Anti-fascism: liberal and militant


Cross-posted at Poumista.

My comrade Bob From Brockley once created two wikipedia articles on “liberal anti-fascism” and “militant anti-fascism”. These articles have now been deleted and merged into the anti-fascism article, where their content has been whittled away. For the historical record, while the two old articles can still be found on the commercial sites that plunder wikipedia’s content, I am reproducing them here, below the fold.

Liberal anti-fascism

Liberal anti-fascism is a form of anti-fascism that is distinguished by its use of non-violent, legal and democratic methods in fighting fascism, which it sees primarily as a moral evil and as a threat to liberal democracy. Liberal anti-fascism can be contrasted with militant anti-fascism and the term is principally used as a pejorative by those who identify as militant anti-fascists or as radical anti-racists.

Peaceful means: Liberal anti-fascism is liberal in its methods in that it works within the legal and constitutional framework of liberal democracy. Typically, for example, its methods will include: raising awareness of racial prejudice as a moral wrong, calling upon the state to censor fascist expression and other forms of hate speech, calling upon the police to take action against fascist organisation.

Fascism as a moral wrong: Liberal anti-fascism sees fascism as an extreme form of racism or prejudice which must be denounced as morally wrong. This contrasts with a more political analysis of fascism as, for example, primarily anti-working class (the Trotskyist view of fascism) or as connected with structures fundamental to Western modernity, including imperialism (the view of fascism from intellectuals like Hannah Arendt, Paul Gilroy, Zygmunt Bauman and A Sivanandan).

Defending democracy from fascism”: The third feature of liberal anti-fascism is that it sees fascism as a threat to democracy or liberal democracy. Thus, its opposition to fascism can be seen as essentially a defence of the status quo. In this perspective, fascism is seen as a form of extremism, with no place in a liberal democracy, alongside other forms of extremism, including that of the far left. This position is criticised by militant anti-fascists (e.g. Anti-Fascist Action), who call for a radical transformation of society as an alternative to fascism, and ultra-leftists (e.g. Jean Barrot), who see fascism and democracy as both forms of capitalism and therefore equally evil.

Criticisms of liberal anti-fascism

Liberal anti-fascism’s dependence on the state is criticised by militant anti-fascists who argue that fascism needs to be challenged through direct action by the citizenry. Liberal anti-fascism’s defence of the liberal state and of the status quo is criticised by left-wing and anti-racist radicals who see the liberal state as responsible for or complicit with pernicious forms of racism (e.g. immigration controls, institutionalised racism, police racism and other forms of state racism).

Liberal anti-fascism tends to appeal to a general public or public opinion not marked by race or class. This view is criticised by militant anti-fascists, who tend to orientate to the white working class, as the force within society both most likely to be recruited to fascism and most able to stop fascism. It is also criticised by many radical anti-racists, who argue that an anti-racist movement should be black-led or who see liberal anti-fascism as letting less spectacular forms of racism off the hook.

Those liberal anti-fascists who advocate some form of government regulation of hate speech, e.g. banning publications that incite racial hatred or deny the Holocaust are criticised by libertarians and other liberals who see this as a form of censorship or denial of the right to free speech.

See also

*popular front

Militant anti-fascism

Militant anti-fascism is a form of anti-fascism that advocates the use of violence against fascism, opposes depending on the state to combat fascism, and often has an orientation to working class politics. Militant anti-fascism can be contrasted with liberal anti-fascism.

The use of violence. Militant anti-fascists believe in physical confrontation with fascism. The argument is that fascism uses non-legal means and depends for its allure on a physical presence on the streets, and therefore violence is essential to stop it.

No dependence on the state: Where liberal anti-fascists call on the state to outlaw hate speech or to prosecute fascists under existing laws, militant anti-fascism either actively opposes or does not put energy into such calls, preferring instead direct action by the citizenry. Frequently, militant anti-fascists go further, rejecting any connection with the state as contaminating anti-fascism.

Orientation to the working class: Militant anti-fascists are generally supporters of a class struggle view of politics and view fascism as first and foremost anti-working class. Because of this, militant anti-fascists tend to promote radical anti-capitalist transformation of society as an alternative to fascism, rather than defending the status quo of liberal democracy.

A history of militant anti-fascism

In the age of dictators


Communist Party and Social Democratic Party (SPD) members at different times in the 1920s and 1930s advocated both the use of violence and mass agitation amongst the working class in an effort to stop Hitler‘s Nazi party. Leon Trotsky was one advocate of militant anti-fascism’s use of violence in Germany. He wrote that “fighting squads must be created… nothing increases the insolence of the fascists so much as ‘flabby pacifism‘ on the part of the workers’ organisations… [It is] political cowardice [to deny that] without organised combat detachments, the most heroic masses will be smashed bit by bit by fascist gangs.” quoted Fighting Talk no.22 October 1999, p.11


The rise of Benito Mussolini was resisted violently by Italian socialists, anarchists and Communists, e.g., by the Arditi del Popolo in the 1920s.


