Tag Archives: retrospect

Getting it right (1): the Anti-Nazi League in retrospect


The Anti-Nazi League campaign was the largest mass movement in Britain since the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s. Between 1977 and 1979, around 9 million Anti-Nazi League leaflets were distributed and 750,000 badges sold. Around 250 ANL branches mobilized some 40,000–50,000 members. On the strength of individual donations, the League raised £600,000 between 1977 and 1980. The ANL conference in June 1978 attracted over 800 delegates. The steering committee raised £70,000 to cover fines and legal expenses for the Southall Defence Fund. Meanwhile, the work of the League was complemented by the activity of Rock Against Racism. In 1978 alone, RAR organized 300 gigs and five carnivals. The following year’s Militant Entertainment Tour featured 40 bands at 23 concerts, and covered some 2,000 miles on the road.  Probably around half a million people were involved in anti-racist activity, joining demonstrations, handing out leaflets or painting out graffiti. An extraordinary range of local initiatives took place under a single banner. In Sheffield, one member of the Anti-Nazi League infiltrated the local National Front branch, then left, publishing a pamphlet that revealed the openly Nazi pedigree of local fascists. Meanwhile, 50 Labour parties affiliated to the ANL, along with 30 AUEW branches, 25 trades councils, 13 shop stewards’ committees, 11 NUM lodges, and similar numbers of branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE. By the end of the campaign, even Len Murray, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, could be seen addressing anti-fascist rallies in London’s Brick Lane.

Clearly anti-fascism succeeded in mobilizing very many people, but did it work? In the years since the Anti-Nazi League existed, different writers have generated very different accounts. Christopher Husbands believes the League spread the ‘NF = Nazis’ message ‘more widely and successfully than almost any other medium could have done’. Dilip Hiro also comments positively on the League: ‘the role played by the anti-racist whites, belonging either to the mainstream trade unions or to fringe leftist groups, was crucial’.

More critically, another historian, Richard Thurlow, has argued that the Anti-Nazi League was only of secondary importance, and that it was Mrs Thatcher’s racism that played the decisive role in the failure of the National Front, bringing lost right-wing voters back to the Tory fold. Roger Griffin likewise argues that fascism has no place in modern society: ‘what marginalises fascism . . . is the irreducible pluralism of modern society, and not the strength of liberalism as such, let alone the concerted opposition of anti-fascists.’ There may be a grain truth in the argument that Margaret Thatcher undermined the National Front.

In the words of Pete Alexander, ‘The Nazis could complain about immigration, but she could stop people coming into the country. They could talk about patriotism, but she could sink the Belgrano. They could complain about Communism, but she could break its base in the unions.’

The problem comes when people treat this one factor as decisive, placing all emphasis on it, and ignore as a consequence the impact of popular anti-fascism on the NF. Those who place all emphasis on the Tories’ right turn cannot address the evidence that the National Front had grown fastest in earlier periods just as the leaders of the Conservative Party pushed themselves furthest to the right. It was Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that first dragged the NF into prominence, and it was Conservative and press attacks on the Kenyan and Ugandan Asians that helped the NF to build a mass following in 1968 and 1972. If Thatcherism did hurt the National Front, then it did so only because the far right was already in retreat. It was because NF voters and other supporters already saw their own organization in tatters that they defected to the Conservative in droves.

John from south London describes the process: ‘The ANL ended up achieving a split between street fighters and the more respectable racists. It proved that fascism could be confronted on the streets.’  It follows that without the League, the National Front’s organization would have continued and prospered. The NF would have been larger, and although it might still have gone into some gentler decline in the early 1980s, it would then have found it far easier to revive when circumstances were more favourable. Given a context in which broader economic and political processes helped, the Anti-Nazi League was a major factor in preventing the further growth of fascism. According to Ian, another active member of the Anti-Nazi League,

“I think the real achievement was that by confronting the National Front we ensured that only their hard-core thugs came out on the demos. The vast mass of their electoral support was quite different – a lot of pensioners, I think. So we prevented them from turning their electoral support into street support, and they began to decline and collapse.”

Mark Steel rejects as ludicrous the idea that Thatcher stopped the National Front. ‘The argument’, he writes, ‘is classically British, in that it imagines no political action has an impact outside of parliament’:

“Are they saying the millions of leaflets, badges, stickers and placards, the gigs, the carnivals and demonstrations had no effect at all? That disillusioned people considering a vote for the someone appearing to offer something new weren’t influenced by the constant reminders that these people were brutal, violent and fascist? But one speech from Margaret Thatcher and they all changed their mind? What a depressing thought then, if fascist parties return. Because the only way to stop them will be to persuade the leader of the Conservative Party to make a racist speech. Maybe he should chuck a brick through a curry house window. Then the fascists wouldn’t stand a chance.”

