The Politics of Cultural Despair

Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair is a study that attempts to understand Nazism as a product of Germany’s unique cultural and intellectual atmosphere in the decades before the rise of Hitler. It was originally written as a doctoral dissertation (later to be published as a book in 1961), and focuses on three key intellectual figures who influenced the development of Germanic ideology: Julius Langbehn, Paul de Lagarde, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. These three figures were social critics, diagnosing the decline of culture and presenting themselves as prophets of a new German spiritual rebirth.   In the Introduction, Stern describes his book as “a study in the pathology of cultural criticism” (p. 1), suggesting that these prophets of doom were simultaneously symptoms of their times as well as dangerous, pathological causes of Germany’s ill-fated drift toward Nazism.

Stern’s book is an engrossing analysis of the lives and works of a group of rather obscure thinkers whose ideas, in less odious form, also appear in the writings of other more well respected German authors; writers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler. But whereas Nietzsche saw the advent of cultural nihilism as something that each individual human being must live through and learn from, and whereas Spengler foresaw the decline of Western culture as an irreversible inevitability, Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller sought to offer a means of collective rescue; a strategy by which they could recover the spiritual heritage of their nation and thus reinvigorate German mass culture. In this way, they were, despite their shared prophesies of doom, optimists about the possibility of cultural renewal.

Stern uses the phrase “conservative revolution” to characterize the utopian strategies of these three figures. On the face of it, this might sound oxymoronic. After all, a conservative seeks, by definition, to “conserve” rather than to “revolt” against the status-quo. But in the case of Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller, their conservatism had nothing to do with defending the existing state of affairs, but with the defense of an idealized past, an “ancient tradition” (p. 1) before the dawn of modernity. In this ancient past, the German people were united by a religious bond of blood under a strong national leader. It was a time before the emergence of liberalism, capitalism, parliamentary democracy and the death of God. It was, however, a time that never really existed at all. These “conservative revolutionaries” were antiquarians, and their goal was to reestablish an imaginary past as a concrete reality in the present.

For Paul de Lagarde, this was to be accomplished with the founding of a new Germanic religion. This new faith was to be based on an interpretation of Christianity stripped of its supposed false dogmas while reasserting its true, original inspiration. Lagarde attacked and criticized the Jewish, Greek and Roman influences on Christianity, advocating the “liberation” of the Gospels from this background, which he claimed glorified Jesus’ death rather than his life. Instead, the true, original spirit of Jesus needed to be resuscitated. According to Lagarde, Jesus was primarily a rebel against the traditions and doctrines of Judaism, not the messiah foretold in the Old Testament or the supernatural “son of God” described by Paul. In line with this, a new Christianity should be focused on this world, becoming fused with the concrete characteristics and needs of the German people, thus creating a faith that would give meaning and purpose to the German state. It would “become the spiritual basis for a new state, for a new hierarchical community that would accept the teleological belief that God had placed men at different stations in life for different purposes” (p. 80).

For Julius Langbehn, the solution to Germany’s spiritual crisis was to be found not in religion (although at the end of his life he did convert to Catholicism), but in art. In his most well known and influential book, Rembrandt as Educator, he offers Rembrandt as “the personification of a cultural ideal” (p. 154) that could rescue Germany from its cultural decline. In the figure of this artist, Langbehn found the antithesis of the modern German. According to him, Rembrandt embodied all of the qualities needed in order for Germany to heal its wounds and rediscover its spiritual strength: sensitivity to the mysteries of Being, an awareness of the contradictions inherent in human life, fierce individualism, spontaneity, willfulness, and Volksthümlichkeit, the characteristic of “belonging to, expressing, yet transcending his people and its traditions” (p. 158). His overall solution to Germany’s cultural crisis was to rebel against the Modern drift toward reason and to return to a primal, tribal form of community using the artist as a spiritual guide.

