Sunday, 13 January 2013

Book Review: Physical Resistance

Physical Resistance
A Hundred Years of Anti Fascism
By Dave Hann
Paperback: 416 pages
Zero Books January 2013
ISBN: 978-1780991771

Dave Hann’s history of physical force anti-fascism distinguishes itself in two ways from previous anti-fascist histories; the first is its method, the second is its perspective. As to method, Hann was a plasterer by trade and taught himself history. The style, particularly in later sections, is reminiscent of the early History Workshop. There are long quotations from anti-fascist activists, interspersed with a narrative of key events. The voices speak for themselves, providing both anecdote and analysis. As to perspective, Hann was briefly in the mid-1980s the publicity officer for Red Action (RA). Unlike most of the group’s leadership, he had never been a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and he appears to have attached himself to Red Action and its offspring Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) in a spirit of unsectarian commitment to whatever anti-fascism there was going at the time.

The book gives a vivid sense of Hann’s personality and his lifelong commitment to anti-fascism. It begins with the 1920s, finding all sorts of minor skirmishes between fascist and anti-fascist which academic historians, lacking Hann’s patience in searching through obscure labour movement sources, have missed. The history of the 1930s has a good pace, and gets the difficult balance right between telling the story of fascism and anti-fascism, and integrating the key London episodes (Olympia and Cable Street) into a wider narrative which involved clashes in almost every British city of any size at all.

The chapter in the 1940s is a little over reliant on an interview with Morris Beckman (whose account of the 43 Group underplays the role of the Communist Party members within that Group). The material on the early 1960s is the best account in print that I know of that organisation which is often mentioned but rarely analysed.

David Hann celebrates the Battle of Lewisham and the launch of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), treating both as positive moves by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), their instigator. However the success of the ANL, he argues, brought the SWP leadership into alliance with political forces to its right, opening up a chasm between the SWP and a generation of young activists, attracted by the prospect of physical confrontation with the National Front (NF) and British Movement (BM).

At times, his account seems a little self-serving. Almost all the interviews
are with early “squaddists”, the generation of activists from within which the future leaders of Red Action were selected. But Hann defends the ANL against squaddist criticisms, pointing out for example that the SWP encouraged its members to take on NF paper sellers in East London, long after the Second Rock Against Racism Carnival, which was often (and exaggeratedly) portrayed by AFA as a fatal error.

Hann writes well about the death of Blair Peach, and ends his chapter on the ANL with a number of non-ANL voices commending the ANL for its success. His chapter on the 1980s again derives its force from interviews with squaddists, but in marked contrast to AFA’s official history, Sean Birchall’s Beating the Fascists, there is a considerable sense of some of the ironies of a pure physical force approach to fighting fascism. Not all battles, according to Hann’s sources, were won.

Fighting with skinheads at punk gigs ended at times in bruises for Rock Against Racism supporters (casualties of what you might call “Red on Red” friendly fire). At times, waiting to attack fascists, Hann admits, was deathly dull. His account is the first I have come across to acknowledge the changing character of Red Action (most of whose early members left very quickly) and to begin the story of Anti-Fascist Action’s demise (Birchall’s book stops at the 1992 Battle of Waterloo, AFA’s “Cable Street”, without beginning to explain how quickly the organisation decayed thereafter).

The book then has a relatively lengthy coda describing UAF and “Antifa” clashes with the English Defence League The account is at times underanalytical. Hann lacks the party-xenophobe’s keen sense of the virtues (or the limitations) of pure physical force anti-fascism. It is clear in retrospect that groups like the 43 Group (who specialised in sending Jewish former servicemen to knock over fascist platforms) had a different political approach to either the mid- 1930s or the late-1930s Communist Party, experimenting as it was with different positions on the United Front / Popular Front spectrum.

That said, the book’s relative eclecticism is also a strength; the author barely has an unkind word for anyone and should offend none of his left-wing readers. Hann died in September 2009, leaving just £30 in his will. I had read his first book No Retreat (2003) which is more autobiographical but never met him. Reading Physical Resistance leaves me with a strong sense of his basic generosity of spirit. I regret never having had the chance to share a pint with him.

Dave Renton
From LHSG Newsletter # 48 (January 2013)


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