Anti-fascism in a new era

Waterloo Sunset has published a very helpful critique of Searchlight’s announcement of a brave new era for anti-fascism. Like WS, I agree that there is some truth in the analysis of the changing situation put forward by Nick Lowles and Paul Meszaros, and like WS I am far from convinced of either the newness or the wisdom of the new course they chart. I differ from WS in being less sure of what the right course is.

As WS points out, the aspects of the new Searchlight analysis which are correct were actually set out very clearly a decade and a half ago by London Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) in its Filling the Vacuum document, which led eventually to the self-dissolution of AFA and a turn to community politics. In short, the battle against the BNP on the streets had been won by the early 1990s, but the BNP were winning a cultural war in the communities where white working class people felt let down and abandoned by mainstream society, and in particular by the left and the Labour movement.

But, as WS also points out, the way to engage those communities is not to enter the political mainstream, or to do the Labour Party’s business and re-connect the electorate in those communities with the political machine which abandoned them. That only further sacrifices our credibility.

The way to fill the vacuum, instead,
is to build the grassroots initiatives that take seriously the real concerns of such communities – especially now, in an age of rising unemployment, financial crisis and unfairly imposed austerity. (These grassroots initiatives look different in every locality. The relationship with the Labour Party, trade unions and so on will be negotiated differently depending on local circumstances. Meszaros and Lowles are right about the need for flexible, local solutions informed by local knowledge.)

Related to this is the issue of who the constituency of this sort of activity should be, something which, as WS notes, is skirted around in the Searchlight text. They talk about “the community”, “real people”, “real communities”, “ordinary people”, “real ordinary people”, “the mainstream”, “the anti-BNP voter”, “Mr and Mrs Smith”, “the public mood”. But this vagueness contrasts to the more specific constituency identified in the analysis of the BNP’s growth: “The BNP was building inside communities and tapping into widespread discontent with the political system. More significantly, and often ignored by many, the BNP was engaging in a cultural war that was successfully drawing upon a loss of identity and meaning among many white working class people. By carefully nurturing an image of itself as victim and speaking up “for the silent majority” the BNP could offer a new white nationalist identity to people who felt let down and abandoned by society.” Those who are experiencing a loss of identity and meaning, who feel let down and abandoned by society, are a very specific constituency, and it is them, and not “Mr and Mrs Smith” that anti-fascists need to engage with.

But where does that leave militant anti-fascism? Is its job over? The key problem with the Searchlight analysis of militant anti-fascism is to reduce it to the philosophy of “No Platform”. In my view, this is simplistic and misleading.

No Platform” is a policy that relates primarily to student unions and trade unions. For a student union, for example, No Platform means using the power of the union to keep fascists off campus – denying them a platform in the college or university. For council workers, it might mean stopping council premises being used by fascists. No Platform is sometimes counterposed to “free speech”, but No Platform is not historically a policy of calling upon the state to ban fascists, but rather of using one’s own resources to deny them a platform in one’s own institutions. If I tell someone that in my house, in front of my kids, they should refrain from swearing, I am not infringing their free speech in general, just saying what the rules are in my house. No Platform, historically, was never about bans and police actions; it was about people setting the rules in their own houses.

What happened was that No Platform took on the status of a fetish, an absolute value, and a life of its own, in ways that had absolutely nothing to do with the wider ethos of anti-fascism. We see this reflected in two very different ways. For many anti-authoritarians, anti-fascism became a lifestyle choice; the hoodie and scarf became a uniform; and anyone outside the charmed circle of the antifa milieu was not trusted. On the authoritarian left, in the white collar unions and student unions dominated by the SWP, we see organisations calls for BNP teachers to be sacked, or agencies like the EHRC taking the BNP to court over its membership rules – meaningless, bureaucratic, legalistic interpretations which rely on the state and disempower citizens, while allowing the BNP to paint itself as the heroic victim of censorship.

Meanwhile, in the real world – in the world of the internet and YouTube and Facebook, where platforms for hate endlessly proliferate; in the a period when the BNP have achieved a wider support base of people who are in no sense fascist; and in an age of increasingly sophisticated policing and surveillance – the ideal of No Platform has become meaningless.

Ironically, coinciding with the concept’s irrelevance, the SWP front Unite Against Fascism (UAF) has re-discovered it with a vengeance, probably noting that they can gain competitive advantage in the anti-fascist market by making “militancy” their USP. Hence childish actions like throwing eggs at Nick Griffin, which might be fun but has zero or negative effect.

Militant anti-fascism, however, never meant just street fighting. AFA, for example, saw it as a two-track strategy: physical and ideological confrontation, the latter less spectacular but taking up at least much of the organisation’s energy. To list just a few examples I can recall, in London and elsewhere, we did a huge amount of work with football fans, we organised carnivals and local history workshops, we developed a political response to knife attacks in London, we did estate-based work in issues like housing transfer and anti-social behaviour. This approach was also that of our predecessors, as you can see if you read the autobiography of Joe Jacobs for instance.

