Skip to content Skip to footer

Anti-Fascist Self-Defense: From Mussolini’s Italy to Trump’s America

Fascism begins by attacking marginalized people first.

Hundreds of anti-racist counter-protesters converge on Martin Luther King Jr. Park on August 27, 2017, in Berkeley, California. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 72nd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Mark Bray, a political activist, historian and a lecturer at Dartmouth College and author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.

Sarah Jaffe: To start, how would you briefly describe antifa?

Mark Bray: Antifa is an abbreviation for anti-fascist or anti-fascism. Anti-fascism is a movement that goes back a hundred years, but when we talk about antifa today, we are talking about modern militant anti-fascism, which predominantly grew out of movements in, especially, Great Britain and Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, of leftist immigrants and punks and all sorts of people who were targeted by a neo-Nazi backlash, a xenophobic wave that spread over these countries and others. It is essentially a pan-socialist radical politic of collective self-defense against the far right.

I think one of the things that people don’t know is that there is a very long history of this kind of self-defense. Can you give us a couple of significant moments in anti-fascist fighting history?

Going back to the beginning, we can certainly look to the Arditi del Popolo, The People’s Daring Ones, which was an anti-fascist militia formed by various kinds of leftists in Italy in 1921 to fight back against Mussolini’s Blackshirts. These were anarchists, socialists and communists who took up rifles and defended small villages and towns from fascist attack. It was sort of too late by the time they were formed, because much of the left movement had already been destroyed by then. Then, the Socialist Party and then the Communist Party pulled out of it. So, it ended up being mostly anarchists and rank-and-file leftists. It wasn’t up to the task of stopping Mussolini.

In the 1920s and 1930s, there were several different left formations in Germany. The Red Front-Fighters’ League is one of the more important ones. The Iron Front, formed by the socialists, and Anti-Fascist Action, formed by the communists, were more oriented toward electoral work than anti-fascist confrontation, though the popular impression of them were that they were a paramilitary formation. There was a wave of conflicts between Nazis and left forces across the spectrum in Germany in the 1920s into the 1930s. Many were killed on all sides of this.

But the Socialist and Communist Party leadership didn’t really take Hitler especially seriously, or at least not as seriously as in retrospect they wish they had. This is evident in the Communist Party slogan “First Hitler, Then Us” whereby they believed that Hitler would get into power, do such a poor job that he would be out quickly, and then they would take over government. Of course, that never happened.

The first moment of conflict where the European left realized that they were facing an existential threat in the fascist menace was 1934 in Vienna, when socialists rose up against the right-wing government. From that point onward, the anti-fascist struggle in Europe was seen as not just street fighting, but a war for survival for the left.

That fed into the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. The International Brigades are maybe the most iconic anti-fascist image in history. The Spanish Republic did fall. Then, you have World War II. In the book, I focus on anti-fascism when fascist regimes are not already in power. There is plenty to be said about Italian and Yugoslav partisans and all sorts of resistance in France and the Netherlands all through World War II. Certainly, there was armed resistance to Franco in Spain.

But as far as a militant antifa model in the post-war period, maybe the prototypical example was the 43 Group in London that organized commando units to shut down fascist speakers and meetings on street corners around London in the 1940s. Perhaps the next biggest moment is the Battle of Lewisham in 1977, when the National Front organized an anti-mugging march in an immigrant neighborhood. All sorts of immigrant groups and left groups and feminist groups showed up to block their path and successfully shut it down and prevented the National Front from intimidating the community. Some of the participants of that action likened it to the earlier Battle of Cable Street.

Other examples, the Battle of Waterloo in 1992, when Anti-Fascist Action in Britain confronted some skinhead groups and essentially had a battle in a train station. Then, you can also look at the blockades of different white supremacist marches: Dresden in Germany, Salem in Sweden, Roskilde in Denmark are also examples of how – at least over the past 20 years — over time, through repeated pressure, these marches were essentially stopped.

