After addressing a virtually empty performance hall at Michigan State University, the white nationalist Richard Spencer cancelled his college tour. The pathetic turnout was the work of Antifa and student organisers, who had blocked the entrances to the event.
This state of disarray is a familiar sight among white nationalist groups. The Traditionalist Worker’s Party has all but dissolved after its leader was arrested for choking the group’s top spokesman, while organisers of Charlottesville’s Unite The Right rally, Jason Kessler and Andrew Anglin, are facing a lawsuit for conspiracy to commit violence.
Even Milo Yiannopoulos, once a guest of American talk show host Bill Maher, has been reduced to hawking vitamin supplements on Infowars, a conspiracy theorist website. His fate is the perfect symbol of the fall of the alt-right, and, like much of their demise, can be largely attributed to the success of Antifa.
In 2017, little divided the American left more than Antifa. While some of the criticism was rather unhinged – like Robert Reich’s bizarre suggestion that Antifa was a false flag operation created by the right – much of it came from a place of sympathy. Noam Chomsky, for example, warned of the threat of escalating violence, branding disruptive tactics “a welcome gift to the far-right and the repressive forces of the state”.
Despite criticism from liberals and leftists, Antifa continued to grow; dealing significant blows to the alt-right throughout the year. This eventually culminated in the deadly clash in Charlottesville, from which the alt-right has been unable to recover.
The question is no longer whether Antifa’s tactics are a viable way to confront white nationalism, but how the left should weigh the critiques of Antifa against its success.
Philosophical or religious objections to violence aside, the left had two main issues with the movement. They argued that not only did its protests provide an excuse for young white guys to cause mayhem, but that the attention garnered in doing so actually boosted the alt-right by giving them notoriety – while increasing the possibility of violence against the left.
Although there were undeniably some young white men who appeared better motivated by the opportunity to smash windows than build solidarity, this criticism is superficial. It obscures the women, the people of colour, and participants from the LGBTQ+ community all of whom, in many cases, were not only members of Antifa, but actually lead the movement.
Masquerading as an intersectional perspective, the white-men-mayhem critique erased the contributions of people of colour in Antifa and mistakenly centred whiteness in the struggle against white supremacy.
Despite the tactics of the left, violence remains a distinct part of far-right practice, with frequent brutality seen by right-wing and white nationalists over the last year. From the shooting of a protester in Portland in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, to the seven people stabbed at a neo-Nazi event in Sacramento, to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, it seemed the white supremacist movement did not need much excuse to enact violence.
Under these conditions, self-defence is becoming an unwanted but indispensable activity for left activism. As the academic Dr Cornel West said after Charlottesville, where he was present: without Antifa, he and the members of the clergy there “would have been crushed like cockroaches”.
Lamenting his inability to hold college tours, Richard Spencer commented on how the carnival-like atmosphere around their events was good for recruiting. According to Spencer, such controversy allowed the alt-right to “present ourselves as curiosities”, attracting people wondering “what are these crazy racist ideas I’ve been hearing about”.
While he benefits from a contained chaos, there comes a point where opposition becomes unmanageable. It is unfair and irresponsible to ask communities to tolerate white nationalism by ignoring it; we must instead build a determined opposition to its growth.
The student activists at MSU offer an example of how coordinated opposition can successfully prevent the alt-right from achieving their goals – containing the scourge of white supremacy.
Antifa was alarming to many because its radical tactics disrupted our lives. It is harrowing to look around and see you are surrounded by rot. But to build a better future, we must see the world as it is and to stand in solidarity with each other to make changes.
David Griscom is a contributing writer and researcher with The Michael Brooks Show, a left-wing podcast whose guests typically include figures from left media including Jacobin, Current Affairs, and Chapo Trap House.