When the very first edition
of Red Action
appeared in 1982, the political world it entered was a very different place to now. There were to begin with, the ‘worker states’ and the ‘Cold War’ between these and the ‘Imperial West’ fought out by surrogates in a host of geographical locations, while the dreaded ‘bomb’ formed the ‘all to play for’ apocalyptic backdrop.
In Britain, where the Labour Party and the TUC were widely accepted as socialism’s mainstream representatives, Thatcherism was widely regarded, in ‘Labour Movement’ circles at least, as little more than a blip.
Because, or in spite of, this apparent serenity, Red Action from the get-go set out to inject fresh layers of specifically manual working class activists into a movement which was already displaying disturbing signs of early onset gentrification. What was required to help achieve this aim, we believed, was that basic socialist arguments were first packaged in a style free from all lefty idioms. And rather than try and poach from competing ‘revolutionary’ groups, the idea was to introduce these arguments into arenas where the working class clustered: gigs, football, festivals and so forth, which were of course devoid of competition from the aforementioned left wing sects.
We paddled along like this for a while when suddenly in 1989, apparently out of the blue, the Soviet Union imploded, vaporising any notion of communism along with it. Now given that of the 57 varieties of Trotskyism (or socialism), 56 believed that the Soviet bloc was genuinely comprised of ‘workers’ states (even state capitalists like the SWP rushed to Russia with copies of ‘The Prophet Armed’) this ought to have proved a game-changer. At the very least, it was a heavy hint that all was not well with the broad socialist/Marxist-Leninist blueprint.
Empirically, many of those in Red Action had come to the same conclusion much earlier. And as a result, Red Action more or less immediately began a search for where the ideological fault-line lay. However, in order to accomplish this task, it would require Red Action itself to undertake a complete reversal of its previous custom and practice.And so, from a previous editorial standard of not even mentioning, much less criticising, other ‘revolutionary’ groups, now all organisations and ideologies – with the writings of Marx and Engels employed as the standard reference point – were scrutinised with a rare and brutal candour. As an autopsy it proved both instructive and controversial, often inducing a spluttering dismay amongst a host of not unrepresentative groups across near all denominations with whom we engaged in debate. (See Open Polemic
This lengthy, and probably unprecedented, RA dissection argued from the position that the principles and methods of Marx and Engels did not simply differ from, say, Lenin and Trotsky, but were in near all critical areasfiercely antagonistic and could not therefore ever hope to be philosophically reconciled.
Lenin and Trotsky (not to mention a creature like Stalin), it was concluded, did not so much stand on the shoulders of Marx & Engels as stamp on their faces. This did not mean, it should be stressed, that absolutely everything Marx & Engels ever opined on was judged by us in hindsight to be either 100 per cent accurate and/or of contemporary value. But it did prove beyond doubt that a clear ideological, strategic and tactical fault-line did in fact exist in left wing thinking, and so logically it was from now on not so much a case of taking sides, but in making choices. And having made the choice the challenge was to absorb the lessons and then implement them.
But that was for later.
In the meantime, it is surely instructive that when confronted with:
- The evaporation of ‘real and existing socialism’
- The startling evidence of both the vitality and social reach of the neo-liberal agenda
- The emergence of euro-nationalism as an electoral threat across Europe
the one group to seriously re-evaluate whether it was fit for purpose (‘were we primed to persuade rather than provoke, to set agendas rather than simply protest?’) was Red Action itself.
The first issue of Red Action
(RA) appeared in February 1982 as a single A3 sheet costing 5p and contained five articles. It was headlined ‘Three Million Reasons Why!’ It correctly, though by no means uniquely, predicted more riots as the consequence of wide scale unemployment.
Two other articles headlined ‘Islington – The tip of the iceberg!’ and simply ‘Ireland
‘ – introduced the two themes that would dominate subsequent issues of RA over the following years and became increasingly seen as the main political subjects with which RA as an organisation would be identified.
The Islington-based article referred to an on-going battle for political control of North London streets, which at the time centred on the area of Chapel Market where the National Front paper sale had been involved in a Mexican stand-off with the ANL and unaffiliated anti-fascists since the mid-70’s.
