How do you solve a problem like extremism?

The topic of ‘extremism’ has lately dominated discussions about the global resurgence in far-right political sentiment. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward. For those with a vested interest, evoking the equivocal ‘horseshoe’ theory serves to obscure a primary factor in this resurgence – namely the dynamic relationship between the ‘extreme’ and the ‘mainstream’. As Shakira Hussein observed

the term “far-right extremism” has arguably become a misnomer, when the so-called extreme has become so firmly established in the mainstream.

Like other terms of political discourse, the absence of a clear definition of ‘extremism’ seriously hampers any possibility of a sensible or useful discussion. So, what is ‘extremism’, and who is an ‘extremist’?

The Australian Parliament website informs us that ‘Parliament … is a forum for debate on national issues.’ In which case, a useful point of reference might be the recent Senate motion on ‘National Security’ condemning ‘extremism’, passed 34 votes to 27 on February 4. Curiously

the motion passed … only after references to [Craig] Kelly and [George] Christensen were removed, and condemnation of far-left extremism, communism, anarchism and violence generally were added.

Given the embarrassment shitposting antics that the Members for Hughes and Dawson generated, the removal by the ruling Liberal-Nationals Coalition of references to Kelly and Christensen makes sense. So too, perhaps, does the addition of ‘communism’ and ‘anarchism’ to the list of Very Bad Things. Seemingly dismissing widespread recognition of QAnon as a far-right phenomenon, it’s also worth noting that the Senate motion joins left and right ‘extremisms’ in an allegedly common project of promoting conspiracy theories in order to better undermine ‘multiculturalism’. This itself is an odd perspective to identify with ‘left-wing extremism’, but the motion further enlists any and all groups ‘which seek to promote fascism, communism, anarchism, violence and bigotry in our community’ in this remarkable project.

The motion is otherwise short on detail but, apart from extolling the virtues of Australia as ‘one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world’, particular note is made of the fact that a neo-Nazi groupuscule – as it happens, extensively documented by said ‘anarchists’ – went camping in the Grampians (Gariwerd) on the eve of Australia Day. Simon Birmingham, the LNP Minister for Finance and Senator responsible for mangling Labor’s original motion, omitted to mention that such ‘far-left extremists’ as, perhaps, Jews against fascism, were among the many hundreds of thousands who joined Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and Indigenous groups protesting on Invasion Day. Presumably, in Birmingham’s view one ‘extreme’ balances the other. As and against the ‘mainstream’ that Birmingham so hopes to preserve and protect, JAF have previously acknowledged the remarkable efforts of Kooris in 1938 to draw the Australian government’s attention to the persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazis.

Classist nightmares of anarchy have haunted the bourgeois imagination for 150 years or so, while anti-communist campaigns were a staple of much propaganda of the twentieth century. It’s understandable, then, that recent political crises produced by ecological devastation, pandemic-related scarcity and – in the United States – the increasing threat of another outbreak of racial-civil war have given them a certain piquancy. Former US President Donald Trump’s frequent Twitter rages against ‘anarchists’ might, in this light, be reflective of the 2011 Annual Report by ASIO, which noted with concern that 

a recent development is the emergence of an ‘anti-fascist’ movement, led by self-styled anarchists, which aims to confront those it identifies as fascists, including some of the nationalist and racist extremist groups also of interest to ASIO.

In 2013, JM Berger, ‘a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism’, published a paper comparing white nationalists to anarchists. In 2015, the Australian government released a ‘Radicalisation Awareness Kit’, intended for distribution to schools with the aim of combating ‘extremism’. In 2017, Bustle wondered ’What is antifa?’ and ‘Why is this far-left extremist movement gaining more attention?’ while that same year Vice noted that Extremism experts are starting to worry about the left.

To be charitable to the Coalition – and to the members of the cross-bench who supported Birmingham’s amendment – being very much ’for’ or ‘against’ fascism and the Nazi genocide could be viewed as ‘extremist’, just as contemporary manifestations of fascist ideology and movement might also evoke different levels of concern and interest on the part of the wider public. In a less charitable reading, Coalition and cross-bench support for Pauline Hanson’s October 2018 motion – ‘That the Senate acknowledges: (a) the deplorable rise of anti-white racism and attacks on Western civilisation; and (b) that it is okay to be white‘ – can arguably be read as ‘extremist’ itself.

On Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27), Birmingham’s parliamentary colleague Josh Frydenberg took the opportunity to warn that antisemitism is on the rise in Australia, and stated that there is an obligation on all good people to ‘take on hate wherever we see it’. Sadly, this commitment didn’t prevent Frydenberg from appearing on Sky News Australia alongside Lauren Southern, nor cause him to ‘take on’ the alt-right ideology she’s made a career from espousing. Despite widespread recognition of the subject, he apparently fails to detect any conspiracy in ‘The Great Replacement’ thesis that Southern did so much to promote and which, tragically, helped to inspire an Australian to commit a massacre (even going so far as to title his justification for the slaughter after the thesis). ‘Good people’ would also find much antisemitic hate to ‘take on’ were they to examine the commentary inevitably generated on the relevant Sky News episode’s YouTube comments thread.

