A new wave of fascist movements has become an increasingly potent factor in global politics over the past decade. Yet an organized response from the left has often become snagged on the questions of just what exactly fascism is and how it needs to be fought. Depending on one’s political outlook, the masked figure of the Antifa black-block protester is either an emblem or a caricature of the antifascist movement. While direct action is indispensable, the real scope of the anti-fascist battlefield extends far beyond the street. Writer and filmmaker Shane Burley joins The Marc Steiner Show along with TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez to discuss his most recent book, No Pasarán!: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. All right. Fascism, racists are growing in strength, preparing for a fight, preparing to win in the streets and electorally. You can see it from the Jan. 6 storming of the US Capitol, to Jan. 8 storming the Brazilian capitol. They’re here at our doorstep. When Shane Burley’s new book came out, No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis, I had to read it. It’s a book full of numerous essays from those on the front lines in the fight against fascism, against the right, and for a different vision of the world. It was time to sit down for another conversation. Shane joins us today along with Max Alvarez, who, of course, is the editor-in-chief here at The Real News and one of the contributors to the book. Welcome to you both. Good to have you with us.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thanks for having us on, man.
Shane Burley: Yeah, thanks so much for having us back.
Marc Steiner: Now, Shane has written for almost every publication that all of us read, and our editor-in-chief here at The Real News wrote an incredible essay a couple of years back titled “Anti-Fascism and the Left Sphere of Power”, along with a chapter in the book on anti-fascist organizing on campus.
Let’s leap into this. Shane, let me start here with you about why the book was put together, the people you gathered to do this book, and why you thought it was important to deal with this as a struggle against fascism.
Shane Burley: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things that led to the book. One of them is that the way that we talk about anti-fascism has been incredibly narrow. It’s around a few organizations, a few kinds of movements, Antifa, and that has lent itself to the way the right has made a caricature of the movement in general. But it invisibilizes what the history actually is. The left has always had a defensive history against reactionaries, always had that as a component of it, it’s always been a component of keeping communities safe against insurgent, particularly white militias, but insurgent right wing forces in general. That’s a long history. It’s not just one that’s been captured in the last couple of years. It’s not just a subcultural white punk rock history. It’s pretty broad.
So I wanted to start to capture a bigger vision of what that is because it’s such an essential piece of what we’re talking about now. As we head to the era of increased instability, ecological economic collapse, that is the state of the situation, and that means the middle drop out entirely. And that leaves two flanks: the left and the right. There is a battle for the hegemony over radicalism itself, and that’s only going to intensify, which means the right only becomes more insurgent. If the left, as Max intimates in the essay, doesn’t actually hold onto power, doesn’t actually take hard power in a certain way, defensive and advancing on our goals, then they’re going to cede that ground to the right.
So anti-fascism is an essential protectorate. It always has to be present in all social movements, and we have seen it historically be present. We want to start thinking about that in a broader sense. If we do that, then we can start to build alliances and coalitions more large and with more tactics available to people.
Marc Steiner: Max, I want to really talk a bit about what you wrote both in the book, which ties a little bit to your piece on anti-fascism and the left’s fear of power, in some ways. They’re very well connected. I really want to get your sense of that in terms of your piece in this book and why you thought the piece you wrote was so important, especially in terms of, in some ways, it’s not just how we have to take this on, but it’s also a critique of the left that you make in this piece.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no, I’d be happy to talk about those. I’ll start with the piece in the book, and I just wanted to start by saying what an honor it is to be part of this incredible and incredibly important volume that Shane has put together on top of all the other incredible work that he does, all the important pieces that he’s published in book and article form. Shane is an absolute machine and an invaluable voice on the left in the US today. I was very excited when he approached me about contributing to this volume, especially contributing a chapter on the Campus Antifascist Network, which was really my pathway into antifascist organizing. In fact, it was how Shane and I met originally, was through CAN after it got started. That’s what the piece in this book details.
It’s an interview that I did with two of the founders of the National Campus Antifascist Network, the great Bill Mullen, professor Bill Mullen, and the great David Palumbo-Liu over at Stanford. They, and some other comrades got together after watching the horrific events at Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally a few years ago, which culminated in the death of our sister Heather Heyer. It was not lost on many of us that the rally itself was taking place on a college campus, that higher education was a specific area of focus for these fascists, not just the Unite the Right rally, but everyone from Charles Murray and the American Enterprise Institute using their money and influence to essentially sucker undergraduates, to invite them into campus to talk about their research that has been debunked a million times over, to Richard Spencer, really launching his college tour after Charlottesville.
It was in that period, I think so much has happened since then that we can forget what it was like at that time. But after Charlottesville happened, there were a lot of conversations happening amongst students, graduate students, lecturers, professors, community members in campus communities about what to do if and when these people come to our home. And at the University of Michigan, that’s exactly what happened. Richard Spencer chose Michigan as one of his stops on the college tour that he was doing after Charlottesville. In fact, we and a coalition of organizations across Michigan called the Stop Spencer Coalition organized and mobilized to meet his fascist followers head on at Michigan State University, and it turned to a brawl in the street. But after that, Richard Spencer canceled his college tour saying that, “It wasn’t fun anymore.”
The chapter in the book, I’ll be honest, I wanted it to be a lot more than it ended up being, and I take whole responsibility for that because Shane was very patient with me. I really wanted to expand on the history of the founding of the Campus Antifascist Network, why we organized the way that we did, why we thought higher education was such a crucial side of struggle. But we were putting this book together during my first year at The Real News, and so I just kept getting swamped. But I hope that the entry is a useful addition to the book, because I think it’s really important to hear from Bill, and David, and other folks involved in the Campus Antifascist Network, because a lot of crucial organizing happened there. And as I said, I think that higher education is a unique area of focus for fascists, and I think it’s important for us to ask why.
Marc Steiner: Let me ask you both this question. One of the things I was reading, I was thinking about this, and I’ve wrestled with this a lot over the decades that I’ve been an activist, and that’s using the word fascist, and talk about why we say antifascist. I say that because the word fascist, it’s a term that kind of started in what, 1915 or whatever that was, around Mussolini and the growth of his movement in Europe. For many people, the word itself means nothing, or it means little. People have a hard time; What has that got to do with us? What does that have to do with America? What does that have to do with what we face? Someone would argue that dealing with, say, racists or authoritarian racist right-wing movements touches more than what America’s about and that fascism in an alien name. I’m not saying that I think that, but that is something that you hear. Let’s talk a bit about that, because the book’s tone is anti -fascist. Let’s jump into that and the terminology, and what that means especially in terms of organizing and getting people mobilized.
Shane Burley: Yeah, I had a friend when I was young, they used to say that people like saying fascist because it makes them seem more European [Marc laughs], or at least more erudite in some way. It’s interesting because it’s very clear in the book that there are disagreements over the definition, and it’s really clear in a couple of the chapters. Particularly Mike Bento really hones in on that conversation in the book. But I think what’s really important when using the term fascist is that you have to identify something identifiable, meaning it’s not just everyday racism, it’s not even everyday structural white supremacy. It’s not just the consequences of colonialism and imperialism. It is this insurgent movement. Now, it has all those pieces to it. It’s history. That’s the material that puts it together.
But a fascist movement is a revolutionary movement to basically return as much to a fabled past as possible. And that’s based around two things I talk about in my first book, Fascism Today: basically an essentialized version of identity, and the idea of human equality. Both of which are basically the antithesis to the claims of a post-enlightenment society. We are claimed to be individuals that determine our own fate. We’re claimed to be naturally equal and not to have identities chosen for us, in a way.
Fascists movements are extranormal then. They have to be separated from their apparatus of systemic oppression they already deal with. It’s extra. It’s extraordinary in that way. It also is not just from the top, and I think this is something that it’s really difficult for people to wrangle with because they’re used to understanding oppression is coming from institutional forces on the top, not their neighbors. Not even from people who might be in worse economic situations than they are in. A fascist movement necessarily takes from the working class, usually privileged sectors of the working class, ones that feel like they want to hold on to the privilege as the only vessel they have to safety. But it does involve mass movements of everyday people deciding that instead of going on a model of solidarity to improve their situation, they’re going to go on a tribalist model, and they’re going to target other people instead.
It really does function differently than other movements. And we should be defining this so as to defeat it. That’s the function of the definition. Us three are not in an academic conference right now. We’re talking about literally fighting fascists and stopping them. I think when we think about that, we’re defining it so as we can do something about it. We understand that, we can understand the people, I think we can understand what strategies and tactics actually work, and that’s going to be different than other kinds of organizing. It’s going to be different than other kinds of opponents or enemies.
Maximillian Alvarez: Just to pick up on that, and I would highly encourage folks who are interested in the nuances and layers of that debate, read Shane’s work, read Mark Bray. There’s a whole feast out there for you to dig into this stuff, and Shane has done a lot of the legwork for you. So it’s there. Go read it. But I would say that one thing that I wanted to add to this is that this conversation is never going away. Because I feel like, by the time that Trump was ascending politically in 2015, the conversation was already, can we call Trump a fascist? Has that word become too mired in overuse over the past decades, if not the past century, to the point that it has become meaningless, and thus it’s not actually indicative of the fascistic politics that Donald Trump is articulating? The problem is actually the left or the center people who overuse the term fascist to the point that they would apply it to someone like Donald Trump. That was the state of the conversation around 2015.
