Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Book Review - When We Touched the Sky - The Anti Nazi League 1977-1981

[The post below is copied with thanks from Geoff Brown's blog and since we don't have it on our site and it seems timely it seemed worth reproducing here - if others have book reviews / essays etc from old LSHG Newsletters that are not currently archived on this site please get in touch] 

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter (Autumn 2006) 

Dave Renton, “When We Touched the Sky” – The Anti Nazi League 1977-1981

We live in a time of revival for the left with new movements finding their way, not least against those who have buckled before Blair, often miserable, seeing it as impossible to win any serious fight, no matter how many are mobilised.

A good moment then to publish a history of the Anti Nazi League, a story of real political courage, of a mass movement that drew hundreds of thousands into activity and did achieve its goal, the destruction of the National Front (NF).  Indeed, with fascism once again a significant element in British politics as also in FranceItalyAustria and elsewhere, there is an obvious need for the left to be clear about what fascism is and how it can be stopped.

Here Renton’s book makes a very valuable contribution. In particular, he takes care to explain details that a younger generation has no memory of. At the same time, it must have taken some courage to write this book as many readers will have memories of their own involvement in the ANL. Rarely can a history have so many potential eye-witness critics!

The homework, however, has certainly been done with scores of participants interviewed. The narrative chapters in the book read well: the battle of Lewisham that triggered the founding of the ANL, the meteoric rise of the ANL in the following months, the giant carnivals of spring and summer 1978, the battle of Southall in April 199 where the police murdered Blair Peach.  Renton spells out how in the aftermath of Lewisham, the ANL was created as a single issue united front, committed to mobilising the largest possible numbers.  This it did, calling protests, large and small, wherever the NF showed its face.  In the process huge numbers were organised, in local groups, in the unions and in affinity groups, such as Skins against the Nazis, School Kids against the Nazis and so on.  Each group identified with its own badge, you couldn’t walk across any sizeable town in Britain without seeing people wearing ANL badges.  Establishing such a mass presence put relentless pressure on the fascists.

The chapter on Rock against Racism, founded a year before the ANL in response to racist remarks made by Eric Clapton, is penned with enthusiasm by Renton, not least as a serious fan of punk music. RAR had an anarchic quality, its impact spread in ways that are hard to trace, through many hundreds of gigs, with a vast array of musicians, some politically excellent, some far less so. With a big presence in the music pres, RAR made an impact on young people that was powerful and in some way new.  How exactly was and still is a constant source of argument  It was never going to be easy to write this chapter., not least as the old joke “If you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there” works with RAR, only more so.  How music and politics relate is always going to be contested.  Nevertheless, Renton does get across clearly the scale of RAR’s impact as an anti-racist force. And, as Renton says, if you want more on RAR, there is always the spectacularly written and produced Beating Time by Dave Widgery.

On the key question of the united front, one which has lost none of its relevance, the arguments are explained well. The ANL was born of a clear understanding of two things. First, the need to prevent the NF having a political presence – on the streets, in public meetings, in the media – and being prepared, where necessary to use physical force to achieve this. Second, the importance of mobilising the largest possible number to stop the fascists. The mobilisations could take many forms: thousands of local people in Lewisham to stop a march, hundreds or more in pickets of NF meetings or a TV station when it allowed an NF speaker. And always looking to gain mass support in workplaces, colleges, unions etc. hence the millions of leaflets and bucket loads of badges. And so it was possible to have carnivals with numbers into the hundreds of thousands, the fullest expression of this commitment to mass mobilisation.

The narrative becomes less sure when looking at the political roots of the ANL. The ANL was a Socialist Workers Party initiative which could only work properly if the much larger Communist Party came on board. It did, despite the CP’s detestation of the SWP, because large chunks of the Labour left and trade union bureaucracy had already decided to support the ANL. To stay out would mean the CP risking political isolation.

Renton’s suggestion that

The Communist Party had the numbers to build the mass movement but many of its activists still believed rock music was a US weapon in the Cold War. The theory of state capitalism protected SWP members from the kind of knee jerk anti Americanism that the CP encouraged.

is off the mark. For one thing, the CP was rightly proud of its anti-racist traditions presented by American singers such as Paul Robeson. For another, more importantly, the difficulty the CP had in mobilising lay in its politics closer to home. It was desperate not to upset any of its friends in parliament and the TUC General Council. As Renton recounts, Michael Foot was only one of a number of leading lefts who denounced the SWP after Lewisham. The CP was increasingly losing its ability to mobilise on the ground, particularly among young people, very few of whom were in the CP.

Renton’s encouragement to those who were involved to record their own memories and add their own perspectives is welcome. There is more to be written. Not least an explanation of how the ANL could be successful at the same time as government and employers were relentlessly rolling back the victories won by workers against the Heath government.  In the big picture, this was the main battle. Renton attempts an explanation but is wrong on some points. He exaggerates the incorporation of radical shop stewards into the bureaucracy and is wrong to imply that the SWP subordinated the industrial struggle to building the ANL.  More importantly, in retrospect we can see that Wilson and Callaghan’s implementation of the IMF’s instructions in 1976 to cut government spending was the beginning of the neo-liberal offensive continued by Thatcher.  The results have decisively shaped the world we live in. We need to be clear about what went wrong.  History from below is not enough.  The context of the ANL’s success has to be got right.  To repeat, there is more to be written and if the lessons are to be learnt properly, it has to be the full picture.

Geoff Brown

ANL organiser, Greater Manchester, 1977-1979

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