Jul 14, 2021

Review of Robyn Marasco's “Reconsidering the Sexual Politics of Fascism”

Sign: "Say her name! Ashli Babbitt, RIP Patriot?" with memorial candles in front
Memorial to Ashli Babbitt, killed during
January 6 attack on U.S. Capitol
Most critiques of the far right take women for granted. Either they ignore women entirely, or they assume that far right gender politics are simple and straightforward: The far right is really, really sexist. What more do we need to know? There are at least two problems with this. First, if far right movements just want to intensify women’s oppression, why have so many of them attracted women in large numbers? Second, if the far right’s gender politics are uncomplicated, why have they involved so many conflicts – between efforts to recruit women and efforts to exclude them, between celebrations of “the traditional family” and celebrations of men’s predatory sexuality, between calls to build up the authority of husbands and fathers and calls to subordinate all relationships to the demands of the state?

Robyn Marasco’s “Reconsidering the Sexual Politics of Fascism” is important because it faces such problems squarely. Marasco challenges us to consider both “what the Right says about women and what the Right says to women,” and argues that the answers to these questions “will tell us something about how [the Right] has adapted to changes in the social structure and how it foments contradictory forms of political reaction.” She insists, rightly, that these questions aren’t optional or supplementary—they’re essential if we want to understand the far right and combat it effectively. In Marasco’s words, “anti-fascist theory and practice [must] become feminist theory and practice, which is to say that it comprehend and combat the sexual politics of the Right, as well as the fascistic tendencies of the Left.”

Borrowing Ugo Palheta’s concept of “fascisation” to describe the historical process that prepares a society for fascism, Marasco argues persuasively that we have to use a feminist lens if we want to get a clear picture of the far right’s recent rise.

“[C]an we speak of the fascisation without speaking of sex? ... Will we understand how online misogyny becomes gateway drug to Far Right, how the world of men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, MGTOW trolls, and ‘involuntary celibates’ overlaps with that of white supremacists, militia men, and proud boys, or even how a relatively minor episode like #gamergate could be plausibly described [as] one of the inaugural events of the Trump era? Will we recognise in the ‘Great Replacement’ myth a bid for control of women’s sexuality, as well as racist and culturalist panic? Even more to my point here, without seeing sex as an instrument of fascisation, can we make sense of the anti-vaxxers, yoga moms, and wellness gurus who are part of the new Right resurgence, how the Q-anon conspiracy mobilises women’s fears for their children? ... Can we comprehend a political situation in which Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) do the bidding of religious fundamentalists and cultural nationalists? Will we grasp why trans liberation is not only a feminist but also an antifascist project?”

To help craft her analysis, Marasco draws on the work of two second-wave feminists, Maria Antoinetta Macciochi and Andrea Dworkin. Both saw the mobilization of women as pivotal to the far right’s success and advanced theories of “female antifeminism” to explain it, yet the two writers worked within very different frameworks and offered sharply contrasting interpretations. In La Donna “Nera”: Consenso Femminile e fascismo (1976) Macciochi combined Marxist, feminist, and psychanalytic theory to argue that women’s support for fascism represented a form of mass irrationalism, a political choice that ran directly counter to most women’s interests. Dworkin, by contrast, drew on neither Marx nor Freud, and in Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females (1983) she argued that women’s support for the “Ultra-Right” (typified by militant campaigns against abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment) was in many cases a rational choice, an acceptance of subordination in exchange for safety and protection in a world dominated by male aggression and violence, when other options did not seem available.

Both Macciochi and Dworkin were complicated figures. Macciochi joined the Italian Communist Party while it was underground during World War II, championed Gramscian thought in the 1960s but was expelled from the PCI in 1977 for embracing Maoism, and later moved toward a kind of Christian Democratic liberalism. Dworkin, a pioneer of American radical feminism, is now most often remembered for her anti-pornography crusade, which Marasco describes as “a complete disaster.” Marasco continues,

“Her writing has been rightly criticised for its neglect of the powers and privileges that give white women a significant stake in white supremacy.... [Yet in Right-wing Women] she recognizes that ‘female antifeminism’ takes shape in opposition to the interests of Black women, lesbian women, trans women, poor women, all sorts of women for whom the protections of the patriarchal family are unavailable.”

Schlafly wearing "STOP ERA" button, standing in front of protesters with signs
Phyllis Schlafly protesting at White House
against the Equal Rights Amendment, 1977
Macciochi and Dworkin are both largely ignored in discussions of far right politics today. (I was previously unaware of Macciochi’s work on fascism, only a fraction of which has been translated into English, but Dworkin’s Right-Wing Women has significantly shaped my own thinking on the subject.) It’s a strength of Marasco’s analysis that she finds value in both writers’ approaches, arguing that neither one is adequate alone, yet together they help us understand why some women embrace the far right and what it means to them.

Marasco grounds her theoretical discussion in a close examination of Ashli Babbitt, the Trump supporter who was shot and killed while participating in the January 6th invasion of the U.S. Capitol, and who has since been held up as a martyr to the cause—the right’s answer to Heather Heyer or Breonna Taylor. Marasco emphasizes that Babbitt doesn’t fit earlier prototypes of right-wing women: Macciochi’s “mournful Madonna” or Dworkin’s mobilized housewife:

“[Babbitt] embodies neither traditional nor mythic femininity. Indeed, Ashli was more like one of the guys. A veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Babbitt served 14 years in United States Air Force... In photographs that circulated after her death, she embodies the sun-kissed, tomboy sexuality of a sex-integrated society (and military): ponytail, red MAGA cap, tank tops, fatigues, sunglasses, cutoff denim, American flags, in flexed pose. Ashli was divorced and remarried, with no children, living with her second husband and his girlfriend in what tabloids say was a ‘throuple’ but was, at any rate, not entirely conventional. Her Twitter feed indicates that she once voted for Barack Obama but was ‘radicalised’ by an intense hatred of Hillary Clinton. She found other targets in Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, and Kamala Harris.... When she left for the Capitol protest, she was the owner of a failing pool supply shop in suburban San Diego, deep in debt. The sign on the door of her storefront declared it a ‘Mask Free Autonomous Zone’ in protest against the state’s Covid-19 restrictions. Further down, the sign read: ‘We shake hands like men.’”

“The martyrdom of Ashli Babbitt,” Marasco notes, “underscores Macciocchi’s argument about a ‘death drive’ at the root of fascism and its peculiar expressions in women. It confirms Dworkin’s hunch that the new right-wing women would be the product of the feminist movement that they oppose.” Yet Marasco’s interpretation of Babbitt’s larger significance also moves beyond Macciochi’s and Dworkin’s insights to sketch a portrait of female antifeminism that is specific to our historical moment and highlights the current far right’s contradictory response to neoliberalism:

“If the ‘Ultra-Right’ (Dworkin’s term) had once promised white women the security and safety of patriarchal domesticity, today it offers something else, something more immediately transgressive, more responsive to destructive impulses and antisocial forces, and more proximate to the equality that it rejects and the freedom it renounces. It offers white women an account of their unhappiness and an affective arena to express their rage. [Phyllis] Schlafly and other ‘movement conservatives’ once heralded ‘the power of the positive woman,’ but the Right today understands the power and potency of the negative. It relishes white women’s anger and feeds their resentment. It encourages their aggression. And this, I would suggest, is at least part of its appeal. It is not simply a question of protecting one’s interests (as white women, petit-bourgeois women, women with American citizenship), or even desiring one’s own domination, but of gaining access to the pleasures of ‘masculine’ affect and agency. It is a privilege reserved only for some women, which is part of the point. And it is a form of ‘female antifeminism’ that mirrors the neoliberal feminism it opposes, another degraded version of having it all, where instead of the corporate career and the heterosexual reproductive family, women can have combat training, AR 15s, polyamorous sexuality, conspiracism, and, above all, a semblance of power that substitutes for the real thing. Some women want a seat at the boardroom table. Others want to be in the eye of the storm.”

