More speech; less racism

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Writing about the politics of the present is tricky. The minimum time it takes between having an idea for a book and seeing it in print is 18 months (usually it’s longer). Any writer asks themselves: if I write about X now (whatever X is), will people still be thinking about it in a year’s time? It must be strange for Gavan Titley; because since he wrote his book free speech has only grown in importance. No platform, cancel culture: its jargon has escaped the milieu of a few impassioned people arguing with one another on social media, and all over the mainstream press the same story repeats itself again and again: the left is closing down people’s opinions, the left is made up of bullies and petty despots…

Most of the leftists I know are doing their hardest to balance between two competing imperatives: 1. We want to see more speech, not less. We know that the banning instincts of the state and the political right have hardly gone away (think the blacklisting of trade unionists, or the way claims of anti-semitism have been used to cancel any discussion of Palestine). We also know that neo-liberalism constantly recreates itself from below, inviting public denunciations of people who breach this week’s social taboo (e.g. think of the way the police dished out fines to those accused of petty breaches of the Coronavirus regulations). On both those scores, any principled leftist is surely against the state, and against the cop that sits in all of our heads – communists and conservatives alike.

On the other hand, 2. We distrust intensely the way in which free speech has become an ideological weapon of the right. Think of the “trans wars”. A group of people want to exclude trans people from women’s toilets, domestic violence refuges, and feminist events. This notion of exclusion is overtly a means towards keeping trans women out of spaces they might otherwise go in. And yet, any time trans people respond (which they do sometimes with the utmost wit, and sometimes with grotesque fury) the answer comes back: “look how trans politics silences women”. In that way, a project of exclusion and insubordination repackages itself as the instrument of the weak protecting themselves against those who would silence them. And this is hardly an isolated example. Today’s ideological version of “Free speech” is to politics what Persil is to clothes: it repeatedly cleans the powerful, making them into the new oppressed and turning the vulnerable into their oppressors.

Now, as you balance these two imperatives (the need to support free speech while opposing its politicisation), it’s easy to lose your compass. If you only talk about the ideology, you can end up sounding as if you support censorship. If you’re not careful, you can become a censor.

But if you don’t talk about the ideological treatment of free speech then your view of politics will cause you to side with the people complaining loudest about being silenced, who today are the people in the United States (and in the UK) who want to see the statues of slave owners to stay up and not the ones calling for them to come down.

I am saying all of this to locate Gavan Titley’s book, which is one of the clearest accounts that has yet been published of the second of these dynamics – i.e. how free speech is being misused by those who have turned it into an ideology.

What Titley’s interested in rather is how racist speech, and in particular the racist speech that was used being between against Muslims during the height of the War on Terror shields itself from criticism then counter-attacks, through using the gambit that its opponents (the left and racial outsiders) are in favour of silencing others.

Just to take a single example, about 2/3 of the way through his book, Titley tells the story of how following the terrorist attacks in November 2015, the French state carried out more than three thousand raids on Muslims (six of whom were later investigated for possible terrorism offences). French politicians insisted that in carrying out these violent and punitive measures they were protecting the nation from Islam, which was incompatible with free speech. French President Hollande boated that “The Republic equals freedom of expression.” The French Prime Minister hinted at a return to France’s colonial mission: “France carries freedom of speech everywhere”.

Titley uses a single example to break through this miasma of ideological posturing. He recounts a raid which was described by one lawyer Ramzi Kassem, in which a Muslim man endured armed police busting unwarned into his home, and pointing automatic rifles at the faces of children. Finally, they found an image of a figure that would justify the raid: a picture on one wall of a man with a fist-length beard. Who was this Muslim, this terrorist? Was it Bin Laden? Tell us, the cops demanded. With as much dignity as he could summon, the man answered, “It’s Victor Hugo.”

I’m not going to summarise the whole of Titley’s book – it’s lively, compelling and principled, and anyone who cares about the topic should buy a copy – but only provide an outline.

In speaking about racism, Titley has in mind a kind of supposedly universal liberal politics which is about as radical as most employers’ HR departments. From the perspective of those who champion it, this liberalism insists that racism is a universal evil which can never be tolerated. But spinning against this idea is another idea which at times complement and at times contradicts it, that free speech is a universal good.

Titley writes about “Closure,” i.e. what happens when the forms of racism which we associate with the far right (i.e. the supposedly hipster racism of a Richard Spencer or a Milo Yiannopolous) clashes with the competing desire of liberals to prohibit such speech as racism or to allow it on free speech terms? His answer is that there is a recurring and shallow debate in which the latter priority repeatedly wins out over the former. Racism is a universal evil, a something to which no right-minded person can agree, until it becomes “opinion” at which point it is sanctified.

“Liberal free speech theory,” Titley writes, “assimilates speech to thought, a move which configures speech as ‘costless and priceless’, that is, as of intrinsic value as an expression of conscience, but of no causal impact as an action in the world.”

Titley is also interested in “Culture”, meaning the idea that it is possible to write off an entire category of people on the grounds that they are primitives who do not accept the superior moral virtue of “our” commitment to free speech.

Finally, he writes about “Capture”, in other words the way in which the far right has captured free speech discourse and uses it in a narrow but effective way (think of the attacks on British and US universities where students have closed down talks by far right speakers and have been threatened in response – with Trump even proposing to cut off federal funding to Berkeley if it wouldn’t platform his favourite speakers).

This summary doesn’t do justice to the nuance of Titley’s argument or the way on which, again and again, he comes up with a novel and memorable way of describing processes which are likely to be familiar to any reader: in speaking of the claimed “virtuous marginality” of the people who lead online debates, or the way that claims of being silenced are plainly about “generating publicity within the accelerated dynamics of the attention economy.”

Titley is also wise about No Platform, insisting that it is “a strategy, not a position. It recognises that protest cannot fully unsettle the generative dynamics of a free speech event, and can rarely puncture the claim of victimhood that de-platformed speakers are usually only too happy to parlay into political and media currency.” If I read this right, then what he’s saying is that students are wise to be open to the possibility of closing down speaking events when the speaker is actually a fascist, or close enough so that their proximity is widely accepted. But, that this move carries a tactical risk: that by over-extending No Platform, the student left can gift the right a moral victory. Being principled isn’t easy. It requires a moral intelligence and a willing to consider the possibility that you’re wrong.

“Free speech”, Titley concludes, has become a way of silencing disagreement. What then is the answer? Pretty clearly to me, it can only be a liberated ideal on the universal right of expression – even for those who aren’t racists – even for those who don’t have the backing of millionaire book publishers.

Titley isn’t really arguing that Free speech is racist – if he or anyone else really thought that, then the poet William Morris would have to be a racist for leading the campaign that established Trafalgar Square as London’s free speech zone, Rosa Luxemburg would have to be a racist when she spoke out against wartime censorship, and even James Baldwin – didn’t he debate William Buckley Jr, when he could have no-platformed him? There’s an awful lot of good politics you’d have to junk if you really thought the left was about closing down speech, rather than opening and democratising it.

The logic to which the book is pointing is rather our shared need to take over the printing presses and the internet, and to build models of direct conversation without the wretched media platforms through which we try our hardest to communicate.

No Platform: its history and prospects

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This is the last of three reviews I’ve been writing looking at books on the far right published during the lockdown. I’ve previously reviewed Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers, and Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter’s Reactionary Democracy, today it’s Evan Smith’s new book No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech.

I do need to make a declaration of interest at the start: I’ve known Evan for years, heard him speak at events in the UK, and was one of a dozen people he names in his acknowledgments as having read the book in whole or in part. I don’t think any of that influences my views on his book, but it would certainly prevent me from posting a simple encomium (“just go out and buy this book now”) – although of course I hope you do…

Rather than simply review his book, I thought I’d use as a chance to jot down my own views of no platform today – and I’ll try to show how they emerge in dialogue with Evan’s book.

No Platform follows a broadly chronological structure. The first sixty or so pages look at Britain prior to the evolution of a language of “no platform” in the early 1970s. What Smith argues is that long before this happened, the left had developed a practice of seeking to close of opportunities for fascists to organise and to speak. The clearest possible instance of this is in the late 1940s, when the postwar 43 Group set itself the task of preventing any postwar fascist from speaking.

Stepping away from his account for a moment, to really make sense of how the 43 Group worked you need to imagine this in practice. We’re talking about a period before television, when most people would get their news from the radio, the press or perhaps even cinema. Entry to all these media was utterly closed off to the far right, as indeed to the far left and to religious minorities, but particularly the right because this was after the Second World War in which hundreds of thousands of British people had died fighting fascism. While beneath the formal world of public debate, that there was a busy tradition of informal debate, with dozens of towns, and urban markets in which people would literally just stand on a wooden box and speak to the public. In 1947-8 in particular a number of of British fascists were able to build up huge audiences in this way: hundreds in Bristol and Brighton, thousands in South Hackney’s Ridley Road market.

