Carnival, march, riot

Issue: 112

Neil Davidson

A review of Dave Renton, When We Touched the Sky: the Anti-Nazi League, 1977-1981 (New Clarion Press, 2006), £13.95

Over three years one organisation distributed 9 million leaflets, sold 750,000 badges, had 250 branches with 50,000 members, held a conference attracting 800 delegates and received affiliations from—among other bodies—50 constituency Labour parties, 30 AUEW branches, 25 trades councils and 13 shop steward committees. These are some of the materials produced, activities undertaken and supporters enlisted, not by the Stop the War Coalition since 2002, but by the Anti Nazi League (ANL) between 1977 and 1980.1

The goal of the ANL was to stop and reverse the growth of the fascist National Front (NF), and it may be worth reminding ourselves of the extent of the Nazi threat during the latter half of the 1970s, since today this is often downplayed. One estimate, by the journal Searchlight, has 64,000 people passing through the ranks of the NF between 1967 and 1979, with its highest membership level in any one year reaching 17,500 in 1976-77. In the general election of October 1974 the NF stood 90 candidates who received 113,844 votes. Three years later, in the local and Greater London Council elections, NF candidates received an average of 5.7 percent of the vote, pushing the Liberals into fourth place in a quarter of the seats.

For many black and Asian people the threat was immediate and direct, in the shape of violent and sometimes fatal racist attacks, such as those which took the lives of Gurdip Singh Chaggar and Altab Ali. Yet by the time the ANL was effectively disbanded towards the end of 1981, the NF was unable to demonstrate without challenge, had seen all its candidates in the 1979 general election lose their deposits and had suffered disabling internal leadership battles provoked by their failure. By the end of 1984 the NF had lost nine tenths of its membership.2

The marginalisation of the NF was, by any standards, a remarkable success for a movement initiated by the revolutionary left, particularly in a period otherwise marked by the beginning of a generalised retreat by the labour movement. It was the formative political experience of an entire cohort of activists, many of whom ended up far from revolutionary politics. ‘Leon Trotsky has not made a big impact on my life, except for the circles and the arrows’, wrote Guardian journalist Jackie Ashley recently:

‘Everyone on the left in my generation probably remembers them: the symbols of the Anti Nazi League. It may have been kicked off by the Socialist Workers Party, but thousands of Labour activists, trade unionists and students carried the circles and arrows, back in the 1970s as we marched against the National Front’.3

It is not an achievement which has hitherto been studied in any detail. Until now the major book dealing with this period had been David Widgery’s Beating Time, a work of literary and visual fusion which displays all the characteristic panache of its author, but—mainly because of his role as a leading participant—lacks the necessary historical distance from the material.4 More to the point, it is focused mainly on the role of Rock Against Racism (RAR), rather than the ANL.

RAR was launched in September 1976, over a year before the ANL, and was a more specifically cultural intervention with a wider remit, indicated by the opposition to racism rather than fascism in its name—although the two organisations did of course work closely together.5 As Dave Renton points out in the preface, When We Touched the Sky is therefore ‘the first book-length study of the Anti Nazi League’ as such.6

Renton begins with two brief chapters setting out the crisis-ridden situation of Britain by the mid-1970s and the history of racism down to that time. The book then moves, more or less chronologically, from 1976 and the formation of RAR in response to racist comments by Eric Clapton—a process which fortuitously coincided with the emergence of punk (Renton has some interesting comments about the relationship of specific forms of music to RAR); 1977 and the great counter-demonstration against the NF in Lewisham which led directly to the formation of the ANL; 1978 and the carnivals in Victoria Park and Manchester (subject of a particularly exhilarating chapter); 1979 and the Southall demonstration in which the police murdered Blair Peach; then through to 1980-81 and the collapse of the NF.

It is clear from this account that the ANL strategy had three main components: mobilisation of the largest numbers of people possible solely on the basis of their opposition to the NF; physical confrontation to stop the NF from marching or assembling; and political identification of the NF as fascists whose ideology was the same as those responsible for the Holocaust. These elements were dependent on their mass character for success. There is a difference between the defensive force of tens of thousands of people, many of whom belong to the threatened community, blocking the path of the NF and their police protectors, and the violence of small gangs of young anti-fascist men fighting with other small gangs of young fascist men: the first is a political act, the second is not and, indeed, it obliterates political difference. These elements were also interlinked. The carnivals were important cultural events, but would have merely left the audiences as consumers affirming their collective anti-fascism if they had not also been involved in the great demonstrations.

Renton is a prolific author, perhaps too prolific. At least some of his previous books—which include three studies of fascism and anti-fascism7—give the impression of being over-hastily compiled from research, with all the attendant problems of avoidable errors and incautious judgements, many of which might have been avoided by a longer gestation period. None of this is true of When We Touched the Sky, perhaps because (on his own account) it took seven years to complete and therefore involved a greater deal of consideration. At any rate, Renton’s strengths are on display here. In addition to archival research, he employs the techniques of oral history and has interviewed the organisers of the ANL and a wide range of other activists, including members of other anti-racist groups. As has been his practice for previous books, Renton refuses to interview fascists, but he has used their publications as a source. And, disgusting though the experience of reading the likes of Bulldog and Spearhead no doubt was, it has been useful in confirming that the NF did indeed see the ANL as a threat to their activities.