There are more useful insights in this one passage than in many whole books about the far right, and several points that invite further investigation. For example, what’s the relationship—ideologically and in practice—between right-wing women’s quest for “access to the pleasures of ‘masculine’ affect and agency” and right-wing men gravitating in recent years to exclusionary cults of male-bonding, as witness the Proud Boys, the manosphere-inflected alt-right, and Jack Donovan’s male tribalism?

In the spirit of Marasco’s strategy of bringing together multiple perspectives, I have three suggestions for ways to move the discussion forward. The first is to expand the scope of what we consider under the category of “far right.” In particular, along with the usual suspects of white nationalists and Proud Boys, Patriot groups and QAnon conspiracists, I believe it’s also important to include the hardline wing of the Christian right—direct descendant of Andrea Dworkin’s “Ultra-Right”—whose goal of a full-blown theocracy is every bit as authoritarian and dangerous as calls for a white ethnostate.

Second and related to the first, let’s recognize that the far right doesn’t offer one unified message to women, but rather multiple versions of female antifeminism that overlap in shifting ways. The promise of safety through patriarchal domesticity, for example, never went away, but in different contexts it has to varying degrees been combined with other messages. In the Quiverfull movement, right-wing Christian women are told not only to submit to the dictates of their husbands but also to have as many babies as possible to strengthen Christendom against unbelievers—and these demands do not always coincide. In New Apostolic Reformation, a powerful theocratic network within the Christian right, patriarchal traditionalism coexists uneasily with calls to “empower” women, some of whom are among the network’s top leaders.

Third, let’s take seriously the far right’s “transgressive” dimension as more than just rhetoric or fantasy. Marasco’s comment that “the Far Right activates conservative institutions... and affirms bourgeois values... to advance an authoritarian agenda” is only part of the story. For example, the far right’s celebration of male comradeship has sometimes included open homoeroticism, and demographic fears have sometimes prompted far rightists to advocate procreation outside of marriage, neither of which is in line with conservative institutions or bourgeois values.

More broadly, the far right promotes and feeds on both conformity and rebelliousness, because it embodies a contradictory relationship with the established order. It wants to bolster and intensify social hierarchies, but it challenges established elites and attacks political and cultural structures that it believes stand in the way of its supremacist (or genocidal) goals. In the process, the far right speaks not only to people’s fears that their traditional privilege is under threat from below, but also their sense of disempowerment from above. Yet the solutions it offers are anything but liberatory.

To combat this kind of threat, we need to take seriously the complexities of far right politics, and the complex human experiences of those who are drawn to it. Crucial here is the point with which Marasco closes “Reconsidering the Sexual Politics of Fascism”: to defeat the far right, the left needs to take “female antifeminism” seriously and counter it with a genuine and militant feminist politics. 

Photo credits:

Ashli Babbitt memorial: Carlos Barria/Reuters.

Phyllis Schlafly: Warren K. Leffler, public domain, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jun 30, 2021

The far right has entered a period of regrouping

Protesters in front of U.S. Capitol, including woman in MAGA hat carrying poster with Jesus in a MAGA hat
This is the text of my presentation as part of the June 22nd panel, “Mapping Online Extremism and the Far Right” (Reactionary Digital Politics series). I have added some links and a short postscript.

I want to give a few quick, general comments about recent developments in the U.S. far right—both during the Trump presidency and in the months since Donald Trump left the White House. But before I do that I want to say just a little about my analytic framework. When I use the term “U.S. far right,” I’m talking about a set of movements defined by two things. First, these movements embrace human inequality as something natural or desirable or inevitable. Second, they reject the legitimacy of the existing U.S. political system. This definition is not intended for all times and places, but specifically for understanding the far right in the United States in this historical period.

This definition of the far right does a couple of things. First, it emphasizes that the far right encompasses multiple ideologies, because different branches of the far right focus on promoting different forms of inequality. White nationalists, for example, focus on race, and promoting a system where people of color are not just subordinated, but more or less completely excluded. But other far right currents don’t address race explicitly, or don’t focus on race at all, because they put other forms of inequality at the center of their politics. The theocratic Christian right is concerned with enforcing gender inequality first and foremost. The Patriot movement includes both white supremacist and theocratic influences, but its unifying theme, I would argue, is about enforcing inequality based on individual property rights. In talking about the far right, it’s important that we examine the full range of its ideological currents and the political roles that they play, rather than focus only on racial politics or only on explicit white supremacism.

My definition of the far right also emphasizes that its movements have a contradictory relationship with the established order in the United States. On the one hand, they are about reinforcing and intensifying the systems of social hierarchy and dominance that have always been at the heart of U.S. society. On the other hand, far rightists want to bring about dramatic political and social change, because they believe that the existing political system has failed to protect traditional systems of power and privilege. Far rightists believe that sinister elites are actively working with—or orchestrating—movements to overturn traditional hierarchies, and therefore these elites must be overthrown and the political system must be radically overhauled.

Donald Trump’s political rise had a dramatic effect on the U.S. far right. As presidential candidate and as president, Trump developed a symbiotic relationship with far right forces unlike any previous president. The specifics of this relationship evolved over time. In 2016, the alt-right played a significant role in boosting Trump’s candidacy through skillful online activism. In return, the Trump campaign helped the alt-right get a lot more visibility and recognition and public validation than it would have achieved on its own. In 2020, Patriot movement groups, Proud Boys, and other far rightists carried out a wave of physical attacks, including murder, against Black Lives Matter protesters. That violence symbiotically complemented Trump’s fear-mongering and vilification of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Trump served as a rallying figure, someone who could bring together diverse and competing far right currents—although some far rightists never supported him or came to regard him as a sellout or a traitor. Even more important, Trump made the barrier between the far right and mainstream politics much more permeable than it had been before. Far right ideas flowed into the mainstream—and to some extent became state policy—while people shifted from mainstream politics into far right politics. These effects increased dramatically over the past year, as Trump increasingly called into question the legitimacy of the electoral process, and sought to undermine that process so that he could stay in power.

After November 3rd, Trump’s false and baseless claim that the presidential election had been stolen was embraced by tens of millions of people. Tens of millions of mainstream Trump supporters rejected the validity of the voting process, which is the foundation for the whole U.S. political system, and thus aligned themselves with far right politics—at least temporarily. That shift powered the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was a broad-based attempt to overturn the results of the election by force. And the January 6th attack, in turn, helped to galvanize the far right and sharpen battle lines.

Since Donald Trump left the White House, the U.S. far right has entered a period of regrouping, assessing the new situation, and developing strategies to address it. Some far right forces have experienced a crisis: for example, some local Proud Boys chapters split from the national organization when it was revealed that Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio had worked as a police informer, and many QAnon supporters had a crisis of faith when their movement’s predictions that Trump would miraculously stay in office failed to come true. Other far right groups have thrived, such as Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights organization, a rising force within the Patriot movement, which has done skillful grassroots organizing around fears of COVID-19 public health measures encroaching on freedom.

Perennial disagreements about political strategy are reasserting themselves. Some factions, such as the Groypers, a white nationalist group led by Nick Fuentes, are trying to build a far right presence within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Others are sharpening their opposition to the state and some, notably the boogaloo bois, have carried out killings and other violent attacks against police. But we are also seeing new convergences between different far right currents, such as growing ties between the Patriot movement and the New Apostolic Reformation, a large and powerful theocratic network within the Christian right.

Part of the context for these developments is how the two major parties are dealing with the aftermath of Trump’s presidency. Trump remains hugely popular within the Republican Party, which helps create openings for those far rightists, such as the Groypers and New Apostolic Reformation, who want to subvert the party from within and replace business-oriented conservatism with their own supremacist ideologies. Whether this pushes the Republican Party into direct conflict with the political system or co-opts far rightists into renewed loyalty to that system, the results could be highly dangerous.

