In this two-part piece, we will be discussing the history of anti-fascism in our movement, with analysis and criticism of historical and contemporary actors.
In the first part, we will be providing the context in which a theoretical discussion of anti-fascist struggle has become a “burning question of our movement” in Britain today, as well as some of the limitations of the current proposals for organisation that go beyond the demo/counter-demo dynamic.
Since the late 00s, fascism as a street force has been on the rise. In response to the global financial crisis of 2007-8, the rise of open street violence by fascist thugs is a tragically expected “popular” outcome of the ongoing crisis as capital tries to reconstitute itself after the failure (but not the collapse) of the neoliberal model. First came the EDL, followed by the various ‘Infidel’ splinter groups, and then the revival of old school skinhead Neo-Nazism alongside the newer youth-based Neo-Nazi group National Action. The groundwork for the rapid appearance of these groups was laid not only by the increasing Islamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-poor and working-class sentiment in the national press and local and national government, but also the electoral strategy of the fascist British National Party - which secured over a million votes in the North West in the 2009 European Parliament elections, and the various electoral successes of the United Kingdom Independence Party.
2016 saw a move to a new stage. After various defeats, the street movement in the UK wound down. After many arrests and incarcerations due to violence in Dover, the far right unity project between various EDL splinter groups and various “old school” Neo-Nazis ceased to be a major threat on the streets. Earlier successes against National Action in Liverpool showed that anti-fascists could pull real numbers of militants out onto the street to stop nascent neo-nazi movements before they started.
However, the rise of the Alt-Right, the election of Donald Trump, and the impotence of our collective stance against the the Brexit regime have shown the weakness not only of anti-fascist forces, but also of the left in general to lead the masses in revolt against a system which imposes ever greater levels of austerity, poverty, and destitution. Under such circumstances, fascism is on the rise in the UK, as it is in the EU and the US.
The Brexit Regime
At this point, it is important to distinguish the Brexit regime as a political reality today, from the idea of the collapse of the EU. The EU is a deeply undemocratic institution, a massive bulwark of Imperialism which keeps the imperialist powers at its head (such as Germany and France) dominant within its structures just as it keeps the EU as a whole a dominant force in the wider world system. It has streamlined the exploitation of workers, particularly those from eastern and southern Europe, while being responsible for the deaths of thousands of poor refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Institutions such as the European Court of Justice and the European Human Rights Act 1998, and various pieces of environmental, humanitarian, and workplace legislation put a liberal veneer on an utterly reprehensible institution.
More to the point, the internal contradictions present within the unstable social and economic structure that is the EU mean that inter-imperialist rivalries can no longer be effectively managed within it. It is a structure which is already showing signs of disintegration. However, the UK is one of the leading imperialist powers in the EU, and not one of its neo-colonial victims, such as Romania, Bulgaria, or Croatia. While many who voted to leave the EU did not do so consciously, it is the imperialist bourgeoisie which has been empowered by the vote to leave. Even those who, understandably, demanded a campaign of “Lexit”, have been unable to articulate this in practical reality. The imperialist bourgeoisie ruling from Westminster is still in charge, albeit scrambling for strategies now that the Neoliberal EU has failed to provide it with the profits to which it had become accustomed. In practice, we have primarily witnessed an attack against the liberal veneer of the EU project, with the colonialist mentality and imperialist exploitation which stood at the basis of the EU and the British Empire remaining unchanged. Indeed, with the loss of the (paper thin) EU regulations on labour rights and the environment, we have and will continue to witness increased border violence on the part of the UK itself. Further, we have seen an increased opening up of the ‘Commonwealth’ of ‘formerly’ colonised nations to greater neo-colonial exploitation.
It is vital that we grasp the class dynamics in Britain in this historical moment. What we should have been able to achieve is the class-conscious proletariat (and progressive petty bourgeois elements, particularly from oppressed backgrounds) leading the movement against the EU, a regime whose victims are the same as the victims of British imperialism. Instead, the Brexit regime means that the ruling classes continue this “movement” for “freedom” from the EU (which, due to their business interests, they are still going to be bound to economically in any event), with some white proletarians tailing a petty bourgeois fascistic movement, acting as the ground troops of British capital in crisis.
It would be idealist and ahistorical to imagine that the deepening contradictions under the Brexit regime will simply destroy imperialism as objectified in the EU and the UK, leaving capitalism in the region without a path out and the peaceful founding of a socialist state a foregone conclusion. What history has taught us is that it is in exactly such crises that fascist movements rise and, the more they are appeased by the left, the more successful they are. Now is the time to build a socialist movement for human liberation as the real alternative to a system, whether liberal or fascistic, that subjugates human need to a social order based on class that it is time to rise above. The fascists are no stumbling block on this path, but enemy forces.
