If You Want To Understand Anti-Fascist Movements, You Need To Know This History


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NORTHAMPTON, England ― In the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12, there has been a growing public interest with the anti-fascist movement. Anti-fascism is as old as fascism, and it can be defined simply as activity that opposes fascist and extreme right-wing politics. Labels such as “alt-left” are now being used by U.S. President Donald Trump, among others, to describe, and deride, something that has a long, complex history. In order to understand today’s anti-fascist groups ― and where they might succeed and fail ― we need to revisit the ones that came before.

Often in the public imagination, in America as well as Europe, mention of this rather poorly understood political movement can conjure up images of masked militants protesting in the streets. Yet the history of anti-fascism shows that anti-fascists can take many forms, which are, more often than not, peaceful. For example, since the 1960s, British anti-fascist organizations such as Searchlight magazine have specialized in using investigative journalism to expose the extremes of fascist and far-right politics. Similarly, Britain’s Rock Against Racism used music to help build a movement that opposed the British National Front of the 1970s.

Anti-fascists promote acceptance of a diverse, multicultural world. Right-wing extremists reject the diverse reality of modern life.

Both in the past and today, those targeted by anti-fascism regularly promote clichés of anti-fascists as nothing more than “thugs” and militants. This practice naturally helps further instill the oversimplified notion of what the movement stands for. After Charlottesville, for instance, Nigel Farage, the former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and a key Brexit campaigner, described anti-fascists as no different to fascists. Donald Trump has also, notoriously, received much criticism after Charlottesville for suggesting similarities between the extreme right and those who protest against them.

I teach a graduate history course on British fascism and anti-fascism, and despite suggestions made by the likes of Farage and Trump, my students and I cannot help but see stark differences between those who identify as “anti-fascist,” and those who are members of extreme right-wing groups. Certainly, there are surface similarities. Both typically operate towards the fringes of political culture, and both do things that smaller political organizations do: publish magazines, create websites, hold events and run campaigns, all in order to sustain politicized communities. However, the ideas underpinning these movements are radically different: anti-fascists promote acceptance of a diverse, multicultural world, while right-wing extremists reject the diverse reality of modern life.

Anti-fascists typically seek to promote democracy and the acceptance of a plural modern world.Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images
Anti-fascists typically seek to promote democracy and the acceptance of a plural modern world.

Who Are The Anti-Fascists?

The historian Nigel Copsey is a leader in the study of anti-fascism. He suggests, correctly in my opinion, that we should see anti-fascists simply as those who openly identify as “anti-fascist” in some way. According to him, anti-fascists are motivated by a wide range of ideologies, from the left to the right of the political spectrum. This is important, as it can help shape how anti-fascists work out who to identify as “fascists” and in turn potentially lead to divisions in the movement.

The activities of anti-fascists are diverse, too, ranging from the more typical street demonstrations, to creating pressure groups, becoming campaigning journalists, running magazines, writing protest songs, developing anti-racist educational organizations, and even infiltrating extremist groups in order to subvert them from the inside. Moreover, Copsey explains that anti-fascists typically defend Enlightenment values, and justify their agendas as promoting democracy and the acceptance of a plural modern world. This can help anti-fascists appeal to mainstream values, especially if they can link those they oppose to the history of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust.    

The same cannot be said for the types of people that anti-fascists oppose, such as the many white supremacists present in Charlottesville. These ranged from sympathizers with old Ku Klux Klan cultures, to traditional neo-Nazis such as the National Socialist Movement, to Richard Spencer and others in the so-called “alt-right,” immersed in sophisticated identitarian values.

For the extreme right, politics is ultimately steeped in the irrational, powered by a mood of victimhood, fear of otherness and a racist vision of a ‘purified’ world.

While diverse, all such groups in one way or another revel in specious mythologies about the supposed superiority, and unique genius, of white people. This is reinforced through a political culture that rests on romanticized histories glorifying “the white race,” combined with conspiracy theories and classic anti-Semitic tropes such as Holocaust denial. For the extreme right, their politics blurs into the mythic. It becomes a political faith, and it is ultimately steeped in the irrational, powered by a mood of victimhood, fear of otherness and a racist vision of a “purified” world.

