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The Expansive Horizons of Antifascism: Interview With Editor Shane Burley

The editor of “No Pasarán! Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis” discusses the ongoing fight against fascism.

Anti-fascist protesters hold a banner and red smoke flares during a demonstration against NATO in Madrid, Spain on June 26, 2022.

The following interview was originally published by The Institute for Anarchist Studies.

Paul Messersmith-Glavin: Talk about what was going on in the world four or five years ago and what motivated you to put this collection together.

Shane Burley: I think I first came up with the idea in 2018 when I was at a bar with Kim Kelly and Spencer Sunshine. It seemed like the time to start something like this, and I knew it would be a multi-year endeavor. There was a lot of interest in the idea of antifascism because people were joining antifascist groups, creating new ones, building these really mass actions, and, more importantly, trying to figure out what was next. There were some good books out at the time, and some great ones still to come, but we were thinking about how to build outward. What was missing?

So the thought was to talk about different kinds of experiences, different voices, really open it up, and hear from people who had not had a platform. Then we wanted to flip the script and come at it from different directions. There were a lot of approaches that could distinctly be called antifascist that had yet to really get attention. Musicians and religious groups who were developing subcultural strategies, international movements that had never been identified as antifascist, entire histories that were being defined out of antifascism. So the goal of the anthology was to widen the scope and to think about all the different facets of the idea, and in doing so to help create a plurality of what types of tactics, organizations, and strategies we could use to fight fascism. And that’s what’s so great about the book being released right now, because this is the perfect time to be asking that question since the entire terrain is shifting so rapidly. We don’t know entirely what comes next, but it won’t look like what we were fighting just a couple of years ago and so we need an intensely diverse approach.

Messersmith-Glavin: Can you give an overview of this collection of writing? What topics and perspectives are contained within No Pasaran, and which organizers and thinkers? What is distinct about this collection in relation to other recent books on antifascism?

The book is an attempt to split open the expectations that many have on what antifascism is and to open up new possibilities, to bring in other histories and ideas into the framework of antifascism, and to try and envision a new future of what antifascism can look like in the coming years. Few works on antifascism have tried to pull together something of this wide scope, both thematically and in terms of who is contributing, and we have tried to zoom out enough so that the chapters have wildly different subjects and approaches. So we move into questions of geography, identity, strategy, intersectionality, and expansive histories as it relates to antifascism, an incredibly diverse topic that has not typically been treated as diverse.

Jesse Cohn: From my perspective as an indexer: when I looked back at my work, by far the biggest entry in the index seems to have been “women,” followed by “class” and “ideology.” What are some of the relationships or tensions you see between these concepts in antifascist discourse?

It’s an interesting question. I think that class and ideology play a frenetic role in the rise of fascism, in part because they are often employed or viewed in contradictory ways. Class is a central narrative of all revolutionary movements because oppression or marginalization is a classed position, so when the far-right puts a nativist call to the white working-class they are appealing to those class positions. What they do is try to reframe the class experience of oppression (all working-class people experience dispossession through alienated labor) and they have that experience recast as racial (they experience the oppression because they are white). This is, in essence, ideology, in a Marxist sense, as it attempts to mutate class consciousness. Our answer to fascist movement building is also along the lines of class: we believe that a movement across identities within the working class is the actual solution to the alienation of living in capitalism. So it is a struggle for the consciousness of the class.

Fascism is deeply ideological, and that’s even more true for minority movements, those that dominate what we describe as fascism after the interwar period. These are movements, sometimes incredibly small in size, that build themselves on philosophical notions about how the world is and ought to be. We define fascists not simply by their ability to wield power, in fact they often have very little power, but through their ideology. The alt-right was a profoundly ideological movement, this was necessary for their meta-political strategy, and so we define them in terms of their ideological positions. The interesting dynamic in antifascism is that they are not then confronted with ideology, antifascists do not merely demand they change and convince them of ideological conversion. While that may be a desirable outcome, antifascism is more concerned with marginalizing fascist ideologies and ideologues so as to preserve the safety of the community and the integrity of a positive radicalism.

