Antifa as Political Antibodies

Antifa as Political Antibodies
Credit: New York Times documentary

John Ganz and the Know Your Enemy podcast have discussions of the legacy of the January 6 putsch that are worth checking out. A good background for the discussion is this New York Times video that I've screenshotted above.

Ganz, who knows French history a lot better than I do, talks about the historical debate over how vulnerable France was to fascist movements in the 1930s, given that it suffered a riot/putsch/quasi-coup from far-right groups on February 6, 1934 that was facially quite similar to what happened on January 6:

Although there was a dramatic response at the time to Feb 6 1934, the attitude of later French historians towards the event sounds an awful lot like contemporary takes on the lack of importance of Jan 6 2021 or it not having a specifically fascist character. The historian of the French right Rene Rémond wrote of Feb 6 that it was “not a putsch, barely a riot, just a street demonstration which history would have forgotten and which would soon have disappeared from collective memory if it had not taken a tragic turn.” This is related to what has been called the “immunity thesis,” that France’s longstanding democratic culture made it particularly resistant to fascism. Things that appear to be fascist or at least fascist-adjacent, like Vichy, in fact were not: Rémond characterized Vichy, because of its conservatism, as “the very opposite of fascism.” The disagreements are profound and radical. While some historians insist that fascism was a minor and alien force in French politics, others, like Ze’ev Sternhell, contend that fascism, with it synthesis of left and right themes, was essentially the invention of French political culture and intellectuals, and can be found in essence even before the First World War.

So on the one side you have those arguing that France was definitely vulnerable to a fascist takeover, if not some kind of co-incubator of fascism, while on the other a skeptical school of thought that thinks that's ridiculous hyperbole. But strikes me that it is possible to make a synthesis here. As Ganz explains, the 1934 riots caused a massive backlash among French leftists: "Convinced a fascist takeover a la Germany or Italy was in the offing, the Left swung into furious action." February 6 may have been "barely a street demonstration" as Rémond (and apparently other historians) scoff, but this is not terribly reassuring. The Nazi movement got going in 1923 with a completely idiotic and impossible attempt to seize power that failed spectacularly, and neither Hitler nor Mussolini ever went farther than that – they were handed power by conservative elites.

If this theory is right, any society is vulnerable to some kind of far-right takeover if their conservative faction is sufficiently extreme, deluded, or politically diseased, and the broad left faction is too weak or divided to fight back (witness the fight between the KPD and the SPD). Thus France had "immunity" to fascism because it had anti-fascist antibodies in the form of a broad communist-socialist-liberal coalition in favor of democracy that reacted to February 6 with frenzied organizing. Ganz again: "The entire labor movement and Left then rallied to the CGT strike on the 12th and the Socialist and Communist parties marched together in Paris, with Blum appearing publicly with the leadership of the Communist party. With this, the first steps towards the Popular Front were taken." (No doubt this process was much facilitated by the example of what Hitler did to the German communists and social democrats, namely kill or imprison them en masse.)

Franklin Roosevelt had a similar instinct about the United States in the 1930s, though not inspired by a riot so much as manifest social breakdown (and perhaps an assassination attempt that nearly succeeded). Eric Rauchway from his book Winter War:

[FDR] thought that, in that winter of 1933, a great deal depended on his success in providing relief to troubled workers—perhaps as much as the fate of the nation, or even of civilization. Not three weeks before, Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany by rallying citizens to a violent, racist vision of national greatness, and Roosevelt worried that a similar movement could arise in the United States if Americans did not find reason to renew their trust in the institutions that governed them. Too many of them could neither afford a decent life nor find a job. They went hungry while crops rotted unharvested in the fields. They knew something had gone badly wrong somehow. They knew also that Roosevelt had promised a program of relief. He had given them hope, which he understood was a dangerous thing, telling an aide that “disappointed hope” caused destructive revolutions.

It is said that history is best written long after the fact, so as to account for passions of the moment to cool. But it also seems fair to me to rate the instincts of politicians and political factions who were there on the ground facing down the fascist threat in the 1930s and 40s pretty highly. After all they were correct about what fascism meant, and they did in fact help defeat it eventually. Very few people alive today have experienced anything like that.

Whatever position one takes on the question of how alarmed people should be about January 6, or whether Trump is a fascist, it seems to me that a large chunk of the American political spectrum is badly underrating the danger of under-reacting. Prominent leftist commentators have spent months seizing on any scrap of evidence to downplay the events or quibbling about definitions, while the much more numerous liberals are helplessly invested in legal-constitutional mechanisms that the far right has already largely subverted. Consider the balance of risk: if there turns out to be no real danger, defending democracy with all possible effort will prove to be at worst a waste of time and resources. But if the danger turns out to be real, then all this time squabbling about academic jargon and/or pinning our hopes on Joe Biden is going to look real dumb.

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