The left spends a lot of time condemning the BNP, damning them as fascists and Nazis and frequently mobilising against them. This weekend, for example, the North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism will be holding a special one day conference on how to beat the BNP. But why? What is it about an organisation that only has 56 councillors, 100 parish councillors and a member of the London Assembly that can rouse the passions like no other political party? In this lead off I'll be looking at three things - what fascism is, the roots of its support in Britain today and how we can go about fighting them.
If we return to the Communist Manifesto, Marx describes the capitalist state as a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. Engels in his Origin of the Family also argued that the state, in the final analysis, is an organised military body that stands in defence of capitalist property relations. But the state is no monolithic leviathan - not only is it struggled over by various factions of the bourgeoisie it has to manage and partially reflect the aspirations of the subject class - the working class. The extent to which the working class exerts an influence over the bourgeois state depends on the level of class struggle. When it is strong the labour movement can extract concessions from it. When the movement is weak the state can be used to strengthen business and the power of the bourgeoisie at our expense. In British post-war history from 1945 to 1979, you could say state economic intervention, the growing welfare state, and the semi-institutionalisation of the trade unions in the field of industrial policy reflected the strength, confidence and expectations of our class. From Thatcher's election in 1979 and the defeats of the 80s these reforms were clawed back. Socialist ideas more or less went underground and the Labour party capitulated to the neoliberal consensus around free markets, privatisation, deregulation and the dismemberment of the welfare state. It remains to be seen if the present economic crisis has conclusively brought this period to a close.
There are moments when the state can assume a degree of autonomy from the ruling class and the aspirations of the workers. This happens when class struggle reaches an equilibrium. Marx analysed this phenomena in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and termed it 'Bonapartism' after emperor Napoleon III, who seized power in France in 1851. The state and the person of Napoleon III appeared to stand above and apart from society - not least because he appeared to speak for all groups and classes. Press freedoms were curtailed, parliament emasculated and elections emptied of any democratic content but the state remained premised on the defence of capitalist property relations. Thus the rule of the bourgeoisie was preserved.
Fascism is a species of Bonapartism. Typically fascist parties and movements comprise 'lumpen' elements of the working class, declassed middle class people fallen on hard times and small business people. They always dress themselves up in the national flag and claim to be the true uncorrupted voice of their country, and are as such opposed to immigrants, the labour movement and anything else that threatens the integrity of the nation as they see it. Their politics are often crude and incoherent, but that doesn't stop the ruling class from backing them if they feel threatened by a strong working class. Italy, Germany and Spain are, if you like, the classic cases of where the fascist movement was levered into power by the ruling class off the back of intense class struggles. Fascism was their battering ram to smash the labour movements. This preserved capitalism but the price the bourgeoisie paid was political expropriation and the ruin of their countries - so it is not an option our rulers will lightly take.
Britain is a million miles away from this situation. The bourgeoisie might be worried about the economic crisis, but none of them think they're about to be swept away by socialist revolution. Hence the BNP are a comparatively tiny organisation, especially if we compare it to its brethren on the continent. But like the fascist movements of the past they fish from the same sociological pool. Equally none of them have any kind of record of standing up for workers of any colour. And the areas of Stoke they draw support from tend to be all-white, depressed, and with high rates of unemployment and welfare dependency. The 'white working class' in media-speak is synonymous with the most backward, alienated and isolated sections of our class.
This comprises their electoral bedrock in Stoke, but it is not one they can take for granted. It is mostly passive and tends to be a mile wide but only an inch deep. Their activist numbers in Stoke can’t be that much more than ours, despite having a paper membership many times our own. And this support is hardly what you would call a solid vote. Having spoken to many BNP voters over the years, especially when we were canvassing in the Abbey, the majority I spoke to could not be described as hardcore racists. I've lost count of the conversations I've had with BNP voters who previously supported Labour all their lives. Among them is a sense of grievance, abandonment and disillusionment with mainstream politics. This isn't surprising when New Labour and their carbon copies in yellow and blue have done everything to show their contempt for working class people and their aspirations. Make no bones about it, the mainstream parties are responsible for the increasing support of the BNP, not anyone else.
