Thursday 31 July 2008

Polemical Shadow Boxing

As a general rule, I don't mind Socialist Worker too much. In my opinion it does strike a patronising pose from time to time, but on the whole it's a good read. And I am a big fan of the design, it is easily the brightest and best-designed paper on the far left. But one thing that does annoy me, and I know the SWP are not unique in this, is polemical shadow boxing. If you're going to have a go at a rival tendency and/or a body of ideas, it's only right and proper you name them, in my opinion. And when this hits close to home, it really rankles. Turn to this article from the 22nd July issue. Anindya Bhattacharyya writes:
BNP leader Nick Griffin had vowed to use Stoke as a launching pad for a campaign against Muslims to coincide with the sentencing of Habib Khan, who was convicted earlier this year of the manslaughter of Nazi thug Keith Brown.

Habib Khan’s sentencing has now been delayed to 29 August, prompting fears that the fascists may hold their rally on that date instead. They plan to bring in Nazis from around to country and tour estates where they have a presence.

If the BNP do mobilise in Stoke, local anti-Nazi campaigners will call a protest against them. Unite Against Fascism is also holding a day of action against the BNP in Stoke this Saturday 26 July.

Some people on the left have described Brown’s death as “tragic” and tried to present him as a victim of “knife crime”. But Brown does not deserve an ounce of sympathy from anyone.
What SW doesn't want its readers to know is "some people" refers to Stoke Socialist Party and these words are taken from the leaflet we have (so far) distributed to some 6,000 homes in Stoke-on-Trent.

Aside from the completely dishonest way of critiquing our leaflet, SW's objections are mistaken. First, whether it was right to describe the death of Keith Brown, the BNP activist who was killed in a dispute with his asian neighbour, 'tragic'. Well I thought it was obvious. It is tragic because a family - not all of whom are BNP members or supporters - has lost a father. It is tragic because the family next door face losing a family member to a substantial stretch inside. Only someone devoid of feeling can deny the very real human tragedy involved. But this is coming from the paper that couldn't bring itself to condemn the murder of three thousand American workers on a sunny day in September, seven years ago.

And there is the second element to SW's complaint: "some people on the left have ... tried to present him as a victim of knife crime". If you want to be pedantic about it Keith Brown was killed with a knife and Habib Khan was found guilty of manslaughter. So yes, a crime was committed and strictly speaking Brown is a victim of knife crime. But the main point - lost on SW - is the BNP have been trying to make racist hay with the knife crime panic, and have cynically used it in this case solely because a white man was stabbed by an asian Muslim. It's not us portraying Brown a victim of the wave of knife crime - it's the BNP! And yet we get the blame ...

If you open a copy of this week's SW, you'll find a report about an anti-fascist day of action last Saturday in Bentilee, one of the wards in Stoke where the BNP holds all three councillors. What the article neglects to mention is how the event was originally billed as a discussion about anti-fascist strategy, followed by leafleting. But as you'd expect from a UAF-sponsored event, the only discussion that took place was where to leaflet and how "hostiles" should be handled. But a debate did occur, albeit outside the main room and between SWP CC member and UAF joint-secretary Weyman Bennett and the four members of Stoke SP who came along. The thing was we had a major problem with the leaflet UAF had written. It was mostly about how nasty the Nazis were (they murdered 15 million people apparently, which seems to be the UAF line) and pointing out the BNP were Nazis. In other words the same fare that has gone out time and time again in Stoke these last eight years with no discernible impact on the BNP's increasing fortunes. Another of our members felt it was patronising, almost wagging its finger at local voters for returning BNP councillors.

In reply, Weyman gave the predictable stock answer. He conceded from a socialist point of view they were inadequate and the SWP would probably prefer to hand out leaflets similar in character to ours, but this would not be the best way to build a unified anti-fascist movement encompassing everyone from the far left, mainstream Labour and 'non-political' BME and religious communities. This can only be done on a lowest common denominator basis, he thought. The problem is if you build an anti-fascist movement limited to pushing a moral argument against the BNP, you have a movement that cannot evolve in a more political direction without the fear of jeopardising this unity. It means the far left hide away their ideas while expounding the hand-wringing establishment anti-fascist views of Christians and New Labour.

