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Islamophobia and Anti-immigrants in Europe: How Can We Fight Fascism and The Far Right Today?

Some portraits of right wing press in Europe constantly whip up racism.

The lessons of the past vividly demonstrate the necessity of building a movement to stop the fascists before they come to power.

Although we are not yet at the stage where fascist states are established, we have witnessed politics being pulled dangerously to the right on questions around immigration, Islamophobia and refugees. It is not the time for complacency or panic, but an urgent assessment of the necessary response to these forces is required.


The wrong road: concession and compromise

One factor in the political polarisation that has taken place since the financial crash has been the collapse of social democratic and Labour-type parties across Europe. Apart from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the picture is one of decline for the established centre-left parties in Europe that have dominated politics for 50 years or more. Part of the explanation of this collapse, is the response of centre-left parties to the rise in racism. Almost every social democratic party has reacted to a rise in racist, far right and fascist forces by making concessions on the question of racism, which has gone hand in hand with implementing austerity to pay for the economic crisis.

It is important to remember that New Labour in Britain contributed to the climate of racism and Islamophobia. Tony Blair’s government fuelled Islamophobia to justify his disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.He conceded to the hysteria around asylum seekers and refugees, and Gordon Brown [former UK prime minister from the Labour Party from 2007-2010] adopted the slogan “British Jobs for British workers” which emboldened the likes of the BNP [British National Party, a UK far-right fascist political party]. Even Ed Miliband [a British politician and was a leader of Labour Party 2010-2015] made concessions on the argument with his “controls on immigration” pledge, and mug, during the 2015 election.

The logic behind this compromise has been the idea that to tackle the support for racist populist or fascist parties, you need to talk their language. The argument goes that the left needs to “own” the discussion around immigration, and to listen to “genuine concerns” about migrants and refugees.

A favourite phrase of the press and politicians is the “white working class” who are portrayed as inherently open to racist ideas. The logic that flows from this is that the left wing and social democratic parties must speak to these people by using language that makes concessions on racism and sees migrants and refugees as a problem.

This approach is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, there is no separate white working class, nor is there one “white working class culture”. The working class in Britain is multicultural. We see this in every strike, on every picket line, every march to defend the NHS. White workers in Britain don’t have separate interests to black, Asian or Muslim workers. We all face low wages, cuts to public services and a housing crisis.

Secondly, it plays to the reactionary idea that black workers or migrants somehow get “special favours” from the state. This is the oldest argument in the fascist playbook – that the government is favouring “foreigners” over “our own”. It is a racist myth.

It is true that many white workers face unemployment or poor housing. But this is because they are working class, not white. Racism means that black, Asian and migrant workers face the same problems, but typically in intensified form.Rather than talking the ground away from the racist and fascist right, making concessions only legitimises racist arguments and gives credence to the idea that there is a problem with migrants or Muslims.Rather than taking votes away from the right, this strategy has seen their votes go up, often at the expense of traditional parties of the centre-left.

This scenario has been repeated around Europe, where social democratic parties have seen their vote collapse as they have made concessions to racism. Years of speeches, press stories and government policies that have labelled Muslims, migrants and refugees a problem have created the conditions in which fascists and racists feel confident. Compromising or adopting softer racist arguments will do nothing to stem the tide of the rising far right.


The EU against racism?

Some people look to the EU as a bulwark against the rise of racism in Europe. This is often for good reasons. The supposed internationalism and co-operation of the EU can often be viewed as positive compared to the politics of narrow nationalism espoused by the right. The reality is, however, very different.

The EU is no anti-racist institution, as its policies towards refugees have shown. The Mediterranean Sea has become a graveyard, with more than 14,000 people drowning attempting to cross the sea to Europe since 2014. Instead of allowing people to come to Europe, Frontex, the EU border agency, focuses on how to lock refugees out or send them back.

In response to pressure from far right politicians including Mateo Salvini of Italy and Viktor Orban of Hungary, an EU summit in July 2018 ordered rescue missions to be cut. The thinking was clear and callous. Leaving refugees to drown would discourage more people from taking the dangerous sea route to Europe. In late 2018, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised millions of euros for a 10,000-strong border army that will be equipped with guns to patrol Europe’s border.

