SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 223 November 2018

Do we really need a new Anti-Nazi League?

How can we fight the far-right when poverty pay, sky-high rents and harsh austerity provide such fertile ground for racism and reaction? Drawing lessons from the 1970s, PAULA MITCHELL explains the limitations of the approach epitomised by the ANL – and why a socialist alternative to capitalism’s inability to provide a decent future is needed to mobilise working-class people.

What is the force in society that can defeat racism and the far-right? This is the question posed by John McDonnell’s call, reported in the Guardian on 7 August, for "a new Anti-Nazi League-type cultural and political campaign to resist", because "we can no longer ignore the rise of far-right politics in our society". This was in response to the thousands of people who have been mobilised by the so-called Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) in demonstrations this year.

It harks back to the Anti-Nazi League heyday of the late 1970s in the battle against the fascist National Front. The implication is that the mobilisations of the ANL and its drawing together of a wide spectrum of support, including pop stars, footballers and bishops, behind the simple call to stop the NF, were responsible for defeating it.

But the ANL was just one part of the story. Drawing on the real lessons of the 1970s, the ‘broad’ ANL-style politics – in the words of its founders, "uniting all people of goodwill", "all of us who are committed to a tolerant, multiracial and multicultural society" (Guardian letter, 15 October 2018) – fall far short of what is required to defeat racism and the far-right today. It is only the working class, organised in a mass fight for socialist policies, that can draw behind it broader layers in society and wipe out support for the far-right.

The ANL was formed in 1977 following the growth in support for the NF. Led by Hitler-supporting fascists, the NF had stood in elections in May 1974, winning 10% of the vote in some areas of London. It held meetings at Conway Hall, central London, which began to be picketed by anti-racist activists. Clashes with the police led to the death of one protester, Kevin Gately. From then on, various groups organised counter-protests at NF events.

The NF found fertile territory in a time of recession and growing unemployment. It went on to draw support from demoralised, downtrodden layers, from some sections of the middle class and even from some workers who felt increasingly betrayed by a Labour government inflicting public-service cuts and wage restraint. They fell prey to the propaganda blaming immigrants.

The press promotion of the NF and racist speeches by politicians emboldened racists and fascists, leading to abuse, attacks and even murders of black and Asian people. In 1976 former Tory minister Enoch Powell made another incendiary speech – following on from his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968. He claimed that Britain "was still being eroded and hollowed out from within… by alien wedges". In local elections that year, the NF won 44,000 votes in Leicester and 38% of the vote in Blackburn (with the National Party).

It was the drunken rant of Eric Clapton from a concert stage – "Vote for Enoch Powell… get the foreigners out" – that triggered the formation of Rock Against Racism, which enlisted artists such as the Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex and The Clash. The ANL called counter-demonstrations and, in 1978, with Rock Against Racism, organised big anti-racist carnivals in Victoria Park, Hackney, and Brockwell Park, Brixton. Later, the leaders of the NF said that the big events and propaganda of the ANL contributed to their decline.

Without question, street mobilisations and anti-racist propaganda are very important. A key part of fighting racists and fascists is to expose the true politics of those organisations, and to mobilise against them. Big counter-demonstrations can demoralise far-right organisations, particularly if they are prevented from marching. They are also vital to defend the communities the fascists try to march through.

Black and Asian communities mobilise

In the 1970s, it was the mobilisation of local communities and working-class people, especially black and Asian workers and youth, that was central. One factor the capitalists and their political representatives had not reckoned on when they whipped up racism was the preparedness to fight of the new generation of black and Asian youth. Instead of acquiescence, young black people, inspired by mass movements worldwide, including in the US and South Africa, began organising to reject the grinding poverty, blatant discrimination and brutal racism they faced, in particular from the police. At Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 police ran from crowds of black youth chanting ‘Soweto, Soweto!’

The racist murder of 18-year-old student, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, in Southall in 1976, provoked a near uprising of Asian youth in the area, with big demonstrations and the establishment of the Southall Asian Youth Movement. At the same time, black and Asian workers had joined trade unions and were often the backbone of local and national strikes. The Grunwicks strike of mainly Asian women workers in 1976-78 was a beacon to the whole union movement.

The best-known battle against the NF took place in Lewisham, south London, in August 1977, when the NF attempted an ‘anti-mugging’ march aimed at the black community. While an anti-racist committee comprising the Labour Party right wing, bishops and the Communist Party called a demonstration far from the NF, local black youth, trade unionists and socialists from various organisations aimed to stop the fascists. Four thousand police were mobilised to defend the NF.

