“We’re in a revolution. Now the question is, who’s going to win it?”
—John DeBonis 1
In the summer of 2017, Rebel Media, a Canadian crowd-funded website politically positioned to the right of Breitbart, posted the article, “Eight-Year Old Drag Queen the Product of Antifa Parenting?” 2 This came on the heels of a slew of news articles associating everything and everyone with anti-fascism, from the actual anti-fascist “black bloc” to liberal professors unduly called “antifa” organizers. This pattern has become commonplace in right-wing media: use bait words like “communist” or “anarchist” to label aspects of the Left that are feared or scorned, then turn them into talking points and petitions for the far-Right to further their agenda. The liberal language of “extremism,” which was used previously to raise money by non-governmental organizations (like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union) to fight white supremacist terrorism, was turned on the Left.
Over the past twelve months, a frenetic conflict has emerged across North America as far-Right rhetoric, white nationalism, and right-wing political influence has gained ground at unimaginable speed. However, as made evident by last year’s “coming out party” in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, the far-Right’s growing progress has been broken and fragmented. While ineptitude, infighting, and misdirection have always played a role in halting the far-Right’s growth, a new coordinated attack by leftist organizing, both online and in physical spaces, has resulted in a concerted disruption of their infrastructure. Antifa as a specific political movement is characterized by direct engagement and “no platforming,” meaning the denial of space by any means necessary for fascists to spread their message and propaganda. However, in addition to no platforming, antifa has a decades-long history that we can draw from. It includes projects in community and labour organizing, social intervention and mutual aid, the formation of counter-institutions and community fortification, anti-racist struggle and the revolt against inequality, and consciousness-raising and education, all of which create an interwoven fabric of resistance.
The Left needs to build on the lessons learned during the blur of the last two years of organizing. One of the challenges for the Left will be bringing together the disparate milieus of North American organizers and revolutionaries, whose growth has outpaced the far-Right’s, but which has also been halted by increasing factionalism. Arriving at a future with a unified leftist front will require a close investigation into the near past, a recording of what has happened historically, and an analysis of what is slowly emerging now. This article is one attempt at elucidating these narratives. In what follows, I examine anti-fascist responses to the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, including analyzing how anti-fascist organizations from rural areas and college campuses have emerged, evolved, and challenged the far-Right. 3
Charlottesville and the Contemporary US Far-Right
The far-Right, from alt-lite media outlets like Breitbart News Network and Rebel Media, to white nationalist or so-called “patriotic” groups, to openly avowed neo-Nazis, capitalize on the us’ culture of hyperbolic commitment to freedom of expression and use it to set a political stage for radical right-wing growth. They mischaracterize the revulsion from progressives at their dehumanizing statements and calls for ethnic cleansing as authoritarian attacks on “free speech.” For example, it was alt-lite celebrity, and former Rebel Media commentator, Lauren Southern who led the “free speech” actions in Berkeley, California in response to the forced event cancellations of fellow alt-Right speakers Milo Yiannopoulos and Anne Coulter. At the same time, “antifa” is used as a dog-whistle to drum up anger towards people trying to deny fascists a platform. This was evident in the Berkeley clash, which was defined less by its standard alt-lite content and more by its presumed antagonist: antifa.
Meanwhile, controversies over the removal of Confederate monuments across the American South triggered another period of reactionary outrage, and alt-Right organizers like Richard Spencer were waiting, torches lit, prepared to capitalize on Southern American populism for their own white supremacist vision. This added fuel to the far-Right movement, which stagnated slightly after President Donald Trump’s election and the eventual capitulation to Beltway gop politics (i.e., neoliberalism and interventionist foreign policy). Herein, opponents to white supremacy were once again caricatured as both sophisticated political terrorists but also as blundering buffoons who labeled anyone to the right of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders a fascist.
After months of “outrages of the week,” figures like Spencer and fellow white supremacist Jared Taylor wanted to bring together the Right as a cohesive movement for those on the “proper Right,” that is, those who see themselves as the upholders of natural hierarchies, tradition, and white identity politics. Thus, in a move to regroup, reinvigorate, and simply remain in the headlines, various strands of the political Right called for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. This was a way to coalesce the disparate elements of the dissident Right that were once motivated by the term alt-Right. Lacking political savvy and a strategic vision, these strands were lost in the malaise of the modern world of internet celebrity and sectarian controversy—a world that they had held their noses at.
