I concede that this first bit is insufferable.
I have been an activist since I was old enough to be politically conscious. I helped organize gay rights rallies when I was 16, participated in the admittedly vague anti-corporatism of the late 90s, then dove headfirst into antiwar activism when the bombs started to fall on Kabul and Jalalabad. I spent five dispiriting years devoting myself to anti-Iraq activism more or less as a vocation. Now I do housing work here in the city. I’ve been in more groups and committees and “circles” than I care to remember. I’ve had the glamorous banner-unfurling moments and many more of the tedious “who’s going to rent the porta potties” moments. I’ve done the tabling and waded through the interminable listserv posts. I’ve been in group after group that was wracked with toxic left shit but still got it together to put on great events. I’ve waved signs, chanted the chants, occupied buildings, lied down in the street, made speeches, handed out leaflets, and sang the songs. Did any of it matter? No idea. But I did it all the same and I wouldn’t change a thing.
The preceding paragraph will, I’m sure, invite accusations of insiderism or big-timing, which I understand. I would prefer to leave it out. But it’s necessary to establish experience, and experience is useful because I have been forced to consider “the antifa question” since before many people who call themselves such were born. And so I enjoy the perspective of understanding that radical left opinion on the whole scene has traditionally been vastly more complicated and critical than it is today, where people on social media who have no protest experience that doesn’t involve pink pussy hats doggedly defend antifa for naked culture war reasons. Antifa has always been complicated, but its new admirers insist it can never be complicated.
The wagons are being circled as we speak. Antifa are in the news, as they have once again attacked a journalist for reporting on them while in the process of, well, I don’t really know. I would be opposed to attacking journalists regardless of the purpose of any group of protestors - I believe in the press and rights and see, the whole idea is that we show people our values and invite them into our movement, publicity is the point - but it’s particularly hard to have sympathy for the cosplay crew here, given that they’re not acting as part of any organized movement for any coherent purpose. It’s never been particularly easy to grok what any little group of antifa think their goals are, or how exactly their tactics will help them achieve those goals. But now they’ve got a media relations team, which conveniently for them is literally the media, and so no critical considerations of their goals will be forthcoming. Efficacy? Darling, efficacy doesn’t even come up.
I will leave the deeper and more nuanced histories of the anti-fascist movement to others, though such a project is inherently tendentious and ideological. What history exists online currently is hagiographic and incomplete. I learned the basic outlines the way I learned anything in the movement, through one-on-one conversations and Marxist reading groups and shit talking in a van on the way to a demo and osmosis. The contours as I have understood them are this: the antifa tendency was born in European contexts in periods where fascist or neofascist movements were attracting many converts. The association of antifa with violence stems from the fact that these fascists or neofascists would often prowl the streets, sometimes wearing whatever bullshit little fancy lad uniforms their groups came up with, and harass and intimidate immigrants and gay people and assorted other minorities. Often enough, the local police would be sympathetic to the fascists and wouldn’t protect the outgroups. So antifa rose up to defend people who needed defending, violently when necessary.
Which is all righteous and makes sense. The trouble is that these historical conditions are totally different from those of the 21st century United States, and it’s never been clear how these principles connect with contemporary antifa’s tendency to only appear at protests. Though many people would love to pretend that this isn’t the case, we are not in fact living in an America where Proud Boys wander through Chelsea randomly beating up gay people without resistance from the police. This is the part that they will snip and post to Twitter to mock, but that’s cope. They don’t genuinely believe that we have the same level, rate, or lack of consequences for extreme right-wing violence that once justified historical antifa tactics. (A country that has seen a near-total takeover of its institutions by fringe left social justice politics is not a country that is slipping into fascism.) Every time the Proud Boys do some of their pathetic antics it makes the news, which is to say that it’s rare enough to be worthy of making the news. You don’t actually think that torching a Walgreens in Chicago in 2020 is the same as getting into a street fight with the PNF in 1926 and this conversation would be less tedious if you stopped pretending you did.
