In Defence of 'Antifa'
Mike Stuchbery (Liberalism)
In 1932, when ‘Antifaschistische Aktion’ was born from the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, or ‘KPD’, the nascent movement positioned itself as a reaction to the Nazi ‘Sturmabteilung’ appearing on the streets of cities like Berlin - as an organization primarily of self-defence.
KPD members who had seen the Spartakusbund Rising of 1919 crushed by right-wing, nationalist Freikorps believed that their only chance against another wave of organized, nationalist violence was to create their own groups of streetfighters, capable of tackling the SA head on.
With the German Left and Right locked in a cycle of reactionary escalation, small, contained groups of ‘Antifa’ and the ‘SA’ spent much of the early thirties skirmishing in the streets of the larger cities. Their actions were lapped up by a large print media - Germany had hundreds of daily newspapers - who both keen for lurid tales of violence and terrified of Bolshevism.
The coverage of these incidents shocked the growing middle classes of Germany and, it could be said, helped popularize National Socialism among a demographic that the NSDAP badly needed to take power.
Just under a century later, we find ourselves, if not singing the same tune, then one where we at least recognize the melody.
Across both Europe and now the United States, a new wave of emboldened, nationalist street movements, from Generation Identitaire to Patriot Prayer, have been mobilizing in and around neighbourhoods where they believe their enemies - migrants and ‘Leftists’ mostly - congregate. There, they attempt their own form of self-defence action, often devolving into violence.
In response, groups calling themselves ‘Antifa’ have met in response. From the ugly scenes at the infamous ‘Unite The Right’ rally in Charlottesville to the ‘Battle of Berkeley’, direct confrontation has been the standard response.
Again, the media - now vastly more complex and pervasive - has swooped in to report on the violence. The spectre of ‘Antifa’ as a violent, revolutionary movement has become one of Fox News stock villains, discussed over and over by such talking heads as Tucker Carlson.
If there is one thing that those who oppose the rise of the Far Right, in all of its iterations should realise by now, is that the optics war cannot be won. It is inherent in the power structures of late modern Western capitalism that those who seek to respond to extremist force - particularly if they are an ‘other’ - will be seen as an attempt to usurp and overthrow the status quo.
Anti-fascist action, removed from its original positioning as an adjunct to a communist party, is what it is. There is no way in which ‘rebranding’, or dissolution of the movement can in any way be seen as interpreted as a step forward.
In a fight, you don’t win allies by softening your stance.
Unequal access to media platforms, to legal avenues, to other kinds of security, mean that to debate the inherent ‘merit’ of Antifa is itself a losing battle.
Instead, those who consider themselves ‘Antifa’, wherever they stand on the political spectrum, should concentrate on the task at hand: protecting the marginalized minority from radicalised elements of the majority.
While debate rages across the internet, while the media ecosphere of the Right seeks to position ‘Antifa’ as both a threat and hopelessly weak, incidents of hate are exploding across both the United States and Europe.
Emboldened by pundits and opportunist politicians who are skilful with the tactic of ‘wedging’, people of colour, migrants, the poor and LGBTIQ - in particularly the trans community - find themselves the victims of harassment and violence at disturbingly increasing rate, as tracked by organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Hope Not Hate and organizations in France and Germany.
If there is one thing that we have learned from the horrors of the 20th century, it is that the demonization of minorities is always a precursor to greater oppression and even extermination.
No nation fell to tyranny and genocide overnight - the signs and symptoms were always there, in street harassment, assaults and hateful rhetoric.
It was the case in Nazi Germany. It was the case in Balkans, Rwanda. It could be argued that it was a feature of several nations more closely associated with the Soviet Union. There was always a phase during which a small cadre of extremists attempted to see how far they could push, in both word and deed. Street militias were formed. Extremist publications appeared. ‘Enemies’ were beaten and sometimes murdered.
While this ‘probing’ phase should, in itself, be challenged as a means of opposing tyranny, many would argue that we have a moral imperative to protect the vulnerable, those both shunned and demonised. It’s a central tenet of several religions, including the Abrahamic faiths.
Anti-fascist action is, as many will tell you, unchained from the communist roots that once defined it. A growing coalition of groups from all over the Left, in addition to some calling themselves centrists, are coming together to stand up to right-wing extremists.
These ‘Antifa’ have been and will continue to be portrayed as dangerous insurrectionists, as criminals, as violent opportunistic vandals. They will be targeted, targeted for harassment and even legislated against, especially by right-wing governments.
The cost is, as always, a high one. There will always be casualties, in all senses of the word.
Yet as history has made clear, to give up, to lose faith and collapse, is to allow horror and atrocity to become normalized. To not resist, to give way to fascists is to establish the groundwork for genocide.
It is unthinkable that in 2019, when we are more able to engage with the lessons of the past than ever before, that we would choose to ignore them, in favour of giving in to fear and easy, xenophobic ideas.
I will always defend ‘Antifa’ as a moral response to a cycle we have all too often seen repeat. It cannot always hope to end it, but it can always seek to mitigate and slow the progress of nihilistic hatred and violence. For that reason, I stand with them.
Mike Stuchbery is a writer & historian based in Luton, England.