Fifty years later, Morris Beckman (the historian of the 43 Group), published a memoir which described the group as repeatedly knocking over any fascist “speaker’s platform,” which they did zealously.

In other words, no platform in its original form was a narrow and specific tactic limited strictly to fascists (not Conservatives or other allies of fascism). It was intelligence-driven. It was based in a particular context: not universities, but the street. And when speaking of “platforms”, the 43 Group were almost inconceivably literal. The tactic emerged in a Britain where, if it was possible to shut down 20 platforms on a good afternoon, then to all intents and purposes, Mosley’s fascists would have no other opportunity to speak to any group of people publicly at all.

If this was the historical practice of No Platform, its theory emerges somewhere quite different – in debates on the university left, twenty-five years later. These are the subject of Smith’s next fifty pages or so.

Before coming to them it is worth noting that there is seemingly no transmission mechanism between this first period of no platforming and what would come later. The people who formulated No Platform in the early 1970s came from a specific intellectual tradition (the International Marxist Group and Trotskyism). They might have had some knowledge of the Battle of Cable Street, which would be commemorated in a huge mural just a few years later (and a memoir published by the CP’s Phil Piratin was widely read in the 1970s) – but they probably wouldn’t have heard of the 43 Group, as that was associated with different left-wing traditions (Jewish and Communist) and didn’t figure to any meaningful extent at all in the discussions of student anti-fascists until the Group’s rediscovery, with the publication of Morris Beckman’s book, twenty years later.

What Smith show is that in this interregnum between about 1950 and 1974, there were numerous occasions when centre-right university bodies would court publicity by inviting speakers further to the right, defending the invitations on free speech grounds, while the left protested the invitations: Mosley was invited to Cambridge and Oxford, etc. In the late 1960s, there were protests following invitations given to Enoch Powell and the psychologist Hans Eysenck, who was seeking to reestablish a link between racial difference (genetics) and IQ.

Smith’s distinctive contribution to understanding no platform is the discovery that this slogan can be traced back to a single source: a front-page article in Red Mole magazine (the newspaper of the IMG) published on 18 September 1972: “No Platform for Racists”.

At its spring conference in May 1974, the National Union of Students – through the intervention of its Secretary Steve Parry (a supporter of the Communist Party and the Broad left) passed a motion, committing the NUS to a policy of no platform for racists and fascists. Ever since then, Smith writes, despite one or two brief reverses, this has been NUS policy. The Union has had a consistent policy supporting groups who oppose inviting racists and fascists to speak on university platforms and that this is turn has given moral encouragement to any number of anti-racist and anti-fascist students. Their protests have popularised the concept of no platform. Meanwhile the phrase has spread intentionally and has become part of the anti-fascist lexicon, in Smith’s Australia, in the US, and elsewhere.

Smith’s focus is on the history of no platform (whereas my own interest is much more in the politics of it).

From my perspective, what really strikes me is that there were two distinct justifications given for no platform. If you wanted to be specific you could call them the “IS” and the “IMG” approaches, but in saying this the reality is that there were different opinions in each group, and plenty of people outside either of them who expressed both views.

In the first of these approaches, no platform was a tactic to be employed strictly against fascists. It was based on what I have called elsewhere “the anti-fascist wager” ie an analysis that fascism had greater potential for growth and for violence than other kinds of right-wing politics (even than, say, armed conservatism) and that unless the fascists were silenced there was a real and actual risk that at some point they would conquer, and would remove free speech rights for everyone else.

In the second of these approaches, no platform was a tactic to be employed against any form of racist. It was based on the idea that racism was a kind of politics which asserted on the superior moral worth of one individual over another, that it was hurtful and caused suffering, and that the closing down of racist speech was necessary in order to make universities a space in which everyone could flourish.

Here is a speech by Steve Parry, the NUS President in 1974, and an article by him, both cited in Smith’s book.

(1) “Did reasoned argument stop the fascists lef by Mosley in the Eat End in the 1930s? Of course it did not. Had reasoned argument stopped Colin Jordan and his cronies in the Union Movement having armed camps in the Britain and working with ex-Nazis in Germany?”

(2) “One must accept that to deny racists and fascists a platform is to ‘limit freedom of speech’ but one cannot see this freedom as something which exists in the abstract … In refusing to assist the spread of racism the NUS is fighting for a freedom of even greater importance: the the freedom to live without discrimination on the basis of race.”

If you look carefully at these approaches, the former suggests that No Platform remains (as it was in the 1940s or for IS in the 1970s) a tactic to be strictly limited to overt and recognisable fascists; whereas the latter portrays it as a tactic of much wider applicability.

In Smith’s account, the tension between these two approaches is a creative one – it doesn’t matter if people moved from one justification to another, or if the use of no platform was wide at the start and has widened over time.

Moving away from his book to commentary, I’m not at all sure I agree.

The historian in me would have to acknowledge that the ambiguity of 1970s No Platform was unresolved by the end of the decade, and that this vagueness caused no practical difficulties to Rock Against Racism or the Anti-Nazi League.

If anything, this amibiguity was positive in 1976-9, in that it enabled a generation of anti-racists and anti-fascists to defeat what was a complex, dynamic and ideologically unstable opponent (the National Front) which was characterised by a ongoing faction fight between two major wings, a fascist and a populist one (this isn’t to fall into anachronism: the non-Hitlerite wing of the NF really did call themselves “Populists”). It is a good thing that the left didn’t get caught up in worrying whether the NF were really fascists or which justification was needed to oppose them.

The problem has come about with the history since. The dominant approach on the British and American left since about 2000 has been to choose the second (“anti-racist”) approach to no platform.

The danger is not just one of incoherence. Part of the problem, in this model of no platform, is that we (the left) require a good faith response from others to our right. Even in the simplest example: a right-wing student group has invited someone further to the right to speak. A strong left will hope that university administrators silently tolerates their campaign, and does not call the police on them. A weak left might even petition the same administrators to do the banning on their behalf. Either kind of left hopes that a group of administrators who have acquired a taste for banning will stop there and will not then silence the left, Muslims, etc.

The problems can be seen both inside the university (Smith’s real interest) and outside. Amongst the earliest groups of people to be prosecuted under Race Relations’ legislation when those laws were first passed were black opponents of inequality. In the 1980s, you saw the first attempts to exclude transwomen, sex workers, and supporters of BDSM from feminist events on the grounds that these women were – in the exclusionary logic of the likes of Janice Raymond or Sheila Jeffreys – somehow male supremacists.

Or, to take a more recent example, when Jeremy Corbyn was accused of anti-semitism the political centre was turning against the far left the weapons we had made, an argument that the suffering oppressed should have a veto over who could speak in public.

The anti-fascist / 43 Group / IS approach to no platform sought, by contrast, to disengage from “hate speech” arguments, and argued for a general toleration of free speech, albeit with the specific exception of fascism.

While this approach would avoid many of the dangers I have set out, it does of course have its own difficulties today, when faced with a right which generally does not take part in armed attacks on its political opponents, and appears to most people to have given up on the old fascist ambition of the creation of a one-party state.

Here, I believe, the principled approach is to maintain something no platform but to use it more sparingly than the left has – when groups behave like fascists (i.e. in their use of political violence) we can employ it. But it should not be a general measure.

The above thoughts have taken me a long way from Smith’s book.

What I should say is that through the final 100 or so pages of No Platform, Smith gives a very large number of examples of no platform campaigns, in Britain and elsewhere. They include protests in 1981 against the musical act Hot Gossip, calls to deplatform SPUC and the’pro-life’ campaigner Victoria Gillick, and bans on homophobic speakers in the late 1980s, immediately prior to the introduction of Section 28.

He cites critics of no platforming from within the NUS, some in good faith (eg a widely circulated article by Lindsey German which attempted to claw back against the second model of no platform in the 1980s) and some made in bad faith (eg the opposition of the Revolutionary Communist Party – today’s Spiked – to the 1984 attempt to exclude Patrick Harrington a leader of the National Front, from North London Polytechnic). The Harrington affair was in the newspapers for over a year and was a clear instance of the hostile reaction of administrators to which I have referred: the Poly called in the police and courts on left-wing protesters.

In his conclusion, Smith insists on the continuing validity of no platform as a tactic, insisting that it (or at least its 1970s incarnation) remains the appropriate response to racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. “Prejudice needs to be challenged – in the electoral sphere, in the streets, online, in the workplace, and in our communities, in activist circles, and in our educational institutions.”

As I hope I’ve made clear, my criticism of Smith’s book aren’t in any way intended to diminish the research he has done, the quality of the examples he gives, or his project of explaining the historical roots of no platform. In showing exactly where the idea of no platform comes from, he has done a wide group of historians and activists a real service.

My question is about the use of the tactic today – how does it apply in a world where the people enabling far-right speech include some of the most popular video bloggers on youtube? Is it any longer the right approach to call for people to be silenced where they cause distress to oppressed groups; can we sustain the distinctions on which that notion of the oppressed is based, especially in the context of online culture wars which pit different groups of oppressed people against each other? Or, if the focus in future is going to be more on using no platform against fascist-type groups – how do we apply the tactic to a far right whose politics are significantly unlike either fascism or conservatism?

