Feb 20, 2023

Gaming’s Three Way Fight: Why Antifascists Should Organize in and Around Video Games

A guest post by three antifascist gamers who are part of an emerging Abolitionist Gaming Network

[Text updated February 27, 2023.]

We’re all people who love to play video games. We’re also the kind of people who fascists want to run out of video games because we’re not straight white men. Recently, some cops and their academic allies have claimed they are going to save us from the fascists in video games; for example, the Department of Homeland Security awarded almost $700,000 in grant money to researchers who are studying how to confront “extremism” in gaming, with a focus on stopping white nationalist recruitment in digital games and the online communities associated with them. We are abolitionists, people who want to abolish police, prisons, and related forms of oppression like digital surveillance, given their role in confining and controlling Black and Indigenous people, working class people, queer people, and to some degree the rest of society. Given that, we don’t think that the cops at the Department of Homeland Security will save anyone from fascists—they’re just gonna make the situation worse.

Recently in Atlanta, the police and politicians have used this “confronting extremism” framework to raid and arrest abolitionist activists who are trying to defend the Atlanta forest and stop the development of a militarized police training facility. Several protestors are facing domestic terrorism charges and one of them, Tortuguita, was murdered by the cops. Antifascists should not support a “confronting extremism” political framework, in games or elsewhere, because it just adds more funding and legitimacy to this kind of repression.

We need to imagine better ways to confront fascists in video games, which are a crucial space of social, cultural, and economic struggle. However, these spaces are mostly overlooked and often dismissed by abolitionists, antifascists, and other radical activists. We hope to change that.

“Abolitionists should organize to oppose both fascist recruitment in games and capitalist policing of games. In doing so, we can also better leverage the radical histories and possibilities of video games as an arena of abolitionist organizing.”

We see the situation as a three way fight: a conflict between 1) the capitalist carceral state, 2) insurgent fascists challenging that state, and 3) abolitionists and other revolutionaries who need to challenge both the state and the fascists (as argued further here). The authors of the Three Way Fight blog point out, for example, that capitalist antifascism isn’t necessarily liberatory and “repression isn't necessarily fascist—anti-fascism itself can be a tool of ruling-class repression (as was the case during World War II, when anti-fascism was used to justify strike-breaking and the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans, among other measures).“ We think that abolitionists should organize to oppose both fascist recruitment in games and capitalist policing of games. In doing so, we can also better leverage the radical histories and possibilities of video games as an arena of abolitionist organizing.

Why Focus on Video Games?

Fascists and cops understand something that the majority of abolitionists and antifascists have not figured out yet: games are an important terrain of political conflict and organizing. As the grant announcement on the Department of Homeland security website puts it,

“Over the past decade, video games have increasingly become focal points of social activity and identity creation for adolescents and young adults. Relationships made and fostered within game ecosystems routinely cross over into the real world and are impactful parts of local communities…Correspondingly, extremists have used video games and targeted video game communities for activities ranging from propaganda creation to terrorist mobilization and training.”

They are not wrong about the political importance of video games. They are just wrong in defining the problem as “extremism” and “terrorism” rather than as fascist mobilization, and of course their solution is just more surveillance and policing. That solution just adds to the problems, since, as we know, surveillance and policing always end up disproportionately targeting marginalized communities instead of fascists.

The left is the only part of the three way fight that’s (mostly) not taking games seriously; fascists and the state have both been using games to organize, surveil, etc. as they fight each other and as they fight us. Antifascists should take gaming seriously as a space for learning, organizing, building friendships, imagining liberated futures, practicing skills needed in these futures, and mobilizing both online and in the real world. If we don’t do it, the fascists and cops will use games against us.

“Antifascists should take gaming seriously as a space for learning, organizing, building friendships, imagining liberated futures, practicing skills needed in these futures, and mobilizing both online and in the real world.”

The left is currently preoccupied debating about Twitter, about whether or not it should be surveilled and controlled, and how to stop it from being a haven for white supremacist mob organization. Meanwhile, young people spend far more time on gaming platforms than they do on Twitter. If the left is taking Twitter this seriously, they should be taking games and their related social media platforms even more seriously. Digital gaming has expanded rapidly during the pandemic, and it’s been a long time since it was a fringe subcultural phenomenon. At this point, calling oneself a gamer is like calling oneself a music listener or movie watcher. In their report on the rise of extremism in gaming, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) asserts that “Gaming plays a huge role in American life: according to the Entertainment Software Association, 75% of American households include at least one gamer, and the video game industry generates more money annually than the film and music industries combined.” Among teens, a staggering 97 percent of boys and 83 percent of girls in the US play video games.

Given this rapid expansion of gaming, it’s likely that many of the young people who participated in the 2020 George Floyd uprising against police violence probably play games and use them to think, imagine, learn, and socialize. Shouldn’t antifascists be trying to connect with them in these scenes and spaces?