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, like Langbehn, was an esthete who also looked to the artist as his hero. According to Moeller, Germany’s crisis was due to a forgetfulness of its primal spirit, and he believed this condition could be corrected by the propagation of a new breed of great, artistic men who would lead the nation toward a utopian future. As an admirer of Dostoyevski, he hoped to revivify the German spirit in the same way that he thought the Russian author had revivified his own country’s spirit. The rescue of Germany required the recognition that the Germans were in their essence, like the Russians, a “young” people, opposed to the “old” people of Britain and the US, and thus that the future belonged to them. Fate, therefore, dictated that Germany must expand its territory and accomplish the “domination of Europe” (p 253). In 1922, he published his most well known book, The Third Reich, which marked “the culmination of Moeller’s thought” as well as “the culmination of the Germanic ideology” (p. 311). In this book, he pronounced the need for a revolution that turned against the previous generation’s embrace of liberalism and modernity. German unity was to be reestablished in a nationalist form of socialism that would eliminate class struggle and reintegrate the workers with the goals of the nation as a whole in an organic, corporatist, hierarchical society.

Though not themselves Nazis, the dark sentiments and the proposed solutions advocated by these three authors were later integrated into the National Socialist platform. Their ideas proved popular because, like many Germans, they felt alienated from the world they inhabited, seeing it as a place where the old values and ways of life were withering away, producing an atmosphere of nihilism, anxiety, and increasing secularism. Populations caught in the grips of these kinds of feelings are prone to looking for saviors who promise a rescue; someone who understands the mood of alienation and who points the way back home. Stern observes that Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller were all “simultaneously proud and resentful of their alienation” (p. 327). On the one hand they proudly trumpeted their own uniqueness as “outsiders,” while on the other they aspired to transform the sick, decaying society around them into a place where they would no longer be outsiders. In so doing, they successfully channeled the mindset of a significant portion of the pre-World War II German population.  Yet the utopia imagined by these “prophets” never did, and never really could, exist. Writing in 1961, Stern points out that these men comprise a “cultural type” that has made an “appearance in all Western countries” (p. 328). In fact, they never go away because the problems they see in the world never go away. Reading about them now, from the perspective of a citizen of the United States during the 21st Century, it is clear their type still exists here, in our own land, and that they are still, tediously, proposing the sorts of “solutions” that they always have.

I think the most fundamental problem with this type of intellectual (both then and now) rests not in their pessimism or their prophesies of doom, but rather in their optimistic and arrogant conviction that they know best how to fix the world once and for all. Doom, of a sort, is inevitable (as Spengler suggests) precisely because the world changes. The old ways of life are under constant attack from the new, and for those who feel as if their own values have been pushed aside and undermined by newly emerging cultural forces, it can feel as if everything is coming to an end. And in a way, it is. Nothing stays the same, we can’t stop the forward motion of time, and we all are going to die. These are painful facts that are difficult to come to terms with, and I sympathize with those who are troubled by them.

But I don’t sympathize with arrogance. Socrates taught us that the highest wisdom consists in knowing that you don’t know everything, and this is a lesson that “conservative revolutionaries” (and utopians of all types, both on the right and the left) either never learned or have forgotten. In their conceit, this type never seems satisfied with just expressing their fear, sadness and mournfulness for a lost past. Instead, they optimistically try to put their ideas into action, making “the leap from cultural criticism to politics” (p. 327). In this, they hope to change the world for the better, but ironically, again and again, they seem to end up making the world worse than it was before.

I once told my wife that the shoddiest kinds of politicians are also artists. Artists are used to molding various raw materials, according to their own will, into a unique vision of aesthetic perfection. When this mentality is translated into political action, it easily becomes oppressive, totalitarian and unhinged from reality. Contrary to Langbehn and Moeller, I think artists are very poor models for political leaders.

Business people are probably even worse.



Cinematic Nihilism now on Edinburgh Scholarship Online

My book, Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings, is now available on Edinburgh Scholarship Online.

Edinburgh Scholarship Online is partnered with University Press Scholarship Online, which offers full-text online access to over 27,000 titles in 31 subject areas.

The Fear of Nothingness in the West

I’ve started work on a paper, “The Fear of Nothingness in the West,” that will be part of a forthcoming collection titled Monograph on Zero. This monograph is part of an ongoing project by the ZerOrigIndia Foundation, which seeks to understand the historical origins of the concept of zero.

My contribution is intended as a contrast to other papers in the collection that focus on the Eastern origins of zero. Why is it that the concept of zero did not emerge – and in fact was resisted – in the West? Perhaps it has to do with the assumptions embedded in the thoughts of the first Western philosophers: the Presocratics.

