Anti-fascism: the lessons of Leeds. An open letter to SWP members

Submitted by AWL on 4 November, 2009 - 5:44 Author: Editorial

Dear comrade,

On 31 October, hundreds of supporters of the English Defence League marched through Leeds, despite the nearby presence of up to 1,000 anti-fascists. They were able to do so because of the misleadership of the anti-fascist movement by Unite Against Fascism and by your organisation, the SWP.

The events of that day tell us a lot about the deep-rooted problems of both UAF and the SWP.

1. UAF, including leading SWPers, worked with the police to prevent protesters marching against the EDL. In the run up, it had argued for the police to ban the EDL march — a tactic that strengthens the state in also cracking down on left-wing, labour movement and anti-racist protests, and miseducates people to believe we can rely on the police. On the day, after the police crushed anti-fascist demonstrators into a pen, UAF stewards worked with them to prevent people from marching. After hundreds broke out, but were blocked by police and returned to the rally, a vote was taken on whether to march. When an overwhelming majority voted to do so and tried to leave the pen, they were pushed back — with the help of UAF stewards. Despite repeated promises from UAF/SWP leader Weymann Bennett, they were kept there until the rally dwindled and the opportunity was missed.

Meanwhile, the EDL marched unopposed through the centre of another city, repeating its triumph in Manchester on 10 October.

2. UAF effectively handed over an anarchist demonstrator to the police. At one point, an EDL supporter somehow infiltrated the rally; he started ranting about immigration and was set on by a mix of anarchists and socialists. After the EDLer was thrown out of the pen, a young anarchist found himself on the wrong side of the barriers. The UAF stewards refused him re-entry, and he was promptly arrested.

3. UAF put strike-breaking bosses on the platform of the rally. Among the speakers was Glenn Pickersgill, one of the Leeds refuse workers who have been on strike for two months, against the attempts of the Liberal-Conservative council to impose a one third pay cut. Glenn inspiringly described how the strike had united workers of different backgrounds (black, Asian, white British, Polish) in the struggle to defend pay, conditions and organisation.

Unfortunately he was preceded on the platform by a Lib Dem councillor — a representative of the bosses seeking to smash the strike!

What does this tell us about UAF and the SWP?

1. Protests involve a variety of tactics; it is not a principle to always do what looks like the most “militant” thing. The problem with the UAF/SWP approach is its dishonesty and bureaucratic manipulation.

UAF, under the leadership of the SWP, has repeatedly shown itself willing to lie to demonstrators; to impose its decisions on local campaigns; to hold back militancy to look respectable and maintain good relations with the police; and to work with the police against its critics in the anti-fascist movement.

The events of 31 October are appalling, but they are only the latest in a long line of similar incidents on anti-fascist demonstrations -- notably in Derbyshire in August and Liverpool in November 2008.

Sometimes, when the SWP wants to look militant, it will organise some stage-managed radicalism. But its fundamental approach remains the same. It is not concerned with pushing the fascists off the streets through mass action, but with organisational advantage for itself.

This is possible because of the kind of organisation UAF is — undemocratic, with no real structures where labour movement and anti-racist activists can hold SWP and other leaders to account for their actions.

2. The decision to invite the Lib Dem speaker goes to the heart of what is wrong with UAF.

The far right is growing by exploiting real problems — job losses, cuts, privatisation — imposed on workers and the poor by the bosses and the mainstream parties. It presents itself as a “radical” alternative, and the left as supporting the status quo. Only a class-struggle movement, mobilising workers' organisations in a united front to challenge fascism and the social conditions which feed it, can undercut these ideas and the growth of the fascists. That means championing battles like the Leeds refuse strike.

By putting a strike-breaker on the platform, UAF is telling workers and poor people attracted to the EDL or BNP that the fascists' claims are true; that the left is indeed lashed up with the “liberal” establishment, that our “anti-fascism” means defending the status quo and nothing radical can be expected from us.

