Anti-fascism in the 21st century: against collaboration with the state
Part four of a series exploring anti-fascism from a radical, working class perspective discusses why working with the state is viewed by many as counterproductive.
In their founding statement, militant antifascist organisation Antifa say that they “will not work with, accept information from, nor pass information to the magazine Searchlight.”
On the other hand, liberal antifascist group Unite Against Fascism (UAF)’s founding statement argues that the threat of fascism “requires a strong and united response from all those dedicated to freedom and democracy.” To this end, they seek “to unite the broadest possible spectrum of society to counter this threat.” Their signatories include MPs from all political parties and trade union and religious leaders.
These two contrasting positions, then, demonstrate the divide between liberals and radical militants as far as antifascism and the state are concerned. Here, I will argue that the Antifa approach is the right one, and that antifascists should be wary not only of working with the state but also with others who collaborate with the state.
The state as antagonistic to the working class
Having already argued that antifascism needs to be rooted in working class activism in the original Anti-fascism in the 21st century, I won’t dwell on the subject here. Operating from that perspective, however, the relationship between the state and fascism is worth noting.
In Killing and dying for “the old lie”, I stated that “it was in the context of [World War One] that millions of workers rose up in revolt against social and economic oppression, and the ruling classes fostered fascism as a way to crush this revolutionary wave and divide the working class.” To the examples offered in that article, we can add this observation on the modern British National Party by the Anarchist Federation;
During the Great Miners’ strike, which was eventually defeated by Thatcher’s government as well as by Scargill’s (the then leader of the National Union of Mineworkers) incompetence, the BNP actively worked against these working class heroes. Not only did the BNP not support the strikes, but they actively called for the miners to return to work and called on the Army to be used to break up pickets. A former BNP parliamentary candidate in Yorkshire and a candidate in Dewsbury in the 1990s, the Dowager Lady Jane Birdwood ran Self-Help, a right wing pressure group dedicated to smashing unions and funded scabs during the strike. She, among many others such as the late John Tyndall who remained in the party up until his death only a few years ago, saw the miners’ strike as a “Communist plot” to destroy Britain and even saw Thatcher as being too weak towards the miners. For anyone who remembers the great battles during the 1984-85 strike would remember how Thatcher ruthlessly persecuted mining communities and trade unionists and brought in London police and the Army to batter the miners into submission, at the Battle of Orgreave, soldiers in police uniforms herded miners into a field before charging at them on horseback, and to the BNP, this was seen as being too soft. Jane Birdwood found support from … guess who … mine owners, who actively worked with her and her pressure group to undermine the strike.
My statement that “fascism was used by the powerful as a way of fracturing class consciousness in favour of nationalism” remains true today. This can be seen in contrasting state reactions to the likes of the BNP and to class-based radical organisations.
Back in October, I wrote Question Time’s service to established power, discussing BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearence on the BBC talk show. My opinion was that Griffin was “invited on specifically to flail and flop” and that “in doing so, he and the BNP serve well their role, both as convenient foils for mainstream parties, and as part of the flak machine driving the political agenda rightward.”
On the streets, the BNP has also been the recipient of strong police protection. When the party held a march in Liverpool last November, “police informed [antifascist] organisers that the BNP had not shown up in Liverpool” before they “protect[ed] the one hundred and fifty strong BNP contingent.” “Two lines of police separated the two demonstrations” before “they managed to isolate those who had been agitating for us to hold our ground, we were read a section of the Public Order Act before being frog marched to where [UAF leader Weymann] Bennett had obediently reassembled the demonstration (nearly a kilometre from the fascists) and released.” “At this point the crowd (now numbering around one hundred) had been completely hemmed in by the police, whilst the BNP marched back across town and held a rally on the steps of St. George’s Hall, declaring the they had “reclaimed the streets of Liverpool.”” This is just one example.
