Red Action – Left Wing Political Pariah

The following article by Mark Hayes was originally published as Chapter 12 in 'Against the Grain: The British far left from 1956' edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, published in 2014 by Manchester University Press (ISBN: 978-0-7190-9590-0)

Red Action left-wing political pariah: Some observations regarding ideological apostasy and the discourse of proletarian resistance

It would be very easy to dismiss Red Action as a political irrelevance, especially since ‘revolutionary’ activism on the far left of the ideological spectrum in Britain has been characterised by an abundance of apparently similar, short-lived sectarian micro-groups. Red Action might easily be portrayed as a miniscule manifestation of the same genus just another militant microbe in the sad story of socialist ephemera which, although achieving some notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s, followed an entirely predictable path toward political oblivion. Yet there is a significant sense in which such a dismissive approach would be inappropriate in this case because Red Action, despite its small size, managed, in some ways, to make a unique contribution to the politics of the far left in late twentieth-century Britain. Indeed it might be argued that there were elements of both theory and practice which warrant more sustained critical analysis.

There is no doubt that Red Action was an organisation which caused, and to some extent courted, controversy. The political positions adopted by Red Action precipitated as much concern and consternation on the left as it did in those quarters where hostility was entirely predictable. Red Action’s leftist enemies were multifarious, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the organisation was detested and derided by a variety of groups which, ostensibly at least, shared a similar position on the ideological axis. At the same time the media’s reaction to Red Action’s brand of uncompromising political praxis was a mixture of fear and fascination. As the Observer journalist Matt Seaton exclaimed after meeting prominent members in the mid-1990s, Red Action was a ‘semi-legal, semi-paramilitary group who believe absolutely in the efficacy of political violence’.1 Indeed Red Action’s infamy was noted, somewhat sardonically, by its National Organiser in an internal Report: three or four years ago RA members would have been tickled by a mention in the Leninist. Today it does not come as a total surprise to be the subject of editorial comment in The Times.2 Red Action therefore managed to elicit an extraordinary reaction amongst a variety of activists, organisations and media, most of which ranged from hostile incredulity to vitriolic hatred. Therefore it is perhaps worth considering in more detail how and why such a tiny leftist pebble created so many political waves.

Red Action was formed late in 1981, principally by ex-members of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) who had been expelled for the venal sin of ‘squadism’. In effect these members were politically excommunicated because they insisted upon adopting a more robust response to the fascist violence perpetrated against them. The spectacular electoral demise of the National Front (NF) in 1979 had convinced the leadership of the SWP that the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) had served its purpose and should be wound down. However, the fascists had not simply disappeared into the political ether whilst some went on to pursue Strasserite fantasies as semi-clandestine ‘political soldiers’, others simply reverted to the traditional Hitlerite tactic of ‘controlling the streets’, which inevitably left some socialist activists vulnerable to attack. So the nucleus of what was to become Red Action was that section of the SWP who refused to accept that electoral performance was the only indices by which to measure fascist activity or success, and who therefore advocated a more pro- active response to fascists, most of whom were intent on returning to a strategy of street level rebellion. The SWP Central Committee would not countenance such unilateral activity and individual members were expelled, although some jumped before they were pushed, whilst others left in solidarity with their comrades. It was an important moment. As National Organiser for Red Action Gary O’Shea says, ‘the suspensions and expulsions were Kafkaesque and bizarre I was suspended even though I was one of the few working-class shop stewards. By the time it happened we’d had enough anyway. We were starting to question everything. In the end they fabricated evidence against us. It was a purge. We also felt that culturally they didn’t like us. They were dismissive of the working class.3

So at its inception Red Action was product of what was considered to be the SWP’s strategic failure to organise effectively against fascists, and a cultural antipathy toward working-class members. As National Treasurer Pete Coen says, we had a decision to make melt away or form something else. There was lots going on politically and culturally and we had a presence so we refused to go away. It was all open to debate no pre-determined outcomes apart from being left wing’.4 Those in positions of responsibility within the SWP undoubtedly expected those who were ejected to accept their fate as political outcasts, but the small coterie of comrades in London coalesced into Red Action and became, as one activist infamously put it, ‘”the abortion that lived”’.5

Initially the secrecy surrounding the embryonic organisation reflected the fact that Red Action sought neither recognition nor recruits, they were simply content to engage the fascist enemy wherever possible on a pragmatic basis.6 However, a key moment for the group occurred on 10 June 1984 in London at an open air concert at Jubilee Gardens organised by the GLC against Tory cuts and unemployment. The Redskins were playing and around eighty NF skinheads attacked the crowd, which included women, children and families.7 Red Action, it was felt, had to move beyond a defensive position and onto the offensive. The initial aim was to develop a mobile combat unit to defend the public meetings, gigs and paper sales of any left-wing organisation under threat of attack. At the same time there was a concerted effort to examine in more depth the processes which had precipitated the organisation’s political emergence. That reflexive analysis was to produce a critique of the contemporary far left which defined, more precisely, the lines of demarcation between Red Action and its political progenitors.

