The publication of the BNP membership list online shows an enormous growth in the strength of the BNP. There is serious cause for alarm here.
According to Nick Lowles of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, the party had 600 members in 1997 and 3000, 1500 of them active, in 2000. Even if we assumed that the new figure of 13,500 is a two-to-one over-estimate, that would represent a ten-fold growth in a decade.
The growth of BNP membership should act as a wake up call for the urgent need to mobilise the labour movement. We need to confront the far right; we need also to step up the struggle against the social decay on which it has fed. As we enter a deep economic crisis, with the return of mass unemployment, intensified social exclusion, and poverty, the BNP will continue to grow — unless we stop them.
The publication of the list has caused some discomfort for the fascists. But the media furore has also gained them a huge amount of free publicity (the BNP website has is reported to have crashed as a result of an unprecedented number of visits).
In 1997, the BNP was much smaller than the organised far left; today, after ten years of a New Labour government acting with blatant contempt for the working class, a labour movement which will not fight and a far left failing to get its act together, it is much stronger.
Worse: the biggest component of that “far left”, the SWP, has spent years preaching and practising its own pseudo-Muslim variant of communal politics. As well as the hobnobbing which this involved with clerical fascists such as the Muslim Association of Britain, it ruled out the very possibility of fighting racism and communalism by way of the working-class politics that used to be expressed in the slogan: “Black and white, unite and fight”.
These antics have made things easier than they need have been for BNP race-hate merchants.
What do we say about vigilante acts against BNP members?
We do not “defend” BNP members — not in any sense or dimension. However, we oppose vigilantism against individuals.
It will not actually achieve anything in terms of organising and mobilising the working class against the BNP. It lays open left and labour movement activists to state repression. It lays us open to retaliation by the fascists. It will help rally the far right and allow them to present themselves as victims.
Some anarchists have already blown up an innocent person’s car, thinking that it belonged to a BNP member. Such things are an inevitable part of this sort of vigilantism.
Local leafleting, demonstrations etc. which organises people against the far right while seeking to create a hostile and uncomfortable atmosphere for BNP members in a particular locality are a far better option. So are mass actions against BNP meetings, activities, etc.
Should we support a state ban on the BNP?
No. Socialists oppose calling on the government to ban fascist organisations, because we refuse to peddle the illusion that the working class can rely on the capitalist state when it comes to the crunch. We work to educate the working class to a sharp understanding that we can rely only on ourr own strength to defeat the fascists.
Laws cracking down on the far right do cause some unpleasantness for the fascists, but simultaneously they strengthen the power of the state to act against left-wing opponents when the time comes. They may be directly used against the left and the labour movement. That is what happened in the 1930s and after with the Public Order Act.
If the government did ban the BNP, we would not shed any tears or rush to their defence; but we oppose either calling for such bans or putting any trust in them.
What about BNP members getting sacked?
The question of BNP members losing their jobs is a different one, on three counts.
Firstly, we should support the laws and regulations which make it illegal for BNP members to work in the police, prison service, as teachers, etc. as a basic matter of equality and decency. We cannot accept BNP-supporting prison officers “working with” young black prisoners (this is true independently of our more general critique of the prison system). The idea that a BNP teacher would be able to treat black and Asian children the same as the rest is simply silly.
Secondly, we support the right of unions to expel members of the BNP and other far right organisations. We demand this as an urgent matter of labour movement self-defence and defence of the oppressed (ethnic minorities, migrants, LGBT people).
Generally speaking, we want trade unions to organise all workers, regardless of political views. We oppose political bans in the unions.
In the case of fascists, it is not mainly a matter of their political views as such. Fascism is a current which seeks, by its very nature, to destroy the labour movement. When a fascist gets up to speak, he or she is not simply putting forward objectionable views, but inevitably inciting small-scale (for now!) terrorism against black people, Muslims, etc.
For these reasons, the presence of fascists in the organisations of the working class should not be tolerated. We should not tolerate the presence of BNP members in our workplaces. Workers should shun BNP members at work, and should refuse to work with them. The unions should seek to force them out, if necessary by demanding that they are sacked.
