In recent years, works like Dave Hann’s Physical Resistance, Sean Birchill’s Beating the Fascists, M. Testa’s Militant Antifasscism have mounted a strong defence of the ‘physical force’ tradition of militant antifascism. In describing the history of this tendency, not only have these works made a convincing argument for physical force as a crucial tactic for defeating fascist organising, but also, they elucidate the uneasy relationship that militants who were prepared to confront fascists physically on the streets, and those organisations who sought to limit or prohibit these actions in favour of a purely political strategy.
The purpose of this work is not to dispute that physical force antifascism is one of the most important tools in our arsenal against the fascist threat. It is clear from the history of the antifascist movement that this is a fundamental necessity. However, we seek to argue that the split between militant, physical force, antifascism, and broad based political, cultural and community campaigns is a foundational split in antifascist practice in Britain today. This split can only be overcome organisationally.
The SWP, ANL, and Red Action - a foundational split
The origins of both the political strategy pursued by organisations such as Stand up to Racism and the militant strategy pursued by the Anti-Fascist Network have their roots in the struggle against the fascism of the National Front in the late 1970s.
The key year was 1977. The National Front was growing in terms of its membership and political power, and was undertaking a political strategy where it combined electoral politics with direct violent control of the streets. The prompted members of the SWP to begin to organise against the ongoing campaign of violence against them and people of colour in South London precipitated the Battle of Lewisham in August 1977. The battle, ending in victory for the allied anti-fascist forces, as well as other successful demonstrations aiming at curbing the electoral strategy of the NF lead to the the SWP, along with other socialist organisations, forming the Anti Nazi League (ANL) in late 1977.
The ANL in its own terms was a hugely successful organisation. Through a strategy of working with pop stars, actors, and Labour politicians, the ANL mobilised thousands of people into a broad anti-fascist front. The result was a number of successful demonstrations, concerts, and community events which drew thousands.
However, due to the success of this initiative, the leading force in the ANL, the leadership of SWP, moved rightwards - away from directly supporting confrontational anti-fascist action and towards using its community and political presence to support the Labour Party not only against fascist political candidates, but against the rising political figure of Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 general election. Many of their activists, however, were still having to deal with daily harrassment, intimidation, and violence from National Front members, and were still engaged in a physical force campaign to beat them off of the streets. These activists began organising independently, outside of the structures of the SWP and the ANL, to meet the fascist violence head on with other like minded fascist groups.
These tendencies continued to diverge throughout 1978-81, particularly after 1979 as the SWP decided to begin winding down the ANL after the immediate electoral threat of fascism had passed to focus on fighting the Thatcher government. Though the fascists may have been defeated electorally, fascist violence continued apace. The leadership of the SWP, with its waning commitment to the ongoing antifascist struggle, became increasingly concerned with the activities of the autonomously organised militant antifascists within its ranks (the ‘squadists’ as they were known). It expelled these militants in 1981. This group became the core of a new antifascist organisation, Red Action.
These two tendencies have been at odds with each other ever since. Indeed, despite the number of different anti-fascist organisations which have existed over the last 40+ years, history of the anti-fascist movement in Britain since then has been one of the division of these two tendencies, and the inability, despite several valiant attempts, to bring them together. Now, we are seeing a renewed attempt to unite these trends using direct democratic assemblies as their organising model.
The Assembly Model
Perhaps the most significant development in anti-fascist strategy since our last essay is the emergence of the London Anti-Fascist Assembly (LAFA) which held its first meetings at the beginning of this year. It was developed along similar lines to the Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly (FAF), which was started to combat the mobilisations of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance in the summer of 2018. Both of these employ direct democratic assemblies as their organising model, and were aimed at opening up anti-fascism to a broader base of people than those usually involved in the clandestine groups organised in the Anti-Fascist Network.
