The lack of democracy in Unite Against Fascism

I started writing a post about this weeks ago, and it is now a couple of thousands of words long and unfinished. I’ll finish it and serialise it over the next weeks, but in the meantime read this short version. UPDATE: I've started to post the long version, now in three parts, here. The most relevant post is here.

This is from Workers Liberty, via Shiraz Socialist, reporting on Unite Against Fascism, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) front which is one of the market leaders in what passes for anti-fascism in the UK:
“There has been quite a bit of fuss, including inside the SWP, about the lack of democracy in UAF, and so this year – for the first time since the campaign’s founding in 2003, believe it or not – there were elections for the national committee. However even this small step was largely a formality or, to be blunt, a fake. Rather than a proper open election for a multi-member committee, candidates had to be nominated for a variety of individual positions (chair, vice chair, secretary, assistant secretary, parliamentary officer and so on).

“Obviously this will have discouraged people from standing – and, lo and behold, there was only one candidate for each position. (Many of them were nominated by “Love Music Hate Racism” and “One Society Many Cultures” – “organisations” which decide these things how, exactly?) However this was only achieved by excluding Justin Baidoo, a young socialist and trade unionist from South London wishing to challenge SWP full-timer Martin Smith for assistant secretary, on a technicality. (See here.) The chair of his union branch had sent in the nomination, but failed to send in the reaffiliation form.

“Given this is the first time UAF has held elections, and given there were no other contested elections, you might think something could be done? Wouldn’t it have been positive to have a real election? But no, rules are rules – that is, when they allow the UAF leadership to carve out opponents. I guess it would have been particularly embarrassing for the SWP to have Martin Smith attacked from the left by a young, black socialist. (I should say that Justin chose not to get up on the floor of the conference and demand a vote on his exclusion – which I think was a mistake.)

“Nonetheless, surely the election still went ahead, with participants having the chance to vote for ‘Re-Open Nominations’? Don’t be silly! The ‘candidates’ were simply declared elected. I wondered if some SWPers cringed at this total absence of democracy.”
You can see a video of Justin here, and read his statement here. Personally, I agree with most of Justin’s sharp critique of the current state of the UAF – it is un-democratic, too reliant on state bans and moralistic denunciations of “bad” fascism, lacks positive demands, lacks a principled basis to the unity it preaches (e.g. seeking endorsement from right-wing politicians with objectively racist policies), and is a top-down body lacking a grassroots base in communities.

However, I didn’t sign Justin’s statement, because it would have been hypocritical to do so: I have come to see UAF as part of the problem not part of the solution, and will take a huge amount of convincing that it could ever become a different sort of animal. I think re-founding ant-fascism needs to happen outside of and despite UAF, not within it.

Update: A little more from Sacha Ismail's report of the UAF conference:

The reason Justin Baidoo was excluded is not just a sectarian factional reflex. It was because Justin was standing to raise political criticisms of UAF and its failures in fighting fascism (for the short program he and others including the AWL distributed at the conference see here). At the conference the contradictions in UAF’s politics were there for all to see. In fact, despite the lack of democracy and dissent, they seem to be boiling over. 
Thus there was a quite heated discussion (only a discussion) on whether to call for state bans of EDL and other fascist marches, led by Socialist Action (for) and the SWP (against). This seems to be becoming more and more of an issue – and rightly so. And: a number of SWP speakers, including UAF leaders Weyman Bennett and Martin Smith, stressed that they are for class demands which undercut the base of fascism. 
So then why shouldn’t this be included in the politics and demands of the campaign – which is what we were there demanding? Weyman Bennett got a lot of applause for demagogically declaring that David Cameron was a racist and should be sacked as prime minister – yet the SWP opposes the demand to kick Cameron and other Tory politicians out of UAF! Similarly, Martin Smith said that he regularly told Labour MPs that the best way to undermine the BNP would be to fight for millions of new council homes and decent jobs for all – but the SWP militantly opposes such demands actually being part of the campaign. 
These two problems are, obviously, related. As a logical conclusion of all this, UAF is still saying “Don’t vote Nazi”, ie vote for anyone who isn’t the BNP. 
Meanwhile the alliance with right-wing political Islam continues, now in the shape of the East London-based Islamic Forum of Europe, whose Azad Ali was “elected” UAF vice chair. No one on the left, as far as I know, suggests the IFE and its like are terrorists (I mention this because it’s a straw man Ali raised repeatedly – criticise us, and you must think we're al Qaeda) or that we should refuse to stand even with Islamists to physically defeat fascist violence. But the idea that the left should be building a political alliance with a group that has established a bigoted, reactionary and repressive political climate in the Bengali community of Tower Hamlets is astonishing. 
Martin Smith also said, more than once, that disagreement and debate in a united front can only be a good thing. That’s right, but then why the lack of motions and the fixed elections?


