The Anti Nazi League/Rock Against Racism demonstration to the carnival in Victoria Park, East London, in 1978
Well done to all those involved in pulling together the call for a massive national demonstration in London on 17 November against racism and the fascist threat.
It already seems to be generating enthusiasm and it’s clear that the potential number of organisations, campaigns and affinity groups that may throw themselves into it is huge.
I think it’s a crucial initiative, but also a challenge to turn it into an event that can have a decisive political impact.
Why is the demonstration so important?
There has since the shockingly large and violent turnout of the far right in central London in June been a gathering and unifying chorus across the labour movement to build upon the already strong anti-racist efforts in order to produce an even more massive response.
Incidentally, the far right are not abstractly mulling whether “demonstrations matter”. They got a huge boost from that historically large (for them) demonstration and they hope to replicate that with pro-Robinson demonstrations up and down the country.
They saw the interrelationship between a big national event and myriad efforts to build support locally, in different areas, various workplaces and communities. All then drawn back together to have national political effect.
The left has long understood this in Britain. It was one of the mechanisms that underpinned the mass movements against fascism in the 1970s and 1990s, for example.
There was a direct interplay in the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism between setting in advance what became known during the anti-capitalist movement at the start of this century as national “convergence points” and a flowering of local initiatives.
Those included the establishment of a mass, democratic cordon sanitaire around the fascists and racist right – opposing them marching, meeting, being treated as normal politicians in the media, having access to working class organisation such as union meetings and tenants groups…
This interplay – or dialectic, if you prefer – is well summed up by Red Saunders, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism.
It was launched via a letter from socialists in the music scene to the NME in 1976. Red describes getting huge numbers of letters back to the PO Box address in support.
One was typical. A school student from a small town asking if there was a RAR group nearby. Red explains:
“We sent him back a thank you note, a load of stickers and badges and said, ‘You are now the official RAR in your area. Here’s some material to get going. Let us know what you get up to so others can hear about it.’ That was it. That was crucially how RAR grew.”
The late Darcus Howe described how the big, national movement against the fascist threat of the National Front and against the most easily understood and violent racism helped “clear the ground”.
In that space, the Black and Asian revolutionary and radical movements of the 1970s also flourished and the more difficult issues of institutionalised racism and false or xenophobic ideas about immigration could be challenged.
A result was that the riots of 1981 under Thatcher were not “race riots” but multiracial urban uprisings, led by young Black working class people, against police racism and mass unemployment.
The same dynamic was apparent with the last “Unity Demonstration” against the fascist British National Party in October 1993.
It was called after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in April that year, building upon considerable and varied anti-fascist campaigning up to that point.
In between, in early September, the BNP managed to win a council by-election on the Isle of Dogs in East London. It sent a shockwave. That powered a massive turnout for the unity demonstration to close down the BNP headquarters in Welling, south east London.
That, in turn, fed back into systematic campaigning in East London and across the country. It also prompted a hitherto passive TUC to call – and to build – a demonstration in Tower Hamlets in March of 1994 which played a big role in focusing the successful efforts to defeat the BNP at the elections in May.
At the time, I lived in Manor Park in neighbouring Newham and was active in building the anti-fascist movement just up the road in Ilford and Redbridge, and supporting efforts in Romford and Havering.
We took four coaches to Welling and others made their own way down. One aspect of that has some relevance today, given the summer of smears.
Redbridge has a significant Jewish community. The rise of the BNP had a contradictory impact. Many Jewish people were obviously alarmed and wanted to do something.
But then as now (and as in the 1930s) the official, often Tory-aligned communal leaderships counselled passivity and certainly avoiding the left.
So there were debates and arguments. But large numbers of young (and not so young) Jewish people rallied to an active campaign against fascism and racism, alongside the left, Muslim, Asian, Black and other groups. We were greatly assisted by the late Leon Greenman, a Holocaust survivor who lived in the area and put a potent, unifying message. He gave the same speech to Jewish youth groups as to Muslim congregants.
A similar process drove the extraordinary growth of the Stop the War movement a decade later: big national focuses (including the largest demonstration in British history) flowing out of and feeding back into creative and diverse campaigning in all areas.
By “all areas” I mean the small towns and often villages, and not just in the city centres of the big conurbations in Britain. I mean the tube or direct works depot, and not just the officers of the union representing those workers. I mean the local football ground, and not just the local mosque – though the mobilisation of Britain’s immigrant communities has been central to both the anti-racist and anti-war movements. It means the local pub on that “sink estate” and not just the trendy, LGBT-friendly bar in the city centre.
