Where now for anti-fascism? A response to Searchlight

Submitted by AWL on 20 June, 2008 - 1:14 Author: Charlie Salmon

In the June edition of Searchlight, Nick Lowles explains the growth of the BNP and outlines a strategy to halt them. This is our response.

"The BNP is a racist party fuelled by a leadership that draws its political roots from fascism. That much is clear. However, its appeal goes far wider than the issue of race. The BNP is tapping into political alienation and economic deprivation. It is providing a voice for those who increasingly feel ignored and cast aside by Labour. The BNP is articulating their concerns, grievances and even prejudices."
Nick Lowles, 'Where Now?' (Searchlight Magazine, June 2008)

"I'm not in politics for cheap cheers; if I was I could probably have had a safe Tory seat years ago. I'm in it, among other things, because I want to help stop the immigration which is destroying this and every other white nation in the world. Then I want to see that deadly tide turned. I want to see Britain become the 99 per cent genetically white country she was just eleven years before I was born, and I want to die knowing that I have helped to set her on a course whereby her future genetic makeup [sic] will one day not even resemble that of January 1948, but that of July 1914. Nothing will ever turn me from working towards that final vision."
Nick Griffin, 'No more time for Peter Pan' (Spearhead, November 1998)

"When the social crisis takes on an intolerable acuteness, a particular party appears on the scene with the direct aim of agitating the petty bourgeoisie to a white heat and of directing its hatred and its despair against the proletariat."
Leon Trotsky, 'The Only Road for Germany' (September 1932)

In the June 2008 issue of Searchlight, Nick Lowles makes a sober assessment of the recent 'Hope not Hate' campaigns and the electoral successes enjoyed by the BNP. Some important critical points are raised, but in conclusion an essentially identical strategy for combating the rise of the BNP is proposed. Lowles continues to advocate the very worst aspect of recent campaigns. He dismisses a working class response to the threat posed by fascism. The poverty of mainstream anti-fascist campaigns (embodied by 'Hope not Hate' and 'Unite Against Fascism') has its roots in the general political retreat of the Left. To understand this retreat is to understand the steps necessary for future anti-fascist work.

The BNP today
In less than ten years the BNP has transformed its outward political appearance, steadily built its organisation and achieved hitherto unseen - albeit modest - electoral success. Under the leadership of Nick Griffin the party has consolidated particular geographic areas of strength by concentrating resources, time and effort into door-to-door, community campaigning. BNP members aim to act as 'community shop stewards' and do so in many council wards. By relating to political issues relevant to the local communities in question - whether it's housing, transport, health or education - the BNP appear as a viable alternative to New Labour and other mainstream parties. More than this, the political 'tone' of the campaigns - the anti-government rhetoric, reference to the failures of New Labour, the adherence to 'bread-and-butter' concerns - enable the fascists to pose as a radical alternative.
The skin-headed, street fighting image of just a few years ago may have been jettisoned in favour of the suits, ties and clean shoes we see today, but the underlying politics remain the same. At a recent demonstration against the BNP's 'Red, White and Blue' event, one prominent BNP member (known to anti-fascists as 'Sweaty Clarke') admitted to being a Nazi within earshot of local reporters. This was no abashed or shame-faced admission but a statement of fact on his part. In Griffin's own words: "Nothing will ever turn me from working towards that final vision", a vision of white, "native" supremacy and the subjugation of minorities, working class organisations and democracy. Despite the make-over and appeals for legitimacy, the BNP is a fundamentally identical in political character to openly fascist organisations.
Below the headlines on its website, blogs, newspaper and leaflets - headlines like "NHS/Housing/Education Crisis!" - we can see more evidence that very little of substance has changed. In some cases, like the credit crunch and other recent financial crises, the "fat cats" and "corrupt New Labour bureaucrats" are to blame. More often than not, and especially with reference to the crisis in public services, the BNP cite "immigrants" and "ethnics" as the root cause of the problem.
Lowles identifies two important features of these campaigns:
(1) That many of the social issues the BNP campaign on are real and a result of the sustained assaults by New Labour on the working class: "The breaking with Labour reflects a far more fundamental shift than mid-term blues. For an increasing number of traditional Labour voters the party no longer reflects their interests" and later: "It is clear that the simple Hope not Hate message is insufficient. 'You tell us to vote for Hope not Hate but there is no hope round here,' one voter told me [Lowles] in Dagenham";
(2) the continued appeal of racism-as-'explanation': "race is certainly a central key, but more because it provides a prism through which people can see and understand the world and, more importantly, an easy scapegoat to blame for their own situation."
For Searchlight to admit to the first of these fairly straightforward observations is a major break from their past silence on the question of the Labour Party.

