How not to stop the BNP
The continued rise of the British National Party raises key questions about the left's strategy. Ben Lewis takes a look at the Socialist Workers Party's analysis and argues for a root-and-branch rethink
The election of BNP leader Nick Griffin and acolyte Andrew Brons to the European parliament has been endlessly reported in both the bourgeois media and the left press. Although the BNP vote did not increase absolutely, the complete collapse of Labour, combined with the low turnout on June 4, ensured that their candidates scraped home in two UK regions.
In contrast, the far left in Britain was virtually nowhere to be seen - an utter condemnation of the puerile view that the economic crisis is automatically “good for us”. We clearly have some rethinking to do.
The latest edition of International Socialism is therefore encouraging in one sense. Socialist Workers Party national secretary Martin Smith has written an account of the BNP”s rise in which he discusses some examples from history and attempts to map out the way forward to counter its success. In addition to his SWP full-time post, comrade Smith is coordinator of Love Music, Hate Racism and a leading member of Unite Against Fascism - two of the SWP”s “united fronts”.
However, one would have hoped comrade Smith would recognise that the BNP”s rise and rise indicates there is perhaps something amiss with the left’s current approach. Instead, unfortunately, the only arguments he takes up are those made by “some [anonymous] sections of the left” who hold that the BNP is no longer fascist, and - in a manner so typical of the SWP - by those to his right, in this case Nick Lowles of Searchlight.
The first aspect of his polemic is rather odd. He does not address the question of whether the BNP actually is a “Nazi party” by examining its practice. He does not take up the argument that, while it remains a far-right organisation, it is no longer fascist. Instead, he suggests that many people, especially “your average 16-year-old”1, do not know what the terms “far right” or “post-fascist” mean, but they understand “Nazi”. Which is why the UAF slogan of “Don’t vote Nazi” is so effective!
The second aspect of the polemic sees comrade Smith address the elephant in the “anti-fascist” room - the need to articulate a positive alternative, if the social basis of the BNP”s electoral success is to be undermined.
In this context, although it is hardly a difficult task, Smith raises some well aimed criticisms of Nick Lowles’ views on Labour. He reminds us that support for Labour is at an all-time low and that many people are voting BNP as a protest against the New Labour project in the first place. So just telling them to keep voting Labour is counterproductive, surely? Yes, it is, if that is as far as it goes. But how is “Don’t vote Nazi” any better? Who should workers vote for if not Labour?
Comrade Smith’s arguments reveal the popular frontist quagmire into which the SWP has sunk. Pointing out that “many people from many different political traditions want to stop the BNP”, he lists them as “revolutionary socialists, greens, anarchists and activists who do not support any political organisation” (p69). The various sections of the political establishment which also wish to “stop the BNP” are not included. So, although Smith doubtless has the above-mentioned token range of left politicos in mind when he writes that “Don’t vote Nazi” “unites everyone” (ibid), he fails to notice that the slogan does not draw a line of demarcation against either the capitalist state or the capitalist parties. This is all the more absurd, because elsewhere in his article comrade Smith correctly points out that it is precisely the bourgeoisie which in times of severe economic and political crisis often turn to the fascists: “Fascism has never taken power in a country simply through elections - fascist parties have always been handed power by ruling classes in crisis” (p45).
Indeed, this “uniting everyone” approach undermines class politics. When Nick Griffin was charged in 2006 with inciting racial hatred, leading SWP member and then UAF convenor Weyman Bennett used the slogan “Turn the BNP into HMP”. In other words, everyone - from the establishment to the SWP - is agreed that the BNP is beyond the pale and we should call on the ruling class to lock up its leaders. And when a United Kingdom Independence Party member tried to address demonstrators against Griffin”s election in Manchester, and, quite rightly, came under fire from activists, an SWP member and shop steward intervened to say that this was “not the time to be exposing Ukip”.2 Unity can sometimes extend even to the non-BNP far right.
