How the Left Stopped Fascists From Organizing in Australia

Far-right organizing in Australia is nothing new. But time and again, coalitions of anti-fascists, union militants, and community organizations have stymied the far right’s rise. That history stands as a resource for the Left to draw from today.

Far-right protesters at an anti-Muslim “Reclaim Australia” rally in Sydney, Australia, on April 4, 2015. (Anthony Brewster / Flickr)

If there was any doubt before, 2021 made it clear that leftists in Australia have to take the threat of the far right seriously. The media exposed the extreme right’s activities nationwide, as well as their links to overseas neo-Nazis. The police arrested far-right activists in relation to violent crimes, and on top of this, the far right mobilized as part of the anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown movement, which was centered in Melbourne. They often appropriated trade union uniforms and symbols to lend their cause legitimacy.

On the electoral front, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is hoping to capture Senate seats, while Craig Kelly and Clive Palmer have teamed up in the United Australia Party to take advantage of anti-lockdown and anti-vax sentiments.

These developments have prompted debates among the center and the Left about how to respond. While the situation in some respects is a new one, Australian history has seen its fair share of fascists and ultranationalists. And more important, the workers’ movement and the Left have beat them back before. It’s more than a history of victories — it’s a gold mine of valuable experiences that can help inform our response today.

Crackdowns or Counterprotests?

Mainstream conservative politicians have usually refused to acknowledge the threat. Or, at best, government MPs — for example, Defense Minister Peter Dutton and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells — have refused to mention far-right political violence without also mentioning Islamic and “left-wing” terrorism. In the aftermath of the Capitol Hill riot, the deputy prime minister Michael McCormack compared the action with Black Lives Matter protests, characterizing both as “unfortunate events.”

The Labor Party, at least, has acknowledged the problem. In August, Labor’s shadow minister for home affairs, Kristina Keneally, called for greater action by the state in dealing with the far right. This included proscribing far-right organizations, increasing funding for counterextremist programs, and initiatives to counter extremism on social media. After the anti-vaccination protests in Melbourne last October, the Victorian Trades Hall Council demanded a royal commission into the organized far right in Australia.

There are, however, a number of problems with looking to the state to counter the far right. First, the tools that the state can use against extreme right-wing groups were predominantly forged during the “war on terror.” Defenders of civil liberties have criticized them for their draconian nature, as well as the potential for human rights violations. Second, Keneally’s proposed crackdown would only address the most violent expressions of the far right. It wouldn’t do anything to counter growing far-right political parties, street campaigns, or presence on social media.

Third, police crackdowns can stymie left-wing anti-fascist and anti-racist organizing. Historically, the state has treated far-right events and street protests as a public order issue, which has meant heavily policing counterprotests as well as right-wing marches themselves.

A History of Fight Backs

A look at Australian history shows that anti-fascist campaigns are most successful when they unite a broad coalition, including trade unions, community groups, and the Left.

This was the case during the Great Depression. In 1931, a right-wing paramilitary group known as the New Guard formed to combat communism, trade unionism, and Jack Lang’s New South Wales Labor government. At its high point, the New Guard had an estimated membership of around 50,000. New Guard activists targeted meetings of the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM) in particular, leading to street confrontations between far-right militants and leftists, including communists and trade unionists.

The New Guard opposed the UWM’s work to support the unemployed, which included anti-eviction actions, as well as for its links with the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). As a result, the UWM found itself at the center of a working-class fight back against fascism in Australia. As Alex North wrote in a recent Jacobin article,

The UWM may have lacked wealthy sponsors and the support of field marshals — but it could call on the power of organized labor, employed and unemployed, as well as deep community support.

By the end of 1932, the New Guard was in decline. European fascism, however, was on the rise, raising the prospect of another world war. Consequently, in 1933, the CPA helped to found the Movement Against War and Fascism.

Australian communists understood that to fight militarism and fascism meant fighting colonialism and imperialism as well. The CPA and the Movement Against War and Fascism extended solidarity to Ethiopians, during the Italo-Abyssinian War in 1935. They also declared support for Indian independence from Britain and campaigned for aboriginal rights in Australia. As Padraic Gibson has shown, the communists understood that to fight Nazism, it was also necessary to fight for the rights of indigenous people in Australia.

National Socialists of Australia

In the 1960s and ’70s, far-right organizations tried to publicly confront the movements against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. The National Socialist Party of Australia (NSPA) mobilized its small membership to physically intimidate antiwar and anti-apartheid protestors. NSPA militants also vandalized Jewish and left-wing shops. Between 1971 and 1972, leftist and Marxist organizations joined with militants from the Jewish community to fight back.