Since then, I feel like we’ve been having different versions of that same conversation, and it was very frustrating to me personally. I know it was for Shane as well. But at that time, this was before even we got the Campus Antifascist Network moving, not only nationally, but I was honored to be one of the co-founding members of the Ann Arbor Chapter of the Campus Antifascist Network along with my comrades, Grant Mandarino and Matt Armstrong Price, shout out to them. But even before that, I was writing a lot for The Baffler. I was engaging with other leftists who were having this conversation about how, in fact, we were the ones on the left who were being more fascistic because we didn’t want to hear Richard Spencer speak on our campus, or we were misapplying the term to people like Donald Trump.
I think one of the perennial forms that this debate takes that never ceases to drive me nuts is you inevitably get a cadre of predominantly white dude academics saying that if it didn’t come from this region in Germany or Italy or Spain in the early 20th century, then it’s not fascism. If it’s not historically specific, then it loses all meaning. It’s always proffered as such an intelligent point, but to me it just sounds like the most obvious boiler plate bullshit. What you’re essentially saying is that history never repeats itself verbatim. It’s like, yeah, no shit. When has that ever been the case? There is no single historical recipe to create fascism.
I think that the person who I would point folks to was actually one of my academic mentors, who is a leading scholar of Nazism in Europe, but also social movements in Western Europe in the interwar period, the great Geoff Eley, who was a supporter of the Campus Antifascist Network and was one of my PhD advisors. But Geoff has a really succinct way of addressing this question about whether or not we could call Donald Trump or someone else a fascist in the 21st century. Here’s something that Geoff wrote that I wanted to read for everyone.
So Geoff writes, “But whether or not the fascist label might apply to this or that particular politician, it seems more important to ask about the kind of context in which such questions get raised. That is, what kind of situation makes fascism feasible and appealing? If we think of fascism as a type of politics that wants to suppress and even kill its opponents rather than arguing with them, that prefers an authoritarian state over democracy, and that pits an aggressively exclusionary idea of the nation against a pluralism that recognizes and even prioritizes difference. If we accept that definition for the moment, then the key question becomes what kind of crisis calls this politics to the agenda? When do people begin to find this recourse to political violence attractive? What makes them see it as necessary?”
I think that that has always been what I found to be missing in the way that the contemporary left discusses the question of fascism, let alone anti-fascism, is it’s not about recreating the historical recipe that generated Italian fascism in the vein of Mussolini, German fascism in the vein of Hitler, so on and so forth. What Geoff points to is that when does the politics of fascism become the preferred politics for a critical mass of people? And that is when you get a lack of faith in the existing structures of governance to basically govern in a stable way. When those institutions in and of themselves lose the consent of the governed, and then you start snowballing this effect, where people then start to determine the ingroups, the outgroups, they start using extra judicial and extra legal means to enforce violently the kind of order that they want to see, if you frame the fascist discussion that way, then you start seeing a lot more creepy and terrifying echoes in our contemporary moment.
I think what Shane said is very important, is that the way that we in the antifascist left today, and why I think – And I agree with Shane that anti-fascism should always be a fundamental component of any left politics worthy of the name in any century – Is because we recognize that fascism is the dialectical extreme edge on the other side of democracy. It’s like when you start to lose any semblance of democracy in your society, when the dialectic and the contradictions therein start to intensify, and you have greater divides between the haves and have-nots, you have greater social and economic immiseration for larger masses of people, you either have the foundations for more radical politics like communism and socialism and other forms to emerge, but you also have an attractive fascistic direction that we can go in if those left alternatives aren’t provided. Which is why Shane, myself, and everyone who’s included in this book see it as such an essential component of any left politics to constantly be building antifascist support, because you are in effect trying to inoculate a vulnerable society from falling into the trap of being attracted to fascistic politics.
Shane Burley: To pick up on something, too, that Max said, and this is something that we thought about a lot, and I think we go in a little bit in this direction in the book, not as much as I’d like, but I think that’s the direction to go into, is that we have to also start thinking about what does this mean in a non-Western context or non just European, North American-centric context? Because what ends up happening is that narrow vision of fascism precludes all other societies, and then assumes that that’s organic simply to this. And then can’t recognize, for example, Hindu nationalism as one of the largest far right movements in the world. Or at the same time as there’s a far right election, Italy, people have no problem talking about fascism in that context, but they won’t do the same thing when talking about Israel and the huge far right coalition that’s coming in with Likud.
