THE SEDUCTIVE CHARMS OF ANTIFA
by Gennady Shkliarevsky
Meet Sky Elder, Samuel Miller, and Lisa Hogan. The three were arrested by Texas police and charged with looting and property damage for their involvement in the raid against a local Target store. All three are associated with Antifa—the name that has become so familiar in connection with violent protests that are taking place in America today. All three are young Americans in their twenties, which is typical for many of who are involved in Antifa activities.
The name Antifa became prominent on the American political scene following the election of Donald Trump. It quickly gained notoriety for its violent actions that have been classified by the DHS as “domestic terrorist violence.” Antifa has become particularly popular among young people—a phenomenon that was not unanticipated but is certainly puzzling. What makes Antifa so attractive to young Americans like Sky, Samuel, and Lisa? Why does the Antifa violent agenda resonate with them?
Antifa is not an organization. It is not a movement in the sense that we commonly associate with this word. Antifa is a very modern phenomenon. It would be impossible without modern, or rather postmodern, sensibilities and modern technology. It is a self-organized network, not unlike a flock of starlings or a school of fish that move in unison as one entity. In this respect, Antifa is similar to ISIS or al Qaeda. They all operate as self-organized networks of local interactions with global effects that have no single center, no definite location, and yet display the capacity for coordinated actions.
There is little unanimity as to the origin of Antifa. Some trace it as far back as anti-fascist organizations that resisted Nazis in Germany or fascists in Italy back in the 1920s and 1930s (discover network.org), others see Antifa as originating in the civil protests of 1960. Still, others identify the Occupy Wall Street protests and demonstrations against World Trade Organizations in the 1990s as the source of the Antifa network. The verdict is still out. While one can see some similarities between the modern Antifa network and movements and organizations in the past, there are also significant differences in ideology and practice that do not warrant direct connections.
The Antifa network affiliates include a variety of different entities: organizations, cells, blogs, and clubs. Some of the most visible ones are: ItsGoingDown.org (a blog); By Any Means Necessary (organization), Refuse Fascism (RF) (organization); The Bastards Motorcycle Club (BMC), The Huey P. Newton Gun Club; Redneck Revolt, Showing Up For Racial Justice, The ANSWER Coalition, the Party for Socialism and Liberation. The web site ItsGoingDown.org proudly confirms that Antifa groups “are working with Black Lives Matter.” Indeed, Antifa today has active cells in a number of nations across the globe, most notably the U.S., Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, France, and the Czech Republic.
Antifa network affiliates engage in a variety of activities aimed at creating chaos and instability. They organize marches and protest demonstrations, engage in destruction of property and looting, harass, and even kill those they identify as fascists. When not engaging in organizing public actions, Antifa affiliates conduct educational campaigns, build community coalitions, monitor those they define as “fascists,” pressure venues to cancel “fascist” events, organize self-defense classes to train membership for confrontations, etc. Antifa is particularly active in “doxxing,” or identifying individuals and organizations that they designate as “fascists.” They disseminate private information about them to the public or employers to discourage people from socializing with such individuals or joining the ranks of their organizations.
Those who seek to understand Antifa by looking at its theoretical foundation may be up for a disappointment. Indeed there are numerous online libraries organized by various Antifa nodes that provide sources and references. But one will find no revelations there. There are no original works. Most items dealing with theory are a selection of dusted volumes that few if any Antifa members read. There is nothing new or interesting in these volumes and one would be wasting one’s time, plowing through these dated foliates of tired ideas. They do not appear to be there for reading, but merely to provide a degree of intellectual flare and an air of respectability.
