The challenge for antifascists today is to build the capacity to act as a buffer for marginalized communities and the movements fighting for a new world.
On August 17, 2019, a coalition of antifascist and progressive groups in Portland, Oregon organized a rally to protest a Proud Boy event planned in the city. The rally had a carnivalesque atmosphere created by PopMob — an antifascist group of concerned Portlanders which seeks to “resist the alt-right with whimsy and creativity” — and brought on a diverse range of organizations, from labor and religious groups and civil rights groups like the NAACP to more militant organizations like Rose City Antifa.
During the protest, the latter, along with autonomous black bloc organizers, acted as a buffer between the crowds at the carnival and the hundreds of Proud Boys amassing at the other side of the waterfront park both groups were occupying. This created a collaborative environment in which militant antifascists joined forces with a coalition of civic groups and successfully worked in concert to confront a common enemy: the crowds were safer because of the militants, and the militants had a sharper edge because of the hundreds of people standing at their backs. This type of coalition means that each group can bring their own unique strategy, tactics and identity, and find that by maintaining their own distinct piece of the larger whole, the entire project becomes stronger.
Over the past five years of far-right confrontations we have seen coalitions and collaborations — and at times also an overlap in membership — between a wide range of left-wing and community groups, including progressive religious groups, Black Lives Matter organizations, migrant support groups and traditional radical left groups — and more militant antifascist groups, and they have been able to pull numbers by working together. The public itself has grown accustomed to taking action from their participation in mass movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy and even more liberal and conflicted events, like the 2017 Women’s March. This means that antifascist groups have a trained base for organizing in their communities, a base that can adapt more quickly to coordinated actions like rapidly assembled demonstrations to counter far-right mobilizations.
Antifascism draws its tactics from what stops the opposition. In doing so, there is a special relationship between antifascist organizations and their allies in society. A member of a militant antifascist organization often has a certain role in a confrontation: they plan the event, take on extra risk, and communicate with a mass of supporters. But the supporters are equally important, because without mass participation it is hard to force a fascist rally from its intended space. This is the model that has worked in cities around the United States and elsewhere around the world.
We are now entering a period when antifascism has to remain ever present, not just to force back the encroaching far-right, but also to protect the left-wing social movements that are under constant threat of state violence, redirection and infiltration. At the same time, there is always the risk of revolutionary content being channeled into upholding electoralism or other reformist aspirations. The question, then, is what will it take to build an antifascist movement that can actually meet this challenge rather than collapse with the ebb and flow of the opposition?
Identifying the next steps requires a critical look back on what was won and lost over the past years, and to hear from those on the ground about what needs to change to permanently eliminate the threat of fascism.
ANTIFASCISM MUST KEEP PACE
Some conventional left thinking in the US blamed the rise of the far-right on Donald Trump, but this misses both the international context and how social movements actually work. There has been a return to nationalism and populism on the world stage — the rise of the far-right cannot be relegated to the foot soldiers of just one strong-man or party. The far-right in the US is not controlled by a single organization. Instead, at most of the countless far-right rallies that were organized in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections, it was actually unaligned individuals that made up the majority of the crowds.
When Trump failed to get re-elected, there was no reason to believe that this trend would be reversed and, in fact, it may only be getting more severe. A dependable framework exists with far-right movements: after a period of growth, their decline can be even more deadly. The past year was a mass radicalization event for the American right as conspiracy theories unseated consensus reality, from “rigged” elections to “demonic” vaccines. Among the US far-right, conspiracism is a central motivator, a break with reality that redirects working class angst away from its proper targets — the rich — and back onto marginalized peoples, whether they are immigrants, Jews or other racialized minorities.
There is no reason to believe we have seen the last of the far-right: their violence is the new plateau and the crisis that birthed them continues. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing as the new variants continue to emerge and spread around the world and vaccines remain a commodity largely available for the rich nations only. Economic instability is only fragmenting further, and the accelerating disaster of climate collapse is manifest as droughts are met by hurricanes are met by forest fires. The conditions for the far-right to grow and flourish are there, with or without Trump. Therefore, antifascists must keep pace, stay vigilant and act as the immune system for a new generation of social movements trying to fight back against a failing system.