There are these non-typical examples to the way that we normally talk about fascism. But in doing so, we end up cutting ourselves off from all the people that are fighting those when it’s, what about the people who are on the ground fighting the far right in South Asia, the folks that are fighting it in Israel, the folks that are fighting it all across Eastern Europe? We have to have some connection with those folks too in an international way, and we do that by understanding that fascism actually adapts to people’s particular cultural context, and it’s not going to look the same everywhere, and we can’t expect it to, again, mirror what happened in 1939.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and this is something that you’ve talked about on your show many a time, Marc. I’m trying to recall the last conversation that touched on this, but I remember the conversations that you and I have had, that we’ve had with our brother Eddie Conway, other folks that we work with like the great Jacqui Luqman, is there’s also a component to that Western-centric view that obscures the fascistic roots of American politics as it pertains to the elimination of Indigenous peoples or the enslavement and relegating to second or third class citizenship of Black people or people of color. The current fervor through which the right is trying to excommunicate LGBTQ people as a perpetual outgroup that not only is not welcome in our society, but is, in fact, responsible for the degradation of our society and needs to be eliminated. That is explicitly fascist language.
I think that our inability to see that has led us to misunderstand how those sorts of, again, perennial dynamics through which fascism can emerge and can take root in the general population, those elements and dynamics have been woven into the fabric of the United States since 1492. And yet, we talk about it as like, if the Jim Crow South is part of fascism, then fascism doesn’t really mean anything because there’s no distinction. And it’s like, have you asked the people who have been eliminated by that system if they think it’s fascism or not? There’s a really, I think, telling blindness by which the people who are in the ingroup in a fascist or fascist-like hegemonic political arrangement, the people who are in the ingroup, they don’t necessarily see it as oppressive. They don’t see it as fascist, they see it as fine. It’s the people who are targeted as the outgroup and the people who are vilified who are the best able to judge whether or not this sounds like fascism.
Marc Steiner: I want to go out that it was in the book, but maybe not to the greatest detail, which is how you fight fascism. There’s a lot of people talking about, you’re in the street and you physically fight these fascists, these Nazis, these racists that you confront. I think many of us who’ve been in the movement for a long time have been in that situation of fighting, literally fighting in the street. It made me think back to 1930s Germany when the leftists were in the streets fighting the fascists and clearly lost in that immediate fight against those fascists, those Nazis, whether it was Italy or whether it was Germany, other places.
So the question is, how do you build around that, beyond – And I know we’ll get into antifa in a minute, because I have really mixed emotions about Antifa, as far as the old farts all have mixed emotions about antifa [laughs] – How do you organize around that? You wrote, Shane in the book, you touched on organizing a lot in the book, about how to build coalitions, about how you had to broaden this thing out if you want to bring people together to confront what we face, because what we face is very serious. So let’s talk a bit about that, because it’s beyond just thumping in the street and carrying two by fours and getting ready to knuck. There’s more than that.
Shane Burley: Yeah, and that’s actually a really small piece of it, I think. And that’s part of why we did the book was to start to open that up. I think you really start by looking at how a far right movement operates. How do they recruit? What are their goals? Anytime, for example, they’re engaging in public speech, that’s organizing. That’s recruitment. Those are the points at which you want to intervene on it. What we talk about a lot in the book is about what would it look like to build a mass antifascist movement that’s not just people in black masks and stuff? There’s not enough of those in the world to make a mass movement. It needs everybody. It needs people in different walks of lives, different experiences, and different things they can and would like to contribute, and can do it well. Basically building a coalition model to do a few things.
For example, when there is an actual far right event, it’s about overwhelming space. For example, there’s a number of examples given in the book about what it looks like to actually bring thousands of people out to take over space, to disallow their participation. Those are actually largely non-violent actions. Those are thousands of people using space occupation. That’s one way of doing it. Another way of doing it is looking at where you’re at. A lot of people in the book talk about being in social circles, being in institutions and fighting. That’s what Max’s chapter is about. The campus is really important, not just now, but historically, for far right movements, because it’s a point at which they can bring radical politics to people who are thinking radically. People change themselves in college. People encounter a lot of things, and that’s a time when people form themselves, so that’s where they want to be.
When you’re in that place, using the connections you have in the same way that you would in any community, to push them out of space, to get them out of actual physical space, to make them disallowed in publications, to push their ideas out different ways, but basically having an organizing strategy that’s built around that place, because you’re in that place. The same thing if you’re in a church, or you’re in a synagogue. You can have an opportunity there that other people don’t have. There’s a number of conversations in the book about that, about what it’s like to be in those sorts of spaces. I think it’s also about how you intervene into spaces that feel less political. People are engaged in gyms, they’re engaged in music scenes. Things that the far right has actually seen as really useful recruiting grounds for them.
