Saturday, 24 October 2009

Book Review: Rock Against Racism Revisited

From LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

Crisis Music:
The cultural politics of Rock Against Racism
By Ian Goodyer, 176 pages hardcover
Manchester University Press 2009
ISBN 978-0719079245

RAR Revisited

Rock Against Racism (RAR) was a campaign launched in 1976 to oppose racism in the music industry. Its inspiration was an August 1976 gig at which Eric Clapton launched into a drunken diatribe in support of Enoch Powell. Over time RAR evolved into something different and more interesting, a campaign of music fans against racism assisted by the support of high profile black and white musicians.
In this book Ian Goodyer cites interviewees to the effect that there were 70 RAR groups across the country in 1979 (p. 12), that RAR's magazine Temporary Hoarding had a circulation of 12,000 in the same year (p. 90), and that RAR sold a total of 1.5 million badges (p. 61). But RAR's great achievements were its Carnivals against the National Front (NF) held in alliance with the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). They include Carnivals of 80,000 and 100,000 people in London in spring and autumn 1978, and between them a Manchester Carnival attended by 35,000.
Participants in the movement describe a constant trickle of former NF supporters coming to tell organisers that this event had broken them from the far right. Goodyer is well-placed to tell the story of RAR, for two reasons in particular. First, he was a participant in the movement, and states in his footnotes for example that he thinks RAR was in reality biased towards a limited number of musical forms (p. 18), or that the SWP ‘punk paper’ of 1978 was a mistake (p. 71). A historian relying on the literature produced by a campaign and upbeat interviews with movement participants will always find it harder to make calls of that sort.
Second, although this is obscured by the brief biography which appears on the back cover, Goodyer was for many years a graphic designer for Socialist Worker. This enables him to see something which most historians of RAR miss, that the true inner core of the group were not musicians at all (as is most often assumed), but a group of designers working in the SWP printshop: Roger Huddle, Ruth Gregory and Syd Shelton to which we can add the Socialist Worker photographer Red Saunders and in due course the occasional writer for Socialist Worker Dave Widgery.
On pages 119-20, Goodyer catches in a few well-chosen sentences the stylistic innovations of the RAR paper, Temporary Hoarding.
The most interesting parts of RAR's history to my mind are the questions of how and why a relatively small group of people was able to bind round itself two further groups: enough musicians to make the gigs and Carnivals and work, and then enough supporters and participants to make the combined movement a success.

Goodyer's book is written in a ‘cultural studies’ idiom, comparable to, for example, Alex Callinicos' books of philosophy, so every question has to be addressed sideways through a critique of what other authorities have written. The immediate genesis of RAR is largely ignored (although an implied answer is given – the deep
cultural modernism of the designers enabled them to relate to other people who came from an artistic background), while the question of why RAR grew gets much more detail.
In so far as Goodyer has an explanation, it is derived from Red Saunders, i.e. that the organisers' trick was to allow groups anywhere in the country to host bands, show films or run music clubs, more or less however they pleased. Goodyer terms this organising method "semiimprovisational" (p. 65) and when repeating the phrase out loud, the emphasis should probably be on "semi" rather than "improvisational" .
Now it is a familiar reality that most left-wing campaigns fail, and a semi-improvisational organisational strategy is in the last resort no better guarantee of ultimate success than its more often-encountered counterpart: the wholly nonimprovisational strategy that activists usually term ‘Stalinist’.
If anything is missing in Goodyer's book it is an historical analysis that the reason why the campaign worked is that while many long-time historical trends (including the decline of those industrial patterns of employment under which rank-and-file trade unionism had flourished) were going to make the job of the anti-fascists harder, they had so far proceeded only up to a certain point; and in 1976-9 they were balanced by other historical trends (including a growing contempt of young white people for racism, which was drawn on and pushed further by RAR and the ANL), so that although history was against, it was not too far against. If all that seems too elaborate an analysis, this idea of historical opportunity is best expressed in the brilliantly succinct two-word title of Dave Widgery's history of RAR: Beating Time.
Against that omission, there is much to praise in Crisis Music. There is a good range of interviews including contrite former NF supporters, Colin Fancy (who doggedly insists that the design of Temporary Hoarding was all wrong), and more than a couple of contributors to this newsletter. The book is well-written; and although ‘cultural studies’ does lend itself to a style of textual polemic, Goodyer can be forgiven for writing in this wretched genre because the focus of his polemics is well directed, ‘no’ to Paul Gilroy's There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack and ‘yes’ to Dave Widgery. Goodyer's book is pricey for its audience at £60. Buy it or, just as good, order a copy for a library. It deserves to be a widely-read paperback.
Dave Renton


  1. As a student studying the effects of RAR on the landscape it intended to change, I find this book confusing and to bogged down in Marxist theory and rhetoric to be of any real use or ornament. A hint I think at larger themes within the left of to stuck with theory, just get on with it and change. Stop Infighting.

  2. There is another RAR book out, 2015, Syd Skelton, available in Tower Hamlets Local History Library. The photos, the music, the politics, makes for facets where there will be no one with a united position on totality.