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The Anti-Nazi League as social movement

 

This paper asks why movements work, and why movements fail? For the last seven years, I have been writing about the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, two allied anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigns that contributed significantly to the defeat of the National Front, the forerunners of today's British National Party. In the course of my work on this combined movement, I have conducted about 80 interviews with activists from that campaign and written around half a dozen conference papers, one of which was presented to a previous running of this conference. Previous papers have looked at the role of women, music and trade unions in the campaign, or considered the campaign on a regional basis. The focus of this particular paper is on anti-fascism as a social movement. This piece is divided into three sections: (1) a chronology of the movement, (2) an analysis of some of the interviews I have conducted in the past twelve months, which for largely accidental reasons have been conducted with the leaders of the movement (I am now approaching the end of my research, and I left those interviews to last), and (3) some attempts to return to the main theme of why this movement prospered.

 

(1) What anti-fascism was

 

The best way to start understanding the anti-fascist campaign is by considering the scale of the activities that it comprised. Between 1977 and 1979, around nine million ANL leaflets were distributed and 750,000 badges sold. Around 250 ANL branches were established. The local groups signed up at least 40,000 members, perhaps more. Through donations, the League raised £600,000. Almost as soon as it was raised, the money was spent, most often on leaflets to publicise new campaigns. The work of the League was complemented by the activity of the League's unruly elder sister Rock Against Racism. In 1978 alone, RAR organised 300 gigs and five carnivals. The following year's Militant Entertainment Tour featured 40 bands at 23 concerts, and covered some 2000 miles on the road. Counting across the range of activities, from organising the London Carnivals, to passing on leaflets backwards over your head at the same event: probably more than half a million people contributed to the campaign in some way.

The anti-fascists began to organise at a time when the National Front was definitely on the rise. At Leicester in April 1976, the Front won a total of 44,000 votes in local elections. Combined with the National Party, the total fascist vote reached 38 per cent in Blackburn. In March 1977, the Front beat the Liberal Party in a bye-election at Stechford in Birmingham, and pundits warned that the NF could displace the Liberals as Britain's third main political party. The National Front received 119,000 votes in the May 1977 Greater London Council elections, and almost quarter of a million votes across the country in that year's local elections. During this period, the NF claimed to have up to 20,000 paid-up members. The National Front stood 413 candidates in local elections in 1977, and promised to stand 318 candidates in the 1979 General Election.

Labour was in power, and lurching to the right. Struggles continued through the five years of Labour rule, but the overall result was to reduce the levels of militancy within society. Unemployment rose from 600,000 in 1974 to over one million, five years later. 'Career opportunities', the Clash sang, 'the ones that never knock'. The government reduced spending on public services, demoralising its most ardent supporters. Inequality rose, faster the longer that Labour was in office. The period of the Wilson-Callaghan government was a time of sharp popular disillusionment, which paved the way for the Conservatives' election victory in 1979.

The socialist-feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham began to record in her diary evidence of popular disillusionment with Labour, and bitterness against all parts of the left, for the first time in 1976. Somehow, the movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s had begun to lose their ťlan. For the first time, it no longer seemed certain that the new political movements would actually win. 'We were very active', she recalls, 'But there was some peculiar notion of a pause.' In autumn 1976, another anti-racist Lorraine wrote to her friend Di in Oxford. Friends were cowed by unemployment, she reported, afraid even to complain at work, 'I too have those intimations that England is tilting, tilting, and from below evil is rising.' She wrote of how 'manifestly politically dispirited many comrades are, the crisis resonating into our own lives: bone cold fears.'

One of the first responses to the backlash was Rock Against Racism. Launched in August 1976, after the rock guitarist Eric Clapton interrupted a set to make a speech supporting Enoch Powell, RAR's first document was a letter to the music press. 'What's going on Eric? You've got a touch of brain damage. So are you going to stand for MP and you think we are being colonised by black people. Come on Ö you've been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff. You know you can't handle it ... We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music ... P. S. Who shot the Sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!' The author was the photographer Red Saunders. He then followed the letter by organising a series of anti-NF concerts. A group of people began to meet, organise and write. They were hostile to racism. They were also determined to take the punk spirit of the times and to turn it to some useful end.