Offering people an alternative based on the same kind of recruitment models that the right is pulling from, basically saying, yeah, actually we are here building community. We’re here trying to introduce you to folks. We’re trying to actually build a better world. And we actually can deliver those things, that’s the difference. But being really upfront and creating those opportunities for people, that’s another case of that intervention.
I think we also have to think about what the reality of politics now looks like, which is a lot online, and has these levels of abstraction to them that require us to think about how you use that technology. There’s a great chapter in there about using social networks and social media in a way that’s really quite complicated, and is built on using layers of complexity to shut down and to actually see that as a real battle worth having, to not discredit.
I think the rise of the alt right showed us really clearly that this online presence is not just a way of raising ideas and raising numbers, it’s actually an offensive stance. It actually wins things. It actually takes down opponents. I think thinking about that as a space in which to fight, that’s also important. What we really get at in the book is that because anti-fascism is, in a way, an adjunct piece of all social struggles, because it has a place in every form of inequality, that every tactic that comes from those struggles is also applied.
The question is, how would a labor union strike deal with this? How would a union structure in general deal with this? What about a tenant union, anti-eviction campaigns? Do they have a role in it? What about sex worker support organizations? What’s their role on there? I think when we start asking those questions, we see that there’s a lot more tactics than we ever considered. All it is about linking them up, creating coalitions that can actually put them into an organizing strategy.
Marc Steiner: Let’s pick up on that for a moment. Max, you cover labor a lot. The heart of labor struggle, to me, at any rate, is organizing. It can be very tedious and it’s very time consuming, but organizing is what changes things. I remember many, many moons ago when I split with my friends who were in the Weathermen, and I’m still friends with a lot of those guys, men and women, and we’re still very tight, but I’ve split with them because I didn’t agree with the tactic of always confronting in the street, though I did that as well, and nor did I agree with blowing up buildings, until we organized a mass group of people who support something.
Some of us went off and we became organizers in communities, and mostly for us in working class white communities, poor communities where we organized people to build coalitions across the line, and we did that. I say all that just to ask, what about now? What about what we face now, which is different, which I think is… I think we faced the most dangerous moment in my lifetime in this country, probably my parents’ lifetime in this country, in the power of the right that is winning electorally and winning on many other levels. Where does that fit in to bringing people over, to organizing people who may not even be in that at that moment? I’m just curious how you perceive that.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no, I think it’s a great question. There are three things that I would say in response to that. The first, I think I want to get this out clearly, because it’s really important. It’s something that gets easily lost in these sorts of discussions. Because we can tend to focus on certain aspects of, say, antifascist organizing or antifascist mobilizations. We identify a problematic action or strategy tactic, what have you, and then we start talking about it as if it is solely germane to antifascist organizing. When really what we’re talking about is people being assholes, and people are assholes everywhere. People are assholes in organizing spaces on the left and on the right.
To give an example, I mentioned that I was one of the co-founding members of the Ann Arbor Chapter of the Campus Antifascist Network. We worked in coalition with folks across Washtenaw County that includes Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. But then when Richard Spencer was going to Michigan State in Lansing, we worked with groups from across the state. We were all there at Michigan State in the middle of nowhere because that was the deal they gave Richard Spencer. It was like, you can talk on campus, but it’s going to be at this building like, in a field.
But his Nazi followers came. They marched in lockstep together two by two. They were looking for a fight, and they found a community of people standing arm in arm saying, no pasaran. Like, you’re not going to pass. We are here to tell you we don’t want you here in our communities. There was a very tense moment where we were standing there in the frigid cold in Lansing across from these guys with literal Nazi tattoos on their heads and surrounded by militarized police force, including a fucking BearCat armored vehicle that was owned by the University of Michigan, which is a topic for another [Marc laughs] – Or sorry, Michigan State University.
But that was the scene we were in. A lot of police surrounding us on almost all sides. No one was moving. In that moment, some asshole from the back of our side started throwing rocks in the middle of the group to try to start a fight. Those guys were being assholes, because they weren’t there in the middle of it. They weren’t the ones who were going to get arrested for it. They weren’t the ones who were going to get the brass knuckles. They were just adventure larping pieces of shit who had no real connection to the people who were all there, or they didn’t care enough about the safety of everyone there to act appropriately. That is not specific to antifascists, it’s not specific to the left. There are assholes in every setting. There are people who talk too much in organizing meetings. There are people who talk down to youth. Of course we reject that. Don’t be an asshole, I think, is a pretty good maxim to live by.
