Tag Archives: Anti-fascism

Noisy, messy, unconventional, progressive

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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.

Ellen Wilkinson: anti-fascism in the 1920s

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A previous article described Ethel Carnegie Holdsworth as Britain’s first anti-fascist. It is pleasing coincidence that the second anti-fascist in British history was also, like her, a working-class woman. Published in October 1924, presumably to accompany the second anniversary of Mussolini’s seizure of power, the first sustained piece of anti-fascist writing in Britain was published by a left-wing radical education campaign, the Plebs League. Thirty-eight pages long, and printed in a distinctive gothic front, the cover shows the image of a skull, presumably to represent the fate of the left if it did not respond adequately to the new far right.

The pamphlet’s publishers, the Plebs League, were the distant ancestors of today’s trade union education movement, with a network of organisers giving classes to some 30,ooo students a year in trade unionism, psychology, economics, geography, the politics of trade unionism and of the industrial co-operatives.

The author chose to remain anonymous, giving herself no more than the initials LW. The members of the Plebs League executive at this point include the historian of the feudal economy Maurice Dobb, the publishers Eden and Cedar Paul, the writer Raymond Postgate, JT Walton Newbold (who had been, briefly, one of Britain’s first Communist MPs), Ellen Wilkinson, and Winifred and Frank Horrabin. The most likely candidate is Wilkinson, who has gone down in history as the MP who led the Jarrow March, and was later the Minister of Education in Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government. She was in 1924 a full-time official of the precursor of today’s USDAW shopworkers’ union, the newly-elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough East and a recent ex-Communist. She was also a creative writer and her 1929 novel Clashtells a story of romantic entanglements and revolutionary politics in the Yorkshire coalfields during the 1926 General Strike.

            LW’s pamphlet Fascism tries to steer a narrow course between parliamentary and revolutionary socialism, which would be consistent with Wilkinson’s recent membership of the CP. Indeed Wilkinson would travel to Italy in July 1925 and meet anti-fascists there, and in 1935 she would publish a further pamphlet Why Fascism?together with Edward Conze, an anti-fascist Communist in exile from Bonn.

LW begins her pamphlet with smashing of the Italian labour movement in 1919 -20, Mussolini’s beating and burning of his opponents: ‘The murderous policy of the Fascists during the period preceding their seizure of power was directed almost entirely against the workers.’ Fascism, LW acknowledged, used a language of class collaboration, and hinted at the possibility that one day workers might enjoy some say over the control of Italian industry. But this, LW insisted, was mere ‘nauseating cant’ (pg. 6). Fascism was ‘a force directed against the interests and ideals of the workers’, (pg. 7). LW referred to Clara Zetkin’s June 1923 presentation to the Executive of the Communist lnternational (republished in 2018 by Haymarket), from which LW drew the conclusion that fascism was the punishment of the propertied for the Italian left’s failure to carry through the revolution that had been possible in 1918.

The author blamed the defeat of the Italian workers on the Italian Socialist Party which as late as 1920 had attempted to fudge the difference between the reformist and the revolutionary approach to seizing power (pg. 12). The pamphlet was familiar with figures such as the parliamentarians Serrati and Turati (Wilkinson had attended the April 1921 Congress of the Communist International, where the respective failings of each had been discussed). The Communists, ‘Zinoviev and his friends,’ LW writes, ‘were right’ to demand the removal of reformists from the Italian Socialist Party; ‘and Serrati’ (who had sought to hold both reformists and revolutionaries together within a single left-wing party) ‘was wrong. There is a time to hold one’s hand and a time to strike hard, and the hour for striking hard had come in Italy in the autumn of 1920’ (pg. 14).

LW described the occupation of the Italian factories in 1920 as the high-point of recent struggle, showing the potential for ‘workers’ control’ (pg. 15). From their leader’s irresolution all subsequent defeats had followed. Fascism, the pamphlet argued, was a ramp of ‘industrial capitalists’ – not the landowners, not the army, not the professions – but the employers of heavy industry. If, under Mussolini, workers had joined its corporations this was only ‘out of fear’ (pg. 21). Elements of the industrial class remained aloof from fascism, it found its keenest support among employers in military production (pg. 28).

The author concluded her section on Italy by envisaging the possibility of a capitalist rejection of fascism, or of both the fascists and the capitalists being overturned by the workers (pg. 30). If anything, LW appears to have underestimated the capacity of Italian capital to maintain conditions of dictatorship and one-sided class war against the workers.

In common with Zetkin and other Marxist writers of this period, LW treated fascism as an international force: ‘a menace to the workers throughout the world’ (pg. 35). She acknowledged the success of Hitler and referred to his ‘temporar[y] retire[ment]’ from active political life – in October 1924, he was nearing the end of his eight-month sentence for participation in the Beer Hall putsch. She describes the success of fascist parties in Austria, Poland and Hungary. In a warning to those who attempt to describe a developing movement before it has fully formed LW wrote, overconfidently, that ‘In France, Spain … there is no real Fascist movement except in name’ (pg. 33). She was on stronger ground in describing the British Fascists as ‘an object of laughter … a glorified Boys’ Brigade’ (pg. 35).

‘Fascism,’ LW argued, ‘is a move in the class war, and its opponents can hope to succeed only if they recognise this fact and act accordingly’ (pg. 35). In terms which pre-empt the united front discussions of the 1930s, the author called for complete unity among working-class parties (i.e. Socialists and Communists) but radical distancing from the bourgeoisie. The fascists, she argued, were the direct expression of big business and the landlords, the Liberal politicians their indirect expression. Neither were the answer. ‘The courage and the political sense of the Italian workers have often been proved; if their leadership and organisation can only reach the same high standards in the coming struggle; Fascism can be crushed and a workers’ government set up in Italy’ (pg. 38).

Given the range of Wilkinson’s personal experience, her time as a worker and a union organiser in a largely female industry, and her own creative writing, there are perhaps omissions. Fascism and its opponents are examined in purely economic and social categories, there is no sense of fascism’s dependence on the Church and the monarchy, still less any integration of these power realities with a sense (for example) of the gendered way in which fascism appealed to workers.

That said, LW is an acute observer of fascism; her pamphlet stands on an equal footing with the most cited work of this generation – Gramsci’s writings on fascism, Zetkin’s, or the likes of Trotsky or Thalheimer.

 

 

Britain’s first anti-fascist: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and the NUCF

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In his new book, Fascism, Roger Griffin observes that the first people to write seriously about the far right were Marxists. This is true, but when thinking about Britain it is insufficient. Here, the first anti-fascists of any stature were not just socialists, they were also women: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Ellen Wilkinson.

Here I will describe Holdsworth, a later piece will be dedicated to Wilkinson.

In most accounts of anti-fascism in British history Holdsworth is given a brief mention. She is described as a poet who lived in the Yorkshire village of Hebden bridge and inspired the National Union for Combating Fascism, a non-violent body which warned local Labour Parties about the fascist threat. That account underestimates the significance of Holdsworth as a writer and activist and does little justice to the range of groups within the labour movement with which she worked

Ethel Cranie Holdsworth had worked as a spinner in the Lancashire cotton industry from 1897, when she had been aged just eleven. By the time she was thirteen, She was working full-time. Holdsworth later wrote poetry, children’s stories and published ten novels, including Miss Nobody(1913), a social realist romance whose themes include trade unionism, tramping, and gender politics in the family, and Helen of Four Gates (1971), which was turned into a successful silent film. Holdsworth is sometimes described as this country’s first working-class women novelist. Her fiction was feminist: there are men in her books, and relationships, good and bad. But the action is resolved by the decision of women.

Holdsworth’s contacts ranged across the left: born into a Marxist family, she wrote for the Labour Party press and for the anarchist journalFreedom, where in winter 1924 she added her name to an early demand for the closure of Solovetsky prison, which held a number of the regime’s left-wing critics.

