The far-right continues to make headway among sections of the working class, with the likes of Tommy Robinson being enabled by the BBC and other mainstream platforms (which Conter editor Jonathan Rimmer wrote about here). In a long-read piece, David Swanson analyses the context in which the xenophobic right has arisen and outlines how we can fight back at street-level...
Groups like Britain First, the English Defence League and, most recently, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance have gained popularity in recent years. By vociferously promoting messages of hatred towards any section of society which doesn’t conform to racist stereotypes, prominent figureheads such as Tommy Robinson and Paul Golding have recruited an army of disenfranchised footsoldiers hell-bent on spreading division among ordinary people. Many have watched their mobilisation throughout Britain and the north of Ireland with horror, unable to understand how these groups have managed to take such a strong foothold in our communities and neighbourhoods. This is a dangerous attitude. It's our duty to analyse their development so we can best articulate our tactics in defeating them. How did we reach this unsavoury point? Several significant events must materialise in sequential order before working class people are willing to agitate under the banner of the likes of Tommy Robinson.
The first step towards their prominence is a consistently poor record from those in parliamentary authority. The premierships of Labour’s Harold Wilson and Conservative Edward Heath were unable to drop increasing levels of inflation in the late 60’s and early 70’s, which rarely sat below 20% during their premierships. Unemployment sat above 1.5 million with little prospect of change. Capitalist society continued to crank up the pressure as Margaret Thatcher inherited the premiership in 1976. By cutting back on the government’s involvement in economic affairs as a means of sparking growth, she simply emphasised an ever-expanding flow of goods and services which an impoverished proletariat simply couldn’t buy.
By encouraging privatisation of industry, weakening the power of trade unions and championing the single market as a means of exploiting workers within a controlled European bloc, her establishment was responsible for encouraging some of the worst levels of economic disparity ever seen in Western Europe. These conditions were rubberstamped by John Major, who enthusiastically waxed-lyrical about EU supremacy whilst campaigning for healthcare taxes. His privatisation of the railways proved a final straw, demonstrating a level ‘laissez faire’ economics even Margaret Thatcher found difficult to stoop to.
Inevitably, this eventually proved too much for ordinary people. The politics of class-solidarity and militant organisation became popular. Folk began to realise that there's no way out for society if the means of production remain in the hands of a small group of capitalists. Despite not reaching the heights of the heroic miners’ who defiantly stood up to Margaret Thatcher’s policy of privatising the coal industry and importing cheap coal from abroad, a spirit reignited in the early 1990’s. The organic stages of working class insurrection began to take hold; pickets and protests were re-established as a method to strike back against housing, public service and employment deficiencies. The middle classes responded to this newfound optimism and began to view exploited workers as legitimate allies and leaders. The working class was in the saddle, fighting for their rights after decades of austerity.
The treacherous mistakes of the revolutionary leadership became the second chapter of a process which eventually led to prominent far-right activists gaining popularity among the masses. Class-conscious activists only got half way before being betrayed. To successfully secure radical change, one must possess a principle instrument: an independent party. This leadership should fight under its own banner and never permit its policy and organisation to fall into the hands of other class interests. This of course didn't happen in 1997. Careerists and opportunists infiltrated the leadership and encouraged workers to trust in Tony Blair’s New Labour project. The gains of the toiling masses were sacrificed as a popular front built on class-collaboration took centre stage. As a result, power moved from left to right, and stepped out of the hands of the revolutionary worker into the hands of parliamentarianism.
Capitalists were given the chance to reorganise. The ignorance, confusion and in some cases downright betrayal of revolutionary thought led to Tony Blair winning 1997’s general election and implementing policy that followed the course of history. To put it in Marxist terms, after a period of concern the bourgeoisie will always tighten the noose to ensure its dictatorship over the proletariat. New Labour ensured the power of trade unions was dismantled, an obsessive imperialist foreign policy was prioritised over public services, and representatives of the left within the Labour Party were rounded up and purged. Devolved governments were set up in the north of Ireland and Scotland to cool the appetite of class-solidarity, and city bankers continued to rule the roost. A period of dejected indifference emerged within the working class, sapped of confidence and spirit. This spread to a disillusioned and angered middle class that had been willing to trust them.
As Tony Blair continued to wield the axe against ordinary people, the capitalist economy edged towards disaster. The government afforded city bankers more freedom within financial markets, who were happy to demonstrate exactly why so called ‘trickle-down economics’ simply doesn’t work. Endless borrowing of capital between banks which never reached workers eventually crashed the housing market. Banks subsequently refused to lend to each other to plug the gaps, putting many into administration. The chaos spread; further markets crashed and subsequently plunged the entire economic system into disarray. Millions of workers were laid off and employers stopped recruiting. Blair himself conveniently quit his job just months before this hit public consciousness. Ironically moving into a special advisory position at global financial firm J.P. Morgan Chase, he left behind a bombsite which would become another significant factor in the rise of the far-right.
