The rise of the far right – what is to be done? Opening the debate

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Business as usual will not defeat the rising far right. We must mobilise together, within Britain and across Europe, to win this struggle.

Last month the former leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, was jailed for 13 months for contempt of court. He had been arrested in Leeds for filming, during the court case, men accused of being part of a gang that groomed children. His supporters both in Britain and abroad rallied rapidly to his defence claiming to support his right to free speech. Within days a petition calling for his release was half a million strong. Right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders called for his release, German MP Petr Bystron, who represents the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), asked the German government to allow Robinson to claim asylum, deeming him a ‘political prisoner’. In London there were demonstrations outside Downing Street calling for his release.

Robinson represents a rising tide of anti-Muslim hatred across Europe and the United States which has many similarities with the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. This finds fertile ground as a result of the impact of neoliberal austerity – imposed on the working classes of these countries to bolster capitalism. It has torn apart the fabric of many communities and left large numbers prey to the false narrative that blames immigrants for government-induced economic ills. This is compounded by the other set of lies, which holds the peoples of the Middle East responsible for the results of the catastrophic wars wreaked on them by the West – terrorism and a huge refugee exodus. Britain has taken virtually no refugees yet a great and baseless fear has been provoked, which has been used to fuel not only the Brexit outcome but the rise of the far right. There is fear and uncertainty and a real struggle to survive for many – and anger.  The answers provided by the far right tap into this destabilisation and are beginning to attract mass support. The fact that the governments of the USA, UK, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and others are promoting racism and suggesting racist ‘solutions’ is very dangerous and legitimises the movements growing on the ground.

This raises important questions for the labour movement today. In Italy and in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s the rise of fascism led to the destruction of the labour movement in those countries and the murder on an industrial scale of millions of people including 6 million Jews.

Are the conditions being created once more for the return of fascism in Europe? How do we organise to turn back the far right? What can we learn from previous experience?

The anti-fascist struggles of the 1970s

Things were so much simpler in the 1970s. I was a student at Middlesex Poly in the late 1970s and it was the most radical period in my political life. We spent a lot of our time occupying the campus in opposition to the attempt to introduce fees for overseas students. As far as fascism was concerned we all knew what it was and how it should be fought. No platform for fascists! Stop them marching, stop them organising. The main organisation of the far right, the National Front (NF), was led by John Tyndall who was an open fascist. There were photographs of Tyndall parading in Nazi uniform and celebrating Hitler’s birthday. The crimes of the Nazis were embedded in the consciousness of millions of people and the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) slogan – ‘Never Again’ – had real resonance.

The fascists were a threat. In the London local elections of 1977 the NF received more than 5% of the vote [119,000]. There was real concern about the NF making a breakthrough in the 1979 election. They planned to stand in more than 300 constituencies.

Fascism fed off the well-spring of racism that existed in British society, a racism reinforced by the media and some mainstream politicians. Enoch Powell had made his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968. The far-right Moral Rearmament group organised some London Dockers and Smithfield meat porters to march in support of Powell. Migrant communities which had settled in Brick Lane, Southall, Birmingham, Leicester and elsewhere came under vicious attack.

In 1976 at the Birmingham Odeon, blues guitarist Eric Clapton, the Morrissey of his day, launched into a vitriolic racist rant, ‘This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here… Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!’  This prompted Red Saunders and Roger Huddle to write a letter of protest to the music press. The letter announced the launch of Rock Against Racism (RAR), capturing the spirit of these post-colonial times bringing together punks and black youth. It put on more than 100 gigs across the country including two massive concerts at Victoria Park and Brockwell Park that attracted crowds of 60,000-100,000.

The tactic of the NF was to try and intimidate migrant communities by marching through inner-city areas. There was a struggle for control of the streets. In August 1977 they attempted to march through Lewisham. A counter-demonstration of many thousands stopped them.

In the wake of Lewisham the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which had been central to the anti-NF demo there, initiated the ANL. The ANL became a mass campaign with hundreds of prominent supporters from across the labour movement and wider society. It was as ubiquitous in those days as Stop the War was in the early noughties.

There was deep racism within the police who used the hated Sus Law to harass young people from migrant communities. Black and Asian youth set up self-defence organisations to defend their communities from attack by both fascists and police.

