Defeating racism will take more than an anti-fascist strategy, but we should clearly identify the fascist core of the new right wing street movement, argues Caliban’s Revenge.
On 9 June 2018, central London saw the largest demonstration organised by the far right for many years. Perhaps more than 15,000 assembled to protest “against extremism” and “to support free speech”, but even the most casual observer would have found it hard to miss the Nazi salutes and Islamophobic rhetoric. Rather than “extremism” the target of this demonstration was plainly the entire Muslim community: the “free speech” the organisers seek to protect is the right to terrorise that community with impunity and to restore the pogrom that lurched across the country targeting Muslim communities under the banner of the English Defence League.
Having only recently seen the long, slow decline of the last upsurge in organised racist violence, many have been alarmed by this development. That alarm is well founded. The Manchester Arena Bombing last year, carried out by an attacker who is generally believed to have been a supporter of ISIS, was truly horrifying. The local response was, for the most part, magnificent – emphasising the determination of Mancunians not to allow their communities to be torn apart by fear or bigotry. But inevitably incidents like this have given the far right an opportunity to restore their legitimacy. However, the problem isn’t just a local one.
All over the world we have seen the mainstreaming of far-right politics. In some places it has helped truly reprehensible governments come into power, but the neoliberal centre has also courted this tendency in the face of growing dissatisfaction with crisis and austerity. An emerging international of bigotry was a key feature of Saturday’s march, with Dutch racist Geert Wilders addressing the crowd and one-time-Svengali of the Trump administration Steve Bannon (who presently stalks the beer halls of Europe like a crypto-fascist plague horse) expressing his support. Sinister elements like these bankrolled the demonstration last Saturday, and back the factions of the Football Lad’s Alliance that were its key organisers.
The left response to this rapidly emerging movement has, so far, not been cohesive. At most 400 courageous anti-racists turned up to the counter-protest, despite the fact that actions called by the FLA and its schism, the DFLA, have been building support over the last year. There is a long and established tradition of anti-fascism in this country going all the way back to the Battle of Cable Street in the 1930s, which is one reason why – unlike on the continent – there hasn’t been a really successful political manifestation of the fascist right here for many years. But in the wake of the current resurgence of the far right, some socialists have urged caution.
The FLA, building on the dying embers of the EDL and general hostility to migrants fostered by the referendum, had already seen some success with their coded rhetoric against “extremism” – but the shift to focusing on white anxieties about “freedom of speech” (essentially the right to call your neighbour a n*****) has significantly broadened their appeal. Some people who would never have supported the EDL, and who don’t condone the violent language directed at Muslim communities, are expressing support for Tommy Robinson’s “political imprisonment” for “telling the truth about Muslim grooming gangs”. Robinson’s arrest for very nearly causing the case prosecuting a group of child molesters to collapse, was in reality a carefully orchestrated ploy to turn the former EDL leader into a martyr. The ploy worked, and Robinson’s imprisonment was the central theme of the demonstration.
Those wary of reflexively employing previous anti-fascist strategies against this new formation have pointed to this wider layer of soft racists; working class men and women – some of them Labour voters – alienated by a sometimes bombastic impulse to “call out” imperfect attitudes to oppressed minorities and sexual politics. Some have cringed at the characterisation of the new movement as “fascist”, pointing out that they attracted families and the young, and that the really hardened sieg heiling knuckle draggers were only a significant minority of last Saturday’s substantial crowds. People have also pointed to a political landscape that presents serious obstacles to the growth of a mass nationalist movement, principally the huge support for the left leadership of the Labour party and the unprecedented growth of Labour and Momentum over the last few years. Likewise explicitly racist forces, certainly nothing to the right of UKIP, have been unable to develop a coherent political challenge since the collapse of the BNP at the ballot box, although the leadership of the EDL tried very hard to do so.
These people are right to caution against panicked responses to the re-emergence of the far right on the street. Torches have been lit all the way from Virginia to Athens, but the Reichstag isn’t burning yet. Likewise it is vital that we understand the difference between ambivalent working class people who entertain racist views and the very small minority of determined and organised white nationalists who are at the core of these demonstrations. But understanding that doesn’t mean withdrawing from the struggle to claim the public sphere, or failing to identify and confront fascism on the street.
I have seen three major revivals of the far right, and by “seen”, I don’t mean merely witnessed or even protested against: I mean I have been subject to them in a mortally terrifying and personal way. It’s an experience shared by hundreds of thousands of Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, trade unionists, activists and LGBT individuals spanning generations. The collective memory of how those struggles were conducted, and ultimately won, is always in peril of being submerged under the equally important intelligence of the unique context in which each new battle emerges. While recognising that the terrain has changed and that the challenge of defeating racism now demands new strategies, it is just as vital that we draw on this collective memory. Because some debates that may seem new, are in fact very stale, and because some comrades do not understand what is happening now – because they do not really understand what happened then.