Between 1923 and 1925, together with her husband the poet Alfred, Ethel Holdsworth edited The Clear Light. It was a one penny paper, whose message was that the left needed to unite against capitalism, militarism and religion. The paper was sold principally in Yorkshire, although some issues name sellers in Scotland and in London. Other contributors included William Holt, a Communist from Todmorden, and the anarchist feminist Rose Witcop. Holdsworth was sympathetic to the Labour Party but skeptical of the actual Labour government that was formed in 1924, on a modest programme, and with a number of non-Labour ministers.

Anti-fascism became a central theme of The Clear Lightonly in the paper’s second year’ Holdsworth was disturbed by the support of the British royal family for Mussolini, as well as signs of fascist organizing in nearby Leeds. In summer 1924, The Clear Lightannounced its support for the National Union for Combating Fascism (NUCF). Holdsworth explain that fascism was a movement of exclusion and slavery, the opposite of democracy. She noted that the Duke of Northumberland, one of Britain’s wealthiest coal plutocrats, had gone over to fascism.

The NUCF had not been founded by Holdsworth but by Eric Burton Dancy, an activist in Chiswick. Having heard of his nascent campaign, they threw their weight behind it. The Clear Light urged its readers to join the NUCF, publishing the group’s membership form and with them the famous concluding words of Shelley’s poem The Mask of Anarchy: ‘Ye are many – they are few’.

The paper printed lists of fascist atrocities and an extract from the murdered socialist Matteoti’s The Fascists Exposed.

Holdsworth was at times despairing, warning in one article that most workers in Britain were blithely unconcerned with the fascist threat. Indeed, her sense of foreboding grew more intense with the plainly faked Zinoviev letter, and the success of the right-wing fringe in toppling the first Labour government.

Fascists threatened The Clear Light’s printer, William Ackroyd.

The July 1925 issue of the newspaper featured a number of recent successes: new NUCF branches being established in Burnley and Holdsworth. There were also urgent appeals for funds. The issue turned out to be the paper’s last.

We can only speculate about why The Clear Light was shut down: it seems that Holdsworth was living on the proceeds of her books and films, using them to subsidise the paper. The paper’s writers came from a narrow group, and it was competing against the better financed publications of the Labour and Communist parties.

The message of anti-fascism did not yet have a mass appeal; Holdsworth’s enemy the British Fascists recruited principally in an aristocratic milieu far way from their socialist opponents. The BF’s moment in the public eye – the General Strike – was still a year away. And its success, when it was obtained would be short lived; involvement in strike-breaking, working alongside the Conservative Party, caused the BF to split with a majority returning to the Tory fold.

At the same time that Holdsworth was drifting away from the anti-fascist movement, she was finishing her boldest novel,This Slavery (1925). This uses the setting of a city besieged by mass strikes, the attempts by socialists and syndicalists to foment mutinies among soldiers, and the poverty of people living on nothing better than ham bones and potato peelings. It describes the part played by working class women in leading the people around them into struggle.

Holdsworth’s politics lived on beyond her involvement in the campaign. She left an anti-fascist legacy in the mill towns: nearby Nelson would be an epicentre of the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists in the 1930s.

Changing tack

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For the last couple of months I have been writing updates and articles about what the far-right is doing – at the rate of maybe 2-3 a week (including longer posts on facebook) – going back to the internationalisation of the right, its success, the convergence of mainstream and extremists…

Post-Bolsonaro I’m going to pause on that. Everyone can see that this is a moment of breakthrough for the right in almost every country. It’s their “1960s”.

So, instead of trying to fill everyone with gloom I’m going to write more about anti-racists and anti-fascists, about strategies which have worked and ones which haven’t. And why.

There’s no shortage of pessimism of the intellect out there – what we’re missing is optimism of the will.

Hsiao-Hung Pai, ‘Angry White People’

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One way to understand the recent history of the British far-right is as a series of attempts to overcome the isolation of fascism, a form of nationalist politics, where among the prime candidates for a unifying national story is precisely the memory of a war against fascism. In the 1960s, John Tyndall tried to revive interwar Nazism, complete with uniforms and copies of Mein Kampf. After the National Front there was the British Movement, who wanted Nazism without Hitler and tried to promote Gregor and Otto Strasser as the revolutionary martyrs of the fascist victory.

The British National Party (BNP) calculated that if you could split the old fascist parties of the 1930s in two and lose the street-fighting half, the electoral remainder would be sure of a breakthrough. Indeed, so rapid was the march rightwards of the Labour Party in the 2000s that it left a space which the BNP was able to exploit, winning two MEPs and fifty elected councillors. The BNP had, however, nothing new to say about Islam or the War on Terror and its demise, as the Conservatives and UKIP filled the space available to right-wing electoral parties. This created a further opportunity, which was taken in 2010 by the English Defence League (EDL). Islamophobes with Israeli flags who sang the Dambusters tune in pubs, for a time they seemed to be much more successful than the BNP at articulating contemporary racism.

Although there are passages in Angry White People which connect the story of the far-right to that of institutional racism, and there are attempts near the end of the book to situate the EDL’s rise within a broader context, Pai’s book is essentially a study of the English Defence League between about 2010 and 2013, based on a series of interviews conducted principally in Luton, where the group was founded. Pai has spoken to EDL leaders and supporters, sometimes re-interviewing the same people repeatedly over time, and her main characters appear in the book as fully-rounded people, with lives both inside and outside the far right.

Historically, the left has lacked a coherent approach towards interviewing fascists: some writers have refused to do this at all, but are then left dependent on interviews conducted by others. Some have spoken to activists from the far right and have been bowled over by them, and the books and articles they have written about fascism have absorbed the fascist version of the history (Stephen Cullen, Robert Skidelsky’s Oswald Mosley). Others, while remaining broadly sceptical of the right, have repeated select parts of the interviews naively, as if the mere fact that Nick Griffin says something distinct about why his party developed a certain way makes it true (Matthew Goodwin).

As a result, no-one on the left has spent as much time as Pai has done interviewing and then re-interviewing the same leaders of the EDL since Christopher Husbands in the 1970s. While Husbands’ book resulted in a collective academic and sociological portrait of a different generation, Pai’s approach is a journalist’s: she listens and relates and keeps her commentary brief.

Pai is very good on Luton, the town’s poverty and its diversity. She notices a steady influx of people from white minority ethnicities (Irish, Roma) into the EDL and the tensions that arise from the positions they took.

The most interesting character Pai interviews is Darren, a cousin of Kevin Carroll, Tommy Robinson’s deputy. Darren lived in Luton and became one of the EDL’s leaders. An anti-racist in the 1970s, he was motivated to join the EDL by intense localism combined with a dislike of the Muslim controversialist Anjem Choudary, whose 2009 protests against Luton troops provided the opportunity for the EDL’s launch. Darren saw the soldiers as workers like himself; he was pro-Palestinian and anti-war, but supported the anti-Choudary protests, understanding them as Luton residents standing up to outsiders pushing them around.

Darren mentions having bought Socialist Worker once and having read articles in it against the war in the Iraq but – unlike the 1970s, where the left usually had a base in the very areas that the National Front contested – there is never a sense in Angry White People of the left being any sort of option for potential EDL joiners. The choice is either the EDL or representative politics as usual.

In Pai’s book, Darren is a good introduction to the ideological blurredness of the EDL, which in reality runs through much of the organisation. Pai mentions the last book about the EDL, the participant-memoir ‘Coming Down the Road’, but perhaps could have made more of its author’s name “Billy (i.e. the poet William) Blake” and other, incompatible heroes, Bessie Braddock (the doyenne of the old Labour right in Liverpool) and Dave Nellist of Militant.

