Antifascism: The Course of a Crusade
by paul gottfried
northern illinois university, 216 pages, $34.95
When questioned by reporters whether fascism would come to America, Huey Long allegedly replied: “Of course fascism will come to America, but here we’ll call it antifascism.” In 2020, black-clad “antifa” activists rioted and practiced violence on a scale never imagined by the several tiny proto-fascist American “shirt movements” that had enjoyed ephemeral lives in the 1930s. Their activities, however, were carried out in opposition to “systemic racism” and the alleged “fascism” of Donald Trump. Antifa arguably represented an apex in the activism against “fascism” that has been urged by antifascists ever since the destruction of fascism in 1945—activism the distinguished intellectual historian Paul Gottfried (the son of Holocaust refugees) terms a “crusade.” Antifascism has become broader and more determined the further the world moves from genuine fascism, and the fewer genuine fascists there are to be found, if indeed there are any.
Antifascism: The Course of a Crusade is a sequel to Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Concept (2016), which was the best book on fascism to appear in a decade or more. The earlier book analyzed the original nature of historical European fascism, the term itself, and the history of its varied uses. For many years, “fascism” has been the most convenient multipurpose political pejorative, in part because it lacks any clear original meaning—as do other common words, such as “liberal,” “conservative,” or “socialist.” It was initially derived from the fasces symbol of the ancient Roman Republic, suggesting “union” or “bundle,” and by the beginning of the twentieth century it was a common adjective for radical Italian groups, initially more on the left than on the right. Benito Mussolini’s ultra-nationalist Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, founded in 1919, morphed two years later into a mass movement, the Partito Nazionale Fascista. Its members were the original fascists as commonly known, and the adjective was then applied by friends and foes alike to the eighteen-year dictatorship that followed (1925–43).
Among the earliest antifascist commentators were Soviet and Italian communist spokesmen who correctly perceived that Italian fascists had adopted the tactics of Russian Bolshevism, as well as aspects of its doctrine. They were naturally surprised that what they had labeled a “bourgeois movement” was exhibiting such boldness and audacity. The Communist International soon developed a doctrine of “pan-fascism,” according to which virtually all non- and anti-communist forces tended toward fascism, and so might be most conveniently denounced as hyphenate variants of fascism, whether “liberal-,” “conservative-,” or “social-fascism.” Such polemical usage in the 1920s and 1930s anticipated the broad application of the term after 1945. These binary communist tactics, which divided all politics between revolutionary communism and an otherwise ubiquitous fascism, also contributed significantly to the German political catastrophe of 1933 and the triumph of the much more powerful fascist analogue National Socialism (though the Nazis, eschewing Italian terminology, never called themselves fascists).
Comintern antifascist politics and Soviet diplomacy had both ended in failure by the close of the 1930s, leading to Stalin’s breathtaking course reversal in the Nazi-Soviet pact and tacit alliance of 1939. The rationale for the reversal involved labeling the German regime not fascist, but rather the radical antagonist of the Western capitalist “plutocracies” and hence a facilitator of Soviet revolutionary policy. The Soviets were thereby enabled to engage in widespread military aggression in parallel with Germany in 1939 and 1940.
During the broader conflict that followed, the Western democracies tended to speak of war against “fascism,” though by that term they primarily meant Nazism and at first would have been happy to ignore Mussolini, had he stayed out of the fighting. Even after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin declined to adopt this terminology, and he long maintained a certain ambiguity in practical Soviet Realpolitik, finally terminating all contact with Nazi Germany only in 1944, after Soviet victory seemed assured. Soviet ambiguity was undoubtedly a factor in guaranteeing the massive Allied military and economic assistance that was indispensable to the Soviet triumph, as well as to the sweeping diplomatic appeasement that accompanied it. All this has recently been admirably detailed in Sean McMeekin’s Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II. Once, however, fascism had been completely destroyed, antifascism conveniently became the official banner of the Soviet Union and its satellite states ever after.
In the later twentieth century, historians tended to conclude that, for purposes of comparative analysis, a “generic fascism” might be identified in the revolutionary nationalist movements active in Europe during the generation of 1920–45, even though individual expressions of this tendency varied greatly. In 1933–34, for example, the political and doctrinal polemic between Italian fascism and German National Socialism had for a short time been extreme, almost as extreme as that between Nazism and communism.
What made generic fascism historically distinctive was neither authoritarianism nor violence—both at first even more characteristic of, and more extreme in, the Soviet Union—but rather its emphasis on the cultural and moral goal of a radical “anthropological revolution.” In Germany this goal took a racial form, but all fascist movements emphasized the creation of a “new man” who would live by spirit and will more than by reason. Fascists rejected materialism and mere egalitarianism in favor of doctrines of vitalism, nationalism, and the primacy of willpower. Their other most distinctive feature was a “therapeutic” doctrine of violence, which held that violence of the right sort was a positive moral good, stimulating bravery, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and self-discipline as permanent norms of human existence. Variants of such doctrines might also be found in communism, but fascism differed from the latter in accepting significant private property, rejecting egalitarianism, stressing nationalism rather than internationalism, and, in the German case, promoting virulent, overt racism and anti-Semitism.
