Is Alexander Reid Ross the CEO/dad of antifa?: On contagion, shades of grey, and the three-way fight

The Cautiously Pessimistic blog explores whether the antifascist critique of red-brown alliances has been discredited after one journalist associated with that critique moved over to an "anti-extremist" think tank.

Submitted by R Totale on March 29, 2021

In recent years, there have been a number of controversies on the left over the subject of “red-brown alliances”, those areas where some right-wingers attempt to recruit from, or actively cooperate with, sections of the left.

There have been many people involved in arguing against any such alliances; one of them, Alexander Reid Ross, has now gone on to working for a centrist “anti-extremist” think tank linked to various US state figures. To be clear, anyone working for the Network Contagion Research Institute has definitely crossed a line; whatever “our side” is, Ross has definitely ceased to be on it. Some of those who Ross has criticised in the past, notably Max Blumenthal, the Assadist and frequent Tucker Carlson guest, have seized on this development as a way to attempt to discredit everything he’s ever written and all the positions that he’s been aligned with.

This argument, as a far as it goes, is a fairly asinine form of ad hominem: back in 2018, I wrote “I have no desire to defend everything Ross has ever said, because frankly he gives me careerist vibes and I’m not a big fan of his writing, but to focus on the man himself is kind of a distraction… anti-fascist opposition to co-operation with the far-right is not something new, a neoliberal attack on the left, or something that can be simply equated with the work of Ross… If, for the sake of argument, we were to hypothetically agree that Andrew Reid Ross was the biggest prick in the world, that still wouldn’t mean that everything Sol Process, Vagabond or Matthew Lyons has written should be automatically discarded, even if Ross makes some of the same points as them.”

I’d be tempted to leave the subject there, but another recent article, from Rhyd Wildermuth at Gods & Radicals Press, attempts to make a broader argument about antifascism, founded on a critique of Ross’ work. I think Wildermuth’s argument is seriously flawed, and it’s worth taking the time to explore why.

Setting out the supposed importance of Ross as a target, Wildermuth writes:

“Alexander Reid Ross is a very prolific writer. He has been a columnist or had articles published for Truthout, The Daily Beast, Vice, Haaretz, Alternet, EarthFirst (where he was previously also editor), TheEcologist, The Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch blog (which retracted and apologized for his work), and has written and co-written articles and papers at Jacobin, In These Times, and many academic journals, as well as anonymously in many Antifa resource blogs.”

When touching on the Ross/Blumenthal/SPLC controversy, Wildermuth uses a form of “passive voice”, which could lead a reader to conclude that the SPLC just happened to read over Ross’ writings, decide that they weren’t up to scratch, and withdrew them on their own accord.

Later in the same article, Wildermuth does the same thing again, writing that:

“Most famously, the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of two primary clearinghouses for information about fascism and hate groups in the United States (the other being the ADL, who is an affiliate of the think tank where Ross now works, and his boss there is a former research fellow for the ADL), retracted all of Alexander Reid Ross’s essays they had published, with public apologies to the targets Ross had falsely accused.”

What’s left out here is the role of the courts: the SPLC withdrew Ross’ work under legal pressure after threats from Blumenthal’s lawyers. It wasn’t some free, neutral decision, but one made under pressure from legal threats – that is to say, ultimately, from the state. There’s a certain irony here, as Wildermuth’s central argument is that anti-fascism needs to be anti-state, and he complains that “Ross’s framework rarely ever mentions the state at all”, but he carefully skips over any mention of the state’s role when it comes to this issue.

Anyway, the story doesn’t end there: after Blumenthal’s lawyers got the offending article censored, it was rehosted at several other sites, including this one, and Bob from Brockley published a two-part fact check, concluding “Alex Reid Ross’s SPLC report stands up to scrutiny. Any threats by Blumenthal that led to SPLC taking it down are empty. SPLC were wrong to cave in.” To date, I have yet to see anyone convincingly reply to or rebut Bob’s fact-check on this point.

Next, Wildermuth gives more claims about the importance of Ross’ work:

“Needless to say, Ross’s media presence is rather expansive, and he has become a kind of ideological pillar of American anti-fascist thought. Regardless whether or not an activist, journalist, or just an average person knew who he was, much of our understanding of what fascism is and how it works has been shaped by Ross’s works.”

