The following piece was originally written in opposition to a resolution proposed to the 2018 convention of the Metro DC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, “Supporting Anti-Fascist Organizing.” It is published here because it addresses issues that continue to be of major concern, given ongoing violent clashes between groups of Antifa and groups of fascists and proto-fascists in various parts of the United States.
As democratic socialists we have always been anti-fascists, because the essence of fascism — its authoritarianism, its racism, its misogyny, its homophobia and its suppression of independent unions, political freedom and civil liberties — runs completely counter to the principles and moral values that are most important to us. The question that we grapple with is not “do we oppose fascism,” but “what is the most effective way to defeat fascism?”
Resolution One is entitled “supporting anti-fascist organizing within the Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America (MDC DSA),” which would seem to be a consensus position for democratic socialists. But the seemingly innocuous language of the resolution — and in particular the resolved “That Metro DSA recognizes the need for a diversity of tactics to defeat fascism” — actually proposes a particular political direction that is destructive of anti-fascist organizing and would be deeply damaging to MDC DSA. “Diversity of tactics” is a term of art that has a particular political meaning — one that treats street violence as a legitimate political tactic. In the context of anti-fascist organizing, “diversity of tactics” is commonly understood as a claim that Antifa street fighting with fascists is a legitimate tactic that deserves support.
Why is support for Antifa street fighting with fascists a serious political mistake and contrary to our principles and values?
First, our own recent experience is that fascists are most effectively countered when there is the broadest possible mobilization of democratic forces in opposition to them. A powerful example of this type of mobilization was the extraordinary anti-fascist demonstration in Boston, a week after Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer. The streets were filled with tens of thousands of Bostonians from unions; churches, synagogues and mosques; neighborhood and community groups; Black Lives Matter and civil rights organizations; and feminist and LGBTQIA organizations, among others. The pitifully small numbers of white supremacist neo-Nazis were completely outnumbered and soundly politically defeated.
Contrast that to the scenes of small groups of Antifa fighting street battles with fascists in Berkeley, which were completely avoided by the people and popular organizations of the city, despite the fact that the left and anti-fascism is as strong there as in any American urban center. Street fighting and violence is opposed by the very people we would want to involve in mass anti-fascist demonstrations, and in overwhelming numbers. By contrast, fascists thrive on violence: it is central to their identity. Unlike Boston, where they disappeared after their humiliating defeat, the street fighting of Portland, Berkeley and Seattle has only encouraged fascists to return for repeat performances.
Second, our history tells us that mass mobilizations of the broadest type, including all democratic forces, is the way to defeat fascism. Antifa claims as their inspiration groups that opposed the rise of Nazism and Italian Fascism with street fighting. They seem oblivious to the fact that such street fighting — and divisions on the German and Italian left that prevented united opposition to fascism — led to the victory of Nazism and Italian Fascism, not their defeat. A bloody world war which claimed millions and millions of lives had to be fought to undo that victory of Nazism and Italian fascism.
Moreover, the practice of street fighting on the American left, such as that indulged by the Weathermen in their early days, led to ultra-leftism, extreme political isolation, and further adventurism that did profound damage to the anti-Vietnam War movement and the left itself. But Antifa is either unaware of this history, or choses to ignore its lessons.
Third, the adoption of tactics such as street fighting and the secrecy used to organize and execute them has historically been a most fertile ground for agent provocateurs and infiltrators of various sorts. An open, democratic political culture is our best defense against such efforts against us.
Fourth, the macho posturing associated with street fighting, so strikingly evident in the past in 1930s Germany and Italy and in 1960s Weathermen, is deeply at odds with the socialist feminist values that define DSA.
Fifth, there are serious legal ramifications to support for Antifa street fighting, that would put MDC DSA and its elected leadership, as well as DSA as a whole, in legal jeopardy.
There is a strong democratic socialist tradition of direct action against white supremacy and fascism: the use of non-violent civil disobedience. From ‘sitting in’ at racially segregated lunch counters to participating in ‘freedom rides’ on racially segregated buses to marching against court injunctions, democratic socialists put their bodies on the line in the struggle against racism. When married to mass actions such as Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington and the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, this non-violent direct action proved most effective in winning the victories of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We should employ a similar approach to the struggle against authoritarianism and white supremacy of the far right today. Resolution One diverts us from this path.
Leo Casey is the Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers which focuses of issues of public education, unionism and democracy promotion. Before he assumed his current position at the Institute, Casey served as Vice President from Academic High Schools for the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s 200,000 person strong teacher union. This article was originally published by the Albert Shanker Institute.