The politics of anti-fascism
An article from Socialism Today, the monthly journal of our comrades in the Socialist Party - England and Wales.
To try and limit the growth of the BNP in the June elections a new organisation, Unite Against Fascism, has recently been launched. NAOMI BYRON assesses whether it can succeed in its aim.
THE NEO-NAZI British National Party (BNP) is hoping to make substantial gains in the June polls, with seats in 167 local councils in England and Wales up for election. They also hope to win at least one seat in the European parliament and, if they can win 5% of the vote, a seat in the London assembly.
In the face of this threat, a new anti-BNP initiative, Unite Against Fascism (UAF), has recently been launched. Its aim is to "counter the rising threat of the extreme right and the BNP" by building "the broadest unity against the alarming rise in racism and fascism in Britain today... this dangerous situation requires a new and united response from all those dedicated to freedom and democracy. Now is the time for all of us to combine our forces and unite in a broad and common front against this common threat". (Unite Against Fascism founding statement)
So far the main strategy has been to encourage people to vote for other parties, to reduce the danger of BNP candidates being elected. "The majority of people in this country abhor the BNP. If everyone votes we can stop the BNP. Our campaign will urge people to use their vote to stop the BNP". (What is Unite Against Fascism?, on the UAF website) On their leaflets UAF say that "every non-BNP vote will help to stop the fascists". There is no doubt that some people, however much they hate the main three parties, will be prepared to vote for one of them in order to keep out the BNP. However, will this be enough to stop them winning, or from building sufficient support to win in the future?
The material produced by UAF so far is unlikely to convince people who may consider voting for the BNP not to support them. In ‘Ten facts the BNP won’t tell you’, the UAF uses mainly old quotes from John Tyndall, who lost the leadership of the BNP to Nick Griffin five years ago. Since then Griffin, keen to discredit his old opponent and assign the BNP’s neo-Nazi image to the past, has portrayed Tyndall as an ‘old-style BNP member’ and attempted (unsuccessfully) to expel him from the party last year.
The anti-fascist movement doesn’t gain anything by pretending that the BNP has not changed or is not following different tactics to the past. The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight has had to concede that "the old tactic of producing a leaflet which labels the BNP as Nazi and giving it out from a stall in the high street is simply not effective enough". (Local solutions to Britain’s national problem, Steve Silver, Searchlight, October 2003) Of course, it is essential that any campaign against the BNP exposes the neo-Nazi beliefs of its leading members. However, this must be done in a way that makes it clear how these beliefs are a relevant threat to people in Britain today if it is going to succeed in reaching any of those who are attracted to the BNP.
What is fascism?
THIS IS WHY we need to understand what fascism actually is. Steve Silver, the editor of Searchlight, argues that "what distinguishes the BNP as a fascist organisation is its fusion of nationalism, anti-communism, anti-rationality and crucially anti-Semitism and racism. The fact that its entire world view is reflected through the prism of anti-Semitism and race distinguishes it from all legitimate political parties. Yes, the other political parties have racists in them, they even pass racist immigration laws, but they don’t reduce everything to race. This was the Nazi contribution to European fascism – where race is all. This makes the BNP not only a fascist party but a Nazi one". (The BNP’s Nazism, Searchlight, January 2004)
Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers’ union, NATFHE, and a leading trade union supporter of UAF, argues that "we should not see the BNP as just another right-wing party. Fascism is not about free speech or academic freedom, but about personalised violence against black people, trade union activists and Jews". (Campaign Group News, December 2003)
What such definitions leave out is the class nature of fascism, and the concrete historical circumstances in which fascism first arose. Without an understanding of these, and of how the situation then compares to today, it is impossible to find an effective strategy to combat the BNP.
Leon Trotsky described fascism as a mass movement whose aim was to smash the organisations of the working-class in order to save capitalism. The racism and anti-Semitism of the classical fascist movements (the Italian fascists and the Nazi party in Germany) mentioned in the quotes above, horrific as it was, was not the central purpose of fascism in the way implied. The fascists absorbed and used prejudices within the societies where they were organised in order to build up support, particularly amongst the most backward layers. The Nazis, for example, were strongly anti-Semitic, reflecting the high levels of anti-Semitism in Germany at the time, while the Italian fascists were more concerned with pushing racist ideas about the ‘inferiority’ of Africans to justify their imperial ambitions in North Africa. Mussolini tried to resist introducing anti-Jewish measures into Italy, including the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps, not for humanitarian reasons but because it was a distraction from the war effort.
The whipping up of prejudices, combined with the use of left-wing phraseology, went hand-in-hand with the building of armed fascist militias that were used to attack the workers’ movement, as well as the minorities that the fascists targeted. Rather than ‘personalised’ violence though, this was mass violence and intimidation.