Fascists are Organizing in Games

On the other two sides, mass shooters with fascist white supremacist ideologies have developed their ideologies and tactics in gaming-related platforms like Discord and Twitch. This includes the white supremacist who opened fire at a Buffalo supermarket in May 2022, killing ten. The U.S. military is also increasingly focusing recruiting efforts on video game-playing teenagers, uses video games for training and morale-building, and developed a series of video games over the last two decades “intended to inform, educate, and recruit prospective soldiers.”

Playing games and politics are more closely linked than they first appear, especially when people are using games to practice and train for real world activities. Given the relative lack of political moderation, fascists who used to organize on broader social media platforms are turning to games as a space to regroup after many of them got kicked off platforms like Facebook. Steam, for example, is the main platform used for buying PC games while also serving as a platform for gamer communities and game content creation with around 120 million monthly active players. The parent company, Valve, only employs around 360 people. It has very little moderation and so has ended up full of fascist-leaning or outright fascist individuals and groups, including those celebrating school shooters and neo-Nazis, among other racist, homophobic, and antisemitic content. Even child-oriented games like Minecraft or Roblox have become playgrounds for fascists. One survey found that among those who play online multiplayer games, 23% were exposed to extremist white supremacist ideology while playing. It is widely known that players with marginalized identities encounter consistent hate and harassment within games and many gamer communities.

Fascists go beyond sowing terror in online games. They also have lots of tactics for organizing within video games and their associated communities. Recruitment is sometimes done through creating new games or game content depicting fascist violence. These games might be stand-alone, modified versions of existing games (mods), or experiences within game-creation platforms like Roblox or Minecraft. Fascists also use mainstream games. For example, they join a chat, are deliberately provocative, see who responds positively, then seek to recruit them:

“You’ll often get a cell of extremists who will go into a gaming chat room or a party chat in Fortnite or a group in Call of Duty, for instance, and they'll use racial slurs or some other type of extremist content.… They'll monitor the people in those group chats and see who is responding positively with laughter, maybe asking questions about the certain use of these specific extremist terms. And then the people who respond well to that will be invited into a deeper group chat.”

The discussions then move onto other platforms, often gamer-adjacent Discord, in which young people are offered membership in a hierarchy—whites against all others—and quickly oriented towards blood-soaked ideology and action. Even when members are not recruited through games, gaming serves as a powerful common ground and reference point and gamified online harassment “raids” (semi-organized targeted harassment), a popular tactic of terror.

Grassroots vs. Capitalist Antifascism

This fascist organizing is being opposed in various ways. Historically, antifascism has been found in an array of grassroots movements associated with broader social dynamics. These have included Black liberation groups like the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, anti-colonial movements, insurgent and grassroots movements against U.S.-supported dictators, and class struggle organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), along with anarchist, queer liberation, communist, and radical feminist movements throughout the world. Contrary to what Donald Trump and the far right say, antifascism (including antifa) is not an organization; it is an activity that people from many different backgrounds and politics (organized and unorganized) participate in. During the Trump years, antifa was a grassroots movement intertwined with rebellions against the system of racialized capitalism; for example, it was an expression of the George Floyd Rebellion against policing, when people in the streets defended themselves against fascists who attacked them.

While Trump called for violent repression of antifa, the Democratic Party and the liberal wing of the capitalist ruling class have been trying to coopt antifascist organizing, even as their cops, courts, and prisons still harm people when they actually fight fascists. These ruling-class forces have been trying to refashion themselves as people “defending democracy” from “far-right extremism,” asking people to imagine them as a new version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Democratic Party that fought the Nazis in World War II. We see this with Biden's speech in the fall of 2021, which framed Trump’s Make America Great Again movement as a fascist threat to democracy. We also see it in some of the rhetoric around the congressional and court investigations into the January 6th riots at the Capitol. In fall 2021, someone influenced by far-right ideologies attacked Democratic Party politician Nancy Pelosi’s husband, and in the wake of the attack, the liberal wing of the capitalist class has become more and more aggressive about stopping “domestic extremism.”

Many antifascists are trying to resist this cooptation by capitalist politicians. For example, the Three Way Fight blog has pointed out how this re-emerging capitalist antifascism can become its own form of authoritarianism.

Content moderation and surveillance measures on social media have become major points of political contestation within this emerging conflict between the fascists and the liberal capitalists. We see this of course with the debates over Twitter and calls for the federal government to step in to prevent far-right groups from using the platform to organize now that Elon Musk has allowed them back onto the platform.

Grassroots vs. Capitalist Antifascism in Video Games

This conflict over social media is now beginning to spill over into conflicts over video games. Several prominent researchers have received grants from the Department of Homeland Security to “counter extremism” among young people in video games. The goal seems to be to push the video game industry to implement some kind of content moderation system similar to what Meta has and what Twitter has but seems to be losing under Elon Musk. The far-right media outlet Breitbart wrote a piece calling this left-wing censorship, defending the legacy of Gamergate (a coordinated far-right campaign against women in gaming, which gave the alt-right its blueprint for coordinated online harassment). Game industry leaders are also discussing how to improve content moderation systems based on player feedback and systems for reporting “toxic” behavior, and Maggie Hassan, a member of the Senate’s Homeland Security committee, recently demanded that Valve address the neo-Nazi content in its platforms.