[For anyone who has enjoyed this post; on Friday at 6pm BST, I’ll be speaking at an event on the New Authoritarians and Covid with Sita Balani. Details here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-new-authoritarians-and-covid-19-tickets-105000497314]

The problem with populism

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This is the second of three reviews I’ve been writing looking at books on the far right published during the lockdown. Yesterday it was Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers, tomorrow I’ll take a look at Evan Smith’s No Platform. Today, it’s Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter’s new book Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right became mainstream.

Unlike the other two books, this is a work of political sociology. Mondon and Winter are writing about the present not the 1930s or 1970s. Their focus is international (Mondon has previously written extensively about the right in Australia) – although in practice the majority of their examples come from Britain, the United States and France.

Their book explores how after 1945, racism regrew in Europe and the US, using case studies of Republican electoral racism in America (Nixon, Reagan), GRECE and the project to make the far right palatable in postwar France, and UKIP in Britain. In each case, the authors argue the dominant mode of racism was contemporary rather than “traditional”: racists rejected the overt, biological racism of pre-1945. They sought (in an American context) to exclude black voters from electoral registers because they were poor, because they had criminal convictions, rather than expressly because they were black. The dominant mode of racism, they argue, was “liberal” rather than “illiberal”. Indeed “illiberal racism” (the extreme right) often functioned as a “convenient enemy” – so that Thatcher or Farage could insist that anti-racists should vote for them because only they could protect you against the phantom scourge of the far right.

A chapter on “liberal racism”, reminds readers that economic racism is endemic: in each of Britain, France and the United States, black people suffer high employment rates, are more likely to be incarcerated, live in worse housing, etc. Indeed liberal racism, the authors argue, has provided the key ideological openings through which the far right has recently advanced. So, since 2013, the dominant way in which racism has justified and deepened itself is by way of false claims that Muslims are sexist, homophobic, etc, for which they should be punished with state harassment. Further, liberal commentators (even if they would vote for a centre-left or centre-right party themselves), have repeatedly championed the rights of illiberal racists to their right to cause offence, insisting that their free speech rights are a more urgent priority than any rights of the black or Muslim people they denounce.

Another chapter of the book looks at the way in which liberal thought uses the category populism. Mondon and Winter’s concept of “reactionary democracy” explores essentially the same phenomenon as (say) the Guardian does in speak of “populism.” In either case, we are talking about a politics which claims to speak in the name of the people while using its success for reactionary purposes (i.e. to support the rich when they seek to transfer resources from the poor, to support racism and sexism, etc). But the reason they reject the term populism is that liberal politicians and journalists have repeatedly used it as a weasel word: to assume that populists must always succeed because they have the ear of the people – and to blame ordinary voters for the delusion of voting for Trump, Brexit or whatever else. In that way liberalism and much of today’s social democracy ends up reversing the old starting point of the postwar left (the people are always right, in the end), with almost the opposite assumption. Mondon and Winter insist that Republican voters were richer than Democrat ones; that the majority of Brexit voters were more affluent than the average, lived in South East England, etc.

Reactionary Democracy is well-written and nuanced. The authors are people who have been thinking about the far right for many years, and the political and intellectual conclusions they draw are good ones. I regard them as co-thinkers engaged in a similar project and I hope they think the same about as me. In that spirit, I want to set out some “devil’s advocate” points which occurred to me when reading theirs.

Because the title of their book is “Reactionary Democracy”, it makes the concept of reaction central to their work. But I didn’t find any coherent definition of reactionary ideas in their book, and I think without one the left is vulnerable to the criticism that a person can be labelled reactionary if they argue for ideas or causes that we personally disagree with. Now, I think there’s a solution to this and a way of showing that our theories aren’t special pleading: the term reactionary has a history on the left, with villains (Kautsky) and heroes (Marx, Benjamin…). But it’s something you need to argue, it’s not something you can just assume.

I felt, reading it, that there was an affinity between the ideas in the book and a kind of anti-racist critique of anti-fascism that was important in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m thinking here of something like the chapter on RAR in Gilroy’s There Aint’ No Black in the Union Jack. Mondon and Winter are criticising, amongst other things, a lazy liberal anti-fascism in which the far right is always emerging outside of normal politics, and normal politics is essentially a patient in good health (save that it is being attack by a disease from without). The result of such liberal anti-fascism in France is that politics has become semi-permanently a choice between two authoritarian projects, one of liberal origin, one of (distant) fascist origin. Liberal anti-fascism has rewritten the political camp into once which distinctly favours the far right. And yet, there is also a place for anti-fascism – an anti-fascism which is alive to the risk that the present non-fascist far right might indeed mutate into something more like fascism, but which does not cease its criticisms of the fascists’ mainstream sponsors. To the extent that they critique anti-fascism, Mondon and Winter are making valid points – without ever integrating back into their analysis as much of anti-fascism as still needs to be retained.

Mondon and Winter seek to refute the argument that the FN, Trump or UKIP have been class parties of the poor. But, in arguing that, I felt there were selective arguments at work. For example, they argue that the FN vote isn’t a significant class vote by pointing that while the FN (now the RN) has received a very high proportion of workers who vote, this proportion is less, once it is compared to the much larger numbers of voters who don’t vote at all. This is true, but it is an impossibly high standard which we on the left would almost never apply to political forces (Corbyn, Sanders, Mélenchon) of which we approve. It is far better politics, in my view, to acknowledge that the right has established a definite base within the working class, to see that clearly and without self-delusion, and to try and win that audience back.

Finally, Reactionary Democracy assumes – without expressly arguing – that the main category which the left should be fighting is racism. This is our evil, the raw material on which all reactionary traditions are based. That approach seems to me to narrow what the far right is – yes, fascism was racism, but it was equally nationalism, sexism, homophobia, etc. And beneath all of these its ideology was one of a radical inegalitarianism, that women existed in order to serve men, that the poor and workers existed ultimately in order to serve the interests of an economy (i.e. of the business owners) and that they could be employed functionally, like the cogs of a great machine, to serve the fascist aims of military conquest and racial war. And something like the same mindset applies (with less concentrated purpose) in our own non-fascist times.

[For anyone who has enjoyed this post; on Friday at 6pm BST, I’ll be speaking at an event on the New Authoritarians and Covid with Sita Balani. Details here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-new-authoritarians-and-covid-19-tickets-105000497314]

British fascism: the leader’s eye view

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During the lockdown, although bookshops have been closed and the likes of Penguin have deferred the publication of their bestsellers till the autumn, books continue to appear on the subject of the far right. Through this week I’ll be reviewing three of them: Graham Macklin’s Failed Führers; Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter’s Reactionary Democracy; and Evan Smith’s No Platform. In each case I’ll be trying to think through what they tell us about the far right.

Failed Führers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right tells the story of the British far right through biographical studies of six leading British fascists – Arnold Leese, Oswald Mosley, A. K. Chesterton, Colin Jordan, John Tyndall and Nick Griffin. Each led a party: the Imperial Fascist League (Leese), the British Union of Fascists (Mosley), the National Front (Tyndall/Griffin), the British Movement (Jordan), and the British National Party (which endured its own Tyndal/Griffin succession).

The book is incredibly detailed. By my reckoning, it is about 250,000-300,000 words long making it as long as three to four PhDs, or more than twice as long as Richard Thurlow’s Fascism in Britain (1987), which has been treated, for the past thirty years, as “the” authoritative history of fascism in this country.

Almost all the references are to primary research, so that for when writing about the National Front, Macklin cites private correspondence held in the papers of such veteran fascists as Patrick Harrington and George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party; minutes of the National Front’s Directorate; papers from Conservative Central Office, FBI records, Special Branch papers in the National Archive; and materials in anti-fascist archives originally collected by the 62 Group, the Jewish Defence Committee, the Labour Research Department and Searchlight.

In recent years, I have had my own writing projects – telling the story of the NF in the 1970s, or of how Mosley depending on Italian and German cash. Where I found one or two sources, Macklin finds a dozen. It really is only when you’ve tired to write something similar that you appreciate just how much time and much care Macklin has put into his book, and how much further it goes than anything else.

After Macklin, no-one else is ever going to write a better-researched biography of Arnold Leese the anti-semitic camel doctor who jockeyed with Oswald Mosley for leadership of interwar British fascism, or of Colin Jordan, whose British Movement had a similar subordinate relationship to John Tyndall’s National Front.

If what follows seems critical, then those notes of caution should be understood as bound up with a great deal of admiration.

It is precisely because this is going to always be my generation’s “big book” on British Fascism, that it is worth asking how much it achieves?