Notwithstanding the bragging of the SWP, boosted by press reports, the Labour Party Young Socialists (led by supporters of Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party) played an important part, working in a disciplined way with local youth to prevent the NF marching at New Cross. The fascists were humiliated on that day. Following it, the LPYS held anti-racist meetings around the country, arguing for a working-class based fightback and for the Labour Party to adopt socialist policies to decisively defeat the far-right.

The ANL was founded after the Lewisham events. It called big demonstrations and bused supporters around the country to confront the NF. However, in the most serious mobilisations it continued to be local communities and the working class that were key. In September 1978, the NF attempted to march through Tower Hamlets and were met by 2,000 Asian youth who turned out to defend their area. They were joined by local socialists and trade unionists. Controversially, the ANL decided to go ahead with its 100,000-strong concert in Brockwell Park, Brixton.

In Southall 1979, as well as a turnout brought by the ANL, there was a huge mobilisation of the local Asian population against an NF rally, including a strike called by the Indian Workers Association. This was met by a savage police riot, resulting in the death of teacher Blair Peach at the hands of the police.

In the 1979 general election, the NF received a much worse vote than it expected and subsequently went into decline. The election was won by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. In January 1978, Thatcher had done a Granada TV interview which made a significant impact on the support for the NF. She famously said: "People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture… we do have to hold out the prospect of an end to immigration". For a layer of people who blamed immigration for unemployment and poor living standards, bombarded by racist propaganda in the capitalist press, voting NF was no longer necessary.

Labour unrest

The most important factors that undercut the growth of the NF, however, were the trade union struggles and the battle in the Labour Party for it to adopt a socialist programme. It was the failure of the Labour leadership to fight for and implement left-wing policies that had prepared the terrain for the far-right and allowed Thatcher to come to power. When Labour won the general election in 1974 (twice) there was enthusiasm for socialist policies. Chancellor Denis Healey promised to "make the pips squeak" of the rich. Yet, when faced with an investment strike by big business, rising inflation and unemployment, Healey went cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund for a loan – conditional on cuts. The government and acquiescent trade union leaders introduced the social contract, which meant wage restraint.

With falling living standards came growing frustration at Labour councils and the government. Workers lost confidence and Labour lost seats in by-elections. Instead of coming out fighting with socialist policies, the leadership went into a pact with the Liberals to maintain ‘power’– which really meant that power stayed in the hands of the capitalists. The working class did not just accept this, however. Labour Party members fought for socialist policies and for democratic measures, such as mandatory reselection, to enable them to select MP candidates who would fight for them.

The late 1970s were marked by a massive working-class fightback which shook capitalism to the core. In the winter of 1977-78, firefighters went on strike for ten weeks for better pay. The ‘winter of discontent’ began in the autumn of 1978 when Ford workers struck and won a pay victory. Bakers, train drivers and lorry drivers went on strike. Then public-sector workers in councils, the NHS, water and other public industries struck against poverty wages. They were followed by civil servants.

This showed an alternative to the politics of division and, in practice, united black and white workers in struggle. Once the labour movement stirred in this way, the ground was swept from under the feet of the NF. The movement fed into the struggle between socialists and the pro-capitalist right wing inside the Labour Party. Militant supporters and the LPYS played a crucial role, campaigning for the nationalisation of the main planks of the economy, for jobs, pay and homes, a programme that could unite the working class and confront the interests of capitalism.

Racism and class struggle

The LPYS had launched an anti-racism campaign in the early 1970s, and this led to the first national labour movement demonstration against racism, in Bradford in 1974. The resolution passed at the 1976 Labour Party conference on racism was moved and seconded by LPYS members. It was on the initiative of the LPYS that Labour and the TUC called a demonstration of 30,000 against racism.

The LPYS also had a TV broadcast on the issue and produced a 1978 conference document, The Battle against Racialism and Fascism, which clearly outlined the need for a bold socialist approach: "Racialism is a class question… Liberal appeals to ‘love thy neighbour’ cut no ice whatsoever with many demoralised voters who in despair turn to racialism in response to the seemingly endless problems of unemployment, slum housing, overcrowded schools, declining social services and falling real wages. We oppose the racialists for class reasons, because we need a united labour movement and a united working class to put an end to the very miseries that are created by the profiteers and their chaotic system".

The pamphlet answered the lies of the racists. It concluded: "The task of defeating the racists and fascists is first and foremost the task of the multi-millioned ranks of the labour movement. The battle to undercut the fascists’ political base can only be successful if an uncompromising anti-racist campaign is linked to a campaign to explain that socialist measures are the only ones which can avert the threat of a return to the miserable conditions of the 1930s".

