Since its launch, the racist English Defence League (EDL) and its sister organisations have organised 31 demonstrations across Britain.
Events now look set to take an even more sinister turn. Racist thugs from Holland, France, Belgium, Sweden, Hungary, Italy and Britain will gather in Amsterdam on 30 October to launch a new European Defence League.
Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and the Socialist Workers Party have a proud record of organising against the fascist British National Party (BNP) and opposing the EDL. But we mustn’t be complacent—we always need to discuss and debate how we combat this dangerous racist threat.
Until recently, Searchlight, the anti-fascist magazine which started one of Britain’s other anti-fascist organisations, Hope Not Hate, has either ignored the protests against the EDL or been indifferent to them. The February edition of the magazine stated: “The EDL continues to reflect the rising Islamophobia in society but whether it can be more than a rallying point for people with different agendas is unlikely.”
That changed in the run-up to the EDL demo in Bradford in August. Searchlight began calling on the government to ban the EDL march.
It argued that a ban had to be “our only option and sole focus”. Worryingly, it argued against any counter-protest in the city on that day.
At the time it was claimed to be a tactical argument specific to Bradford. Searchlight developed this analysis in an editorial in the run-up to the EDL Leicester protest this month, and it now appears to have become a generalised position.
But history teaches us that state bans don’t work—and have been used against anti-fascists.
In January 1937 fascism was on the rise across Europe. The British government passed the Public Order Act which banned both fascist and anti-fascist protests and the wearing of uniforms. It did not stop the growth of fascism.
The bans today may stop the EDL from marching but the law does not have the power to ban static protests. Where bans have been won, EDL thugs broke out of the police cordon and attacked the local Asian community—and the same banning order was used against UAF counter protests.
Fascism cannot be banned out of existence and we cannot rely on the police or the state to stop it. Fascism needs to be countered politically, ideologically and physically.
Searchlight claims that its campaign is about “engaging with the community” and argues that this is a “major departure from traditional anti-fascism”.
What nonsense. In Barking, UAF activists knocked on every door, visited every trade union branch, community and faith group. Is that not engaging with the community?
The editorial claims that, “During... the 1970s with the Anti Nazi League [ANL]... the fight against fascism was street-based and violent.”
The ANL in the past, and UAF today, never had a strategy based on violence. If anything it was the hundreds of thousands of people attending the carnivals of 1978, 1980, 1994 and 2008 that we are most remembered for.
We believe that you need a mass campaign involving thousands to defeat fascism. We are proud to argue that when fascists take to the streets they should be opposed.
We totally reject the idea that a small group of street fighters—or “virtual” online campaigners—can defeat the BNP or the EDL.
Finally, Searchlight takes the argument a step further: “This debate over strategy reflects a wider debate in the trade union movement.
“At the TUC conference there were clear lines of disagreement between those who preferred a strike-based approach to opposing the cuts and those who believed the focus needed to be on winning the hearts and minds of union members and then taking the campaign out into the community.”
Searchlight’s strategy of non-confrontation and passivity in the face of racist aggression and the government’s assault on the working class provides no answer to the most serious challenge the left has faced for 70 years.
Martin Smith is national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party