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The Left’s Long History of Militant Resistance to Fascism
A conversation with historian Mark Bray about the origins of modern anti-fascist movements.
Anti-fascism is a movement that goes back a hundred years. But when we talk about antifa today, we are talking about modern militant anti-fascism, which predominantly grew out of movements in Great Britain and Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators about how to wage resistance and build a better world.
Mark Bray: My name is Mark Bray. I am a historian and a lecturer at Dartmouth College and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook and a political activist. I have been involved in a number of different projects over the years.
Sarah Jaffe: To start, how would you briefly describe antifa?
Mark: Antifa is an abbreviation for anti-fascist or anti-fascism. Anti-fascism is a movement that goes back a hundred years. But when we talk about antifa today, we are talking about modern militant anti-fascism, which predominantly grew out of movements in Great Britain and Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. These were movements of leftist immigrants, punks and all sorts of people who were targeted by a neo-Nazi backlash, a xenophobic wave that spread over these countries and others. It is essentially a pan-socialist radical politic of collective self-defense against the far right.
Sarah: I think one of the things that people don’t know is that there is a very long history of this kind of self-defense. Can you give us a couple of significant moments in anti-fascist fighting history?
Mark: Going back to the beginning, we can certainly look to the Arditi del Popolo, The People’s Daring Ones, which was an anti-fascist militia formed by various different kinds of leftists in Italy in 1921 to fight back against Mussolini’s Blackshirts. These were anarchists, socialists and communists who took up rifles and defended small villages and towns from fascist attack. It was too late by the time they were formed, because much of the left movement had already been destroyed by that point. Then, the Socialist Party and then the Communist Party pulled out of it. So, it ended up being mostly anarchists and rank-and-file leftists. It wasn’t up to the task of stopping Mussolini.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there were several different left formations in Germany. The Red Front Fighters’ League is one of the more important ones. The Iron Front, formed by the socialists, and Anti-Fascist Action, formed by the communists, were more oriented towards electoral work than anti-fascist confrontation, though the popular impression of them was that they were a paramilitary formation. There was a wave of conflict between Nazis and left forces across the spectrum in Germany in the 1920s and into the 1930s. Many were killed on all sides of this.
But the Socialist and Communist Party leadership didn’t really take Hitler especially seriously, or at least not as seriously as they wish they had in retrospect. This is evident in the Communist Party slogan “First Hitler, Then Us,” whereby they believed that Hitler would get into power, do such a poor job that he would be out quickly, and then they would take over government. Of course, that never happened.
The first moment of conflict when the European Left realized that they were facing an existential threat in the fascist menace was 1934 in Vienna, when socialists rose up against the right-wing government. From that point onward, the anti-fascist struggle in Europe was seen as not just street fighting, but a war for survival for the Left.
That fed into the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. The International Brigades are perhaps the most iconic anti-fascist image in history. The Spanish Republic did fall. Then, you have World War II. In the book, I focus on anti-fascism when fascist regimes are not already in power. There is plenty to be said about Italian and Yugoslav partisans and all sorts of resistance in France and the Netherlands throughout World War II. Certainly, there was armed resistance to Franco in Spain.
But as far as a militant antifa model in the post-war period, maybe the prototypical example was the 43 Group in London, that organized commando units to shut down fascist speakers and meetings on street corners around London in the 1940s. Perhaps the next biggest moment is the Battle of Lewisham in 1977, when the National Front organized an anti-mugging march in an immigrant neighborhood. All sorts of immigrant groups, left groups and feminist groups showed up to block their path and successfully shut it down, preventing the National Front from intimidating the community. Some of the participants of that action likened it to the earlier Battle of Cable Street.
Other examples include the Battle of Waterloo in 1992, when Anti-Fascist Action in Britain confronted some skinhead groups and essentially had a battle in a train station. Then, you can also look at the blockades of different white supremacist marches.
Sarah: I wanted to ask specifically about the connection between antifa and fighting organized white supremacy in the United States.
Mark: Resistance to white supremacy and resistance to the Klan go back much further and are far broader than can be encompassed under the banner of anti-fascism. Obviously, resistance to white supremacy goes back to 1492. It goes back to resistance of slavery. It goes back to John Brown and Ida B. Wells, and so forth. It also has a tradition in the radical elements of the labor movement, the Industrial Workers of the World having battled against the Klan in the 1920s. You can look at the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panthers and other kinds of militant opposition to white supremacy.
We can see that, to some extent, the boundaries get a little blurrier starting around the 1970s, when there is more of a cross-pollination between the Klan and neo-Nazi groups. During that period, we saw the emergence of what some have called a Nazified Klan. The nexus of those two elements was responsible for the Greensboro Massacre in the late 1970s. I briefly touch upon the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee in the 1980s, which espoused an antifa perspective before that kind of politics was “officially” brought to the United States. They helped organize confrontational counter-protests against Klan events and other similar formations around the country.
