Review: Socialist History Journal

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

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Interview Transcript: Red Pepper

Full transcript from a recent interview with Red Pepper. The full interview on the Red Pepper site can also be viewed here

On its 75th anniversary, much attention was given to the Battle of Cable Street, where Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts were prevented from marching through the predominantly Jewish working class East End of London. But Cable Street itself was the culmination of a wider tradition of direct physical confrontation with fascists both at the time and throughout most of the 20th century.

We are happy to praise those who made a stand in the 1930s. But what of those who literally fought the fascists more recently, in the shape of the British Movement, the National Front or the pre-Griffin British National Party?

The publication of Beating the Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action (Freedom Press) has re-asserted the importance of this disparaged and neglected tradition. Michael Calderbank spoke with Gary and Andy, longstanding members of Red Action who helped to initiate AFA, about their controversial new book.

Michael: Maybe we could begin by talking about the history of physical confrontation with the fascists in Britain?

Andy: Well, if you’re a Jew living in the 1930s or a working class Communist then it’s in your face, you’re dealing with Blackshirts who are on your street corner. It’s something you’ve got to react to and deal with in the here and now. You’ve also got people looking at the wider strategic picture – what was going in Spain was very real, what was going on in Italy and Germany was very real – and people with foresight understood that if you don’t put something in place to prevent that then you’re going to be in trouble yourselves.

After the war, when it was totally clear what fascism could lead to, you had the ’43 group which, although it had CP members in its ranks, was largely an apolitical purely paramilitary body who would go round attacking the fascists. They were tough people, physically aggressive who had often served in the armed forces, many from Jewish backgrounds, who had seen a lot in their few years – these are young people – if you’ve been through that and don’t understand it, you’re never going to understand it. So people who have gone through that, seen it in the cinemas, or even in your own family over in Europe – and then you’re just going out and minding your own business, and you see some geezer on a soapbox talkin’ about the same stuff, it’s gotta be obvious to you, yeah?

Gary: There’s an example when a group of Jewish lads went past Mosley’s secretary [Jeffrey Hamm] after the war speaking up at Jack Straw’s Castle [near Hampstead Heath], and they were incredulous. I’m mean, here was the same old Jew-baiting going on after the war as you had before the war – with everthying that had gone on! So they gave ‘em a good shoeing and found: ‘these fuckers are everywhere!’ I mean, y’know, it’s ridiculous, we’re not havin’ it.

There was a huge strain of anti-semitism in the British establishment that Mosley hoped to profit from but never did. And so when Jews who had just got back from the war met fascists on the street they weren’t gonna petition the council to get see if they could do something! They were just gonna get on and do it themselves.

Andy: When people’s whole family lines have been wiped out and turned to ashes, what are you gonna do with people like that, try and debate with them in that situation?

Gary: And they wouldn’t wouldn’t debate with you either, that’s the point. If you went up to them and said, ‘excuse me, I’m a member of the Jewish faith and could you…’ [laughs] they’re not gonna argue the point, you’d be hit be a cosh. But, you might not be out looking for any trouble particular, but they’re there. And that situation doesn’t go away, it’s like that later on. You’ve gone to the football or something and you’re standing next to some guy who gets a bottle smashed over his head, a black kid who they’ve chased down, do you stand back and say ‘right we’ll get onto the council to do something!’?

Andy: It’d depend what kind of circles you moved in to. I mean I don’t want to generalise too much, but many of the people involved on the left at the time would have come up through a university background and lived in this sealed kind of world from what I could tell. But I didn’t know, I didn’t come from a political background. Everywhere I went I met these people, they were in your face. And Britain at the time was a violent and anarchic sort of place in some ways. I mean you’d go out round the pubs on a Friday night, have a disagreement, or you’ve gone to the football or a gig or something, and you run in to these geezers with all sorts of badges, handing out leaflets, maybe taking the band off the stage and attacking the band! I’ve seen that happen! It’s not like you’d read in some textbooks about what should or shouldn’t be done, it was an instinctive thing. These people are bullies, they’re not people who can debate with. It’s not alien if you come from that kind of background.

