Antifascism: Pros and cons

Saturday’s lopsided standoff between fascist and antifascist demonstrators in Boston, in which the latter outnumbered the former roughly a hundredfold, has been occasion for some relief among liberals scandalized by images of Charlottesville. I would caution against any overhasty optimism, however: Claudio Segrè, biographer of Mussolini’s heir apparent Italo Balbo, reminds us that the first Italian fascists were initially viewed as clowns in November and December 1920, fringe elements that could hardly be taken seriously. “They suffered from unsavory backgrounds and reputations,” writes Segrè, “not the stuff out of which to create a mass movement.” Just two years later they were in power.

Quartz reports that linguistic analysis of billions of Reddit comments has shown a marked increase in the use of alt-Right rhetoric and conspiratorial dog whistles (about “globalists,” “Soros,” “cultural Marxism,” and “Zionazis”). A suspect sample set, one might counter, but the numbers are suggestive either way. With Trump’s presidency spiraling out of control, losing far Right credibility with the bombing of Syrian airbases and the firing of Steve Bannon, its former supporters might look for new outlets to express their political discontents. Outlets other than the carnival sideshow of the 2016 Donald Trump campaign. But are more feelgood mass rallies like Boston really the answer to right-wing radicalization?

Fifteen years ago, massive antiwar marches took place in major cities across the US and around the globe. Impotently, they proclaimed “not in our name.” The invasion of Iraq happened anyway; the demonstrations did nothing to stop it. Participants in these marches could comfort themselves with the thought that their voices had been heard, but they weren’t really interested in stopping imperialism. Evidence of this can be seen in the near total collapse of the antiwar movement in 2008, as the various “soft fronts” of the ISO and FRSO — e.g. the ANSWER Coalition, whose members marched arm-in-arm with Howard Dean supporters and other Democratic Party pacifists — were liquidated into vegan bake-sales for the election of Barack Obama.

I’d similarly contend that most of the people who showed up in Boston on Saturday are not all that serious about stopping fascism. Most of them were liberals eager to reassure themselves that “we’re better than that,” with a meatspace analog to the #ThisIsNotUs hashtag that briefly circulated on social media. Gus Breslauer points out in a note for the Guy Debord Club of Houston that “communists are the only ones who can make fascism impossible.” Antifascism on its own is not up to the task, as we indicated in the previous post: Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. “Communists are the ones best equipped to effectively fight it if it continues to grow,” Beslauer continues, “since they are the only ones who can confidently say they not only want to destroy fascism, but all of what makes fascism possible.”

Caught between superficial opposition to fascism and the radical transcendence of capitalism, whose crises give rise to fascism in the first place, it’s not a bad idea to juxtapose a couple of recent articles on the subject of antifascism. One of them, “Pro Anti,” by the Australian professor Angela Mitropoulos, was published by The New Inquiry just yesterday. Mitropoulos has in the past decried “Leftist Anti-Antifascism,” which she saw exemplified in a 2016 Jacobin article on “The Antifascism of Fools,” by David Broder. Broder’s simple warning that leftist support for bourgeois centrism was the wrong way to keep the Right out of power was reinterpreted by Mitropoulos as “the embedded auto-immune response of authoritarian Left nationalism.”

Hyperbole of this order and magnitude may seem quaint, but it seldom helps facilitate debate. Nevertheless, Mitropoulos has been keen from the get-go to brand Trump an “American fascist,” writing in 2015: “Fascism is as American as Henry Ford. And Donald Trump.” She’s gone so far as to label Jacobin as a whole a Strasserist organ, in a post cleverly entitled “Jaco in the Bin.” I don’t disagree that mainstream social democracy is often susceptible to nationalist impulses, as demonstrated a little over a century ago in August 1914, or xenophobic slogans like Labour’s “British jobs for British workers.” All the same, the Aussie academic overreaches a bit in her latest piece when she insists, “We need a reminder that antifa emerged from a left communist milieu.”

