Weyman Bennett looks back at the past decade of crisis and renewal on the far right, and assesses the threat facing anti-racists and anti-fascists in contemporary Britain.
The growth of fascism and the far right is a consequence in large part of the economic crisis of 2008. The neoliberal centre ground has eroded, leading to polarisation and the rise of figures like Jeremy Corbyn on the left — but also, increasingly, the rise of a new right, building on the state racism that targets migrants and Muslims in particular.
The election of Donald Trump, using many of the motifs that the far right use, has given confidence to racists and fascists across the world. With Trump’s election the US joined a still growing list of countries that have seen large votes for far right organisations of various sorts.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a hybrid organisation of right wing racists and fascists, has 94 deputies in the Bundestag. It has largely built by stoking anti-refugee and anti-Muslim racism. In December 2018 Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency in Brazil after a campaign riddled with racism and anti-left threats.
In Slovakia in 2013 a neo-Nazi, Marian Kotleba, was elected as governor of the sixth largest city, basing his campaign on anti-Roma racism. Though he resoundingly lost his seat four years later, he is now standing for president as head of People’s Party Our Slovakia, an organisation which celebrates Slovakia’s pro-Nazi wartime regime.
We are seeing the rise of illiberal states, like Victor Orban’s Hungary. These are not fascist states, but they give encouragement to fascists with policies like the banning of halal and kosher meat, the punishment and victimisation of the Roma, repeating racist lies about the “unintegratables” — the language of the Nazis. In Austria the conservative Austrian People’s Party brought the fascist Freedom Party into government. There’s a legitimisation, a breakdown of the cordon sanitaire that had existed since the Second World War marking fascists as untouchable.
Alongside this is an attempt to build up the ideological weight of the far right, through organisations such as Generation Identity. Based primarily around universities and young “intellectuals”, GI sees itself as the brains behind the new “alt-right” and as engaging in ideological “culture wars” with the left, the multiculturalists.
How are we to view all this? Is it inevitable that fascism and the far right will come to power inside the UK and the rest of the world?
It is worth quoting Spinoza: don’t cry, don’t laugh, but understand.
A glance at the rise of Hitler’s Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists shows that when they came to power in the 1920s and 30s there was a deeper crisis and also that they had larger street organisations than we see today. The Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933 was partly a consequence of the ineptitude of those on the left who failed to unite in order to stop them. In Italy, right up until 1922 and Mussolini’s March on Rome, fascism could have been prevented by intervention by the left.
In both Italy and Germany the ruling classes ceded power to the fascists. They did this because of their deep fear of what had happened in Russia in 1917 — workers’ revolution. They wanted the working class organisations dismantled — physically dismantled, and they needed mass organisations of the far right to do that.
Above all, fascism is a radical, far right mass movement. And it needs a mass movement in order to fundamentally change the nature of bourgeois democratic states. At the moment, despite the depth of crisis, most states are a long way from any kind of Nazi seizure of power. But the danger of the far right now is that it can pull mainstream politics to the right.
The far right today can be divided into four main parts:
1) We have parties that look to the old style Nazi symbols and deny the Holocaust, such as Golden Dawn in Greece. They want to emulate the Nazi party.
2) We have parties that abandon the open symbols of fascism and adopt a strategy of rehabilitation and acceptability to try to reach a mass audience, such as the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France.
3) We have the racist populist parties, for example Ukip, which try to break through electorally on the basis of racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, while accepting the norms of organising inside a bourgeois democracy.
4) And we have the development of the street movements like Pegida in Germany, the forerunner of the AfD, and the English Defence League (EDL) and its successor the Football Lads Alliance (FLA).
The story of the far right in Britain over the past decade begins with the demise of the British National Party (BNP), the premier fascist organisation after the destruction of the National Front in the 1970s and 80s. The BNP’s electoral high point was 2009, when it gained two MEPs, Andrew Brons in Yorkshire and Humber and party leader Nick Griffin in North West England, and 55 local councillors. It established branches all over the country. It presented itself as a party of the French variety — a “legitimate” organisation which aimed to embed fascist ideas inside society as a way of organising itself.
