An Overview of Militant Anarchism and Anti-Fascism
by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Samuel Hodgson, & Austin Blair
In 2020–2021, the United States saw a discernible rise in armed politics and violent activism. Multiple factions and movements resorted to violence or the threat of violence to pursue their objectives, and the United States witnessed scenes it had not experienced for decades, such as armed citizens patrolling the streets in Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-1-116900" data-hasqtip="0" oldtitle="See, for example: Benjamin Fearnow, “Armed Black Militia Challenges White Nationalists at Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park,” Newsweek, July 5, 2020. (https://www.newsweek.com/armed-black-demonstrators-challenge-white-supremacist-militia-georgias-stone-mountain-park-1515494); Jared Goyette, “Citizen Patrols Organize Across Minneapolis as Confidence in the Police Force Plummets,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2020. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/citizen-patrols-make-statement-in-minneapolis/2020/06/06/cc1844d4-a78c-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html); Stephen Montemayor, “Inside Minnesota’s Boogaloo Movement: Armed and Eager for Societal Collapse,” Star Tribune, July 18, 2020. (https://www.startribune.com/inside-minnesota-s-boogaloo-movement-armed-and-eager-for-societal-collapse/571821151)” title aria-describedby=”qtip-0″>1 Militant anarchists and anti-fascists often took to the streets during this period. On August 29, 2020, Michael Reinoehl became the first anti-fascist responsible for a killing in the United States in 25 years when he shot Aaron Danielson, a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, at a rally in Portland, Oregon.<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-2-116900" data-hasqtip="1" oldtitle="Reinoehl claims that the killing was an act of self-defense. Topher Gauk-Roger, “Portland Shooting Victim Wasn’t an Agitator or Radical, Friend Says,” CNN, September 1, 2020. (https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/01/us/portland-shooting-victim-aaron-j-danielson/index.html); Nigel Jaquiss, “Portland Police Arrest Warrant Includes New Details About Fatal Shooting of Aaron Danielson,” Willamette Week, September 4, 2020. (https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/09/04/portland-police-search-warrant-includes-new-details-about-fatal-shooting-of-aaron-danielson); Lois Beckett, “Anti-Fascists Linked to Zero Murders in the U.S. in 25 Years,” The Guardian (UK), July 27, 2020. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/27/us-rightwing-extremists-attacks-deaths-database-leftwing-antifa)” title aria-describedby=”qtip-1″>2
In 2020, Antifa became a household word and a contested topic in presidential debates. However, it is clearly difficult for many observers to differentiate anti-fascist and anarchist efforts from a broader set of protest activities. Militant anarchists and anti-fascists see themselves as responding to an oppressive state and the rise of fascist organizing. While militant anti-fascists and anarchists view themselves as the protectors of marginalized communities, other militant actors see anarchist and anti-fascist groups as the aggressors to whom they are responding.
This report analyzes militant anti-fascism and anarchism within the broader domestic tapestry of armed politics and also explores transnational movements connected to anarchism and anti-fascism. Ideologically, anarchism and anti-fascism are similar but not identical. Anarchism is resolute in its opposition to the state, whereas anti-fascists focus on opposing institutions, groups, and individuals they perceive as fascist. However, the two ideologies influence one another, and the two movements have notable commonalities. While neither is inherently violent, both ideologies have adherents who embrace the use of violence to achieve their goals. This report examines why and how these groups carry out violence, and how they interact with partners.
Anti-fascism and anarchism are not new ideologies. There is a rich history of global anti-fascist and anarchist organizing. Militant anarchists and anti-fascists are active in Europe, Latin America, and beyond, participating in acts of street violence similar to those recently seen in the United States. In some countries – particularly in Chile, Greece, Italy, and Mexico – militant anarchists also perpetrate violence outside of protest situations, including arson, bombings, assassinations, and assaults. Fortunately, militant anarchist and anti-fascist movements in the United States have conducted such attacks less frequently.
Experts view militant anarchist and anti-fascist activity as largely decentralized. Many of these militant groups exist solely at the local level, in small units called affinity groups. Members largely focus on limited violence during protests and other mass actions rather than carrying out targeted attacks. Militant anarchist and anti-fascist groups worldwide emphasize indirect communication with one another. Public blogs and news sites function as clearinghouses to issue communiqués, claim attacks, and publicize violence. Select conflict regions – particularly Rojava in Syria and the Donbas region in Ukraine – and major protests present opportunities for in-person exchanges.