AN IDEA, A CRITIQUE AND AN APPROACH
Antifascism is unlike other social movements because, though radical in orientation, it only goes after the extraordinary. We can define antifascism as any organized action to resist the far-right that does not rely on legal or state interventions, and instead uses its own community strategies — ranging from black bloc tactics to confront white nationalist marches all the way to street carnivals to disrupt far-right student groups on campus and music festivals to stop a venue from hosting a fascist speaker. The ultimate goal is to break the chain of the far-right’s functioning, and the tactics that support that strategy can vary depending on the context.
“Antifascism needs to move in a base building direction, prepared to build community-based dual-power institutions as the settler-colonial capitalist state becomes increasingly incapable of meeting human needs or responding to cascading environmental crises,” says Michael Novick — an organizer who has spent decades in social movements, from the Weather Underground to the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Anti-Racist Action. “We must build working and oppressed/colonized peoples’ capacity to survive and overcome, so as to allay the fears that fascists seek to exploit to build their base and seek power.”
Antifascism is, as the name assumes, a repudiation of fascism, but it also cannot be reduced to that. Antifascism is an idea, a critique and an approach to conflicting issues all its own: it exists beyond just a response to a perfectly defined fascism. Instead, it actively confronts a variety of far-right movements which, themselves, move in and out of an ideologically consistent fascism. Some movements, such as the so-called alt-right, are taken on because their white nationalism is clearly articulated and therefore threatening. While at the same time, antifascists take on the Proud Boys, not because they speak with a unified voice about their fascist ideals — when cornered, most of them reproduce unremarkable Republican talking points — but because their violence makes them an obvious target for antifascist community self-defense.
David Renton, an established antifascist historian with decades of experience as an organizer in the UK, admits that the lines are not always fully defined in terms of naming anything as fascist. The “fascist” you are confronting in the streets “might be far-right and moving towards fascism, or far-right and moving away from fascism, and there are some quite gray topics and situations,” he explains.
This current period of American far-right revival has been particularly extreme, and lasting. Despite losing their proxy totem in the Trump Presidency, there is little reason to think that the shift towards far-right ideas and social movements will decline any time soon. Fascist movements hijack the angst of privileged sectors of the working class and turn that fear into a rage directed at marginalized communities rather than those in power. The fuel for the growth of fascism, such as inequality and alienation, is structural — and is not going away soon.
While the embedded white supremacy of empire and colonialism is painfully ordinary, fascism should be understood as extraordinary: they have common foundations, but the tactics to confront them are sometimes different. How a community confronts police violence is not necessarily the way it would deal with the threat of white supremacist groups — unless their membership overlaps. This means that collaboration between social movements is the marker of success in opposing fascism in all its manifestations, one that allows each organization or project to maintain its strategic focus on the immediate issues — such as the growth of the far right — while helping one another as part of the larger goals — such as dismantling racial capitalism.
ANYONE CAN BE AN ANTIFASCIST
Antifascists have a lot to overcome. The right has always needed an effective enemy to rally around, usually beyond reason, logic and reality. Immigrants, communists, Muslims and now Antifa, have been effective measures of fear to goad their supporters into allegiance, or even violence. The image created of Antifa in the US right-wing media such as Fox News or Breitbart is largely of those media’s own manufacture, but it has created a significant barrier with some parts of the public, particularly blue collar, rust belt and rural communities.
During the panicked responses to some of the crises of 2020, conspiracy theories drove violent responses from rural communities across the country as people thought Antifa activists were responsible for everything from spreading COVID-19 to starting forest fires. In the rural counties around Oregon, where the fires ravaged as much as 12 percent of the area, militia groups set up “checkpoints” to stop what they believed were antifascists setting the fires. This potentially delayed rescue workers and people getting out of harm’s way.