However, the far-Right was met with growing opposition once again. This included anti-racist and anti-fascist groups like: Redneck Revolt, who announced that they would enter Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park bearing firearms as protection against potential white supremacist violence; 4 the Appalachian Redneck Revolt branches, who showed up two days in advance to counter the white supremacist march surrounding the multiracial St. Paul’s Memorial Church where well-known anti-racists like Cornel West were protesting and being blocked from leaving by white supremacist marchers; 5 and Solidarity C’Ville, a coalition of churches and anti-racist organizations such as Black Lives Matter, who spent weeks building a base that could challenge the far-Right.
On the morning of the rally, counter-protesters overwhelmed the assigned park for the alt-Right rally, but this proved a dangerous strategy. Confrontations erupted into aggressive street fights between large contingents of fascists and anti-fascists, which led to an anti-racist protester of colour being singled out and beaten with metal poles by four white nationalists. 6 Following dozens of arrests and injuries, the event was abruptly cancelled, and formal organization gave way to disparate unofficial rallies. It was during this chaos that Vanguard America associate James Alex Fields drove a car into the crowd, seriously injuring 19 people and killing local activist Heather Heyer. 7 Before ambulances were allowed into the crowd, a police tank arrived as civilian medics desperately tried to revive the unconscious. 8
Within hours, candlelight vigils for Charlottesville were organized in every major city of the us. As the roar of the tragedy hit the airwaves, Democratic and Republican politicians rushed to waiting cameras to decisively, if disingenuously, denounce the racist violence. President Trump, on the other hand, issued a statement denouncing the violence “on both sides,” a move that elicited disgust even from within his own party. 9
Far-Right participants in the torchlight march and rally were then “doxed”—the public broadcasting of information of individuals usually based on their political beliefs or ideologies—by anti-fascists in record numbers, with many fired from their jobs and denounced by their own families. For instance, in the sleepy upstate New York village of Honeoye Falls, Jarrod Kuhn, an alleged Daily Stormer affiliate, was outed to his neighbours by Honeoye Falls-based organization Eastside Antifascists. Once the media descended on Kuhn, he desperately tried to disassociate himself from the neo-Nazi contingent, announcing that his “life [was] over,” and that he had to move out of his hometown. 10 This response highlighted the consequences of affiliating with genocidal racialism. As Peter Berkman, an Eastside Antifascists organizer pointed out, “You don’t get to be a weekend Nazi. You don’t get to participate in deadly neo-Nazi riots and then quietly return to your community like nothing happened.” 11 Mike Enoch, an American neo-Nazi blogger and podcast host, was also sent reeling after he was named, along with 23 other white nationalists including former kkk Grand Wizard David Duke, in a lawsuit from a survivor of the car attack. 12
Online pressure against white nationalists and neo-Nazis mounted as well. Twitter suspended alt-Right account logins, Facebook took down pages affiliated with hate, Mailchimp cancelled accounts, SoundCloud dropped white nationalist podcasts, and dating apps like Tinder and OKCupid banned known fascists like Christopher Cantwell from their services. GoDaddy and Cloudflare also began to refuse to host far-Right websites like the Daily Stormer. The ability of these technocratic companies to unilaterally pull the plug on content they deem objectionable has ominous implications for the Left as well, as seen when the crowdfunding platform Patreon followed calls to ban antifa as well as avowed neo-Nazis. 13 However, these account suspensions and bans demonstrate the power of collective action in swaying giant institutions. 14
The retreat of the far-Right following Charlottesville was significant. For example, the following weekend 50 participants of an alt-Right rally in Boston were met by an estimated 40,000 anti-fascists who flooded the streets and shut down the event before it started. Cities around the country were hosting vigils, protests, and demonstrations, ironically creating the solidarity that Spencer had dreamed Charlottesville would yield for the alt-Right.
Indeed, the alt-Right created unity out of Charlottesville: unity against them. There was renewed discussion on the importance of antifa resistance and the ethics of confrontation. The story changed from a depiction of white nationalist power to a narrative of resistance against it. After Charlottesville, there were several attempts at public celebration by the alt-Right but all of them were met with a cadre of anti-racist organizers. Yet, it was more than public opposition, there were direct action trainings, art showings, coalition meetings, and long-term planning. The Left was organizing resistance and building radical meta-politics.
