Friday 6 March 2009

Branch Meeting: Fascism and Anti-Fascism

It was my turn to give the lead off at last night's Stoke SP branch meeting. Because of the imminent anti-fascist conference I volunteered to do a primer - and here it is.

The left spends a lot of time condemning the BNP, damning them as fascists and Nazis and frequently mobilising against them. This weekend, for example, the North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism will be holding a special one day conference on how to beat the BNP. But why? What is it about an organisation that only has 56 councillors, 100 parish councillors and a member of the London Assembly that can rouse the passions like no other political party? In this lead off I'll be looking at three things - what fascism is, the roots of its support in Britain today and how we can go about fighting them.

If we return to the Communist Manifesto, Marx describes the capitalist state as a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. Engels in his Origin of the Family also argued that the state, in the final analysis, is an organised military body that stands in defence of capitalist property relations. But the state is no monolithic leviathan - not only is it struggled over by various factions of the bourgeoisie it has to manage and partially reflect the aspirations of the subject class - the working class. The extent to which the working class exerts an influence over the bourgeois state depends on the level of class struggle. When it is strong the labour movement can extract concessions from it. When the movement is weak the state can be used to strengthen business and the power of the bourgeoisie at our expense. In British post-war history from 1945 to 1979, you could say state economic intervention, the growing welfare state, and the semi-institutionalisation of the trade unions in the field of industrial policy reflected the strength, confidence and expectations of our class. From Thatcher's election in 1979 and the defeats of the 80s these reforms were clawed back. Socialist ideas more or less went underground and the Labour party capitulated to the neoliberal consensus around free markets, privatisation, deregulation and the dismemberment of the welfare state. It remains to be seen if the present economic crisis has conclusively brought this period to a close.

There are moments when the state can assume a degree of autonomy from the ruling class and the aspirations of the workers. This happens when class struggle reaches an equilibrium. Marx analysed this phenomena in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and termed it 'Bonapartism' after emperor Napoleon III, who seized power in France in 1851. The state and the person of Napoleon III appeared to stand above and apart from society - not least because he appeared to speak for all groups and classes. Press freedoms were curtailed, parliament emasculated and elections emptied of any democratic content but the state remained premised on the defence of capitalist property relations. Thus the rule of the bourgeoisie was preserved.

Fascism is a species of Bonapartism. Typically fascist parties and movements comprise 'lumpen' elements of the working class, declassed middle class people fallen on hard times and small business people. They always dress themselves up in the national flag and claim to be the true uncorrupted voice of their country, and are as such opposed to immigrants, the labour movement and anything else that threatens the integrity of the nation as they see it. Their politics are often crude and incoherent, but that doesn't stop the ruling class from backing them if they feel threatened by a strong working class. Italy, Germany and Spain are, if you like, the classic cases of where the fascist movement was levered into power by the ruling class off the back of intense class struggles. Fascism was their battering ram to smash the labour movements. This preserved capitalism but the price the bourgeoisie paid was political expropriation and the ruin of their countries - so it is not an option our rulers will lightly take.

Britain is a million miles away from this situation. The bourgeoisie might be worried about the economic crisis, but none of them think they're about to be swept away by socialist revolution. Hence the BNP are a comparatively tiny organisation, especially if we compare it to its brethren on the continent. But like the fascist movements of the past they fish from the same sociological pool. Equally none of them have any kind of record of standing up for workers of any colour. And the areas of Stoke they draw support from tend to be all-white, depressed, and with high rates of unemployment and welfare dependency. The 'white working class' in media-speak is synonymous with the most backward, alienated and isolated sections of our class.

This comprises their electoral bedrock in Stoke, but it is not one they can take for granted. It is mostly passive and tends to be a mile wide but only an inch deep. Their activist numbers in Stoke can’t be that much more than ours, despite having a paper membership many times our own. And this support is hardly what you would call a solid vote. Having spoken to many BNP voters over the years, especially when we were canvassing in the Abbey, the majority I spoke to could not be described as hardcore racists. I've lost count of the conversations I've had with BNP voters who previously supported Labour all their lives. Among them is a sense of grievance, abandonment and disillusionment with mainstream politics. This isn't surprising when New Labour and their carbon copies in yellow and blue have done everything to show their contempt for working class people and their aspirations. Make no bones about it, the mainstream parties are responsible for the increasing support of the BNP, not anyone else.

