Anti-fascism in the 21st Century - Phil Dickens

Phil Dickens looks at contemporary forms of fascism. Originally published in September 2009.

In Britain and Europe today, organised fascist groups have been gaining strength and popularity on a scale unseen since the end of the Second World War. A majority of European countries now have fascists elected to government, they form a significant coalition in the European Parliament, and their appeals to popular racism on issues like immigration are easy fodder for mainstream politicians determined to push the agenda even further to the right.

The important question, for any dedicated social activist, then, is how do we stop this?

The fascist agenda quite clearly runs contrary to the goals of liberty, equality, community, and solidarity that are at the heart of labour, socialist, and anti-capitalist organising. Thus, a strong anti-fascist movement is vital to the class struggle and to grass-roots community activism.

The rising tide

The sheer scale of the rising tide of fascism across Europe is startling. To give just a few examples, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) rose to power in Switzerland on the back of an openly-racist “black sheep” anti-immigration campaign. In Greece, the police have been openly collaborating with fascist paramilitary group Golden Dawn to wage a war of terror against migrants and left-wing workers’ groups. In Italy, the government has revived the Blackshirts as part of its vicious pogrom against the Roma people. Both Germany and Russia are experiencing an unprecedented level of neo-Nazi thuggery.

In Britain, traditionally the strongest bastion of anti-fascist sentiment in Europe, the British National Party (BNP) have made leaps and bounds in local council elections, as well as having their leader as an MEP. Meanwhile, militant groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Casuals United have taken over the mantle of street violence that the BNP have at least officially abandoned.

The consequences of such a rise are apparent for all to see. Amnesty International has pointed to a “growing trend of discrimination against Roma people across Europe,” from recent attacks in South Belfast to Government discrimination in Slovakia and fascist marches through Roma areas in the Czech Republic. Every so often, anti-Semitic attacks and vandalism will spike in France, among other places. And across the continent, attacks on Arabs and anti-Muslim sentiment have reached fever pitch.

Faced with such consequences, it is clear how anti-fascists must respond. What we need, quite simply, is solid organisation willing to take the fight to the fascists on any ground that they choose. If they have groups of thugs amassing on the streets, then we must be prepared to take the streets back from them and stand up as a physical opposition to their violence and intimidation. If they hold rallies and marches, then we must drown them out with our own rallies and marches. If they attempt to organise, then we must fight this by dispersing their meetings and disrupting their calls to arms. If they hand out leaflets, then we must oppose them with our own leafleting campaigns, combating their lies and fear-mongering whilst making sure that their message of hate does not spread. And, most importantly, we must be ready to combat their ideas with our own.

Every piece of misinformation must be exposed by way of facts and reason, and all their claims to “credibility” and “legitimacy” shown up for what they truly are. This is particularly important at election times as, though undoubtedly there are a myriad of problems with the status quo, what the fascists represent is a thousand times worse.

For the most part, the above describes tactics that are already in use by anti-fascist organisations. However, there are some serious flaws that need to be addressed. For instance, whilst groups such as Antifa are firmly rooted in grass-roots, non-hierarchical structures, the bigger anti-fascist groups such as Unite Against Fascism (UAF) are extremely hierarchical, and the decisions at the top aren’t influenced by the opinions of the supporters on the ground.

This, to my mind, is serious folly. What this means, in essence, is that UAF are completely detached from the ordinary people whose lives are affected by fascism every day. They hold rallies and protests where the destination is set by upper-echelon planners after negotiations with police, with no input at all from the bottom, and they release statements to the press. As far as serious activism and organising goes, however, their achievements are non-existent.
This kind of “anti-fascism,” then, is precisely of the kind that we need to avoid. One cannot wave a placard whilst hemmed in by police, shout out a few chants, and buy a copy of the Socialist Worker, and call it activism. It is not. Quite simply, performing this kind of action whilst remaining detached from the local community is not only ineffective but counter productive.

Addressing the roots of fascism

Anybody can see the consequences of organised fascist activity and know instantly how to respond to it. What makes a successful movement, however, is also looking towards the roots of such sentiment and trying to address that.
Fascism did not emerge one day from a vacuum and nor is it populated solely by people who are simply irrational racists the world would be better off without. No, a popular and growing fascist movement quite clearly contains a significant number of quite ordinary working class people who have for one reason or another thrown their lot in with the far-right. Unless we want to bow to snobbery, we cannot simply write this off as proof that the “lower classes” are all simply vile racists, we must begin to address the concerns of these people.

Unfortunately, an awful lot of people who oppose fascism on an intellectual level do move towards that conclusion, and fascists prey upon that fact. So, when somebody says that we need immigrants because “poor people are all lazy, ignorant, benefit-cheating scum” they are able to use this to their advantage and appeal to yet more people. We must reject this tactic and see it for the thinly-veiled class hatred that it is.

What we need, instead, is education. At the core of any workable organising effort is a group of dedicated activists doing their utmost to educate people about the problems that need to be overcome, about the importance of organising as a community and networking with similar groups, about the realities that we’re faced with, and so on. This involves going into schools, colleges, workplaces, and local communities to find people willing to hear our message. We have to spread the word on what fascism is, why it is a bad thing, how we oppose it, and what the alternatives are.

This cannot be done through sloganeering, either. Whether the audience is students, workers, or concerned local people, they are not stupid, and they will not see your point of view by being patronised or by having a slogan drilled into their heads. Fascists are gaining support by playing on and twisting legitimate grievances, and the only way to combat that is by addressing both the distortions and the underlying worries openly and honestly.

To take a more common example, it is quite clear that immigrants are not “stealing our jobs,” as fascists claim. However, what is happening is that corporations are exploiting immigrants and turning the native and foreign elements of the working class against each other in order to maximise profit. We need to get this message out, and to show that the solution isn’t to simply “kick them out.” A far more realistic and viable way of combating this problem is to work with immigrants, to bring them into trade union struggles, and to work together to fight the real cause of our problems – corporate capitalism.

That’s just one example, but it’s quite clear that anti-fascism needs to link into social activism: labour organisation, anti-capitalist organisation, local health and social programs for those abandoned by the government, education, and the like. In other words, engaging with local communities on issues they’re concerned about.

Anti-fascists also have to be careful with how we campaign during elections. In the first instance, we should not overstate the importance of voting. Voting is neither the prime nor the most effective way of combating fascism. It has its uses, particularly when it can be used to help keep the extreme right out of power, but it also has its limits.

For example, we cannot be seen simply as another arm of the campaign for the ruling parties, as a lot of people are – quite justifiably – disillusioned with them. To take the recent European Parliament elections as a case in point, one of the main follies of the British anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate was to involve Labour Party MPs, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in what they were doing.

Particularly as one of the main ways in which the BNP won support was by portraying themselves as the “alternative” to the Labour government, this was a grave error. New Labour have, during the last decade, continued the Conservative policies that entrenched private power and annihilated the organised working class. Hence, utilising them for a campaign will only serve to alienate ordinary people from the anti-fascist cause.

What we need to be doing, instead, is countering the idea (put about by the government as much as by the BNP) that fascism is radically different from the incumbent ruling class. Rather, the likes of the BNP merely represent a logical extreme of mainstream politics. It is the government which has destroyed the labour movement, wedded private power ever tighter to the state, waged a vicious war on migrants with internment and forced deportations, and used race to turn the working class in on itself. The role of the fascists on the fringes has been to help push the government agenda even further rightward whilst providing a convenient foil to mask this fact.

The folly of sloganeering

A common mistake of anti-fascist groups is that they play into this deliberate misconception through their use of sloganeering as a campaign tool. As an example, take the favourite slogan of UAF; “the BNP is a Nazi Party – smash the BNP.”

Undoubtedly, the sentiment expressed within the slogan is true. The BNP are fascists, utilising extremely authoritarian nationalism to promote a world order in which state and corporate power are absolute and intertwined. Their manifesto includes a pledge to “restore our economy and land to British [state] ownership” as a part of their “third position” economics, which echo Mussolini’s statement in The Doctrine of Fascism that “Fascism recognises the real needs which gave rise to socialism and trade-unionism, giving them due weight in the guild or corporative system in which divergent interests are coordinated and harmonised in the unity of the State.”

At the same time, the party goes beyond fascism to Nazism with their ethno-nationalist ideology, opposing “miscegenation” (race-mixing) and a “multi-racist” society in favour of the one composed of “the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population that existed prior to 1948,” as outlined in the party’s constitution. Even if this is achieved by expulsion rather than extermination, as was Hitler’s original intention, this amounts to nothing less than ethnic cleansing.

It is true, then, to declare that “the BNP are a Nazi party,” but what exactly does chanting such a slogan achieve? In my own opinion, the answer is nothing at all. Presented with the evidence, from the party’s own constitution and policy statements, the public could very easily conclude that the BNP are Nazis and fascists. But whilst the BNP are framing their ideology in sophisticated polemics which address the concerns and fears, if grossly distorted for doctrinal purposes, of ordinary people, chanting “the BNP are Nazis” only serves to put people off.

Parties such as the BNP are seen, falsely, as offering a radical alternative to a mainstream political system that has annihilated working class culture and marginalised great swathes of the population. If all anti-fascists are doing is chanting and saying “no, they’re bad” without offering our own grass-roots alternative, then we will be seen merely as cranks and we will get nowhere.
If we are to present a credible alternative to organised fascism for ordinary people, it must also be an alternative to what is on offer in the mainstream. Here we have to be extremely honest. People have to know that there’s no quick fix to the problems that we all face if they’re not to vote for fascists offering exactly that. They have to know that the electoral system and reform have their limits, as history tells us. If we take any successful progressive movement of the past, whether it be civil rights, the suffragettes, the abolitionists, or anybody else, then we can see this. They used votes and petitions and so forth, but they also broke the law and were sent to jail for struggling. They used sit-ins, occupations, blockades, strikes, and virtually every other means at their disposal. Had they not, then we certainly wouldn’t enjoy the freedoms that we do today. So, yes, there is a hard fight ahead, but it can achieve real results and certainly offers greater promise than voting for or supporting fascists.

Opportunity and danger

We have reached a point, right now, where people are disillusioned with the status quo. They can see the effect that a culture of greed and selfish pursuit of profit, fostered under the dominant corporate-capitalist system, has on society.

Workers are losing their jobs so that their bosses can maintain profits in the recession. Billions of pounds of public money have been poured into keeping the banks afloat as they repossess homes at unprecedented rates. Social atomisation brought on by corporate dominance of the public sphere has led to spiralling crime rates and an entire generation marginalised by the system.
Such a situation offers both opportunity and danger to those struggling for serious social change. A population this disaffected by the status quo can go one of two ways, providing of course that a resurgent capitalist class doesn’t quickly reassert control through the propaganda system. Either they can be mobilised into mass popular movements that will challenge the injustices we see all around us and make a real, positive difference to the world that we live in, or they will turn to fascism.

At the moment, it is the latter course that is winning out. Instead of seeing the chance to organise the entire working class and fight against a system that has brought our society to its knees, they are turning on immigrants and minority communities. Instead of creating a real alternative to the disastrous policies offered up by a government in thrall to private power, they are voting for parties that will strengthen the ties between state and corporate power. Instead of fighting the disastrous division of the working class along racial lines, they are further withdrawing into their own, atomised racial “community.” The people are choosing fascism over activism.

This is precisely why anti-fascism has to be tied to class struggle and social activism to be truly effective. We have to make a serious effort to mobilise the population in a positive way and show them that there is a real alternative to the problems we currently face. Otherwise, all we are doing is driving away one fringe group for the benefit of a ruling class already enacting some of their worst policies.

Phil Dickens is an anarchist, anti-fascist, and trade unionist from Liverpool, England. He writes regularly about class struggle, racism, fascism, and imperialism, and his blogs can be found at and