Internationally, UNESCO views violent extremism as an issue in need of resolution. Most important to our argument is UNESCO’s focus on the Internet and social media as solutions, given the ways we view gaming and game-related spaces as powerful social media platforms. While many people look to formalized organizations for guidance, specifically to combat “extremism” in social media (and in this case, video games and game-related spaces), we find their guidance lacking. UNESCO’s very own resources seem to point to 404 error pages, which is quite reflective of the ways games are discussed as solutions for fascism–the actual solutions are non-existent. UNESCO engages with video games as powerful tools, but its engagement is towards “peace and sustainability” or to highlight the learning possible. While these arguments about games are important, so too is addressing the violence that can result from fascism present in games. Thus, video games should not just be about peace, given that this peace is already disrupted by fascism. They can and should be about disruptive combat, a direct tussle with fascism. Furthermore, we can learn alternative ways of combating fascism, particularly from abolitionist gamers, educators, and other antifascist efforts seen in pop culture history.

Problems with Capitalist Antifascism

Researchers who want to be antiracists “doing the work” are suddenly rebranding themselves as “extremism” researchers. Do they realize the implications of what they’re getting into?

While it is good to see people taking the issue of fascist mobilization in gaming seriously, we are wary that these interventions could accelerate the surveillance and repression involved with capitalist antifascism. While many of the researchers and game industry leaders leading these efforts are experts in gaming, they are not experienced antifascists with an understanding of the three way fight dynamics outlined above, and they are intervening primarily on behalf of their funders, who want to maintain ruling-class interests: the funders’ goal is to secure the profitability of gaming platforms while stabilizing the US racial capitalist state. The researchers are inserting themselves into a potentially armed conflict between the far right and the state without the necessary training or preparation. As a result, they are likely to be manipulated by government and corporate interests who want to make a name for themselves through the grift, corruption, and public posturing associated with decades of War on Terror politics. Such careerist maneuvering may play a role in the repression of the Atlanta forest defenders, which has now escalated into an outright assassination of an environmental/abolitionist protestor. The consequences are matters of life and death.

“While it is good to see people taking the issue of fascist mobilization in gaming seriously, we are wary that these interventions could accelerate the surveillance and repression involved with capitalist antifascism.”

The Role of AI in Surveillance and Content Moderation

There’s a debate going on about whether such moderation and surveillance should be done by humans or by artificial intelligence (AI), not just in video games but across the tech industry. This is expressed in a Federal Trade Commission report to Congress: “Combatting Online Harms Through Innovation”:

“Facebook reportedly uses AI, combined with manual review, to attempt to understand text that might be advocating for terrorism, find and remove terrorist “clusters,” and detect new accounts from repeat offenders. YouTube and TikTok report using machine learning or other automated means to flag extremist videos, and Twitter indicates that it uses machine learning and human review to detect and suspend accounts responsible for TVEC [Terrorism and violent extremism]. Moonshot (a tech company) and Google’s Jigsaw use the “Redirect Method,” which uses AI to identify at-risk audiences and provide them with positive, de-radicalizing content, including pursuant to Google searches for extremist content.”

The FTC report points out that academics and government entities have raised concerns about potential invasions of privacy, lack of accuracy, and biased datasets involved in these tools.

Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist at Princeton, has warned that people are essentially creating new forms of racist AI surveillance and algorithmic policing in the name of using AI to counter racism online. She argues it’s part of a transition toward decentralized incarceration, or policing through digital platforms and apps. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition is similarly warning that the whole framework of “countering extremism” is being used against Black, Indigenous, and environmental activists, not just the far right. They’ve linked that to their organizing against the LAPD’s AI-based “predictive policing” model, which uses big data and machine learning to allocate where to send officers based on predicted crime patterns. They have shown how the algorithms are biased and racist.

The FTC report reviews AI research showing that increases in racist speech in online forums in certain cities predicts racist violence in those cities. Some researchers and government officials consider this kind of research a possible use case for AI, allowing people to predict possible waves of real-world violence associated with online hate speech. However, the report ends up doing exactly what Stop LAPD Spying Coalition warns against: it treats anti-police protestors and abolitionists as creators of hate speech and violence, lumping them in with fascists and white supremacist groups who were threatening to kill protestors and sometimes carried out those threats through car attacks and gun violence:

“Internal Facebook documents show that analysts worried that hateful content on the platform might be inciting real-world violence in connection with Minneapolis protests occurring after the police killing of George Floyd. Although it is not clear what precise tools they used, these analysts discovered that ‘the largest and most combative demonstrations’ took place in two zip codes where users reported spikes in offensive posts, whereas harmful content was only ‘sporadic’ in areas where protests had not yet emerged.”