Abstract: The Fear of Nothingness in the West, by John Marmysz

The fear of nothingness has deep roots in the West. Whereas Eastern “emptiness” is commonly associated with spiritual peace and creative potential, in the West, nothingness is more commonly associated with complete nonexistence, oblivion and the extinction of all value and meaning. In this regard, Westerners have traditionally conceived of nothingness as a dreadful and terrifying lack; something to be overcome and defeated rather than something to be embraced.

The roots of the Western fear of nothingness can be traced at least as far back as the Presocratics and their philosophical efforts to conceptualize an eternal, immutable, uncreated and stable substance out of which all things emerge. Despite the varied and ephemeral nature of the world’s appearances, the Presocratics suggested that there remains something stable, permanent and dependable underneath it all. Whether it be Thales’ claim that “all is water,” Anaximander’s claim that the universe arises from “Apeiron,” or Democritus’ assertion that everything comes from atoms, the strategy pursued by these ancient Greek thinkers served to offer the comfortable assurance that our cosmos has a steady and knowable foundation. The universe ultimately rests on one “thing” rather than on nothing at all.

In setting this precedent, the Presocratics influenced later Western philosophers, whose concerns concentrated on establishing fixed and substantial foundations for the world, while also repudiating systems of thought emphasizing the primacy of nothingness. Such systems came to be criticized as “nihilistic”; a moniker intended to highlight negativity and meaninglessness. It is only in recent times that Western thinkers have started to reassess this appraisal, coming to find something life-affirming in nihilism and in the experience of nothingness itself.

This paper examines nihilism and the fear of nothingness in Western philosophy, from its origins in Presocratic philosophy, to its reassessment in contemporary Western thought.

The Affirmation of Life

Bernard Reginster’s book The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism is an ambitious and thorough work. It proposes an interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy that emphasizes its orderly and logical structure, portryaing it as a consistent and coherent system offering a solution to the problem of nihilism and a strategy for the affirmation of life. Both in its purpose and tone, Reginster’s book reminds me of other works that approach continental thinkers and themes from a self-consciously analytic perspective; books such as David E. Cooper’s Existentialism, Antoine Panaïoti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy, and James Tartaglia’s Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. The Affirmation of Life sits alongside these other efforts as a well-argued attempt to bring some order to what can sometimes seem like a very disorderly and unruly topic.

Reginster points out in the introduction to The Affirmation of Life that interpreters of Nietzsche generally fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are those who approach his writings piecemeal, taking his aphoristic style as evidence that Nietzsche never meant readers to think systematically about his work, but rather to read his books as a kind of poetry that plays with recurring themes, observations and insights. Like the musings of a insightful but scattered mind, this approach treats Nietzsche’s books as compendiums of ideas and thoughts lacking system or method. Nietzsche does encourage this sort of reading at times; for instance in Twilight of the Idols writing, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (I 26)

On the other hand, there are those who approach Nietzsche more “globally,” focusing on a theme or doctrine that is taken as playing a unifying role in his overarching philosophical system. In this approach, the variety of ideas appearing throughout Nietzsche’s books are taken as logically connected parts that hang together with regularity and order. In these sorts of interpretations, one particular doctrine is generally thought to be the key to unlocking the real meaning of Nietzschean philosophy; whether it be the revaluation of values, the Superman, the eternal return, or the will to power. For these kinds of interpreters, Nietzsche’s writing style and his periodic denunciations of systematic thinking are distractions from the actual, underlying structure of his thinking process, which can be reconstructed by looking at the overall trajectory of his life work. If you do this, so it is claimed, one will discover that Nietzsche was concerned with thinking through some particular sort of problem in an orderly and deliberate manner.

Reginster’s reading of Nietzsche is aligned with the latter approach. However, unlike past interpreters he tells us that it is not a particular doctrine that lies at the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but a “particular problem or crisis.” (p. 4) This problem is the “crisis of nihilism,” which, in its most general sense, is “the belief that existence is meaningless.” (p. 21) Nihilism is marked by the distressing loss of confidence in goals and ideals that once gave human life meaning and purpose. Nietzsche’s writings are mostly concerned with nihilism as a European crisis; a problem that emerges in modern times with the increasing erosion of Judeo-Christian beliefs. This devaluation of traditional beliefs is a problem since, as of yet, nothing has emerged to take their place, and thus meaninglessness and lack of purpose threaten to infect European culture. According to Reginster, Nietzsche’s entire philosophical project is an attempt to address this threat and to offer a replacement for these lost values.

