An Intimate History of Antifa

  • Posted on: 23 August 2017
  • By: thecollective

The New Yorker By Daniel Penny, August 22, 2017

On October 4, 1936, tens of thousands of Zionists, Socialists, Irish dockworkers, Communists, anarchists, and various outraged residents of London’s East End gathered to prevent Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists from marching through their neighborhood. This clash would eventually be known as the Battle of Cable Street: protesters formed a blockade and beat back some three thousand Fascist Black Shirts and six thousand police officers. To stop the march, the protesters exploded homemade bombs, threw marbles at the feet of police horses, and turned over a burning lorry. They rained down a fusillade of projectiles on the marchers and the police attempting to protect them: rocks, brickbats, shaken-up lemonade bottles, and the contents of chamber pots. Mosley and his men were forced to retreat.

In “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” published last week by Melville House, the historian Mark Bray presents the Battle of Cable Street as a potent symbol of how to stop Fascism: a strong, unified coalition outnumbered and humiliated Fascists to such an extent that their movement fizzled. For many members of contemporary anti-Fascist groups, the incident remains central to their mythology, a kind of North Star in the fight against Fascism and white supremacy across Europe and, increasingly, the United States. According to Bray, antifa (pronounced an-tee-fah) “can variously be described as a kind of ideology, an identity, a tendency or milieu, or an activity of self-defense.” It’s a leaderless, horizontal movement whose roots lie in various leftist causes—Communism, anarchism, Socialism, anti-racism. The movement’s profile has surged since antifa activists engaged in a wave of property destruction during Donald Trump’s Inauguration—when one masked figure famously punched the white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face—and ahead of a planned appearance, in February, by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley, which was cancelled. At the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a number of antifa activists, carrying sticks, blocked entrances to Emancipation Park, where white supremacists planned to gather. Fights broke out; some antifa activists reportedly sprayed chemicals and threw paint-filled balloons. Multiple clergy members credited activists with saving their lives. Fox News reported that a White House petition urging that antifa be labelled a terrorist organization had received more than a hundred thousand signatures.

Bray’s book is many things: the first English-language transnational history of antifa, a how-to for would-be activists, and a record of advice from anti-Fascist organizers past and present—a project that he calls “history, politics, and theory on the run.” Antifa activists don’t often speak to the media, but Bray is a former Occupy Wall Street organizer and an avowed leftist; he has intimate access to his subjects, if not much critical distance from them. Especially in later chapters of the book, that access helps him to provide an unusually informed account of how antifa members conceptualize their disruptive and sometimes violent methods.

Many liberals who are broadly sympathetic to the goals of antifa criticize the movement for its illiberal tactics. In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Peter Beinart, citing a series of incidents in Portland, Oregon, writes, “The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.” (Beinart’s piece is headlined “The Rise of the Violent Left.”) According to Bray, though, antifa activists believe that Fascists forfeit their rights to speak and assemble when they deny those same rights to others through violence and intimidation. For instance, last week, the North Dakota newspaper The Forum published a letter from Pearce Tefft in which he recalled a chilling exchange about free speech with his son, Peter, shortly before Peter headed to the rally in Charlottesville. “The thing about us fascists is, it’s not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech,” the younger Tefft reportedly said to his father. “You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.”

For Bray and his subjects, the horror of this history and the threat of its return demands that citizens, in the absence of state suppression of Fascism, take action themselves. Bray notes that state-based protections failed in Italy and Germany, where Fascists were able to take over governments through legal rather than revolutionary means—much as the alt-right frames its activities as a defense of free speech, Fascists were able to spread their ideology under the aegis of liberal tolerance. Antifa does not abide by John Milton’s dictum that, “in a free and open encounter,” truthful ideas will prevail. “After Auschwitz and Treblinka,” Bray writes, “anti-fascists committed themselves to fighting to the death the ability of organized Nazis to say anything.”

