What the EDL is and how not to combat it
Is it wrong to describe membership of the English Defence League as lumpen? Are they BNP pawns or a fascist danger in their own right? Eddie Ford examines these and other questions
“Organised into secret sections” with “decayed roués”, alongside “ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie”, are “discharged soldiers, “swindlers”, “tricksters”, “gamblers”, “brothel keepers”, “literati” - in short the “social scum” that forms the “flotsam of society” - those who represent the dirty “refuse of all classes”.
Maybe a Weekly Worker journalist giving their assessment of the sort of people who become English Defence League members and supporters? No, Karl Marx describing in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) those elements who not only declined to participate in the revolutionary struggles of 1848 side by side with their “rightful brethren”, the proletariat, but actually tended to act as the “bribed tools of reactionary intrigue” - effectively constituting a ‘class fraction’ within the Louis Bonaparte regime.
In other words, the lumpenproletariat (“rabble proletariat”), who instinctively danced to the counterrevolutionary tune of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy - seeing them, not the working class and its organisations, as their benefactors and patrons. Or, to put it another way, though living alongside and in many ways resembling the working class, these ‘lumpen’ elements were not for the working class in any political sense.
Now, I mention Marx’s comments on the counterrevolutionary role of the lumpenproletariat, and quote just a few choice selections from his rich arsenal of insults, due to the fact that Caitriona Rylance from Bolton has taken issue with my characterisation of the EDL in a recent “surreal” article (‘Weyman Bennett should be criticised, not charged’, March 25).
So in her letter to the Weekly Worker, the comrade objects to my “doling out” of “bourgeois insults” - in particular expressions like “happy-hour hangers-on”, “pissed-up football hooligans”, “a bunch of boneheads”, “brain-addled thugs” and, most egregious of all, “assorted semi-criminal riff-raff”. Apparently, writes comrade Rylance, such “moralistic” and “condescending” language has no role to play in the communist media - because it is framed “within the bourgeois state” and is appealing to “our readers’ supposed respect for law and order”. Indeed, she continues, this is the sort of reporting you might well find in the bourgeois media alongside articles “condemning ‘chavs’, ‘hoodies’ and benefit fraudsters” and calling for a “crackdown on crime” and a “return to family values”.
Instead, argues comrade Rylance, proper communist journalism - and presumably the correct communist approach to the EDL as a whole - consists of acknowledging the “absolutely demoralising feeling” of witnessing “such elements of the working class”, who “ought” to be some of our “strongest class fighters”, rampaging on the streets of Bolton and elsewhere in “support of divisive, anti-working class politics”. Hence, rather than adopting the “patronising” and “superior” approach of comrades like Eddie Ford, comrade Rylance thinks communists should seek to “engage” with EDLers and “win them over” to working class politics (April 1).
As an aside, I think it is highly unlikely that your average Weekly Worker reader has much respect for “law and order” or the political-legal establishment as a whole - so would not have considered my unflattering remarks about the EDL to be a clarion call for a state clampdown on the forces of lawlessness and anarchy. Although, of course, there is always the possibility that a Daily Mail bigot may have accidentally come across the Weekly Worker, I suspect somehow that they would, however, have more than a little sympathy for the anti-Muslim, red white and blue patriotic politics of the EDL. The idea of them nodding along with my condemnations of the lagered-up EDLers and criticisms of the ill-advised tactics pursued by Unite Against Fascism is not really credible.
More seriously, comrade Rylance’s use of the term “moralistic” about my EDL commentary applies far more to her argument than mine. She is quite right in wanting those presently in and around the EDL to junk their rotten politics and join the left. That is how they ‘ought’ to behave, if only the left were not so divided and people like myself were not so rude. On the other hand, I was merely attempting to describe things as they are - and map out the main political priorities when dealing with an organisation like the EDL (or the British National Party for that matter).
What is the EDL?
However, comrade Rylance’s complaints do highlight a real question - what exactly is the nature of the EDL? Are its rank and file just confused members of the working class who need to be patiently “engaged” with by the left? Is the EDL serving as the BNP’s “boot boys” - just a ‘front’ for the nefarious and duplicitous plans of Nick Griffin? Are the EDL’s pro-Israel, England loving patriots and rabid Islamophobes the raw material for a fascist fighting force that could be turned against the organised working class? Whatever the case we must equip ourselves with the appropriate strategy and flexible tactics and avoid elevating one particular set of tactics into a rigid principle.
What has to be said straightaway is that Marxists are not interested in the project of working class liberation because of sentimental inclination - believing that individual workers are somehow more decent or more ‘authentic’ human beings than non-workers. No, communists are committed to working class self-emancipation because only this class can liberate humanity as a whole. Hence the Marxist understanding of the working class proceeds from the point of view of the mode of production as a whole. As opposed to ‘workerist’ conceptions of the working class - which envisage the class struggle as a never-ending series of clashes between employed, unionised workers and the bosses, and thus as permanently confined to the boss-worker nexus.
