Four years ago, when I was writing a book on the history of antifascism in the United States, I told a colleague at the University of Connecticut what I was working on. “Antifascism?” he said. “Not many people on the other side of that!”
How quaint that comment now seems. At the time, it reflected an unfamiliarity with the term “antifascism” in the United States. To me, the comment was also a healthy affirmation of antifascism’s commonsense ring. But that was before the election of an openly white nationalist President who has gone out of his way to demonize what he calls “ant-e-fuh.” Now, thanks to the Trumpian turn, there are plenty of people on the other side of that.
Such a demonization can be expected from a man who said that some “very fine people” were among the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, and who ultimately took their side in the Confederate statue debate. But more disturbing is how even many liberals have taken a dim view of the term “antifascism,” implicitly buying into Trump’s narrative. This is deeply unsettling in view of the rise of the alt-right and a swelling of hate crimes against people of color and the LGBTQ community.
No doubt, this is because the media has helped Trump by reducing antifascism to violence. But antifascism has always been more than this. Historically, an antifascist isn’t just someone who dislikes fascism. Rather, it is someone who thinks that this thing called “fascism” – or something in its neighborhood – is a clear and present danger, and who is willing to devote their time and energy to stopping it. For some, this means battling neo-Nazis in the streets. For others, it means organizing a speakers’ series on the history of fascism or teach-ins on the Holocaust. For others still, it might mean fighting fascism ‘at the roots’ by organizing for racial justice, against homophobia, or for immigrants and refugees.
In the United States and Western Europe, antifascism took on a new meaning in the 1980s and 1990s as it became ‘antifa,’ a tough-minded youth movement that emerged from subculture and punk-rock scenes to literally do battle with skinheads and neo-Nazis who terrorized immigrants and people of color.
But before this time, starting in the 1930s, “antifascism” more often than not involved a big tent, non-sectarian strategy that united various groups of liberals, leftists, and even moderates in common political front against the extreme right.
For example, the American League Against War and Fascism, founded in 1933, brought together a wide range of labor, civil rights, and women’s advocates to support pro-labor and racial justice legislation, lobby the U.S. government to take firmer action against fascism abroad, and to send supplies to the Spanish Loyalists fighting fascism in Spain. It is in this latter sense of antifascism – that of a big-tent united front – that a branch of the Campus Antifascist Network was recently formed at UConn-Storrs, with a program of education, coalition-building, resources for those who have been trolled and harassed, and, if need be, picketing and protest.
It is not my intention here to tame the history of antifascism by suggesting that the antifascists of yesterday limited themselves to Gandhian nonviolence. After all, American antifascists of the 1930s volunteered to fight Hitler and Mussolini’s proxy armies in the Spanish Civil War. To be sure, antifascists have generally agreed on the principle of self-defense – meaning that if you’re assaulted, you don’t just take the blows, but physically defend yourself, striking back if you must. Nothing radical or illegal here – most Americans believe this as well. We’re just not used to hearing such things from liberals and the political left.
My larger point is that antifascism, yesterday and today, is not a specific kind of action, like a lobbying campaign or a street brawl. Nor is it a specific kind of person. Some antifascists have prepared to fight while others wouldn’t hurt a flea. Rather, what unites antifascism is the belief that fascist, white nationalist, and openly racist movements won’t go away simply by ignoring them. When they march in your town, you don’t stay away or keep quiet in the hopes that no one will notice and they’ll just go away. You address them and their hateful actions head on. Antifascists have always debated the how, but are in agreement on the what.
Chris Vials is Director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States (2014). He is co-editor, with Bill Mullen, of the forthcoming book The U.S. Antifascism Reader. He is also on the Steering Committee of the UConn branch of the Campus Antifascist Network.