Leftovers #13 – Debating anti-fascist strategy
Posted by Left Luggage on July 11, 2009
The debate about the lessons to be learned from the British National Party’s (BNP) victories in the European elections continues to loom large on the Left. We recently provided an analysis of trends and problems within mainstream anti-fascism, and others have been adding to the discussion. Unfortunately many are continuing to argue for the same ineffective strategies that have failed to halt the BNP’s rise up to now. Here’s a summary of what’s being said.
“Electoral fronts are not enough”
First up is Kofi Kyerewaa writing at The Commune on the notion of “no platform”. No doubt the tack of the article was inspired by the Unite Against Fascism (UAF) action outside the Palace of Westminster that saw BNP leader Nick Griffin’s press conference curtailed under a hail of eggs, placards and chants of “Nazi scum, off our streets”, along with the potential prosecution of the party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Kyerewaa places the origin of “no platform” with National Union of Students’ policy of the early 1990s, a point those with a history in the militant anti-fascist movement might resist. He argues strongly that the Left should oppose attempts to encourage forms of state action against the BNP:
Electoral victories for the BNP shows that it isn’t working. Such adherence to the principle of being willing to physically fight but not ideologically fight the BNP is absurd when they are close to controlling councils and have elected members of the European Parliament. The BNP are not going to be banned. Neither should we clamour for it: fascist ideas are not defeated by state diktat.
Though the idea that the Left as a whole is currently willing to “physically fight” the far-right is rather odd (and it would be a ridiculous strategy if it were the case), we must take the point that we need to combat the far-right ideologically and in practice. At present although the Left is willing to do the former (contra what Kyerewaa suggests) the problem is that the Left is stymied by its strategies and priorities. Ideology is inherently related to action and it is on both fronts that the Left is weak. Kyerewaa ably stresses this point, and proposes some attractive solutions that have long been avoided:
When socialists are campaigning on bread and butter issues like council housing or unemployment, working class people are dealt out rhetoric and propagandistic activity rather than mutual aid and support. The hard-left’s love-hate affair with the Labour Party has crippled it in acting independently on delivering social solutions. The BNP have been growing steadily in councillors, a prelude of bigger electoral gains, because they canvass through door-knocking much more than the radical left. Electoral fronts are not enough: we need a political project that is long-term in thinking and is relentless in building a constituency in communities and not just in remote trade union bureaucrats’ offices. […]
Working people will only trust a political party that not only offers real change to the status quo, but appears to know how to do it. This is why community organising is so important
He goes on to say that this explains the relative success of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) compared to its counterparts south of the border. While this is perhaps true, and we don’t know enough about the details of the political work of each, the SSP has only had moderate success and cannot be taken as a simple template.
“The BNP vote was based on real racist hatred”
Next up is a more problematic article by Denis Fernando, of the Lesbian and Gay Coalition Against Racism, which was posted on the Socialist Unity blog. At first, the argument seems to have potential. Fernando argues: “The anti-fascist movement must review its strategy to deal with the increased fascist threat. There have been many debates in recent years and reality has now put them to the test.” We can concur with that. Fernando, however, goes on to say:
A united strategy, which brings together all these social forces and challenges the racist myths which are the cutting edge of the BNP, is the key to success. […] The anti-fascist movement’s strategy must be based on what works. Not wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds of trade union funds on a strategy that divides and weakens the anti-fascist majority.
In the abstract, unity makes sense. But what it amounts to in practise, as we recently outlined, is the unity of those with the greatest interest in opposing the BNP and those who are most passionately opposed, which has usually amounted to those supporting the Labour Party whether explicitly or implicitly. The outcome of this mode of thinking finds expression in Fernando’s diagnosis of the reasons for the BNP’s rise:
The BNP vote was based on real racist hatred as shown in the yougov poll for Channel 4 on the European elections.
