On labelling fascists: postscript

Following the very large far-right demonstration in London on 9 June 2018, Caliban’s Revenge argued that we should clearly identify the fascist core of the new right wing street movement. Later this week, rs21 is releasing a new pamphlet on anti-fascism and the far right, featuring contributions from Caliban and a number of other writers. Follow our website coverage and our Facebook and Twitter for more information!

Here, the author revisits his argument from June 2018 in the light of subsequent developments.

Demonstration against DFLA, 13 October 2018. Photo: Steve Eason

When I wrote my article in June 2018, my contention was that an urgent response was required by the far left that would need to combine some classic aspects of anti-fascism with a broader struggle against the environment in which the new international far right was growing. Let me identify what I consider the three most important aspects of that response:

  • That we need to isolate the hardened reactionaries and racists from their softer milieu and this will involve characterising that core as ideologically and historically fascistic.
  • That we need to win key forces to mobilise on the street against the far right on the basis of mass, militant opposition.
  • That we need to conduct a broader struggle against mainstream racist policies, particularly those aimed at migrant communities.

Given that several months have passed since the original publication of this article I want to briefly examine each of these points in relation to developments over the intervening period.

Isolating the fascist core

This was the most controversial aspect of my essay. Some comrades and friends disagree with my expansive definition of fascism. In order to draw out and clarify this controversy, I will reiterate how I believe we can usefully apply the term.

My contention is that while the self-identification of groups and individuals with specific explicitly fascist traditions is important, it is not the defining feature of movements that we might want to characterise as fascist today. I define fascists as groups or individuals who support the suspension of human rights and the active suppression of subaltern social groups, who are explicitly hostile to workers’ organisations and who point to a mythologised past of the ‘nation’ to which they claim loyalty. The crucial question of fascism is principally its threat to democracy, trade unions and the oppressed, and secondarily its appeal to ruling class elements as a means to overcome capitalist crisis.

Fascism as such can be a tendency within a broader far-right milieu, but where the ideological focus of that milieu is weak and poorly defined, the trajectory of the fascist tendency within it will come to define it even without capturing its leadership. This is why a pre-referendum UKIP under Nigel Farage, an organisation with fascist elements within it, was able to keep those elements at the periphery despite building its reputation on hostility to migrants. It is also why it has turned sharply to the right following the referendum, after its primary purpose had been reabsorbed back into the Conservative Party. The fact that the adherents of this tendency not accept the moniker of fascism actually makes the accusation all the more compelling, and all the more important.

If we look at the shifting rhetoric of far right movements, from the NF of the 1970s to the DFLA today, culminating in the 15,000 marching in support of Tommy Robinson in June of 2018, you can easily trace the decline in the explicit self-identification with fascism or Nazism in relation to a parallel decline in political organisation. The NF, at their height, were openly inspired by the Third Reich while the BNP  remained a committed fascist organisation but de-emphasised that commitment in their electoral materials. The EDL drew on the detritus of the BNP and the far-right of the loyalist movement but never achieved the kind of ideological coherence necessary to an electoral challenge.

The EDL was the first grouping to try to portray itself, not merely as ‘non fascist’, but as actively ‘anti-fascist’. This has been even more important and explicit for the DFLA, which has made anti-fascism key to its claim to be ‘against extremism of all kinds’ – a rhetoric which mirrors the objectives of the Government’s PREVENT programme. But while the EDL and the DFLA have expressed this hostility to fascism, their demonstrations have been organised around a core of indisputable fascists. The prevalence of Nazi salutes in their ranks and the slogans on their message boards attest to this.

Since June, we have seen the DFLA demonstrate greater and greater emphasis on this claim, and along with it less and less capability to mobilise on the street. What all this tells us is that fascism provides an ideological coherence to movements of the extreme right, and that the more hostility those movements are forced to direct towards that tendency within their own ranks the harder it is for them to develop politically. What it shows is that sloganeering against far right groups as ‘Nazis’ or ‘fascists’ is extremely effective, even if those groups only contain fascist tendencies within them and are not organisationally led by explicit fascists.

Mobilising against the right

The main objective of the original article was to inject a sense of urgency into the left regarding the threat of the far right, in particular the need to shift broad anti-racist forces from propagandising against the far right to mobilising against them in the street. Many voices, rightly alarmed by the size of the DFLA demonstration and the degree of sympathy expressed by sections of the general public, made the case for this.

The most significant of these was John McDonnell when he called for the rebirth of the Anti Nazi League. This was extremely important, firstly because McDonnell was explicitly calling for the far right to be confronted on the streets and on the basis of mass left unity, secondly because for the first time ever that call was coming from the leadership of the Labour Party. The fight to win and subsequently preserve a left wing Labour leadership has attracted thousands of new people into the party, many of them young and with aspirations that go far beyond the reforms on offer. This constituency is the best hope for a mass, radical anti-racist movement this country has seen in years but the response from the Labour left has been sluggish.

