- Category: Fighting Oppression
- Published on Thursday, 7 November 2013
- Written by Morgan Llewellyn
A debate is coming to a head within the anti-fascist movement around strategy and tactics. These debates focus around questions of substitutionism, physical opposition, and the relationship both between the far right and the political mainstream and between the anti-fascist movement and the political mainstream. Unite Against Fascism (UAF), which has been the principal home for those involved in anti-fascist work for the past ten years, has increasingly been criticised for a number of serious shortcomings. Much like the left in general, however, these criticisms are occurring in a period of flux for the anti-fascist movement. New groups and organisations, principally the Anti-Fascist Network (AFN), have arisen which promote often radically different strategies and tactics to UAF. Creating an effective anti-fascist movement which can challenge the existing far right, as well as acting as a firewall preventing the rise of an even more dangerous fascist movement suh as we see in many continental European countries, requires that we engage with these debates seriously.
UAF have, for a number of years, been reliably the organisation that mobilises against the English Defence League (EDL), the British National Party or other far-right organisations when they seek to organise. This activity is usually centred around counter-canvassing at elections, organising meetings and demonstrations and passing motions and affiliations in traditional left wing terrains such as trade and student unions. These are the tactics of UAF and, while it could be said that some tactics such as mass direct action have been neglected or worse opposed, these are all very worthy things to do. The strategy utilised by UAF has, however, become increasingly problematic. Borrowing the tactic of the united front from Trotsky’s work on Germany, the strategists of UAF drawn from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have tried to forge an alliance with forces to their right, namely the Labour Party as well as “community leaders” and trade union bureaucrats. The aim of this strategy is to relate to the thousands of people who relate rightly or wrongly to these people with the aim of drawing them into anti-fascist activity. This approach makes sense in a number of contexts but not in others, namely when the Labour Party has moved considerably further to the right than it had been in the late 70s and early 80s when the predecessor of UAF, the highly successful Anti Nazi League (ANL), was active. If a genuinely reformist workers‘ party which carried some social weight and could mobilise sections of the working class existed it would be a mistake not to relate to it in some way but now more than ever, with the previous links between working class communities and the Labour Party disintegrating at a rapid rate, this tactic seems to be more of a regurgitated formula than a pragmatic approach to fighting racism and fascism. This strategy of seeking the involvement of “worthies” and dignitaries is, in essence, an attempt to create a shortcut to a mass anti-fascist movement. Paul Holborow, a key SWP activist within the ANL, spoke of how “Peter [Hain] brought a vital dimension; he opened up doors to the Labour Party. He also brought experience of running a press campaign, which we didn't have at all.” This being the last time that the Labour left grew it was important for those in Labour seeking to develop left credentials to be involved in groups such as the ANL. In the present, with the Labour Party offering no alternative to neoliberalism and austerity, this strategy only serves to attach those on the far left to the coat-tails of the mainstream and be dragged rightwards with them.
Through this process of seeking the most shallow level of support among the mainstream, UAF have bent over so far backwards to appear safe and respectable that the actual business of fighting racism and fascism and their political embodiment in the far right has been undermined. The success of the ANL was not solely due to a political lash-up between the SWP and parts of the Labour left; more important was the nature of the ANL as a broad mass campaign linked to youth culture through Rock Against Racism which succeeded in disrupting the activities of the far right and denying them the space to grow. Certainly the strength of the SWP at the time as well as their willingness to work outside the ranks of the far left made this an easier job, but the crucial dimension to a successful anti-fascist movement is its ability to fight fascism.
On this front the role of UAF has been a mixed one. It has certainly been prominent to the point of eclipsing, until now, nearly all other anti-fascist groups. This has largely been because the anti-fascist movement has been small while the relative size of the SWP allowed them to launch UAF in 2003 with a couple of thousand pre-prepared activists making UAF the biggest fish in a very small pond. UAF has largely because of its dependence on SWP activists struggled to build durable groups in localities. This situation has undoubtedly become worse following the recent crisis within the SWP. This again begs the question why has UAF’s version of anti-fascism tended towards the tame – unity rallies safe distances from the far right, speeches rather than confrontations, bargaining with the police, and so on. It also begs the question as to why the SWP has not been the radical and critical pole within UAF that it sets itself out to be, for example the instance where the arrest of 286 people at the Tower Hamlets demo was sluggishly responded to right through to horror stories of SWP/UAF officials pointing out “troublemakers” on anti-fascist demonstrations. The SWP undoubtedly makes up the bulk of UAF’s activists and is by and large more radical than other elements within the front, but it is again the case that a model of anti-fascism has been developed in which the trade union bureaucracy and figures from the political mainstream (many of which have distanced themselves from UAF since January) play a central role.
