Donald Trump’s Antifa Bogeyman Has a Long, Proud History of Fighting Fascists

Donald Trump has threatened to ban “Antifa” as a terrorist organization. But you can’t ban a set of ideas. As long as we face the threat of a violent, authoritarian right, anti-fascism will remain an essential force.

Donald Trump walks off Marine One on May 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis / Getty

When the President of the United States says that he’ll be designating Antifa as a terrorist organization, a part of me thinks: well go on then, let’s see you try. Because this awful, foreign-sounding word “antifa” is only an abbreviation of “anti-fascist.” Organizations can be banned, but it isn’t so easy to do the same with ideas.

I’m a historian, and I’ve been writing about anti-fascism for twenty-five years. The first activists I interviewed were a generation of Jews who in 1946 and 1947 were shocked to see people marching through the streets of London wearing black shirts and swastikas and armed for a fight. This was Britain, not America, so the fascists’ weapons were iron knuckledusters, or potatoes with razors sticking out from them.

Probably the best-known former member of the Group was the hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. In Vidal: The Autobiography he describes working from a hairdressing salon next to Harrods during the week, while fighting fascism at his weekends.

Sassoon describes watching newsreels in the cinema, “the horror of the images coming out from Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen and seemingly so many other places: Never again became a command, not just a slogan.”

An Idea, not an Organization

The 43 Group were radicals in their hatred of fascism. But when I think back to my interviews with the member of the 43 Group, what really strikes me is how cautious they were in all the other aspects of the lives. 

By their mid-sixties, these anti-fascists had copies of the Daily Telegraph (our equivalent of the Wall Street Journal) on their breakfast table. They lived in the city’s affluent districts, in North or West London, not the East End. In his later years, Sassoon donated money to the Boys Clubs of America, not to the DSA.

This wasn’t a case of some clichéd rightward move in middle age; rather, the 43 Group had always been a hodgepodge of different people with different politics, united only by their shared refusal to let fascism go unfought.

The thing you need to grasp about anti-fascism is that it is an idea, not an organization. In Britain after the Second World War, there wasn’t just one single group of anti-fascists: in addition to the Jewish ex-servicemen that I’ve been talking about, there were Communists, trade unionists, and countless others involved in the battle against Oswald Mosley. Some anti-fascists were in parties; most weren’t.

And the situation in today’s United States is more complex still: if you tried to draw up an organizational chart of all the different anti-fascist networks, any list would run into dozens of local networks. At one end you have well-funded intelligence gathering services (like the Southern Poverty Law Centre); at the other, you have informal networks of co-thinkers sharing plans only with trusted friends. Anti-fascists aren’t united by their loyalty to a leader or a group; what holds people together is the belief that something has going wrong in the United States. 

Unique Threat

The idea — that fascism poses a unique threat, and that it justifies act of physical resistance that would inappropriate if directed against other enemies — has been circulating among liberals and those further to the left for more than a hundred years. Even the members of the 43 Group were aware that they only stood at the midpoint of a much longer tradition.

Within weeks of Mussolini having captured power in Italy in October 1922, you can read opponents of fascism in Britain, in Germany, in the United States, and all over Europe asking themselves whether fascism could happen in their countries, too. Among the earliest people to warn of the threat posed by fascism outside Italy were Clara Zetkin, who had been the editor for decades of the German Socialist women’s newspaper Die Gleichheit, and a sponsor of the resolution which led to the establishment of International Women’s Day. (Yes, the founder of IWD was an anti-fascist).

Writing about Germany in 1923, Clara Zetkin called fascism, “a question of survival for every ordinary worker.” Right from the start, you see her and other leftists watching developments in Munich, and Mussolini’s local imitator Adolf Hitler. Ten years before he made it into power, anti-fascists were warning that if any country was ripe to fall, it was Germany.

At the time these warnings were first made, fascism had seemingly little support. Until the end of the 1920s, Hitler’s Nazis were languishing in the electoral doldrums. They faced a series of competitors in a space between fascism and conservatism, several of whom were better funded, with easier access to the media and their own means to employ paramilitary violence against their rivals. To say that fascism, despite all Hitler’s weaknesses, was the most threatening opponent facing the German left was to make a prediction about how fascism would grow and what it would do in power.

Sometimes crudely, sometimes with sophistication, this first generation of anti-fascists explained that fascism is something different from ordinary right-wing politics. Because fascism sought to build a mass base, because it promised its supporters a revolutionary change in their own lives, it was able to win followers at a time of crisis and among social layers that are otherwise the natural base of the Left, including workers, the unemployed, and the young. As a result, even when fascists were relatively few, they were able to grow incredibly fast. 

The first anti-fascists wagered that in the struggle between Hitler and the Weimar Republic, the latter had every chance. History shows they were right. 

Abnormal Times

What this first generation of anti-fascists left, as a legacy, was the idea that when political leaders start calling armed gangs into the street, and when they glory in the idea that one person has a greater right to live than another, the next step won’t be a good one.

Anti-fascism is a long tradition. For most of the last seventy years, it has also been a minority one. In 1948, Britain’s pre-war fascist leader Oswald Mosley announced his retirement. For the next thirty years, there were maybe a few hundred people in Britain who considered themselves first and foremost anti-fascists, if that.

When the US far right was restricted to George Lincoln Rockwell and his self-declared Nazi Party, anti-fascism in the United States wasn’t any more popular. If you want to know why more Americans today consider themselves anti-fascists, you don’t need to go much further than Donald Trump. When the most powerful politician in the world responds to chants of “Jews will not replace us” by praising the “very fine people” behind them, then these aren’t normal times. 

So talk about anti-fascism as much you like, threaten to ban anti-fascists if you choose, but once tens of thousands of Americans start identifying as anti-fascists, then maybe there’s another problem that needs talking about even more urgently.