Category Archives: fascism

Never Again

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Readers may enjoy a couple of interviews I’ve done this week. One was for the Allston Pudding music blog in Boston, and they’ve kindly posted both the interview itself and a transcript. We talk about migration, colonies, the police in Manchester – and the way in which Labour politicians worked behind the scenes to cover up for them. Link here.

The other thing I want to share is an interview with Joe Mulhall from the Hope not Hate podcast. It’s available by clicking the image, above or if you have a generic fruit based device via “podcasts”. Before Joe worked for HnH he was a historian, and with this interview (especially in the second half) he takes the story to places that aren’t obvious:

How can we know for sure that the 100,000 people at the first RAR carnival were there for the politics rather than the music?

Why have I’ve argued that the Coroner at Blair Peach‘s inquest prevented that from being in any way a fair hearing?

How do we know that it was the political anti fascist movement rather than, say, Thatcher that defeated the NF?

What did physical force anti-fascism contribute?

Is it really fair to argue that in the last fifteen years anti fascism has been overburdened by the memory of our victories at the end of the 1970s?

The interview is here.

The book itself can be ordered here.

Next week I’m speaking in Edinburgh and Glasgow. PM me if you’d like details.

Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League

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More tasters for my book Never Again:

A video kindly made for me by Steve Davidson of Cardiff Momentum:

Never Again has had a first review, in The Spectator.

And, on the RS21 website, a piece in which I talk about Rock Against Racism, why the movement was so special and why it’s wrong to try to recreate it: “What anti-fascists need, it follows, is a step away from past models. That was the spirit in which I wrote my book, in the hope that by understanding what was compelling and successful about the past, future generations might think away from it. That they could create something new, relying on different cultural politics better suited for our moment. That if they understood the anti-racism and anti-fascism of the 1970s, they could be even bolder than the generations of forty years ago.”

Red Lion Square and the death of Kevin Gateley

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On 15 June 1974, clashes between anti-fascists and the police at London’s Red Lion Square culminated in a police charge against anti-fascist demonstrators. One anti-Front protester, Kevin Gateley, a student at Warwick University, died. He was the first person to be killed at a political protest in mainland Britain since 1919. The purpose of this piece is to explain how he was killed, who in fact was blamed, and to fit his death into the wide context of anti-fascism in British history.

The events leading up to his death began in April 1974, when the Front booked the large hall at Conway Hall, a venue long associated with secular humanism and the anti-war left. In early June, the anti-imperialist campaign group Liberation, headed by veteran Labour MP Fenner Brockway, learned of the Front’s booking and attempted to book a room of their own elsewhere in the building. By 9 June, the police were aware that both the Front and its opponents planned to hold demonstrations culminating at Conway Hall. The owners of Conway Hall, the South Place Ethical Society, through their General Secretary Peter Cadogan, released a press statement defending the decision to allow the Font a room on free speech grounds.

There were two demonstrations on 15 June. A Front contingent, about 900-strong, formed up at Tothill Street in central London and approached Red Lion Square from the southwest. They were held by the police and made to wait at the corner of Vernon Place and Southampton Row, about a hundred metres due west of the northwest corner of Red Lion Square. Meanwhile, 1500 or so Liberation marchers approached Red Lion Square from the northeast.

In a later report Lord Justice Scarman estimated that within the anti-fascist crowd there were about 400-500 supporters of the International Marxist Group, a smaller number of International Socialists and about 40-50 supporters of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist). The front of the demonstration marched from east to west along Theobalds Road and turned left down Old North Street where it approached Red Lion Square from the north. The organisers had reached an agreement with the police that on arriving at the Square the anti-fascists would be permitted to turn left and march clockwise around the eastern edge of Red Lion Square. They would pass Conway Hall, in the square’s northeast corner and settle in the south east corner where they would hold a static protest. On arriving at Red Lion Square, it was made clear however to the organisers that the police had changed their minds and would permit a public protest only in the northwest corner of the square, that is, at a much greater distance from the Front meeting. The police therefore instructed the demonstrators to turn right, away from Conway Hall. The Liberation organisers agreed to this re-routing of their protest and about 500 people followed. The rest of the marchers however remained where they were.

