Taking on the Far-Right Menance

Against the Current, No. 194, May/June 2018

an interview with Mark Bray

MARK BRAY IS a lecturer in history at Dartmouth College, and author of Antifa, The Anti-Fascist Handbook. He was interviewed by Dianne Feeley and David Finkel of the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: As an historian who’s also been an Occupy activist, what led you to call your book a handbook?

Mark Bray: I wanted the book to be practical, not just a history. I also wanted to include some discussion of political and philosophical ideas — around violence and non-violence, freedom of speech, strategy, tactics, and so forth. At the end of the book, I included some lessons from current and former anti-fascists, people who are strategizing against the far right.

I hoped that it would be useful information, both historically and currently. Most historians take years to write books; this was written in the first part of 2017. So I didn’t want to present it as the product of years of study, but as something written in the context of the Trump presidency. Also, 50% of the author’s proceeds are going to the International Anti-Fascist Defense Fund.

ATC: What is your working definition of fascism, especially what some people see as its U.S. manifestation?

MB: As I discuss in the book, historians have debated the meaning and definition of fascism for quite a long time. There has been no consensus and there doesn’t appear to be one in the near future. Fascists historically have adopted and discarded ideas perhaps more readily than any other political tendency.

They haven’t had a commitment to ideological consistency in the same way that other groups have. In that sense, I think that what the historian Robert Paxton said is appropriate: The only thing that really unites fascists across different times and places is a shared desire for the survival and domination of the favored group, whether that be a nation or a race, in a kind of imagined, social Darwinian struggle.

Everything else can come and go, whether ideas about the working class or the position of women in society. That being said, though, there are some commonalities around ultra-nationalism: masculinity.

Fascists often present themselves as a third alternative between capitalism and Marxism — both of which were blamed for being “Jewish” from the Nazi perspective. You could say fascism’s goal is class collaboration. There is an imagined return to internal values of nationalism, in terms of a racial identity and gender norms. Fascism is a kind of selective rejection of modernity.

That is, fascism is a modern rejection of modernity. It’s really a paradox at its core. After World War II, fascists expanded even more widely the range of ideas and positions they put forward. With the process of decolonization in Africa and Asia, fascism adopted elements of the language of national liberation struggles. They argue that white people or Europeans also need a struggle of “national liberation.”

In the context of the United States, we can see the influence of the French new right as it shifts in language away from explicitly talking about white supremacy. Instead it is trying to cloak itself in an argument that white people are one nation among many, and need to look out for their own interests.

You see that with Richard Spencer, with Identity Europa and some other groups. But of course, scratch the surface and beneath it’s really the same politics that have animated Nazis and Klansmen for decades.

ATC: Since Donald Trump became president, would you say that various fascists and hardcore racist organizations have grown, or have they just become more visible?

MB: I think it’s some of both. They’ve grown a bit, but not in any significant way. Certainly these groups existed well before Trump. What changed with Trump is that many groups and individuals felt emboldened to express their heinous opinions more publicly as they try to mobilize.

Some of these groups started going onto college campuses, putting up flyers saying it’s okay to be white, to protect your race, to protect your heritage.

They are trying to appeal to alienated and conservative students, who sometimes feel that universities are the hotbeds of “cultural Marxism.” They’ve tried to make inroads on campus, and that’s why, I think, campus anti-fascist organizing is really important. If you look at the numbers of people in these fascist groups, the numbers that show up to their events isn’t a lot.

The Charlottesville demonstration last August was called a “Unite the Right” rally, the goal being to bring in all different factions. They pulled out a few hundred people, but haven’t been able to duplicate even those modest numbers subsequently, in part because of concerted organizing against their efforts.

I don’t think we should overstate the degree to which people are joining these groups. Even more pressing is perhaps reflecting about societal norms. What is the everyday person is thinking or doing? How do they respond to questions of racism and anti-racism, sexism and feminism?

Tracking the Racist Right

ATC: In that context, why would you say it’s important to monitor fascist or white supremacist groups, even when they’re marginal?

