Now the United States is seeing a similar wave of this European-style political street violence (and similar debates about equivalences). Prominent public intellectuals like Judith Butler have also weighed in on the usefulness of violence. Dartmouth historian Mark Bray’s new book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook traces today’s transnational anti-fascist tradition all the way back to the 1920s.
Antifa is billed as both a history and a handbook, and Bray’s aim is to present an accessible genealogy of today’s militant anti-fascist movement. This book is an important baseline for discussions of today’s headline-grabbing protests. However, Bray’s history largely skims over the real inception of modern antifa — the European leftist groups of the 1960s and ’70s. For an evaluation of anti-fascist tactics, a closer look at this period is necessary.
Bray’s history begins in the interwar period. The original fascist movement, led by Benito Mussolini, first took power in Italy in the course of the early 1920s; the German Weimar Republic succumbed to the Nazi Party in 1933. Later, the Francoist regime took over Spain at the end of that decade after a tragic Civil War. On the other hand, in Great Britain, the British Union of Fascists failed — miserably — to take power.
In Bray’s telling, these events basically have their origins in the differing tactics of political groups on the left. In Germany and Italy, large socialist and communist movements underestimated the fascist threat; in Britain and France, more militant tactics won the day.
But this account is too simplistic. In the end, it was conservatives— Paul von Hindenburg in Germany, Victor Emmanuel III in Italy — who gave the main fascist movements the keys to the kingdom. In a context of extreme social and political breakdown, those who truly enabled fascism were of the right; recognizing this reminds us that the left never operates under conditions strictly of its own making and that historical action is always also about the reactions and appraisals of other powerful institutions. Left-wing militancy — or lack thereof — was not the primary issue determining the success of fascist movements when they took over, or didn’t, in Italy, Germany, and Britain.
Bray moves quickly from anti-fascism in the 1920s and ’30s to anti-fascism in the ’80s, with the case of British groups serving as a “bridge.” In this telling, an unbroken lineage of postwar groups kept the flame of militant anti-fascism alive, but now they were far more successful. Modern antifa emerged, influenced by anarchism and adopting decentralized models of organizing. Yet historical reference points that don’t feature in Antifa might lead to other conclusions.
Modern antifa has only tenuous, largely imagined sources in the interwar tradition. Instead, it emerged primarily as a project of the radical left in the late 1960s, and has remained an important dimension of far-left organizing ever since, gaining in appeal not just in response to the far right but also as revolutionary ambitions retreated. As Salar Mohandesi has argued, many of the tactics of contemporary antifa date to this period.
Bray claims that anti-fascism was not a significant dimension of French leftism from 1960 to 1980. But French leftist groups like the Ligue Communiste and the Maoist group La Gauche prolétarienne engaged in organizing against racism and fascism and mounted spectacular militant actions; so did successor groups. Nor is it true that German anti-fascism went underground between the 1960s and the ’80s: there was a steady heartbeat of militant organizing and demonstrations against the neo-fascist NPD in West Germany. Groups active in militant anti-fascist organizing in Germany during this time included the Maoist K-Gruppen, the Frankfurter Spontis, and the Turkish radical left. Before autonomist, anarchist-leaning movements took up anti-fascist action, it was already a major preoccupation of the radical left.
These groups explicitly declared themselves anti-fascist, and contemporary antifa looks a lot more like them than like the combat groups of the 1930s. In fact, even before the autonomist movements of the late 1970s and ’80s, some European radical groups had already started to resemble today’s antifa demonstrators: they wore motorcycle helmets, masks, and handkerchiefs, carried Molotov cocktails, projectiles, and pickaxe handles or iron bars as standard confrontation equipment, and they had developed a sophisticated repertoire of mobile tactics for confronting both police and the extreme right. Antifa largely takes the perspective that continental autonomist groups emerged without immediate precedents — a perspective strikingly at odds with the overall thesis of the book. But in reality, as sympathetic analysts and even autonomist writers have documented, they were working out the consequences and limitations of the 1968 movements.
A close look at this period also reveals recurring controversies over tactics internal to the left. The French and Italian Communist Parties and the German Social Democratic Party generally rejected the strategy of street confrontation pursued by Trotskyists, anarchists, and Maoist groups; in Italy and France prominent unions did their best to prevent workers from following along. The leadership of the major left parties of the day valued demonstrations and strikes but saw violent incidents as a political opportunity for their adversaries, one that allowed the right to claim the mantle of public order and security.
It was not just bureaucrats that objected. In France in 1970, the most fashionable French group of the day, La Gauche prolétarienne, exalted a “New Resistance” and engaged in soaring anti-fascist and revolutionary rhetoric alongside confrontational demonstrations. Heterodox Marxist Guy Debord considered the group to be engaged in “objective collusion” with the government by furnishing the convenient spectacle of disorder.