The dynamics with the Democratic Party are different. President Biden and his allies, with support from the security agencies, are promoting a struggle against so-called domestic extremists on both the right and the left—a framework that falsely equates fascists and anti-fascists, racists and anti-racists. This centrist framework fuels the growth of the repressive state apparatus, which inevitably comes down harder against oppressed communities and the left than it does against the right. In this context, some far rightists—notably the boogaloo movement—are trying to form alliances with leftists against the state, while other far rightists dismiss the left as adjuncts of the Democratic Party, and present themselves as the only opponents of state repression and the only real advocates of meaningful change. So there is a continuing need for community-based initiatives that combat the far right while rejecting state repression, and that work to dismantle the systems of oppression and exploitation that far right politics grow out of. 

Postscript: January 6—far right victory or defeat?

Recently someone asked me, did I think the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol was a victory or a defeat for the far right? There’s a straightforward case for seeing it as a defeat. In strictest terms, the attack failed to achieve its objective of overturning Biden’s presidential victory. Since then, the crackdown against participants has been significant—over 400 people arrested and charged—and rising fear of federal agents and informers has taken its toll on some major groups. And since January 6, the far right has been relatively quiet, mounting no dramatic actions or big rallies. So fears that Trump’s ouster would quickly spark a big upsurge in rightist violence have not been borne out.

In spite of all that, I still think the Capitol attack represented more of a win than a loss for the far right. Depending on how the question is asked, somewhere between a fifth and a third of Republicans surveyed a month ago view the attack favorably. That’s fewer than the 45 percent of Republicans who supported the assault immediately after it happened, but it’s still millions of people endorsing a direct physical attack on the core workings of the U.S. government.

Beyond that, a political action like the storming of the Capitol offers participants a sense of empowerment that has nothing to do with polls or achieving objectives: We took over the Capitol. We shut Congress down completely for hours. We made the lawmakers run and hide while we sat at their desks. And we did all that with minimal organization. Imagine what we could do if we really got our act together. It’s a feeling of possibility that people remember—a feeling that, for some, can solidify commitment and help carry them through the hardships of facing federal charges. That kind of impact is hard to measure, but it’s something that should be familiar to some folks on the left. There’s no reason we should discount its importance for our opponents on the right.

Special thanks to Suzy Subways for insights that informed this postscript.

Photo credit:

By Tyler Merbler, January 6, 2021 (CC-BY-2.0), via Flickr. Image has been cropped.

May 30, 2021

“A demand that radicals tell the truth”: on three way fight politics and why it matters

Abstract painting with triangle composed of multiple shapes in different colors against a blue-green background

Interview with rowan

Editor’s note: This interview with a friend of the Three Way Fight project was conducted during the run up to the November 2020 election. Rowan lives in Portland Oregon where they parent a young daughter. They have participated in left wing politics and social movements since the late 1990s, and have complicated feelings about it.

3WF: Please tell us something about your political background and how you came to be interested in three way fight politics.

Rowan: I got politicized as a teenager through the anarchist punk rock scene in the 1990s. In 2000 I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I was active in the local post Seattle anti-authoritarian radical scene. Following September 11th, 2001, I was involved in trying to build a radical anti-imperialist pole in the anti-war movement. From 2003 until its dissolution in 2012, I was a member of Bring the Ruckus, a national political organization that sought to develop and implement revolutionary politics and that fought white supremacy as central to the fight against capitalism and oppression. From 2004 until 2012 I was a member of a local copwatch organization that engaged in training folks about their rights, cop watching, participating in protests, and developing a police abolitionist politics.

I think I first encountered the three way fight political perspective when Don Hamerquist and J. Sakai’s book Confronting Fascism came out in 2002. Some folks from Chicago Anti-Racist Action actually ended up doing an event out here where they talked to local activists about the book. That was probably how I was introduced to this political framework.

Several of my political mentors were radical men who had participated in driving neo-nazi skinhead gangs out of Portland in the early 1990s. As a result, anti-fascism has been a central part of my political landscape throughout my adult life. I’ve been involved in various mobilizations against the far right throughout the 2000s and early 2010s.

Bring the Ruckus, the national “revolutionary cadre” group I participated in, was one of the proponents of a kind of three way fight politic. We applied this framework to international questions in the context of the “war on terror” and increasingly also to US politics as the Portland local prioritized anti-fascist work. Veterans of the Sojourner Truth Organization were a significant influence on our thinking and debates, and while there were real differences around the priority of anti-fascist organizing, we generally agreed with the perspective that fascism was an autonomous political threat and not merely a strategy of the ruling class. Since that time of my membership in Bring the Ruckus and my high level of political activity, I’ve become a parent and stepped back some from political engagement, but the importance of three way fight politics and the struggle against right-wing violence has only become more urgent.

3WF: What does a three way fight approach mean to you? What do you find most significant or helpful about it?

Rowan: In many ways what feels important about the three way fight perspective is as much about how we do politics as it is about the particular content of those political positions. As much as the three way fight is an intellectual orientation, it feels like in some ways an ethical stance toward political struggle. Amilcar Cabral, in the anti-colonial struggle in Guinea-Bissau, urged his comrades to “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” Similarly, the three way fight asks us to forsake triumphalist sloganeering and to instead engage in sober analysis and face difficult and uncomfortable truths about the world.

Too often “radical left” politics in the US consists of platitudes and posturing. Fascism has functioned as a nasty word we call folks we don’t like, and “strategic analysis” is whatever set of slogans makes us feel righteous. Too often in the interests of simplicity we argue that “cops and klan” are always “hand in hand,” that all of our enemies are the same enemy. It is incredibly attractive to believe that the world is neatly divided with bad guys on one side representing oppression and exploitation, racism, patriarchy, bigotry, empire, and fascism, and good guys on the other representing liberation, feminism, decolonization, and a free society.

Perhaps the most important thing to me about the three way fight approach was that it was a demand that radicals tell the truth.

This orientation toward truth and humility also asks us to take our enemies seriously in ways that we often fail to do. We must not only pay attention to our enemies (both state and fascist) strength, but also listen to and learn from what they say about themselves and the world. A lot of the time it feels like radical analyses of the far right just start from the assumption that they’re lying. Thus, when folks on the right oppose economic exploitation of the working class, prioritize ecology and defending the earth, or even oppose white supremacy, leftists often dismiss these as lies or attempts to trick people. The three way fight perspective helps us to listen, to be open to the possibility that they speak the truth about their visions, and to recognize that our enemies are complex, which makes them all the more dangerous as we struggle to defeat them.

The three way fight perspective also helps radical leftists to critique ourselves and sharpen our political perspectives. I certainly think that any kind of horseshoe theory that equates “extremism” on the left and right should be rejected. That said, I do think that three way fight politics can help us see the potential ways that radicals can betray our own political commitments to liberation.

In recognizing that the right often is critical of the neoliberal global order of inequality and exploitation (for its own reasons), we can see the overlaps that do exist between the politics of the far left and right. This recognition can help us clarify how our own (liberatory anarchist/communist/etc.) critiques of capitalist civilization contrast with those of our rebellious enemies. From anti-Zionism that singles out Israel for its Jewishness, to eco radicalism that is disdainful of the survival of vulnerable people to Stalinist anti-imperialisms that fetishize militarism and nationalism, to populisms that celebrate the forgotten “common people” in opposition to parasitic metropolitan elites, leftist talking points can if we’re not careful echo those of the right. By recognizing and combating this danger we can strengthen our movements and develop perspectives and visions that point more clearly to a free world.

On the other hand, three way fight politics stands in uncompromising opposition to official society and the dominant order. We must reject, and distance ourselves from any kind of official “anti-fascism” that serves to defend this murderous system from its enemies on the right. Anti-fascist politics that fail to break with and oppose capitalist civilization too often serving as the foot soldiers or private investigators on behalf of power. This not only fails to fight against exploitation and for a better world, but actually serves the fascists by proving their narrative that they are the true rebels against this wretched order.