As for what happened next, there are two main versions. The first is the account given by police officers to the subsequent Scarman Inquiry. They reported that forty or so Maoists behind a red CPE (M-L) banner briefly pushed towards the police line on the North side of the square. In response, the officer in charge Deputy Assistant Commissioner J. H. Gerrard ordered his officers to clear all remaining anti-fascists from the northwards edge of Red Lion Square. This decision required the police to split the anti-fascist group in two: the Liberation contingent were allowed their meeting in the square’s northwest corner; the remaining anti-fascist were to be expelled from the square northwards leaving the area around Conway Hall free for the National Front to hold their meeting. In this account, it was as the demonstrators were being expelled from the square that Kevin Gateley was killed.

The other version of events is the one found by Lord Scarman. In his account, the Maoists were ignored in favour of members of the IMG (‘a front of determined-looking young men with their arms linked’) who had refused to follow the Liberation organisers and led instead what Scarman termed ‘a pushing affair – the weight of a small number of demonstrators’ against police lines. This tentative push, Scarman found, grew in force, even though the numbers involved were still tiny, becoming a first ‘vicious scrimmage’, then an ‘unexpected, unprovoked and viciously violent’ assault and in its final stages a ‘riot’, to which it was the police’s ‘duty’ to respond with unrestrained force. To an event greater extent even that the police themselves, Scarman blamed Gateley’s death not on the officers who struck him but on the IMG whose failure to disperse was (for Scarman) the effective cause of Gateley’s death.

At forty years distance, some of Scarman’s findings just about ring true. The measures of linking arms was a recurring anti-fascist tactic, which had travelled to Britain via the IMG from Paris. The suggestion that a couple of dozen protesters may have pushed at police lines is plausible; the police were, after all, blocking the agreed route to Conway Hall. At demonstrations, it is far from unusual for police pushes to be resisted and for something like a ‘scrimmage’ (i.e. a rugby scrum) to follow between protesters and the police. Members of the IMG, a party which in its subsequent history was never at the militant wing of anti-fascism, may well have seen the CPE (M-L) and may have pushed in the same the direction as them. Even if we accept that they pushed as hard as they could while still linking arms (Scarman’s ‘vicious scrimmage’), this is no force at all. Anyone who has attended more than a handful of protests will have seen desultory pushing of this sort; the reason why Red Lion Square is remembered is not because of this push but because of the police response, which was to escalate the conflict by charging at the crowd with batons drawn.

Photographs from the day show mounted police striking at the heads of demonstrators with sticks. Nick Mullen, a twenty-eight-year-old student from an Irish family was one of those struck on the head. He had been on Old North Street at the same time as Kevin Gateley and a picture shows Mullen’s face thick with blood. In Mullen’s account, the fatal conflict began when the policemen on foot received an order to attack, causing them to lift their batons. One demonstrator called out, ‘Why don’t you put your truncheons away?’ To which a policeman answered, ‘You must be fucking joking.’ There was a push and one of the demonstrators fell. Mullen claims to have heard a policeman shout, ‘One of the bastards is down. Let’s trample him.’

The last photographs before Gateley suffered the blow that killed him show the student at the junction of Red Lion Square and Old North Street with his way seemingly blocked by police officers. Between Gateley and Conway Hall there are mounted policemen, riding their horses into the crowd. Gateley is three rows back from them, facing mounted officers to his front and police on foot to his side. Subsequent photographs show Gateley after he collapsed. Officers reached for Gateley’s unconscious body and lifted his foot before it fell weightless to the ground.

The post-mortem was conducted by Dr Iain West of St Thomas’s Hospital. West indicated that the cause of death was a haemorrhage resulting from a head injury. He found an oval bruise at the back of Gateley’s ear about three quarters of an inch long. The injury had been caused by a hard object. It was impossible to tell from the shape of the bruise what had caused the injury, other than that it was likely to be a blunt object, possibly a police truncheon.

