On Dover, victimhood and the meaning of anti-fascism

  • March 7, 2016

Movement & Mobilization

Defeating fascism will require knowing our enemy, controlling the message and building a movement willing to go beyond the law to confront capitalism head-on.

As Nazi groups have announced another demonstration in Dover, the town where those crossing the English channel arrive by boat, anti-fascists are preparing to counter their presence for a third time. With this in mind, here are some reflections on the contemporary anti-fascist movement and how it relates to left-wing politics in Britain and the broader crises across Europe.

The British anti-fascist movement has had a number of recent victories over nascent fascist and neo-Nazi street movements. At the end of February, neo-Nazis in Liverpool were humiliated by around 1,000 anti-fascists, following January’s action in Dover, Kent and the decimation of the ‘White Man March’ in Liverpool over the summer.

Along with the rise in populist, far-right sentiment across Europe feeding off the conflict in Syria, moral panics over terrorism and hysteria over refugees, the need for strong, coordinated anti-fascist actions is of critical importance.

The efficacy or otherwise of these anti-fascist actions, and how to use them, is a topic of debate right now as people refuse to see the importance of defeating these nascent street movements as related to a wider political struggle that the refugees crisis has heightened in Europe. Through dissecting the events in Dover in January, questions of why, where, and how anti-fascism is successfully affected must be explored if we are to build on these victories.

The most accurate account of events so far comes from a group of Celtic fans who traveled from Scotland to catch the coaches from London – demonstrating how successfully AFN had networked and recruited for the day.

The mobilization against the far-right in Dover, a port town in Kent on the south coast of England, was an unprecedented success for the anti-fascist side. The main organizers, Anti-Fascist Network (AFN), booked and filled five coaches from London, fielding an estimated 700-1,000 activists in what was the biggest mobilization of militant anti-fascists the UK has seen in at least a decade.

When this convoy was ambushed en route at Maidstone motorway service station by members of Combat 18 (neo-Nazis) and the Chelsea Headhunters (football hooligans), the attackers were repelled and soundly beaten until they fled. Despite the fact that four coaches were then stopped by the police, with only one making it to their destination, numbers of anti-fascists in Dover were still very high, as was the level of militancy.

Control the message

Thanks to social media, footage of the fascists being chased and sporting conspicuous injuries has been seen around the world. Whilst left-wing activists should applaud this, the overall message that emanated from these clashes was not so positive. If you were not in Dover that day, and you don’t follow anti-fascist pages online, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a humiliating defeat. This is lesson one in antifascist action: control the message.

Soon after the attack at the service station started just before noon, a handful of passengers on the coaches started posting Facebook statuses and tweets detailing their shock and fear, including this from a member of the RS21 group:

dover tweet

This appeared on the BBC, Evening Standard, Huffington Post and The Guardian which used it in conjunction with a full interview, so that before anything had even kicked off in Dover, the day was assumed to be a fascist victory.

It wasn’t just the mainstream media taking up a couple of tweets. The local Momentum group, a Labour Party-aligned radical left movement, reported that “things had turned violent” with “Nazi thugs” attacking opponents with bricks and bottles. No mention of any resistance was made, despite the fact it was fiercer and at least twice the size of its opposition.

In this narrative, the left are only allowed to be righteous victims, so things had to be reversed — instead it was the antifascists who looked as though they had bitten off more than they could chew, and come unstuck at Maidstone and Dover. By trying to show the left as the more dignified and acceptable side in the clash, this portrayal of us plays right into the far-rights hands.

Other accounts of the day also did the fascists’ propaganda job for them. Activist Dan Glass wrote: “Police were supposed to be holding the Nazis in a kettle, but they were just running around the streets. I was walking down a side street during the demo, when a group of at least 50 Nazis came round the corner, and shouted ‘that’s them, get them’. I didn’t have time to run, a man punched me in the face and took me to the floor.”

Such accounts have the effect of bolstering the fascists. Emboldened by these reports of weak opposition and easy victory, as well as the notion of leftists relying on ineffective policing, fascists across the country will be eager to emulate their compatriots’ violence; each tearful leftist account becomes a trophy.

These accounts have already been shared about far-right pages online to reassure themselves they did not lose badly, and hype them up for future confrontations. It undermines the victories on the street for which many militant antifascists were arrested and for what? There is no moral high ground to claim in a street war with openly fascist belligerents. Fascism is predicated on victimizing opponents; violent bullying is not a sideline — it is ideologically central to fascism. Whatever happens, we cannot allow them to feel like they have succeeded.

Know your enemy

This leads to the second crucial lesson we must learn from recent events: know your enemy. Events in Dover took a very different hue to the PEGIDA demonstration a week later. The UK branch of PEGIDA — fronted by the former EDL leader “Tommy Robinson” who is attempting to sanitize his previously football hooliganism-inflected politics — would have suffered if it had been exposed as a violent mob of neo-Nazis on the rampage, because that is the last thing it wants to be seen as.

Conversely, Dover was called by the openly Nazi National Front along with other violent Nazi groups, who stated their main intention was not to even hold a demo but “give the reds a kicking”. In this context, calling them Nazi thugs and relaying how effective their Nazi thuggery was is simply praise and encouragement.

This comes to the crux of anti-fascism as a distinct political activity, which has been fundamentally misunderstood by those who publicized their victimization. Without establishing what we mean by anti-fascism, we will lose the upper hand.