Though the fascists had party structures – the ‘respectable’ face of their movement through which they campaigned for votes and new members – the central factor which set fascism apart from other reactionary capitalist parties was their militias which fought, arms in hand, with the workers’ movement for control of the streets. Even at quite an early stage fascism in Germany and Italy was able to get backing from sections of big business, who saw the fascists as useful allies because they were prepared to carry out attacks on the working-class movement.
How fascism first arose
A SERIES OF workers’ revolutions aimed at ending capitalism and establishing socialism had swept across Europe around the end of the first world war. In Russia the workers took power in 1917 and began to construct a new society, anticipating the spread of the revolution to more economically advanced countries. However, because of mistakes by the leaders of the young Communist Parties and betrayals by the leaders of the reformist Social Democratic Parties, the revolutions in other countries failed, and the workers were unable to take power.
The enormous strength and power of the workers’ movement and the example of revolutionary Russia had drawn the middle layers in society behind the working-class. But as revolution after revolution failed to change society these middle layers – ruined by capitalism and the bosses’ war, beginning to despair of socialism – began to look for other alternatives. It was these middle layers – ex-army officers, small shopkeepers, farmers, officials etc – who the Nazis in Germany and the fascists in Italy were able to appeal to.
The capitalist class in Europe was weakened by the war effort and under siege from their own populations. In Germany and Italy there was enormous political instability as one establishment party after another fell from government, unwilling to meet the demands of the workers and unable to defend the interests of their big business masters.
When the fascists took power they did so with the reluctant backing of the majority of the ruling class. Because it had the active support of a mass movement, however, fascism in power was able to do what the regular state forces had been unable to achieve: destroy the workers’ movement in Italy and Germany for more than a generation.
This was what big business had wanted. However, fascism was not under the direct control of the capitalists and, particularly in Germany, went far beyond defeating the workers’ movement. Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. The Nazis in Germany began to annex territories (beginning with those with large German or German-speaking populations). They organised a detailed campaign of harassment, slave labour and imprisonment against those not considered part of the ‘Aryan master race’ – including Romanies and Slavs – and then, finally, genocide against the Jews.
These actions were not seen as a major problem by the capitalists internationally until the Nazis’ aggressive expansionist policy began to threaten the interests of larger imperialist countries such as Britain and France. It was this that precipitated world war two. This was a disaster for capitalism and is one of the main reasons why the establishment today is so wary of fascism and neo-Nazi groups.
It would be easy to get the impression from some anti-fascists that the recent rise of the far right in Britain and Europe means that we are currently on the road to fascism. After Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, won enough votes to go through to the second round of the French presidential election two years ago, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) argued that: "The French election results point to our future. Fascism grows out of despair and the inability of capitalism to deliver even basic improvements in people’s lives. Bank collapses in Argentina, war in the Middle East, South Asia and Colombia, constant pressure on workers to work harder, and the threat of unemployment, all echo the 1930s, when Hitler came to power. We are still far from that, but the last decade has been like a film of the 1930s run in slow motion. Events in France have speeded it up". (Editorial, Socialist Review, May 2002)
But this alarmist perspective ignores the differences between the 1930s and today. Fascism as a mass force can only develop on the basis of a series of defeats for the working class. The conditions in which the current increase in support for far-right parties in Europe is taking place are not remotely similar to the desperate situation of failed revolutions that workers faced in the period after world war one.
The collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and Russia in 1989-90 had a huge impact on the political situation worldwide. The ruling class used it to launch an all-out ideological attack on the ideas of socialism, trumpeting the victory of capitalism and saying that it was the best way of organising society. Under attack, the reformist leaders of workers’ parties around the world adopted pro-big business neo-liberal policies. They became openly bourgeois parties, abandoning any pretence at representing the interests of working-class people. As the differences between the mainstream parties have grown smaller and smaller and their neo-liberal policies attacked the working-class, their votes have been collapsing. Increasing numbers have chosen either not to vote at all, or to vote for parties to the left or right of the mainstream.
Though the working-class in Europe has suffered serious setbacks, particularly from the neo-liberal offensive begun by Thatcher, it is still a powerful force. Even in countries like Italy and Austria, where far-right groups led by figures with a neo-Nazi background have entered coalition governments, the result has not been suppression of the workers’ movement. In fact, the anti-working-class policies of these right-wing governments has acted more to spur the working-class to greater struggle than to demoralise and defeat it.
This is a very different situation to the rise of mass fascist forces in the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of 1930 the Nazi Party’s main armed militia, the SA (the ‘Brownshirt’ Storm Troopers), had 100,000 members who were physically fighting the workers’ movement in Germany for control of the streets. In contrast, in Italy today for example, despite police repression on some occasions, there is no question that mass anti-government demonstrations can ‘possess the streets’. Any neo-fascist gangs are extremely small and weak compared to the mass forces fascism was able to mobilise in the inter-war period.