John McDonnell has called for a revival of the Anti-Nazi League

The response from Momentum, at the national level at least, was a stark demonstration of its weaknesses. The potential of a parallel movement like Momentum, building out of the mass movement to defend Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, was not merely the creation of an electoral army of canvassers, but the possibility of building extra-parliamentary fronts against austerity, gentrification and the rabid racism of the Tory government. Some local Momentum groups have been very actively involved in such campaigns but the perspective of the leadership has remained almost exclusively electoral. Frankly, it is hard sometimes to tell if they are actually ideologically opposed to extra-parliamentary activity or simply do not know how to do it.

Following the June 2018 demonstrations and McDonnell’s call for action Momentum sponsored some very slick digital propaganda aimed at opposition to the far right, which is something the organisation does very well. However dragging the movement out onto the street has proved far more challenging.

That said, at the last major confrontation with the far right we did see Labour activists, particularly around Momentum, mobilise a notable, independent presence for the first time. The march in December of 2018, where UKIP united with the milieu around Tommy Robinson – an extremely grave and somewhat predictable development that deserves to be subject of analysis in its own right – was opposed by an anti-fascist assembly of comparable numbers. Hard work by anti-fascists agitating within and, perhaps more significantly, at the periphery of the Labour Party seem at last to have begun to shift the movement. It remains to be seen if this trend will broaden and continue.

We have also seen the promising growth of new and, crucially, young and militant anti-fascist organisation, particularly in London. While the SWP front organisations, UAF and SUTR have at least the virtue of consistent opposition to far right mobilisation, it is undeniable that since the early days of the EDL the confidence of these groups to directly, physically challenge far right formations for control of the streets has seriously diminished.

When considering why there has been a decline in the strategy of direct confrontation it is important not to overstate the case. Anti-fascism requires mass militant action but of these two aspects ‘mass’ is by far the most important. Defeating the far right, alienating the fascist core from the soft racist periphery, requires that we out mobilise the enemy. Anti-racist sentiment has far broader appeal in society at large, but when hardened fascists are able to outnumber us on the street principled opposition is vital but talk of challenging or even ‘blocking’ the fascists is delusional. The shift to static counter demonstrations was necessitated by the movement’s inability to mobilise sufficient numbers to challenge EDL demonstrations and the overwhelming police presence brought in to contain them. The wider question is why we were unable to mobilise anti-racist sentiment against the real world threat of racist violence, but I will address that elsewhere.

The retreat from direct confrontation, to some extent, undermined the confidence of anti-fascists in Britain and, in the absence of major community or Labour Party engagement to its right, the movement became over reliant on a relationship with the trade union bureaucracy and subsequently the authorities. The strategy of static demonstrations which had been necessitated by small numbers became a matter of principle, and all attempts to confront the far right more directly – even when the forces present are sufficient and willing to do so – began to be dismissed as ‘squadist’ or ‘adventurist’.

In response to the routinism of SUTR-led demonstrations, various smaller groups have been able to mobilise comparable numbers independently and with an explicit intention to confront the fascists en masse. There are a number of things that are extremely positive about this development.

Firstly, and most importantly, these formations have so far eschewed both the static tactics of the SUTR leadership and the minoritarian squadism of some anti-fascists in the past. The emphasis has not been on fetishising violence, but on mass obstruction of far right demonstrations.

Secondly, they have been explicitly lead by women with the Feminist Anti Fascist Assembly bringing together women from a variety of political traditions and groups to the forefront of building for these actions. This is particularly significant both because of the increased emphasis on male supremacy in the new far right and because of the historic, and ongoing failure, of the far left to cleanse the misogynists and abusers from its ranks (a point that has been addressed by Kate Bradley). This has been a major obstacle to bringing young people in general, particularly students, out on the streets, the absence of which has been a major reason for the decline in confidence and militancy.

What I would hope to see emerging out of this is a broader umbrella movement that can encompass all of these factions of the anti-fascist movement, at least in terms of collective organisation for demonstrations: the Labour Party and Momentum, SUTR with its links to the trade union movement, and the emergent militant anti-fascists. Some comrades would argue that the new forms of organisation already pose an alternative to the existing routinist anti-racist movement, in particular SUTR which is understood as a simple cover for the SWP. I don’t agree that this is the case, and I will explain a little why below.

The broader struggle

In June, I argued that anti-fascism alone was insufficient to counter the growing threat of the reactionary right. The seriousness of that threat has only become more obvious over the preceding period, particularly if considered on a global scale. Bolsanaro’s sweeping victory in Brazil was a sobering moment for progressives everywhere, and extreme rightist forces in Europe continue to advance. The international nationalism of the far right has given confidence to fascists and fascistic movements the world over.

In a political landscape blighted by austerity and in which the ‘centre’ variously bleats that stagnating wages and eroding public provision are either the fault of migrants or represent the best of all possible worlds, the far right can pose as an alternative. We can see this within elements of the French Yellow Shirt insurgency or the Five Star government in Italy. David Renton has rightly observed that we are seeing a blurring of the lines between mainstream conservatism and the Far Right (see now his forthcoming book, The New Authoritians: Convergence on the Right). Nowhere is this clearer than in the Trumpian Republican Party. Fascism is not antithetical to the capitalist order; on the contrary, it may be the last resort of the capitalist class to save itself. We are seeing an ever more polarised world of ever accelerating crisis.

