Fascism, as we know it today, came amid the sweeping nationalism accompanying World War I. Numerous leftists shifting from left to right ported their watchwords of solidarity and insurrection over to militant formations designed to destroy the left and seize power. They were not unopposed in this mobilization of a left and right so-called “revolution.” This is the story of the revolutionaries, renegades, and warriors who broke with the powerful movement toward totalitarianism and continue to struggle as partisans for freedom and equality.
Fascism did not emerge on its own as a full cloth ideology. It developed from a complex history of anti-Semitism, ultranationalism, reactionary Catholicism, and the conditions of economic exploitation of industrial workers and peasants. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Dreyfus Affair marked the flash point for violent confrontations between left and right as ultranationalist anti-Semites framed a Jewish army captain for conspiring with the hated Prussians. The right relied on leagues and sporting clubs through which they could practice for physical confrontation while developing the mannerisms and affectations that would attempt to refine an otherwise blunt and stupid politics. Long at odds over the question of anti-Semitism, the left organized through associations, syndicates, and humanitarian organizations to support Dreyfus, organizing an important consensus that would affect future political positions.
In Germany, a financial crisis led to pogroms against Jews. Pogroms throughout Eastern Europe also led to the strengthening of Jewish workers’ defense organizations like the Jewish Bund. Tough men of the Jewish working class, the Bund stewarded marches for dignity and better wages, organized self-defense trainings, and developed autonomous aid networks within Jewish sectors. While Vladimir Lenin criticized the Bund for representing stop-gap politics, the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party went about building combat groups that would resist the counter-revolutionary forces of the Black Hundreds. The anarchists of Russia went a similar direction, including Voline of the St. Petersburg Soviet, Uncle Vanya who helped organize workers’ insurrections from Samara to Ukraine.
But Fascism emerged through the breakdown in the Dreyfusard consensus, the alliance of ultranationalists and leftists around the notion of destroying liberal parliamentarianism, and in doing so managed to bypass the strongest left-wing resistance in the early stages. Instead, through the aesthetics of futurism, the charismatic leadership of Mussolini, and the syncretic positions of national syndicalism, Fascists presented themselves as marking the radical edge that could finally penetrate the armor of moderate politics. Recognizing the danger, anarchists like Errico Malatesta called for a broad antifascist front that discarded political differences in favor of resisting the vicious hierarchies and empty rhetoric of Fascists. Marxists, under the leadership of Antonio Gramsci, would brook no compromise with the anarchist-supported Arditi del Popolo (Army of the People), hoping instead for a mass insurrection of armed workers. With the resistance internally fragmented and the left under assault by an increasing alliance between the Fascists and the state, Mussolini entered government supported by a mass movement and the Fascist blackshirts continued to assassinate and apprehend leaders like Malatesta and Gramsci.
In Germany, the left stood similarly fractured. World War I ended through a massive revolution that started in a Naval mutiny and resulted in the abdication of the Kaiser, as well as a Bavarian insurrection that deposed the local government and established a “Soviet” led by anarchists and communists. Having voted to enter the war, the Social Democrats rose to power through popular left-wing sentiment and compromises with the far right—in particular, the Freikorps, a paramilitary force of army veterans who the Social Democrats would deploy to brutally crush a Communist uprising in Berlin led by Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht and the Bavarian Soviet, as well as a renewed uprising in the industrial Ruhr Valley led by a militant force calling itself the Red Army of the Ruhr. It was only after the defeat of these three significant left-wing revolutionary uprisings that Hitler would rise in a beerhall in Munich and pretend to lead a “national revolution” of Freikorps and other paramilitary rightist factions under Nazi guidance.
The left scrambled to the defensive to set Hitler back on his heels, setting up its own combat groups (Kampfbunds) and attacking Nazi meetings and events. Even the Social Democrats, observing the fearsome rise of the brutal Stormtroopers, set up the militant Reichsbanner, but the leadership had already granted significant powers to the Freikorps and the SA simply heightened the tensions. By the early 1930s, the German Communist Party had adopted a defeatist attitude, marking the Social Democrats as “social fascists” and supporting Nazi strikes and parliamentary efforts like a significant “no confidence” vote in the Reichstagg. Those who risked life and limb in the streets fighting Nazis were placed in vulnerable positions by their own leadership. When Hitler took power, the aspirations of the Communist Party’s “First Hitler, then us!” strategy proved totally foolish, as the Nazis immediately demobilized the Kampfbunds, including Antifaschistische Aktion, and sent the left to concentration camps.