“Some say we are waging a campaign that is narrow and self-defeating, that by concentrating on fighting the Front, we are not involving the workers movement. This is not so. Nazis need to control the streets. If they can do this they can not only influence people faced with mass unemployment, but they can attack ethnic minorities and create a nest of racial tension that can tear a community to pieces. The ANL successes of 1978 well and truly routed the NF. But they came back as soon as they thought the time was right, and you couldn’t find a better time than now. The result was many violent attacks, and the NF stopped trying to be a respectable political party, and instead resorted to violence and terrorism. This (the NF’s recent decline in the area) would never have happened if we hadn’t fought them, and provided a focus for others who wanted to fight, in a key part of the class struggle”.
On Ireland RA had this to say,
“Ireland really shows which side of the political fence people are really on. Those who support armed liberation struggles in El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Vietnam and Angola fall strangely silent when the war is on their own doorstep and the guerrilla movement is fighting their own master, the British ruling class. Labour MP’s sing the red flag and talk of socialism, and attack Thatcher as a vicious reactionary, then salute and applaud her when she murders Republicans and socialists in Ireland”.
appeared in April of the same year as a four-page paper and set the basic format that would serve for the next six years, taking it up to 1988 with issue number 40
. This was in a climate where there were still relatively large numbers of free open air festivals, marches, demos and gigs with ‘political’ bands which attracted ordinary working class people in significant numbers. Accordingly, a complimentary feature of those early editions was the commitment to promoting or reporting on various aspects of working class culture, with football and music featuring heavily.
‘Culture Corner’ regularly carried articles and interviews with punk/Oi! Bands like the Newtown Neurotics, Burial and the Anti-Social Workers, and featured interviews with the likes of Mensi or Garry Bushell (prior to his defecting to The Sun, of course). This emphasis on orientation proved of practical benefit as the bands featured usually played benefit gigs for striking miners and dock workers and other campaigns RA had chosen to engage with, thereby opening up the attending crowds to ever more radical questions: potentially.Street sales of the paper had the added bonus of providing a steady supply of anecdotes, featuring eclectic right-wingers who thought it innocently amusing to verbally abuse and on occasion physically challenge our sellers.
Mainline stations were a particular challenge especially during the Friday rush hour when on the one hand you might be faced with some incredulous squaddies on leave considering their options, while at the same time to background cries of ‘Go back to Russia!’ (‘You look like the National Front! was almost as common from irritated lefties) you were conducting a transaction with some office type in a pin-stripe suit who tended to approach swiftly and without breaking stride stuff a copy into his briefcase and be swallowed up in the rush-hour crowd within seconds. And it wasn’t only the far-right we had to contend with. On one occasion having recently cleaned out a gang of Neo-Nazi Blood & Honour skinheads from the area of Kings Cross, RA turned up at the usual spot only to find two diminutive pencil-necked SWP sellers on the pitch. Fair enough. But when copies of Red Action were produced and we began to verbally compete with them for sales we were greeted by sneers and baited comments such as ‘empty rhetoric, empty head!’. Seeing as how they wouldn’t dare have been there at all but for the earlier clumping of the local opposition, this was regarded as more than a little ungracious. Only after their papers were thrown into the traffic and it was made clear that this was where they too were headed, did they finally desist.
From the very beginning, RA faced the uniform suspicion and enmity generally reserved for apostates. And with the gratuitous snub or insult commonplace (‘gangster’s molls’ was how female RA members were described for example) it was no surprise that on the occasions where RA sellers were diminutive in stature or light in terms of numbers, it was they who had smoke blown in their face, literally in one incident, or faced violence or threats of it. After an unprovoked attack on him by former ‘comrades’, the organiser of a nascent branch phoned the London national office for advice. ‘Tell them’ came the reply’ ‘that unless they mend their ways the treatment being visited on you up there will be visited on their paper sales down here.’
Right up until issue 64
, copies of RA were produced by hours of typing followed by cut and paste, all put together in cramped, damp, poorly lit basements or in a member’s living room where articles were trod on and treasured photos might later be found sticking to the soles of someone’s trainers down the pub. For all that it was a paper genuinely written and produced by, in the main, a manual working class membership, and as was painfully evident from the lay-out it was well and truly amateur. Even National Front News
would caustically remark on the rather eclectic proof-reading.
