Weyman Bennett should be criticised, not charged
The sorry farce in Bolton once again demonstrates that the anti-fascist left is not only disorganised, but politically disorientated, writes Eddie Ford
Predictably, Saturday’s ‘No pasaran’ demonstration in Bolton against the English Defence League - organised by the Socialist Workers Party through its front, Unite Against Fascism - turned into a sorry farce, even if it was not a complete disaster. Far from being a magnificent display of anti-fascist and leftwing unity manifested through a display of solidarity with the local Asian population, it instead showed nearly all the worst political vices of the opportunist left - disorganised, amateurish, irresponsible and shot through with the SWP/UAF’s trademark mixture of naivety and cynicism. In short, those sincere anti-fascists/racists - whether inside or outside the ranks of the SWP - being led up to Bolton by the Grand Old Duke of York generals of the UAF were at times like lambs to the slaughter.
One casualty of the Bolton fiasco turned out to be UAF’s joint secretary, Weyman Bennett, a member of the SWP central committee. Now, it cannot be denied that the comrade has a motor-mouth - prone to making rash, ill-considered statements. Not to mention a long history of sectarianism in his capacity as a SWP arch-loyalist: the party is always right even when it is palpably wrong. However, there is no doubt whatsoever that comrade Bennett was one of the victims of targetted police attack on that day. In his own words: “Officers came up to me as soon as I arrived and said they would arrest me. I have been to more than 200 demos and never been arrested”. Comrade Bennett was indeed arrested on suspicion of “conspiracy to organise violent disorder”. This is a dangerous allegation, for which the comrade could face a potential jail sentence of up to 10 years. That is, of course, if he is actually charged and then found guilty by a jury.
It is obvious that the police carefully planned the whole operation, including the ‘snatch’ of comrade Bennett, the SWP’s national secretary Martin Smith and Manchester UAF’s Rhetta Moran (who was arrested as she tried to read out a message of support from TUC general secretary Brendan Barber). None of this happened spontaneously. No, they were carefully picked out by the authorities in a clear attempt to intimidate or tame UAF and the left as a whole. There were 74 arrests in total, only a small minority being EDL supporters and happy-hour hangers-on.
Any trumped-up charge against Weyman Bennett would be a naked attack on democratic rights - especially the right to association and freedom of expression. By singling out UAF leaders in such a manner, the police were in reality attacking all of us on the anti-racist/fascist left - not just UAF/SWP. All charges or potential charges on comrades arrested on the day must be immediately dropped.
Furthermore, we ought to demand that the UK’s conspiracy laws be scrapped - given the fact that in the legal aftermath of the Angry Brigade trials, these laws were reformulated. In 1976 and 1977 the definition of ‘conspiracy’ was made so vague that almost any individual could be caught in its grisly ‘catch all’ net if and when required. Accordingly, if a person “agrees with anyone else to do an unlawful act, then they are both guilty of the crime of conspiracy” - even “if nothing at all is done towards carrying out the agreed act”. Indeed, “it is not even necessary to establish that the act they contemplated was criminal” - on the insidious basis that, although “the conspiracy” may be to “commit an act which is neither a crime nor a civil wrong”, it is still one which “can be calculated” in some not explicitly worded manner to somehow “injure the public”. In other words, any judge so inclined can decide that ‘a nod’s as good as a wink’ as far as the individuals before them are concerned and send them down for a long time.
However, having said all this, communists are obligated to pose the fundamental and unavoidable political question - what was the purpose of UAF’s excursion to Bolton? Or, to put it another way, are the tactics and strategy deployed by UAF - and all those who broadly support its approach, whether inside or outside the SWP orbit - correct and will they be effective in countering the EDL or British National Party? Well, the obvious answer must be no. Indeed, the unfortunate truth is far worse than that - the orientation of the likes of UAF and the SWP is counterproductive, based as it is on a complete and eminently self-serving misreading of the political situation in the UK.
