Insurgent activist movements need spokesmen, intellectuals and apologists, and for the moment Mark Bray is filling in as all three. A historian, Occupy Wall Street veteran and visiting lecturer at Dartmouth College, Bray is the author of the impeccably timed “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” which he calls a work of “history, politics, and theory on the run,” an effort to “contextualize opposition to Trump and the alt-right within a much wider and broader terrain of resistance.” The book’s most enlightening contribution is on the history of anti-fascist efforts over the past century, but its most relevant for today is its justification for stifling speech and clobbering white supremacists — two antifa traditions that overwhelm the chance to contextualize much of anything.
Not that its adherents seem to care. Last weekend, masked antifa activists in Berkeley, Calif., overran a police barricade and attacked right-wing demonstrators in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park; 13 people were arrested. And don’t forget the sucker punch of white nationalist Richard Spencer in Washington on the day of Trump’s inauguration. When Bray calls his book “an unabashedly partisan call to arms,” it’s not just a metaphor.
Bray relies on historian Robert Paxton’s definition of fascism as “political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues . . . goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” But anti-fascism is more than opposition to fascist regimes and their supporters. It is also preemptive, Bray explains, seeking to squash any incipient organizational efforts on behalf of white supremacy or class oppression. And its politics are not just negatory — they also aim to adapt “preexisting socialist, anarchist, and communist currents to a sudden need to react to the fascist menace.” Conservatives or even moderate liberals who oppose fascism do not find a warm welcome.
Antifa tactics include “no platforming,” i.e., denying their targets the opportunity to speak out in public; obstructing their events and defacing their propaganda; and, when antifa activists deem it necessary, deploying violence to deter them. In this setting, the First Amendment is a second-order concern. “In my opinion, ‘no platforming’ fascists often infringes upon their speech,” Bray admits, “but this infringement is justified for its role in the political struggle against fascism.” He simultaneously minimizes and affirms violence as a tool — calling it “a small though vital sliver of anti-fascist activity” but asking: “Do we need to wait until the swastikas are unfurled from government buildings before we defend ourselves?”
Much of this handbook recounts the efforts of antifa groups throughout Europe and North America, such as Rock Against Racism, a collection of left-wing punk acts in Britain and the United States; the Red Warriors, French radical martial-arts fighters who patrol the streets in search of skinheads; anarchist motorcycle squads in Greece that protect immigrant neighborhoods from racist attacks; and the German Autonomen, popularizers of the “black bloc” activist hallmarks of masks, dark clothes and clubs — “a uniform, anonymous mass of revolutionaries prepared to carry out militant actions.” The Autonomen managed to shut down rallies and celebrations marking Adolf Hitler’s 100th birthday in 1989.
Their tactics have now surfaced in America, where anti-fascists point to a mutually enabling relationship between the new president and white supremacists. “The KKK has thrived during eras of black social advancement,” Bray writes. “The election of Obama in 2008 spurred white-power recruitment, and led to the rise of Donald Trump.” Trump’s unconvincing disavowals of white supremacists during his presidential campaign and his “many sides” rhetoric after the murderous violence in Charlottesville — where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed after an alleged Nazi sympathizer slammed a car into a crowd of protesters — only further affirm this link.
Yet, for all the enemies anti-fascism identifies, one of its biggest challenges has always been navigating the left. During much of the 20th-century interwar period, Bray writes, mutual suspicions between socialists and communists kept them from collaborating effectively against the fascist tide. “Ultimately the socialists and communists were too preoccupied with each other to recognize that the Nazis were not simply a new variant of traditional counter-revolution,” he writes. “Both leaderships were too stuck in their ways to rapidly countenance innovative and confrontational tactical options.” The gulf was often generational, Bray notes, “with anxious youth ready to beat anything in a brown shirt while their older leaders urged restraint.”
Today, many intellectuals and politicians on the left reject the antifa movement, no matter their shared anti-Trump impulses. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb argues that antifa actions in Berkeley were “morally wrong” and gave credence on the right to Trump’s assertion of blame and violence on “many sides.” And in a recent statement, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared that “the violent actions of people calling themselves antifa in Berkeley this weekend deserve unequivocal condemnation, and the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted.”