The accelerated rise of the National Front was not predicated in the first instance on the support of hardened racists or the lumpen/petit bourgeois cabals that are the core of fascist movements. The late 60s saw major demonstrations by working class whites threatened by post war immigration and inspired by Enoch Powell’s apocalyptic “Rivers of blood” speech. Many of their number were organised workers with a tradition of support for the Labour movement. The NF began as principally an electoral organisation, but in response to the emergence of mass anti-migrant demonstrations began to shift to calling street marches, public stunts and limited forays into the labour movement. As the ballot box showed increasingly diminishing returns, the street became the focus of the group’s activities. Breaking the NF, well into the 80s, meant breaking generalised racist sentiments against migrants from the specific street manifestations organised by, but well beyond, the NF. Central to that struggle was painting National Front activity as organised by Nazis.
That characterisation was crucial to the decline in support for the NF, and nobody learnt that better than the fascists themselves. Jean-Marie Le Pen of the NF’s French sister organisation pioneered a “third way” approach which emphasised the need to clean up the image of the far right – to look and talk respectably, to play down the ethnic cleansing and instead talk about “Illegal migrants” and “moral degeneracy”. In the UK the BNP adopted this strategy and employed it to motivate ordinary non fascists to vote for Derrick Beacon in the 1990s and then other equally vile candidates in the noughties. They talked about the plight of the “white working class” and would-be Führer Nick Griffin wore a tie and got invited on Question Time as if he was a proper human being, and not the animate slime who had actively celebrated the extermination of the European Jews. The great majority who voted for the BNP weren’t truly white supremacists, but harboured anxieties about jobs and economic insecurity manipulated through the warped carnival mirror of mainstream racism, not just by the BNP, but by the whole political establishment. These people weren’t prepared to support the BNP once a very long and protracted struggle had demonstrated that they weren’t “legitimate” politicians. Again this was about characterising their activities and milieu as fascist.
The EDL did not begin as an explicit roving pogrom of violent drunks; their largest demonstrations, which numbered in the thousands, in fact closely resembled the FLA formation we saw in London on 9 June. They involved mostly very ordinary people with soft racist attitudes to the dangers of “radical Islam” and white anxieties about freedom of speech, and like all far-right movements, they included a minority of black and even Asian supporters. I have been directly confronted by black EDL members raving about immigration, presumably without any sense of irony. The UAF (Unite against Fascism) strategy was fraught with compromise and its human resources were limited and politically confused, but again the crucial issue was, as ever, isolating the hard racists from the soft.
The perception of Saturday’s demonstration as an exception to this pattern comes from its sheer size and, beyond that, the confidence of people with no connection to the far right to express support, however guarded, for some of its objectives. I am not aware of any far-right demonstration in my life time that comes anywhere near the FLA led event in terms of sheer head count, but as people correctly point out- the number of card carrying fascists has not in fact increased by a factor of 10 in the last year. As such the great majority of people on this demonstration may be racists, but they are not hardened fascists and a minority of them may even be turned off by violence they may have witnessed on the day. But this doesn’t change the nature of the core of this movement or where it arises, but rather the favourable circumstances under which they have broadened their appeal.
It’s important to acknowledge that an anti-fascist strategy is not sufficient to defeat racism. Ethnic and religious oppression have deep roots in our society. Hardened, white supremacists, holocaust deniers and violent Islamophobes are a very small minority of the population at large, but racism itself does not survive merely because of those with outspoken racist views. National identity is a vital part of the thinking that maintains the status quo. It tells the poor that they have interests in common with the people that keep them poor, it tells people with nothing that they have this intangible magical quality that makes them better, even more human, than people who don’t belong to the club. Racial, religious and ethnic inequality have complex origins, but they are primarily sustained by the importance of national and racial identity to maintaining an intrinsically unequal society. But that doesn’t mean that racism is inevitable or cannot be defeated.
Successive battles have managed to win a public sphere in which being labelled a racist is generally considered a damning indictment and a significant section of the working class has been won to conscious anti-racism. We live in a racist society which discriminates against ethnic minorities and terrorises migrants, but that doesn’t mean that we can simply say that “most people are racist”. People’s views aren’t static, and many of our notions and sentiments are often not even very clearly defined. People have contradictory ideas and until circumstances lead them to form firm convictions, those ideas are likely to be fluid. The great majority of people today agree that its “bad” to be racist, but what exactly constitutes racism is a matter of the most intense struggle.