But seeing as the BNP are so small, why should we bother about them? First they propagate ideas that are not only repulsive to most people but also divide our class. The power of the working class depends on its strength as a unified collective - the BNP's nationalist and racist poison cuts against this and makes the tasks of socialists that much more difficult. Second is their political function - if they get a whiff of power in this country we'd better watch out. As Pastor Niemoller observed in his celebrated verse, "first they came for the communists ...". Even now they attack socialists and trade unionists if they think they can get away with it. Assaults on activists are not uncommon. Socialists have received bureaucratic harassment in some authorities where the BNP have an influence. And even local Labour party candidates have had their property vandalised for standing up against the BNP. Thirdly wherever they build a base, racist attacks and racist "incidents" follow. In Welling in the early 90s where the BNP were then headquartered there was a spike in racist assaults, culminating in the infamous murder of Stephen Lawrence. BNP activists might not be directly involved in this violence but they help create a situation that encourages racist activity.

What can we do about them? This is the question NorSCARF will be asking at Saturday's conference. NorSCARF was set up in the late 70s to counter the growing menace of the then National Front and has since been the favoured labour movement vehicle for anti-racist and anti-fascist activity in the Potteries. At present it brings together a broad range of activists from all kinds of political backgrounds, including the Labour party. This fact, which is NorSCARF's greatest strength, is also its chief weakness. In order to maintain this unity there is a tendency toward lowest common denominator politics. This keeps everyone on board, but at the price of not really hitting the BNP where it hurts. To give you an example of a NorSCARF-endorsed leaflet I helped deliver round Longton a couple of years ago, it concentrated on three matters:

1) The candidate's holocaust denial.

2) The BNP's hate-mongering over plans for Stoke's only purpose-built mosque.

3) The candidate not paying his council tax.

I wrote at the time "Given everyone in Longton is well aware of Batkin's far right lunacy (not least because his ward has been plastered with Unite Against Fascism and Searchlight material in the past) and his support remains undiminished, just highlighting his and the BNP's racism and Islamophobia just won't cut it. And as for not paying his council tax, given its relentless rise to pay for council mismanagement, is a failure to pay likely to count against him?"

People have turned to the BNP because Labour has consistently kicked them in the teeth. They are the nuclear option when it comes to protest votes. If you want to beat the BNP you have to address the conditions they feed off, but that's impossible without understanding the causes and providing a political alternative. Obviously in an organisation with Labour backing that's a problem - this was why A was shouted down at the last NorSCARF conference.

This isn't to say NorSCARF is of absolutely no use. It has done useful work making sure the BNP are dogged with racist baggage wherever they go. It's good at mobilising non-BNP voters who may otherwise stay at home. But neither tackle the underlying issues, and there is no prospect of NorSCARF of evolving into something that will.

What does this mean for our anti-fascist work? Our party has a semi-detached relationship with NorSCARF because we are not afraid of calling a spade a spade. For us fighting fascism is inseparable from arguing for socialist politics. If the BNP are growing in the absence of a working class political alternative, it follows we must work to build that alternative on the streets, in the workplace and at the ballot box. Last summer, for example, witnessed some Herculean efforts at delivering our series of anti-fascist leaflets as the BNP sought to capitalise on the killing of one of their activists. In all some 15,000 were posted through Stoke's letter boxes.

What we need to think about then is how we can work with NorSCARF and crucially draw in that layer who've come to similar conclusions as us toward our party? Should we seek to build a loose faction of like-minded activists? Forget about NorSCARF altogether? How should we relate to LMHR, who are planning a massive free gig at the end of May? And what about the RMT’s left electoral initiative?

The following discussion talked through our experiences of dealing with BNP supporters and the casual racism we often meet on stalls. One comrade joked about his activity on the banking crisis. When he started he thought that at last this would be an issue no one could possibly blame immigrants for. In the first conversation he had he explained how it was funny money could be found for that but not post offices, hospitals, etc. "Yeah ... " said the woman, "and immigrants".

Another mentioned a discussion he had on Saturday with a couple who had similar sentiments. Replying to the 'send 'em home' argument on jobs and housing, he replied that if we did that then we'd still have the same problems, and especially so if the millions of Britons who worked overseas were forced to come home. He also pointed out it wasn't Poles or asylum seekers who'd been closing the pot banks, the steel or the mines. That seemed to have a big impact on the couple, demonstrating how racist and xenophobic attitudes in most cases are very shallow.

The discussion moved on to the nitty-gritty of strategy, which I'll keep mum about.

But all in all I thought the session went well. There were new members and new people to Stoke there, and I hope the talk and discussion served as a good introduction to the local political and anti-fascist scene.


