The sight of 15,000 people rallying for jailed Nazi poster boy Tommy Robinson has forced the whole left to reassess the danger of the far right.
To understand how anti-fascists should respond to this renewed threat, it’s important to look at what fascism is and the different ways we’ve fought it before.
Fascists aim to build a mass movement that can terrorise their opponents and minorities—and ultimately smash all democratic rights.
The full horror was seen in the Holocaust when the Nazis murdered six million Jews—a third of Europe’s Jewish population—and a further five million opponents.
Robinson stands in a long line of British fascists who have fantasised about emulating the Nazis’ regime.
They have not been in a position to fulfil their ambitions. Sections of the German ruling class handed Hitler power in 1933 in the hope that the fascists’ mass movement could deal with a rising working class movement.
While the political situation is different, that doesn’t mean that fascists are not dangerous. Anti-fascists in Britain have had to mobilise repeatedly against them through united fronts of socialists, trade unionists, Muslims, Jews and others.
The Anti Nazi League took on the National Front (NF) in the 1970s and 1990s. And Unite Against Fascism beat the British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) in the 2000s.
Their strategy was based on mass campaigning, not action by small groups or individuals. It meant leafleting, patient propaganda work and arguments at work and in local areas.
It also involved mobilisations to deny the fascists the streets.
The aim is through confrontation to split off the hardcore Nazi leadership from the wider racist periphery in order to push back the movement.
Precisely how our side has organised against them depends on the sort of threat that the Nazis pose and the strength of our forces.
At some points Nazis have been in a position to organise a violent street movement against Muslims and black people.
In January 2010 Tommy Robinson’s EDL organised an Islamophobic race riot in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. They rampaged through the streets of the town and smashed up Asian shops and homes.
It was a wake-up call to anti-fascists and the wider left.
Afterwards Unite Against Fascism (UAF) was able to organise bigger counter mobilisations and push back the EDL.
Anti-fascists didn’t always outnumber the EDL and more often than not did not have the numbers to stop them marching.
But it helped win an argument that the EDL posed a national threat—and that people had to stem their rise by coming out onto the streets.
This long-term campaigning meant it was reduced to a rump of hardcore Nazis. And when Robinson quit the EDL leadership in 2013, he tellingly said street mobilisations were “no longer productive”.
In the 1970s the NF was doing well in local and by-elections. Alongside its electoral strategy, it organised marches and terrorised black and Asian people, socialists and trade unionists.
The Anti Nazi League (ANL) was launched and organised mobilisations when the NF tried to march. But alongside coming out on the streets, it was also necessary to take on wider racism within society.
As a result of mass campaigning, more and more people wore ANL badges and stickers in workplaces, campuses and schools. The ANL, alongside Rock Against Racism, organised three carnivals.
The first saw 80,000 people march from Trafalgar Square to thousands more in Victoria Park in the East End of London. It was a crucial part of transforming the political atmosphere by giving confidence to anti-fascists in NF strongholds. By the early 1980s, the NF had splintered into warring groups.
Often Nazis are at their most violent when they have been reduced into a rump.
When Nazi Thomas Mair killed Labour MP Jo Cox in June 2016, he shouted, “Britain first—keep Britain independent.” Britain First, a split from the BNP, is one of the plethora of fascist groups that have been holding tiny weekend protests and stunts.
Anti-fascists organised local counter-protests in their areas. But the scale of the threat that the likes of Britain First posed was nowhere near the EDL—and the main threat of racism came from the state.
But there was always a danger that politicians and the press’s racism against Muslims, migrants and refugees could boost fascists.
The Finsbury Park Mosque attacker Darren Osborne was inspired by Robinson and Britain First’s Jayda Fransen. But Osborne’s attack also came in the context of Theresa May ramping up Islamophobia after the London Bridge terror attack.
Anti-racists organised a vigil outside the mosque and fought to take on the wider Islamophobia being pushed by the state. The response didn’t involve a shift towards building for big mobilisations against Britain First.
The key question is whether fascists are able to mobilise as a movement on the streets.
Up until recently they were capable of organising only smaller protests and racist violence—they have very much been a rump.
The jailing of Robinson last month has concretely changed that situation.
His supporters managed to mobilise 15,000 Nazis and racists onto the streets of London—far bigger than what the EDL was capable of in its heyday.
The different forces which make up the British far right are trying to realign. The fascists see a chance to rebuild a movement on the streets.
And, alarmingly, Ukip leader Gerrard Batten has thrown his lot in with Robinson after his party’s recent demise. The bridge between the two is the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA).
Robinson’s supporters have fed off racism pushed from the top—and specifically state-sponsored Islamophobia. They rampaged through Leeds chanting, “Muslims off our streets”. Four days later a mosque and Sikh gurdwara suffered arson attacks.
Some within the movement argue this means anti-racists should not focus on confrontation but instead hold more general anti-racist events.
Anti-racist demonstrations are important and Stand Up To Racism has organised ones of 30,000 and 20,000.
But that doesn’t remove the need for specifically confronting the Nazis in large numbers and denying them their chance to feel powerful, to intimidate and attack people, and to grow.
Equally it won’t be enough to have a big demonstration on 13 July against Trump but not mobilise against the Nazis the next day.
The links between the return to prominence of Robinson and the confidence generated by Trump are clear. And it’s no coincidence that Robinson’s supporters have called their next major rally for Saturday 14 July, around the time of Trump’s visit.
A new feature of the recent far right demonstrations has been the presence of Trump admirers and alt-right figures. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon sent a text of support to Robinson.
Generation Identity—made up of alt-right supporters—was one of the most popular groups at the rally.
That means it is important to build for the Together Against Trump demonstration on Friday 13 July.
If his visit is allowed to pass without mass opposition then every fascist, racist and bigot will feel good. If he faces big protests, it will be a boost to the left and anti-racists.
But the toxic forces that are now coalescing around Robinson also gain confidence by rampaging through the streets and we must face them there.
Organising a demonstration on a day that the fascists are not mobilising may show there are more anti-racists than fascists in Britain.
But it won’t break the fascists’ confidence.
Let’s march against Trump and then take on the Nazis. These are the immediate aims, but there also needs to be a long-term strategy.
The left has grown massively in confidence in the last year, particularly with the support around Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
But the fascists’ rise is a sign that there’s nothing inevitable about only the left benefiting from the crisis in society.
We have to fight austerity, but that doesn’t remove the necessity for a specific battle with the Nazis.
There are six million trade unionists and 550,000 Labour Party members.
Mobilising even a portion of such strength would stop the Robinson crew and the rest of such forces in their tracks.
Black people, minorities, unions, Labour, anti-racists, women, LGBT+ people—all those under threat—have to defeat the new fascist street movement.