I wanted to ask specifically about the connection between antifa and fighting organized white supremacy in the US, the Klan, things like that.

Resistance to white supremacy and resistance to the Klan goes back much further and is much broader than can be encompassed within the banner of anti-fascism. Obviously, resistance to white supremacy goes back to 1492. It goes back to resistance of slavery. It goes back to John Brown and Ida B. Wells, and so forth. It also has a tradition in the radical elements of the labor movement, the IWW having battled against the Klan in the 1920s. You can look at the Deacons for Defense and the Black Panthers and other kinds of militant opposition to white supremacy.

We can see that to some extent the boundaries get a little blurrier, starting around the 1970s when there is more of a cross-pollination between the Klan and neo-Nazi groups, when there is an emergence of what some have called a Nazified Klan. The nexus of those two elements was responsible for the Greensboro Massacre in the late 1970s. I briefly touch upon the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee in the 1980s, which espoused an antifa perspective before that kind of politics was “officially” brought to the US. They helped organize confrontational counter-protests against Klan events and other similar formations around the country.

So, it is a broader lineage and sometimes it is not entirely clear where to parse the differences between anti-fascism and a broader anti-racist movement. I think it is important to think in terms of how these groups identify, the message they use, and try to tease apart differences, but not get so obsessed with definitions that you can’t see that there is some grey area.

The revival of antifa in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, especially in the US, comes up through the punk scene. I would love for you to talk about that in more detail.

It follows on the trend that developed even a little earlier in Europe. I knew that an important part of this story was around contestations over the punk scene, over skinhead culture, more specifically. But the influence of white power British skinhead culture, which of course, was a lamentable deviation from the original multicultural anti-racist skinhead culture, that really did spread across Europe. It did spread to North America. The origins of a lot of national white supremacist revival or fascist revival incidents and anti-fascist responses to them in a lot of countries had a lot to do with the white power skinhead scene spreading. That certainly was the case in North America.

The interviews I did with anti-racists from the late 1980s and early 1990s were unanimous in citing the origins of their organizing in contestations over the local punk scene. A lot of Europeans talk about anti-fascism as kind of a gateway drug for politics or as a first exposure to radical politics because of the immediacy of the white power threat in social scenes, community centers, punk shows, everyday life for youth. People that I spoke to in the US from a number of different places talked about this being a politics that was immediate, that mattered in their everyday life. I interviewed an anti-fascist from Denmark who emphasized that as a young person, combating capitalism was such a huge task, it was a global task. But being able to push a dozen neo-Nazi skinheads out of the scene was something that was achievable and tangible and immediate and super important in everyday life in a way that young people could feel like they were making a difference.

The people that I spoke to said that by the mid-1990s, by the late 1990s, anti-racist organizing in North America had largely been successful in marginalizing white power skinheads and pushing them out of the scene. To me, that is a huge accomplishment that needs to be on the record. If this were all laid out for mainstream pundits, I think they would still be dismissive of the importance subcultural scenes, in general, but I think that the whole anti-fascist politics takes seriously subcultural spaces as a way that they can promote politics more widely.

One of the things you make clear in the book is that antifa organizers see no group of fascists as too small. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the historical understanding that springs from.

The historical lineage of that perspective comes from the fact that the original fascist and Nazi movements and parties and regimes grew out of very small nuclei. Examples include the fact that Mussolini’s initial fascist group was a hundred men. When Hitler attended his first meeting of the German Workers Party, before he later changed it into the Nazi Party, there were 54 members of that group. More recently, looking at Golden Dawn in Greece, which was a micro-party for several decades before the financial crisis of 2008 and then ballooned into the third largest party in Greece, launching attacks on migrants and leftists and so forth.

The historical argument being, small fascist and white supremacist groups don’t always stay that way and it is simply easier to organize against them when they are small and marginal, when popular opinion is clearly against them, when they don’t have connections to the halls of power and they don’t have popular basis of support. We have seen, historically, that sometimes they do grow, even if quite often they don’t.

