“When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying?”
—Murray Bookchin, “Listen, Marxist!”
From summer 2015 to spring 2016, the Democratic Party and its obedient corporate press “elevated” America’s version of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.
Because even war-hungry, bring-them-to-heel HR Clinton could dispatch DJ Trump with ease.
But as the orange-maned abomination slouched toward November 8th, it began to dawn on some folks that the party’s brilliant ploy might’ve been too brilliant by half: the outsider joke of a Republican presidential candidate didn’t look like he would make the guaranteed return to the ghastly realm from which he’d been summoned.
To banish him, the Democratic Party-turned-The Resistance broke Godwin’s Rule with feverish abandon and screamed, “Hitler! Hitler! Hitler!”
The number of times The Resistance screamed it in subsequent months surpassed exponentially the number of actual neo-Nazis residing in our indispensable nation.
So, did the guy who now splits his time between 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 725 5th Avenue make crude populist appeals?
Greatest nation ever—check. Biggest volume of biggest weapons ever—check. Hugest economic power ever—check. The mostest brilliantest people on the flat Earth ever—check.
But hell, the preceding president—Nobel Peace Prize laureate, drone commander, bank savior, and deporter-without-peer—read from that script a couple-three times. A couple-three hundred times, that is.
Did Trump toss in anti-black and brown dog whistles?
But we can find them chirping in HR Clinton’s, GW Bush’s, or WJ Clinton’s campaign speeches. (Who says George C. Wallace is dead?)
Nevertheless, one wouldn’t dare bring up those inconvenient particulars because Hitler! Hitler! Hitler!
Now after all that rhetorical mortar fire has driven “Donald = Adolf” into our hearts and minds, folks across the political spectrum are shocked—shocked!—that small bands of black-clad, bemasked antifascists are verbally and physically attacking anyone even remotely associated with the Second Coming of Hitler! Hitler! Hitler!
Antifa, sometimes known as Antira in the US, heard The Resistance’s message loud and clear, and they took it seriously. As a consequence, they’ve honored their namesake. They’ve militantly antagonized those they’ve been told are an imminent existential threat to democracy and oppressed people. And, no, parading around in crocheted pink bunny ears won’t cut it for Antifa.
Antifa’s usually been ignored by the corporate press and political elites—that is until a hot August day in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In the days immediately following the Charlottesville demonstrations and murder, the corporate press and many in The Resistance went gaga over the group. As the weeks have progressed, though, it’s become clear to The Resistance that Antifa isn’t Bic-lighter rock—it’s mosh-pit punk. Also becoming increasingly obvious is that Antifa can’t be controlled easily, even while being manipulated by politicos and the mainstream media.
From a public relations angle, The Resistance and its scribes are coming around to the conclusion that more political coin will be made by throwing Antifa into the Alt-Left casserole that the Alt-Right and The Resistance have been cooking up. It just won’t do to be outdone by the president when it comes to marginalizing the left.
Meanwhile, Trump and the Alt-Right are having a field day using Antifa as a strawman to demonize leftists real or perceived, whom they would demonize anyway. He and his minions are also employing that strawman to justify militarizing police, even though militarizing police has been on the national agenda since WJ Clinton’s second term. Then there are the ridiculous false equivalences Trump and sophisticated right-wingers are making between Antifa activists on the one side and neo-Nazis on the other.
Quite a few polite leftists have gotten their hackles up—but not out of a sense of solidarity with their rowdier kin. When they’re not merely echoing Trump’s false equivalences, they address Antifa with patronizing condescension, as if Antifa is the political equivalent of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.
Finger-wagging lecture upon finger-wagging lecture upon finger-wagging lecture.
Those of us who’ve been involved in leftist action for more than a few moons are painfully familiar with those lectures, delivered by people on the left who relish playing the role of Polonius.
I agree that Antifa’s endearing characteristics are sometimes undercut by its less savory ones.
