Everything Old is New Again

In this post, I’m going to take a close look at the recent call by Searchlight’s Nick Lowles and Paul Meszaros for a brave new anti-fascism.  My main focus is going to be in two areas.  Is this genuinely a new approach?  And is it worthwhile for anti-fascists to sign up to this?  Largely, I’m not going to be getting into the current state of the UK antifascist movement and where we can go from here.  That will have to wait for another day.

It should be noted that this article springs out of debates surrounding two recent EDL demonstrations, Leicester and Bradford.  On Leicester, three accounts are worth looking at.  As always, Andy Newman is a good indicator of current Searchlight thinking.  (It’s fair to say that Socialist Unity seems to be considered a useful outlet for ‘independent’ pro Searchlight articles by the Searchlight team.  To the point where an article defending links between Matthew Collins and Terry Fitzpatrick by Andy Newman was removed shortly after publication.  I think it’s reasonable to assume that wasn’t removed on Andy’s say so, because he wouldn’t have put it up in the first place if he’d thought it was out of line.  Sadly, I didn’t take a screenshot and I suspect Andy isn’t going to be keen on giving out copies.  You could always ask though).  The UAF put out a pretty standard UAF statement.  And there’s a view from an individual militant anti-fascist on Indymedia.

Some observations about Searchlight and their position on Leicester.

It’s noticeable they heavily downgraded the “local support” rhetoric they were throwing around in relation to Bradford.  This, realistically, is because they actually don’t have the same local roots.  In Bradford, they do have a reasonably active HnH group and support from local trade union bureaucrats etc. However, in Leicester, they don’t have that. The only groups openly supporting their position were the local council (overall, some councillors pledged support to the UAF demo) and the old bill.  In fact, the vast bulk of (sadly rather uncoordinated) resistance to the EDL was carried out by local youths, outside the UAF kettle.  In those circumstances, it makes sense that Searchlight decided that they gave less of a fuck about what locals thought.

Linked to that, it should be noted that Searchlight strategy only applies to those outside of Searchlight.  The Searchlight team are open about the fact that they were in Leicester on the day.  This is something their article acknowledges at all and is a very telling omission.  I think Searchlight should tell us.  If it is wrong for locals to leave their houses when the EDL are in town, why are Searchlight operatives held to a different principle?

It’s also the case that Searchlight have subtly changed their arguments.  With Bradford, they were forcefully arguing that their position was based on local conditions, specifically the previous riots.  By Leicester, this had been extended into a general principle that counter-demonstrations were not the right tactic in most cases.  Again, I’d be intrigued to hear their explanation for this apparent ideological shift.

We have to understand Searchlight’s view here in context.  Despite the rather naive shock of some SWP commentators, this isn’t a new development.  Searchlight have always had a close working relationship with the state, especially the various branches of law enforcement and the security services, even if their openness on this issue depends on their audience.  It’s a matter of public record by now.  Therefore, them helping to put across the view of the police and the council in this matter isn’t some kind of strange anomaly, it’s a completely logical development considering their previous political record.  Especially when you consider that the militant antifascist movement is weaker now then it has been at any point since the Second World War.  Therefore, it’s natural that Searchlight are reflecting the state agenda more noticeably then in previous years.

You can agree or disagree with them on that, but it’s hardly a surprise.  More important is if Searchlight’s tactics have been a success on their own terms.  The article in question suggests so.

Our Bradford campaign was a huge success. Our petition, signed by 11,000 local people, six per cent of all adults in the city, in just three weeks, was pivotal in providing the strength in the city that was noted by both the police and the Home Secretary in making the ban.

But that is contradicted by what Hope Not Hate Yorkshire were saying in July. An organiser (it should be noted in passing, that Paul Meszaros, one of the authors of this article, is a prominent member of HnH Yorkshire) had this to say at the time:

But more importantly, we are not considering counter-demonstrations because we are confident that we can build such a huge campaign, involving so many people, that the EDL will not be coming to Bradford in late August.

It is self-evident that analysis was entirely incorrect.  Nick Lowles went further in August.

This, in our view, is our only option and sole focus. If thousands of EDL supporters manage to get into Bradford then we have already lost.

Therefore, it is the case that the analysis of Hope Not Hate/Searchlight was demonstrably wrong in this case.  Worse, solely judging them by their own stated aims, the campaign they led in Bradford was an utter failure.  While they are claiming a success now, they can only do so by ignoring their previous position on this issue.  Although they’re chosing not to state that’s what they’re doing, two mutually exclusive positions cannot possibly both be right.

So, I’m afraid Searchlight can’t expect people to accept what they have to say as read on these terms.  Because their confidence that they could stop the EDL turning up in Bradford was misplaced, so it’s highly likely that will be the case in the future.

Now I’ve covered the context this Searchlight article exists in, I’m going to move onto the arguments contained in the article.

Searchlight’s position, in my view, is best encapsulated by this extract:

Just as the fascists were able to broaden their appeal and escape the political ghetto, so anti-fascism had to change and this meant reaching out to the mainstream.

While this is later explained as meaning appealing to “ordinary people” (whatever that might be), it’s fair to assume they also mean that we should appeal to the political establishment first and foremost.  That was certainly their approach in Barking, where HnH activists uncritically campaigned for the odious Hodge.  And in both Leicester and Bradford, HnH aimed their work first and foremost at the local council and calling for state bans, as opposed to grassroots opposition.  Their version of community organising seems to be largely based on the traditional approach of getting people to ask their political ‘betters’ to do anti-fascism for them.  They have neither the inclination nor the methodology to build autonomous anti-fascist campaigns.

