I went on my first anti-fascist protest as a teenager, sometime in the very late 70s, or perhaps the very early 80s. It was a counter-protest against a small far-right group, the British Movement, which was marching in Paddington, a west London area which, at that time, had a large black community. The fascists turned up with perhaps one or two thousand supporters. We outnumbered them by dozens to one. I remember marching past them, a thin line of police keeping the two marches apart, trading abuse and seeing the rage in their faces.
Although fascism seemed to be on the rise at that moment, the British far-right was about to go into steep decline. The youth culture was becoming increasingly mixed, largely thanks to music. The music styles of 1970s urban Britain - white punk rock and black reggae - were becoming fused into uniquely British styles of reggae and ska, personified by mixed-race bands like UB40 and the Specials. Massive, free anti-racism festivals took place under the Rock Against Racism banner, with the aim of soothing tensions in mixed working-class communities that had borne the brunt of mass immigration from the West Indies. Three decades after the arrival of the first big ship, the Empire Windrush, and two decades after the west London race riots which led to the foundation of the Notting Hill Carnival, black and white youth in London were at last beginning to come to terms with each other.
The approach of groups like Rock Against Racism, and later efforts like Kick Racism Out of Football, was to drain the far-right of support by engaging with white working class young people who were facing many of the same problems as young black and Asian people: unemployment, poor housing and a lack of opportunities. There was an understanding that fascism rises within divided communities, and that the solution was to unite people. Although we in the anti-fascism movement were ready to use some level of force to prevent the far-right from marching in multiracial areas, there was also empathy towards the problems faced by white youth who might be drawn towards the far-right.
As a black man in his 50s, a child of the “Windrush generation”, recently put it to me: we shouldn’t underestimate how traumatic mass immigration was for the pre-existing communities. Certain poor British communities (many of which were already quite mixed) faced rapid, overwhelming social change in a very short period of time. To simply refer to all of the resulting problems as “racism” was to misunderstand the nature of the situation. So it was right that anti-fascist activity was focused on knitting troubled communities together.
The National Front (NF), once a fascist force with mass support, shrivelled away in the 1980s. It was replaced by the British National Party (BNP), which we referred to as the “NF in suits”. Again in the 90s, we marched against the BNP, fearing a new fascist threat. The events of 9/11 gave a new spur to the far-right. The BNP subtly shifted their language to attack “Muslims” instead of their former targets of “Asians” or “immigrants”. After winning a few council seats, they too peaked and faded. In turn, a new anti-Muslim street movement arose, the English Defence League (EDL). This too was met with counter-protests, and it peaked and died.
Then in the past few years, the anti-fascist movement resurfaced as Antifa. I had seen this word sprayed on walls in Italy in the 1990s. This shortening of “anti-fascist” might work in Italian but sounds clumsy in English. This new grouping, while borrowing some of the old anti-racist and anti-fascist language of the old movement, was fundamentally different in practise. In the previous thirty years, the left had gentrified. The old movement, rooted in workplaces and slum housing, understood the problems that led to racial tension. Antifa had been incubated in the new, mostly white, predominantly middle-class left that had grown from the ashes of the old Labour movement.
This new post-progressive left didn’t understand the old, unifying politics of class, so instead became obsessed with race and gender. To them, racism was no longer something concrete that resulted in communal tension and violence. They believed in “systemic racism”, a kind of magical fog that hangs in the air and “oppresses people of colour” every second of every day. In the absence of any serious racial violence (either in the US or Britain) the new anti-racists desperately searched for new examples of “racism” to attack.
While racism was once obvious in American lynchings or violent British skinhead gangs, now the examples became laughably trival. White girls “appropriating” hoop earrings or braided hair; a black boy modelling a cute monkey T shirt; a “racist” soap commercial that simply wasn’t racist.
This new anti-racism isn’t just different from the old anti-racism. It is fundamentally racist. Where we sought to unite, they seek to divide. Where we strove to rise above racial division, these people deliberately divide people by race. Where we sought unity above all, they insist that the world is divided into “whites”, who are oppressors, and “people of colour” who are victims. The new anti-racist left sees itself as the saviour of downtrodden brown folk, even if they don’t want to be saved.
Antifa has experienced similar problems. They seem to lack a basic understanding of what fascism is, or how it can be fought. What they lack in analysis, they make up for in willingness to punch people and shut down debate. To their simplistic reasoning, fascism is really bad; therefore violence is justified against fascism; and therefore if they decide to label someone a fascist, then they have the moral right to attack that person. It doesn’t occur to them that the silencing of political discussion is a bedrock of genuine fascist behaviour, or that their violent attacks on free speech justify the same behaviour from the far-right.
