By Weyman Bennett
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Anti-fascism and the spirit of the united front

This article is over 8 years, 9 months old
In this special feature Socialist Review sets out the challenges and strategies faced by the anti-fascist movements in Britain. With contributions from activists involved in the struggle here.
Issue 385

The declaration by Tommy Robinson and his cousin Kevin Carroll that they were abandoning the English Defence League (EDL), the street organisation they had founded, marked an important milestone in the struggle against fascism in Britain. Robinson had led one of the most successful fascist street movements since the National Front in the 1970s, a model emulated by dozens of “Defence Leagues” across Europe. His resignation marked the movement’s demise, and follows the electoral collapse of the Nazi British National Party (BNP).

The force behind the defeat of the electoral and street wings of fascism in Britain is Unite Against Fascism (UAF). The movement was founded in 2003 in response to an electoral breakthrough by the BNP. The launch of UAF reflected an understanding that the fascists had shifted their strategy.

The Anti Nazi League, the highly successful precursor to UAF that was formed to challenge the fascists in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, represented a particular period of fascist mobilisation. When Nick Griffin became leader of the BNP in 1999 he began to shift the party towards the Euro-fascist model in the hope of emulating the success of Jean Marie Le Pen’s Front National (FN) in France.

Le Pen had successfully ditched the FN’s street thug image to embrace respectability and a place in the French political mainstream, steering his party towards a number of significant electoral breakthroughs. His success became the model for other European fascist and Nazi organisations that were desperate to break out of a long period of political isolation.

Griffin told his supporters they had to give up the “three Hs” he said were holding back a similar breakthrough here. He defined them as “hobbyism, hard talk and Hitler” – making bombs, racist language and Hitler worship – in order to distance the party from its skinhead bootboy past.

That was an acknowledgement that not only had the fascist movement in Britain been defeated by the left, but that the nature of racism had also fundamentally changed. By the late 1990s prejudice against asylum seekers and Islamophobia were the new cutting edge of racism, while that based on “biology” was becoming less respectable.

The popular forms of anti-Jewish and anti-black racism that emerged out of the 1930s and 1960s were no longer acceptable; even those on the far right were no longer prepared to openly defend the politics of Hitler and Mussolini. There was a sea change in ordinary people’s attitude towards this “popular racism” after the Civil Rights movement and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, among others.

In its place came the new narrative of “indigenous identity”, the idea that British culture was being swamped by things “foreign”. This new racism was made acceptable by the media and pandered to by politicians. So Griffin and his fascist supporters recalibrated. The BNP began to push the idea that it was not a racist party, and did not believe in “racial superiority” of the white man, but was defending a distinct British, Christian and northern European culture that was under threat.

The BNP saw the European and Greater London Authority elections as offering a political opening – as proportional representation allowed a minority party a good chance to win seats. Griffin and his ally Andrew Brons seized on the idea that they could become MEPs, win council seats and move into the mainstream. The party began to target areas they considered to be vulnerable – in the north west and Yorkshire, as well as the outer east end of London. These communities had been devastated by job losses, with severe housing shortages and growing deprivation. They were also areas with distinct and visible minority communities.

The BNP took comfort in the de-industrialisation of these traditional working class areas, and carefully targeted areas where the trade unions had become weak and the Labour Party vote had declined. So the launch of UAF took place because of what we saw coming, and the need to begin to mobilise the anti-fascist vote.

Rise of the BNP
In election after election from 2001 onwards the BNP become more popular and more powerful, culminating in Griffin and Brons becoming MEPs in 2009, Richard Barnbrook winning a GLA seat in London in 2008, and the party winning swathes of council seats across the country. It was a meteoric rise. The BNP started to become part of the political furniture; they could present themselves as “respectable”.

Some people began to say that the BNP was becoming unstoppable, or that the only real response would be to accept some of its demands. The argument was put that “we had to develop an identity and to promote a more British model of the one the fascists were putting forward” in order to win back some of their supporters.

We argued instead for a mass turnout of the anti-racist vote, and this required mobilising the big battalions of the working class. One of our greatest advantages was that we had a layer of trade union leaders that had gown up in the days of the ANL and Rock Against Racism. There were leading shop stewards in the 1970s and 1990s who had since risen to prominence – such as Billy Hayes of the postal workers (CWU), Andy Gilchrist and Mick Shaw of the of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and others.