Gary: Yes, and the left has to understand that as soon as they appear, it’s because your own side has been making mistakes. Fascists won’t appear in very small numbers, they’ll wait until it’s right for them. I mean they look at it strategically as well, they’ll take it onto a physical level when they think there’s something for them to gain. So it’s not a matter of waiting until they attack our people – we’ve got an investment in smashing up their meetings, their paper sales and the rest of it. You don’t want to wait until they’re some kind of respectable opposition. If it gets that far, you’ve already lost.

Michael: And at what stage, after the war, had the left started to fail in your view to such an extent that you started to see a fascist threat beginning to make its presence felt on the street?

Gary: Well, most of our people come into it from outside politics, with a completely fresh look, with no political hinterland at all. So there was a lot of cynicism from our side towards the existing organised left from a very early stage. I mean we supported emotionally and intellectually the basis for the whole left concept, and there was some stuff happening from on the picket lines (which was where I was recruited) and on things like the right-to-work marches, but even in the mid-Seventies it wasn’t clear cut and we certainly weren’t winning. There was a real lack of leadership across the board, not just on the revolutionary left but across the entire labour movement.

And at the same time as you had the start of the neoliberal stuff, you’d get the fascists upset at over-reaching in ’79 thinking – let’s not hang about let’s go for it now. The whole Anti Nazi League Mark I was a huge success for the left and beat back the first wave of the National Front electorally. There was incredible resentment about that, and they lose a bit of what discipline they might have had. They could just attack anyone now. So, as Andy was saying, you could retreat into your sealed world. Or you could stay where you were and stand your ground. And they were – the arenas then football, gigs, street sales, their meetings, our meetings and the rest of it…

Andy: They were an extremely violent group of people. So if you’re looking to organise, you’re thinking, what streets can I walk round, what pubs you can go in talk to people, where can I talk about stuff on the football or at a gig? All that’s contested territory. Are these aren’t the kind of people who believe in freedom of speech, and I don’t mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean literally! You’d get a glass smashed in your face. To me it’d become obvious. When their election campaign failed, there was people there who wanted revenge. And so all this territory needed to be fought for.

Michael: Reading the book, as we said in our review, some of the violence described is not exactly for the faint-hearted. And many people reading the book might be thinking, isn’t there a danger of becoming just like them, being brought down to their level? What would you say to those who say, when you end up like two groups of thugs who are as bad as the other, you don’t win the wider public around?

Gary: Well, it wasn’t always a pretty business, there’s no denying that, but it’s not a path we’ve just chosen for ourselves. They’re the point of aggression, the tip of the spear. If you approach them you’ve got to be prepared for violence to be done to you. And if you know that in advance, if you’re going to contest the territory you’re duty bound to prepare to do violence to them it’s as simple as that.

In terms of complaints, we didn’t get much complaints from the Jewish stallholders when the NF paper sale got scatttered from Chapel Market [Islington], in fact the police couldn’t get a [single] witness to testify. But the pub landlord in King’s Cross, the who was making literally a thousand pound [a week] from opening his pub to bonehead gigs for his mates like Ian Stewart [Donaldson, lead singer of fascist band Skrewdriver] was going to complain when the place – course he was. He wasn’t interested in blacks or homosexuals getting attacked – which they did after the pub closed – he was after making money. He was raking it in!

But when AFA marched through Bethnal Green, and into Whitechapel, it was like a seige had been lifted. Little Asian kids running about in the street – that was there attitude to us!

Michael: Actually, reading the book, it struck me that – judging from the state’s reaction – that’s what they feared most. When it looked like it might have been possible to link up between white working class communities and black or Asian areas…

Gary: …on a political basis, yes. The state was concerned but the left weren’t, what does that tell you? I mean the left wasn’t trying to do what we were doing, not on an organised basis. But the state thought there’s a germ here that might develop. Not good, not from their perspective. So did they say, we’ll just see if we can put someone in and steer it a bit? No! They smashed it straight away, that was their approach. It’s quite a useful little anecdote. ‘You can do that there…upto a point…but you can’t do it here. No way.’

