March against fascists, but keep them where you can see them

Click to follow
LAST Sunday, the day after the big anti-Nazi march at Welling, we carried a picture feature about the home life of some Blood and Honour skinheads. I wrote the words. The feature, or perhaps its timing, upset some readers, and in the days that followed I overheard a conversation between two of them.

Whether I really heard it, or whether these were voices inside my head, does not matter. But a middle-aged lecturer, whose politics began to form in the turmoils of 1968, was talking to a 19-year-old student back from her first-ever demonstration at Welling.

He: How was it?

She: Confusing. There were thousands of us, and all we wanted was to show the BNP that there is no place for racism and fascism in this country. But then a few demonstrators - really only a few - attacked the police and created a shambles. If they use exactly the sort of mindless violence we are trying to stop, then what is the point? And then the police in riot gear charged into the rest of us as if we were criminals, although we were just marching peacefully. I mean, does this sort of thing do any good?

He: Yes, of course it does. What matters is that you turned out, that so many of you came from all over the country, that you marched. You proved to yourselves that you mean what you say about 'stopping the Nazis', and that means that you will go on doing this sort of thing and forcing the rest of us to take the menace of racist politics seriously. You probably gave the BNP a bad fright too, although they will never admit it. About the minority who started a fight - don't be put off by them. They will always be there, these days, and you can't keep them away. I know these people and I remember their ancestors in the 1960s: they have this theory that provoking police violence radicalises ordinary people and turns them into revolutionaries. It worked for a time with Berlin students in 1968, but it doesn't work here. So don't start wailing about how they spoiled the whole occasion. That would be falling for the line put out by the Establishment and the tabloids. Let them write off every protest as a rent-a-mob riot: you should know better.

She: The media really were disgusting . . . and not just the tabloids. All they wanted to know about was the punch-up, and the policemen who got hurt. I mean, one of our organisers got her skull cracked open. They tried to ignore the whole purpose of the march. Whose side are they on?

He: It's always like that. The media game is to give the impression that big demonstrations are futile. Afterwards, you sometimes find out that they seriously rattled the Government, or that historians on television have promoted them to 'turning-points in public opinion'. But only afterwards.

She: But the next day the Independent on Sunday ran a picture story about racist skinheads in Milton Keynes, showing them cuddling babies and keeping their bourgeois council houses nice and neat. That got up the noses of a lot of my friends. It gave these thugs publicity, and made them seem merely ridiculous - not dangerous. Surely that was absolutely . . . inappropriate?

He: No, I don't agree. You have to know your enemy, and that does not mean forgiving him - or her. That story said something which some of you don't want to know. One of the sources of neo-Nazism in this country is not lumpen poverty or an unemployed white underclass, but groups of rather secure, bored young people for whom racist violence is a fascinating scene, an adventure which offers gear, music, a legitimation for murderous sadism, even exciting trips to visit Nazi groups abroad. If that tells you your enemy is harder to combat than you thought, I'm sorry. And there's another point: the BNP and its allies are dangerous enough to need satirising. Look at the way that writers like Kurt Tucholsky used satire against the Nazis - Himmler the chicken farmer, Hitler the cream-cake guzzler - before they came to power.

She: Oh, great] And did satire stop them coming to power? And haven't I heard you say that Tucholsky killed himself in exile out of total despair at his own failure?

He: So what? I never said that intelligent mockery was enough on its own. Hitler won because the other political forces in Germany, and that includes the Communists and the trade unions, were too blind or cowardly to stop him. If the Anti-Nazi League wants the BNP banned (and personally I think that would be a mistake at this stage), it will eventually have to persuade a major political party to do so.

She: Why a mistake? How many more Asians and Afro-Caribbeans have to be murdered?

He: Keep the enemy where you can see them] Listen, Peter Pulzer wrote a book 30 years ago about the history of political anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. He showed that openly anti-Jewish parties began to emerge and flourish in the 1880s. But then, after about 1900, they dwindled away again. The right-wing nationalist movements which replaced them had anti-Semitic accents, but most people thought that the disease had passed its peak and was vanishing. That was one of the most terrible mistakes in history. What had really happened was that anti-Semitic political doctrines had gone underground. They had leaked into the entire subterranean water-table of popular thinking, and they continued to spread. And nobody noticed it. It wasn't until after 1918, in the panic after the German and Austrian empires had collapsed, that anti-Semitic politics suddenly exploded to the surface again and became the onrush which led to Auschwitz.

She: Why are you telling me this?

He: Because vigilance matters most. Pulzer's story, by the way, is about the worst failure in the whole history of journalism. It is, above all, the job of journalists not to stay upstairs and take superficial changes for granted, but to break into the cellars and see what is really going on. That time, they let us down. This time, with racist and fascist politics on the rise all over Europe, they should do what they are paid for.

She: You seem so cheerful about it all. Frankly, I went on that march because I am terrified. If ordinary people can democratically elect somebody from a party which believes white is right, which is out to smash the whole multi-ethnic society we live in, then this country is sick. And though everyone goes tut-tut, nobody really seems to care. And if nobody cares, then they can win.

He: The BNP? No, that's not the danger. What is dangerous is the mass of people who would never vote BNP but begin to feel sympathy for what they say. The battle is not about banning parties or closing bookshops, but about winning the minds of the young - which only people like you can do.

She: So I'll see you on the next anti-Nazi march?

He: Well, possibly.

She: Be there.