Which brings us back to the EDL. There are undoubtedly those who are sociologically working class in the EDL. But because they want to consider themselves superior, because they are easily duped and do not understand the class interest which sent British soldiers to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, because they are mere social dust, pathetic and powerless, before the indifferent and gigantic Juggernaut of high finance and transnational capitalism, because they feel betrayed by the political establishment and fear Islam, because the labour movement has suffered defeat after defeat and no longer looks like a vehicle for an alternative social order they desperately cling to pathetic substitutes for genuine solidarity: the nation, the flag of St George, the football terrace.
An unmistakable petty bourgeois strand also exists in the EDL. A class which even in today’s Britain cannot be easily dismissed. There are around two million small businesses, according to government statistics. Traditional family concerns, partnerships, buy-to-let landlords, self-employed builders, as well as professional criminals, drugs dealers, pimps, etc, who are both constantly reproduced under capitalism and constantly crushed by the blind workings of the market.
Leon Trotsky famously described Mussolini’s seizure of power in Italy in the following way: “Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralised lumpenproletariat - all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” Which is to say that the power base for classical fascism, so to speak, rests on the “crazed” or “enraged” petty bourgeoisie. So is this an apt or accurate description of the EDL?
Well, it is certainly true that EDL is “enraged” - and that can mean turning against itself. We had an example of that over the weekend in Dudley, when we were treated to the grotesquely comical sight of frustrated EDLers fighting with their own stewards in a desperate bid to somehow break through the police lines and get at UAF members. By all accounts, internal EDL harmony was not restored afterwards. This is headbanging thuggishness not to the liking of the EDL leadership. Nor is the meetings at pubs and the consumption of lager before ‘actions’.
While there are undoubtedly people who have fallen into the most desperate social circumstances involved in the EDL, its leadership - in so far as we can identify it - is petty bourgeois or even small bourgeois and wants the EDL to be seen as multi-ethnic, moderate and respectful of the police. The organisation’s main financial backing comes from the 45-year-old businessman, Alan Lake, a computer entrepreneur - who helped set up the EDL’s website and runs a whole series of far-right sites including 4freedoms.com. Significantly, he has talked about turning the EDL into a “street army” to strike against the what he and his supporters perceive as the “rising Islamisation” of Britain. To this end he recently addressed the far-right Swedish Democrats group, telling them of the urgent need to build an “anti-Jihad” movement across Europe.
Lake boasted in Sweden that he and his friends had begun to build alliances with “football supporters”. Expounding more on this point to a, no doubt horrified, Guardian reporter, Lake declared that “we are catching a baby at the start of a gestation”, and went to state: “We have a problem with numbers. We have an army of bloggers, but that’s not going to get things done. Football fans are a potential source of support. They are a hoi-polloi that gets off their backsides and travels to a city and they are available before and after matches”.
This brings us to a key factor when it comes to understanding the EDL - that as an organisation it is, in some respects, the ‘political wing’ of football casuals: a subculture with its origins in the late 1970s which was exemplified by a penchant for hooliganism and the wearing of expensive designer clothing. It needs to be added that this enthusiasm for designer labels and expensive sportswear was not only about a status display of money and preening fashion sense (if you were not wearing club colours, it was easier to infiltrate rival football groups and gain access to certain enter pubs).
The EDL emerged out of United People of Luton, a group which decided something had to be about the ‘Muslim problem’ - and began to grope towards finding a common cause with other ‘firms’ associated with football clubs.
Things took off when Anjem Choudary’s Islamist group, Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah, conducted a high-profile conversion of an 11-year-old white schoolboy in Birmingham city centre. Choudary, a follower of the unpleasant Omar Bakri Mohammed - who publicly praised those responsible for the September 11 2001 terrorist atrocities - later became even more famous, of course, for his short-lived group, Islam4UK, which was banned not long after announcing plans for a “peaceful” protest march in Wootton Bassett - the Wiltshire town which is the site of semi-institutionalised, ‘informal’ public mourning of British military personnel killed in active service (ie Afghanistan).
Naturally, this incident provoked tabloid outrage, but it generated even more internet rage - especially amongst websites and forums associated with football hooliganism/violence and assorted far-right predilections. Thus by summer last year there were EDL ‘divisions’ organising football supporters/casuals in Luton, north London, Bristol, Portsmouth and Southampton, Derby and the West Midlands. The EDL’s principal or leading figures, include those based around the football ‘firms’ that provide the most active support - the EDL’s cadre. Facebook is a particularly important organising point for these rather disparate individuals.
