anti-nazi league
Type
Essay
Category
Politics

Politics that breaks down people's fear

This summer has been tough time for anti-fascists and groups like Unite Against Fascism (UAF). After several years in which British far-Right organisations seemed to be in relative decline, that situation has reversed. Electoral success has made racism acceptable once more.

The killing of British soldier Lee Rigby outside his barracks in May by two young black British converts to Islam has been used by our opponents against the Left. Three parties in particular have been fighting to make best use of Rigby’s name.

The first is the British National Party (BNP). Normally the BNP acts as a purveyor of a ‘Euro-fascist’ politics. It plays down national socialist rhetoric in favour of electability. But recently, seeing the popular mood harden, the BNP sought to protest in London. Banned from marching in Woolwich, 150 or so BNP supporters congregated outside parliament. Despite considerable assistance from the officers of London’s Metropolitan Police, who arrested fifty-eight anti-fascists, the BNP were unable to make their planned march to Downing Street.

The second party is the English Defence League (EDL). Funded by millionaire Alan Ayling (previously a senior employee of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), the EDL combines anti-Islamist rhetoric and a football supporter base with nostalgia for wartime Britain. It is patriotic, jingoistic, culturally anti-German and, to that extent, ‘anti-Nazi’. It marched in Woolwich on the night of Rigby’s killing. In Newcastle on 25 May, and again in central London, the EDL turned out around 1500 people – more, both times, than the Left could muster in response.

The third is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This spring, before Rigby’s death, the UKIP won 23 per cent of the vote in local elections. It claimed that Britain would be swamped by immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania, who will shortly be entitled to travel here without restriction (in common with other citizens of the EU). The UKIP is a very different sort of party from either the EDL or BNP. Primarily populist rather than racist or Nazi, it has been backed by sections of the press who see the party, rather than the governing Conservatives, as the inheritor of Thatcherism. Yet recent UKIP candidates have included EDL supporters, people who blame the Second World War on Jews, men seeking to exclude women of child-bearing age from the workplace and admirers of Anders Breivik’s manifesto.

Looking to the rest of Europe, it seems as if almost every country on the continent has two or three parties in the image of those just described. It is a matter of happenstance whether the most successful electorally is closest to the BNP (as in France), the UKIP (as in Italy) or the EDL (as in Holland). Almost everywhere, at least one such party has 10 per cent of the vote. Indeed, in the most troubling of cases (Hungary with Jobbik; Greece with Golden Dawn) there are successful parties combining the worst bits of both the EDL and BNP: that is to say, both ideologically national socialist and in possession of a private army.

The point is not that Europe is about to ‘turn fascist’, or that activists should see themselves as back in the 1930s (in ‘slow motion’ or otherwise). But after the experience of fascism, certain bulwarks were erected in our collective consciousness. It was not legitimate to openly justify the Holocaust, to praise Hitler or Mussolini, to physically attack your political opponents in the course of public debates with them. Bit by bit, those barriers are being breached, in parallel with the electoral success of fascists.

A key reference point for Britain’s anti-fascists is the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) of 1977–81, among the most successful of all post-war single-issue campaigns. The ANL was established in response to the National Front (NF), which was founded ten years earlier by AK Chesterton, the cousin of the novelist GK Chesterton. AK supported British fascist leader Oswald Mosley before 1939. But after 1945, he argued that ‘British nationalism’ needed to separate itself from the taint of Nazism. He was the necessary foil, in other words, to the NF’s second tier of leaders (John Tyndall, Andrew Fountaine and Martin Webster), all of whom came to the NF after playing leadership roles in neo-Nazi revivalist sects.

The actor Ricky Tomlinson was once an activist in UCATT, the building workers’ union, and for the last thirty years a very visible supporter of the Left. But in 1968, he joined the NF in Liverpool. ‘I was politically naive and poorly educated,’ he recalls, in an account that helps explain the group’s appeal. ‘I had a mixture of left- and right-wing views, having been a shop steward and at the same time coming from a very patriotic family.’

Tomlinson accepted the NF’s anti-immigration politics: ‘I just wanted to draw the line under how many we could take because there didn’t seem to be enough to go round.’

The NF’s first real successes came in 1968, following the Tory politician Enoch Powell’s campaign against immigration by Kenyan Asians and, in particular, after his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, which London dockers struck to support.

The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight has estimated that the NF’s membership doubled between October 1972 and July 1973, following the arrival of further refugees from Uganda. A similar impetus was provided in 1976 by the arrival of Asian refugees from Malawi. The press ran dozens of racist stories, with the Sun claiming that refugees were being put up in four-star hotels. In that atmosphere, the NF recruited around 3000 new members. Another Searchlight estimate holds that the party recruited a total of 64 000 people between 1967 and 1979, the gap between this figure and the NF’s peak membership of 17 500 coming from its rapid turnover of support, with few new members remaining for long.

