“There were those who said: ‘Bash the fascists wherever you see them’. Others among us asked ourselves: How was Mosley able to recruit Stepney workers? This, in spite of our propaganda exposing the fascists. If they saw in the fascists the answer to their problems, why? What were the problems? Did we, in our propaganda, offer a solution? Was propaganda itself sufficient? Was there more that ought to be done?”
“The battle against racism and fascism cannot be won by outsiders who march into an area, chant slogans, and then march out again; it can only be won by the most dedicated, rooted and persistent commitment to undermine and destroy the injustice and neglect on which such movements thrive.”
Two very honest quotes from different moments of the 20th century encounter with fascism which still ought to speak to us today, just after thousands of jubilant far-right supporters of Tommy Robinson, including the Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance (DFLA) marched and rampaged around London with only a tiny number of anti-racists bravely opposing them.
The first quote was written in the 1940s by a Jewish communist, Phil Piratin, about the 1930s, when the threat came from Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The second was a comment by Ken Leech, a very left-wing Anglo-Catholic priest. He was writing in 1980 about events just two years earlier, when the National Front were successfully recruiting from all classes of the population and terrorising local immigrant communities. I was privileged to work professionally with Ken in the East End in the late 1980s.
In both the 1930s and the 1970s, though, anti-fascists were ultimately successful in creating energetic, creative and courageous mass movements to push back the fascists. Both eras had their iconic moments: the Battle of Cable Street 1936, the Battle of Brick Lane 1978, whose significance cannot be under-estimated, but neither should they be over-estimated.
There is a difference between a battle and a war. The war against fascism in both those decades was not won on a single day with one huge mobilisation, but through a variety of means, by developing grassroots alliances, using a diverse range of tactics, and also through making mistakes, discussing and reflecting on them and building more sophisticated responses.
The victory at Cable Street was cemented by the solid day to day work over the following three years, by the Stepney Tenants Defence League, a very imaginative housing campaign established by anti-fascists who understood the need to connect the fight against antisemitism with the fight for better living conditions for all. The Communist Party, in which Phil Piratin played a prominent role, was at the heart of London’s anti-fascist movement. It had 550 members in the East End but had a strategy for spreading its influence by addressing the concerns and immediate needs of all working class people. The Stepney Tenants Defence League (STDL) was led by Communist and Labour activists and had 11,000 members by 1939, many of whom had taken part in successful rent strikes in that period after Cable Street. In one famous case the STDL saved two working class fascist families from eviction after they fell behind with their rent. After being helped they tore up their membership cards of Mosley’s fascist party. The STDL leafleted many estates about this victory as a demonstration of what united working class communities could achieve.
The battles that were won in Brick Lane in 1978 owed much to day to day local self-organisation by young people in the community most under attack, who were supported by trade unionists, left wingers, radical church people (like Ken Leech) but also by a national movement, the Anti-Nazi League, which won the endorsement and active participation of people well beyond a small far-left bubble. And this movement was intimately tied to a brilliant and energetic cultural initiative, Rock Against Racism, which brought large swathes of young people of all backgrounds into contact with anti-racist politics, and gave those people the space to shape that initiative.
Many were shocked by the events of last weekend in central London. I felt frustration and paralysis more than shock. The writing has been on the wall for a while, but the organisations that have been doing most to warn us what we will soon be facing, showed us both their strengths and their weaknesses.
A variety of circumstances prevented me from being there. A fall two days before, which left me nursing very painful ribs, meant I was in no fit state to attend a demo that was bound to be physically demanding. I absolutely admire the courage of those who went and stood their ground, while being so overwhelmingly outnumbered.
In the immediate aftermath, the highest estimate I heard for our side was 400; the highest for theirs, 30,000. More reliable estimates I have obtained since place the DFLA numbers at 12-15,000, but put our side’s numbers as little more than 200. And even if they were 400, this could only be a token, symbolic response. And their side, unlike ours, has serious money and organisation backing their foot-soldiers, most likely from both the American and European Far Right/identitarian forces they are clearly working closely with.