Andy: I think we were conscious that we didn’t want to get trapped in a siege mentality. Us looking after ‘our’ areas, the fash looking after ‘theirs’, the wars, us looking for them, them looking for us, we always wanted to break out of that. When RA [Red Action] helped to form AFA we tried to grow it as wide as possible within reason, and eventually when people tried to take politics back into the community, via the IWCA [Independent Working Class Association], that was our effort, we did what we always wanted to do, to go to working class communities and try to grow a political movement there. I mean we can argue the toss about how successful that was, but that would be a different debate. I’d never say it was entirely successful but I don’t think it was a total failure either. We got some things very right, but you’d have to look at the time and the context, what we’re up against, but that was us trying to put our vision of political organisation in working class communities into effect. And that was always our intention. We never thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could fight an ongoing war with a load of other people’.

Michael: I mean there would be that accusation, that you’d ended up participating in a sub-culture, that you’d have your sales, they’d have theirs, you’d have your bands, they’d have their bands, etc.

Gary: Well, let’s look at the alternative. They have their subculture, you have nothing. They have their sales, you don’t. They have their bands, you’ve got nobody. Then they have the football fans, and you have nobody. And they have the working class estates and you’ve got nobody….

Andy: And the thing is, in Islington with the IWCA, we always knew there’d be people with racist ideas on the estates, of course there are. We’re living in the real world. But the one thing we knew is that we didn’t have to keep looking over our shoulder, we could meet the people from the tenants’ association in the local pub and talk about how to organise against plans to sell off social housing in the borough. So we needed that space to get on with doing what we wanted to do. I’d reject that idea that we got sucked into looking forward to the next confrontation with the fash, that was never our vision. Never. Now, if you’re gonna ask me were there elements drawn to AFA who did get off a bit on the excitement or hanging around on the fringes, possibly. But every movement gets that. And there weren’t that many if you ask me. Certainly not amongst what I would call the leadership. That was never how we tried to shape the organisation, never how we sold it to people.

Michael: Without going into the various anarchist critiques – and in part for obvious reasons like you need people around you that you totally rely on and won’t leave you in the lurch – it sounds like you had a pretty centralised model going on, with a definite core…

Andy: Actually AFA was very democratic, when compared with say the ANL. On the street if wasn’t – couldn’t be. But as a broader organisation it was very democratic in the way it operated, on political campaign work etc. Similarly with Red Action. We’re a democratic organisation but when it came to the streets it couldn’t be and everyone understood that.

We had it opposite to the rest of the left from what we could see. We thought when it came to politics you should be democratic and open, but they couldn’t take that, they had very tight control. But on the streets they’d say [in mocking tone], ‘let’s involve as many people as possible and everyone can come along to an open organising meeting’, and we’d say ‘that’s ludicrous, who do you know is sitting there!’ [laughter]. I’d say they’d got that the wrong way round.

Michael: I’m sure you’ve heard all this before, but the Leninist groups would say ‘you are basically trying to substitute yourselves for the organised working class, setting yourselves up as a small urban guerrilla army to be the noble defenders of the class instead of mobilizing those larger sections of society…’

Andy: That’s just projection by them. No-one leafleted more working class council estates in East London than us. We organised all the carnivals [between the end of the ANL Mark I and the relaunched version], it was us that organised an exhibition that we invited schoolkids along to, there was this whole side of organising. Admittedly, that doesn’t perhaps get as much prominence in the book. But there was a large amount of campaigning, and a lot of efforts made to reach out to movers and shakers among the black or Asian youth…

Michael: …at which point the state came in to stop it. Do you think there were intelligence agents operating inside AFA?

Gary: Undoubtedly they’d have tried. The problem was for them the ‘split-screen’ structure. You could say what you want in the organising meeting and try to steer it round. But on the streets it was top-down. They’d latch on but you could shake ‘em off.