Is it any surprise that when the EU has such a barbaric policy towards refugees, racist populist and fascist parties feel emboldened? Their talk of a “refugee invasion” of Europe, which was once an idea consigned to the fringe far right, is now accepted as fact by EU leaders and heads of state from Merkel to Macron. Indeed, it is within the EU that fascist and racist forces have seen their votes rise and the political conversation pulled their way.

Given their disdain for migrants and refugees from outside of Europe, we can’t look to the EU as a bulwark against racism.


Trade unions, the left and the fight against fascism

There is also a line of argument which suggests that the best way to combat fascism is to just fight austerity, cuts and attacks on living standards. The argument goes that if we campaign for jobs and homes, we will undercut the racist pull of the far right.

In one sense this is of course true. The people at the top of society use racism to divide ordinary people. They divert the anger at unemployment, lack of housing and low wages away from themselves by pointing the finger at migrants and “foreigners”. The fascists and far right build on this racism and sharpen it. The fight on economic issues is therefore a crucial one because it exposes the real problem in society – the bosses who exploit us all, wherever we are from.

It is wrong however to assume that if we fight on these issues, questions of racism will just disappear. Having a strong trade union movement, a big social democratic party and even a high level of class struggle does not mean that racism and fascism will fade away.

When society enters a period of crisis, it leads to political polarisation. While this can mean that ordinary people can be pulled to the left towards socialist ideas and trade unions, at the same time the forces of the fascist right can grow. A specific anti-racist and anti-fascist movement is needed to confront this threat.

The experience of France is an important example. In the 1980s, the French left was one of the strongest in Europe. Francois Mitterand was elected on a left wing manifesto, and the trade unions were powerful bodies that successfully resisted attacks on working conditions and the right to strike. The FN began to represent a serious threat, with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Eurofascist strategy having some success.

In the face of this threat, the left never built a serious anti-racist organisation or movement that would confront Le Pen or call the FN fascist. Some refused to confront the FN or argue for no platform for fascists as they were worried about infringing free speech. They looked to prioritise defence of “secularism” rather than confront Islamophobia, which allowed conservative governments to introduce the racist ban on the hijab with virtually no opposition.

Their response instead was to argue that the way to stop Le Pen was to build the left and lead the fight against social conditions that were pushing working class people to vote for the FN. But this was undermined by the fact that the Socialist Party embraced neoliberalism, privatisation and cuts in social spending. It became part of the problem that was pushing ordinary people towards the FN.

Mass movements emerged in the late 1990s to challenge Le Pen, especially when he made it into the second round of the Presidential election in 2000. But there was not sustained attempt to link the millions of French trade unionists and students who fought successive government cuts and the millions of mainly Muslim migrants from North Africa and elsewhere who were resisting the racism of the French police and the France state, in a movement that could take on the fascists.

The tragedy of France, is that it is a country with one of the biggest Muslim populations in Europe, one of the most combative workers’ movements in Europe, and until recently one of the strongest social democratic traditions in Europe. Yet it is also home to one of the biggest fascist parties in Europe. That tragedy shows the danger of a position claiming that if we combat austerity and build the left, racism will go away.

This is important for Britain. The fascists and racist populists will not just disappear because Corbyn leads the Labour Party. The polarisation of society means that both the forces of the left and right can grow in times of crisis. We must of course build the struggles against neoliberal austerity. But we also require a specific movement to combat racism and the fascist threat.


A mass movement against fascism and racism

We can’t rely on established political parties or institutions to take on the rise of the far right. It is those very organisations and parties that have created a climate where the racists and fascists feel confident and are on the march. We therefore have to look to a different strategy to take them on. This strategy can’t be based on the acts of a small number of individuals against the fascists. Confronting the Nazis can’t rely on conspiratorial groups that go around attacking fascists in secret, no matter how cathartic this may seem. We can’t close off the movement so that it’s left to a tiny number of street fighters. Small time acts of sabotage against the Nazis have never stopped them – it has always been mobilising big numbers.

If we’re to take on not just the fascists, but the racist environment that gives them confidence, a different approach is required. What is necessary is a mass movement that takes on racism, from Nazi thugs on the street to politicians who play the race card. We need marches, music gigs, mass meetings, protests against racist attacks. This requires an anti-racist group in every town and city and in the unions.

The fascists draw their confidence from the racism spouted by the press and politicians. We can draw our confidence from strength in numbers, when we show we’re an anti-racist majority. A united front strategy, aiming to draw thousands and millions of people into common action against racism, can do this.