That quote cites an article by Bloomberg which says Facebook had a “heat map” of speech it flagged as offensive, and staffers watched as the map turned red in Minneapolis and then eventually turned red across the country as the protests spread. Yet at the same time, Facebook refused to prevent Trump from openly calling for the murder of protestors, when he posted “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The attempt to equate the violence of protestors with the violence of the state and fascists who oppose them just plays into the violent repression of abolitionist organizing that Trump and others attempted.

While digital gaming platforms are moderated by humans and algorithms, it seems they are not as strictly moderated as other social media platforms like Facebook. This might be because they are not yet widely seen as political spheres and forms of social media, even though they are. Most moderation is focused on improving or maintaining the quality of gameplay experience. It usually does this only for some players, leaving others, e.g. Black lesbian players, subjected to racist and homophobic interactions during multiplayer gameplay, as game researcher Kishonna Gray has documented extensively.

Towards Abolitionist Antifascism in Gaming

At the grassroots level, gamers are already resisting fascism in various ways; for example, as Kishonna Gray has documented, Black and LGBTQIA+ players have organized themselves to play together in ways that shield each other as much as possible from racist, sexist, and homophobic attacks in multiplayer game forums. In Brazil, people organized to deplatform a fascist gamer group that openly shared contempt towards a Black Brazilian journalist for celebrating Black representation in Valorant. This opened up avenues of harassment by the fascist group’s fanbase, and ultimately led to the mobilization of gamers, journalists, and game developers around the goal of getting the group banned from platforms such as Twitch and Youtube. It’s important to note the strategies used, which included protesting in live streams on Twitch, using Twitter to post and share hashtags about the movement, and ultimately sending emails and complaints to the CEO of Xbox and the Brazilian Public Ministry.

While these grassroots efforts are important, they need to go further, building autonomy from the state and capitalist antifascism. We encourage abolitionists and antifascists to engage with games in creative and strategic ways. Here are some possibilities we would like to propose.

Antifascists have a long history of seeing music scenes as important spaces for social and political life, spaces that must be defended and kept free from fascist appropriation and infiltration. For example, antiracist punks and folk fans have tried to run fascists out of their own scenes, and this has provided a sense of community that has enlivened broader antifascist organizing and mobilization in the streets. But if games are just as widespread as music these days, shouldn’t they also be contested in similar ways? For example, Anna Anthropy said that making indie games is the new form of zine-making.

Grassroots abolition efforts in fields like education also highlight alternative pathways for abolitionist and antifascist coalition building. While the Abolition Teaching Network focuses on addressing the injustices in schools specifically, its guiding principles on Racial Injustice & Abolitionist Social and Emotional Learning help us imagine and think through tangible abolitionist practices in the classroom, which could be combined with educators’ growing efforts to use games as equipment for critical learning and teaching. These efforts are more fruitful than, say, what UNESCO is trying to do.

Anticapitalists can also make our own abolitionist and antifascist games and media, and can create spaces where more people—especially young people—can learn to do this. These could be video games, table-top games, theater games, etc. We can also modify (“mod”) existing games to play them in more abolitionist ways, e.g. playing pro-cop riot simulation games with the goal of making the cops lose. The games we make could prompt players to imagine and conjure unpoliced futures, like the abolitionist video game Kai Unearthed. Or they could be strategy games that simulate direct actions and ways of avoiding police repression, like the tabletop game Bloc by Bloc. They could also help people practice skills needed in abolitionist organizing, including antifascist organizing. Augusto Boal said theater games are “rehearsal for revolution,” and the same could be said of video games and tabletop games. We should not make fun of people for LARPING (live action role playing) as revolutionaries, as long as they know when a situation is a game and when it is a real life conflict with life or death consequences (e.g. an actual riot or an actual street brawl with fascists). LARPing in low-stakes settings can be a way for people to practice and to learn from their mistakes so they’ll be more prepared to handle situations that are not games, where the consequences for failure are much higher.

For example, a game could model and simulate the three way fight itself. There could be three teams: the capitalist state vs. revolutionaries vs. insurgent fascists. Each team needs to decide whether to get involved in conflicts between the other two or whether to sit back, observe, and learn from the conflict. Conflicts between each of the three sides can influence the outcome of conflicts between the other two. For example, the state winning against fascists might increase their capacity to win against revolutionaries. Revolutionaries winning against the state might create openings for fascists to practice fighting the state. Conflicts between revolutionaries and insurgent fascists might be used by the state as a pretext to criminalize and repress both. This is just one way that a game could model a revolutionary struggle against fascists and the state.

Closing Thoughts

Abolitionists and antifascists face a daunting task when it comes to the three way fight that is tearing up digital media, including games. Do we organize ourselves to transform existing corporate platforms, or do we build our own digital infrastructure? Do we try to de-platform fascists from these networks, and if so, how? How do we relate to AI in all of this? While these questions may be overwhelming for many, we don’t need answers to all of them right away, and we don’t need to be advanced hackers, coders, or expert designers to begin to take games seriously. Anyone can choose some games you and your friends like and organize an abolitionist game night, playing the games together in ways that prompt discussions about abolishing police and prisons. And with a range of free and increasingly accessible game design tools like Twine, Unity, and Figma now available, it is easier than ever to learn how to make your own abolitionist game that you can share with your friends. If enough people start doing this sort of thing, we can build robust abolitionist gaming networks that can reclaim games from both the fascists and the capitalists/cops.  

