Monthly Archives: June 2013

Our goal is democracy


I had seen her photographed, standing with friends in Gezi Park. I knew that she subscribed to the programme of the Taksim Solidarity Platform (“We do not accept the construction of Taksim Military Barracks, and we will not allow anyone to loot our parks and our living spaces…”). Once, a long time ago, we had stood together on picket lines outside drab, Victorian council offices in east London. So I felt entitled to ask; what, now are you marching for?

Her one word answer was unsurprising but still instructive: “democracy”.

This very week an NGO in Cairo reported that during May the country had seen 1,300 protests, or an average of two an hour, 42 a day, and 325 a week. Ask in Tahrir Square, and I don’t doubt the same question would deliver nine times out of ten exactly the same reply. We say the word democracy so many times, it threatens to become meaningless, and yet the desire it expresses is so basic and still dramatically unfulfilled.

The last three decades have seen the most dramatic increase in the rates of exploitation in every country, with all of us working harder and longer and for less. Common spaces such as Gezi Park have been enclosed, typically not for governments but for the benefit of private companies. In these circumstance the old collective fear of the inevitable rise of the machines (in which an army of robots stood for million of men and women standing besides lathes), gives rise to new, digital fantasies. The number of business in Britain has grown from 3 million at the start of the millennium to 4.5 million now.

The average daily turnover in shares at the London Stock Exchange was already £1 billion in 2000, today it is a staggering £5 billion. While we sleep, armies of intangible interests are bought into being, wage virtual wars on behalf of their corporate creators, are destroyed and constantly re-made

The running down of the old, inefficient bureaucratic welfare systems, has brought all of us into much more direct, even intimate, relationships with the market . “The bourgeoisie”, Marx and Engels wrote, “wherever it has got the upper hand … has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.” Those words describe the world of today so much better than even than the societies of 30 or 25 years ago.

Even while neo-liberalism refuses us any meaningful decisions at all in our lives, at the same time it prospers on a false narrative of choice. In the bad old days, there were just four television stations, now there are 400. (So many programmes to choose from, but why won’t any channel commission a Solomon Hughes, or a Brendan Montague, to give the politicians and their paymasters hell?).

In the same way that a supermarket customer can choose between two dozen different brands of detergent (all of which are produced by subsidiaries of Proctor and Gamble); so the people planning a new GP surgery can contract under PFI terms with Carillion or Balfour or Kier or any one of around 40 major construction companies. But what they are not allowed to do is to build without multinational involvement, and without signing up to complex financial arrangements under which the companies (as a group) will profit to the tune of ten or more times their actual spend.

The anger of the voters becomes the theme of elections. In almost every country, the primary motivation of the electorate is to punish the incumbent party. This mood of anti-politics reproduces itself in the small just as much as the big: in council elections, in union elections, at meetings in bitter interactions between former friends.

Socialists should be uniquely well-placed to relate to this general desire for a greater say. At the very core of our politics is the idea that we want to complete the democratic project left incomplete under capitalism. We want workers’ control of their workplaces, tenants’ control of their homes, women’s control of their bodies…

This was why Tony Cliff published his pamphlet about Rosa Luxemburg, all those years ago, to agree with her criticisms of the Bolsheviks, and to side with her in championing the class over a minority purporting to act in its name: “The heart of Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution, as of all she wrote and said, was a belief in the workers, the conviction that they, and they alone, are capable of overcoming the crisis facing humanity. She fervently believed that workers’ democracy is inseparable from proletarian revolution and socialism…” (

By quoting Cliff, I do not mean to separate his ideas from the general mood of the best of the post-1956 left. CLR James’ writing on direct democracy (, the ideas of a Dunayveskaya, or a Castoriadis, were all cut from the same cloth.

For a reader with a sense of the left’s history, it is a salutory experience to go from those writers, brimful with enthusiasm for the mission of winning direct democracy, to the present-day left, cautious as it is so often in its support of revolutionaries who might upset a regional balance of power, and near-mute in articulating a democratic assault on capitalism.

The left is, it seems, more defensive than the right in the face of the new anti-politics. Precisely because we say that we are better, people have higher expectations of us. People are watching us. And every time a socialist behaves in a way which is intended to make other people feel powerless, their pettiness and spite turns someone, somewhere off politics for ever. We know the risks; obsessed by them, we fear to say anything at all.

The long, withdrawing roar of 1917 also leaves an immense legacy of harm. You may recall the fatal quip which did for Gordon Brown: “from Stalin to Mr Bean in just a few weeks”. The first half of the joke was just as effective as its end. Nobody wants to be ordered around anymore; the method of the command just doesn’t work.

Meanwhile those of us still in the party would be wise to admit that there is also a close connection between what one friend described to me recently as “your leadership’s lack of any capacity for mere human empathy” during our recent crisis, and the way in which the most interesting of this year’s new left alliances (i.e. ACU, LU) have some of the character of survivor’s groups. Our mistakes were so awful that anyone trying to rebuild the left is going to have to say, “we are not at all like them. We have a different culture of openness and free discussion”. If they fail to make that clear, and if they fail to keep strictly to their promise, they simply will not survive.

“I am off to resist, I will be back”

There could be resources to reorient the left, if we chose to use them. Brian Roper’s Marxist History of Democracy finds a recurring tension between two kinds of democratic practice: the class struggle democracy of ancient Athens, and the top-down passive Republicanism of ancient Rome; 1649 versus 1688; October 1917 as against February. History, in this model, is but a series of approximations, some better worked out than others, towards a future of active participation.

Paul Foot’s last book The Vote describes the “undermining” of the allure of universal suffrage, and in particular of social democracy, which he portrays as the principal carrier of the original vision of the Chartists. He is right, but more is at stake even than that. The whole idea of revolutionary socialism is that in a different society people might control every aspect of their lives, even those economic relationships which capitalism removes from democratic scrutiny. If we can’t win the battle for the meaning of people’s scepticism about the parliamentary road, then we will simply go further along the Weimar path towards a proliferation of competing right-popular parties, each more radical than the last, and each with a greater base than our own.

The most energetic traditions in five years’ time will be those which can relearn habits of humility and co-operation and fruitful internal and external debate; those which can instil in their members a cumulative sense of their increasing involvement, their own essential powerfulness.

We won’t retake society unless we begin with our own groups. It’s no good having Tahrir square without toppling Mubarak. The dictator, it seems, is not located anywhere else but in our own hearts. In the caution of an opposition that dares not come out openly and confront the leadership. In a leadership which will do nothing to acknowledge or confront the draining away of people, time, ambition. Mubarak is our seemingly-shared willingness to delay making the changes which must come.

We have to break the habit that new ideas are initiated by a centre, and the majority of the organisation (if it has any role at all) is at best a sounding board for others’ ideas, or a mechanism for their transmission to that great, unloved general public. That top-down model is the opposite of what socialism was ever supposed to be about.

Democracy begins with the way in which we  speak to ourselves; in that moment of self-realisation that no-one is better than you, and you are not better than anyone else. Democracy begins with teaching others to address each other and you with respect. Democracy begins with regime change.

When trade unionism changed: 1888-1891


The total number of trade union members in Britain has fallen by very roughly half in 30 years, from around 13 million in 1979 to just over 7 million people today. Superficially, if we see trade unions primarily as large structures, with buildings, employees, funds, etc, this decline has had surprisingly little effect. Some unions have shrunk from significant bastions to mere shells (notably the miners’ union NUM, and Community, which was previously the steel workers’ ISTC and the textile union KFAT). But these are very much the exceptions. If we look beyond then, what is really striking is the mixture of continuity (at least in terms of membership base), and merger (i.e. unions have fused their structures to manage their decline).

Forty years ago, like today, there were private sector unions with a base in manufacturing (AEEU, MSF, EEPTU, now merged to form UNITE), transport (TGWU, now part of UNITE, and RMT) and sales (USDAW), and public sector unions with a base in the civil service (CPSA, now PCS), teaching (NUT, NASUWT, and the NATFHE and AUT further and higher education unions now merged as UCU), the utilities (FBU, and UCW now CWU), and local government and health (NALGO, NUPE and COHSE, now UNISON), as well as some “general” unions which straddled the public-private divide (notably GMB).

Overall trade union membership has fallen, and what unions do has subtly altered, but at the level of organisation this broad pattern has not significantly changed. Were the trade unions to grow rapidly, of course, we should expect these structures to change very quickly; as has always been the case during past strike waves.

Two weeks ago, I posted an article discussing the weaknesses of trade unions in Britain, their poor implantation in the private sector especially, and the problems of the ageing and isolation of trade union reps. In the same article, I also tried to sketch out what a renewal of trade unionism might look like. “The next economic upturn may look quite a lot like New Unionism, when the “old”, skilled unions which had dominated the TUC for 20 years (eg the engineers) played little part, while the newest and most militant part was played by workers in industries which were previously considered un-organisable because of their economic precariousness (ie dockers, gas workers). New Unionism took place after a period of five or six years in which Britain’s first socialist party the SDF had organised, sustainedly, among the unemployed. And a disproportionate part was played by socialists who had recently been recruited to the SDF and were influenced by it. For the dockers and the gas-workers, imagine call centre workers, the drivers who deliver online purchases, workers in the huge out-of-town retail factories; they are our generation’s potential equivalents.” (

The purpose of this piece is to fill in a little of the historical detail, to show what the upturn of 1888-1891 meant, and in particular how socialists were involved in it.

Britain’s first recognisably socialist party, the Democratic Federation was founded in 1883, taking the full name Social Democratic Federation (or SDF) a year later. When asked what their party was about SDF members would come up with various familiar answers, the collective ownership of the means of production, internationalism, and above all the idea that the working class could change society through class struggle. Belfort Bax put the idea like this: “The doctrine of the class war as the general historical method of realising the new form of society” ( Class struggle was a recurring theme of socialist propaganda; and can be found routinely in the writings of such SDF “celebrities” as H. M. Hyndman, Harry Quelch and others. But what qualified as “class struggle” for the SDF was mysterious.

To properly grasp the Federation’s history, you have to bear in mind two things. First, the SDF was the pioneer. If it had a model it was the Chartist campaign of the 1840s. Former Chartists were a definite presence within the SDF; they attended its meetings, and argued in support of different factional positions taken before by long-dead Chartist leaders. But Chartism was a campaign rather than a party. It, unlike the SDF, was neither socialist nor Marxist. It left very few practical lessons as to how to organise. And there had been no parties in the intervening years which offered any other sort of model either. Second, the SDF long preceded the “Leninist turn” which all the Communist Parties, starting with the Russian one, were expected to implement after Lenin’s death. It was expressly a multi-tendency party, soon working in collaboration with other forces on the left, several of which (trade unions, secular societies, the Fabians) shared an overlapping membership with it. Inevitably, the Federation’s politics were chaotic; one week’s campaign might contradict that week’s headline in Justice. In an earlier period, historians tended to see the organisation as sharing all the foibles of its dominant personality, the former Tory stockbroker H. M. Hyndman. The more we know about the SDF the less true that seems.

