Not just snowflakes, fighting the culture wars in the age of Trump: An interview with Mark Bray
Platypus Review 101 | November 2017
On October 12, 2017, Erin Hagood interviewed Mark Bray, a participant in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, lecturer at Dartmouth and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, to discuss the relationship of the anti-fascist movement to the Left and the challenges it faces in the age of Trump. The interview was aired during an episode of “Radical Minds” on WHPK-FM 88.5 Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Erin Hagood: You trace the transformation of the antifa movement from the interwar period to the present. Could you explain how anti-fascism has changed?
Mark Bray: In the interwar period, the various different socialist, communist, and anarchist groups, parties and unions were essentially forced to shift courses toward defending themselves against the onslaught of the far-right. Anti-fascism was a Left endeavor, but one that entailed the participation of mass popular parties, the formation of popular fronts, and the journey of the international brigades from around the world to defend the Spanish Republic from Franco and his fascist and Nazi allies. In the ‘70s and ‘80s there was a resurgence of militant anti-fascism in Europe. This was a response to the xenophobic backlash against migration from the Caribbean, South Asia, Turkey, and elsewhere.
This reflects an interesting contrast between two anti-fascist tendencies. The first is an official anti-fascism represented by the state that formed out of the ashes of World War Two and opposed the far-right through legislation against Nazis and fascists in Western Europe. The second is a militant anti-fascism that emerged from below, and contested this traditional anti-fascism. It rejected the notion that the far-right could be confronted by turning to the state, the police, or legislation. It emerged as a form of self-defense against neo-Nazi skinheads, and against attempts by far-right to burn down refugee centers, especially in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when nationalist euphoria was high.
This anti-fascist resistance was largely led by the autonomist movement which pioneered the Black Bloc street tactic, whereby people participate in militant activity under a veil of anonymity behind uniformly black clothing. This was not originally designed as an anti-fascist tactic, it was used to defend squats, to participate in the anti-nuclear movement, and do other actions.
But increasingly, in the late 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, Black Bloc was a formation that confronted neo-Nazis on the streets. Interestingly, it was a tactic that was not used in Britain, where anti-fascists preferred to dress in what they referred to as “casual,” whereby the police would not be able to differentiate them from fascists, football hooligans or what-have-you. Anti-fascist methods are always very contextual.
EH: What is the relationship of anti-fascism to the Left? You suggest that at times in history they have grown to be at odds.
MB: It depends on how you define the Left. In the post-war period, there was a division between two tendencies. On one hand, most of the socialist and communist parties of Europe advocated a legalistic, legislative opposition to the far-right. On the other hand, there was the direct-action-oriented, militant, radical left, influenced by anarchism, influenced by autonomist currents in Marxism, by counterculture, by Punk, and by the need for self-defense against fascists and neo-Nazis. In that sense, there is a tension within the European left over a direct action versus a legislative strategy.
Americans, however, are unfamiliar with this history and, consequently, the prospect of a modern anti-fascism is a new concept; people are trying to figure out what anti-fascism is, as they question what is happening with the alt-right and Trump. The conversation is fresh. That stands in stark contrast to Europe where the question of antifa and resisting the far-right goes back several decades in left consciousness and broader societal awareness.
There is no mass left party in the US and, consequently, the very of notion of a debate between a Left from below and a Left from above does not really exist.
In the US, there have been calls for legislation against the far-right and hate speech, but not in such an established way. The notion of free speech, as it is understood in the Anglo-American tradition, stands in sharp contrast with the Western European laws against hate speech, and fascist organizing. There is a different contour with regard to potentials for legislative recourse.
EH: What about the relationship of anti-fascism to anti-racism? Is there a uniquely American understanding of anti-fascism?
MB: In the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, the struggle against fascism was a struggle against anti-Semitism, especially in Germany. And it was a struggle against anti-imperialism, insofar as, for example, Mussolini’s Italy invaded Abyssinia.
