It would be a mistake to confuse Antifa with either classical anarchism or Marxist-Leninism. Although it borrows symbols and historical heroes from both, together with anarchist black flags and clothing, Antifa is distinct from older leftist movements. It blends with whatever leftist cause is ascendant and treats whoever opposes it as fascist.
The Antifa theorist Alexander Reid-Ross, who teaches geography at Portland State University, has come closer than anyone else to making sense of this movement’s targeting of certain enemies. In his book, which has been widely acclaimed among progressives, Against the Fascist Creep, Reid-Ross presents a picture of a fascist danger that never quite speaks its name, except for some indiscreet white nationalists who divulge their true goals.
Other promoters of the fascist threat also supposedly hide behind misleading labels, which renders them particularly insidious in the struggle against bigotry. It is precisely the cleverness with which fascists and their sympathizers disguise themselves that, according to Reid-Ross, necessitates the cleansing operation of antifascist groups. T. Keith Preston, an historian of anarchism, has noted that Reid-Ross and other defenders of Antifa usually sound like “John Birchers of the Left.” Like the Birchers who imagined that Communist agents were in disguise and had to be exposed, the antifascists have their own version of the hidden enemy, whom they are trying to combat.
Preston also observes that, although Reid-Ross and his followers are able to offer academic definitions of what fascism taught in the 1920s and 1930s, they stray from these definitions when describing their present all-pervasive enemy. Fascist now means whomever or whatever the antifascists have decided to attack. Further, these activists have no interest in debating those who deny their opinions and offer evidence of a contrary position. For example, nowhere in Against the Fascist Creep does Reid-Ross deal with the argument that fascism lost most of its influence and power after World War II. Instead, those who do not agree with his interpretation are linked to an all-enveloping fascist conspiracy by virtue of having consorted with people on the political Right. Preston asks whether name-calling amounts to a serious refutation or is really a method of avoiding a necessary discussion. Clearly this distinction is in no way relevant for antifascist discourse.
In any case, Reid-Ross has increased his appeal by being featured in both the Israeli left-wing newspaper Haaretz as an expert on the anti-Semitism that has been unleashed in the United States since Trump’s election and in the Arab news agency Al Jazeera, where he writes on anti-Islamic prejudice. (For a teacher of introductory geography with an undergraduate’s knowledge of historic fascism, Reid-Ross validates the exclamatory phrase that I heard from European immigrants as a child: “Only in America!”) Arun Gupta, of the Guardian and a co-organizer with Mark Bray of the Occupy Wall Street movement, has lavishly praised Reid-Ross’s analytic skills. In a widely quoted Amazon editorial review, Gupta offers this endorsement: “This book is good for smashing cockroaches and fascism, which may appear more similar after a careful reading.”
It is no surprise that universities have provided a receptive base from which to recruit radical activists. Career revolutionary Eric Mann, speaking in 2007 at the University of California, San Diego, alluded to the role of universities as breeding grounds for leftist activism. He told the students assembled there that “the university is. . . the place where I was radicalized. It is the place where Mao Zedong was radicalized. It is the place where Lenin and Fidel and Che were radicalized.” Citing Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, he informed his young audience that their country “is what’s called a ‘white settler state’. . . . The United States has basically been conquering land under a white Christian flag under a view of white supremacy.”
Mann is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, where Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors was trained. (Mann’s fellow Weather Underground member Susan Rosenberg has served on the board of directors of Thousand Currents, which provides financial support for the Black Lives Matter Global Network.) In his lecture at UC San Diego, Mann said his work involved “organizing mainly young people that want to be revolutionaries,” which includes “sending young people that want to go into the high schools as public school teachers.” The Labor/Community Strategy Center “is trying to build an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-fascist united front.”
The movement that Antifa may resemble most closely in its methods and in how it targets its adversaries is German Nazism while it was struggling to take power. Both movements have traded in organized street violence, the natures of which have been denied by their enemies; both have taken advantage of a vast network of support from public administration, universities, and the producers of public opinion.
