Forty years ago this week thousands of anti-fascists partly broke up a Nazi National Front (NF) march in north London.
The Battle of Wood Green on 23 April 1977 was one of the first times the Nazis had been physically confronted. It also lay the ground for a bigger rout of the NF in Lewisham, south east London, later that year.
Socialist Worker reported at the time, “A trembling fascist said it all on a radio phone-in show, ‘We were all so frightened’. Quite right.
“The National Front have never been so badly shaken as on Saturday’s march through north London.”
Some 3,000 anti-fascists confronted around 1,200 NF marchers. This counter-protest didn’t come out of nowhere.
In the run-up to it, people in the local area got organised. They gave out leaflets, tested red smoke flares on Tottenham Marshes and visited Turkish and Greek cafes to drum up support.
There were arguments about tactics. Labour and Communist Party leaders focused on trying to get the NF march banned.
Sections of the Labour left, including Jeremy Corbyn, aligned themselves with those who wanted a militant response.
“The SWP led the argument for direct confrontation,” wrote socialist GP and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) member David Widgery.
“The worthies addressed a rather small audience in a local park. The Front and their police protectors were faced with much more numerous, better organised and determined opposition.”
On the morning of the march protesters bagged up flour, rotten eggs and tomatoes to hand to people in the crowd. Some anti-facists tried to smash the windows of the NF coaches as they transported the fascists to their assembly point.
Hundreds of local young black and Asian people and Cypriots joined the anti-Nazi protest along with trade unionists and other campaigners. As soon as the NF march moved onto Wood Green High Road, anti-fascists attacked and split the march.
Anti-fascist David Bennie wrote in his diary, “Red smoke bombs filled the air and a battle was soon under way. We didn’t stop the march but it was harassed every inch of the way.”
The police had banned the anti-fascist rally and drafted in thousands of cops to protect the Nazis. They arrested 84 people—74 of whom were anti-fascists.
Mainstream politicians created the anger and disillusionment that the Nazis tapped into. Labour governments had imposed savage austerity.
The NF won over 5,700 votes across the north London borough of Haringey in the 1974 elections, and 8 percent of the vote in Wood Green. By 1979 this had dropped to 2.8 percent—and after that the Nazis didn’t bother to stand.
The Battle of Wood Green contributed to the decline of the NF. It was followed in August by the Battle of Lewisham, where anti-fascists succeeded in stopping the NF from marching.
In November the Anti Nazi League was formed and set up branches across the country to organise against the fascists.
The lessons for today are clear. State racism and attacks on working class people create the conditions where the Nazis can flourish. But action by ordinary people can drive them back into the gutter.
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