[This piece came out of observations on recent events by activists with experience of AFA in the 90s, Antifa UK (the closed group 2004 – 2009), and community, trade union lead mobilisations and is posted here by request]
This may seem obvious: because fascists are doing something, and need to be opposed. This is basically correct, and is definitely a good answer to give to others who question your actions, but it is not enough. There are a range of fascists, and a range of responses. Why are you doing what you are planning to do about this specific problem? The real answers may surprise you or those you are working with.
The major reason we have an entire category of activity called antifascism, is self-serving. For the left, it is self defence, because they attack us when they get confident, and also the removal of competitors who seek to exploit discontent to seize power from the right, just like we seek to use discontent to seize power from the left. You can disagree with the words ‘seize power’, but whether you want a workers’ state or a network of communes, we want the overthrow and replacement of the current system, which is of course illegal, and this is why we pay attention to other people who also occupy this radical space: the fascists.
So actually antifascism is a building tool. Ever since the Anti Nazi League brought a fresh wave of young worker militants into the SWP in the late 1970s, this has been the case for the left. Today is no different. By the early 00s antifascism was dominated by anarchists, and despite the difference that they didn’t have a party to recruit to, it was essentially the same deal – copying developments in Europe, young people were brought into the anarchist scene via antifascism, and the concept of antifascism was blended with anarchist aesthetics like black blocks and the red and black flag.
Recruiting via antifascism is absolutely correct. We intend to change the world we live in and the way we do politics in a way that requires people to be willing to go beyond the law for their beliefs, and requires we can defend ourselves and our events. Whilst surges of struggle and leaps in political awareness can break out suddenly, like the Miners Strike and the Poll Tax rebellion, or like the student revolt in 2010 or the anti capitalist riots of the 90s and early 00s, antifascism is a great way to attract militants and maintain a militant edge indefinitely. Then when these surges happen we are ready guide and defend them.
Racism and fascism are products of capitalist imperialism – to literally defeat them, we need some kind of socialism. To have that, we need a movement – a movement that beats off its fascist competitors for the position of ‘main opponent to the government’, a movement that will go beyond the law when needed, a movement that attracts disaffected people who will become militants, and a movement that converts its more liberal followers into militants through assertive, confident, activities. That is why you do antifascism.
The main goal is how it looks and feels: to you, the antifascists, to them, the fascists, and to the public. Go back to ‘why’: will what you have planned meet these aims? Will your action look better than the fascists? How are you going to make sure it does, whatever happens on the streets? Some shortcuts here are to make sure your action matches your means – for that, see the next question ‘what’; the other shortcut is to CONTROL THE NARRATIVE.
Make it crystal clear to all those that are involved that there is to be a central narrative, a main story, and have this set in advance of the activity, based on your hoped for outcome. If you are willing to risk a brick in the gob, your gob should be willing to control the narrative. If you cannot get an agreement to follow the central narrative from one source, the organisers website or page for instance, then at least make it really clear that no one is to commit the cardinal sin: making the activity look like a fail by posting their own tale of woe.
If 500 antifascists overrun 300 fascists, that story can be obscured by one idiot posting pictures of their cuts and bruises and talking about how scared they were. Not only is the story of nasty Nazi thugs a better one for the media than the story of nice, caring, left-wing people standing up to Nazis despite the law, the people doing the leg-work and securing the victories are very unlikely to post their own stories or pictures, because they prize security and anonymity. Make it clear then that not only is it taboo to circulate a woe-is-me account, it will be followed up if you do it. By angry antifascsists.
How you do things must be primarily about making sure you look and feel good, and the opposition look and feel bad. The fascists are generally very sad types and will help you out enormously – it’s an open goal. Want to make the left look cool? Have them trounce some no-mark racists. If you cannot think how that’s going to happen, stop thinking about it and do something else entirely.
If you have a small number of people and you are mismatched, if they are militants then use guerilla tactics – harry your enemy and move on. Classic AFA style antifascism like this is has not been defeated by CCTV, but if it does become public, that will probably be after the fact, and probably won’t take place on a public demo but at a time and place of our choosing.