So Red Action started out as a single-issue rapid response unit, but soon began to examine in greater detail the ideology of the other organisations on the far left. Slowly, principally via the Bulletin, a critique was constructed which, it was argued, helped explain not only why they had found themselves marginalised but, more importantly, why the ‘revolutionary’ left in Britain had singularly failed to make any real political impact. In more specific terms Leninist modes of organisation became the focus of critical attention in Red Action literature and, significantly, this critique was constructed upon a re-examination of the original democratic ideals of Marx and Engels. Those at the forefront of Red Action had become increasingly aware that it was the Leninist method, with its emphasis on the Bolshevik party paradigm and democratic centralism, which created the structural defects that in turn led to the sectarian utopianism of Trotskyist politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The degradation of democratic practice, in deference to the bureaucratic centralism of central committees, was seen as the inevitable outcome of a vanguard party model which produced a plethora of mutually antagonistic sects, each anxious to proclaim its credentials as the genuine article against competing imposters. It was, argued Red Action, a recipe for acrimonious inaction.

As a result Red Action explicitly rejected the idea of a top-heavy, vanguard leadership, which had been adopted by numerous Trotskyist parties. Experience appeared to confirm that, no-matter how democratic the organisation was designed to be in theory, in practice the reality turned out to be an organisation dominated by an authoritarian, if not dictatorial, central committee. As Red Action member (and former Militant organiser) Steve West put it: there was no genuine democracy in other left-wing groups. I used to be a Militant full-timer and you were expected to follow the line or be re-educated. It was absolutely venomous at times’.8 Indeed it was ‘no secret that a number of the founding members of Red Action left the SWP precisely in protest against that organisation’s bias in favour of centralism above democracy’.9 In effect Red Action’s critique of this element of revolutionary praxis endorsed the perspective of those earlier Marxist theorists like Rosa Luxemburg who saw the anti-democratic contradictions at an early stage. Hence the ideological orientation of Red Action was essentially Marxist but anti-Leninist, at least in terms of its opposition to democratic centralism.10 In effect Red Action argued that Lenin’s perspective on party organisation, which was always designed for a very specific set of historical circumstances (and which was predicated on the success of a European revolution), had been elevated to a matter of political principle by left-wing sects that, crucially, had no organic link with the working class. In the contemporary British context therefore, according to Red Action, the Leninist paradigm was essentially misapplied, and the claim to represent the interest of the working classes fundamentally fraudulent.

Following on from this, Trotskyism, with its theoretical emphasis on permanent revolution, was perceived as a distorted manifestation of Bolshevism. Ignoring or denying responsibility for the suppression at Kronstadt or the formation of the Cheka, was simply symptomatic of a similar tendency toward authoritarian forms of organisation. Even Trotsky’s powerful (and legitimate) critique of Stalinism did not disqualify the weaknesses inherent in his proposals for political practice, which remained essentially Bolshevik in inspiration, and which evolved into a rigid political template adhered to with quasi-religious reverence by various left-wing sects. Red Action, therefore, argued that the working class had been very badly served by a variety of squabbling Trotskyist micro-groups. As the first issue of the RA Bulletin pointed out, the working class had absolutely no empathy for the left, and any group with real aspirations needed to begin by earning trust and respect in working-class areas.11 The fact that so-called revolutionary groups were completely detached from the working class, with no institutional mechanism to facilitate its future participation, meant that such organisations were not fit for purpose indeed, after a Red Action conference in 1988 it was concluded that ‘not one single organisation on the left could be considered to be authentically revolutionary’.12 This was a theme which would continue throughout Red Action’s existence: ‘without the means of practical application revolutionary ideas become, at best, pious aspirations. At worst it invites ridicule’.13 As the ‘We are Red Action’ programme outlined:

...sectarian division on the left continues to be a comfort to a system which socialism promised to replace. Factions, whose immaculate programmes for party dictatorship result in the pursuit of goals exclusive to themselves, contribute nothing to the real movement of the working class, except to delay its political renaissance. In all essentials reactionary, they are socialists of the previous generation. This betrayal mocks the theory and practice of Marx and Engels, and the notion of independent working-class initiative.14

Although this perspective differentiated Red Action clearly from the older Bolshevik and Trotskyist positions, there was also a clear demarcation line with forms of anarchism too. The anarchist assumption that all forms of authority are potentially autocratic, and therefore need to be resisted, did not cut much ice in Red Action circles. Despite its legitimate ideological heritage and its desire to remain untainted by compromises, anarchism contained within it a fatal flaw, as Red Action explained:

...anarchism, which claims to be a libertarian alternative to Leninism, could never work. Anarchism means the principled opposition to the exercise of any authority. Accordingly even the most perfect democracy would be regarded by anarchism as authoritarian as it means the imposition of a social decision by a majority on a minority. The answer to bureaucratic authority is democratic authority not the abolition of authority.15

Red Action acknowledged that there would always be a leadership but the real point was to ensure accountability. So whilst tactical cooperation with anarchist groups was entirely possible, given a mutual emphasis on anti-capitalist de-centralisation, the prescriptive component of associated anarchist programmes was considered to be unrealistic. Red Action looked to Marx and Engels rather than Bakunin and Proudhon, reiterating on a number of occasions that the flag was staying red.16

