From Gods and Radicals by Rhyd Wildermuth
Exorcising the “Antifascism” of Alexander Reid Ross
Many leftists I know, of both anarchist and Marxist traditions, have been reeling with the recent revelations about a major figure in American antifascism and his current choice of work.
That person is Alexander Reid Ross, whom journalists Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton revealed is currently working alongside many former “deep state” figures (including former heads of CIA and DHS departments) for a think tank funded by notorious right-wing billionaire Charles Koch’s foundation.
I suspect most reading this probably don’t know much about Ross or his work, though many have likely encountered his many essays, interviews, reports, and perhaps even his book through social media without noting his name. Others, however, especially leftist writers, publishers, and antifascist organizers, have had more intimate—and kindly put, unpleasant—experiences with Ross and his influence.
Alexander Reid Ross is a very prolific writer. He has been a columnist or had articles published for Truthout, The Daily Beast, Vice, Haaretz, Alternet, EarthFirst (where he was previously also editor), TheEcologist, The Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch blog (which retracted and apologized for his work), and has written and co-written articles and papers at Jacobin, In These Times, and many academic journals, as well as anonymously in many Antifa resource blogs. He is also most notably the author of a seminal text on fighting fascism, Against The Fascist Creep, published by AK Press. He also appears in multiple interviews and podcasts (including an interview by Shane Burley on our online journal, which we have now retracted).
Needless to say, Ross’s media presence is rather expansive, and he has become a kind of ideological pillar of American anti-fascist thought. Regardless whether or not an activist, journalist, or just an average person knew who he was, much of our understanding of what fascism is and how it works has been shaped by Ross’s works. He is often cited unquestioningly as an “expert” and researcher in mainstream new articles, lending credence both to the journalist’s reporting as well as to Ross’s position.
I have never met Alexander Reid Ross. Several friends of mine who have tell me he’s a deeply paranoid and arrogant person, surrounded by a cult of personality wherein he can do no wrong, a cadre who will quickly retaliate against those who appear to give him offense or question his wisdom. It isn’t from their accounts that I suspect I would not enjoy meeting him, however, but from my own experience with his ideological work and his many attempts to discredit other leftists as “fascist.”
My very first experience of this was when Alexander Reid Ross wrote an article, published on Anti-Fascist News, entitled “The Left Overs: How Fascists Court the Post-Left.” In that essay and his follow-up clarification, Ross argues through constant associative language that there is a kind of slippage or “creep” from radical environmentalism, rejection of modernity, and embrace of esotericism into fascism.
The social media panic the article engendered, through which suddenly quite a few leftist and anarchist writers, activists, and publishers were seen as either pre-fascist, flirting with fascism, or crypto-fascist (that is, fascist but hiding their true beliefs), was quite unsettling. Suddenly, several leftist writers for this site were facing constant accusations on social media about their proclivities towards fascist thought, without any of those accusers questioning whether or not the theory Alexander Reid Ross presented might have been flawed. This led me to write and publish a response, The World Without Forms, simultaneously on several sites (including Anti-Fascist News and in the Black Seed Journal, whose publisher was a target of Ross’s many crusades), questioning the framing of so-called post-left and esoteric tendencies as part of a “fascist creep.”
After this, I found myself giving particular attention to Ross’s subsequent writing, as well as the places where his theories about fascism were accepted as “fact” rather than just theories. In particular, I became increasingly worried about the idea of “creep,” a framework that represented a radical departure from leftist analyses of what fascism is and how it propagates.
Ross’s theory of fascist creep is founded on several postulates. The first is that the edge-points between far-left and far-right ideology are very close to each other, a variation on the “horseshoe theory” that suggests the further left one goes, the closer to the far right one is. Thus, the farther one has gone from the “center” (usually meant to be western Liberal Democracy), the more potential there is for “crossover.” This crossover is the “creep” to which Ross’s book refers.