Meanwhile, radical left activists are branded “domestic extremists,” and their photographs and details held on intelligence databases. Evidence has emerged of police covering up their badge numbers (and of the top brass covering up this fact) before brutalising protesters. In response to this, one activist has even been brutally manhandled and arrested for asking for a policeman’s badge number.
The above is just a small sample of evidence that, in the words of Antifa, “the State will employ fascist tactics if necessary in the cause of suppressing dissent.
Betrayal of activists by state-sponsored “antifascists”
What, then, of antifascist organisations that work within the law and collaborate with the powers-that-be, such as Searchlight? According to Antifa;
As an organisation that works hand-in-glove with State agencies, we cannot trust them or the agenda they pursue. Their influence within, and manipulation of, militant anti-fascism has been deeply divisive over the years, their methods and involvement with State security services are well documented and entirely incompatible with our own position.
The links between Searchlight’s publisher, Gerry Gable, and MI5 are well-known. The first article to expose them was Searchlight and the State, originally published in Anarchy 36 in 1983. According to the article;
Searchlight has built up an impressive reputation for investigative reporting, and has done pioneering work of genuine value in exposing the activities and international links of fascist organisations. But the political expediency of a perceived identity of interest in the short-term, in the cause of ‘anti-fascism’ just as in ‘anti-communism’, is apt to lead one to work with some strange allies. In Searchlight’s case, opposition to the ‘extremists’ of the Right has opened up the door to the extremists of the centre, for whom Right and Left are equally perceived as a threat to ‘democracy’.
Not only has Gable admitted, as part of his defence in the 1963/4 burglary trial, that he hoped to supply information to Special Branch on David Irving, but a confidential memorandum written by him to his producers in London Weekend Television (where he worked until recently as a researcher/presenter on the London Programme: he is now trying to work his ticket with an alleged ‘heart condition’) on 2 May 1977 gave clear, hard, evidence that he has also engaged in a two-way traffic of information with the security services of several countries, and acted as a conduit of misinformation for MI5 against fellow journalists, and socialists.
As an appendix to Bash the Fash: Anti-fascists recollections, 1984-1993 notes;
There are three main reasons why co-operating with the police against the fascists is a bad idea (i) the police demand or covertly obtain information about our side who they regard as a worse enemy anyway (ii) the police agenda is against ‘extremists’ left and right, which may account for Searchlight’s disgraceful smear campaign against some fine anti-fascists in the DAM and Class War (iii) as some hairy bloke once said “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class alone” ie we can fight our own battles thank you very much.
In 2005, Searchlight wrote their “Letter of resignation to UAF.” Citing “a difference of strategy with regards to our own local campaigning and UAF’s national strategy,” Searchlight “resign[ed] our two places on the [UAF] steering committee.”
However, this does not exempt UAF from such criticism. The problem with UAF is that it attempts to walk in both worlds, committed to legalism through a need to secure MP and trade union funding, whilst trying to lure in more experienced antifascists by pretending to direct action and militancy. An article on Workers’ Liberty offers a pertinent recent example of this;
The UAF has no history of mass pickets of BNP events. Politically, it subsists on “Uniting everyone against the Nazis” — including government ministers and Tory politicians.
UAF has been successful in gathering up trade union support and money. Whilst remaining — obviously, ostentatiously — an SWP front, UAF has been endorsed and tolerated by union leaders as a convenient, tokenistic gesture. UAF affliation neither disturbs the unions’ kowtowing to the government, nor risks pulling them into radical action that might cause them embarrassment. The union bosses can continue to pretend they were fighting fascism — by giving great amounts of money to the UAF/SWP.
To spice up UAF a bit, on marches over the last few years, such as the RWB in 2008 and the Stoke demonstration after that, the SWP has engineeed fruitless minor confrontations with the police, usually miles from the BNP. The simple purpose seems to be to make the protests a little more exciting for possible SWP recruits who might attend, and to disguise the fact that UAF had put little work in preparing a more serious protest.
