The 20th of February saw the Scottish Defence League’s (SDL) plans to hold a hate-mongering anti-Muslim rally in a major Scottish city foiled for a second time by militant anti-fascist mobilisation. Three months after their attempt to march in Glasgow ended with them having a fifty-person rally in front of a pub for a few minutes, kettled by multiple rows of police officers for their own safety, the SDL came to Edinburgh only to spend some six hours inside a pub surrounded by the Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliance (EAFA) and to eventually get bussed out of town with a police escortReports on the day can be found on the websites of Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Youth. Having failed spectacularly to even approximately replicate the success of its parent organisation south of the border – the English Defence League (EDL) – it is unlikely that the far-right group of thugs will be attempting to defend Scotland from imaginary threats in the near future. The cancellation of their proposed “vigil” in Lockerbie seems to confirm thisThe SDL had called for a “vigil” to commemorate the Lockerbie bombing on the 27th March. On the 7th, an article appeared on the Casuals United blog claiming that the SDL had brought its vigil forward, holding it on the 6th in order to avoid “the red fascist circus” of anti-fascist protesters. “We did not take SDL banners of flags, we stood in silence and respect, and a floral tribute was left as a mark of our great sorrow for those murdered in Lockerbie.” There is no photographic documentation of this very moving display of respect and for all we know it might not have happened at all. At any rate, the SDL did nothing that could be meaningfully described as a demonstration in Lockerbie..
Nevertheless, going as we are through the worst economic crisis in most people’s living memory, with intensifying and ever more blatant imperialist competition becoming the standard mode of foreign policy and the political agenda moving increasingly to the right, without any sound working class, left-wing challenge seeming to emerge, it is certain that we have not seen the last of such far-right re-groupment and mobilisations. Indicatively the BNP, the respectable face of British fascism, will be standing 12 candidates in Scotland for the upcoming general election; still worse could be ahead, judging by the situation in other parts of Europe. Antifascists of all political orientations should therefore be prepared for a rather long-term struggle. At this stage, it would be useful to discuss what the Anti-Fascist Alliances (AFAs) are, how they came about, what they have achieved up to now and how they might be developed in the future.
Militant Anti-Fascism vs
The two Anti-Fascist Alliances were not the only groups mobilising against the SDL in either Edinburgh or Glasgow. Scotland United, an umbrella group bringing together politicians, trade-unionists, faith group and community leaders, supported by the SWP-controlled Unite Against Fascism, organised counter-demonstrations to celebrate diversity and the multicultural character of both cities on the same days as both of the SDL’s attempted rallies.
The Alliances and Scotland United differ significantly over a series of issues with the most significant being their way of organising and the political content of their demonstrations. Both in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland United first attempted to secure the support of the broadest possible part of the political spectrum and following that called a demonstration at a different time than the SDL’s and at a venue fairly removed from its possible march routes. In contrast, the AFAs were set up by grassroots meetings of activists and people concerned by the rise of the far-right. It was decided that the correct way to respond to the SDL was to organise a counter-demonstration that would assemble early in the morning, take control of the physical space that their rally or march would occupy and block their path, thus preventing them from demonstrating.
This divergence of tactics reflects deeper political differences regarding the nature of the far-right and the threat it poses. The argument underlying the strategy of Scotland United is that the growth of racist and bigoted ideas is best countered by showing that they are completely unacceptable in our multicultural society and rejected by the vast majority of its members. The way to do this is to have a counter-demonstration that is attended by representatives of all sections of society and the broadest possible part of the political spectrum, thus showing that, despite the political and cultural differences of the groups represented in the demonstration, they are all united against far-right hate-mongering. The size and diversity of the demo are expected to eclipse the SDL mobilisation thus proving the point, while direct confrontation with the fascists is explicitly avoided in order to not raise their profile.
Admittedly, Scotland United has in fact been quite successful on its own terms. In both Glasgow and Edinburgh, the counter-demonstrations were attended by a good number of people, including representatives from a wide array of Scottish organisations. In fact, the diversity was such, that StWC supporter and SWP fellow-traveller, Aamer Anwar, shared a platform with Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie. Scotland as a whole did really seem to be united against racism and bigotry.
