Garnering intense coverage from every side of the political spectrum, Antifa has been the subject of contentious debate over the past few years. Questions have been buzzing all around about what the organization is, who they are, and whether violence is ever an acceptable thing within the political sphere. Regardless of your political stance, it seems these questions have been a part political discourse as long as fascism has existed, and they probably won’t be going away anytime soon.
Anti-fascism and Fascism
Antifa, short for anti-fascist or militant anti-fascism, is a leaderless, horizontally organized, transnational political movement that is opposed to fascist, proto-fascist, and fascistic ideologies, which includes, but is not limited to: neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, white supremacists, white nationalists, and racists. Mark Bray, in his book Antifa: The Anti-fascist Handbook, describes fascism as a “notoriously difficult ideology to pin down”, as it is directly opposed to rationality and defies easy definitions. Nonetheless, its definition is necessary in understanding what exactly anti-fascism is and its history. Bray describes fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
While Antifa and anti-fascism could be reduced to purely the opposition of fascism, doing this would ignore its long history tied to the movements that opposed Mussolini, Hitler, Franco in the 1920s and 1930s; its evolution throughout the 20th and 21st centuries; its leftist currents; and its philosophical underpinnings on the nature of free speech within Liberal society, self-defense, and the justification of widely varying, and sometimes violent, tactics.
While what the earliest incarnation of militant anti-fascism was is debated, many attribute Arditi del Popolo as the first. The group was formed by Italian leftists who banded together to fight the proto-fascist street gangs, under Mussolini, known as the Blackshirts, in an effort to defend themselves from the looming fascist threat. The organization was founded in 1921 at the center of much criticism by the established leftist parties in Italy. Despite the lack of support from party officials of the Italian Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Italy, the group would obtain benefit from some public support until their leaders were assassinated in 1924, and the rest of the group was dismantled.
Unlike Arditi del Popolo, Antifaschistiche Aktion, the German anti-fascist network founded in 1932, would benefit from the support of the German Communist Party (KPD). Under the umbrella of Antifaschistiche Aktion, a broad alliance of leftists, mainly Social Democrats and Communists, would fight through various means against Nazi paramilitaries. This fight would live on until the Nazis officially seized power, and the movement was inevitably forced underground.
Rock Against Racism, RAR, was created in 1976 in response to the rising white nationalist political party in the United Kingdom called the National Front. RAR’s close affiliation with the Anti-Nazi League, ANL, a division of the Socialist Workers Party, influenced much of the organization’s strategies and politics. Throughout the late 70’s, RAR and ANL would go on to hold parades, music festivals, and other populist activities, while on a lower profile, the Socialist Workers Party went on to form regional fighting groups known as “squads”, taking inspiration from the militant anti-fascists of Arditi del Popolo and Antifachistiche Aktion, in an effort to protect the ANL’s activities and engage with National Front gangs whenever needed. Nearby in West Germany, anarchist collectives began taking to the streets to protest the ills of society, during the social unrest of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The “Black Bloc” strategy, the protest tactic Antifa is known for, was be pioneered by these anarchists, but would go on to be used by different organizations in various high-profile protests such as the WTO protests in 1999 and the Occupy movement. The tactic, where don all black garb, allows protesters to hide their identity, move as one cohesive unit, and help protect themselves against any police resistance they may encounter.
Like rock and roll, hardcore punk, a movement within punk rock, has been a catalyst of counter-culture. From its DIY subculture to its proliferation of politically engaged bands, punk’s politics have always been heavily intertwined with post-WWII anti-fascist activism and the anti-racism movement. Founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1987, Anti-Racist Action was formed by leftist punk rockers and a multiracial skinhead group called “The Baldies” who sought to combat the presence of neo-Nazis within the local area and their attempts to appropriate punk for their own ends, as they had with certain subgenres of metal. The movement quickly spread throughout the US and Canada, with separate groups springing up with similar aims, such as the Anti-Fascist League, in Edmonton, and United Against Racism, in Winnipeg. Influenced by Europe’s Anti-Fascist Action, the ARA would adopt the “no platform” for fascists stance that would later come to be known as a common stance held by Antifa groups.