At this year’s RWB the SWP made a turn. They now seem to believe that more radical action on the streets will help them to relate to “angry youth”.
Sadly, rather than try to persuade UAF’s union sponsors that such action could be justified for reasons other than aiding SWP recruitment, the SWP has faced in two directions. At RWB they promised the local TUC that there would be no direct action, but organised it anyway.
And, at a demonstration against the English Defence League in Leeds, we saw how easily UAF commitment to legalism, as with Searchlight’s commitment to connections in the security services, leads to the betrayal of antifascists. To quote the Anarchist Federation;
The Anarchist Federation condemns the group Unite Against Fascism (UAF) who, on Saturday 31st October at a mobilisation against the English Defence League (EDL) in Leeds city centre, openly handed one of our members over to the police. Several UAF stewards, including the head of UAF Leeds, physically prevented our member from rejoining the cordon, and then called the police over to arrest him. We will not tolerate collaboration with the state to halt the activity of genuine anti-fascists and ask other progressive organisations to do the same. UAF’s policy of negotiating with the state for its public protests is well known, as is its alliance with religious leaders, trade union bureaucrats and politicians. UAF, apart from being nothing more than a front group for the Socialist Workers Party, has never been an effective means to combat the rise of fascism in Britain nor does it offer anything to working class communities.
According to Antifa, such betrayals stem from a desire to “retain control over anti-fascism in Britain.” Their “reluctan[ce] to support a protest that they do not control, and one organised with the involvement of other socialist groups” demonstrates clearly that they “are so utterly enamoured with the commercial business school approach to growth (market monopoly and brand strength) that they are willing to sabotage genuine efforts to confront the BNP.”
The need for an antiauthoritarian antifascism
After the 1936 Spanish Revolution, antifascists should have learned the folly of working with both the state and those that cooperate with it. Those events should also have cemented the moral of the February Revolution in Russia in 1917, and it’s betrayal by Lenin’s “Vanguard” that October. Knowing that history, antifascism today should be very different. It should be a non-hierarchical grassroots movement, based upon radical, working-class opposition to the state and capitalism.
In the words of Antifa;
[We] believe in organizing within our own communities against the spread of racism stirred up by everyone from the mainstream media to New Labour, and against the fascism of the BNP. Only by organizing in our own communities and workplaces can we hope to defeat fascism once and for all. In the white working-class areas where the BNP have already gained a toe-hold (primarily former Labour strongholds where people rightly feel betrayed by the mainstream parties and have been conned into seeing the BNP as some form of ‘radical’ alternative), as well as confronting the BNP physically, we should aim to challenge the BNP’s fascist politics and replace them with our own anti-racist, anti-state, and pro working-class politics.
The reasons why such a movement does not exist are complex. However, they can be traced back to a steady dilution of class consciousness over the last century, and the ability of parties such as the SWP to dominate popular movements with recruiting fronts, thus robbing them of all potency. In this context, it would have been more of a surprise if the fascists were not able to falsely take up the mantle of class politics and offer themselves as a “radical opposition” to a ruling class steadily chipping away at all our hard-won rights.
If we are to undo this damage, then there must be an open and honest dialogue addressing precisely these follies. The case against state collaboration must be made, and argued out, using reason and the lessons of the past. But to attempt such is to be labelled “sectarian.” Of course, we must be aware of the danger of this – turning in on ourselves over ideology only makes the working class more vulnerable to attack by fascists and the rich. But at the same time we cannot allow the threat of such a label to end the debate and silence all dissent.
Today, antifascism is one of many areas of radical politics dominated by marginally different sects of “socialist” Vanguards, using it as another front to compete for numbers, funding, and paper sales. It is they who are guilty of a cynical sectarianism, along with the betrayal of genuine activists, in the pursuit of their own interests. In opposition to this, we must stand with Antifa and declare that “we are not asking for people to join us; we are not asking for your contact details or for your money; we are simply asking for you to ACT.”