But seeing as the BNP are so small, why should we bother about them? First they propagate ideas that are not only repulsive to most people but also divide our class. The power of the working class depends on its strength as a unified collective - the BNP's nationalist and racist poison cuts against this and makes the tasks of socialists that much more difficult. Second is their political function - if they get a whiff of power in this country we'd better watch out. As Pastor Niemoller observed in his celebrated verse, "first they came for the communists ...". Even now they attack socialists and trade unionists if they think they can get away with it. Assaults on activists are not uncommon. Socialists have received bureaucratic harassment in some authorities where the BNP have an influence. And even local Labour party candidates have had their property vandalised for standing up against the BNP. Thirdly wherever they build a base, racist attacks and racist "incidents" follow. In Welling in the early 90s where the BNP were then headquartered there was a spike in racist assaults, culminating in the infamous murder of Stephen Lawrence. BNP activists might not be directly involved in this violence but they help create a situation that encourages racist activity.
What can we do about them? This is the question NorSCARF will be asking at Saturday's conference. NorSCARF was set up in the late 70s to counter the growing menace of the then National Front and has since been the favoured labour movement vehicle for anti-racist and anti-fascist activity in the Potteries. At present it brings together a broad range of activists from all kinds of political backgrounds, including the Labour party. This fact, which is NorSCARF's greatest strength, is also its chief weakness. In order to maintain this unity there is a tendency toward lowest common denominator politics. This keeps everyone on board, but at the price of not really hitting the BNP where it hurts. To give you an example of a NorSCARF-endorsed leaflet I helped deliver round Longton a couple of years ago, it concentrated on three matters:
1) The candidate's holocaust denial.
2) The BNP's hate-mongering over plans for Stoke's only purpose-built mosque.
3) The candidate not paying his council tax.
I wrote at the time "Given everyone in Longton is well aware of Batkin's far right lunacy (not least because his ward has been plastered with Unite Against Fascism and Searchlight material in the past) and his support remains undiminished, just highlighting his and the BNP's racism and Islamophobia just won't cut it. And as for not paying his council tax, given its relentless rise to pay for council mismanagement, is a failure to pay likely to count against him?"
People have turned to the BNP because Labour has consistently kicked them in the teeth. They are the nuclear option when it comes to protest votes. If you want to beat the BNP you have to address the conditions they feed off, but that's impossible without understanding the causes and providing a political alternative. Obviously in an organisation with Labour backing that's a problem - this was why A was shouted down at the last NorSCARF conference.
This isn't to say NorSCARF is of absolutely no use. It has done useful work making sure the BNP are dogged with racist baggage wherever they go. It's good at mobilising non-BNP voters who may otherwise stay at home. But neither tackle the underlying issues, and there is no prospect of NorSCARF of evolving into something that will.
What does this mean for our anti-fascist work? Our party has a semi-detached relationship with NorSCARF because we are not afraid of calling a spade a spade. For us fighting fascism is inseparable from arguing for socialist politics. If the BNP are growing in the absence of a working class political alternative, it follows we must work to build that alternative on the streets, in the workplace and at the ballot box. Last summer, for example, witnessed some Herculean efforts at delivering our series of anti-fascist leaflets as the BNP sought to capitalise on the killing of one of their activists. In all some 15,000 were posted through Stoke's letter boxes.
What we need to think about then is how we can work with NorSCARF and crucially draw in that layer who've come to similar conclusions as us toward our party? Should we seek to build a loose faction of like-minded activists? Forget about NorSCARF altogether? How should we relate to LMHR, who are planning a massive free gig at the end of May? And what about the RMT’s left electoral initiative?
The following discussion talked through our experiences of dealing with BNP supporters and the casual racism we often meet on stalls. One comrade joked about his activity on the banking crisis. When he started he thought that at last this would be an issue no one could possibly blame immigrants for. In the first conversation he had he explained how it was funny money could be found for that but not post offices, hospitals, etc. "Yeah ... " said the woman, "and immigrants".
Another mentioned a discussion he had on Saturday with a couple who had similar sentiments. Replying to the 'send 'em home' argument on jobs and housing, he replied that if we did that then we'd still have the same problems, and especially so if the millions of Britons who worked overseas were forced to come home. He also pointed out it wasn't Poles or asylum seekers who'd been closing the pot banks, the steel or the mines. That seemed to have a big impact on the couple, demonstrating how racist and xenophobic attitudes in most cases are very shallow.
The discussion moved on to the nitty-gritty of strategy, which I'll keep mum about.
But all in all I thought the session went well. There were new members and new people to Stoke there, and I hope the talk and discussion served as a good introduction to the local political and anti-fascist scene.