This seems like a bit of an overstatement. Again, back in 2018, I wrote “anti-fascist opposition to co-operation with the far-right is not something new, a neoliberal attack on the left, or something that can be simply equated with the work of Ross. Instead, it’s a theme that’s come up again and again in debates within our movements, running back at least as far as the arguments made by people like the Dutch antiracist organisation “De Fabel van de illegaal” and the authors of the “My Enemy’s Enemy” collection during the summit protest/anti-globalization movement of almost 20 years ago, through to people like Spencer Sunshine warning of the danger of far-right and antisemitic participation in the Occupy movement, and a subject that’s been brought up to the present day by a wide variety of writers including Elise Hendricks, Sol Process, Vagabond, Matthew Lyons and other contributors to the Three-Way Fight project, Andy Fleming, the Olympia anarchists who spoke out against Sadie and Exile, along with others like Bob from Brockley, Louis Proyect and Andrew Coates.”

Spencer Sunshine himself added:

“Ross merely popularized work that others did for many years.

The ur-text here is Chip Berlet’s 100 page report “Right Woos Left,” which looks at Far Right groups from the 1950s to 1990s who did outreach to the Left in various ways:

…In addition, Kevin Coogan’s “Dreamer of the Day” (1998) and Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s “Black Sun” (2002) were some pivotal books in our understanding of the Third Positionist and other unorthodox fascist currents which sought unity with left-wing currents in various ways.”

Wildermuth sets out what he sees as three different frameworks for understanding fascism, liberal, Marxist, and Ross-ist:

“All three frameworks differ significantly in their answers to one historical question: how can we explain the powerful communist movements that preceded the birth of the three really-existing fascist states in human history (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Spain under Franco)? In each of these fascisms, liberal-democratic politicians made choices to align with the fascists against the communists, often times specifically aiding the fascists in hunting down and killing communist organizers, intellectuals, and leaders…

In the Marxist framework, the answer lies in the strange fact that the state never sided with the leftists, but only ever with the fascists. At no point in the lead-up to Hitler’s rise to Chancellorship did the government stop their repression of communists or enlist their aid against this “other” existential threat. Likewise in Italy and Spain, the government—and especially the capitalist class—repeatedly sided with the fascists against the communists and anarchists and relied on fascists within their police and military forces to be particularly brutal in this repression. Such facts makes the conclusion of the Marxist framework seem self-evident: the fascists were a necessary weapon against left-wing revolution…

The conclusion of the Marxist framework is that the capitalist state and the fascists will inevitably side with each other, and thus both must be fought simultaneously. Thus, the way to fight fascism is to build an alternative political movement that opposes both the fascists and the state, and (as in Walter Benjamin’s conception) to recognize that the “emergency” of fascism is a feature of the capitalist state, not an exception. Therefore, the state and the capitalist class are never seen as a potential ally against fascism, but rather the actual cause of fascism itself.”

This is, I suppose, one version of a Marxist framework. Others are available. In order to insist that “the capitalist state and the fascists will inevitably side with each other” – a sort of crude reductionism where big business, the state, and the fascists can be treated as virtually interchangeable – a lot has to be left out.

Yes, the liberal-democratic states aligned with fascism at certain points. It’s also the case that the Weimar Republic jailed Hitler for treason in 1924, that much of the ruling class supported the Popular Front in France against the far-right, that the British state brought in the Public Order Act to use against the BUF, and that much of the Republican state in Spain chose to fight against Franco rather than just accepting his takeover as necessary and inevitable. In short, the capitalist state and the fascists will side with each other under certain conditions, but both exist as separate actors with distinct interests, and will frequently clash with each other under other conditions. This isn’t my original analysis, of course, it’s the basis of what’s often called “the three-way fight”, a framework developed by various thinkers but particularly Matthew Lyons.

Wildermuth’s Italy-Germany-Spain framework also fails to deal with conditions post-1945. If fascism is seen simply as a necessary weapon against revolution, then how do we explain the situation which we find ourselves in today, when we don’t have a Spartacist uprising, a Biennio Rosso or a CNT, and yet we still find ourselves dealing with ultranationalist political movements?

Any attempt to analyse fascism that goes beyond “you had Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, that’s it, that’s all you need to know about fascism” should probably engage with the continuing influence of Evola, and the turn to “metapolitics” among the post-1945 far right. Thinking about the “cultural turn” in fascist strategies, an explanation along the lines of “fascism is when King Victor Emmanuel III appoints Mussolini as Prime Minister” would struggle to cope with the ongoing battles over fascist influence in subcultural scenes such as punk, skinhead, black metal and industrial. I suspect that these conflicts probably did far more to contribute to the emergence of a “fascist creep” framework than the work of a relative johnny-come-lately like Alexander Reid Ross.