3WF: What do you think three way fight politics offers that the U.S. left needs? Are there particular issues or struggles where you see this approach as particularly important?

Rowan: When the three way fight perspective emerged out of the experiences of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements of the early 2000s, few on the radical left saw anti-fascism as being at the center of their perspective.

It’s my sense that the current historical moment is a terrifying validation of this perspective. Leaving aside semantic battles over whether Trumpism is fascist, it does seem clear that we are seeing the emergence of right-wing movements that speak to the crisis of capitalist civilization.

What feels important right now is to understand that the escalating conflicts that we are witnessing and participating in are not static or permanent, but instead are evolving aspects of an unfolding historical process. We can debate all day about whether Trump is a fascist or just a particularly unpleasant Republican, whether he’s system loyal, system oppositional, or just self loyal. These attempts to understand the current terrain and array of forces are of course incredibly important. However, it’s also important to recognize that the current terrain and forces are not permanent, but shifting. What if we are in fact in the early stages of a period of instability, polarization, and escalating violence and upheaval. Trump, rather than being our period’s Mussolini, may be one of the conditions that shapes the horrors to come.

It seems likely to me that the right that is today storming capitals, street fighting with anti-fascists, and plotting to kidnap governors, may well look tame and sweet in comparison to the right-wing movements to come. The obvious possibility is that the right (or sections of it) may coalesce around leaders who are master strategists and cunning political thinkers as opposed to Donald Trump’s clownish narcissism. Also of concern is the possibility that participants and leaders of the right to come may be drawn not only from their traditional bases, but also from folks who are currently on the left but become disillusioned, or that even entire sections of the current “left” may be won over to alliances with and participation in right-wing social movements. Thinking through the potential convergences between left and right is for us not a liberal opposition to extremism, but rather an attempt to sharpen the liberatory content of our own extremism in opposition to both official society and its supremacist enemies.

3WF: Have you witnessed or experienced examples of people applying three way fight politics in concrete political situations?

Rowan: I certainly feel like Portland right now is a place where we are absolutely watching a three way fight play out. Portland has a dynamic and inspiring radical left that has been confronting Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys in the streets for years. Over the summer radicals took to the streets to engage in mass and militant action in defense of Black lives and in opposition to police violence, gentrification, and heavy handed federal interventions by the Trump regime. While I wasn’t able to be very involved in the uprising in the streets, from where I stand, it definitely looks like radical leftists in Portland have been fighting a three way fight against multiple enemies. On the one hand the movement has targeted, and faced repression from, Mayor Ted Wheeler, a neoliberal who serves the interests of developers and real estate interests, and oversees the brutal and racist Portland Police Bureau. On the other hand, right-wing groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys have engaged in street violence against the left, often motivated by loyalty to Trump and opposition to liberal elites like Wheeler. Wheeler’s (and the police’s) hostility toward the left is understood by some as him siding with the far right. Three way fight politics allows us to understand the possibility that instead we face multiple enemies contending for power and influence with competing visions. It may not be a pretty or comforting reality, but only by facing reality can we organize to win.

On a larger scale I think that US politics in general right now is taking the form of a three way fight between an emerging radical left (consisting of rebels for Black lives, “antifa,” folks engaged in mutual aid efforts, and some electorally oriented socialists), the defenders of the collapsing neoliberal status quo (Biden and the Democrats), and a diverse far right, which in recent years has often but certainly not been always oriented around loyalty to Trump. The contending visions of these forces are expressed in many ways, including through their approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic. The right is engaged in straight up denialism whether suggesting the virus is a hoax or conspiracy, and violently opposing public health interventions like masks or shutting down some businesses. Meanwhile, the centrists and liberals have largely settled for some minimal economic shutdowns, but mostly a campaign of public shaming and blaming of individuals who don’t properly engage in social distancing in their personal lives. They demand we go to work and face immense risks in workplaces and prisons), but blame us if we go out after work. Finally, we on the left need to develop a response to this apocalypse (and those to come) rooted in mutual aid, radical solidarity, and a recognition of our interdependence. This response includes mutual aid to help those thrown into crisis, organizing by nurses, teachers, and other “essential workers,” and perhaps even some demands on the state backed by militant action and organizing rooted among the communities most vulnerable to this genocidal pandemic and their allies.

3WF: Do you see problems or limitations with three way fight politics? Issues it could do a better job with?

Rowan: Three way fight politics is essential for developing a revolutionary left that can both fight and think to win. But this framework is, of course, useful as a tool, not as a dogma. There is always a danger of applying any categorization in vulgar and mechanical ways that can actually undermine our critical thinking. In the case of the three way fight politics, this might potentially mean assuming that any political struggle must have only three sides that fit with the predetermined theory. Trumpist right-wing militant patriots, right-wing Islamist guerrillas, and authoritarian anti-imperialist governments may all be both our enemies and the enemies of the neoliberal imperialist order, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all part of the same political pole. Our politics is one that seeks to grapple with complexity and nuance in order to tell the truth to understand the world to win liberation. Any theory or framework can end up being an obstacle to that. 

Image credit:

 Wassily Kandinsky, Multi Colored Triangle, 1927, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

May 16, 2021

Antifa Academics (review)

Guest post by Shane Burley 

Originally published at Full Stop. Republished with permission.

Evan Smith, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech (London: Routledge, 2020); Stanislav Vysotsky, American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism (London: Routledge, 2020); Devin Zane Shaw, Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy (London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020).

Book covers of No Platform by Evan Smith, American Antifa by Stanislav Vysotsky, and Philosophy of Antifascism by Devin Zane Shaw

Since the term “Antifa” moved from the edges of radical politics to a favorite boogeyman on right-wing talk media, there has been a desperate grab by publications and researchers to define what this means. A new prevailing notion that Antifa simply means “all antifascism” has persisted, showing that the word has actually evolved as antifascism became one of the dominant mass movements of the left in the era of Donald Trump and national populism. Antifascism has been seen as fundamentally a new phenomenon, one that unites people against a growing minority of right-wing ideologues, and within this frame its strategy and tactics have become hopelessly obscured. Antifa is, therefore, framed as ahistorical: it exists as a fumbling movement, angry at conservatives, based solely in the youth generation of today, and divorced from the complex histories of organizing and radical politics.

This picture is, of course, based on politicized hyperbole rather than facts: antifascism has a rich history that traces its opposition to the interwar period when fascist movements arose and throttled the planet with a fantasy of racial and nationalist revenge. This history has been lost to much of the public discourse on what antifascism actually is, as well as the depth of the ideas, critical analysis, and positive vision that belies antifascist movements, which is why there has been a churning need to see actual scholarship that digs into questions that should be so obvious. What is antifascism, where has it arrived before, and what does it want?

While a slew of books on the subject have arrived since 2017, the collection is reasonably small given the enormity that antifascism has developed in public consciousness. As academics typically do, a number of books have finally arrived that started to take bite-size looks at pieces of antifascism in an effort to break down lessons about what is happening today. Three books in particular, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech by Evan Smith, American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism by Stanislav Vysotsky, and Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy by Devin Zane Shaw, take on the question of antifascism from radically different directions. Each try to take the disciplines they come from (history, criminology, and philosophy, respectively) and use those strengths to ask pointed questions, treating antifascism seriously as a social movement philosophy far beyond the caricature that has been made of it. All three represent stunning works that are part of a burgeoning interdisciplinary field of Antifascism Studies (whether or not anyone actually uses the term) and are each staking a claim for what antifascism can teach us about larger social questions.

