Down from Dover: a reply on anti-fascism

The article on antifascism Sabcat published the other week has now been redrafted and published on Roar Mag. The new draft is a lot stronger and has less to disagree with, which in some ways is a loss: for instance, the original piece had some quite sharp criticism of “no borders”/”refugees welcome” slogans, which has been dropped in the Roar version. The question of the relationship between anti-fascism, internationalism and the border crisis is an interesting one, and worth thinking through, but since the Roar version is presumably more of a finished piece than the Sabcat one, it’d feel like a bit of a cheap shot to have a go at something that’s been edited out. Anyway, a look at what the new piece actually says, and what my differences with it are:

One of the main points of the piece is that antifascists need to fully control the message being put over on social media to avoid showing any sign of weakness. In an unfortunate case of the evidence not *quite* fitting what you want to do with it, they talk about how after the Maidstone service station altercation “a handful of passengers on the coaches started posting Facebook statuses and tweets detailing their shock and fear”, and illustrate this with a screenshot of a tweet that mentions an altercation happening in fairly dry terms, with no mention being made of any shock or fear.

But that’s a bit of a quibble – the more serious problem is that the main thrust of this whole section is to give the impression that the worst thing you can do on the internet is to not look hard enough. While it’s always good to remind people that loose lips sink ships, it’s missing a vital point if you fail to mention that, while public defeatism and licking of wounds can be damaging, excessive public bragging can be even more so. Posting up your tale of woe and defeat on social media can give some racist saddoes a confidence boost and give them something to put up on their crappy facebook pages in the middle of a constant stream of shite MS Paint memes about the Crusades or whatever, but bragging too much and too unwisely about your victories… well, just ask Shane Calvert’s mates who got sent down on the strength of footage put up on the NWI page about why that’s not a great idea. I’m not aware of any anti-fascists shooting themselves in the foot in quite such a daft way, but if you go around telling people that the worst thing you can do on the internet is to show weakness, then you start moving towards a culture where that kind of thing can happen.

More broadly, saying things like “some antifascists were attacked by nazis and defended themselves successfully” might not sound anywhere as exciting as saying stuff like “a proper tasty crew of roving militant antifa hunted down some boneheads and gave them a right kicking”, but I know which one I’d rather hear read out in court if comrades were facing serious charges and having to plead self-defence.

In the next section, “know your enemy”, they write “it is up to the anti-fascist organizers to make it clear that they are only interested in anti-fascists who know the risks and know what is required to win”. I don’t think we should try to play down the risks, but, if we agree that having the numbers very clearly on your side is one important part of winning, I don’t think trying to turn people away helps either.

Looking at events that have been unambiguous successes for antifascism – for convenience’s sake, a few obvious ones are the short-notice mobilisation in Liverpool at the end of February and the massive one against the White Man March there last summer, but we could also add most of the attempted launch events for Pegida UK last year, a lot of the local EDL-type events in the wake of the Lee Rigby murder, and various attempts at fascist marches through London and Brighton in the recent past – a common factor has been overwhelming numerical advantage on the side of the anti-fascists (as well as a determination to use those numbers to actually do something useful instead of standing around on the other side of town listening to some local politicians and imams). For all of these events, adding a “you must be this hard to be able to ride” disclaimer to the callouts would have made them less, not more, successful. Similarly, if the next Dover mobilisation is going to be a clear-cut victory, my guess is that it’s more likely to happen as a result of more people turning up, not more people staying away.

Of course, not all antifascist mobilisations will look like Liverpool. But, in my opinion, things like Liverpool should be the gold standard we aim at, and that means trying to get as many people as possible involved, not turning them away. Yes, it is a very, very bad thing when antifascists get battered, and we should try and avoid that as much as possible. If you’re someone who isn’t good at confrontation, then it’s best to stay away from small group-style confrontational activities (although anyone who takes that kind of stuff seriously will probably be organising as a closed group with people they know and trust rather than putting out public call-outs, so that’s a bit of a non-issue), and it is true that there’s no guarantee that an event that’s planned as a mass blockade won’t get very hairy indeed. But it’s also the case that, off the top of my head, fascists have been known to turn up looking for a fight at picket lines, anti-racist benefit gigs, UAF/Stand Up to Racism meetings, and that one time people met up in Newcastle to talk about Russell Brand’s book. I don’t think it’s helpful to recommend that people who aren’t much use at fighting should stay away from any of these things (even if I wouldn’t recommend that anyone should ever go to some of them either), and I think that much the same is true of mass street blockades, which should be a key tool in the anti-fascist arsenal.

