Gang of Four Interview – Temporary Hoarding (Rock Against Racism)
Interview with Dave Hann
Street Voice Interview
I had a phone call last summer from Dave Hann asking to interview me on my experiences in the anti-fascist movement in Brighton. It was for a book that he was in the process of writing. I was happy to see Dave and talk about my own experiences opposing the National Front and fascism in Brighton. I was active in Anti-Fascist Action from 1986 till about 1992 and was on its Executive for about three years, but to the best of my knowledge we hadn’t met before.
All I knew of Dave was from a book ‘No Retreat’ [Milo Books, 2003] that he co-wrote with Steve Tilzey. Dave had been Chief Steward in AFA’s Steward Group in AFA’s Northern Network and what I had read of his had impressed me, as well as filling in a number of gaping holes in my memory. The period after 1979 in Brighton had been one where the National Front, after ditching its electoral pretensions, had embarked on a policy of attacking left-wing groups and meetings, particular anything to do with Ireland and the Troops Out Movement.
In Brighton the Anti-Nazi League had been reformed in 1980 to meet the threat, but unlike its later reincarnations under the SWP’’ control, the ANL in Brighton had been dedicated to physically as well as politically defeating the NF on the streets. For some 3 years we battled it out in Brighton, opposing 3 NF demonstrations through the town, their regular paper-sale at the football ground and ensuring that they were unable to harry or attack socialist or left-wing meetings. Brighton had been the stopping off point for their international contacts, people such as the Italian Fascist Robert Fiore. 19A Madeira Place had been their base and their leader in Brighton a UDA member, Steve Brady. Brighton was also the home of the leadership of Britain’s fascists – from John Tyndall of the BNP (or the New National Front then) to people like the publisher for the international neo-Nazi scene Anthony Hancock to the deputy leader of the NF and the author of ‘Did 6 Million Really Die’ Richard Verall (Harwood).
Dave’s experiences in AFA tended to be from the mid-80’s onwards against the BNP and Combat 18, whereas the main threat in Brighton had occurred in the early 80’s. Dave was a member of the main group in AFA, Red Action, whose leaders had been expelled in the 1970’s from the SWP for ‘squaddism’. This was at a time of growing violence from the NF and British Movement when it was recognised that fascist terror couldn’t be allowed to go unopposed and that the Left had to get organised.
In No Retreat Dave describes the battle against the fascists in the North of England, where the rise of mass unemployment under Margaret Thatcher and the decline of traditional working class industries such as the mines and docks, and of strong and militant trade unionism, had left youth in particular prey to the simple racist message of the fascists. Despite considerable police harassment, which resulted in a number of anti-fascist militants being jailed, the AFA Steward Group that Dave led was directly responsibility for the BNP foresaking the marches, demonstrations and pickets, with the ensuing violence that resulted, in favour of the electoral strategy of today’s BNP.
Dave’s account of what happened is a riveting read although it begs almost as many questions as it answers. Questions such as how the anti-fascist movement needs to adapt to meet the new BNP tactics, whether or not the BNP is still a neo-Nazi party and the bigger question of building a socialist and left movement which can take on board the social and class issues that the fascists feed upon. At a time when we are poised for a new Conservative government, poised to make savage cuts, these are not idle questions. We have a New Labour Party that has been captured for neo-liberalism and trade unions who are a shadow of their previous selves coupled with the antics and self-indulgence of a myriad of far-left sects.
Equally pertinent are the lessons to be drawn from what happened to AFA. Although Dave only mentions it in passing, one of the key problems within AFA became Red Action itself. A number of anti-fascist militants told me that they had been physically threatened by a RA determined on taking over AFA. Even more disturbing was the arrest and conviction of a senior member of AFA and Red Action for having taken part in the bombing of Harrods. It is difficult to imagine a more fundamental political mistake. Most people in AFA were supporters of Irish Republicanism and wanted to see the troops withdraw from Ireland. It was inevitable, given the close links between the Loyalists and the fascists that Irish Republicanism and the anti-fascist movement in this country were natural allies. But that did not mean therefore that AFA should take up any particular position on Ireland, especially when it came to supporting the military war of the IRA. I know at first hand that comrades left AFA as a result of this.
Dave was ostracised and criticised by RA, but never openly. In his book he gives some details of this. Instead of debating any differences, they were dealt with in a factional and bureaucratic manner. RA had decided to wind up AFA and form an Independent Working Class Association which won 3 council seats in Oxford and gained a respectable level of support in Hackney and Islington elections but has now virtually disappeared off the radar. In the process the IWCA moved rapidly to the right and its first councillor and leader in Oxford supported the Iraq War!
Dave and I spent a pleasant afternoon discussing various issues, although I was mainly the one answering the questions. I had many questions of my own to ask but I decided to leave it to another day. It was therefore a great shock when I learnt that Dave had been suffering from cancer and barely 3 weeks later he suddenly died at the young age of 48. Dave really was one of the unsung heroes of the anti-fascist movement that took over mine and so many others peoples lives for years. Anti-fascism was a cause worth devoting a major part of one’s life to as we were determined to prevent a repetition of what had happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
In Brighton Dave was active in community campaigns such as one to stop Tesco opening a superstore in London Road. He was also actively involved in football having spent much time on the terraces of Man Utd.