        The immediate sparks leading to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League were the events at Lewisham in summer 1977. The police arrested eighteen black youth in South London. They were accused of street robbery. It had been an apartheid-style raid. In its aftermath Tony Bogues of the black socialist group Flame and Kim Gordon met up with David Foster, father of one of the defendants. According to Bogues, 'David was an ordinary, nice fellow who had believed in the early stages of his life the myths about British justice, but on arriving in Britain he was immediately aware of the question of race. How could he deal with race, raise my kids and still be respectable? David did it with a certain dignity. We sat down and talked with him for days. His house became the community house. The question of self-defence from the fascists and the police came up in discussion with the youth. We spent a lot of time, persuading people to work with us.' A defence campaign was soon organised. The Front retaliated by calling an anti-mugging march. This in turn set the scene for clashes between fascists, anti-fascists, and the police.

On 13 August, around six thousand anti-fascists, including large numbers of local black youths, prevented some eight hundred supporters of the National Front from marching through Lewisham. Activists were determined to halt the National Front, and prevent them from gaining control of the streets. The police, armed with long batons and perspex shields, were equally determined to keep the Front's march going. The day ended with the Front march broken into many pieces, the police in disarray, and anti-fascists in control in control of central Lewisham

After Lewisham, the media took the side of the police. The daily newspapers ran with the hundreds arrested and the fifty policemen injured, ignoring the causes of the protest, and portraying the conflict as a senseless battle between two parallel sets of extremists. The front page of the Sunday Times reported David McNee, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner condemning the 'determined extreme element' of the left for preventing a 'lawful march' from taking place. The Sunday People featured the headline, 'Bobbies pay the price of freedom'. The Daily Mail used a front-page picture of a policeman holding a studded club and a knife, weapons supposedly found at Lewisham, and beside him was the headline, 'After the Battle of Lewisham, a question of vital importance, now who will defend him?' The Daily Express went further, 'We have no time or sympathy for the Front ... All the same, the Front does not go in for violent attacks on the police or on authority.' Yet among anti-racists and within the labour movement the exact opposite conclusion was reached: the Front had been defeated, more Lewishams were required.

        The decision to form the Anti-Nazi League followed quickly. At its launch, in winter 1977-8, formal leadership resided in a national committee. There were three executive positions, as Organiser, Press Officer and Treasurer. Paul Holborow, Peter Hain and Ernie Roberts of the engineers' union took these posts. Jerry Fitzpatrick became the League's National Secretary. Other members of the steering committee included the MPs Martin Flannery, Dennis Skinner, Audrey Wise and Neil Kinnock, in addition former Young Liberal Simon Hebditch and Maurice Ludmer of Searchlight, Nigel Harris of the SWP, and the actress, Miriam Karlin, who had made her name playing working-class Jewish women on TV.

        The ANL and RAR became mass movements on a single day, 30 April 1978, with the first Rock Against Racism Carnival at Victoria Park in Hackney. Jerry Fitzpatrick describes how the Carnival was organised:

 

We started planning the first Carnival in January 1977, at least three months beforehand. I remember booking the event through the GLC. The form said that if you had more than 10,000 people you needed portaloos, and all that. So I booked a mini-festival, for 10,000, not more. I knew we had no money. I wasn't expecting more than 20,000, tops. We made a deal to book the PA; we paid three thousand there and then, four thousand on the day. Paul drew the money out. I had to sew it into the lining of my leather jacket, so it wouldn't get stolen. There were scaffolders from Donegal who put up the stage. Red and Roger booked the bands. Tom Robinson, Steel Pulse. Tom Robinson got X-ray Spex. Two weeks before the Carnival, we started trying to book the Clash. I went to a meeting with their manager Bernie Rhodes, then one with the band. Red and Syd [Shelton] were absolutely brilliant. But I remember Mick Jones flicking ash in my hair. Finally Joe Strummer spoke, and said, 'Fuck it, we'll show them!' That was just two weeks beforehand. The word went round the streets of London. After their songs 'White Riot' and 'Guns of Brixton', the Clash were huge. The brought the youth.