This is true even when the BNP etc. fail to demagogically “support” workers' actions. They have other, racist “explanations” and “solutions” for the problems working-class people face — their “answer” to job losses and cuts is a racist programme of ending immigration and persecuting minorities. If we do not counterpose our own rational, working-class programme, their poisonous one will grip more and more people. That is why the BNP is growing.

When protesters heckled and booed the Lib Dem speaker in Leeds, one of your leading student comrades, Hanif Leylabi, shouted a reply: “You don't have to be in favour of strikes to be against fascism”. As a socialist, don't you find this response astonishing?

Of course you don't have to support strikes in order to say and believe you are “against fascism”. But what is fascism? Where does it come from? Why is it growing? Who can stop it and how? Who are reliable allies in the struggle against it?

We advocate a movement whose central core is workers' organisations; which adopts a programme of class-struggle demands, like taxing the rich to fund jobs, homes and services for all; and which supports workers in struggle.

We do not argue that individuals who support bourgeois parties should be driven off demos; that the involvement of all non-working class organisations (e.g. students, organisations of oppressed minorities, religious groups) should be excluded; or that the united-front anti-fascist movement as a whole should adopt a full Marxist programme.

But we do advocate the exclusion of bourgeois parties and politicians — not individuals in the crowd, but Lib Dem or Tory councillors and MPs on the platform. We also advocate an approach radically different from UAF's orientation to the trade union bureaucracy — which means unions handing over many thousands of pounds to UAF, but doing little or nothing to mobilise workers against the fascist threat.

UAF opposes both the adoption of class demands and, usually, genuine mass action against the fascists because it fears these things would disrupt the “unity” it has established with bourgeois politicians and union bureaucrats. And it is right.

On the rare occasions it attempts theoretical self-justification, the SWP claims that UAF “deploys the spirit” of the workers' united front Trotsky advocated in the 30s (SWP leader Martin Smith). Leeds made clear, once again, that UAF is more like the “popular fronts” Trotsky denounced as incompatible with socialist politics and incapable of defeating fascism.

Look at the UAF website! The “key signatories” list includes not only the Metropolitan Black Police Association and the North West Lib Dems, but... David Cameron. And not only David Cameron, but Teddy Taylor and the Reverend Martin Smyth (no relation!) — both former vice-presidents of the far-right, racist Monday Club group of Tories. Smyth is a former Ulster Unionist MP and Grand Master of the Orange Order. No doubt these “anti-fascists” would have applauded the Leeds councillor enthusiastically — or perhaps considered him too left-wing!

The SWP's record in sustaining such an alliance — including its behaviour in Leeds — is particularly stark evidence of its leadership's political degeneration: how it puts what it believes will benefit the organisation ahead of political principle and the needs of the class struggle. It should give you, as a revolutionary socialist who wants to destroy fascism, serious pause for thought.

Let’s discuss what we must do to avoid a repetition in Glasgow and Nottingham, when the EDL marches again.


Alliance for Workers' Liberty


Why UAF is not the campaign we need: a reply to Martin Smith
More on anti-fascism


Submitted by Jason on Fri, 06/11/2009 - 07:31

We do need to organise against the fascists outside of the UAF.
We should have local planning meetings inviting antiracists, trade unionists, lots of local activists and make decisions democratically. Of course on the day we will stand shoulder to shoulder with UAF against the fascsists and be for united demonstrations but we cannot and should not allow them to hijack demos or order police to arrest particular demonstrators.

An article here

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 06/11/2009 - 10:34

Hi Jason,

We should indeed try to build local groups, but we should also see what's possible in terms of establishing a national anti-fascist network based on class struggle politics.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 06/11/2009 - 12:54

Socialist Worker's report of the events in Leeds is astonishing - a true piece of Stalinist-style whitewashing.

Entitled "Leeds marches on against Nazis", it alternates between stressing the 'marching element' of the day (ie the feeder marches, described as "march[ing] on City Square") and claiming that only the police prevented protesters from confronting the EDL:

"A larger feeder march from Hyde Park, made up mainly of students, had also tried to make it down to confront the EDL, but the police presence in the city centre had proven too strong... Though people left the rally with their spirits lifted, they were also frustrated that the police presence had meant that UAF had not been able to take its message to the EDL more directly."

