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Discussed in this essay: Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray. Melville House, 2017, 259 pages.
MARK BRAY'S Antifa can perhaps be considered the definitive statement of the movement that leapt to the front page after the events in Charlottesville. Widely though not deeply researched, Bray's book clearly lays out the historical antecedents of today’s antifa, its current activities in the U.S. and Europe, and a theoretical explanation and justification for its activities. Bray and the movement he speaks for are not an outgrowth of the Marxist Old Left, so his description of what fascism is doesn’t rely on the formulas of George Dimitrov and Palmiro Togliatti -- rather, he is free to rely on the great historian Robert O. Paxton and his 2004 Anatomy of Fascism.
Anyone interested in understanding antifa would do well to read Bray as a perfect expression of the movement.
Bray is perfect also in his arrogance, his smug self-satisfaction, his contempt for free speech, his inconsistencies and hypocrisies, his bad faith, his bloated sense of his movement’s worth, his self-congratulation, and his specious reasoning. Antifa is sad proof of the nullity of this all-too-visible portion of the left, and, frankly, of the danger it presents to the broader left, which already faces an uphill battle. Antifa proves that antifa discredits us all and must be criticized and, when necessary, condemned.
How can one not condemn a movement that Bray defines as moved by “an illiberal politics of social revolutionism applied to fighting the Far Right, not only literal fascists.” This is a particularly interesting and disturbing choice of words, for it eerily echoes what the authoritarian president of Hungary, Viktor Orban, advocates, an oxymoronic “illiberal democracy.” Bray is to be commended for being so open about what antifa stands for, and the entire book is an attempt to justify his movement’s opposition to democracy as most Americans understand it. He regularly speaks of the anti-authoritarian nature of the movement and its roots. He is an odd bird, this anti-authoritarian who wants to stifle speech. But the authoritarianism Bray is opposed to is that of the state; that imposed by the enlightened few is perfectly acceptable. Though antifa is anti-Leninist, like the Central Committee, it decides what is acceptable and what isn’t.
The movement's choice of enemies speaks volumes about their condescending vision of activism. Bray speaks of having spoken to “current and former antifascists.” Are the latter now fascists? Are they no longer opposed to fascism? Or is it that an antifascist can only be someone who covers his face and calls everyone opposed to him “fascist”?
BRAY BEGINS the book with an acceptable history of interwar anti-fascism, groups like the Italian Arditi del Popolo (the People's Daring Ones) and the Roter Frontkämpferbund (the Red Front Fighters' League, RFB) in Germany. The former was a largely Communist group that fought the Fascist squadristi, who were responsible for more deaths in the drive to power than were the more notorious SA in Germany. The RFB was the fighting arm of the German Communist Party (KPD), and engaged in street battles with Nazis, resulting in hundreds of deaths on both sides. It was armed fighters of the KPD who killed the Nazi martyr Horst Wessel, author of the Nazi anthem, the “Horst-Wessel Lied,” which in fact mentions the Red Front.
For Bray, today’s American antifa, along with similar formations around Europe, are the heirs of these two groups. But this lineage is false on the face of it. The Arditi del Popolo and the RFB were not loose groups of leftwing skinheads who decided to battle rightwing skinheads, nor were they ephemeral groupings fighting largely phantom and marginal enemies. Rather, they were the outgrowth of an organized party and class. The frivolous nature of Bray's comparison is given away when he says that “[p]erhaps the most significant public incident in recent American anti-fascism occurred . . . on Inauguration Day, when a black clad anti-fascist punched the white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face in broad daylight.” Even if you’re opposed to antifa’s methods, it’s impossible not to feel a certain satisfaction at seeing someone as despicable as Spencer get one in the snout -- but if this petty event is “the most significant public incident in recent American anti-fascism” (prior to Charlottesville, of course), then in what way can they claim to be the heirs of people who engaged in life-or-death battles with the real Nazis and Fascists decades ago? Only someone lacking in any sense of historical perspective can make such a claim.
Even in this historical section of the book, Bray is guilty of inflating the historical fascist threat and the effectiveness of anti-fascist activity. He spends much time on the justly famous Battle of Cable Street, when Jews and Communists took on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists when they marched through the Jewish East End of London on October 4, 1936. The day ended in a rout of the fascists, and Bray says that “Mosley did not pass.” He notes that “the Battle of Cable Street helped fascist recruitment, triggered fascist violence, and was viewed negatively by Jewish community leadership and the majority of the British public,” yet this "does not prove that it was a strategic error." Symbolically and morally, if not practically, Bray considers the anti-BUF action a success.