If you have a small number of people and they are not militants,you cannot carry out public antifascism. A community demo can be useful to meet potential new recruits or supporters, but if the event cannot defend itself without the protection of the police this should not be done under the name of “antifascism”. If your action will only convince the enemy their opposition is weak, and give them a laugh and a confidence boost, you have scored an own goal.
If you do have the numbers and the plans in place to score a victory, empower the people on your activity, and spread the idea of legitimacy resting with the broad masses and the left, rather than the police and ‘the system’, go for it.
Remember to brand it if you do; if you are socialists, make sure you carry red flags, and follow up with propaganda that uses the victory as a jumping off point: “after the people rose up to defeat the fascists in… we now say….” Use the victory as much as possible; it is rare that we, the underdog, get to convincingly portray ourselves as having power. The left has to constantly try to present itself as more than a whine about what is wrong, but an alternative to what is wrong; when you think about what you are going to do, think about that. Does your alternative appeal?
The latter should dictate the former. Your side needs to be matched to the opposition, in your favour. How do you assess this? If you do not expect or want a confrontation, but think it is important to still turn out, make sure you fulfil the central criteria – you present an appealing alternative to politics as usual; turning up dressed as latter-day ninjas to a rally organised by the Labour Party, Greens, and the NUT is the opposite of this. If that is what you want, go hunt sabbing, get it out your system.
There is every reason to support and organise a community rally that avoids confrontation, but it should not be done under the banner of ‘antifascism’, which should be reserved for militant, assertive action. Even if you attend incognito, be very, very wary of picking up any of the politics that may be at a mainstream rally and associating them with ‘antifascism’ which must remain pro-worker and socialist. A lot of the politics at these rallies will be the communitarian, ‘multicultaralist’ type of liberalism, developed in the 1980s: capitalism is fine as long as all races are ‘included’ in it, equality is having a handful of rich brown and black people, not economic equality for all races.
By supporting this kind of event, you might well be playing into the Far Right’s hands, helping the elite gloss over the real problems with capitalism by ‘opposing the racists’. Yes, the EDL are by and large racists, and the NF etc. are outright Nazi racists: but racism itself comes from capitalist imperialism and its need to justify the economic exploitation of the Global South. The elite often use racist, fascist no-hopers as scapegoats to hide this. Do not help them. Working class people have a right to be angry, things are not okay. We need to channel that anger in the correct direction, not fire-fight for the establishment. If you cannot make your voice heard as a pro-worker entity, it might be best to stay away from a pro-elite back-slapping event. It can be very hard to stop trade unions from endorsing these events without a pro-worker alternative, but if you cannot win the argument, the same applies: do not let your union branch banner or your socialist or antifascist flag be seen on events that fundamentally contradict what they mean.
If you do expect confrontation, you should know almost exactly who you have on side, to come out on top; there should be no question of hoping for the best, hoping the opposition isn’t interested or is weakened by some chance occurrence. Whilst there is a role for everyone, if you expect confrontation, that role is not on the street; you should be in a militant mindset from the moment you leave home, ready to stand your ground under attack.
This is not a lefty demo, even a spikey lefty demo – getting pushed around by the police, in the way that has become a core ritual for some sections of the left, is not the same as getting pushed around by the Far Right, who will use the experience to embolden their side and mock the left. They might even get it on video. There is little worse than being seen as having lost a fight of your own making. The general public might sympathise with an ‘innocent bystander’ assaulted by the opposition, but if your event made a big noise about smashing fascism, and fascism smashed you, they will judge you harshly. Same as any other confrontation.