One of the biggest tactical questions being raised by anti-fascists is centred on the role of physical confrontation within an anti-fascist movement. In general a false dichotomy is drawn between mass mobilisations and physical confrontation. Two styles of anti-fascism are counterposed: one which involves small groups of clandestine activists tracking down fascists and beating them up and one which seeks to openly mobilise large numbers of ordinary people to politically challenge the legitimacy of fascist movements. The first style of anti-fascism, commonly referred to as “squadism” after the anti-fascist squads of the late 70s, is largely demonised as having avoided or shunned the important work of making anti-fascism popular and involving large numbers of people in the process of opposing fascism. The counter-argument put forward by those labelled “squadists” is that movements which focus only on big demonstrations and public awareness have neglected the task of hindering fascist groups in their day-to-day activities and allowed them space and confidence to grow on the streets. These arguments, although having existed among various anti-fascist movements during the 20th century, were particularly prominent in the late 70s in Britain and the consequences of those arguments still shape the anti-fascist movement in Britain today. The “dual track” approach of the late 70s, where the ANL not only initiated large public rallies and gigs but also engaged in mass confrontation and organised squads for the protection of meetings and disruption of fascist events, gave way to a singular emphasis on mass activity. This ideological break originated, as with many of the changes within the anti-fascist movement, within the SWP. An argument around squadism arose which culminated in the leadership of the SWP expelling a number of “squadists” from the party. Through the process of winning the majority of the SWP to their way of doing things the party’s leadership came to distance themselves from their more militant anti-fascist past and in the process created an organisational split in the anti-fascist movement between the ANL and Anti Fascist Action which was initiated by those expelled over the squadism debate. The dual-track approach had, however, been highly effective, as SWP member Ian Birchall wrote: “Physical confrontation meant that only the most brutish thugs continued to march and the size of NF demonstrations fell rapidly,” while public events such as Rock Against Racism gigs and other populist work introduced thousands to anti-fascism. The role of those engaging in physical confrontation is not to substitute small “radical” elements for “soft” mass ones but is part of the process of mass movements developing militant self-activity and self-organisation beyond being called out onto the streets by community leaders and dignitaries. In the present context where it is likely that many individuals brought to far-right politics by the EDL will be won over to more confrontational street politics such as that embodied by the casuals or infidels, the question of physical confrontation will be pushed on antifascists whether they like it or not.
UAF has increasingly embodied an approach which shies away from confrontation with the far right, allowing them to grow confident in their ability to dominate the streets, as best exemplified by the Casuals United slogan “We go where we want”. However, new tactics and organisations have arisen to address this deficit. One example can be seen in Brighton where the nationalist event “March For England” has been confronted two years running with mass direct action and physical confrontation. The driving force behind this has been Brighton Antifascists, one of the initiators of the AFN, who have melded the tactics of mass mobilisation and mass direct action to severely limit the ability of the far right to organise – the idea being to prevent fascists from marching at all, not just to prevent them from marching to a certain destination or to show verbal opposition to such a march. UAF must avoid falling into the trap of moderate anti-racism embodied by organisations such as SOS racisme in France, dominated by the needs and sensibilities of the social democratic Socialist Party, which has allowed the Front National to gain a foothold from which they have launched themselves into mainstream credibility.
Highlighting deficiencies in UAF's approach to anti-fascism is not to suggest that we would be better off without it. Some sections of the left, it would seem, would rather have a tiny anti-fascist movement rather than one in which the SWP plays a part. The purpose of such criticism is to point towards a kind of anti-fascism where a desire for politically mainstream support does not mean adopting ineffective tactics that sit comfortably with those only concerned about the next round of council or trade union elections.