It seems to me that the method of individual leadership biographies is limited. If you think, by comparison, of the history of British trade unionism, there was a time early in that movement when historians wrote as if we believed that the unions were institutions, which had to be founded by career General Secretaries. This “Great Leader” approach to union history was hegemonic for about half a century after the union’s modern breakthrough moment in the 1880s but eventually it was largely dropped. Historians learned to write about trade unions through their local, sometimes their factory leaderships, or their members, and in ways informed by anti-racist and feminist theory, etc.

(There have been studies of British fascism which emulate the feminist, cultural and post-colonial turns of labour history – the key names such as Julie Gottlieb, Tom Linehan, or W. F. Mandle appear in Macklin’s bibliography, their insights are crowded out though by the focus on individual leaders).

Given that people have been writing about British fascism for more than fifty years, it is a sobering thought that methodologically things haven’t moved on very much since books written by Colin Cross (The Fascists in Britain, 1961) or Robert Benewick (The Fascism Movement in Britain, 1969), or indeed – in its leader’s eye view the closest counterpart to Macklin’s book – Skidelsky’s flawed biography of Oswald Mosley (1975).

In his introduction, Macklin terms his method “prosopographical” (i.e. a method of collective biography) but that promises more than he or anyone could deliver. For that method of writing has a very specific history – it is associated with the British economic historian (and refugee from post-revolutionary Russia) Lewis Namier, who argued that it might be possible to write the collective study of the House of Commons in the eighteenth century by compiling together vast quantities of sociological data relating to local leaders’ education, economic position, experience of office, etc. This isn’t Macklin’s approach; he doesn’t look to shared experiences of the empire or the army or anything else, to draw his six biographies together, rather they feel like six separate books.

While Failed Führers deserves to be presented to students as the new standard study of British fascism, the first book to read in place of Thurlow’s dated text, there are some omissions. The most important of them is that although 87 pages of his book are devoted to Oswald Mosley, who was the best-known leader of British fascism in the decade when it came closest to mass support (1930-9), Macklin splits his Mosley material into two halves, with six-sevenths of his material devoted to Mosley’s post-1945 politics. That was maybe the right choice from the point of view of the originality of Macklin’s material and the possibility of finishing the book. Otherwise Macklin would be covering the same ground as Stephen Dorrill’s biography of Mosley: Blackshirt (2006), about the only other study published in the past 20 years which in the depth of its reading comes close to Macklin’s book. But, from the point of view of the general reader, the absence is striking. In 1934 the British Union of Fascists had between 40,000 and 50,000 members; more than twice the support of any party since. It was constantly in the news. Writing a history of British fascism with eleven pages on the BUF is like writing a study of Rosencratz and Guildenstern without mentioning Hamlet.

Connected to this, the book suffers with a problem of scale. One way of understanding this is to think of Robert O. Paxton’s “Five Stages of Fascism”. Written following a close study of the histories of German, Italian and Spanish (etc) fascism, Paxton argues that fascism evolves through separate and distinct stages: at first, a period of movements rather than parties, and of intellectual exploration; second, a stage when fascism assisted by the lethargy of its opponents was able to become a player on the national stage, then arrival to power, exercise of power, and finally radicalisation or entropy.

British fascism, on this model, has been stuck continuously in the first stage save for four brief breakthrough moments: in 1934-9 (under the influence of the success of Mussolini and Hitler), in 1974-9 (the National Front), in about 2005-10 (the BNP), and a new period of growth (thanks to Brexit and Trump) since 2016.

Macklin skims over the first of these; the fourth is too recent for his book. What’s left, in terms of Britain fascism’s development into anything like a mass party is about 25 pages of Macklin’s book: Tyndall and the 1970s (pages 372-86 give or take), Griffin up to 2010 (pages 495-508 or thereabouts).

To really explain the success of first the National Front and then the British National Party, any historian would need to explain where the NF fitted within a certain moment of British imperial decline, the legacy of WWII and a fascination with fascism (expressed in music, books and clothes, etc), the reasons for media interest in it, and the way in which long-term historical processes both encouraged and limited its growth. The story of the BNP requires a similar treatment, although on a different scale, reflecting the much lesser success that party had in sinking deep social roots.

Macklin’s approach is different – whether writing about Tyndall’s career in 1965 or 1975, his focus is really on Tyndall’s interactions with his principal lieutenants, his correspondence with them, etc. As a reader, it is never really explained that Tyndall was now working with much more talented organisers, was a much more consistent presence in national life. You never really have the feeling that much more was at stake.

Macklin’s treatment of the BNP between about 2005 and 2010 is stronger – lively and vivid – the Conservatives become an important part of the story, as does Tony Blair, and the mass media has to come in, as a result of Question Time.

No single factor is given for the BNP’s eclipse, although both events and competence are alluded to. A space has been left for other writers to debate this further. How important was anti-fascism , especially in 2010? How much of the BNP’s decline was down to other parties electoral appeal – especially given the way in which the BNP was, to a much greater extent than the NF had been, a purely electoral phenomenon, prospering as a result of a rightward shift by significant voters which the Conservatives were unable to hegemonise prior to 2010?

In conclusion this is a superbly-researched book and an important one. No-one is going to surpass Macklin’s treatment of these six leaders. But there remains a space, especially now that the far right has mutated in a more populist direction, for accounts which are capable of explaining why the right breaks through – and how it might be stopped.

[For anyone who has enjoyed this review; on Friday at 6pm BST, I’ll be speaking at an event on the New Authoritarians and Covid with Sita Balani. Details here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-new-authoritarians-and-covid-19-tickets-105000497314].

Fascism: a pre-review

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Over the weekend, I’ve published on this site “auto-reviews” of my last two books with a view to showing how they overlap, what my motives were in writing them and updating the analysis where needed.  Here I’m introducing a book which I wrote last winter, but which isn’t in print. It was due to be published this month but has been delayed by the lockdown and will now be out in December.

As with Never Again, Fascism: History and Theory is a re-written version of something I originally published a long time ago.

The original book was titled Fascism: Theory and Practice. Now “F:TP” is an old book: I was still in my 20s when I wrote it, and it bore very heavily the marks of the groups in which I’d been involved: the SWP, the Anti-Nazi League of the 1990s, etc. It used the jargon of my generation and time. At one point, sharing the analysis of the group to which I then belonged, I described the politics of the period as “the 1930s in slow motion”. One friend subjected that phrase to a very gentle but effective take-down.

I suspect many readers will remember F:TP mainly for an early chapter subjecting the then dominant approach in political science departments when understanding the far right (“fascism studies”), which I argued was philosophically idealist, unduly sympathetic to the ideas of A. J. Gregor, who had been a serious fascist activist before he became an academic, and wrong to understand fascism, as it were, “from the inside”. In that way, my book pre-empted what turned out to be a small wave of historical and sociological analyses of fascism (Paxton, Mann, etc) which were equally sceptical about defining fascism as an extreme form of nationalism.

My fear was that the likes of Roger Griffin, Roger Eatwell, Stanley Payne, etc, were writing a form of politics that would (against the authors’ intentions) tend to make life easier for emerging fascist movements. I had very much in mind the immediate example of Renzo de Felice whose biographies of Mussolini had undoubtedly been part of the growing success of the AN/MSI and feared something similar happening in Britain and the United States.

Hence the book’s title: my point was that the model of fascism people were being taught in universities (“theory”) was radically unlike fascism had actually behaved (“practice”) and that to understand it as a totality the place to begin was in the way fascist had used violence – in the developed world, even against the citizens of some of the world’s richest states. I argued that this made fascism distinctive within capitalist history and it was this, above all, which any compelling theory of fascism needed to explain.

That critique brought the book an audience – Griffin alone must have cited F:TP in fifty books and articles . I’m pleased to say here expressly that my prediction was wrong. Ever since, Griffin has been exemplary in not minimising far-right groups or activity, nor hiding the origins of their behaviour in the fascist tradition. As have those influenced by him.

While I’d stand by that part of F:TP, my criticisms now are more muted and more of a methodological than a political character. For that reason, when friends read Fascism: History and Theory you’ll see that my criticisms of fascism studies have been reduced to perhaps a page or so of material spread through several chapters of my book.

History first: theory after

I still believe that there’s a problem in the way many people understand fascism in history, and the first quarter or more of the book is intended to be a sharp, theoretically-informed retelling of what fascism was and did.

Some of the reason for that is that we’ve now lived through a period of far-right revival and just inevitably it teaches you to see the past differently. In The New Authoritarians, one of my arguments was that the right has benefited in our own time from a process in which – as far-right ideas have spread across borders – they have simultaneously becoming more confident and more aggressive. So that what might have been merely a political counter-revolution has taken on a greater economic and social character too. It’s possible to read the story of the 1920s and 1930s similarly: so that the diffusion of ideas, and competition between different fascist centres in Italy and Germany, brought about a qualititative change in what fascism was. The present can enables you to see the past differently, to grasp things which were always there but unnoticed. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the first historical study of Mussolini and Hitler’s relationship was published after Trump came to power.