There was a shift in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Initially, starting in Britain, the far-right shifted its focus from anti-Semitism to targeting migrants from the Caribbean, South Asia, and elsewhere. The National Front organized a campaign called “Keep Britain White.” In response, the spectrum of anti-fascism started to form alliances with anti-racist resistance of different immigrant communities. You can see how powerful these alliances were, for example, in the victory of the Battle of Lewisham in 1977.
Really, in Europe, there has been a recent demographic shift, characterized by an increased percentage of non-white and Muslim people. This is a different context than in the U.S., where the centrality of race in social struggle goes back centuries.
If you want to think of anti-fascism more broadly, then you can trace it back to Columbus, to the first slave ships, to resistance to the KKK, the Black Panthers, and so forth.
EH: Changes in anti-fascism have to take into account the changes in fascism itself. Today, it is unclear whether we are actually dealing with fascism. Donald Trump repudiates the neo-Nazi groups at Charlottesville and disowns the support of KKK members like David Duke. One assumes that if Trump lost the election in 2020, he would step down, which seems antithetical to the practices of fascism historically. Given this, what would you say to people who find it harder to believe that fascism exists today?
MB: After World War Two, the profile of the far-right in Europe and in North America shifted. There is a different context in the United States, where the KKK threatened African American communities, and the Civil Rights movement was struggling against white supremacy that went back generations. It was not really until the 1970s that you started to see neo-Nazi and KKK groups overlap because it was formerly discouraged by the “patriotic” legacy of opposing Nazism. Today, the alt-right is pretty open about being neo-Nazi and white supremacist. Just look at The Daily Stormer.
The alt-lite, represented by Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos and others, serves as a bridge between explicit neo-Nazi white supremacists and the conservative movement. College campus Republican groups invite these fascists onto campus.
While, I would not say that we have a fascist government in the U.S. right now, we do see that the Trump administration has a relationship to the alt-right, to Breitbart, and to white nationalist politics. We saw that he was very sympathetic to the khaki-wearing, tiki-torch white supremacists that rallied at Charlottesville.
It is not necessary to have an all-or-nothing understanding of fascism, where either you have Mussolini’s government or everything is fine. Fascism can creep into traditional conservative politics such that definite fascistic tendencies develop. We should not wait for there to be a fully-formed fascist regime and then call to “pull the emergency brake.”
Rather, we need to combat fascist and white nationalist politics in all their forms, regardless of context. We should push back against a few hundred neo-Nazis in a park, or a few dozen neo-Nazi skinheads trying to set up a Nazi house down the street. We need to develop a broader conception of anti-fascism that connects the struggle against mass incarceration, against police brutality, against gentrification, and other kinds of perspectives.
EH: Could you explain the relationship of resistance to Trump and the goal of a post-capitalist society? After all, the struggle against fascism has been an issue since the beginning of the 20th century, so there is a question of what is the final goal?
MB: Politics entails short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. We can differentiate between the long-term visions of social transformation and the short-term achievable goals like changing everyday discourse. We can change everyday perspectives on social justice issues by changing how we interact with each other.
One can think back to earlier decades when different terms for people of color or women were appropriate that are now no longer acceptable. People, decades ago, would admit to being in favor of segregation. But, if someone holds that perspective today, she would have to be very careful as to who she shared that with.
The barometer of social progress can be gauged in discourse. We should treat discourse seriously, and be attuned to the ways in which discourse can be used by Trump and the alt-right to make racism and sexism “great again.” We can increase the social cost of being a bigot, a sexist or a Trump supporter to the point where, in the future, that cost outweighs people’s desire to be open with their past. This creates a more conducive climate for an anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic politics in the future.
But, anti-fascism is also a politics of social revolution that argues about the illegitimacy of the state, the illegitimacy of the police, the need for popular organization from below, and the efficacy of direct action politics. Anti-fascism aims to sow the seeds for a broader, left revolutionary movement that will transcend simply stopping boneheads and white supremacists and, hopefully, change society as a whole. Thus, many anti-fascists are also union organizers, environmentalists, and other kinds of organizers who are involved in a variety of social projects, aspiring to build an anti-capitalist movement.
EH: When you talked about the importance of discourse, it brought to mind Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, which makes the argument that the alt-right comes from the culture wars and the Left’s preoccupation with discourse. These kids on the alt-right, she argues, think they are the rebels. How would you respond to that?
