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.
Conor Barnes (Centrism)
Mike Stuchbery (Liberalism)
I would like to consider three of Mike Stuchbery’s arguments: firstly, that anti-fascist activism is a moral imperative; secondly, that the current rise in extremism mirrors that which preceded historical periods of tyranny and genocide; and thirdly, that antifa is the only force that can push back against that extremism. While my original article, “The New Paternalists,” presented an alternative kind of antifascism, here I will consider the strength of specific claims. There is, as always, a marked difference between pro-antifa rhetoric and actual antifa practice.
Firstly, Mike Stuchbery argues in his article “In Defence of Antifa” that “we have a moral imperative to protect the vulnerable, those both shunned and demonised,” thereby justifying antifa’s activism. This seems like a robust claim, but antifa’s claim to rectitude is proffered in service of actions that hardly resemble what the average person would consider protection, whether that be attacking reporters, burning the limo of a Muslim immigrant, or pepper-spraying interviewees. Antifa's apologists, if forced to explain incidents like these, say that there should be "consequences to organizing with or alongside white supremacists and hate mongers." It is unclear how mainstream journalists are organizing with white supremacists, but that’s the ideological game:
1. Declare the far-right fair game for violence.
2. Expand the definition of “far-right” to include Trumpists, people who look like Trumpists, or anybody who happens to be in the way.
3. Enjoy the moral authority to attack regular citizens.
Considering the gap between rhetoric and practice, I would argue that we are better off ignoring Stuchbery’s claim to virtue.
Stuchbery also argues that “"No nation fell to tyranny and genocide overnight - the signs and symptoms were always there, in street harassment, assaults and hateful rhetoric… 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." This description could easily apply to antifa. While they haven’t participated in lethal violence the way that the far-right have, their violence and rhetoric don’t give one hope that that will continue. So, as per the thought experiment in my piece, why not apply antifa’s arguments against antifa? Should they not be shut down as soon as possible, before they push further? One gets the sense that antifa practice would fare better without antifa apologia undercutting it.
The third argument worth considering is Stuchbery’s claim that antifa is necessary in a time of far-right ascendancy. To steelman his position, it could be argued that the media focuses overly much on antifa’s excesses (which Stuchbery implies when he says “the optics war cannot be won”), and that antifa is still the only force that can defend against fascist horror.
This would be more convincing if antifa had the resume to back it up. The work of the original anti-fascists in Germany and Spain, to which modern antifa glowingly refer, is not exactly inspirational. It is worth considering the efficacy of violent movements in achieving their goals. While Stuchbery asserts that “you don’t win allies by softening your stance,” work by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth suggests otherwise. In their article and subsequent book, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” they show that non-violent resistance is more likely to achieve its goals fully or partially, and violent resistance is significantly more likely to end in defeat. They argue based on their findings that “Potentially sympathetic publics perceive violent militants as having maximalist or extremist goals beyond accommodation, but they perceive nonviolent resistance groups as less extreme, thereby enhancing their appeal and facilitating the extraction of concessions through bargaining.”
If antifa care about achieving their goals, then we should expect them to welcome empirical data that gives a better sense of what is and is not effective. Instead, we are left with the feeling that antifa care chiefly about being the protagonists of a moral drama, with Stuchbery's rueful lament that “The cost is, as always, a high one. There will always be casualties, in all senses of the word.” Can antifa’s defenders not do better than sheepish admissions that others must suffer the violence they downplay?
Katherine Revello (Classical Liberalism)
Mike Stuchbery (Liberalism)
The author’s stated desire to stand with Antifa in an effort to “mitigate and slow the progress of nihilistic hate and violence” contains within it a statement of moral judgment.
The right to conscience is fundamental to any political order respective of its people. But while this right includes the ability of individuals to act in a manner that proactively advances their values, it does not include the ability to infringe on another’s rights to do the same.
Antifa’s aggressive actions are not, as the author classifies, a tactic necessary to prevent the normalization of discriminatory government policies. They
are, in fact, discriminatory policies against which the author claims to stand.
The essence of despotism in government’s discriminatory actions, particularly when directed against specific identity groups, is in the impact those actions have on agency. Certain stereotypes—such as historic categorizations of Jews as greedy and grasping or of blacks as lazy and unintelligent—take identifying characteristics of a group and read them into their individual members. Government creates discriminatory laws, rooted in false notions about traits endemic to certain identifying features, which alter the conditions in which members of these groups can interact, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: it’s impossible for the individual to rise above stereotypes by virtue or his or her personal merits without the freedom to act or define oneself outside stereotypes imposed from above.
