Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991…
In July 1991 the far right British National Party stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for a council by-election in Brunswick Ward. Much of this ward consisted of the large and run down Elmington Council estate, in Camberwell. The BNP campaign was vigorously opposed by an alliance of local anti-fascists, left groups, Anti-Fascist Action, supported by local residents including a number of squatters; however, the BNP did manage to march in force around the estate.
At the time the Elmington was in a somewhat dilapidated state; Southwark was (and still is) one of the poorest boroughs in London. The estate had large numbers of empty flats, and a large population of squatters, as did many of Southwark’s estates (it was thought to be the most heavily squatted borough then, at a time when London’s squatting population was variously estimated at 20-30,000). Much of the estate was in disrepair. The Estate housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known leftwing activist, who was also a Labour councillor in neighbouring Lambeth at the time [She was, if I recall right, one of the remaining councillors from ‘Red” Ted Knight’s administration of the early 1980s, the majority of who had been disbarred and banned from standing to be councillors again, over the Rate Capping battle against the Thatcher government… a group alleged to be an entrist faction of trotskyites originating in the Socialist Organiser group].
The BNP campaign was partly aimed at attacking Rachel Webb, as a known leftwing activist, and also Southwark’s Labour council, and at targeting squatters living on the estate. A BNP election leaflet ran: “ [Rachel Webb] is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”
A candidate for council elections needed ten sponsors from the council electoral ward in question. Anti-fascists later obtained the list of Tyler’s sponsors; not all lived on the estate. But there was a group of white residents with BNP sympathies and more, who lived on the Elmington. This group was linked to racist attacks on the estate: dogs had been set on local black kids; black families had their windows bricked; passers by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear.
“Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was painted up around the estate at the time.
It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of BNP splinter hooligan firm Combat 18, lived on the Elmington at the time – he was officially living there a couple of years later. Tyler, himself was a long-standing BNP activist and perennial candidate, who stood in general elections in nearby Bermondsey several times in the 1990s.
At the time BNP were doing regular paper sales in East Street in Walworth, and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruitment; disillusioned working class residents living in poverty were seen as a good recruitment pool; ‘lefty’ Labour councils were easy meat, and migrants, especially black people, loudly blamed for the myriad social problems.
The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action [which your author was then active in]. We took the position you have to oppose any fascist presence as it was clearly shown to directly or indirectly lead to racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time) – even if electorally they were not really likely to win, or even come close. We did a lot of leafleting of the ward, and talking to local people. Crucially, some of the South London AFA group lived on the estate or in the wider area, though the majority lived across South London (many in nearby Brixton).
Leafletting and talking to residents received a mixed, though largely positive, response. If some people hated squatters and others were racist, many were also ex-squatters or hated Nazis. On one memorable occasion someone put an anti-fascist leaflet through a door and a large west indian man came running out of the flat with a hammer, then did a double take and looked closer at leaflet in his hand and went ”oh, ANTI fascist action…” !
BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 o’clock in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.
The anti-fascists held one rally on the estate. Anti-Fascist Action also organised a public meeting in the Walmer Castle Pub on Peckham Road (now defunct), which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions, all turning up to spout their own political line on fascism, slag each other iff, slag us off, and generally offer nothing practical. Any non-aligned locals turning up were generally bemused by the maze of initials, groupuscules and counter-claims, and the bitter shouty row that the meeting descended into.
Some other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors (eg Ian Driver) were involved in the opposition to the BNP; other groups, like the Socialist Workers Party, informed us that small fascist groups were a distraction from the real issues facing the working class, and that Anti-Fascist Action were fighting an irrelevant enemy, the real danger in terms of racism being the state structures, police, etc. This was a line the SWP had been taking pretty much since the party hierarchy closed down the Anti-Nazi League in the early 1980s; while it is true that institutional racism is more powerful and pervasive than small fascist parties, the threat that black people, migrants and other groups faced from racist attacks is very real, and demands resistance. Not long after this the SWP would totally reverse their position, and set about reforming of the Anti Nazi League, which, while making a lot of noise and seeking and gaining widespread publicity, was generally about as much of a threat to the Nazis as a slightly deceased rabbit.
