On the Antifascist Activists Who Fought in the Streets Long Before Antifa

The Rich American History of Nazi-Punching

If antifascist politics have been important to comprehending the course of US politics, it is crucial to understand their basis. What, in other words, is an antifascist? Simply put, an “antifascist” is not someone who merely dislikes fascism. Rather, they are a person who sees fascism as an immediate threat to their political environment and devotes a significant amount of energy to stopping it. An antifascist is one who sees “fascism” as a central issue of their time. Th us we agree with historian Nigel Copsey, who, in his work on the British context, sees antifascism as a matter of both thought and action—and action that takes a broad range of political forms, from physical confrontation to leafletting. We also agree with his “antifascist minimum”: what politically unites antifascist forms, to Copsey, is a genuine commitment to democracy, be it liberal democracy, social democracy, or the direct democracy of a workers’ state.

The “anti” status of the movement has tended to give its activities a self-defensive character; historically, antifascists have devoted much of their activity to thwarting mobilizations of the far right. But as a democratic movement, antifascism has generally been linked to positive programs as well: its bearers tend to fight not only against fascism, but also for racial justice, for socialist (or anarchist) transformation, and for gender equality. For this reason, antifascists historically have been involved in multiple organizations and forms of political action at the same time: for instance, participating in the American League against War and Fascism on one day and building a union on the next. In the United States, antifascism was at its height during the 1930s and 1940s, a time when it structured the very terms of the political for many people on the left. In those years, the US left made unprecedented gains in institutional power and influence through the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions, an emergent black public sphere, and the New Deal state.

Yet, for organizers on the left, fascism remained the all-too-real atavism that threatened to undo everything at a moment’s notice. For many liberals and leftists of this generation, “fascism” was less a concrete regime in Germany or Italy, and more a grammar to conceive the connectedness of seemingly divergent struggles. The labor question, the woman question, anti-imperialism, the fight against “race hate,” and the struggle for peace were often conjoined as a part of a common fight against “fascism,” a fight to preserve democratic gains while extending them into uncharted territory. This sensibility, moreover, guided both “popular front” and “united front” appeals. To be antifascist, then, was not only to collapse distances across continents, but to move toward what we now call intersectional thought and action.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, antifascism, for the first and last time, became an official logic of the state. Encouraged by state sponsorship, antifascist cultural workers attained access to wider audiences during World War II than they ever had before, breaking into the more heavily vetted culture industries like network radio and Hollywood film with greater regularity.

Their narratives of the fascist enemy—which described Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo as parts of a global political reaction—were pervasive across the public sphere but not fully hegemonic. They had to contend with incompatible wartime visions of “why we fight” grounded in anti-Japanese racism and republican notions of citizenship. Antifascism survived in the United States after 1945 as what Marxist theorist Raymond Williams would call a “residual culture.” That is to say, it was formed in the past within a once-pervasive cultural formation, yet it persisted as a lived experience of the present: a reservoir of oppositional energies fueled by a sense of unfulfilled dreams and broken promises from an earlier time, now inexpressible within the newly dominant logic. In this sense, postwar antifascism is a politics that on some level always accesses the unfinished business of 1945.

“Antifa” as we know it is largely a post-1980 phenomena and a European import.

If one sees fascism as an imminent threat, the question is how one goes about stopping it: What political forms does one use? After the election of Donald Trump, the so-called “Antifa”—a radical movement, largely comprised of young people and devoted to physically confronting white supremacists in the streets—enjoyed an unprecedented visibility in the United States, even becoming a household word. This street-fighting impulse has always been part of the history of antifascism, but as the mass mobilizations of the 1930s and 1940s remind us, antifascism has also been much larger than a brawl. Antifascist activity frequently takes up the more conventional, political forms of the liberal state, including lobbying, canvassing, holding forums, media work, community organizing, and so forth.

Some of the selections in The US Anti-Fascism Reader reflect this more quotidian mode of antifascism, a mode that has gotten far less attention. For instance, the American League for Peace and Democracy’s 1938 People’s Program for Peace and Democracy outlines an institution-forging antifascist strategy that includes legislative lobbying, fundraising, picketing, community organizing, and so on. Les Evans’s piece, “Alliances and the Revolutionary Party” (1971), discusses the nuts and bolts of antifascist coalition building, reviving a debate around “united fronts” and “popular fronts” that is now largely forgotten to a new generation of activists.