MB: First, even in small doses they can be very dangerous. Unfortunately, there are all too many examples both historically and over the last few years in the United States to illustrate that.

Look at the murders on the train out in Oregon. A student fatally shot in Maryland. Five killings across the country linked to the neo-Nazi group, the Atomwaffen Division. There was a shooting after Richard Spencer’s talk in Gainesville, Florida.

Even when small, these groups can be dangerous. Historically their violence tends to focus on marginalized members of our communities, who don’t necessarily have the support of the larger society.

Fascist regimes have grown out of what were originally very small parties. When Mussolini started his initial fascist nucleus in Italy, he started with 100 men. A few years later, he had 250,000 supporting his movement. Likewise with Hitler. When Hitler attended his first meeting of the German Workers Party, before the name changed to the Nazi Party, there were 54 members. Fascism has the potential of growing quickly.

We can see that the discourse promoted by these groups has a disproportionate influence in comparison to the numbers that promote it. Look at Milo Yiannopoulos, who drafted Breitbart’s “What is the Alt-Right” document.

The BuzzFeed expose on that process showed that basically Yiannopoulos crowd-sourced information from a handful of the most prominent U.S. neo-Nazis, put it together, and published it on Breitbart. It was read by millions of people and even quoted by Trump himself. So a handful can influence conversations around affirmative action, immigration, race and gender norms, well beyond their numbers.

Anti-fascists and anti-racists have argued that it’s important to take these groups seriously because they can grow, because they’re dangerous, and because their influence well exceeds their numbers.

ATC: Richard Spencer recently spoke at Michigan State University. Since that event, he’s cancelled his campus tour. What’s your thinking about that?

MB: I wrote an article for Salon about the after effects of the protest against Milo Yiannopoulos when he was at Berkeley. Since then organizing against Yiannopoulos has escalated. He has only managed to organize a handful of talks. Others have been cancelled in venues like Chicago and Kansas City. Popular pressure against him has turned him into a bit of a pariah.

I think something similar is happening with Richard Spencer. Every time he wants to have an event, he needs to go through a huge legal battle because venues don’t want to host him. Even if he wins the legal right, there are going to be very confrontational protesters showing up to prevent his neo-Nazi, fascist, white supremacist supporters from getting into the event. They will try to harass him and his supporters when they enter and leave and try to disrupt it from the inside as well.

So basically, every time he tries to organize an event, he’s climbing up a mountain. That’s compounded exponentially by having very committed activists, anti-racists, anti-fascists, making every step of their way much more difficult. I think it’s a testament to the success of the many different ways people have organized against the far right. It is making it logistically, emotionally, politically, much more draining.

ATC: There seem to be some contested spaces for both fascists and anti-fascists. There’s the punk music scene. There’s football in Europe, soccer. For U.S. folks it’s gun shows. Why do you think that’s happening?

MB: Fascism has grown historically when it has managed to infiltrate different communities, different neighborhoods, different social scenes. When it has been successful in presenting itself as the truest or most genuine representative of values that many people feel are natural or eternal around nation, race, gender, sexuality, culture, fascists manage to tap in to a populist resentment of a perceived elite.

Even prior to World War II, there were struggles in Germany around taking over local taverns. Nazis used their financial resources from industrialists and financiers to buy out left-wing taverns whose owners were struggling during the Depression.

From analyzing the kind of organizing that went into contesting these neighborhood spaces, you see how social milieu and community spaces are important. In both Europe and the United States, these spaces are important even though the cultural forms have changed since World War II.

During the 1970s and ’80s in Europe and North America, a significant element in the rebirth of fascism was the development of a white power skinhead movement. This was a deviation from the originally anti-racist, multicultural skinhead movement that grew out of a mixing of Jamaican and British musical and cultural influences.

As neoliberalism expanded, some working class whites felt alienated. As the demographic landscape of Europe and also of the United States changed, many linked their plight to the fault of immigrants as waves of migration fled wars, droughts and occupation. Contesting this reaction, anti-fascists argue that rebellion means fighting against white supremacy, not supporting it.

