A movement to smash fascism; recollections of the 70's
Socialist Unity spoke to Dave Renton author of the forthcoming book 'When we touched the sky' a history of the struggle against the rise of the National Front in the 1970's (details below)
Looking back at the 70's, the political landscape seems very different to now, in both good and bad ways. How would you account for the dramatic rise of the National Front (NF) over the seventies?
British capitalism was in a
much deeper crisis, going back to the loss of empire from 1956 onwards. It was
easy for people, especially in the older generations, to feel that 'Britain'
had meant something before as a country, or that Britain had been a great
power, but wasn't any more. Decline included economic decline; unemployment
was higher than it is today, and more prevalent among younger workers. Mass
migration was a relatively recent phenomenon: it was easy for people in the NF
around it to identify migration as the explanation for unemployment or
The NF were able to tap into feelings of bitterness and resentment, and even more than today, they did so in a confident fashion. There was one interview with Martin Webster of the NF, in which he boasted that the Front were taking a slogan that had first been used by anti-fascists, 'The National Front is a racist front', and placing it on NF placards. The Front felt that they could take a generation of people who were already anti-immigrant, and toughen them as racists and fascists.
There is also of course one overwhelming point of similarity between then and now: a Labour government was in power, moving to the right and in decline. Labour made life easy for the NF as it makes life easier for the BNP today.
How would you characterise the strategy of the anti-fascist movement - and who were the anti-fascists?
One thing I try to convey in my
book is the sweep of anti-fascist politics: almost all the political currents
of the left were involved in the movement in one fashion or another: so there
were women's and gay networks against fascism, animal liberationists against
the Nazis, there were people influenced by black nationalist or black Marxist
ideas, the Indian Workers Associations, the Asian Youth Movements, there were
people who came into the movement through music (punk, reggae, and also more
equivocally disco), there were people in the Labour Party and in networks
influenced by Labour, as well as by Searchlight magazine or the locally-based
anti-fascist networks (the CARFs and the Anti-Fascist Committees) and there
were many people shaped by the other left-wing and trade union networks of the
The movement was led at the top by two separate coalitions: the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. The former was a large network run at the top by a steering committee with a strong Labour Party group, two members of the SWP, various celebrities, the Communist Party. The two key figures were Paul Holborow of the SWP and Peter Hain, then a full-time worker for the postal workers' union and a close ally of Neil Kinnock. At the lower levels, the SWP was a much greater influence, along with the Labour Party, the Communist Party, and very large numbers of political independents. Rock Against Racism was a very small network, primarily London-based of designers, actors, artists and a few musicians; the key players included Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Dave Widgery, Ruth Gregory, Syd Shelton. Each of these networks was initiated by members of the SWP or by their allies: RAR was launched by Red Saunders, but then taken up by people who worked at the SWP print shop. The ANL was launched by the SWP, and took off following events at Lewisham in summer 1977: for the next year, it was almost all that members of the SWP did.
Strategy varied from organisation to organisation: and even within groups. I tried to chart processes like the emergence of Rock Against Sexism - as a sort of friendly split from Rock Against Racism, and out of sheer frustration with the music scene, male-dominated as it was. But the broad consensus common to most people was the Front needed to be stopped in anything they did: so the ANL leafleted against the NF, painted out NF graffiti, or held marches or called demonstrations to prevent the NF from meeting. RAR's role was more cultural: to win an argument against the influence of racism in music: against the Bowies and the Clapton and the people who came to smash up anti-fascist gigs.
The NF was definitely a combat organisation, using violence as an organising tool. Attacks on the gigs of certain punk bands were common place, the NF felt like a dangerous presence on the streets and football terraces and I remember as a lad being spat on by a gang of skin heads on my way home from school and, although it was very unpleasant, it didn't surprise me that this might happen. The left today, whilst still ideologically committed to using physical force where necessary to oppose fascism, hasn't really had to get involved in street fighting for quite some time - how central to its organising philosophy do you think violence was to the NF and what significance is there in the fact that the successor to the NF, the BNP, has abandoned a strategy of violence in favour of the attempt to appear respectable?
