“So, in the same way that a country with the word ‘democratic’ in its name tends to be anything but, Antifa appears overwhelmingly to be anti-fascist in name only.”
hen President Donald Trump announced on May 31st that the United States would be “designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” it caused an international outcry. From what I could tell, much of the criticism came from those who took Antifa, a loosely organized radical movement known for its militancy, mob mentality, and far-left agenda, to be synonymous with anti-fascism—and this is despite the fact that Antifa appears bent on undermining the most effective bulwark against fascism ever devised: the liberal democratic order.
In fact, collectivism, intolerance, and intimidation are characteristics of fascism.
Most people understand that opposition to fascism does not imply a far-left ideology, nor does it require the violent suppression of contrary systems of thought. In fact, collectivism, intolerance, and intimidation are characteristics of fascism. Blind to this irony, Antifa engages in militant tactics that violate fundamental liberal principles such as freedom of speech, political and ideological pluralism, and the right to life, limb, and property. These are all, of course, staples of a free and open society. So, in the same way that a country with the word “democratic” in its name tends to be anything but, Antifa appears overwhelmingly to be anti-fascist in name only.
There are historical precedents for this. As the economist and social philosopher F.A. Hayek writes in The Road to Serfdom: “By the time Hitler came to power, liberalism was dead in Germany. And it was socialism that had killed it.” Hayek goes on to say that “[t]he communists and Nazis clashed more frequently with each other than with other parties simply because they competed for the same type of mind.” Antifa, however, operates on the premise that anti-fascism necessarily implies leftism, creating a false dichotomy. Thus, anyone who is not on the left, can be labeled a fascist, which explains why conservatives and libertarians are routinely targeted by Antifa. It also solves a supply-and-demand problem: There are apparently not enough genuine fascists to go around.
I recall witnessing an incident in Linz, Austria in 2012 in which self-proclaimed “anti-fascists” chased down and assaulted members of a conservative Catholic student union. When I pointed out that those people were not fascists, an attacker shrugged and said something to the effect of “close enough.” He then gave the following rationale: “These people will end up in positions of power, and that’s not good for us, so they must be put in their place.” This reflects the view, prevalent among Antifa radicals, that fascism is systemic in our society. Conclusive evidence for that claim has yet to emerge.
Yet, the idea that Western capitalist democracy is, essentially, fascism in disguise has a long tradition on the Left. In the 1970’s, the German Red Army Faction (RAF), a far-left terrorist group, murdered several state and industry representatives with the goal of forcing Germany’s democratic government to pass and enforce ever more restrictive anti-terrorism laws, thus revealing its true, fascist face. The group’s hope was that this would turn the citizenry against the capitalist state and, ultimately, lead to its overthrow. Most people, however, were appalled by the RAF’s fascistic methods and came down on the side of law and order.
Antifa’s open hostility towards the police, which often leads to violent confrontations with law enforcement, is another expression of the idea that fascism is pervasive in Western society. Police officers, whose job it is to protect the democratic order, are thus treated as natural enemies. Having participated in a number of “anti-fascist” protests myself when I was, myself, aligned with that movement, I know from experience that this sentiment is more than common in Antifa circles. Ironically, its mirror image can be observed among actual fascists and neo-Nazis, who also frequently clash with the police, and for similar reasons: They, too, reject the democratic order.
What’s more, there seems to be a general confusion among radical leftists and anarchists as to what constitutes a “police state.” There is, after all, a fundamental difference between a totalitarian state controlled by a political police force and democratic law enforcement. However, for those who routinely accuse Western democracies of being quasi-fascist police states, this is a distinction without a difference. Theirs is a doctrine of malign equivalence—the idea that there is no significant moral difference between a totalitarian regime and a capitalist democratic government.
Where does the notion that democracy is a smokescreen for neo-fascism originate? Theodor W. Adorno held that “‘the after life of fascism inside democracy’ has to be deemed as potentially more dangerous than ‘the after life of fascist tendencies against democracy’” (Emphases added). In American democracy, Adorno saw a fascism disingenuously rooted in ideas of freedom and liberty: “There is a definite procedure for the perpetration of such distortions,” he argued, “a specific twist by which psychological patterns of democracy are transformed into ideological means of fascism.” Antifa took this idea and ran with it.
Another Frankfurt School philosopher whose teachings appear to have influenced Antifa is Herbert Marcuse. In his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse proposed a “liberating tolerance,” which “would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” It was, essentially, a partisan reiteration of Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” from his 1945 work The Open Society and Its Enemies: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” From a non-partisan perspective, however, we have no particularly good reason—much less an obligation—to tolerate Antifa’s political intolerance, especially when it takes the form of violence and intimidation.
So, should Antifa be designated as a terrorist organization? That is, should it be banned? Let us consider what Popper has to say about how best to deal with intolerant philosophies:
“[A]s long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.”
So, the question becomes: Has Antifa crossed that line? Judging from its actions, especially in the United States, it is safe to say that it has. However, it might still be unwise to ban it, for two, seemingly paradoxical, reasons. To begin with, declaring Antifa, a movement of manageable proportions, to be a domestic terrorist organization seems like an overreaction. Such a policy would, arguably, give outsized attention to a fringe phenomenon. This is not to say, however, that those who commit terrorist acts in the name of Antifa should not be prosecuted as terrorists. For instance, the self-styled anti-fascist who, in the summer of 2019, firebombed an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Tacoma, WA, and was subsequently shot dead by police, was clearly a domestic terrorist.
For many people, especially outside of the United States, Antifa is more of an attitude or, at the most, a loosely defined movement, which explains the international uproar over President Trump’s proposed ban.
At the same time, however, Antifa is a much broader phenomenon than it is made out to be by the American media. By that I mean that it is not an organization in the common sense of the word. It is highly decentralized and lacks a formal structure. For many people, especially outside of the United States, Antifa is more of an attitude or, at the most, a loosely defined movement, which explains the international uproar over President Trump’s proposed ban. In Germany, for instance, Antifa has a long tradition owing to the country’s Nazi past.
However, as is often the case with movements of this kind, those who commit acts of violence and terror in its name can count on broad support from supposedly moderate sympathizers. When, in June of 2019, the journalist Andy Ngo was viciously assaulted by Antifa on the streets of Portland, OR, for the “offenses” of being a conservative and having publicly called out Antifa bullies, there were plenty of people, even some of my left-wing friends, who condoned the attack. In their mind, Ngo was “a piece of s—” who “deserved it.” Basic humanity took a backseat to the noble goal of “anti-fascism.” But anti-fascism, in my book, means that when a violent mob descends on a non-violent individual, you take the side of that individual.
Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies.