Flabby Pacifism: review of "Fascism - Theory and Practice" by Dave Renton

Anti-Fascist Action's review of the Socialist Worker Party member Dave Renton's "Fascism - Theory and Practice" published by Pluto Press in 1999. The review appeared in issue 22 of Fighting Talk magazine.

Submitted by Fozzie on February 26, 2019

At a time when the Far Right have lust polled over 11 million votes in the European elections in June and the BNP more than doubled their vote in a number of parts of Britain, this book clearly shows the failure of the Socialist Workers Party/Anti-Nazi League (SWP/ANL) to come to terms with modern day fascism.

Much of the book is an academic analysis of what other writers and historians have said on the subject since the 1920s and is written in such a way as to be of little use to active anti-fascists, but when the author (a member of the SWP/ANL) deals with the current period the weakness of the ANL strategy is fully exposed.

It goes without saying that Anti-Fascist Action is written out of history, and gross exaggeration is commonplace, but his comments on the British National Party's election victory on the Isle of Dogs (1993) draws attention to the flawed analysis. He scoffs at the BNP's anticipation of further electoral success, based on the fact that Beackon lost his seat eight months later, without saying anything on the significance of this episode.

Firstly, despite considerable anti-fascist propaganda, Beackon's election showed the limitations of just being 'anti' and the need to put forward a positive alternative; this led to AFA developing the Filling The Vacuum (FTV) strategy.

Secondly, there is no mention of the Left's support for Labour (who won the seat from the BNP) when it was local disillusion with the Labour Council that caused the problem in the first place. This put the SWP/ANL in the position of defending the status quo, of anti-fascists being hostile to the working class desire for change.

Renton writes that "the revival of the Labour Party as an electoral force undermined the BNP and made it harder for (them) to pose as a viable alternative.” In fact it is precisely because of the election of Labour, both locally and nationally, armed with its anti-working class agenda that, in the absence of a genuine working class alternative, allows the BNP to pose as a very "viable alternative".

As he states later on, "if anti-fascists fail to use the language of class against capital, then they will not persuade working class or lower middle class people who are genuinely angry about the world they live in."

So quite how the SWP/ANL manage to resolve the contradiction between their support for Labour and their role as a “revolutionary socialist party fighting for the interests of the working class” remains a puzzle; and by all accounts is starting to split the party.

According to Renton “Beackon lost his seat in May 1994 and since then the BNP have gone into decline." This is absurd. Not only do the SWP/ANL ignore the writing on the wall after the Isle of Dogs election with regards to anti-fascist strategy, but basic reality is denied. Since 1994 the BNP have adopted the Euro-Nationalist strategy, so successful elsewhere, and have steadily built the necessary infrastructure to sustain it.

Even the most basic knowledge of fascism in Britain would reveal that the BNP have grown in numbers, equipment, technical expertise, and the ability to exploit the media. On what basis can you claim the BNP has "gone into decline"?

Further evidence that the SWP/ANL strategy is built on sand is Renton's assertion that despite the growth of the Far Right, there is also a "rebirth of radical forces on the Left''. The evidence in Britain is that the Left is in terminal decline. While it is obviously true “that it would be wrong to see the continuing success of fascism as inevitable" the situation clearly won't improve if the Left continues to follow strategies that have failed so spectacularly for the last 30 years. The Socialist Labour Party, the main 'left of Labour' rival to the fascists in the Euro-elections were beaten in 7 out of 10 regions where they competed. Despite the BNP's recent attempts to attract middle class support, their main base of support is in white working class areas. Until the Left start to represent the needs of these communities the fascists will continue to grow.

The reason Fighting Talk is reviewing this book in some detail is because the "final section proposes a strategy by which it may be possible to drive fascism, once again, beyond the pale". So, what is this strategy?

Renton starts off by arguing that the best way to defeat fascism is through the United Front - a ''strategy of working class unity". When Trotsky developed the theory in the 1930s he argued that the Socialist and Communist parties. should unite to beat the fascists; in those days both parties were mass working class parties.

Nowadays Labour (the equivalent of European Socialist or Social Democratic parties) is not a mass party but a middle class electoral machine, and their standing in working class communities is well illustrated by the fact that they lost all their council seats in the former Labour stronghold of the Rhondda Valley in May's council elections. Unity with Labour only serves lo discredit anti-fascists and helps the BNP appear as a radical alternative.

Similarly the Communist Party has all but disappeared and certainly the SWP are in no position to present themselves as a mass working class party. So the two central components of the United Front strategy, mass working class reformist and revolutionary parties, are missing. Hardly an auspicious start!

And it’s worth pointing out that as far back as April 1990, when the BNP's Rights For Whites campaign was launched, AFA wrote to the SWP inviting them to "join with us to fight fascism". Not only did they not reply, but two years later; having made no effort to fill the political vacuum created by AFA, they relaunched the ANL to try (unsuccessfully} to duplicate the work AFA was already doing. So much for unity.

As for his claim that "the ANL was established as an orthodox United Front”, not only have we shown that the necessary components are missing, but the ANL's cooperation with Searchlight and the Labour Party, who work closely with the police and intelligence agencies, in fact makes it a Popular Front in Marxist definition (i.e. an alliance with 'anti-fascist’ sections of the establishment) - or perhaps better described as an Unpopular Front!

Renton then goes on to say that "where fascism is already seeking to control the streets, the most important thing to do is to confront the fascists". But when SWP paper sales were being targeted and beaten off the streets all across the country in the early 1990s, the official response was to deny the attacks were taking place.

At a time when the BNP leadership was seriously concerned about the damage that AFA was doing to them, these attacks on the SWP were vital morale boosters for a disillusioned membership. Due to AFA implementing a strategy that the SWP/ANL promote but refuse to act on, the BNP have withdrawn from street activities which is why AFA has developed new strategies to keep the pressure on the fascists. The lack of discussion about this important change of strategy, evident since 1994, is another weakness.

Presumably the absence of any BNP marches and rallies allows the ill-informed or superficial anti-fascist to believe they have gone away, which coupled with a lack of involvement with working class communities leads to complacency. He tells us that “where fascist groups are small, isolated and squabbling, it would be a mistake for Marxists, democrats, or socialists to devote their entire energy to hounding down the few remaining fascists”.

Since 1980 the SWP have often tried to reduce militant anti-fascism to some form of gang warfare, having expelled their own squads, and while they deflected criticism of their abandonment of anti-fascism during the 80s by using this sort of smear, it takes on a new meaning in the present situation where the Far Right are growing, but largely ‘invisible'. Just because Searchlight have told them the BNP are in decline doesn't mean it’s true. And in yet another contradictory move, it is in fact the ANL who insist on mobilising against the "few remaining fascists" of the dead-in-the-water National Front while failing to develop a strategy against the real threat posed by the BNP.

This failure to address the political problems facing anti-fascists is matched by their inability to deal with the physical side of the struggle. Masters of the militant slogan (‘Smash the BNP!', 'By Any Means Necessary!' etc.) their confusion is complete when contemplating anything more demanding than lollipop-waving.

Renton advocates a militant No Platform position and urges “anti-fascists to go into areas where fascists seem strongest” but then argues that any “physical confrontation… must be primarily non-violent”. The contradiction is glaringly obvious, and any of the young students sent into the BNP ambush on the ANL's first ever mobilisation (east London 1992) could testify to the serious injuries that are inflicted when security is ignored. It is no consolation for him to add "where fascism poses a significant threat, anti-fascists may have to defend themselves", because if this isn't organised it won't happen.

Significantly, when he describes the success of the original ANL in the 1970s he mentions the leaflets, the badges and the carnivals but not the squads. The success of the ANL was the combination of physical and political opposition, one could not have succeeded without the other. Not only were the squads used to disrupt fascist marches and meetings, sometimes with devastating effect, but when left-wing paper sales got attacked, fascist sales were targeted in retaliation to dissuade the NF from this course of action. And it worked.

In a bad attack of liberalism Renton says “for anti-fascists, violence is not part of their world view" and dismisses militants as “professional anti-fascists". The whole history of anti-fascism, in this country and everywhere else, has involved the use of force - so why should 'revolutionaries' be so keen to distance themselves from it?

Should we be ashamed of the Italian Arditi Del Populo, the German Red Front Fighters League or even the International Brigades? Is it because the middle classes see violence as 'right-wing', are they scared of upsetting their friends in the Labour Party (Peter Hain MP is the Chair), or do they simply not have the members with the stomach for the fight?

Whatever the answer, it has always been a dishonest position, posing 'mass action' against organised physical opposition, when in fact they are complementary tactics. A similar argument was put forward by the leadership of the German Communist Party in the struggle for power with Hitler's Nazis, leading to a militant from the Communist Youth to comment, ''we don't care for the idea that if we are murdered by SA (Brownshirt) men, a small part of the working class will carry out a half hour protest, which only makes the Nazis laugh for having got off so lightly".

And even Trotsky, the theoretical godfather of the SWP's anti-fascism, insisted that “fighting squads must be created". He stressed that “nothing increases the insolence of the fascists so much as 'flabby pacifism' on the part of the workers organisations" and denounced the "political cowardice" of those who argue "we need mass self-defence and not the militia. But without organised combat detachments, the most heroic masses will be smashed bit by bit by the fascist gangs".

Apart from the obvious necessity of being able to defend your own activities, at present the need for the use of physical force against fascists is minimal. While this may only be temporary, it does call into question the No Platform strategy. Again Renton is found lacking in terms of understanding the current situation.

In the 1970s No Platform was an achievable objective, but in the late 90s, with the BNP withdrawing from public activities, it becomes less relevant. Even when the NF have held an occasional march, never numbering more than 50, the size of the police operation against anti-fascists has prevented any effective confrontation. And despite tampering with the numbers of candidates required to get TV broadcasts and the increase in the cost of standing those candidates, designed to exclude the BNP, the fascists have succeeded in meeting the new targets and gaining a platform. The media are prepared to discuss Euro-Nationalism quite favourably at times, but even so the BNP are developing their use of the Internet and video to ensure their propaganda can't be banned.

His coverage of European events shows the same gap between theory and reality, suggesting mass protests have stopped the growth of fascism. Activists on the ground have a very different view, leading an experienced militant from Hanover to comment “it is bullshit and this Dave Renton knows nothing about fascists and anti-fascists in Germany". He claims that the Far Right are very weak, an absurd assessment, particularly in light of the Deutsche Volks Union entering regional government in Saxony-Anhalt earlier this year, and now Brandenburg as well.

Even if Renton's motive for writing this book was to challenge the views of right-wing historians, it doesn't alter the fact that it proposes a strategy that doesn't work. The SWP/ANL have made no analysis of the changes in British fascist strategy and are sticking to a blueprint drawn up by Trotsky in the 1930s (but never implemented), which largely worked in the 1970s, but is redundant today. His closing comment is that fascism will only be finally defeated when capitalism is overthrown, but with an anti-fascist strategy that makes no impact on the fascists, what chance have they got of overthrowing the capitalist State?

AFA verdict: This is not anti-fascism.