We need a working class antifascist movement

By Bernie McAdam

LABOUR’S Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has issued a call for a new Anti Nazi League “to resist racism and the growth of the far right”. This is in response to recent far right demonstrations in support of the jailed fascist Tommy Robinson organised by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, DFLA, and also a series of attacks on mosques, on left activists, including RMT’s assistant General Secretary Steve Hedley, and the left wing bookshop, Bookmarks.

This growth in far right mobilisations and violence in Britain occurs against a backdrop of a surge in the US Alt-Right and European racist populist parties. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor and Alt-Right’s driving force, is now attempting to unite the far right in Europe, setting up a headquarters for “The Movement” in Brussels. Underpinning this surge is the targeting of Muslims/ Islamophobia, anti-immigrant hysteria and a virulent national chauvinism, tied in with hatred of the European Union.

As the rise of fascism in the 1930’s made clear, its main goal is to smash the workers’ movement and destroy democratic rights. It differs from other reactionary and racist parties in its focus on building a mass movement that can forcibly control the streets and physically smash trade union and socialist opposition. The first stage in the development of a serious fascist threat is the mobilisation of those who have been “left behind” by capitalist development into a coherent and organised force. That is why demonstrations and, especially, marches targetting the supposed cause of society’s ills, whether that is an ethnic minority, a religious community or whatever, is the key tactic.

To the extent that would-be fascist groups can intimidate the target group, their members gain in confidence, feel they are doing what the “mainstream parties” cannot, or will not, do. That is why it is crucially important for an anti-fascist movement to be able to physically defend itself and to take the lead in developing the self-defence of the fascists’ intended victims. In Britain, at present, that is most likely to be the Muslim community. That is why generations of anti fascists have fought around the slogans of ‘No Pasaran’ and ‘No Platform’. This policy is an essential recognition that the fascist menace must be physically stopped before it grows into a force that can be turned against the workers’ movement and every progressive movement allied to it.

The Labour Party as well as the Trade Unions should give a lead in building such a movement and this means learning the lessons of previous anti-racist and anti-fascist movements. In reaction to earlier fascist ‘surges’, the Anti Nazi League has often been held up as a model to emulate. It has had two previous incarnations and a balance sheet of these two experiences is essential if we are to be successful in stopping the rise of the far right for good.

Anti-Nazi League Mark I

In the 1970’s, the rise of the National Front, NF, both electorally and as a street fighting force, was met initially by the growth of local anti-racist and anti-fascist groups throughout the country. Such groups had been fighting the fascists on a local scale for several years. This culminated in the Battle of Lewisham in 1977 when a coalition of anti-fascist groups, with the support of thousands from the local community successfully prevented the NF from marching through their area.

Of course, the media branded the anti-fascists as thugs and the Socialist Workers Party, SWP, who were prominent in the mobilisation, were red baited in the press. The Battle of Lewisham though was a tremendous victory for those anti-fascists intent on defending their areas and implementing a policy of ‘No Platform for Fascists’. In an attempt to revive their fortunes, the NF announced another march, this time in Manchester, and the scene was set for what everybody expected would be the decisive confrontation, the equivalent of the Battle of Cable Street in the Thirties.

This was the background to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League, ANL. The principal organisers of it, the SWP, buckled under the pressure of the red baiting. The central issue became whether to mobilise to prevent the fascists from marching or to mobilise as big a counter-demonstration as possible, to prove the democratic credentials of the anti-fascist movement. Alex Callinicos made the SWP position very clear at the time, “Opposition to all immigration controls and ‘No Platform’ must be opposed as policy decisions because if adopted it would kill the ANL stone dead”. The ANL was a popular frontist, pacifist reaction to Lewisham.

The ANL became a broad liberal alliance with pop stars, liberal politicians and football players who would run a mile from the suggestion of driving the fascists off the streets. Yes, there were successful carnivals with thousands of youth attracted to Rock Against Racism, clearly a brilliant initiative but, rather than supplementing a militant anti-fascist movement, the carnivals became an alternative to mass mobilisations to stop the fascists.

This reluctance to take on the fascists was best illustrated by the second ANL carnival at Brockwell Park in 1978 which went ahead even though the organisers knew that the fascists were planning to march through Brick Lane, a mainly Asian community, in London’s East End, on the same day. The ANL and SWP refused to mobilise against the threat. So a couple of hundred were left to defend Brick Lane whilst tens of thousands listened to rock bands at the Carnival. There would have been no physical difficulty in diverting thousands to Brick Lane, it was the political basis of the ANL that prevented it from prioritising defence against the fascists.

The ANL failed to base its anti-fascist arguments in working class politics. All too often second world war chauvinist propaganda was used rather than recruiting young working class fighters on issues that affected them as a class. Worse still, this was against the backdrop of disillusionment with a Labour government whose betrayals on wages, unemployment and declining social services were a real factor in fueling the rise of the NF.

The ANL was at its high point in the late 70’s but to attribute the decline of the NF to its rise would be to misread history. The ANL certainly played a big part in exposing the NF’s leaders as Nazis and this helped to scare off ‘soft racist’ supporters but two other factors played important roles. First, there was still a more combative left that grew out of the earlier confrontations and continued to harass and disrupt NF activities. More importantly, however, Thatcher and the Tories stole the racist vote and offered the prospect of government, which the NF could never do. This combination heightened the tensions between different factions within the NF and saw it sidelined in the Eighties.