 

Giant papier-m‚chť models of Martin Webster and Adolf Hitler built by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, the people who would later make Spitting Image, led the march to the Carnival. There were clowns, stilt-men and street actors. There were dozens of banners, ranging from old-style trade union signs taking four people to carry them, to spray-painted sheets, 'Karen, Kate, Anna and Jill Against Racism, Fascism, Sexism.'

The 1979 election was a catastrophic defeat for the National Front. For months beforehand, Front propaganda had fixed on the election, arguing that Labour's entire political agenda was determined above all by its nervousness at the prospect of electoral defeat at the hands of the Front. The National Front stood over 300 candidates, exhausting its networks of support in an attempt to win new voters, and bankrupting the party. Where they stood, the NF's candidates averaged barely more than 1 percent of the vote. Demoralised, the Front split into three rival factions and its support crumbled. Failure in the 1979 elections led to the resignation of John Tyndall as chairman of the party in January 1980. It was the beginning for his party of a decade of in-fighting and defeat.

        So, did the Anti-Nazi League work? In the years since the League existed, different writers have generated very different accounts. Christopher Husbands believes the League spread the 'NF = Nazis' message 'more widely and successfully than almost any other medium could have done'. Dilip Hiro also comments positively on the League, 'the role played by the anti-racist whites, belonging either to the mainstream trade unions or to fringe leftist groups, was crucial.' More critically, another historian Richard Thurlow has argued that the Anti-Nazi League was only of secondary importance, and that it was Mrs Thatcher's racism that in April 1979 brought lost NF voters back to the Tory fold.

Yet those who place all emphasis on the Tories' right turn cannot address the evidence that the National Front had grown fastest in earlier periods precisely when the leaders of the Conservative Party pushed themselves furthest to the right. It was Enoch Powell's infamous Rivers of Blood speech, which first dragged the National Front into such prominence, and it was Conservative and press attacks on the Kenyan and Ugandan Asians that helped the National Front to build a mass following in 1968 and 1972. If Thatcherism did hurt the National Front, then it could do so only because the Front was already in rapid decline.

Many anti-racist activists who remained apart from the Anti-Nazi League, keeping to separate but allied anti-fascist organisation, praise the campaign in retrospect. Danny O'Reilly worked full-time for the Institute of Race Relations. He remembers that the League 'made it fashionable to be Anti-Nazi'. David Landau was a young Jewish anti-fascist, active in the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. He thinks that the League was too narrowly conceived. Yet faced with the argument that Thatcher beat the Front, Landau springs to the ANL's defence. 'I don't buy the argument that Margaret Thatcher pulled the plug on the National Front. People have said that, and belittled the movement. That seems unfair to me.'

The classic statement of the ANL's success came from an unlikely source. In 1982, Peter Hain brought a libel case against Martin Webster of the NF. He wanted to stop Webster from printing allegations that Hain had encouraged violence in South Africa and Britain, and especially that as a teenage South African, Peter Hain had organised a series of urban bombings which culminated in several deaths. Webster used the occasion of the trial as a chance to try and settle other scores. According to Hain, 'The picture he gave, and he clearly believed it, was that prior to 1977, the NF were unstoppable and he was well on the way to becoming Prime Minister. Then suddenly the Anti-Nazi League was everywhere and knocking the sheer hell out of them. He said that the sheer presence of the ANL had made it impossible to get NF members on to the streets, had dashed recruitment and cut away at their vote. It wasn't just the physical opposition to the marches, they had lost the propaganda war too.'