Part of antifa’s mission is to establish, as Bray puts it, “the historical continuity between different eras of far-right violence and the many forms of collective self-defense that it has necessitated across the globe over the past century.” To this end, the first half of his book is a somewhat rushed history of anti-Fascist groups. The progenitors of antifa, in this account, were the German and Italian leftists who, following the First World War, banded together to fight proto-Fascist gangs. In Italy, these leftists gathered under the banner of Arditi del Popolo (“the People’s Daring Ones”), while in Weimar Germany, groups like Antifaschistische Aktion, from which antifa takes its name, evolved from paramilitary factions of existing political parties. Bray moves swiftly to the failure of anti-Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, then races through the second half of the twentieth century. In the late seventies, the punk and hardcore scenes became the primary sites of open conflict between leftists and neo-Nazis; that milieu prefigures much of the style and strategy now associated with the anti-Fascist movement. In the Netherlands and Germany, a group of leftist squatters known as Autonomen pioneered the Black Bloc approach: wearing all-black outfits and masks to help participants evade prosecution and retaliation. Bray reaches the present with his description of “Pinstripe Fascists,” such as Geert Wilders, and the rise of new far-right parties and groups in both Europe and America. The book flits between countries and across decades; analysis is sparse. The message is that antifa will fight Fascists wherever they appear, and by any means necessary.

The book’s later chapters, such as “Five Historical Lessons for Anti-Fascists” and “ ‘So Much for the Tolerant Left!’: ‘No Platform’ and Free Speech,” which are adapted from essays published elsewhere, are more focussed and persuasive. Here Bray explicitly deals with the philosophical and practical problems of antifa: violence versus nonviolence; mass movements versus militancy; choosing targets and changing tactics. Bray concedes that the practice of disrupting Fascist rallies and events could be construed as a violation of the right to free speech and assembly—but he contends that such protections are meant to prevent the government from arresting citizens, not to prevent citizens from disrupting one another’s speech. Speech is already curtailed in the U.S. by laws related to “obscenity, incitement to violence, copyright infringement, press censorship during wartime,” and “restrictions for the incarcerated,” Bray points out. Why not add one more restriction—curtailing hate speech—as many European democracies do? As for the slippery-slopists, afraid that antifa will begin with Fascists and eventually attack anybody who opposes them, Bray maintains that the historical record does not support this fear: anti-Fascists who have shut down local hate groups, as in Denmark, usually go dark themselves, or turn their attention to other political projects, rather than finding new enemies to fight. (In his Atlantic piece, Beinart notes, “When fascism withered after World War II, antifa did too.”)

Violence, Bray insists, is not the preferred method for past or present antifa—but it is definitely on the table. He quotes a Baltimore-based activist who goes by the name Murray to explain the movement’s outlook:

You fight them by writing letters and making phone calls so you don’t have to fight them with fists. You fight them with fists so you don’t have to fight them with knives. You fight them with knives so you don’t have to fight them with guns. You fight them with guns so you don’t have to fight them with tanks.

There is a moral logic to this notion of anticipatory self-defense, but the progression, from writing letters to fighting with guns, is worrisome nonetheless. Right-wing militiamen in Charlottesville made a point of displaying force, and this was reportedly “unnerving to law enforcement officials on the scene.” Should anti-Fascists start toting AR-15s, like the right-wing Oathkeepers? The idea can seem naïve in an American context, where, practically speaking, only white people can carry guns openly without fear of police interference. Bray mentions a few pro-gun antifa groups, including the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, and a collective with the punning moniker Trigger Warning; he quibbles with liberal scholars, including Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, who dismiss violent protest as an ineffective tool for garnering public support. But it is unclear from the book whether he thinks that brandishing guns is an ethical concern as well as a tactical one, or whether he worries about an escalation of violence. Postwar antifa, as Bray details in earlier chapters, has largely been a European project, in which opposing sides sometimes beat each other senseless and stabbed one another to death. They didn’t have assault rifles. The Battle of Cable Street was fought with rocks and paving stones.

What were the effects of Cable Street, exactly? Scholars continue to debate the showdown’s consequences. After the battle, Mosley, like present-day Fascists, was able to cast himself in the role of a law-abiding victim assaulted by immigrant hordes. In the months following, Fascist youth attacked London’s Jewish residents and businesses in what became known as the Mile End Pogrom, and the British Union of Fascists did better at the polls in 1937 than they had in years prior. Bray argues that such results do not undermine the legacy of the incident, because it radicalized and galvanized a community, which continued to fight Fascists in Britain through the buildup to the war and beyond, and whose efforts were largely successful.

In the British press, at least, Cable Street has been referenced repeatedly in coverage of the protests and the terrorism in Charlottesville, an event that has forced a discussion of what to do when far-right extremists come to your town. Bray, for his part, believes that one can practice “everyday anti-fascism” by confronting bigots in nonviolent ways, “from calling them out, to boycotting their business, to shaming them for their oppressive beliefs, to ending a friendship unless someone shapes up.” The point, as he sees it, is to shut down Fascists not just in the street but in every interaction. “An anti-fascist outlook has no tolerance for ‘intolerance.’ ” he writes. “It will not ‘agree to disagree.’ ”

Daniel Penny is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff.



