Analysis ‘Waking sleeping lions’: Fascism and the English Defence League

In the wake of the movement's rise to prominence, Malte Ringer takes a look at the ideological anatomy of the English Defence League.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, September 21, 2011 13:00 - 2 Comments

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By Malte Ringer

Spare a thought for the English Defence League. They want Britain to be about British, keeping out the Muslamic infidel and his interracial law, like anyone would. But bless them, they’re just not terribly good at convincing the world at large of their benign intentions. They kept pushing the Sikh guy to the front until he resigned because they’re not racist, honest. They tried to co-opt a gay pride march. Alas, all their efforts are continually undone by their members’ inability to refrain from saluting inappropriately or indeed from opening their mouths.

And yet the rise of the EDL over the last two years is worrying. While they have never been able to amass huge numbers, EDL marches are reminiscent of National Front tactics in the 1970s. Individuals and communities on the receiving end of the EDL’s racism and associated hate, as most recently in their attempt to march through Tower Hamlets, will find drunk skinheads hounding them more terrifying than ridiculous. During the recent English riots, the EDL were more than willing to play the part of racist vigilantes keeping ‘chavs’ in check.

But is the EDL a fascist organisation? This is more than an academic question. There is an unfortunate long-standing tendency on the Left to describe anything far-right as fascist. Being careful about our choice of words, however, has its rewards. It will help clarify what the EDL want, how they go about getting it, what impact they can be expected to have on other far-right and conservative forces, and consequently how we can best fight them.

‘What is fascism?’ is an infamously difficult question. Revolutionary and pro-establishment, extremely hierarchical yet populist, fascism has often defied attempts to pin it down. Nevertheless, the most broadly accepted definition is Roger Griffin’s, which broke through the conceptual impasse in the early 1990s. Carefully distancing himself from essentialism by stressing that ‘as a generic concept “fascism” could have no empirical essence to serve as the basis of an objective definition: the “fascist minimum” had to be invented “not discovered” through a process of “idealizing abstraction”‘, Griffin argues that

Fascism is a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.

    … [T]he ideological driving force of fascism which informs all its empirical manifestations (organization, style, policies, behaviour, ethics, aesthetics etc.) and determines its relationship with existing political, social and cultural realities, including rival ideologies, is the vision of the nation being capable of imminent phoenix-like rebirth from the prevailing crisis and decadence in a revolutionary new political and cultural order embracing all the ‘true’ members of the national community. (emphasis in original)

This emphasis on palingenesis (rebirth), central to all fascisms, allows us to cut through fascists’ attempts to rebrand themselves. There’s a good British example, of course. After winning the leadership of the BNP from the relatively openly neo-Nazi John Tyndall in 1999, Nick Griffin set out to rebrand the BNP in the mould of the successful ‘popular nationalist’ parties like France’s Front National or Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, emphasisising euroscepticism and hostility to Islam rather than the white supremacism that had been the party’s bread and butter.

But the BNP attempt to detoxify the brand did not mean an abandonment of fascism, argues Nigel Copsey. Rather, it was a ‘recalibration’: an attempt to dress up the party’s aims in the rhetoric of the European ‘national populists’ whose successes Nick Griffin coveted.

    Unlike fascism, national-populism, otherwise referred to as radical right-wing populism, is a variety of ultra-nationalism that is reformist rather than revolutionary. Both fascism and national-populism are anti-systemic but national-populism does not present a truly revolutionary alternative to the liberal-democratic order. While still part of the extreme-right political family, the national-populist party offers a more moderate (yet still illiberal) form of ethnocentric nationalism. If fascism is intent on the destruction of democracy, then national-populism, as Kevin Passmore usefully describes it, ‘attempts to ethnically homogenize democracy and reserve its advantages for the dominant nationality’.

By contrast, the BNP envisages

    ‘a revolutionised Britain, with massive changes affecting all levels of society—economic, social and cultural’. It is this deep-seated discontent with the existing liberal system that gives rise to the totalitarian impulse within the party even if, at present, this impulse is being restrained. Moreover, the visceral urge to destroy democracy separates the BNP from genuine national-populist parties that, in the fine words of Kevin Passmore, ‘seek to exploit the racist potential of democracy rather than overthrow it’.

Fascism pervades the BNP’s programme. For example, the party has replaced its traditional policy of deporting immigrants with a programme of ‘cultural and biological separation’ of ethnic groups from each other – which could, of course, only be effectively realised by apartheid and the creation of ‘Bantustans’ for ethnic minorities. The BNP has applied a ‘national-populist’ veneer to what is at bottom still a fascist party.

