An Outside Perspective on Recent Antifa Debate
Filed under: Analysis, Anti-fascist, Critique
Filed under: Analysis, Anti-fascist, Critique
Submitted to It’s Going Down
As a UK-based antifascist, one who tries to keep up with the activities of comrades elsewhere (which, given my own language limitations, usually means mainly in the English-speaking world), I was interested to read the recent exchange between Lucha No Feik (LNF) and members of Philly/NYC Antifa. As it happens, I agree with the Antifa comrades that LNF’s critique is not particularly helpful; but I do think there are other criticisms to be made of some of the activities and ideas of some of the groups that use the antifa label.
As a quick disclaimer: of course, I have no direct experience of the US antifascist movement, but I try and read a fair amount of the material coming out of those circles, and I think the situation in the UK – where militant antifascism was also a small and fairly closed tradition for quite a while, was hit hard by state repression around 2010/11, and a host of new groups have sprung up around the country in the last five years as a result of the far-right’s return to the streets – is one that has some important parallels with the US. Of course, there are very important differences in context as well, but hey, there are important differences in context between Oakland and Dallas, or Tower Hamlets and Bishop Auckland, too.
To start off with, some notes on the LNF article: for a start, for something that’s billed as a “personal, good faith critique… in light of the current moment,” a lot of it reads like a generic critique that could be applied to anything called “antifascism” anywhere.
LNF complains that “Antifa acts a wall… where as revolt is a bulldozer,” which is true, antifascism is by its nature a defensive activity, and we’d all prefer to be on the offensive. But you start from where you are, not where you’d like to be, and it feels like at the moment a wall to block the advance of reactionary forces would be quite useful. Blocking ICE raids is also acting as a defensive wall, not a bulldozer, but does it follow that we shouldn’t block immigration raids?
They note that “[a] united front against fascism has never really worked out well for those of us who want to destroy more than just fascism,” but this misses the point that antifa as a formation has usually been quite distinct from a united front in the classic leftist sense, as exemplified by formations like Unite Against Fascism, the Anti-Nazi League and Hope Not Hate in the UK, and in the US by… idk off the top of my head, but I would bet that the ISO/Soc. Alt./the RCP must have set up a fair few in their time.
They say “Antifa… has no real political content beyond ‘let’s beat up racists,’” but as anyone who’s ever tried it knows, attempting to beat up racists is an activity that automatically brings you into a position of conflict with the state, legality, and much of the liberal left. Say we imagine a hypothetical antifa-er who took militant (i.e. felony-level illegal) action against racists, but had no political positions beyond anti-racism, no critique of the state, and no objections to having a friendly chat with the coppers. Surely we can agree that this hypothetical person would either have a very short political career indeed, or else would have to wise up a lot real fast?
They round off this point with “I do see now an attempt to extend the project of antifa beyond this historical limit point but instead of attempting to extend the project I would rather further other actual radical projects,” which is a sentence that could really do with having at least a full paragraph of its own – what do these attempts to go beyond a limit point look like, and why are you not that fussed about them if they represent an overcoming of limits?
Towards the end of the LNF piece they write “because of the upswing of the Right that we will need defensive measures. It would behoove us to make of our defensive measures ones that are also offensive.” I have to ask what this actually means, and how it would differ from actually-existing antifa activity. Imo, militant antifa actions, ones which openly break with legality and show an ability to take and hold territory from the cops, which is pretty much a prerequisite for actually being able to confront and/or stop Nazis, would seem like a fairly clear-cut example of “defensive measures that are also offensive,” unless I’m missing something.
So much for the LNF critique; now for a few thoughts on the Antifa reply.
One of the first points they make is that, after a long period of the US antifascist movement being fairly small, this year has seen “new groups… springing up”, and “a flood of interest” since the election. This is worth bearing in mind as a way of putting some criticisms in context – new groups are definitely a good thing, but you can’t assume that new groups or newly-involved people share a high level of understanding.
As a result of this, when they say that people criticising antifa “know very little about the existing movement, and therefore grossly misrepresent it,” I think it’s important to establish what exactly is being criticised here – if a longstanding small movement experiences a sudden growth spurt, then it’s very possible that what’s true of “the existing movement” as in established, pre-2016 groups, may not be true of the new kids on the block (and vice versa).
This is also one of the reasons why formal networks like Torch or the AFN in the UK are important – it’s possible for them to agree shared positions and ways of doing things, and make those a precondition of association, in a way that isn’t really true of a vague label like “antifa.”
Speaking as an outsider to the US situation, but someone who can see a fairly similar dynamic going on where I live, I think it’s possible that there might be an issue of new people starting up new groups, those relatively inexperienced people making mistakes or saying dumb shit or whatever, other people picking up on those mistakes and saying “oh, the problem with antifa is…,” and then members of older, more established groups going “nah, that’s not true of us at all.” And that’s totally fair enough if it isn’t true of them, but that doesn’t mean it might not be an honest criticism of some of the newcomers.
