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Ian Birchall

Only rock and roll?

(Autumn 1986)

From International Socialism 2:33, Autumn 1986.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

D. Widgery
Beating Time
London 1986

The revolutionary left is, in general, not very good at writing its own history. Much of what is written is self-justifying sectarianism, while those who have a proper recognition that their own group is not the centre of the universe often see no point in doing historical work. David Widgery’s Beating Time [1] – a history of the Anti-Nazi League and in particular of Rock Against Racism – is therefore to be welcomed. Widgery’s book is not a scholarly treatise [2], but a committed and passionate account by a participant. Widgery has been savagely attacked from the right [3] and must be defended; if some of his judgments inspire reservations, they at least have the merit of initiating a useful debate.

Beating Time has two enormous merits. Firstly, it reminds us that revolutionaries have been capable of mass mobilisation and of affecting the course of events. The collapse of the National Front in 1979 was not inevitable; Widgery rightly makes the comparison with the rise of Le Pen in France, where the left’s response was weak and belated. Certainly we must share the credit with Margaret Thatcher, whose notorious ‘swamping’ speech won many NF votes back to the Tories. But the ANL’s role cannot be denied. Undoubtedly the SWP made mistakes during the ANL period, and they must be analysed and studied. But if we had avoided the mistakes by not taking the initiative, we should have quite simply condemned ourselves to irrelevance.

Secondly, Widgery makes some perceptive comments about the relation of form to content in political propaganda. The ANL did not succeed simply because it had the ‘right line’ on fighting racism, but rather because of how that line was presented. And that point has a wider relevance for the question of socialist propaganda; as Widgery argues:

If socialism is transmitted in a deliberately doleful, pre-electronic idiom, if its emotional appeal is to working-class sacrifice and middle-class guilt and if its dominant medium is the ill-printed word and the drab public procession, it will simply bounce off people who have grown up on this side of the sixties watershed and leave barely a dent behind. (p. 84)

Widgery reminds us what we learnt in that period – and have perhaps too lightly forgotten since. For if it is one hundred per cent correct that in the downturn a revolutionary newspaper needs to concentrate more on basic propaganda, to contain ‘longer, more analytical articles’ [4], it is also true that good propaganda need not be boring; indeed, one would suppose, almost by definition, that it should not. Widgery reminds us what imagination and lively presentation can do for the propagation of socialist ideas.

These are the book’s merits, and for them alone it deserves to be read and discussed. But behind them lie certain ambivalences, certain questions which Widgery does not answer and which require further clarification.

What was the nature of the ANL operation? We need not waste much time on the political illiteracy current among some sectarian opponents that the ANL was a Popular Front. The essence of the Popular Front is unity with the political representatives of a section of the bourgeoisie. Thus the French Popular Front was a political alliance between the workers’ parties and the Radicals, described by Trotsky as the ‘democratic party of French imperialism’. [5] ANL sponsors like Keith Waterhouse and Glenda Jackson were not short of a bob or two, but no-one could seriously describe them as the political representatives of a wing of the British ruling class. Indeed, the majority of ANL sponsors were probably trade unionists (with the NUJ, Equity and the Musicians’ Union in a preponderance).

Nor was the ANL a united front in the classic sense. The Labour MPs, like Neil Kinnock and Gwyneth Dunwoody (yes really! Remember?) helped the ANL’s credibility, but it was Joe Strummer and Elvis Costello who pulled the crowds. It was in many ways a unique historical experience, one which, in Widgery’s words, ‘genuinely brought culture and politics into each other’s arms and set them dancing’. (p. 52)

But if Widgery’s strength lies in his ability to recreate a concrete historical situation, his weakness lies in the absence of an adequate theoretical framework. Widgery stresses, quite rightly, the dimension of spontaneity. Revolutionaries have to know when to ‘learn from the masses’. [6] But as Lenin pointed out, the process is a two-way one: ‘Undoubtedly, the revolution will teach us, and will teach the masses of the people. But the question that now confronts a militant political party is: shall we be able to teach the revolution anything?’ [7]