The coalition of anti-fascists organised one local march against the BNP; the BNP in fact themselves staged a march, of about 70 skins and assorted swivel-eyes (mostly imported from outside the area) round the estate, on July 20th, a few days before election day. This demo became a bit of a sore point later. It was not publicised in advance – unsurprisingly, as the BNP were afraid that opposition could be rallied and the march could be blocked, attacked or possibly even banned by the cops. Anti Fascist Action had had word that the march was going to take place, but most of the South London AFA group on the ground were not informed very much in advance until it was realistically too late to organise much opposition. We could do very little to oppose them marching (although their transit did get its windows bricked on the day). The day of the march consisted mostly of running around chasing shadows and rumours, not an untypical day out where anti-fascist activity was concerned… Anti-fascists went into the nearby Orange Tree pub on Havil Road, which was a bit of a mistake, as the reception was not too friendly, seemingly because there were some black people in the anti-fascist group. Ho hum.
A Picket was held outside Southwark Town Hall during the election count on July 25th. Police heavily protected the nazis at the count, and Steve Tyler barely put in an appearance, so we didn’t get near them, but the day did end in a fight – farcically, this barney was between two of the anti-fascist picketers, as some were local squatters, while another was one Steve Willis, the housing officer from Peckham’s Friary Estate, whose favourite hobby at the time was going round kicking in squatters’ doors and evicting them illegally.
Meanwhile the BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, which was quite a high vote for a lunatic fringe candidate in a council by-election. This turnout, on top of their largely unopposed march and foray into an area not generally thought of as BNP material, reflected something of a minor coup for the fash.
Shortly afterwards, some dodgy white residents on the Elmington estate, who were strongly suspected of being among those who backed the BNP, burgled a couple of squatters who were heavily involved in the AFA activity: the squatters decided the wisest course to move on…
After all this estate housing officer Rachel Webb did try to evict some of the people who’d signed the BNP list; which was something that divided the anti-fascists, an Official state-backed anti-fascism seemed to us to be playing into the hands of the BNP’s ‘oppressed white people’ narrative’. It seemed to us that local dissatisfaction with the Labour Council’s neglect of the estate had partly helped open the door to the BNP; some of us felt anti-fascism was not enough really, it had to be linked to opposing the council’s running down of the area.
The BNP presence was not however massively sustained and built on, as they never stood for election again.
What we should have done?
There was some talk afterwards about setting up an anti-fascist group local to the area, one that specifically also would take on the problems that were making some people susceptible to supporting the BNP, including crap housing, poverty etc, but one that would also challenge racist and scapegoat solutions aimed at dividing people on the basis of colour, or splitting tenants from squatters. Our thought was that the deprivation and disrepair that the Elmington was experiencing were in part causing some to fall into the Nazis arms, and especially to blame squatters, and in some cases black residents, for the poverty and misery of life there…
Allying with Labour and especially Labour councillors, in the struggle against the BNP during the election, we thought, may have been something of a mistake, given the Labour council’s image as being at least partly to blame for the state of the housing… We became identified with the people residents directly dealt with, complained to, and in the end blamed. Not a good tactic.
However, these discussions came to nothing, as discussions often do, partly because the individuals active in our group, who lived on the estate, mostly squatting, were burgled shortly after, by neighbours who we think had links to the BNP, and didn’t feel safe staying there any longer, partly because there were other political struggles going on (eg the anti-poll tax movement was kind of winding down but non-payers and rioters were still being targetted and sent to prison…)… also other anti-fascist things were kicking off, with a surge in racist attacks and resistance in South East London, notably Thamesmead, but also in Bermondsey (see below). Most if us became active in this also.
