Last summer, Britain’s seemingly
disparate far-right forces took anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigners by
surprise when they filled Whitehall with 15,000 people. They were there to
support Tommy Robinson, a leader in the racist anti-Muslim movement who was at
the time temporarily held in prison on a contempt of court charge. The emotive
themes he had articulated in sound bites in recent times had infiltrated the
consciousness of those who took to the streets that day.
That single mobilization eclipsed even
the best-attended National Front rallies of the late 1970s, which rarely
surpassed 3-4,000 but caused havoc in immigrant communities. You have to go
back to the 1930s to find a similar number mobilized by the British far right.
In 1934, 15,000 people of all classes packed London’s Olympia Exhibition
Centre. Most of them were avid followers of Oswald Mosley’s vision for Britain
and members or supporters of his British Union of Fascists.
Among those in Olympia yet to make up
their minds, were 150 Members of Parliament underwhelmed by what passed for
mainstream politics. There were also interlopers—up to 100 anti-fascists—who
obtained tickets through a clever deception and spread themselves around the
hall. In the violence that followed their attempts to heckle, 80 were thrown
out bloodied and beaten.
That night, Mosley’s thugs won the
physical battle, but anti-fascists won the propaganda war. The defections
Mosley suffered as his brutal methods were revealed forced him to reorient his
movement. It built a new power base in working-class districts in London’s East
End, surrounding the struggling Jewish ghetto in Aldgate and Whitechapel.
The Battle of Cable Street that took
place in that area in 1936 remains a touchstone for anti-racists and
anti-fascists in Britain today. The size of the mobilization, the drama of mass
blockades and barricades, the clashes with the police, and the incredible
people’s victory when fascist movements were advancing in so many European
countries, are still recalled as an inspiration to anti-fascists to take to the
But the ultimate victory over the
fascists in 1930s Britain was based on more than one major battle, crucial as
Cable Street was.
We can still learn today from the
range of strategies through which the far right was undermined. While the
informal political alliance that mobilized people to flood the streets against
Mosley’s fascists was important—local branches of the Communist Party,
Independent Labour Party, Labour League of Youth, rank-and-file trade
unionists, and a militant grassroots body that emerged from the community most
under attack, the Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism
(JPC)—it was a shared strategy of building an anti-fascist majority locally
that was crucial.
This meant recognizing that everyone
had an active part to play—that a genuinely collective struggle would be far
more effective than individual or top-down efforts. It meant acknowledging that
the enemy was fascism rather than individuals living hard lives attracted to
the fascist flag in the absence of convincing alternatives. The anti-fascist
movement recognized that it needed to embed the fight against anti-Semitism in
the fight for jobs, for education, for better housing, for better lives for
While the counter-movement confronted
the organized attempts of fascists to march and spread propaganda, it made a
conscious effort to win hearts and minds among those who were heading in a
fascist direction. It understood that this was not simply a moral issue—saying
that anti-Semitism was “evil”—but about showing how the fascists were also
using anti-Semitism as part of a wider attack on democracy that would affect
The enemy was fascism rather than
individuals living hard lives attracted to the fascist flag in the absence of
convincing alternatives. The anti-fascist movement recognized that it needed to
embed the fight against anti-Semitism in the fight for jobs, for education, for
better housing, for better lives for all.
Although anti-Semitism impacted
primarily on Jews, the JPC argued that the “struggle against anti-Semitism is
as much a task for the British people as a whole as for the Jews, and the
struggle against fascism is a task for Jews as much as for the British people
as a whole.”
In Britain today, Muslims much more
frequently bear the brunt of vicious attacks by racists and fascists, though we
should recognize that fascists can attack many targets at once, and a range of
migrant and refugee communities also receive their negative attention, boosted
by the government’s hostile environment and continuing institutional racism.
The far right accumulate rather than
replace targets and anti-Semitic incidents are rising once again, not just
here, but elsewhere in Europe, especially in Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine, and
also in the U.S.
Populist far-right forces, globally,
in 2019, are making deeper and deeper inroads into working-class communities,
and not just on a narrow propaganda of hate based on stereotyping.
Attacks on women’s rights, gay and
lesbian rights, and defense of the “Christian” family also play well for them,
especially in central and Eastern Europe. We need to spread awareness of the
wider set of themes on which they are recruiting and recognize the extent to
which they are using online platforms to win support. Our responses need to be
smart and collective, but also consciously draw on the insights and strategies
of the past to confront the dangers of today. (IPA Service)