UAF loyally trooped to Bolton to “smash” the EDL, but instead found itself in a clash with the police, which it inevitably lost. Suffering arrests, bruises and dog bites, in the process. Now, of course, the EDL is a wretchedly reactionary outfit - a motley collection of nakedly chauvinist Islamophobes, deeply unpleasant lumpen and far-right elements, and generally pissed-up football hooligans and assorted semi-criminal riff-raff naturally attracted to a bit of a barney (especially if the game is going badly). Inevitably, given such an unappealing composition, there was a limited overlap of membership between the EDL and the BNP to begin with - much to the latter’s annoyance, of course. Hence the BNP’s swift declaration that the EDL is a “proscribed” organisation - ie any BNP member found to be in the EDL is threatened with expulsion.
It goes without saying that communists want to see such a vile organisation - and movement insofar as it is a movement - defeated or “smashed”. That is, politically annihilated. But we do not for a moment imagine that squaring up to a bunch of boneheads is a central or overriding task. The EDL is but a symptom of the alienation engendered by the decaying system of capital, defended and promoted by the whole bourgeois establishment and its state. And to take on the latter we need to begin by uniting the existing organised left around a partyist perspective and hence take a decisive step towards what the working class really needs - a mass Communist Party of hundreds of thousands and millions.
The profound problem being, of course, that this is almost the exact opposite of the approach adopted by the SWP/UAF and others. Deliberately, and with a certain degree of cynicism, such groups constantly present the threats and dangers posed by the EDL and BNP in such an exaggerated way as to justify the construction of the widest possible popular front - which turns out to be the SWP and assorted liberal personalities, vicars and trade union officials. To appease and keep on board such august company the programme of anti-capitalist and socialism considered dangerous, provocative and therefore inappropriate. Instead UAF calls upon the capitalist state to ban far right organisations and demonstration. Failing that, the SWP considers itself duty bound to physically confront those such as the EDL wherever they happened to appear on the streets. What this amounts to in practice is not the mobilisation of masses of local people, but bussing in a few thousand leftwingers. Then follows the inevitable confrontation with the riot police.
The SWP has been shell-shocked by recent events. Respect left it traumatised and deeply divided. The Left Platform comrades grouped around John Rees and Lindsey German have now decamped to Counterfire, where the SWP in exile hope to ‘do an RCP’ and erect a big, inviting tent from which they can systematically infiltrate and inveigle themselves into the bourgeois media - maybe even make a modest career from being “available for interviews, commissions and quotes” and generally being “sensitive to the needs of 24-hour news”.
So, demoralised and frustrated, the SWP leadership needs an easy enemy. It can no longer fight the BNP on the streets as in the good old days, now that the latter has gone respectable under Nick Griffin’s relatively successful stewardship. So the EDL has been a blessing. Manna from heaven. All one needs is a political analysis that owes more to hysteria than Marxism and turning the tactic of no platforming into a rigid principle and there is no end of the mobilisations the SWP can organise. The next attempt to “smash the EDL” will be in Dudley on Saturday April 3.
Well, it is about time that the SWP took a reality check - as should its co-thinkers on the left. Like comrade Bill Jeffries of Permanent Revolution, the increasingly bad-tempered and supposedly ‘sensible’ split from Workers Power, who wants us to believe that “state-directed” or “state-sponsored” fascism - apparently in the “form of the EDL” - is being “unleashed on us”. Or comrade Anita De Klerk, who must surely get the wooden spoon for the most juvenile left comment uttered yet on this question: “If the BBC continue to give air time to Nick Griffin as they did on Question time and recently on Radio 4 they can only be reaffirming their position as the mouthpiece for the racist, fascist state that it is!”
No, fascism is not just an organisation of a few thousand brain-addled thugs. Fascism, as the German communist, Clara Zetkin, famously remarked, is a “punishment of the proletariat for failing to carry on the revolution”.
Disappointing though it is, there is no revolutionary or pre-revolutionary crisis in this country at present. The working class in Britain is not in any position to take power away from the bourgeoisie and, regrettably, we have not yet advanced to a situation where the working class is on the verge of making revolution but then flunks it: thus inviting fascist counterrevolution.
- For a reasonable explanation of the legal background see www.muthergrumble.co.uk/issue14/mg1406.htm
- My emphasis - www.counterfire.org/index.php/news/61-reports/4287-bolton-residents-and-uaf-attacked-by-police-and-fascists