By Chris Page
So, in the aftermath of the much-hyped EDL demonstration in Tower Hamlet’s earlier this month, the common slogan seems to be “They did not pass!” Anyone who knows their anti-fascism history will know this as a reference to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, where the noble actions of residents, activists and trade unionist stopped Oswald Moseley’s Union of Fascists from entering Cable Street.
Let’s be clear on a few things: firstly, the EDL did, essentially, march. This is in spite of Theresa May’s reactionary attempts to prevent this from occurring. The EDL travelled as a large group across London, in a procession which essentially equated to a rowdy and noisy march, as well as back to their coaches at the end of the day. Around 1000 people attended a rally at Aldgate Station, where Tommy Robinson spoke (after making a joke of dressing up as a Rabbai. He’s totally not racist, is he?) If anything, this proves that measures from the top down will not stop an Active demonstrations of fascism, something I have written on at length elsewhere. The UAF organised demonstration certainly did march as well (good on them for doing so) but eyewitness accounts from the ground suggested that much of the anti-fascist demo was spent listening to somewhat clichéd speeches, and then a lot of waiting around, before learning that the EDL had left.
Hooray! We stopped them! They did not pass! Sitting at home, recovering from a major depressive episode, I watched the triumphalism pour over Facebook. Yet the question that came to my mind was “How?” The anti-fascists were separated from the EDL by a small army of riot police. The closest they ever got was a distant glimpse of England flags and the far-off discordant notes of “God Save the Queen.”
But let’s look at the grander picture. What did the anti-fascists achieve? Are we a step closer to stamping out the EDL? Did we win a decisive victory, or tackle a root cause of fascism – no. In fact, the UAF demo was, for want of a better word, passive. Tommy Robinson was arrested, but this will not kill off the EDL. Indeed, it seems to have galvanised support for them, as they can now claim that they have been deprived of their freedom of speech.
A stalemate is food for thought – it suggests that it is time to reconsider tactics and ends. UAF’s response to Tower Hamlets suggests either a total divorce from reality, or a blind triumphalism. The latter is much more worrying – if the anti-fascist movement is willing to accept a stalemate as a major triumph, then it is clutching desperately at straws, albeit with a glazed and self-congratulatory smile on its face.
THE STATE AND FASCISM
In doing so, the anti-fascist movement is entering dangerous territory, by playing into the hands of the state. Let us be clear: despite the bland assurances of mainstream politicians that they oppose fascism, it is they who are upholding, and, indeed, creating a system which breeds fascism. Even if there is genuine anti-fascist sentiment in mainstream politicians, it is almost childish in its simplicity. They are “evil” or “nazis” – whilst I would agree with both, to some extent, simple name calling does little more than de-contextualise fascism as a movement from its social circumstances.
Furthermore, it wasn’t the anti-fascists who prevented the EDL from entering Tower Hamlets, but the small army of riot police. On the surface, bravo! But on closer analysis, we see a worrying attitude by the state. Yes, the police kept the fascists out, but they allowed them to hold a large, static demo. The police, it would seem, played to role of a parent, trying to keep two feuding children apart. Credible eyewitness accounts suggest that the police were actually helping the EDL get to their demo, by giving them the monopoly over Tube travel to Tower Hamlets. When an EDL coach was targeted after driving into Tower Hamlets (not supposed to do that, are they?) the police launched a heavy crackdown in Mile End.
Can this really be called a demonstration, or simply a tame celebration of state power?
FASCISM AND THE WORKING CLASS.
A potential counter argument comes to the mind: what, exactly, am I advocating? Am I simply annoyed that there wasn’t a good old fist-fight between Red and Nazis? Not at all.
It is important that we draw a distinction between so called “classical fascism” and the EDL. Broadly speaking, there are similarities – the racism, obviously, and the strongly nationalistic world view. That said, the EDL has more been more effective at masquerading its views as those of the workers. The EDL taps into, and claims to respond to, an Islamaphobic cultural hegemony, and claim to be the voice of the “ordinary” British person against a threat to the lifestyle of the British worker, an idealised lifestyle situated within the framework of extreme nationalism. “Classical Fascism” is exclusively nationalistic; that is to say it vehemently opposes class based internationalist ideologies (socialism, communism, anarchism). It may be verbally anti-capitalist but, in practice, destroys working-class organisations and leaves capitalist power relatively unscathed. The EDL give more a primacy to ideas of race, rather than economics. But, by the very fact that they are a fascistic movement, they stand for the same things as classical fascism.