Dave leaves a partner, Louise, who has also been part of the anti-racist movement and an active socialist, for many years as well as three children, a son aged 14 and two girls aged 19 and 11 as well as a young woman, Jessica, with a previous partner. It is a testimony to Louise’s commitment that very shortly after Dave’s death she was on the streets of Saltdean helping organise the defence of the Deghayes family, a member of whom, Omar, had been freed after a big public campaign from Guantanamo prison. We wish them all well. Below is an interview that Dave Hann conducted with an indie music online publication called Street Voices.
Rest in Peace Comrade. You Deserve It. Tony Greenstein
Street Voice: First off how did you feel your first book ‘No Retreat’ went down?
Dave: I think its gone down really well. Its been nearly five years since the book was first published, and its still selling a few dozen copies every month. Funnily enough I was flicking through Mark E. Smith’s biography the other day in a bookshop, and No Retreat gets a favourable mention in it.
I think the most positive thing that has come out of it has been the letters and emails I get from anti-fascists in countries like Serbia, Poland and Russia, where the fascists are fairly rampant, saying how much the book has inspired them.
Street Voice: You obviously got a lot of criticism off both the far left and far right so how did you go about dealing with it?
Dave: I obviously expected criticism from the far-right. After all, a book detailing the cowardice, and lack of street-fighting prowess of the master race was hardly going to be a favourite bed-time read for your typical fascist. I’ve really enjoyed watching them whinge and moan about the book on Internet forums and discussion pages. The criticism from Red Action was also expected, because of the manner in which we parted company. The pure bitterness and bile of the criticism took me aback a bit, but in the end it just made me more determined to carry on writing. What was disappointing was the small number of so-called anti-fascists (London Class War mostly) who joined in the attack on me and Steve without ever taking the trouble to find out our side of the argument. I think anonymous slanders and personal abuse on Internet forums from people I’ve never met is cowardly, repellent and sinister. It says more about them than I ever could. These people would claim to be working towards building a fairer society, but if this behaviour is typical, then whatever they built would be little different from anything the BNP envisage.
Street Voice: It’s also fair to say there were some independent folk who thought you glamorised the violence so any opinion on this?
Dave: Funnily enough, Mensi complained that the violence in the book was understated!! In other words he felt it didn’t portray the real levels of violence that actually occurred. I think the violence of anti-fascists should be put into context however. Fascists in Britain have been responsible over the years for the murders of Black and Asian people, the stabbing and maiming of political opponents, and the fire-bombing and nail-bombing of left-wing bookshops, gay pubs, etc etc. On the other hand, anti-fascists rarely went out tooled-up, and if they did they were usually armed with a blunt instrument rather than a blade. I think you have to have been under attack by fascist gangs to understand why non-violence could never work under those circumstances.
Street Voice: You’re currently writing your second book which covers the history of Anti Fascism so can you give our readers any information about it?
Dave: The book is provisionally entitled, ‘A Cause Worth Fighting For,’ and it details the history of anti-fascism in Britain from the perspective of the people who were actually on the streets opposing the fascists. It goes right back to very first anti-fascists in the 1920’s, and finishes at the turn of the century with the demise of AFA. Its all based on oral interviews with people who took part in the various battles at Cable Street, Olympia, Balls Pond Road, Red Lion Square, Lewisham, Waterloo, etc etc. A lot of the stuff in the book is brand new research, and I’ve uncovered some really interesting stuff on obscure anti-fascist groups like the New World Fellowship, the Blue and White League, and the Yellow Star Movement. The book has been an absolute pleasure to write and research, and I’ve met some wonderful people whilst writing it.
Street Voice: Have you a publishing date for the book yet?
Dave: Not as yet. Its very nearly finished, and I’m hoping that it will hit the bookshelves some time next year
Street Voice: Being as you wrote ‘No Retreat’ with your mate Steve Tilzey I would have thought you two would have been up for doing another together? Is this something he didn’t want to do or did you
feel you wanted to write this book on your own?
Dave: Steve wasn’t really up for it. It was hard enough to get him to write his bit for No Retreat, and he actually lived through everything he wrote about then. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would be to persuade him to spend a few days researching some obscure anti-fascist group in a library or whatever, and then get him write up his findings and send them to me. The book would have to be printed on waterproof paper, because we’d all be submerged under rising sea levels by the time it finally came out. Steve would be the first to admit that he’s not really a writer, but he has helped out with a couple of little things here and there.
Street Voice: The BNP have been keeping themselves busy but there’s been almost no opposition to them. Do you think it’s time for AFA to be re-launched to bring Anti-Fascists together as one again?
Dave: We have been faced with this problem before in Britain, during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s for instance. The forces of anti-fascism were very thin on the ground, but as the fascist threat increased, so did the opposition, eventually culminating in the launch of RAR and the ANL, so there is still hope that something can be got off the ground. The difference between then and now of course is that a lot of the old communities based around the docks, the steel yards, the mines, factories etc, are broken up, and the traditional ties that bound these communities to the trade unions, the Labour Party and the left are gone. The Labour Party has abandoned them, the left are too busy with their endless cycle of marches, meetings and paper sales, and this leaves them easy prey for the fascists. This process boosts the BNP, while at the same time undercuts the supply of anti-fascist recruits AFA has had its day. When Red Action dismantled AFA and formed the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA), they threw the baby out with the bath water, and this allowed the fascists the space to grow. Sadly, it is only now, a decade later, that they are beginning to realise their fatal mistake.
