Friday, October 6, 2017

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

We are always living through uncertain times. Some periods in history always seem more tumultuous than others but at any given time, it would depend entirely on perspective. Lately, in America, things seems to be metaphorically (and sometimes literally) on fire. Recent events surrounding the Berkeley protests of controversial speakers, the terrible tragedy at Charlottesville, and the distinct mainstream visibility of white supremacist voices (and the accompanying sympathy for them by administration in power) have brought a renewed attention to the history of fascism and its roots in white supremacy. The political movement "Antifa" has surfaced to the top in conversation.

On a personal level, I was only tangentially aware of Antifa before this year. There are many reasons for this which I won't go into here. Recently, I hear so much about Antifa in counter arguments about the Nazi/fascist/white supremacist groups. The equivalence drawn by many in these conversations between Antifa and white supremacy piqued my curiosity. When I attended a book buzz earlier this year at the offices of Melville House, one of the books discussed as a forthcoming title was Mark Bray's work Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook and I decided to read it for my own edification. 

Bray interviewed 61 current and former anti-fascists from 17 countries, as well as conducted exhaustive research in order to write this book. Part of the book's end goal is, as per the introduction, is to expand "our geographical and temporal outlook to contextualize opposition to Trump and the alt-right within a much wider and broader terrain of resistance."

Antifa is short for 'anti-fascist' and what struck me immediately is that a huge majority of the information that floats around our media today regarding Antifa and the basic understanding of the average person who maligns it, has absolutely no idea what Antifa is, much less what it stands for. Before reading this book, I was under the impression that Antifa was one big organization/political party and I half expected to read a standard history of a traditional political movement. Many recent news articles have crafted this narrative, likely in order to make drawing parallels between Antifa and white supremacist hate groups a means of deflection. 

This book posits that there are a few reasons for this misinformation and confusion. One is that fascism itself is hard to define. Historical fascist movements and governments did not follow a one size fits all doctrine and would often change and twist the belief system as circumstances changed. A direct result of this difficulty to neatly define fascism makes the tendency to define Antifa as "simply" anti-fascism. However, this book argues that "the reduction of the term to a mere negation obscures an understanding of anti-fascism as a method of politics, a locus of individual and group self-identification, and a transnational movement that adapted preexisting socialist, anarchist, and communist currents to a sudden need to react to the fascist menace. This political interpretation transcends the flattening dynamics of reducing anti-fascism to the simple negation of fascism  by highlighting the strategic, cultural, and ideological foundation from which socialists of all stripes have fought back." 

The shortened version of that answer is; it's complicated. Or at least defining it is. And in modern times and governments, it becomes ever more expansive. Bray's book is exhaustively researched and the interviews he has conducted with anti-fascists are illuminating. He highlights the wide variety of anti-fascist groups throughout the world, the differences in their core ideologies, their methods of protest and action, and the different ranges of focus in fighting the far right and fascism. He makes the case that Antifa is not a single issue movement but rather "one of a number of manifestations of revolutionary socialist politics (broadly construed)." This is the first work of its kind; the study of anti-fascist groups has been lacking, largely due to the reluctance of anti-fascist activists to reveal their identities. Bray has been a political activist for some time and was able to reach these interviews because of the trust he has built within these circles. 

For certain, the tone of the writing is very academic. I would not recommend this book to a reader looking for an easily palatable read and discussion of a serious and complex movement. Bray admits in his introduction that his focus is on Western Europe and the United States, despite the fact that Eastern European countries as well as Latin America, Australia, and East Asia all have antifa movements. Perhaps his next book could focus on those? I'd be interested.

Reading this book was both a political and historical lesson for me. I have been introduced to a wealth of historical information from various countries (including my own) that I have been unaware of and it has prompted me to do further research. If you are a person interested in history and politics, particularly in how understanding the history of political movements and activism in context as they relate to the world we are living in today...then I recommend you read this. And I definitely recommend this book to each and every person I have engaged with, in person and online, who hear a few buzzwords about Antifa and then use it as a talking point without understanding anything about it. I have the distinct feeling that if any of them did, the conversation would experience a very, very welcome sea change. 

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