Listen to the Episode — 94 min
Alanis: The Ex-Worker;
Clara: An audio strike against a monotone world.
Alanis: A podcast of anarchist ideas and action;
Clara: For everyone who dreams of a life off the clock.
Alanis: I’m Alanis,
Clara: And I’m Clara,
Alanis: And you’re listening to the Ex-Worker podcast. Today’s episode is on anti-fascism in the wake of Charlottesville.
Clara: It’s been exactly one month since an attendee of the “Unite the Right” fascist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, rammed his car into a group of anti-fascist protestors – murdering Heather Heyer and injuring (i.e., attempting to murder) at least nineteen others. Alanis, it seemed like these tragic events were a big surprise to lots of people in the U.S., despite the fact that fascist violence around the world has been on the rise for years, and has increased significantly in the U.S. since the beginning of Trump’s white-nationalist-baiting presidential campaign.
Alanis: Yeah…if only these gentle souls had listened to episode 11 and episode 12 of the Ex-Worker, both of which focus on the importance and relevance of anti-fascism today, they might have been out there on the streets of Charlottesville fighting fascists on August 12th instead of at home expressing shock and outrage.
Clara: Not that we ever want to be right when we encourage people to expect more fascist violence and to prepare accordingly. We’d love to live in a world where anti-fascists are blowing things out of proportion and preparing for a non-existent enemy.
Alanis: But it’s been clear to us for years that something like what happened in Charlottesville was inevitable.
Clara: While we want to talk about anti-fascism today and our thoughts on the movement going forward, we’d first like to bring you some particularly relevant excerpts from Ex-Worker episodes 11 and 12.
Alanis: These two episodes do a great job explaining the history of fascism and anti-fascism, as well as some common characteristics of each, if we do say so ourselves. These excerpts should help ground you throughout this episode, especially if you’re new to or curious about the anti-fascist struggle.
EXCERPTS FROM EX-WORKER EPISODE 11
Fascism… why even talk about it? At the end of World War II, with the Axis powers defeated, fascism was over. Mussolini was gone, Nazism was discredited, and the world moved on into the Cold War era. There might be a few isolated wingnuts today who are keeping the dream alive, but they’re so marginal that nobody cares what they think. Right?
Wrong. Fascism remains a serious threat across the world to this day. Who are we talking about when we speak of fascists? One of the challenges in coherently defining fascism is that there’s never been a single platform or consistent ideology. In certain contexts it’s a definitively right-wing phenomenon, as in Hungary or Serbia today, while in others it doesn’t map neatly onto a left/right spectrum, as in Mussolini’s Italy. In France and Serbia, fascists use the social upheavals around gay rights to gain leverage by emphasizing homophobia; on the other hand, extreme right parties that focus more on Islamophobia and anti-immigrant populism may have active gay supporters, even leaders, such as the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn. Many brands of fascism are anti-Semitic, while others focus on xenophobia or anti-black racism but have no particular qualm with Jews; for example, Mussolini only began repression against Italian Jews, many of whom had supported the early years of the fascist regime, when alliance with Hitler’s rabidly anti-Semitic Germany became centrally important.
In practice, fascism has been opportunistic, shifting according to different political circumstances. For instance, the focus on Islamophobia among European fascists today would have seemed irrelevant during the 1920s and 30s, but today offers a basis for right-wing populism among Europeans who feel threatened by the presence of large numbers of Islamic immigrants among them.
So one thing we can say about fascism is that it attempts to be a mass popular movement. It’s not an elite or highbrow movement, although it advocates for strong centralized power in the state. It plugs into broad currents of social discontent and offers an authoritarian vision of society as a solution.
Another core principle is nationalism: the mass politics of fascism rest on shared myths of racial or historical identity. Politics based on these identities operate through scapegoating, attributing social problems not to structural oppression or the actions of states but to the characteristics of people within social groups defined as outside the imagined community of the nation. The particular form of bigotry may vary, depending on what kinds of oppressive myths a particular nationalism dictates. Often times this hatred of the outsider forms the only basis of an increasingly flimsy sense of nationhood. In fact, without blacks to blame for crime, Mexicans to blame for job losses, Jews to blame for the banking crisis, gays to blame for undermining the traditional family, and so on and so on… we would actually have to look at capitalism, oppression, and state power to figure out why we have the problems we have today.
And that’s why another consistent feature of fascism is virulent opposition to communists, anarchists, and most other radicals. Why such a focus on fighting radicals and leftists? Well, in large part because they’ve been the most prominent militant anti-fascists since the beginning. And allying with powerful conservative forces against radicals can bring leverage and legitimacy to the extreme right wing. But fundamentally the reason for this opposition is because radicals also mobilize around discontent in society, but rather than offering false racist explanations and oppressive solutions, look at the root causes and promote solidarity among all people towards a freer world. And this puts us in direct competition with fascists, who rely on duping people into channeling their legitimate rage into hatred for oppressed groups and support for hierarchical power.
If we close our eyes and imagine what fascism looks like today, we might envision imposing young white men with shaved heads and brass knuckles. This is certainly part of the face of contemporary fascism, but in the US today you’re more likely to see white supremacists in suits and ties or dresses than steel-toed boots and bomber jackets. A shift has taken place in fascist circles towards the appearance of respectability, in part due to the success of anti-fascists in physically confronting them at public rallies and in part due to the broader right-wing trend towards integration into universities, think tanks, and conferences. Beginning with holocaust denial among anti-Semitic historians, fascists have attempted to capitalize on liberal principles of free speech and the marketplace of ideas to demand that their oppressive views receive consideration.
So what have anti-fascists done to challenge these groups from leeching off of movements and spreading violent hate? One of the major forms that anti-fascist organizing has taken in the US over the past decades has been Anti-Racist Action, or ARA, which has consistently confronted racist and neo-Nazi events and campaigns across North America. ARA labeled their policy towards fascists as “expose, oppose, and confront.” Their actions ranged from publishing personal information of closet fascists to physically shutting down racist meetings and concerts to attending demonstrations in solidarity with a variety of other overlapping struggles. Influenced by European anti-fascist groups, the ARA network adopted the “no platform” approach of being open to a wide range of political perspectives under the antifascist banner. But from the beginning, the ARA network reflected a strong anarchist and feminist focus, and worked closely with the Love and Rage Anarchist Federation.
The four ARA points of unity read: - We go where they go. Whenever fascists are organizing or active in public, we’re there. We don’t believe in ignoring them or staying away from them. Never let the Nazis have the street! - We don’t rely on the cops or courts to do our work for us. This doesn’t mean we never go to court, but the cops uphold white supremacy and the status quo. They attack us and everyone who resists oppression. We must rely on ourselves to protect ourselves and stop the fascists. - Non-sectarian defense of other anti-fascists. In ARA, we have a lot of different groups and individuals. We don’t agree about everything and we have a right to differ openly. But in this movement an attack on one is an attack on us all. We stand behind each other. - We support abortion rights and reproductive freedom. ARA intends to do the hard work necessary to build a broad, strong movement against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination against the disabled, the oldest, the youngest, and the most oppressed people. We want a classless, free society. We intend to win!"
IT’S OVER, NOAM
Clara: Damn, Alanis, we are clearly brilliant visionaries.
Alanis: Or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves. But if you, too, liked what you just heard, we encourage you to listen to these two episodes in full! Episode 11 presents an analysis of contemporary fascism and the resistance anarchists have mounted against it.
