An heroic episode

We Fight Fascists

By Daniel Sonabend

Published by Verso, 2019, £20

Reviewed by Nick Hart

Britain in 1946: despite the second world war being over, many of the hardships of wartime persisted. Rationing was still in place, cities were pockmarked with bomb sites, unemployment was rising and many workers remained housed in slum conditions.

It was in this austere environment that a number of those who had previously been active in the British Union of Fascists (BUF) during that organisation’s 1930s heyday began to regroup and restart their campaign of anti-Semitic provocation. What they had not reckoned with was the resolute opposition which they would encounter.

We Fight Fascists by London-based historian Daniel Sonabend tells the story of The 43 Group, an organisation set up by working class Jews, mainly though not exclusively based in London, to prevent a fascist revival by any means necessary. In a fast paced and meticulously researched account, Sonabend relates how a group of Jewish ex-servicemen, angered both by the anti-Semitic slander being openly spread on the streets of Britain and the passivity of more established Jewish organisations in confronting it, set out to disrupt the activities of the fascists wherever they encountered them.

To begin with, this largely took the form of heckling the open air meetings being held by fascist groups such as the British League of Ex-Servicemen and the Union of British Freedom. These platforms were often set up in areas of East and North London with a sizable Jewish community, with the aim of stirring up resentment among the rest of the population.

However, it soon became apparent to The 43 Group that a more robust approach was required. This consisted of heading out to wherever they got wind of a fascist meeting and physically breaking it up by overturning the platform and grappling with the heavy-set stewards surrounding it.

Inevitably, this would often lead to the arrest of Group members by policemen in attendance to protect the fascists’ supposed right to freedom of speech and assembly. Once arrested, Jewish anti-fascists would often be subjected to still worse physical and verbal assaults by the police themselves.

Not that the upper echelons of the state were of much assistance either, despite the Labour Party being in office. Home Secretary James Chuter Ede repeatedly refused to take measures to prohibit the fascists from publicly fermenting racial hatred, a cabinet report glibly stating that “there is no immediate threat of the re-emergence of a significant fascist movement in this country”.

In response, despite being a supposedly “non-political organisation” open “to all sincere anti-fascists”, The 43 Group nonetheless carried out an impressive counter-propaganda campaign, producing a regular newspaper, On Guard, sending non-Jewish members to infiltrate The British League, and regularly setting up platforms with speakers of their own.

The latter tactic proved invaluable during the summer and autumn of 1947, when every weekend the area around Ridley Road Market in Dalston became the scene of opposing street meetings of hundreds of British League supporters and anti-fascists. As Sonabend’s book acknowledges in passing, Trotskyists organised in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), a forerunner of today’s Socialist Party, played a significant part in these mobilisations.

Tom Reilly, an East London organiser of the RCP and regular speaker on the joint platforms of communists and The 43 Group, was arrested one October Sunday at Ridley Road and charged with ‘insulting behaviour’ for refusing to give up a pitch which the British League were attempting to muscle him off.

A subsequent assembly there of over 2,000 anti-fascists unanimously passed an RCP motion calling on “all working class organisations to unite their forces against the fascists and organise common platforms and defence organisations with the object of destroying fascism… [This motion] calls upon all workers to refuse to print, transport or handle fascist propaganda of any sort, and upon the union executives to make this a rule”.

Though Hackney Trades Council and other local union organisations took a proactive role in mobilising to oppose the fascists in Dalston, the same could not be said of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Despite boasting a membership in the tens of thousands the Stalinist leadership largely limited themselves to pleading with the Atlee government to carry out legal measures against the far right (and in the process prove, they hoped, that the Communist Party was ‘respectable’ enough to be allowed to affiliate to the Labour Party).

Though the British League carried out attacks on the Bristol and Bethnal Green offices of the Communist Party, the CP leaders privately discouraged their members from attending the counter demonstrations at Ridley Road and elsewhere. However, they would then often publicly take credit for these mobilisations afterwards. It was therefore left to individuals in the Communist Party rank and file alongside The 43 Group and the RCP to confront the fascists at the weekly ‘meetings’ in Dalston.

Things came to a head during 1948 with the re-emergence of former BUF leader Oswald Moseley. After successfully bringing together the dozens of disparate far right organisations in Britain under the banner of his new Union Movement for a series of mass indoor rallies, Moseley attempted to organise a march through North London on May Day. Under heavy police protection, the column of fascists made it as far as Holloway Prison under a heavy shower of rotten fruit from supporters of The 43 Group and other anti-fascists before dispersing.

After other ill-fated attempts to march through London and Brighton were blocked by counter demonstrations, Moseley’s Union Movement quickly became demoralised and disintegrated almost as quickly as it had come together. The development of the long post-war boom did not provide the conditions for its recovery. The aim of preventing a resurgence of fascism in Britain seemingly achieved, The 43 Group likewise wound down.

However, as Sonabend acknowledges in a postscript to the book, this was not the end of the British far right. Under conditions of economic crisis and the Labour governments of Callaghan and Blair attacking the working class, fascist-led organisations such as the National Front and the British National Party (BNP) respectively were able to gain a certain base in later decades.

This goes to show that there can be no final victory over fascism while large sections of the working and middle classes see their living standards deteriorate and are left seeking a political alternative. That is why the Socialist Party and our sister parties around the world place a great emphasis on the need to build mass workers’ parties which can answer the racist lies of the fascists with a programme which can genuinely meet the needs of workers from all religious and racial groups.

At the same time we have a proud record of organising to prevent the far right from spreading their poisonous ideas. This includes the work of the Youth Against Racism in Europe campaign initiated by Socialist Party members in the 1990s, which in a throwback to scenes in East London at the time of The 43 Group mobilised the local community to stop BNP paper sales in Brick Lane, as well as playing a leading role in organising a mass demonstration which led to the closure of their headquarters in South London.

Despite Sonabend doing a great service to the movement in We Fight Fascists by bringing to light a largely forgotten episode of its history, he unfortunately fails to draw the conclusion that fascism is a danger that must be defeated politically as well as physically.

Or, as the RCP’s newspaper, Socialist Appeal commented in the context of the Ridley Road clashes in 1947, “only by destroying the source of fascism, the capitalist system, with its profits of the few and poverty for the masses, can fascism be destroyed”.