Anti-fascism in a new era
This is a guest (re-)post by Bob From Brockley.
I originally posted a version of this post last Autumn. I have asked TCF to re-post it for me (slightly edited) because I posted it at a very busy time at my blog, so it got very little debate, and I wanted to test it out away from my comfort zone. But I am asking now because I think the situation is becoming more and more critical for anti-fascists. The continued decline of the BNP is a positive but it has opened the space for the re-emergence of more emphatically Nazi sects, while its ideas and narratives have infected the political mainstream as authoritarian xenophobic politics spread beyond the fascist fringe. Meanwhile, the English Defence League has seen a continued violent rise based on a style of politics the BNP long ago abandoned, and could well form the nucleus of a new far right alignment. These changes pose the questions of militant anti-fascism more urgently than ever.
Waterloo Sunset has published a very helpful critique of Searchlight’s announcement of a brave new era for anti-fascism. Searchlight call for a re-thinking of the reality of fascism, and a step away from some of the old orthodoxies of militant anti-fascism. Like WS, I agree that there is some truth in the analysis of the changing situation put forward by Nick Lowles and Paul Meszaros, and like WS I am far from convinced of either the newness or the wisdom of the new course they chart. But I am far from sure what the right course is.
As WS points out, the aspects of the new Searchlight analysis which are correct were actually set out very clearly a decade and a half ago by London Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) in its Filling the Vacuum document, which led eventually to the self-dissolution of AFA and a turn to community politics. In short, the battle against the BNP on the streets had been won by the early 1990s, but the BNP were winning a cultural war in the communities where white working class people felt let down and abandoned by mainstream society, and in particular by the left and the Labour movement.
But, as WS also points out, the way to engage those communities is not to enter the political mainstream, or to do the Labour Party’s business and re-connect the electorate in those communities with the political machine which abandoned them. That only further sacrifices our credibility.
The way to fill the vacuum, instead, is to build the grassroots initiatives that take seriously the real concerns of such communities – especially now, in an age of rising unemployment, financial crisis and unfairly imposed austerity. (These grassroots initiatives look different in every locality. The relationship with the Labour Party, trade unions and so on will be negotiated differently depending on local circumstances. Meszaros and Lowles are right about the need for flexible, local solutions informed by local knowledge.)
Related to this is the issue of who the constituency of this sort of activity should be, something which, as WS notes, is skirted around in the Searchlight text. They talk about “the community”, “real people”, “real communities”, “ordinary people”, “real ordinary people”, “the mainstream”, “the anti-BNP voter”, “Mr and Mrs Smith”, “the public mood”. But this vagueness contrasts to the more specific constituency identified in the analysis of the BNP’s growth: “The BNP was building inside communities and tapping into widespread discontent with the political system. More significantly, and often ignored by many, the BNP was engaging in a cultural war that was successfully drawing upon a loss of identity and meaning among many white working class people. By carefully nurturing an image of itself as victim and speaking up “for the silent majority” the BNP could offer a new white nationalist identity to people who felt let down and abandoned by society.” Those who are experiencing a loss of identity and meaning, who feel let down and abandoned by society, are a very specific constituency, and it is them, and not “Mr and Mrs Smith” that anti-fascists need to engage with.
But where does that leave militant anti-fascism? Is its job over? The key problem with the Searchlight analysis of militant anti-fascism is to reduce it to the philosophy of “No Platform”. In my view, this is simplistic and misleading.
“No Platform” is a policy that relates primarily to student unions and trade unions. For a student union, for example, No Platform means using the power of the union to keep fascists off campus – denying them a platform in the college or university. For council workers, it might mean stopping council premises being used by fascists.
No Platform is sometimes counterposed to “free speech”, but No Platform is not historically a policy of calling upon the state to ban fascists, but rather of using one’s own resources to deny them a platform in one’s own institutions. If I tell someone that in my house, in front of my kids, they should refrain from swearing, I am not infringing their free speech in general, just saying what the rules are in my house. No Platform, historically, was never about bans and police actions; it was about people setting the rules in their own houses.
What happened was that No Platform took on the status of a fetish, an absolute value, and a life of its own, in ways that had absolutely nothing to do with the wider ethos of anti-fascism. We see this reflected in two very different ways. For many anti-authoritarians, anti-fascism became a lifestyle choice; the hoodie and scarf became a uniform; and anyone outside the charmed circle of the antifa milieu was not trusted.
On the authoritarian left, in the white collar unions and student unions dominated by the SWP, we see calls for BNP teachers to be sacked, or agencies like the EHRC taking the BNP to court over its membership rules – meaningless, bureaucratic, legalistic interpretations which rely on the state and disempower citizens, while allowing the BNP to paint itself as the heroic victim of censorship.
Meanwhile, in the real world – in the world of the internet and YouTube and Facebook, where platforms for hate endlessly proliferate; in the a period when the BNP have achieved a wider support base of people who are in no sense fascist; and in an age of increasingly sophisticated policing and surveillance – the ideal of No Platform has become meaningless.
Ironically, coinciding with the concept’s irrelevance, the SWP front Unite Against Fascism (UAF) has re-discovered it with a vengeance, probably noting that they can gain competitive advantage in the anti-fascist market by making “militancy” their USP. Hence childish actions like throwing eggs at Nick Griffin, which might be fun but have zero or negative effect.
Militant anti-fascism, however, never meant just street fighting. AFA, for example, saw it as a two-track strategy: physical and ideological confrontation, the latter less spectacular but taking up at least much of the organisation’s energy. To list just a few examples I can recall, in London and elsewhere, we did a huge amount of work with football fans, organised carnivals and local history workshops, developed a political response to knife attacks in London, did estate-based work in issues like housing transfer and anti-social behaviour. This approach was also that of our predecessors, as you can see if you read the autobiography of Joe Jacobs for instance.
Another challenge for militant anti-fascism is how to deal with forms of fascism that don’t look like the old NF did – forms of fascism that fester among “oppressed” minorities, among people that hate the BNP. When this challenge was recently posed by Carl, it was totally failed by both UAF and Searchlight. But when it was posed in the East End in the summer of 2010, more positive results were seen. Whitechapel United Against Division mobilised working class white and Bangladeshi local people to protest both the Islamists and the EDL. And the statement “Against fascism in all its colours”, condemning both, was signed by a wide range of local organisations, from the Bangladesh Welfare Association to the Brick Lane Mosque to the Whitechapel Anarchist Group.
This points to a neglected part of the militant anti-fascist story. A large part of the history of militant anti-fascism in Britain, from the Jewish East End in the 1930s to Southall and Brick Lane in the 1970s and 1980s, has been communities defending themselves from violent attacks. With the BNP’s turn in the 1990s from the battle for the streets to the battle for the ballot box, that sort of violence was less common. But with the rise of the EDL since 2009, Asian communities are once again under attack. If anti-fascism is to have any credibility with these communities, and especially their youth, an appeal to “Mr and Mrs Smith” is not the right approach. And this opens a space that reactionary jihadi groups are happy to move into. Anti-fascism, then, needs to fill the vacuum in white working class communities, but also drive a wedge between angry Muslims and the far right Islamist political entrepreneurs appealing to them. Doing both at once will be no easy task.
In conclusion, I agree with Meszaros and Lowles that we urgently need to re-think the old dogmas in new times. But I don’t think they offer us the tools to do so.