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On its 75th anniversary, much attention was given to the Battle of Cable Street, where Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts were prevented from marching through the predominantly Jewish working class East End of London. But Cable Street itself was the culmination of a wider tradition of direct physical confrontation with fascists both at the time and throughout most of the 20th century.
We are happy to praise those who made a stand in the 1930s. But what of those who literally fought the fascists more recently, in the shape of the British Movement, the National Front or the pre-Griffin British National Party?
The publication of Beating the Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action (Freedom Press) has re-asserted the importance of this disparaged and neglected tradition. Michael Calderbank spoke with Gary and Andy, longstanding members of Red Action who helped to initiate AFA, about their controversial new book.
Michael: Maybe we could begin by talking about the history of physical confrontation with the fascists in Britain?
Andy: Well, if you’re a Jew living in the 1930s or a working class Communist then it’s in your face, you’re dealing with Blackshirts who are on your street corner. It’s something you’ve got to react to and deal with in the here and now. You’ve also got people looking at the wider strategic picture – what was going in Spain was very real, what was going on in Italy and Germany was very real – and people with foresight understood that if you don’t put something in place to prevent that then you’re going to be in trouble yourselves.
After the war, when it was totally clear what fascism could lead to, you had the ’43 group which, although it had CP members in its ranks, was largely an apolitical purely paramilitary body who would go round attacking the fascists. They were tough people, physically aggressive who had often served in the armed forces, many from Jewish backgrounds, who had seen a lot in their few years – these are young people – if you’ve been through that and don’t understand it, you’re never going to understand it. So people who have gone through that, seen it in the cinemas, or even in your own family over in Europe – and then you’re just going out and minding your own business, and you see some geezer on a soapbox talkin’ about the same stuff, it’s gotta be obvious to you, yeah?
Gary: There’s an example when a group of Jewish lads went past Mosley’s secretary [Jeffrey Hamm] after the war speaking up at Jack Straw’s Castle [near Hampstead Heath], and they were incredulous. I’m mean, here was the same old Jew-baiting going on after the war as you had before the war – with everthying that had gone on! So they gave ’em a good shoeing and found: ‘these fuckers are everywhere!’ I mean, y’know, it’s ridiculous, we’re not havin’ it.
There was a huge strain of anti-semitism in the British establishment that Mosley hoped to profit from but never did. And so when Jews who had just got back from the war met fascists on the street they weren’t gonna petition the council to get see if they could do something! They were just gonna get on and do it themselves.
Andy: When people’s whole family lines have been wiped out and turned to ashes, what are you gonna do with people like that, try and debate with them in that situation?
Gary: And they wouldn’t wouldn’t debate with you either, that’s the point. If you went up to them and said, ‘excuse me, I’m a member of the Jewish faith and could you…’ [laughs] they’re not gonna argue the point, you’d be hit be a cosh. But, you might not be out looking for any trouble particular, but they’re there. And that situation doesn’t go away, it’s like that later on. You’ve gone to the football or something and you’re standing next to some guy who gets a bottle smashed over his head, a black kid who they’ve chased down, do you stand back and say ‘right we’ll get onto the council to do something!’?
Gary: Well, most of our people come into it from outside politics, with a completely fresh look, with no political hinterland at all. So there was a lot of cynicism from our side towards the existing organised left from a very early stage. I mean we supported emotionally and intellectually the basis for the whole left concept, and there was some stuff happening from on the picket lines (which was where I was recruited) and on things like the right-to-work marches, but even in the mid-Seventies it wasn’t clear cut and we certainly weren’t winning. There was a real lack of leadership across the board, not just on the revolutionary left but across the entire labour movement.
And at the same time as you had the start of the neoliberal stuff, you’d get the fascists upset at over-reaching in ’79 thinking – let’s not hang about let’s go for it now. The whole Anti Nazi League Mark I was a huge success for the left and beat back the first wave of the National Front electorally. There was incredible resentment about that, and they lose a bit of what discipline they might have had. They could just attack anyone now. So, as Andy was saying, you could retreat into your sealed world. Or you could stay where you were and stand your ground. And they were – the arenas then football, gigs, street sales, their meetings, our meetings and the rest of it…
Andy: They were an extremely violent group of people. So if you’re looking to organise, you’re thinking, what streets can I walk round, what pubs you can go in talk to people, where can I talk about stuff on the football or at a gig? All that’s contested territory. Are these aren’t the kind of people who believe in freedom of speech, and I don’t mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean literally! You’d get a glass smashed in your face. To me it’d become obvious. When their election campaign failed, there was people there who wanted revenge. And so all this territory needed to be fought for.
