After the local elections on the 2nd May 2013, there was a certain level of satisfaction amongst some anti-fascists that the British fascist threat was in the process of being comprehensively defeated. Despite five years of national economic turmoil, the British National Party (BNP), riddled with splits and infighting, faced electoral oblivion. The strategic focus of the two most recognised anti-fascist organisations, Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and Hope Not Hate, appeared effective, with the number of elected BNP councillors falling from its peak of 57 in 2009 to its current two. Their leader, Nick Griffin, MEP for the North West, is left to defend the BNP’s sole European Parliamentary seat in 2014. Andrew Brons, a former BNP and National Front activist, is also believed to be attempting to defend his European seat in Yorkshire and the Humber with the British Democratic Party, an organisation he set up last year. In November 2012, the English Defence League at Westminster were unable to mobilise 100 people for their national march and their “March for England” splinter group was chased off the streets of Brighton.The far-right seemed increasingly irrelevant. Then on 22nd May 2013, Lee Rigby was brutally murdered and everything changed.
The gruesome attack was a spectacle made for YouTube. Once it became clear that the murder was the action of Jihadists, the leader of the English Defence League (EDL) and former BNP member, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka “Tommy Robinson”) issued a tweet declaring “Feet on the streets” in Woolwich. Within two hours around 100 EDL members, most wearing branded balaclavas, descended on the centre of Woolwich. Despite the very public announcement of mobilisation, anti-racist and anti-fascist opposition were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to react. Press and police surrounded the EDL, Yaxley-Lennon claiming that they warned that this would happen and that “enough was enough”.
Over the next few days the EDL’s official Facebook page went from 22,000 “Likes” to over 100,000. The organisation was reborn with a renewed prominence and in recent weeks Stephen Yaxley-Lennon has enjoyed publicity envied by leaders of small parties represented in parliament. The EDL’s gain in exploiting Rigby’s death has been the British National Party’s loss. On the 1st June, Nick Griffin’s BNP made a dismal attempt to conduct a national march in Westminster. They were blocked and easily outnumbered by anti-fascists and anti badger-cull activists who were nearby. It was a humiliating defeat for the BNP, especially as prior to the march, Griffin had used Twitter to openly beg for Robinson’s support, which was simply ignored. The power shift was complete.
Is the EDL ‘Fascist’?
It has become a common trope for leftists to identify a plethora of political positions on the far-right as ‘fascist’. But what actually is it and do the English Defence League conform to it?
Fascism has a very slippery quality, making it easier to identify than to summarise. In a recent Novara Media radio show, The Beach Beneath The Crisis. In Conversation With McKenzie Wark, the academic Wark said: “Fascism is just really that political operation where someone is telling you: ‘I can make you feel good about yourself by making someone else suffer’”. It has, as a consistent marker, the tendency to persecute minorities in order to “solve” the problems of the majority. We see this in both the genocidal racialism of Nazism and the national chauvinism of Mussolini. Fascists believe the “people” need to purge those deemed as “corrupted parasites”, it doesn’t matter if they are Muslim, Jews or people with disabilities. The EDL are clearly consistent with this tradition of scapegoating.
The EDL are a nationalist street movement, ticking another fascist box. Though street movements are traditionally considered to be of a working class nature there is a key difference; fascist movements are always funded from above. Early patrons are almost universally businessmen with varying levels of wealth, dissatisfied with the political establishment and seeking radical change. The EDL, again, conform to this – a recent leak revealed that they have had multiple small business owners and millionaires as donors. Including City of London millionaire, Alan Ayling (aka “Alan Lake), owners of car dealerships, and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon himself, who is the owner of a tanning shop.
Fascism has its origins in early 20th Century authoritarian socialism, with its emphasis on a small revolutionary vanguard, crude sloganeering and propaganda. But its aims are firmly in the political right, evidenced by fascists’ hatred of liberals, communists and genuine working class organisation such as independent trade unions and strikes. The EDL has a shadowy internal structure. They have no official membership mechanism but organising roles are assigned. Their membership gravitate to the slogan “No Surrender” or NFSE (No Fucking Surrender Ever). Yaxley-Lennon boasts that he is the voice of the “non-Muslim working class”, an attempt to define the EDL as a “working class” organisation. But, in the past, their activists have attacked regional Unite the Union offices. In 2011 they planned to attack the Occupy movement in London and others they identify as “Marxists”, none of which has anything to do with their stated “anti-Islam extremism” agenda.