In 1976 and 1977, the NF was riding the crest of a wave. Membership was on the rise and the organisation was receiving wide publicity in the British press. In July 1976, a parliamentary by-election in Deptford saw two far-Right parties, the NF and the National Party (a split from the NF), receive a combined vote of 44 per cent – more than the victorious Labour candidate, who won with 43 per cent of the vote.

The leaders of the NF used this moment to tack Right. Chesterton had stood down in 1970, allowing Tyndall to take over. Articles appeared in Spearhead, the NF’s magazine, reminding readers of Tyndall’s past in the Greater British Movement. The August 1977 issue claimed that the Jews were responsible for the Second World War, and that the Holocaust never happened. In April 1978, Spearhead went even further, dismissing the murders as ‘a fantastic tale’:

Six million Jews, after being relieved of their dentures, wooden legs and gold teeth, were secretly exterminated at a synthetic rubber factory in 2000-capacity death chambers disguised as shower-baths with an insecticide gas that was lighter than air but dropped from the ceiling, after which the millions of corpses were disposed of in slow-burning, four-at-a-time cremation ovens.

The leaders of the NF clearly intended to firm up the fascist politics of their new recruits.

The first significant element of the ultimately successful anti-Nazi coalition was a relatively small group of activists, Rock Against Racism (RAR), who came together in 1976 in response to signs of a growing racism in popular music, including the wearing of swastikas by certain followers of the Sex Pistols, and David Bowie’s declaration that Adolf Hitler had been the world’s first rock star. In particular, in August that year, Eric Clapton made a speech urging his audience to vote for Powell. The photographer Red Saunders (not a member of any political party but a fellow traveller of the International Socialists, the forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party) wrote a reply to Clapton: ‘What’s going on, Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage. So are you going to stand for MP and you think we are being colonised by black people. You’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff. You know you can’t handle it … We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music. We urge support for RAR. P. S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!’

After initial coverage in the music press, Socialist Worker agreed to print a full-page ad, inviting people to write in to a ‘Rock Against Racism ad hoc committee’. Messages of interest or support started to arrive in large numbers. Saunders sought to convert enthusiasm into organisation: ‘Our attitude was always, if you’d like to get involved, do it. One guy called up from Aberystwyth. I said, “Right, you’re the RAR Aberystwyth committee.” He said, “Can’t you help?” I said, “No, I’ve only got two rolls of Sellotape and that’s it.”’

A steering group was founded, and a RAR magazine, Temporary Hoarding.

Saunders explained RAR’s success:

First, there were people whose radical experience went back to the sixties. They knew how to make movements work, because they’d been through ten or twenty which hadn’t. They were potheads, they’d gone through the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and now they were on the same side as the punks. Second, the [Socialist Workers Party] gave absolutely unequivocal support. They gave us an address, Cotton Gardens, and everything we asked for. Third, there was always an immense do-it-yourself ethic about punk. Finally, there were the [RAR] Carnivals. They put RAR somewhere else.

The second major constituent of the Anti-Nazi League coalition were more conventional political activists, many of whom had come inspired to believe that the NF could be defeated by a set-piece confrontation in August 1977 between the NF and its left-wing opponents in the London borough of Lewisham.

The NF was targeting the area, and had called an anti-mugging march. The Left responded, with the Trotskyists of the International Socialists opening up an emergency headquarters in Lewisham, and spending a fruitful summer talking to vast numbers of local black youngsters. Other left-wing groups including the Communist Party of Great Britain (then by far the largest force to the Left of the Labour Party) also expressed their opposition to the NF.

‘The whole of New Cross High Road and the top of the Nazis’ intended assembly point,’ one activist, John Rose, recalls, ‘was occupied by anti-fascists.’

It was then that the police made their first, unprovoked attack. Foot police tried unsuccessfully to clear a path for the Nazi march, and mounted police moved in. They were soon forced to retreat – but not before taking revenge by grabbing people at random. Unable to clear the top of Clifton Rise, the police finally made the Nazis move up onto the main road through a side road 200 yards along. The Nazis were allowed, if they showed their Nazi membership cards, through police cordons to join the march.

Suddenly, hundreds of police and a score of police horses began to charge down the road clearing a path for the head of the Nazi column. The crowd of anti-fascists exploded. Sticks, smoke bombs, rocks and bottles were thrown over police heads at the Nazis.

Around 800 supporters of the NF continued with their march to central Lewisham. Arriving there two hours later, they saw that the whole of Lewisham was occupied by around 5000 anti-NF protesters, outnumbering the police and the NF several times over.

