From the archive: 'First things first: defend Brick Lane'

Author: 

'Workers' Action', No. 118, Sep. 30-Oct. 7, 1978

Introduction

For the SWP, their involvement in anti-fascism is a major point of honour. From the 'Battle of Lewisham' to the current organising efforts against the BNP, the SWP has been "at the centre of struggle". This is only part of the truth.

The SWP's record on anti-fascism - as with a great many other things - is not as 'honourable' as they would paint it.

Take the current dispute over planned protests against the BNP's annual 'Red, White and Blue' festival. Activists in Nottingham, together with local residents, the vast bulk of the local labour movement and with the support of the RMT union nationally have been planning protests against the festival for more than eight months. A local conference, regular planning meetings, activity and discussion have taken place with only peripheral interest from the SWP. When it finally dawned on them that this was a serious effort to disrupt the festival, that national mobilisations were taking place and that trade unions had actually started to mobilise their members for the event did the SWP (through their front organisation, 'Unite Against Fascism') take interest.

But how did this 'interest' manifest itself? Did local SWP members finally come to organising meetings? Did SWP/UAF leaders ask to meet with local activists to plan joint work? Did they circulate materials and advertise plans already widely distributed through their own networks? Nothing of the sort. Instead, they produced glossy leaflets (co-opting the support organised by the Nottingham group) announcing a rally of their own at a different place and a different time.

This is bad enough, but it could have been worse. Some weeks before this turn of events, rumours started to fly that UAF planned to call a 'Carnival' in Derby - some miles away from the 'RWB' festival itself. The national support - including labour movement support - already won made this impossible. So instead, they bone-headedly organised their own 'initiative'.

The story below - of how UAF's predecessor organisation the 'Anti-Nazi League' betrayed the local community of Brick Lane - is a warning from the past of the consequences of splitting anti-fascist activity.

We encourage all who read this to attend the protests against the BNP and - importantly - to argue for SWP/UAF members and supporters to demand a merger of activities and to demand a democratic conference of UAF to elect a new, representative, organising group.

Charlie Salmon
Click here for 'Brick Lane & The Carnival: An open letter to Tony Cliff'
Click here for a clipping from our paper at the time

First things first: defend Brick Lane

Last weekend the organisations of the black community in East London appealed to the labour movement for support in stopping a planned Nazi march on their area. Hundreds of socialists responded. But the leaderships of the Anti-Nazi League, the Socialist Workers' Party and the International Marxist Group refused, in a way the SWP and IMG would have found unthinkable just a year ago.
Last week they said: "No, there's not much we can do, we've got a concert organised which mustn't be spoiled". The great battle of Lewisham last August [1977] had receded to another era.
On Sunday, the National Front celebrated its greatest triumph in years. Unchallenged and unmolested, they marched 1,500 strong through the City of London to Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch, "within spitting distance of Brick Lane", as the NF leader Richard Verrall gloatingly put it.
There, opposite their new HQ, John Tyndall boasted to his followers that they had never been stronger and that there was nowhere in Britain they could not march.

Divert

Meanwhile there were up to 100,000 at the Anti-Nazi League Carnival in Brockwell Park. But the 'anti-racist unity' there looked pretty sick with the Nazis marching through the East End.
Fortunately, Tyndall's boast was not entirely true. Mobilised by the Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee, come 1,000 anti-fascists dissuaded the police from attempting to take the Nazi march to its original destination in Redchurch Street - which leads into the top of Brick Lane itself.
Largest among the contingents in defence of Brick Lane were Bengalis organised by the local youth movements; Workers' Action and the Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory; and the Black Socialist Alliance. There were detachments from the smaller Trotskyist groups, together with the local membership of the Anti-Nazi League, the SWP, the IMG, the Communist Party and Militant.
The remainder of of the Brick Lane defence was made up of groups and individuals from antu-racist committees and the socialist organisations (often without the approval of their leaders).
But these forces were not sufficiently cohesive and, crucially, nothing like big enough to take the initiative.
Already the Bengali community of Spitafields is paying the price for this defeat. After the Nazi rally dispersed, groups of fascists began prowling the area. One gang of 50-60 thugs got through to Brick Lane and smashed up an Asian shop before being driven off. In several underground trains and stations, black people and anti-fascists were attacked by cock-a-hoop National Front bullies.
The hugely boosted morale of the Front will mean an escalation of racist assaults in the area and a renewed push to control the Sunday market in Brick Lane. That is the price of the fun and games in Brockwell Park.
The responsibility for all this lies squarely on the shoulders of the Anti-Nazi League leadership, especially the SWP, the IMG and the Communist Party.
The ANL was given conclusive proof by Searchlight magazine of the NF's intended march a month ago, but chose to conceal the fact. It is not possible that the SWP leadership were ignorant of this news even then.
Less than two weeks before the event, Workers' Action and the Workers' Power group each came into possession of NF documents referring to their plans for a march.
When contacted about it, the ANL said (as late as Friday 15th [1978]) that they still had no reason to believe the documents were genuine; they were investigating, and would be meeting in the early part of the following week to 'assess the situation'.
The IMG asserted that in their view the Front march was a hoax, and that even if it were genuine, any attempt to mobilise people in defence of the East End would be a 'diversion from the Carnival'; if the ANL Steering Committee called for such a mobilisation, they would consider responding to it, but they would not argue in the ANL for such a step to be taken.
The following Tuesday, 19th, - after the ANL had promised to send its East London membership to defend Brick Lane - the IMG were still refusing to 'divert' their members.

