Over 500 people attended the Unite Against Fascism conference at the TUC's Congress House on 13 February - including trade unionists, student activists and young people from across the country. With even roughly adequate political perspectives, these activists would be well-placed as tribunes and organisers for an effective anti-fascist movement. Unfortunately the conference confirmed what we knew already: the SWP leadership has involved them in a morass of political unprincipledness and confusion.
I attended the opening plenary and the workshop on 'Bringing anti-fascism into the workplace', where we actually got to have some debate. Both were highly instructive.
In the plenary we had fluff from Kay Carberry, assistant TUC general secretary, who said that some working-class voters and even trade unionists are attracted to the BNP because they're “influenced by media stories”. Christine Blower from the NUT was slightly better, rightly pointing out that the growth of the far right is a social question. “Fascism is not the answer to poverty, or to youth unemployment, or to poor housing.” OK, but what is?
Finally Martin Smith from the SWP spoke. He did ask why the BNP are growing, but his answers were confused to say the least.
The first reason he cited is what he called Nick Griffin's 'eurostrategy' - his attempt to repackage the BNP as a respectable, suit-wearing nationalist party. The solution? Make sure you call them fascists and Nazis! Make sure people know what they are! That's what Martin Smith does all the time - even when the BNP's lawyers ring him up! I'm in favour of calling the BNP fascists, but this hardly gets to grips with why they are growing. Nor is it something that anyone, even mainstream Tories, could disagree with.
After complaining that the BNP's “job is being made easier by people who are supposed to be on our side” - the BBC! - and criticising New Labour politicians like Margaret Hodge on their anti-migrant racism - but not much else - Smith resorted to a favourite SWP metaphor for anti-fascism: the sword and shield. UAF is the shield, defending us against the immediate fascist attack. But in the longer term we need the sword of socialist politics to go on the offensive against the bosses' and politicians responsible for the conditions in which fascism grows.
But what UAF in fact does is super-glue the labour movement's sword to its shield - and then accuse anyone who wants to unglue them so we can fight effectively of disrupting anti-fascist 'unity'.
On a side note. The liberal journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a supporter of the British Muslims for Secular Democracy group, was called an Islamophobe by a heckler in the audience. This is really pretty laughable and tells you a lot about the political milieu the SWP has helped to foster.
In the workshop there were a lot of interesting and inspiring contributions about anti-racist initiatives people have taken in their workplaces, particularly in schools (teachers were over-represented in the workshop - good for them). Without wanting to undermine any of that, the political level was incredibly low.
A number of speakers used phrases like tackling the roots of fascism. When I contributed, I asked how this was possible in a campaign that deliberately refuses to raise social demands, for fear of alienating bourgeois allies. This includes even right-wing politicians - both David Cameron and two former Monday Club official are on UAF's sponsors list - and strike-breaking bosses, most recently at UAF's anti-EDL demo in Leeds during the bin workers' strike. How can we say what is necessary if we are in bed with these people?
An SWP comrade was first to reply. She admonished me for making the same mistake as the German Communist Party when, on Stalin's orders, it refused to unite with the Social Democratic party to fight Hitler. UAF is supposedly what Trotsky called a “united front”
Kevin Courtney from the NUT and Steve Hart from Unite asked if I was against having Tory-voting strikers on picket lines. Hart argued that the only question that matter is: do you support the strike? Similarly, the only question that matters here is: are you against fascism?
Let me explain very carefully what is wrong all this.
Trotsky talked about a “workers' united front” - in the first instance an alliance of the German Communists and Social Democrats to fight against the Nazis. Workers' unity against the fascists - absolutely right. But in UAF the SWP 'unites' not just with social democrats, not just with Labour Party people, not just with non-revolutionary trade unionists, but with outright bourgeois politicians and bosses, including Tories. The SWPer who spoke conveniently avoided this reality.
Trotsky advocated cooperation between working-class activists for physical self-defence, but as part of the class struggle - fighting against the social conditions which gave rise to Nazism. He advocated complete freedom of criticism, so that communists could continue to highlight the limitations and hesitations of their allies. UAF's relationship even with top Labour Party people - never mind Tories - is that of a 'single issue' anti-fascist 'popular front' of the kind Trotsky criticised, not a working-class united front in a modern setting.
Fascism is not a 'single issue', an isolated evil you can just declare yourself against. Marxists have a far more complex and subtle understanding of it as a product of social conditions, class relations and the class struggle. The ruling class and its political representatives cannot and will not fight it effectively.
When Tory workers join a union and go on strike, it is not their political affiliation that is at issue, but their class. In fact, if anything, they are striking against their own politics, even if they are not conscious of it (if the strike goes on long enough etc, then his contradiction is what begins to change people's ideas). Inviting a Tory MP - a ruling-class Tory leader - to sponsor a campaign or appear on a platform is, self-evidently, completely different. That socialist trade unionists fail to understand these ABCs is astonishing.
What we need
Such is the urgency of the threat from the far right that most of the left critics at the conference seemed quite nervous about criticising UAF. A Socialist Party speaker in the workshop session made some very vague, hinted-at criticisms of the campaign, mainly focusing on its lack of democracy. A Socialist Resistance speaker in the opening plenary denounced the idea of a popular front with Liberals and Tories, but then argued for “continuing to build the united front”. Continue? What united front?! A similarly vague critical resolution promoted by SR and supported by the Jewish Socialist Group, Cambridge NUT and Brent Trades Council was not pushed; instead the speaker expressed a pious hope that the steering committee - which is not even elected at the conference! - would discuss it.
We need criticism from activists in the fight, not criticism from the sidelines. Nonetheless, clear, sharp criticism of the SWP and the destructive course on which it is leading the anti-fascist movement is what is needed.
For details of the 27 March conference in Nottingham to build a working-class anti-racist and anti-fascist network, see here.