Monthly Archives: October 2018

Changing tack


For the last couple of months I have been writing updates and articles about what the far-right is doing – at the rate of maybe 2-3 a week (including longer posts on facebook) – going back to the internationalisation of the right, its success, the convergence of mainstream and extremists…

Post-Bolsonaro I’m going to pause on that. Everyone can see that this is a moment of breakthrough for the right in almost every country. It’s their “1960s”.

So, instead of trying to fill everyone with gloom I’m going to write more about anti-racists and anti-fascists, about strategies which have worked and ones which haven’t. And why.

There’s no shortage of pessimism of the intellect out there – what we’re missing is optimism of the will.

What it means to ask if Bolsonaro is a fascist


In response to recent pieces by Alfredo Saad-Filho and Valerio Arcary:

When writers on the left debate whether X individual or Y political party is a fascist, we do so for specific reasons. In the last hundred years, the richest countries of the world have with one exception been free from civil war, genocide and even direct military conflict. The major exception was fascism. It follows that fascist parties are an exceptional form under capitalism, which are capable of talking all the hatred and the violence on which capitalism thrives but concentrating and taking them further; much further than is possible under any other form of politics. All sorts of practical conclusions (indeed the whole anti-fascist tradition, in all its varieties) follow from this premise.

For at least two years, we have been living through a moment of far-right advance, which has included victories for the right in major powers (which are therefore capable of emulation): Brexit, Trump, the thirty-three percent of the vote won by the Front National in the second round, etc. But until very recently, these victories were being won by forces which were clearly closer to conservatism than what we ordinarily understand as fascism. The key personalities, Farage, Trump, Le Pen, were electoral politicians with neither fascist political nor a base of sup-port (a mass movement) outside the electoral sphere. With the likely victory of Jair Bolsonaro in tonight’s election that changes; very many Brazilian socialists regard Bolsonaro as a fascist, he uses a language of authoritarianism and makes promises of violence whose sadism seem to make him a definite step to the right compared with what has gone before – not just in Brazil but internationally. Here, I am not going to attempt my own definition of Bolsonaro’s movement – readers who want that detail are directed to the pieces I linked to at the start – rather what I want to do is make some general points about the period we are living in and what it means even to ask whether a particular movement is fascist.

Why Bolsonaro is unlike fascism:

There have been many political authoritarians in history who were not fascists

Part of the claim that Bolsonaro is a fascist rests on his frequent invocations of the military rule of Brazil’s generals and his attempts to eulogise that regime including its use of torture. If the judges stand up to him, he says he will send the army to crush them. He calls on the existing repressive institutions of the state to destroy the liberal ones. But the twenty-year dictatorship of the Brazilian generals was not a fascist regime. It was a top-down, anti-democratic regime but it did not practise violence against its own population on the scale of the interwar regimes. It is horrible and offensive to have to think like this, but of the different estimates for the numbers killed by the generals the most common are in the hundreds or the low thousands. Compare, for example, the terror experienced in Spain after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, during which at least a hundred times as many people were killed. In terms of its economic policies, it was a corrupt developmentalist dictatorship well within the bounds of conservative politics.

When writers on the left have attempted to define fascism, one common argument has been it is a form of politics which emerges outside traditional regimes, and seeks to organize a mass movement against the existing capitalist class, and it is this outsider quality which enables it to govern more aggressively than conventional right-wing politics. If Bolsonaro introduces a personal form of rule which goes on to recreate the social content of the Brazilian military dictatorship, then his is a regime which must be urgently resisted. But it will not be fascist.

Part of what makes fascism is a commitment to certain core ideas (the leadership principle, sexism, anti-semitism, the identification of the left as the movement’s antagonist, autarky, the creation of a new fascist man…)

On this score as well, Bolsonaro’s ideas seem to be closer to ordinary right-wing thinking. His economic advisers are neoliberals rather than advocates of national protection. They (and he) speak of recreating Pinochet’s Chile rather than the 1930s.

But how did fascism get to be fascism?