Anonymous said...

very good report phil.

though im not sure i'd agree that the bnp are necessarily 'fishing in the same pool' as the classical fascist parties in germany and italy - of course hitler and mussolini gained support from sections of the working classes but their base was the middle layers and the parties were built by appealing to the middle classes. I'd argue this was due to the relative strength of reformist and social democratic forces in the pre-war period - meaning the majority of the working class had no need for the ideas of fascism.

the bnp(and many other european fascists unfortunately) today have simply turned their focus onto the pool of disillusioned former labour voters - at this stage they are if anything a little too right wing for the middle class( who are generally more likely to vote tory than workers). and so an extremely unstable electoral base among the most desparate layers of workers and the unemployed has become the foundations of the bnp's profile and growth.

ModernityBlog said...


you might do well to emphasise with your comrades how the French NF was small in the 1970s, and recently was powerful enough to have a stab at the French Presidency, all in 25+ years

they only need to reach a critical mass and it will be very hard to stop the neo-fascists

we should never underestimate them

Anonymous said...

In response to the first comment, if we look at the BNP membership list that was disclosed late last year, we find that actually a significant portion of the BNP membership are middle class. There was a neat little pie chart in SW on this.

Anonymous said...

Luther Blisset,

Most of the people on the list don't have their occupation listed. Only those who have jobs which may be useful to the party, such as those with experience doing 'security' work, are listed.

In fact, less than 5% had an occupation noted next to their names. Not really a representative sample to draw a conclusion on.

The Sentinel said...

I would broadly agree with some of what you have to say here, primarily the fact that the toxic character assassination and smear tactic campaigns generally waged by the extreme left are unproductive, indeed most often counter-productive, and that the main parties are carbon copies of each other (with either a serving a record of failure or a previous history of failure.)

But the simple fact is that many more people are going over to the BNP because they agree with their policies in the main: Because the economic policies of consecutive governments of both left and right have left British workers in dire straits; because the great multicultural experimental failure that Britain has now become has never had permission or mandate from the British people and many, many feel displaced and disposed in their own homeland; because an overwhelming majority of British people are concerned about the ever growing Islamification of these Isles (and Europe); because an overwhelming majority of people are very concerned about crime and want something realistic and tangible done about it, not empty PC rhetoric - and so many other reasons that no other party addresses.

That is why; that is the root; and unless viable alternatives are offered to allay these concerns - and they will not be you or the other parties- it will continue.

It is widely anticipated that the BNP will land at least one MEP in the forthcoming elections, and if so, the parties emergence into the mainstream, and into an emerging opposition will strengthen enormously.

But besides all of this, why do you think that anyone would realistically listen to your party? I mean how many elected representatives do you have?

You say "What is it about an organisation that only has 56 councillors, 100 parish councillors and a member of the London Assembly" - but how many people have placed their trust in your party and elected representatives to office?

Because without that trust and base a political party is essentially defunct - and that is something you might be well better off strategizing about.

The Sentinel said...

And things like this underline the intrinsic corruption of the main parties everywhere, but is most likely the final nail in the coffin for the establishment parties at Stoke:

"A TOP councillor arrested on suspicion of corruption in public office has resigned from the Conservative Party.
Councillor Roger Ibbs has tendered his resignation from the national party less than a week after being arrested"

"The Labour Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent has been arrested as part of a police inquiry into alleged corruption.

Mark Meredith was detained at dawn yesterday and questioned by detectives from Staffordshire Police. This followed the arrest last week of a senior Conservative councillor, Roger Ibbs, over corruption allegations."

Meridith had already showed his contempt for democracy and the people of Stoke by refusing to allow elected representatives onto the cross party executive; if this corruption allegation is proven then it can safely be concluded that another reason for his arrogant and anti-democratic stance is that he knew the BNP would not go along with this Banana Republic corruption.

Either ways, Stoke just got much more interesting.

Phil said...

Cheers, Ad. Re: the base of Hitler and Mussolini I'd have to disagree. Yes, there were more middle class than the present day BNP but also their ranks were swelled with the ranks of the unemployed and particularly ex-services. I don't have the full break down with me but in a couple of weeks I'll be running a seminar on the pre-1933 Nazi movement. I'll put the demographics up on here afterwards.

Mod, no problem there - whatever we think about the BNP's prospects they have too much influence already, and that requires a consistent left wing response.

Phil said...

Sentinel, I learned early on on the doorsteps that character assassination doesn't go down well, whoever the target of it is. If you don't keep it political then you risk being lumped in with the yah-boo-sucks of mainstream politics.

Regards our electoral support, you have to keep in mind two things. Firstly the BNP has the advantage of hegemony on the far right. The majority of organised fascists can be found in its ranks. As you know the left outside the Labour party is scattered among a hodgepodge of groups. No one group has the sort of dominance on the left the BNP enjoys on the far right. If they were to be combined though that would put the far left on about 16-20 councillors - not counting localised independent groups like Wigan's Community Action Party and Barrow's Socialist Peoples Party. And then there's Galloway as well - so 16-20 councillors plus one MP is not an order of magnitude beneath the BNP's tally. And that's without counting the Greens as well, the majority of whom see themselves as a eft wing party.

