As fascist and fascist-friendly movements rise in political power across the globe, so has the prominence of Antifascist Action ("Antifa") grown. But while this movement is at its most visible when physically opposing reactionaries, and while these actions are organized ad-hoc by various leftists — there is no enduring membership-based organization called Antifa — this is by no means the entirety of activity going on under the banner of antifascist action.
Because of its decentralized, ad-hoc nature, it is hard to draw clear lines around the movement, but as it has been around in many countries for decades (especially Germany and Italy, but also Spain, the USA, and many others), it is also not impossible to say some general things about it. One such thing would be that along with direct physical opposition to reactionaries, Antifa concerns itself with meticulous research about reactionary activity, and dissemination of information and warnings to the public about said activity.
It is within the context of this research that the visible, confrontational, physical part of Antifascist Action must be understood. And it is only by ignoring the information collected and disseminated by Antifa that liberals and conservatives can so readily dismiss Antifa’s confrontational tactics and activities.
Antifascist research is inseperable from antifascist action
For decades, antifascists have followed reactionary, ultra-nationalist, Nazi, White Supremacist, fascist, and other far-right activity and organizing. (I will be referring to all of these collectively as "fascists" for the sake of brevity, although this is slightly inaccurate.) Again and again antifascists have revealed how these movements continue to recruit, groom, train, and arm young men, or guide them to do these things for themselves. Again and again Antifa has warned that fascists are pursuing mass murder and political mayhem, that they plot armed uprisings and prepare for civil war, that they systematically produce "lone wolves" as part of a protracted campaign of racist terrorism.
At this point, liberals and conservatives alike will object that this is no reason to "take the law into one’s own hands" and engage in violent confrontation. After all, the liberal or conservative will maintain, while the fascist violence is clearly illegitimate and reprehensible, it is the state and the state alone that may legitimately use force, and indeed law enforcement and counterinsurgancy agencies are responsible for tracking fascist activity and thwarting it.
These objections, however, stem again from ignoring Antifa’s research, information, and warnings. While fascism was defeated in armed conflict in 1945, Antifa warns, "Allied" leadership (civilian and military alike) has always had a remarkably amicable view of fascism, not only before WWII but during and ever since. The very security forces supposedly tasked with defending the liberal state against fascist violence are riddled with fascist cells and repeatedly allow fascist terrorists to commit murder under their watchful eyes, as well as often being openly sympathetic to fascists at their demonstrations and hostile to the antifascists opposing them.
It is precisely in light of all of these connections between fascists and the security establishment that antifascists conclude, time and again, that the state cannot (or will not) stop fascist violence on its own. It is precisely because of this that Antifa "mask up" and confront fascists in person, at great personal risk — because the state cannot be expected to do this vital work for us.
Violence and false equivalencies
It also bears repeating that despite many antifascists’ readiness to get in a fight with fascists, the common characterization of Antifa as "violent" or "as dangerous as the fascists themselves" is preposterously false. Antifa does not engage in terror and murder. Antifa merely stands up to the actually murderous fascists, and occasionally engages in vandalism and other forms of mild violence intended to intimidate fascists. To the best of my knowledge, Antifa has never gone and killed a fascist, nor even confronted a fascist march with deadly violence. Meanwhile, fascists regularly attack uninvolved civilians with deadly force and intent to kill.
This is not to say that there should be no discussion of appropriate responses to fascist organizing, nor of the degree of force necessary and appropriate or the use of violence. Such discussions are crucial. They must, however, take place within the context of acknowledging the imminent threat posed by fascist movements — and, in fact, continously take place within antifascist movements and among those engaged in Antifa activity. These discussions are not furthered by liberals and conservatives sanctimoniously rejecting Antifa as a whole and insisting the state can take care of it.
All those who truly oppose fascism, White Supremacy, and other violent reactionary movements should find their way to support and engage with Antifa — or at least get out of the way and let Antifa do this vital work.