Part of the danger when making these arguments is that, even if they are “correct” they rest on static categories when what is taking place before our eyes is a process: the birth of an international movement combining different elements. So, Brexit (which was not in itself a step to the far right even if it had some of those qualities) contributed to the rise of Trump (whose conservatism edges much closer to what we think of as far right) and then gave impetus to Le Pen whose party had been set up in order to convey the false impression of normality on what were initially a fascist leadership). Trump’s support, and the last-minute intervention of Steve Bannon, both contributed significantly to the success of the League in Italy. Different right-wing elements are boosting and competing with each other to be the most violent and the most influential movement on the right.

This process has an affinity with the rise of fascism which saw parties of different origin (the plebeian fascists of the NSDAP; the reactionary Catholics of Franco’s regime and in Romania…) competing with each other internationally to be the most aggressive, and in that way moved them from one point on the political spectrum to something new. Even the fascism of the 1930s was considerably more radical than the fascism of 10 years before.

This is the only possible or even most likely outcome, there are other models of right-wing convergence: Thatcher and Reagan 1979-80, for example, which fell far short of fascism.

The limits to how far convergence goes does not depend only on the context (post 9/11 authoritarianism, the 2008 economic crisis), or even on the starting-point of the various right-wing figures, but also on how quickly the left finds new ways of reinvigorating itself in response to them.

There is indeed no reason to assume that the murderous authoritarians of the future will be fascists. If we assume that capitalism is going to last for (say) another century – despite dictatorships, environmental degradation … – then it is likely that all sorts of violent political forms will emerge which will be in various ways unlike what has gone before.

Finally, fascism remains a despised tradition. And while the presence of fascism in our collective memory has declined compared to previous generations (a process which makes life easier for the violent right), fascism is still a tradition which offends as much as it attracts. For that reason, it is more likely that even a party which wanted to occupy much the same political space as fascism would give itself a new name.

Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s race problem


R. Eatwell and M. Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. London: Pelican, 2018. ISBN 978-0-241-31200-1 £9.99

No doubt, this weekend’s papers will be full of positive reviews of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book. It has been accepted by a major publisher, and the story with which it engages (the inexorable rise of the far right) has been a staple of press reporting for many years. Despite their book’s seeming length (344 pages), the text is in fact on the short side (c70,000 words) and can be read in a single sitting. There are few academic references, the language is simple, as indeed is the message. All the authors want you to know is that the far-right has been doing well electorally for some time, that its voters are normal people with comprehensible motives, and that its rise is therefore likely to continue, as they conclude with the book’s final sentence, “for many years to come”.

If the authors have an antagonist, it is not the “national populists” (at pp 70-2 Eatwell and Godwin argue that the adoption by the latter of racialized welfare policies mean that they sit awkwardly outside the category far-right) but left-wing academics (“progressive liberals”). The latter share a series of muddle-headed (“biased”: p xiv) views about the populists. In particular, leftists wrongly think that the right’s support is restricted to the old, and that their ideas will die out because of their limited appeal to younger voters (p xxvi).

The authors insist that national populist voters hold views about black and Muslim people which are both racial and legitimate. “Racial” is my term not theirs; what Eatwell and Goodwin argue is that it is wrong to regard such views as “racist” since the latter is a boo word which operates to silence debate. They argue that accusations of bias,

“stifle important debates about immigration and Islam. For example, should economic immigration be closely linked to the receiving country’s economic needs, or should such immigrants have immediate access to benefits on the same terms as native people? Turning to Islam, should what many see as symbols of women’s oppression like the niqab be banned in public, and Muslim schools be expected to teach Western values openly and fairly?” (p. 74).

For Eatwell and Goodwin, the greatest danger to avoid is the tendency of liberals and leftists to restrict the expression of Populist opinions. Debate is sacrosanct.

Yet no historian of migration would accept that “debates about immigration” have been “stifled” whether in Britain, Western Europe or the US. Rather, the media has been writing about migration fascinatedly, if not obsessively, for more than fifty years.

Goodwin and Eatwell suggest that a discussion is needed as to whether countries should be allowed to limit immigration opportunities to prospective immigrants’ employment (“receiving country’s economic needs”). They seem to be unaware that this has in fact been the principle route of “economic immigration” to Britain for more than fifty years.

