With riots and civil unrest metastasizing across the United States, the president declared he intends to designate Antifa as a terrorist group. Predictably, the talking heads rushed out to declare that Antifa doesn’t really exist, and even if it did the president couldn’t possibly target it using that legal designation. They argue Antifa is an amorphous blob of discontents, not a functioning organization, and certainly not one which could be designated and targeted for concentrated counterterrorism enforcement.
As usual, the Twitterati don’t know what they are talking about. Reality is both simpler and more complex.
To begin at the beginning: Antifa—real name: Antifaschisitsche Aktion—was born during the street-fights of the 1932 Weimar Republic. It was founded by the Stalinist Communist Party of Germany (KPD), although various Communist “anti-fascist defense” units were associated with the KPD much earlier.
Anti-fascist Action’s sole purpose was to help the KPD combat other political parties for control of the streets in the revolutionary politics of the rapidly failing Weimar Republic.
And yes, they fought the Nazis.
But they also fought liberal parties, conservative parties, and anyone and everyone who got in their way. While these early antecedents were short-lived, it is useful to view Antifa in this context. More than anything, Antifa exists to serve as a tool of revolutionary politics in a failed (or failing) state.
Antifa would reestablish itself in the early 1980s, also in Germany, out of Autonomism. Autonomism is an anti-authoritarian anarcho-Marxist ideology associated with the Communist urban guerilla organizations of 1970s and ’80s Europe like Red Army Faction and the Red Brigade. Autonomism would find a home among the young punks of Germany’s squatters’ rights movement. Around this time, Antifa tactics like the “black block,” where large numbers of rioters dress in black and move together in formation as part of a larger protest, were developed.
Coming to America
Antifa would form in a similar fashion in the United States, but under a different name.
According to Antifa lore, an effort by young punks to expel neo-Nazis and white supremacists from the music scene led to the formation of Anti-Racist Action (ARA), beginning in the Midwest and then spreading outward. As chapters formed in various cities, regional councils and networks were formed, such as the Midwest Anti-Fascist Network (MAFN) in 1995.
But present at the birth of ARA were members of America’s long-time revolutionary clique, with roots going all the way back to the domestic terror group Weather Underground. Consulting the young anti-racist punks in the formation of ARA were members of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC). Several separate ARAs would go on to form one of the largest Antifa networks in the country, Torch Antifa, whose website was registered by a former JBAKC member.
JBAKC was formed as a front for the May 19th Communist Organization (MCO), itself founded out of the remnants of the Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, the FALN and other terrorist groups of the ’60s and ’70s. (May 19 was chosen since it was the birthday of both Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh.)
Following a split in the Weather Underground leadership over whether to emphasize class or racial struggle, the MCO emphasized working for “black liberation.” Members of the MCO were responsible for several bombings and robberies in the 1980s, including the infamous 1981 Brinks Armored Car Robbery.
JBAKC used its newsletter “Death to the Klan!” to highlight street fighting with Klansmen, accuse Reagan officials of white supremacy, endorse MCO bank robberies as “expropriation,” and promote communist insurgencies taking place in Nicaragua and El Salvador. It is important, again, to keep in mind that this was all done under the guise of “fighting white supremacy.”
The logic of JBAKC and the May 19th Communist Organization, and the same ideology which drives Antifa today, was that at its core the United States was founded on white supremacy, and therefore needs to be destroyed. Their “Cops and Klan Go Hand in Hand” slogan suggests there is no distinction between neo-Nazis and America’s institutions.
Of course, in the age of the 1619 Project, such positions are no longer held just by members of underground Communist terror organizations. They are de rigueur in newsrooms, faculty lounges, and among the staff of mayors’ and attorneys general’s offices.
The modern Antifa movement advances the robust legacy infrastructure of the revolutionary Left through a belief in the efficacy of loose organization. The basic building block of direct-action organizing is the “affinity group,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a group of like-minded people who share a common objective. Pro-Antifa website CrimethInc notes:
This leaderless format has proven effective for guerrilla activities of all kinds, as well as what the RAND Corporation calls “swarming” tactics in which many unpredictable autonomous groups overwhelm a centralized adversary. You should go to every demonstration in an affinity group, with a shared sense of your goals and capabilities. If you are in an affinity group that has experience taking action together, you will be much better prepared to deal with emergencies and make the most of unexpected opportunities.
Multiple affinity groups can organize into what are described as “clusters” of affinity groups. Members of individual affinity groups may be members of other radical Left organizations and call upon them for assistance. Antifa members are likely to have ties to political organizations with Antifa support committees such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), The International Workers of the World (Wobblies), the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), or any number of other local and regional radical Left organizations or collectives. Antifa draws resources and recruits from them all.
Where necessary, multiple clusters planning large actions may utilize “spokes-councils” to coordinate. Each affinity group or cluster may send spokespersons to negotiate on the general goals of the action. These methods are no less organized for being non-hierarchical and help Antifa avoid police and law enforcement investigations, as well as preserve the above-ground support structures from facing criminal consequences for the acts they enable.
Antifa is in many ways an improved iteration of prior militant leftist guerilla organizations. While the Weather Underground wrote high-profile manifestos and their members became household names, they were also forced into hiding by aggressive, but largely traditional, law enforcement methods. In part, they failed because they misjudged how ready society was for their message, banked everything on militant action, and gave up mass organizing. Antifa, with its anarchist outer structure and plausible deniability, allows the radical Left to have their cake and eat it too.
And now, with the successful promulgation of the radical message of America as bastion of white supremacy by presidential candidates, cable news anchors, and generations of tenured professors, Antifa is unlikely to lack for recruits and support—rhetorical or otherwise—any time in the near future.
In all turbulent periods of revolutionary politics, whether the 1930s, 1970s, or today, the ability to project force on the streets to punish enemies is a valuable asset. For the Left today, Antifa is that force.