Hannah Gal’s Piece ‘Joyful Militancy: on the founding of the Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly’, published in the RS21 Pamphlet The new far right & how to fight it looks at attempts to create new organising structures for antifascism based around assemblies. FAF explicitly links anti-fascism to struggle for gender liberation in a bid to confront the far-right’s it’s attempt to portray itself as a defend of women with its focus on ‘muslim grooming gangs’. Gal discusses the high turnout of the initial organising assemblies in the summer of 2018:
Part of the justification of using assemblies as a model for organisation is their ability to recruit people who have not been involved in the mainstream anti-fascist/anti-racist work of trade unions/UAF, or the ‘clandestine, and informal approach of existing militant networks’. To achieve this, the assembly model uses a horizontalist structure and consensus based decision making (popularised at the beginning of this decade by the student movement which grew up in opposition to proposed fee changes in 2010/11). Gal identifies many benefits of this model - breaking out of the clandestine militant networks and galvanizing new members of the left, she also identifies key issues with this organisational model - the tendency for horizontal structures to be dominated by groups of experienced members, the lack of organising on a similar basis in other areas of the country, the inability to articulate a class politics alongside the feminist politics.
Notably, though LAFA and FAF are organised on the same anti-hierachical model as the AFN, no AFN-affiliated member groups have followed in attempting to create a broader anti-fascist front, or a specifically feminist anti-fascist front after the developments in London. The existing AFN groups have shunned this broader, open organising model for their clandestine closed model.
The hosts of the podcast ‘12 Rules for What’ - a show which focuses on fascism and anti-fascism - recently published the essay ‘3… 2… 1… Antifa are go’ on the birth of LAFA, and the challenges it faces moving forward.
The hosts see LAFA’s role as one of ‘movement building’, arguing:
With the assembly model as its organisational base, the hosts argue that through systematic training of activists, and through cultural institution building, LAFA can begin to make headway against the issues which it was founded to tackle.
It is extremely important that the idea that a single organisation can unify the diverse threads of antifascist activity into a ‘single coherent project’. However, does the assembly model provide the best organisational structure for this to happen?
Though employed by FAF and LAFA, the use of assembly as an organisational model for anti-fascists, has its precedents. One activist we spoke to when researching this essay describes this history:
There is an agreement that some antifascist organisation should take place outside of assemblies, particularly with regard to political education. However, there is a clear disagreement in these perspectives as to whether assemblies should provide the basis for anti fascist organising, or simply be a tool for broadening the scope of antifascist activity whilst enduring organisation takes place outside of the assemblies.
One further dynamic is also proving problematic for the assembly model. In the tenth episode of the podcast ‘12 Rules for What’, where the hosts discuss their Freedom Press article in detail, one host describe the generational nature of both anti-fascist and fascist organising - with each generation passing on strategy and tactics onto each other.
In response to the other host asking whether the split is generational or by political tendency, the first host says:
We can see again the old divide between the militant and more openly political, community based antifascism which we identified in our first essay reassuring themselves in the current London context.
The nature of this split today is important to analyse. The older generation of militants emphasises closed, clandestine structures, and has an ideological persuasion can best be summed up as ‘Anti-Fascism is working class self defence’. The militant is pushed to the fore. The assembly model, on the other hand, sees multiple poles informing it’s antifascist perspective - the battle against sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression as being key to understanding and combating the fascism. As such, fighting fascism necessarily takes place not only on the streets, but alongside the everyday struggles against these other oppressions.
LAFA and FAF, in seeking to overcome the issues outlined above with the previous iteration of militant struggle, fail to grasp two important issues which are necessary to end the split between militant and political actions, that the militant wing must be subordinate to the political wing, and that the organisational model employed also has an effect on the culture and practices which permeates our movements. Making assemblies the basis of their organisational model, rather than a tactic for broadening participation as it was initially conceived by activists in the North/Midlands, has proved inadequate to overcome the split between the militant and political factions of antifascism in the UK. Rather than promoting activity outside of demos, both FAF and LAFA have not managed to open up new community and political vistas for antifascist organising. Though the intervention by the comrades who run the ‘12 Rules…’ podcast goes some way to developing LAFA in this direction, a bolder approach must be taken. To end this split and produce durable antifascist organising in Britain, the solution must be organisational.