In France and the UK, resistance to fascism also manifested in street battles and strategic competitions over urban space. Famously, the UK antifascists repeatedly broke up the meetings of the pugilistic cad, Oswald Mosley, refusing to yield London’s working class East End to fascist influence by halting a march in an event that came to be known as the Battle of Cable Street. Meanwhile, French fascists asserted that they had created fascism by destroying the Dreyfusard consensus, and paramilitary formations emerged across the far right enlisting, paradoxically, the support of anti-Jewish North African Arabs in exchange for money and services. While members of the French radical left “drifted” toward fascism vis-a-vis the “neo-socialism” of Marcel Dèat and the populism of former Communist Party central committee member, “le Grande Jacques” Doriot, others confronted fascists, blockaded meeting venues, and launched antifascist boycotts. Unlike in Germany and Italy, the French and English left was able to prevent voluntary capitulation to fascism—perhaps in part as a result of the rejection of the defeatist line that “bourgeois socialists” and “radical liberals” and even moderate conservatives should be considered as bad as, if not worse than, fascism.
Perhaps nowhere was fascism more heavily contested, however, than in Spain where fascism had a significant following. In 1930, a military coup by Miguel Primo de Rivera adopted fascism “spiritually,” but generally reproduced the old 19th Century authoritarian conservatism and bare-knuckles corporatism. While General Miguel fell from grace, however, his son José Antonio Primo de Rivera, also known simply as José Antonio, rose to prominence and supported a purer form of fascist dictatorship led by the militant forces of a fascist Falange that would defeat leftism in the streets. Leftists, of course, rose to the challenge and fought tooth and nail against the fascism of Spanish aristocrats that situated itself within the working class through an alliance with the Committees of the National Syndicalist Offensive under the leadership of Ramiro Ledesma Ramos. Street fighting between the left and the Falange-National Syndicalist alliance grew extremely intense, with assassinations and beatings spilling over onto left-wing sympathizers and liberals. Following the election of the left-wing Popular Front, leftist police assassinated a leader of the reactionary Catholic conservatives named Calvo Sotelo, sparking an outcry that led, in no small part, to the invasion of Spain by the colonial military forces of Francisco Franco. Although the Popular Front incarcerated José Antonio, the Falange formed a significant, loyal, and ferocious section of Franco’s army, which met with the valiant opposition of anarchist militias hoping not only to defend the Republic but to further the revolutionary interests of self-determination, land, and liberty. Under the anarchist leader, Buenaventura Durruti, the Iron Column marched against Franco’s invading force along with a quasi-Trotskyist forces of POUM, the liberal fighters under Largo Caballero and the Stalinist-backed Communist Party. However, supplied by corporate powers across the Atlantic and tacitly enabled through Allied neutrality and appeasement, the armies of Franco beat down the antifascist resistance with Hitler and Mussolini’s overt assistance.
When Hitler’s tanks rolled into France the next year, it found relatively little resistance. Partisan forces emerged from Italy to Greece and across the Eastern Front. These partisans worked to sabotage fascist communications and supply lines, assassinate officials, and develop antifascist networks, workers’ associations, and societies to propagandize against their respective repressive regimes. After Mussolini and Hitler invaded Greece in 1941, leftists brokered a tenuous truce with ultranationalist “Hellenic Patriots” who supported parafascist dictator Ioannis Metaxas. Fighting persisted in Ukraine and the Balkans, as well, where Nazi-allied forces committed some of the worst atrocities of the war. When the US invaded Italy and occupied Rome in 1943, the partisans of the North engaged in fierce behind-the-lines struggle against the likes of the Black Prince Borghese who remained faithful to Mussolini’s government-in-exile, the Republic of Salò. Russia marshaled and lost tens of millions of people in the explicitly antifascist war to defeat the Reich and the ideology it represented, while the fascist-friendly Allen Dulles set up the architecture for a post-war insurgency inclusive of fascist “stay-behinds” fighting against Soviet influence in Europe.
The tenuous peace between partisans unravelled after the War and the collapse of the Reich, at which point the British supported the Hellenic forces’ military struggle against the Communist partisans with whom they had fought only months prior. Similarly, in Italy, the US’s Office of Strategic Services, later eclipsed by the CIA, recruited Fascist agents to oppose the left-wing Popular Front in the 1946 elections, continuing over the next decades to support links between Fascist networks within the government and clandestine terrorist groups targeting public infrastructure in a “Strategy of Tension” designed to pull the population toward the security state. These fascist groups like Black Prince Borghese’s Fronte Nazionale, which included the Nuovo Ordine and Avanguardia Nazionale, were schooled by the CIA-supported Greek military dictatorship that took power in 1967, and attempted on at least one occasion the similar overthrow of Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, were opposed in the streets by a mass movement of left-wing workers, students, and women in the tradition of antifascist partisans.