Darren was present on many of the early EDL marches. He listened to the EDL’s anti-racist critics and felt torn. He detached himself from the EDL’s social events, but continued marching. Darren attended the protests with a “black and white unite” banner, testing how much space there would be in this new movement for the diverse group of football supporters who he had thought were its original core. Darren was disgruntled to see Carroll taking his grandfather’s wartime medals to an EDL protest, in order to wave off criticisms that he came from a Catholic (i.e. Irish) background. Carroll was lying to himself and to his supporters, Darren thought. In such clashes, you can see the working out of the kind of tensions that sociologist Satnam Virdee has talked about in his work on the “racialized other”.

The liveliest parts of Angry White People are reminiscent of Inso Hasselbach’s book Führer Ex or Matthew Collins’ Hate in describing Darren’s journey out of the far right. By the end of the book he has joined the Labour Party, only to be disappointed by their unwillingness to tackle racism directly.

The EDL’s Tommy Robinson, of course, has been going through a more public process of reinvention after his own departure from the EDL. Pai is generous about the local activists who encouraged Robinson to leave. She is, however, gently scathing about the Quilliam Foundation, which was in some financial difficulty when it met Robinson and benefitted from the publicity that accompanied his departure. By the end of her book, you doubt that Robinson can stay away from the far right for long.

The third main interviewee after Darren and Tommy Robinson is Paul Sillett of Unite Against Fascism, who is quoted repeatedly without authorial comment. Pai also speaks much more briefly to activists from Sisters Against the EDL, but it is a shame that she saw no need to interview anyone from the Anti-Fascist Network, who have after all been so much more visible than Unite Against Fascism at Dover, in Liverpool, and at many other protests for two years now.

Overall, this is an exemplary account of the working class milieu in which a version of the far right began. The main thing I will take away from Pai’s book is the failure of socialists to build in the areas where the present government’s austerity politics have hit hardest. If we are ever again going to have a left of which we can be unambiguously proud, one place it would surely have to prove itself would be in the very terraces and on the same estates where the EDL was born.

Originally published by RS21

Anti-fascism without fascists: how should the left organise against UKIP?

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In spring this year, some different fragments of the British left, with former comrades of mine to the fore, launched “Stand up to UKIP” (SUTU) promising to turn against UKIP the strategies which were said to have been decisive to the recent defeat of British fascism. SUTU is a strange campaign: formed to challenge a solely electoral party, its website says very little about the coming by-election in Clacton, which has generated more publicity for UKIP than anything for months, but focuses instead on the coming UKIP conference, outside which SUTU promises to hold a protest. 

With the electoral defeat of the British National Party in 2010, there is no longer any far-right group in Britain capable of operating meaningfully in both elections and on the streets.

The demise of the BNP gives every impression of being fatal. The number of its elected councillors has dropped from 58 in 2009 to just 2 today (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/05/why-has-bnp-collapsed). Its declared membership has fallen from around 12,600 in 2009 to just 4,097 by 2012 (https://pefonline.electoralcommission.org.uk/Search/SearchIntro.aspx). In UKIP it faces an electoral rival which is well-financed, has support from important sections of the mainstream press, and shows every signs of being sufficiently durable so that the BNP should expect to be shut out for a generation. In the future, when individuals from fascist backgrounds win elections, they will almost certainly not be members of the British National Party.

Moreover, the British National Party has not been supplanted by an organisation with any discernible roots in fascism. The present conjuncture would be different if the English Defence League was not also in a seemingly irreversible decline. The EDL had among its membership a number of individuals who had come from the BNP, most notably its leader Tommy Robinson. In its few attempts to formulate an independent statement of its aims, the EDL attempted a fusion of militant English nationalism based on a nostalgic invocation of the separate interests of the white working class with surprising details from the history of the left (a clue is the author’s name in ‘Billy Blake’, Coming Down the Road (London: VHC Publishing, 2011). This combination was at least arguably comparable to similar attempts by different interwar groups.

The EDL too has lost all energy: it has no membership figures, it does not stand in elections, and even the “demo calendar” it used to publish on its website is no more. Wikipedia gives the following estimate of EDL assemblies: 9 in 2009, 18 in 2010, 24 in 2011, 12 in 2012, 5 in 2013, and exactly none in 2014 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_Defence_League_demonstrations). Yes, the Wikipedia page is an arbitrary source, and a number of early EDL marches are missing from the list, but the largest EDL assembly was three years ago at Luton (3000 people); the last time that the EDL turned out more than one tenth of its peak numbers (i.e. more than 300 people) was over a year ago, on 8 September 2013 at Tower Hamlets.

So should anti-fascists transfer their energy – and tactics – to UKIP? Should we see combating UKIP as one of our principal strategic priorities, something to which we devote people and resources, to the exclusion of (for example) campaigning against the Coalition government? Should we say – as we would of the BNP – that every UKIP candidate who is allowed an unchallenged platform, represents a temporary defeat for our movement? Should we offer UKIP, as we would the BNP, physical resistance?

The normal way in which an “anti-fascist” approach to UKIP is defended is by the argument that UKIP is pulling politics to the right.

I don’t think this is enough. In the actual context of a universal revulsion with the Thatcher-Major governments of the 1980s and 1990s, when the mainstream if politics was moving rapidly to the left (as shown for example, by the enormous 25-point poll lead Labour had stormed into within months of the 1992 election) it is arguable that Tony Blair’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 1994 pulled politics to the right. He used his enormous authority as Prime Minister in waiting, to argue against traditional social democratic policies of redistribution, nationalisation, etc, beginning with his immediate attack on Clause IV. Yet Blair was not targeted as a “fascist” or proxy fascist, and rightly not.

Moreover, UKIP is pulling politics to the right from a position as an outsider party. Part of the way in which people experience contemporary politics is as an unreal show, in which the same faces, supposedly representing different viewpoints but in fact disagreeing about nothing of significance, recur again and again. By the mere election of new people, UKIP promises to shake the snow globe of the existing order; opposition to UKIP, no matter how well handled gives the impression of trying to protect the old.

Now UKIP’s external status is of course contradictory. From the point of view of its policies, the class background of its leading figures its access to funds and even to press support, it is of course no outsider at all.

When anti-fascists fought the National Front or the BNP, there was the same risk of being perceived as the establishment’s shield, but the danger was significantly mitigated by what you might call the fractal nature of fascism. The BNP might bring new people into politics but behind them there were usually familiar figures from the long history of British fascism, people with criminal records for attacks on their opponents, the skinheads protecting the suits. Opposition to these local bullies, as to Tyndall or Griffin nationally, could connect with a local audience. UKIP, being a different sort of party, its national leaders are themselves an eclectic mix; and locally, its supporters often do not replicate UKIP as a whole.

(In fact, taking this point further, anti-fascist electoralism has worked best too when we could apply something like the same logic in reverse: when the people canvassing were involved in local unions or tenant campaigns or struggles to defend particular services, and were already locally known, so that they were bringing the credibility they had established in class campaigns into electoral politics, rather than being perceived as yet another set of outsiders).

While it was certainly arguable that the fascism of the 1970s was “spearheading” the country’s move to authoritarianism (i.e. the NF’s electoral defeat at the hands of Thatcher came at the cost of the partial absorption of NF ideas into state policy on immigration, the family, etc), there is no meaningful sense in which UKIP is any more at the forefront of a national lurch toward sexism, racism, militarism or towards any meaningful attack on the political left.