And on the odd occasion when someone of the traditional left saw reason to comment, it was followed up routinely enough, to in time sound like a familiar inquiry, ‘so who writes your paper then?’ Meaning of course ‘who writes it for you? ‘No offence meant’. And of course none was taken. Nonetheless despite the production process limitations, issue 17
was able to report the decision taken at the RA conference that year (1985) to move to production of a monthly paper.
In 1988 certain political shifts took place within RA that would inevitably impact directly on the paper itself. At the annual conference the overwhelming majority backed a proposal that would fundamentally question RA’s relationship to the rest of the Left and the previously stated position of RA standing foursquare ‘within the revolutionary socialist tradition’, meaning the Marxist-Leninist one.
It is also true to say that for a couple of years previously, the paper had appeared too content to regurgitate generic ‘socialist’ arguments about the decline of the health service, accompanied with jaded leftie headlines such as ‘Build A Fighting Socialist Movement’ or ‘Unity Is Strength’, accompanied by po-faced arguments and themes many RA members increasingly suspected were probably bettered by the Daily Mirror anyway.
Among other editorial eccentricities was the policy of simply not reporting at all, or giving zero prominence to, activities even where RA had hands-on involvement, while the popular and irreverent Red Action in Actioncolumn, had been ditched.
In the beginning this recoil from the grasping self-aggrandising and self-defeating faction-fighting that seemed to dominate the left was understandable. But over time it seems it morphed into regarding what RA members were doing as not being important in the wider scheme of things at all. It was indeed an unconventional logic, and led toissue 26
for instance leading with bog standard front page articles about Central America and the unions, while tucked away on the back page without even an actual headline to go with it was the story of AFA humiliating an NF march (led by Nick Griffin incidentally) through the market town of Bury St. Edmunds, with the resulting fall-out leading the NF as an organisation to fragment.
Ironically, one unintended effect of this self-effacing approach was to present the actions of RA as invitation-only, ‘shadowy’ and elitist, especially as in the period under discussion (the late ‘80s) the paper itself offered the reader nothing more than the chance to support RA or take out a subscription, with the opportunity to actually get involved withheld. And as this Manichean world view began to seem increasingly dated, many sensed that fundamental and indeed possibly harder questions needed to be asked of ‘our’ own side as well.
As it happens, the rejection of the ‘revolutionary socialist tradition’ at the aforementioned conference in 1988, which when decoded meant a rejection of the custom and practise of the left as ‘revolutionary’, did cause a small number of RA members, including the then editor, to resign. Automatically the publication came under ‘new management’.
Under New Management
When the next issue of RA appeared later that year under a new editorial board it signalled a gradual shift of direction rather than an overnight revamp, though it would take a number of issues until the paper fully adopted what would go on to mark it out as inimitable. The main guidelines introduced were:
- That we begin to give prominence to reporting on events and campaigns that RA members were involved in.
- That we begin to challenge the modus operandi of various organisations and campaigns on the Left.
- That we begin to politically challenge the theories of orthodox Marxist-Leninist and anarchist organisations.
Prior to the 1988 conference, much of what the mainstream Left had put forward as theory was tacitly accepted by RA’s membership. What was needed, it had been argued by some within RA, was a more democratic SWP type of organisation that would be led by and composed of working class militants and would hold to an uncompromising line on pivotal issues such as anti-fascism and Ireland, for example. For many, that would have been a sufficiently radical departure from the orthodox to satisfy.
But as it gradually emerged there might be rather more to what had previously been described as ‘cultural differences’ between the modus operandi of the Left and RA methodology, this reformist formula was now no longer regarded as adequate. Quite simply the world had changed. Accordingly the paper began to define exactly why if, as we believed, RA was so ‘right’ then it must follow that the rest of the Left was wrong
Thereafter the task the paper set itself was to debunk the cherished ‘Marxist’ theories Leftist academics had for decades self-assuredly and ignorantly promoted (the most infamous being the French philosopher Louis Althusser, sometimes labelled ‘the Marxist who had never read Marx’, who in order to square the conflict between what he did actually read and what he actually believed opted to promote the ‘young versus old Marx’ trope as a compromise) and examine how and when core aspects of original communist thought, as well as key lessons from working class history, had often come to be twisted into their opposite, visiting calamity on the working class movement internationally.