Unlike generic fascism, Antifa is not patriotic: it seeks to destroy, not reinforce historic Western notions. It is also far too irrational and nihilistic to be Marxist. The last part of a cry chanted by activists at a mass protest in Berkeley, California, on August 27, 2017, underscores the true nature of Antifa’s politics: “No Trump, No Wall, No USA at All.” Attempts by Republican politicians and PR staff to treat Antifa as the latest distillation of Marxist socialism reflect partisan opportunism, historical ignorance, or possibly both. Except for its efforts to identify itself with other forms of the Left that operated at other times, Antifa through violence and its ability to create extensive support systems looks very much like early National Socialism.
Intermittent appeals by activists calling themselves antifascist to establish decentralized government do not clash with the view that these militants have something in common with the Nazis. What is meant by decentralization is both the removal of already radicalized urban areas from police control and the establishment of bases from which these antifascists can operate. Antifa activists, along with BLM and others, temporarily established an “autonomous zone” in Seattle from which the police withdrew. The mayor only moved to dismantle the zone after there were reports of rape and multiple shootings that resulted in two teenagers being killed and three people wounded.
Soeren Kern, in his articles, “A Brief History of Antifa: Parts I and II,” examines in detail the funding sources available for his subject. A major sponsor of Antifa has been the Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ), which has stood financially behind far-Left organizations. In 2010 the AFGJ was a principal backer of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and since then it has tried to create a favorable view of Marxist-Leninist governments, most notably Castro’s Cuba.
The AFGJ is principally a distribution center for allocating funds, which collects money from like-minded organizations, such as George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, Tides Foundation, and the Ben & Jerry Foundation; these groups work hard to present themselves as mainstream progressive organizations. AFCJ funding has also gone to Refuse Fascism, an organization formed after the 2016 election with the goal of removing Donald Trump from office. The slogan on the website of Refuse Fascism is, “In the Name of Humanity, We Refuse to Accept a Fascist America!” Members identify as antifascist, though they are not part of Antifa.
Any consideration of antifascist funding should factor in large corporations, such as PepsiCo, Citibank, Nike, Facebook, Ford Foundation, and Goldman Sachs, that contribute to BLM and other left-wing activist groups. These corporate giants have helped bail out militants who were arrested, including both Antifa and BLM activists. Movements that demonstrate, topple statues, and engage in violence together are also likely to share the same funders. As Influence Watch, a fact-collecting agency with loose connections to the Right, demonstrates, a continuing strength of Antifa is its ability to combine its activities with those of other left-wing organizations, such as Showing up for Racial Justice and Black Lives Matter. The BLM Global Network, into which most of the funding for BLM is funneled, moreover, supports revolutionary groups, including Communist ones. None of this, however, proves corporations that fund the far Left have any interest in promoting socialism or Communism.
There is more than one reason for the cultural radicalization of the affluent that has led some of them to support the activities of Antifa and other movements like it. Mercer Global Consultants, which monitors the hiring of minorities, has reported that major corporations have yet to address the problem that their workforces consist of 80 percent or more of white males. Corporations may therefore be concerned about being the targets of boycotts and adverse publicity from the Left, goaded on by sympathetic media. Introducing politically correct forms of address and promoting the cultural Left with generous donations and expressions of support may therefore be regarded as necessary precautions against suffering leftist reprisals. Corporate executives can serve the cultural Left without having to be concerned about pressure coming from the largely ineffective and even diminishing Right. White male Christians, who on average are the country’s most conservative voting demographic, may be a dwindling presence in the corporate world, even if that presence is not fading as quickly as diversity officers might desire.
A Rasmussen poll from early June 2020 indicated that Antifa had the support of 22 percent of the country. A CNN poll conducted in the first week of June 2020 tells us that most Americans consider white racism to be a major problem, and many blame this affliction on Donald Trump. Moreover, 27 percent of those polled believe violence is an appropriate response to the present level of police brutality and racism. These findings show that antifascist groups like Antifa are operating in a somewhat friendly environment, particularly in U.S. cities. What that means for those cities remains to be seen.
