English Defence League stunts and the real lessons of the 1930s
Calls for state, local government and BBC censorship and bans will inevitably backfire against the workers’ movement, argues Ben Lewis
Doubtless bolstered by the British National Party’s recent electoral success, there has been a rise in far-right street mobilisations, leading to tussles with the police, Muslim youth and left activists, including those from Unite Against Fascism. On top of pickets and demonstrations in Birmingham, Luton and Harrow, a further rightwing provocation is planned for Manchester on October 10. At the heart of this sudden increase in activity has been the English Defence League.
However, the only EDL stunt that has gained any noticeable support so far has been in Luton last March. Its counter-demonstration was called against alleged al Muhajiroun Islamists, who marked the return of the Royal East Anglican regiment from a tour of duty in Afghanistan by jeering their parade and called for more troops to be brought home in body bags.
The EDF counter-demo tapped into the respectable nationalism of the mainstream and united it with football ‘Casuals’ and skinhead racists. British-Asian businesses were attacked by breakaway groups. Since then subsequent EDF actions have involved negligible numbers, but likewise serve to massively increase social tensions.
Formed by a motley crew of confused lumpenproletarians, convicted football hooligans and seasoned far-rightist lunatics, the EDL has ridden on the growing wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in the wider population. The EDL has, though, no coherent political platform or ideology and is organisationally loose, shadowy and prone to splinter at any point. It organises in so-called divisions and mainly by using blogs and Facebook.
Not irrelevantly, especially given the stupid and often hysterical leftwing commentary, the BNP is at pains to distance itself. The BNP insists that it does not engage in the sort of street provocations the EDL has become known for. It says it is now thoroughly committed to elections, not conquering the streets or sparking a premature race war. To underline the point, the BNP’s national organiser, Eddy Butler, publicly announced on September 4 that the EDL is a “proscribed organisation”. Henceforth it will be a “disciplinary offence” for any BNP member to be involved with EDL activities.1
In turn, the EDL says it disavows racism and ‘extremism ’and denies any links with the BNP. Despite that, the EDL’s numerous supporters have been photographed giving Nazi salutes on demonstrations and heard shouting slogans about hating ‘Pakis’ and keeping ‘Britain for the Brits’. True, there have been known BNPers and ex-BNPers operating in the EDL. Its website, for example, was constructed by BNP activist Chris Renton. However, it is quite clear that the BNP wants nothing to do with organising EDL street protests or to be associated with it in any other way. Nick Griffin craves respectability, votes and political power gained through the ballot box.
The EDL hypocritically blames the left, UAF and Muslims for the street violence. Apparently they are the planners and perpetrators of clashes which threaten “democracy” and “free speech”. Playing the anti-establishment card, it accuses UAF of being a “government-backed organisation with supporters including David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party”.2 Whatever the spin, the EDL aim is quite clearly to whip up British chauvinist hysteria and divide working class communities.
The EDL has incurred the wrath of sections of the political establishment as well as the BNP and the far left. Communities secretary John Denham drew an analogy with the 1930s by linking the aims and approach of groups like the EDL to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, although he admits the EDL does not possess the BUF’s “potency, organisation or threat”. Leading Socialist Workers Party member and UAF convenor Weyman Bennett agrees: Denham is “right to compare anti-Muslim hate groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) to the fascists that marched against Jews in the 1930s”.3
In 1930s Germany, Leon Trotsky correctly judged that the bourgeois parties had injected the workers’ movement with poison that would slowly kill it, but that the Nazis were more akin to a man approaching with an axe. This then informed strategic perspectives – Trotsky advised the workers’ movement as a whole to defend itself against the immediate threat so as to be able to deal with the slow poison.
However, in 2009, far-right groups like the EDL and BNP, in terms of their size, influence and the threat they pose to the working class movement, bear no comparison even to the Daily Mail-backed British Union of Fascists under Oswald Mosley, let alone Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
Of course, especially given the current economic downturn and the austerity that lies ahead, that could quickly change. So the real point about looking back to the 1930s is to draw from them strategic lessons. Comrade Bennett likes to highlight some of the inspiring events of the 30s in the fight against the far right. The CPGB mobilisation to beat the BUF at Cable Street and the struggles in the workplaces and in communities are undoubtedly inspiring. But there is another side to the coin.
