Friends may enjoy two reviews of my book The New Authoritarians which have been published in the last week.
A short blog post to share two new reviews of my book Never Again.
Tim Wells has written up one of the book’s launch events in the Morning Star: “RAR,” he writes, “changed the face of a drab, politically festering Britain.”
In the New Statesman, John Harris describes the book as “forensic” and “eloquent” and concludes:
There are obvious lines to be drawn between the Powellite cry of “Send ‘em back” and the Home Office’s current hostile environment doctrine, as shown in the ongoing Windrush scandal. And when Renton describes the League of Empire Loyalists as “a movement of the old rather than the young, and of men with social power”, he shifts the reader’s attention to the present with even more clarity. That description surely fits the politics of Brexit, and the alliance of angry fifty-somethings who now howl their rage on Question Time and Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage – whose delusions and prejudices deserve a cultural response that has so far failed to materialise.
I do not know what a 21st-century version of the Victoria Park carnival would look like, whether any musicians will ever again channel their time as brilliantly as the Clash, or if contemporary popular music could give rise to anything resembling Rock Against Racism. But this book once again put an inescapable thought in my mind: isn’t it time someone at least tried?
The book itself is still available to order – most efficiently and without avoiding union-busters – here. I’ll be doing launch events in the next few weeks in Leicester, Brixton, Bristol, Melbourne, Dunedin, Wellington, Chicago … – so drop me a line you’d like more details or want to suggest somewhere else that suits you.
Interview with Cathy – Treasurer and Secretary of Red Action 1981 to 1986
Can you tell me how you came to join Red Action?
I went along to an event in autumn 1981, they were discussing the paper [Red Action] and its layout. The meeting was in Islington or Camden.
I was just seventeen. I came from a Labour Party background, an Islington Labour Party background. A very large contingent of the local Labour Party was Irish. I was the same time as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. There was a real problem with the mainland bombing campaign – but on almost everything else both sides of the local Labour Party would have loathed Paisley, bought Easter lilies.
It was really odd for me that people who were completely supportive of Ireland knew everything that was going on, the military actions, the sectarian bombing campaigns, couldn’t understand why other people were rioting: the black people in Brixton for example. Red Action got it.
Red Action weren’t just anti-racists were they; they were also anti-fascists?
The fascists were around. These were horrible places – Chapel Market, Roman Road. If I didn’t feel comfortable there, there was no chance that a black person would feel comfortable. We had to confront the fascists.
I’d started going to gigs. Still to this day the scariest gig I ever went to was Madness at Camden. There were people giving fascist salutes. It was the first gig I’d ever been to, and the band did nothing to challenge it. That wasn’t the only time saw racism at gigs, you’d hear people sounding off about black musicians all the time.
Red Action was a small group, we had a few key strands of activity: Ireland, anti-fascism including music, feminism after the closure of Women’s Voice, Right to Work. They were all equal. You could take people from one kind of activity to another, so building workers would come to Irish marches and anti-fascist pickets. It was the same with everything we did.
Many of the founder members had been at the SWP?
The expulsions were still being talked about, the closure of Women’s Voice was still being talked about. People were negotiating with themselves about what they needed to keep and what was possible to keep.
Could you talk about Women’s Voice and how that was kept going in Red Action?
The women who came into Red Action, R-, G-, for them the closure of Women’s Voice was as important as the closing down of the anti-fascist squads.
We organized our own trips to Ireland. We organized Irish women on speaking tours in England. We spoke and organized sessions at Red Action’s summer school.
Many of the group’s leading members were women. If you read early copies of Red Action, a very high proportion of them were written by women and addressed women’s issues.
The people central to me personally being involved were women. When other people around the country contacted us to ask if they could set up branches, as a minimum we always sent two women.
The business meetings were always set up to have something from outside, an address from a solidarity campaign or an industrial speaker, and it was striking how often the speakers we invited were women.
I appreciate these days people often think Red Action had a macho culture but it really didn’t feel like that at the time. Almost all the feminist theory I read I got from comrades in the Red Action – I didn’t get that from the Labour Party!
There were other generations within Red Action as well, weren’t there?
Although the SWP lost interest in music after 1981, it seemed that there was still a left and anti-fascist music scene. Some of Red Action’s first members, J- and Y-, were people who’d come from Rock Against Racism in West London. They were still putting on gigs.
And they weren’t the only ones, the scene renewed itself and more people were around Red Action later as a result – we had a venue in North Kensington and put on benefits for Red Action, for Ireland, for local campaigns in Hammersmith. By 1985 we were using that to raise money for the miners.