My partner of the time was in the Socialist Worker Student Organisation (SWSO) and I was around Big Flame, a libertarian socialist group. Most of our political work at that period, apart from attending the Grunwick picket line every morning, was helping to build opposition to the NF. We were at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 when the police – who were indiscriminately arresting black youth at Carnival – were surprised when the whole community fought back. It was pretty scary. I went home but my girlfriend stayed to defend the SW stall set up under the Westway which was in the heart of the fightback. Together we were at Wood Green, Lewisham, Brick Lane, Chapel Market and elsewhere.

There was mass opposition to the fascist threat. Wherever they tried to march there were serious attempts to stop them. The NF was turned back and at the 1979 election they received a derisory vote.

It was a successful mass campaign. But the racism in British society did not disappear and in 1978 Tory leader Margaret Thatcher made a direct appeal for the racist vote saying ‘people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’.

The 1970s also saw a period of militant working class struggle. Trade union membership reached more than 13 million. Strikes called by the TUC forced the release of London dockworkers jailed under the Industrial Relations Act. The miners’ union forced the Heath government to call an election which he lost.

Although there were movements of the right across Europe in the 1970s they were weak. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National, received less than 1% in the 1974 Presidential election.

The 1970s saw revolution in Portugal and the death of Franco in Spain. There were powerful mass communist parties in France and Italy. The military junta in Greece fell in 1974.

Across Europe the far left numbered tens of thousands. We still felt, as the Thunderclap Newman song went, that there was ‘Something in the Air’.

What are we facing today?

Today the situation could not be more different. Although since the late 1990s we have seen mass anti-globalisation and anti-war campaigns and the largest demonstrations in British political history, the decline of the labour movement – which began under Thatcher with the defeat of the miners in 1984-5, followed by the defeat of the printers at Wapping in 1986-7 – has not been halted. Trade union membership now numbers 6 million rather than 13 million and strike levels are at their lowest since 1893. Only 33,000 workers were in dispute in 2017 – despite that year being the worst period of wage growth since 1815.

The left outside the Labour Party has suffered a similar decline. The end of the Soviet Union also saw the decline of mass communist parties in the West.  In Britain in the 1970s the Communist Party had around 30,000 members and significant influence in the trade union movement. The Communist Party of Britain today has less than 1,000, mostly inactive, members.

All the organisations of the Trotskyist left have undergone splits and membership decline. The SWP, the largest of these, is a shadow of its former self. In the 1970s it was a vibrant organisation with a young membership and serious representation in the shop stewards movement. Today the organisation is much reduced in numbers with an ageing membership and is still struggling to overcome the legacy of a badly mismanaged rape allegation against a senior member. But it is still the organisation most involved in ‘Stand Up to Racism’ and ‘Unite Against Fascism’.

Today the far right is on the rise across Europe. From Poland to Hungary, Italy, Austria, France, Germany and elsewhere far right parties are making significant electoral headway. In some places they are in government.

One of the most striking aspects of this rise of the nationalist right is the degree to which they are organising on an international level. They recognise the importance of building international contacts and political solidarity in a way that the left today, despite its formal affiliation to internationalism, has largely abandoned.

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has become something of a roving ambassador for this new international ‘alt-right’ movement. He spoke at the Front National meeting alongside Marine Le Pen. Bannon said ‘Let them call you racist, xenophobes, nativists, homophobes, misogynists – wear it as a badge of honour!’ He understands the importance of extending the political coalition around the alt-right, finding time to address ultra-conservative Catholic groups at the Vatican, as well as figures on the right of the Conservative Party such as Rees-Mogg with whom he met in December 2017. Rees-Mogg calls Bannon ‘interesting and well-informed’.

Tommy Robinson has forged close links with the French right-wing ‘Generation Identity’ movement which is developing national sections across Europe.

What is the strategy of the far right?

A new political coalition of the right is in formation. It is in its infancy but it is beginning to draw together UKIP, EDL remnants, Trump supporters, Farage, Christian Fundamentalist groups, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, Tommy Robinson and disaffected right-wing Tories. Most of these groups were represented at the ‘Free Speech’ march and rally in May 2018 called after Robinson was banned from twitter. What unites them all are the campaigns ‘against [Islamic] terrorism’ and for ‘free speech’ and for Robinson’s release from prison.

