Full text of review from Issue 41 of the Journal of the Socialist History Society
Sean Birchall, Beating the Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action (London: Freedom Press, 2010), 416pp., ISBN 9781904491125, £15.00, pbk.
“…they were hit with everything, bars, hammers, baseball bats. Yes it was savage enough I suppose but not gratuitous. We were taking the opportunity to send them a message …”(p.215)
Beating the Fascists deals with Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), an organisation that engaged in what was, in effect, a quasi-paramilitary conflict with a variety of fascist organisations, principally the BNP and Combat 18, who were intent on pursuing a policy of insurrection by ‘controlling the streets’. This semi-clandestine campaign continued up until 1994 when Nick Griffin ostentatiously declared that his party were to ‘de-commission the boot’ in order to end what John Tyndall had described as ‘a state of war’. AFA had,literally, driven the fascists off the streets and forced them into a comprehensive strategic re-evaluation, and this text provides key anti-fascist activists with a platform to tell their own story in their own words.
AFA was created on 28 July 1985 at Conway Hall in London (although formally launched in Liverpool in the following year) and set out to be a totally non-sectarian and democratic organisation with its only objective being to oppose fascism both physically and ideologically. AFA in fact consisted of people belonging to a range of political groups, including Red Action (communist), the Direct Action Movement (anarcho-syndicalist), Class War (anarchist), Workers’ Power (Trotskyist), and Communist Action Group (Stalinist)—as the book says, in AFA hunt saboteurs rubbed shoulders with members of the Territorial Army and Irish Republicans! AFA was, indeed, an odd amalgamation but according to the book, ‘one of the reasons AFA was so effective was that it could apparently accommodate recruits from all ideologies and none’ (p.341). Yet the objective of AFA’s principal activists is clearly articulated throughout – physical resistance as a pre-requisite for effective anti-fascism, to clear the fascists out of working-class areas and destroy all semblance of a fascist presence in public spaces.
By 1990 AFA was clearly identified as the militant wing of the anti-fascist movement with a dedicated street-fighting cadre and stewards group. At its peak in the early 90s AFA had four regions and 36 branches with particular areas of strength in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. Yet as the book is at pains to point out, street confrontation was only a part of what AFA set out to do. It was an important tactic (not a principle) and only part of a multi-faceted approach to anti-fascist practice. The magazine Fighting Talk was set up in 1991, and an attempt was made to mobilise people via various cultural and leisure activities such as Cable St Beat and Unity Carnivals. Meanwhile football clubs were the focus of considerable AFA activity with teams like Glasgow Celtic, Manchester United and Aston Villa having a visible AFA contingent, determined to halt the colonisation of the game by the extreme right. AFA even produced a BBC Open Space video entitled Fighting Talk. So Beating the Fascists looks, therefore, in some detail at the ‘roots’ of AFA in the Anti-Nazi League of the late 1970s, the split from the SWP in 1981, the formation of Red Action, the launch of AFA in 1985, and the numerous internal feuds and splits that ensued. It is also replete with detailed and graphic descriptions of extremely violent confrontations with fascists, which will doubtless horrify those anxious to dismiss AFA as the mirror image of the right-wing bullies they were claiming to oppose.
There is no doubt that Beating the Fascists is a controversial book, a fact acknowledged by the author(s) as well as the publishers, Freedom Press, who have described it as ‘the most controversial book of the decade’. Its credentials as a source of intense, even acrimonious, debate are reflected in the fact that some people did not actually want the text to see the light of day at all, and the eventual publication has precipitated vociferous ‘discussion’ in various circles, even causing some former comrades to condemn the book in recriminatory tones. It is a book that, seemingly, not only divides opinion but generates deeply felt and contradictory emotions, offending not just right wing reactionaries but a variety of liberals, anarchists, Trotskyists and others. This is quite an accomplishment for a text produced by a small independent publisher, concerning what is, on the face of it, a relatively esoteric element of left-wing political practice in the 1980s and 90s. The source of the consternation and condemnation is not difficult to discern.
The book is in fact quite explicit from the outset in stating its purpose – it tells the story of AFA, not only from a rank-and-file activists’ perspective, but also more specifically from the point of view of those activists that coalesced around the group Red Action (described, incidentally, by BNP HQ as ‘the worst of the lot, total scum’). Given that AFA was always a relatively pragmatic amalgamation of various political groupings, there have been rumblings of resentment, particularly from anarchists, who claim that the text is focused too narrowly on those individuals who, although playing a key role in certain cities, did not constitute by any means the entirety of the organisation. Yet such criticism is odd given the fact that those who composed the text have not claimed any definitive or comprehensive purpose. Clearly the book does focus somewhat on those involved in Red Action, who acquired a fearsome reputation for ruthlessness when engaging their political enemies (it is worth remembering that Combat 18 were set up in response to the success of RA), but in many ways the driving force behind AFA was indeed Red Action. Formed in 1982, many of its members having been expelled from the SWP for the venal sin of ‘squadismo’, Red Action explicitly rejected the liberal-left anti-racist agenda, and criticised the state funded agencies of the multi-culturalist establishment. As the author points out, ‘while race awareness took the plaudits, it was a strikingly illiberal militant anti-fascism that did all the heavy lifting’ (p.18). Little wonder, then, that the book has caused controversy.
What the text does provide is a fascinating glimpse of the struggle that took place between AFA and the unreconstructed Nazis on the extreme right, and the book is unquestionably authoritative in the sense of emanating from those who were actually engaged in the struggle – but it is much more than that. The strangely dichotomous narrative contains not simply a sometimes chilling account of collective confrontation, but also a concise,calculating analysis of why such methods were deployed, and interestingly, a realistic acknowledgement of the limitations of AFA’s strategy – violence of the first resort can never be anything but an artificial and temporary remedy. This is not simply hooligan-porn, and anybody aiming simply to satisfy an urge to experience, vicariously, the thrill of visceral violence, is likely to be somewhat disappointed. Fighting the Fascists has taken upon itself the more ambitious objective of contextualising and examining the strategy of AFA, as well as documenting, in remorseless detail, the various dust-ups that ensued.
Beating the Fascists is, in effect, both an analysis and a micro-historiography of popular resistance against fascism. It documents the fight against the purveyors of an evil political creed which takes place in the very communities where that grotesque ideology is incubated. It is, more than anything, the story of ordinary people engaged in struggle. The words of Phil Piratin come to mind who, commenting on people remembering their participation in the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ said, ‘the people were changed. Their heads seemed to be held higher, and their shoulders were squarer—and the stories they told! Each one of them was a ‘hero’—many of them were’ (P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, 1948, p.25). As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, sometimes it is a good thing to remind ourselves of what the enemy fears most—ordinary working people that are assertive in their own collective working-class identity, self-confident, politically astute and prepared to resist. Read the book and remind yourself.
Dr Mark Hayes, Southampton Solent University