Reginster identifies two variants of nihilism. The first variant emerges from the devaluation of goals that at one time actually did give life meaning and purpose. The second variant is rooted in the conviction that any goals that could give life meaning and purpose are in fact unrealizable. In the first instance, nihilism emerges along with the realization that the things we once valued – our highest aspirations – are now things that have lost their value for us. So, for instance, a person might at one point in time value the aspiration toward being rich, but then at some later point in life come to the realization that money-making is not really all that important, and thus that the life he or she currently lives has become meaningless. The second kind of nihilism has less to do with the content of particular goals themselves, but with their realizability or attainability. So, for instance, a person might continue to aspire toward, and value, becoming rich, but come to realize that it is, in fact, impossible to actually achieve riches. The goal is not realizable even though it continues to be desired, and so, once again, life becomes meaningless.

Reginster argues that for Nietzsche, in order for life to be meaningful, our goals must both be valuable and realizable. To avoid nihilism, then, the purposes and projects we embrace must have the possibility of actually being accomplished. Otherwise, we will either become disoriented or fall into despair. Nihilistic disorientation is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are no longer valuable, while nihilistic despair is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are  unobtainable because they are not objectively real, but rather illusory projections of the human mind.

Nietzsche’s own conception of nihilism, Reginster claims, is ambiguous in the sense that his writings equivocate between addressing nihilism as disorientation and addressing nihilism as despair. The problem is that these two senses of nihilism actually seem to conflict with one another, since if one no longer values a goal, then its unattainability would not be a source of distress, and, on the other hand, if a goal can’t be realized, then by its very nature it becomes drained of value. In other words, if one is a disoriented nihilist, then there is no reason for one to also be a despairing nihilist, and vice versa. If you don’t value riches, for instance, then you won’t even care that they can’t be achieved. And, if you know that you can’t be rich, then the desirability of aspiring toward riches will vanish. Reginster argues that most interpreters underemphasize the ambiguity in Nietzsche’s understanding of nihilism, but that nonetheless it is key to understanding his strategy for affirming life and overcoming both despair and disorientation.

The crux of Nietzsche’s strategy is, first, to reveal the groundlessness of traditional values and, second, to introduce a new highest standard of attainable values based on the will to power. So, the overcoming of nihilism proceeds in stages. The first stage involves revealing that the highest values currently driving western culture to nihilistic despair  – Judeo-Christian values –  lack objective standing. Since they are not objectively “real,” Judeo-Christian values are illusions that are “life-negating” in the sense that they encourage us to pursue goals that are unattainable (such as everlasting life in heaven). Revealing the inherent unrealizability of the values implied by this belief system undermines their value, and so this first stage of Nietzsche’s strategy liberates us from Juedo-Christian nihilism as despair. By revealing the illusory, and thus unattainable, nature of things like God and heaven, their desirability as aspirational goals vanishes. However, the elimination of these traditional values in turn provokes nihilistic disorientation. With the death of God, a void is left in place of the highest (unattainable) values, and the entire moral order that was implied by God’s existence collapses. We are robbed of our highest (unattainable) goals and aspirations, and life becomes, once again, meaningless insofar as there is no organizing center, no ultimate guiding purpose to life. Nihilism as disorientation is thus introduced.

The second stage in Nietzsche’s strategy is to offer a revaluation, showing that “life-negating values are not the highest values.” (p. 50) He does this, according to Reginster, by proposing the will to power as a replacement for the highest “principle” or ethical “standard” (p. 148). What this accomplishes is to introduce a this-worldly, attainable standard of value, as opposed to the other-worldly, unattainable standard advocated in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The main barrier in the way of advocating this new standard, however, is “the problem of suffering” (p. 159). Influenced by his reading of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche regards this problem as the issue uniting all western (and some non-western) moral systems. Whether it is Christianity, Buddhism, Utilitarianism, or Eudaimonism, the condemnation of suffering seems universal. But if, as all of these systems claim, suffering is an evil that to some degree will always remains a part of our life in this world, then the goal of eliminating suffering is itself nihilistic, since it involves the pursuit of something that can never be actually and fully realized in the here-and-now. All of those moral systems advocating the end of suffering are, thus, life-negating insofar as they promote the nihilism of despair.