There is one further challenge for militant anti-fascism, which is how to deal with forms of fascism that don’t look like the old NF did – forms of fascism that fester among “oppressed” minorities, among people that hate the BNP. When this challenge was recently posed by my friend Carl, it was totally failed by both UAF and Searchlight. But when it was posed in the East End in the summer, more positive results were seen. Whitechapel United Against Division mobilised working class white and Bangladeshi local people to protest both the Islamists AND the EDL. And the statement “Against fascism in all its colours”, condemning both, was signed by a wide range of local organisations, from the Bangladesh Welfare Association to the Brick Lane Mosque to the Whitechapel Anarchist Group.

In conclusion, I agree with Meszaros and Lowles that we urgently need to re-think the old dogmas in new times. But I don’t think they offer us the tools to do so. 


Waterloo Sunset said…
You're probably being overly charitable by suggesting I have an idea of what to do. Currently, that analysis really boils down to what I think we need not to do, as opposed to offering any positive way forward.

That's still something I'm working on and will post when it's ready. To be honest, one of the issues is that I still feel a bit reluctant to seriously criticise Antifa in the way I do with HnH or UAF. But I think that's something I need to get over, as it really is necessary in the current situation.

Related somewhat, have you seen the IWCA have the second part of the Economic Democracy up now? I'm still digesting it, but it is trying to put forward concrete proposals for moving forward.
Morbid Symptoms said…
Militant anti-fascism has never been just about the 'antifascist cadre' of permanently mobilised street fighters (like 43 Group, AFA and Antifa), important though they have been at points. It has also been about communities under attack mobilising themselves to oppose fascist attacks and incursions (good examples being Cable Street, Notting Hill 1958, Southall 1979 and 1981).

The problem with anti-fascists focusing largely on the potential fascist constituency is that they can then neglect work with those sections of the community that are directly threatened by fascism (broadly speaking the 'non-white' working class).

Worse still if they are not careful anti-fascists can end up pandering to the prejudices of the potential fascist constituency in order to get a hearing - at the expense of other working class people at the receiving end of state and non-state racsism. I would argue that is exactly what the IWCA/Paul Stott etc. are doing with their attitude to immigration.
Bob said…
Very good points. I agree with you about this pitfall, and that the IWCA at the very least skirts close to it.

Historically, there have been very good examples of militant anti-fascism that work in the communities directly threatened by fascism, from the time of Joe Jacobs to groups like GACARA in Greenwich, SMP in Southall or NMP in Newham.

There have however been no instances that I can think of of groups who manage to work with both constituencies, or even of alliances between both wings of the militant anti-fascist movement. In the early 1990s, I didn't think that was a problem - there was a neat division of labour between AFA and CARF. But that's not satisfactory really, and is even less so when both wings of the movement are so fragmented.

The main sections of the non-white working class directly threatened by fascism are probably now Muslims and Eastern/Central European people. The latter have little or no political self-organisation, and also extremely reactionary groups working among them.

Muslims are increasingly self-organised, but following Arendt's adage that if you are attacked as a Muslim you defend yourself as a Muslim, the increasingly dominant forms of organisation are influenced by Islamism and by identity politics, and are therefore as much part of the problem as part of the solution.
Morbid Symtoms said…
Arguably the 1970s SWP did cross both consituencies - with the mainly white anti-fascist streetfighters on the one hand and links to Asian youth movements on the other. Of course the party expelled the former as 'squadist' (the people who went on to form Red Action) while many of the latter drifted away from the party orbit over its failure to recognise their autonomy (e.g. its closed down its black section, Flame, pretty sharply when it failed to deliver enough recruits).

Yes and the difference now (compared with the 1970s/80s) is that, at least rhetorically, South Asians are now being attacked as 'muslims' rather than as 'blacks' or 'pakis' (not that the EDL can tell the difference, Sikhs and Hindus have been attaked by them in Luton and elsewhere). So whereas the response in the past was the formation of secular Asian youth movements, within a wider discourse of black liberation, it is now more likely to take the form of 'muslim defence'. Still I don't see 'muslim identity' as a problem in itself, only some of its political islamist manifestations.
Waterloo Sunset said…
Just got my copy of "Beating the Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti Fascist Action" from Freedom. Expect a review in a few weeks.
Ross said…
if anyone wants to buy the book and for the money to go to the IWCA, buy it from here

or for anyone around SE London can buy direct from me for a bit cheaper

WS would be interested in hearing your review of it - we're compiling them all for future marketing/publicity etc.

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