Propaganda of the deed

Harley Filben reviews Sean Birchall's 'Beating the fascists: The untold story of Anti-Fascist Action' Freedom Press, London 2010, pp413, £15

This book appears at an interesting time, given its subject matter. The historical narrative it lays out - the rise of militant anti-fascism from the 1970s, and its decline in the mid-90s - covers a certain period of British far-right activity, where it was dominated by those who sought to exercise physical control over their turf. Violent altercations between fascists and their opponents (or, more often, unlucky victims) were frequent.

All that changed with the electoral turn of the British National Party, first of all under former leader John Tyndall and then more enthusiastically after Nick Griffin’s palace coup. Yet now this period too is perhaps coming to an end; the BNP is presently under an enormous amount of strain, having faced a series of electoral disasters and internal spats.

Meanwhile, the English Defence League - a rather more physical, thuggish outfit based primarily on rightwing football casuals - is on the rise, and looks more of a threatening force than any on the far right we have seen since the 1970s. The left’s initial response to the EDL - that it was a creature of the BNP - was a basically risible conclusion from its systematic overstatement of the BNP threat, and is now clearly empirically false; Griffin and his cohorts always considered it a threat, and now the whispers are of the EDL hoovering up a substantial bloc of dissatisfied BNP cadre.

So now is probably an apt moment to reconsider the history of the anti-fascist movement in Britain, and Beating the fascists amounts to a valuable, if flawed, contribution. A weighty volume, the bulk of its contents are culled from eyewitness interviews with those directly involved in confronting various fascist groups - in the fullest sense of the word ‘confronting’.

This aims, from the outset, to provide a counterweight to the received wisdom that Britain’s political culture, with its traditions of pragmatism and tolerance, is immune to the explosion of far-right populism that blights those excitable continentals.

Instead, “British nationalism was sidelined for almost a quarter of a century, not by tolerance and diversity, but by the insurrectionary strategy pursued by fascist groups and the cold-eyed countermeasures adopted by their direct opponents ... while race awareness took all the plaudits, it was a strikingly illiberal militant anti-fascism that did all the heavy lifting” (p18).

There are three main threads to the narrative - the first is the evolution of fascism and far-right nationalism in the period covered; the second the complex political shifts and intrigues in the anti-fascist movement; and the third the series of often violent clashes between the two sides. The first thread is broadly uncontroversial and serves mostly as background material, though some attention is paid to the sensationalism of the media and liberal anti-fascists in its own estimations of far-right forces (in particular, the overhyping of Combat 18).

The debates among anti-fascists are covered from an unashamedly partial standpoint - this book is a product of Red Action, which split from the Socialist Workers Party in the early 80s. The SWP apparat denounced RA as ‘squaddists’, obsessed with violent confrontations against the NF; but RA was equally noted for its vocal support for Irish republicanism and increasingly snotty attitude to the rest of the left.

Some have reduced the latter to a kind of macho posturing, but that is not strictly true - RA comrades not only considered themselves the hardest men in the room, but the smartest and the most apt to face difficult truths. (In spite of their hatred of Trotskyism and ‘Leninism’, it must also be said, they have remained faithful to the distasteful Trot habit of labelling any and all political opponents ‘middle class’.)

So there is a very definite political thread running through the AFA debates, which is broadly the matter of how RA got to the point of forming the Independent Working Class Association, a semi-leftwing municipal political organisation, notable for a brief flurry of impressive votes in council elections. Combined with the story of AFA’s substantial activities, RA’s account of all this is more notable than it might be, because it gets halfway to the right answer.

Turf wars

Most of the book is, as noted, taken up by accounts of AFA’s - and especially Red Action’s - battles with the National Front, British National Party and sundry other fascist factions. From the initial stirrings of a new generation of militant anti-fascists, at the ‘business end’ of the SWP’s Anti-Nazi League, to turf wars in Islington, to football firms in Manchester, the comrades strove to meet fascists wherever they popped up.

By the group’s own estimation, “practically our only other political activity at this time was taking part in and selling our paper ... at large leftwing demonstrations” (p89). The flipside of this monomania was the quite admirable seriousness with which they treated militant anti-fascism. It is common to see slightly silly Trotskyists (Permanent Revolution are repeat offenders) talking loudly and publicly about the need to physically take on the BNP and so forth, without making any serious attempt to conceal their identities or otherwise pay heed to the military nature of this kind of work.

Not so RA and AFA - “As an organisation, our safety lay in our anonymity ... individuals were forced to remain politically anonymous at work and in the communities in which they lived for fear of identification and retaliation by fascists and their sympathisers” (p89). A chapter headed ‘Political cleansing in north London, 1987’ gives a certain flavour of the use to which they put this anonymity:

“Intelligence indicated the fascists had established a relationship with a pub the back of Kings Cross station ... Before making their move, AFA security stewards made sure they were aware of all the possible permutations. In order to carry as little threat as possible, female intelligence officers were directed to frequent it.” So careful was their preparation on this occasion that, in the event, they did not in the end need to turn over the pub to break the landlord from offering a base of operations to Ian Stuart (pp129-30).