This is the kind of delusion that has consequences for everyone in that it both neutralizes mutual aid efforts, and it transposes the frenzied fear that the fires inspired onto the public image of antifascism which then loses even more potential support. Moreover, these are the same working-class communities that are prone in times of crisis to serious manipulation when they are not offered an alternative from the left.
“There’s certainly a robust media ecosystem in place to work against us when trying to achieve those goals — sensationalizing events and editing footage to craft a narrative that doesn’t match reality,” explains Larry — not their real name — who is an organizer with Rose City Antifa. “I think some of the ways we address this as a group is to be extremely detailed in our documentation, and as accurate as possible, as well as being as accessible as possible with those things.”
That means there must be a process of recapture: taking back the paper image of antifascism and replacing it with nuanced reality. To do this, we have to be clear about what fascism is and who the fascists are; who poses a threat to progressive politics and movements; and we have to maintain a high standard of accuracy and clarity in covering the far-right. That dependability is essential to maintaining the argument that antifascist actions are warranted, that the opponents are, in fact, a threat to the community, and that antifascism is a key part of keeping our communities safe.
Part of the reasons why many working-class communities are alienated from the left is a skepticism about the left’s ability to make real changes in these communities. This is especially true when it comes to the supposed benefits or effectiveness of participating in mass actions, like protests and street rallies.
There is a difference between the kind of agency that radical politics implies and the distanced hopefulness of electoralism. With the lack of civic organizations in most communities, few people are convinced with the idea that their participation in a project of social change can actually matter in a direct way. So, the goals and purposes of mass actions as well as their efficacy must be publicly communicated.
“We need to educate people, we need as shared a definition and conceptualization as possible of what fascism is, and we need to expand the cultural space for what antifascism is,” says Kat Endgame of PopMob, which helped to popularize the “everyday antifascist” concept as a way of telling people that anyone could be an active antifascist in their own unique way. This was meant to drop the barriers people might have felt to participating by thinking that only the most militant of confrontations was useful. “[We must] serve people, have a functional purpose and try to achieve it as beautifully as possible. If the messages you are putting out into the world aren’t resonating, it’s not because the audience is somehow broken, rather that the message itself is unclear or not useful to the audience,” she says.
One of the challenges in communicating the goals and purposes of radical movements to the public is that internally tactics are often confused with ideology and intensity with strategy. This can create a singular vision focused on only one way of organizing. The work that Portland’s PopMob and others are doing in promoting a different image of antifascism is important for this reason, but also because we have to remain internally critical when some tactics are not carrying as much weight as they once did.
Consider, for example, the black bloc. Abner Hauge, who runs the antifascist media project Left Coast Right Watch, is skeptical about the usefulness of the tactic when confronting fascists in public. “I’ve seen a purity politics and fetishization of the tactic that I don’t think is useful in the long run,” they explain. “I think people have to acknowledge that surveillance technology has surpassed what bloc tactics were initially useful for and other tactics are needed to augment them. Instead, what I’m seeing is people in bloc leaning into them more and focusing as much on policing the very few kinds of surveillance they can police — i.e. reporters and people openly live-streaming — and less on actually using their numbers and bodies to combat fascists in the street.”
While a number of antifascist groups allow some type of media access, seeing it as a way to spread the message, other autonomous organizers see media, including left media, as putting them at legal risk when carrying out antifascist actions — a point that has proven true multiple times. But this blanket prohibition on media ends up creating singular public perceptions, often controlled by the right’s media figures who do not have the same restrictions. The question here is less if the media puts the black bloc at risk, but whether or not tactics that necessitate an absence of observation are always the correct choice.
“I think in order to win, antifascism needs to permeate daily life. Look at how well fascists and other right-wing conspiracy theorists have disrupted and inserted themselves into daily life by prolonging the pandemic,” says Hauge, referring to the politicization of public health measures such as mask and vaccine mandates. “I think antifascism needs sophisticated counters to not just the right-wing disinformation but also the liberal passivity, and it needs to focus on platforming itself as much [as] or more than deplatforming fascists.”
