25th anniversary: Youth Against Racism in Europe’s 40,000-strong Brussels’ demonstration

How the Militant newspaper (forerunner to The Socialist (England & Wales) reported the1992 Brussels demo

24 October 1992. Young people from all over Europe arrive in Brussels to demonstrate against racism and fascism. At the front of the demonstration, organised by Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), are thousands of ‘Blokbusters’. Geert Cool, spokesperson for the Belgian anti-fascist campaign, Blokbuster – against the Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) – looks back to this historic demonstration, the first international mass protest against the far right in Europe.

Violence in Rostock, growth of far right in Europe

At the end of August 1992, far right activists in the eastern German city of Rostock set fire to a house where asylum seekers lived. They attacked the building with stones and homemade explosives.

The reintroduction of capitalism in Eastern Europe resulted in a small minority getting rich while a big majority of the population were suddenly condemned to unemployment and, for most, misery. It was a fertile breeding ground for racism and the far right. According to official figures, there were 40,000 members of neo-Nazi organisations in Germany in 1991. In the same year, racist violence led to three deaths and 449 people injured. There were 1,300 cases of racist violence in the official records.

Far right parties also made electoral breakthroughs in Western Europe. The French Front National was the first. The party of Jean-Marie Le Pen made use of the introduction of proportional representation in the 1986 French elections. This system was brought in by the then sitting President Francois Mitterrand, to divide the right, but it played against his own social democratic PS. The FN was able to win over many voters disappointed PS voters and won 10%. The enthusiasm for the reforms in the first weeks of the Mitterrand presidency, in 1981, was followed by disappointment when the reforms were reversed, as the French government bowed to the pressure of capitalism to follow a neo-liberal line.

In Belgium the right wing Flemish nationalist Vlaams Blok made its first breakthrough in the 1988 local elections. It obtained 18% in the city of Antwerp. On ‘Black Sunday’, 24 November 1991, Vlaams Blok made a breakthrough across the whole Flemish region, winning 10% of the vote. In Liège city, in the French speaking Walloon area of Belgium, other far right groups combined won up to 5% of the vote. In Austria, the far right grouping around Haider took over the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in 1986. They started exploiting frustration with the traditional ruling parties and playing the racist card and saw the FPÖ support rapidly climb in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The collapse of Stalinism and re-introduction of capitalism in the Soviet Union and the eastern European states strengthened the neo-liberal offensive. It led to triumphalism from the spokespeople of capitalism: “we won, there is no alternative” was their mantra. The traditional social democratic and labour parties failed to answer this and went along with a policy of austerity for the majority of the people to safeguard the profits and the ‘competitiveness’ of the rich. Led by leaders who were more and more adapting to capitalism and did not want to lead struggles, the workers’ movement was in a more defensive position. This created space that could be used by the far right.

Youth against racism

In the early 1990’s, thousands of young people and workers in Europe were shocked by the racist violence and the growth of the far right in the elections. It led to protests, mainly by young people.

The anti-fascist campaign Blokbuster was launched in the summer of 1991 by the Marxists who today are organised in the Left Socialist Party (LSP/PSL), the CWI in Belgium. Blokbuster gave young people an instrument to organise their anger against racism and fascism, and to discuss alternatives. After ‘Black Sunday’ in 1991, there was an outburst of anti-racist protests: school students and students took to the streets with spontaneous protests in even the smallest cities. Blokbuster grew to a campaign with 50 active local committees and 2,000 members.

In several other European countries there were similar youth movements against racism. CWI comrades active in these struggles decided to work together under the name of Youth Against Racism (YRE) in Europe. In the spring of 1992, a meeting of CWI comrades agreed to put into practice the internationalism of the new generation of young activists by organising an international demonstration against racism on 24 October 1992.

We emphasized the need of active mobilisation to limit the breathing space of the far right and the need of a social programme to cut across the breeding ground of the far right. This programme was summarised in the slogan of “jobs, not racism”. This youth movement was also orientated to the workers’ movement, even if workers’ struggles at that moment were mainly limited to defensive actions.

Marxists never lost their confidence in the workers’ movement, its ability to struggle and to recover from setbacks. A difficult period after defeats and with the pressure of neo-liberal triumphalism would be followed by a period of new upheavals, with offensive workers’ struggles. We also did not limit ourselves to the role of commentators giving advice from the side-lines: we do all we can to develop struggles to attempt to win demands. The dynamic of the youth movement against racism in the early 1990s was attractive and contagious for the most forward looking parts of the workers’ movement. We took on the challenge to strengthen the movement against racism with an orientation on the workers’ movement and with a discussion on a political alternative. Audacious initiatives like Blokbuster, YRE and the international demonstration in 1992, set the tone.