The first campaign in which the SDF took part to give the idea of “class struggle” any specific meaning concerned the rights of unemployed workers. This began with a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in February 1886 over the right to work which ended with windows smashed and Mayfair shops looted. The campaign then revived in November 1887 with further marches which were attacked by the police, and at which hundreds of people injured, and one demonstrator Alfred Linnell killed. Some 120,000 people are said to have attended his funeral on 27 November 1887. The campaign, despite its flaws, brought the SDF’s name into the public domain, and earning it a respect (and notoriety) out of all proportions to its numbers.

In 1884, the SDF split over the autocratic internal habits of its leader H. M. Hyndman, and various rebels including William Morris and Marx’s daughter Eleanor, founded a new organisation the Socialist League. Understandably, given his immense stature within the international workers’ movement, historians have tended to followed Frederick Engels’ verdict on the 1886 riots and on the SDF without always acknowledging the extent to which Engels was both correct and factionally-minded in his criticisms. This is how he described the riots to Laura Lafargue:

“Of course you know what a meeting at 3pm in Trafalgar Square consists of: masses of the poor devils of the East End who vegetate in the borderland between working class and Lumpenproletariat, and a sufficient admixture of roughs and ‘Arrys to leaven the whole into a mass ready for any “lark” up to a wild riot [about nothing]…”

“To make a revolution – and that [about nothing] when and where [Hyndman and Co] liked – they thought nothing else was required but the paltry tricks sufficient to ‘boss’ an agitation for any vile fad, packed meetings, lying in the press, and then, with five and twenty men secured to back them up, appealing to the masses to ‘rise’ somehow, as best they might, against nobody in particular and everything in general, and trust to luck for the result” (

Subtly, the focus of socialist agitation was to change over the next three years from the East End unemployed to groups of workers in the same districts who were at the border of secure and insecure employment. The three best known incidents which illustrate the change were the Match Girls strike of summer 1888, the recruitment of 3,000 workers at Beckton Gas Works to a new general union in spring 1889, and the London dock strike of summer 1889. The latter especially involved tens of thousands of workers, and brought, as the historian John Charlton has shown, around 50 other workplaces out in a movement which came close to becoming a London-wide general strike (J. Charlton, It just went like Tinder (London: Redwords, 1999), pp. 98-9). Engels’ enthusiastic account of the dock strike shows how much had changed:

“Hitherto the East End was bogged down in passive poverty. Lack of resistance on the part of those broken by starvation, of those who had given up all hope was its salient feature. Anyone who got into it was physically and morally lost. Then last year came the successful strike of the match girls. And now this gigantic strike of the lowest of the outcasts, the dock labourers … This host of utterly despondent men, who every morning when the dock gates open fight a regular battle among themselves to get the closest to the fellow who does the hiring, literally a battle waged in the competitive struggle among the much too numerous workers — this motley crowd thrown together by chance and changing daily in composition has managed to unite 40,000 strong, to maintain discipline and to strike fear into the hearts of the mighty dock companies. How glad I am to have lived to see this day!” (

Prior to 1889, there were already unions. The most important was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (the distant ancestor to today’s UNITE), while others included the Operative Bricklayers’ Society, the Amalgamated Society of Iron Founders, and the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. The “Old Unionism” had given birth to the TUC in 1868; its typical forms were unions which sought to represent a single profession, generally skilled workers. The various Amalgamated Societies offered a multiplicity of workplace benefits (insurance against death, sickness, or unemployment); their strike funds however were deliberately modest. In The History of Trade Unionism (1894) and Industrial Democracy (1897), Beatrice and Sidney Webb praised their leaders as a “class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity”. Yet the workers who signed up to the “New Unionism” of 1888-1891 were not working in the industries which had previously been organised.

New Unionism broke from Old Unionism in many important respects. It was a movement of the unskilled, rather than skilled workers. They were “general unions”, their intention was to recruit all the workers in a particular workplace or industry. Socialists played a prominent part in the leadership of the strikes and of the new unions. The New Unions, at least initially, prioritised strike pay over other benefits. In consequence, they tended to be dismissive of both the politics and even the social base of the Old Unionism. At the TUC, according to John Burns, “the ‘old’ unionists looked like respectable city gentlemen; wore very good coats, large watch chains, and high hats… Among the new delegates not a single one wore a tall hat. They looked workmen; they were workmen. They were not such sticklers for formality or court procedure, but were guided more by common sense.”

Eleanor Marx, who was delegated by the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers [NUGW] to attend the International Socialist Workers’ Congress of 1891, explained the differences between the Old and New Unions as follows:

“It is an indisputable fact that for many years the old Unions have ceased to be an active and militant body, and that the vast mass of the army of labour has been left absolutely outside all organisation by them. Nay, it was to a large extent the aim and object of these old Unions to limit the number of their members and it is only recently that they have begun to recognise the suicidal character of such a policy…”

“The first successful attempt of the so-called “unskilled” workers to do for themselves that which — to their own greatest harm — the “skilled” Unions had never seriously tried to do for them, was in the March of 1889 when the Gas Workers of London determined to organise and to demand what no other body of men had yet, as a body, demanded — an eight hours working day…”

“In spite of many a bitter struggle; in spite of some defeats, [the NUGW] is today the best organised Union of unskilled workers: it counts within its ranks men and women belonging to over seventy different kinds of labour: it has obtained for thousands of men an eight hours day; for thousands upon thousands of others an increase of wages, ranging from five to as much as 50 per cent per week…” (

The transformation from “Old” to “New Unionism” was significantly assisted by the changing industrial perspectives of a generation of young socialist activists, who either were or had been members of the Social Democratic Federation. Most however were in the process of breaking with Hyndman’s leadership. A few biographies give a sense of how important the SDF was to New Unionism:

Annie Besant, the socialist journalist who publicised the struggles of the Bryant and May match-girls, was a member of the SDF having been converted to socialism in late 1885 and had acted as a pall-bearer at Linnell’s funeral in 1887. Following the split between the SDF and the Socialist League she had been suggested as a compromise figure who might edit a joint paper of both the factions (E. P. Thompson, William Morris (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), pp. 395, 524, 761). In 1888, her interest in the Bryant and May factory was sparked by another SDFer, henry Hyde Champion, who had spotted the company’s huge profits. Besant had recently founded a campaigning newspaper, The Link, publishing her account of their working conditions under the headline “White slavery in London”. Encouraged by Beasant the women workers went on strike for 3 weeks. Bryant conceded union recognition. Besant broke with the SDF in 1889, ultimately becoming a Theosophist.

John Burns began speaking on SDF platforms in 1884. In 1886 and 1887 he, even more than Hyndman, was the public face of the party. Jailed for his part in the 1887 riots, Burns’ speech in his defence was published as a pamphlet, “Socialism is a theory of society which advocates a more just, orderly, and harmonious arrangements of the social relationd of mankind than that which prevails now…” Burns became dissatisfied with the leadership of the SDF in 1888-9, writing in his diary that he had dedicated his life to the wrong man [i.e. Hyndman]. An engineer, he was invited into the organising group of the 1889 dock strike, raising money for the strikes, and arguing for action by other groups of workers. He, along with Tom Mann, was used by the strike leader Ben Tillett as a sort of mobile strike news, and picketing service. Burns was needed to call out dockers, and in particular to break up the employer’s attempts to bring in strike-breakers, some from as far away as Belgium. Burns became a left-wing councillor on the LCC (the fore-runner to the GLC) and was elected to Parliament in 1892, becoming in effect a left-wing Liberal.

Will Thorne had joined the SDF in 1884. He did not play a prominent part in the unemployed agitation, but when challenged about it in the Beckton gas works, quoted back at his critics John Burns’ trial speech. At Beckton, the principal issue was the introduction of the “iron man”, a technology for drawing off the coke and increasing the intensity of labour. Thorne began to campaign for an eight hour day (a longstanding piece of Socialist propaganda). He launched the NUGW at a huge meeting in Canning Town Hall, speaking alongside Ben Tillett of the dockers union and Harry Hobart, also of the SDF. Thorne later described New Unionism as “the culmination of long years of Socialist propaganda” (D. Torr, Tom Mann and His Times (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1957), pp. 163-4, 279). Unusually, he remained loyal to Hyndman’s leadership for many years to come. He became an SDF MP and was, like Hyndman, a jingo in 1914-1918.

Eleanor Marx had been a member of the SDF before departing at the time of the Socialist League split. In 1889, she dedicated her spare time to supporting Will Thorne’s activism, including teaching him to read and write. She spoke at the founding meeting of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers and helped to draw up the union’s provisional constitution and served on its executive, including for a time as its President. Under her influence, the union adopted a policy of equal pay for men’s and women’s work as early as 1890.

Another SDF member Ben Tillett had first founded a dock union, the Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union, at Tilbury in 1887. The 1889 strike began when dockers unloading a ship called The Lady Armstrong became dissatisfied with their pay and the deductions operated by sub-contractors. They turned to Tillett for help, and by turning to other dockers for support, he was able to turn a union of a few hundred members into one tens of thousands strong. Tillett was later a socialist on the LCC from 1892 and an candidate for the Independent Labour Party (the fore-runner of today’s Labour Party) at several general elections.

Tom Mann, another leader of the dock strike, had been sent by the SDF in 1888 to recruit miners in the Northumberland coal field. He founded 18 such branches, including one at Ashington with 100 members out of the SDF’s total national membership of just 783 (Charlton, p. 74). During 1889, he served with Burns as a public speaker for the dockers. Mann remained an activist for the longest of his generation. He was in the 1890s the Secretary of the ILP, in 1910-1914, a proponent of revolutionary trade unionism, in 1920, a founder of the Communist Party, and in the 1930s again a supporter of the campaigns of the unemployed.

This generation of SDF or ex-SDF activists was at odds with the dominant policy of their party, which even at the height of the dock strike tended to see the unemployed agitation, rather than the strike, as the appropriate form of socialist propaganda among the poor. The SDF newspaper Justice for example, responded scornfully to the dockers’ victory, with an article in September 1889 “congratulat[ing] on the v ery little modicum of success that has been achieved at so great a cost.” Another article in 1890 looked back on the dock strike as “a lowering of the flag, a departure from active propaganda, and a waste of energy”. And similar language could be found even in William Morris’ Socialist League. But the paradox remains that had it not been for the SDF the activists would not have met, would not have worked together, and would not have been in the position they were to lead the strikes.

This is perhaps not the only occasion in the history of the left where people’s sympathies have seen them right, despite their parties’ formal politics.

The break with Old Unionism meanwhile was not a complete break. The New Unions affiliated to the TUC, and grew in the upturn of 1889-1891 before declining as the number of strikes fell especially after 1893. In the fullness of time, the dockers’ and gas workers’ union would become the TGWU and GMB; no longer revolutionary exponents of mass strikes, but significant players within the union movement.

