Learning from the fascists

Mark Fischer looks at the April 21 edition of Fighting Talk, published by Anti-Fascist Action

This issue of Fighting Talk is thought-provoking, intelligent and well worth reading, especially in the context of our ongoing discussions around the supposed ‘institutional racism’ of the British state and its effects on our class.

There is a useful history of Afa, detailing its origins in the fighting squads around the Socialist Workers Party-led Anti-Nazi League of the 1970s, its formal launch in 1985 and the recognition by its more astute representatives that “for the moment militant anti-fascism has been out-flanked” (p8).

Afa was bruisingly effective in winning the battle for the streets with the fascists. By 1994 or so, the British National Party had had more than enough, and was forced to devise a new strategy, encapsulated in the slogan, ‘No more meetings, marches or punch-ups’.  Essentially, the BNP has consciously avoided the damaging physical confrontations with Afa that were regularly culling its cadre. Instead, it has shifted towards an electoral model, attempting to replicate the winning ways of its supposed European counterparts. Britain is more or less unique in Europe in not having a rightwing populist political movement. The BNP seriously thinks of itself as a candidate for the job.

But it is highly debatable whether it actually is a viable vehicle for such a reactionary breakthrough. The European election results underlined that, a few semi-respectable votes in a couple of regions notwithstanding, the BNP is not poised to make an electoral breakthrough. With just 1.13% of the vote across the 11 British constituencies, it was easily beaten in the reactionary anti-EU stakes by the UK Independence Party. The UKIP gained 6.96% and had three MEPs elected. As Fighting Talk points out, “We probably have to be thankful that [the BNP’s] past is such a burden to them” (p6). Similarly, leading fascist Nick Griffin is quoted in the lead-up to the European elections: “Realistically, the media demonisation of the BNP as ‘neo-Nazi’ is still so effective”; and the ultra-right still so politically fragmented that the party is “unlikely to win a seat” (p6).

That is not really the point, however. As Fighting Talk notes, “Mainstream success is dependent not so much on their ability to painstakingly create an audience, but to draw instead from the vast reservoir of reaction whose existence is acknowledged … but is so far largely untapped” (p8). Implied in this is the simple fact that a reactionary alternative which starts from a position of the mainstream rather than having to fight its way into it and is unencumbered by a thoroughly unBritish Nazi past could quickly become a mass movement. In this sense, the UKIP is a rather better example of the potential of ‘tapping’ that reservoir of reaction in British society.

Despite this, the BNP’s European election campaign should be instructive for the left. First, because of its scale and ambition. Millions of pieces of fascist propaganda found their way into working class homes. Hundreds of thousands of potentially receptive people have seen the party’s national election broadcast. If they were not blinded by narrow sectarian concerns, organisations like the SWP should learn a lesson from the fascists. They are making a play for the political space created by the explicit abandonment of even the pretence of representing the working class by the Labour Party. Instead, most of the left - which should have a universal project, which should be able to represent the whole of the class, not just the white section of it - has collapsed so ignominiously.

Second, the BNP’s electoral successes are not key. The “vast reservoir of reaction” Fighting Talk correctly identifies could easily be tapped by far more viable reactionary elements than Tyndall’s motley crew. In this sense, the relatively good UKIP results could encourage others.

For some, the most controversial articles in this publication will be those in which the Afa comrades discuss their alternative.

Concretely, the launch of the Civil Rights Movement on March 28 has “forced the pace” (p9). Afa is part of this new grouping, although it has a far more critical relationship to it than most other sections of the left. The CRM was initiated by Mike Mansfield QC in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry and - illustrating the extent to which it operates simply on a more ‘radical’ version of the agenda set by the establishment - has very narrow racial focus. Correctly, Fighting Talk warns against the “excluding of the white working class” (p4) through the false assumption “that there is a uniform access to power by all whites and uniform denial of access to power to all blacks” (p10).

This is the ethos of “current equal opportunities practice”, “the race relations industry”, “Labour councils” and “legislation” - both impending and currently on the statute book. In other words, it is the dominant ideology of the institutional anti-racism which motivates the present-day state at every level, from Blair downwards.

Using concrete examples, Fighting Talk effectively illustrates how Labour councils in London have “quite deliberately racialised” (p7) the competition for increasingly scarce resources and - “in the name of anti-racism, presumably” - have “pitted communities against each other” (p8). This consequent “racialisation of working class community problems” provides a potentially rich vein of chauvinism and the plebeian racism which fringe organisations like the BNP can tap into.

In the absence of a hegemonic class project, Fighting Talk correctly notes that “a policy of redistributing the limited resources available to working class communities on ethnic grounds can only set the most impoverished against each other” (p10).

In specific areas, under specific circumstances, the BNP can make gains. However, Fighting Talk’s analysis carries a weakness. It lacks an understanding that rightwing popularism-fascism need not come in a specifically racist form. An extreme reactionary movement in Britain will of course be chauvinist - it will be exclusivist, define itself against the ‘outsider’ - but not necessarily racist. Indeed, given the specifics of British history in the second half of this century, it will almost inevitably come draped in anti-Nazi and ‘anti-racist’ robes.

Much of the left tails establishment anti-racism, thus effectively contributing to the terrible fragmentation of some of the very poorest working class communities. Clearly, what is needed is a movement of anti-racism from below, a working class-led fight for unity. Despite the many political differences between ourselves and the writers of Fighting Talk, their recognition of this basic task, and rejection of the divisive anti-racism of the institutions of the modern-day state, is to be warmly welcomed.

Mark Fischer