You also have to wonder from where Eatwell and Goodwin have picked up the idea that there exist, in Britain, Europe or the US, large numbers of Muslims schools which teach prejudiced views hostile to Western values? In Britain we have a large and well-resourced bureaucratic infrastructure (Prevent) which monitors the views of Muslim teachers and students and dissuades or criminalises the holding of such opinions. The assumptions that Muslims are opposed to the West and that Prevent fails to curtail them panders to the alternative facts of far right propaganda.

In the middle passages of the book, Eatwell and Goodwin confront the argument that anti-migrant sentiment is racist. No, they insist, it is rational. “By the end of the twentieth century … the US and much of Western Europe had witnessed large and often unprecedented waves of immigration which were also often more visibly and culturally distinct than earlier ones and which then accelerated during the next two decades of the twenty-first century as the ethnic transformation of the West reached new heights” (p 140).

What Eatwell and Goodwin are arguing in this passage is worth spelling out:

  • Anti-migrant racism is a response to visual and cultural difference (this is what they mean when they say that recent migrants are “visibly … distinctive”: at p 136, they compare recent migration to the US from Mexico and the Middle East with the German and Italian immigration of a hundred years ago)
  • Therefore the greater the visual difference between immigrants and existing society, the more you should expect the former to be met with hostility
  • As a matter of fact, recent migrants to the West have been more different (ie blacker and more Muslim) than their historical predecessors. This explains today’s hostility.

But, there is no objective reality to visual or cultural difference. For example, in the 1950s, during an epoch of Commonwealth migration, one of the favourite claims of far-right orators were that black migrants were so stupid, or so poor, that they were reduced to eating cat food from tins. Any rational person reading about such views sixty years later would grasp that this supposed visual and cultural “difference” was contained simply in the mind of the host society not in any actual behaviour exhibited by new arrivals.

It is equally untrue to say that racial prejudice exists in a simple relationship to cultural or in particular colour difference. If that was right, then you would expect the greatest acts of racism in twentieth century Europe to have been directed against the blackest of minorities. But the Jews and gypsies of 1930s Europe were white.

To argue that racism directed against Syrians fleeing from Assad is rational because they are Middle Eastern and therefore blacker than previous immigrants is bizarre; not merely in the context of German history (the Syrians of the 2000s are no blacker than the guest workers of the 1950s), but even more so in French or British history.

Eatwell and Goodwin are, in fairness to them, experts in Politics not History, but if such analyses were expressed in a first year seminar on migration history, even a class of undergraduates would be baffled by them.

The argument of Eatwell and Goodwin could be summarized down to a single sentence: the Populists must be heard. Very well, stated in that form no-one could possibly object to it. But the question they avoid is the harder one: when does one person’s insistence on speaking require another person’s silence? When does speech go too far? When is it that the right to insult or lie becomes objectionable?

To those questions, the good Professors have no answer.




The DFLA falls; Tommy Robinson continues his rise


Reports are coming in that the Tommy Robinson case has been adjourned.

In the history of the Old Bailey there has never been as direct a challenge to the court’s symbolic authority as the scenes today, with Robinson being allowed to speak from a stage outside the court to well over 1000 followers (on a weekday…) before going into court. His supporters pack into the narrow streets, as he calls for a revolution against journalists, against liberal society and the existing state. Their chants are heard in the courtroom.

Just down the road – anti-fascists stood sheltering behind barriers.

While the left were right to see the protests against the DFLA as a step forwards, we need to grasp that the biggest threat is not a clapped out bunch of football hooligans organising in the style of party. Rather it’s the online right, the people who are surfing the moment around us by talking about culture, about Muslims, the people with their alternative facts who have a passive aggressive streak a mile wide and who shift from street to electoral politics without settling down in either. The ones who deny that they are political and organise as a social movement.

The greater the influence of their ideas, the less we are heard. And the other side are far ahead of us…

Convergence on the right: Cambridge and the row over Remembrance Day


I’ve written previously about how the right is changing, with the mainstream and the far right increasingly converging on politics which all the rest of used to think were limited to the margins. It is a process that takes place within political parties (think of the relationship between Trump and Bannon), between parties (think of UKIP’s relationship with Tommy Robinson), and sometimes over borders. As the mainstream and the far right converge, both are radicalised.

