The mid-to-late 1970s were something of a high point for organised fascists. The National Front could mobilise thousands of members for confrontational demonstrations. Their street stalls and paper sales littered the pavement, Their outspoken racism attracted sympathy, if not outright support. Violence, provocation and intimidation were the order of the day.
It was a time when the fascists must have entertained the notion that they were going places. Maybe soon a desperate and ramshackle ruling class would employ them to throw the final blows against a militant labour movement. It would give them free reign to “sort out” minority communities — to drive Asian, Afro-Caribbean and Jewish people out of Britain. It would rely on them to shore up — or perhaps replace — a rickety, failing government. These delusions ultimately came to nothing.
In some ways, the situation today for the BNP looks better than that for the NF thirty years ago.
In the 1970s the NF failed over and over again to get their members elected to local councils — let alone Parliament. The BNP today has something over fifty borough, district, town and city councillors. It has a member elected to the Greater London Assembly and an electoral base that puts them in a position to win seats in the European Parliament.
For their own reasons, the BNP have moved away from confrontational street politics. But this move does not negate, does not wipe from the record of history the actual aims and intentions of the violent, fascistic core of the BNP. For now, their methods appear distinct and far-removed from the tactics of the 1970s but they remain a real, political and physical threat.
A survey of the anti-fascist movement of the 1970s and that of today tells a similar — dispiriting but not totally disheartening — story. Take the Socialist Workers Party for example. 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 is not as “honourable” as they would paint it.
The story of how UAF's predecessor organisation, the Anti Nazi League, betrayed the local community of Brick Lane in East London is a warning from the past of the consequences of splitting anti-fascist activity:
Two large mobilisations were planned for Saturday 24 September 1978. One an enormous carnival in south London, called by the Anti Nazi League (ANL) — and the other a march through the East End of London by the National Front.
To be sure, both events took a long time to plan, coordinate and organise. Anti-fascists had been busily booking and trying to fill coaches from every part of the country for months. The fascists had been organising themselves for a massive show of force. Stuck between these two groups were the residents of Brick Lane and a small band of supporters from the local labour movement.
A few weeks before the planned fascist demonstration, the ‘Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee’ and a number of socialist and other campaign groups received definitive evidence that the NF planned to march through Brick Lane. The fascist march was almost certainly planned to clash with the “Carnival”.
Upon receipt of this information, the Defence Committee issued a wide appeal for a demonstration in opposition. This part of East London was — and remains so today — a predominantly Asian community, with a high concentration of Begalis. The NF's march was planned to do two things: to “celebrate” the opening of a new NF headquarters close by; and to physically intimidate the local community, to crush their confidence and to claim political territory. The tactic of opening fascist headquarters in or near minority-community areas was not a new phenomena. Before and after World War 2, the British Union of Fascists and its successor organisations opened offices in predominantly Jewish areas.
When the leadership of the ANL were warned of the NF march they responded: “No, there’s not much we can do, we’ve got a concert organised which mustn’t be spoiled”. This, just a year after the great battle of Lewisham in August 1977.
As Workers’ Action [foreunner of Solidarity] reported: “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.”
Activists from Workers’ Action (forerunner of the AWL), the Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory, and the Black Socialist Alliance joined the resistance, but, with the big-name anti-fascist organisation off at its carnival, mostly the community was left to organise its own defence.
Mobilised by the Defence Committee, up to 1,000 anti-fascists occupied Redchurch Street making it impossible for the NF to march into the heart of the community. Augmented by a small number of people persuaded to come over from the ANL carnival, the anti-fascists held their ground, but the counter-demonstration was nowhere big or organised enough to take the initiative, to widen protection or to halt the fascist march altogether.
Had the ANL called off their carnival, had even a fraction of the 100,000 concert goers in Brockwell Park, south London, made their way to the East End, the National Front would have faced a humiliating defeat. It was not to be so.
The results, as we reported them at the time, were as follows: “Already, the Bengali community in 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...”
What the leaders of the ANL did on that day — the leadership of the SWP in particular — must go down in history as a shameful display of sectarianism.
Too often, the SWP Central Committee put the narrow interests of developing prestige and advantage for their own organisation before the tasks of building, educating and mobilising the labour movement on the basis of working class politics. We should remind the SWP of their real history in the anti-fascist movement and win as many of their members as possible to a militant, working class anti-fascist politics.