Street Voice: OK I know we have Antifa but that’s largely anarchist based and probably wouldn’t appeal to the average person on the street so who else is there?
Dave: There is no single organisation doing it at the moment. Just a few small grouplets doing bits and pieces of worthwhile stuff. Some of the community-based work done by IWCA for instance, if it was combined with militant anti-fascism, and taken on board by some of the larger left groups would shake the situation up a bit. I think the IWCA has reached the limits of what can be done with a small number of dedicated, but somewhat paranoid and intolerant individuals, but their politics should not be discounted as readily as their personalities.
Street Voice: While I like to remain positive about Antifa it’s hard to take them seriously at times when their members and the likes of Watmougth and Wigan Mike just threaten each other on the likes of Indymedia?
Dave: Antifa seems to be making the same mistakes as some of the least politicised elements of AFA. For instance I’ve seen several “Antifa Hooligans” and “Antifa – Fighting the Fascists – What else ya gonna do on a Saturday” stickers around town recently, that make you shake your head in disbelief at their sheer stupidity and lack of political message. Can anyone tell me what the point of these stickers is? Do they think the general public will see these stickers and go, “Oh ok, I won’t bother going to Asda this afternoon, I’ll join a crew of anarchists and get in punch ups with fascists instead.” From the outside, Antifa (like a lot of anarchist groups), looks like a small clique of like-minded individuals, who all know each other, are roughly the same age, all dress the same, and have the same lifestyles and musical tastes, etc. There appears to be no attempt whatsoever to broaden their appeal to the general public as a whole. I could be wrong, but I’ve not seen them attack the BNP on a
political level in working class communities, or attempt to offer their own solutions to the problems faced in those areas. There seems to be far too much emphasis on ambushing some of the smaller Nazi and bonehead groups, who, while they might prove occasionally troublesome, do not offer anywhere the same margin of threat as the BNP.
Street Voice: Would you agree there’s no longer a Socialist alternative for working class folk any more on the streets of Britian?
Dave: I’d agree that there is no socialist alternative in Britain at the moment, and sadly I think things will get worse before they get better. This directly impacts on anti-fascism, as in the past, socialists have formed the backbone of many anti-fascist movements. I believe we will have to come to a situation in the future where desperation forces whatever disparate forces are left to unite on some commonly agreed platform, before we can start to move forward again. Hopefully the bitter struggles and disappointments in between will have burnt off the careerists, the egoists, the sectarians and the weirdos.
Street Voice: Can you see the BNP getting a couple of seats in parliament if there’s no real opposition to them?
Dave: That’s a very real possibility. Remember, its not so long ago that people would have said you were mad if you’d told them that the BNP would have 50 plus councillors. I think we’re more likely to see an MEP, or a couple of MEPs first however. The economic downturn will only exacerbate the problem, although it might also open up opportunities for the left if they can stop their infighting for long enough to take advantage of them.
Street Voice: Did you hear that Simon Shephard from C18 is claiming political asylum in the U.S.A. since being found guilty of race hate charges in the UK? What did you make of that?
Dave: I didn’t hear about that. Its typical of the contradictions that lay at the very heart of fascist politics however.
Street Voice: Personally I think it’s a cop out with American and British Govts bailing out some of the banks so why do you think people just sit back and accept shit like that?
Dave: People feel disenfranchised from the political system. They see very little difference between the main political parties, who are all in the pocket of the major capitalists, and they feel powerless to effect change, which is exactly what the Govt wants. They see over a million people march through London in an effort to stop their country going to war, which you think might have given any government pause to contemplate, but their voices are completely ignored and the war goes ahead regardless. People feel their voices aren’t being heard. So at the one end you get low polling returns as people despair at the system, and at the other end you get people voting for the BNP, some for racist reasons, but others because they are seen as not being part of the establishment.
Street Voice: Moving from politics do you still get down FC United?
Dave: As often as I can, which is not as often as I’d like.
Street Voice: How are they doing as a football club?
Dave: After three consecutive promotions, they appear to have hit a plateau this season. Crowds are holding up reasonably well though, but the Development Fund, which was started in order so that the club can buy/build their own ground still needs your pennies. Incidentally, a couple of seasons ago, the BNP tried to muscle in on the club, but they were sent packing by anti-fascist FC fans and ordinary supporters. The final straw came when the entire Cemetery End started chanting “You can stick your BNP up your arse,” at them. The whole club has been built by ordinary working class people, and just shows what can be achieved when people have a sense of purpose and a commonly identified goal.
Street Voice: Apart from your job and writing your book what else does Dave Hann like to do?
Dave: Well I used to coach a youth football team until last season, which was reasonably successful (the boys won a couple of trophies and once went a whole season undefeated), but that has come to a close now, although I’m still involved with my son’s new team. I’m also involved in a couple of local campaigns, one to stop a massive Tesco’s redevelopment in town, which will put dozens of small shops out of business. These days, if I see a campaign that I agree with, I’ll help out in whatever way I can, no matter who initiates it. Apart from that, I like to do absolutely nowt. Lazy git that I am.
