Tag Archives: ANL

Looking in the rear view mirror: the conflicts of the 1970s seen from the perspective of 2017

Looking in the rear view mirror: the conflicts of the 1970s seen from the perspective of 2017

The two dynamics I want to focus on today are the questions, first, of whether the National Front was in fact a fascist party, and second, whether it was undermined by anti-fascist opposition. Both of these questions require, I believe, more nuanced answers than might have been sufficient, say, ten or even five years ago.

During the recent French presidential elections, Douglas Murray, a centre-right author whose books warns of the danger posed to Europe by Muslim immigration, complained in the Spectator of the tendency of Le Pen and Trump’s critics to describe people holding many varieties of right-wing positions as far right whether they were in fact anti-Islamic, anti-EU, or those he termed ‘actual fascists and Nazis’. Murray suggested that the term far-right had become incoherent. He focussed in particular on the tendency of critics to say that because the Front National had been founded by a generation that included fascists therefore it was by definition always a fascist party. ‘If,’ he wrote, ‘we allow movement on the political left, surely we must allow it on the political right?’

Indeed, looking at the far right today what is striking is its ideological mobility. You can find examples of post-9/11 parties with no discernible debt to fascism, there are also mimetic fascist organisations which insist on copying even the images of the 1930s. Some are becoming more extreme, others (this is a relative term) more moderate.

When I began writing about fascism, journalists and to a lesser extent academics used the term ‘far-right’ principally to refer to what you might term ‘Euro-fascist’ parties, of which the paradigm cases were the FN in France and the MSI in Italy. The latter emerged from the Italian Social Republic (RSI) founded by Mussolini in 1943. The party’s first three leaders all served under Mussolini. From the early 1990s, however, the MSI’s new leader Gianfranco Fini excluded its most aggressive fascists. The party was renamed the National Alliance and in 1994 it entered government as a junior party in Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition. Here was a shocking moment, a minority-fascist government for the first time in Europe since 1945. Yet Berlusconi’s government is not remembered today for prison camps but for the corruption of Berlusconi himself. The AN participated in two Berlusconi governments, losing votes to his party. The AN suffered electoral annihilation in 2014, and was dissolved.

Not all far right parties turn in the direction of conservatism. But some do. Of the three parties which came together to form the National Front in 1967 the largest the British National Party (not to be confused with the more recent party of the same name) was originally a neo-Nazi party of Hitler revivalists, including in its membership the widow of arch anti-semite Arnold Leese. The BNP had, however, recently been considering a turn towards electoralism, justified by the 9 percent of the vote the party won at Southall in the 1964 general election. It was this success which drove the merger talks which led to the NF.

One way of thinking about the Front might therefore be as a modernisation project akin to recent Euro-fascism, that is, as a party which was moving in the direction of electoralism, albeit slowly. How far was this transformation complete by, say, 1978?

The classic analysis of the Front’s ideology is Stan Taylor’s book, The National Front in English Politics. Taylor argues that outrider parties distinguish between their esoteric and exoteric ideologies. The exoteric is the public face, the message you might put in a leaflet or a public broadcast, to win new converts. The esoteric is the insider ideology, deployed only with trusted members. This distinction points towards a dynamic in which the NF’s leaders felt obliged to camouflage their message. Even in internal publications, there was a pressure against speaking openly. Through the 1970s, the leader of the National Front John Tyndall was under attack from two sources – his rivals within the NF who in 1974-5 were even briefly able to topple him – and from external critics. His magazine Spearhead was obtained by opponents who did not hesitate to publish extracts from it. Even in Spearhead, Tyndall had good reasons for being less than candid.

Before Tyndall joined the National Front, Spearhead featured openly neo-Nazi messages, there were cartoons of the right’s Jewish opponents, and demands to make every man ‘Jew-wise’ and Britain ‘Jew-clean’. There were repeated Germanisms: Britain was urged to become a ‘volks-gemeinschaft of the Anglo-Saxons – within an Anglo-Saxon Reich’. Spearhead ran advertisements for Hitler portraits and swastika badges. Whole articles were composed simply of long quotes from Mein Kampf. After 1967 and the Front’s formation, Spearhead’s racism remained express. But its fascism became muted.

Issue 100 of Spearhead contained a long article defending Tyndall from accusations that he was a Hitler supporter. This allegation was characterised as ‘the lowest depths of gutter journalism’ and Tyndall was said to be ‘critical of certain of Hitler’s policies, particularly his foreign policy.’ No detail of his supposed criticisms was given.