American Antifa may be the most “on brand” of the three, and that comes largely from Vysotsky’s own background. As he explains in the book, he was an antifascist organizer himself when he was younger, and he uses his own organizing relationships to set up his field work. As a critical criminologist, he applies the lens of social boundaries and law enforcement, which leads him to necessarily anonymize the people he is interviewing. He understands the pressure that these activists could be under from law enforcements, home raids and grand juries a real possibility, so he keeps their names out of it. Instead, he uses the names New City and Old City for two distinct antifascist groups he interviews, with each city representing stages in his own political work. It’s here that he goes deep into militant antifascism itself, which is really where the term “Antifa” comes from. Rather than a catch all for all forms of antifascism, from liberal protest movements to church groups, this is specifically for those that use “physical resistance” to confront fascists. Because they share an underlying critique of the state and the police, they take on the role of community self-defense outside of law enforcement, an approach to criminology in its own right. Vysotsky then goes into the tactics and strategy of these movements: how they use cultural spaces, how they think of violence, and how they organize themselves. Out of every book that has been published on the subject, this may be the most in depth on how militant antifascism actually works in the U.S., and he refuses to shy away from the complexities of that. Violence, in particular, is talked about at length, where the question of ethics and efficacy are a central component of the formulation of an antifascist subculture. The implicit violence of the far-right is what creates antifascism as its antithesis, and the repression and threats of attack that antifascists face helps to distill what kind of practical approaches they should have.

In a similar way, Evan Smith looks at a type of antifascist organizing in No Platform, yet he hones in on one particular strand of history. Instead of looking at the history of militant antifascism in the U.S., Smith centers his history on one particular institution as a commentary on the broader social movement: the National Union of Students. The union itself is a well-known institution on the British left in its post-New Left form, organizing a large block of university students into common campaigns that affected them in the university. Smith’s history is not just of the union, but of one particular debate inside the union, the use of “no platforming.” This tactic addresses primarily members of the far-right, people out of the bounds of normal debate, and includes denying them access to any form of public speech. This has become a hotly debated issue as arguments around youth “cancel culture” abounds, particularly with hyperbolic fears about universities, so Smith’s volume captures the fact that this is hardly a new debate. Instead, it goes back to the 1960s and student activists went back and forth on the ethics and efficacy of the tactic, not just in terms of ideology, but in actual struggle against campus recruitment by organizations like the National Front and the British Movement. What is most clear from No Platform is the deja vu that most communities have in regards to antifascism (or just left-wing social movements in general) as the same allegations thrown at young college students have been echoed for the past fifty years.

No platforming itself has become central to discourse on antifascism, so the book’s insights extend far beyond the campus. Instead, they look at the way that “speech,” as an amorphous context, is heavily political, both in who has access to speech and who doesn’t. On campuses, speech is heavily indebted to the costs of attendance: students pay for the campus to function, and that money is then, defacto, funneled into allowing some types of speech and not others. The tactic of no platform is then treated as what it is, a tactic, and the debates over when to use it and when to leave it behind are ongoing without a settled answer. One interesting example the book delves into is the debate over no platforming Zionist speakers, some of whom are coming from Israel. Given that many on the campus were opposed to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, some argued that no platform should be extended to Zionist speakers. But since these were almost solely Jewish speakers, and it would disproportionately affect Jewish organizations and people addressing specifically Jewish issues, this ended up having a consequence on a marginalized minority. What No Platform makes clear is that this debate started decades ago and is happening all the time, right now, as social movements attempt to meet their goals in a changing environment.

Out of the three books, Shaw’s Philosophy of Antifascism makes the biggest thematic change. Unlike American Antifa and No Platform, it is more a theoretical book than a practical history, and it also launches into its ideas from deep within the antifascist tradition. Its introduction centers the ideas behind antifascism by looking at authors and theorists that are not just writing about antifascism, but from within it. The attempt here is to crystalize some key ideas as to what antifascism is, how it adds a critical lens to interpreting the world, and what it means to think about this type of resistance in philosophical terms.

Shaw then pivots the book to unpack these ideas in relationship to existentialist philosophy, focusing on figures like Simone de Beauvoir. He doesn’t assume that those he covers are antifascist activists in the way that the book has defined it, involved in movement building or even with commentary that mirrors militant antifascism, but that they have a shared philosophic foundation on some key elements. Beyond its ability to make complicated philosophical treatises accessible by connecting them to a relevant issue, this approach has the effect of creating a shared understanding that allows antifascism to expand beyond the boundaries within which we normally experience it. Antifascism is a responsive movement (it is opposed to fascism, as defined in its antithesis), but its positive vision is rarely articulated. That has a practical functionality: antifascism is best served by opposing fascism, not rebuilding the world. But with Shaw’s approach, he digs out the commonalities inside liberatory existentialism as a way of bridging that gap, finding antifascism in their work. What is particularly unique about Shaw’s book is that he unapologetically starts with the kinds of books that antifascists themselves might read (full disclosure, that includes my own), which reframes how antifascism is seen. It is done without apology, it sees the antifascist canon not just as a primary source but as a valid source of an analysis, commentary, and theory. In this way it is one of the most philosophically deep books, not just on this list, but ever written on antifascism, and takes seriously the attempt to parse out the contradictions in the enemy the movement builds itself around.

There is often a division between the world of political writing that happens within social movements and those from the outside, and this is what has been seen so heavily in the commentary on antifascism of the past five years. What’s remarkable about all three books is that they take antifascism seriously enough to start from the inside. Vysotsky begins with his own antifascist organizing, and explains the methodology of coming from within a social movement and participating as an approach to ethnography. Smith takes the social movements mentioned in the book seriously, which is also seen in his other histories of groups like the Socialist Workers Party, which was influential in British antifascism in its own right. Shaw’s approach is not just to center the book about antifascism, but for it to be an antifascist book, a contribution not just to the field of philosophy, but to the living world of antifascism. All three are academics, so they are bending their disciplines to bring something unique to the world of antifascism rather than just sitting with a professorial detachment and exploiting the research for dispassionate peer review. None of that should minimize the depth of the scholarship itself, which in each case is profound and unmatched.

With the matched rise of the far-right and mass antifascism, there has been a critical need for scholarship that helps create a vital living history. A number of academics, journals, and publishers have started to take this seriously, including Routledge’s cutting-edge Fascism and Far Right Series, which published No Platform and American Antifa. Just like their authors, they come from a place of resistance, where the research and publishing are tied directly to the work of fighting off a fascist insurgency. The scholarship takes antifascism seriously, including research and critical work that comes from within movements, and that sincerity and commitment to their subjects has created a special space in a growing canon of literature.

These three books will not be the only academic treatises on the subject, expect dozens in the coming years. But they do set a new standard for how the subject can be addressed by academic authors, where solid research and scholarship does not have to be paired with disinterest and total neutrality on issues of far-right radicalism. As we enter an era of increased tension from the street level forces of Trump’s former base, these types of interventions provide not just a clear picture of where we are, but even some insights into a way forward.

Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in Jacobin, Salon, Truthout, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, ThinkProgress, Political Research Associates, Alternet, and Roar Magazine.

May 9, 2021

Network Contagion Research Institute: helping the state fight political infection left and right

A new “anti-hate” think tank says anarcho-socialists are almost as dangerous as genocidal racists.

In the opening scene of Costa-Gavras’s classic film Z, about the lead-up to the 1967 military coup in Greece, the chief of police (referred to as the General) addresses a gathering of senior government officials on the “ideological disease” he sees threatening their nation. “It is caused by harmful germs and various parasites,” such as socialism, anarchism, beatniks, and pacifist tendencies. “Infection from ideological mildew” must be “fought preventively” by “the spraying of humans with appropriate mixtures”—indoctrination via schooling, military service, and leafleting the peasantry. In addition, the General declares, opponents of the left—who represent “the healthy parts of our society” or “antibodies”—must be used to “combat and eradicate all diseases.” As the film unfolds, we learn that the disease eradication he has in mind consists of physically breaking up leftist gatherings, beating up anti-war protesters, and murdering their leaders.