From games to the streets, fuck the police!

In solidarity,
-Three antifascist gamers who are part of an emerging Abolitionist Gaming Network.
(Please reach out to us if you want to connect: abolitionistgamingnetwork [at] gmail.com.)

Feb 7, 2023

Conference Report: "Anti-Fascism in the 21st Century"

A Report on Antifascism in the 21st Century


By D.Z. Shaw and Stanislav Vysotsky 

On November 2nd and 3rd, 2022, Hofstra University hosted a conference on Anti-Fascism in the 21st Century. Videos of the presentations are available on the conference website.


For those who might not typically seek out academic conferences, they are of variable quality and subject to contingent factors: who applies to present, who is invited, the quality of their work, and the scope of the organizers’ vision. A conference topic like antifascism in the twenty-first century is lined with numerous pitfalls due to the fact that there isn’t, at the moment, a cohesive field of “antifascism studies” that the organizers can rely on to shape their program—and then due to the fact that the issues raised and the ideas developed at such a conference could have concrete ramifications when they are put into practice. For example, there is, in academia, generally an inbuilt bias against approaches that challenge the state’s claim to a monopoly on legitimate violence, and a bias towards approaches that frame themselves as policy recommendations. Such a bias could exclude certain theoretical and practical problems.


At an antifascism conference, these biases manifest within the differences between militant antifascism (which upholds the diversity of tactics as a form of community self-defense against far-right organizing, and which ought to maintain a revolutionary horizon) and liberal antifascism (which, as Mark Bray notes, places its “faith in the inherent power of the public sphere to filter out fascist ideas, and in the institutions of government to forestall the advancement of fascist politics”).[1] To their credit, the conference organizers included a variety of papers from both perspectives; in addition, they included independent scholars and did some outreach with local organizers. Generally, though, the audience seemed to have been drawn from the local university community. 


Nonetheless, there were oversights or omissions which would color the reception of the antifascism conference: Adolph Reed, Jr.’s keynote address may have been the most extensive discussion of class (and it was perceived that way), but his perspective is at odds with much of the militant antifascist and antiracist approaches to the relation of class and race. And while there were presentations on anticolonialism, none of them addressed settler-colonialism as a condition for fascism—an issue that has been a long-standing concern in discussions of the three-way fight. Finally, while both liberal and militant tendencies were represented, there was no forum for their respective advocates to bring the theoretical and practical contradictions between them to the forefront. It appeared that liberal approaches largely carried the day among the audience, if not many presenters. We cannot dismiss this as a product of academic bias, but rather the mood of the conference reflected the present uncertainty and discomfort with the direction of antifascist organizing: do we go “wide” within a popular front and risk liberal encroachment or capture, or do we go more “narrow,” with militant affinity work to undermine ongoing far-right organizing efforts? A conference which does not bring this conflict into the open may offer a chance for academic exchange between presenters, but it does not afford the opportunity to offer a cohesive alternative to liberal antifascist tendencies by challenging the underlying assumptions of the participants. If the conference becomes a recurring event, it would need to explicitly present a forum to bring theoretical and practical contradictions into the open.


A Platform for Militant Antifascism


This conference was unique in bringing together a truly interdisciplinary group of scholars studying historical and contemporary antifascist movements with an eye toward understanding the dynamics of contemporary antifascism. Much of the scholarship on antifascism tends toward historical analysis of the inter-war period and opposition to fascism in its original incarnations. By grounding the conference in the topic of antifascism in the 21st century, the organizers created a space for discussion of the movement in the present rather than reflections on the past. Panels that featured scholarship on militant antifascism presented on the practices of antifascism in Europe, the culture of antifascism, and antifascist strategy.


Militant antifascism represents an “antifascism from below” that is organized organically by activists who both identify the immediate threat of fascism and frequently face it directly through political organizing or subcultural participation. This activism focuses on street-based fascist movements rather than political parties or the potential likelihood of state capture by the far-right. However, as antifascist movements mature, when their members come to participate in forms of institutionalized activism and activity, and when the cause of antifascism is taken up by more mainstream political actors, a series of contradictions occur. 


As Nils Schuhmacher points out in his presentation “Continental European Antifa: Why the 90s Matter (More Than You Might Think),” the institutionalization of antifascist activism in Germany led to the development of a “pop antifa” that increasingly focused on performative practices and institutional activities. This led to a watering down of the ideological and theoretical elements of antifa activism in favor of a kind of stylistic pose of resistance. “An antifa that includes everything struggles to reject anything, including the forces of oppression, racism and xenophobia that continue to affect vulnerable people.” As North American antifascists look to our European comrades for models of building an antifascist culture, we should be wary of the ways in which building a mass movement can lead to a watering down of principles or cooptation by institutional actors.


