A changed threat has emerged in Tommy Robinson's street movement, supported by the international populist right. John Rees looks at how we meet it
There are some aspects of the fascist right today that are oh-so-familiar. The street violence is a direct throwback to the 1970s National Front, before the Nazis took the ‘Euro-fascist’ electoral turn modelled on the success of the French National Front.
The connection with racist football supporters too is a throwback to the 1970s. And of course, they hate the left and trade unionists~as all varieties of fascist have always done.
The obsession with imagined racial or cultural purity is still there, less aimed at Jews and much more at Muslims now so that it chimes with state-generated racism in the era of the war on terror.
So far, so retro.
But none of this is what is giving the new Tommy Robinson worshipping fascists a burst of life. That comes from three aspects of current politics.
Firstly, in the most general register, the long night of neo-liberalism and austerity has made society more desperate and politics more polarised. Establishment political formations, including social democracy, are everywhere hollowed out and in crisis. This has been analysed at length elsewhere. It is now the widely accepted frame of reference, so I will not elaborate the point here.
Secondly, one result of this situation is the international growth of the populist right. From Trump to the European far right, these forces have gained electorally at the expense of the social democratic and liberal centre. In the US, Holland, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and many other places this openly racist and populist right, though not fascist, are parties in government or shaping national politics.
This success of the populist right is legitimising the fascists. Their policies are dragging the political spectrum significantly to the right and they have considerable overlap with the fascists’ views.
But that’s not the end of it. The populist right is giving direct organisational aid to the fascists. In the UK the electorally defeated rump of UKIP has joined the new street movement around Robinson, with its current leader Gerald Batten now a fixture at the street rallies.
The international dimension is as, if not more, important.
In the 1970s the National Front had international links. But they amounted to its members heading off to Waffen SS reunions in Germany. Now the new fascists have the support of the President of the United States and some of his closest associates. To understand the impact of this we only have to think that the equivalent boost for the left would be if Bernie Sanders were now the head of the most powerful nation on earth.
Steven Bannon, the alt-right ideologue behind the Breitbart ‘news’ website and former Trump government appointee, is working to build the fascist right in the UK, consciously promoting Tommy Robinson and his supporters. Raheem Kassam, ex-Bow Group Tory, ex-Farage advisor, ex-Breitbart, is a mainstay of the Robinson street mobilisations.
And Kassam is also linked to the Middle East Forum, run by Daniel Pipes in the US. Pipes is the son of Richard Pipes, the viciously right-wing historian of the Russian Revolution. Pipes junior is also head of Campus Watch which specialises in witch-hunting left academics in the US.
Pipes' Middle East Forum is staffed by Zionists and boasts of the practical organisational support it gives the Tommy Robinson movement. It website says:
MEF is sponsoring and organizing the second “Free Tommy Robinson” gathering in London on July 14. MEF previously provided all the funding and helped organized the first “Free Tommy Robinson” event held June 9 in London.
MEF is arranging for U.S. Congressman Paul Gosar (Republican of Arizona) to travel to London to speak alongside the Dutch political leader Geert Wilders, and others.
And it sums up its efforts in this way:
- The Middle East Forum is aiding Mr. Robinson’s defense in three main ways:
- Legally – By using Legal Project monies to fund his legal defense.
- Diplomatically – By bringing foreign pressure on the UK government to ensure Mr. Robinson’s safety and eventual release.
- Politically – By organizing and funding the 25,000-person “Free Tommy” London rally on June 9 and now the July 14 protest, also taking place in London.
The talk of diplomatic assistance is especially chilling since we now know that Trump's ‘ambassador for religious freedom’ has been lobbying the British government to free Robinson.
So, the fascist right is not only emboldened by the rise of the populist right but directly, organizationally, assisted and funded by them.
Thirdly, this process is being assisted by the fact that significant sections of the media and political establishment are normalizing and appeasing the populist right. Trump and Bannon go unchallenged in interviews with the Sun and by Piers Morgan on ITV. The BBC flagship Today programme gives a positive spin and huge airtime to these figures, just as it did to Farage before. And let’s not forget BBC Question Time giving a platform to Nick Griffin of the BNP right at the start of this process.
Theresa May’s groveling to Trump was just the apex of this pyramid, proving that no matter how much the political establishment are berated and abused by Trump they will never rise above craven in response.
How should the left respond?
Confronting the fascists is a given. They should never be allowed the freedom to organise on the streets or the platforms from which propagate their views. The violent attack on RMT members on last Saturday’s demo shows where allowing the fascists to organise gets you: a glass in the face. The old adage still applies: no freedom of speech for those who deny others free speech.
But is this the whole strategy? It never has been before. The Anti-Nazi League, set up in the 1970s, was one of the most successful ever anti-fascist organisations.
The ANL was formed after the Battle of Lewisham in 1977 because the forces which achieved that victory were too narrow, essentially the revolutionary left and the local black youth. They were especially too narrow because a wholesale attack on the SWP began after Lewisham. Even Michael Foot, darling of the Labour left, said those that fought at Lewisham were ‘red fascists’ no better than the NF.
The ANL was launched to create a wider, trade union and labour movement, active opposition to fascism. Direct confrontation with Nazi mobilistiatons continued but alongside it marches against the Nazis when they were not mobilising were vital, famously including the first and second ANL Carnivals in 1978 and 1979. The second of these took place even though the Nazis attacked Brick Lane that day. The Carnival continued with only small contingent, of which I was one, sent to Brick Lane to confront the Nazis.
This strategy was contested by a ‘squadist’ current that believed that simply physically confronting the fascists was enough. Sometimes this ended in bloody confrontations, sometimes in jail for the squadists. Politically it was a dead end.
The lesson here is that if you want enough numbers to confront the Nazis you have to engage people in a broad movement and to alter the political environment by making a positive anti-nazi message as well as directly confronting the fascists. Where else are the numbers to confront the fascists successfully going to come from? Moralism certainly won’t deliver them.
Moreover, given the nature of the new threat we need argument, education, and action aimed at the delegitimising the populist right enablers of the fascists and the appeasers of the fascists. We cannot treat them as all the same, but we can educate and organise people to recognise and protest the links.
The establishment appeasers need to be targeted, in propaganda and agitation. The last few days have been an object lesson in this interaction.
The huge 250,000 anti-Trump demonstration made anti-racist, anti-populist politics on this issue hegemonic in society. The massive assertion of working class and trade union politics at the Durham Miners Gala added to this. Jeremy Corbyn got a huge reception at both.
There is no question that this massively assisted the Stand Up to Racism organised pushback against a smaller Nazi mobilisation in London which exposed the nature of Trump/Robinson supporters.
We can build on this two-track approach. Every movement must draw on the strengths of its past, but no movement can succeed by repeating its past in changed circumstances. The fascist threat has changed in significant ways. So must we.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.