Strategy and Tactics
Since the rise of the EDL in the 00s, there have been two distinct strains of anti-fascist organising in Britian, which can be best typified by the organisations Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and the Anti-Fascist Network. UAF - a Socialist Workers’ Party(SWP) front - began as a campaign against the British National Party’s electoral strategy in 2003. Backed mainly by the Trade Union movement, it focused (with some degree of success) in organising ‘Anyone but the BNP’ votes before 2010. This strategy was complemented by holding counter demos - usually far away from the fascists, for people to hold placards behind police lines, and for a few trade unionists, and/or minor socialist party cadres to give speeches before going home. This organisation was largely superseded by Stand Up to Racism (SUtR), another SWP front, founded in 2014
The second strain comes from the long history of militant opposition to fascism, and is best typified by the loose network the Anti-Fascist Network (AFN). Beginning in 2011, their soul focus was on providing street opposition to fascists. In contrast to the UAF, they are a ‘non-hierarchical’ network of ‘autonomous’ groups who share this goal. The AFN have had a history of successful counter organisation - particularly against the EDL and its various neo-nazi splinters. Campaigns in London, Dover, and Brighton have all managed to wear down the fascist presence until groups stopped organising demos in those places, or gave up all together.
Although both strategies had some successes, neither kept pace with the changes in fascism - at home or internationally - since 2016. Since the rise of the ‘Alt-Right’ in the US, the election of Donald Trump, the rise in the far right in europe (particularly germany) since the 2015 refugee crisis, these organisations have struggled to form a coherent understanding or response. In the UK, UAF seamlessly mutated into SUtR, and they have moved to organising large national ‘anti-racism’ demos of their own. What may be termed the anti-hierarchical left in the UK has argued for a more community based approach - to meet the needs of communities communities which are suffering due to Tory austerity, and organise directly with oppressed communities - refugees, migrants, people of colour, who are traditionally attacked not only by fascists but by the state as well.
Community Anti-fascism - A New Approach?
Whilst this community approach is novel, and growing with initiatives such as tenants unions, anti-fascist gyms, and anti-fascist music festivals, football teams, on top of campaigns like the Network for Police Monitoring, Defend the Right to Protest, Shut Down Yarls Wood, and the Anti-Raids Network there is a history of attempts at moving anti-fascism from the streets into the community which it is important to discuss. Ash Sarkar, arguing in The Guardian, puts forward a convincing case to broaden grass roots community initiatives already in place to build on calls by shadow Chancellor John McDonnell for a revivified anti-fascist cultural campaign along the lines of the Anti-Nazi League of the 70s. For these ideas to truly flourish, there must be a concerted effort to move beyond well meaning projects. Anti-fascism must become embedded in working class communities and neighborhoods, able to fully mobilise people to face the fascist threat.
Community organising is not a new strategy for the anti-fascist left. Where there is clearly a need for this type of organising, we must analyse the successes and failures of these past attempts to be able to forge a new, bigger, and more successful approach.
The now defunct anti-fascist group South London Anti-Fascists (SLAF), published an intervention in 2013 which is worth quoting at length:
In essence, we do not see anything wrong with this analysis. But what politics should flow from such an analysis? SLAF answers:
Community self-organisation must play an important part in any socialist organising, but especially in terms of anti-fascism. Tragically, in practice anarchists/anti-hierarchical organisations have a tendency to liquidate their own structures under the guise of such rhetoric. As they try to move away from the demo/counter-demo back-and-forth of militant anti-fascist organising, they find their raison d’etre evaporates, or, that their organisational structures are ill-equipped to deal with building permanence amongst communities. Less than two years after this post, the SLAF website stopped being updated, and the Facebook and Twitter pages have mainly existed to support mobilisations by other Anti-Fascist Network affiliates (who carry out the more traditional work which the SLAF was to eschew), leaving the community organising ideal unfulfilled, or at least unfulfilled under the SLAF name. SLAF’s argument continues:
Though lofty in its ideals, this anti-organisational tendency has not lead to the development of ‘the space for new ideas to flourish and builds a greater sense of trust and mutuality’ but the liquidation of the organisation as it had existed.
It is important also to draw attention to the activities of the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA), a group formed out of the militant anti-fascist group Anti-Fascist Action in 1997, after they had all but defeated the BNP as a street movement. Within the BNP at the time, there was a debate being carried out about whether the war could be won at the ballot box despite the loss of the battles in the streets. This naturally had its reflection in debates within the anti-fascist movement at the same historical moment.