History indicates that successful fascists never openly state their true intentions from the outset and often lie to obscure it. Fascists legitimately participate in liberal democracies and pay lip-service to existing democratic principles until they are powerful enough to crush them. They organise around a charismatic leader with a resonant, if not entirely accurate, message of a failing and out-of-touch liberal elite that appears incapable of resolving profound economic problems. However, winning the population over through argument is never sufficient; fascists organise militia to intimidate, attack and kill their opponents. They start with vulnerable and isolated individuals then, as fascists grow in confidence and strength, their murderous tactics target entire groups and communities.
The EDL doesn’t entirely sit within this classic fascist profile and have adapted 21st Century modifications. They have a Jewish Section, had notable Sikh supporters and also a LGBT section. In variation from traditional street thuggery is the use of “charitable community” groups like “Woolwich Strong” – a convincing ruse which devises vigils “standing strong” against “extremism, terrorism and oppression”. Whilst allegedly not “officially affiliated with the EDL”, most, if not all, of these groups were organised by EDL activists. “Woolwich Strong” day, Sunday 23 June, received significant public support in local and social media. Though uneventful in Woolwich itself, other groups like “Derby Strong” successfully mobilised over 300 people with no opposition. Co-opting the empty language of “charity” and “anti-extremism” creates an illusion of legitimacy which chimes with the State’s own national security rhetoric.
What is Anti-Fascism?
Anti-fascism is the negative act and struggle of stopping fascists from gaining power and confidence, it is defensive and reactive. Anti-fascists come from a variety of political traditions and are united in what they stand against, if nothing else. Classic anti-fascism has taken a variety of formations using both defensive and proactive tactics. From the defensive tradition of the Battles of Cable Street and Lewisham, that used community mobilisations to defend persecuted minorities, to the militant tradition of anti-fascists like the 43 Group and Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) who, rather than waiting for fascist provocations, sought to disrupt fascist organising capacity and activity using both infiltration and pre-emptive attacks. Searchlight and other groups have continued to infiltrate and gather intelligence on the far-right, most recently with Anonymous UK’s publishing of old EDL membership lists.
However, anti-fascism (like fascism) has appeared at times to be both inconsistent and contradictory. The two most recognised national anti-fascist groups, Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism are symptomatic of this. Both groups utilise the “positive” message of celebrating Britain’s liberal democracy. They praise State-driven multiculturalism for outlawing some forms of discrimination and racism, whilst simultaneously remaining silent on the state’s increasing restrictions on immigration from the global South.
Some Problems with British Anti-Fascism
Anti-fascists often expose elements within UKIP and EDL as harbouring racist, and even Nazi, sympathies which has benefits, though limited. But when the broader political context has already normalised violence towards migrants then these right-wing authoritarian movements can, and will, grow regardless.
Culturally there may be a strong disdain for the term “racist”, but dawn raids and the indefinite imprisonment of vulnerable and traumatised new migrants and refugees has popular support and is considered politically acceptable. Migrants, whether Eastern European or Sub-Saharan, are routinely demonised in the press and the term “terrorist” and “Muslim” are made almost interchangeable. We therefore recognise that the mainstream ideological terrain and narrative that we are faced with favours organisations like UKIP and the EDL. This is exemplified by the BNP slogan, “British Jobs for British Workers”, which was used by a Labour Prime Minister in 2008. The xenophobic slurs of “health tourism” are repeated by the current Health Secretary. We cannot stop the rise of the authoritarian right without addressing the source of their legitimacy. These xenophobic politicians and policies should be robustly fought if anti-racists are to see any victories in the future.
Clearly liberal democracy is preferable to a fascist dictatorship, but South London Anti-Fascists are critical of the tactic of “anyone but the BNP” with its subsequent uncritical support of British politicians. Throughout 2006-08 Hope Not Hate promoted Phil Woolas, Labour’s Immigration Minister, as an “anti-fascist”. Phil Woolas was given a platform on their website to justify Labour’s immigration control policies. Hope Not Hate’s language of “anti-extremism” was adopted by Woolas to paint his Liberal Democrat opponent as a sympathiser of “Islamic Extremism”, in an infamous 2010 general election leaflet which led to him being found guilty of electoral malpractice and banned him from public office. Thus, we had the farce of a Hope Not Hate patron, former Labour immigration minister, being accused of stirring up racial tensions. Hope Not Hate has regularly applied for state funding on “anti-extremist” initiatives, so their cosy, yet conflicting, relationship with the Home Office is hardly surprising.