A follow-up article in October 1978 seemed to go further. Here, Tyndall identified the NF with Hitler’s economic and social policies and with territorial expansion. Unlike in Germany, he insisted, the NF could achieve the same goals peacefully, without needing dictatorship or racial war. Britain could rebuild her African empire by negotiation.

Spearhead told the NF’s members to modernise. Yet this modernisation was posed as a question of presentation rather than belief. In a ‘Message from the Chairman of the National Front’, in issue 94, for example, Tyndall warned the Front’s members against ‘surround[ing] themselves with obscurantist regalia, tap[ping] the sides of their armchairs to martial music and defer[ring] to political leaders of a bygone age.’ In the place of such old-style politics, members were invited to engage in ‘practical, business-like political activity’ while ‘not sacrificing the strength of their inner convictions.’ The Front’s ‘convictions’, the Chairman seemed to accept, were the same as they had always been.

Turning now to the effects of anti-fascism: this August, at Charlottesville, American anti-fascists were confronted with the spectre of between 500 and 1000 alt-rightists, chanting Heil Trump and ‘Jews will not replace us’. For the first time in the recent history of the US the right had control over the streets, significantly outnumbering its opponents. The clashes between the right and its opponents culminated in the attack by James Fields Jr., of American Vanguard, who drove his car into anti-fascist protesters, killing Heather Heyer. Asked about the events, President Trump declined to criticise the white supremacists, saying there was ‘blame on both sides’. In the days that followed Trump was criticised by Republicans and, in an attempt to deflect the criticisms, dismissed his Chief Strategist Steve Bannon the man who embodied the link between Trump and the alt-right. If you were to stop the clock at, say, the end of August 2017 then the judgment would be that the US far-right had overreached itself at Charlottesvile, giving the mainstream right no option but to break all ties with it. Not for the first time in the history of the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists, the left were a minority but by exposing the violence of the fascists succeeded in driving a wedge between the mainstream and the extreme right.

Charlottesville reminds us that the physical battle between left and right and the political battle for the interpretations of the clashes are capable of different outcomes. This insight helps to make sense of the confrontations in Britain in the 1970s. One is the Battle of Red Lion Square on 15 June 1974 when a National Front march to Conway Hall was met with counter-demonstrations and fighting between police and anti-fascists resulting in the death of one protester Kevin Gateley.

There was a public inquiry into the events at Red Lion Square and the NF’s Martin Webster was cross-examined by Stephen Sedley on behalf of the National Union of Students. Under questioning, Webster admitted that he and John Tyndall had a history of anti-Semitism. He recalled the chants used by the Front, ‘The Reds, the Reds, we’ve got to get rid of the Reds,’ and admitted that Front expected their opponents to respond angrily to them. He was asked to describe the Front’s preferred banner poles and accepted Sedley’s description of them as wooden flag poles with pointed aluminium tops (i.e. as weapons).

However Lord Scarman’s conclusions gave to succour to fascists, absolving both the police and the NF of any contribution to his death and concluding that ‘those who started the riot’ [i.e. the IMG] ‘carry a measure of moral responsibility for his death’. This also appears to have been the popular understanding of the events: the NF had accepted police instructions and were standing still even as the IMG and the police fought.

There are also times when the right used the possibility of conflict to demand greater activity from its own supporters. In the archives there is a 1974 circular from the Front’s Birmingham branch. It began with what sounded like a note of complaint, ‘It is doubtful if many members are aware of the intense hostility which our campaign in Birmingham has engendered.’ From there, the tone shifted rapidly to crowing, ‘On Thursday … [the] I[nternational] S[socialists] and I[nternational] M[arxist] G[roup] failed dismally to break up a public meeting in Handsworth … After the left-wing trash was thoroughly trounced by our stewards … we enjoyed a most stimulating meeting.’ The conclusion shifted again to warning, ‘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” … All activists are urged in the strongest possible terms to attend.’

For the left, the most straight-forward examples of victory have come when anti-fascist majorities have been able to take and hold the streets, driving away fascist minorities. The best example of this, in the 1970s, was the Battle of Lewisham in August 1977 when some eight hundred supporters of the National Front attempted to hold an anti-mugging march through Lewisham, but were met by groups of anti-fascists who fought them at their assembly point at Clifton Rise, threw rocks, wood and bricks at their opponents and repeatedly charged the National Front. When the remnants of the Front eventually reached central Lewisham they found it occupied by larger numbers of anti-fascists and were led away by the police, abandoning the streets to the left.