But on top of that, I think there are two other things that I wanted to say. The first one speaks to what Shane was saying about how anti-fascism is a necessary component of any left organizing because the confronting fascists in the street, even in the name of self-defense, like engaging them physically, it’s not like we’re going out looking for fights, but we’re going to stand up and defend our homes, our communities, our neighbors if people who literally want to exterminate our neighbors, our communities, or our ourselves come marching in and making a ruckus. I don’t think that should be a controversial thing to say. But the coalitions that build from that, the activities, the organizing, the mutual aid that emerges from that is central to what anti-fascism is.
The example that I would give was that, like I said, we brought together a coalition of different groups inside and beyond the University of Michigan in the Stop Spencer Coalition that included undergraduate Democrats, Democratic Socialists of America, anarchists associated with the IWW and other organizations like that. It was a very broad based coalition. After we fought Richard Spencer’s Nazis at Michigan State and Richard Spencer canceled his college tour, it was like, okay, so does that mean that we’re done? No. Then the week after that, the undergraduates from the Stop Spencer Coalition were out on the picket lines supporting the University of Michigan’s lecturers in their fight for a fair contract. It brought segments of the campus community together in a way that they hadn’t before. And then they were working together to build from that, build that infrastructure up into continual community building, community protection, mutual aid and support.
That is a beautiful thing. The last thing I would say is that no dignified society worth living in makes a welcome, comfortable home for fascists. I can’t put that any plainer. We should not be okay with fascists feeling comfortable and unafraid and like their ideas have just as much merit as anyone else’s. We have seen the horrors of fascism. We know how bad it can get. We know where this ideology leads. It should not be controversial to say, we don’t fucking want this. This is staying in the past. If we see fascists emboldened to speak their message, to try to organize in public, we as a society should want to stamp that out. I don’t get why that is a controversial position to take.
Marc Steiner: [laughs] No, no, that’s a really strong point. I’m sorry, what were you going to say? And then I’ll jump in. Go ahead.
Shane Burley: I think there’s actually a lot that was going on in your question, Marc, that I think is really interesting, because I think part of what you’re asking is, is there an effort to step out in front of where the community is? Basically, organizers aren’t always taking the work of moving the community along in a way of building a base, building a foundation so you have an actual mass movement. This is actually a conversation that happens quite a bit. A conversation I had with David Renton, who wrote the afterword in the book, and he was talking about another book of his that he had written recently called No Free Speech for Fascists, talked about this balance. On the one hand, if there’s a small neo-Nazi gathering, maybe you don’t need a thousand people. Maybe you just need 10 people who know how to mess up the event and make it so it’s unattractive to return to. That might make sense.
I’ve actually interviewed a lot of antifascist folks. For example, one of the founding members of Rose City Antifa that talked a lot about there being problems with mass participation. Basically they train their members, they have behavioral discipline, they want them to not engage like assholes, and when thousands of people show up to an event that they’re organizing, when some person in the crowd decides to step out in front of everyone, do something stupid, it gets pinned on them. And then that, necessarily, they now have to answer for this whole crowd’s behavior. I understand that to a point, too. But generally, I think, we want to move into the direction of having that mass base be a part of not just anti-fascism, but every form of organizing, and we should hinge the strategies on that mass.
I’ve been talking with folks, going back several decades that have been involved in this work, folks from the Weather Collective, or from John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, and folks with Anti-Racist Action, and I think there’s a general consensus that the mistakes that were made were always involved not bringing the mass community in, and moving past the mass and not building up that mass base. I think that’s actually the lesson we should learn from almost all social movements is that when you do that, you’re not just getting numbers. It’s not just the weapon of a crowd of people. It’s a conversation that brought them all out there, and that moves people along. That’s where the community actually needs to be.
If you want them to not just stop at this one event, if you want them to continue on with this and build real community and have interweaving coalitions, you’re going to have to do that person-to-person work, the actual organizing work. I think in anti-fascism that we’re talking about here, one that has real legs and one that can actually reach the capacity that we need right now with the kind of threats we’re talking about, it’s going to require that kind of mass building all the time. I think that’s where we should think about why we’re going to learn from labor organizing and tenant organizing, and immigration solidarity organizing. We have to learn about that because they’ve had to use the mass tactics for a long time, and that’s the direction we have to go with it.
Marc Steiner: We could be here for days doing this, because I think that this is such a very critical conversation. I think the book itself was a very critical book because of the breadth of people who wrote in it. As I said to you earlier, Shane, I thought it’d be great to just take people out of that book and bring them to a conversation, to bring those voices out and really hear them in a whole series of conversations around this because I think it’s that important to figure out. One of the things you write, and let’s maybe get into this and we can get close to wrapping it up, is that anti-fascism cannot be sustained ideologically by channeling it into the political machine of democratic governments, even if people can engage in antifascist organizing on the one hand and liberal electoralism on the other. When I read that, one of the things I thought about is, can we, the left, fight this alone?
