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Unabashed history

Beating the Fascists: The untold story of Anti-Fascist Action, by Sean Birchall (Freedom Press), reviewed by Ben Aylott

March 6, 2011
2 min read

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.

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