The Atlantic's partial defense of Antifa (Updated)

Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a piece in which he tries to make the case that Antifa is less objectionable than neo-Nazis by separating their ends from their means. Friedersdorf concedes that political violence is objectionable and therefore Antifa should be condemned for embracing violence, but he suggests that if only they’d set aside their tactics, they are perfectly fine folks. Here’s his bottom line on Antifa:


Note that I am speaking of self-described members of the group, not anyone who shows up in the streets to protest against fascists. Antifa and antifascism are no more synonymous than being a member of Black Lives Matter and believing that black lives matter.

The initiation of extralegal street violence by self-appointed judges in masks is ethically wrong, legally wrong, and in the case of Antifa, tactically idiotic. (I can think of nothing more likely to contribute to Donald Trump’s reelection than roving bands of masked, violent leftists attacking not only Nazis carrying swastikas in the streets, but journalists covering protests, or crowds at Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopolous speeches.) It is an easy call for me to denounce Antifa members who participate in or endorse extralegal violence. That does not contradict my simultaneous judgment that Antifa’s stated end of resisting fascism is laudable. If they showed up in force to protest Nazi rallies, but refrained from initiating the use of force, using it only lawfully in self defense, I would have nothing but praise for them.

I am unsure about how credible their stated ends really are. On one hand, its claim to be focused on opposing fascism squares with the group’s origins and the testimony of group members in interviews with its chroniclers. On the other hand, its current members have targeted and injured people who are not fascists, including people capturing newsworthy video of public gatherings. This raises understandable suspicion that its agenda is actually broader than opposing fascists, but it could be that its means are so inherently flawed as to guarantee excesses.


Let me say that I think Friedersdorf is making a good faith effort here to apply some reasoning to the various groups he’s talking about. And I think he partly gets it right. I’m really focusing on the area where I think he gets it wrong, but I’m not rejecting his entire argument or the bulk of his approach. My problem is just that he doesn’t seem to grasp what Antifa is, not just tactically but ideologically.

So let’s consider what Professor Mark Bray, the man who literally wrote the book on Antifa, had to say about the group in a recent interview with Vox:

They look at the history of fascism in Europe and say, “we have to eradicate this problem before it gets any bigger, before it’s too late.” Sometimes that involves physical confrontation or blocking their marches or whatever the case may be.

It’s also important to remember that these are self-described revolutionaries. They’re anarchists and communists who are way outside the traditional conservative-liberal spectrum. They’re not interested in and don’t feel constrained by conventional norms…

These are self-described revolutionaries. They have no allegiance to liberal democracy, which they believe has failed the marginalized communities they’re defending. They’re anarchists and communists who are way outside the traditional conservative-liberal spectrum.

Several points here. First, Antifa is violent because they believe violence is effective. In other words, it’s not merely a tactic they adopt, their entire movement is built around the premise that violence is necessary. So when Friedersdorf suggests that if only they would refrain from the violence they’d be praiseworthy, he might as well be saying ‘if only Nazis would stop hating Jews, we could get along.’ Pro-active violence is not something Antifa could choose to put aside in future demonstrations because it’s fundamental to their identity and beliefs as a group.


Second, as Bray says, “they have no allegiance to liberal democracy.” In other words, the reason they won’t simply protest like other peaceful anti-fascists is that they don’t care about liberalism, i.e. the ideas of free speech and free association which most Americans still believe in. As Bray points out elsewhere in the interview, Antifa’s main goal is to “no-platform” or silence those they disagree with. So the problem isn’t simply that they embrace violence it’s that they embrace violence in the service of illiberal ends, i.e. denying other people their rights.

Third, in Berkeley last week, you could hear them chanting, “No Trump, no wall, no USA at all.” Are they likely to achieve this? Of course not, but then neither are the neo-Nazis likely to get whatever idiotic end they want. The point is that, as Bray says, these people are off the spectrum. They aren’t reformers, they are revolutionaries. They want to see the U.S. fail. They want the entire system to burn, which is probably one reason they light so many actual fires. Is that a praiseworthy goal?

Fourth, if you look at the massive Antifa protests at the G20 in Germany this summer, they weren’t protesting Nazis, they were protesting capitalism. Is anti-capitalism a good end? Friedersdorf, in his assessment of the goals of the KKK/Nazis rightly points out that they murdered a lot of people in the 20th century. Their goals, in other words, have a history of resulting in violence and bloodshed. Fair enough, but the same is true of anti-capitalists/communists. In fact, communism is the only ideology which has a higher body count than Nazism in the 20th century. And it’s still adding to that body count today in places like Venezuela and North Korea.


Here’s the bottom line. Antifa embraces violence as a means to achieve their political goals. That’s bad. But putting aside their tactics, they’re also illiberal, anti-American, anti-capitalist, utterly delusional revolutionaries. Those are bad ends which don’t deserve a pass.

Update: I think I made the point but one additional point I meant to make but left out: Antifa are explicitly anti-law enforcement. At several recent events, including Berkeley, they have been filmed chanting “Cops and Klan go hand in hand.” They are of course free to do so but I think it’s another problem with the argument that the only thing objectionable about them is their violence.

Also, worth noting:

He’s referring to this piece which is definitely worth a read.

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