By 2013 it was down to two councillors and in the 2014 European elections Brons and Griffin lost their seats following a huge anti-fascist campaign. The defeat of the BNP was by no means guaranteed. The process of smashing its base was helped by its own internal contradiction — it wanted to be both a Nazi street movement but also a respectable electoral party. Exposing and naming the BNP as Nazis was central to anti-racists’ ability to undermine their support.
The demise of the BNP led to a split in the far right movement and the development of two forces, on one hand the racist populists of Ukip, which hoovered up BNP votes; on the other the racist street movement of the English Defence League which had been building support while the BNP was preoccupied with electoral success.
Ukip made a significant breakthrough at the 2014 European elections, when it topped the poll with 27.5 percent and won 24 MEPs. In the 2015 general election it secured 3.8 million votes, coming third in the popular vote, though this translated into only one MP. Its political focus was anti-immigration and anti-EU. Following the Brexit vote in 2016 its support dropped away — in the 2017 general election it got less than 600,000 votes and it is now down to 7 MEPs.
The EDL took to the streets in 2009 led by Stephen Yaxley Lannon, AKA Tommy Robinson, a former BNP member. The EDL used anti-Muslim racism as its main tool, feeding on state racism in the aftermath of the imperialist wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. The EDL portrayed Muslims as the “enemy within”, attacked mosques and targeted areas with high Muslim populations, such as Luton and Birmingham.
At its peak in 2010-11 it was able to mobilise up to 5,000 on its marches, but soon it was to fragment under pressure from anti-racists and anti-fascists, as well as the weight of its own divisions. In 2011 the fascist core of the EDL was exposed when it was shown to have links with Anders Breivik, the Norwegian Nazi terrorist. In 2012 its confidence was broken when it attempted to march through multicultural Walthamstow, east London, and was blocked by 4,000 local anti-racists. The following year it faced a similar humiliation in nearby Tower Hamlets, when 5,000 anti-fascists stopped 600 EDL marchers from entering the borough.
These and scores of other mobilisations against it helped bring on an internal crisis and splits in the EDL, with prominent members, including leader Robinson, leaving the organisation.
It is worth noting that a lot of the EDL’s initial growth was due to the liberal establishment accepting some of its argument — that this was an authentic, “white working class” opposition to austerity and the “problem” of immigration.
The decline of the EDL left a space for a racist street movement. The impact of the London Bridge and Westminster terror attacks in London and the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, which were used to inflame Islamophobia, provided the spark. The Football Lads Alliance’s first march in the summer of 2017 saw up to 20,000 take part.
This movement had many similarities to the early EDL, but was not initially as clearly influenced by fascists. It was a broad, racist street movement. Its membership centred on the old football firms but it attracted wider layers of disgruntled racists. It was a more amorphous movement than the EDL, more populist, and denied that it was racist. Its rhetoric mimicked the left — unite against hate, where hate means Muslim terrorism.
It claimed to be “anti-extremist” and initially excluded people such as Tommy Robinson, who FLA leaders described as far right. However, Robinson later took the remnants of the EDL into the Football Lads movement and began to shape it. Although the leadership claimed that he shouldn’t be on their marches he was welcomed with open arms.
By spring 2018 the Royal British Legion returned a donation from the FLA citing concerns about its members’ extremist views — which had been exposed by Stand Up to Racism and other anti-racists. Founder John Meighan stood down and further internal turmoil led to a split and the formation of the Democratic FLA (DFLA) in mid-2018.
The sheer speed of the ups and downs of the far right is representative of how it grows at the moment. There are sudden explosions of anger which then recede very quickly.
The Free Tommy Robinson movement is another recent example, mobilising 15,000 in London last June. It was an attempt to unite the right following Ukip’s shift to the right under new leader Gerard Batten.
Robinson was arrested last year for perverting the course of justice in connection with reporting of a child sexual exploitation case in which the accused were Muslim men. Robinson sought to weaponise the issue to incite racism. He has successfully mobilised on the streets and online, where he has raised large amounts of money and garnered support from around the world. So the AfD, the Austrian movement, Le Pen and Trump’s representative all sent messages of support to Robinson when he was arrested, and over 750,000 people said they supported his release.