In contrast, the propaganda of the ANL was restricted to ‘don’t vote Nazi’. This suggested that it was legitimate to vote Tory or Liberal – big-business parties whose policies created the anger in the first place. The ANL successfully attracted a large number of youth who wanted to fight racism and the NF. However, its political position was to mislead these young people. It offered no programme beyond ‘stopping the Nazis’. In its pursuit of footballers, writers, actors, pop stars, etc, it jettisoned socialist policies to get their support.

The same is the case now with Stand Up To Racism in the face of the threat of the DFLA. We are told that we cannot raise anti-cuts ideas as this is a fight against the racists and fascists only. The argument goes that, if we say we are also against austerity, people who are in favour of cuts (such as service-cutting Labour councillors and Blairite MPs) won’t participate. When marches of the far-right are quite small, as was the case with the English Defence League in the early 2010s, it is of course possible to mobilise enough people to outnumber them on any given occasion, without raising a class programme. The problem with that approach is that it does nothing about the conditions that breeds support for the far-right.

Now we are told that the threat is so great, the numbers the DFLA can mobilise are so big that we must ‘put all our differences’ to one side. But it is precisely when the threat is great that the debate about the correct approach is so important. It is essential to raise a programme for jobs, homes and against austerity – and for a socialist alternative which challenges the interests of capitalism. Only in that way can the biggest force in society – the one fundamentally at threat from the growth of the far-right, the working class – be united and mobilised, and the far-right swept aside. We raise this based on the concrete experience of the historic fight against fascism. It was and is essential to offer a clear anti-capitalist, socialist alternative.

A real united front

When fascism developed in the 1920s and 1930s it was a tool of capitalism in decline. To counter the growth of the working-class movement, the capitalists funded fascists to mobilise a mass movement of angry, betrayed petty-bourgeois and lumpen layers in society. Their livelihoods had been destroyed by crisis-ridden capitalism but they were whipped up against the working class. They were mobilised to smash up the meetings, destroy the buildings, and even kill the leaders of workers’ organisations, to stamp out all independent activity of the working class.

Fascism meant the destruction of every working-class organisation and the atomisation of the class. But this was only possible after the workers, who had engaged in a ferocious struggle that struck at the heart of capitalism, had been let down and betrayed by their leaders – and failed to show an alternative to driven-down middle-class layers.

Tragically, the Nazis took power ‘without a pane of glass broken’. The disastrous policy of ‘social fascism’ pursued by the Stalinised Communist International effectively branded all political parties as fascist, including the mass social democratic (reformist) parties. Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition fought for a united front policy – an alliance of workers’ organisations – which had been the method of the Bolsheviks who led the Russian revolution of 1917. After Hitler took power, the Stalinists swung in the opposite direction and argued for class collaboration in popular fronts. This approach was equally disastrous, allowing Franco to come to power in Spain, because it subordinated the interests of workers to the capitalists.

There are elements of this approach in the ANL/Stand Up To Racism. In the name of a so-called ‘united front’, all talk of a working-class programme and socialist alternative is left at the door, so as not to put off the big name liberal figures. It is also important to have a clear estimation of the threat posed by the far-right. Unquestionably, there are dangerous individuals trying to build a movement with the DFLA today. They carry out and inspire violent racist attacks. They must be opposed.

Nonetheless, the ruling class has learned lessons from the experience of fascism and is extremely unlikely to cede power directly to fascists again. Even though the capitalists would be prepared to use the most extreme measures to protect their system, they would most likely use fascist organisations as an auxiliary, to carry out their dirty work of attacking working-class organisations.

This would be terrible enough. However, it would only be the failure of the labour movement that would bring about this disaster. With a mass movement, as the trade unions and a mass workers’ socialist party move into action, the workers would draw behind them the more politically backward layers. The far-right organisations would be left isolated.

The working class as an organised force is much bigger now than in the 1930s, even though trade union membership has fallen since its peak in the 1970s. The petty-bourgeoisie is also smaller – and other traditionally middle-class layers, such as lecturers and junior doctors, have been driven down into the conditions of the working class, forced to adopt working-class methods to fight back. Even head teachers have been compelled to protest. The numbers of black and ethnic minority people in the cities in Britain and the levels of integration into the working class and trade unions are also much greater than in the 1930s.

