Summary: No movement on the American Left except maybe Black Lives Matter has captured the attention of media and the general populace in recent months quite like Antifa. Antifa is a very loosely organized and decentralized radical left movement characterized by its aggressive and directly confrontational opposition to what it considers to be fascism, coupled with its embrace of radical left anarchist and/or communist ideologies. For those of us who rather like our traditions of capitalist liberal democracy with all its flaws, understanding Antifa is critical.
No movement on the American Left—save perhaps for Black Lives Matter—has captured the attention of media and the general populace in recent months quite like Antifa. But Antifa is poorly understood. What exactly is it? Where did it come from? What does it want? And who supports it?
These questions do not have simple and straightforward answers. This is further complicated by the large amount of misinformation floating around regarding Antifa and the extent of its activities. But that does not mean there are no answers at all. A number of authors have conducted in-depth research on Antifa in the past few years. Relying on their writings and combining them with other publicly available information, it becomes possible to provide a measure of clarity for those seeking to understand this highly opaque and amorphous movement.
What Is Antifa?
Antifa (a contraction of the term “anti-fascist”) is a very loosely organized and decentralized radical left movement characterized by its aggressive and directly confrontational opposition to what it considers to be fascism, coupled with its embrace of radical left anarchist and/or communist ideologies.
In his recent book Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy, journalist Andy Ngo defines Antifa as “an ideology and movement of radical pan-leftist politics whose adherents are mainly militant anarchist communists or collectivist anarchists. . . . What unites this group of leftists is its opposition to so-called fascism, though importantly, what is defined as fascism is left wide open.” Historian Mark Bray gives a broadly similar definition of “anti-fascism” in Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. To him, it is “an illiberal politics of social revolutionism applied to fighting the Far Right, not only literal fascists.”
Contemporary American Antifa is probably best thought of as a movement or ideology, rather than an organization. This presents a descriptive and definitional problem right from the start because many may broadly identify with Antifa beliefs and practices without necessarily being affiliated with any actual Antifa group. Bray has opined, “The radical left is much bigger than antifa—much, much bigger.” Who then qualifies as being part of Antifa? It is impossible to put a precise number on Antifa membership, and describing any putative far-left protester or rioter as “Antifa” would broaden that term beyond a point where it would have any useful meaning.
There are Antifa organizations, however, and they represent the most logical place to focus any inquiry. Such groups often explicitly self-identify as Antifa, but observers have also described them as such, noting obvious defining characteristics. Antifa groups typically operate locally. For example, Rose City Antifa—the oldest and arguably most prominent extant Antifa group in the United States—is active in Portland, Oregon, while Atlanta Antifascists operates in that metropolitan area. As far as anyone knows, these groups are not organized hierarchically, and there is no individual “leader” of Antifa.
Although essentially autonomous, some Antifa groups have a degree of affiliation that goes beyond simply a shared ideology. According to writer Mark Hemingway, “the closest thing to an antifa organization” is the Torch Network. It claims 10 member chapters on its website, including some of the more nationally well-known Antifa groups. Although Torch Network members “work together to confront fascism and oppression,” there is not much in the way of oversight or control. Indeed, chapters “may call themselves whatever they want, and can organize the best way they see fit.” The extent of collaboration between Torch Network members has been described by one member chapter as “occasionally exchang[ing] information and advice.”
Antifa exists primarily to oppose “fascism.” Rose City Antifa breaks down its activities into three broad categories: direct action, education, and solidarity. Direct action, no doubt, garners it the most notoriety. Andy Ngo writes, “‘Direct action’ is a dog whistle for protest activity that includes violence,” though Rose City Antifa euphemistically describes it as work that “prevents fascist organizing, and when that is not possible, provides consequences to fascist organizers.” Ngo himself was physically attacked in 2019 during a Portland protest and has sued Rose City Antifa for their alleged role in that attack.
That said, most of Antifa’s activities are not physically violent. Bray writes, “In truth, violence represents a small though vital sliver of anti-fascist activity.” Antifa is heavily engaged in doxxing: publicly exposing the private information of those whom they oppose, with the goal of shaming them or otherwise bringing about negative consequences. This involves substantial time spent on research—one Rose City Antifa member estimated it at “about a hundred hours per week.”
Antifa is also quick to align itself with, and provide support to, other groups that share its objective of “a classless society, free from all forms of oppression.” This is the “solidarity” prong from Rose City Antifa’s three-part breakdown. Antifa is often closely associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, but the true relationship between the two is considerably murkier.
Similarly to “Antifa,” the term “Black Lives Matter” can refer to anything from an individual’s personal beliefs to a broader movement rooted in those beliefs to any number of distinct organizations that operate within that movement. Unlike Antifa, within Black Lives Matter can be found political ideologies that range from essentially the mainstream liberal left all the way to the deeply radical far-left. Antifa, by contrast, is a radical far-left movement by definition. Also unlike Antifa, many of those who associate themselves with Black Lives Matter do so with peaceful and reformative (as opposed to revolutionary) intent.
Therefore, it’s probably best to conceptualize Black Lives Matter as referring to a spectrum, with only the more radical portion of that spectrum overlapping with Antifa. Precious few Americans who placed a Black Lives Matter sign in their front yard in 2020 would have done the same thing with an Antifa sign. And many Black Lives Matter-connected leaders have condemned Antifa and its associated violence. The president of the Portland NAACP called that city’s riots a “white spectacle” and asked what “antifa and other leftist agitators [are] achieving for the cause of black equality?” Numerous others have expressed concern that militant leftist violence in the name of Black Lives Matter significantly undermines the movement.
In the places and among the people where Antifa and Black Lives Matter do overlap, however, they can be more or less indistinguishable. Antifa-associated individuals and groups frequently use the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in protests and in other contexts. The Movement for Black Lives—one of the primary national Black Lives Matter organizations—espouses anti-capitalist and anti-institutional principles that aren’t terribly far removed from what one might find expressed by an Antifa group.
Andy Ngo argues in Unmasked that at least in Portland and Seattle, Antifa and Black Lives Matter “are one and the same, with the same people showing up to each other’s events.” This appears to be corroborated by the statements of a pseudonymous Rose City Antifa member, who admitted in the New Yorker that, while the group has no role in organizing Black Lives Matter protests, “we are fully supportive, and many of us attend as individuals.”
This brings up the topic of Antifa demographics. Although there is no official census, a few generalizations can be pointed out. Antifa is usually described as being predominately white—one exasperated Black Lives Matter protester reportedly characterized Portland’s militant antifacist culture as “violent and white.” Mark Hemingway noted the same ethnic preponderance, and arrest records and other public information indicate that many Antifa “are itinerant or marginally employed.” Andy Ngo’s research led him to a similar conclusion: Those arrested at leftist riots “are disproportionately individuals dealing with housing insecurity, financial instability, and mental health issues.”
In the next installment, examine Antifa’s ideological origins.