Anti-fascism places an exclusion zone around fascist politics, by arguing that they are unique and distinctive and particularly bad. It says, to a greater or lesser extent: we are all good people, save for those few who are not. In the coming Clacton bye-election, those canvassing against UKIP will be pressured by the logic of their situation to call for a Conservative vote as the only party who could keep them out. And yet, nowhere on the present British left can you find anyone with the confidence to argue this openly and support canvassing for the Tories as the last defence against the threat of Douglas Carswell (who was, after all, a Conservative until recently). Even my former comrades while promising to call for votes against Carswell (“Stand Up to UKIP will be campaigning locally against Carswell”; http://standuptoukip.org/clacton-dont-be-used-by-ukip/), will not say directly for who they will be urging people to vote: an uninspiring Labour candidate, an eco (rather than a social) Green…

50,000 people were deported from Britain in 2013 (http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/deportations-removals-and-voluntary-departures-uk), this figure is twice as many as in 2004, you cannot blame Carswell for any of these broken families. The mass impoverisation of welfare recipients through the bedroom tax, welfare caps, and attacks on the disabled, was pioneered by Cameron and Clegg as a conscious attempt to shift the blame for the 2008 bankers crisis – other than in the limited sense that he too is a banker, Farage was marginal to that process. UKIP cannot be blamed for Coalition policies to set up lecturers, doctors and (from next year) landlords as immigration police: these policies come from the Coalition, and predate UKIP’s recent rise.

For about 35 years, the dominant approach within important parts of the socialist left towards fascism has been what is known as No Platform. Loosely translated, it goes something like as follows.

Fascism is a unique political doctrine in that on the two occasions when recognisable fascist parties have held power they have actively rejected the parts of modernity which all other political traditions have respected. IE They have suppressed political democracy even in countries where there was a long history of democracy. And they have waged both war and genocide even in the heartlands of capitalism. Any recognisably fascist political party, granted sufficient power, carries the risk that it would do the same. That is what exactly fascism is for. Therefore while, for example, free speech is a cardinal principle of ordinary democratic behaviour, it must bend to the overriding need to defeat fascism, since free speech for fascists carries the seed of the risk of their victory.

Here is Lindsey German, a veteran of the Anti-Nazi League, justifying No Platform in the 1980s: “The experience of fascism in Germany and other countries before the war demonstrated that fascists could not be treated as simply another political party. They would use democratic channels to build their support, and then suppress all forms of political opposition – not simply left wing organisations, but trade unions, campaigning groups and so on.” (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/german/1986/04/noplatform.html)

This idea is also expressed, by a previous generation, in the historian Edward Thompson’s memoir for his brother Frank, a British army officer who served alongside Bulgarian partisans, was captured by pro-fascists, and executed in 1944. EP Thompson publishes a letter Frank sent home to his family, in which the young soldier recalled the anti-fascists who had died in 1936 in Spain. He said that the conflict between England and Hitler was essentially the same struggle. In his words, “Those of us who came after” (i.e. the generation who died in 1939-45) “were merely adopting an idea, that they proved, that freedom and fascism can’t live in the same world, and that the free man, one he realises this, will always win” (http://www.dkrenton.co.uk/antifascism.html).

What happens though when the far-right party is not fascist, contains no recognisable fascists in its leadership, and carries no threat to the right of minorities to organise?

Anti-fascism is an imperative of left-wing politics: a call that caused the volunteers in Spain to give up jobs, homes and ultimately their lives. Opposition to UKIP may be defensible, useful and positive if done effectively, but it is not an urgent cause of the same moral stature.

Imagine Frank Thompson, ten years older, and having morphed seamlessly into the perhaps surprising role of career British officer, had been sent by the British government to fight Colonel Nasser “the new Hitler on the Nile”. I don’t doubt that he would have revolted against Eden’s logic and insisted that Nasser was no Nazi.

The Lindsey German piece I have quoted continues, “racists and sexists should not go unchallenged … But the way we challenge again has to be sensitive and not just a blanket ban.”

I am not suggesting that campaigning against UKIP is by definition wrong – I can imagine areas where it should be a local priority, indeed in some places the local priority. A genuine campaign against Farage, where he is standing Kent, makes a lot of sense to me, not least because such is his media profile that he will dominate the local contest – in a way that UKIP is unlikely to in the majority of its target seats. I would campaign against UKIP locally, temporarily and tactically – whereas I would campaign against the BNP, nationally, consistently and strategically.

And where people campaign against UKIP, I would hope that their tactics can have the effect not of cordoning off UKIP as an unhealthy aberration within the benign ecology which is British parliamentary politics; but of linking up activists’ dislike of them to their allies and to all Tories beyond. I would make the Rees-Moggs of the world (UKIP’s allies) as much of a target as the Carswells.

If no platform is an exceptional measure justifiable only because of the extreme risk fascism poses, then logically similar tactics – eg trying to prevent a UKIP speaker from addressing an audience at all lose their legitimacy when they are stretched beyond their original target. Applying no platform to non-fascists is like turning on a fire sprinkler in a lecture hall where there is no fire: strange, ineffective, and incomprehensible to your audience.

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

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A guest post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Whitehall; where next?

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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 (2): Cable Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock Against the Tories

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Left-wing activists attempted to make sense of the new political period after April 1979. ‘People had really underestimated how right-wing Thatcher would be,’ recalls Steve Jeffreys, ‘how close her policies were to those of the Front.’ As early as the winter of 1978–9, Colin Sparks of the Socialist Workers Party had argued that the National Front would not be the source of reactionary developments for British capitalism.  If it was not going to be the NF, then there were other options on offer, including what he perceived could be a ‘statist’ right-wing Conservatism. One anti-racist paper, CARF, produced a poster ‘ConservaFront’, showing National Front and Tory politics merging together.  Martin Barker of Bristol Socialist Workers Party condemned ‘the new racism’. Unlike the National Front, the Tories condemned black culture, and not black blood. But they were racists all the same.  Following the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and then the Conservative victory at the 1979 election, Dave Widgery wrote, ‘We face a new Toryism, frankly elitist, not just making racialism respectable but Reaction itself fashionable.’  Paul Holborow’s memory is nuanced:

“I was very focused on the Anti-Nazi League, but also on Thatcher. That had as much impact on me as the decline of the National Front vote. I was completely committed to defeating the Nazis, of course. But I could also see things in a wider context. There was a growing dissatisfaction in the trade unions among the left of the Communist Party. I was always interested in the realignment of the left. The Communist Party dominated the first ten years of my political life, but by 1979 the CP was rent with divisions. The SWP were hoping to realign the left in Britain. But this didn’t happen; we were caught up by Thatcherism, the industrial downturn, and the rise of Bennism. Meanwhile people like Hain had a very clear sense of how the Labour left was going to benefit from the Anti-Nazi League. We had a different conception. Events as it happened worked to support his view.”

The problem was not just that the Tory Party had moved right. What worried more people were the signs that Thatcherism had widespread support. In spring 1980 Peter Hain, radicalized by his experiences in the Anti-Nazi League, agreed to chair ‘the debate of the decade’, a 2,000-strong debate held in Central Hall between the Labour Party and the revolutionary left. Hain’s introduction to the published form of the discussion began by contrasting the mood of the late 1960s, when such militant unions as the engineers’ AUEW had seemed capable of transforming society, and of the early 1980s, when the left of all descriptions lacked popular appeal. In his words,

“The trade union movement as a whole is in political disarray, unsure of its grass roots base, uncertain about its national direction; the left outside the Labour Party is weaker in terms of its political base; the student movement is passive and middle-of-the-road in its politics; and the Labour Party, whilst moving significantly leftwards, still has not shaken off a dominant right-wing leadership. Above all, socialism patently lacks the appeal and allegiance in the working class which it once had.”

Meanwhile, Stuart Hall told the Communist Party’s magazine Marxism Today that Thatcher represented ‘authoritarian populism’, ‘a weakening of democratic forms and initiatives, but not their suspension’. Hall sought to explain Thatcher’s success as a cultural project, using family values and Conservative morality to place its imprint on political, economic and ideological life.  If Thatcherism was primarily a form of cultural politics, then it followed that the Tories could best be resisted in the cultural sphere. Hall praised Rock Against Racism in particular as ‘one of the timeliest and best constructed of cultural interventions, repaying serious and extended analysis’. So was the alternative to Conservatism a revised Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League alliance, perhaps with the name ‘Rock Against the Tories’, or some other such title?