It is possible to investigate the argument that without the Anti-Nazi League, fascism would have grown. One way to test this claim is by comparing late 1970s Britain to early 1980s France. In general terms, the conditions in both countries were similar and broadly advantageous to the far right. In both countries there was an indigenous racist tradition, going back at least to the British Brothers’ League in early twentieth-century England, and the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France. By the period in question, both countries were governed by parties of the left, Callaghan’s Labour in Britain, Mitterrand’s Socialists in France. Each left government was judged to have failed its supporters, leading to a right-wing backlash. In both cases, parties of the right were willing to flirt with the small fascist groups, both the Conservatives and the Gaullists believing that this process would work in their favour. Margaret Thatcher’s lurch to the right did have the effect of persuading former members of the National Front to side with the Conservatives, either rejoining the her party or at least voting for it in 1979.

In France, by contrast, similar calculations had the reverse effect. A right-wing pact in local elections in Drieux was followed by the first Front National breakthrough in the 1984 European elections. Unlike the NF, Le Pen’s Front National became a successful and entrenched electoral party with a national profile. What made this breakthrough possible? The difference between France and Britain cannot be explained in terms of a different national history, or a different conjuncture of favourable circumstances, as these were more similar than opposed. It follows that the explanation can only be found in the different tactics of anti-fascist organizations in France and Britain. This is a point made by two historians of the French far right, Peter Fysh and Jim Wolfreys, who describe the failures of SOS Racisme, the French equivalent of the Anti-Nazi League. Although SOS was at least as successful as anti-fascists in Britain in using music and other media, the organization was far more closely linked to the French Socialist Party. Its organizers, people such as Harlem Desir, spoke of the need to confront fascism on the grounds of French public opinion, precluding physical confrontation:

“The issue of fighting racism is not a left-wing or right-wing issue . . .  I think the electors of the right-wing democratic and traditional parties cannot accept any kind of alliance between their party and the extremist neo-Nazi ideology. So we are organising a big campaign all over the country. We show that a majority of the French people, left-wing or right-wing, refuse the idea of racist violence, of segregation.”

The gap between this formulation and the equivalent pronouncements of Paul Holborow or Peter Hain was small, but telling. The ANL combined a political and a physical strategy; SOS Racisme had only the former. Thus it tended to dissipate rather than strengthen grass-roots anti-racist organization. What began as a radical movement against fascism became instead a lobbying organization to raise money for local communities. As ‘SOS-Racisme . . . evolved into a decentralised lobbying organisation sucked into a role of conflict management’, so it turned away from the important task of mobilizing young people against racism, on the streets. At the moment of its breakthrough, the Front National was relieved of the pressure of militant anti-fascism, a pressure that only revived in the mid-1990s.  It is striking that the revival of militant anti-fascism in France, following the public sector strikes of 1995, was closely followed by splits in the Front National, from late 1998 onwards. That event would seem to support the argument that mass anti-fascism can work.

The success of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League led to the creation of a number of similar alliances, which were explicitly modelled on British anti-fascism and were unlike the later French campaign. In the United States, this movement took the form of a new Rock Against Racism, involving such bands as the Dead Kennedys. The US Rock Against Racism lasted from 1979 to 1987.  In Germany, the 1970s witnessed various counterparts of both the ANL and RAR, including ‘Rock gegen Rechts’.

Those people who took part in the UK campaign generally remember it as a remarkably successful movement. At a time when politics was moving to the right, when racist ideas were becoming more acceptable, the Anti-Nazi League succeeded in isolating the National Front, the most visible carrier of organized racism in Britain. According to Mike from Preston, the campaign ‘played a great part in reducing people’s fear of the NF, the ANL made them look very small and insignificant. It also had a big role to play in making racism indefensible, especially to the young.’

Another former activist who speaks fondly of this time is Owen. Having arrived at Salford University in 1976, he describes himself as having been then ‘politically right-wing’. But the Anti-Nazi League ‘had an impact on me. I was from a white, working-class background, and had never thought about this stuff before.’ Owen attended the Manchester carnivals, and having heard Neil Kinnock address the Cardiff carnival (‘A young firebrand speaker . . . I wonder what happened to him?’), he moved towards the left. The police attacked him during a demonstration in Longsight. His involvement was ‘all pretty low-key stuff’, but speaking to him, there is a sense of someone who helped to challenge racism, and helped to advance the values of democracy and equality. Through the ANL, he judges, Owen contributed to making life better for other people.

Thinking about the campaign 25 years on, most anti-racists from the time are of the opinion that the League worked. According to Einde,

“The ANL and RAR helped to make racism unacceptable in a way that had not been the case. At last an activist campaign said simply racism is unacceptable and fascism of any form is beyond the pale. It was a good feeling for an anti-racist to see all the ANL stickers everywhere. And the badges – this was the great era of badge wearing – gave a sense of identity and strength, because you saw people wearing them all the time.”

