Antifascism must acquire a broader and deeper meaning than merely ‘opposition to fascism’


I was on vacation last week, when the awful news from Charlottesville reached me. A lot of sensible things have been said and written on these events, and on the need for a militant, broad, and international(ist) antifascist movement. It is often (and rightly) argued that such a movement also requires a stronger, physical presence on the streets – especially whenever/wherever the extreme right tries to assemble in public. This was precisely what the recent antifascist mobilisations in Charlottesville and Boston were all about, and this was also the message of many solidarity marches elsewhere in the world (for instance the one in Amsterdam, which I sadly had to miss).

In addition and/or response to the many things that have already been said, I want to make a number of remarks:

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– First, it needs to be stressed that although the physical mobilisation power of white supremacist and (neo-)nazi movements in the Western world is growing, it is not the source of their political success. The power of the extreme right is primarily discursive. In contrast to previous fascist movements in the 20th century, these newly emerging movements are merely responsive to other developments that have been going on for a long time (both in public institutions and in (social) media). Trump may have received valuable support from the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement, but his presidency is not a product or success of this movement. Quite the other way around: Charlottesville may not have been possible without Trump’s election. Similar things could be said about Europe: the growing public support for extreme-right parties and politicians clearly leads to an increase in racist and fascism-inspired violence, but the popularity of AfD, PVV, Front National, UKIP and many others hardly depends on the mobilising potential of ‘classical’ fascist and white supremacist movements (or on the terrorist acts of, say, Anders Breivik).

– This means that, evidently, a strategy based on physical confrontation alone can never be sufficient. We are dealing with a racist political discourse that is incredibly widespread and broadly accepted, these days. This discourse makes casualties in Charlottesville or Utøya, but even more so on the US-Mexican border and the Mediterranean Sea. It is promoted or supported by some of the most powerful politicians and policy makers in the world – the very same people who, whenever it serves their political interests, will gladly dismiss the use of violence by fascist activists (although, in that case, they will haste to stress that the violence is coming “from both sides”). The aim must be to break this discursive power – for otherwise, antifascist street mobilisations will merely be fighting symptoms, not causes.

– That is not to say, however, that physical (and, if necessary, confrontational) street mobilisations are not of elementary importance for the establishment of an antifascist movement. In fact, I think they are deeply important, precisely because the antifascist left currently does not have a similar discursive power basis as the neo-fascist right. Antifascist mobilisations have a political function that is strategically opposite to those of the extreme-right: in case of the antifascists, street mobilisations must serve to give rise to new counter-hegemonic discourses and political alliances, whereas extreme-right mobilisations only serve to manifest a discursive hegemony that they already have.

– Eventually, ‘antifascism’ must acquire a broader and deeper meaning than merely ‘opposition to fascism’. It must be the single ‘no’ that gives rise to many ‘yeses’ – or the ‘constitutive outside’ that helps to form new political agendas and identities. In other, somewhat less academic terms: on the basis of a shared opposition to ‘them’ and what ‘they’ stand for, we should be able to form new shared ideas of who ‘we’ are and what ‘we’ want. I think that, at this moment, the political struggle against fascism and racism may serve this articulatory role better than any other topic.

– White antifascists need to realise that their antifascism is also an act of self-defence, and not merely an attempt to defend others. Many people of colour have been fighting racism for their entire lives, and their engagement with this struggle was never voluntary. So, white antifascists should never pretend that they are ‘protecting’ other minorities in society – the very need for an antifascist struggle evinces their inability to offer such ‘protection’ in the first place. This is a particularly important point because, as said, the success of an antifascist movement largely depends on its ability to forge cross-sectional alliances and create new shared, counter-hegemonic discourses. Antifascists who see themselves as the ‘noble protectors’ coming to the rescue of other minorities, will inevitably fail to do this.

– It is relatively easy to garner public support for a militant antifascism that merely confronts the ‘classical’ (or so-called ‘alternative’) extreme right. However, it becomes more difficult when the real enemy is a mainstream party or a ‘democratically’ elected president. Even a substantial part of the white, liberal left will insist that the power of these parties or politicians is legitimate, and that their particular brand of right-extremism can only be opposed by rational arguments and in a public debate – not on the streets, and by no means militantly. In order to create a broader support for the antifascist left, we first need to convince a wider audience that the ‘excesses’ witnessed in Charlottesville and elsewhere are the inevitable results of a more encompassing, discursive development. If a new antifascist movement is to be successful, it must find a way to drive this point home: 1) we are not merely fighting the ‘excesses’ of an otherwise democratically legitimate discourse, but we are directly confronting this dominant discourse itself, and 2) street mobilisation is a necessary part of this articulatory process, precisely because it is on such moments that new alliances and discourses can take shape.

Mathijs van de Sande