Unite Against Fascism fares little better in consistency. Though they have shown form against the racism, misogyny and homophobia of the BNP, they have offered little more than warm words when the government of David Cameron (a UAF founding signatory) spent over £18 million to evict the Traveller families of Dale Farm from the land that they legally owned. Fascists point to immigrants as the problem to be solved for the white working class. South London Anti-Fascists believe that it is the job of anti-fascists to oppose the demonisation of immigrants and all serious attacks against them.
UAF, on the other hand, have never spoken out against the UK Border Agency and it’s successive organisations, even though these institutions pose more of a threat to migrants than both the street thuggery of the EDL and the electoralism of the BNP or UKIP combined. The brutal racism towards migrants and their children by successive governments is left to be challenged by much smaller groups like “No-One Is Illegal” and the No Borders Network. The anti-fascist mainstream appear comfortable to focus narrowly on the racism of fringe electoral parties and street groups and ignore the more pervasive and legitimising racism of the State.
A New Approach
Anti-fascists have historically focused on ridiculing fascists’ adherence to biological racism. This argument is increasingly redundant in a Britain where dual-heritage relationships and children are now quite common and regarded as uncontroversial. This victory for anti-racism presents new problems as well as opportunities. Biological racism has been publicly repudiated by all elements on the electoral right, either genuinely or tactically. The political mainstream has the State and the media to propagate their message. In response, we must learn examples such as the 24 year struggle of the Hillsborough Families Campaign, who have shown how to sustain the necessary but less visible work of building resilient relationships in working class communities towards the goal of developing enduring structures of support, mutual aid and solidarity. The militant anti-fascism of groups like Anti-Fascist Action used a dual approach of ideological and physical opposition. Fascist street movements are a physical force so militant resistance is a necessary and a noble tradition but it can only act as a short-term measure. We must organise our communities on a longer timescale.
There are a few key principles that we believe can make our project lasting and flexible for the path ahead. Above all, the national anti-fascist movement must become decentralised, non-hierarchical and democratic. Unlike both UAF and Hope Not Hate, we do not require a professional organised centre but a horizontal network of organically linked groups. Our communities are diverse and there is no one-size-fits-all to anti-fascist activity or community organising. Being non-hierarchical means trusting people who are directly affected to lead their struggle, not push them to follow “experts” from outside. We recognise that the children of migrants have done more to defeat fascists than any “anti-fascist movement”. Being democratic means enabling all voices to have equal say, developing structures for reflection and debate, holding elections for roles with delegated responsibility that are recallable and are rotated. This creates the space for new ideas to flourish and builds a greater sense of trust and mutuality.
We also need groups not to work with the police. The police have a shameful history of infiltrating and smearing anti-racist community campaigns, most infamously including the family and friends of Stephen Lawrence. The police protect fascists and escort them into our communities. Through their National Extremist Unit they hold “intelligence” on almost 9,000 people on their database, including legal firms and “radicals” like Jack Straw or perhaps Occupied Times readers. The police exist to protect the racist status quo, not assist us in challenging it. They are not our allies but quite the opposite.
The strengths of anti-fascism are rooted in a rich and proud history with clear goals, if not allies. Its major weakness lies in the fact that anti-fascist ideology is contradictory and largely discredited by the current political context. The traditional ideology of anti-fascism i.e. (anyone but the fascists) needs to be abandoned, in favour of a new practice: building working class solidarity through community organising which is both principled and consistently anti-fascist and anti-racist. We advocate these ideas not because they are politically convenient but because they work. In a climate where Muslims are shot by the police and migrants like Jimmy Mubenga are killed by deportation staff to no public outcry, the rebuilding of class solidarity is crucial. This work has been tried and tested not only in South London, but also in Bristol, by Brighton Anti-fascists and by anti-fascists in Barking and Dagenham. We have seen the success of community work and outreach in various UAF groups, Yorkshire & Humber, Leicester and also in Sheffield.
The Anti-Fascist Network, which organises on the principles we have outlined, may be well founded, but their numbers are currently too small to be effective. Other national groups like UAF are still important when building counter-demonstrations against racists and fascists. Alongside the existence of the old must grow a new network which does the slow and gradual community work that has been neglected on a national scale. Alongside the Anti-Fascist Network we are currently working with mosques, faith, migrant and community groups to build local community networks of anti-racists/anti-fascists against homophobia, sexism and ableism, towards lasting working class solidarity.
For more see: South London Anti-Fascists | www.slaf.org.uk
Anti-Fascist Network | www.antifascistnetwork.wordpress.com/about/