The Dover debate: in defense of mass anti-fascism

  • March 30, 2016

Anarchism & Autonomy

Anti-fascism involves not only physical confrontations, but also building solidarity networks to unify the struggle against fascism’s ultimate cause: capitalism.

This article is a response to an earlier piece by Gary Oak: ‘On Dover, victimhood and the meaning of anti-facism.’

Various fascist groups, led by the South East Alliance, have called yet another far-right “unity” demonstration in Dover, symbolically important as the primary entry point for refugees crossing the channel. Planned for April 2, this will be the fifth time a fascist mobilization has descended on the sleepy port town in two years.

Despite its positioning, Dover is no special case. Visions of anachronistic horror erupt across Europe daily — cruel atavisms many thought the continent had buried in the 1940s: state henchmen confiscate refugees’ meager possessions; squads of masked men beat migrants openly in bustling city centers; families flee as their ramshackle dwellings are torn or razed to the ground. The rallying cry of “Never again!” has taken on a renewed sense of urgency. Fascism is once more on the rise.

In an essay published in ROAR earlier this month, trade unionist Gary Oak recognizes the burgeoning threat refugees and the left face in this reactionary resurgence, and outlines a model of resistance. Oak makes some cogent points about social media strategy — though, as others have highlighted, he also falters here — and the need for a solid conviction on the left to defeat the nascent fascist street movement in the UK, correctly identifying that illegal measures will often be necessary.

However, in overemphasizing the importance and utility of physical violence, he ultimately moves beyond this grounded analysis, contradicting his own observations about anti-fascism’s relevance to the class struggle, and the wider left.

Keeping up appearances

Oak’s polemic begins proper with a prescription: anti-fascists must “control the message” on social, and by extension traditional, media. Citing a tweet from RS21’s Anindya Bhattacharyya, detailing an altercation between fascists and anti-fascists at Maidstone service station during the last Dover demo, as an example of a self-defeating display of “shock and fear”, Oak argues that anti-fascists must resist presenting themselves as “righteous victims” in the media, thus bolstering the fascists’ confidence and fueling their propaganda.

This is all fairly uncontentious, apart from the facts that the tweet in question — presumably the best example of victimhood available — did nothing of the sort, and that Oak failed to address the flip side of the media’s presentation of anti-fascism before, during, and after the clashes.

You don’t have to read Gramsci to understand that the bourgeois press’s portrayal of anti-fascism will never be perfect; they tend to either default to simplistic victim/perpetrator narratives, or more often to a Horseshoe Theory in which both sides become grotesque reflections of each other: frenzied militants to be held up against the liberal ideal, and dismissed as extremists.

As Bhattacharyya attested when we spoke to him about being interviewed by the Guardian:

I wanted to steer the story away from ‘punch up between two groups of protesters at a service station’ towards hammering home the point that one of the two groups involved in the fight were hardcore Nazis.

If there’s little the left can do to undermine hegemony in the press, then we have even less chance of halting the fascists’ grandstanding. The far-right cast every defeat, no matter how humiliating, as a noble victory, in displays of macho triumphalism that would be comic if they didn’t indicate the amount of work it will take to convince them that they’re beaten.

But to say that combating the prevailing media narrative is hard is not the same as saying it’s futile. Counter-hegemonic projects, like this magazine, have achieved great things. Along with more subtle interventions like Bhattacharyya’s, they go towards pushing the public discourse away from a false sense of parity between fascist aggression and working-class self-defense.

This, surely, is the message we must control. Not that of the crude, asemic propaganda images littering fascist social media pages, meeting only the insensate leers of the already lost. But that which — though inevitably distorted by ideology — filters through to reach the wider working class; the people who not only have it all to win in this fight, but the power to win it with us.

Power and the individual

It’s on this question of working-class power that Oak’s stumble becomes a fall. The essay’s denouement is reinforced by reference to Marx: anti-fascism must become “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”. This is correct of course. Capitalism, in all its inherent crisis and antagonism, is the abusive parent that produces a killer: the fascist sociopath which reveals all the progenitor’s hidden sickness; reifying horrors that always lay just beneath the surface of social reality.

Oak is also right in observing that the law must be surpassed, broken, and ultimately smashed; as thinkers from Foucault to kids on council estates have observed, it’s not on our side. His mistake is that he doesn’t take these ideas far enough. In advocating an individualist strategy — squads of rough men putting the boot in — Oak forgets that law-breaking is often necessary, but never sufficient for a politics of liberation. Just ask the 85,000 people in British prisons, or the Anti-Nazi League squaddists incarcerated in the 1980s.

The law’s cynical normativity is not simply a mechanism preserving capitalism, but an expression of it: “the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships”, as The German Ideology explains. It follows that only a radical material restructuring of society can undermine it; something that can’t be done unilaterally, only en masse. A closer reading of Marx reveals that his vision of the “real movement” was as the “movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”, rather than an elitist group of guerrilla-activists.

Numbers, numbers, numbers

The logic of Oak’s prescription — that only the toughest elements of the already-existing revolutionary left can oppose fascism — not only runs completely counter to Marxism, but also to anti-fascism’s historical triumphs. On August 13, 1977 anti-fascists scored a landmark victory against the National Front in Lewisham, who were at that time capable of pulling around 1,500 Nazi thugs onto the street. The NF march was beaten, and to a significant extent so were the police for large parts of the day.