The idea was tried: by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, by Artists Against Apartheid, and by Billy Bragg and others in Red Wedge. With the perfect, twenty-twenty vision of hindsight, we can see now that Margaret Thatcher had history on her side. In terms of high politics, 1979 marked something like a counter-revolution. Free-marketers captured Parliament and held office for the next 18 years and more. The welfare state was attacked, and nationalized industries were privatized. The young activists whose energy had sustained the Anti-Nazi League did not realize just how aggressive the Tories would be. Defeat after defeat sapped the energy of all the protest movements.

John O’Farrell was then a young Labour activist in Exeter. His book, Things Can Only Get Better, captures the feeling that Labour had lost the support of the majority.  Labour suffered further catastrophic defeats in the 1983, 1987 and 1992 general elections. If even parliamentary Labour could be smeared as ‘loony’, the prospects for revolutionaries were still worse. People entered the 1980s full of hope, but watched valuable campaigners go down to defeat, including the coal miners, the hospital workers and those who fought against Section 28. Rock Against the Tories sounds easy to organize, but what happens when every campaign has its own ‘Rock Against’ and still loses?

The dilemmas of the left are expressed in the title of Dave Widgery’s history of Rock Against Racism, Beating Time. Written in the dark night of Thatcherism, one purpose of his book was to defend his political moment against the limits of the gloomier present. He was writing in the spirit of rock against the downturn, as the generation that became adults in May 1968 came to face the tougher 1980s. Yet if all this sounds depressing, we should also remember some of the contradiction of the 1980s. The right won in the sphere of politics and economics, but the left (buoyed up in part by its success with the Anti-Nazi League) prospered in the cultural sphere. While the state became more racist, popular racism actually declined. The first losers were the far right – in the 1979 election. The Anti-Nazi League saw a brief upturn in activity, as the NF crumbled and its mantle was taken up by the more violent British Movement and John Tyndall’s New National Front, which split from the National Front in early 1980  and was eventually renamed the British National Party. In retrospect, the radicalization of these fascist parties was actually a sign of their isolation. They moved towards violence precisely because their popular audience had been lost. More than just a campaign After the election, both left and right attempted to evaluate the new situation. ‘For the rest of 1979’, recalls Pete Alexander,

“there was actually very little Nazi activity to be ‘anti’, though also the big focus for them – and us – of the general election had come and gone. The ANL centre still functioned for a while, mainly I suppose because of the Blair Peach campaign. Sometime in 1979, Paul Holborow, Jerry Fitzpatrick, Mike and Joan, the four ANL full-timers, all moved on. I think we thought of it as a campaign that had come to an end, rather than as something in hibernation.”

Jerry Fitzpatrick recalls the period around the election in similar terms:

“The Anti-Nazi League had won. We’d made a major impact. We’d mobilized way beyond anything the left had done in years. The National Front was neutered, demoralized, in retreat. You’ve also got to understand that the key organizers were in a state of physical exhaustion, it had been the most intense period of our lives, and we were tired. Also with Thatcher coming in, she was a more sophisticated and determined threat. The issues were different now. The plates had moved.”

The period after April 1979 saw new challenges for the generation who had established the Anti-Nazi League. The decline of fascism also made it harder to organize the mass confrontations on which the ANL’s early vigour had been built. Ronnie remembers the movement slowing down. ‘I moved to Runcorn at the end of 1979 and the Anti-Nazi League was winding down then. We had one disco in Netherley which got around 30 people where the previous one that summer had sold 400 tickets. I know this because I wrote them out by hand on pre-cut cardboard.’ The anti-racist movement was larger, but also less active. The ANL was compelled to evolve. Some of the people who had been attracted to anti-fascism began to question whether a different anti-racist strategy would bring more reward. They were not hostile to the Anti-Nazi League; these activists just wanted to broaden out the anti-fascist campaign. In Manchester, Greg ‘came to the conclusion that those who saw the fight against fascism as the conclusion were mistaken. I tried to read about the rise of Hitler . . . My conclusion was that we weren’t in a parallel situation.’ What distinguished 1970s Britain from Weimar Germany?

“The organization of the National Front was not as far advanced as the NSDAP of 1930. The situation of British business (although shaky) was far more secure than the situation of pre-Hitler German industry. The British ruling class had plenty of more obvious strategies still open to it. They could work through the complicity of the trade union leaderships with the Labour government, or there was Thatcher for them to call on. You could have a strong state without fascism.”

Greg argued with the Longsight CARF group that they key priority was to fight institutional racism. The group reoriented away from anti-fascism towards anti-deportation campaigns. This is not to argue that the National Front had entirely gone away. On 29 June 1979, supporters of the NF attacked black and white dancers at a rave at Acklam Hall, Ladbroke Grove, in west London. The young black street-poet Benjamin Zephaniah dedicated his poem, ‘Call it What Yu Like’, to the young, mainly white members of the Anti-Nazi League who fought off the National Front that day,

“Outside is a shout / De Punks are about A shout / Nazis out, Nazis out. O Punk, O Punk, de fight nu long Yu battle well / Everybody start scatter Me an me people jus / Exit. De place was as mad as de world / Not good We hav fe leave dat scene / Not one police number came. O Punk, O Punk, de fight nu long / Yu battle well.”

One line from the poem recalls the argument of the last chapter. The fascists attacked and ‘Not one police number came’.

December 1979 saw the arrest of anti-fascists at Chapel Market. According to Anna, ‘The chief superintendent wanted to put an end to all our protests.’ Anti-fascists responded by setting up a Chapel Market 11 defence campaign. Not all officers were as opposed to the anti-fascists. Anna recalls one man, Inspector Barker, watching her sell papers. A small group of fascists set upon them, kicking with steel-capped boots. ‘Suddenly Barker leapt out of his car, and chased this fascist down Upper Street. I remember him saying to his colleagues, “We’ve got a chap in there and he’s just attacked that lovely lady from the Anti-Nazi League.”’ Barker was soon moved on. The second time that there were arrests, the police tried to detain just Anna. ‘You could tell they were the Special Patrol Group, they didn’t have numbers, just initials on their epaulettes. “You’ll have to move,” one said, “you’re obstructing the highway. Move on, or I’ll arrest you.” They weren’t interested in anyone else.’ The scene quickly degenerated from high drama to domestic farce. Anna’s daughter and her friend tried to grab hold of her mother’s arm, and stop her being arrested. Meanwhile, the contents of Anna’s bag were strewn all over the ground. ‘I was shouting at him, “Unmesh, whatever you do, pick up my make-up!”’ An anti-National Front protest was also held in Lewisham in April 1980. Christine from Lewisham, by now a member of ALCARAF, wrote up the protest for West Lewisham Labour Party.

“Notice was taken that the Anti-Nazi League was assembling at Lewisham Town Hall at 1 p.m. and it was decided to maximise support by calling ALCARAF supporters to rally in the same area . . . Permission to use the car park having been refused, the rally was held outside Eros house. Anti-Nazi League demonstrators joined the rally and there were speakers form Lewisham Council and the Trades Council. Hundreds of local men and women, black and white, turned out to demonstrate against the National Front.”

An article from the Communist Party newspaper, the Morning Star, was gently critical of the way the Anti-Nazi League had developed. Dave Cook complained that ‘Despite the significance of its past role, the ANL has tended to become submerged in [the Campaign Against Racist Laws] and the Blair Peach Committee. It [has] only come to life in response to a fascist mobilisation.’ What was the alternative? Cook sought ‘a perspective to redevelop the ANL, enabling it to play a more general propaganda role, with carnivals and propaganda aimed at particular sections, in addition to its important role as a mobiliser.’

