The Socialist Workers Party and the BNP: misunderstanding the united front

Submitted by Matthew on 19 November, 2009 - 3:18 Author: Sacha Ismail

Martin's Smith article on "How do we stop the BNP?" in the last issue of the SWP's International Socialism journal is worth a read - for good and bad reasons. Good reasons? Facts. Bad reasons? Politics.

The good reasons are mainly related to the wealth of factual information Smith has gathered together - particularly on the class composition of the BNP's membership (primarily petty bourgeois, despite the press hype about the white working class; which is not to deny that they have built a base of working-class votes and support).

However, the article expresses in a peculiar way the basic problem of the SWP's anti-fascist politics: 'popular frontism', the idea of uniting everyone who says they oppose the BNP - across class lines, including from the ruling class - instead of a working class-led struggle against fascism which can win over all the poor and oppressed. Peculiar because Smith goes out of his way to insist, at length, that the SWP rejects such popular fronts.

In a section entitled "United front versus popular front", he explains quite well the origin of these opposing concepts in the struggles of the 1930s. Faced by the rise of fascist movements in Germany and France, Trotsky and his supporters argued for a "workers' united front", mobilising trade unions and different workers' political parties to beat back the fascists on the basis of a class-struggle program. Following its ultra-left binge which allowed Hitler to peacefully take power in Germany, the Stalinist Communist International switched over to advocating a different sort of 'unity' - unity between the workers and "progressive", "anti-fascist" capitalist parties. Popular Front governments came to power in France and Spain with the support of the main workers' organisations. The result was the demobilisation of the French and Spanish workers, shifts to the right and the eventual victory of fascism all along the line.

Smith then goes on to explain how he sees the Trotskyist strategy of the "united front" being put into action today:

"Although the situation in Britain today is nowhere near as serious as in France and Spain in the 1930s it is worth looking concretely at what it would mean if the popular front strategy were implemented in Britain. The Tories would certainly veto any hard-hitting anti-racist campaign. Boris Johnson won’t even support London’s anti-racist Rise festival. And can you imagine members of the Tory Party, let alone the leadership, supporting a physical confrontation with the BNP?

"...Unite Against Fascism (UAF) is not the classical united front described in Trotsky’s writings on the 1930s. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is not a mass revolutionary party able to call on the Labour Party to work with it on a single issue. But UAF, just like the ANL before it and the Stop the War Coalition today, does deploy the spirit of Trotsky’s united front method. The leadership of UAF contains supporters of the Labour Party, a number of trade union leaders and activists, anti-racist campaigners and the SWP. It attempts to bring together all those threatened by the fascists - trade unionists, Asians, black people, ethnic minorities, LGBT organisations, students, the disabled, anti-racists and the parties of the left."

In fact, it would be more accurate to say: "UAF is not the classical popular front described in Trotsky's writings. But UAF, just like the ANL before it and the Stop the War Coalition today, does deploy the spirit of the popular front method Trotsky denounced."

We agree that the situation in Britain today is not the same as Germany, France or Spain in the 1930s; the point is that there are common elements from which we can draw general lessons about how to fight fascism.

1. To understand what is wrong with Smith's argument, let us look at exactly why Trotsky argued that only working-class unity could beat the fascists and 'unity' with sections of the capitalist class could not.
a) It is necessary for the workers' movement and oppressed groups to physically defend themselves and confront the fascists. We cannot rely on the police and other forces of the state, who work for our class enemies and will usually (certainly in the last instance) protect the fascists against us. The workers and oppressed need to learn to rely on their own physical force.
b) Fascism grows out of capitalism's social decay and social crises, whipping up and organising those in the middle classes who are or perceive themselves to be under threat and, as it grows, drawing sections of the working class behind it. In situations of extreme crisis, when the working class seems to be seriously threatening capitalism, fascism can win support in the ruling class as the only reliable way of smashing the workers' movement.
To undermine fascism's base of support and cut its social roots, it is necessary to mobilise the labour movement to fight, in such a way that it can offer society a way out and draw decisive sections of the middle class behind it.
Clearly a "workers' united front" is necessary for both these tasks, while "popular fronts" are incompatible with them.