The activists of the 1880s would not have used such terms as “the privilege of backwardness” (i.e. to refer to the way in which newly organised industries are often the most strike-prone). But what they did understand was that trade unionism was a minority working-class experience. In 1892 (i.e. even after the breakthrough of New Unionism), there were just 1.6 million trade union members in Britain, representing about 10% all workers, compared to today when the 7.2 million people in unions include just 16% of all private sector workers ( Then, like today, most workers were outside the unions. From this reality, previous generations of activists drew the conclusion that if their priority was the interests of the whole working class, then they needed to look beyond the ranks of the already organised. Had they not had the courage to do so, today’s trade unions would be a much depleted force.

If there is, in conclusion, a coherent theme to this history is it simply this. No previous generation of revolutionaries, worthy of the name, has ever contented itself with simply seeking to implant itself in the “bastions” of trade union strength, whatever those bastions were at any time. The people whose names are recorded as pioneers in socialist and labour histories had in mind a quite different vision, of organising the workers who were likely to be most combative in future, and therefore best placed to pass on an experience of struggle to others. Their socialism and their trade unionism was never based merely on what already existed but on what could be.

I will not cry: a second arrested anti-fascist speaks


A guest post

I’d like to thank my friend and comrade for inspiring me to write this. You’ll know who you are. Our voices are loudest in concert.

I’m not sure which part of Saturday has occasionally made my eyes teary since being arrested. Is it the sound of hundreds of voices in chorus chanting “Black and white unite” whilst linking arms on the front line? It could also have been because we thoroughly outnumbered the BNP. We had sent a clear political message that echoes and chimes: racism will not be tolerated, we will not be divided. I had been part of sending that message with my comrades of all colours. I am proud.

Perhaps, though, I’m teary even now after having seen a friend and comrade being snatched by the police for protesting against Nazis. I too was snatched by the police for protesting against Nazis. I was then patronised by the officer who arrested me: “you’re young and inexperienced love. You don’t know anything”. I was then laughed at while being led like a child to a double decker bus. Perhaps I’m teary because as soon as I lifted my foot off the ground to step onto the bus I realised I had left the world of citizenship and entered the one of criminality: “sit the prisoner over there”. And learnt of a new kind of depersonalization: “this one, she’s nicked under section 14 of the public order act and obstructing police arrest”.

The process of demoralisation begins as soon as you realise you have been snatched out of a crowd, thrown to the ground, your arms are distorted behind your back, your face is lying parallel to the ground, you’re 20 years old and told you’re not allowed to pick up your glasses or hat, you’re not allowed to sit up, you must remain face-planted on the floor, with someone’s knee digging into your back and hand across your face. All of which is occurring outside parliament. All of which is occurring lawfully. And all because you stood in solidarity with every Muslim being scapegoated by racist scum.

This, though, is why they do it. And it is for this reason that I may be teary eyed but I will not cry.

They didn’t arrest us because we are criminals or a threat to public safety or even because we were a threat to the BNP. Central London was not about to be ransacked by a group of eccentric communist anti-fascists, with red in our eyes and revolution on the tips of our tongues.

We were a threat to every Islamophobe, every racist, every fascist. We were a threat to every politician who has brewed a boiling broth of racism and fed it to us by the gallon. We were a threat to the status quo, to the common sense that immigrants, not bankers, are to blame. Our voices broke through the chords of racism; our tones were the loudest, our pitch the highest. They try to demoralise us because they don’t want us to fight. Because if we fight, we win.

For this reason, I will not cry. My bail conditions will not demoralise me. Those 6 hours sat zoned out in a cell will not demoralise me. Your handcuffs do not scare me. Your patronising does not anger me. And I know, for certain, my composure scares you.

“My best run”: an arrested anti-fascist speaks


A guest post 

When they let me out I was too polite, I said ‘night night’ to the duty skipper and then instantly regretted it. Once I got out of the yard S, L, M and some people from Green and Black Cross were waiting for anyone who was coming out and started cheering. At half past three in the morning that means something. They all headed up north and I trotted up to the bus stop. Sitting down, realising that the next bus wasn’t coming for at least another 50 minutes, one of the Made in Chelsea knock-offs that were piling out of the Brasseries guffawed at me; “you know your flies are undone don’t you”. I tried to give him a withering look, I wanted to show him my bail sheet, but he was too fucked to keep up the jibe. Rather than waiting, I started running home.

My flies weren’t undone: my trousers were just completely shorn of buttons, they had holes on the knees where I’d been dragged along the ground. My shirt was ripped apart completely. One of the ways I tried to kill time in the cell was by fashioning a belt from the shredded remains of my shirt. When the Met’s Tactical Support Group officers were ordered to lift people they were impressively efficient. I just remember them pointing at me and then grabbing. They were so determined to get me that they ripped every piece of material on me, my bag, my trousers, my shirt and, when they were walking me away back behind the police lines, journalists were just taking pictures of me with my chest out and my trousers trailing around my ankles. I asked them ‘Is that really necessary?’. I should have told them to fuck themselves.

It was a stupid way to run. My shoes had no laces. They had been taken out in case I decided to strangle myself. I could hear them wheezing and flopping. My clothes were held together by knots and I couldn’t wear my bag because the straps had been torn off, so I had to switch it from hand to hand and pump the alternate arm. But it felt  wonderful.

In spite of the exhaustion, where I’d tried to sleep only to wake up again on the plastic mat covered in sweat, the halogen still on and still sneering, in spite of that I was just able to run. It definitely wasn’t my best pace, and I could feel that my bones were suffering from what my muscles were refusing to do as I clodhopped up through Wandsworth towards Clapham Common. The difference between this run and all of my best runs was that I had forced myself to run well in the past. Now I was running because I was compelled to, because I wanted to be as far as possible from Battersea police station, because I could. I’d spent those nine hours pacing, estimating the dimensions of the cell, practising handstands, looking up at the grated window and trying not to be melodramatic. I ran the four miles home, across South London and enjoyed every moment.

Not once, in the whole process, did I panicked. When your face is being ground in the tarmac and your hands are being cable-tied together behind your back you quite quickly recognise that there’s little you can do. Either that or I’m just a pushover. I was only really concerned that my partner would be mad with me that I had ruined our holiday plans. She wasn’t, for the record.

What happened between 3 and half 4 that afternoon was incredibly confusing. When I got back, when the sun was rising, my partner woke up and reminded me we’d won, because the BNP couldn’t march. It was of course far better than Monday, but it didn’t feel like we’d won. It felt like we’d been punished. We held the line because we were led to believe that was what was necessary to stop them passing. I hope it was. I think to some extent we had the easier target, we didn’t have the EDL. We need to remember that when the police pulls a fascist attempt to march before it ends, its because they realise that they can’t police it if the community tries to drive them back. If they move it from outer to central London, its because they want to ensure that they can control the situation and disarm resistance with greater ease. Its their turf. We can’t get away with the things we got away with in Tower Hamlets and Walthamstow. Ironically the first time I was arrested was on the second demonstration I ever went to, and it was less than fifty metres away from where I got arrested on Saturday, when the EDL marched on parliament in solidarity with Geert Wilders.

I can’t pretend that a night in a holding cell is anything like custodial sentence. But you can feel the things that become the themes of prison films start to show themselves. The loneliness and the boredom, the sensory deprivation, then mistaking the people who check on you and who bring you water for anything other than screws. So when I was running, I didn’t feel miserable, I felt rejuvenated. I ran past cul-de-sacs in backstreet Wandsworth that looked like the art deco suburbs from Hollywood’s boom. I ran down Clapham High Street. I ran past bus stops of people going in for early morning cleaning shifts in central London. The run wasn’t my best time, it wasn’t particularly fast or the longest distance. But it was my best run.

The author is among 58 anti-fascists who were arrested at Whitehall on 1st June

The story of ‘Rethinking track and field’


Guest post by Ian Stone

In 2002, an Italian Publishing company called SEP Editrice posthumously published Professor Alphonse Juilland’s book  Rethinking track and field; The future of the world’s oldest sport. One of the more striking things about it; aside from it having a foreword written by then newly-installed President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, Lamine Diack, was that it was a statistics work written with the verve of a true athletics fan who had participated in the sport for many years, and indeed achieved World records in the sport as a veteran athlete. Juilland’s book is an oddity because it advances an egalitarian basis for the future of athletic competition which ostensibly has a socialist flavour to it. Yet Julliand was a mass of contradictions. According to his memorial resolution from Stanford University, he did not believe in science or reason, yet his interest in statistics suggests that he had at least a fascination with concrete facts.

Julliand was not a physiologist, or a statistician, although his work on athletics points to an appreciable grasp of both. An introduction to his personal archive in the Stanford University Department of Special Collections and University Archives provides a neat summary of his life and work. He was born in 1922 in Bucharest, where he took his first degree in the 1940s, obtaining a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1951.He taught language, literature, linguistics and philosophy in France, Canada and the US, teaching at Washington, Pennsylvania , Columbia, and taught at Stanford from 1961-2000, where he died in his room on campus. He is regarded as ‘an international pioneer in his studies of the application of structural  methods in historical linguistics and in linguistic structural theory, gaining acclaim as one of the first linguists to analyse language using quantitative methods using computers.’ He wrote the first structuralist history of French pronunciation and the first inverse dictionary of the French language.

The story of how Julliand became an athlete himself is related by Julliand’s long term friend and the eventual editor of Rethinking track and field, William D. Gairdner in the Editor’s foreword to Rethinking. When Gairdner was a 24 year old runner, he visited the Stanford University track where the then forty-something Professor was being timed by his wife training for middle distance. The Professor and Gairdner became friends, and one day Juilland revealed one of his great ambitions was to run a sub-six minute mile. A deal was struck; the Professor would school Gairdner in academia in exchange for a rigorous training regime that would see the aspirant veteran athlete achieve his dream. It worked; the Professor agreed to quit cigarettes, dropped about 35 pounds and within a year had got down to an impressive 5:59.8.

However, Juilland had not yet found his calling athletics-wise. By chance, when ‘slogging through a lamentable two-mile race’ he found himself to be a talented sprinter. A member of his training group had been instructed to go on the track and encourage him across the line, and the prof had used the intervention as competition to the extent where Juilland ‘came flying down the final straightaway at a very high speed, with impeccable form, having left the struggling youngster-and all the spectators-in a state of utter disbelief’. Juilland began to call Gairdner ‘Frankenstein’ and himself ‘the monster’. His sprint times, from the off, were extraordinary for an athlete of any age-and he began winning masters races in earnest. He ran 10.6 for 100 yards at age 49, and the 200m in 23.6 and 400m in 56.3 the same year:

‘…his records stood for decades and he would periodically return to training, lose the weight he had gained all over again, and display his amazing talent. I have a photo of him age 64 in my study. He is grinning in his beguiling way, pipe in mouth, after winning a masters 200m race in 26.46’.

