Gerbils on a wheel
Mike Macnair argues that the single tactic of 'No platform for fascists' merely recapitulates the errors of Dimitrov's popular front. This is an edited version of the speech he gave to the July 4 London Communist Forum fringe meeting during this year's Marxism
For the past 35 years the left has been engaged in one single tactic: ritual confrontation with the far right on the principle of ‘No platform for fascists’. Some of these have been violent confrontations, some non-violent, but this is the one tactic that has been carried out again and again.
When Harold Soref - a pro-apartheid, rightwing Conservative - was chased off the platform at the Oxford Union in 1974 and the incident hit the headlines, there was a spate of imitative actions across the country. The Maoists and the student leadership of the International Marxist Group combined to launch an attack on the police on what was originally intended to be a peaceful anti-racist demonstration organised by the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain in London’s Red Lion Square. Kevin Gately was killed. From that moment on ‘No platform for fascists’ and counter-mobilisation against far-right gatherings became the only tactic in relation to the National Front (the forerunner of today’s British National Party).
Today, there is also the English Defence League. Despite being much smaller than the BNP and not standing in elections, the EDL is a slightly different and to a considerable extent more serious threat to the left. So what have we achieved by this single tactic? The fact is that the BNP is a much larger organisation than the National Front was and the presence of far-right ideology in British society has advanced.
In the 1970s the far left used to justify ‘No platform for fascists’ by arguing that the tactic would crush fascism ‘in the egg’ - kill it now while it is small and it will not get bigger. The policy was also followed, but more violently in Italy and France, where the League Communiste Révolutionnaire got itself banned after petrol-bombing a fascist rally. The outcome in these countries is even clearer; there are serious, mass, far-right votes. In Italy the former far-right organisation is now part of Silvio Berlusconi’s party and in France Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National has obtained mass votes. In America the Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan never got as close to the mass support of the Tea Party movement, which has much more potential to be a mass fascist party.
The basic fact is that ‘No platform for fascists’ and ritual confrontation as a tactic clearly does not work. The left has been acting like gerbils on a wheel: the wheel moves, larger or smaller numbers of people turn out, the wheel turns, but it stays on the same axis and they never move on. The problem is how to get off this wheel. We need to challenge the view that there is only one way to deal with fascism and the far right. To think outside that box, we have to analyse fascism - where it comes from and, more abstractly, what it is and what sort of threats it poses to the workers’ movement.
Mussolini and Hitler
The historical background is familiar. Fascism is the name given to the movement of Benito Mussolini, which crushed the left in Italy in the early 1920s. This created a new kind of regime, the first one to be called fascist. Who were they? Essentially the Italian army had suffered severe defeat in World War I. They were on the victorious side in the war, but there were large numbers of demobilised soldiers and unemployed. In a huge economic crisis, the working class moved towards power in the great waves of factory occupations, but failed. Essentially this failure could be traced back to the Italian Socialist Party’s commitment to a peaceful parliamentary takeover and to the fact that it was waiting for the Germans, who in turn were waiting for the Austrians, who were waiting for the Italians, who were waiting for the French. In this acute crisis of capitalism, the working class was presented with the prospect of taking power, but was unable to do so.
Mussolini was an ex-socialist - the leader of the radical left wing of the Socialist Party who had become a nationalist in the course of World War I. He was able to mobilise large numbers of demobilised soldiers around a project of national unity, regeneration and overcoming the decay of Italian society, which had led to military defeat. Initially he did this through private violence against the workers’ movement, which as time went on was increasingly backed by the police. Then Mussolini moves through the ‘March on Rome’ to a coup d’etat, which allowed the fascist movement to take state form. This state form of Italian fascism is not a simple bourgeois dictatorship - its characteristics are very different.
Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile was a bourgeois dictatorship. It was characterised by the crushing of the workers’ movement by the military, the opening up of the economy and the creation of a highly capitalistic regime which worshipped the free market. Mussolini did not do that: he created what is called a corporatist regime. Trade unions are crushed, but there are trade union-like organisations integrated into management structures. The peasant movement is crushed, but there is a major land reform, extensive expropriation of the aristocracy and an extension of free holdings among the peasantry. What characterises Mussolini’s regime is that he carries through elements of his original leftism.