MB: In the last five decades, we have seen that the struggle for feminism, the struggle for civil rights, and the struggle for queer and trans liberation have all entailed struggles about discourse. The slow, but hopefully continual, progress that those justice movements are making in destroying traditional, patriarchal, white, heterosexual, capitalist privilege can be measured in discourse. It is good that in workplaces, universities, and polite discourse, certain words or stereotypes cannot be said.
The alt-right instrumentalizes and weaponizes the resentment of those whose privilege has been under attack. It appeals to straight, white, cis men who long for the days of lording over their domestic domain and society.
But, we cannot give into the notion that the Left is just arbitrating “political correctness” or invoking “cultural Marxism” or that we should simply open up free speech in a value-neutral, classically liberal notion where anyone feels free to say whatever they want and arguments can be made for white supremacy or for patriarchy.
We are in a culture war and people on the Left are not overly sensitive snowflakes but, rather, making sincere arguments for social justice.
If you are a bigot or a misogynist, if you want to go back to the way things were in the 1950s, then you are going to be made to feel uncomfortable. Everyday, anti-fascism tries to increase the social cost of espousing these views. Doxxing is a brilliant example of that. Consider how white dudes in khakis who were holding tiki torches down in Charlottesville—and attacking the University of Virginia students who were holding an anti-racist banner—came home to find that they had been denounced by their families, fired from their jobs, and ostracized from their communities.
I can see no alternative to this, apart from the liberal advocacy of free speech, which lets everyone say what they want to say and allows politics to go where it goes.
EH: Recently the relation of free speech to anti-fascism has featured in public debates, particularly on college campuses. You argue that anti-fascism is—and must be—explicitly illiberal. But would not that rely on state authority to stop speech and assembly of right-wing groups? Historically, the Left would have fallen on the other side of this argument. How do you respond to critics who would say that free speech is essential if the Left itself is to avoid repression?
MB: I want to clarify that militant anti-fascism rejects turning to the state and the police. This is distinct from a situation where there is a confrontation with the far-right and the police shut down the event. In such a situation, anti-fascists are not calling on the state, but, rather, the state is acting of its own accord.
Militant anti-fascists reject censorship, including laws against the far-right which are, more often than not, used against the left in greater proportion. One example today is the law in Virginia against using masks in demonstrations. This was originally designed to inhibit the KKK but is now used against the Left.
The classical liberal notion of free speech is a reflection of liberal politics. From a revolutionary socialist perspective it is an outgrowth of a bourgeois politics, reflected in its time and place, and not necessarily a universally shared value. Revolutionary socialists reject struggling against fascism in a liberal rights framework, where fascism would be treated as a difference of opinion that should be argued against. Instead, they see it as a politically animated struggle.
In general, anti-fascists have two different perspectives on the question of anti-fascism and free speech. One perspective argues that anti-fascism should not be against free speech. They argue that anti-fascists should not call upon the state to censor the far-right. They do not target individuals who make racist comments and, instead, focus on groups and parties that are trying to build power and embed themselves in communities. The second perspective argues that anti-fascism should be against free speech for fascists and does not really concern itself with what liberals have to say about the matter.
A very reasonable argument can be made, in the context of universities where we ideally want to promote free speech, diverse perspectives and the participation of people from all backgrounds, races, genders and nationalities. Allowing these neo-Nazis and white supremacists to dehumanize black people, queer people, Jews, and trans people is actually contrary to a fully-fledged diverse participation in any university. It is hard enough as it is for people who are part of marginalized communities to feel comfortable participating on an equal footing. To have this menace is really contrary to a politically-informed, anti-racist, feminist notion of speech, as opposed to the 18th-century, classical liberal notion.
EH: On the day of Trump’s inauguration many Black Bloc protesters attacked symbols of capitalism, such as banks and fast food restaurants, to demonstrate how fascism is a problem of capitalism. How do these anti-fascist tactics relate to the goal of a post-capitalist society, and do they really relate to the will of the people?