Then, of course, the more immediate experience for immigrant communities, for left scenes, for anyone who is marginalized or who comes under attack by fascists or white supremacists, the presence of even a small group in a neighborhood or city makes its presence felt. There are plenty of documented cases of when a fascist social center sets up in Italy, when a punk house is established for white power skinheads in London, when a Nazi house is set up in Denmark, or in the US when these kinds of milieux are allowed to breathe easy, there is an inevitable violence that comes out from that in a very immediate sense, but it often targets people who are not “important” enough for the whole mainstream society to care about necessarily.

Having a few dozen boneheads in your town makes a huge difference and is a huge struggle even if, from a macro-sociological perspective, it is not important. I read one historian talking about the threat of fascists in post-war 1940s London as being marginal, but there are all these cases of synagogues being vandalized and Jews being assaulted. For them, it wasn’t marginal, even if it was marginal to society. That way of looking at politics is often lost in this conversation when you hear people say, “Well, just ignore them. They will go away.” Even if they do go away in five years, the damage they have done is really important.

I think that is a real point that gets lost, that most of the people who are writing the same exact column in every major newspaper and a lot of major magazines, are not the ones who are under threat in the first place.

Right. Politics, and really, life, is all about positionality, is all about one’s direct experience with these kinds of issues, and that is evident in politics, in general, but maybe more evident around questions of anti-fascism or self-defense against white supremacy and fascism than in many others.

You pointed out very well one of the big problems with the “just ignore them” argument. But the media has paid a lot of attention to personalities like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos this year. There is a possibility of paying too much attention to these people, although I think that is mostly a question for media and not for organizers. I wonder if you have some thoughts on how people navigate that tension of not wanting to make the far right seem big and dangerous, even as they are trying to combat them with the understanding that they could be.

To some extent you answered the question in the question. It is different for media versus for organizing. But, you are also right that you can’t 100 percent divide the two. Meaning, attention sometimes is attention. So, if there is going to be a large counter-protest to a fascist mobilization, that will necessarily draw media. It is not entirely distinct, but it is somewhat distinct.

What I will say about this issue that I think is one of the most important things that is lost in the public conversation about it is that attention in and of itself is not in and of itself fuel for political movements to grow. One of the common arguments that is made is that if XYZ, fill-in-the-blank fascist group gets attention, that is how they will grow and therefore, by organizing to shut them down, and therefore attracting media, you are giving them attention and therefore, they will grow.

While there is a kernel of truth in the sense that these far-right speakers and these groups do want attention, of course they do want people to know what they are about. But if the organizing that brings them attention also short-circuits their path to capitalize on that attention by expressing their message, by forming links with communities, by being able to present themselves as family-friendly and normalize their presence, and doing all the kinds of things that movement building requires — if those avenues are shut down but in shutting them down they get a little more attention in the long run, I don’t see evidence to suggest that that is a successful path for organizing.

To rephrase, I don’t know of any examples where successful organizing attempts against fascists have given them a little more publicity but shut down all of their opportunities for organizing, [it] has resulted in a successful growth for a fascist movement. Part of this assumption derives from the fact that, as you subtly suggest with your question, there is a focus on individuals and not groups and that there is a focus on the level of profile of individual personalities in the media. How famous is Richard Spencer? How famous is Milo Yiannopoulos gauged in terms of book sales and media appearances? That is a conversation to have, but if the groups that they are connected to or the groups that take inspiration from them are not able to grow, and these ideas that they espouse are not able to take root in any kind of substantive public collective way, then that really defangs them.

I do think it is incumbent upon journalists to think about how they cover these figures and not do it just in terms of trying to capitalize on the scandalous nature of who they are and write puff pieces about how they are charismatic. I agree with that. But giving them more attention is not the entirety of the political conversation, I guess you could say.

