Anti-extremism or anti-fascism?
November 21, 2013 — Comment
Written by Liz Fekete
Anti-extremism frameworks, popular in policy and academic circles, are masking the multi-dimensional and pan-European nature of contemporary fascism and the role of the state.
Not since the early 1990s, and the pogroms at Hoyerswerda and Rostock have Europe’s far-right movements posed such a tangible threat to the safety of racial and religious minorities. In truth, levels of violence and state responses are far more worrying today than in the 1990s when hostels housing asylum seekers and guest workers were firebombed. There are a number of reasons why the central issues associated with far-right violence and racism are not being fully and publicly discussed.
A fertile climate for fascism
First, fascism is a much more complicated and diverse phenomenon than it was in the 1990s. (Read an IRR report: Pedlars of Hate: the violent impact of the European far Right.) When violence is carried out by neo-Nazis, it is easier to understand and see as linked to fascism. But the far Right is a fluid, evolving scene which is constantly mutating. The Autonomous Nationalists, white resistance movements, the counter-jihadists, the ultra-patriot identity movements and defence leagues are amongst the more recent variations on a far-right theme. The nebulous homophobic network Printemps Français (French Spring) is yet another. Earlier this year, as the Gay Marriage Bill went through the French parliament, Christian fundamentalists, ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis all participated in its fanatical demonstrations. In the poisonous atmosphere generated by the verbal violence of French Spring, politicians who supported the Bill were issued with death threats. Then, in June – a month after the Gay Marriage Bill became law – 18-year-old anti-fascist Clément Méric was left brain-dead after being attacked by skinheads in Paris.
Many of the homophobic movements (in western Europe at least) do not necessarily identify as fascist (though the picture is more clear cut in Russia and eastern Europe). Neither do the counter-jihadists. But just look at their actions: marching through Muslim neighbourhoods; spreading hate against Gays; and threatening politicians who support progressive legislation. All this might lead us to conclude that self-definition is not the only measure of fascism.
Second, the climate today – with the European-wide assault on multiculturalism by centre-right politicians and the embedded presence within the electoral process of extreme-Right and anti-immigrant movements – is much more fertile for fascism than at any time I can recall since I first started researching the far Right in different European contexts in 1992.
Many of the electoral extreme-right parties, like the Freedom Party in Austria, the Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece (and Cyprus), Jobbik in Hungary, National Union Attack (Ataka) in Bulgaria, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the Falange in Spain, the National Democratic Party of Germany have expressed admiration for fascism. Some of these parties (as well as key elements within the People of Freedom Alliance in Italy) are in fact the direct political descendants of pre-war fascist movements. These did not wither on the vine after the Second World War, but regrouped, initially mobilising over the loss of former colonies (the French over the loss of Algeria, and the Belgian over the loss of the Congo) or in favour of nationalist and revanchist demands for territory lost at the end of the war, or, later, in support of apartheid South Africa. And yet it is they, alongside newer anti-immigration parties such as the Danish People’s Party, Sweden Democrats, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Progress Party (Norway), True Finns (Finland), Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (Netherlands) as well as the older and more-established Swiss People’s Party, which are benefiting from the electorate’s disillusionment with the centre-right and centre-left parties. We should be alarmed not just by the influence of extreme-right and Islamophobic parties in Europe’s legislatures, or the likelihood that they will make impressive gains in next year’s European parliament elections, but also by the way in which fascist ideas are rapidly travelling from the far Right to the mainstream.
