In April this year, after a 15-month battle, Campaign Against the Nazis (CAN) celebrated the closure of a Nazi organising centre in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
National Action (NA) is a Nazi outfit which occasionally emerges from the sewers of Australian politics. In January 1997, NA opened what it called a “bookshop” on Fawkner, a multicultural community with a large Italian and Arabic component. Anti-Asian posters, in Italian and English, began appearing at train stations and shopping centres. People of Asian appearance were threatened, and young Muslim women intimidated as they walked to school. The news spread quickly. A united front of left organisations and community activists formed to organise against the fascist outbreak.
CAN has been in recess since an earlier successful battle against National Action. Previously known as Brunswick Against the Nazis, it had been instrumental in rallying the community of Brunswick against an NA rally in 1994. The tiny gathering of 30 skinheads and other thugs was shouted down and literally run out of town, despite a police cordon. Many believed that the 1994 victory could be repeated, and a demonstration outside the Nazi bunker was planned for March.
Outside the bunker.
As a demonstration, the March action — a tightly disciplined gathering attended by well over 1,000 people — was a success. The Fawkner community saw there was broad and committed opposition to the Nazis, and NA was put on notice that it had a fight on its hands. But the “bookstore” remained. Clearly it was necessary to devise a longer-term strategy to close down NA’s would-be Melbourne headquarters. There were two reasons for the initial failure to shut down NA’s shopfront. First, there was a huge police presence, involving mounted cops, the Protective Security and Intelligence Group, and the Special Operations Group. The aggressive police protection of the fascists made any direct action to evict the handful of NA goons impossible. Later rallies also faced massive police intimidation.
Second, there was no real political agreement in CAN about the purpose of the rally. In previous confrontations with NA, the fascists arrived at a meeting place, attempted to rally — usually unsuccessfully — and then scuttled away. This time, because they had a well-defended base, it was clearly necessary to build an ongoing anti-fascist campaign.
The Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) argued that CAN should focus on outreach in order to build the broadest mobilisation, uniting all of the potential targets of fascism. Other participants believed that it was possible to simply march into the shop and close it down. This ignored the balance of forces. Those holding this position elevate the tactical question of how to close the place to the level of a principle: that there is only one way to do it. This abstract, formalistic thinking has characterised much of the debate about CAN’s tactics.
CAN in the firing line.
Some participants in the united front became demoralised by the lack of an agreed strategy, and this led directly to a decline in participation at CAN meetings. Meanwhile, other obstacles were being thrown up.
Most Moreland Councillors argued that if ignored, NA would simply go away. This dangerous position also had an impact on the campaign: demonstrations in Fawkner became harder to organise. Disoriented by the difficulties, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) began to retreat from mass mobilisation. It wanted CAN to persuade the Moreland Council to ban National Action. The CAN majority rejected this, believing that it is up to the community to organise itself against fascism. The ISO succeeded in lobbying the council to ban “divisive” groups from council property. This led to a couple of zealous bureaucrats targeting CAN itself as divisive!
The Spartacist League (SL) blamed CAN for the initial inability to shut the shop. At the March 1997 rally, its contingent launched a macho charge against the police barricades, which achieved nothing except injured marshals and the arrest of some young anarchists. The SL wanted “mass mobilisation to drive the Nazis out,” but never lifted a finger to achieved that aim. This is unsurprising. In all the years it has been around, the SL has made a policy of never taking responsibility for building a struggle. That way, others can be blamed when battle does not result in immediate, total victory.
Inside CAN, a lot of unnecessary time was wasted on recriminations and endless organisational minutiae. Political disagreements were tiptoed around, and, despite organising more rallies in Fawkner, CAN stagnated for some months — again due to lack of political focus. Despite this, CAN’s organising was exposing NA as Nazis. This meant the fascists made no progress in recruiting amongst Fawkner’s unemployed. NA posters were regularly removed or pasted over. In what was called the “paper war,” CAN was clearly winning. Its many endorsers donated free or cheap printing. This solidarity allowed CAN to negate National Action’s propaganda.
Crowding out NA. After some months, CAN has coalesced into a solid core of activists, with a strategy of cutting off NA’s political air supply. Twenty thousand copies of a broadsheet exposing NA as fascist were distributed. Every home and business in Fawkner was letterboxed. CAN activists came face to face with a goon at the NA bunker. Without police protection he was not very brave, and ran away! CAN’s rallies and meetings had shown who really owned the streets. In fact, some of Fawkner’s young people took to hanging out near the shop in order to harass the Nazis!
