BNP: No to state bans
James Turley asks why the working class should have any confidence in the protection of the bourgeois state
It is perhaps the biggest cock-up in the British National Party’s recent history.
Britain’s largest far-right group has been damaged by a number of shock documentaries that suggest the party’s core remains more enthusiastic about Hitler than its PR department would like us to think, as well as fairly closely monitored by various anti-fascist moles, who have made public the gory details of party disputes.
But the appearance, firstly on a now-defunct blog and afterwards on wikileaks.org,1 of a list of names and addresses of every party member is a disaster for Nick Griffin’s gang. Several members hold ‘sensitive’ jobs in the public sector, including one police officer – to say nothing of soldiers, teachers and others. For these, and for politically softer elements, the security of personal details and obscurity of membership is a serious matter.
More active members, meanwhile, are often flagged up as such in the list, and will face their own difficulties. While militant anti-fascist numbers have dwindled dramatically since the mid-to-late 80s heyday of Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), such groups have by no means disappeared entirely – the anarchist-dominated Antifa remains active, for example – so this compromise puts some of the ‘harder’ BNP elements at risk of physical harm.
The leak has also revealed that the BNP’s definition of membership is almost as loose as the Socialist Workers Party’s. One name on the list, a Dr Neil Bathurst of Exeter, was door-stepped by The Sun. He denied being a racist, citing his longstanding Buddhism, and claimed he had only been to three BNP meetings out of “curiosity”. His final comment to the paper: “This will ruin me. I have been left suicidal. I want to die”2. What the Sun does not note is the good doctor’s history on the far left, having been a member of several Trotskyist organisations, most recently the SWP.
The Independent, meanwhile, found another choice anecdote: “A 25-year-old model from London said she had been listed after signing a petition against the building of a super-mosque. ‘I didn’t know the petition was organised by them and have had nothing to do with them since. I don’t know anything about politics’” (November 20). (The hapless model’s story certainly reminds this writer of his first dealings with Anti-Nazi League petition-wavers as a naive 14-year-old …).
Other names on the list share addresses and surnames, and appear to be families signed up en masse.
This is about the extent of the direct effect the leak will have on the BNP’s political practice, and it will be restrictive. The restrictions are modest, to be sure, and will dwindle, as time renders the names ever more out of date and the event more indistinct in the public memory. But as with any obstacle to the growth of a truly toxic organisation (if not a uniquely terrible threat, as Unite Against Fascism and the SWP would have it), it is – to that extent – a boon to the working class. Certainly we should not get caught up in moralistic questions over whether the mole had a ‘right’ to leak the list.
But this enumeration by no means exhausts the effects of the leak. In order to deal more extensively with its aftermath, we have to consider the political questions raised.
One of the first issues to emerge in the coverage was the fact that people like police officers are listed as members. PCs are, of course, banned from joining a laundry list of far-right organisations, which includes the BNP and hard-line neo-Nazi groups such as Combat 18 – the Association of Chief Police Officers considers membership of such groups a threat to race relations, never a strong suit for the British police. PC Steve Bettley, of Merseyside police, was suspended in the immediate wake of the leak.3
No voices in the political mainstream were to be found criticising the suspension, or the principle of barring BNP members from the police force, with the partial exception of Spiked4 (partial because Spiked is somewhat peripheral to the mainstream). But this immediately raised the further question: if BNP members should be unwelcome in the police, where else does this principle hold true? The list contains a number of people, unsurprisingly, in the armed forces. Should soldiers and sailors be dishonourably discharged for their party affiliation? What about nurses, teachers, doctors?
A related question arose with comments from Chris Keates, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters-Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), who took the hardest line possible, demanding a total ban on BNP membership across the public sector.5 That is: what line should trade unions take with regard to BNP membership?
These are the core political questions: should the state vet public servants on the basis of political affiliation, and should the unions vet members on that same basis? In reality, the nature of the BNP is basically peripheral to these questions. Communists are not concerned for active fascists’ economic (or, for that matter, physical) well-being. They certainly are not concerned for ours.
Chris Keates does not represent one view of the far right, as opposed to the communist view and others. He is the general secretary of a union which is traditionally on the right of the labour movement, and is certainly to the right of its main rival, the National Union of Teachers, presently with large numbers of organised far leftists (from the SWP and Socialist Party) on its executive. He is thus a voice of the labour bureaucracy par excellence (and indirectly, through the partial incorporation of the unions into the state apparatus, the state bureaucracy).
Communists, on the other hand, are the most implacable opponents of this orientation. We recognise that what these bureaucrats really fear is a challenge from their left, not from alienated racists and sundry elements.
It is therefore extremely regrettable – if, alas, hardly surprising – to find the SWP and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain in full accordance with Keates’s views. A peculiarly Janus-faced organisation, which typically maintains a rigid third-period anti-Labour stance on almost every issue except anti-fascism, when suddenly it cannot thrust itself fast enough into bed with Blairites and worse, the SWP unites the worst elements of ultra-leftist and popular-frontist Stalinism.
An unsigned Socialist Worker piece fumes: “The left should seize this opportunity to cripple the BNP’s ability to organise. We should drive the Nazis out of public service jobs such as teaching and health work. Police officers in the BNP should be sacked on the spot.”6
At least it is ‘the left’ who should be doing the driving out. No such restraint from the SWP’s Unite Against Fascism front, however: “Unite Against Fascism believe that it is in the public interest [!] to remove BNP members if we are to prevent abuses.”7
In similar vein, the Morning Star editorial proclaims: “… it is scandalous that the police is the only career to ban BNP membership. What about teaching, the NHS, prisons and social services, where there is ample opportunity for those so inclined to show prejudice against the public?”8 And what about retail, catering, call centres …? In fact there are very jobs nowadays that do not involve contact with “the public” and where someone “so inclined” might “show prejudice”.
But for the SWP and CPB the state – magnanimous guardian of the “public interest” that it is – should exercise its rational powers of discrimination to free ‘our’ (whose?) public services from the Nazi menace. Never mind that almost every incorporation of such powers into the state apparatus has rebounded with astonishing efficiency on the left. A particularly clear instance from British history is the Public Order Act of 1936, which was demanded by the popular frontist left in order to stop the British Union of Fascists. It was no time flat, of course, before communists were falling foul of its strictures, and in the 1970s its use saw a resurgence in repressing the Irish national liberation movement. Look also at the revival of Berufsverbot in 1970s West Germany – against ‘extremists’, who turned out almost exclusively to be communists.
At the core, this is nothing less than a class question – a question of confidence or no confidence in the bourgeois state to manage bourgeois political excrescences (eg, fascism), and selflessly to defend its enemies: the workers’ movement and revolutionary left. Communists choose ‘no confidence’, and fight for the divestment of state rights – against fascists just as against everyone else.
The SWP/CPB response, on the other hand, is class-collaboration in chemically pure form. And, while as long as the far left remains peripheral in the working class such ideas have the appearance of a rather academic apostasy, where they have gained serious traction in our history they have led to often bloody disasters for our class.
1. wikileaks.org/wiki/British_National_Party_ membership_and_contacts_list%2C_2007-2008
2. The Sun November 20.
5. The Independent November 20.
6. November 22, online only.