In France, Franco-sympathizer Pierre Poujade extended the street fights of the 1930s into the 1950s with his radical right populist party of the Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans, which was heavily contested by the left. The far-right paramilitary group Organisation Armée Secrète emerged out of the far-right hatred of the post-War Fourth Republic and resistance to decolonization in Algeria to plague the left and set the violent standard for fascist militants organized through groupuscules like Occident and the Groupe Union Défense. These organizations met opposition in Algeria by the militants of the Front de Libération National and in France by militant ultras. A former Poujadist named Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had purportedly lost the use of one eye in a particularly brutal street fight before rising to lead the new National Front in 1972. Some three years later, a bomb blast ripped through Le Pen’s Paris apartment, followed just two years later by a car bomb that killed Le Pen’s close ally, “national revolutionary” François Duprat.
In Italy, the assassinations, fights, and bombings between left and right grew so intense that the period between 1969 and the late 1970s became known as the Years of Lead. The “Hot Summer” of 1969, in which a wave of factory strikes and occupations spread to the general population, sparking the Autonomia movement, was followed by an explosion in Milan’s Piazza Fontana set by fascists to frame the left. Police rounded up anarchists and leftists by the hundreds, including a railroad worker named Giuseppe Pinelli who died in police custody, producing a massive outcry throughout Italy. As fascists persisted in attempting to infiltrate left-wing groups and co-opt the leadership of Autonomia, ongoing clashes and bomb blasts rocked Italy, which spilled into other countries as Italian fascists laying low abroad helped to spread their strategies and tactics elsewhere.
In Germany, opposition to fascism was similarly complicated by post-war “stay-behind” networks. Like Italy, the post-war order in Germany maintained tacit bonds between state entities like the Bundesnachrechtendienst and non-state fascist groupuscules. However, fascist groups like the Sozialistische Reichsparty faced a ban, making overt organizing difficult. At the same time, veterans organizations became breeding grounds for Holocaust denial and Nazi propaganda, and anti-immigrant sentiment was not unusual. During the 1980s, a strong horizontalist resistance movement grew in opposition to nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, and economic exploitation called the Autonomen movement, which targeted and was targeted by fascists seeking to generate mass resistance to immigration, refugees, and multicultural society. Partly in response to the Autonomen movement and the government’s ban on certain fascist parties, “national revolutionaries” developed the strategy of “Freie Kameradschaften”—small groups of 3 to 5 people committed to engaging in political violence against the homeless, disabled people, migrants, non-whites and non-straight people. Through the Freie Kameradschaften, fascists began to appropriate the strategies of the Autonomen movement, including donning black clothing and black masks to maintain anonymity. Yet they met with violent resistance from the leftist Autonomen movement, which produced a new wave of horizontalist Antifaschistische Aktion groups.
As with the Italian terrorists who fled through Franco’s Spain to promote fascism elsewhere in the world, Nazi war criminals like Klaus Barbie had escaped to areas of Latin America and worked to foster a new international movement. Throughout Latin America, and most notoriously in Argentina where the fascist-organized Alianza Anticommunista Argentina fought a “Dirty War” against left-wing Peronists known as Montoneros, fascists helped train and create anti-left paramilitary groups that instigated the conditions for Civil War and military coup. These forces found militant opposition in the form of national liberation armies like the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional in El Salvador who engaged in a long-term revolutionary war against paramilitaries who committed such heinous acts as assassinating the Archbishop Romero during mass and raping then murdering a group of Catholic nuns. At the same time, fascist networks oriented through Salazar’s Portugal strove to maintain colonialism in African countries like Guinea-Bissau, where anti-colonial forces under Amílcar Cabral fought them.
Such far-right and colonial networks developed and/or supported by fascists found happy allies within the US government, including the fairly extensive intelligence networks created by fascist propagandist Willis Carto, Roy Cohn and Lyndon Larouche. Intimately tied to the former’s large base of supporters was a rising fascist militant named David Duke, who mass marketed a new generation of Ku Klux Klan violence as “white civil rights.” Having fallen off after its height in the 1920s, the Klan received a boost of support from the White Citizens Councils and the populist politician George Wallace in the 1960s; however, Wallace’s events faced violent resistance from community groups, and FBI support for integration hindered the Invisible Empire’s growth. The resurgent Klan found powerful opposition in the form of civil society groups and new anti-racist formations.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center came into effect, working within the courts and peaceful social organizations to promote diversity against hate, left-wing radicals developed more militant strategies for opposing the rise of fascism. Targeting racism through militant class struggle, the Workers’ Viewpoint Organization attempted to organize an inter-racial textile workers’ union to oppose the Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina. However, the Klan fought back, uniting with area fascists for a 1979 ambush against an anti-Klan rally that left five dead and five wounded. Other left-wing groups like the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee emerged with the desire to expose fascism within the US and to defeat racism through militant class struggle, and met with varying levels of success in the Midwest amid the rise of fascist skinheads.