But the main point I wanted to engage with is where they write “an understanding of structural racism and how white supremacy is woven into the fabric of the U.S. is essentially a requirement to do this work.” Just saying “an understanding of white supremacy” doesn’t, in itself, answer the question of what kind of an analysis of white supremacy we’re talking about, because that concept can be understood in many different ways.
To crudely summarise: it’s possible to understand structural racism and white supremacy as being primarily about race and identity – a system where white people keep PoC down, so the work of confronting and bringing down that system falls primarily on PoC, with the support of those individual whites who are enlightened enough to abandon their white privilege.
It’s also possible to view white supremacy mainly through the lens of class, as being the major fault-line along which working-class movements in the US have historically broken up. As part of this, fascism is understood as not just an especially nasty form of organised racism, but something that has always started off by targeting militant organised workers – historical fascism didn’t start with the Holocaust, but with the reaction of the fascisti against the Italian Bienno Rosso, the war of the Freikorps against the German workers’ councils, and then continued with Franco’s crusade to make Spain great again. All of these, first and foremost, targeted working-class people trying to achieve a better life, and especially those who pointed towards a future where we don’t have to be working class anymore.
Both of these perspectives, whether we stress white supremacy as something that harms PoC or as something that harms the working class, are broadly true on a descriptive level. But the first has little or nothing to offer the people that Trumpism, and other reactionary movements, aim to recruit, beyond the kind of moralistic appeal to duty that LNF criticise, whereas the perspective that stresses collective action as the only way to improve conditions for working-class people, and white supremacy as a barrier that has to be overcome to make that kind of action possible, means that confronting white supremacy becomes a practical necessity for anyone who wants to change the conditions they’re living in, including working-class whites.*
The Antifa article talks about what happens when “fascists come into radical circles to cross-recruit and gain dominance; for example… in the radical environmental and animal rights groups, music subcultures, and soccer supporters clubs,” but I think the more pressing question is how we can solve the issue of fascists operating unchallenged in spaces where radicals currently have little or no presence; they also mention the way that “some Far Right groups position themselves as an independent revolutionary force against the neoliberal state, and try to recruit disenchanted people into their ranks,” but don’t give much of an account of how this can be prevented.
The area of antifascist work that I’d like to see develop most is not the purely preventative/reactive mobilisations in response to open fascist activity, which seems to be pretty well-covered at present, but the longer-term “counter-recruitment” work of trying to engage with people – especially people who are outside of the kind of social circles where we tend to be concentrated – before they become the racists needing to be bashed.
It’s at this point that having a positive vision going beyond a purely defensive antifascism becomes most important. “Don’t get involved with white supremacist groups, just don’t be a racist instead” is a pretty limited counter-offer; “don’t get involved with white supremacist groups, join us in destroying all the conditions that make our lives shitty instead” is a more convincing proposition. A deep engagement with this question led some of those who were involved in the UK’s Anti-Fascist Action in the 80s and 90s to go on to set up the Independent Working-Class Association as a way of “filling the vacuum” that fascists aimed to operate in; it’d be presumptuous of me to try and say what that should look like in the US today (or to imply that no-one is doing it already – just to be clear, I’m not trying to say that no-one is doing this stuff, just that I think there should be more of it), but things like the Redneck Revolt project or It’s Going Down’s work highlighting subjects such as the history of the Young Patriots are useful examples.
NOTE: The Antifa reply also closes with an endnote criticising the influence of Gilles Dauve. This is a whole other topic to get into, but I want to say that it’s a mistake to assume that the criticisms Dauve makes of a thing that he calls antifascism are automatically applicable to anything that can be described as antifascism. For more on this, I’d suggest this piece where someone involved in the IWW’s General Defense Committee looks at the similarity between Dauve’s views and their own anti-fascist, anti-racist work, as well as this piece where Dauve explains his ideas further – you can agree or disagree with what he says, but he’s definitely not saying “no-one should attack fascists ever.”
*To be entirely clear on this point: by stressing the importance of a class-based understanding of, and opposition to, white supremacy, I’m definitely not arguing against people directly affected by racism organising in response in any way they see fit. Firstly because “working class” is not a secret code for “white,” the working class has always been multiracial and the vast majority of people of colour are also proletarians of colour; but also, perhaps more importantly, because if PoC want to organise against racism on the basis of their racialized identities, there’s no way they’re gonna change their minds on the basis of what some dumbass from England says anyway. All I’m saying is that “PoC should self-organise against white supremacy” is not an adequate answer to the question “what can we offer to the [mainly, but not exclusively white] people tempted by Trumpism and other reactionary movements?”
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