Waterloo Sunset said…
I'm more cynical about the AWL/Justin's position here.

First question is, is he a member of the AWL? We just don't know. The AWL describe him as a "South London anti-fascist and socialist" He's certainly friendly with them and I'm guessing he's a Trotskyist from this:

. I don’t want to get into Trotsky’s language of united front and popular front

But the AWL seem very coy on saying specifically whether he's a member or not. I think that's relevant and we should know so we can make our own decisions.

He's also very pro "multiculturalism" without being specific about what he means by the term. I'm not as signed up to the anti-multiculturalist critique as the likes of the IWCA, but it's a nebulous enough term I do insist on knowing specifically what someone is supporting by it.

We need a long-term, pro-active, trade union based approach.

We need to organise with local forces, particularly local labour movements

trades councils at their heart

I'm not against trade union work, but this is calling for everything else to be subjugated to that. Despite the fact that fascists are not currently organising on a workplace basis. And the fact that the most successful anti-fascist campaigns in the past have not been run on this basis.

He doesn't justify this tactically. It's just Trottery by numbers. We should organise primarily in the 'labour movement' because Trotsky said so.

We need to drop token, fake anti-fascists like David Cameron and other Tory, Liberal and New Labour bigwigs from the campaign.

Obviously, I agree with most of that. But the 'New Labour' part gives me cause for concern. Seems to me that's what being called for is for the anti-fascist movement to carry on calling for a Labour vote if it's the right kind of Labour candidate. And as we've repeatedly seen, that ends up in a "Vote Labour without illusions" position. Every time.

We need demands on jobs, housing and services

Not the role of an anti-fascist movement. Anti-fascism is defensive.

we need a labour movement consensus.

And while I'm dreaming I'd like a pony. To think people call me a utopian...

But apparently some EDL are also entering UKIP

That's possible, but I'd like to see some details.

To some extent the official right works in tandem with the far right, encouraging them.

He's at least qualified this. But it's still not the case. We are not in the kind of political situation where the establishment right would dream of calling on fascist solutions. On it's own terms, the Tory party is genuinely against the BNP etc. This is probably a reworking of Trotsky's view that fascism was no more than a strand of capitalism. Not only is that wrong, its effect on anti-fascism has been disastrous.
Waterloo Sunset said…
I suppose we could start from scratch, but I think it’s better to have a go at realigning and transforming the anti-fascist movement which already exists.

Wait, what? So the UAF allies itself with the political establishment, is utterly undemocratic and is also prone to softness on the Islamist right. I agree with all of that.

But the answer is to join it and work within. No, fuck off. That's not even internally consistent.

What's happened here is that The Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascist has died on its arse. (Which I regret). So the AWL are returning to the easy option of trying to jump on the coattails of a bigger movement. Despite the fact that the reasons that they didn't originally go with the UAF instead are still all there.

This is pure laziness. They simply don't have the heart for the hard slog that setting up a genuine militant anti-fascist movement would take. Which is fair enough, but it's dishonest of them to pretend there hasn't been a change of tack and their motives are tactical/ideological.

Let's be realistic. The AWL have not been at the forefront of any anti-fascist groups or campaigns so far. This suggests that will remain the case.
moderity's ghost said…

Suppose he had been an anarchist, with his blog plastered full of black flags, would that have made it better, in your view?

Would he then have been acceptable, with the right politics?

Or should we see this as another piece of manipulation from the SWP, irrespective of who it is against?

It's very easy to be cynical, but it cuts both ways doesn't it?

Or do we enforce our views on him, and then only accept him when he agrees with us? That's the old Leninist way, not something to emulate.

Whatever his views, he was a non-SWP, with every right to apply for those positions in the organisation and clearly the SWP manipulated it so he couldn't.

That would seem to be the political point, irrespective of his supposed views, or our opinions of what they might be (I find it best to *ask* someone what they think, not assume, and that way start a dialogue)
Waterloo Sunset said…
@ Mod

Suppose he had been an anarchist, with his blog plastered full of black flags, would that have made it better, in your view?

I certainly think that would be pertinent to the discussion if people weren't clear on his political affiliation.

Would he then have been acceptable, with the right politics?

Not necessarily. A lot of anarchists aren't exactly great on militant anti-fascism either, as you'd expect from a movement full of 'radical liberals'.

Certainly, if an anarchist suggested we should base our anti-fascism primarily on a trade union approach or that we should work within the UAF, I'd be equally opposed to that.

Or should we see this as another piece of manipulation from the SWP, irrespective of who it is against?

Should we see water as wet? Yeah, it goes without saying. (But Justin is obviously a relatively experienced political activist so I'm sure this kind of manoeuvre by the SWP wasn't a massive surprise to him. I don't think the bloke comes across as either a political naif or an idiot, which suggests to me this was at least considered as a possibility).

