Monthly Archives: March 2019

Making our own history

Standard

The attached is a review of my book Never Again from the February 2019 issue of Socialist Lawyer. My thanks to the reviewer Mikhil Karnik, and to the editor of the magazine, for giving me permission to reproduce it here.

Advertisements

The New Authoritarians: first reviews

Standard

Friends may enjoy two reviews of my book The New Authoritarians which have been published in the last week.

Jeff Sparrow had published a very detailed, thoughtful, article in the Sydney Review of Books which goes through half a dozen recent books on fascism, rereading them in the light of last week’s horrific events in Christchurch: including books by Madeleine Albright, Jason Stanley, Roger Eatwell and Mathew Goodwin, Alexander Reid Ross and Mark Bray.
 
Albright and Stanley, Sparrow argues, are unconvincing when they portray Trump as fascist: they lurch from treating the events of 2016 as a kind of apocalyptic crisis to politics as normal. It can’t be both. They’re not wrong to see Brenton Tarrant as the product of a right wing milieu; they are wrong to minimise the differences between people whose politics are electoral and those with guns.
 
Eatwell/Goodwin, he argues, have an apologetic relationship to the right.
 
Reid Ross he finds more impressive. Sparrow accepts, in particular, the risk of far right tropes finding their way into the left in some of its more eclectic or populist places – eg the green or anti war lefts. On the other hand, he insists, if you look at Tarrant (whose manifesto claims that he journeyed from Communist to libertarianism to the far right), the influence of the left – even on his account – was very slight: he wants to kill the left, he doesn’t want to be any part of it.
 
Bray’s historical approach to antifascism, Sparrow likes and wants more of and cites the interesting, developing thinking that’s apparent in several of Brays interviews. On the other hand, what Jeff Sparrow is trying to comprehend is fascism, and that’s just not the main focus of Brays book.
 
He has some nice things to say about my new book:
 
“Renton’s analysis possesses the great advantage of starting from what Brecht might call the ‘bad new days’: the situation as it is today rather than how we might be more comfortable in discussing it.”
 
Sparrow’s conclusion draws heavily on The New Authoritarians
 
“Renton says that, while Trump’s not a fascist, he is a racist – and should be identified as such. Defeating the new right mean, then, challenging the various forms of bigotry on which it depends. He suggests that the alliance between the centre right and the far right remains unstable and thus susceptible to fracture. Conventional conservatives must be held accountable for the company they now keep. Demonstrations remain important, particularly in splitting the ‘street’ right from their respectable allies.
 
Most of all, though, the left must provide a genuine alternative, in a context in which social democracy is rapidly losing its base.The left must be equally serious about speaking to an audience of tens and hundreds of thousands of people, to the unpolitical and the newly politicised. When the right presents itself as the champions of the dispossessed, its enemies cannot cede that ground by arguing that the workers are, in the terms used by Cinzia Arruzza, ‘racist and misogynistic uneducated losers’. Rather, what the left needs to do is expose the bizarre idea that only a group of millionaire right-wing politicians and property speculators can speak for workers and for the victims of welfare cuts.
 
Will that kind of political response prevent the emergence of another Breivik or Tarrant? In the short term, probably not. The anonymity of individual fascist terrorists, emerging from the online milieu into the real world, makes atrocities like those Christchurch very difficult to counter immediately. As has now become horrifyingly apparent, automatic weapons allow even an isolated misfit to cause tremendous damage.
 
But in the medium to long term, a resurgent left might, to borrow a phrase, drain the swamp from which men like Tarrant emerge. As anyone who has browsed 4chan, 8chan or similar platforms knows, the troll culture of the fascist right incubates in an atmosphere of nihilistic despair– hence the importance of the left making optimism a viable political alternative.
 
The construction of radical hope becomes particularly important given that, as Renton repeatedly stresses, the current conjuncture remains deeply unstable. At the present, post-9/11 Islamophobia is more politically palatable than old-school fascism. But the situation might rapidly change. ‘[A]nti-Muslim racism,’ he says, ‘is an ideology which kicks down, which condemns migrants and the racialised poor of the inner cities.’ By contrast, the insurrectionary program of pre-war National Socialism targeted ‘Jewish bankers’ as well as ‘ghetto Jews’, enabling a (phony) plebian rhetoric that facilitated mass support for the fascist cause.
 