Street Voice: Anything you’d like to add?
Dave: know this interview has tended towards pessimism, but people need to stop picking pointless arguments on Internet forums, and get out there and start looking at ways to unite around a common goal. Undercutting the BNP’s potential base of support, by forcing them out of the areas where they have become embedded, and presenting people with a viable socialist alternative would be a good place to start.
Intelligence Gathering: Bugged BNP Meetings
BNP meetings were bugged in order to gain intelligence for Anti-Fascist Action and Searchlight. The buggings have been discussed in No Retreat.
The recordings are not 100% and I am working on subtitles for them. I suggest you wear headphones.
But they provide an interesting glimpse into the lengths anti-fascists would go into and their ingenuity. To extent the buggings were useful in terms of putting the information in use in physical action is not 100% clear.
If you have anything you’d like to add then please comment or fill out the form below.
BNP Meeting (April, 1990)
BNP Meeting (May, 1990)
BNP Meeting (June, 1990)
BNP Meeting at Mother Macs (June, 1990; Manchester)
BNP Meeting at Mother Macs (Oct, 1990; Manchester)
BNP Meeting (2nd Feb, 1992)
Interview with Mark Jones (May, 1990)
Red Pepper Interview with Michael and Gary – Jan 2012
Red Pepper Interview with Michael and Gary – Jan 2012
On its 75th anniversary, much attention was given to the Battle of Cable Street, where Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts were prevented from marching through the predominantly Jewish working class East End of London. But Cable Street itself was the culmination of a wider tradition of direct physical confrontation with fascists both at the time and throughout most of the 20th century. We are happy to praise those who made a stand in the 1930s. But what of those who literally fought the fascists more recently, in the shape of the British Movement, the National Front or the pre-Griffin British National Party? The publication of Beating the Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action (Freedom Press) has re-asserted the importance of this disparaged and neglected tradition. Michael Calderbankspoke with Gary and Andy, longstanding members of Red Action who helped to initiate AFA, about their controversial new book.
Michael: Maybe we could begin by talking about the history of physical confrontation with the fascists in Britain?
Andy: Well, if you’re a Jew living in the 1930s or a working class Communist then it’s in your face, you’re dealing with Blackshirts who are on your street corner. It’s something you’ve got to react to and deal with in the here and now. You’ve also got people looking at the wider strategic picture – what was going in Spain was very real, what was going on in Italy and Germany was very real – and people with foresight understood that if you don’t put something in place to prevent that then you’re going to be in trouble yourselves. After the war, when it was totally clear what fascism could lead to, you had the ’43 group which, although it had CP members in its ranks, was largely an apolitical purely paramilitary body who would go round attacking the fascists. They were tough people, physically aggressive who had often served in the armed forces, many from Jewish backgrounds, who had seen a lot in their few years – these are young people – if you’ve been through that and don’t understand it, you’re never going to understand it. So people who have gone through that, seen it in the cinemas, or even in your own family over in Europe – and then you’re just going out and minding your own business, and you see some geezer on a soapbox talkin’ about the same stuff, it’s gotta be obvious to you, yeah?
Gary: There’s an example when a group of Jewish lads went past Mosley’s secretary [Jeffrey Hamm] after the war speaking up at Jack Straw’s Castle [near Hampstead Heath], and they were incredulous. I’m mean, here was the same old Jew-baiting going on after the war as you had before the war – with everything that had gone on! So they gave ’em a good shoeing and found: ‘these fuckers are everywhere!’ I mean, y’know, it’s ridiculous, we’re not havin’ it. There was a huge strain of anti-Semitism in the British establishment that Mosley hoped to profit from but never did. And so when Jews who had just got back from the war met fascists on the street they weren’t gonna petition the council to get see if they could do something! They were just gonna get on and do it themselves.
Andy: When people’s whole family lines have been wiped out and turned to ashes, what are you gonna do with people like that, try and debate with them in that situation?
Gary: And they wouldn’t wouldn’t debate with you either, that’s the point. If you went up to them and said, ‘excuse me, I’m a member of the Jewish faith and could you…’ [laughs] they’re not gonna argue the point, you’d be hit be a cosh. But, you might not be out looking for any trouble particular, but they’re there. And that situation doesn’t go away, it’s like that later on. You’ve gone to the football or something and you’re standing next to some guy who gets a bottle smashed over his head, a black kid who they’ve chased down, do you stand back and say ‘right we’ll get onto the council to do something!’?
Andy: It’d depend what kind of circles you moved in to. I mean I don’t want to generalise too much, but many of the people involved on the left at the time would have come up through a university background and lived in this sealed kind of world from what I could tell. But I didn’t know, I didn’t come from a political background. Everywhere I went I met these people, they were in your face. And Britain at the time was a violent and anarchic sort of place in some ways. I mean you’d go out round the pubs on a Friday night, have a disagreement, or you’ve gone to the football or a gig or something, and you run in to these geezers with all sorts of badges, handing out leaflets, maybe taking the band off the stage and attacking the band! I’ve seen that happen! It’s not like you’d read in some textbooks about what should or shouldn’t be done, it was an instinctive thing. These people are bullies, they’re not people who can debate with. It’s not alien if you come from that kind of background.
