This past year has made a lot of unfamiliar words and phrases part of our everyday vocabulary.”Post-truth.” “Surreal.” “Complicit.” And now, “Antifa” joins the list, as the anti-fascist movement gains national attention. But is Antifa on the rise, or is it just that we suddenly have a whole new reason to pay attention to it? Well, the answer is a little of both.
Antifa is short for anti-fascist, and that’s exactly what they are. The loosely-connected collective of leftist activists believes that there are some cases where violence is, in fact, acceptable, even desirable — and fighting Nazis is one of them. The catch, of course? To be fighting Nazis, there need to be Nazis to fight.
That’s why Antifa tends to wax and wane depending on when fascism itself is on the rise.
“The rise and fall of different anti-fascist groups and anti-fascist movements both in North America and Europe, is very clearly tied to the corresponding rise and fall of fascist and far-right groups,” says Mark Bray, an expert on Antifa at Dartmouth College and the author of the recent book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, in an interview with Elite Daily.
But when there’s no fascists around? Well, Antifa kind of fades away. “We’ve seen that if there isn’t an organized far-right presence, the number of [anti-fascist] groups decline.” He told Elite Daily by phone that though anti-fascism has been getting more attention recently, it’s by no means new.
The movement has gathered a lot of attention in recent months for their involvement in violent clashes with white supremacists, including in Charlottesville, Virginia in mid-August, when a white supremacist rally ended in the death of activist Heather Heyer. Photos and videos of clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters, as well as witness accounts of the day, showed people on both sides ready to throw down.
But it’s been around for awhile. Antifa has its roots in the Communist and socialist movements of 1930s Germany, and post-World War II began to focus its mission towards hunting down Nazi criminals and partisans, according to Jacobin Magazine’s detailed history of the movement. The Economist notes that Antifa saw a spike again in Europe in the 1980s, when a growing right-wing skinhead movement prompted a resurgence of opposition. An early American version of Antifa, called the Anti-Racist Action, also appeared around the same time, traveling with bands on on the underground music scene to prevent skinheads from recruiting fans.
But though the movement stalled in the early 2000s, it’s back with a vengeance.
Now that Nazism is on the rise again, the Antifa movement is growing in response.
Bray says that many of the groups he had spoken to had formed in the past two to three years. And, yes, a lot of it seems to be in response to Donald Trump.
“Since the start of the Trump campaign and especially since his election, the legitimacy of organizing against the far right has become more evident to a lot more people on the left,” he says. “The growth has been in response to a resurgent far-right that has been emboldened by the Trump campaign and its subsequent victory, as he’s been dog-whistling to them and then, more recently, just regular whistling to them, essentially arguing that there are good people involved.”
He notes that with the increasing urgency of pushing back against fascism, the new face of Antifa can be pretty mainstream.
“These are people who are sincere and committed, and are people of all walks of life,” Bray says. “Nurses and teachers and grocery store workers. These are people you may know yourself.”
Ultimately, because of the decentralized nature of the movement, it’s hard to get an accurate count of how many people identify as a member of Antifa — or any specific demographics.
“These groups don’t advertise how many members they have. There are plenty of groups that don’t even have a name,” Bray says. But there are hints: New York City Antifa recently told The Atlantic that their Twitter following had nearly quadrupled in the weeks leading up to Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. As of early September, the organization was up to over 20,000 followers.
But we do know about how many opponents they have. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) counted 917 active hate groups in the United States in its 2017 report on hate and extremism, with over 400 of them falling into the category of Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi, white nationalist, or racist skinhead.
So how many Antifa are out there? Who knows. But the way things are going, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them.