Anti-fascism in the 21st century: race and class in the anti-fascist movement
Following on from Anti-fascism in the 21st century, this article looks at where race fits into a radical, working class perspective of anti-fascism.
A major criticism of the anti-fascist movement is that it is dominated by white, middle class people. This demographic, and the liberal, reformist perspective they offer, alienates those most affected by organised fascist activity – ethnic minority groups and the white working class. The result, so the argument goes, is an isolated, single-issue movement adept at nothing more than ineffectually waving placards.
I have written before about need for anti-fascism to have a radical, working class perspective that addresses the roots of fascism with a powerful economic argument. But where does race fit into this equation?
Fascism is a divisive movement. The aim is to split apart the working class along any line possible – race, religion, nationality, etc – in order gain influence and power. In order to most effectively fight that division, we need a movement that is not just based in class struggle but one which is as diverse as the working class itself.
There are several reasons why working class people of colour are put off from engaging in anti-fascist activity. All of them need to be addressed and challenged if that situation is to change.
A patronising anti-racism
Primary among those reasons is the sheer preponderance of white people. Faced with scenes where, for example, an overwhelmingly white crowd of students sang “we are black, white, Asian, and we’re Jews” at a protest in Liverpool, non-white communities are more often perplexed than encouraged by such action.
Liberal anti-fascism, as with liberalism in general, proliferates a patronising form of “anti-racism” and “inclusiveness” that seems to demand subservience more than it does equality.
As an example, look at the society that has emerged under the dominance of liberals eager to promote “multiculturalism.” In a fascist society, it is true, we would not see black rappers performing sellout tours, gay people camping it up on television, or Muslims defending their faith against criticism. But in this liberal society, we do not see black artists who rap about more than girls and guns, offering a radical critique of the dominant culture. We do not see queers who reject camp culture and demand true equality over being treated as amusing pets. We do not see Muslims or Arabs resisting the authoritarianism and patriarchy forced upon them by their mullahs.
Liberalism, whatever its pretences, offers not acceptance and equality, but a begrudging tolerance in hopeful exchange for silent acquiescence. In place of integration and cooperation we have a segregation of people into supposedly-homogenous “communities” where unelected “community leaders” repay state handouts with votes. Liberal “multicultualism,” then is a way to divide the working class whilst claiming to promote “diversity.”
With liberal anti-fascism, the principle is roughly the same. By offering a critique of fascist organisations that is not grounded in class struggle but a defence of the status quo and this statist principle of “multiculturalism.”
As such, the liberal anti-fascists offer a very patronising anti-racism to non-white people. Instead of offering an economic argument that tears down the false racial divides thrown up by the far-right, they will turn them around against the white working class. Instead of grassroots organisation across such artificial lines, they recruit “community leaders,” whose job is to keep their particular “ethnic community” in line in order to cement their own position, and who often represent the same authoritarianism, misogyny, and homophobia that is so loathsome in the far right.
This latter issue is particularly acute amongst the “traditional” left at large, such as the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and George Galloway’s Respect coalition. As I have written previously, they have become apologists for the worst elements of Islam, taking on a simplistic version of anti-imperialism which supports groups such as Hamas or the clerical regime in Iran. As they are involved in liberal anti-fascism as much as liberals, Unite Against Fascism (UAF) being an SWP front, this approach coalesces with the “multiculturalist” one.
The result is a movement that promotes social equality whilst ignoring economic equality. One that, with the mainstream trade unions on board, speaks of the working class yet has the highest echelons of established power amongst its benefactors.
Class as a turn-off for ethnic minorities
In response to these criticisms, those they are aimed at will throw the accusations right back. Talk of class war and socialism puts immigrants and ethnic minorities off, they respond. In truth, this is yet more patronising nonsense. Socialism and class struggle are hardly white priorities, and to suggest otherwise is to suggest that a different skin pigmentation equates to an entirely different set of concerns and values.
In fact, as already discussed, such patronisation is more off-putting than anything. But if class is in any way a factor in turning non-whites away from anti-fascism, then it will be for the fact that liberal anti-fascism is a predominantly middle-class movement.
Overwhelmingly, those blacks and Asians who do work with UAF, Hope not Hate, or similar factions, are of a fairly privileged background. Just as it does with white working class people, this turns black and Asian workers away. It is facile to think that a one-dimensional race argument will mobilise people who, on top of this, are facing the same struggles as we do in being a part of the working class.
Removing class and economics from the anti-fascist argument reduces it to a moral position which, as already covered, feels patronising more than empowering.
Moreover, it is another sop to the far-right. In dropping all emphasis on social class, we become the opposite side of their coin, defining people purely by the colour of their skin.
Returning to what I said earlier about liberal multiculturalism, one particularly notorious way of splitting anti-fascism into racial blocks is to engage with often self-appointed “community leaders” as a substitute for grassroots community organisation.
As already stated, the effect of this is to create and build upon racial schisms in the working class under the guise of “diversity.” Another consequence is that entire racial groups become defined by the worst traits of their unelected “leader” or “spokesperson.”
As a more obvious example consider Iqbal Sacranie, former leader of the Muslim Council of Britain. In January 2006, he denounced homosexuality as “not acceptable” and called civil partnerships “harmful.” Because he was a “community leader,” this was reported not as an individual with distasteful views but as “Muslim head says gays ‘harmful’.” Through his very status as “leader,” he had transposed this opinion onto every Muslim in Britain.
As “community leaders” are unelected and without an opposition candidate, this leaves ordinary people even more voiceless than they are under parliamentary “democracy,” unable to get their message out if they disagree. This is somewhat troubling even with a well-meaning spokesperson. When those who claim to speak for their race or religion stand for the worst kind of authoritarianism and bigotry, it is downright dangerous.
Often, anti-fascists walk a tightrope on racial issues. They risk being caught between promoting racial segregation as apologists for values utterly antithetical to their own, and tokenism, condescendingly “allowing” blacks to take part in a “white” movement, as long as they don’t upset the applecart.
The need for grassroots organisation
The only way to avoid falling into this trap is to draw the antifascist movement back to the grassroots. To put it bluntly, a genuinely diverse anti-fascism cannot emerge within a top-down structure where opposition to racism must fit into a framework of established power.
Combating racial segregation and hatred must mean utterly rejecting the idea of homogenous “communities” and the “leaders” that come with them. At the same time, however, it must recognise that victims of racism (as victims of capitalism) are not helpless creatures requiring rescue by the “right-on.” We cannot “allow” non-whites to be anti-fascists or “invite” them to join us, as we have no monopoly on the movement.
White, middle-class students are not black, Asian, or Jews. They are white. Segregation is not diversity, even when you call it multiculturalism. If white people can organise and resist without the go-ahead from a “leader,” then so too can non-white people.
We must not only recognise that, but push against those trends. We need open and honest dialogue about the flaws of the anti-fascist movement as it is and how we might fix them. Most importantly, we must return to the grassroots and ensure that people hear the argument against fascism based upon class, not race.
If this does not happen, then anti-fascism will remain a white, middle class movement ineffectually waving placards whilst cordoned off from the fascists by the police.