We’re living in interesting times. I’ve written about the recent splits in the Socialist Workers’ Party and the transformation of Whitechapel Anarchist Group (and they’re not the only ones, since Class War have now dissolved themselves again). But it’s not just anarchists and the left who are going through dramatic changes: the British National Party, who seemed so close to entering the mainstream not long ago, also seem to be on the verge of collapse. (See here for a more lively and entertaining take on the far right’s woes from “Malatesta”, although, without wanting to sound too dull and humourlessly right-on, I found the constant fat jokes a little annoying: yeah, lots of cops, fascists and other shitheads are overweight, but it’s also the case that a lot of good people are overweight, and don’t feel very comfortable with themselves about it, and that kind of thing doesn’t help. Also, even if the BNP, EDL and cops were all perfectly fit, they’d still be the enemy.)
So, the collapse of the UK’s leading far-right group seems like it should be good news for everyone, right? Actually, I’d argue that it’s bad news for almost the entire political spectrum, from the far-left through to the establishment right. If they have a good grasp of where their interests lie, I think a lot of political organisations should think about throwing the BNP a few quid to keep them going.
First of all, look at the SWP. It’s barely necessary to provide a link to Socialist Worker’s coverage of anti-fascism to prove how high a priority it is for them: surely anyone who’s interacted with them can testify to how keen they are to drag up the spectre of “the nazi BNP” at any possible opportunity. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong in itself with opposing the BNP, but their insistence on trying to shoehorn them into all kinds of completely irrelevant events, like the Lib Dem conference where they had anti-BNP placards but no anti-Lib Dem ones, does seem a little strange. As I understand it, their obsessive focus on the BNP and EDL (a tactic which seems to have backfired quite badly, considering the EDL’s shift from a single-issue anti-Islam organisation to a combined anti-Islam, anti-left group) is a product of their contradictory nature: on the one hand, as a self-described revolutionary organisation, they need to demonstrate their radicalism, so they can claim to offer something that more straightforwardly reformist groups can’t. On the other hand, they have a long history of populism, attempting to tailor their politics to whatever happens to be fashionable at the time, as can be seen by their wildly changing views towards institutions like the Labour Party. So, using the rhetoric (although never the practice) of militant anti-fascism offers them the best of both worlds: by endlessly talking up how hardline they are in opposing a small, unpopular racist group, they can demonstrate their militancy without ever going beyond simple social democratic principles, meaning they don’t need to worry about offending any potential recruits or paper-buyers. For the last year or so, this aspect of their politics has been played down slightly as anti-toryism has become a substitute for anti-BNPism, but we can expect to see it return to the front of their agenda if Labour retake power.
Speaking of the Labour Party, they also have good cause to be grateful for the BNP. As anyone with a memory that lasts longer than about a year or so will be aware, they were an absolute set of bastards when they were in power. Certainly, the 60% of their membership who left between 1997 and 2007, and the ever-increasing number of voters who deserted them in each successive election can testify to that. They’ve been given a bit of a reprieve by the fact that the Tories are now in power and making the cuts that they were planning, but in general it’s been hard to find reasons why anyone who wants to see a better, fairer world should vote Labour – or vote at all, for that matter. This is another area where the threat of the BNP has been useful – as Labour party members deserted en masse and those not voting consistently outnumbered those supporting any particular party, Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism activists could be counted on to regularly leaflet constituencies calling on people to “use your vote to stop the BNP.” In effect, this kind of activity is not just anti-fascist but also anti-abstention and pro-the mainstream parties. It’s hard to say how many people have been motivated to vote Conservative or Lib Dem by UAF or HNH propaganda, but it seems likely that Labour will have gained the most from it. Gordon Brown certainly seemed to be counting on it when he publicly endorsed HNH’s campaigning.
And Labour certainly aren’t the only mainstream party that rely on the BNP boogeyman. The Conservative-backed No To AV campaign, for instance, have been keen to stress that the current system keeps “extremist” parties like the BNP out of power. Not to be outdone, the Lib Dem-backed yes campaign has highlighted the fact that the BNP actually oppose AV, so anyone who refuses to support it is agreeing with them. (In case anyone was in any doubt, I think AV amounts to a doomed attempt to polish the turd of parliament, and that we need to be encouraging the crisis of faith in parliamentary “democracy”, not supporting minor reforms that are intended to prop it up. By the same token, I don’t think that voting against it and in favour of the current system makes a lot of sense either. As usual, the most difficult choice I’ll make on polling day will be whether to bother spoiling my ballot or just to stay at home.)
This apparent paradox, where anyone wishing to be a truly consistent anti-fascist would have to vote both for and against AV in order to be certain of upsetting the BNP, exposes the essential emptiness at the heart of anti-BNPism. A message that can be promoted equally happily by the SWP, Labour, Lib Dems and Tories is a message with no real content to it at all. This is not to denigrate the work of those groups who do promote genuine working-class anti-fascist ideas, like the Liverpool, Manchester and Scottish anti-fascists, but it does mean we need to be aware that the real problem is the ruling-class bastards ruining people’s lives in the present day, not the small groups of fascists dreaming about the day they’ll be able to do it.
Disclaimer: I think it’s important to be self-critical and aware of the problems with any argument you put forward. It’s not easy to work out a decent, realistic analysis of what’s happening in the world, and I think that, while having a knowledge of what’s happened in the past can help with this, it can also be a serious drawback. So, for instance, it’s certainly true that having a knowledge of the 20s and the 30s is helpful in understanding fascism, but if that knowledge led you to say “oh my god, there’s an economic crisis and a far-right party exists, therefore it’s just like 1929 and the fascists will be in power within a few years”, your knowledge of history would be hindering your attempts to understand the world, rather than helping them. In a very similar way, as an anarchist, I naturally think that it’s important to know about what happened in Spain in 1936-7, where the Stalinists in alliance with the old ruling class were able to manipulate fears about the very real fascist threat in order to disarm a libertarian revolution. It’s possible that this article is just a product of my wish to delude myself into thinking that what happened in Spain is likely to happen again soon, and so I’m just reflexively saying “No! Don’t listen to those people warning you about the rise of fascism, they just want to crush worker’s power in Barcelona!” I don’t think this is what I’m doing, but it’s certainly a possibility; it’s up to you to make up your mind about whether that’s what I’m doing or not.
Disclaimer 2: It’s also worth being aware that a lot of this is just a matter of personal perspective. To anyone unfortunate enough to have suffered harrassment or violence at the hands of the far-right, to be told that they’re “not the real problem” must seem like a bit of frustratingly abstract theorising. But this cuts both ways: there’s a lot of areas where the fascists have little or no support and their organisation is collapsing, but where the economic crisis is having very real and serious effects. People in this situation are unlikely to be very interested in the left’s constant reflexive calls to “smash the Nazi BNP.”