The Problems of Liberal Anti-Fascism
If we want a fascist-free world, we need to break from what we have and build a better one.
From O. Berkman
Some Starting Thoughts
I write this piece not to drive people away from anti-fascist movements or to create sectarian division. But, I write this piece instead to draw attention to flaws in our movements and push us—collectively—to be better. If we wish to truly defeat fascism, it cannot come at the expense of the peoples and movements most affected by them and indeed, will not come through means that lack a grounding in material reality (ie. through liberalism).
In the following sections, I’m going to walk you through a synthesis of thoughts which critique liberal approaches to anti-fascism, as I believe these approaches limit our ability to build movements and grow beyond a reactive (usually reactionary) position.
For the purpose of this piece, as well, I wish to make several things clear. Firstly, I will not be making great distinction between white nationalist movements of earlier eras, the classic fascists of the 1930s, and every formulation since. All arise from similar conditions and practices—and indeed, are entirely aligned today. While it may not be precise enough for some, for the purposes of our work here, it is enough to be correct.
Secondly, much of this piece will rest upon this premise: Fascism is the logical, violent, and near-certain extreme of Capitalism and the State. If for some reason you have no will to consider this, then you will find yourself at a crossroads with me. But, I will delve into this in more detail as we go forward.
The Mythologization of Fascism
To begin, let’s set out another simple premise. Fascism is not an incomprehensible evil. To cast fascism in such a way—as an evil outside of human understanding—separates the capacity of humankind to carry out fascistic acts and how those acts build from more deeply ingrained structures of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, et al. In fact, even our own movements have dabbled in such structures historically through scientism and eugenics.
Fascists inject themselves into every subculture they can manage and recruit broadly across class lines—they form real movements and have held real power, bringing about real consequences. The point of this is best described in summary in the introduction to Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem where it is said that
[n]early everybody who attended the trial of mass killers after the war, some of them respected doctors and pharmacists, came away with the disconcerting impression that the killers looked pretty much like you or me. The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him,” the implication being that the coexistence of normality and bottomless cruelty explode our ordinary conceptions and present the true enigma of the trial. In a similar vein, Simone de Beauvoir said that at his trial after the war the French Nazi Pierre Laval seemed commonplace and inconsequential, an unimaginative and feeble little fellow.
While one may not agree with Arendt’s broader perspective in other matters, insights found here and elsewhere regarding the trials of Nazis are illustrative. One could surely make similar observations of most Klansmen, neo-Nazi punks, and online Pepe-pinned ‘western supremacists’—that these people and their movements arise from normal people under the conditions of our world and through the slow embrace of fascist ideology.
This is not to downplay the vileness of fascist acts, but to highlight that such acts are not distant from where we stand or from the everyday. Fascism can grow anywhere under the right conditions and in banal kinds of people. Arendt's "Banality of Evil" has become somewhat cliche, but its reality is underplayed in liberal discourse.
To portray the fascist as an unspeakable monster is to salve ourselves of the reality that such beings share in our humanity and immersion in the society in which we ourselves were forged. It is but our ethics and convictions which separate us from them, rather than the fascist zeitgeist serving as some Elder God out of the pages of Lovecraft bringing forth people to thralls. For the liberal, this lack of introspection serves to preserve the sanctity of their existing society and cast the fascist as an aberration to be cleansed—rather than as much a part of that system as their own liberalism.
But to hold to such a view weakens the ability of anti-fascist movements to act. With every thought of the fascist as an impossible evil, there becomes less motivation to engage in counter-education or community defence and more desire to rely on State protection. When, in truth, the State will just as-easily defend the fascists as it will our own.
In liberal anti-fascist conceptions then, we are left with an inaccurate depiction of the enemy (the fascist) and limit our own understanding of both how they arise and what tactics can stymie their growth. However, this is not the sole issue created by liberal anti-fascism.
Reduction and the Other
While painting fascist ideology as the creeping shadow beyond the horizon, the individual fascist receives a different look in liberal conceptions of antifascist struggle. Too often, the fascist is passed off as an uneducated working class Joe against an enlightened, if not beloved, liberal elite. And while there are fascists that arise from the working class, too often liberals engage in a class reductionism of the issue and ignore the cross-class nature of fascist ideology. This cross-class nature of fascism is one of the key dangers of the ideology itself—as it displaces class solidarity with solidarity centered on white racial (or ‘western’) supremacy.
