So, it’s been a few weeks since the murder of Lee Rigby stirred up a huge revival in far-right activity, and it seems like enough time’s passed to be able to try and make some initial judgements on what the new situation we’re facing looks like. Any and all of these points may end up being proved entirely wrong by events to come, but at least attempting to assess what’s going on is better than doing nothing.
Tommy Robinson is not a tactical genius.
The tendency among many liberal and leftist anti-racists to write the EDL off as a bunch of drunken, uneducated idiots is definitely a negative thing. It’s completely understandable to be annoyed by it, and Joseph Kay’s recent blog did an excellent job of showing how harmful it is. But that doesn’t mean we should exaggerate things in the other direction either. As I see it, Tommy Robinson is a bit like a far-right version of John Rees or Lindsey German: basically a chancer with one big idea. If you carry on doing the same thing again and again for long enough, then, as long as the thing you’re doing is not too utterly stupid and you don’t have terrible luck, you’ll eventually find you end up in a situation that’s favourable to the thing you’re doing, at least for a while. But that’s not the same as being a tactical genius. He didn’t look like he was in the middle of an unstoppable rise to power a few months ago, and there’s no guarantee he’ll look like it a few months from now.
Besides, even if he does make sound tactical choices, the EDL is a loose network, not the kind of tightly disciplined centralist organisation that would allow him to micro-manage his supporters’ behaviour on the ground – as can be seen by his insistence that the memorial marches for Rigby should be sober and silent, an instruction that was not always followed to the letter by the local mobilisations, to put it mildly.
The EDL are not ruling the streets.
After Newcastle, and the first London mobilisation on the bank holiday, things were looking really bad. But I don’t think it’s possible to generalise from that weekend. The local events at the start of this month, on the whole, were not overpowering shows of strength, and their last big day out in Sheffield was nowhere near the size of London or Newcastle. Besides which, Newcastle was a pre-planned demo that they’d been publicising for a while, and London is London. It’s hard to directly compare the scale of events in the capital to events anywhere else, and there certainly wasn’t a huge racist turnout to support the BNP’s attempts to grab the spotlight the week after. There may well be some areas where the far-right are outperforming us - in particular, I suspect the pattern might be that while it’s relatively easy to pull out big numbers of anti-racists in large, mixed cities, the right have more of a free run in the kind of small former industrial towns that have been continually run down since Thatcherism – but in general, their two days of success immediately following the murder are looking more like a pair of one-offs than the new rule.
Just because the EDL aren’t controlling the streets doesn’t mean that we’re not in a scary, dangerous situation.
The most worrying racist force in the country isn’t the EDL, it’s UKIP. That was true a month ago and it’s still true now. They seem to have pulled off the trick that Griffin could never manage of becoming the respectable populist nationalist party, and anti-fascists still don’t have an adequate strategy for dealing with a hard-line nationalist force with little or no connection to the old fascist traditions. The collapse of the BNP was due to their own internal problems more than the effectiveness of the opposition, and the EDL, even if they’re not ideologically fascist, do at least have a set of tactics quite similar to the old NF et al, which makes it a bit easier for our side to rely on the old lessons of militant anti-fascism. But, overall, we’re still faced with the challenge of working out how to deal with racist groups when they don’t attempt to rule the streets, and I’m not sure we have an adequate strategy yet, despite occasional interesting experiments.
Secondly, the EDL marches are only one side of the racist revival after Woolwich. The other, more worrying, side is the rise in racist attacks, and if, as seems plausible, the EDL continue to find themselves outperformed in big set-piece demonstrations*, targeted clandestine attacks could come to seem like a more and more tempting option for their supporters. I can’t think of anything we can do to actually prevent late-night arson attacks, although we should lend our support any attempts to repair the physical and psychological damage, but it’s worth bearing in mind that, between the realm of big public demonstrations and secretive lone-wolf attacks, there’s also the possibility of small “flash-mob” attacks on specific targets, along the lines of the very unruly EDL event in the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich murder. If my analysis is correct – and it’s always worth bearing in mind that there’s every chance it isn’t – and the EDL’s street resurgence isn’t going to last long, then these kind of short-notice mob attacks could increase as an alternative outlet. I don’t think that this’d be an easy development to counter, but I think it would be possible for militant anti-fascists to play some role in resisting this kind of attacks. It’s not possible to make contact with every single potential target in the country, but I think it makes sense for anti-fascists to try and think about likely targets in our areas, open up some kind of communication with them about their contingency plans, and let them know that there’s people ready to offer extra support if needed. Mobile phones and social media have made the task of spreading information to huge numbers of people almost immediately much easier, so the next challenge is to make sure that we’re in a position to hear relevant information in the first place.
*there’s no guarantee of this, it’s equally possible that the twin problems of police repression and liberal/UAF fuckwittery will manage to derail most attempts at effective anti-fascist mobilisation for the foreseeable future.