In retrospect, our analysis may have been partly correct, in that a voice that linked support opposition to organised racists with opposition to the council could have been useful; however, us being largely transient outsiders, it would very likely have not got off the ground – it also underestimates the simple racism of the core of the BNP support, and – to be brutally frank – the distrust of squatters by some long-time residents, who saw us at best as fly-by-nights who would piss of elsewhere soon, and at worst as anti-social junkies. Both of these judgments were not in any way wholly true or wholly false – squatters, like tenants, were mixed bag and some were twats who gave not a fuck for their neighbours, just as some tried to put down roots, or were even local themselves.
There was an abortive attempt to put our tentative plan into effect on a wider scale, which we were involved in, later that year, as a group called Southwark Community Action was founded, to try and gather something of the anti-poll tax spirit as well as address racism and other issues… But it opened itself up to too many diverse views too quickly, became a talking shop, and foundered in irrelevance within months.
Problems within AFA
Some of us also had problems with some Anti Fascist Action practices, with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense. The problem was that in practice anti-fascism kind of became all consuming ; to be involved in AFA couldn’t be part time; to the exclusion of other struggles. At that point you could easily go to four office AFA Meetings a fortnight – all London AFA meetings, South London AFA meetings, AFA stewards group meetings, South London and southeast London AFA liaison meetings regarding the particular fascist problem in Bermondsey at that time…
There was quite a lot of pressure, I would say to be part of all those things, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, or be considered lightweights.
AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members were often isolated within AFA.
AFA’s structure was increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 It had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-sydicalist Direct Action movement, and Trotskyist group workers power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.
Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.
These were political, organisational problems, Which played out in the communication problems that we found with regards to the Elmington experience – not hearing about information on the ground, information being kept tight to some people’s chests. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people , on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.
Another factor at work was that in London, AFA had a concentration on the East End, Brick Lane and certain parts of Bethnal Green in particular, which they saw as the frontline of anti-fascism. And I think they considered Camberwell to be not a crucial battleground, or somewhere where the fash weren’t as much of a threat. I don’t know if that played into some leading AFA people’s calculations as to how much effort to put into the struggle on the Elmington. Some of us not in the centre of AFA felt that a decision had been taken not to spend too much in terms of time and resources on the Elmington campaign. For us, while anti-fascism was something we had been involved in already, this was close to home and represented an invasion of sorts… and linked in to other activities we were also involved in – squatting, housing struggles against local councils…
Although it did not play out at all in the brief Elmington tussle, there were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…
These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.
Despite the AFA programme of opposition to fascism being both physical and ideological, the physical activity was almost inevitably given higher priority. Anyone who talked about doing more ideological work, more campaigning work, was likely to be accused by Red Action of basically just wanting to be in the SWP. And despite there being no justification for those smears, and when and it was supposed to be the programme of the organisation, that the ideological opposition was supposed to be another – vital – arm of defeating fascism, especially within the white working class communities, which are susceptible to fascist influence, the physical approach was generally in effect dominant. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough.
Ironically Red Action later came to the same conclusion themselves, later on setting up the independent working class Association. They had come to the same conclusion we had in Camberwell – that to oppose fascism not physically and ideologically you had to be there addressing the economic and social issues that fascists tried to exploit and helping to turn that discontent into collective action instead of racism and division. The IWCA made a more effective job of this than we Camberwell anti-fascists ever did, though there were lots of problems with their process too.
The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.
Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the fash were bearable on the street and not as hard as they claimed. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but it laid itself open in reality to downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking, and to an emphasis on being harder than the nazis. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had even been a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.
My parachute didn’t open
The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they cane in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.
The Elmington election was in some ways an opening salvo in what was to prove a few years of wider anti fascist struggle, as the BNP rose while the old National Front declined, and proved itself more adept at both physical violence and electioneering. Two years after the Elmington the BNP won its first elected councillor, in the Isle of Dogs – a feat the NF had never achieved even in the 1970s. Racist attacks were beginning to spike, especially in Southeast London, notably around Welling, Thamesmead and Eltham. The presence of the BNP’s bookshop/HQ in Welling was seen as at the very least cashing in on the wide racist atmosphere in parts of this area, and quite possibly whipping it up. A long drawn out struggle against fascist presence, racism and the bookshop’s existence ensued.
