Anti-fascism is still a formula for confusion

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The events in Charlottesville Virginia in August highlighted the revival of “classical” fascism, which has developed in numerous countries as an extremist wing of populism. The white supremacist gangs which assembled in Charlottesville have flourished in the poisonous atmosphere released by the election victory of Donald Trump, whose comments after the murder of the anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer were widely condemned as a thinly-veiled apology for the far right. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party has evolved a long way beyond the small groups of plotters which have usually been associated with nostalgia for Hitlerism. In Hungary, the anti-semitic, anti-gypsy and anti-Muslim Jobbik party is very close to the populist government headed by Viktor Orban. These groups can no longer be understood as merely a kind of bugbear used by the left to bolster support for democratic values, a view which had a definite validity in previous decades. Unlike the 1930s, they are not serious candidates for direct government office in the centres of world capitalism, but their closeness to the populist parties and governments means that part of their agenda is being taken into account by a number of ruling parties. More important, they act as a factor of division, intimidation and outright pogromist attacks on the street. They may not be able, like their predecessors in the 20s and 30s, to present themselves as a force for directly attacking workers in struggle, but they play an anti-working class role nonetheless, whether by infecting certain parts of the working class with their propaganda, or carrying out brutal attacks on immigrant proletarians and political and cultural opponents.

The growth of these groups, with their deeply reactionary ideology based on racial twaddle and paranoid conspiracy theory, a pure product of capitalism in decomposition, and the more this system sinks into decay without a clear proletarian response, the more we are likely to see this fascist renaissance winning new converts and arrogantly disporting itself in the streets.  In many ways they are the mirror image of the jihadi groups they often profess to hate; in both cases, an ideology rooted in violent nihilism draws in elements who are totally disaffected from this society but have no conception of a real human future.

But in the 1930s, when fascism was actually a government option for certain central capitalist countries, our political ancestors denounced anti-fascism as a “formula for confusion”, above all because it meant surrendering the independence of the working class in favour of an alliance with the left wing of the bourgeoisie. The Italian left communists, many of whom had been compelled to choose exile after the victory of fascism in Italy, maintained the position of the Communist Party of Italy in reaction to the rise of the blackshirts and their strike-breaking actions in the early 1920s: yes to working class self-defence against the fascist squads, but no to any broad anti-fascist front to defend capitalist democracy against the dictatorship of the right. In the article ‘Antifascism, formula of confusion’, an article published in Bilan no.7, May 1934, we read: “The problem is not therefore that fascism threatens, so we should set up a united anti-fascist front. On the contrary, it is necessary to determine the positions around which the proletariat will gather for its struggle against capitalism. Posing the problem this way means excluding the anti-fascist forces from the front for the struggle against capitalism. It means – paradoxical though this may seem – that if capitalism should turn definitively towards fascism, then the condition for success is the inalterability of the programme and the workers’ class demands, whereas the condition for certain defeat is the dissolution of the proletariat in the anti-fascist swamp”[1].

In 1936, around the tumultuous events in Spain, these warnings were to take on an even greater urgency. In July the initial assault of the Francoist forces was blocked by the proletariat of Barcelona especially, acting on its own class terrain and using the fundamental methods of the class struggle: general strike, fraternisation with the soldiers, arming of the workers. And yet within a matter of days and weeks this proletarian “front” had indeed been dissolved in the anti-fascist swamp as all the political forces acting within the working class, from the Socialist and Communist parties to the Trotskyists and the anarchists were, with few exceptions, unanimous in calling for the formation of an anti-fascist alliance with the priority of winning the war against fascism rather than deepening the class struggle. And in 1939-45, it was again under the banner of anti-fascism that millions of workers were dragooned into the second imperialist world war. Anti-fascism was revealed as more than a formula of confusion: it was the slogan of the counter-revolution.

By embracing this slogan, numerous currents which had belonged to the working class joined the camp of capital. This included the majority of the Trotskyists, who justified participation in the imperialist war through their policy of defending the “workers’ state” in Russia, but also through support for democracy against fascism and by calling for workers to enrol in the national resistance fronts. And the same went for a large part of the anarchist movement: if they did not have a “socialist fatherland” to defend, their engagement with the ideology of anti-fascism led them to take part in the resistance and even to form contingents within the armies of the democratic imperialisms. Thus the “liberation” parade in Paris in 1944 was spearheaded by armoured cars bearing the banner of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT, whose militants had enlisted in a division of the French army commanded by General Leclerc.