When I look at what happened in Germany, the left ate itself alive and the Nazis won. That’s very simplistic, I know, but that was a part of it. When I look at the title of the book, No Pasaran, Dolores Ibárruri would evoke where the quote comes from, I mean one of the things that killed the literal battle against the fascists on the fields of Spain in 1930s was the Trotskyists, the anarchists, the Stalinists were all fighting each other as well as trying to fight the fascists. And nobody is building this kind of broad coalition that goes even beyond the left. Because to build something broad and powerful, that might involve electoral politics. Clearly, the right is involving themselves in electoral politics. They’re electing people to institute fascism, introduce this neo-fascist stuff in this country because they’re winning offices across America. That’s one way they’re doing it.
Let’s talk about where we are now in the future and how both of you view that in terms of how you confront this, stop it, and defeat it, because I think it goes beyond what we call the left, if we’re going to do it, from my perspective. I’m just curious what you think about that in terms of all that came through in this book. Shane and Max, leap in and wrap it up for us.
Shane Burley: Yeah. There was a comment that Mic Crenshaw, who’s a contributor to the book, and Mic, it’s interesting because he was a really young anti-racist skinhead, founder of Anti-Racist Action. When someone asked a really similar question about how do you unite the left when we were doing the book launch event and he said, we’re not here to organize the left. We’re here to organize the working class. I think there’s a certain amount of trying to think even broader to what often gets pinned down to almost ideological tribal affiliations. I’m less concerned with uniting the left as much as creating a broad shared interest in this. I think that’s why when you’re talking about Antifascists, you can’t just stop about this defensive. You actually have to bring a vision. We’re going through a series of crises that people feel really acutely: labor crisis, a healthcare crisis, and things like that, so you have to be able to speak to that.
We want to build past that. I think what I say in the book is that anti-fascism is specifically ways of fighting fascism that do not involve the state. Meaning it’s not law enforcement. I don’t think that law enforcement is capable of confronting that. That’s not necessarily a true direct challenge to electoralism in a way, but I think it’s a way of thinking about it. I think if we are considering electoral politics, for example, and I try not to be too cynical about this, but it’s, how can this help an on the ground social movement? If you elect someone, they go in, and they pull regulations out of labor unions and that helps you build labor unions, that’s a good thing because that helps an on the ground movement. If they create these subsidies that can go into mutual aid organizing, so those that are able to be bigger and build more autonomy, great. If there’s more protections for renters so that they can build tenant unions, that’s great.
But just having the reforms themselves I don’t think is enough, because when austerity comes in, they take them right back. Having a social movement sensibility of everything, including electoralism, I think is useful. How does this help an on the ground social movement, and coming at it with that approach? I think when we’re talking about creating that unity, I agree and I think we actually have made a lot of steps in having a more unified left. A lot of the more divisive segments of the left have dissolved, and we actually have a better working relationship, and that can improve, and it would have to. But I think it’s going to be based on less ideologically radical positions as much as the ability to speak to a shared experience.
Like, how are we all experiencing this? And what the far right wants to do is validate people’s insecurity and alienation; your right, your house is being taken from you, you got fired from your job. That is terrible. It’s really hard. We need to come and say the same thing. The difference being that we have real solutions to offer, and we want to get people involved in those solutions. So instead of having a conversation with someone about the left, I want to have a conversation about how to get them their medication. I want to figure out how to keep them in their house, and I want those to be the foundations of how we build. And then conversations around tactical anti-fascism and bigger ideas, that comes along with it. That’s part of a relationship that you’ve built and it goes in the long term. I think our ability to reach beyond that is going to be really critical.
In a lot of ways, when the left starts doing that, that’s how the left starts operating with itself. That’s actually the collaboration. Because that’s built on relationships and that divisiveness happens when you are separate communities, that you have no interaction with, you have no overlap with. There’s no blending, there’s no support. If we can basically undo that as much as possible and instead replace it with that really firm… And then not as a token term, like a real sense of shared community where you start to depend on each other, where you start to actually count, where solidarity is how you equate how to fix a problem rather than your selfish solutions, for example. I think once you do that, that actually undoes a lot of the divisiveness that we have had that got in the way of the unity that was necessary.
Marc Steiner: Yeah, absolutely. Yes, absolutely. Max?