On one occasion, after using the Paris Commune to draw some wider conclusions, RA
was publicly challenged regarding the historical accuracy of its stance on the structure of the National Guard. It beggared belief that we were able to rebut the accusers almost word for word by simply employing a direct quote from Marx himself. As it turned out the group in question had apparently only read ‘Trotsky on the Paris Commune’, who for reasons of expediency had simply re-moulded the National Guard (which Marx had regarded as a model for the worker’s state) to better mimic the extant top down Bolshevik design (Issue 63: Paris Commune debate with Workers Power
). On another equally memorable occasion an opponent nailed the beginning of one sentence by Marx to the tail end of another, in a desperate and failed attempt to kill off further debate, hoping others wouldn’t snitch and we wouldn’t notice. They didn’t. We did.
For some this extremely unwelcome revision began in issue 53
with an article entitled ‘The Dictatorship Of The Proletariat’
which in turn led to an expansion of the paper to six pages in issue 54
and then to eight pages in issue 58
mainly to allow for these critical debates be given due space. And it wasn’t until Dec 1992
that the production of RA became fully computerised and expanded to a 12 page tabloid format, eventually rising to 16 pages.At this point it is important to take on board that unlike in other publications the debate we initiated – and it was in fact a real debate – was designed not to entrench the party line, mainly because in terms of the questions of communist theory under investigation there was simply no RA party line to entrench. Neither were we cheer-leading Marx over Lenin. We were instead mostly emphasising the contradictions between the two and the tension within the imprimatur ‘Marxist–Leninist’. It was thus not necessary to produce propaganda to compete with propaganda and indeed it was much to our advantage that we had neither the desire nor need to do so.
What we were after was the pure and simple truth, unvarnished, from the firm belief that such an autopsy was required in advance of any working class renaissance. A position which in turn was justified as it gradually emerged that Marxist-Leninism did not only defend autocratic behaviour out of expediency and the ‘exigencies of counter-revolutionary war’, but believed in autocracy.
In taking these steps to redefine the role of the paper, the politics of the RA also became more defined which in turn led to a significant spread of membership nationally and a much higher profile, and increasing notoriety and sense of ‘otherness’ amongst the Left which now again even spilled over into the national press. One example of this is current Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s comments on Red Action in an article
for The Times in January 2002
“None, perhaps, are as deeply dyed revolutionaries as Red Action…[whose] website also notes Red Action’s leadership role in the organisation Anti-Fascist Action and AFA’s involvement in deliberately triggering street brawls with the British National Party. The images on the website’s home page are of Red Action members “in action,” aiming kicks at those attending a fascist rally. The website also records Red Action’s willingness to recruit combative street fighters on football terraces and its association with Celtic Football Club hooligans alongside discussion of when Marxism began to go wrong in the Soviet Union.”
The War in Ireland
From the outset the war in the North of Ireland had been described in the pages of RA as the ‘litmus test for revolutionaries in Britain’. Support for the political struggle for Irish self-determination and the armed struggle in particular was one of the main characteristics of the paper which, alongside physical force anti-fascism, helped gave it its distinct political identity.
Even before Red Action was formed, some of the soon-to-be-membership were already travelling to Ireland as part of Troops Out Movement delegations. Red Action delegations to the Six Counties had always been a feature in RA, reporting on the experiences of those who took part and advertising future trips, described usually as the ‘highlight of the political calendar’ for RA personnel.
But these delegations had an importance far beyond a simple expression of solidarity, and were neither about ‘revolutionary tourism’ nor being part of the ‘Provo supporters club’ as detractors liked to allege. What these delegations afforded us was the opportunity to demonstrate to newer members or supporters that within an hour of jumping onto a plane, they would see first-hand exactly how our own ruling class really behave when un-gloved.
Accordingly any lingering naivety about an essentially democratic ruling establishment that required no more than one or two political tweaks to deliver working class rule via the Labour Party had generally been banished for good by the end of a single weekend.
Another eminently practical benefit in accepting the use and need for armed struggle meant that any ethical reservations about our own use of violence for political ends, in this case physical force anti-fascism, was under-scored and legitimised.
