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Anti-fascism after Woolwich

The sudden resurgence of an apparently dwindling English Defence League after Lee Rigby’s murder at Woolwich suggests anti-fascists need to rethink their strategy, argue South London Anti-Fascists

September 6, 2013
11 min read

After the May local elections, there was a degree of satisfaction among some anti-fascists that the British fascist threat was in the process of being comprehensively defeated. Despite five years of economic turmoil, the British National Party (BNP), riddled with splits and infighting, faced electoral oblivion. The strategic focus of the two best known anti-fascist organisations, Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and Hope Not Hate (HNH), appeared effective as the BNP’s elected councillors had been reduced from a peak of 57 in 2009 to the current two. The party’s leader, Nick Griffin, MEP for the North West, was considered to have no chance of retaining the BNP’s sole European parliamentary seat at elections in 2014, while his former fellow BNP MEP Andrew Brons, who quit the BNP to set up the British Democratic Party at the end of 2012, was considered to have even less chance of keeping his seat for Yorkshire and the Humber.

The English Defence League (EDL), meanwhile, had been unable to mobilise 100 people for a pre-Remembrance Day demonstration at Westminster. Its March for England splinter group, comprising some of the increasing number of EDL supporters disaffected with its national leadership, was chased off the streets of Brighton. The far right seemed increasingly irrelevant. Then, on 22 May, Lee Rigby was brutally murdered at Woolwich and everything changed.

The gruesome attack was a spectacle made for YouTube. Soon after it was confirmed as the action of jihadists, the EDL leader and former BNP member Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) issued a tweet urging ‘feet on the streets’ in Woolwich. Within a couple of hours it brought around 100 EDL members, most wearing branded balaclavas, into the centre of Woolwich. Despite the public announcement, the anti-racist and anti-fascist opposition was ill-prepared and ill-equipped to react. Press and police surrounded the EDL, as Yaxley-Lennon claimed that they warned that this would happen and now ‘enough was enough’.

Over the next few days the EDL’s official Facebook page went from 22,000 ‘likes’ to more than 100,000. The organisation was reborn with a renewed prominence as Yaxley-Lennon enjoyed publicity envied by leaders of small parties represented in parliament. The EDL’s gain in exploiting Lee Rigby’s death has been the BNP’s loss. On 1 June, the party made a dismal attempt to conduct a national march in Westminster. It was blocked and easily outnumbered by anti-fascists and anti badger-cull activists who were protesting nearby. It was a humiliating defeat for the BNP, especially since, prior to the march, Nick Griffin had gone on Twitter to all but beg for Yaxley-Lennon to put their differences aside and support the march. He was simply ignored. The power shift was complete.

Is the EDL ‘fascist’?

It has become a common trope for leftists to identify a plethora of political positions on the far right as ‘fascist’. But what constitutes fascism in the early 21st century and does the EDL conform to it?

Fascism has a very slippery quality, making it easier to identify than to summarise. In a recent Novara Media radio discussion, The Beach Beneath the Crisis: in conversation with McKenzie Wark, the author and academic Wark says: ‘Fascism is just really that political operation where someone is telling you: “I can make you feel good about yourself by making someone else suffer.”’ It has, as a consistent marker, the tendency to persecute minorities in order to ‘solve’ the problems of the majority. We see this in both the genocidal racism of Nazism and the national chauvinism of Mussolini. It is clear that the EDL is consistent with the scapegoating tradition.

The EDL ticks another fascist box by being a nationalist street movement. Though street movements are often considered to be of a working-class nature, fascist movements are invariably funded from above. Early patrons are almost universally businessmen with varying levels of wealth, dissatisfied with the political establishment and seeking radical change. The EDL again conforms to this pattern, as a recent leak revealed that they have had multiple small business owners and millionaires as donors. These include the City of London millionaire Alan Ayling (aka Alan Lake), owners of car dealerships and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon himself, a tanning shop owner.

The EDL has a shadowy internal structure; there is no official membership mechanism and organising roles are assigned. Its membership gravitates to the (originally Northern Irish Unionist) slogan ‘No Surrender’ or ‘NFSE’ (‘No Fucking Surrender Ever’). Yaxley-Lennon boasts that he is the voice of the ‘non-Muslim working class’, an attempt to define the EDL as a working-class organisation. But EDL activists attacked regional Unite union offices in 2011, planned to attack the Occupy movement in London and targeted others they identify as ‘Marxists’, despite this having nothing to do with their ‘anti-Islamic extremism’ agenda.

However, the EDL doesn’t entirely fit the classic fascist profile and has made 21st-century modifications. It has Jewish and LGBT sections, albeit with very few active supporters, and includes a small number of Sikh followers. An alternative to traditional street thuggery involves the use of community-based approaches such as ‘Woolwich Strong’, mixing charitable fundraising with vigils ‘standing strong’ against ‘extremism, terrorism and oppression’.

Supposedly not ‘officially affiliated with the EDL’, most, if not all, such groups are organised by EDL activists. ‘Woolwich Strong Day’, on Sunday 23 June, received significant public support in local and social media. Though uneventful in Woolwich itself, the day drew significant backing elsewhere. Derby Strong, for example, mobilised more than 300 people with no opposition. Co-opting the empty language of charity and ‘anti-extremism’ creates an illusion of legitimacy that chimes with the state’s own national security rhetoric.

What is anti-fascism?

