Antifa Then, Antifa Now: Book Review and Reflection

Marching in the streets of DC on J20. Launching an attack on police barricades before Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech at Berkeley. Standing between peaceful protesters and white supremacists in Charlottesville. In 2017, the United States has seen a surge in public anti-fascist demonstrations and actions. Subsequently, without a shred of historical context or knowledge, pundits of the mainstream media have concluded that antifascist violence against private property makes Antifa “a greater threat to free speech than fascism itself” (143). But what is Antifa, and where did it come from? Mark Bray’s central argument in Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook is that modern leftists and anti-fascists must look to history to inform their strategies for this present-day conflict. An historian who holds a lectureship at Dartmouth College, Bray draws mainly from personal interviews with over 60 European and North American antifascists, placing them in context with wider historical literature on the radical left in the US and Europe and admittedly scarce literature on Antifa itself.

The first two chapters of Antifa trace the historical roots of anti-fascist movements, first in pre-war Europe and then from 1945-2003, when Bray identifies a significant shift from “traditional” anti-fascist action to a modern war against what he calls “pinstripe Nazis” in chapter three. The second half of the book provides an overview of the lessons learned by antifascists and directly addresses common critiques of Antifa and radical left organizing in general.

The first post-war anti-fascist organization was the 43 Group, composed mainly of Jewish, British Veterans of the Second World War. Using the 43 Group as a jumping off point, Bray takes the reader through the evolution of anti-fascist movements in different European countries and in the United States, including engaging stories such as the German Autonomia practicing the first black bloc, the dozens of “fantifa” or feminist Antifa groups that were created in response to the patriarchal and misogynistic tendencies of many anti-fascist groups, the birth of Anti-Racist Action (ARA) in the United States, and the ways in which the far right attempted to use the punk scene and other counterculture spaces as recruiting grounds, much as they use university campuses today.

In chapter three, Bray introduces the concept of Pinstripe Nazis: fascists who hide their beliefs well enough to be accepted as relatively mainstream politicians. This relatively new tactic of modern fascist groups created somewhat of a crisis for anti-fascist organizing, which had developed its own tactics to fight an underground enemy. Now that the enemy is on television screens and sitting in parliament, many of the antifascists who Bray interviewed emphasized the need for a new strategy. Bray does not provide much guidance for this crisis in organizing against mainstream fascism, but instead takes the position that understanding lessons of the past can help the movement adjust to meet their new enemy.

In chapter four, Bray outlines historical lessons for modern anti-fascists. First, he points out that fascism has always gained power legally, not through force. This is why anti-fascist organizers may rightly see the liberal method for opposing fascism as insufficient. This method essentially relies on the idea that eventually fascists will lose in a reasoned debate, as if life were analogous to a debate hall. Another significant historical lesson is that in the past, fascism was not recognized as the threat that it was until too late. Instead it was often seen as an offshoot of revolutionary politics that need not be taken seriously. However, fascism is something different. It “created a vehicle for the imperialism and genocide that Europe had exported around the world to bring its wars of extermination home.” Other educational lessons included the reminder that fascism and far-right politics have always stolen from and corrupted the ideology and culture of the Left, and, perhaps most importantly and simply: It doesn’t take that many fascists to make fascism.

Bray does an excellent job breaking down the questions of whether anti-fascists oppose “free speech” and whether such a position creates a slippery slope. The question of free speech is not often one with which anti-fascists engage, because classically liberal terms of political debate are typically limited to legalistic, rights-based discourse. This understanding of “rights” is not a position that is not shared by many leftist revolutionaries.

For those Antifa groups who do engage in the debate, however, their explanations vary. Some make the point that the right to free speech protects speakers from the government, not from criticism from the public. Others point out that they are targeting fascist organizing, not fascist speech. Still others acknowledge that they are preventing the speech of fascists, and this strategy of “no platform” stems from the consensus that fascist views and beliefs have no place in their communities.

In addressing the “slippery slope” question, Bray acknowledges that this is an important conversation to have about anti-fascist action: Who decides where the line is drawn? Bray suggests that the answer to this question can be found in the historical roots of anti-fascism. “This is the product of generations of transnational struggle, not a thought experiment” (156). He also points out that anti-fascist revolutionaries do not subscribe to the liberal belief that all political opinions are equal, and that fascist beliefs are not to be tolerated.

Those familiar with the global history of the Left will take issue with Bray’s exclusive focus on Western European and North American anti-fascist movements. Movements in South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have arguably shaped the strategies and tactics of broad anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, which, to his credit, Bray acknowledges as foundational frameworks for modern Antifa and for the revolutionary left in general. Despite this admittedly significant issue, Bray is successful in providing a space where modern anti-fascists can use lessons learned by their comrades of the past to shape their modern tactics of opposing both implicitly and explicitly fascist platforms.

This accessible, easy-to-consume text will appeal to a range of readers, from the newly radicalized to lifelong leftists. Near the end of his book, Bray states that “the shape of resistance must always be calibrated against that which is being resisted. It is incumbent upon anti-fascists to continually reevaluate their theoretical, strategic, and tactical arsenals based on shifts in the ideology and praxis of their far-right adversaries” (134). To this point, let us not find ourselves too lost in history, but instead take care to understand our enemies as they appear today. Let us envision strategies that may not just meet our enemy where they are, but that are flexible enough to anticipate and proactively shut down their next move.