When the New Cross fire happened, we had a group in South London and a member called C-. He was very involved in the local squatters’ scene. We went to pickets, we raised money for the political campaign. There was a system of house parties in south London and we tried to turn it into a movement of support for the families.
Red Action took on more and more of a security role: for Remembrance Day marches and other Irish events, for the Manchester Martyr’s march. The fascists were attacking the events – like they attacked the black families in South London – and it seemed natural that we were more and more playing that role.
How long did it take the group to get over leaving the SWP?
Not more than six months – I reckon I was a member from autumn 1981 – it was over by the time I met the group. Their identity was already set. This wasn’t the SWP any more, we were Red Action.
The only lingering undercurrent in people’s memories from the SWP was a real objection, a feral defensiveness to being investigated. We really, really, didn’t want to be caught up with panels or anything that reminded us of the SWP expulsions.
When you meet Red Action members, you pick up this sense of working-class pride. People saw themselves as part of the working class, and felt their group was much more representative than the rest of the British left.
That’s right. For me, the fascists were on my street. For other members of Red Action, the fascists were in the same football grounds as them. We always wanted to insist, we’re just as representative of the areas we come from as the fascists.
At different times, different people came to the fore. In 1981-2, there were other people who joined, and they had previously been involved in movements like the Right to Work marches. That was quite a lot of people who had come to live in London and been on the marches. They had come to London after that, looking for work, and we shared squats. There were even people – for example from Cumbernauld – who came down and went to our meetings, even while they kept up their membership of the SWP.
I think people like that were round Red Action and were attracted to the group because of the way we put forward a positive model of being both working class and involved in the left.
In this period, was Red Action growing?
As late as 1984, there were still only two branches in London and Manchester. Although we travelled to Liverpool and maybe three or four other places, where people were starting up groups. We had discussions, should we let them be called Red Action? Do they just sign them saying they believe three or four basic ideas and we let them get on with it? We very deliberately preferred the looser model.
Were you still a member in 1985 when Anti-Fascist Action was launched?
Yes, the initiative came from outside, and we liked the idea of Anti-Fascist Action as something much looser we could engage with. Red Action was involved in organising it, and there was a big fear at the conference that Red Action wanted to take it over, but that wasn’t the plan at all.
We thought AFA should just set up its steering group and have elections for positions. But then there was a very intense discussions, saying that if there were elections we could fill every place with Red Action.
There was a fear of us, because we were the most organized, that we would take it over. There was also a fear that we wouldn’t give enough credence to other kinds of anti-racist action.
But surely the name Anti-Fascist Action meant from the start prioritising anti-fascism over other kinds of anti-racism?
My memory is that there was a composited motion that would keep the AFA name short and specific, but the price of that was that every group would be represented proportionately, except for Red Action.
Red Action start as an Marxists, but you increasingly work with other anti-fascists, including anarchists?
Red Action was quite an open group. For us, it was quite easy dealing with different groups. Almost all of them – having Class War around was a nightmare. If there was a group of people who were going to cause everything to go wrong it was Class War, but we never saw the whole anarchist movement as one thing.
From 1981, we’d been involved in campaigns around all sorts of different groups of workers – often building workers but not only building workers. When 1984-5 happened, almost everyone in Red Action was split into miners’s support groups. It’s not something we planned – they were there. We met and got to know people, who then got worked with group including in anti-fascist work.
Direct Acton Movement were the first people who met us and jelled. We did lots and lots of joint things together: miners’ gigs, industrial stuff – not just the miners, but for blacklisted building workers on the lump. There was a committee of workers who came together in support of Laings workers who’d been blacklisted in the British Library. We spent a number of months over a cold winter successfully picketing the Euston site against their use of subcontractors and lump labour.
DAM were still working with us through Wapping, and afterwards.
But it wasn’t always easy. We were coming more and more into conflict with the law, fighting court cases, keeping people out of jail. Our people were being arrested through all the disputes in London, during the miners, during Wapping. An awful lot of work was spent fighting criminal cases. This involved people who were used to it – people who had been around Red Action for a while – as well as people who’d never been in this situation before. It felt to me as if I almost became a professional witness. That was very draining – both politically and personally.
When do you stop being Treasurer?
