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Antifa and its Origins

How the definition of fascism has changed gives us insight into the transformation of the political left over the course of the 20th century.

Antifascism: The Course of a Crusade, by Paul Gottfried (Northern Illinois University Press: 2021), 216 pages.

In this sequel to his 2016 book Fascism: Career of a Concept, Paul Gottfried turns his attention to antifascist critics and movements from the years immediately after the Great War up to the present day. The reader will learn that the contemporary treatment of fascism by self-described antifascists like Antifa is very different from how Marxist and liberal critics responded to the ideology and its adherents in the first half of the 20th century. Today the fear of fascism is used as a political weapon by the post-Marxist left to bully their politically disadvantaged critics. It is a form of indoctrination that serves to reinforce official orthodoxy. “Fascism became,” writes Gottfried, “the favored term of political scolds and those who sought to trample on the historical liberties of those who offended them.”

To accomplish this political purpose, fascism is defined broadly to include those who have no ideological connection to its original historical meaning. No longer “firmly anchored in time and space,” fascism has become “a ubiquitous, continuing danger to democratic societies” and a term “wielded by the powerful…in such a way as to silence pesky dissenters.” Those who identify as antifascists today are not expressing a coherent worldview but rather “a collection of sentiments and attitudes” that amount to “a statement against the Western past.” The antifascist left is pushing the ruling class farther in the direction it is already moving: “toward transforming Western countries into multicultural societies, erasing the remnants of a reactionary historical past, and assuring popular acceptance of nontraditional lifestyles.”

The antifascist left smears their “fascist” opponents with the Nazi and anti-Semitic label. However, fascism and Nazism are not identical. Latin fascism, writes Gottfried, was not defined by extreme racism against Jews and Slavs or by a totalitarian state apparatus that was characteristic of the Third Reich. “It is difficult for me to see how the Nazi orgy of killing was simply a variation of Latin fascism or similar in character to something as anodyne as Austrian clerical fascism.” Mussolini’s embrace of German-style anti-Semitism in 1938 was a dramatic departure from longstanding fascist practice. Despite his authoritarianism, Il Duce was considered a leftwing reformer until his alliance with Nazi Germany. Members of his cabinet were vocal critics of Hitler. Only a couple years earlier, Jewish refugees from Germany were given asylum in Italy. Even some Eastern European Zionists “venerated” Mussolini for providing a nationalist blueprint for a future Jewish state. Early supporters of the fascist movement included Jewish members of the Italian bourgeoisie. Mussolini’s mistress was a Sephardic Jew.

How the definition of fascism changed gives us insight into the transformation of the political left over the course of a century. Gottfried justifies his study with the claim that an understanding of today’s left is not possible without an appreciation of what it rejects. He insists with some justification that traditional Marxism does not inform the thinking of the antifascist left today. Unlike the modern left, traditional Marxists prioritized the welfare of the working class against bourgeois owners of capital. They did not deny human biology, oppose national borders, or cavort with a globalist ruling class. They would have identified the lifestyle revolution of the modern left as evidence of Western decadence. Gottfried believes Antifa is an anti-patriotic force that seeks to tear down Western institutions rather than build or reform. Antifa, he writes, is “far too irrational and nihilistic to be Marxist.” Many progressives have formed alliances with multinational corporations to advance their goals. Groups like Antifa justify their violence with the absurd claim that mob violence in the short term will preserve democracy from a fascist resurgence.

Gottfried debunks the ludicrous claim that conservatives are proto-fascists. When fascism was a real thing, classical liberals like Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) were critical of Mussolini even though they saw in Hitler a far graver threat. American Depression-era conservatives like Albert J. Nock (1870-1945) and John T. Flynn (1882-1964) feared that New Deal policies were a first step toward European-style fascism. The post-WWII Anglo-American Right largely ignored the study of fascism because of its Cold War preoccupation with communism. Gottfried insists that “this movement was never profascist or even soft on fascism.” Nor does the modern right “threaten” anyone because it is either too weak or, in some cases, ideologically compromised. Conservative intellectuals have often expressed pessimism about the ability to conserve anything given the powerful forces arrayed against them. Paul Gottfried is no exception. He believes the post-Marxist left has the upper hand because of how Western societies now define morality. The modern definition of democracy “privileges pluralism and equality while rejecting social hierarchy and ethnic homogeneity.” The neoliberal and globalist establishment exaggerates the threat to their hegemony from populist political parties. Populist leaders who do manage to secure power are not the bogeymen their critics make them out to be.