By quarter past four, the police had succeeded in clearing the north east corner of Red Lion Square, after which they were able to bring in the Front to their meeting. Aside from Gateley, some 48 people were reported to have been injured and by the end of the day some 51 anti-fascists were arrested.

Martin Walker noted that in the aftermath of the events, the Front was jubilant. It was the Front who ‘emerged as the innocent victims of political violence, the Left who emerged as the instigators.’ Richard Clutterbuck, an academic writer about terrorism, also read the day as a victory for the Front: ‘Television films showed the NF marchers standing stock still with closed ranks on one side of Southampton Row while “dirty, hairy lefties” swarmed about in a chaotic battle with the police on the other … The result was precisely what the NF would have wished: publicity for the purposes of their demonstration, discrediting of their detractors.’

So assured was the Front of its moral authority after Red Lion Square that Martin Webster wrote to the Home Secretary demanding that ‘the leaders of the International Marxist Group, the International Socialists, the Communist Party and their individual associates on the Executive of the National Union of Students be indicted for conspiracy to incite and promote acts of criminal violence.’

At Lord Scarman’s Inquiry into the Red Lion Square disorders, Martin Webster admitted that he and John Tyndall had a history of anti-Semitism. He acknowledged the chants used by the Front, ‘The Reds, the Reds, we’ve got to get rid of the Reds,’ and admitted that the Front expected their opponents to respond angrily to them. Webster named the two heads of the Front’s honour guard, Ron Tier and Ken Merritt and claimed not to know that just four years before Merritt had spent six months in prison for robbery with violence. As for the suggestion that the National Front was led by self-confessed Nazis and Hitlerites (i.e. himself and John Tyndall), Webster said that it was led ‘by people who ten or twelve years ago were National Socialists but have long ceased to be so.’ Webster became ill-tempered as his evidence wore on and his answers petulant. He later wrote to Scarman to apologise for the way he had given his evidence, ‘I am a rather quick-tempered person … and it may be that I over-reacted.’ Ultimately, Scarman’s conclusions gave succour to the Front, absolving the police and concluding that ‘those who started the riot,’ by which he meant the IMG, ‘carry a measure of moral responsibility for [Gateley’s] death.’

Undoubtedly, there were periods when physical confrontations with anti-fascists sapped the morale of the Front’s supporters, reducing attendances at marches and public meetings and isolating the Front from potential supporters. But at other times and especially when the Front was able to claim the mantle of victimhood, physical confrontation seems to have boosted the Front’s morale. In June 1974, the academic Nigel Fielding was carrying out fieldwork among Front branches in South London. He records the ‘keen interest,’ with which members discussed the possibility of ‘confrontation with opponents’. Branch members wanted to discuss practical plans to prevent anti-fascists from attacking their coaches while the Front marched. Some Front supporters were impressed by the security arrangements at Conway Hall, where sixty-five members of the Front’s Honour Gard had been tasked with protecting the venue. One exchange between members ended with the NF’s Branch Organiser saying, ‘The Front knows how to defend itself.’

Around this time, Halifax National Front established a ‘flying squad’ with a goal of confronting marches by ‘communist, leftist, immigrant or other groups’.

Four months after Gateley’s death, the NF branch in Birmingham wrote to its supporters: ‘It is doubtful if many members are aware of the intense hostility which our campaign in Birmingham has engendered.’ The letter described an attack which had been made by members of the IS and IMG on a Front meeting in Handsworth. That had been repulsed. However, it continued, ‘We have received information that another public meeting, to be held on Tuesday 8 October at 8pm, is most certainly going to be subjected to the same treatment by the opposition who are determined to try and “Smash the National Front in Birmingham”. The meeting will be their Waterloo and all activists are urged in the strongest possible terms to attend.’