Fascism is a combat ideology:
knowing that the capitalist state is hostile to it (although in a very
different way to the way in which the state is hostile to the left), fascism
plans on using violence or the threat of violence, in order to take over the
running of the state. The NF was a very traditional form of fascist party,
very little different to the fascist parties of the interwar years. Crucially,
also, the NF was in some ways past its moment of electoral rise - its highest
parliamentary vote came in 1974 and its peak membership in 1973. Some of the
people who might have argued that the NF should stick to a peaceful strategy
had died or left it by 1976 or 1977. Thus the NF's support for violence was
strategic rather than tactical: it included attempts to march through black
areas, as at Lewisham in 1977 - the left had no choice but to respond.
Every group that split from the ruins of the NF in the early 1980s was committed to military rather than electoral politics - but that changed from the mid-1990s onwards for a number of reasons: the example of successful electoral fascist parties in France and Italy, the memory of BNP electoral success on the Isle of Dogs. By 1998 and 1999, the BNP leadership had adopted a different tactic: one which would continue to proclaim the support for militarised fascism, but in a rhetorical fashion, often to private or overseas audiences, while constantly telling new members that elections were the only hope.
You could say that ascendant fascist parties always tend to emphasise violence less: declining fascist parties use it more. I still think it's possible that the BNP's abandonment of violence has been tactical rather than strategic. Whenever it looks like the BNP's vote is stagnating, you very quickly get hints that the leadership is looking at a more familiar fascist street politics again: you could see it in their demonstrations against the CRE and the NUJ in February 2004, or in the way in which the BNP made so much of their contingent of private bodyguards during Nick Griffin's recent trial. One fear is that even when the BNP is finally forced onto the defensive, which will happen at some point, we could see then the sort of anti-black anti-left violence that was commonplace thirty years ago.
I have to remind myself to be cautious about how influential the anti-racist movement in the 70's and 80's was because it had such a profound influence over my own political development. Whilst the ANL specifically attempted to draw in the new musical movement of punk it seems to me that the effect was not just to draw their fans into monster gigs, it had a real political influence over both fans and musicians alike. To what extent was the anti-fascist movement shaped by punk and how far did it influence punk into going from a generalised nihilism into having a hardened political edge?
Punk contained disparate
elements. People forget that the neo-Nazi band Skrewdriver started off as
punks: they were well covered by magazines like the NME and Melody Maker. They
were even distributed by Rough Trade (but when Ian Stuart Donaldson declared
for the NF, the people at Rough Trade took every copy of their records and
smashed them to bits).
Equally, everyone thinks that bands like the Clash were naturally left-wing, and naturally moving from a sound influenced by white American acts like the Ramones to one more influenced by Jamaican Ska or reggae. But just a few months before the first great Rock Against Racism Carnival, Paul Simon of the Clash was telling anyone who'd listen that they weren't a political band. And even songs like Police and Thieves were influenced by stories that people told about Lewisham. The music moved left to keep up with its audience. Political organising was key.
Going back to how different the seventies were to today - the NF support was definitely an openly racist current, whilst today the BNP cloak their racism in terms of a critique of 'multi-culturalism' and opposition to Islam - do you think that this shift is adaptation to broader cultural changes in society or a direct result of the anti-fascist campaigns of the 70's and 80's.
There's definitely a sense in
which BNP tactics (the adoption of the new racisms, the relative turn away
from violence, their cultivation of small towns rather than cities) are shaped
by their memory of successful anti-fascism. At times, the legacy of
anti-fascist success is even now a distinct problem for them. For example, in
the 2004 European elections: many regions saw high enough votes for the BNP to
have candidates elected but for their weakness in the large cities: London,
Birmingham, Liverpool. In the 2006 elections, I think you could see the BNP
experimenting in Birmingham: seeing if it was possible to go back into the
cities, without being completely overwhelmed by anti-fascist hostility.
As for the changing languages of racism: the BNP are hardly alone in declaring their hostility to all Muslims - 25 years ago one veteran of the ANL Martin Barker described in his book 'The New Racism' how racism was becoming less about biology and more about culture. That's even more obvious today.
You can come to the book
launch of when we touched the sky on May 12th at 5.30pm, Smithy's, 15-17 Leeke
St, London WC1X 9HY
'When we touched the sky is based on interviews with more than 80 people who were active in the anti-fascist campaign. It is published in May 2006 by New Clarion Press. Price £13.95 http://whenwetouchedthesky.com/
Also see the discussion on our blog Dave Renton on the ANL
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