Fascism and the BNP
Smith clings to the old “anti-fascist” dogma of the 1970s and 80s and the SWP halcyon days of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. To rationalise this he must attempt to prove that the BNP has not really changed: although it is posing as a “respectable party of the right, the BNP remains a fascist party to the core”.3
Unfortunately, however, he does not go beyond assertion. To show that BNP leaders used to be fascists is hardly enough to prove that they and their party are still fascists today. Fascist parties in the first half of the 20th century were typically characterised by their command of non-state combat units and mass mobilisations against the organised working class. That is what marks fascism out from other forms of counterrevolution. Certainly fascism has no coherent, worked out or defining ideology. The Italian Fascisti were not the German Nazis; the Spanish Falange were not the British Union of Fascists and so on. Although in some senses an international phenomenon, fascism has taken on many and various national forms.
Fascism recruits the declassed, the desperate, the enraged petty bourgeoisie and forms them into a social battering ram. Trade unions, workers” demonstrations and working class political parties” are physically attacked, cowed and finally crushed through extreme force. Contradictions in the bourgeoisie itself are forcibly, though temporarily, overcome too. When in power, however, the fascist party ceases to be anything special. It is bureaucratised and absorbed to become just another facet of the bureaucratic, authoritarian state.
With this in mind, it is clear that the BNP no longer fits the definition. Where are its street fighting forces? Comrade Smith would have us believe they are still lurking in the wings, ready to spring into action should votes begin to fall. But there is no evidence for this, just as there is no evidence of the BNP - as an organisation rather than as individual members - having planned any kind of physical attack on working class organisations for well over a decade.
That is not to say the BNP is not a vile, despicable, divisive outfit. It is an ultra-right nationalist party along the lines of the Front National in France, Austria’s Freedom Party, Switzerland’s People’s Party, etc. But none of these can be correctly defined as fascist. All have fascists within their ranks (including no doubt at the top level). But none of them have counterrevolutionary fighting formations. Certainly there have been, and will be, tensions, over the new course adopted by the BNP back in the 80s, but in order to formulate our response and our alternative, we must recognise this changed reality.
“In the spirit” of Trotsky?
Smith refers to Leon Trotsky’s excellent writings on the united workers” front against fascism in Germany. Trotsky tore to shreds the “official communist” notion of “First Hitler, then us” - the idea that fascism represented some organic final stage of development within capitalism that would open the way for its overthrow.
Recognising the fact that it is the ruling class that turns to fascism in times of revolutionary crisis, Trotsky did not advocate an alliance with ruling class parties to defeat it. He urged action by the whole of the organised working class in Germany to disarm the main threat to its existence.
But this did not mean a diplomatic non-aggression pact, involving the suspension of criticism, between the German Communist Party and social democracy - rather a short-term fighting alliance which would threaten civil war if the bourgeoisie backed Hitler. This unity could also stop the fascists acting as strike-breakers and empower the working class to go forward in its historic mission to overthrow capitalism. To use a rough analogy, this would be similar to the way Russian workers be they Bolshevik, Menshevik or Socialist Revolutionary turned back general Kornilov’s attempted coup in 1917 or German workers united to fight off the Kapp putsch in 1920.
Yet, just as comrade Smith draws a straight line between the Nazis in the 30s and the BNP today, so he claims that UAF”s approach of “Don’t vote Nazi” and “no platform” is “in the spirit” of Trotsky’s united front. He could not be more wrong.
Central to Trotsky’s judgement was the political independence of the working class movement in its struggle against capitalism. But Smith does not really raise class politics at all. He wants to “unite everyone” without a clear perspective - a bit like the Stop the War Coalition refusing to recommend a vote only for anti-war candidates in 2005 (some STWC supporters wanted to vote for Tony Blair, after all). Of course, Searchlight actually does argue its Labourite politics. We need to argue for our Marxist politics.
Singling out the BNP as “Nazi” is particularly popular frontist. It appeals to British nationalist sentiment and the notion of “Britain’s finest hour” in defeating the Germans - ie, the patriotic consensus built up by the British bourgeoisie post-World War II. Smith is right - “your average 16-year-old” will know what a Nazi is: he or she will have learnt all about the “spirit of the Blitz” in school, and the fact that we would all be speaking German today if the country had not pulled together to resist Hitler. Even the queen did her bit, you see.