So it is a broader lineage, and sometimes it is not entirely clear where to parse the differences between anti-fascism and a broader anti-racist movement. I think it is important to think in terms of how these groups identify and the message they use—and to tease apart differences, but not get so obsessed with definitions that you can’t see that there is some grey area.
Sarah: One of the things you make clear in the book is that antifa organizers see no group of fascists as too small. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the historical understanding that springs from.
Mark: The historical lineage of that perspective comes from the fact that the original fascist and Nazi movements, parties and regimes grew out of very small nuclei. Examples include the fact that Mussolini’s initial fascist group was 100 men. When Hitler attended his first meeting of the German Workers Party, before he later changed it into the Nazi Party, there were 54 members of that group. The Golden Dawn in Greece was a micro-party for several decades before the financial crisis of 2008, and then it ballooned into the third largest party in Greece, launching attacks on migrants and leftists.
The historical argument is that small fascist and white supremacist groups don’t always stay that way. It is easier to organize against them when they are small and marginal, when popular opinion is clearly against them and when they don’t have connections to the halls of power or popular basis of support. We have seen, historically, that sometimes they do grow, even if quite often they don’t.
For immigrant communities, for left scenes, for anyone who is marginalized or who comes under attack by fascists or white supremacists, the presence of even a small group in a neighborhood or city makes its presence felt. There are plenty of documented cases where a fascist social center sets up in Italy, or a punk house is established for white power skinheads in London, or a Nazi house is set up in Denmark. When these kinds of milieux are allowed to breathe easy, there is an inevitable violence that comes out from that in a very immediate sense. That violence often targets people who are not “important” enough for the whole mainstream society to care about.
Having a few dozen boneheads in your town makes a huge difference and is a huge struggle. I read one historian talking about the threat of fascists in post-war 1940s London as being marginal, but there are all these cases of synagogues being vandalized and Jews being assaulted. For them, it wasn’t marginal, even if it was marginal to society. That way of looking at politics is often lost in this conversation when you hear people say, “Well, just ignore them. They will go away.” Even if they do go away in 5 years, the damage they have done is really important.
Sarah: You pointed out very well one of the big problems with the “just ignore them” argument. But the media has paid a lot of attention to personalities like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos this year. There is a possibility of paying too much attention to these people, although I think that is mostly a question for media and not for organizers. I wonder if you have some thoughts on how people navigate that tension of not wanting to make the far Right seem big and dangerous, even as they are trying to combat them with the understanding that they could be.
Mark: To some extent, you answered the question in the question. It is different for media versus for organizing. But, you are also right that you can’t 100 percent divide the two. Meaning, attention sometimes is attention. So, if there is going to be a large counter-protest to a fascist mobilization, that will necessarily draw media. It is not entirely distinct, but it is somewhat distinct.
Attention in and of itself does note fuel the growth of political movements. One of the common arguments is that, if fill-in-the-blank fascist group gets attention, that is how they will grow. Therefore, by organizing to shut them down and attracting media, you are helping them grow.
There is a kernel of truth, in the sense that these far-right speakers and groups do want attention: Of course they do want people to know what they are about. But the organizing that brings them attention can also short circuit their path to capitalize on that attention—by expressing their message, by forming links with communities, by being able to present themselves as family-friendly and normalize their presence. If those avenues are shut down, but in shutting them down they get a little more attention, I don’t see evidence to suggest that that is a successful path for organizing.
I do think it is incumbent upon journalists to think about how they cover white-supremacist figures and not do it just in terms of trying to capitalize on the scandalous nature of who they are and write puff pieces about how they are charismatic. I agree with that. But giving them more attention is not the entirety of the political conversation, I guess you could say.
Sarah: In the United States, we have seen the growth of antifa since Trump’s election and its subsequent empowering of all these white supremacists who are coming out of the woodwork. I wonder if you could talk about some of the tactics that folks are using, because most of the media coverage focuses on these counter-rallies.
Mark: The role of public opinion in this is one of the more interesting topics to discuss. I think what bears focusing on here is one of the greatest weapons that anti-fascists and anti-racists have: at least to some extent, most of society is opposed to racism and fascism and overt white supremacist politics. That becomes clear with doxxing, where some of the greatest success perhaps in recent anti-fascist organizing have come from. For example, there is Cooper Ward, one of the co-hosts of The Daily Shoah podcast. He was apparently living below the radar in Nebraska, and the local antifa group in Nebraska doxxed him and forced him to drop out of school and move and relocate his whole life. That is just one example of how, simply by doing some research online and posting some flyers, these kinds of hubs of organizing can be thoroughly disrupted.