It certainly has lived on in leftwing popular memory, but it was not what brought the BUF down. The BUF was a less than marginal group, of absolutely no significance, having perhaps 20,000 members and already in serious decline at the time of the Battle of Cable Street. And it was not anti-fascists who shut Mosley down, but the British government, which arrested him during the war as someone likely to support the Germans should they invade. The war over, Mosley was released and returned to politics, where he remained a marginal figure on the far right -- though Bray again inflates his importance. He can’t help but do this, for if the fascist threat is viewed as the minor one it is, then there is no justification for antifa. Lacking enemies, they invent them.
But let’s grant Bray his comparisons, and say that antifa is the exact equivalent of the fighters against the Nazis and the Fascists. Has he forgotten that they lost? That for all their organization as fighting bands, they accomplished strictly nothing? Over a thousand Italians died in the run-up to the Fascist accession to power, and hundreds of Germans during the Nazi rise. The dead Arditi and Red Front fighters did nothing to inhibit that rise. They were part of the failed strategy of the PCI and the KPD. Why would one want to imitate failure? Posturing is not politics.
POST-WORLD WAR II fascism gets much play in the book, though with the exception of Greece’s Golden Dawn, fascism is as dead as a doornail. For Bray, the lesson to be learned from the fascist party and the Nazis is that both started as small, marginal groups, taken seriously by few, so any inkling of fascist activity must be (violently) nipped in the bud before history repeats itself. Marx, however, got it right when he wrote that “history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as farce,” for that is what the European and American fascists are, a farcical repetition of the original. As Paxton wrote in Anatomy of Fascism, “The greatest obstacle to the revival of classical fascism after 1945 was the repugnance it had come to inspire…. The commonest position is that although fascists are still around, the conditions of interwar Europe that permitted them to found major movements and even take power no longer existed.” After reviewing the dangers that exist in Europe, Paxton says that “while western Europe has had ‘legacy fascisms’ since 1945, and while since 1980, a new generation of normalized but extreme Right parties has even entered local and national governments there as minority partners, the circumstances are so vastly different in postwar Europe that no significant opening exists for parties overtly affiliated with classical fascism.”
Bray doesn’t believe this to be so, but for him it is of no consequence, because fascism is not just fascism. For Bray and his comrades, “anti-fascists generally agree on the broad strokes of fascism such as patriarchy, white supremacy, authoritarianism, and so on.” If this all seems hopelessly vague, fear not: “In practice, your average anti-fascists risking their personal well-being and personal liberty to confront Nazis are almost always much more well-versed in the nuanced distinctions between the various strains of fascism and their center-right counterparts than most self-righteous pundits.” These “nuanced distinctions” include those of a French antifa group, which Bray clearly approves of, which “stressed that all major political parties in France manifested fascistic traits.”
Bray correctly points out that no fascism has achieved power through insurrection. The electoral path -- helped along by some extra-electoral muscle -- was the road to success for Hitler and Mussolini. Yet the target of Bray’s antifa are in almost all cases non-electoral fascists. Given his expanded definition of the fascist enemy, rather than wasting time and effort on marginal figures like Richard Spencer and boasting, as Bray ceaselessly does, of battles with Nazi skinheads, antifa might better spend its time trying to defeat the Right where it truly can be fought and blocked, on the electoral ground. Wasting efforts on the myriad fascist groups like those that assembled in Charlottesville, who will never achieve power, does nothing to block the most successful extreme rightwing party in the world, one that has authoritarian tendencies, is a supporter of patriarchy, and is anti-immigrant: our Republican Party.
This should be the overarching goal, the one toward which all tactical choices should be made. This is not what interests Bray, however. It is here that Bray’s boasted illiberalism enters, and becomes more than problematic.
ANTIFA OPPOSITION to free speech is one of its best-known traits. They call it “no-platforming,” and it has caused violence and controversy around the country as they block speaking engagements by people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Charles Murray. Despite this, Bray feels he can say that “the antiauthoritarian position held by the majority of antifa is actually for more free speech than that put forward by liberals.”
The tortured reasoning that ensues is almost to be expected: Since they are antiauthoritarians and anarchists, in the world they will achieve, there will be no more prisons and they will “construct a classless, post-capitalist society that would eradicate significant discrepancies in our ability to make speech meaningful.” No more prisons, no more police, no more army, thus more freedom in the long run. That in the meanwhile free speech is diminished is simply not of any import: “[T]he rights proposed by capitalist parliamentary government are not inherently worthy of respect.” That they are the only rights we have, that they are the only rights they have is omitted from the equation.
Bad faith and dishonesty inevitably follow from this. “Not all speech is organizing, and therefore anti-fascists do not organize against speech per se, but much organizing is speech.” The reasoning is specious, but the facts as outlined are also false, since they do organize to shut down speakers. What organizing is the scholar Charles Murray involved in?