Perpetual imperialist war in the Middle East, global economic crisis, austerity and the focusing prism of the referendum on EU Membership have significantly increased the intensity of that struggle. As such, the presence of a relatively broad, potentially mass far-right movement is a product of that growing tension and not its cause. Many different kinds of battles will need to be fought in order to push the balance of ideas in our favour. We must build on the general outrage against Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, fight for grass roots resistance to its manifestation in our everyday lives – passport checks in NHS hospitals, immigration police raiding our market stalls and our rail stations. We need to renew organised efforts to chase the insidious agenda of ‘Prevent’ from our colleges and classrooms, to get students and teachers to band together in a collective refusal to consent. We need to support and build initiatives like Black Lives Matter and the Yarl’s Wood demonstrations that highlight the brutalisation and incarceration of people of colour by the authorities. We need to renew a consensus against imperialist war. Above all we need movements to acknowledge the interdependence of these fractional battles. To push for a united continuum of anti-racism and the hegemony of anti-capitalist ideas within it.
So yes, anti-fascism is a woefully insufficient response to the very immediate challenges of an intensified battle against mainstream racism. But equally, an anti-fascist strategy is more essential within a general anti-racist struggle than ever precisely because of the mainstreaming of far-right ideas. Just as racism is not something unique to a far-right minority, fascism is not, in reality, “about” racism. Fascism as both an ideology and as a historical moment, is about capitalism resorting to popular authoritarianism and reaction as a means to deal with social crisis. The left can, and will, argue with itself all the way to the firing squad about what exactly is the definition of fascism and I don’t intend to rehearse that discussion here. It’s clear that there are those that are indisputably identifying with the political traditions of the Falange and the National Socialists, and then others that merely run closely parallel to them. But it suffices to say that if you have groups or individuals that espouse anti-democratic sentiments, the suspension of human rights, the suppression of minorities or women, hostility to trade unions and other workers organisations and call for a renewal of a mythical past – you are dealing with fascists. While the milieu of the new street movement cannot be described in these terms these are the ideas at its centre. Fascism runs in its bloodstream.
Equivocation because of the broadness of these movements would be a historic mistake. Of course, a lot of people on these demonstrations aren’t Nazis. But when ambivalent people march they’re drawn into the logic of the political centre of these events. Action changes context, and context dictates ideas. People who are unsure what to think, but are scared and feel something must be done will respond to disciplined groups with definite objectives and a clear world view. Anti-fascism has never been about targeting the periphery. It has never been the solution to a racist society, but it is vital to breaking the opposition to real social equality. The deadly enemies of democracy. The moniker of fascism is correct, and strategically apt, in this context.
A mass movement that can mobilise against this street movement is, for all migrants and Muslims, a life-and-death necessity. A popular culture that celebrates multiculturalism and emphatically rejects this movement is a necessity. Identifying the engine of this movement, the rotten mind that steers and directs its development, as fascist is a necessity.
The emergence of new right-wing forces with an orientation on the street necessitates a renewal of the anti-fascist strategy. One that is both able to develop a mass presence on the street, capable of confronting the far right but building far beyond minoritarian squads, but also one that is relating to a broader political and social challenge to the mainstreaming of nationalist discourse and the policy of hostility to migrants. The material basis for this renewal lies in the communities who are the principal target of this aggression, the many thousands of people drawn to the possibility of a left Labour government and the diverse feminist and anti-racist campaigns that have struggled to sustain themselves in the absence of such a cohesive focus. Serious barriers stand in the way of tapping that potential.
The capacity of the Muslim community to organise for self-defence was a key aspect of the eventual exhaustion of the English Defence League, but in contrast to the experience of the 1970s and 1990s, communities were rarely motivated to generalise that challenge beyond an immediate or local threat. Winning that argument within minority and migrant communities is vital, and can only be achieved by proving in practice the importance of broader anti-racist solidarity. Similarly, individual Labour and momentum groups have, in some places, played a vital role in local health campaigns, the movement to win justice after the Grenfell fire or the incredible battles against gentrification, but there is also great frustration about what appears to be its leaderships disinterest in campaigning beyond elections. Too easily the hope that a Corbyn government might be a step towards a better world collapses into the inertia of waiting for a destined Labour government that, without a mass movement ready to push beyond it, might never arrive. Soon the right will remobilise to intimidate and brutalise Muslim and migrant communities. The shift to stand against them needs to begin today.