Not daring to continue along their planned route, the NF headed north. They stopped in a deserted car park and Tyndall gave a short, downbeat speech calling for the police to be armed with guns. His followers slunk away afterwards.

The ANL was founded in the aftermath of Lewisham. The steering committee included Paul Holborow of the Socialist Workers Party; Peter Hain, press officer of the postal workers’ union and Labour candidate; and Ernie Roberts, independent socialist and deputy general secretary of the engineering workers’ union. Other members of the committee included four Labour MPs – Martin Flannery, Dennis Skinner, Audrey Wise and Neil Kinnock – all from trade union backgrounds (until the late 1970s almost all individual members of the Labour Party were also members of trade unions; at that time the majority of party funds came from union donations).

The ANL’s highest-profile activities were two huge, free carnivals, held in the spring and autumn 1978 in London. Organised jointly with RAR, they featured a number of the punk bands most popular with the NF’s milieu – including the Clash, X-Ray Spex, Sham 69, Aswad, the Tom Robinson Band and others – with around 100 000 people attending each event.

The ANL organised anti-NF leafleting on a massive scale, distributing nine million leaflets between 1977 and 1979. Around 250 ANL branches had mobilised some 40 000–50 000 members. The ANL conference in June 1978 attracted over 800 delegates. In 1978 alone, RAR organised 300 gigs and five carnivals. The following year’s Militant Entertainment Tour featured forty bands at twenty-three concerts, covering some 2000 miles on the road.

In the general election of April 1979, the NF received a mere 1.3 per cent of the vote. Demoralised, the party split into three rival factions. After its electoral annihilation in 1979, the NF lost nine-tenths of its members over the following five years.

Probably around half a million people were involved in anti-racist activity: joining demonstrations, handing out leaflets or painting out graffiti. It was an enormous wave of activism that simply overwhelmed the NF.

But if the ANL provides a compelling model of how anti-fascism should be done, why haven’t anti-fascists over the last ten years produced anything similar?

There are a variety of reasons.

At certain key moments, the anti-Nazis of the 1970s were able to establish very deep roots within particular black communities: in Lewisham in 1977 and then in Southall in April 1979, when a police riot culminated in the death of white anti-fascist protester Blair Peach, who was treated afterwards as a local martyr, with tens of thousands marching in his memory.

By contrast, when the BNP first started to get serious numbers of candidates elected (starting in 2002 at Burnley when three of its candidates were elected to local councils, and culminating in 2009 when Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons were elected to the European Parliament, and the party boasted fifty-eight councillors), black communities did not feel the same sense of urgency. At that time, the BNP eschewed any public presence outside elections, on the basis that marches and the like would only result in opposition from anti-fascists. (Indeed, Griffin used the NF’s routing at Lewisham in 1977 as the symbol of all that he was trying to avoid.)

As a result, people who had lived through the 1970s remembered how the NF encouraged racist violence in schools and on estates – and concluded that, with the BNP, things had changed.

More recently, political momentum has shifted to a right-wing organisation that is more violent: the EDL. But, ironically, the EDL’s very success creates a different kind of passivity. The Muslim community now feels under ideological and moral, as well as physical, assault. Some 700 mosques in Britain – between 40 and 60 per cent of all mosques in the country – have been attacked at least once since 2001. Every newspaper in Britain carries articles warning young Muslims of the need to be loyal. The pressure to conform is enormous, as is the fear of becoming unpopular by organising in defence of the community.

There are other issues, as well.

The ANL received considerable support from the union movement. Thirty branches of the engineers’ AUEW affiliated, as did eleven lodges of the miners’ NUM, and similar numbers among other manual (TGWU) and white-collar unions (CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE).

In formal terms, Unite Against Fascism has had more support from national trade unions: nineteen have affiliated, and several of those have made significant donations, enabling UAF staff to work on full-time projects.

Yet this formal support has failed to strike any significant chord further down in the union world. And the unions themselves have changed: in 2013, there are about half as many members of unions as there were in 1979, and half as many reps; strike days per year are running at about one-tenth of what they were.

This is connected to other issues. The ANL depended on passionate and tireless activists. The activists back then were, on average, twenty years younger than their contemporary counterparts in UAF. In general, the Left today has too few activists under thirty. Younger people appear willing to turn out in vast numbers in support of campaigns that grab their attention – including, notably, the Stop the War Campaign of the early 2000s, whose largest demonstration on 15 February 2003 involved two million people, making it comfortably the largest demonstration in British history. But what we lack, compared to thirty-five years ago, are the people willing to sustain longer-term campaigns.