Recently there has been the suggestion that it is ‘mainly a numbers game’ and the most important thing is to get out on the streets. If you have read this far, you will understand why we think that is dangerous bullshit, not just for the people who might get a traumatic (and we mean traumatic) kicking, but for all of us, who have the narrative taken away from us by something bad happening to someone who should not have been in the antifascist group. Anyone who is going to panic and go to pieces, can and will spread panic and defeatism, even amongst really confident antifascist activists. Defeats also mean it is more likely that the fascist will be violent in future, now they know they can get away with it, and this idea will spread to other fascists; so think long and hard, because your defeat might be the start of a whole wave of aggression towards other people too.
There is absolutely no shame whatsoever in not being up to the task; whilst confrontation can be exhilarating, it is also very draining, and can lead to a loss of clarity generally. There are lots of other roles that can be filled, not least building the political alternative that antifascism is only one part of. Not being ‘hard’ is not a bad thing, and no one should feel under pressure to be hard; but they should respect other people’s skills and strengths too.
Too many times have nasty, vindictive, and bitter insults been thrown at people on the left by others who are struggling with their unnecessary guilt at not being a street militant. Cut that out. Let people do what they are good at, and do what you are good at. No one is judging you so long as you are honest: say ‘I can’t stand violence, it leaves me in pieces – but I respect that it is necessary’, and nobody can give you a hard time. Macho bullying is to be opposed, as is passive aggressive bullying and character assassination.
Your line must counter the Far Right’s line, and those sympathetic to their arguments. The truth is most Far Right movements do fizzle out in the UK and antifascism is rarely the primary factor in their collapse, though it does have a major impact on their conduct; it can keep them occupied with combative events rather than political growth, keep them on or off the streets, and keep others safe from their attention. Mainly they fold due to infighting or state subversion, and our electoral system preventing small parties from gaining representation. The other truth we should really cotton on to is that the level of racial diversity and mixed race children in the UK now means there is little chance of a classic fascist, Nazi style race-based march to power and racial genocide. This is why they have adopted the much thornier issues of Islamic extremism and mass migration, rather than the ‘death of the white race’. Instead of following them into that territory, stick to core messages.
We have covered the real reasons for antifascism as a militant edge of the left, you need to think about your public face: say – these people are racists, they need to be stopped. That will probably be met with more questions, so here’s a suggested guide to parrying them:
This includes banners or placards that carry any slogans like ‘let them in’ or ‘no borders’ – do not make or carry anything like this. If you want to make the case for No Borders, i.e. dissolving national borders before we have abolished capitalism, then take it to the workers’ movement, and try and get it adopted by the unions. It is not the debate you need to be having in areas that are already showing sympathy for the Far Right.
There are lots of other things you could do. The main thing you could do instead of building antifascism as a militant edge and pole of attraction, is build other things the left needs – like proactive, confident left wing groups and campaigns doing inspiring and positive activism. Trade unionism is the backbone of the left and of antifascism too – are you properly engaged there? You should be.
If you are not going to do a public antifascist event as laid out above, but you still want to help antifascism, then intelligence is a good activity. You can do this online or in real life, and here is where the people who aren’t obvious street militants can come into their own.
People will open up with all sorts of info if they don’t feel wary of you or if they want to take you home to show you their Skrewdriver collection. Online, you will be amazed how much people will make something they want to be true, true – and hey presto your Aryan model profile is party to inside info.
Other online roles are fighting it out in the comments sections – make the simplest cases for socialism, and using multiple profiles (real or fake) to make it again and again. If the government has money for war, they have money for housing. There’d be no competition for jobs if there were more jobs. If the City of London wasn’t economically bleeding out the developing world, its inhabitants wouldn’t need to move to the city of London.
At all times show respect for each other, and especially those with experience. Do not chase the ambulance; despair is not a left wing impulse. Humour, camaraderie and bravery are to be your currency. Take everything seriously but not too seriously, and always be ready to reassign people’s roles, politely and firmly, and be ready have your own role reassigned. Antifascism remains the key way to raise the militancy and consciousness of left, and recruit the already conscious or militant to the left; it is the best way to show that ‘the system’ is not just a concept we need to overcome in our heads, but that there are literal enemies that need beating, and beating them is our task.