The Anti-fascist movement—often abbreviated as Antifa—has been around since fascists first came to power in the early 1900s. But more recently, beginning with the election of President Donald Trump, Antifa has gained a foothold in American political discourse that it hasn’t held in almost a century. This is particularly true on college campuses, where anti-fascists have used their famous “direct-action strategy” (Bray, xiv) to prevent Far Right speakers from erasing the existence of marginalized students. With colleges beginning to reopen for fall semester, it’s important for us to revisit why Antifa is an indispensible organization in the fight against violent speech on campuses, as well as in the broader war to dismantle systems of oppression.
In his prescient tour de force, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, Rutgers University history professor Mark Bray sets out to define “Antifa,” and to defend the confrontational tactics that have made the group infamous in Far Right circles. With all the misconceptions about anti-fascism, it’s crucial for someone like Bray to clarify what it’s all about by giving us an “insider’s look at the movement…” (Bray, fourth cover). Thankfully, he provides multiple definitions of it in the introduction.
First, Bray defines “anti-fascism” as the antithesis of the classical liberal maxim: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Bray, xv). Several sentences later, he defines it as “an illiberal politics of social revolution applied to fighting the Far Right, not only literal fascists” (Bray, xv). On the next page, he defines it as “simply one of a number of manifestations of revolutionary socialist politics (broadly construed)” (Bray, xvi). On the next page, he defines it as “a solitary component of a larger legacy of resistance to white supremacy in all its forms” (Bray, xvii). Soon after, he defines it as “an argument about the historical continuity between different eras of far-right violence and the many forms of self-defense that it has necessitated across the globe over the past century” (Bray, xix).
Some might claim that it’s ill-advised for Bray to define “anti-fascism” in so many different ways. Others might even argue that it cheapens the lived experiences of those who resisted explicitly fascist regimes. However, as Bray astutely points out, anti-fascism isn’t just about fighting fascism; it’s about fighting all forms of domination, and the systems that uphold them (Bray, xxiv). Domination is always wrong, and folx need to have access to the right tools to fight against it in every context. Bray’s generous assortment of definitions provide anti-fascists the freedom to choose whichever one fits the particular form of domination that afflicts them at any given time—whether it be Nazi Gestapo or the TERF from your yoga class.
Bray presents a robust defense of today’s anti-fascists by focusing acutely on the battle for college campuses. He starts by conceding that anti-fascists preventing speakers from speaking does, in fact, infringe on the speaker’s freedom of speech. But he reminds us that “this infringement is justified for its role in the political struggle against fascism” (Bray, pg.153). It is this appeal to the political struggle that explains why it is laudable for anti-fascist college students to counter the Far Right by utilizing “direct-action” strategies—like hurling molotov cocktails at police for protecting a Breitbart columnist, hospitalizing a professor for escorting a visiting conservative sociologist to his speaking event, or sending death threats to a white postgrad for having dreadlocks. You’ll hear a lot of Fox-News-types characterize these actions as being “violent,” but they are only violent insofar as they prevent Far Right figures from perpetuating their discursive violence. In other words, “Antifa act out of collective self-defense” (Bray, xvi).
It’s also imperative for us to remember that the fight against Fascism and the Far Right is a multi-generational struggle. As the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot eloquently describes it “The past—or more accurately, pastness—is a position. Thus in no way can we identify the past as the past” (Bray, xii). In this vein, if we look beyond the trans-exclusionary worldviews of our grandfathers, we can admire the bravery it took for many of them to risk their (admittedly cis) bodies on the beaches of Normxndy and in the fields of the Rhineland to defend the world against Hitler’s genocidal fascism. Risking our own bodies by smashing the windows of the Student Union when Ben Shapiro comes to campus, and leaving the shards for the custodians to clean up, is simply the continuation of Antifa’s rich and honorable past(ness).
Bray goes on to problematize the idea, originally articulated by the white-cishet-male philosopher John Stuart Mill, that hearing arguments you disagree with strengthens your ability to refute them, and even solidifies your reasons for holding your own beliefs (Love, pg. 64). This is racist. Or as Bray puts it, it “suggests…presenting pro- and anti- slavery perspectives…as equally legitimate moral positions…” (Bray, pg.160). Mill, from his position of privilege, is unable to acknowledge marginalized folx who are rendered invisible every day on American university campuses. The outrage of BIPOC students when a historian deleteriously argues against affirmative action; the indignation of nonbinary students when a biologist recklessly discusses the tired concept of biological sex; the anguish of female-identifying students when an economist violently questions the gender-wage gap—none of this dehumxnization seems to concern Mill or his contemporary acolytes. They callously fail to recognize how bigoted it is to suggest that minoritized students at elite colleges should be capable of dealing with unpleasant figures speaking on their campus. They even have the audacity to assume that some minoritized students might actually want to hear, evaluate, and question these controversial views themselves—a quintessentially white supremacist idea, to be sure.
In response to Bray’s trenchant comparison of liberals to slavery apologists, some political moderates might ask what their place is in all this. A presumptuous Karen, for instance, might interrupt your post-resistance stroll through Whole Foods to say “I’m totally against fascism and racism, but I think free speech is important. What can I do to be an ally?” Bray masterfully preempts this weaponization of white womxn tears, and removes any uncertainty that might have remained with a rhetorical coup de grace: “the question is not about establishing a neutral line beyond which right-wing politics cannot cross, but about entirely transforming society by tearing down oppression in all its forms” (Bray, pg.156).
Essentially, you’re either on board with total revolution, or you’re with the Einsatzgruppen. There’s no space for moderation when it comes to fighting systems of oppression, because to moderately dismantle an oppressive system is oxymoronic. Switzerland played it moderate during World War II, and now their country has devolved into a cesspool of noxious whiteness. We don’t have to be like Switzerland. There is another way; a better way.
The Antifa movement is not just necessary for countering President Trump and for preventing the verbal violence perpetrated by Far Right speakers on college campuses. It is also a crucial movement for us to liberate ourselves from the bondage of capitalism; to throw off the binds of white supremacy; to break the chains of hetero-normativity; and to bring about a classless, genderless, whitenessless, and therefore conflictless society where minoritized folx and their allies finally get to share the living space they’ve been deprived of for so long.
- Love, Nancy. Dogmas and Dreams: A Reader in Modern Political Ideologies. Congressional Quarterly Press, 2011.
- Bray, Mark. Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. Melville House Publishing, 2017.
Author’s note: I wrote this satirical essay for one of my classes. It’s not supposed to be satirical, but my professor called my favorite philosopher (John Stuart Mill) a “self satisfied misogynist.” I couldn’t let that stand.