Of course the emerging Red Action thesis was also constructed upon the premise, axiomatic within the organisation after the catastrophe of the miners’ strike in 1984, that the Labour Party was not only irredeemably reformist, but also in the process of abandoning the working class. Although debates were conducted in Red Action before 1984 about whether it was acceptable to vote Labour17, the miners’ strike was a watershed.18 As Coen says, the Labour Party offered tangible gains in the early 1980s we had an open mind but that changed after the miners’ strike. After that I don’t think a pro-Labour argument was viable’.19 More controversially Red Action also questioned the capacity of the broader labour movement to deliver tangible benefits to workers. In essence it was felt that the trade union movement was no longer in a position to effectively represent the aspirations of the majority of ordinary people. The Red Action contribution to the debate, conducted via Open Polemic, clearly illustrates its position: ‘due to the changing nature of capitalism, trade unionism as the centrepiece of a working-class strategy for total social change has to be dismissed. It is not that trade unionism is finished entirely, or that workplace activity is counter-productive, but that its political relevance to the working class will continue to diminish’.20 According to Red Action, ‘trade unions only work effectively when capitalism is working effectively. In other words the “labour movement” offers no protection and is largely irrelevant to those sections of the working class that need it the most’.21 In short, syndicalism as a strategy was never likely to work because capitalism itself had been reconfigured in Britain, which had in turn altered the position of the working class. Well- organised trade unions in heavy industries like mining, shipbuilding and steel works were diminishing rapidly, if not disappearing completely, leaving a residual public sector trade union movement to engage in special pleading over resources from central government.22 A trade union dominated labour movement was finding it increasingly difficult to mobilise the masses, and was likely to decline in relevance to the working class, who were increasingly disenfranchised and denied adequate representation in the workplace.

Nor was there any real salvation for the working class in looking abroad for solutions emulating more persuasive political paradigms around the globe was not really a viable option. Within Red Action there was a strident rejection of some of the ‘actually existing’ communist regimes, which were perceived to be coercive, monolithic and dominated by unaccountable bureaucratic elites.23 It might also be noted that it was felt to be the Leninist organisational model that, to some extent, pre-figured the disaster of Stalinism, which was considered to be the antithesis of a genuinely socialist society.24 Across Europe the consequences of Stalinism for the working class were deemed disastrous, and early critics like Victor Serge were marshalled in Red Action publications to confirm the observation: ‘Serge’s greatest achievement is to show quite clearly the futility of trying to build socialism by trying to use methods that are against socialist principle’.25

Yet despite its trenchant critique of other left-wing groups, anarchism, the labour movement and communist regimes, Red Action continued to articulate a principled opposition to capitalism drawn directly from Marx. Red Action emphasised the need for a new system of economic organisation and public ownership of the means of production in order to facilitate genuine equality and freedom. Thus Red Action still proclaimed its revolutionary socialist credentials and confirmed its adherence to the original Marxist credo. Red Action’s ideology has been described as ‘libertarian communism’, which perhaps goes some way to explaining its distinctive theoretical position.26 However it is extremely important to note that Red Action did not claim to be the answer to the problems it had identified. Its purpose was to ask difficult questions in the hope of precipitating a wider response, rather than providing all the solutions. Red Action was quite explicit on this point: we recognise that a revolutionary working-class party is necessary if capitalism is to be overthrown. We are not that party, neither are the groups which claim to be it ... we do not seek to imitate the traditional left, we seek to work in areas they neglect’.27 The aim of Red Action was, rather modestly, to sustain the tradition of militant working-class activism and identify the weaknesses evident in other left-wing organisations which claimed to provide all the political answers. 

Moreover, in a meaningful sense, Red Action set out to embrace and mobilise the working class. As one document put it, ‘integration within general working-class culture is essential if the organisation is not to become detached from the class it represents ... A revolutionary socialist party must be composed of working-class members anything else is a sham or a sect.28 Here again Red Action reverted back to Marx. In September 1990 Red Action carried an article entitled ‘Blind Beauty’ which, in deploying Marx’s analysis, spoke of the working class as not only economically exploited but permanently maintained in a condition of servility. In this sense ordinary people were not only dispossessed in terms of material resources, but disarmed politically by being denied access to positions of political responsibility. Red Action adopted the view that the working class must be given the opportunity to determine its own destiny – they certainly did not require ‘commissioned officersfrom the middle classes to tell those in the ranks what do and how to behave. In this sense the Red Action agenda, much maligned though it was, mirrored the message of self-emancipation contained in the original writings of Marx and Engels. As O’Shea says,

We challenged the left, for example through the Leninist and Open Polemic. We met them head-on theoretically. We went back to the original Marx and Engels. We discovered that there were all sorts of flaws in their arguments. They used texts fairly cynically to support their tactical requirements. They got it wrong. No intellectual rigour, no credibility at all. If you are going to use Marx the least you can do is read the relevant material.29

As Red Action concluded, any serious revolutionary organisation must be working class in instinct, character, composition and appeal.30 It is important to be clear on this point, given the criticisms that were invariably levelled at Red Action about ‘workerism’ and infatuation with the proletariat this perspective was never intended to make a fetish of the working class. Workers were no more intelligent, courageous or humanitarian than any other people they were also as capable of being selfish, ignorant and manipulated but objective conditions dictated that they were likely to be the critical dynamic driving progressive social change. 