The events at Red Lion Square fit awkwardly into anti-fascist narratives of the 1970s. For anti-fascists, it is much easier to remember a political victory (a march which demoralised our opponents and contributed materially to their isolation) than a draw or a defeat. While the accusation that the left had significantly contributed to Gateley’s was unjust, the opinion of a single Judge with too much power, too much authority, and too little insight; there must be people still living who have doubts as to how the anti-fascist contingents were organised. The key participants on the left – the IMG even the Communist Party (whose members diligently attended the inquest and published the best account of it we have), even the Maoists – aren’t the people that most historians go back to when researching the story of the 1970s. As for the setting, a central London street with no politicised black community to draw on; this is one in which the left has rarely flourished. It is also, of course, exactly the scene in which anti-fascism has been located repeatedly over the past two years.

Podcasts

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As readers may know I have two books coming out in the next four months: Never Again, which is a history of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, and is published by Routledge next week, and the New Authoritarians, which is about the ways in which the contemporary far right differs, for example, from the global far right of the 1970s. That appears with Pluto / Haymarket, next April.

In the run up to the publications of these books, I’ve been doing a number of interviews with podcasts, and readers may enjoy either of the following:

This week, I’ve been on the Better Off Red podcast, talking about anti-fascism in the 1970s. (Link above).

I also gave an interview a couple of months ago to Novara Media, putting the rise of the DFLA in the context of how the far right has been growing internationally (Link below).

I hope you enjoy both of them.

When No Platforming really did mean No Platforms

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Anyone who has attended an anti-fascist meeting, worth of the name, will have heard the phrase “no platform”. The idea is that fascism is a unique and urgent threat to the left, not just communists or anarchists but even the most moderate forms of social democracy. It threatens to remove the right to vote, the right to organise in workplaces, and the welfare state. To prevent this catastrophe, anti-fascists must deprive the far right of any opportunity to spread its message.

For much of the time, the phrase “no platform” is not meant literally: as Evan Smith has shown, the term was coined in 1972, i.e. at about the time that the National Front secured its highest by-election vote (Martin Webster won 16 percent of the vote at West Bromwich in 1973), and when the Front by standing in sufficient number of parliamentary seats was able to put on party political broadcasts, which were watched by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. No platform was a statement of intent, not a description of the real balance of forces between different groups.

That said, there was a time when anti-fascists could use the term accurately: in the immediate aftermath of the second world war.

Between about 1946 and 1951, the characteristic form of anti-fascism was the 43 Group, an organisation of militant anti-fascists, dominated by young Jews, very many of whom had recently seen active service.

It was never the only form of anti-fascism: the Labour Party and the Communist Party (CP) both supported anti-Mosley campaigns; probably the single most effective group in this period in turning out large numbers of people to oppose the fascists were local trades councils.

The 43 Group, moreover, was not a single generation of people with a shared strategy. At one wing, it shaded into Zionism (43 Group literature was effusive about the Irgun). At the other, it overlapped with the CP. Several 43 group members dual carded; including Maurice Essex, Phil Piratin’s election agent, and Len Rolnick, who helped to found the group. A full list would run into the dozens.

The 43 Group came as close as any anti-fascists in British history ever had to literally “no platforming” the Union Movement.

One of the Group’s distinctive tactics was to group a dozen of its members into an arrow-head shape, then charge into a fascist crowd, with the view of finding the speaker and knocking him down from the platform.

To explain how this tactics could work, certain things need to be remembered:

In an era before mass ownership of television, almost all public political discussion took place in the open, with speakers standing on boxes or small steps, in one of a large number of local “speakers’ corners”.

The Union Movement was sustained by a close-knit generation, at the heart of which were the 750 or so fascists who had been detained in war time. This group went from private to public meetings following instructions from Mosley, reaching a peak of around 20 meetings a week in autumn to winter 1947. With sufficient intelligence, in other words, anti-fascists could establish who would be speaking, at what times, and be pretty confident that they knew every potential fascist “pitch”. Indeed there are reports of 43 Group members travelling by car from place to place, knocking over far-right speakers. A small number of anti-fascists could have a very considerable effect.

Moreover, this was immediately after the war, and the majority of onlookers needed no persuading that fascism was a violent and despicable tradition, or that physical resistance to it was a reasonable response.

The fascists had relatively few other means of putting their ideas across. They experimented with other approaches – fascist book clubs under neutral-sounding names, entryism in Conservative Parties, employers groups and unions… But they had no real means of going public other than these speaker meetings.