Clara: And Episode 12 looks into how anarchists fought against Franco in the Spanish Revolution and beyond and includes an interview with Occupied London about fascism and resistance in Greece. You can find links to both of these episodes at crimethinc.com/podcast or on our iTunes feed.
Alanis: Now that we have some history and discussion out of the way, courtesy of our past selves, let’s talk about where we are now. As we mentioned earlier, Charlottesville was a shock to a lot of people who thought anti-fascists were just being dramatic.
Clara: Yeah. It seemed like even the media were kind of on the side of anti-fascists after what happened that day.
- Alanis: Or they were for a second at least. When anti-fascists converged to shut down an alt-right rally in Berkeley on August 27th, the media was suddenly full of…um…anti-anti-fascist articles and editorials.
- ::ENTER POST-CHARLOTTESVILLE/BERKELEY MEDIA CLIPS ABOUT ANTIFA:::
CNN: Welcome back to The Lead, The National Lead now by most accounts almost all of the people protesting against the hateful bigots, the Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville, were peaceful. But, not all of them. In their midst was a sometimes very violent group of protesters that call themselves Antifa, known to not only clash with bigots but also sometimes with police and occasionally storefronts…
The Daily Show: Antifa is any group that’s willing to standup to fascists by any means necessary. They’re not afraid to play rough. “What happened?” “I was walking down the street and this guy like sucker punched me in the back of the head.” You see now, here’s the real problem. It doesn’t matter what your noble goal may be. It doesn’t matter what you say you’re fighting for. When people see that, all they think is, “Oh shit, it’s vegan ISIS.”
CBS SF Bay Area: Berkeley’s mayor says it is time to confront the violent extremism on the Left. Hundreds of black bloc anarchists were seen jumping the barriers, some attacking trump supporters at yesterday’s rally. [Mayor of Berkeley] “I think we should classify them as a gang. You know, they come dressed in uniforms, they have weapons, they’re almost a militia. I think we need to think about that in terms of our law enforcement approach.”
Clara: Noam Chomsky, perhaps the world’s most famous anarchist-identifying person alive, called antifa “a major gift to the right.” :::ENTER NEW FOUND GLORY – MY FRIENDS OVER YOU BREAK UP MUSIC::: Alanis: Noam, what happened to you? Listen, I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve been growing apart for some time. You’d talk about anarchism, but what you really meant was workers controlling their workplaces, which you call a “a truly democratic revolution”. Whereas the name of our show is the Ex-Worker, and we’ve released two whole episodes critiquing the language of democracy. But hey, it’s not like we have to line up ideologically with every anarchist we meet to get wild in the sheets—I mean streets—so we just looked past the whole divergent-utopian-visions thing. We trusted that at the very least, we shared the same common enemies. But then, things got weird. We didn’t really know how to bring it up to you, but it wasn’t very anarchist of you to call on people to vote for Democrats during elections. First Kerry, then Obama, even Clinton… We thought maybe it was us, not you—I mean you were getting older and it seemed like every year there was a new war brewing. You just wanted some stability; who could blame you? But it’s not like the Democrats even remotely had an anti-war platform. They were just USING you, Noam. It was hard to watch. We tried not to be too possessive when you flirted with electoralism. But we were a growing anarchist movement, and we had needs too. We wanted to attract others who were hot for action, but then you gaslighted us HARD with that whole “Hope From People” call you endorsed. I mean, it actually called for “presence rather than protest” at Obama’s inauguration. What kind of message do you think that sent to the other anti-authoritarians we were trying to attract? But then of course came the honeymoon phase. While we were occupying Wall Street, you waltzed back in and occupied our hearts. You even came down to Occupy Boston and we talked long into the night, well mostly you did the talking. But for the first time in a long time we felt like hey, maybe this whole crazy thing really can work…remember? Well, all that came crashing down a couple weeks ago when you said…sniffle…I’m sorry, I just get choked up thinking about it…that antifa is a major gift to the right?! I mean, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. How could you? We put out your books, we included your speeches on records ABOUT FIGHTING NAZIS, but most of all we believed in you man. We know you’re getting up there and we won’t always see eye-to-eye, but hey, that didn’t stop Cornel West from showing up for us. So listen, maybe it’s better we take a break, at least for a little, while you sort out your shit. You’ll always have a little piece of our heart, and we’re grateful for what we’ve learned from you over the years, but unless you can admit you’re wrong, we should start seeing other people. Like, in our case, The People, who have been turning out en masse to antifascist actions since Charlottesville. We’re sure you’ll meet others you get along with, up in your ivory tower. You know what? We used to get into the exact same fights with this guy, Chris Hedges. You two would make a great couple, even though he is kind of a literal loser. Anyway, we’re sure we’ll see you around. Take care of yourself, and try not to get too jealous if you catch us giving any more, uh, “major gifts” to anyone on the right… ##ESSAY: “DEBUNKING THE 3 BIGGEST MYTHS ABOUT ANTIFA” BY SPENCER SUNSHINE Clara: Wow Alanis, that was harsh. To our listeners who aren’t ready to break up with Chomsky, we understand, but let us at least debunk his claim that “antifa is a major gift to the right.” To do so, we will quote at length from the essay “Debunking the 3 Biggest Myths About Antifa” by antifascist researcher Spencer Sunshine. Alanis: Many pundits have repeated the idea that antifa is a “major gift to the right.” Furthermore, it is often argued that without antifa, the far right would simply wither away. In fact, the Alt Right grew exceptionally well before it faced organized street opposition. It is far from clear that the movement has grown in size due to the clashes, but there is abundant evidence that it has been hurt by them. After Yiannopoulos’s February talk in Berkeley was cancelled, the resulting media glare brought attention to his unsavory views on underage sex. As a result, his book deal was canceled and he is no longer a sought-after speaker for the Right. The aftermath of Charlottesville may have broken the back of the Alt Right’s fascist wing. The street-fighting with antifascists caused the rally itself to be canceled. Afterward, the Far Right suffered many material losses: Nazi websites have been knocked off the internet; nationwide marches canceled; leaders have been arrested for felonies; and numerous digital platforms canceled accounts. Richard Spencer’s AltRight.com sees Charlottesville as a major defeat and is now advocating the clandestine “leaderless resistance” strategy because they feel it is pointless to organize openly. It’s evident that public resistance works when confronting far-right groups, and antifa are not the left-wing terrorists despite how they have been portrayed. And so perhaps we should ask ourselves: why are so many mainstream media sources using dishonest methods to create a folk panic about antifa, and who benefits as a result?
FREE SPEECH FAQ FROM EX-WORKER EPISODE 12
Clara: Wow, that lays it out pretty clear.
Alanis: But still, the ill informed criticisms of antifa keep rolling in. How do we explain anti-fascism to people who should in theory be on our side, people who in theory oppose fascists, but who just don’t get it and insist on writing editorials claiming that anti-fascists are, among other things, the fascists of the left?
Clara: Well, Alanis, unfortunately this is not a new issue for us. A few years ago, some trusty ex-workers created this Free Speech FAQ. The FAQ is an antifascist’s guide to refuting some of the misguided arguments against anti-fascist action that will inevitably be posed by everyone from Noam Chomsky to your grandmother.