As a consequence of the political positions adopted by Red Action, the model of organisation deployed internally was designed to invert the fashionable top-down model of the pseudo-revolutionary left in order to re-connect with ordinary people and liberate the vitality and imagination of the working class itself. In short, ‘power must flow democratically and accountably from below’.31 There would be no omnipotent central committee, no closed meetings, and no unaccountable revolutionary cadre. Red Action stated unequivocally that political pluralism should exist within the organisation and that this was the only effective way of ensuring that genuine debate, and indeed truth, would never be subordinated to power.

As a result of Red Action’s emphasis on the need for accountability, internal governance was scrupulously democratic. The National Conference was the sovereign body of the organisation, where all important strategic and tactical decisions were made and where, significantly, the national leadership had to argue from the floor with other delegates via the Chair. Each member received a single vote, and a majority was required to ratify any proposal from the floor. This inevitably led to protracted debate, but this was felt to be a price worth paying to secure transparency.32 The National Council was the body responsible for running the organisation between conferences, making more routine logistical decisions, although all regions could send representatives to National Council meetings. This organisational framework, rudimentary though it undoubtedly was, avoided the labyrinthine structures common to many groups on the left and facilitated membership participation. Although overall membership levels never exceeded more than a few hundred, active branches were assembled in major metropolitan areas like London, Birmingham and Glasgow. As Coen says, ‘we had a branch and regional structure in key areas. It was genuinely democratic. People were encouraged to debate and ask questions’.33 Moreover, as O’Shea points out, the membership was overwhelmingly working class.34

However, it is important to note that the organisation was not ‘open’ in a conventional sense. Red Action members were inducted into the organisation and had to serve a probationary period before becoming full members. As Red Action put it, members were rigorously ‘checked out’ and subject to a process of selection.35 Although this might be construed as compromising its position on openness and accountability, this procedure was considered essential because of over-riding security considerations, given the fact that the state had shown a very keen interest in Red Action from the very early stages of its development. Security was a persistent theme throughout the period of Red Action’s existence, particularly given its orientation toward Ireland (see later), indeed any Red Action member arrested or questioned by the police or security forces had to inform the organisation, and failure to do so could precipitate disciplinary action. The emphasis therefore was on the quality rather than the quantity of members, which undoubtedly impacted negatively on the size and growth of the membership.

From a Red Action perspective, one of the key consequences of the fact that the left was composed of groups exogenous to the working class, was that fascists could portray themselves as a radical alternative’ to a capitalist system which was clearly failing ordinary people. Here the need for a viable leftist group, rooted in working-class communities, was not only a necessity in order to sustain the legitimacy of socialist ideas, it was a considered a critical bulwark against fascism. Without an identifiably working-class socialist organisation, those communities would become vulnerable to fascist penetration since such ideas are more easily incubated in those residential areas where resources are meagre and progressive political aspirations have been seriously attenuated.

Anti-fascism was therefore a key component of the Red Action agenda, and in many ways Red Action was the catalyst which created Anti-Fascist Action, a fact acknowledged by most of the other participants.36 AFA was formed on 28 July 1985 at Conway Hall in London, although formally launched in Liverpool in the following year. Initially AFA consisted of a variety of groups, such as the Newham Monitoring Project and Searchlight, along with numerous Labour and trade union affiliates, with a steering committee of eight elected people. As O’Shea says ‘the first manifestation of AFA was very respectable, including liberal anti-racist groups.37 However it soon became evident that some of those liberal elements were distinctly uneasy at the methods deployed to confront the fascists. As a consequence AFA split in 1989 and the re-launch clearly positioned the organisation as a street-level activist organisation which included, principally, Red Action (communist), the Direct Action Movement (anarcho-syndicalist) and Workers’ Power (Trotskyist). There is no question that Red Action formed the most active nucleus within Anti-Fascist Action during this period. As Copsey puts it, ‘confident of an increasingly receptive audience for militant anti-fascism, RA, which constituted the largest single group in AFA and comprised the majority of its active membership, seized the initiative’.38 Gary O’Shea argues that, ‘from 1989 AFA was run by an activist membership, which meant a stronger, more effective organisation’.39 Henceforth AFA, and particularly Red Action, deployed an unremitting ruthlessness in dealing with its ideological enemies on the extreme right. 