One only needs to look at Chris Hedges paean to solely non-violent confrontation with fascism to see this at work. In the hackneyed How ‘Antifa’ Mirrors the ‘Alt-Right’, Hedges decides to needlessly attack anti-fascists who engage in confrontation and bring forward a softening of the fascist image.
In a classic liberal maneuver, Hedges claims that all sides are equal and that “The two opposing groups, largely made up of people who have been cast aside by the cruelty of corporate capitalism, have embraced holy war”. An analysis which engages in the very class reductionism of fascist movements I’ve mentioned earlier. Also, it’s clear that Hedges simply doesn’t understand the history of radical movements on the left.
Why do I malign this so-called Marxist professor so? Because he states that fascists and anti-fascists “mirror each other, not only ideologically but also physically—armed and dressed in black, the color of fascism and the color of death”, which frankly reveals his complete (and likely willful) lack of understanding of black as a colour used by anarchists and other revolutionaries. But this equivocation seems aimed to soften the fascist image.
The softening of the fascist image comes to its furthest extent, however, as Hedges proclaims that “[t]he white racists and neo-Nazis may be unsavory, but they too are victims. They too lost jobs and often live in poverty in deindustrialized wastelands” and so on. Again, Hedges’ oversimplifies fascist movements and engages in a reductive narrative. Why? Because this narrative supports a bland, disengaging liberal fascism. Instead of (or complementary to) the great fascist shadow, comes the notion of sad, white underclasses drawn to fascism without choice. While this leaves out the many who choose not to engage so, it continues to erase the ruling class engagement with fascism.
This narrative of Hedges has a contemporary in the-fascist-as-crazy narrative. While being incredibly ableist, this narrative is meant to remove agency from fascists. Just as in Hedges’ narrative of white underclasses pulled irrevocably to fascism, here the fascist is an aberration and drawn to fascism due to their so-called ‘insanity’ or other ableist garbage. This saneist discourse should be equally and vigorously dismissed—most importantly due to the insult this serves to those engaged with mental health and other disabilities. Othering these peoples as a means to condemn fascists is never justifiable, accurate, or based in anything but a need to deflect from dealing with the systemic roots of fascism. Both of these narratives disconnect people from the fascist struggle, as they are kept outside of it. In turn, liberal anti-fascism remains distant from other, everyday struggles.
Disconnect from Everyday Struggle
As established above, fascism neither creeps in from the shadows or arises out of places centered in liberal condescension. As noted in the first section, these fascists are still part of the societies we live in and grow within those very spaces while violent and vile.
But just as vile fascism is part of the fabric of the societies we live within, so too is resistance within ourselves. However, liberal anti-fascists distance this singular form of resistance from broader struggle. By focusing solely on fascism in a vacuum, liberal anti-fascism robs our resistance of its groundedness in other, deeply related struggles. Fascists feed on Islamophobia, transphobia, and anti-Semitism to recruit and grow their ranks. But the liberal anti-fascist addresses these issues separately or arising solely out of a legalistic narrative of rights bestowed by the State. What people truly desire though, is an anti-fascism that does not leave them behind and connects to deeper, inherent principles of our lives. Replacing a liberal reliance on the State with principles of community defence and resilience can only grow our movements.
Indeed, anti-fascists that tie their work to attacking the structures that oppress our peoples and allow for fascists to thrive, will find they have beaten back more than just the individual or small collectives of the enemy—but opened avenues to uproot them. At Gods and Radicals, the phrase ‘beautiful resistance’ is raised and I think it’s a good one to consider for this struggle. If we do not have a beautiful vision beyond what is, what has allowed the fascist to rise forward, why would people aim to follow us into combatting them and not fall into the all-sides-are-the-same rhetoric used by liberals such as Hedges or fascists such as Trump? Our vision has to come alongside our diversity of tactics.
As well, while Hedges is wrongheaded in his approach, it can be said that fascists feed on poverty and systemic economic inequality—you know, capitalism—in both their targeting of rich and working class folks (though, for entirely different reasons of course). We cannot truly beat back the fascists without grounding in these struggles. We cannot work in a vacuum, as the fascist certainly does not. If we make effort in our work to include tackling what white and western supremacy actually means in the everyday then the resistance to fascism will take on the character of those who fight it. We, those who are left out by liberals and sometimes by our comrades, can fight not just for some idea—but for our communities, for our future, for our lives.
