Fighting Racism: Which way are we marching?

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 116 December 1993/January 1994

There is an urgent need for serious discussion about the tactics of today's anti-fascist movement. MAXINE WILLIAMS analyses aspects of the history of the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements in Britain.

The election in September of British National Party councillor Derek Beackon was presented as an upsurge in fascism or `nazism', as sections of the left like to call it. Since then, the activities of the left and anti-fascist movement have largely concentrated on the issue of no platform for fascists, that is, opposing and chasing out the BNP.

These are laudable activities in their way. But, in isolation, they do little to address the real issues of racism in areas of the East End, racism which is embedded not merely in the BNP but in all the political parties and in the institutions of local and national government.

Nor do they involve taking up the issues which affect all working class people and the poorer sections in particular. In fact, the election of a BNP candidate by a largely working class constituency should first and foremost have been viewed by the left as an indication of its own failure to build any serious or worthwhile roots in poor working class areas. Such areas have been left prey to right-wing racist organisations because for the British left — as for the Labour Party — the poor, the old, the unemployed, simply do not count. As A Sivanandan wrote recently in the New Statesman:

`What emerges from the Tower Hamlets experience is that there is little to choose between national black and left organisations. They neither sustain and support the new protest movements that are springing up in the Bengali community, nor work with the white communities to counter the rights-for-whites movements in areas like the Isle of Dogs. And not till such time as they base themselves in these communities and help them to organise on their own behalf, connecting the fight against racism with the fight against social deprivation, can there be a unified movement or an organic struggle.'

He points out that:

`The left continues to see the fight against racism as subsidiary to the anti-fascist struggle, and itself as the historical repository of that struggle. It ignores state racism and continues to view working class racism as an aberration. Racial violence, therefore, is a by-product of fascism. Get rid of the fascists and racial violence will disappear too ... But such floating anti-fascism renders local communities mere venues for disconnected actions, and prey to the fascist backlash once the marchers have gone.'

The black communities under racist attack from the state, the government, local councils, local racists —cannot be defended by merely chasing out the BNP as though it alone, and not deep-seated racism, were the problem. A socialist movement cannot be built by national demonstrations against the BNP which leave untouched the conditions of poverty in which racist parties grow. The energies of the 50,000 people who marched on 16 October against the BNP are being frittered away unless clearer understanding of where the movement should be marching to can be found.

Working class and racism

Cable Street

1937 Cable Street: East-End anti-fascists fought Mosley's British Union of Fascists

The East End has a history of right wing, anti-Semitic and racist activity. The British Brothers League was active there early in this century and local agitation aided the process of introducing the anti-Jewish Aliens Act of 1905. In the 1930s Mosley's Blackshirts won popular support there as today the British National Party has done. Often this is explained as a consequence of poverty — the poorest whites/non-Jews seeking a convenient scapegoat — and lack of organisation. Undoubtedly poverty played its part but other factors have been at work, most notably the fact that nationalism, chauvinism and racism were deeply entrenched in the very working class and socialist organisations which were present locally. The Social Democratic Federation, a large socialist organisation, argued: `Jew moneylenders now control every Foreign Office in Europe'.

The Independent Labour Party said: 'Wherever there is trouble in Europe, whatever rumours of war circulate ... a hook-nosed Rothschild is at his games somewhere near the region of the disturbances.' England,' they said, 'is for the English.' In the period before 1905 no less than 43 Labour Movement organisations advocated restrictions on Jewish immigration. The campaign against such poison was small and came from the pressure of Jewish trade unionists and a very few principled socialists.

The parallels with the issue of black immigration are obvious. The TUC campaigned for controls in the 1960s, as did many unions. Since 1964 the Labour Party has supported ever greater immigration controls aimed at excluding black people. Local councils where Labour has held control have aided and abetted the perception that housing shortages, for example, are caused by black people.

East End Labour councils have acted in a divisive and racist manner sowing the seeds now being reaped by the Liberals and the British National Party. Tower Hamlets, where a British National Party councillor has been elected on a rights-for-whites ticket, has the highest unemployment in London and 80 per cent of its residents live in council housing. From 1945 to 1986 Tower Hamlets was controlled by the Labour Party, run largely by an ossified clique. Its popular base can be judged by the fact that in 1968 11,000 people voted, out of an electorate of 126,000. The extent of dissatisfaction was shown when the Liberals arrived and grew from seven seats in 1978 to control of the council in 1986.

Labour's policy was to redevelop the borough by allowing free rein to office and property developers. Whilst supposed to be clearing slums, the council had to be forced by tenant action to do so. Often it demolished buildings which tenants wanted renovated, later to unveil its plan for a large office or shop development. Housing land in Wapping was sold by the Labour Council to Citibank to build offices. The land was sold on to developers offering £20m per acre. Council land was also sold to private housing developers in order to entice the middle classes to the area.