The Red Action position clearly reflected the belief that although fascism was a clear and present danger to ethnic minorities it was, in essence, an anti-working class movement. This meant that all those who stood to lose under fascism should be actively engaged in the effort to fight it. In essence it would be a struggle conducted by members of the working class, irrespective of ethnicity. Importantly AFA aimed to be totally non-sectarian and democratic, its only objective being to oppose fascism physically and ideologically. As the European Militant Anti-Fascist Network Manifesto explained, anti-fascism was not the appropriate political arena for ideological debate: for unravelling historic rivalries between Stalinism and Trotskyism; Marxism and Anarchism ... We have a common enemy, and if the enemy is to be defeated then what unites us rather than what divides us must have primacy’.40 Violence was deployed as an important tactic, but not a principle, and only part of a multi-faceted approach to anti-fascist practice. The magazine Fighting Talk was set up in 1991, and an attempt was made to mobilise people via various cultural and leisure activities such as Cable St. Beat, Unity Carnivals, Northern Network and Freedom of Movement. Football clubs were also the focus of considerable AFA activity (e.g. at Celtic and Manchester Utd) and AFA even produced a BBC Open Space video entitled ‘Fighting Talk’. So tactically AFA engaged in a wide range of methods in a variety of contexts. By 1990 AFA was clearly identified as the militant wing of the anti-fascist movement.41 At its peak in the early 1990s AFA had four regions and around 40 branches with particular areas of strength in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow.

However, although AFA was never simply a pretext for a punch-up there was a realistic acknowledgement that purely legal and peaceful methods, or a passive reliance upon state agencies, was unlikely to achieve the required results physical confrontation was emphasised by Red Action and central to AFA’s strategy. The tactics utilised were relatively straightforward and the aim unambiguous to destroy all semblance of fascist presence in public spaces pubs, clubs, halls, streets and to clear fascists out of working class areas. It was Red Action that formed the hard core of AFA’s ‘stewards group’, and its role was pivotal when engaging the fascists. The key to Red Action’s operational activity within AFA was meticulous preparation and organisation. For example, knowledge of local geography, accurate intelligence and effective scouting were always deemed to be of crucial importance, briefings were given prior to mobilisation instructing people on how to behave in police custody, and advice was provided on which solicitors to use if charges were brought by the police.42 Although some Red Action members spent long terms in jail for their activities, generally speaking the activists endorse the tactic of physical confrontation as an extremely effective short-term measure. As O’Shea argues, ‘the idea that they controlled the streets was revealed as total nonsense. They couldn’t handle us. The impact was immense and they never recovered’.43 Occasionally Red Action activists even infiltrated the fascists themselves, as Patrick Muldowney explains:
We went to Winchester for a lefty demo against the BNP but instead of marching we found the fascists in a local pub. They had come from London, Birmingham and elsewhere to attack the march. We just got chatting with them. At the right moment we turned on them. They were absolutely destroyed. And it wasn’t just that they got physically beaten, we had completely out-manoeuvred them. It was reported in the local papers as a fight amongst the fascists but they knew who we were. It was over for them and they weren’t coming back.44 

As Coen confirms, ‘we re-claimed areas back from the fascists. The stewards group was very effective. When it came to mobilisations it had to be well organised ... you need to be careful when confronting the enemy, it has to be well controlled’.45 The violence deployed was therefore disciplined and precisely focused, and the suggestion that Red Action was simply a football firmor hooligan outfit is curtly dismissed by O’Shea: ‘the idea that Red Action was a gang is a total nonsense. There was absolutely no bullying anywhere and it certainly did not seep into any other areas of Red Action’s conduct’.46

It is worth elaborating upon this point given the controversy precipitated by this tactic. The violence was used for a very specific political purpose it was never advocated as a means of inducing some kind of personal catharsis; neither was it a primitive eruption of visceral class rage; nor indeed was it the instinctive expression of a specifically working-class masculine identity.47 It was an expression of community resistance and a realistic acknowledgement that, in general, fascism is about exerting prejudicial power and intimidating people. The first people thrown into the concentration camps under fascism would be communists, socialists, anarchists and trade unionists this fact alone, it was felt, bestowed upon Red Action the moral right, indeed the obligation, to resist. It also recognised that a key part of fascist strategy was to ‘control the streets’ in order to ‘march and grow’ as the Nazis did in Germany prior to 1933. Red Action (and AFA) aimed to make that claim look ridiculous and thereby completely discredit them in the eyes of working- class communities.

It would be fair to say that the ruthlessness and brutality of the violence deployed, in what was effectively a clandestine turf-war waged in working-class communities across Britain, caused considerable consternation on the liberal left. Often the left and the liberal intelligentsia would talk of free speech’, ‘civil libertiesand the need to expose fascism to the light of democratic debate rational people would, they argued, see through the half- truths and lies of fascist discourse. However prioritising liberal freedom of speech above political reality would have constituted a categorical error because fascists sought simply to use freedom and democracy in order to destroy it. In any event, freedom of speech is a contingent liberty, and we all accept reasonable constraints upon our freedom of expression in order to respect others. Freedom of speech cannot be an absolute right in all circumstances and everything depends upon political circumstances and social consequences. Indeed it might be argued quite persuasively that liberal critics of physical force resistance were hypocritical because, unless they adopted an explicitly pacifist position, more or less everyone accepts that force is legitimate for particular purposes. Certainly it was particularly disingenuous for those liberals who endorsed the most brutal military interventions abroad to condemn, in moralistic tones, domestic anti-fascist violence. The liberal notion that ‘violence never solves anything’ was only ever selectively deployed by its advocates. The reality is that fascism is the political equivalent of plutonium and should be destroyed completely there was, therefore, according to Red Action, no genuinely ‘safe’ way to engage with it at any level. 