I couldn’t swear to it but something like summer-autumn 1986
Tell me about the AFA conference in 1987
It was the first really bad conference we’d ever organized. We were accused of racism as a group, and then people were told to investigate us. They did it really badly, all they did was confirm our fear of being investigated. People behaved as if the fact of accusations was proof of guilt.
The core of the allegation was that a black vote counter in Bradford had been abused, with monkey noises and all sorts. It was a very horrible accusation, it was also completely untrue. I had been right there at all times – nothing remotely like that happened. Someone did piss him off by making him count three times. But that was me. Three, four months, later someone from AFA turned up to take a statement. They didn’t try to speak to me or acknowledge me other than as a house guest of the person they were talking to. It was very obviously a set-up.
Were you involved in anti-fascist protests after you left Red Action?
I was at Welling in 1993. By then, I was quite distant from Red Action. I came to the protest through work, and through younger people in the Newham Monitoring Project. I think one of the things that was missing from Red Action was any number of non-white people.
Red Action worked quite a lot with other non-white groups, but, as a group it was oddly white. That was linked to people’s ideas. We thought we had the problem of racism, in our communities so it’s up to us to fix it.
Red Action was good while it lasted. If it’s needed again, then something will be created. Maybe that’s lesson – that when anti-fascism is needed, it’s possible to do it.
An update on the book; in the last week there has been a review in Scotland’s Herald newspaper plus I’ve written a piece for Red Wedge on Rock Against Racism and whether and how the movement could be repeated. I gave talks over the weekend in Edinburgh and Glasgow; the first is a chronological summary of the book while the second deals (again) with the question of revival: what a mass anti racist movement might look like and how and where it could establish a relationship to popular culture. No more talks this week but in Cambridge next week, Nottingham later this month and then Oz, Nz and the US over weeks to come.
There have been few sustained attempts to understand Tommy Robinson’s movement. Various academic books (by Joel Busher, Nigel Copsey, Simon Winlow and others) have been written about his previous party, the EDL, but their accounts tend to stop before 2016, i.e. with Robinson separated from his former supporters. In the last two years, Robinson has built up a larger street presence than ever before: 15,000 people marched for his release from prison, or around five times more than the EDL ever mobilised. One way to understand Tommy Robinson’s movement is to closely look at his memoir, Enemy of the State (2017). Written during a period of imprisonment for mortgage fraud, and widely read by his supporters, it precedes Robinsons’ elevation to his present celebrity, but it reflects the same sort of relationship to his supporters that you see in Robinson’s more recent social media output.
A personal style of leadership
Robinson’s book is an autobiography. It seeks to establish that its author is much like his readers, if perhaps more politically conscious than they are. An obvious comparison to make is with Hitler’s Mein Kampf, another far-right memoir, and also written in prison. Hitler’s book is longer: at around 1000 pages, it is about four times the length of Robinson’s. This reflects the much greater crisis in post-1918 Germany, the actuality of revolution and the obsession with which the counter-revolutionaries opposed the left, as well as the much greater availability of reactionary ideas in post-war Germany which Hitler could fuse into a more coherent theory.
Adolf Hitler had one basic idea, which was to make “race” a concept in order to transform the state. Races, he insisted, were unequal. This was an absolute law, which both explained all of human history, and gave birth to a detailed, systematic programme for territorial expansion, war and genocide. There is a personal story in Mein Kampf, but it is interspersed with a political manifesto. Reading Mein Kempf is in many places like being stuck in a pub with the worst bore you could imagine, except that Hitler demands your attention not merely for a few hours, but for days or weeks without allowing you a break even to sleep because all this time will be needed if he is going to explain to you how Europe will be transformed as soon as the racial idea dominates. Hitler ends his book by promising that Germany will soon lead the earth.
Tommy Robinson, by contrast, writes as if he has no developed programme other than a general feeling that people like him have been unfairly ignored. Robinson admits that when he joined the English Defence League he didn’t read newspapers on even watch news programmes on television. He describes feeling “belittled” by interviewers when he first started going on television Robinson frequently asserts his ignorance, admits to listening to other right-wing leaders but says that their arguments were beyond him. His book is narrower than Hitler’s, and more personal,. Its ends by asserting a personal project – simply to stay out of jail.
Part of the working class – but running away from it
In the first chapter of Mein Kampf, Hitler tries to show that he was different from many Germans: middle-class and more affluent. “My father,” he writes on the first page, “was a civil servant who fulfilled his duties very consciously.” These passages were not chosen by accident. The NSDAP’s strategy was to recruit suffering members of the middle-classes and convert them into a private army which could be used against the unions and the workers’ movement. Hitler’s life fitted into that project.