Rethinking track and field itself has numerous innovative suggestions, drawn from his experiences as a fan and participant in athletics, on how the sport might be improved. The first chapter, for instance, looks on how old events might be improved. A brace of suggestions are made on how to improve the jumping events, such as holding boardless long and triple jumps, where the distance would be measured from wherever the take-off point was rather than from behind a board, the argument being that the use of boards has led to some enormous fouls being nullified, when there was nothing intrinsically wrong with these jumps. Indeed, he cites at length the case of Carl Lewis’ legendary foul jump at Indianapolis in 1982, which some observers felt was over 30’ (9.14m), yet no mark was found in the board plasticene (the determining factor in issuing a foul jump) leading to it being rendered null and void. This jump would have easily been a world record had Julliand’s suggestion been in effect. The use of laser beams to measure the exact height cleared in the high jump and pole vault is also suggested, as sometimes athletes will clear the bar by as much as three or four inches with their best jump, or up to around a foot in the pole vault. Laser technology could also be employed as a way of determining false starts, it is suggested, rather than having the arbitrary rule in place that the athlete is penalised if they move faster than 0.1 after the gun has sounded.

In the same chapter, Julliand asserts that the best ever instrinsic high jump, relative to the efficacy of dynamic shifting of ‘payload’ i.e. weight is actually not that of Javier Sotomayor, world record holder with 2.45m, but Werner Gunthor, the 130kg world class shot putter, with an impressive 2.00m, prompting the strange thought that Gunthor is a world record holder, but not at his ‘best’ event! In (chapter 3, Juilland develops this theme. The chapter is entitled ‘Physical attributes, performance, and the democracy of sport.’ In a section entitled ‘should flyweights throw against the heavyweights?’ Julliand draws on the example of Paralympic sport, where athletes with similar physical attributes are pitted against each other, so as to equalise the event and create a ‘level playing field’. Conversely, in the Shot Putt events, it is true to say that some athletes are advantaged by their size-height creates greater leverage, and weight exacts more propulsive force behind the Shot. On the basis of factoring in information from a huge selection of athletes profiles, Julliand discovers that Dan O’Brien, the former world record holder at the decathlon, can be regarded as pound-for-pound the greatest ever Shot putter.

An intriguing set of juxtapositions are proffered as to possible new athletics events- eg high throwing, long vaulting. ’Change areas’ in relays are suggested as dispensable and a 3 leg 100m relay is proposed, where each athlete would run 133.33m. A 500m oval track is proposed, as is the idea of running clockwise round the track-and having separate records for anti-clockwise and clockwise runs. Julliand also devises a complex system of determining ‘the ten best  (i.e. World)record holders ever, whether female or male’ incorporating factors such as the total percentage by which they improved the marks they broke, and the total duration of their records. On this basis Bob Beamon’s incredible 8.90m Long Jump comes out on top, but there are 4 women in the top ten.

Juilland’s interrogation of performances across time (the disadvantages of cinder tracks and a time formula for measuring their effects are also addressed) and across genders gives us a truer picture of extraordinary performances, one where they can be appreciated fully on their own merit. Some of his ideas on how to develop athletics extend this possibility. His athletics odyssey well into old age-he was still competing when he died aged 77-are also a source of inspiration. Yet Juilland’s conservative politics remain a source of frustration, and we see that in the introduction of Rethinking entitled ‘Track and field on trial: an acrimonious debate with myself’ he simultaneously advocates developments in track and field for the enrichment of the spectator and to preserve [Track and Field’s] ‘market share’.

The spectre of athletics as a highly monetised event removes it from its constituency – namely those who want to participate for the pure fun of it. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a great deal of pleasure to be had from watching the best athletes compete. But this experirence is becoming rare. Many of the athletics finals were unaffordable for most people at the 2012 Olympic Games. Many fans experienced the disappointment of not being able to go because corporate sponsors had taken seats but, as the TV cameras then revealed, didn’t take them up. There were a tiny amount of free events-the Marathon was one; but those who paid extra were permitted to see video screens showing the parts of the race it was not possible to see up close i.e. most of it. Also, of course, money dictated that the Games had to be in a certain place; much to the annoyance of several thousand eastenders who had to move as a result.

The Conservative Government meanwhile continue to slash school sports budgets for state schools, and thereby limit the majority of people’s ability to participate in sport. The success of the Paralympics is being used as an exemplar to show people being able to overcome physical adversity. Yet people are being refused benefits when they are seriously ill, or in some cases, dying. More than a debt reduction exercise, the austerity drive is the manifestation of an intolerance of the poor, the sick and disabled. Writing on athletics has to be politically conscious of this, and to be subtly aware of the ways in which oppositions of physical strength/weakness were artificially posed by the far right in the past, and will posit again if they are given the chance. Economic Conservatism is a gift for racist, sexist and anti-disabled groups such as the BNP and EDL as it encourages their survivalist mentality and adds to the ranks of the alienated and disenfranchised. Juilland’s writings are imaginative and contentious. It is just incredibly disappointing that he ultimately falls back into an economic conservatism that negates his suggestions as nothing more than considerations for the advancement of the athletics ‘market’. Ultimately Juilland tries to break out of paradigms only to find that for all his imagination, he cannot conceive of a society outside Capitalism, the all–encompassing paradigm that negates our dreams the moment they are born.

After Whitehall; where next?


From the perspective of the EDL, the BNP or UKIP, the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby on Wednesday 22 May 2013 could not have been better scripted. The victim was a white soldier with a two year old son and a plainly loving family. A person who is not moved by their suffering has something seriously wrong with them. Lee Rigby’s killers were Muslim, political Islamists, and of African descent. They tick every demographic or political “box” about which the right has been raging for years. The public location of the killing and its amateur method compound the sense of horror that has in turn energised the fascists, the tabloid press and the state.

We all are familiar with the ways in which our opponents have engaged with the killing, beginning with the EDL Assembly at Woolwich on the evening of the 22nd itself, and the rapid construction of a Facebook page “RIP Woolwich Soldier”, which rapidly received 1.4 million likes, and which appears to have been set up using an EDL template. The main EDL page meanwhile leaped from around 30,000 to over 120,000 likes, before (thankfully) it was taken down by the hackers’ collective Anonymous.

EDL supporters attempted to follow up their original assembly in Woolwich on the night of the killing, with various regional protests, including by turning out over 1000 people in Newcastle on Saturday 25 May, with the Independent reporting that EDL supporters outnumbered anti-fascists there by 4 to 1, and the Sun not even giving any indication, in its coverage, of the numbers gathered by the left. It is possible that these estimates were all wrong. The newspapers usually quote the police, who in turn under-count our side and exaggerate the EDL’s numbers. But even if the balance was subtly less bad than the impression these numbers give, millions of people will have read these reports, and will have drawn the conclusion that the EDL was on the rise.

Socialist Worker responded relatively quickly to the killings, posting a statement on 23 May saying in effect that without the War on Terror, Lee Rigby would still be living: “The US and Britain have murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the “war on terror” over the past 12 years … This is a war which we learned last week that the US administration believes will go on for at least another ten to 20 years. That means decades more of invasions and drones and bombs and torture camps and assassinations. Is it a surprise that some people react in this shocking way?” This statement was followed by a message to all members from the National Secretary of the SWP Charlie Kimber instructing us to oppose the next two, main, EDL and BNP marches.

On Monday May 27, the EDL was outside Downing Street, and on Saturday June 1, the BNP had plans to march in Woolwich. Before assessing the effectiveness or otherwise of these last two protests, and of our collective response to them, it is worth pausing and asking why the EDL in particular has shown such signs of evident life, after a long period in which it was clearly in decline?

Putting the EDL and UAF in perspective

There was a tendency within the SWP especially between about December last year and this March for comrades to speak about Unite Against Fascism as if it had been a model campaign, which had played a unique part in decisively halting what would otherwise have been the inevitable rise of the EDL. A more honest appraisal would begin by admitting that no matter how many anti-fascist events we have held, they were not the sole cause of the EDL’s recent problems. The EDL’s difficulties were also partly self-inflicted. Its demonstrations, which were taking place weekly in 2009 and 2010 had begun to fizzle out before the end of 2010, essentially because there was no discernible progress from one march to the next, and no obvious plan beyond the demonstrations. (You might say that the right was suffering its own counterpart of a problem the left had faced after 2003, i.e. demonstration fatigue). The EDL had to endure deep divisions over its own counterparts to the BNP’s better-known modernisation strategy (i.e. the existence of EDL Sikh, LGBT and Jewish contingents) and the EDL was already in visible decline by late 2010, i.e. before Unite Against Fascism proved capable of repeatedly outnumbering it.

“Billy Blake”, whose book EDL: Coming Down the Road offers the best short guide to the mindset of a local EDL activist, ends his account in August 2011, with (even on his account), the EDL “in disarray”. In his words, “The internal politics and infighting which has plagued the EDL for over a year has undoubtedly contributed to the fall in support. Although English regional identity has contributed, the infighting has been magnified by an intransigent dictatorial leadership and an entrenched sub-leadership, both unelected. Mistakes have been made, but like we see in government, no-one has paid the price. There are people in charge whose main concerns, once their position is gained, is holding onto it, rather than furthering the aims of the EDL.”

The EDL’s situation had not significantly changed between August 2011 and May 2013, prior to Woolwich, if anything the EDL was weaker than it had ever been. But, even in its diminished state, the EDL still carried two things which gave it a distinct edge over its main rival the BNP. First, it retained some degree of brand loyalty among a series of activists who had repeatedly demonstrated over the past five years. By May 2013, most had been inactive for around two to two and a half years, but they were significantly more “battle-hardened” that the BNP, which had not called any national, street mobilisation for more than twenty years.

Second, it had an ideology which appeared dramatically more relevant. The BNP has long been vulnerable to accusations of Nazism. Its leader Nick Griffin will still occasionally call himself a National Socialist (albeit only in front of the right audience). The EDL carries the process of ideological modernisation much further. It parades its tiny number of black members. It has an internal language modelled on the Battle comics of the 1970s; and exults in the victories of English soldiers in 1939-1945 over their German counterparts. It is patriotic, and militantly anti-Islam. It was born out of the War on Terror, and is better shaped to deal with the present crisis.

A tale of two protests

For those of us who were in the thick of Monday’s anti-EDL protest, it is hard to be precise about how badly we were outnumbered, certainly 3:1, and perhaps more. There were more reasons for concern than just numbers. There were very few black faces on the protest, the crowd dwindled rapidly, and there was little leadership at the front. It felt as if we were going back to a previous period, where we should expect to be regularly outnumbered by them, even in central London. At the end of the EDL protest, a group of their supporters made a rush at the UAF contingent, throwing glasses and placard sticks, and we were barely able to hold them back. Had they broken through, many people could have been injured.

The voices of the comrades who were there, and who were writing within hours of the protest, gives a sense of our collective unease at what we had just been through. Here is S G: “I’m worried we’re not winning the ideological argument and have been suddenly shunted back to a position we were in 4 years ago, when the EDL, however disorganised and chaotic, could ride a wave of Islamophobia.”

