Antifa Academics (review)

Guest post by Shane Burley 

Originally published at Full Stop. Republished with permission.

Evan Smith, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech (London: Routledge, 2020); Stanislav Vysotsky, American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism (London: Routledge, 2020); Devin Zane Shaw, Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy (London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020).

Book covers of No Platform by Evan Smith, American Antifa by Stanislav Vysotsky, and Philosophy of Antifascism by Devin Zane Shaw

Since the term “Antifa” moved from the edges of radical politics to a favorite boogeyman on right-wing talk media, there has been a desperate grab by publications and researchers to define what this means. A new prevailing notion that Antifa simply means “all antifascism” has persisted, showing that the word has actually evolved as antifascism became one of the dominant mass movements of the left in the era of Donald Trump and national populism. Antifascism has been seen as fundamentally a new phenomenon, one that unites people against a growing minority of right-wing ideologues, and within this frame its strategy and tactics have become hopelessly obscured. Antifa is, therefore, framed as ahistorical: it exists as a fumbling movement, angry at conservatives, based solely in the youth generation of today, and divorced from the complex histories of organizing and radical politics.

This picture is, of course, based on politicized hyperbole rather than facts: antifascism has a rich history that traces its opposition to the interwar period when fascist movements arose and throttled the planet with a fantasy of racial and nationalist revenge. This history has been lost to much of the public discourse on what antifascism actually is, as well as the depth of the ideas, critical analysis, and positive vision that belies antifascist movements, which is why there has been a churning need to see actual scholarship that digs into questions that should be so obvious. What is antifascism, where has it arrived before, and what does it want?

While a slew of books on the subject have arrived since 2017, the collection is reasonably small given the enormity that antifascism has developed in public consciousness. As academics typically do, a number of books have finally arrived that started to take bite-size looks at pieces of antifascism in an effort to break down lessons about what is happening today. Three books in particular, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech by Evan Smith, American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism by Stanislav Vysotsky, and Philosophy of Antifascism: Punching Nazis and Fighting White Supremacy by Devin Zane Shaw, take on the question of antifascism from radically different directions. Each try to take the disciplines they come from (history, criminology, and philosophy, respectively) and use those strengths to ask pointed questions, treating antifascism seriously as a social movement philosophy far beyond the caricature that has been made of it. All three represent stunning works that are part of a burgeoning interdisciplinary field of Antifascism Studies (whether or not anyone actually uses the term) and are each staking a claim for what antifascism can teach us about larger social questions.

American Antifa may be the most “on brand” of the three, and that comes largely from Vysotsky’s own background. As he explains in the book, he was an antifascist organizer himself when he was younger, and he uses his own organizing relationships to set up his field work. As a critical criminologist, he applies the lens of social boundaries and law enforcement, which leads him to necessarily anonymize the people he is interviewing. He understands the pressure that these activists could be under from law enforcements, home raids and grand juries a real possibility, so he keeps their names out of it. Instead, he uses the names New City and Old City for two distinct antifascist groups he interviews, with each city representing stages in his own political work. It’s here that he goes deep into militant antifascism itself, which is really where the term “Antifa” comes from. Rather than a catch all for all forms of antifascism, from liberal protest movements to church groups, this is specifically for those that use “physical resistance” to confront fascists. Because they share an underlying critique of the state and the police, they take on the role of community self-defense outside of law enforcement, an approach to criminology in its own right. Vysotsky then goes into the tactics and strategy of these movements: how they use cultural spaces, how they think of violence, and how they organize themselves. Out of every book that has been published on the subject, this may be the most in depth on how militant antifascism actually works in the U.S., and he refuses to shy away from the complexities of that. Violence, in particular, is talked about at length, where the question of ethics and efficacy are a central component of the formulation of an antifascist subculture. The implicit violence of the far-right is what creates antifascism as its antithesis, and the repression and threats of attack that antifascists face helps to distill what kind of practical approaches they should have.

In a similar way, Evan Smith looks at a type of antifascist organizing in No Platform, yet he hones in on one particular strand of history. Instead of looking at the history of militant antifascism in the U.S., Smith centers his history on one particular institution as a commentary on the broader social movement: the National Union of Students. The union itself is a well-known institution on the British left in its post-New Left form, organizing a large block of university students into common campaigns that affected them in the university. Smith’s history is not just of the union, but of one particular debate inside the union, the use of “no platforming.” This tactic addresses primarily members of the far-right, people out of the bounds of normal debate, and includes denying them access to any form of public speech. This has become a hotly debated issue as arguments around youth “cancel culture” abounds, particularly with hyperbolic fears about universities, so Smith’s volume captures the fact that this is hardly a new debate. Instead, it goes back to the 1960s and student activists went back and forth on the ethics and efficacy of the tactic, not just in terms of ideology, but in actual struggle against campus recruitment by organizations like the National Front and the British Movement. What is most clear from No Platform is the deja vu that most communities have in regards to antifascism (or just left-wing social movements in general) as the same allegations thrown at young college students have been echoed for the past fifty years.

