Friday, 14 November 2008

Antifa, the fight against fascism, and the anarchist movement

With the most recent victory in local elections for the British National Party, David Owens has become the newest of over fifty councillors for the white nationalist party. The level of success currently enjoyed by the BNP is unprecedented for the far-right in the United Kingdom. There are a variety of reasons for this, but it should be starkly clear to everyone that the tactics of the anti-fascist movement are failing. Both the statist anti-fascist groups (Searchlight, Unite Against Fascism, and Hope Not Hate) and the anarchists of Antifa have failed to grasp how the reasons for the party's electoral success alter the battleground and to formulate tactics against white nationalism that would be both effective and coherent.

The most obvious major factor is the party's moves towards "modernisation" under Nick Griffin, which, as Griffin himself admitted in a speech to American white nationalists alongside former KKK leader David Duke, is nothing more than a superficial change of image and terminology. He is not "selling out" the old BNP but merely "selling" it. With appropriate irony, the BNP website's "countering the smears" section confirms this. Here you will find them using comparison to conservation of non-sentient animals to justify opposition to mixed marriage; describing homosexuality as something that "affects less than 2% of the population" that they don't want to "promote" or "encourage" (as though it were akin to, say, nose-picking or dressing like a goth); trying to justify only allowing whites to join on "interest group" grounds despite being a political party that intends to run the entire country; and trying to play off an immigration policy aimed at the repatriation of as many non-whites as possible (although they'd tolerate a few as long as hey remain "just that – minorities") as "colour-blind."

The anti-fascist movement is aware of this attempted rebranding, and wholeheartedly reject it. Antifa's response to the BNP's attempt to "have us all believe they are a new 'whiter than white' (pun intended) reincarnation of their former selves" is that they "do not buy this lie for a moment." UAF simply states that despite the BNP's attempts "to present itself as a ‘respectable’ political party" they remain "a fascist party." However, they seem unable to grasp how significant the image change has been in the party's electoral success. Enough people are taken in to make the far-right a significant presence in British local politics, and they will not be convinced of their folly by the UAF's "BNP fact sheet," part of a policy which, Antifa astutely observe, amounts to "shout[ing] racist at the working class folk who are hoodwinked into voting for the far right while urging us all to vote Labour who were responsible for failing the working class so miserably in the first place." However, Antifa can claim no greater success in this area, as both groups support the stance of "No Platform," which the BNP's continued rise has attested to the utter failure of.

As more people are convinced by the party, more want to know exactly why they are such a bad group and why they should be opposed. Neither the UAF's insistent and patronising rhetoric nor the wider stance of "No Platform" provide any answers. Instead, the white nationalist party are thriving in censorship and demonisation, claiming empathy and support as martyrs of free speech. Censorship of extremism, as I have argued before, is counterproductive. The entire policy of "No Platform" needs to be scrapped as it is more helpful than harmful to the party. Instead, what we need is a consistent and in-depth challenge to the nationalist ideology and policies they espouse. If we are to call the BNP racist, fascist, or totalitarian, or to say that a policy of theirs is unjust, inhumane, or utterly unworkable, we cannot simply assert it by fiat. We must back up our assertions with solid, evidence-based reasoning.

The hysteria that the media have whipped up over immigration, combined with their branding of the government - whose immigration and asylum policies are at best inhumane - as "soft" has taken the genuine concerns and anxieties of the working classes and aimed the resentment they create in entirely the wrong direction. Instead of the captains of industry who exploit migrant labour for their own gain, and who use the mass migration engineered by globalisation to undercut wages and undermine trade union rights, and the successive Conservative and Labour governments that both pander to the whims of big business over the working classes and use migrants as a scapegoat to divert attention from their own follies, it is migrants themselves - fellow victims and fellow working classmen - who take the brunt of the blame. This, as Antifa correctly surmise, has also been a factor that the BNP have been able to capitalise on and increase their successes with:
Traditionally fascist parties have used ethnic minorities as a scapegoat for the problems created by capitalism. For instance the BNP often point to migrant workers as being the cause for the degradation of the NHS or the reason for the lack of decent social housing. Similarly they blame migrant workers for “taking our jobs” instead of attacking the employers who routinely pay derisory wages and treat workers like disposable commodities. The reason fascist groups tend to attack ethnic minorities and immigrants in this way are because they want to divide the working class. By sowing the seeds of division, fragmentation and suspicion in working class communities they undermine notions of solidarity and cooperation thus strengthening the status quo and perpetuating existing inequalities in society.
Which, of course, is also another point in favour of coherently rebutting rather than censoring the claims made by the far right (not to mention the media and capitalist classes). "No Platform" has not stopped the BNP from organising or from saying their piece, it has distracted the left from countering their claims in a way that people can engage with, as simply crying "fascist" serves only to put them off, as well as venerating the BNP stereotype of their opponents as bullies.

As does Antifa's primary tactic of "militant antifascism," which involves "confronting fascism physically when it is necessary." Although the group state that street-fighting is "only one of our tactics," and that they "do not aim to fetishise it as one tactic above all others," the appearance they give off contradicts that assertion. Their actions at the BNP's annual Red White and Blue festival recently, though proclaimed by the group as a victory, was not seen as such by the BNP, nor even by other opponents of the party.

This is not to say that I entirely condemn physical resistance. In the past, for example against the Fascists in 1930s Spain or the Nazis in World War II, it has been not merely commendable but necessary to wage physical war against the far-right. And it remains so today in countries such as Russia or Germany where the far-right still use violence and physical intimidation against opponents. In Britain, however, nationalists have deliberately refrained from using these tactics in order to demonstrate "reform," and win votes, and thus using physical resistance here only enables them to label their opponents as the thugs and bullies and denigrates the anarchist cause. We should, and do, fight back in kind when nationalists and neo-Nazis use violence, but to do so when their only weapon is rhetoric is to concede a huge propaganda coup to the enemy.

Likewise, Antifa's determination to not collaborate with UAF, Searchlight, or any other "organisation that works hand-in-glove with State agencies" or the authoritarian left serves only to isolate the wider anarchist movement. Anarchism's most effective campaigns are those we have waged without deference to isolationist policies, such as the Global Justice Movement, or the labour struggle of the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century. I can, truly, sympathise with the sentiments behind this policy, and share their distrust of "the agenda that [statist groups and the authoritarian left] pursue." However, as Noam Chomsky has previously pointed out, we have to face the often glaring contradictions we are faced with between our short-term goals and long-term visions, including siding with the lesser of two evils when necessary:
My short-term goals are to defend and even strengthen elements of state authority which, though illegitimate in fundamental ways, are critically necessary right now to impede efforts to "roll back" the progress that has been achieved in extending democracy and human rights. State authority is now under severe attack in the more democratic societies, but not because it conflicts with the libertarian vision. Rather the opposite: because it offers (weak) protection to some aspects of that vision.
He was, in this example, talking about the need in the short-term to defend the state against the "private tyrannies" of free market capitalism, but I believe the example can be applied to defending the (vaguely) democratic state against the encroachent of a more authoritarian ideology. Yes, the government is unfavourable to liberty regardless of who is at the helm, but whilst we are not in any position at present to dismantle the mechanisms of hierarchical government at present - "Rome wasn't destroyed in a day" is my favourite description of the anarchist struggle - we must defend one flawed form of government, where we are allowed at least a degree of equality and freedom, against another that offers none.

Isolationism will not win Antifa, or the anarchist movement at large, either victories or a larger base of support. It will only marginalise us further at a time when, more urgently than ever due to the impact of the global economic crisis and the resurgence of nationalism and neo-fascism, what we need is solidarity and clarity of purpose.