The CPGB embraced popular frontism in the mid-1930s, which meant lining up with trade union officials, Labour left, liberals, churchmen and film stars in a classless defence of democracy. The fight for working class political independence and socialism was effectively abandoned. And despite the SWP’s pretensions about UAF being a ‘united front’ in the spirit of Leon Trotsky, it is clearly a classic popular front, albeit of the unpopular kind. UAF cannot even advise a class vote in elections. Instead it just says: ‘Use your vote to stop the Nazi BNP!’
Not only is this reactive approach (what exactly are we for?) based on an overestimation of the far right’s current influence: it encapsulates the archetypal popular frontist distinction between the ‘respectable’, mainstream parties like New Labour, the Tories and even the United Kingdom Independence Party on the one hand, and the ‘illegitimate’ BNP and EDL on the other. Despite the EDL’s fantasies about David Cameron as a UAF supporter, the leader of a party whose history is synonymous with imperialist slaughter, national chauvinism, racism, gay-baiting and sexism would not be unwelcome on a UAF platform.
Alongside the left’s popular frontist approach is its increasing tendency to call for state bans, censorship and proscriptions.
The CPGB of the 1930s learnt the meaning of such measures the hard way. It campaigned for the banning of the BUF, using similar arguments about respectability and legitimacy to those of UAF/SWP. When the Public Order Act was passed in 1936, the CPGB soon found that the legislation was employed against its demonstrations, rallies and mobilisations. Indeed, whenever the going gets tough, the parties of the establishment (‘respectable’ ones, remember) are more than willing to bring down the full weight of state repression on the organised workers’ movement – we saw a glimpse of this during the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85.
But whether for reasons of historical illiteracy or naked class-collaborationism, some will never learn. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ‘ official communist’ Morning Star implores her majesty’s constabulary to “ban tonight’s planned ‘anti-Muslim protest’ outside Harrow Central Mosque in the same way they would do if a church, synagogue, chapel or temple was targeted.”4
Our friends in the SWP are no better. ‘Turn the BNP into HMP’5 has now become its mantra. After all, what would be a more effective means of denying Nick Griffin and co the “oxygen of publicity” than being locked up?
The problem with this approach, however, is that it fails to recognise that the main enemy – both in the immediate and the long-term sense – is precisely the capitalist state, upon which these comrades would bestow greater powers to deal with the ‘Nazis’. It is not actually illegal to stage a demonstration outside any religious establishment, nor should it be. After all, it is not inconceivable that the workers’ movement might wish to protest against the reactionary actions of a pro-establishment church, so why call on the state to adopt powers to prevent us from doing so? Similarly, it is not exactly unknown for working class fighters to be jailed for giving voice to unacceptable views.
Which brings us to the controversy over the BBC television programme, Question time. As the reader will be aware, the corporation has stated that it intends to invite a BNP leader to debate current politics with representatives of the main parties on a forthcoming edition – a decision that has not exactly pleased the SWP.
Writing in Socialist Worker, Michael Rosen states: “Like the street, the BBC is a public place and is indirectly publicly owned. The BBC has a responsibility to represent everyone. It has no responsibility to represent those who attack sections of the population and demand that they leave the country.”6
The mind boggles. If the BBC has a responsibility to represent everyone, then there is the obvious point to be made – the BNP, by tapping into the discontent amongst backward workers, is winning votes and getting elected. The appearance of a BNP leader on Question time would provide this minority with a form of representation. Moreover, if one’s criterion for a place on the show is that no panellist should “attack sections of the population and demand that they leave the country”, then this would see the number of invited speakers dwindle to virtually zero. After all, every one of the mainstream, ‘respectable’ parties supports immigration controls, which certainly involves attacking sections of the population and forcing them out of the country.
