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Lessons of the Anti-Nazi League

Dave Renton. When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League, 1977-1981, New Clarion Press, 2006. Paperback, 204pp, Ł13.95.

Reviewed by Toby Abse

WHEN WE Touched the Sky is Dave Renton’s most thoroughly researched book so far; his trawl through possible primary and secondary sources seems rather more extensive than that undertaken for Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s (London, 1999), the book based on his Sheffield PhD thesis.

This new book is an organic monograph, not a collection of loosely linked essays or a rapidly sketched synthesis derived from secondary sources. Renton has gained considerably by slowing down – he informs us that "The account here was written between Spring 1998 and Autumn 2005" (p.viii), in contrast to many of his recent works, which usually seem to have been composed in a matter of months.

This much more considered and thoughtful pace was not entirely a product of the author’s own volition – it is only in relatively recent times that the leading figures in the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) agreed to grant interviews to the author, and no serious historian, of whatever political or intellectual persuasion, can dispute that extensive and illuminating testimony from ANL organiser Paul Holborow and ANL Press Officer Peter Hain gives the book a weight it might otherwise have lacked if, like earlier drafts, it had been purely dependent on surviving pamphlets, newspapers and magazines produced by the ANL, Rock against Racism (RAR) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1977-81, and the memories of some rank and file activists.

Renton makes no reference to any surviving ANL archive, so one assumes that the organisation’s records either no longer exist or are buried in some SWP secret archive, along the lines of those kept by the Vatican (or the Kremlin before 1991). In the case of Red Saunders and the smaller and more informally structured RAR, the lack of an archive is hardly surprising – this kind of Bohemian milieu, like its late 1960s counterparts, was never renowned for record-keeping.

The other point I would like to make about sources, before discussing the substantive issues raised by Renton’s history of the ANL, is that Renton’s policy about when to name his sources is a little difficult to follow. He claims: "Allowing the exception of those whose names are already well in the public domain, the surnames of most other interviewees have been left out" (p.x). The reasoning behind Renton’s decision is apparently the necessity to protect people from fascist revenge for their past actions. In the case of people with a low public profile, this seems fair enough – and quite apart from possible fascist threats, some erstwhile ANL/SWP activists currently earning a living from relatively precarious employment may not wish their present employers to know everything they got involved in decades ago.

However, in some cases this first name only policy seems totally ludicrous. Given the frequency with which Ian Birchall, author of the only official history of the SWP and Tony Cliff’s official biographer, is referred to in both text and footnotes, even the most bone-headed BNP member could deduce that he is one and the same as the anonymous "Ian", excerpts from whose interview also pepper the text, containing obvious clues such as the length of time he has been in IS/SWP and his role in fighting CPGB bureaucrats in NATFHE. Similarly, anybody who ever reads any Letters Page of any daily or weekly paper would realise "Keith from Tottenham" is the ubiquitous Keith Flett – who else would draw analogies between RAR and the Chartists? It seems to me that, whilst Paul Holborow, Peter Hain, Searchlight editor Gerry Gable and, possibly, Nigel Harris are better known than "Ian" and "Keith", far more people outside the SWP milieu would know of them or their writings than know Pete Alexander, Jerry Fitzpatrick, Balwinder Rana, Steve Jeffreys, Ted Parker, Roger Huddle and Red Saunders, all of whom appear under their full names.

Moreover, most of the quotations suggesting some degree of military-style preparation for the clashes at Wood Green, Lewisham and (to a lesser extent) Southall, are in fact attached to named individuals. I know, or can make an educated guess as to who some (but not all) of the other individuals are, but I don’t think it responsible to "out" them without permission – my only purpose in naming the duo cited by Renton in a footnote as his collaborators in a collective publication about "the Battle of Wood Green", published by Haringey Trades Council in 2002, is to draw attention to a somewhat dilettante attitude to referencing sources and even to concealing identities (a fictitious first name might have been rather more effective than merely dropping surnames).

Incidentally, no dates are given for any interview – contradicting standard historical practice, let alone any indication of whether any tapes or transcripts could be consulted by future historians; presumably many of the interviewees provided more material that was not used in the final draft due to publisher’s space constraints or authorial judgements about relevance.

Obviously, Paul Holborow’s belated co-operation with the project meant that the book ultimately became an authorised or semi-authorised official history of the ANL in its 1977-1981 incarnation – only the most cursory reference is made to "the revived Anti-Nazi League of the 1990s, a movement outside the scope of this book" (p.vii). Holborow, generally regarded as the leader of the ANL, unlike Saunders, the leading figure in RAR, did not speak at the book launch, which took place in a trendy wine bar round the corner from the NATFHE headquarters, and not in Bookmarks, as I had, perhaps naively, expected, so it is hard to gauge how happy Holborow (or the SWP Central Committee) was about the finished product. I had the sense that there was a continuous tension throughout the book between a culturalist over-emphasis on the role of RAR, in the tradition of Renton’s hero Dave Widgery and his Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock and Roll (London, 1986) – the fullest history of RAR – and a desire not to say anything that would appear too heterodox to the ANL/SWP leadership.

Nonetheless, by quoting the letter from Widgery, Gregory, Skelton and Huddle published in Socialist Review, July-August 1978, which criticised "Atrocious articles on Carnival. Mr. Calico Nickers wants to harness and channel the energy of ‘youth’, who have ten times more idea of what’s going down than your pretty average Marxist Editor", Renton is hardly going to make himself popular with the SWP’s leading theoretician, Professor Alex Callinicos, as everybody on the left who has ever fallen out with Callinicos will now use this long-forgotten nickname with unbridled enthusiasm. Renton’s seemingly conciliatory comment that "The fact of the letter’s publication suggests a certain willingness to tolerate divergent views" (p.122) will not necessarily make matters any better, given Professor Callinicos’s subsequent penchant for regularly expelling sections from the SWP’s International (the International Socialist Tendency) for "divergent views". Leaving Comrade Callinicos out of the index, perhaps in the belief that an industrious social theorist is too busy to read empirical histories cover to cover, will not square the circle – I am sure that some SWP ultra-loyalist informed the Professor long before I did.