At the end of the day it is a form which allows capitalism to keep going and develop, but it is not simply a case of crushing the working class and maximising profits: there is a genuine attempt to strengthen the nation. It is a fake-left nationalism and a fake-left corporatism. In a very imperfect fashion, Mussolini’s ideology becomes copied by rightwing parties all across eastern Europe. For a period of time it is also copied by Adolph Hitler’s movement.
In Germany it developed to some extent out of the same circumstances - ie, defeat in the war and large numbers of demobilised soldiers. The German working class reaches for power in 1918-19 but does not take it. Instead it creates a bourgeois state and under these circumstances the unemployed, and the demobilised soldiers in particular, can be mobilised in fascist bands. In the mid- to late 1920s, the German National Socialist Workers Party took a ‘left’ turn and picked up a lot of Mussolini’s corporatist fake-left nationalism. But at the same time it carried on private warfare, mobilising militia against the German workers’ movement and the left over a long period. Between 1931 and 1932 the Nazi movement obtained its breakthrough. German bourgeois parties and the social democracy were elected under severe economic conditions to make cuts in public spending in order to get out of the acute economic crisis they were in. The result was 40% unemployment. In the recent past we have not seen figures like that anywhere except in Iraq. The unemployed were able to be recruited into the brownshirt militia on a large scale and used as a strike force for further intimidation of the left and the workers’ movement.
At the same time the Nazi movement offered the German capitalist class a way out of the crisis through nationalism and Mussolini-style corporatism. By these means they would both crush the social democracy (and the communists in particular) and at the same time lead Germany forward as a state power.
In this situation the Communist Party of Germany was until 1934 conducting its politics on the basis of the line that there was no difference between the fascists and social democracy. After all, social democracy is nationalist (as it showed by backing the war in 1914); it is corporatist (it advocates collaboration arrangements and systems between the trade unions and capital); and it is capable of making the same sort of pseudo-left criticisms of capital, and finance capital in particular, which fascism makes. Rudolf Hilferding in his book Finance capital borrows in places from the Austrian anti-Semitic writers, who characterise finance capital as more parasitic than industrial capital - arguing that it is more usurious and tagging it with the image of the Jew. This is present in the German social democracy’s critique of the bourgeoisie just as much as it is in the Hitler movement’s critique. So the Communist Party of Germany had a certain basis for stating that, ideologically, there is no difference between them.
They had another reason for this line though: the strategic alliance with the Soviet Union. The German far right - based on industry and steel in particular - and the German military were in strategic alliance with the Soviet Union. When the social democracy came into power in 1928-29 as part of a coalition, the alliance between the German state and the Soviet Union was broken. The Soviet leadership elected to support the wing of the German Communist Party which advocated the view that there was no difference between fascism and social democracy. In doing so they hoped to punish the social democracy and get the right wing of the German army into power. They did this in the belief - which turned out to be completely illusory - that these forces would go back into alliance with the Soviet Union against the west. Their ideology and their experience of the 1920s led them to suppose that this is what would happen.
The consequence of this change in policy was that the left was divided. On the one side there was the Communist Party; on the other there was the social democracy; and they hated each other. The Communist Party even allied with the Nazis for some purposes.
The workers do not offer a way forward because they are split. They cannot even defend themselves against physical attack from the fascists. The upshot of all this is a familiar story: the victory of Hitler in 1933 and the crushing of the German Communist Party and social democracy; the creation of a new fascist regime in Germany and the road which leads to death camps, gas chambers, World War II, 20 million dead in the Soviet Union and so on.
Trotsky and Dimitrov
In a series of articles which attempt to battle against this orientation of the German Communist Party, Leon Trotsky argued for the policy of the united front - the workers’ movement had to unite. Whereas the social democracy argued for a front of the democrats against the extremists (the fascists on the one hand and the communists on the other), Trotsky argued for working class unity. The Communist Party must constantly approach the social democrats for united action, for self-defence of the workers’ movement and potentially for an alternative government. It is this idea of the united front - bastardised and transformed - which has become part of the ‘gerbils on the wheel’ phenomenon of the left today.