In 1977 Paul Weller, in a classic punk affirmation, told the world that ‘the kids know where it’s at’. [8] (Weller was not yet nineteen and in that Jubilee year believed that the Queen was ‘the best diplomat we’ve got’. [9]) The following year a somewhat older Widgery echoed Weller in a letter to Socialist Review. [10] ‘... "Youth" ... have ten times more idea of what’s going down than your pretty average Marxist Editor ... working class kids NOW are political and fun without having to make 5 minute speeches to prove it.’

Widgery does not quote this in Beating Time – but he does not seem to have broken clearly with the conceptions that lie behind it. For what is missing here is a concept of ideology. If the kids do know ‘where it’s at’ by the simple device of being biologically young and bopping to the right music, then ideology poses no problems – we can simply step outside of it. This is simply the other side of the coin of the Althusserian notion that ‘ideology ... is indispensable in any society’. [11] Both concepts encourage passivity and deny the need for politics. If ideology can be cast aside without effort, or if it is totally inescapable, then there is not much that should, and can, be done.

Marx and Engels had a more demanding formulation: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’. [12] Ruling-class ideas will dominate (otherwise the system would collapse), but they are not the only ideas; there is ground for ideological struggle.

Widgery’s underestimation of ideology becomes clear in his assessment of culture. Writing of himself and the generation of 1968 he states:

When we were finding our way to Marxism in the 1960s our common influences were not only Mayakovsky, El Lissitzky, Tallin, Brecht, Grosz and Heartfield but surrealism, the cinema, Tamla Motown, the Village Voice, Cadillac fins and American pop art. (p. 54)

Now personally, I’m not very sure whether I would get Cadillac fins at a garage or a fish shop. But Widgery undoubtedly does have an important point here. The items he lists were part of the sensibility of the left in the sixties, and any history that leaves them out in favour of a unique focus on Wilson’s anti-union laws or why Workers’ Fight split from Militant will quite simply miss the point.

Yet whenever Widgery starts producing his rather breathless lists of cultural heroes and influences (which he does repeatedly throughout the book) I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s famous definition of ‘culture’: ‘Culture ... includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches, and the music of Elgar.’ [13]

Like Eliot, Widgery underestimates the extent to which ‘culture’ is an embodiment and expression of ideology. This underestimation undoubtedly springs from a generous impulse; Widgery wants to have all the angels on his side. Unlike Leavis, he wants a ‘great tradition’ that is elastically all-inclusive. Unfortunately, Widgery’s reluctance to draw ideological lines leads to some serious problems in both political and cultural analysis.

The period of the ANL was one of deep crisis for reformism in Britain and around the world. In Portugal a working class which after more than four decades of dictatorship, had not developed’ mass reformist organisations, seemed, in 1975, to be moving towards revolution. In Britain the Labour government’s fraudulent ‘Social Contract’ had won the support of the trade union bureaucracy, including the ‘Lefts’ like Scanlon and Jones, and thereby of the layer of established militants who looked to the left bureaucrats. Apart from the defeated firefighters’ strike of 1977–78 there were few national confrontations; what did happen was a series of small but courageous and tenacious struggles – Trico, Grunwicks, Garners – involving workers – often black and/or female – who were relatively untouched by reformist influences. The IS/SWP strategy in the period was therefore to relate to the minority who wanted to fight. Hence the Right to Work Campaign, the rather less successful by-election candidacies and the street confrontations with the Nazis.