This is quite amazing. Hundreds or thousands of people will read Socialist Worker and have no idea of the role Weyman Bennett and the UAF stewards played in assisting the police.

The report also writes out of history the defeats anti-fascist movement has suffered with the EDL marches in recent months - or rather presents them as victories: "A number of racist EDL protests have taken place across the country in recent months. All of them have been met with determined counter-demonstrations, where the racists have been outnumbered."

It goes on: "This was true in Leeds, despite police and council leaders warning local Muslims to stay away from the city centre." The police and council leaders - no mention of the mosque and community leaders who also tried to prevent young Muslims from marching, as this would not fit the SWP's political picture.

After come bland blah about the EDL's racism and the need for "unity", we are told that "there was a feeling of unity and solidarity at the rally"!

"Glenn Pickersgill, a Unison union steward, spoke at the rally on behalf of the striking bin workers in Leeds. He told Socialist Worker, 'We have Asian, black, Irish, Polish and white members all sticking together in a class struggle. It’s not where you come from that matters – it’s where you are going.'"

No mention, naturally, of the strike-breaking Lib Dem councillor who preceded Pickersgill on the platform!

SWP comrades, don't you find this embarrassing?

Submitted by Jason on Wed, 11/11/2009 - 19:50

I think we need to organise both within the UAF and independently.
In stopping the EDL and BNP there are immediate priorities- stopping them from gathering, no platform- and longer term strategies- rebuilding the workers’ movement and a socialist alternative within it.
These tasks are not identical but neither are they mutually exclusive. In terms of a movement to stop the fascists on the street we need as many people as possible. That will include people who cannot or will not get involved in direct confrontation with fascists. However, we should try to encourage as many as possible to physically block their way and also organise spotters, people willing to lead the charge, elected co-ordinators and stewards of the demos. We are of course for mass peaceful protest but should also be ready to defend the demonstration against fascist or police attack and to physically stop the fascists. Those who don’t want to physically stop the fascists are of course welcome as long as they are not actively undermining the attempts to do so.
Unfortunately some in the UAF, certainly the UAF leadership, do just this and many of the SWP on the demos follow the instructions of their leading cadre. This includes full co-operation with the police, attempting to stop people break out of police lines and even- scandalously- asking police to arrest demonstrators who aren’t following their line. This is completely unacceptable and needs to be challenged both within UAF meetings (when they do meet), by affiliated unions and at the time.
It also shows we do need to organise separately. Where fascists seek to gather we should publicise this, call on all antifascists to assemble to stop them from marching. We should not seek to counterpose this to the UAF- indeed we should go to their meetings and appeal to them to support no platform. But where their leaders deliberately corral people into a static demonstration we should speak out against this and organise separately.

We should also prioritise building a network of militants in the workplaces and on the estates to fight cuts, to put forwards a workers’ action programme to answer the betrayals of Labour and the mainstream parties. Signing up to this should not be a prerequisite for joining the antifascist united front but within that united front we should not be cowed into refusing to raise socialist politics for fear of putting off the liberals and the vicars. On the frontline against the BNP I am quite happy to stand with liberals and clergy (actually I have once been on militant antifascist demo with a member of the clergy believe it or not)- but not to adapt our class based socialist politics for fear of upsetting the worthies.

The politics of the establishment based on lies, corruption and downright robbery offer no solution to the working class. The BNP and EDL try to appear radical by demanding action- against immigrants, against gay people, against trade unionists. We need to win workers to united action against the real enemy the ruling class. Having a cosy coalition with top Labour ministers is no way to win workers away from fascism. Class based militant politics is.
So to summarise we should organise a united front against the fascists based on direct action. This has to be local and rooted in communities. We should also build a united front to campaign for workers' action against job cuts, crap housing, poor services and for workers' control and socialism. This also needs to be rooted in communities. But the idea of a national network of activists in these struggles should also be supported.

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