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“They have no allegiance to liberal democracy”: An expert on antifa explains the group

The left-wing group is back in the news. An expert explains where they come from and what they want.

Pro-Trump Activists And Counter-Protestors Hold Dueling Rallies In Portland
'Antifa' protesters link arms as they demonstrate at a rally on June 4, 2017 in Portland, Oregon.
Photo by Natalie Behring/Getty Images

As protests against the killing of George Floyd rage across the country, the left-wing group “antifa” (short for anti-fascist) is back in the news. Although antifa’s role remains unclear, President Trump (and others) are blaming them for helping to incite violence. Antifa became a national story back in 2017 when it collided with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Shortly after that incident, I reached out to Mark Bray, a historian at Dartmouth College and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. We discussed the group’s origins, aims, and tactics. You can read our full exchange, which feels newly relevant, below.

When Donald Trump used the phrase “alt-left” to describe the anti-neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville last year, most people had no idea what he meant. I’m actually not sure he knew what he meant.

“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any assemblage of guilt?” Trump said during a rambling press conference.

If the alt-left exists, it’s probably best represented by “antifa” (short for “anti-fascist”) — a loose network of left-wing activists who physically resist people they consider fascists. These are often the scruffy, bandana-clad people who show up at alt-right rallies or speaking events in order to shut them down before they happen, and they openly embrace violence as a justifiable means to that end.

Antifa is not a monolithic organization, nor does it have anything like a hierarchical leadership structure. It’s an umbrella group that shares a number of causes, the most important of which is resisting white nationalist movements. Adherents are mostly socialists, anarchists, and communists who, according to Mark Bray, a historian at Dartmouth College and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, “reject turning to the police or the state to halt the advance of white supremacy. Instead they advocate popular opposition to fascism as we witnessed in Charlottesville.”

I reached out to Bray to discuss the group and its burgeoning impact on American politics. He’s sympathetic to antifa’s cause and makes no effort to hide that. He describes the book as “an unabashedly partisan call to arms that aims to equip a new generation of anti-fascists with the history and theory necessary to defeat the resurgent far right.”

In this interview, we talk about the ethics of “militant anti-fascism,” why groups like antifa don’t care if they hurt the Democratic Party, and why resisting fascism in a liberal democracy poses a unique challenge to conventional political norms.

Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

The roots of antifa

Sean Illing

What is “antifa”? Where did it come from?

Mark Bray

Anti-fascism originated in response to early European fascism, and when Mussolini's Blackshirts and Hitler's Brownshirts were ascendant in Europe, various socialist, communist, and anarchist parties and groups emerged to confront them. When I talk about anti-fascism in the book and when we talk about it today, it's really a matter of tracing the sort of historical lineage of revolutionary anti-fascist movements that came from below, from the people, and not from the state.

The sort of militant anti-fascism that antifa represents reemerged in postwar Europe in Britain, where fascists had broad rights to organize and demonstrate. You started to see these groups spring up in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. You saw similar movements in Germany in the ’80s around the time the Berlin Wall falls, when a wave of neo-Nazism rolled across the country targeting immigrants. There, as elsewhere, leftist groups emerged as tools of self-defense. The whole point was to stare down these fascist groups in the street and stop them by force if necessary.

These groups in the ’80s adopted the name antifa, and it eventually spread to the United States in the late ’80s and into the ’90s. Originally, it was known as the Anti-Racist Action Network. That kind of faded in the mid-2000s; the recent wave we’re seeing in the US developed out of it, but has taken on more of the name and the kind of aesthetics of the European movement.

Sean Illing

And this is largely a response to Trump?

Mark Bray

I think so. The basic principle of antifa is “no platform for fascism.” If you ask them, they’ll tell you that they believe you have to deny any and all platforms to fascism, no matter how big or small the threat. The original fascist groups that later seized power in Europe started out very small. You cannot, they argue, treat these groups lightly. You need to take them with the utmost seriousness, and the way to prevent them from growing is to prevent them from having even the first step toward becoming normalized in society.

Why they embrace violence

Sean Illing

What’s their strategic logic? Why do they think physical violence, as opposed to nonviolent resistance, is both justifiable and effective?

Mark Bray

That’s a very good question. Much of what they do does not involve physical confrontation. They also focus on using public opinion to expose white supremacists and raise the social and professional costs of their participation in these groups. They want to see these people fired from their jobs, denounced by their families, marginalized by their communities.