The second postulate is that that fascism is a truly anti-modern and anti-capitalist movement, rather than one that simply uses the aesthetics of anti-modernism and anti-capitalism. In such a framework, fascism is a kind of mirror image of left-wing rejections of the alienation that comes from modern capitalist society. From his book: “fascism is a syncretic form of ultranationalist ideology developed through patriarchal mythopoesis, which seeks the destruction of the modern world and the spiritual palingenesis (rebirth) of an organic community led by natural elites through the fusion of technological advancement and cultural tradition.”
That leads to the third postulate, the “syncretic” aspect of fascism within his theory. For Ross, fascism is a kind of amorphous force which absorbs contradictory ideas (technological advancement, cultural tradition) into itself to expand and propagate. Essentially, for Ross, fascism has no definable center, only edges and contours. Fascism thus functions as a sort of creeping blob or slime, picking up ideas and positions from other ideologies and integrating them into an ultranationalist movement.
To understand the problems of these three postulates, it’s helpful to look at the other dominant understanding of what fascism is and how it works. The first, which is a Liberal Democratic view, is best seen in Umberto Eco’s theory of ‘Ur-fascism.’ In this framework, fascism is a kind of ahistorical and eternal force laying in wait throughout all of humanity’s history, a regression to authoritarian, tribalistic in-group vs. outside-other dynamics from which the Enlightenment, Democracy, Human Rights and Capitalism have rescued us. This view is not very different from Ross’s framework, in that it sees fascism as the enemy of progress and western conceptions of human rights.
The other dominant understanding of fascism is the Marxist view, which differs radically from both Ross’s idea of “fascist creep” and also the Liberal Democratic idea that fascism is a rejection of modern progress. In the Marxist framework, fascism is a defense mechanism of the industrialised capitalist nation-state itself. In times of crisis where capitalists find their power threatened by lower-class revolt, ultranationalism becomes a kind of immune response meant to fight off the infection of revolution.
All three frameworks differ significantly in their answers to one historical question: how can we explain the powerful communist movements that preceded the birth of the three really-existing fascist states in human history (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Spain under Franco)? In each of these fascisms, liberal-democratic politicians made choices to align with the fascists against the communists, often times specifically aiding the fascists in hunting down and killing communist organizers, intellectuals, and leaders.
This point is of course an embarrassment for frameworks that see fascism as the “enemy” of Liberal Democracy and capitalist modernity. In Eco’s framework—one which liberals in the United States re-tooled in their fight against Donald Trump—the state was making a difficult decision between two threats to its existence: far-right and far-left revolution, both of which were “anti-democratic” and part of that latent regressive (ur-)fascist urge. That is, the Wiemar government, for example, was being attacked by two existential enemies, and had no possible hope of winning against both.
In the Marxist framework, the answer lies in the strange fact that the state never sided with the leftists, but only ever with the fascists. At no point in the lead-up to Hitler’s rise to Chancellorship did the government stop their repression of communists or enlist their aid against this “other” existential threat. Likewise in Italy and Spain, the government—and especially the capitalist class—repeatedly sided with the fascists against the communists and anarchists and relied on fascists within their police and military forces to be particularly brutal in this repression. Such facts makes the conclusion of the Marxist framework seem self-evident: the fascists were a necessary weapon against left-wing revolution.
Ross’s framework rarely ever mentions the state at all, and rather focuses on the similarities between the fascists and their left-wing rivals. This allows him to then conclude that the fascists were really a hybrid of the right and the left (in the figure of Mussolini, for example, who was an anarcho-syndicalist before becoming a fascist), and that eventually the large leftist opposition to fascism was contaminated by their proximity to the far-right and their distance from the center.
What is most important about the differences in these three frameworks are their conclusions for the present, especially in regards to fighting any attempted revival of fascist ideology now, because each affects the way our political conceptions have been shaped.
The conclusion of the Marxist framework is that the capitalist state and the fascists will inevitably side with each other, and thus both must be fought simultaneously. Thus, the way to fight fascism is to build an alternative political movement that opposes both the fascists and the state, and (as in Walter Benjamin’s conception) to recognize that the “emergency” of fascism is a feature of the capitalist state, not an exception. Therefore, the state and the capitalist class are never seen as a potential ally against fascism, but rather the actual cause of fascism itself.