While previous groups have come and gone, just as the rise and fall of fascist movements, the most recent incarnations in the anti-fascist struggle have taken on their own identity, while simultaneously upholding and learning from a long tradition of strategies, tactics, and diverse ideologies of the past. Antifa continues to follow in the tradition of militant anti-fascism, holding that fascistic ideology cannot be reasoned with and must be resisted by any means necessary. The resurgence of anti-fascism to national discourse came through the formation of Antifa in opposition of the growing “Alt-Right” movement, though the organization would only make headlines after its protests at the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump.
While most of the protesters at the inauguration were peaceful demonstrators, those apart of Antifa stood out amongst the crowd. Using the black bloc tactic, they were of a more violent disposition, fighting far-right and pro-trump protestors alike. The video clip of an Antifa member punching white nationalist Richard Spencer at this event was the defining point of conversation in the national media for weeks after. Not very long after the demonstrations at President Trump’s inauguration, a protest at the University of California at Berkeley in February of 2017, would draw national attention for its clashes between far-right, alt-right, pro-trump protestors and Antifa demonstrators. Property damage, vandalism, and injuries were reported, outside of the large peaceful protests that were simultaneously held. While many of the protests Antifa has been involved in have resulted in numerous arrests and injuries, the deadliest of the protests would occur at the Unite the Right rally in August of 2017, where one counter protester, Heather Heyer, was killed in a vehicle-ramming driven by a far-right protestor.
The Timeline of a Transnational Movement
The anti-fascist movement, as a whole, is a history that goes past the scope of any single article, but here is a list of both major events and recent noteworthy events.
- 1921 (Italy) – Arditi del Popolo is formed
- 1932 (Germany) – Antifaschistische Aktion is formed
- 1936 (Britain) – Battle of Cable Street
- 1958 (US) – Battle of Hayes Pond
- 1976 (UK) – Rock Against Racism is formed
- 1977 (UK) – Anti-Nazi League is formed
- 1979 (US) – Greensboro Massacre
- 1985 (UK) – Anti-Fascist Action
- 1987 (Germany) – Antifaschistiches Infoblatt began publishing
- 1987 (US) – Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) is formed
- 1988 (US) – Anti-Racist Action (ARA) is formed
- 1990 (Germany) – Autonome Antifa is founded
- 1991 (Sweden) – Lund and Stockholm neo-Nazi marches
- 1993 (Germany) – Antifaschistische Aktion
- February 1, 2017 (US) – Berkeley protest
- April 25, 2017 (US) – Rose Parade Cancelled
- May 1, 2017 (US) – May Day riots in Portland, OR
- May 7, 2017 (US) – Battle of New Orleans
- June 4, 2017 (US) – Trump Free Speech Rally
- June 10, 2017 (US) – March against Sharia in Denver, CO
- July 8, 2017 (US) – Charlottesville KKK Rally
- August 12, 2017 (US) – Unite the Right Rally
The list goes on, and Antifa groups are still very much active, but the movement itself has received less national news coverage over the course of 2018. Whatever your opinion of the movement is, Antifa has surely made a strong statement, and they will continue to persist as long as the far-right movements they’re combatting still exist.
- What is Antifa? – The Economist
- Seven Things You Need to Know About Antifa – BBC
- Protests, Violence Prompt UC Berkeley to Cancel Milo Yiannopoulos Event – NBC News
- Anarchists and the antifa: The history of activists Trump condemns as the ‘alt-left’ – Chicago Tribune
- FACT CHECK: Is Left-Wing Violence Rising? – NPR
- ‘Antifa’ Grows as Left-Wing Faction Set to, Literally, Fight the Far Right – The New York Times
- The Rise of the Violent Left – The Atlantic
- Who Are the Antifa? – ADL
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