Effective anti-fascist campaigning must encourage genuine non-racist action for working class interests on housing, employment and welfare rights; and promote non-racist democratic working class organisations, such as trade unions, to organise around such issues.
“Only one thing could have stopped our movement — if our adversaries had understood its principle and intentions and from the first day had smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.” Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
“To bar the road to fascism, to bar it once and for all, it does not suffice that workers oppose it physically at demonstrations; it does not suffice to denounce its infamies … Today we defend ourselves against the rise of reaction, but … to be efficacious this resistance must transform itself into a struggle for power.” Leon Trotsky, ‘Conversations with a Dissident from Saint-Denis’
For more: see Workers' Liberty pamphlet, How to beat the racists
In the 2005 general election 192,746 people voted for the British National Party. Each of the BNP’s 119 candidates received an average of 1620 votes. On local election polling day, 3 May 2007, the BNP received 292,911 votes — a ninety-seven fold increase since the year 2000. Over the last four years the BNP has doubled the number of councils where it contests seats and has quadrupled the number of candidates. As of the last local elections, the BNP held fifty council seats.
Election results can tell us some things. On the surface these figures show an increasing return on an ever increasing number of BNP candidates. They stand as evidence that given the choice between a Labour candidate, a Tory or whoever else, large numbers of people are prepared to tick the box for a fascist. Election results act as a warning to working class organisations that something is going on. They do not tell us what that is or how to combat it.
British fascists have made great efforts to transform themselves from a group oriented to street agitation, outright racism and anti-Semitism, threat and intimidation into a “legitimate” political operation. Though they still lurk in the shadows, the shaven headed, jack-booted, monosyllabic thugs have all but vanished from the limelight. They have been replaced by slicker, populist political operators — people like Sadie Graham and newly “media-friendly” Nick Griffin. But a new suit and toned down rhetoric do not make for a complete transformation. The still rumbling crisis in the BNP has publicly exposed the true nature of the group. With each side in the dispute calling the other “Nazis” and “extremists” the liberal media and anti-fascist news sources have had a field day. Few have paused to ask how such an organisation has built a base of support and grown so rapidly in so short a space of time.
The relative success of the BNP cannot be isolated to a parting of ways with past fascist political methodology. In previous periods of right-wing resurgence where fascist groups rose from the sewers, subjective as much as objective circumstances played a part in flushing them away. In the 1930s and 40s Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists faced stubborn, heroic resistance from working class and Jewish organisations. In the mid-to-late Seventies, when the National Front could claim a membership of 20,000 and managed to circulate five million leaflets in one year, mass political, community and cultural mobilisations — not exclusively called by the Anti Nazi League — drove fascists from the streets. Today’s anti-fascist groups are a pale imitation of the past and the absence of militant working class opposition to fascism is a pressing concern.
The working class, Labour and the BNP
“The enemies of British Nationalism continue to parrot the claim that the BNP is a ‘racist party.’ This claim is most often repeated because the BNP unashamedly addresses itself to the issues and concerns of the indigenous British population, and because it seeks to ensure that British people remain the majority population in this country.” (Is the BNP Racist? from the BNP website)
The BNP no longer appeals to working class voters on the basis of outspoken race-hate alone. A change in social and cultural attitudes means that crude racism is not acceptable to a majority of people. The fact that the labour movement has never tackled racism in a consistent and wholesale way means that residual — but deeply held — racist attitudes are there to be exploited.
The BNP does this by conflating very real working class concerns with the presence of minority and immigrant populations. They claim to be defending the interests of an “indigenous population” who suffer from unemployment, poor housing, health and education services because “immigrants” are either given preferential treatment or “flood” an area in overwhelming numbers. Gordon Brown recently jumped on this band-wagon when he shamefully promised the following to a meeting with the GMB union:
“It is time to train British workers for the British jobs that will be available over the coming few years and to make sure that people who are inactive and unemployed are able to get the new jobs on offer in our country.”
Had this statement appeared without credit most people would assume it spilled forth from the mouth of Nick Griffin, not a Labour Prime Minister. Since 1997 this Labour government has pursued a hard-line policy of attacking asylum seekers and immigrants. They are scapegoated by the right wing press and the government reacts by issuing ever more draconian policy statements. Rather than tackle head-on the racist myths spread by the Daily Mail and BNP, the Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown has pandered to them.
This strategy has a duel effect: it gives political cover for the very real failings of the Labour Party over the past ten years and legitimises the political message of extreme right-wingers and the fascist BNP.
The BNP has built a base and made electoral advances in predominantly working class areas where the wilful neglect and attacks of this government find concrete material expression. Child poverty, inadequate housing, homelessness, insufficient public services – from health through to education provision – remain everyday realities in British society. Those in work face poor conditions and pay. In the absence of a combative trade union movement and the presence of a legal framework that militates against the emergence of class-wide solidarity, workers are effectively abandoned. Add to this the emasculated local structures of the Labour Party and wider labour movement — the traditional means by which working people expressed their concerns and fought for change — and we have a situation ripe for fascist agitation.
Recent BNP propaganda — both locally produced and in national publications – focuses upon “explaining” the crisis in jobs, housing and public services. For instance, in an article headlined “NHS at Breaking Point” the BNP blamed the crisis in the NHS not on under funding but on Polish immigrants who have “poured” into Britain. Are the BNP lying when they point out problems in public services? No, but the spin they put upon such problems is political poison. An anti-fascist campaign that either ignores such issues or focuses upon the “positive aspects” of society fails to address the real questions and concerns of the working class.
Unite Against Fascism and Searchlight
Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and the Searchlight organisation — a group that produces a monthly anti-fascist magazine and runs some local campaign groups — have major political faults. UAF is essentially a political coalition of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Action — a small Stalinist sect close to Ken Livingstone. It claims the support of most major trade unions and a variety of religious organisations. The political foundations of UAF are built upon the SWP’s interpretation of the United Front tactic. Leon Trotsky outlined the basis and need for a united front as follows:
“So long as it does not hold this majority [of the working class], the [revolutionary] party must fight to win it. The party can achieve this only by remaining an absolutely independent organisation with a clear program and strict internal discipline. That is the reason why the party was bound to break ideologically and organisationally with the reformists and the centrists who do not strive for the proletarian revolution, who possess neither the capacity nor the desire to prepare the masses for revolution, and who by their entire conduct thwart this work … But it is perfectly self-evident that the class life of the proletariat is not suspended during this period preparatory to the revolution. Clashes with industrialists, with the bourgeoisie, with the state power, on the initiative of one side or the other, run their due course. In these clashes — insofar as they involve the vital interests of the entire working class, or its majority, or this or that section — the working masses sense the need of unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it. Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need of the working class for unity in action will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers” (my emphasis).
Revolutionary socialists advocate the formation of a united front to fight for working class interests on the basis of unity between established working-class organisations. Trotsky advocated such a tactic to counter the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s. In practice the SWP denudes the united front of its essential working class orientation. For example:
Q. Does UAF practically unite working class organisations?
A. If all Trotsky means by unity is getting trade union general secretaries to sign a piece of paper, then yes – but this is not what Trotsky meant. For socialists, “unity” means a unified and purposeful action. UAF “appears” when the SWP thinks it politically expedient to roll it out. This means either turning SWP branches to anti-fascist activity at election times or turning out leading members for protests and conferences. There is no evidence of work towards major mobilisations of trade union members. No joint initiatives above the printing of T-Shirts and balloons. No practical unity.
Q. Are socialists “politically independent” inside UAF?
A. It is not possible for the SWP to be politically independent without tearing UAF apart. Sir Iqbal Sacranie — chair of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) — was invited as a headline speaker to UAF’s 2006 national conference. Bad enough that the MCB has reactionary Islamist politics. Add to this Sir Iqbal’s appearance on Radio Four where he labeled LGBT people as immoral, harmful and responsible for spreading disease and you see just how far the SWP will go to “unite” people. For them, the united front has no class content.
Q. But the SWP has a record of working hard against fascism.
A. This is true but the “work” they do is politically bankrupt. The following appeared on a recent UAF election leaflet: “Far right extremist groups are seeking to exploit the traditional low turnout at local elections to make inroads on 4 May and have provocatively described the elections as a ‘Referendum Day on Islam’. The MCB urges all people of goodwill to vote in the 4 May elections to ensure that fascist groups are comprehensively defeated at the ballot box.” Nothing much wrong with this statement: it’s right to point out the racist politics of the BNP and urge people to vote against them — no problems here. Except that this is all the leaflet has to say, and the man saying it is an outspoken homophobe — Sir Iqbal Sacranie. If anti-fascist propaganda fails to take up working class concerns, then it fails the working class.
Searchlight originates in a magazine published by Labour MPs Reg Freeson and Joan Lestor in the 1960s. After the magazine folded in 1967, Gerry Gable — who remains a central figure in the group — maintained a small organisation. It eventually began publishing again in 1975, when the National Front became a significant presence.
The main activity of the group remains collecting and exposing information on the far right with a focus on Britain. In addition to this important work — which seems to involve maintaining a network of infiltrators — Searchlight runs the “Stop the BNP” campaign group.
Stop the BNP has a much healthier approach to building local groups and relating to local issues than UAF. For example, the “Keighley Together” group ran a very successful, grass-roots response to BNP activity in their town.
But the campaign materials produced by Searchlight leave a great deal to be desired. Where UAF has a rabid homophobe, Stop the BNP has Alan Sugar, who appeared in material produced for the 2007 local elections. Alan Sugar has nothing to say about poorly funded public services and attacks on the working class. “Hope Not Hate” is the main political message of Stop the BNP materials — rather than relating to real issues and offering working class solutions, there is a preference for accentuating the positive. It is an inadequate response to the opportunism of the BNP in its current phase.