An Organisational Fix? ‘Politics in Command’ - the lessons of the Ta Power Document
Thomas ‘Ta’ Power, a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party/Irish National Liberation Army in from its foundation in 1975 until his was assassinated age 33 on the 20th January 1987 by a rival republican faction. He wrote what has come to be known as the ‘Ta Power Document’ whlst in prison in the 80s as a history of the IRSP, and a sustained criticism of the republican movement since the socialist turn of the 1960s.
The document runs through a history of the development of the Irish Republican Socialist Party from its beginnings in Long Kesh prison, through the struggle against the ending of political status for Republican prisoners, and the hunger strikes in H Block, where three IRSP volunteers lost their lives, to the supergrass trials of the early 80s and beyond. It seeks to understand why in the years following these events, the party had not developed as it should, and fell into a situation described by Power as ‘INTERNAL TURMOIL’. Power's answer to this was that the issues which arose were organisational - what he termed ‘structural defects’
Power’s analysis of the struggles of the fledgling IRSP flow from a simple realisation - Politics was not in command. He identifies eight necessary conditions for a proper functioning organisations, and sees all of these failing due to the essential failure of politics nor being in command. Why was politics not in command? Power answers:
Politics in command is also a foundational issue in British Antifascism. The initial split between militant action or being subject to the sectarian political demands of a political party (usually the SWP) has continued to the point where the militant edge suffers from all of the 8 structural defects that Power identifies whilst the SWP continues to dominate the ‘political’ response in an insufficient and politically liberal fashion.
In our first essay we saw the attempts of both South London Anti-Fascists (SLAF) and the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) to develop a political organisation out of the militant formation. The IWCA in particulaty had a limited success in moving away from militant action, but both were unable to sustain themselves as organisations in the medium to long term.
One section of the Ta Power document is worth quoting at length here, as it illuminates the logic of this split:
In the past, we have seen attempts to ‘sow a few seeds of A amongst B’ - the experiences of SLAF documented in our first essay shows an attempt at sowing these seeds, as does the experience of the IWCA. However, these were never enough to serious challenge the dominance of the militant model - which roared back into life at every new expression of far right street violence. The basic contradiction reasserts itself.
The horizontalist ideals of the AFN were supposed to ensure that the dual strategy of AFA (physical and ideological confrontation) would expand to cover community organising which suited the needs of each individual community. However, by tackling only secondary contradictions, by setting up a few political projects here and there, it has not been able to confront the basic contradiction, and as such it has proved unable to move beyond the basic need to confront fascists in the street.
When there was an attempt to move beyond confronting fascism in the streets, politics was not put in command of the whole movement, and the organising model was insufficient to produce durable structures. SLAF believed that the same organisational structure that the AFN used would be able to produce a viable political alternative.’Our communities are diverse and there is no one-size-fits-all to anti-fascist activity or community organising. Being non-hierarchical means trusting people who are directly affected to lead their struggle, not push them to follow “experts” from outside.’ All this was able to do was sow some political seeds amongst the militarist crop. The fundamental contradiction remained unchallenged.
Though an anti-hierarchical model is a noble and democratic vision of socialist organising, rather than leading to greater community involvement, it has often meant activist silos in various different locations lacking overarching ideological and organizationational co-ordination to effectively organise against fascism outside of the major cities. Local centres were allowed to grow which often had their own distinct view on how antifascism should be practiced. Whilst this may have seen limited success in the local context, the articulation and application of general lessons from these struggles was absent.
Under current conditions, the structurelessness employed by the AFN mirrors the undemocratic, closed structures discussed by Ta Power, which has lead to a greater or lesser extent to the problems identified by Power - crisis, factionalism, instability, discredit, the building of power bases, elitism, superiority, and often a macho militancy which scorns theoretical or organisational work.
