Next year will mark a century since Benito Mussolini founded the original Fascist Party. And while the Italian dictator may have been killed during World War II, the idea he codified lives on — as does its opposite.
After the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017 led to violent clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters, American awareness of that opposition rose dramatically. Anti-fascist direct-action movements, often known as “antifa,” drew support from some quarters. From others, they drew condemnation — including from President Trump — for what could be seen as violent tactics. In March, Merriam-Webster added “antifa” to the dictionary. But despite being an idea that’s nearly 100 years old and that spans much of the globe, antifa is still a source of much confusion.
Gord Hill, an activist and artist, is previously the author of books such as The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book. In light of the news, his publisher asked him to turn his attention to the history of anti-fascist resistance. The result, The Antifa Comic Book: 100 Years of Fascism and Antifa Movements, is available now. He spoke to TIME about the original idea of “no platform,” why antifa history isn’t better known and more.
How much did you know about the history of antifa when you started this project?
I’ve been involved in anti-racist and anti-fascist struggle since the ‘90s so I’ve been aware of developments over the last few years in that. But I did have to do a lot of research — I had a general knowledge, I think maybe a lot of people do, but when I started researching fascist Italy for example, there was a lot I had to learn. Also in regards to the anti-fascist resistance, there’s not a lot of history [written] about it.
It does seem like people get taught in school a lot more about the rise of fascism than about the resistance to it. Why do you think that history isn’t better known?
I think part of it is because the anti-fascist resistance came predominantly from leftist movements — including the Communist Party, Socialist Party and anarchists — so generally there was a tendency to minimize what happened. Most people’s knowledge of fascist history is centered around Nazi Germany, and even there you don’t really learn a lot about the anti-fascist resistance through the ‘20s and early ‘30s, again because, I think, it was predominantly communist or leftist-based.
If you have heard about any kind of anti-Nazi resistance from Germany, it’s the White Rose or maybe it’s the Edelweiss Pirates, which are almost a more passive type of resistance. After World War II, Western Europe was kind of reorganized under the U.S. Marshall Plan and they began a whole anti-communist campaign. The world was divided between East and West, and I think that’s part of what contributes to this minimizing of anti-fascist resistance in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
How would you characterize the relationship between antifascist groups and the rest of the left, historically?
The anti-fascist resistance was based in the left. It was the left that was the first primary target of fascist violence and attacks, like in Italy.
Has there been anti-fascist resistance everywhere there’s been fascism?
I think that is fair to say. Anti-fascist resistance movements arise out of actual material conditions, like being attacked by fascist gangs and paramilitary groups, so it’s a self-defense response from a lot of different communities, including the leftist groups — and today it’s the immigrant communities; people of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people; all these communities that are the targets of fascist violence. In the majority of cases they begin to organize some kind of defense.
Is there any unifying principle or tactic that you noticed coming up repeatedly in these different movements in different places and times?
Generally there’s an emphasis on physical and ideological confrontation against fascist movements, and again that goes back to the need to defend communities from attacks. You go right back to fascist Italy, which was the first fascist movement, and you see the first establishment of an anti-fascist resistance, and their main goals were physical and ideological confrontation. And if you look through history you see the same dynamics in all the different countries where you have fascist movements arise.
One of the tactics that jumped out at me from that history was the idea of “no platform,” which is something you might see discussed these days, often as an affront to free speech. Can you explain what people should know about the history of the idea?
The place I’m most familiar with where the idea of “no platform” was really implemented was in the United Kingdom. It was really promoted by Anti-Fascist Action in England in the 1980s, and the general strategy is to deny fascists a public platform from which they can spread their propaganda and also organize and recruit. That’s why these large public events that the far-right has been trying to organize in the last few years have been targeted by anti-fascists to shut them down — that’s part of the no-platform strategy.
The idea behind that is to try to stop them from spreading this poisonous political message that they have, and also trying to deny them the public space from which they can organize and carry out attacks in the streets after their meetings. That’s basically what “no platform” means.
Is there anything that you notice these days people tend to get wrong about the history or concept of anti-fascist resistance?
What I really notice, coming from the United States predominantly, is this kind of demonization of antifa and the false equivalency that it’s just as bad as the fascists. Antifa wouldn’t exist if there weren’t these fascist and far-right groups mobilizing and carrying out attacks. If you look at the last couple of years, there’s been over two dozen people killed by far-right and fascist groups and individuals, and antifa hasn’t killed anybody.
Some people might argue that, even if one causes the other, direct confrontation of the type antifa movements rely on isn’t good, or that non-violent resistance is a better response to the violent rhetoric of fascism. What’s your take on that?
If you look at the number of people who have been killed by fascists and far-right extremists over the last couple years or even decades, it dwarfs Islamic [extremist] terrorist attacks in the United Sates. They’ve killed a lot of people and a lot of people have been assaulted. In terms of using violent and militant means to shut down fascist organizing, I think [white nationalist] Richard Spencer demonstrates very clearly the success of militant anti-fascism. He canceled his speaking tour; he declared that antifa was winning; it wasn’t fun anymore for him to go out promoting hatred. That would be my main response. The book has a number of examples of militant anti-fascism working.
What about the moral side of it, the idea that violence just isn’t the right response?
Nazism was finally defeated through the terrible destruction of World War II, if that’s what people want to go to because they think it’s not right to confront fascists when they’re in the streets. Confronting fascists in the streets when they’re a much smaller movement is a lot better than waging a world war to shut down a fascist state.
Was there anything in your research that really surprised you?
I began the book with Italy and what really surprised me was the Arditi del Popolo [a militant anti-fascist group founded in Italy in 1921], and the level of armed resistance that was carried out in the early 1920s against the fascists and their paramilitary group, the Blackshirts — including urban warfare and gun battles in small towns and cities.
To what extent is today’s antifa connected to the early antifascists like the Arditi del Popolo?
I think in Italy there probably is a fairly direct lineage. In the United States and Canada, it’s a different kind of situation and there’s no direct lineage to these groups in the 1920s and ‘30s. Even antifa, which was revived by groups in the 1980s in West Germany, doesn’t claim or have a direct lineage to the Communist Party antifa group that was set up in the 1930s. They modified the original antifa logo, but it’s a very different movement today. People do draw inspiration and lessons from these previous movements, but I think the movements of today are new. There were periods of time when [antifa movements] didn’t exist or weren’t really mobilizing, because the far right was in decline. As they revived, then you see a revival of antifa groups.
Where do you think this history is leading us next?
I think for the foreseeable future we’re going to be dealing with the growth of populist far-right parties, as we’ve seen in Europe. It’s really hard to predict what the future will be, but I do think there will be more intense struggles and I think this type of activity we’ve been seeing in the U.S., I think it’s going to continue for a while.