By Ash Abraham
Marc Bray is an historian and activist, who currently lectures at Dartmouth College, NH. His ost recent book is Antifa: the Anti-Fascist Handbook, a practical history of the transnational anti-fascist movement. In the book’s introduction, Bray explains that the book “argues that militant anti-fascism is a reasonable, historically informed response to the fascist threat that persisted after 1945 and that has become especially menacing in recent years.”
Ash Abraham: What do you say to people who don’t agree with fascist sentiments, but support the right to free speech?
Mark Bray: It will depend on your audience, but part of it is to point out that there are already restrictions on speech. Any kind of right can never exist in its absolute form, but is always mitigated by other rights in a complex society. Free speech absolutism, doesn’t exist. It has never existed. So the question is, what kinds of limits are useful to put on people to try to promote the outcomes that you want? And related to that, is showing how fascism and white supremacist organizing produces certain results which are historically demonstrable.
AA: Can you address the argument that anti-fa mirrors certain tactics of fascists movements?
MB: What we are really talking about is the framework of extremism, which equates anything that is not in the center to be more or less the same. It’s a way to normalize liberal and centrist politics. So part of it is about pushing against the framework of extremism and saying, as a liberal, you can disagree with anarchists, you can disagree with Isis, but they aren’t the same things. Both fascism and anti-fascism are illiberal politics. They are different from center, but are otherwise very different in values being espoused. What happens often is liberalism pretends to be neutral in focusing on actions without motivations or causes. If you look at why fascists will disrupt an anti-racist event, verses why anti-racists will disrupt a fascist event—it has everything to do with the politics and the values underlined, which couldn’t be farther from each other. The attempts to conflate the two, and take them out of context, ignores the values and underlining causes.
AA: What’s the significance of labels? Particularly the use of the term alt-right?
MB: Some people argue, “let’s get rid of the terms and call them Nazis.” On the one hand, considering the motivation of the term alt-right, is to rebrand white supremacist politics, and it’s important to say no, you’re still a Nazi or you’re still a Klansman, etc. I agree with that, but in my reading of history, I was influenced by the fact that one of the mistakes anti-fascists made in the 20s and 30s was assuming that far right
politics embodied in fascism was the same as traditional conservative politics of the 19th and early 20th-century. I think therefore, it’s important to be sensitive to how these politics changed, and adjust accordingly. Understanding the evolution of the alt-right is important.
AA: Do you encourage debate and conversation with extreme right-wing groups?
MB: It’s important to understand the difference between someone who is organizing for a group or a movement, from someone who is just a hateful individual, or someone who is mentally ill. (I don’t like to pathologize politics, but mental illness is real). As far as engaging with organized groups, I am less convinced that this is affective. If you don’t have an “in” with someone, then I doubt you are going to make any headway.
AA: Referring to the perception that anti-fascism is something for white people you said, “our perceptions, become our realities.” Can you explain what you meant?
MB: We can discuss whether or not this is true, but perceptions have political implications. I spoke to one anti-fascist who was active in Montreal, who said part of the role of anti-fascists is to be a “voluntary target.” Rather than targeting the mosque down the street, fascists will engage with the anti-fascists. In that sense, I think there is a role for militant white people to do this work. On the other hand, it is an issue if you are trying to build mass resistance, and empower communities who are under attack to organize themselves. It shouldn’t be about hierarchical politics, it shouldn’t be about white saviours, and it shouldn’t be about telling anyone what to do. It should be about community empowerment and self-defence. It’s a problem if anti-fa is perceived as something for white people, because white people are not generally the ones who are under attack– at least by virtue of being white.
AA: Do you ever feel threatened?
MB: I was threatened. I received death threats. Mostly after I was denounced by the president of my collage, Dartmouth. They denounced me after I was on Meet the Press. For the most part though, it has stopped. That’s how social media works. There’s such a turn-over for attention. Even for the far-right.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 2 (Oct/Nov 2017).