Ali Jones’s presentation, German Antifa and the Paradox of Ghostly Militanz” presents the outcome of this process of institutionalization whereby the righteousness of antifascist militancy has been lost as activists eschew public discourse even within radical publications and platforms for ideological debate. As Jones points out, “it might be easy when speaking to the choir to assume that the act of punching a Nazi to save a migrant doesn’t need a rationale, but this invocation of physical violence is based upon the assumption of the political justification that accompanies it and justifies it; and when that political aspect is silenced, the justification then seems to fade away.” The outcome of this dynamic has been the recent arrest of activists in Leipzig on charges of forming a criminal organization. Parallels to this dynamic can be seen in the United States, with calls to label “ANTIFA” a terrorist organization, and prosecutors bringing criminal conspiracy charges against activists in San Diego in 2022. However, while the justifications for antifascist militancy are widely circulated within left-wing (social) media, they have not penetrated into a public discourse that is dominated by right-wing media and a libertarian ethos.


Conditions of right-wing state and media capture do not necessarily stave off forms of antifascist resistance from below. In his presentation, Anti-Fascism in Illiberal Democracy: An Eastern European Perspective,” Grzegorz Piotrowski demonstrates how the activity of an ultra-nationalist government in Poland sparked greater antifascist mobilization. The policies of the far-right government served as a catalyst to move antifascist activism from a subcultural sphere into the mainstream ostensibly without watering down the ideology or militancy of the movement. Piotrowski notes that the rightward turn in Polish politics led to a revival of formal antifascist groups and the emergence of new ones, increased intersectionality both within antifa groups and the broader left, and mainstream acceptance of aspects of militant antifascism. The last of these was evident in the mainstream press, which reprinted an antifascist pamphlet and published a feature that presented instruction on how to dress for a demonstration featuring a photo of a person in “black bloc” attire with suggestions for specific materials to avoid detection and harm. Respondents to a survey of attendees at an antifascist demonstration indicated that they were motivated to attend by the actions of the state as much as their direct opposition to fascist street movements.


Contemporary militant antifascism’s greatest appeal and success has generally been in the cultural realm. As Schumacher’s presentation indicates, part of the widespread appeal of antifascism in Germany came from cultural engagement which produced an aesthetic that had mass appeal. As James Tracy points out in his presentation, “Very Popular Fronts: Music and Anti-Fascism in the 1930s,” music is a key component of antifascist culture. Music provides a means of spreading antifascist messages to build a base of support for the movement as well as an expression of the antifascist sentiments of musicians. Tracy notes the ubiquity of the antifascist anthem “Bella Ciao,” which has been performed and recorded by hundreds of musicians, as indicative of the power of music to transcend time and space while conveying a message of resistance to fascism. At the intersection of music, subculture, and identity, Mariel Acosta-Matos’s presentation, “The Anti-Fascist Politics and Practices of NYC Latinx Punks,” reinforces antifascism as a focal concern of contemporary punk subculture. The antifascism of Latinx punks reflects a positionality of race, class, and subculture by drawing crucial internal distinctions within the local scene and external concerns of a society marked by right-wing politics predicated on xenophobia and racism against Latinx people. Punk lyrics, imagery, and practices demonstrate a militant antifascism that is not only resistant to the violence of the far-right within the subculture and society at large but that also has an ability to build ties with communities targeted by fascists. Performances outside of the traditional venues of bars and music halls such as community centers provide an opportunity for punks to build ties that are crucial for meaningful antifascist resistance.


No discussion of militant antifascism would be complete without addressing the strategy and tactics of the movement. In “Tactical Violence: Militant Anti-Fascist Movement Repertoires and Meaning,” Heather-Ann Layth presents an overview of the tactical repertoire of the antifascist movement including doxxing, black blocs, property destruction, and violence against fascists. Layth notes the importance of sarcasm and rhetorical subtlety when discussing more militant tactics as a means of shielding individuals from potential legal repercussions. The diversity of tactics deployed by antifascist activists is in service of a no-platform strategy that seeks to undercut fascist recruitment and mobilization.


A key tool in the antifascist tactical repertoire is the use of force against fascist activists and mobilizations. Antifascist activists have relied on a distinct moral justification for their use of force that German activists call “militanz” (as discussed in Ali Jones’s presentation mentioned above). Jones notes: “in practice, this means that countering Nazi fascism and neo-Nazism, neo-fascism… can happen by whatever means necessary, up to and including the use of violence; but that violence must be limited very, very specifically against specific targets and only when connected to an explicit moralized justification.” Antifascist violence, therefore, must have a clear purpose which can be easily communicated to the public as discussed above. It must be clear that antifascist violence serves as a form of community self-defense in the absence of state protection and in the service of a direct-democratic vision of social organization. To that end, Stanislav Vysotsky’s presentation, “In-Sourcing Violence: Anti-Fascism, Anarchism, and Community Self-Defense,” theorizes that antifascist violence appropriates the role of community defense from the state as a reflection of anti-authoritarian or anarchist vision. Rather than relying on the state’s monopoly of force as a form of protection against fascist violence, a hallmark of the liberal antifascist position, antifascist activists in-source violence and become responsible for their own and their community’s security. Such actions inevitably challenge the state by undermining a key principle for its justification—the monopoly on the use of force. In doing so, antifascists are clearly positioned in a three-way fight against the violence of the far-right and that of the state[ML1] .


