"I have long argued that the giving of offence, and even hate speech, should be a moral matter but not a matter for the criminal law. That is as true on the football pitch as on the streets. We should always challenge racism. We should also always challenge attacks on liberties in the guise of faux antiracism." Kenan Malik

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.


Beating The Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action is available now via beatingthefascists.org.


18 responses

  1. Arthur.

    The mistake of the left is to believe the EDL is fascist, that’s not to say that some fascists have joined EDL but EDL as an organisation is not.

    As a supporter I am not in the slightest fascist, I don’t want to impose any ideology on anyone and I know this applies to many in the EDL.

    We are not looking for power or to be elected, we don’t want to kick people out of the country, we only want them to accept our way of life, which is equality for women, equality for gays, equality for Jewish people and also for those muslims under the yoke of Islamism.

    To leave behind those aspects of Islamic culture that horrify us, like honour killings, FGM and jihad.

    We EDL are a rough and ready bunch of people who are fighting for us to be heard, we put our foot in our politically incorrect chants because we are angry, but that does not make us nazi, fascist, racist, just angry and frustrated.

    The truth is the left missed the boat because they misread what was happening and instead of joining with the EDL and helping it move to an uprising of the working class they declared us as the enemy and we became the enemy.
    By declaring that we were nazi, the nazis tried to join us, by declaring we were racist, the racist tried to join us, by declaring we were fascist, surprise, surprise, the fascist tried to join us. A self for-filling prophecy.

    The left set the agenda, why, because they were nearly dead in the water, they needed, desperately, an enemy, some thing they could rally round to justify their existence and we were perfect.

    I mean look at us, shaven heads, a bit scruffy, like a pint, etc etc etc, they could look down on us and look down on us they did and that youtube video of those two discussing the attack on that women from the EDL coach says it all, they were only interested in the fact that she was ugly, not human, a dog and you can kick a dog??

    Now it turns out that her views are despicable and from what I’ve read, do not in the slightest reflect EDL or me, but they didn’t know that, their judgement was based on what she looked like and from that it was ok to attack and kick her up the arse.
    Talk about own goal!!

    You leftist and anarchist helped to create the direction of the EDL, you have driven us to the right, we didn’t start off on the right, we were just a bunch of people who felt that the Islamists were taking the piss and that trade unions and the Labour party had betrayed us. All we wanted was a voice and you have tried to deprive us of that voice, like the state has deprived us, like the middle class trade unions have deprived us and lets not mince words, we hate you for that betrayal.

    Is there any hope, will you admit your crime against the working class?


    September 10, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    • Marcus Clarke

      You often make a lot of sense Arthur however on this occasion you perhaps need to read through some of the links at the top of the page. This organisation can in NO WAY be simply lumped in with ‘leftists’.

      I’m confused though-what the fuck has this to do with the above book?

      September 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm

  2. Dr. K

    Quite right with the self-fulfilling prophecy, Arthur.

    Groups with that consider a flag as a fascist symbol started finger-pointing with cries of racist, etc. Guess what, the racist ears pricked up and thought it was the org for them.

    The EDL has done a pretty good job moving these racists on, something which is reflected, apparently, by the rise of the compass-orientated Infidel movements. I’ve been checking them out today and some seem to be ex-EDL who didn’t like the fact that non-whites were playing a role. Further, I’ve see they now have mutual flirtation with the NF via Stormfront while others involved post Skrewdriver videos.

    Sure, fascists tried to jump on the EDL bandwagon, but they were fucked off. The EDL have never been racist and the racists are finding this out for themselves. God riddance to them.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:58 am

    • Really? Is that why the local Norwich EDL all gather round laughing at photos of local ‘EDL Angels’ driving the van down to a rally wearing a pig’s head rubber mask? I constantly look for reasons to try and sympathize with you but always find that underneath the surface people in the EDL forever seem to let the ‘not racist/not bigoted mask’ slip.
      Tis a shame that.
      While I agree that most of what Arthur has written above is spot on (we’ve been arguing that for years) he may also be starting to let slip that mask…

      September 24, 2011 at 8:28 am

  3. Dr. K

    *Good. Bah.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:59 am

  4. We have already posted links on this website proving that anarchist anti-fascists were on the streets opposing Al-Muhajiroun long before most of the EDL had even left school.
    In other parts of the country such as Tower Hamlets anarchists have recently joined others opposed to the EDL marching there not because they support militant Islam but because they don’t want outsiders being bused in to smash up their community and piss all over the local churches!
    Come on Arthur, we thought you were clever enough to realize there is no united front between the *liberal left* and the militant-left and anarchists. I’ve always found the trouble with the right is they often can’t be bothered to read up on the enemy and end up in a right lather.
    The above book is all about the far-right making assumptions about certain left-wing militants namely AFA and Red Action which ended up with fash constantly being brought down to earth.

