Jacobin - June 1, 2020
"The thing you need to grasp about anti-fascism is that it is an idea, not an organization. In Britain after the Second World War, there wasn’t just one single group of anti-fascists: in addition to the Jewish ex-servicemen that I’ve been talking about, there were Communists, trade unionists, and countless others involved in the battle against Oswald Mosley. Some anti-fascists were in parties; most weren’t."
When the President of the United States says that he’ll be designating Antifa as a terrorist organization, a part of me thinks: well go on then, let’s see you try. Because this awful, foreign-sounding word “antifa” is only an abbreviation of “anti-fascist.” Organizations can be banned, but it isn’t so easy to do the same with ideas.
I’m a historian, and I’ve been writing about anti-fascism for twenty-five years. The first activists I interviewed were a generation of Jews who in 1946 and 1947 were shocked to see people marching through the streets of London wearing black shirts and swastikas and armed for a fight. This was Britain, not America, so the fascists’ weapons were iron knuckledusters, or potatoes with razors sticking out from them.
Probably the best-known former member of the Group was the hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. In Vidal: The Autobiography he describes working from a hairdressing salon next to Harrods during the week, while fighting fascism at his weekends.
Sassoon describes watching newsreels in the cinema, “the horror of the images coming out from Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen and seemingly so many other places: Never again became a command, not just a slogan.”
An Idea, not an Organization
The 43 Group were radicals in their hatred of fascism. But when I think back to my interviews with the member of the 43 Group, what really strikes me is how cautious they were in all the other aspects of the lives.
By their mid-sixties, these anti-fascists had copies of the Daily Telegraph (our equivalent of the Wall Street Journal) on their breakfast table. They lived in the city’s affluent districts, in North or West London, not the East End. In his later years, Sassoon donated money to the Boys Clubs of America, not to the DSA.
This wasn’t a case of some clichéd rightward move in middle age; rather, the 43 Group had always been a hodgepodge of different people with different politics, united only by their shared refusal to let fascism go unfought.
The thing you need to grasp about anti-fascism is that it is an idea, not an organization. In Britain after the Second World War, there wasn’t just one single group of anti-fascists: in addition to the Jewish ex-servicemen that I’ve been talking about, there were Communists, trade unionists, and countless others involved in the battle against Oswald Mosley. Some anti-fascists were in parties; most weren’t.
And the situation in today’s United States is more complex still: if you tried to draw up an organizational chart of all the different anti-fascist networks, any list would run into dozens of local networks. At one end you have well-funded intelligence gathering services (like the Southern Poverty Law Centre); at the other, you have informal networks of co-thinkers sharing plans only with trusted friends. Anti-fascists aren’t united by their loyalty to a leader or a group; what holds people together is the belief that something has going wrong in the United States.
The idea — that fascism poses a unique threat, and that it justifies act of physical resistance that would inappropriate if directed against other enemies — has been circulating among liberals and those further to the left for more than a hundred years. Even the members of the 43 Group were aware that they only stood at the midpoint of a much longer tradition.
Within weeks of Mussolini having captured power in Italy in October 1922, you can read opponents of fascism in Britain, in Germany, in the United States, and all over Europe asking themselves whether fascism could happen in their countries, too. Among the earliest people to warn of the threat posed by fascism outside Italy were Clara Zetkin, who had been the editor for decades of the German Socialist women’s newspaper Die Gleichheit, and a sponsor of the resolution which led to the establishment of International Women’s Day. (Yes, the founder of IWD was an anti-fascist). ...
Read full report at Jacobin