Michael: So you could spot who they were?

Andy: Sometimes. Who knows? Listen, if they could penetrate the IRA they could penetrate us. But do we think they managed to effectively push us off course? No, no. I think we done what we wanted when we wanted to do it. We made decisions when we wanted to make them.

Gary: Yes, there’s no evidence of that looking back with hindsight. I mean as you can tell from the book there’s people there with a huge question mark over them. But in terms of the way things got done, no. Being hierarchical like that you couldn’t slot somebody into a middle-manager type of position. But we were also democratic. It was asymmetrical so it worked really well. If it had been asymmetrical the other way around, as Andy said, we wouldn’t have lasted out a weekend.

Andy: We’d have ended up in the same jail together!

Michael: And people did occassionally get jail terms…

Gary: But as the book explains, we’d go out of our way to avoid that at all costs. Out of fidelity to the volunteers if you like. I mean we needed people – we had people who worked full time but they were on the dole, they didn’t get paid. And you’re dealing with a finite number. So you had to maintain morale. And also, even simple convictions could – in time – lead to jail.

Andy: We were mindful, we learnt a lot from Ireland, right, that’s a simple fact. And we learnt that if someone has been left adrift by the leadership having done something and copped time for it, and it seems like no-one gives a [toss] about them, how easy is it for the Old Bill to turn that individual. You’ve got to look after your people, do right by ‘em, on the street, in custody…

Gary: There was this one time in Hammersmith with Martin Webster [leading NF activist] and when they fled his arse was still hanging out literally of an open door, and one black kid dragged an NFer out, and he [the NFer] got left behind on his own. Ended up in hospital without even a bunch of grapes! I thought that was terrible PR.

Andy: Never looked after their people. But it’s a dog eat dog world for them.

Gary: They’d stand and fight individually, but they’d never look after each other. For us that was verboten. No-one got put in that position, in as much as you could.

Andy: We even went out of our way to help some people on the left avoid getting caught out by their own stupidity. We were doing surveillance around the time of the ANL relaunch in the East End, and they were gonna go out leafleting, and we knew that there were some well-known faces in the area. And we went down the ANL and said, ‘this is not good right, we’ve seen certain people’, and they said, ‘nah, don’t be stupid’. And people ended up in hospital. We said alright then, nothing we can do here, and got back in the car and [drove] off. And as we’re driving down the road, the ambulances are already passing! And one of the guys who got injured quite badly came over to AFA straight after that.

Gary: The left often only really wanted to get involved when they thought it was in their interests to do so – and often they made a mess of things that had already been achieved.

Andy: Yes, when AFA organised the first major national march against the BNP in the East End – and it was really big, considering we were mainly based in Central London – it came on the radio and this woman came on and said it had been organised by the newly relaunched ANL! Seriously, they’d done all the organising!

Andy: That’s why I never take it really seriously when people moan ‘oh why didn’t AFA work with other people’ and all that. We did, we tried. The amount of time our people went to talk to them and try to get them involved, and say ‘yes, OK, we’ll give you two places on the committee as long as it does’t ease anyone else out’ and make it as broad as possible. And we were relatively successful. At one stage there were anarchists there – the Direct Action Movement – along with dogmatic Trotskyists, people like Workers Power, and they were all co-operating. Things weren’t always smooth. But it went along, and it showed that we were able to show a level of political maturity that’s rare on the left. Were the SWP prepared to come in on the same footing as us? Nah. They couldn’t deal with that. But we had CP people involved, even individuals from the local Labour party.

Gary: Including at the rough end of it! Cos we’d go out in a group of 30 or 40 people and we’d have like 15 stewards there on the ground, while the rest could go up to the flats and do the political work, leafleting and what have you. So not everyone was expected to do the fighting, but there’d be people who wanted to campaign with us and supported what we were doing.

Michael: And were women involved, or was it all blokes?