The point is important, since it is sometimes claimed that the Nazi vote did not collapse because of ANL activity but because NF voters switched to supporting the Tories in the general election of 1979. If this is true then the future of anti-fascist activity is bleak, because apparently the only way to demobilise the fascist right is for conventional right wing politicians to take their place. Renton rightly rejects this position on two grounds. One is that it rests on the highly implausible assumption that all the ANL activity had precisely no effect, in either demoralising the NF activists who were for years unable to appear publicly unopposed, or in separating out hardcore supporters from the soft racists through emphasising the fascist nature of the former. The second is that we have the counter-examples from those countries where opposition to the fascist right did not take a similar form to that of the ANL. France, where Le Pen and the Front National were able to establish themselves, at least until 1995, without serious political opposition, is the key example in this respect.8 (Indeed, partly as a result of the failure of the French left, voters ended up in the final round of the presidential elections of 2002 precisely with a choice between the conservative Chirac and the fascist Le Pen.)

When We Touched the Sky is therefore an invaluable guide to one of the most important movements in recent British left wing history, perhaps the most important prior to the Stop the War Coalition. My criticisms mainly concern areas which Renton has omitted from consideration.

‘Social movement history’, of which this is a fine example, does seem to have inherited from labour movement history a certain narrowness of focus, particularly in relation to wider issues of the state and economy. The introductory chapters apart, the protagonists here are the ANL/RAR, the NF and the people they were trying to mobilise or influence. The state enters in the form of the police, usually defending the NF, sometimes remaining neutral, very occasionally siding with anti-fascists. From the sidelines we hear the babble of a press typically more concerned with denouncing anti-fascist responses than the fascist activities which provoked them. But the broader social context in which all this took place—the economic crisis and the origins of neo-liberalism, the rightward turn in British society as a whole, the downturn in industrial struggle (the very existence of which was contested within the SWP at the time)—is mentioned, but never integrated into Renton’s account. As a result the conflicts he describes often appear self-contained. The most obvious question which the book implicitly raises—how it was possible for a political victory on this scale to be achieved at a time when the industrial class struggle was stalling or going down to defeat—remains unanswered. In the absence of a revival of generalised trade union militancy it is one which remains relevant to us today.

In other respects, however, the book does provide material of major importance to contemporary debates. I have already referred to the Stop the War Coalition, which is linked to the ANL, not just by the presence of the SWP, but by the common approach both took to building alliances with people who were not revolutionaries.

The models of the united front and the popular front are not useful here if we expect them to take the form that they did between the First and Second World Wars of the last century. The strategy of the united front, as it was codified at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, involves revolutionary working class organisations offering to work alongside reformist working class organisations in pursuit of specific goals. It is not about reaching agreement on an entire political programme, otherwise there would be no need for two organisations in the first place. Nor does it aim for the immediate overthrow of capitalism: it is a genuine attempt to achieve the specific goals as stated (although revolutionaries obviously try to demonstrate to reformist workers the superiority of their ideas and strategy through the experience of joint work). On the other hand, the popular front, first launched in France in 1935 but a key component of Stalinist politics ever since, involves alliances between revolutionaries and bourgeois political parties solely for electoral purposes.

Several critics have seen the ANL as having most affinity with the popular front. One of the most serious of these, the black cultural theorist Paul Gilroy, wrote:

‘Rock Against Racism had allowed space for youth to rant against the perceived iniquities of “Labour Party Capitalist Britain”. The popular front tactics introduced by the ANL closed it down. Being “anti-Nazi” located the political problem posed by the growth of racism exclusively in the activities of a small and eccentric, though violent, band of neo-fascists’.9

These remarks involve a fundamental misunderstanding of what both ‘united’ and ‘popular’ strategies involve. Fairly obviously, the ANL was not an electoral alliance between revolutionaries and bourgeois political parties, but was it then a united front? In fact, united fronts in the ‘classic’ Comintern or Trotskyist sense are actually very rare in working class history, although the essential principle is used every day by Respect or Solidarity activists who convince Labour Party members to jointly take a petition or a collection round their workplace. And it is the principle which is important. Renton quotes one ANL activist:

‘The Anti Nazi League wasn’t a united front, but it was a united front type organisation. It wasn’t a pact between mass organisations, but there was an alliance between reformists and revolutionaries, unity around specific organisation demands which left the organisations free.’

The SWP was not in a position to offer ‘unity’ in action with the Labour Party—an organisation which then had a membership around 100 times larger—but it could approach individual members and constituencies in the spirit of the united front in order to conduct joint activity. As Renton writes, with commendable restraint, ‘Perhaps one lesson of the Anti Nazi League is that unity can be too narrowly conceived’.10

Gilroy’s main point lies elsewhere though. It is that the ANL, unlike RAR, wrongly focused on fascism at the expense of the far greater racist threat posed by the British state and what we, post Lawrence inquiry, would now call institutional racism: this was what gave the NF the ideological basis for their appeals to the white population. Essentially this means that, unless you are prepared to challenge every aspect of a threat, it is wrong to challenge any aspect of it, even if the aspect in question poses the most immediate threat.