What I am saying is this: EDL fascism masquerades as a working class ideology, when it is clearly not. It attempts to appeal towards the working class by offering simple solutions to their wage slavery and alienation. As Hal Draper writes, fascism often thrives on a lack of education – a burden the working class will feel more than ever in a country which is savagely cutting funding to education. James Cannon in Fascism and the Workers Movement (1954), writes that it is workers who must force a counter-movement to fascism because of fascism’s middle class appeal:
“The workers are the strongest power in modern society. If they show a resolute will to take hold of the situation and effect the necessary revolutionary change, the millions of desperate middle-class people—impoverished farmers, bankrupt small businessmen and white-collar elements—who have no independent power of their own, will follow the workers and support them in their struggle for power. This was demonstrated in the Russian Revolution of November 1917.
On the other hand, if the workers, as a result of inadequate or pusillanimous leadership, falter before their historical task, the allegiance of the middle-classes will rapidly shift to the support of the fascists and lift them into power. This alternative outcome of the social crisis was demonstrated in Italy and Germany.”
WHY A WORKERS MOVEMENT?
Let us sum up briefly: Fascism, including the form offered by the EDL, is not a working class ideology. Fascism opposes internationalist workers unity, and it substitutes class based politics for the politics of race, and nationalism. The origins of fascism are found in capitalist system, a product of the bourgeoisie, the ultimate reactionary movement when faced with the crisis of capitalism.
The sober lesson of history shows us that where the workers do not take action, fascism flourishes. In his essay “For a Workers United Front Against Fascism” Trotsky pinpoints a similar problem with the German left’s reaction to Nazism.
“If you place a ball on top of a pyramid, the slightest impact can cause it to roll down either to the left or to the right. That is the situation approaching with every hour in Germany today. There are forces which would like the ball to roll down towards the right and break the back of the working class. There are forces which would like the ball to remain at the top…The Communists want the ball to roll down toward the left and break the back of capitalism. But it is not enough to want; one must know how.”
The tragic flaw of the German left was the belief that a) the victory of fascism was certain but that b) the ball would roll to the left and fascism would be little more than the death throws of capitalism. Whilst the modern left does not see the victory of fascism as inevitable, it is drawing a similarly conclusion to the Stalinists of the 1930s though complacently claiming victory where none can be found. We may not be under threat of a immediate fascist dystopia, but we are ignoring the reality of the situation if we claim victory where there isn’t one.
Trotsky takes his analysis of “anti-fascism” further, in his later essay “Once Again on the Causes of the Defeat in Spain” (1939):
“The very concept of “anti-fascism” and “anti-fascist” are fiction and lies. Marxism approaches all pheneomena form a class standpoint. Azana is anti-fascist only to the extent that fascism hinders bourgeoisie intellectuals from carving out parliamentary or other careers. Confronted with the necessity of choosing between fascism and the proliterian revolution. Azana will always prove to be on the side of the fascists. His entire policy during the seven years of revolution proves this.”
Trotsky’s point here is the fascism is a threat to the working class, because it is anti-revolutionary. Despite having an anti-capitalist veneer, fascism can win the support of the bourgeoisie. In this case, Manuel Azana, the republican president of the Second Spanish Republic, was seen as an ally of the communist and socialist movements when the majority of the bourgeoisie supported Franco. Trotsky bemoans this as a tactical error; not only did this allow the bourgeoisie to set a limit on the workers revolutionary movement, but actively played into the hands of the bourgeoisie. In a world where the choice is socialism and fascism, Azana and other aspects of the bourgeoisie would, and did, choose to oppose socialism, which meant that they played into the hands of the Fascists. When Trotsky says that “anti-fascism” is “fiction and lies” he does not, of course, mean the ideology itself – but that, on its own, it is not enough. If you are anti-fascist, you must be for something; for a workers revolutionary movement, a true alternative to reactionary fascism.
I do not oppose UAF at all – I merely oppose seeing a victory where there isn’t one. They are, like the SWP and SP, comrades, and we have a common ground in our battle against fascism. I would not discourage anyone from going on a UAF demo – of course we must turn out against the EDL. Indeed, I would advocate a greater involvement in the UAF, so that (*hat of optimism placed on head*) we might change the organisation and methods of UAF. We must take advantage of the structures which are already in places to fight fascism, even though they are not, at the present time, perfect.
What is victory for the anti-fascist movement? We are we aiming for? If “victory” means standing behind a line of riot police until the EDL get bored and go home, then perhaps I’m in the wrong movement. I am not satisfied with a ban on marches, or the brief prison time of Tommy Robinson. Surely, “victory” would mean the EDL and other fascist organisations withering away. This cannot be accomplished by passive measures, but by countering fascist hatred with a genuine alternative, a workers movement committed to socialism.