I’m repeatedly reminded of this scene when reading the work of the Network Contagion Research Institute, whose very name depicts harmful politics as ideological disease. The NCRI aims to “track and expose the epidemic of virtual deception, manipulation, and hate, as it spreads between social media communities and into the real world.” One of the institute’s “Contagion and Ideology Reports” characterizes disinformation and distrust as “a virus that knows no race, that consumes the poor and rich, that infects and kills people of any political persuasion.” Another report warns that “viral ideologies infect mainstream communities” and urges the use of “information vaccines” as protection. Costa-Gavras’s slightly fictionalized police chief would have been right at home with this discourse.

To be sure, the NCRI has given Costa-Gavras’s General a 21st century upgrade: The think tank doesn’t endorse non-state violence, and the “unhealthy” ideas it aims to stamp out emanate from the right as well as the left. But in other ways, the two are strikingly similar. Like the General, the NCRI is a mouthpiece for the state security apparatus and its commitment to defend the established order. Like the General, the NCRI uses the language of epidemiology to strip threatening ideas of both political content and historical context, reduce people who embrace these ideas to passive vessels, and give its own political project a false veneer of scientific objectivity.

NCRI maps the dissemination of
slurs and memes with charts similar
to this social network analysis.

Anti-hate politics meets big data

The Network Contagion Research Institute was founded in 2018 and is based at Rutgers University under the directorship of Princeton psychologist and neuroscientist Joel Finkelstein. The institute studies how so-called political extremism spreads and develops via social media. The NCRI hosts webinars, offers a college-level training program in “cyber social network threat detection and strategy,” and has published a series of reports on topics such as COVID-19 disinformation, anti-Asian and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, the Militia and Boogaloo movements, QAnon, and “militant anarcho-socialist networks.”

The NCRI uses a variety of research techniques, but its special sauce is large-scale quantitative analysis of slurs, memes, and code words. With data sets that consist in some cases of tens of millions of social media posts, institute staff and fellows track the frequency with which specific terms appear on various platforms over time. They correlate these patterns with real-world events, measure the spread of hateful ideas from fringe platforms such as 4chan to mainstream ones such as Twitter, and map associations between different frequently used terms to highlight changes in rhetoric and perhaps ideology. For example, the NCRI’s report on COVID disinformation used such data analysis to argue that in early 2021 conspiracist opposition to vaccines and public health restrictions was being subsumed into a larger, overarching conspiracy theory about a tyrannical New World Order government—and also that anti-vaccine protests tended to occur in counties where intimidation was used against Black Lives Matter protesters.

I’m not a data scientist, and I’m not going to comment on the NCRI’s quantitative methodologies. Yet despite the institute’s seeming technical sophistication, its underlying analytic framework is quite crude and weak. The NCRI uses the “hate” framework that has been promoted by the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, and others. Kay Whitlock offers an incisive critique:

“In U.S. progressive politics the hate frame has four main assumptions: First, that hate is rooted purely in irrational, personal prejudice and fear and loathing of difference. In fact, it’s also rooted in ideologies and supremacy, in a historical and cultural context. Second, that hate is hate, and the specificities don’t matter. Third, that the politics of hate is about that crazy irrational feeling, which is caused by personal prejudice gone amok. In this view, hate is not about structures, not about power hierarchies, not about institutional practice. Finally, that hate is perpetrated by extremists, misfits, and loners who are violating agreed-upon standards of fairness, and that hate violence is unacceptable and abhorrent to respectable society.

“In fact, what is called ‘hate violence’—violence directed at vulnerable and marginalized groups—is not abhorrent to respectable society. On the contrary, respectable society has provided the models, policies, and practices that marginalize people of color, queers, disabled people, and in many respects, women. The hate frame disappears considerations of structural violence and substitutes in their place the idea that there are these crazed extremists, and that’s who we have to go after.”

Hate frame assumptions are integral to the NCRI approach. NCRI draws a neat division between hateful and non-hateful speech, with no concern for the variety of ideologies underlying such speech or the historical context in which it arises. In NCRI reports, for example, you’ll find lots of references to racist expression, but no discussion of the differences and relationships between genocidal white supremacism, Proud Boys-style “western chauvinism,” and Oath Keepers-style color-blind ideology—and certainly no discussion of how all of these are rooted in a system of racial oppression that has always been central to U.S. society.

As Whitlock argues elsewhere, the hate frame also treats violence against oppressed groups as a problem to be solved with more policing and longer prison terms—without addressing the ways that police and prisons are themselves active perpetrators of systemic violence against oppressed groups on a massive scale. This too, is reflected in the NCRI approach, which is largely geared toward bolstering law enforcement. The institute’s report on the Boogaloo meme, for example, urges law enforcement agencies to “develop large scale and data-driven approaches and central information-sharing capacity” to track and analyze Boogaloo-type threats—in other words, embrace the NCRI methodology as their own.

The NCRI’s use of the hate framework is particularly egregious because the institute applies it to the radical left as well as the far right. The NCRI’s report on “militant anarcho-socialist networks” repeatedly uses language that links and equates leftists with far rightists. For example, the report refers to anti-police slogans such as ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) and FTP (Fuck the Police) as “hateful codewords and memes” —putting them in the same category as calls to gas the Jews. The report claims that leftists—like far rightists—demonize and dehumanize political opponents, promote “classic authoritarian narratives,” and advocate “violent insurgency.” A table summarizing their findings asserts that “Anarcho-Socialist extremists” have displayed all or nearly all the same characteristics as Jihadis and Boogaloo: expressing “apocalyptic beliefs,” “utopian legends/narratives,” and “martyr narratives”; using online propaganda and private or fringe internet forums; organizing armed militias; and carrying out “lone-wolf terror attacks.” The only one they’re unsure about is whether leftists have carried out “cell-like terror attacks.”

The equation of right-wing and left-wing violence is fundamentally dishonest for two reasons, as Kristian Williams has argued. First, rightists in the U.S. have carried out far more terrorist attacks than leftists, as the eminently non-leftist Center for Strategic and International Studies has documented. Second, in Williams’s words, whatever tactical or ethical disagreements we may have with leftist attacks, “there can be no equivalency between the violence of a slave revolt and the violence of a slave master, between the violence of anti-fascists and that of the Atomwaffen Division.” The NCRI report on anarcho-socialists doesn’t acknowledge any of that, but its authors do maintain a figleaf of deniability with a footnote cautioning that “This analysis does not suggest that violence from anarcho-socialist militants has yet become as widespread as an organized Jihadi group nor does it have the death toll or historical reach that right-leaning extremism has in the U.S. However, anarcho-socialist bloodshed has been historically substantial on other continents and Western countries.”

The same report also promotes the bogus claim, which has been made by both conservatives and some liberals, that the mass-based riots and violent anti-police activism that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020 were instigated by a few leftist agitators. The report asserts that small groups of activists such as the Portland Youth Liberation Front were able to “mobilize lawlessness and violence” through sophisticated use of online communication to call up a “network-enabled mob” in numerous cities simultaneously. In other words, a think tank that claims to be combating the spread of harmful conspiracy theories is itself replicating a classic conspiracist myth that has been used to demonize leftists for generations.

Toward a centrist anti-hate coalition

Although the NCRI is a relative newcomer to the extremist-monitoring field, its institutional credentials and impressive-sounding methodology have given it a prominent “expert” status for major media organs such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The NCRI describes itself as “a neutral and independent third party whose mission it is to track, expose, and combat misinformation, deception, manipulation, and hate across social media channels,” assuring us further that it has “no political agenda, profit motive, or university reporting obligations.” A more honest description—based on its list of staff and advisors—would be that NCRI represents a convergence of academia (mainly psychologists and artificial intelligence experts), big tech (notably Google’s director of research), and security agencies (with current or former people from the U.S. military, Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency, New York City Police Department, and private firms).

