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Antifascism Is a Positive
It's neither reactive nor reactionary.
Image: Angela Davis
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
With a few red-brown exceptions like Glenn Greenwald and RFK, Jr., everyone on the left, very broadly construed, agrees that Trump is a nightmarish orange bolus of incompetence, authoritarianism and hate. Given that, it’s not surprising that opposition to Trump and to a more and more openly fascist GOP has been a major rallying point for Democratic partisans.
Some leftists, though, are worried that the focus on Trump and fascism will distract from other leftist goals. Historian Daniel Bessner, for example, has argued that the focus on fascism is the result, not first of all of a rising fascist movement, but of the fact that “liberalism finds itself in crisis.” For Bessner, the obsession with Trump prevents us from focusing on the real enemy of capitalism; antifascism is, in this formulation, a barrier to anticapitalism, aka Communism or socialism, and therefore a barrier to real change. A subtext, I think, is that antifascism leads to rallying around the Democratic party out of fear, rather than boldly developing more radical (and possibly third party) solutions.
I talked about some of my objections to Bessner’s article here a bit back. Rather than reiterating that discussion, I’d like to talk about antifascism as a positive force—one which is absolutely essential to any real left movement and any real left change.
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Fascism Is Reaction
It’s important to understand, first of all, that fascism didn’t spring fully formed from the noggin of Mussolini in a grotesque virgin hate vomit. Rather, fascism was developed as a dialectic response to the left—or, more specifically, as a technique for coopting, draining, and exterminating the left.
In his classic Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton notes that even the original symbol of fascism—the fasci, or bundle of sticks bound together—was originally used by the left as a visual representation of solidarity and power. Fascists like Mussolini wanted to capture the energy and mobilization of left mass movements for a nationalist, reactionary program. Paxton characterizes it as “Dictatorship against the Left amidst popular enthusiasm.”
Fascism is, then, a dialectical response to communist and socialist movements, which builds on them in order to negate them. It’s a mass movement fueled by hatred of the masses—and especially by hatred of the least among the masses. It rallies people to traditional hierarchies, reminding the have-a-little-bits of what they (supposedly) have to lose in status and wealth if they are overturned by the have-nots.
This is where you get the “nationalism” in “national socialism.” Fascists use various kinds of bigotry in order to exclude certain people—Jewish, Black, queer, immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities—from national belonging. Mass politics of a core defined as authentic and pure is then turned against outgroups stigmatized as refuse, ie., the wrong mass.
Leftism is defined as the movement intended to elevate outgroups, which is why Hitler saw all Jews as Communists and all Communists as Jews. Communism, in his eyes, was the ideology that threatened to establish equality of Jew and Aryan. It was the mass politics of equality, and therefore needed to be crushed to ensure the triumph of the mass politics of hate.
If Leftism Is Going to Avoid Extermination, It Needs Antifascism
Mainstream European left theorists had not anticipated a mass politics of the right, and the left struggled to recognize the extent of the fascist threat. Communist and socialist parties in Germany opposed the Nazis, but they hated each other more; their factional infighting allowed Hitler to take them apart in the streets and in Parliament with relative ease. Stalin, with typical bumbling ineptness, didn’t understand the threat Hitler posed, and allied with the Nazis in order to seize imperial territories for the USSR. Despite his own spies telling him repeatedly that Hitler was going to betray him, he was still caught completely unaware when the Germans attacked.
The left didn’t really understand how much the fascists hated them, nor did they understand the extent of fascist exterminationist logics and aspirations.
Beyond that, though, the left’s mass politics was grounded in an (in retrospect) naïve faith that class interests could and would win out over other identity claims. German Communists were conflicted about antisemitism, and didn’t place it at the center of their opposition to fascism. Communist parties often labeled feminism as a bourgeois movement, insisting that gender equality would rise naturally from socialist revolution.
In short, European left movements in general were slow to understand that fascism exploits all social divisions and all bigotries in order to stigmatize the left via association with out-groups, and stigmatize out-groups via association with the left. The left, faced with fascism, can either defend the least among us, or it can be destroyed with them. There isn’t a third choice.
So much for the white European left. But there were other left traditions. In particular, Black anticolonial and antiracist thinkers in the US and globally were quick to see in fascism the continuation of racist mass politics with which they were very familiar. As Alberto Toscano explains
Black radical thinkers sought to expand the historical and political imagination of an anti-fascist left. They detailed how what could seem, from a European or white vantage point, to be a radically new form of ideology and violence was, in fact, continuous with the history of colonial dispossession and racial slavery.
W.E.B. DuBois’ Reconstruction in America (1935) explains how neo-Confederates in the post-Civil War period appealed to white nationalist prejudice to enact an authoritarian regime built on a mass politics of terror. Pan-Africanist George Padmore wrote in How Britain Rules Africa (1936) that European colonial occupation, with their programs of extermination and apartheid, were “the breeding-ground” for the “fascist mentality.” And Langston Hughes argued in 1937, “We Negroes in America do not have to be told what fascism is in action. We know. Its theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been realities to us.”
Fascism from this perspective was not (or not solely) a response to left movements in Europe. It was instead a rebranding of colonial logics, repurposed and redeployed closer to home as a way to exploit left divisions and destroy left community as an extension, and defense, of the ongoing assault on non-white colonial subjects.
That assault was not static, but evolved as a dynamic counter-revolutionary force, reacting to, co-opting, and undermining left movements by directing and redirecting mass political energy into new technologies of division—from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, as one example. The United States, Angela Davis argued, was a particular innovator in authoritarianism, such that she said that “American fascism will probably be the first which comes to power by democratic means and with democratic support.”
Thinkers like DuBois and later Angela Davis and George Jackson didn’t see antifascism as some sort of sad middle-of-the-road negative compromise with capitalism. Rather, they saw antifascism as a positive, essential commitment to stand with those most directly and most viciously targeted by an oppressive racist capitalist hierarchy. That means Black people in the United States. But it also means indigenous people, Palestinians, Black South Africans under apartheid, LGBT people in Russia, Ukrainians facing a fascist colonizer, and, I’d argue, immigrants and trans people and everyone who needs reproductive health care in the US right now.
Fascism is built from tiers of oppression. It is not, contra Orwell, a boot stomping on a face forever, but innumerable boots, each empowered to step on the faces of certain people, who may in turn be empowered to step on others in turn. It offers its apostles the pleasures of violence, hate, and contempt—the knowledge that there is someone, out there, who is below them, and who they can righteously spit upon, or worse than spit upon.
Antifascism doesn’t just respond by saying, “oh, that’s not nice, we should all be nice to each other”—not least because antifascism is not about being nice to fascists. Instead, antifascism insists that solidarity is a vital commitment for freedom, equality and human flourishing. That’s not just solidarity as workers. It’s solidarity with everyone who is targeted, not because they share some privileged identity, but because they do not. It’s a commitment to listen to those facing fascist violence, because they are the ones who know, first and most intimately, what fascists are doing, and what they can do.
Hating Trump doesn’t necessarily guarantee a fully thought out or realized antifascist ethic. But opposing the fascist in front of you is always a good start. Fascism ascendant is extremely dangerous. All the more reason for leftists to seize the opportunity to build coalitions around a positive, united antifascism that can serve as the basis for a world with freedom for everybody from all prisons, be they concentration camps, plantations, or colonized lands.
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