While the Anti-Nazi League presented itself as the party of street resistance to fascism, Lewisham preceded the League’s formation. Indeed the reason the League was formed was that in the immediate aftermath of the events at Lewisham, the 1970s left received almost as much press hostility as today’s right did after Charlottesville.

The Sunday People’s headline was, ‘Bobbies pay the price of freedom’. A leader in The Times blamed the Socialist Workers’ Party, ‘whose members and adherents, some of them armed with vicious weapons, came prepared to fight.’ The Daily Mail used a front-page picture of a policeman holding a studded club and a knife, weapons supposedly found at Lewisham, and beside him was the headline, ‘After the Battle of Lewisham, a question of vital importance, now who will defend him?’ While the usual approach is to see the League as being launched on a high – in the aftermath of a physical victory – it was in reality a defensive manoeuvre, an attempt to bring together all those who were glad to see the Front’s defeat (i.e. to broaden the left and neutralise the political attacks), and to move the discussion on from the press attacks.

So while Lewisham could have weakened the left, the press hostility was neutralised by the formation of the ANL, which seemed to mark a compromise between moderate and militant anti-fascism. The right had to face both the legacy of physical defeat and a popular perception that, in the words of the Front’s John Bean, ‘the NF had marched through an immigrant area deliberately to stir up trouble’. Both sides faced hostile public scrutiny. Unlike the left, the NF failed to evolve to meet it.

Joe Pearce was sixteen at the time of Lewisham. A recent recruit to the NF, his recollection was of feelings of exhilaration in the aftermath of the fighting, mixed with pride in that he had been physically tested but not afraid. A month later, Pearce would bring out the first edition of an NF youth paper, Bulldog. Yet even in Pearce’s upbeat memories, there is a passing acknowledgment of the Front’s future difficulties. He notes that prior to Lewisham, the NF had been capable of pulling together crowds of several thousand supporters. The crowd at Lewisham was younger and smaller. ‘In the future,’ he writes, ‘the older, respectable NF supporters, including the old soldiers, would stay away.’

Martin Webster tried to explain Lewisham to readers of Spearhead. ‘I cannot discuss these matters as Court cases are pending,’ Webster wrote, ‘But it is obvious that the Police were used by the Political Authorities of the State to suppress the right of National Front members to counter-demonstrate.’ He hinted without conviction at the possibility of using overwhelming violence to defeat the Front’s opponents.

Some three-quarters of Webster’s article was given over not to the events at Lewisham or his plans for what would follow but a retrospective justification for calling the march. ‘The Activists’ he wrote, [i.e. the members of the Front who planned the event] ‘felt that as, over years, the Police had always allowed SWP/IS embers, International Marxists and Reds of various other stripes to “militantly demonstrate” against [the Front’s] marches … the Police would give equal counter-demonstration rights to the National Front.’ Incoherent and inadequate, this was Webster best answer to Bean’s criticism that by marching several hundred NF supporters into a black district, the NF had ceded the morality of self-defence, handing the political victory to their opponents.

Through 1978 and early 1979, the balance between left and right shifted in the left’s favour. Under the pressure of repeated opposition, the tone of NF speeches changed from bravado to weary frustration. Here is Martin Webster, again, speaking at a school in Leeds in April 1978 after protests, ‘We have been put on the defensive today by raucous beer can throwing stinking animals. They are in fact an insult to the animal kingdom. Coming to this meeting we had to go through spit, shouts of abuse, kicks, obscenities and filth … They are deluging the public with the impression that the National Front is a jack booted short-moustached organisation.’

By the time of the events at Southall, the thousands who had marched with the Front after Red Lion Square and the hundreds at Lewisham had reduced in number to a single coach carrying just 20 NF supporters to an election meeting. The anti-fascists had also grown in number, with around ten thousand people – the large majority of them from Southall’s Sikh population – coming onto the streets in order to oppose the Front. In order to keep a balance between the two sides a total of 2875 police officers (including 94 on horseback) were required.

It is worth remembering that this very area of West London had been the justification for the right’s previous electoralism. In fifteen years, Southall had moved from being a place of opportunity for the right to somewhere it could no longer organise.

Southall has lived longest in the memory of all the confrontations of the 1970s. Some of this may be down to the intense local support that anti-fascists were able to generate for their mobilisation. Unlike, Red Lion Square Southall was the centre of a politicised black community. After his death, Peach’s body was left in a Southall cinema were it received thousands of visitors. Fifteen thousand people, including former Cabinet Minister Tony Benn, joined his funeral procession. Peach continues to be memorialised to this day, in an annual award presented by the National Union of Teachers and in the name of an Ealing school.

