The EDL did not turn up to disrupt an SWP event after all.
On Wednesday August 11, the Socialist Worker Party’s Dave Renton gave a talk on the history of fighting fascism in the UK at Houseman’s bookshop in central London. Formerly a member of the now defunct SWP front, the Anti-Nazi League, and currently active in Unite Against Fascism, comrade Renton counts among his most recently published books the poetically entitled When we touched the sky, an account of the ANL’s anti-National Front campaigns and related anti-racist struggles of the 70s and early 80s.
As has been the case with several UAF-endorsed public meetings in the recent past, rumours that the local ‘division’ of the English Defence League was planning to disrupt the talk provided an extra attraction for anti-fascist thrill-seekers. In the week leading up to the event, our neighbour, a member of the Green Party and active in various local campaigns, was approached by comrades from the SWP’s Hackney branch and subsequently alerted us to the imminent fascist threat on Caledonian Road.
Luckily, EDL organisational levels are currently so transparent that most of the conspiring can be accessed on its public internet discussion forum. A watchful member nicknamed ‘SteveCrossX’ started a thread regarding the “anti-EDL event” at Houseman’s as early as July 19. He presented as one of his main points of concern the fact that comrade Renton was active in the Campaign for Palestinian Rights – “ie, their rights to live on donated or stolen Israeli land and use it as a base to attack Israel” – and was therefore “basically scum”. The user, whose avatar read, “EDL – calling all races to unite”, fantasised about a link between Houseman’s and a “burqa invasion of Kings Cross in recent months”, drawing particular attention to a “burqa bitch” whom he had observed opening a door to a flat next to the bookshop.
SteveCrossX urged EDL members to “come along to the event undercover, then, as soon as the author mentions the EDL, start challenging what he says, ask him where he got his information and try to destroy his argument before shouting out that the EDL isn’t the BNP and isn’t a fascist organisation either”. Though some may be tempted to suggest that this implies a stronger commitment to political debate than is inherent in UAF’s ‘no platform’ credo, one can only speculate what closing statement the EDL forum moderator deemed necessary to delete before warning SteveCrossX that “we do not tolerate veiled threats”.
Another forum user, curiously nicknamed after the International Brigades volunteer, George Orwell, diverted the patriotic bully boys’ attention to the Flying Scotsman strip bar across the road from Houseman’s, suggesting they combine their obligatory getting “oiled up” before the political mission of the day with a few erotic routines. Hilariously, this provided the main focus in the ensuing discussion – the EDL’s crusade against ‘Islamo-fascism’ becoming almost forgotten, as various members engaged in a male bonding exercise, swapping experiences of different London strip joints and rating individual dancers. Consequently, enthusiasm for the suggested anti-Houseman’s mission went from low to zero.
By August 9, the thread initiator, SteveCrossX, was lamenting that “if no-one else is coming, then there is nothing to organise”, before idiotically announcing to the world that he might “do some graffiti before the event”. As far as the rest of the EDL’s London ‘division’ was concerned, the case was closed a day before the event. “Are we really bothered by a gathering of leftwing Islamic-lovers?” asked forum user ‘Shelfside’ rhetorically, before concluding: “Ignore him [Renton] and his little soirée”.
And so it was. A group of old-school, Dr Marten’s clad anti-fascists guarded the street in front of Houseman’s all the way through comrade Renton’s talk, but the EDL was nowhere to be seen. The event itself was of the uninspiring, one-dimensional kind, with Renton providing a factual account of the ANL’s activities and struggles over the years rather than offering any analysis of the various shapes and guises of fascism or critically examining different ways of countering it. Predictably, the relatively small audience was dominated by SWP members, some of whom sported nostalgic ANL T-shirts.
This ensured that the ‘debate’ following comrade Renton’s presentation remained dogmatically entrenched in the SWP’s party line on anti-fascism; the notion that the NF, the British National Party and the EDL were all one and the same animal was taken for granted, as was the quasi-religious belief that the ‘no platform’ tactic represented the unquestionable solution to the problem. Once again, it was declared that the ANL had “smashed” the NF in Lewisham in 1977, while the fact that Thatcher won the 1979 general election with a platform that made the NF virtually redundant was not considered of relevance. Individual UAF members’ contributions largely consisted of triumphantly extolling the perceived successes of various anti-EDL protests in the recent past. Declaring one victory after another, whilst urging the audience to attend forthcoming counter-EDL marches in this or that town, they ensured that in this debate the exclamation mark was king.
Monotony was temporarily swept aside when a former militant anti-fascist provided a sobering account of the consequences of his particular line of action. Having decided to walk the walk and throw a brick instead of waving placards at the fash, he wound up injuring a police officer badly enough to earn himself a lengthy prison sentence. Take away the glamour of physical militancy, we were left to conclude, and individual acts of violence can result in little more than the destruction of lives, including one’s own; the far right, meanwhile, remains unaffected in the absence of an anti-fascist mass movement firmly rooted in the working class.
Another contribution deserving some attention came courtesy of a 95-year-old communist, who as a young lad became involved in the Communist Party’s mobilisation against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, including in the famed 1936 battle of Cable Street. Granted, the comrade’s contribution may have been a bit lengthy, and his hour-to-hour account of the fateful day may well have benefited from leaving some of the less crucial details unmentioned. The UAF hacks made an initial attempt at cutting him short with premature applause the second he mentioned the CPGB’s crucial role in mobilising the East End’s working masses.