But yes, part of what they do is physical confrontation. They view self-defense as necessary in terms of defending communities against white supremacists. They also see this as a preventative action. They look at the history of fascism in Europe and say, “we have to eradicate this problem before it gets any bigger, before it’s too late.” Sometimes that involves physical confrontation or blocking their marches or whatever the case may be.

It’s also important to remember that these are self-described revolutionaries. They’re anarchists and communists who are way outside the traditional conservative-liberal spectrum. They’re not interested in and don’t feel constrained by conventional norms.

Sean Illing

You say one of the principles of antifa is “no platform for fascism.” How do they define fascism? Where’s the threshold?

Mark Bray

Good question. The other thing that's worth clarifying is that anti-fascist groups don't only organize against textbook fascists. There is, first of all, a lot of debate about what constitutes fascism. And it’s a legitimate question to ask — where does one draw the line, and how does one see this kind of organizing?

Of course, there is no central command for a group like antifa. There is no antifa board of directors telling people where that line is, and so of course different groups will assess different threats as they see fit. But I suppose the question you’re raising has to do with the slippery-slope argument, which is that if you start calling everyone a fascist and depriving them of a platform, where does it end?

One of the arguments I make in the book is that while analytically that's a conversation worth having, I don’t know of any empirical examples of anti-fascists successfully stopping a neo-Nazi group and then moving on to other groups that are not racist but merely to the right. What tends to happen is they disband once they've successfully marginalized or eliminated the local right-wing extremist threat, and then return to what they normally do — organizing unions, doing environmental activism, etc.

Do antifa’s tactics actually work?

Sean Illing

You’re a historian. You’ve looked at the data. Is there evidence that the tactics adopted by antifa work? Are there cases of these sorts of groups successfully undercutting fascist movements?

Mark Bray

Another good question. Whenever we look at the question of causation in history, you can never isolate one variable and make grand or definitive conclusions. So I don't want to overstate any of the causal claims being made here. But Norway is an interesting example. In the ’90s, they had a pretty violent neo-Nazi skinhead movement, and the street-level anti-fascist groups there seemed to play a significant role in marginalizing the threat. By the end of ’90s it was pretty much defunct, and subsequently there hasn't been a serious fascist [movement] in Norway.

Another example you can look at is popular responses to the National Front [a far-right political party formed in Britain in 1967] in the late ’70s in Britain. The National Front was pretty huge, and the Anti-Nazi League, through both a combination of militant anti-fascist tactics and also some more popular organizing and electoral strategies, managed to successfully deflate the National Front momentum.

One of the most famous moments of that era was the Battle of Lewisham in 1977 where the members of this largely immigrant community physically blocked a big National Front march and that sort of stopped their aggressive efforts to target that community.

They don’t care about liberal democracy

Sean Illing

So antifa’s logic is that fascism is a rejection of liberal democratic norms, and therefore it can’t be defeated with what we’d consider conventional liberal democratic tactics?

Mark Bray

Well, certainly the latter is correct. They argue a couple of things. First, they argue that in Europe you can see that parliamentary democracy did not always stop the advance of fascism and Nazism — and in the cases of both Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini were appointed and gained their power largely through democratic means. When Hitler took his final control through the [1933] Enabling Act, it was approved by parliament.

They also say that rational discourse is insufficient on its own because a lot of good arguments were made and a lot of debates were had but ultimately that was insufficient during that period, and so the view that good ideas always prevail over bad ideas isn’t very convincing.

They other key point, which probably isn’t made enough, is that these are revolutionary leftists. They’re not concerned about the fact that fascism targets liberalism. These are self-described revolutionaries. They have no allegiance to liberal democracy, which they believe has failed the marginalized communities they’re defending. They’re anarchists and communists who are way outside the traditional conservative-liberal spectrum.

Sean Illing

Scholars of nonviolence will say the worldwide abolition of slavery was achieved almost entirely with nonviolent means (our Civil War being an obvious exception), that great strides in women’s rights were made, that nonviolent revolutions in Eastern Europe, South Africa, Chile, Egypt, the Philippines, and elsewhere were all accomplished without the use of force. What’s different about antifa’s mission? Why do they believe violence is more effective in this context?

Mark Bray

As I said earlier, no single factor in history can explain an outcome. It’s always more complicated than that. Certainly that’s true in terms of the abolition of slavery. In Latin America, for example, a lot of the abolition of slavery happened through gradual emancipation laws, and a lot of those laws were enacted in explicit response to the Haitian Revolution and out of fear that if they didn’t start to adjust, they’d have an uprising on their hands.