Another reason for Southall’s legacy is that after Blair Peach’s death, unlike the killing of Kevin Gateley, there was a campaign to bring Peach’s killer to justice. While the inquest verdict was death by misadventure, which seemed to exculpate the police from any responsibility, this was an outcome which has failed to stick in collective memory. The police had investigated the killing and identified Blair Peach’s murder; the coroner held back their report and refused to disclose it to the inquest jury.

Re-reading the fascists, it is striking how rarely they describe, even in later memoirs, being cowed or broken by physical confrontation. Of course, the people who publish their memoirs are the movement’s former leaders and they have no reason to give retrospective validation to their former opponents. That said, there are other points at which the fascists seem to acknowledge that their opponents had the better of them.

One is in terms of the Holocaust and its legacy.

John Bean was active on the far right for 25 years between 1952 and 1977 and latterly the Deputy Chair of the Front’s Executive Directorate. Near the end of his memoir and looking back on his political career, he recalled one incident with real regret: campaigning with other fascists in 1961 for the release of Adolf Eichmann. By this point retired from the struggle, Bean admitted that of course Hitler had practised genocide and he spoke of his private ‘shame’: a humiliation which, he admitted, had caused him a recurring nightmare in which he seemed to see the emaciated victims of the Holocaust. He should never have taken part in this action and he criticised himself for having allowed the ‘emotion of a bad taste, sickening, sixth form prank … to dominate the intellect.’

The intriguing word here in Bean’s account is ‘shame’.

The one action which anti-fascists took in the 1970s which seems to have generated a similar reaction was to reproduce photographs of Front Chairman John Tyndall from his Greater Britain Movement days in the early 1960s and in Nazi-style uniforms. The use of this image was a repeated complaint of the right. As early as June 1974, Spearhead complained about the ‘printing and distribution of the criminally libellous “smear” leaflets attacking the National Front which appeared in their hundreds of thousands during the last General Election in constituencies where the NF had candidates,’ and warning that if the police failed to prosecute the individuals responsible for them ‘the National Front will make such arrangements as circumstances indicate are necessary to secure its survival in what will have proved to be an unfree, undemocratic, unfair and violent society provided over by cowardly  or corrupt men.’ If the threat seems hollow, the tone of hurt and anger is unmistakeable.

An anonymous Front defector explained to the East End local journalists in August 1977 that the first time she had questioned consider her membership was ‘when she saw a picture of the NF’s leader John Tyndall wearing jackboots and sporting a swastika. “I won’t stand for any of this ‘Zieg Heil’ nonsense,” she said.’

During the Front’s 1979-1980 faction fight the vulnerability of Tyndall and his ally Martin Webster was a theme of his inner-party critics. They argued that Tyndall and Webster ‘play[ed] the fool in the days when they should have been taking their British nationalist politics seriously – and neither they, nor anyone else for that matter, can sue matter sue anyone or any institution if what is said or written is literally true’.

The problem with the accusation of Nazism was not that it challenged the NF’s patriotism but that it associated the Front with the Holocaust and with a genocide that even the fascists had to admit (albeit only to themselves) was unjustifiable.

It is possible to imagine a far-right party whose members and voters are proud and loyal fascists (think of the Italian fascists in the early 1920s). To say to members of such a group. ‘But you are all fascists,’ would be a pointless tactic. Of course we are, they would say. That’s how we see ourselves. It is also possible to conceive of a far-right party whose members all see themselves as non- or anti-fascist (think a pub of EDL members singing the Dam Busters theme tune). To say to members of such a group ‘But you are all fascists,’ would be equally pointless. They would laugh off the accusation.

The Front was at a particular stage in the history of the post-war right, when (to a much greater extent than today) its most violent militants were unable to think of any coherent basis for a far-right party except in the emulation of the past.

The Front’s members were neither secure in their fascism, nor were they beyond it. They behaved as if it was a private humiliation.

It was their incomplete disavowal of fascism, their shame, which rendered the Front’s supporters vulnerable to their opponent’s reproduction of Tyndall’s photograph and the accusation which lay behind it that the NF were still a party of Nazis.

Judging by what can be found in the memoirs of the Front’s former supporters, it seems that this repeated attack on the NF at its weak point did more to damage its member’s morale than anything else.

The challenge for anti-fascists since has been to find a tactic that might be equally successful in our own – very different – times.

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: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151397060211269%5D

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.