Distinctions between this type of organization, and those that promote anti-fascism, ought to be obvious. This is not to say that anti-fascists do not create their own mythology, break laws and even engage in violence. Often a reactive phenomenon, sections of the anti-fascist milieu can be openly militant in their approach, while also criticizing those who reject violence. Some of the more militant anti-fascist elements do see a role for violence. In Britain, at least, this has been idealized in anti-fascist memoirs that present confrontations as necessary “battles” taken up by the movement.

But the picture is not so black and white ― it’s not just “good” or “bad” people on “both sides.”

The history of anti-fascism can be traced back to interwar Europe with the rise of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.Fototeca Storica Nazionale. via Getty Images
The history of anti-fascism can be traced back to interwar Europe with the rise of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

The History Of Anti-Fascism

There are many lessons to be learned from the history of anti-fascism. It tells us what has been effective, and how communities have been able to develop more empowered voices by campaigning against right-wing extremists. It also shows us how the movement can be very divided, which is often ultimately counterproductive.

This history of anti-fascism can be traced back to interwar Europe, where splits between various types of anti-fascism were conspicuous, typically as a result of the influence of the Soviet Union. The first anti-fascists emerged with the rise of dictator Benito Mussolini in Italy. Then, as fascism spread, so did anti-fascism. By the early 1930s, splits within the left were clear, and were most starkly felt in Germany among those who opposed Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi party.

Here, both the moderate left-wing German Social Democratic Party and the German Communist Party opposed the rise of the Nazi party. However, the Communists saw German fascism as fueled by capitalism in crisis, and so opposed any group they saw as supporting capitalism. For German Communists in the early 1930s, both the Social Democrats and the Nazis did this, although they felt the Nazis were at least honest in what they stood for. German Communists called the moderate left Social Democrats “social fascists.” Steeped in complex Marxist theorizing, Communists could even consider “social fascists” more dangerous than the Nazis, as they would try to keep capitalism going whereas if the Nazis came to power, they would soon fail and communism would be victorious.

By the later 1930s, in the wake of Hitler’s rise and the failure of the “social fascist” idea, Communists in Europe were then instructed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s USSR to unite with all forces that opposed fascists, and until 1939, idealized anti-fascism. During the Spanish Civil War, a new era of Communists forging the “Popular Front” led to Communist anti-fascists developing wider alliances with left-wing, Christian and liberal anti-fascists. Communist International Brigades, and others opposed to fascism, traveled to Spain to fight against Spanish general and military dictator Francisco Franco’s forces, which were supported by Italian and German fascist regimes, popularizing many forms of anti-fascism. Consequently, the memory of the Spanish Civil War lingers in the cultures of anti-fascism to this day. However, while Stalin’s Soviet Union promoted anti-fascism until 1939, it then made an about-turn and forged a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany.  

Anti-fascism soon became central to the narrative for all the countries that fought against Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945, especially the USSR after it was invaded by the Nazi regime. After the Second World War, once again competing forms of anti-fascism developed within the revolutionary and moderate left, as well as others deeply affected by the legacy of fascism.  

For example, in Britain after 1945, anti-fascism promoted by the small Communist Party of Great Britain could conflict with anti-fascism supported by the moderate left-wing Labour Party and the wider Labour movement. In turn, the moderate left in Britain was not always keen to involve itself with anti-fascism. New, specialist groups also emerged. In the 1940s, the small direct action Jewish organization the 43 Group, whose members included Vidal Sassoon, fought those who sought to rekindle British fascism, and even identified companies that helped facilitate fascists in any way. Established Jewish organizations, like the Board of Deputies of British Jews, also continued a role developed in the 1930s promoting anti-fascism as part of a wider function of looking after Jewish interests.

By the end of the 1950s, as new groups like the extreme right-wing White Defence League were founded, one of Britain’s first celebrity-driven anti-fascist campaigns emerged, the Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship, which included figures such as Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth. This was a precursor to the larger scale Rock Against Racism movement of the late 1970s.

Much more recently, music has been important in social media campaigning. In response to the far-right English Defence League, one group called itself “English Disco Lovers,” to reappropriate the initials “EDL” for its online campaign promoting anti-racist values. Other types of anti-fascism include Searchlight magazine, which since the 1970s has also served as a model for other anti-fascist magazines of its type, such as the contemporary anti-fascist group HOPE not hate and Sweden’s Expo.  