There are signs of a possible trade union revival, particularly in campaigns such as the rank-and-file building workers, who five years ago were campaigning against blacklisting and are now leading a recognition charge on behalf of the trade union Unite. But these are only hints, and the overall pattern remains one of union defence in response to employer attacks. While it is possible that a revived anti-fascism could recruit a new Left generation in the same way that leaders of the present firefighters’ and postal workers’ unions came into activism (that is, they became active in RAR first, trade unionism only after), we do first need that revival.

It has not happened yet.

Anti-fascists failing to win a political struggle are likely to seek shortcuts. There were elements of this even in the 1970s: as the NF responded to the Left with violence, so there was a tendency for the ANL generation to respond mimetically – or, in the term of the time, with ‘squads’. Without exaggerating the similarity, some of UAF’s victories have at times had a similarly elitist air. For instance, at UAF’s recent victory over the BNP at Whitehall, some fifty-eight people were arrested on our side that day – and none on the BNP’s.

Interestingly, David Widgery’s history of RAR portrays the campaign not as an alliance between trends within the labour movement (which was the pre-1945 Marxist schema) but a coalition of the Left with young punks:

Without the post-electronic, youth-oriented input of RAR, the ANL alliance would have had a lesser impact … 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 organisations 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.

Today, the desires of organisers cannot of themselves produce a musical culture as susceptible to left-wing interventions as punk. That is, UAF has a musical wing, Love Music Hate Racism, and some of its concerts (including one for the thirtieth anniversary of the main 1978 RAR Carnivals) have been on a grand scale. But they were built without an audience that passionately identified with them; they relied on private security guards and standard stadium stalls rather than a network of volunteers.

There is no single ‘youth culture’ that will emerge, as if from nowhere, to solve these difficulties on our behalf. If anything, the music scene is more commodified than in the past, with its capacity to bring people together dissipated by a fracturing into a hundred different enclaves, serviced by different TV stations, blogs, magazines and so on. (On the plus side, this fracturing also means the Right struggles to find a cultural form to unite it.)

Looking at UAF in particular, my sense is of a campaign that has lost its purpose: one day it promotes the idea of a dense patchwork of local groups, and the next suggests a propaganda campaign against UKIP. Neither idea is followed through, nor does anyone seem to notice that these tactics point in different directions – and (if done properly) would attract different audiences.

At various points in the past – the early 1920s, the mid-1930s, the mid-1970s and then again ten years ago – anti-fascism has been in a state of organisational flux, as new activist groups emerged. Today, there is no immediate counterpart of the Red Shirts of Oxford in the 1930s or the Grey Shirts in Newcastle, who took part in anti-fascist campaigns before the better-known struggles led by the Communist Party. But the situation calls out for that sort of intermediate form, the ‘outriders’ who will presage a shift of strategy.

Part of UAF’s difficulty has been precisely the success that people had thirty-five years before, which encourages the comforting but false conclusion that replaying the most compelling sounds of the past will produce the same energy.

In 1981, as RAR organised its last carnival, Saunders approached the music promoter Richard Branson, who had recently brought out, on his Virgin Records label, the Sex Pistols’ single ‘God Save the Queen’, thus beginning the accumulation of the Branson millions. Branson agreed to support a RAR compilation, an album that featured the likes of Steel Pulse, Matumbi, Carol Grimes and Gang of Four. It still bears listening to today.

Three years later, Virgin Records released a very different compilation, Now That’s What I Call Music! Vol. 1, featuring various singles by well-known chart acts such as UB40, Culture Club and Madness.

There was no successor to the RAR album. The Now compilation, by contrast, spawned eighty-three successors. Counting international spin-offs, the series has now sold in excess of 100 million copies worldwide.

Thirty years ago, Now was some kind of innovator. These days, by contrast, the series is the very epitome of uncool and no-one with the shallowest knowledge of music would actually admit to buying a copy.

The fruits of innovation, in other words, are strictly limited.

The comparison may be a little unkind, and I am describing what UAF risks becoming, not what it yet is. But in politics, as in other areas of life, mere repetition always ends in exhaustion.

The next successful anti-fascist campaign in Britain will probably have a one- or two-word name rather than a three-letter acronym and it may have a cultural ‘partner’, with its name coined freshly for the present. The new group will need to get the very same things right that UAF gets wrong.

I don’t doubt that the anti-fascist campaign we need will repeat the substance of the ANL: its youth, its militancy, the diversity of its support and the scale of the numbers involved. But part of the trick involves giving up more of the form to get back to the political relationships that were once at the league’s heart.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

David Renton is a barrister, socialist and anti-racist activist based in London. His most recent book is Socialism from Below: Writings from an Unfinished Tradition.

More by