It also gave us the chance to establish personal contacts with of the most militant elements in arguably the most wide-awake working class in Western Europe at the time. It was of course against their commitment that we as members of the British working class had an opportunity to gauge our own political and personal resolve. And though not deliberately designed at the outset as such, ‘the Belfast trip’ would serve as a de facto filter for potential members as well.
Not surprisingly, some, faced with the brutal reality of the conflict, gained a personal insight into the inadequacy of their previous understanding of the words `revolutionary struggle`. And so, having returned safely to the mainland we never laid eyes on them again.
Equally the politics of other individuals led to rather different conclusions, and a number of high profile arrests and convictions in the early 1990`s earned the Red Action brand additional notoriety from a slack jawed Left and further attention from state security.Through the Belfast trips, RA members gained sufficient intimacy to allow us to learn immense and invaluable political lessons from both the Republican and Republican Socialist Movements, while retaining enough room to be able to objectively analyse and learn from their failures as well as their successes, vital lessons we would later apply in our own theatre of operations outside of the Six Counties.
It also meant that RA was one of the few publications on the British Left to provide a nuanced analysis of the ‘INLA feud’ in 1987 that went beyond a blanket condemnation (Issues 36
). Close personals relationship with individuals within the Republican Socialist Movement at the time also provided a unique insight into the all-important political origins, with ‘From Connolly To Corleone’ and ‘Deadly Divisions’ being penned by former members of the IRSM.
Paradoxically, in spite of its trenchant support for the right of Irish Republicans to engage in armed struggle, Red Action was possibly the only publication on the Left to tactically endorse its discontinuation on the grounds that it was the IRA threat to the financial districts in particular that had finally bombed the British government to the negotiating table, while rival publications who had previously denounced the armed struggle crowed that the entire peace process represented nothing less than ‘capitulation’ and ‘defeat’.
Fighting the Fascists
In 1985, following a much-publicised attack on a family festival in Central London, RA acknowledged in issue 19
that there were still a significant number of people who were ready, willing and eager to oppose fascism, and need some sort of organising body to give their efforts maximum effect.
Anti-Fascist Action (a name since used by militant anti-fascist groups throughout Europe) was born at a conference in Conway Hall on Sunday 28th July 1985.
‘We see the need to oppose racism and fascism physically on the streets and ideologically. This grouping should be organised on non-sectarian and democratic lines.’
Subsequent issues of RA chartered the steady rise of AFA as the leading anti-fascist organisation in Britain. And (alongside AFA’s own Fighting Talk magazine) was widely regarded the authoritative voice of genuine militant anti-fascism.
With hindsight the development of RA politically can be charted from our recognition that the emergence of fascism represents a chemical change in the body politic, and because of this can never be ignored or treated as just another campaign. It was this instinct that saw us unwittingly depart from the theory and practice of the orthodox Left from almost the very first step.
Similarly, just as our theory followed practice, their practice was based on theory. In order to define and defend our own politics we ended up demolishing theirs. This extract from 1992 was typical of that period.
“In its continuing flight from reality the orthodox Left doggedly insists militant anti-fascism, which in its purest form is spelt out in physical violence, is merely a cowardly distraction, a side show, from the real business of confronting racist legislation by the state. The motive behind this line of argument is as obvious as it is perverse. If nothing else, the current events in Germany show that institutionalised racism is not the cause of far-right violence. The relationship is precisely the reverse. The well organised attacks against refugees at Rostock and elsewhere were the spark which set in motion the manoeuvres by the social democratic parliamentarians to support right wing calls to amend Germany’s liberal post war constitution.
“The success of these forms of direct action caused them to be legitimised in the eyes of the public. This in turn emboldens fascist supporters toward more ambitious political demands, inevitably followed by further paramilitary excesses.
In this year’s Newham Monitoring Project’s annual report AFA is condemned for the use of ‘intensely paranoid almost paramilitary tactics’. To follow this line of argument is to accept that not only is confronting the fascists an alternative to confronting the state, but in addition it is to pretend that in the battle for the streets the state remains neutral.
“This is precisely the argument the state uses itself. But in rejecting physical confrontation they (NMP) also eschew any long term goals or short term political solutions that genuinely reflect the interests of the working class – black and white – as another adulteration of the anti-racist struggle.
