Those who subscribe to liberal values are supposed to “defend to the death” the rights of their enemies to speak their minds. But anti-fascist activists, or “antifa,” believe history demonstrates the perils of giving a platform to hate -- and they'll go to great lengths to suppress such views. Mark Bray, a visiting historian at Dartmouth College and author of Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street, talks with Brooke about the history, ideology, and recent resurgence of the anti-fascist movement.
Bubble Wrap by Thomas Newman
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, those who subscribe to liberal values are supposed to, quote, “defend to the death” the right not only of their friends but of their foes to speak their minds, but anti-fascist protesters or, as they’re more commonly known, Antifa, follow a different path. Mark Bray is a visiting historian at Dartmouth College and the author of Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street. Mark, welcome to the show.
MARK BRAY: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about the origins of anti-fascism, when it first began - I assume back in the ‘20s?
MARK BRAY: Sure, well, anti-fascism is as old as fascism, and so, certainly in the 1920s and the 1930s, as fascist regimes in Italy and Germany started to gain political prominence, a number of left political groupings – socialist, communist, anarchist – started to organize, really primarily self-defense units initially, because part of the Nazi and the Italian fascist modus operandi was to organize these paramilitary units that would terrorize their left opponents. And so, the different communist parties and socialist parties would organize their own anti-fascist militias, one of which was called Anti-Fascist Action, the first group to use the name that's now become common for anti-fascist organizations around the world and the derivation of the shortened term, Antifa.
Moving into the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War and the struggle against Franco spread, anti-fascists organizing around the world. And then in the 1980s and 1990s, you have a rebirth of anti-fascists organizing, especially starting in, in Britain, in Germany, as Neo-Nazis started to target migrants and other marginalized communities. And what we see today is the spread of that to the United States and beyond.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, one of the most frequently-cited actions in Antifa history is what's [LAUGHS] referred to as the Battle of Cable Street, right?
MARK BRAY: Right, yeah, mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talk about that because it does begin to set the stage for what we're seeing now.
MARK BRAY: It certainly does. In 1936, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Mosley, organizes a march of a couple of thousand fascists through the East End of London, which is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. And so, in response to that, a whole group of leftist and Jewish residents of the area and other ethnic minorities organized a militant demonstration against this fascist march.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many?
MARK BRAY: Between like 15 and 20,000 people. This was a massive response. The police did what they could to defend the fascists from the anti-fascist demonstrators but ultimately were overpowered and the fascists had to cancel the march and essentially back down. And so, this Battle of Cable Street is really an emblematic example of anti-fascist politics put into practice, in terms of preventing fascists from marching through a Jewish area.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But not just that, right? Antifa is fundamentally against the right of fascists to speak and be heard.
MARK BRAY: That's entirely correct. So in your open, you mentioned the popular slogan that liberals have adopted from Voltaire that I may disagree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MARK BRAY: Anti-fascists fundamentally disagree with that premise. They argue that, given the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka, the destruction that Nazis have caused, that fascists, white supremacists should not be granted the right to express their ideas in public, in part because, they argue, had that been done early in the 1920s and the 1930s we may have been able to bypass what ended up happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I get that as a tactic but I’m still not sure how the philosophy of anti-fascism squares with the liberal values of free speech and open dialogue, and I guess it doesn't.
MARK BRAY: To some extent, it doesn't. The question is, if we want to prevent something along the lines of what happened in the 1930s and ‘40s from happening again, how do we do it? And the little prescription for doing it is essentially free and open debate and dialogue and if Nazis do something illegal then hopefully the police will stop them. Anti-fascists recognize that in the 1930s, the 1940s the police supported fascism, the fascists didn't actually stage a revolution to come to power, they worked within the political system, and all the reasonable dialogue and debate that one could muster did not do the job. The argument is that if we want such a horrific crime to not reoccur, it needs to be nipped in the bud through a variety of tactics, but one of which is through violently disrupting Klan rallies, Neo-Nazi speeches, and, and so forth.
And the other thing to remember is that anti-fascists identify as communists, as anarchists, as socialists and want to really organize for a revolutionary rupture with the prevailing political system, and then this is in line with that. So that's also another reason why the two philosophies don't quite jive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the liberal idea that in a marketplace of ideas the good ideas will rise to the top and the bad will drop out the bottom, they don't buy that. You don't buy that, either?
MARK BRAY: Well, unfortunately, terrible ideas have risen to the top throughout history. The liberal ideal is that the government is a referee in a game that all parties are invited to play but, in actual fact, whenever left groups have become threatening you get red scares, you get repression, you get COINTELPRO in the 1960s and ‘70s. And so, essentially anti-fascists are arguing that, we want a political content to how we look at speech in society, which is drastically different from a liberal take, and that this entails shutting down the extreme manifestations of fascism and neo-Nazism.
