To start off with, the usual quick news round-up: there’s been an inspiring day of solidarity with hotel workers across America’s west coast, Social Centre Plus was evicted, and London Met uni’s gone into occupation (update: scrap that, they’ve now been evicted as well). And, in case anyone had missed it, callouts have gone out for action against both ATOS Origin and Office Angels this week – spamming machine here.
Anyway, anti-fascism seems to be a bit of a hot topic at the moment. The Commune’s holding a London-based discussion of anti-fascism, drawing specifically on the Italian context. Meanwhile, my last post on the use of the BNP as a boogeyman has been given a bit of criticism in the comments on Everybody Hates A Tourist, and Liverpool Antifascists have posted a report on an EDL splinter group’s threats against “reds and militants” – a threat underlined by the EDL’s continuing attempts to intimidate activists. So, with all this in mind, it seems worth considering the issues around anti-fascism in a little more depth.
When I wrote my last post, I concentrated a lot on the various forms of pro-establishment anti-fascism, and didn’t really say much about attempts to combat the far right from an independent working-class perspective. This is partly just because I think there’s a lot more to criticise about mainstream anti-fascism, and also because, in the same way that the EDL get hysterical about any criticism of the armed forces, I don’t really feel that comfortable sitting around and criticising “our troops”, those people who are prepared to put themselves in harm’s way by taking a militant role in the fight against fascism. But no form of activity is so perfect that it can’t be critically evaluated to say what works well and what doesn’t, so here’s my small attempt at a contribution to that.
First off, Waterloo Sunrise was absolutely correct to call me out for writing that “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.” This kind of black-and-white, either/or logic is something I’ve criticised in the past, and I think one of the biggest problems with the left is their tendency to say things like “the real problem is American imperialism, not Islamism”, or “the real problem is the Tories, not the Labour Party”, etcetera, so I’m embarrassed to realise I was saying pretty much the same thing. Still, all that being said, the problem remains that most radical groups are small and lacking in resources, so there’s real limits to the number of issues they can effectively campaign around. That means that decisions about priorities are always going to have to be made, and I think there are still a lot of situations in which anti-fascism shouldn’t be at the top of our lists.
All we doing is defending?
Waterloo Sunrise also raised the argument that anti-fascism is necessary purely as a defensive measure, since “When the fascists have been allowed to operate unchecked, the confidence gained leads to them smashing up left meetings, attacking paper sellers etc.” This is a partial truth – obviously, looking at the EDL’s recent activity, there’s something there, but I don’t think it’s that helpful to just talk about “the fascists” as if there’s one fixed way that nationalists behave. The last decade saw the BNP grow considerably by pursuing an electoral strategy that meant the leadership had to actively reign in the bootboys in pursuit of respectability. Likewise, although the EDL have now turned to attacking the left, they appear to have done this largely as a reaction to the left’s much-publicised opposition to them. To say that not all nationalists are going to physically attack anti-fascists is certainly not to say they shouldn’t be opposed, since nationalism is always poison, and needs to be challenged wherever we find it. But that challenge needs to grow organically out of a particular situation, there’s no one fixed tactic that always works. The militant tactic of trying to stop the far-right controlling the streets has a lot to recommend it when facing a group like the EDL, but it’s a bit irrelevant when dealing with a group like the BNP, who gave up trying to control the streets in the mid-90s.
The renewed threat that us “reds and militants” face from the EDL and related groups does clearly raise two related questions – what should we do, and what can we do? On one level, it’s easy to say what we “should” do, we should just get a few thousand militant anti-fascists to turn out, physically prevent the EDL from marching, and fight the cops off if they give us any hassle. What we can do is somewhat more limited – the evidence from most anti-EDL mobilisations so far suggests that the liberal anti-fascists can get a few hundred people to stand around somewhere a long way away from where the EDL are, and militants can mobilise a small fraction of that number to run around trying to avoid being kettled. The second option may be more useful, and it’s certainly more exciting, but it’s still a long way from the kind of fighting force we’d need to drive the EDL off the streets. In some times and in some places, anti-fascist meetings can attract crowds that are large and determined enough that it’d be suicidal for the right to attack them. If Britain in 2011 isn’t one of those times and places, it’s worth thinking about why that is.
How do we get there from here?
Ultimately, I think the inability of anti-fascists to decisively beat the EDL needs to be seen as one symptom of a larger problem: the lack of a culture of resistance. When large numbers of people share the idea that it’s possible to solve our problems by taking action together, then it’s possible to mobilise them to defeat the far-right; in the absence of this mass consciousness, it’s a lot harder to mobilise big numbers of people. I think most of the major struggles over the last 30 years or so in the UK have had the effect of discrediting the idea that collective action can get results, and this is one major factor contributing to the weakness of contemporary anti-fascist activity compared to the heyday of the Anti-Nazi League or Anti-Fascist Action. It’s still too early to say whether the current wave of anti-cuts struggles will see the birth of a new culture of resistance, or just end up as another lesson in how we always lose and so there’s no point trying to change anything.
This means that successful anti-fascist activity is inseparable from the broader task of trying to create a culture of resistance. This cuts both ways: to take a few recent examples, I imagine that the temp worker SolFed are currently campaigning for, or the unemployed ex-miner who had his benefits reinstated after a campaign by Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, would both be considerably more likely to join in with anti-fascist activity if invited by a member of one of those groups than they would have been before these campaigns started. Likewise, small groups of radicals lacking the strength to take on bigger targets can gain confidence from victories over weak far-right groups. I’d argue that this is one of the most important positive features of confrontations with small groups of nazis, like the successful mobilisation against the National Socialist Movement that just happened in Pemberton, or, going back a bit further, the opposition to the ludicrous nazi demonstration against hip-hop that happened a few years ago in Leeds. While these kind of tiny groups can cause serious harm to individuals, it’s obviously the case that, if left unopposed, there’d still be no chance of the NSM creating a Fourth Reich in America, or the British People’s Party managing to ban hip-hop. Instead, I think that the most important thing about those victories is just that they’re victories, and everyone involved in them will have gone home with an increased confidence in their own ability to take action that changes the world for the better.
Tiny groups mouthing off about the need to “smash the EDL” without any idea about how to do it aren’t going to change anything, although they do run the risk of attracting more unwelcome attention than they’re prepared for. It’s important to be ambitious, but it’s equally important to be realistic. Concentrating on fights we can win – whether with minor nationalist groups or other class enemies, such as individual employers or landlords – is the best way to build up our strength to the point where we’ll be able to win the big battles.