Clara: Anarchists have historically fought for free speech - not because the first amendment says so, but because we fight to defend freedom against all state repression. Yet today this discourse is turned against us in an effort to incapacitate resistance. This puts us between a rock and a hard place, risking either alienating potential allies among civil libertarians or allowing fascists to spread their hate unimpeded. In response to this conundrum, contributors to Rolling Thunder #9 wrote an article titled “Not Free Speech, But Freedom Itself,” exploring the politics of free speech in the context of anti-fascism. Included alongside the article was a “Free Speech FAQ”, intended as a tool for anti-fascist organizers responding to common myths and misconceptions. We’ve revised it slightly and offer it here in that spirit. We hope that all of you listeners out there will take it, update or revise it as you see fit, and use it when speaking to media and potential allies in your own struggles against fascism.
Alanis: “Stopping fascists from speaking makes you just as bad as them.”
Clara: Failing to stop fascists from speaking - that is, giving them the opportunity to organize to impose their agenda on the rest of us - makes you as bad as them. If you care about freedom, don’t stand idly by while people mobilize to take it away.
Alanis: “Shouldn’t we just ignore them? They want attention, and if we give it to them we’re letting them win.”
Clara: Actually, fascists usually don’t want to draw attention to their organizing; they do most of it in secret, fearing (correctly) that an outraged public will shut them down. They only organize public events to show potential recruits that they have power, and to try to legitimize their views as part of the political spectrum. By publicly disrupting and humiliating fascists, we make it clear to them and their potential supporters that they are not in control and can’t wield the power that they glorify. Ignoring fascists only allows them to organize unhindered - a dangerous mistake. Better we shut them down once and for all.
Alanis: “The best way to defeat fascism is to let them express their views so that everyone can see how ignorant they are. We can refute them more effectively with ideas than force.”
Clara: People don’t become fascists simply because they’re persuaded by their ideas. Fascism claims to offer power to those who feel threatened by shifting social and economic realities. The fact that their analysis of these shifts are ignorant misses the point; do we need to cite examples of how dumb ideas have proved massively popular throughout history? From Italy to Germany to streets around the world today, fascists haven’t gained strength through rational argument, but through organizing to wield power at the expense of others. To counter this, we can’t just argue against them; we have to prevent them from organizing by any means necessary. We can debate their ideas all day long, but if we don’t prevent them from building the capacity to make them reality, it won’t matter. Only popular self-defense, not simply debate, has succeeded in stopping fascism.
Alanis: “Neo-Nazis are irrelevant; institutionalized racism poses the real threat today, not the extremists at the fringe.”
Clara: Our society’s institutions are indeed deeply racist, and our organizing must challenge and dismantle them. But the visibility of neo-Nazis and fringe fascists enables other right-wing groups to frame themselves as moderates, legitimizing their racist and xenophobic positions and the systems of power and privilege they defend. Taking a stand against fascists is an essential step toward discrediting the structures and values at the root of institutionalized racism. Plus, as we heard last episode, suit-and-tie fascists are infiltrating positions of influence in academia and politics, giving them dangerous power to advance racist policies on an institutional level.
And fascists around the world are still terrorizing and murdering people. It’s both naïve and disrespectful to their victims to minimize the reality of fascist violence. Fascists act directly to carry out their agenda rather than limiting themselves to representative democracy, so even small numbers can be disproportionately dangerous, making it crucial to deal with them swiftly.
Alanis: “Free speech means protecting everyone’s right to speak, including people you don’t agree with. How would you like it if you had an unpopular opinion and other people were trying to silence you?”
Clara: We oppose fascists because of what they do, not what they say. We’re not opposed to free speech; we’re opposed to enacting an agenda of hate and terror. We have no power to censor them; they continue to publish hate literature in print and on the internet. Their public events don’t exist to express views, but to build the power they need to enforce their hatred. The government and police have never protected everyone’s free speech equally, and never will; they systematically repress views and actions that challenge existing power inequalities. They spend hundreds of thousands of public dollars on riot police and helicopters to defend a KKK rally, but for a radical demonstration the same police will be there to stop it, not to protect it; just look at the evictions of the Occupy encampments, attacks on Earth First! actions, or countless other examples. Of course anarchists don’t like being silenced by the state, but we don’t want the state to define and manage our freedom, either. The First Amendment covers what laws Congress shall or shall not enact; it’s up to us to determine what we need to do to defend ourselves. Unlike the ACLU, whose supposed defense of “freedom” leads them to support the KKK and neo-Nazis, we support self-defense and self-determination above all. What’s the purpose of free speech, if not to foster a world free from oppression? Fascists oppose this vision; thus we oppose fascism by any means necessary.
Alanis: “Trying to suppress their voices will backfire by generating interest in them.”
Clara: Resistance to fascism doesn’t increase interest in fascist views. If anything, liberals mobilizing to defend fascists on free speech grounds increases interest in their views by conferring legitimacy on them. This plays directly into their organizing goals, allowing them to drive a wedge between their opponents using free speech as a smokescreen. By tolerating racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, so-called free speech advocates are complicit in the acts of terror that fascist organizing makes possible.
Alanis: “They have rights like everybody else.”
Clara: No one has the right to threaten our community with violence. Likewise, we reject the “right” of the government and police - who have more in common with fascists than they do with us - to decide for us when fascists have crossed the line from merely expressing themselves into posing an immediate threat. We will not abdicate our freedom to judge when and how to defend ourselves.
DEMOCRACY NOW INTERVIEW: MARK BRAY’S ANTIFA: THE ANTIFASCIST HANDBOOK
Alanis: While we don’t have a book review for you this episode, we did want to bring you a couple of clips from a Democracy Now interview with the author of a new book we’re curious about, Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook. If his name sounds familiar, it might be because Mark was a member of the Occupy Wall Street Press Team whose first book, Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street, was about, well…the title speaks for itself. As always, you can find a link to the full interview in the show notes at crimethinc.com/podcast.
AMY GOODMAN: To look more at the anti-fascist movement, known as antifa, we’re joined by Mark Bray, lecturer at Dartmouth College. His new book, ‘Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook’.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mark Bray, in your book—and I want to quote a few lines from it—you say, “Most people have an ‘all-or-nothing’ understanding of fascism that prevents them from taking fascists seriously until they seize power. … Very few really believe that there is any serious chance of a fascistic regime ever materializing in America.” And I’m wondering about that and the importance of understanding that concept of yours, for those who are looking at what’s happening today in America.
MARK BRAY: Right. So, the way people understand fascism, or the way they’ve been taught about it, is generally exclusively in terms of regimes. So, the thought goes, as long as we have parliamentary government, we’re safe. But we can look back to the historical examples of Italy and Germany and see that, unfortunately, parliamentary government was insufficient to prevent the stop—to prevent the rise of fascism and Nazism, and actually provided a red carpet to their advance. So, because of that reason, people think of fascism in terms of all or nothing, regime or nothing.
But we can see in Charlottesville that any amount of neo-Nazi organizing, any amount of a fascist presence, is potentially fatal. And, unfortunately, Heather Heyer paid the price for that. So that’s partly why anti-fascists argue that fascism must be nipped in the bud from the beginning, that any kind of organizing needs to be confronted and responded to. Even if, you know, people are spending most of their time on Twitter making jokes, it’s still very serious and needs to be confronted.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what do you say, for instance, to those who maybe are opposed to the viewpoints of the white nationalists and white supremacists, but also attempt to condemn any attempts to shut them—shut them down or not allow them to speak? Or—and, obviously, the American Civil Liberties Union fought for the right of the Charlottesville—the white nationalists to have their rally in Charlottesville.