Thirdly, far-right violence is not contained on one region or country. It has emerged as a definite and specific threat in every country of Europe, with the culture of racism in one country crossing borders. Pavlo Lapshyn, the 25-year-old PhD student sentenced to life imprisonment for the Birmingham killing of 82-year-old grandfather Mohammed Saleem and for a bombing campaign against mosques across the West Midlands was described as a ‘lone wolf’ by the police, a view quickly echoed by journalists and anti-extremism experts. Lapshyn, who was from a Russian linguistic minority in the Ukraine, was known to visit Russian neo-Nazi websites, and had a video game on his computer called ‘ethnic cleansing’ at the time of the police raid on his Birmingham apartment. Yet, disturbingly, not one single article has appeared in the British press attempting to situate Lapshyn’s seemingly inexplicable actions within the ubiquitous culture of racism and fascism which goes unpunished both in the Ukraine (the land of his birth) and in Russia. Nor did anyone ask, if he could do this here, perhaps he had already done it elsewhere.
The threat is constantly shifting from one country to the next, from Hungary, to Greece, then to the Czech Republic, where, over the course of this Summer, the Workers’ Party of Social Justice have mobilised every weekend in Roma neighbourhoods. Just as Winter brings a temporary halt to the Czech protests, the hysteria passes to Bulgaria where hatred towards Syrian refugees and attacks on refugee accommodation centres is being fuelled by government ministers and far-right parliamentarians from Ataka who described Syrians as ‘scum’, mass killers’, ‘cannibals’, ‘savages’, ‘Islamic fundamentalists who have escaped justice’ and ‘terrible, despicable primates’.Only last year, the Romani municipal council candidate Malin Iliev, died a month after sustaining critical injuries when his arm was ripped off in a bomb explosion outside the Euroma party headquarters in Sandanski. (Read an IRR briefing paper: From pillar to post: pan-European racism and the Roma.)
Generally speaking, since the war, fascism has been defined as ‘any right-wing nationalist ideology or movement with an authoritarian and hierarchical structure that is fundamentally opposed to democracy and liberalism’ (Collins). Anti-fascism, therefore, was tacitly accepted as an ethical movement to uphold democracy and liberalism and the rights of national and other minorities which might be under attack. One would think that, though the exact circumstances of fascism and anti-fascism might change over time, the basic tenets would not. But this is not the case.
The myopia of anti-extremism
In government, policy and academic circles it is now the fashion to reduce fascism to extremism, which exists at both ends of the political spectrum – on a line from far-left to far-right, as well as within minority cultures and religions (ie Islam) themselves. Anti-extremist experts in academic departments now dominate the debate, constantly warning of the symbiotic relationship between different forms of extremism, and the danger of a spiral of ‘cumulative extremism’ or ‘reciprocal radicalisation’. (One group brings out the worst in another extremist group in an enduring cycle of violence and terrorism. And groups in terms of ideology and tactics simply mirror one another.) The dominance of these anti-extremist ideas is the fourth factor inhibiting the anti-fascist cause. Not only do the new ‘experts’ on extremism dominate in the media (crowding out grassroots voices and perspectives), but another problem also arises when some NGOs and civil society actors, partly driven by the need to secure government funds or gain influence in policy circles, accommodate themselves to anti-extremist frameworks in ways that undermine the broader vision inherent in anti-fascism. For anti-fascism has always been linked to anti-racism, and effective anti-racism/anti-fascism opens one up to the broader picture, one which may, as a matter of practical necessity, have to foreground the neo-Nazis at certain points, but does so in ways that illuminate (rather than obscure) the political culture and social reality that gives them succour.
Ironically, substituting a broad approach to combating fascism for a myopic study of different forms of extremism ends up hindering both the fight against fascism and strategies against extremism. Extremism is a multi-faceted phenomenon. Different forms of extremism have specific historical roots. They are not variations on the single them of a generic extremism. Each extremism is different, and has its own individual trajectory.
