Title: Anti-Fascism In Britain
Author/Artist: Nigel Copsey
Publisher: MacMillan Press
Histories of anti-fascism in Britain have always been side-lines to histories of British fascism, but now, with the publication of Nigel Copsey’s book, the subject is finally brought centre-stage. Tracing the history of anti-fascism, from the earliest opposition to the first generation of Mussolini-worshippers – the British Fascisti – through to the mass struggles against Mosley, the National Front and on to the current opposition to the BNP.
As Copsey makes clear, at every stage of this battle against fascism the opposition itself can be divided into those advocating a militant anti-fascist line and those groups and individuals who take a more reformist, less confrontational stance. This division has always existed, from the early days of the anti-Mosley campaigns and has continued through-out the post-war period. It continues today, of course, with Anti-Fascist Action continuing in the long tradition of militant anti-fascism pioneered by the 43 Group and others.
In the earliest struggles many of the militant fighting the British Fascisti, and later Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, were drawn from existing far-Left groups, including the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) amongst others. What Copsey shows is that in many cases the CPGB did its level best to control the activities of its own militants. As always the leadership of the CPGB was ready to sacrifice the struggle in the interests of the Soviet union and the Comintern. If this meant an opportunistic pulling back from violent confrontation with fascism then so be it, no matter what the activists on the ground felt. There were many like Joe Jacobs who were unhappy with the tactical and strategic twists and turns imposed from above. However, well into the 50’s there were communists who disobeyed their leadership and took the struggle against fascism out into the streets.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War the most uncompromising line was adopted by the 43 Group. The nucleus of the group was formed by Jewish ex-servicemen, and its activists ranged from members and ex-members of the CPGB to the relatively apolitical to members of the East End underworld. They fought long and hard to prevent Mosley and his supporters from re-grouping, and in the process earned themselves the enmity of the police, press and the Jewish establishment. They also earned a fearsome reputation amongst the fascists.
The 43 Group provided the model for the 62 Committee, who campaigned against the Union Movement and Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement in the early 1960’s. Like the 43 Group, the 62 Committee took a militant anti-fascist line that crossed the reformist, legalistic line that most other anti-fascist groups took.
During the 70’s and early 80’s there was no single national anti-fascist organisation dedicated to physically opposing the growing threat from the National Front. Although groups such as the SWP and IMG made lots of noise, the reality is that it was the far-Right who were coming off best in confrontations with the Left. Despite this, in set-piece confrontations, such as the Battle of Lewisham in 1977, it was the National Front who got the beating they so richly deserved. The SWP claimed Lewisham as a victory, and the bourgeois press echoed this propaganda, though in fact Lewisham was significant because of the fact that many local people were involved, particularly black youth from the estates, and because of the participation of groups far to the Left of the SWP.
The SWP made good use of their undeserved reputation for militancy years when they later founded and directed the Anti-Nazi League. Too many people have been conned into thinking that the ANL were the be-all and end-all of the anti-Nazi struggle during the late 70’s/early 80’s. Even now people claim that the ANL combined mass action with the activities of squadists willing and able to fight the NF face to face. Many of us involved in the anti-fascist struggle at that time remember differently. The ANL were an SWP front first and foremost, a means to recruit cadres for the Party. In an echo of the experience of the CPGB years earlier, the SWP backed away from physical confrontations with the Nazis, though individual SWP-members went against orders and slugged it ought in the streets. I can vividly remember one anti-NF march around Brick Lane which had been harried by small groups of Nazis, when a group of Bengali Marxist-Leninists tried to address the crowd to urge physically confronting the NF, the ANL/SWP stewards denounced them in front of the police for advocating violence and prevented them from speaking to the rest of the marchers.
Thankfully, Copsey’s book does not completely accept the mythography of the ANL, and includes a good quote which nails the lie of ‘ANL squads’ who went face to face with the NF.
Of course, once Thatcher stole the NF’s thunder and the SWP decided that there were better feeding grounds for recruits, the ANL was disbanded. This coincided with a period of retreat for the Left, and into this vacuum marched a small but revitalised far-Right.
The founding of Anti-Fascist Action in 1985 was a response to the far-Right squads who were attacking the Left with increasing effectiveness. From the beginning it was clear that AFA were not going to be another ANL. AFA were, and remain, committed to direct confrontation with the fascists. Citing the involvement of groups such as Red Action, Workers Power and Class War, (though strangely he omits to mention the involvement of the Direct Action Movement/Solidarity Federation in the founding of AFA)), Copsey makes it clear that AFA hails from the far-Left, and that it excludes opportunists such as the SWP and ARA. Usefully, Copsey also details the activities of Lee Jasper (vice-chair of ARA), now co-opted into Ken Livingstone’s team at the GLA, a move which does not bode well for militant anti-fascists.
To his credit Copsey even manages to include the controversy over Searchlight’s involvement with the security services. To some extent the very fact that Copsey is willing to raise this issue is a sign that he goes beyond the current liberal consensus, in which Searchlight are seen as tireless and unblemished heroes in the fight against fascism. This isn’t to say that Copsey adopts a partisan line, it is just that he is unwilling to gloss over the facts that other commentators find uncomfortable.
With the BNP moving ever-closer to the mainstream, and very carefully avoiding physical confrontation or controversy, the fight against fascism is at a cross-roads. Too many people are ready to write-off the BNP, as though somehow the UK is immune from the fascist revival seen elsewhere in Europe. Having learned the lessons of the past, the BNP does not want to fight it out in the streets again. This is our loss, not theirs. It means that militant anti-fascism must find other strategies, and find them fast.
As a first book on the history of British anti-fascism this will be a source book and standard reference for some time to come. As anti-fascists we should be glad that the book is as wide-ranging and accessible as it is. Nigel Copsey has done a good job of rescuing anti-fascist history from the margins. It’s an expensive book, but then it’s aimed at an academic market where price doesn’t matter. Order the book from libraries, it is required reading for all anti-fascist militants.
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