It’s time I put the text of my speech to the South London Anti-Fascist Group’s AGM online.
The talk nearly did not happen. Much to my surprise, Hope Not Hate objected to me speaking, describing my presence as ‘intolerable’. Hope Not Hate’s predecessor organisation, Searchlight , long enjoyed a monopoly over media coverage of the far-right – it is worrying if Hope Not Hate believe they have a similar monoply over analysis of fascism, or even of opposition to it?
Anyway, after the AGM’s business those present had a talk by Hackney Unites on their work in east London, and performances by Dean Atta and the Ruby Kid . That gave me the most difficult slot of all – the last one. Here’s what I said:
Talk To South London Anti-Fascists
I am slightly embarrassed at being described as an activist. I’m as active as anyone with 3 part time jobs, twin sons and a PhD to finish.
I was very active for best part of two decades, a member of Class War for 16 years, I was involved with Anti-Fascist Action on an occasional basis (those who remember Red Action will know Anarchists were always kept in reserve for when the numbers were short, we were the auxillary force) and a founder member of No Platform and Antifa.
If I have theme this evening it is that things are very different today to 1992 or 1993 – but in some ways they can still be rather similar.
In 1993 anti-fascists had to contend with a large, fluid group of disparate young men, ostensibly protesting about terrorism. Their numbers certainly contained organised fascists, loyalists and ex-soldiers, but also from football firms, people with little or no political background, and people looking for a scrap. Those anti-IRA demonstrations – the cries of No Surrender – were the precursors of the EDL demonstrations of today.
Those demonstrations passed. Indeed they were a distraction from doing what was necessary – reaching a mature peace in Ireland. And the EDL are a similar distraction
- The first is that they will stimulate racist attacks – either on lone Muslims on the fringes of demonstrations, or as we have seen in Luton in an attack on a mosque.
- That EDL actions will stimulate racist attacks by Muslims on whites. At the counter-demo to the EDL in Birmingham at least one white passer by was beaten up, with footage of the incident displayed across the papers.
With hindsight, there are other dangers we could perhaps add, although I have to say the idea of the EDL as an electoral force conjoined with the British Freedom Party is one that at this stage I don’t fear. Social movements tend to lose something, some of their sparkle when they try and become political parties.
3. The third danger I saw, which is by far the biggest, is that the EDL retard debate about Islam, and more importantly Islamism, in the UK. There is something different potentially about the EDL to the anti-IRA – read anti-Irish – demonstrations of the 1990s.
Lets consider where the EDL emerges – in Luton – following the Al-Mujihiroun demonstration against the Royal Anglian Regiment. Historically Luton is a town with comparatively good race relations. It has good relations between white and black, and good relations between Irish and British. It has very poor relations between Muslim and non-Muslim. Those problems long predate the EDL.
In 2009 I argued the presence of the EDL runs the risk of dividing debate into racists on one side, and professional anti-racists and Muslim representative organisations on the other, with little or no space for anyone else to operate in. Melanie Phillips on one side and the Muslim Council of Britain on the other. And that divide excludes the vast majority of people in this community, and indeed the UK.
There is a problem, for people on the left, in considering issues in those terms. Look at the hysterical reactions from some on the left when, I think it was Nick Lowles, made the comment that Al-Mujihiroun and the EDL were two sides of the same coin. It was hardly a bizarre comparison to make.
There are problems, and indeed real concerns with some of the brands of Islam we now see in the UK. In Tower Hamlets, the most important political institution is not the Labour Party, trades unions or a particular community group – it is East London Mosque. How we articulate and discuss these issues is an even bigger challenge than dealing with the EDL. They are another distraction from where we want to go, from where we want society to be.
I want to say a few things about multi-culturalism. It is something I suspect everyone in this room is comfortable with. As an Englishman of Irish descent with an African wife, I know I am. A London where we get on with our neighbours and our workmates precisely because they are our neighbours and colleagues. That gives us shared interests and things in common. A multi-culturalism where we see people as people, not as representatives of particular ethnic or religious groups, to be spoken to and interacted with on those terms.
I don’t usually see the need to articulate most of the problems of London in racial terms. That is not to say racism does not exist – it does. But there are two types of multi-culturalism. Kenan Malik’s attack on a top down multi-culturalism, where identities are imposed by authorities – read his book From Fatwa to Jihad – is I think essential reading. He sets out how in Birmingham identities were imposed, by the local authority, and funding and power allocated on that basis. And within two decades, you have blacks and Muslims fighting each other in the streets. In the 1980s they had been fighting alongside one another against the police.
Onto the contemporary far-right. As in the early 1990s, the main far right party is underachieving. The spivvy nature of Griffin’s BNP has been understood by his own supporters, taking a lot of his base away. Griffin’s sole priority is probably to get re-elected as an MEP – those who have served two terms in the European Parliament get a very significant pension. It is hard, but not impossible to see him getting the BNP back to where it was.