Another event in the summer of 1991 that South London AFA we’re involved in reinforced a sense that parachute anti-racism was not in any way the answer – in fact could be actively counter-productive.
Both the National Front and BNP we’re heavily active in Bermondsey at this time. The Front had been active there for several years. Both sold their newspapers in the local market at the ‘Blue’ in Southwark Park Road.
As in Thamesmead & Welling, the fascists swam in a sea of wider racism and encouraged it by their activity; racist attacks were on the increase, especially around the Silwood estate…To some extent Southwark Council’s longstanding ‘sons and daughters’ policy, originally designed to house council tenants near other members of their families, had helped increase racial division in the borough, as white council tenants had been housed in Bermondsey and black people further south, generally in Peckham or Camberwell. A sense of ghettoisation had developed; not entirely helped by a real insularity and clannishness many Bermondsey locals tended to evolve anyway. Like on the Isle of Dogs, the hereditary dock work, added to a feeling of long-rootedness and spiced with a (usually genuine) grievance against official neglect of the area, helped forge a certain inward looking culture, with a suspicion of outsiders which was not always racist but tended to fall that way often enough.
In recent years a gradual move towards housing more black people in Bermondsey had been met with hostility and a growing racist backlash from some white residents.
There were people on the ground attempting to counter this from the grassroots.
AFA (the South London and SE London branches) did make some attempts to liaise with people locally. But the situation was becoming seriously aggravated.
In the meanwhile a largely opportunistic march was called for Saturday 24th August 1991, by the ‘National Black Caucus’ was organised in protest at the racist attacks. This group had few links on the ground, and made little attempt to do any local liaison or co-ordinate with those who had a first-hand grasp of the lie of the land and had been trying to organise solid anti-racist work.
The march from the start was announced as a march on ‘racist Bermondsey’; from outside, with little consultation of what people living there were doing, and in practice was staged as a march into and out of an area, disconnected, with no thought of what effect it might have… It played nicely into the hands of the organised racists in Bermondsey, who were able to go round and play on the idea of outsiders coming in to tell them how racist they were… [we accept that part of the problem was that many were racist]…
As an organisation AFA we’re suspicious of the politics of the match organisers; we were suspicious of the tactic of marching in like a hostile force generally; but given that we were involved in fighting fascism and racism in South London we decided to attend.
This was a mistake…
The march was a disaster. The organisers has promised 150 professional stewards to ensure the safety of demonstrators – this didn’t materialise. Given the level of racist abuse in Bermondsey this was totally irresponsible, and in fact relied either on police protection (a laugh, considering both the racist sympathies of many cops then – and now – and the blustery anti-police rhetoric of the organisers). The fascists had leafletted the area and struck a note popular with locals , that do-gooding leftie poshos we’re coming to tell them how to live. Local anti-racists we knew said they were avoiding the demo – partly from disgust at the bad planning of the Black Caucus and partly as they had to live there… As a result the demo walked down Rotherhithe New Road through the Silwood Estate, which was festooned with union jacks and George crosses, 100s of locals residents mobilised against us by racists. Some folk decided to burn a Union Jack on the March at this point, not something we have out against as a rule, but definitely a red rag to the huge crowd hanging off every balcony. Then we turned left into Southwark Park, where, thanks to a myopic miscalculation by the organisers, we got faced with an additional fun complication – 300-500 or so Millwall fans, as Millwall were playing at home that day, and also having a large dodgy hooligan firm and friends who had a decidedly racist element… Again the fash had only to spread the word, where the march organisers had not enough local nouse to think to check the fixture list… (which AFA at least with its left hooligan base would have done first of all!) The Park was also a terrible point to end the demo, a trap basically.