We had the support of Mark Serwotka of the PCS public service workers’ union, Christine Blower and Kevin Courtney of the NUT teachers’ union, as well as a host of other unions big and small. TGWU union leader and Spanish Civil War veteran Jack Jones addressed the first UAF conference. The unions were part of our movement and represent a long and very important tradition of opposing fascism.

This alliance with the union leaderships was critical: they represented millions of workers and with their help and funding UAF was able to distribute millions of anti-fascist election leaflets. We built relations with the mosques and the churches, community organisations and so on. This gave us unprecedented levels of access to areas and among people we could only otherwise dream of approaching. We also had the support of the anti-fascist and anti-racist groups and campaigners, including MPs, leading councillors and others.

Our activists carried out the mass of the important street work, going door to door, organising local campaigns. In places such as Stoke, Burnley, Manchester and hundreds of others, UAF groups went round systematically leafleting, identifying and exposing fascists who were standing.

We organised a public show of opposition everywhere the BNP went, from small-scale local hustings to Nick Griffin’s appearance on the national television programme Question Time. We started to see how labelling them as Nazis and fascists began to have an impact, how it began to shatter their respectable image. We would not allow them to go unchallenged.

Our second strategic strength came through Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR), the cultural wing of our movement. We could get stars to speak out against the BNP in the media and music press. We put on hundreds of music events in pubs and colleges, as well as carnivals in places such as Stoke-on-Trent, which had become a BNP stronghold, and a huge carnival in Victoria Park, east London, that went off like an anti-racist explosion. The fascists had no idea about how to respond; because it’s not just that they were being opposed on the streets, but now also with the imagination of young people. This began to turn the tide against the BNP.

There was an argument inside our movement at the time that the best way to expose the fascists was to debate with them. We argued instead for a policy of “no platform”, that they should never be given a chance to spread their ideas or put their case. We fought hard to make sure that the Nazis were never seen as just a bunch of mainstream politicians with unconventional ideas.

There was also an argument within the anti-fascist movement that we had to take the ground from the BNP by making concessions over the question of immigration, for example, or saying that Muslim “extremists” were the same as Nazis and fascists. Instead we argued that Muslims are not to blame for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that the country is not being “overrun by immigrants”, and that Africans were not taking over all the new homes in Essex (which was one of the many ludicrous BNP claims).

A great danger was to become drawn into the demonisation of Muslims, to say that those responsible for acts of terrorism are the same as Nazis or that there was something inherent in “Islamic thought” and “culture” that is similar to fascism. We rejected all of these ideas, because you cannot compare people who, for whatever reason, turn to individual terrorism with a movement that wants to destroy democracy, crush all working class organisation and unleash the kind of horrors we witnessed in the Holocaust.

But it was also vital that we did not put any conditions on anybody wanting to become part of an anti-fascist movement – and of course there are many different ideas and opinions over every question. It was critical to maintain this alliance among people who had fundamental differences over questions such as the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration and so on. Our aim was to build an anti-racist atmosphere and arm the movement with a set of arguments they could use against the fascists.

We focused on the idea that you could get a single point of pressure on the Nazis in order to shatter their organisation. In a famous passage from “Fascism, What it is and How to Fight it”, Leon Trotsky uses the metaphor of bulls being taken to the slaughter. As the butcher sharpens his knife, some of the bulls argue among themselves over who is to blame for their fate, then one cries out, “Let us close ranks and jack up this executioner on our horns”. This is the spirit of the united front.

By their very nature fascist organisations have two tactics. The first is to use whatever means are at hand to popularise their views and set the political agenda. The second, and more important aim, is to create a street movement that is capable of confronting and crushing working class movements.

This is what differentiates fascist movements from other far-right parties. What we have with the BNP and the Front National are “Nazis in suits” playing at being respectable, but at some point they have to try and dominate the street. The electoral move is a strategy before they went back into the streets, to build up the kind of numbers and the respectability to do this. At some point the Front National will take to the streets of France, if they’re not stopped. And neo-Nazi Jobbik in Hungary is building the “Hungarian guard” in order to do the same thing and to try and create mass support for attacking the Roma community there.