Women makes sense as a prime vector for fascism since misogyny has been one of the key components of the modern far-right, and it is also whereby antifascist responses have tried to re-center those experiencing misogyny. We should also remember that this is a moment of mass movements like the Women’s March and #MeToo that many people experienced simultaneously, or as intersecting with, antifascism.

Messersmith-Glavin: What is the significance of misogyny in neo-fascist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers and, for that matter, Trump and the rest of the GOP?

Misogyny has always been central to the right because it plays into their sense of traditional hierarchy, in this case a gendered hierarchy. But it goes much further than this because there is a seething rage that motivates huge parts of this movement, much more profound than simply wanting women to return to domesticity. The alt-right’s online persona evolved out of the “Manosphere,” which was a male-centric space built almost entirely on harassing public women, threatening sexual violence, demanding sexual submission, and mobilizing this overwhelming anger stemming from men’s perceived inability to access the types of privileges they were promised. So, for a lot of these guys, their misogyny was the energy they needed to join the movement, and because it was the language in which they encountered other far-right ideas.

This is going to continue being the case as these gendered culture war issues are part of the central ways that they are able to pull new recruits away from the beltway Right and into self-conscious white nationalism. Abortion, trans healthcare, public LGBTQ spaces, and other gendered issues are what is allowing them to mobilize such massive support, and this is based on the kind of energy that only patent hatred has, and gendered hatred is amongst the most easily accessible in the American population of cis-gendered men.

For the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, they operate essentially under a male fraternity model, so for them it is publicly about regaining patriarchal bonds that are given stability with the “traditional” family. While they will insist that they celebrate women (Proud Boys say they “venerate the housewife”) their actual treatment of women, and the statements of leaders like Gavin McInnis, show that open hatred and sexual exploitation is what their rhetoric is when put into action.

Messersmith-Glavin: What role does antisemitism play in current fascist tendencies and society generally?

Antisemitism emerged from Christian anti-Judaism — specifically from claims found in the Gospels, New Testament, and later theological writings — that saw Jews as nefarious, conspiratorial, and uniquely prone to evil. They were provoked into what some people refer to as “middle agent” positions where they were compelled to lend money at interest, and this created a buffer between the peasant and mass classes and the aristocracy, nobilities, and ruling class. Because Jews were used for this economic role, they were uniquely visible in dynamics of economic dispossession, so basically people blamed the Jews when they were in financial crisis instead of those who actually controlled the land and, what we would call today, capital. None of this is clear cut, myth mixes with reality, religious theology with rumor, and you get an evolving picture of Jews as a conniving people set apart from their Christian neighbors, who allegedly hate Gentiles, who sacrifice their children for blood rituals, and for personal gain or enmity.

These ideas evolved and secularized partially in the later modern period as people were incurring this new system called capitalism and various abstractions that came along with it: legalisms, contracts, finance, real estate, etc. Many Jews went into a lot of these new urban professions because they had a long history of Jewish education that had given their community skills that were particularly useful, but also the historic association with money lending (which was always overblown in comparison to the reality) acted as the mythological connective tissue necessary to explain the changes. Because this emerging financial system dispossessed people from some of their traditional way of lives and access to (somewhat) stable livelihoods, they began to fetishize those traditional ways of life. Because this new economic system appeared somewhat like usury, which is what Jews had been accused of, and because Jews appeared (again, stereotypes that were more assumed than factual) to be thriving in these new associated professions, the assumption was that these changes were the result of a “Judaized” society. This modernity was then believed to be the effect of Jewish influence on society, so a new movement called “anti-Semitism” (we no longer use the hyphen since “semitism” is a fictitious concept) alleged that it was aiming to stop the influence of “semitism,” or Jewishness.

This idea evolved and changed over the years and influenced the waves of pogroms that took place in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th Centuries, and was a central tenet of the Nazis. Theirs was a revolutionary ideology to stop the perils of modernity, which they believed Jews were at the center of. They had a laundry list of problems they saw in the modern world, but since they believed Jews were the lynchpin of all of it, they believed killing Jews was the most efficient way of solving the problem and prioritized that through industrialized killing methods.