Gary: Yes, and the left has to understand that as soon as they appear, it’s because your own side has been making mistakes. Fascists won’t appear in very small numbers, they’ll wait until it’s right for them. I mean they look at it strategically as well, they’ll take it onto a physical level when they think there’s something for them to gain. So it’s not a matter of waiting until they attack our people – we’ve got an investment in smashing up their meetings, their paper sales and the rest of it. You don’t want to wait until they’re some kind of respectable opposition. If it gets that far, you’ve already lost.
Michael: And at what stage, after the war, had the left started to fail in your view to such an extent that you started to see a fascist threat beginning to make its presence felt on the street?
Gary: Well, most of our people come into it from outside politics, with a completely fresh look, with no political hinterland at all. So there was a lot of cynicism from our side towards the existing organised left from a very early stage. I mean we supportedemotionally and intellectually the basis for the whole left concept, and there was some stuff happening from on the picket lines (which was where I was recruited) and on things like the right-to-work marches, but even in the mid-Seventies it wasn’t clear cut and we certainly weren’t winning. There was a real lack of leadership across the board, not just on the revolutionary left but across the entire labour movement. And at the same time as you had the start of the neoliberal stuff, you’d get the fascists upset at over-reaching in ’79 thinking – let’s not hang about let’s go for it now. The whole Anti Nazi League Mark I was a huge success for the left and beat back the first wave of the National Front electorally. There was incredible resentment about that, and they lose a bit of what discipline they might have had. They could just attack anyone now. So, as Andy was saying, you could retreat into your sealed world. Or you could stay where you were and stand your ground. And they were – the arenas then football, gigs, street sales, their meetings, our meetings and the rest of it…
Andy: They were an extremely violent group of people. So if you’re looking to organise, you’re thinking, what streets can I walk round, what pubs you can go in talk to people, where can I talk about stuff on the football or at a gig? All that’s contested territory. Are these aren’t the kind of people who believe in freedom of speech, and I don’t mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean literally! You’d get a glass smashed in your face. To me it’d become obvious. When their election campaign failed, there was people there who wanted revenge. And so all this territory needed to be fought for.
Michael: Reading the book, as we said in our review, some of the violence described is not exactly for the faint-hearted. And many people reading the book might be thinking, isn’t there a danger of becoming just like them, being brought down to their level? What would you say to those who say, when you end up like two groups of thugs who are as bad as the other, you don’t win the wider public around? Gary: Well, it wasn’t always a pretty business, there’s no denying that, but it’s not a path we’ve just chosen for ourselves. They’re the point of aggression, the tip of the spear. If you approach them you’ve got to be prepared for violence to be done to you. And if you know that in advance, if you’re going to contest the territory you’re duty bound to prepare to do violence to them it’s as simple as that. In terms of complaints, we didn’t get much complaints from the Jewish stallholders when the NF paper sale got scatttered from Chapel Market [Islington], in fact the police couldn’t get a [single] witness to testify. But the pub landlord in King’s Cross, the who was making literally a thousand pound [a week] from opening his pub to bonehead gigs for his mates like Ian Stewart [Donaldson, lead singer of fascist band Skrewdriver] was going to complain when the place – course he was. He wasn’t interested in blacks or homosexuals getting attacked – which they did after the pub closed – he was after making money. He was raking it in! But when AFA marched through Bethnal Green, and into Whitechapel, it was like a siege had been lifted. Little Asian kids running about in the street – that was there
attitude to us!
Michael: Actually, reading the book, it struck me that – judging from the state’s reaction – that’s what they feared most. When it looked like it might have been possible to link up between white working class communities and black or Asian areas…
Gary: …on a political basis, yes. The state was concerned but the left weren’t, what does that tell you? I mean the left wasn’t trying to do what we were doing, not on an organised basis. But the state thought there’s a germ here that might develop. Not good, not from their perspective. So did they say, we’ll just see if we can put someone in and steer it a bit? No! They smashed it straight away, that was their approach. It’s quite a useful little anecdote. ‘You can do that there… up to a point…but you can’t do it here. No way.’
Andy: I think we were conscious that we didn’t want to get trapped in a siege mentality. Us looking after ‘our’ areas, the fash looking after ‘theirs’, the wars, us looking for them, them looking for us, we always wanted to break out of that. When RA [Red Action] helped to form AFA we tried to grow it as wide as possible within reason, and eventually when people tried to take politics back into the community, via the IWCA [Independent Working Class Association], that was our effort, we did what we always wanted to do, to go to working class communities and try to grow a political movement there. I mean we can argue the toss about how successful that was, but that would be a different debate. I’d never say it was entirely successful but I don’t think it was a total failure either. We got some things very right, but you’d have to look at the time and the context, what we’re up against, but that was us trying to put our vision of political organisation in working class communities into effect. And that was always our intention. We never thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could fight an ongoing war with a load of other people’.
Michael: I mean there would be that accusation, that you’d ended up participating in a sub-culture, that you’d have your sales, they’d have theirs, you’d have your bands, they’d have their bands, etc.