By contrast, Robinson insists on his working-class origins. He describes himself as having been born into an Irish family and having a Glaswegian stepfather who worked as a pipe fitter. Robinson grew up in Farley Hill, “the biggest working class community” in Luton and attended his local Junior and High schools. After that, Robinson was employed as an apprentice to be an aeronautical engineer with Britannia Airways, then as a self-employed painter and decorator, and later ran a plumbing business with his stepfather. His closest ally, Kevin Carroll (also Robinson’s cousin), is described as a “first class carpenter, builder and five star bloke”.
While this sounds like an ordinary working-class existence, actually Robinson’s account points somewhere different. Early on, Robinson describes a neighbour who moved into the next door house and raced bikes professionally. The neighbour owned his own Lotus and Ferrari and even leant encouraged in Robinson an interest in trials bikes. But the neighbour turned out to be involved in fraud, on a massive scale, and was caught and imprisoned. Robinson is full of admiration, crediting this friendship for introducing him to the possibility of a “flash” life.
Robinson describes himself as working class, and those he dislikes as middle class. But what he means by class is birth and education rather than trajectory. This is a description of class in which Alan Sugar would be working class (even though he is rich and employs people to work for him) or Donald Trump (even though he was given pocket money amounting to several millions of dollars a year while he was still a young child) because he is “one of us”: white, combative, and showy with money.
Throughout his book, Robinson’s boasts that he has pulled himself up, away from normal working class life. His book was written in 2016, i.e. before Robinson was being paid £8,000 per months by Rebel Media, and before the vast sums he took in donations during his recent imprisonment. Already by this point, he says, he owned seven properties, starting with the freehold on a tanning salon business – and these leases earned him, no doubt, a rental income several times more than the average salary. Indeed Robinson now lives in a £950,000 home in rural Bedfordshire.
Robinson is not saying that only landlords can join his movement; but what he is pitching to a particular segment of working class life. His supporters predominantly have jobs in the private sector, rather than the public sector. They operate on the borders of illegality. They are self-employed. They get on through schemes of personal enrichment rather than through unions or any collective approach.
Women – not wanted
“I’ve always been comfortable,” Robinson writes, “in a bloke-oriented environment,” and it is a feature of his memoir that very few women are mentioned: his mother, his wife (good), his probation officer (bad). He is the sort of writer who can describe himself – without finding this in any way unusual – as “having a bit of a domestic” when describing walking outside his home with his own wife.
A quarter of the way into his book, Robinson recalls his cousin Jeanette, a woman of about his own age. As teenager, Robinson says, Jeanette was “groomed” by a gang of Pakistani men, persuaded by them to acquire a heroin addiction, after which she was “gang-raped by half a dozen Muslim men”. Jeanette apparently returned home, only to escape again. At the end of his story, Jeanette has converted to Islam and married a Muslim. She has six children. The family cannot see her, Robinson complains, even if she was still living in Luton, since even if they were on the same street as her should would be unrecognisable beneath a burka.
There are many reasons to be sceptical. The story is too convenient, it involves too many people doing what Robinson’s politics tell him “ought” to have happened: a female victim, Muslim criminals, the passivity of the incompetent British state.
One further reason for caution is that the story fits over-neatly into older patterns of sexist story-telling. The historian who captures this best is Klaus Theweleit, who for his book Male Fantasies, studied the diaries and memoirs of a previous generation of far-right activists, the 1918-era German Freikorps, the immediate predecessor to Hitler’s Nazis. In their books, Theweleit observed, there were only two sorts of women: “white” (mothers, nurses, nuns) and “red”. The latter were sexually promiscuous and politically pro-Communist. Supporters of the German right were required to murder or rape them, or they might be killed themselves. In Robinson’s story, his cousin Jeanette is a latter-day red woman. She is a race traitor: a willing convert to Islam. She betrays her family. She is sexually active and indifferent to human suffering, even if the suffering is played out on her own body. She expresses, in other words, a recurring far-right fantasy in which an entire class of women – even though they are British and “ought” to be virtuous – are a little less than human. They can become full people only be setting aside their selfish desires and agreeing to put their lives into the hands of their betters: i.e. patriotic white men.
