The closest thing many of us will have seen to “militant anti-fascism” in recent times is an entirely or partly staged scuffle with the police at the front of a demonstration.
These altercations are more often than not born out of frustration with the police for “protecting the Nazis” than any coherent tactical considerations. They have very little long-term impact on the ability of the fascists to organise.
The stories of the 43 Group and of the Teamsters’ “Union Defense Guard”, featured in previous issues of Solidarity, illustrate the place of mass, confrontational mobilisations against fascist groups in a context not wholly dissimilar to the present. The fascists are not on the brink of taking power. They are, however, building their forces, growing in confidence and staging ever more ambitious public activities.
The Jewish ex-service men and women of the 43 Group and the trade union militants of the UDG developed their organisations as a necessary reaction to the physical threat posed by fascist groups. Whilst physical threat always exists and violent acts are carried out sporadically, there is no large-scale campaign of violence to contend with at present.
In a situation where the major fascist organisation, the BNP, steers away from open street confrontation and where the thuggish periphery of the far-right is at best ramshackle, what role should militant tactics play in the battle against fascism? This is a question of some controversy resulting from very different approaches to and understandings of the labour movement, the “No Platform” policy and basic democratic principles.
“Anarchism is basically a solipsism, whether or not anarchists recognize this consciously in their philosophic outlook. It does not mean freedom through democracy, or freedom in society, but, rather, freedom from any democratic authority whatsoever or any social constraint” Hal Draper (Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Critique of other socialisms)
The activities of the Antifa group appear, on first inspection, to be based on wholly honourable impulses. The only tears shed when reading a report of their activities are produced by fits of laughter at the fate of various fascists and their attempts to meet.
Antifa is a group of “anti-authoritarian” and “anti-capitalist” (basically anarchist) activists of indeterminate size who prioritise small-scale physical actions against the fascists. This can range from picking off known fascists for a bit of rough justice to more coordinated efforts to disrupt larger events. Much of their work resembles the early phase of 43 Group activity; but beyond the act of physical confrontation, Antifa — at least in its British manifestation — diverges considerably from a rounded, political approach to anti-fascism.
Whilst some Antifa activists will argue that small-scale, elite actions are necessitated by the imperative of security, there is a political basis for their mode of operation. Antifa is, in the main, the descendant of an organisation known as Anti Fascist Action which itself grew from the Anti Nazi League/SWP’s Stewards Group.
The Stewards Group was organised to protect left-wing meetings and events from attack in the 1970s, the early days of the Anti Nazi League. When the SWP attempted to legitimise its anti-fascist activity with the help of Liberal politicians, Labour right-wingers, soap stars and footballers, the group became something of an embarrassment.
When the Stewards refused to disband, the SWP members involved were expelled and derided as “squaddists” by the SWP leadership. This produced some understandable bitterness from those who’d put themselves on the line to protect one-time comrades who now wanted nothing to do with them. No doubt, the SWP handled the expulsions with their usual light-touch approach. So, in short, Antifa is the bastard-grandchild of the SWP.
This genetic SWP-phobia, once combined with a rigid understanding of No Platform and the “individual-solipsistic” approach that lingers in even the best of contemporary anarchism, produces quite a mix.
The SWP-phobia extends to an ingrained mistrust of all “Trots”. With some exceptions, notably in the early days of anti-fascist work in Nottingham, this means immediately cutting yourself off from potential allies in the early stages of building a movement. Taking No Platform as a matter of principle rather than a tactic demands that all organisational energies are focussed upon a fairly narrow set of concerns rather than a rounded political response. The anarchistic kernel of rigid individualism means a refusal to work within the democratic structures of a broad movement and ultimately results in an inability to work consistently in the labour movement or with anyone who refuses to submit themselves to anarchist methods.
This combination crystallises into the sort of adventurism on display on the 16 August 2008 demonstration against the BNP’s Red, White and Blue Festival. For reasons already documented the demonstration did not take place as originally conceived. That is, mass disruption of the festival itself. So rather than rally with several hundred anti-fascists and attempt, where possible, to breach police restrictions the Antifa comrades attempted to stage an elitist escapade of tragicomic dimensions.
Reports on the Indymedia website indicate that forty or so Antifa members were arrested, and we assume the others spent the rest of the day scrabbling back through fields to civilisation. Antifa staged an elitist stunt that had no impact on the fascists and contributed nothing towards building a movement. How much more useful would it have been to have an extra fifty organised anti-fascists on the main demonstration, we’ll never know.