By winter 1947-8, the Union Movement had settled on a single tactic to avoid these confrontation, i.e. pulling together all its London meetings into a single venue, and using almost all the group’s active members to protect the stage and prevent its speakers from being knocked over. But this approach could be no long-term answer: by restricting themselves to a single venue (the Ridley Road market in Dalston), their ability to find a new audience was reduced; moreover, the centralisation of British fascists into a single place, made it much easier for local trade unionists, socialists, and communists to organise against them.

In March 1951, Mosley announced that he was leaving England for Ireland, complaining, “No man can start a crusade from within a gaol”. He recognised that sustained anti-fascist campaigning had made it almost impossible for his supporters to speak.

It is certainly possible to imagine other kinds of anti-fascist victory more relevant to today’s world of decentered communication and social media. Maybe the goal should no longer be the total incarceration, as it were, of fascism but its containment below a level so far below its present level of success that even today’s popularity seems unattainable to its cadres. But when we think of previous cycles of fascist/anti-fascist conflict, we will always look back to the 1940s. This was the lowest point for the British right since the fascist parties were launched a hundred years ago.

Them and Us at Cable Street

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The Battle of Cable Street has gone down in popular memory as the decisive moment when British fascism was confronted on the streets; a victory for anti-fascists which proved once and for all that we were the majority and would not tolerate fascism here.

Certainly, the supporters of the British Union of Fascists were heavily outnumbered, with fewer than 2,000 of their supporters being faced down by over 100,000 anti-fascists.

It is also the case that in the aftermath of the protest, the left presented the events of 4 October as an enduring victory. The Daily Worker produced a special booklet, ‘They Did Not Pass’. Writer Frank Griffin published a novel, October Day. A decade later, with young Jewish activists determined to confront Mosley’s postwar Union Movement in opposition to leaders of the Communist Party (CP) who saw such activism as ultra-left, the CP commissioned Mile End MP Phil Piratin to write a history of the events. His book, Our Flag Stays Red, both commemorated and tamed Cable Street. He presented the victory as the consequence of the Communist Party imposing “strict discipline” on the turbulent class fighters of the East End. The Red Flag of his title, Piratin explained in an epilogue, was held by the Communists, and carried in Parliament in their work (alongside the Attlee government) to extend the welfare state.

Given the scale of what was at stake, the historical record has left surprisingly limited evidence of who exactly was at Cable Street and what motivated them.

Richard Bellamy, Nellie Driver and other supporters of the BUF, acknowledged Cable Street as a set-back while praising the very few fascists who were able to engage in hand-to-hand combat with anti-fascists. (You can see some of those clashes at 1 minute 35 in: here). The East End remained sympathetically to Mosley, they insisted.  Above all, the most popular approach taken by BUF speakers after 1936 was to blame the Cable Street “mob” on a bankers’ conspiracy, with one fascist John Beckett maintaining that “Jewish Finance” had paid for the Communist crowd. These and similar accounts maintain a contempt for the left that goes back to interwar fascism – and a fundamental inability to see the Jewish population of the East End as fully human.

Although the Communist Party called on all its London branches to take part in the Cable Street protests, and although film of the day shows several demonstrators giving a Communist clenched fist salute, the CP was a minority. Even if the party had been able to mobilise its entire national membership, they would not have been more than at most one in twenty of those taking part.

Who, then, was there? One way to see Cable Street is at the forerunner of a kind of community mobilisation which was seen repeatedly in the 1970s. IE a generation of first and second-generation migrants identified with the political left, drawing on a combination of left-wing traditions predating exile, plus their own situation as both workers and victims of racism.

There are a huge number of memoirs (plus novels, plays…) from the East End which confirm this picture. The East End had been a centre of organising by anarchists going back to the unemployed protests of the 1880s, by socialists from the 1889 dock strike to the Poplarism of the 1920s, and by Communists, starting with Sylvia Pankhurst’s campaign among East End women and going on from there to the generation of syndicalists who followed her into the CP. In all these different periods of left-wing organising, Jewish socialists had been prominent.