Though militant anti-fascists and anarchists engage in violent activity, both movements embrace some elements of pacifism or nonviolence. Militant anarchists, for example, typically prefer attacking property and infrastructure over people. For attacks employing bombs, for example, they often strike at times when fewer people are expected to be at the attack location. However, anarchist groups in Latin America and Europe have intentionally engaged in lethal violence.
In the United States, the First Amendment protects advocacy of anarchist or anti-fascist goals and ideologies decoupled from the use of violence. Individual members of a single group may vary in their willingness to deploy violence to achieve shared goals. Groups and individuals who engage in violent activity may mingle with those who do not but espouse similar rhetoric or beliefs.
There may be a shift in militant anarchist and anti-fascist activities under the Biden administration. The activity of these groups tends to be cyclical, dependent upon the degree to which “fascists” are thought to be gaining power. These groups saw former President Donald Trump as fitting into this category. As a result, under his administration, the United States saw a significant increase in activity by anarchist and anti-fascist groups, reaching heights not seen in decades. Now that the apparent peak of civil unrest has passed and Trump has left office, militant anarchist and anti-fascist activities may decline. That said, militant anarchists and anti-fascists are motivated by a wide range of goals, many of which are unlikely to change under the new administration. Numerous groups that fall under this umbrella vociferously disagree with many of the Biden administration’s policies, which they believe do not go far enough to the left. Regardless, if militant anarchist and anti-fascist groups try to maintain a similar operational tempo under the Biden administration, they may attract less support. The biggest countervailing factor that may enable continued large-scale mobilizations is the information environment, which makes such mobilizations easier than ever before.
Origins of Contemporary Anarchism and Anti-Fascism
Anarchism emerged as a political ideology in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Rooted in socialist ideals of class liberation, European anarchism offered an alternative to other constructs of the state: an association of autonomous communities bound by ideology.<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-3-116900" data-hasqtip="2" oldtitle="Martin A. Miller, Arif Dirlik, George Woodcock, and Franklin Rosemont, “Anarchism,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, November 25, 2019. (https://www.britannica.com/topic/anarchism)” title aria-describedby=”qtip-2″>3 The anarchist movement spread to Latin America and the United States, fueled by immigration and native anti-capitalist and anti-statist sentiments. In the United States and Europe, anarchists sought influence via the labor movement (anarcho-syndicalism).
Central to the anarchist movement’s adoption of violence was the concept of propaganda by deed, which holds that violent action is the best way to draw attention to a political cause.<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-4-116900" data-hasqtip="3" oldtitle="Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 3rd Edition (New York City: Columbia University Press, 2017), page 5.” title aria-describedby=”qtip-3″>4 Toward the final decades of the 19th century, violence associated with the movement hit an historical peak. High-profile attacks included the 1886 bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square and the assassination of President William McKinley in 1902. The federal government subsequently moved to deport foreign anarchists and prevent immigrants with anarchist beliefs from entering the country. The Immigration Act of 1903, which made foreign anarchists an inadmissible class, was the “first measure to provide for the exclusion of aliens on the grounds of proscribed opinions.”<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-5-116900" data-hasqtip="4" oldtitle="U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Legislation from 1901-1940,” accessed January 17, 2021. (ilw.com/resources/Immigration_Legal_History_Legislation_1901-1940.pdf)” title aria-describedby=”qtip-4″>5 European governments similarly cracked down on the anarchist movement, causing the ideology to fade.<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-6-116900" data-hasqtip="5" oldtitle="Martin A. Miller, Arif Dirlik, George Woodcock, and Franklin Rosemont, “Anarchism,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, November 25, 2019. (https://www.britannica.com/topic/anarchism)” title aria-describedby=”qtip-5″>6
Modern anti-fascism is inspired by opposition to fascism in Europe in the inter-war period. The movement of that era included anarchists, communists, socialists, and adherents of other left-wing ideologies. Many, though not all, anti-fascists during that period were explicitly violent, fighting their ideological opponents in the streets. As fascist parties took power in Spain, Italy, and Germany, anti-fascism embraced forms of guerilla warfare. One such group was the German organization Antifaschistische Aktion, the namesake for contemporary “Antifa” groups. Antifaschistische Aktion’s fight against Adolf Hitler’s genocidal Nazi party in the 1930s contributed to the enduring prominence of the group’s name and symbology. German communists and socialists who survived Nazi rule formed Antifa groups immediately after the war’s end, but these were – like the contemporary Antifa movement – inspired by the pre-war group rather than direct successors to it. However, militant forms of anti-fascism largely disappeared in the immediate post-war period due to the Allied victory, the subsequent division of Germany, and the dominance of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe. The emergence of neo-Nazi skinheads in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s led to the return of street-level anti-fascism. In West Germany, left-wing opposition to the government adopted the name and symbology of Antifa.