In such a situation it was all too easy to underestimate the resilience of reformism, its ability to co-opt and recuperate the new militants. In January 1977, Duncan Hallas (a comrade not unduly swayed by the strains of punk rock) made the prediction (rash but not yet falsified) that ‘it may well be the case that Callaghan’s is the last majority Labour government’. [14] And in 1978 Tony Cliff wrote an article called Why Socialists must support gays, which warned the left not to believe that ‘the lieutenants of the revolution will all be forty-year-old white male shop stewards’, and declared that ‘we should look forward now to the first leader of the London workers’ council being a 19-year-old black gay woman!’ [15] The image of quadruple oppression (by race, sex, sexuality and age) was a powerful one; but eight years on Cliff’s black Lesbian is probably a 27-year-old Labour councillor somewhere in inner London. Mario Soares succeeded in containing the Portuguese Revolution, and many of the revolutionaries of the mid-seventies have been sucked into the Labour Party to tail first Benn and then Kinnock.

Widgery accepts (p. 8) that the ANL’s victory was temporary; what he fails to explain is how it happened that so much that seemed possible in the late seventies failed to come about. Thus Widgery notes that it was possible for the SWP and the Labour Party to ally in the ANL, despite their divergent interests; he quotes Neil Kinnock as saying: ‘As far as I’m concerned the ANL performs a very important function for the Labour Party.’ (p. 113) Indeed it did; the Labour Party probably recruited rather more members via the ANL than the SWP did. Kinnock might have added that the ANL played a ‘very important function’ for Neil Kinnock MP. For Kinnock, like so many reformist leaders before him, was elected by the left in order to lead from the right; his past with the ANL was undoubtedly one of the factors that helped to create his left image in 1983.

Because Widgery doesn’t have a theory of ideology he is unable to explain the mechanisms of that ideological recuperation by reformism. Why did the kids cease to know ‘where it was at’? Was it simply old age? And as a result Widgery simply fails to pose the problem of how revolutionaries should operate in a movement like the ANL.

Widgery does draw out the key role of the SWP – and notably of Jim Nichol and Paul Holborow – in initiating the ANL (pp. 49–50). Without that SWP initiative the ANL would simply not have happened – and the far right would have grown much stronger. But because Widgery sees everything from the standpoint of the mass movement, nothing from the standpoint of the party, he ducks the real problems. This issue is not one of manipulation (’Sinister Trotskyists mislead bright-eyed youth’); would that it were so easy for a revolutionary group of some 3,000 to ‘manipulate’ demonstrations of up to a hundred thousand. Widgery’s cataloguing of the spontaneity and local initiative which lay behind RAR and the ANL makes it easy to answer such smears.

The more difficult question, which Widgery does not even raise, is as follows: the ANL was a broad-front, single-issue campaign. As such the vast majority of its members remained recuperable by reformism. Yet such a campaign could only exist through the initiative of the revolutionary minority. So how do the revolutionaries act to build a successful broad front, but at the same time recruit to their own organisation, the only effective way of constructing a barrier against reformist influence?

Of course there is no easy answer to this dilemma. The contradiction, as Tony Cliff often remarks, is in ‘life itself’. In the 1966–68 period the International Marxist Group took the initiative in launching the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. The International Socialists let the IMG carry the administrative leadership of the VSC; we concentrated on building the campaign on the ground – and on fighting for our own politics. As a result we recruited far more members from the VSC than the IMG did. At the time of the ANL that solution was not available; if we had not launched the campaign no-one would have. To have abstained would have been both criminal and suicidal. And it was no solution to make some SWP members into ANL apparatchiks, others into SWP propagandists – such a division of labour could only import conflict into the party.

Undoubtedly, however, we did make some serious mistakes. All too often we assumed that anyone who bought a Clash album was already a revolutionary (rather than someone with whom it was very much worthwhile arguing revolutionary politics). And Socialist Worker – despite its lively and imaginative presentation, made some serious concessions in terms of carrying socialist arguments. The same kind of spontaneism that underlies Widgery’s analysis made it possible for Socialist Worker to fight shy of defending Marxist theory. Thus one Garry Bushell (now with The Sun) attacked

... fossilised theoreticians who want to write skins and punks in on the page that says ‘the proletarian youth flocked to the party’s leadership’.