Ian’s account is typical of those who took part:

“In the 35 years I’ve been in the SWP, the ANL period was the one where I am reasonably certain that the party’s intervention did have some impact on the course of mainstream politics in this country, by preventing the far right from taking off in a situation that was favourable to them. There have been other times when I have had the sense of being part of a movement that was affecting the course of events – Pentonville Five, Poll Tax – but then the party was merely participating in a broader movement. In the case of the ANL I think our intervention as a party was crucial.”

Jerry Fitzpatrick is similarly proud:

“The events of 1977 and 1978, Lewisham and the two carnivals, they were a unique coming together of music, rock, culture, a spontaneous burst of energy. It was a political action with passion and vision of its time and place. It was an insurrectionary and revolutionary moment post-1968 if you combine the mass carnivals and the determined resistance to Nazi NF marches. OK, the turbulence was sometimes visceral as well as intellectual and political, but for that moment it demonstrated that the left could organize mass action with the potential to change the world. Of course, I’d say all that, I was one of the organizers. But it wasn’t just me or Paul [Holborow]. There was Peter Hain working in ways that are never acknowledged, winning us allies, breaking it away from the usual people. There were the local activists across the country, and people like Mike [working for the ANL]: how many leaflets did he send out, how many hours did he spend stuffing envelopes? There were plenty of individuals who did a huge amount, and it really was one of the most successful moments in the history of the left.”

Graeme is positive about the past, but perhaps more pessimistic about the future, given the decline of trade unionism in the 1980s. ‘If you were to look today and there was a similar recurrence, we would not be able to mobilize the same forces today. That tradition has been lost.’ Mike imagines what Britain could have been like without the anti-fascist movement:

“We forget now that in the late 1970s, the National Front was the strongest fascist organization in Europe. The fascists came here from all over Europe to share in that. Everyone who participated in its defeat can feel that they contributed to something. If the movement had not existed, there could have been a right-wing formation playing a central role in British politics, like the Front National in France, or the Freedom Party in Austria. Who knows what it would have been?”

Even those who did not support the Anti-Nazi League regard it as an important part of their history. Danny remembers that the ANL won young people away from the politics of the right. ‘They made it fashionable to be Anti-Nazi.’ David L was then a young Jewish anti-fascist, primarily active in the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. He thinks that the anti-racism of the League was too narrowly conceived. Yet faced with the argument that Thatcher beat the National Front, David springs to the League’s defence. ‘I don’t buy the argument that Margaret Thatcher pulled the plug on the National Front. People have said that, and belittled the role of the movement. That seems unfair to me.’

A number of the people who now lead Britain’s trade unions first cut their teeth as local activists with the Anti-Nazi League. They include Mick Rix, the former General Secretary of ASLEF, who in the late 1970s was a supporter of Rock Against Racism in Leeds. Billy Hayes of the postal workers’ union joined the Anti-Nazi League on Merseyside. The first political step taken by Andy Gilchrist, the leader of the Fire Brigades’ Union, was going to watch the Clash play at Victoria Park. Geoff Martin of London UNISON was another to follow this route, as was Billy Bragg, the left-wing songwriter: ‘The first political thing I ever did was to go the Rock Against Racism concert in Victoria Park.’

One of the most important statements was made at a memorial meeting celebrating the life of Dave Widgery, the East End doctor and Rock Against Racism activist, who died prematurely in 1992. Darcus Howe, the journalist and activist, gave one of the valedictory speeches. ‘Howe said that he had fathered five children in Britain. The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against the racism all around them. The fifth child, he said, had grown up “black and at ease”. Darcus attributed her “space” to the Anti-Nazi League in general and to Dave Widgery in particular.’ Another important statement came from an unlikely source. In 1982, as we have seen, Peter Hain brought a libel case against Martin Webster of the National Front. Hain described Webster’s court defence:

“He was still extremely bitter and remarkably candid. The picture he gave, and he clearly believed it, was that prior to 1977, the NF were unstoppable and he was well on the way to becoming Prime Minister. Then suddenly the Anti-Nazi League was everywhere and knocking the sheer hell out of them. He said that the sheer presence of the ANL had made it impossible to get NF members on to the streets, had dashed recruitment and cut away at their vote. It wasn’t just the physical opposition to the marches, they had lost the propaganda war too.”