The major reason the left has put significant time and resources into anti-fascism as an activity is self-serving. Firstly, it works as self-defense: the far-right attack us when they get confident, whether they are in positions of relative power or weakness. As long as the left is associated with the oppressed, the powerless, the voiceless, we are targets.

Secondly, and quite candidly, the far-right are competition. They seek to exploit discontent in order to seize power from the right, just like we seek to use discontent to seize power from the left. Whether you want a workers’ state or a network of communes, we on the left want the overthrow and replacement of the current system, which is of course illegal, and this is why we pay attention to other people who also occupy this radical space: the fascists.

It is for this reason that fascism must be suppressed by the left, not simply protested — we must take their ground away from them. By presenting ourselves as victims, and appealing to the system to protect us or mete out justice, we cannot truthfully constitute an alternative to the system, or present ourselves as such.

Countering an explicitly neo-Nazi demonstration necessarily entails violent confrontation. This must be made clear to those planning to attend. Some people went to the counter-demonstrations “to stand with banners saying ‘refugees welcome’,” aimed at “people like David Cameron and Katie Hopkins” who they see as fascist-enablers.

This is the problem with diluting antifascist action and separating it from revolutionary politics. There is a time and a place for a variety of political acts that oppose both the government’s policies and the increasing accommodation of the far-right in mainstream discourse — confrontations with violent neo-Nazis requires a certain form of militant action that banners and messages of solidarity cannot provide.

We need to be vigilant about this. Although the nature of the event and likelihood of violence was obvious, and AFN were commendably honest about this, there was plenty of evidence that many others were seeing it as just another demo. For instance, the often astute Novara Media actually played down the imminent violence in their promotional article:

The most important thing in Dover is numbers. We don’t need a squad of burly blokes to have a fist fight, but a coalition of people of all races, genders, sexualities, and abilities to stand united…

There are demonstrations in which a broad spectrum of political groups with essentially anti-fascist messages helps to build hegemony amongst the wider public. The array of #EuropeSaysWelcome protests across the continent is the perfect example of this form of protest which is vital in promoting anti-racism to the wider public and countering populist xenophobia. But in order to be useful to defeating fascism — something that is becoming ever more urgent — we must recognize that such forms of political activity are different from militant action and not get them confused.

When countering violent Nazis, it is up to the anti-fascist organizers to make it clear that they are only interested in anti-fascists who know the risks and know what is required to win. It must be made clear to all that any victory will be undermined by a “Nazi aggressors versus passive left wing victims” narrative, and anyone who pushes this will be confronted as having aided the enemy, just as they would be in any other struggle.

As one commentator quipped, “It’s not like the people of Stalingrad hung a huge banner reading WE ARE REALLY COLD AND SCARED AND WANT TO STOP NOW for the Nazis to see.”

Building the movement

There are wider implications of this method of political engagement beyond debates within the anti-fascist struggle. The UK left has often flirted with liberalism to gain members, presenting itself to youth and students as the more militant defenders of liberal values — e.g. “if you really, really hate racism, join our Trotskyist group.”

In recent years this trajectory saw the left overrun by an oppression-centric tendency that seeks instances of victimization not simply to expose oppression itself, but to actively experience for themselves, believing them to be validatory and even transformative: “I didn’t understand the struggle of X until I myself was a victim of Y.”

Racism” and “oppression” become absolutes, not social constructs, which simply need pointing out to that other liberal absolute “justice”. Within this schema, getting attacked by fascists validates your politics and allows you to stand with other targets of oppression.

However radical it feels to its participants, there is an inherent faith in the system here, that the police, judiciary, and political class will side with you over the fascists — and if we know anything from history, it is that radical left movements cannot rely on bourgeois justice.

The point of using “anti-fascism” as an identifying label is to distinguish this approach from non-radical responses to street fascism. So the commonly held broad-based community and trade union-lead “unity event” must not use the word anti-fascism or have any hint of confrontation or obstruction; it cannot be seen as a legitimate target for fascist violence, if it cannot respond adequately.

The worst “unity events”, typical of the Unite Against Fascism era, are those called things like “Stop the Fascists” which make a pretense of being confrontational for promotion, but actually become reliant on the police for protection if fascists arrive. Their empty chants are music to the opposition’s ears.

If you cannot be sure of the nature of an event, and worry you might confuse things by attending as anti-fascists, do not attend. If you are not sure you have the right numbers of the right kind of activists to hold a distinctly anti-fascist event, do not attempt to. It is far better to have stayed away than to have given away any sort of victory.

Protesting racism and fascism is a crucial activity in sustaining popular opposition to the right, but it is not “anti-fascism” which must remain a distinct entity and property of the revolutionary left — the history of anti-fascism in the twentieth century is inseparable from the history of the socialist, communist and anarchist movements.

Racism and fascism are products of capitalism — to literally defeat them, we need a different system entirely. To have that, we need a movement — a movement that beats off its fascist competitors to become what Marx calls “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things,” a movement that will go beyond the law when needed, a movement that attracts disaffected people who will become militants, and a movement that converts its more liberal followers into militants through assertive, confident, activities such as the victory at Dover.

That is why we do anti-fascism.

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Gary Oak

Gary Oak is a railway worker and RMT member from London. A lifelong left wing activist, he is involved in numerous projects to rebuild a positive popular socialist identity and culture.

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