These are still challenging times though for anti-fascists. I would recommend to you some of the work Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham University has done on far-right voting patterns and opinion poll data across Europe. In most countries the populist (read fascist) party has a rising vote – Norway and the UK being the most noticeable exceptions. It is not hard to see why the vote is collapsing in Norway – in Anders Breivik, they have seen fascism in action. In France and Austria the majority of white working class voters indicated they would vote for the ‘populist’ party.
I am not sure anything about a trend ensures its continuation. To me, a whole series of dangers exist, but one of the most dangerous is to play into the hands of fascists. If there is such a thing as ‘the black community’ or the ‘Vietnamese community’ or the ‘Muslim community’, with fixed leaders, structures and needs, can we really wet our pants in shock and distress when someone says “I represent the white community vote for me”?
Yes we need multi-culturalism. It is what I live. But we need a bottom up multi-culturalism, not a top down government approach that plays into the hands of our enemies.
No Platform, which I tried to uphold for two decades, is harder than ever to implement. Firstly because of police repression – consider the six Antifa members jailed last year, the amount of CCTV, the limitless expenses these specialist police units seem to have. Secondly look at the rise of social media and the Internet – the BNP could be prevented from leafleting, but that same leaflet placed online and seen by hundreds of people within minutes. Which makes no platform more of an occasional tactic than part of a sustainable, permanent programme.
We have to beat the fascists in argument. And we can. Our ideas are better than theirs.
Thank you for listening.
Fifteen complete editions of Anti Fascist Action’s journal ‘Fighting Talk’ in PDF format are now available to download. A great rarity now finding these so well worth a look back at the UK’s most successful militant anti-fascist organisation to date. Nice one Libcom.
Click on image.
While Cameron and Co hand out medals to the posh and corrupt lets recognize some folks who really are deserving of them but are instead fitted up and jailed in the fight against fascism.
Andy Baker, Thomas Blak, Sean Cregan, Phil De Sousa, Ravi Gill, Austen Jackson as well as all those jailed in the struggle against the far-right everywhere, we stand with you in solidarity.
70 years ago they’d have been called heroes, today they’re labelled criminals and extremists.
………….When he or she is an Anarchist.
By Paul Stott from his blog I Intend To Escape…And Come Back Again
I guess at my age I should be too old to get annoyed by the Socialist Workers Party, or indeed by the wider socialist/marxist milieu in the UK, of which the SWP is representative. Every now and then however they still manage to press my buttons, in a way that it surprises me how much I can still rage at their idiocy and perversion of ideals.
The Socialist Worker website currently has an article and list of prisoners it suggests we write to over Christmas. It is a mixed list of those jailed in the student revolt, alleged and actual miscarriage of justice cases, plus a couple of examples of very long term prisoners who have been in correspondence with left wing groups for many years.
Needless to say the five anti-fascists still in UK jails for attacking members of the fascist Blood and Honour organisation in 2009 , do not get a mention. I can think of no reason for this other than the fact they are Anarchists. They simply do not exist in Socialist Worker’s ethos.
One thing that does exist in that rose-tinted view of the world is a ‘war against Islam’. Curiously two of the men who were allegedly behind the most important British Jihadist website, Azzam.com are listed on the SWP’s support list. Azzam.com, named after the spiritual founder of Al-Qaeda, Abdullah Azzam, played a key role in supporting the struggle to establish an Islamic theocracy in Chechnya, receiving praise from the likes of Ibn ul Khattab .
This article sums up the level the last century left has slumped to. Five working class men in jail for fighting Nazis on the streets of London are not worthy of a mention, yet a veteran of the Bosnian Mujahideen, like Babar Ahmad, is .
I have never really believed the argument that concepts of a ‘left’ and a ‘right’ in British politics are no longer relevant. However, on this type of evidence, and more generally on issues surrounding race and religion (especially Islam) I really can’t see where the divide exists any more. That a division between the gullible and the realist exists, I am sure. How to articulate that it wider political terms, I am, at this stage, less sure about. Perhaps my PhD is a step towards doing that.
Paul Stott can also be followed on Twitter here https://twitter.com/#!/MrPaulStott
Antifascist Sean Cregan will be having his birthday in prison this year on the 6th December…how about sending him a card…won’t take you 5 minutes…
Don’t forget to put your name and address on the back of the envelope or he won’t get it.
Details of how Sean and 6 others found themselves with heavy sentences can be found here http://antifascistprisonersupportuk.wordpress.com/about-2/
A list of the other prisoners and their contact details can be found here http://antifascistprisonersupportuk.wordpress.com/addresses/
Please write to them. Advice on writing to prisoners can be found here http://www.brightonabc.org.uk/writing.html
They’re inside for us…we’re outside for them!
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.