MARK BRAY: Right. Well, the question of how to combat fascism, I think, always needs to come back to discussions of the 1930s and 1940s. So, clearly, we can see that rational discourse and debate was insufficient. Clearly, we can see that the mechanisms of parliamentary government were insufficient. We need to be able to come up with a way to say, “How can we make sure never again?” By any means necessary, this can never happen again. And the people back there who witnessed these atrocities committed themselves to that.
So the question is: OK, if you don’t think that it’s appropriate to physically confront and to stand in front of neo-Nazis who are trying to organize for another genocide now, do you do it after someone has died, as they just did? Do you do it after a dozen people have died? Do you do it once they’re at the footsteps of power? At what point? At what point do you say, “Enough is enough,” and give up on the liberal notion that what we need to do is essentially create some sort of a regime of rights that allow neo-Nazis and their victims to coexist, quote-unquote, “peacefully,” and recognize that the neo-Nazis don’t want that and that also the anti-fascists are right in not looking at it through that liberal lens, but rather seeing fascism not as an opinion that needs to be responded to respectfully, but as an enemy to humanity that needs to be stopped by any means necessary?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from The New York Times. They wrote, "[O]verall, far-right extremist plots have been far more deadly than far-left plots … in the past 25 years, according to a breakdown of two terrorism databases by … an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.
“White nationalists; militia movements; anti-Muslim attackers; I.R.S. building and abortion clinic bombers; and other right-wing groups were responsible for 12 times as many fatalities and 36 times as many injuries as communists; socialists; animal rights and environmental activists; anti-white- and Black Lives Matter-inspired attackers; and other left-wing groups,” the Times wrote. Mark Bray?
MARK BRAY: Yes. Well, it’s certainly true that, in terms of body counts, in terms of raw violence, the far right, now and in the past, has much more blood on their hands. But I also want to encourage viewers to think not only in terms of numbers of comparing body counts, not only in terms of violence in the abstract, but the values and context of violence. So, you know, when anti-racists defend themselves violently, it’s different from when racists attack people of color, queer and trans people, with violence. So, it’s certainly true that the far right are much more violent, but I don’t think that we can exclusively think of it in terms of numbers.
The other thing that I want to encourage viewers to think about is that the term “terrorism” usually is used in a way that essentially legitimizes state violence and police violence. Historically, the greatest sources of violence have come from states and have come from their armies and police, but is not labeled terrorism. So, I think, instead of thinking in terms of the sort of seemingly neutral concepts of terrorism or violence or body counts, let’s also think in terms of politics and context.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me read from a new piece in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart. He writes, quote, “But for all of antifa’s supposed anti-authoritarianism, there’s something fundamentally authoritarian about its claim that its activists—who no one elected—can decide whose views are too odious to be publicly expressed. That kind of undemocratic, illegitimate power corrupts. It leads to what happened this April in Portland, Oregon, where antifa activists threatened to disrupt the city’s Rose Festival parade if people wearing ‘red maga hats’’—you know, the ”Make America Great Again“ hats—”marched alongside the local Republican Party. Because of antifa, Republican officials in Portland claim they can’t even conduct voter registration in the city without being physically threatened or harassed. So, yes, antifa is not a figment of the conservative imagination. It’s a moral problem that liberals need to confront." That’s Peter Beinart, writing for The Atlantic. Mark Bray?
MARK BRAY: Right. So, part of the accusation that’s frequently leveled against antifa is the “slippery slope” argument, understood abstractly. So, the argument goes, antifa get to sort of randomly decide who they don’t like, and shut them down, therefore, authoritarianism. But the historical record shows that antifa groups focus on the far right, focus on neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And when those groups are successfully disrupted, there is a long track record of antifa groups essentially disassembling and focusing on other issues. The notion that it’s authoritarian to shut down authoritarianism would not feel very comfortable if we’re thinking about, for example, opposition to Nazis before they got into power in Germany in the late ’20s. Were the communists and anarchists who were defending themselves against Nazis in 1929 authoritarian because they wanted to stop Nazism? That sounds ridiculous, right?
So, once again, as we discussed in the first part of the interview, it’s an example of a kind of all-or-nothing fascism where, in the absence of an immediate threat of a fascist regime, shutting down someone’s opinions—and, of course, that’s how far-right politics are often understood, as opinions, that could just as easily be interchanged with any others, when anti-fascists start the “no platform,” which misses, of course, the politics behind it—that these opinions are the lens that it’s examined at, out of context, out of political focus. So, you know, it really is missing the point historically and analytically, and really missing the ways that a lot—a lot of alt-right people are infiltrating the Republican Party.
The Republican Party is now, to some extent, starting to stand up to the far right but needs to do a lot more. And we need to recognize that the far right will try to hide behind the legitimacy that Trump has given their politics, but that anti-fascists aren’t willing to—to stop it. And, now, if Beinart saw, for example, you know, Nazis in the 1920s or 1930s marching along a mainstream parade with swastikas, would it have been inappropriate, considering that the Nazi Party back then was a mainstream party, to have tried to disrupt that? You know, those are the kinds of comparisons that need to be made in discussing this question.
Alanis: Well, it’s nice to have someone standing up for anti-fascists to the media! I think Mark covers a lot of points we agree with, and maybe he gave you a few more points you can use when you discuss anti-fascism with the under-informed. I guess I’ll have to add that book to my towering to-read stack.
CRIMETHINC. ESSAY: WHY WE FOUGHT IN CHARLOTTESVILLE
Clara: So, Alanis, let’s cut to the chase. The whole reason we’re doing this episode is to look at Charlottesville and the aftermath. It seems like because of what happened in Charlottesville, anti-fascists are in the spotlight in a big way.
Alanis: Totally. And given the way things are going, from these alt-right supposed “free speech rallies” to fascists murdering folks outright, our work as anti-fascists isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.
Clara: So what exactly happened in Charlottesville, and what can anti-fascists and anarchists learn from it? You can check out Ex-Worker episode 56 for a more extensive breakdown of the context and background for what happened there, including a great interview with a Charlottesville anarchist who took part in organizing for the anti-fascist counter-demonstrations one month ago. In the weeks since we put out that episode, we’ve published two other pieces by anarchists who were on the ground in Charlottesville.
Alanis: These pieces delve into the authors’ experiences and insights from Charlottesville, and offer ideas about where the movement is headed next. For those of you who haven’t gotten a chance to read them in print, we are presenting them here in full.
I am one of the thousands of people who confronted Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. I am a blue-collar person, with a job, family, and responsibilities. I would have preferred to do other things with my weekend. However, I had to ask myself: If these people are allowed to run roughshod over this town, what will they do next?
No, I did not behave peacefully when I saw a thousand Nazis occupy a sizable American city. I fought them with the most persuasive instruments at hand, the way both my grandfathers did. I was maced, punched, kicked, and beaten with sticks, but I gave as good as I got, and usually better. Donald Trump says that “there was violence on both sides.” Of course there was. I might add that there were not murderers on both sides—but that’s not really my point.
I would like to ask a different question. What would have happened if there had not been violence on both sides? What would have happened if there had only been violence on one side?