In the next part of our essay, we seek to show that the assembly model as it is currently being practiced, is not only unable to subordinate the militant tendency to an overarching political one, but that it also fails to develop and link with grassroots struggles which sustain a resistance to fascism.
To the masses?
LAFA seeks to overcome the issues outlined above which predominated in the previous iteration of militant struggle by committing themselves to open and horizontal method of organising. Though this is an important shift, they have committed themselves to an organisational module which fails to provide the organisational structure necessary to subordinate the militant approach to the political imperative.
To illustrate this, it is necessary to look at the way LAFA is organising. A left wing activist writing for The Seventh Degree detailed the proceedings of the first two LAFA assemblies. This exposition of the nascent organisation culture of LAFA is extremely pertinent at a time when LAFA is seeking to move beyond previous iterations of anti-fascist organising.
The activist details discussions held in the first two assemblies. These discussions brought forward ideas such as a greater focus on migrant solidarity, bottom up unions, feminist antifascism, cultural initiatives and community work. These are all positive and necessary developments in broadening and deepening anti-fascist activity. The activist then goes on to explain the organisation model employed by LAFA in its assemblies.
Though it may head off many of these issues by moving from clandestine organising to open structures, LAFA and FAF still relies too heavily on the unstable horizontalist structures and an aloof approach towards community resistance.
The fact that LAFA has ‘no leader, no executives, and no hierarchy’ may work at preventing the bureaucratic centralised control that the SWP exerts over UAF/SUTR, but it is yet to be seen whether this can promote ‘dynamic and autonomous decision’ at a local level, or whether we will see the effort collapse into the factionalism, instability, and the creation of uncoordinated local power bases which characterise current antifascist practice in Britain.
As in the SLAF document we quoted in our first essay, the primacy of local decision making is linked with a resistance to the trope of ‘parachuting’ activists into communities which have their own cultures of resistance to facsism.
‘Parachuting’ activists is of course the incorrect approach to take towards communities of migrants, people of colour, and the broader demographics of working and oppressed people. This practice has often been used on the British left, where socialist sects descend on an area/pick up a particular issue when a politically significant event is happening, only to leave as the media cycle moves on to something else - leaving very little changed for the better behind them.
But in noting that ‘parachuting’ is undesirable there is also a tacit acceptance that we as activists and organisers have no base amongst these groups - many of whom (at least geographically) we live side by side with. Instead of making a fetish out of the heroic and spontaneous resistance of Muslim communities for example, we should be following a radical pedagogical approach to build that base. We must embody an approach that seeks to develop these responses beyond spontaneous outbursts towards a unified struggle for liberation. The masses will often move before an organisation is ready or even aware of their potential, but for the most organised and conscious elements of our class not to move with them, or not to seek to learn from their struggle whilst bringing to it the universal values of socialism and liberation, is inexcusable. In this rhetoric we see the echoes of SLAFs pronouncement ‘Being non-hierarchical means trusting people who are directly affected to lead their struggle, not push them to follow “experts” from outside.’ A different organisational approach must be taken if LAFA does not want to follow the same path as SLAF - that of liquidation of the organisation and a failure to achieve its aims.
This approach, rather than getting around the thorny and difficult issues of leadership and representation, simply collapses the contradictions present between leadership and the masses - which is productive and drives our movement forward - in such a way that suggests no work needs to be done because the work is already being done. It is a fundamentally myopic approach which in seeking to avoid forcing ‘experts’ from outside onto particular struggles, also means that we are unable to learn from them, and link them with our own.
How to overcome the contradictions between teacher and student, as well as revolutionary leadership and the oppressed is a critical point in Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In discussing the great dialectical thinker Georgy Lukacs’s dictum:
It is this ‘critical intervention’ which is missing from the discussions of the spontaneous anti-fascist actions of the oppressed and the horizontalist organisational modal which is proposed to allow these communities to organise themselves. We must realise that ‘no reality transforms itself’, that there exists a contradictory relationship between leadership and the masses, which we must grasp through praxis.