Labour and 'triangulations'
"Many of the people now turning their back on the Labour Party have not shared the economic prosperity of recent years. Many in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent and Dagenham now find themselves in a worse economic position than a few years ago."
Nick Lowles (ibid)
Lowles blames Labour's strategy of 'triangulation' for the shift to the right and subsequent loss of working class support. 'Triangulation' describes a strategic turn pioneered by Bill Clinton's advisers in the early 1990s of adopting some of the political ideas of your opponents (for Labour, this meant clothing itself in Tory garb and moving to the right) in order to rise above the standard Left/Right spectrum, forming a 'political triangle'. He cites research from 'The End of Politics: Triangulation, Realignment and the Battle for the Centre Ground' by Alexander Lee and Timothy Stanley to demonstrate the sociological shift in votes away from Labour: "In 1997, 50% of C2 voters and 59% of DE voters supported Labour. By 2005 this had dropped to 40% and 48% respectively" (C2 and DE refer to 'lower middle class' and 'unskilled manual' groups - in Marxist terms, both groups are working class). He also reports that "A survey of wards that produced the best BNP votes in May shows plainly the profile of BNP supporting areas. All but one rank well below average in the Indices of Deprivation and the one exception, Queensbury in Bradford, is roughly average. Nearly all are among the top 10% most deprived areas."
The 'cause and effect' relationship between the strategy of 'triangulation' and the subsequent shift in voting patterns only tells us so much. It's a useful analogy for the political process that has transformed the Labour Party. The reality of Labour's shift to the right - a shift of more substance than run-of-the mill 'Old Labour' conservatism - is that it has ceased to be a vehicle for working-class politics in almost every way. Over the past ten years the affiliated trade unions maintained the potential to dramatically shift party policy and the shape of government. That this potential went unused allowed Blair, Brown and allies to pursue their ideological commitment to the interests of a class alien to the labour movement and the related attacks on the working class. The 2007 Labour Party conference passed policy that will remove any and all mechanisms for the trade unions to wield political influence and as yet there are no signs that the major affiliated unions will stage a fightback.

Defending ourselves
"Now, it is much easier to engage in a joint action when the question before the proletariat is not one of taking the offensive for the attainment of new objectives, but of defending the positions already gained."
Leon Trotsky, 'The United Front for Defense'