Taking further ideas which were already in F:TP, I argue that at the heart of the historical experience of fascism was the sustained use of violence against racial enemies. And that this was novel in Western Europe, which had until then drawn a radical distinction between the colonial world where such violence was welcome and the richer countries where it was prohibited. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that among the books I was reading six months ago were the likes of Arendt, Fanon and Aimé Césaire (as well, of course, as other latter-day historians of fascism and Nazism who are influenced by them). I was also thinking about how fascism worked as a form of male violence. Gisela Bock and Klaus Theweleit are a much greater influence on me now than they were 20 years ago.

While fascism has hardly gone away, it is a smaller part of our collective consciousness than it was twenty years. It’s far more common to meet even serious political activists on the left who only have an incredibly vague sense of how Hitler or Mussolini ruled. I wanted to write for people who don’t know that past. I’ve described in this piece how watching the present can teach you to see the past differently, and that this can be done in a way which increases our shared knowledge. But the opposite can happen, when knowledge of the past is sacrificed for making political points in the present. It seems to me that the desire to make fascists out of Farage or Trump has already had the effect – when I read analyses which argue, for example, that Hitler was an evil man because he believed in economic autarky (look, just like Trump!) – they annoy me intensely. It doesn’t matter if the author subscribes to similar causes to the ones that motivate me, such narratives conceal the past and diminish the cruelty on which fascism thrived.

Fascists and anti-fascists

I’ve never been one to write about fascism independently of anti-fascists and I hope readers will enjoy the passages in which I identify what I argue was a key, recurring theme of anti-fascism and which can be dated back specifically to the 1920s. Namely the calculation that fascism was different from other forms of right-wing politics, and a much greater capacity to do harm, and therefore that it should be watched and confronted, even when there were other reactionary politics around it which had much greater support.

I hope readers will agree with me when I identify modes of thinking that are common to liberal, to mass, and to militant anti-fascism and which, I argue, all had their first expression among left-wing writers in the 1920s and 1930s.

A distinctive form of reactionary mass movement

Near the end of the book, I quote one Marxist writing in 1928, the Italian Communist Palmiro Togliatti. During one speech he declared:

It has become customary to use [the word ‘fascism’] to designate every form of fascism. A comrade is arrested, a workers’ demonstration is brutally dispersed by the police, a court imposes a savage sentence on some militants of the labour movement, a Communist parliamentary fraction sees its rights infringed or abrogated, in short whenever the so-called democratic freedoms sanctified by bourgeois constitutions are attacked or violated one hears the cry: ‘Fascism is here, fascism has arrived.’ It should be realised that this is not just a question of terminology. If someone thinks it is reasonable to use the term ‘fascism’ to designate every form of reaction, so be it. But I do not see the advantage we gain, except perhaps an agitational one. The actuality is something different. Fascism is a particular, specific type of reaction

I used the same word “specific”in F:TP, and the last third of the new book is dedicated to explaining which ideas about fascism were common to almost every Marxist or anarchist writer of any seriousness.

How did the generation which first confronted fascism understand it?

In inter-war anti-fascist theory, I argue, fascism belonged to a wider political family which also included the like of authoritarian military dictatorships in Poland and Spain.

In anti-fascist theory, I argue, fascism was recognisable not principally though ideas (although these were important) but in the sustained way it employed violence against its political and racial enemies

Fascism, as the likes of Benjamin or Trotsky saw it, wanted to raise the people in order to impose a dictatorship, and in doing so was chaotic and unstable – both capable of growing quickly (hence the need to sound the alarm) but also – if opposed on the same terrain of mass politics – capable of defeat.

There’s much more that I can and do say – I don’t want to spoil the book here, and will end by inviting you to order it and read it for yourselves.

The New Authoritarians: revisiting the argument

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A year has passed since the publication of The New Authoritarians; and it’s even longer since I sat down to write it.

Like Never Again, it received some detailed and enthusiastic reviews: notably from Jeff Sparrow and Shane Burley. Jacobin also ran an extract.

The argument of The New Authoritarians’ was that the right was winning because it had found a strategy to grow – by taking on radical and anti-systemic politics that distinguished it from conservatism but without lapsing into fascism.

Contrary to the argument that Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, etc, were the successor to Mussolini or Hitler, my book argued that few growing movements of the contemporary far-right should be seen in this light. Most disavowed violence, accepted the legitimacy of normal elections, and did not mobilise their supporters in a war against their political or racial enemies or against the liberal state.

How had the far right found this strategy? The book explained this development both historically and politically. Historically, in that a certain liberal narrative about WWII had lost its appeal, being overridden by the experience of the War on Terror and of the 2008 economic crisis. Politically, in there were convergence dynamics each of which served to legitimise the far right;

  • a conversion of earned cultural influence, ie successful positioning on youtube, fourchan etc, being turned into more conventional political support;
  • a circulation of far-right ideas, money and people across borders; and
  • an alliance between parties of the right which had previously been hostile (ie conservatives had given up on “gate-keeping” their parties to exclude outsiders).

Although my argument was that we weren’t in a fascist moment, I did say that politics was tending to shift ever further to the right, and that there was a similarity between the crisis and the crisis of 100 or 90 years ago.

One friend summarized the argument as: “people need to talk about fascism a bit less but also take it more seriously,” which captures what I was getting at nicely.

Two years have passed since the book was written, and a year since the book was published: how does the argument hold up?

Voting: the centre-right recovers

For most of 2019, it felt as if the global far right breakthrough in 2015-16 had given birth to something else, more like politics as usual. So that it wasn’t the far right which was doing well so much as softer forms of right-wing politics.

A year ago, there were European elections and the story of them seemed to be the revenge of electoral right-wing parties. In Britain, the Brexit party won more votes than Theresa May’s Conservatives. But what was really noticeabe was that the “leave” vote went there rather than to UKIP, which had all sorts of advantages over the Brexit party: an established brand, and the support of online celebrities such as Tommy Robinson or Carl Benjamin. UKIP might well have expected to be re-energised by its members’ recent involvement in street protests in 2017 and 2018 (the perhaps largest right-wing social movements in British history), but gained almost nothing from this activism.

Outside Britain, the votes of centre-right parties held up while the parties which were associated with violence and closest to the 1930s fascist model (Golden Dawn, Jobbik, the Freedom Party) did worst. Even Vox and the AfD stagnated.

Breaking the link between the online and offline right

Part of the reason for the growth of the right in 2015-16 was that a “right Gramscian’ way of doing politics going back to the New Right in France, or the rise of skinhead music scenes in Britain and the US in the 1970s, had paid off. The far right had established a presence in online culture, out of proportion to its presence anywhere else.

One moment which seemed to capture that better than anything came when Christchurch gunman Brenton Tarrant told the people viewing the live feed of the killings, “Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie.” The latter is of course one of the world’s most popular video bloggers, with 76 million followers on youtube. Although most of his material is non-political, has used his platform to promote much more political far-right youtubers and to post anti-semitic content. His relationship to the right is not altogether different to the relationship that the far left once had with the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Clash.

Yet by the end of 2019, the highest profile figures on the right were losing their social media platforms with twitter, facebook and youtube becoming increasingly fed up of the accusation that they had enabler the right to grow.

In the words of Shane Burley, “deplatforming … was a death sentence for key players in the Alt Right” (i.e. Mike Enoch and Richard Spencer). In Britain, we could add Tommy Robinson, who lost twitter and facebook pages on which he’d recently enjoyed followings as large as those built up by the leaders of our two main parties.

Britain

The 2019 general election here could easily be fitted into a general pattern in which the right and the far-right were growing indistinguishable. Habits which we associate with the latter were taken up by the Conservatives: systematic lying about other parties, and the use of dark money to circumvent election spending rules.

Brexit, The New Authoritarians argued, has been from its origins a route back into power for a generation of Thatcherite Conservatives who had chosen the political wilderness after the defeat of their leader in 1991, and who believed that their party could be revived only from without. Johnson’s rise to leader of the Conservatives marked the ascent of this cohort, and their capture of that party.

Yet one of the ironies of the British election was that although the Conservatives had won by shifting their party further to the right ideologically than that party had been in decades – the non-Conservative far right gained very little from this move.

In Italy and France, far right parties have eclipsed previously dominant parties of the centre right. In Austria, convergence brought the Freedom Party into government. In Britain, the Conservatives’ wholesale copying of positions previously held by the Brexit Party and UKIP hasn’t won a peerage for Farage or still less a Blue-Blue pact analogous to the one on the left that brought Labour into Parliament in 1906.

The right and the far-right by December 2019

Fitting all the above together, the overall picture seemed to be that the right’s breakthrough in 2015-16 had required certain hot-house conditions. Since, however, that the breakthrough had been achieved we appeared to be in a time of consolidation rather than movement. The people coming to the fore were managers, bureaucrats, spin doctors – conventional right-wing politicians.