You also mentioned gun shows. Groups like Redneck Revolt have tried to organize in predominately rural white working-class areas. They emphasize that there is a false dichotomy between feeling one has to either support far right Republicans or the neoliberal faction of the Democratic Party.

They reject racism and xenophobia, but also try to substantively address the issues that rural communities have and the cultural forms that those take. I think these issues have to do with the nature of fascism and how it’s existed now and in the past.

ATC: You quote a Norwegian anti-fascist activist as saying that “whenever violence is part of the political struggle you will have problems with machismo.” You’ve also written that women who join the anti-fascist movement in a variety of countries have faced machismo within the organization. Did the creation of German anti-fascist feminist groups alter this dynamic? What more do you think is needed?

MB: Pretty much everyone I spoke to, especially those who were active in the ‘80s and ‘90s, emphasized that it was an issue in the very same scenes that we spoke about with punk, football, etc. Those communities had a patriarchal dynamic and these were often reproduced in anti-fascist circles.

Certainly it’s true that this is an issue that has plagued all forms of organizing in social activities. It is not unique to anti-fascist organizations but certainly they did not transcend that. In the context of Germany, Austria and some other countries that created feminist antifa groups, it seems that this represented an important step forward.

It’s my impression that today, in many anti-fascist organizations in Northern Europe and in the United States, there is a more holistic understanding that anti-fascism targets fascism in part because of its misogyny. In order to be truly anti-fascist, you have to include a feminist practice.

Increasingly there is an understanding of the necessary role of queer and trans liberation within the broader resistance movement. Based on speaking to anti-fascist activists in Europe and North America I would say that queer, trans and non-binary people are disproportionately represented in anti-fascist circles.

These issues seem to have been more thoroughly addressed than in the past. Of course it’s hard to know from the outside exactly what the dynamics of any given group is like. While I’m sure there is a way to go, the situation of women and queers seems to be far more integrated into the thinking and practice of anti-fascist groups.

Complex Tactical Issues

ATC: Another problem that has emerged is when militant activists come to an action masked. Some people say they’re not accountable to the larger action. They may contain provocateurs. That’s obviously a risk. How do you see the anti-fascist movement responding to this critique, and the real problem?

MB: It’s worth clarifying that there are anti-fascist groups, both today and in the past, that don’t mask themselves. In the handbook, I discuss some interesting debates within the British anti-fascist movement about the efficacy of black bloc tactics of wearing masks.

Certain British anti-fascists have argued that it’s actually more effective to dress “normally,” to be able to blend in with the crowd and not be targeted by the far right or police. U.S. anti-fascist groups like Solidarity in Defense in Michigan or the General Defense Committees or the IWW have this approach.

Of course there are groups and individuals who wear masks. There are a variety of reasons for that, but one of the most obvious is to not be identified. Given the severity of threats, of being doxxed (having their personal lives publicly revealed — ed.), of being harassed by the far right, of being singled out for prosecution by the authorities, it’s an understandable recourse.

It does present the issue now, as it has in the past, of potentially having provocateurs or agents conceal their identity behind a mask. I don’t think the problem of agents will ever go away. But it does raise the question of how one can organize a militant and confrontational demonstration when people know that their identities are out there for all to see. I don’t think there’s a pure and perfect solution. Any kind of political protest has its pro and cons.

ATC: What is the functional meaning of the anti-fascist slogan “No Platform for Fascism”? Does this mostly look like people mobilizing to shut the fascists down by out mobilizing them? Or is it a call to administrators to deny them space given the need to protect the safety and security of vulnerable students?

MB: The slogan “No Platform for Fascism” seems to have developed in the 1970s in Britain. It doesn’t have any tactical corollary. There are a variety of ways one can deny a platform to fascists — from pressuring venues to refuse to give them space, from pressuring web servers to unhost their website, to blocking the entrances to their events or disrupt them.

Some should be action from below, but others should be action taken by administrators of universities. The kind of abstract, classical liberal notion of speech does not recognize the actual, material repercussions of allowing Klansmen or Nazis to be actively organizing on campus. This is a danger for students of marginalized backgrounds.