A rational response to the current phase of BNP activity must combine the sort of work carried out by Stop the BNP — the creation of grass-roots groups that campaign on local issues — together with a serious work in the trade unions.
Working class anti-fascism in the 1940s and 1970s
The history of working class anti-fascism in Britain is often hidden behind stories of mass street protests and rock concerts. But the organised working class has played a central role in disabling fascist political initiatives in the past. In the two periods where British fascist organisations gained some prominence – in the mid-to-late 1940s and 1970s — trade unions lobbied, organised and mobilised their memberships against them.
The immediate post-war period saw the emergence of small fascist propaganda groups. In spite of Hitler’s defeat and a growing public appreciation of the horrors of Nazi Germany, these groups held street meetings, mass leaflet drops and agitated their politics at every opportunity. The release of Oswald Mosley from wartime internment in 1943 encouraged the remnants of his British Union of Fascists on the offensive.
An indication of the level of trade union involvement comes from a collection of 302 letters sent to the Home Office between January 1945 and December 1948. According to Dave Renton (a semi-official historian of anti-fascist campaigning), of the 302 letters asking the Labour government to act against the Mosleyites, one third came from trade union branches. “If we were to add the letters from groups of workers and socialist organisations, from tenants’ associations and from individuals rooted in working-class campaigns, the proletarian aspect would represent a clear majority” (Renton).
The signing of a letter is hardly an indication of militant anti-fascism — especially when the letters in question called upon the Home Secretary to impose state bans on fascist groups — but post-war anti-fascism was not a letter writing campaign. Fascism became a central concern of trades council and shop steward groups. They politically educated members on the dangers of fascism, encouraged them to keep watch for activity and in Birmingham formed an “anti-fascist league”.
The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) of the 1970s claimed the support of “30 branches of the AUEW engineers union, 25 trades councils, 13 shop stewards committees, 11 NUM lodges, and similar numbers of branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE” (Renton). Some unions set up their own campaign groups, for instance the NUM held a “Miners Against the Nazis” conference in 1979.
What these two examples show is the latent potential of trade unions to mobilise anti-fascist sentiment — to engage in working-class politics. In both cases the relationship between different wings of the Labour Party and the far-left (the CPGB in the 1940s and SWP in the 1970s) produced some very uneven outcomes. On the one hand the Labour right wing took a naturally conservative approach to such a campaign. Inside the unions they attempted to stem the influence of Communists and Trotskyists by restricting access to young members’ conferences, for example. The political methods of postwar Stalinism and the Socialist Workers Party alienated a good many activists.
The current tactics of the BNP make a labour movement based campaign all the more important. It is not just a case of mobilising large numbers of people to protest against fascists but of providing political ideas and organisational structures to address working class concerns.
The anti-fascist campaign
The BNP characterises the current period as the start of a “quiet revolution”. They claim to speak for a “silent majority” of people abandoned by the major political parties and excluded from the gains of wider society. As “Proud Nationalists” they defend the “indigenous” people of this country against the threat posed by “ethnics” and “reds”.
Through hard work and a tactical change of direction the BNP has built serious local organisations that work hard to relate to local, working class concerns. In areas where the Labour Party has all but collapsed and where trade unions have few organic links in communities, BNP branches can be the only political operations relating to people’s concerns. In many areas the situation is desperate.
We who oppose fascism do so primarily because we value freedom: freedom of speech, the freedom to organise and the freedom to protest. The BNP’s freedom to operate is freedom to organise intimidation, as well as to spread violence and race hate. We defend the free speech of those who fight for positive non-racist changes to society as well as the freedom of traditionally victimised sections of our communities against the threat of fascist organisations such as the BNP. The BNP attempts to penetrate social movements and trade unions; and to take elected positions as councillors. They do this in order to foment division and racism as well as to identify their opponents and look for ways of intimidating them. We therefore advocate
• That the BNP should not be given any recognition as deserving a place in any genuine democratic debate.
• That all community organisations — but particularly trade unions and councils — do their utmost to isolate and remove them from their midst; thus preventing them from using any democratic façade behind which to organise.
• That as far as possible BNP activities should be blocked by mass pickets and mobilisations of local communities backed by the radical and trade union movement.
The BNP pretend to be a party of working class protest; at times even to be left wing critics of the Labour government. What is worse is that many people vote for them believing this to be true. We cannot allow the BNP to continue to peddle this monstrous lie.
It is an essential aspect of effective anti-fascist campaigning therefore that we
• encourage genuine non-racist action for working class interests on housing, employment and welfare rights as well as
• promoting non-racist democratic working class organisations, such as trade unions, to organise around such issues.
We need a united anti-fascist campaign in which a diversity of views are welcome but we need to build a campaign that does not compromise the work of our constituent organisations and campaigns in taking up such issues.
Such a campaign — mobilising the labour movement with consistent working class politics — will not only challenge the threats and lies of the fascist BNP but go some way to re-educating our class with socialist ideas.