Socialist Worker

How the Anti Nazi League beat back the fascists

Labour’s John McDonnell’s recent call for a movement “emulating the work of Anti Nazi League” was incredibly important. Paul Holborow, who co-founded the organisation, looks at its history and its legacy

Issue No. 2617

Around 80,000 people from all over the country came to the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racisms Carnival in Victoria Park, east London.

Around 80,000 people from all over the country came to the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism's Carnival in Victoria Park, east London.


The scale of the threat from Tommy Robinson and the far right today is in many ways bigger than that even of Oswald Moseley and his Black Shirts in the 1930s.

So it’s very important to look at the history of resistance to fascism. I’m glad people want to emulate the work of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) that I played a leading role in.

The organisation was the direct result of the Battle of Lewisham on 13 August 1977—a watershed that pushed back the insurgent fascist National Front (NF).

The NF had planned to march through Clifton Rise, south east London, which had a large black population.

Opposed by much of the left, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) had argued that people should protest there, rather than ­several miles away.

In the event, our ­counter-demonstration broke the fascists’ march into pieces. It was a major humiliation for them.

That success was possible because of the anti-fascist activities of the International Socialists, forerunners of the SWP, in the preceding four or five years.

Paul Holborow, who co-founded the ANL, speaking at a commemoration of the Battle of Lewisham last year

Paul Holborow, who co-founded the ANL, speaking at a commemoration of the Battle of Lewisham last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)


After the Battle of Lewisham the phone in the SWP national office rang constantly. People were saying to us, “We applaud what you did with the black community, trade unionists and others in Lewisham.

“We don’t agree with the SWP on other issues, but want to be with you fighting the Nazis”.

It was clear that we now had a responsibility to build a broad-based organisation against the fascists.

Socialists in the 1970s faced a challenge that we had not met since the days of Mosley. But the challenge from the NF this time around was on a wider geographical scale—and it was mostly electoral.

Photographs of the Battle of Lewisham in 1977 against the Nazi National Front
Photographs of the Battle of Lewisham in 1977 against the Nazi National Front
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In the 1973 West Bromwich by-election the NF’s national organiser Martin Webster had gained 16 percent of the vote. The fascists made breakthroughs in other by-elections. And in May 1977, the Nazis got 120,000 votes in local elections across London, mounting a challenge to the Liberals’ position as the third party in British politics.

The central strand of the ANL’s strategy was to try and separate hardline Nazis from the softer racists that were now voting for them.

The NF’s growing support came mainly from people who weren’t Nazis, but had accepted racist arguments.

And that’s why unequivocally labelling the NF as Nazis was so important to us.

Whenever racist arguments were raised, we wanted ­anti-fascists to be confident to challenge it instead of just not liking what they heard.

We wanted to put an ­anti-racist argument into every workplace, school, college and estate.

To implement the strategy we constructed a national ­steering committee that embraced the different elements of the left that were on board.

Ernie Roberts, the AEU engineering union assistant general secretary, played a key role in the ANL from the beginning.

The trade union movement was much more vibrant then and contained a strong rank and file movement of ordinary members who were prepared to act.

The Indian Workers’ Association and many African-Caribbean organisations also joined.

The ANL drew together the left of the Labour Party in the form of Neil Kinnock, who was a leading left winger at the time, and Peter Hain. Nigel Harris and I sat on it for the SWP.

That broad structure meant that wherever the Nazis stood, we could go to that area to build opposition to them.

At the 1978 Ilford North by-election, in east London, we called around 2,000 people out to canvas the whole constituency in just three hours.

That involved Labour Party members, SWP members, trade unionists—and most importantly people who weren’t aligned but were anti-fascist and anti-racist.

As a leadership, we encouraged local ANL members to organise their own events, which meant we had impressive local and national initiatives.

Union 

Every union developed workplace groups against the Nazis—civil servants against the Nazis, teachers against the Nazis, and so on.