Wouldn’t calling for the sacking of BNP members imply also demanding the sacking of, for instance, Christians, or Muslims, or others with reactionary views on, say, women’s and gay rights?
This argument has been raised in a number of discussions in the media. It misses the point spectacularly. Not all Christians, Muslims, etc. hold even mildly reactionary views; many people continue to subscribe loosely, and sometimes quite actively, to a particular religion, while holding progressive or even radical views that are in contradiction with the leaderships of their religions. For example, many Catholics support abortion rights.
Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of religious workers are key activists and loyal citizens of the labour movement in Britain.
Even those religious workers who do hold reactionary views are not, in the great majority, part of tightly organised groups seeking to initiate civil war against the workers’ movement and against immigrants and their children. Religions are generally, by their very nature, diffuse. This is true even of right-wing evangelical religion as compared to fascism.
The BNP is a tightly organised sect which not only requires a full spectrum of ultra-reactionary views on the part of its members but, where it can, organises violent action against black and brown British people and against the labour movement. Everyone should be held to the same standards of decency in the workplace and in the labour movement, regardless of religious views they may hold; but members of a fascist party are a different case altogether.
What about “no platform for fascists”?
To expel BNP members from the labour movement is plainly to deny them a platform. We also advocate working-class direct action to prevent the publication and dissemination of BNP material, e.g. by printers, postal workers, media workers; and mass direct action by the labour movement, oppressed groups and the left to disrupt and prevent fascist meetings, activities and demonstrations.
We do not think that free speech is the issue at stake in such situations.
The “no platform” question often arises in the student movement. Many student unions, as well as NUS, have “no platform policies”.
On the same basis as in the trade unions, we support denying a platform, the use of student union facilities and so on to the BNP and similar groups, as a matter of self-defence and of the defence of the oppressed.
Any union officer discovered to have links to the BNP should be removed from office. In so far as it is possible without protracted legal entanglement, BNP members should be stripped of student union membership.
However, we differ with many “no platformers”, liberal and socialist, on three grounds.
Firstly, we see “no platform” as a tactical question, and not a principle.
Secondly, we do not believe that this tactic can reasonably be extended from fascists to sexists, racists, homophobes etc., as it is for instance in the NUS “no platform” policy. While student union structures and proceedings must uphold basic standards of behaviour, as in the labour movement, a more general ban on those with reactionary views is simply incompatible with free speech.
Are the Tories, many of whom hold racist and sexist views, to be denied the right to organise campus meetings, for example? If we support that, how can we effectively oppose student union bureaucrats seeking to deny meetings rooms to the far left, as is now the case on many campuses (to say nothing of NUS's Stalinoid culture of suppressing political debate)?
In general we should fight reactionary views through sharp, aggressive argument and debate. With fascism – we say it again – it is not primarily a matter of reactionary views, as explained above, so the issue of free speech is not central there.
We want student unions to run activist, political, ongoing mass campaigns against the BNP, as the labour movement should. Just putting in place a “no platform” policy and then imagining everything is fine is no substitute for that.
More generally, what should socialists do?
In the first instance, we should use this opportunity to educate those around us on the nature of fascism and how to fight it. This is an opportunity for political discussion with our workmates, fellow union members, fellow activists etc.
Beyond that, the rapid growth of the BNP should act as a wake up call to the left. British fascism still lags behind its cousins in France, Germany, Austria and some other European countries; but it has taken a big step forward. There is no comparison with the huge leap the Nazis took in the German elections of 1930, for instance, but even so we should be highly alarmed.
We need to build a different kind of anti-fascist movement from the one we have: one which mobilises the working class and its movement to fight for answers to the real issues (housing, jobs, services) which the fascists exploit, and one which poses a viable alternative.
That means arguing for a workers’ plan to respond to the crisis, for independent working-class political representation and for a workers’ government. It means anti-fascist campaigning shaped by these basic goals.