India

The first sign that this impression of stability was misleading came right at the end of 2019 in India with the passage of a Citizenship Amendment Bill which was intended to deny citizenship to millions of Muslims. When millions of people protested against the bill, the state responded by sanctioning attacks on protesters and the country’s Islamic minority. In Delhi in February, these attacks saw 53 people killed.

To those who know the history of the BJP, its predecessor’s admiration for European fascism, and the involvement of Narendra Modi in pogroms in Gujarat, these events may seem merely a reversion to the violence of the past.

But there were a radicalisation of right-wing politics compared to the situation in India in the first years of Modi’s role – or compared to what I described in my book. There I argued that the successful politicians of the past ten years did not seek to abolish political democracy, and did not mobilise their supporters in a war against their political and racial opponents. But the bill would have the effect of disenfranchising millions; while the BJP was using massive violence, for the first time, in power.

Life itself appeared to be invalidating my analysis.

Coronavirus as war of position

The politics of the Coronavirus lockdown varies enormously from country to country. In India, Modi has tried to present himself as a pragmatist: a lockdown suits him, it has dispersed the people who were resisting his regime. It is a similar story in Hungary and most of Eastern Europe.

The Western European far right has argued for a lockdown and greater border controls. But in a moment where even prominent liberals and socialists are calling just as keenly for a tightening of the borders, this message has been neither distinctive nor effective.

Other parts of the global right have called for an end to the lockdown. This is particularly clear in the States, where Trump has called his supporters onto the streets in an attempt to face down state governors. There they have been joined by Alex Jones fans, white supremacists, etc.

It is hard to do justice to the paranoia, the stupidity or the sheer malice of the people who’ve answered his calls. They have threatened doctors with guns, used up scarce stocks of pharmaceuticals which, even if they don’t cure Coronavirus, are certainly needed to treat other conditions for which they are the best remedy.

As with Modi earlier the year, in Trump right now we seem to be seeing a far-right leader overstepping the bounds of the previous politics. He is creating, from the top down, a mass movement of his personal supporters. They are being mobilised to frighten elected rivals and with the real prospect of violence.

Moreover, this only to speak of the world in April or May 2020. When thinking about how Coronavirus will continue to change our world, you need to keep alive to the risk that the disease won’t simply end in Britain or America or anywhere else in May 2020, but might just as easily be spread through the Global South in our summer and return to the richer countries – when we are most vulnerable – this winter.

You need to consider the chance that the rich won’t simply tolerate higher taxes and inflation as the means to pay off the huge debts acquired as the lockdown began, but will continue to demand that the poor pay off the crisis. And that, if they do, the result will be another decade of polarisation, no doubt with millions of people challenging the system from the left and others being attracted to violent forms of rightwing politics.

While The New Authoritarians insisted that fascism remains a despised tradition, the book considered the risk that politics would continue to radicalise to the right. Fascism, I argued, has a functional utility to the far right, which motivates people to revert to it. I described how even in the more peaceful conditions of 2017 and 2018, the right was turning back to ideas such as anti-semitism that had recently been beyond the pale.

As the international far right has grown in strength since 2016, its participants have shown a greater willingness to use violence.

Nothing developed by the far right in the past decade, I argued, offers the same coherence as fascism. This is why fascism may yet return; because unlike the non-fascist far right, fascism has a clear goal; and because the Right will increasingly need one.

In the actions of Modi and Trump over the past four months, it’s hard not to feel that sense of history settling back onto familiar lines. Violence is being exhorted against political and racial enemies. And this in a world which is rapidly losing any restraining sense of what constitutes normal politics and normal life.

Never Again: 18 months on

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A year and a half has passed since I published Never Again which tells the story of the National Front, and two groups which fought it in the 1970s, Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. The book had decent reviews in the New Statesman and the Spectator, and was the excuse for a book tour which took me up to Glasgow, to Chicago, Melbourne, and Auckland. Of all the talks I gave, the one I enjoyed best was at May Day, a year ago, for tube workers in the RMT, a glorious, drunken, affair

Thirteen years before, I had published a “first run” of the same book, “When we touched the sky.” Although a number of the stories which were in the older book reappear in Never Again, the content of the latter is four-fifths new. In Never Again, I give a brief explanation of why so much changed. Here, I thought I’d do the same in more detail

Reappraising the enemy

One of the weaknesses of “When we touched the sky,” is that the National Front is a shadow in the story. The way I wrote that book was by conducting interviews with more than sixty people who has taken part in the anti-fascist campaign and supplementing them from documents. I selected interviewees along the lines of the people that I was able to meet as a member of the left in Nottingham, Liverpool and Sheffield, and involved in the anti-racist campaigns I knew.

Although I interviewed two or three anti-fascists who had always specialised in information gathering (Gerry Gable, ML, GA), most members of this milieu had been hazy about their opponents. The National Front were “Nazis,” an analysis proved by the famous image of John Tyndall in a Nazi-style uniform. That’s all they needed to know. Many understood how the Front worked in their particular city, few had any sense of the clashes within that organisation or how it was changing, nationally, over time.

The largest piece of research I carried out for Never Again was to bring together as much archive material I could find about the National Front and its leaders, in order to test whether sustained opposition had had a significant effect on the Front’s morale. I searched for memoirs, for anything I could find which would enable me to see the same events through the Front’s eyes. The conclusion I draw is that physical opposition succeeded in demoralising the Front’s opponents, but not immediately,

In about 1974, by which time it was already perfectly possible to be a full-time anti-Front campaigner driving from protest to protest and filling your evenings and weekends with just this one form of political activity – left-wing protests buoyed the Front, made it feel important, and gave its own members a sense of purpose. They were a challenge but one with which the Front was able to surpass. By 1976-7, opposition had started to wear the Front down and change that party: converting it into a smaller movement of young, male, physical streetfighters often from a skinhead milieu. The Front survived by transforming itself into something less than it had been and which was inevitably going an ineffective and unlikeable electoral party.

“When we touched the sky” saw the history in the way the left liked to tell it: as a heroic narrative of a correct form of organisation (the anti-fascist United Front) emerging, and in a relatively short period of time overcoming.

Never Again gives a very different but I hope truer version: of a gritty incomplete struggle, in which no single tactic is ever the perfect form of anything, and anti-fascists suffered all sorts of setbacks along the way.

Were the NF ever fascists?

In my original book, I followed the approach of the anti-fascists from the time for whom it was simply axiomatic that the Front was an attempt to relaunch Hitler’s NSDAP in the not-very different conditions of 1970s Britain.

But at the same time as writing Never Again, I was also working on a second new book The New Authoritarians. This encouraged me to see the National Front in a much longer perspective. One message of that book is that – although unemployment, racism and the like didn’t end in the 1930s, the postwar history of the far right is of successive attempts at renewing those politics. And that the further we go from 1945, the more different these strategies (initial copying, later a shallow disavowal, more recently authoritarian populism) have been from fascism.

It’s a strange thing rereading the story of the National Front with the knowledge that the future belonged not to Nick Griffin but to Nigel Farage. From that perspective, you learn to see how much of today’s non-fascist but far-right politics was already there.

Tyndall was able to join the National Front, after a period when he was excluded, only by promising to pack his uniforms away. Years had to pass before he became the leader of that party. He was a divisive figure, constantly under attack by others without the Nazi baggage but closer in style to either the more electoral or even the more violent wings of today’s far right. They were able to topple him for a leader as a while. His opponents even called themselves, “Populists.”

I’m not suggesting that leftists were wrong to label the Front “Nazis,” but rather that this was a deliberate process in which anti-fascists simplified the enemy they faced, in order to make it more objectionable. The left was consciously trying to change the story, stopping the press and broadcasters from treating the Front as ordinary politicians. Seeing the Front as it looked in 1974 or 1975 – as something more ideologically diverse, harder to pin down and therefore better capable of achieving a breakthrough – helps to explain how hard-fought the victory really was – and how much more relevant to today.

Rebalancing the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism

When I wrote “When we Touched the Sky,” I was conscious that there existed any number of memoirs of Rock Against Racism, and it seemed sensible therefore to bring out a different sort of book, one which focussed on its ally, the Anti-Nazi League.

But behind this simple choice, there were also sort of politics which I hadn’t yet fully grasped. I was a member of the SWP between 1991 and 2003 and again between 2008 and 2013. There I absorbed an analysis – the “party history” of the 1970s in which the Anti-Nazi League was the most important part of the anti-fascist coalition.

From the point of view of the SWP, this made sense. The Anti-Nazi League was, like the SWP itself, a “political” organisation, and one indeed under effective SWP control, with one of the two main full-timers an SWP appointment, and (below a steering committee in which the SWP had only a minority), almost the entire organisation of the alliance run at a local level by members of that party. It was something easier to understand and much capable of being repeated in the 1990s and beyond.

Between Never Again and The New Authoritarians, there is a barely sketched and unspoken space, where the question is hardly ever posed directly, but it was there all the time in my head: if mass anti-fascism was an effective way of combating the National Front why it has been so consistently ineffective ever since?

