Historian of the Left

Reclaiming Antifascism

Antifascism needs restoration. Layers of additional meanings and intentions have accumulated since its inception in the 1920s and ’30s, obscuring its original character. The first layer formed already during World War II, when the phrase “premature antifascists” entered the American lexicon as a label for those on the left who had actively opposed fascist regimes in Europe well before the United States entered the war against the Nazis. Among other things, the phrase applied to the thousands of people who had joined the International Brigades in 1936-38 to fight Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Since this somehow untimely resistance to fascism often involved socialist content, premature antifascists was really a euphemism for “reds.” Thus began the demonization of antifascism in Western capitalist countries, which darkly mirrored the postwar cult of antifascism practiced in the Soviet bloc.

To be sure, the legacy of real antifascist resistance did figure into some Western countries’ national catechisms. Especially in France and Italy, appeals to the Résistance or Resistenza legitimized postwar political coalitions that resembled the antifascist alliances forged under occupation and dictatorship. An official antifascist myth formed a second layer atop original antifascism. While also dismissing premature antifascists, this myth honored the nonpolitical patriots who fought against the fascist barbarians in the name of common decency. They were the “good,” timely antifascists. Beginning in the 1970s and especially since the 1990s, however, a revisionist paradigm has supplanted that antifascist myth. For revisionist scholars, the timeliness of antifascism is beside the point. Instead of an emancipatory movement or dynamic political culture in its own right, antifascism appears to them as a Stalinist ruse for tricking European democrats into supporting communism. Revisionists treat fascism and communism (read: antifascism) as twin symptoms of the same totalitarian threat to liberal democracy.1

Antifascism’s legitimacy as a political cause has fallen under suspicion. Still today, long after the Cold War, debates about antifascism revolve around a question of liberal democratic norms: How could violent or coercive means ever be justified, even to counter the violence of the far right? Accordingly, contemporary journalists tend to portray Antifa and neofascist actions as morally equivalent.2

I find such claims of moral equivalence politically objectionable and historically false. The early twenty-first-century resurgence of the far right across the Global North has enabled the worst sort of neofascist adventurism, racism, Holocaust denial, and complacency about social injustice. By contrast, original antifascism possessed great emancipatory potential. Its occlusion by decades of Cold War posturing and liberal myopia must end. As the editors of a recent volume argue, we have now reached a point where it is necessary to rethink antifascism “not in terms of what it turned into after 1945, but as the various things that it was, and the ways in which it was perceived and lived, at the different times and places in its evolution since the 1920s.”3 We should welcome this anti-revisionist turn in scholarship on antifascism. It not only does justice to an overlooked twentieth-century political movement, but it also may provide us conceptual tools and moral inspiration for the very real fight against fascism today.

“There was more than one antifascist trajectory,” Anson Rabinbach has observed, and indeed any historicization of antifascism must account for the great diversity of political currents that came under its banner. The prefix “anti-” already implies a negative unity that could potentially include many positive contents.4 Historical antifascism had two main currents: official communist antifascism, which followed the Comintern’s united and popular front lines, and alternative antifascisms.

The latter variety ranged from Christian democracy to libertarian anarchism, which together shared skepticism of both communist politics and communist explanations of fascism. Small antifascist groups developed underground and in exile that no longer fit into the established categories of European party politics. Among those small-a antifascists there emerged a grassroots political practice and an innovative theory of fascism that helped define something like a new left—perhaps even the first new left. Those neoleftists differed from traditional leftists and council communists in their belief that the old left embodied in social democracy and communism no longer offered any real solutions to the world economic and political crisis. Revolution still remained neoleftists’ goal, but that revolution would have to be total: it would encompass not only politics and the economy, but also culture, sex, and everyday life. And the agents of that total revolution would be the young rebels without a party. Theirs were “the now forgotten or silenced voices and visions” that Mary Nolan has conjured with the phrase “antifascisms under fascism.”5 Those young, non-communist and non-social democrat antifascists created a culture of defiance that lasted long after the war.

Looking ahead, Rabinbach suggests that “the ‘literary underground’ of the student movement”—i.e. the pirated books that inspired the 68ers—drew on an “antifascist culture that existed from the 1930s to the 1970s.” The radical tradition that made the postwar New Left possible had its roots in those crucial decades between the defeat of the Central European revolutions and the onset of World War II.

The antifascist new left experienced itself as a new left but didn’t yet call itself by that name. A feeling and an explicit rhetoric of “new beginning” nonetheless inspired the numerous splinter groups that germinated on the left during the interwar years. The zigzag course of Soviet foreign policy bewildered many party communists, and the social democratic parties that participated in the interwar governing coalitions often failed to generate much enthusiasm among rank-and-file members. Social Democracy’s toleration of conservative and often anti-democratic politics during this era disillusioned many people on the left who also lacked faith in communism. Space opened up in between the two major parties of the working class for experiments in sui generis anarchism, leftism, and revolutionary socialism.

After 1933, when fascism grew from an isolated Italian phenomenon into an existential threat for the entire European left, those experimental small groups such as Neu Beginnen, Bataille Socialiste, Giustizia e Libertà, and the Left Book Club coalesced into a neoleftist network, making transnational connections and exchanging ideas about new organizational forms. It was through this neoleftist network that new issues entered the domain of left politics, such as psychoanalysis, sexual liberation, and subaltern culture. Finally, the antifascist new left played a central role in the Spanish Civil War. From 1936 to 1939 Spain functioned as antifascism’s “foreign front,” and European neoleftists treated it as a sort of “Third World” anticolonial struggle avant la lettre. Southern Europe seemed during the interwar era like a displaced microcosm of the Global South.

The problem of fascism opened up many creative frontiers in left theory and practice. Although it surely produced historic defeats for the left, fascism also forced all manner of oppressed groups and their allies to band together in unprecedented forms of solidarity. In order to fight today’s neofascist creep,6 we would do well to reclaim antifascism from its historical detractors. Especially the antifascist new left may provide a model for forging networks of independent, grassroots resistance groups across regional and national borders.

Mainstream liberal democracy seems attractive as a default condition of peace and common decency. Waiting for elections and gradual demographic change seems like the surest and safest way to dislodge reactionary conservative elites. But actually liberalism doesn’t offer any good solutions to the present crisis. The standard practice and received wisdom of Democratic Party politics, for example, are woefully out of touch with disaffected Americans, from the millennials to the “deplorables.” As in the 1930s, the old left (such as it was, such as it is) has proven itself bankrupt and mostly irrelevant. So, antifascists unite! And try something new for a change.



  1. The leading revisionists have included Renzo De Felice, François Furet, Annie Kriegel, Dan Diner, and Antonia Grunenberg.  (back)
  2. For example, see Will Yates, “America’s extremist battle: antifa v alt-right,” BBC Trending (Feb. 20, 2017).  (back)
  3. Hugo García et al., eds., Rethinking Antifascism: History, Memory and Politics, 1922 to the Present (New York: Berghahn, 2016), 3.  (back)
  4. Anson Rabinbach, “Introduction: Legacies of Antifascism,” New German Critique, no. 67 (Winter 1996), 3-17 (10).  (back)
  5. Mary Nolan, “Antifascism under Fascism: German Visions and Voices,” New German Critique, no. 67 (Winter 1996), 33-55 (35).  (back)
  6. See Alexander Reid Ross, Against the Fascist Creep (Oakland: AK Press, 2017).  (back)