Yesterday, roughly 1,500 to 2,000 protesters from the English Defence League (EDL) descended upon Bolton. A similar number arrived with Unite Against fascism (UAF) as part of a counter-protest. The event was a mix of calamity and farce, and only serves to show that antifascists have still yet to learn several two very important lessons.
The first of these lessons regards UAF and the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) for which they serve as a recruiting front. Weymann Bennett, head of UAF and high-up in the SWP hierarchy, was amongst the 74 people arrested during the Bolton demo. When the same thing has happened to EDL and BNP leaders, UAF has been quick to proclaim it as "proof" that they are in the wrong. Now, with himself in the other side of the fence, Bennett is claiming that officers "flew at" UAF supporters in "unprovoked attacks," and fellow UAF bureaucrat Martin Smith has said that UAF were faced with "hostility from police officers."
These claims may or may not be true, and given the police's record towards the left I am inclined to believe that there is at least some validity to them, but this is irrelevant. The fact is that Bennett and Smith's tactics have finally come back to bite them. For too long, whilst its primary goals remain recruitment to the SWP and sale of the Socialist Worker, UAF has attempted to be all things to all people.
On the one hand it has sought to unite "the broadest possible spectrum of society" and pursue a very legalistic anti-fascism, calling for state bans of fascist groups and police protection of anti-fascist marches. I have explained in greater depth previously why, as well as betraying the principles of working class self-defence, this is a profoundly stupid policy which only gives the state a precedent to attack the left.
At the same time, SWP/UAF apparatchiks are ever keen to show off their "radical" and "militant" credentials. Workers' Liberty has explained how this amounts to "enginee[ring] fruitless minor confrontations with the police, usually miles from the BNP."
I witnessed a particularly idiotic and maddening example of this during a recent anti-BNP protest in Liverpool, when one of the two people at the protest who were from the SWP decided that the best way to counter the two BNP leafletters by the roadside was to get the people holding the Liverpool Antifascists banner to run after them. That this would appear, to observers, as running away from the BNP when we had a prime spot which actually blocked them from public view was rebutted with an angry cry of "but I thought you were anarchists?" Yes, many in Liverpool Antifascists are anarchists (whatever relevance that has) but we're not idiots. The only result would have been a pointless farce, probably a couple of arrests, and a publicity coup for the BNP. As it was, with this nonsense put to rest quickly, we held a very successful peaceful protest whilst the BNP made themselves look like numskulls.
In Bolton, whether the police or UAF made the first move, the fact is that such an ill-thought out and inconsistent approach to protesting has backfired. Bennett and Smith got nicked for it. If they don't learn a lesson from this, then they are unfathomably stupid people.
Forming a physical barrier to fascists during a peaceful protest and using force as a form of self-defence are tactics to be utilised when the situation demands it. Looking for a punch-up without provocation in order to prove "militancy" or leading your followers into a situation where they can be kettled and turned over to prove how "peaceful" you are are the acts of middle class muppets who wouldn't know working class direct action if it kicked them in the balls.
The other lesson antifascists need to learn is that we need a much clearer perspective on the EDL. As an organisation, they are indeed racist and fascist. However, the situation with them is not as clear cut as it is with the BNP or the National Front, and simplistic sloganeering will not and does not convince a lot of the general public.
The most obvious reason for this is that, as far as outsiders are able to see, UAF immediately responds to EDL criticism of radical Islam with cries of racism. Although the EDL are racist, as demonstrated by chants such as "we hate Pakis more than you" and their intimidation of Asian taxi drivers in Stoke, there needs to be recognised that the EDL's declared intention of opposing Islamic extremism is not racist in and of itself.
The Anarchist Federation have thus far offered the clearest perspective on this matter;
We are the enemies of what gets termed ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ Islamic groups. Their doctrine holds the revolution back. Whilst we are aware that Muslims too have been the victims of media vilification, some Islamists do indeed seek to justify indiscriminate terror. Whilst we know that support for these ideas has been the result of the actions of the state, not least its wars, we oppose disaffected Muslims who take up these ideas. The beliefs of the likes of al-Qaeda and the groups they support are revolting, and reactionary, and hold back a culture of genuine resistance. Our enemy’s enemy is NOT our friend. We have nothing in common with these people and their authoritarian, misogynist and anti-Semitic ideals.
It is this perspective that inspired my own call for a radical left response to both (later-aborted) attempts by the now-proscribed Islam4UK to march in support of Shariah law. If standing up against fascism is a necessary part of working class self-defence, which it is, then so too is taking a stand against other reactionary movements such as political Islam.
We also need to be clear on why, if we oppose fascism and Islamism with equal veracity, we spend more time on the former than the latter. The point must be strongly made that Islam will not dominate the world.
In order to implement a radical change in society, you need to take one of two approaches.Thus, although we of course need to offer militant resistance to Islamism (for which organising anti-Islamist Muslims is vital), we should not overstate its potential. This is exactly what the EDL does, in the process serving as a conduit for anti-Muslim hysteria in order to drum up support for state militarism and the war on terror. Not only is this not pointed out often enough, but simplistic cries of racism only blind people to this perspective.
If that change is compatible with the present organisation, you need to build a broad-based reform movement that will continually pressure those in power until it achieves its goals. As a society built upon Sharia is fundamentally alien to the values of the West – whether you define them as Christianity, secularism, free democracy, or predatory capitalism and the profit of the few at the expense of the many – it could not be achieved by Shariah even if it wasn’t an extreme minority position.
The second alternative is revolution. However, in order to have a revolution, one needs to build a solid grassroots movement with the potential for galvanising an entire population. Militant Islam in the West, robbed of that initiative by moderate groups, and devoid of popular appeal, is in no position to do any such thing.
If antifascists en masse don't learn these lessons soon, then all we are doing is guaranteeing that farces such as Bolton and Stoke before it will become not only more common, but the norm.