 

(2) Why it worked: a leader's eye view

 

Over the past year, I have conducted a number of interviews with people who took part the national leadership of the Anti-Nazi League. The most important interviews were the ones I conducted with the Anti-Nazi League's national officers Paul Holborow, Jerry Fitzpatrick, and Peter Hain, with Ted Parker, the organiser of the Lewisham protests, Tony Bogues, who was then the secretary of the Lewisham 21 defence campaign, and with Red Saunders and Roger Huddle of Rock Against Racism. What struck me most about these individuals, in contrast with the movement's local leaders or its rank-and-file members, was the insistence they put on technique: the extent to which they tried to use the fact that someone was taking an interest in their movement, to draw out activist lessons, ideas on short on why their movement had worked.

The two key leaders of the campaign were undoubtedly Paul Holborow and Peter Hain. Paul Holborow was in his late twenties. He had been active politically from 1969, mainly around Vietnam. He joined the International Socialists (the forerunners of today's Socialist Workers Party) in autumn 1969 at Queen's College, Dundee. He went to London, to SOAS, and then later to Wolverhampton Technical College. From winter 1971, he was working full-time for the IS. He was in London, by autumn 1974, and an IS and then SWP organiser in East London until 1977. According to Jerry Fitzpatrick, who worked with him: 'Paul Holborow was a very cool organiser. He could be very inspirational and politically courageous. He did come from a public school background, and had a manner that could be austere. He followed the party line closely but was prepared to be flexible.' Paul didn't follow music like the RAR people, but he had the modesty to bring in others when required. 'He really was a good leader. He was the nuts and bolts of the Anti-Nazi League.'

        Peter Hain 'had an excellent reputation for fighting apartheid', Paul Holborow recalls, 'and was a bridge to the left Labour milieu. Peter brought a vital dimension; he opened up doors to the Labour Party. He also brought experience of running a press campaign, which we didn't have at all. He had excellent antennae. He and I got on extremely well. He taught me the important of making your formulations exact. He and I drew up the founding statement.' Today a Cabinet member, and leader of the House of Commons, in 1977 Peter Hain was a trade unionist and anti-racist in his late twenties. He had first arrived in Britain some 11 years earlier, as a young exile from apartheid South Africa. As a student, he became one of the best-known activists in the Stop the Seventy campaign against the touring South African rugby side. He was also for several years a leader of the Young Liberals. In September 1976, he had begun working as a research officer for the postal workers' union (today the CWU). A year later, he had joined Labour, and it was in the days following that Hain was asked to lead the Anti-Nazi League. 'If I hadn't joined the Labour Party', he reflects, 'I doubt I would have been approached. The labour movement was key to the strategy of the League.' Why did he join the Anti-Nazi League? 'My view was that we had a big problem. With the decline of the Labour government, the National Front was pushing the Liberals into fourth place. There was a lot of concern about racist violence. For some working-class youth, the skinheads, the National Front were becoming fashionable. We had to go into places that no party could reach. If the Anti-Nazi League hadn't been launched, the National Front could have made real advances among youth in particular.'

The leaders of the anti-fascist campaign were charged with planning strategically for the movement. Peter Hain describes the committee as a small group with common purpose. 'We didn't start off by calling a conference. We would have paralysed ourselves with argument. Debate is important in its own right, but not when it stops you from acting. We had to get together a group of people who were politically sussed. You build support from there. We wanted to get away from that sectarianism, when people only defend their own position. We made the focus action.'

For Paul Holborow, the urgent task was to establish a method of working which was different from the campaigns that had gone before. The first test came November 1977, with a bye-election at Bournemouth East. Holborow takes up the story, 'The President of the Students' Union at Bournemouth College was brilliant, he turned out significant numbers. Two East London businesses donated paper to the campaign: it showed up by the lorry-load. Alexis Grower and Michael Seifert organised meetings of Jewish groups. We produced 50,000 leaflets. The Nazis' vote was derisory.' Kenneth McKilliam of the NF secured just 725 votes.

Another test came during the bye-election at Ilford in spring 1978. According to Paul Holborow, again, 'The Nazis were going to march, but they were banned. We were banned from counter-marching. This was a big test for us, and for Peter Hain. Traditionally, the Socialist Workers Party would have defied the ban. This time, we accepted it. But we took two thousand people and leafleted the entire constituency with leaflets. Peter was with me the entire afternoon. A steward with maps had responsibility for each ward. He was very impressed by our capacity to mobilise people, and also by our discipline. By then, the ball was rolling.' The Anti-Nazi League was now up and running, but the Front was far from defeated: the National Front candidate won over 2000 votes.