Gary: There were women at every level, every level. But particularly in the intelligence work. They’d go into pubs that fellas hadn’t got the balls to walk into! They’d give you a whole run down of who was in there, what they were up to…

Andy: We tried using a geezer once, and all you got was ‘there’s fuckin’ loads of ‘em, but we could have ‘em, we could do this and that’. Obviously working class women knew the score, got themselves dolled up – look the part – and engaged them in conversation and found out real stuff you wanted to know: who were the real movers and shakers, what were relations like between the fash and landlord and bar staff; how are the locals treating them, will the hangers on bolt, that sort of thing. Women would get that information, because they’d have far less of an ego. And that’s why in West Germany when the police were fighting the Red Army Faction they said, ‘shoot the women first’. The women were so effective, because they were colder and more logical and systematic in their thinking.

Gary: If they were ever rumbled – when they walked into a pub in jeans and jacket, maybe a little bit of eye-liner – if the fash did think they were after information, they’d assume they were police. As long as they could hold their nerve they could get themselves out.

Andy: And horny fash can give up loads of information, rendez-vous points and all sorts to our people! (laughter) That’s a fact. Human nature. But you need to be seriously talented people to do that kind of work – to tell us exactly what we need to know. And they were treated at all times as equals. The left would sometimes say ‘any women involved are all like gangster’s molls’, all this insulting, patronising [rubbish]. The women didn’t feel like that. It was just that the roles were different, a lot of the time their skills were better used elsewhere. But not all the time. Sometimes they were involved on the street, and that’s a fact.

Michael: Clearly the nature of the far right threat has changed a lot since those days, with the changes to the BNP under the leadership of Nick Griffin. In the introduction of the book your talking at a point when the the BNP on are a high, after the European elections. Since then after the General Election it appears that – as an organisation – they don’t seem to be in a position to go much further. So what threat do you see them posing today?

Gary: What you said there was important, ‘as an organisation’ – it doesn’t take away from the support they’ve shown they can establish. I think with the BNP it’s partly that they never had the experience of high political office, didn’t have the opportunity. To begin with they didn’t have the middle class types, they were having to fight for the same survival thing which we drew them into, they were all on the streets even Griffin. They were stuck in waiting rooms on stations on Stockport and all that – they never had the chance to step out of the scenario. Next thing, they’re MEPs, they’ve dozens of councillors. Where have they done the planning for that? They’re used to planning Blood and Honour gigs in backrooms of pubs in Deptford. Suddenly they’re elevated. Not equipped – first thing. Second thing – they’ve felt the long arm of the state, no question. Inside, everywhere, every which way – diced and sliced – and at at the same time the key component was to decapitate the organisation, which they’ve failed to do, which was a key [state] objective.

The BNP might limp along, but the die has been cast, right, in the sense that the radical alternative will come from the far right within the constituencies we’ve identified. The left has not done anything to address that – at all – in thirty years. They’d no appetite do that, less appetite to do it now, even. There’s nothing on the left that could organise it on a national level. They’ve tried it – Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and all that – they’ve nearly all fallen at the first hurdle, some of ‘em didn’t even get to the first hurdle! What does it tell you about Respect – talk about enclaves or sub-groups and insulating yourself! That kind of mindset was partly what we were fighting against, that you could retreat from your core constituency and fight somewhere else on identity grounds. We saw it coming. We said in 2001 that the BNP would prove that – in contrast to the left – they did have traction, could mobilise support in white working class communities. And in 2002, boom!

Where would the far right be if they had a free run at it for the last 30 years? Imagine if they never had to fight a war of attrition and could have brought in all the people with the organisational skills, the media skills and all that in? They’ve had none of that, the BNP leadership.

They never got the head-space because AFA weren’t going to give it to ‘em. But imagine if they had a clear 30-year run like they got in France and a number other European countries where they’ve basically been unchallenged – with a free run, imagine where we’d be? If all the AFA stuff, all that ingenuity and effort, had been applied behind the BNP instead of against them!

Michael: There’s another account of what cut across the rise of the BNP which I’m sure you won’t like at all, namely that Searchlight and their allies in Barking and Dagenham managed to mobilise the existing community groups, trade unions, faith groups etc along with all the residual support that exists for the Labour party in order to unseat every single one of their councillors.