And we need to recognize that this is not simply a question of whether a fascist government will come to power or not - I’m skeptical that such an explicitly fascist government would come to be - but that those who carry out hate crimes, they feel emboldened when their ideas become mainstream, and so, the idea with anti-fascist politics is to prevent those ideas from having that opportunity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But where does it stop? I mean, how are we different from our fascist opponents if we both subscribe to the idea that speech should be repressed when, when we regard the message to be dangerous?
MARK BRAY: Germany has a prohibition against advocating for Nazis publicly. That doesn't mean that Germany’s a closed society where people can’t say whatever they want to say. You can have some prohibitions against speech without going all the way. In the context of an increasing number of hate crimes - the Southern Poverty Law Center cited over 800 such crimes immediately following the election of President Trump - the idea is that the people who carry out these crimes are listening to Richard Spencer speeches, going on Stormfront websites, imbibing this hateful doctrine and that, to the degree that we can shut it down we will make fewer people copycatting them into attacking vulnerable populations. Most people would agree that it was acceptable in the 1930s and 1940s to organize armed resistance to the Nazi regime. The question is, how terrible does it have to be before that becomes legitimate? And the anti-fascist answer is, you need to nip it in the bud from the beginning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that, quote, “Liberals tend to examine issues of sexism or racism in terms of the question of belief or what is in one's heart. What is often overlooked in such conversations,” you said, “is that what one truly believes is sometimes much less important than what social constraints allow that person to articulate or act upon.”
MARK BRAY: Right, so the, the message that I’m trying to get across with that is we have a certain set of societal taboos around what one can say and can’t say, and those have shifted over time. The words that are acceptable to use about different ethnic minorities, about women, about all sorts of groups have shifted over time. And the way that I think that we maintain a firm barrier against the alt-right making racism okay again, making sexism okay again is to really increase the social cost of presenting oppressive views out in public, so that when someone like Donald Trump says something sexist, we raise a ruckus, we disrupt business as usual to make it so that it’s not acceptable to raise these views in public. Increase the social cost of that being able to be a public discourse and push back through politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what does the American Antifa movement look like? What are its tactics?
MARK BRAY: Under that specific banner, it's still relatively new and it’s finding its way, but a lot of anti-fascist or Antifa groups have formed in different cities around the United States. A lot of what they do is researching information on local white supremacists, who they are, where they live, where they work, sometimes pressuring their employers to get them fired, sometimes making sure that if they organize private events at local venues for white supremacists, they pressure the venue owner to try and cancel the event. So that research and coalition building with groups that are affected by various forms of fascists or white supremacist violence is a lot of what's done. What gets more of the headlines is when the demonstrations come out onto the street. And so, as I’m sure you and, and the number of listeners are well aware, there been high-profile instances recently, such as in Berkeley, of trying to physically shut down events that has raised the profile of anti-fascism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Physically confronting people, that's part of the strategy, right?
MARK BRAY: Yes, it is. It’s an illiberal politics –
- of social revolutionism applied to fighting the far right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a recent article, you advocated for everyday anti-fascism, that is –
MARK BRAY: That’s right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - anti-fascism that goes beyond, quote, “punching Nazis.”
MARK BRAY: Right, so these glamorous topics –
- you know, there’s a video of Richard Spencer getting punched, got millions and millions of shares, but if we want to think about how to create an anti-racist society, an anti-sexist society, we need to think about the everyday interactions that we have with each other at our workplaces, in our families, among her friends and say, if someone is articulating a homophobic perspective or is prejudicial against immigrants, am I doing what I can to try and change their mind? Am I raising some sort of opposition or am I tacitly going along with it because I’m just letting it slide.
And so, everyday anti-fascism is not having any tolerance for intolerance. It’s not agreeing to disagree about hateful behavior and it’s saying, look, if you’re going to be a part of my life, you need to shape up, you can’t treat people like this, you can’t say things like this, and holding people accountable. And ultimately, sometimes that means you need to end some friendships or it means maybe you should boycott the business down the street that's been rude to Latino immigrants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that our goal should be that in 20 years those who voted for Trump are too uncomfortable to share that in public.
MARK BRAY: Raise the social cost of being a bigot, and sometimes that's enough to make it so someone doesn't feel empowered to act on it in a way that, that puts people in jeopardy. But there is a, a growing radical sector of the left in the United States that is simply not going to take any chances with the possibility of alt-right politics becoming the mainstream. We have a Breitbart editor and a white supremacist in the White House. We’re not that many steps away from a situation where a crisis unfolds, the Trump administration uses some sort of emergency authorization to centralize power. And so, if we want to make it so that alt-right ideas are not taken seriously, the anti-fascist argument is that you don't even let them start to have that kind of platform in society.
This is the norm of anti-fascist politics in Europe, where many people remember the legacies of living under the Franco regime, for example, in Spain and see how it has affected them in their everyday life, and it’s not something that classical liberal sympathizers will feel comfortable with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or as Jack Shafer refers to me,
“public radio talk show hosts”? [LAUGHS]
MARK BRAY: Maybe, maybe, but that is a, a growing response to a white supremacist presence that has grown in alarming ways in our country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK BRAY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Bray is a visiting historian at Dartmouth College and the author of, Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street.