A new ‘Anti-Nazi League'? Still seeking unity with the dividers

Stand Up To Racism/Unite Against Fascism counter-demonstration

The summer of 2018 saw a rise in the activity of the far right in Britain. A number of high-profile street demonstrations in London by the far-right Democratic Football Lads Alliance (D-FLA) were organised in support of English Defence League co-founder Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka ‘Tommy Robinson’) and attended by thousands. This and other far-right events around the country have prompted calls to reboot the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), an anti-fascist movement formed by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1977. However, just like the original ANL, the mainstream anti-fascist groups’ strategy is to seek unity with the Labour Party and trade unions whose support for racist immigration controls and policing has not changed under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Re-forming the ANL has been endorsed by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, a key ally of Corbyn, and a ‘National unity demo against racism and fascism’ has been organised for 17 November. This festival of respectable anti-fascism will do nothing to challenge the chief perpetrator of racist violence, the British state. WILL HARNEY reports.

Far-right rumblings in Britain

On 6 May 2018, an estimated 5,000 people rallied at Whitehall in central London for a so-called ‘Day of Freedom’, the majority of whom were mobilised by the D-FLA who marched from Hyde Park flying nationalist and far-right insignia such as the Generation Identity flag. The rally featured a keynote speech from Yaxley-Lennon as well as several other high profile far-right figures: Raheem Kassam, editor of Breitbart news, former aide to UKIP’s Nigel Farage, and friend to US President Donald Trump; UKIP leader Gerard Batten; US alt-right icon Milo Yiannopoulos, former editor of Breitbart; Anne Marie Waters of the For Britain Party (campaigning for the 14 June by-election in Lewisham East); and others. The organisers of this hate-filled gathering were able to make use of a colossal video screen and stage professionally assembled directly outside Downing Street, with the arrangement of the Metropolitan Police, for more than three hours – despite the theme of the event, which was their lack of free speech! A few hundred counter-protestors mobilised by Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) and Unite Against Fascism (UAF) were held at a distance of several hundred metres behind rows of police vans and steel barriers.

On 26 May Yaxley-Lennon was handed a 10-month gaol sentence for contempt of court after live-streaming outside Leeds Crown Court. This was added to a three-month suspended sentence he received in May 2017 for using a camera inside Canterbury Crown Court. ‘Free Tommy’ rallies were organised in several British cities as well as New York and Melbourne for 9 June, and this time the London event was attended by as many as 10,000. The crowd was addressed by Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party as well as Kassam and Waters before turning violent; nine men were arrested, and five police injured. The counter-demonstration was once again vastly outnumbered and isolated. The next day, the annual Al-Quds Day march in support of Palestine was stalled for several hours by police as Zionist and far-right racists came together to block the roads and defend imperialism.

A third far-right rally in London on 14 July, the day after US President Donald Trump visited the capital, was smaller. Around 6,000 far-right protestors were were opposed by an estimated 3,000 anti-fascist demonstrators. The counter-demo was this time joined by a significant contingent of groups not affiliated to trade unions, Labour or the SWP. This was organised by London Anti-fascist Network and Plan C and included hundreds of antifascists and anarchists. Members of London Revolutionary Communist Group contributed to the organising meeting and joined the contingent on the day as it marched to Whitehall across Westminster Bridge with red flags, smoke bombs, chanting and leafleting. This was in stark contrast to the SUTR/UAF events, static demonstrations involving a rota of mainstream left and trade union speakers, virtually invisible to the public.

Yaxley-Lennon was released on bail in late July pending a new hearing in his case. The threat to the left posed by right-wing thugs needs to be confronted. The RMT union’s Steve Hedley and other RMT members were assaulted by fascists after the 14 July demonstration. On 11 August the SWP’s London bookshop Bookmarks was attacked and vandalised by twelve far right thugs. At least some of the group, carrying ‘Make Britain Great Again’ placards, had come from an earlier event organised by the People’s Charter Foundation, at which the Zionist Sharon Klaff had spoken on Labour and Israel (World Socialist Website 6 August 2018). In Newcastle, RCG members running pro-Palestine street stalls have been harassed by Britain First. A D-FLA march in Sunderland on 15 September attracted up to 1,000 supporters and a counter-demonstration of fewer than 60. A further march by the D-FLA is planned in London for 13 October. With far-right parties making electoral gains across Europe, it is important to address how the left should respond to far-right organising in Britain.

Bring back the ANL?

In early August Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell argued:

‘Maybe it’s time for an Anti-Nazi League type cultural and political campaign to resist. The Anti-Nazi League was an iconic movement over several decades that successfully combated the far right through the mass mobilisation of trade unionists and anti-racist campaigners.’

An open letter published in The Guardian on 15 August, signed by former Labour minister Peter Hain and the SWP’s Paul Holborrow along with musicians who were active in Rock Against Racism (RAR), praised the work of SUTR and UAF in providing ‘essential and much-needed rallying points of opposition to the rising far right’. The letter argues that ‘this process now urgently needs to be deepened and extended, uniting all people and organisations of goodwill against the huge challenges we face over the next few years from the far right and fascists. This will involve applying the ANL’s tactics of mass propaganda, unrelenting opposition to the racists and fascists wherever they organise, and the cultural appeal that ANL/RAR pioneered, with large-scale music and similar events asserting the values of our multiracial and diverse society.’