Anarchists and their own confusions

In our view, very few anarchists, even those who can generally be found in the internationalist camp today, have ever drawn the lessons of this experience. And in the light of the events of Charlottesville, and with the rise of a new generation of fascist gangs, the response of the anarchists to those who continue to expose the falsity of the anti-fascist formula demonstrates this very clearly. The left communist position, we are told, is just a dead dogma which has no relevance to the actual needs of the working class today. An example can be seen in a recent post on the libcom internet forum by Red Marriot, often one of the more perceptive participants on the forum, and certainly one who is very clear in his opposition to those anarchists currently flocking to the banner of the Rojava 'revolution' (ie the Kurdish nationalist enclaves in Syria). He writes in response to an article written by a member of the Internationalist Communist Tendency in the US, ‘Set-up in Charlottesville’[2]. In opposition to most of the anarchist accounts which give almost uncritical support to the actions of the “antifa” in Charlottesville and elsewhere, the article was sharply critical of the ritualised character of the clash around the white supremacist march in protest against the decision of the Democratic-led local authority to remove a symbol of the Confederacy from a town park. The article characterizes the confrontations in Charlottesville as follows:

“A spectacle motivated by factions of the ruling class is played out on the streets whilst the class is mobilized into the service of factions of the bourgeoisie. The two factions can control layers and circles around them, the Democrats and the unions and leftists that follow after them, or the Republicans with their fringe of neo-fascists”.

To this Red Marriot replied:

“This seems like dogma-by-numbers - a predictable restatement of the left-comm line eternally applicable since the 30s. Avoids dealing with any concrete needs of real proletarians - ie, how to deal with potential fascist encroachment in their lives - and spouts only abstraction based on the holy canon of the ancient sacred texts set in stone. Concludes with an idealistic ahistorical call for a sudden decision to 'fight for communism' regardless of current realities with no regard of what such an historical process entails starting from where we are; the same kind of assumption of a rapture and revelation occurring that much modern communisation millenarianism is based on.

There’s a theme here common in left-comm analysis; the ruling class is always an active conspiratorial subject doing manipulative things to a largely passive proletarian object with the proletariat awaiting its acquisition of absent left-comm consciousness – everything prior to this acquisition is no more than a deception done to it. That is a simplistic narrative with a simplistic resolution – acquire the consciousness on offer from its left-comm guardians and ‘begin the fight for communism now’”.[3]

This charge that left communists are basically millenarians passively waiting for the communist rapture and have no interest in the concrete needs of the working class, in particular faced with the real threat fascism can pose to its struggles, is a real caricature. 

We have already pointed out that this was never the approach of the communist left, which called for the self-organisationof the working class to defend itself from the strike-breaking actions of the fascists in Italy in the 1920s, and which supported the riposte of the Barcelona workers to the Franco coup in July 1936. We repeat: what the communist left criticises is the way anti-fascism is used time and time again as a means of dragging the working class off its class terrain and into alliances or popular fronts with the enemy. In our view, the actions and methods of today’s “antifa”, whose activists are often close to anarchism, offer us a remake of the same errors which led to the derailing of the class in the past. Instead of actually calling for the action of the workers around their “concrete” needs, for self-defence against all capitalist agencies, anti-fa advocates the action of minorities detached from the class struggle, focusing all their energies on physically confronting the fascists wherever they appear, and laying stress on the direct military confrontation with the fascist forces. This in essence is the same militarist conception which led the majority of anarchists in Spain to join the anti-fascist front and succumb to the idea that everything must be subordinated to the war against fascism. And today’s anti-fa is no less involved in the creation of a broad anti-fascist front, since it nearly always acts in concert with the “Leninists”, which is what the anarchists misleadingly call the Maoists and Trotskyists, i.e the extreme left wing of capital. In practice (and sometimes in theory) the anarchists active in anti-fa accept the need for collaboration with these “authoritarians” in the fight against fascism, even if the anarchists/anti-fa often advocate more violent methods – the “direct action” tactics practised by participants of Black Blocs on demonstrations.

Another poster in this debate, on a thread criticizing Chomsky’s recent statements about antifa[4], justified the tactic of “bashing the fash” by quoting Adolf Hitler in 1934. "Only one thing could have stopped our movement - if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement."[5]

This implies that the one obstacle to fascism would have been a much more effective and brutal alliance of Hitler’s political adversaries, something that would have been comprehensible to him, as opposed to an idea that was certainly beyond his ken: that the only possible obstacle to fascism would have been a working class fighting for its own interests. But this possibility had already been largely undermined by the role of social democracy - and subsequently Stalinism - which had “made the bed for fascism” by sabotaging the proletariat’s revolutionary struggles in the wake of the First World War.