The vast majority of new housing in Tower Hamlets is private housing in Docklands — out of the reach of local working class people. Slums condemned in 1944 were still standing in 1989. With a shrinking housing stock the local council steered working class dissatisfaction along racist lines. Areas with white tenants were given priority over black tenants for clearance. When the GLC controlled a large part of the local housing, many estates were kept white and Bengalis offered worse quality housing. The council adopted various methods to circumvent the requirement to house people according to need (often Bengalis were in the worst housing) by such tactics as picking names out of a Bingo drum. These policies are the origin of the rights-for-whites campaign.

The leader of Tower Hamlets under Labour was Paul Beasley who, when he left the council, set up his own property development company, joined the board of the London Docklands Development Corporation and became a director of the World Trade Centre (a subsidiary of the building giant Taylor Woodrow).

The refusal of the Labour council in Tower Hamlets to provide housing for the working class, and its divisive use of privileged access to housing for white people, set the scene for the triumph of even more racist organisations. The Liberal council for example, gave priority to 'sons and daughters' of the borough, i.e. whites. It also, as Labour had, claimed that Bengali families arriving in the borough had made themselves intentionally homeless and therefore need not be housed at all. Families have been evicted from local hotels by the council which also, in 1986, said it was going to put homeless families on a ship in the Thames. The current furore over a Liberal leaflet about crime illustrated with a photo of a black man seems to ignore the consistent racism that has been displayed by the Liberals in Tower Hamlets.

The national political parties, especially the Labour Party, are responsible for creating the conditions in which racism breeds and for playing on the racism of white working class people. Only socialist organisation which fights the real enemies of the whole working class, fights for their interests and challenges racism can defend black people against racism and build a united working class movement.

Much information on Tower Hamlets Council is contained in Spitalfields: A Battle for Land by Charlie Forman.

Lessons from the 1930s

Although the world political situation was very different in the 1930s, there are lessons to be learnt from the experience of communists working in Britain in that period in the East End. The differences between then and now must be borne in mind, especially: the victory of fascist forces in Germany, Italy and later Spain; the existence of strong working class forces organised both in social-democratic and communist parties at an immeasurably higher political level; the backing, including from sections of the ruling class such as the British newspaper owner, Lord Rothermere, for Mosley's British Union of Fascists.

In the East End, the British Union of Fascists made headway amongst sections of the working class through agitation on both social and anti-Semitic issues. Widespread attacks both on leftist meetings and activity, and on Jewish people and property took place. Fascist meetings were protected by the police who were inactive against fascist assaults. The communists had won a significant base in the area, especially amongst Jewish workers. The pressure of local activists, communist and non-communist, forced the pace of anti-fascist activity.

One such East End communist activist was Joe Jacobs, who was expelled from the British Communist Party largely as a result of his political work and views on how to combat fascism. He stressed the need for communist activity on social issues locally, especially amongst the unemployed and unorganised; the need for mass mobilisation and active opposition to fascist activity, including demonstrations, the breaking up of meetings etc; the need to prevent the fascists from spreading their influence into further areas of the East End. He opposed the Communist Party's attempts to restrict the struggle to 'trade union work', which he described as 'trade union parliamentarianism'.

In arguing against his suspension from the Communist Party he wrote:

`In East London, in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and Limehouse, Mosley had succeeded in gaining positions because we have not systematically led the workers on their immediate demands, social and economic, because the labour movement is still split, because the Party in those areas has failed to carry on its propaganda activities in the way that it has in Stepney, because Mosley has been able to take advantage of the latent anti-Semitic feeling which had existed in many parts.'

Alongside this he argued for the prevention of fascist meetings and rallies: 'the fascists no longer appeared in Newby Place (Poplar) or Stepney Green because whenever there was a rumour to the effect that they would be at these places, thousands of workers who had been called to the streets by the Party were ready to prevent fascist meetings being held.' Jacobs felt that after this the Communist Party line changed locally and nationally and began to sacrifice both work on social issues and against fascism for work that won paper support from existing Labour Movement organisations 'at the expense of our work in the streets and of leading the unorganised and organised masses into action against fascism and war'.

The efforts of local communists and local pressure had forced the Communist Party to play its role in the battle of Cable Street in 1937. Prior to this pressure the CP leadership had intended to ignore Mosley's march through the East End and instead hold a demonstration about Spain in Central London. Jacobs was leading amongst those who fought to reverse this and to ensure that the Party played an active role in the successful mobilisation to stop Mosley's march.

History never exactly repeats itself and it would be crude to simply attempt to apply Jacobs's lessons to today as though nothing had changed. Political trends, however, stubbornly remain. Jacobs was opposing a trend still with us today: to sacrifice the interests of the mass of workers for an alliance with Labour organisations representing a minority, often better off, of the working class. Jacobs represented a trend which has virtually no political existence today: the defence of the most oppressed, the organisation of the unorganised, the mobilisation of people around issues of concern to them in a political form which opposed both fascists and the British ruling class.

Above all, it is clear that none of the work Jacobs describes would have been possible if communists were not active locally and had not won a base amongst local people, Jewish and non-Jewish. Anti-fascist forces were those which were also active in the fight for the working class and for socialism. They were part of the local community, not external to it. Today's anti-fascist activity represents barely any of this work or political tradition. ■

Joe Jacob's book, Out of the Ghetto, is published by Phoenix Press.


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