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Myths and Realities of the Fight Against the Far-Right

David Renton

David Renton is the author of numerous books on the far-right, from a history of the Anti-Nazi League to a theoretical analysis of fascism. He talks to Tribune about what it is – and how it can be fought.

Interview by
Owen Hatherley

David Renton is a practising barrister and writer, and is the author of several books – but since 2019 has published prolifically, with books on subjects ranging from free speech to housing law to the history of fascism to the new movements of the political right.

His most recent books include No Free Speech for Fascists, which explores the ‘no platform’ tactic, Never Again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, an updated version of his Fascism: History and Theory, analysing the basis of fascist politics, and the self-explanatory Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis.

Tribune spoke to him about these books, and the threads that link them together.


I’d like to start with your recent work on fascism and antifascism, particularly Never Again, your book on the Anti-Nazi League and Rock against Racism, which I loved. Part of what makes it so interesting is the argument that an anti-racist or anti-fascist campaign actively changes people, and that these campaigns helped introduce and encourage a new post-imperial culture which actually made the organising much more effective than it would have been otherwise.

What do you think campaigns today—in a very different cultural context—can learn from that late 1970s moment? Things like Grime4Corbyn and FCKBORIS clearly tried to repeat some of that energy.


All the books I’ve been writing recently start from the same basic question: the Right is more aggressive now than it has been for decades, and it is being rewarded in the polls, so what can we do to stop it? Never Again is a story of how one far-right party, the National Front, was broken in the 1970s.

That story doesn’t begin with a generation of anti-fascist campaigners. It starts rather with music—punk—and the efforts of a generation of cultural activists in Rock Against Racism not to deliver politics to the working class but rather to bring the Left up to speed with the shifts in young people’s consciousness which were already happening.

If you watch the film of when JME met Corbyn, for a long time their conversation is stilted, mainly JME listening to Corbyn. But halfway through, the dynamic changes. Corbyn says, ‘Change doesn’t come from politicians,’ and after that JME is all words and movement. It’s as if Corbyn has freed him, given him the right to talk.

That same idea, the change comes from below, was the essence of Rock Against Racism, and indeed of punk itself with its emphasis on spontaneity – learn three chords and you can form a band. Grime4Corbyn didn’t go as deeply into society as RAR, but this was history rhyming, showing us a way of building movements which might yet change the world.


The New Authoritarians is on the new movements of the hard right, whether Trump, Fidesz in Hungary, PiS in Poland, the Lega in Italy, the RN in France, or UKIP and its outgrowths here. You caution against calling these ‘fascist’, despite their resemblances in many respects. What is it that calling them fascist misses, and what consequences does that have for organising against these electoral nationalist movements?


In The New Authoritarians, I write about the processes which have enabled the Right to grow: an interaction between online culture and formal politics, the way ideas have crossed across borders, and the willingness of the centre-right to be led by its own outliers. These were effective tactics to deal with the decreasing popularity after 2008 of neoliberal managerialism. I argue that if the Left wants to prosper, we need similar processes of ‘convergence’.

Fascism had a different historical moment – it was a response to the greater crises of post-1918 Europe and a revolution against a more confident Left. It is a different tradition, with quite as specific a set of politics as ‘anarchism’ or ‘Marxism’ on our side. If today’s populist far right was truly fascist, then by 2020 when Trump had been in power for four years, we’d have seen democracy broken and his opponents jailed. We’d have seen war with China.

Trump chafed at the limits of electoralism and ordinary democratic politics, but ultimately respected them. There are few authoritarian laws which survive his presidency: even on the easiest measures that a president could implement without Congress, such as deportations or building the wall with Mexico, he went no further than his Democrat predecessors.

The parties you mention aren’t all on the same points in the far-right spectrum (the RN for example originates in moves made by its expressly Hitlerian predecessor the Ordre Nouveau to conceal its fascist plans). But with the exception of the RN, none are viewed as fascist or close to fascism by a majority of voters. It follows that tactics which attempt to replay 1970s era anti-fascism (the Italians singing ‘Bella Ciao‘ against Salvini, or the idea of an all-party anti-fascist alliance to stop UKIP) don’t work. They teach voters to think that the Left is still stuck in the past, while Right has innovated, become something new and different, and deserves its chance to rule.