In January 1971, for example, a crowd of socialist and Jewish activists coalesced by the Yarra River in Melbourne to protest against a planned NSPA march. When the neo-Nazis failed to show up, a contingent of anti-fascist activists descended on the NSPA headquarters in north Carlton, only to be prevented from entering the property by police.

Over the next year and a half, a number of skirmishes occurred as NSPA members attempted to disrupt left-wing events or actions. For example, in March 1971, the NSPA tried to interrupt an address by Gough Whitlam. In June, they tried to counterprotest a Vietnam moratorium march but were hopelessly outnumbered.

These confrontations came to a head in June 1972 at the NSPA’s annual congress in Melbourne. An anti-Nazi demonstration was held in the city square to confront any Nazis in attendance, and afterward, around 100 protesters later went to the house of the NSPA leader in Melbourne, Cass Young. Unlike eighteen months earlier, this time the police did not show up to protect the Nazi headquarters, and the house was raided by anti-Nazi protesters.

This action was organized by two unlikely allies: the Maoist Worker Student Alliance (WSA) and the Radical Zionist Alliance (RZA), a student group established to combat anti-Zionism in the Australian New Left. Although the two groups held diametrically opposed positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, they were united in opposing the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, and the National Socialist Party of Australia. David Zyngier, a member of the RZA, explained how the two groups came together to counter the fascist threat:

This was less about antisemitism and more about anti-fascism. That’s my strong gut feeling about it. The view was, Nazis are fascists and fascists need to be defeated. While from a Jewish perspective of course we were concerned about the antisemitism, and I’m not trying to say that this wasn’t an issue for the non-Jewish left, but this was seen as part of the broader struggle against imperialism and fascism.

One Nation

The National Socialist Party of Australia faded away over the next few years and was succeeded by a number of different far-right groups. A “radical nationalist” strand founded National Resistance in 1977, before becoming National Action (NA) in 1982. National Action — and its Western Australian breakaway group, the Australian Nationalist Movement (ANM) — were involved in campaigns of racial violence and harassment throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

During this time, they posed a considerable threat to minorities, anti-racist campaigners, and even to politicians. As the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report on racial violence in 1991 stated, “The activities of extremist groups, which have become more violent in recent years, constitute a small but significant part of the problem of racist violence in Australia.” These acts of violence led to the jailing of several NA and ANM members in New South Wales and Western Australia.

At the same time, leftist organizations and migrant groups organized campaigns against the far right from below, uniting radicals with more moderate anti-fascists against National Action. Vashti Jane Fox has discussed the history of anti-fascism in Melbourne, showing how groups such as Community Action Against Racism (CAAR) and Brunswick Against the Nazis (BAN) mobilized with support from unions and community groups to counter planned street activities by National Action.

For example, when National Action attempted to hold a White Pride march in Brunswick in 1994, BAN united several trade unions, student unions, and migrant organizations, such as members of the Public Service Union and the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CMFEU), as well as the Chinese Student Community, the Kurdish Association of Victoria, and the Australian Union of Jewish Students. Under pressure, NA backed down from its planned white supremacist march.

In the late 1990s, this grassroots anti-racist activism carried over into opposition to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Hanson and One Nation weren’t fascists like the NA or the New Guard but right-wing populists. Many anti-fascists, however, pointed out that the lines between these currents are often very blurred.

These issues also led to a strategic debate over how to confront One Nation. Some left-wing groups that had been involved in organizing against National Action argued in favor of similarly confrontational tactics, including picketing and heckling public meetings. At the same time, anti-racist groups held broader, less confrontational actions, like demonstrations and sit-ins. These protests often brought together a wider variety of people taking a stand against racism and in support of multiculturalism. Union members, school students, local politicians, community groups, and church representatives often participated, leading to the decline of One Nation’s fortunes in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Threat Returns

Today, the far right has returned, bringing with it the threat of racist and political violence. At the same time, the lines have once again blurred between the far right and the mainstream right, both here in Australia and overseas.

Centrist politicians have responded by calling for tougher policing and monitoring of the far right by the security services. They have also called for legal measures, such as the banning of extreme right groups and symbols, like the swastika, and for stronger penalties for stirring up racial hatred.

Perhaps the greatest problem with these responses is that they overlook the political and social landscape that allows the far right to grow. They also separate the fight against fascism and the fight against racism more broadly. However, anti-fascists in Australia have beat back the threat of far-right violence time and again. From the Unemployed Workers Movement of the 1930s to Community Action Against Racism in the late 1980s and early ’90s, their lessons stand out clearly. To beat the far right, we need to unite people on the streets while confronting racism head-on and building broad coalitions that include unions and community organizations.