The BNP are not on the brink of taking power, fascists are not at the gates of Westminster, are not about to seize Downing Street. The government is not about to hand power to the BNP to quell an unruly, revolution-minded working class. There is not an immanent life-or-death struggle between the labour movement and the forces of reaction. The BNP are in a period of steady growth - securing local support, recognition and political positions. But the election of Richard Barnbrook to the GLA demonstrates that things can change quickly: there are a series of small steps that could - in the right conditions - propel members of the BNP into the European or British parliaments.
When Trotsky wrote about "defending the positions already gained" he was addressing himself to the two dominant sections of the German labour movement, the Stalinised Communist Party and the Social Democrats. Along with a small band of German supporters, Trotsky called upon these two mass organisations to combine in a united front to defend the working class and democracy from fascist reaction. Reading him now - with the knowledge of how events unfolded: the crushing of the labour movement, the internments, murders, death, destruction and above all the Holocaust - can be exasperating. The 20th Century could have been a very different place.
Despite the different circumstances, the struggle against fascism today hangs on the labour movement defending itself.
Recent anti-fascist campaigns have - in the main - emerged as an urgent reaction to BNP members standing in elections. Local campaigners find that a fascist is standing in local elections, someone goes to their computer and prints off a "Don't Vote Nazi" or "Hope not Hate" leaflet, makes several thousand copies and organises people to deliver them through doors. More often than not, those delivering the leaflets neither live or work in the area. The idea behind such campaigns is that the leaflets will increase voter turn-out - encourage those who hate the BNP but who are not particularly motivated to vote for anyone else to get down to the ballot box. It hardly seems to matter who they actually vote for just as long as they don't vote for the BNP.
In the right set of circumstances this strategy can work. Where the BNP parachute in a candidate, where none of the patient, consistent door-to-door work has been done, voters have no more reason to put a tick next to the BNP than for anyone else. But the BNP have moved beyond this sort of campaign. As Lowels himself points out: "In the recent election we found that our general Hope not Hate leaflets worked in some places but less well in others. The general trend was that they were more effective where the BNP was standing for the first time. In other places, such as Stoke-on-Trent and Dagenham, where support for the BNP is deeply entrenched, we need a different approach and one that addresses local issues and concerns."
In places where the left has all but collapsed, where the organisational sinews of the labour movement have withered and where no adequate community responses to the BNP are possible, such campaigns still have a place - but we should not kid ourselves that this is an adequate response. It is exactly in the places where no alternative exists that the BNP will be at their strongest.
A different approach - elements of which have been pioneered by Searchlight - is both possible and necessary. There are a very small number of local anti-fascist groups that engage in consistent, campaigning work against the BNP. Some of this simply involves delivering leaflets between election time. More often, the purpose of these campaigns is to root anti-racist and anti-fascist ideas and activity in the local community. At least one of these groups - in Nottingham - has organised demonstrations, lobbies and physical resistance against BNP activity in addition to building local contacts, delivering leaflets and holding meetings. The question is: on what political basis are these campaigns organised? What do the leaflets say? What other groups and organisations should they work with?

Political retreat
"There will be some who argue for a solely class-based approach to anti-fascism but a refusal to work with mainstream parties will only hand dozens of seats to the BNP and quicken its electoral advance."
Nick Lowles (ibid)
There is some very strange 'logic' involved in this statement. It's rather like the Catholic priest who renounces God but continues preaching on Sunday mornings because he can't think of any other way to live. He knows his words are meaningless, that the congregation's prayers will never reach Heaven and that no God lives up their to act upon them. But what else would he do with his time if not preach the word of God?
The organised left and the large bulk of the trade union movement are in political retreat from working class politics. Consider the major political mobilisation of the past ten years: the anti-war movement. The 'Stop the War Coalition' - controlled from top to bottom by 'socialists' - dragged the anti-war movement into coalition with Islamo-fascists, right-wing Tories, Lib Dems, pacifist's: you name it, they were there and were given a platform to spout their anti-working class politics.
What possible excuse could the leaders of the anti-war movement, and the SWP in particular, conjure up to 'justify' this approach? The SWP will tell you that they built the biggest and most successful political movement in British history. That the millions they organised into demonstrations sent shock-waves through government. That they "got Blair". That they made war on Iran impossible.
These 'victories' are justification enough for them, but it's not at all clear that any of these things are true. John Kampfner's book, 'Blair's Wars', gives an insiders view of goings on in Downing Street in the aftermath of the million strong February 15th demonstration. Blair did think about the domestic political ramifications of sending British troops into Iraq. He took us into war anyway. Demonstrations alone could not stop the war but the political composition of the anti-war movement made anything beyond simple demonstrations impossible. The 'Stop the War Coalition', though funded by trade unions and led by socialists committed - at least on paper - to trade union struggle, was not based on working class politics.
Another example of the 'Left' abandoning working class politics comes from a recent Socialist Worker article: "Unite Against Fascism (UAF) is calling on its supporters to set up rallies and local anti-fascist groups in every part of the country. In every locality there are musicians, artists and community leaders that thoroughly oppose the fascists and what they stand for ... When these forces are organised, they can expose and weaken the fascists." Now it's true that local artists and community figures can give useful assistance to anti-fascist work but for a 'socialist' newspaper to urge activists to contact these people as a first port of call for any campaign is astonishing. Astonishing but not out of character for the SWP.
In his article, Nick Lowles demands that anti-fascist campaigns should work with "mainstream parties" and "faith groups". He does so after carefully explaining that the BNP is growing as a result of the attacks by "mainstream parties" on the working class and because bigotry still has a hold on the minds of large sections of voters. A flavour of this approach was in evidence just before the May election. One 'Hope not Hate' meeting in an area targeted by the BNP had around twenty speakers: a handful of trade union bureaucrats, one representative from each of the major (and not-so-major) religious groups, a scattering of local campaigners and representatives from Labour, the Lib Dems and Tories. Other than as a one-off show of consensus against fascism, how is an organisation like this supposed to reconcile the views and interests of such a broad, 'popular' pool of thought with the political issues posed by the BNP. How would you square a working-class response to, say, the crisis in the health services with the pro-privatisation and rationalising views of the Tories and large sections of the Labour Party? The short answer is that you can't.
Far from strengthening the anti-fascist movement, this sort of campaign politically neuters it. When you try to cover over the very real political and ideological contradictions between combating the terrain covered by BNP propaganda and reconciling the views of Tories and vicars you end up with a mish-mash of popular phraseology and poses. "Of course we're against fascists ... they're really rather nasty." History has shown us the criminal effects of the popular front.

