Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Leftovers #5

Posted by Left Luggage on May 5, 2009

This week, the mainstream and Left media have spent of lot of time covering the exploits of the British National Party. In June, the far right have their best ever chance of gaining a seat in the European Parliament, and with it hundreds of thousands of euros to fund the BNP’s activities.

Gone are the days when the liberal left attempted to deal with the rise of the BNP solely by painting them as criminals, sociopaths and “Nazis”. This strategy – developed by groups like Searchlight and the Anti-Nazi League – is still sometimes deployed, but anti-fascists now generally agree that the causes of ultra right growth must also be addressed.

ANL founder and former New Labour minister Peter Hain is frank about the scale of the threat posed. He begins his Guardian article by warning: “Unless the rest of us get our act together, the British National party could easily win three seats – and quite possibly six or more – in June’s European elections.” By “the rest of us”, Hain seems to mean liberal and decent-minded members of society from across the political spectrum, who should come together to stop the poisonous minority of fascists leading sections of the unwitting public astray. Hain does depart from liberal orthodoxy by referring to some of the underlying social causes of the BNP’s rise:

With unemployment and job insecurity rising, some major construction sites appearing to bar local unionised labour, and affordable housing in short supply, there are classic conditions for the BNP’s racist and fascist politics to thrive.

However, later in the article he suggests that the campaign against the BNP should be orchestrated by the Labour Party, which is partly responsible for creating the lamentable social conditions Hain refers to.

Hain’s article is contradictory throughout. He mentions the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when anti-fascists prevented Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts marching through London’s East End, as an example of how to fight the BNP, but ignores the fact that the Cable Street demonstration was organised by working class activists rooted in community campaigns. By contrast, the kind of groups Hain advocates we support today, such as Unite Against Fascism, have a largely middle class membership and few links to the communities where they campaign.

The fascinating report for BBC Radio 4 into the BNP Euro election campaign sheds some light on the reasons for the BNP’s rise. The journalist interviews voters in a working class area of inner city Manchester and sees how resentment over gentrification and unemployment is pushing former Labour voters into the arms of the BNP, who skilfully exploit concerns over social issues. Local BNP activists interviewed claim they want to tackle crime, tidy up the area and restore civic pride. They do not dwell on “race”, but instead emphasise the kind of social problems that any good, left wing community campaigner would seek to address. The concerns of local people are counterposed to that of an uncaring “elite” and a “totalitarian” EU.

The BNP claim that it is fighting a political establishment intent on crushing it is fuelled by the hysterical media reaction to the slightest hint of BNP racism. Socialist Worker jumped on the bandwagon this week, citing an internal BNP document (leaked by Searchlight to the BBC radio programme just mentioned) as evidence of the BNP’s “Nazism”. The author hopes that the document, in which the BNP urges its activists to refer to non-white Britons as “racial foreigners”, will set back the Party’s efforts to become a “respectable mainstream party”. In fact, it could be argued that the BNP wishes to be seen as radical rather than respectable, and that condemnations from the political elite and the media help reinforce that perception.

Also in SW this week, the paper takes the opportunity provided by the Ian Tomlinson affair to address the role of the police. The article, which reads a little like a leftwing version of a Newsround bulletin, outlines the relationship of the police to the people:

We are told that the police exist for our benefit. They are said to protect us from crime and are supposed to respond to all people throughout society equally – unless you fall into the “criminal” category.
The police uphold “law and order”. But this role doesn’t work in everyone’s interests – it backs up some people much more than others. The law and order that the police protect is that of the rich and powerful. These are the people who own and control the resources of society – the factories, call centres and businesses.

The implication of this is that the police should be abolished, and will be after the revolution. Unlike blogger A Very Public Sociologist, the author does not address the question of what can be done in the short term to force the police to serve working class communities. Nor does she countenance the idea that there might be public support for the existence of a police force due to widespread fear of crime. As we have pointed out, such an approach leaves the Left dangerously out of touch with the views of working class people.

