Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

The SWP and the Anti Nazi League, Some Observations.

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fillesbThe SWP and the Anti Nazi League.

In discussion about the SWP’s crisis the Anti Nazi League (ANL, 1977 – 1981) often figures. It is presented as an example of how the SWP can help create a United Front that is unqualified success. There is no doubt that the campaign against the National Front had a serious impact, not just in drawing tens of thousands to demonstrations, but on the far-right’s electoral fortunes. Rock Against Racism (RAR), launched in co-operation with the ANL, and held a 1978 Carnivals in London attended by hundred of thousands of, mainly young, people. Other RAR events (held all over the country) helped win over a youthful audience to the anti-racist message.

The ANL played a major part in marginalising the organised far-right. Extremely violent street battles made it virtually impossible for the National Front (NF) and other extreme racist groups to assert a public presence. But its role in combating wider racist politics is far from evident. Many people think that Margaret Thatcher’s “authoritarian populism”, which contained a strong appeal to xenophobia, undermined the NF. (1) Faced with determined extra-parliamentary opposition and the consolidation of a House of Commons right the far-right splintered. At the end of the decade, a ‘harder’ group, the British Movement, emerged. It joined the descent of the NF into the wilderness.

Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 marked the beginning of a long process of shifting Britain to the right. With their electoral fortunes ebbing all of the explicit far-right groups were to spend the 1980s embroiled in internal conflicts. There was to be no British parallel to the rise of the French Front National. But it could be said that the right-wing media, the Mail, the Express and the Sun today play the role of domestic Le Pens.

Hate-laden nationalism – focused against ‘Brussels’ and ‘Foreigners’, rather than specific racial or religious minorities – now plays a central role in British politics. Its influence extends from UKIP to the leadership of the Conservative Party. The crisis-ridden British National Party (BNP), like its NF forerunner, has been pushed aside. Other – tiny – racist parties that stand in elections are divided amongst themselves. The ‘street fighting’, English Defence League (EDL), has yet to recover from its own internal crisis.

The SWP, the ANL and the Anti Fascist and Anti Racist Movement, 1976 – 1981.

The ANL and RAR’s achievements should not be forgotten. But there is room to ask whether they should be uncritically celebrated. One aspect of their history that bears on present debates amongst the divided anti-racist movement is how ‘united fronts’ are constructed. In our discussion of the SWP and Leninism we have already cited the criticisms that the SWP faced in the 1970s about its approach to ‘autonomous movements’.

Wikipedia’s entry on the SWP contains this relevant account of the AWL’s formation in 1977,

“Although it was portrayed as a broad initiative supported by the SWP along with wide swathes of the Labour Left and figures from popular culture (singers, musicians, actors etc.), the ANL was seen by many on the left as a self-serving unilateral SWP initiative to seize the leadership of the Anti-Racist Movement and was regarded with suspicion by many Anti-Racist/Anti-Fascist activists. This was particularly true of many in the existing broad-based Anti-Fascist Committees (often with close connections to the local Labour and Trade Union Movement). The fact that local ANL groups were often launched as an SWP-led alternative to existing broad-based Anti-Fascist Committees increased the suspicions of non-SWP activists but a widespread desire not to display public divisions (and a fear of alienating the ANL’s celebrity sponsors) meant that these divisions were kept fairly quiet.”

These issues were discussed at meetings of ‘broad based anti-Fascist groups”. The AWL did not have any democratic internal structure to express them. Many people accepted this, pragmatically, as the basis for national campaigns and for punctual mobilisations against the NF. But this did not stop the search for a wider political approach to the problems that the rise of the far-right posed. These concerns were voiced at conferences to co-ordinate the movement, called for example, at the end of the 1970s by the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF). Although this was not a central concern the Wikipedia entry is entirely accurate to say that the SWP role in the AWL was not universally welcomed.

Leamington Spa Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Committee.

Doug Lowe has written a short history of how one group (which I was very active in) the Leamington Spa Anti-Racist, Anti-Fascist Committee (LARAFC) responded to these challenges (The Respectable Revolutionaries: Leamington Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Committee 1977-1981. What Next? 2007). The town, despite its genteel side, had a large working class, often employed in the car industry (like much of the West Midlands), and ethnic minorities from the sub-Continent and the Caribbean. There was also a small but often politically committed student population from Warwick University (over 11 miles away), and a ‘counter-culture’ that sustained an Alternative Bookshop, the Other Branch. On the other side it had an active far-right, which had begin to stand in elections. Most famously it was home to the nationally notorious racist Robert Relf, who put up a sign on his house, “For Sale to Whites Only”.

