When I hear the word 'fascist', I do not think of the assorted pub bores or the few full-blooded bigots who are the stereotypical activists of the 'far right'. Nor do I think of half-drunk, testosterone-driven skinheads in tight-fitting jeans or combat trousers, bawling out anti-immigrant slogans richly spiced with obscenity. Least of all do I think of the thousands of disgruntled Labour supporters, ordinary men and women in working class enclaves, who have given the British National Party its newfound electoral clout. None of these people are fascists, in any meaningful sense of the word. They are victims rather than aggressors - victims of failed liberal social experiments, heartless economic programmes and, above all perhaps, of betrayal by a Labour movement that was set up specifically to defend them.
The left, and many bien pensant liberals and Tories with them, would like us to visualise fascists as aggrieved, poorly educated working class whites - white males in particular, since they are a double negative for the Politically Correct. Such progressives (as they invariably call themselves) use accusations of racism and fascism as excuses to bully and oppress impoverished white communities and isolate them in racially based ghettos. For white liberals, anti-racism becomes a form of auto-racism, directed at members of their own race who are deemed to be socially inferior. It is, in other words, a new type of snobbery and social exclusion. Likewise, the true heirs to fascism are not skinheads, bigots, or BNP-voting former socialists. They are the BNP's sworn enemies, the 'anti-fascist' shock troops of the left, whose slogans of contrived defiance, melodramatic gesture politics and emotional blackmail reach far beyond the Marxist coteries where they originate.
At Burnley, where the BNP made its strongest local government gains this year, the paradox of anti-fascism was apparent in a demonstration by the Anti-Nazi League, images of which were widely disseminated in the press. Piously anti-racist and inclusive, the protesters were overwhelmingly white and middle-class. Proclaiming the virtues of tolerance, their eyes shone with the purity of hatred that is the prerogative of extremists the world over. In that almost archetypal left-wing demo, the chants and clenched fists of the scruffy young men, the screams and hot tears of the even scruffier women, the banners calling for political parties to be suppressed (in the name of tolerance, presumably) expressed something larger than a Lancastrian quirk. For anti-fascists base their campaigns on a sense of outrage that anyone, anywhere should dare to disagree with them. In their appeal to feeling over reason, force over argument, such activists resemble most those phantom Nazis they are claiming to 'fight'. This is why, in a stroke of post-modern irony, anti-fascism is the new fascism.
There is, in British - and especially English - political culture, a rich vein of sentimental radicalism, to which anti-fascist slogans appeal. It is from this section of politics and society that anti-fascist campaigners derive emotional (and, crucially, financial support). Unlike working class communities, they do not see the violent, arrogant face of anti-fascism, any more than most of Germany's Mittelestand witnessed directly the violence of the Brownshirts. This strand of radical thought, ironically, has its origins in the imperial epoch, amongst a burgeoning middle class influenced strongly by evangelical Christianity, which believed that it had a duty to 'save' benighted natives. The missionary impulse usually placed concern for the Empire's subject peoples, and their material or spiritual well-being, well above concern for the indigenous working class. Typical of such philanthropists is Mrs Jellyby in Dickens's Bleak House, whose eyes 'had a curious habit of looking seeming to look a long way off, as if they could see nothing nearer than Africa'. Like many a modern liberal, Mrs Jellyby neglected those around her, including notoriously her own children. Her thoughts were directed instead towards the (fictitious) African possession of Borrioboola Gha and her idealistic plans for its 'development'.
The world of Non-Governmental Organisations is replete with Mrs or 'Ms' Jellybys. But in a post-colonial age, the phenomenon of immigration has brought their concerns closer to home. Today's Ms Jellyby is just as likely to work for the race relations unit of a local authority as for a Third World NGO. For 'Ethnic minority communities' have become the new Borrioboola Gha. They are to be patronisingly helped and pitied, even given special rights, but their members are not to be treated as individuals and the reality of their cultures is to be ignored or scorned. As the white liberal person's burden, the black or brown skinned citizen is supported as long as he reads from a Politically Correct script and shows gratitude and obeisance to those pressure groups that 'care' about him. It is into this Jellyby Syndrome, a legacy of the missionary age, that anti-fascist groupings successfully tap. Guilt-ridden liberals confuse the violent cant of anti-fascism with humanitarian concern, much as the violent cant of fascism was once confused with appeals to tradition and order.
But the missionary impulse does not end with ethnic minorities. In anti-fascist campaigns, there are vestiges of earlier evangelical missions, aimed at the indigenous population, with a view to controlling and pacifying it. Working class communities are treated by anti-fascists, and their liberal apologists, as benighted white tribes to be civilised and subdued. The evangelical fervour present in anti-fascism accounts for the lachrymose quality of its activists, whose tearful appeals are often a prelude to acts of violence or demands for censorship. This is a characteristic they share with fascists, who were the most emotional and least reasoning of political campaigners. Like evangelical temperance campaigners of a bygone age, anti-fascists appear to be trying to save working class people from themselves. Their particualrism, expressed through opposition to large-scale immigration, is labelled as 'racism' and treated as a new form of vice. Their patriotic gut instincts, and their wish to preserve the traditional character of their neighbourhoods, are dismissed as ignorant prejudices, from which white working class men and women must be emancipated just as their forebears were emancipated from drink.
Like evangelicals, anti-fascists seek to liberate by a combination of moral pressure and legal force. Anti-fascism is, however, a radical secular ideology that allows no possibility of repentance or absolution. The evangelical Protestants who joined temperance or anti-vice campaigns were often oppressive and insensitive, but their zeal was frequently held in check by a concern for individual souls. Anti-fascists, by contrast, have no such concerns. They seek to save communities, by changing their collective consciousness or forcing them to conform. Their ideology allows for no concern for individuals, except for attack or denunciation. This contempt for the individual, the white, male worker in particular, allows the anti-fascist to reconcile two contradictory demands - for civil disobedience (including violence) and for the massive extension of state power.
Anti-fascist propaganda makes frequent address to the history and mythology of the left, to which the movement volubly lays claim. Searchlight, anti-fascism's house journal, make frequent reference to the Spanish Civil War, carrying photographs of heroic resistance fighters and carrying interviews with stalwarts of the International Brigade, now elderly and impressive. They evoke the memory of 'The Battle of Cable Street' and similar events where in the 1930s when working class Jewish communities stood up to the Blackshirt followers of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. There is in these images an explicit and false assumption of continuity. It is false because in both the Spanish Civil War and Cable Street, a high level of working class self-organisation was involved, and with it a genuine aspiration towards a just society.
Searchlight, by contrast, bases most of its activities on accusation, smear and incitement to hatred - often class hatred directed at working class racists. This was not always so. Its founder, Maurice Ludmer, was a thoughtful ex-Communist Party member for whom the education of working class communities was important, and who believed in freedom and dignity for individuals of all backgrounds. Anti-fascist campaigners today, including Searchlight, refuse to concede to their opponents - especially working class opponents - any sense of human dignity. Working class racists are described routinely as scum or products of the sewer, in a curious echo of the Nazis' twisted denunciations of Jews and other 'enemies' of the Volk. Searchlight still, on occasion, carries intelligent, thoughtful commentaries, especially on events abroad, but in its refusal to compromise with or attempt to win over its opponents, it perpetuates conflicts of a social and racial character.
This latter attribute it shares with the Anti-Nazi League, which is far more explicit in its advocacy of violence and its hatred of the white working class. At one level, the ANL sets itself up as a secular missionary organisation for anti-fascism. At another, its overwhelmingly bourgeois or petty bourgeois activists set out to create an atmosphere of intimidation and violence when they descend on areas such as Burnley. Like a fascist movement, the ANL is explicitly committed to the abolition of free speech. Its activities make it the heir less of the Cable Street battlers and more of the BUF interlopers. Like the Blackshirts, ANL protesters assume the 'right' to descend on working class areas, threaten and harass their inhabitants, incite and engage in violence.
The Anti-Nazi League is linked intimately to the Socialist Workers Party, the best known and most aggressive far left faction in British politics since the demise of orthodox Communism. Unlike the Communist Party, the SWP is opposed to the parliamentary road to socialism and advocates violent revolution. The SWP worldview regards all existing political institutions as outgrowths of 'capitalism'. Neither capitalism itself, nor its institutions, can be 'patched up' or 'reformed'. The party's struggle, therefore, is as much against 'reformist ideas and leaders' as against the capitalist economy:
The state machine is a weapon of capitalist class rule and therefore must be smashed. The present parliament, army, police and judges cannot simply be taken over and used by the working class. There is, therefore, no parliamentary road to socialism.
This rhetoric of class warfare disguises a critique of parliamentary rule identical to that of the Italian Squadristi, Mussolini's foot soldiers who closed the Italian parliament and installed a fascist state. To Mussolini, parliamentary rule was so corrupt - and, indeed, 'bourgeois', that it could not be patched up. The fascist ideal of the Corporate State was based on representation by trade. This policy finds strong echoes in the SWP, which seeks to replace Parliament with a series of 'workers councils'. It also resembles the modern anti-fascist obsession with group rights, whereby racial minorities (and all 'oppressed communities') are represented collectively by activist pressure groups that claim to speak for them. Whilst resembling fascist politics, the SWP's position differs dramatically from that of Marx, who especially in his later years strongly favoured the parliamentary road. Even Lenin, who was always a pragmatist, believed in the use of any expedient institutions, including parliaments. In ultra-left groupuscles he saw only an 'infantile disorder'.
Another far left faction that has had a seminal influence on the anti-fascist is the International Marxist Group (IMG), whose luminaries included Tariq Ali. Long defunct now, the IMG played an important role in the student agitation and violent demonstrations of the late 1960s, many of which called to mind the behaviour of young Stormtroopers in the colleges of Weimar Germany. Crucially, the IMG rejected the white working class as hopelessly reactionary and saw the new revolutionary elite as students, ethnic minorities and feminist women. The ideology and tactics and ideology of anti-fascism today owe much to the IMG's profoundly anti-working class and anti-white prejudices.
These far left groups have based their politics on interpretations of Trotsky's 'permanent revolution', a purist doctrine of continual change akin to that of Mao's Cultural Revolution - and Hitler's Third Reich. To the Fuhrer, the Nazi 'revolutionary creative will' had 'no fixed aim, no permanency, only eternal change'. On the left, anti-fascism has risen to prominence at precisely the time when socialism lacks permanency and continuity, whether as an ideal or a practical programme. In their strident emotionalism and ritualistic denunciation of opponents, anti-fascist campaigns act as a substitute for a coherent left-wing ideology. The same was true of fascist movements, which aimed to replace the left by appealing to more basic psychological impulses of fear, envy and hatred.
Anti-fascism shares with its alleged opposite a belief in the cleansing or redemptive power of violence. They share as well an obsessive preoccupation with race. Indeed it could be said that organisations like Searchlight and the ANL do more than even the BNP to keep racial awareness alive. Both fascism and anti-fascism are uncompromisingly modernist movements, concerned with narrow categorisation and so unsuited to a post-modern age of complexity and permutation. Searchlight, for example, was horrified when some Hindu and Sikh community workers refused to be classified alongside Muslims as 'Asians'. Here were ethnic minorities daring to defy the pressure group definitions. In reality, the violence and nihilism of anti-fascist activists are almost laughably remote from the conservatism of most ethnic minority populations.
It is easy, and tempting, at times, to dismiss anti-fascism as a peripheral fringe interest, irrelevant to our lives and thoughts. However its crocodile-tear appeals are in some ways more effective than those of the more traditional far left. Anti-fascists claim to be opposing a political evil. In so doing, they evoke memories of that evil and the wrong done to millions of our fellow human beings. Many people of good will, therefore, fail to see that they are being manipulated. This is why ritual denunciations and balkanising 'group rights' are in danger of pervading public life. The subjectivist definition of a racist incident in the MacPherson Report - any incident that the victim or anyone else 'perceives' as racist - has all the totalitarian characteristics of anti-fascist anti-fascism, yet few dare to describe it as totalitarian for fear that they might be smeared as 'racist'. Likewise, the attempts of New Labour apparatchiks to unearth political 'information' about the Paddington rail crash survivors had all the furtive and perverse instincts of a Searchlight campaign. Such influences have touched conservative politics as well. In the interests of inclusiveness, the Tories tend increasingly towards reverse discrimination and group rights, forgetting that many black and Asian people want freedom from racial politics.
Anti-fascism, like its fascist precursor, is primarily anti-human and misanthropic. It despises its supposed constituents as much as its sworn enemies, and has a vested interest in promoting racial conflict. When we recognise that fascists and anti-fascists are as one, their rhetoric of hatred will lose its power.