Perhaps Mitropoulos is ignorant of the longstanding left communist critique of antifascist politics. The Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga (in)famously quipped that “the worst product of fascism is antifascism.” Here he doubtless had the danger of class collaborationism in mind, as many socialists and communists opportunistically urged to make peace with parliamentary liberals and bourgeois democrats. Bordiga may well have underestimated the popular appeal of fascism, and it is important to bear in mind that he was mostly familiar with its Italian variant. German fascism would only come to power in 1933, after Bordiga had already rotted for four years in a fascist prison (three years into his house arrest, which would last until 1943, during which time he was forbidden from writing political tracts).

Later, the Italian left communist journal Bilan elaborated on Bordiga’s critique in Franco-Belgian exile, putting out a May 1934 piece called “Antifascism: A Formula for Confusion.” Prefiguring the later Bordigist critique of “activism,” against all those who displayed contempt for theory, they emphatically rejected “facile criticism by all those elements, indifferent to ‘theory,’ whose rule is to ignore all theoretical clarity and to get into bed with anybody, in any movement, on the basis of any program, as long as there is ‘action’.” Bilan was of course writing in the wake of the Comintern’s new policy of the “popular front,” enacted earlier that year at the behest of Georgi Dimitrov, and so continued:

As far as the problem of antifascism is concerned, its numerous supporters are guided not only by a contempt for theoretical work, but by the stupid mania for creating and spreading the confusion necessary to build a broad front of resistance. There must be no demarcation that might put off a single ally, or lose any opportunity for struggle: this is the slogan of antifascism. Here we can see that for them confusion is idealized and considered as an element of victory. We should remember what Marx said to Weitling more than half a century ago, however. Ignorance has never done any service to the workers’ movement.

Gilles Dauvé, another author in this tradition, explained in his response to the British journal Aufheben that the critique of antifascist or anti-imperialist politics should not be taken to imply that communists are somehow indifferent to fascism or imperialism. “I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US ,or Chinese, but am not an ‘anti-imperialist,’ since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers,” wrote Dauvé. “I am against fascism, be it Hitler or Le Pen, but am not an ‘anti-fascist,’ since this is a political position regarding fascist state or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.”

Mitropoulos, on the contrary, regards antifascism as sufficient in and of itself: “Anti-fascism is a real movement to abolish the slavery that persists at the base of capital, including those concrete foundations on which statues to slave-ownership were built.” Dauvé might well reply, as he did in 1998, that “‘[r]evolutionary antifascism’ is a contradiction in terms — and in reality. Anything communist inevitably goes beyond the boundary of antifascism, and sooner or later clashes with it.” Setting aside the rather Ricardian focus of Mitropoulos on surplus-value and unwaged labor as the necessary basis of capitalism, which sees extra-economic compulsion standing behind purely economic pressures, her reduction of anticapitalism to antifascism must itself be rejected.

There is certainly room to criticize the dismissive attitude adopted by left communists and communisateurs toward fascism, as indeed it has been by Cherry Angioma in her review of “Communization Theory and the Question of Fascism” (2012). But it is worth remembering that even Leon Trotsky, who authored an entire extended series of articles (later compiled into the pamphlet “Fascism: What It is and How to Fight It,” sounds almost like a left communist himself in his 1939 reflection on the defeat of the Spanish Revolution. Here he mercilessly upbraided “the empty abstraction of ‘antifascism’”:

The very concepts of “antifascism” and “antifascist” are fictions and lies. Marxism approaches all phenomena from a class standpoint. Azaña is “antifascist” only to the extent that fascism hinders bourgeois intellectuals from carving out parliamentary or other careers. Confronted with the necessity of choosing between fascism and the proletarian revolution, Azaña will always prove to be on the side of the fascists. His entire policy during the seven years of revolution proves this. On the other hand, the slogan “Against fascism, for democracy!” cannot attract millions and tens of millions of the populace if only because during wartime there was not and is not any democracy in the camp of the republicans. Both with Franco and with Azaña there have been military dictatorship, censorship, forced mobilization, hunger, blood, and death. The abstract slogan “For democracy!” suffices for liberal journalists but not for the oppressed workers and peasants. They have nothing to defend except slavery and poverty. They will direct all their forces to smashing fascism only if, at the same time, they are able to realize new and better conditions of existence. In consequence, the struggle of the proletariat and the poorest peasants against fascism cannot in the social sense be defensive but only offensive. That is why León goes wide of the mark when, following the more “authoritative” philistines, he lectures us that Marxism rejects utopias, and the idea of a socialist revolution during a struggle against fascism is utopian. In point of fact, the worst and most reactionary form of utopianism is the idea that it is possible to struggle against fascism without overthrowing the capitalist economy.