To their credit, the largely overlapping bodies Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) have been trying to explain to a wider audience, over the last year, the serious danger presented by the Football Lads Alliance (and its larger splinter – the DFLA). At first , many dismissed the FLA as a flash in the pan outburst from a motley collection of thugs. But UAF/SUTR, have kept a close eye on developments in continental Europe, noting how quickly the street movement Pegida mushroomed and then gave birth to Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD). They also noted how a new generation of fascists are cooperating and strengthening each other between eastern and western Europe.
Both UAF and SUTR and have tried to generate greater awareness and support. I have been part of this – speaking at local and national meetings and mobilisations called under their umbrella, most recently an excellent discussion event in Birmingham on 2 June co-organised with West Mids TUC. I have played a significant part in their very worthwhile educational initiatives to take anti-racists and trade union activists to Auschwitz, and will continue to do so, but in the face of the forces we are confronted with, there needs to be a serious and honest reckoning with reality. This applies not just to UAF and SUTR, but to everyone who is committed to understanding the conditions and range of factors that are feeding the growth of the far right in order to take effective action to challenge them. Street confrontations matter, but they can only succeed if we can draw people from beyond the existing pool of active anti-racists and anti-fascists. That also means seeking to persuade and win over those who are being attracted by simple, hate-filled, inhuman explanations for the deepening problems and inequalities that confront them every day.
It is quite a few years since any counter-demonstrations by anti-fascists have numbered more than a few hundred. With a very fractured far right who could frequently fail to reach three figures themselves that was sufficient. But not now. SUTR and UAF have organised considerably larger numbers at rallies called on their own terms, but have often counted feet rather than heads in the attendance claimed. Inflating the size of our demonstrations for PR reasons does us no favours. And as we are discovering now, when we urgently need real numbers, it is a political liability. These inflated claims may raise the profile of our organisations but they don’t give us an accurate picture of where we are or what we can do next.
No one can doubt their efforts to mobilise in strength, but turning out numbers consistently and at short notice is very difficult. It is very simple to blame those sections of the broader left movement that weren’t there, call for numbers and for “unity” and claim we would have swept our opponents off the streets if only…. I’ve heard it all week on Facebook. It is harder to ask ourselves to account more objectively for why other forces weren’t there when they were needed – like last weekend. But if we don’t ask that question with honesty and listen to people’s genuine answers, then we are all in trouble.
The day after the far right march last Saturday, I went to Poland for a short visit, a country where the conventional right wing is lurching further rightwards, and becoming more authoritarian; where far right forces who openly express antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Roma racism, are growing in confidence, and maintain contact with our far right, . Our conversation with Polish leftists, who are numerically weak, showed us that that they understood the variety of reasons why large numbers of working-class Poles were voting for the right and some supporting the out and out fascists. They also understood that challenging and undermining the right does not mean responding to every provocation but it does mean doing patient grassroots work on their own terms to generate real gains for working people and offer alternative perspectives.
When I spoke at the Birmingham SUTR/West Mids TUC conference, one participant asked me to comment on the relative success of German anti-fascists who had mobilised 72,000 people recently. I responded that the German anti-fasicst movement has always been more diverse politically and in its tactics. I also pointed out that the largest portion of the 72,000 were mobilised through an initiative that mixed music with politics
Which brings me back to those quotes at the beginning. We can’t only be reactive, and go chasing round the country at great speed and in ever decreasing numbers to where the DFLA or other far right forces are marching, at the expense of doing work in our own communities – that “dedicated, rooted and persistent work” that Ken Leech talked about.
We have to find ways to intervene that address the reasons why struggling working class people are getting drawn to groups like the DFLA and offer them potential ways of changing those circumstances. That is done best through local campaigns. It may sound heretical but what the DFLA/other pro-Tommy Robinson forces get up to in central London may be less significant than what they attempt to do in local communities. We also need to continually highlight their international connections and make our own international anti-fascist connections
One of the great successes of the Anti-Nazi League when it was launched in 1977, was winning the endorsement of figures in sport, music and film who were influential in the lives of many young people. I would urge my comrades in UAF and SUTR to use their resources and experience and collaborate in building a bigger and broader national umbrella for national anti-racist and anti-fascist activity. But it is our ability to do patient work in our localities, that continually links and embeds the fight against racism and fascism with the fight for better lives for all – at work, in schools, in housing, in health – that will be decisive. Time is running out.