We shat ourselves. Really. The numbers against us were large and hard and the majority on the march were not seasoned street-fighters. It looked very much like we were going to get a kicking. I remember a few of us searching under the trees for hefty fallen branches to use as weapons… An SWP member and a local black woman walking in the park were viciously attacked.
Anyway, it didn’t come to a mass beating. The police escorted us out of the park and the area. A humiliating retreat, in some ways worse than a battering. We marched back to Peckham to the jeers of the odd fash on the sidelines, with a long running battle behind us as nazis and friends tried to get at us and chucked bottles… When we got back to the Peckham park we had marched off from, and a mini rally, the organisers were trumpeting ‘We marched on racist Bermondsey’ like it was a victory, rather than ending in a huge encouragement of racist politics.
The BNP were in their element. They held their own rally in Southwark Park, with Steve Tyler (the BNP candidate in Camberwell) haranguing the crowd: “All blacks are muggers, all blacks have got AIDS, we want them out of our country, we want white power…” The crowds went off to smash up some shops and attack black drivers.
We heard that the level of racist attacks around the area that night and in subsequent days went up sharply – no shit, sherlock. The march had actually encouraged that: parachuting in and then running out, leaving the people living there to face the consequences.
AFA folk seemed to be among the few thinking this was a defeat and a disaster, a PR victory for the Nazis in Bermondsey, we regretted feeling like we had to go on the march. In the pub afterwards we had our heads in our hands – given AFA’s policy of beating fascists off the streets, but also winning working class white people away from fascism and racism, we knew this was a major reverse, on both counts.
We knew it and the fash knew it. A few weeks later we were blockading a large BNP papersale/mobilisation in Brick Lane and a chant of ours – ‘Cable St, Cable Street!’ was met with a riposte of ‘Bermondsey, Bermondsey’. They rightly saw that day as a feather in their cap… It galvanised them to pour a lot of effort into the Bermondsey area. Silwood Estate already had a high rate of racist attacks; this spiralled upwards in the early-mid 1990s following the march; the stood a candidate here in May 1994 local elections. The fash still see this area as having potential, there were NF marches once a year or so into the 2000s.
The sense of confidence that this undeniable propaganda coup gave the nazis was only really reversed at the Battle of Waterloo in September 1992, where anti-fascists gave boneheads gathering for a Blood & Honour gig a total pasting…
Since 1991 the Elmington estate, and Bermondsey too, have changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has changed the Elmington immensely; the rebuilding of dockland derelict industrial sites as gentrified swathes of blandness, have transformed both areas… Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London than fascist boots.
The breaking up of older more established working class communities in areas like Bermondsey has reduced the cohesiveness of the white racist narrative in some ways – so hurray for gentrification?! Er… no. But while some white Bermondseyites whinged ‘foreigners are getting all the council houses’ they failed to notice that the middle class and corporate land grabbers had nicked the houses.
There’s no telling how many of the more affluent ‘incomers’ occupying some of the riverside nicenesses along Bermondsey’s riverfront are attracted to the new shiny alt-right currents, as in contrast to the skinheaded street fights of old much racist and rightwing agitation now goes on online.
Every day I learn lesson… less?
As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?
It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of our struggle on the Elmington, South London more widely, and of the experience of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.
Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’. Both AFA (at its least effective) and the National Black Caucus march on Bermondsey laid themselves open to being seen as outsiders, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).
Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.
At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fashion efforts and preventing events from taking place: AFA did have impact.
Secondly, anti-fascism has to be linked and intrinsically linked to at the very least a sense that fascism is based in the material oppressions of daily life; the material social and economic conditions that allow fascism to flourish. Beyond that even, anti-fascism, I would say, has to have a specifically anti-capitalist ethos. Deprivation, alienation, despair, the feelings of total abandonment that attracts some working class people to fascism, the listening to loud voices offering what seems like a solution, people to blame like foreigners, Trade Unions, migrants, refugees, women, etc, have tobe understood and argued against. The real issues that make people susceptible to fascist influence have to be addressed.