How did we do it? Not with liberal squeamishness about violence — the marchers threw bottles, bricks, and fists — but neither with ultra-left contempt for the participation of non-street fighters and members of the non-revolutionary labor movement. Instead, a coalition of revolutionaries, trade unionists, all-women feminist groups, local black youth and Labour Party members took to the streets to drive the Nazis back, numbering 6,000 to their 800.

Suddenly, the NF ‘honor guard’ of hardened street fighters with military training became an immaterial factor; faced with mass direct action from our class on a numerical scale that overwhelmed them, the far-right’s confidence shattered. In one marcher’s words: “I still remember seeing National Front marchers with green faces. They were so scared. I’d never seen people go green before.”

It was a major defeat for the NF, whose marches saw sharply declining numbers in the period that followed. But it also represented a deep and positive victory on our side. Ordinary working-class people — not just the seasoned revolutionary activists and the street fighters — caught a taste of what their self-organized activity could achieve. It’s exactly through moments like these that we come closer to “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things”, and get a glimpse of a better world.

More recently, we note two other crucial demos where following Oak’s advice would have been disastrous. In August 2012 the EDL attempted a march through Walthamstow, and were blocked by 4,000 anti-fascists from a wide variety of backgrounds: the mosques, Labour, the trade unions, and the radical left. The day ended in a defeat for the EDL so catastrophic that their leaders, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Kevin Caroll, boiled over into furious public argument with each other.

Their organization never really recovered. When they attempted to return to Walthamstow they were a shadow of their former selves — just 60 people, diverted to Westminster. The following year, the murder of Lee Rigby gave the far-right a shot at revival. Among the groups which attempted to capitalize were the BNP, who called a march in Whitehall. We outnumbered them so badly that they were never able to move from their starting point. In both cases, if we had whittled the numbers down to only those up for a proper scrap, we would have crippled our ability to oppose them on the street and lost golden opportunities to let ordinary people feel their collective strength.

Perhaps the best proof for the efficacy of this approach comes from Nick Griffin, who responded to the EDL’s proposal of a second Walthamstow demo with a warning: “We are up against far stronger opponents than we can muster. We are outnumbered, out-financed, out-mediaed and outgunned in every possible way. So if we go up against our far more powerful opponents on their grounds, if we give them advance notice that we are coming, if we become so predicable that they will be able to bring out their big guns, we will lose.”

Lessons of the past

We do have some historical examples where Oak’s preference for guerrilla anti-fascism has been followed. The most significant of these was the fight of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) against ascendant Nazism. The KPD fought a desperate struggle against the fascist stormtroopers of the Sturmabteilung (SA), street by street, tavern by tavern, to hold the Nazis back. They set up the Roter Frontkampferbund (Red Front): a mass organization willing to engage in armed paramilitary action. A heroic struggle, but one they insisted on fighting alone, on the face of it for sound reasons.

The major organization of the working class, with which they might have allied against the fascist threat, was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD); who were not only non-revolutionary, but led by those directly responsible for drowning the German revolution of 1918-23 in blood — the murderers of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. For this reason, the KPD regarded the social democrats as their main enemy — as ‘social fascists’ and the most skillful protectors of capitalism — therefore refusing any alliance with them.

And yet, precisely such a United Front had smashed the Kapp Putsch of 1920 (a hard right coup against the SPD government). A combination of a general strike called by SPD leaders and the trade unions, along with the arming of communist workers in the Red Army of Ruhr, was able to paralyze the Kapp government and defeat the proto-fascist Freikorps regiments that were its henchmen. In the process they became a mass organization, winning tens of thousands of militant workers away from the social democrats.

But the KPD did not absorb this lesson, and so they fought militantly, bravely, and alone; and lost in the same manner. The KPD was smashed, along with Germany’s other working class organizations. Every third KPD member was jailed, and thousands were murdered.

Oak is not guilty of the same error as the German communists; his piece does not accuse the non-revolutionary left of being the main enemy. But his prescription that anti-fascism should be the exclusive property of the revolutionary left would lead us to repeat these mistakes.

Solidarity, oppression, and why we fight

There is one final point of criticism to make of Oak’s vision, one which underpins the principle of collective struggle for a better world. In fetishizing masculinity and ability, as a myopic focus on militant violence as praxis inevitably does, Oak both fails to outline an effective anti-fascist strategy, and also precludes any possibility of a wider anti-capitalist one. This is not just because his model excludes the bulk of the working class, but because it specifically excludes those with whom we should be showing the greatest solidarity.

The left does not practice feminism, anti-racism, anti-ableism, and so on within our movements for the sake of moralism, nor out of a postmodern idealism which holds that such activity is sufficient to truly change the world.

We do it because we understand that only by crafting networks of solidarity that cut across the arbitrary divisions of race, gender, and ability can we ever build a unified struggle against our common enemy — the ruling class — and against capitalism: fascism’s ultimate cause.

This is why we do anti-fascism.

George West

George West is a Marxist writer living in East Sussex. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Novara Wire, and elsewhere. He blogs at From Every Crime.

More >

Alex Richardson

Alex Richardson is an active anti-fascist and education worker living in South London.

More >

Source URL —

Further reading

Join the movement!



Read now

Magazine — Issue 11