“Antifa” as we know it is largely a post-1980 phenomena and a European import. In the newly reunified Germany, the term spread as a reference to punk and anarchist youth, with roots in squatter and subcultural scenes, who physically clashed with members of a resurgent neo-Nazi movement. The first major organization in the United States to form along these lines was the Minneapolis-based Anti-Racist Action in 1988, and it initially used the term “anti-racist” because its organizers saw “anti-fascist” as a word too dogmatic for an American context. In the twenty-first century, Americans from anarchist, radical, and subcultural scenes began mimicking the substance and style of their European counterparts even more directly. They borrowed the symbols and imagery of “Antifaschistiche Aktion,” the short-lived united front of socialists and communists who first organized in Weimar Germany and later in the postwar rubble of the Nazi regime.

The record of fascist-versus-antifascist violence in the United States is actually quite long.

Yet the street-fighting mode of antifascism has a genealogy in the United States that predates the 1980s, and this collection attempts to flesh it out as well. The flash points here include the famous battle inside and outside of Madison Square Garden between antifascists and supporters of the pro-Nazi German American Bund in 1939, captured in Felix Morrow’s “All Races, Creeds Join Picket Line.” Robert F. Williams provides a theoretical justification for armed self-defense in the excerpt from Negroes with Guns (1962)—a piece that has gone unrecognized as part of the antifascist tradition, even though Williams, a World War II veteran, repeatedly identified his white supremacist enemies as “fascists.” Yet street-level action against fascists and protofascists was rarely articulated as a political philosophy before the 1980s.

Moreover, the record of fascist-versus-antifascist violence in the United States is actually quite long, and we have used the pieces by Morrow and Williams merely to index this history, rather than to catalog it. Other instances, not directly discussed in this volume, include the sometimes-lethal resistance from immigrant communities to marches by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s; Italian American antifascist clashes with Mussolini supporters in the 1920s and 1930s; Jewish American self-defense units formed to fight back against the anti-Semitic violence of the Christian Front in Boston and New York during World War II; the mass brawls inside and outside George Wallace’s Madison Square Garden rally in October 1968; and the shootout at the so-called “Greensboro Massacre” of 1979, discussed in outline in the Ken Lawrence piece, “The Ku Klux Klan and Fascism” (1982).

Yet most authors included in The US Anti-Fascism Reader attempt to name, identify, and subject to critique the face of fascism in their contemporary moment, rather than prescribe particular strategies for stopping it. In this sense, this volume, in part, puts forward a US antifascist analytic as it has developed across time: a conversation between generations about the nature of fascism that has largely gone unrecognized as coherent discourse. German antifascists developed a useful term for political interpretations of fascism: Faschismustheorie. The word is more than its rough English translation of “fascism theory.” It refers to an interpretation of fascism and its nature that guides one’s strategy and actions against it in the field.

We set out to curate analytical writings in this vein, and we found that the vast majority emerged not from the academy, but from antifascist movement cultures and their organizations. Few of these pieces included in this volume were written for an academic audience, and only in a few instances were they composed from the site of the academy. Some are testaments to the autodidact culture of the political left, a space where individuals like Julius Jacobson or Robert F. Williams developed profound social and historical insights from the feedback loop between movement literature, independently selected books, and political organizing in the field. Yet whether the pieces in this collection were written by organic intellectuals like Jacobson or by PhDs like Franz Neumann, they all take seriously Karl Marx’s famous dictum that the point of philosophy is not simply to interpret the world but to change it. Their insights are of value to any antifascist, regardless of their field of action or their choice of tactics.

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The US Antifascism Reader

From The U.S. Antifascism Reader, edited by Bill V. Mullen and Christopher Vials. Used with permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2020 by Bill V. Mullen and Christopher Vials.

Bill V. Mullen and Christopher Vials
Bill V. Mullen and Christopher Vials
Bill V. Mullen is Professor of American Studies at Purdue University. He is the author of James Baldwin: Living in Fire (forthcoming, Pluto Press); UnAmerican: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution and Afro-Orientalism. He is co-editor, with Ashley Dawson, of Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities. Chris Vials is an Associate Professor of English and Director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut-Storrs. He is the author of Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States (2014) as well as numerous pieces on fascism and antifascism in the United States.





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