That liberal passivity — the idea that progressive politics could effectively improve the world through electoralism — was culled somewhat in the Trump years since he was seen by many center-leftists as “exceptional.” But rather than simply writing liberals off, it is useful to help create a space where they can be a part of larger movements and can move further left in their own ideological spectrum. That brings the other strategic elements together: public education, a variety of events and the inclusion of a range of different groups so that the distance between the radical left and the center-left can be bridged. This should not be seen as allowing liberal objections erode radical strategies, but as finding a way of reaching out to wider swathes of the population to move them along into organizing under the notion that our strength is in our numbers.
BUILDING AN INFRASTRUCTURE OF CARE
In practice, antifascism is about opposition, but its success depends on much more than singular responses to fascism. Instead, an antifascist project that is part of a larger vision does so in collaboration with every piece of social life entangled in struggle: the legacies of colonialism, housing and workplace justice, the struggle against police violence, and the way fascism distorts our impulsive desires for liberation.
Fascism is a false solution to a real problem, the idea that you can build interconnection by reifying racial, gender, or other kinds of privilege into a hardened force of violent exclusion. According to Michael Novick, antifascist organizing should be based on what we are for, not what we oppose: “Antifascism must see itself and function as a component of an overarching pro-liberation, pro-solidarity movement for revolutionary social, political and economic transformation — a proactive, rather than reactive, and affirmative, rather than negative, movement.”
This also means getting to the core of why many people do not participate in antifascist actions or any voluntary organizing: because they simply do not have capacity for it. To enable the masses to participate in antagonistic forms of organizing they have to be able to meet basic needs, not just survive. Mutual aid plays a key role in this; it is what makes it possible for us to survive accelerating crises while simultaneously planting the seed of a new kind of social relationship that antifascist groups can rely on to support activists.
Over the course of the months-long protests against police violence and the far-right in Portland in 2020, mutual aid groups — many of which formed to provide needed support during the COVID-19 pandemic — became active in the struggle. Skilled street medics cared for the injured, others brought food and water, gave rides, bailed people out of jail, or any of a number of other pieces that allowed the mass actions to function, and continue for as long as they did.
Engaging in mutual aid reminds us of what it feels like to extend protection and care, suggests Kelly Hayes, an abolitionist organizer in Chicago: “Mutual aid offers us an opportunity to reconnect at the most basic human level with our potential co-strugglers in a fight against fascism. Community care creates new bonds of solidarity and reminds us that we must care for and protect each other.”
“That is how we fight the normalization of mass death, by defying individualism and crossing the ideological fissures between us to extend care and build things together,” Hayes adds. “We cannot win without caring for one another, and they cannot win without stripping away our empathy and will to protect and care for one another.”
A structure of permanent care is critical for all types of organizing because it is what is necessary to allow communities and societies to flourish in general. You cannot expect someone who is working three jobs to pay for the basic necessities to spend their time attending multiple consensus-driven meetings — let alone commit to the type of personal investments a lot of radical projects require. Even at the most individualized level, mutual aid work is necessary to build up the infrastructure for mass actions: providing protest related medical care, food and water, rides if necessary, court support and everything else. But it also adds another element: that of a fundamental alternative to the failing supply chain of resources we depend on, which is built on extractive industries, hyper-exploitative workplaces and unsustainable production and shipping methods. Instead, mutual aid is an infrastructure of caring, and so depending on it has the dual purpose of survival in the current moment and rethinking society in the long-term.
This requires coalition building to be intentional and to have a reciprocal relationship between groups whose prime function is antifascist community defense and other groups, who support those aims yet are primarily active in other terrains. “It also requires reaching out to and developing relationships with organizations and groups that might not list antifascist organizing in their objectives — faith groups, labor groups, etc.,” says Larry from Rose City Antifa, adding that “It’s also important to be as welcoming as possible to people when holding events.”