So the EDL centrally consists of one small capitalist plus assorted petty bourgeois lumpens with a stated and proven commitment to street violence. Almost all of them are white and male.
Notable exceptions being Guramit Singh and the extremely unappealing Leisha Brooks - a female hoodlum from Southend who had a pair of knuckledusters confiscated by police on the day of the Birmingham EDL demonstration. She once ran the EDL’s women’s section, though she is rumoured to have been removed under Lake’s instructions. The charming Brooks is well known to be friendly with various underworld figures like Dave Courtney, Carlton Leech and Mitch Pyle, son of the gangster Joey Pyle, and by all accounts she also knows Jason Marriner (a Chelsea Headhunter hooligan made notorious by the television documentary series, MacIntyre undercover).
The EDL is in a state of fairly rapid ideological evolution. Last October we read on its website how it was made up of “ordinary, non-racist citizens” who just have had it up to their neck of being “treated as second-class citizens to the jihadis in our own country”. Not only that: we were informed that the EDL takes an “actively anti-racist and anti-fascist stance” - whilst at the same time being entirely “non-political” - naturally having “no position on rightwing vs leftwing” and was open to “people of all races and faiths”. As if that was not clear enough, we also discover that the EDL is “firmly committed to peaceful protest” - having absolutely “no intention to engage in violence in any form”, wishing that the “same could be said” of UAF.
However, these seemingly moderate proclamations were always punctuated by wild remarks about “communist traitors” and the like. Then, as time has progressed, the supposedly ‘equidistancing’ between left and right has systematically given way to an inflamed anti-left ranting. Accordingly, we saw on the EDL’s website front page of March 29 a plain crazy article about the ‘communist menace’. Here we are told that the “unions have become more powerful, more influential and more militant in the political sphere”, leading to a situation where the Labour Party has taken a “staggering £11 million from Unite’s militant coffers”. Apparently this enables people like Charlie Whelan and Tony Woodley to “roam the corridors of power in the houses of parliament”.
The EDL insists that Britain “doesn’t do communism” - indeed, it “never has” - yet despite that “communists are afforded more influence and more power, as the Labour Party look to fund its upcoming election campaign”. All of which is a “sad reflection of the corrupt political climate we live in here in the UK” - so much so that the unions’ “vested interests infringe” upon the democratic process, to such an extent that democracy itself “seems to be ebbing away right before our eyes”. Gradually, insidiously, it is being replaced by ... “communism!!!!”
Overall then, it is an eminently reasonable assessment of the EDL that it has steadily becomes less ‘respectable’ and developed more of the traits of a street-fighting paramilitary outfit, whose goal - no matter how far-fetched - is to physically, violently, smash the organised left and the working class movement as a whole. Though, it is vital to add, at present the EDL is a pathetic piss-pot organisation with no more than a few hundred - thoroughly disorientated - members nationally.
BNP boot boys?
In other words, the EDL is heading on an exact opposite trajectory to that of the BNP - moving towards fascism as opposed to away from it. By contrast, the BNP under Nick Griffin - at least at this conjuncture anyway - has moved away from the Hitler-worshipping milieu that spawned such odious political pond life as John Tyndall and what eventually become the National Front. No less to the point, the EDL and BNP loath each other. EDL leader Tommy Robinson forthrightly insists the EDL has no time for “white supremacists” and there is no place in the EDL for Nazis (April 6).
Of course, some comrades will retort, knee-jerk style: ‘Once a fascist, always a fascist’ and castigate me for being naive or even parroting BNP lies. However, for anyone not hidebound by sect dogma, this is most clearly not the case. Similarly, the reality of British capitalism’s specific historical origins does not mean that it is inherently anti-Catholic for all of time or that the British state cannot adopt multiculturalism and anti-racism as part of its official ideology. To adopt such a fixed categorisation is to be fundamentally ahistorical. No, the task of Marxists is to identify and explain discontinuity, as well as continuity.
But frankly some comrades on the left do not want to think. Hence declaring the BNP was once fascist, is fascist and always will be fascist become a point of honour, a test of political militancy and an article of faith. Ditto, the sect dogma that, because there is a tiny crossover of membership, the EDL ‘must’ be a BNP front. Actual analysis is entirely missing.
To see this ‘argument’ taken to its logical and paranoid extreme you can do no better than the splenetic Bill Jefferies from Permanent Revolution. Naturally, the PR comrade gives the usual UAF ‘anti-fascist’ nonsense a ‘Trotskyist’ gloss - though it goes without saying that the real, living, breathing Leon Trotsky never came out with most of the obvious rank nonsense that is stubbornly attributed to him.
