A peaceful rally against racism was called in Melbourne’s inner northern suburb of Coburg for May 28. Two far right hate groups, the United Patriots Front and the True Blue Crew, both of which are led by various neo-Nazis, tried to march down Bell Street and Sydney Road to oppose the anti-racist demonstration.
They were met by anarchists, socialists, other activists and community members who blocked their path. Some anti-racist activists engaged in scuffles with the far right and police intervened with pepper spray and on horseback. A media frenzy has erupted over the small skirmishes that took place. In response the Liberal Party has called for the reinstatement of repressive ‘move-on’ laws, while the state Labor government is considering police requests for new powers, including a ban on face-masks worn by right-wingers and some anti-racist activists.
While socialists do not promote the wearing of masks at political actions we are opposed to their banning. If implemented there is no doubt the police would take advantage of these powers. For example a striking worker wearing a hoodie, or a community activist wearing the mask of a politician as part of a street theatre protest, could be singled out by police looking to undermine effective actions.
The Socialist Party agrees with the need to block hate groups, but this raises questions about tactics. In 2015, the Socialist Party made major efforts to mobilise ordinary people to mass counter-rallies. These were held to stop the racist Reclaim Australia group from rallying against Muslims. Amongst other actions around 3,500 people assembled at Federation Square on April 4 and several thousand again at Parliament House on July 18 to physically prevent racist groups from organising.
These counter mobilisations were effective in a number of ways. Firstly they helped highlight the fact that Reclaim Australia were not just a group of concerned “mums and dads”, the leaders were often long term far right activists who were using the platform to further their reactionary agenda.
The counter protests also helped to drive a wedge between the conscious far right leaders and those who had latched onto Reclaim Australia having genuine, but misplaced concerns about the future. As a result Reclaim Australia began infighting and suffered several splits. The mass actions had an important political effect and cut across Reclaim Australia’s potential despite the fact that conditions are ripe for the growth of racist ideas.
There is no doubt that working people are under increasing economic strain. Unemployment is rising, housing stress is acute and social services are being cut. The media and politicians have attempted to scapegoat Muslim people and other minorities as a way of distracting people from the real causes of these problems. As well as mobilising against racist groups, the root causes of these problems need to be highlighted and an economic and political alternative needs to be posed as a means of undermining the potential social base of the far right.
The Socialist Party insists that we need to explain that it is employers that are responsible for job losses and casualisation in their drive for more profits. It is landlords, speculators and the big banks that have driven housing costs out of reach for many, and it is capitalist governments that are cutting social services in order to protect conditions for their big business backers.
This is who we should be blaming for our problems. There is more than enough wealth to go around, the problem is that a tiny few control the way it is distributed. The rich and powerful thrive when the rest of us are fighting amongst ourselves. With that being the case the best way to combat this divide and rule strategy is to strive to unite all working class people across ethnic and racial lines in a fight for a bigger share of the wealth and against unnecessary divisions.
For socialists tactics flow from your overall strategic needs, in this case the unity of working class people. With that in mind we strive to mobilise the largest possible demonstrations around the need to combat racism and fight for jobs, homes and services for everybody. We aim to convince working class people that it is their own agency that is capable of both stopping the far right and winning these demands.
While self defence is sometimes necessary when you are dealing with potentially violent far right groups, by far the most powerful form of defence is mass action. Mass action is not only superior on a practical level but also politically. Some groups do not share this vision and instead think that small battalions of well prepared activists should instead engage in combat with the far right when they attempt to organise. We think this is short sighted and an approach that lacks confidence in the ability of the working class.
The problem with small scale and individual actions in isolation is three fold. Firstly there is the risk that you can help to create sympathy for the enemy. For example the media have previously played up the idea that ordinary “mums and dads” have been attacked for attending Reclaim Australia rallies. While they will always be biased in their reporting our goal should be to not play into the hands of the capitalist press. We should try to make it difficult for them to spin a narrative that favours the far right in any way.
Secondly, small group or individual actions send the wrong message to people who are not yet involved in our movement. We want to encourage the biggest number of people possible to attend our actions. We want to convince working people that their agency matters. This will put us in a much stronger position to both combat far right groups but to also win the demands that can cut across the basis for racist ideas. Disciplined collective actions such as blockades and pickets, where people are linking arms, are not only effective but send an important message to onlookers.
Small group and individual actions not only take resources away from more effective mobilisations but can send the message that people do not have to mobilise themselves. Instead they give the impression that other people are doing the work for you. When building social movements the message you send to potential participants is important. This is also the reason why socialists do not wear masks at political actions. We want to build connections and trust with working class people and that is not usually facilitated by wearing a mask and hiding your identity.
Thirdly small group combat in isolation can sometimes give the state the excuse it is looking for to introduce further repressive measures and crack down on protest activity. For example in the aftermath of the 2006 G20 protests in Melbourne dozens of activists were charged with riot and affray and tied up in court proceedings. This consumed them for months on end and many ended up demoralised and drifted away from political activity – a result that the state is no doubt very happy with.
Moves towards introducing new repressive laws were made almost as soon as the footage of the scuffles at Coburg was screened. While there is no doubt that the state would like to introduce a whole suite of new laws to curtail our right to protest, they need political justification to carry it out. Our goal should be to make this as difficult as possible for them. The less restriction people have on their ability to organise the better placed they will be to win gains.
We must challenge all efforts by the far right to gain ground. But we must do so with the long term interests of our movement in mind. There is no immediate prospect of a fascist regime in Australia but the presence of sometimes violent far right groups does pose a safety risk to minority groups. Their presence and the racism encouraged by the major parties and the capitalist press has also led to an increase in casual violence and harassment of Muslim people. One of the reasons the rally in Coburg was held was because locals have reported an increase of this type of harassment.
The different tactics utilised by different left groups in combating the far right flow from disagreements about a number of questions – primarily which force in society is capable of carrying out social change and what program is required to achieve it? The Socialist Party is open and honest about our approach. We think mass, disciplined actions, of working class people is the best way to combat the far right, but it requires winning working people to a political alternative. Through further participation in the anti-racist movement we hope to convince more people of this approach.
A Socialist Party comment