On one particular day some 60,000 Yorkshire miners went to work wearing ANL stickers on their helmets.

That initiative was the result of a Yorkshire conference where myself and miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill had together spoken against the fascists.

The ANL working jointly with the unions like this is just one illustration of how it was built on the ground.

Every union developed workplace groups against the Nazis—civil servants against the Nazis, teachers against the Nazis, and so on.

Unions and other organisations all had bagdes against the Nazis—civil servants against the Nazis, teachers against the Nazis, and so on.


Together with the Rock Against Racism organisation, founded a year before the ANL, we organised a massive carnival in April 1978.

Around 80,000 people from all over the country came to Victoria Park, east London.

Many of those who came had grown in confidence by confronting racist ideas over the past year.

We always aimed for a high level of political message.

For that first carnival we arranged to assemble five miles away in Trafalgar Square.

The point was to march through the heart of NF areas in east London—Hoxton, in Hackney, and the top of Brick Lane, in Tower Hamlets.

People told us that kids would only be interested in the music and would go straight to the park rather than march.

And, at 11 o’clock, Trafalgar Square was totally deserted.

But within half an hour it was completely full with thousands streaming into it. It had a similar feeling to the recent London demonstration against Donald Trump.

Well over 60,000 people marched those five miles to Victoria Park.

There were very few mass confrontations with the NF in the early years because the fascists were playing the respectable card.

But once the Nazis realised their electoral strategy wasn’t paying off, they returned to streets.

But by then we had involved large numbers of people in ANL activity and the logic was not to waste that energy by allowing the fascists to march.

There were some on the left who opposed us. After the Battle of Lewisham the Labour Party general secretary had denounced us as “red fascists”. And left winger Michael Foot said there was no difference between the SWP and the NF.

Their argument was basically that the fascists will go away if you ignore them.

But a significant number of people just didn’t buy that idea.

Attracting 

The ANL’s propaganda against the NF was hugely successful in attracting a wide layer of people who saw the need to oppose the fascists but were uncertain about physically confronting them.

If you had been active in your local area, you grew in confidence.

That meant that if the Nazis tried to march in your town, your ideas about confronting them could shift in our direction.

A tiny example of this happened in Middleton Road, in Hackney, where we had leafleted against the NF. When Nazis tried to stage a little demonstration, hundreds of local people came out against them.

The big flashpoints on the street were in Leicester and Southall in west London.

After the Nazis announced their intention to march in Leicester—where they had previously scored highly in local elections—there was a spontaneous response from the local ANL.

In Southall, the council offered the NF the town hall for a public meeting in the run-up to the 1979 general election.

After the council refused to withdraw its invitation, it was clear that this would be a major flashpoint.

Thousands of anti-racists poured into Southall to join the huge community response.

But the police Special Patrol Group ran riot, injuring many people—and killing teacher and SWP member Blair Peach.

Remembering Rock Against Racism—how music helped to fight the Nazis
Remembering Rock Against Racism—how music helped to fight the Nazis
  Read More

By this point the ANL had begun to split the Nazis from the soft racists. The NF’s Martin Webster put it best, “The sheer presence of the ANL had made it impossible to get NF members on the streets, had dashed recruitment and cut away at their vote.”

The ANL was successful because we knew our history.

The template was Cable Street when people had united to stop Moseley’s Black Shirts from marching in the East End.

But we also came from a different tradition than most of left. The Communist Party—which still had significant weight at the time—sought respectability at the expense of action.

We learnt from the revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who argued for the need to build a united front against fascism.

Today, Stand Up To Racism, Unite Against Fascism and Love Music Hate Racism are active and provide focuses for opposition to the far right.

The founding members of the ANL are all supporters of these organisations, which stand in its tradition.

But with the scale of the challenge we now face, we need to broaden and deepen those three organisations.

Anything that John McDonnell can do to assist us in this process of extending unity is hugely welcome.

We need to get together and create a genuine mass movement that takes on one of most serious challenges of fascism since the 1930s.


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