In the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, the Republican army, the International Brigades and particularly the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) and anarchist militias are examples of militant anti-fascism who fought the rise of Francisco Franco with military force. The Friends of Durruti were one particularly militant group, associated with the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI). Spanish anarchist guerrilla Sabate fought against Franco’s regime up until 1960 from a base in France.

The struggle against fascism in Spain attracted strong international support from leftist and working class people, many of whom went to Spain in support of the anti-fascist cause (e.g., the International Brigades such as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Naftali Botwin Company). Notable anti-fascists who worked internationally against Franco were: George Orwell, who fought in the POUM militia and wrote Homage to Catalonia about this experience, Ernest Hemingway, a supporter of the International Brigades who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls about this experience, and radical journalist Martha Gellhorn.


The rise of Oswald Mosley‘s British Union of Fascists (BUF) was challenged by the Communist Party of Great Britain, socialists in the Labour Party and Independent Labour Party and working class Jews in London‘s East End. A high point in the struggle was the Battle of Cable Street, when thousands of East Enders and others turned out to stop the BUF marching. Initially, the national Communist Party leadership wanted a mass demonstration at Hyde Park in solidarity with Republican Spain, but local Party activists argued against this, mobilising the local population with the chalked slogan “They shall not pass”, taken from the slogan of Republican Spain, No Pasaran. After World War II, Jewish war veterans continued this tradition with the 43 Group.

Militant anti-fascism in the UK since the 1970s

In the 1970s, fascist and far right parties like the National Front (NF) were making significant gains electorally and were increasingly confident in their public appearances. This was challenged in 1977 with the Battle of Lewisham, when thousands of black and white people physically stopped an NF march in South London. Shortly after this, the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was launched by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The ANL had a campaign of high profile propaganda, as well as anti-fascist squads which attacked NF meetings and paper sales to disrupt their ability to organise.

Margaret Thatcher‘s successful Conservative Party election campaign in 1979 used a lot of the far right, anti-immigration rhetoric of the NF. The success of the ANL’s propaganda and physical campaigns, combined with Thatcher’s right wing politics meant the end to the NF’s period of growth. The SWP, whose theoretician Tony Cliff described the period as one of “downturn” in class struggle, wound up the ANL. Many squad members, however, refused to disband. They were expelled from the party in 1981, many going on to form the group Red Action. The SWP uses the term squadism to dismiss these militant anti-fascists as essentially thugs.

In 1985, Red Action and the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement launched Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), which was to be the focus of militant anti-fascism in the UK for the next 15 years. Thousands of people took part in militant AFA mobilisations like the Remembrance Day demonstrations in 1986 and 1987, the Unity Carnival and Battle of Cable Street 55th anniversary march in 1991, and the “battle of Waterloo” against the British National Party in 1992.

Criticisms of militant anti-fascism

Critics of militant anti-fascism tend to focus on its use of political violence. Pacifists and many liberals see the use of violence as essentially wrong and militant anti-fascists as therefore mirroring the fascists they oppose. Historian, Dave Renton[1], for example, in his book Fascism: Theory and Practice[2]Fascism: Theory and Practice. Pluto Press, ISBN 0745314708 , writes “for anti-fascists, violence is not part of their world view” and calls militants “professional anti-fascists”. This criticism suggests that, by mirroring fascist violence with anti-fascist violence, the struggle against fascism is reduced to a game.

Left-wing critics of militant anti-fascism contrast the violence of small militant groups with mass action. Communist Party of Great Britain leader Phil Piratin, for example, denounced squads and called for large actions. However, most militant anti-fascists argue that the two strategies are complimentary, as exemplified by the successful combination of mass action (including Rock Against Racism and squads by the first incarnation of the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s.

Another criticism, made by some anti-racists and advocates of multiculturalism is that, by focusing on the (white) working class, militant anti-fascism sidelines black struggles against racism and for cultural recognition. By focusing on fascism, to the exclusion of racism, some anti-racists argue, militant anti-fascism trivialises more pervasive forms of racial prejudice and institutional racism not connected to organised fascist parties. These anti-racists contend the Marxist view of fascism as primarily anti-working class, a view that characterises many militant anti-fascists.

See also

*united front

Related material:

Three-Way Fight: U.S. Left-Wing Militant Anti-Fascist History Vol. 1 (The late 1980’s); Red Action’s Liberal Anti-Fascism pages.

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