In ‘Beating the Fascists’, Sean Burchill details some of the debates surrounding the establishment of the IWCA in 1997, and the failure to organise in strategically important areas to counter the growing BNP electoral threat:
What followed was an ambitious attempt at redefining anti-fascism at a time where fascists had mostly abandoned street tactics. The IWCA states on its website that:
The IWCA focus on community work and local elections saw itself achieve some measure of success, particularly in Oxford. By 2006 it had 4 councillors on Oxford city council, representing Blackbird Leys, at the time one of the largest and most socially depressed council estates in Europe, and the neighbouring estate, Churchill. Its manifesto lists many policies which go far beyond anything the movement has produced today. For example, community restorative justice - a process which ‘ works to bring people together to resolve differences within a mediation process’, and fighting anti-social behaviour with a focus on funding youth facilities, and ‘the reforging of pride in the community by organising clean-ups of estates, removing graffiti, and getting burnt-out cars taken away’. Whilst the IWCA did receive some promising electoral results throughout the 00s, the last councillor in Oxford stood down in 2012.
The project, one which sought to provide a working class alternative to white working class areas which were being courted by the BNP, placed a large emphasis on local work, forgoing a national strategy. They also took positions on race, class and immigration which meant that - although perhaps effective in mobilising ‘white working class’ support - they were unable to mobilise beyond this particular ‘working class’ identity.
In an quote given to Red Pepper magazine in 2007, Stuart Croft, the first IWCA councillor elected to Oxford council stated: ‘We see the white working class as our constituency, though not just the white working class. The rest of the left see the white working class as the BNP’s constituency. I think the left drive working-class people into the arms of the fascists, whereas we’re there to coax people the other way.’
‘Coaxing’ took the form of promising ‘Consultation with local communities regarding new arrivals’ and ‘Additional government grants to facilitate integration.’ for asylum seekers alongside more funding and better housing provision for all, and arguing that ‘experience shows that the funding of social projects purely on the grounds of race can only foster an us and them scenario, with the result that instead of being united by anti-racism, the working class can just as easily be divided by it. Multiculturalism, which insists everyone be treated differently, also undermines the concept of fairness at the core of anti-racism.’
Whilst this may have been an effective strategy for beating the BNP in white working class estates, ‘multiculturalism’ is positioned simply as ‘divisive’, rather than as part of the long term Labour Party strategy of providing ‘rights’ to those who have migrated to live and work in the UK whilst enacting policies such as the massive expansion of detention centres for migrants, not allowing migrants who are making asylum claims to work, and increasing forced repatriation (deportation) targets. This strategy is a common one deployed by british governments since the massive migration of workers from colonies and former colonies to the UK as cheap labour to support the UK’s post war recovery. A. Sivanandan in his essay Race, Class, and the State describes the process as such:
Rather than seeking to understand the class dynamics which shape the totality of working class life in the UK, the IWCA reifies the ‘white working class’ identity as the default working class identity, replacing one form of ‘identity politics’ with another.
Whilst temporarily and incompletely successful against the BNPs electoral strategy of the 00s, and producing some bold and innovative projects which the left of today would do well to attempt to resurrect, the IWCA faltered due to its extreme localism, and its white working class identity politics which could only be useful for when seeking to appeal to one section of the working class. The IWCA’s programme is wholly reformist in its aims. Reformism, tied to an overall revolutionary strategy, is no bad thing. However, when tied to the extreme localism of the IWCA, mixed with its hostility to the rest of ‘the left (Stuart Craft argues that he doesn’t ‘see any of the people that profess to be left or socialist as actually pro-working class’), many of the even relative tame demands put forward by the association become impossible to realise. Still, it is the boldest attempt in recent history to establish real, transformative community work in areas where the lack of state provision and the complete abandonment by the major political parties has lead to deprivation, and delusionment with the political processes of the bourgeois state.
Objectively, conditions for this type of community work are better than at any point in our recent history. Poverty, wage stagnation, housing crisis, the cutting back of social provision - particularly in the areas of youth provision and social care mean that more than ever, a focus on social reproduction - through ‘Serve the People’ style initiatives is vital. A number of community initiatives, most importantly tenants unions, are growing to meet these challenges show this to be the case. The rise of grassroots trade unionism, and the seeming willingness for the established trade unions to take part in such work is also important. These are areas where we can push back against the growth of the far right. However, it is crucial that these initiatives become more than simply advocacy groups or providers of charity. They must be prevented from becoming well meaning pet projects of leftists more interested in sustaining anti-hierarchical organising as an ideal than forming a movement which can challenge fascism, capital, and the bourgeois state. The far right is surging ahead, and we must do the same.