Red Action’s success against the BNP and Combat 18 has been clearly reflected in the reaction of the fascists themselves; both Tim Hepple and Matthew Collins, for example, have provided detailed evidence of Red Action’s impact.48 Red Action was the only organisation that literally ‘terrified’ BNP thugs into capitulation and forced the BNP to alter its strategy.49 By the mid-1990s it was clear that the fascists were being beaten off the streets and, in 1994, in an internal document written by Nick Griffin and Tony Lecomber, they pronounced there would be ‘no more marches, meetings or punch-ups’. In effect the violent hooligan element within the BNP (Combat 18) were to be de-commissioned and the BNP opted for a Euro-Nationalist strategy of contesting elections and courting political ‘respectability’. While C18 would continue to attract the fickle loyalties of football firms and political outcasts, eventually imploding as a consequence of state infiltration, the BNP was to make a concerted effort to enter the mainstream of British political life. Red Action (and AFA) had succeeded in driving the fascists off the streets and, as O’Shea says, directly the fascists threw in the towel we stopped’.50

However, the fact that Red Action was instrumental in deterring fascists when they were clearly intent on a policy of street-level insurrection has been the subject of some academic denigration. Nigel Copsey has argued that although militant anti-fascism left an indelible impression on the BNP’51, he maintains that this brand of resistance was, in the final analysis, counter-productive.52 Copsey asserts that ‘far from destroying the BNP in a war of attrition, militant anti-fascism actually encouraged its modernisation ... militant anti- fascism, although perhaps successful in the short term, had a deleterious effect over the longer term’.53 Such a thesis inevitably involves a degree of counter-factual guessing who is to say whether, if left unopposed to control the streets, the BNP would not have earned the space to elect parliamentary representatives? How many more people would have suffered brutality at the hands of racist bullies? Copsey obviously prefers a typically liberal emphasis on moderate and co-ordinated campaigns’ of community-based activism which prioritise the Labour Party.54 Interestingly Red Action not only rejected this approach in the context of ongoing fascist violence, it explicitly refuted the multi-cultural assumptions of the liberal left which underpinned it. This was yet another reason why Red Action induced such contempt, and requires some explanation.

Throughout the period of its existence Red Action steadfastly refused to endorse the liberal agenda which prioritised gender, ethnicity and sexuality over class. Moreover, Red Action criticised the state-funded agencies of the multicultural establishment, stating unequivocally: concede that race is the dominant motive force in society is to justify the political existence of the enemy for them. This theoretical displacement of class as the primary dynamic within society for one of race, gender or sexual orientation is nothing less than a fundamental betrayal and the fount of all our misfortunes ... it is the subversion of the progressive movement from within.55

According to O’Shea, ‘identity politics is totally destructive to class unity. It’s a point of principle for us because it is a right wing idea that has been adopted by the left’.56 As Coen explains, multi-culturalism elevates ethnicity over class. The capitalist system is perfectly happy to divide people along racial lines’.57 Well aware of the controversial nature of such a critical view of a dominant liberal orthodoxy, Red Action persistently claimed that the ‘celebration of diversity’ position was, in essence, politically divisive, strategically counter-productive and, ultimately, self-defeating.58 Gains made by minorities were, it was argued, made at the expense of working-class unity and advancement, and multiculturalism was deemed to be inherently reactionary in that it prefigured the ‘Balkanisation’ of the working class. However, this did not mean that Red Action was unsympathetic to issues focused on gender, sexuality or race.59 For example Red Action insisted that all questions of personal morality should be free from state interference and, moreover, ‘it is axiomatic that any minorities, racial or sexual, must be defended when under attack. As part of a defensive formation the articulation and support for minority rights is understandable. But it is not the way forward’.60 To forefront minority rights ‘fragments any alliance, needlessly antagonises the neglected majority, and ultimately reinforces rivalries and institutionalises division’.61 Politics thereby becomes an exercise in special pleading with the working class divided, which inevitably undermined the possibility of effective, unified action.

Although the assault on the multicultural consensus undoubtedly ruffled liberal feathers there was another area of Red Action activity which created an even greater furore, and that was its political and ideological orientation toward Ireland and, more specifically, its unconditional support for armed resistance by Irish Republicans. This controversial position was evident right from the very start, and the first issue of the Bulletin argued not only that the British working class had to come to terms with its imperial past, but observed that ‘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’.62 It was a hypocrisy which Red Action never ceased to expose. Red Action saw Republicans as engaged in a war of national liberation, which had the potential (at least) to produce a progressive socialist outcome by fusing military, political and economic struggles. In effect Red Action not only endorsed the position held by Marx and Connolly about the need to deal with the ‘national question’ as a prelude to, or in conjunction with, any socialist aspirations, they paid tribute to those Republicans who were taking the fight to the British state.63