    You like how I brought the thread subject matter back on topic there? 😉

    September 24, 2011 at 8:18 am

  5. Icepick

    “You leftist and anarchist helped to create the direction of the EDL, you have driven us to the right, we didn’t start off on the right, we were just a bunch of people who felt that the Islamists were taking the piss and that trade unions and the Labour party had betrayed us. All we wanted was a voice and you have tried to deprive us of that voice, like the state has deprived us, like the middle class trade unions have deprived us and lets not mince words, we hate you for that betrayal.

    Is there any hope, will you admit your crime against the working class?”


    September 25, 2011 at 1:18 pm

  6. villa

    i am a leftist and i have consitantly called for a dialogue between us and the edl , we are all united by our social class , we have common enemies , the rich and militant islam , their will always be headbangers and tits on both sides just along for the ride , the left (the real left) should fight side by side with the edl against the people who seek to controle us , the ruling classes , i cant be bothered to get all hung up about the odd bit of sillines on iether side , we should be talking , till we find common ground , and we will , other wise the tories will fuck us all

    September 26, 2011 at 4:40 pm

  7. Simon B

    Militant islam? In Norfolk? Where?

    September 26, 2011 at 6:23 pm

  8. villa

    i dont see many libyians but i stood with them against gadafi , i dont see many egyptians but i stood with them against tyrany , i dont see many gypsies but i went to dale farm ,an injustice to one is an injustice to all .militant islam may not be doing much in norfolk but it murdered thousands of trade unionists in turkey , iran , afghanistan , saudi arabia , not to mention the twin towers and countless other atrocities , i say ban the burkha and give everyone of the mad mullahs a right good kickin , if they want to follow that barberouse faith to the letter let them piss of back to their own countries to do it , when in rome , england is a eauropean country with eauropean customs and practices , they should conform , or be re educated , if it was down to me i would bull doze every mosque , church and synagoge in this country , but as things stand at least these ignorant savages should practice their pagan superstiscions in secrete and private , as civilized educated people realy dont want to be aware of their ignorance , and if you dont like my opinions why dont you get your invisible friend to get me with a plague or a bolt of lightning lol

    September 26, 2011 at 7:08 pm

  9. villa

    incidentaly i would just like to say what a fantastic site this is , extremely well done , well put together and realy quite artistic , i have been on many many demoes and actions , i have often witnesed ridiculouse and reckless behaviour , i always expect it , the thing is the youngsters of the edl , though they live within the prison of the class systeme probably never discuss it , are not aware that it exsists or that it can be destroyed , that is our role , also i do believe that the edl are lied about and misrepresented , to be frank i see them as a rather innoscent organisation , nieve ,guys like arthure , i could definatly work with, also why arent the edl working with fathers for justice , or are they , if not they certainly should , they could achieve a great deal together , its a real issue the so called left are too scared to go near in case they upset the militant feminists , but why not defend fathers in families i am sure the two groups would have a lot of common ground

    September 26, 2011 at 9:02 pm

  10. Quaysidelad

    “We EDL are a rough and ready bunch of people”/”I mean look at us, shaven heads, a bit scruffy, like a pint” Arthur is a fooken cock. Thas many worken class lads n lassies oot there that dinya pish up churchees-ya ken? Heebee-geebees! http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/news/images/1818_816.jpg

    September 26, 2011 at 10:10 pm

  11. pancho villa

    no offence , but i didnt understand a word of that , well the bit about arthure i did , i like him , he seems very sensible and honest

    September 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm

  12. Simon B

    And you can tell all that by the words on the page, amazing. I find it remarkable he can even type.

    September 28, 2011 at 7:14 pm

  13. pancho villa

    i think we should involve the edl in the anti cuts movement

    September 29, 2011 at 4:41 pm

  14. You are starting to give the Norfolk Community Action group a bad name.

    September 29, 2011 at 6:44 pm

  15. Individual’s opinions are their own not the organisations Simon. We’re all entitled to our opinions.

    Pancho Villa, we aren’t in the anti-cuts movement, we left. https://norfolknonaligned.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/why-ncag-have-pulled-out-of-the-norfolk-coalition-against-the-cuts/

    I’m sure the EDL and SWP will get along swimmingly however.

    September 29, 2011 at 7:17 pm

  16. pancho villa

    as a marxist it is my role to involve working class people in class struggle , we have entered into an online dialogue with the edl , my opinions are very much my own and do not represent the group , i do believe that the membership of the edl have a vested interest with us in fighting our oppressors the rulling classes , it is our role to draw them into this conflict and away from nationalism and islamaphobia , if we simply insult and disregaurd them they will continue to grow as they have done , this statergy may have to change in time , if the edl turn into a neo nazi group tactics will have to change accordingly , i am refering to norfolk edl with this and not the organisation on a national level , i understand your views simon , but i am not a cheer leader for the edl , potentialy they are the most dangerouse right wing group yet due to their close links to the working class communities , they are also a one trick poney , this will change in time , i have no doubt of it , they are also very much a product of multiculturalism and identity politics , in solidarity , no pasaran!

    September 30, 2011 at 6:23 am

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