April 3, 2018
ark Bray’s Antifa; The Anti-Fascist Handbook is not a scholarly book. It’s a combination of anecdotes and extended thoughts from Western or former Western colonies about “how to do it.” Bray’s most interesting extended thought examines when the use of violent tactics is most appropriate, and concludes that there’s no general rule; it all depends on local circumstances. Representative Keith Ellison was recently photographed carrying a copy of Antifa, so it certainly has some contemporary political significance.
“Antifa” is short for “antifascism,” but Bray, a visiting professor at Dartmouth, doesn’t really define the enemy. Quoting historian Robert Paxton, he classifies fascism as:
a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensating cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Bray never mentions the two most important features of fascism: its revolutionary nature, and its roots in war, primarily the First World War. But I already said that this isn’t a scholarly book. It’s a manual for would-be reshapers of our world, a guide to political action. Basically, for Bray, fascism is what comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth or computer.
What about his own, antifascist movement? Here, there are shorter sentences and clearer definitions. “Anti-fascism is “an illiberal politics of social revolutionism (sic) applied to fighting the Far Right, not only literal fascists…” And its goal?
Destroying fascisn is really about promoting a revolutionary socialist alternative…to a world of crisis, poverty, famine and war that breeds fascist reaction.
Inevitably, we are lectured about race, the current Left’s core issue. Long before Ekow Yankah wrote “Can My Children be Friends With White People” in the New York Times, Antifa offered a polemic against whiteness, while posing as an account of global antifascist movements. Both Yankah and Bray are professors at prestigious universities and both call for the throttling of “white supremacy,” with “white” mostly standing for power rather than skin color. Or does it? Bray enthusiastically quotes W.E.B. Du Bois on the horrors of World War I: “This seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture—back of all culture—stripped and visible today.” To which Bray adds, “as a modern identity forged through slavery and class rule, whiteness is indefensible.”
So we’re not all born white, but you can certainly identify “whiteness.” You can also become white, regardless of skin color. There’s upward mobility. We—like Bray’s Jewish and Irish forbears—can become “white.” But Bray and his colleagues are not interested in prestige and the ability to shape a new generation, they want a “revolutionary socialist alternative,” that will target “sources of white privilege and struggling in solidarity with the disinherited of the world.”
Bray is not a doctrinaire Marxist; his language is simple and straightforward, he’s interested in winning a political struggle, and he recognizes that his enemies are often popular and savvy. He’s clearly ambivalent towards the sort of street violence practiced by the (mostly European) Black Bloc, who disrupt our cities whenever controversial speakers appear or when the World Bank or IMF hold meetings. He rejects the notion that nonviolent action is more effective in building a successful mass movement. But he also rejects the claim, very popular in histories of fascism, that left-wing violence provoked support for the fascists in the twenties and thirties. He suggests that left-wing electoral gains were far more important for the growth of fascist parties.
As you’d expect, his ultimate argument amounts to: if you think your tactic will work, do it, but also build a nonviolent political movement.
Oddly, we don’t hear much about the Bolshevik revolution, or the Maoist or Castro revolutions. Bray’s silence about these important matters tells us a lot about Antifa, because ultimately Bray and his comrades are utopian radicals who invariably lose the debate if the audience comes to believe that they are just running dogs for the revival of communism. If they are to achieve widespread political success, they will have to confront this basic issue.
They’re not likely to succeed. No sensible person believes we are threatened by a massive fascist revival in the West, embodied in Donald Trump. Sensible people know that Antifa’s demonstrations, violent or otherwise, are part of a crazy leftist campaign against free speech and free institutions. You aren’t likely to see big trade unions, let alone a substantial political party, join the “antifascist” movement, because the utopianism Antifa embraces has never worked anywhere. Professor Bray and his ilk don’t have a mass following and aren’t likely to gain one. Their comrades and followers have had success on college campuses and have followers in plenty of newsrooms, but for the most part Americans don’t want them to win.
If you leaf through Antifa and look at the sources and authorities Professor Bray asks us to take as canonical, you’ll be amused at the authorities (largely marginal publications) and baffled that a university professor could ask us to take seriously the testimony and philosophy of the likes of “Ole from Denmark,” “New Jersey ARA veteran Howie,” or “Daniel, a Carabanchel anti-fascist organizer.” Why should we believe what they say, or give it the status of serious thinking?
Put Antifa on your “lost causes” bookshelf.