By claiming support for the far-right is simply driven by racism Fernando effectively avoids the necessary examination of the genuine social dynamics behind BNP support. While it’s true that BNP voters tend to be more racist than the average voter, they also tend to be massively more alienated on a whole host of social measures, as we showed recently using the same polling data [pdf] quoted by Fernando. Of course racism is part of it, but it is by no means all of it.
Such an analysis leads naturally to the failing strategies we have already seen and that Fernando claims he wants to transcend. How do you combat a vote based on racism? You target non-racist voters to support established parties. What such a perspective avoids is the need to establish a political alternative to the BNP seeking to address the concerns of working class people.
“That is the job of politicians”
The Channel 4 YouGov poll has generated plenty of mileage for those who pursue such a strategy. Searchlight pursues more nuanced line by emphasising the fact that economic and political concerns form an important part of BNP support. Nick Lowles, of Searchlight, says:
It is an increasingly hard and loyal vote which is based on political and economic insecurities and moulded by deep-rooted racial prejudice. […] The BNP […] is the voice of a section of the white working class, particularly in those areas of traditional industry that have experienced the greatest economic and social upheaval over the past twenty years.
At the same time, however, Lowles rejects the notion that anti-fascists can engage in any form of positive political action whatsoever, arguing that this should be left to the mainstream parties:
We can mobilise the anti-BNP vote and even sometimes suppress the pro-BNP vote but we cannot build houses and reduce waiting lists; we cannot prevent undercutting of wages and the abuse of migrant workers. Local anti-fascist movements cannot get resources into communities, often the poorest, dealing with extraordinary levels of migration. That is the job of politicians and political parties.
The end result of such logic is shown when Lowles, incredibly, finds hope in the fact that “many of those equally disillusioned with the political process did not vote BNP but stayed at home”. This amounts to a form of political abstentionism and neglect. It underlines the fact that anti-fascism tied to the Labour Party is, in the final analysis, unable to meet the political challenges raised by the BNP’s rise.
“Build a broad anti-fascist movement”
Unite Against Fascism (UAF) pursue a broadly similar line in a policy document published this week. It contains all the usual lines of mainstream anti-fascism, arguing the BNP are attempting to pose as a “respectable” party, that they will “worm their way into the media establishment” etc. It also argues, misreading the same YouGov polling data, that BNP voters are “working class Tories” and don’t have genuine economic concerns (based on the fact that other issues top their lists of concerns).
Thus it says: “It is this combination of racism and resentment that drives them into the arms of the BNP, rather than notions of a multicultural elite betraying the ‘white working class’.” The fact that these two statements are quite compatible does not seem to have occurred to UAF. In any case, what’s the solution?
The urgent task is to build a broad anti-fascist movement with deep roots in working class areas, ethnic minority communities, LGBT organisations and the trade union movement. And it means building an active mass movement, one that is capable of mobilising for both elections and demonstrations against the BNP. Fascist parties are not simply electoral organisations, so anti-fascists cannot be either. Fascist parties are not simply racist propagandists, so anti-fascists cannot restrict themselves to anti-racist propaganda.
In terms of practical action, UAF plans to hold a national conference and a demonstration outside the BNP’s annual rally in rural Derbyshire next month. Unfortunately, this “analysis document” skimps on an examination of UAF strategy: this is simply more of the same. Both Searchlight and UAF touch on some of the critical issues that now need to be at the heart of an effective anti-fascist campaign, but neither takes the quantumn leap needed to reorientate themselves to those ends.
“A racism of desperation”
To finish on a more useful note, Dave Osler gives a far better analysis of reasons for the BNP’s growing support than the two leading anti-fascist groups. He starkly sets out the challenge facing anti-fascists and the Left:
This is instead a racism rooted in the collapse of social housing, a racism born of the disappearance of blue collar employment and grassroots trade union organisation, a racism of benefit cuts, a racism centred on the perception that nobody in a position of authority really gives a shit. You might even want to call it a racism of desperation.