Red Action 15 Years On
(Issue 75 Autumn 1997)
In the main feature of this issue, the present editorial board of RA looks at the development of our organisation's publication over the last 15 years and seventy five issues.
The first issue of Red Action (RA) appeared in February 1982, was a single A3 sheet costing 5p and contained five articles. The headline was Three Million Reasons Why! and predicted more riots as the consequence of wide scale unemployment.
Two other articles headlined Islington - The tip of the iceberg! and simply Ireland, covered two themes that would dominate subsequent issues of RA over the following years and became increasingly seen as the main political themes that would be identified with RA as an organisation. Islington - t.t.o.t.i. referred to an ongoing battle between fascists and anti-fascists for control of the streets in London which at the time centred around the area of Chapel Market where National Front paper sales had been consistently challenged over a number of years. The article stated that,
"Both Red Action and the Anti-Nazi League in Islington say 'do not ignore them - fight them whenever and wherever they raise their heads!' Some say we are waging a campaign that is narrow and self defeating, that by concentrating on fighting the Front, we are not involving the workers movement. This is not so. Nazis need to control the streets. If they can do this they can not only influence people faced with mass unemployment, but they can attack ethnic minorities and create a nest of racial tension that can tear a community to pieces. The ANL successes of 1978 well and truly routed the NF. But they came back as soon as they thought the time was right, and you couldn't find a better time than now. The result was many violent attacks, and the NF stopped trying to be a respectable political party, and instead resorted to violence and terrorism. This (the NF's recent decline in the area) would never have happened if we hadn't fought them, and provided a focus for others who wanted to fight, in a key part of the class struggle".
On Ireland RA had this to say, "The right to self-determination for Ireland is a central issue for British workers. Until British workers come to terms with their countries imperialist past, and today that means Ireland, their anger and militancy will be open to being channelled up the blind alley of reformism and nationalism right across the spectrum from the NF's 'British Jobs for British Workers' to Tony Benn's call for import controls to save British industry. Ireland really shows which side of the political fence people are really on. Those who support armed liberation struggles in El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Vietnam and Angola fall strangely silent when the war is on their own doorstep and the guerrilla movement is fighting their own master, the British ruling class. Labour MP's sing the red flag and talk of socialism, and attack Thatcher as a vicious reactionary, then salute and applaud her when she murders Republicans and socialists in Ireland".
Issue Two appeared in April of the same year as a four-page paper and set the basic format that would last for the next six years and take it up to issue forty.
The early issues of the paper although aiming to be the voice of RA's working class militants also saw itself as having the role of putting forward general "revolutionary socialist" arguments in a jargon-free style. This was in a climate where there were still relatively large numbers of free open air festivals, marches, demos and gigs with 'political' bands which attracted ordinary working class people.
Street sales of the paper could also be very fruitful with the added bonus of providing humourous anecdotes, whether about the fascists who were stupid enough to challenge our sellers and ended up kissing the tarmac or the left who would usually respond with worried looks and the squeal of 'but you look like the National Front!?! Then there were those strange geezers in pin-stripe suits who would take a furtive look over their shoulder before quickly handing over their money and stuffing a copy into their briefcase!
Right up until issue sixty-four, copies of RA were produced with painstaking hours of typing and letrasetting, often in cramped, poorly lit, cold basements or in members living rooms with articles being trod on and photos sticking to the soles of trainers. All the lay-out and articles were done by amateurs with no professional journalists or intellectuals on the editorial board. It was a paper genuinely written and produced by the working class membership but the quality of some articles was difficult for many on the Left to rationalise when they saw who sold it, hence the often repeated question but who writes your paper?
None the less despite the technical difficulties in producing Red Action, issue 17 was able to report the decision taken at the RA conference that year (1985) to move to production of a monthly paper.
Early issues of RA also committed itself to promoting or reporting on various aspects of working class culture with football and music featuring heavily. Culture Corner included articles and interviews with punk/oi! bands such as the Newtown Neurotics, Burial, the Anti Social Workers and later interviews with the likes of Mensi and Gary Bushell before he defected to the Sun. On a practical basis many of these and others played benefit gigs sponsored by RA for strikers such as the miners.
Some of the early editions of the paper obviously influenced other publications such as Class War, with a sense of humour and style not normally associated with Left papers.
In 1988 certain political shifts took place within RA that would inevitably impact directly on the paper itself. The majority of the RA membership backed a proposal at conference that would fundamentally question RAs relationship to the left and RAs previously stated position of standing within the 'revolutionary socialist tradition'.
The adoption of these proposals led directly to a small number of RAs members resigning including the then editor.
By now a number of members believed that the paper had long become stale and had even begun to alienate many of the membership. For a number of years it had simply regurgitated general 'socialist' arguments about the decline of the health service, etc, many of which could have been bettered by the likes of the Daily Mirror anyway, accompanied with naff Leftie headlines such as Build A Fighting Socialist Movement and Unity Is Strength.
The presentation of the paper was given absolutely no thought which often meant that the same old photos were used again and again along with the same letraset. The pressure to sustain a monthly paper for a relatively small organisation was taking its toll on quality and issue 39 carried two articles with very basic flaws. The desire felt by some members of the organisation to be taken seriously on the terms of the left had meant a drift towards a very bland paper which was now devoid of the cutting humour that had once been its trademark.
Another fatal flaw of the paper was its policy of not reporting or giving little prominence to the activities that RA was involved in, not even in the semi-humourous style of Red Action In Action. This was partly a reaction to the antics of the self-promoting, trumpet-blowing, groups on the Left and the sectarian nature in which they would report on events. There was also a genuine self-depreciating element that what we were doing was not really that important in the wider scheme of things. The logic of this position was that in issue 26 for instance the front page articles were about Central America and the Unions; while tucked away on the back page without its own headline was the story of the smashing of a NF march through Bury St. Edmunds by AFA and RA members that led directly to the fragmentation of the NF!
The real effect of this approach was to present the actions of RA as secretive, something that only those in the know were told about, and coupled with the paper's stance of not offering the readers anything more than the chance to support RA or take out a subscription, actually came across as quite elitist. This would change in subsequent issues as the paper come under new management' but old habits would take time to break fully.
Under New Management
The first issue of RA appeared later that year under a new editorial board and signalled a gradual shift in direction rather than an overnight conversion. Part of this shift was in recognition that opportunities to impact directly upon the working class were becoming fewer and fewer and often we were only selling to the Left now anyhow. However by taking steps to redefine the role of the paper it ensured a significant rise in membership and a much higher profile amongst the Left and even at times the national press.
It would take a number of issues until the paper adopted a style that would begin to truly mark-out its unique style. Three main guidelines were introduced into the paper to ensure that this happened:
1) That we begin to give prominence to reporting on events and campaigns that RA members were involved in.
2) That we begin to challenge the modus operandi of various organisations and campaigns on the Left.
3) That we begin to politically challenge the theories of orthodox Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist and Anarchist organisations.
Up until now much of what the mainstream Left had put forward as theory was largely accepted by RAs membership. What was needed it had been argued was a more democratic SWP that would be led and composed of working class militants and hold an uncompromising line on issues such as Anti-Fascism and Ireland.
But this was now challenged as there was obviously more than just a 'cultural' difference between RA and the Left. The paper was used to define exactly why if RA was 'right', then why the rest of the Left was wrong. Also to debunk many of the theories created by the Left's intellectuals and examine how they had twisted many aspects of communist and socialist history to justify their own existence.
This process begun in issue 53 with an article entitled The Dictatorship Of The Proletariat and led to an expansion of the paper to six pages in issue 54 and then to eight pages in issue 58 in order that these important debates be given space.
It wasn't until Dec 1992 that the production of RA became fully computerised and expanded to a 12 page tabloid format, eventually rising to 16 pages.
As RA celebrates its 15th birthday and reaches its 75th issue, RA members are at the moment debating the way forward for our publication, the role it has to play and the way it relates to our work within the working class.
The war in the North of Ireland has from the very outset been described in the pages of RA as the litmus test for revolutionaries in Britain. Support for the political struggle for Irish self-determination and the armed struggle in particular, was one of the main characteristics of the paper alongside that of anti-fascism which gave it its distinct identity from the rest of the left press.
Even before Red Action was formed, its soon-to-be membership were already travelling to the North of Ireland as part of Troops Out Movement delegations, demonstrating solidarity with the Irish struggle.
Red Action delegations to the Six Counties have always been a feature of RA, reporting on the experiences of those who took part in the delegations and advertising future trips, described usually as the highlight of the political calendar for RA personnel.
But these delegations had an importance far beyond a simple expression of solidarity and were neither about revolutionary tourism nor being part of the provos supporters club, criticisms that have been levelled at RA members at times from various sects. No, these delegations gave us the opportunity of demonstrating to our new members and supporters, within a hour of jumping onto a plane, exactly how our own ruling class behave when the gloves come off. Any illusions individuals might have had about the benign nature of the ruling establishment were often banished by the end of a single weekend.
Another eminently practical benefit in accepting the use and need for armed struggle meant that any ethical reservations about our own use of violence for political ends, ie militant anti-fascism, was automatically legitimised.
It also gave RA the chance to establish personal contacts amongst members of the most militant and politically advanced working class in Western Europe. Again, it was against their commitment we as members of the British working class had an opportunity to gauge our own political and personal resolve. Though not initially designed as such, in time the Belfast trip` became a filter for our own membership.
Not surprisingly, some, faced with the brutal reality of the conflict, gained a personal insight into the inadequacy of their previous understanding of the words `revolutionary struggle`. And so, having returned safely to the mainland we never physically laid eyes on them again!
Equally the politics of other individuals led to rather different conclusions and a number of high profile arrests and convictions in the early 1990`s earned the Red Action brand additional notoriety from a slack jawed Left and unwarranted attention from the state.
Through the Belfast trips, RA members gained sufficient intimacy to allow us to learn immense and invaluable political lessons from both the Republican and Republican Socialist Movements, while retaining enough room to be able to objectively analyse and learn from their failures as well as their successes, vital lessons that we are now applying to our own struggles outside of the Irish six counties.
It also meant that RA was one of the few publications on the British Left to give a clear analysis of the INLA feud in 1987, that went beyond the blanket condemnations offered by most groups. Obviously RAs close relationship with sections of the RSM at the time allowed us to give a unique insight into the origins of the feud to our readers. RA continued to provide a unique look into the world of the IPLO and INLA and the gradual demise of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement up to the present day. In many cases articles such as 'From Connolly To Corleone' and 'Deadly Divisions', were penned by former members.
Apart from commentating on events in Ireland itself, the other aspect that RA reported on was the activities of the various Irish Solidarity organisations in Britain.
From the very outset, although far from content with the direction of these bodies, RA did not see it as its role to publicly criticise them. It was argued that with so many of the British Left lined up against Irish Revolutionary Nationalism our job was to direct our venom at them rather than the few groups who were working in support of it, however badly a job they made of it. This was a policy that continued right up until issue 48 (1988) when to continue not to comment on the fragmented and feeble state of the Irish Solidarity Movement in Britain would, we felt, have deemed us culpable by our silence.
RAs line has long been one of attempting to build maximum unity amongst the few organisations which actively support the fight for self-determination but it was clear that this could not take place unless basic criticisms were made and subsequently addressed. A series of public documents were circulated amongst the various Irish Solidarity and Irish Republican supporting Left groups, suggesting a working coalition. In a typical piece that appeared in issue 53 (1989) after the failure of the Hands Of Ireland! campaign (of which RA had been an initial sponsor) RA argued that, "The fact clearly remains that there is an urgent need for a genuine Irish solidarity movement in this country. We say that now is not the time to blunder into immediately forming yet another organisation, such as The Leninist have done with HOI!, using the same old formulae, but to sit down with all those interested and debate the failings of all that has gone before, and based around a programme of practical work and support, form a strategy that will at last truly begin to mobilise first the Irish and then the British working class in Britain".
In issue 58 (Spring 1991), RA having identified the problem, believed we had identified the solution and laid down this public challenge that appeared in an open letter to the IRSP, It stated, "The only pertinent question we believe, the existing solidarity movements need ever ask themselves, is not: Do we do enough? The question is: Do we make a difference? Without exception, we believe that the honest and objective answer can only be: No, we do not".
It took until 1995 before RA was able to put it's ideas into practise, when the Saoirse campaign for the release of Irish political prisoners was formed. It was clear from the relatively short period we were involved that the strategies we had long identified as pointing the way forward were realising their potential. 'Part A' of the strategy, the mobilisation of the Irish working class in Britain wasalready under way, with the most dynamic campaign to work around the Irish question.
However eventually even Saoirse itself fell victim to sectarianism and what RA described in issue 73 as:
"The same politics that have dogged campaigning in Britain on all issues for decades - namely Labourism. Hence all policy, tactics, etc, are decided with the interests of the Labour Party in mind, the same policies and tactics that have correspondingly failed year after year, decade after decade". It would appear therefore that RA's ambition to build a dynamic force for British withdrawal within Britain itself will remain permanently on ice.
Copies of RA regularly carried articles on anti-fascism and RAs involvement at the cutting edge(see page7). In 1985 following a much-publicised attack on a family festival in Central London, RA acknowledged in issue 19 that theres still a significant number of people who are ready, willing and eager to oppose fascism, and need some sort of organising body to give their efforts maximum effect.
Anti-Fascist Action (a name since used by militant anti-fascist groups throughout Europe) was born at a conference in Conway Hall on Sunday 28th July 1985. In the following issue RA reported that the conference accepted a resolution stating that We see the need to oppose racism and fascism physically on the streets and ideologically. This grouping should be organised on non-sectarian and democratic lines.
Subsequent issues of RA chartered the steady rise of AFA as the leading anti-fascist organisation in Britain and has remained to this day (alongside AFA's own Fighting Talk magazine) the authoritative voice of genuine militant anti-fascism.
With hindsight the development of RA politically can be charted from our recognition that the emergence of fascism represents a chemical change in the body politic and because of this can never be ignored.
In hindsight. this instinct saw us unwittingly depart from the theory and practice of the orthodox Left from the very first step.
Similarly as our theory followed practice their practice was based on theory. In order to define and defend our own politics we ended up demolishing theirs. This extract from 1992 was typical of that period.
In its continuing flight from realty the orthodox Left doggedly insists militant anti-fascism, which in its purest form is spelt out in physical violence, is merely a cowardly distraction, a side show, from the real business of confronting racist legislation by the state. The motive behind this line of argument is as obvious as it is perverse. If nothing else, the current events in Germany show that institutionalised racism is not the cause of far-right violence. The relationship is precisely the reverse. The well organised attacks against refugees at Rostock and elsewhere were the spark which set in motion the manouevres by the social democratic parliamentarians to support right wing calls to amend Germany's liberal post war constitution.
The success of these forms of direct action caused them to be legitimised in the eyes of the public. This in turn emboldens fascist supporters toward more ambitious political demands, inevitably followed by further paramilitary excesses.
In this year's Newham Monitoring Project's annual report AFA is condemned for the use of intensely paranoid almost paramilitary tactics. To follow this line of argument is to accept that not only is confronting the fascists an alternative to confronting the state, but in addition it is to pretend that in the battle for the streets the state remains neutral.
This is precisely the argument the state uses itself. But in rejecting physical confrontation they (NMP) also eschew any long term goals or short term political solutions that genuinely reflect the interests of the working class - black and white - as another adulteration of the anti-racist struggle.
Instead they insist the anti-fascist movement should devote its whole strength and energy to those middle class patch-work reforms which could provide the political establishment with new supports and hence perhaps transform potential catastrophe into a gradual piecemeal and hopefully peaceful process of dissolution.
Groups like the Newham Monitoring Project follow this strategy because they are paid to; 'revolutionary' groups like the Socialist Workers Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party follow a similar strategy by choice.
Rather than concern themselves with resolving the practical problems faced by the working class, their reason for being is to suggest abstract solutions to the problems faced by the state. For once you accept the state is the cause of the problem, it is logical to deduce that the state can, indeed must, provide the solution.
So while the objective of the hard right is to strengthen the state through the use of force, the parallel function of the soft Left is to strengthen the state through the use of reform. The purpose of the mission is an attempt to save the state from itself. Adding to the attraction of approaching the issue arse-about-face is the promise that one's relationship with anti-fascism remains purely platonic.