In connection with this glorious rant, I would like to direct readers to a brief article written by Sander of the left communist journal Internationalist Perspective a couple of months back. Quibbles might certainly be raised with respect to its claim that, for example, antifascism originated during the thirties. Arditi del Popolo in Italy and the Roter Frontkämpferbund in Germany both were founded in the twenties. And I would certainly be willing to defend a principled antifascism, such as that so eloquently articulated by Job Polak in his speech to Antifascist Action Amsterdam. Nevertheless, Sander raises a number of relevant points that every communist ought to consider in the face of resurgent ethnic nationalism around the globe, in “Antifa? No Thanks”:

Recent comments on the Intsdiscnet-list on “Fascists March on Berkeley” (4/27/17) raise that issue with which those committed to the struggle against capitalism have grappled since the 1930s: antifascism.

Historically antifa or antifascism within the worker’s movement became the clarion call of Stalinism, and then the veritable basis of the Grand Alliance between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill to, yes, crush the Axis powers, and — yes — to divide the world between American imperialism, American capitalism and its British partner, and the no less imperialist ambitions of Stalinist Russia. The logic of antifascism was played out on the streets of Barcelona and Madrid in 1936-1937, even before the outbreak of World War Two as the Stalinists crushed the working class of Spain even before Franco and the fascists could then finish the job. Antifascism then became the ideological basis for the mobilization of the working class for the second inter-imperialist war, first for its no-strike pledges in Britain and the U.S., and then for sending the sons of the working class in Britain and the U.S. to die for their national capital, for the demands of Anglo-American imperialism and its alliance with Stalin. Antifascism, then, was historically the ideological basis of capitalism’s response to the great depression and its accompanying sharpening of inter-imperialist antagonisms. Its success could be seen in the triumph of Anglo-Saxon and Russian imperialism, displayed for all to see in the wanton destruction of defenseless cities like Dresden, Leipzig, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the war had already been militarily won, and in the subjection of half of Europe to Stalin.

And now? And today? Once again anti-fascism emerges as the clarion call of the “resistance” (sic.), of that faction of American capital represented by the Democratic party: the call of Sanders and Warren as they prepare for the next election; the call of Hillary Clinton, the war hawk and Senator from Wall Street, who successfully argued as Secretary of State for American military intervention in Libya, who argued — this time unsuccessfully — for the U.S. to back up its “red line” in Syria against Assad, and to once again wage imperialist war in the Middle East. There is where the actual logic of anti-fascism today is being played out, that is what the ideology of antifa serves. And like its Stalinist progenitors in the 1930’s, antifascism today has nothing to do with anticapitalism. Indeed, antifa today, as it was yesterday, is an ideological trap, a basis for one more mobilization of the working class behind the interests of capitalism. At a time when the historical logic and trajectory of capitalism needs to be grasped and theoretically and politically exposed, antifascism once again holds out its promise that it can still serve to mobilize the working class in the interests of the very system that exploits it, and to ideologically bind it to that system.

Is fascism really what Trump, Le Pen, and others of their ilk represent? There’s nothing that indicates that their aim is to do away with the basic rules of the democratic game. That doesn’t mean that they are not dangerous. But democracy can accommodate repression, war crimes and attacks on the working class just as well, if not better, than fascism. The common denominator is increased nationalism and militarism. Most of the ruling class may have preferred Clinton but they are more than willing to see if Trump can use these tools to protect and increase their profits. The healthcare bill, recently approved in the House of Representatives, amongst other measures, shows clearly that the new administration is launching a ferocious attack on the proletariat. No wonder it evokes disgust and anger, which we share. We express our solidarity with the protests and struggles against the attacks of the state, while at the same time pointing out that this is capital attacking the working class, not fascism attacking democracy. In fighting back, the choice comes up: do we ally ourselves with factions of the ruling class in opposition in order to defeat the faction in power, or do we fight them both? By framing the conflict as one between fascism and democracy, the partisans of antifa are making the first choice seem logical and necessary, and are thereby, despite their combativeness, acting as water carriers for capitalism.

