The Alcove

The Forgotten Roots of Antifa

Although defenses of Antifa, like a recent one in The New Inquiry, are relevant, the movement may do well to remember its less romanticized intellectual roots, from Orwell to Camus.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged AntifaFascismHistoryLiberalismprogressivismProtests

The New Inquiry recently published a full-throated defense of the loose affiliation we now call Antifa (short for anti-fascist). Images of street-fighting from Berkeley and the violent confrontations in Charlottesville still bounce around in peoples’ minds when they hear that term. For many, it likely conjures visions of young people with bandanas around their face (prepared for police tear gas, while also hiding their faces from the cameras), making their own barricades out of police fencing, fighting both the police and the ugly white nationalists all at once. But for Angela Mitropoulos, in her article “Pro Anti,” Antifa offers “self-defense tactics” against a rabid “white nationalist” faith with few of their own misgivings about violently exterminating their political foes (consider that, in Charlottesville, many of the white nationalists brandished guns and shields as much as signs and speeches).

This might come as a surprise, but Mitropoulos’s argument is more compelling than many liberals and progressives have appeared willing to acknowledge. When people brandish guns as freely as they do ideas, something changes in the ability of such people to assert their crystalline right to “free speech.” Military might is not the same as public deliberation. This is especially true for ideas that exert the supremacy of one race over another. Mitropoulos’s argument is evidently more deft than Donald Trump’s “bothsiderism,” with its moronic false equivalence between white nationalists and fascists with those embracing anti-fascism. The President’s claim simply empties out the actual content of both sides’ stances and focuses instead on the behavior of what he labels “bad dudes” who get rowdy when they assemble. Mitropoulos instead zeroes in on the actual content of fascist and white supremacist thinking: Fascists, in her view, stand for “the teleology of the internment camps,” which is why Antifa “have always confronted premises and not merely waited for consequences to unfold, have committed to challenging every appearance of fascism, however small or large that gathering.”

Essentially, the Klan and the Nazis do not stand for free speech in any sense that involves opening up a true exchange of ideas. And this is especially troublesome for liberals who usually reject the idea that the beliefs and principles we hold dear—including free speech—transcend history and stand on firm universal foundations (be that a faith in a universal being justifying natural rights, as was the case with the Declaration of Independence, or a Platonic conception of universal justice). Instead of foundationalism, liberals, today, embrace anti-foundationalism—the idea that liberal values like free speech and equality emerged out of historically rooted struggles rather than an a priori, preexisting set of foundations.

Consider one of the most important liberal political philosophers of the late 20th century, Richard Rorty. When conservative foundationalists forced him to “answer the Nazis,” as he put it, meaning to provide a set of universal beliefs that could mobilize people with an assuredness that their fight against Nazism was an absolutely just cause, he responded: “We must, people say, believe that every coherent view is as good as every other, since we have no ‘outside’ touchstone for choice among such views….  We are suspected of being contritely fallibilist when righteous fury is called for.” Balking at the firmness of conviction that grows out of an absolutist framework, Rorty retorted that his own “fuzzy” and non-foundational liberal set of principles could still justify fighting Nazis. He reasoned that if you think you’re going to change the mind of a Nazi with the use of an absolutist ethic, you’re missing the boat. “There is no way to beat totalitarians in argument by appealing to some shared premises,” he explained. To think so, for Rorty, was preposterous (when I teach undergraduates students Rorty’s philosophy, I ask them to imagine facing Adolf Hitler in intellectual battle). If anything, Nazis and fascists in general have exited the realm of the liberal community that ensures free speech and public deliberation—their philosophies dictate as such.

