Organising against fascism: building at the grassroots

David Landau speaks to anti-fascist activists in Greece

Most people think of fascism as a very marginal current in Britain. Fascists never won council seats or MPs during the 20th century. Between 2005 and 2010 the British National Party did win over 50 councillors but they have lost nearly all of these. There are still 2 fascist MEPs from Britain, representing different parties after a split in the BNP, but they will probably lose these next year. The British National Party, the main fascist party in Britain over the past 20 years has splintered. So the fascist threat in the UK is nothing like as serious as the threat from Golden Dawn in Greece.

But the reality is that the fascists have far more influence in Britain than you might think. My friend the late Steve Cohen explained that the British State is standing on the shoulders of fascism. How? Well every significant piece of immigration control during more than a century has followed racist anti-migrant agitation by fascist organisations. This goes right back to the 19th century when the British Brothers League organised mass rallies and demonstrations against Jewish immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe. This was repeated again and again against different groups of migrants coming to Britain. When the mainstream politicians brought in law after law they justified it in terms of heading off the fascist threat and referring to a popular feeling that the fascists were taking advantage of and these politicians therefore had to address. This includes the Labour Party.  The mainstream media have said the same. I am not saying that all immigration controls are the result of appeasing fascists although sometimes they were, but fascism always provided the alibi for the mainstream politicians whatever the underlying reasons that Capital had for such controls.

In the case of British fascists, migration has always been at the centre of their agitation. Their perspective on homelessness, unemployment, the environment, crime, culture, always comes back to immigration. Their forays into conspiracy theory always homes in on migration as a weapon against the indigenous British or the ‘white race’. Their current focus against Islam is still primarily anti-migrant, just as their anti-Semitism was in the 1930s.

So it is vital for the anti-fascist movement to challenge the anti-migrant culture of the mainstream as well as the fascist organisations themselves.  And that has been a weakness of the anti-fascists, in the UK at any rate.  Which is why I am involved with No One is Illegal, which campaigns against immigration controls, taking the argument against controls into the working class movement.

It also brings out the problem of how the anti-fascist movement can engage with the mainstream political parties which I shall be coming back to.

My anti-fascist activism has been primarily in local community-based anti-fascist, anti-racist organisations. I think organising at a local grass roots level is the key to defeating the fascists. Where the fascists have their success is when they have organised at that community level so that is where we must break them. Islington is in London. In the 1980s and 90s Islington Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Action worked with communities under attack – mainly Bangladeshis and Somalis. Families were subject to racist abuse and attacks. We would organise on the estates. Sit in with the families. Leaflet the estate to find support and bring communities together. Meet the residents’ association. Schools were crucial and through the local branch of the National Union of Teachers we involved teachers in these activities.

The fascists had a house opposite Arsenal Football Ground. They were trying to get influence on the fans. We worked around the ground putting out anti-fascist literature. We organised in the local streets around the ground. We got the local Trades Council involved and organised a march past the fascist house on a match day. Eventually it got too much for the Nazis and they moved out.

We repeated this when the Nazis took over two pubs in Kings Cross area.  Again, under the public pressure that we built up, demonstrations outside the pubs, the pub owners banned the Nazis from their pub.

A lot of our work was quite dangerous. The house of one of our leading members was firebombed. I myself was attacked by a gang of youths on one of the estates we were working on. We would have benefitted from people who were good at physical defence. There was an organisation called Anti-Fascist Action that was into that but exclusively. For them physical force was the be all and end all of anti-fascism and they were sometimes violent against their political opponents within the movement.  Physical force and building a mass movement have been too often counter-posed. They need to complement each other.  We need defence squads as an auxiliary to our community and mass activities.

I was involved in setting up a campaign in another part of London, Redbridge – Redbridge & Epping Forest Together. Just after we were established, the British National Party won a council seat in Redbridge and 6 in Epping Forest. Next door in Barking & Dagenham they famously won 12 council seats. One of the features of their victory was that they understood the need for consistent work in the community. They put out regular newsletters in their target wards. In contrast all the mainstream parties were doing nothing in those areas. The only people doing rejoinders to the BNP leaflets were us. So they won seats.

They have lost them all in our area. Why? Largely because of us working consistently in their areas, producing leaflets, organising meetings and so forth. We also became a very visible presence in the campaigns against the cuts in Redbridge which helped reach a stronger relationship with the trades unions and communities suffering from the cuts who could clearly see that it was the anti-fascists, not the fascists, who were their friends.

Through my employed work in Redbridge Equalities & Community Council we produced myth busting packs on immigration, Islamophbia, homophobia and disabilities.

So you can see why I think grass roots organisation is key. This is the case in the most famous anti-fascist activity in Britain that you may have heard of, the Battle of Cable Street in the 1930s. The core of the movement that built this was the Jewish working class in the East End of London which organised and reached out to the local trades unions and working class parties and then across the whole of London.

But people saw the need for working across the whole country too. This is why Unite Against Fascism was set up. The problem with the Unite Against Fascism was that it was set up from the top down. Instead of calling all the local groups like ours together to discuss what kind of national organisation we wanted, a few national organisations launched it and demanded that the existing local groups come under their umbrella. This caused a lot of resentment and many organisations refused to do this. So UAF set up their own groups in the same places. So in centres of BNP activity like in Oldham and Bradford where you had strong campaigns built around the trades councils rooted in the trade union movement and the local community, UAF branches were established in competition. This awful sectarian situation was very debilitating. This is an important lesson for us to think about when we consider how to build an international movement.

More recently Unite Against Fascism has evolved into a better organisation, more democratic and aware of community organisation. So recently they were instrumental in setting up local alliances in areas where the Islamophobic English Defence League have been trying to march and successfully stopped them. So things are improving and the fascists have been in retreat. But the anti-migrant culture and other prejudices are strong in Britain so they can make a comeback.

A united front against fascism built from the grass roots up is what we need. But by definition the united front is a very dialectical notion and project because it involves bringing together people who disagree and sometimes with different interests. So how do you do that whilst keeping up strong principles? A united front against fascism has to have principles. It is self-defeating to have an anti-fascist movement that tolerates Islamophobia, Homophobia, misogyny and anti-Migrant attitudes, the lifeblood of the fascists. The united front has to unite all the communities under attack, the trades unions and some politicians. Which politicians?  Can we have people on our platform from parties that implement immigration controls? Or implement the cuts which underpin the resentments that the fascists feed upon? What about the Labour Party then?

There has been a debate in local anti-fascist groups recently about whether they should have anti-austerity as part of their platform. On the one hand austerity is key to why fascism has grown. On the other it could exclude social democrats from the Labour party taking part in an anti-fascist front.

There is no simple formula for these questions. It is very important that social democrats are not excluded from the united front. But we cannot allow people to pose as anti-racists who support immigration controls without criticism. If there are religious organisations in a united front then they must be prepared to stand to shoulder with gay activists for example.    Unite Against Fascism have adopted a formula recently that they have to be a ‘one trick pony’, uniting everybody opposed to the fascists marching and meeting and that there does not need to be agreement on anything else. I think this ignores the difficulties I have outlined. On the other hand the UF needs to be as inclusive as possible. As I said, very dialectical! But building from the grass roots up is the best way of addressing these difficulties in practice.

Today there is a need for an international, or at least European, anti-fascist organisation. But we need to learn the lessons about not doing it top down.

I will end by telling you that a few weeks ago when you had a big demonstration against Golden Dawn here in Athens we had a solidarity picket outside the Greek Embassy in London. The English Defence League turned up to oppose us, acting as the British voice of Golden Dawn. There were only 10 of them.



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