There’s a hundred and one things that can be said about the importance of being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, and behaving accordingly, everything from where you stand in a crowd (tip: in the middle or at the back is often safer than right at the front) to coming up with realistic plans to cover what your affinity group is and isn’t capable of doing or comfortable with, and how to extract yourself from a situation that’s escalating beyond what you feel you can handle. But most of this is far more nuanced than “if you’re good at fighting you can do antifascism, if not you should do something else.”

The next section, “building the movement” is a belated attempt to secure the purity of anti-fascism as the property of the workers’ movement. In all honesty, I’m not convinced the historical evidence supports the argument they’re trying to make – fluffy UAF rallies standing around listening to some local councillors may well be wank, but they are also entirely in the long-running tradition of popular fronts. Personally, I think it’s more useful to talk about liberal and militant or radical approaches to anti-fascism than to hope that the UAF are going to stop calling themselves antifascists. Anyway, I broadly agree with the critique they make of “unity rally”-type events, but not with all of their conclusions. 

They advise “If you cannot be sure of the nature of an event, and worry you might confuse things by attending as anti-fascists, do not attend. If you are not sure you have the right numbers of the right kind of activists to hold a distinctly anti-fascist event, do not attempt to”, which doesn’t say that much about what people in this situation should do, or how you get to have “the right numbers of the right kind of activists” if you don’t have them to start out with. While the rebuilding of militant antifascism has made great progress over the last few years, it’s still the case that in many places it is or was starting from pretty much zero, and in many cases UAF continues to be the only game in town. In situations where you have less of a militant antifascist group capable of operating independently, and more of a small core of people who would like to grow into a militant antifascist group capable of operating independently, the best option available may well be to turn up at the liberal, non-confrontational community rally and be as visible as possible, and also to *actually talk to people* about why your approach differs and what you’d like to be doing instead. This seems fairly commonsense to me, but it seems to contradict the “never let your banner be seen within 500 meters of a councillor” approach.

Their conclusion is one I would endorse entirely: “Racism and fascism are products of capitalism — to literally defeat them, we need a different system entirely. To have that, we need a movement — a movement that beats off its fascist competitors to become what Marx calls “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things,” a movement that will go beyond the law when needed, a movement that attracts disaffected people who will become militants, and a movement that converts its more liberal followers into militants through assertive, confident, activities such as the victory at Dover.

That is why we do anti-fascism.”

Having said that, I think that converting people into militants through involving them in empowering activities seems to stand at odds with the idea of telling people they’re not tough enough to get involved. To stress the importance of mass blockades as an anti-fascist tactic is in no way to sneer at those people who do small group-type confrontations – the rest of us should support them in whatever ways we can, because people operating in small closed groups can make a really valuable contribution. But those groups are most effective when they have a broad movement backing them up to draw from, and we need to make that movement as welcoming as possible. The task of bringing together people who want to oppose racism and fascism, but aren’t fully confident streetfighters, is too important to be left to the likes of the UAF. Recent events have shown the effectiveness of bringing large crowds together to take action more direct than just standing around in “designated protest areas”. Let’s hope – and organise – to see more, bigger victories soon.

A pretty impressive crowd – but did anyone vet them to make sure they were the right kind of activists?

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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5 Responses to Down from Dover: a reply on anti-fascism

  1. George West says:

    This is fantastic. I wrote the Novara article which the Roar piece mentions. I’m writing a response, to be published in Roar, which echos some of your points. I’ll be sure to link back to you.

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