Gary: Well, it wasn’t always a pretty business, there’s no denying that, but it’s not a path we’ve just chosen for ourselves. They’re the point of aggression, the tip of the spear. If you approach them you’ve got to be prepared for violence to be done to you. And if you know that in advance, if you’re going to contest the territory you’re duty bound to prepare to do violence to them it’s as simple as that.
In terms of complaints, we didn’t get much complaints from the Jewish stallholders when the NF paper sale got scatttered from Chapel Market [Islington], in fact the police couldn’t get a [single] witness to testify. But the pub landlord in King’s Cross, the who was making literally a thousand pound [a week] from opening his pub to bonehead gigs for his mates like Ian Stewart [Donaldson, lead singer of fascist band Skrewdriver] was going to complain when the place – course he was. He wasn’t interested in blacks or homosexuals getting attacked – which they did after the pub closed – he was after making money. He was raking it in!
But when AFA marched through Bethnal Green, and into Whitechapel, it was like a seige had been lifted. Little Asian kids running about in the street – that was there attitude to us!
Michael: Actually, reading the book, it struck me that – judging from the state’s reaction – that’s what they feared most. When it looked like it might have been possible to link up between white working class communities and black or Asian areas…
Gary: …on a political basis, yes. The state was concerned but the left weren’t, what does that tell you? I mean the left wasn’t trying to do what we were doing, not on an organised basis. But the state thought there’s a germ here that might develop. Not good, not from their perspective. So did they say, we’ll just see if we can put someone in and steer it a bit? No! They smashed it straight away, that was their approach. It’s quite a useful little anecdote. ‘You can do that there…upto a point…but you can’t do it here. No way.’
Andy: I think we were conscious that we didn’t want to get trapped in a siege mentality. Us looking after ‘our’ areas, the fash looking after ‘theirs’, the wars, us looking for them, them looking for us, we always wanted to break out of that. When RA [Red Action] helped to form AFA we tried to grow it as wide as possible within reason, and eventually when people tried to take politics back into the community, via the IWCA [Independent Working Class Association], that was our effort, we did what we always wanted to do, to go to working class communities and try to grow a political movement there. I mean we can argue the toss about how successful that was, but that would be a different debate. I’d never say it was entirely successful but I don’t think it was a total failure either. We got some things very right, but you’d have to look at the time and the context, what we’re up against, but that was us trying to put our vision of political organisation in working class communities into effect. And that was always our intention. We never thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could fight an ongoing war with a load of other people’.
Gary: Well, let’s look at the alternative. They have their subculture, you have nothing. They have their sales, you don’t. They have their bands, you’ve got nobody. Then they have the football fans, and you have nobody. And they have the working class estates and you’ve got nobody….
Andy: And the thing is, in Islington with the IWCA, we always knew there’d be people with racist ideas on the estates, of course there are. We’re living in the real world. But the one thing we knew is that we didn’t have to keep looking over our shoulder, we could meet the people from the tenants’ association in the local pub and talk about how to organise against plans to sell off social housing in the borough. So we needed that space to get on with doing what we wanted to do. I’d reject that idea that we got sucked into looking forward to the next confrontation with the fash, that was never our vision. Never. Now, if you’re gonna ask me were there elements drawn to AFA who did get off a bit on the excitement or hanging around on the fringes, possibly. But every movement gets that. And there weren’t that many if you ask me. Certainly not amongst what I would call the leadership. That was never how we tried to shape the organisation, never how we sold it to people.
Michael: Without going into the various anarchist critiques – and in part for obvious reasons like you need people around you that you totally rely on and won’t leave you in the lurch – it sounds like you had a pretty centralised model going on, with a definite core…
Andy: Actually AFA was very democratic, when compared with say the ANL. On the street if wasn’t – couldn’t be. But as a broader organisation it was very democratic in the way it operated, on political campaign work etc. Similarly with Red Action. We’re a democratic organisation but when it came to the streets it couldn’t be and everyone understood that.
We had it opposite to the rest of the left from what we could see. We thought when it came to politics you should be democratic and open, but they couldn’t take that, they had very tight control. But on the streets they’d say [in mocking tone], ‘let’s involve as many people as possible and everyone can come along to an open organising meeting’, and we’d say ‘that’s ludicrous, who do you know is sitting there!’ [laughter]. I’d say they’d got that the wrong way round.
