The left-wing "Antifa" movement is rising in prominence after clashing with white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., but one progressive scholar says the anti-fascists feed the fire they seek to extinguish.
"As for Antifa, it's a minuscule fringe of the Left, just as its predecessors were," Noam Chomsky told the Washington Examiner. "It's a major gift to the Right, including the militant Right, who are exuberant."
Many activists affiliated with the loosely organized Antifa movement consider themselves anarchists or socialists. They often wear black and take measures to conceal their identity.
Chomsky said, "what they do is often wrong in principle – like blocking talks – and [the movement] is generally self-destructive."
"When confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it's the toughest and most brutal who win – and we know who that is," said Chomsky, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That's quite apart from the opportunity costs – the loss of the opportunity for education, organizing, and serious and constructive activism."
The violence in Charlottesville ended Saturday when an alleged white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of anti-racism activists, not all of whom were Antifa activists, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring more than a dozen others. The driver has been charged with murder.
On Tuesday, Trump shocked viewers of a press conference, including prominent members of his own party, by saying "both sides" deserved blame for the violence. Critics said the president should single out white supremacists for scorn.
"There was a group on this side, you can call them the Left, you've just called them the Left, that came violently attacking the other group," Trump said on Tuesday. "So, you can say what you want, but that's the way it is."
Where Antifa fits in a historical context of progressive activism is not yet clear, but some observers see the increasingly prominent movement — members of which were mass-arrested at Trump's inauguration after a march that featured window-smashing — as becoming an important, accepted part of the mainstream Left.
Mark Lance, professor of justice and peace at Georgetown University, said the Antifa movement's rise is a clear response to more open fascist organizing.
"I'm seeing more concrete productive discussion between anti-fascists and others on the Left these days than ever before in my life," Lance said.
"There is reason to think that it will become integrated into an emerging coalition that includes Sanders supporters, democratic socialists, dreamers, the Movement for Black Lives, environmentalists, [and] Native American organizers," he said.
Lance said Antifa actions "need not be violent confrontation, but most Antifa, in practice, are willing to physically resist fascist marches and defend themselves against fascist attack."
Reaching for American historical parallels for Antifa is difficult.
Lance said he doesn't see a close historical reference in leftist groups that formed in the 1960s like the Black Panthers or the Weather Underground, which conducted a bombing campaign aimed largely at damaging property. Both were primarily focused on government institutions, he said.
"There's some limited similarity to the Weather Underground," Chomsky said about the group that grew out of the anti-Vietnam War movement. He added, however, that "Weathermen differed not only in radically different context, but also in tactics, almost always against property, in intent at least."
By contrast, "Antifa purports to be defensive," he said.
Anti-fascism during the rise of Nazism in Germany is perhaps a better analogy for today's Antifa, said Chomsky, who expressed alarm at Trump's remarks. He clarified that in Germany, "left violence was hardly the problem."