“Instead they insist the anti-fascist movement should devote its whole strength and energy to those middle class patch-work reforms which could provide the political establishment with new supports and hence perhaps transform potential catastrophe into a gradual piecemeal and hopefully peaceful process of dissolution.
“Groups like the Newham Monitoring Project follow this strategy because they are paid to; ‘revolutionary’ groups like the Socialist Workers Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party follow a similar strategy by choice.
Rather than concern themselves with resolving the practical problems faced by the working class, their reason for being is to suggest abstract solutions to the problems faced by the state. For once you accept the state is the cause of the problem, it is logical to deduce that the state can, indeed must, provide the solution.
“So while the objective of the hard right is to strengthen the state through the use of force, the parallel function of the soft Left is to strengthen the state through the use of reform. The purpose of the mission is an attempt to save the state from itself. Adding to the attraction of approaching the issue arse-about-face is the promise that one’s relationship with anti-fascism remains purely platonic.” (RA 1992)
So having ducked the physical challenge back then, today the strategy recommended by constitutional anti-fascism is (which the help of technology) to sideline a huge chunk of the working class electorally, in the hope that it can in this way duck the political challenge as well. Consistent perhaps, but it also marks another ill-omened and perhaps final retreat from any sense of anti-fascist principle.The Hope not Hate message statement when distilled is straightforward: a battle for hearts and minds is a distraction as radical change is neither needed nor desired and thus any change or threat of it, including progressive change, will be resisted or subverted.
‘The road less travelled’
Like the group it represented, RA didn’t suffer fools gladly and refused to take prisoners ideologically. As a result it won few friends outside of its own circle, with furious Leninists often accusing it of being anarchist and indignant anarchists usually reviling it as Trotskyist, with the former on one glorious occasion departing from the norm in coining the term ‘Utopian Stalinism’.
Regardless, it still had influence where it mattered, and the political conclusions it had advertised from the off promise to stand the test of time. Equal in terms of importance would be the overall class character of the revolutionary organisation, with a directly accountable structure built block-by-block from the bottom up.
And though in itself internal democracy may be no magic bullet, it is credited with ensuring RA generally avoided the short-sighted and self-serving prophecies that have bedevilled the Left for more than half a century, while creating a quiet confidence and a sureness of foot when moving forward. And while every organisation will inevitably have secrets it also helps cohesion when the internal and external face of the group is identifiably the same.
With this mind, when AFA was re-launched to dramatic effect in 1989 the old national executive style of leadership was ditched and replaced with the type of democratic organisation routinely promoted within RA. It’s hardly a secret either that RA was pivotal in clearing the way theoretically (e.g. puncturing the notion that strikes are necessarily either an engine or barometer for social change, or by chipping away at identity politics’ liberal varnish) prior to the launch of the IWCA in 1995. That the latter would mark its public debut with a campaign to stymie a mugging epidemic plaguing a vast estate in Birmingham would break the mould of what a Left, even at its most expansive, might have ever considered within its remit. And yet from an old-school communist vista, empowering an entire community and thus denying both the state and
the far-right a foothold would have been regarded as either elementary or inspired.
The alternative to ignoring community organisation is that parties like the BNP seize on peoples discontent, and stir up hate. In Phil Piratin’s book ‘Our Flag Stays Red’ he describes the Communist Party’s (CP) strategy for defeating fascism in the East End in the 1930’s.
In one chapter, a local family is being evicted by slum landlords and the CP branch discusses what to do – the problem being that the head of the family is a member of the Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Piratin’s position is that irrespective of the family’s BUF connections, the eviction must be resisted because working class people must be protected against the capitalists. Amidst much internal hostility, Piratin’s position prevailed. The CP successfully prevents the eviction of family, and the BUF member defected to the CP, saying that he had mistakenly believed that the fascists stood for ordinary people like him
And it was precisely because of the ‘grasping the nettle’ nature of campaigns like this that when it came to elections, though very much a bantamweight in a heavyweight division the IWCA pilot schemes delivered arguably the best spread of results from a standing start of any left wing group post-war, when taking into account the dearth of resources on the ground. Elected councillors apart, probably the stand-out and least heralded performances were the near 5,000 votes accrued in just two wards in Havering (half of Arthur Scargill’s SLP total nationally); and in a typically hard fought election in Glasgow against no less than five national parties, the IWCA nevertheless took a fifth
of the total vote, coming in a close 3rd
Meanwhile visibly trembling at the ‘threat of a good example’ the Labour Party, marshalled by former Work and Pensions Secretary Andrew Smith, mobilised across the entire south-east in order to halt the momentum of Oxford IWCA in 2008.