But a mass fascist movement in Britain is not exactly going to come decked in swastikas, chanting “Sieg Heil!” and bearing pictures of Hitler. As Clara Zetkin and Karl Radek both noted, the way in which fascist movements gain a popular base is through extreme national chauvinism - a chauvinism which in Britain would be more likely to take the form of hatred of Germans than the veneration of Hitler. Thus a viable fascist movement in the UK would surely be British nationalist. A movement that appeals to “British values”.
And how does it serve working class political independence to draw a distinction between “legitimate”, “normal” and “respectable”4 parties on the one hand and the BNP on the other? What about Ukip? What about the Tories, with their record of anti-migrant baiting, clause 28 gay-bashing and glorification of imperialist conquest and slaughter? Are these “legitimate” parties with whom, unlike the BNP, we can engage in civilised debate? Drawing this line of legitimacy not only boosts their so-called democratic credentials, but plays into the hands of the “anti-establishment” BNP.
What distinguishes the Marxist political method from that of social democracy, anarchism and liberalism is that, for us, no tactic is automatically ruled out. Marxists are characterised by programmatic intransigence, combined with tactical flexibility. Thus, for Trotsky, prioritising the organisation of militias was a tactical judgement based on the concrete reality of Germany in the 1930s - the worrying rise of fascist squads threatening the workers” movement’s very existence. So, although Smith refers to the “weapon” of the “no platform” tactic, it effectively makes up his entire arsenal - a tactic which has become a timeless principle set in stone. In this he echoes Chris Bambery in his June 2008 pamphlet following the election of the BNP”s Richard Barnbrook to the London assembly:
“The charge that is often thrown at those who seek effectively to oppose the Nazis - that it would be better to defeat them through reasonable debate - is completely wrong. For a start, Nazis gain power through terror, not through force of argument. And if they do gain power, then all free speech, all forms of democracy, will be at an end. That is why socialists, who are wholeheartedly for free speech and open debate, say Nazis must be silenced to safeguard these.”5
So it is “completely wrong” to even countenance the possibility of openly exposing the arguments of the BNP in elections hustings or in media debates. But debating those like Boris Johnson - as Lindsey German did in 2007 - is perfectly OK. Having said that, do you really think the BNP is doing so well in elections “through terror” and not at all “through force of argument”?
This reveals the utter bankruptcy of the SWP”s approach. Whereas the BNP has dropped the Sieg Heils and the overt Hitlerism in order to persuade people to vote for them, the SWP is trapped in some sort of time warp, believing it can defeat the BNP by chasing it around like headless chickens - eggs and all.
To see what is meant by flexible tactics, it is worth taking a quick look at the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in the early 1920s. For these comrades it was not anathema to debate with fascist organisations. Rightly, the KPD did not doggedly pursue this over a protracted period of time. It was, though, another string to its bow and one that certainly should not be dismissed out of hand.6
Another leading SWP member, Chris Harman, even acknowledges this in his worthwhile book on the German revolution. He writes that in 1923, as part of the “ideological offensive against the Nazis amongst the Nazis” own followers”, “leading communists such as Ruth Fischer debated against Nazi spokesmen in meetings of students - for example, where the Nazis were strong and the revolutionary left was very weak”.7
Similarly Pierre Brou” explains that “the communists systematically sought discussion and public debate with the Nazis, especially amongst students, who formed one of their bastions”.8 Further, there were also open exchanges in print between the communists Karl Radek and Paul Froehlich, on the one hand, and Count Ernst Reventlow and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, on the other. The KPD was so serious about undermining the tenuous arguments put forward by the far right and the Nazis that it published a pamphlet which its members did their utmost to sell, including in particular to members of the Nazi party.
In their debates with the far right KPD speakers were able to put across their ideas to great effect. On August 2 1923, KPD leader Hermann Remmele spoke at a Nazi meeting in Stuttgart, and on August 10 a Nazi speaker spoke at a KPD meeting. Remmele made it clear: “They told you that communism would take everything from you. But it is capitalism that has taken everything from you!” As both Brou” and Harman acknowledge in their accounts, these meetings proved too much for the Nazis, who discontinued them after August 1923, believing them to be a cause of lost members and waning influence.