R D: “We were completely outnumbered today. The EDL are undoing months of antifascist work as they march in their hundreds and thousands across the country.”

R S: “Our tactics didn’t really work though. It was skin deep. A month ago the EDL looked like a spent force. But clearly that was rather superficial, since all it’s taken is a single murder for them to launch multiple mobilisations and outnumber anti-fascists. We seem to have made very little impact on actually undermining the basis of Islamophobia in Britain.”

A comrade who writes under the pseudonym Caliban’s Revenge: “Today, standing against the EDL on Downing Street, was tough. There were some things we couldn’t control about this situation: The far rights ability to remobilise around the Woolwich killing, the difficulty for us to mobilise at such short notice (they redirected the march from Woolwich to downing street on Friday) and the low confidence of Muslims to confront the fascists outside of their communities since the onset of the latest racist backlash … What really troubled me was the lack of organisation on the day. In the past, when I’ve been on UAF demos and we’ve been out outnumbered, in the crowd were people … not just barking instructions to people through megaphones, but talking to a few key people in the crowd and relaying information and instructions that they could then disperse throughout the crowd- especially at the front line. More than once people have come up to me and said “I won’t lie to you, they could break through at any moment and YOU have to hold this line because if you don’t there will be a panic and more people will get hurt”. And even though your shutting, you do because it makes sense and at least you know what’s going on. That didn’t happen yesterday… I turned around and I saw that the initially 400-500 strong crowd, enough to hold, had just disappeared.”

And A J: “off to see a friend in hospital slashed by ‘white youth’ last night, and hope I never again have to see anti-fash retreating from fascists.”

Some comrades responded by trying to play down both the extent of our reverse and the importance of Saturday’s looming protest. Despite the message from coming from Charlie Kimber that Saturday would be a national or certainly a London-wide mobilisation; one UAF full-timer could be heard telling us:

“Can we have a bit more thought and circumspection please? Yes, there were hundreds of EDL in London, 4 reputable people I know who followed them say around 800. 800 too many for sure, but i see one or two saying they had thousands … yes, we were outnumbered. Then, I see Lewisham 1977 being raised re next week. Lewisham took weeks of preparations and can’t be wished into existence, just like that, that’s for sure. We need to re double our efforts and build/re build rooted UAF groups. Walthamstow, Cambridge, Norwich, Leicester, show the way. Urgency for sure, but a mid- to long-term viewpoint is needed and roots in the localities…”

To which one obvious answer would be that if a campaign has been in existence for 10 years, and still lacks local roots; what on earth has it been doing? Or perhaps a kinder response would be to say that while everything I have just quoted  would be unobjectionable in a different context, it was hardly an inspiring call to action to make just five days before the BNP were planning to march within a few streets of where Lee Rigby had been killed.

Between Monday and Saturday, it was extraordinary to watch how a younger generation of party comrades (the very ones, it seemed, who had been on the losing side of the recent faction battle) took it upon themselves to organise. They produced their own leaflets; they distributed them by their thousands.

But this flurry of activity “from below” did not seem to be adequately matched by other anti-fascists. The details of the assembly point for Saturday were not published until the morning of 28 May 2013 (so there was no leaflet to hand out for the 28th on the anti-EDL protest in Whitehall). The news of the assembly point was broken on social media, not on UAF’s website but several hours beforehand on a twitter account: “martin@uaf”.

No political argument was given for why Saturday’s protest had been called. There were of course perfectly sensible arguments for focussing on the danger posed by the BNP. By announcing a demonstration to begin at Woolwich, where Lee Rigby had been killed, inevitably they made themselves the priority for anti-fascists. By threatening to march from Woolwich to Lewisham, the BNP was deliberately invoking (and threatening to overturn) the worst defeat that the far right has suffered anywhere on British streets since 1945. These arguments would have armed comrades to deal with the twists and turns of BNP tactics that followed. But rather than explain why were were marching, the membership was addressed with a set of instructions. We were expected to follow a “routine” method (we are the SWP, they are the BNP, we demonstrate against them, that’s just what we do) focussed on internal arguments rather than ideas for engaging with people beyond the ranks of the already persuaded.

On the Friday, as the BNP’s plans changed, the party changed the focus of its intended demonstration from Woolwich to Downing Street. This decision was publicised for the first time, once again, on “@martinuaf”. Three hours passed before the main UAF website was updated.

Meanwhile, it was only too clear that the fascists were becoming bolder; and that Monday’s victory had given the EDL in particular fresh recruits. While the message from UAF headquarters remained that Monday was a temporary aberration and that the EDL remained locked in an inevitable spiral of decline, the words of EDL supporters gave a very different impression. Here for example is Edward Downs explaining why he would be attending an EDL-sponsored wreath-laying event in Islington on 1 June: “I know it’s not strictly an EDL event – just encouraging people to come out and pay respects to Lee Rigby and the disgusting way he was murdered. I was OFFENDED by this and got off my arse and attended the Downing Street demo on Monday. Best thing I’ve done for a long time. I met other people there who were not EDL but felt the same as I did and took to the street. What a great bunch of people, EDL and non-EDL alike. I can only advise people not to listen to the media and to come out in to the sunlight…”

Going into Saturday’s protest, anti-fascists had one main advantage and several weakness. It was to our assistance that the enemy we were facing was the BNP rather than the EDL. To help us; the BNP had no recent experience of street organising. It lacked the branch structure to book transport, etc, in order to be able to turn people out. The BNP does not have a single functioning branch in London. They were likely to be a “relatively” easy target.

On the other hand, there was considerable confusion as to whether the BNP would follow police instructions and assemble in Whitehall or keep to its original plans and assemble in Woolwich or Lewisham. If all the anti-fascists had kept to one location point, while the BNP or EDL supporters assembled elsewhere, we would have had a problem.

Saturday began with around 200 or so UAF supporters assembling outside Downing Street. (Images above). An impressive group of about 100-150 “South London Anti-Fascists” had chosen to assemble at the Imperial War Museum, from where they marched to join the main UAF contingent:

Rather than remaining at Downing Street, these anti-fascists then marched towards the BNP’s intended starting-point, which even as late as 11.30 still had only around 50 people in it. Close up, they looked tired, bored and sullen:

For a time, it seemed that the anti-fascists would be able to occupy the BNP pen, and disperse Nick Griffin’s supporters. But gradually from around 12 or so, the police were able to take control of the situation, bringing vans, dogs and increasing numbers of officers into the area:

The Metropolitan Police drove up two adapted red buses, designed to hold large numbers of detainees before processing them to police stations. Officers began collecting plastic cuffs in order to make multiple arrests:

Over at Downing Street, the main group of UAF supporters had shrunk visibly in numbers. Young supporters of UAF were voting with their feet to join the other anti-fascists. Eventually, UAF took a cue from them and instructed the Downing Street crowd to march towards the BNP pen. For a time, it seemed that their extra numbers might be sufficient to hold back the police, or even allow anti-fascist to make a further attempt on the BNP pen:

The leaders of UAF stationed themselves some way back from parliament:

But the police continued to press; in increasing numbers. By some extraordinary good fortune there was already at Parliament a demonstration against badger culls. The dominant politics seemed to be broadly what we used to consider “hunt sab”, and it was a real pleasure to hear activists shouting “Save the badgers; cull the Nazis”.

Although the BNP was never able to march, by the end of the day, some 58 arrests had been made:

Speaking to other demonstrators, the following opinions of Saturday appear to be shared generally:

1. Anti-fascists needed to seriously outnumbers the BNP after Monday’s debacle. On this test, the day was a success. It seems unlikely that the BNP would dare attempt something similar again. For our part anti-fascists feel lifted.

2. This modest success needs to be kept in broader perspective. The EDL could hardly have been checked by events at Whitehall; they were not there, but at several dozen other places across Britain. Many of these activities were small; in some cases, the EDL turnouts again seem to have been met with larger anti-fascist mobilisations. But the energy remains with them, as compared to the BNP, or indeed with us.

3. The recent difficulties in the SWP continue to mark our intervention as anti-fascists. The vast amount of work put in by younger SWP members did not lead to a significant presence, for example, of non-SWP students. There was very little direction from the UAF full-timers or other long-standing comrades. The party intervention suffered the same vices as those identified by Caliban on the Monday.

4. Many people have been arrested; they all need our solidarity. It is unwelcome that a demonstration in which anti-fascists outnumbered fascists by around 10 to 1 should have ended that 58 of us arrested and none of them.

5. Going beyond this Saturday, we do not seem to have worked out how to readjust from confronting the BNP to the EDL, who have the numbers and the momentum. Nor, assuming the EDL are pushed back sometime in the future , do we have any serious plans (yet) for the second change of focus we will need, to develop a new kind of anti-racist politics capable of damaging UKIP, who are flourishing better than anyone else during the recent crisis and can realistically be expected to top the polls in next year’s European elections.

To be able to get to these more important battles right would require a dramatic break from our present routine.

Other models

UAF is not the first time that the SWP has played a role in anti-fascist or anti-racist struggles, nor, if we are honest, has been as effective as our first such campaign, that of the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s. One feature of the ANL was its success in bringing together different SWP “generations”, i.e. both the hard-headed political organisers, and the comrades with the greatest sense of cultural politics. Most SWP members took part in the campaign through the ANL: a specific, one-purpose campaign to defeat the National Front, expressed as physical confrontation, public marches and leafleting against NF election candidates. But a large part of the campaign’s dynamism came from the activity of a relatively small group of comrades in Rock Against Racism. They made sure that fascism was never misunderstood as just a very aggressive form of popular racism. They fought all the time to join up the popular racism of the NF to the institutional racism of the police, prisons and courts; its anti-black racism to its simultaneous, swaggering and homophobic masculinity. They fought, in effect, for a broader, more heterogeneous anti-racism.

A reason why the ANL worked was because it was able to win the support in black communities that saw the National Front routed when they attempted to march through Lewisham, or which turned Blair Peach’s killing into a martyrdom. UAF “seems” to take this on board by having a leadership structure which combines at the very top, “black leadership” (it is a part of the campaign’s founding agreement, that all senior office-holders have to be black), and with the visible presence at UAF conferences of very many members of the TUC race relations committee (one reason that UAF  conferences are so dull is the need to give everyone on the committee a separate speaking role). But paradoxically, despite this black leadership role UAF seems to have less to say about institutional racism than the ANL once did. And the SWP campaigns far less about racism than it did 35 years ago. You won’t find UAF campaigns about victims of injustice, or economic racism. It is hard to imagine UAF giving the same amount of time as the SWP and the Anti-Nazi League once gave, for example to the Campaign Against Racist Laws.