Both books give different hints of an answer – in Never Again, I argue that 1970s anti-fascism might not have worked, were it not a genuinely innovative cultural ally.

It took me years to grasp how important Rock Against Racism although this should have been obvious: RAR was there a whole year before ANL, it was RAR which provided the contacts and the know-how which made the Carnivals happen, and it was RAR which capable of speaking to the cultural politics of the time in a way which almost no anti-fascist campaign has since in Britain or anywhere else.

Putting the SWP in the rear-view mirror

Even in “When we touched the sky”, I tried to give voice to people from many different political backgrounds – anarchists, anti-political punks, members of the Labour Party and of almost every left-wing group of the time. In Never Again, I am more systematic about broadening the story to two groups who were underemphasised in the original: black Marxists from groups like Race Today, and the SWP members (“squaddists”) expelled when the ANL was wound down.

As for the SWP itself, in the seventy-plus years of its existence, the Anti-Nazi League is (along with the Stop the War coalition of c2003) one of that party’s two real achievements. Indeed, the Anti-Nazi League was greater since, unlike StW, it won.

Yet if you think of all the vices for which the SWP has become notorious, its need to exaggerate its own importance, its insistence on crowding out other traditions, its leadership’s control-freakery, all of these were also present, in embryo form, in 1976-9.

One part of the themes of Never Again is the need for principled organising, and I tell this story through two events, both from summer 1978 (the aftermath of the first Carnival), to show how different parts of the anti-fascist coalition either managed to remain principled or failed. The two examples are a Rock Against Racism gig in Brighton where the audience was shocked to hear a band playing a series of sexist songs; and the second London Carnival in 1978 to which the Front responded by staging a pogrom of its own in East London. These two incidents are the moral centre of the book: RAR saw what was going on, changed, and immersed itself in anti-sexist campaigning; the SWP/ANL leadership made a tactical mis-step in letting the NF march, then compounded it by lying and by offering an insincere apology.

As for Rock Against Racism, one of the chapters which disappeared between the 2006 and the 2019 versions of the two books was a piece in which I argued that the SWP had been uniquely well-placed to tap into the cultural politics of the 1970s. In “When we touched the sky” I argued that its “state capitalist” (i.e. hostile) analysis of the Soviet Union had shielded it from the approach of most other leftists which had been to folk over rock music, which was assumed to be a malign US import. I give examples of such cultural misunderstanding in Never Again (punks going along to hear Leon Rosselson lecturing them that punk was no good) but they really aren’t the main point.

What’s clear to me now is that the cohort of artists and designers who made RAR possible were rank-and-file members of the SWP many of whom had joined from other traditions. They brought all sort of extraordinary personal strengths, reading, and dissident politics. Reducing this to their shared membership of the SWP is to diminish them.

But there was a victory, yeah?

I don’t want to end on that note. In the 1970s the left were the cultural and political innovators: RAR connected anti-fascism to a majority consciousness, or at least a majority among the young. My book celebrates its and the ANL, and the wider anti-fascist milieu of which they were both just a part.

In the last ten years, however, that dynamic has been largely reversed. It’s the right which has found a “growth space” in a politics poised between conservatism and fascism. It’s the far-right which is better rooted today outside politics – in meme culture, in sites such as youtube, so that even non-entities such as Tommy Robinson can build an audience far greater than anything the left has.

RAR and the ANL set the forces of British fascism back by fifteen years. But in the struggle between fascism and anti-fascism there are no epochal victories, no moments when you can stop and tell yourself that the war has been finally won.

The far right and Coronavirus

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  • If you look around the world there is no single far-right response to the pandemic.

In Britain, we often assume that everyone on the far right has responded to the Coronavirus by denying its reality. If you look at US, Brazil, or even the UK – the far right has responded to Coronavirus, like it does to global warming, by calling it fake news, and blaming globalists for panicking unnecessarily. There are many on the right who think like that. But there are other countries where the far right has taken the opposite approach.

In Hungary, and Poland, presidential governments have been perfectly happy to announced quarantines. In India, the BJP introduced a lockdown. In doing so, it strengthened the position of Prime Minister Modi who had previously been facing mass protests for laws intended to remove citizenship from the country’s Muslims.

Over the next 6 months the parts of the far right which deny the reality of Coronavirus are likely to look cruel and dangerous – they may lose support.

If the crisis causes, say, the Brazilian regime to collapse I’m sure friends will celebrate – but we should do so cautiously. There are plenty of other authoritarian right-wingers who have taken a different approach and whose popularity is growing.

  • The adoption of emergency powers in Europe threatens to normalise the suppression of democracy

Think of France. In March 2020, after the first round of local elections in which his En Marche party did poorly, President Macron deferred to the future the crucial second route of that vote. Parliament then passed a “health emergency” law, which made the breach of lockdown rules punishable by six months in prison. It also closed the French borders to non-EU citizens.

For years France has been living under a series of emergency laws – giving the police previously unimagined powers Under them the French government has ruled by Presidential decree whenever possible, and is openly contemptuous of Parliament. For a time this was explained as an emergency reflex, designed to stop terrorism. Then it was emergency action to stop the far right. Now it is an emergency to stop Coronavirus.

“We are at war,” Macron said repeatedly in his speech justifying the new laws. When advocates of liberal democracy adopt this sort of language they make life easier for the far right. And the problem with such “preventative” authoritarianism is that the longer you live under it, the harder it becomes to portray even fascism as anything different from politics as usual.

So, while anti-authoritarians should welcome any measure which genuinely protect health – where they start becoming something more sinister, we must oppose them

  • When thinking about the crisis and the right, the real problems are likely to be felt not now but in the months ahead

It is unlikely that there will be a vaccine until 2021 at the earliest. But Coronoavirus is a lung infection – it is most deadly where air quality is bad and in cold weather. In Britain, we have been incredibly lucky that the disease hit here in spring rather than winter. After all, if you look at deaths from pneumonia, in a typical year they spike in December and January – these are by far the worst times of the year for lung infections.

When the pandemic started this year, the far right had a simple answer. In Italy and France, it argued “close the borders”

That never became a central demand in European politics – largely because by the time had reached Europe, and action was needed, the disease had already crossed borders. The right’s answer would have made no difference.

But if we go into a second wave of Coronavirus in this winter, this direction of travel is likely to be reversed. At that stage it will be post-lockdown Europe fearing a disease coming back to Europe from outside. In those circumstances, it will be easier for the right to blame foreigners

The reality is that affluent, travelling, Europeans have been among the people most likely to spread the disease in central and southern Africa and to Latin America and to other countries where it was previously absent.

We can’t let the virus be used as an excuse to stir up fears against migrants

When I warn of a second or third round of Coronavirus politics, I am also thinking of how the global economic crisis of 2008 panned out

That crisis came at a time when in most countries politics was still, essentially, a two-way contest between a moderate left and an electoral right. Many of us assumed that the left, as the anti-capitalists, would grow

What actually happened was different. Where the left was in power, in Britain and the US, it was blamed for bailing out the bankers. For eight years, politics turned in the direction of a neo-liberal cutting right

Then, when that part of the right was exhausted, the right was able to renew itself globally from 2016 onwards by offering nationalist and racist solutions to the crisis. We saw an increasing convergence between the positions taken by centre-right politicians and a previously marginal far right

During the first weeks of the Coronavirus epidemic, governments offered massive stimulus packages to keep employers in business. In many countries, the people authorising that spending are politicians who have made their careers by insisting that budgets must be balanced. It follows that as soon as the present crisis calms there will people calling for another round of austerity as protracted as the one we’ve just lived through

They won’t say, simply, “We must balance the budget,” as the state spending has been so great that that that goal will seem incredibly distant. But the rich will resist any measures to pay for the crisis that will put the burden on them.

The left has a number of historic solutions to a debt crisis – increased taxation of capital, increased inflation – any government that follows them will face opposition from within the right.

And if politics feels (as it has, too often in the past five years) like just a battle between two different elements of the right – the cutters and the social authoritarians – the legitimacy of the latter will grow.

The British far right in crisis

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In 2003, I was a member of an anti-racist campaign based in North East England. I worked with a journalist from the BBC as he reported on the story of the British National Party and its growing electoral support in Sunderland.

As the journalist left the city, I remember him saying, “I wish I could come back in a few years when their vote falls. But you and I both know that’s never the story.”

I’ve been thinking about that line over the past few months. Because the mainstream media are continuing to report that the far right is booming even though every sign is that they’re in crisis.

Tommy Robinson has been quoted telling his supporters that he has joined the Conservatives. Britain First claimed that 5,000 of its members have done the same. Even Nigel Farage has cooled his previous criticisms of the Conservatives, and is now is in the press for his support of that party. Apparently Boris Johnson is “singing the right tune” and “saying all the right things“.

For four years we have been seeing a realignment of the global right, in a political space which is more authoritarian and nationalistic even than the generation of Reagan or Thatcher but yet does not go as far as the far right of the 1920s or 1930s.