Gary: Well, let’s look at the alternative. They have their subculture, you have nothing. They have their sales, you don’t. They have their bands, you’ve got nobody. Then they have the football fans, and you have nobody. And they have the working class estates and you’ve got nobody….
Andy: And the thing is, in Islington with the IWCA, we always knew there’d be people with racist ideas on the estates, of course there are. We’re living in the real world. But the one thing we knew is that we didn’t have to keep looking over our shoulder, we could meet the people from the tenants’ association in the local pub and talk about how to organise against plans to sell off social housing in the borough. So we needed that space to get on with doing what we wanted to do. I’d reject that idea that we got sucked into looking forward to the next confrontation with the fash, that was never our vision. Never. Now, if you’re gonna ask me were there elements drawn to AFA who did get off a bit on the excitement or hanging around on the fringes, possibly. But every movement
gets that. And there weren’t that many if you ask me. Certainly not amongst what I would call the leadership. That was never how we tried to shape the organisation, never how we sold it to people.
Michael: Without going into the various anarchist critiques – and in part for obvious reasons like you need people around you that you totally rely on and won’t leave you in the lurch – it sounds like you had a pretty centralised model going on, with a definite core…
Andy: Actually AFA was very democratic, when compared with say the ANL. On the street if wasn’t – couldn’t be. But as a broader organisation it was very democratic in the way it operated, on political campaign work etc. Similarly with Red Action. We’re a democratic organisation but when it came to the streets it couldn’t be and everyone understood that. We had it opposite to the rest of the left from what we could see. We thought when it came to politics you should be democratic and open, but they couldn’t take that, they had very tight control. But on the streets they’d say [in mocking tone], ‘let’s involve as many people as possible and everyone can come along to an open organising meeting’, and we’d say ‘that’s ludicrous, who do you know is sitting there!’ [laughter]. I’d say they’d got that the wrong way round.
Michael: I’m sure you’ve heard all this before, but the Leninist groups would say ‘you are basically trying to substitute yourselves for the organised working class, setting yourselves up as a small urban guerilla army to be the noble defenders of the class instead of mobilizing those larger sections of society…’
Andy: That’s just projection by them. No-one leafleted more working class council estates in East London than us. We organised all the carnivals [between the end of the ANL Mark I and the relaunched version], it was us that organised an exhibition that we invited schoolkids along to, there was this whole side of organising. Admittedly, that doesn’t perhaps get as much prominence in the book. But there was a large amount of campaigning, and a lot of efforts made to reach out to movers and shakers among the black or Asian youth…
Michael: …at which point the state came in to stop it. Do you think there were intelligence agents operating inside AFA?
Gary: Undoubtedly they’d have tried. The problem was for them the ‘split-screen’ structure. You could say what you want in the organising meeting and try to steer it round. But on the streets it was top-down. They’d latch on but you could shake ’em off.
Michael: So you could spot who they were?
Andy: Sometimes. Who knows? Listen, if they could penetrate the IRA they could penetrate us. But do we think they managed to effectively push us off course? No, no. I
think we done what we wanted when we wanted to do it. We made decisions when we wanted to make them.
Gary: Yes, there’s no evidence of that looking back with hindsight. I mean as you can tell from the book there’s people there with a huge question mark over them. But in terms of the way things got done, no. Being hierarchical like that you couldn’t slot somebody into a middle-manager type of position. But we were also democratic. It was asymmetrical so it worked really well. If it had been asymmetrical the other way around, as Andy said, we wouldn’t have lasted out a weekend.
Andy: We’d have ended up in the same jail together!
Michael: And people did occasionally get jail terms…
Gary: But as the book explains, we’d go out of our way to avoid that at all costs. Out of fidelity to the volunteers if you like. I mean we needed people – we had people who worked full time but they were on the dole, they didn’t get paid. And you’re dealing with a finite number. So you had to maintain morale. And also, even simple convictions could – in time – lead to jail.
Andy: We were mindful, we learnt a lot from Ireland, right, that’s a simple fact. And we learnt that if someone has been left adrift by the leadership having done something and copped time for it, and it seems like no-one gives a [toss] about them, how easy is it for the Old Bill to turn that individual. You’ve got to look after your people, do right by ’em, on the street, in custody…
Gary: There was this one time in Hammersmith with Martin Webster [leading NF activist] and when they fled his arse was still hanging out literally of an open door, and one black kid dragged an NFer out, and he [the NFer] got left behind on his own. Ended up in hospital without even a bunch of grapes! I thought that was terrible PR.
Andy: Never looked after their people. But it’s a dog eat dog world for them.
Gary: They’d stand and fight individually, but they’d never look after each other. For us that was verboten. No-one got put in that position, in as much as you could.
Andy: We even went out of our way to help some people on the left avoid getting caught out by their own stupidity. We were doing surveillance around the time of the ANL relaunch in the East End, and they were gonna go out leafleting, and we knew that there were some well-known faces in the area. And we went down the ANL and said, ‘this is not good right, we’ve seen certain people’, and they said, ‘nah, don’t be stupid’. And people ended up in hospital. We said alright then, nothing we can do here, and got back in the car and [drove] off. And as we’re driving down the road, the ambulances are already passing! And one of the guys who got injured quite badly came over to AFA straight after that.
