Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook

Antifa? You mean those “black-clad” thugs that smashed up a Starbucks on Berkeley’s campus? Who are they? Where did they come from? Why are they so violent? Ask no more! All of these questions are answered in Mark Bray’s new book Antifa—The Anti-Fascist Handbook.

Despite what the subtitle might suggest, Antifa is hardly a handbook, or at least not just a handbook. Antifa is a thrown-together patchwork of pseudo-academic research (relying on random people with whom the author was connected), political treatise, apologia of thuggish violence, and, above all, self-aggrandizing historical conjecture. In essence, the book is in part a historical account—albeit of questionable authenticity—and manifesto. There are six sections in addition to the introduction and conclusion: the first three tracing the history of the anti-fascist movement, and the last three focusing on explaining and defending the controversial philosophy and tactics of anti-fascists.

American conservatives tend to portray antifa as a thuggish group of professional criminals that ought to be feared, lest one lets his guard down and they come riot in your neighborhood next. But, Bray’s answer to the question of who makes up the antifa movement is more laughable than frightening. According to Bray, those who identify with antifa are much more than your typical college-aged “snowflake” social justice warrior, rather they come from the fringes of civil society—punks, skinheads, bikers, and “football hooligans.” These social deviants join together to form an alliance that would probably be unexpected by those outside of their subcultures, but Bray argues that it is not especially atypical. Yet, what begins as an attempt to depict antifa as heroic—he praises them for protecting society by mercilessly attacking fascists, racists, and homophobes without discrimination—ends up portraying them as a pitiful group of freaks who are so insecure about their aberrant lifestyles that they seek a sort of social validation by adopting a virile persona that manifests itself primarily in violent outbursts. Ironically, their violence ultimately damages the very communities that they were supposedly protecting. In short, they are misguided losers who know little more than how to smash storefronts and call people racist.

Yet, the sections of the book focused on the history of anti-fascism are undoubtedly fascinating, and if purchasing the book did not give direct financial support to antifa radicals, I would almost suggest buying it solely for these first few sections. The main criticism of Bray’s historical research is actually in the book itself, as Bray himself admits that it is narrow, Western-centric, and decidedly white in its scope. I would also, however, question the accuracy of his historical analysis, as he often makes broad conclusions that are only superficially supported by the evidence he cites. His analysis is, obviously, politically charged—he declares the book “an unabashedly partisan call to arms”—and thus he often takes vague accounts as facts with little nuance. But, “partisan” might actually understate Bray’s prejudice. He is quick to call any death of an anti-fascist “murder”—even if there is ambiguity surrounding the case. He often disregards such uncertainty and asserts his own truth, even if that “truth” is at best “alternative” and at worst fictitious. In addition, Bray often aggrandizes the role of antifa in historical events. Bray is clever—he attributes the achievements of groups from a variety of backgrounds to the antifascist movement. Yet, he seems to contradict himself in this way, because he both provides specific tenets that antifascists must follow or advance and also considers groups who do not qualify as genuine “antifa” by his own definition as antifascists. He does not parse or even discuss this dilemma. Despite these critical shortcomings, Bray’s work ought not be wholly forsaken—he has created an impressively comprehensive history of antifa that will captivate anyone interested in 19th and 20th Century European politics.

The topic of bias brings us to the most problematic elements of Antifa. It is no surprise that a political treatise is in fact politically biased—anyone could guess that. But, one would hope for at least some indication that the author understands that political thought is complex and variable. Concerning Antifa, those hopes are futile. Bray is almost childish in his eagerness to call all opponents to any of the myriad of tenets of antifa “fascists” and any beating or killing committed by antifa “justified.” In the former case, you might think, “well of course the opponents of anti-fascists are fascists, that seems obvious,” but the reality is more complicated. Bray argues that antifa is a “legitimate political tradition” devoted to far more than merely combating fascism, as it is “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 overreaching definition of antifa, coupled with Bray’s declaration that fascism doesn’t actually have a consistent, cohesive, or definable ideology, means that anyone whom antifa opposes or who opposes antifa can be labeled a fascist, regardless of whether or not their views are actually fascistic. The deadly implications of Bray’s argument are boundless. The latter case is at least as disturbing—Bray tends to use a bastardized definition of “self-defense” to argue for justifiable homicide, as he asserts that anti-fascists need not adhere to “conventional interpretations of self-defense grounded in individualistic personal ethics” and should rather use “offensive tactics in order to forestall the potential need for literal self-defense down the line.” In other words, the crimes committed by antifa are not justified by any legitimate philosophical reasoning at all, but rather Bray relies on the same juvenile “logic” used by middle schoolers who start fighting on the playground. He doesn’t even have the intellectual propriety—or perhaps capability—to defend this semantically paradoxical idea of preemptive self-defense, as he doesn’t provide any argument whatsoever that goes beyond merely stating that antifa is allowed to transcend the traditional limitations of what can be labeled “self-defense.”  Given how much of Bray’s book is devoted to defending antifa’s tactics—and that this point in his book would seem to be the argumentative climax—one would expect him to engage in an impressive and thoughtful philosophical debate on this particular issue—his neglect to do so is embarrassingly sloppy.