Similar arguments to those of Gilroy were made at the time by groups on the sectarian left, for whom the very idea of the united front itself was counter-revolutionary. According to one typical example of the genre:

‘The standpoint of the ANL is that of the Labour racists. They are loyal to British imperialism, loyal to the British state, support immigration control and all the actions of the racist Labour government. Thus the ANL has not been for one moment concerned to defend black people. Its sole and single purpose is to prevent the growth of the influence of the National Front…the ANL attempts to mobilise working class patriotism (to British imperialism) against the National Front’s threat to British bourgeois democracy’.11

The usual ‘proof’ offered by critics of this sort is that the ANL leadership refused to support calls for the abolition of all immigration controls. In fact the ANL did adopt a policy of opposition to all immigration controls at its first conference in 1978 (and the SWP carried placards saying ‘Stop the Nazis; No Immigration Controls’ at the Victoria Park carnival); what it did not do was make this position either a condition for membership or the basis of its activity.

Why not? As Renton asks, ‘What was the point of the League, to represent internally all the considered positions of the left or to challenge fascism?… The League was not a political party’.12 If people already agree with opposition to all immigration controls, they would be revolutionary socialists and there would be no need for alliances; if not, then making their participation in an organisation dependent on their adopting this position is unlikely to result in a mass of recruits. It is important to challenge views of people who support immigration controls, but you are far more likely to convince someone of the need to oppose them while working together against the Nazis than as a result of demanding that they adopt all of your politics before you condescend to speak to them.

Anyone who has been active in both the anti-Nazi movement of the 1970s and the anti-war movement of the 2000s will experience a sense of deja vu in relation to these arguments. Instead of criticism for allying with a supposedly entirely racist and imperialist Labour Party, the left has been criticised for allying with a supposedly entirely homophobic, sexist Muslim Association of Britain.13 In both cases whole groups of people are written off in advance as incapable of engaging in dialogue or ever changing their views.

Towards the end of the book Renton quotes the speech by Darcus Howe at a memorial meeting for David Widgery:

‘Howe said that he had fathered five children in Britain. The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against the racism all around them. The fifth child, he said, had grown up “black and at ease”. Darcus attributed her “space” to the Anti Nazi League in general and to Dave Widgery in particular’.14

Not for the first time, Howe is exaggerating, but there is something in this nevertheless. Perhaps the longer term achievement of the ANL was to help forge a black and white unity deeper than that required by the immediate needs of anti-fascist mobilisation. As Renton suggests, perhaps it ‘had been a necessary precondition for the recent alliance between Muslims and non-Muslims in the movement against the Iraq war… In that sense, the 1970s provide a stock of experiences on which present-day activists can draw’.15


1: D Renton, When We Touched the Sky: the Anti-Nazi League, 1977-1981 (Cheltenham, 2006), p175.
2: As above, pp23, 174.
3: Quoted in D Renton, as above, pviii.
4: See D Widgery, Beating Time: Riot ’n’ Race ’n’ Rock ’n’ Roll, designed by R Gregory and A Dark (London, 1986). To be fair, the book was not intended to be a scholarly or objective account. See D Widgery, ‘Beating Time—a Response to Ian Birchall’, International Socialism 35 (Summer 1987).
5: It is possible to exaggerate the distinction between the two organisations. If my own experience in Aberdeen is anything like typical, then in many parts of the country the same people probably ran them both, as two aspects of essentially the same operation.
6: D Renton, as above, p3. Renton admires Widgery’s work, without necessarily accepting all his conclusions. See D Renton, as above, pp47-50, 181-182, and D Renton, ‘David Widgery’, in Dissident Marxism (London and New York, 2004), pp217-227.
7: D Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice (London, 1999); Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s (London, 2000); and ‘This Rough Game’: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in European History (London, 2001).
8: D Renton, When We Touched the Sky, as above, pp175-180.
9: P Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: the Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London and New York, 2002), p174.
10: D Renton, When We Touched the Sky, as above, pp105, 106. And see pp102-106 more generally.
11: M Williams, S Palmer and G Clapton, ‘Racism, Imperialism and the Working Class’, Revolutionary Communist 9, June 1979, pp41, 42.
12: D Renton, When We Touched the Sky, as above, pp104, 118. Gilroy’s other main argument is that the ANL retreated into a patriotic Britishness based on memories of the Second World War to oppose the NF. In fact, the main ANL slogan was ‘Never again!’ Contrary to what Gilroy appears to believe, this was a reference to the Holocaust, not the Battle of Britain. See the discussion by Renton in When We Touched the Sky, as above, pp126-127.
13: For the Stop the War Coalition as a form of united front, see A Murray and L German, Stop the War: the Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement (London, 2005), pp3-5, 47-63.
14: D Renton, When We Touched the Sky, as above, p180.
15: As above, p183.