In addition to Rutgers, the NCRI lists “affiliations” with three entities: the Anti-Defamation League, Open Society Foundations, and Charles Koch Foundation. The ADL is one of the most prominent watchdog groups monitoring the U.S. far right, but it’s no friend of the left. The organization has long misused the charge of antisemitism to attack Palestinians, Palestine solidarity activists, anti-racist activists, and others. In the 1990s, it was revealed that the ADL had spied on a wide range of progressive organizations for decades; as recently as 2017 it publicly urged the FBI to spy on antifa groups, a call it later retracted.

The combination of Open Society and Koch foundations is pivotal to the NCRI brand. Open Society (George Soros’s grant-giving network) figures in countless right-wing conspiracy theories while Koch is one of the most hated capitalist names on the left, so by listing the two together the NCRI declares that it transcends political divisions by bringing together staunch liberals and conservatives. Put slightly differently, the combination of Soros and Koch support evokes an attempt to foster a broad—but anti-Trump—coalition within the ruling class. (Contrary to what some leftists have claimed, the Koch network never supported Trump and rejected his positions on both immigration and trade.)

The NCRI’s approach dovetails with centrist efforts to woo hardline conservatives away from Trumpism, as witness the institute’s recruitment of former Republican Congressmember Denver Riggleman to its advisory team. In Congress Riggleman was a member of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus, but he lost his 2020 re-election bid after officiating at a same-sex wedding. Last month the New York Times profiled Riggleman as a courageous opponent of conspiracy-mongering under the title “One Republican’s Lonely Fight Against a Flood of Disinformation.”

Complementing its recruitment of Riggleman, the NCRI has recruited former leftist Alexander Reid-Ross as a senior research fellow. He is the lead author on the NCRI’s COVID disinformation report and a contributing author on at least one other of the institute’s studies. Reid-Ross, who teaches geography at Portland State University and used to moderate the Earth First! Newswire, has had significant influence on many liberal and leftist antifascists with his 2017 book Against the Fascist Creep and numerous articles on related topics. Although he has raised important issues, such as collusion between sections of the left and fascists, his past work is a mixed bag; one 2017 review of Against the Fascist Creep rightly faulted Reid-Ross for using guilt by association, name dropping, and just plain bad writing. In any case, by signing on with NCRI he has repudiated the left, yet his background helps burnish the NCRI’s image as an inclusive home for anti-“hate” scholars of every persuasion.

Larger trends

The Network Contagion Research Institute’s rise reflects larger trends. One of these is the drive to apply big data analysis to the study of political propaganda and social media. There’s a growing body of academic articles based on such studies, most of which have been published in the past five years, and there are other outfits besides NCRI supporting comparable work, such as the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. In principle this approach could yield valuable insights, but its potential is radically compromised when it is based on an analytic framework that shields established systems of power and oppression from critique. Such political bias seems unlikely to change, given the technical and institutional infrastructure required to support big data analysis.

Another trend, in the wake of Trump’s downfall, is the drive by a resurgent centrist establishment to harness anti-bigotry and anti-fascism to its own ends. As Faramarz Farbod recently outlined, the resulting top-down “liberal/centrist anti-fascist discourse” poses a number of dangers: blaming Trump without explaining the conditions that made him popular, reproducing the myth that the United States is a democracy, ignoring the far right’s roots in U.S. society and the establishment’s own complicity in the rise of violent reactionary forces at home and abroad, and expanding the powers of the national security state. The NCRI is rooted firmly in this discourse.

The NCRI’s efforts to lump together far rightist and radical leftist politics into the same “hate” category embodies an important theme of centrist anti-fascism. We see a similar approach in a recent threat assessment report on “domestic violent extremism” by the U.S. director of national intelligence, which President Biden requested shortly after taking office. The DNI’s report divides “domestic violent extremists” into five categories: “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists,” “Animal Rights/Environmental Violent Extremists,” “Abortion-Related Violent Extremists,” “Anti-Government/Anti-Authority Violent Extremists” and all others. Kristian Williams comments:

“The most striking thing about this classification system...is its perverse refusal to divide between left and right, instead grouping opposing sides together under other categories. Right-wing militias, sovereign citizens and anarchists, for example, are all listed under ‘Anti-Government/Anti-Authority Violent Extremists.’ Racist and anti-racist violence is compressed into ‘Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists.’

“‘Abortion-Related Violent Extremists’ includes both those ‘in support of pro-life and pro-choice beliefs’—despite the fact that the FBI cannot point to any pro-choice violence that escalated above the level of online threats, while anti-abortion fanatics have murdered 11 people and attempted to kill 26 more since 1993.”

These categories don’t reflect intellectual sloppiness, but rather a deliberate distortion of reality to demonize leftists and protect the established order. It’s an analytic approach we need to expose and critique, along with the Network Contagion Research Institute’s pseudo-objective ideology and the state repression agenda it serves. 

Image credit:

A social network visualization, by brewbooks, 10 June 2012 (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Apr 18, 2021

Review of Failed Führers by Graham Macklin

Guest post by Spencer Sunshine

Graham Macklin, Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right (Routledge, 2020).
Review by Spencer Sunshine

Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers is a major new study of the British fascist movement, and will likely be the central reference point for scholars of that movement for the foreseeable future.

Before I review this text, however, readers should be warned that this is a tome. Weighing in at over 550 oversized pages and containing thousands of endnotes, it covers the careers of six British fascist leaders over a span of a hundred years. The second thing is that, full disclosure, Macklin is a friend. And not just over the internet—we once even met in person and had a curry and a couple beers. But long before we were acquainted, I developed a deep appreciation for his attention to the intricacies of the post-war fascist milieu’s ideological shifts. And he actually gets how these movements work, unlike many academics who, even when they have important things to say, are painfully tone-deaf.

Failed Führers is structured using “prosopography.” (After all, what’s a proper academic text without some words you have to look up.) In this case, it is a collective biography of six British fascist leaders of both the pre- and post-war periods. While this seems like an odd, if not downright antiquated, approach, it actually works quite well in helping Macklin cover a large amount of ground. The narrative arc doesn’t get turgid as it is frequently moving from one figure to the other. This structure also helps avoid a degeneration into a sectology illustrating how This Group begat That Group which splintered into Those Groups—although there is still plenty of that for the discerning sectologist!

Like many American scholars of the Far Right, my knowledge is exceedingly focused on domestic currents; it is super spotty even of other Anglophone countries. So while I only had scattered bits of knowledge about the British fascist tradition when I started the book, it was very useful in helping me tie them together.

The first figure featured in Failed Führers is Arnold Leese, who was active starting in the 1920s and became more and more focused on antisemitism as he pivoted his allegiances from Mussolini to Hitler. He continued his fascism career postwar, as did Oswald Mosley, the most famous of the six outside of Britain. The outline of Mosley’s prewar career is generally known, including his wartime detention, but I was fascinated to learn how extensive his work was postwar and how he was somehow rehabilitated into the mainstream, appearing, for example, on William Buckley’s Firing Line. The third figure, A.K. Chesterton (not to be confused with his relation G.K. Chesterton) also straddled the war. But he was best known for founding the League of Empire Loyalists—who, as the British empire crumbled, did what it said on the tin, albeit with a fascist core. The League wound up by fusing with other groups to become the National Front, the best known of the British fascist parties—at least to fans of 1970s punk rock and two-tone ska, as well as to watchers of the National-Anarchists. Fourth is Colin Jordan, who was mentored by Leese. Jordon was an openly neo-Nazi ideologue and organizer who was a cross between his contemporaries George Lincoln Rockwell and William Pierce. Fifth and sixth are John Tyndall and Nick Griffin; both of them overlapped in both the National Front and British National Party (BNP), which each led before being deposed (Tyndall from the BNP by Griffin, no less). Today, Griffin is the only living figure of the bunch.

