The racist backlash following the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich has highlighted again the need for a working-class anti-fascist movement in Britain, which not only confronts far-right and fascist organisation in the streets but is part of a political alternative.
“Mainstream” anti-fascism — the SWP-controlled United Against Fascism — retains a certain superficial dominance but without any organised local groups.
In Socialist Worker (8 June) UAF leader Weyman Bennett proclaims that “[UAF’s] tactics can win”, but without any details as to what these tactics are. He mentions “over 100 demos” UAF has organised, but independent anti-fascists know that many UAF-coordinated “demonstrations” are tame affairs, often deliberately organised well away from EDL rallying points, often in collusion with the police and inside a police pen, where establishment speakers blandly extol the values of multiculturalism. In Sheffield, on Saturday 8 June, UAF and council-backed initiative “One Sheffield Many Cultures” did precisely this, corralling demonstrators into a police pen for a music festival.
Accusations of colluding with the police to arrest anti-fascists who might “make trouble” have dogged the SWP since an anti-EDL demonstration in Newcastle on 25 May.
In London on Monday 27 May, UAF’s showing against an EDL demonstration in Whitehall was dismal. They tried to corral protesters into a police-sanctioned pen to listen to speeches while the EDL rallied up the road.
Bennett’s article claims UAF “utterly humiliated” the EDL in Tower Hamlets in 2011, but its campaign there was a petition calling on Theresa May to ban the EDL’s march, and holding a rally in Whitechapel while 1,000 EDLers marched unopposed from Moorgate to Aldgate.
Those who have attempted to intervene in UAF to argue for a different approach have been blocked; Unite activist Justin Baidoo was prevented from standing in its 2012 secretarial election on a spurious technicality.
Since splitting from the magazine Searchlight, which founded it, the other main anti-fascist campaign, Hope Not Hate, exists as a website running petition campaigns and little more.
In 2010, Workers’ Liberty was involved in an attempt to establish a network based on grassroots anti-fascist groups, arising from successful organising in Nottingham.
The Stop Racism and Fascism Network (SRFN) was short-lived, but some of those involved are now organising in the Anti-Fascist Network (AFN), which was set up in 2012.
The AFN shares many of SRFN’s criticisms of UAF’s tactics, arguing for a focus on direct action and confronting fascist organisation (physically if necessary). Some of those involved in AFN-affiliated groups come out of Antifa, Anti-Fascist Action, and other anti-fascist groups prominent during the 1990s. Those groups based themselves almost exclusively on physical confrontation with fascists (including, sometimes, individuals or small groups of individuals) rather than open political campaigning, and necessarily organised in a clandestine way.
The establishment of AFN was a move towards more open and explicitly political models.
In London, the South London Anti-Fascist Group (which originates in an attempt to bring together UAF supporters, Hope Not Hate supporters, and independent anti-fascists) has worked with the London-wide affiliate to the AFN (London Antifascists) in the weeks since the Woolwich murder, mobilising for demonstrations on 27 May and 1 June, as well as holding local planning meetings.
Unite Against Fascism is now moving to undermine this independent organisation, unilaterally announcing the launch of a South London UAF group for 13 June.
We need anti-fascist campaigning based on the approach of the workers’ united front — mobilising a broad range of organised workers to fight fascism in a way which links up with other working-class concerns (cuts, jobs, etc.), and offers a working-class perspective on the social issues on which fascists feed.
“No platform” is not a cast-iron principle, nor even a preferred slogan of ours. Every situation should be judged realistically and soberly. A concern for security and a semi-clandestine approach is sometimes necessary. But we should endeavour to make our actions as accessible as possible, and such as can be explained to open-minded working-class people as motivated by the need to defend the oppressed, rather than an abstract desire for physical confrontation as an end in itself.
Anti-fascist actions should help anti-fascist campaigning expand in the labour movement, and encourage labour movement organisations to take up anti-fascist campaigning in their own name, rather than narrow down to a corps of self-appointed anti-fascist superheroes.
On the streets, our aim is working-class mobilisation to defend labour-movement organisations and activists, and communities under threat from the fascists. That means we aim to mobilise working-class people on the streets to stop fascists, and violent racists like the EDL, taking control of our streets, not just bland “carnivals” or “celebrations” of the UAF type.
An anti-fascist coordination will necessarily involve activists from a range of backgrounds, and cannot (and should not) aspire to the same level of political comprehensiveness and clarity as a political party. But working-class anti-fascism cannot allow bourgeois politicians to use its platforms to present their politics — the politics of austerity and the status quo — as the respectable norm from which far-right extremism deviates.
We are for free speech and organisation, even for those whose politics we disagree with. We are against state bans, even on fascists.
But we must also recognise that fascism is not a normal politics. Violence against black people, LGBT people, Jews, Roma, trade unionists, and others is integral to it. Any level of fascist organisation represents a physical threat to us. This means our tactical approaches must seek to stop fascists marching and holding rallies, including through physical confrontation where necessary.
Healthy working-class anti-fascism will be accessible to those who do not feel comfortable physically confronting fascists, and those that do will be part of and accountable to the wider movement. But a preparedness to physically confront fascism where necessary is essential for any effective movement.
Democratic local coordination is also vital. UAF’s South London launch meeting is presented as a rally, with a litany of leftish establishment speakers. Rallies have their place, but not at the exclusion of democratic meetings.
The South London AF model, which allows anti-fascists from a variety of political backgrounds to make proposals and have them discussed, is one to learn from.