Accordingly, we are informed on the PR website that the EDL is “organised by old-time Nazis in or around the BNP and National Front” and act as the BNP’s “boot boys on the streets” - which, apparently, has “exploded the myth that fascism has gone respectable”. Indeed, we are darkly told, the ramshackle EDL is actually being “manipulated by Nazi Gauleiters behind the scenes”. Comrade Jefferies - even if some of his more sensible comrades have quietly disassociated themselves from his wilder rants - has even declared that the EDL is “state-sponsored” or “state-directed” - this is the “form” through which fascism is being “unleashed on us”.
Frankly, this is make-believe. Of course, there is membership ‘leakage’ from the BNP to the EDL. For instance, Chris Renton, a BNP activist from Weston-super-Mare, helped set up the EDL’s website - though he had to take ‘gardening leave’ when his links to the BNP became public knowledge.
Currently, the BNP is held together - its ideological and organisational discipline maintained - by a relatively good run of electoral performances, but substantial electoral reverses could act to splinter the organisation. This could see the currently dominant ‘respectable’ wing, the Griffinites, continuing to travel further in the direction of rightwing Toryism, whilst the minority revert to good, old-fashioned, Tyndallite street thuggery, without parliamentary cretins like Nick Griffin to hold them back.
However, regardless of what might happen in the future, what is patently obvious is that the BNP is not backing or promoting the EDL - far from it. The very idea that the EDL is in some sort of mysterious, ineffable way a BNP front is utterly fanciful, conspiratorial garbage. This is achingly obvious except to certain left and liberal anti-fascists with an overactive and common-sense-free imagination.
The BNP under Nick Griffin’s leadership is enjoying electoral success - maybe it is in with a chance of an MP on May 6. He is already an MEP and is standing in Barking against Labour’s Margaret Hodge. So going respectable has paid off and could bring even more political rewards. He is to be given a BBC Radio 4 slot on the Today programme latter this month. Why on earth would Griffin want to throw all that away by associating the BNP with the lager-fuelled hooligans of the EDL? Hence the swift proscription on EDL membership. Indeed, Griffin has even labelled the EDL as a “Zionist false-flag operation” and a “neo-con operation”, which aims to darken the ‘good name’ of the BNP by provoking a premature race war: to “create a real clash of civilisations right here on our streets between Islam and the rest of us”.
No, clearly Griffin craves respectability and personal political success - perhaps even too much so for some of his comrades to stomach. Hence the recent revelations about the ‘coup attempt’ against him launched by the BNP’s publicity director, Mark Collett - set to run against David Blunkett in Sheffield - who has been “suspended pending a disciplinary tribunal”, with a leaked BNP memo accusing him of plotting a “palace coup”.
Collett’s suspected fellow putschists include Emma Colgate, a staff manager, who we read has “stepped down from her position to concentrate fully on fighting” the Thurrock parliamentary seat, and Eddy Butler - head of the party’s elections department whose name has already been removed, or hastily airbrushed, from the official list of national BNP contacts. In fact, so serious was the “conspiracy”, according to one report, that the police had to be called in due to fears about the “personal safety” of Griffin and his loyal comrade, the virulently anti-abortionist and ex-criminal, James Dowson. Collett is alledged to have issued death threats.
Therefore, how do socialists and communists ‘fight fascism’? Well, one approach which is guaranteed not be effective is the current tactic being mindlessly pursued by the Socialist Workers Party-led UAF. This fundamentally consists of absurdly exaggerating the dangers posed by the EDL. Worse, it simultaneously calls upon the capitalist state to ban far-right organisations and demonstrations - like turkeys voting for Christmas. When the proscription fails to materialise, the comrades feel duty-bound to chase the EDL around the country. Of course, the EDL is quite content with this situation - frustration at not always being able to kick UAF heads aside - as it allows them set to set the political agenda.
And when UAF/SWP does follow the EDL from town to town what happens? A few thousand leftwingers are bussed in to Manchester, Bolton, Dudley, etc, only to be kettled by the police. Comrades, this is stupid.
Let there be no doubt - if the EDL attempted to march through an area with a large Muslim population or attacked a mosque or leftwing event, then we must organise self-defence, crucially through mobilising the local community. For that to be really effective, however, the left needs to begin to take unity seriously and look to building, not a half-way house coalition or alliance, but a mass Communist Party which can sink deep social roots and win the battle for democracy.
- See en.wikipedia.org/wiki Casual_%28subculture%29; and for the ‘aesthetic side’ www.footballcasual.com
- See, for example, Daily Mail June 29 2009.
- See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8250017.stm
- Original emphasis - www.englishdefenceleague.org
- For an entertaining example of this juvenile leftism, see www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/3004
- The Independent on Sunday April 4.