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Persistent Myths About Antifa

February 8, 2022

 Dr. Stanislav Vysotsky

Militant antifascism, or antifa, has been the subject of much controversy. Since first coming to public consciousness in response to far-right mobilization during the Trump presidential campaign and in the immediate aftermath of his election, antifa activism has been praised, criticized, and demonized. Some of the most vociferous criticism and demonization of militant antifascism comes from its ideological opponents on the far right, so it was surprising for many scholars and activists who research these movements to see a recent blog post by Craig McCann published by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. In the article titled “Beware the Anti-Fascists, for they have become what they oppose,” McCann criticizes militant antifascist activism using a number of persistent myths regarding the movement. Most, if not all, of the myths regarding antifa originate on the far-right, and it was especially troubling to see them repeated in the context of scholarship on that movement.

As a scholar of militant antifascist movements and former activist, I was able to interview and spend time with antifa activists. My research indicates that the antifascist movement is in some ways unique because of its singular focus on opposing far-right movements. The motivations for activists’ participation and choices of tactics stem from that oppositional orientation. Starting from that understanding, I will dispel two of the common myths circulating about antifa: that antifascists don’t have a clear definition of who or what constitutes fascism and that violence is the key strategy of antifa activists.

The Slippery Slope of Antifascism

The claim that antifascists do not have a clear definition of what constitutes fascism is frequently trotted out to discredit them. The argument essentially asserts that antifa activists define fascism so vaguely that anything to the right of their own ideological orientation would qualify as such. This is frequently paired with claims that antifascists cannot distinguish between fascists and the “regular right,” and will deploy their militant tactics against everyday conservatives. This myth is designed to label antifascists as ignorant and dangerous as well as stoke fear in conservatives of antifa violence. The latter culminated in myths of antifa invasions of small, often rural communities throughout the United States in the wake of racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Because antifascism is organized in opposition to another set of social movements, antifa activists have a clear understanding of what constitutes fascism. There is a great deal of discussion and theorizing within the antifascist movement regarding the contours of what constitutes fascism as an ideology and movement. Antifa activists have robust discussions within the movement on this issue, engage with the scholarly and theoretical literature on fascism, organize public presentations on fascism, and produce literature defining and describing fascist ideology as well as how to identify fascist activism. Antifa activists determine who is a fascist based on their willingness to engage in activism in support of movements that believe in an inherent biological and/or social difference between people that is enforced through violence. Antifascists are interested in stopping a specific social movement, not policing individual conservative thought.

Antifa = Violence

Much of the opposition to antifa activism stems from an aversion to violence in social movement activism. Critics and opponents of antifascism assert that violence is at the center of antifa activism. This is an exaggeration of the role of violence in antifascist activism that serves to reverse the roles of fascists and antifascists by painting the far-right as innocent victims of violence.

Although the willingness to use confrontational and even violent tactics is what distinguishes militant from non-militant antifascist activists, the actual deployment of violence is relatively rare and occurs in very specific contexts. In Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook, historian Mark Bray asserts that the vast majority of antifa activism is nonviolent and non-confrontational. My own research experience indicated a similar pattern. Much of my time with antifascist activists consisted of attending meetings, educational, and social events. I categorize antifascist activism as consisting of intelligence gathering and research, education efforts, public shaming campaigns, cultural activity, and lastly confrontation, of which only a small proportion actually involves the use of force or violence. Simply put, antifa activists spend more time doing research, writing, making art and music, and engaging in social activity than physically fighting fascists.

Like any other social movement, antifa activists are strategic about which tactics they deploy and when they deploy them. As what social movement scholars refer to as a countermovement, the primary goal of militant antifascists is to demobilize far-right movements and discourage their activism. This is why the majority of antifascist tactics are nonviolent. Much of what antifascists do is meant to pre-empt far-right movements from building a base and mobilizing it into action. Antifa educational and cultural activism is designed to prevent fascists from gaining support in communities and subcultures. On the rare occasion that antifa activists do use violence, they engage in strategic restraint. Research by Nigel Copsey and Samuel Merrill indicates that antifa activists intentionally avoid using certain language in public discourse and consciously refrain from escalating violence beyond what is necessary to eject fascists from a space or stop a far-right event.

When antifascists do use force, it is generally from a defensive position. Violence is an inherent component to far-right ideology, which seeks to at best oppress entire groups of people and at worst eliminate them. Fascists use street violence to gain power and state violence once they have achieved power. From the fascist perspective, a nonviolent opposition provides little resistance. The goal of the far-right is to present itself as a movement of strength and action. In this context, antifa activists provide a direct form of resistance to fascist violence. All of the militant antifascist activists whom I interviewed in my research indicated that fascists had directly threatened them, and many had been victims of fascist violence. Whether it is because of their ideological position or identity, antifa activists are frequently direct targets of the far-right. The fascist vision of the future is predicated on eliminating them. The far-right, therefore, represents a direct threat to their safety and the safety of their communities. In this context, demobilizing fascists, whether in a subculture or at a public rally, is viewed by antifascists as a form of self-defence. Militancy also undermines the far-right’s ability to present a position of strength through the deployment of superior violent force.

Breaking the Myths

The myths discussed here are pervasive for a number of reasons that should be elaborated at length on their own. Suffice to say, the continued perpetuation of these falsehoods against antifascists serves the interests of far-right movements and credulous people in positions of power and influence in academia, media, and politics. Antifa serves as a convenient boogeyman and scapegoat; and as long as these myths persist, they will embolden and empower the far-right.


Stanislav Vysotsky is an Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of the Fraser Valley. Dr. Vysotsky's research on the militant antifascist movement and the relationship between threat, space, subculture, and social movement activism has been published in journals such as Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements, Critical Criminology, and the book American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism (Routledge). He has also published research on fascist and supremacist movements in the Journal of Political and Military Sociology, Journal of Crime and Justice, Journal of Hate Studies, as well as several edited volumes.