Andy: That’s just projection by them. No-one leafleted more working class council estates in East London than us. We organised all the carnivals [between the end of the ANL Mark I and the relaunched version], it was us that organised an exhibition that we invited schoolkids along to, there was this whole side of organising. Admittedly, that doesn’t perhaps get as much prominence in the book. But there was a large amount of campaigning, and a lot of efforts made to reach out to movers and shakers among the black or Asian youth…
Michael: …at which point the state came in to stop it. Do you think there were intelligence agents operating inside AFA?
Gary: Undoubtedly they’d have tried. The problem was for them the ‘split-screen’ structure. You could say what you want in the organising meeting and try to steer it round. But on the streets it was top-down. They’d latch on but you could shake ’em off.
Andy: Sometimes. Who knows? Listen, if they could penetrate the IRA they could penetrate us. But do we think they managed to effectively push us off course? No, no. I think we done what we wanted when we wanted to do it. We made decisions when we wanted to make them.
Gary: Yes, there’s no evidence of that looking back with hindsight. I mean as you can tell from the book there’s people there with a huge question mark over them. But in terms of the way things got done, no. Being hierarchical like that you couldn’t slot somebody into a middle-manager type of position. But we were also democratic. It was asymmetrical so it worked really well. If it had been asymmetrical the other way around, as Andy said, we wouldn’t have lasted out a weekend.
Michael: And people did occassionally get jail terms…
Gary: But as the book explains, we’d go out of our way to avoid that at all costs. Out of fidelity to the volunteers if you like. I mean we needed people – we had people who worked full time but they were on the dole, they didn’t get paid. And you’re dealing with a finite number. So you had to maintain morale. And also, even simple convictions could – in time – lead to jail.
Andy: We were mindful, we learnt a lot from Ireland, right, that’s a simple fact. And we learnt that if someone has been left adrift by the leadership having done something and copped time for it, and it seems like no-one gives a [toss] about them, how easy is it for the Old Bill to turn that individual. You’ve got to look after your people, do right by ’em, on the street, in custody…
Gary: There was this one time in Hammersmith with Martin Webster [leading NF activist] and when they fled his arse was still hanging out literally of an open door, and one black kid dragged an NFer out, and he [the NFer] got left behind on his own. Ended up in hospital without even a bunch of grapes! I thought that was terrible PR.
Andy: Never looked after their people. But it’s a dog eat dog world for them.
Gary: They’d stand and fight individually, but they’d never look after each other. For us that was verboten. No-one got put in that position, in as much as you could.
Andy: We even went out of our way to help some people on the left avoid getting caught out by their own stupidity. We were doing surveillance around the time of the ANL relaunch in the East End, and they were gonna go out leafleting, and we knew that there were some well-known faces in the area. And we went down the ANL and said, ‘this is not good right, we’ve seen certain people’, and they said, ‘nah, don’t be stupid’. And people ended up in hospital. We said alright then, nothing we can do here, and got back in the car and [drove] off. And as we’re driving down the road, the ambulances are already passing! And one of the guys who got injured quite badly came over to AFA straight after that.
Gary: The left often only really wanted to get involved when they thought it was in their interests to do so – and often they made a mess of things that had already been achieved.
Andy: Yes, when AFA organised the first major national march against the BNP in the East End – and it was really big, considering we were mainly based in Central London – it came on the radio and this woman came on and said it had been organised by the newly relaunched ANL! Seriously, they’d done all the organising!
Gary: There were women at every level, every level. But particularly in the intelligence work. They’d go into pubs that fellas hadn’t got the balls to walk into! They’d give you a whole run down of who was in there, what they were up to…
Andy: We tried using a geezer once, and all you got was ‘there’s fuckin’ loads of ’em, but we could have ’em, we could do this and that’. Obviously working class women knew the score, got themselves dolled up – look the part – and engaged them in conversation and found out real stuff you wanted to know: who were the real movers and shakers, what were relations like between the fash and landlord and bar staff; how are the locals treating them, will the hangers on bolt, that sort of thing. Women would get that information, because they’d have far less of an ego. And that’s why in West Germany when the police were fighting the Red Army Faction they said, ‘shoot the women first’. The women were so effective, because they were colder and more logical and systematic in their thinking.
Gary: If they were ever rumbled – when they walked into a pub in jeans and jacket, maybe a little bit of eye-liner – if the fash did think they were after information, they’d assume they were police. As long as they could hold their nerve they could get themselves out.
