Though to many they may seem to be revolutionaries, primed to take the fight against whatever variety of perceived fascism, the self-proclaimed anti-fascists of “Antifa” are a millstone around the neck of the political left and possibly a greater danger to progressive and liberal values than even Donald Trump himself.
To be certain, while it may inspire a guttural cheer to see a white nationalist crackpot like Richard Spencer belted across the face, and may feel as though our nation stands on the cusp of revolution as swarms of black clad young people burn property and charge police lines, the net effects of these actions, both real and potential, must not be embraced as resistance mounts to Trump and rightwing populism throughout the West. Why not, you ask?
The reasons are a mix of the pragmatic and philosophical. For starters, through their wanton destruction and rioting, as well as unbridled enthusiasm for vandalism and violence, Antifa and their black bloc tactics are in many ways an outright gift to those who advocate for a police state. As their presence has become a standard affair at demonstrations and protest rallies, their particular version of “radical activism,” replete with its threats of violent insurrection and assaults on civilian bystanders, give the domestic security apparatus and its supporters perfect justification for increased surveillance and a crackdown on political speech.
Some people within these movements – like the anarcho-communists, who often fill their ranks – may argue that their actions are simply exposing the fascism innate to America’s capitalist system. But by claiming that they are being unjustly punished for actions that are themselves dangerous and criminal, these people in fact undermine efforts to expose supposed police state overreach. As protesters seek to expose a criminal justice system they see as overreaching, heavy handed, over-zealous and prejudiced, they create conditions in which such a security apparatus works in exactly the way it is meant to, often to the cheers and support of the general public.
A viral video that made the rounds following the recent riots at UC Berkeley showed bystanders cheering as police in full riot gear moved in to take down a black bloc disruption, and served as rather telling evidence of this point – both in the reaction of the crowd on site, as well as the manner in which the video courted such attention. Additionally, the fashionable invocation of Nazi Germany has become a common refrain, especially among young radicals, though it's worth noting that the only manner in which the Reichstag fire could have been more advantageous to Adolph Hitler would have been if his political adversaries had in fact carried it out themselves.
In a certain respect, these violent actions serve largely as an act by activists who would, in the old saying, cut off their nose simply to spite their face.
This itself leads to the next important point: image. Whether radicals like it or not, or are able to admit it or not, the United States is still a prosperous Western democracy. As such, the realpolitik of the nation is not one of a radical or revolutionary bent, but rather one of a more conventional republic which prefers and enjoys domestic calm.
This being the case, as it has been for the better part of a century, with a few, far more drastic exceptions than those being experienced now, the art of American politicking thankfully relies more upon rhetoric and presentation than the rise of revolutionary forces. As progressives seek to advance the cause or causes of their resistance to Donald Trump and rightwing populism, they are obliged as the opposition party forced to maintain an image which courts rather than alienates support from the general public. As rallies may see attendance range even into the hundreds of thousands, the vast unaffiliated majority of those who make up the real body politic – who can largely be seen to swing from left to right depending on the successes or failures of a given side – must be shown that violent radicals who disrupt, destroy and outright endanger property, safety and even basic liberties are not representative of the American left.
This brings us to a final, more philosophical point. Antifa and those who engage in black bloc tactics stand as antithetical to the sorts of liberal and progressive values once held in such high esteem by the political left. Whereas liberalism once prided itself on intellect and debate as its most powerful weapons in the fight against conservatism, fascism or other rightwing variants, the violence and destruction that Antifa have brought to the table – along with the mainstream left’s tacit if not outright support for such actions – marks a devolution in the philosophy of the left, and a failure to adequately maintain a grip on its principles.
Progressive activism has thus moved, by virtue of its failure or refusal to police bad actions, from the principles of Henry Wallace to those of Stalin or Trotsky. Should this seem hyperbolic as a statement or declaration, one need only look at the philosophical and ideological inspirations to so many Antifa or Anarcho-communist activists. Awash in 20th century Marxist doctrine, the presence of Antifa, and the left’s tolerance of them within their ranks, stands as a rejection of the civil enlightenment values liberals and progressives once stood for, and a slow embrace of the authoritarian orthodoxy which throughout the 20th century so often gave the left its bad name to begin with.
If there is to be a strong opposition to today's new or renewed breed of ultra-nationalist, corporatist, militant conservatism – the likes of which many reflexively refer to as fascism – then it must be rooted firmly in the virtues and values of the western liberal intellectual tradition of debate and civil action, and not the throes of wannabe revolutionaries espousing totalitarian maxims while claiming they cannot be governed. If the left continues to lose what claim it still has to an intellectual high ground, any hopes of either reforming the Democratic party or retaking political power will remain a pipe dream, lingering in the minds of those who are desperate for change.