By any means necessary

Issue: 143

Paul Sillett

Dave Hann, Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Antifascism (Zero, 2013), £18.99

There is much to recommend in this work, prepared for publication following Dave Hann’s untimely death from cancer by his partner, who, like Dave did, still leads from the front. Much of the book is based on interviews, carried out with some of the best anti-fascists (and chroniclers, like Morris Beckman) you will find. Hann is aware of the contradictions of differing approaches to anti-fascism and his willingness to air differing opinions is commendable. The book fizzes with powerful first-hand accounts of the battle against the fascist National Front in the Midlands and London. Like others involved in the various incidents mentioned within, I can attest to the warts and all qualities that give many passages their conviction.

The book includes an excellent chapter on the Spanish Civil War as well as deftly handled readings of the early days of anti-fascism in Britain, from the mid-1920s, the Communist Party’s long role (for good and ill) in such activity and the united front approach to beating the fascists. Enoch Powell’s poison and the whole subject of “No Platform”, are also covered.

The oral “history from below” approach here has great strengths, but carries a certain analytical weakness. Leon Trotsky’s arguments on the necessity of the united front, developed in the context of the need to stop Adolf Hitler from taking power in Germany, would have been extremely pertinent. The absence of these arguments is a shame as the book is fair in many respects to what underlies the method of the united front which continues to inform anti-Nazi thinking and practice. Hann is good on what separates fascism from other types of dictatorship: fascism’s aims; the social class of its “cadre”, and its street and electoral approach to seizing power.

More on why ruling classes only put their lot in with fascists at moments of extreme social upheaval, when “all that is solid for the bourgeoisie” seems in peril, such as in Germany in the early 1930s, would have strengthened Hann’s analysis. He does, however, document well how the likes of British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley tried to ape Hitler (and Benito Mussolini) in building a sufficiently powerful street presence to break working class organisations and be seen as essential by the British ruling class. Fascists’ twin track approach of street thuggery and electoral ambitions is a running theme of the book.

Ordinary anti-fascists’ voices are to the fore in the book and it’s exhilarating to peruse the accounts of, in many cases still active, anti-fascists who carry the flame since opposing Mosley. Anti-fascism’s strengths as a mass voice ring out in passages on the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, where the centrality of working class resistance was crucial. Some material is sadly familiar. The “leave fascist marches to the police, don’t demonstrate against them” line is still peddled by some anti-fascists today. However, reality cuts against this nonsense, as numerous protests against the English Defence League (EDL) show. Police protection of fascists—under the guise of free speech—also dates from clashes with Mosley’s blackshirts.

However, there is a contradiction at the book’s heart. Hann rightly refers to “large-scale confrontations that draw in wider circles” (p209). The problem is that this is at odds with his own uncritical accounts of “organising separately from the official mobilisation” (p278) and opens up the danger of elitism and squaddism. This is honestly explored and I take the point about the limits that can bedevil official demonstrations. One possible answer, as is suggested by an old hand, is to exercise strong, “tactical flexibility” on anti-fascist mobilisations. Unite Against Fascism (UAF) have taken this approach on notable victories such as that in Walthamstow in 2012. The EDL never really recovered from the mass direct action that day.

But this can’t be applied mechanically. Voluntarism can come unstuck and result in anti-fascists walking into traps laid by the state, arguably what happened in Tower Hamlets last September when a small breakaway march from the main demo, sadly but predictably, resulted in huge arrests. The EDL, unable to enter Tower Hamlets, suffered humiliation on the day at the hands of those who held to a broad, united front approach, and two of their leaders, Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll, resigned a month after the flop. Unfortunately, some anti-fascists learnt the hard way that 3,000 police can’t easily be run around. Nothing can substitute for well thought out strategy and tactics.

Hann and participants skillfully portray the “highlights” and “low lights” of various mobilisations. But all such should be seen in their specific context. “Physical resistance” is dependent on many variables and can’t always be elevated into a principle. However, Hann rightly argues that stewarding of meetings and demos relies on some being willing to do battle physically, when required.