There’s More to Antifa Than the Media Coverage Suggests; David Neiwert on Charlottesville and the Right’s New Extremists

This week, we'll speak to Scott Crow, an author and former antifa activist, to talk about what the media coverage tends to miss about these often controversial groups of radical fascist-fighters.

Then we'll be joined by David Neiwert, a veteran journalist who's covered far-right movements for years. David is currently the Pacific Northwest correspondent for SPLC's Intelligence Report and the author of the upcoming book: Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. We'll talk to him about the riots at Charlottesville, and what they say about the latest iteration of white nationalism in the US

For one thing the initial rise of fascism was based on leftist degenerated developments(corporatism and progressivism). He's basically wacking at weeds and branches. There's also the fact that the precautionary principle which he is proposing has CLEARLY failed. I remember when these ideas were not much beyond Bill White's basement. The fact of the matter is that fascism has had 2 waves so far based simply on the structure of the times. There is a time for the formation of groups like the Edleweiss Pirates(a very inspiring group of poetic warriors) but these are situational defensive based attacks.

The Cable Street example is hardly an analogue for the silliness seen by the antifatards today.

Do not be a fucking enabler of MORE laws. It's a bad thing in an of itself that we have these restrictive laws. Another reason why antifas ain't anarchists in the least. I consider you an opponent if you want to add hate laws to the laundry list of laws that I already have to deal with.

Antifa doesn't advocate for hate speech laws you fucking twit. There is nothing about Antifa as a tactic or tendency that necessitates the advocation of hate speech laws and in most cases Antifa groupings have explicitly rejected the use of the cops and courts.

In practice, self-identified antifa in North America are not into that, obvs, but maybe they could be, insofar as they are not anarchists.

Self-identification doesn't even matter tho. People become antifa by participating in a demo, from the perspective of outwardly imposed regimes of identification. And Zigs reifies this shit in order to pursue his impossible semantic project of expelling certain anarchists from anarchyland becuz... who fucking knows, but let's call it degeneracy, lol.

But it ain't necessary to defend a general, otherwise unqualifief antifa too much... even if the hate speech law-loving antifa group is entirely fictive, it is still conceivable. Unlike an explicitly anarchist formation that does the same.

I am always down for more explicit anarchist positioning, rhetoric, etc. from within this whole antifa moment.

And I don't think he's alone.

In practice, the most shamelessly liberal people who aren't strict pacifists will identify with antifa, identify with the militant rhetoric and then still end up talking about hate speech laws when they try and "do something" because liberals gonna liberal.

Then people like me smile condescendingly and tell them to go ahead and lobby for legal reform if that's how they want to spend their time. Fill your boots champ! Hey, that's great that you're doing that!

Also, having read this article and watched several interviews with Bray, he's more of a scholar talking about leftist coalition movements fighting the far right, therefore tracking the terrain of hate speech legislation. He gives equal attention to the many different tendencies that are part of the antifa legacy and doesn't seem to favour any of them, focusing on what gets results.

"leftist degenerated developments (corporatism..."

seriously. corporatism was a leftist development. mmm hmmm.

You do know there is a relationship between corporatism and the degenerated side of syndicalism(people like Sorrel)

Yeah, bags of cash from industrialists buying off the most influential socialist in Italy at the time, Mussolini.

Just when you thought the Noamster couldn't get any more liberal:

It's just that chomsky faculty in his brain. Neuralscientists cannot locate this and other brain faculties. But, no worries. Just need to highly organize the searching faculties with the finding faculties and the answer faculties.

Dude hasn't made substantial contributions to anything including linguistics, in a very long time. This goes for learning, too. Hasn't really felt the need since he put down a Rudolf Rocker book as a kid, 1936.

Anti-fascism as it exists right now gives rightwing ideology a certain kind of counter cultural street cred. Antifa write now is the opposite of what a left-wing associated counter culture looks like given it's role in liberal humanist tolerance based discourse.

Yeah, there's a phase in its development where it gains steam by being opposed, it gains legitimacy in the eyes of its base by casting itself as the maverick or the victim facing off with the hordes of commies and immigrants BUT here is where people get lost because they're looking at two bad options.

1. Over-react and make it reactionary movements coalesce even faster by feeding in to the narratives of the left versus the right.

2. Ignore them while the prevailing social and economic conditions continue to worsen, expanding the terrain in which they can organize and recruit, albeit more slowly.