Official unemployment levels reached 9%, a statistic which would be higher if it accounted for ordinary citizens who had given up searching for work out of sheer demoralisation. Divorce levels spiked as couples lost confidence in each other amid economic troubles. Perhaps most saddening, the quality of life for young people dropped significantly. Child malnutrition levels accelerated because many parents were unable to afford necessities, which impacted on a generation’s physical and academic development. Ultimately, Tony Blair and city bankers never got the blame for one of the biggest injustices of our times. Publications such as The Sun and the Daily Mail, owned by billionaires, pushed the narrative (and still do) that welfare claimants and immigrants were to blame.
Economic uncertainty and stigmatisation weren't the only factors behind far-right growth; racism was a key component of the establishment's narrative. Those fleeing to Europe after years of Western brutality in Iraq, Syria and Yemen should be refused at borders to ‘balance budgets’. Those now desperate to avail of welfare reform because of worsening economic conditions should be criminalised. As despair entrenched the middle-classes and unemployed workers, these views began to take root. They began to round on each other. The mistakes of the establishment and bankers were forgotten as they desperately searched for a new saviour. Far-right parties and organisations appeared to capitalise on these frustrations. Inspired by hatred, they began to target those who didn't fit an ultra-nationalist stereotype as the reason for economic hardship.
Analysing these events, which have led to such an acceleration in support for the far-right is an important tool. Without understanding how they have become popular, we can't effectively combat them. The liberal mainstream media falls foul of this, claiming recent EDL and Britain First demos signify the imminent threat of fascism gripping our society. This is an ignorant analysis. Whilst many lining the ranks of the demonstrations display fascist tendencies, the ordinary citizen is happy to bend the knee and vote for elite-backed candidates under our liberal democratic system. Capitalism’s iron fist remains locked around working people, and while this remains the case the ruling class has no reason to resort to the extremities of fascism. This is demonstrated by the reaction of parliamentary bureaucrats towards prominent far-right activists like Tommy Robinson. They're happy to imprison him so long as socialist insurrection isn't knocking at the door.
The radical left should remain acutely aware of this. History shows that when capitalism has reached its darkest hour, it will push its fascist candidate onto horseback and use them to attack organised workers to preserve rule. The state overlooks Tommy Robinson today, but when workers inevitably organise to fight back elite forces will utilise him in the same way the German and Italian ruling classes paraded Hitler and Mussolini. They will advocate for an authoritarian structure which crushes all forms of opposition. As absurd as it might sound, figures like Tommy Robinson fit this mould – it's why mainstream broadcasters like the BBC choosing to platform him is so dangerous. For the sake of defending marginalised groups and the working class as a whole, it's essential we mobilise against far-right groups to prevent this scenario materialising.
Such a campaign must acknowledge that the political far-right has managed to accelerate its support because Blair and his successors were elected to advanced working class interests and failed to do so. Workers are not clay in the hands of a potter and can't simply be expected to begin where they left off in 1997. Many feel cheated and betrayed and wounds of disillusionment will not heal overnight. A correct policy demands not that artificial lines of march be imposed in a bureaucratic top-down structure but that perspectives and strategy be drawn from the remaining living dialectics of the movement. Self-organised movements are the only way for the proletariat to remember its class potential.
It's impossible to jump over the organic stages of its resurrection, particularly after such a heavy defeat. The class movement can take on a wide scope in a relatively short space of time, but only if the initial effort comes from workers themselves. Accelerating this movement without moving through this stage is a difficult task, but it's essential to win back support from fascists like Robinson and Golding. We must make sure the mistakes of the past never resurface. An independent party saturated in socialist and revolutionary theory must guide a united front of the working class, kicking out reactionaries and careerists who would condemn the revolution to the same fate as 1997.
More than that, we must also fight those who spread division and hatred head on. Organised physical resistance to far-right groupings is a duty of the working class. Mainstream liberal forces refuse to silence the far-right – as this week has shown, they often enable them – so we must kick them off the streets to prevent their message spreading. Many within these pacifist and liberal circles promote the nonsensical argument our strategy prohibits free speech and the right to a voice. Those in the ruling class who currently exploit us would not adhere to such a policy; they would continue to utilise far-right street activists to solidify their rule while violently assaulting working-class resistance through their trusty advocates in the state police. If that sounds dramatic, just flick through history.
Equally, these ultra-nationalist brutes present opinions which would aim for the implementation of a society rooted in the antithesis of free speech. Far from the classless society of economic equality anti-fascist resistance promotes, a successful implementation of their policies would violently oust ethnic minorities from their homes, condemn refugees to rejection at western border-checkpoints and create bureaucratic employment structures which actively prohibit the voices and rights of workers. Kicking neo-Nazis off the street actively contributes to the endorsement of free speech and we must remain unapologetic in our approach.
Whether it be the now brazenly anti-Islam UKIP or street-oriented groups like the EDL, the far-right have steadily gained in popularity as the disillusioned masses have responded to a rhetoric which scapegoats other ordinary citizens rather than condemning the parliamentary bureaucrats who are responsible. Mistakes by leaders of the left have cost victory in the past, but we can resurrect the campaign for socialism. A united front of the working class can truly condemn the hateful message of far-right activists to history. We educate, agitate, organise.