By Jonathan Arlow.
The Antifa can be understood as the popular term for all those radical left anti-fascists that are willing to use violence as a tactic to oppose the extreme right. As a movement it is generally viewed as a left-wing reaction to the threat posed by extreme right organising.
Ireland has no significant extreme right but it still has an anti-fascist movement that plays an influential role within radical left circles. So, why does Antifa activism occur even in the absence of a significant extreme right? One answer may be that the Antifa acts as an unusual site of left unity which enables radical left activists to collaborate across political divides on an issue of shared concern.
While movements that encompass most strands of the radical left and Irish republicanism are not unheard of – the Right2Water campaign against the introduction of water charges is an example of this – they are still uncommon. Ireland has a fragmented left tradition, with ideological and personality differences often hampering effective collaboration.
For example, under the banner of the United Left Alliance (ULA) the two Trotskyist parties in the Dáil, the Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) attempted to form a political alliance with left-wing independents, but right from the start cooperation was hampered by infighting between the three parties involved.
In republican circles, there has obviously been a history of animosity and sometimes violent feuding between the various political parties and their paramilitary groups. These are just two illustrative examples but, in general, the radical left and republican scene can descend into complicated patterns of conflict over long periods of time, which passes on tensions that can obstruct present-day collaboration.
On top of this are the usual ideological difficulties between those aligned with the Marxist and anarchist traditions. Even the successful Right2Water movement was marred by significant disagreements between the various political parties and trade unions on its organising committee. This means that areas of sustained shared campaigning in Ireland, as opposed to one-off single-issue movements, are uncommon within the left.
Activists within AFA Ireland (the main Antifa movement in the country) have emphasised the need for collaborative political activism, which avoids the shallow disagreements that often impede long-term campaigning on the left.
Activists have claimed: “This is something that stuck with me at the start when I got involved [with AFA Ireland]; the smaller political things didn’t really matter. It was just this one thing that you could really stick with, with everyone. This was a thing that no matter what your political beliefs are, if it is to stop fascism on a militant basis, this is something every one of us agrees on… If you believe in the crushing of fascism, how you think the housing crisis should be fixed within the left is neither here nor there.”
“It’s that thing of anti-fascism being this unifying force for the left where everyone can come together; your opinion on what the Soviet Union was is not really very important, as long as you know that your real common enemy is fascism.”
The political backgrounds of the activists aligned with AFA Ireland reads like an exhaustive list of the radical left and republican parties in Ireland. Activists within AFA Ireland have included members of Sinn Féin, Republican Sinn Féin, the Workers’ Party, Éirígí, the Communist Party of Ireland, the 1916 Societies, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and the Workers Solidarity Movement (anarchist). Another major bloc of AFA activists comes from the trade unions and many more – perhaps the largest grouping – are just unaligned left-wing activists.
The single unifying theme among this disparate group of activists is a willingness to support militant action against the extreme right. For instance, one AFA Ireland activist claims: “If people are willing to stand together in a fight, a physical fight, they tend to trust each other politically. It’s true though, it doesn’t matter what some Russian said in 1930, as long as you’re fighting fascism now.”
While all the Irish republican groups listed are – to a greater or lesser extent – on the left politically, it is fair to assume that any members involved with anti-fascist activism would be on the left of their respective parties. Within the radical left, the only elements that are not regularly involved in AFA Ireland are the members of the SP and SWP; for reasons of divergent political cultures and differing campaign tactics, but some individual members from these groups still occasionally become involved in militant anti-fascism.
This willingness for anti-racist individuals to converge under the theme of militant anti-fascism is highlighted by one activist: “An example of [cooperation] from our side, I recall during the late nineties when we would have been involved in big leaflet campaigns in the south inner city, we had a member of the Green Party with us and even some south city Fianna Fáilers.”
That the ideologically motivated activists of AFA Ireland campaigned with liberal or centrist party activists within the Green Party and Fianna Fáil is surprising, given their political differences. However, it does show how in a fragmented left-wing political arena, cooperation across diverse political boundaries can be encouraged by the needs of Antifa activism.
That activists from such diverse political backgrounds, many of whom have a history of conflict with each other, can come together is a significant indicator as to the cohesive power of anti-fascist militancy. Undoubtedly, Antifa narratives built on resistance to fascism helps to romanticise its appeal among radical left activists, but it still provides a clear example of a willingness for intra-group convergence on one unifying theme, over a sustained period of time.
Jonathan Arlow is a PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government, DCU. This post is based on a paper in Irish Political Studies, titled ‘Antifa without fascism: the reasons behind the anti-fascist movement in Ireland’.