacy for the state alone—which is itself an autocratic position. It means celebrating the legalism of passive spectators over the heroes who fought the rise of dictatorships in Italy, Germany, Spain, Chile, Greece, and a hundred other nations. It means congratulating those who keep their hands clean while their neighbors are rounded up and imprisoned, deported, or killed.
We have to become adept at spelling out the ethical differences between fascism and anti-fascism and justifying all the forms of direct action that can be effective in this struggle. Self-defense is not the same as coercive aggression. Even when fascists and anti-fascists utilize similar tactics, fascists are trying to impose the control of a self-professed elite, while anti-fascists aim to open spaces of freedom in which all people can coexist peacefully on their own terms. We need allies from many different walks of life who can help us make this case to the public at large.
Unfortunately, we can’t count on everyone on the Left to assist. In “How ‘Antifa’ Mirrors the ‘Alt-Right,’” the same Chris Hedges who assisted the state in dividing and repressing the Occupy movement reappeared to perform the same function in relation to the movements against fascism and the Trump administration.
The irony of a war journalist perennially accusing others of being driven by a lust for adrenaline should not be lost on anyone. But the true irony here is that Hedges purports to be warning against precisely the problem that he himself is creating. “By brawling in the streets,” Hedges alleges, “antifa allows the corporate state… to use the false argument of moral equivalency to criminalize the work of all anti-capitalists.” Actually, it is Hedges who is equipping the state to do this, by attributing “the same lust for violence” to anti-fascists that he believes motivates fascists. He could just as easily use his soapbox to debunk this moral equivalency, but he lacks the moral courage—he simply cannot resist performing the same kind of “self-advertisement for moral purity” that he accuses others of.
In 2012, when the authorities needed a narrative with which to isolate the ungovernable elements of the Occupy movement, Hedges provided that narrative, and the FBI subsequently parroted it verbatim in their efforts to justify a series of entrapment cases. Now Hedges is providing Trump’s government exactly the same service, equipping them to describe “antifa” as a terrorist organization as many on the far right have long demanded. The mayor of Berkeley, too, has called for “antifa” to be designated as a gang. Imagine if everyone who opposes the rise of fascism is classified as a gang member or a terrorist!
Hedges needs to understand that it is not anti-fascists gaining ground that brings about fascist attacks and government crackdowns. If anti-fascists were not gaining power in the streets, fascists would still be taking advantage of the despair and resentment of poor whites, and the government would still be developing more means of repression—there would simply be no social movement to protect us from them. It is fundamentally paranoid, disempowering, and ahistorical to understand these developments as the result of anti-fascist activity. On the contrary, we have to build the capacity to act effectively in the streets before the fascists outstrip us and the government is able to centralize enough power to establish tyranny once and for all.
When fascists rose to power in Europe in the 1930s, passive and legalistic protests were powerless to stop them. Fascists were able to take over in Italy and Germany in part as a result of their adversaries’ respect for the law and desire to appear respectable. By contrast, in Spain, where anarchists constituted a large proportion of the organized working class, it took four years for fascists to prevail. This time around, we need grassroots networks that can counter fascists on the streets and prevent state institutions from implementing the fascist agenda by any means necessary.
All that said, we also need to avoid offering our enemies, on the Left and Right, alike the opportunity to present us as a mirror image of our fascist adversaries. Let’s talk about how to do so.
Antifa identity and insularity
It has been very useful for people in the U.S. to learn from anti-fascist movements elsewhere around the world. Yet the uncritical wholesale introduction of European models has created problems, chief of which is the containment of the struggle against fascism within a discrete identity, “antifa.” It has been a tremendous boon to the far right that they can describe anti-fascists without having to spell out the entire word “fascist.” This helps them to avoid the question of why anyone would oppose resisting fascism.
In German, such abbreviations are common: National socialist becomes Nazi, anti-fascist becomes antifa. But in English, especially to those unfamiliar with the history of German anti-fascist struggles, the word antifa can appear alien and off-putting. At its worst, the German antifa movement has tended towards subcultural insularity, foregrounding an image of an anti-fascist movement comprised of young people with similar taste in music and clothes. This is the last thing we need in the U.S., locked in a massive struggle with fascists and the government itself—a struggle we can only hope to win if ever-wider segments of the population are drawn to our side of the barricades.
Identity is fundamentally about distinguishing oneself from others. Anti-fascism, however, is for everybody. We should be careful not to insulate it within a particular demographic with a specific dress code and lingo, limiting our outreach to those familiar with the same rhetoric or reference points as ourselves. This is paramount because the far right are scrambling to depict antifa as a monolithic, hostile, alien organization. Our task is not just to build a network of groups, but to create anti-fascist momentum that can spread contagiously throughout society at large, along with the critiques and tactics necessary for this fight. Specific antifa groups and the cultural cache of “antifa” itself can be useful for that purpose, as can black-bloc tactics, but only if we evaluate them as tools for achieving particular objectives rather than expressions of identity or belonging.