The EDL, by contrast, is not officially fascist, even though its leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, a.k.a. ‘Tommy Robinson’, is a former BNP member. Its ‘mission statement’ is a rather confused document. After opening with a quote from ‘Albert Einstein, refugee from Nazi Germany’, it defines the EDL as

      a human rights organisation (!) that was founded in the wake of the shocking actions of

a small group

      of Muslim extremists who, at a homecoming parade in Luton, openly mocked the sacrifices of our service personnel without any fear of censure. Although these actions were certainly those of

a minority

      , we believe that they reflect other forms of religiously-inspired intolerance and barbarity that are thriving amongst

certain sections

    of the Muslim population in Britain… (emphasis mine)

The qualifying phrases signal the group’s desire to be considered acceptably mainstream. Apparently the author of the later part of the document didn’t get the memo, though:

    Islam is not just a religious system, but a political and social ideology that seeks to dominate all non-believers and impose a harsh legal system that rejects democratic accountability and human rights. It runs counter to all that we hold dear within our British liberal democracy, and it must be prepared to change, to conform to secular, liberal ideals and laws, and to contribute to social harmony, rather than causing divisions.

The ‘mission statement’ certainly has unpleasant implications in its essentialist understanding of ‘culture’. (As argued by others and recently demonstrated by David Starkey, when culture is understood as an inherent quality rather than a process it replaces the discredited signifier ‘race’.) The amusing notion that the EDL is primarily about educating the public rather raises the question how such aims are served by intimidating street marches and chants of the ‘Allah is a paedo’ variety.

But unpleasant or not, the ‘mission statement’ is not fascist. To quote Passmore again, the EDL’s declared aim amounts to ‘exploit[ing] the racist potential of democracy rather than overthrow it’: to push public opinion and political elites in an anti-Muslim direction to realise its aims, much like the ‘national-populist’ parties of other countries.

Such are the organisation’s official aims, anyway. Go to the ‘testimonials’ section on the website, however, and a different picture presents itself. The messages of support posted here are presumably moderated, but they’re still strong stuff. Here’s a particularly rank example, immediately endorsed by another commenter (the author is not in the habit of inserting spaces after commas, which I have corrected for your convenience):

    This silent invasion has to stop.
    This disease called Islam will slowly kill us unless we stand firm and not just stop it, but push it back to the roots from where it came and then kill it.
    This disease is getting into the infrastructure of our nation, muslims [sic] as doctors, lawyers, mp’s [sic], councillors, police, teachers, the list goes on, all influencial [sic] careers.
    We need the EDL to wake up the sleeping lions of this nation and take back our jungle.
    STAND FIRM, BE PROUD, BE BRITISH

Let’s look at this with the attitude a zoologist might adopt towards a rare species of tapeworm: unpleasant, sure, but endlessly fascinating. The fascism on display is quite pure, although one doubts the author realises this. The nation is imagined as a ‘body’ infiltrated by Islam, a ‘disease’ which has captured key positions. The nation must ‘wake up’ and cleanse itself. The exterminationist implication is clear in the demand to ‘not just stop’, but ‘kill’ Islam. (How does the author imagine this would happen? His demands imply at the very least the exclusion of Muslims from public life.)

Replace ‘Muslims’ with ‘Jews’ or ‘Bolsheviks’, and you have a remarkable facsimile of European fascist rhetoric from the 1920s and 1930s. The call for Britain to ‘wake up’, repeated by numerous EDL supporters on the ‘testimonials’ pages, embodies fascism’s ‘mythic core’ of palingenesis, reminiscent of the Nazi slogan Deutschland erwache! or, closer to home, the British Union of Fascists’ Britain Awake!.

Paradoxically the EDL not only tolerates, but encourages the participation of fascists, as well as adopting the marching styles and clothing favoured by British and continental neo-fascists. Yet its officials ape the rhetoric of the most successful ‘national-populist’ European parties. In other words, the EDL appears to adopt the garb of fascism but not the substance. Unlike the BNP and most traditional fascist groups, the EDL has no strategy for winning power. It hopes, instead, to influence political elites through highly publicised rallies and marches, and listening to David Cameron it appears they haven’t been entirely unsuccessful.