Trotsky’s understanding of the united front was that the agreement had to be for limited, concrete actions, such as defence of a particular meeting or demonstration; or for limited, common action at the level of politics in voting against a specific budget proposal, etc. The agreement to do that would be on the basis that all parties would continue to criticise and fight each other. They would agree on common action without in any way suppressing the differences which existed between them. Secondly, that common action of the workers’ movement would be independent of the bourgeois-democratic and liberal parties. Why? The answer is simple: the police, the state bureaucracy, the presidency of general Hindenburg were all backing the Nazis. It was the intervention of the state on the side of the fascists, together with the division in the workers’ movement, which made it possible for the fascists to carry out effective, violent action against the working class. Because the fascists held back, the state acted as a friendly ‘neutral’ on the fascists’ side. So the bourgeois parties that were committed to the state were necessarily an unreliable ally against the fascists.
When 1933-34 came along and Hitler was in power, the German state does not remake its alliance with the Soviet Union. Moscow finally realises that ‘After Hitler us’ (one of the Communist Party’s slogans) - ie, the idea that fascism and social democracy were one and the same thing - is not sustainable. Moscow decides that the threat is now the revival of German militarism under Nazi leadership and that the Soviet Union needs to make an alliance with the western democracies. In order to do so it is necessary for the communists to prove that they are not a threat; that they will ally not just with the social democracy, but with the bourgeois parties as well. They will display this loyalty not just by uniting with the social democracy, but by taking up policy positions to the right of them too. They will do this in order to procure the alliance of the constitutional parties against rightwing extremism. The name of this policy is the united front - it is not at first called the people’s front.
In his speech at the seventh congress of Comintern, Georgi Dimitrov argued that the essence of the united front is that we agree not to criticise each other, that we unite in action, that we only criticise people who break the unity of the action. If we unite in action on the basis of non-criticism, the masses will soon realise that the communists are the best fighters for the united front and its aims. As the masses come to understand this, we will not need to criticise the social democracy and raise our political differences. We can expect that the masses will come over to us because we are the best fighters.
There is a stage further than this. Once we have understood that we do not need to criticise, the aims of the united front are all we need to have - we do not need to draw a line, as Trotsky’s united front concept does, against including the bourgeoisie. We can make an agreement with the so-called democratic bourgeoisie because it is still ultimately the case that the masses will learn that we are the best fighters and come over to us.
In France and in Spain, there was a problem with the terms of the deal with the democratic bourgeoisie and, for that matter, the terms of the deal with the social democracy. Spain particularly required that the interests of landlords, savers and bourgeois be protected. It was not enough that the working class and the Communist Party desist from criticising the Radical Party, etc. It was also necessary for it to subordinate the interests of the working class at the level of strikes and so on. There had to be unity with the bourgeois state, because these parties were committed and loyal to it. That meant not organising armed self-defence against fascist attacks as far as possible, but instead calling on the police to defend the working class against fascist attacks on the basis of a purely peaceful operation.
Then, of course, we see what happened in Britain. The call on the police for defence against Oswald Moseley’s movement in the 1930s came in the form of the Public Order Act 1936. This contained extensive legislation against militias - not directed specifically against the fascists, but generally against anyone engaging in military training. Under section 5 of this act, threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour was liable to cause a breach of the peace. Supposedly directed against the fascists, it was in practice used in 80% of cases against communists. Down through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, it continued to be used against trade unionists and in some cases against gay men kissing at a bus stop - for some reason deemed to be abusive, insulting behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace.
By pursuing the ‘people’s front’ policy of the broadest possible alliance, including the liberals, what you actually got was not the suppression of the Mosley movement - which was put down only in 1940 when Britain and Germany went to war. What you got was instruments of the state for suppressing the workers’ movement. It is the same in France. although the outcome there is slightly different: when France and Germany go to war, the far right in France actually sabotages military operations against Germany, subsequently makes peace and devises the Vichy regime. It also collaborates on a very large scale within occupied France. So the policy of the people’s front turned out to be as much of a complete dead-end as the idea of social-fascism, or the idea that social democracy and fascism were twins.