And even if one were to consider shutting down rightwing speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, Bray’s reasoning is faulty. “Individuals watching Yiannopuolos on YouTube do not have the same political potential as when they are physically grouped.” Where has Bray been living these past decades? Has he not realized that it was precisely the fact that the right was able to feed itself at home alone on a diet of Limbaugh and Breitbart and Fox that enabled it to take over the government? The handful of Nazis in antifa battles or shuts-down are not the people who brought us Trump.
Those who argue in defense of free speech, for Bray, are defending an “ethical value, not simply a constitutional protection.” For antifa, “the debate revolves around the legitimacy of the ‘universal’ principle that society should not limit speech on political grounds.” He is not shy of his conclusions: “When understood as a value rather than a law, it is clear that anti-fascism opposes this principle in its absolutist form…Instead, many antifascists make the illiberal argument ‘no free speech for fascists.’”
Here we can see that what makes antifa a danger is the way they resemble the worst of the historical left, though they reach there by a different road. Bray is not an anti-authoritarian, as he states several times. Rather, his anti-authoritarianism is nothing but a disguised form of authoritarianism.
Bray has sneering contempt for what he calls “free speech warriors,” who will eventually stop writing about antifa speech suppression “as they run out of new points and their ability to manufacture outrage dissipates.” Such brazen contempt -- not only for those he considers his enemies, but for those who believe that deciding who can and can’t speak, cannot be abided for any group. Bray's expectation that outrage over the silencing of those protested against by antifa is “manufactured” speaks eloquently of his and his comrades’ alienation from the real world, his total lack of understanding of people who take democratic values seriously. They are unlikely to lose interest, as he hopes and expects; his lack of concern for freedom of speech doesn’t mean it is a passing fancy for those he scorns. Political children like those that constitute antifa have a short attention span; adults don’t.
Their justification is not just that of forestalling fascism, which for them is always just around the corner, but in defense of “the safety and well-being of marginalized populations [which] is the priority.” The white working class that is Trump’s base was mobilized by the right because of its supposed marginalization in modern America, indeed in the modern world. Are they to be included in antifa’s Protected Species Act? Of course not. Two plagues of the left meet here: identity politics and metastasized anti-fascism.
In Bray’s vision, the enemies of free speech are not antifa, but the hypocritical defenders of free speech, since they are not “absolutists,” as they proclaim, but rather have exceptions to their rule, as for “obscenity, incitement to violence, copyright infringement, press censorship during wartime, or restrictions for the incarcerated.” Taking an unspeakable leap, he then informs us that “many liberals support limiting the speech of working-class teens busted for drugs, but not limiting the speech of Nazis.”
One doesn’t know where to begin in confronting such a farrago of nonsense. But here Bray again shows us the dangers of antifa. Through slippery and empty-headed logic, liberals have now become the true enemies of freedom, and though he denies there is any threat of a slippery slope to antifa anti-free speech activity, it is not difficult to see that, for Bray, liberals = rightwingers = fascists.
OUR AUTHOR is similarly disconnected from reality and lacking in any sense or knowledge of history when he discusses violence that grows out of demonstrations. Bray speaks of public support of barricades thrown up in Paris in May 1968 and pitched battles with the police. Yes, “the majority of the French public sided with the student rebels,” but this was at a time when 10 million people were on strike. Yet it must also be said that by the end of May '68, De Gaulle’s supporters brought out hundreds of thousands on the Champs-Elysees, and that in elections a month later the right won a smashing victory. Bray seems never to have looked at any pictures of any demos in America, since he claims that “prior to the Occupy and BLM movements, marching in the street was commonly seen as illegitimately disruptive.” This, of course, is news to those of us who have marched in demonstrations in the U.S. over the past century -- but Bray and his peers have made the world new, so what happened before them didn’t happen.
His disconnect from reality is again patent when he speaks in praise of looting and rioting that grows out of demonstrations, since “these riots pushed police brutality and black oppression to the forefront of the national consciousness in a way that ‘nonviolent' tactics could not have achieved on their own.” If Bray would ever have opened a newspaper after a riot or listened to conversations other than those of his comrades, he would have heard the puzzlement and disgust expressed when violence breaks out in support of even the best causes.
Leaving aside the foolishness and poverty of his thinking on the suppression of free speech, what are we to call it when one segment of the population assigns itself the right to decide what speech is not acceptable? Whether the dictator is an individual or a self-appointed group of activists who understand the issues better than the bovine masses and the “free speech warriors,” the effect is the same. Antifa should be defended when it is physically attacked or its rights infringed upon. Their ideas are to be shunned and rejected.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.