Antifa is not about intellectual rigor. It does not really have a theory or even original ideas. Its goals are little more than divinations about the future. The fast-and-loose operational definitions that Antifa members use are little more than words used for designation and labeling of their opponents, not criteria for categorization. For example, instead of providing a working definition of the term fascism, the site of Refuse Fascism Antifa is not about intellectual rigor. It does not really have a theory or even original ideas. Its goals are little more than divinations about the future. The fast-and-loose operational definitions that Antifa members use are little more than words used for designation and labeling of their opponents, not criteria for categorization. For example, instead of providing a working definition of the term fascism, the site of Refuse Fascism Refuse Fascism simply repeats the term in different variations as applied to President Trump, his government, and the United States in general. Instead of the definition of what fascism is, the site bombards the reader with words and phrases like “fascism,” “the fascist in chief” (in reference to President Trump), “Trump’s fascist regime and worldview” and such like. The definition is so broad that it covers anything from white supremacists to progressive liberals.
Most of the original stuff that Antifa libraries offer is topical pamphlets that instruct readers on how to view some current developments and how-to manuals, particularly manuals. The pamphlets are really motivational pieces designed to mobilize membership for specific events, such as demonstrations, protests, rallies, etc. The manuals offer detailed descriptions of how to organize an assault on police, how to identify and attack opponents, the kind of training that members need to be effective, and other specific instructions for street battles. When Antifa activists show up for demonstrations or counter-protests, they mostly come prepared to fight, carrying items like brass knuckles, poles and sticks, bricks, bottles, road flares, chains, knives, pepper spray, bullet-proof vests, guns, and sometimes, balloons filled with urine and feces that they can throw at police officers.
The reading diet of dusted tomes of dated volumes and the endless list of how-to manuals are hardly exciting or inspiring read. It is as dull as dishwater. One would search in vain for exhilarating perspectives on the future or identifiable goals that would guide the participants. The only really exciting prospect that the Antifa network offers is the promise of destructive action. Destructive action is their only really fulfilling goal. For Antifa, there is no meaning and no truth outside destructive action. The action itself is a surrogate of what is real and true. Such comprehensive destructive action requires an emotional charge. Antifa provides this charge by constructing the enemy. The comprehensiveness and breadth of its destructive perspective require a lot of enemies. So demonization and scapegoating are the staple of the Antifa practice.
Destruction has no meaning. Destructive action can only attract those whose life is meaningless, who have not constructed any meaning of their own that makes their life worth living. The fact that many young people today are attracted to destructive action is a sad commentary on the state of our civilization that brings up generations of young people who do not engage in the process of creating their own meaning. Our civilization raises young people to consume, not to create.
The process of creation plays a very important role in our life. When we create, we evolve and, as the history of the evolution shows, evolution is the way to sustain life. Creation is the path to knowledge; it is also the source of aesthetic and moral values and an infinite fountain of joy. When we do not create meaning, our life has no meaning; it becomes a void, a black hole filled with frustration and despair. One of the most telling symptoms that something is terribly wrong with our young people is the high rate of depression and suicide that devastates the generation of the young today. Recent surveys show that teens are growing increasingly disconnected from school, parents, society, and even their peers. This profound existential despair and agony prime their souls for the attraction to the destructive action offered by Antifa. Young people are helpless against this seduction.
Destructive action offers an easy way out, too easy in fact. Destructive action is not a solution of the problem faced by the young generation. It is a dead-end. Destruction depends on creation. The victory of destruction is its own undoing. When there is nothing to destroy, destruction has to end. It is a Pyrrhic victory that defeats the winner.
The painful period of turmoil that our civilization experiences today brings into the open the depth of the current crisis. This crisis is not a result of some particular event (like the election of Donald Trump) or some tragic incidents (like the death of George Floyd); it is not even a product of a fortuitous coincidence of several or many events. The roots of this crisis reach deep into the make-up of our civilization. This crisis is a product of the painful evolution of our civilization that is making a transition from one kind of order to a very different kind of order.
The contours of this new order are not yet very distinct. It is in the process of emerging. However, what is already clear is that the old order based on the elite rule is unsustainable. It must give way to a new and democratic order that will be universally inclusive and empowering. The main focus of this new order will be the process that offers everyone an opportunity to create one’s own meaning and a productive and happy life for oneself and others.
Dr. Gennady Shkliarevsky is a professor of history at Bard College.