Then there’s another attempt at puffing up Ross’ importance:

“Here we can start to note the immense influence that Alexander Reid Ross and his “fascist creep” framework has had on anti-fascist organizing in the United States. Besides the previously-cited article denouncing the post-left, Ross warned in the last few years against eco-extremism, anarcho-primitivism, esoteric leftism, anti-modernism, and many other “fringe” leftist positions, and cast repeated aspersions on one anarchist publisher, Little Black Cart. Writers published by that press often found themselves black-listed elsewhere, or becoming the subject of anonymous tracts and denouncements, and the now-deceased publisher, Aragorn!, had his tires slashed and books he published destroyed at anarchist book fairs.”

Who are the eco-extremists that Little Black Cart were so unfairly maligned for publishing? Another article by Wildermuth, linked to in that paragraph, gives us an answer:

“Atassa was a journal collecting some of the most problematic ideas around violence as a response to environmental collapse, inspired by the Mexican illegalist post-anarchist group ITS (Individuals Tending Towards the Savage [Wild]). ITS has claimed to kill scientists, industrialists, and even fellow anarchists in the name of the Wild, not to save the planet for anyone but really just to embody its profound vengeance.”

Or we could go straight to the source itself – for instance, here’s a typically charming extract from ITS, published after the Christchurch massacre:

“The attack made by tarrant marked contemporary history, it will motivate future attacks in Europe and USA, there will be consequences. ISIS (now reduced to a guerrilla) and Al Qaeda of Islamic Magreb promised revenge and are encouraging their lone wolves to attack white supremacists, obviusly ITS celebrate all this, we do not care about the tears of the massacred muslims, neither the tears of the future victims of the islamic extremists, the attack of Tarrant will bring Chaos and destabilization and if it comes, we warmly welcome it.”

And so on and so on. To put it mildly, if you choose to publish a fanzine wanking over this kind of misanthropic reactionary shit, then having someone embody profound vengeance on your car tires in the name of the Wild is the very least you should expect.

As it happens, I’m not convinced that ITS are coherent enough to really count as fascist, I think their brand of murderous reaction is probably a distinct entity, in the same way that you could make a case that “fascist” isn’t the most accurate label for ISIS. But it’s obvious that none of these reactionary murderers have any relevance to any sort of liberation.

And again, it’s a complete distortion to pretend that opposition to the ITS/Atassa/LBC axis came just from Ross, as if he was some kind of puppetmaster and no-one would be able to recognise this shit as objectionable without his influence. Perhaps the earliest and most widely circulated condemnation of ITS came from Scott Campbell, and it was Campbell, not Ross, who got a death threat in response.

Similarly, there’s been extensive hostility to ITS/Atassa from within the anti-civ/nihilist/insurrectionary milieus, from people who it hardly makes sense to portray as Reid-Rossists. The devastating critique “Of Indiscriminate Attacks and Wild Reactions” came from this quarter, and it was 325 who doxxed the editor of Atassa, along with documenting much of the pushback against the misanthropic reactionaries, some of which is collected in Against Eco-Extremism: Mirror image of Civilisation & Religion. Whatever differences I have with 325, or the nihilist-anarchists and anarchist-insurrectionalists who contributed to the critique of eco-extremism, it hardly seems likely that any of them are likely to follow Reid Ross into some state-sponsored centrist think tank.

As if anarchists need Alexander Reid Ross to explain to us that people who boast about killing anarchists, bombing anarchist squats and so on are not our friends!

What’s at stake in the red-brownism debate is not just a matter of different opinions on fascism/antifascism, but also differing understandings of imperialism. There’s the perspective, which I tend to call “internationalist”, that understands imperialism as a global system, with the US being one imperialist actor among many others, with the EU, Russia, China, and smaller would-be imperialist powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and so on, all struggling to assert their influence. Then there’s the crude campist/anti-American position, which understands imperialism as basically something the US does, meaning that anyone else, even if they may not be that virtuous in their own right, automatically counts as “resisting imperialism” if their interests happen to come into conflict with US foreign policy. These two perspectives have quite different implications when it comes to working out who our friends and enemies are. Let’s see where Wildermuth stands:

“Red-brown alliances, “third positionism” or “National Bolshevism,” refers specifically to historical attempts to reconcile leftist critiques of capitalism and far-right opposition to foreign state involvement, but is also often confused with the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler (which, for all its faults, gave the USSR enough time to become militarily strong enough to fight the Nazis). The particular foreign state seen as the common enemy within third-positionist politics in the last few decades has been the United States, its imperialist policies, and its unquestioned political power throughout the world.