Andy: They had all those resources and completed a full circle – you had the state, so-called anti-fascist and anti-racist groups, religious groups and what have you – to reinstate the status quo. The status quo is back. Labour rules. Why did people vote BNP in the first place?

Gary: And also the BNP vote went up didn’t it? That’s the future you’re looking at. Not that they’ve been unseated for now because Labour’s woken up. Take the Isle of Dogs. We saw the portents were obvious a long way out. The ANL knocked out [Derek] Beacon…

Andy: …and they were actually popping champagne corks that night, the ANL. His vote went up!

Gary: That was the future – we could see it then; they [the BNP] could see it then. Like Barking and Dagenham it was just a technical knock out.

Andy: I mean Margaret Hodge, what does she stand for?! She’s fine now. Everything’s sorted. She’s back in power, they’ve got all their councillors in – nothing to worry about. Thank you very much. So people have joined ‘respectable’ anti-fascism, the church, the local Labour party, the state, the police, the trade unions, using all the wealth, the resources, the intelligence to take back that seat that was needed. Now, I don’t want the BNP to win in Barking and Dagenham or anywhere else. But don’t let anyone try to kid themselves that that’s any kind of victory for what I would call working class politics. Cos it ain’t.

Gary: If it was the IWCA or the Socialist Party or something like it that had stopped the BNP in Barking and Dagenham that would be a different matter. Really something to celebrate, right? Not to bring it back to where it was originally.

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Review: Professor Nigel Copsey

Excerpts from a review by Professor Nigel Copsey – read the full review on pages 11 & 12 here

This book, the ‘official’ history of Anti­Fascist Action (AFA), chronicles the experience of militant anti­fascism in Britain from the late 1970s through to mid­1990s. Running to over 400 pages, the text is broken down into a series of sections and sub­sections that revisit, in graphic detail, a succession of violent encounters between anti­fascist militants and their opponents. Written from an activist’s perspective, it straddles, if rather awkwardly, both generalist and scholarly audiences.

…the significance of AFA, for Birchall, was that it performed a subterranean ‘holding operation’ that postponed the ‘inevitable’ breakthrough of the British far right for some fifteen years. Whilst Birchall admits that trying to objectively quantify the impact of anti­fascism is difficult because ‘it is attempting to prove a negative’ (p. 23), he makes the more valid point that only after the ‘militant foot’ was removed from the BNP’s ‘fascist neck’ did ‘the latter bloom(s) politically’ (p. 23). ‘That is to say, the authority previously exerted by militant anti­ fascism on events becomes that much clearer by what happens after it is no longer the foremost influence’ (p. 23)

In the first section of the book, Birchall chronicles the roots of AFA in the anti­fascist squads of the 1970s Anti­Nazi League. The story moves on in the second section to AFA’s 1985 launch before (interspersed with colourful descriptions of low­level clashes with fascist opponents) it recounts internal organisational squabbles between moderate and militant anti­fascists. In the end, the militant wing won out.

In 1989 AFA re­launched as a militant anti­fascist organisation that specifically targeted the white working class, a constituency that AFA believed formed the recruiting ground for Britain’s far right. For sure, as recent studies have revealed, it has been this constituency that has largely comprised the social bases of BNP electoral support. AFA’s objective was now essentially twofold: to defeat or contain fascist activity in white working ­class neighbourhoods through physical confrontation; and to convince this constituency that its interests could not be satisfied through organisations like the BNP. The third and final section covers the period between 1990 and the mid­1990s when the BNP finally decided (coming under sustained pressure from AFA) to abandon the streets, which then forced AFA to overhaul its anti­fascist strategy

At the end of the book Birchall seems to bemoan the absence of militant opposition to the BNP, ‘Sooner rather later’, he declares, ‘a progressive left will have to declare outright war on conservative anti­fascism too’ (p. 397). But what Birchall advocates is not necessarily a return to physical force anti­fascism. Instead he calls on the wider left to ditch the sterile politics of mainstream anti­extremism, offer a real (socialist) alternative, and finally bring the ‘marginalised working class in from the cold’ (p.403).