Dave Cook was not the only activist thinking along these lines. Sometime in early summer 1980, the Socialist Workers’ Party’s Pete Alexander wrote a letter to his party’s central committee criticizing the handling of an anti-racist demonstration in Newham. He argued that some form of anti-fascist organization was still required. Alexander was invited to work full time as an organizer for the Anti-Nazi League. Soon afterwards, the League was relaunched on a new basis. The focus of opposition was no longer the mass support behind the National Front, but now the more violent ultra-Nazis of the British Movement. This required some change of emphasis.  When the NF or the BM attempted to march, there was still a need for mass opposition, and local demonstrations could be built quickly thanks to the large passive support that the ANL enjoyed. However, more of the emphasis had to be placed on smaller numbers of anti-fascists, keeping a permanent watch on the also small numbers of fascists. The hope was now to prevent racist attacks, and this required a new style of organization. ‘The British Movement did not have the soft, respectable support,’ recalls Pete Alexander, which the National Front had cultivated.

“We were dealing with people who openly acknowledged and were proud of the fact that they were Nazis. It was clear that many of the youth – and actually some of them were just young teenagers – who supported the BM did so on an anti-establishment basis. In this situation we still needed to mobilize against BM marches – it would have been a mistake to give them the space to grow – but we also needed some anti-establishment movement on the left that could appeal to these youth. One thing we did was hold a conference in London, I think it was called Youth against the Nazis,  where we tried to provide space to various left organizations.”

Socialist Worker’s later editor Chris Bambery records some of the activities that the Anti-Nazi League organized in this period:

“In April 1980 it mobilised against the Nazis on the terraces of West Ham football club. It mobilised two thousand in July against the Nazis in Oxford, and organised a campaign in Harrogate to remove an NF leader, Andrew Brons, from his lecturing post. In August the ANL distributed fifty thousand leaflets in one day after a racist murder in Coventry and finally that same month organised the forty-thousand strong Northern Carnival Against Racism in Leeds. [It was] the ‘youngest and most working class’ [of all the carnivals] according to Socialist Worker.”

Not all these events were organized by the Anti-Nazi League office. In Oxford, for example, other networks, including the International Marxist Group and the Workers’ Socialist League also played a part. Gerry Gable of Searchlight describes some of those who took part. ‘Students at Ruskin in those days included dockers, miners and steel workers as well as white-collar trades. The Trades Council was full of workers from Cowley . . . they could take on anything and win. The cops did not want the BM in town and gave the anti-fascists a free run at them. They never came back.’ In addition to the demonstrations listed above, the Anti-Nazi League was also active in Brighton and Hove. There were three National Front rallies there at the Level, a piece of ground in the town centre where the left and trade unions had traditionally met, as Tony describes:

“At the first demo, large numbers of people met at the Level while the fascists mobilized and marched from Hove towards Brighton. Those of us who went up to confront them were outnumbered and there were large numbers of arrests, including myself, as groups of us took them on. On the second march we occupied their meeting place (Norfolk Square) and fooled both the police and the fascists who had an initial pre-meeting on the beach. We gradually drained people from Norfolk Square down to the beach where we confronted them . . . By the time of their third demonstration they had lost all credibility among their own followers and they could only hold a meeting at the Level because the police surrounded it in a ring. When the police lost their bottle, the fascists quickly disbanded.”

The strategy behind the relaunch of the Anti-Nazi League was to maintain the large protests (when required), but in the meantime to reduce the permanent organization, which indeed had already been winding down. Key activists were encouraged to turn their organizing energies against Thatcherism instead – as, indeed, many already had. ‘After Southall in 1979 and 1980’, Jerry Fitzpatrick recalls, ‘I was organizing with John Dennis and John Ellis a RAR tour to Belfast and Derry in support of the H Block prisoners who subsequently went on hunger strike for political status. There were priorities for me other than ANL.’ Again, in summer 1981, the Anti-Nazi League’s Peter Hain was nominated as Labour candidate for Putney.  Others from the ANL generation threw themselves headfirst into the campaigns for the steelworkers and then the miners. One Anti-Nazi League leaflet from this period suggested that the movement should have three immediate goals: first, to bring out anti-racist propaganda; secondly, to expose the links between British and continental fascists; and thirdly, to combat the active ultra-racists of the British Movement, who were winning new recruits among young people.

In 1980 and 1981, the ANL continued. The idea was to balance the different needs of the movement. It was a tough hand to play. In August 1980, the Anti-Nazi League called a demonstration after the National Front attempted to march through Birmingham. The police forced the NF through Nuneaton instead, where they were whistled and jeered. An international event was organized at the Friends’ Meeting House in central London, with speakers including an Italian mayor and a former inmate of a German concentration camp. Another national conference was held in March 1981. Members of the League joined anti-racist marches in Paris. There was a young people’s conference, designed to win young working-class kids away from the British Movement, which had some success, mainly in Sheffield. There the ANL organized regular discos in the Bow Centre, a drop-in centre for young unemployed workers. The music played was uncompromising skinhead music, ska and reggae; bands like the Specials and the Beat. Badges were launched, ‘Skins hate the NF’, and in Luton, Manchester and Cardiff, ANL groups also tried to base themselves on unemployed school leavers. The Anti-Nazi League’s Peter Hain gave an interview to the New Musical Express on the reasons for the League’s relaunch:

“Our success was so great from 1977 to 1979 that it allowed people to feel that the problem had been solved. But none of us had any illusions in the leadership that the problem could be solved on anything but an emergency, short-term basis, and that it would come back in a different form.”

The League continued to exist, but the movement had changed. It no longer felt like a huge, vibrant, national network. Instead the movement was experienced as a series of local ‘fire-fighting’ operations, one-off initiatives responding to specific fascist threats. The Anti-Nazi League responded to a series of racist murders in Coventry by handing out over 50,000 leaflets in the town, over just one weekend in July 1981. The ANL worked with local groups including the West Indian Youth Council, the Indian Workers’ Association and local unions. After this massive show of anti-racist feeling, the killings stopped. A carnival in Leeds was organized with Rock Against Racism. Misty in Roots played and the Specials, Aswad and the Au Pairs.  Just 42 people joined a National Front counter-protest.  Pete Alexander was the chief steward:

“The march was really wonderful, much bigger than the police or I expected. The Nazis were totally outnumbered. It was a long march and as it wound its way through working-class areas it got bigger and bigger. The cops tried to have us moving down one side of the road, but I was able to insist on us taking up the whole road, making it much more powerful. To begin with, when we went past shops, kids would peel off and steal things, so I stopped the march and held a short meeting with the main local stewards to discuss the problem. We agreed that this was our march and we weren’t having it spoiled by crime, so after that we sent our stewards, local youth, out to every shop we passed, and there were quite a few of them, and we stopped the pilfering. When I organized this I think I had had Orwell and Barcelona somewhere in my mind. At another point, one of the top cops tried giving an instruction to one of the stewards, so I stopped the march again. This time I explained to the Chief Super, their top guy, that any instructions had to go through me. He could see that, unless he agreed, the march wasn’t going anywhere, so he gave in. In the end, this chief cop told me that ours was the biggest march in the history of Leeds, and even thanked us for being so well organised.”

The carnival was ‘fantastic’. ‘The Specials were the main band, and really superb. My last memory of the day was having to jump on the back of a mini-bus containing the band, trying to fend off their many young fans. Later people wanted to touch the hand that had touched the hand of, I suppose, Jerry Dammers.’

In autumn 1981, Temporary Hoarding published what was to be its final issue. The reports from local groups insisted that the movement continued, but there were signs in them that the energy was dissipating, or being used elsewhere. Sheffield Rock Against Racism confessed to having ‘packed up around the beginning of 1980, partly through exhaustion, partly through the temporary trailing off of activities after Thatcher got in. But also because we were fed up of grovelling to musicians in bands who were only interested in RAR as a way of getting gigs.’

Recently, RAR had provided the music float for a Sheffield Skinheads march against police harassment. ‘With six to seven hundred kids on the march there were a number of Nazis who would dearly have loved to move in. But with black and white and male and female all marching, and reggae and ska booming over their heads, they had to keep their traps shut.’ In Brighton, RAR had joined together with No Nukes Music to set up a group, Revolutions per Minute, raising money for Rock Against Racism, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Nazi League, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Gay Switchboard and the New Cross Defence Fund. Bradford RAR was now one of the older groups, boasting of continuous existence since early 1979.