This growing resistance was not just the result of the tide turning on the alt-Right, but also the result of fascism demonstrating its lethal consequences. The anti-fascist opposition also showed its potential for growth; anti-fascist politics was available to anyone, and it had set its sights on both the alt-Right groups on campus who had revealed their real character, and on Trump squatting in the halls of power refusing to denounce the ugliest cohorts of his ascent. Although the aligning circumstances sparked growing opposition, it was not inevitable and there are no guarantees the movevement will be sustained. The door to anti-fascist unity has been opened, but it only becomes meaningful if organizers get organized, get connected, and get moving.
Anti-fascism is Us
The struggle is not to define militant anti-fascism simply by the organizational forms that result from no-platforming, but to expand upon them. Anti-fascist organizers must learn from the successes and mistakes that others have experienced in organizing against fascism throughout the 20th century and tackle the fascist networks that desperately want to manipulate the angst of oppressed peoples against themselves. Anti-fascist movements are forming in struggles in workplaces, in sexual health clinics, on street corners, in public parks, anywhere the sharp edge of fascism can cut at an already fresh wound created by our vastly oppressive society.
Organizations like Redneck Revolt, for instance, have focused on developing strong community bonds in neglected rural areas, to confront the far-Right’s creeping edge. They have established food distribution programs at cattle shows emulating Food Not Bombs—an anarchist network of individuated collectives providing social provisioning for all via food sharing—but without the subcultural baggage of vegan politics, instead focusing on addressing food insecurity. They also set up a needle-exchange program in Appalachia to help build a base of supporters in poor communities hit by waves of opioid overdoses. This mutual aid model fills the role of receding public services which the state fails to provide by attempting to meet medical and food needs in those areas. But community organizing is also done with public anti-fascist demonstrations to earn trust and respect from communities amid conflicting ideological forces, thus undercutting the far-Right militias’ reason for existing. 15 In Portland, Oregon, the Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective offers support to people coming out of prison, working alongside the Portland Anarchist Black Cross to help ex-convicts find union apprenticeship programs and well-paid jobs. They also use trade union resources to continue organizing and to confront the substantial number of white power workers who have used collective bargaining to exclude racialized workers. 16
For the alt-Right, the young and middle-class male demographic on college campuses has become a focal point for organizing a base of supporters. This has made many campuses hostile places, with radical Right and Republican student groups often going “full fash,” an allusion to openly aligning with fascist ideology, promoting identitarian based groups such as Identity Evropa and Turning Point usa. As campuses became newly contested spaces, the Campus Antifascist Network (can), a coalition of Left faculty and students whose strategies range from counter-demonstrations and educational projects to event disruptions, arose in opposition.
can aims to organize a broad swathe of activists. They believe that more student participation is required to defeat fascism in contested spaces. The group’s format is thus a broad-based, “popular front” of campus faculty and students that ranges across the Left spectrum, and which accounts for the lived reality of students and faculty threatened by alt-Right provocateurs. The large overlap between active membership, faculty, and graduate student employees gives them unique access to both institutional resources and labour unions for solidarity.
The creation of can demonstrates a renewal of anti-fascist organizing which builds on past movements but goes beyond the limitations of no-platforming fascists on campus. can’s aim is to win over this physical and ideological space. 17 They do this by denying the formation of far-Right organizations on campus and appearances by alt-Right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos and The Bell Curve author Charles Murray. can has also prioritized protecting left-leaning professors on campus who have been targeted by alt-Right organizations like Campus Reform. 18
The growth of graduate student unions and an increasing rank and file organizing from teachers’ unions have strengthened can anti-fascist mobilization. For instance, in Berkeley thousands of people, largely organized by teachers’ unions representing the campus and their allies at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ilwu), 19 mobilized to overwhelm the far-Right organization Patriot Prayer that was attempting to hold another antagonistic rally shortly after Charlottesville.
