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Book Review: Drums in the Distance: Journeys into the Global Far Right

12 10 21

Nigel Graham reviews the latest book by HOPE not hate’s Head of Research

Joe Mulhall’s book is essential reading for all contemporary anti-fascists.

I should add a disclaimer to this declarative statement that I know the author personally, consider him a friend, and, and have collaborated with him in a professional capacity. So while I can’t review this from a position of objective scholarly detachment, I can engage with it as someone deeply immersed in the literature and history of anti-fascist activism.

The book is a fascinating combination of autobiography and well-informed analysis. It traces the author’s deepening involvement in anti-fascist work with HOPE not Hate (HNH) from 2010 onwards and in so doing describes his own growth as both an activist and a person. The book perfectly captures the range of activities that anti-fascists at HNH engage in – campaigning in elections against the far right, education work, attending demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, lobbying, community work, social media campaigns, and, most importantly, intelligence-gathering from surveillance, infiltration and examination of the far-right’s publications and online presence. It is this unrivalled analysis and reporting – based on inside knowledge and a deep understanding of the history of the fascist threat – which makes HNH’s work so important.

The first-hand reporting in the book provides a vivid and realistic picture of the frontline of anti-fascist activism which often consists of long periods of waiting, or dissembling, – during surveillance of far-right meetings and demonstrations, or when infiltrating, for example – interspersed with sudden moments where the threat of violence, or actual violence from the far right, becomes a dangerous reality. Several anecdotes in the book depict this with admirable clarity and are also impressively honest about the thrill-seeking that comes with putting oneself at risk and the adrenalin rush that comes with gaining victory over ‘the enemy’.

There are moments of genuine fear in the book too, not least when the author was courageously undercover in a US militia group and miles from any support or back up. It is also refreshingly candid about the sense of responsibility and anxiety that someone feels as a ‘handler’ of other people who are undertaking infiltration work on your behalf. This is something which is rarely acknowledged in much of the literature written by anti-fascists. But there are also moments of comedy and absurdity that are inevitable – and often a much-needed way of dissolving tension – that will be recognisable to anyone who has ever engaged in political activism.

The first-hand reporting is importantly contextualised with references to both journalistic and academic sources which are referenced in the notes. Although this is worn lightly and doesn’t detract from the book’s appealing readability and accessibility, it does provide the analysis with more depth and nuance. The author instinctively understands the ideological heterogeneity of the far right and the book covers the entire spectrum with incisive awareness. There is discussion of political parties such as the British National Party (BNP), Islamophobic social movements like the English Defence League and wider ‘counter-Jihad’ transnational organisations, as well as the emergent threat of Identitarian groups whose narrative of the supposed ‘great replacement’ has inspired murderous terrorist attacks. There is also examination of a range of US groups from Trump’s radical right populism and the largely online alt-right to militia groups and the Ku Klux Klan’s traditional white supremacy. The mainstreaming of far-right ideas by traditional conservative organisations is something that the author is cognisant of, as well as the dangers of online radicalisation. It is worth noting as well that the book also details the author’s involvement in laudable HNH campaigns against Islamist groups in the UK such as Al-Muhajiroun who have been linked to dozens of terrorist attacks.

In addition to the book’s perceptive examination of the ideological breadth of the far right, it is equally ambitious in its geographical coverage featuring discussion of the UK, US, Western and Eastern Europe, India, and Brazil. And while the author is clearly on more comfortable ground discussing the Anglo-American and European far right than Bolsonaro and Modi, it is still important that those connections and similarities are explored.

There are some interesting sections where the author displays some compassion for the far-right activists he encounters who have often had very difficult lives and been blinded by challenging socio-economic circumstances and family situations, propaganda, and misinformation. This is what the scholar Roger Griffin describes as ‘methodological empathy’ – the capacity to understand what motivates fascists without condoning it. But the author never loses site of where our real sympathies should lie. Some of the most powerful sections of the book are where he sees in person the devastating effects of far-right and Islamist agitation. He reports powerfully on the situation in Greece during the so-called European ‘migrant crisis’, prompted by the Syrian civil war, and on the barbarism of ISIS in its self-proclaimed Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

In recent years, there have been numerous politically motivated, bad faith, and ill-informed claims about what anti-fascism is. This book is particularly instructive for showing what anti-fascists actually believe and what they actually do. It’s a narrative that is both personal and political and there are lessons here for both new and seasoned activists. The bookshelf of essential autobiographical accounts of anti-fascism is relatively small but this deeply researched, frank, and well-written book deserves to be in that hallowed space.

Joe Mulhall – Drums in the Distance: Journeys into the Global Far Right (London: Icon Books 2021) ISBN 978-1-78578-751-5.

Available from the HOPE not hate shop

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