The First Thing Colleges Must Understand About Antifa: What the Word Means

November 10, 2017

Mark Peterson/Redux
Demonstrators put an antifa scarf on the bust of Benjamin Wheeler in the lobby of Wheeler Hall at the U. of California at Berkeley in September.
Where does antifa end and antifascism begin? What’s the relationship between antifa and the black bloc?

As far-right activists have seen their influence grow this year, a loose network of militant leftists — who organize to oppose what they see as fascism — has emerged as well. But reporters, politicians, other activists, and college officials have struggled to understand antifa, as the network is called.

Mark Bray, a history lecturer at Dartmouth College and an activist, has spent the better part of this year explaining antifa to the public. He recently published a book, Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, and is in the middle of a 35-stop book tour in the United States and Canada.

This week The Chronicle profiled Mr. Bray. We wrote about the slipperiness of often-conflated terms like "antifa," "antifascism," and "black bloc." On college campuses, those terms — and the differences among them — matter. (Consider the amount of money colleges spend on security for an appearance by a far-right speaker: They expect antifascist activists to show up, and they worry about the prospect of black-bloc violence.)

So we asked several scholars, including Mr. Bray, for their definitions.

Antifascism: a Broad Movement

Mr. Bray says he defines antifascism as "a very broad tradition that incorporates all perspectives that fight fascism." Governments formed in Europe after World War II saw themselves as "officially antifascist institutions," he says.

Stanislav Vysotsky, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, describes antifascism as a movement that has emerged in opposition to the far right, including both protest and campaigns to educate people about fascism. Mr. Vysotsky researches white supremacy and militant groups that organize in response to it.

Antifascists share democratic values and a political and moral opposition to fascism, Nigel Copsey, a history professor at Teesside University, in England, wrote in an email. Mr. Copsey has written books on contemporary fascism and antifascism in Britain. "We should view antifascism in terms of a spectrum, with militant antifascism located at the radical end," he says.

Antifa: the Militant Left

While many antifascists seek to defeat fascists in elections or in the court system, there are militant antifascists, or antifa, who eschew those structures. Members of antifa groups are often anarchists who believe that the best way to suppress fascists is through "direct action," the scholars say.

Direct action can include shutting down a far-right event, sometimes by physically preventing a march from taking place. Mr. Bray says strategies have also included less-violent demonstrations, like singing labor songs at fascist events or calling the parents of alleged neo-Nazis, as some activists did in Denmark in the 1990s.

Recently, their efforts have also included doxxing, the practice of posting personal information about someone online, often as a prompt for others to harass the subject. Antifa has also unmasked white supremacists and shared their identities with their employers.

Those actions "are all designed to directly intercede with fascist organizing efforts," says Mr. Vysotsky. Mr. Copsey adds that antifa’s resistance to working with the government or the courts goes beyond simply a disagreement over tactics. Members of antifa groups often see those structures as part of the problem. "According to these militant antifascists, there is no point in calling on the state to ban fascism, since the capitalist state is the cause of fascism in the first place," he says.

While there are antifa groups, Mr. Bray says antifa can be considered an activity or political orientation. He and Mr. Copsey note that antifa has a cultural component. Members of antifa groups wear logos and usually dress in black hoodies or caps. In Europe, and to a small extent in the United States, antifa groups are often associated with specific soccer teams.

"Adopting the brand ‘antifa’ carries a specific obligation: to take action," Mr. Copsey says.

The Black Bloc: a Militant Tactic

The black bloc is often thought of as a group, but according to the scholars, it’s better described as a tactic. Black-bloc activity occurs when people dress in black, cover their faces, stay close together, and engage in militant activity, says Mr. Vysotsky. Militant activity can take both "soft" and "hard" forms. On one end of the spectrum there’s nonviolent civil disobedience; on the other, outright terrorism.

Black blocs were first used in Germany in the 1980s, during the so-called autonomist movement, an antistate group. Its biggest moment in the United States was the protest of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.

“Autonomous antifascists did not recognize the state's monopoly on violence.”
"At the symbolic level its purpose was to show that autonomous antifascists did not recognize the state’s monopoly on violence," Mr. Copsey says. "On a practical level it offered protection against surveillance and police action, as well as offering an obvious safeguard against fascist attacks."

Antifa members have adopted black-bloc tactics during some demonstrations. But they are not the only group that uses those strategies.

Nell Gluckman writes about faculty issues and other topics in higher education. You can follow her on Twitter @nellgluckman, or email her at