Beating Time

Several writers have argued that the cultural politics of Rock Against Racism was crucial to the League’s success. One clear effect of the Anti-Nazi League was that it established a tradition that anti-fascist work should be exciting, popular, bold and political. Pete Alexander, then an organizer for the League, argues that it was the combination of defensive confrontation with an alternative politics of hope that proved decisive. ‘The ANL succeeded because it combined mass propaganda against racism, especially the carnivals organized in conjunction with Rock Against Racism, with militant action on the streets.’ Dave Widgery’s Beating Time suggests that it was the cultural politics of Rock Against Racism that enabled the Anti-Nazi League to succeed. At different points, his account offers a changed formulation of the balance between music and politics, but at every stage he insists that the cultural was critical to the success of the operation.

“It was a piece of double time, with the musical and the political confrontations on simultaneous but separate tracks and difficult to mix. The music came first and was more exciting. It provided the creative energy and the focus in what became a battle for the soul of young working-class England. But the direct confrontations and the hard-headed political organization which underpinned them were decisive.”

According to Widgery, the success of the Anti-Nazi League revealed the potential power of any future radical alliance that could combine music and politics:

“Politics is not just about alliances, but the terms on which they are made. Without the post-electronic, youth-oriented input of RAR, the ANL alliance would have had a lesser impact . . . The lessons lie in the connections and political timing. The ideas, the culture, the ingredients, the potential had all been there but they could only be utilised in a genuine crisis . . . The struggle on the streets could set the tempo and the politicians and celebrities support and generalise but not dictate to it. It demonstrated that an unrespectable but effective unity between groups with wide political differences (the SWP, the organizations of the black communities and the Labour Party) can reach and touch an audience of millions, not by compromise but by an assertive campaign of modern propaganda.”

By placing his emphasis on the music as a key to the success of first Rock Against Racism and then the Anti-Nazi League, Widgery raises a number of incidental questions. Could anti-fascism have flourished without punk, or indeed without reggae? Are particular kinds of music particularly relevant for particular social movements? In general, the answer must be no. The meaning of any musical style is set in dialogue with its audience; it is contextual and changes over time. Beethoven’s music must have seemed revolutionary in its epoch; it takes context and sympathy – in short, effort – to find the same characteristics in it today. Member of the British folk music milieu may have judged Bob Dylan’s adoption of the electric guitar a betrayal; few generations since have agreed. The ‘anarchism’ of the Sex Pistols meant something more in 1977 than it did in 1981 – after Malcolm Mclaren and the militant cynicism of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. C

Part of the musical success of bands such as the Clash derived from their ability to import the historical crisis around them into their music, through the adoption of more complex musical motifs, including a partial fusion with reggae. There was an intimate relationship between the music of Rock Against Racism and the politics of the Anti-Nazi League. This is a more modest statement than Dave Widgery’s suggestion that some such musical synthesis was necessary to make the mass movement possible. The fact that punk and reggae combined to make Rock Against Racism possible does not mean that either was a necessary component, or that any other popular style was inherently incapable of fulfilling a similar role. Most RAR staples never made it into the top ten, and some of the most important, such as Carol Grimes, barely charted. The New Wave of the 1980s was frequently less strident than punk, but it produced a series of left-wing bands with best-selling singles, and a consistent audience in at least the hundreds of thousands. The most we can say is not that RAR or the Anti-Nazi League needed punk, but that they needed something – a culture that was new and dynamic, rather than the repetition of settled styles and established acts.

Does any of this matter? Did the campaign add anything to the experience of the people who lived through it, and after? For most of the 20 years after 1981, fascism was irrelevant to British life. By and large, activists concerned themselves with other tasks – challenging Thatcher, Major and the neo-liberal tendencies of New Labour. In September 1993, the British National Party did win a council seat at Tower Hamlets, but it lost the seat less than 12 months later (admittedly on a higher vote, which rose from 1,480 to 2,041). Only in the last decade has the BNP been able to establish any sort of consistent success. Three fascist councillors were elected in Burnley in May 2002. The number of BNP councillors reached five that winter, 16 following elections in 2003, and 21 by May 2004.

The successful anti-fascist campaign of the late 1970s has lessons evidently for anti-fascists alarmed by the electoral success of the British National Party. But it has lessons also for activists involved in other present-day campaigns. The need for new visual imagery, new organizational forms, is common. So are the demands for practical unity among people of different backgrounds, divided by race or politics. So also is the question of how to organize campaigns when the government is Labour, with all the political contradictions that implies.

Ultimately, the best test of the anti-fascist movement is the one that it set itself. Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League both intended to turn back the growth of the National Front. In this, they were remarkably successful. As a by-product of their success, RAR also generated musical styles that had not existed before, while the ANL showed what a mass radical politics could look like. It is their anti-fascist success that should be remembered, above all. In the mid-1970s, British fascism was powerful and growing. The ANL gave the NF a defeat from which its successors have not yet recovered. The rest of us have been left freer to concentrate on the many tasks at hand if the world is ever going to be free of the values of fascism, as well as fascism itself.