Activities include investigating information, research, doxing and forming coalitions with other groups. In some cases, there are some anti-fascist formations affiliated with unions, like the General Defense Committees of the Industrial Workers of the World. In terms of thinking about the relationship between labor and capitalism and fascism, I think there is some important work done there that has been overlooked. I interviewed one of the founders of Redneck Revolt about how they have had success going to gun shows and having conversations with conservative white men, predominantly in more conservative regions of the country, discussing how their Italian-American ancestors were treated similarly to immigrants today and working on an anti-racist angle. They are winning some people over to the other side.
Of course, there is organizing boycotts or campaigns of pressure to shut down white power punk shows in American Legions or VFWs, contacting hotels to get meetings or conferences shut down that are being organized by Holocaust deniers or what have you. What you see is the great lengths that white supremacists and fascists have to go to just to do the basic political activities that leftists take for granted, like holding a meeting. Even in a private location they have to hide their identities. They have to come up with a fake name for the event. They have to be super secure with their means of communication, otherwise anti-fascists find out about it and shut it down. It makes politics so hard for them.
For people who have been part of left groups, we know that it can be hard to maintain commitment among membership. It can be difficult to make sure that people follow through on tasks like organizing venues and publicizing events. But in situations where all of these little steps become ten times harder, it seems evident from an organizing perspective that that just makes the whole thing harder.
Sarah: Let’s talk about the question of feminist antifa. One of the critiques of antifa is, “Oh, these are just sort of a bunch of meathead dudes who just want to go get in fights in the street.” Could you talk about some of the feminist antifa folks that you have talked to and some of the tactics and thoughts that they had on the role of feminism in antifa?
Mark: There have been problems in anti-fascism with patriarchal behavior, with machismo, and so forth. I asked everyone I spoke to to comment on those dynamics and most said, “Yes, there has been a problem, but it has also been a problem in the Left and in society, generally speaking.” Whenever confrontation is part of the repertoire, it is an extra concern.
A lot of this organizing in Northern Europe, in Scandinavia, in Germany, developed in the late 1980s into the early 1990s. Some of it grew out of reclaiming the punk scene out of certain football fan cultures. By the mid-1990s, there was an attempt to address some of these problems.
From the 1990s, there were the Fantifa groups in Germany. There is an entire book written about that in German. In the United States, I know that there were some very difficult conflicts within Anti-Racist Action in the 1990s around issues of gender. Speaking to some of the early organizers, they said similar things to the Europeans: “Yes, we had our problems, but it would be misleading to say that they were significantly worse than in the Left, in general.”
I spoke to a number of women who found anti-fascist confrontation to be, to some extent, liberating, given that society doesn’t consider women capable of that kind of political activity. Then, I spoke to some other anti-fascists from Oregon. I spoke to two women—one currently of Rose City Antifa, one formerly—who emphasized that a lot of the critique of the machismo of anti-fascism silenced their participation in the movement and homogenized what it was in a way that didn’t recognize the diversity and plurality of who people are and the serious anti-oppression work they are doing.
Sarah: Somewhat connected to that is the question of putting forward a positive program, as well as shutting down fascists. I wonder if you could talk about that for a minute.
Mark: There is sort of a range of perspectives on anti-fascism. On the one end, there is a focus on defensive activity and shutting down fascist groups. And on the other end, there is a focus on organizing left movements. A lot of the anti-fascists I spoke to emphasized that the way you stop fascism is bu addressing people’s needs. You make them see unions and social movements or political parties as being the legitimate vehicles for addressing their grievances and representing accurately their hopes for the future.
Then, there are groups all across that spectrum who do some variation of both. I was especially struck by some of the organizing models I learned about in France and Spain, where there would be these small antifa groups doing some of the more research-focused, organizing-focused work, often with a strong security culture where they didn’t reveal their identities to society. But as individuals outside of that, they also participated in neighborhood and regional anti-fascist assemblies and were also part of unions and other political movements. In that capacity, they helped organize anti-racist hip hop festivals and interfaced with society. One of the Spaniards I spoke to described this as the two faces of anti-fascism and saw them as working parallel to each other, even if they didn’t necessarily intersect in an explicit sense.
It is clear that you need a range of perspectives. Some of it has to be putting forward an alternative vision and has to be inoculating society to the appeals of fascism. These appeals have, of course, always shined brightest during moments of economic crisis and social turmoil
I agree with those anti-fascists who see antifa, superficially, as kind of a firefighting operation. That was a metaphor I heard from several people: Antifa is firefighting. Putting out an immediate fire. But not something that is capable of addressing racism in mass incarceration or broader economic trends. To do that, you need a broader social movement, a broader resistance.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
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Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.