Two events occurred over the last week that are worth contrasting.
The first was the appearance of the leader of the far right nationalist group, United Patriots Front, Blair Cottrell, at a rally of dairy farmers on the steps of the Victorian parliament.
The speech was widely lampooned, as it should have been, even by the dairy farmers in assembly. Cottrell had made a fool of himself. It was one of the rare times, however, that Cottrell was able to speak publicly unmolested.
Usually a rally of the United Patriots Front, or similar outfits such as Reclaim Australia, are met by a “counter-rally” organised by Anti-Fascist Action (Antifa), a coalition of anarchists, Trotskyites and the like. Hitherto, Antifa has sought to use violence to prevent the UPF from rallying.
On this occasion Blair Cottrell’s best friends were not present to save him from his own foolhardiness.
However, on Saturday at Coburg they more than made up for abandoning him earlier in the week. A violent confrontation between the UPF and Antifa attracted widespread attention and discussion providing Cottrell, again, a nationwide platform to spread his message.
The details of the Coburg events have been discussed widely elsewhere. I have heard of a few firsthand accounts. Cottrell sought to violently break up an anti-racism rally led by the Moreland, Socialist Alliance, councillor Sue Bolton. The police mobilised to prevent this, as did Antifa.
Antifa has stated that they are responsible for preventing the UPF from attacking the Moreland anti-racism rally. The UPF was contained behind police lines, and there they would have peacefully remained. Both UPF and Antifa, however, were determined to wage another round in their little street war, which is precisely what, briefly, happened until the Battle of Coburg, if you will, was broken up by the police.
The police themselves appear to have acted in a heavy handed way, something worth keeping in mind given calls for their anti-protest powers to increase.
Antifa claims that groups such as UPF need to be physically attacked so that they can be provided no platform to air their views. This is, clearly, contrary to free speech. The ideology of UPF is racist and vulgar. Their Australia would be an ugly Australia. However, they have the right to profess their views, no matter how vulgar those views may be, so long as it is done in a peaceful manner.
One is in favour of free speech to the extent that one upholds the right of people to air views one despises.
Antifa claim that it is necessary to break up UPF rallies because fascism is best beaten before it can rise to prominence. Arguments such as this are made upon the basis of pathetically simplistic historical analyses; if only Hitler was beaten up when the Nazi’s had 12 members fascism would never have been. Matters were far more complex than this, and rolling street battles between fascists and the left were hardly uncommon in the 1920s.
The overriding objective of ghetto groups such as the UPF is to break out of their isolation so that their movement may grow on the back of popular grievances against globalisation. The violent confrontations help UPF to do this, because it gives something for its adherents to rally behind, and it also provides a platform for the UPF to air their views Australia wide. The confrontations are being used by the UPF to build their movement, and it is slowly working. They also give the UPF an argument where otherwise they have inanities; they say they are defending Australia from traitors who oppose free speech.
Absent these confrontations the UPF would have a minimal platform, and most likely would break up amid internal schisms. Confrontations provide for internal cohesiveness greater than would exist in its absence. Furthermore, the cycle of violence brings the most forceful elements to leadership positions. My understanding is that Cottrell himself rose to prominence on grounds that the previous leadership was not confronting Antifa with sufficient vigour.
There is a definite escalatory cycle of violence at work here, and the whole saga is taking on shades of an underbelly style gangland war. It is fascinating to observe the same people argue that you can’t use force to fight an ideology, radical jihadism, in the context of the “war on terror” but somehow in the case of far right nationalism you can, indeed, you ought.
In my lifetime I have seen a fascist group rise and fall in Australia, and that without any Antifa action to speak of. I grew up in Western Australia. I recall *very very well,* when quite a young lad, catching a bus one day on St Georges Terrace in Perth. To my horror I saw a poster affixed on the timetable pole; “Asians out or racial war!” This was put up by the fascist, “Australian Nationalist Movement” of Jack van Tongeren. They waged a racist campaign in Western Australia that lasted many months, but through their own extremism, violence and ineptness they fizzled into nothing. The ANM even bombed Chinese restaurants, yet there was no “Antifa” to be seen nor heard of.
Jack van Tongeren wasn’t so lucky.
There are increasing calls, following the Battle of Coburg, for tougher anti-protest laws, for instance giving police more “move on” powers. This will make it harder for other groups to use non-violent civil disobedience to fight for things that really matter, unlike the putrid display in Coburg which was pointless. Furthermore, the corporate media and local conservative business groups are drawing a link between Sue Bolton and the violent events in Coburg. This could lead to Bolton losing her seat on council.
Both would be significant defeats for the left.
Antifa has now become the public face of anarchism in Australia, and it is an ugly face that not many in mainstream society seem keen on. Antifa helps the UPF to build their racist movement and keeps anarchist ideas out of the mainstream. Most associate anarchism with nihilistic violence and Antifa seems keen on reinforcing this prejudice.
Noam Chomsky opened his Notes on Anarchism with the following sentence, something well worth pondering in regard to Antifa;
A French writer, sympathetic to anarchism, wrote in the 1890s that “anarchism has a broad back, like paper it endures anything” — including, he noted those whose acts are such that “a mortal enemy of anarchism could not have done better.”