The conclusion Nietzsche thus reaches is that any non-nihilisitic value system must embrace the inevitability of suffering, and he advocates the will to power as his solution. The doctrine of the will to power holds that the highest good is power itself, and power just is the “overcoming of resistance” (p. 177). Power is only manifested (as Schopenhauer had already suggested) in the course of its practical, concrete exercise. It is not a “thing,” but rather a process or “activity” (p. 196) that occurs when two forces encounter one another and clash. There is, in this sense, no such thing as potential, unexpressed power; only power actually manifested in the course of active expression. Power becomes manifest only when there is some obstacle to be overcome. Furthermore, any obstacle we encounter must offer some degree of opposition to our efforts. But opposition to our will is also what makes for difficulty, struggle and suffering in life.  With resistance, thus, there is always pain and suffering, but without it, there is no possibility for the exercise of will power and the sort of overcoming that makes us feel happy and joyful in our accomplishments. It follows, then, that if we are to value power as our highest value, then we must also value suffering.

By elevating the will to power to the highest of all values, Nietzsche accomplishes a revaluation that he believes satisfies both of the conditions for a meaningful life. First, since power just is the overcoming of obstacles, and since all humans value this sort of overcoming (regardless of the nature of the particular obstacle that they overcome), the will to power represents a goal that is intrinsically valuable. Thus it overcomes nihilism as disorientation. Second, since power is always concretely expressed in this world, it is, by its very nature, something attainable (in varying degrees) in the here-and-now. It is not an illusory, unrealizable goal. This overcomes nihilism as despair.

The last two chapters of Reginster’s book address Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence and his advocacy of Dionysian wisdom, suggesting that both are integral to the preceding interpretation. Just as the will to power offers an alternative to the belief in God, the eternal recurrence offers an alternative to the Christian ideal of eternal life in heaven. It is an attempt to conceptualize life as active, never ending becoming rather than as a static state of passive being. In this way it encourages us to embrace impermanence, which is at the very heart of the idea of will to power as a process. Finally, with the mythic figure of Dionysus, we find another alternative to Christian ideals. In Christianity, it is the beaten and battered Christ, and his condemnation of suffering, that inspires admiration, while the god Dionysus, on the other hand, represents the life-affirming celebration of destruction, suffering, and change as parts of the creative cycle of nature itself. In these ways, Reginster suggests, both Dionysus and the eternal recurrence are something like Nietzschean myths, offered as alternatives to the traditional Christian myths of God, Christ and heaven. For readers who embrace his revaluation in terms of the will to power, they represent life-affirming, non-nihilistic guidelines for how to live life in the here and now.

There is much more argumentative detail in The Affirmation of Life than I have summarized here. Reginster goes to meticulous lengths in building his own position, remaining very diligent in his reconstruction of competing interpretations of the material, and providing plausible counterarguments for why his own reading of Nietzsche is especially consistent and complete. It was a pleasure to follow along with the author’s thinking process, which exhibits an unusual amount of analytic skill and care for the material. My only criticisms of the book have to do with the lack of a concluding chapter and Reginster’s omission of any serious engagement with Heidegger’s major work on Nietzsche.

Given that the arguments in The Affirmation of Life are so intensely detailed and interlocking, it would have been nice if there was final summation of the book’s overall argumentative trajectory. As it is, the book ends rather abruptly, with a short but incomplete two page conclusion tacked on to the last chapter on Dionysian wisdom. I did a lot of underlining as I read through the book for a second time, and once I got to the end of its 268 pages, I had to go back through and reconstruct the overall argument for myself. I hope I got it all right. In any case, it would be helpful if, upon reaching the end of the work the author’s own summation was provided so that a reader like myself could be reassured that he got all of the pieces in the proper order.