SUTR is now building for a ‘National unity demonstration against fascism and racism’ on 17 November. Many regional branches are advertising this event with images of ANL demonstrations from the 1990s.

Anti-Nazi League demonstration in the 1990s

Violent attacks against black people and Asians by racists on the far right peaked in the 1970s and 80s, with scores of people murdered and places of worship frequently vandalised. The National Front marched with impunity, under police protection, through black and Asian communities in Britain’s cities. Even so, the most significant and openly racist force at the time was the imperialist British state, whose immigration acts from the 1960s onwards and discriminatory policing were fuelling a wave of racism. As the post-war boom had subsided, it was no longer necessary for British capitalism to generate a reserve army of labour through mass immigration from the former colonies. Immigration controls were made stricter and more racialised. Migrant families were split up and hundreds awaited deportation in overcrowded and abusive prisons; such a system, created and operated to this day by both Labour and Tory governments is intended to crush resistance by immigrants and black people and prevent unity between them and the mass of the working class. It depends on racism to function.

The ANL formed at a time when black-led resistance to the National Front and police racism was taking on a militant character. The opportunist left had to channel this militancy back into respectable politics, such as at the battle of Lewisham in 1977 where the SWP attempted, unsuccessfully, to place all the anti-fascist groups under the control of their stewards.

For the sake of ‘unity’, the ANL was designed from the outset to put exaggerated focus on the National Front and divert resistance away from the systemic state racism of the Labour government which was supported by the trade unions. At its first conference in 1978, the ANL threw out a motion opposing the immigration acts. It did not speak out against the oppression of Irish people and did not defend black people from attacks by the British state. Such principled stances would have made unity with Labour impossible; Holborrow stated at the conference, ‘the ANL is too important to drive back into the strait jacket many of us have come from’. As such the ANL received endorsement from ten national trade unions and Labour politicians including then-Cabinet minister Tony Benn. The ANL’s opportunistic nature was shown clearly in September 1978. While the National Front marched under police protection through London’s East End, the ANL – rather than uniting with the black and Asian communities of the East End to block the far right – led 80,000 to the opposite side of the city to listen to speeches from Benn and others. This was later justified by the need to avoid confrontation with the police. It only confirmed what the RCG had argued: the ANL would not stand up to racism if it meant standing up to the forces of the British state.

With the collapse of the National Front’s modest electoral support at the end of the 1970s, the ANL’s job was considered done and the organisation wound up – despite continuing violence against black and Asian people, culminating in a series of uprisings against racists and the police in the early 1980s which the SWP and Labour Party condemned. The ANL re-formed in 1992 with the rise in electoral support for the BNP, before merging into UAF in 2004.

Covering for Labour’s racism

Have the British state or the Labour Party changed in their essential racist characters since the 1970s? No, and hence any move to revive the ANL must be interpreted as just another cover for Labour racism by the opportunist left. The last Labour government boasted of deporting one immigrant every eight minutes. The far right thrives in such an environment and has capitalised on the racist rhetoric of both Labour and Tories surrounding the issue of Brexit. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s purportedly anti-racist leadership will continue to operate Britain’s system of racist immigration controls and policing under what they term ‘reasonable management of migration’. Indeed, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott has promised to hire 500 more border guards and 10,000 more police. In the midst of the Windrush scandal Abbott also promised to close Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres if elected – but was silent about Britain’s other eight Immigration Removal Centres and two Short-Term Holding Facilities, all but one of which were opened by Labour governments. Thousands are imprisoned in this system at any given time.

abbott hostile environment

Image posted by Diane Abbott's Twitter account, 16 May 2018

None of this matters to Britain’s ‘official’ anti-fascist movement who continue to use the same opportunist tactics as in the 1970s to garner mainstream approval. The SUTR counter-demonstrations to the D-FLA have been static, compliant affairs featuring (when they could get them) Labour politicians and trade union officials with no open platform for all anti-racist organisations to speak. The far right are still referred to as ‘Nazis’, as if their racism has a foreign origin. Even the threat to the organised left is underplayed in a sacrifice to ‘unity’: at the 9 June counter-demonstration, Weyman Bennett of SUTR/UAF and former ANL national organiser recited a censored version of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem ‘First they came…’, omitting any mention of communist victims of the Nazis. SUTR now boasts of official backing for their National Unity Demonstration from the Trades Union Congress, Abbott and McDonnell.

Racism in Britain does not stem from the far right. It is inherent to the British imperialist state, which divides the working class on behalf of capital. Racism is the form that national oppression takes within an imperialist country. Real resistance to racism and the far right requires, today as it did before, standing up to fight against all the racist instruments of the British state including its agents in the labour movement.

 03/10/18: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the far-right rally on 14 July 2018 was outnumbered by counter-demonstrators. The figures have been corrected. See analysis by Searchlight for estimated numbers at each event (http://www.searchlightmagazine.com/2018/07/analysis-the-free-tommy-demo-and-a-year-of-far-right-protests-with-table-and-video/).