Despite the disrespectful attitude towards the King’s College London guru, this is very much a book written by somebody within the SWP tradition – Chapter 6, "The United Front" (pp.96-114), in my view the weakest chapter in the book, makes that only too clear. Most readers in search of a very lively and extremely well-informed chronological narrative account of the ANL and RAR between 1977 and 1981, which is what the bulk of the book offers, would probably have been grateful to have been spared the special pleading, apologetics and exegesis that dominate from the moment that concepts like the United Front, the Popular Front and a "front" in the old CPGB sense, make their appearance. What mattered then, and matters now, is that the ANL by and large succeeded in its goal, not what it was in terms of these Trotskyist categories. For the record, I don’t think that the ANL was a pure "United Front" – Renton has to acknowledge that it included Liberals and, briefly and embarrassingly, the Federation of Conservative Students (see p.85).

The obligatory reference to the Stop the War Coalition towards the end of the ‘Conclusion’ on p.183 is the only other passage that will really grate on non-SWP readers – for even if Renton may have perhaps exaggerated the spontaneity of the ANL and RAR, their youthful creativity was the polar opposite of the authoritarian, bureaucratic routines of the Stop the War Coalition, in which the dead hand of the SWP-CPB-jihadi bloc soon drove away 95% of those who had marched on 15 February 2003. Elsewhere, whilst judgemental emphases might be disputable, the book reads like the work of a serious historian of anti-fascism, rather than that of the exponent of a party line – the account of the second RAR Carnival on 24 September 1978 (pp.132-35) provides enough material for any critical reader to understand the gravity of the SWP’s error in prioritising the festivities in Brixton over the fascist onslaught in Brick Lane – the dutiful quotation of what appears to be a mendacious statement, in terms of numbers at least, by Tony Cliff in Socialist Worker, does not outweigh the other evidence presented there.

Doubtless, some of the left may hold the fact that Renton is too young to have experienced the pivotal events of 1977-1981 at first hand against him. I would be inclined to argue that this greater degree of detachment may well be helpful to somebody writing an historical account rather than an autobiography – for instance, there is no risk of exaggerating the importance of one demonstration at which you were present as against another from which you were absent, if you were not at either.

At this point, I had better add that, whilst I am of an age to have participated in these events, I did not – I was not at Wood Green, Lewisham or Southall, nor did I go to either of the RAR Carnivals. I did participate in some local protest against a visit of some prominent National Fronter – I think it was Martin Webster – to Cambridge at some point during 1976-78. I wrote something in defence of the anti-fascists at Lewisham in the Newsletter of the Cambridge Organisation of Labour Students, and at various points in my life was intermittently a paper member of the ANL, probably including this period, but I am not sure. My memory of the Cambridge branch of IS/SWP in this period is of a bunch of grim sectarians – paper-sellers with shaven heads and IRA style sunglasses, in marked contrast to their much more convivial IMG counterparts, and I have no memory of doing joint work with the SWP on any issue prior to the Cambridge Committee Against the Falklands War in 1982.

Although I was far more absorbed in my History degree in 1975-78 than the average student, my doubtless very fallible memory leads me to be slightly sceptical about the direct impact of RAR and the ANL on British society as a whole, as distinct from specific, albeit very important, geographical areas and particular social layers – which is not to say they were not important social movements worthy of the proper historical investigation Renton has engaged in.

Whilst the RAR Carnivals have been written about before, the originality of Renton’s account lies in showing the importance for the overall story of direct mass physical confrontations with the fascists and their allies in the police. The Battle of Wood Green (April 1977) and the Battle of Lewisham (August 1977) may have preceded the foundation of the ANL in November 1977, but they were the necessary pre-condition for it. The Southall events of 23 April 1979 probably marked the beginning of the end for the ANL. The fascists succeeded in holding a meeting in the heart of a predominantly Asian area, and the police took their revenge for Lewisham, where they and their NF friends had been decisively beaten by a coalition of leftists and Afro-Caribbean youth.

Renton gives the impression that on the first two occasions the SWP were able to organise resistance to the fascists in advance, on semi-military lines, and suggests both that Ted Parker’s military past played quite a role in the success at Lewisham, and that Jerry Fitzpatrick’s experience of the confrontations in Derry’s Bogside in 1969 influenced the planning for both Wood Green and Lewisham. The analysis of the Southall events suggests that the opposition was too diverse and fragmented to adopt a single coherent strategy. Whether Renton is too reliant on the testimony of Pete Alexander and Balwinder Rana for this interpretation of the Southall events is difficult for an outsider to judge in retrospect – perhaps Renton should have made more of an effort to interview non-SWP members, particularly in the local community.

Of course, the sheer organised brutality of the police may have been the decisive factor – in reading the Southall chapter, I was struck by similarities between the Met’s tactics and those adopted by sections of the Italian police and carabinieri in Genoa in July 2001. Perhaps Renton should have expanded on the three brief references (pp.23, 27, 31) to the events of Red Lion Square (June 1974), in which IMG member Kevin Gateley was killed by police action against the anti-fascists; Blair Peach’s death in Southall was not quite as unprecedented as inattentive readers of this text might assume.

Whatever quibbles I may have, this book is of major historiographical importance as the first proper history of the ANL and its immediate relevance to anybody on the left concerned about the BNP threat in East London, the West Midlands and Yorkshire should need no underlining. Buy it and read it, even if you end up arguing about it.