Clearly the IWCA was doing something right. But thus far it remains just an experiment. So for the pro-working class Left across Europe the key questions they need to ask themselves are: ‘If not us, then who? If not the IWCA way, then how? If not now, then when?’
In the first edition
of Red Action dated February 1982, under a headline ‘Why Red Action?’
the reason for being was explained as follows: “We do not seek to imitate the traditional Left. We seek to work in the areas they neglect”. It was a simple promise well kept.
To adapt the American poet Robert Frost:
‘Ages and ages hence two roads diverged, and we, we took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.’
Thirty years after RA was formed the need to bring the marginalised working class in from the cold is greater than ever. Just as predictably, conservative anti-fascism is moving in the opposite direction. Where previously we condemned the strategy of avoiding confronting the far-right physically, today the strategy for conservative anti-fascism is to avoid confronting the far-right politically.
And instead of politically engaging on the issues on working class estates, the most recent recommendation/boast of Hope not Hate is to establish ‘a firewall’ between the unskilled and unemployed sections of the white working class, where the BNP have some resonance, and the rest of the electorate. Not only is the plan to put significant sections of the population in electoral quarantine out of fear of how they might possibly vote redolent of the Six Counties prior to 1968 and the Jim Crow laws in the American Deep South, in this upside down world it is the middle class, fascism’s traditional social base, who need protecting from the contagion carried by the ‘people of no property’, who just as traditionally supplied anti-fascism’s doughtiest fighters.
Thirty years ago when RA railed against the SWP (the standard bearers of the time, lest not forget) for ceding a sales pitch to the NF in north London, we maintained that confronting the fascists remained ‘a key part of the class struggle’. This was not us being overly anxious about a localised capitulation: it was seen rightly as evidence of a readiness for further compromises down the line. Sure enough, three decades on, what is now being ceded is a core element of the British working class itself.
A Europe in economic crisis verging on the chronic, with societal intemperance matched by a loss of faith in democratic solutions among all classes, throws up at one end Greece, where unreconstructed national socialists are elected to parliament; and a less than shabby return of 6 million votes on a thirty year investment by the FN in France at the other. Meanwhile, as nationalist and proto-fascist parties climb all over the furniture near everywhere else (under PR even a struggling BNP would have dozens of MPs off the back of the results in 2010) the conservative Left remains hobbled with formations, priorities and tactics designed to fight the class war in a previous century, the chatter being all about international perspectives, buckled to a lordly disdain for any engagement in a sustained way with their titular constituency at home. As a snapshot of where we are now, it is as good as any.
And when comparing it to a snapshot of the 1930s it does initially reassure that generally (with Greece being a possible exception) we are nowhere near yet. But on closer inspection the apparent tranquillity might just be down to the fact that one of the previous protagonists – an organised and politicised working class – is missing; marked absent. And because in Britain as elsewhere at present the political centre, and by extension as they see it, the whole of society appears to be threatened from only one end of the spectrum it encourages an overweening anti-fascism to smugly believe that it enjoys the support of the silent majority, and will moreover always do so. It may well do for the moment, (though opinion polls suggest even that is debatable) but if push comes to shove, what the near total isolation of the anti-fascist militants in Germany’s Weimar Republic, or the mere 0.6 per cent of the French population who were officially registered as ‘resisters’ tells us, is that this sort of cross-class consensus is historically ephemeral or brittle and so the prudent always provision for a time where effective anti-fascism may once again prove to be a minority pursuit. It also tells us something else. Should the warning signs go unheeded and events do take a turn for the worse, it is unlikely the few who stood their ground will ever get to say ‘we told you so’.
Giving quarter in places like Chapel Market rarely has visible consequences in the short term. But tiny betrayals beget bigger ones. And even though wholescale capitulation might not begin with an immediate avalanche of support for the far-right – that’s how it invariably ends.