No platforming itself has become central to discourse on antifascism, so the book’s insights extend far beyond the campus. Instead, they look at the way that “speech,” as an amorphous context, is heavily political, both in who has access to speech and who doesn’t. On campuses, speech is heavily indebted to the costs of attendance: students pay for the campus to function, and that money is then, defacto, funneled into allowing some types of speech and not others. The tactic of no platform is then treated as what it is, a tactic, and the debates over when to use it and when to leave it behind are ongoing without a settled answer. One interesting example the book delves into is the debate over no platforming Zionist speakers, some of whom are coming from Israel. Given that many on the campus were opposed to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, some argued that no platform should be extended to Zionist speakers. But since these were almost solely Jewish speakers, and it would disproportionately affect Jewish organizations and people addressing specifically Jewish issues, this ended up having a consequence on a marginalized minority. What No Platform makes clear is that this debate started decades ago and is happening all the time, right now, as social movements attempt to meet their goals in a changing environment.

Out of the three books, Shaw’s Philosophy of Antifascism makes the biggest thematic change. Unlike American Antifa and No Platform, it is more a theoretical book than a practical history, and it also launches into its ideas from deep within the antifascist tradition. Its introduction centers the ideas behind antifascism by looking at authors and theorists that are not just writing about antifascism, but from within it. The attempt here is to crystalize some key ideas as to what antifascism is, how it adds a critical lens to interpreting the world, and what it means to think about this type of resistance in philosophical terms.

Shaw then pivots the book to unpack these ideas in relationship to existentialist philosophy, focusing on figures like Simone de Beauvoir. He doesn’t assume that those he covers are antifascist activists in the way that the book has defined it, involved in movement building or even with commentary that mirrors militant antifascism, but that they have a shared philosophic foundation on some key elements. Beyond its ability to make complicated philosophical treatises accessible by connecting them to a relevant issue, this approach has the effect of creating a shared understanding that allows antifascism to expand beyond the boundaries within which we normally experience it. Antifascism is a responsive movement (it is opposed to fascism, as defined in its antithesis), but its positive vision is rarely articulated. That has a practical functionality: antifascism is best served by opposing fascism, not rebuilding the world. But with Shaw’s approach, he digs out the commonalities inside liberatory existentialism as a way of bridging that gap, finding antifascism in their work. What is particularly unique about Shaw’s book is that he unapologetically starts with the kinds of books that antifascists themselves might read (full disclosure, that includes my own), which reframes how antifascism is seen. It is done without apology, it sees the antifascist canon not just as a primary source but as a valid source of an analysis, commentary, and theory. In this way it is one of the most philosophically deep books, not just on this list, but ever written on antifascism, and takes seriously the attempt to parse out the contradictions in the enemy the movement builds itself around.

There is often a division between the world of political writing that happens within social movements and those from the outside, and this is what has been seen so heavily in the commentary on antifascism of the past five years. What’s remarkable about all three books is that they take antifascism seriously enough to start from the inside. Vysotsky begins with his own antifascist organizing, and explains the methodology of coming from within a social movement and participating as an approach to ethnography. Smith takes the social movements mentioned in the book seriously, which is also seen in his other histories of groups like the Socialist Workers Party, which was influential in British antifascism in its own right. Shaw’s approach is not just to center the book about antifascism, but for it to be an antifascist book, a contribution not just to the field of philosophy, but to the living world of antifascism. All three are academics, so they are bending their disciplines to bring something unique to the world of antifascism rather than just sitting with a professorial detachment and exploiting the research for dispassionate peer review. None of that should minimize the depth of the scholarship itself, which in each case is profound and unmatched.

With the matched rise of the far-right and mass antifascism, there has been a critical need for scholarship that helps create a vital living history. A number of academics, journals, and publishers have started to take this seriously, including Routledge’s cutting-edge Fascism and Far Right Series, which published No Platform and American Antifa. Just like their authors, they come from a place of resistance, where the research and publishing are tied directly to the work of fighting off a fascist insurgency. The scholarship takes antifascism seriously, including research and critical work that comes from within movements, and that sincerity and commitment to their subjects has created a special space in a growing canon of literature.

These three books will not be the only academic treatises on the subject, expect dozens in the coming years. But they do set a new standard for how the subject can be addressed by academic authors, where solid research and scholarship does not have to be paired with disinterest and total neutrality on issues of far-right radicalism. As we enter an era of increased tension from the street level forces of Trump’s former base, these types of interventions provide not just a clear picture of where we are, but even some insights into a way forward.

Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End
It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in Jacobin, Salon, Truthout, In These Times, Waging Nonviolence, ThinkProgress, Political Research Associates, Alternet, and Roar Magazine.

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