Monday, 4 April 2011

Notes from an anti-fascist conference

 On Saturday, I turned up to the morning session of Unite Against Fascism's "Fighting fascism and Islamophobia" one-day conference. I left at half past one to head over to UK Uncut's occupation of BBC Radio Merseyside, and since then other events have overtaken it. However, it still deserves reflecting upon.

The conference took place in Jack Jones House, Unite the Union's office building in Liverpool City Centre. When I got there, a couple of other members of Liverpool Antifascists were outside handing out leaflets. Titled Working class anti-fascism, they laid out our position as distinct from UAF's - namely that the fight against the far right should be organised from a militant, working class perspective. A position which UAF figures have previously criticised as "too complex" and "too advanced," which I find patronising and elitist, to say the least.

The leaflet took a positive stance, laying out and advocating LiverAF's position rather than attacking that of UAF. However, a number of the criticisms that can be made - and that I have made - of the organisation manifested themselves on that day. Not least their opportunistic and monopolistic approach to anti-fascism.

I hadn't registered for the event in advance, which was an oversight on my part. However, whilst waiting in line with those picking up their conference packs, in order to query whether I could still get in, I was approached by one of the local organisers (who wasn't working on the registration desk). They asked whether I had booked ahead. Replying that I hadn't, I was told I would have to wait until everybody else had gone in to see whether there was room for me.

This wasn't unusual in itself. However, that I was the only one approached in this manner - despite not being the only person who hadn't pre-registered - gave me pause for thought. Especially after later discovering that the small number who hadn't turned up (allowing me to attend) was dwarfed by the number of free seats in the main conference room.

Nonetheless, I put this thought aside. I wasn't here to impress the leadership of UAF or join the organisation. The point was that there would hopefully be people here looking to get involved in the fight against fascism, and we could put our case to them both through our leaflets and in conversation. This is, after all, something that LiverAF is engaged in. Not in conference halls, but on the streets challenging the far-right directly and in working class estates, making the argument that the BNP et al weren't the alternative to the status quo they presented themselves as.

Talking to people in a variety of settings, I've always found it difficult to happen upon people other than UAF/SWP officials who disagree with this. But that popular front monolith has the funds and numbers we don't that lets them dominate the movement.

Proof of the damage this does to anti-fascism as an effective movement became clear when it was announced that members of the English Defence League had gathered outside the conference. Four men, along with several youths, had turned up - presumably to try and intimidate those attending the event. They were never going to be able to circumvent security and enter the building, but even so the response to them appeared almost complacent.

The group soon left and headed into town, and nobody followed them. Okay, this was a small group, but it was enough to do leafleting or hold a stall. It was at least the same number which from the BNP had provoked spontaneous mass counter-protest. They could have even met up with more people to do a flash demo, unopposed by the left who chose to listen to long speeches about the importance of exactly the kind of opposition on the streets that they were not engaging in.

That they showed up demonstrates a cockiness which going unopposed will only increase. Moreover, the fact that those of us in the conference room only heard about this after they were gone meant that UAF's priorities had hampered even those willing to abandon meetings in order to face the fascists on the street.

The conference's morning session was "the threat of fascism in Europe." Essentially, a speech from Martin Smith, national organiser for Love Music Hate Racism, with space for audience contributions at the end.

The central point of his speech was an analysis of the three dominant trends on the European far-right today. This was astute enough, drawing broad distinctions in the right places. Though I wouldn't have identified his first target - right-wing populism - as a form of fascism; the use of racism and out-group scapegoats after all being a trait of mainstream political parties as much as the Nazi fringes.

The two other movements distinguished were Euro-fascism and street fighters. The former, shaped by the likes of Nick Griffin and Jean Marie Le Pen, being the "modernisation" of fascism. Certainly, the tendency to "take off the black shoes and put a suit on" in order to cover the fascist core with a respectable facade is well known. The latter comes in the form of the EDL and of skinhead gangs in Russia, amongst others. There has been a marked increase in such street gang activity of late, though Smith drew a distinction between the EDL greeting this conference with a small troop of goons and Russian Nazis organising thousands to take on anti-fascists at a similar event, running amok on the street with swords.

He also acknowledged the level of cross-fertilisation going on between these groups. In particular, he touched on the involvement of businessman Alan Lake in a variety of fascist organisations including the EDLJews being involved in Mussolini's National Fascist Party before the later persecution - was also an important point.

However, he failed to build upon these observations and take his analysis beyond the mainstream, liberal argument of the far-right as nasty bigots and a threat to the established order. There was only a brief mention of the effect the cuts will have on the growth of the far-right, before moving onto the fact that David Cameron's college at university was all-white and other examples of racial segregation in modern society which, whilst important, once again glossed over fascist politics beyond the issue of racism.

Certainly, he skirted around the fact that it is a weapon waiting to be picked up by the state and used against the working class. The closest we got to an acknowledgement of any such idea was the rather odd statement that "the economic crisis is driving these people crazy."

If UAF wish to have an apolitical stance on anti-fascism, that is their choice. What is destructive, however, is their sneering and dismissive attitude to and opinions to the contrary.

Once the floor was opened, a comrade from LiverAF made a lot of these points. That anti-fascism needs a class perspective, that we need to address the alienation and disaffection driving people to the far-right, that we have to oppose bigotry in all its guises, no matter who is touting it, and so on.

Hers was the only contribution met with dismissive comments and mutterings from the SWP members in the crowd, and contemptuous treatment by the chair. Saying that "if we took a vote most people here would agree with me" was met with the reprimand that there would be no vote, and the later (false) suggestion that she was "trying to force a vote."

Those UAF supporters who responded to what she said took pains to build up a straw man to knock down. In particular, the quite legitimate point that anti-fascists should not be siding with ruling class parties which are attacking the working class far more viciously than the BNP or EDL will likely get the chance to was dismissed as "asking people who they vote for before letting them join a protest." Accusations of sectarianism were offered, as was that pernicious old chestnut, "unity."

The fact is that sectarianism is putting the interests of your particular sect above those of the group it is supposed to represent. It is not criticising any given political faction. UAF and the SWP are genuinely sectarian, and the effect is demobilising those pushing for effective, militant, and democratic anti-fascism.

Likewise, I will happily stand side-by-side with somebody who votes Tory (or Lib Dem, Labour, etc) if we are struggling for something in both our class interest. What I will not do is accept, uncritically, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. More often than not, they aren't. Why on earth should any working class person have to feign "unity" with somebody who will tear apart their community, smash their picket line, and  chip away at their working conditions, just because "we all hate the Nazis?"

Don't get me wrong, unity is important. Liverpool Antifascists call for working class unity precisely because this combination of people who share the same broad class interests is powerful and able to affect great change.

But where unity between individuals is generally constructive, unity between organisations is more often not. If various individuals unite under one banner - like LiverAF's - it can gel together well and we can argue about politics without letting it derail what we're doing. If organisations try to unite under one banner, or an individual in a group decides to act on behalf of their sect rather than their class interest, a power struggle ensues. To repeat myself, left unity is a noose around the neck of class unity.

UAF remain a case in point on that fact.

I have no illusions that our intervention in their conference had (or even could have) an impact upon their operating practices. As with the bureaucracy of the trade unions, to attempt to change it is to attempt alchemy. Much more constructive is the effort of organising amongst and empowering the rank-and-file to take control of our own struggles.

Liverpool Antifascists is this principle in action. Self-organised, it has put forward a class-based anti-fascism which has scored effective victories against the far-right. If a strong dissenting voice at Saturday's conference will make more people consider that approach, it will have been worth it.