MB: At the January 20th protests against Donald Trump, on the day of his inauguration in Washington, DC, there was an anti-capitalist and anti-fascist march, and some of the people in that march did engage in targeted property destruction in locations like Starbucks and Bank of America.
When a president comes into office, who many liberals, moderates and progressives have labeled as a fascist or an authoritarian, then people will become concerned. They will step outside of politics and business as usual to pull the emergency brake so that the functioning of such a government would be impossible. The destruction of property was meant to link the connection between capitalism and Trump. It demonstrated that business as usual could not continue to function, and that anti-fascists could do more than simply marching and holding signs, which is all too easily ignored by people in positions of power.
The Black Bloc tactic has a history in Europe and North America that goes back several decades. The most prominent example of Black Bloc in the United States was the Battle of Seattle against the World Trade Organization in 1989, as part of a larger effort that did eventually shut down the summit. It is one tactic among many that anti-fascists and anti-capitalists have used; tactics are always a matter of time and place.
EH: Does anti-fascism connect to the broader public? Not only is anti-fascism denounced by popular media, but people in their everyday lives do not always see, or have interest in the anti-fascist struggle. How does a worker at McDonalds respond to the trashing of her workplace. Wouldn’t she think, “I will be the one who has to clean this mess up”?
MB: It all depends on context. In France and Spain anti-fascists were the guiding force in creating neighborhood assemblies. While doing this work they would not wear their masks, but would instead interface with unions and community groups to build popular forms of resistance and inclusion. These were so successful that in Madrid, for example, the fascists of Hogar Social, who would give free food to ethnic Spaniards, would get pushed out of the neighborhood by the residents themselves.
Militant groups have also mobilized alongside members of unions and parties against neo-Nazi marches in Sweden, Germany, and Norway. Even in the US, Cornel West and other clergy found it useful to have organized anti-fascists at the counter-protests in Charlottesville. When armed neo-Nazis charged, it was useful to have people who were trained in self-defense.
There are other “popular” anti-fascist formations in the U.S., such as Solidarity and Defense in Michigan, a network of groups in six or seven cities in Michigan. They focus on community organizing against fascism, gentrification, and police brutality. This sort of organizing has roots in the general defense committees of the Industrial Workers of the World, which worked to create a working class self-defense mode of anti-fascism linked to labor struggles.
There are different ways to think about what militancy entails, what popular politics entails. What distinguishes the anti-fascist perspective is that its vision of popular politics does not start from baseline mainstream public opinion, especially because, historically, the majority population has been hostile to many of the marginalized communities that are under attack.
Rather than starting from public opinion based on your average everyday person, anti-fascists—especially in the last few decades—focus on self-defense and community empowerment from those communities that are under attack and then work outwards to bring in popular support.
EH: What are the particular challenges facing anti-fascism in the present and how might they be overcome?
MB: Some parallels can be drawn between the rise of “respectable” far-right political parties in Europe and the rise of Trump in the US. In France there is the Front National, in Germany there is the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and there are other similar parties elsewhere with roots in fascism. And, other political tendencies have adopted xenophobic and islamophobic perspectives in order to tap into the deep-seated nationalist resentment that is boiling up again in Europe.
Today, the problem is that our opponent is not small or medium sized, but is, often, a substantial party in parliament with a broad base of support. It is not just neo-Nazis or skinheads. To some extent, anti-fascists are at a bit of a loss as to how to adjust.
Ultimately, we need to do our politics better than they do theirs: The solution is a powerful left. We need to build a working-class movement powerful enough that when people fall on hard times, they do not turn to xenophobia, but to their fellow workers and communities with whom they can begin to construct an alternative.
We know that fascism grows during times of depression and crisis. If the Left cannot meet people’s needs—as is the case with the failure of the socialist parties in Spain and Greece to push back against austerity—this creates an opening for the far-right to present itself as the only alternative. Ultimately, anti-fascism needs to ground itself a broader left struggle; it needs to involve all kinds of organizing to make it so that there is no room for fascist politics to appeal to people’s everyday needs. |P
Transcribed by Patrick Zapien, Ola Gorczynski, and Dane Thomas.