Meanwhile porting these tactics to protests has never made perfect sense to me. The vast majority of protests feature no violence, which is good, and the biggest violent threat is from the cops, who antifa fight far less often than some people think. (Which, by the way, is also good.) Typically antifa raise the underlying level of tension in a protest, particularly with the cops but also with the local community, for no benefit to anyone’s security. When violence does erupt I have never in my life seen antifa actually deescalate to reduce the risks to protesters. I’m just being real with you. At most protests I’ve been to where shit got hairy, most antifa seemed to just want to hurt people. And suddenly we’re a long way from looking out for the Hasidim when the brownshirts are making trouble in Stamford Hill, aren’t we?
This is why there has been distrust and profound misgivings towards antifa from within the radical left protest movements since before I was born.
Yes, my friends. Dedicated radicals, old school commies, Quakers and trade unionists and environmentalists, people who need four digits to number the protests they’ve attended - all kinds of no-bullshit far-left activists have had ambivalent or worse feelings for antifa for a very long time. That shouldn’t be surprising; some people, a minority but some, declare themselves antifa because they lack satisfying opportunities for violence in their lives, and protests create conditions where it’s easier to find targets and easier to evade arrest. Of course the stock move when something done by a protester crosses the line of basic decency is to claim that they weren’t “really antifa.” (There’s no Scotsman less true than antifa.) People insist that antifa is not a group and has no membership or organization, which is true but also makes it nonsensical to say that there is such a thing as “really antifa.” Either way, the problem is that this refusal to subject antifa to basic moral evaluation is quite new and very bad. Let me be clear: the bullshit universal exonerations that people on the “left” perform about antifa today, their absolute refusal to judge any antifa actions for any reason in any context, is not an expression of solidarity but its betrayal. Lefties of all stripes have often had conflicted feelings about antifa, going way back, including some dedicated people who self-describe as antifa themselves.
Antifa tended to come from the anarchist groups, when I was a younger activist, and my people had a natural suspicion of anarchists. (Today’s left lacks the minimal ideological coherence for these distinctions to matter.) The stereotypes of the anarchist movement were frequently unfair but did not come from nowhere: the anarchists tended to be drawn from affluent and stable families and for some the attraction to anarchy was predominately pre-political, which is to say that they wanted to rage and break things in a way their privileged upbringings had not permitted. And this led to protest behaviors that were suboptimal, not because we had a particular fondness for the police or the rules but because protests take place in the contexts of neighborhoods where the flesh-and-blood human beings we’re trying to rally to our cause live, and they universally do not want perpetual adolescents in paintball outfits wandering around looking for someone with wrists skinnier than theirs to fight.
But if they’re cool, we’re cool. Dust off your black Skechers and puff out your chest, knock yourself out, as long as you aren’t fucking things up for the rest of us. Nobody wants to be the protest police. I certainly don’t. If people want to wander around looking like they just left an Avenged Sevenfold concert, flashing their little first aid fanny packs at everybody, godspeed to them. But we’ve arrived at this bizarre moment where most left-aligned people are pretending that they think the ugly and pointless riots of last year actually did something or meant anything, and people who haven’t left the house in six years and have Stalin for their Twitter avatar are pushing a hard line on antifa blamelessness.
Well, hey, I agree: antifa is harmless. Certainly they’re not generally destructive. Most of them are well-meaning, if a little cringey. In the vast majority of the circumstances in which they gather antifa are simply irrelevant, making no material difference to events (marches and rallies and protests) that are fundamentally communicative in nature. Conservatively speaking I’ve been to 400 street protests in my life and antifa have been at most of them. They almost never do anything but stand around in their ridiculous Matrix cosplay and try to look tough, which is hard to accomplish for a movement made up of slam poets and people who have nowhere to put the energy they used to put into Division II field hockey. I’ve been to fucking Earth Day celebrations where the kids were hanging out in their black hoodies going “uh, is anyone doing a fascism here,” and nobody could tell you why, certainly not them. But who cares, right? At a protest you want numbers and you accept that some percentage of them are there for clout and some are protesting chemtrails and some are feds. You let them get folded into the broader meaning of the event and if someone really acts out of pocket you throw them out. Now, though, the internet has decided that antifa are blameless in all things, so when we see genuinely bad behavior like neckbeards beating up girls for filming them in public places (great optics guys!) the avatars of the contemporary left celebrate rather than insist they knock it off.
