Against the fascist creep, against left nationalism

The fascist creep: Tommy Robinson and the Brexiteers

Image result for "great brexit betrayal" robinson
One of the defining features of our current political moment is what Alex Reid Ross calls "the fascist creep" - how fascist ideas "migrate from left to right and right to left and how they surreptitiously slip into the heart of the body politic", as Tamir Bar-On puts it. This has two main dynamics. The first is what Dave Renton calls "the convergence", as far right ideas become increasingly acceptable in mainstream politics. (See also Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter on the mainstreaming of the far right).

This week has seen a grim example of this convergence, as UKIP's leader Gerard Batten announced he had hired "Tommy Robinson" - real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon - as an "advisor" on so-called "rape gangs" and prison reform. Yaxley-Lennon is formally ineligible to join the party, as he is a former member of both the fascist British National Party and his own English Defence League. And should be considered toxic for his constant incitement to hatred and violence. He is particularly ill-suited to advising on child sexual exploitation and criminal justice, given his own record of violent criminality, contempt of legal due process, lack of respect for women, and online sexual harassment of teenage girls.

Over the next few days, he was busy spreading fake news about the shocking Syrian refugee schoolboy bullying incident Huddersfield - fake news that will have had the effect of amplifying xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry, and probably contribute to future attacks. This was all the more grim because it was his ideas that appear to have influenced the bully.
On Saturday 9 December, Yaxley-Lennon has announced he will lead a pro-Brexit march on parliament, under the strapline of “The Great Brexit Betrayal”. The elite's "stab in the back" is a right-wing trope of some vintage, most notoriously a theme of the Nazis

An illustration from a 1919 Austrian postcard showing a caricatured Jew stabbing the German Army in the back with a dagger. The capitulation was blamed upon the unpatriotic populace, the Socialists, Bolsheviks, the Weimar Republic, and especially the Jews. Source: Wikipedia
Like the discourses of "enemies of the people", "citizens of nowhere" and the "lying press", the "Great Betrayal" meme illustrates the way that Brexit has allowed fascist ideas to travel into the heart of our public discourse, creating a toxic, divisive, aggressive political culture that is genuinely dangerous.

No to Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain

A coalition of left groups, including the recently formed Labour Against Racism and Fascism (LARAF) and Another Europe is Possible, and supported by Momentum, have called a mobilisation against Yaxley-Lennon's march, meeting at Portland Place at noon. (See this article by LARAF's Urte Macikene for more.)

Meanwhile, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), via its fronts Stand Up To Racism and Unite Against Racism, has called a rival counter-demo. The SWP, among its many other faults, has always supported Brexit, which it sees as a great working class rebellion.

Bizarrely, as Coatesy documents here, not only the SWP but also the young radicals at Novara Media are attacking the counter-demonstration. Novara have published a piece by Callum Cant and Benjamin Walters which argues that making the anti-fascist march explicitly pro-Brexit allows Robinson to claim leadership of the 52% who voted Brexit rather than just the 10% who are potential fascists. They argue that anti-fascism requires narrow politics in order to achieve a broad base. David Rosenberg, who was part of last week's SWP-led "Unity demo", makes a similar argument in the Stalinist pro-Brexit Morning Star.

That would be a valid argument (although, as I'll argue in a second, wrong). But what seems less legit is Cant and Walters' and Rosenberg's sectarian attack on Another Europe is Possible (AEIP), which Cant and Walters call "an ultra-remain campaign group". They continue: "Whereas the Momentum-backed counter-protest is using the slogan ‘No to Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain’ without taking a line on Brexit, AEIP are linking together an ultra-remain position with an anti-fascist position." Rosenberg similarly claims that AEIP "has called a separate protest".* In fact, of course, the ‘No to Tommy Robinson, No to Fortress Britain’ slogan is exactly the slogan Another Europe is marching under, co-sponsoring the whole event with Momentum, so this is rather confusing. Unless I'm missing something, AEIP are not proposing a separate protest, but simply organising an anti-Brexit bloc on the demo, just as there was a feminist bloc and a Brazilian bloc on the recent anti-DFLA demo.

