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Review of “Beating the Fascists: The Untold History of Anti Fascist Action”

First part of a two part extended review of Beating The Fascists – its insights and implications

“In the absence of class, race; in the absence of socialism, nationalism.”

“We are on the landings and no one else is” Front National supporter in the early 1990s

“If we agree the vacuum needs to be filled .. then .. if not this way, how? If not us, who? If not now, when?” Red Action

Previously everything from the Red Action (RA) stable has been crucial to any understanding of both left wing working class politics and politics in general, past and present in the UK, and so this is. Hard to put down, Beating The Fascists is a no-holds-barred account of the Red Action and Anti Fascist Action’s practical and ruthless application of their aims, principles and practice, of making space for working class politics to develop unfettered by the threat of fascism.

If you want to read it for the violence it competes well with any of the Cass Pennant [West Ham United ex-football hooligan and author] pulp but really that would be a waste. A waste of all the blood (and there is lots) and sweat that was lost in the making of this book. And a waste of a significant percentage of working class political analysis in print since 1979. Beating The Fascists stands as THE critical book on post war UK anti-fascism, in the fact it is written by those involved (not academics) and that its conclusions desperately deserve recognition and immediate application by all those who read it and indeed profess to be socialists or anti-fascists in a period when a neo-fascist party gets 1million votes in a Euro election. If anarchists, Unite Against Fascism (UAF) or whoever fail to read it and listen to it then it is an indictment on them not the authors.

Mostly any working class orientated anarchists will agree with the politics expressed in Beating The Fascists. The need at times to physically confront fascism, the importance of class above race, the opposition to opportunism in the  likes of the SWP, the attacks on careerists like Lee Jasper and the racist nonsense of RA being told they should have Race Awareness Training, and the critique of multi-culturalism and the role multi-culturalism plays in giving the BNP legitimacy to ‘represent’ white people when all other ‘ethnicity’ are represented, “ ..the underlying thesis behind multi-culturalism was not merely flawed but wrongheaded, reactionary and anti-working class..”

But as an anarchist there are some elements within Beating The Fascists that do need comment. By the way I treat this as a Red Action book as much as an AFA book, as it is indeed written from the RA perspective.

It was widely and ignorantly alleged pre-publication that Beating The Fascists would be a ‘slag-off’ of anarchist anti-fascists, betraying an ignorance of Red Action’s history of close work with working class anarchism, directly with DAM [Direct Action Movement] and indirectly with many others (including myself throughout the late 1980s). Beating The Fascists reports accurately, and sympathetically, Class War’s expulsion from AFA in 1986 on Searchlight planted smears and lies of racism and links with the NF. They miss the story though that during the debate, as the platform were losing the argument to Class War, a tearful woman got up and emotionally stated that Class War had petrol bombed a Refugee Centre in Camden; at which point all hell broke loose, and Class War got up and left, followed as the book describes, by RA and DAM. The truth of the smear was of course entirely different, as we discovered later. Turns out squatters had burnt a A4 possession order pinned to the door of an evicted squat in Camden that unbeknown to the squatters (who were not even Class War!) had been allocated to a refugee group. We all know about Stalinist smears but to see these operated so disgustingly remains with me to this day.

As regards Searchlight, who most on the anarchist movement understand to be utterly bent, Beating The Fascists sits on the fence. Searchlight smeared Class War four times in the period of this book, were exposed previously to that by Duncan Campbell in the 1970s and exposed by O’Hara and themselves on many other occasions. Yet RA carried on working with them. Throughout the book there are instances of Searchlight lies and dodgy behaviour yet a few pages later we see RA/AFA remain working with them. Indeed the book states they only truly split after the Patrick Hayes issue. And Searchlight were only proscribed by AFA in 1998. [1]

Specifically I find it hard to believe Beating The Fascists does not regard the Kensington Town Hall League of St George Meeting in 1991 as a set up by Searchlight, to get RA members arrested and sent down, as it appears to everyone I know. If it was not  a Searchlight set up it was sheer idiocy. Beating The Fascists suggest Gerry Gable’s tears on acquittal suggest there was no set up and that Gable claims he himself was set up for investigating the secret services. As if working with the security services as Gable did would protect him? Trap sprung it caught happily for the security services both perps. It was a Searchlight op from start to finish and for many of us with the boundaries between the security services and Searchlight blurred there was only ever one conclusion. I was there and I was also one of the ones who, sooner rather than later, wanted out as the whole op was crazy and as the book points out not long after AFA to ‘pulled the plug’. RA were lucky they walked away from court on this.

Considering all the evidence both in Beating The Fascists and outside, which RA know only too well, the snake Nick Lowles and Searchlight get off remarkably lightly. I suspect it is due to the contradiction of working class anti-fascism that, while their agenda is working class, they end up having to work with people who have reactionary agendas like Searchlight. They obviously continued to receive useful information form Searchlight and to cut that off must have been a step too far. Understandable but wrong. It is stated in Beating The Fascists that “sooner rather than later a progressive left will have to declare war on conservative anti-fascism” but bizarrely AFA never felt it had the confidence to do this.

There are also contradictory comments on Third Period Stalinism. Beating The Fascists both notes favourably the Trotskyist critique/myth of the KPD that they did not do enough to fight the Nazis (and Trotsky’s support for anti fascist squads)  but also the critique that the KPD operated ‘terrorism’ against the NSPAD. Actually RA of all people should argue that the issue in the late 20s/early 30s was not a lack of opposition to the Nazis but like now, how to fill the vacuum. With the SPD while the mass party (25-30% of the vote at every election) it was discredited amongst millions of working class for its betrayals, the KPD could have filled the vacuum but it was their Leninist politics that made them incapable of relating to the unemployed millions not their lack of bottle or theory of social fascism. The KPD incidentally never achieved more than 17% of the vote in Germany, and combined the two parties only hit 40% the once in 1928.

From an anarchist perspective there is little discussion about the mode of operation. From one perspective the  pretty militaristic and top down MO seems the best way of operating. It certainly produced the goods and protected the participants over a long period. At the time it pissed many anarchists off, but for what the aims were I am not sure  the organisation could have been anything different. It is maybe in fact that RA were unable to operate sufficiently openly after the demise of AFA that highlights the dangers of adopting such organisation.

Which brings us to the actual logic of militant anti-fascism. Whilst a chronicle of physical force anti-fascism, in fact the conclusion of Beating The Fascists is that that is finished and we must move into a door to door strategy. This is a conclusion I believe anarchists should agree with but I, in fact, would go further and say that what is missing from the book is an acknowledgement that what made RA special was not their ability in close combat but their fundamentalism as regards class in politics.

Richard Price, Hackney

Part two next issue: nationalism, community politics and the BNP – how Anti-Fascist Action addressed them in the book

Buy your copy of Beating The Fascists online here
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Searchlight’s dodgy behaviour and links with the state were first publicly exposed in Anarchy #36 magazine, 1983. Full text available at the Kate Sharpley Library: Searhlight and the State:


Article orginally appeared in Freedom (Vol71 No22).
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