Antifascism is as much a book of history as it is a book of political science. Gottfried critiques several antifascist historians who engaged in revisionism for seemingly political purposes. Scholars have long inquired whether nationalism gave rise to Italian fascism. Defenders of nationalism ask whether it is legitimate to associate national pride with an authoritarian political ideology or whether antifascist warnings against the resurgence of populist political movements are warranted. One historian Gottfried calls out for unfairly associating Italian nationalism with fascism is Denis Mack Smith (1920-2017), who established his reputation as a critic of Italian unification in 1954 with his first book Cavour and Garibaldi. At Cambridge, Mack Smith was a student of George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962) and Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979). The latter fellow and Master of Peterhouse, whom Gottfried admires as a promoter of free and open historical inquiry, would have classified Trevelyan’s studies on Italian unification as quintessential examples of the “Whig interpretation of history.” Should it be surprising to find Mack Smith objecting to his mentor’s overly rosy view of Italian unification as, in Gottfried’s words, a “nineteenth century liberal achievement,” given the series of political crises that have plagued modern Italy?

Mack Smith’s contrarianism had justification. Piedmont connived to annex the papal states by funding and arming revolutionaries whose violent disruptions would provide a pretext for a military invasion. The nationalist insurgents who failed to garner popular support had to secure their power with foreign troops. Only the upper class, a distinct minority in the cities, rallied to the nationalist cause. A plebiscite was organized to legitimize the new nation but the residents of the newly occupied territory were not allowed to vote for their former leaders and the election was plagued with ballot box stuffing and voter intimidation. Whig historians like Trevelyan defended Piedmont’s aggression with allegations of papal state maladministration, despite denials from the British and French ambassadors in Rome. Cavour was famous for the slogan “a free church in a free state” but his anti-clerical policies failed to deliver the promised religious liberty. In his Syllabus of Errors (1864), Pope Pius IX’s reactionary condemnation of “progress, liberalism and modern civilization” was directed principally at Cavour. The illiberal liberalism of modern Italy’s first prime minister made fascism possible, argues Mack Smith, because it prevented English-style constitutional government from taking root.

Mack Smith’s scathing indictment of liberal Italy’s frequently authoritarian and repressive political classes and his fierce attacks on old anticommunist liberals like Benedetto Croce for perceived fascist sympathies made him a darling of the academic left and a villain of the nationalist Italian Right despite his stated desire to remain above partisan politics. Needless to say, Denis Mack Smith is not immune from criticism. His contentions about the origins and nature of Italian fascism have been challenged by some Italian historians. Modern Italy’s founding fathers were nationalists by definition but they were more liberal than fascist. However, even Gottfried acknowledges that there was a merging of traditions after the First World War. He records how Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), a prominent theorist of fascism, highlighted the movement’s “revolutionary and nationalist origins” when he “looked back to the democratic advocates of Italian unification in the nineteenth century…in finding progenitors for his movement.” Gottfried can reasonably argue that fascism was not an inevitable result of Italian unification but this does not mean that the fascist movement and state did not stress “nationalist and irredentist themes” or that it was “the opposite of liberal nationalism.” Indeed, he reports how Mussolini broke with the socialists during WWI over the need to secure “unredeemed lands” from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Some readers may not share Gottfried’s pessimism. For instance, at the time this book was written he could plausibly claim that President Trump “failed to rally a majority of the electorate.” If true, authentic conservatives might justifiably lament the nation’s future. But even Gottfried knows now—as evidenced from several damning cover stories in the October issue of Chronicles, a publication he edits—that “Trump should have beaten Biden hands down” if not for “glaring irregularities” and the machinations of deeply corrupt plutocrats who conspired to “ensure the defeat of Donald Trump.” Knowing how thoroughly compromised our political and cultural institutions are can instill paralysis in fair-minded citizens. On the other hand, knowing that Trump would have won handily if not for the greatest election “fortification” effort in U.S. history should be an occasion for hope—at least in the wisdom and groundedness of the American people. Antifascism does provide an unvarnished assessment of the threats posed to our civilization by the post-Marxist left. But it also provides plenty of intellectual firepower for patriots who refuse to let them prevail.

John M. Vella served as editor of Crisis magazine and managing editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review. He earned his master’s in history from Villanova in 2010.



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