I wanted to read Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by historian Mark Bray because I am conflicted by Antifa. On the one hand, every human being who aspires to morality and decency must be anti-fascist. On the other hand, violence other than in self-defense is an immoral tactic. It is also strategically wrong. However, I wanted to understand how they perceived this moral dilemma.
The first chapters are a history of the anti-fascist movement. This resembles nothing so much as a military campaign history, recounting the endless encounters and troop movements of nearly a century of anti-fascist struggle. It is the dreariest collection of acronyms and mentioning that I have read. Bray seems driven by a desire not to forget any chapter of Antifa, no matter how small, for fear of offending. To be fair, I think there is nothing duller than military histories that follow every company from battle to battle to battle. It’s not more interesting when it’s about political activism, even though it is important to me.
It would be far better to have an appendix listing the Antifa organizations or perhaps a graphic timeline. This is boring. It also makes it hard to see broad historical movement because we are awash in the minutia. Nonetheless, Bray makes the argument that Antifa was successful in making fascism “not worth it” and kept them at bay through the end of the 20th century.
In the third chapter, Bray covers more recent fascist and anti-fascist conflict – conflict the fascists are winning by changing their tactics and anti-fascists seem to be losing by not changing their tactics. We certainly see the results with Golden Dawn in Green, National Front in France, and the alt-right in the United States. Encouraged by the defective election of Donald Trump, Nazis are marching in the open and Antifa is standing up to them. From this history, Bray condenses five historical lessons to inform anti-fascist organizing.
The rest of the book is far more interesting. Bray wrestles with the many critiques of Antifa from free speech legalists and nonviolent direct action proponents. Some of his arguments are very persuasive and center on what Karl Popper called the Paradox of Tolerance. It’s kind of weird that Bray does not mention Popper at all since his argument echoes Popper’s argument that tolerating the intolerant leads to an intolerant society. It’s not that he does not reach to philosophy, he tackles John Milton’s Areopagitica asserting that Milton is wrong on the fact, Truth does not always win. If the first half of the book was half as interesting as the second, I would be far more enthusiastic about it.
I agree that there should be no platform for fascists. I don’t want the government to suppress their speech, but I do want anyone who gives them air to feel the swift reprisal of public opinion, of boycotts, public shaming, and economic punishment. If a university is committed to honest scholarship, they will never give air to fascists. There is no academic integrity in promoting lies. Academic freedom is expansive, but it must not expand to promoting racist, genocidal ideologies.
Bray is correct that fascism does not require a military coup to take power. Historically, it gained power much the way the alt-right is gaining power and the way Trump succeeded in being installed by the Electoral College and Putin. They get money and support from corporatists while recruiting working-class whites with racist blandishments.
As to violence, while I can understand the rationale, when he gives examples of nonviolent protesters who were protected by Antifa from fascist violence, I recall that the success of the civil rights movement was won by the moral contrast between the nonviolent resistance and the abuses and violence of the state. When that contrast is lost, can we win?
These are tough questions and I don’t know the answers. I think this book is a useful guide to some of the questions and to understanding how people in Antifa understand the dilemma – though there is no unanimity and Antifa members are divided on tactics, but they are united always, as we all should be, in opposing fascism.
As to all of us being Antifa, Bray makes that much more complicated. For him, Antifa is not just anti-fascist. It is also anarchic and anti-capitalist. For him, there’s no such thing as a liberal anti-fascist. As economic injustice creates space for fascist recruitment, he argues that anti-fascism must be anti-capitalist. This seems to come from the same false presumption that economic justice will solve racial justice, a fatal misunderstanding of how racism functions as the lever that empowers economic injustice.
I received an e-galley of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook from the publisher through Edelweiss.