A good example of that process would be developments in Cambridge in the last week; where last Monday a Tory motion to the students union proposed to mandate the latter to celebrate the “valour, courage, and heroism” of “British war veterans”. So far, this was just standard centre-right politics, and nothing unusual in itself.

When the students rejected the motion in favour of an amended alternative, someone unknown (but if you were a gambling person, the obvious candidate would be one of the disappointed Tory students) leaked the story to the Daily Mail. Again, so far so normal. The Mail ran quite a cautious, sober piece, plainly backing the Tory students and deprecating those who didn’t want to focus on just British war veterans. But in a first, subtle, aggravation of the situation they published the name of the motion’s main left-wing critic, a  student presumably in her early 20s, and a photograph of her smiling with a glass of beer in hand – no doubt scraped from facebook. (I am very deliberately not repeating her name here – even if the right refuse to allow her privacy, everyone else should respect it). The message of the image was simple: here was the callous, stupid, indifferent and hypocritical left drinking while poor veterans were ignored.

From there, the story was picked up by others, including American and online publishers (Breitbart, Reddit). This was another definite step to the right.

By Thursday, the papers were reporting that the movers of the amended motion were receiving death threats.

Meanwhile, the Conservative students, rather than being ashamed of the coverage and seeing a need to take the heat out of the situation, were continuing to put out press releases denouncing their left-wing opponents.

On Monday morning, Piers Morgan sided palpably with the Tory students – and accusing their critics of wanting to celebrate Hitler and Isis rather than the British dead.

Right now on twitter you can see Dfla supporters beginning to discuss paying Cambridge a visit to coincide with Remembrance Day.

There’s a gendered aspect to the photograph which the Mail chose – they would not have chosen similar image of a male activist. The threats she is now receiving on Twitter are gender specific with people calling her silly, more than once person threatening to kick her “in the fanny”, others calling her a child, ugly, spotty, using the C word…

There is a process in which the centre and far right are competing to outbid each other, each insisting that they are more patriotic than the other. Normal politics is replaced with threats of violence. A key role is played by digital media, which broadcasts the loudest and most synthetic outrage not caring who is its source or where it leads.

It is the competitive but amicable relationship between the centre- and the far-right which is the key.

Normally, you cannot be an advocate of electoral politics and someone who uses death threats against your opponents. Most people understand this: it’s why Trump received such criticism after his support for the alt right at Charlottesville.

If anti-fascists can find a way of pushing back at that unholy alliance on the right – it might just be the way to undermine not only the likes of the Cambridge Tories, or indeed the hapless DFLA, but even higher-profile figures such as Tommy Robinson.

The two souls of anti-fascism


I spent this Saturday marching against the Democratic Football Lads Alliance. I was part of a unity demonstration which began at Portland Place (i.e. a little south of Regents Park) and marched very slowlyfrom there to Trafalgar Square. Despite the slow progress (a deliberate move, intended to prevent the DFLA from marching past us), the protest was one of the most enjoyable I have been on in years. Young, very largely female, full of excited people. Among the friends I marched with were seasoned anti-fascists who go back to the campaigns of the 1980s, Marxist journalists, fans in football regalia, exiles from the lefts in America and Brazil, LGBT activists, a disabled singer, and a woman who hadn’t known about the march until she came into London that morning with her seven year old son to go shopping, asked the police who were demonstrating and (despite the police’s best efforts) found herself joining what she soon realized was a joyous celebration of unity.

There were 1500 people on the march, and the name “unity” is richly deserved. A very large number of groups – the RMT trade union, Plan C, London Anti-Fascists, AFNs from elsewhere in the country, Jewdas, Palestine activist campaigns, RS21, had turned out, in each case, quite small numbers of people. The result of these many small mobilisations was a large and exuberant protest, with songs (“I will survive”), purple smoke from flares, chants. The protest was led by Women’s Strike Assembly and placed women at the front, even pausing at one stage (as we approached the Brazilian embassy) to allow women from Latin America to rush to the front.