I’ve known good antifa people. I’ve known quite a few. There are people who have done this for thirty years and who do most of their political organizing in the mundane unsexy way adult activists try to do and who only slip on the gasmasks when they think the moment is right. And some of these guys have been completely upfront about the fact that yes, unless the movement really polices itself and people within it have real integrity, it’s very easy for antifa to become a pack of goons, especially given that the radical left tends to attract people who don’t often feel strong, don’t often feel cool, don’t often feel worthy of respect. People shuffle along feeling intensely that their lives have no meaning, and imagining themselves as warriors in a great clash of civilizations makes them feel important. Again, fine if there’s discipline, fine if there’s critical review, critical solidarity. As imperfect as the antifa movement of the past was, from my outsider’s perspective there was always a deeply-rooted sense that the movement needed to be governed internally by a set of ethics and rules. But since hordes of bored SLAC grads saw cop cars on fire on Facebook and decided it looked cool as hell and ran downtown to join in, that discipline has been erased. And today’s left is too fundamentally unserious and childish to regulate the situation.
By my lights, the big problem with antifa in 2021 is this: there used to be a communal understanding within the broader radical left that antifa principles could easily be corrupted into an excuse for mindless violence, and that there are always individuals who are operating under exactly those bad motives within the broad umbrella of antifa. So antifa was respected but never trusted. But culture war and the collapse of any kind of shared philosophy or ethics within the protest movements have left that vital understanding forgotten and that self-policing function behind. The wisdom that said that antifa action could become apolitical violence for its own sake if we’re not careful, once widely shared by genuine radicals, has been drained from a “left” that learns its politics in elite universities where there’s total unanimity of opinion and on social media where all politics is performance. Absolutely vital ethical commitments have been lost in the span of a decade as people who will go on to be dentists and lawyers flock to burning neighborhoods to playact revolutionary, posing for Instagram before fading off into the kinds of bourgie lives the occupants of those neighborhoods will never lead.
Once upon a time people said “I support this movement and these ideals, but this behavior, this event, this person, no.” That would seem to be a basic aspect of adult maturity, to recognize that no political tendency, no matter how idealistically envisioned, can be healthy without good-faith criticism and social pressure from allies. But where once movement leaders with intrinsic credibility would lead the conversation about whether antifa were crossing the line at an event and needed to be confronted, now antifa gets discussed by a PR team of Twitter bluechecks who have never protested anything, know nothing about the myriad weird social realities that afflict all protests, don’t live in the neighborhoods where protest violence is happening, and have mostly already forgotten about the spasm of meandering, much-hashtagged protests from last year.
Someone who does Ted Lasso recaps for Buzzfuck.com thinks that antifa has to be good because the name says they’re against fascism. The poetry editor at the Times, who wouldn’t deign to sit through a boring organizing meeting in a million years, wants you to know that anyone who criticizes antifa is part of “the fash” by definition. Some shithead PhD at a nonprofit that gives report cards about how dedicated defense contractors are to recycling likes to throw on the black bandana he got at Hot Topic and march around at protests like a fucking circus clown and wants you to know that everyone must support our antifascist warriors. No skin in the game, no philosophical backing, no wisdom, no leadership. I am baffled by why people who work in media think I should give a single fuck what they think about antifa, given that the first time they saw the letters A-N-T-I-F-A strung together was about 15 months ago. These people pretended to care about protests for exactly the socially prescribed length of time, have moved on to pretending to care about Afghanistan, and in five years will look back on it all with mild distaste, when they aren’t preoccupied by their kid’s orthodontist appointments.
Meanwhile, the movement will shamble on, strange unkillable creature that it is, and the people who turn up will march and chant and yell and demand, and I will be among them, and I will accept the protests for all their faults. And we’ll all have to live with antifa. How they act will be, in large measure, an expression of what the rest of us tolerate, what our protest culture accepts. Will this new left, impassioned but immature, develop a set of communal values that define rights as well as demands, an ethos that recognizes that all true radicalism comes packaged with its own constraints, and rein in the kind of masked children who are raging against nothing in Portland?
It would be hard for me to give you any answer other than no.