In the US, we have seen the growth of antifa since Trump’s election and its subsequent empowering of all these white supremacists who are coming out of the woodwork. I wonder if you could talk about some of the tactics that folks are using, because most of the media coverage focuses on these counter-rallies.

The role of public opinion in this is one of the more interesting topics to talk about. I think what bears focusing on here is [that] one of the greatest weapons that anti-fascists/anti-racists have is that, at least to some extent, most of society is opposed to racism and fascism and overt white supremacist politics. That comes into effect most visibly with doxxing, where some of the greatest success perhaps in recent anti-fascist organizing has come from doxxing individuals. For example, Cooper Ward, one of the co-hosts of The Daily Shoah podcast. He was apparently living below the radar in Nebraska, and the local antifa group in Nebraska doxxed him and forced him to drop out of school and move and relocate his whole life.

That is just one example of how simply by doing some research online and posting some flyers these kinds of hubs of organizing can be thoroughly disrupted. So, research is super important. Looking at Charlottesville, for example, and looking at the coverage of who the different groups were that were organizing the Unite the Right rally, who their leaders were, how they had been in touch with each other, what they were saying on social media, all of this information was available in the weeks leading up to Charlottesville on all sorts of alternative websites. It’s Going Down, for example, had a very extensive article about it.

Then, you pop on CNN on the day of the Charlottesville rally and the anchors are like college kids who rolled out of bed and came to class without doing their reading. They have no idea what is going on and they are saying, “Look, there are all these Trump supporters,” or whatever. Simply labelling a white nationalist rally as Trump supporters is really doing a disservice to truth and journalism.

Investigating information, research, doxxing, forming coalitions with other groups — in some cases there are some anti-fascist formations affiliated with unions, like the General Defense Committees of the IWW in terms of thinking about the relationship between labor and capitalism and fascism, I think there is some important work done there that has been overlooked. Even thinking about the activities of Redneck Revolt, I interviewed one of their founders about how they have had success going to gun shows and having conversations with conservative white men, predominantly in more conservative regions of the country and talking about how their Italian American ancestors were treated similarly to immigrants today and working on an anti-racist angle through that, and winning some people over to the other side.

Of course, organizing boycotts or campaigns of pressure to shut down white power punk shows in American Legions or VFWs [Veterans of Foreign Wars], contacting hotels to get meetings or conferences shut down that are being organized by Holocaust deniers or what have you. What you see is the great lengths that white supremacists and fascists have to go to just to do the basic political activities that leftists take for granted, like holding a meeting. Even in a private location they have to hide their identities. They have to come up with a fake name for the event. They have to be super secure with their means of communication, otherwise anti-fascists find out about it and shut it down. It makes politics so hard for them.

For people who have been part of left groups, we know that it can be hard to maintain commitment among membership. It can be difficult to make sure that people follow through on tasks like organizing venues and publicizing events. But in situations where all of these little steps become 10 times harder, it seems evident from an organizing perspective that that just makes the whole thing harder. Those kinds of logistical and organizing details are not part of the public conversation because most of the people don’t understand how hard it is just to organize an event, but these anti-fascist tactics, putting conflict out of the picture for the moment, make it so much harder.

Let’s talk about the question of feminist antifa. One of the critiques of antifa is, “Oh, these are just sort of a bunch of meathead dudes who just want to go get in fights in the street.” Could you talk about some of the feminist antifa folks that you have talked to and some of the tactics and thoughts that they had on the role of feminism in antifa?

There have been problems in anti-fascism with patriarchal behavior, with machismo, and so forth. I asked everyone I spoke to to comment on those dynamics and most said, “Yes, there has been a problem, but it has also been a problem [on] the left, generally speaking and in society, generally speaking.” I think that whenever confrontation is part of the repertoire, it is an extra concern.