This is what began to develop with the emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) in 2009. With the electoral strategy of the BNP beginning to buckle under our campaign, sections of the fascists turned back to the street. The initial advantage for the EDL was that no one knew who they were. They were a loose organisation that brought together football hooligans with organised racists and some Nazis – Robinson was a former member of the BNP.

The EDL grew out of the “respectability” of Islamophobia and the atmosphere of pernicious anti-Muslim racism that followed the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When they first appeared in Luton they launched a mini pogrom. They had some 500 masked up thugs rampage across the city. There was no high profile police presence; the EDL leaders were not arrested; it appeared to have been “tolerated”. Following Luton the police were going around the country advising councils that the EDL was a “human rights organisation”.

The EDL began calling demonstrations in places such as Stoke, Dudley and Birmingham, and at first they were enormously successful. Their demonstrations did not just pull hundreds; they pulled thousands. The anti-racists were outnumbered. In Stoke-on-Trent they rioted and overwhelmed the police; among their ranks that day were some soldiers in uniform. The EDL slogan was, “We go where we want”. Every town and city was on their target list. The response of the authorities was to try and shut down the entire city to placate their demonstrations.

We fought to keep the cities open, to be present in strong numbers in the town centres. The EDL wanted to “ethnically cleanse” the areas ahead of their “protests”, even if it was only for an afternoon. Muslims, black people and anyone who did not fit their image of “English” was supposed to stay at home and hide behind the curtains.

The government’s Prevent Strategy, set up to target Muslim “extremists”, was used against mosques and community groups to stop any form of counter-mobilisation. Asian youths were served with orders banning them from joining our demonstrations, and UAF officers were threatened with arrest and jail – I was arrested countless times. Everything was thrown at us and every trick was used to try and stop us. But we did not buckle. We could not let the EDL march unopposed. Our slogan became “They shall not pass.”

Hitler said the role of fascist street movements is to make the “small man” feel part of a “mighty dragon”. As Tommy Robinson put it, the aim of the EDL demonstrations was to fundamentally change the political landscape. The EDL initially said that they were against a “minority of Muslim extremists”, but it became clear they were arguing against all mosques, and as they grew in popularity we saw the return of general racism.

The EDL target list grew; they attacked trade union offices and left wing bookshops, threatened strikers and picket lines. They attacked the Occupy movement; they opposed the student movement; they attempted to attack parts of north London where they perceived the summer riots had started.

So it’s very clear that the street movement was developing into a classical fascist organisation, and that they had begun to develop a political ideology and an electoral strategy. Opposing the EDL became the priority for UAF, especially after the collapse of the BNP vote in the 2010 general elections – crowned by Griffin’s humiliation in Barking and Dagenham and the loss of the majority of their council seats.

UAF has organised over 250 counter- mobilisations against EDL “protests” to date. These demonstrations were often in support of small isolated Muslim communities, such as in Dudley, Blackpool and Preston. We were able to disrupt the EDL, isolating them whenever they mobilised, and crucially building strong local groups to carry on the work after they had left town.

We chose our battles carefully, understanding that this was a war of attrition. The EDL leadership then began to overplay their hand. They decided they would march on Tower Hamlets, and specifically the London Muslim Centre on the Whitechapel Road.Our counter-demonstrations in Tower Hamlets had two important tasks. The first, and most important, was to ensure that they did not set a foot in the borough. This we achieved with huge popular mobilisations.

The second was that for fascists the East End of London had a special historic significance: it was in the same streets in 1936 that Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts were defeated. The magnificent Tower Hamlets demonstrations, and the massive street victory in Waltham Forest, marked decisive defeats for the EDL. They have found these defeats difficult to overcome.

What UAF has achieved over the past few years is a vindication of the strategy of the united front. But we cannot be complacent. As Trotsky wrote, “Fascism, as a mass movement, is the party of counter-revolutionary despair.” We live in a period of austerity, cuts and growing despair. These are the conditions under which fascist parties can re-form and re-emerge. Our movement needs to remain strong and vigilant.

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