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.