Throughout the period of its active existence Red Action supported local Irish activities and sustained practical political contact with Republican paramilitary organisations. Red Action believed that genuine revolutionary socialist groups should place Irish national liberation high on their agenda.64 According to Red Action the liberal left in Britain had, in effect, abandoned the issue of Northern Irelandwhen the struggle for civil liberties was transformed into an armed insurrection. Even the Trotskyist left, which had the habit of offering ‘conditional support’ for Republicanism, was decidedly equivocal when it came to the use of armalites and semtex. As West explains, in the post war era you could tell the quality of the left in relation to certain key areas Ireland was a critical issue and the left ignored it’.65 Red Action, on the other hand, resolved to offer unwavering support. In Red Action interviews were conducted with Republican volunteers, and the regular column ‘Dispatches from a War Zone’ was penned by a member of the INLA.66 Headlines such as ‘IRA/INLA: Why we support them’, ‘Why we say “Up the IRA”’ and IRA Call the Shots: Britain Bombed to the Negotiating Table’, indicated an explicit allegiance consistently held.67 O’Shea elaborates:
There was a war in Ireland, an armed insurrection against the state, and we decided to contribute in whatever way we could. It was a litmus test for the left. When Bobby Sands died he was put on the back page of the SWP paper! That tells you everything you need to know about them. We were for the IRA against the common enemy. We knew who the good guys were. We were instrumental in the Saoirse campaign to support Irish prisoners. If you weren’t interested in Ireland you weren’t a revolutionary. Simple.68

As Coen confirms, ‘the commitment to Ireland was ideological. The Republican movement was doing things we approved of so we supported it. We were close to the IRSP in the early days, but gravitated toward Sinn Fein as the struggle developed because it was felt to be more productive’.69 Red Action delegations were sent regularly to Belfast, and members actively participated in Republican events (demonstrations, marches, funerals), since it was felt that much could be learned from Sinn Fein in terms of its organic connection to Nationalist working-class communities in Ireland.70 

For some in Red Action the act of visiting the Sinn Fein or IRSP HQ in Belfast, or participating as a steward for Bloody Sunday demonstrations, or perhaps attending meetings at the Camden Irish Centre, were enough to indicate a political commitment.71 However, for others the contribution was more practical and extensive, as illustrated by the activities of Pat Hayes and Liam Heffernan, who were jailed for their activities as volunteers in the Republican movement. When Pat Hayes addressed the jury at the Old Bailey in his summation, which referred to (among other things) the colonial history of Ireland and the moral obligation of armed resistance, most Red Action members (many of whom had Irish family connections) would have concurred. Moreover, when Hayes concluded that the issue of the accuracy or inaccuracy of the prosecution case is not one I am interested in challenging. I am a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army. I have no criminal charges to answer’, the demarcation line between the conventional ‘revolutionary’ left and Red Action appeared to be a chasm.72 To the national media, the liberal intelligentsia and, indeed, most of the left, the arrest of the volunteers was shocking and sensational. To those in Red Action, however, there was no ideological or political Rubicon to be crossed between active revolutionary socialism and armed Republicanism because they were self-evidently part of the same struggle for emancipation. Red Action was clearly different, as Birchall points out, it was a frame of reference definitely more Irish Republican than British labour movement’.73

Given Red Action’s critique of the revolutionary left, its rejection of the Leninist party model, Trotskyist practice and anarchist ideology, and considering its rejection of the Labour Party and the trade union movement as instruments of social reform, and if we add to this its vehement rejection of liberal multiculturalism along with its (albeit under-developed) critique of global communist alternatives, it is easy to see how accusations of apostasy (or nihilism) could gain credence. However, it is important to acknowledge the limited purpose of the organisation and the narrow policy areas upon which it focused. In these particular areas, most notably regarding fascism and Ireland, it is possible to conclude that Red Action’s intervention was significant and meaningful. Yet the enduring importance of Red Action might lie elsewhere, as a consequence of its underlying emphasis on proletarian palingenesis it was an organisation that simply refused to abandon its attachment to, and belief in, the working class. From the Red Action perspective the working class was to be engaged, mobilised and deployed rather than patronised, marginalised and misled. Crucially, Red Action saw ordinary working people as possessing the potential for positive agency in the political process, rather than being passive receptors for the pre-packaged plans of the major political parties and/or so-called revolutionary groups. Ordinary working people were encouraged to participate and play a role beyond the ballot box, even if that entailed the judicious deployment of political violence. This aspect of Red Action’s legacy is critical, because there can be no socialism without the eradication of deference toward those deemed to be socially superior and destined to rule. De-subordination is part of the very essence of socialism, and Red Action’s assertive (even aggressive) prioritisation of working-class identity and agency made it an organisation which, in taking its revolutionary aspirations seriously, punched well above its weight.

