Know your enemy: the Tommy Robinson movement (part 1)

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International organising on the Right

When journalists try to make sense of the Tommy Robinson movement, which has its next major mobilisation this Saturday, they describe it as the product of domestic factors: the demise of the BNP in around 2010, its replacement by the EDL as a new kind of Islamophobic street movement on the right, Brexit, the attempt by the Football Lads Alliance in 2017 to revive the EDL model, the rise of Corbynism and the failure of Theresa May in last year’s general election to win a majority around a programme of authoritarian (strong and stable) Conservatism, etc…

All of these factors are part of the re-emergence of a street-based right, but even to add them all together is to miss the point.

Above all else, the Tommy Robinson movement is the local chapter of a global far right.

You can see this in the people who speak at the Tommy Robinson events: Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch People’s Party, Milo Yiannopoulos best known for the part he played in Gamergate in the US, Raheem Kassam, until recently the editor in chief at Breitbart’s London office.

You can see the international character of the Tommy Robinson movement also in the people who have signed the petition calling for his release: around half of whom have been from outside the UK, with more than fifty thousand people signing it in each of America and Australia.

This international aspect provides the new street movement with confidence, funds, with access to media, and a model of how to organise.

In future articles, I will explain who the FLA are and how Robinson has rushed to a leadership role. Here though I want to set out briefly the main features of the far right since 2016 and how that context shapes this new movement on the right.

The global far right is different from the right of twenty years ago

When I first began writing about the far right, almost the only model of far right politics than anyone talked about was a group of “Euro-fascist” parties, principally the MSI in Italy, the FN in France, and the Freedom Party in Austria. These parties were successful in elections and in the case of Italy and Austria by the 1990s were on the verge of joining (very short-lived) conservative-far right governments.

Yet for all their popular and electoral success, the parties had their roots in attempts, after 1945, to found successor parties to the interwar fascists. In France, for example, the FN was set up by a fascist party whose members had been involved in repeated incidents of street violence, Ordre Nouveau (ON).

The shift from ON to FN was an attempt to broaden a fascist party and to repackage it, initially by pulling leading figures from other fascist groups and then through electoralism, but almost all the leading figures of the FN had been in fascist parties (including Jean Marie Le Pen: a former member of ON).

One of the ways in which Marxists distinguished ourselves from liberal commentators was by insisting that these parties were still fascist: i.e. there was a direct continuity in their leaderships between the parties of the 1930s, they were loyal to the legacy of the 1930s (hence Le Pen’s repeated remarks calling the Holocaust a detail of history), and that the parties attempted to balance between street and electoral politics, refusing to subordinate the former to the latter, and leaving open the possibility of a fascist struggle for power.

If you compare the global far right of 2018 its predecessors of twenty years ago, the first and most basic change is how much greater the variety is now on the far right compared to twenty years ago: there are Islamophobic street movements (the EDL, Pegida), there are Islamophobic political parties which have emerged in parallel to Euro-fascism but on a different ideological basis and without any interest in street politics (the Fortuyn list), some of the Euro-fascist parties have evolved into moderate right wing parties or collapsed (the MSI), other are recognisably in continuity with the model of the 1990s (the FN, the Freedom Party).

One of the clearest indicators of a fascist (as opposed to a non-fascist far-right) party is whether it maintains a private militia, to carry out attacks on racial and political opponents and potentially the state.

In the last decade, there have been just three mass parties in Europe which have maintained their own separate militia: Jobbik in Hungary, Greece’s Golden Dawn and the People’s Party Our Slovakia. None of them has prospered in recent years, not even during the favourable circumstances following Brexit and Trump.

The dominant incarnation of the global far right rejects not just fascism, but “politics” itself

In the 1990s the dominant way of doing politics on the far right involved a fascist leadership training its members into a distinct fascist tradition and then the members changing the voters. These were parties which had a very strong ideological mission and saw their role as being to induct cadres into it.

So in Italy, for example, even though the politicians of the MSI/AN had by the 1990s largely given up on terrorism, the party retained a youth movement, into which new recruits were trained. They learned the names of the fascist dead. Where their people were elected locally, campaigns grew up to rename their streets in honour of the fascist martyrs. When, in France, the FN took power locally, they removed leftwing papers from municipal libraries and replaced them with FN newspapers. Libraries were ordered to stock the shelves with writers such as Evola.

In Britain, the BNP had a routine of monthly members’ meetings, at which speakers would explain how the events of the day could be fitted in to a fascist ideology. There was a party magazine (Identity), which members were expected to read and sell.

In its present incarnation, the far right does not have a cadre model: recruits are made principally online. For the last two decades, there has been a very significant increase, internationally, in anti-Islamic racism and in the policing of borders. In a climate where racism has already been growing, the far right seeks to recruit through cultural dynamics which favour it. Using the popular cliches of the 1960s, the right is trying to swim among the people. It is not swimming against the tide.

So far, the left has failed to develop a model of how to confront the parts of the far right which operate close to the mainstream

The left knows very well how to confront fascists. In the United States, Richard Spencer’s career has not recovered from the punch that landed on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, from Charlottesville, or from anti-fascist protests since.

We have no comparable strategy for dealing with the non-fascist far right. That’s why tens of millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump and indeed why Trump is on approval ratings of 40 percent plus in the current polls.

At a certain point, we need to stop congratulating ourselves for the demise of the likes of Richard Spencer and confront the much larger problem which is the proximity of the electoral far right to power.

The global far right is growing through convergence with other forces

The Tommy Robinson campaign is itself a convergence between three models of organising: a right-wing social movement approach embodied in the FLA, the post-EDL politics of Robinson himself, and the present leaders of UKIP who sees in his movement a chance for them to rebuild their party.

In this way, it echoes what are much larger processes whereby people are forming alliances despite originating at different points in the spectrum between street and electoral politics. So, in the United States, Donald Trump ran in many ways as a conventional Republican candidate. So much so that – despite a widely publicised #neverTrump campaign, registered Republican voters were more likely to vote for him than registered Democratic voters were to vote for Hillary Clinton.

But if Donald Trump ran as an “ordinary” right-wing Republican, his campaign derived much of its energy from an alliance between him and his campaign manager Steve Bannon who was, by any standards, a politician of the far right.

At the end of the 1990s, government coalitions of far right and Conservative parties in Italy and Austria were subject to mass protests and collapsed within a few months. By contrast, the convergence of the centre- and far right has produced a durable coalition in Austria in 2017 and seems set to be leading to durable far right government in Italy (as well as Hungary, Turkey, India, etc etc).

The global far right is profiting from a popular rejection of globalisation

Part of the way in which the Tommy Robinson movement holds its people together is through a shared fear of betrayal over Brexit.

In the same way, Donald Trump – whose Presidency seemed doomed a mere six months ago – has been able to revive itself, post-Bannon, by returning to the politics of America First and beginning trade wars with China and the US.

In future articles through the rest of the week, I’ll extend the processes described here and show how they are reflected in the rise of the FLA/Robinson.

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