‘Fortunately we have always managed to get a lot of support from the student unions at the university . . . At the moment we’re supporting CND’s No Nukes Music Tour with the Thompson Twins and a benefit for CND’s Easter Trans Pennine March with Crass and Poison Girls.’

The Leeds carnival was Rock Against Racism’s farewell party, as Red Saunders recalls. ‘There were splits on the committee. There were arguments about money, bidding for grants.’ Part of the problem was RAR’s very success. ‘When we had first started, our first editorial said we wanted crisis music, rebel music. Well, try listening to the Specials’ “Ghost Town”. There hadn’t been music like that, when we started. Black and white musicians simply didn’t play together.’

The nature of music had changed. The threat of fascism had also receded. ‘We were a broad group of people, with a single aim – to stop fascism. When the NF collapsed, we lost the focus of what we were about. RAR was about fighting the NF, and also raising the issue of racism. When we started, there had been no such thing as Two Tone.’

Black anger against police racism, which had risen steadily through the 1970s, finally exploded later in 1981 with the inner-city uprisings, in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere. Not that these were only race riots: large numbers of white youth also took part. Socialists, trade unionists and even lesbians and gays gave their solidarity to the rioters.  The police were once again on the other side of the barricades. The fighting appealed to exactly the same layer of angry white youngsters that the British Movement was courting. ‘In a very practical way,’ suggests Pete Alexander, ‘the riots showed that if you want to be seriously anti-establishment, you have to be prepared to link up with black kids against the cops, and hence also break with the British Movement.’

The riots in Liverpool broke out on the very same weekend as the Leeds Rock Against Racism carnival, and the mass Anti-Nazi League leafleting in Coventry. The same weekend also saw fighting in Southall, as a group calling itself the ‘White Nationalist Crusade’ attempted to hold a meeting at the Hamborough Tavern. By the end of the evening, the racists had been forced out of Southall, and the pub set ablaze.  The press tried hard to link these events, but for most who took part, the striking fact was the absence of rioting in Leeds, when there was fighting in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. It is almost as if the carnival released the tension that might otherwise have been expressed. Steve from the Manchester Campaign Against Racism and Fascism found himself caught up by accident in the middle of the Liverpool protests. He had been invited by the Isaac Wooton Centre to address a meeting there on the politics of immigration controls. To his consternation, the meeting hall was right in the middle of the protests, and he found himself speaking even as the rioting began. Yet this mixed crowd of black and white leftists seemed keener to wait and hear Steve speak to the end of his talk, than to get involved in the real struggle going on outside the hall.

“At some point in the meeting, there was a large noise outside and various lights. As it continued, there was more and more noise. Something very major was clearly happening outside. I assumed that the meeting was over and we would all go outside. So I started to get up and leave. Someone asked, ‘Where are you going?’ Before we could join the protests, there had to be a formal vote. Some people actually voted to stay in, most to go outside. I ended up in Toxteth all night – there was no way I could get home.”

Steve also recalls the participation of local whites in the fighting. ‘I remember middle-aged ladies handing out wet towels for their kids to deal with the smoke. This was a community that hated cops.’ The 1981 riots were rainbow protests, involving both black and white. They carried the legacy of the Anti-Nazi League, expressed in the slogan of the carnivals, ‘Black and White, Unite and Fight’.

Squaddism

‘By late 1981’, Pete Alexander insists, ‘it had become pretty clear that the BM threat had passed.’ Among key activists there was a strategic consensus that the Anti-Nazi League should be wound down.

“The riots were important, but so too was the fact that everywhere they demonstrated we mobilized in greater numbers. Sometimes you could see kids hovering around deciding whether to join them or us, with the decision having nothing to do with politics and everything to do with who was going to win. Another factor was that a lot of the BM were really lumpen, and I think quite a few were arrested. The reality is that we could respond to BM activities through local or regional mobilizations. The national structure was a conference, occasional meetings of the steering committee, a membership, mailings to the members and secretaries of local ANL branches (this included a free copy of Searchlight), the occasional pamphlet, myself and one other person in the office, and mobilizations that I would push from the centre. I just gradually let things slide. There was no big announcement about the office closing, or the staff declining to just me, or us no longer sending out mailings, and so on. In fact, nominally, the ANL continued to exist and nominally I continued to be its organizer. Letting things run down like this meant the BM couldn’t take advantage, and, indeed, if they or some other Nazi group did revive, so could we. It also made it more difficult for those individuals for whom anti-fascist activity had become a way of life, a reason for existence in some cases, to develop an effective campaign against us.”

In 1978 and 1979, the Anti-Nazi League had been a mass movement, with widespread support. By 1980, it had become something different, a sort of residual brand around which different people grouped locally, in response to events on the ground. As the membership of the ANL fell, so the character of local activists changed. Whereas, once, they might have been Labour or Liberal voters, young and new to politics, by 1980 or early 1981 these new faces had drifted off, and the gap was most often filled – at a local level – by members of the Socialist Workers’ Party.

Debates about the how to organize anti-racist work expressed themselves within the Socialist Workers’ Party. There was a brief, sharp, internal argument. At the end of it, about 12 people were expelled from the party and similar numbers left with them. The numbers involved were small, but expulsions are a relatively rare event in any left-wing party, and so were widely discussed elsewhere. The issue at stake was the question of how anti-fascist tactics should evolve.

With fascism in retreat, there was some confusion within the anti-racist campaign. A minority of activists seem to have become ‘permanent’ anti-fascist activists. In Hackney, Manchester, Brighton, Oxford and elsewhere, there were arguments within the anti-Nazi camp as to what tactics were required to protect people from fascist attacks. The problem was complex. Although the number of active fascists had fallen sharply, the remaining minority were resorting to violence and in certain places were more of a nuisance than ever. The previous National Front goal of building a mass party had been shelved. Local fascists could make up for their political isolation by attacking black people or the left. Even negative publicity ensured that they remained in the press.

Through 1981, the fights continued between fascists and anti-fascists around Chapel Market in Islington.  In February of that year, Peter Hain’s house was firebombed. Week after week, the names and addresses of prominent supporters of the Anti-Nazi League were published in NF papers. It was a clear incitement to violence.

In December 1981, eight anti-fascists from Manchester were jailed for between six and fifteen months, for possession of offensive weapons.  By their account, they had gone out to defend left-wing students from a fascist attack. But they took the students’ union van without permission. Their actual activities amounted to kidnap, and when they were caught, the sheer stupidity of their plans must have been obvious even to them. Their supporters within the local SWP district argued that socialists should establish defence units to protect anti-racists from National Front or British Movement thugs.

According to Martin, an Anti-Nazi League (but not SWP) activist from Manchester, the so-called ‘squaddists’ even found some support among groups that had not been involved in earlier campaigns.

What was the League’s leadership supposed to do? In the 1970s, the League had grown through mass activity. Its strength was its popular support. The permanent anti-fascist campaigners would not be satisfied as long as one fascist remained alive. The tactics they envisaged were violent and elitist, and threatened to diminish the mass support for anti-fascism that the movement had so far enjoyed.

In the early 1980s, Alan worked as a full-time organizer for the Socialist Workers Party in Manchester and then Liverpool. On one occasion, he was sent as part of a group to attack a National Front organizers’ meeting in Blackburn. This was not a positive experience for him. ‘There was no discussion. It was not a mass activity. We were a group of about 12 men, beating people up. I didn’t like the feel of it. It felt sad and squalid.’

