Book Report: American Antifa

There are a few academic explorations of modern antifascism. Stanislav Vysotsky’s American Antifa explores the movement with an ethnographic lens, making for a dense but informative read.

For all of the attention and hatred that the contemporary antifascist movement has received in the last few years, there’s shockingly little by way of academic treatment of the movement. The few texts that exist, among them Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook and the more recent anthology by Shane Burley, ¡No Pasarán!, of which I am a contributor, are often written by movement insiders, or at least those sympathetic to it. This is not a surprise. Antifascists are rarely the most talkative or approachable types, and a stern distrust of the media, the government, and the institution in general don’t exactly make antifascists cooperative research subjects. The same is true for Stanislav Vysotsky’s American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifacsism.

Like others, Vysotsky makes no attempts to hide his affinity for the movement, nor even his former participation in the movement. He terms the work an “autoethnography,” and argues from a feminist perspective that restricting the study of movements only to those outside the movement fails to achieve the objectivity it claims. Instead, Vysotsky takes on an “ethical danger” in his analysis, knowing full well that his work may expose him to legal, physical, or reputational risk. American Antifa therefore must be read and judged as an insider’s perspective, with the full understanding that some of the analyses contained therein can only come from an insider’s perspective. You, the reader of this post, must be aware of my own antifascist organizing, and so I review the book as an insider would. While the text explores the antifascist movement in light of its methods, means, and goals, it is not a critical text.

Vysotsky begins by introducing familiar concepts with academic language. He refers to the cornucopia of modern fascist movements as New Social Movements, or NSMs, an acronym I find rather inconvenient, as NSM also refers to the modern-day National Socialist Movement. Within this framing, he presents antifascism as a countermovement to these neo-fascist groups. Unlike other modern forms of protest activism in the West today, antifascism doesn’t position itself per se against a corporation, policy, or government, but rather emerges as a counterbalance to the rise of fascist organizing.

This is a critical difference, and one that I think should be more strongly understood. I recently spoke on a podcast about how antifascists can protest the hateful politics growing in some states in the US. “You don’t really want to go punch Ron DeSantis on the street,” I mentioned, referring to a common way that militant antifascism emerges to counter fascist organizing. “You could, but it would go way, way worse for you than if you did that to a neo-Nazi.” Similarly, other activist groups, such as climate protesters, generally abstain from violence. As it turns out, militant antifascism’s willingness to use violence is related to its orientation against fascist organizing. Vysotsky explores how the composition of antifascist groups differs from fascists, from racial and gender dynamics, to their apathy towards public opinion.

Yet despite this, the willingness to use violence is still a seldom-used tactic among antifascists, and the third chapter of the book explores the repertoire that antifascist activists use to counter fascist recruitment and harm. This ranges from public education, to doxing, and to intelligence gathering, among others. Each of these segments could merit a chapter (or volume) in its own right, but Vysotsky stays at the surface level, dedicating never more than a few pages to each.

It was well worth it, however, to save focus for what I found the most interesting chapter of the book, which is the analysis of antifascist culture. Vysotsky explores what Travis Linnemann refers to as “proof of death” and “proof of life.” Proof of death are the trophy shots antifascists share, the images of a neo-Nazi getting clock in the nose, the lamentable Twitter post admitting defeat, or the video of a “Crying Nazi” sobbing over his impending arrest and imprisonment. I, of course, took great pleasure seeing Vysotsky reference this in his book. By contrast, proof of life is the evidence of antifascists thriving in the face of adversity, showing resilience and an unwillingness to give in even when all seems lost. I’ve wrote in ¡No Pasarán! that antifascism is fundamentally a politics of hope, and this, too, is a lesson that is well-received in a troubling time in American history.

Hamburg antifascists hold a banner in solidarity with Charlottesville.

American Antifa gets a little deeper in its penultimate chapter, “The anarchy police (revisited),” which explores antifascism as a form of community-oriented policing. Indeed, much of the work that antifascists have done is an ersatz for an incompetent and hostile official police institution; antifascists organize to handle fascists threats without the use of the state, but these actions are, Vysotsky argues are policing actions. Intelligence gathering, surveillance, and physical confrontation are things that normally in the remit of the state monopoly on violence. The text explores the ramifications of this, not least of which is the resulting criminalization of antifascism as a movement, an ideology, and a praxis.

I mentioned earlier that American Antifa is not a critical text, and while I don’t find this to be an omission, I still hunger for a more reflective, retrospective antifascist politick. There’s no secret to the arguments I’ve had with other antifascists, but independent of this I find the lack of retrospective, the lack of inclusivity, and the parochial and patriarchal nature of the current movement to be a weakness. Vysotsky has written a dense but informative academic introduction to the subject, but steers away from too deep of an analysis of any given topic. The book aims for breadth, not depth.

I found myself learning from the text, from its detailed history to its cerebral treatment of things that I’ve taken for granted. It’s a worthwhile read for any antifascist, and moreso for those outside the movement wanting to know more. It’s a thin text, but the writing is dense and the font is small. It’s nicely broken up into bite-sized sections, but like most academic prose it will tire you if you try to read it all in a sitting. That’s ok. You can come back to it. I know I will, time and again.

American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism
Stanislav Vysotsky
Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right, 2021
ISBN 9780367210601

Posted: 24.04.2023

Built: 01.12.2023

Updated: 24.04.2023

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Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes