Fighting racism and fascism in 1970s Britain

August 20, 1997

By Phil Hearse

In the 1970s, the British left was faced with the re-emergence of fascism on a significant scale — in the form of the National Front and a deepening of the racist offensive against black and immigrant workers by the state.

This posed big questions of strategy and tactics which are still controversial. For example, is it a principle to physically confront fascist organisations on every possible occasion? Can fascism be "crushed in the egg" and physically dispersed?

Similarly, do you try to impose a "no platform" position on racist demagogues like Enoch Powell and prevent them speaking?

And what order of threat were the fascists? Did the left spend too much time fighting them, rather than confronting state and institutional racism?

A good point to start is Enoch Powell's 1968 speech in which he predicted "rivers of blood" if black immigration continued.

Powell had been a Tory minister, and was an arch pro-imperialist who had bitterly opposed Indian independence. He played the racist card both out of conviction and to promote his own Bonapartist political ambitions.

Powell succeeded in polarising opinion, and creating a new space for racist politics, which helped the emergence of the National Front in the 1970s.

Immediately several hundred London dock workers staged an "Enoch is right" march, although this was opposed by other dockers' groups and the broader labour movement. The impact of Powell's speech — although disavowed by Tory and Labour leaders — was to start to shift to the right the whole debate about immigration.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the British economy was desperately short of labour. Transport workers, factory workers, health workers and others were recruited from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent.

At the end of the 1960s, as the long postwar boom wound down, the need for immigrant labour was much less, and the argument that "they're taking our jobs" began to be heard more openly.

Powell got a big response on the right wing of the Tory Party, organised in the Monday Club. At local level the Monday Club was infiltrated by the fascist National Front.


The re-emergence of the fascists was clearly connected to the onset of capitalist crisis. Previous attempts in the 1940s and 1960s had failed.

Oswald Moseley, leader of prewar fascism and interned during the war, had attempted to resurrect his Union Movement in the late 1940s, and again in 1961-2. On both occasions, his open air rallies and marches had been broken up by counter-demonstrators. Moseley's movement was literally smashed off the streets.

This was made possible by the political relationship of forces. In the postwar period an open Nazi like Moseley could get no significant support, and the police made rather feeble efforts to defend his rallies. In those very particular circumstances, a few street fights could put the fascists back in their box.

The National Front was founded by old Moseleyite cadres, particularly John Tyndall, its leader. But unlike the Union Movement, it wrapped itself in the Union Jack and British patriotism.

It was able to recruit a reactionary nationalist petty-bourgeois layer which Moseley's more open fascism would never have been able to get to. Tyndall was able to form a bloc of these reactionary petty-bourgeois, some backward and racist workers and lumpen white youth who were the organisation's street fighters. Its main slogans were based on the racist themes of Enoch Powell.

Overall, the left was slow to realise the significance of the immigration issue and the potential for the fascists, partly because of its immersion in the industrial struggle, and partly because of its syndicalist predisposition. This was particularly true of the International Socialists (later SWP).

Nonetheless, Powell's efforts to speak were generally met with counter-mobilisations. To avoid confrontations, Powell often spoke to private Tory meetings. In any case, Powell was mainly talking to the media.

Mobilisations against Powell were useful to show the extent of anger and opposition to his racist poison. But in reality you couldn't stop him speaking; you had to try to politically marginalise and defeat him. This involved both mobilisation and a clear refutation of his positions.

Labour leaders

The biggest obstacle to countering Powell's ideas was the capitulation of the Labour and trade union leaders on the immigration issue.

Since 1962, under Labour and Tory governments, there had been successive anti-immigration laws, all based on the false idea that there were "too many" immigrants coming into the country. All the Labour and union leaders — and most of the Tories — "deplored" Powell's racist ideas, while tacitly accepting that on fundamental issues he was right. Once you accept the racist immigration laws of the capitalist state, you accept the logic of the racist demagogues.

The first major attempt at physical confrontation with the NF was led by the International Marxist Group (IMG), at the NF's annual general meeting in London's Red Lion Square in 1973. The IMG at that time was very influenced by militant anti-fascist tactics which had been adopted by Trotskyists in France.

The attempt by the IMG and others to stop the NF meeting was stifled by police, including a large contingent of mounted police.

Street tactics

This immediately raised a perennial question of such street tactics. Confronting the fascists violently more often than not leads you into a conflict with the police. The police are predisposed to defend racists and fascists, but in addition the bourgeois state is not going to willingly allow the left to decide who can speak and march. What does this mean for anti-fascist tactics?

Pacifism is not an option. Fascism is organised violence against workers and immigrant and ethnic minority communities. Self-defence against the fascists is legitimate and necessary. Of course we demand that the police defend immigrant workers, but we also organise self-defence.

Second, in some circumstances, where the political and physical circumstances are right, it can be correct to enter into a physical clash with fascists, to attempt to drive them off the streets and disperse and demoralise them.

A key question is the relationship of forces, including the relationship of forces with the police. Attacking fascists on principle and getting your head busted demoralises you, not the fascists.

But don't imagine that street actions can physically crush the fascists for good, that you can substitute violence for politics. This false idea has spawned a series of organisations in Britain which believe you must always oppose the fascists with violence, and whose activity consists in one street fight after another.

The second Red lion Square confrontation, in 1974 and again led by the IMG, had much more serious consequences. Kevin Gately, a Coventry University student who had come with an IMG contingent, was killed by a mounted policeman's truncheon in the charge against the NF meeting. Again the NF was effectively defended by the police.

A march in memory of Gately and against fascism one week later mobilised upwards of 50,000. Kevin Gately's death was a real turning point. After that, the struggle against racism and fascism became a key priority for the whole left, including the International Socialists.

The biggest confrontation with the NF, and the most successful in inflicting a physical defeat, was in Lewisham, south-west London, in 1977. The fascists were dispersed — although of course the major fight was between the anti-fascists and the police.

This success was achieved because it was a really massive mobilisation, not a minority or exemplary charge, and because sections of the local black youth joined the fight.

Black youth

A few days later, a confrontation between anti-fascists and police outside an NF meeting in Handsworth, Birmingham, was joined by hundreds of black youth and led to major rioting.

This kind of thing happened repeatedly. But the black youth usually joined in the anti-fascist protests primarily as expressions of hostility to racism in general, and the police in particular.

A huge confrontation over several days in Southall, west London, during the 1979 general election campaign, was sparked by an NF meeting, but turned into what amounted to an uprising by sections of the Asian youth against the police.

This prefigured fierce debates in future years about who was the main enemy — the fascists or state racism?

The Anti-Nazi League was founded in early 1978, in the wake of Lewisham and the NF's success in the 1977 London municipal elections, where it won 100,000 votes. The ANL was not at all based on physical confrontation, but on mobilisations — carnivals — linked to Rock against Racism concerts. Two of the ANL carnivals mobilised more than 100,000.

The success of the ANL was in mass protest mobilisation and in labelling the NF as Nazis. The ANL had an impact on popular consciousness — particularly youth.

The ANL also succeeded in mobilising some sections of the black community — a small number of Afro-Caribbean youth and sections of the Indian Workers' Association.

But among established black and anti-racist organisations, the ANL gave rise to the debate: why all this concentration on fascism, which is a good mobilising issue for the far left, but marginal to the lives of black people, who are much more affected by institutionalised and state racism?

These anti-fascist struggles took place against the background of important struggles by black workers, notably at Grunwicks and Imperial Typewriters in Leicester, which sensitised not only blacks but the left as well to institutionalised and state racism.

'No platform'

During this whole period, the debate over "no platform" in regard to fascists raged in the labour movement and universities. The "no platform" position was dominant on the campuses and enjoyed wide support on the far left.

While apparently straightforward, "no platform" could be interpreted in several ways. On the one hand, it pointed to the fascists as organised violence, and connected their propaganda with their violent attacks.

On the other hand, in practice it led many into trying to stop the Nazis speaking and demonstrating as a principle — irrespective of circumstances. This of course led to demoralising defeats at the hands of the police.

If "no platform" is a tactical imperative, it is a recipe for broken heads — mainly left-wing ones. The argument that we had a "duty" to get our heads smashed to implement "no platform" was a classic example of liberal moralism.

The debate also continued over "no platform for racists". This position, in my opinion, was obviously wrong. It is one thing to try to stop Enoch Powell speaking, but what about trade union leaders who support racist immigration controls?

Powell was not stopped from speaking — and could not be. But he was met with large and noisy protests wherever he went, especially the campuses, which clearly helped to build the anti-racist movement. These protests helped to push back racism.

That was what was so infuriating about the "no platform" debates. Getting yourself into a lather about the moral imperative of stopping racists making a speech diverted a lot of energy from sensible strategic thinking about how to defeat racism.

The NF's 100,000 votes in the 1977 London elections was its high point. This vote occurred after many of the street clashes. The NF could not be physically dispersed, so long as the state was determined to prevent it.

In 1978-79, the activities of the ANL did the National Front big damage. A second thing which set it back was the "winter of discontent" in 1978-9 — a series of massive strikes, especially of public sector workers. When the workers start to mobilise on a vast scale, the fascists are often reduced to silence.

1979 elections

The coup de grace was the 1979 elections, in which the NF vote collapsed. The explanation for the sudden collapse is of course Margaret Thatcher.

The NF was an alliance of reactionary petty bourgeois, some backward workers, lumpen thugs and not very intelligent retired colonels. As Thatcher more clearly articulated a reactionary and racist program, the Tories captured the NF vote. The NF had borrowed hundreds of thousands of pounds to finance hundreds of candidates to make a breakthrough; all lost their deposits.

The lumpen street fighters thought the movement had become too "respectable", the colonels went over to Thatcher, and the leadership was captured by brown shirt elements. Tyndall was dumped and went on in the 1980s to take over and rebuild the small British National Party.

Also defeated by the general election was the now ageing Enoch Powell. Thatcher had adopted much of his monetarist and racist program. She started openly to make statements about the danger of British culture being destroyed by a "tide" of immigrants (actually there was virtually nil immigration after a series of Tory and Labour immigration laws).

But Powell, as a racist demagogue from a "respectable" bourgeois political background, had opened up a political space where the far right was able to grow and helped to shift the terrain of debate on the issue of race and immigration to the right, making it easier to carry out the attacks on immigrants and black workers, providing a mass base for stepped-up state racism.

The interaction between Powell, the fascists and the right wing of the Tory party laid the basis for a new consensus on immigration in the political establishment, one corresponding to a period of economic crisis and dramatically reduced need for immigrant workers.

Powell was able to play this role because of the capitulation of the Labour and union leaders on immigration, and hence implicitly on the whole question of racism. No mass force challenged the assumptions of his program and counterposed an alternative.

With the semi-collapse of the fascists, the focus for anti-racist campaigning in the 1980s shifted to state racism. The Thatcher government further tightened immigration laws and began its attack on asylum seekers and refugees.

Fascist organisations reappeared in the early 1990s, leading to the reformation of the ANL and the foundation of the ARA (Anti-Racist Alliance) and the YRE (Youth against Racism in Europe). -But the fascists are at a much lower ebb than in the 1970s. While keeping up our guard against the extreme right, the main issue today is fighting state racism.

[This article is based on a talk given in Sydney to Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance members. In the 1970s, Phil Hearse was a member of the International Marxist Group and of the Anti-Nazi League in Birmingham.]

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