Unfortunately I am thousands of miles from my copies of Beating the Fascists, No Retreat and Anti-Fascism in Britain which I think would be extremely useful in a full and detailed review of Physical Resistance. I am having to make do with my computerised notes of Beating the Fascists, sadly I chose only to word process my notes after reading No Retreat and Anti-Fascism in Britain. Following reading Dave Renton’s review of Physical Resistance I decided to write down a few of my thoughts of the book and his review. My focus will be on the latter chapters as this is the period where I have mostly researched. I welcome any response and correction.
Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism has given those interested in the study of in militant anti-fascism a wealth of important and interesting events which have laid undiscovered, exciting long oral accounts of former activists and a number of questions to attempt to answer. These long oral and written accounts are woven with Hann’s narrative. Sadly Dave Hann died before he could finish his work but his long term partner, who also writes the introduction, has stepped in and finished the book well with the circumstance. However, as Renton points out there are points in the book which are under-analysed and leave the reader asking for more detail.
Firstly, Renton’s review; I believe it contained a number of factual errors. One such error is the statement of Hann being in the Red Action leadership, my research and interview with former Red Action members (and subsequent communication) did not give Hann as a national figure in Red Action but he was key to Anti-Fascist Action and Red Action organising in Manchester. Renton, disingenuously, says that Beating the Fascists finishes when it reaches the Battle of Waterloo in 1992. In fact, BtF continues for a further 100 pages which includes, amongst other events: the 1993 Welling demonstration, the conflict with Combat 18, the BNP declaration of “no more meetings, no more marches, no more punch ups”, ‘Operation Zero Tolerance’ and the development of the Independent Working Class Association. Furthermore, Renton comments that AFA decayed following the Battle of Waterloo, however, issue 3 of Fighting Talk (June 1992), the Journal of AFA, lists 22 branches by issue 12 (November 1995) the number of branches peaked at 38 until it began to fall.
Renton also says that Hann is a “little self-serving” due to almost all interviews being with militant anti-fascists. Perhaps the subtitle “A Hundred of Militant Anti-Fascism” would have been more apt, but, I think Renton does Hann a disservice. As Renton points out Hann gives kudos to the ANL and other non-militant successes and, even, gives the UAF laurels for the BNPs 2010 local election defeat. I think Renton’s short dismissal of BtF and AFA in this review opens him up to the charge of self-servicing his anti-squaddism.
Turning to the book itself, as I earlier commented I thought the book is under-analytical in places. One such area is the collapse of the National Front following the 1979 general election. A conclusion to whether Hann thought the ANL or Thatcher’s hard talk against immigration was the primary or most important cause for the NF’s demise is not offered. Another section where I was hoping for more evidence, detail and conclusion was the 1988 Red Action split; Renton also says most early Red Action members left. Further information and explanation would have been interesting; perhaps Red Action’s archives will shed some light onto this period. Similarly, the AFA split between Red Action and the anarchist elements is light on details and analysis.
One question I asked during my undergraduate dissertation research was on the divisions between AFA members, particularly women. One of Hann’s interviewees provides a glimpse of a division; that between “hit men” and “foot soldiers”. During my research I was convinced that a division between organisers and fighters didn’t exist, the organisers were also got their hands dirty. The division between the “hit men” and “foot soldiers” also, allegedly, manifested socially as well as tactically. Who were the “hit men”? Red Action members or simply the best fighters.
Regarding women, two of Hann’s female interviewees’ tales tell of a gender role divide of duties in AFA which seems to correlate to my results. That’s not to say the duties of ‘spotting’ or checking out a pub for fascists was looked upon as less brave in fact my results showed my interviewees thought these acts required much more courage than the fighting. Although, more investigation into this by Hann would have proved interesting I think, particularly when AFA and militant anti-fascism is often charged with chauvinism and machismo.
An interviewee also speaks about AFA’s support for the IRA. Although Red Action’s strong support for the IRA is openly known and AFA stewarded republican marches against loyalist and fascist attacks, AFA was supposed to be a single issue campaign. For this interviewee the extent of the IRA support was uncomfortable. To what extent AFA as an organisation supported the IRA is not dealt with in depth and it does raise an interesting point as to what people’s experiences of IRA support were within AFA.
Hann also gives an insight into the continuation of militant anti-fascism post-AFA. He accounts both No Platform and Antifa, and, I think, it gives the impression that Hann supported the continuation of a violent street strategy and a rejection of the IWCA’s approach of following the BNP off the streets and into the electoral arena. But his position doesn’t seem clear. Any comparison between the post-AFA movements and AFA is also lacking.
To more general points: I’m surprised no Red Action literature appears in the bibliography, I think it’s a shame footnotes weren’t used in the book, as they are so useful to students of anti-fascism, also, there are few details on AFA in Scotland which is a shame. Lastly, there are a few errors in the writing such as Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Association is listed as Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Action and the Kindle version is littered with hyphenated words in the middle of the page which I found annoying.
To conclude, the book is a valuable read for all those interested in the Communist Party’s role in anti-fascism, the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, opposition to the British Union of Fascists and the later history of militant anti-fascism. An excellent and unmissable source for students and those interested in British militant anti-fascism.