I am not pointing out these things because I think we are in 1923, or because I think we should be going out of our way to put on such joint events. I am doing so in order to point out that it is just as principled for communists to debate with fascists as it is to beat the hell out of them - it all depends on the circumstances. That applies equally to Griffin’s gang.
Let me be clear: were we in Iran and dealing with organisations like the Bassij, then organised violence (including pre-emptively) would be on the agenda. Baseball bats, chains, Molotov cocktails, AK47s or whatever else we could get hold of would be utilised. But unlike the Bassij the BNP is not trying to drive us off the streets, smash up our meetings and stop us from operating.
But the SWP does not reason in this way. Instead of the programmatic intransigence and tactical flexibility which have served our movement so well, it is characterised by programmatic fragility and tactical dogmatism. In attempting to deprive the BNP of “the oxygen of publicity”,9 the SWP ends up no-platforming itself10 and preventing its own vision for an alternative society being more widely disseminated.
Crushing the far right “in the egg” has simply not worked - the BNP has come up with a new strategy that has taken it forward - it has won itself a space, and a hearing. So what is so brilliant about the left’s tactics that the SWP cannot even contemplate a change? How about socialists - “who are wholeheartedly for free speech and open debate”, don’t forget - trying to expose the pathetic weakness of the far right’s arguments, including face to face in front of workers who might otherwise vote BNP?
Party and strategy
The irony is that comrade Smith implicitly recognises the left’s failure when he says: “We also have to be honest. At the moment the BNP is using the ballot box to build a mass base “ As the European elections demonstrated, we cannot point to a left electoral alternative.”11 No, we certainly cannot.
It is blindingly obvious that the left needs to openly articulate its own socialist agenda, not consistently play it down to smooth the path of popular frontist practice. Against the backdrop of the greatest capitalist crisis since the 1930s, a principled, vibrant Marxist party could begin to plant serious roots in society - and become a genuine mass party, as opposed to the myriad of confessional sects.
Of course, comrade Smith talks about the “fight for a socialist society”. But this is completely abstracted from what he actually does now. The SWP has, of course, recently nodded in the direction a united left alliance, but its expressed aim of signing up people like Tony Benn and Clare Short should say something about what it has in mind programmatically - another SWP “united front” (which if it were ever to see the light of day would be every bit as unsuccessful as Respect). More of the same lowest-common-denominator politics, with the SWP doing the donkey work for those to its right and attempting to win naive recruits into its ranks. Yet the very fact that the SWP “party” never operates under its own name whenever it attempts to speak to a mass audience reveals precisely that it is no such thing - a party has a history, a track record and roots in society - something which the SWP’s focus on endless fronts precludes.
Indeed, in terms of its method, the SWP is actually pretty similar to ‘ the BNP. Nick Griffin, for example, writes: “Instead of presenting the party as a revolutionary alternative to the system, we must present [the electorate] with an image of moderate reasonableness “ Of course, we must teach the truth to the hard core. But, when it comes to influencing the public, forget about racial differences, genetics, Zionism, historical revisionism and so on.”12 Replace “racial differences”, “genetics” and “historical revisionism” with “secularism”, “open borders” and “working class socialism” and you have the SWP in Respect.
The problem is, though, that just as the BNP started to become a “moderate” rightwing party, so the SWP will eventually be transformed into a bunch of completely harmless reformists. Until the left starts to operate honestly on the basis of the politics it purportedly upholds it will be condemned to remain on the margins of society.
The left needs to break with all this and begin the urgent task of building genuine party unity around a programme that provides answers for every question posed by capitalist society. Precisely because of Marxism’s powerful message we should be at least as well placed as the BNP - a growing membership base, a strong party apparatus, our own clutch of elected representatives. Yet the sad fact of the matter is that comrade Smith cannot even imagine such a scenario at the moment. Nevertheless that is what life demands.