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 mid 1990s. 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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