The unity march was youthful, and vibrant. Its most interesting component was Women’s Strike Assembly who, although a minority of demonstrators, had been allowed to set the agenda for the majority and lead them. Their idea is that anti-fascism should not simply react to far-right demonstrations but set our own agenda. For six weeks prior to the DFLA event, they had held private meetings, public assemblies to discuss their plans. They organised creches, food for the demonstrators, cookies with arrest cards. Because they have spent weeks planning for the demonstration, and because they talked to activists who weren’t initially planning to go on the demo, they were able to persuade sufficient numbers of new people to turn out so that the far right was badly outnumbered. Wonen’s Strike do not confront every single far right protest (they haven’t tried, for example, to oppose the Tommy Robinson court appearances); they think that the left can mobilise in large numbers only occasionally. That calculation is probably correct. The movement is better if we focus on occasional large turnouts, rather than mobilising small numbers of our older supporters on weekday stunts.

We confronted the DFLA; at about 3 o’clock a group of around two hundred supporters of the far right broke out of police lines and attempted to march on us. Outnumbered, their “Eng-ger-land” chants were drowned out by people chanting back at them the slogan of the Spanish Civil War, “No Pasaran.”

I waited with friends, and when it was clear that the far right was not going to break through, we set off through central London and took a good look at the DFLA. They were, unsurprisingly, the same far right crowd that we have seen repeatedly over the last eighteen months, predominantly male and middle aged, with a large number of football insignia (including, at one point, two men carrying what looked like West Ham shields carved out of a small wall of flowers). The DFLA’s strategy since the spring has been to build out of a women’s and children’s movement against rape. If that was supposed to bring in a new generation of activists, it hasn’t been successful yet. Of the 800-1000 DFLA supporters we saw, just three women were wearing stickers which alluded to that recent campaign. The DFLA itself faces an increasing threat from the right in the form of Tommy Robinson who spent last year tacking towards the DFLA and has recently moved away from it, leaving that campaign feeling like last year’s news. The stage was disorganized, the audience uninterested, as the DFLA gave a platform to its highest profile remaining allies the Justice for the 21 campaign in Birmingham, which campaigns for the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings and for the naming of the killers. Even with such mainstream allies, the DFLA seemed isolated and short of purpose.

As well as the main unity march there was also a second protest, called by a long-standing campaign group Stand Up to Racism. The organisers say that there were 2000 people on their protest. I have spoken to six of the people who were there and their estimates of their event’s size ranged from 750 to 1000 people. By the time I had got there (i.e. midway through the speeches), numbers had fallen far below that level.

The SUtR, protest was very different from the unity march. Small numbers of older men were standing far back from police lines. They were kettled, and making no effort to break out from the lines behind which they were constricted. There were in effect two stages – a DFLA stage on the North side of Whitehall, and a UAF stage on the South side, with two sets of speakers pointing away from each other. A single police helicopter made a desultory pretence of flying over the two. The UAF march did not confront the DFLA nor did the organisers have any intention of doing so.

The history of the left gives many examples of a campaign which was at once stage hegemonic on the left giving way to a younger, more political and more combative rival. After all, most members of the unity protest are veterans of previous SUtR and similar events. While SUtR was content behind its kettle, and the young were marching elsewhere, they were still chanting slogans first heard on SUtR protests.

Even SUtR derives its heritage, if increasingly distantly, from the Anti-Nazi League and the SWP of the 1970s, part of whose adoption of anti-fascism was part of a longer-term plan of replacing the ageing Communist Party of Great Britain as the largest organization force outside Labour on the left. From the perspective of generational and political renewal, it is very easy to see which forces are going to be the mainstays of anti-fascism in the decades to come.

What is harder to ask is whether even a generational renewal of the campaign will lead to what we really need – i.e. a movement capable of stopping not the smaller groups on the right but the likes of Tommy Robinson. The big picture is that the far right of our own times organises in ways different from the methods the left understands how to confront, through the adoption of a contrarian persona, anti-politically, and principally online. Moreover, in so far as anti-fascism works by distancing the extremists on the right from their mainstream allies, a problem facing us is that the two wings of the right have been co-operating voluntarily. There is, in short, a battle of ideas taking place between the left as a whole and the right as a whole. In that context, even the best of the anti-fascism can be no more than a part of the answer.