LARAFC was formed in 1977 with the backing of the local Trades Council and the Labour Party, as well as the Indian Workers’ Association, and the Liberal Party. Unions actively gave aid. We had ties with Warwick University Students’ Union. The Leamington Sikh association supported the Committee. Members of the Communist Party signed up. Its active membership was from the left, from Labour, the local branches of the SWP, the IMG/Socialist Challenge, and Big Flame, a couple of supporters of the forerunner of the AWL, independent socialists, and an active local anarchist association. Feminism was an important influence on LARFC, through the Leamington Women’s Group.

The Committee held weekly meetings on Friday, attended by between fifteen and thirty people. These were extremely democratic – even taking minutes was ‘rotated’. The Women’s Group pushed for, and got, a crèche (not common in the late ‘seventies).

LARAF was in the spotlight in the town – constantly reported in the (daily) Leamington Morning News. We held well-attended Leamington demonstrations. We often leafleted the streets. We sent dozens to every anti-fascist demonstration going, including several ‘magical mystery tours’ when the police kept moving the venue of NF marches. There were pickets of the Leamington and Warwick courts of further Robert Relf cases. We were there in 1978 when the British Movement turned up in force, with the ‘Honour Guard’, to support their racist friends, Cole and Jones, being prosecuted under the Race Relations Act. We found time to have our own Rock Against Racism concerts.

The Newsletter.

The Committee’s Newsletter, which Doug rightly brings to the fore, sold between 500 to 1,000 copies an issue. It was distributed  through a variety of outlets, including door-to-door on the Estates (Doug was a stalwart seller).

The Newsletter (edited, typed-up and printed with the help of the Coventry section of the trade union ASTMS) contained articles on a wide range of subjects. These included the threat of the far-right to  trade unions, immigration controls, women and the far-right, the struggle of our “Asian sisters”, imperialism, and the history of fascism, as well as national anti-Nazi activity. There were debates on the issue of ‘no-Platform’ and the “militarism” of the anti-fascist movement.

Doug adds,

The Newsletter also reflected another vital concern – not to be (and be seen to be) merely reacting to fascist initiatives. Challenging racist implications for the working classes would provide ammunition for readers to use in their everyday lives, with their families, friends, workmates etc.”

LARAFC welcomed the launch of the ANL. However, despite efforts from a minority of the SWP (led by a Warwick University ‘cadre’) it did not become a formal part of the League. Indeed the proposal was not well received at all. LARAFC maintained its political and organisational independence.

As Doug says,

Throughout the country, though, not all socialists/anti-fascists based their work around the core anti-Nazi initiatives undertaken by the extensive network of ANL branches and activity. A handful of local groups developed their own approaches, putting much more emphasis on explicitly socialist anti-racist work. LARAFC was one such organisation. Although concerned to oppose local fascist activity, it considered the most effective way to accomplish this was by addressing the wider issues around racism.”

Class Politics and the United Front.

We were united around class politics without neglecting other aspects of racism, feminism or socialist policies. We developed sensitivity to what is now called “human rights”. At a memorable meeting there was some initial sniggering when it was reported that the Police had beaten the Nazi Robert Relf up in the cells. Comrade Jenny rose up in dignified fury. I can still remember her speech now. She said, “We are against anybody being mistreated by the Police.”

The Committee retained the support of the ‘official’ political parties, not just Labour but even the Liberals (to be frank,  the Liberals were not much of a priority),  despite never hiding our socialist politics.

Doug concludes,

“The organisation was successful in a key objective, though – to isolate the fascists from the widespread “soft” racism in the area. LARAFC also succeeded in mobilising all anti-racist sentiment and activity around it, establishing credibility even amongst clearly non-revolutionary (and even nonsocialist) organisations in the Leamington area, despite the overt socialism of its campaigning.”

LARAFC’s successes (like those of similar groups) cannot be appropriated by the SWP national leadership in its present factional wars.

Many of the activists in LARFC are still around on the left.

It was, and remains, an important, and inspiring, part of our political lives.

Perhaps when people talk about ‘united fronts’ they could look at the experience of groups like LARAFC (which was only one of many during the period).

It would certainly be more helpful than citing the ANL as a “success story” in the SWP’s history.

