Over the last few months I’ve seen many articles breaking down which organizations make up the “alt-right”. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any articles attempting to break down who’s in antifa.
Instead, antifa has often been treated by the US media as if it’s some sort of grassroots political movement like Occupy Wall Street, or a protest movement with a set of demands like Black Lives Matter.
The far right have leveraged this misunderstanding, and attempted to portray antifa as communist, Marxist, genocidal, and anything else they think will stick. Most of these talking points are ludicrous once you know what antifa actually is.
Before I start, disclosure time: I’m not a member of antifa, in that I do not believe that violence is necessary or desirable, at least at this point in time. I’m also not a member of any political party; in the last elections, I voted for at least one candidate from every party – Libertarians, Greens, Republicans and Democrats. I reject communism as unworkable, and I don’t think humanity in general is enlightened enough for anarchism to work yet, but I’m definitely down in the libertarian left quadrant of the political compass. I know some antifa, I’ve been to anarchist rallies, I’ve been part of a counterprotest against white nationalists, and so on.
So, here’s my attempt to shed some light on who antifa are. This article is not intended as an argument in favor of antifa, or a defense of antifa; that’s a whole separate discussion, a difficult one which demands nuance. Here, I just want people to know factually who is being talked about and what they are really doing, so we can be precise and factual in our discussions and criticisms.
Antifa does not have a single ideology, and it has only one universally agreed-upon goal: opposing fascism. The defining characteristic of antifa, as opposed to other forms of opposition to fascism, is the use of force. People who consider themselves antifa are prepared to use force to oppose fascism.
This use of force naturally includes self defense; it may also include initiating violence against fascists, but that is far from universal. Members of antifa may focus predominantly on de-escalation tactics or on intelligence work; it’s not a left-wing fight club.
Antifa groups do tend to share additional political goals such as opposing unfettered capitalism, opposing the nation-state, and seeking to break down white supremacy and structural racism. Right now, members of antifa are busy helping the displaced following hurricane Harvey. However, the progressive and constructive goals of members of antifa aren’t manifesto goals which define the movement. Rather, they are shared values of the participants. It’s a bit like how you don’t have to be a Christian to be a Republican, but if you’re a Republican you’re highly likely to be a Christian.
For an overview of how antifa groups are organized, check out Forming An Antifa Group: A Manual on the anarchist web site It’s Going Down. Again, as the article notes, antifa is not about any specific political ideology:
Some people use the antifa name as a way to promote their specific political views, especially members of some ideologically driven left-wing groups. If someone is more interested in recruiting people to their own group than doing anti-fascist work, get rid of them.
So antifa is a loose association of very different political groups who have united to oppose fascism. I’d like to list a few of those organizations, and set out the flags and logos they use to represent themselves.
Anti Fascist Action (AFA)
The Anti-Fascist Action movement started in Germany as Antifaschistische Aktion. Anarchists and communists, who had radically different political ideas, nevertheless decided that they needed to unite in order to oppose the Nazis. The main AFA logo consists of a red flag representing communism, over a black flag representing anarchism.
You’ll sometimes see the AFA flags with the flags reversed, black over red; or with two black flags. This reflects the fact that in the US, the antifascist movement has a lot more anarchists than communists. In countries where communism is a stronger influence, a “two red flags” variant is common.
You also, of course, get non-AFA-aligned anarchists participating in Antifa. Some fly the black flag, others prefer the circled-A symbol.
Anarchism covers a wide range of ideological viewpoints: famous contemporary anarchists include Noam Chomsky, Kathy Acker, Bob Black, Hakim Bey, and Lew Rockwell. Famous historical anarchists include Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi and Oscar Wilde.
There are some subsets of the anarchist grouping which have their own identifying symbols.
The original libertarian movement was libertarian socialism, a left-wing offshoot of anarchism which began using the term in the 1800s to get around French political censorship. Left-libertarians may identify as anarchist, communist, or neither.
Anarcho-syndicalists, socialist libertarians and anarcho-communists have a black and red diagonal flag.
Green libertarians or green anarchists have a black and green diagonal flag.
Like Anti Fascist Action, black bloc anarchism has its roots in Germany, where it began as a response to increasing use of force by police. Black bloc tactics include rioting and vandalism.
They are far from universally popular, even in anarchist circles.
There’s no specific black bloc logo I’m aware of, but their all-black-clad and masked (and sometimes helmeted) appearance makes them fairly obvious at Antifa events.
The astute political observer will have noticed that there aren’t many communists in the USA. Nevertheless, you’ll probably run into a few at any event where Antifa is taking action.
The Communist Party USA still exists, and still has a hammer-and-sickle logo. You’ll see old Soviet Union flags too; could be sincere communists, could be trolls or provocateurs. I haven’t asked.
The Industrial Workers of the World
The Industrial Workers of the World are also known as the Wobblies; nobody knows why for sure. They are a labor union open to everyone who performs wage labor for the capitalist ruling class. While they have links to socialist and anarchist groups, their platform is one of worker empowerment, rather than any specific political system.
The IWW have their own logo, of course.
It was widely reported that Heather Heyer was a member of the IWW, but that is not in fact true.
The hacktivist collective Anonymous has carried out numerous actions against neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other groups who describe themselves as “alt right”.
Anonymous has a flag and a logo, and they’re also often identified with the Guy Fawkes mask from the movie “V For Vendetta”.