In Portland, part of PopMob’s innovation was creating a community space that had value not just as a defensive measure against the far-right, but as a community-building mechanism itself. PopMob organized a local carnival event through a mix of speakers, costumes and music, something inspired by the Anti-Nazi League events to counter the National Front in Britain in the 1970s. The event brought people together in a joyous spirit, which in turn helped to build more solid bonds among the community to make antifascism work when the time comes. This essentially means creating lower barriers and allowing for different types of participation.
Other possible ways to achieve this is through the organization of music and film festivals, educational talks and food drives that are focused on “base building” — building a presence in communities which might otherwise be infiltrated by the right. “It’s a slower kind of activism but no less important,” adds David Renton.
This approach is critical to creating a long-term capacity, because without having a broader appeal and the ability to communicate on a mass scale, antifascist organizations cannot reach the mass participation to actually be effective when the time comes.
Daryle Lamont Jenkins of the One People’s Project agrees: “We’ve got to start producing things that are beneficial to the community besides just the bulwark against [the far-right] … we have to be able to do more community-based events like food drives and things like that. We’ve got to be a part of the communities that we care about and that we are fighting in.”
This ties in with mutual aid, since none of these projects — from organizing cultural events to building coalitions across different groups — operate in isolation and they rely on one another to build the bigger movement in the struggle for our collective liberation. Antifascism, in both its militant and “everyday” forms, is a single part of this struggle, one among many, and when each of those parts begins to work in concerted confederation you have the beginnings of a foundation of a totally new society, one that offers benefits — resources, defense infrastructure, collective pressure and more — and a starting point for a revolutionary shift.
This is crucial if we want our communities to be able to confront the growing inequalities that have come to the fore during the pandemic and to make these intersectional struggles, including antifascism, relevant to their lived experiences. Without that, it will be merely ideological posturing without weight or consequence.
BUILDING A WORLD WHERE FASCISM IS A THING OF THE PAST
Just as the right has been radicalized over the past decade, so has everyone else. The mass actions of 2020 in particular normalized protest activity, including militant demonstrations and occupations, for a huge mass of millennials and Gen-Z, meaning that the surrounding community of activist supporters is more capable, adaptable and accessible than before.
“The main thing the movement needs is a sense of unity and a commitment to mass organizing,” says a member of Corvallis Antifa, who asked to remain anonymous. “Many [antifascist groups] are forsaking mass mobilization and building holistic networks of community defense in favor of small-scale militant actions. Our enemies are coalescing and creating broad coalitions. We need to do the same with groups from across the left.”
The antidote to fascism in all its manifestations is community-building, centering a wide range of voices and viewing that plurality as a strength. This can — and should — bring in entire organizational federations and fields themselves, including emerging left powerhouses like the Democratic Socialists of America or established radical strongholds like the IWW. But it should not be limited to them, and instead antifascists have to reach beyond the pool of radical leftists for new recruits to the struggle, while using the left-flank of supporting organizations to help radicalize the mass of new participants.
The far-right is mutating and changing, so centering only a specific set of tactics undermines the effectiveness of our collective struggle. This brings antifascism back into the larger field of transformative politics, one that looks beyond community defense at the socio-economic conditions that births fascism. This means that antifascism must expand, fill up all cultural and political spaces, and become a common-sense approach to problems that will continue to be a threat as long as the shaky foundations of our society continue to crumble.
The challenge for antifascist groups and organizers is to build the capacity to act as a constant buffer for both marginalized communities and the organized left. Without it, there is no visible pathway to success, but only endless potential miseries.
The past should play an informative role in strategy, but not hinder it. The proof of tactics is in their effect — not in the ability of activists to re-live earlier victories. Getting the entire community involved offers new possibilities; not only for how to defend against the onslaught, but also for how to build the kind of bonds necessary for a world where fascism is a thing of the past.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book is Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021). Al Jazeera, The Baffler, Jacobin, Truthout, NBC News, The Daily Beast, Haaretz, and the Oregon Historical Quarterly. He is the creator of ¡No pasarán!: Independent Journalism on Fascism and Resistance.