As well as Latin American military dictatorships, Italian fascists also influenced the English far-right, bringing the “political soldier” concept to a group of fascists that decided to splinter front the National Front and organize skinheads as the frontline shock troops of a new fascist movement. These fascist skinheads mobilized through a network of Oi! punk bands and publications, spreading throughout North America and meeting an increasingly organized resistance by the mid-1980s. Anti-racist skinheads organized into Anti-Racist Action, Red and Anarchist Skinheads, and local manifestations of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, among other groups, to confront fascists attempting to create a violent mass movement against non-straight, non-white people in society. As fascist skinheads were beaten out of urban areas by anti-racists, fascist strategy moved toward the militia and Patriot movement during the 1990s, which provided a new kind of “leaderless resistance” based in rural areas where the left had a less formidable presence.
These small bands of violent fascists often identified with the fascist skinhead movement also appeared in France under the Parti Nationaliste Française et Européen and Troisième Voie through the related paramilitary formation, the Jeunneses Nationalistes Révolutionnaires, who at times stewarded marches of Le Pen’s Front National. With Le Pen increasingly pressuring the centrist parties at the polls, the French Socialist Party created the popular S.O.S. Racisme group, which promoted multiculturalism through large events and public gatherings. In the streets, the foot soldiers of the “national revolution” found more violent opposition from gangs like the Black Dragons and Duckie Boys. Similarly, in the UK, the large Rock Against Racism movement gave way to the Anti-Nazi League, which cultivated a mass movement against the National Front and British National Party. More confrontational and revolutionary left-wing groups also emerged like Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action, which like Anti-Racist Action joined the militant horizontal strategies and tactics of Antifaschistische Aktion. By the late 2000s, these groups and groups like them were increasingly referred to as “Antifa.”
The appropriation of Autonomen movement strategy and tactics came to a head amid the 2008 recession, when “Autonomist Nationalists” began to form black blocs from the Czech Republic to Germany and the Netherlands. The black blocs were repeated by supporters of the “CounterJihad” movement appearing in Germany as PEGIDA and in England as the English Defense League, among other places. Meanwhile, those groups have seen a rising wave of opposition, including a humiliating running battle between fascists and antifascists in Brighton that left the “March for England” in tatters. This and other events showed that groups with names like National Action and National Resistance that have emerged from Sweden to Ukraine, linking up for spontaneous street demonstrations and acts of mob violence, are virtually impossible to oppose without organized community defense.
In the US, the CounterJihad groups associated with the militia movement galvanized the anti-mosque movement of 2014, appearing outside of places of worship or community centers often with black masks armed with assault rifles and other weapons. These formations are increasingly opposed by likewise-armed community defense groups and antifas who seek to protect non-white communities from attacks and intimidation. More recently, the alt-right has emerged in league with Donald Trump, taking much of its inspiration from the “intellectual” fascist milieu that emerged during the Years of Lead to link left and right and reproduce the conditions that led to the destruction of the Dreyfusard consensus. Where the alt-right has moved into the physical space of real life, it has been dogged by antifa opposition—as in the recent protests against Milo Yiannopolos at the University of California–Berkeley.
Fascism has never arisen without opposition through community consensus. Instead, antifascists have worked to root out fascist infiltration and “entryism” that seeks to pass as the merger of left and right, while also militantly opposing fascist marches and meetings. Where fascism obtained power, it did so through the largely through the betrayal of the organized left by its leadership, along with state collaboration with the fascists amid significant, often violent, fighting amongst left-wing groups. If, in Italy and Germany, antifascists had decided to join with powerful liberals and even conservatives to defend their communities against Blackshirts, if the Communists of Germany had not succumbed to the temptation of labelling social democrats the equivalent of fascists while completely alienating everyone outside of a particularly small section of the industrial working class, perhaps fascism might never have emerged—perhaps it would have only been a detail in the history of Italy in the 1910s. It is wise, then, to heed the warnings of history and to maintain a form of militant antifascist action based in tactical alliances and the spirit of friendship rather than vulgar self-interest and political bravado. Where fascism is proud, we must be humble. Where fascism is divisive, we must unite. Where fascism is weak, we must strike.
 The shock troops of the merciless anti-Jewish pogroms in Ukraine, the Black Hundreds are widely seen today as some of the earliest formations of what would become the fascist movement, and it was none other than the famous writer Fyodor Dostoevsky who, with a co-author, would set out the platform of the “conservative revolution” followed by the later melding of the German “Patriotic movement” and Marxian theorists known as the National Bolshevik wing of the Nazi Party.
Alexander Reid Ross teaches geography at Portland State University. He is the author of Against the Fascist Creep and the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab. His articles have appeared at sites like ThinkProgress, The Ecologist and the Cambridge University Strategic Initiative in Global Food Security. Project Censored recognized his work for Media Democracy in Action in Censored2016.