Today we do not have the excuse of being unaware of where the toxic politics of the far right can lead if allowed to go unchecked.The beast of the far right has awoken. It has awoken and is on the march across Europe to an extent not seen since the 1930s, when in similar conditions of austerity and political crisis it enjoyed significant traction. In the UK it has elevated Tommy Robinson from the status of Muslim-baiting thug to working class hero.
As the product of a low-income working class background – and therefore about as far away from a liberal commentator spouting politically correct platitudes as can be – I feel qualified to state that just as Oswald Mosley and his fascist Blackshirts posed a threat to working class unity and solidarity in Britain in the 1930s, today’s brand of far right politics in Britain is engaged in the same project, only this time with the country’s Muslim rather than Jewish community in its sights as the enemy within.
And, to be sure, the terms of the demonisation of Muslims today mirror the terms of the demonisation of Jews in the 1930s – i.e. they’re not like us; their culture and religion is primitive and barbaric; they refuse to assimilate; they’re not loyal to this country or its values; they’re a threat, dirty, backward; they are children of a lesser God.
Establishment collusion with the far right
What people need to understand, the nettle that needs to be grasped when it comes to the far right, is that its narrow and divisive politics mean that as a political current it is incapable of rising to prominence on its own. It requires the tacit, and sometimes implicit, support of an establishment in crisis – one that finds itself unable to surmount the contradictions within capitalism that explode into sharp relief on the back on the kind of global depression/recession such as held sway in the 1930s, and such as has impacted the global economy in our time. These are contradictions that have been compounded by Tory austerity, just as they were in the 1930s.
Back then a growing section of the political and media establishment began to view with sympathy Oswald Mosley and his fascist boot-boys as the antidote to a rising tide of working class support for communist and socialist ideas – ideas which had gained in traction due to mass unemployment and, with it, spiralling poverty and despair. The Daily Mail’s infamous ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ front-page headline of 1934 was only the most glaring example of this support establishment.
Churchill’s approval of Mussolini
In fact sympathy and support for Mussolini and later Hitler, the fascist ideas they espoused, was far more widespread within the British ruling class than the official histories allow – and for obvious reasons.
Consider, for example, Churchill’s speech to UK Treasury officials in the late 1920s, upon his return from a trip to Rome: “It [Italy] possesses a Government under the commanding leadership of Signor Mussolini which does not shrink from the logical consequences of economic facts and which has the courage to impose the financial remedies required to secure and to stabilise the national recovery.”
Britain’s future wartime prime minister did of course shift his stance on the virtues of fascism, waking up to the fact that rather than ‘commanding leadership’, under fascism there would only be ruination and barbarism without end. Churchill’s opposition to Hitler, it should be noted, was primarily rooted in his stalwart defence of the British Empire, the very empire that Hitler wanted to emulate in Eastern Europe all the way up to the Urals.
The key point is that today we do not have the excuse of being unaware of where the toxic politics of the far right can lead if allowed to go unchecked, and thus it behoves us to learn from history lest be doomed to repeat it. Which brings me back to Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) and the growth in support the far right is currently enjoying across Britain.
Tommy Robinson as working class hero?
Since being sent to prison for 13 months in May on a charge of contempt of court, to which the founder of the English Defence League pled guilty, and subsequently upon his later release on bail, Robinson and his toxic views have been elevated to a position of prominence within mainstream political discourse. To all intents, he has been depicted as a victim of political persecution, a man with the courage to stand up to an establishment that refuses to resist the growing ‘Islamification’ of the country in service to a liberal multicultural agenda.
Proof of this is the way his supporters are now being provided with platforms on mainstream media programs, allowed to spew their far right toxic politics uncontested. It leaves no doubt that we have entered a new stage, one alarmingly redolent of the 1930s.
Robinson himself, moreover, has been elevated to the status of cause celebre within far right circles across Europe and further afield, feted as a champion of free speech abroad and champion of the ‘white working class’ at home. The reality is that he remains a peddler of hate speech, while his politics are explicitly anti-working class in their religious bigotry.
According to Hope Not Hate, “Lennon [Tommy Robinson] routinely fails to draw a distinction between Islamist extremists and ordinary Muslims. To see Lennon’s prejudiced homogenisation of all Muslims in sharp focus, one need look no further than his reaction to the arrival in Europe of refugees and migrants fleeing Islamic extremism in the Middle East. He has completely refused to draw a distinction between perpetrator and victim.”
That mass murdering white supremacist Anders Brevik cited in his 1500-page ‘manifesto’ Robinson’s English Defence League (EDL) among his fellow travellers is significant. It is also significant that at the series of ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ violent demonstrations that were held while he was in prison for contempt, fascist salutes were a common sight.
More sinister, still, is the way the normalisation of anti-Muslim bigotry has found its way to the top of the Tory Party, with Boris Johnson’s carefully calibrated attack on the small minority of women within the Muslim community who wear the burqa/nikab. Johnson knew precisely what he was doing. Moreover, the fact that this particular demarche came soon after the former foreign secretary and putative prime minister enjoyed a face to face meeting with Trump’s erstwhile white nationalist brain, Steve Bannon, not a point we can afford to skate over either.
A class for itself
The antidote to the toxic ideology and odious politics of the far right in the 1930s was a working class mobilised and organised as a class ‘for itself’, moving thereby from its passive state as a class ‘in itself’. The former describes socialism, rooted in the politics of solidarity with oppressed minorities; while the latter describes sociology, and is fertile recruiting ground for hate preachers peddling sectarianism and bigotry.
One of the most powerful examples of a British working class mobilised on the basis of class rather than racial or national consciousness came in London in October 1936, when in its tens of thousands it appeared on the streets in all its wonderful diversity.
They comprised Jewish, Irish, English, men and women of all ages – people of all faiths and none – uniting to stop Mosley and his army of fascists marching through the East End spouting their anti-Jewish and anti-working class poison.
This event is known to history as the Battle of Cable Street.
In 2018, with a resurgent far right on the march, another Cable Street approaches in similar conditions – economic, political and social – to those which obtained then.
The working clas has risen to meet the threat of the far right before. Now, with the beast of the far right on the march again, it must do so in our time.
• The rise of the far right
• How do we fight the new right-wing popular movements?
• Islamophobia and the new fascist movement
• Creeping Fascism: what it is, and how we fight it