Implicit in Rosen’s moralism is something else – elitism. As soon as the ‘ordinary workers’ sitting at home see Nick Griffin mouth off some nonsense on Question time they will be won over to Hitlerism and holocaust denial!7
Now, this is not to say that any of those likely to challenge Griffin on Question time would be able to mount any kind of principled working class argument against him. That would require a champion of genuine socialism – not tailing the establishment consensus of the Denhams, Camerons et al.
And this is the point. What our comrades in the SWP, CPB and UAF seem unable to come to terms with is that the BNP‑’s relative electoral success will increasingly mean pressure to appear on various platforms, political debates, radio shows and more. It should be blindingly obvious that the tasks of Marxists now should not consist in appealing to the BBC to ban the BNP, but to start articulating our solutions and our programme, build our own electoral base, see our own councillors and MEPs elected, and force the establishment to start taking us seriously!
Unfortunately, even if the left were strong enough to be invited onto a programme like Question time, then our current ‘common sense’ would dictate such an appearance to be beyond the pale if it meant sharing a platform with a ‘Nazi’. In fact comrade Bennett et al would very likely ‘no platform’ themselves rather than make use of the opportunity to promote independent working class politics. They would rather hand the banner of decency, respectability and democracy to the stalwarts of the bourgeoisie!
The reaction to the BBC decision to invite the BNP onto Question time is just one example of the left’s elitism, lack of self-confidence and disdain for democracy.
Last week’s Trade Union Congress in Liverpool unanimously backed a call for urgent talks with the government to address the need to extend the ban on BNP members in the police and prison services across the whole of the public sector. This time it was Janice Godrich – deputy general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union and a member of Socialist Party in England and Wales – calling for more state powers.
Despite making noises about the “mainstream parties” needing to “urgently address the serious gaps in the policies that allow the BNP and far right to exploit division to suit their own ends”, she was quite clear that the ban should be extended. The “BNP’s message of hate and fear” stood in stark contrast to the values of equality and access for all on which public services are based.8 Socialist Worker carries exactly the same message: “It is absolutely right that BNP members should be banned from public sector jobs”.9
These comrades seem incapable of learning from history how such measures end up being used against our class. The Berufsverbot law passed against communists and fascists in post-World War II Germany had a disastrous impact. Anybody suspected of being a member of, or sympathetic to, the German Communist Party was hounded out of teaching in the name of defending the ‘public interest’ and upholding ‘democracy’ and ‘legitimacy’. Always it is the bourgeois establishment that decides who and what is legitimate.
We communists disdain to conceal our views as a party of intransigent, uncompromising and irreconcilable hostility to the capitalist system, its sham democracy and coercive state apparatus. In this we are an ‘extreme’ party like the BNP or the EDL – and are therefore just as vulnerable to ‘anti-extremist’ witch-hunt legislation. That is why the left calling for the state to arm itself with yet more powers is like turkeys voting for Christmas.
Once again, though, the ghost of the popular frontist 1930s is back to haunt us – only this time on a much smaller scale: first time tragedy, second time farce. Instead of opting for no confidence in the bourgeois state and fighting for the divestment of state powers, the left is acting as cheerleader for British it:‘democracy’ and the values of ‘equality and access for all’ that are at the heart of good old British institutions like the BBC.
In the last decade the BNP has gone from being an utterly marginal group to one that now commands a modestly healthy vote, has dozens of councillors and two MEPs. By contrast, the left is nowhere. Yet, to state the obvious, while the BNP can offer nothing but divisive dead ends, we have the only viable solutions for millions of people at a time when the capitalist system is so obviously failing humanity.
For communists, the various political tactics we can employ are not predetermined in some sort of religious manner. But this is unfortunately what they have become. Let us repeat: it is tactically as legitimate to organise physical defence against groups like the EDL or the BNP (including pre-emptively) as it is to ruthlessly expose their rotten ideas on a shared platform. As we have shown in previous articles, the best parts of our movement have always employed such a wide array of tactical weapons.
If we were actually making headway in rolling back the influence of the BNP, while simultaneously making new inroads for working class politics, then it might well be argued that we need to continue on the same course and perhaps pursue it with greater energy.
But facts can be stubborn things, and even a cursory glance at the relative strength of the far left in relation to the far right should at least pose some questions, if not necessarily the answers.