Anti-fascism after 9 December

So on 9 December fascist provocateur Tommy Robinson held his Brexit Betrayal Demo and anti-fascists held a counter protest. The event passed off largely peacefully, a well-rehearsed central London police operation kept the demonstrations apart on the day.

Afterwards the propaganda war began — the first casualty in war is truth, right? The Robinson crowd were all over Twitter attacking the Mainstream Media for misreporting the size of their demo — they claimed it was much larger that the journalists had stated. From the left, Momentum, Stand Up to Racism and Owen Jones all enthusiastically put out the line that the left out numbered the far right five to one. (As anti-fascist historian Dave Renton has written after the demo; “Saying, as both Owen Jones and the SUTR people did for different reasons, that there were 15,000 people there takes us back to the bad old practice of the British left. There weren’t remotely 15,000 people there, nor anything like it.”)

Either way the main issue for me is what happened before the demo which was a dominated by a mood of ridiculous absurdity. It happened in two phases.

Remaniac splitters!

The first was the sight of major campaigns and left newspapers attacking Another Europe is Possible for daring to organise a pro remain bloc on the anti-fascist demo. Outraged articles by Counterfire, SWP and the Morning Star –even Owen Jones got in on the action in the Guardian — were so riddled with hyperbole in their accusation that AEIP was ‘splitting the movement’ by ‘alienating leave voters’ that frankly only a psychological explanation can truly justify the histrionics. One might say it was possible driven by a guilt mechanism by Lexiteers — but I am no psychologist so I’ll just leave that one alone.

What happened on the day of the demo? AEIP supporters showed up with a big free movement banner and joined the protest. That was it. Even if they had a separate rally at the start of the demo with people giving speeches about how Brexit is leading to a resurgence in nationalism and racism (which isn’t exactly a fantastical point to make, frankly) and then joined the demo with their own placards — what was the problem? Why the trashing of people online day in day out for nearly three weeks?

It is not possible to build an anti-fascist movement that is solely about hating Nazis. There are too many complex political factors that go into it. Sure, some people just hate Nazis — they are ‘anti fascists’ in the purest sense (I kind of imagine then mainly hanging out a punk gigs and reading No Retreat by Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey over and over again). Others are motivated by anti-racism, by trade unionism, by supporting refugees, by all those things overlapping or whatever else. If raising pro remain slogans is alienating then so is raising pro refugee slogans — after all, maybe some people want to protest fascists but also think that we are too soft on migrants and refugees? Should we not raise slogans or banners in support of refugees in case it alienates those other people? You end up with an apolitical movement focussed on an incredibly narrow conception of what fighting fascism is. Certainly people shouldn’t sell Trotskyist or Anarchist newspapers — what if it puts people off?

Either way the political attacks on AEIP were baseless and extraordinarily over the top, considering what happened on the day. Can we have less of that please?

Who’s at the front?!

The second schism on the left was over having a unity demo in the first place. We all know the problems with the SWP, they want to ‘lead’ everything with their latest front campaign. They point to the fact they have affiliation from major trade unions, critics point to the fact that, well… it is still mainly just the SWP. Now some people hate the SWP because of the Comrade Delta stuff and are refusing to even go on demonstrations where SWP members are present.

In the run up to the demo there was two separate start points — and people started putting out ‘unity feelers’ and writing ‘unity statements’. But actually some people didn’t want unity at all. And then people wanted it with conditions (That feminists lead the march, or that a route be negotiated with the police). On the day there was a scuffle as people vied for the privilege of leading the march — now I am going to say something unpopular. No one cares who leads a march. No protest movement in history has ever been judged in the final analysis by who led the march. You are judged by what you achieved, how you did it and what your legacy is.

From my perspective we still have a very long way to go. If people want to do direct action to block a fascist/far right march you need to outnumber them 5–1 in reality and not just in the fantasy world of Twitter propaganda. You have to win the argument in our communities, Labour branches and trade unions to come on a protest on a Sunday in central London. You have to build a mass anti-racist culture that deal with the chronic problem of racism and not just the few thousand far right activists mobilising around it.

I mean Christ, 40% of people think that multiculturalism (code for black and Asian people) has ‘undermined British culture’ — whatever that means. More worryingly 24% said they would back a new far right party that was specifically anti-migrant and anti-Muslim. Tory politicians are deporting people who arrived here from the Windrush generation and Labour politicians (at the time) voted for it.

We have a very hard job ahead of us because we have 30 years of hard anti-migrant politics day in and day out from the political establishment and the media. Now it is common sense to be racist. In the context of that — we have to be more focussed on the bigger issues than anti-Brexit placards on demos.

Squads and mass movements

It is clear that we need a serious and radical anti fascist and anti racist movement — which is partly why Labour Against Racism and Fascism has been set up to try and encourage Labour activists to build such a thing. Winning Labour to more consistent anti racist politics is going to be crucial, especially if Brexit goes through and we end up with very restricted border controls and a continuation of the national debate on why we hate foreign people.

There is a tendency on the anti fascist left to fetishise squads of militants up for direct action. Anarchists often see squaddism as a strategy — masked up groups of people who are trained and deployed to confront the far right (if they can get through the police lines). This isn’t going to work for the Labour Party or the unions. Sure we need stewards, we need people who can protect demonstrations if they are beset upon by violent fascist hooligans (as Steve Hedley and his comrades were over the summer), but such a movement takes a long time to build and to win an argument for.

Importantly there has never been any tradition of that in Labour before. People look to the battles of Cable Street or Lewisham (or Wood Green or the skirmishes at Brick Lane) as high points of the movement, when the mobilising strength of the far right was decisively set back. But those were fascist demonstrations through working class communities with slogans directly aimed at those communities — against Jewish people as they marched through the East End, and against ‘black muggers’ as they marched through Lewisham. The counter protests vastly out numbered the far right because the local community turned out. Central London is different and the far right are getting sizable numbers but consciously not marching through places where they might get shut down. This is a marked retreat from even the EDL who tried to organise marches through places like Bradford and Birmingham.

At Cable Street the anti fascists blocked the route of the march after a huge confrontation with the police. That demonstration was organised by the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Independent Labour Party, Jewish organisations and activists from the Socialist League (among other smaller groups). The Labour Party told its members not to go on the counter demo and even threatened to expel people.

At Lewisham the Labour Party had a similar response — it was up to socialists in the SWP and other organisation to mobilise people from below. The principle was the united front — that you had to mobilise the broadest and largest number of people to block the fascists route.

Now it is of course true that the SWP set up fronts and on protests tend to lead people away from the far right. I remember at Bradford against the EDL when the SWP/United Against Fascism held a rally a mile away from the EDL in a car park surrounded by police. People stood there listening to speeches from local vicars and trade union dignatories whilst a large number of local people turned up to where the EDL were and chased them off the streets.

Either way the crucial thing is mobilising huge numbers of people, not just the initiated who are already in networks. That is the task now, to make anti-racism a part of political life and drew strength from multicultural communities, which Labour should be seeking to shape and lead. Better organisation and stewarding will flow from the strength of a mass movement.