Andy: And horny fash can give up loads of information, rendez-vous points and all sorts to our people! (laughter) That’s a fact. Human nature. But you need to be seriously talented people to do that kind of work – to tell us exactly what we need to know. And they were treated at all times as equals. The left would sometimes say ‘any women involved are all like gangster’s molls’, all this insulting, patronising [rubbish]. The women didn’t feel like that. It was just that the roles were different, a lot of the time their skills were better used elsewhere. But not all the time. Sometimes they were involved on the street, and that’s a fact.
Michael: Clearly the nature of the far right threat has changed a lot since those days, with the changes to the BNP under the leadership of Nick Griffin. In the introduction of the book your talking at a point when the the BNP on are a high, after the European elections. Since then after the General Election it appears that – as an organisation – they don’t seem to be in a position to go much further. So what threat do you see them posing today?
Gary: What you said there was important, ‘as an organisation’ – it doesn’t take away from the support they’ve shown they can establish. I think with the BNP it’s partly that they never had the experience of high political office, didn’t have the opportunity. To begin with they didn’t have the middle class types, they were having to fight for the same survival thing which we drew them into, they were all on the streets even Griffin. They were stuck in waiting rooms on stations on Stockport and all that – they never had the chance to step out of the scenario. Next thing, they’re MEPs, they’ve dozens of councillors. Where have they done the planning for that? They’re used to planning Blood and Honour gigs in backrooms of pubs in Deptford. Suddenly they’re elevated. Not equipped – first thing. Second thing – they’ve felt the long arm of the state, no question. Inside, everywhere, every which way – diced and sliced – and at at the same time the key component was to decapitate the organisation, which they’ve failed to do, which was a key [state] objective.
The BNP might limp along, but the die has been cast, right, in the sense that the radical alternative will come from the far right within the constituencies we’ve identified. The left has not done anything to address that – at all – in thirty years. They’d no appetite do that, less appetite to do it now, even. There’s nothing on the left that could organise it on a national level. They’ve tried it – Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and all that – they’ve nearly all fallen at the first hurdle, some of ’em didn’t even get to the first hurdle! What does it tell you about Respect – talk about enclaves or sub-groups and insulating yourself! That kind of mindset was partly what we were fighting against, that you could retreat from your core constituency and fight somewhere else on identity grounds. We saw it coming. We said in 2001 that the BNP would prove that – in contrast to the left – they did have traction, could mobilise support in white working class communities. And in 2002, boom!
Where would the far right be if they had a free run at it for the last 30 years? Imagine if they never had to fight a war of attrition and could have brought in all the people with the organisational skills, the media skills and all that in? They’ve had none of that, the BNP leadership.
They never got the head-space because AFA weren’t going to give it to ’em. But imagine if they had a clear 30-year run like they got in France and a number other European countries where they’ve basically been unchallenged – with a free run, imagine where we’d be? If all the AFA stuff, all that ingenuity and effort, had been applied behind the BNP instead of against them!
Michael: There’s another account of what cut across the rise of the BNP which I’m sure you won’t like at all, namely that Searchlight and their allies in Barking and Dagenham managed to mobilise the existing community groups, trade unions, faith groups etc along with all the residual support that exists for the Labour party in order to unseat every single one of their councillors.
Andy: They had all those resources and completed a full circle – you had the state, so-called anti-fascist and anti-racist groups, religious groups and what have you – to reinstate the status quo. The status quo is back. Labour rules. Why did people vote BNP in the first place?
Gary: And also the BNP vote went up didn’t it? That’s the future you’re looking at. Not that they’ve been unseated for now because Labour’s woken up. Take the Isle of Dogs. We saw the portents were obvious a long way out. The ANL knocked out [Derek] Beacon…
Andy: …and they were actually popping champagne corks that night, the ANL. His vote went up!
Gary: That was the future – we could see it then; they [the BNP] could see it then. Like Barking and Dagenham it was just a technical knock out.
Andy: I mean Margaret Hodge, what does she stand for?! She’s fine now. Everything’s sorted. She’s back in power, they’ve got all their councillors in – nothing to worry about. Thank you very much. So people have joined ‘respectable’ anti-fascism, the church, the local Labour party, the state, the police, the trade unions, using all the wealth, the resources, the intelligence to take back that seat that was needed. Now, I don’t want the BNP to win in Barking and Dagenham or anywhere else. But don’t let anyone try to kid themselves that that’s any kind of victory for what I would call working class politics. Cos it ain’t.
Gary: If it was the IWCA or the Socialist Party or something like it that had stopped the BNP in Barking and Dagenham that would be a different matter. Really something to celebrate, right? Not to bring it back to where it was originally.
Excerpts from this interview appeared in the Dec/Jan 2012 print issue of Red Pepper.