In many ways, the US concentration on Antifa has amplified the group’s presence or people’s awareness of it, such that it may gain a following without having actually had much of one.
Antifa protestors in Washington D.C, 2017
(photo credit: FLICKR)
US President Donald Trump and many on the American Right have put “Antifa” front and center in the recent riots and protests that swept the country. Yet, despite the claims that an organized Antifa movement is somehow behind the “domestic terrorism” of the looting that has broken out in US cities, there is little knowledge about the group, its origins or even if it has an organized membership.
In many ways the US concentration on Antifa has amplified the group’s presence or the awareness of it, such that it may gain a following without having actually had much of one. As that takes place, there is a debate about whether Antifa is primarily a group of violent anarchist youth, mostly from privileged white backgrounds, or if it is an organized “anti-fascist” movement.
Those sympathetic to it would like to emphasize that its origins are “anti-fascist” and thus opposition to it is naturally “fascist.” That feeds a narrative that portrays Trump moving towards increased authoritarianism and “fascist” impulses.
Of course, for many on the radical or even normative Left in the US, the Republican Party is often characterized as “fascist.” Long forgotten now are the insults hurled at George W. Bush when he was in office and portrayed as heralding “fascism.”
Many explainers have sought to shed light on the origins of Antifa and its symbolism. They note that its members in the US and abroad are sometimes called the “black bloc” because of their tendency to wear black and cover their faces and engage in direct action against their perceived enemies during protests.
This youth protest movement arrived in the 1980s in Western Europe, preying on the lost generation of that era where the radical Left turned to “black bloc” anarchism and others turned to sport hooliganism. Ostensibly these groups were involved in various campaigns, whether environmental, opposing the US, or fighting “capitalism” – but their manifestation was generally in violence and looting.
On the other hand, they also claimed to be fighting against the rise of the far-right in Europe, particularly Germany, during the 1980s and ’90s. Some of them emerged in the US in 1999 during the “battle in Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organization.
IN THE US then, the origins of Antifa and its antics can be traced to those groups of angry and privileged youth who congregated around radical protests in places like Oregon. While some became radical environmentalists, others became Antifa. They adopted the nomenclatura, red and black flags and symbols of European fellow travelers. But they were not as ideological or well organized as the Europeans. In general, they also had a problem: The US didn’t have a history of European “fascism”; neither did it have a history of European anarchism and socialism to draw from.
When one looks to Europe for the origins of the symbols and ideology of anti-fascism, one must go back to the 1920s and ’30s. The black and red flag symbols associated with Antifa have an interesting history. Black and red flags were the symbol of the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo, the CNT. It was founded in 1920 in Barcelona and played a key role in the trade union and anarchist movements of the era.
It also played a key role in the era of the Spanish Civil War and Revolutionary Catalonia (1936-1939) alongside the Federacion Anarquista Iberica (FAI). The FAI was founded in 1927 and its symbol was the black flag.
CNT and FAI’s flag combined the two colors: red and black. This anarchist-syndicalist union was part of an ecosystem of other anarchist and revolutionary groups that had popped up in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. They had an array of complex characters at their forefront, such as the Ukrainian Nestor Makho, who fought in Ukraine during the chaos after the First World War and eventually fled to Paris.
FELLOW TRAVELERS looked to the US-founded Industrial Workers of the World, and the Italian Anarchist Federation, founded in 1945. Why does this matter? Because these divergent groups, many of them sidelined by Stalin’s increasing power over Communism during the 1930s, ended up floating around Western Europe looking for an ideological home.
Different groups opened doors across the West and became involved with different issues, such as the Direct Action Movement and the role of anarcho-syndicalists in the UK. An International body of anarchist federations was founded in 1968, with chapters across the West and Latin America.
One odd aspect of these groups is that in Ukraine, the right-wing Pravi Sektor (Right Sector) adopted the red and black flag as its emblem. It’s origins are not actually anarchist but rather right-wing nationalist opposition to Stalinism. It later formed its own militias during the clashes with pro-Russian elements in the 2014 revolution in Ukraine. It’s members don’t always look like the far-right: some appear more like punk band black-block types.
Unsurprisingly, some of the Antifa activists joined their movement to resist what they saw as far-right infiltration of the punk scene. All things come full circle in this respect: What happened in the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of fascism and Stalinistic communism gave birth to a movement of anarchists and anti-fascists that span the globe. Some of them did fight fascism once. Whether they are still fighting “fascism” today or something else is less clear. It’s also less clear if some of the admirers of Antifa or its opponents even understand it – or if some of its own members understand its origins.