In the Liberal Democratic view, the state is ultimately the only way to protect human rights and progress, and fascism is a threat to all of that. Therefore, no matter what critiques, criticisms, or opposition a leftist or an oppressed minority might have with the nation, all that must be set aside temporarily to stop fascism. Trump and the 60 million or so people who voted for him, for example, was an “emergency” worse than capitalist exploitation of the poor, US military interventions around the world, or police state repression of Black people, and thus everyone needed to unite and vote for Biden (regardless of his support for police repression, imperialist policies, and for capitalism). Fighting fascism in this framework requires opposing right-wing populism at all costs and supporting the capitalist class against them, postponing or even silencing our own movements for justice.
In the “creep” framework, the Liberal Democratic view is expanded into a fear about contagion. Rather than merely postponing revolutionary action until after the emergency is over, a leftist must vigilantly police the borders of leftist thought itself, being constantly on guard for signs of heretical thought which might lead to fascist “conversions.” Especially worrisome for this framework are points of intersections, cross-over points where a true believer might be led astray and become apostate.
Here we can start to note the immense influence that Alexander Reid Ross and his “fascist creep” framework has had on anti-fascist organizing in the United States. Besides the previously-cited article denouncing the post-left, Ross warned in the last few years against eco-extremism, anarcho-primitivism, esoteric leftism, anti-modernism, and many other “fringe” leftist positions, and cast repeated aspersions on one anarchist publisher, Little Black Cart. Writers published by that press often found themselves black-listed elsewhere, or becoming the subject of anonymous tracts and denouncements, and the now-deceased publisher, Aragorn!, had his tires slashed and books he published destroyed at anarchist book fairs.
But more recently, Alexander Reid Ross has written about and denounced much larger targets with more media presence and influence, including journalists, podcasters, and authors on the so-called “dirtbag left.” In multiple essays (including essays retracted with apologies to his victims by one publisher, the Southern Poverty Law Center), Ross has expanded the “fascist creep” framework into an international conspiracy led by Russian ultra-nationalists and intelligence agents to create a “red-brown alliance.”
Red-brown alliances, “third positionism” or “National Bolshevism,” refers specifically to historical attempts to reconcile leftist critiques of capitalism and far-right opposition to foreign state involvement, but is also often confused with the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler (which, for all its faults, gave the USSR enough time to become militarily strong enough to fight the Nazis). The particular foreign state seen as the common enemy within third-positionist politics in the last few decades has been the United States, its imperialist policies, and its unquestioned political power throughout the world.
As not only the most powerful military and economic nation-state in the world, but also a hegemonic cultural and ideological force (consider how difficult it is to find a large non-US city without a Starbucks, McDonald’s, or citizens who haven’t seen Titanic or heard a Madonna song…), the United States is often seen as a symbol of Empire, much like Rome functioned during that empire. Likewise, the US dominates all international trade and governing bodies, and often wields this dominance to ensure American capitalists are able to have access to exploit local economies.
This view of the United States (also a common Marxist and anarchist critique) certainly will make anyone who believes in the goodness of American Liberal Democracy—and also the average “fascist” Trump supporter—bristle a bit. In this way, the far-right of the United States and the liberal “center” have much more in common than they do with the far-left there (or elsewhere), as well as with any opposition (left or right) to American foreign policy throughout the world. And though actual ideological attempts to reconcile leftist views with fascist views have sporadically appeared since the 1930’s, the panic about “red-brown alliances” in Alexander Reid Ross’s work has created a false conflation of all leftist opposition to American imperialism with far-right opposition outside the United States.
In several of his research papers, Ross outlines a conspiratorial network of Russian esotericists, European nationalists, and American leftist journalists towards a new Red-Brown Alliance meant to destabilize the United States and allow Vladimir Putin to expand Russian involvement in Syria, the Ukraine, and elsewhere. Paralleling the evidence-free “election theft” theory that positioned Donald Trump as a foreign agent who stole the rightful reign of the United States from Hillary Clinton, in Ross’s fantasy Russia is the true reason why many leftists go “fascist.”
