Weeks after a white supremacist murdered a peaceful counter-protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, public condemnation of far-right violence has shifted to condemnation of anti-fascist protesters, or antifa. To critics, antifa is a menace: a threat to free speech, because its activists block white supremacist gatherings and no-platform speakers like Milo Yiannopolous; and a threat to public safety, because antifa activists aren’t reluctant to damage property or throw a punch. White supremacists, not antifa activists, have committed fatal hate crimes in the Trump era. In the past decade, left-wingers have been responsible for a mere 2 percent of murders committed by political extremists, while right-wingers have been responsible for 74 percent. Yet Donald Trump blamed “many sides,” antifa, and the “alt-left” for Charlottesville’s tragedy.
Trump isn’t alone. On Sept. 1, Politico reported that the Department of Homeland Security had formally classified antifa’s counter-protests as “domestic terrorist violence.” The state of California is reportedly considering classifying the group as a street gang. And a number of liberals have joined in: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi condemned the group in an August statement, and Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, argued that antifa’s tactics made it authoritarianism’s “unlikeliest ally.”
But what is antifa? Is it really a threat to public safety and free speech, or is it, as supporters argue, a defensive effort to protect vulnerable communities? In his new book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, Dartmouth historian Mark Bray presents a guide to understanding the history and ideology of this controversial political group. Anti-fascism, Bray writes, is ideologically diverse; antifa activists can be Marxists, or socialists, or anarchists, or some other left-wing philosophical amalgam. “Antifa should not be understood as a single-issue movement,” Bray explains. Antifa activists do share one overarching principle, however: “Antifa act out of collective self-defense,” Bray asserts.
Since publishing Antifa, Bray himself has become a target of antifa’s critics. Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon repudiated Bray, stating, “As an institution, we condemn anything but civil discourse in the exchange of opinions and ideas.” In this interview, Bray talks to the New Republic about antifa, its goals, and what critics get wrong about the group. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You say that antifa can’t be properly understood as a pure negation of fascism. Can you expand on that?
When we talk about anti-fascism we need to see it as a tradition of pan-left politics that is not reducible simply to opposition to fascism. It is also informed by commonly shared anti-capitalist and revolutionary outlooks. In that way, an anti-fascist is not simply anyone who opposes fascism. Anti-fascism is a specific strand or tendency that opposes fascism from a pan-radical position.
Do you think the press sometimes misapplies the term “antifa?” What’s the difference between antifa and, say, the black bloc? Do you have any advice for reporters who find themselves covering the group?
The black bloc is a street tactic. It’s not a specific group. And one of the most common mistakes of journalists is to treat it as if it were a specific group. The tactic originated in Germany in the 1980s as a way for individuals or groups to participate in militant actions without being identified; they dressed uniformly in black to cover their faces. In the 80s it was used to defend squatters from the police. It was also used to confront neo-Nazis, especially toward the end of the ’80s and the 1990s. In North America, perhaps the most famous example is the 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization.
Part of the challenge that a lot of journalists face is this need to put everything into very clear boxes. But I think that when you look at Charlottesville or you look at Berkeley, you see that just because someone is behaving a certain way doesn’t mean that they necessarily are part of a specific group. They could just perhaps be identifying with the politics. So it’s a little grayer than the media assumes.
Can we even call antifa a group, or is it more a political philosophy?
It’s more of the latter. It’s not a specific group, it’s a mode of politics, it’s an activity. Anyone can form a group and call themselves that and do the things that they do. There is no central command, although some countries have networks. In the United States, there’s the Torch network which groups about a dozen anti-fascist groups. But they’re all autonomous even within that. So it’s a way of doing politics. It’s also an interpretation of strategy in response to fascism.
In your book, you say that antifa activists tried to prevent neo-Nazi recruitment of alternative music fans. Considering that history, do you think its tactics tell us anything useful about preventing far right radicalization?
