Oct 17, 2019

Review of “Anti-Fascism Beyond Machismo” by Petronella Lee

An important new zine analyzes fascist gender politics and argues that antifascism needs to include feminism at its core.

Cover of Anti-Fascism Agasint Machismo: Gender, Politics, and th Struggle Against Fascism, by Petronella Lee, with a background of red and black roses
In recent years, the appalling misogyny found in and around the U.S. far right has started to get more attention, but it still tends to be treated as secondary to the movement’s white supremacism and racial politics. Petronella Lee tackles this problem head on in a new zine titled Anti-Fascism Beyond Machismo: Gender, Politics, and the Struggle Against Fascism (published online by North Shore Counter-Info, an anarchist news platform in Southern Ontario, and in pamphlet form by The Tower InPrint in Hamilton).

Lee argues that we need to recognize misogyny as “a fundamental pillar of contemporary far-right politics,” and that to defeat fascism we need to go beyond “the choice between a pacifying liberal feminism of ‘pussy hats’ and ‘protective policing,’ [and] a reductive anti-fascism defined by machismo and sexism.” At 13,000 words and with 174 endnotes, Anti-Fascism Beyond Machismo is an important new work of radical scholarship, which weaves together the ideas and findings of many scholars, activists, and researchers (myself included).

Anti-Fascism Beyond Machismo is divided into three sections. Part One analyzes the gender politics of current-day U.S. fascist movements, with a particular emphasis on the alt-right and its relationship with the cluster of anti-feminist online communities known as the manosphere. Lee argues that misogyny on the internet “operates as a stepping stone” and has led “many insecure, marginalized, and otherwise struggling men to broader fascistic politics.” Far right groups share certain basic premises, specifically that “gender is determined by nature, gender differences are immutable, and a clear gender hierarchy where men dominate and rule exists (and is desirable).” But within these parameters, Lee emphasizes, current-day fascists also disagree in important ways: “some argue for the complete banishment of women from the public sphere, while others argue that (white) women have a role to play in the white nationalist movement. ...some argue for the extermination of all queers, while others argue (and even celebrate) the inclusion of openly gay men.”

Part One also looks at how gender politics has been used to bolster white supremacy, both historically and within contemporary fascism, with fears of men of color supposedly threatening white women used to justify racist violence. Recently, some far rightists have also positioned themselves as defending LGBTQ people against supposed threats from immigrants and Muslims. In this discussion, Lee criticizes many feminists and LGBTQ activists for calling for safety for women and queers in ways that sometimes play into racist assumptions and end up bolstering white supremacy.

Part Two of Anti-Fascism Beyond Machismo traces some of the history of women’s resistance to fascism. Lee argues that many accounts ignore or gloss over women’s antifascist activism, based on the assumption (which many male-led antifascist groups have shared with fascists) that “women could not be autonomous political subjects.” This section details many counter-examples drawn particularly from histories in Ethiopia, Spain, and Yugoslavia. In the Spanish Civil War, Lee argues, “women essentially found themselves in a struggle on three fronts – fighting against fascism, fighting to push antifascist forces towards a revolutionary orientation, and then finally, fighting to make revolutionary forces take seriously gender liberation.”

In Part Three, Lee offers a framework on which a feminist antifascism can be built, consisting of a series of lessons or general principles drawn from the history of women’s antifascist resistance. These include, for example, a recognition that feminism and gender liberation must be “a non-negotiable component” of antifascism, that we can learn a lot from “anti-racist and anti-colonial resistance traditions [not] commonly associated with anti-fascism,” and that antifascism should be seen as one part of a broader revolutionary struggle. More specifically, Lee argues that antifascists should reject a narrow focus on physical fighting and a narrow concept of fighting as something that men do. All sorts of people have fought and can fight, and a strong resistance movement has to foster and value a wide variety of strategies and tactics, activities and spaces – welcoming and valuing people of not only different genders but also different ages and abilities.

In the Conclusion, Lee delineates eloquently between an antifascism oriented toward machismo (characterized by bravado, “dogmatic combativity,” individualism, and lack of strategy) and one oriented toward militancy (which seeks to build “the comfort and capacity for more women and queers to take part” in combat, while viewing combat as just one part of a multi-sided struggle).

I found very little to criticize in Anti-Fascism Beyond Machismo. Here and there Lee touches on some points where I wished for more in-depth treatment. In Part One, for example, there’s passing mention that “changes in capitalism” are fueling the rise of misogynistic, far right politics. That’s a huge point, but it’s really beyond the scope of this particular work, and the text that Lee quotes from about it (Bromma’s Exodus and Reconstruction) is an excellent starting point for exploring it further. Indeed, many of the citations and notes will be helpful for those who want to delve deeper. Anti-Fascism Beyond Machismo doesn’t need to be definitive or comprehensive to do its job. Petronella Lee’s new zine is compelling and important, and I hope many antifascists will read, discuss, and act on it.

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