In the years to come, as the far right struggles to consolidate its success, traditional fascism – with its hard rhetoric, revolutionary fervour and clear-cut goals – might become more attractive. Near the end of his manifesto, Tarrant includes a quotation from a man he describes as his biggest influence, the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. ‘It will come,’ says Mosley, discussing the fascist revolution, ‘in one way and one way alone … It will come in a great wave of popularity, in a great awakening of the European soul.’
 
At present, that ‘great wave’ of enthusiasm for fascism seems a long way off. On the day that Tarrant embarked on his massacre, hundreds of thousands of young people marched all over the world in a global protest against climate change. Tarrant and his co-thinkers could only dream of marshalling similar support. Yet, as Renton notes, anyone who thinks back to the political events of 2016 and 2017 will remember ‘a widespread feeling that the victories of the far right were not simply the success of one party in a particular country, but the signs of epochal shift from one way of doing politics to another.’
 
The particular political shift that brought us into the epoch of Trump doesn’t preclude the possibility of an even more dangerous shift in the future.”
 
Rick Kuhn has also published a review in Red Flag:
 
Kuhn compared mine to another recent book by Enzo Traverso: “The New Authoritarians is a much more systematic and focused book.”
 
Judging again by his summary, I think Kuhn agrees with quite a lot of my core argument: “Renton provides a clear account of what fascism is. Prioritising street violence against opponents, fascism aims to transform state institutions in the interests of the nation, understood as a racial unit. This definition includes both the classic fascist parties between the world wars and contemporary organisations, most of which are small in the developed world, with a few exceptions such as Golden Dawn in Greece.
 
Fascists can therefore be distinguished from other far right, authoritarian currents, which rely more on existing institutions, especially the police and armed forces, and place a higher priority on achieving electoral success.
 
Early chapters in The New Authoritarians examine the mutations of conservative, far right and fascist currents, and their interactions in Italy, Britain, France and the US, which have led to the electoral advance of the far right.”
To which I’ll add: I didn’t want this to be a “party line” book – but something which is original, and pushed back at the consensus both among Marxist and other theorists.
 
I’m expecting friends to disagree with parts of the analysis: I like and welcome that. It is a relief however that the most substantial criticism seems to be that I reckon Corbynism as part of the answer rather than part of the problem. Which I do, but of course being part of the answer puts you in a position of responsibility, from which our new mass Labour Party needs to but hasn’t yet delivered…
 
Most other publications, I’m guessing, will hold back publishing their reivews till 16 April (when the book’s actually out). But for people who would like to pre-order it early, the link is here. And if you’d like me to speak at your discussion group, trade union meeting, etc – just ask. I’ll be speaking at events in the UK, New Zealand, Australia and the US – and touring the book until the autumn at least.

Noisy, messy, unconventional, progressive

Standard

A short blog post to share two new reviews of my book Never Again.

Tim Wells has written up one of the book’s launch events in the Morning Star: “RAR,” he writes, “changed the face of a drab, politically festering Britain.”

In the New Statesman, John Harris describes the book as “forensic” and “eloquent” and concludes:

There are obvious lines to be drawn between the Powellite cry of “Send ‘em back” and the Home Office’s current hostile environment doctrine, as shown in the ongoing Windrush scandal. And when Renton describes the League of Empire Loyalists as “a movement of the old rather than the young, and of men with social power”, he shifts the reader’s attention to the present with even more clarity. That description surely fits the politics of Brexit, and the alliance of angry fifty-somethings who now howl their rage on Question Time and Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage – whose delusions and prejudices deserve a cultural response that has so far failed to materialise.

I do not know what a 21st-century version of the Victoria Park carnival would look like, whether any musicians will ever again channel their time as brilliantly as the Clash, or if contemporary popular music could give rise to anything resembling Rock Against Racism. But this book once again put an inescapable thought in my mind: isn’t it time someone at least tried?

The book itself is still available to order – most efficiently and without avoiding union-busters – here. I’ll be doing launch events in the next few weeks in Leicester,  Brixton, Bristol, Melbourne, Dunedin, Wellington, Chicago … – so drop me a line you’d like more details or want to suggest somewhere else that suits you.

“We were Red Action”

Standard

Interview with Cathy – Treasurer and Secretary of Red Action 1981 to 1986

Can you tell me how you came to join Red Action?