The aggressive military expansion of the fascist powers doomed them to complete destruction, while Hitler’s Holocaust discredited major-power nationalism in Western countries. Fascist ideology could never be revived in any real way in an era of materialism, hedonism, partial democratization, and increasingly radical egalitarianism.
Yet the term never dies, for its sibilant and sinister sound, together with its very indeterminacy of meaning, make it ideal for indiscriminate stigmatization, though at the price of becoming an “empty signifier,” devoid of precise content other than disapproval. Later usage would have little—ultimately nothing—to do with historical fascism, other than as the vaguest symbolic reference. Several genuine neofascist groups have appeared since 1945, but such initiatives grow weaker with each passing decade. The Movimento Sociale Italiano, a significant minority party, once seemed the best candidate for neofascism, but moderated and mutated continuously in order to win votes. By the 1990s it had morphed into the Alleanza Nazionale, a relatively standard and anodyne center-right parliamentary group. A valid rule of thumb is that the more important an extremist group, the less truly neofascist it is. Conversely, the more genuinely neofascist, the smaller, more isolated, and doomed to irrelevance.
“Fascist” has nonetheless remained a popular epithet because it is associated not so much with Mussolini, the original fascist, as with Hitler and the Holocaust, an association that gives it special imprecatory power. Association with Hitler implies something not merely bad but positively demonic, imputing a negative metaphysical or spiritual force. As Yuri Slezkine wrote in 2004, in a perverse and self-destructive way Hitler won the “battle of concepts” with Stalin by establishing the “worship of ethnicity” and a “focus on demonology,” so that “the most fundamental way in which World War II transformed the world was that it gave birth to a new moral absolute: the Nazis as universal evil.”
That moral absolute is all the more important in the twenty-first century, as progressive politics increasingly assume a redemptive and salvific tone as a sort of substitute religion. Fascism understood as Nazism offers an ideal target, irreducible in its adamantine wickedness, and gives the victims of Hitler a place of honor denied to the equally numerous victims of Stalin or Mao.
Gottfried reviews the interpretations of fascism offered by leftist and liberal theorists during the original fascist era, then devotes brief attention to the more recent antifa movement. The prototype for antifa was the Antifaschistische Aktion, a street-activist organization formed by the German Communist party in 1932 as a “united front” initiative to move beyond its already large main militia force. That militia, the Roter Frontkämpferbund (the League of Red Front-fighters), was more strictly military in uniform and appearance than the Nazi Brownshirts (SA) themselves.
Later, revolutionary antifascism, perhaps more than Marxism-Leninism, would serve as the founding myth of communist East Germany. The Berlin Wall, constructed by East German authorities who sought to stem the tide of emigration to the West, was dubbed the “Antifascist Protection Rampart” by its builders. The term entered the English-speaking world with the formation of Antifascist Action in the United Kingdom in 1985 and later passed to the United States.
Gottfried describes antifascist doctrines as the defining motif of radical progressive politics in the contemporary West, an overarching “shadow doctrine activated when needed.” An important early role was played by the theorists of the Frankfurt School who developed Critical Theory, with their thesis of Western democracy and its advanced capitalism as the major new breeding ground of “fascism.” These German emigres advanced their own “therapeutic doctrine” of fascism, holding it to be the product of aberrant personalities and psychic disturbance that could be eradicated by targeted re-education and sexual expressiveness. Gottfried traces the influence of their “F-scale” (the “authoritarian personality”) on American therapeutic practice in the second half of the twentieth century.
Antifascism has replaced the old Comintern challenge of the 1930s—either violent revolution or fascism—with a binary creed that promotes sweeping leftist transformation as the only alternative to, once more, “fascism.” In the 1930s there were real fascists, a genuine menace in several countries, with the proposed Marxist-Leninist alternative clear-cut, at least down to 1935. In the twenty-first century, the post-Marxist left has replaced the classic class struggle with new doctrines of race-and-gender struggle that reject nationalism in favor of adversarial genders and ethnicities and the cult of the victim.
Antifascism has become a guiding principle especially for Germany, which has gone well beyond the “re-education” imposed by the postwar occupying powers to adopt a permanent penitential politics, accompanied by a semi-official “penitential historiography” that rejects all association with the nation’s recent past. This requires control both of speech and of political initiatives, as Germany lives under a permanent “guided democracy” that regulates politics and culture. Nearly all German political discourse is aligned with militant antifascism. Thus, though most violent political actions in Germany are committed by leftists or jihadists, the Merkel government not long ago devoted 116 million euros to a special “Kampf gegen Rechts” (Battle Against the Right), an official campaign to restrain not merely nominal neofascists but all right-wing political activity in Germany, though very little of the latter showed any evidence of fascism. No other country has gone to such extremes to expiate past crimes, sometimes to the extent of blacklisting mere expressions of German patriotism. Germany has most nearly achieved the contemporary progressivist goal of the penitential and denationalized nation, a status sought, mutatis mutandis, for all Western countries.