I think when it comes to number two the key is to be an emerging force of belief and behavior against power state and authority. The problem with the current left is that like it's father in the 1930s it's decedent. It's working off of old organizing modes that don't work anymore. The alt-right today is again the counter cultural force like its 30s father. Wha agents of anarchy should be doing is developing new modes of affection right now. Very little of this should be anti-fascism beyond doing what's necessary to undermine the belief.

As it stands right now the modern state will probably recoup up the middle with another new deal. I am much more concerned about another new deal then I am about the fascist elements of the alt-right. Hell I think most of the people you see in the alt-right will end up being part of some reconstructed cultural age replacing current legacy media and other power structures. There will be no ethno state.

if a guy and a girl are friends, and he gets too sexually aggressive too early, she may go on the attack to cure him of his 'sexually offensive behaviour', to teach him to behave respectfully to her.

at this point she is protesting against 'sexually offensive behaviour', but she does not label him a 'sexual offender'. the problem is with his inappropriate behaviour and not with his 'basic being' [who he 'really is' deep-down].

the conservative/fascist has traditionally believed that a person either has the right stuff in them or not; i.e. that people are defined by their internal make-up. if a person goes to a communist meeting then for the conservative, he is 'showing his true colours' and exposing the fact that 'he IS a 'commie''.

a conservative girl could similarly interpret sexually offensive behaviour on the part of her boyfriend in the same light, as if his sexually aggressive behaviour is exposing his 'true colours' as a pervert.

conservatives tend to believe that there are 'evil people' out there, rather than 'people who may, under some or other circumstances, behave offensively'. when the belief is that there are 'commies' or 'anarchists' hiding out there, the conservative orients to 'smoking them out' and 'launching pre-emptive strikes'.

the conservative girl might enlist the help of a female police officer dressed as hooker and playing the tease to see if the guy steps over the line where he can be convicted of sexual assault. the question of 'entrapment' arises in such cases.

antifa is a kind of 'conservative tactic' launched by leftists.

is a person going to a fascist rally simply to employ provocative ideas and behaviour, or is he 'showing his 'true colours''?

antifa seem to be a sort of mccarthyite leftist movement.

and some people who dress up like nazis seem more interested in employing provocative behaviour to elicit reaction (stir the shit), than in being purveyors of alt-right political theory.

epigenetic influence (situational circumstance) inductively actualizes genetic expression (intention-driven), as the Zimbardo [guards and prisoners] and Milgram [respect for authority] psychological experiments showed, but it is popular to believe the opposite, that our offensive actions derive from 'who we really are deep-down'.

… so many things wrong with this analysis, with some creepy analogies thrown in. How can a guy who thinks he's so damned clever be such a dumbass? This post contradicts itself: Why are you defending this hypothetical person who's a fair-weather reactionary while making sweeping generalizations about "leftist mccarythism"? Are you making broad value judgements about groups of individuals or not? expose relational understanding that is already there that has become obscured with layers of being-based bullshit.

antifa and fascist are already 'sweeping generalizations. they are categories and categories are defined on the basis of common properties that define qualifying membership

some people prefer to respond to situational circumstances (unfolding relational dynamics) rather than becoming pavlov's dogs in the suspected presence of a hated category.

we do not need to 'place people in categories'. that is the whole point. if one responds to relational-situational particulars rather than to the suspected presence of a hated or beloved category, then there is no need for categories.

however, if you are a category-lover, if you find some labels that fit, you are free to wear them and/or eulogize them and/or attack them.

Your wall texts can't hide your double-think, nor the inclination you have towards maligning the left over the right. The whole point of the word McCarthyism was a culture being propagated by reactionaries with huge resources within the government to push back against more organic ideas of socialism in the general population.

False equivocation. Shitty analogy. Also, it's not really a strawman, I'm just deliberately insulting you ;)

there are two very different ways of 'identifying' people; (a) relationally, by the complex of relational social dynamics the person is included in, which is the only way for cultures with relational languages which have no concept of 'being' and (b) categorically, according to a list of common attributes defining membership in a category of 'being', as would determine whether or not someone IS or IS NOT a 'witch', hence the word 'witch-hunt'.

the 'witch' is 'AN EVIL BEING' with strange dark powers who might seem otherwise 'perfectly respectable' in their relations within the relational social dynamic. if there are ten attributes that define membership in the category and your detractors have got 8 or 9 on you, look out, because the fact that your complex of relations in the community is healthy and harmonious is not going to protect you; ... you are in deep shit if they dig up or fabricate membership attribute number 10.

