What the Media Gets Wrong About Antifa

Antifa’s decades-long history shows the movement runs deeper than a few vegan milkshakes.

In These Times Editors September 25, 2019

(Illustration by Terry La Ban)

an • ti • fa

noun

1. A protest move­ment that oppos­es fas­cist groups through direct action

Con­sid­er­a­tion is being giv­en to declar­ing ANTIFA, the gut­less Rad­i­cal Left Wack Jobs who go around hit­ting (only non-fight­ers) peo­ple over the heads with base­ball bats, a major Orga­ni­za­tion of Ter­ror (along with MS-13 & oth­ers). Would make it eas­i­er for police to do their job!” —Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, in a July 27 tweet

Where does the word come from?

Antifa groups first arose in Italy and Ger­many in the 1930s as vio­lent fas­cist orga­ni­za­tions grew in those coun­tries. Antifaschis­tis­che Aktion, for instance, was a wing of the Ger­man Com­mu­nist Par­ty. After World War II, anti-fas­cist com­mit­tees” re-formed with thou­sands of mem­bers and orga­nized around demands like the removal of Nazis from admin­is­tra­tive bod­ies, pros­e­cu­tion of local fas­cists and the reestab­lish­ment of a pub­lic health­care system.

How did we get from there to throw­ing milk­shakes at right-wing journalists?

Accord­ing to author and activist Mark Bray, North Amer­i­can antifas­cism most direct­ly emerged from the punk music scene of the 1980s as Anti-Racist Action groups forced out neo-Nazi skin­heads. In fact, anti-fas­cist actions world­wide have been linked to music and cul­tur­al move­ments. Events like the British Anti-Nazi League’s Rock Against Racism drew thou­sands to anti-fas­cist demonstrations. 

Today, antifa groups are gen­er­al­ly orga­nized inde­pen­dent­ly, con­sist­ing of var­i­ous social­ist, com­mu­nist, anar­chist and oth­er anti-racist activists. While some actions have seen phys­i­cal attacks on right-wing fig­ures, it’s notable that these are often fab­ri­cat­ed or exag­ger­at­ed. Right-wing spec­u­la­tion claimed, for exam­ple, that the neo-fas­cist Proud Boys group had been attacked with cement in Port­land, Ore., this sum­mer; it was actu­al­ly veg­an milk­shakes.

So is punch­ing Nazis good or bad?

Many lib­er­als and some left­ists argue that hurl­ing milk­shakes and punch­es runs counter to free-speech prin­ci­ples and offers a PR gift to the Right. Most antifa activists would like­ly con­cede that fight­ing a few local Nazis in the street will not sin­gle-hand­ed­ly stop fascism.

But, antifa advo­cates main­tain, the far-right groups orga­niz­ing ral­lies aren’t mere­ly inter­est­ed in prac­tic­ing free speech; their march­es are intend­ed as stress tests to see how far they can push their rhetoric and, even­tu­al­ly, actions. With a grow­ing fas­cist move­ment in the Unit­ed States and Europe fuel­ing hate-filled vio­lence and racist polit­i­cal par­ties, they say, it’s vital these groups be mar­gin­al­ized before gain­ing power.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For relat­ed In These Times cov­er­age, see, The Left’s Long His­to­ry of Mil­i­tant Resis­tance to Fas­cism” and Draw­ing Equiv­a­len­cies Between Fas­cists and Anti-Fas­cists Is Not Just Wrong — It’s Dangerous.”

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