The alternatives
There is no immediate, viable political solution to the BNP. There is not one political party in which anti-fascists - or the labour movement for that matter - can point to as a solution to working-class political representation. Socialists should be able to admit this. Nick Lowles states that the BNP requires a political solution and then goes on to formulate a rather un-political programme for anti-fascists. Something different is required.
The struggle for a political alternative will come from the struggle to arm the labour movement with working-class politics and to mobilise it on this basis. This struggle must start with the basic organisations of the labour movement: trade unions and trades councils.
Imagine a situation where a trades council became aware of BNP activity in the area. What would socialists propose as basis for anti-fascist activity? How about the following:

"Anti-Fascist Action Group
We are a labour movement and community-based campaign against the BNP and other fascist, racist and far-right parties.
We oppose the BNP and parties like them because they stand against the interests and traditions of the labour movement. They are fundamentally anti-working class, racist, sexist and homophobic.
Fascists are different from other far-right groups because instead of relying on 'official' political mechanisms, they mobilise people on the streets to attack minorities and the labour movement. The BNP today poses as a 'legal' political group but its history, ideas and actions suggest otherwise.
The BNP has grown in the recent past. At the last elections they won a further ten council seats (in areas within the lowest 10% for all socio-economic indicators) and Richard Barnbrook was elected to the Greater London Assembly. They have grown by relating to the very real crises facing working class communities: the problems in housing, hospitals, education and public services. The BNP also exploits the attacks on immigrants and asylum-seekers from all sides of the political spectrum and the press.
We seek to build links between the labour movement and community groups in order to:
1.Mobilise the labour movement and communities to campaign against local fascist activity;
2.Support direct action against the fascists and the defence of communities targeted by fascists eg. postal workers who refuse to deliver BNP election material and demonstrations to stop BNP activity;
3.Expose the bigoted lies of groups like the BNP for what they are and work to extend anti-racism and other liberation campaigns within our movement;
4.Educate the community, and in particular young people, about the nature of groups like the BNP;
5.Oppose all forms of racism, including the demonisation of immigrants;
6.Develop materials and campaigns that contest the political terrain adopted by the far right - counterposing working-class solidarity to their politics of race hate;
7.Organise workers and communities, black and white, British-born and migrant, to fight back against cuts and privatisation - for decent jobs, homes, education, services and democratic rights for all."

Would such a statement have trade unionists running for the hills in horror? Would it alienate community groups? Almost certainly not. Such a set of ideas would arm any anti-fascist campaign with the tools necessary to combat the BNP, to take on the political ground contested by the fascists and mobilise against it.
Such a statement leaves aside one important question for socialists - what to say about elections. It is not possible to dodge the issue - people will ask "if I don't vote for the BNP, who should I vote for?" Such a question requires an answer.
Wherever possible socialists should stand candidates in elections. Standing in every single election is not possible but such initiatives can provide a beacon to all sorts of campaigns. Socialists should talk about the idea of a workers' government, explain the sort of fight involved in achieving real workers representation.
The fight against fascism cannot be conducted through popular fronts, by jettisoning working class politics. It is the fight to transform the labour movement.

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