But the old man was not to be thrown off. Challenging Renton’s earlier conclusion that the most important factor in the anti-fascist struggle was sheer numbers, the comrade proposed that class politics were equally relevant: “At every anti-fascist demonstration it’s important to show that we are not only marching against the fascists, but against the ruling elites that the fascists come to protect.” In saying this he unexpectedly contradicted the CPGB’s historic, as well as the SWP’s contemporary, popular frontism, but the remark prompted another round of abrupt, mid-sentence applause, this time curtailing the old chap’s reminiscences for good.
It is easy to laugh at the SWP’s transparent attempts at stylising the EDL, a loose group that often seems barely capable of organising a piss-up in a brewery, into a BNP-led equivalent of the Nazi Party’s SA stormtroopers. In light of the EDL rank and file’s self-perception as crusaders against ‘extremism’, a catch-all term it uses interchangeably with ‘fascism’ (as in ‘left fascism’, ‘Islamo-fascism’, ‘Nazi fascism’), one is tempted to question whether the EDL is really more than a particularly angry and alcoholised arm of the Daily Mail readership.
But despite working class militancy in Britain being at all all-time low, individual EDL members have physically attacked socialists on the street, and articles agitating against ‘communist infiltration’ of the trade unions have been posted on the EDL website. On the EDL forum thread mentioned earlier, one poster bemoans how the unions have become vehicles for “machinations of the left” – unlike in the old days, as he goes on to claim, when his uncle’s trade union “demonstrated in support of Enoch Powell”.
In his article, ‘British nationalism and the rise of fascism’, the Commune’s Chris Ford argues that, despite all the talk about German-style Nazis, fascism in this country has its roots in British loyalism. Would it be too far-fetched to suggest that the EDL leadership’s vocal support for Israeli policies towards Palestine may have something to do with perceived parallels with the British occupation of Northern Ireland? The EDL may point to its Jewish hangers-on (an ‘EDL Jewish Division’ has been set up and the EDL has attended marches alongside the Zionist Federation) as evidence of its ‘anti-fascist’ and ‘anti-racist’ stance, but phenomena such as a German neo-Nazi group called ‘National Socialists For Israel’ – who describe Israel as “a strong and healthy nation” – do exist. One would have to be particularly forgiving to mistake the EDL’s waving of Israeli flags for anything other than a modified expression of the organisation’s ultra-nationalist, pro-imperialist ideology. Neither should we get too confused over the naive souls that apparently constitute a brand new gay and lesbian contingent within the EDL.
Can we, on the other hand, believe the SWP when it claims that some EDL protests have resulted in physical violence against Muslims and assorted non-whites? If these reports are trustworthy, then there is indeed an urgent need for bussing counter-protesters into towns where the EDL plan to appear en masse. This has not got anything to do with ‘football hooligans on tour’-type adventurism, but with the fact that practical solidarity with fellow workers under attack is our communist duty as much as defending picket lines from fascists.
If nothing else, that is what was achieved in Bolton earlier this year despite all the UAF blunders, bad politics and police violence (see ‘Weyman Bennett should be criticised, not charged’ Weekly Worker March 25). Confined to standing in Bolton’s Victoria Square and chanting slogans for hours on end, the EDL thugs’ scope to attack the Muslim community was severely limited and the whole affair hardly a rightwing hooligan’s idea of a good time. Comrade Ben Lewis was right when he argued at this year’s Communist University that our long-term goal must be to establish roots in the local working class communities and counter fascism along class lines instead of organising counter-protest tours. Alas, as comrade Lee Rock responded, that is not something that can be achieved in a matter of weeks or just in time for the next EDL rally. Trade union activists may be able to inform the rank and file about upcoming EDL protests in the area, but at present the response will be limited. Let us not confuse patient party-building with looking the other way.
The real elephant in the room is the SWP’s tendency to exaggerate and instrumentalise the threat posed by the EDL for its own purposes. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if any of the racist attacks following EDL marches actually occurred, especially when the SWP appears to be the only source to claim they did. To the SWP, the moral panic created around the EDL serves as its current raison d’être, a remedy from internal woes, and a way to give the rank and file something to do. It even serves as an excuse to fight off ‘rival’ left groups (see ‘Thuggery at Marxism’ Weekly Worker July 8). In their own beautifully twisted way, the organisation’s attempts at suppressing internal contradictions by diverting all attention towards an external enemy resemble the nationalistic logic of wheeling out a real or imagined ‘other’ against which national identity can be defined: “I’m not interested in what’s wrong with my party or with the left,” I was once told by a senior SWP member over a coffee. “I’m interested in what’s happening outside – the BNP, the EDL, the Tories.”
Frankly, if the EDL was not around, the SWP would have to invent it. This does not make things easier for the rest of us on the left, to whom the SWP’s practice of chasing phantoms may well become a case of ‘the boy who cried wolf’. The organisation’s self-serving dishonesty becomes particularly unhelpful when ‘hate speech’ is liberally conflated with violence and physical intimidation. In SWP terms, an EDL protest is meant to intimidate the Muslim community and is therefore synonymous with violence. But street protests are usually organised to express a specific viewpoint, however unpleasant that viewpoint may be. In order for incorrect ideas to be strangled in their infancy, they must be debated in the open and shown to be wrong. Whether the SWP likes it or not, its anti-fascist hysteria is not only politically unsophisticated: it is counterproductive.
For now, the EDL’s main focus is on defending imperialism, be it British, American or Israeli. Will their focus switch to one more traditionally associated with fascism, come the anticipated increase in working class militancy over the coming period? Will EDL ‘divisions’ assist police in roughing up the reds, as happened in Greece, where neo-fascists were seen lending the cops additional manpower against leftwing protesters? Do today’s drunken EDL rallies merely serve as a training ground, preparing the confused lads who turn up for bigger and better things once the wheat is separated from the chaff? While this remains to be seen, communists are well advised to keep a level head as well as a watchful eye.