This does not mean that today’s far-right and neo-Nazis no longer pose a threat; but a different type of threat to that of the 1920s-30s. For working-class communities the BNP mainly represents an ideological threat, splitting the working-class by feeding existing tensions and prejudices, making it much harder for them to fight back against attacks on their living standards or services. BNP successes encourage an increase in open racist attitudes and other prejudices which, if left unchecked, turn into an increase in attacks and violence.
The reasons that working-class people need to fight against the BNP, however, are very different from the reasons why many establishment politicians would like to curb its growth. The ruling class have no use at this stage for the BNP. They prefer to use the traditional arms of the state – the courts, the press, police and army – to undermine or attack the workers’ movement and the left. They regard the BNP’s electoral successes, and even more any attempt to ‘take the streets’, as a source of unwelcome political and social instability.
The BNP, recognising the political situation they are in, have no perspective of physically confronting the workers’ movement at this stage but instead are concentrating on winning votes and ‘respectability’. While the BNP leadership would undoubtedly like to repeat the experiences of classical fascism if they were able to, it is precluded by a political situation which is completely different to the past.
Who can defeat the far-right?
VARIOUS UAF SIGNATORIES refer to the anti-fascist campaigns of the past to argue for a campaign where all the opponents of the BNP unite, ‘leaving aside’ their differences.
Paul Mackney argues that "we are at a similar turning point today" to the battle of Cable Street in 1936, where a demonstration of 100,000 prevented the British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching. After this defeat the BUF began a long decline. "The situation is different from the 1930s and the 1970s", he continues, in that "the brutes in boots of the NF have become the brutes in suits of the BNP, but the fascist threat remains the same… We need to build a campaign uniting all people who are threatened by fascism and leave our differences outside the door – even fundamental ones such as over Israel/Palestine".
Julie Waterson, of the SWP and the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), has similarly written that "we now face the task of repeating the history of anti-fascists in the 1930s, the 1970s and the 1990s to build a vibrant anti-Nazi movement, mobilising the anti-racist majority into a force for change. Such a movement can unite those with diverging political opinions to defeat a common enemy, dividing the hardcore Nazis from their potential members". (The bitter fruit of Blair’s rule, Socialist Review, July/August 2001)
‘The anti-racist majority’, ‘all people who are threatened by fascism’, ‘all those dedicated to freedom and democracy’. What do these phrases mean? Everyone who declares themselves to be against racism and fascism, no matter what their record on these issues? Everyone who declares themselves to be in favour of freedom and democracy?
New Labour declares itself to be against racism and fascism, yet it is their policies that opened the door to the growth of the BNP. As the resentment and anger against their anti-working-class policies grew, New Labour used asylum-seekers as a scapegoat. They deliberately whipped up prejudice to distract attention from their own unpopular policies.
In this situation, Searchlight has even looked to the Tories, and the Liberal Democrats in particular, as forces able to ‘win back’ BNP voters. After the Liberal Democrats won a by-election in Hapton-with-Park in Burnley that the BNP were widely expected to win, Searchlight acclaimed the result as proving that "the BNP can be beaten and that the Lib Dems are capable of providing a respectable alternative to voters disillusioned with Labour". (Searchlight, July 2003)
Yet neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats are any better as a long-term solution to the problem of the BNP. Big-business parties, they both support the same neo-liberal policies that Labour is implementing. Both are also happy to whip up racism and prejudice if they think that it will suit their short-term political interests.
History shows that it is the working-class that has most interest in defeating fascism, and that when fascist or neo-fascist groups have grown, it is the workers’ movement and the left that have defeated them. Most often this has been achieved despite obstruction from the establishment, rather than the help that UAF implies the anti-fascist movement can rely on.
The battle of Cable Street that Paul Mackney mentions, for example, was not between fascist gangs and the workers, trade unionists, local residents and Communist Party members who demonstrated against them, but between the anti-fascist demonstrators and the police, who tried for several hours to force a passage for the fascists. The movements in Britain against the National Front in the 1970s and the BNP in the 1990s were also led by the left, trade unionists and community organisations. Again, they succeeded despite political attacks from establishment politicians and the press, physical attacks from the police, arrests and prosecutions.
Socialist Party members who have expressed disagreements with the strategy of UAF have been criticised for not being willing to unite with all forces, no matter who, against the BNP, particularly by members of the SWP. Some have even gone so far as to say that it was the mistake of failing to get ‘unity against the fascists’ that allowed Hitler to come to power in Germany.
