Getting real about the BNP
Benjamin Klein takes issue with comrades Jim Grant and Dave Isaacson on the nature of the far right and the threat it poses
There is one underlying problem with the comrades’ article (Weekly Worker February 21) that runs through all of their arguments - the failure to provide some sort of definition of fascism upon which to base their analysis.
Of course, fascism is, and indeed always has been, a protean phenomenon - it is difficult to understand on the basis of programme, simply because fascists have tended to travel very light in terms of theory, adopting vastly different ideological platforms in different places and at different times. What must, however, be stressed in terms of contemporary Britain, is that any serious fascist movement would surely come draped in the union jack and have a specifically British character.
The idea that it will assume the form of Hitlerism under ‘Nazi’ Führer Nick Griffin is absurd. Griffin may of course have a Nazi background and hold a certain admiration for Hitler, but the notion that a movement whose partisans display the swastika and give each other straight-arm salutes could gain mass support in Britain does not bear examination.
After all, one of the cornerstones of British nationalism is built around the myth that Britons sacrificed everything to pull together and defeat the ‘Krauts’ in World War II. No, fascist counterrevolution in Britain will be British through and through - an organisation akin to the Countryside Alliance could definitely fit the bill in terms reactionary ideological outlook, class basis and numbers mobilised.
What should be emphasised in this debate, however, is that the question as to whether the BNP is fascist is not the key issue. It is the false assessment of the threat posed by the BNP and the response put forward by comrades Grant and Isaacson against this perceived threat that I would like to take issue with.
‘Labour of Sisyphus’
The comrades state that “in the present period, anti-fascism’s purpose is containment. It is to stem the growing influence of fascism in any way possible, to whatever extent possible.”
I am not at all convinced by this argument. We are not in a period where fascism is waiting at the door and where sections of the bourgeoisie are contemplating asking them in. The bourgeoisie happily controls the working class with the aid of the class-collaborationist trade union bureaucracy. Smashing the trade union movement is hardly a political priority in such circumstances. Similarly the revolutionary left, far from leading millions, is isolated and without mass influence. In such conditions our task is self-evident: we need to build up our own working class organisations, not mobilise against some as yet non-existent force that will threaten them in the future.
Jim has referred to this as the “Sisyphean task” of the modern anti-fascist movement, but it lies in the future. Our overriding priority for this period is that of left regroupment and recreating organs of independent working class struggle - crucially a Communist Party.
In terms of contemporary Britain, then, to attempt to ‘contain’ reactionary ideas by preventing them from gaining an audience is not only to miss the point, but actually to ensure that ‘anti-fascist’ activity does assume the form of a Sisyphean task - a task that is not just unnecessary, but one that we will, unless we start to rethink, be condemned to ceaselessly repeat. It is the reactionary mainstream ideology of respectable nationalism that sustains the far right, and it this that needs to be defeated in the here and now. It was Gordon Brown, not Nick Griffin, who advocated “British jobs for British people” - the allegiance of nation, not class, is dominant.
The comrades are absolutely correct to assert that communists fight for free speech in opposition to the encroachments of the bourgeois state, and that this right to free speech does not include the right to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema. Yet they seem to be arguing against the idea that “free speech and the widest democracy provide the best conditions for Marxism to grow and flourish and for the formation of the working class into a future ruling class.”
Given the decay of the Marxist left and the real sense of powerlessness experienced by millions, all sorts of reactionary, eccentric and irrational ideas prevail. What is the response of Marxists to this? We constantly uphold a scientific approach and strive to establish the truth. It is quite clear that we must argue for free speech at all levels of society - we are convinced that our ideas offer coherent explanation and can defeat the alien ideas that are spontaneously reproduced within our class - nationalism, sectionalism, homophobia, etc, etc. But only if those alien ideas are exposed to the light of day through criticism.
The comrades argue: “Surely the violent suppression of fascists is an infringement of free speech?” Of course, if we forcefully closed down a fascist meeting we would be preventing the free expression of ideas at that meeting. But we are not talking about defending the right of thugs. Surely we would only employ such violence as a defensive or pre-emptive measure to uphold the right of the majority. In other words, as with the ‘right’ to shout ‘Fire!’ in a cinema, free speech is not an absolute.
However, within such limits we defend the right of free speech for everyone, even for fascists. Attempting to prevent the articulation of ideas that are repulsive or anti-working class is in any case impossible. A reactionary idea that is able to gain ground will only do so because it seems to provide an answer to questions posed by concrete conditions. So it is the conditions that give rise to the reactionary ideas that need to be tackled. It is also extremely patronising for the left to argue that workers must be prevented from encountering ideas of which the left disapproves.
No matter how many no-platform demonstrations we hold, their dissemination will continue largely unabated in churches, pubs, rugby clubs and workplaces. Griffin and his types will use such stunts - like the Oxford Union mobilisation last year - to bolster their claims that they are ‘being gagged for telling the truth’.
Of course, even the staunchest UAF activist would argue for the need to articulate some sort of alternative. But the question is, what sort of alternative? This in my opinion is the key question - not far-right containment, but far-left regroupment and the re-articulation of Marxism within the workers’ movement. This has profound implications for the prioritising of anti-fascist work as compared with other forms of work.
What this whole debate serves to underline is that the extreme right is sometimes able to pose its alternative in a way the left can only dream of. That is why we need to take the question of programme much more seriously.
In the past both the Trotskyist united front and the ‘official communist’ popular front were predicated on an over-exaggeration of the threat posed by fascism and the related necessity of the workers’ movement stemming “the growing influence of fascism in any way possible, to whatever extent possible”, as comrades Jim and Dave put it. The truth is that, whether of not the BNP is defined as fascist, chasing it in this period is a diversion - a diversion from the vital task of developing a programmatic alternative and building the organisation capable of fulfilling its goals.