(1) “In the area of race, ‘Thatcherism’ has had an even more striking success. It has recuperated to the ‘legitimate terrain of parliamentary politics the extremist racism of the National Front, many of whose basic themes were merged into the official party position on race in an intensive campaign in the early months of 1979, whilst being distanced from the more disreputable associations of street fascism.” Popular-Democratic Versus Authoritarian Populism. 1980. Page 145. Stuart Hall the Hard Road to Renewal. Verso. 1988.)

You don’t have to agree with Hall’s wider analysis to take this point.


Written by Andrew Coates

February 16, 2013 at 12:08 pm

8 Responses

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  1. It has been proved in the practice of history that Popular Fronts or the Anti-Nazi League cannot stop fascism.

    It is impossible for them to do so, since they start out from a false conception of what fascism is.

    That is fascism is presented as a plot by a small group of extreme reactionaries which can be defeated if only enough anti-fascists get together to stop them. That is totally false….

    Since Popular Frontism gives up, explicitly, the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism, it therefore cannot conceivably stop fascism….

    The apparent success of the Anti-Nazi League is therefore not due to the fact that the Socialist Workers Party has discovered a brilliant new organisational form (for which we ought to ‘take off our hats’ to them, as the International Marxist Group said).

    On the contrary, the Anti-Nazi League’s class compromise theory is as old as the hills. It is welcomed by reformists who have always stood for the defence of capitalist democracy, even to the extent of fighting wars for it….

    The Anti-Nazi League is greeted with enthusiasm by the Stalinists, too……

    Workers Revolutionary Party, 1978.

    Michael Ezra (@MichaelEzra)

    February 16, 2013 at 12:47 pm

  2. “It would certainly be more helpful than citing the AWL as a “success story” in the SWP’s history”…
    …Shome mishtake, shurely?

    Jim Denham

    February 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm

  3. Corrected,

    And I haven’t even been to the pub….yet.

    And Michael seems stuck ‘in the archives’.

    Andrew Coates

    February 16, 2013 at 1:18 pm

  4. LARAFC welcomed the launch of the AWL.

    I am pleased to read this sentiment, but I suspect it was a typo (not just because of the timetravel that would have been involved)…


    February 16, 2013 at 2:45 pm

  5. This post has balance and makes some valuable points. The ANL and RAR played a hugely important role in combating fascism; far more that the various local campaigns against racism and fascism. But the local campaigns had considerable strengths. They kept the various fascist groups under surveillance and had developed significent skills in combatting fascism physically. There was a national coordinationg committee that met in Manchester with the participation of Maurice Ludmer. The weakness was a lack of ability to launch mass campaigns.
    The ANL had that ability. The sad thing is that the local committees were deliberately sideline by the SWP. A united front of a special type was set up i.e one run by the SWP together with a few celebrities in which you could join up as a rank and filer and obey orders or stay out. This model was then to dominate future left campaigns. Our inability to run effective broad campaigns that are democratic is a continuing weakness for the left.


    February 16, 2013 at 3:28 pm

  6. Meanwhile for intentional laughs, everyone on Facebook is chortling over this new cartoon strip (with buns and lashings of ginger beer) – Hat-Tip to the Strop,

    Billy Delta of the Redfriars.

    “Redfriars School has founded in 1877 by its eccentric benefactor Anthony Cliff, as a special fee-paying school for Trotskyists, so that they could enjoy the benefits of a public school education, far from prying eyes.

    Since Cliff passed away, Acting Headmaster Algernon Stallinicos has struggled manfully to maintain the school’s traditions, with the help of the Chair of the Governors, Sir Charlie, the Seventh Baronet Kimber.

    Billy Delta is the Creep of the Remove. Billy is well-known for being able to peel an orange in his pocket. His appetites are vast. He is always on the prowl, and usually loses his trousers. Billy is waiting for a ten-bob postal order.


    Andrew Coates

    February 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm

  7. another typo?
    LARAFC welcomed the launch of the ***AWL***. [ANL, surely??] However, despite efforts from a minority of the SWP …

    “Although concerned to oppose local fascist activity, it considered the most effective way to accomplish this was by addressing the wider issues around racism.”
    good analysis, LARAFC matches my own experience, and many others, sadly.

    pete mason

    February 16, 2013 at 5:01 pm

  8. Too much pop and toast in the Study I’m afraid.

    I was struck Pete, when reading copies of the Newsletter, just how open-minded politically and how genuine we were.

    And I know, as you say, that this was a widely shared political experience – even before the Web we met others from around the country all the time (from demos to conferences, to other day events).

    Andrew Coates

    February 16, 2013 at 5:15 pm

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