The anti-fascist movement once used force to prevent fascists gathering in racially mixed areas. Now Antifa uses force whenever it feels like it. Simultaneously, it stretches the definitions of “fascist” and “Nazi” further and further. When Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at the University of California at Berkeley, an “anti-fascist” riot prevented him doing so (I wrote about this here). Milo is an entertaining right-wing troll who certainly has unpleasant views on immigration and trans people. He’s also good at dismissing the illiberal nonsense of left-wing identity politics, and especially good at offending feminists. None of this is particularly fascist - in fact he makes a better defence of classical liberalism than many of his “liberal” detractors. The idea that violence was needed to shut down his speech wasn’t just misguided, but a sign that fascist attitudes against free speech have taken root on the left. When I dared to defend Milo’s right to speak, someone on Twitter called me a “Nazi” - presumably thus adding me to the growing list of people who can be punched at random. The fact that Milo is a gay man with a black partner, and I’m a left-libertarian of Jewish heritage doesn’t, apparently, prevent us from being called Nazis.
Interestingly, Antifa ignores the current rise in racist black nationalism. When Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam recently referred to Jew as “termites”, there were no Antifa protests outside NoI temples. The NoI is undoubtedly a racist organisation, and Farrakhan is among the most influential racist voices in the United States. But in the world of identity politics, black people are to be seen as victims rather than autonomous agents, incapable of making their own decisions. This reveals the racist world view of the anti-fascist left, which sees “people of colour” not as equals, but downtrodden victims that need a white saviour. In this way, the anti-racist left starts to resemble colonial-era white supremacists.
What should be done about Antifa? We oppose their methods just as we oppose racist and fascist ideas. We use our free speech to oppose them, as I’m doing here. They have the right to protest, including in masks if they choose. They have the right to call everyone a Nazi if that pleases them, but they don’t have the right to go around punching “Nazis” who are exercising their right to free speech. They appear to largely consist of small groups of privileged white boys who (in my opinion) should spend more time investigating recreational drugs, dancing and having sex, which is the correct way (IMO) to misspend a youth.
Genuine liberals uphold the right to free speech for all as a necessity, not a nicety. Racist ideas are easily defused if one is prepared to argue. They can only thrive if violence is misguidedly used to crush them.
Adam Buick (Anarcho-Socialism)
Jerry Barnett (Libertarian-Left)
It is difficult to find anything to rebut as all the contributors are agreed in criticising and opposing Antifa’s tactic of employing physical force to prevent views they object to being expressed. Even the one defence of them in effect damns them with faint praise by arguing that maybe their hearts are in the right place. So this is not a rebuttal but a correction on a factual matter as I agree with Jerry’s criticism of Antifa’s activities.
The correction concerns the earlier wave of anti-fascism in Britain which he says Antifa has betrayed. He refers to the rise (in the 1970s) and fall (in the 1980s) of the National Front. In 1977 an organisation to oppose the NF called the Anti Nazi League (ANL) was set up (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Nazi_League ). Though not as crazy as Antifa, it pursued the same tactic of using physical force to prevent the NF and others it designated as “Nazis” (a worse term of abuse than “fascist”) from expressing their views at public meetings as well as confronting them on the streets.
That this tactic of physical force censorship was a controversial issue at the time is evidence by contemporary articles. For instance, this from 1980:
“The claim made by the ‘Anti-Nazis’ that they are defending freedom by preventing the National Front and similar organisations from holding meetings is absurd. Free speech can only exist when it is open to all and it cannot be defended by those who in fact abolish it. Not only does political violence not preserve existing democratic rights, it positively weakens them by creating a situation in which the authorities may restrict or ban many forms of political activity. This much is certain: the chances of getting the socialist case across in such an atmosphere of intolerance will be considerably lessened. The only way to deal with fascists is to demolish their obnoxious, anti-working class ideas at every turn. We would welcome any opportunity to confront them in open debate before an audience of working men and women. We have nothing to fear and everything to gain from this because we are confident of the workers’ ability to understand the socialist case and of our own ability to present it. Of course, this will not sound exciting enough for leftist hot-heads looking for trouble, but whatever the right method of dealing with fascists may be, theirs is absolutely wrong.” (“The Best Way to Oppose Fascism”, Socialist Standard, December 1980.
The bulk of those who supported the ANL, as at the “Rock Against Racism” events Jerry mentions, would essentially have been expressing their legitimate opposition to racism and would not necessarily have agreed with the ANL leaders’ censorship tactic. In any event, the arguments against the elitism, paternalism and undemocratic practices of Antifa also apply to the Anti Nazi League of yesteryear, even if Antifa aims to censor a wider range of views than they did.