I went along to an event in autumn 1981, they were discussing the paper [Red Action] and its layout. The meeting was in Islington or Camden.

I was just seventeen. I came from a Labour Party background, an Islington Labour Party background. A very large contingent of the local Labour Party was Irish. I was the same time as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. There was a real problem with the mainland bombing campaign – but on almost everything else both sides of the local Labour Party would have loathed Paisley, bought Easter lilies.

It was really odd for me that people who were completely supportive of Ireland knew everything that was going on, the military actions, the sectarian bombing campaigns, couldn’t understand why other people were rioting: the black people in Brixton for example. Red Action got it.

Red Action weren’t just anti-racists were they; they were also anti-fascists?

The fascists were around. These were horrible places – Chapel Market, Roman Road. If I didn’t feel comfortable there, there was no chance that a black person would feel comfortable. We had to confront the fascists.

I’d started going to gigs. Still to this day the scariest gig I ever went to was Madness at Camden. There were people giving fascist salutes. It was the first gig I’d ever been to, and the band did nothing to challenge it. That wasn’t the only time saw racism at gigs, you’d hear people sounding off about black musicians all the time.

Red Action was a small group, we had a few key strands of activity: Ireland, anti-fascism including music, feminism after the closure of Women’s Voice, Right to Work. They were all equal. You could take people from one kind of activity to another, so building workers would come to Irish marches and anti-fascist pickets. It was the same with everything we did.

Many of the founder members had been at the SWP?

The expulsions were still being talked about, the closure of Women’s Voice was still being talked about. People were negotiating with themselves about what they needed to keep and what was possible to keep.

Could you talk about Women’s Voice and how that was kept going in Red Action?

The women who came into Red Action, R-, G-, for them the closure of Women’s Voice was as important as the closing down of the anti-fascist squads.

We organized our own trips to Ireland. We organized Irish women on speaking tours in England. We spoke and organized sessions at Red Action’s summer school.

Many of the group’s leading members were women. If you read early copies of Red Action, a very high proportion of them were written by women and addressed women’s issues.

The people central to me personally being involved were women. When other people around the country contacted us to ask if they could set up branches, as a minimum we always sent two women.

The business meetings were always set up to have something from outside, an address from a solidarity campaign or an industrial speaker, and it was striking how often the speakers we invited were women.

I appreciate these days people often think Red Action had a macho culture but it really didn’t feel like that at the time. Almost all the feminist theory I read I got from comrades in the Red Action – I didn’t get that from the Labour Party!

There were other generations within Red Action as well, weren’t there?

Although the SWP lost interest in music after 1981, it seemed that there was still a left and anti-fascist music scene. Some of Red Action’s first members, J- and Y-, were people who’d come from Rock Against Racism in West London. They were still putting on gigs.

And they weren’t the only ones, the scene renewed itself and more people were around Red Action later as a result – we had a venue in North Kensington and put on benefits for Red Action, for Ireland, for local campaigns in Hammersmith. By 1985 we were using that to raise money for the miners.

When the New Cross fire happened, we had a group in South London and a member called C-. He was very involved in the local squatters’ scene. We went to pickets, we raised money for the political campaign. There was a system of house parties in south London and we tried to turn it into a movement of support for the families.

Red Action took on more and more of a security role: for Remembrance Day marches and other Irish events, for the Manchester Martyr’s march. The fascists were attacking the events – like they attacked the black families in South London – and it seemed natural that we were more and more playing that role.

How long did it take the group to get over leaving the SWP?

Not more than six months – I reckon I was a member from autumn 1981 – it was over by the time I met the group. Their identity was already set. This wasn’t the SWP any more, we were Red Action.

The only lingering undercurrent in people’s memories from the SWP was a real objection, a feral defensiveness to being investigated. We really, really, didn’t want to be caught up with panels or anything that reminded us of the SWP expulsions.

When you meet Red Action members, you pick up this sense of working-class pride. People saw themselves as part of the working class, and felt their group was much more representative than the rest of the British left.

That’s right. For me, the fascists were on my street. For other members of Red Action, the fascists were in the same football grounds as them. We always wanted to insist, we’re just as representative of the areas we come from as the fascists.