Racism – obsessive and banal
For Hitler, everything was race. In the first pages of Mein Kampf he sets out that the Jews are Germany’s greatest enemy, and that if Germany’s national ambitions are to be allowed (and she will build a colonial empire), the Jews must be defeated. Hitler espoused a racial theory of history, in which every single non-white person had to be classified in terms of how much they would, or would not, assist his plans for a universal white ascendancy. Repeatedly, this lead Hitler to absurd results. He would give no practical assistance, for example, to those anti-Muslim racists and anti-semites who were the forerunners of today’s BJP. Because they were Hindu, they were racial inferiors, and had to be ruled by the British. Even in the depths of the Second World War, Hitler preferred to leave India in the control of the British (with whom he was at war) rather than the people who wanted to ally with him.
A recurring argument of Enemy of the States is that Robinson has no problems with other races but only with Muslims. Islam is “taking over communities, racially victimis[ing] [whites] … ethnically clean[ing] non-Muslim people”.
When talking about Muslims, Robinson comes over as obsessed, paranoid, willing to believe any conspiracy that suits him. When it comes to his dealings with other black people, his approach is different. Repeatedly, Robinson alludes to having black friends. He takes one to a BNP meeting, he invites another to EDL demonstrations. These figures (if they ever actually existed) appear once, and are named, but never appear twice. Robinson seems to think that treating black people as his stage friends proves either that he isn’t a racist, or that his supporters aren’t.
Robinson is trying to lead his supporters towards the adoption of a particular kind of politics: one that is hateful towards Muslims while offering black or Jewish people an Alan Partridge or David Brent sort of racism: exaggerative, inconsistent, ignorant, lurching suddenly from declarations of friendship to hostility.
Distancing himself from the BNP
There is a widely-held view on the British left that Tommy Robinson represents an immediate fascist threat. Writing in Jacobin, Richard Seymour describes Robinson as “a clever fascist”. Meanwhile Socialist Worker calls him, “Nazi Tommy Robinson.” There are indeed a few places when Robinson’s book reads like the sort of memoir that a leader of the National Front or the BNP might have written. “My over-arching crime,” Robinson writes, “has been to be a patriot. I love my country.” Elsewhere he complains, “It still seems perverse to me, the way that taking pride in the cross of St George and the Union Jack suddenly makes you at best a far right bigot”.
Robinson was a member of the BNP – although briefly. He claims they were “the only people talking about the problems with the Muslim community”. He says he attended one meeting where the speaker talked “plain common sense about the whole range of Muslim / Islamic issues” and never renewed his membership.
His account is self-serving. Long ago, Searchlight published a photo of Robinson at a BNP meeting. The speaker was Richard Edmonds. By the time of Robinson joined the BNP, the party’s original leader John Tyndall had been deposed as leader by Nick Griffin, and Griffin was taking the party away from its street fighting roots in the direction of a more respectable Euro-fascism, modelled on the Front National in France. Edmonds was a critic of Griffin’s leadership – he did not speak often at BNP meetings and when he did, it was on a factional basis, to promote a perspective which was even closer to Hitlerian National Socialism than the BNP mainstream. We can assume, therefore, that the speech would have been littered with anti-semitic codewords and other ideas derived from 1930s-style national socialism. If it really struck Robinson as just mere “common sense”, that tells you more about the extent of his politicisation during these pre-EDL years than he likes to admit.
Who, really, is Tommy Robinson?
The figure that emerges from Robinson’s memoir is different from the monsters of classical fascism. The traditional basis under which anti-fascists have justified our politics is by saying that the far right represents an urgent threat, in Leon Trotsky’s phrase, to uproot ‘all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society … whatever has been achieved during three quarters of a century by the social democracy and the trade unions’. Jair Bolsonaro plausibly fits that description: like Hitler, he is promising punitive violence against the left. But the Tommy Robinson of Enemy of the State has a different antagonist – not the left, not reformism or social democracy, not even all racial others, but simply Muslims, politicised or otherwise. The fascists of the 1930s told the majority of people that they too could take part in politics, but the price of their participation was the destruction of the only organizations which provided any chance of popular rule. If Robinson’s programme really was the abolition of democarcy, then he does very little in his memoir to prepare his followers for it.
The strongest impression of Tommy Robinson that emerges from these pages is rather of what an older generation would have considered a spiv: a person who works on the border of legality, who is concerned only with their personal enrichment. A person born into the working class, but doing all in their power to escape from it. Tommy Robinson is the salesman of his own reputation, who finds himself by chance having to incarnate the present moment of post-9/11 politics. He has no programme and little vision, other than the hunch that this is the way to an easy life and nothing else he does will ever be as well remunerated again.
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.
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.”