Understanding Antifa

How can black clad provocateurs wearing jackboots claim to be champions of democracy and “the people?” How is rioting and looting considered virtuous behavior? Why is there support for this anarchy among many Western elites?  In 2017, for example, Keith Ellison, then the deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee and now the Minnesota Attorney General, spoke at a Netroots conference and promoted a book that is a handbook for violence in the Antifa movement. He tweeted that this guide to violence would “strike fear in the heart of @realDonaldTrump.”    

The anarchism of Antifa embodies the revolutionary outlook, common in the West since the 18th century, that reviles traditional institutions, that seeks to undermine authority through random violence and that assumes any violent spark that creates a popular uprising will usher in a utopian world of equality and justice. Antifa, like many revolutionaries before them, see themselves as midwives of true democracy, and violence is important in making certain that a new world is born. As one historian of anti-fascist movements wrote in Jacobin magazine, anti-facist movements begin as defenders of the vulnerable in society against fascists, but their positive goal is “a new, egalitarian economic system.” 

For more than two centuries, two theories of democracy have competed and clashed in the West. One theory of democracy, embodied in British constitutionalism and the American Constitution, was realistic about human nature and therefore assumed that the spontaneous popular will had to be checked, refined, and enlarged through a constitution. Under this view, unchecked popular passions are, in reality, a tyranny.  

As Alexander Hamilton said in a 1788 speech: “It has been observed that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”

The philosophical assumption of the Framers’ constitutionalism is that all human beings, and therefore the larger society itself, have a dangerous part of their nature that needs controlling and a healthy part that must exercise control. Human beings are torn between a higher and lower self, as each individual must struggle to impose discipline upon their own impulses and desires. In religious or philosophical terminology, the Aristotelian wants to conform to the “law of measure,” the Christian seeks to “follow their conscience,” the Confucian must align one’s own will with a “higher will,” and the Hindu must exercise an “inner check.” 

With this view of human nature, the democratic theory that emerged in The Federalist Papers is one of elaborate constitutional mechanisms to slow and prevent popular excesses, to allow the better angels of our nature to serve as our guide. Power must be divided in a multiplicity of ways so that no one in the system can exert their will unrestrained. This democratic theory also supports a variety of intermediate and traditional institutions, such as churches and local civic organizations that may help to mold orderly and responsible citizens and leaders. This type of constitutionalism requires leaders of a certain moderate temperament who will seek compromise and consensus.  

In the West, this constitutionalist theory of democracy has been losing ground in competition with the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that human beings are naturally good and that any internal struggle within the human psyche is artificial. For Rousseau, human nature is not divided between a higher and lower self; in fact, impulse and spontaneity are the equivalents of virtue. In Emile, Rousseau advises parents to avoid instilling any habits in their children, precisely the opposite of Aristotle’s advice.  

With Rousseau’s outlook, democracy becomes skeptical of constitutional checks and balances: Rousseau wishes to unshackle popular sentiment not refine and enlarge it. Rousseau’s “General Will” of the people is a magical and mystical force for good and there exists no higher law above it. Traditional institutions, in Rousseau’s view, repress the natural goodness of “the people” and make the political order artificial. True democracy, Rousseau said, will liberate the natural sentiments of the “the people” that are held down by retrograde institutions.  

For Rousseau, therefore, any institutions that impede, slow, and hinder the flowering of popular passions are viewed as malevolent enemies of democracy. Rousseau wished that civilization itself could be swept away so that human beings might return to their virtuous aboriginal condition, that of the “noble savage.” In his Confessions, Rousseau exclaimed that, for human beings, civilization is “the true source of his miseries” because any institutions designed to check impulse and passion are unnatural and illegitimate. Revolt against traditional institutions is built into the DNA of Rousseau’s ideas and is the great common goal of all Western revolutionaries to this day.

Western civilization itself is a gigantic conspiracy against “the people.”

One French critic of Rousseau, Gustave Lanson, argued that Rousseau’s thought “exasperates and inspires revolt and fires enthusiasms and irritates hatreds; it is the mother of violence, the source of all that is uncompromising; it launches the simple souls who give themselves up to its strange virtue upon the desperate quest for the absolute, an absolute to be realized now by anarchy and now by social despotism.”

With Rousseauism, we see a window into the modern progressive revolutionary mindset and Antifa. Like the Jacobins, who were so much influenced by Rousseau, Antifa objects to institutions that, they believe, are repressing the downtrodden. “Institutional racism” must be overcome, they say, by attacking those who protect it, such as the police.  Antifa does not offer a platform of positive change. In the fashion of Robespierre, they seek to overthrow “the privileged” and they assume that this violence and destruction will inflame an uprising that will usher in a pure democracy of equality.  

Revolutionaries of this type are persuaded of their own innate virtue, justifying violent antinomian acts because they are tearing down artificial and conspiratorial institutions. Western civilization itself is a gigantic conspiracy against “the people.” In the view of Antifa, traditionally powerful groups, such as white men and capitalists, conspire to suppress the natural nobility of underrepresented citizens.  

Where once virtue was bound up with self-control, virtue is now found in humanitarian rioting against traditional institutions.  Therefore, a signature feature of this revolutionary outlook is the worship of rogues. Society is broken down into two groups, one virtuous and one retrograde: criminals willing to attack and destroy are sublime while those who defend tradition or the status quo, such as the police, are wicked. The gangster regalia and black outfits of Antifa signal their virtue, not their vice.   

In his time, Rousseau pointed to the monarchy, clergy, and aristocracy as the conspirators against the popular will. But modern progressives view traditional institutions as illegitimate because they view Western history as a tyranny of race, gender, and class. Even non-violent progressives generally accept the revolutionary premise that traditional hierarchies need to be torn down and replaced with rule by “woke” underrepresented groups. California Governor Gavin Newsom was a pitch perfect Rousseauist when he recently said that the violent riots were not caused by individuals; instead he insisted, “Our institutions are responsible.” Many progressives are ambivalent about criticizing the violence of Antifa because they retain this sympathetic worldview. While all on the left are not active in violent revolution, many liberal mayors and governors struggle to condemn it outright. Might that be because of shared sympathy?  

The current politics of Western democracies are so roiled and divisive because strident elements on the left have adopted this revolutionary outlook and traditionalist and populist parties of the right, some genuinely suspect and some very healthy, have sprung up to resist it. The political order of Western democracy hangs in the balance.