Critical Remarks on Liberal Antifascism


The conference organizers deserve credit for providing a platform for discussions of militant antifascism, for such discussions remain rare in academic forums. However, setting aside the question of the diversity of tactics, the discussions did not necessarily disambiguate the uses of the term antifascism


We have already sketched some basic differences between militant and liberal forms of antifascism. At this point we may further differentiate the two around their respective theoretical and practical points of focus. Militant antifascism “goes where they go,” and arose to combat street-level or (potentially) mass organizing and recruitment by fascist groups. The three-way fight perspective, for example, rejects the characterization of fascist organizing as street-level shock troops commanded by an extreme faction of capitalists; instead, it defines fascism as a relatively autonomous, potentially mass insurgent social force. Whether or not they agree with the foregoing definition, militant approaches generally focus on the street-level, on-the-ground organizing of those groups. 


Now, while liberal antifascists came to participate in united front or popular front actions in the last few years, the liberal perspective has a very different practical focus, which was evident at the conference: electoral strategies and policy. Antifascist theory must address the complex relationships between political parties and fascism as an insurgent (potentially) mass social force, but the differences between militant and liberal approaches shake out when we examine their practical answers to fighting fascism. Militant antifascism employs a diversity of tactics to combat fascism. The liberal antifascist discussions circled around electoral strategies and policies which have the potential for “challenging the appeal of fascism” (as one panel was called). And while militant antifascism has, or ought to have, a revolutionary horizon, liberal perspectives seek to salvage the American project, or, as they say, “build electoral power.”


For example, in her talk, “Neoliberalism and the Counter Resistance in the U.S.: Reflections on the Public Private Distinction,” Deborah L. Spencer defends a reformist type of antifascism that is not, as previous presenters asserted, “anticapitalist,” but “anti-free market capitalism.” She argues that the appeal of fascism would be undermined by a return to “managed capitalism” that was patterned on the social welfare state which has been largely dismantled under neoliberalism. 


We recall scanning the audience and almost everyone in attendance was nodding in agreement. However, there remain numerous problems with the idea that the threat of fascism can be extinguished by implementing certain redistributive policies. First of all, fascism is not merely the product of economic policy. Second, Spencer’s analysis, by presenting social welfare merely in terms of policy choices, occludes the political and material conditions with which it co-existed, such as segregation and a military-industrial economy premised on expansive American imperialism. Drawing from more specific recent examples, she presents the privatization of the military or of prisons as symptoms of authoritarianism, rather than examining these institutions as themselves instruments of oppression and social control. Finally, she presents a schematic history of “ongoing resistance,” though resistance to what is unclear aside from a suggestion that it is resistance to neoliberalism. This supposed history spans from the 1950s, with General Electric “caring for employees,” through the Civil Rights movement and Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s, through the anti-war movement in the 1970s, to the Zapatistas! Yet these examples are not part of one cohesive arc of progress. The social movements Spencer cites were—or had significant radical factions that were—directly opposed to the American project that she seeks to salvage. 


Spencer’s presentation represents a particular liberal antifascist tendency focused on public policy. Adolph Reed Jr.’s keynote address presents a tendency closer to a social democratic alternative that is to the left of the tendency represented by Spencer, but one which is still distant from the revolutionary horizons of militant antifascism.


Reed defends an approach to race and class that is at odds with militant approaches, and within militant circles his work is not influential. However, in a recent review of The South (Reed’s most recent book), John Garvey illuminates how Reed could have been considered as a candidate for the keynote. He characterizes Reed’s recent work as a form of “popular front radicalism.” But popular frontism is notoriously slippery; during the 1930s it was born of political expediency rather than principle, when the Communist International instructed communists of Western countries to form broad, mass-based antifascist coalitions against supposedly narrow, extreme factions of capitalists fomenting fascist movements. The risk in a popular front, then as now, is that radical initiatives are diluted within the defence of liberal democracy.


Yet Reed remains to some degree a curious choice as a keynote speaker. The title of the address itself announces a shift of emphasis from fascism to authoritarianism: “How Serious is the Authoritarian Threat in the U.S., and What Can We Do About It?” (we rely on the text of the talk as reproduced here). Though Reed immediately answers that the threat is indeed serious, his framework treats fascists as one group within a larger right-wing movement or fascism as a synonym for authoritarianism. Rather than clarifying what fascism—an already contested term—means, he reorients the audience toward a critical view of the development of electoral strategies within right-wing authoritarianism. The bulk of his argument involves a historical analysis that intertwines the development of right-wing authoritarianism along with the Democratic Party’s embrace of neoliberalism and (although the phrase does not appear in the text) identity politics. 


