Marx predicted the rise of Tommy Robinson and his rabble of far-right thugs
Notorious far-right figure Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (better known by his pseudonym ‘Tommy Robinson’) has just been given another banning order from attending football matches – both at home and abroad. The development is far from a shock. Yaxley-Lennon has an illustrious criminal past with convictions for crimes spanning from assault to contempt of court. But it would be too easy to simply revel in his latest disgrace or dwell on his and his followers’ penchant for the violent loutishness they borrow from their own football hooligan origins.
Because perhaps there is something more sinister going on. Could it be that far-right protest movements are being manipulated by much larger and more sinister forces? Marx, in his own day, identified social phenomena that bear striking parallels to those taking place today. And perhaps his analysis was far more prescient than even he could have ever realized.
Trouble with the law over football violence, and not for the first time
On 15 December, the Mirror reported that Yaxley-Lennon received a four-year ban from “all regulated football matches, home and abroad”. A court issued the ban following an application for a banning order by Bedfordshire Police. They had earlier submitted footage obtained by the Mirror of Yaxley-Lennon punching a fellow England supporter to the ground outside a football stadium in Guimaraes, a city in northern Portugal, in June 2019.
It’s not the first time the former leader of the so-called ‘English Defence League’ (EDL) has been in trouble with the police for football-related violence. In 2011, he was convicted after he was involved in a brawl with Luton Town FC fans against supporters of a rival club. Yaxley-Lennon had earlier been issued a banning order in 2016 over a flag reading ‘Fuck ISIS’, though he later had it successfully overturned in court.
The new far-right is neither new nor less racist than before
That the EDL and similar far-right groups have deep roots in football hooliganism is well documented. Many of the EDL’s early leadership, including Yaxley-Lennon himself, were veterans of Luton’s infamous ‘Men in Gear’ firm. Their links to older far-right groups are equally undeniable – Yaxley-Lennon and EDL co-founder Kevin Carroll are both former members of the British National Party (BNP), which was formed by the late arch neo-Nazi John Tyndall.
One could go on and on about the sordid genesis of the so-called “new far right” – ‘so-called’ because there’s nothing all that new about it. The EDL, after all, was simply a rebranding of earlier far-right street movements. Likewise, the focus on Islam was merely a tactical move to deflect accusations of racism. Whereas targeting the scapegoats of yesteryear, such as Britain’s Jewish and Afro-Caribbean communities, became socially unacceptable even for an extreme fringe, focusing on Muslims provides the convenient (and, of course, deceitful) retort that ‘we can’t be racist because Islam is a religion not a race’.
A strange irony
But this is a point that has already been well made by scholars who have studied the far-right within their academic disciplines, such as Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell. There’s another facet of the far-right that seems to have largely escaped commentary. A strange irony exists in that the groups on the furthest right position on the political spectrum seem to be made up of people who would least benefit from right-wing governments and policies.
The political right, of course, usually represents the interests of those who already have money, power, and social standing. Yet those who make up the rank and file of the EDL and similar groups seemingly do not fall into this demographic. Yet in spite of overwhelmingly coming from society’s lower reaches, by virtue of being far-right, they presumably strongly favor the status quo in terms of power and wealth distribution. What could possibly explain this seemingly glaring paradox?
Marx’s prescient analysis
Though he lived in 19th Century, the German philosopher, sociologist, and critic of capitalism Karl Marx developed a theory based on his observations of social dynamics at play in his own time that seems to hold true as much today as in the 1800s. Marx described the people at the very bottom of the social hierarchy inherent to capitalist society as the “lumpenproletariat”. For Marx, the lumpenproletariat is the group below the industrial working class and is made up overwhelmingly of criminals, street urchins, and other “social scum,” as he put it.
But in spite of occupying the lowest rung of the social order, Marx observed that this group ironically did not seem to identify with its “rightful brethren” – i.e. other members of the proletariat.
Rather they tended to side with reactionary and counterrevolutionary forces. For Marx, this is because they end up as “bribed tools of reactionary intrigue.” That is, they get cynically manipulated by political forces far more powerful than them who, needless to say, don’t have their true interests at heart. And the leaders of this reactionary intrigue in a 21st Century context are easy enough to spot. They are the funders, the backers and the backroom ‘thought’ leaders (if they can be called that) of these modern-day brownshirt movements.
Those who pull the strings…
And these figures, of course, are very far from being members of the lumpenproletariat themselves – or even the non-lumpen proletariat, for that matter. One such figure is Alan Ayling (better known by his alias ‘Alan Lake’), who has been described by the Guardian as the EDLs “chief financier”. Far from coming from the gutter, Ayling is, in fact, an IT millionaire and former director of the financial services outfit Pacific Capital Investment Management.
Another such figure is Paul Weston, who joined with former EDL and former BNP members to form the short-lived ‘British Freedom Party’. A quick search on YouTube reveals numerous propagandistic videos in which Weston speaks in the plummy tones of an Oxford don or English public school master. Surely, this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a man who could himself be seriously described as a member of the lumpenproletariat. (Incidentally, Weston is, like many anti-immigrant bloviators, also a complete hypocrite. In addition to having himself lived abroad on at least one occasion, he is also married to a Romanian woman).
And financial support for the far-right seems to come from well beyond the UK’s own shores. In December 2018, the Guardian reported on “the hidden global network behind Tommy Robinson”. It found that:
Tommy Robinson is receiving financial, political and moral support from a broad array of non-British groups and individuals, including US thinktanks, rightwing Australians and Russian trolls, a Guardian investigation has discovered. …
Robinson… has [also] received funding from a US tech billionaire and a thinktank based in Philadelphia.
We should readjust our focus
Clearly then, the far-right’s rank and file shouldn’t be the only focus of our ire. Because they are being used by people far more powerful and dangerous than themselves. So much so that far-right groups like the EDL could not function without their network of backers. Yaxley-Lennon seems also to have enriched himself by serving as the lout-in-chief of his sorry ragtag of followers.
As The Canary has argued on previous occasions, though we’re two decades into the 21st Century, Marx’s analysis continues to be just as useful for understanding our own time as it was for his. Evidently, he foresaw how today’s lumpenproletariat continues to serve as the bribed tools of society’s major forces of reaction and regress.
Featured image via Shayan Barjesteh van Waalwijk van Doorn – Wikimedia Commons and Wikimedia Commons
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