Maximillian Alvarez: As usual, I thought Shane put that beautifully, and I only have just one or two things to add to that. Because I think, speaking very personally here, and just putting cards on the table, this does touch everything that we do, including here at The Real News. I think about this a lot. Marc, I know that you think about it a lot as well, especially given that on my podcast, Working People, in the labor and worker-centered interviews that I do for The Real News and Breaking Points, so on and so forth, of course, I basically try to bring an organizer’s mentality to media, because you’re trying to listen to people. You’re trying to actually devote your attention to them in a genuine way. You’re trying to connect with them on a human level, share from your own experience as well, build solidarity, like Shane said, doing that painstaking but tender and necessary person-to-person work.
I think that all of us who are doing that in whatever realms where we’re doing it, whether we are talking to our coworkers or the people in our apartment building, or doing interviews for The Real News, we want to save as many souls as we can. We want to bring as many folks over to our side as we can. We want to help people to understand who the real enemies are here, and who the fake enemies are here. That is, I think, really important work. We want to try to carry the spirit of your generation, Marc, of a generation that saw former members of the Ku Klux Klan join the Rainbow Coalition. We always want to be open to that, but we have to understand that there are lines in the sand to be drawn. There are people who are not going to come over to our side and who would rather see us dead than come over to our side.
We cannot sacrifice the health and safety and survival of the whole trying to appeal to every single person, even those who are falling, sadly, on the fascist side. I want to be clear in the work that I do that I don’t just think that everyone can be converted or that everyone can see the light or that everyone is a natural born antifascist. There are people we can’t reach. There are people who do truly believe and won’t be shaken from their belief that queer people are destroying society and need to be eliminated, or Black people are just genetically inferior to white people, and society should be structured accordingly.
You have to stand for something. You have to say, this is the kind of society that we can work with. And beyond that, it becomes untenable. I think that the more that we can take that fully fleshed out vision of anti-fascism that Shane laid out and apply it to as many realms of our organizing and base-building and connecting with people as we can, the better that we will be. I think the reason that the question of left politics is always inextricable from that, even though, as Shane rightly pointed out, we’re not trying to just organize the left, we’re trying to organize the working class.
There was a reason that the United States government, through things like the Marshall Plan, focused on diverting economic resources to war torn countries in Europe because they knew that immiserated, economically immiserated populations were going to be that much more likely to gravitate towards communism or socialism. There is an essential class politics to that. When you are in that moment that we were talking about where the center drops out and people are faced with the sharp dialectical edges of economic and social inequality, they can either mobilize around a class base, class solidarity that identifies both the need to bring as many people into this coalition as possible to advance our vision of society, but also to address the economic base that is creating these vast inequalities, and that needs to be targeted.
That is the, I think, the fundamentally left base side of antifascist organizing. The right conservative side that leads towards fascism starts from that same point, but it does not attack the economic structures that lead to that type of inequality and social immiseration. What they do is they focus on certain outgroups that can have the blame for everyone else’s misery pinned on them, whether that be, again, queer people, whether that be multiculturalism in certain people of certain races, certain colors, what have you.
This is why you see, on the right, they’re always looking for a different scapegoat to channel everyone’s righteous anger towards. The anger is coming from very real things, but the fascist direction is to take that anger and turn it towards specific, targeted groups that can become sort of stand-ins for all of the social ills that people are feeling and suffering from. And that leads to truly inhumane consequences. You have to have, I think, a broad based, class-based coalition movement that has a decidedly leftist understanding of the macro political and economic forces that are shaping our world. Otherwise, we will constantly be led astray if we go down the other route and identify the evils of our society with outgroups without actually attacking the structures that contribute to our collective immiseration.
Marc Steiner: We’ve said here, and I think we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much to wrestle with here in the book and in the work that, Max, you were just talking about. I think that this is something that has to be explored in really great depth, because we have to get a handle on how to organize this to make the fight to deal with what we face, so that we build a society we want. I think you, really, in this book it really was… Let me just say again, the book is called No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis.
Shane Burley was the editor who put it together, Max Alvarez, the editor-in-chief here at The Real News wrote a piece in it. And Max more realized the antifascist thing is deep in his soul, as it is in Shane’s. This has been a great conversation. I think we have to have more conversations like this to really help build a movement and help stand up to what we face, and to build something for all those who come after us and for ourselves as well. Thank you both for joining us here on the Steiner Show today. It’s been great. This has been a great conversation. I really appreciate it. I really do.
Shane Burley: Thanks so much for having me back.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. Oh, hey, man. And it’s just the beginning. Just the beginning. I hope all of you out there enjoyed this conversation today with Shane Burley and Max Alvarez. We’ll have many more like this. I want to thank all of you for joining us today. I want you to let me know what you think about what you’ve heard today, check out this book, No Pasaran. It’s worth it to sit down and read, and tell me what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you.
By the way, while you’re here and there, go to www.therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly donor, become part of the future with us. For Cameron Grandino and Kayla Rivara and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, take care. And don’t take any shit.