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.

9 comments:

Jim Jay said...

but the violence wasn't just at the marches though was it... it felt like a constant presence round my way... I think the NF without violence would have been a completely different kind of organisation - which implies for me it wasn't just a consequence of other people's actions or a temporary tactic.

Of course that doesn't mean everyone who supported the NF was a goon. I've never had much time for those who say the way to deal with fascists is to simply beat them up. What if it's an old lady? What if it's your boss?

There's some great stuff in Mark Steel's Reasons to be cheerful where he talks about his local NF as essentially two old timers trying to run an NF lucky dip stall.

I think the NF had the classical fascism form in that sense that it both tried to control the streets through violence and had a modest but mass base of support (if you see what I mean) with trade unionists, vicars and housewives supporting it.

But one of the things I want to draw out is there is a clear difference between the NF of old and the BNP now in that the BNP do not have *any* perspective of street fighting as a political method, presumably attempting to emulate Le Pen. Is this a phase they are going through or something more fundamental.

If its long term what does this mean for their politics and the strategy for combatting them?

AN said...

Don't get me wrong, I 'm not saying the Front weren't violent, but what I was missing from Dav'es interview (maybe it is in the book) is recognition that a large part of the NF's effort went into trying to create bridges with respectability. As I understand it Le Pen copied the NF in this regard.
Also don't overestimate the BNP's break from violence - not only were there threats of violence from the BNP in this year's council elections in Debden, but BNP Bradford organiser Andrew Sykes came over to being a Searchlight mole after the BNP planned to attack a family fun day in 2001.
There are also the bizarre antics of Tony Lecomber making overtures earlier this year to Liverpool Gangster Joey Owens, allegedly inciting Owens to assasinate a Labour cabinet minister if Griffen was convicted.

Jim Jay said...

Sure I think it's worth saying that the BNP are not pacifists and the NF were not all psychopaths...

But in terms of the strategic orientation of the two organisations, for the NF violence was a core value and for the BNP the entire emphasis is on legal means. I think this impacts on the tactics we should adopt to combat them.

AN said...

I know what you are getting at, and there is a difference, but I don’t think you have quite got it right.

The BNP are still quite prepared to use violence, for example their connection with the Burnley riots. What they don’t do is provide many opportunities for the left to organise physical opposition to them. This is partly through not having many public meetings, and no marches; and partly through dissociating themselves with tit for tat violence with people like AFA.

My point about the NF is that the fact they were so violent was partly an adaptation forced upon them by the strategy of the left of physically confronting them. And the fact that you remember them as being strategically wedded to violence suggests to me that we were successful. In its own mind I believe the NF were trying to build a front with disgruntled Tories and Empire loyalists, and the violence was a problem for them in achieving this. Also now, almost everyone associates the NF with fascism, but at the time it took us a long time to win that argument.

Incidentally, it is interesting how low an emphasis the SWP put on opposing the BNP today.

Also, the SWP has changed, and I noticed at Welling when we were trying to force through the police lines how few SWP members were prepared to step forward when the rumble started, even though it was absolutely necessary to protect the front of the march, and at the same time create a wedge between the black block provoking the police and the main body of the march. Also when we did get through the police there was a side street we passed where the police or fash (who were there giving sieg heil salutes) could have attacked us, and it was quite hard to persuade comrades to form a cordon across. Even though this was elementary security.

Doug Lowe said...

I've just finished reading David Renton's book. A book on the ANL is certainly long overdue, David should be congratulated on putting togwther a piece of work that should be required reading for anyone in the labour movement - know our history! One criticism does occur. There's little feel for what was going on on the ground around the country. In quite a few places the existing Left groups (including SWP'ers) may have used ANL/RAR material but mainly to organise trips to one-off demos and carnivals. But quite a few formed/retained groups with a non-ANL identity. This was largely because they felt a more class-based anti-racism was more effective in the long-term than the ANL's narrow focus on the Nazi nature of the NF. This didn't mean we were like the Far Left sects sneering from the sidelines, seemingly shocked (horrified?) that socialists had actually built a mass movement involving huge numbers of working class people. We understood that the ANL raise a national profile to anti-NF work and drew into activity so many people, the experience of which will probably always stay with them. The second point is t what are the lessons for today? Clearly David believes that Unite against Fascism is the way forward. To me though this emphasis on building up broad coummunity opposition undermines what for socialists must be a class-based approach. A glance at Searchlight reveals the problem. Plugging Billy Bragg pre-local elections, for one. 'Hope not Hate' is the latest woolly liberal offering devoid of any political content or meaning. A national tour led by someone whose leftist credentials are based on spending years plugging the idea that we should 'reclaim' the flag of St George and who publically campaigned for a pro-war Blairite in the 2005 Election. Also, Searchlight's immediate response to BNP local election successes in Barking/Dagenham was to blame media coverage. What a pathetic cop-out - anything to excuse the abject failure of UAF in that area. Learn the lessons comrades!

Doug Lowe

AN said...

I am a bit confused by your post Doug. I think you need to add a bit more detail to your account, to explain what you are referring to.
In the period 1978 to 1979, -in my experience - ANL groups met regularly, usually weekly, and brought in almost the whole left, including labour party, CP, etc, and non aligned anti-racists. And this was not about one off trips to demos and carnivals - for example we organised regular minibus trips up to brick lane to ensure there was a constant physical presence prepared to mix it with the fash if they turned up. I remember that the NF were also very active and locally rooted and we organised around disrupting them localy, including a raipd mobilisationw whenever they tried to sell their paper, as well as loads of leafleting schools, factories, you name it. All of this was done locally, and without any central control. The SWP was also a much less centralised and homogenous organisation then, and much more at home with the culture of manual working class.
This ANL activity did change markedly after the 1979 general election, but I wasn't really aware of any alternative strategy until after May/June 1979, when as you say some anti-facsist groups did continue with a non-ANL identity, as the ANL proper declined and also turned away from physical confrontation. (The dramatic decline of the SWP after 1979 election is also rarely remarked upon - I rejoined the Labour Party, but the SWP seemed to simply collapse in many areas over the 18 months after Thatcher won the election)

On the current day - I am confused by your conflation of the UAF and Searchlight, who surely have very different strategies? Even if you don't agree with either of them.

AN said...

and on the strategic difference between the BNP and the NF, Griffin said in 1997: that the BNP should not try to appeal to 'middle-class notions of respectability... It is more important to control the streets of a city than its council chambers.'

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,11913,783675,00.html

Jim Jay said...

Griffin said in 1997: that the BNP should not try to appeal to 'middle-class notions of respectability... It is more important to control the streets of a city than its council chambers.'

I don't dispute he said this - but the reality of the BNP strategy has clearly not been to try to control the streets of any city but to use the veneer of (working class?) respectability and the council chamber to get their message across.

That is not to dispute some of their people are just thugs - of course - but the strategy of the BNP does not include street fighting, but does involve positively avoiding it

Doug Lowe said...

In response to AN - I probably didn't make myself very clear. I wasn't suggesting that ANL groups just organised one off trips to demos and carnivals. I meant that local non-ANL groups didn't use ANL material very much but developed their own. Also, I know that ANL Groups also contained a broad range of Leftists. I wasn't suggesting either that the local ANLs were centrally controlled. . Your point about the SWP being much less centralised back then is well made. I was in the SWP and we weren't threatened with dire consequences for not forming an ANL branch. Only later did the SWP morph into the WRP.