When modern antifa developed in the 1970s and ’80s era a lot of it was in response to the infiltration of alternative social spaces and punk venues and social centers by neo-Nazis and other fascists. Today, we can see that in many countries such as Russia or Italy, where a lot of football fan groups and to some extent some of the music scene has been overrun by fascists. Fascism, and really political movements in general, grow not only through politics but also through creating a cultural milieu that recruits people who don’t identify with the mainstream. It’s important to fascists to develop a base since they thrive on street violence; it is important for them to recruit especially disaffected young men. To counteract this anti-fascists put a lot of importance on counter-recruiting at football games and in the music scene or anywhere that fascists try to make themselves the norm.
This was done most successfully in response to the influence of the National Front in football in Britain. In the ’70s and ’80s, anti-fascists there very successfully fought back.
Tell me a little bit more about the differences between European and American anti-fascist groups.
A lot of it has to do with with context. In Europe, the historical memory of the fascist era is stronger and has greater continuity than in the United States. Just about everyone here knows about World War II and Nazis and fascists but it’s still seen as more of something that happened over there in Europe, and that was definitively defeated in 1945. It’s not always seen as part of the same tradition as as racism and the KKK in the United States. But I think that to understand Nazism and fascism we have to situate them within a larger conversation about historical white supremacy. And in that way, there are analogues to be discussed.
In Europe, there are people who are anti-fascists who lived under Franco in Spain, who lived under Salazar in Portugal, or who had parents or grandparents who lived under Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. They have a legacy of anti-fascist resistance.
What, if anything, do you think antifa’s critics tend to get wrong?
Most of what antifa groups do is nonviolent. Most of it has to do with research and monitoring and tracking and making phone calls to venue owners and organizing boycotts against the American Legion that are hosting white power rock events. So the spectacle of confrontation is really usually a last resort, when other methods have failed, to disrupt these groups. It’s a small percentage of what is done.
Agree or disagree with what anti-fascists do, but it’s important to understand their activities in a larger political and ethical context. Which is to say that the violence of fascism and the violence of anti-fascism are only identical if you ignore what fascism means. There is a de-politicization of fascism that sees it as essentially an individual failing committed by a lot of people rather than a force in political history that need to be confronted. So what happens is these confrontations are understood as just individuals committing acts of violence rather than as a political struggle.
Anti-fascists are also leftists of all stripes who also are union organizers and environmentalists and immigrant rights advocates and so forth. These people do a lot of political work and are very committed, and this isn’t a hobby or a fad that people decided to do on a whim. It is the product of serious political analysis. It’s a reaction to what they perceive to be an imminent threat.
Critics say antifa is a threat to public safety. Why isn’t antifa more responsive to criticisms about its tactics? How does it perceive its responsibility to the public and the public’s safety?
I’ll answer the second part and then I’ll answer the first.
In terms of public safety, they would argue that both historically and in the present day the threat of organized fascism and white supremacy is significant. We’ve seen that not only of with the tragic examples of the Holocaust and genocide in general, but also even more recently with the death of Heather Heyer. They’d argue that the real danger is far-right racist politics.
They’d also argue that both historically and presently, the police cannot be counted on consistently to stop fascists. The FBI has has documented white power infiltration into some local law enforcement. Historically the police are sometimes sympathetic to the “law and order” promises of fascism. So anti-fascists don’t trust the police.
Secondly, there’s a difference of opinion within anti-fascism about how important public opinion is and what role it plays in the struggle. Some people see it as very important. One perspective is that fascism thrives when it manages to capitalize upon the grievances that people feel, their economic plight, their xenophobia, and so from that perspective, organizing popular opposition to fascism is essential. But another perspective is that it’s not especially important if the public likes what they do as long as they achieve their goal of stopping the advance of fascist organizing.
You spoke to a number of antifa organizers for this book. Was there anything that particularly struck you about them? What should people understand about the relationship between their politics and their experiences of the world?