They were, in this way, the forerunners of the British black community which Sivanandan saw emerging among British Sikhs at Southall in 1979.

It is worth saying that this *isn’t* necessarily how participants saw themselves. According to Morris Beckman of the 43 Group, Cable Street was a class, not a community mobilisation: “South Wales miners, the slate workers, they sent contingents, Sheffield steel workers, Tyneside shipbuilders, and from London docks of course, a lot of seamen jumped form the ships and joined the anti-fascists. Also the nursed and doctors of London hospital, the Whitechapel hospital, turned out…”

On this account, Cable Street was the return of a debt of Jewish-gentile solidarity, which could be traced back to the effects of the London Dock Strike in 1889, in sparking a near insurrectionary general strike in the local area with dozens of workplaces (many of them Jewish) turning out in support. Because the garment workers had supported the dockers in 1889, so the dockers turned out, fifty years later.

There must be some truth to that explanation: the sheer size of the crowds points against them being a purely Jewish mobilisation. The standard estimate of the total Jewish population of Britain in the 1930s is 300,000 people: with perhaps half living outside London, and half of the remainder being too young or too old to have been at Cable Street. Just from numbers alone it seems unlikely that more than half of the people there were – or could have been – Jewish.

Yet, of the groups named by Beckman, there are precious few sources to corroborate that there were Welsh miners present on 4 October or that shipbuilders came in a delegation from the North East. The one group we know for sure were there are the dockers, but even then the sources are thin: Jack Dash says in his autobiography that he was there, but gets the date wrong. Could you imagine one of the many young Jews who were at Cable Street and later recorded their memories of the day – a Harold Rosen, perhaps, making the same mistake?

Back in 2016, the Irish Times ran an interview with Cable Street veteran, Communist councillor and lifelong socialist Max Levitas describing how he had stood at Cable Street alongside his father and other members of their family. Levitas’s parents had met in Dublin having escaped pogroms in Latvia and Lithuania in 1913. They then participated in strikes in Dublin, where Levitas was born. He described the participation of dockers at Cable Street. No-one could criticise a mainstream paper for taking such care with working class history.

But in speaking of the dockers, Levitas was talking about people who could draw on different experiences to his own: the war for independence, the part played by the Black and Tans, the history of anti-Catholic sectarianism in Liverpool and Birmingham and London. These experiences could give rise to a social democratic consciousness (as in post-1918 Liverpool, where the Labour Party which printed its leaflets not in red but in purple) but its heroes were different from those of the Jewish East End tradition, seeped as it was in Bundism, anarchism and Bolshevism. When Levitas told his interviewer, “We knew the Irish would stand with us,” the “we” is the Jews of Cable Street. Born as he had been in Dublin, for Levitas, the Irish dockers remained a “them”.

There is a gap in our knowledge of the events. Henry Srebrnick’s London Jews And British Communism provides a collective political history of the Jewish East End in the 1930s and 1940s, Thomas Linehan’s East End for Mosley does something similar for the BUF, but no historian – as far as I know – has ever written the equivalent community study of the politicised, Catholic, dockers of the East End and their families.

Think of the Jewish East End which produced Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley – and ask yourself what the Catholic equivalent of that play would be. I wonder if we will ever fully understand the protest, until we have that play (or its equivalent).

If it right that Cable Street was first of all a community mobilisation of young and left-wing Jews, and only then drew on support from other workers on a class basis, that understanding might provide a context to one feature of contemporary fascism and anti-fascism: for the last 18 months, the far right has had considerable success in mobilising events in the “deserted zone” of Whitehall at weekends. The best anti-fascist mobilisations in history – Cable Street, Lewisham, Walthamstow – have come about where the left was able to mobilise beyond its usual numbers and bring in wider numbers of people, through a cultural or a community mobilisation. Whether by accident or design, the far right has not been giving us that opportunity.

Whether through a new cultural campaign of our own, or by some other means, anti-fascists need – urgently – to find a way of mobilising which makes up for that gap.