Beating the Fascists: The untold story of Anti-Fascist Action, by Sean Birchall (Freedom Press), reviewed by Ben Aylott
A couple of reviews below about the recently published account of militant anti-fascism over two decades in the UK by Anti Fascist Action…a must read on so many levels for all those professing to understand fascism, anti-fascism and the working class in the UK.
Beating the Fascists is a highly readable and uncompromising account of two decades of militant anti-fascism with important lessons for today. Beginning with the background to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in the late 1970s and the expulsion of the ‘squaddist’ street-fighters from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1981, Birchall takes us on a tour of the following 20 years of Anti Fascist Action (AFA).
The book is a real page-turner, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. The description of the often brutal treatment of the fascists at the hands of the militants is graphic to the point of absurdity at times. But Birchall also has some serious points to make.
There is a sense of setting the record straight: principally in Birchall’s argument that AFA, and the militant anti-fascism it espoused, had the most devastating impact on fascism in mainland Britain in the period and that it directly contributed to the BNP’s eventual retreat, in the mid 1990s, from the Mosleyite dogma of the necessity of controlling the streets. Indeed, Birchall claims a continuity between AFA and the 43 Group of Jewish ex-servicemen, who confronted Mosley’s attempts at a fascist resurgence in the immediate post-war period.
The publication of this book has inevitably been controversial, not least because of its critical account of ‘constitutional’ anti-fascist organisations, in particular the SWP. Its recurring criticism of the British left in general is that it is largely to blame for the alienation of working-class voters who are getting behind the BNP, an argument that has taken on renewed relevance in the debate about the significance and role of the English Defence League.
Street politics: ‘Beating the fascists’
For two decades British anti-fascists fought a cold blooded battle for control of the streets against burgeoning far-right movements, Brian Whelan meets the authors of a controversial new book by activists who were there on the frontlines.
Just last year the BNP put forward 338 candidates for the UK parliamentary election, the biggest fielding by the far right the country had ever seen, topping the National Front’s 303 candidates in 1979.
The party gambled and lost, failing to win any seats and losing their 12 seats on Barking Council. The British left declared the BNP to have been finally defeated, decimated and no longer a threat.
However, veteran members of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) have a different analysis, they point out that the BNP have more than tripled their vote and say things are going to get a lot worse.
Joe and Ian are veterans from AFA’s war against the far-right, meeting in a bar in their former stomping ground of Islington, North London, they say they must protect their identities for fear of reprisals to this day.
Their book Beating the Fascists has caused a huge stir in the UK; published by Freedom Press, the book pulls no punches in its accounts of the physical fight against fascism on the streets and the internal political tensions that often threatened to tear the group apart.
Over ten years in the making Beating the Fascists not only chronicles the bloody street battles and political squabbles but also points out how fascist filled a vacuum for a radical alternative that the left has failed to.
The BNP’s turn to electoralism and attempt to become, on the surface, a respectable political party, was a direct result of the remorseless violence they were met with by AFA in the early 90s, the authors claim.
They explain that the BNP’s decision to abandon their Mosleyite strategy of winning control of the streets through menace was due in no small part to AFA’s violent counter-strategy.
However, they say AFA always argued that unless the left could undermine the far-right’s political constituency in the white working class they would never be truly beaten.
“The NF, C18 and BNP all had the same Mosleyite strategy to win control of the streets and after that the wider political narrative would kick in,” Joe explains.
“That was their plan so I mean there was a flaw in that if they were met by equal or superior violence they would be left in a limbo and that’s the position they found themselves in in the mid-90s, so they stepped off”.
The book is an often disturbing read, each chapter switching from graphic details of violent operations with militaristic discipline against fascists to analysis of the political decisions they faced.
When questioned on whether they have exaggerated for bravado or omitted stories of fights lost, the authors claim that the book is true to events as they happened.
“The punches are pulled on a number of instances to be fair, it’s a proper history and the violence and subjective perspective of the participants is presented to allow people to see that anti-fascism wasn’t a non violent affair,” Joe explained.
They reveal inside accounts of events such as ‘Battle for Brick Lane’, a series of running battles spanning 1990-1993 which saw the far-right lose one of their strongholds in London’s East End.
“Initially fascists were operating in kings cross – we wiped them out and after that their paper sales in chapel market were destroyed,” author Joe explained.
“We had boundaries and there were no prisoners taken, once we set up north London – west London divide we started moving into east London knowing we could retreat back.”
“We had a safe area here in Islington, North London became a stronghold for us, it was a prototype for clearing out fascists.”
This strategy was expanded nationally and the group enjoyed varying success in Manchester, Leeds and Scotland.
“When we went to brick lane, it was very symbolic for the BNP, they had been there from 1979 and hadn’t been touched, then suddenly they had to fight for their pitch and lose.”
The book crudely details how members of the far-right were ambushed leaving their pubs, attacked with bricks on demonstrations and kept under watch in extensive files.
The Irish diaspora played a central role in this battle as republican marches and the Irish community became a prime target for attack by skinhead thugs.
“There were trips to Belfast by members but not by AFA officially, there is no denying it,” Joe confesses.
“There was support there for Irish republicanism. People visited militant republicans in Belfast and friendships developed.”
“There were also people involved who had a more hands on role in republican movement – stuff that was learned over there was used against state operations over here and gave us an edge on the streets.”
The authors say that the political climate allows no place for violent confrontation in Britain at present, but they express no remorse for their past activities.
“It had to be violent because the opponent was violent – if they’re going to use violence you can’t use non-violence against that, you’ll be battered into the ground.”
They still see the BNP as a great threat pointing out that after they “fought them to a standstill” the party adopted a more respectable electoral approach pushed by Nick Griffin.
“I don’t think there is room for fighting them anymore, if the BNP stand 800 candidates to be effective you’d have to confront all 800,” Joe added.
“Would that damage anti-fascism or improve it if someone is running for election and you’re kicking in their door and setting fire to their cars people will ask what you are standing for?”
Having spent a decade fighting the far right on the streets Joe now believes they are now more dangerous than ever, as they hold elected positions.
He explains that alongside the war stories the book explains how AFA predicted almost two decades ago that the BNP would inevitably make serious electoral breakthroughs.
Over the last ten years of producing their book they have seen their predictions and worst fears for the BNP’s success realised.
“You can keep saying they’re not a threat up until the point you’re walking into the camps,” Joe adds.
“Things will get worse but how it turns out in the end is anyone’s guess, nobody can disguise the fact that the left are completely finished now in London.”
“They are bereft of ideas and bereft of constituency. Unfortunately groups like the BNP are now the official radical opposition.”
Ian adds that they believe the BNP are currently only experiencing setbacks and to write them off as a threat is a great mistake.
“The left should understand what the BNP are trying to achieve is very difficult – trying to bring nationalism in from the cold.”
“That’s something the left has entirely failed to do with communist politics. Its not going to be overnight, they’re going to have setbacks and recover ground.”
Beating the Fascists could be two separate books, appealing to very different audiences. The first a brutally violent story bragging of hard man conquests, the other a vital political analysis of the rise of the BNP and detailed history of the groups that fought them.