As for the other sanitised slide-rule socialists – you can sit there with your logarithms writing theses on the perfect revolution until they’re ready to fumigate your cell at the next Belsen. [16]

The underestimation of ideology that makes Widgery unable to confront these problems also mars his treatment of what is the main focus of his book, the specific role of rock music – in particular Rock Against Racism – in the anti-Nazi struggle. As Widgery points out, there were teachers, miners, railway workers, drunks and left-handed vegetarians Against the Nazis’. The ANL’s sponsors included film-actors, university professors and classical musicians. But it was the Rock Against Racism carnivals which gave the ANL its biggest mobilisations and gave the campaign its real mass penetration. Why?

There have been two conceptions of rock music current on the left. The protagonists of the former claim that rock is in some sense inherently revolutionary; they base their case on the roots of the music in black oppression, on the selective quotation of allegedly subversive lyrics, and on the equally selective quotation of expressions of outrage by ageing clergymen and right-wing politicians.

The proponents of the opposing case deny any specifically progressive qualities to the music. They point to the conservative and often sexist nature of many of the songs; to the competitive and individualist nature of the star system; and above all to the way the music becomes a commodity and a source of huge profits, something totally integrated within the capitalist system.

Both accounts are true; both, taken in isolation, are patent nonsense. What is needed is some way of understanding the contradictions that riddle the history and practice of rock music.

We have to begin by recognising that as yet no historical materialist theory of music exists. It may be hypothetically possible to show that rhythms and musical structures are the expression of ideologies, but as yet it has not been done. True Plato wanted to ban ‘relaxing modes’ and ‘drinking songs’ from his ideal authoritarian state [17], and J.S. Bach argued that all music’s ‘finis and final cause should never be anything else but the glory of God and the recreation of the mind. When this is not heeded, there really is no music, but a hellish howl and clatter.’ [18] We may deduce that neither Plato nor Bach would have much liked the Sex Pistols and that their dislike would not have been a question of personal ‘taste’ but something to do with their (conservative) world-views. But this is no more than a hint of the existence of a musical ideology; to identify such a thing will require an immense labour in the study of complex mediations and we may well not get it this side of the revolution. So we shall have to make do with some more instrumental criteria.

Widgery stresses the black origins of the music. This was a powerful agitational theme for denouncing white racist musicians who ripped off black music and for exploiting the contradiction of white racist youth who liked black music. And undoubtedly the blues and jazz that Widgery looks back to was a profound expression of racial and social oppression. But just as Widgery ignores the capacity of reformism for ideological recuperation, so too he ignores the ability of the music industry to co-opt and tame. Capitalism can certainly live with Michael Jackson’s Thriller (the biggest-selling album ever) and Lionel Richie does not seem set to bring the system crashing down.

So should we simply pack in contemporary music and concentrate on rare blues records from the forties? Not, I would argue, while the Redskins (with Tony Cliff on backing vocals) can make No. 31 in the album charts. For if the ruling ideas of the music industry are deeply reactionary, there is still ground for ideological struggle. Popular music – much more than the cinema, television or the press – is still permeable and its permeability is rooted in its structure.

Popular music is inherently committed to innovation; it markets by constantly promising to replace the old by the new. This is embodied in the institution of the weekly chart, and above all in the concept of the ‘climber’ on which radio and television chart presentation is based. It doesn’t matter how well a record is selling; if it is doing less well than last week it is on the way out.

In order to satisfy the thirst for innovation which it has itself created, the industry needs a reserve army of new talent. Of course the easiest way to do this is to manufacture the new band synthetically (a task made much easier by computers, which make musical ability largely obsolete). The only problem is that it doesn’t always work. Sigue Sigue Sputnik were launched as the Sex Pistols of the mid-eighties, complete with ‘designer violence’, racist jokes and a half-sympathetic plug in New Socialist. [19] Unfortunately nobody much wanted to buy the records. With luck someone lost a lot of money on the exercise.