Anti-fascism has always had to steer a difficult course. On one hand, an ultra-left purism exemplified by the Communist Party in its "Third Period", when it called the social democrats "social fascists" and saw the soft left as a more dangerous enemy than actual Nazis. (Kevin Ovenden accuses AEIP of "Third Period liberalism, but there is a bit of a ring of the Third Period from the Novara scene when they constantly blame "centrists" for the rise of fascism, and even argue that centrists like Macron are as bad as or even worse than fascists like Le Pen - much as many of their American comrades saw Trump as better than Hilary Clinton. Not surprisingly, the SWP blame Labour centrists for the rise of racism at exactly the same time as they argue for pro-Brexit "anti-fascism".) On the other hand, the lowest common denominator of the "Popular Front", which dilutes its anti-fascism as much as possible to unite everyone against the fascists - without any analysis of what makes fascism tick. (This has always been the approach of the SWP, who signed David Cameron up to Unite Against Fascism.) Cant and Walters say they want a "united front", but what they seem to be proposing is a popular front, an appeal to Brexit supporters, however reactionary. 

Despite its sectarianism and inaccuracy, the Novara piece was tweeted by Momentum and Owen Jones. Jones has also written a slightly softer plea for a non-anti-Brexit challenge to Robinson. The substantive argument is taken up by Michael Chessum:
It is quite true to say that Robinson is using the Brexit moment to recruit followers and bolster his credibility in the political mainstream. But that is only a fraction of the story. The narrative of national betrayal and imperial nostalgia is at the heart of Brexit, and always has been. The aim of the Brexit project was always to take the nastiest narratives on immigration, race and nationalism and, with the use of a popular vote, put these ideas on the winning side of history. At the moment, swathes of the left seem content to leave them there. 
For two years now, the British left has been trapped in a logic of triangulation on Brexit. The overwhelming majority of the left backed remain in 2016, and the overwhelming majority of Labour members now back a fresh referendum. But as Robinson and Ukip march, many on the left, hamstrung by loyalty to the Labour leadership’s fudge on the subject, will attempt to argue the impossible: that the left should oppose the far right, but accept its greatest achievement.
I think Chessum is correct. Brexit - taking control, stronger borders, stopping migration, turning back the clock, making Britain great again - has always been a fundamentally racist project. 

Against left nationalism
The fact that a significant part of the left has been won over to the essentially nationalist and implicitly racist Brexit project illustrates the second major dynamic of the fascist creep: the seepage of ideas between left and right to form novel "red-brown" political formations

Owen Jones and the Novara left are able to see how "centrists" such as Hilary Clinton or UnHerd play a role in sanitising far right ideas by bringing anti-immigration arguments into the mainstream. But they are blind to the same mechanism when it comes from the left.
Last week, I looked at Angela Nagle's "left" case for borders as one example of the new left nationalism. Atossa Araxia Abrahamian in The Nation argues, correctly in my view, that there is no left case for nationalism: "The willingness of the left to play by the far right’s rules and according to their narrative is part of what got us into this mess."

And yet large swathes of the left are playing by these far right rules. The support for Brexit by the SWP, Counterfire, the Socialist Party, George Galloway and especially the Morning Star would be one example - with many of the Novara-style new leftists sounding more and more like them, with the ridiculous idea of a "People's Brexit". Die Linke's Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany and La France Insoumise's Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France (the latter spoke at this year's Momentum fringe event, The World Transformed) increasingly articulate nationalist themes: France is no longer an "independent country", says Mélenchon; “Open borders in Europe means more competition for badly paid jobs,” says Wagenknecht.

Corbyn's obsession with nationalisation, protectionism and buying British speaks to a kind of economic nationalism, as Marxists Matt Bolton and FH Pitts, as well as centrists Denis MacShane, Oliver Kamm, Ben Chu and Sean O'Grady argue. This is a dangerous path for the left.