Following on from that, you’ve just published a new edition of your Fascism – History and Theory, concentrating it much more on classic fascism in power in Germany and Italy, and on the analyses of it made by Marxist figures at the time such as Gramsci, the Frankfurt school, Trotsky and others, who saw fascism as a process rather than coming up with a fixed ‘definition’, which is the method followed more recently by intellectuals like Roger Griffin. What are the differences in these approaches for you, and what is at stake in that distinction?


An audience for my book on Fascism is students on degree courses, who are taught that Roger Griffin is one of the world’s major theorists of fascism. Griffin argues that the defining feature of fascism is not its use of mass politics or its counter-revolutionary goals, but the way in which fascists promised their followers that they would enable their nation to be reborn (palingenesis).

I think this approach is wrong. This promise of national rebirth is shared with politics closer to the centre – it was part of the appeal of Trump with his idea of Make America Great Again, and it was part of the appeal of Tony Blair. It isn’t the simple, unmistakeable, point at which fascism distinguishes itself.

One of the things you have to bear in mind about my Fascism book was that it is a rewrite of an earlier book. The first version was published as long ago as 1999, and it has its origins in the left cultures of the time – in the Anti-Nazi League, in blogs, in the music of the time which as much as the left groups assumed that the end goal of the far right was fascism.

In rewriting my book twenty years later, I was trying to rescue the past from a different set of misunderstandings—not so much palingenesis—but to remind people of the scale of the Holocaust, of the urgency of the fascist drive to war. I was trying to get away from that trend of collapsing our populist right into fascism and then writing back their unity into the past – as if what was wrong with Hitler was that he used cinema and radio (the Twitter of his day) or that he and Mussolini were economic nationalists (Brexiteers). I was trying to remind readers of the different scale of their malice in order to get away from similar bad analogies.


Your forthcoming book out this summer is on the ‘antisemitism scandal’ in Labour in the Corbyn years. I gather you try to follow a line between what was often a gross instrumentalisation of antisemitism on the right and the unhelpful denials and posturing that were too often the response on the left. One explanation for some of the more dodgy online behaviour is the lack of political links across the generations, meaning that some pretty woolly and paranoid ‘New World Order’ type stuff could emerge on the fringes of the online left.

Do you think that the interwar analysis of fascism—which of course had antisemitism at its core—that you draw out in your earlier book is useful in understanding this?


I’m not sure that understanding fascism makes it easier for people to understand Labour: these are completely different contexts, and I don’t like that ahistorical approach to antisemitism which seek its every single occurrence as carrying the same potential stakes.

That said, for me personally, when Labour was accused of antisemitism, I couldn’t separate that out from the other things I write. In all this time when I have been arguing against the far right I’ve always had an easy argument to prove the evil of fascism; I’ve always been able to say ‘and, on top of everything else, they were antisemites.’ Then, when I saw people on the left sharing ideas which seemed to echo some of those old messages—that Jews were clannish, rich, traitors to the party or the nation—that shocked me.

You ask about this in terms of generations. There were definitely moments when you could see the dynamic you’re getting at – in terms of younger anti-capitalists without a link to the older left being dragged into paranoid ways of thinking. If you think of Mear One, the artist who painted the mural which caused Corbyn so much difficulty, he’s an Occupy supporter who had previously been around the countercultural left for decades. I do think that his mural represents paranoid and antisemitic images intruding into his art, and he fits quite neatly with the account you hint at of a left fringe unincorporated into the whole.

But across my book as a whole, I don’t argue that the ‘old’ left understood antisemitism better than the likes of Momentum or Tribune. If anything, it seems to me that the places in the left where antisemitism was most vigorously challenged tended to be the ‘newest’ parts of the Corbyn coalition. I’m thinking of for example of Jewdas or the political education videos about different forms of antisemitic conspiracy theories which were produced by Momentum, and with people like Michael Walker of Novara Media involved, some of which were seen by millions of people.