This is also true of the civil rights movement, where the threat of race riots and Black Panthers and so forth made a lot of white America more sympathetic to the kinds of things that Martin Luther King and his allies were saying than they might have otherwise been.

The case of Nazism is obviously one of those intractable historical problems for advocates of pacifism. Even the school of strategic nonviolence that puts aside the ethical questions in favor of the strategic questions still fails, in my view, to show how nonviolence might have worked in that situation.

But look, anti-fascists will concede that most of the time nonviolence is certainly the way to go. Most antifa members believe it’s far easier to use nonviolent methods than it is to show up and use direct action methods. But they argue that history shows that it’s dangerous to take violence and self-defense off the table.

Why shut down speech?

Sean Illing

Here’s my problem. I think the people who showed up in Charlottesville to square off against self-identified neo-Nazis did the world a service, and I applaud them. But when I see antifa showing up at places like UC Berkeley and setting fire to cars and throwing rocks through windows in order to prevent someone like Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking, I think they’ve gone way too far. Milo isn’t a Nazi, and he isn’t an actual threat. He’s a traveling clown looking to offend social justice warriors.

Mark Bray

I think that reasonable people can disagree about this. I can’t speak for the individuals who committed these political actions, but the general defense is that the rationale for shutting down someone like Milo has to do with the fact that his kind of commentary emboldens actual fascists. The Berkeley administrators issued a statement in advance that they feared he was going to out undocumented students on campus, and previously he had targeted a transgender student at the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin. Antifa regards this as an instigation to violence, and so they feel justified in shutting it down.

Again, though, this is much easier to understand when you remember that antifa isn’t concerned with free speech or other liberal democratic values.

What does antifa actually want?

Sean Illing

Antifa defines itself in purely negative terms, in terms of what they’re against. But what do they want? Do they have any concrete political goals?

Mark Bray

That’s a great question, and one that often gets overlooked. For the most part, these are pan-leftist groups composed of leftists of different stripes. They all seem to have different views of what they think the ideal social order looks like. Some of them are Marxists, some are Leninists, some are social democrats or anarchists. But they cohere around a response to what they perceive as a common threat.

Sean Illing

Do you think people are right to be concerned that this type of illiberalism will only occasion more illiberalism in response to it, and that the result will be a spiral of competing illiberalisms?

Mark Bray

As I said before, anti-fascists don't have any allegiance to liberalism, so that's not the question that they are focused on. The question is also how much of a threat do we think white supremacists or neo-Nazis pose, both in a literal or immediate sense but also in terms of their ability to influence broader discourses or even the Trump administration.

I believe that for people who are feeling the worst repercussions of this, they are already experiencing a kind of illiberalism in terms of their lack of access to the kinds of freedoms that liberalism promotes and tries to aspire to; and so for me, that's more of a focus, in terms of trying to mitigate those kinds of problems, than the fears of people who, prior to Trump, thought that everything was fine in the US.

Sean Illing

Do you anticipate antifa becoming larger and more active? And if so, what does that mean for American politics moving forward?

Mark Bray

The first thing to point out is that being part of one of these groups is a huge time commitment, and the vetting process that these groups have for bringing in new people is very strenuous. You have to really commit — it’s basically like a second job. This limits the number of people that are going to be willing to put their time into it. I don’t think the antifa movement is going to explode as much as some do.

But I do think that antifa can influence where leftist politics in America is going. They are aggressive, loud, and fiercely committed. They’re having a wider influence on the radical left in this country, particularly on campuses and with other groups like Black Lives Matter. But I don’t want to overstate antifa’s role in these shifts.

Sean Illing

Well, that dovetails with my final question, which is: Do you think the influence antifa is having on the American left will ultimately hurt the Democratic Party — and by extension help the Republicans?

Mark Bray

Not to be repetitive here, but they don’t care about the Democratic Party. But it’s still an interesting question to consider. Given the disaster that is the Trump presidency, I just think it would be a colossal failure of the Democratic Party not to win the next presidential election and gain a majority in Congress. If they can't do that given this craziness, then they need to really rethink what they're doing.

Will a lot of people see antifa and their methods as a poor reflection of the left? Absolutely. But I also think that these are not people who were going to vote Democrat anyway. If you read the news or pay attention to what’s happening, you know that Nancy Pelosi has nothing to do with antifa. This group loathes the Democratic Party, and they don’t hide that.

So anyone who blames the Democrats for antifa is likely already disposed to vote Republican anyway.

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