British Anti-Nazi League: how fascists can be beaten

Spurred on by the rise of Islamophobia, anti-refugee brutality and the victories of Trump and Bolsonaro, neo-Nazis have entered the mainstream in places where it once seemed unthinkable. 

In Germany, Hungary, Poland, France and Brazil, fascists now hold seats in parliament and use these positions to spread their racist filth, divert blame for the evils of austerity to society’s most vulnerable and win more supporters to their far right ideology. 

It is imperative that anti-fascists build movements to confront and stop the fascists and the far right wherever they are gaining strength. 

The success of the British Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in smashing the Nazi National Front (NF) in the 1970s is both instructive and encouraging on this score. 

In 1977, the NF attracted more than 119,000 votes in the Greater London Council elections, beating the then third party of British politics, the Liberal Party, in a significant number of seats. In the south-east London district of Deptford, it won 43 percent of the vote, coming in second place behind Labour.

In a climate of horrific racist attacks and murders targeting Bengali, Indian, Pakistani and African Caribbean immigrant communities, particularly in London’s east, the NF was building both an electoral base and a violent street movement. With an estimated membership of more than 15,000 in the mid-1970s, it seemed to be an unstoppable force in British politics. 

The Battle of Lewisham and the subsequent launch of the ANL changed all that. In only a few years, this fascist organisation was broken and defeated. The NF’s national organiser, Martin Webster, credited the ANL with playing a significant role in its demise. 

By the 1979 election, the NF vote had shrunk considerably. By 1982, the organisation was bankrupt and defunct, its membership greatly reduced, facing splits and plagued by infighting. 

The Battle of Lewisham was the catalyst for the creation of the ANL – an organisation that would mobilise many thousands of activists across Britain via more than 600 local groups. 

The ANL was launched in 1977 after 5,000 local people united with 5,000 trade unionists, Black and Asian activist and community groups and Labour Party members, led by the revolutionary left, to stop the fascist thugs of the NF from marching through Lewisham, an area of south London. 

In determined, united opposition, those 10,000 people occupied the route that the fascists intended to take through Clifton Rise, a centre for the Black community in the area. 

Despite a vicious and sustained assault by the police – wearing riot gear for the first time on the British mainland – the anti-fascists held their ground for several hours, smashing the Nazi march in two, sending hundreds of them scurrying away with their Union Jacks torn and trampled. British socialist David Widgery’s brilliant book Beating Time captures the spirit of the day wonderfully: 

“In New Cross Road … People gently milled; here surging forward under banners that sprang and swooped like kites, there breaking out into feminist war whoops, elsewhere shouting recognition in noisy South London patois … At the front, a jam-packed contingent of South London Afro-Caribbeans cordially but expertly blocked off the police’s first attempts – uphill and on foot – to open a way for the NF procession. Up on a traffic bollard a Trinidadian giant with a hand megaphone was thoughtfully advising the crowd, rather as a cricket captain might place his field.” 

Paul Holborow was the chief steward for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that day. In an article in the party’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, on the 40th anniversary of the battle, he explained the effect the Nazis’ defeat had on anti-racists: “People felt absolutely elated. It was the first time since Cable Street in 1936 that we’d given the Nazis a bloody good hiding”. 

In the days afterwards, hundreds of people contacted the SWP, eager to seize on the momentum of Lewisham to further turn the tide on the Nazis. A mass, anti-racist campaign was born.  

Yet only a few years earlier the growth of fascism had seemed unstoppable. 

Just as Blair Cottrell and his fascist cronies have recently latched onto the anti-African racism of the media and mainstream politicians, the NF had also grown in strength by piggybacking on mainstream racism. 

Nazis targeted Lewisham because it was a focus of the London police’s “crackdown” on mugging, a campaign that in reality involved the harassment and arrest of young Black men.  The NF hoped to benefit from the racist climate and further scapegoat a community already under siege from the media and police. 

Mass disillusionment with the Labour government bolstered the NF’s electoral support and confidence. Labour’s response to the economic crisis of the mid-1970s was to attack the conditions and pay of millions of workers. And in the face of anti-immigrant scapegoating, whipped up in the 1960s by Tory MP Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech, Labour tailed the Tories’ racism. 

In 1976 the Labour government introduced the racist Immigration Act in an attempt to shift the blame for the hardships imposed on the working class onto immigrants as it managed capitalism on behalf of Britain’s wealthy. 

The NF ran 90 candidates in the 1974 general election, compared to only eight in 1966. Their 113,844 votes sent a message to revolutionary organisations in Britain that something had to be done to stop them. 

For the next few years, socialists tried to organise mass counter-protests every time the fascists marched. Lewisham provided the breakthrough because, for months on end, socialists in the SWP and local Black activists argued that it was both possible and necessary to stop the Nazis in their tracks by mobilising the local community and anti-fascist organisations together. 

They did so in face of the endless parroting of the “anti-fascists are just as bad as the fascists” line by the mainstream media and, sadly, the leadership of the Labour and Communist parties, which argued that the ballot box was the place to defeat the NF. 