Post-war white nationalism kept up this theory about the Jews, which had crystalized during the fascist era to become a central conspiracy theory: the world is run by a secret cabal of Jews from which all bad things emerge, such as capitalism, communism, materialism, feminism, etc. This is necessary because the fascist worldview is based on creating a revolutionary response to feelings of dispossession, but instead of going after who we on the Left would agree are the culprits, they have to validate their recruits’ feelings of alienation by giving them a target. The Jews remain a central piece of this fascist narrative because it has a long history in the West, it is complex enough to allegedly explain most social phenomena, and because it channels class anger by presenting Jews as the oppressor and therefore is able to mobilize the impulse to free oneself. This is why it can make its way into the political Left despite the Left’s active attempts to confront racial, religious, and other bigotries, because it is a narrative about “punching up” rather than “punching down.” So, antisemitism is a key piece of the revolutionary element in fascism, it is what binds together their false ideas about race and tradition and without it the entire thing would unravel.

What’s interesting to note is that there are fascisms that do no center antisemitism, but what we understand as white nationalism generally always reproduces antisemitism because it is part of the Western tradition of fascist thought. It’s also important to note that anti-Blackness is more foundational to the American history of white supremacy, particularly structurally, but antisemitism plays a role in constructing the openly conspiratorial worldview of the most radical fringes of white nationalism.

Messersmith-Glavin: Talk about the tension between fighting fascism on various levels and organizing to address the social, political, and environmental conditions that give rise to fascism.

These simply are not the same thing. They are related, they are interlocking, they rely on each other, but they are not one and the same. This is critically important because the strategies you use to save tenants from being evicted are not necessarily the same as you would use to fight back against white nationalist public rallies. Fascism is the oppression of society moving from implicit to explicit, so while we can acknowledge that the racialism and marginalization offered by fascism was already present in white settler colonialism, it’s incorrect to suggest that they are simply the same.

Instead, I think it’s important to think about antifascism as depending centrally on other social movements, and vice versa. For example, antifascists need mutual aid support to actually give those involved the resources necessary to continue. And mutual aid organizers, often targeted by fascist street gangs, need antifascists to defend them. But more importantly, they are all necessary for challenging really entrenched systems of oppression and offering a new type of world, we need to see those movements become interlocking while maintaining some of their tactical autonomy. Many antifascists face incarceration or repression, so prison support and abolition are necessary, as is movement fundraising. No Pasaran talks about how these different social movements can relate to one another, how things like police abolition, mutual aid activism, prison abolition, and other social movements tie into antifascism. If we look at this from an intersectional lens, we see that they are foundationally related even if the specific strategies used in any particular case are going to be different.

Messersmith-Glavin: How about the relation between stopping society from becoming more fascistic and working for an egalitarian, cooperative society?

Fascism is a revolutionary movement. It does want to remake society. That is what makes this moment so dangerous: everyone knows this world is trash and that we need something different. So what fascism does is it presents itself as the salvation for a particular privileged sector of the working class (white men, generally) and suggests it can more effectively carry out that revolution.

It should be obvious that for us to win a more egalitarian, cooperative society, we have to stop the fascists from getting their way, which will only move us more fully from that goal. We need to undermine every moment of their organizing because they will manipulate what fascism scholar Robert Paxton refers to as “mobilizing passions,” those energies that can fuel revolutionary ideologies of all stripes. Our crisis will fuel fascist movements, it can also, if we organize, fuel a radically egalitarian one that has the ability to literally save life on earth. Since fascism is an established part of our lives, all revolutionary movements on the Left must have a defensive component that stops our antithesis from winning, and that is the role that antifascism has.

Messersmith-Glavin: What do you think is the relation between tight-knit cadre-type antifascist organizations and organizing a broad based working-class, multi-racial movement against fascism?

