By Lewis Nielsen and Naima Omar
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Fighting the far right on the campuses

This article is over 5 years, 5 months old
One arena in which the far right is trying to build is in universities. Lewis Nielsen and Naima Omar investigate.
Issue 443

In a context of growing political turmoil and polarisation, the far right are attempting to win the battle of ideas. They aim to seize on the racism that comes from the top of society — from islamophobia to myths about refugees — and sharpen it. In the process their goal is to make their ideas more acceptable and in turn to win larger numbers to their politics.

There are a number of features to this strategy. The building up of a big electoral base, along the lines of the Eurofascist tactics of organisations like the National Rally in France or the FPO in Austria, has proved successful in dragging politics further to the right. The question of street mobilisations and rallies has also been important, because it gives hardcore fascists a pool within which to build soft layers around them.

One place the far right is trying to do this is in universities. Campuses have often been at the centre of the battle for ideas, and internationally we are seeing their growing importance for the racist and fascist right.

On the eve of the Brazilian election last year military police associated with supporters of Bolsonaro stormed 17 universities, confiscating anti-fascist literature, posters and leaflets. The message was clear: anti-fascism will not be tolerated.

Renewed vigour

In the US the Trump presidency has given a renewed vigour to far right groups targeting universities. Under the banner of the Alt-Right we have seen speaking tours with notorious figures like Richard Spencer, as well a tripling in the number of reported incidents involving white supremacist groups on campus.

More chilling is the way in which far right student organisations in Austria have acted as cadre schools for the Nazis in the FPO, who are in coalition government with the conservatives. With roots going back more than 100 years, they steel their students in antisemitic conspiracy theories and crucially train them up in far right and fascist strategies. These cadre schools are paying off — leading figures in the FPO who now have influence in government are ex-members of these student groups.

Here in Britain, the threat is on a smaller scale. We don’t have Trump as president or a fascist party in power. Yet as the Tories sink deeper into crisis we are seeing more blatant dog-whistle politics, from the hostile environment to the scaremongering about refugees. And on the ground we know small fascist forces are trying to make a breakthrough, from the fake yellow vests to the movement around Tommy Robinson. How will this play out on the campuses?

This academic year has seen a growing number of appearances of groups like Generation Identity (GI). GI has appeared at around 15-20 campuses in Britain since September 2018, from University College London to Glasgow. Much of this has involved a small stunts for social media, such as a few stickers or posters. This suggests limited numbers. Yet there have been instances that point towards a growing confidence, and in some places a serious attempt to recruit numbers.

So at Bristol University in November GI members dyed the fountain in the heart of the campus red to echo Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant “Rivers of Blood” speech, accompanied by messages saying Powell was right. At Wolverhampton University GI has posted photos to social media of what its claims is a branch meeting. In Liverpool, student members of GI posted images of themselves bringing donations to homeless people on the streets.

Who are GI? Originally established in France, they claim to have branches in 13 European countries including Austria, Germany and Italy. Their goal is to make racism fashionable, so they target younger activists and present themselves as distinctly different from stereotypes of the far right, leading some to label them as “Nazi hipsters”.

Trendy veneer

But beneath the trendy veneer is the same old Nazi ideology. Much of their politics is drawn from the “identitarianism” movement, the ideological roots of which lie in the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) in France that is linked to classical fascist groups. GI talks of an “ethno-cultural identity” that is under threat from Islam and immigration. Its references to “ethnopluralism” are nothing more than a re-hash of old-fashioned white supremacist ideas of separating races.

GI gained significant media coverage when it organised a “Defend Europe” boat to disrupt the work of NGO vessels rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean (the boat had to be cancelled after the crowdfunder shut down their page due to pressure from anti-racists).

When Martin Sellner — the de facto spokesperson for GI — came to Britain he met with both Nick Griffin and Tommy Robinson, two of the most prominent British Nazis of recent years. And a common feature of recent far right demonstrations in Britain, especially those around the “Free Tommy Robinson” movement, has been GI flags being waved alongside those of UKIP and Union Jacks.

GI members see themselves as emulating the American Alt-Right in Europe. Its numbers are small, and its attempts to build a serious presence in Britain have not been particularly successful. Yet their appearance on a number of campuses is concerning and points to a new-found confidence on the right in a climate of growing racism.

Recent developments have not been limited to stunts by far right activists. Right wing academics, emboldened by the rise of the far right, have begun to crawl out from underneath their rocks and attempt a revival of scientific racism. It is precisely these kind of pseudo-science arguments that legitimise and give confidence to groups like GI.

A case in point is that of Noah Carl, who has recently been handed a research fellowship at the University of Cambridge. Carl has not just flirted with far right ideas — he is a key figure in white supremacist academic circles. His work has included studies that claim racial stereotypes about supposed criminality of ethnic groups are “generally found to be quite accurate”. He has also written a study attempting to prove links between levels of Muslim immigration and terrorism. This particular study frequently used as a source, an Islamophobic conspiracy website that was referenced by Norwegian neo-Nazi terrorist Anders Breivik before he killed 77 people in July 2011.

Carl is a regular contributor to the online “journal” OpenPsych, which publicises pseudo-science articles giving fake respectability to racist arguments that are taken up by the far right. He also attended the London Conference on Intelligence — a secretive eugenics conference that has taken place at UCL for the last three years and featured attendees such as unapologetic eugenicist Richard Lynn. A campaign run by students and staff, including protests at UCL, rightly led to the university apologising for holding the event and committing not to do so in the future.