The balance of the argument shifted with the success of Lewisham – and the ANL was launched. The revolutionary left, the Indian Workers’ Association, key African-Caribbean groups such as the Mangrove Community Organisation, left Labour MPs and some important trade union officials were all involved in its creation. 

Labour activist Peter Hain, Ernie Roberts of the engineering union and Paul Holborow of the SWP were central to bringing different forces of the left together. 

One of the beautiful things about the ANL was that it strove for genuine unity around the question of defeating the NF. If you were against the fascists and believed it was necessary to organise against them, then you were in. 

The ANL’s two-pronged strategy contributed enormously to its success. 

First, there was a mass propaganda campaign to expose the NF as the heirs of Hitler. The sponsorships of 10 national trade unions and 50 Labour MPs helped raise funds for an impressive propaganda campaign. Six hundred local groups met to organise postering, leafleting and doorknocking whenever Nazis stood in elections or threatened to organise.  

School students, teachers, engineers, firefighters, gays, vegetarians all carried the anti-racist message in their leaflets and newsletters. It became commonplace to refer to the NF as the “Nazi Front”, especially after photos of their leaders doing Nazi salutes were plastered across walls in many town and cities. The slogan “Never again” linked their racism to the Holocaust. 

In total, 9 million leaflets were produced in a four-year period – with initiatives such as educational packs produced by anti-Nazi teachers and fanzines produced by Schoolkids Against the Nazis developing the key ideas in more depth. 

Second, the victory at Lewisham showed many people that mass numbers on the streets whenever the Nazis tried to march were essential to breaking their organisation. John Tyndnall, the leader of the NF, had echoed Hitler when he argued: “I believe our great marches, with drums and flags and banners, have a hypnotic effect on the public and immense effect in solidifying the allegiance of our followers, so that their enthusiasm can be sustained”.  

After Lewisham, every attempt to sustain that enthusiasm was met with bigger numbers than the Nazis could muster, leading to the demoralisation of many thousands of their less committed supporters, and a dwindling of their numbers.  In Leicester, Southall, Hackney and elsewhere, the fascists did not march unchallenged – and were often stopped in spite of sometimes massive police operations to protect them. 

Rock Against Racism (RAR) was also hugely important in mobilising hundreds of thousands of young people in opposition to the attempts of Nazis to co-opt punk and skinhead culture. Four massive carnivals in London, Leeds and Manchester attracted between 50,000 and 80,000 Black, white and Asian young people, headlined by bands from across the punk, reggae and two-tone scenes, including Steel Pulse, X Ray Spex, the Specials, Buzzcocks and – most famously – the Clash.  

The impact of RAR was huge and helped shape the politics of a generation of young people.  Only a few short years earlier, giants of British pop such as Eric Clapton and David Bowie had flirted with fascism as the NF grew. With the advent of RAR, it became commonplace for bands to emphasise their anti-fascist credentials during gigs and interviews to better relate to their potential audience. 

The success of these mass protests and carnivals depended on the determination, doggedness and political clarity of those at the heart of the ANL and RAR. Revolutionaries organised by the SWP were at the centre of arguing for a mass movement and had the political conviction to stand up confidently to attacks from the media and those sections of the Labour Party which labelled them “red fascists”. 

Of course, within the ANL socialists and anti-racists activists engaged in discussion and debate about the links between fascism and mainstream racism, why socialists oppose all immigration controls and why fascism is not an aberration but a product of capitalism. But these discussions took place as people from different political traditions linked arms in mass demonstrations against the fascists and the police protecting them wherever the Nazis tried to march. 

The fascists in Britain were defeated for a generation by these efforts. 

Anti-fascist politics offered hope and unity in the face of division and bitter racism. It gave confidence to young Blacks and Asians in Britain, second and third generation immigrants more willing and able than their parents to stand up to racist lies, police violence and the inequalities that were the legacy of empire. 

One example to illustrate this was provided by Darcus Howe, a leading African-Caribbean campaigner for over 40 years, who was at Lewisham in 1977.  

At a memorial meeting for David Widgery, a central figure in the ANL and RAR, he described how the last of his five children would have a different experience from that of her siblings because of the efforts of Widgery and the ANL. Instead of battling intense racism like her siblings, she had the chance to grow up “black at ease” with “space” to develop her personality. 

There is increasing recognition of the need for anti-fascist politics and activity once again to turn the tide against Nazis and the far right. In the US last year, 40,000 mobilised in Boston, Massachusetts, in the days after neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, and murdered left wing activist Heather Heyer. Two hundred and fifty thousand rallied in Berlin against the far right in Germany, and there is a growing movement against Orban in Hungary. 

While the current momentum of the fascists and far right has not yet been decisively checked, the example of the ANL in Britain shows that it is possible and points to the sort of action needed to beat them.

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Before coming to Australia Moira Leahy was a socialist in Britain for 20 years. She was involved in the Anti-Nazi League when it reformed in the 1990s.