Vital Lessons

Below RA presents the main address to a public meeting during the annual AFA Cable St commemoration weekend at which a founding member outlined why AFA is forced to adapt to changing circumstances to remain effective

Four years before Anti-Fascist Action came into existence, some of its founder members cut their teeth in a 'theatre of operations' in Islington, North London.

The Chapel Market area had been the scene of a 'Mexican stand-off' between the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League since the mid I970's. Then in the summer of I981 the local NF branch, one of the biggest and nastiest in the country (around a dozen of whom were subsequently convicted of a series of armed robberies, aggravated rape and an almost fatal stabbing of a Red Action member) decided, with support from the SWP for the local ANL branch waning, to up the ante.

What followed was a high intensity campaign of weekly paper sale and counter demonstration; attack and counter attack; that lasted almost exactly twelve months. When the dust settled the South Islington Branch of the National Front, even with the support of their own national leadership, was no more. The shock and humiliation created a domino effect throughout North London, with smaller satellite branches like Wembley and Willesden immediately ceasing operations. All attempted come-backs were vigorously, some would say ruthlessly dealt with, to the extent that the far-right were forced out of Islington, and then the whole of North London. And that exclusion order has lasted to the present day.

At first hand, the core organisers of the Chapel Market campaign learned a vital lesson: the fascists could be beaten at their own game, could be out-violenced; could be out-terrorised. Though it would be almost another decade before the approach would be applied by AFA on a national basis this knowledge would from the beginning have a decisive impact on the strategical thinking of the new anti-fascist organisation.

In July 1985 around 300 people crowded into Conway Hall, London, following calls for the setting up of a new anti-fascist organisation, AFA. Though the same Chapel Market organisers had been instrumental in bringing the meeting about, for much of the time, in expectation of a fascist attack, they along with other working class militants, were physically outside the hall. This meant that the agenda was set by others. It was to prove a serious strategical error and the second vital lesson

By I986 the NF were beginning to attract an estimated 2,000 to their annual Remembrance Day parade. It was an obvious focus for AFA. A little later the music based neo-nazi Blood and Honour group was formed. As well as arranging huge underground gigs in eastern Europe involving thousands, they also began to apply a stranglehold on the sections of the music scene domestically ina case of 'play for us or don't play.' Indeed for a time the merchandising aspect of the B&H operation saw Carnaby St become 'the cultural centre' for fascism in Europe. A number of shops were dealing lucratively and openly in B&H records, T-shirts and other fascist paraphernalia.

In May I989, B&H launched their most ambitious upfront project yet: a music festival featuring seven bands called the 'Main Event.' Roughly a thousand tickets at £10 a head were sold in advance (Camden Town Hall was the venue of choice) and punters were promised 'money back if not delighted.' Even though AFA had itself effectively collapsed, the all-important stewards group was intact. The stewards recognised that if the B&H redirection points could be taken, serious political, organisational and financial problems would result. May 27 was a blow from which they never fully recovered. September of that year saw the relaunch of London AFA (LAFA) with the militants for the first time firmly in political control. From now on instead of going to the Left it was announced that 'the future orientation would be to working class communities, with the class message, backed up by a democratic structure' (the need for such a revamp gives you a fair idea what it was like previously).

By 199O, the NF's Remembrance Day parade had from the I986 peak of 2,000, been systematically whittled down to a motley and beleaguered 200. So LAFA switched its intentions to the renascent British National Party in London's East End. This time the strategical aim "was to create space for a credible working class alternative [to the far-right and Labour] to develop. Space was created, in the by now traditional manner. BNP meetings were attacked, pubs picketed, paper sales harassed, key activists ambushed. Most significantly, for the first time, the same strategy was being implemented nationally. First in Glasgow and Manchester, later Scotland and the North West. However, as with East London it became increasingly evident that there was no one on the left with the will, ability or ambition to fill the vacuum militant anti-fascism was creating.

By 1993 the emergence of Midlands AFA saw the final sanctuary of the far-right contested. It was the final straw, both for their 'march and grow' strategy and their attempts to 'control the streets'. By now the BNP were on the end of a terrific pounding from Edinburgh to Southampton. In September of that same year they made an electoral breakthrough with the election of a councillor on the Isle of Dogs. And in April I994 they publicly announced that 'there would be no more marches meetings punch-ups. ' The April declaration was to prove the end of an era. Between 1985-l994 AFA had been the decisive force in bringing the NF to its knees, crushing B&H; seeing off C18 and fighting the BNP to a standstill nationally. And this phase of anti-fascist struggle was as it turns out the easy bit!

Due to the unrelenting war of attrition described, the absence of an electoral presence by the far-right leaves Britain practically unique in Europe. To this day few in AFA fully appreciate the havoc wreaked by that campaign, on fascist infrastructure and morale. Even though AFA organised major marches through fascist strongholds and put on carnivals attracting over 10,000 people the basic approach remained 'militaristic.' The reason was simple. As a tactic it was devastatingly effective and AFA was good at it. Such was the attention to detail, the single mindedness, (some would say fanaticism!) that the ill-named National Action Party, a would-be fore-runner to C18, never even survived its inaugural meeting! (set up and wound up on the same day: something of a record?)

Yet today despite, or because, of the absence of a political and electoral outlet for the far-right, racist poison is spreading of its own accord like a stain. Increasingly the far-right can be viewed as more symptom than cause. That being the case militant anti-fascism is facing a new and more insidious threat

Approaching the millennium we find ourselves in a country whose citizens believe it to be scrupulously fair; but where one in three admit to being openly racist; where the level of race attacks have been likened to political terrorism and whose youth is judged the most reactionary in Europe; a country where the disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities that die in police custody has been condemned by the United Nations and where electoral support for the far-right has risen probably in excess of 1,000%. A country where the former social democrats are attacking the working class and the organised Left is collapsing. Such a country has many of the hall-marks of a doomsday scenario already in place and militant anti-fascism needs to both diversify and reposition itself - and quickly.

The far-right may have been driven into a tunnel but too many are still waiting at the entrance: too many are waiting for a second Waterloo. But there isn't going to be a second Waterloo, at least not on our terms. Having successfully applied the first vital lesson, (that the terrorists could be out-terrorised), we must now take on board the second vital lesson, which is to set the political agenda rather than deal with the consequences, or the failure of someone else's. In Europe mainstream anti-fascism does not believe the working class even exists, while here conventional anti-racist strategists regard the working class as the enemy. And if as appears to be the case bellowing 'Right for Whites!' is no longer the epitome of fascism, then screeching 'Refugees welcome here!' is equally inadequate as a strategy for anti-fascism.

Primarily because one way or the other, whatever the outcome, the buck will eventually stop with militant anti-fascism. And if for any reason militant anti-fascism proves incapable of handling that responsibility or simply surrenders the initiative, the far-right will have a clear run. That is an inescapable fact. So let's make no mistake about it. Militant anti-fascism is effective anti-fascism. It is effective or it is nothing. AFA's founding statement: "to confront the fascists physically and ideologically," has so far only been partially implemented. Part one has been successfully completed, now we must address part two. Part two: 'confronting the far-right ideologically' means confronting them with a political alternative [RA emphasis]. Which means we must begin to systematically fill the existing political vacuum, in working class communities, in whole swathes of London and elsewhere, that we have created by our own efforts. We have won the 'war' - lets not lose the peace.

Reproduced from RA Vol 3, Issue 4, December/January 1998/99