Anti-Fascism Beyond the Headlines: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore Interviews Mark Bray
By Mattilda Bernstein SycamoreDecember 11, 2017
Antifa is part history, part instigation. Bray doesn’t offer a neutral historian’s overview of militant anti-fascism. Instead, he seeks to provide a resource that will aid the activists on the front lines of the fight against white supremacy.
While the election of Trump may have brought virulent strains of racism, nationalism, misogyny, and patriarchal fervor into the national spotlight, the left-wing resistance has also become more visible. In one particularly sensational example, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, masked black bloc activists smashed the windows of a limousine in Washington, DC, lighting it on fire as members of the media swarmed around them. Actions like these captivate many on the radical left with their audacity and symbolism, but draw the ire of liberals and conservatives alike.
Meanwhile, slogans such as “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA” have become routine at protests, and a sophisticated intersectional critique of Trump’s America is thriving on the left, mapping the links between Islamophobia and transphobia, white supremacy and militarism, ableism and imperialism. But mainstream media coverage of antifa has been simplistic. “Despite a complete lack of historical or theoretical knowledge,” Bray writes, “pundits concluded that anti-fascism is a greater threat to free speech than even fascism itself.”
Antifa offers a rebuttal to rhetoric that equates opposition to fascism with fascism itself. The book is incisive and meticulous, methodical and shrewd. It has already influenced the public debate, shifting us away from media hysteria about black-clad anarchists and toward a conversation about how to prevent fascism from taking hold — in the home, in the streets, and in the halls of government.
MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: In Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, you’re not just presenting a historian’s view, but advocating for militant anti-fascism — including the use of force when necessary — to challenge white supremacist violence in this country. While a book like this might be expected to circulate on the radical left, it’s extremely rare to see such an unabashed radical stance in mainstream media. What do you think has made this possible?
MARK BRAY: The publication of the book and the subsequent media attention it garnered were the direct results of the tumultuous political landscape created by the emergence of the alt-right and the Trump presidency. When anti-fascists smashed windows to shut down Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley, the media elevated the infamous antifa to the national stage for the first time. But it was really Charlottesville, and the tragic murder of Heather Heyer by one of the “Unite the Right” fascists that made the book especially, and unfortunately, relevant. The media frenzy around these events even opened up a brief window where militant anti-fascism received a somewhat objective hearing in response to Trump’s bizarre remarks that there were good people on “both sides” of the issue.
Certainly, it’s unusual for a book that explicates and supports a politics of direct action beyond the state or the police to make it onto best-seller lists. Given the historical and current threat that white supremacist and fascist groups pose, it’s clear to me that organized, collective self-defense is not only a legitimate response, but lamentably an all-too-necessary response to this threat on too many occasions.
I’m fascinated by an interview on MSNBC where you were featured alongside Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which could be seen as the mainstream equivalent of antifa, since they also monitor and track the activities of white supremacists in this country, but as a funded nonprofit. In your MSNBC conversation, Cohen says that physically confronting Nazis is counterproductive because the police and law enforcement will protect protesters. Why on earth do you think that the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center would call for trust in notoriously racist police departments as a way to protect people from white supremacist violence?
It was an odd argument to make days after the police were MIA in Charlottesville as hundreds of armed neo-Nazis attacked anti-racist counterprotesters. Clergy including Cornel West famously credited antifa with saving their lives. Also, you’d think we would have learned from Black Lives Matter. Shortly before the question of antifa confrontations with the alt-right captured the attention of the media, the burning political issue of the day was the epidemic of police murder of black people. It’s baffling to turn around after the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and far too many others to argue that the police are a bulwark against white supremacist violence.
But when you reject the notion that we can count on the police to stand up to fascism and white supremacy, that entails a step away from incarceration, a step away from the state, and a step toward building popular alternatives for community self-management from the bottom up. I have no doubt that Cohen and his colleagues at the SPLC recognize the danger of white power and the problematic nature of the police in opposing it, but fully acknowledging the institutionally racist and reactionary nature of the police forces us to journey into political terrain that is beyond the mandate of the SPLC.
In the aftermath of Trump’s election, it was quite common on social media to see people saying that Hitler came to power by force, not through the electoral process, as if to comfort everyone that this was bad, but not that bad. In your book, though, you show how this is really a myth, and that both Mussolini and Hitler were originally fringe characters who were ushered into power by elites who trusted they could control them. How does this compare to Trump?