The omission of Heidegger is a complaint only because it struck me, once I had finished the book, that there are aspects of his four volume work on Nietzsche that are directly relevant to Reginster’s interpretation. Heidegger, like Reginster, attempts to demonstrate that Nietzsche’s various doctrines – the will to power, the eternal recurrence, and nihilism – all play integral roles in a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. He also claims that the will to power is central to the revaluation of values and that the eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s way of attempting to think Being as a process of becoming. One of the major – and I think very interesting – differences is Heidegger’s claim that nihilism is not something that can legitimately be “overcome,” since instead of a problem or crisis, nihilism is actually an aspect of Being itself. I am curious as to how Reginster would respond to this Heideggerian reading of Nietzsche.

In any case, I highly recommend Bernard Reginster’s The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism to those readers who have a serious interest in Nietzsche, nihilism and who appreciate detailed, scholarly and meticulous argumentation. This is not a book that can be read through quickly or superficially. It is one that requires patience, time and focused attention. It is a difficult book in these ways, but as Reginster himself suggests, difficulty goes along with the overcoming of obstacles, which in turn makes us happy in the expression of our will to power!


Good Price on Cinematic Nihilism

In case anyone is interested, Amazon is selling brand new hardcover editions of Cinematic Nihilism for $34; a huge discount off of the original publisher’s price, which is $110. This is a much better bargain than my own author discount.

Purchase is limited to one book per customer.


A statue of George Washington, leaning on the fasces.

Fascism has never been absent from the US, but today it is enjoying a vogue that especially reminds me of the 1980’s and ’90’s when racist skinheads, white supremacists and militias gobbled up media attention, appearing on national TV shows like The Geraldo Rivera Show (where Rivera had his nose broken in an on-the-air brawl), in mainstream magazines like Rolling Stone and Time, and on the local and national news. Ronald Reagan was president then; a man who engaged in bellicose political rhetoric and who advocated trickle-down economic policies showing a lot of sympathy for the rich while shrugging off the concerns of the poor. At the time, it seemed as if we were in the midst of some sort of right-wing revolution taking place both in the streets and in the halls of government.

Today, it feels like the 1980’s all over again. In place of Reagan, we have Trump. In place of Geraldo Rivera, we now have countless internet websites, blogs, podcasts and cable TV stations that cater to the ready-made prejudices of audiences, promoting hysteria and factionalism. We still have racists and militias. And, just like in the 1980’s, we also have militant anti-fascists.

Antifa is a moniker used today that refers to a loose association of activists currently doing battle in the streets against groups of racists, alt-righters and self-avowed fascists. Antifa stands for “Anti-fascist,” and the one thing that unites this otherwise diverse group is a conviction that violence is a legitimate tool in the resistance against public congregations of militant right-wingers. Rejecting the tradition advocated by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Antifa instead embraces the view that violence must be met with violence, and that in the battle against fascism any means necessary – including extreme brutality – must be used:

You fight them by writing letters and making phone calls so you don’t have to fight them with fists. You fight them with fists so you don’t have to fight them with knives. You fight them with knives so you don’t have to fight them with guns. You fight them with guns so you don’t have to fight them with tanks. (Murry, quote from the back cover of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook)

Political liberals and conservatives alike detest the movement, as it rejects many of the taken for granted assumptions of polite, mainstream, liberal society. Most obviously, Antifa rejects the view that only government agencies have the legitimacy to use violence. Another principle rejected by Antifa is the belief that free speech is a sacred right. Lacking confidence in either the goodness or the competency of government, members advocate an anarchistic approach to justice, seeing it as the duty of individuals to take responsibility for monitoring and policing expressions of bigotry that occur in the streets. As it challenges the very assumptions upon which liberal democracies are founded, it is no wonder that democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives, are united in their denunciations of Antifa.

There is very little reliable information about Antifa in the mainstream media, but I recently read two books that give interesting insider’s views of the anti-fascist movement, its history and its philosophy.

Sean Birchall’s Beating the Fascists is a massive, 400 page history of AFA (Anti-Fascist Action), a British precursor to the current Antifa movement. Spanning the years from 1977 through the 2000’s, the bulk of this book is devoted to accounts of street fights between anti- and pro-fascists.