Class solidarity or minority actions?

This problem of confusing a class movement with the action of anti-fascist minorities comes up again on libcom in the document launching the thread about Chomsky. Here, in seeking to identify the historical predecessors of today’s anti-fa, a number of other minority groups using military tactics (such as the 43 Group set up by Jewish ex-servicemen after the war with the aim of breaking up Mosley’s post-war meetings in the East End, or more recently the Anti-fascist Action group) are put in the same list as a large scale social movement which arose in response to a genuine threat to a local community - the so-called Battle of Cable Street. This took place in October 1936 when Mosley’s British Union of Fascists planned to march through the largely Jewish East End. The local population clearly perceived this as a real threat to carry out a pogrom. And the scope of the response went well beyond that of an “action” by a small military-style group: tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands came out onto the street to oppose the march and the police that were protecting it. Not only that, the Jews of the East End were joined by a large contingent of dockers, many from an Irish Catholic background, who had not forgotten the solidarity shown to them by Jewish clothing workers during the great dock strike at the end of the previous century. It was the intervention of workers coming from the docks areas that prevented the Jewish neighbourhoods being surrounded by Mosley’s forces.

And yet, precisely because this battle was fought under the flag of anti-fascism, the real class solidarity which was at its core was not strong enough to resist the subsequent drive towards world war; on the contrary, this was a temporary victory that was turned by the ruling class into a defeat, and the mythology surrounding Cable Street was added to the brew that would intoxicate the working class and lead it into the war.  As Bilan put it in relation to the July days in Barcelona: the working class had armed itself materially by its own actions, and yet it was disarmed politically, unable to develop its own alternative to the democratic, anti-fascist ideology which was sold to it so assiduously by all the organisations acting in its ranks.

Class identity and bourgeois recuperation

In another article we will examine the enormous bourgeois political consensus behind the condemnation of Trump’s apology for the “alt-right”, a front uniting parts of the Republican Right with the extreme left. The breadth of this democratic front shows how dangerous it is for the anarchists to dismiss the warnings of the left communists about the instrumentalisation of anti-fascist mobilisations. This was true in the 1930s when the working class had been through a historic defeat and it’s true today when the working class is suffering from a serious loss of class identity and is finding it very difficult to react as a class to the deepening crisis of capitalist society. Today - and perhaps especially in the USA – a whole generation has very little experience of massive workers’ struggles, which could – as in the strikes in Poland in 1980 – provide practical proof that the extension of the class struggle is the only effective response to capitalist repression. In the absence of such struggles, a growing social discontent is being channelled into a series of reactions based on “identity”, in which the working class is presented as yet another oppressed category alongside many others - racial, sexual etc - instead of as the class which concentrates in itself all the sufferings inherent in this social order and whose struggle constitutes the key to the overcoming of all oppressions and all divisions. In these conditions, it is all the more likely that social discontent which doesn’t move towards a class-based confrontation will be dispersed, repressed, and above all recuperated by those parts of the ruling class which present themselves as democratic and even socialist. We saw this with the Women’s March against Trump, we saw it with the way the official Black Lives Matter organisation took over the initial reactions against police violence against black people in Ferguson and elsewhere, and we can see the same problem with the anti-fascist mobilisations: that they are extremely vulnerable to being integrated into an overarching struggle between factions of the bourgeoisie. And the worst of it is that those who join in the anti-fascist mobilisations are often representative of the best of the present generation of proletarians, deeply opposed to racism and injustice, disgusted with the hypocrisy of the ruling class and yet unable to draw a class line between themselves and its most seductive mouthpieces. It was not for nothing that the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga insisted that the worst product of fascism is anti-fascism.

Let’s return to Red Marriot’s second criticism of the left communist approach: “the ruling class is always an active conspiratorial subject doing manipulative things to a largely passive proletarian object with the proletariat awaiting its acquisition of absent left-comm consciousness – everything prior to this acquisition is no more than a deception done to it”.