40,000 on the streets

The demonstration on 24 October 1992 united youth and workers from all over Europe. An increase in racist and fascist attacks over the summer of 1992 strengthened the demonstration’s appeal. There were big delegations from Germany, including 300 youth from Rostock, but also from Britain, Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Ireland (North and South) and France. There were many self-organised contingents, from youth groups and schools, who heard about the demonstration and decided to come.

Well organised stewarding, including many activists who stewarded during the previous year’s mass demonstrations against the Poll Tax in Britain, prevented far right provocations and attacks from taking place. This was a political necessity: the previous big youth demonstrations in Belgium, the ‘youth marches for jobs’ in 1982 and 1984, unfortunately ended in riots which were then were used by the trade union leadership to block further youth marches.

Over 40,000 participated in the combative demonstration through the streets of Brussels, massively exceeding the original 5,000 target set five months earlier. The demonstration ended with a concert against racism. The demonstration inspired and gave confidence to the participants and encouraged many to join the YRE in the own countries. At the protest, 100 new members immediately joined Blokbusters. The demonstration was front page news in eight Belgian daily papers and on all Belgian television news channels. The monthly paper of the CWI in Belgium, then called ‘De Militant’, however noted: “The demonstration could have been bigger if the national trade union leadership and the social democracy had mobilised instead of going into hiding.”

The mood was very combative: “Throughout the demonstration and the concert, the common thread was the need to link the struggle against racism with the struggle against the bankrupt capitalist system in a fight for a just socialist alternative.”

The struggle against racism, 25 years on

The violence in Charlottesville, in the US, and the rise of hate crimes since the election of Trump show that the danger of racism and the far right are not gone. In Europe there have been electoral successes for Marine Le Pen, far right populist Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and far right and right wing populists in Germany, Austria and other countries.

As part of our resistance we need to start from a correct estimation of these phenomena. We do not claim that fascist take-over is an immediate threat. Classical fascism was a mass movement that was able to smash the workers’ movement, crush democratic rights and establish a brutal dictatorship. This is not on the agenda today: far right forces regularly obtain a large passive support in elections, but there is no large active participation. While there are individual far right and fascist attacks, they are not in a position to launch an all-out assault on the workers’ movement. Furthermore, to consolidate their passive support, even neo-fascist parties need to use populism.

In the past 25 years, parties like the French FN or the Flemish Vlaams Belang have not been able to strengthen their militant forces. A newer phenomenon, like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, even refuses to accept anyone apart from himself becoming a member of his so-called ‘Party’ of Freedom (PVV). But despite this, against the background of an increasing distrust in all the established institutions and parties, there can be a bigger electoral support for a large variety of far right formations. This increases the danger of their participation in governments, which can lead to increased racist and authoritarian measures.
The absence of a sufficiently strong alternative to neo-liberalism made it possible for so-called established politicians to take up more and more elements of right-wing populism in the hope to win popularity, but also as part of a ‘divide and rule’ policy. Measures that 25 years ago were only defended by the far right, have, in the meantime, been implemented by other parties. A party like the ruling N-VA in Flanders is so far to the right that it puts the Vlaams Belang in the shade.

The combination of not seeing immediate solutions to the refugee crisis, the terrorist attacks in Europe and the islamophobia of the established politicians and governments, also has put many anti-racist campaigns in a defensive position compared to the early 1990s.

But we do not draw pessimistic conclusions from this. An important difference with the situation 25 years ago is the undermining of the neo-liberal triumphalism, especially since the Great Recession of 2007-08. There is an increase in offensive and defensive movements, in some countries, while new left formations, or leaders like Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, can generate broad enthusiasm. Moreover there is a better response to the socialist alternative that put forward as an alternative to the far right despair compared to 25 years ago.

In October 1992, the Belgium monthly paper, De Militant, commented: “The hard nucleus of neo-Nazis will not disappear – this will need a struggle to end unemployment and the social crisis of capitalism. A struggle for a socialist society will put an end to the fascists.” We said that the workers would again come forward as the strongest social force in society. This approach in the movement against racism 25 years ago is more than ever confirmed today.

A return to more offensive struggle and a renewed interest in socialism, however, do not automatically lead to victories. We have to make struggles wider, with a broader active participation, by taking up workers’ daily problems and concerns. Demands for jobs, housing, healthcare, etc. for all are, at the same time, the best answer to the divide and rule politics, including racism. These demands can only be achieved by a change in society. Growing inequality is part of capitalism’s DNA and the ruling classes resort to instilling divisions in society. A socialist society can realise the hope of a better future for the vast majority of the people. By doing so, it will close the path for reactionary ideas based on desperation and deflected anger.

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October 2017