That’s right. Both Mussolini and Hitler were appointed. They did not storm the gates of power, they were welcomed into office on a red carpet. Anti-fascists have concluded, therefore, that parliamentary government is in no way immune to fascism. On the contrary, most parliamentary governments have emergency measures on the books that allow for the concentration of power in times of “crisis.” That was the case when the German parliament approved the Enabling Act that made Hitler a dictator.
Trump was elected, not appointed, but regardless we can see his inclination toward centralizing power, shutting down dissent, governing through decree, et cetera. In the absence of opposition and vigilance this could be a recipe for further disaster, and we have plenty of disasters as it is. In that way, it can be useful to think of fascism or authoritarianism as spectrums or tendencies that can weave their ways into centrist politics and as anti-fascism as in part a broader opposition to such dangers.
One of the strengths of your book is that you don’t get stuck in a conversation about what is strictly fascist from a historical standpoint, and instead argue that an anti-fascist struggle must fight against both fascist and fascistic politics — fighting against racism, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, et cetera. How does this apply to current-day struggles?
Defining fascism prior to 1945 can be a fraught endeavor, especially since fascists casually adopted and abandoned ideas. Some have even argued that fascism shouldn’t even be considered an ideology. After the war, the range of far-right politics expanded significantly and many essentially fascist organizations distanced themselves from discredited labels like “fascist” and “Nazi.”
So it would be silly for anti-fascists to limit themselves to organizing exclusively against those whose politics exactly reflect Mussolini or Hitler when there have been so many bizarre twists and turns in far-right politics. Rather than getting stuck in history, it’s more useful to let history inform the self-defense efforts of marginalized communities regardless of what semantic games their victimizers engage in.
While it is important to distinguish between different strands of far-right politics and differentiate between fascist and other strains of far-right politics, such differences should inform strategies and tactics, not broader terrains of solidarity and resistance.
Your book is based on interviews with 61 antifa organizers in 17 countries, and I found it striking that everyone you interviewed agreed that machismo is a problem within their organizing. While you mention some strategies for addressing this issue, such as fantifa, or feminist antifa, there’s an unanswered question about what happens when militant anti-fascists mirror oppressive behaviors they seek to challenge. If antifa organizers agree that patriarchy and male supremacy are often central components of fascism, why have they not been more successful in exorcising masculinist behavior from their own work?
The antifa that I interviewed generally acknowledged that they faced the same kinds of patriarchal tendencies as the broader left movements they came from that plagued the societies they lived in. Some recounted anecdotal successes in addressing them, others shared anecdotal failures. In general I considered their comments to be a collective recognition of the difficulties of uprooting internalized oppressive behaviors regardless of context. This is a challenge that faces all movements of resistance in one form or another since we are all inculcated with the values of such a violent and oppressive society. While it’s impossible to know the reality of how groups operate internally, I did get the impression that the role of feminism and queer politics in anti-fascism has become more central over recent years.
To approach this from a different angle, I think some of these issues play out in the media debate about punching Nazis, which started after a video emerged of alt-right leader Richard Spencer getting punched while he was being interviewed in Washington, DC, after Trump’s inauguration. Since then, “punching Nazis” has become a kind of anti-fascist meme among many on the left. The same evening as the Richard Spencer punching incident, an anti-fascist protester was shot by a fan of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in Seattle, and this received very little media coverage in comparison. Do you think that the simplistic conversation about punching Nazis, a tactic often pathologized in the media and glorified among many on the anti-fascist left, draws attention away from deeper structural problems with white supremacist violence?
I think you’re right that although the Spencer punch became a viral meme that helped to legitimate anti-fascist confrontation, there was a tendency to reduce the breadth and depth of anti-fascist politics, the majority of which does not entail physical conflict, to the “trend” of Nazi-punching. So certainly the punch invited more people to participate in the conversation about anti-fascism, but its reception narrowed the scope of the debate by reducing a transnational politics with a century of history to a fad.
To some extent this is how left popular politics tends to work: an incident occurs that generates attention — that incident generates a polarizing response that is over-simplified and decontextualized by the media. The left struggles to reattach the incident to larger systems of domination while the right abstracts it into conflict with an allegedly timeless value like the flag, or in this case freedom of speech.
In the end, however, opponents of anti-fascism have attempted to reduce this proud tradition to a one-dimensional strawman even when the debate has transcended Nazi-punching.
