Getting the BNP into perspective

Benjamin Klein responds to critics on no-platforming and argues that the left must learn to think if it is ever going to establish a movement that can really challenge our main enemy

My article ‘Firm in principle, flexible in tactics’1 has predictably met with a conventional and largely unthinking response from what passes as the left on numerous blogs and internet forums, including a few members of the Communist Party writing on the letters pages of this paper. Frankly, all that they differ on is their degree of political coherence and seriousness.

Bill Jeffries of Permanent Revolution agrees with me on the necessity for organising working class self-defence, but fails to grasp that the political problems that blunts, trivialises and misdirects Unite Against Fascism - as witnessed in last November’s Oxford Union protest against Nick Griffin and David Irving - are a common feature on the left in this country.2 Hence comrade Jeffries refuses to take UAF to task on Oxford, arguing that its mobilisation was essentially correct and principled. Griffin may have indeed slagged off the protest, he says, but hey, who would listen to such a mad “Nazi” anyway?

Comrade Jeffries spectacularly refuses to recognise how politics works, let alone what the BNP currently is and how it currently operates. The debate organised by the Oxford Union (essentially an elite training ground for the Tory Party) is a perfect case study. It attracted huge media attention. Millions across the country looked at what both sides had to say. For anybody with little or nothing to do with left politics, the sight of a few hundred activists scuffling with the police in order to shut down debate would almost certainly arouse a certain degree of sympathy with Griffin and his claim to be the true democrat and the true voice of reason. In fact, he could barely maintain his excitement. The “angry mob” had been organised by “Labour MPs”. The “publicity has been amazing”, he enthused.3

Realising how discredited holocaust-denial is, Griffin and his ultra-right nationalist chums are at pains to emphasise that their ideas are not racist but merely answer the legitimate concerns of the so-called “indigenous population” by maintaining the British as the “majority population”.4 Such is the extent to which the BNP now wishes to be seen as ‘credible’, there were discussions on its official website about Griffin being set up by the Oxford Union. It was accused of lumping him together with Irving. We were assured that Griffin distanced himself from such a holocaust-denier.

Precisely. This is what the Griffin faction in the BNP is currently about - renouncing the ‘Sieg heil!’ ghosts of its past in order to improve its chances of getting elected, all the while looking to publicity stunts that exploit the fears and prejudices of the most alienated in our society.


Fascist parties in the 20th century began life as a non-state counterrevolutionary combat force. That is the correct, scientific definition of fascism. Except for being anti-working class, patriarchal, bloodthirsty and nationalistic, fascism has no single defining ideology, according to Marxism. The Italian fascisti were not the German Nazis; the Spanish Falange were not the British Union of Fascists. Etc, etc. Fascism recruits the declassed, the desperate, the enraged petty bourgeoisie and forms them into a social battering ram. The organised working class is physically attacked, cowed and finally crushed through extreme force. Contradictions in the bourgeoisie itself are forcibly, though temporarily, overcome. When in power, however, the fascist party ceases to be anything special. It becomes just another facet of the bureaucratic, authoritarian state.

With this in mind, it is clear that the BNP is no longer any kind of easily defined fascist party. 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. Fascists are contained within their ranks (including no doubt at the top level). But what we have are reactionary rebels against the post-World War II consensus, not counterrevolutionary fighting formations.

Judging by the response of the left to the BNP, it is obvious that there is a worrying absence of serious thinking. All we are told is that they are “Nazis” … and hence should either be driven underground through organised terror or sent to prison by the capitalist state. Not surprisingly that leads to a popular front strategy on the one hand and on the other hand a culture of headless-chicken activism.

Take CPGB comrade Chris Strafford, for example. In response to my question about just what we should fear from speaking on the same platform as Griffin, his response is all hyperbole and no political substance: “I think fascist death squads, the holocaust and the wholesale massacre of the European left should be a warning from history that we should all be scared of.”5

This borders on the farcical. Mechanical and non-dialectical analogies between the threat posed by the BNP today and the fascist death squads of the past will only hinder working class politics. There is no equals sign between the German National Socialist Workers Party and the BNP, either in terms of programme or in terms of the threat posed. To say this has nothing to do with complacency. It is merely to recognise that currently it is the British state, with its standing army, nuclear bombs, border guards, prisons, huge bureaucratic apparatus and ever-present securiocracy, that is our main enemy - posing the immediate question of developing a programme to overthrow it. In comparison the BNP is a minor irritant.

CPGBer James Turley also misses the point with his description of the BNP’s programme as one of “organised racist violence” - he seems stuck in some sort of time warp. To defeat the BNP we must know it for what it is. Not what is was. We need to attack the BNP where it is strong. That is no longer on the streets, but in the ballot box.

Principle or tactic

Comrade Strafford misunderstands my argument, describing it as an attempt to “give” the BNP a platform. Regardless of their suits and “new-found love of the word ‘democracy’”, he says any debate with the BNP would be a “betrayal of our movement”. Yet for all his talk of no-platforming as a “tactic”, what we actually see with comrade Strafford is the elevation of a tactic into a principle.