David Osler addresses the failure of the Left to engage with ordinary people in a post on his blog. Like ourselves, he laments the fact that the opportunity presented by the recession is likely to be missed because the Left is no position influence the political agenda. Osler questions both the priorities and the strategies of the Left:

Most socialist groups became sects in the full sociological meaning of the term, and to question a closed belief system was automatically equated to heresy. Tendencies that once – and quite rightly so – derided student vanguardism and guerillaism as ‘substitutionist’ fell foul to analoguous elephant traps, relating primarily to anti-capitalist youth and the bourgeois and clerical layers of religious minorities rather than the organised working class.

Osler’s conclusion, in which he stresses the need for the Left to “intellectually regenerate”, is said by the author of the Directionless Bones blog to overemphasise the role of ideas and neglect material and organisational factors.

… instead of/as well as ruling parties and their ilk having nice ideas, there must be a social force outside of politics that has the strength to revolutionise society. By ’strength’ I mean, the capacity to begin running society in its new form.

We don’t think it is quite that easy to separate the battle of ideas from the battle of forces. By formulating a coherent ideological position that builds on existing common sense notions among working class people, it is possible for the Left to increase its strength and that of the working class.

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10 Responses to “Leftovers #5”

  1. history tells us things said

    The Green Party have just put through at Spring Conference, a rushed ill thought motion on migration which basically sanctions Open Borders’, it passed and there were only two votes against, so how much debate did it recieve? I have read it, its basically a ‘No Borders wishlist’ with no anaylsis of the problems along with the benefits of mass immigration. How on earth can they combat the BNP in areas where unplanned migration has put intolerable pressure on services and where wages have been driven down in many occupations, amonst other concerns.

  2. greenman said

    I seem to remember someone using the moniker “History Tells Us Things” making thinly disguised pro-BNP statements on a number of discussion boards, but we will leave that to one side for now and address the argument.

    The new Green Party migration policy as passed is actually based on the migration policy of the European Greens, which were actually more radical than the old policy of the “more left wing” Green Party of England and Wales. It is not a “No Borders policy”, but does defend the basic human right of freedom of movement with the necessary safeguards. The working class is international. Or should we abandon “workers of/for the world unite” in favour of the self defeating nationalism of “British Jobs For British Workers”? The problem the Green Party has is not chiefly its policy, but its class composition and image – these are what make it difficult for that Party to reach out in working class areas, not people already being aware of the intricacies of its policies – though some of these still need a lot of work. Chief amongst the issues that Greens need to address are the good points made by socialists about the effects of Green Taxes, restrictions and increased costs falling chiefly on the poorest.

    A kind of Bloomsbury self-righteous middle/upper class hair shirtery is unfortunately still alive and well in some quarters of the Green Party, and I speak as someone with long experience of membership of that Party! However, the population policy change was part of significant defeats for the minority Optimum Population Trust/Porrittite/Green Right within the GPEW – and these are by and large the worst offenders in the self righteous hair shirtery and pious “anti-materialist” cant department. Nevertheless, it is pointless to deny that such attitudes are also present on some of the left of the Party also.

    Presumably the argument is that the Greens should combat the BNP by agreeing with them on migration as “the cause” of social problems, rather than capitalism and poor distribution of resources and poor management of change.
    The article itself above makes a few basic errors that are unfortunately becoming more widespread amongst the left. In reacting to the insufficiency of the “They’re all bad evil Nazis” line of campaign of the ANL of the past and UAF and Searchlight today, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater and Collett, Griffin, Darby et al are let off the hook. We mustn’t call them nazis now? They actually ARE bad evil Nazis – real, ideologically committed National Socialists of various types, they just currently choose to cover the fact up for tactical reasons. While it is important to deal with the real reasons for the rise of the far right (and these are as diverse as constant exposure of much of the population to sensationalist xenophobic tabloids, poor resourcing, ill conceived *state* “multiculturalism”, neo-liberal service cuts and privatisation, political disengagement due to increased professionalisation and corporate capture of the political sphere, decline of workplace organisation and inability of business unions to recruit in “difficult” workplaces and amongst migrant workers) – while this is important – we should not gloss over the fact that unlike many of their voters, the leaders of the BNP are a selection of actual, real, National Socialists and Mystical Traditionalists, Blood and Soil Evola-ite fascists etc.