We cannot rely simply on the spontaneous resistance of the oppressed to leap straight to liberation. We also cannot expect that we as activists can ‘know’ the struggles of the oppressed simply because they are happening. It is necessary to struggle with the oppressed, and through this joint struggle bringing aspects of the universal to the particularities of the struggles of the oppressed. As Friere puts it:
The LAFA position - and the assembly model in general - in seeking to overcome the bureaucratic authoritarian model of antifascist organising employed by the SWP and it’s fronts and the clandestine militant model employed by the AFN, fails to produce a viable alternative because they cannot see the possibility of an organisational structure which leadership doesn’t lead to an attempt to bureaucratically control the movement.
LAFA pursuing open, democratic organising structures are a necessary step in moving away from the siloed affinity groups of the AFN. However, the way these are employed uses the same logic that lead to the liquidation of SLAF as an organisation. If LAFA continue to employ the assembly model in such a way, there is a risk they will follow the same path, or for the attempt at open, democratic structures to revert to the clandestine, closed, and undemocratic structures employed by the AFN, which the assembly model has tried to break from.
Several months after LAFA’s inception, we have not seen anything which approaches the local organising initiatives of the IWCA in Oxford. Without central leadership, accountable structures, coordination of activity, militant action either takes place spontaneously, or the pre-existing militant organisations with the problems outlined above, which have developed due to their clandestine structure continue to exist without those problems address, and completely uncoordinated with the broad movement LAFA is trying to create. Again, the contradiction outlined above reasserts itself, and we are no further towards developing strong, resilient anti-fascist organisations which can balance anti-racism and the self organisation of the oppressed with the militant edge which has so often proved necessary in beating back the fascist threat.
A dialectical pedagogical approach provides the basis for an organisation which seeks to grasp the two contradictions which we have identified. Failure to grasp the latter whilst trying to solve the former means that both remain unsolved. The militant edge will reassert itself during the next wave of fascist street mobilisation, and the few seeds of political consciousness sewn by the assembly model will be unable to take root.
A Leninism for the 21st Century
Being unable to solve the twin contradictions discussed in this essay effectively has produced the situation we have spent the last four essays critiquing. How do we ensure these contradictions are overcome by placing politics in command and embracing a dialectical pedagogical method in our organising? The answer must be organisational, and as such, we must (as we have stated previously), ‘return to the best of the traditions of our movement.’
The Third Congress of the Communist International took place in a time after the great revolutionary upheavals since 1917 had died down, and the various participants had to grapple with preparing for revolution in conditions where revolution did not seem imminent. There was fierce debate on strategy and tactics between the delegates focusing on the course of the German Communist Party took over the years between the 1919 Spartacist Uprising and the failure of the March Action in 1921. The two sides clashed over whether the revolution could be led by a ‘Communist Minority’, or whether communists should root themselves in the daily struggles of the working class, favoured by Lenin and Clara Zetkin. Whilst a detailed account of said debates is beyond the scope of this essay, ultimately, the forces around Lenin won out, and the slogan ‘Win over the masses as a precondition to winning power’ was adopted by the congress. This strategy and tactics of this approach were detailed in the document ‘Theses on the Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties and the Methods and Content of their Work’. This document sheds light on how a revolutionary anti-fascist organisation must be reconstructed again from first principles to be able to achieve the organisational, strategic, and tactical aims we have outlined in these essays.
The theses on democratic centralism have particular resonance for us today when trying to envisage an organisation which forgoes the pitfalls of both the bureaucratic centralist model and those of the anti-hierarchical model discussed above. Indeed, it prefigures the collapse of the Marxist sects which we are seeing now, and the response being the anarchist focus on direct democracy. The bureaucratic sects, poisoned by over-centralisation of their leadership castes paralysed these sects, making them unable to function with the flexibility needed to intervene subjectively in class struggle. Leadership castes came to be composed of ‘functionaries [who] became estranged from members, a vibrant collaboration was replaced by the mere forms of democracy, and the organisations became split between active functionaries and passive masses.’ [italics ours]
As such, many on the left came to ‘perceive it as a bureaucratisation of the party, which can give rise to opposition to any centralisation, any leadership, any strict discipline’ leading to the anarchistic organisational tendencies today. Nowhere is this seen more strongly currently than in the anti-fascist movement.
