Thanks to the well-timed release of his book, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook—a thorough study of anti-fascist activism—Dartmouth lecturer Mark Bray has become an in-demand media presence. His authoritative point of view has been featured by Meet the Press, The New Republic, and also (along with two self-professed antifa) in a debate with me on Al Jazeera over antifa violence.
A former Occupy Wall Street organizer, Bray utilized his contacts among the pan-leftist activist community to interview scores of international antifa. Their perspectives, combined with Bray’s rigorous historical research and his unabashed advocacy for antifa’s battle against amorphously defined “fascists,” constitute the bulk of Antifa’s pages.
Bray’s book dispels certain misperceptions about the group. Not merely defined by violence, antifa devotes much of its energy to the investigation and outing of various white supremacists. Taking a historical long view of the movement, Antifa details how communities of anti-fascists rousted racist skinheads out of the punk rock and soccer scenes in a number of cities, and recounts some notable historic antifa victories, such as “The Battle of Cable Street,” when in 1936 over 100,000 anti-fascist protesters stopped a march through London of over 5,000 black-shirted fascists.
Bray eschews any pretense of objectivity. And there’s nothing wrong with that—he chooses to use history in service of advocacy. Yet because of its glorification of antifa violence regardless of justification or effectiveness—Antifa is more hagiography than history. For example, Bray neglects to point out that “The Battle of Cable Street” led to electoral gains and a surge in membership for the British Union of Fascists (BUF), and he devotes exactly one paragraph of his book to concern over a growing “culture of insurrectionary maschismo” that fetishizes black bloc tactics at the expense of non-violent anti-fascist activism.
Though critics of antifa’s violent “no-platforming” tactics include Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—and despite substantial evidence that such actions increase the prominence of the very speakers antifa seeks to silence—Bray insists that non-fascists need not fear the fists or fire of antifa. But the fact is that some victims of antifa violence have included people that only someone who sees Nazis on the insides of their eyelids could define as fascistic: journalists, photographers, and people of color.
Just as many mainstream liberals did, Bray lauds the well-publicized antifa sucker-punch of alt-right leader Richard Spencer as a contributor toward “legitimizing anti-fascism.” This was on Inauguration Day, when Spencer was giving an interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and an antifa member punched Spencer as he was being interviewed on a Washington street. Footage of the reeling white supremacist went massively viral and triggered a wide-ranging debate over the righteousness of “Nazi punching.”
But Bray also writes glowingly of “the most iconic moment of the day… when a limousine was set ablaze.” Bray neglects to mention the immolated limousine was occupied by a Latino driver who suffered minor injuries in the attack, and the vehicle was owned by a Muslim immigrant, who asserts he was later harassed by individuals who mistook him for a Trump supporter.
Antifa is not a paramilitary group, nor does it have a hierarchy. This fact leaves the deployment of violence to the discretion of individual participants. Docu-journalist Leighton Woodhouse, who has written favorably of antifa, covered the demonstrations against a right-wing “free speech” rally in Berkeley this past August and wrote of how easily mob violence in the name of “justice” turns innocent people into collateral damage. “Anybody who challenged the Black Bloc made themselves a target, whether they were a white supremacist looking to stir shit up (and there were maybe five or six of those in a crowd of thousands), or a liberal who yelled their disapproval at their tactics, or a reporter taking pictures after being commanded to stop,” he wrote. “If you pissed someone in the Black Bloc off, and someone came after you, the rest of the bloc followed. Suddenly you were facing a hostile mob, the time for arguing your case expired, literally fearing for your life.”
Though Bray dismisses concerns about potential antifa mission creep—insisting that average foot soldiers in the fight against fascism are disciplined and sophisticated enough to distinguish actual fascists from less threatening right-wingers—he and other advocates continue to lower their own bar for acceptable violence.
Case in point: After antifa rioted to shut down a scheduled speech at Berkeley by far-right commentator Milo Yiannopolous, the group’s supporters cited unnamed sources claiming Yiannopolous intended to publicly out undocumented students. Though Yiannopolous’ noxious politics are unabashedly anti-immigrant, he issued a public denial that he intended to dox (although he admitted he liked the idea). He never did do it. Significantly, this unsubstantiated rumor continues to be cited by pro-antifa journalists to justify the violence.
Following neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Bray and other advocates have made conflicting claims, arguing on one hand that a fascist takeover is imminent unless the rest of us tacitly approve of masked vigilantes acting as judge, jury, and executioner of anyone they choose in the streets. On the other hand, such advocates boast of scores of alt-right rallies subsequently canceled because of the counter-threat posed by antifa. (The latter claim is likely inflated due to one anti-immigrant group’s decision to cancel one day of 67 rallies in part because they didn’t want neo-Nazis and alt-rightists co-opting their cause.) A more likely supposition, suggested by Kill All Normies author Andrea Nagle, is that Charlottesville made any association with the alt-right so toxic that once sympathetic alt-light trolls are running for cover.
Bray never explicitly accuses President Trump of being a fascist, but he argues that the alt-right’s influence on Trump further justifies antifa action, and as a revolutionary socialist group, Bray notes antifa could not be bothered with the lamentations of mainstream Democrats who worry the group could provoke an electoral backlash. Though he doesn’t claim to be a part of antifa, Bray shares the group’s illiberal view of civil liberties and supports its goal of a “revolutionary socialist alternative… to a world of crisis, poverty, famine, and war that breeds fascist reaction” which they believe would create a crime and prison-free “classless society.”
Ultimately, Bray addresses nearly every argument by invoking the fact that Hitler and other far-right insurgents began with small followings, but then some of these groups did what had been previously considered unthinkable—assuming political power and murdering millions. Therefore, Bray persistently relies on the counterfactual argument that because countless fascist movements have been “nipped in the bud” by anti-fascist activism over the past century, non-violent protest can be blithely dismissed as a bourgeois obstruction to the true justice only antifa is brave enough to deliver.
As an advocate for a cause he believes in, Bray comes loaded for bear with historical precedent. But because of his assertion that the ends justify antifa’s means—period—his perspective is hampered by a willful obtuseness and a refusal to address inconvenient facts.