Birchall’s book reconstructs a mind-bending lineage of organizations that were involved in fighting not only fascists, but one another. I must confess that after reading it, I feel in some ways more confused than ever about the various allegiances and hostilities between the staggering number of leftist, anti-fascist organizations that existed during the 1980’s and 90’s. In addition to AFA, there was ANL (Anti-Nazi League), SWP (Socialist Worker’s Party), Red Action, ARA (Anti-Racist Action), CW (Class War), DAM (Direct Action Movement), and on and on. I still can’t keep them all straight in my head. The one thing that is clear is that AFA emerged due to disagreement among these various groups over the use of violence in the streets. After being condemned and marginalized by more moderate members of the left, AFA was launched in 1985 with the following “Statement of Aims”:

This conference sees the need to build an anti-fascist front of groups willing to combat fascist activity in this country. We need to oppose racism and fascism physically, on the streets, and ideologically. We support the right of ethnic minority groups and groups under threat to organize for their physical defence and see the need for us to organise in their support. This grouping should be organised on nonsectarian and democratic lines with equal representation for all groups involved. (p. 107)

The accounts of street fighting described in Birchall’s book are often thrilling. There is the battle between National Front skinheads and non-racist skinheads in Harrogate during an outdoor concert featuring the Redskins. There is the battle in Hyde Park when AFA decided to take a stand against the presence of Blood and Honor skinheads in the neighborhood. And there is the now famous “Battle of Waterloo” when AFA organized to shut down a concert by the White Power band Screwdriver. The picture that emerges from the first- and second-hand accounts of these street actions is of a surprisingly organized and committed group of militant anti-fascists, operating systematically and in concert with one another efficiently and effectively. This was more than just sporadic, random gang violence. It was part of an organized campaign leveled against the equally organized campaign of right-wing political forces in Britain struggling for control of the streets, neighborhoods and, ultimately, the government policies of the country. It was a ground-up movement, premised on the belief that if you can’t be safe in your own neighborhood, if you can’t control your own immediate environment, then you have no chance of being safe in your own country as a whole. I admire the commitment and the bravery of the individuals that Birchall interviews in his book; people willing, at a moment’s notice, to drop everything in order to physically confront bigotry in the streets so that it would not creep upwards into the halls of political power.

Having said this, Birchall’s book also becomes a bit tedious at points. While I enjoyed reading about the intrigue and various battles, the book often devolves into a mere litany of one fight after another. In an attempt to remain true to actual events, the author has chosen simply to recount the facts as he sees them, avoiding too much philosophizing or theorizing. But this is precisely what the raw material here could benefit from: a bit of authorial interpretation that would help those of us who did not live through all of this to step out of the particular events and better understand the broader issues. The focus is so much on events in the street that as a reader, I felt as if I was missing out on the bigger picture. Additionally, because of the focus on first-hand accounts from leftists, there is also a tendency for the book to make it sound like the anti-fascists always won the confrontations in which they engaged. The book, in fact, left me with the impression that the fascists were not really much of a threat at all, considering how often they seemed to cut and run. Unsurprisingly, if you look at sources that tell some of the same stories from the other side of the political divide (like the website for Blood and Honor), you get a completely different account of the winners and losers. I suspect that the real truth lies somewhere in between the extremes.

Another book, Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-fascist Handbook, goes into great detail putting the movement into its historical and philosophical context. It still unapologetically champions the perspective of Antifa (and so, by the author’s own admission, it is far from an objective history), but Bray is more diligent in trying to define and articulate the purposes and aims of the movement rather than just chronicling street fights. Tracing anti-fascism back to the 1930’s, Bray’s book characterizes the current movement as a continuation of the struggle against European fascism, as well as the struggle against racist movements like the KKK here in the US.

While acknowledging the difficultly of trying to sum up the ideals of a movement including anarchists, socialists and Marxists, Bray defines Antifa as, “an illiberal politics of social revolution applied to fighting the Far Right, not only literal fascists.” (p. xv) So, according to Bray, Antifa is not so much “anti-fascist” as it is anti-right wing. I confess that I found this a bit disappointing, as the simplicity of simply being against fascism, without any further agenda, was what first fascinated me about Antifa. Bray warns, however, that Antifa “should not be understood as a single issue movement. Instead, it is simply one of a number of manifestations of revolutionary socialist politics (broadly construed).” (p. xvi) Bray apparently doesn’t speak for some of the apolitical English soccer hooligans who (according to Birchall) joined anti-fascist street fights just for the thrill of it. The only agenda they seemed to have was punching Nazis in the face.