Another part of the Anti-Nazi league’s victory was its success in drilling roots deep into the trade union movement, between 1977 and 1979, 30 AUEW branches affiliated, as did 25 trades councils, 13 shop stewards’ committees, 11 NUM lodges, and similar numbers of branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE. I can recall working in the offices (temporarily) of the much smaller mid-1990s Anti-Nazi League. It had multiple ring-binders full of the  details of affiliated trade union branches, which (even then) ran into the several hundreds. Contrast UAF, which has the support of 19 national trade unions; and some local trade union branches, but only one of the latter (Holborn GMB) was so well integrated into the campaign so as to nominate anyone for any position at this year’s conference. Indeed this is only one reflection of the general weakness of  those events and of UAF itself. They, and it, feel like a space aimed at accommodating the union bureaucracy. The focus is rarely on the union rank and file.

It is an area of obvious concern that the party leadership (which I do not mean at all only the people in full-time roles at the SWP or UAF head offices), but just as significantly the local leaderships in the branches, is still in purge mode. In the words of one SWP member (writing on 30 May): “The party is not a student debating society. We are not here to listen to endless arguments about our perspectives from a small minority of comrades who are unwilling to act democratically when It does not suit them. I think it is time for those who cannot submit to the democratic will of the party to go so that the rest of us can engage in meaningful political work … I think the leading group in the ‘opposition’ should be expelled at once. I do not see why any of this should be tolerated for a moment longer.” The people who are visibly in the firing line are precisely the comrades who speak out of turn, the ones who write, and the ones who are trying hardest to revive the party’s former iconoclasm.

Rock Against Racism brought more to the table than just a broader anti-racist message, equipping comrades to step from one moment of anti-racist struggle to the next. It was RAR which dreamed up Temporary Hoarding magazine, the Carnivals, etc. “We want Rebel music, street music”, as RAR put it, “Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism.” Temporary Hoarding was never just about music, a typical issue would have articles about Steve Biko, the politics of racism, and institutional sexism or homophobia. It was a cultural intervention which took in design, art, etc. Its good slogans were never intended to last for all time.

Of course, no mere effort of will could produce merely “on request” a musical counter-culture as susceptible to left-wing intervention as early British punk; nor a group of comrades as iconoclastic as the RAR generation. But if we are going to have a fresh cultural intervention which recreates the dynamism of 1976-1981, we shouldn’t assume that it will be found only in music, nor that simply replaying the most compelling images and sounds of the past will produce the same energy as they once delivered. Mere repetition is likely to result in diminishing effect. If there is going to be network of cultural producers who play the same role in future that once was played by RAR, they will more effective if they find their own labels, and their own images, rather than through being tied to a slogan (“LMHR”) coined more than 30 years ago.

Another test of a viable campaign is who it has in the key roles. Paul Holborow, the organiser of the Anti-Nazi League, brought several strengths to the campaign. One, which is not always given sufficient weight in accounts of this period, was his very close attention to detail. If you speak to the people who worked in the ANL office, one thing they always report is how incredibly hard Paul worked. He was in the office first thing; he would be there till late. Every evening that he could, he spoke at a local ANL group meeting (and if he didn’t have a speaking role, he looked for an invitation). This sense of urgency came from a conjuncture which was even more desperate than our own. Politics were moving rapidly to the right; the very evening of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 saw an SWP member Blair Peach killed at Southall following fighting between anti-fascists and the police.

If we want to understand why after 10 years there seems to be very few people in any local groups who identify with the UAF beyond of course members of the SWP, the answer is not just down to “formal” politics, but also to the lack of planning, the administrative muddle, and the failure to maintain a membership structure or local groups which have characterised Unite Against Fascism from early on.

Finally, a recurring challenge for ANL Mark 1 was how to stop the National Front without the violent clashes overtaking everything else the campaign had to do. Normally histories of the period read this story backwards, with everything hinging on the eventual expulsion of the people who in 1981 would go on to form Red Action. Their emergence (which, if we are honest, was primarily within the SWP, not ANL) is contrasted with the previous periods when the use of physical force had been a collective rather than a minority experience. But mere common sense suggests that the history was a little bit more complex; that the “squads” must have come from somewhere, if only from a collective need to protect sales or public meetings from fascist attack.

The SWP of the late 1970s had better roots in the manual working-class than it does now or any other group on the British left (this is not to subject the old party to special praise; the whole left then had better roots in working-class communities than it does now). Even that organisation flipped and flopped to some extent between encouraging physical resistance and seeking to curtail it.

Today, every comrade will have memories of recent anti-EDL “protests” which saw groups of several hundred comrades sheltering, 1970s-CP-style, behind metal barricades, while we were addressed by local, religious worthies, while others took the struggle directly to the English Defence League; as well as other activities that have been little better than squad actions, leaving those involved feeling like “cannon fodder”. Squaddism was never the answer, but nor is it to be found in ceding the ground of physical resistance altogether. After all, if we are ever going to force the fascists off the streets, this will involve – inevitably – a degree of physical persuasion. What is needed is greater consistency, a focus on the sorts of mass campaigning that involve the greatest numbers of people working together to resist the far right, and to drive them off the streets altogether, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

[first published here:

Getting it right (2): Cable Street


On 4 October 1936, fascists and anti-fascists clashed as 1,900 supporters of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) attempted to march from the City of London through London’s East End. Mosley himself was driven to the scene in a bullet-proofed Bentley; he wore a peaked cap, an SS-style jacket, jodhpurs and knee-length jackboots. On arrival, he inspected his supporters and took the fascist salute from them. His way was blocked by a crowd of more than 100,000 anti-fascists at Gardiner’s corner, the main route into East London.

Up to 6,000 police officers tried to disperse the anti-fascists, with mounted officers hitting indiscriminately at the heads of demonstrators with wooden batons.

When their attempt to force a way through for the fascists failed, the police attempted to find an alternative route for them through the narrow, residential streets to the east of Gardiner’s corner, only to find that these were blocked by barricades, including an overturned lorry.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game spoke to Mosley. “If you fellows go ahead from here, there will be a shambles”, Game said, “You must call it off.” “Is that an order?” Mosley asked; Game answered, “Yes.” Fascists cried out in disappointment when they realised they would not be allowed to march. Mosley led his supporters through the Sunday streets. He would not even address them at the end. The BUF procession finally dispersed near Charing Cross.

To understand Cable Street it must be remembered that this was the second of the two key moments in the anti-fascist struggle of the 1930s.

The first had taken place at Olympia, on 7 June 1934. For two years prior to Olympia, Mosley set out to win the support of disgruntled Conservatives. Mosley’s best known backer was the press baron Lord Rothermere whose Daily Mail printed pro-BUF headlines (“Hurrah for the Blackshirts”), publicised Mosley’s meetings, and ran competitions offering free holidays to those who joined the BUF.

By the summer of 1934, the BUF reached its peak membership of 50,000. Most of its members were middle- or upper-class. The idea of Olympia was to put this organisation on show in a mass rally of tens of thousands of Blackshirts.

Anti-fascists disrupted Olympia by attempting to heckle Mosley. They were picked out with electric lights and beaten by the BUF stewards. Yet the violence of Olympia deterred Mosley’s passive supporters. Rothermere himself initially applauded Mosley for Olympia, before one month later ending his support for the BUF.

By October 1935, the BUF’s membership had fallen to 5,000. It was in this same month that Mosley settled on a new tactic, of seeking working-class support in the East End. The members recruited in the twelve months leading up to Cable Street were poorer than their predecessors. They included large numbers of workers in declining trades such as clothes-production or furniture-making, some of whom were in direct competition with Jewish labourers working in the same industries.

The BUF used force to silence its opponents. Storm Jameson was a journalist present at Olympia. He described watching Mosley repeatedly pause his speech for intervals of up to six minutes so that the crowd could watch anti-fascists being kicked and punched without restraint. “Slowly”, Jameson reported, “we all understood that it was done to allow the Blackshirts to make a mess of the interruptor.” Violence against the left was not accidental; rather it was a defining purpose of fascism.

Again, after Cable Street was over, members of the BUF were found to have discarded iron bars, broken bottles and chair legs wrapped in barbed wire. Newsreel descriptions of Cable Street suggested that the East End had only narrowly been saved from “bloodshed on a scale more terrible than London has ever witnessed”.

Police reports state that 73 police and 43 private citizens required medical treatment afterwards, although this appears to have been a dramatic underestimate, with many anti-fascists relying on help given at field medical stations staffed by volunteers.

Yet despite the violence of the BUF; the target of the police was anti-fascism. Of the 85 arrests made by the Hackney police, 79 were of anti-fascists.

Days before Cable Street, Commissioner Game boasted to a friend, “I expect there will be some fun and a few broken heads before the day is out. I shall be glad if it brings things to a head as I hope it may lead to banning demonstrations all over London.”

For the best forces of the left, Cable Street was never just a London or a British struggle. Rather it was an expression, at close hand, of a worldwide war of ideas.

In July 1936, four months before Cable Street, units of the Spanish Foreign Legion under the leadership of General Franco had begun an uprising against the elected Republican government in Madrid.

Workers took collections for the Republican side; exiled Spanish children were welcomed into working-class homes. Many young workers volunteered to fight in Spain. The slogan of Cable Street, “They shall not pass”, was borrowed consciously from Spain.

The fascist plans for Cable Street were announced just a week before the march was due to take place. The BUF’s plans caught off guard those socialists and Communists whose eyes were focussed on events in Madrid.

The London District of the Communist Party had intended for some time that the 4th October should be a youth rally in Trafalgar Square for Spain. The London Communists responded to the news of the BUF march by insisting that their event should go ahead as planned; Mosley could be well opposed by a demonstration some three miles away from his.

But Communists in Stepney had other plans. A petition was launched calling for a ban on the fascist march, which was signed by some 70,000 East End workers. The “official” Communist leaflets continued to circulate, but now overstamped with instructions calling upon activists to assemble not in Trafalgar Square but in the East End.

Before Cable Street began; the Labour Party opposed the protest. In its immediate aftermath, Labour sought to claim the credit for its success. Soon after it had finished, Labour’s message was again that it had been the work of troublemakers.

On the Thursday before Cable Street, Labour’s newspaper the Daily Herald called on its readers to stay away, “Fascist meetings are themselves dull. The platform is dull, the speeches are dull. The message is dull. The only attraction is the prospect of disturbances. Withdraw that attraction and fascist meetings would die on the organisers’ hands.”

On the Monday after Cable Street, the Herald described the event as a popular victory, “Street battles stop Mosley March”.

The Battle of Cable Street itself took place just two days before the Labour Party’s annual conference. This would be an occasion, the Herald promised its readers, for Labour voices to denounced the police and the Tory Home Secretary. Censure will “be directed mainly against the actions of Sir John Simon in refusing to take action to avoid [Mosley’s] provocative demonstration.”
Labour shadow Home Secretary Herbert Morrison used the conference to denounce both left and right, and to call for a ban on political uniforms.

With Labour’s support, Parliament passed the Public Order act giving the police the power to ban all marches, not just racist or fascist ones. The Act was first used in June 1937 to ban demonstrations in the East End. The first event to be cancelled was a recruiting march for Bethnal Green Trades Council.

The most far-sighted of the Communists could see that defeating the BUF would require far more than just physical confrontation. The BUF had to be challenged in the areas where it claimed the greatest support.

