Racists, fascists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites are on the move across Europe. Weyman Bennett outlines the strategies we need to mobilise effectively against the different strands of the right.
The UN anti-racism demonstrations on 21 March can become a turning point in the fight against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, fascism and racism. The march comes six weeks before a general election dominated by debates around austerity and racism.
In 1870 Karl Marx referred to the divisions between English and Irish workers: “The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life.” The English ruling class were aware of this, Marx argued, and the division is “artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers…” In other words it is in the interest of the ruling class to exacerbate and encourage divisions among ordinary people, because the material basis of people’s lives — jobs, services, education and so on — is being squeezed by austerity.
The election battle across Europe is between those who want to blame immigrants and minority communities for the crisis, and those who put the blame firmly on the banks, neoliberalism and so on.
We face four different groups of organised racists: Nazi organisations such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary; Eurofascists such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and the BNP in Britain; right wing populists such as Ukip and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in Holland; and racist street movements such as the English Defence League and Pegida in Germany. It is brilliant that Keerfa, the Greek anti-fascist movement, have been able to break the base of Golden Dawn. They have succeeded in opposing the paramilitary organisation in the streets, as well as putting its leaders on trial. But it is worrying that despite these successes the neo-Nazis could still poll over 6.3 percent in the recent general election.
The biggest danger to Europe is Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France. Unlike the Nazis, the Eurofascists do not have paramilitary organisations, although they retain a hard core of Nazi supporters. The danger is that Le Pen can win the first round of the French presidential election, and that her ideas can begin to dominate in France. In this atmosphere the Nazi core can extend and deepen its base. The Eurofascists pose the same threat to democracy as open Nazi parties, but they are much more sophisticated in hiding it. This creates tensions inside their organisations, with some elements wanting to push fascist ideas harder, while others want to keep them hidden.
This tension can be seen in the spat between Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, an FN MEP, over how the party responded to the Charlie Hebdo killings. Marion, backed by her grandfather Jean Marie Le Pen, criticised Marine for being too cautious after she blamed “radical Islam” for the attacks. Her rivals wanted her to take the opportunity to denounce all Muslims as a fifth column threatening France. The fight is not over whether this or that type of Islam is the enemy, but how far the FN can push an openly anti-Muslim agenda. Hitler’s Nazis approached democracy like a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The Eurofascists have adapted a similar strategy for the 21st century.
The right wing populists such as Ukip operate purely in the electoral field. They are not fascist, but they want to create a toxic atmosphere of racism in order to win votes. The danger is that they make racism popular and acceptable. The comedian Russell Brand described Ukip leader Nigel Farage as a “Pound Shop Enoch Powell”. Powell was a racist Tory politician who in 1968 said that immigration would cause “rivers of blood”. The Tory party then expelled him. In contrast, today Ukip is running at 10 percent in the polls, gaining MPs and making links with other European racist organisations. Ukip is taking aim at the strongholds of the working class.
The BNP was humiliated in the 2009 elections because it was unable to break our multicultural communities. It came up against the bulwark of trade unions and social democracy; it was challenged on the streets and at the ballot box. The danger posed by Ukip is that it wants to make acceptable what is unacceptable. It wants to make it acceptable for workers to vote for far right parties and swallow the lies that immigration is destroying our jobs. By creating a toxic atmosphere of racism, Ukip can open the door to Islamophobic street movements such as the EDL and Pegida. These organisations contain elements of all the others. They have the racism of Ukip and the street thugs prepared to attack mosques, but lack the sophistication of the electoral fronts.
In many ways we can draw parallels with the 1920s where Hitler was able to mould these street thugs into a disciplined force, and tie them into a parallel electoral strategy — a feat that today’s fascists would like to emulate. However, it is important that we understand them as different elements, and deal with them using different sets of tactics. We will not allow those who deny the Holocaust, or are behind racist murders, to organise freely. That means whenever openly Nazi organisations appear we deny them a platform and hold counter-demonstrations to drive them off the streets.
We only use no platform for fascists because they use any chance they get to build and organise. Wherever they appear there are consequences: attacks on mosques or synagogues, racist assaults and murders, intimidation, attacks on trade unions and so on. In contrast, we have to approach parties such as Ukip using different tactics. We have to expose Ukip’s racism, homophobia and its anti trade union policies. Ukip members are not just motivated by “economic” concerns, but a deep and profound racism. Their aim is to destroy multiculturalism. Mainstream politicians gave Ukip an opening by making attacks on multiculturalism acceptable. The aim of campaigns such as Stand Up to Ukip (SUTU) is to expose its racism and challenge its ideas.
Our tactics with the street movements are different again. What broke the EDL was the combination of mobilisations by black and Asian communities backed up by the power of the trade unions. The EDL was broken in Tower Hamlets and Walthamstow because Unite Against Fascism was successful in pulling this alliance together. We were also able to break the EDL ideologically. When the EDL appeared it was described as a “protest movement of the working class”. But it was the working class movement that broke it. In contrast Nick Griffin and the BNP were broken at the ballot box.
Nigel Farage and Ukip will be more difficult, but they too can be broken. Farage hides his racism because he understands that the majority of working class people reject many of his views. Ukip advocates a raft of anti working class policies – opposition to the NHS, abolition of the minimum wage, abolition of the inheritance tax, the end of comprehensive education, and so on.
Even Le Pen and her Front National can be stopped. Fundamentally fascists oppose collective organisations such as trade unions, so when these organisations stand together they can defeat them. This is why we are for maximum unity in confronting the fascists. Liberal democracy was founded on the freedom of the right of association and freedom of the right to worship. These are the rights that all citizens are supposed to have. Yet France does not live up to these rights. They are being denied to a section of the population: Muslims. The major problem for much of the left in France is that it has not recognised that these rights have been trampled on. By not standing up for the rights of Muslims, they have opened the door for other types of racism to grow.
The rise of Islamophobia also means the rise of anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, and so on. So a French village refuses to bury a child because she was from a Roma family, saying the Roma are “criminals”. The refusal of many on the left to describe Marine Le Pen as fascist, using the term “extremist” instead, underestimates the danger that her party poses. They refuse to describe the FN as fascist but on the other hand will readily denounce a whole religion as “Islamo-fascist”. This is one of the most dangerous positions, and is championed by some on the left. Many religions have reactionary and backward ideas. Many of the churches that have emerged among black communities, for example, are sexist and homophobic. But to describe religions as “fascist” is to confuse content and outcome, and this ultimately disarms the movement.
One of the contradictions of oppression is that the more people become isolated, the more separatist ideas can take hold. This is why unity is vital. There is always a danger that people can been drawn to the idea that, for example, the wars in the Middle East are caused by the division between Jews and Muslims, rather than by imperialism. If a young Muslim believes that the oppression of Palestinians is because of the Jews, then we have to challenge them. We have to ensure that Muslims learn the lessons of the Holocaust — the way in which a people can be targeted. We have to reject the idea of a “clash of civilisations” which is popular with the proponents of the “war on terror”.
The TUC and all the major trade unions have backed the demonstration on 21 March. They support the campaigns against racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and fascism. This alliance can break the back of all the racist and fascist organisations.
We are marching to defend the right of the Muslim community to exist, and their right to worship as they choose.
Weyman Bennett is joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism (UAF).