Since the Aug. 12 Nazi terror attack in Virginia, there has been an ongoing discussion about the role of the so-called “Antifa” (a portmanteau of “anti-fascist) grouping on the left, which has been described alternately as heroic (by many on the left) and as bad as the Nazis (by those on the extreme right, including the hopefully-soon-to-be-ex president). Unfortunately, the voices at either of these two poles seem to be the loudest, drowning out alternate perspectives, of which there are many.
The question that keeps coming to the fore is best simplified as: Is Antifa good or bad? Many answer the question “yes” or “no,” without actually describing what “good” and “bad’ mean. Those on the right have it easier, though: there is a general understanding on that side that “bad” means simply “alt-left,” some sort of left-wing, communist version of the Nazis.
Anyone of good conscience should reject out of hand this answer, mostly coming from the Nazi and Trump sections of the right. Unfortunately, though, there are some in the center who take this line as well, that Antifa is somehow related to the Nazis, because “both use violence.” First, it’s not normally the case that Antifa is violent, even if their rallies are generally provocative. Second, however, is the more crucial point: Antifa’s worldview is dramatically different than the Nazis or the KKK or the other fascists. The latter seek either a return to the days of slavery, the extermination of Blacks or Jews and/or others, a fascist dictatorship, or some combination of these evils. Antifa is generally dominated by anarchists (with a few other leftists thrown in) and their worldview is of a planet without racial hatred, where people live in peace and harmony. Further, just like any American should – especially the brave kids, boys who were forced to become men much too early – who risked or even gave their lives when fascism gripped Europe – they hate Nazis. They hate genocide. They hate racism.
To put it bluntly, there is absolutely no moral equivalence there. Even in regards to their tactics, there is no moral equivalence: the video of Jason Kessler fleeing after Antifa and other outraged humans became fed up with his justification of evil and went after him is indeed enjoyable. Who doesn’t feel, in their gut, some degree of satisfaction watching someone who talks of Jewish conspiracies and organized a march of genocide lovers being taken to task? While some clutch their pearls over this violence, we should remember that World War II wasn’t a peaceful get together, especially not in Dresden.
Perhaps it is a moral wrong to attack Nazis and their colleagues; I generally tend to view violence against political opponents as something to avoid. Still, even if one concedes this point, it is absurd to say that people fighting Nazis are as bad as Nazis. There is simply no moral argument to be made to equate the two sides. This is especially the case given the events in Charlottesville, where the supposedly violent (though it was the “Unite the Right” supporters who showed up with weapons, for the most part) Antifa supporters have been credited by Cornel West and a number of clergy members as saving lives. And it should be obvious that it was not an Antifa adherent who drove a car into a crowd of people, killing an innocent protester (not herself Antifa) and 19 others.
Obviously, equating Nazis and the anarchists in Antifa as somehow morally similar is wrong, even repugnant. This is an obvious point, one of which even top Republicans are cognizant. Consequently, if we are defining “good” and “bad” as meaning moral and immoral, then Antifa is good and the Nazis are bad. But while the Nazis and their ilk are always bad, there are distinctions to be made regarding Antifa.
Wrong in a different way
While Antifa is morally good in its outrage against Nazis and other fascist types, it is horrible in other ways. As I mentioned above, and wrote before, Antifa is for the most part a grouping of anarchists, who see all authority as bad. While I’m generalizing (I’m sure someone from an Antifa group will take me to task for this, rightly), they see anarchist forms of struggle, most especially direct action and and anti-Nazi street fighting as the way to defeat the fascists and the Trump administration. This is their strategy.
In my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, there was a beautiful demonstration on August 13, the day after the Virginia violence. Up to 1,000 people came out in this city of 190,000 on hours’ notice to stand in solidarity with all those targeted, most especially people of color, by the fascists and their enabler, the Trump administration. Towards the end of the rally, Antifa showed up, its members dressed in the well known black clothing and masks, looking as if they had been standing in line for the past 30 years waiting for a Subhumans concert. Just as the rally was about to end, they illegally took to the streets, provoked the police, and marched around chanting their slogans. Of course, the daily newspaper covered the event discussing how anarchists had taken over the rally. The local alt-right blog used the Antifa actions as a way to paint the mayor, who spoke at the rally, as somehow connected to left-wing fanatics and to generally downplay the significance of the rally.
Antics like those described above are the problem with Antifa. The task right now isn’t to be as militant as we can be, or to make ourselves feel good by playing at revolution. The task is to stop the drift to the very extreme right. To do that, the broadest possible coalition of the American people needs to be brought together. I’ve written about this before, and my argument is that this coalition, especially during the Trump administration’s openly authoritarian and KKK-embracing drift, has to including every single person and section of society that can be united: obviously, it has to include the organizations of people of color and the Jewish community – those most affected – as well as the labor movement, which has taken a good position and is the most organized section of the left/progressive movement that there is, the churches, even, as much as possible, big business and members of Trump’s own party.
The coalition I’m describing above has to be brought together using appropriate tactics. It’s not going to be brought together by the actions of anarchist groupings like Antifa; instead, big sections will be alienated. Again, while it might seem “revolutionary” to throw flags on the ground and dress in black, at least for some people, dividing the left-center-anti-Nazi right movement before it even has a chance to really coalesce is not anti-fascist; it’s the opposite.
Good, sound strategy that can bring together a majoritarian movement against the extremists: that is what we need, and that has generally been the strategy of those who have won social progress in this around the world and in this country, from the 1776 revolution to Rosa Parks to the current day. On Rosa Parks, incidentally, most people have the wrong view, one that puts her closer to Antifa than reality. The sanitized history has Parks getting on the bus, tired, and simply sitting down without any plan, sparking a mass movement against official segregation. In reality, however, Parks and others had organized strategically to win.
Given its tendency to divide the movement, I’d argue that Antifa isn’t, obvjectively speaking, anti-fascist. Indeed, there are many people who are anti-fascist – most Americans certainly – who do not at all identify with Antifa. This is the problem with Antifa.
Don’t get me wrong: I get it. I understand the feeling of wanting to go to Virginia, or wherever the Nazis show up, and work with others to beat them up or throw them out of town, or worse. And I certainly don’t disagree that, when self-defense calls for it, any genuine democrat, by definition an anti-fascist, has every moral and tactical reason to use force, as was reportedly done by the Antifa group in defending the clergy.
I don’t want to disparage individuals, but to disagree with a strategy, the strategy of Antifa. I view this strategy as backwards, objectively leading to the strengthening of the hand of the far right. However, I do know some people who identify themselves as Antifa, and they do legitimately want to fight racism. I mean them no disrespect.
The two sides are in no way equal. The Nazis and Antifa, as Mitt Romney said, are in two different moral universes. The KKK-through-Trump section of the right is evil and immoral, and has to be removed entirely from the political scene. But to do that, we have to employ methods that are very much at odds with the ones Antifa employ, because, on anti-fascist tactics, Antifa gets it wrong (usually).
Image: Bob Mical