2. In the section quoted above, Smith effectively claims that, in accordance with UAF's supposed nature as a united front, the Tories are not involved. In fact, as we shall see, this is not true. But in any case, it is not necessary for major bourgeois political parties to sign up for a coalition to be 'cross-class' and 'popular frontist' in nature. In the Spanish revolution, for instance, the vast bulk of the ruling class had gone over to Franco; Trotsky described the Socialists, Communists and anarchists as allying themselves with the "shadow of the bourgeoisie" in the form of a handful of bourgeois republican politicians. These figures personified the determination of the main working-class parties to prevent (in the case of the Stalinists violently prevent) the workers and peasants struggling seriously against the ruling class. Thus the revolution was undermined and the way opened for Franco's victory.
Similarly, one might say that UAF represents an alliance between workers' organisations and the "shadow" of the British bourgeois establishment - an alliance on the basis of a totally bourgeois "anti-fascist" program, one that is both 'morally' wrong and cannot possibly be effective.

3. The AWL and others on the left have argued that a working-class social program - along the lines of "Black and white unite and fight - jobs, homes and services for all", combined with a struggle for working-class political representation and a workers' government - is necessary to combat the BNP. The exact political content of such a united front would, of course, be subject to discussion and negotiation. And of course the united front concept does not exclude a certain flexibility; no one is suggesting that only workers' organisations can be involved in anti-fascist campaigning. But working-class organisation and struggle are the necessary core of such an approach, for the reasons set out above.
What the SWP and UAF counterpose is an anti-fascism which has no social program at all - and therefore a bourgeois program of endorsing the status quo - on the grounds that a working-class orientation and demands would disrupt the unity of the movement. Clearly what is meant is unity with capitalist politicians and other establishment figures.
Similarly, on the level of physical confrontation, UAF is quite capable of working with the police to stimy militant anti-fascist demonstrations and/or manoeuvre against other forces in the anti-fascist movement. Recent examples took place in Liverpool and at the BNP's Red, White and Blue "festival" in Derbyshire. (To predict a tedious line of argument: no, we are not against negotiations with the police when organising demonstrations etc; the point is that UAF is often willing to work with the police behind the backs of, over the heads of and against other anti-fascists.)
In general, a united front would involve the mass mobilisation of workers and their allies in different organisations, trade unions, parties etc to struggle against fascism and the conditions that give rise to it. UAF's 'popular frontism' is expressed both in its political program and the related fact that it makes no serious effort to mobilise the working class. Rather trade union bureaucrats hand over money to a coalition of professional "anti-fascists" over the heads of their membership, falsely convincing themselves and many workers that they are doing something serious to oppose the BNP.

4. Smith argues for the slogan "Don't vote Nazi" on the grounds that it "unites everyone".
A genuine united front anti-fascist campaign in Britain today would have to discuss exactly what to say about elections; it might have to endorse a variety of options and include the right for minority voices to dissent. But "Don't vote Nazi" implies that it basically doesn't matter how workers vote as long as they don't vote for the BNP. After all, a vote for the Lib Dems, the Tories or even UKIP is not a vote for Nazis.
Once again, Smith contradicts his own historical analogy. He condemns the decision of the German Social Democrats to endorse right-wing militarist Paul von Hindenburg as the "lesser evil" against Hitler in the 1932 presidential election (Hindenburg shortly afterwards appointed Hitler chancellor). But in that election that is exactly what "Don't vote Nazi" would have meant!

5. A quick look at the UAF website confirms the charge of popular frontism rather dramatically. In addition to a front page statement hailing secretary of state for communities John Denham's stance on the English Defence League, UAF has a list of "key signatories" which includes not only Leroy Logan of the Metropolian Black Police Association, not only the Liberal Democrats North West Region, but... David Cameron. You almost certainly know who Cameron is. But you may be less familiar with "key signatory" Sir Teddy Taylor.
An MP until 2005, Taylor was a prominent activist in and at various points vice-president of the Monday Club, a right-wing Tory pressure group founded in the 1960s to oppose decolonisation in Africa and support the white supremacist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa.
Since then, the Monday Club has developed a program which includes repeal of the Race Relations Acts (which banned discrimination in jobs, services and housing), stopping immigration and creating voluntary repatriation schemes. Taylor was a supporter from 1970; in 1972 the organisation organised a big public meeting at Westminster under the slogan "Halt immigration now!" to promote these aims.
He is also a strong opponent of gay rights, and supports the reintroduction of the death penalty and corporal punishment for young offenders.
Lastly, on a vaguely humorous note: another UAF "key signatory" is Reverend Martin Smyth - different spelling, no relation - another former vice-president of the Monday Club. Does the SWP love the Monday Club or what?

Clearly this is a united front of a special kind...

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