There will be differences within it about where racism comes from and how we ultimately get rid of it. Many members and supporters of the Labour Party, for instance, are committed opponents of racism but have a variety of views about immigration controls, open borders, how many refugees we should accept and so on. These are the subject of continual debates within the Labour Party, often framed by considerations of what will win the most votes. Ultimately, the Labour Party strategy for dealing with racism rests on getting MPs elected and passing or abolishing laws within parliament, while retaining the current economic system of capitalism.

In the Socialist Workers Party we think that racism comes directly from capitalism. As long as you have a minority at the top of society who control all the wealth they will always use divide and rule. Racism was born as an ideology to justify the unjustifiable – slavery. It mutated in new ways subsequently as a pseudo-scientific biology of races to bolster imperialism and empire, a way to divide workers and make them compete against each other, and as a mythology of cultural difference. We therefore think that to finally destroy racism and fascism we have to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a society run by and for the majority of the population, the working class.

In the here and now, we believe that all immigration controls are racist, that we should fight for open borders and defend the rights of people to move and live wherever they want. We believe that ordinary people have the power and potential to build a socialist society that puts people before profit and erodes the material basis of racism and oppression. we resist all attempts to divide the working class movement by using racism or any other form of prejudice or discrimination, because this acts as a block on working people fighting together to take control of society.

Of course agreement on these points cannot be demanded to take part in a united fight back against racism and fascism. As long as we have agreement that we are opposed to racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia and are prepared to work together to campaign against them, we should accept that there will be different views on many other questions. And there will be debates while working together.

Recently there has been much discussion about the need to build an organisation today that can replicate the success of the Anti Nazi League in the 1970s. We welcome this debate. However, we think we also need to go beyond just focusing on the Nazis. The challenges we face today require a broader movement that takes on the wider questions of racism. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, as we have seen, a distinct feature of the current period is the formation of umbrella organisations on the far right. These can include racist populists, right wing nationalists and hardcore Nazis. Organisations like the AfD in Germany or Ukip in Britain are providing pools in which fascists can operate and grow. These organisations themselves are not fascist, but Nazis operate within them. We therefore need an organisation and movement that can take on these parties and formations.

Secondly, the lasting legacy of the financial crash has created a crisis of the centre and a polarisation to both left and right. The majority of traditional right wing parties – from the Conservatives in the Britain to Angela Markel’s CDU in Germany – have responded to this crisis by adopting increasingly racist policies, intensifying Islamophobia and racism towards migrants and refugees. This rise in racism from mainstream parties, allied with sections of the press, has created a climate in which fascists feel confident. In order to combat the fascists and the far right, we need to confront the general rise in racism that is coming from the top of society which is allowing them to flourish.

Stand up To Racism can be this movement in Britain. It brings together Labour MPs including shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, trade unionists, faith groups and socialists. It has held national demonstrations, mass meetings and conferences, vigils against racist attacks, and has worked with UAF to call counter-protests against the Nazis when they rear their heads. It is also part of an international movement against racism and fascism that includes AufstehengegenRassismus in Germany and KEERFA in Greece. But it needs to be strengthened and deepened if we are to confront the challenges we face.


Beyond anti-racism and anti-fascism

The political picture across the world can sometimes seem a bleak one. A racist and sexist occupies the White House, while across Europe the fascists and far right have a vision of taking us back to the 1930s. We have to have a vision of a mass anti-racist and anti-fascist movement that can push them back. It is the crucial task of our time. But we also have to have a vision that another world is possible. The cycle of the economic system we live in means that we face the recurring threat of racism and bigotry. Capitalism creates crisis, and it’s in times of crisis that the fascists can grow.

We have to confront racism and fascism in the here and now, but we also have to fight the system that creates them. If we want to rid society of racism, bigotry and sexism, we need a vision of a different world. A socialist society that puts people before profit will mean we can eradicate the material basis of racism and oppression, and banish the spectre of fascism for good. But to get there we need socialists to be organised.

The Socialist Workers Party has been at the heart of every attempt to stop the Nazis and challenge racism in Britain over the past 50 years. Let’s be part of the fight to confront the racists and fascists today.


The author is an activist of the Socialist Workers Party, UK, and Stand Up To Racism (STUR). Here are some sites of his affiliations:

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