This is doubly true of Permanent Revolution’s comrade Jeffries. Any kind of debate with far-right candidates is to “fetishise verbal confrontation over physical confrontation” (in reality it is the comrade himself who is fetishising the physical over the verbal) and to be “at odds not just with Marxist theory and tradition but with the truth of fascism” - “an instrument of civil war against the working class”.6 Just how the BNP is currently an “instrument of civil war against the working class” when it does not organise street fighting is beyond me. He is adamant though: “suppressing” the BNP’s ideas and “bashing their proponents over the head” is what the left should be doing.

Yet how is beating the shit out of a war veteran standing for the BNP in an election hustings because he believes that ‘British jobs’ are being taken by ‘them foreigners’ going to help extinguish such reactionary ideas? It is more likely to prove counterproductive.

If comrade Jeffries thinks he can declare certain ideas in society illegitimate and seek to extinguish them by physical force alone, then he is living in a dream world. In an age where ideas can be transmitted through the simple click of a button, it is frankly myopic to suggest that by chasing after the BNP in order to smash up each and every one of its events we will succeed in rooting out the BNP’s ideas. Such prejudices are constantly reproduced in society. Pub conversations, internet messages, discussions after football matches, etc - all will continue uninterrupted.

What we need is a positive alternative. Duncan Money rightly points out that “at the last GLA elections the BNP got 12% of the vote in the London City East constituency, almost 25% of the white vote, in an area where they did not canvass or leaflet and haven’t held a public event there in years.”7 Maybe by the next time our ‘no platform’ comrades will have worked out a way to spike far-right websites, weblogs and podcasts out of existence - China’s ‘Communist’ Party may be able to assist them there …

Radek and the KPD

The point of my reference to the Communist Party of German (KPD) in the early 1920s was merely to highlight how, for the best aspects of our movement, it was not an anathema to debate with fascist organisations. Yes, this was something the KPD did not pursue over a protracted period of time, but it was nevertheless a tactical string to its bow. And not one we should on principle dismiss. That would be foolhardy.

Ludicrously, Wladek Flakin suggests that to point this out is akin to going along with the arguments of the KPD in the so-called ‘third period’.8 No, comrade Flakin, I am not of the opinion that we are in a revolutionary situation, nor do I think that social democracy is going over to fascism - I merely suggest that the left must concretely understand the situation we find ourselves in and respond accordingly with a whole range of tactics. Nothing should automatically be ruled out; nothing should automatically be ruled in.

Gerry Downing’s attempt to draw some sort of line of continuity between Radek’s take on the occupation of the Ruhr and the Hitler-Stalin pact is misplaced.9 What is odd is that comrade Downing’s analysis smacks of the sort of politics usually associated with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. The Comintern was in my opinion correct to give its backing to the struggle against the occupation of the Ruhr, with the significant proviso, quoted in Gerry’s letter, that the German Communist Party would ruthlessly expose the “double-dealing anti-nationalism and subservience to big business on the part of [the fascists’] leaders” and show “that the only way for the realisation of their hopes and ideals and the freedom of the German nation lay through the proletarian revolution”.

Politics is an extremely complex phenomenon, and particularly during fluid political periods all sorts of people from different classes and different political persuasions will be thrown into struggle. It is incumbent upon Marxists to grasp the dynamics of this and present the most viable way forward. This is not something that can be carried out by means of some previously devised battle plan, but on the basis of concrete analysis and then the greatest tactical flexibility.

This will, of course, also mean that we enter into temporary alliances with forces whose aims are otherwise diametrically opposed to our own. It is in struggle that the veracity of the Marxist method stands and falls, and we must have confidence in the potential of our politics to win millions of people away from all the reactionary crap and bourgeois ideology in their heads - whether that be nationalism, Labourism, racism or sexism.

Main focus

With the left currently steeped in economism and narrow trade unionism, it is probably not surprising that many are getting so excited about the rise of ‘fascism’ that they simply spew out tired schema and dogma when it comes to the sort of movement our class needs. Neither cross-class alliances that appeal to the moral scruples of high-profile celebrities and the benevolence of the British state, nor ‘united fronts’ seeking “genuine non-racist action for working class interests on housing, employment and welfare rights”10 will suffice.

What our class needs is a party with a programme for all aspects of working class life - most crucially, one that addresses how we are ruled. It is this - the increasing might of the British state and the incessant erosion of democratic rights historically fought for by our class - that should be our main focus, not far-right populist idiots.


1. Weekly Worker January 10.
2. www.permanentrevolution.net/?view=entry&entry=1880.
3. www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKD1W9YYz2U&feature=related.
4. www.bnp.org.uk/2007/12/23/is-the-bnp-racist.
5. http://hammer-and-sickle.blogspot.com/2008/01/firmly-against-fascism-reply-to-ben.html.
6. www.permanentrevolution.net/?view=entry&entry=1880.
7. http://hammer-and-sickle.blogspot.com/2008/01/firmly-against-fascism-reply-to-ben.html.
8. www.permanentrevolution.net/?view=entry&entry=1880.
9. Letters, January17.
10. Solidarity January 10.