The horrific assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair left the nation in a deep sense of mourning, anger and confusion. As a result of his connections with National Action, perhaps the most extreme of Britain’s array of neo-Nazi and far-right groups, the latter have been listed as an illegal terrorist organisation under anti-extremism laws. Commentators cheered for the fact that National Action, and the grotesque politics they stood for, were to be consigned to the dustbin of history. However, although many of us might dearly hope this to be the case, a brief glance at the history of fascism and its opponents shows that what appears to be a sensible and effective policy move is underpinned by a profound misunderstanding of groups like National action, their politics, causes and motivations. Moreover, the forward march of ‘anti-extremism’ legislation poses a very real threat to those who dare to oppose the far right on the streets.
Not so long ago, during the heady days of New Labour’s first term in office, many could be forgiven for assuming that the far right was largely a thing of the past. The once-notorious National Front were in disarray – the intimidating street marches that had once buoyed them to what felt at the time as the de facto control of entire neighbourhoods were no longer as big or as menacing, and their new electoral strategy was pathetically unsuccessful. Their cousins in the British National Party, led by the (then) fresh-faced Nick Griffin, were equally small, ineffective and not taken seriously outside of one or two small pockets of the country. Thatcher, Major and Blair all had the same strategy: if declining industry and the emergence of a new, finance-driven, globalised economy leads to frustrations among those ‘left behind’, then over time they will simply adapt to this new environment.
For a while, this market-based strategy seemed to be working: incidents of racist violence and abuse dropped. However, it was underpinned by a range of other factors, including anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, community-focused policing approaches, dramatic crackdowns on football hooliganism, the growth of CCTV, and the reorientation of the far right towards electoralism. The long economic boom from 1993 onwards also helped to soften the uneven and complex impacts of the newly globalised economy emerging in the UK. For a while, this created a fragile but carefully cultivated sense of social peace.
The problem with this apparent social peace was that it was propped up on decidedly flimsy pillars. The economic buoyancy provided by the long boom was unceremoniously sunk by the global financial crisis of 2008; anti-discrimination laws led to the mainstreaming of ‘anti-PC’ discourses in the right-wing media which legitimised its more hard-right variants; the 2001 riots in northern cities illustrated how superficial community policing strategies were; CCTV was used more to criminalise the presence of working class teenagers in public spaces than it was to bring about any kind of ‘justice’ to the victims of theft or violence. The electoral successes of the BNP in the mid-2000s saw the far right poking their heads above the parapet once again – not in ‘white power’ t-shirts but in smart suits, and armed not with banner poles but with glossy leaflets.
The liberal, cosmopolitan centre-left were shocked, and their mouthpieces set about chastising BNP voters for their ‘stupidity’ and ‘ignorance’. Now, despite the demise of the BNP as an electoral force and the decline of the English Defence League as a unified social movement, the far right appears as present and as dangerous as it ever was in the 1980s, and attitudes towards immigration, nationalism and ‘law and order’ that were once the preserve of the far right are now widely accepted as mainstream.
Although this is well-documented, important pieces of the story have been conveniently forgotten. In the decline of far-right politics, alongside policy choices and economic growth that operated ‘above the heads’ of ordinary people, decidedly more grassroots factors were at play – namely, the anti-fascist movement. In particular, between the mid-1980s and the early years of Blair’s New Labour, one important element in the successful struggle against the far right was a group by the name of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), which was arguably one of the most effective anti-fascist organisations the UK has ever seen. Along with a range of other so-called ‘militant’ anti-fascist groups (such as the Asian Youth Movements that formed to defend Asian neighbourhoods against far-right attacks), AFA sought to confront the far right with a combination of ideological and physical approaches. Distributing leaflets, knocking on doors and holding public meetings was one element of their approach; the other involved physically fighting the far right and disrupting their capacity to organise. The violence of AFA’s strategy was a point of contention – not least because it arguably cultivated an exclusionary culture of macho prowess among its street fighters – but it nevertheless played a key role in beating back the far right (sometimes literally) in the 1980s and 1990s. The trouble with the new-found sense of peace in the late 1990s and early 2000s is that the organisational memory, strategies and skills developed among anti-fascists during the previous two decades were lost, forgotten or actively dismantled.
So, if AFA and similar organisations were so effective, why have they all but disappeared from our collective memory? Alongside its commitment to radical left politics, which may have played a part in side-lining it in relation to relatively ‘apolitical’ organisations like the Anti-Nazi League, its explicit support for non-state-sanctioned violence rendered AFA a particularly ‘ugly’ element in a struggle that is persistently represented by the centre of politics as clearly divided between ‘peace versus violence’ or ‘love versus hate’. If only it were this straightforward. What’s more, AFA threatened the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence by acting outside of the state’s definitions of ‘reasonable’ protest. This is a crucial point, since it means that the people were in some areas doing a better job of policing the far right than the police themselves. Indeed, it is well known that the police themselves have had a long history of racism – both individually and institutionally.
Importantly, the violence in the strategies of AFA and similar groups has always been a convenient excuse for governments to crack down on political radicals – take the various socialists and trade unionists of London’s East End, for example, who in the 1920s and 30s were at the forefront of the bloody struggle against Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts, or the anarchists and communists in the same period who severely delayed the rising tide of fascism in Italy, Spain and Germany. Even in the aftermath of World War II, socialist Jewish veterans found themselves having to regroup and physically fight off a resurgent fascist movement on the streets of Britain. During those periods, it was the anti-fascists who suffered most severe state repression – even those who were not radicals but aligned broadly with the anti-fascist cause. These groups threatened the status quo far more than the fascists they opposed – the latter didn’t want to overcome capitalism but simply to reinforce it with anti-democratic authoritarianism and underpin it with racism as an explicit state policy.
Historically, there is little doubt that state crackdowns on ‘extremism’ have tended to sweep up those confronting the far right as much as – or even more than – the fascists themselves. But this is not just a historical issue, as mass arrests at recent anti-fascist demonstrations, and the especially harsh sentences that followed, indicate. In many cases, it was ordinary people, not the state or the police, who were the most effective at closing down opportunities for the far right to grow. The problem for AFA and other anti-fascist groups is that in order to effectively confront the far right, they needed to refuse the standard rules of engagement that are expected of ‘civil society’. This has been the case even when they have not undertaken violent activities, such as blockades or pickets. Many anti-fascists have paid a heavy price for their activities – not only hefty prison sentences but also disablement or even death. As we have seen with the assassination of Jo Cox, this can be the case even when people do play by the rules.
It is important that policy-makers and wider society recognise the implications of criminalising neo-Nazi gangs like National Action, and the laws used to do so. Clearly this approach will slow National Action’s activities and make it harder for them to organise in the short term, but criminalisation is a superficial, tokenistic and temporary measure, and is certainly no silver bullet for addressing the root cause of the growing wave of far-right activity across the UK and Europe. Relying on punitive legislation to deal with the complex social issues that lie at the base of communities’ struggles for survival and wellbeing in a turbulent world is a recipe for dangerous, counter-productive complacency. And if the lessons of history teach us anything, they teach us that the far right are not the only ones who stand to suffer from the vague and dangerous agenda of ‘anti-extremism’.