It’s not enough to challenge fascism in isolation; it has to be an explicitly grassroots socially conscious anti fascism. The kind of liberal, ‘fascism is bad, defend democracy, vote anyone but BNP’ toss commentators from the Guardian to the Daily Mail come out with masks the reality – fascism and democracy are forms that capitalism takes, cloaks worn over the expropriating skeleton. Capital will happily wear the democratic form when it can, but will turn to the fascist costume, as needed; depending on how necessary it sees authoritarian social organisation to be. Usually, historically, in response, usually, in response to an upsurge of working class struggles and pressure for social change from below. The main reason why fascism flourishes and becomes powerful and ‘captures’ state power has, in the past, been because it achieves backing by the capitalist class, or certain elements of the capitalist class, who see it as a bulwark against the threat of revolution.
In order to resist fascism, you have to that you have to be aware of that. Patriotic liberal anti-fascism will always denounce militant class based anti-fascism, the violence necessary to keep fascism from growing, because at heart it recognises a dynamic it won’t even admit to itself – that anti-capitalist anti-fascism is also the enemy of patriotism and liberalism.
If liberals want to fight fascism let them do it in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, where fascism originates and has many of its leaders, where the profit of fascism is reaped.
Points three and four are connected, and on the face of it, not exactly contradictory, but two connected poles which an effective and truly anti-racist movement has to both steer between and draw on…
The third factor to bear in mind is that anti-fascism and anti-racism and any movements it emerges from has to be aware of, have a consciousness of, this country’s history, the history of the British Empire, of the history of colonialism and genocide, why this country became so wealthy, the exploitation of developing countries, the plundering of resources across the world, institutionalised racism… the complex reasons why communities migrated here. Anti-fascism has to have that as a central part of its perception. It’s no good saying white working class communities are where we need to address fascism, but trying to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, or without honestly examining and critiquing the reasons why white working class people identify with an imperial past, develop or transmit racism and xenophobia, feel that they are racially or nationally superior to other people from across the planet… All those ideas and social relations have to be tackled. Material conditions alone don’t lead people into sympathy and support for fascism – racism, white supremacism, nostalgia for lost white pasts (whether they existed or not) – all that does exist in many communities, has been fostered for decades – in the interests of preventing clear thinking working class internationalism. Lexity British jobs for British Workers bollocks is just lefty-Trade Union slang for racism.
Anti-fascism is both anti capitalist and internationalist. And to be internationalist, you have to have a conception of why migration happens. Why people have come here. What are people coming from, running from, running towards, from other parts of the world?
Point four goes hand in hand with point three, its bi-polar other half: you have to also have an open mind, and approach people, work with people on many levels. It’s that the addressing the material conditions, in that sense means often working with people that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything politically. Crucial to countering the attraction of fascism is being part of those struggles, on an organic level, on a day to day level, against the grinding reality of poverty and despair. And vital to that is not simply denouncing people immediately for holding some ideas you might consider reactionary and breaking off with them, but being able to address them, debating and discussing, where you do share some common interests or ideas with them.
Reactionary ideas, prejudices, bigotry exist: racism, misogyny, homophobia and all the other shit. But to overcome that cannot only be a matter of bashing people. Organised fascism has to be fought – yes, and sometimes physically. Decisions have to be made about who you consider on your side and who is on the other. And who do you ‘No Platform’ and who do you debate… But alongside that necessity, there also has to be the ability to enter into discussions with people whose ideas you on some level disagree with. Folding your arms and going, I’m not having anything to do with them because you’re this and you’re that blah, blah, blah, phobic – in the end, you can end up walling yourself off from a lot of people, potential allies. This kind of happens too much, in many ways, not only where anti-fascism is concerned – the ability to build a sense of solidarity with people who don’t think exactly like yourself is limited, and it can lead people into retreating into a kind of woke gated communities. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of recognising the power structures that exist in the world, and addressing them. But shutting yourself off from those discussions and debates, to set yourself apart working with people who you agree with on many things but disagree with on some levels is, I think, generally counterproductive. And in the context of rising racist and right wing movements could be dividing our forces in the face of dangerous enemies.