The left-center or liberal establishment that has made an at least tacit alliance with the kind of antifascism exhibited by Antifa may be saddled with troublesome friends, just as the German nationalist Right was with a supposedly sympathetic paramilitary in the interwar years. Self-described European antifascists complicate the picture by showing up in strange spots in the political spectrum. In Germany, the revulsion of antifascists for their own country as permanently tainted by its Nazi and even nationalist past has led them to join Zionist demonstrations waving Israeli flags. One can also imagine these anti-German Germans defecting to the Palestinian side, if they view it as more of a break from their country’s past. Hatred may be the most powerful emotion driving their movement.
The point of this comparison is not to smear Antifa with the Nazi label that U.S. media have broadly applied to the Right, when they are not identifying it with bigoted gun owners living in flyover country. It is to showcase where Antifa fits most easily among the dominant ideologies of the last century: it resembles most closely the nihilistic, destructive movement that it claims to be fighting. Of course, we need not push this comparison too far and should recognize its obvious limits. Unlike the Nazis, Antifa claims to be fighting fascism.
Comparisons with Communist activists have also been made. Because Antifa, consisting of autonomous groups, is not a single organization, membership numbers are not available. The membership of the interwar Communist Party USA, even during the depths of the Depression, never rose above 65,000. Earl Browder, the CPUSA presidential candidate obtained 83,000 votes in 1936, which was at the height of his party’s popularity. The percentage of support expressed for Antifa indicates that these modest numbers could be easily surpassed by votes given to a self-declared candidate of the Antifascist Left at just a few state universities.
Undoubtedly the Communists also once had a vast network of fellow travelers, reaching into the government. In contrast, the present antifascist Left has advocates at all levels of government and throughout the media and educational system. It is not a conspiracy, like “Communist infiltrators,” but an open revolutionary movement whose ubiquitous sympathizers justify or underplay antifascist violence. One need only contrast the public concern in the 1950s—that Communist sympathizers were supposedly and surreptitiously infiltrating the film industry—with the commanding power wielded by today’s cultural Left, including Antifa apologists in the national press.
Unlike Communists and Communist fellow travelers of an earlier generation, the Left today does not hide its efforts to control the entertainment industry. Leftist opinion makers do not hesitate to order HBO or Netflix to remove from circulation whatever runs contrary to their ideological agenda, and obliging capitalists typically do as they are told. Government attempts to move against Antifa may work about as well as German chancellor Heinrich Brüning’s efforts to ban the SS and SA in April 1932. By June of that year, Brüning had been replaced by a new chancellor, Franz von Papen, who removed the ban on Nazi paramilitary formations while trying to cut a deal with Hitler.
Antifa not only represents the militant anti-capitalist Left but, more significantly, also constitutes the opposition to Western civilization. In the vanguard of these revolutionary forces, the corporate sector, as noted earlier, is playing a critical role. PayPal, Pepsi, Adobe, and other corporations have been working to get Facebook and related electronic media to de-platform dissenting voices on the Right.
A German libertarian philosopher Roland Baader self-published in 2002 what became a classic among culturally conservative defenders of capitalism: Totgedacht is a study of how intellectuals are destroying civilization. Baader takes up complaints that cultural conservatives and German patriots have typically leveled at the antifascist war against tolerance and traditional cultural standards. He scolds the intelligentsia for changing the meaning of words in such a way as to make it morally impermissible to argue against leftist censors. Baader further advocates on behalf of the concepts of a free market and commercial competition against “globalists” and “fake capitalists.” Those opportunists whom Baader condemns embrace the antifascist cultural revolution not as capitalists, but as allies of a leftist government and ruling class. Baader separates these actors from those noble souls who follow their true interests qua capitalists.
The question remains whether capitalist interests can be dissociated in the real world from how the capitalist system operates. How that system functions will necessarily depend on certain variables, such as who wields political power and what cultural values are being taught by leading institutions. Constructing ideal models of a free-market economy, and contrasting it to how “crony” or corrupt capitalists operate, dodges the question of whether we are looking at real as opposed to imaginary capitalists. Historical contexts are not easily separated from historical actors when we consider how systems function. In any case, it is exceedingly hard to divorce capitalism in its present corporate phase from the political problem this book analyzes.