The second point is that nowadays the BNP is primarily an electoralist organisation. As far as I know Stoke BNP's activity consists of regular leaflet drops and supporting the work of its councillors. My organisation, the Socialist Party, is very different. Elections are only a major concern for a minority of branches. My branch focuses on street activity, trade union and student/youth work, solidarity actions, public meetings and what have you. Elections are almost an afterthought, tbh.

There is one area election-wise where the SP completely outclasses the BNP, and that's elected positions in the labour movement. We have 20 plus lay representatives on the NECs of trade unions and that, as far as our party is concerned, is more significant to our fortunes than having 20 elected councillors up and down the country. And who knows how many elected shop stewards and TU branch committee members we have?

So yes, we do have a base. But the left doesn't take it for granted - it's something I take very seriously, both in Britain and abroad as the 30 posts tagged strategy demonstrate.

Re: the mayor situation - Stoke politics have long been interesting! I'm thinking about writing something later on - we'll see.

Robert said...

The fact is for 40 years Labour has been my party, the party which my great grand father was part of my grand father, my father, and my self my brothers my uncles , they all belonged to the Labour movement, then bang New Labour New idea's for the middle class, Brown apologized for his ten pence tax blunder, yes but it still came in and is now part of our tax structure, he knew dam well what he was doing, Welfare reforms to lower the costs of benefits.

I actually do not care about immgrants to me they are mostly people trying to better themselves , good luck to them, until companies start misusing the law to bring in people on lower wages to take jobs off people here.

But if you asked me now who I will vote for at the next election I do not know, I do know it will not be New Labour or the Tories, so the BNP have a good chance I will vote for them. will they win this next election or any election of course not, but then again New Labour are hitting immigrants now so why not vote for whom I believe will get rid of this dam so called socialist party

Phil said...

I can understand why you're thinking that way Rob, but you know the BNP's true character, you know they don't give a fig about any workers, whether white, black or indigo. If there's some sort of socialist alternative in your area you should certainly support them.

At the Euro elections, provided it stands, I will be voting (and hopefully campaigning if my work stays on schedule!) for the RMT/left initiative. If not it will probably be the Greens or Labour - I haven't really thought about it.

For the next general, if Stoke SP doesn't stand I will be putting a peg on my nose and voting Labour - if only to keep the BNP out.

Phil said...

Btw Robert, I've added your blog to my blogroll.

If you're looking for a new home you can do far worse than giving us a look.

ModernityBlog said...

agreed Phil,

but as we can see even from the above exchange that a few people get taken in by neo-fascist groupings, such as the BNP, when they play a bit of modern Strasserism

maybe one of your comrades could prepare a small branch lecture on "the pull of Strasserism, class, rebellion "?

as the lure of this strain of neo-fascism is often overlooked.

Phil said...

Good idea - I'll take that one up, unless one of my comrades are reading and fancy giving it a stab.

The Sentinel said...

I would agree that the BNP do enjoy a certain monopoly on the 'right' but there are certainly other parties that are of a distinctive 'right' nature such as the UKIP (and there are various parties of the lunatic fringe too) so it is not that cut and dried to say that the BNP enjoy complete hegemony. I think it is more a case that the BNP represent more comprehensively what such voters want.

I am not too sure about the culamative / speculative near electoral equity you claim though!

But in response to your comment to Robert - I really do not know with what realistic base you claim that the BNP 'don't give a fig about any workers' - the BNP are not financed or funded by big business and so have no obligations to fulfil nor does the genuine nationalist philosophy cater for any mistreatment of its people; indeed quite the opposite - the interests of its people are the only reason for the existence of the party. All artificial barriers such as class and so-called status are superfluous to nationalists and only the abilities of its people would determine their position in life.

In fact some of the BNP's economic policies are too radically socialist for my liking:

"{...} To that end we will restore our economy and land to British ownership. We also call for preference in the job market to be given to native Britons. We will take active steps to break up the socially, economically and politically damaging monopolies now being established by the supermarket giants.
Finally we will seek to give British workers a stake in the success and prosperity of the enterprises whose profits their labour creates by encouraging worker shareholder and co-operative schemes"

They actually go further in some documents stating that they will reform factories in co-operatives, renationalise pretty much every medium and large industry and even nationalise or directly control the banks.

For me these are steps too far - I agree with profit share and even workers management schemes and perhaps limited renationalisation but not the wholesale nationalisation of industry and the other steps that stifle entreprenal freedom and healthy competition.