Malcolm James and Sivamohan Valluvan have a very long piece in Salvage on the left's failure to reckon with nationalism. I hope they don't mind if I quote a couple of long extracts from it, as their arguments against left nationalism are somewhat buried in their complex analysis of the current conjuncture.
As the dust settles on the [2017] election, nationalism has begun to return to left politics, parliamentary and otherwise – because it never left. In parliamentary Labour, we see Corbyn’s initial quietism on migrants’ rights accumulating a more recognisable anti-migrant language; we see it in the recent pronouncements of MPs Gloria De Piero and Graham Jones on the ‘white working class’; we see it in the formation of John Denham’s English Labour Network; but, perhaps more importantly, we also see it in the continued attempt by influential opinion-makers to lend anti-immigration sensibilities a more pronounced left-wing rationale...
Those in such corners of the Left even cite Trump, Brexit and Le Pen as the results of straightforward anti-capitalist impulses. Such a version of the crisis critique, endorsed in part by journalist Paul Mason, and often put forward by merchants of progressive contrarianism and/or self-styled spokespersons of working-class authenticity, then accepts retrenchment to the nation as an anti-neoliberal move. The fact that some middle-class people oppose nationalism further compounds their mistaken notion that the new nationalist cry must be anti-capitalist, or at the very least, a recognisable act of anti-elite, working-class assertion. 
This is bad Marxism done worse. It takes the metaphor of oppositional class interests and writes it into every streak, corner and recess of culture and ideology...
One prominent left-nationalist move regarding contemporary crisis is the ‘the working class has spoken’ ploy. Here, the multiple dimensions of nationalism are reduced to a working-class politics, an insurrection via the ballot box. Anti-immigration becomes a normalised sentiment of working-class the same time as it is read as anti-capitalist politics... These articulations occur in a wider left discursive environment that too often presumes the historic entitlement of ‘indigenous’ white working-class people. Weaned on soap operas, the memory of a Blitz spirit, the golden era of the welfare state, and football as it used to be, many left vanguardists indulge this position by distinguishing the entitlements of the white working class against the illegitimate claim to the same made by ‘new migrants’....

In sum, the left-nationalist argument hinges on a conflation of essentialised, fetishised whiteness with working-class struggle and anti-capitalism. A defence of class becomes a defence of whiteness, and, by extension, of the nation and anti-immigration politics. This reading of working-class politics is, then, an argument for nationalism and racism, and it inevitably harms working-class people.

As Maya Goodfellow comments, to realise a popular politics without appealing to the totems of anti-immigrant xeno-racism might seem a Sisyphean task. But it is the challenge that must be reckoned with, as otherwise [the left] merely gives succour to the nationalist call...
Labour’s continued silence on various toxically racialised debates – on immigration and the border; on security and policing; alongside a failure to more forcefully complicate exclusionary, often nostalgically white, visualisations of community – is deafening. (We note for instance that Labour has not challenged the prominent Brexit position on the curtailment of free movement in any noteworthy sense, suggesting a shortage of political will where it most matters). As such, whilst we remain cautiously encouraged by many aspects of this Labour leadership’s agenda, its prevarication on these key matters (as profiled in our essay) is both frustrating and dangerous – even when taking into account the scarcity of political capital at this moment for a social democratic leadership that is routinely slandered and under attack, from within and without.
In short, the left needs to abandon its flirtation with nationalism, and instead work out how to win over more people to a politics of solidarity.


*George Galloway's former sidekick Kevin Ovenden makes an even more hysterically sectarian attack on AEIP, in a barely literate Counterfire article which also calls people to support the SWP demo rather than the Momentum one. Ovenden also implausibly thinks that taking a pro-Brexit line will mean that Muslim and other BAME people will be alienated, when of course it is visible minority people who most sharply experience the racist nature of the Brexit project.


Previous posts: Against Chris Williamson, Angela Nagle and Stand Up To Racism; Two ways to fight the far right DFLA; What's wrong with Unite Against Fascism?; What is anti-fascism?; On nationalism.


Matt said…
Great piece. Just to add to this, Harry and I wrote another article the other day critiquing in more depth the shared fetishisation of national sovereignity that underlies both the Lexit-wing of Corbynism and the hard Brexit right:
Jim Denham said…
Excellent piece! OK if I reblog at Shiraz Socialist, with acknowledgements and as link, of course?
bob said…
Thanks Matt.

Jim, sorry I missed this comment. You’re welcome as always.

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