There is a role for both in most situations. Tight-knit groups can do things that other groups cannot do: they can do really painstaking research, they can engage in disruptive tactics that require a type of “security culture,” they can also train, educate, and hold participants accountable. They are best when they work in conjunction with mass organizing in some way, perhaps as members of larger coalitions. You cannot defeat a fascist movement as large as what we see now with only heavily trained, cadre organizations, you need to build a mass movement. Those two things are not necessarily at odds, it just acknowledges that multiple types and layers are necessary. In the past I have heard this described as the sharp edge of the spear backed up by the masses, who are more like the materials that give the spear weight. But, in the end, we are going to need to build strategies that depend on mass action, partially because that is logistically what is necessary and, partially, because we need to use it as an opportunity to engage the working class in action, talk to them about the issues, and get them an entry point into direct action, mutual aid, and solidarity. We want antifascism to spread, so we have to spread it.

Messersmith-Glavin: Can you explain the difference between a Three-Way Fight perspective, and a traditional Marxist understanding of fascism? What is an “insurgent fascism”? What do you think of the perspective that comes out of the Black liberation struggle and various Third World struggles that talk about the American fascist state?

So the traditional Marxist view of fascism sees it, in varying degrees, as a complicit system in favor of capital. Clara Zetkin, who was organizing with the 1923 Communist International said that fascism “is the concentrated expression of the general offensive undertaken by the world bourgeoisie against the proletariat.” In 1935, George Dimitrov said fascism was “the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist elements of finance capital,” a definition taken up by later leftist movements like the Black Panthers (this definition has been criticized for employing Left populist language that could carry an antisemitic connotation).

There are problems with all of these, not the least of which is that they are not uniformly true. Many of these definitions are simply inaccurate about actual fascist movements, but they also describe situations that are not definitional and do not hold for post-war fascist movements. A fascist movement may ally with capital, but it is not synonymous with it, and the specific arrangements of that relationship can change. The mass class is not the same as it once was, it has different subdivisions, and these rigid Marxist categories do not hold. So I think that they fail to describe the central components of fascism, even if they do offer some interesting insights into how it functions as a mass movement and its relationship to the ruling class.

Three-Way Fight is the alternative. It offers the idea that in any revolutionary contest there are three, rather than two, parties: the state and capital, the Left (the movement of workers and marginalized people towards empowerment, liberation, and equality), and a force that is composed of members of both the working-class and the ruling-class and has interests that contest both in some ways. These are the fascists, who do offer a type of revolution against established modes of capital, and they are militantly opposed to the goals of the Left, so they have a set of interests of their own. In the end, capital usually does side with the far-right rather than the revolutionary Left since the fascists will likely preserve their capital, but they do not want it this way necessarily because fascist movements do present some form of anti-capitalism and collectivism and creates economic instability and nationalism (including economic protectionism and attacks on free trade). So when looking at fascist movements we cannot reduce them simply to the capitalists or their relationship to capital, they do function semi-autonomously from that, and their revolutionary ideas should be taken seriously as ideology. This means that we should understand their ideas both from what they say and what they do, and we should note that they do have a vision that supersedes the dreams of capital.

The other definition you ask about owes a great deal to the Marxist traditions of definitions in that they challenge the uniqueness of fascism and the claims that fascists make about their ideological distinctiveness. We have two chapters in the book that discuss this perspective, Jeannele Hope’s “The Black Anti-Fascist Tradition: A Primer” and Mike Bento’s “500 Years of Fascism.” The argument is that fascism is simply a continuation of a long-standing process of white settler colonialism, and because of that it should be seen in direct continuity to other struggles against white supremacy. I both have some agreement and some disagreement. I agree that it is in direct continuity, but I think that continuity is best described as a system that precedes, and is more foundational, than fascism. White supremacy and settler colonialism laid the earlier foundations that allow a fascist movement to even emerge, but I argue that fascism is a distinctly modern phenomenon that is attempting to turn back the clock of progress and re-establish the open supremacy of these underlying systems. What we call fascism is distinct from white supremacy as such because it is a radical process of reinterpretation and return, but what it is returning to is the same system that established the West. So we agree that we are talking about one, contiguous story of white supremacy, but I personally would not use the term fascism to describe that.