If anti-fascist organizing is to expand beyond single-issue politics, it needs to expand and adopt different tactics. Militant anti-fascist organizations, such as Anti-racist Action (ara) and other decentralized antifa groups, are not mass assemblages. These groups exchange having a greater number of participants for a well-trained and educated cadre that is expected to be reliable, to agree with certain strategic points, and to be ready to take extraordinary action to functionally stop fascist organizing and violence. Mass movements, on the other hand, are messy, have divergence and conflict, and hinge on strategic success of mass participation in some form. This is therefore not a call to reject the organizations that have consistently confronted right-wing groups. Rather, the anti-fascist movement must expand on it by pivoting the multiple organs of struggle into concert against the most crystallized forms of reaction.
Tensions within the anti-fascist movement have often revolved around questions of tactics and strategy, and the ability to take responsibility for decisions, while also replicating the ongoing schisms that take place politically. Authoritarian communist organizations like the Revolutionary Communist Party and By Any Means Necessary have stepped into anti-fascist organizing in a meaningful way, and those contributions have been lauded. Their long-term visions, however, remain a barrier for those that see anti-fascism as an initiative that should ignite the spark for a new world. A future of total liberation must be on the table, not just a compromise with Marxist memories of the past or reformist compromise with the liberal state. This means moving beyond anti-fascism, but not without it; to build on the success of anti-fascism by creating additional strategies for engagement and survival by using every tool and method that works. If the Left wants to take its survival seriously, it means supporting anti-fascism, and building on top of past successes to create an infrastructure of resistance that covers every area that fascism can touch. The admonishment of the far-Right cannot be the final stage of struggle since it is only a symptom of a disease, and one that will continue to erupt unless the cause is addressed.
Anti-fascism should be a vessel for radicalization, to inspire a new generation of organizers to see what is possible when collective action is used to solve collective problems. In this sense, anti-fascism is an approach to one particular problem; a clearing away of reactionary violence so the larger and more long-term work of targeting the sources of the inequality that fascism exploits can be done. The privilege of those engaging in fascist movements, primarily white men, is the last vestige of control from a system that, in the end, will destroy them as well. If that reactionary impulse is confronted then the revolutionary Left can only become a more powerful force to completely undermine class and hierarchical distinctions.
Fascism exists not just as an endpoint for the far-Right, but as something that shifts and acts with parts of the establishment. Even without the success of a white ethno-state, we are seeing an increased targeting of immigrants, the suppression of wages, the eviction of tenants, and state brutality. These are not all perfectly defined as fascism, which requires certain tenants and process, but that doesn’t matter in this struggle. They all share the same foundational inequality of which fascism is only its most blatantly violent representation. Anti-fascism thus must be met with and strengthened by interacting struggles that see the confrontation of white nationalists only as a starting point, and which recognize that the conditions that birthed them have to be eradicated as well.
There Is a Future Here
As the far-Right has seen critical hits in the past year, this begs the question: what has this meant for the broader populist Right and racist surges in North American politics? Is the militant Left functionally stronger, or has a radical analysis shifted back to the American Left’s lowest social democratic denominator? The answer to this likely falls within the paradoxical pattern of the North American Left, bound both by its claims to mass representation and its inability to really break from the failed conventions of the past. While anti-fascism has had a clear break from electoral politics, its insular nature, largely grounded in tight-knit and decentralized organizations, has not been able to sway public consciousness away from electoralism. In a way, this is a failure that blm and the encampments at Standing Rock protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline were better able to communicate: a revolutionary class analysis in the face of liberal electoralism. The strong face of electoralism, both reactively against Trump and progressively for left-leaning incumbents like Bernie Sanders, has also influenced the direction of the Left, with surging membership numbers in organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (dsa), while organizations to their political Left have had only slow growth. 20
Another question remains: at which point does anti-fascism shift its attention from tactics based on insurgency towards a holistic shift in state power? Since Trump’s 2017 inauguration, he has implemented a travel ban from majority Muslim countries, heightened border imperialism via a discourse on the creation of the us-Mexico border wall, increased attacks on the lgbtq community and on public-sector unions, and given a voice to the reactionary anger of the privileged parts of the working class. These developments highlight that although it is critically important to differentiate between authoritarian right-wing populism, of which Trump is a figurehead, and otherwise full-scale fascist ideologies, there is still a conducive nature between the two. As Matthew N. Lyons points out, the Left has an inability to correctly identify fascism:
[M]ilitaristic repression—even full-scale dictatorship—doesn’t necessarily equal fascism, and the distinction matters. Some forms of right-wing authoritarianism grow out of established political institutions while others reject those institutions; some are creatures of big business while others are independent of, or even hostile to, big business. Some just suppress liberatory movements while others use twisted versions of radical politics in a bid to “take the game away from the left.” These are different kinds of threats. If we want to develop effective strategies for fighting them, we need a political vocabulary that recognizes their difference. 21
A state can shift into fascist policies, or full-scale fascism, through a mutually instigatory relationship with the far-Right, and this should always be seen as a potential of movements far outside the mainstream. As the Trump administration increases its white supremacist policies, it has forced anti-fascist movements and their allies to establish more cohesive political projects. The blockades, protests, and occupation camps against the us Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ice) are a critical example of this. The Occupy ice pdx camp in Portland, Oregon, one of the most established around the country, was heavily supported by anti-fascists, particularly anti-racist skinheads who provided organizing and security. As Trump’s state apparatus continues to wreak havoc, coordination between different leftist movements is crucial.