When anarchist militancy gradually re-emerged, its greatest traction could be seen in Southern and Southeastern Europe. In Italy, insurrectionary anarchism was first promulgated during the Years of Lead, a period of elevated violence by both left- and right-wing extremist groups that began in the late 1960s.<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-7-116900" data-hasqtip="6" oldtitle="Francesco Marone, “A Profile of the Informal Anarchist Federation in Italy,” CTC Sentinel, Volume 7, Issue 3, March 2014, pages 21–25. (https://www.ctc.usma.edu/a-profile-of-the-informal-anarchist-federation-in-italy)” title aria-describedby=”qtip-6″>7 In Greece, anarchism influenced resistance to the military junta that ruled from 1967 to 1975. Virulent anti-American sentiments were common at the time, as anarchists viewed the United States as supportive of the regime. The 17 November Revolutionary Organization assassinated CIA station chief Richard Welch in 1975.<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-8-116900" data-hasqtip="7" oldtitle="Geoge Papadopoulos, “Crisis in Greece: Anarchists in the Birthplace of Democracy,” The Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, Volume 10, Issue 14, July 2012. (https://jamestown.org/program/crisis-in-greece-anarchists-in-the-birthplace-of-democracy)” title aria-describedby=”qtip-7″>8 Militant anarchism in Greece found new vigor in popular resistance to austerity measures imposed by the European Union and Greek government in response to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Greek government-debt crisis (leading to the slightly paradoxical sight of anarchists violently protesting cuts to government).9
In the United States, militant anarchism lay largely dormant until the 1990s. Militant groups regained national prominence at the “Battle for Seattle” protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference. The previous year’s WTO ministerial in Geneva had been marked by riotous violence, but law enforcement saw the problem as “unique to Europe and highly unlikely to migrate to the U.S.”<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-10-116900" data-hasqtip="9" oldtitle="Seattle Police Department, “The Seattle Police Department After Action Report, World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference, Seattle, Washington, November 29 – December 3, 1999,” April 4, 2000, pages 10 and 17–18. (http://media.cleveland.com/pdextra/other/Seattle%20PD%20after%20action%20report.pdf)” title aria-describedby=”qtip-9″>10 This proved to be a significant misreading. The raucous anti-WTO protests that gripped Seattle included a contingent of protesters bent on violent disruption.
Police in Seattle observed the use of “non-criminal protesters to buffer smaller pockets of protesters engaging in significant criminal acts,” including assaulting officers with laser pointers and rocks and smashing windows. Donning black clothing to obscure their identity (black bloc), the protesters seized intersections, started fires, and assaulted officers with chemical irritants.11 While no deaths or serious injuries occurred, the Seattle Police Department acknowledged that “tactically, it was taught a hard lesson by a well-trained and equipped adversary.”12
After that, anarchist militancy in the United States spent the next 15 years largely unnoticed, save for a few moments of public attention. In January 2002, for example, anti-fascist counter-protesters violently clashed with white nationalists and white supremacist extremists marching in York, Pennsylvania.<a href="https://anarchistnews.org/content/behind-black-bloc#easy-footnote-bottom-13-116900" data-hasqtip="12" oldtitle="Rick Lee, “‘The Battle of York’ Was Here. Who Knew?” York Daily Record, August 13, 2017. (https://www.ydr.com/story/news/2017/08/13/battle-york-here-who-knew/562969001)” title aria-describedby=”qtip-12″>13 Some contemporary anti-fascist networks and organizers also mobilized as part of the Occupy movement, which protested perceived economic and social injustice. However, anarchist and anti-fascist movements both became more active and gained national prominence during Trump’s candidacy and presidency. Key events during this period, including the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville (discussed subsequently in this report) and racial justice protests galvanized both anarchists and anti-fascists across the United States.