This is not a new approach, despite claims to the contrary.  Indeed, the ‘anybody but fascists’ sloganeering of HnH is standard across the liberal anti-fascists, whatever their other differences.  UAF have David Cameron on their list of supporters and have UKIP speakers at their demos.  It would be interesting to hear how much more ‘mainstream’ Searchlight think it’s possible to get!  Indeed, there’s a strong argument that the launch of the Anti Nazi League Mk1 was precisely that, a downgrading of physical force anti-fascism in favour of holding rock concerts and working with ‘left’ Labour MPs.  (See “The Anti-Nazi League A Critical Examination 1977-81/2 and 1992-95”  by the Colin Roach Centre on that).  This isn’t a break from ‘how things are done’, this is the dominant tactic on much of the left.

And, it doesn’t have a great record of success.  The “Don’t Vote Nazi” campaign in Barking was a near identical one to the one that unseated Derek Beackon in 1994.  With the benefit of hindsight, Beackon losing his seat hardly damaged the BNP’s prospects for growth…

The article’s references to winning “hearts and minds” through community organising is fascinating however.  It does seem, both from this and previous articles, that Lowles is influenced by the IWCA/Filling the Vacuum analysis in the same way Elastica were influenced by Wire.  With one crucial difference.  Whereas the analysis in question suggests it is the job of anti-fascists to replace the BNP as the ‘radical opposition’ in their target areas, Searchlight change their conclusion to one of propping up the political mainstream, especially the Labour Party.  Indeed Paul Meszaros has previous poured scorn on any suggestion that anti-fascists need to break with the political establishment.

There is also the point that third-party campaigning is limited in what it can achieve. For the BNP to lose an election, another party has to win. Hope not Hate is not an appendage of the Labour Party, but clearly it is often the case that Labour that needs to get more votes than the BNP for the BNP to lose!

Not only is that a de facto acknowledgement that HnH will, at the end of the day, merely act as loyal footsoldiers for the Labour Party (despite disillusionment with the Labour Party being one of the reasons for the BNP’s growth in the first place!), it is clear that he sees anti-fascism as first and foremost a simple matter of electoral campaigning, not tackling the reasons for their support in the first place.

So while Searchlight have the correct diagnosis here

The BNP was building inside communities and tapping into widespread discontent with the political system.

their suggested treatment is not only useless, it’s actively counterproductive.  The BNP are mobilising support from widespread disillusionment with the political establishment and the answer is…  to ally more closely with the very same political parties that Searchlight admit have allowed the BNP to grow!  If the stakes weren’t so high, I’d be laughing.

This is the crux of why Searchlight are wrong and dangerously so.

People don’t vote for the BNP because they see them as part of the mainstream.  They vote for them because they see them as outside of that.  And for antifascists to respond by tying ourselves to the mainstream plays right into their hands, by handing them the role of the ‘only alternative’ by default.

Finally, I’m going to examine Searchlight’s rejection of physical force anti-fascism.  In particular with the EDL, as the ‘hearts and minds’ argument is less the case there.  The EDL are a reasonably stagnant political force and their main tactic is the traditional far right one of controlling the streets.  So, if previously effective tactics will no longer work, Searchlight need to explain why.  And they haven’t.  They say:

While some on the hard left claimed that only by taking to the streets could we defend the Muslim community, we believed that stopping the march – which the EDL wanted to go through a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood – did far more to protect communities then being kettled behind police lines and shouting slogans.

I have previously shown that “stopping the march” was not what Searchlight falsely claimed they were going to do, until after the event.  That aside, this is a false dichotomy.  In both Bradford and Leicester, it is a statement of fact to say that there was militant antifascist activity, including from a sizeable number of locals, that took place outside the kettle.  Further more, this comment from Searchlight is a bold lie:

Contrary to bravado, No Platform for the EDL was never an option, or even attempted, so our approach was clearly the most constructive and productive use of resources.

If, as Searchlight seem to be doing, you assume that physical force anti-fascism is the same thing as attempting to implement No Platform, attempts were undoubtably made.  Searchlight just decided that they would rather work with the great and good, as opposed to locals trying to defend their communities.  Besides, this is nothing new

Anti-fascism was perhaps unsurprisingly also a marginal pursuit, with the exception of a few years in the 1970s, the main aim of which was to keep the fascist gangs isolated and afraid. During the late 1940s with the 43 Group, the 1960s with 62 Group, the 1970s with the Anti Nazi League, and the 1980s and 1990s with Anti-Fascist Action, the fight against fascism was street-based and violent, and went largely unnoticed by the general public. It was a policy of No Platform.

From Labour Party councillors who pay tribute to the International Brigades while condemning militant anti-fascists in the here and now, to SWP members praising the 43 group, the idea that militant anti-fascism was right, but not in the current day has always been with us.  It allows people to pay lip service to the concept at no risk to themselves.

And, if all of those groups were right to use violence (and they were) what’s changed?  At what point do you draw the line and say that militant anti-fascism is no longer acceptable and that tried and tested tactics are no longer useful to consider?

If Searchlight want to disown militant anti-fascists entirely, that’s fine.  Frankly, for many of us, the feeling is entirely mutual.  But I’m afraid you don’t get to claim our tradition as your own while you reject it at the same time.

To draw this to a close, I will say more on this next comment at some point.  The collapse of AFA has left a certain gap in the anti-fascist market, which I think is one of the factors that has allowed the EDL to grow.  There is a desperate need for grass-roots, democratic, community based militant anti-fascist organisation.

But, as they have made clear, Searchlight are not part of that process.  They’re apart from it.  And they have no role to play.

Stick to campaigning for New Labour.

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  1. This is a very good response WS. I’ll add more later when I get the chance!

  1. May 26th, 2011

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