Part of this coordination requires education and discussion about what fascism is and how it operates, as well as the sharing of what successful actions against fascism’s spread look like. This all hinges on a growing need for long-term coordination and vision; the ability to see the various places fascism has spread to, and the ability to build leftist projects, actions, and, movements to confront them, is crucial. Throughout this process, it is key that anti-fascism move beyond a reaction to the far-Right and the reification of liberal institutions. Instead it must devote itself to not only taking down the enemies at the gate, but also to taking down the gate itself.
The crux of revolutionary movement-building is the balance between the reality of the present and the idealism of the future. Can a movement lead not just to momentary gains, to petty reforms, but instead create a path to societal restructuring? The possibility of achieving this hinges on those conquests reflecting, in their methodology and actions, that of a new and different world. Some call this prefigurative politics, but really it is a form of visioning and making the tools of resistance ready to be pivoted from sheer rebellion to coordination and vibrancy. The anti-fascist movements themselves, then, cannot see restoration of the order that birthed fascism as anything other than a false solution. Confronting the root issues of capitalism—class exploitation, intersectional oppression, and institutionalized hierarchy—makes anti-fascism more than the sum of its parts; it is what makes it a revolutionary proposition. This means creating movements that confront not only reactionary manifestations, but also the systemic inequalities that created them. Anti-fascism can be rooted in long-term visions, moving it beyond the narrow ability to respond to crisis and violence.
Today’s mass movement against fascism is one that has the potential to reach millions, to feed on their own experiences, and to cultivate a collective vision of the future. It means activating masses of people to find a place in the struggle based on their own abilities and capacities. From community unions like the Portland Assembly, to the diverse community-organizing strategies of the Industrial Workers of the World’s General Defense Committees, a direct democracy has the potential to form as a collective response to crises that are felt across race, gender, and class. Fascists have shown us how violent the world can be. Anti-fascists must confront this threat with their own visions of a liberatory future. Only through mass engagement can a movement thwart rising fascist ideology and provide the experiential transformation of consciousness necessary to take steps towards a different future. The new anti-fascist movement that is forming has the potential to be dynamic and reflexive, and to grow as the number of people involved multiply and bring unique experiences, skills, and subjectivities. It also has the potential to return to hollow political reformism if it does not learn from the militants who have defined the struggle for decades. This sets some of the long-term visions for anti-fascism, grounding it in the building of community movements and institutions that run counter to the electoralism of the state. This means that an anti-fascist movement must see beyond singular struggles like opposition to Donald Trump, and instead connect the targets of today to a concrete vision of how a different world can be created.
In a world where the Left consists of large ngos and trade unions negotiating with capital, reordering environmental decline, and tempering economic woes, it is easy to see the Left as simply another failed component of the capitalist superstructure. To counter this messaging, something more than broad-based anti-capitalism is needed; the Left needs to offer a unique vision, something tangible: a new way of organizing and living and an answer to capitalist crisis with limitless potential. In short: to be dangerous again.
Along with the new world being sought, there needs to be a way of organizing the struggle to include the growing number of participants, to address their tactical confusion with direct action, and to show that something material is produced from their effort. This is not an easy proposition, one that mass movements of the Left must negotiate as they balance the appeal of numbers with the desire to stay committed to a grand vision. This means working these two missions, the goals of the immediate movement and its underlying motivations, simultaneously, and allowing the critique and methodology to evolve as those movements adapt. The Left needs to allow itself to win. •