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A review of Shane Burley, Why we Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance and Surviving the Apocalypse

Over the last four years, while the right has been growing in America, I have tried to keep up with that small group of antifascist writers who seem best informed about what’s been happening, the likes of Mark Bray, Talia Lavin, Alexander Reid Ross and Natasha Lennard. That doesn’t mean I’ve agreed with each of them on everything, just that they’re the ones who’ve spotted trends earliest and done the best job of explaining them. Within this group, the writer who I’ve followed the closest is Shane Burley.

Three years ago, when most British anti-fascists still believed that Richard Spencer and the Charlottesville strategy represented something real and growing, Burley was already talking of Spencer’s “extreme decline”, and crediting anti-fascists with that victory.

A year and a half ago, he spotted the first signs of deplatforming, and suggested it might prove a “death sentence” for the right. That was then, and his point has become even more compelling since, now that the people subject to that attack aren’t merely the likes of Nazi cosplayers Andrew Anglin or Mike Enoch, but the likes of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.

For all those reasons, you won’t be surprised that I am an enthusiast for this collection of Shane Burley’s journalism, which brings together in one place seventeen of his articles, showing how the right has changed over the past half-decade, and how anti-fascists have developed to fight it.

Here are some of the passages which interested me. Early in the introduction, Burley justifies his use of the term “Apocalypse,” to describe not merely the millenarianism on which fascism thrives, but the world beyond that conflict, in which the planet is warming, species dying, etc. “We all agree on this,” he writes, “we all know that Covid is merely the first of what are going to be an increasing number of crises on the same scale.” He goes on to argue that million of people have been given an “ideological training” in how to deal with the catastrophe by the myths of the distant past. And fascism, as a form of crisis politics, is given particular opportunities to grow.

That is not to say that Burley regards all ideological influence as equally suspect. He writes about his own intellectual debts, and the impact on him of his ancestors’ Judaism, with its sense that we are living on the verge of end times. For several pages of his book, Burley tells that story. I just want to say how interesting, and how bold I thought that move was. For, of course, many of the famous writers who composed the major anti-fascist works were Jewish. (How could that fail to be, when fascists have been so unremittingly hostile to Jews?) But whether we are talking about the activists of the 20s and 30s, or any more recent activist, that Jewishness has always been coded and secularised. I can’t think of another anti-fascist book which has been so open in saying; here is where I’m coming from. This is what the people who came before me believed; they help to shape me.

Burley writes about the way in which a certain kind of far-right politics (the “alt-right”) was elbowed out of the way, realtively early in the Trump presidency so that what came to dominate was not a Klan or Nazi-stle politics, but a right deeply rooted in the Republican Party.

Another chapter looks at Turning Point USA, and the way that campaign uses its demands of “free speech” to call for the dismissal of left-wing lecturers, the deportation of undocumented students, etc. We have seen in Britain, of course, how keen the Conservatives have been on creating the conditions for a similar movement to emerge here.

Burley considers the violence used by James Alex Fields, in driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd at Charlottesville and killing Heather Heyer. The media, Burley writes “want a long gunman”, because that fits with the story they like to tell in which the far right is always a movement of political innocents whose lapses can be excused as a series of inexplicable, individual, acts. “Fields is guilty,” Burley writes, “They are all guilty.”

Burley writes about the “revolutionary lives” that are appropriate to an era of climate and social catastrophe. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please…” Marx once wrote. Burley, whose book has more references to the IWW than it does to Leon Trotsky, finds his own road to a similar conclusion, “We cannot determine the whole of our future, but we can choose what we run towards.”

Another chapter talks about the myth of usury, and how that has become an idea central to the far-right, which has its own myth of the “demonic capitalist”, and its obverse a healthy ruling-class with the Jews purged from it, ready to play their part in restoring capitalism to what it should be.

Often when you read collections of journalism, they suffer from the defects that key moments are missed, or big ideas are repeated from piece to piece. The whole is less than the parts.

Unusually, Burley’s book is stronger than the individual pieces. He has plainly spent many hours choosing which pieces to select and rewriting them, making sure that they fit together. They range so widely, they cover such a large ground of strategic thinking – both on their side and ours – that what emerges is an important, clear and coherent account of America as the tear gas blew, a Ten Days That Shook The World for a new generation of anti-fascists.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).