Silent

Throughout this period the SWP was completely silent, as was the Communist Party.
The Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee reacted differently. Faced with proof of the Front's intentions and the news that Great Eastern Street was to be the site of the NF's new headquarters, the Defence Committee made three initial moves:
# to demand of the ANL that they re-route their forces to the East End;
# to call upon the Home Secretary to ban the NF march;
# and to arrange for Patrick Kodikara, Chairperson of the Defence Committee, to appear on television calling for a counter-demonstration.
The demand for a state ban was wrong, and could have been very damaging if it had been conceded. For this the Defence Committee was criticised by ourselves and others. But the crucial call for a counter-demonstration in defence of the Asians of East London had been made.
The Defence Committee immediately began organising support in and out of London.
The clear, simple and elementary duty of all socialists was to give unconditional support to that call. What happened was very different.
The SWP, the IMG and the CP all used their press to urge anti-fascists from outside the East End to stay away. According to them, the ANL's plan to send its East London supporters to Brick Lane was quite enough. In the event, the ANL's call for mobilisation by East Londoners was worse than doing nothing; it lulled anti-fascists from outside the area with the assurance that the NF would be adequately opposed, while actually drawing only a few hundred to Brick Lane.
In an attempt to break the wall of silence, the Defence Committee called a press conference on Wednesday afternoon to assert that, with or without the ANL, a counter-demonstration would try to stop the fascists from reaching East London. And a spokesperson from the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory announced that it was organising a national mobilisation for Brick Lane.

Duped

In the following days ANL, SWP, IMG and CP members - inside and outside the Defence Committee - strained every muscle to prevent an effective response to the fascists. Facing intense hostility from Bengalis - and in some cases quite hysterically torn between following the line of their organisations and trying to retain some slight respect in the East End - they had shifted by the time of the stewards' meeting on Saturday evening. The local SWP organiser, promised that the ANL would after all divert 'many thousands' of supporters from Hyde Park to Brick Lane. It seems possible that he was himself duped by the ANL leadership.
On Sunday, Workers' Action and the SCLV supporters leafleted coaches and trains on their way to the Carnival, sometimes (for example on the Cardiff train) threatened with physical violence by SWP members, denounced as 'wreckers' and 'agents provocateurs'. In Hyde Park we distributed 20,000 leaflets calling for the defence of the East End.
Faced with these attempts to alert the Carnival crowds to the urgent task in the East End, Paul Holborrow (a member of the ANL Steering Committee and leader of the SWP) announced from the platform that Brick Lane was in no danger and that the police had given assurances on the question. Ernie Roberts and Arthur Scargill echoed the message; don't go, we don't want the Carnival split by 'Nazi provocation'.
Only after it was too late - after the Nazis had held their rally, after the anti-fascists had been obliged to retire to Brick Lane, and after a phalanx of Nazi bullies had been able to mount an attack on Brick Lane - did ANL demonstrators come in large number to the East End.
They were sent home by the Defence Committee stewards, while the Bengalis themselves organised defence squads to patrol the area.

