I mentioned “premature anti-fascism” when I was speaking with someone at work about the current state of affairs in which the president is equating anti-fascist counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia with the armed neo-Nazis who came to their town last weekend. I was surprised she hadn’t heard the term before. In Fire Answers Fire, I referred to the term once as if it were a cliché, noting that one character’s turn of phrase was “not as tired as talking about the ‘premature anti-fascism’ of those who opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War.”
I wish I were better at getting people’s names and remembering them after the fact, but when I was working at the Strand Bookstore in the late 1970s, I had a regular customer who came to the history section at least once a week looking for any used books that might have arrived about the Spanish Civil War. I was thrilled whenever I was able to put away anything that might be up his alley, although the titles I found never failed to be books he already owned. He was an Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran who described himself as “Old Left,” which I took to mean that he had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, and as a “Premature Anti-Fascist.” Speaking with him may have been the first time that I heard that term. In the 1950s, he told me, those who had gone to fight fascism in Spain in 1937 were labeled with that term by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee and all the other government entities hunting Reds at the time. It now seems that there are no official records of any governmental groups ever having used the term (it’s important to do at least cursory fact checking when the tools are so readily available and there are so many people circulating fictional history to bolster their political views). Despite the lack of official records, the stories are widespread, not only of Lincoln Brigade members being labeled with the term in the 1950s, but of Charlie Chaplin being labeled that way by the FBI in 1941, or a Yale Classics professor from England hearing it applied to him in 1946 because of his service in Spain.
Whether coined by the government or the leftists themselves, it just seems like a phrase that all literate Americans should know right now with a new generation of neo-Nazis and anti-fascists on our streets. (Personal Disclaimer: I don’t think that anti-fascism can ever be premature.)