Dave Widgery

Letter from Britain

Carnival Against the Nazis

(September 1978)

From Radical America, Vol.12 No.5, September-October 1978, pp.75-77.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Left here is still basking in the reflected glory of the April 30th Carnival Against the Nazis which took 80,000 people to rock East London against racism in a march that was 3½ hours getting clear of Trafalgar Square and four miles in length. Though the carnival reflects patient political groundwork over some years, its scale inaugurates a new era in anti-racialism in Britain. And not before time, with all the Parliamentary parties moving briskly to the right on immigration, the Nazi National Front making rapid electoral gains and the next election likely to be an exercise in competitive black bashing and crocodile tears.

The sheer size of the march was the first surprise, especially in a country which has never experienced fascism first hand and whose anti-fascism is therefore bandaged up with national patriotism. But the carnival stood comparison with the high points of the nuclear disarmament and Vietnam movements and was certainly the biggest anti-fascist rally since the Thirties. In class terms it was a blast too. The white working class youth, the universally maligned and largely unemployed, the punks and soccer fans and skinheads and school kids, largely outside any political organization, had got there under their own steam. And the black youth, cagey at first, turned up too. My workingclassometer registered the march as markedly more proletarian than anything since the big Industrial Relations marches of the early Seventies and with the average age about 15 years younger. This is not to knock the British lower middle class’s capacity for organised moral outrage, from the Turkish Atrocities through CND to My Lai, but to record that anti-racialism is no longer an optional foreign policy issue. Modern immigration is about imperialism coming home, race in the capitalist nations of old Europe is now a working class, street level matter, a critical element shaping modern class conciousness.

It was, into the bargain, a most exciting looking demonstration. Trafalgar Square, the site of so many grey occasions, was raked with colour. Yellow Anti-Nazi League (ANL) roundels, punk pink Rock Against Racism (RAR) stars, day glo flags oscillated in approval to the speeches. Giant masks of the Nazi leaders, streamers, Lone Ranger masks, steel bands and reggae and punk from flat bed trucks, and thousands upon thousands of plastic whistles formed slip streams of colour and sound. It was a carnival, a positive, joyous carnival against the No Fun, No Future philosophy of the NF. Behind various scenes a lot of counter-cultural know-how had come together again.

Working towards the Victoria Park stage from the perimeter, and passing the outskirts of older thermos flask and Sunday paper picnics with families watching fire eaters, clowns on stilts and mobile popular theatre through the middle ground of nodding, weaving and reminiscing lefties to the hard core of pogoers who had camped for days in mud and bottles and were periodically hauled over the stage barrier to a make-shift hospital even as scaffolders fought to strengthen it under the weight, one traversed three political generations. A strange meeting of Woodstock and Weimar, only in strictly UK idioms.

The politics of musicians performing free at the Victoria Park end were at least as interesting as those of the politicians on the plinth. As well as their highly political music, all had gone on public record in the weeks before the local elections against the NF and several had been down to picket NF national headquarters, despite the powerful lobbies of conservatism, cynicism and commercialism which saturate the music business. They spoke out not just as representatives of their rock and roll generation or in solidarity with fellow-musicians but to start repaying some of the dues any musician owes to the black roots. RAR started in a spontaneous protest against some off-the-cuff racialism from Clapton and Bowie. But it’s grown into something much bigger, a rank and file rock and roll roots music movement against the NF, respectable racism and superstar cool. With help from the music press, goodwill from the bands, a natural empathy with the emerging UK reggae dimension and a record for putting on A-1 gigs, RAR provides some sort of a way for musicians of the new wave to keep in touch with their audiences and their ideals instead of spiralling off into superstar insanity. They really mean it maan, the music politics mix, so forced in the rock Sixties, now, in harder times, comes naturally.

Thus Poly Styrene, Brixton-born, Anglo-African, Shirley Bassey-meets Johnny Rotten-and-wins, punk chantreuse:

“If you want to live your life in mindless bondage, join the NF. If not, don’t bother.”

Patrick Fitzgerald, Irish-East End poet:

“The black and white question is a cover story, concocted to hide the fact that working class people are still being screwed all over the place.”

The Clash, though atrocious poseurs (Jo Strummer modelled a Red Brigade tee shirt) are still brilliant and very radical musicians and the Tom Robinson Band, lead by a gay singer whose name should be obvious, capture perfectly in Tom’s lyrics the camouflaged-crisis and polite-tension of late Seventies UK.

Best of all Steel Pulse, the first UK band to level with the JA sounds in music and politics too. The Pulse’s Klu Klux Klan is not only a masterpiece of electronic sound and multi-rhythm but a brilliantly wry and defiant lyric about the return of organised racialism. The concert ended with a jam round a white reggae riff which had Mick Jones and Danny Kustow, the two best white guitarists of the new wave dropping power chords into a chant by Steel Pulse, 90 Degrees Inclusive, and Jim Pursey of Sham 69. It flowed because just as white and black UK kids in the Sixties related to the sounds of the black cities of North America to fashion their music from, they are now listening where the black struggle is fiercest and the music most intense, the Carribean and Africa.

If you North Americans still think punk is something to do with CBGBs and “Tom Verlaine” and that reggae is Jimmy Cliff, Rasta clichés and white pop with a fake reggae drop, you’ve got a lot of listening ahead. The punk-gay-reggae line up was amazing but is real because it expresses the common experience and defiance of inner city life; street heat, maximum unemployment, sexual ambiguities, fuck-all future, corrugated iron and the NF biding their time. We have integrated riots these days. So if you still want folk music, all you ra-a-dicals, try the Italian Communist Party who are busy re-running Woodstock. Sometimes it has seemed, in the political dog days of the last three years, that the Marxist Left divided between those disappearing headlong into Lacan and Althusser and those reading the stoned codes of Dillinger, Peter Tosh and The Clash. It was apparent on 30th April who had made the right connection. It even showed up on the electoral swingometer with the NF vote plummeting in the local elections after they had promised their followers a breakthrough at the polls.

After that euphoria there is need for some perspective which will be helped by the national conferences of the ANL and the local committees against racism and fascism which are linked around an excellent newspaper CARFF. Margaret Thatcher’s statement about Britons being “Swamped by an alien culture” has marked a new level of official racialism as has the Labour Left’s involvement in a Parliamentary Commission, which has recommended what amounts to inter alia identity cards for blacks. Immediately following the NF poll defeat and under the political umbrella of Thatcher’s respectability, there has been the most ghastly murder of an Asian tailor in East London, Altun Ali, which has jerked the Bangla Deshi community, especially its youth, into national action. In my opinion, the tactic of physical opposition to the fascists, most associated with the Socialist Workers Party and much tut-tutted in pacifist and feminist circles, has been invaluable. The policy of No Platform and They Shall Not Pass which culminated in Lewisham last summer were essential to block the NF attempts to use organised fear as a political force. So was the public identification of the NF’s cadre as committed fascists. But racism in Britain is much more widespread than the present fascist base and represents a species of thwarted working class reformism. To tackle this physical blockade of the organised fascists is necessary but insufficient and can consume far too much of the revolutionary left’s still small resources. The extent of support for ANL, RAR and the Carnival show that the tide can be turned and that there is more widespread disillusion with an ultra-right Tory Party and a conservative Labour Party than the electoral system has registered. We are, as Tariq Ali, one of the leaders of the Vietnam movement, predicted at the funeral of Altun Ali, in for some big political movements in Britain after a period of stagnation. After the Carnival we all feel more optimistic.

David Widgery


Last updated on 24.10.2005