This is not an argument for the winding down of more militant action against far right street presence. The threat of liquidation of the militant front has serious repercussions. In a time of rising fascism, these initiatives are not immune from physical attack from fascists in their efforts to control the street. Since the collapse of the BNP and the marginalisation of UKIP, there is no political movement able to sanitise the fascist movement in this country. The amount of money poured into Tommy Robinson as the leader of a nascent far right movement is evidence that the international far right movement seek someone who is able to marshal a far right street presence whilst maintain a fig leaf of political respectability. As evidenced by the invasion of SWP bookshop ‘Bookmarks’ in London recently by supporters of Robinson, and by attacks on trade unionists and counter demonstrators (again, by supporters of Robinson), and the upcoming Democratic Football Lads Alliance demonstration, radical sections of the right (some mobilising within UKIP) are seeking to take their reactionary struggle back to the streets, attacking what they perceive to be ‘the Left’. The harassment and racist and religious violence seen after the Brexit vote is a foreshadowing of what is to come. If these sentiments are mobilised successfully - not just at the level of the street, but at the level of the state, the poor and oppressed in Britain, alongside a meaningful left (which can only be a “left” that defends the poor and oppressed in practice), will be in grave danger. Indeed, having a more organised base within the working class should increase our ability to carry out successful militant actions, as we are able to spread the ideas, justifications, and actions of militancy to a broader and more organised working class constituency.
We should also bear in mind the recent experience in the US. The fascist movement, more developed and achieving its political aims through the Trump presidency is emboldened to a greater extent to attack leftists and people or colour. Groups like Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys, and the demonstrations under the ‘Unite the Right’ banner have all led to physical confrontation. The death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville last year, mowed down by a fascist driving a car into a group of anti-fascist demonstrators, should be a stark reminder to everyone engaging in anti-fascist or leftist activity that this is no performance art: these are genuine fascist killers threatening the lives of left activists in every country. These terroristic action are not aimed at the individuals whose lives are claimed, tragic though this is, and we do honour their lives and mourn their loss. But their aim is to crush the nascent leftist opposition to fascism, to use fear and violence to drive the people into their homes and out of the streets and politics which are rightfully the people’s.
It is important to note at this point that acting in solidarity with oppressed peoples is not something we do solely out of conscience, or simply out of ideological affinity. It is actually impossible, in our analysis, to struggle against capital in a meaningful sense without fighting for the rights of the oppressed. Capital, being nakedly outnumbered by labour, has preserved itself in no small part by buying off certain sections of the working class through the greater oppression of others: be this the white worker benefitting from the oppression of the black, the man benefiting from the oppression of the woman, or indeed the English workers objectified through the institution of labour aristocracy ‘at home’ benefiting from imperialist domination of the ‘workers of the world’. Viewed through this lens, anti-fascism is nothing more than the self-defence of the whole working class against a violent tool to oppress particular ‘groups’ among our ranks, which serves the purpose of exploiting every single one of us to one degree or another.
Anti-fascist forces must also seek unity in struggle with the victims of British imperialism, recognising that fascism in Britain serves the same oppressive and exploitative class relations that are manifested as imperialism abroad. Whether the Irish or the Kurds, progressive forces representing the liberation of the historical victims of British imperialism are the natural allies of class conscious and progressive forces fighting fascism at home. The two even become manifested in some of the same groups: workers from South Asia or the Caribbean have national links to homelands which were direct British colonies, living and working in Britain under the threat of racist and fascist violence
As there is an upswing in class struggle in the advanced capitalist and old imperialist nations, we also see an upswing in reaction, tied to the decaying bourgeois class in control. Whilst this class is embroiled in its own conflicts, its defining conflict is that with the working class itself, felt most sharply by those oppressed peoples and identities who are subjugated and scapegoated to achieve the aims of valourising capital and stalling its decay.
What is required, however, is not just a cultural front, or a community front, or a militant front, or a theoretical understanding of the role of fascism and class in britain today - but an organisation born from all of these elements which is able to lead in the development of all of them, in conjunction with each other. This requires leadership of two kinds - leadership of the organisation, and leadership of the masses. These cannot be divorced from each other or prioritised over one another. They can only be grasped in their dialectical development.
In the next article, we seek to develop an critical understanding of what such a organisation must look like, and what strategy and tactics it must develop.
- The Lever Editorial Group