Hain's role as press officer depended on his background as a high-profile anti-apartheid activist, as well as his relationship with Neil Kinnock, evidently a rising Labour star. Hain's legitimacy was complemented by his daytime job: working in much the same role for a national union. Paul Holborow's recognition came within the movement came about as a result of the work he had done previously in West and East London. As a member of the SWP, he was potentially vulnerable to criticism from other people on the left arguing that his party was too small; and that he didn't deserve to play a prominent role. Within the SWP, meanwhile, Holborow was sometimes teased about his patrician background. The former young mod, former apprentice, and long time designer working in the SWP print-room, Roger Huddle describes his relationship with Paul Holborow: 'My first meetings with Paul were really antagonistic. I didn't want to work with him. He was a public schoolboy. But it turned out he was solid.'

When Huddle decided that Holborow was dependable, he must have concluded at the very least that Holborow had a talent for making effective choices: that his leadership was consistent and effective. More than that, he may also have meant that Holborow's style of organising was close to those of the local activists: that he worked as a leader, that his style of organising was consistent with that of the local groups.

We can only prove this last point by looking at other, more localised, anti-fascist leaderships. At the start of August 1977, Ted Parker was in his late 30s. A former member of the print union SOGAT, then a lecturer in Barking, Parker was the SWP's regional secretary for South East London. He was also the chief steward for the pending anti-racist march through Lewisham. This is how Parker experienced the end of that demonstration:

 

I was on Lewisham High Street, with a megaphone, when I was hit on the head by the police. After that, I was completely groggy, my mind went, my memory. I think I must have bumped into a couple of comrades. They wanted to take me to Lewisham hospital, but I insisted they take me to one in Westminster, so I wouldn't get arrested. Next thing, I wake up in hospital. I don't even know what day it is. I was even thinking, maybe it was the Friday, we'd been attacked, and the whole thing never happened. I asked the nurse, all the others patients. It was ok, I learned, it was the Sunday. Had there been a riot? There had been! But I still couldn't remember a thing. I phoned my wife, and said, "I'm in hospital, I've lost my memory". She said, "That's the tenth time you've rung me with the same cock and bull story." Then I was feeling shaky again. I phoned Jerry Fitzpatrick from the hospital, and I asked him, "How was it, did I do alright?" He said, "Ted, you were bloody marvellous."

 

Lewisham was the first time that the National Front had showed up in an area, marched, and actually been stopped. But why was Ted marvellous?

        The activist's answer is that Ted had successfully led a movement. In fact, he had not just led a movement, he had helped to bring it into being: in the run up to Lewisham, he had helped to organise a previous campaign against the police witch-hunting of the local black community. Once the NF demonstration had been called, Parker had been part of a small group, which planned the response. As a local activist, he had given countless interviews for the local and national press. He had also contributed to the planning of the August march. We can understand, therefore, why he was so unwilling therefore to be taken to a hospital in Lewisham: Parker expected to be arrested there if he was.

        Of all these leadership tasks, which had been most important? Parker's own answer is surprisingly precise. At Lewisham itself, he argued, the demonstrators had faced a particular problem. The National Front was due to assemble on the top of a hill, and then march through Lewisham, ending up in the centre of the town. All police leave in London would evidently be cancelled. The police were also expected to employ batons and riot shields: tactics which they had practised in Northern Ireland and which they were employing for the first time on the mainland. The organisers therefore decided not to try and occupy Clifton Rise, the designated start of the march, but to concentrate their forces on central Lewisham, its intended destination. They hoped to catch the police off guard, but the key to this strategy involved taking large numbers of anti-fascists, the total anti-fascist crowd numbered roughly 8,000 people, away from the Front demonstration, in order to confront it again after.