With NA more or less contained, CAN was able to build broader alliances through organising Rock Against Racism fundraisers, forums and participation in actions against far-right One Nation parliamentarian, Pauline Hanson. In January this year, an important Survival Day concert was organised jointly with the Aborigines Advancement League and the Mirimbiak Nations Aboriginal Corporation. The last demonstration against the Fawkner bookshop was held on March 15, one year after the first rally. A few weeks after that NA fled the state — again!
How to fight fascism.
It was ironic that, on the eve of NA’s departure, one of CAN’s endorsing organisations, Workers Power (WP), put out a leaflet criticising CAN for what it believed was an incorrect strategy. Once again, CAN was blamed for the fact that the Nazis still had a toehold in Fawkner. CAN was not militant enough, WP alleged, and this lack of militancy was the reason why rallies had become smaller. WP also claimed that CAN had become complacent, resigned to the fact that NA would remain for an indefinite period.
Unless militancy is defined as a willingness to get one’s head repeatedly kicked, it is simply wrong to argue that CAN is not a militant organisation. Standing up to NA is not a pacifist action. In the face of heavy police intimidation, demonstrating outside NA’s headquarters, time and again, is not complacency. Distributing leaflets under the fascists’ noses is an act of political defiance — a refusal to allow Nazis to get away with intimidation.
It is unfortunate that the comrades from Workers Power, who had been active participants in CAN, succumbed to demoralisation or frustration, or both, and reverted to an empty formalism in their call for “no platforming” National Action.
Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Russian Revolution, once remarked that the best way of dealing with fascists is to acquaint their heads with the pavement. A worthy sentiment indeed! However he never argued that it is the only solution. There are many possible tactics in the struggle against fascism, of which mass mobilisation to chase them off the streets is the most immediately effective.
For a number of reasons — including an undoubted complacency of many left organisations and trade union leaders — CAN was not able to organise a force sufficiently overwhelming to neutralise the police and destroy NA’s headquarters. Does this then mean that fascists should remain unchallenged? Once again, Workers Power takes a tactic and elevates it to a principle.
In contrast, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), which played a leadership role in CAN for over a year, simply stopped participating. Then, when CAN celebrated the news that National Action had shut up shop, the DSP responded in Green Left Weekly with a polemic against CAN’s tactics which failed to acknowledge that, until recently, the DSP had been part of the organisation which devised the strategy!
CAN had to work out a strategy and tactics to contain NA, while arguing for mass action. It was not flawless. Mistakes were made. Despite sustained efforts to broaden CAN, the united front failed to attract the ongoing active participation of non-Anglo community groups. There is still tension between members of the united front about the way forward. But the question has to be asked: where in politics were lessons learned except through engagement in the struggle and except through the correction of mistakes?
Tenacity, tenacity, tenacity.
This was another of Trotsky’s phrases. It certainly applies to the small group of activists who carried through to a successful conclusion the campaign against NA’s now-abandoned headquarters. It is a motto for the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, which is why both organisations have been committed to the CAN united front since NA began attempts to organise in Melbourne.
When the ISO and Socialist Alternative moved to close down CAN is May, we opposed it vigorously, because CAN still has immediate work to do. In Bell Street, Coburg is the headquarters of another fascist organisation, the so-called Citizens Electoral Council (CEC). The führer of this well-funded organisation is the US-based Lyndon LaRouche, a notorious fascist. CEC is currently fighting with another fascist outfit, the League of Rights, for control of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.
NA itself has splintered over the question of whether or not to merge with One Nation, but this does not diminish the threat of fascist thugs on the streets. There is the need to counter One Nation itself, which, although not yet a fascist mass party, may soon develop into one. Its rhetoric towards Indigenous people and Asian immigrants in nearly identical with the German Nazi Party’s 1930s stance towards Jews and Romani (Gypsy) people.
CAN still has much to do in the trade union movement and the community. It is necessary to build sustainable alliances, educate about the nature of fascism and win increased support for fighting Nazis through mass mobilisation. This must be CAN’s priority.
Ultimately, there is only one antidote to Nazism: a socialist revolution. However, as capitalism lurches into an ever-deepening crisis, the struggle against fascism — its ideological essence — becomes a daily necessity. Each victory, such as that at Tyson St, Fawkner, makes that struggle easier.