Another profound distortion. Throughout its existence, in innumerable reports and articles, the ICC has examined and analysed the advances and retreats in class consciousness through various phases of the class struggle since 1968. We have certainly made errors in our analysis – usually leaning towards an overestimation of the level of consciousness in the class – but we have never seen the advances merely as passively “acquiring left comm consciousness”, presumably the result of some “injection from the outside”. What we do insist on, however, along with the comrades of Bilan is that “principles are a weapon of the revolution”, and that these are weapons forged in the class struggle. This process certainly includes the reflection and intervention of communist organisations, but it's not reducible to that dimension. On the contrary, the principles we stand for today are the lessons learned through the victories and defeats of the working class as a whole, and one of these lessons is that the epoch where it was possible to form alliances with capitalist factions or parties (advocated to a limited extent in the Communist Manifesto) has been over for at least a hundred years. This remains as relevant today as it was in the 1930s, and the development of a revolutionary consciousness in wide layers of the class will have to involve the re-acquisition of lessons once learned but now largely forgotten - above all the lessons of the bloody defeats of the class in that period, from China in 1927 to Spain in 1936 and on to the Second World War.

If we insist that the working class is an active subject, we argue that this can also be applied to the ruling class, even if its consciousness can never break from the chains of ideology. It is indeed capable of understanding that it has its own class interests and privileges to defend and, at certain moments at least, it is able to recognise that the greatest threat to these privileges, to its entire civilisation, comes from the struggle of the exploited class. We have seen the bourgeoisie locked in the most savage imperialist warfare and yet capable of setting aside these conflicts to cooperate in the crushing of the working class – as when Churchill and the British military halted their advance through southern Italy to allow the Nazis to deal with the danger posed by the working class uprisings in the northern cities (the policy of “letting the Italians stew in their own juice”).  We can give other examples of collaboration between the fascist and democratic factions of the bourgeoisie, but the “conspiracy” of the ruling class can also be seen in the moments when its left and democratic wing uses the ideology of anti-fascism to rally the workers to line up in its inter-factional and inter-imperialist battles. It is this side of the equation we are seeing most clearly in the USA and elsewhere today: the growth of the right, whether in its populist or openly fascist form, is also seeing the emergence of a new left (typified by Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK) which has the function, for capital, of channelling the discontent of a part of the proletariat into the dead-end of defending democracy.

Defence of revolutionary organisations

Red Marriot’s post has a third criticism of the “left comms” which (amid some very gratuitous sideswipes at the ICC) boils down to this: we fail to understand that, “for the fascists, basically anyone who isn’t right wing is considered part of their prime target of ‘the left’ (even the rare breeds of left communism), with none of the niceties of distinction made by radicals themselves”. As a matter of fact we understand this very well and we certainly don’t reject the necessity for revolutionaries to take active measures to defend themselves against threats from capitalist thugs of one kind or another. A small example: prior to a public meeting of the ICC in Switzerland, we received threats that a local fascist group was planning to disrupt the meeting. So we called on other proletarian groups, sympathisers and so on to form a picket to defend the meeting. In the end the threat didn’t materialise, but we certainly took it seriously – as we did more recently when a libertarian bookshop/centre for discussion in France was invaded by a gang of racists[6]. But we are also aware that in some countries revolutionaries can also be threatened and attacked by leftist thugs – the examples of Mexico (where one of our comrades was kidnapped and tortured by the Maoist group he had broken from) and Maduro’s Venezuela today come to mind. And recently, we sent a letter of solidarity to two groups in Germany after a Stalinist anti-fascist group tried to prevent them selling literature which exposed the capitalist nature of both Francoism and the Popular Front in the Spanish war[7]. The defence of the revolutionary organisation is a permanent concern for us – whether that involves physical attacks from the outside or the infiltration of state agents and adventurers on the inside, a possibility that revolutionaries dismiss at their peril. But this changes nothing about the fundamental problem: defence of the organisation must remain on a class terrain and reject all forms of frontism: we don’t call on the capitalist left to defend us from fascist attacks any more than we call on the police to protect our meetings. That is the only starting point for a discussion about the concrete issues of proletarian self-defence.


       Chomsky’s central argument is that the violent methods of anti-fa play into the hands of the right. But what he doesn’t say – and neither do libcom in their reply– is that anti-fa can much more easily play into the hands of the left and the democratic forces of the ruling class.

                Ibid, post on August 19 by Chilli Sauce, who is a member of Solidarity Federation and who one would normally expect to take up an internationalist position on questions like national liberation and capitalist war. But another line from this post shows how much anti-fascism can blind you to the problem of popular frontism: “Personally, I had more in mind the proud Italian anti-fascists who strung up Mussolini from a lampost. Ya know, the ones who ended fascism in Italy”. But Mussolini was strung up by the partisans, the national resistance forces who took the allied imperialist side and whose programme was to “end fascism” by replacing it with a democratic capitalist regime.