This approach to the problem of extreme right-wing militancy suggests that Scotland United is guided by a mainstream liberal understanding of the problem. Racism is understood as an irrational idea that some people cling to, an idea that must be challenged because it is a threat to our successfully multicultural society. Being seen primarily as a problem within people’s heads, an incorrect, misguided and dangerous notion, racism is thought to be best countered by showing that there are more of “us”, reasonable people, than “them”, crazy racists. It is hoped, that the numerical strength and diversity of the anti-racist rally will demonstrate to the far-right that their ideas have no purchase in a tolerant Scotland and/or Britain, while also revealing to the general public that racist views are only held by a lunatic fringe minority. In short, according to the mainstream view, racists are just wrong-headed individuals with a bizarre view of the world that no sensible person would share. Consequently, the task of antifascists is to reveal the divergence between common sense and racism.
Militant anti-fascism starts from a completely different premise. Rooted in the anarchist and communist movements, it views racism and xenophobia as social problems with particular causes, not as the outcome of a failure of individual reason, caused by lack of education and cultural awareness. Instead, militant antifascists see the growth of the far-right as the result of a combination of the abandonment of the working class by its traditional leadership – Labour – and the increasingly xenophobic ideology promoted by the British state and media. Far-right groups establish bases in decaying communities suffering from the effects of the virulently anti-working class policies that have been implemented in Britain and internationally for the last twenty five years or so. With their traditional Labour patrons absent or indifferent and without a credible working class party to fill the vacuum, these communities become fertile ground for the growth of the far-right, which can walk in unopposed, putting forward populist demands and giving people someone to blame, namely immigrants, Muslims etc. With the British state having already divided people up into desirables and undesirables, or legals and illegals, and the tabloid press having made the sensationalist scapegoating of foreigners one of its principal activities, fascists practically have most of their work already done for them.
Anti-fascists therefore reject the notion that bigotry is an individual or fringe phenomenon. Instead we see it is as a social problem created and exacerbated by state policy and supported by the mainstream parties, and one that can grow to dangerous proportions because the conditions that give rise to it exist on a mass scaleIt is worth noting that the rather mainstream Financial Times reports that the latest citizenship survey found that some 77% of respondents would like to see a cut in immigration. The fact that around 80% thought their community to be “cohesive” makes this a bit less alarming, but the fact remains that the vast majority of respondents think of immigration as a problem.. Be that as it may, the growth of the far-right is not, as mainstream ideology suggests, everyone’s problem. It is almost exclusively working class areas that suffer from the presence of organised far-right groups and it is almost exclusively working class people that are recruited to their ranks. For militant antifascists, it follows that the tactics of official anti-racism are a political dead-end. Far-right activity is a problem facing working class people and opposition to it should be organised by working class people on a grassroots basis, not by unelected community leaders. Still less can mainstream political parties be seen as part of a front against the far-right. The notion that the same people who impose vicious cuts, destroying frontline services and impoverishing communities, can admonish workers to be tolerant and respect their fellow citizens is as wrong tactically as it is in principle. The poisonous ideas of the far-right gain ground precisely because ordinary people are disillusioned by mainstream politics and very often intensely dislike everyone involved. It is therefore plainly nonsensical to associate ourselves with them as if it would somehow help our cause.
However, while viewing the growth of the far right as a social problem that should be dealt with on a class basis is characteristic of most of militant antifascists, reflecting the prominence of anarchist and communist ideas within the movement, these are not its defining features. What marks out militant opposition to the far-right from generic anti-racist campaigns is the tactic of physically opposing fascist mobilisation on the street, the intention to not let them pass. This approach is often criticised by liberals as being equally intolerant, and in some cases morally equivalent to far-right practices. The right to freedom of speech is often invoked to support this case. As we have seen however, militant antifascists reject the notion that growing racial prejudice is simply the growth of an idea. Racist views can be held and expressed by individuals in a variety of situations. To my knowledge, no militant antifascist suggests that a person expressing a xenophobic or racist view in a pub should be forced to leave the room. Instead, they should be challenged with rational arguments. That however is qualitatively different from a far-right mobilisation. Such actions do not intend to express an idea or to make any political demand. They are not demonstrations but acts of intimidation. They have no other purpose but to attack ethnic or cultural groups for merely existing, rather than for any particular actions, despite attempts to claim otherwise. Such organised bullying, if left unchecked, can lead to violent attacks with street-level terrorising of particular groups becoming a regular phenomenon, as was amply demonstrated by the outcome of the EDL rally in Stoke, and as is the case in many parts of Russia and Eastern Europe.
