Did Antifascism Invent the Left?

A review of Joseph Fronczak, Everything Is Possible: Antifascism and the Left in the Age of Fascism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2023).

Joseph Fronczak’s book Everything Is Possible: Antifascism and the Left in the Age of Fascism is not, as some might think, an analysis of the contemporary left, but a political history of the 1920s and 30s, against the background of a theoretical claim that … we’ll get to that.

The political history that Fronczak tells of the 1920s and 30s focuses on the era’s antifascist movement. Fronczak zooms in on the European countries where antifascist movements were strong due to obvious reasons, namely fascist movements seizing power: in Italy, Germany, and Spain. Fronczak also looks at the ramifications of antifascist politics in the United States, digging out intriguing episodes of antifascist action, from killings of fascists in the Bronx to Hands Off Ethiopia protests in Chicago.

Fronczak writes well and provides biographical accounts of prominent antifascists of the era such as the French philosopher Simone Weil, the English feminist Sylvia Pankhurst, the African-American labor organizer Oliver Law, and the Malian journalist Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté.

Now, on to the theoretical claim: the antifascist movement of the 1920s and 30s did, according to Fronczak, form what we came to know as “the left”. Before that, he claims, “the left” didn’t exist as a unified entity. The communist dismissal of the social democrats as “social fascists” in the late 1920s and early 1930s did not divide the left, Fronczak says, because there was no left.

For those who see this as irrelevant haggling over words, Fronczak has an answer:

“Right, left , fascism, and antifascism – these have all become once more words that people find worth fighting over. And now when people fight over them, they fight over what they mean in the present as well as what they meant in the past. They are worth fighting over because they have power, the power to sway people and to mobilize them. They have more power today than they had at the twentieth century’s end. An understanding of their histories will shape the sorts of politics that people bring about in their names in the years to come.”

Fair enough. Then again, is “the left” indeed a term that is worth fighting over? The reader may decide. But to make one (perhaps petty) comment: At least in the German context, historians don’t talk all that much about “social fascism” dividing the left, rather about it dividing the working-class movement – but I’m not sure what the wording is in other countries.

Whether Fronczak’s claim that the left didn’t exist before the 1920s as a (true or imagined) political entity would hold up to an in-depth study about the history of the term’s usage, I don’t know. But it might not be that important either. You can read Everything Is Possible as an interesting history about antifascism without much concern for the theoretical framing. It’s kinda like two books in one – double chance to like it!

Gabriel Kuhn

(February 28, 2023)