    The ways forward that need to be discussed are maximum organisation of new workers and old, maximum unity in demanding no service cuts and service improvements and increases in areas of rising population from whatever source(and not every part of the UK does have rising population remember). This requires that we support base level workplace and community organisation with a radically democratic outlook. Integration on class lines should be sought rather than separation on racial/cultural lines as sought in their own way by both the fascists and the state multiculturalists.

  3. history tells us things said

    Greenman, so any criticism of open borders or mass migration is support for the BNP, how ridiculous, I wonder if you know the Dutch Socialist Party now has very robust immigration policies, having met you once I didn’t take you for someone who tries to close down debate by smears, etc. but there you go. Hopefully, LL is going to be a site where contentitious issues like migration and the lefts obsession with Gaza, etc can be debated and discussed.

  4. Hi Greenman,

    I think the issue of whether or not to refer to the BNP as “Nazis” is a tactical one. The question, therefore, is whether referring to the BNP as “Nazis” discourages people from voting for them. I don’t know of any detailed assessment of the impact of anti-BNP campaigns, but from my own experience, campaigns which employ the “Nazi” label (such as those by Searchlight, the Anti-Nazi League and the Coalition Against Racism) are at best ineffective and at worst counter-productive.

    Back in 2002, Oldham and Burnley were heavily leafleted by anti-BNP campaigners. Every household in each of the wards contested by the BNP received at least one anti-BNP leaflet, and many of the leaflets used terms such as “Nazi” to describe the Party. Therefore everyone who voted for the BNP was aware of the allegation that they were a “Nazi” party. Nevertheless, the BNP won three seats in Burnley and only failed to do the same in Oldham due the ethnic balance of the wards they contested.

    I assume that the thinking behind using the term “Nazi” to describe the BNP is that this will “expose” the Party for the what they really are, and voters who might otherwise have thought of the BNP as a “respectable” or “mainstream” party will be put off voting for them. This view seems to me to be based on some fairly flawed assumptions about human psychology.

    How might people who find themselves sympathising with a lot of what the BNP say react to anti-BNP campaigners referring to the Party as “Nazi”? It is possible that they might be shocked into not voting for them, but people in this situation are more likely to reject the label completely. Indeed they must do, unless everyone in Oldham and Burnley (and all the other areas where the “Nazi” allegations were made) willingly voted for a Nazi party.

    For me the problem lies not only with the use of terms like “Nazi” but also with anti-BNP campaigns in general. When I lived in a city in North Yorkshire a few years ago, the BNP (who had never had a presence in the town previously) leafletted a working class area with some material addressing the issue of street crime. (There had recently been a story in the local paper about an elderly man who was brutally mugged). In response, various Left activists got together to form a Unite Against Fascism group. Some in the group suggested we counter-leaflet the area with flyers proclaiming the BNP to be a racist, Nazi party and urging people not to vote for them.

    I remember trying to imagine how someone who had received both leaflets would feel. No left wing activists had ever campaigned in this area before, nor shown an interest in solving the social problems faced by this community (of which crime, incidentally, was one). Then a bunch of largely middle class leftwingers turn up to ask people in the area not to vote BNP. It doesn’t take too much imagination to predict the response.

    Campaigns that simply urge a vote against the BNP are never likely to be successful – in fact there is good reason to suppose they may do more harm than good. For one thing, they give credence to the BNP’s claim that they are opposed by a “liberal elite” who will stop at nothing to keep them from power. As you suggest, Greenman, what is needed is organisations that play an active role in working class communities and propose progressive solutions to the most urgent social problems that those communities face.

    By the way, the article in no way suggested that the BNP was *not* a Nazi party. The point made was about the use of the term “Nazi” in material (like the Socialist Worker article cited) that aims to discourage votes for the BNP and encourage anti-BNP campaigns.

    Your points about the Green Party’s immigration policy and its middle class composition are interesting, and we are going to address them in a post very soon.

    Thanks for the comment. Keep them coming.

