Issue 272 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
The growth of the anti-war movement means greater forces to deal with the dangers from the far right, as Chris Harman explains
The liberal media flop from complacency to panic
Two contradictory moods are sweeping Britain. There is the enormous movement against the war on Iraq. Not only has there been the biggest anti-war demonstration the country has ever seen, but the global anti-capitalist mood that emerged after Seattle has been getting a wide echo within the movement, feeding into the first real political student movement for years and creating a wide sense of solidarity with the firefighters' strikes at the end of last year.
But there is also a hysteria against asylum seekers. This has been fanned by an unrelenting succession of lies and scare stories on the front pages of the tabloid papers (with the partial exception of the Daily Mirror). Day after day they are telling people that asylum seekers are taking homes and jobs, living in luxury hotels, pocketing huge welfare handouts, and that hostels for them are a 'threat' to 'decent women' and a haven for Al Qaida terrorism. New Labour's response has not been to challenge these myths, but to at least half accept them by promising that it will reduce the 'danger' by halving the number of asylum seekers.
The hysteria is allowing the Nazi British National Party to escape from the political marginalisation it suffered in the late 1990s. It has followed up its success in winning three council seats in Burnley and another in Blackburn last year with a council by-election victory in Halifax, and is now making every effort to expand out of its niches in the north west of England to much wider parts of the country. In some Labour circles there are real fears that it could pick up many more seats in May's local elections and next year's European elections. Jackie Ashley, the Guardian correspondent well connected to New Labour, writes of an opinion poll showing 'how deep the damage done to Labour by the asylum issue now is. Two thirds of those questioned now agree that "we have accepted our fair share and cannot take any more", and that "the current system of handling asylum seekers has directly resulted in an increased threat of terrorism".' She goes on to write, 'As Labour slips back in the polls, the BNP is slithering forward.'
The general response of the liberal media to gains by the far right is to flip from complacency to panic and back again. Complacency means claiming the fascists are not a problem, treating them like any other political party, defending their 'right to free speech', and giving them polite interviews on prime time TV and radio. This provides them with the political space to solidify their organisations and move one more step towards their goal of building paramilitary formations along the lines of Mussolini's Blackshirts and the Nazis' Brownshirts--organisations capable of fighting for control of the streets, physically driving out ethnic minorities, and breaking the power of unions and the working class.
Panic means suddenly claiming, as Jackie Ashley virtually does, that little can be done to stop them. The result is political paralysis--and often the conclusion that the only way to slow down the fascists' advance is to adopt parts of their programme in the belief that this will 'undercut their support'. In fact this strengthens them, by allowing them to claim that 'the original is better than the copy'. The only way to avoid both complacency and panic is to analyse concretely the factors that allow the hysteria to take root and the ways in which the fascists are trying to take advantage of it.
This is not the first time we have faced enormous hysteria about the supposed invasion of the country by some 'alien presence'. Some 38 years ago Paul Foot provided a history of a century of such waves of hysteria in his book Immigration and Race in British Politics. He did so in the middle of one such wave, as speeches by Tory politicians Enoch Powell and Duncan Sandys led to a huge clamour against Afro-Caribbean and Asian immigration. Dock workers and market porters struck in support of Powell, a panicking Labour government reversed its policy and introduced ever tighter controls on further immigration, and the National Front (NF) succeeded in establishing itself as a coherent national fascist organisation.
A decade later a further wave of hysteria, this time against Asians thrown out of East Africa, led to an even harsher government clampdown, a rash of racist murders and a further strengthening of the NF. In these years it gained thousands of votes in elections in places like West Bromwich and the London suburbs of Acton and Uxbridge, came third in the Greater London elections, and established strongholds in parts of Hackney and Islington which anti-fascists came to regard almost as no-go areas.
The hysteria was very much like the present one. It came against the background of Labour governments that had shattered people's hopes, and as the rising living standards associated with the long postwar boom began to give way to rising unemployment and decaying social conditions. People who had believed that Labour represented some sort of class alternative to their problems stayed at home in vast numbers in the by-elections and council elections of 1967-69 and 1977-78. There was little resistance at first when the tabloids claimed immigrants were responsible for the new hardships people faced and Nazis began to capitalise on this. There had always been small local groups of anti-racists and anti-fascists. But these were all but overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the press hysteria and the openings this provided for the Nazis. Often all they felt they could do was to make moral gestures that did nothing to halt the Nazi advance. Eventually, however, there was resistance on a sufficient scale not only to hold the line against the Nazis, but to throw their organisation into a crisis that virtually destroyed it.