But surely a key point is that physical resistance is, in reality, quite a rare occurrence. Anti Nazi League (ANL) organisers from the late 1970s recall that moments such as the famous routing of the National Front (NF) at Lewisham, though crucial, were not the crux of ANL or far-left activities. Several contributors also credit the importance of Rock Against Racism and alongside the gigs and the great carnivals, millions of leaflets were distributed, playing a key role in undermining the NF. Indeed, a whole number of such small acts, which involved many, were important for ensuring that people were confident about confronting the Nazis on a mass basis. Critical to the movement in the 1970s were socialists who worked with black and Asian communities, groups such as the Indian Workers Association and young anti-Nazis who were eager to finish off the Front. Indeed, following the success at Lewisham, it was patient, long term efforts, securing the backing of the best sections of the organised working class, from shop stewards’ organisations to national unions in some cases, that ensured that when it mattered, fascists were confronted.

Hann does rightly conclude that, from Cable Street to the Battle of Welling in 1993, numbers on the streets mattered. But there are no shortcuts to building the movement.

The long-term work needed to undermine Nick Griffin and the British National Party in Barking and Dagenham in 2010 and similarly in Stoke and Burnley in 2011, involved another key component of anti-fascism, electoral effort. The huge attention to detail and work with anti-fascists from many political traditions or none were essential. Anti-fascism is not a one trick pony. The successful campaign to kick Griffin out of his seat in the European Parliament in May this year involved the kind of patient, painstaking efforts that are often overlooked.

Support from trade unionists and some sections of the Labour Party have been invaluable to anti-fascist activists. But many will argue with Hann’s contention that an “unhappy marriage of convenience” existed between the Tories and ANL supporters, when the Front collapsed and many of its soft-core supporters turned to Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 election (p293). Suzy Harding puts the case against this sometimes aired view well: “I don’t think Thatcher had a lot to do with the NF going down the pan…it was a lot more to do with the ANL opposing them on the streets” (p300). It is also wrong to claim that the ANL was “shut down” post-1979, as events in the 1981-2 period showed.

This is where the nub of the argument is stark. The path to squaddism, which some ex-SWP members, among others, followed in the early 1980s, became a cul de sac. The nature of certain operations led to a lack of accountability in various ways and clandestinity in others. Some acts of individual terror replaced disciplined, mass action. As one of those involved says, “Clashes with the Front…almost became our reason for existence” (p318). With the Front split asunder, those using particular methods against the rump of Nazis admitted that they became involved in “gratuitous” violence. Hann also chronicles the dangers of “elitism” and tensions between “hit men” and “foot soldiers” but these are not seen as resulting from a wrong perspective of anti-fascism at the time.

Undoubtedly,”physical resistance” has played a role (the 43 Group chapter is brilliant) but, more recently, overwhelmingly important has been the broad and large number of people in campaigns, such as that against the BNP in the early 1990s and now, who spearhead the huge number of activities without which no big campaign can exist. The huge range of activities that is the hallmark of a mass movement has been key to the successes of anti-fascism. The danger of a purely “physical confrontation” approach is that it precludes the active involvement of those anti-fascists still to be convinced of confrontation at necessary junctures. Many who leaflet or take part in similar activities against Nazis gain the confidence over time to confront them when the occasion demands.

Decisive moments in sweeping the NF off the streets, such as at Lewisham, were planned with great precision and judged on a whole number of factors. Timing was essential in this. This has also been the case recently, with mobilisations against the EDL, who were ground down following four and a half years of a war of attrition, principally led by UAF and allies. There were important confrontations to stop their marches, but these were not blindly walked into and were, as much as was possible, chosen tactically at appropriate times.

Hann concludes with more honest accounting of this fight. Others posit that in 2010 “UAF were almost entirely the opposition to…EDL”. This is only partially correct. UAF’s approach meant there were others who flew the flag with us, including some notable Labour MPs, trade unionists and religious organisations; this follows in the ANL’s tradition. And, as Hann observes of the 1930s, “many people put aside ideological differences to fight the fascists and many have done so since” (p27).

Where UAF was able to push through, (and of course, there were setbacks) it has been by insisting that on the streets it is indeed numbers that matter. Such theory and practice has ensured successful mobilisations against the EDL, and political setbacks for the zombie EDL.

I’d argue that adherence to “ideological standpoints” doesn’t preclude engaging in wider movements; indeed, the former, if properly judged, can only aid the latter.Thus the method and spirit of the united front, emanating from Trotsky, are essential in assessing every anti-fascist mobilisation.

But, criticisms aside, Hann has done anti-fascists a real service with this book. Physical Resistance carries weight and, at moments, great humour. There is much to evaluate and debate, but also a need to stand together when it matters as the book’s final chapter rightly says.