Anti-fascism has taken a variety of formations, employing both defensive and proactive tactics. These have ranged from the defensive tradition of the Battle of Cable Street in the 1930s or Lewisham in 1977, which used community mobilisations to defend persecuted minorities, to the proactive tradition of anti‑fascists such as the 43 Group or Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), who, rather than waiting for fascist provocations, sought to disrupt fascist organising capacity and activity through infiltration and pre-emptive attacks. Searchlight and other groups have continued to infiltrate and gather intelligence on the far right, most recently with Anonymous UK’s publication of old EDL membership lists.

However, anti-fascism (like fascism) has appeared at times to be both inconsistent and contradictory. Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism are symptomatic of this. Both groups utilise the ‘positive’ message of celebrating Britain’s liberal democracy. They praise state-driven multiculturalism for outlawing some forms of discrimination and racism, while remaining silent on the increasing restrictions on immigration. Anti-fascists often work to expose elements within UKIP and the EDL as harbouring racist, and even Nazi, sympathies – which is great as far as it goes, but if the broader political context has normalised violence towards migrants then fascism can grow regardless.

While straightforward overt racism is generally regarded as unacceptable today, dawn raids and the indefinite imprisonment of vulnerable and traumatised new migrants and refugees has popular support and is considered politically acceptable. Migrants, whether east European or sub-Saharan, are routinely demonised in the press and the terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘Muslim’ are made almost interchangeable. The mainstream ideological narrative favours the far right. This is exemplified by the BNP slogan, ‘British Jobs for British Workers’, being used by Gordon Brown as Labour prime minister in 2008. We cannot stop the rise of the EDL and UKIP without addressing the source of their legitimacy.

Obviously liberal democracy is preferable to a fascist dictatorship, but we should not go along with the tactic of ‘anyone but the BNP’ and the subsequent uncritical support of British politicians that it entails. Throughout 2006 to 2008, for example, Hope Not Hate promoted Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas as an ‘anti-fascist’. Woolas was even given a platform on HNH’s website to justify Labour’s immigration control policies. HNH’s language of anti-extremism was adopted by Woolas to paint his Liberal Democrat opponent as a sympathiser of ‘Islamic extremism’ in his infamous 2010 election leaflet, which led to him being found guilty of electoral malpractice and banned from public office. Thus we had the farce of a HNH patron being accused of stirring up racial tensions. HNH has regularly applied for state funding on anti-extremist initiatives, so its cosy, yet conflicting, relationship with the Home Office is not that surprising.

Unite Against Fascism fares little better on the consistency test. Though it has campaigned strongly against the racism, misogyny and homophobia of the BNP, it has offered little more than warm words when the government of David Cameron, a UAF founding signatory, has stoked the flames of anti-immigrant prejudice. UAF has never spoken against the practice of state institutions towards migrants, even though those institutions pose more of a threat to them than the street thuggery of the EDL and the electoral advances of the BNP and UKIP combined. The brutal racism towards migrants and their children by successive governments is left to be challenged by much smaller groups such as No One Is Illegal and the No Borders network. The anti-fascist mainstream appears content to focus narrowly on the racism of fringe electoral parties and street groups and ignore the more pervasive and legitimising racism of the state.

A new approach

The political mainstream has the state and the media to propagate its message. In response, we must learn from examples such as the 24-year struggle of the Hillsborough Families Campaign how to sustain the necessary but less visible work of building resilient relationships in working-class communities towards the goal of developing enduring structures of support, mutual aid and solidarity. The militant anti-fascism of groups such as Anti-Fascist Action employs a dual approach of ideological and physical opposition. Fascist street movements are a physical force, so militant resistance is a necessary and a noble tradition. But it can only act as a short term measure. We must organise our communities on a longer timescale.

There are a few key principles that can help make our project flexible and lasting. Above all, the anti-fascist movement must become decentralised, non-hierarchical and democratic. Unlike both UAF and HNH, we require not a professional, organised centre but a horizontal network of organically linked groups. Our communities are diverse and there is no one-size-fits-all to anti-fascist activity or community organising. Being non-hierarchical means trusting people who are directly affected to lead their own struggles, not pushing them to follow outside ‘experts’. Often the children of migrants have done more to defeat fascists than any self-declared anti-fascist movement. Being democratic means allowing all voices to have equal say, developing structures for reflection and debate, and having elections for roles with delegated responsibility that are recallable and are rotated. This creates the space for new ideas to flourish and builds a greater sense of trust and mutuality.

We also need groups not to work with the police. The police have a shameful history of infiltrating and smearing anti-racist community campaigns, including most infamously the family and friends of Stephen Lawrence. The police protect fascists and escort them into our communities. Through their national extremist unit they hold intelligence on almost 9,000 people. The police exist to protect the racist status quo, not assist us in challenging it. They are not our allies.

Working-class solidarity

It is time to ditch the ‘anyone but the fascists’ approach in favour of building working-class solidarity through community organising that is both principled and consistently anti-fascist. This work has been tried and tested by anti-fascists in south London, Bristol, Brighton and Barking and Dagenham. We have seen the success of community work and outreach in various UAF groups, including Yorkshire & Humber, Leicester and Sheffield.

Since 2008, South London Anti-Fascists has worked closely with UAF and Hope Not Hate organisers and activists, and we have a history of supporting their mobilisations, albeit, at times, critically. UAF is still important when building counter-demonstrations against racists and fascists. But alongside the existence of the old must grow a new network that does the slow and gradual community work that has been neglected nationally. Together with the Anti-Fascist Network, South London Anti‑Fascists is currently working with mosques, faith, migrant and community groups to build local community networks of anti-racists/anti-fascists, against homophobia, sexism and ableism, and towards lasting working class solidarity. We must all be in it for the long haul.

More on South London Anti-Fascists at and on the Anti-Fascist Network at

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