The term “fascist” has been applied to the populist movements that have emerged in the twenty-first century, but Gottfried does not find any significant similarities between fascism and this genus of politics, since none of its expressions offer any clear alternative to Western democracy. The reform proposals of such movements are almost without exception more moderate than the proposals of the left.
The main goal of contemporary progressivism is not, of course, to defeat any non-existent fascism, but rather to demonize whatever residues of tradition, religion, culture, and historic constitutional government still remain, to the point of eliminating a sense of basic reality. In efforts to impose transgender ideology, for example, we see the state being wielded as an instrument of cultural and institutional transformation in some respects more ambitious than the transformations attempted by the classic fascist and communist states themselves.
Some conservative critics make the counter-charge that radical progressivism is itself the new fascism, having acquired several of fascism’s distinguishing features. Such an argument must operate at an extremely high level of abstraction, and Gottfried is careful to avoid it. Of course there are parallels, as in the cases of all radical or revolutionary movements. Contemporary progressivism seeks an anthropological revolution, though one quite different from that sought by fascism: not nationalist, virilist, and vitalist, but transgender and transhumanist. In 2020, progressivist spokesmen advanced the desirability of a therapeutic violence—applied, however, primarily against symbols and property, not against human beings. Progressivism is increasingly coercive, as is almost inevitable in any movement that proposes to enforce a radical equality, but it rests on a philosophical base of radical personalism and subjective self-indulgence.
An important part of Gottfried’s analysis is his dissection of the cultural revolution for which antifascism often serves as rhetorical cover. He concludes that contemporary antifascism is in some respects more radical than fascism—or, for that matter, communism—above all with respect to anthropological revolution.
In the last part of the book, Gottfried meditates on the interpretation of fascism presented more than half a century ago by the politically incorrect historian Ernst Nolte, who offered the most challenging interpretations of any German historian in the second half of the twentieth century. Nolte had originally characterized fascism philosophically and metaphysically, by its “resistance to transcendence.” George Mosse challenged this characterization on the grounds that fascism proposed its own form of transcendence—of individualism and of key aspects of traditional culture and religion. Gottfried, however, concludes that Nolte was correct.
Historic fascism emphasized preservation of an ancestral community and what it deemed man’s essential nature—as a creature of instinct, as much as or more than reason—and concentrating on struggle against a collective enemy. Nolte is judged to have emphasized correctly that fascism sought to release energies and impulses that both traditional Christian education and later reformist social models tried to root out, goals essentially regressive rather than transcendent.
The culture and politics of antifascism as defined by Gottfried may seem to rest on multiple contradictions, but he emphasizes that this has been one of antifascism’s strengths, for it is an ideology of constant negative critique and perpetual assertiveness that, like the earlier fascism, requires momentum to maintain the initiative. Generalized control of the educational system and the media enable it to ignore and exclude criticism, while a new alliance with corporate capitalism (another seeming contradiction) offers massive funding, something historically not enjoyed by either communists or fascists.
Gottfried concludes that an important function of antifascism as doctrine is to facilitate an ideologically revised historiography in order to impute the crimes of fascism (that is, Nazism) to the main enemy—namely, to Western Christian civilization, redefined during the past generation as the world’s primary perpetrator of racial oppression and thus of the Holocaust itself.
Antifascism is in this manner key to bolstering a radical intersectionality that achieves a permanent revolution more continuous and in some ways more thoroughgoing than anything dreamed of by Marxism-Leninism or Mao’s “cultural revolution.” The old communism was staid and conservative by comparison. Its very restricted feminism and total rejection of sexual reassignment insisted on maintaining sex roles in a manner abhorrently reactionary to Western radicals, or even to moderate progressives. Thus, in their post-Marxist-Leninist phase, Russia and China are markedly conservative and nationalist by comparison with the contemporary West.
Some readers will question Gottfried’s use of antifascism as the defining motif of twenty-first-century radical Western progressivism. Certainly the dominant radical ideology of the age is complex, has undergone different phases of development, and assumes somewhat new emphases every decade or so. Not only is this ideology the first major revolutionary ideology to have originated largely in the United States, it is also the first to have no single formal name, so that commentators and critics have employed a number of terms, from the Maoist-derived “political correctness” down to the present emphasis on “wokeness.” Each of these is a form of synecdoche, taking a part for the whole. Surely Gottfried is correct in holding that antifascism is an indispensable rhetorical device that has proven more ubiquitous and more effective than any other in modern political usage.
Though contemporary antifascism is neither fascism nor Marxism, Gottfried judges that it is in some respects more radical than either, above all in the key dimension of the anthropological revolution, in which radical progressivism has achieved a unique place. Thus his concluding words that “on the cultural front, today’s antifascists are radical in a way that begs for historical precedent.”
Stanley G. Payne is the Jaume Vicens Vives and Hilldale Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This review develops material from “Antifascism Without Fascism,” published on the First Things website in January 2021.