The tendency to militarize
As the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists intensifies, we’re seeing more and more guns in the streets. Some people who were in Charlottesville reported that it was good that there were guns on both sides: it discouraged fascists from escalating physical conflicts past a certain point. Others report that most of the anti-fascists openly bearing arms were located some distance from the clashes. Some people who were in Ferguson at the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement say that without the threat of gunfire from the locals, the police would never have permitted the demonstrations to happen at all. Others who experienced the trauma of having their loved ones shot down in front of them counsel that the consequences of bringing guns into street conflict are weightier than most people can imagine.
Participants in the Syrian revolution report that for the first several months, the revolt created an open space of debate and possibility in which many people of different walks of life participated. Later, after the conflict escalated, power among the rebels accrued in the hands of religious fundamentalists, as they were the only ones who were able to consistently acquire military supplies—and from that point on, the horizon of liberation and transformation was closed.
Revolt usually spreads most rapidly before the lines of social conflict are definitively drawn, when it is not yet clear how far the changes will go or who will go over to the rebels’ side of the barricades. Once distinct sides have emerged, everyone tends to entrench themselves in fixed positions, quarantining the contagion of rebellion. Those who understand themselves as engaged in a civil war often hurry to draw these lines themselves, polarizing rather than transforming society. In strategizing for revolution, on the other hand, we pit ourselves against structural forms of power and oppression rather than against other human beings, and seek to draw as many people as possible into the struggle against them.
Sometimes, escalation is inescapable, even if it shuts the door to future possibilities. In any case, it is better to prepare for escalated conflict in advance than to be suddenly caught flatfooted. At the same time, if our goal is revolution rather than civil war, we should not hurry the process of escalation—we should drag it out as long as we can. Most of the social changes we want to see cannot be brought about by guns.
Likewise, we should not imagine that coercive force can solve everything, nor permit fascists and state repression to put us so on edge that we see enemies everywhere we look and begin to attack people when it is not strategic. In the words of an elder anti-fascist veteran from Germany, fascist violence aims to exterminate, while anti-fascist violence aims to educate—the goal is not to destroy the opponent, but to prevent him from doing harm while demonstrating a better way to relate to others. We should not hurry to put fascist martyrs in the ground next to Heather Heyer. We must never risk coming across as bullies. It must always be clear that we are here to protect the public at large, not to participate in gang warfare or assert our own authority. When we are compelled to use coercive force, we must make sure that the ways we do so don’t centralize power or legitimacy within our own movement. Those who are capable of exerting the most physical force against fascists must not be misunderstood to be the best anti-fascists.
The language of terrorism
In the wake of Heather Heyer’s murder, signs appeared at vigils reading, “White Supremacy is Terrorism.” While it is understandable that people wish to condemn her murder in the strongest possible terms, it is dangerous to use the language of terrorism to do so.
The framework of terrorism is constructed by the state to define who has the right to employ violence and who doesn’t. When we denounce white supremacists as terrorists, we mimic the verbiage of Senator Cory Gardner, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House.
The label “terrorist” is used to designate those who are beyond the state’s control and cannot be brought into political alignment with the state. This explains why Heather’s murderer has not been charged with terrorism, while over the past decade and a half many anarchists who never so much as scratched someone have received terrorism charges.
Using the rhetoric of the state reinforces narratives that the authorities will ultimately use against us. This is dangerous to our movements and constitutes a betrayal of comrades engaged in struggles parallel to ours. Palestinians are labeled terrorists to delegitimize their struggle against the Israeli state. Like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, the YPG and YPJ in Rojava have been labeled terrorists. The language and ideology of the “war on terror” were introduced into US political discourse in order to prepare the ground for the catastrophic occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The word terrorism comes to us from the Jacobin government’s brutal rule of France in the 1790s—the term was invented to describe their “reign of terror” during which thousands were executed, a prototype for countless subsequent dictatorships that drowned genuinely revolutionary upheavals in rivers of blood. Even though the word was coined for the Jacobins and they wore it proudly as a badge, some historians today argue that the Jacobins weren’t terrorists on the grounds that they were a state entity with legitimate power. In the centuries since, governments of every point on the statist political spectrum have murdered untold millions without being accused of terrorism. This shows the extent to which the discourse of terrorism serves to give the state carte blanche while delegitimizing all who stand against its power.
Rather than falling back on statist discourse to make our case against white supremacist violence and murder, we should criticize them in terms that foreground our own values: freedom, egalitarianism, and solidarity. White supremacist violence is oppressive, murderous, and aimed at achieving totalitarian control. Let’s invest these descriptors with as much weight as the label “terrorism” currently possesses.
There is no good authoritarianism
The far-right rally in Berkeley on August 27 was promoted under the slogan, “No to Marxism in America.” As with the far-right “March against Sharia,” there is no danger of the United States coming under a Marxist government any time soon. Like all totalitarians, fascists desperately need enemies even more oppressive than themselves to point to in order to convince people to join their ranks. There is an ominous symmetry between groups like ISIS and Western fascists, some of whom openly fantasize about a “White Sharia.” This explains their obsession with authoritarian Marxism.