These highly visible demonstrations did indeed draw a powerful backlash: “street fighting men” served as one of the premises for a number of repressive moves by conservative governments. State surveillance of dissenters increased, and controversial new police equipment and tactics were introduced. More police were hired, and new legislation was passed that restricted public protests. The militant anti-fascist conflict strategy did not always go according to plan; it did not allow them to break out of political isolation either.
After the end of World War II, most movements that explicitly identified as fascist or redeployed fascist appeals were marginal groups on the outskirts of the political process. Bray frames this as a sign of effective anti-fascist militant organizing, but it is just as plausible that postwar fascism was orders of magnitude less dangerous than fascism during the interwar period because Europeans now inhabited a fundamentally anti-fascist political culture.
But in recent years, far-right groups have found increasing political success. Modern groups like the Front National in France do not deploy overtly fascistic language or themes to the same extent as their predecessors; furthermore, they have risen to power through more traditional political channels rather than movement-building based on overt displays of masculine violence, allowing them to largely elude the web of militant anti-fascist organizing.
The groups interviewed by Bray feared that their focus on overt fascists — the obvious bullies — put them in danger of missing a far more politically threatening phenomenon. Here is an excerpt from SCALP-REFLEX, a French militant anti-fascist group that disbanded in 2014 after 25 years of action:
Street anti-fascism (demonstrations, marches, etc.) today is at an impasse: either it confronts extreme right groups that are politically insignificant, but physically dangerous; or it tries to confront organizations that are politically significant and finds itself faced with parties that are not only absent from the street, but are by this point well integrated into the political game, sustained by law enforcement, and perceived as legitimate by the population.
The thoughtful engagement of many of the interviewees offers a powerful rebuttal to the common demonization of antifa protesters as violently inclined youth looking for an adrenaline rush. The interviews and communiqués also show an important level of reflexivity and attention to process that does not come off in mainstream pastiches about black-masked counter-demonstrators.
But quotes like these raise another point: Bray’s desire to legitimate the most militant of tactics in the United States seems like it is distinctly out of phase with anti-fascist reflections in Europe on the new threat. After all, if many contemporary European anti-fascists are reconsidering the broader efficacy of physical confrontations in the street, what are we to make of the full-scale defense of it in the United States since January? Isn’t the most dangerous political extremism today the official sort, and the fundamental problem that of state power and those who make the policies? Aren’t groups like the “alt-right” largely a sideshow?
It is also worth considering that some of today’s mainstream far-right parties grew from the ashes of the fascist groups defeated by militant leftists in the 1970s. The Front National was founded in 1972; it gained influence after Ordre Nouveau was banned following the violent clash described above. This new, rebranded movement put on a more and more moderate face, and over the years formed a powerful coalition of right-wing groups focused on winning elections. Did this happen in spite of militant anti-fascist tactics? Or was it partially unopposed because of the focus on the more obvious physical threats?
Bray persuasively argues that nonviolence resistance scholars — who have presented their findings as if they definitively proved that protest violence is counterproductive — have overemphasized the implications of their research. Since their research methodology has conflated violence and armed insurgency, the results cannot be used to draw conclusions about protest tactics like the “Black Bloc” or the confrontational style of antifa, who aren’t in the business of armed struggle.
Yet a collection of success stories revealed by anonymous informants is unlikely to establish another paradigm for understanding protest violence. While it may seem absurd to defend street confrontations via statistical aggregation, it would doubtlessly be more subversive of both social scientific debate and mainstream common sense.
Antifa also makes the important point that protest movements have a legitimate stake in defending their members from external aggression. But as Bray acknowledges, the concept of militant self-defense has sometimes been used to justify offensive violence. Because antifa is a decentralized, anonymous tactic, there are relatively few safeguards or mechanisms of accountability. Another potential objection is that when anti-fascists physically humiliate adversaries who have paramilitary training and weapons and whose ideology exalts violence, they render more likely an escalation they are ill-suited to confront. Bray does not provide a compelling answer to these objections.
Antifa is written from a commendable place of engagement and provides a serviceable genealogy for militant anti-fascism in the present, and Bray’s often well-reasoned defense of controversial tactics should and will make the critics reflect. The book is at its best when criticizing the liberal view that official democratic institutions alone are sufficient to prevent a fascist seizure of power. But Bray misses opportunities to convincingly rebut skeptics. A closer, more critical look at modern antifa’s inception in the 1960s and ’70s reveals some of the pitfalls of militant organizing, and a truly credible analysis of anti-fascist protest tactics would need to pay much closer attention to this period. Deeper historical analysis would ultimately help to join the moral urgency of anti-fascism to an assessment of effective practices.
Luca Provenzano is a PhD candidate in History at Columbia University.