One of the lesser reported aspects of the Irish Republican Army’s former military campaign in the United Kingdom is the low-level support it received from a wide range of anti-fascist and anti-apartheid organisations in Britain. While it has become the norm for the right-wing press in the UK to mention Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the Labour Party, in this context, the accusations against him have largely fallen flat. In fact, elected British politicians had almost no involvement with the IRA’s operations, no matter how sympathetic they may have been (and some undoubtedly were). Nor did the insurgents seek any contact with such representatives, and for obvious security reasons. Instead it was a tiny, frequently transitory, community of left-wing activists from a plethora of groupings, some no more than six or seven strong, which gave the Irish guerrillas an English sea to swim in.
I mention this because of two related articles in the American media, both discussing Antifa, an amorphous anti-fascist movement which has come to prominence in the United States following the street protests against a Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The first is by Daniel Penny in The New Yorker:
On October 4, 1936, tens of thousands of Zionists, Socialists, Irish dockworkers, Communists, anarchists, and various outraged residents of London’s East End gathered to prevent Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists from marching through their neighborhood. This clash would eventually be known as the Battle of Cable Street: protesters formed a blockade and beat back some three thousand Fascist Black Shirts and six thousand police officers. To stop the march, the protesters exploded homemade bombs, threw marbles at the feet of police horses, and turned over a burning lorry. They rained down a fusillade of projectiles on the marchers and the police attempting to protect them: rocks, brickbats, shaken-up lemonade bottles, and the contents of chamber pots. Mosley and his men were forced to retreat.
In “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” published last week by Melville House, the historian Mark Bray presents the Battle of Cable Street as a potent symbol of how to stop Fascism: a strong, unified coalition outnumbered and humiliated Fascists to such an extent that their movement fizzled. For many members of contemporary anti-Fascist groups, the incident remains central to their mythology, a kind of North Star in the fight against Fascism and white supremacy across Europe and, increasingly, the United States. According to Bray, antifa (pronounced an-tee-fah) “can variously be described as a kind of ideology, an identity, a tendency or milieu, or an activity of self-defense.” It’s a leaderless, horizontal movement whose roots lie in various leftist causes—Communism, anarchism, Socialism, anti-racism. The movement’s profile has surged since antifa activists engaged in a wave of property destruction during Donald Trump’s Inauguration—when one masked figure famously punched the white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face—and ahead of a planned appearance, in February, by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley, which was cancelled. At the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a number of antifa activists, carrying sticks, blocked entrances to Emancipation Park, where white supremacists planned to gather. Fights broke out; some antifa activists reportedly sprayed chemicals and threw paint-filled balloons. Multiple clergy members credited activists with saving their lives. Fox News reported that a White House petition urging that antifa be labelled a terrorist organization had received more than a hundred thousand signatures.
The piece above spins off an interesting, if dubious, analysis by Peter Beinart in The Atlantic, criticising alleged left-leaning extremism in the US.
To most left-wing activists during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, deregulated global capitalism seemed like a greater threat than fascism.
Trump has changed that. For antifa, the result has been explosive growth. According to NYC Antifa, the group’s Twitter following nearly quadrupled in the first three weeks of January alone. (By summer, it exceeded 15,000.) Trump’s rise has also bred a new sympathy for antifa among some on the mainstream left. “Suddenly,” noted the antifa-aligned journal It’s Going Down, “anarchists and antifa, who have been demonized and sidelined by the wider Left have been hearing from liberals and Leftists, ‘you’ve been right all along.’ ” An article in The Nation argued that “to call Trumpism fascist” is to realize that it is “not well combated or contained by standard liberal appeals to reason.” The radical left, it said, offers “practical and serious responses in this political moment.”
Those responses sometimes spill blood. Since antifa is heavily composed of anarchists, its activists place little faith in the state, which they consider complicit in fascism and racism. They prefer direct action: They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.
Beinart’s argument seems to be that organised action by liberal protesters is encouraging right-wing counter-violence. Therefore it should be voluntarily curtailed. However, intimidation and threats have been part and parcel of Donald Trump’s reactionary politics since the launch of his presidential campaign in 2015. The success of that strategy has inspired his most militant followers and admirers to follow suit. And as others have pointed out, the Timothy McVeighs of this world long predated the recent reemergence of Antifa.