    Left Luggage

  5. Jon said

    on the immigration note, in the US, two big labour federations are calling for legalisation of illegal immigrants – “Workers don’t depress wages. Unscrupulous employers do,” said Terence O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/opinion/21tues1.html?_r=3

    Contrast this with the position of the dutch socialist party:

    And the dutch socialist party opposes mass-immigration on the grounds that it is a neo-liberal capitalist ploy to drive down wages, and to undermine working class solidarity. They say that they want to make immigration unnecessary, by using EU funds to enable poorer regions of the continent to be self-supporting.

    http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/45957,opinion,dutch-socialists-champion-the-left-wing-case-against-immigration

    So a parallel discussion about the far right would be, what should a socialist position on immigration be?

    • Thanks for the links, Jon.

      The position of the Dutch Socialist Party is interesting and we’ve been hoping to feature them in a post at some point in the future. With respect to the contrast with US unions, there is no inherent contradiction between proposing legalisation for illegal immigrants already in the country and opposing mass-immigration in general.

      • Jon said

        regarding the contrast, I just meant that the dutch socialist party believes that immigrants depress wages, while the trade unions in america were arguing that its not immigrants, but bosses. Of course legalisation of illegals and opposing mass immigration are not mutually exclusive policies.

  6. greenman said

    Apologies to HistoryTellsUsThings then, I did not realise you were D06/TL. However, it might give you pause for thought that someone might suspect on a cursory glance at some of your posts under this new title that you were pro-BNP. Perhaps more careful language and less stereotyping of “the left”?

    We do need to discuss these things. The problem I have with the Dutch Socialist Party approach is the same I have with the Stalinist-led NO2EU electoral platform, they both wittingly or unwittingly encourage nationalist feeling, division amongst the workers and succour to the far right (“look, even some of the left agree with us”). The line is not too far from that which led to the greatest disasters of 20th Century European Socialism – the decision of 2nd International Socialist Parties to back their own ruling classes in the mass slaughter of the First World War because they felt that the “national working class” had more in common with them than the “foreign working class”, and the trajectory of Stalinism to “Socialism in one country” where the interests of “Mother Russia” became identified as the same as “Socialism and world revolution” to the effect that the whole Moscow-line Communist movement became a vicious instrument of Russian foreign policy.

    Simply put, if there are problems of wages differentials and downward pressure, and services being overstretched you address these problems in a manner that unites rather than divides – workplace and community organising and struggle – blaming “the immigrants” leads to defeat for all. Now it might be said that blaming migration is not blaming the immigrants – I think this is sophistry. The wo/man in the street will not make that distinction. The focus must be on opposing exploiters of migrant labour, people traffickers etc, rather than their victims.

    On Left Luggage’s comments I think you misunderstand what I am criticising. I am equally a critic of lolipop waving students shouting “Nazi scum” as an anti-fascist strategy. What I am criticising is those who seem eager to play along with Griffin’s strategy of pretending they have changed, treating them as a new democratic nationalist movement – they have not changed, the leadership are still long term national socialists. All that has changed is their tactics and short term strategy, not their ideology – Griffin has said as much in speeches to overseas far rightists. Yes, there are more subtle ways of delegitimising them than holding up pictures of Hitler and Goebbels, but we should not play along with their game of legitimisation.

    I do not agree that exposing stupid or nasty statements is useless. For example Caroline Lucas, leader of the Greens recently made a rather silly statement about air travel that UKIP have leapt on as showing how divorced she and greens are from reality and ordinary people’s lives – specifically their holidays. I have no doubt that this will cost the Greens some of the soft green vote if UKIP et al run with it enough. Likewise, stupid, thuggish and bloodthirsty remarks by Griffin and Collett, given enough exposure by anti-fascists, will likely strip away some of the right-wing protest vote as there are a range of alternatives that seem less thuggish and bloodthirsty in comparison. This could be the difference between them winning seats and not, with all that implies. But again, this is not the be-all-and-end-all of anti-fascist strategy, just one element.

  7. Duncan said

    I don’t think the BNP are a Nazi party. Unless you are using the term ‘Nazi’ as an all-purpose insult, depriving it of any analytical content or usefulness, it should be pretty obvious that the BNP bears little resemblence to classic national socialist parties or post-war neo-Nazi groups.

    To be pedantic, the BNP are an extreme right party in the fascist tradition.

  8. […] to be a less respectable collection, having an affinity for asceticism, religion, and what I read somewhere described as ‘middle/upper-class hair-shirtery’. I’m certainly no fan of […]

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