I read Daniel Sonabend’s new book on the 43 Group this morning in a single sitting.
Of the three full-length books written about this period of anti-fascist history his is easily the best (as the author of the worst of the three – my PhD thesis – this hurts. But it’s true).
The real comparison is with Morris Beckman’s 43 Group, which many friends will have read. Sonabend’s is more interesting and compelling for the following reasons:
Beckman is a participant’s account and it centers everything around him. But, actually, he wasn’t that important in the 43 Group. Yes he was one of the initial core that set it up, yes he was a later founder member. But in the group’s key period 1947-8, he was not part of the inner core of 3-4 decision makers, and the account in his memoir of what the Group did in response to key steps taken by fascists is vague (at key moments, he wasn’t there and didn’t know what they’d done).
You couldn’t say this 20 years ago when he was around, constantly giving talks and visible to the 1990s left (unlike the more important figures in 1945-7 of Gerry Flamberg, Len Sherman, etc). We can admit it now.
Relegating Beckman to a secondary player in the group’s history allows all sorts of different personalities to emerge – the 43 Group spy chiefs, the actual spies, the organisers of the physical attacks on fascists, the people who negotiated to keep the Board of Deputies at arms’ length, etc.
Sonanbend doesn’t make any real attempt to understand the Communist Party’s approach to anti-fascism in this period (or the approach of the Labour left which took its lead from the CP), either the bureaucratic attempts the leadership made to downplay the Mosley threat between about 1944 and 1947, or the revolt within the membership, particularly in Hackney, which made a much more effective mass anti-fascism possible as Mosley achieved a breakthrough in summer 1947 – and anti-fascist organising took on much more the nature of a mass community campaign. The one part of the narrative where I thought more detail could have been given was in this period of summer/autumn 1947 where relationships with the wider left were significant – but aren’t properly explained. Sonanbend keeps his focus on the 43 Group throughout, and that approach has real strengths as well as occasional weaknesses.
Going back though to Morris Beckman’s memoir. Rather like the standard narrative of anti-fascism in the 1980s, which is no doubt modelled on Beckman’s book, Beckman wanted every battle to end in victory, every anti-fascist innovation to succeed. He wrote out moments of boredom, cowardice and failure. His story is compelling but, weirdly, it lowers the stakes – because there were more anti-fascists, because we were stronger and cleverer we were always certain to win.
But fascism was (briefly) a mass presence in east London – able to hold meetings of up to 3000 people at a time in summer and autumn 1947-8 – buoyed by an awful moment in which resentment at Israeli terrorist atrocities during the war combined with ignorance or indifference to the fact of the Holocaust to make anti-semitism a popular cause.
What Sonanbend has done is bring out all the little moments when victory wasn’t assured. So that reading it is like being in a real fight – your heart beats faster as you read – because there just are times when there were more fascists or a clever anti-fascist ruse fell flat on its face,
There’s one passage near the end which really brings out what was at stake in the anti-fascist struggle. Which is where you hear about an anti-fascist mole: Wendy Turner. She wasn’t Jewish (unlike most people in the 43 Group) but agreed to spent a year of her life passing on intelligence on key fascist leaders – getting close to the point of danger, in order to pass back information. Ultimately, Turner suffered a mental health breakdown and was hospitalised – and worse.
I’m not going to give more details about how this happened or what exactly went wrong – turn to Sonanbend’s book for them. But what I do know for sure is that ever 43 Group member of any standing knew about the disaster that befell her. They talked about that horror among themselves, and slowly, cautiously with outsiders.
Sonanbend’s book is full of incidents when prominent members of the 43 Group were struck on the head, or menaced with guns. And where they struck back against the fascists with more than equal force. The people involved in the Group knew how much was at stake – this makes their organising ultimately more compelling, more admirable, and more relevant as we face our own far right with its own path to violence.