In conclusion, although it would be relatively easy to dismiss Red Action as constituting little more than a peripheral manifestation of revolutionary left-wing politics during a period of substantive social transformation toward new post-industrial realities a political relic unable to adapt to the new neo-liberal, pluralist, post-modern political world such a perspective would be fundamentally misconceived. A more carefully considered analysis reveals not only an extraordinary degree of practical commitment amongst activists, but a political position that reflected a relatively high level of theoretical sophistication, distinctive elements of which deserve much closer scrutiny as examples of ‘best practice’, especially for those on the left who stubbornly refuse to relinquish their commitment to the ideas of working-class emancipation and egalitarian social transformation.


1 M. Seaton, ‘Charge of the New Red Brigades’, Independent, 29 January 1995.
2 Red Action Newsletter (1993). See also, for example, Michael Gove ‘Red flag flies again’ Times 15 January 2002
3 Gary O’Shea, National Organiser, Red Action, interview, 25 June 2012.
4 Steve Coen, National Treasurer, Red Action, interview, 25 June 2012.
5 Cited in M. McNamara and M. Piggott, ‘Interview with RA’, Blitz June 1998.
6 See S. Birchall, Beating the Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action (London, Freedom Press, 2010), p. 89.
7 Ibid, p. 98.
8 Steve West, member of Red Action, interview 25 June 2012.
9 Red Action (Spring 1991).
10 See ‘Marx v Lenin’, Red Action, 55 (undated).
11 Red Action, 1 (February 1982).
12 Red Action (AprilMay 1992).
13 Red Action, 74 (Spring 1997).
14 Red Action (Summer 1994). 
15 Ibid, and ‘Anarchism and the Invisible Legions’, Red Action, 56 (undated).
16 See Red Action, 56 (undated).
17 See Red Action (special election issue 1983).
18 See ‘Dig Deep for the Miners’ and ‘Scabs are Scum’, Red Action, 12 (undated). 19 Coen interview.
20 Red Action Newsletter (SeptemberOctober 1995).
21 Red Action Newsletter (JanuaryFebruary 1996).
22 See ‘Realism or Collaboration: The Changing Face of Trade Union Sell-Outs’, Red Action, 32 (April 1987).
23 Red Action, 28 (November 1986).
24 Red Action (SeptemberOctober 1991).
25 Red Action, 16 (February 1985).
26 N. Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain (Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2000), p. 164.
27 Red Action, 32 (April 1987); 4 (July 1982).
28 Red Action (Spring 1991).
29 O’Shea interview.
30 Red Action (September 1990).
31 Red Action (Spring 1991).
32 See Red Action Internal Affairs (August 1999).
33 Coen interview.
34 O’Shea interview.
35 Red Action Newsletter (January 1997).
36 See K. Bullstreet, Bash the Fash: Anti-Fascist Recollections, 198493 (London, 2001), p. 3.
37 O’Shea interview.
38 N. Copsey, ‘From Direct Action to Community Action: The Changing Dynamics of Anti- Fascist Opposition’, N. Copsey and G. Macklin (eds), British National Party: Contemporary Perspectives (London, Routledge, 2011), p. 126.
39 O’Shea interview.
40 European Militant Anti-Fascist Network Manifesto (undated).
41 M. Hayes and P. Aylward, ‘Anti-Fascist Action: Radical Resistance or Rent-a-Mob?’, Soundings, 14 (2000), 5362.
42 Birchall, Beating the Fascists.
43 O’Shea interview.
44 Patrick Muldowney, Member Red Action, interview, 25 June 2012.
45 Coen interview.
46 O’Shea interview.
47 Hayes and Aylward, ‘Anti-Fascist Action’, 5362.
48 See T. Hepple, At War with Society (London: Searchlight, 1993); M. Collins, Hate: My Life in the British Far Right (London: Biteback Publishing, 2011).
49 Birchall, Beating the Fascists, p. 387.
50 O’Shea interview.
51 Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 128.
52 Ibid, p. 130.
53 Ibid, pp. 130 and 137.
54 Ibid.
55 Red Action (AugustSeptember 1988). 
56 O’Shea interview.
57 Coen interview.
58 See Red Action, 3, 5 (1999); 4, 11 (MayJune 2001).
59 See Red Action, 38 (January 1988); 40 (March 1999).
60 See Red Action, 32 (April 1987); Red Action Agenda National Meeting (1999).
61 Red Action Agenda National Meeting (1999); ‘Race or Class? Fatal Distraction’, Red Action, 3, 6 (April/May 1999).
62 Red Action, 1 (1982).
63 See Red Action, 2 (April 1982); 3 (May 1982).
64 Red Action Newsletter (July/August 1995).
65 West interview.
66 See ‘Inside the Maze’, Red Action, 64 (December 1992).
67 Red Action, 14 (September/October 1984); 35 (October 1987); 69 (Autumn 1994). Also issue 53 (undated).
68 O’Shea interview; Red Action, 72 (Autumn/Winter 1995) and 73 (Spring 1996).
69 Coen interview.
70 See ‘Building Sinn Fein in South Belfast – the Lessons for Red Action’, Red Action National Conference Document (2000).
71 Red Action, 3, 6 (April/May 1999).
72 Red Action (Summer 1994).
73 Some members of Red Action went on to pursue such ideas via the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA).