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As fascism begins again to raise its ugly head in Ireland, it is necessary for all its opponents, whether social-democrats, revolutionary socialists of various types or democrats, to consider effective means to restrain its growth and to nullify its influence upon the ordinary masses of Irish society. These masses are at this point generally hostile to fascism and to racism (a seed-bed of fascism) but that can change and in history, has changed before, not just in other lands but in Ireland too during the 1930s.
Traditionally, the views on effective means of defeating fascism in western european society have varied between defeating their arguments, legislating against them or denying them any public space within which to grow. It might be useful to briefly examine the premise and experience of these different approaches in order to evaluate their efficacy.
DENYING FASCISM ANY PUBLIC SPACE
Taking the last case above first, most active antifascists, whether Anarchist, Irish Republican, Communist or Socialist, proclaim the need to physically prevent fascists gathering in public spaces or on platforms. This approach puts these elements into direct confrontation with the forces of the State which see the methods of the Antifa as illegal, as subverting their own roles and, often enough at different times, as a threat to their own plans for repression of resistance to regimes of austerity. 1
In 1970s Britain, those who advocated such an approach, despite the fairly recent history of the War Against Fascism and the 1930s struggles in Britain, were in a small minority and seen, not just by social-democrats and liberals but also by most of the socialist and communist Left, as “ultra-leftists”, “adventurists” or just plain “hooligans and thugs”.
A small English marxist-leninist party2, with its African, Asian and Latin American student connections, promoted the “no free speech for fascists” policy and managed, for awhile, to have the similar “no platform for fascists” policy adopted by the National Union of Students. Some revolutionary Communists, Socialists and Anarchists combined with some militant groups of the ethnic minorities targeted by the fascists to pursue this policy on the streets. The National Front and the British Movement found their marches, meetings, concerts3 and rallies attacked and they were eventually driven off the streets, with many sacrifices in the antifascist movement from the deaths of at least two antifascists4 to jail sentences, heavy fines and physical injuries.
In 2016, the islamophobic party Pegida was prevented by popular direct action from launching itself in Dublin. This approach does seem to have been successful in Britain, at least for decades, and in some other European areas, with ethnic and other minorities gaining a space in which to promote their culture and develop their politics. At the same time, it has to be acknowledge that many of the concerns of the ruling British elite had been successfully addressed or contained during the 1980s: restriction on the trade unions through industrial relations legislation, defeat of the National Union of Miners (1984-’85), of the printing unions at Wapping (1986-87), of the dockers through buy-outs and redundancies; repression of the Irish community through the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act 1974 and the jailing of nearly two score Irish people framed on bombing charges in five separate trials; increasing workers’ insecurity and dependence through large-scale change from being renter-occupiers to mortgage holders.
LEGISLATING AGAINST FASCISM
Legislating against fascism in western european democracies has largely been imposed opportunistically, as with France, Spain and the UK, as the ruling elites faced up to war with states where fascism was already dominant. In the Spanish state it proved ineffective and heroic popular resistance was ferociously overcome by a military-fascist uprising backed by the resources of two fascist states, while the ‘democracies’ stood by or imposed a blockade on relief for the beleaguered Republic. In France, any measures were nullified by the German Nazi invasion. In the UK, the measures proved effective due to the wartime posture of the ruling elites, facing a possible invasion and needing a mobilisation of the entire population to resist that possibility5. In the Irish state, where a new quasi-Republican government was facing the real possibility of a fascist coup aided by elements in the military, some banning measures were effective but these were preceded and assisted by popular mobilisation and direct action against the Blueshirts.
After the defeat of fascism by war and popular resistance, antifascist legislation was imposed on the defeated fascist states by victorious insurgents or by conquering forces. But today, fascism is on the rise in all those states that have been the subject of antifascist legislation. In the Spanish state, where fascism was victorious and remained so for three decades, fascists and their crimes were actually protected and, despite the democratic veneer of the “Transition”, no action was taken against fascists openly parading, displaying fascist paraphernalia and honouring fascist leaders such as General Franco and Primo Rivera (founder of the fascist Falange).
Liberal, social-democratic and even some socialist elements call for the State to bring in and to enforce legislation against “hate speech”. However, apart from being an insufficient answer, the label of “hate speech” has been used in the Spanish state to penalise denunciation of the Spanish State and its police forces.
DEFEATING THE ARGUMENTS OF FASCISM
Defeating the arguments of fascism, such as racist propaganda against ethnic minorities and for special rights for one section of the population, conservative and homophobic ideology, arguments in favour of male superiority, are argued to be necessary to defeat fascism since legal repression and active suppression can only drive those forces temporarily underground, from where sooner or later, they will emerge again.
Not quite the same but a similar non-State and pacific line is that the fascists need to be over-awed by the mobilisation of their opponents and their pariah status demonstrated to a passive public by the mass of anti-fascist numbers.
In the 1970s and 1980s in Britain, this was the dominant line among anti-fascists, among social-democrats such as the Labour Party, liberals, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Trotskyists of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party and of the Socialist Workers’ Party6. Their first tactic upon hearing of a plan for a fascist mobilisation was to build an antifascist mobilisation near the same point, to show large numbers opposing and hopefully outnumbering the fascists.
However, the fascists were already attacking ethnic minorities and other groups and hanging around oppositional mobilisations to pick off individuals or small groups. They had also attacked a number of antifascist public meetings with clubs and bottles and even a gas spray into eyes. Left-wing paper sellers were targeted on the street. Irish solidarity and other solidarity marches and meetings were also attacked and though certainly the Irish proved able to defend themselves, during the scuffles, the police were able to find an excuse to arrest the Irish marchers.
The leaders of the peaceful opposition to fascism policy refused to change their line and, as the likelihood of violent confrontations between fascists and their opponents increased, would call for a rally near the fascist mobilisation and then lead the antifascist march away from the fascists. The SWP promoted youth concerts under the banner of Rock Against Racism, but the fascists continued to mobilise.
In retrospect, it did seem as though the small and large-scale pitched battles with with fascists and with the police escorting and protecting them were what was demoralising the fascists and leading to splits within their organisation, ultimately defeating the fascist offensive of those decades.
Even so, the leaders of AFA (Anti-Fascist Action) which mobilised most of the successful actions against the British fascist organisations and their mobilisations, certainly in London, argued that it was necessary also to defeat fascism politically7 and that failure to do so would ensure a resurgence of fascism at some time in the future. This prediction has surely come true in Britain with EDL and UKIP, for example.
In my opinion, each of these approaches is necessary but overall reliance on any individual approach is likely to bring the democratic forces to tragic defeat.
The model of active denial of a public space has a position of central importance; the action to prevent the launch of Pegida proved successful and no doubt such actions will be necessary again in the future (though perhaps learning from that action to prevent or at least minimise arrests of antifascists).
I do not believe it is the role of antifascists to call for capitalist state action against fascists and any prohibitive legislation should be specifically anti-racist, anti-homophobic etc. A wide catch-all “anti-hate speech” legislation will find revolutionaries its targets more often than it does fascists (as is happening in the Spanish state at the moment).
Defeating the arguments of fascism must have a role in denying the fascists many of their recruits. As in European countries in the 1930s including Ireland and Germany in particular, some of the foot soldiers of the fascists are the oppressed poor, the educationally disadvantaged, the misguided as to who their real enemies are and where they are to be found.
In the 1930s the enemy was portrayed as being the Jews, Communists and homosexuals inside the country, whilst today those bogeymen are replaced by migrants, moslems, gays and supporters the right to choose abortion. In the 1930s the external enemy was the then-dominant European powers, France and the UK, as well as the Soviet Union; today, it is the EU.
It is not the role of anti-fascists to defend the EU (which to my mind is indefensible and which in any case will gain us nothing) but rather to point towards the real enemy, Irish capitalism and foreign imperialism. We need to show that through constant demonstration of examples and by leading struggles against those institutions.
In particular in Ireland it is of the utmost necessity to expose the nationalist posture of the fascists and racists. In two showings of Gemma Doherty supporters in Dublin recently, they flew many Irish tricolours, played ‘rebel songs’ and sang the Irish National Anthem (The Soldiers’ Song, by Republican Peadar Kearney). In a confrontation between them and the anti-fascists, it can seem that the fascists and the racists are upholding the honour of the nation. However the Blueshirts actually upheld the partition of the nation and the granting of a portion to a foreign power and fascists will end up supporting our foreign-dependent capitalist class. In addition, Irish fascists have been seen making overtures to Loyalists in the Six Counties, forces loyal to an occupying power.
Apart from the fact that we are all descended from migrants, many of those historic heroes celebrated in ‘rebel songs’ were born abroad, were descended from recent migrants or had at least one foreign parent; that list would include Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy and Mary McCracken, Thomas Davis, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, Jim Larkin, Constance Markievicz, Eamon De Valera, Erkine and Molly Childers …..
We need to deny the fascists any place in popular anti-capitalist struggles, as successfully done with the brief flare of Yellow Vests organisation in Dublin and will no doubt need to be done again, for example in housing demonstrations.
Migrants need to organise themselves against attacks and increased exploitation and we need to be active in their support. This is the case too for other targeted groups; liberal cries for justice or for the application of “anti-hate speech” legislation will avail them not at all in the long run.
Having said that active denial of a public space for fascists is necessary, I would add that secret mobilisations should be for work that needs to be secret; however it is ludicrous to gather secretly and then to march out to stand in front of the fascists shouting at them. That work of visible opposition does need to be done but publicly, with mass mobilisations – antifascist forces should be able to outnumber the fascist and racist mobilisations in Ireland by a factor of ten to one. We should have effective amplification systems, play antifascist songs, and fly relevant flags (in particular, in my opinion, the Starry Plough, flag of the Irish working class in struggle in 1913 and in 1916).
It is crucial for us to realise that without revolutionary answers to crisis, fascism will present false solutions and diversions, calculated to have an appeal to sections of the population. And the revolutionary answers need to be not only theoretical but seen in practice also, actions that seem as though the revolutionaries and their allies are seriously fighting the system to advance the cause of the working people.
Fascism is one of the faces of Capitalism in specific circumstances. Ultimately, as long as capitalism exists, the danger of Fascism will never be far away.
1Recently the media reported judgement against a number of people who had allegedly attacked Irish fascists while the latter were on their way to the 2016 attempt to launch the Islamophobic party Pegida in Dublin. Others are currently awaiting trial for allegedly attacking apparently Polish fascists who were trying support the same launch. Of all the European countries where the launch of Pegida had been planned, Ireland may be the only one where this was signally unsuccessful.
2English Communist Movement (Marxist-Leninist), which became the EC Party (m-l). It was mostly active in London and Birmingham. The NUS currently has a a “No Platform” policy but which applies to specific organisations and individuals, including some British fascist and racist organisations.
3For example of the fascist skinhead band Skrewdriver.
4Both were killed by London Metropolitan Police truncheons: Kevin Gately, Leeds student of Irish parents, 1974; Blair Peach, New Zealand teacher, 1979.
5In the USA, fascism was only repressed to any great extent when the USA decided to enter the Second World War, which was after the bombing by the Imperial Japanese of Pearl Harbour.
6There were elements within all these sections that did not agree with official line and some acted in opposition to it. The SWP expelled those who practiced direct action against fascists and many of those elements went on to form Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action.
7For this premise and a partial history of the physical struggle against fascist organisations in 1980s and 1990s Britain, see for example, Beating the Fascists – the untold story of Anti-Fascist Action, by Sean Birchall, Freedom Press, 2010.