This year, in February, Unite Against Fascism, a top-down front group of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), held elections for the very first time. Justin Baidoo, a trade union and socialist activist in South London, has been one of the main activists in the South London Anti-Fascist Group (now South London Community Action Network). Justin stood against SWP hack Martin Smith for the post of assistant secretary.
Justin was prevented from standing on a technicality. UAF’s SWP controllers’ chose not to find a way around the technicality and preferred to eliminate him from standing: Stalinist/Putinist style, they declared the one candidate duly elected without a vote, with no option to re-open nominations. I am unable to comment on that process, and think Justin had a lucky escape, but think it is worth looking at the platform on which he challenged the UAF misleadership.
Justin’s platform had five planks, and I partly endorse all of them, but have doubts too. (My doubts are similar to those of Waterloo Sunset, in his comments when I posted a short version of this series.)
First, Justin argues that UAF is undemocratic. This was evidently the case, and Justin is to be commended for challenging it. UAF has no mechanisms for democratically debating leadership, policies, strategies or tactics.
In my view, however, this is an essential, intrinsic feature of UAF, which is the creature of a Leninist, “democratic centralist” vanguard party which has no interest in democracy. For Leninist parties like the SWP (and the SWP is one of the most authoritarian, manipulative and cynical of all of them), social movements such as anti-fascism (and indeed the working class as a whole) exist wholly to serve the party, and not the other way around. For a broad-based democratic anti-fascist movement to emerge from this sort of organisation requires a fundamental rupture, not merely a change of one or more officers.
Justin argues against “parachutist” forms of anti-fascism, where national organisations swoop down from above, march, and pull out (usually under police cover). Instead he argues for a bottom-up movement, based on “broad, democratic local groups”:
People experience racism and the politics of hatred throughout the year, we need to local groups to build positive communities to combat against it. This means more than holding Love Music Hate Racism gigs, it is building relationships across different sections of our communities and gaining trust. Pro-active means not limiting our visible actions to EDL/BNP counter-demonstrations but doing community work in local communities where migrant and working class communities are under attack or threat.
I support this position whole-heartedly. I remember one particular wake-up call I had many years ago, when a far right group marched through Bermondsey and the ANL organised a bunch of students from elsewhere to come down and oppose them. As the students with their yellow lollipops chanted “Nazi scum off our streets”, locals looked from them to the BNP. The locals clearly resented the students claiming Bermondsey streets as theirs. And then the students disappeared, leaving actual Bermondsey black people to pick up the pieces. And I’ve seen this time and again: bus loads of hyped up kids stewarded around some place they’ve never been to before and will never go to again, upping sticks. This sort of parachutist anti-fascism is doomed to failure. We need to start with our own backyards, build from the bottom up.
But asking UAF to take this approach is almost like asking the Labour Party to stop standing in elections or asking for churches to take a materialist and not moral position on racism. It’s not going to happen. (Actually, I’d be more optimistic about Hope not Hate creating an infrastructure for local broad, democratic local groups, but not too optimistic.) Instead, I think we should be putting our energy into building the local groups, and in networking between them, not going via a top-down bureaucratic monolith like UAF with its one-size-fits-all strategy.
Justin argues for a commitment to direct action and mass mobilisation to no platform fascism, and rejected calling for state bans. Essentially, this is a call for militant and not liberal anti-fascism, which brings it far closer to my personal outlook, although I no longer think the concept of “no platform” should be a shibboleth of the movement. “No platform” assumes that we can always readily identify fascists, not so straightforward in an age of post-fascism, re-branded fascism, new non-fascist xenophobic populism and other varieties of far right mobilisations. (If EDL are entering UKIP, as Justin suggests, should we “no platform” UKIP?) And it fetishises the fascist march or rally, which is anachronistic in a digital age of ubiquitous social media, user generated content and flash mob tactics. But state bans disempower citizens and communities, empower the state and its police, and feed the underdog narrative that gives the far right its glamour. State bans are de-politicising: they are legalistic alternatives to politics.
UAF likes to portray itself as edgy and militant, and in particular by doing so seeks to recruit the angry young Muslims the SWP formerly tried to reach through its Stop the War and Respect fronts. But this militant pose is belied by its liberal calls for banning marches.
This is another of Justin’s planks:
For UAF to put forward concrete, positive, working-class solutions to the problems the fascists exploit. UAF is not a political party, nor should it become one. But without commonly agreed positive demands, we are fighting with one hand tied behind our back. Our basic message needs to be: black and white, all religions and none, British-born and migrant – workers unite and fight for decent jobs, homes and services for all, and against all forms of racism.
Again, I broadly support the sentiment here, which draws on the tradition of militant anti-fascism. Militant anti-fascism is not about protecting the status quo. As AFA long argued, fascism’s success is a measure of the failure of the left; the decline of the left and labour movement has created a vacuum which the far right fills. Fascism will continue to grow in the absence of positive, working class solutions.
However, I don’t feel it is anti-fascism’s task to build the left. Anti-fascism is by definition negative, reactive, defensive. Personally, I think that the anti-fascist movement should work for maximum unity in combating fascism ideologically and physically, while we should also – in parallel, but a different exercise, and in different ways depending on our political orientations – be working to defend homes, services and so on. I could work probably alongside Trotskyists, Labour party members, Muslims, Christians, Greens, Maoists or anarchists, against the BNP and EDL, but with how many of them would I ever share the same “concrete, positive solutions”?
Finally, Justin makes this argument: “we should break our links with fake ‘anti-fascist’ politicians. We want unity on the basis of a common struggle, not a bare willingness to say ‘Fascism is bad’. This includes breaking links with eg Tory and Lib Dem MPs. We should begin with a strong public renunciation of links with David Cameron.” Again, I’m sympathetic to this call, which is basically a call for a “united front” rather than “popular front” approach and again resonates with the core principles of militant anti-fascism. Clearly, a party that feeds anti-immigrant and anti-Gypsy bigotry and that sits alongside ultra-nationalist nutjobs in the so-called “European Conservatives and Reformists” group is a poor ally against the far right.
But I don’t see Cameron’s anti-fascism as “fake”. I think Cameron is not at all racist and is genuinely appalled by “extremism” and intolerance. The point is, his anti-fascism is purely liberal: it is about defending mainstream liberal democracy, based on a moralistic understanding of fascism as “bad”. He’s not a “fake” anti-fascist, just a different sort of anti-fascist; we shouldn’t be arguing for “real” anti-fascism, just for more effective, more militant anti-fascism.
But this opens up a can of worms. Can we work with the Labour Party, even though its last leader called for “British jobs for British workers”, a BNP slogan? Should we work with members of Trot groups that defend Serb ultra-nationalists or who think the semi-fascist outfits like Hezbollah are glorious anti-imperialists? Should we work with Islamist or with right-wing Zionists? It seems to me that imposing ideological purity on the movement is dangerous. Leave that sort of thing to political parties. Personally, I think anti-fascism has a fairly narrow remit: combating the far right. Other issues are related (ultimately, all issues are related), but need to be kept separate. (Opposition to immigration controls and defence of multiculturalism are obviously related to ant-fascism, but are beyond its remit.)
Renewing the anti-fascist movement is an enormous challenge, and Justin sketches out some of the principles that are needed to do it. But UAF seems to me more a part of the problem than part of the solution.