But, if fascism is so tied to our broader struggles, what does that make it in relation to our interlocking systems of domination and control?
Fascism-within-the State and Capital
Fascism exists, as I stated in the beginning, as the logical, violent, and near-certain extreme of Capitalism and the State. The legitimacy of the State and the current arrangement of Capital rests on fundamental grounds that allows for the growth (and regrowth) of fascist movements across Europe, the colonial so-called Americas, and beyond. For this commentary, I’ll bring my focus to the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe shared territories where I currently lurk, but these comments could apply more broadly with some modification.
First, look to the arrangement of territory under the settler colonial state in these territories (and the colonialist mentalities here and in Europe that built them). The scientific eugenics, displacement of territory, and supremacist fervor—all of which express themselves in fascist ideology—were critical to the founding of these colonial states. The State is built, from its first stone, either through such a process or in other territories through the capital generated by such processes. Until these underlying foundations are toppled, fascism will remain a threat.
Second, look to the targeted and vast police brutality towards Black lives—even if many anarchists don’t seem particularly up to that task—and ask yourself, is fascism not bolstered by a State which carries out such violence with-or-without them? Can we be surprised when white nationalists rise up, knowing that the State already well-endorses their program? Sure, this hides behind a liberal facade of bad apples and lone actors—but that’s never quite true, is it? Look at the case of Pedro Hernandez and see one of the few cases where the State is caught out—without an outright body on its’ hands, if not a soul—for another reminder of what the truth is here.
Third, with every monster like Arpaio, there are deportations and restrictions to freedom of movement across these territories everywhere. It can be no wonder that groups like PEGIDA, Soldiers of Odin, La Meute, and countless others can wander these territories with impunity and inspire further violence, when the State has tacitly approved of it. For the liberal narrative, these people—like all the arms of the State above—are fundamentally exceptions and these foundation stones of the State are historical curios. Or, at worst, these things should inspire actionless pity.
But, this should underlie why liberal anti-fascism ultimately falls short. The liberal narrative relies on making the fascist an aberration to the system, rather than a function of it. Particularly comfortable, white, upper and middle class liberals seem to think that if they break down individual fascists, if they talk them out of their immediate actions, if they just say the right words, arrest the right people, and let the system go back on humming then everything will be fine.
This is false. The State rests itself—as all the above attests—on grounds which allow for the fascist to thrive. If we want a fascist-free world, we need to break from what we have and build a better one. We can’t do that just by addressing far right groups in a vacuum, just as much as we can’t ignore the threat they pose. We have to build an anti-fascist movement that allows for a diversity of tactics, yes, but a fullness of objectives. We have to create visions—even if not unified in what those are—that take fascism up from the root, the State, and address the underlying causes that allows them to recruit across class and attack those vulnerable.
To The Liberals Who’ve Read This Far
At the very beginning, I said that my purpose here was not to drive people away from anti-fascist movements or to create sectarian division. But, I wrote this piece instead to draw attention to flaws in our movements and push us—collectively—to be better. And I’ve spent all of that time being fairly hard on liberal anti-fascists. I don’t, for a moment, wish to see this propell you away from anti-fascist organizing. Instead, take a breath. Take a moment.
If you can see from all I’ve said that there is more to this than passively talking to Nazis and ignoring wider systems of oppression, then we’re on the same page again and you know to abandon your previous liberal approach. As an individual, as a collective, you all can take up different ways of approaching this issue of anti-fascism. I’m not demanding that you necessarily close your laptop right now, pick up a brick, find your best black hoodie and hankie, and club the nearest fascist you see (though, what you do is up to you, really). Instead, take up whatever tactics you feel are best—no need to front here—that fit with this wider analysis you’re now considering and the radical group you’d want to work with. Learn from those around you, listen to those who’ve been impacted by the fascists and by the State most—those criminalized and marginalized, those who’ve long-fought fascists and the State with radical and revolutionary perspectives.
But don’t back down now. If you can see that there is so much more work that interlocks with anti-fascist struggle, then it’s time to take stock, reflect, and build a deeper, radical, and effective anti-fascist movement.
Yet, if after all this you still want to maintain the existing order of things and be a liberal anti-fascist. Well, maybe, you’re part of the fucking problem.
O. Berkman is an indigenous anarchist writer on topics of history and currently anti-fascism located in shared territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe (so-called Southern Ontario, Canada). They write about other stuff too, but we’ll include that here as we go.