It seems to me that this is the common feature that the actor Christopher Eccleston, RMT union leader Mick Cash, Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell, the ANL and RAR founders, Stand Up To Racism, Unite Against Fascism, Stop the War, much of the left media, figures in Momentum and many others have in mind as they refer to reproducing that kind of experience, in contemporary conditions, to crush the nascent fascist threat today.
Restating the line of division
This is a big step forward. In responding to it, the call for the demonstration on 17 November raises the stakes. For it poses the challenge of moving beyond the idea of a mass, militant movement to making it a practical reality. It is only in the effort to do that that the strategies for how to do so may be put to the test and made real.
The timing of the initiative could scarcely be better. It provides a clear focus in advance for the left, which has had for much of the summer only reactive (if very good) events in a period since the anti-Trump protests in which the right in all sorts of ways has been able to set the agenda – at least in the media.
Matters are volatile and no one knows the precise course of events over the next 12 weeks. There will be things to respond to. But we do know that this big focus for the movement is happening and will take place right in the middle of the most incendiary rows in the Tory government, the Tory party and parliament over the Brexit question.
We know further that parts of the Tory right – most obviously Boris Johnson – and the far right will seek to deploy racism in order to address and build out of that crisis. The most racist elements of Leave.EU have joined the Tory party and are encouraging others to in order to support Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg. And it is plainly obvious that the Establishment as a whole is prepared to trivialise that because its concern is to turn the turmoil into a crisis of the left-led Labour Party.
The 17 November is part of the antidote to that. Racism or opposition to the far right threat is not a Leave/Remain question. Most people, including most of those who voted Leave, are for full rights of EU nationals in Britain.
While horribly high, the figures for anti-Muslim racism in Britain are lower than in most of Europe. Xenophobic attitudes over immigration have fallen over the last two years. Yet Trump at the same time gives a massive boost to those agitating for racist politics. And the support from the US and European far right for the fascists in Britain is not just in morale. It includes considerable material assistance.
So there is a potential active anti-racist majority, but also a very serious threat from the far right – which is lifted by every smear against Corbyn and the left. It also has breathing space every time the left is hesitant, absent from mass politics, not agitating on the streets or in the communities and workplaces, or in other ways passively waiting for the “government in waiting” to come to office.
In such circumstances, 17 November offers an alternative to the liberal counsel of despair that would have anti-racism an expression of just a part of 48 percent of the population who voted Remain in 2016. A permanent minority.
On the contrary, this has to be a majority movement. And for that reason – echoed by all sorts of people on the left – such a movement cannot be divided by the Brexit question. The line of division is the far and racist right, including in the Tories, and those who want to oppose them actively – with a battle to win those in between everywhere.
The anti-racist and anti-fascist coalition Merseyside Together this summer took en masse a message to football fans. It did not restrict in advance who it would engage with according to what “tribe”, political or otherwise, they belonged to. It handed out thousands of leaflets and had hundreds of conversations at both Anfield and Goodison Park.
There is a further reason, for those of us on the anti-capitalist left, why 17 November has such significance. It is best explained in this reflection by the late Marxist critic and theorist John Berger in 1968. It is powerful precisely because he addresses in the autumn of that year of revolutionary upheaval the hard question. What does a demonstration achieve? Isn’t it, by definition, just a gesture – an act of showing, or demonstrating, opposition, but not really changing anything?
Instead of retreating to a pragmatic argument about just “doing something” he explains how the mass demonstration plays its part in the “rehearsal” of revolutionary awareness, a link in the chain of moving beyond a temporary mobilisation and fleeting feeling of power to forms of struggle that do not merely demonstrate but take on and exercise real power.
You ought to read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:
“The demonstration, an irregular event created by the demonstrators, nevertheless takes place near the city centre, intended for very different uses. The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through or of the open spaces they fill. They cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatise the power they still lack.
“The demonstrators’ view of the city surrounding their stage also changes. By demonstrating, they manifest a greater freedom and independence – a greater creativity, even although the product is only symbolic – than they can ever achieve individually or collectively when pursuing their regular lives. In their regular pursuits they only modify circumstances; by demonstrating they symbolically oppose their very existence to circumstances.
“This creativity may be desperate in origin, and the price to be paid for it high, but it temporarily changes their outlook. They become corporately aware that it is they or those whom they represent who have built the city and who maintain it. They see it through different eyes. They see it as their product, confirming their potential instead of reducing it.”
Such an understanding is not a prerequisite for taking part in or building 17 November. All that’s required for that is to want to take a stand against racism and the far right threat. And that sentiment – we should be aware – can be as strong in a Methodist church group as it is at a Marxist discussion meeting.
But it is a very useful understanding for anti-capitalists who in driving forward this big initiative see it as a strategic part of a process of militant struggle leading to a truly radical transformation of Britain.