Perhaps most unsettling is when Bray describes—glorifies—antifa’s methods in their never-ending fight to wage war on fascism, or anything they determine to be fascistic. He tells tales of marauding bands of antifa, “defense patrols armed, at times, with machetes, petrol bombs, and Molotov cocktails,” as if the thugs ought to be categorized with the heroes and heroines of Classical Greek epics. In his more radical moments, he declares that antifascists must be revolutionary, that violence is a “vital”—albeit “small”—part of antifascist activity, and that whiteness must be abolished. Perhaps his most thoughtful—and even convincing—argument is that against “free speech.” He is quite compelling here, as he points out that antifa is against the political speech of fascists, in favor of the speech of prisoners, and willing to fight to amplify the voices of those historically ignored in the political realm. He criticizes liberal commentators in particular for lambasting antifa for being “anti-free speech,’ while they themselves oppose speech in certain circumstances, such as cigarette companies targeting their advertising towards children. Bray believes that fascism is certainly a more formidable and worthy threat to society than tobacco. If Bray argued as effectively throughout his book as he does in this section, then this book would be deserving of the highest praises, regardless of its content. Alas, he does not. Instead, his prose practically hyperventilates with angst and desperate attempts to overcome the insecurities of the antifascist movement. He tries hopelessly to make antifa seem indispensable to the survival of humanity, but he falls short. He never provides concrete evidence as to why antifa’s methods are the only ones that work, relying instead on weak arguments, twisted historical analysis, and exaggerations.

Bray’s Antifa could be dismissed as poorly executed or condemned as disturbingly radical, but perhaps the best descriptor is simply “desperate.” Bray often seems to be trying to elicit some greater historical meaning from the otherwise mundane and unimpressive actions of antifa. Furthermore, he places himself so closely to antifa that his praises of the movement border on self-aggrandizement. For these reasons, it is odd that so many academics and critics have given Antifa such acclaim. It seems as if many leftist critics wanted Antifa to be something more than what it was, and thus gave it praise for what it could have been. Bray will find no such sympathy here—in two words: do better.

  • Kat Mandu

    The book was excellent and I highly recommend it.

  • ML413

    It’s easy to be dismissive of a text like ‘Antifa’ and of Antifa itself.

    Socialist/communist ideologies are disregarded due to their historical failure.
    Antifa are hypocrites because they use fascist tactics to fight perceived ‘fascism’.
    They won’t do interviews because they have no arguments to support their ideas.
    They resort to violence and subversion since they have no arguments.

    The video from the time they smoked bombed themselves in an attempt to shutdown a speech at Berkeley is priceless.

    In all seriousness, though, to what degree will Antifa’s intolerance rise? How much intolerance should tolerant people suffer? What can be done about it in a way that preserves everyone’s freedom & liberty?

    Good article.

  • http://nonanarchist.org/ Strobe Fischbyne

    Lucid review of an irrational book. We could ignore it if only the Washington Post and other outlets had not swallowed so many of Bray’s false premises.

  • Maria

    Modern Brownshirts should not be so easy to dismiss in my opinion. Call my crazy, but I am afraid of them.

  • Roger V. Tranfaglia

    antifa…sounds like a national chain of antique stores…………….BTW cowards CONGRADULATIONS for KILLING that old fart in NYC 2 Fridays ago. (1-19-2018) Soo… I guess that makes up for KILLING Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. (In case you FORGOT)

  • Lois Zillmer

    Antifa-where losers join together and destroy freedom