In fact, the fiercest opposition to contemporary fascist organizing has not come from authoritarian Marxists, but from anarchists who oppose state power itself. This is inconvenient for many fascists in the US, who still seek to present themselves as enemies of “big government” in order to appeal to U.S. libertarians and traditional conservatives.
If fascists are eager to paint all their domestic opponents with the broad brush of Marxism, we should not hasten to assist them. Yes, authoritarian Marxists have historically played a role in the fight against fascism, but they have hardly played it honorably. They began by betraying and undermining other social movements as early as 1871. If Stalin hadn’t sabotaged anti-fascist participants in the Spanish Civil War and other movements around Europe and then concluded a pact with Hitler, the Second World War would have unfolded much differently, and it might not have taken decades afterwards for grassroots liberation movements to recover.
Both fascism and authoritarian Marxism—which is to say, statist Marxism—are experiencing a small resurgence today. Much of this is taking place among people who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, who are too young to have grandparents who lived through the Second World War. For many in the United States, totalitarianism is abstract, something to joke about on the internet. Some people on the Left see the hammer and sickle the way many right-wingers see the swastika: as a provocative meme rather than a blood-drenched symbol of oppression. Yet Stalin, too, carried out ethnic cleansing, as have many other authoritarian Marxist regimes.
One cannot consistently oppose fascism without opposing all forms of authoritarian government. This is not to say that rank-and-file members of authoritarian communist organizations can never be comrades in this struggle. Many of them are sincere people with the best of intentions—and clearly we need all the comrades we can get when we are facing down Nazis with guns. The point is that anti-fascists should oppose the leadership of authoritarian Marxist parties for many of the same reasons that we oppose fascists and other authoritarians. If you care about a member of an organization like the Bolshevik Party, you can express that care by making sure that his organization never comes to power—for if history is any guide, he will be the next up against the wall after you.
We must make it clear to the general public that we do not intend to impose a new dictatorship, but to open and preserve spaces of freedom. There is no statist solution for tyranny.
Unfortunately, Heather Heyer is not the first person to be taken from us by fascist violence, and she will not be the last. In addition to being wary of the discourse of terrorism and the tendency to militarize our struggles, we should be wary of the discourse of martyrdom and the tendency to celebrate death in battle. We need to find ways to remember people above all for who they were, for what their lives gave to the world, not for how they died or what their deaths meant to the struggle. We should not begin to regard ourselves or each other as playing pieces to be exchanged for strategic gains.
We live in a society in which aging and death are concealed from public view. If this struggle continues to intensify, more and more of us will be forced to learn what it is like to spend hard weeks in the hospital, to meet at funerals as well as outside jails and courtrooms. We should approach this as another opportunity to come to know ourselves better, to discover what is beautiful and worthwhile in life—the things for which we are fighting in the first place. We should not subordinate ourselves to the struggle, but recognize it as one of the ways that life pours forth abundantly within us.
Cutting to the roots
The vast majority of the anti-fascist struggle does not take place in street confrontations. It takes place in how we raise our children; it takes place in the hard conversations at workplaces and family dinners; it takes place in how we relate to our neighbors, how we understand togetherness and belonging. To triumph, we have to make it possible for people of all genders and ethnicities and religions to work together to survive the ordeals of capitalism. We have to create movements that can offer everybody more than the fascists ever could.
Ultimately, a thoroughgoing anti-fascist movement shouldn’t focus on targeting fascist groups that are so marginal that they stick out from the rest of the political spectrum, but take on the infrastructure through which any authoritarian program will be enacted. That is to say, it should focus on the state itself. This means blocking deportations and evictions, supporting targeted communities against police violence and legal repression, organizing against the prison-industrial complex, delegitimizing the police and military, rejecting unquestioning obedience to the law, undermining deference to all forms of institutional authority, and building grassroots, community-based networks that can provide directly for our needs.
If we simply fight defensive battles, the fascists will eventually gain the initiative. We should take the experiences of fighting together that we share in anti-fascist struggle and use those as points of departure to work together to solve all of the problems that capitalism and hierarchy create in our communities. This is the way to take the offensive and move on to confronting the fundamental sources of oppression.
Some believe that life will go back to normal soon enough, and fascism and anti-fascism will once more be things of the past. But we fear that we have yet to see how far these conflicts will go. We have to invest ourselves in confronting them head on. The only way out is through. |P
 Kyle Swenson, “Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley”, Washington Post, August 28, 2017: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/08/28/black-clad-antifa-attack-right-wing-demonstrators-in-berkeley/.
 “Watch Prayer Activist Recalls Being Assaulted By Antifa in Berkeley,” Fox News Insider, August 28, 2017:
 Ian Lovett, Jennifer Levitz and Cameron McWhirter, “How Antifa Violence Has Split the Left,” Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2017:
 See https://twitter.com/shane_bauer/status/901910367239938048 and https://twitter.com/ajplus/status/902385325363814400.
 Chris Hedges, “How ‘Antifa’ Mirrors the ‘Alt-Right’,” Truthdig, August 27, 2017: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/antifa-mirrors-alt-right/