When it comes to fascism, the myopic lens of the anti-extremist can’t help us to see the relationship between fascism on the fringes of society and racism in the mainstream – the relationship between fascist hatred of Roma and Muslims today for example, and mainstream laws that deny Muslims and Roma civil and human rights, and the popular media that constantly dehumanises, stigmatises and serves them up to the fascists as suitable enemies. Despite the mad ranting of the counter-jihadi fanatics about the Islamisation of Europe and the spread of Sharia law, the reality is that no Islamist party is represented in any government – in even a tiny corner of the EU. The same cannot be said of extreme-right, anti-immigration Islamophobic movements which are represented in government in every single country, and every single nook and cranny of Europe. They are constantly pushing at the frontiers of government policy. Against the background of the economic crisis, and the inability of parliamentary democracies to protect its citizenry from the forces of globalisation, elected politicians have moved firmly into the extreme-right territory of nativism. This is evidenced in laws against the veil and other signs of visible Islam, racial profiling of migrant populations, denial of welfare to immigrants, of citizenship (and the protections that go with it) to Muslims, dismantling of Roma encampments etc. To recapitulate: racist ideas are constantly travelling from the fringe to the mainstream and back again. (Maybe we should call this phenomenon ‘cumulative racism’!) It calls into question, of course, the idea behind cumulative extremism of a neutral government or state, holding the ring between warring extremist factions.
Variations on the cumulative extremism theme
The diagnosis that the real threat we face today is from cumulative extremism has different consequences in different European contexts. In the context of the UK, we are told that there is a symbiotic relationship between Islamist extremism and the English Defence League, whose ideologies mirror one another and who feed off each other in a spiral of violence. In fact this viewpoint is merely a reworking of tired frameworks used before in Northern Ireland. Remember all those film-makers, journalists and academics who sought to present the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland as part of an everlasting cycle of Catholic and Protestant religious fanaticism, thereby denying that British troops, British policies and entrenched discrimination against Catholics were the engine of the Conflict.
In the Czech Republic, politicians and mainstream extremist experts have suggested that violence of the far Right is a cumulative response to too much reliance on welfare, or too much delinquency amongst the Roma community. And at the EU-level, the current fad is for research into populism per se, which tends to see Left and Right populism as part of the same stable, equally driven by anti-elite ‘resentment’ and thus equally dangerous to the EU project. But in Germany, where both fascism and Communism were deemed un-constitutional in the post-war period (in the Federal Republic that is), and where the pre-unification mindset (against the Communist East) still prevails, with the Left seen as a greater threat to democracy than the Right, cumulative extremism plays out more in terms of equating Left and Right as equal threats to the democratic order. Not surprisingly, then, given the history of fascism in Germany and the centrality of Left forces in the anti-fascist resistance, it is here where anti-racist and victim support groups are refusing to accommodate to government programmes that equate Left, Right and ‘foreigner’ violence on the grounds that such programmes exclude radical critiques (and critics) from debate and delegitimise anything radical. (Read IRR News articles: ‘German counter-extremism programme – a “spying charter”’ and ‘Anti-fascism – extreme necessity’.)
Anti-extremism and the security state
Anti-fascism has always been associated in the post-war period with progressive causes – from the fight against dictatorship in Spain, Greece and Portugal, to the defence of ethnic minority communities under attack. Removing anti-fascism from a progressive register and placing it in the field of anti-extremism, means accepting reactionary security discourses which have emerged in the context of the war on terror. For anti-extremist experts, with a few honourable exceptions, are not speaking primarily to anti-fascist movements at the grassroots, those endeavouring to protect communities from fascist provocation, but to policy-makers, police and intelligence services. The idea is taking hold that fascism and hate – so widespread on the internet – can only be controlled by relying on the state as policeman and protector. This is very dangerous at a time when parliamentary democracy is weak, when the right to demonstrate is under attack (if not in terms of legislation, in practice, via police techniques such as kettling) and when the Snowden revelations have thrown light on the ‘increasing subservience of democracy to the unaccountability of security power’ (read an IRR News article: ‘Is anti-fascism being criminalised?‘) and the ‘interconnections between global intelligence services in a system of global dominance’. A warning from novelist John Lanchester (asked to read the Snowden documents by the Guardian), about the dangers of the ‘lone wolf’ theory, is pertinent here. He calls this ‘the ultimate version of the scare story that used to be called “reds under the bed”‘, adding ‘how can the state ever hope to protect us against people like that, if not by permanent, omnipresent, ever-increasing surveillance?’ 