Taking back the streets

In June, 15,000 took part in a ‘free Tommy Robinson’ demonstration in London called by the DFLA. Hardened racists and small fascistic groups are at the core of these mobilisations. Ten years on from the financial crash and following eight years of the worst austerity in a lifetime, the leading figures in the DFLA are trying to use the huge suffering and degradation, anger and alienation to push in a far-right direction. Not all the people on these protests are fascists.

The DFLA’s pro-Trump demo in July was dwarfed by the anti-Trump demo the day before, when 250,000 marched on a weekday. A similar number marched in defence of the NHS. Nonetheless, the numbers being mobilised are bigger than anything achieved by the NF – or the BNP in the 1990s or EDL in the early 2010s – and is potentially a dangerous development.

Part of what lies behind John McDonnell’s call is the view that Stand Up To Racism, which has called counter-protests, is not able to mobilise enough on the streets to outnumber the DFLA. Frustration with SUTR was also shown by the numbers of young people who were attracted to the separate ‘unity’ demonstration that set out to block the DFLA’s route on 13 October, called by various groups including anarchists. Football fans who oppose the far-right appropriation of the game are also getting organised with Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism.

But the answer to this frustration is not to ‘go broader’ in the sense of trying to involve big name cultural and religious figures, but to mobilise the biggest and ‘broadest’ layers in society, the working class. In recognition of the threat, a section of the trade union movement, such as the Rail Maritime and Transport union and Unite, is starting more seriously to mobilise and steward counter-demonstrations. Socialist Party members have moved resolutions in trade unions calling for this and welcome the decision of the 2018 TUC congress to launch a Jobs and Homes not Racism campaign.

If the DFLA or any other far-right grouping, such as Britain First, attempts to invade a local area, it is essential that we fight for a massive mobilisation of the community to defend itself. The trade unions can play a crucial role, with an energetically-built campaign involving local workplace meetings to mobilise members.

We also welcome the call from RMT activists for a trade union stewarding group. A list of hundreds of volunteers from each union could be compiled, from which stewards and a chief steward with experience can be drawn on each occasion. It cannot be left to the police to protect demonstrators. If people know that safety is being taken seriously, many more will be encouraged to participate.

The organised working class is capable of bringing behind it the alienated, unorganised, downtrodden layers. In March 2011, three-quarters of a million marched under the banner of the TUC when people believed the trade unions were going to fight austerity. If the unions mobilise with energy and clear demands to fight for jobs and homes, and to kick out the Tories, hundreds of thousands would turn out on the streets and could cut across the appeal of far-right leaders.

Potential for a mass movement

It is not a question of waiting for the TUC or the leaders of the main unions. We must put pressure on them to act, but mobilise from below. When the right-wing leaders are a brake on action, organisation at a local level in the unions, communities and among young people can have a big effect on the official leaderships. The key question is programme. When Jeremy Corbyn put forward an anti-austerity manifesto in the 2017 general election, a million previous UKIP voters switched to vote Labour.

There is huge anger and revolt brewing, which occasionally bursts out when workers and young people see an opportunity to beat back at the capitalist establishment in referendums and elections. The mass rejection of the so-called ‘liberal’ centre ground, in reality the parties of capitalism and austerity, expresses itself in various ways. It can go to the right, Trump for example, but also to left, as seen in the support for Bernie Sanders in the US and for Jeremy Corbyn’s programme in Britain, as people seek an alternative. There is the potential, with the correct leadership, to build a mighty mass movement that can sweep aside the far-right organisations and draw people towards the side of organised labour.

This is John McDonnell’s real job. He was quoted in The Guardian saying that the Labour Party "will take a leading role in this movement against racism and fascism". McDonnell and Corbyn lead a party of over 500,000 members. They should put themselves at the head of a working-class movement, rather than hand over to bishops and actors in a ‘new ANL’. They need to work with the trade unions to build a mass campaign for socialist policies, and to construct a mass party capable of implementing them. This means taking on and defeating the Blairites in the Labour Party, who will continue to do all they can to prevent a Corbyn-led government that implements socialist policies.

The Labour government of the 1970s betrayed the hopes of the working class. This helped create the terrain for the growth of the NF and led to the election of Thatcher and 18 long years of Tory rule. The lesson must be learnt. The capitalists will go to any lengths to sabotage a government that attempts to act in the interests of the working class. So it would have to mobilise a mass movement and be prepared to go all the way with socialist policies of jobs, homes and services – and for the democratic socialist nationalisation of the banks and main parts of the economy. A fight for this programme is what can defeat racism and the far-right and guarantee a decent life for all.

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