For much of the 1930s, the Communist Party was smaller than the BUF. In 1930, the CP’s membership had stood at just 2,500, although this figure grew through the decade. In 1934, the BUF outnumbered the CP seven to one, and even in 1936 the BUF had more members than the CP in the East End.
The Communist response is described in Our Flag Stays Red the memoir written after 1945 by then the Communist MP for Stepney, Phil Piratin.

In June 1937, Communists living at Paragon Mansions in Mile End heard of the threatened eviction of two families who turned out to be members of the BUF. The Communists agreed to support them against eviction. The tenants barricaded the block against the bailiffs, who were held off for two weeks.
As Piratin wrote, “We were now supplementing our propaganda with positive action. The kind of people who would never come to our meetings, and had strange ideas about Communists and Jews, learnt the facts overnight”.

The Communists targeted estates seen as no-go areas for the left. This political struggle, as much as the physical victory a year earlier, isolated the BUF.

Defeating the fascists politically was slow work. Just a week after Cable Street, 150 fascists congregated in the East End. They attacked Jewish shops, and two bystanders were thrown through a plate-glass window.

A number of BUF rallies were held, and the BUF’s national membership grew in the aftermath of Cable Street by 2000, with most of the recruits being picked up in London. The BUF’s Mick Clarke boasted, “Mosley is coming every night of the week in future to rid East London and by God there is going to be a pogrom.”

This fascist revival continued until local elections in spring 1937, when BUF candidates won 19 per cent of the vote in North East Bethnal Green, Stepney and Shoreditch. Yet this result needs to be placed alongside derisory BUF votes in the same elections in such former fascist stronghold as Leeds, Manchester and Southampton, and of reports of BUF branches ceasing to exist all over non-Metropolitan Southern England.

Two processes appear to have been at work. First, the BUF’s increasing notoriety as the “anti-Jew” party won it some recruits in the East End while demoralising members elsewhere, for whom anti-Semitism was just a component and not the most important part of the fascist message.

Second, the fascists were cannibalising their own organisation in order the mask the scale of their defeat, pulling in members from all over England to shore up the East End organisation. In doing so, they were weakening their party everywhere else.

After Cable Street, British fascism was never as strong again. Seventy-five years later, the enemy has in some respects changed. The fascist model of the 1930s has splintered; there is no longer a single fascist type. In France, Italy and Austria, there has been a transition away from street politics. In Hungary, the dominant party on the far right is Jobbik, which employs street marches and uniforms and has an open ideological debt to the inter-war years.

The British National Party represents an electoralist path. The one public space which the BNP has attempted to occupy over the past decade has been its annual Red White and Blue festivals. These had to be abandoned following protests Codnor in 2009, when the BNP was outnumbered and besieged by demonstrators from Unite Against Fascism. The BNP did poorly in the 2010 and 2011 elections and is currently in retreat.

The BNP’s decline has opened up a space to its right, now occupied by the English Defence League. While the EDL claims to be a single-issue party, opposed just to Islamic Extremism, its demonstrations have attacked British Asians of every type, religious and secular, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu

One national newspaper The Daily Star has campaigned actively for the EDL, calling on its leaders to form the EDL into a political party. The police meanwhile have been no better than they were in the 1930s.

The lesson of Cable Street is that despite the press and the police, fascism can always be beaten. But that requires our side to get organised.

[A version of this was published in Socialist Review in October 2011]

Getting it right (1): the Anti-Nazi League in retrospect


The Anti-Nazi League campaign was the largest mass movement in Britain since the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s. Between 1977 and 1979, around 9 million Anti-Nazi League leaflets were distributed and 750,000 badges sold. Around 250 ANL branches mobilized some 40,000–50,000 members. On the strength of individual donations, the League raised £600,000 between 1977 and 1980. The ANL conference in June 1978 attracted over 800 delegates. The steering committee raised £70,000 to cover fines and legal expenses for the Southall Defence Fund. Meanwhile, the work of the League was complemented by the activity of Rock Against Racism. In 1978 alone, RAR organized 300 gigs and five carnivals. The following year’s Militant Entertainment Tour featured 40 bands at 23 concerts, and covered some 2,000 miles on the road.  Probably around half a million people were involved in anti-racist activity, joining demonstrations, handing out leaflets or painting out graffiti. An extraordinary range of local initiatives took place under a single banner. In Sheffield, one member of the Anti-Nazi League infiltrated the local National Front branch, then left, publishing a pamphlet that revealed the openly Nazi pedigree of local fascists. Meanwhile, 50 Labour parties affiliated to the ANL, along with 30 AUEW branches, 25 trades councils, 13 shop stewards’ committees, 11 NUM lodges, and similar numbers of branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE. By the end of the campaign, even Len Murray, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, could be seen addressing anti-fascist rallies in London’s Brick Lane.

Clearly anti-fascism succeeded in mobilizing very many people, but did it work? In the years since the Anti-Nazi League existed, different writers have generated very different accounts. Christopher Husbands believes the League spread the ‘NF = Nazis’ message ‘more widely and successfully than almost any other medium could have done’. Dilip Hiro also comments positively on the League: ‘the role played by the anti-racist whites, belonging either to the mainstream trade unions or to fringe leftist groups, was crucial’.

More critically, another historian, Richard Thurlow, has argued that the Anti-Nazi League was only of secondary importance, and that it was Mrs Thatcher’s racism that played the decisive role in the failure of the National Front, bringing lost right-wing voters back to the Tory fold. Roger Griffin likewise argues that fascism has no place in modern society: ‘what marginalises fascism . . . is the irreducible pluralism of modern society, and not the strength of liberalism as such, let alone the concerted opposition of anti-fascists.’ There may be a grain truth in the argument that Margaret Thatcher undermined the National Front.

In the words of Pete Alexander, ‘The Nazis could complain about immigration, but she could stop people coming into the country. They could talk about patriotism, but she could sink the Belgrano. They could complain about Communism, but she could break its base in the unions.’

The problem comes when people treat this one factor as decisive, placing all emphasis on it, and ignore as a consequence the impact of popular anti-fascism on the NF. Those who place all emphasis on the Tories’ right turn cannot address the evidence that the National Front had grown fastest in earlier periods just as the leaders of the Conservative Party pushed themselves furthest to the right. It was Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that first dragged the NF into prominence, and it was Conservative and press attacks on the Kenyan and Ugandan Asians that helped the NF to build a mass following in 1968 and 1972. If Thatcherism did hurt the National Front, then it did so only because the far right was already in retreat. It was because NF voters and other supporters already saw their own organization in tatters that they defected to the Conservative in droves.

John from south London describes the process: ‘The ANL ended up achieving a split between street fighters and the more respectable racists. It proved that fascism could be confronted on the streets.’  It follows that without the League, the National Front’s organization would have continued and prospered. The NF would have been larger, and although it might still have gone into some gentler decline in the early 1980s, it would then have found it far easier to revive when circumstances were more favourable. Given a context in which broader economic and political processes helped, the Anti-Nazi League was a major factor in preventing the further growth of fascism. According to Ian, another active member of the Anti-Nazi League,

“I think the real achievement was that by confronting the National Front we ensured that only their hard-core thugs came out on the demos. The vast mass of their electoral support was quite different – a lot of pensioners, I think. So we prevented them from turning their electoral support into street support, and they began to decline and collapse.”

Mark Steel rejects as ludicrous the idea that Thatcher stopped the National Front. ‘The argument’, he writes, ‘is classically British, in that it imagines no political action has an impact outside of parliament’:

“Are they saying the millions of leaflets, badges, stickers and placards, the gigs, the carnivals and demonstrations had no effect at all? That disillusioned people considering a vote for the someone appearing to offer something new weren’t influenced by the constant reminders that these people were brutal, violent and fascist? But one speech from Margaret Thatcher and they all changed their mind? What a depressing thought then, if fascist parties return. Because the only way to stop them will be to persuade the leader of the Conservative Party to make a racist speech. Maybe he should chuck a brick through a curry house window. Then the fascists wouldn’t stand a chance.”

It is possible to investigate the argument that without the Anti-Nazi League, fascism would have grown. One way to test this claim is by comparing late 1970s Britain to early 1980s France. In general terms, the conditions in both countries were similar and broadly advantageous to the far right. In both countries there was an indigenous racist tradition, going back at least to the British Brothers’ League in early twentieth-century England, and the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France. By the period in question, both countries were governed by parties of the left, Callaghan’s Labour in Britain, Mitterrand’s Socialists in France. Each left government was judged to have failed its supporters, leading to a right-wing backlash. In both cases, parties of the right were willing to flirt with the small fascist groups, both the Conservatives and the Gaullists believing that this process would work in their favour. Margaret Thatcher’s lurch to the right did have the effect of persuading former members of the National Front to side with the Conservatives, either rejoining the her party or at least voting for it in 1979.

In France, by contrast, similar calculations had the reverse effect. A right-wing pact in local elections in Drieux was followed by the first Front National breakthrough in the 1984 European elections. Unlike the NF, Le Pen’s Front National became a successful and entrenched electoral party with a national profile. What made this breakthrough possible? The difference between France and Britain cannot be explained in terms of a different national history, or a different conjuncture of favourable circumstances, as these were more similar than opposed. It follows that the explanation can only be found in the different tactics of anti-fascist organizations in France and Britain. This is a point made by two historians of the French far right, Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys, who describe the failures of SOS Racisme, the French equivalent of the Anti-Nazi League. Although SOS was at least as successful as anti-fascists in Britain in using music and other media, the organization was far more closely linked to the French Socialist Party. Its organizers, people such as Harlem Desir, spoke of the need to confront fascism on the grounds of French public opinion, precluding physical confrontation:

“The issue of fighting racism is not a left-wing or right-wing issue . . .  I think the electors of the right-wing democratic and traditional parties cannot accept any kind of alliance between their party and the extremist neo-Nazi ideology. So we are organising a big campaign all over the country. We show that a majority of the French people, left-wing or right-wing, refuse the idea of racist violence, of segregation.”

The gap between this formulation and the equivalent pronouncements of Paul Holborow or Peter Hain was small, but telling. The ANL combined a political and a physical strategy; SOS Racisme had only the former. Thus it tended to dissipate rather than strengthen grass-roots anti-racist organization. What began as a radical movement against fascism became instead a lobbying organization to raise money for local communities. As ‘SOS-Racisme . . . evolved into a decentralised lobbying organisation sucked into a role of conflict management’, so it turned away from the important task of mobilizing young people against racism, on the streets. At the moment of its breakthrough, the Front National was relieved of the pressure of militant anti-fascism, a pressure that only revived in the mid-1990s.  It is striking that the revival of militant anti-fascism in France, following the public sector strikes of 1995, was closely followed by splits in the Front National, from late 1998 onwards. That event would seem to support the argument that mass anti-fascism can work.