Such a new coalition will draw its strength from the Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism that mainstream press and politicians have promoted over the last two decades.  Counter-intuitively it is the decline of UKIP that has allowed a wider support base for this potential coalition to develop.

One should not over-estimate the dangers faced from this grouping – it’s in its infancy and we all know the ability of the far right to engage in factional struggle. But neither should it be underestimated: this is a serious attempt to do far right politics in a different way in the most auspicious climate it has seen for decades.

In order to become a more powerful political force it will need two elements 1] serious finance of the kind that could be provided by people like Aaron Banks. Banks and Farage have been discussing for some time how to launch a new political project and 2] a political programme that extends beyond, while incorporating, the racism and Islamophobia that drive this re-groupment.

The left must understand the dynamic of this threat from the far right although there are differences over the role of Brexit in these developments. In my view, Brexit provides a particular opportunity to unite the forces of the far right – a group calling itself the UK Freedom Marches has called a demonstration for June 23rd, the anniversary of the Referendum.

Much of the British left – and this includes the SWP, the Communist Party and others – considered the Brexit vote to be a progressive rejection of the establishment seeing it, as Socialist Worker said, as ‘a revolt against the rich’. Others, including myself, argue that the vote for Brexit, on the back of the anti-immigrant, xenophobic leave campaign, together with the election of Donald Trump, was part of a dangerous turn to the right in world politics. Brexit put fuel into the tanks of the right – Home Office figures showed hate crimes rocketed by almost a third in the UK in the year after the EU referendum, with unprecedented spikes around the referendum itself; it energised both the Trump campaign in the US and strengthened the far right across Europe. No doubt these debates will continue within the movement but they cannot be an obstacle to building unity against the far right.

How do we halt the rise of the far right in Europe?

Despite the political differences over Brexit it is vital that the workers’ movement unites to oppose this growing threat from the right. It is crucial that we have the widest possible debate on the left on the question of Brexit and internationalism. It is my contention that there can be no such thing as a People’s Brexit and that in order to turn back the right both here and across Europe we will have to re-build international solidarity organisations, strengthen collective political and trade union activity, and raise once again the lost slogan ‘for A Socialist Europe’. There is much work to be done here. In the early years of the century there was significant political cooperation on a number of levels, most notably through the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements, and through the European Social Forum (ESF). 20,000 came to the ESF in London in 2004, bringing activists together for sharp and challenging debate, strategy and action. Subsequently weakening, the social forum project was pretty much knocked out by the global economic crisis of 2007/8, but lessons can be learned from that experience.

The imposition of austerity policies across Europe has given rise to new radical left waves, as well as far right responses, and we must work more closely with the left currents that are challenging austerity and the far right. In Britain the radical left surge has taken the form of support for Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Yet the rise of the Corbyn movement has not made Britain immune to this growing threat from the right. The victory of the left in the Labour Party is a huge step forward but the pressure on the Labour left following that victory has been such that it has demobilised thousands of young people who joined to support Jeremy. Many have been sucked into the vacuum of inner Labour Party political struggle, an airless space.

If there is one lesson from history that should be burnt into our brains it is to avoid splitting the movement. It was the policy of the Third Period, dividing the Social Democrats and the Communists, which led to the defeats in Germany in 1933, opening the way to the full horrors of Nazi rule.

The existing anti-fascist and anti-racist organisations are to be respected for prioritising this crucial political struggle and they are essential to our future work. But the way things are developing, they are insufficient to meet the threat we face: the anti-fascist and anti-racist movement needs a massive input of energy and commitment from the broader labour and progressive movement. Business as usual will not defeat the rising far right. We must mobilise together, within Britain and across Europe, to win this struggle.

Steps to bring us together are crucial. The preparation of a European-wide conference of anti-fascist and anti-racist organisations and activists is an essential step if we, collectively, are to take forward the debate that can underpin the unity and development of the movements on the scale that is necessary: to meet the rise of the internationalising far right.

The pages of Public Reading Rooms are open for analysis and debate on how we meet the challenge of the rise of the far right. See all articles here… To join the debate, please send contributions to editor@prruk.org.

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