This is why militant antifascists insist on differentiating between our activity and general opposition to racism and prejudice. Organised violence against the working class, initially against particular groups within it and then against the whole of its political movement, is the point of contact between the most erudite member of the NSDAP (the German Nazi Party) and the most blockheaded SDL thug. When Glasgow and Edinburgh antifascists mobilised to drive the SDL away, we did not do so because we feared that a bunch of football casuals could eventually seize power in Britain. Rather, we did so because we know that the far-right poses a threat to workers both as individuals and as a class. As individuals because they might be the ones caught in the next EDL riot, or attacked for being the wrong colour or belonging to the wrong religion. As a class, because every step the far-right takes in promoting its agenda leaves the working class that much more divided and demoralised, making it that much harder for ordinary people to unite in struggle. As a political force, the far-right has no other function than to recruit working people to the cause of capital, making them adopt as their own the ideology of the state, with an elementary smokescreen of radicalism in the way of denouncing those already in state power as traitors, cowards and so on. This is why anarchists, socialists and all progressive people supporting the cause of the working class have no choice but to adopt the militant way of opposing fascism.
What we have achieved and what lies ahead
The primary achievement of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Anti-Fascist Alliances is that they succeeded in ruining the SDL’s plans to organise the first successful rallies of the far-right in Scotland in two decades. Not only were the SDL prevented from marching around town intimidating people, they were also shown to be outnumbered by those who were prepared to meet them on the streets and defend their city against racists and fascists. The successful counter-demonstrations have made it unlikely we will see any more substantial “Defence League” mobilisations in Scotland in the near future, and their failure to have any impact will mean that maintaining any sort of permanent organisation on the ground will not be viable.
More importantly, the Alliances have demonstrated that it is possible for ordinary people to successfully organise at a grassroots level to protect their own communities, without the help of unelected “leaders” or the permission of those responsible for bringing about this situation in the first place. They have shown that despite the overwhelming apathy and disillusionment with politics that is characteristic of current political culture throughout the UK, people can be mobilised to defend themselves against a political threat with their own strength. Anarchists, socialists and republicans from various groups and none, as well as people who had not been actively involved in politics before have built links of trust with each other, underlining the validity of the old leftist cliché that unity is best achieved in action.
This means that as a result of our efforts, we are now in a better position to fight against the far-right than when we started out. We can mobilise more quickly and with more confidence. What is more, our gains go further than a greater ability to counter-organise. Opponents of militant anti-fascism often argue that the far-right is a political problem requiring a political solution, demonstrating an impressive skill in pointing out the obvious. As stated earlier, militants see the political dimension of the far-right as central to its nature. This is why EAFA, fully in line with the militant tradition, encourages its members to get actively involved in community organising. The links established between activists have facilitated the exchange of ideas and experience as well as providing practical help in countering of the problems that drive people towards the far-right. Such activity will be particularly helpful in the struggle against the BNP, which has for the time being abandoned street thuggery for a strategy of building bases reliant on clientelist relations in working class communities suffering from deprivation.
Unfortunately however, antifascist activity is not enough to permanently defeat the far-right. The latter’s growth is the product of the increasing impoverishment and alienation of large swathes of the working class. Pointing out that the far-right is the wrong solution, successfully as we may do, is not the same as providing an alternative. What is needed is a solid, unified political alternative with a clear socialist orientation; or at least that is what everyone on the left seems to be arguing. The fact that we agree on that much, makes the fact that we are a very long way from this goal all the more disappointing.
|↑1||Reports on the day can be found on the websites of Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Youth|
|↑2||The SDL had called for a “vigil” to commemorate the Lockerbie bombing on the 27th March. On the 7th, an article appeared on the Casuals United blog claiming that the SDL had brought its vigil forward, holding it on the 6th in order to avoid “the red fascist circus” of anti-fascist protesters. “We did not take SDL banners of flags, we stood in silence and respect, and a floral tribute was left as a mark of our great sorrow for those murdered in Lockerbie.” There is no photographic documentation of this very moving display of respect and for all we know it might not have happened at all. At any rate, the SDL did nothing that could be meaningfully described as a demonstration in Lockerbie.|
|↑3||It is worth noting that the rather mainstream Financial Times reports that the latest citizenship survey found that some 77% of respondents would like to see a cut in immigration. The fact that around 80% thought their community to be “cohesive” makes this a bit less alarming, but the fact remains that the vast majority of respondents think of immigration as a problem.|