As not only the most powerful military and economic nation-state in the world, but also a hegemonic cultural and ideological force (consider how difficult it is to find a large non-US city without a Starbucks, McDonald’s, or citizens who haven’t seen Titanic or heard a Madonna song…), the United States is often seen as a symbol of Empire, much like Rome functioned during that empire. Likewise, the US dominates all international trade and governing bodies, and often wields this dominance to ensure American capitalists are able to have access to exploit local economies.

This view of the United States (also a common Marxist and anarchist critique) certainly will make anyone who believes in the goodness of American Liberal Democracy—and also the average “fascist” Trump supporter—bristle a bit. In this way, the far-right of the United States and the liberal “center” have much more in common than they do with the far-left there (or elsewhere), as well as with any opposition (left or right) to American foreign policy throughout the world.”

In passing, I want to take a moment to reflect on how all over the shop Wildermuth’s ideological commitments seem to be – there can’t be many people, or at least I hope there can’t be many, who go from defending nihilist post-left trash like LBC in one breath, to urging us to consider the Hitler-Stalin pact from Stalin’s point of view in the next.

As with his understanding of fascism, Wildermuth seems to be relying on a crudely simplified model that can’t survive contact with reality. To say “left says America bad, center and right say America good” might seem plausible, but it means ignoring the vast fissures within the US establishment and right-wing between neo-con interventionists and isolationists – let’s not forget, after all, that “America First” was the slogan of those who opposed US entry into WWII. A left-winger who thinks the US is the root of all evil and a right-winger who thinks that the national interest is best served by avoiding foreign entanglements may not agree on much in terms of their basic worldviews, but, crucially, they may well agree on some specific questions, like “should the US invade this country?”

After all, if hearing from left-wing critics of US foreign policy is so deathly offensive to the right, then how do we explain the fact that Glenn Greenwald and Max Blumenthal keep going on Tucker Carlson all the time? Wildermuth’s model also struggles to cope with Trump himself, who, from his comments on John McCain being captured to describing soldiers as “losers” and “suckers”, has frequently sounded closer to what you might expect from an edgy crustpunk or dirtbag podcaster than the sort of sanctimonious piety expected of the political mainstream on these matters. Trump’s decision to bomb Syria in April 2017 caused the first serious fracture between him and his alt-right supporters, and the far-right also tended to oppose intervention in Syria in April 2018.

Continuing his case against Ross, Wildermuth writes that “In his Haaretz columns, Ross has also named leftist politician George Galloway, founder of The Intercept Glenn Greenwald, and even the anti-war collective Code Pink as part of this large-scale Russian conspiracy.”

This is apparently supposed to be so ludicrous as to be damning in itself, as if there was no legitimate grounds for critiquing these people. Unhelpfully, Wildermuth just provides a link to the entirety of Ross’ Haaretz columns, rather than linking to where each individual claim can be found, making it hard to assess either the accuracy of Wildermuth’s description of Ross’ claims, or the truth of those claims themselves.

But to survey each in turn: it’s a matter of public record that Galloway works for RT, so it’s not particularly wild to speculate that his interests might be aligned with the Russian state in some way. On the other hand, given Galloway’s declared support for the Conservative party, it’s harder to justify describing him as a “leftist politician” in any meaningful sense of the word.

Similarly, I can’t comment on the accuracy of whatever Ross said about Greenwald without actually seeing it, but the idea that criticism of Glenn “Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon are socialists” Greenwald is automatically wrong seems a bit odd.

As for Code Pink, it appears that Ross’ offence here was in writing about the New Horizons conference, which has seen guests including Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, along with the likes of David Duke, Alexander Dugin and Tim Pool. Code Pink is listed as a “friend” of the conference, along with Veterans Today, the American Herald Tribune, and Égalité & Réconciliation. It’s unclear whether Wildermuth thinks that this is factually incorrect, that there’s no actual link between Code Pink and the New Horizons conference, or if he just thinks that it’s wrong to talk about it, that it’s rude to point out when people attend conferences with David Duke, Alexander Dugin and Tim Pool.