But Bray scoffs at what he calls “liberal antifascism,” the faith that America’s marketplace of ideas will defeat fascist arguments, or that our political institutions and law enforcement agencies can forestall fascist politics and actions. “Historically, fascist and fascistic ideas have thrived in open debate,” he notes. “An anti-fascist outlook has no tolerance for ‘intolerance.’ It will not ‘agree to disagree.’ ”
Economic crises, migration flows and demographic shifts create a propitious environment for the rapid growth of right-wing movements, Bray argues, recalling how in Italy and Germany, powerful fascist parties emerged from initially small groups.
“It doesn’t take that many fascists to make fascism,” he warns.
But is Trump fascist? A proto-fascist? Fascist-curious? In his thoughtful new book, “From Fascism to Populism in History,” New School historian Federico Finchelstein concedes that Trump’s campaign “had clear fascist and racist undertones,” and he cites the “fascist pedigree” of Trump’s “America first” slogan. However, he labels the new American president not a fascist but a populist in the tradition of Juan Perón, the 20th-century strongman from Finchelstein’s native Argentina.
The distinction is small but real — a vital sliver, you might call it. Unlike fascism, populism strains democracy but does not break it, and populist leaders still depend on the electoral system for legitimacy. (Consider Trump’s enduring obsession with the 2016 election results.) “Immediately after World War II, the memories of fascist violence, especially those of the Holocaust, motivated the popular rejection of the past,” Finchelstein writes. “New forms of postfascist populism created an authoritarian version of democracy.” The populist leader requires the blessing of the ballot box, but once that blessing is secured, the author explains, “the leader became the only one who could channel the will of the people.”
Of course, populism can slide toward dictatorship. “Populism is both genetically and historically linked to fascism,” Finchelstein writes. “Nothing prevents its future relapse into its past fascist foundation.”
If it does relapse, however, it probably won’t be on the strength of neo-Nazis marching with tiki torches. The irony of the debate over antifa violence is that the battleground for white supremacy today is less the streets than social media, talk radio and even polite policy circles. Bray writes of the rise of “pinstripe Nazis,” those who cultivate a veneer of respectability, who recast racism away from crude arguments about biological differences and toward seemingly reasoned policy debates over security and scarcity, immigration and assimilation. Also, it’s harder to punch a Nazi when he’s spouting off on Reddit and 4chan instead of on the quad or a Washington street corner. Bray interviews a French anti-fascist complaining about how the strategy of the far-right National Front “is no longer for [party] militants to occupy the streets, but for spokespeople to occupy television screens.”
This is reminiscent of the argument in Carol Anderson’s 2016 book “White Rage,” in which the Emory University historian posits that white supremacy undermines racial progress not just through violence but via courts, legislatures, policies and bureaucracies. As Bray puts it, “Historically fascism has gained entrance to the halls of power not by smashing down the gates, but by convincing the gatekeepers to politely swing them open.”
Will America swing those gates wide? Bray’s justifications for antifa violence are premised on the belief that the our democratic traditions of open debate and of institutions channeling popular passions are hopelessly inadequate, if not entirely obsolete. Finchelstein, for his part, sees the United States as little different from other nations succumbing to populist forces. “Tales of American democratic exceptionalism have finally been put to rest,” he writes. “This new age of American populism shows clearly that the United States is like the rest of the world.”
Bray concludes with an intriguing measure of American progress. “Our goal should be that in twenty years those who voted for Trump are too uncomfortable to share that fact in public,” he writes. I can’t imagine, though, that such discomfort would result primarily from the threat of retaliatory violence. It can come only in a United States that fully embraces the values it has long espoused, inching toward a less imperfect union where the dogmas of the Trump era will feel anathema. The inherent contradiction of antifa is that, if America is indeed so irredeemable and hypocritical that violence is the answer, then what exactly are you fighting to preserve?