Bookmarks on Bloomsbury Street in London is a left wing institution. For those not familiar with London's Premier socialist bookshops, I highly recommend a visit. The shop stocks a wide selection of books on left politics from histories of the Russian Revolution to books on women's liberation and trans rights. It sells magazines, journals, pamphlets and second-hand books, in a small space that has reading chairs and soft jazz music on the stereo. It is an oasis of calm reflection next to Tottenham Court Road station.
It was also the subject of an attack by mask-wearing fascists, who tore up books and intimated staff. This was a clear attempt to intimidate and silence the left. It’s strongly linked to the growing confidence and support for the far right in Britain. From Free Tommy Robinson to Boris Johnson insulting women who wear the Niqab, hatred is rising and fascists are benefiting from it. This is something that should worry us all.
Fascist is not a word I use lightly, but it does apply here. The word is overused and members of the far right don't have to be fascists to be scary. Fascism is like pornography, a terrible system to base a government on. Also like pornography, it's very difficult to define but we all know it when we see it.
Understanding exactly what fascism is can be difficult. There are many competing definitions. Benito Mussolini said he was fascism’s only theorist and when asked to define fascism he always gave different answers. Writing a clinical definition of fascism is very difficult, but it’s plain to see that people who attacked a bookshop, that sells books they disagree with, are fascists. Bullying and intimidating people who have different political views to silence their free speech is fascism.
I can tell at least some of you are rolling their eyes at this point and thinking something along the lines of “what about all those left wing students on campuses that I keep reading about? They want to bully and intimidate people. They’re against free speech”. Well, a campaign to disinvite Germaine Greer from a lecture is not the same as people invading a shop and threatening staff. One is tinged with the very real possibility of actual violence. The other is using non-violent political actions to stop the spreading of transphobia.
What the left is having right now is a discussion about what the limits of speech should be. Everyone believes in some limits to freedom of speech, unless you think child pornography or printing your own pound sterling is completely okay. Should I be allowed to give a speech to my local conservative club on how Margaret Thatcher ruined Britain? Is denying me the chance to scream at local Tories infringing on my freedom of speech? Well, it is, but I still shouldn’t be allowed to yell obscenities at Tory members in their own club if they don’t want me to. There are limits to freedom of speech.
It’s important that we have the discussion about what the limit is. It’s happening in a messy disorganized way, which frightens some people, but important political discussions are rarely neat. I can’t talk politics with someone in the pub without it getting heated, so it’s going to get messy when all of society tries to talk about something difficult. This tough debate on the limits of free speech is clearly different to menacing people quietly buying books.
Fascism is a political movement that aims to replace the current political system with a different, parallel one. One that is authoritarian and violent. Fascism is moving political debate off the TV and Twitter and into a street brawl where the strong assert their political dominance through physical strength. Fascism isn’t a set of beliefs, but a way of doing politics that is different and more violent. This might not be what the people who attacked Bookmarks wanted, but it’s what they’re participating in.
As much as I enjoy an academic discussion of politics and trying to wrestle with the definitions of what is and isn't fascism, this discussion is removed from many people’s experience of it. Fascism isn’t a thing that only lives in political science textbooks. It’s in the streets kicking people in the stomach.
For the people being kicked in the stomach, the fact fascism is hard to define from a political science point of view is a pointless observation. Fascism is a real force in Britain and it targets the people who have the least power. Immigrants, non-White people, queer people. Muslims and Muslim women especially. These people have much less power than white, straight, male, atheists like myself. Fascism is terrorizing their communities. This attack on Bookmarks may have drawn our attention to it, but it’s been going on for a while and it's getting worse.
The forces of fascism in the UK are getting stronger, fuelled by hatred of immigrants and fear of Muslims. Fascism needs an enemy to fight in the streets, one with less power, and by exploiting hatred of minorities fascism spreads. Fascists are using the freedom of open platforms like Facebook and Twitter to connect and organise. Fascism has always had an undercurrent in the UK, but now it is a serious threat.
Sometimes when I read reports of what’s happening in America or Hungry and Poland, I have visions of John Snow coming down from the Wall to warn the rest of us in sunny King’s Landing. Meanwhile, the various factions of the left are fighting over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important who sits on the Iron Throne. The Iron Throne is very significant, that’s why people are fighting over it. However, John Snow has come down from the Wall to tell us that the old enemy has returned, the enemy we thought was long dead. Not only are they back, but they’re strong and getting stronger. The old enemy doesn’t care about our fights and our differences. The old enemy is coming to kill us all. Unless we can stop them.
I’m very worried about how fascism is growing in the UK, fuelled by those in the media and on social media who spout hatred aimed at those with less social power. I am worried about how many people don’t see the danger that is on the march. Are we going to go back to the 70s when the National Front openly marched through the street and racist attacks were a frequent occurrence? Or, are we entering some new hell, unlike anything we've seen before?
The Bookmarks attack show how bold fascists have become. If we don’t stop them, this will become much worse. I am very frightened.