Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Lewisham, Charlottesville, and Democracy

Footage of the Battle of Lewisham, believed to have been lost for 25 years, has been rediscovered by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London. The film shows the events of 13th August 1977, when a National Front march through Lewisham in South East London led to violent clashes with anti-fascist groups, and later between the demonstrators and the police.

The National front had selected Lewisham because of the large number of immigrants living there. The aim of the National Front was to not only racially blame Afro-Caribbean for alleged street crimes but to recruit from the white working class: a politics of divide and rule. The National front had received 100,000 votes in the Greater London elections of that year and had only just failed to win in the Lewisham ward of Deptford. Fascist politics seemed to be on the rise again.

Opposition to the march was organized by the Socialist Workers Party and the ensuing violence led to 214 arrests and 110 taken to hospital. A young socialist clutching a bundle of SOCIALIST STANDARDs at the Lewisham demonstration watched as both groups fought each other: he could not tell them apart.

The aim of the SWP was not only to prevent the National Front from marching but also to stop them from holding public meetings, a policy they extended later to include the BNP, British First and the EDL. The level of political violence at the Lewisham demonstration had not been seen since the 1936 Cable Street clashes between the Metropolitan police, protecting a march by members of the British Union of fascists led by Oswald Moseley and opposed by anti-fascist demonstrators.

25 years later, this time in the university town of Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States, a similar violent demonstration and counter-demonstration took place. The rally, made up of an assortment of Neo-Nazis, white nationalists and supremacists, some shouting out “anti-Semitic” slogans, was the largest seen of its kind in the US for decades.

The demonstration preceded a torch-light march the previous day by white nationalists aggrieved at the proposed removal of a statue of General Robert Lee who had commanded the pro-slavery Confederacy. The statue to Lee had been deliberately erected in 1924, along with others, to segregate public spaces in order to re-divide black and white workers in the interest of the Southern ruling class (A House divided, THE GUARDIAN 17th August 2017). The demonstration by white nationalists was also reminiscent of the march by Brown Shirts parading through the Berlin Brandenburg gate in 1933 following Hitler becoming the German Chancellor.

In a press conference the following day, President Trump sided with many of the white nationalists taking part in the demonstration against the removal of the statue of Robert Lee. Trump’s remarks were also praised by David Duke, the former leader of the Klu Klux Klan. However the image which has become synonymous with the rally was of a scene of a car being driven at speed by a white supremacist into a crowd of peaceful counter-demonstrations which left one dead and 19 badly injured.

What of the counter-demonstrators? The violent response from some of the anti-fascist demonstrators not only wanted to prevent racist groups demonstrating but also to stop them expressing their ideas and belief in public forums and on the internet. This is the policy adopted by the Socialist Workers Party. In their weekly newspaper, Socialist worker, they stated:

Socialist Worker believes that Nazis should never be allowed to speak publicly or organise openly.

People opposing this view say that no one should be denied freedom of speech and that anyway the best way to expose fascists is through rational debate. But Nazis are not interested in debate. They are not like other political forces—or even other racist parties such as Ukip.

https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/39807/Should+fascists+be+allowed+freedom+of+speech%3F

There is also a move, aided and abetted by governments, to force the removal of racist sites deemed to be politically “extreme”.

What constitutes “political extremism” is nebulous and cannot be readily defined. As soon as the state starts to define “political extremism” not only could it draw into its nets the SWP and anarchist groups but also socialists; that is anyone the state does not like the look of. No doubt the state saw the SPGB as “political extremists” during the two World Wars, which the Party opposed on the grounds of having no interest for the working class. Party members were imprisoned and the Socialist Standard subject to censorship.

The question both these demonstrations raise is what the socialist response should be to racists and their divisive ideas. Nationalism and racism are divisive ideologies splitting the working class. However, should they be violently opposed or should they be challenged in open debate as part of the struggle to establish socialism. Socialists are against the use of violence as a political means to achieve socialism and to violently supress political views, however abhorrent they happen to be.

Socialists take the reasonable view that the only way to defeat white nationalism, racist groups and neo-Nazis is to expose their ideas and beliefs to the light of day and to show that they are not only unsound but act against the interest of the working class.

And those drawn to racist political organisations also happen to be workers. They may be violent and used by leaders for violent ends but they face the same problems faced by workers everywhere. It is convenient to label them “knuckle scraping Neanderthals” but they are employed and exploited just like every other worker under capitalism; and they face the same problems of unemployment poor and inadequate housing education and heath provision along with other social problems which they mistakenly blame on other workers. Are we to believe that the wide range of pro-capitalists beliefs held by workers are so strong that they will always be a barrier to socialist ideas? The only way to defeat anti-socialist ideas, including racism and sexism, is by open democratic discussion.

We reject the trend of “no-platforming” which prevents individuals and groups expressing their political ideas in university campuses and on the streets. The Socialist Party of Great Britain debated with the British Union of Fascists at Mawney Road School in 1935 on the basis that the socialist case has the power and persuasion to dissuade workers from holding racist ideas and beliefs. This position was taken again when the SPGB debated with the British National Front in 1969. While a lone socialist undergraduate studying at the LSE in the late 1960s, opposed the student union ban preventing the eugenicist Professor Hans Eysenck speaking there. Eysenck’s books were on the National Front’s recommended reading list. The practice of democracy and the debate of political ideas give political knowledge to the working class. All political views, including our own, should be subject to scrutiny, questioning and inquiry. To deny political views from being debated is an act of elitist arrogance. It assumes that workers are too stupid to make-up their own minds when hearing contesting political views.

However we do not simply adhere to democratic processes as an end in itself. Democracy and the socialist use of democracy is to further the socialist objective. When socialists debate with other political organisations it is in order to convince workers that they should become socialists and join us to end capitalism and replace it with the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution.

Anti-racist arguments have to be linked to the case for socialism otherwise capitalism – the social system which causes racism in the first place – goes unchallenged. Racism only ends with the growth of a world-wide and united socialist movement politically organised to establish socialism.

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