Safeguarding the professed love of diversity that most institutions have should be part of the campus conversation. Especially in the media, the slogan “No platform for Fascism” or “no platforming” means physically shutting down a speaker or a group. But there are a seemingly unlimited number of ways to do that. Groups and individuals should choose the methods that are the most effective, or most suitable to their contexts.

ATC: On the right, there are a variety of types. There’s Richard Spencer, who’s a white supremacist organizer and more of a classic Nazi mold. You’ve got an intellectual racist like Charles Murray. And then you’ve got an Ann Coulter, who’s basically a provocateur and just saying anything that will get her an audience.

MB: It is important to note the differences and not collapse the distinctions. You’re right to focus in on the question of whether these individuals are trying to organize groups or movements. So someone like Charles Murray does not seem outwardly to be trying to do much more than express his ideas.

That being said, though, even when these individuals speak, the far right mobilizes and disseminates its propaganda. It’s not just who is the individual, but who are their supporters and what kind of platform they are using.

Who are they appealing to? Even Ann Coulter, with her anti-immigrant and Islamophobic stances, has given more than a few winks to the Alt Right. I think that there are threads of connection between the different individuals and the groups that sponsor and support them. I see these figures in different shades of gray, but not a different color entirely.

While it’s important to recognize these differences, strategically and tactically I’m not sure how much it makes that much of a difference. The question remains: What kinds of local constituencies can be mobilized to oppose a given figure and how?

ATC: Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains describes something different from what we’re talking about here. That is, she’s focused on a well-organized, well-financed legislative movement, financed to a large extent by billionaires like the Koch brothers. Through various think tanks they write and disseminate model legislation that severely restricts voting rights, introduces charter schools as a way to get rid of public education, privatizes public assets and blocks cities from passing progressive laws. This legislation is done in a way that the majority will be no longer able to simply repeal it by majority vote. Is this a bigger threat than fascist grouplets?

MB: I’m not arguing that the threat of the far right in the streets is necessarily the most dangerous threat politically. Counteracting them may not always be the most pressing political issue.

For example, I spoke with some anti-fascists in Virginia. Over the past few years they’ve split their time between opposing the vocal far right and organizing against oil pipe lines. Whether they shift more toward opposing the fascists or working on environmental issues depends on which issue seems more pressing.

Historically, we can see that the rise and fall of opposition to fascism, and the rise and fall of anti-fascism has everything to do with the perceived threat of a local group or movement. When local far right movements have died out, people shifted their focus back towards organizing unions, doing immigrant solidarity work, or what have you.

If some people choose to put their time into organizing against the kinds of forces that MacLean describes against ALEC and the Koch brothers, more power to them.

We can see how sometimes the two far right milieus play off of each other. For example, the Mercers (far-right billionaire family behind the now-infamous Cambridge Analytica organization — ed.) were supporting Milo Yiannopoulos.

Turning Point USA, a right-wing NGO whose purpose is to educate students about “true free market values,” may serve as a potential bridge between Koch-like money on campuses and the appeals of far right and fascist groups to make white supremacy palatable in an academic context.

Historically, when fascism has risen it’s done so by gaining the support of these dark room financiers and industrialists. I think it’s important to deny the far right access to these avenues of power, to make their brand of politics so toxic that rich people don’t want to get anywhere near it, regardless of their politics.

ATC: Do you see a threat to anti-fascist organizing coming from RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) style prosecution and lawsuits? The legislation was supposedly designed to fight organized crime, but it has been used against movement organizations — unions and environmental activists threatened with massive fines under RICO civil suits, for example.

MB: I don’t know enough about the RICO provisions, but given the recent tendency of different law enforcement groups to try to label anti-fascists as “terrorists” this doesn’t seem far-fetched. Also note the disproportionate prosecutions that we’ve seen against those who are combating fascism as opposed to those who are promoting it.

In fact, given the longer history in this country of Red Scares, I don’t think there’s any question that anti-fascists need to be cognizant of all the different ways the state might try to clamp down. Perhaps this may be one of them.

May-June 2018, ATC 194