Tuesday, June 02, 2020


Let's start with a few basic points, all of which are a matter of public record and none of which have been controversial until recently. In the 1931 Weimar Republic, a radical right-wing group, Harzburg Front, was formed in order to oppose the chancellorship of Christian democrat Heinrich BrĂ¼ning, a member of the Center Party (or Centre Party, depending on how you English it). The Harzburg people were essentially Nazis and people broadly sympathetic to Nazi goals. In response to what they saw as an expansive threat (the Nazis already had a paramilitary wing, and now it seemed like it was expanding), the Social Democrats and the trade unions formed a group called Eiserne Front, Iron Front. It was immediately popular, with lots of youth support. All these aggressive Nazis and Communists will no longer bully everyone else, because now center-left liberals were no longer going to put up with it! It's exactly the sort of thing that attracts young people interested in politics. The young people started picking fights with Nazis and Communists in the streets. The Communist Party, alarmed at the success of Iron Front, created their own group to fight Iron Front, Antifaschistische Aktion, in 1932. You see, it was a standard Communist position in the day that fascism is the late stage of capitalism, so all political positions that are in any way supportive of capitalism against communism, they called 'fascist'; and the center-left, liberal Iron Front was what they called a "social fascist" organization. So Antifascist Action was formed originally to fight social democrats and Nazis.

The collapse of BrĂ¼ning's government, however, led to a major shift; the Nazis under Hitler outmaneuvered their opponents, and both Antifascist Action and Iron Front were banned. But other groups imitating Antifascist Action, what we call the Antifa movement, sprang up, originally associated with various anarchist groups and Communist organizations, although as time went on, many of the Communist parties found Antifa groups to be more trouble than they were worth and started keeping them at an arm's distance. Especially in the United States, what exists of Antifa is very, very mixed; some groups are little more than leftist boys trying to impress leftist girls (usually identifiable by the fact that they use not only the symbols of Antifascist Action but also the Three Arrows of Antifascist Action's enemies, the Iron Front), whereas others are much more serious. They all share at least a nominal commitment to politics by violent provocation. And it is indeed still a common view among modern Antifa that the liberal democracies of the West are in fact at least crypto-fascist, although how central this is varies quite a bit, especially with regard to American groups.

Such are the basics. Antifa groups have never been an important component in real opposition to fascism, for much the same reason why many Communist parties started discouraging them: they tend to attract stupid people who are more interested in fighting than winning, and they have a disturbing tendency actually to conform to the stereotypes fascist propaganda claims the opponents of fascism fit. The Allies, particularly the French, did use them a bit against the Nazis in World War II and its aftermath, for much the same reason the Allies used the Mafia against the Fascists: they were there, they had (among others) the same enemies, and manpower and resources were really, really needed. And nothing about being anti-fascist has ever, ever had any necessary connection to Antifa.

So now we come to the modern United States, which is apparently interested in becoming the reincarnation of the Weimar Republic. I used to think that the rules for 'being American' were quite simple: respect the Constitution, uphold the principles of republican government, oppose slavery, oppose Nazism, oppose Communism, and that covers most of it. But one thing that seems clear these days is that there are lots of people who would certainly fail this test, and even suggesting that this is the heart of being American seems a bit naive and quixotic. Nonetheless, quixotic though it might be, I still very much think these are worthwhile guidelines, and that American citizens have reasons of honor to uphold them, so to say that I start boiling when people try to demand support for Antifa is an understatement. But what really gets to me is the childishness of the arguments.

"'Antifa' stands for 'anti-fascist'; so if you oppose Antifa, you support fascism." "The United States in World War II was anti-Fascist; so they were Antifa." I have heard multiple variations of these arguments over the past several days, and I am getting sick and tired of them. I have heard intelligent people say things like these, with apparently nary a brain cell raising the obvious critical questions in their heads, with not a single thought devoted to making sure that equivocation is avoided. To draw conclusions purely on the basis of words, and to assume that people are what they claim to be, are things you would expect of toddlers. But apparently our political habits have degraded so far that otherwise intelligent people propose literally infantile arguments as if they were conclusive. How much Antifa is actually involved in recent riots -- that's a matter for the evidence. There are, as I said, a lot of different kinds of Antifa groups, and they are not evenly diffused. But I will not be herded into support for Antifa by anyone, and especially not because other people have lost the ability to think like an adult.

Here and there I try to summon some patience by recognizing that we are all to some extent limited by our language; this is why you have apparently educated people like Neil Levy who think 'virtue-signaling' means 'signaling virtue' rather than 'treating virtue-signals as if they were virtue', despite the fact that most people have no problem recognizing this -- it's a way you could take the words. It's a juvenile way to reason, no matter how much tap-dancing you do in order to make it look sophisticated, but it shows the tyranny of words. But this, I think, makes me more impatient rather than less; it actually doesn't help in dealing with infantile arguments to remind myself that professional philosophers can engage in juvenile ones. The fact of the matter is that this is not some marginal failure but a lot of people trying to propagandize for a morally atrocious movement that regularly violates the rights of others, and doing so on the sole ground that it self-identifies as a good thing. And perhaps I should stop being patient with it, and just accept that impatience is the right response here.