Ukip’s electoral decline led to an internal crisis. The EU referendum had delivered a central aspect of their platform. Some in the organisation, such as extreme racist Anne Marie Waters, began to argue that Ukip should agitate over immigration. As a consequence Batten decided to take Ukip in a different direction, joining with Robinson in order to bring together the electoral wing and the street movement.
So far there is little evidence that this strategy will produce results on the electoral front, though the possibility remains, especially if Brexit is abandoned or delayed. Outside the BBC in Salford last month, Robinson hinted at plans to stand, and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage has already said that if Brexit is delayed past 29 March he plans to re-enter the political arena with a new organisation.
So the far right remains very fragmented, but this doesn’t mean the various formations are not a serious danger. The collapse of Brexit, the lack of a strategy to deal with austerity, the failure of a future Labour government — any of these factors and more could lead to the rise of another far right movement or the resurgence of an old one.
The far right always wants to pretend to take on the mantle of the “ordinary person”, the “working class” person. So the fantastic scenes in France of a mass revolt against president Macron’s neoliberal policies have been hijacked here by the fake Nazi yellow vests, the “neon-Nazis”, though they failed to gather significant numbers on their protests.
The threatening and violent nature of the neo-Nazis is another sign that in the crisis that they face, forces on the far right are willing to adopt terrorist methods. We’ve seen an increase in attacks on mosques, attacks on women wearing the hijab, attacks on socialist bookshops and meetings, as well as desecration of Jewish cemeteries and the vandalism of Karl Marx’s grave, carried out by the far right in order to try and hold together their cadre.
The question for the labour movement and the left is how it produces resistance. In the early days of the FLA, the mass numbers — which had not been seen since the Blackshirts in the 1930s — posed a serious, visceral threat to the counter-demonstrators. The far right demonstrations outnumbered the counter-demonstrations by a significant ratio.
Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) and Unite Against Fascism were central to changing this, primarily by explaining the logic of the FLA’s and other far right organisations’ politics and exposing their links with fascists. So by the summer of 2018 SUTR, along with major trade unions, was able to put out a call for a mass unity demonstration against the international far right on 17 November. Multicultural Britain was mobilised, and part of that was through the Labour Party and beyond that socialist organisations.
The growth of Corbyn’s Labour Party means there is a much wider audience for socialist ideas and anti-fascist ideas that provide the potential to march in our thousands against the far right.
On 9 December Robinson together with Ukip tried to intervene on the national political scene by calling a march in favour of Brexit, expecting up to 100,000 people. In fact they ended up with around 5,000 people — and were opposed by 10,000 anti-racists and anti-fascists. Far from being a decisive blow to the left it was actually a damp squib. Why was this? It was partly because moving away from their usual territory of Islamophobia weakened the far right, but it’s also a sign that when they try to talk about mainstream issues they can’t help but couple it with hard right politics, and the more they push hard right politics the greater the chances of building mass opposition to them.
We should always remember we’re the majority. Hitler’s strategy was to divide the left so that social democrats and communists did not form a united and broad anti-fascist force to stop him. Leon Trotsky put forward the theory of the united front. The question at the heart of it was how revolutionaries could unite with broad layers of workers and their in order to fight the rise of the right most effectively.
We need a strategy of both challenging the right wing racist populists like Trump (we shouldn’t forget 250,000 people marched against Trump in London) and the far right and fascist street movements such as the FLA.
We’re likely to see this movement coming and going for the foreseeable future and therefore central to what socialists do has to be a strategy of how they dig that anti-racist and anti-fascist movement deep into society so that the fascists are not able to dig their own roots. For us that means building Stand Up To Racism in the trade unions, in the colleges and in the schools and working together with others.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse chase us: environmental disaster, economic disaster, war and fascism — they threaten the way human beings cooperate and live together. Fascism is the political manifestation of barbarism. The alternative, in the centenary year of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, has to be socialism. The crumbling of the centre, polarisation towards to left as well as the right, raises the question of building an alternative. At the heart of that has to be a revolutionary party that talks about mass transformation of society.
Weyman Bennett is the co-convenor of Stand Up To Racism. He writes in a personal capacity.