The new far-right leaders have drawn on the assistance of outliers further to their right: Donald Trump’s first Chief Strategist was Steve Bannon, Vladimir Putin can has the backing of the neo-fascist court philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

But what is striking about the likes of Nigel Farage or the former supporters of the Brexit Party is actually how little institutional power they have acquired under Boris Johnson’s government.

In 2016, after the referendum result, UKIP supporters called for Nigel Farage to be granted a peerage. The idea was to give him a permanent formal role in British politics. But the peerage never came.

In the run-up to the 2019 election, there was widespread speculation that the Brexit Party was to be offered some formal pact with the Conservatives, where in return for backing Boris Johnson, the Brexit Party would be guaranteed a certain minimum number of uncontested seats in the new Parliament.

But what actually happened was that no such deal ever materialised; and Farage had to construct a one-sided pactof his own – in which his party agreed not to contest Conservative-held seats with no guarantee of anything from Johnson in return.

The arrangement was of enormous benefit to the Conservatives. It ensured that the “leave” side of our post-referendum election system was united behind a single party, while (depending on where you voted) Remainers had the choice of either three or four different parties that could plausibly aim to represent them.

Farage’s one-sided offer guaranteed the present Conservative majority. And yet his reward has been nothing: no seat in the Lords, no supporters in the Commons.

In so far as there was any price of this arrangement it was that the Conservatives would move – for a lengthy period of time – onto the political terrain previously occupied by the Brexit, UKIP and before them other parties of the extreme right.

It was that move which makes the Conservatives interesting to such contemporary types as Dominic Cummings, Andrew Sabisky or Joshua Spencer. The people who in America are called the “alt-lite,” in Britain join the Conservatives.

They are not a faction within that party. They depend on its leaders to support their policies. The far-right has no guarantee that they’ll oblige.

If you see the balance of power in the perspective of the last few years, what is striking is how the right is realigning within a Conservative Party rather than against a previously-dominant mainstream right.

Compare France in 2017, where in the last Presidential election the leading candidate came from the far right rather than a newly-militant centre right. Or Austria, where the same dynamics of convergence on the right led to a centre-and-far-right coalition between 2017 and 2019.

The weakness of the far right is even clearer the further you look away from the mainstream. Tommy Robinson has been chastened by a spell in prison and stripped of his means of communication with his previous mass support.

Far from commanding a secret army of 5,000 people the leaders of Britain First are struggling to avoid following Robinson to jail.

Indeed, this seems to be the general pattern of the last few months: with the most extreme factions of the right in trouble also in Greece and the United States.

“Breakthrough” populism was all about the centre-right moving on to territory occupied by the far right. The populism of the last few months has been much more like standard conservatism. The historical purpose of Claire Fox turns out to be only to win Boris Johnson a slightly larger majority.

So while socialists, radical democrats and anti-fascists have been in no great state after the last election, we can at least take comfort from the reality that – for a key group of our enemies – the immediate prospect is even worse.

The Convergence Election

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I wanted to put together some thoughts on why the Conservatives did well in last week’s election. Almost everyone I know has focused on why Labour’s vote shrank, but logically that can’t be more than half the answer. There is an old Eric Hobsbawm quip about histories of the left, that they risk telling you only what radicals did, what their thinking was, but they never look at the other side, until what’s left is like watching a footage of a boxing match in which you see but one of the fighters punching into a vacuum. Which might as well be the story of our past week. The left has produced many accounts of why we lost, hardly any of why the other side won.

As of six months ago, the Conservatives had a series of obstacles to face, each of which made it unlikely that they would win a majority. The most important barrier was incumbency – most voting is negative, and the longer they are in power the greater the anger aimed at incumbents. For seventy years of two-party competition, British politics has followed essentially the same pattern. In general, a party is elected with a certain core idea (build council housing, the white heat of technology, monetarism, education education education…). That idea, in combination with the unpopularity of its exhausted opponents, gives the party a majority. Over successive elections, the governing party generally loses its majority until it is time for a new party to govern.

Absent the Brexit referendum and what “should” have happened by now is that Cameron and Osborne, having won elections narrowly in 2010 and 2015 would still be defending the ideas with which they were most closely associated (i.e. austerity) but they would be intellectually exhausted, mired in corruption. Their majority would have narrowed to the point at which they started losing in parliament, the Labour Party should have chosen an anti-austerity candidate and the 2019 election would be the ideal opportunity for austerity to be consigned forever to …. (you get the picture).

Brexit, obviously, changed that. Among all its many effects, perhaps the most important has been to create a void space, so that 2010 didn’t happen, 2015 didn’t happen, 2017 didn’t happen and politics was reset as if to zero – and Johnson could say in seeming good faith, as he did whenever he was questioned on his government’s track record of cuts to school, hospitals and libraries, “I have only been in office for three months”.

In truth, Brexit’s impact was deeper – it was, and remains, among other things an attempt to reascribe the blame for austerity onto foreigners in general and the EU in particular, so that people who are annoyed about the collapsing state of our social infrastructure can blame it on something outside and distant, not the Tories, definitely not Boris Johnson, not even Labour, but someone outside, so that the clock is always being reset, and the conservatives can face the voters with the eternal sunshine of a spotless record. Don’t think for a second that we on the left are incapable of the same wilful innocence – but Johnson is doing it now, and Brexit allows him to get away with it.

There are other reasons why Johnson was able to win. During the election campaign, I had a much beloved friend who responded to every day’s reports of Johnson’s campaigning by posting a single recurring message to the effect that Johnson was a formidable campaigner, a rare politician to whom ordinary people connect and had real charisms. My friends made the point ironically, and repeated it so many times that in the ends the words collapsed apart and became just a raspberry jelly trifle of utter meaninglessness. Unfortunately, the satire was on all of us.

Johnson, it turns out, is a formidable campaigner. He does have real charisma. Our inability to see it was our weakness, not his.

I am interested in why so many friends didn’t “get it”. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that if you think about our notions of leadership, they do unfortunately operate with an exaggerated literality. So that a good left-wing politician is one who comes up with previously unconsidered policy proposals. And persuades his party to adopt them, and his electorate to vote for them.

This isn’t the only kind of political leadership though, on the right or at all. Sometimes, an effective political leader is one who goes into a hostile situation, and focuses simply on neutralising anyone else’s attack points. Actually, Johnson did this. It is why he made the point of being so repeatedly photographed visiting hospitals. Because he grasped that the mere repetitive image of being seen in that location would be a more effective way of presenting Johnson as a “pro-healthcare” politician than any amount of saying “I will not privatise the NHS” (a promise which in any event, could only operate as a hostage to fortune as soon as the inevitable US trade deal is announced). He chose to make his commitments fuzzy and general, and they were effective.

In the rest of this piece I want to talk about the contemporaneity of Johnson’s politics. To explain that, I want you to think what would have happened if Labour had won a week ago. Corbyn would be praised. We would be writing of the way in which he had moved the Overton window, i.e. changed our mutual understanding of what set of politics are acceptable to the majority of voters.

But one reason why Johnson was able to win is that his politics – his hyper-conservatism – was already within the Overton window, so that it seemed natural and normal, even though any number of Conservatives have spent the last six months insisting that it is different, shocking and offends against what mainstream Conservatism was supposed to be about.

Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, there will be different parts of this which mean most to you. They might include: his personal deceit to the point of blatant lying (think of the way he pocketed Joe Pike’s phone), his willingness to dump long-term allies who prop up key tenets of Conservatism (the DUP and the union), the appointment of non-Conservatives to key posts (think of Dominic Cummings and the way in which he has been allowed to run Johnson’s private office as a Continuity Vote Leave private fiefdom), his rejection of the normal ties of loyalty to party leadership and to colleagues which make parties possible as vehicles for the promotion of shared interest, his toleration of Conservative candidates with grim records of racism and anti-semitism,  and the encouragement of a kind of far right entryism within the Conservative party, so that even perpetual weathervane Tommy Robinson has applied formembership.

There is a common pattern here, which his of opening up the Conservative Party to people, to ideas, and to money, from those historically outside the Conservatives and to their right, with a view towards reshaping politics. The left used to warn about neoliberalism, but the politics of our present day is to the right of neoliberalism in its diminished toleration of social democracy or indeed democracy itself.

And while Johnson is willing to make noises to the effect that the NHS will continue, in some form, there will still be schools – the greatest risk to our shared social fabric will come not from anything in the manifesto but from the relationships of clientelism with the socially-untethered rich which will undoubtedly characterise Johnson’s future administration.

One reason why no one in Britain was shocked by this is that it seems in global perspective to be frankly, quite a tepid version of the politics that we have seen already in Egypt, in India, in Eastern Europe, and most recently in Brazil. But all these moves had a history. And in accepting them as normal, in tolerating them silently (if that’s we do), we all collectively lose something.

(If you enjoyed this piece, you might like my book The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, which tries to puit the electoral shocks of 2016-8 in global perspective: https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745338156/the-new-authoritarians/)