It's about time the American people got wise to Einstein....He ought to be prosecuted. —Representative John Rankin, member of the House Un-American Activities Committee

the alt-right is a hodge-podge of people yet the leftist populace seem to be catching a whiff of witchery and hitlerian darkness in the air which is inductively orchestrating some exorcist activism in the political left, that recalls the tactics of the post WWII mccarthyist right. This degeneracy of political issue analysis to simplistic good vs evil narratives is the conclusion of Adam Curtis documentaries [The Trap, Bitter Lake, Hypernormalisation].

while the right has always had a religious core where the existence of incarnate evil is an openly professed belief and source of fear, this is new for the left, and seems to be developing out of an intensifying need for 'politically correct speech' but as george carlin said, if you commit yourself to cleaning up offensive or racist speech, where will it stop?

OR you love to cast your critics as "too shallow" to understand, which is exactly why I started off calling you "clever" because you always pull this same shit pseudo intellectual pose.

You Gish Gallop all over the place and when your smokescreen of pointless verbosity is cancelled, these are the same trite, bad-faith arguments that have been nuked many times already.

Most Antifa activity isn't what you're trying to portray it as. You're guilty of the exact same generalizing bullshit you're critiquing across the fence while you posture as if you're above all this partisan stuff. Bullshit called.

If there were no enemy then who would we be?

enemy implies binary moral judgement.

strife involving the simultaneous mutual influence of three or more entities cannot be solved in causal terms of 'who is doing what to whom'. everyone is both friend and enemy. the solution to strife is the cultivating and sustaining of balance and harmony.

understanding things in dualist or nondualist terms is up to the individual. Western dualism is not the only choice just because it is the most popular choice and political correctness pushes on us to be 'either with or against' the currently popular icons of good and evil.

lame useless diversion

Said Emile, to an "indigenous person" who thinks he's pedantic, circle-jerking blowhard.

As always, I wonder if you ever talk to any native folks about your little theories. I'm the same person who scoffed at your fetish for the talking stick, remember? ;)

as i said in response, my writings are coming from indigenous understanding -- How can you buy and sell the sky?. meanwhile, indigenous peoples who have learned english and other indo-european noun-and-verb languages as their first language are likely to be just as messed up as settlers are, and in the habit of seeing everything through dualist lenses where dynamics appear to be jumpstart animated by semantically manufactured things-in-themselves, notionally with their own internal genetic agency, a view that blinds the wearer of such lenses to nondual physical reality wherein epigenetic influence is inductively actualizing genetic expression.

"Chomsky's claim that one of the "costs" of physical confrontation with fascists is the "loss of the opportunity for education, organizing, and serious and constructive activism" is a false division. Moreover, it's one that shows a lack of real-life contact with anti-fascists."

This point is particularly important for the more liberal minded segments of the population. This is closely linked, yet a slight inversion from, the so-called hardcore 'anarchist' claim that theory is inherently 'bourgeois' and inextricably detached from action.

These dichotomies do much to aid my enemies by assisting in manufacturing false dichotomies between 'theory' and 'action', 'violence' and 'non-violence'.

Nevertheless, mass movement building will be perpetually wrought with these contradictions and I think small cliques of anti-fascists fucking up boneheads is far more realistic and practical than a so-called vanguard of the 'working class'.

identity can be very blurry. is she really an ENTJ or is she an ISFP?

if you hate the romans you qualify for membership in the PFJ as well as the JPF, but the judean peoples front doesn't like the people's front of judea.

since we hate ASSAD we are on the same side as other groups like the PFAA and the AAPF both of whom want to get rid of ASSAD, or are we?, since the AAPF wants to replace ASSAD with a caliphate and we in the PFAA want to install a puppet democratic dictator.

if people were 'really' only one-dimensional as we make them out to be [good or evil], herd-building would be so much easier.

identity can be very blurry. is she really a BLIP or is she a M'REEEEE BLIP BLIP?

if you hate the romans you qualify for membership in the BLIP as well as the M'REEEEE BLIP, but the judean peoples front doesn't like the people's front of judea.

since we hate BLIP M'REEE BLIP we are on the same side as other groups like the BLIP and the M'REEEE BLIP both of whom want to get rid of BLIP BLIP BLIP, or are we?, since the PROCESSING wants to replace PLEASE WAIT with a caliphate and we in the M'REEEE BLIP BLIP BLIP want to install a puppet democratic dictator.

if people were 'really' only one-dimensional as we make them out to be [good or evil], herd-building would be so much easier.

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