Once again, as Max Horkheimer said in 1939: “Whoever is unwilling to talk about capitalism ought to keep quiet about fascism as well.”

8 thoughts on “Antifascism: Pros and cons

  1. Thanks so much for your reference to Claudio Segre’s book. He was my Western Civ TA many years ago and his reading of Machiavelli’s Il Principe to our class in Italian set my mind spinning.

    As for anti-fascism, your scepticism about it seems unconvincing. Would you really not have wished to see anti-fascism succeed in Germany before the Socialist and Communist parties in Germany were outlawed and the socialists and communists exiled, imprisoned or gassed?

    And if Trump is not a fascist, his captivation of the “working class” seems eerily similar to the condition you described in an earlier post: “Like work under the dictates of the state, the belief in Führer and community propagated by the state appears to be an escape from a bleak existence.”

    Well-written (if not thoroughly convincing) post, as always. And thanks again for the reference to Segre.

  2. Of course, a conception of anti-fascism as “sufficient in itself” is myopic. That said, Mitropoulos hardly seems to hold on to that kind of position, contrary to your reading. After all, she writes that “fascism is not an anomaly but a periodic feature of the dynamics of capitalism and democracy.” Nothing she’s written on the subject would really seem to indicate that she supports some kind of coalition in defense of the democratic state vis-a-vis incipient fascism. If anything, she seems to view both social-democrats and left-liberals as dangerously close to fascism themselves.

    Nor do I think that Internationalist Perspective’s critique hits the mark either. To be sure, slogans like “refuse fascism” are common in liberal circles and a recent article in Jacobin off-handedly mentioned liberals are allies in the struggle against fascism. That said, the term “antifa” specifically has connotations of a more militant praxis, one that liberals have thus far seemed allergic to (cf. Beinart’s terrible article on the “violent left”).

    To bill oneself as anti-anti-fascist makes sense, to an extent, when anti-fascism means what it did in the context of the popular front and in the post-war period. To me, however, it’s not clear what the political content of the term “anti-fascism” is today. It seems in flux between a democratic appropriation of the term and an anti-fascism that openly declares “cops and Klan go hand-in-hand.” With that said, I humbly suggest that anti-fascism is too important a term to be left to the (mere) anti-fascists.

    Also, a minor correction: the ANSWER Coalition is (they’re still around) associated with the PSL, not the ISO or FRSO. The ISO worked within United for Peace and Justice, which was not a front of theirs but rather a broad liberal anti-war group.

  3. Another thing worth mentioning is that, no matter how much you want to sauce it up in Marxist terminology, the fight over statues is essentially a symbolic one which changes very little. Let me be clear: to hell with these statues, tear them all down if you wish, but what then? Just what sort of goal would be achieved in doing so? It may be controversial, but the ruling ideology deals precisely in these sort of symbolic conflicts which expend great amounts of energy from popular movements but do very, very little when it comes to power actually changing hands.

    That said, I think the counter-demonstrations were good overall if for no other reason than as a public show of force. Socialist organizations were visibly there in solidarity and that’s the way it should be.

  4. Antifa are almost all anarchists, of some type. Hardly defending capitalism, or the liberal order. Just because there is some affinity between them and liberals doesn’t mean the antifa struggle is co-opted by capitalists. It simply isn’t.

    And the comment suggesting that antifa are thugs akin to Stalin or Mao, is absurd. Antifa attack fascists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. They are not attacking authoritarian Communists or Socialists or liberals. This idea that free speech for the fascists extends to them so that they can continue calling for genocide and mass murder is something antifa is not going to stand for, nor should any of us, regardless of who we ally with.

    Mark Bray has a decent introduction to Antifa in his recent book, as does the book Militant Antifascism published by AK Press, covering European antifascists.

  5. If antifa are “almost all anarchists”, why do almost all of them sport hammer and sickle flags, red star t-shirts, or red and black color schemes?

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