Or do we enforce our views on him, and then only accept him when he agrees with us? That's the old Leninist way, not something to emulate.

I'm not suggesting that he isn't someone I'd be prepared to work with on anti-fascist stuff. (Well, if he wasn't based at the opposite end of the country to me, obviously). What I'd suggest we should do is be free to criticise where we disagree but not let that stop anti-fascists working together where that's feasible.

Although, one thing I would agree with him on, is that I would draw the line on people like David Cameron. I'm not a fan of the 'big tent' approach to anti-fascism.

That would seem to be the political point, irrespective of his supposed views, or our opinions of what they might be (I find it best to *ask* someone what they think, not assume, and that way start a dialogue)

I think it's generally valid to draw conclusion about what someone has said by what they've written about their views.

And there's several political points here. There's the SWP manipulation issue, as you state. But I'm guessing that none of us are denying that took place. Despite the fact we haven't talked to the SWP and asked what they think. But his approach to anti-fascism, and our points of agreement and disagreement are also a political point. And there's some stuff that links to both- the actions of the SWP and the question of whether, as he argues, we should work within the UAF are interlinked.
Charlie Salmon said…
Justin is not a member of the AWL.

As for the role played by AWL members in anti-fascist work, well we're a small organisation but our members have been active in local campaigns. In particular, we've been very active in Nottinghamshire.

On UAF: a quick look at other posts on our website tell you exactly what we think of them ... ie not very much.
modernity's ghost said…
Cynicism makes for bad politics, as you make negative assumptions on his views, hole, digging, etc

Surely as a would-be academic you'd want to base your views on evidence?

Too many on the Left avoid that sensible approach and look what happens, a squabbling mess, smaller by the day.

In fact, by simply searching Justin's blog we can ascertain his opinions, and they tally very much with yours, WS:

Justin Baidoo wrote:

"I’m not in any political party (I dislike all), if you think stopping fascism means aligning with any “institutional racist” who isn’t a “Nazi” then your idea of anti-fascism hasn’t got any solutions nor in my opinion will be genuinely effective.

Would you endorse the capping of migrants to stop the “Nazis” what about the discrimination of some European migrants? If you are willing to link arms and minds with those who seek to make the poorest pay for the economic crisis then your “unity” will be composed of the liberals and Tories, ordinary working class people, affected migrants, and people with disabilities will reject it.

The best way to oppose fascism isn’t finding the lowest common denominator but find the highest possible common goals among ordinary working class people and migrants.

There used to be a slogan “Black and White, Unite and Fight” now it seems to be “Socialist and Tory, Celebrate Misery!”. What a joke. "
bob said…
I don't shar WS's cynicism about Justin's motives, and Justin is not AWL (I think libertarian socialist is a better description). I do share some of the criticisms of the platform, and have been trying to write a post on that.

This, by the way, is where Justin and his comrades are at now:
modernity's ghost said…

Two points

1. It is poor politics, when you make assumptions without evidence then you're in the territory of the irrational.

That’s what happens constantly on the Left. People think they know it all and then suddenly all goes tits up.

It makes for bad politics, bad reasoning and poor organisations. Who would want unity with a fracturous Left, ready to assume the worst of everyone else and more stridently against fellow Lefties than the Right?

You only have to look at the history of left organisations post-1968 to see where such attitudes leave us. Isolation.

The Left aren't seen as smart, perceptive and connected, rather as cranky, argumentative and small.

I think it clear there is a connection between attitude, how people relate to you and building long-term organisations. Poor attitude and silly assumptions make them unlikely.

2. Reading Justin's blog I get the impression that he too is very critical of the UAF, as most of us are.

But it achieves very little to take on the mannerisms of the Harry Enfield character "you don't want to do it that way you want to do it this way."

The UAF are around and people are going to have to interact with them.

Personally I think it is wishful thinking to take his approach, but it is *HIS*, not mine. So I think he should be given some slack and see what happens.

Unless we think we know it all?
bob said…
My views in full(er) here:

Have not addressed the "multiculturalism" issue in that post, but tend to agree with WS above.

On cynicism & assumptions, agree it can (& often does) lead to poor politics. I guess with SWP, I tend to make the worst assumptions, because I've had so many bad experiences, going back personally to the re-launch of ANL in '92 and to their role in Socialist Alliance mid-90s, that my default is cynical. I have no personal direct bad experiences of AWL, so I tend to give them benefit of the doubt (altho Leninists in general have been fucking over the rest of the radical movement since at least the start of 1918...).

I guess I am a little like the Harry Enfield "you don't want to do it like that" character these days: a bit of an armchair critic. That's a fair criticism of people like me.

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