The document states that ‘democratic centralism...should be a true synthesis and fusion of centralism and proletarian democracy.’ It is not a static approach that can be enshrined in a party constitution or an unchanging central committee, but ‘can be achieved only on the foundation of constant and common activity and struggle of the entire party.’ This common activity and struggle should use a dialectical pedagogical approach when going to the masses, discussed above. This approach is necessary due to the contradictory nature of the relationship between the masses and their leadership
It follows that efforts to centralise the organisation, that is, to establish a strong leadership, cannot succeed if limited to the framework of formal democracy. Such a leadership requires above all ‘the formation of a strong, agile, and also flexible leadership’, with a focus on ‘vibrant collaboration’ within the organisation, between its leading bodies and the rest of the membership, and also between the party and the masses outside its ranks.
Of particular relevance to our essay today is the final section on legal and illegal work, where the practices of both legal and illegal communist parties are criticised.
Both Power and the Comintern of 1921 come up with the same prescription for the management of the broader political struggle and the militant wing: leadership by a revolutionary organisation with politics in command.
For too long militant antifascist work has been isolated from general revolutionary organising. So much so, that a radical about face is needed. The demoralisation and disintegration of militant, clandestine antifascist organisations comes from the intermittency of fascist street action. Though from 2009 onwards, mobilisations have become increasingly regular, they are not regular enough to sustain themselves as regularly trained and prepared groups. Experience is lost, and the process of re-learning is a difficult one, with fresh organisers often making the same mistakes as previous iterations of anti-fascist organisations. By having an organisation which is able to focus on all encompassing political work with the masses, militancy is kept alive in preparation for the necessary clashes with fascist on the street. Knowledge is maintained and dispersed through the organisation, and new developments from the masses themselves can be integrated into existing practice.
As such, we propose a new organisation - one which does away with both the bureaucratic authoritarianism and the clandestine structurelessness of the past, and overcomes them by placing both legal and illegal work under the same central political leadership whilst taking a dialectical pedagogical approach to working with the masses. One where leadership is collective, not only democratically elected, but vibrantly collaborative with lower and middle cadres. The organisation as a whole must embody this approach when working with the masses of working and oppressed people as we struggle with them.
We propose a new organisation which can balance central authority with local dynamism and decision making, which can train and support activists to intervene in all manner of situations - not to railroad pre-existing forms of resistance to fascism into a model palatable to an unaccountable party old guard or parliamentary liberalism, but enables us to unify our practice with theirs, promoting a quantitative change in the size of our struggle against fascism, and a qualitative change in our strategy and tactics. This organisation must aim at being national in scope, and able to coordinate itself both locally, regionally, and nationally - whilst engaging in international solidarity. The old model of isolated affinity groups is broken - all efforts must be put into building an organisation which breaks with local power centres and unaccountable cliques with the limited institutional support they can provide, into one in which it’s local development is tied to the development of the organisation regionally and nationally. As such, we must go beyond anti-fascist night schools and develop a rigorous cadre training programme, with well trained and disciplined activists who are able to support the setting up of local branches as a need arises. Developing viable sources of funding for this organisation is a priority to support activists in these tasks.
In doing this, our organisation becomes able sustain and reproduce itself effectively, as well as bring militant struggle under direct political control - unifying the disparate strands of our movement. It becomes an organisation which can not only reach out to working and oppressed people who aren’t committed activists, bringing them into our united front whilst proving in practice the strength, versatility, and universality of our communist ideals. In the coming years, the struggle against fascism will become more crucial in the struggle for the liberation of all working and oppressed people. Through the struggle against fascism, we must grasp at every scrap and thread of consciousness, pull them together, weave them into the banner under which we march towards our collective liberation.
Onwards to a New Anti-Fascist Front
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