The argument that the electoral strategy of the BNP and the street marches of the EDL are two prongs of a single fascist movement fails to make sense of the evident distrust between the two groups, exemplified by Nick Griffin’s dismissal of the EDL as a ‘Zionist false flag operation, designed to create a real clash of civilisations right here on our streets between Islam and the rest of us’. EDL marches are the antithesis of Griffin’s attempt to detoxify the far-right brand and gain electoral successes by appearing moderate. (It’s an attempt that’s largely failed: while the BNP has come to new prominence in the last decade, its electoral successes, always short of a real breakthrough, have mostly been reversed due to the hard work of anti-fascists and trade unions, as well as the competition of UKIP.)

Martin Smith argues, correctly in my view, that the EDL represents a right-wing attempt at a ‘united front’ strategy: an attempt to unite fascists and non-fascists in terrorising Muslim communities and shifting policy. But the EDL grows out of the failure of Britain’s far right, not its strength. It is a reaction to the repeated failure of right-wing parties to achieve electoral breakthroughs, caused in no small part by the ‘first past the post’ system, and the subsequent failure of a British equivalent to Europe’s far-right anti-Muslim parliamentary parties to emerge.

Sadly, this does not mean the EDL can be dismissed. Racist views find increasing resonance among the general public after New Labour’s endless attempts to outflank the Tories to the right. In 1997, three per cent of the electorate thought race or immigration was the most important issue facing the nation; in 2010 that figure stood at thirty-eight per cent.

‘Blue Labour’ is merely the latest iteration in a series of attempts within the Labour Party to ape the radical right. Maurice Glasman’s infamous statement that Labour should seek the involvement of EDL supporters is indicative of the danger, although we should be pleased that Glasman undid himself by mimicking BNP rhetoric in his call for a total freeze on immigration to ‘put the people in this country first’.

As Richard Seymour argues, the progressive patriotism sought by some traditionally associated with the Left is a chimera, likely only to help the right.

Instead of pandering to right-wing populism, the Left must construct a strong narrative emphasising the social dislocation brought on by Thatcherism and continued by New Labour. In many ways, our response to race-baiting must be the same as that to the cuts: that the dominant discourse is blaming a crisis caused by elites on the most vulnerable members of society. Attempts to shift discussion of race and immigration to the right and the EDL’s ‘united front’ approach must continue to be resisted by a broad alliance of anti-fascists, trade unions and minority groups.

Malte Ringer is a writer and activist based in the UK. He blogs at campuskritik.blogspot.com.

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bedsman
Sep 22, 2011 7:57

You are either unbelievably misinformed or … I dare not think of the alternative. Right wing and Left wing fascist groups detest the EDL. Their stand against anti Semitism, their support of Muslim women’s rights and their opposition of having Sharia Law imposed in the UK has united the every left and right wing bigot against them. Fascist groups like the BNP, Combat 18 and the left wing UAF are all alike in their dislike of the EDL.

Comrade Cullen
Sep 22, 2011 9:03

Malte,

I think the analytical issue here is that the membership are unconsciously fascistic in their attitudes towards immigration in general and islam in particular; whilst the leadership is consciously not fascist. The result gives the organisation the appearance of a fascist group whilst disgusing the national-populist core.

The reality is that groups such as the EDL and others are reacting aggressively against what is seen as an invasion of Christian Europe by the Islamic south. This scenario is an echo of the Islamic nationalist cry of “remember the Crusades”, a call to recreate the Umma as it was at the height of the Caliphates in the middle ages; Al Qaeda’s stated aims include a return to Islamic rule in Spain and Eastern Europe, for example.

Whether this invasion is real or imagined must be seen against a backdrop of resource scarcity, economic difficulties across the globe, living space, and the distancing of the political class from the working class of Europe in general and Britain in particular. Other, more emotional factors also come into play: the construction of Mosques set against the persecution of Christians in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq, for example.

Rightly or wrongly, the EDL are symptomatic of Fukuyama’s ‘clash of cultures’ which is not, as has been claimed, a clash of democracy and dictatorship, but of Christianity and Islam. The two religious-culture groupings have been at loggerheads since the emergence of Islam, and I do not see that changing for a long time. We have changed our rhetoric, and the forms of this clash have also changed – no longer does the Pope call the faithful to sieze Jerusalem – but it is still grinding on.

The left needs to form an answer to this most irrational of conflicts; the centuries-old religious war that has boiled across Europe and the Middle East underpins what we, short-sightedly, see as ‘just’ a far-right ultra-nationalist and racist response to greater movement of labour around the world.

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