On the night of Friday, August 11, 2017, I saw something that I never thought I would see, and that I hope I never see again: 500 Nazis and white supremacists marching across the campus of the University of Virginia while police did nothing, surrounding 30 counter-demonstrators who were holding hands around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, and beating them with torches while calling them “nigger” and “boy.” By the end of the night, it was clear to me that the “Unite the Right” march had been organized for the express purpose of killing people on Saturday.
Permit me to quote a post from a clergyperson in Charlottesville at length, because it correctly explains what happened on Saturday morning, and why. There are countless other narratives like it online.
“A note on the Antifa:
They are the reason Richard Spencer did not speak today. They are the reason the “Unite the Right” march didn’t happen. They strategically used violent tactics to incite the Nazis to violence, such that the governor declared a state of emergency before noon. Before the “Unite the Right” rally was scheduled to begin.
One could argue this meant Nazis dissipated into the streets faster making it less safe, but let’s be real: Nazis have been making these streets less safe for a long time. They would have been out and about soon enough with or without the antifa.
I was with a group of clergy committed to non-violence today. We did our part. We bore witness to the pain and hatred in this city. We provided pastoral care/support as needed, especially during traumatic violent acts. This was our determined role going into today. Yes, some clergy risked injury and arrest to stop the Nazis. They formed a blockade at the entrance, but they were overpowered by the Nazis. The police did not view us as threatening enough to shut things down, because again, we were not there to threaten.
The antifa strategically incited enough violence before noon to make the police declare it illegal to gather in Emancipation Park. Through this strategic violence they effectively made a previously legally permitted Nazi rally, illegal.
We may not agree with each other’s tactics. We may have had different goals, but if you’re looking to praise people specifically for shutting down the “Unite the Right” rally, praise/thank the antifa. Not the clergy and not the police.”
I do not want it to be soon forgotten that American anarchists and anti-fascists shut down the largest Nazi and white supremacist gathering on US soil in decades. We accomplished this despite being outnumbered, underequipped, and literally fighting up a hill—at great personal risk and at a terrible cost.
What if things had gone differently? What if we had done as the mayor recommended and stayed away from Emancipation Park, so as not to “feed into a cycle of violence”? What if the rally had proceeded as planned? What if Nazis and white supremacists had been able to build momentum into the night? Based on what I saw Friday and Saturday, there is no doubt in my mind what would have happened next: they would have terrorized the city of Charlottesville. They would have left their leadership a degree of plausible deniability, broken into smaller groups, and killed and injured any number of people in decentralized locations throughout the city. It was to be their Kristallnacht, their burning cross, their triumphant return.
Instead, they had to leave town in disarray in fear of us, the people of Charlottesville, and the police—in that order. They sent twenty people to the hospital and murdered Heather Heyer.
It could have been much, much worse.
These are dark and dangerous times. Nazis and white supremacists have shown that they are ready to kill and able to mobilize in great numbers, and they have the blessing of the President of the United States. They are well on their way to solidifying their position as the paramilitary arm of the Trump administration. These groups hope to be to Trump what ISIS is to Erdogan and what the Taliban is to the government of Pakistan: terrorist auxiliaries that provide strategic depth against enemies of the state.
On the other hand, Nazis and white supremacists discredited themselves completely in the eyes of millions of American people this weekend, as did their President by emboldening and defending them. The names and faces of many of those who participated in the “Unite the Right” rally are being broadcast on twitter feeds such as “yes, you’re racist,” and more extensive doxxing is undoubtedly soon to come. It seems a stressful and rather lonely moment for our opposition.
On the government side, Steve Bannon has lost his job, but he is back at his old post at Breitbart, preparing to catalyze another wave of grassroots nationalism. As always, Trump is either on the ropes or on the verge of pulling off an authoritarian coup. It is time for Americans of good conscience to resume the offensive, before this match made in hell has time to regain its footing and to consolidate further.
Donald Trump was elected head of state through the democratic process, of course, as was Adolf Hitler. He has the support of millions of people; so did Adolf Hitler. His government is in bed with people who dream about carrying out a second Holocaust and reinstating slavery, among other things. We have every right to topple this government if we can. It would be unfortunate to look back on this moment with regret, realizing that we missed our chance.
In my opinion, the high-water mark thus far of resistance to the Trump regime was the wave of airport occupations at the end of January, which set in motion a course of events that ultimately led to Steve Bannon being iced out of the foreign policy sphere by the few remaining adults in Trump’s circle. Unfortunately, they left Bannon the domestic sphere as his playpen, and the Deep State doesn’t care very much. No one is coming to save us.
What would it take to rise to this occasion? We would have to mobilize large crowds nationwide to shut down government infrastructure, prioritizing everything nearest and dearest to Bannon and his faction. Something like that might work. I don’t think it’s too late.
Of course, after Charlottesville, all such crowds will be considered soft targets by fascist murderers. We will have to demonstrate that we are able to exert deadly force to deter such attacks, as Redneck Revolt did admirably in Charlottesville.
If Americans of good conscience push hard enough, we may be able to force Trump to abandon Bannon and Bannonism. We might be able to topple Trump entirely. But under no circumstances will anyone with any self-respect ever submit to governance by Nazis. This government and its fascist allies should think carefully before they choose their next move.
In the spirit of Robert Grodt, who fought fascism in Raqqa, and in the spirit of Heather Heyer, who fought fascism in her own hometown—
CRIMETHINC. ESSAY: SQUARING OFF AGAINST FASCISM
Alanis: As our interviewee wishes to remain anonymous, Clara is stepping in to read their responses.
Alanis: In the three weeks since anarchists helped shut down the largest fascist rally the US has seen in decades, the pendulum has swung back and forth between new public support for anti-fascist organizing and a dishonest, fearmongering reaction spearheaded by the extreme center that plays right into the hands of far-right elements in the police and FBI. Now, fascists are shifting towards a strategy of decentralized attacks while the Trump administration prepares a new racist offensive against nearly a million residents of the United States. It’s more pressing than ever to learn from our victories in order to strategize for the next round. We spoke with a participant in the front lines of the clashes in Charlottesville about why an under-equipped anti-fascist contingent was able to defeat a more numerous body of fascists, how to halt the creep towards authoritarianism, and what courage means in these struggles.
In Charlottesville, on Friday night, August 11, if the torchlit march had not encountered any protesters around the monument or elsewhere—if it had been able to proceed without meeting any opposition—what do you think the consequences would have been?
Clara: Well, it’s easy to be doctrinaire when you’re speculating. I mean, any time fascists do something provocative without opposition, it sets a new baseline for them. It’s like, “Oh, marching with torches and chanting ‘Blood and Soil’ is a pretty low-key thing to do, let’s always do that at our gatherings from now on. It’s fun and easy!” But I think it strengthens their movement even more when they encounter opposition that they can easily defeat, which is what actually happened on Friday. If that had been the only event in Charlottesville, or if the rest of the weekend had gone the same way, it would have been a gift to their movement.
I try to imagine the perspective of a fresh young recruit. You know he’s posturing and puffing himself up, but he’s nervous too. He feels awkward putting on that white polo shirt, he feels nervous carrying a torch at first. But then he sees everyone around him doing the same thing, his voice is amplified by a hundred voices saying the same words as him, and that nervousness turns into elation. So right there, his body learns an important lesson: “When I feel scared, these are the people who make me safe. When I feel weak, these are the people who make me strong.” This is like church, you know. That whole process happens even if not a single counterprotestor shows up. He already knows that most of the world is against him.