Finally, and bearing the previous point in mind, I think anti-fascism does to be specifically anti hierarchical, organised at a grassroots level, decentralised. There has to be a healthy suspicion of leftist political organisations; you have to dissect the practice of groups like Red Action, to critique the way that the SWP uses political fronts like the Anti-Nazi League or Stand Up to Racism in order to funnel people and resources into their own orbit; uses people’s struggles and for its for their own interests.
Anti-fascism has to be free from the from the manipulations of the left, and also the assumptions of the left that from some politically advanced position they know better and can waltz in and save the day… In the fight against the BNP on the Elmington the multiplying swarm of left factions all offering a slightly different position and arguing that in place of putting aside differences was confusing, depressing – and is repeated in almost every arena constantly. There has to be a recognition that wafer thin theoretical point-scoring cannot come at the expense of actually getting anything achieved.
Some of these points may seem slightly contradictory, and its true they are thoughts that clash and sit together awkwardly, maybe. Some times and places and actions demand a different balance of tactics, influences and approaches. Maybe we in AFA, acting on the Elmington, and the organisers of the disastrous march to Bermondsey, were doing the only thing we could have done at that time; its certainly taken me nearly 30 years to set the thoughts above in any kind of order and make time to write it down (although it represents the sum of many conversations between various people). Sometimes its only years later you realise what the right thing to do is. But you have to keep thinking, as well as acting.
In a Postscript to the thoughts on anti-fascism today: There are factions of ‘antifa’ willing to identify as fascists, or at least rightists deserving physical opposition, anyone who does not sign up to specific positions on other issues. This has emerged notably in the current ‘debate’ on transphobia and the fierce argument between gender-critical feminists (labelled ‘TERFs by some) and an element of the trans rights movement and some allies. No platforming – physically preventing known fascists from speaking, debating, as well as gathering or meeting, a central plank of anti-fascism, is being extended to women who attempt to meet to discuss how the push to recognise ‘self-identification’ as the only necessary or acceptable definition of whether someone is the ‘gender’ they say they are. ‘TERFS’ are derided as nazis, bigots for whom the same treatment is needed. This process involves mainly targeting of feminists, often women who have been in the social movements we have built for many years, and has included blockading meetings, threats both online and in person, ostracism, exclusion. Anyone who suggests that there may be a discussion to be had as to how women’s rights and trans rights intersect and may in some cases collide, gets attacked – but its women who get the runt of the abuse. Some anti-fascist groups, taking a lead from the USA, where this process is several years further along, are openly lumping ‘terfs’ – ie feminists who disagree with some aspects of some transgender ideas – in with fascists. I think this is a mistake.
Many of us draw lines, if only in our heads – these people are on my side, these people are on the other side. The line changes over time for many of us. And depending on where you come from and where you place your politics, your sense of self, that line is going to be drawn in a different place. But if you want to come together to form social movements, either to oppose processes taking place or to fight for a positive change, those lines have to be re-thought. If I’m honest there are elements of the ideas of some gender critical feminists and of pro-trans rights activists that I fully agree with and some in both camps I find repulsive and nasty… but overwhelmingly I would view these movements as BOTH being part of a wider culture I would support. Where rights and interests meet and clash and mix within what I see as social movements with wider common goals is, I suggest, a point for discussion and debate, questioning and dialectic – not ostracism and no platforming.
In some ways this is a symptom of a wider syndrome, paralysingly epidemic at the moment – a closing down, a bunkering, into ideological fiefdoms, from which we can all take potshots at each other for not being in our corner on everything. Meanwhile the environment goes to shit, the exploiting classes gleefully suck more of our blood and rightwing movements are on the rise. People drawing lines in the sand might want to consider where the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ really lies.