Alan believes that the origin of the squad tactic can be traced back to the early 1970s, to the period before the Anti-Nazi League was formed. He argues that, alongside the tactic of mass action, there was also a different tradition within the movement. The physical confrontation of the late 1970s was a collective action. It was very different from the targeted violence of the squaddists: ‘The people who come on anti-racism demonstrations are working, they’ve got families. We can’t train people for violence in the way fascists can. Their thugs will always be better than our thugs. By contrast, open organization will always work better.’ Alan argues now that the squad culture that took root after 1979 thrived in an atmosphere of drink and sexism, and was incompatible with the socialist and anti-racist goals of the League. ‘Horrible things were said by comrades, which I was ashamed of.’

Mark Steel describes going home on the coach after one demo, to find the organizers being condemned for failing to lead the masses into a final physical confrontation with the Front.

“All this was to miss the point of the ANL. The exuberant school kids who distributed the badges, the tenants who formed groups to wash off the graffiti . . . were the real army that defeated fascism in 1979. It should be celebrated that most people who attended the counter-demonstrations weren’t hardened brawlers and were probably secretly frightened. For it proves that thugs can be beaten by ideas.”

Danny from ALARAFCC is another who thinks that a generation of anti-fascists were fighting on the wrong ground: ‘These people were of a particular kind – the emphasis was on action not propaganda. But you had to fight on both fronts.’ In north London, Anna felt like a mother to the young lads who wanted to carry on fighting fascism. She couldn’t understand the complaints against them from within the movement. ‘If you are involved in a movement that engages in conflict with violent opposition, then unfortunately as well as all the good comrades, you will attract people with the excitement of the conflict. For me, it was an ideological battle, but it became a physical conflict for survival.’

Gerry Gable insists that even the squad tactic needs to be placed in context. ‘The violence of these anti-fascists was for the most part a punch in the nose or a kick in the balls, whereas the Nazis were into killing or attempted murders.’ In Islington, he observes, National Front supporters attacked a left-wing bookshop. ‘The manager had two compressed fractures to her skull.’ In Birmingham, a man influenced by NF propaganda decided to attack a left-wing bookshop. He stole a car and drove into the shop. In the boot was a woman he had kidnapped earlier. ‘The police could not determine if she was dead before the fire or not.’

Another activist, Ronnie from Liverpool, was a member of this unevenly politicized milieu. For his part, he is willing to accept the claim that the priorities of the movement had become distorted.

“The Socialist Workers Party was the first taste of revolutionary politics most of us had experienced and when I joined I was not the finished article. I met people who had lived all their lives in the north end who admitted they had been racist in the past because no black people lived by them, so they grew up not knowing any. As far as being homophobic is concerned, well I was. I had a gay uncle and I used to go for a pint with him and his mates, but I was embarrassed about him until I joined the SWP and saw that, even though I couldn’t get my head around it, he and his friends were as good as anyone else and better than most.”

John from Manchester recalls that some time around 1979 a squad of people had emerged – not deliberately, but simply because they were the comrades who took the greatest interest in anti-fascist defence. Through 1979–80, these comrades played a useful role, protecting paper sales and other events from fascist attack. Over time and without anyone intending it, though, the squaddists separated themselves from the rest of the party. ‘The SWP in South Manchester had lost the plot. I remember one district committee meeting – I turned up and we had the meeting with just two of us, instead of twelve.’ Why were the numbers down? ‘Because the meeting wasn’t about fighting the Nazis.’

‘In its essence’, argues Pete Alexander, ‘squaddism was about squads of anti-fascists – almost always young men – covertly attacking fascists. The main centre of this was in Manchester – from where most of the expellees came – but there was some support in Hatfield and elsewhere.’ Why, then, did the tactic emerge? Pete Alexander puts this episode in context:

“The SWP’s success in fighting fascism was based on recognizing the importance of two interrelated components: mass mobilization and physical force. The French in general and the Labour and Communist parties in Britain only did the first, whilst the squaddists just did the second. The lesson that some liberals took from the ANL was that it succeeded because of rock concerts and razzmatazz. Actually, had there not also been Lewisham and many smaller battles, the Anti-Nazi League would not have worked. The problem with the squaddists is that they drew the opposite lesson, not appreciating that fascism is a political as well as a physical force.”

Some showdown was inevitable. In many people’s minds, the Socialist Workers Party had become the ‘beating-up-fascists party’. It continued to have this image, two years after British fascism had gone into sharp decline. The episode needed to be brought to an end. The Anti-Nazi League had moved people in ways that no political movement had in Britain since CND. The people who identified with it, did so with a vengeance. They believed in the League. They wanted the moment of 1977 or 1978 to continue for ever. The squaddists would have continued to argue for militant anti-fascism, even if fascism had been in terminal decline.

NF = No Future

Meanwhile, most anti-racists and anti-fascists were thinking in the opposite direction to the squaddists. Rather than seeking a revived anti-fascism, by 1981 or 1982 most of the activists thought that there was less need for an anti-fascist movement than there had been in 1976 or 1977. Activists from Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League took up different radical causes, including the Right to Work marches, the Campaign Against Racist Laws, anti-deportation campaigns and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Steelworkers went on strike, and then there were other battles including print workers and eventually the miners. There was the rise of Tony Benn, which excited many people, and later there was also Livingstone in London and the Militant Tendency in Liverpool. The League’s office was never formally closed, although in practice the movement was run down between summer 1981 and the end of the year. The ANL badges were packed away or traded, and the movement entered into people’s memory. Many of the best-known RAR bands moved into the more glamorous and rewarding world of chart music. Meanwhile, the more politically active bands tended to remain at the margins. The Conservatives’ election victory in 1983 also had its effect, further demoralizing many activists who could see that the moment of the ANL had now passed.

From her vantage point of Chapel Market, Anna could see that the battle had now been won. ‘Even the fascists were being exhausted, and turning public opinion against them . . . Committed passionate resistance wore them down. They couldn’t best that.’

With the National Front dying on its feet and the British Movement also in retreat, there was less need for the Anti-Nazi League.

Some time in late 1981,  the League went dormant. According to Pete Alexander, ‘Very few people wanted to keep the ANL going. Our activity was commensurate with the level of events. We kept up local activities as necessary, and there was no date when the ANL office was officially closed.’ ‘It’s actually much more difficult’, Alexander continues, ‘to carry this kind of operation than to mobilize for demonstrations etc., which becomes like second nature.’ The Anti-Nazi League in its second incarnation may have been less well known than the first, but its work was still valuable. The campaign took seriously the need for a continued organization. The organizers took seriously the need to develop their tactics in opposition to a changing opponent. The National Front was in tatters, but other parties were still there. Indeed, had the ANL not been revived, it is perfectly possible that groups such as the British Movement might have grown.

In December 1982, Peter Hain brought Martin Webster of the National Front to court, alleging libel. ‘It’s a difficult thing to bring a case like that, as a politician.’ Hain was protesting against an NF pamphlet that accused him of advocating violence, when his entire activist career had revolved around the advocacy of non-violent direct action. ‘A family friend had been executed in South Africa. Webster was libelling me, as if I had been involved, as if when I was a young schoolboy I had planted bombs. I also wanted to tie him up in time, effort and expense.’ After a two-day hearing, Martin Webster was found to have committed libel, and Hain was awarded damages plus £20,000 costs. Sheffield historian Richard Thurlow has surveyed the membership of the National Front through these years: ‘At the time of the 1979 general election membership was around 10,000. With the poor performance in the 1979 general election and the split between Tyndall and Webster, the numbers collapsed . . . After the removal of Webster, membership slumped to reach 3,148 on 1 October 1984 and fell precipitously to just under 1,000 in January 1985. An organization that shed nine-tenths of its membership in a little over five years was evidently far less of a threat than it had been.

As the National Front’s membership continued to decline, so did its vote. Other right-wing parties began to supplant it, yet their growth remained more potential than real. For ten years and more, the NF’s enemies – the people of the left, and black Britain – were able to live with that fear removed. The activists of the anti-fascist movement could look back with pleasure on a job well done.