For more on the socialist/internationalist critique of Code Pink, see the Oakland Socialist open letter to them, and subsequent discussion.

Surveying the reign of terror that’s apparently been brought about by the brainwashed followers of Reid Ross Thought, Wildermuth says that:

“…any leftist who dare suggest that right-leaning people might be brought into a leftist movement by addressing their material conditions—rather than lecturing them on non-binary pronouns—is of course definitely a “crypto.””

Some people might suggest that the decision to use non-binary pronouns as a punchline there says rather more about Wildermuth than it does about the supposed hordes of Ross-worshipping antifascists who are apparently going around calling everyone cryptofascists for talking about material conditions, apparently.

This kind of “you can’t alienate people by talking about weirdo offputting shit like non-binary pronouns” stuff is never a particularly good look, but it is quite entertaining when coming from someone like Wildermuth, who moonlights as a druid when he’s not defending the working class from the menace of non-binary pronouns. To be clear, I don’t have anything against people exploring alternative spiritualities or the occult or whatever if that’s what they’re into, but it would seem to put people in something of a glass house when it comes to throwing the “you’re putting normal people off with your weird cultural stuff” stone.

Wildermuth concludes by suggesting that “We can start questioning this idea that fascism is a kind of slippage, a path you find yourself on because you wandered too far out into the wild forests of radical politics, drank too deeply at fountains that only increased your thirst for liberation.”

But I don’t think that’s really what anyone argues about the likes of George Galloway or Glenn Greenwald, or why Mexican insurrectionists hate ITS so much. Instead, I’d suggest that what we need to bear in mind is the importance of understanding and opposing systems like capitalism and imperialism in all their complexity. Populist shortcuts, identifying specific baddies rather than engaging with the system as a whole, may seem appealing, but they can swiftly move on to the terrain of “this system would work fine if only we got rid of the bad people”. These simplified critiques don’t always lead to fascism, they can just as easily get stuck as some kind of social democracy, but they don’t deal with the real problem, and they tend to lead to confusion about who our friends and enemies are.

In so far as Wildermuth makes an original contribution, by swapping out the “three-way fight” model for a “two-way fight” where the state and fascists are seen as virtually interchangeable, he only adds to this confusion. After all, if “the capitalist state and the fascists will inevitably side with each other”, then anyone who claims to be against that state must be not a fascist and on our side, right?

In the comments below Wildermuth’s article, someone raises the question of Sadie and Exile, the former green scare prisoners who went eco-fascist.

Wildermuth responds:

“The case of those two in question (please note–several people suspect ARR actually wrote that article or had a significant hand in it) is an interesting matter. I still know many anarchists who know those two who do not believe they are actually fascists, but rather just played with the aesthetic (the Black Sun, in particular, is used by many, many non-fascists). They’re interesting specifically because it’s the most common example I ever hear quoted in defense of ARR’s theory, and has become a kind of mythic event upon which the “creep” theory relies.”

As for the authorship of the article, it’s pretty obvious that the author/s of “A Field Guide to Straw Men”, “Of Indiscriminate Attacks and Wild Reactions”, and “Fascism, Ecology, and the Tangled Roots of Anti-Modernism” are the same person or people, and all three seem to express an anti-civ anarchist perspective that isn’t really apparent in ARR’s other work. Also, I have to admit I struggle with the “Ross wrote those articles anonymously” idea because, whatever else you might say about him, I’ve never seen him be accused of being modest or self-effacing, he seems like a man who is eager to put his name on things.

More to the point, as to whether Sadie and Exile are not “actually fascists, but rather just played with the aesthetic (the Black Sun, in particular, is used by many, many non-fascists).” Let’s review a little bit of the evidence, shall we?

The “loyalty is mightier than fire” blog is clearly not some innocent playing around with pretty shapes that just so unfortunately happen to have some right-wing connotations, as if the reason he posted all those swastikas was that he just couldn’t get enough of 90° angles. The most cursory engagement with the evidence shows that it featured a deep engagement with and appreciation of fascist ideas.

As to whether their case has become “a kind of mythic event upon which the “creep” theory relies”, anyone who follows these issues will know that Sadie and Exile aren’t even the only former ELF/ALF prisoners who’ve embraced eco-fascism in recent years – see “Goodbye Walter Bond” and “Walter Bond and his eco-fascist trajectory”. It’s good to see that there are so many people within that milieu who are willing to challenge those who people move right; I don’t think that denying the problem exists helps at all.