 

We wanted to get as many people as possible to Clifton Rise, New Cross Station. We knew the police would try to keep the groups separated, on each side of the railway lines. We'd make some effort there, at the beginning, but it was a feint really. If we couldn't stop the Front at Clifton Rise, we would let the Front go north along New Cross Road. Smaller groups would ambush them. We'd leave a few people in New Cross to protect the families of the Lewisham 21. But our largest number would turn round and march quickly along Lewisham Way. That's where we were going to make a real effort. The police would try to stop us getting across the bridges. We'd have to storm any barriers. But we'd then hold Lewisham High Street. There was no way the Front would be able to get through.

 

In the actual context of Lewisham in August 1977, Parker defined leadership as the ability to take a crowd away from its intended destination, to exchange a tactical defeat for a strategic victory. Leadership was a practical skill: it involved communication with comrades, by megaphone to the crowd, and also at Lewisham by naval flares.

It is worth asking the question again. Why was Ted Parker so 'marvellous'? For an activist of his generation, Parker had an unusual background. He had grown up in Folkestone in an oddly patriotic but Irish Catholic family. 'I always used to read war books', he recalls. Parker joined the RAF at sixteen, on a three-year apprenticeship. They had education classes, at the base, which set him thinking. Together with a friend Mike, he joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. They were court-martialled and given eight-month sentences. Parker later ended up at LSE during the heady years of 1966-9. In other words, Parker combined the military training of an NCO, with the anti-war instincts of the Aldermaston marchers. He had also participated, at a distance, in more than one insurgency campaign. In 1967, he toured South Africa, delivering clandestine leaflets for the banned ANC. In the early 1970s, Parker spent several weeks in Derry, and had spent some time watching the Free Derry movement fight back against the police. But the most interesting parts of all this biography are surely the War Comics. Never surely has a grounding in Battle and Victor been put to such good use.

Paul Holborow and Ted Parker were unlike each other in terms of class, temperament and nationality, but there were some things they shared including energy, determination towards a goal and fearlessness about tactics. Their final common characteristic was a sense of spectacle. Roger Huddle makes the point: 'Paul had a fantastic ability to organise. I remember one time, we were in Walthamstow, it must have been in 1977 or 1978. The NF called a demonstration against the local mosque. Paul got us all there, with banners, strung out in a great long line. He went into the mosque, and persuaded them to turn out too. It was a long line, very long. As the NF turned round a corner, marching towards us, suddenly they realised how many of us there were. They just turned and ran.'

        The history of the Anti-Nazi League is sometimes told as if it was a mere adjunct to the history of the Socialist Workers Party, the party from which several of the leading personalities of RAR and the ANL were drawn. There are many problems with this analysis. Perhaps the most important is that it neglects the extent to which the anti-fascist campaign was the product of alliances: between RAR and the ANL; and between both campaigns and a number of older, often localised anti-racist or anti-fascist networks (Searchlight, the Campaigns Against Racism and Fascism, Race Today and others). The leadership positions taken by Hain and Holborow reflected the most important alliance of all: that between the SWP and certain members of the Labour left. The two remained in alliance for the duration of the campaign. But beyond the campaign, the two organisations knew that they would be competing for the same audience. This is Paul Holborow, for example, reflecting on the 1979 election night:

 

I can't remember where I was on the night of the 1979 election results. There was a certain tension in myself. I was very focussed on the Anti-Nazi League, but also on Thatcher. That had as much impact on me as the decline of the National Front vote. I was completely committed to defeating the Nazis, of course. But I could also see things in a wider context. There was a growing dissatisfaction in the trade unions among the left of the Communist Party. I was always interested in the realignment of the left. The Communist Party dominated the first ten years of my political life, but by 1979 the CP was rent with divisions. The SWP were hoping to realign the left in Britain. But this didn't happen; we were caught up by Thatcherism, the industrial downturn, and the rise of Bennism. Meanwhile people like Hain had a very clear sense of how the Labour left was going to benefit from the ANL. We had a different conception. Events as it happened worked to support his view.