For the author, it is the pursuit of organised, basically paramilitary operations against fascists that, in the end, forced the latter to abandon its notion of controlling the streets. In spite of John Tyndall’s and others’ apprenticeship with the neo-Nazi, Colin Jordan, who insisted on drilling them for race war in the countryside of the home counties, Beating the fascists is on the whole pretty sniffy about the amateurism of AFA’s opponents; AFA could face them down, despite very often being outnumbered, by employing tactical nous and the element of surprise. Tyndall, and then Griffin, had to swap the boots for suits, ultimately because they were the ones getting booted.


AFA, under the leadership of Red Action, should be commended for taking note of this change in tack by the BNP, and attempting to readjust accordingly. The BNP had made its first electoral breakthrough, getting Derek Beackon elected as a councillor on the Isle of Dogs in 1993 - it managed this off the back of patient work among the electors over many years, with a helping hand from local race-baiting Liberal Democrats.

Combined with the retreat from street confrontations - which proceeded haltingly until Nick Griffin took the reins - the BNP had hit on the strategy it attempts to pursue to this day. To the large rump of disaffected, alienated working class people bequeathed us by Margaret Thatcher, it pitches a simple message: we are the only ones who really care. BNP activists make themselves useful to local community campaigns, giving them a surreptitious lick of chauvinist paint; and then reap the rewards, so the theory goes, at the ballot box.

Birchall quotes extensively from a 1994 AFA leaflet, with Red Action fingerprints all over it. The bottom line is an equally simple message. “The BNP’s attack on Labour is from the right and is racist, ultra-conservative and anti-working class. Our primary role is to guarantee that a successful challenge to Labour comes only from the left” (p368). Whatever else may be said about Red Action, it must be pointed out that, unlike those erstwhile Workers Power comrades now in Permanent Revolution (WP does not come out of this book well, but for other reasons), and certainly unlike the SWP, it acknowledged that a political response was needed to the far right that took into account mass alienation from mainstream politics.

Its response, ultimately, was the Independent Working Class Association. The IWCA attempts, in the last analysis, to replicate the kind of community work taken up by the BNP, in the same kind of places (predominantly white working class communities), politically expressed in votes for IWCA candidates in council elections. It falls broadly within the older tradition of municipal socialism, although the IWCA has largely dropped references to socialism and the left, believing the left to have de facto abandoned the working class in order to pursue right-on causes friendly to an ill-defined middle class and student milieu.

The IWCA continues to exist, over a decade since its foundation; but initial successes in Oxford and good one-off votes elsewhere have failed to translate into a strategy replicable on a wider scale. Perhaps this should not surprise us - it has not, after all, been a sustainable strategy for the BNP either, as evidenced by its present predicament - although future heirs to the right-populist tradition will no doubt find the BNP’s decade in the sun of interest.

In the end, the political price is too high. Many thousands of working class people are stuck on sink estates with no obvious means of political representation; but the point of communist politics is to unite the class in order to rule society, not to achieve “working class control of working class areas”, as the IWCA website puts it, which is in any case an impossibility on any major scale under the bourgeois state.

Doing so means taking on the larger issues of national and indeed global significance. it is quite understandable that housing looms larger in many people’s minds than Libya - but the SWP is actually right to point out that the X billion pounds spent on bombing Gaddafi could build Y thousands houses; and it is, moreover, the global movements of capitalism that result, at the molecular level, in housing shortages on the one hand and bloody wars on the other.

There is worse. By going into rough working class neighbourhoods with, in a sense, nothing to say, Red Action and the IWCA have ended up parroting the ‘law and order’ line on several occasions, and indeed dropping universal opposition to immigration controls altogether. These are ultimately the lines of the reactionary press; and it is the latter, along with other things, that provides the ideological atmosphere in which the far right can gain traction. Holding fast to these principles is not about being right-on, but about providing an alternative ideological pole of attraction to these reactionary forces; and RA’s attacks on the ‘middle class left’, especially given its more recent disavowal of the left as such, veer perilously close to TheSun’s populist attacks on north London Guardianista types.

This, in a sense, brings us back to the beginning. There is something about British society which makes it harder for fascist and right-populist forces to make gains in society. It is certainly not ‘tolerance and diversity’, or ‘race awareness’ - it is the fact that far-right ideas are a perfectly ordinary part of mainstream discourse, and already have a political representative: the Conservative Party. Enoch Powell was not in the NF; and ultimately Thatcher was able to cut the latter’s support off ‘at the ankles’ because “racist, ultra-conservative, anti-working class” politics have always had a safe home in her party.

Taking on the far right ultimately means taking on British chauvinism, which means thinking bigger than the IWCA.