Reed then concludes that in the midst of a crisis in neoliberal hegemony, “there are only two possible directions forward politically: one is toward social democracy and pursuit of solidaristic, downwardly redistributive policy agendas within a framework of government in the public good; the other is toward authoritarianism that preserves the core neoliberal principle of accumulation by dispossession by suppressing potential opposition” (We have placed emphasis on the dilemma that excludes the revolutionary horizon). To combat authoritarianism, he contends, the left must reconstitute a popular working-class movement which has been absent from the political terrain for decades. Here, indeed, is where popular front politics gets slippery and where the lack of clear definitions of terms like fascismworking-class, or left movement allow a broadly antifascist audience to read their perspectives into Reed’s argument. 


We will identify two major problems. The first concerns Reed’s treatment of class and race. We asked a few participants what they took away from Reed’s talk, and while their answers provide only anecdotal evidence, they generally understood Reed to have argued that leftist electoral strategies must be refocused on working-class issues rather than special interests.[2] That message, in a sense, is what Reed is known for; but there was also for some the implication that antifascist theory had not engaged in class analysis. However, while major liberal antifascist philosophical work on fascism (Umberto Eco or Jason Stanley) does not consider class in depth, class has been a concern for militant approaches, especially ongoing and long-standing debates within the three-way fight position, which seek to untangle how class and race are intertwined—how, for example, racism or sexism factored into the formation of a white, male, worker elite which has been mythologized in the image of the “average worker.” Hence, when conference discussions pivoted toward building a hegemonic block that appealed precisely to this unexamined “average worker,” the horizon of militant antifascism appeared as distant as the New York City skyline. We can’t get at a real class analysis without demythologizing this “average worker.”


Furthermore, while Reed upholds a strong leftist movement as the antidote to fascism, the scope of his strategy is far closer to liberal antifascism, and its electoralism and reformism, than the revolutionary horizon of militant antifascism. If we return to our initial definition of fascism, as a relatively autonomous, potentially mass insurgent social force, we should also recall that Don Hamerquist’s essay, “Fascism and Antifascism,” notes that the real danger of far-right movements is that “they might gain a mass following among potentially insurgent workers and a declassed strata through an historic default of the left.”[3]


While both Hamerquist and Reed acknowledge this historic default of the left, their perspectives share little practical ground. Hamerquist was referring to the default of the revolutionary left. By contrast, Reed sees the terrain as encompassing two competing visions that might forge a path beyond neoliberalism—but in his view they are competing for institutional hegemony within the American system. As a consequence, only in passing does he examine street-level far-right movements, and when he does, it is telling that he treats them as “rubes,” duped by an authoritarian elite—and thus his treatment is not far from the original popular front conception of fascist mass movements. Furthermore, Reed does not address militant antifascism.


Militant antifascism fights fascism on the ground because struggle at the street-level puts a cost on fascist organizing, a cost which is often high enough to undermine the far-right’s ability to normalize itself in existing social institutions. A few down election cycles will not defeat far-right social movements; at the moment, it appears they are reorganizing around politicizing the latent transphobia and misogyny that suffuse contemporary social life in the United States and elsewhere. Ultimately, though, the greatest distance between Reed’s popular front radicalism and militant antifascism lies in the scope of their respective practices. We have mentioned the revolutionary horizon several times. In his “Seven Theses on the Three-Way Fight,” D.Z. Shaw writes: “a revolutionary horizon is a necessary component to antifascist organizing; that is, there is no meaningful way in which fascism can be permanently defeated without overthrowing the conditions which give rise to it: capitalism and white supremacy, and in North America, settler-colonialism.” The revolutionary fight is not against merely one implementation of capitalism, such as neoliberalism, but capitalism itself; its strategy is not electoral strategy, but broader social struggle—while it may lack a mass base at the moment, it has shown that it can combat and undermine the strength of far-right organizing. 


To summarize: in our view, an underlying popular front radicalism guided the conversations at the conference and framed the reception of the various panels. Yet it was important to convene a conference dedicated to antifascism in the twenty-first century, so that participants could get a snapshot of what antifascism—and the challenges around organizing to fight fascism—looked like in late 2022. The next challenge is to examine the contested terrain of popular or everyday antifascism, by confronting the disagreements and contradictions between the two major schools of thought: liberal antifascism and militant antifascism.

[1] Bray, Antifa, 172.

[2] When supposed ‘working-class issues’ are left undefined, they default to the concerns of the putative average ‘white worker.’ As David Roediger points out, this recentering of whiteness is not far from conservative Democrats’ ideology (frankly, in other words, this recentering of whiteness defaults to the ideology of the American settler-colonial project): “In popular usage, the very term worker often presumes whiteness (and maleness), as in conservative Democrats’ calls for abandoning ‘special interests’ and returning the party to policies appealing to the ‘average worker’—a line of argument that blissfully ignores the fact that the ‘average worker’ is increasingly Black, Latino, Asian, and/or female.” See Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. Revised Edition (London: Verso, 1999), 19.

[3] Hamerquist, “Fascism and Antifascism,” in Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement. Second Edition (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2017), 29.