On Saturday evening, Bookmarks bookshop in central London, long a stalwart of the socialist and trade union movement in Britain, was invaded and attacked by demonstrators bearing alt-right placards, Trump masks and “Make Britain Great Again” hats.
The same slogans had been on display hours earlier at a protest called in support of the far-right American conspiracy-mongers and diet supplement hucksters InfoWars, over complaints of internet censorship by Facebook and YouTube. The protest’s organiser, Luke Nash Jones, later uploaded a thank you video to Facebook in which he praised the “high level” of debate, repeating fifth-hand internet conspiracy theories about ‘cultural Marxism’, Gramsci and Lukács.
The attack provoked an immediate outpouring of social media condemnation, with users drawing comparisons with Nazi book burnings – rituals of intimidation carried out by the Hitler Youth against opposing political views and corrupting influences. The Nazi burnings committed to the flames the writings of communists, pacifists and Jews; it saw the destruction of the archives of the pioneering Institute of Sexology, which argued among other things for gay rights. The work of Karl Marx was among the first of those committed to the flames. This attack was some way off that – its inept thuggery and screams of “fucking paedophile” at the sole staff member was far from the great bonfires at Bebelplatz – but it was rooted in the same far-right instinct to suppress competing political views and intimidate minorities.
There have been warning signs of a renewal and transformation in the British far right for some time: from sporadic acts of violence planned out by ‘lone wolf’ committed fascists – Thomas Mair’s murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, or the barely foiled plan to attack a Pride event in Cumbria with a machete – to the recent demonstration for EDL leader Tommy Robinson and the glassing of antifascists and trade unionists that followed it. Lacking the political organisation of their forebears, this new far right disseminates itself through social media and YouTube, confects outrages over liberal and left-wing campus and social issue politics and claims to speak for those ‘left behind’.
Yet in their street demonstrations – where between fresher faces one might recognise the occasional old hand of the BNP – and attacks like this one, they show their most familiar face. But the changes are as significant as the continuities. While fascism has always had an international dimension, with national versions from the Falange to the British Union of Fascists nodding respectfully at each other, the new far-right has a strongly international dimension – including a loosely inter-affiliated gaggle of leaders, international fundraising capabilities, and a shared new media ecology, from Breitbart to dozens of YouTube channels. Thus, the sight of English protesters ‘defending’ an American conspiracy theorist from censorship by Spotify on a protest outside the BBC.
There are two consequences to this: first, the intensification of a simmering culture war in the UK, with activists adopting US talking points about ‘snowflake’ liberals, the censorious left and a monomaniacal obsession with freedom of speech. To be sure, this is adapted to local conditions: the exploitation of local grooming scandals, a targeting of migrants and refugees consonant with the European right and some mood music about Brexit. But it is no accident that international fascist guru and shirt enthusiast Steve Bannon was recorded singing Tommy Robinson’s praises recently: he is a prominent part of Bannon’s attempt to develop an international network of mutual support for far-right ideology and thus the uptick of interest from the US and Australia in Robinson’s imprisonment.
The second consequence is harder to see at first: if this Bannonite network has meant the importation of American concerns to British discourse, its organising model also presents some new challenges. British fascism has typically organised itself not only with strong leaders, but strong and organised intermediary voices lower down the ranks – this was true of Mosley’s fascists, the National Front and the BNP. The Bannonite strategy of the new far right relies on two prongs: the use of new media to speak ‘directly’ to digital consumers, and the penetration of prominent far-right voices into the old institutions of press and politics. Though this produces an impression of sudden strength and capacity, it means the ‘movements’ are centred around a small set of individuals and demonstrations, with neither local activity nor ideological formation – meaning that the ties of most of their fans (for that is what they are) are likely to be weak and breakable.
It’s worth mentioning that this strategy wouldn’t work if there weren’t institutions willing to give the new right an easy ride, or fascinated by what they take to be an ‘authentic’ (in media-land, frequently a euphemism for racist) British voice. The BBC’s recent fawning interview with Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam, for instance, neither mentioned his affiliation nor challenged any of his assertions about Tommy Robinson’s recent release from prison. Would that the left got such an easy ride! Like most ultra-conservative and fascist movements, the EDL, especially in its new Bannonite incarnation, thrives off a sense of woundedness, victimisation by powerful forces and dispossession of natural rights – and that’s what made Robinson’s imprisonment such a boon for movement-building. It also ought to make us wary of state-led, judicial approaches or bans – as they feed just that sense of victimisation.
How, then, to combat it? We ought to look at the history of the far right and antifascism in the UK for lessons, but also for our bearings in a changed situation. For instance, the old antifascist tactic of no platforming – the roots of which are traced by Evan Smith here – aimed to prevent not only the legitimation of fascist voices by their inclusion in debate, but arose in a context in which National Front sympathisers would regularly attack left-wing meetings and rallies, while demanding harder, stronger interventions from the state against left-wing trade unionists and militants. In such a context, including attempts by the National Front to march through predominantly immigrant areas, physical force antifascism, from direct confrontation to mass blockade, is a necessity. In the 1970s, in Lewisham and Wood Green, such mass confrontation was vital in breaking the NF, and similar antifascist activity in Tower Hamlets and Westminster in 2013 show that such methods remain a vital part of the struggle.
If we can learn from the successful struggles of the 70s and 80s, much has also changed since. Though free speech has always been invoked by the far right and their useful idiots in the press to protect their organising attempts, it is now practically their watchword. A contemporary antifascist strategy needs to tackle this head-on. This doesn’t mean entertaining the liberal myth that Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, was ‘exposed’ by being on Question Time. Most of his fellow panellists spent their time claiming they’d be just as hard on migrants, just without the goose-stepping, in a perfect microcosm of ‘00s politics – one need not be in the majority to shape national politics, as Griffin and his smarter inheritors know. It means fighting back hard against the vapid journalistic cliché of ‘dual extremisms’ (as Thatcher did in 1974, proclaiming fascism and communism as the respective right and left feet of socialism), but also claiming freedom of speech – a freedom which originated from pressure for guarantees to freely criticise despotism and tyranny as a necessary part of a radical left-wing politics.
Fascists no longer need physical meetings to organise or spread propaganda. The transformation in communications technology means the left must exploit digital communications as effectively as the right – including connecting our politics to a thicker, wider value system embracing all of society rather than occasionally arid arguments over the economy. If the Bannonite strategy involves new media, then it also requires institutional buy-in from major political actors and press, from the aristocratic fascination of the BBC to the tacit approval and enthusiasm of the Tory right. Mass criticism of those institutions, willingness to argue against legitimation, but to prise apart their arguments in public as well.
Antifascists often argue over whether direct confrontation or building of mass movements of opposition – across culture and in the streets – mattered more in the defeat of previous fascist upsurges. In truth, both were necessary parts of a wider movement. The neo-fascists of the 70s, like those of today, preyed on economic and cultural insecurity, as well as stoking fears of a left-wing government in thrall to trade union militancy. It is only such a broad movement, focused not only on confrontation, but articulating a transformative politics unafraid to offer different answers, eschewing triangulation and the ruinous politics of purity, which will allow us to take them on today.