If there’s tangible, physical opposition, the nervousness is going to be more intense, but so is that gut-level lesson learned from a victory. So when we confront these things, we should recognize that we’re raising the stakes. I think groups like SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) fixate on that side of things when they try to discourage people from counterprotesting. I think their attitude is, we can’t do anything about these young men’s acculturation into hate groups, but we can deny them opportunities to really get hardened. Or maybe they think that acculturation happens in internet forums, not torch marches. I don’t know. I think anarchists sometimes understand this process better than sociologists, because we’ve been through something similar, in subcultural spaces or street marches or whatever.
Also we’re not static. Even when we take a loss that strengthens the movement we’re fighting against, it can strengthen us too. Friday night seriously shook people, but it probably made us more determined and smarter on Saturday. I almost want to say wiser. We knew exactly what kind of victory we needed to deny them, and we knew we would have to do it without the advantage of physical superiority. If no one had showed up to oppose them on Friday, maybe we would have made worse mistakes the next day, against a sharper adversary. There’s no way to know.
Alanis: Why were anti-fascists not as prepared to respond on Friday night? Can you say anything about the motivations of those who still chose to confront the torchlit march?
Clara: The details of that march were announced much later, that’s the main thing. Also I think some kinds of counter-protestors are always going to stay away from a nighttime event like that, because it’s more likely to be crazy. Some people were prepared, but it was just different situations.
I do think Friday highlighted one weakness we have right now, which is that we don’t share much common culture around assessing our group capacity in the heat of the moment. I’ve seen this at other events too. Some of us are used to quietly running the numbers when we’re in a crowd, asking ourselves, you know, what are the odds we can successfully unarrest people if there are issues with the police? Or what are the odds we can physically prevent this group of white supremacists from reaching their destination? That kind of thing. And adjusting the approach accordingly. Other people, maybe people who aren’t drawing on the same kinds of street experience or think of their goals differently, seem to approach those questions morally rather than situationally. Like, we must not let them reach their destination, therefore we shall not let them reach their destination.
I’m not saying there’s one single correct way to look at it, but if we’re not having those conversations constructively outside of these crisis moments, it’s not good. Those conversations are part of building a strong movement culture.
Alanis: On Saturday, it appeared that counter-demonstrators were outmatched by fascists in terms of muscle mass, equipment, numbers, and terrain. It was a terrifying situation. Yet anti-fascists did unexpectedly well in the confrontations. What do you attribute this to?
Clara: You mean we did unexpectedly well, right? I think antifascists had a deeper understanding of diversity of tactics. The presence of counterprotestors with a personal commitment to nonviolence was important, I think, and so were the diverse approaches of those who did use physical force, I mean as far as acting more offensively or defensively.
Unite the Right was all about image. They wanted three things: look like victims of antifa/“SJW” aggression, look like friends of the police, and look like they were winning the physical battle in the streets. I think all those wires got crossed in Charlottesville because of the diversity of their opposition.
Side note, we made a conscious decision not to do Saturday in black bloc. I think that helped in the specific circumstances.
So diversity of tactics, yeah. A lot of these alt-right people are scared of confrontation, even though they fantasize about power. You could tell that made it hard for them to psychologically switch gears; by the time they figured out how to deal with one kind of counterprotestor, the situation had changed and they had to go back to square one. They had to think too hard. They didn’t know if they were going to get punched or prayed at. And the whole time they’re getting pelted with paint balloons, and they just look silly.
Then you had macho types who reacted to that paralysis by just going ham, charging in swinging by themselves. That was scary, because these were big dudes who understood violence, but it didn’t really serve their larger goals, and they lost fights because we would surround them and beat them back. It didn’t help those guys that their official rally was up a hill behind barricades.
Finally, there were the guys in full-on riot gear, plexiglass shields and clubs and face-shields, stuff like that. They had a hard time early in the day, marching into the park, because they couldn’t figure out what kind of confrontation they were in; they wanted to beat us up but they wanted it to look like our fault, and they came out worse on both counts. Later, they regrouped, and it seemed like they were ready to crack some skulls in a more paramilitary style–charge out of the park in formation and just trample whoever was in their way. I think that would have happened more if the rally had gone on longer, because they were starting to give up on the whole image thing. We should have had more tools to obscure their vision and keep them at a distance. But the cops dispersed the rally before it went there. I think we can take some credit for that.
This sounds weird, but I think anarchists might have better discipline than Nazis, at least in this kind of situation. Fascists had the advantage when things were really scripted, and a lot of them would have had the advantage in a one-on-one fight, but they were just clumsy when it came to navigating a complex situation. I guess I mean self-discipline. But it has this real communal aspect to it, because we actually care about each other and pay attention to each other, like not just our cliques and affinity groups, but also strangers. You can’t fake that. You can’t squeeze that out of an authoritarian ideology.
Alanis: Some have reported that it was very important that there were guns on the anti-fascist side of the conflict, to discourage fascists from escalating past a certain degree of force. Others have expressed concern about whether guns can be a useful tool in struggles for liberation. Coming away from Charlottesville, what is your impression?
Clara: I don’t know if guns were an important deterrent as the day wore on. Maybe they were early on before things really started, when we were just milling around several blocks away. Realistically, if a Nazi had started shooting later in the rally no one would have had a clear shot before he emptied his clip, and once that gunfire started the crossfire would be hellish. So I guess it depends what kind of threat you think was deterred. Probably the deterrent effect was a factor in the open areas where more one-on-one fights happened—you might not pull a knife in the open if you think there’s a chance you’re being covered. But on that topic, the possibility of getting stabbed makes you pretty careful too. We were all thinking about Sacramento.
I can see an argument that the possibility of handguns mixed in the crowd would discourage the guys with shields and clubs from rushing in too aggressively. Maybe it put more pressure on them to stay in very tight formation, which limits how aggressive you can get with a club. I’m just speculating here, I still think the concern with image was a bigger factor for them. Anyway, that’s different from the militia style, open carry rifles.
I guess I did see a neo-Confederate man in the front lines reach for his pistol and then change his mind when we yelled that he had a gun. He settled for an extendable baton instead. So that’s an example where knowing that you can be identified and targeted will convince you to keep your own weapon holstered. That deterred him from brandishing a gun, though. He really did have a self-defense mentality, even if it was a racist, delusional one, and he was going to pull his gun to “deter” the mob he was facing. It would have been very different if his primary goal was to kill people.
As soon as you start talking deterrence, you’re talking about an arms race. I think that’s a danger whether it’s guns, knives, or plexiglass shields. You lose the social character of the struggle and you lose the diversity of tactics. I don’t mind being around assault rifles, but I do mind the paramilitary mentality. We’re susceptible to that mentality when fear clouds our thinking.
If you get into an arms race with a bunch of scared people who have little or no experience of gun violence—I’m talking about antifascists as well as the alt fascists, we’re scared too—you’re creating an extremely volatile situation. All it takes is one jumpy person pulling a trigger.
Probably the only thing you can do is think very concretely about what you’re trying to deter. Reflect. It has to be based in experience, yours or a mentor’s or something, and it has to be real about the big picture. Otherwise, you’ve just got a very risky security blanket.
Alanis: Do you have any thoughts about what approaches we should expect fascists to take in the wake of Charlottesville?