Whilst one may have some reservations about the book’s theoretical and intellectual contribution, in telling the (untold) story of AFA from the inside, Birchall has nonetheless performed a valuable service. What Birchall’s insider account reveals is that militant anti­ fascism unquestionably had an impact on the BNP’s organisational and strategic development ­- a point that activists from existing anti­fascist organisations, such as Unite Against Fascism (and indeed some academics), are reluctant to concede.

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Review: Huddersfield University – Journalism and Media Newsroom

Excerpts from a review by Huddersfield University – read the full review here

While there is some history that is widely known and even taught in schools, other pieces of history slip behind us almost unnoticed, apart from by the people involved. Until the writing of this book, the story of Anti Fascist Action was one of those types of history.The book tells the story of Anti Fascist Action’s longterm street war against the far right.

The author goes into detail not just about where and how, but also why. And puts forward a strong defense of AFA’s activities as a vital component in defending democracy. The political analysis in the book is just as detailed and written with no less passion than the more physical parts. Birchall not only makes a strong case for militant antifascism’s success on its own terms, he also suggests that AFA were the first to recognise the danger posed by the BNP’s move towards electoral politics. And explains how AFA moved to community politics in an effort to counter that.

The book is also an important attempt to chronicle a previously untold historical struggle.Recommended, for both academic and casual readers.

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Review: Red Pepper

Excerpts from a review by Red Pepper – read the full review here

Beating the Fascists is a highly readable and uncompromising account of two decades of militant anti-fascism with important lessons for today.

The book is a real page-turner, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. The description of the often brutal treatment of the fascists at the hands of the militants is graphic to the point of absurdity at times

There is a sense of setting the record straight: principally in Birchall’s argument that AFA, and the militant anti-fascism it espoused, had the most devastating impact on fascism in mainland Britain in the period and that it directly contributed to the BNP’s eventual retreat, in the mid 1990s, from the Mosleyite dogma of the necessity of controlling the streets.

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Review: Freedom Newspaper

Excerpts from a review by Freedom Newspaper- read the full review here

Previously everything from the Red Action (RA) stable has been crucial to any understanding of both left wing working class politics and politics in general, past and present in the UK, and so this is. Hard to put down, Beating The Fascists is a no-holds-barred account of the Red Action and Anti Fascist Action’s practical and ruthless application of their aims, principles and practice, of making space for working class politics to develop unfettered by the threat of fascism

Beating The Fascists stands as THE critical book on post war UK anti-fascism, in the fact it is written by those involved (not academics) and that its conclusions desperately deserve recognition and immediate application by all those who read it and indeed profess to be socialists or anti-fascists in a period when a neo-fascist party gets 1million votes in a Euro election. If anarchists, Unite Against Fascism (UAF) or whoever fail to read it and listen to it then it is an indictment on them not the authors

Whilst a chronicle of physical force anti-fascism, in fact the conclusion of Beating The Fascists is that that is finished and we must move into a door to door strategy. This is a conclusion I believe anarchists should agree with but I, in fact, would go further and say that what is missing from the book is an acknowledgement that what made RA special was not their ability in close combat but their fundamentalism as regards class in politics

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Review: Look Left Magazine

Excerpts from a review by Look Left magazine – read the full review here

For two decades British anti-fascists fought a cold blooded battle for control of the streets against burgeoning far-right movements, Brian Whelan meets the authors of a controversial new book by activists who were there on the frontlines.

Beating the Fascists could be two separate books, appealing to very different audiences. The first a brutally violent story bragging of hard man conquests, the other a vital political analysis of the rise of the BNP and detailed history of the groups that fought them.

The book is an often disturbing read, each chapter switching from graphic details of violent operations with militaristic discipline against fascists to analysis of the political decisions they faced.

