December Preview: Robin D.G. Kelley on Antifascism, Then & Now

October 23, 2020

The following is a preview of a Q&A by Aaron Retish with Robin D.G. Kelley that will appear in the December issue of The Volunteer.

Robin D.G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA. The author of many books, including a biography of Thelonious Monk, he co-edited “This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do”African-Americans and the Spanish Civil War (1990) and currently serves on ALBA’s Honorary Board.

Robin D.G. Kelley

How are you thinking about the recent rhetoric from President Trump and the right-wing media about the radical left and its Antifa mobs? 

To be quite honest, I don’t think too much about it because we’ve seen it over and over again throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It’s from a very old playbook—and veterans of the Lincoln Brigade experienced it firsthand, as they were the original antifa in the U.S. But I worry about how Trump as a crazy person is exceptionalized. Yes, he and his entire regime are dangerous and must be voted out. No, Biden and Trump are not the same. But if we believe the culprit is Donald J. Trump and his crew and that all we need is a return to the good old days of Clinton/Obama/Biden, then we are treading dangerous waters. We have at least four decades of globalization, neoliberal attacks on the welfare state, public institutions, and the poor, covert wars, and political and cultural backlash against movements for racial and gender justice. White supremacy, rampant xenophobia, open misogyny and attacks on reproductive rights, a backlash against “diversity,” a terrifying spike in homicides of transgender people, did not begin with the Trump campaign. In 1979, even before Ronald Reagan officially took office, Klansmen and Nazi’s killed five labor organizers in Greensboro, North Carolina, in broad daylight—and the whole thing was captured on camera. Four victims were members of the Communist Workers Party. Their killers were not criminally convicted.

So you have to imagine what it means to Black and Brown observers of Trump’s flirtation with white supremacists when armed white militias can show up at public rallies and on the steps of state capitols, defying social distancing measures and demanding an immediate end to “stay at home” orders. After years of watching footage of unarmed Black people beaten and killed by police for walking, loitering, running, standing in front of their homes, showing insufficient deference, protecting their kids, being a kid, these scenes of white men brandishing AR-15s in the face of police and government officials and evading jail, injury or death, begs incredulity.

To underscore my point, Black people in the state of Michigan were already being terrorized by Republican legislators when they replaced elected local officials (city councils, school boards, mayors, etc.) with Governor appointed emergency financial managers with the power to fire elected officials, abrogate labor contracts, sell off public assets and impose new taxes on residents—all without a single vote from anyone. Or in the case of Flint, force the privatization of water by shifting the city’s water source from the Detroit River to the polluted Flint River. And when the Secretary of state decided in the 2016 presidential election to throw out some 48,000 ballots in Detroit because the machine could not read them (Trump won Michigan by a little over 10,000 votes). So we focus our attention on dangerous white men on the fringe – which we must – but at the expense of thugs who have stripped Black people of a democratic voice and denied them power to stop the divestment of their communities. In 2016 in Michigan, about 49% of the African American population had no locally elected government and were under emergency managers, and yet Black people make up only make up 14% of the state’s population.

In your view, what are the lessons of the International Brigade in our current political and social crises? Are you teaching the Spanish Civil War any differently today than you were five or ten years ago?

The most important lessons are the importance of international solidarity and the urgency of fighting fascism wherever it rears its head. Internationalism seems like it is slowly disappearing from our political culture. (The recent Aaron Sorkin Netflix take on “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a perfect example of turning anti-imperialist radicals into nationalist liberals by portraying an anti-war movement that is patriotic and cares only about Americans dying in Vietnam!) It also teaches us how Fascists consistently claim the mantle of civilization, the restoration of Law and Order, while attacking every manifestation of genuine social democracy. I find myself reflecting more on the counterfactual—what would the world look like had the Spanish Republic and the world defeated Franco?

I rarely have a chance to teach the Spanish Civil War anymore now. But I did recently write an essay about Angelo Herndon that ended with his brother, Milton Herndon, who died in Spain. It is for a book coming out with Random House in a few months edited by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi, titled, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019.

I will use their words to make my point here. Angelo Herndon wrote in his 1937 memoir, Let Me Live:

The Fascist racketeers were no fools. They understood the psychology of their starving victims. Their appeal to them was irresistible. It went something like this: “Run the niggers back to the country where they came from – Africa! They steal the jobs away from us white men because they lower wages. Our motto is therefore: America for Americans!

Of course, for us in 2020, these words are familiar; the author, less so. Angelo Herndon was the very embodiment of antifa. In 1937, he was twenty-four-year-old with a sixth-grade education and had spent almost three years in a Georgia jail cell, about five years in Southern coal mines, and at least two years as a Communist organizer in the deep South. As American finance capital eagerly floated loans to Mussolini and Fortune Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and the New Republic extolled Italian fascism, Black radicals like Herndon called out and resisted homegrown fascism in the form of lynch law, the suppression workers’ organizations and virtually all forms of dissent, and the denial of civil and democratic rights to black citizens. As this was the state of affairs in much of the United States long before Mussolini’s rise, Black radicals not only anticipated the rise of fascism, they resisted before it was considered a crisis. That, too, should sound familiar.

So even before the Franco’s troops invaded Spain, Herndon and his comrades were calling on workers to fight Fascism at home. And Fascism meant the indiscriminate killing of Black people. In one of his speeches, he said, “Today, when the world is in danger of being pushed into another blood-bath, when Negroes are being shot down and lynched wholesale, when every sort of outrage it taking place against the masses of people—today is the time to act.” Black radicals heeded Herndon’s plea “to act,” mobilizing in defense of Ethiopia, resisting lynch law in the South, organizing a global anti-colonial movement, and defending Republican Spain from the Fascists. Angelo’s brother, Milton Herndon, died fighting Franco’s troops in the Spanish Civil War. He told his men why he was there. “Yesterday, Ethiopia. Today, Spain. Tomorrow, maybe America. Fascism won’t stop anywhere–until we stop it.” His words still ring true.

Aaron Retish teaches at Wayne State University.