There has been fury from academics and students at Cambridge in response to Carl’s appointment, yet at the time of writing the university has refused to bow to pressure and Carl remains in his post.

Toxic mix

Carl’s ideas are dangerous and aren’t limited to academia. The political crisis in society has meant that the ruling class has turned to a toxic mix of anti-migrant racism and Islamophobia. The recent furore whipped up around a few dozen migrants attempting to cross the English Channel is the latest example of how racist assumptions, scare stories and stereotypes have become acceptable in the mainstream media and politics. The revival of scientific racism like that espoused by Carl gives a respectable, academic veneer to these ideas. It gives the harder ideas of far right groups credibility, allowing them to flourish.

Many of these developments on campuses have revolved around questions of “free speech”. The racist right likes to portray themselves as defenders of free speech against the censoring and political correctness of the left. So when there was uproar about Carl’s appointment, a group of Oxford PhD students wrote a letter to The Times defending his fellowship in the name of free speech.

It’s important to note that the Office for Students (OfS), set up by the Tories, seeks to penalise universities who are seen to infringe on free speech. The OfS, and the fact that many democratic structures in student unions are now hollowed out, means that there has been hesitation and wariness on the part of some university bodies and student unions to act against the far right for fear of being labelled as anti-free speech.

The arguments around free speech have often been a cover for Islamophobia in recent years. This means the establishment of Free Speech societies at a number of universities in the last year can be seen as an open door to more racist and far right arguments. In this context the Oxford Union seems to have reached new lows even by its own standards. This academic year it has already invited Steve Bannon, French Nazi Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and Alice Weidel, parliamentary leader of the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD), to speak. Bannon and Le Pen were met by significant protests and in Weidel’s case she withdrew because of the threat of protest.

Just as worrying there have been a number of racist incidents which flow from this free speech narrative. Last term at Lancaster, Plymouth and Newcastle Universities, societies have been found wearing t-shirts emblazoned with swastikas, Holocaust denial slogans and jokes about paedophilia. We can only assume the motive behind these slogans was that “political correctness” has meant racist jokes are no longer acceptable. You can see how this fits into the wider climate of normalising racism on campus.

Perhaps the most absurd idea is the one thing that GI, academics such as Carl and figures like Bannon have in common — that right wing white students are under attack from multiculturalism and the left. The opposite is true. In many cases universities remain deeply institutionally racist.

Systematic exclusion

The volume of racist harassment and incidents on campus has prompted the equality watchdog to launch an inquiry late last year. The Islamophobic Prevent agenda is now entrenched and creates a climate of fear for Muslim students who are politically active. BAME students face a huge attainment gap and systematic exclusion from the top universities.

This toxic mix of institutional racism, the return of scientific racism and the attempts by the far right to gain a foothold on campuses means that our universities are in some ways becoming battlegrounds in the fight against racism. The far right remains marginal on campuses, but in the current climate it is clear it has visions of emulating the successes of similar organisations in Europe and the US. Pseudo-scientific arguments that justify racism and Islamophobia will not just give its members confidence on campus, but in wider society.

Capitalism has always used science as a justification for racist ideas, from slavery to the Holocaust. We cannot be complacent this time around.

The positive note in all of this is the scale of resistance and potential for an anti-racist movement that exists among students. Every time GI has appeared on campus, Student Stand Up to Racism and others have organised demonstrations, mass leafletting and petitions. Students and staff at Cambridge are organising to put pressure on the University, and certainly won’t let Carl sit out his fellowship quietly. Bannon had to enter the Oxford Union through a piss-soaked back alley because of the 1,000 protesters in front of the building.

On a bigger scale, questions of decolonising education and confronting institutional racism have sparked big debates and gained a lot of traction, with a plethora of student campaigns and meetings across the country. Activists in the lecturers’ union UCU have been part of challenging the idea that white supremacists have a place in academia.

These examples point the way to the potential for a mass anti-racist movement on campus that can stop the far right in its tracks, but also undermine the attempts to legitimise its racist arguments. The far right activists feel confident enough to step onto campuses in a way not seen for years. We have to show they have overplayed their hand and break them.

‘We will continue the resistance’
Nita Sanghera, UCU Vice President

As a trade unionist, I am fully aware of the special 5-star hatred the right hold for our union, University and College Union (UCU), which also happens to be the largest academic union.

Unions have always been the fuel that fan the flames of hatred of the right, and when they have turned up on our campuses we have responded quickly and mobilised students, together with support from Stand Up to Racism (SUTR), and put them back into their cages.

We have stopped prominent right wing politicians from speaking at our campuses by responding swiftly with our opposition, which has resulted in them withdrawing from the invites from some very misguided individuals, who consider this to be in line with our human right of freedom of speech.

As an academic union, we naturally hold free speech as sacrosanct, but when that free speech becomes “free hate” then we cannot sit by and let that happen.

Yet universities are also being exposed for their institutional racism, by letting individuals that have been clearly engaging in racist incidents, escape without reprimand or sanction. This is a further conflict we are having to address, and will continue to do so until these institutions are held accountable for the free space they are providing for the right to flourish.

I would like to see more investment from trade unions, and together with UCU, Stand Up To Racism, Love Music Hate Racism and Unite Against Fascism, we will continue the resistance to the bile and hatred that they bring to our society.

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