This is a gross over-simplification of history. The two main workers’ parties – the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD) – did make a fatal mistake in failing to recognise the Nazi threat. The KPD pursued an ultra-left policy, arguing that the social democrats, who they labelled ‘social fascists’, were the main danger. The consequent failure to mobilise their joint forces, including party and trade union militias of far greater size than the Brownshirts, in common action against the Nazis, allowed the SA to act with impunity, breaking strikes, attacking workers’ demonstrations and raiding union and party premises, eventually wearing down and demoralising large sections of the workers’ movement.
Meanwhile the SPD, which had renounced revolutionary ideas in favour of ‘socialism by reform’, had no confidence in the workers’ ability to fight and therefore relied almost entirely on the capitalist establishment to keep Hitler out of power. In the April 1932 presidential election the SPD supported Field Marshall von Hindenburg, arguing that the best way to block Hitler was for everyone else to unite around Hindenburg. Less than a year later it was Hindenburg who invited Hitler to form a coalition government, appointing him chancellor on 30 January 1933 (following the November 1932 parliamentary elections which had seen growing support for the workers’ parties and a decline in the Nazi vote).
Above all, because of the role of the leaders of the SPD and the KPD the working class was not able to take advantage of the numerous revolutionary situations that took place in Germany before the Nazis eventually came to power. As a result the workers’ movement, despite tremendous sacrifices, was never able to take power in Germany and establish a socialist regime that could have destroyed fascism and capitalism for good.
One of the key lessons of the rise of Hitler, then, is that the left and the workers’ movement should always maintain an independent policy and organisation in order to fight fascism and have no trust in the establishment’s ability or willingness to fight. Unity, yes, but unity of socialist and workers’ organisations not a false unity with capitalist politicians. This does not mean that socialists, trade unionists and anti-fascists should not accept practical support even from pro-capitalist politicians in the struggle against neo-Nazi or far-right organisations, provided this does not compromise their political and organisational independence. But how would it help, for example, if socialists and the workers’ movement agree to ‘leave their opposition’ to privatisation and cuts in public services ‘outside the door’ in the interests of a ‘united fight’ against the BNP?
Though racism and prejudice against asylum-seekers are very big factors in the BNP’s increase in support, they have also cleverly exploited the increasingly radical consciousness that exists in Britain. In the February 2004 edition of their paper, The Voice of Freedom, the BNP writes that "public transport should be run as a service and not for profit. There is only one policy which will make Britain’s rail network, once again, the vital transport arteries of our country. That policy is re-nationalisation!" Of course for the BNP this is just rhetoric – an opportunist way of exploiting majority support for public ownership of the railways, while none of the main establishment parties are prepared to back this. But amongst some of those who are sick of the way that privatisation and cuts are slowly killing their communities and their quality of life, this rhetoric is getting an echo. How can you answer this without talking about the bread-and-butter issues of privatisation, low pay, council tax rises and cuts in services?
Steve Silver, editor of Searchlight, admits that "the lesson of the past is that fighting fascism as an isolated phenomenon will not defeat it. The same organisations that are taking the lead against the BNP need also to be prominent in dealing with other local issues and defending jobs and local services". (Unions hold the key to defeating the BNP, Searchlight, September 2003.)
This is absolutely correct. Where trade unions are actively involved in struggle to defend or improve local jobs and services they can become a positive pole of attraction to people who might otherwise look to the BNP. Fellow Searchlight reporter, Nick Lowles, also accepts that such anti-BNP campaigning would have much more credibility and chance of success than "lining up politicians to moralise against the BNP [which] will at best fail and at worst harden voters’ support for the BNP". (Why the BNP must be confronted, Searchlight, March 2004)
Sadly, however, Steve Silver, Nick Lowles and the initiators of UAF do not go on to draw the necessary conclusions from this argument: that to defeat the BNP the workers’ movement must be prepared to challenge them and the parties of the establishment on the electoral field as well as in community campaigning work.
Working-class people no longer have a political party that represents their interests and can act as a channel for working-class struggle. The BNP is taking advantage of this huge political vacuum in Britain, trying to exploit the radicalisation and anger that exists. The most urgent task in the battle to halt the BNP’s growth is the construction of a new mass workers’ party, that would be able to put a positive, socialist alternative to the problems the BNP is trying to exploit. By involving workers, young people and the local community in an active struggle to improve their conditions of life, it could cut across potential support for the BNP and any other far-right groups. Would this not be a better use of trade union resources than continuing to give money to the New Labour politicians who are privatising trade union members’ jobs and making them redundant? Or devoting time and money to a campaign against the BNP whose main objective is to shore up the collapsing votes of the mainstream parties who all represent the interests of big business?