So the industry still has to rely for its reserve army on those weird unknown bands you hear on the John Peel programme. And those bands – because some of them are young, poor and actually enjoy music – are just sometimes radical, not only musically but politically. Of course Peel may disappear when Radio One is privatised, but the contradiction remains. The music industry has colossal powers of recuperation, but it can never quite close the gap.

As a result ruling class hegemony over popular music is less than total. Despite money, despite hyping, it cannot be wholly relied upon. The really interesting thing about popular music during the Falklands War is not that Elvis Costello wrote an excellent (but not terribly successful) song opposing it but that there were no pro-war records. Presumably few bands supported the war and those that did were not going to stick their necks out and risk their reputation. Those of us old enough to remember being assailed by Anne Shelton’s Lay Down Your Arms (despite its title a pro-militarist song) in the run up to Suez (let alone Petula Clark being promoted as ‘forces’ favourite’ in the Korean War) were both surprised and thankful.

On this account Widgery is right to stress the political potential of rock music; but wrong to underestimate the industry’s powers of ideological recuperation. This leads him to overstate the achievements of the RAR period, and to distort what has happened since.

Thus Widgery argues that by 1977 ‘punk was clearly a mass movement’. Indeed, by the standards of small revolutionary groups; but in terms of the popular music market it remained a minority current. Apart from the Sex Pistols’ seven top ten entries there were few major punk hits. The Clash never made the top ten at all, and performers like Aswad and Carol Grimes, who feature prominently in Widgery’s account, never made the chart at all. During the year of the two carnivals, 1978, the Number One position was occupied for sixteen weeks by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and for another nine by the black but banal Boney M. The only chart-toppers remotely akin to RAR interests were Althea and Donna’s Up Town Top Ranking and the Boomtown Rats’ Rat Trap. [20]

More seriously, Widgery fails to explain – or apparently to understand – what has happened since the golden days of RAR. In the early eighties the Jam and the Specials did take overtly political songs all the way to Number One, but since then the picture has indeed been bleak. Widgery’s optimism is thus surprising:

The potent idea that pop music can be about something more than mere entertainment has remained and deepened. Live Aid above all but even Wham! miming for the miners, Bruce Springsteen’s hefty donation to the Women Against Pit Closures campaign, and the joint version of You’ll Never Walk Alone to raise money for the victims of the Bradford football stadium fire in June 1985, all represent a wider recognition of the social power popular music can have which goes back to RAR and the early days of punk. The music is often tinsel-weight but the projects represent a huge advance on the take-the-money-and-run mentality. (p. 116)

Here Widgery’s desire to have all the angels on his side seems to have taken him right out of reality. The reference to ‘mentality’ seems to place the whole thing on the level of personal morality, ignoring the pressures of material interest and ideology. Did Widgery not notice that while the Live Aid and Bradford fire records were cheerfully hyped to Number One, the only pro-miner record that made any impact on the charts was the Council Collective’s Soul Deep; and that became a quite minor hit only after the performers had been panicked into donating some of the proceeds to a scab taxi-driver’s widow? As for Live Aid, its role for 1980s rock stars is what ‘buying my mum and dad a big house’ was for their predecessors in the fifties – confirmation that they are nice boys and girls at heart.

On the contrary, what has happened in the mid-eighties is that in a period with no social movements to exercise a pull in the opposite direction, the profit-makers have tightened their grip and succeeded in making virtually everything they touch anodyne, diluted music for a demoralised public. The industry has even solved the old problem of what to do with those who are too old to rock and roll but too young to die – it sells them Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits.

