Since Donald Trump and his sycophantic henchman Bill Barr decided to label the movement known as Antifa a terrorist organization, people across the political spectrum are resurrecting their antipathy towards the phenomenon. This cacophony of charges and misconceptions has once again put this amorphous manifestation in the spotlight. The last time most people had even heard of them was after some of its adherents shut down one of the last speeches by an alt-right luminary on a college campus. It was because of Antifa’s success in chasing fascists and their allies from colleges that it faded into the ether where all dead news stories go. Because police in the US don’t seem to be able to stop killing unarmed Black people and the Trumpists decision to go after anti-fascists again, Antifa is back. Along with their return comes aa chorus of criticism.
Antifa is once again being attacked by elements of the right, elements of the Left and the center. Those on the right see an anarchist anti-capitalist bogeyman. The critics on the left see nihilism and a misunderstanding of the definition of fascism. Those in the liberal/conservative center see an undefinable and unquantifiable element in the body politic that prefers violence to debate and vandalism to voting. All of these criticisms are both wrong and right. Precisely because it is not an organized group and has no politics beyond challenging those it considers fascists or very sympathetic to fascism, Antifa opens itself to these and other misunderstandings. There is no single spokesperson or committee to defend and explain it. Because it so loosely defined, it opens itself up to multiple definitions, many of which are lies.
As a person who defends Antifa (and identifies as an anti-fascist, among other things), I have been told by people that Antifa is a government plot, a bunch of rich punks who like to break things, a group of people who substitute punching people for a political program, and the reason Donald Trump will win re-election. Furthermore, people have told me that Antifa go after ordinary people by confusing right wing populists with fascism and that, while Trump is a populist, he is not a fascist. My response to this is that there were certainly many Germans, Italians and Spaniards who were their nation’s version of populist in the 1930s who never thought their support for Hitler, Mussolini or Franco would lead to the debacle it did. In other words, knowing this, why should we wait for fascists to show us what real fascism is if we can shut them down before that?
Right wing populists are much closer to fascism then they are to anything else. My understanding of history is that many fascist sympathizers in Europe and the US in the 1930s considered themselves populist in their politics. Once they realized the nature of those leading them, it was too late to turn back even if they had wanted to. Fascism is the ultimate realization of capitalism. It does not stand in opposition to any manifestation of that system. Neoliberalism is a step closer to the realization of fascism. Even though the meaning of Trumpism in relation to fascism continues to be debated, the fact remains that the US is considerably more authoritarian than it was even four years ago. That isn’t to say that it was not authoritarian prior to Trump’s entrance into the White House—of course it was. Indeed, the rise of the politics Trump represents would not be possible without the history that preceded his presidency. However, Trumpism is unique in the history of authoritarian rule in the USA in that it revolves around a single human—Donald Trump.
For those who have been paying attention, the Trumpistss have been taking plays right out of the classic fascist textbook. A few examples of this are:
1. Gleichshaltung–replacing bureaucrats and other officials with Trumpistss (or leaving the positions blank so Trumpistss can invoke policies favoring right wing capitalists (mostly)
2. Going after unions and workers in general
3. Naming immigrants as the other and criminalizing their existence
4. Provoking political, ethnic, gender and racial divisions…..you get the picture…
Has Antifa made mistakes? Of course they have. After all, it’s through praxis, not pontificating, that one learns what works best. In virtually every human endeavor, one learns much from their mistakes. Hell, when it comes to leftish movements, the movement behind the Sanders campaign made a few mistakes itself. They were arguably more consequential than any made by Antifa. However, like the Sanders campaign, Antifa has had its share of successes too. Perhaps the greatest one is that invitations to alt-right and fascist speakers to speak on university and college campuses greatly diminished (even prior to Covid shutdowns) since the Antifa campaign to shut them down began.
Folks running under the Antifa banners are first and foremost against fascists and white supremacists. This includes people like Charles Murray and David Duke and the tiki torchbearers in Charlottesville. It includes Proud Boys and neo-nazis, Donald Trump and racist cops. The unfortunate (for some) truth is that sometimes, you gotta’ fight fascists if you want to fight fascsim. Vigils don’t make them go away. In today’s climate, when fascist sympathizers (if not outright fascists) are sprinkled throughout the national government, various state governments and throughout most every type of law enforcement, disavowing Antifa and labeling it as criminal helps the most reactionary elements of the state consolidate their control. You may not like their tactics, but these folks are allies. The idea that they might be infiltrated is of course true, but who does more harm? An infiltrated bunch of leftists and anarchists or a bunch of liberals spouting the same garbage as the president, the justice department and other rightist politicians attempting to enhance the police state.