His list of suspect intellectuals, theorists, journalists, and podcasters has been steadily expanding, much like Joseph McCarthy’s did during the House UnAmerican Activities hearings. And as with McCarthy—and maybe like Robespierre, a nickname some of us have adopted for Ross in the last few years—the burden of proof always falls upon the accused, rather than the accuser.
Recently, however, some of his accused have fought back. Most famously, the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of two primary clearinghouses for information about fascism and hate groups in the United States (the other being the ADL, who is an affiliate of the think tank where Ross now works, and his boss there is a former research fellow for the ADL), retracted all of Alexander Reid Ross’s essays they had published, with public apologies to the targets Ross had falsely accused.
The essays in question relied on Ross’s fantasy about Russian influence in American left-wing politics (one was titled “The Multipolar Spin: how fascists operationalize left-wing resentment,” with “multipolar” being a reference to opposition to American world dominance), but they are not the only places his theory has been propagandized. In his Haaretz columns, Ross has also named leftist politician George Galloway, founder of The Intercept Glenn Greenwald, and even the anti-war collective Code Pink as part of this large-scale Russian conspiracy.
More importantly, however, the definition of what makes a leftist fascist or subject to fascist conversion has steadily expanded through his work these last few years. That is, the definition of fascist creep has itself experienced creep, encompassing now not only those who hold “extreme” views about the environment or modernity, but also those who question US foreign policy on Syria, Israeli state oppression of Palestinians, the death of Jeffrey Epstein, or even the narrative of Russian influence on leftist beliefs itself. All those have also become potential symptoms of a fascist conversion, a malady in which the farther left you are in your beliefs, the more likely you are to be infected.
This “creeping” of the definition of fascism has had rather destructive effects on leftist organizing in general, especially for writers and publishers such as myself, as well as media figures, podcasters, and journalists throughout the leftist spectrum. “Nazbol” (National Bolshevik) for instance, has become a common slur by antifascists for many leftists who supported Bernie Sanders or a re-invigoration of Marxist class analysis. “Eco-fascist,” likewise, is what many of us who oppose the expansion of industrial capitalism or “green tech” as a way to stop climate crisis have been labeled by self-anointed Antifa members. And any leftist who dare suggest that right-leaning people might be brought into a leftist movement by addressing their material conditions—rather than lecturing them on non-binary pronouns—is of course definitely a “crypto.”
How this happened is hard to track, and it is not all due to Alexander Reid Ross. Some of it has to do with the nature of antifascism itself.
We always say “Antifa isn’t an organisation and has no leaders,” but that’s not really true. In any decentralised movement, certain people become “nodes” or central figures because of their charisma and previous connections. Sometimes this is willful, sometimes accidental, but either way it always happens.
In environments where there are officially no leaders, it’s easy for people to accumulate power and use the myth of leaderlessness as a shield from criticism. Since there are officially no leaders, they can deny they are leading, lead without accountability, and push masses of people in directions without them ever quite realizing what’s happened. Then when there is a need to hold someone accountable for their actions or to question a direction, those influencers can point out that they weren’t actually leaders, that it was a leaderless movement, and thus they escape all accountability. The blame then falls on the faceless masses, the “will of the people” as it were.
Such a system is hyper-vulnerable to ego crusades, mobbing, and especially to external influence. Also, there is no readily-available way to verify information you encounter. Search for articles on fascism, or how to fight fascism, and the average person will find journalists citing “experts” such as Alexander Reid Ross without any explanation as to why he is an expert, only that he has written a book about it. And from there, they might “learn” that certain leftists are actually in the employ or at least under the influence of the Kremlin, or are secretly fascists themselves.
As one of those leftists who has constantly come under attack by eager “antifascists” for my writing, and as a publisher who has had to negotiate the damage of such unsubstantiated attacks caused to writers for our press, I’ll admit that I’ve had some deep worries about the direction this has all gone the last few years, and the growing prominence of Alexander Reid Ross’s re-definition of what is fascist and what is not. Especially regarding the matter of so-called “eco-fascism,” a label that has come to mean not just “fascists who are environmentalists” but also anyone who rejects the idea that industrial civilization is the best way for humans to live, Ross’s work has made many writers afraid to publish any longer.
