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10 February 2021

Boris Johnson’s probe into left-wing “extremism” is a dangerous distraction from the fascist threat

The government’s targeting of groups such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion is a gift to the far right.

By Paul Mason

A Greek acquaintance, long departed, joined the anti-Nazi resistance as a teenager and then fought on the communist side in the Civil War. When it was over, as a gesture of reconciliation, his local police commander offered to destroy his intelligence file. “I told him to keep it,” he said, “that’s my medal.” It was the only official recognition he was ever likely to get.

On the same basis, I demand to be investigated by Lord Walney, the government’s “special envoy” for countering extremism. I take the “extreme” view that the planet is burning; that the cause is 250 years of industrial capitalism; and that the solution is a transition beyond the market, private property and inequality and – while we are at it – racism, misogyny and psychological self-oppression.

In pursuit of this anti-capitalist ambition – which began with reading The Communist Manifesto in the library of a Catholic grammar school – I opposed the Falklands War, both Iraq interventions and demonstrated for troops to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland. I have stood on the plinth of Alexander Pushkin’s statue in Moscow calling for people to resist privatisation, and on four decades’ worth of picket lines. Most recently, I have been threatened by far-right “Back Boris” demonstrators in Whitehall, who gleefully shouted into my face that they had “researched me” and that I was “a Marxist”.

I did this because free-market capitalism is itself a form of extremism. It took a 19th-century metaphor – homo economicus – and imposed it as a form of social engineering. It ripped apart the society I grew up in and replaced it with a zombie apocalypse of deindustrialisation, criminalisation, insecurity and ignorance.

And at every stage it used extreme violence to do so. Not just the violence of the riot squads, which Margaret Thatcher deployed against strikers; not just the interrogation tactics employed by British troops in Northern Ireland; not just the systemic racism of the Metropolitan Police, but, as we now know, decades of surveillance carried out against  thousands of labour movement, environmental and social justice activists, on the grounds that they were “extremists”. 

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There is a rich stream of post-traumatic dramas about British resistance to neoliberalism: from Pride and Billy Elliot, which focused on the 1984-85 miners’ strike, to the Mangrove Nine trial featured in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, to the anti-gay bigotry of the Thatcher years, recently depicted in It’s a Sin.

For those of us who fought capitalism, homophobia and racial oppression in the 1980s, it’s nice to become the subjects of sympathetic drama today. But if you’re fighting it now, you are destined to draw the attention of Lord Walney.

Walney is, lest we forget, John Woodcock: a former Labour MP who quit the party while under investigation for alleged sexual harassment (he denies the allegations), and, having backed Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and urged people to vote Tory, was awarded a life peerage.

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In his time as Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, Woodcock turned a 5,000 Labour majority into one of just 209 votes, before abandoning the seat to the Tories. But, to be fair, he was busy. 

In 2017 Woodcock visited Turkey at the invitation of the NGO Bosphorus Centre for Global Affairs, which emails released to Wikileaks show was funded by Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of President Erdogan. He met supporters of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party, which is affiliated with the far-right youth organisation the Grey Wolves. The latter has previously distributed translations of Mein Kampf and is banned in France. Woodcock returned from his Turkish trip urging the British government to reach “a greater understanding of the steps Turkey has taken in order to fight against extremism”.

He was originally appointed counter-extremism “envoy” in 2019. In November 2020 he was appointed the government’s “independent adviser on political violence and disruption” and in February this year he was put in charge of an investigation into the “extreme fringes of the hard left and far right in the UK”, following the Capitol Hill riot.

[See also: Quassim Cassam on why extremism is a question of psychology, not politics]

In the crosshairs are Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which – despite splintering into warring re-enactment groups – still manages to obsess the British establishment to an inexplicable degree. Woodcock told the Telegraph: “I want to look at the way anti-democracy, anti-capitalist far-left fringe groups in Britain like the Socialist Workers Party tend to have much more success hijacking important causes… than the far-right, and the harm that may do.”

This is a troubling world view for a politician in charge of counter-extremism. One in six people currently in jail for terrorism is from the far right. Far-right ideologies and conspiracy theories have, in the space of half a decade, brought theoretical coherence to what were once simply prejudices and xenophobia among the populist right.

It is common, in the Telegram channels and WhatsApp groups run by the far right, to hear perfectly ordinary people fantasise about a coming global ethnic civil war; to complain that they are the subjects of white genocide; to rail against wokeness and Marxism in terms that justify violence; and to trade memes and videos that glorify violence against the left, Jews, other ethnic minorities, gays, feminists and liberals. It is also possible, if you listen hard enough, to hear a semi-sanitised version of this new far-right ideology on the airwaves – as with the infamous call by “Gemma from Cambridge” to Keir Starmer on LBC.

In turn, the Conservative government is happy to trade on the same sentiments, though not the rhetoric: stuffing the Equalities and Human Rights Commission with individuals who believe “white self-interest is not the same as racism”, or who criticise modern feminism, and planning a law to prevent the removal of statues of slave-trading racists without full consultation.

This is, at one level, part of the pre-scripted culture war being orchestrated by those around Johnson. On the Black Lives Matter demos last summer there were, of course, SWP-printed placards, as there have been on every demonstration since it acquired a print shop. But there was little organised left involvement. This was a spontaneous mass movement: the biggest black demonstration of its kind in London in living memory.

Extinction Rebellion, though unfortunate in its choice of targets and deluded in its approach to politics, is a legitimate protest movement full of ordinary young people determined to save the planet from politicians such as Johnson and Woodcock. Yet it was labelled by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, as being full of “eco crusaders turned criminals”.

There is Islamist terrorism; there is – as we saw with the conviction of four members of the banned group National Action – real fascist terrorism; there is splinter-group Republican terrorism and a Loyalist equivalent (with supporters of the latter currently agitated about the border Johnson created in the Irish Sea). But there is no left-wing terrorism in Britain and no deep-green environmental terrorism.

Woodcock – presumably speaking on behalf of the government he advises – labels the SWP and other far-left groups anti-democratic. In Germany such a designation would – as it did with the youth wing of the Alternative for Germany – merit official state surveillance. But there is no evidence for it.

Unless you are talking about its internal structure, the SWP cannot be realistically called anti-democratic. It is a legal organisation that has helped organise two of the biggest pro-democracy movements of the past half century: the Anti-Nazi League and the Stop the War Coalition. As viewers of my Twitter timeline will know, I am not an SWP poster boy, and I regard their Leninism as crass doublethink, justifying what is essentially a re-enactment group for the politics of the 1980s. But to bracket them with the lone shooters and swastika fantasists of the far right is not simply unjust, it deflects from the essential task of the 2020s – which is to stop fascism.

After the US Capitol riot, there is natural concern about fascism and the alt-right. The far right’s politics are an accelerator towards violence – not the spontaneous and random violence that broke out between some BLM supporters and the police in Whitehall, but the planned and symbolic violence that is always central to fascism. 

I want the state – in the form of the police, intelligence service, the courts and the media regulator – to redouble its vigilance against both domestic far-right extremism and the influence operations currently being staged by the actual enemies of democracy: the Russian and Chinese states.

The people I have to trust to do this are the professionals, operating under the rule of law and accountable to parliament. Appointing a politically motivated opponent of the democratic left, who has expressed sympathy with two far-right authoritarian states (Turkey and Saudi Arabia), and who knows so little about the landscape of 21st-century extremism, undermines the work of the people we pay to do this and confidence in the rule of law.

[See also: Anoosh Chakelian: Why are climate activists always accused of extremism?]