One of the most interesting parts of Bray’s book is Chapter Five, in which he responds to some of the most common criticisms of Antifa from liberals. Primary among these criticisms is that Antifa does not respect free speech; a charge that Bray claims is a red herring distracting attention from deeper, more substantial issues. He points out that the US Government already puts restrictions on free speech, and in times of crisis it is generally held by both conservatives and liberals that free speech can legitimately be restricted even further. The right to free speech, Bray suggests, is not a right without any constraints whatsoever. There are always exceptions to the rule, whether it be “obscenity, incitement to violence, copyright infringement, press censorship during wartime, or restrictions for the incarcerated.” (p.153) Thus, when liberals criticize Antifa in this way, their criticisms also apply to the very system that they do support. The difference between Antifa and mainstream liberals is that:

…liberals pretend that their limitations are apolitical, while anti-fascists embrace an avowedly political rejection of fascism. Anti-fascists reject the notion that politics can be reduced to the “neutral” management of disparate, atomized interests. They break through the liberal desire to confine the question to the realm of individual rights by foregrounding the ongoing collecyive struggle against fascism. When they say “never again,” they mean it, and they’re willing to use any means necessary to make sure. (pp 153-154)

In truth, the underlying intention behind the right to free speech in the first place is the promotion of diversity and freedom. In confronting those who want to use public speech in order to destroy diversity and freedom, Antifa is in fact fighting for something more fundamental and important than free speech itself. They are fighting to defend the social conditions under which free speech can actually continue to exist. The Nazis, on the other hand, want to use free speech in order to eventually destroy it.

Bray points out that there is, in fact, a wide diversity of opinion within the ranks of Antifa about the issue of freedom of speech. Some members of the movement claim that the right to free speech is one promised by the government. As opponents of the government, members of Antifa are thus not bound to such promises. Others argue that Antifa is not at all restricting fascist freedom of speech, but rather are targeting fascist organizing. Still others argue that they are indeed pro-free speech; but for everyone except fascists. Whatever the particular arguments are in this regard, Bray states it is generally the case that most of Antifa are not “free speech absolutists.” (p. 153) They do not regard free speech as an inalienable, sacred right.

This last point is what inspires some critics to charge that Antifa is itself a totalitarian movement, no better than the Nazis themselves. “Shutting down Nazis makes you no better than a Nazi!” (p. 162) I’m reminded of the lyrics from “Smash the Nazis,” a 1980’s song by Art: The Only Band in the World:

Bray defends Antifa against this charge with a simple and clever response: the worst thing about Nazis is not that they are intolerant to free speech. The worst thing about Nazis is that they promote “white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, ultra-nationalism, authoritarianism, and genocide.” (p. 162) Equating Antifa with the Nazis on the basis of one shared attribute – indeed on one of their least relevant shared attributes – is spurious. It is like equating Buddhism with Nazism on the basis of their shared use of the swastika as a symbol; or equating Catholicism with Nazism on the basis that both promote group solidarity among members. As Bray writes, “If your main objection to Nazism is its suppression of the meetings of the opposition, then that says more about your politics than those you are critiquing.” (p. 162)

I’m still not sure that I fully understand the true nature of Antifa after reading either Birchall’s or Bray’s books. Neither work makes any pretense to being objective, and both rely predominately on accounts from advocates of the left in reconstructing their histories of the movement. As a result, both works, while claiming to tell the “real” story of anti-fascism, nonetheless are quite skewed and partisan. Thrilling as they are in their street-level perspectives, neither book presents anything like a clear-headed or dispassionate account. And while I am not unsympathetic to the claim that we shouldn’t be dispassionate in our attitudes toward fascism, I also am afraid that the more confident any group becomes that it alone is on the side of absolute Truth and Goodness while everyone else is on the side of falsehood and absolute evil, the more likely it is that atrocities might soon follow.

That being said, I do support the right of people to confront fascists (or any other assholes) in the streets. Personally, I think that when people go out in public and start making inflammatory statements – right, left or otherwise –  they should be prepared to face the consequences. The free speech of those who are intent on intimidation is no more important than the free speech rights of those who seek to fight against intimidation. I think that when you start publicly insulting and intimidating others, you should expect that someone potentially might punch you in the nose.