Over ten years in the making Beating the Fascists not only chronicles the bloody street battles and political squabbles but also points out how fascists filled a vacuum for a radical alternative that the left has failed to.

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Review: The National

Excerpts from an article by The National Newspaper- read the full article here

Beating the Fascists is far from an objective history. It does, however, provide something rare: a clear map of the tangled web of activist groups existing on both sides of the fence, from the late 1970s through to the 1990s. On one hand the SWP can be seen splintering into Red Action and AFA. On the other, the NF erupts into a dizzying array of factions, from Blood & Honour and the British Movement to the BNP. But while the chronic disorganisation and endemic squabbling of British radical political groups may dissuade sympathisers from coughing up membership dues, as Birchall notes, such statistics bear little relation to the extent of their ideological spread

Birchall recounts AFA’s clashes with nationalist activists in bone-crunchingly vivid prose. From the SWP squadists’ routing of the NF in Manchester’s city centre in the early 1980s to London’s Battle of Waterloo Station in 1992, in which 1,000 anti-fascists assembled to prevent a large group of Blood & Honour supporters attending a concert by the Nazi-punk band Skrewdriver, the tales are also told with discomfiting relish

Rather than a simple memoir of radical thuggery on long-forgotten frontlines, Beating The Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action offers a conflicting, yet candid analysis of a history that rapidly appears to be repeating itself

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Review: Weekly Worker

Excerpts from a review by the Weekly Worker – read the full review here

[The Book] aims, from the outset, to provide a counterweight to the received wisdom that Britain’s political culture, with its traditions of pragmatism and tolerance, is immune to the explosion of far-right populism that blights those excitable continentals

There are three main threads to the narrative – the first is the evolution of fascism and far-right nationalism in the period covered; the second the complex political shifts and intrigues in the anti-fascist movement; and the third the series of often violent clashes between the two sides

Most of the book is, as noted, taken up by accounts of AFA’s – and especially Red Action’s – battles with the National Front, British National Party and sundry other fascist factions…..For the author, it is the pursuit of organised, basically paramilitary operations against fascists that, in the end, forced the latter to abandon its notion of controlling the streets.

Beating the fascists is on the whole pretty sniffy about the amateurism of AFA’s opponents; AFA could face them down, despite very often being outnumbered, by employing tactical nous and the element of surprise. Tyndall, and then Griffin, had to swap the boots for suits, ultimately because they were the ones getting booted. AFA, under the leadership of Red Action, should be commended for taking note of this change in tack by the BNP, and attempting to readjust accordingly

Whatever else may be said about Red Action, it must be pointed out that….it acknowledged that a political response was needed to the far right that took into account mass alienation from mainstream politics. Its response, ultimately, was the Independent Working Class Association. The IWCA attempts, in the last analysis, to replicate the kind of community work taken up by the BNP, in the same kind of places

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Review: Freedom

Excerpts from an article by Freedom Newspaper- read the full article here

Fascism as an ideology expresses itself as the rear guard action of capitalism through the promotion of ultra-nationalism, a moral and racial superiority, a stark authoritarianism, and crucially a physical force violent presence on the streets. During the 1980s and 1990s it took the concerted efforts of a committed group of militant anti-fascists to successfully confront the far right and literally force them off the streets. Anti-Fascist Action are still remembered and feared by neo-Nazi gangs, racist thugs and members of far right nationalist parties as being unrelenting in their stated aim to confront fascism both physically and ideologically. So successful were AFA in their objectives that the BNP had to retreat completely from ‘street politics’ and reinvent itself as a parliamentary euro-nationalist party

Not only did AFA redefine the spectrum of how fascists operated they also offered us a warning on the far right’s ability to adapt to their circumstances. In the final chapter of Beating The Fascists AFA set out the task ahead in challenging the new forms of far right expression, and offers up the question “what happens if an extreme right party emerges that immunises itself against the charges of nazism? What happens when, with generational shift, the strength of ant-nazi feeling and memory of war fades?” What does happen is in part entirely up to us. We have been warned

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