The success of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League led to the creation of a number of similar alliances, which were explicitly modelled on British anti-fascism and were unlike the later French campaign. In the United States, this movement took the form of a new Rock Against Racism, involving such bands as the Dead Kennedys. The US Rock Against Racism lasted from 1979 to 1987.  In Germany, the 1970s witnessed various counterparts of both the ANL and RAR, including ‘Rock gegen Rechts’.

Those people who took part in the UK campaign generally remember it as a remarkably successful movement. At a time when politics was moving to the right, when racist ideas were becoming more acceptable, the Anti-Nazi League succeeded in isolating the National Front, the most visible carrier of organized racism in Britain. According to Mike from Preston, the campaign ‘played a great part in reducing people’s fear of the NF, the ANL made them look very small and insignificant. It also had a big role to play in making racism indefensible, especially to the young.’

Another former activist who speaks fondly of this time is Owen. Having arrived at Salford University in 1976, he describes himself as having been then ‘politically right-wing’. But the Anti-Nazi League ‘had an impact on me. I was from a white, working-class background, and had never thought about this stuff before.’ Owen attended the Manchester carnivals, and having heard Neil Kinnock address the Cardiff carnival (‘A young firebrand speaker . . . I wonder what happened to him?’), he moved towards the left. The police attacked him during a demonstration in Longsight. His involvement was ‘all pretty low-key stuff’, but speaking to him, there is a sense of someone who helped to challenge racism, and helped to advance the values of democracy and equality. Through the ANL, he judges, Owen contributed to making life better for other people.

Thinking about the campaign 25 years on, most anti-racists from the time are of the opinion that the League worked. According to Einde,

“The ANL and RAR helped to make racism unacceptable in a way that had not been the case. At last an activist campaign said simply racism is unacceptable and fascism of any form is beyond the pale. It was a good feeling for an anti-racist to see all the ANL stickers everywhere. And the badges – this was the great era of badge wearing – gave a sense of identity and strength, because you saw people wearing them all the time.”

Ian’s account is typical of those who took part:

“In the 35 years I’ve been in the SWP, the ANL period was the one where I am reasonably certain that the party’s intervention did have some impact on the course of mainstream politics in this country, by preventing the far right from taking off in a situation that was favourable to them. There have been other times when I have had the sense of being part of a movement that was affecting the course of events – Pentonville Five, Poll Tax – but then the party was merely participating in a broader movement. In the case of the ANL I think our intervention as a party was crucial.”

Jerry Fitzpatrick is similarly proud:

“The events of 1977 and 1978, Lewisham and the two carnivals, they were a unique coming together of music, rock, culture, a spontaneous burst of energy. It was a political action with passion and vision of its time and place. It was an insurrectionary and revolutionary moment post-1968 if you combine the mass carnivals and the determined resistance to Nazi NF marches. OK, the turbulence was sometimes visceral as well as intellectual and political, but for that moment it demonstrated that the left could organize mass action with the potential to change the world. Of course, I’d say all that, I was one of the organizers. But it wasn’t just me or Paul [Holborow]. There was Peter Hain working in ways that are never acknowledged, winning us allies, breaking it away from the usual people. There were the local activists across the country, and people like Mike [working for the ANL]: how many leaflets did he send out, how many hours did he spend stuffing envelopes? There were plenty of individuals who did a huge amount, and it really was one of the most successful moments in the history of the left.”

Graeme is positive about the past, but perhaps more pessimistic about the future, given the decline of trade unionism in the 1980s. ‘If you were to look today and there was a similar recurrence, we would not be able to mobilize the same forces today. That tradition has been lost.’ Mike imagines what Britain could have been like without the anti-fascist movement:

“We forget now that in the late 1970s, the National Front was the strongest fascist organization in Europe. The fascists came here from all over Europe to share in that. Everyone who participated in its defeat can feel that they contributed to something. If the movement had not existed, there could have been a right-wing formation playing a central role in British politics, like the Front National in France, or the Freedom Party in Austria. Who knows what it would have been?”

Even those who did not support the Anti-Nazi League regard it as an important part of their history. Danny remembers that the ANL won young people away from the politics of the right. ‘They made it fashionable to be Anti-Nazi.’ David L was then a young Jewish anti-fascist, primarily active in the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. He thinks that the anti-racism of the League was too narrowly conceived. Yet faced with the argument that Thatcher beat the National Front, David springs to the League’s defence. ‘I don’t buy the argument that Margaret Thatcher pulled the plug on the National Front. People have said that, and belittled the role of the movement. That seems unfair to me.’

A number of the people who now lead Britain’s trade unions first cut their teeth as local activists with the Anti-Nazi League. They include Mick Rix, the former General Secretary of ASLEF, who in the late 1970s was a supporter of Rock Against Racism in Leeds. Billy Hayes of the postal workers’ union joined the Anti-Nazi League on Merseyside. The first political step taken by Andy Gilchrist, the leader of the Fire Brigades’ Union, was going to watch the Clash play at Victoria Park. Geoff Martin of London UNISON was another to follow this route, as was Billy Bragg, the left-wing songwriter: ‘The first political thing I ever did was to go the Rock Against Racism concert in Victoria Park.’

One of the most important statements was made at a memorial meeting celebrating the life of Dave Widgery, the East End doctor and Rock Against Racism activist, who died prematurely in 1992. Darcus Howe, the journalist and activist, gave one of the valedictory speeches. ‘Howe said that he had fathered five children in Britain. The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against the racism all around them. The fifth child, he said, had grown up “black and at ease”. Darcus attributed her “space” to the Anti-Nazi League in general and to Dave Widgery in particular.’ Another important statement came from an unlikely source. In 1982, as we have seen, Peter Hain brought a libel case against Martin Webster of the National Front. Hain described Webster’s court defence:

“He was still extremely bitter and remarkably candid. The picture he gave, and he clearly believed it, was that prior to 1977, the NF were unstoppable and he was well on the way to becoming Prime Minister. Then suddenly the Anti-Nazi League was everywhere and knocking the sheer hell out of them. He said that the sheer presence of the ANL had made it impossible to get NF members on to the streets, had dashed recruitment and cut away at their vote. It wasn’t just the physical opposition to the marches, they had lost the propaganda war too.”

Beating Time

Several writers have argued that the cultural politics of Rock Against Racism was crucial to the League’s success. One clear effect of the Anti-Nazi League was that it established a tradition that anti-fascist work should be exciting, popular, bold and political. Pete Alexander, then an organizer for the League, argues that it was the combination of defensive confrontation with an alternative politics of hope that proved decisive. ‘The ANL succeeded because it combined mass propaganda against racism, especially the carnivals organized in conjunction with Rock Against Racism, with militant action on the streets.’ Dave Widgery’s Beating Time suggests that it was the cultural politics of Rock Against Racism that enabled the Anti-Nazi League to succeed. At different points, his account offers a changed formulation of the balance between music and politics, but at every stage he insists that the cultural was critical to the success of the operation.

“It was a piece of double time, with the musical and the political confrontations on simultaneous but separate tracks and difficult to mix. The music came first and was more exciting. It provided the creative energy and the focus in what became a battle for the soul of young working-class England. But the direct confrontations and the hard-headed political organization which underpinned them were decisive.”

According to Widgery, the success of the Anti-Nazi League revealed the potential power of any future radical alliance that could combine music and politics:

“Politics is not just about alliances, but the terms on which they are made. Without the post-electronic, youth-oriented input of RAR, the ANL alliance would have had a lesser impact . . . The lessons lie in the connections and political timing. The ideas, the culture, the ingredients, the potential had all been there but they could only be utilised in a genuine crisis . . . The struggle on the streets could set the tempo and the politicians and celebrities support and generalise but not dictate to it. It demonstrated that an unrespectable but effective unity between groups with wide political differences (the SWP, the organizations of the black communities and the Labour Party) can reach and touch an audience of millions, not by compromise but by an assertive campaign of modern propaganda.”

By placing his emphasis on the music as a key to the success of first Rock Against Racism and then the Anti-Nazi League, Widgery raises a number of incidental questions. Could anti-fascism have flourished without punk, or indeed without reggae? Are particular kinds of music particularly relevant for particular social movements? In general, the answer must be no. The meaning of any musical style is set in dialogue with its audience; it is contextual and changes over time. Beethoven’s music must have seemed revolutionary in its epoch; it takes context and sympathy – in short, effort – to find the same characteristics in it today. Member of the British folk music milieu may have judged Bob Dylan’s adoption of the electric guitar a betrayal; few generations since have agreed. The ‘anarchism’ of the Sex Pistols meant something more in 1977 than it did in 1981 – after Malcolm Mclaren and the militant cynicism of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. C

Part of the musical success of bands such as the Clash derived from their ability to import the historical crisis around them into their music, through the adoption of more complex musical motifs, including a partial fusion with reggae. There was an intimate relationship between the music of Rock Against Racism and the politics of the Anti-Nazi League. This is a more modest statement than Dave Widgery’s suggestion that some such musical synthesis was necessary to make the mass movement possible. The fact that punk and reggae combined to make Rock Against Racism possible does not mean that either was a necessary component, or that any other popular style was inherently incapable of fulfilling a similar role. Most RAR staples never made it into the top ten, and some of the most important, such as Carol Grimes, barely charted. The New Wave of the 1980s was frequently less strident than punk, but it produced a series of left-wing bands with best-selling singles, and a consistent audience in at least the hundreds of thousands. The most we can say is not that RAR or the Anti-Nazi League needed punk, but that they needed something – a culture that was new and dynamic, rather than the repetition of settled styles and established acts.

Does any of this matter? Did the campaign add anything to the experience of the people who lived through it, and after? For most of the 20 years after 1981, fascism was irrelevant to British life. By and large, activists concerned themselves with other tasks – challenging Thatcher, Major and the neo-liberal tendencies of New Labour. In September 1993, the British National Party did win a council seat at Tower Hamlets, but it lost the seat less than 12 months later (admittedly on a higher vote, which rose from 1,480 to 2,041). Only in the last decade has the BNP been able to establish any sort of consistent success. Three fascist councillors were elected in Burnley in May 2002. The number of BNP councillors reached five that winter, 16 following elections in 2003, and 21 by May 2004.

The successful anti-fascist campaign of the late 1970s has lessons evidently for anti-fascists alarmed by the electoral success of the British National Party. But it has lessons also for activists involved in other present-day campaigns. The need for new visual imagery, new organizational forms, is common. So are the demands for practical unity among people of different backgrounds, divided by race or politics. So also is the question of how to organize campaigns when the government is Labour, with all the political contradictions that implies.

Ultimately, the best test of the anti-fascist movement is the one that it set itself. Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League both intended to turn back the growth of the National Front. In this, they were remarkably successful. As a by-product of their success, RAR also generated musical styles that had not existed before, while the ANL showed what a mass radical politics could look like. It is their anti-fascist success that should be remembered, above all. In the mid-1970s, British fascism was powerful and growing. The ANL gave the NF a defeat from which its successors have not yet recovered. The rest of us have been left freer to concentrate on the many tasks at hand if the world is ever going to be free of the values of fascism, as well as fascism itself.