Defiant

The ANL leadership last Sunday committed a massive act of conscious betrayal against the black people whose cause they claim to champion. The size of the Carnival does not diminish, but rather underlines their treachery. What could have been a tremendous victory for anti-fascism, with every street crossing the East End held, was forced to be a defiant but inadequate showing at one street corner, while the fascists marched and rallied with impunity.
Militant anti-fascists in the SWP, the IMG and the Communist Party can hardly fail to draw their conclusions from these events. We urge them to enter serious discussions with us. And together with all anti-fascists, they should join with is in demanding an emergency re-call conference of the ANL to comdemn the lies and treachery of the ANL leadership, and to kick them out along with their bourgeois-liberal allies.
Such a conference should demand to democratically elect a new Steering Committee. And it should adopt for the ANL a principled political basis to include these points:
# No platform for fascists
# No to State bans; the fascists must be crushed through direct mass action
# Active support for black self-defence groups; build workers' defence squads
# No to all immigration controls
# Fascists out of the labour movement; open racists to be removed from all positions in the trade unions, Labour Parties and all working class organisations.

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Additional reports from Workers' Action

After the march, the assaults

Young thugs who had been on the National Front's march to the East End attacked Brick Lane on Sunday, as the thousand or so anti-fascist who had tried to stop their march began to disperse.
A gang of 50-60 rampaged into the predominantly Asian Chicksand Estate, just off Brick Lane, at about 5.30, and smashed up an Asian shop.
As local Asians and anti-fascists still in Brick Lane moved to stop the racists, the police sealed off the roads leading into the estate - giving the fascists a free hand to carry out their attacks.
Asians came out of their houses, quickly shut their shops, and confronted the invaders, who were soon driven off in a hail of milk bottles and bricks, The racist thugs were chased all the way to Whitechapel underground station before a single policeman was seen: they were busy keeping the anti-fascists cooped up in Brick Lane!
The fascist were briefly stopped, and then allowed to go on their way. There were no arrests. But when the people who had chased them off got back to Brick Lane, it was a different story. As we arrived back, 7 police vans were waiting. We were stopped, asked where we were going, and told to “keep off the streets if you don;t like it”. Many people were searched.
Some Asian youngsters were stopped, searched and questioned four time in a 200-yard walk back through the Chicksands Estate.
Anti-racists were told: “Get lost, you're not wanted here, you don't belong here”.
As always, it was very clear whose side the police were on. They had let the attackers in though ther area was still swarming with police, and left them to get away.
For the people who came out to defend their homes and shops, to protect young children and old men from the murderous gangs, the police had only harassment and insults.

The record speaks for itself

The Anti-Nazi League's first big activity was opposition to the National Front candidacy in the Ilford by-election, in February [1978].
When the NF called a march in Ilford, the police and the Home Secretay imposed a two-month ban on all marches in London. Despite the fact that this was a major blow to the democratic rights of the labour movement (and Leeds Trades Council was to have a demonstration dispersed by police in April under a similar ban), the ANL hailed this as a victory.
It was Paul Holborrow, ANL secretary and a member of the SWP, who declared: “There is no doubt that it [the ban] is a victory”. We commented:
“'March separately, strike together' is the traditional slogan of the united front. But the ANL is the opposite. The SWP march under the banner of the liberals; but when it comes to striking against the fascists, the SWP are left on their own, or are held back by their liberal allies”.
After the ANL Carnival at the end of April, we said:
“80,000 on the streets against the Nazis is a tremendous step forward. 80,000 on the streets, but fed with the idea that unity with liberal celebrities, without clear aims or decisive action, is the way to stop the fascists: that's a recipe for misleading, demoralising and dissipating the thousands of young workers who are now prepared to fight the Front”.
The ANL had done nothing about the NF march in London the following day.
“As they addressed Sunday's massive crowd of anti-fascists, one announcement would have wiped the Front march out of existence. But they allowed it to go ahead.
Why? Because they were afraid to blow apart the shaky alliance which has put the ANL together. Unleashing even a section of their following against the Nazis they so eloquently denounce would have sent the bishops, the celebrities, and many MPs scurrying”.

In July the ANL held its first conference. Workers' Action supporters fought for the ANL to adopt policies including no platform for fascists, no immigration controls, and support for black self-defence.
“But wouldn't the ANL lose support if it accepted the sort of platform we advocate? Certainly it would lose the support of people like Syd Bidwell MP, a sponsor of the ANL and a signatory of the Commons Select Committee's racist recommendations on immigration and settlement. No doubt other would go too... But it would not deter those who really do want to fight fascism and racism; on the contrary, it would strengthen their fight”.
Then:
“At the conference there were many militant speeches. Yet the indications are that the ANL, while responding, in a limited way, to the needs of the struggle, will continue to try to keep its stance ambiguous enough to retain its star-studded sponsor list of bishops, professors, and young Tories”.
September 24th was to provide the sad confirmation...