In such an environment, even in cases where the far right has so far struggled to evolve a cohesive political identity, as it has in this country, it will continue to thrive and fester in popular sentiment. The DFLA appears to have stalled, at least for now, but in December of 2018 Tommy Robinson, in combination with post referendum UKIP, was still able to mobilise thousands of these unaligned racists onto the street under the banner of support for Brexit.

It is not possible to oppose the far right by seeking to preserve the centre. The fortunes of the Clintons and the Macrons are a testament to their own redundancy. The poisonous alternative offered by the far right, of a return to a mythical white male Eden, can only be countered by the hope of a better world, a hope that rejects the squalid logic of the status quo. That’s why we don’t respond to the yellow shirts by shrugging our shoulders and submitting to a regressive tax that makes the poor pay the price for climate change, but join them on the streets and fly the banner for green jobs and nationalised energy. That is why we do not posit a People’s Vote as the opposition to Tommy’s Brexiteers but unite across leave and remain to fight for freedom of movement and migrants in or out.

This is plainly an argument for a broad struggle for socialism in the context of accelerating crisis and certainly this is what is required. Jonathan Neale sums up the importance of this unified struggle in reference to Bolsanaro’s assault on indigenous rights:

For Bolsonaro and people like him, racism, homophobia, sexism and heating the planet are core, inter-related parts of their project. This is true not just for Bolsonaro, but for his allies on the new brutal right …… We who labour away on our different concerns would do well to recognise this. What unites us is our enemy. But there is a flip side. We are learning from the American resistance to Trump, and the Indian resistance to Modi, that resistance in any one of of these areas can strike at the heart of their power, and resonate, and lead to unexpected uprisings about other issues.

A key mistake some comrades make here is in asserting that rather than fighting these individual battles, so-called ‘culture wars’ or issues of identity, we should focus solely on the economic exploitation on the class as a whole. To take that view is a failure to fight for the class and its interests as they are expressed across the whole surface of the system. Precisely as Neale identifies, it is precisely because these battles are interconnected that the far-right and the right-ward shifting centre are vulnerable to struggles across the spectrum of social injustice.

The role of socialists is not to deflate these struggles in favour of the economic, but to illuminate the centrality of the economic in all of these struggles – to bring the power and the promise of the self- conscious working class into every aspect of its existence. As such, apart from the general fight for a socialist future, there are specific and urgent tasks that are required of an anti-racist movement both beyond the confrontation with fascists on the street and which are absolutely necessary to the success of those confrontations.

These tasks include: the fight back against the extension of our borders into every aspect of the social sphere, particularly the NHS; solidarity and support for refugees dying on our doorstep and for those threatened with deportation; the struggle for justice for the victims of police brutality; the fight against the Islamophobic culture of surveillance and its invasion of schools and colleges. In order for the anti-racist movement to develop the forces required to not merely challenge but defeat the far right on the streets it has to bring people together to address these tasks both nationally and locally.

If we want to end the reliance on parachuting in the disintegrating far left to counter rightist mobilisations, then we need to establish local campaigns that are rooted in the struggles of their communities. The failure to achieve this is one of the defining features that distinguishes the success of the ANL in the 1970s from the constant desperation of UAF in recent years. The mass support for a left Labour leadership demonstrates the vast potential to build grassroots anti-racist campaigns. It is only the narrow electoral politics and dwindling confidence of the labour movement that has prevented that potential from being realised.

Engaging in campaigns of this nature locally can build anti-racist organisation nationally. Drawing local trade union branches and Labour Party organisations into these local struggles on the basis of a broad anti-racist front can help us build a movement that does not have to scramble together the resources to respond to the far right at the last minute. Beyond that it can draw the communities most directly threatened by the racist right, people of colour, migrants, Muslims, into the national struggle against fascism by proving in practice that anti-racist organisations are addressing the violence of their everyday lives and that anti-fascism is an organic part of those struggles.

Counter-demonstration against the DFLA on 9 June 2018. Photo: Steve EAson

The new anti-fascist organisations are reviving the tradition of mass militant confrontation with the far right. This is crucial to isolating the fascists from their milieu. These new anti-fascist organisations are young, diverse, innovative and not dependent on the conservative trade union bureaucracy or bogged down by decades of declining prospects. Comrades are building these movements and fighting for a class struggle perspective and engagement with the grassroots of the labour movement. But what SUTR still has is that link to the bureaucracy and the left Labour leadership. It is absolutely right to be critical of the failings of SUTR and of the SWP, but it is vital to be able to unite these forces, despite their open and mutual hostility, in both campaigns and mobilisations.

Wherever socialists find themselves, they should be seeking to build local anti-racist organisation on this basis, preparing to mobilise on the street, but building against Islamophobia and the hostile environment locally, and connecting those struggles to national campaigns. And they should be seeking to unite with all anti-racist forces to achieve that.

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