International Anti-Fascist Conference: A Lost Opportunity to Build Solidarity

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In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the shocking resurgence of fascism in Europe was marked by jackbooted racist skinheads, marches of uniformed “seig-heiling” Hitlerites and the torching of Turkish refugee residences. Now the fascists are forming parties like Austria’s Freedom Party, Italy’s National Alliance and Belgium’s Vlaams Blok and are heading for the ballot box.

This shift in strategy promoted Britain’s Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) to call an International Militant Anti-Fascist Conference in London from October 2 to 5. The stated goal of the conference was to form an international network of militants to counter the fascists and oppose the doomed liberal approach of ignoring or caving in to the far right. Unfortunately, the anti-communism sweeping Europe has disoriented some anti-fascist groups. The opportunity to discuss ways of building a powerful international anti-fascist movement was lost.

Fascism in Europe today. The revival of fascism around the world is sparked by capitalist economic crisis. Preserving profits in the era of inflation and stock market crashes demands lowering the living standards of the working class. Fascism is big business’ brutal trump card. Le Pen and his ilk are used by the ruling class to brutalize and terrorize working people. It is no coincidence that members of Italy’s National Alliance were first given government posts as part of billionaire Berlusconi’s coalition in 1994. Today, they have the backing of 15% of the electorate.

The ultimate goal of fascism is to crush the workers’ movement and to eradicate all democratic rights. For this the fascists need a mass movement. Entering European elections has given them an ostensible legitimacy and following that Nazi marches and skinhead brutality cannot produce. Yet to mobilize their base of support – the middle class – they need an issue that taps into the deep insecurity and anger of this constituency. In the current period, that issue is: immigration.

With the highest unemployment rate since the Nazi era and 20 million migrants in Europe, xenophobia is running rampant. Fuelled by the rhetoric of the extreme right, vicious attacks on the people of color and refugees have skyrocketed, even in countries like Scotland and Denmark. The extreme right sees immigrant bashing as its ticket to power.

In response to the new fascist populism, mainstream parties have jumped on the racist bandwagon to enact a plethora of anti-immigration legislation.

The fall of the USSR: a boost for the far right. The crumbling of the Eastern Bloc had a profound effect on Europe. Despite its betrayals of the world working class, the Soviet Union acted as a check on rampaging capitalism. With the fall of the USSR came economic and political chaos. In the former Eastern Bloc countries, fascist gangs resurfaced. In Western Europe, demoralization and disorientation set in as Stalinism was discredited, severely weakening Communist Parties such as the French CP, which had commanded 28% of the electorate. So-called progressives like Britain’s Labour Party leader Tony Blair took a hard right turn.

In this post Cold War confusion, the fascists raised the flag of nationalism and began to win elections. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front now governs four municipalities in the South. Fascist officials in these cities have launched a cultural war against progressive ideas. Their reactionary activities include banning books from public libraries, closing counter-culture cafés catering to progressive youth and cancelling funding from a movies series about AIDS.

The extreme right electoral advance and the treacherous liberal response demand a strong answer from anti-fascist forces.

Dangerous disorientation in the anti-fascist movement. The disorientation among some anti-fascist groups is alarming. AFA and similar group blame the resurgence of fascism on the failures of the “old Left,” rather than on capitalism. AFA refuses to work with the Left and accuses it of “caving in” to fascists. It ignores the success of groups like France’s Ras l’Front, a Trotskyist-led united front, which staged an anti-National Front protest that drew 70,000, instead resorting to virulent red-baiting as a substitute for political debate. This is an extremely dangerous course, which is dividing and weakening the movement.

Coupled with AFA’s sectarianism is sexism: both prevent the group from building vital alliances with communities directly targeted by violence. Tellingly, the conference did not seek out representation from the Jewish, immigrant, feminist, labor, lesbian/gay, or Romani (Gypsy) movements. Yet these are the very groups that will provide the leadership of an effective groundswell of protest.

Of all places in the world, it is in Europe that activists must know where this kind of sectarianism leads. AFA’s policies parallel the disastrous stance of the Communist Party of Germany (CPG) in the ‘30s. The leadership of the CPG also blamed the “old Left” – in their case, the leaders of the Social Democratic Party – for the rise of Nazism. Their refusal to organize a united front between Communists and Social Democrats led directly to Hitler’s seizure of power and all that followed.

To counter a far-right mass mobilization, anti-fascists must build a broad movement that educates about the fascist threat and its roots in the decaying economic structure. Luckily, many of the other conference participants, who represented groups from Western Europe, Canada and the U.S., are working along these lines.

Young feminist, gay rights anarchists in Scandinavia have built a powerful network that allies itself with the Left and others to successfully close Nazi bookstores and counter the ultra-right. In Germany, the numerous groups are linked in three networks. They work with Turkish Communists, the Autonome youth movement, students, bikers, and many others to stage protests, publish newsletters, and sponsor coffee houses in order to mobilize opposition.

The fight is just beginning. As militants, conference participants were clear that non-confrontation of the “fash” is dangerous and that reliance on bourgeois governments to halt Nazism is deadly. But AFA’s sectarianism derailed real debate. It would have been valuable, for example, to strategise with international activists around issues such as:

  • How to promote the participation of trade unions as the backbone of the movement,
  • How to respond to the massive number of cruel hate crimes, since laws and the police can’t and won’t address the problem,
  • How to prevent the media and ultra-cautious liberals from isolating and marginalizing activists as “extremists” or “alarmists.”

Despite its failure, the conference demonstrated that the battle to stop fascism is on. This fight is galvanizing young people, anti-racists and workers the world over. The winning strategy depends on the ability to forge solidarity. To succeed, fascism must conquer the working class completely. It must not be permitted to do this and it will not.

An international campaign by trade unionists, civil rights activists, leaders of many different oppressed social sectors and ordinary people of every description is what’s needed. Allied to protect our rights and livelihood and to uplift the human condition, such a united front can demoralize, demobilize and destroy the peddlers of degradation and tyranny!

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