A lot of this organizing in Northern Europe, in Scandinavia, in Germany, developed in the late 1980s into the early 1990s. Some of it grew out of reclaiming the punk scene, to some extent out of certain football fan cultures and so forth. By the mid-1990s there was a step taken back and an attempt to address some of these problems. The Swedes that I spoke to were very clear that there were, for example, discussion groups about internal gender politics and discussion among women in the group about how the different men were doing and issues pertaining to them. There is a very clear effort in that movement to try and address that.

From the 1990s, there were the Fantifa groups in Germany. There is an entire book written about that in German. In the US, certainly, I know that there were some very difficult conflicts within Anti-Racist Action in the 1990s around gendered issues. Speaking to some of the early organizers, they said similar things to the Europeans, “Yes, we had our problems, but it would be misleading to say that they were significantly worse than in the left, in general.”

It is interesting when it comes to the question of violence, I spoke to a number of women who, from their perspective, found anti-fascist confrontation to be, to some extent, liberating, given a society that doesn’t consider women capable of that kind of political activity. Then, I spoke to some other anti-fascists from Oregon. I spoke to two women — one currently of Rose City Antifa, one formerly — who emphasized that a lot of the critique of the machismo of anti-fascism silenced their participation in the movement and homogenized what it was in a way that didn’t recognize the diversity and plurality of who people are that do this and the kind of serious introspection and internal work around internalized oppression that some of these groups do.

It varies. Some groups seem to be doing more about it than others, and to some extent, that has to do with the degree to which these are issues addressed in broader left movements. So, in countries where questions of feminism are at the forefront of the left, then you are going to see them more in anti-fascist struggles. In general, most people said the same thing, which is, “Yes, it has been a problem. We have made some efforts. We have made some advances, but it is still a problem.” I didn’t crack that as well as I would have liked, in part, because I think the actual reality of internal dynamics in a group, you have to be there to actually really know what is what.

Somewhat connected to that is the question of putting forward a positive program, as well as shutting down fascists. I wonder if you could talk about that for a minute.

There is sort of a range of perspectives on anti-fascism. On the one end, focusing on the defensive activity and shutting down fascist groups. And on the other extreme, essentially, organizing left movements, because a lot of the anti-fascists I spoke to emphasized that really, the way that you stop fascism is you succeed in addressing people’s needs, you make them see unions and social movements or political parties as being the legitimate vehicles for addressing their grievances and representing accurately their hopes for the future.

Then, there are groups all across that spectrum that do some variation of both. I was especially struck by some of the organizing models I learned about in France and Spain where there would be these small antifa groups doing some of the more research-focused, stopping-fascist organizing-focused work often with a strong security culture where they didn’t reveal their identities to society, but as individuals outside of that, also, participated in neighborhood and regional anti-fascist assemblies, were also part of unions and other political movements, and in that capacity helped organize anti-racist hip hop festivals and interfaced with society. One of the Spaniards I spoke to described this as the two faces of anti-fascism and saw them as working parallel to each other, even if they didn’t necessarily intersect in an explicit sense.

It is clear that you need a range of perspectives. Some of it has to be putting forward an alternative vision and has to be inoculating society to the appeals of fascism, which, of course, have always shined brightest at moments of economic crisis, of social turmoil, looking at the Great Depression, looking at the financial crisis of 2008, looking to the unease of traditional-minded ethnic majorities when there are waves of migration in North America, in Europe. Being able to present a positive anti-racist message, a message of plurality and unity and internationalism is the other side of the equation.

I agree with those anti-fascists who see antifa, superficially, as kind of a firefighting operation. That was a metaphor I heard from several people: Antifa is firefighting. Putting out an immediate fire. Addressing an immediate threat of the sort of the tip of the iceberg of white supremacy. But not something that is capable of addressing racism in mass incarceration or broader economic trends. To do that, you need a broader social movement, a broader resistance.

How can people keep up with you and buy your book?

I am on Twitter. It is @Mark__Bray. The book, you can go to the Melville House website or it is on various book selling websites or it is in bookstores. I am doing book presentations around the country over the next few months.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.