For months, the Antifa terror network¹ has wreaked carnage across America's cities. But what if Antifa weren't real? Come, let us journey together down the rabbit hole.
“Antifa is just anti-fascism” [Part 1]
The name a group chooses to describe itself is just that: a name, not a description. In a name, even if the string appears to have meaning beyond the name, it does not. Whereas a description has primarily intensional reference, deriving from the sense of the words in it, a name has extensional reference, pointing to the entity (or set of entities) described that name.
This is a well-known phenomenon for groups with a political element. Most famously,
the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. [Voltaire, Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations (1756)]. Equally, few socialists would want to admit Hitler and the National Socialists to the Socialist International², and few advocates of democracy, rule by “the people”³, or republics would consider the de facto hereditary monarchy of North Korea to be a democratic people's republic (description) just because it is a Democratic People's Republic (name). The list is practically endless.
The same is true for Antifa. Being called “Antifa” (short for “Anti-Fascism”) does not mean that the group is anti-fascist any more than the HRE was a holy Roman empire rather than a secular German confederation. At most, it means that the group would like others to think that they are anti-fascist, much as it suited the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire to be seen as holy Roman emperors.
Indeed, a cynic could suggest that the stridency with which a group insists that its name is a description probably correlates inversely with the extent that its name matches the supposed description. The Holy Roman Empire settled firmly on that name only after losing its dominance over the Papal State: it needed to assert its holiness and Roman-ness as a name precisely because it was no longer holy or Roman as a description.
Similarly, imagine an international socialist contemporary of Hitler's who discovered that in 2020 there would be black-shirted gangs, backed by almost the entire corporate and media elite, who were murdering their opponents in the streets, and burning down businesses that did not make obeisance before their preferred racial group. That contemporary would probably be hard to convince that these were the anti-fascists; all the more reason, then, to stridently insist that such a group is somehow “anti-fascist”.
“Antifa is just anti-fascism” [Part 2]
Even if Antifa were anti-fascist, it could not claim to be “just” anti-fascism. First, there would be no one who could make such a claim, as no one would be able to speak for them. Any such claim would have no standing beyond the individual making it. If Antifa does not exist, then it cannot have any properties, including the property of being anti-fascist.
Second, “fascism”, especially since WWII, is a singularly ill-defined term, even by the low standards of political rhetoric⁴, and “anti-fascist” both inherits and amplifies that fuzziness. It is the case that nearly the entirety of Western society considers itself to be in some way “anti-fascist”—including nearly all of the folks who Antifa labels as fascist. For example, Antifa likes to pretend for cynical propaganda purposes that the Western Allied soldiers who fought against the actual, historical Fascists were “anti-fascist” in their modern sense, but given that those soldiers were nearly all straight white male Christians who believed in traditional values and fought for their country, nearly all of them would be labelled as “fascists” themselves by Antifa today. Even the contemporary Soviet Union would be denounced as fascist by today's “anti-fascists”.⁵
Third, no entity has only one property. The Conservative Party is not just conservative. Oxford University is not just academic. Even if Antifa were anti-fascist, which is debatable at best, it could not be just anti-fascist. As before, in practice this claim is made so vehemently precisely because Antifa is not anti-fascist. Bears do not need to insist loudly and defensively that they shit in the woods.
“Antifa isn't an organisation, it's a movement”
What is the difference between an organisation and a movement? That question has a linguistic / ontological sense, a practical sense, and a moral sense. First, is there a clear onotological divide between organisations and movements? I see no reason to believe that there is. Logically, any organisation must involve movement of at least some extent or else it could not exist, it would be moribund. Any movement must be organised to at least some extent or it could have no effect. And practically, all organisations represent a wider movement, and all movements have some organisations representing them. At a bare minimum then, there is no reason to think that a movement cannot be an organisation or vice versa: proving that Antifa functions as a movement (which is not disputed anyway) would not make any difference to whether it was an organisation.
Second, in practice Antifa is organised, and in particular, is organised in proportion to the effect that it has. The direct actions performed under the name of Antifa are carried out by specific organisations, such as Rose City Antifa in Portland. There is a lot of Antifa activity in places like Portland because there is a strong Antifa organisation there. There is no Antifa activity in places where there is no Antifa organisation. A side-argument to this might claim that Antifa's decentralised, non-hierarchical organisational structure is not “organised”, but this would be a misunderstanding of what it is to be an organisation.
Finally, there is the moral point: even if movements were sharply distinct from organisations, which they are not; and even if Antifa were not an organisation, which it is; even then, there would be no particular reason to care whether Antifa is an “organisation” or a “movement”. Movements and organisations both exist, both act on the world, and are both equally morally praiseworthy—or more pertinently, morally culpable. This claim therefore, having no ontological basis and no moral consequence, is in practice a distraction technique to confuse the issue of Antifa's conventionally immoral actions—violence against persons, property damage, intimidation, and so on.