The key to this lay in the ability of the far left--the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) and to a lesser extent the International Marxist Group--to mobilise against the Nazis the newly radicalised generation that emerged from the anti Vietnam War movement, the student movement and the working class struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This meant the forces existed to do three things. The first was to try to hold the line against the lies about immigrants pumped out by the media. The second was to block the Nazis' attempts to exploit these lies for their own ends. This involved understanding that the lies and prejudice they inculcated operated at several different levels. For instance, some of the lies (for instance, 'The country is already overcrowded') could be accepted by people who liked to think of themselves as non-racist. Some implied acceptance of certain racist ideas (for instance, 'Blacks are inferior to whites'), but not a commitment to attack immigrants. Some were positively genocidal in their implications (for instance, 'They must be forced to go back where they come from').
The Nazi strategy was--and is today--to work among people holding the 'softer' sorts of prejudices, so as to draw them towards their own organisation and its genocidal conclusions. The anti-Nazi strategy had to be the opposite--by forcing the Nazis to admit what they really stood for, to isolate them from their wider audience. This in turn would weaken the networks articulating racist views of all sorts in localities and workplaces.
Finally, it was necessary to draw the widest number of people into mass actions aimed at harassing the Nazis as they attempted to bring organisational form to their passive support--disrupting their meetings, preventing their paper sales, and above all stopping them from achieving their ambition of dominating the streets through military-style marches. This could only be done effectively by drawing into united front action against the Nazis reformist and ethnic community organisations whose leaders were by no means consistent opponents of the 'softer' media lies.
The situation today differs in some respects from that in the 1960s and 1970s. The existence of more or less integrated multiracial populations in the inner areas of most larger cities makes it much more difficult for the media to pump out overtly racist lies. The agitation against asylum seekers is based on a racism that pretends not to be racism, since it avoids pointing the finger overtly at all black and Asian people.
This 'non-racist racism' does not make life any easier for asylum seekers who face the same threat of the resultant violence, however open the racism behind it. Nor does it stop the prejudice directed against them spilling over into violence against individuals from longer settled ethnic groups.
But it does present certain problems for the Nazis, who find themselves virtually excluded from operating in many inner city areas, and who elsewhere have to try to build up a hard racist cadre while downplaying some of their overt racist ideas in public. By the same token, it should be easier for anti-Nazis to isolate the Nazis than it was in the past.
There are also factors in the Nazis' favour. The general crisis of society is much worse than in the 1960s and 1970s, and so is the sense of bitterness among wide sections of the population. Only their feeling that their lives are falling apart can explain the degree to which people are scapegoating asylum seekers. Along with this goes the implosion of the Tory Party. In the 1960s and 1970s it was the main beneficiary of disillusion with Labour. Today it is still scarred by the record of the Thatcher and Major governments, leading to a lack of credibility and deep internal divisions. There are clearer fields for the Nazis than there used to be among the third of working class and lower middle class voters who have traditionally accepted reactionary ideas.
Finally, the renewed gains of the BNP in Britain are part of a phenomenon across much of Europe. We have seen sudden, and sometimes spectacular, electoral breakthroughs for the far right in Austria, Holland, Belgium, Italy, France, Norway and elsewhere.
We have also seen that these successes do not have to be enduring. They can serve to shake out of their complacency the forces capable of challenging the Nazis. And where these forces have the capacity to cut the far right down to size witness its present disarray in the countries where it had its greatest successes, Holland and Austria.
Here the momentum of the anti-war movement is very important. Within it there is an increasingly politicised anti-capitalist core. It is bringing a whole new generation into activity in a very similar way to the late 1960s and early 1970s. One by-product can be the forces we need to meet the threat from the BNP. Another can be to put flesh on the attempts to create a powerful left pole of attraction capable of providing real answers to those beguiled by press scapegoating.
The long drawn-out crisis of the system is producing a polarisation both to the left and to the right. We have to use the new forces emerging on the left to deal with those threatening from the right. That involves building the biggest possible anti-war movement--and then arguing within it for an anti-capitalist agenda that confronts the system as a whole.