At different times, different people came to the fore. In 1981-2, there were other people who joined, and they had previously been involved in movements like the Right to Work marches. That was quite a lot of people who had come to live in London and been on the marches. They had come to London after that, looking for work, and we shared squats. There were even people – for example from Cumbernauld – who came down and went to our meetings, even while they kept up their membership of the SWP.

I think people like that were round Red Action and were attracted to the group because of the way we put forward a positive model of being both working class and involved in the left.

In this period, was Red Action growing?

As late as 1984, there were still only two branches in London and Manchester. Although we travelled to Liverpool and maybe three or four other places, where people were starting up groups. We had discussions, should we let them be called Red Action? Do they just sign them saying they believe three or four basic ideas and we let them get on with it? We very deliberately preferred the looser model.

Were you still a member in 1985 when Anti-Fascist Action was launched?

Yes, the initiative came from outside, and we liked the idea of Anti-Fascist Action as something much looser we could engage with. Red Action was involved in organising it, and there was a big fear at the conference that Red Action wanted to take it over, but that wasn’t the plan at all.

We thought AFA should just set up its steering group and have elections for positions. But then there was a very intense discussions, saying that if there were elections we could fill every place with Red Action.

There was a fear of us, because we were the most organized, that we would take it over. There was also a fear that we wouldn’t give enough credence to other kinds of anti-racist action.

But surely the name Anti-Fascist Action meant from the start prioritising anti-fascism over other kinds of anti-racism?

My memory is that there was a composited motion that would keep the AFA name short and specific, but the price of that was that every group would be represented proportionately, except for Red Action.

Red Action start as an Marxists, but you increasingly work with other anti-fascists, including anarchists?

Red Action was quite an open group. For us, it was quite easy dealing with different groups. Almost all of them – having Class War around was a nightmare. If there was a group of people who were going to cause everything to go wrong it was Class War, but we never saw the whole anarchist movement as one thing.

From 1981, we’d been involved in campaigns around all sorts of different groups of workers – often building workers but not only building workers. When 1984-5 happened, almost everyone in Red Action was split into miners’s support groups. It’s not something we planned – they were there. We met and got to know people, who then got worked with group including in anti-fascist work.

Direct Acton Movement were the first people who met us and jelled. We did lots and lots of joint things together: miners’ gigs, industrial stuff – not just the miners, but for blacklisted building workers on the lump. There was a committee of workers who came together in support of Laings workers who’d been blacklisted in the British Library. We spent a number of months over a cold winter successfully picketing the Euston site against their use of subcontractors and lump labour.

DAM were still working with us through Wapping, and afterwards.

But it wasn’t always easy. We were coming more and more into conflict with the law, fighting court cases, keeping people out of jail. Our people were being arrested through all the disputes in London, during the miners, during Wapping. An awful lot of work was spent fighting criminal cases. This involved people who were used to it – people who had been around Red Action for a while – as well as people who’d never been in this situation before. It felt to me as if I almost became a professional witness. That was very draining – both politically and personally.

When do you stop being Treasurer?

I couldn’t swear to it but something like summer-autumn 1986

Tell me about the AFA conference in 1987

It was the first really bad conference we’d ever organized. We were accused of racism as a group, and then people were told to investigate us. They did it really badly, all they did was confirm our fear of being investigated. People behaved as if the fact of accusations was proof of guilt.

The core of the allegation was that a black vote counter in Bradford had been abused, with monkey noises and all sorts. It was a very horrible accusation, it was also completely untrue. I had been right there at all times – nothing remotely like that happened. Someone did piss him off by making him count three times. But that was me. Three, four months, later someone from AFA turned up to take a statement. They didn’t try to speak to me or acknowledge me other than as a house guest of the person they were talking to. It was very obviously a set-up.

Were you involved in anti-fascist protests after you left Red Action?

I was at Welling in 1993. By then, I was quite distant from Red Action. I came to the protest through work, and through younger people in the Newham Monitoring Project. I think one of the things that was missing from Red Action was any number of non-white people.

Red Action worked quite a lot with other non-white groups, but, as a group it was oddly white. That was linked to people’s ideas. We thought we had the problem of racism, in our communities so it’s up to us to fix it.

Red Action was good while it lasted. If it’s needed again, then something will be created. Maybe that’s lesson – that when anti-fascism is needed, it’s possible to do it.