Refreshing are Antifa’s audacious direct action and bold anti-authoritarianism, which enliven an otherwise moribund left. Unsettling, though, are the threads of nihilism and self-righteousness that sometimes intermingle with the black threads of Antifa’s signature garb. Indeed, the group’s Robin Hood and His Merry Band role has been known to cross into Alex and His Sadistic Droogs territory.
Antifa’s principled stance of not being tied to a party or ideology or tendency is a mixed blessing. While it may offer more free action, it may also lead to infinite fragmentation or to exploitation by opportunistic individuals and the political establishment. Look, for example, at how HR Clinton used a similarly organized Black Lives Matter against itself last year: BLM’s scattershot attempts to challenge her provided Clinton the opportunity to undermine its relevance—the same BLM that’s been instrumental in bringing 21st-century America’s attention to persistent structural racism and rampant police brutality that plagues black Americans.
But I and many other leftists are really in no position to lecture Antifa, as well as Black Lives Matter and Redneck Revolt. The so-called organized, movement-building left—which includes anarchosyndicalists, environmentalists, feminists, Greens, Marxists, and socialists of all flavors—has more than its share of dysfunction. And as much as I hate to write this, its record of long-term efficacy in recent decades isn’t exactly impressive.
A century ago, the unshrinking Emma Goldman identified what was and is still one of the left’s most crippling Achilles heels:
Every movement that aims at the destruction of existing institutions and the replacement thereof with something more advanced, more perfect, has followers who in theory stand for the most radical ideas, but who, nevertheless, in their every-day practice, are like the average Philistine, feigning respectability and clamoring for the good opinion of their opponents.
Too many times, leftists exhibit “a theoretical sympathy which all those have who still enjoy a certain amount of comfort and therefore do not see why anyone should break into a fashionable restaurant.” These are the kinds of individuals who, for example, speak glowingly about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing yet cluck their tongues when the movie’s antihero Mookie hurls a trash can through a shop window as his Bed-Stuy neighbors riot in the streets.
While on the topic of leftist sympathy, cue the genuine sympathy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
King was undoubtedly one of the most courageous warriors for Civil Rights and practitioners of nonviolent direct action. But he didn’t stop there. In the waning days of his life and the Civil Rights era, he didn’t rest on his laurels or run victory laps. He, instead, engaged in some courageous acts that are too often ignored.
Like Malcolm X, King expanded the scope of his righteous crusade for African Americans to include taking on capitalism and its militaristic imperialism. His courageous sympathy couldn’t be contained.
Another courageous thing he did was to address the speck of dust in his own eye before sympathetically criticizing black activists for becoming increasingly violent. After being heckled by members of the Black Power movement, he looked in the mirror:
For twelve years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, “all, here and now.” I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing me because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.
Barring notable exceptions, I see little of that kind of sympathy in the organized, movement-building—aka “legitimate”—left as it launches jeremiads against those it deems to be illegitimate leftists, excoriating them for turning a revolution into “an undiscriminating catchall for evanescent and futile gestures.”
But haven’t most of us who carry the banners of the legitimate left actually produced little more than evanescent and futile gestures during the last few decades?
Haven’t too many of us legitimate leftists allowed our purported antagonists—from neoliberal, neoconservative Democrats and Republicans to torch-burning fascists—define the terms of our political engagement, thus giving them free rein to make America in their own image?
Might it not be more productive for the legitimate left to ask itself why it’s not able to attract or hold onto obviously energized left-leaning people who’re joining groups like Antifa? (Suggestion: the answer probably shouldn’t include a luddite rant about social media, a snorting critique of tastes in apparel and music, a boilerplate sermon blaming or beatifying working-class youth, or a call to deliver yet more lectures to unruly whippersnappers.)
Going forward, wouldn’t the whole left be far better off finding common positive cause among its varying groups and tendencies—instead of banishing each other, instead of being Charlie Brown for the Democrats’ Lucy, instead of playing footsie with the far-right?
 “The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation.” Red Emma Speaks. 162.
 “Intellectual Proletarians.” Ibid. 230.
 Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 46.
 Ibid. 47.