 

The movement, Holborow complains, was inefficient at converting its temporary supporters into permanent activists. It persuaded tens of thousands of the virtues of protest, without inoculating them against the many vices of the 1980s left: nostalgia, sectarianism and above all electoralism. The alliance with Hain was necessary, of course, but behind Hain there was Kinnock, and after Kinnock, Tony Blair. It was a central dilemma of his leadership: how to keep the movement focussed on the central task of confronting the National Front, without diverting energies into pointless debates on set political positions, which would alienated most activists; to keep the campaign engaged with the central task, while not also opening up its members to forces to his near right? The Front had to be defeated, and in many places that meant voting Labour, but the NF vote was precisely a protest against Labour. The ANL would surely fail, unless there was some compelling alternative to Labourism soon.

 

(3) The Anti-Nazi League: as movement

 

While I was preparing this paper, I tried to think about some of the social movements which I have worked on which did not match up to their potential, which squandered the starting premise of the campaign, or the energy of its regional or local activists. Just as a useful intellectual exercise, and in no particular order I drew up the following list: many movements fail because the starting premise is wrong, either too big, or just as often too small. Others get nowhere because they lack a clear or common sense of how to communicate the message of the campaign: they failed to persuade, they do not even cohere. Most fail, I guess, because of the awkwardness of their propaganda, or because they have diverted all their efforts into one form of communication, when it was the wrong one. We seem to make a special virtue on the left out of tired phrases, and poor design. I have known movements that were defeated by the isolation or arrest of key activists. I have seen movements fall apart because the right people were in leadership positions but simply did not get on (splits). There have been movements I have known in which the leaders were over-promoted (talentless hacks), and others where people were simply doing the wrong job for their temperament (a contemporary example: try asking a retired auditor to lead the union's pension campaign). Other campaigns fail because they are too poorly rooted in any one milieu, or for an allied reason, that they are too tied to their key constituency, and unable to spread in terms of sociology or geography. In drawing up this list, I also had in mind the anti-fascist campaign of the 1970s, because at almost every one of these points, it seemed to do the exact opposite of these negative steps: it worked.

Was the Anti-Nazi League a social movement? It shared at least two of the common features of such campaigns, an emphasis on participation and a definite goal. The latter was of course to stop the National Front. As with other social movements, this single goal meant a variety of things. For the embattled black communities of East and West London, the West Midlands and the North West, challenging the NF was a necessary first stage towards the greater goal of defeating white racism. For trade unionists wary of a right-wing backlash, anti-worker, anti-black, and anti-everything else as well, the NF was a stepping-stone towards the real enemies, Thatcher's Conservatives. For the veteran Jewish Communists of boroughs like Hackney, fascism was enough of an enemy in itself.

One of the most attractive features of the campaign was the relationship between politics and music. Dave Widgery's history of the movement, Beating Time, captures the synthesis between RAR and the Anti-Nazi League. 'It was a piece of double time, with the musical and the political confrontations on simultaneous but separate tracks and difficult to mix. The music came first and was more exciting. It provided the creative energy and the focus in what became a battle for the soul of young working-class England. But the direct confrontations and the hard-headed political organisation which underpinned them were decisive.'

        What really explains the success of the anti-fascist movement, for me, was the success it had in temporarily joining people across all the divides. All movements have an emotional range. Partly as a result of the issues involved, partly also as a result of the small but cumulative tactical decisions taken by the small number of people who hold leadership positions, a campaign may involve a relatively narrow or a relatively broad range of people. One of the most engaging features of the anti-fascist campaign was precisely the range of personalities involved.

This paper has already mentioned Tony Bogues. The following is his account of his involvement in wider black political networks at the time.

 

I came from Jamaica, from the Manley regime, the destabilisation attempts being run by the CIA ... My politics was all about self-organisation. There was a way in which you talked with working-class people. You started from what they thought. It was a different style from the British left. We didn't leaflet people. We asked what they thought ... I made initial contacts, with the people in Flame, and also with family, friends, the sorts of people you drink with in the bar. After a year, I knew a lot of people, some friends, some political. There were the people in the SWP. Kim Gordon was militant, quick-witted. The IMG had a guy called Fitzroy, from Nigeria. There was the Black Marxist Collective in Croydon. It was a different kind of politics, based on the immigrant cultures.