Post-war history – from the 1980 Bologna railway massacre, the pogroms at Hoyerswerda and Rostock, to the 1995 presence of Greek fascists at the Srebrenica massacre, and Breivik’s 2011 massacre at Osloand Utoya island – teaches us that fascism can emerge on states’ blind side. Whether this is because of a tendency to view fascism as excess of nationalism, or patriotism (a form of extremism states can sympathise with), or due to suspicions about the loyalties of ethnic minorities and anti-racists (witness the current revelations about the surveillance of the Lawrence family and anti-racist organisations in the 1990s), or because far-right groups are not seen as a direct threat to state institutions (so the threat is downgraded) is a moot point.
Collusion with fascism and criminalisation of anti-fascism
But certainly it is true in a number of countries, most notably Germany, with the National Socialist Underground (NSU) revelations, that police and intelligence services (including military intelligence) are today, far from blind to fascism. (Read an IRR Briefing paper: State intelligence agencies and the far Right: A review of developments in Germany, Hungary and Austria.) In fact they are too close to it, running inappropriate paid informer schemes and other dubious methods of covert policing. In Germany, eight men of Turkish origin, one man of Greek origin and a female police officer, were shot in the head at close range between 2000 and 2007 by members of the NSU. Despite having examined 80,000 documents and examining 800 witnesses, a parliamentary inquiry failed to conclusively determine why thirty-four separate police and intelligences agencies were unable to apprehend the far-right killers over that seven-year period. The deliberations of the parliamentary commission were not helped by the fact that countless security services’ documents were shredded on the eve of the inquiry and that key witnesses appeared to suffer from memory loss. Many political commentators in Germany now ask whether the security services are a law unto themselves and a threat to a constitutional state.
In Hungary, six Roma, including a 5-year-old child, were assassinated by four neo-Nazis who carried out a total of twenty attacks in nine small towns and villages from July 2008 until 2011. A short parliamentary inquiry, despite limitations in its remit, managed to establish that the National Security Office repeatedly failed to prioritise the murder of the Roma and to pass relevant information to police investigators. Journalists managed to uncover other facts which had been withheld from the parliamentarians, namely that one of the neo-Nazis (a former professional soldier) had at some point been an informer for military intelligence. Other disturbing facts have emerged from Austria, where seven members of Objekt 21 were convicted in November 2013 for ‘re-engagement with National Socialism’ under a 1947 anti-Nazi Prohibition Act. While they were under surveillance from 2009, it is not clear why they were allowed to maintain a reign of terror in the region for years, with arson attacks, weapons and drugs dealing, as well as control of prostitution, being amongst their crimes. A former detective had previously alleged that of three agents working for state security on the question of fascism, two were openly sympathetic towards the far Right.
