All the bone-spur heroes of the American right agree, from Alex Jones to Tucker Carlson, from Andy Ngo to Donald Trump; antifascists must be driven out from public life.
When women marched on Washington to protest Trump’s inauguration, they were transformed in the right-wing imagination into ‘the dregs of humanity’, ‘foreign[ers]’, planning ‘a civil war’ for ‘tyranny’.
And when fascists marched through Charlottesville with guns and torches, chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us’, when one of them killed Heather Heyer, Fox News promptly called the socialists, anarchists, liberals and feminists who blocked the streets ‘domestic terrorists … antifa burns all it comes in contact with’. The right projected its own lurid fantasies onto its opponents and claimed that anti-fascists had been responsible for ‘the killings of multiple police officers throughout the United States’, opening the path for Trump to declare that there had been ‘very fine people on both sides’.
On the anti-fascist side, he insisted, ‘You also had troublemakers, and you see them come with the black outfits, and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats, you get a lot of bad, you get a lot of bad people in the other group … they didn’t have a permit’.
Trump wanted the whole world to see Charlottesville as a war between two groups of people. From his perspective, the side with guns and fascist symbols and fantasies of genocide were the ones who had come ‘to innocently protest’, and against them were antifa who deserved every bullet.
Again and again, the smear of ‘antifa’, has been used not merely against those who confront fascism, but even against the blandest of liberals. ‘You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,’ Mike Pence warned.
Even now, Trump is insisting that Biden controls, ‘people that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows … People that are controlling the streets … thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear.’
And in that way, all of America is being asked to see the world through the eyes of the Proud Boys, the Patriots and the QAnon conspiracy theorists.
In the paranoid mindset of the right, if there are a thousand people in Portland willing to take the streets in defence of Black Lives Matter than this fact overwhelms everything else in their minds. It even takes precedence over the 200,000 people who have died from Coronavirus.
So what is it about anti-fascism that makes it a spectre in the mind of the American right, as vivid there as once the spectre of communism was?
When fascism began, hardly anyone else in politics agreed with it. The set of people who could have been labelled anti-fascists was very large indeed. It included liberals, conservatives, Christians, anarchists, feminists and countless others.
And it included the people who drive Trump wild with fear: anarchists and communists.
I want to talk about one strand of them in particular, the Marxists. In the twentieth century, they were part of a common approach to politics which was shared by tens of millions of people. Marxism was not a singular thing but a range of politics. It appealed to people who believed in the actuality of revolution and were determined to bring about an immediate popular uprising. The ideology was also employed by others who had no truck with any idea of mass revolt but restricted their desire for change solely to the slow advance of the rights of workers and other subaltern groups, and everything in between.
As the decades wore on, Marxism was dethroned from its position of authority (that’s why contemporary American anti-fascists are as likely to be anarchists as communists). But if we focus on the period of the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, this subordination belonged to the future.
In the Fascism: History and Theory, I write about the generation who invented anti-fascism, including the likes of Clara Zetkin, who was the editor of the German Socialist women’s newspaper Die Gleichheit (Equality) and a sponsor of the resolution which led to the establishment of today’s International Women’s Day, Leon Trotsky, the former leader of the Bolshevik Red Army, and Daniel Guérin, who lived into the 1950s and 60s when he was an anarchist, a member of the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action in France and was one of the leading figures of the gay liberation movement. In the modern-day left, we’d fit them into different categories: Zetkin had a decades’ long career as a socialist and then a communist. Trotsky was a Bolshevik. Guerin became an anarchist. In the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, and in the face of fascism, they shared a common language and had essentially the same approach for resisting the rise of Hitler.
Writing for an international audience about events in Italy, Zetkin warned, ‘Masses in their thousands streamed to fascism. It became an asylum for all the politically homeless, the socially uprooted, the destitute and disillusioned.’
In pamphlets which sold hundreds of thousand of copies, urging the German socialists and communists to unite, Trotsky wrote, ‘In National Socialism everything is as contradictory and chaotic as in a nightmare. Hitler’s party calls itself socialist, yet leads a terroristic struggle against all socialist organisations … It hurls lightning bolts at the heads of the capitalists yet is supported by them’.
