Conor Barnes Rebutting “In Defense of Antifa”

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?