Importantly, contemporary British organizations now produce credible data on hate crimes that help influence policy discussions. The think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which specializes in countering violent extremism, has come up with analysis and guidance on how nongovernmental organizations and governments can work together to tackle the threats posed by the extreme right. Meanwhile, the Jewish organization Community Security Trust has become a significant part of British anti-fascist culture, while newer groups such as Tell Mama now also defend Muslims from Islamophobic attacks.

Anti-fascism activism that exposes links to older fascist and neo-Nazi cultures is a method that has proven effective.Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Anti-fascism activism that exposes links to older fascist and neo-Nazi cultures is a method that has proven effective.

What America’s Anti-Fascists Can Learn From History

Anti-fascists today can learn lessons from such older, and often imaginative, approaches to undermining the extreme right. They can capture media attention in ways that delegitimize extreme right agendas. Rather than promoting violent confrontations, successful anti-fascist campaigns often play on the idea of ridiculing such intolerant groups. This is important as many extreme right activists crave violent confrontation with anti-fascists, even if they deny this publicly. Conflict with anti-fascists also allows extremists to play the role of the victim being silenced, and can to lead to more sympathetic media coverage. 

For Americans grappling with the reality of life post-Charlottesville, this is particularly relevant. Though rooted in European history, anti-fascism is far from a new phenomenon in the United States. As elsewhere, militant forms of activism have rubbed against more respectable methods for opposing white supremacist cultures for generations. In the recent past, groups such as Anti-Racist Action have helped foster a more confrontational anti-fascism. This included street violence in Toledo, Ohio in 2005, when anti-fascist protesters attacked the police as well as neo-Nazis. Some contemporary anti-fascists continue to idealize such militancy and hostility towards the state, especially those linked to the antifa movement, a far-left-leaning militant movement short for “anti-fascist” that resists neo-Nazis and white supremacists and is active in both America and Europe.  

Such openly “militant” anti-fascists regularly deride what they label “liberal” anti-fascism, dismissed as ineffective hand-wringing when the only language understood by the extreme right is violence. Yet the reality is that such “liberal” anti-fascists have had many successes in using legal ways to put pressure on the state ― and wider civil society ― to reject extremism.

In America, rather than endorsing violence, the Southern Poverty Law Center has published a wide range of material, including its most recent guide for communities, to advise people on how to respond in a responsible manner to hate groups. The Anti-Defamation League also offers easy to access ways for people to respond to extremism. For those in America who want to engage in lawful protests against white supremacists, such groups offer sensible strategies and have gained notoriety beyond U.S. borders.

There are many ways to be an anti-fascist without having to resort to violence. But this needs to be done with care.

While the current notion of anti-fascism still conjures up a specific set of images that are often used against it by its opponents, looking at the history of the movement can help us move beyond such stereotypes so that we can create more effective methods of combating fascist groups today. Militant anti-fascism exists, but it can often be counter-productive. There are many other forms of activism that can loosely be called “anti-fascist,” and it is perfectly legitimate for civil society to find ways to respond to extremists ― including peaceful protest. There are many ways to be an anti-fascist without having to resort to violence. But this needs to be done with care.

Activism that credibly exposes the roots of current fascist activism ― and its links to older fascist and neo-Nazi cultures ― is a method that has been effective for anti-fascists in the past. The British anti-fascists of the 1970s, for example, successfully discredited the National Front by exposing its true roots in British neo-Nazi culture to the wider public. Today, terms such as “alt-right,” regularly used uncritically in the media, should be called out as unhelpful. They imply that today’s activists are somehow distinct from older white supremacist cultures, when in fact most historians would agree that the term was created by the movement to rebrand white supremacism and mask or water down connections with a much older racist movement.

From anti-fascism history, the world has learned that the key to success is finding ways to be united, and not letting ideological differences hamper joint activism. I suggest today’s activists study this history carefully. Do not simply romanticize all anti-fascist campaigns of the past. Embrace the promotion of reason over myth, and embrace democracy over extremism.

This was produced by The WorldPost, which is published by the Berggruen Institute