August 22, 2017
No platform for fascism: A Q&A with Antifa author Mark Bray
by Melville House
We’ve been working pretty hard to get the word out about Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, Mark Bray’s impassioned and informative guide to understanding the movement that’s dominated headlines in the US and around the world since Charlottesville.
With the book hitting stores this week, and despite a profoundly demanding schedule of interviews, TV appearances, and writing, Mark was kind enough to talk with us, answering a few questions about antifa and Antifa. In celebration of a book we consider crucially important and are proud to be publishing, here’s that conversation.
ML: Ok, first things first. What is antifa?
MB: Antifa is the abbreviation for “anti-fascist” in a number of languages. The emphasis is on the first syllable (ANtifa) which is pronounced more like “on” in English than “an,” similar to how a Spanish speaker would pronounce the beginning of “antifascismo,” for example.
It connotes what is referred to in English and Italian as “militant anti-fascism,” in French as “radical anti-fascism,” or in German as “autonomous anti-fascism.” Militant anti-fascism is an illiberal politics or activity of social revolutionism applied to fighting the far right by communists, anarchists, socialists, and other radicals.
What do you view as some of the basic, fundamental tools and principles of antifa?
One of the most fundamental principles is: “No platform for fascism.” In short, this slogan means that fascist, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist politics and organizing should be shut down at every opportunity before they can expand into murderous movements or regimes, as they have in the past. It rejects the liberal notion that fascism is a school of thought worthy of open debate and consideration.
After the “Unite the Right” white power rally in Charlottesville, many of the racists in khakis with tiki torches have been doxxed—that is, had their identities publicly revealed—and are now shocked that marching in a Nazi procession might earn them some enemies. Antifa also organize educational campaigns, build community coalitions, monitor fascists, pressure venues to cancel their events, organize self-defense trainings, and physically confront the far right when necessary. Though this last facet of anti-fascism gets the most attention, it is actually only a small fraction of the thankless drudgery that is committing oneself to tracking the scum of the earth.
Your book begins talking about anti-fascist movements from nearly a hundred years ago; many people had not heard the word “antifa” until fairly recently. The state of US politics seems especially intense right now, but fascism is nothing new. So where has this word been all this time?
The abbreviation “antifa” was sometimes used in Germany between the wars. Later, revolutionary socialist “Antifa committees” sprung up amidst the carnage of the end of World War II, though their desire to make the war a springboard for building socialism was not supported by socialist or communist parties in western Europe. The term gained its modern connotation through its use by German autonomous anti-fascists in the 1980s (especially in the late eighties).
In the United States, most antifa groups in the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s were part of the Anti-Racist Action Network. Beginning in the late 2000s, and I believe in part because of the ability of social media to facilitate greater knowledge of the European movement, more American groups started calling themselves antifa — folks like Rose City Antifa in Portland, Oregon and NYC Antifa. It wasn’t really until West Coast antifa shut down Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, however, that the term gained the mainstream attention that it has now.
Some people are alarmed by the notion that antifa activists would aim to prevent those who hold certain political views from discussing them in public. In your book, you write that “militant anti-fascism refuses to engage in terms of debate that developed out of the precepts of classical liberalism that undergird both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ positions in the United States.” In the US, where we’re used to calling those terms of debate, simply, “free speech,” this to some sounds worryingly close to censorship. How do you respond to these worries?
Let me clarify that the point you quoted refers to the classical liberal notion, most famously expounded by John Stuart Mill, that “truth” is best promoted through its open confrontation with “error.” In other words, that the best way to defeat fascism is to give it as much space as it wants in order to show how terrible it is. That did not work in interwar Europe and we can’t be sure it would work now either.
The framework of “free speech” assumes this liberal construct; it is based on an expectation that fascism and anti-fascism will always co-exist and therefore should arrive at mechanisms to accommodate each other. In contrast, antifa view fascism and white supremacy as enemies that must be destroyed. Therefore the notion of allowing fascism certain liberties misses the point of the underlying political project.
Understanding that point helps to frame the relationship between “no platform” and “free speech.” I have an entire chapter in Antifa about anti-fascism and free speech that unpacks the arguments with much greater subtlety than we have room for here.
I do want to note that antifa don’t call on the police or the state to do anything other than cease and desist in their operations immediately. “Censorship” is a governmental action — ironically, one that’s been most frequently applied to the left historically. So antifa never call for censorship.
Finally, we should be wary of those who are more distressed about alleged violations of the speech of fascists than the actual violence they perpetrate.
A recent TIME magazine article claimed that “some antifa protestors will employ militant tactics or violent means such as vandalism.” Do you consider this accurate?
The term “vandalism” is a great example of how mainstream coverage of the revolutionary left embeds normative values into their allegedly neutral journalistic coverage. “Vandalism” implies that property destruction is apolitical, thoughtless, and “criminal.” That sentence would have read differently if it used the phrase “targeted property destruction.” Moreover there have been endless debates over whether property destruction even ought to be considered violence. Certainly breaking windows should not be casually equated with neo-Nazi murder.
So sure, property destruction is part of the anti-fascist and more broadly revolutionary repertoire. But we should always keep an eye on how journalists belie their professed neutrality in their use of terms like “violent” and “vandalism.”
Let’s talk about Charlottesville. There’s been a lot of media chatter about the role antifa played in the apalling events of this past weekend. At It’s Going Down, one observer wrote, “[The ‘Unite the Right’ organizers] lost because we had way more people, pulled from the local community, and mobilized a broad base of support…. They lost because they horrifically murdered someone and injured up to 20 more. The whole country has been galvanized by this tragedy; sympathy for antifascists and those willing to physically oppose the Alt-Right is now probably the highest it has ever been.” Do you agree? What are the lessons you hope antifa will take from Charlottesville?
I entirely agree. The tragic events of Charlottesville showed the entire country the true face of the alt-right to the point where the groups that compose it are scrambling to disassociate themselves from Charlottesville or even in some cases from the concept of the alt-right altogether. Their branding strategy was blown up. That could not have happened if people had just ignored the “Unite the Right” rally. Under such circumstances they could have taken a step toward normalizing themselves, which is their only path forward. It’s depressing that it took Heather Heyer’s death for some to realize this.
But I’m less concerned what lessons antifa will draw from Charlottesville than what lessons everyone else will draw. I think the brave counter-protesters showed the power of collective action. They showed that we will not be intimidated by Nazis in khakis. They showed that if we stand firm they shall not pass.
The popular response to Charlottesville, with vigils and demonstrations around the country, shows that resistance can be contagious. Yes, the alt-right lost. It is up to all of us to make sure they never recover.
Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook is on sale now. Buy your copy here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.