Clara: It’s a dangerous time. They’ve already lost the battle to look like victims, so some of them will be happy to look like successful aggressors. That could certainly mean they go in the direction of clandestine attacks, but it could also mean they show up at these things looking like Roman legionnaires and they rush us first, hard. Our best defense is numbers, which maybe we have now. Obviously, there are tactical questions for us too.
On the other hand, some of them may try to move back toward a mass movement, and away from the fringe. They might stick to being the “pro-white bloc” at Trump rallies.
Alanis: What do the events in Charlottesville mean for the strategy of Richard Spencer, who seeks to popularize a new “respectable” white supremacy?
Clara: He lost. His strategy lost. The president tried running interference for him, but it didn’t work. I mean, these suit-and-tie Nazis can’t change their character overnight, so they’ll keep trying the same rhetoric, but it’s going to be a dwindling audience.
On the other hand, that rhetoric does enable young alt-right recruits to remain in denial about what they’re signing up for. For the most part, they think they’re the Freikorps, but not the Final Solution. We should also remember, again, that clashes like the ones we’ve been seeing can harden these kids. So the ones who don’t drop out because of fear or shame are becoming a more dangerous kind of cadre. The respectability strategy is basically over, but the same individuals can now go about consolidating their gains.
Alanis: Can anti-fascists take credit for the ouster of Stephen Bannon? Will his return to Breitbart and the grassroots far right embolden fascists and give them more momentum? Beyond the obvious strategy of “no platform for fascists,” what role should anti-fascist activity play in our struggle against the state, the chief implementer of totalitarian measures?
Clara: That’s a lot of questions! Bannon? I don’t really care who takes credit for his career change, but I don’t really see it emboldening the far right. You know, the Democrats want to tell it like Charlottesville got Bannon kicked out, because that shifts the focus back to the Oval Office and out of the streets. It might have. I don’t know. I’m glad he’s out, but it’s not my focus. I’m not sure he cares whether he’s directing his movement from inside the institutions or from outside.
What I anticipate is that he’ll try to create a home for all the young people who don’t want to go to Nazi rallies anymore, he’ll push this “alt-left” nonsense, basically he’ll try to do a better version of Richard Spencer’s strategy. That means no Nazis, no Klansmen, just nice Midwestern church people who wouldn’t mind seeing the police gun us down. I’m not sure the momentum is with him now, but we’ll see.
Okay, about the state… We’re still in the midst of an authoritarian backlash in the broader culture, alongside the white backlash. Trump draws on it, but so do his opponents. If you’re trying to get a popular mandate for authoritarian governance, you present yourself as the only force able to contain irreconcilable, violent conflicts within society. That’s what Trump was doing when he talked about the “many sides” of violence in Charlottesville, and I’m sure that’s what his centrist opposition will do when they try to replace him.
There’s two ways to respond as an anti-authoritarian. You can double down on the irreconcilable social conflicts, and say it’s our job to bring them out into the open and fight consciously from the side of the exploited, you know, refuse an oppressive social peace. Or you can dispute the state’s claim that it can resolve people’s conflicts better than we can resolve them on our own. Who does it serve when we perceive our conflicts as irreconcilable, and why do we have to listen to those voices?
Right now, people like Bannon are pushing a vision of a society threatened by deep, irreconcilable conflicts, but they’re not the conflicts a leftist would talk about. They’re citizen vs. alien, West vs. Islam, and so on. We can push for a different way of seeing the structural divisions in our society, and put our bodies on the line for those beliefs, but if that’s all we do we’re giving a lot of ground to authoritarians who want to be the neutral party. I’m talking about mom-n-pop authoritarians, not just the deep state. So I think we have to bring the idealist side of anarchism with us too, don’t just challenge the analysis of our society’s real conflicts, but challenge the state’s claim to protect us from each other. Challenge the belief that we have always needed protection from each other, and always will.
Alanis: In Europe, one of the anarchist critiques of antifascism has been that it obscures the necessity of struggle against the state, capitalism, and other forms of domination. Do you see this as a risk in the US? Why or why not?
Clara: What do you mean “obscures the necessity of struggle”? Like we imagine that as soon as the last Nazi is killed, capitalism and the state will come crumbling down of their own accord, and trans women won’t have to worry about getting randomly murdered for their gender? I don’t see that risk. If you just mean that antifascism can tie down anarchists and keep them from prioritizing the work they really believe in, well of course it can. It’s a defensive struggle. Defense only works if you’re poised to counterattack, and our best counterattack will always be liberatory social movements.
What I do see is that our experiences of struggle deeply shape our imagination. That’s true whether your experience is rioting, or community organizing, or fighting Nazis, or just daily survival in a world that wants to erase you. You start to imagine the whole revolution as just whatever struggle you’re used to, but on a larger scale. And then maybe you’re just limited by your learned instincts and the culture you build up around them.
That may be a problem for the generation that’s been radicalized in the Trump era. There’s the potential for a kind of creeping authoritarianism on the left, the revolutionary left I mean. You know, that whole mythology of the militant… it can obscure the necessity of struggle against—not the state of today, but the state of tomorrow.
But you know, we have a choice about that. We don’t have to be determined by our experiences, even if we’re shaped by them. We can have a more expansive vision of struggle. We can choose what we’re struggling for.
Alanis: Clearly, it takes a lot of courage to physically confront armed fascists. What does courage mean for antifascists? What kind of courage should we be trying to cultivate? What are the risks of focusing on courage as a value?
Clara: Courage is being willing to die for the sake of victory. That’s a straightforward definition. And that is exactly what happened in Charlottesville. One of us died, and we had a victory. That might sound inspiring to some people, but to me it’s fucking nauseating, it makes me want to cry. I mean, I didn’t know Heather, I don’t know if she was preparing herself for the possibility of death. She’s not around to tell us if she wants to be a hero. I do know that some of us entered that weekend consciously accepting that we might die, or that our comrades and loved ones might die. When you take on that kind of mindset, it leaves some scars. I just can’t think about this question in an abstract way.
Some people talk about courage like it’s just a matter of inner righteousness or integrity or something. I disagree with that idea. You can be a person of great integrity, ready to go through the fire for your beliefs, but when it comes time to use the weapons at your disposal you’re too hesitant to make a contribution. Our understanding of courage should capture that readiness to step forward and act without guarantees. That’s why I say it’s about victory.
This isn’t about violence versus nonviolence. Some of the most courageous people I saw in Charlottesville were not throwing punches; they were dressing wounds, or praying, or standing solitary in front of a line of advancing riot cops. Those people were all using the weapons at their disposal.
I guess the risk is that courage alone can’t guide you. I mean, courageous soldiers can fight imperialist wars, but that doesn’t make them right. Honor and sacrifice can fuel a spiral of meaningless violence. Sometimes the things that make you hesitate when you shouldn’t are also the things that make you reassess your direction when really you should.
If you want to back way up and look at it, courage is a warrior value, and anarchism is a peace movement. I mean that in the very simple sense that it’s about people treating each other right without being forced to. That’s peace. Obviously, there’s fighting involved too. I’m just not convinced that the things that make us strong in the face of adversity are always the things that make us good to one another, or that being ready for war makes you ready for peace. Maybe that just comes back to making sure that your vision of victory is really worth dying for.
CRIMETHINC. ESSAY: NOT YOUR GRANDFATHER’S ANTIFASCISM
Alanis: Finally, we present an audio version of CrimethInc.’s analysis on the present and future of anti-fascist struggle in the United States.