If the SWP want to build unity for unity's sake, they're welcome to. But it won't tackle the ideas of the BNP. Socialist Party leaflets take them up politically and use a language we think can connect with those who have abandoned Labour and turned to the BNP as a protest as well as those who support the BNP out of more xenophobic reasons. And this draws on our extensive collective experience of talking to BNP voters and supporters on stalls and the doorstep. To reiterate, the content of UAF-style anti-fascism is determined by the internal politics of popular frontist coalition-building. Socialist anti-fascism is guided by what is necessary to challenge the BNP and undercut its support.

This also appears at Socialist Unity.


Snowball said...

I posted this on Socialist Unity, but I figured I may as well put it up here too...

Phil - two points. Firstly, Socialist Worker does not explicitly attack the Socialist Party in its article in the manner you describe - to do so would be sectarian at a time when unity in necessary and urgent in the struggle against the Nazis. Rather it makes the political point that it is unhelpful for anti-fascists to focus attention on arguing about the death of one racist thug when it comes to building a mass movement that can kick the Nazis out of Stoke.

Secondly, to build a mass movement against the Nazis requires going wider than just the socialist left. It means finding and working with people from all walks of life including religious communities as well as trade unions who are prepared to do practical work and activity against the BNP. Such a coalition - that would involve members of all parties (except the BNP and far right parties obviously) and people who are not part of any party - can only be built on a broader basis if one focuses attention solely on what the fascist menace represents.

Such coalitions of course need to be revived and built up across the country and not just in Stoke. But where they have been formed they have been successful. The strategy and tactics of UAF have been vindicated from in particular places like Oldham where the BNP once hoped to make their stronghold in the past.

In places like Stoke, where the threat from the BNP is particularly acute, surely time and energy would be better devoted by all the left in trying to build up such a strong united movement that could benefit from being linked to a national organisation which is backed by almost every major trade union like Unite Against Fascism, rather than engaging in unwarranted sectarian attacks on the internet against each other?

Phil said...

Lol, shall we repeat the debate we've been having there? ;)

Snowball, thanks for reiterating everything Weyman Bennett said on Saturday.

Look, united movements are fine and dandy. But what is unity for? In this case unity has been achieved around a liberal leaflet that does very little to challenge the BNP *politically*. It’s all about pinning the Nazi tail on the fascist donkey. What you cannot compute is this approach has *failed* and doesn’t work in Stoke.

The BNP have been repeatedly exposed as fascists, oddballs and holocaust deniers over the years and yet they can expect respectable votes nearly everywhere they stand. This suggests to me something isn’t working.

Whatever you think of Searchlight, at least they’re having an ongoing discussion about this and trying to come up with new ways of stopping the BNP. But it seems your organisation and the UAF have got your collective heads in the sand.

ModernityBlog said...

been reading the post and comments on SU, Phil

I think the SWPers' reaction indicates how right you were

Phil said...

Cheers Mod. As I've said over at Socialist Unity, the debate about anti-fascism is both timely and necessary. There is a possibility the BNP could make a significant breakthrough next year. The strategy and tactics the left adopts now will play a part in their success or failure. What the SWP cannot get through their collective heads is that labelling the BNP 'Nazis' and leaving it at that has not worked and will not work. If they are able to build a unified movement of themselves, some trade unions, Labour-types and religious sorts around this approach, it is a unity that will do little to defeat the BNP.

ModernityBlog said...


agreed, I have been following and participating in that debate

and unlike your SWP interlocutor's I came to realise the limitation's of current /recent anti-BNP propaganda

It is possible that the BNP will morph into a Le Pen type grouping

and its clear from reading the discussions at SU that people haven't ask the elementary question:

why did the NF in France grow and how ?

so much for internationalism!

background: in the 1970s the French NF were very small, and France's Left very very big. so it is good to look at what changed and what mistakes were made.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't bear to leave a comment on the SU blog. It is a tragedy and travesity that this death happened - both the antecedants and the consequences. Also since when did the SW support the death sentence? The families involved will have been badly affected on both sides.

The SWP positionon the BNP I think is wishy washy and quite liberal its all - oooooooooo stop the Nazis but I think the BNP are more than that and different than Nazis of the 30s and 40s - they a reactionary racist party. The arguments and fights we had with the SWP in the SSp when they were in the party about popular and united fronts and how to fight back against the fascists/BNP were long, protracted and came to no good solution. That is why you get "look at the SSP and their attitude to the UAF" We did not accept that was the way forward and refused to affiliate to any organisation that was not open and accountable. We actually agreed to affiliate to UAF but the conditions had to be that we were included in the democratic structures and the accounts were open - so guess what we never properly affiliated.