The policy of ‘No platform for fascists’ against the Mosleyites and ‘No platform for racists’ in the late 1960s, were not started by the Trotskyists or the Socialist Workers Party, but were campaigns of the ‘official’ Communist Party. The Trotskyists picked up on it because it was an opportunity to get people out on the streets and for students to feel as if they were doing something by confronting the fascists. The politics were not about stopping the fascists carrying out violent attacks on mosques or workers’ demonstrations; they were about stopping the fascists spreading their ideas.
But the truth is that their ideas are not very different to those of the constitutional parties. The Labour Party is nationalistic, corporatist, class-collaborationist and offers pseudo-left criticisms of capital. Within the Labour Party it made perfect sense for Gordon Brown to have said “British jobs for British workers”. It is just as much part of the Labour Party’s tradition as it is part of the British National Party’s. How do you distinguish between them? What is different about the fascists? Well, they are extremists. Extremists like us, the communists, the members of the Socialist Workers Party - we are extremists, according to the bourgeoisie. So drawing the line that says ‘No platform for fascists’, but does not say ‘No platform for Labourites’ and ‘No platform for Conservatives’ implicitly and immediately involves Dimitrov’s popular front and not Trotsky’s united front of the workers.
Let us take a step back. What is fascism? Fascism as a movement that threatens the working class with two different things. One is violence - organised violence by fascist bands, big or small. At the moment we do not have fascist bands threatening trade unions. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we did - I do not think a bunch of far rightists attacking a construction workers’ picket would get very far. The other thing is that the far right threatens us with is the spread of particularly nationalist, chauvinist and racist ideology.
But in reality who is it that is the biggest threat to the working class in terms of the spread of nationalist, chauvinist, racist ideology? It is not Nick Griffin - it is the Daily Mail, the Sun, the bourgeois state, the prime minister, the home secretary. So what do we do about the threat of violence? The united front is the right answer, but by this I do not mean the united front on the basis of ‘No platform for fascists’. I do not mean the united front on the basis of confronting the fascists wherever they show their heads. It is the united front for organised self-defence.
For a while in the United States there existed a small, far-right organisation of left origin called the National Caucus of Labour Committees, which set out to break up the public meetings of all the different left groups. In response, the Communist Party of the United States, the American Socialist Workers Party, the Spartacists, etc formed a united front on the basis that they would show up to each other’s meetings with guns - if they were in a state which allowed them to be carried - or baseball bats, chains, etc.
In Britain in the 1970s the National Front announced they were going to break up a meeting on Ireland. Ruskin college students union and the shop stewards committee immediately announced that they would host this meeting and provide security for it with baseball bats, chains etc - the National Front did not show their faces. The point is that a policy of self-defence - not chasing the fascists wherever they happen to go; not confronting them wherever they happen to show their heads - but the united front of the workers’ movement for organised self-defence against fascist violence, irrespective of the political differences between us, can work. When we had the meeting on Ireland there was violent disagreement amongst us - it was and still is a question where there is violent disagreement among the left. It is not a question of shutting up about differences; it is about concrete agreement to defend the ability of the working class to organise by forcible self-defence.
In relation to the ideological aspect the answer is different; the answer is an ideological battle, a fight over the ideas. This means a political fight against nationalism, against class-collaborationism, against corporatism. It means a political fight to clarify that there is nothing worse about finance capital than there is about industrial capital; that there is no natural or unnatural alliance between the working class and industrial capital against finance capital.
Because it is a political struggle, the united front is totally unnecessary in the political fight. Secondly it is actually directly counterposed to the Dimitrov conception of the united front/popular front, where it was necessary to shut up about your differences in order to get unity and win the masses by being the best fighters. You cannot actually shut up about your differences to get unity, when in reality the ideological positions of the fascists are shared by the social democracy and by the Tory Party.
What we need in order to carry on that fight is a party - not a groupuscule the size of the CPGB or even a groupuscule the size of the SWP, but a Communist Party of the size and breadth to include most of the existing left on the basis of Marxism.