What is needed in this situation is not a vague ‘mentality’ of good-will, but hard politics. And that politics has to be backed up by organisation. But just as Widgery underplayed the role of the revolutionary party in fighting reformism, so he fails to point to the role of the party in cultural struggle. One of the very few bands that has preserved its political and musical integrity over the recent period is the Redskins. Firstly, because membership of the SWP has given them a clear political framework. And secondly, because every time they appear on stage or television, they know they are being watched by SWP members muttering: ‘Beware of your deviations and faux-pas, we shall not miss a single one.’ [21]

Of course other musicians have fought against the pressure, and felt the need of party organisation. Since the SWP could not offer it to them in the present period, they turned to the Labour Party. Hence Red Wedge was formed. Now Widgery’s book was completed last December, and he makes no mention of Red Wedge; but its existence puts his methodology to the test. Widgery’s failure is that he doesn’t draw the ideological lines – between politics and charity between Live Aid and the miners’ strike. It is only when we have drawn the lines that we can deal with those troublesome cases that straddle across them.

For Red Wedge are centrists, vacillating elements with one foot in the camp of class struggle and the other in Kinnock’s election machine. And as with all centrists, our job is to pursue, not woolly compromise, but political clarification and polarisation. Our aim, pursued firmly but fraternally, is to draw the dividing line between the reformists and the revolutionaries among them, and above all among their followers.

To do so would be a small but worthwhile task, a task which would require the party to take cultural intervention seriously. In the period after the demise of the ANL and RAR, there was a tendency to ‘bend the stick’ away from what were perceived as the excesses of the period. Between 1982 and 1984 there was a virtual embargo on the discussion of popular music in the pages of Socialist Worker. Happily this state of affairs is now over, thanks largely to the efforts of the Redskins, who kept on keeping on when they were getting little support or encouragement from the party machine. The time is now ripe to make a sober assessment of the achievements and limitations of one of the most important phases in the party’s history. Widgery’s book is a valuable starting-point in that task.


1. London, 1986. Page references given in brackets in the text.

2. Indeed, it is a little too unscholarly; like Widgery’s earlier The Left in Britain (Harmondsworth 1986) the work is marred by minor errors: thus Ken Worpole becomes Ken Walpole, the Leyton Buzzards become the Leighton Buzzards, Anarchy in the UK, which peaked at No. 38, is said to have topped the charts, and the chronology contains some wild inaccuracies.

3. Cf. his comments in City Limits, 26 June 1986.

4. C. Harman, The Revolutionary Press, International Socialism 2:24, p. 42.

5. Cited in J. Danos and M. Gibelin, June ’36, London 1986, p. 251.

6. T. Cliff, Lenin, volume I, London 1975, p. 232.

7. V.I. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, Moscow n.d., p.10.

8. The Jam, In the City, Polydor 2058 866,1977.

9. P. Hewitt, The Jam: A Beat Concerto, London 1983, p. 40.

10. July–August 1978, jointly with Ruth Gregory, Syd Shelton and Roger (Dub) Huddle.

11. L. Althusser, Pour Marx, Paris 1967, p. 93.

12. K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology, London 1965, p. 60.

13. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture; cited in R. Williams, Culture and Society, Harmondsworth 1963, p. 230.

14. Some Prospects for 1977, International Socialism 1:94.

15. Socialist Worker, 26 August 1978.

16. Socialist Worker, 7 October 1978.

17. The Republic, Harmondsworth 1955, p. 139.

18. Cited in K. Popper, Unended Quest, London 1976, p: 63.

19. April 1986.

20. All statistics come from the standard source book, The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles (Enfield 1983). I am, of course, aware that the charts are rigged and hyped, but I am using them as a very crude indicator – i.e. a top ten record gets bought and heard quite a lot. Chart placings are more easily accessible than sales figures, which may also be rigged and distorted by lying and home-taping. The chart was a Top Fifty until 29 April 1978, and a Top Seventy-Five thereafter. Unfortunately on these charts the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen never got higher than Number Two.

21. Surrealist declaration of 27 January 1925.

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