If Frydenberg had been paying attention, he may also have noticed that the conspiracies regularly aired on Sky News Australia have been picked up by Alex Jones – who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, is ‘almost certainly the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America’. Jones is also someone who played a significant role in the attempted putsch of January 6 in Washington, an event which shocked many, but which anti-fascists (and others who’ve been paying attention) found rather less surprising.

This failure to detect an ‘extremist’ presence was also evident in 2018, when Barnaby Joyce expressed profound scepticism on being informed that the Young Nationals in NSW were the subject of concerted entryism by neo-Nazis; in 2017, when George Christensen stumbled onto the neo-Nazi podcast that formed an important organising crucible for this infiltration; and again in 2014, when Craig Kelly stumbled into a birthday party for the Nazi puppet state in Croatia.

During the course of a hearing to discuss ‘Issues facing diaspora communities in Australia’ before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee in October 2020, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells stated that ‘I speak from almost 40 years of engagement in different communities, and, most especially, the work that I’ve done in countering violent extremism’. The Senator omitted to mention that in 2007 – perhaps as part of this work? – she, like Kelly in 2014, attended a birthday party for the brutal, Nazi-aligned Independent State of Croatia. In any event, when Fierravanti-Wells ahistorically implored the hearing to ‘not forget that fascism and Hitler’s socialist workers party emerged out of communism’ and that ‘fascism and communism are two sides of the same coin’, it’s unlikely she was referring to council communist Otto Ruhle’s 1939 essay ‘The Struggle Against Fascism Begins with the Struggle Against Bolshevism’. With regards state intervention to combat ‘extremism’, in March 2020 Fierravanti-Wells strongly objected to ASIO’s use of the term ‘right-wing’ while warning of the growing threat of right-wing extremism, saying it offended conservatives.

In other words, to be ‘conservative’ is to be right-wing, and Fierravanti-Wells wants to place as much political distance between ‘conservatism’ and ‘right-wing extremism’ as possible. This is an explicable goal, though its pursuit would certainly be helped if members of her government didn’t find themselves appearing on neo-Nazi podcasts, attending fascist celebrations, or promoting conspiracy theories.

In a survey of Australian authorities and the far right threat, Evan Smith notes that

equivocation about the far right is not new. Too often since the 1960s, the Australian authorities have dismissed the far right in Australia as ‘cranks’ and a low priority for the security services, or being concerned about the far right due to the possibility of violence arising from anti-fascist opposition.

In the 1920s, when Fascism first made its dramatic entry on to the stage of world history, its local advocates were treated rather more kindly by local authorities than were its opponents. As historians Frank Cain and Gianfranco Cresciani have observed, political police in pre-WWII Australia focused most of their efforts on disrupting anti-fascist activity, while simultaneously facilitating the efforts of local fascists – especially when these were being conducted on behalf of the Axis powers.

While popular among the various ‘de-radicalisation’ groups and programs that have proliferated in the last few years  (and the academic discourse that serves them), the adoption of an ‘anti-extremist’ framework for understanding fascism, the violence it generates, and the political forces which constitute its opposition, is of course hardly novel. Liz Fekete put it succinctly in 2013, when she wrote:

Not only do the new ‘experts’ on extremism dominate in the media (crowding out grassroots voices and perspectives), but another problem also arises when some NGOs and civil society actors, partly driven by the need to secure government funds or gain influence in policy circles, accommodate themselves to anti-extremist frameworks in ways that undermine the broader vision inherent in anti-fascism. For anti-fascism has always been linked to anti-racism, and effective anti-racism/anti-fascism opens one up to the broader picture, one which may, as a matter of practical necessity, have to foreground the neo-Nazis at certain points, but does so in ways that illuminate (rather than obscure) the political culture and social reality that gives them succour.

Receiving less attention than ruling party worry about the fascism, communism, anarchism, violence and bigotry in our community are the ways in which alleged extremes have become mainstream. For critics like Tariq Ali, recent years have witnessed the emergence of an ‘extreme centre’: a neoliberal consensus distinguished primarily through a compliant service to the market; elsewhere arguing that ’people talk about the extreme left and the extreme right, but the real danger today is from the extreme centre.’


While the anarchist opposition to fascism that so worries ASIO is not, in fact, a recent development (Italian anarchists living in Melbourne were very active in the 1920s), it remains the case that government agencies which target political ‘extremism’ are inadequate to addressing an emergent fascist movement. For this reason, anarchists and other anti-fascists must continue to monitor, document, challenge and disrupt fascist organising, whatever form this organisation takes, and do so with our energy, our intelligence and our steadfastness.


Image: Detail from the red scare satirical cartoon ‘Step by Step’ (1919)

Andy Fleming

Andy Fleming is a Melbourne-based anarchist and author of the slackbastard blog, featuring his political and social musings. He is a long time observer of the far Right in Australia and internationally. You can support his work on Patreon.

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