I won’t summarize what the book says about the organizational and ideological history of these figures and their parties—after all, that’s why we all write these things down in books. But I will point out some of its more interesting angles, as well as the things that popped out to me personally.

Macklin shows in detail how attention to the ideological twists and turns of even small groups of radical activists is important in understanding these movements. Their ideas are often carried through in lean years by small sects, but these groups can expand very rapidly and take the national stage, as the National Front in the 1970s and BNP in the ’00s did. Macklin shows how internal debates among fascists over many decades produced a winning formula, even if it was quickly stolen by more mainstream conservatives who lacked their historical baggage.

Today, the polished product is on display across the globe by right-wing populist parties: bellicose nationalism, opposition to immigration, Islamophobia, conspiracy theories, and a socially conservative worldview—including of sexuality and national history. Right-wing nationalism trumps imperial racial visions, while anti-Zionism and open antisemitism are out.

"Britain's Hitler": Oswald Mosley
Macklin’s long view of this development is very illuminating. The central internal fascist debate he focuses on is how their racial vision plays out geographically. (Those who follow U.S. fascists will be familiar with the differences between the Pacific Northwest Territorial Imperative, Southern segregation, and pan-Aryanism. But historians of U.S. fascism almost always dismiss these as unimportant window dressing.) Failed Führers shows how divergent stances on this issue were crucial to the different fascist parties and activists, as well as to their successes and failures. Racial nationalism was popular (BNP, National Front), but at one point the National Front turned to a smaller ethno-regionalist approach. Internationally, there was imperial nostalgia (Chesterton), pan-Nordicism (Leese), pan-Europeanism (Mosley), and calls for a pan-Aryan Imperium (Jordan).

These differences were key to the splits between Mosley’s postwar “Europe-as-a-Nation” position versus Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists. It also pitted Jordan’s international and Tyndall’s national perspectives against each other. And Griffin had to overcome resistance in his party—and his own past views—to move the BNP from a British racial nationalism to something that looked, even if it was almost entirely on paper, like a right-wing populism (equivalent to what the Alt Right calls “civic nationalism”).

Just like fascists today, these positions also changed the groups’ relationship to the British state—which itself was morphing as its empire crumbled. Both Leese and Mosley were deeply unhappy when World War Two broke out, and both were interned but released before the war was over. Jordan, as a revolutionary neo-Nazi sect leader, espoused terrorism and constantly ran afoul of the law. Tyndall built up a public party that—despite containing illegal elements such as its skinhead base—championed positions that were ultimately mainstream enough to be absorbed by the Tory party. And Griffin’s ideological phases included being in the revolutionary, anti-system wing of the 1980s National Front, as well as later positioning the BNP as a legal, right-wing populist party.

Chesterton had the most pro-system approach, tho. He actually joined the British Army during the war and after it sought to stop decolonization. Of the six, his positions were the most like an ultra-conservatism as opposed to revolutionary fascism. This is quite different from neo-Nazis like James Mason and Tom Metzger, who for decades took pains to emphasize the difference between their own revolutionary National Socialism and what they called “right-wingism.”

A second, related question that Macklin shows is how a classic strategic question was dealt with: reform or revolution? Should fascists run for office? (It is far easier for radicals, of all stripes, to win office as a local “councillor” in Britain than it is to get elected to almost anything in the United States.) Alternately, should parties keep a National Socialist core while publicly portraying themselves as right-wing populists who are vehemently opposed to immigration? This latter tactic, particularly used by Griffin’s BNP, produced real returns.

In fact, many of these parties were wildly successful by U.S. standards, even when just looking at raw numbers and not accounting for the population disparity between the two countries. For example, Mosley’s party had 50,000 members in 1934, when fascism was still acceptable to the mainstream. But even postwar, the League of Empire Loyalists had 3,000 members in 1958. While Jordan’s National Socialist Movement was a classic tiny neo-Nazi sect, Tyndall’s National Front had up to 15,000 in 1979. Last, Griffin-era BNP, albeit a supposedly non-racialist organization by then, had 56 council seats in 2006. In 2009 it had over 12,000 members and elected two European Union MPs, including Griffin, and the next year received a half-million votes in the national elections.

Nick Griffin
Obviously, Macklin explores many other angles as well. One, common to the United States too, is the shifting role of antisemitism—including questions on the Far Right about whether Jews should be allowed in the parties, confined to Israel, or if Israel should be destroyed. The various attempts at fascist alliances with Arab, Muslim, and Islamist actors, including the infamous trip by National Front leaders to Libya in the 1980s, are highlighted. And the twist from pro-Islamist anti-Zionism to a pro-Israel Islamophobia, made in particular by Griffin, is clearly illustrated.

The relationship between the parties and subcultures gets some eyes on it. In particular is the National Front and the skinhead movement, although I learned that Mosley recruited Teddy Boys after their role in the 1958 Notting Hill riots. Antifascists also get their due in the story.

And Macklin has a special interest in the links between U.S. and British fascists. While WUNS (the World Union of National Socialists)—whose founders included Jordan and Rockwell—is well known, the extent of the international travel was eye-opening. Not just did the British fascists make links to U.S. segregationists, but the National States Rights Party (NSRP) had extended links to British fascists. While this is curious on the face, as the NSRP was a Klan-aligned group, it makes sense because they, like some of the British groups, had an obscured National Socialist core and a more populist exterior. Tyndall and Griffin’s U.S. tours have also received comparatively little attention.

Last, for me personally, I was happy to finally get a detailed account of how the Third Positionist tendency developed inside the National Front. This anti-capitalist, racial separatist, regionalist, and environmentalist trend was later exported to the United States and adopted by Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance and Matthew Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party.

The influence was copied more directly by Troy Southgate, a former National Front organizer who became the guru of the National-Anarchist Movement. (Macklin wrote a very important study of their predecessor group, “Co-opting the counter culture: Troy Southgate and the National Revolutionary Faction.”) Southgate likes to present (or at least imply) that many of the ideas he promotes are his own—and claim that they symbolize his disconnection from the fascist movement. But almost all of his positions are derived from his previous party’s Political Soldier tendency. These range from regionalism to the praise of racial “villages” to Distributionism to his retroactive opposition to colonialism (for making global connections which ultimately made Britain less white). Fair warning, though, that I found the National Front twists and splits so complicated that I will need to read that section at least a couple more times before getting it all straight in my head.

In terms of its lessons for today’s activists who are organizing against the Far Right, Failed Führers does a good job outlining the different approaches that fascists have used. Familiarity with this should make it easier to see which of a limited set of approaches are available to fascists. The book also shows why small groups and splinter factions shouldn’t be ignored, as they have the possibilities to fuse into larger, more powerful organizations or expand rapidly in popularity. And just as the fascists organize transnationally, so should antifascists. We have seen how the U.S. Alt Right was influenced heavily by European trends, like Identitarianism, and have worked closely with their counterparts in Canada and elsewhere. The opposite should also be true.

I’ll stick a couple obligatory criticisms here at the end. Even though as an American I like to think of myself as familiar with British political dialogues, in number of places I had to look up terms. For example, I learned that a “ginger-group” is a faction that tries to influence a larger organization that it is part of. And in a number of places, the time of events were not clear and I had a hard time figuring out what year in the story I was.

Failed Führers was a good read that, for me, telescoped my understanding of the British fascist movement through the turn of the century, putting together a number of scattered puzzle pieces. Macklin is a nice stylist, but it is still a long and detailed history that requires a commitment to finish. But I think you will find it worth the investment.

Spencer Sunshine (www.spencersunshine.com) has researched, written about, and counter-organized against the U.S. Far Right for over fifteen years.


Oswald Mosley on the cover of Time, 1931. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nick Griffin MEP speaks at a British National Party press conference in Manchester, 10 June 2009. Photo by BritishNationalism, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.