Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Dave Renton on the ANL
There is an interesting interview with Dave Renton on the main Socialist Unity Network website.
I haven’t read his book about the ANL yet, but I have to say that from the tone of this interview I don’t really recognise my own experience.
Firstly, the discussion of the NF as a “combat organisation” seems to suggest that they were some sort of Michigan militia. I joined the SWP in 1978 when I was 17, but I had friends in the Front, and that wasn’t at all uncommon at the time. The Front were a much more deeply rooted organisation in popular culture than the BNP are today, and for young lads like me they had a bit of glamour. Because my parents and grandparents had a strong Labour Party and Communist party background I would never have been directly attracted to them. But I do remember in 1976, before Rock Against Racism had politicised punk, it was quite the thing to have swastika armbands – certainly Siouxsie wore them, and there was that openly anti-Semitic song from the Banshees, “Love in the Void”. Fascism was the ultimate taboo to my parents generation. I bought a swastika armband myself in an antique shop in Bath, and I remember the shop keeper asking me in a leery way whether I was interested in patriotic meetings. Even as a pimply youth I didn’t think supporting Hitler was very patriotic, given that my dad had fought in the war.
In particular I don’t agree with Dave’s argument that: “the NF's support for violence was strategic rather than tactical: it included attempts to march through black areas, as at Lewisham in 1977 - the left had no choice but to respond.”
In my view the Front’s marches were more of a territorial thing, designed to intimidate and impress. The left’s strategic objective of denying the NF the right to march or hold public meetings was designed to force the NF to show their true face by being violent. If it hadn’t been for us the NF would have preferred their marches to be ceremonial rather than a punch up. As the marches got smaller the skinheads became more prominent. I knew we had them beat when I heard a bunch of Fronters in Bristol start chanting "The National Front is a Nazi front, join the National Front"
Certainly it was a very scary time, and being in the SWP in 1978 and 1979 could involve actual fighting with Fronters and the police. But mainly there was no fighting just because we outnumbered them so much. I remember going to the picket of an NF public meeting in a school in Knowle, Bristol during the 1979 general Election (I think it is the school they film “Teachers” in today for TV). There must have been 2000 at the picket with 500 coppers, and only about 20 Front went in. I almost felt sorry for them.
Another gripe with Dave is his claim that: “Rock Against Racism was a very small network, primarily London-based of designers, actors, artists and a few musicians; the key players included Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Dave Widgery, Ruth Gregory, Syd Shelton. Each of these networks was initiated by members of the SWP or by their allies: RAR was launched by Red Saunders, but then taken up by people who worked at the SWP print shop.” Without meaning to be rude to Dave, this seems like a typical London based political full-timer type comment. RAR was a grass roots explosion, because the brand was made available to anyone who wanted to use it. As I remember it almost nobody read the London based “Temporary Hoarding”. paper, or went to the nationaly organised Rhino tour. But loads of people round the country made their own local anti-racist leaflets, and the real strength was the legion small and local RAR gigs.
I also disagree that: “The ANL was launched by the SWP, and took off following events at Lewisham in summer 1977: for the next year, it was almost all that members of the SWP did.”. Yes the SWP launched the ANL, but in many parts of the country the ANL work was taken up by others, and as I remember we had a conscious policy of letting the MIGs do the committee work. And we did loads of other stuff. Not only did we have various parliamentary election campaigns that the SWP fought I this period, we also had Cliff’s launch of the SWP itself out of the IS – on the disastrously wrong perspective that we could quickly become a mass party. And the SWP was a much more deeply working class organisation than today, with scores of shop stewards and convenors active in rank and file trade unionism, and much of the Party’s activity was supporting this trade union base.