Everything Is Possible: Antifascism and the Left in the Age of Fascism
"Fronczak crafts a compelling, convincing, and often surprising origin story of the Left we know today."
In Peekskill USA (1951), blacklisted writer Howard Fast delivers a firsthand account of American fascists’ notorious attacks on concert-goers gathered for an outdoor performance by basso profundo and civil rights activist Paul Robeson in Westchester County, New York in 1949, which left 150 people injured. In Fast’s narrative, there’s no mistaking who constituted the Left and who the Right as the two sides faced off at Peekskill’s Lakeland Picnic Grounds.
Fast describes the attackers as a volatile mix of self-described “Hitler’s boys,” Klansmen, and American Legionnaires, plus “a couple of hundred ‘decent’ citizens, and a hundred teen-agers whose heads were filled with anti-Communist sewage” prevalent in the country at that time. Such a “unite the right” coalition of rioters would have been easily recognizable to any contemporary American who remembers January 6 or the Charlottesville rally of 2017.
Working alongside Fast to fight off the narrowly averted “mass lynching” is a diverse array of Robeson fans, including Blacks, whites, Jews, gentiles, adults, children, trade unionists, Stalinists, veterans, merchant seamen, and ostensibly unaffiliated “music lovers.” Unlike their assailants, all had shown up to hear music, not fight. But they also didn’t need a bunch of fascists mobilizing against them to know which side they were on.
The Old Left represented at Peekskill seems considerably more distant now than the New Left that emerged in the 1960s (the two separated by an often painful historical disconnect famously dramatized in E. L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel The Book of Daniel, which itself recreates a portion of the Peekskill Riots). But however much a relic of a bygone era the sometimes confoundingly Stalinist Old Left might seem today, by 1949 the battle lines and street-level political coalitions were well-established. Left was Left and Right was Right, and Fascist and anti-Fascist remained apt descriptions for the combatants on the front lines.
Joseph Fronczak’s Everything Is Possible: Antifascism and the Left in the Age of Fascism begins its account of the battle between fascists and anti-fascists roughly 25 years before Peekskill, when notions of “Left” and “Right” as clearly delineated political signifiers had yet to be established, referring mostly to some parliamentary seating positions and having nothing to do with activism or popular movements.
Fronczak frames his work around a period beginning when fascism was first on the march in Europe, continuing in the mid-’30s with the consolidation of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s power, and culminating in the run-up to World War II. Of particular interest is the point at which the American Old Left reached what some might describe as its apogee, when members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and others shipped out (without official sanction or even approval in Washington) to help defend Spain’s democratic government against the overwhelming force of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist/Fascist military revolt in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39.
Antifa emerged in that era too, in response to the rise of fascism in Paris and London as well as Italy and Germany. The first antifa demonstrations brought with them the beginnings of a discernible Left comprising multiple factions (socialists, communists, anarchists, liberals, and unionists) united in the fight against fascism. Fronczak makes a particularly compelling case for the rise of the idea of a “Popular Front” as an organic outgrowth of Alsatians fighting for regional autonomy in 1928, rather than an invention of Soviet Comintern puppet-masters in the mid-’30s, and then taken up in Chile and elsewhere beyond the Comintern’s reach. But as Fronczak explains, no notion of a unified Left coalesced right away. It’s fascinating to discover, in Fronczak’s telling, the process through which the Left took shape.
Though Everything Is Possible features lively accounts of many significant episodes in the antifascist struggle, it is more of an intellectual exploration of the roots of antifascism and the Left than a narrative retelling like Adam Hochschild's Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–39. Fronczak crafts a compelling, convincing, and often surprising origin story of the Left we know today.
Many of Everything Is Possible’s dramatic high points center around well-documented events like the Spanish Civil War and the “Hands Off Ethiopia” movement of 1935 challenging Mussolini’s aggression in Ethiopia. But Fronczak pinpoints the day when “Fascism Will Not Pass!” emerged as the rallying cry of coalition forces transcending national boundaries and traditional lines of political demarcation as February 12, 1934.
On February 6 of that year, 40,000 mostly far-right demonstrators and paramilitaries initiated a riot on Paris’s Place de Concorde, battling local authorities steps from the French Parliament, killing 11 and wounding 200. According to Fronczak, the tumult raised fears that France might suffer an assault similar to Germany’s Reichstag fire of the previous year. Many French citizens believed the country was headed for a fascist takeover. “No word with any currency at the moment fit better what had happened in the streets,” Fronczak writes, “the violence of the thing, the palpable radicalization induced by the violence, and the sense that a new collectivity was in the making.”
In the aftermath of “the Sixth,” Fronczak writes, “liberal democracy and republican rule now tottered and reeled.” The French Communist Party, which had taken a secondary role in the Sixth and quickly come to regret it, attempted to save face with a mass demonstration on February 9 that only “muddied the rationale for why the Sixth had been such a terrible and intolerable thing in the first place” and “fed into the trope of fascism and communism as similar and equivalent forms of ‘extremism.’”
But the 12th brought something different: 100,000–150,000 marchers from different parties united in serene “pacific protest” along Paris’s Cours de Vincennes in a unified stand against fascism that also managed to manifest itself much differently and culminate not in riot but “dreamy euphoria.” (Imagine a country’s street politics swinging from January 6th to the March on Washington in six days.)
The events of the 12th accrued “myth-like significance” over the next one to two years. Though neither the Sixth nor the 12th had been entirely the work of coalitions that anyone described as “Right” or “Left” in the moment, the second and third drafts of the days’ history increasingly “recast the entire drama in terms of left and right . . . Now all those paramilitaries and royalists and veterans who rioted on the Sixth were ‘the Right.’ Now those who called the Sixth ‘a Fascist plot’ and took to the streets in protest were ‘the Left.’”
In summarizing the lasting impact of that heady week, Fronczak concludes, “The left didn’t make the Twelfth; it’s closer to the truth—an exaggeration, surely, but closer to the truth all the same—to say the Twelfth made the left.”
Though Fronczak focuses little on contemporary antifascism, he occasionally draws attention to the lineage that binds the Antifa of even fascism’s 1920s “pre-history” with its present-day advocates. He recounts the story of 39-year-old Italian socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, who bravely spoke out against fascist violence in the chamber of deputies just after the electoral victory of Mussolini and the fascisti, then turned to friends and said, “You can start writing my eulogy now.” Eleven days later he was kidnapped and murdered, and almost immediately after his body was found, antifascisti “began to commemorate his life.”
Of Matteotti, Fronczak writes, “There were many victims of fascism before him, but all the same it’s fair to think of him as the first martyr of antifascism. And antifascism was to become very much a politics haunted by its martyrs. . . . Matteotti’s death hardened his comrades’ commitments, inspired the courage of dissidents throughout the land, and came to symbolize the suffering and sacrifice of all who resisted. Which is what martyrs do. They do so mostly by invocation. Antifascists evoke names like Giacomo Matteotti, José Guevara, Leone Ginzburg, Liselotte Hermann, Zoltán Schönherz, Eugenio Curiel, Akbar Aghayev, Norma Beatriz Melena, Sandra Neely Smith, Kalbinder Kaure Hayre, Carlo Guiliani, Brahim Bouarram, Clément Méric, Pavlos, Fryssas, Heather Heyer. The list goes on, and it lengthens still.”