Travelling through Germany in 1933, Guérin jotted down the words of a song, half communist, half nationalist, which promised to free the workers from Jewish rule, ‘I have never heard people sing with such a faith … I am lost on my feet, motionless in the middle of this mass that would die without interrupting its song. Already the rumour is spreading that the Storm Trooper sections are getting impatient, even mutinous, I think to myself it will be necessary to satisfy this crowd – or else crush it, brutally.’
The interwar Marxists were the first to formulate what can be called the anti-fascist wager. This is the belief, still held today, that fascism is an especially violent and destructive form of right-wing politics, that it has the capacity to grow rapidly in times of social crisis and if ignored will destroy the capacity of the left to organise. If the wager is correct, it follows that it is a priority for its opponents to confront fascism, even at times when other forms of discrimination are endemic, and even when other right-wing politics have more support. This way of thinking assumes a present in which labour is still exploited and discrimination on grounds of race and sex are prevalent. Even in these circumstances, it warns, fascism is an unruly, chaotic agent of negative change. Fascism is capable of extending suffering on an enormous scale. Conversely, where fascism is defeated, the other forms of oppression on which it thrives can also be weakened.
The anti-fascist wager is not a distinctively Marxist position; all sorts of people have held it in history. All sorts of different people hold to it today.
The first time in history that any significant group came to adopt it was in the mid-1920s, when the people I have written about began to campaign against the threat of fascism creeping beyond the borders of Mussolini’s Italy.
At the time that these warnings were first made, Hitler himself was a mere regional politician. Any electoral success he had enjoyed had been modest, and he faced a series of competitors in a space between fascism and conservatism, several of whom were better funded, had easier access to the media and their own means to employ paramilitary violence against their rivals.
To say that fascism, despite Hitler’s weaknesses and despite the influence of his rivals, was the most threatening opponent facing the German left was to make a prediction about how fascism would grow and what it would do once in power.
The anti-fascist wager made by this generation held that fascism was qualitatively different from all other forms of politics, including right-wing or even far-right politics. Unlike them, it seeks to create a dictatorship in which all rival forms of speech would be curtailed. The right-wing landscape of the 1930s was no less complex than our own, with each of the following prominent in public discussions – monarchists, supporters of the army or the Church, flat-taxers, advocates of imperial expansion – and many other kinds of right-wing politics beside these. Anti-fascists disliked all of these trends, but saw none of them as holding the same violent potential as fascism.
Beneath that theory, there were other ideas about the role of fascism in relation to reactionary movements. Fascism was not just a single issue movement. It was a total theory of life which provided justification for the subordination not only of Mussolini or Hitler’s racial opponents, but also their political enemies, women, gay and disabled people. Fascism had a capacity to break through to the mainstream in moments of crisis, similar to what we are seeing in the US today.
As well as the part they played in the murder of six millions Jews, Hitler and Mussolini were also supporters of genocide against the Roma and Sinti, advocates of a sped-up and ultra-aggressive form of colonial racism, the organisers of euthanasia for the disabled and the murderers of gay people and communists, of the subordination of women and the destruction of trade unions. Each of these plans reinforced one another. This totalising dynamic made fascism a uniquely destructive enemy.
It is worth listening to the people who understood that risk at a time when almost everyone else on the right and centre of European politics disagreed with them.
For what appeals to Donald Trump’s supporters above all is a nursery tale of black-uniformed protesters secretly gathering to defeat his plans.
For the contemporary right, the myth of a hidden anti-fascist conspiracy is as compelling as the idea was to a different generation of right-wingers a hundred years ago, that the world was dominated by a secret conspiracy of Jews sending their orders out, controlling Popes and Tsars, radical conspirators and the police who pretended to keep an eye on them.
But the history of anti-fascism is in no way secret. Rather, it is as open as a book.
David Renton is the author of Fascism: History and Theory (Pluto, 2020) and The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right (Pluto, 2017).