Anti-Nazi League Mark II

The second ANL was wheeled out by the SWP in 1992 against a background of the rise of the far right in Europe and the British National Party, BNP, here. Socialist Worker had told its readers in December 1991 that “the far right is growing across Europe, except in Britain”! This amazing claim ignored the increasing confidence of BNP campaigning in areas like Thamesmead estate in south east London where they organised “Rights for Whites” demonstrations or in Southwark where they successfully attacked an anti-racist march. The BNP was also growing as an electoral threat eventually winning a council seat in Millwall in 1993.

In fact, an anti-fascist organisation was already being built when the ANL was relaunched. Anti Fascist Action, AFA, had been the only group to physically resist BNP attacks in the East End for a number of years whilst the SWP had been debating the seriousness of the threat. AFA had also organised a 10,000 strong Unity Carnival at Hackney Downs and organised a protest against Le Pen’s arrival in Britain.

The new ANL also had to contend with the opposition of the Anti Racist Alliance, ARA, which had been built as a cross class, legalistic and pacifist campaign involving hordes of trade union bureaucrats, liberals and church figures. Despite SWP interest, ARA was not going to play second fiddle to the SWP, so the SWP relaunched the ANL as one of its typical front organisations, focussed solely on anti-fascism.

The new ANL was set up with no democratic structure, no branches or local groups. You could affiliate but you could not send a delegate to the steering committee or propose action. The policy was decided behind closed doors by self appointed leaders. Where it mobilised people against the fascists it directed them away from confrontations. It rejected calls for ‘No Platform’ once more.

In 1993, a magnificent 40,000 march on the BNP headquarters in Welling was viciously attacked by the police. The march had been organised by a Unity Committee supported by the ANL and Youth Against Racism in Europe (Militant). The careerists and bureaucrats of ARA organised a 3,000 strong march many miles away subsequently condemning the Welling demonstrators.

Welling showed that the potential for a mass anti-fascist movement existed. The ANL was able to mobilise 150,000 for their Carnival in June 1994. But the problem of disunity was a huge barrier. ARA with their official trade union links continued to sabotage unity in action against the fascists. Despite its promising start, Anti Fascist Action succeeded in marginalising itself from the developing mass anti-fascist movement. In effect, its concentration on physically confronting the fascists became an end in itself. Rather than focussing on the need for organised self-defence based on the mass organisations of the working class and immigrant communities, their “squadism”, as it was known, became a substitute for such mass mobilisation.

The ANL became the largest force and, smarting under the criticisms of a lack of democracy, organised an ANL conference in 1994. This conference formally committed itself to “No Platform” and to start organising in the localities. In reality, the ANL leaders had no intention of organising defence squads, which they serially denounced. In addition they did not argue for “no reliance on state bans” even though the state actually protects the “right” of fascists to organise and invariably uses bans against the left.

ANL Mark II did not smash the BNP. The BNP faded for a while but rose again in the 2000’s with an even greater electoral appeal under new leadership. The potential for building a united front against the fascists that would agree on direct action to stop them marching, meeting or selling, was squandered in the 90’s as in the 70’s.

What is needed now?

Currently, Stand Up To Racism, SUTR, and Unite Against Fascism, UAF, are the SWP front organisations that have mobilised many people on the limited counter demonstrations against the fascist threat. But they are hardly the force the SWP or ANL were in the 70’s and 90’s. John McDonnell’s appeal, which has already been welcomed by previous ANL organisers, will doubtless be taken up by SUTR and UAF in some shape or form.

This time round though a new anti-fascist movement must not be built from the top down. It must be based on local area groups and it must have a democratic structure including a conference of delegates from affiliated organisations. It must not be the property of one group, it has to be a national and a local united front of all the anti-fascist and anti-racist groups, trade union branches, Labour Party organisations, left parties plus Muslim and immigrant community groups.

John McDonnell’s appeal should be the cue for drawing in the mass organisations of the labour movement. But the type of campaign that we need cannot just rely on carnivals and propaganda exposing Tommy Robinson and his ilk as Nazis. We need a campaign of direct action to stop the fascist mobilisations. Every time the fascists and racists take to the streets, local anti-fascist groups need to respond with overwhelming numbers. The Labour Party, trade unions, Muslim and immigrant groups should all rally to prevent them from intimidating and terrorising the targets of their hate.

Anti-fascist activists need to prepare in advance for mobilisations. Where local committees have been built, the affiliated organisations, including Labour Party and trade union branches, should be won over to the task of forming defence groups. Defence is not an optional extra, it is a burning necessity if we are to protect our movement from the kind of attacks on the left that characterised the aftermath of the recent DFLA demonstrations in London.

Our political message must be clear, too, in that only the workers’ movement can stop the fascists. We do not call on the state to ban fascists, the state is not neutral. The state exists to protect the capitalist class and its economic system, the very system that breeds racism, unemployment and despair, the fuels that the fascists so crave. The ruling class will use fascist gangs in specific situations and even fascism as the preferred option for government when all else fails.

The new found confidence of the far right has undoubtedly been boosted by the Brexit campaign with its nationalism and fear of immigration. It serves no useful purpose for some on the left to deny this reality. But, hopefully, we can all unite in building a movement which can take on the arguments of the racists and reject their scapegoating of immigrants and mobilise in defence of free movement of people. The new movement must be built in solidarity with Muslim and immigrant workers with the aim of driving the fascists and racists off our streets.

The task of fighting fascism is part of a struggle to strengthen the working class in its battle with capitalism. The industrial dereliction and poverty that feeds racism has to be challenged by a socialist programme that regenerates our jobs, our public services, our housing, and should be paid for by taxing the rich. Only working class self mobilisation can open the road to socialism. Only socialist internationalism can answer the poisonous creed of national superiority and racial hatred.