Finally, while the point of that book is to criticise what the Left got wrong and to urge people to stop making certain basic mistakes, there is a lot in it which I hope will be of value to everyone on the left – criticisms of the IHRA definition, explanations of why solidarity with Palestine is a cause of justice. The book stakes out a left position, it doesn’t tail the right-wing criticisms of Corbyn, some of which point in awful directions.


Your day job is as a lawyer, and this comes out in two of your recent books, one of them being No Free Speech for Fascists, which is a history of the ‘no platform’ approach to fascism. There has been a lot of pushback against no platform lately from the right, and the idea that people are being frequently ‘cancelled’ and ‘silenced’ has become increasingly popular among people whose voices are far from silent in the media.

On the other hand, there’s obviously a useful distinction between offensive contrarianism and fascism. You’re quite critical of social media campaigns that aim at getting prominent right-wingers removed from, for example, Twitter – but where should the line be drawn? Something like a student union should surely have the option of just saying ‘We don’t like what you’re saying and we’re not going to showcase it,’ even when we’re not dealing with outright violent fascism?


I suppose you could divide the Right into three groups. In one part, you have open fascists, websites with names like the Daily Stormer or groups like National Action, who loudly declare their loyalty to the Nazi model. No-one I can think of objects to them being silenced. Then you get people on the right who might have broke bread with fascists but fascism is clearly not their core politics: I’m thinking of someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has attempted to court fascists at one or two moments. But his essential politics is a very familiar form of right-wing reactionary conservatism. There are very few people I’ve come across who argue for him to be banned. The important question isn’t either of these groups, but the quite large set of people somewhere in between.

Arguments for restricting free speech aren’t just about drawing a line: fascists on one side, on the other side everyone else. It’s also about what kind of movement you’re building, how many people are involved on your side, how mass and how democratic are your politics. If you’ve got someone saying something hateful, and on the other side a mass politicised community, then chances are the mass movement will get it right. The problem comes when you have both an in-between style of right-wing politics and a cautious, rights-based approach on our side, when we’re reduced to petitioning managers or social media platforms. When it’s not the student union doing the banning, but the Vice-Chancellor.

In No Free Speech for Fascists, I’m arguing for a mass politics which isn’t just about what’s hateful in our opponents, but also forces us to reflect on how we organise, and what kind of power are we’re building.


Finally, the other book you published this year, Jobs and Homes, is radically different to the others – it’s a very moving diary of the first year of the pandemic, and of the cases you worked on as a legal aid lawyer, particularly in employment and, especially, housing.

While the other books seem to assume a general left audience, this one is both more accessible to people not necessarily already on the left, and is also much more specific on the law, its workings, and the ways in which even the radically restricted system we have at the moment can, in some cases, achieve some sort of justice. What did you aim to achieve with that book?


Jobs and Homes is about the people who might help to transform the Left and Britain. The Left is very good at theorising a relationship between working-class people in their jobs, their associational culture (unions), and the kind of party that flows from that. But I wanted to write about something else – working-class people in their homes.

I also wanted to write in a different style, which is hopefully more accessible to a wider set of people than read my theoretical books. I try to explain the housing crisis, and by that I mean really, properly, explain – how the parts of crisis which are talked about in press (i.e. how high prices prevent younger people from affording mortgages) attach to the parts of crisis which millions of people know but are never explained in press (tenants’ insecurity in own homes, the dilapidation of the housing stock, the relationship between legal forms of eviction and their illegal counterparts).

It’s a book about how class is experienced in housing. And although there isn’t much about collective action—as a lawyer, I see people in court, I’m a marginal figure in their protests—I hope that struggle is the end-point to which the book is always tending.

We’re in an authoritarian moment when rights are being taken away and the law is becoming less favourable. The dominant response is a nostalgia for the law we have just lost. So that if Labour wins the next election, everyone on the Labour left and right seems to agree that its first task will be to repeal all sorts of bad laws.

I’m trying to encourage people to see something else, something more expansive. In the workplaces, I don’t just want a better, bigger Tribunal system. I want workers to have control over their workplaces without needing the law. And much the same applies to tenants: I want to increase the power of those who don’t own property; I want them to win.