The English Defence League plans to march through Tower Hamlets in East London (an area with a large Asian, mostly Muslim, population) on 3 September. As racist violence has been a feature wherever the EDL has held large mobilisations, working-class activists in Tower Hamlets and beyond need to organise to confront the EDL and prevent them from marching. Unfortunately, that is not the strategy on offer in Tower Hamlets right now.
We need a direct-action anti-fascist movement based on working-class, socialist politics that can physically confront the far-right in the streets and provide a political alternative for disenfranchised workers drawn to the EDL or BNP.
What we have instead from the left in Tower Hamlets is a second-time-as-farce recapitulation of the Stalinist popular fronts of the 1930s. These were anti-fascist initiatives launched by Communist Parties across Europe which aimed to unite workers’ organisations with “progressive sections” of the ruling-class — anyone from senior religious figures to eccentric aristocrats to liberal bosses.
In contrast, Leon Trotsky proposed “united front” tactics — seeking unity only with organisations within the working-class, reformist and revolutionary. Trotsky argued that, as fascism grew on the despair and misery created by capitalist economic policies, it could not be fought in alliance with the people responsible for those policies.
Sadly, even the Socialist Workers’ Party, Britain’s biggest “Trotskyist” group, has forgotten the lessons of that period. The campaign to build the “No Place for Hate” demonstration (a “celebration of diversity” planned for the day of the EDL’s march), led by Unite Against Fascism (which is controlled by the SWP) is courting religious figures and the local bourgeois political establishment.
While it is impressive that the campaign mobilised more than 500 people for a rally in Whitechapel’s London Muslim Centre, the list of speakers (bishop after imam, rabbi after bishop...) shows the campaign is not being given working-class or socialist content by its nominally socialist leaders.
The campaign needs more democracy: currently there are no regular, open meetings giving local activists an input into the organisation of the event. There is no space to debate strategy, to question the “celebration of diversity” backed by local religious and political officialdom. No chance to argue for a militant counter-demonstration to stop the EDL from marching. Meanwhile the other main anti-fascist organisation — Searchlight/Hope not Hate — are calling for a ban on the EDL marching. Bans (by the local council in this case) are not the way to oppose the far right.
Many people in local Asian communities are religious and the mosque will represent a socio-political centre of gravity for them. But the same was true of the synagogues in the 1930s when Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts threatened to march through the Jewish East End. Then the Independent Labour Party (who, rather than the Stalinist Communist Party, were the real builders of the movement that led to the Battle of Cable Street) related directly to Jewish workers on a class basis and appealed to them to unite with non-Jewish workers to confront the fascists, even if that meant breaking with their conservative religious leaders.
Predictably, the SWP campaign is attempting to invoke the spirit of Cable Street in its publicity. But in reality it is closer to the policy of the Communist Party — which, until it was forced by external and internal pressure to u-turn, planned to oppose the fascist threat by holding a popular-frontist rally in Trafalgar Square.
Unless similar pressure can be applied in Tower Hamlets, the “No Place for Hate” event will be the modern echo of that rally; a cleric-dominated proclamation of why workers should line up behind their bosses to resist racism.
If the EDL are to be physically confronted on 3 September, those of us who believe class politics and direct action are needed will have to organise independently.
Last August’s rout of the EDL in Bradford, where AWL members, anarchists, and other independent anti-fascists linked up with local Asian youth (defying advice from the mosque and Muslim councillors to limit themselves to “peaceful” — passive — demonstration) to drive the EDL out of town, showed that working-class Muslims usually have better instincts than the conservative religious and political leaders of their communities with whom the SWP insist they must unite.