And this is where the revelations of Alexander Reid Ross’s employment with the Charles Koch-funded Network Contagion Research Institute are particularly disconcerting. The NCRI bills itself as a “neutral” think tank fighting “the epidemic of virtual deception, manipulation, and hate, as it spreads between social media communities and into the real world.” While this sounds rather benign, the ADL’s press-release concerning their partnership with NCRI reveals a little more about what that all means:
“Their multidisciplinary scientists and engineers are working closely with extremism experts at ADL’s Center on Extremism (COE) to harness cutting-edge technology to track developments and provide intelligence and analysis to technology companies, law enforcement, public officials and community leaders.” (emphasis mine)
To put it in an anarchist way, the NCRI are basically tracking people and ideas and then giving that information to “the cops.” You’ll note, of course, that what qualifies as extremism, manipulation, hate, and deception are not defined. That makes them categories as broad as what “fascism” has come to mean through Alexander Reid Ross’s framework of “fascist creep.”
This is concerning of course, as are the many people he works alongside who were formerly employed in “deep state” agencies (Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, as well as a former Attorney General), and especially the paucity of people from “the other side” who might make the NCRI appear neutral. But the most disconcerting part for anyone who has encountered Ross’s narrative about the cross-over from environmental activism to fascism is who is funding the organization.
Charles Koch is the 11th richest man in the world, and along with his now deceased brother, is also perhaps one of the most renowned opponents to environmentalist efforts to decrease carbon dioxide emissions, having spent over 150 million dollars funding climate change denialist organisations.
Does it seem maybe a little weird that the man who helped create an atmosphere where far-left environmentalists are smeared as fascists is now working for an organization funded by a man by one of the richest anti-environmentalists ever known?
That sounds like conspiracy, yes, and anyone who follows such a thread runs the risk of reproducing the very thing that Alexander Reid Ross has become renowned for, smearing people by association, blacklisting them and their ideas for a very long time without chance of explanation or rehabilitation.
We shouldn’t make that error.
Instead, this particular turn of events, which seems almost a culmination of a long intellectual trajectory, should make us re-evaluate the narrative Alexander Reid Ross created. Because yes, governments do absolutely attempt to manipulate leftist thought. Perhaps Russia has decided to play the same game the CIA did with the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the United States. In that well-documented event, the CIA began channeling funding into the creation of an American leftist narrative that opposed Communism and specifically the USSR. This funding went to artists, writers, dramatists, radical student organizations, and to many “left-wing” literary publications and even Fodor travel guides, all with the aim of shaping what it meant to be a leftist.
Seeing as how the US government manipulated leftist thought for their own political goals, it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to imagine Russia is also doing so. But once we admit this, we need to admit something even more uncomfortable: that the United States government, or specific capitalists, or others might be inclined to do so again, if they are not already doing so.
These are all messy and terrifying possibilities, but ones that, rather than make us paranoid, should make us give more attention to the way ideological categories like fascism are influenced and shaped. Though I imagine most people will now view anything Alexander Reid Ross writes about fascism with suspicion, the framework he created won’t go away so easily.
Ideologies and world views are invisible, we cannot easily understand we are in one until we step out of it. It is a relentless work to understand them, how they were created, who influenced their creation, and what they cut out from our perception, how they limited us, and what kind of damage they may have done
For the world view influenced by Alexander Reid Ross’s work, however, we can at least begin that process. We can start questioning this idea that fascism is a kind of slippage, a path you find yourself on because you wandered too far out into the wild forests of radical politics, drank too deeply at fountains that only increased your thirst for liberation. We can start re-evaluating our previous ideas and prejudices, begin asking whether some of those people denounced might actually have been innocent and possibly even correct in some of their opinions.
And most of all, we can start the hard work of questioning our willingness to see the world in terms of black and white, of fascist and anti-fascist, and even of left and right, and ask how our quickness to divide the world into such categories has led us to be easily manipulated by larger political forces and ego-driven invisible “leaders” who will never have our best interests at heart.