The most serious allegations come from Greece, where members of the Special Forces Reserve Union recently called for a coup and a government investigation has been launched into allegations that members of the armed forces were training Golden Dawn hit squads. The head of the police’s special forces, internal security, organised crimes, firearms and explosives and a rapid motorcycle division have been moved to other posts pending investigation of media reports that they were assisting Golden Dawn’s criminal activities. During a raid on the home of the chief of police in the fascists’ Athenian stronghold of St Panteleimon, the addresses of immigrants, bags of counterfeit goods and weapons were seized. Taking just these known cases from Germany, Hungary, Austria and Greece (given the nature of covert policing there are bound to be more) allows us to say with some authority that there is now considerable evidence of European state collusion – either direct or indirect – with the growth of the far Right. Collusion, Sir John Stevens defined, (in the context of Northern Ireland) in 1993 as ‘encompassing a range of actions including the wilful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, through to the extreme of agents being involved in murder
An anti-extremism discourse, with its narrow parameters and closeness to security discourses and interests, keeps the state and its security services outside the reckoning. This is not to suggest a conspiracy, but merely to point to a significant blind spot, which, in the political arena, lends legitimacy to police in their attempts to criminalise resistance to fascism (as just another form of extremism), and to intelligence services to spy on anti-racists and anti-fascists (as potential subversives and extremists). In fact, opposition to fascism – which should be the preserve of all democrats – has already been seriously weakened by this ‘anti-extremist’ discourse which is proving very useful to powerful state agencies and extreme- right politicians. For now, human rights defenders and anti-fascists face criminalisation as police target them as extremists leading to high-profile court cases, a number of which have collapsed. At the same time Right politicians in European parliaments are attempting to get left parties banned. When the French government, in the wake of the murder of Clément Méric, announced in parliament that the Third Way, Revolutionary Nationalist Youth and Desire to Dream, would be banned, angry rightwing politicians heckled, calling for similar bans on left groups — a policy now supported by the leader of the UMP Jean-Francois Copé. Marine Le Pen, for her part, has decried policies based on ‘selective dissolution’. In Greece, the New Democracy/PASOK coalition government routinely equates Golden Dawn to the Left (including the anti-fascist movement) with the law professor Costas Douzinas amongst those who have warned that the ignorant and morally perverse ‘theory of two extremes ‘ is the favoured narrative of the Greek elite. The recent murders of two fascists outside the Golden Dawn headquarters in Athens does not bolster this argument, no matter how hard the press try to portray it as a revenge attack for the earlier murder of the anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas. Unnamed Greek security sources now claim that either the Sect of Revolutionaries, or a splinter group of Revolutionary Struggle, were behind the fatal machine gun attack. But no one has been arrested yet and neither of these groups were connected to Pavlos Fyssas or anti-fascism. In fact, neither of these organisations emerged in the context of the current fight against Golden Dawn but out of anti-capitalist anarchist movements on the one hand and the 2008 student protests in Greece that followed the police killing of the student Alexandros Grigoropoulos. Their previous targets were banks, prison and police officers, and court houses – ie institutions associated with the state and capitalism.
Building an anti-fascist culture
Fascism starts by capturing public spaces, be it a street, a village, or a town and turning them into natives only, foreigner no-go zones. In the modern world, ‘the spaces’ that fascists also seek to capture include television and social media, using free speech as the Trojan horse through which democratic societies can be infiltrated and undermined. In the long term we probably have most to fear from the far Right at a local rather than a national level (where extreme-right and anti-immigration movements hoover up the racist vote). For it is at the local level, that the cultural revolution of the Right is advancing like an invasion of weeds in the European garden. It is here also that anti-fascism is at its most vibrant and relevant. The danger is that the anti-extremism industry will provide the intellectual cover for the criminalisation of resistance to fascism.
We desperately need strong local movements against fascism. This doesn’t just involve mobilising to protect our streets from neo-Nazis, but building a resilient focused and grassroots anti-fascist culture. For, as Greek anti-fascists on the frontline of resistance today have argued, ‘anti-fascism is a political struggle about the kind of life we want to live … it is a battle for democracy, solidarity and social justice’. Such movements need also to embrace town halls. It is only right that our elected tribunes should stand shoulder to shoulder with us in demanding ‘they shall not pass’. Catchpenny theories and fashionable fads are one thing – but sometimes the old slogans say it so much better.
Read an IRR report: Pedlars of Hate: the violent impact of the European far Right
Read an IRR Briefing Paper: From pillar to post: pan-European racism and the Roma
Read an IRR News article: ‘German counter-extremism programme – a “spying charter”’
Read an IRR News article: ‘Anti-fascism – extreme necessity’
Read an interview with Biplab Basu here (pdf file, 197kb)
Read an interview with Costas Douzinas here
Read an IRR News article: ‘Is anti-fascism being criminalised?‘
Read an IRR Briefing Paper: State intelligence agencies and the far Right: A review of developments in Germany, Hungary and Austria
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.