Following the clashes in Charlottesville and the massive anti-fascist demonstrations afterwards in Durham, Boston, and the Bay Area, 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 didn’t end in 1945—that today, as increasingly authoritarian governments collude with ascendant fascist movements, this battle is more pressing than ever.
It’s worth taking a moment to review what anti-fascists have accomplished since Trump was elected. Despite harassment and attacks from fascists and law enforcement, what was initially a few hundred people without financial resources or sponsors has grown into the foundation for a massive social movement. On April 15, fascists rampaged through Berkeley, recording video footage of themselves beating people to use for recruiting purposes. On Sunday, August 27, the same fascists attempted to hold another rally in Berkeley. In response to the murder of Heather Heyer during a fascist rally in Charlottesville two weeks prior, thousands of people converged to make the fascist demonstration impossible.
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 be able to present itself as the only possible solution to fascist violence, and the general public would be forced to seek assistance from the very authorities that are already implementing most of the white supremacist agenda. We should be grateful that long before Charlottesville, forward-thinking anti-fascists were doing the thankless work of monitoring fascists and mobilizing against them.
But 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 today. 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.
One: Corporate Media Back the Fascists
The Washington Post titled their coverage of Sunday’s demonstration “Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley.” It is not surprising when Fox News publishes barefaced propaganda describing the organizer of far-right demonstrations that have included at least one fascist murderer as a “prayer activist,” but it is more unsettling to see fascist talking points parroted by supposedly liberal outlets.
The image at the top of the Washington Post article shows a right-wing demonstrator apparently being shoved by an anti-fascist with a shield. Yet several videos show the same far-right demonstrator pepper-spraying anti-fascist demonstrators without provocation and then 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. If you look closer, you can see that the anti-fascist in the picture has a stick, but is choosing not to use it, instead simply using a shield to block the fascist with the pepper-spray from carrying out further attacks. In fact, the Washington Post chose to use 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?
Journalists often determine the substance of their story in advance, and it appears that media outlets across the spectrum had determined in advance to report the anti-fascist demonstration in Berkeley as an expression of violent excess even before it happened. In the event, the demonstration was largely peaceful; even the worst clashes were considerably less violent than the fighting on April 15. Despite this, corporate media outlets that had ignored April 15 altogether devoted considerable space to a few isolated incidents in which anti-fascists scuffled with fascists or other Trump supporters.
The intention was clearly to impose a limit on the amount of popular legitimacy anti-fascists would be permitted to accrue after the events in Charlottesville. Two weeks of positive coverage of anti-fascists, during which various members of the clergy came forward to praise their efforts, were deemed to be too much. 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. It took corporate editors two weeks to regain control of the discourse. As soon as they did, they reimposed their old stereotypes as if Heather had never been killed.
This should put an end to any illusions we might have had 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 organize and 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.
This challenge is symptomatic of the larger phenomenon of polarization, which is worth examining separately.
Two: The Swinging Pendulum of Polarization
US 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 last 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 many 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 the specter of that victory to draw more sympathizers into action. With the media narrative coming out about Berkeley, the pendulum has again swung away from anti-fascists to benefit the right-wing reaction.
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 among right-wingers, or else to find a way to draw in large swathes of the population more rapidly than their competition on the right. We can offer a few hypotheses about how to accomplish this.
Three: The Myth of Symmetry
The allegation that fascists and anti-fascists are equally bad has been 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 should tell us something about those who describe fascists and anti-fascists as symmetrical.
To equate those who fight for freedom and equality with those who want an autocratic state to enforce hierarchies is to reserve all 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 all the justifications for forms of direct action that can actually be effective in this struggle. 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 behave responsibly. In “How ‘Antifa’ Mirrors the ‘Alt-Right,’” the same Chris Hedges who assisted the state in dividing and repressing the Occupy movement reappears to perform the same service 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. It is worse still that Hedges, as a journalist, arrogates himself the right to pass judgment on the events in Charlottesville from a distance rather than deferring to people like Cornel West who were actually there putting their bodies on the line. 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 declare “antifa” a terrorist organization, as many on the far right have already been demanding. Already, the mayor of Berkeley is calling 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, it is imperative that we 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.
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 explore some ways we can go about this.
Four: Identity and Containment
On one hand, it has been extremely useful for people in the US to learn from anti-fascist movements in other parts of the world. At the same time, the wholesale uncritical 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”—it helps them to avoid the question of why anyone would oppose resisting fascism.
In German, abbreviations are common: national socialist becomes Nazi, anti-fascist becomes antifa. But in English, especially to those not familiar 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; this is the last thing we need in the US, 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 over 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. 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 an anti-fascist momentum that will 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 in that project, as can black bloc tactics, provided we evaluate them as tools for achieving particular objectives rather than expressions of identity or belonging.
Five: The Tendency to Militarize
As the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists intensifies, we are 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. Others who experienced the trauma of having their loved ones shot before 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. Sometimes, such escalation is inescapable, even if it closes the door to future possibilities; in any case, it is better to prepare for it now than to be suddenly caught flatfooted. But if our goal is to carry out a revolution rather than to fight in a 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. 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 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.
Six: The Language of Terrorism
In the wake of Heather Heyer’s murder, signs appeared at vigils and rallies 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.
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 many anarchists who did not so much as scratch someone have received terrorism charges over the past decade and a half.
Using the rhetoric of the state reinforces frameworks and narratives that the authorities will ultimately use against us. This is dangerous to our movements and constitutes a betrayal of comrades engaged in struggles we’re often aligned with. 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 carefully introduced into US political discourse in order to prepare the ground for the catastrophic invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The word terrorism comes to us from the Jacobin government’s brutal and merciless rule in France in the 1790s—the term was invented to describe their “reign of terror” during which thousands were executed. 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 because they were a state entity with legitimate power. This should give us a sense of the extent to which the discourse of terrorism serves to give the state carte blanche while delegitimizing all who stand against it.
Seven: There Is No Good Authoritarianism
Sunday’s far-right rally in Berkeley 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 need to present themselves as enemies of “big government” in order to appeal to US 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 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 only 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 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 most of us. 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 and each other better, to recognize 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.
Nine: 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 the ways we relate to our neighbors, the ways 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 should not 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. If we simply fight defensive battles, the fascists will eventually gain the initiative. We should take the experiences of fighting together that we can experience in anti-fascist struggle and use those as points of departure to work together to solve all of the problems that we have. 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, and that we have to invest ourselves in confronting them head on. The only way out is through. Double or nothing.
Alanis: And that wraps up this episode of the Ex-Worker. Remember that you can find a full transcript, links with more information, and all of our previous episodes on our website at crimethinc.com/podcast. If you’ve got feedback for us, updates, requests, or anything else you’d like to share, send us an email to email@example.com.
Also, remember to check out our new weekly podcast, The Hotwire. Every Wednesday this fall, you’ll get a 20–30 minute anarchist news show featuring the latest resistance news, along with repression round-ups, political prisoner birthdays, and announcements for upcoming activities that you can tap into in real life.
Finally, we leave you with some words of wisdom:
- CORNEL WEST: It’s big money, it’s big military, and the way in which this capitalist civilization is leading us to an unbelievable darkness and bleakness, and the beautiful thing is: the fight back.
- ::DEAD KENNEDY’S “NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF”:::