For this reason, I would contend that liberals have to take seriously left critics like Mitropoulos. Yet, there are flaws in her argument. First off, she situates Antifa too much in what she refers to as “a left communist milieu,” which I think is not quite accurate. After all, the main publication—if there is something in such a decentered movement—for Antifas seems to be It’s Going Down, a clearly anarchist and anti-authoritarian website. When I observe the actions of Antifa, I am reminded of my own experiences in the political punk scene of the 1980s—when it was not a faith in communism that fueled this small political movement that embraced chaos in the streets, but rather anarchism (and, yes, we had right-wing “skinhead” enemies who often identified as fascist and who some of us prepared to confront in violent battle). (See Jamie Thomson’s Guardian piece “No Fascist USA!: How hardcore punk fuels the Anti Fa movement.”) Indeed, if any of those Antifa activists today considered their deepest historical lineage, it would likely start with the Spanish anarchists in 1937 who were fighting for the republic against the foes of fascists organized by Franco, those who felt betrayed by their Stalinist allies in that cause. I’d say this is where we first see anti-fascism emerging as a coherent movement bounded to ideas outside the singular notion of communism. The anarchist tradition opposes authoritarianism on both sides of the political spectrum, left or right.

And here is the biggest problem with Mitropoulos’s and the far left’s argument: There seems to be unwillingness to explore of the intellectual history of anti-fascism, which could serve an important purpose here. Action, therefore, replaces thinking, among activists and even intellectuals. This is unfortunate, because there’s a rich tradition of anti-fascist thinking by many important writers and activists from the past. The heavy hitters I’d suggest revisiting are, in particular, George Orwell and Albert Camus, Orwell having fought the fascists in Spain in 1937, Camus having worked for the French resistance, albeit mostly in his capacities as a writer, during the 1940s. Confronting fascism, for both of these men, was a labor of both the heart and the mind.

According to his biographer, Orwell went to Spain inspired simply by a desire to “fight fascism,” and not “to gather ‘material’ for a book,” as many have long thought. Fortunately, though, he wound up doing both: writing a book about his lived experience behind enemy lines. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell describes his experiences in rich detail, refusing to romanticize the glories of war or the broader cause of anti-fascism. “What I was chiefly thinking about,” Orwell wrote, “was not the rights and wrongs of this miserable internecine scrap” among different organizations on the left in Spain, “but simply the discomfort and boredom of sitting day and night on that intolerable roof, and the hunger which was growing worse and worse…” In this sentiment, he concurred with Georges Kopp, who once explained, while surveying the troops on the Spanish Republic side, “This is not a war… it is a comic opera with an occasional death.” This view provided Orwell with a circumspect sensibility, one that kept the “cause” in check with a sense of both absurdity and humility.

This was also the case with Camus, who found himself fighting a Sisyphean battle during the 1940s. He was a man troubled by the possibility that anti-fascism could come to mirror its enemy (a charge many liberals have now levelled at Antifa)—that it could start to embrace the very same principles of domination and the overuse of violence. Following the defeat of fascism, and turning his attention to questions of post-war justice in 1945-1946, Camus claimed to be neither “victim” nor “executioner,” not an easy ethic to put into practice, yet the alternative for Camus was “murder.” As the intellectual historian George Cotkin explains: “Camus… worried about how the rebel could avoid becoming the oppressor, about whether the rebel’s critical knowledge of the problems of nihilism and revolution could allow him to act instead of becoming frozen in self-doubt and hesitancy. In the face of such existential knowledge, Camus counseled rebellion that is anchored in ‘thought that recognizes limits.’”

It’s precisely this sense of humility and limits that I don’t see enough of among Antifa activists or even among some of their intellectual defenders—including Mitropoulos. Orwell and Camus warned us that anti-fascism can curdle into something dangerous, a sort of boundless self-righteousness that eventually loses sight of itself. While battling white supremacists and fascists, it would do us good to remember the anti-fascist ethic of self-scrutiny, that fear of becoming what you are fighting.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre but heart-warming moments at the Berkeley fracas this past August was when an African-American journalist jumped into the fray as Antifa activists were beating up a white supremacist, worried they might kill him. When asked why he did this, he claimed to still believe in the white supremacists’ ultimate “humanity.” Camus especially would have applauded that act as one of amazing bravery and beauty. It suggested that there needed to be resistance not just to white supremacists and Nazis but to the possibility that anti-fascism could be blind to its own potential to curdle into what Camus called the absolutism of “murder.”

Read more about AntifaFascismHistoryLiberalismprogressivismProtests

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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