 

        Bogues sought to embody a practice of community organising, of working among people whom he know already, and in a group tightly defined by geography and ethnicity. Similar dynamics have been described by people who organised in the Bangladeshi population of Tower Hamlets, among Pakistanis in Bradford and Sikhs in Southall.

Even white ethnicities could be involved. Mike Barton who worked in the Anti-Nazi League office in 1978 and 1979 recalls an incident at one protest. 'There was one guy Johnny, he and his brother Jimmy came from a family of dockworkers and were active in anti-fascist circles. They were tough: Jimmy was a lightweight boxer. One day, there was an anti-fascist march through Hackney. Johnny came on the demo. The NF had some counter-demo. There was a skinhead watching him, all the time, and the skinhead had his face half covered in bandages. Finally the skinhead shouts, 'Itís you!' 'You race traitor!' Johnny didnít shout back the obvious retort 'class traitor', which wouldnít have bothered the skinhead. Instead, he starts pulling his arms out and back, as if he was wearing braces. What he meant was 'Me? A race traitor? No. Iím Irish.' That was important. The Nazi could only think in terms of race, and Jimmy turned it on its head. By then it felt like we had the measure of the fascists, politically and on the streets.'

Like Ted Parker, Jerry Fitzpatrick was a product of the Free Derry campaign. Jerry describes organising Builders' and Irish contingents at Lewisham. In the run up to August 1977, he recalls, 'There was an Irish hall next to our centre. We were allowed into there, and into the Irish pubs and dances, to raise money, to speak about the National Front as the latest incarnation of British imperialism, and to appeal for support.' In 1979 and 1980 Fitzpatrick organised with John Dennis and John Ellis a RAR Tour to Belfast and Derry in support of the H-Block prisoners who subsequently went on hunger strike for political status.

        Not everyone involved was so 'political', of course. Any movement that could find a role for people as diverse as the founder of History Workshop Raph Samuel, music journalists Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, future trade union leaders Mick Rix, Billy Hayes, Andy Gilchrist, all of whom were in the crowds at the first Rock Against Racism carnival, had to be broad. Caroline Harper, for example, was a young punk living in London: 'It was part of our culture. We were getting harassed by the police. We naturally identified with other people getting harassed by the police. It was when the sus laws were at their height. It didn't matter if you had green hair or were black, you would be stopped by the police, for any reason ... We felt like victims of an authoritarian state.' Ronnie was by his own admission an apolitical young supporter of the Anti-Nazi League: 'When I joined I was not the finished article. I met people who had lived all their lives on Merseyside who admitted they had been racist in the past because no black people lived by them, so they grew up not knowing any. As far as being homophobic is concerned, well I was. I had a gay uncle and I used to go for a pint with him and his mates but I was embarrassed about him until I saw that even though I couldn't get my head around it he and his friends were as good as anyone else and better than most.'

Recall Holborow's regret: that the movement failed to turn its activists into permanent campaigners. The above two individuals express the truth and the limits of the argument: Caroline later joined the Liberal Democrats, and Ronnie Class War. It is a wide spectrum, and yet having met them I would say that both still carry something of the campaign.

        The most compelling two-word theory of activism I know is the title of another history of the anti-fascist campaign: David Widgery's Beating Time. Published in 1986, as Thatcher's Conservatives prepared for a third successive electoral victory, what Widgery was trying to convey above all was that the future did not have to be like the present; that activists could turn to the past not as a place of escape, but in the most precise and level-headed manner, to draw lessons, and as a necessary stage towards finding their place again in new struggles. Widgery was also making a second statement about RAR: that the movement had breached the limits of historical time. To launch RAR and the ANL against the backdrop of the decline of the Labour government, the beginning of the backlash, and the decline of popular militancy was (as he could see in retrospect) an act of some folly. Movements almost never prosper when history is against them. But to have pulled it off, that was something else!