In one amusing incident, Anonymous set up a fake “Texas Antifa” account and used it to hoax neo-Confederates and their sympathizers into believing that Sam Houston’s statue would be removed from a park in Houston. The right-wing statue-defenders who turned up with Confederate flags presumably didn’t know that Sam Houston opposed slavery and was removed as governor of Texas because he wouldn’t sign an oath to the Confederate States of America.
Finally, there are people who are antifa who do not belong to any political party or group – ordinary Americans who have decided that unfortunately, the resurgence of fascism means being prepared to meet that threat with force if necessary.
A logo you’ll see at anti-fascist demonstrations is the logo of three arrows pointing diagonally down and to the left. It began as a symbol for the Iron Front, an alliance founded by Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1931 in an attempt to fight political extremists.
The Iron Front were opposed to monarchists, Stalinist communists, and Nazis — hence the three arrows. Here’s a 1932 election poster:
Another popular symbol is the “no” or “prohibition” road sign circle over the Nazi swastika:
Finally, there’s this classic, which speaks for itself:
With some key constituencies in antifa identified, I have a few observations to make.
Yes, antifa can be violent. Black bloc are part of it, and they do initiate violence.
However, violence does not make antifa a fascist movement. While fascism doesn’t have a simple definition, it does have broad characteristics we can use to recognize it, and antifa doesn’t meet any of those characteristics other than identifying fascism as a common enemy. Fascists beat people up, but beating people up in the street doesn’t make you a fascist any more than kissing the tarmac would make you the Pope. Fascists use nonsensical phrases like “antifa fascism” in a deliberate attempt to destroy meaning. As Orwell put it:
If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. […] Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.
In spite of his call to start “at the verbal end”, Orwell was famously antifa: he took up arms against fascism, and wrote a book about his experiences.
Next, I’d like to note that antifa is not a movement of the Democratic Party. I’ve not seen any polls, but I’m pretty sure if you did poll antifa, you’d find that the majority of them hate the Democrats. So, trying to smear the Democrats as in any way responsible for antifa is as intellectually dishonest as trying to smear the Republican party as responsible for the neo-Nazis.
Antifa is also not a communist movement. There are some communists in it, but there are far more anarchists in US antifa. In fact, it’s not hard to find communists who are highly critical of antifa. So when you see antifa described as communism, that’s very telling too.
The far right often claim that antifa are helped by the police; the organizer of the Charlottesville rally did so, saying that his peaceful demonstration was forced by the police into violent confrontation with antifa. I have to say, the video doesn’t exactly make them look reluctant.
Meanwhile, antifa believe that the police are on the side of the Nazis and other white nationalists. They believe cops often let fascists get away with criminal violence. According to the FBI, there is a documented problem with white nationalist extremists infiltrating law enforcement. Personally, I’ve seen police trying to keep antifa and fascists apart, rather than favoring any particular side, but it likely varies a lot from city to city, so I’m hesitant to reach any firm conclusion.
Like any anonymous group, there are agents provocateurs who try to infiltrate antifa. Mainstream media have fallen for trolling by people pretending to be antifa, and white nationalists have been caught faking antifa attacks and distributing copies of fake antifa flyers and doctored images. Again, I’m not denying that antifa engage in violence; but in our current world of post-truth journalism, beware of taking things at face value, even if you see them in mainstream media. If you want to learn for sure what antifa are really like, I’d suggest peacefully taking part in the counterprotest at a white nationalist event.
In recent days there have been a number of media op-eds trying to argue that antifa is basically the same as fascism. So, I’d like to point out some of the key differences those op-eds try to obscure.
The first reason why antifa is not morally equivalent to fascism, is that antifa does not advocate genocide. The closest you can come to any connection to genocide is that some communist regimes committed genocide in the past, and there are communists who are members of antifa. That seems pretty tenuous to me. I’m not intimately familiar with the policies of the Communist Party USA, but I did look through their manifesto and couldn’t find anything about wanting Stalinist purges or genocide. In contrast, neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer have explicitly advocated genocide – in Spencer’s case, through compulsory sterilization of black people and other ethnic groups he considers genetically unfit. Bit of a difference, yes?
Similarly, there’s a clear difference between antifa and the alt-right if you look at what happens when the other side doesn’t turn up. When Nazis and the KKK fail to turn up, events where antifa are present tend to turn into block parties. When antifascist protesters aren’t present, Nazi rallies tend to involve terrorising Jews and black people.
Also, consider why the two sides were in Charlottesville. The Nazis and other white nationalists were there because they wanted to intimidate or terrorize people of color, Jews, Muslims, and LGBT people; they want to see those people deported, oppressed, or worse. They want to impose their political program on society at large. In contrast, antifa were in Charlottesville purely to stop the white nationalists and protect others; they were not seeking to impose an ideology on society beyond “don’t tolerate fascists”. In fact, a lot of what antifa end up doing is protecting the peaceful anti-fascist counterprotesters when the police fail to do so.
So I see very clear factual differences between the two sides. I believe those differences are relevant when considering whether the two sides are morally equivalent.
Because the left is so fractious, and because antifa members vary so much in their political positions, I predict that I will be told I’m an idiot and completely wrong about what antifa is about. That may be true; I’m no expert. I hope that regardless, the list of flags and logos and their meanings can at least be of some use. Apologies to any group I excluded.
Here are some links to some articles I suggest as further reading:
Images via Wikimedia Commons.