Far-right rising: time to rethink
Exaggerating our numbers and claiming non-existent victories does not strengthen us, writes Tony Greenstein. It leads to complacency
Back on June 9, the ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ demonstration, when up to 15,000 attended a Football Lads Alliance protest, caused shock on the left. This was the biggest fascist demonstration in living memory, even if not all those who attended were paid-up fascists.
Even at its height, the National Front never mobilised more than 3,000 - for example, at Wood Green in 1974. At the Lewisham counter-demonstration in August 1977, we broke the back of the NF. The fascists could not turn out more than a thousand at the very most. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s such demonstrations were always heavily outnumbered.
We are seeing a very different phenomenon nowadays. The problem is that many on the left believe that they can simply relive those earlier battles. That includes John McDonnell, who recently called for the reformation of the Anti-Nazi League. But today the situation is entirely different. Then there were a series of racist murders, starting with the hot summer of 1976. Working class activity - eg, the Grunwick strike - was far higher and working class involvement in anti-fascist activity was far greater than today.
Now the terrain has changed. The clear and obvious difference is that the NF, which posed as a major force in UK politics, portrayed itself not as neo-Nazi, but as a patriotic party. One of our tasks was to demonstrate that the NF was neo-Nazi and this was done very effectively in conjunction with Searchlightanti-fascist magazine under the editorship of Maurice Ludmer, who was also president of Birmingham Trades Council. Searchlight produced an excellent pamphlet, A well-oiled Nazi machine,1 but unfortunately, with Maurice’s untimely death, Searchlight fell into the hands of Gerry Gable, who traded information with Special Branch on anti-fascists. It also became overtly pro-Zionist.
At one time the NF was beating the Liberal Party into third place. In the West Bromwich by-election of 1973 it obtained 16%, compared to 25% for the Conservatives, and in Stechford in 1977 Andrew Brons gained 2,900 votes and 8.2%, compared to the Liberal Party’s 8%. Brons later became an MEP for the British National Party.
Today we are faced with an entirely different situation. For a start, far-right parties have grown throughout Europe, as Euroscepticism and nationalism have taken root. This is particularly, though not exclusively, the case in eastern Europe. In Italy there is Matteo Salvini, a fascist deputy prime minister, who talks about cleansing the streets of Roma. In Hungary and Poland there are overtly anti-Semitic regimes - vehemently anti-refugee and anti-Roma. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is a major contender in France. In Austria the neo-Nazi Freedom Party is in government and the neo-Nazi Alternative für Deutschland gained 13% and 94 seats in the German Bundestag. In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party is the second largest in parliament.
That is not to say that fascism on the model of Nazi Germany is around the corner. Nazism in Germany was a direct response to a strong and militant German working class. Unfortunately the working class in Europe, as in Britain, is not strong today for structural and political reasons. European fascism feeds off the influx of migrants - itself a consequence of US and British imperialism in the Middle East. It is not a response to the ‘Bolshevik’ threat.
The other major feature of the far right in Europe is that, almost without exception, it is pro-Zionist and pro-Israel. The myth that anti-Zionism is a cover for anti-Semitism is simply absurd. The far right and fascists today disguise their anti-Semitism by proclaiming their support for Israel and Zionism: eg, the neo-Nazi founder of the alt-right, Richard Spencer, declares that he is a “White Zionist”.2
There is no doubt that Donald Trump is anti-Semitic.3 At the Chanukkah celebration at the White House last week, the Chump praised Israel as “your country” to American Jews. As even the Times of Israel accepted, this “insinuated that US Jews owe a dual loyalty to Israel”.4 The Jewish Forward was even more blunt: “Trump just accused Jews of loving Israel, not America - and his fans cheered anyway”.5
But, of course, the anti-Semitic canard of dual loyalty is inherent in Zionism itself. Did not Avi Gabbay, leader of the Israeli Labor Party, react to the murder of 11 Jews at Pittsburgh by suggesting they “return” to Israel, “because this is their home”?6
I attended the December 9 demonstration against Tommy Robinson and did a rough count. I would estimate that about 4,000 people attended - not the 15,000 which is being claimed by Stand Up To Racism7 and Laura Parker of Momentum.8 It is simply not true to say that the Ukip/fascist demonstration was “massively outnumbered”. If the far-right demonstration garnered between two and three thousand - and our demonstrations were too far apart for me to make any judgement - then there may have been a difference of one to two thousand at best. That is good, but it is not “massively” different.
It is good that Momentum nationally gave its support to the demonstration. However, Momentum claims to have over 40,000 members, but there were at best four or five of its banners in evidence and they seemed to be those like Camden - a branch on Momentum’s left which is opposed to the Jon Lansman leadership. I doubt if even 1% of Momentum’s membership actually turned up. The videos which Momentum has produced on Tommy Robinson are good and should be used by the movement. However, its inability to mobilise even a fraction of its own membership demonstrates the problems inherent in an undemocratic, top-down organisation, which consists of a largely paper membership.
Oh and there were two people - together with a dog - carrying a Socialists Against Anti-Semitism banner. This seems to be an organisation wholly constructed by Lansman, following his disastrous video on anti-Semitism, featuring Tania Shrew.9 SAAS is literally a ‘one man and his dog’ operation. Perhaps it should more accurately be termed ‘Zionists Against Anti-Semitism’. What it is not is an anti-racist organisation (or even an organisation). True, there must be some left Zionists who feel that the Jewish Labour Movement is a rightwing, anti-Corbyn grouping, but I doubt there is room for another Zionist faction in the Labour Party!
Tommy Robinson is a fascist whose racism is directed almost exclusively at the Muslim population. He may mix with people who look fondly on the Third Reich, but, like his alt-Right counterparts in the USA, he is overtly pro-Zionist and is in love with Israel - the ideal ethno-nationalist state. Israel is unique in the western world for being a state based not on its own inhabitants or citizens, but on a specific ethnic category - Jews. That is exactly what fascists have long demanded - that Britain, for example, be based on white British people, not anyone who happens to live here.
Fascism will never go away, as long as capitalism is here. That is the first lesson that needs to be learnt. That is why there is very little purchase in seeking an alliance with liberals. I doubt very much that a rerun of the ANL has any chance of taking off today despite what John McDonnell believes.
What there does need to be, as there was in the mid-1970s, is the creation of local anti-fascist committees. That means that the labour movement itself has to take seriously the growth of the far right. Stand Up To Racism is widely seen as a Socialist Workers Party front and the fact that Diane Abbott and other non-SWP members are formally officers makes no difference. They were not elected to those positions, but put in place by those who formed SUTR - which, of course, is the SWP.
The other feature of the anti-Robinson demonstration, which was nominally for both supporters and opponents of Brexit, was that there was little visible sign of support for Brexit. On the contrary, there were very vocal and large contingents, which were explicitly anti-Brexit. Given that the SWP, Counterfire and the Morning Star, among others on the left, refuse to see that Brexit is largely based on racist fears about immigration, one can only hope that the left begins at last to face reality.
1. See https://azvsas.blogspot.com/2016/05/searchlight-anti-fascist-magazine-joins.html; and https://azvsas.blogspot.com/2012/06/death-agony-of-searchlight-anti-fascist.html.
3. See, for example, ‘Anti-Semitism is no longer an undertone of Trump’s campaign. It’s the melody’ The Washington Post November 7 2016.