The form and function of Unite Against Fascism makes for a chameleon-like entity. In an attempt to be all things to all people, UAF presents a potentially bewildering variation of stances best characterised by the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee of Martin Smith and Weyman Bennett.
Martin Smith is quite often to be found speaking on behalf of UAF and/or “Love Music Hate Racism” at left-wing events. In his speeches, Martin likes to emphasise the need to “fight the BNP”. Martin also likes to remind everyone that the BNP are “Nazis”. His speciality, however, is staging little stunts to prove how militant the organisation he leads, the SWP, really is.
Weyman, on the other hand, has the job of convincing trade union bureaucrats, celebrities and worthy individuals that the best way to fight fascism is to give UAF money and a bit of legitimacy by lending their name to it. Weyman is also a leading member of the SWP, and as with all employees, his boss doesn’t make his life easy for him.
When Martin talks about “fighting the Nazis” he’s talking to growing layer of young and politically inexperienced people who really do want to fight them off. When Weyman talks to trade union officials he’s after the endorsements necessary to make UAF appear like a legitimate outfit. Neither of these things is wrong in and of themselves, unless you understand that the first and foremost priority of Martin and Weyman is to recruit people to the SWP. This imperative has all sorts of negative consequences already considered.
But it’s Martin Smith’s penchant for “fighting” that interests us most here. Apart from offering the BNP’s GLA member Richard Barnbrook outside for a fight — via a megaphone directed at the London Assembly with Barnbrook nowhere in sight — there is very little evidence that Martin is serious about taking militant direct action against the BNP.
If you educate the membership of a revolutionary group by sending them into tedious stand-offs with the police and telling them this is what serious anti-fascism is about, then you have no hope of organising the sorts of responses exemplified by the 43 Group and UDG. Smith’s little stunts are more like a recruitment exercise than anything else.
“now is not the time for violence”
“If the fascists grow and fight the unions, the unions must inevitably counter that movement by developing their defense guards, and if the defense guards are overpowered by fascist gangsters and hoodlums and thugs, the only answer of the unions can be to strengthen the guards, and in the course of that struggle between the fascist gangs and the workers’ defense guards, we hope the workers’ defense guards will grow strong and eventually become a very effective power.” James P. Cannon, (Socialism on Trial)
So what of the BNP itself? Does the fact that, at present, the BNP has made an organisational turn away from street fighting and provocation towards electoralism and community campaigning mean that a militant response can play no part in anti-fascist activity? The answer to this question depends on what you conceive militant anti-fascism to be.
Almost immediately after a successful mass blockade of a BNP meeting in Kimberley, Nottinghamshire — the first of its kind for some considerable time — Nick Griffin spoke at a meeting warning his members that no matter how frustrating the actions of the anti-fascists became, “now is not the time for violence”. The word “now” is most relevant here.
The sort of action carried out in Kimberley should be categorised as a militant response to fascism. The logic of such an action has nothing to do with the “principle” of denying fascists freedom of speech – such a “principle” can have no consistency for socialists. Nick Griffin and the BNP were “No Platformed” but not because this is a guiding idea for anti-fascism. No, such militant actions are a form of self-defence against the prospect of a renewed, large-scale fascist organisation. They play a complementary role to a mass, working class political campaign in communities and our class against the growth of the fascist BNP.
Nick Griffin’s “now” should give pause for thought to anyone who considers the BNP to be a legitimate – if that phrase has any meaning — political party. What Griffin was telling his members is that “we all understand that our enemies — the socialists, trade unionists, feminists, Jews, black people, gays and the others – will not stand down without a fight. But we must first prepare ourselves for that fight by swelling our ranks and building support”. It seems that Griffin and the BNP learned something from the fall-out of the 1970s (and from the immediate post-War period before that).
The BNP leader conceives of the current period as one of “quiet revolution” where his support will grow from those communities — including working class areas — discontented with the manifold failures of New Labour and suffering from the growing economic storm. There can be no doubt that, given the resources, personnel and confidence, the BNP will start to make some noise. The whole organisation and its periphery will be set the task of attacking — physically and ideologically — the labour movement, socialist organisations and minority communities. We must be prepared for this.
Preparation means neither sitting around waiting for the worst nor staging small, elitist and ineffective actions against individual fascists.
We must build a movement that reminds the BNP that there is no such thing as a “quiet” or one-sided revolution, that in such situations there is more than one side. Our movement must be based on working-class politics, built from working-class organisations and must be prepared to take militant defensive and offensive action. No such organisation exists, but the history of militant anti-fascism can us in building it.