Taking away the autonomy to define oneself for oneself is an act of suppression. Yet, it is exactly what Antifa does by painting with a broad-brush members of the right as fascists. Not only does Antifa slap this label upon its political enemies, in shutting down speeches and debates that feature right-wing speakers, but it takes away from those so labelled any ability to defend or rebut themselves against the charges made against them.
Antifa wraps itself in a mantle of moral superiority: it justifies its controversial tactics as a necessary foil to the power imbalance created by its opponents. Those with power use it irresponsibly; they deny those they oppress access to platforms which they might use to defend themselves.
Yet, in robbing its opponents of the ability to defend themselves, Antifa manifests precisely those behaviors it deems immoral. Antifa denies others the same rights the author wishes the lay claim to - the right to protest against the injustice one perceives in society. And that in itself is unjust. In taking away from the individuals it names fascist the ability to defend or explain themselves, Antifa seizes their agency from them. It alone lays claim to the ability to characterize them. By extending the label of fascist anyone who rises to their defense, it takes away from others the ability to make moral judgments for themselves. By targeting anyone who stands with those it has labelled fascist, Antifa infringes upon an integral component of the right of conscience: the ability to take actions that support one’s moral conclusions.
Antifa cannot credibly claim to be an instrument of justice when its behaviors and tactics mimic those of the entities it calls immoral.
Jerry Barnett (Libertarian-Left)
Mike Stuchbery (Liberalism)
What If We’re the Bad Guys? A Response to “In Defence of Antifa”
This piece begins with a nice summary of the origins of Antifa in Germany, as a largely communist street force set up to tackle the rise of fascism. However it misses one important - though admittedly obvious - fact. Antifa lost.
Convinced of their own moral superiority, and of being the one true solution to fascism, the German communists failed to reach out beyond their own political ideology and unite with mainstream socialists, social democrats and liberals to fight the greater threat of fascism. As a result, communist leaders found themselves imprisoned, tortured and executed by the Nazis. Had they heeded the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s advice to form a United Front against fascism, their battle may have gone more successfully.
From the communist perspective, the street battles were ones of good versus evil. And yet both sides had eschewed democracy, each deeming the other as being too dangerous, too inhuman to be tolerated in Germany. Although defence of Jews and other minorities was of utmost importance (and many Jews joined the communists for obvious reasons of self-preservation, German democracy - and with it reason and humanity - was ripped apart not just by the Nazis, but by their opponents who also saw liberal values as an obstacle rather than a solution.
Those German communists died as heroes, because at least they died fighting evil. But would Europe’s fate have been gentler if they had won, and invited Stalin’s armies westward? Stalin, after all, was a butcher of millions. For complex reasons, history has been kinder to him than to Hitler, and his face (ironically) adorns student posters in a way that Hitler’s never could.
As the writer of this piece himself makes clear in his mention of Rwanda and the Balkans, Nazism was just one instance of a broader and more primitive human problem. Humans have an unpleasant habit, from time to time, of turning into mobs which become murderous. Individuals within the mob have little idea of the bigger picture. Like individuals within flocks of birds or shoals of fish, each one does what seems sensible or normal at the time. This is why Germans were apparently so bewildered when the end result of the Holocaust was reflected back to them. They had surely participated in something good - how could they have done evil?
Rwandans seem to have responded with similar puzzlement, after the genocide that claimed 800,000 lives. Why did people hack their long-term neighbours to death in this blood frenzy? The people involved seem the least able to explain why they had done it. Again, in Cambodia, horrific levels of cruelty and murder were done - this time in the name of a warped breed of Communism. Again in China during the Cultural Revolution. Again in the Pacific at the hands of imperial Japan. There is no ideology that links these unspeakable brutalities, save for the primitive belief that we are better than them.
If we decide that Nazism is the thing that we need to defend against, then everything starts to look like Nazism, and every action becomes valid, because - well, look what they did last time. If we decide Communism is the true evil (as fascists often do), then the anti-communists find moral justification for killing whatever looks or sounds like a communist.
Humanity has crafted liberal solutions to human primitivism over thousands of years: human rights, free speech, democracy, due process, systems of checks and balances. These inventions are the last line of defence against whatever-name-we-choose-to-call-the-next-threat. Any ideology, however enlightened it sees itself, which attacks these things, is the real enemy of peace and human life. And the way to fight it is to defend all the more strongly these liberal values, not to stamp heads into the pavement.