As a way of explanation, I am an activist. I’ve been involved in a lot of social movements over the years such as Occupy Wall Street in New York City and labor organizing and anti-war organizing. And so through doing that I know a lot of different people involved in different movements. What I found when I started doing my book is I reached out to people I knew and said, “Hey, do you know anyone who’s done this work?” They’d say, “Oh, well, I’ve done that work, or so-and-so is has done that work, or so-and-so is part of this group.” It was very hard for me to tell at the outset which of the people I knew have done anti-fascist work or are doing it now.
I say that to essentially communicate the point that antifa is just a collection of radical leftists who think that this is an important task to accomplish. It’s just a cross-section of the radical left, especially anarchists and anti-authoritarians, and beyond that, it’s hard to draw too many more conclusions. I spoke to people of different races and genders and occupations. It does tend to be on the younger side but that’s true of most social movements in general.
Some writers, myself included, have argued that liberals and conservatives who use the term “alt-left” for antifa are engaging in red-baiting. Do you think that’s accurate?
I think that’s true. I think that the notion of the alt-left is deeply problematic in a number of ways. You know the term alt-right was something that Richard Spencer coined and it is a term that many on the right have embraced. It has analytical content to it. The attempt to name an alt-left shines a spotlight away from the alt-right and create a false political and moral equivalency.
You’ve gotten a lot of criticism for writing this book. Are you surprised by that, and why do you think there’s been so much backlash?
If anything I’ve been heartened by some relatively positive reviews in some prominent periodicals. It’s sold much more than I expected it to. And I’m not surprised that there’s a lot of backlash. It’s a controversial book about a controversial subject. I wrote it knowing what the response would be. It’s an explicitly partisan book. I never tried to hide my support for anti-fascism and my opposition to fascism and white supremacist politics.
There seems to be an irony inherent in the fact that critics of antifa say it shuts down free speech, and yet you’ve become the target of attacks for this book. Dartmouth’s president even released a statement condemning your work.
It is ironic because I wouldn’t characterize my position as being anti-free speech. Nevertheless, the whole idea of academic freedom is that academics have the right to espouse a wide range of views, including my support for anti-fascism, yet I was abused by people who didn’t even take the time to contact me to clarify my views.
In a follow up e-mail that the president of Dartmouth wrote responding to a letter signed by over 120 Dartmouth faculty supporting me, he reaffirms his support for my academic freedom. But he misrepresents his initial message.
Anti-fascists argue that the real enemies of free speech are those who want to murder most of humanity. They don’t see fascism as a difference of opinion that can be argued with, they see it as a political opponent to be organized against. Most anti-fascists don’t see the classically liberal interpretation of speech as an important lens through which to understand the struggle.
Now, that having been said, there are two basic perspectives that I came across on free speech and anti-fascism, one being that anti-fascism is not anti-free speech because free speech is a constitutional guarantee: “We’re not the government. We’re not trying to censor anyone. We’re not calling upon the government to censor anyone.”
Another school of thought says more straightforwardly “no free speech for fascists.” The argument is that no right is really ever guaranteed and absolute in a complex society. All rights are mitigated by the degree to which they infringe upon or are limited by other considerations. And so the dangers of organized fascism mitigate the benefits of a free speech absolutism.
The Department of Homeland Security has reportedly classified antifa as a domestic terrorist group. What’s your response?
It’s not entirely surprising that the police and federal authorities would respond to this kind of politics in this way because they’ve done it in the past. That’s sort of what they tend to do. But don’t lump anti-fascists into the same category with ISIS or Al Qaeda as terrorists. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Certainly some of what anti-fascists do is illegal. But in a context where the Trump administration is not focusing as much attention on domestic white supremacist extremist terrorism as as it is on radical Islamist terrorism, and is also focused on the left rather than the right, despite the right’s documented recent legacy of killing people, this decision seems very clearly politically motivated to me.