Gary: The left often only really wanted to get involved when they thought it was in their interests to do so – and often they made a mess of things that had already been achieved.
Andy: Yes, when AFA organised the first major national march against the BNP in the East End – and it was really big, considering we were mainly based in Central London – it came on the radio and this woman came on and said it had been organised by the newly relaunched ANL! Seriously, they’d done all the organising!
Andy: That’s why I never take it really seriously when people moan ‘oh why didn’t AFA work with other people’ and all that. We did, we tried. The amount of time our people went to talk to them and try to get them involved, and say ‘yes, OK, we’ll give you two places on the committee as long as it does’t ease anyone else out’ and make it as broad as possible. And we were relatively successful. At one stage there were anarchists there – the Direct Action Movement – along with dogmatic Trotskyists, people like Workers Power, and they were all co-operating. Things weren’t always smooth. But it went along, and it showed that we were able to show a level of political maturity that’s rare on the left. Were the SWP prepared to come in on the same footing as us? Nah. They couldn’t deal with that. But we had CP people involved, even individuals from the local Labour party.
Gary: Including at the rough end of it! Cos we’d go out in a group of 30 or 40 people and we’d have like 15 stewards there on the ground, while the rest could go up to the flats and do the political work, leafleting and what have you. So not everyone was expected to do the fighting, but there’d be people who wanted to campaign with us and supported what we were doing.
Michael: And were women involved, or was it all blokes? Gary: There were women at every level, every level. But particularly in the intelligence work. They’d go into pubs that fellas hadn’t got the balls to walk into! They’d give you a whole run down of who was in there, what they were up to…
Andy: We tried using a geezer once, and all you got was ‘there’s fuckin’ loads of ’em, but we could have ’em, we could do this and that’. Obviously working class women knew the score, got themselves dolled up – look the part – and engaged them in conversation and found out real stuff you wanted to know: who were the real movers and shakers, what were relations like between the fash and landlord and bar staff; how are the locals treating them, will the hangers on bolt, that sort of thing. Women would get that information, because they’d have far less of an ego. And that’s why in West Germany when the police were fighting the Red Army Faction they said, ‘shoot the women first’. The women were so effective, because they were colder and more logical and systematic in their thinking.
Gary: If they were ever rumbled – when they walked into a pub in jeans and jacket, maybe a little bit of eye-liner – if the fash did think they were after information, they’d
assume they were police. As long as they could hold their nerve they could get themselves out.
Andy: And horny fash can give up loads of information, rendez-vous points and all sorts to our people! (laughter) That’s a fact. Human nature. But you need to be seriously talented people to do that kind of work – to tell us exactly what we need to know. And they were treated at all times as equals. The left would sometimes say ‘any women involved are all like gangster’s molls’, all this insulting, patronising [rubbish]. The women didn’t feel like that. It was just that the roles were different, a lot of the time their skills were better used elsewhere. But not all the time. Sometimes they were involved on the street, and that’s a fact.
Michael: Clearly the nature of the far right threat has changed a lot since those days, with the changes to the BNP under the leadership of Nick Griffin. In the introduction of the book your talking at a point when the the BNP on are a high, after the European elections. Since then after the General Election it appears that – as an organisation – they don’t seem to be in a position to go much further. So what threat do you see them posing today?
Gary: What you said there was important, ‘as an organisation’ – it doesn’t take away from the support they’ve shown they can establish. I think with the BNP it’s partly that they never had the experience of high political office, didn’t have the opportunity. To begin with they didn’t have the middle class types, they were having to fight for the same survival thing which we drew them into, they were all on the streets even Griffin. They were stuck in waiting rooms on stations on Stockport and all that – they never had the chance to step out of the scenario. Next thing, they’re MEPs, they’ve dozens of councillors. Where have they done the planning for that? They’re used to planning Blood and Honour gigs in backrooms of pubs in Deptford. Suddenly they’re elevated. Not equipped – first thing. Second thing – they’ve felt the long arm of the state, no question. Inside, everywhere, every which way – diced and sliced – and at at the same time the key component was to decapitate the organisation, which they’ve failed to do, which was a key [state] objective. The BNP might limp along, but the die has been cast, right, in the sense that the radical alternative will come from the far right within the constituencies we’ve identified. The left has not done anything to address that – at all – in thirty years. They’d no appetite do that, less appetite to do it now, even. There’s nothing on the left that could organise it on a national level. They’ve tried it – Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and all that – they’ve nearly all fallen at the first hurdle, some of ’em didn’t even get to the first hurdle! What does it tell you about Respect – talk about enclaves or sub-groups and insulating yourself! That kind of mindset was partly what we were fighting against, that you could retreat from your core constituency and fight somewhere else on identity grounds. We saw it coming. We said in 2001 that the BNP would prove that – in contrast to the left – they did have traction, could mobilise support in white working class communities. And in 2002, boom!
Where would the far right be if they had a free run at it for the last 30 years? Imagine if they never had to fight a war of attrition and could have brought in all the people with the organisational skills, the media skills and all that in? They’ve had none of that, the BNP leadership. They never got the head-space because AFA weren’t going to give it to ’em. But imagine if they had a clear 30-year run like they got in France and a number other European countries where they’ve basically been unchallenged – with a free run, imagine where we’d be? If all the AFA stuff, all that ingenuity and effort, had been applied behind the BNP instead of against them!