Since most antifa activists operate anonymously, and are therefore not typically available for media interviews, you have become a public voice for a movement even though you are not a part of an antifa group. Does this dynamic ever feel uncomfortable?
All the time. Positionality is really important on the left. What we do is always integrally linked with who we are. Our position in a movement, a community, or a society has everything to do with how we navigate our politics. I also conducted nearly 200 interviews for my first book, Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street, about the role of anarchist politics in Occupy Wall Street in New York, but I wrote that book as a former Occupy Wall Street organizer myself. It felt very different.
In this case I do not have direct experience with antifa. So I try to be as clear as possible that I approach this subject as a historian, writer, and a longtime organizer in other social movements but not as someone who has done this work. The irony is that there are many people around the world who could give a much better firsthand account of the anti-fascist struggle but are reluctant out of fear of police repression and far-right harassment. So the journalists often turn to me. I’ve done what I can to convey the perspectives of those I interviewed and explain why I tend to agree with them. It’s been extremely gratifying to receive numerous messages from antifa that I interviewed, and many that I didn’t, thanking me for articulating their perspectives on their behalf.
It’s interesting to see how your credentials as a Dartmouth instructor legitimize arguments that might otherwise be seen as too fringe to be taken seriously. You describe yourself as a lecturer at Dartmouth, and not a professor, and I assume you mean to call attention to the fraught situation of adjunct faculty, who, even at prestigious universities like Dartmouth, are part of an underpaid contingent labor force without job security. How does this inform your politics?
As you mentioned, I am a lecturer in the History Department at Dartmouth College. This is a temporary appointment, not a tenure-track position. My precarious situation seemed to inform the decision of Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon to publicly denounce my scholarship without taking the time to contact me or my department to understand how he was mischaracterizing and over-simplifying my position. Such a rash decision would have been less likely with a tenured professor. Fortunately, over 120 of my Dartmouth colleagues rallied to my defense in a letter of solidarity in support of my academic freedom.
Nevertheless, most people see me as a “Dartmouth professor” when I’m on TV, and the prestige of the profession, coupled with the reputation of this Ivy League institution, seems to make some people listen to arguments about anti-fascist self-defense that might have otherwise changed the channel. I’m well aware of the many vectors of privilege that I embody as a straight, white, cisgender man from a middle-class background wearing a suit with the Dartmouth logo behind me. It’s tragic that these markers encourage many people to take seriously arguments about fighting back against white supremacists that have been articulated by marginalized communities for generations. But if who I am and how I speak helps to generate some support and solidarity for their struggles then I’ll keep on speaking.
Your book was already a media sensation before you started touring at the beginning of September — how has this affected your tour?
It’s certainly enhanced turnouts and expanded the audience beyond the usual left circles to bring in people who have read my interviews or seen me on TV. It has created really exciting opportunities to stimulate broader conversations about resisting the alt-right. Everywhere I go, I meet organizers involved in a variety of struggles, so in part I hope my tour can help cross-pollinate the movement by allowing me to share the insights and perspectives of groups from different regions. But I’ve also met people who are new to the politics of anti-fascism from really diverse backgrounds and want to get involved after the horrors of Charlottesville. The media attention has generated far more speaking requests than I could ever fulfill, but I have about 50 presentations scheduled this fall around the country.
What have been the most surprising responses so far?
It’s been fascinating to see how the notion of self-defense against white supremacists is so self-evident to those who have been forced to fight back against fascism, yet so alien to those who have been thoroughly indoctrinated with layers of liberal ideology. The notion that you fight back against Nazis is so central in American patriotic folklore, yet this heroic era of struggle has been detached from the need to resist the alt-right today, for many people. Even some conservatives that I’ve spoken to find it easier to understand the terms of debate than many liberal pundits.
And how has all of this attention impacted you — politically, intellectually, and emotionally?
It’s been both exhausting and rewarding to see so many people interested in my work on this urgent topic. But, really, I want to be clear that this should not be about me — it should be about those who are putting themselves on the line to stand up to white supremacy and domination. The point of this project is to shed light on their struggles and situate them within a broader regional and historical context. They’re doing the real emotional, intellectual, and political labor.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of a memoir, The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of a memoir, The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Two new books tell the story of how one alarmed volunteer in L.A.’s Jewish community helped take down Nazi spies in the years leading up to World War...
Mark Bray misses opportunities to convincingly rebut antifa skeptics.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!