I generally take a “New Consensus” approach to defining fascism, which comes in the tradition of historians like George E. Moose, Roger Griffin, and Zeev Sternhell. I define it in my first book, Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It as “inequality through mythological and essentialized identity” that is reified with a cult of violence, mass populism, and a trenchant modernism. I argue that fascism depends, foundationally, on the support of pieces of the working-class and that its energy comes from an implicit critique of capitalism (though their solution to this is a horror show). I think it is important to see fascism in its uniqueness because that allows antifascists to sharpen their tools for its destruction. I should note that multiple authors in this book take a different opinion on these definitions, including David Renton and the two authors mentioned above, and likely others as well. This is the great thing about this book, that there is a lot of useful and productive disagreements. I believe it’s useful to really dig into these.

Cohn: For liberals–sometimes even for me, despite my knowing better–it can seem as if the new fascism sprang into being fully formed in 2016; one thing that veterans of US antifascist struggles can testify to is the continuity of fascism over the decades. What does that continuity imply for the future?

There are intact patterns that move throughout history. For example, open fascism is generally unpopular on its face, so it usually collaborates with a dissident section of the more establishment Right as a way of gaining access to a larger community of potential recruits. These crossover points have been things such as the White Citizen’s Councils (which gave the Klan access to more people), the campaign of George Wallace, the paleoconservative movement, and more recently, the far-right Internet celebrity phenomenon known as the alt-light. Today, we can see that some of these white Christian nationalist groups, MAGA celebrities, and National Conservatives are going to have the same role that earlier generations of crossover actors did.

As David Renton implies in the Afterword of No Pasaran, we will not get rid of fascism until we rid ourselves of the conditions from which it forms. In that way we know that it will return cyclically, and we can also expect that an accelerating economic and ecological crisis will result in these cycles and waves becoming larger and more prone to rupture. The same, however, is true for us, for the Left trying to build a more equal and liberated world. So the response should be to fortify social movements, to build a strong sense of community, and prepare to answer the conditions that are calling for change. We have real solutions, now it’s time to make them known.

Messersmith-Glavin: What do you see on the horizon? The 2022 midterm elections may usher in more right-wing authoritarians, as likely will the 2024 Presidential election (perhaps the last Presidential election, one way or another). What should people be doing now, when we still have a little breathing room? How should we prepare for, perhaps, Trump 2.0, or the assent of another, smarter, more strategic, white nationalist?

I see a few very different things happening. One is that the “post-alt-right,” the remnants of the coalition previously known as the alt-right, are going in wildly different directions. Richard Spencer, Greg Johnson, Counter-Currents, Arktos, and many of the intellectual centers of the alt-right are returning to the world of racist academia, focusing on meta-politics, which many on the inside believe should have remained their focus. The more out-and-loud side of the alt-right are essentially playing repeat on what they did before, such as the Right Stuff, but they are mainly trying to sustain the listenership they cultivated before so their financial house of cards doesn’t crumble. They are working with the National Justice Party, which plays a similar role to earlier groups like the Traditionalist Workers Party. As Richard Spencer said himself, there are no new ideas in this circle (other than the fact that they are mostly calling themselves “dissident right” rather than alt-right) and that what they have to say is basically a repeat of 2016-2017.

The energy currently is on the side of white Christian nationalism, such as the Groypers as led by Nick Fuentes and the American First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), and the most important point of crossover into the mainstream is through the emerging National Conservative movement, the Claremont Institute, and the shock jocks of the MAGA world like Marjorie Taylor Greene. The self-conscious, intellectual and counter-cultural version of white nationalism offered by the alt-right is not quite the vogue at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have an influential place inside the world of fascist politics. I think that the election cycles will allow National Conservatives to pump us full of nativist rhetoric and figures like Tucker Carlson will remain the mascots. At the same time, there is a renewed focus on LGBTQ issues, particularly targeting trans kids and trans healthcare, and this is allowing the far-right on the edges of places like the Daily Caller to have access to the larger conservative movement. This should provide a clear picture to antifascists of where their attention needs to be: it is in defending Pride events, trans kids generally, and abortion clinics.

No Pasarán! Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis is available from AK Press by clicking here!