Michael: There’s another account of what cut across the rise of the BNP which I’m sure you won’t like at all, namely that Searchlight and their allies in Barking and Dagenham managed to mobilise the existing community groups, trade unions, faith groups etc along with all the residual support that exists for the Labour party in order to unseat every single one of their councillors.
Andy: They had all those resources and completed a full circle – you had the state, so-called anti-fascist and anti-racist groups, religious groups and what have you – to reinstate the status quo. The status quo is back. Labour rules. Why did people vote BNP in the first place?
Gary: And also the BNP vote went up didn’t it? That’s the future you’re looking at. Not that they’ve been unseated for now because Labour’s woken up. Take the Isle of Dogs. We saw the portents were obvious a long way out. The ANL knocked out [Derek] Beacon…
Andy: …and they were actually popping champagne corks that night, the ANL. His vote went up!
Gary: That was the future – we could see it then; they [the BNP] could see it then. Like Barking and Dagenham it was just a technical knock out.
Andy: I mean Margaret Hodge, what does she stand for?! She’s fine now. Everything’s sorted. She’s back in power, they’ve got all their councillors in – nothing to worry about. Thank you very much. So people have joined ‘respectable’ anti-fascism, the church, the local Labour party, the state, the police, the trade unions, using all the wealth, the resources, the intelligence to take back that seat that was needed. Now, I don’t want the BNP to win in Barking and Dagenham or anywhere else. But don’t let anyone try to kid themselves that that’s any kind of victory for what I would call working class politics. Cos it ain’t.
Gary: If it was the IWCA or the Socialist Party or something like it that had stopped the BNP in Barking and Dagenham that would be a different matter. Really something to celebrate, right? Not to bring it back to where it was originally.
London Against Racism interviews
Here are some interviews on anti-racism in London from Eastside Community Heritage Fund.
London Against Racism
London Against Racism is an interesting new project by Eastside Community Heritage.
It’s full of oral accounts of racism and anti-racism in London during the 1970s.
Well worth checking out!
THE RED FRONT
The Red Front: an electoral initiative launched by the Revolutionary Communist Part and supported by Red Action.
See the full Red Action here.
An earlier attempt at LEFT UNITY was the RED FRONT – a bizarre electoral alliance in 1987 between – wait for it – the RCP and RED ACTION. Yes thAt’s right between the RCP and RED ACTION. Someone out there must have the lowdown on this…..
I like the name THE RED FRONT – a lot more ooomphy than Left Unity. And a good pedigree from Germany where it was an armed defence force against the Nazis. Anarchists united under THE BLACK FRONT banner?
Tim Wells tells me: I remember the Red Front, it was when the RCP took to wearing black leather gloves and flying jackets in order to look tough
Bernard McKenna and the Spanish Civil War
After fighting Fascism – in the shape of Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts – in Manchester, the 21-year-old Bernard McKenna went to Spain to join the battle against Franco’s troops. Despite being wounded he “never regretted going” and stayed involved in left-wing politics throughout his life. Bernard died in 2008, 2 years after this interview was carried out.
Born in Hulme, Bernard McKenna joined the Young Communist League at 18, attending meetings, educating each other about Marxism and political issues and supporting workers who were out on strike or suffering at the hands of their bosses.
There was always something to do, it was a busy time politically,” Bernard said of the 1930s. He himself worked in a clothing factory in Cheetham Hill, owned by one of the area’s Jewish businessmen. It was a ‘good company’ to work for, he recalled, and his jobs included stock-keeping and dispatch, making use of…
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Sam Wild and Bessie Berry – the Spanish Civil War, Communism and Feminisn
Sam Wild, born in Ardwick, was one of the Manchester men who fought in the Spanish Civil War, eventually becoming the commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Bessie Berry, his wife, was a pioneering women activist in British Communist circles.
Dolores Long, Sam Wild and Bessie Berry’s daughter, described their lives and politics in an interview in June 2009.
Unemployment in Manchester
My Dad was a working class man who had a really poverty-stricken childhood. He was born in Ardwick and left school at 14 with no skills and found it very difficult to get work. He got involved in the unemployed workers’ movement because he couldn’t find work in Manchester and so he joined the merchant navy. And he always said, I joined the merchant navy because I knew I’d get accommodation and I’d be fed.
His political education was in the merchant navy, I think…
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Fascism and anti-fascism in 1930s Manchester
The following article on Fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s humiliation by anti-fascists at Belle Vue is reproduced by kind permission of Manchester University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, and is by Michael Wolf of the anti-fascist periodical Searchlight. The introduction to the article is based on an article by Yaakov Wise, also on the CJS website.
One of Manchester’s most unpleasant claims to fame is its connections to Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists and supporter of Hitler and Mussolini. Mosley Street in Manchester city centre is named after his family – although not after Oswald Mosley himself. Early meetings of BUF were held in Hyndman Hall on Liverpool Street in Salford and rallies held at Queen’s Park in Harpurhey.
In 1933 a BUF meeting at the Free Trade Hall descended into rioting between fascists and anti-fascist communists and was broken up by police…
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