Chanie Rosenberg Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Chanie Rosenberg

The Labour Party and
the fight against fascism

(Summer 1988))

From International Socialism 2 : 39, Summer 1988, pp. 55–93.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


The experience of the Labour Party’s relation to the fascists – both Mosley in the 1930s and the National Front in the 1970s – is instructive, not only in terms of the specific question of fascism and Labourism, but also on the general nature of Labourism: its relation to mass action; its relation to the capitalist state; and its relation to prevailing bourgeois ideas, above all the racism that played a crucial role in the rise of fascism.

We shall examine the following areas: Firstly, fascism in the 1930s. Secondly, modern fascist movements and the conditions for their growth, and, finally, how not to fight the fascists, the Labour Party record; and how to fight them, the revolutionaries’ record. The British case is relevant to the rise of fascism in France under Le Pen, and there is a special section devoted to this.

Fascism in the 1930s

As Trotsky has exhaustively covered the rise of fascism in the magnificent collection of his writings, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany in the 1930s, this section will merely draw briefly on his writings.

The October revolution spread beyond the borders of Russia. But the revolutionary wave was defeated, giving way to a period of reaction. In Italy the factory occupations of 1920 were followed by the victory of Mussolini in 1922. In Germany the revolution of 1918–23 was followed some years later by the world slump and the rise of the mass fascist movement of 1929–33.

In a period of monopoly capitalism in crisis, fascism arises as a mass movement of despairing middle-class people exploited by demagogues and used by big business to crush the labour movement thereby getting rid of all democratic institutions. The crisis squeezed the middle class. The old petty bourgeoisie suffered increased competition, loss of savings and possible bankruptcy. The new middle class suffered an end to upward mobility and a freezing of the institutional hierarchy, loss of savings, and the threat of unemployment. The middle class blamed ‘international financiers’ for the crisis, but also the working class, out of which they had spent their lives trying to climb, and whose wages and social services constituted an ‘insupportable drain’ on their country. The fascist movement, while in fact working for big business, exploited both feelings, twisting them away from class struggle solutions into nationalist paths: Jewish international financiers, Jewish Communists. This suited big business by dividing and weakening the working class and exonerating the big capitalists (except the Jewish ones).

Fascism was a movement of the panic-stricken petty bourgeoisie, but workers were not immune. In Germany salaried employees, technicians and administrative personnel largely crossed over to the Nazis. The despairing unemployed and lumpen proletariat were also attracted to fascism. The fascists had no easy task in penetrating the working class, especially the organised working class, as they set out to smash its trade unions and other democratic organisations. Even after Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933, the majority of workers remained loyal to Social Democracy. Thus in factory elections in May 1933 the Social Democratic Party gained 73.4% of the votes, the (Nazi) ‘National Socialist Workplace Organisation’ only 11.7%. [1]

To succeed in crushing the labour movement and build support, the fascists had to choose an arena away from the workers’ collective strength in the factories. The focus for the fascists was disciplined marches on the streets. The Nazi leaders were very clear on the importance of street demonstrations for their growth. Hitler said: ‘Mass demonstrations must burn into the little man’s soul the conviction that though a little worm he is part of a great dragon.’ And Goebbels, head of propaganda, said: ‘Whoever controls the streets also conquers the masses, and whoever conquers the masses thereby conquers the state’.

Fascism was the product of two conditions: the sudden sharp explosion of the social crisis after 1929, and the weakness of the proletariat’s leadership. In Germany the Communist Party, going through its ultra-left ‘Third Period’, had a policy of calling Social Democrats ‘Social Fascists’, thus equating them with the Nazis. Naturally it was unable to build a united front with Social Democracy. Social Democracy had blind faith that adherence to the Constitution (i.e. the state) would keep fascism at bay. In the crisis it sacrificed reforms fought for over decades, and kept capitalism alive, bringing the proletariat to its knees. If not for these fatal errors, Hitler could easily have been smashed, as the social power of organised workers is much greater than their numbers. By comparison the power of the fascist masses is much less, as they are unorganised and unused to fighting in a disciplined fashion. Trotsky said:

On the scales of election statistics, a thousand fascist votes weigh as much as a thousand Communist votes. But on the scales of the revolutionary struggle, a thousand workers in one big factory represent a force a hundred times greater than a thousand petty officials, clerks, their wives and their mothers-in-law. The great bulk of the fascists consists of human dust. [2]

Fascism in Britain in the 1930s

Hitler came to power on 30 January 1933, the fascists in Austria in February 1934. There was an attempt at a fascist coup in France on 6 February 1934, which was put down by massive workers’ resistance, and of course there was fascism in Italy, which gave the movement its name. Fascism in Britain was part of this broad movement. Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in October 1932, scooping up all the tiny splinter groups that had existed in the 1920s.

Mosley had a variegated career as Tory MP until 1924, when he joined the Labour Party, becoming Labour MP for Smethwick in 1926, and rising to be the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the 1929 Labour government. After having a pet scheme for the Keynesian expansion of public works – supported by Nye Bevan, Strachey and another 50 or so MPs – thrown out, he took £50,000 from William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, to found the New Party on 1 March 1931. Four other MPs joined him. He contested a by-election at Ashton-under-Lyme and split the vote, letting the Tories in. The Labour Party was furious and broke up his meetings. He formed a defence corps to protect his meetings, sent two members to Germany to study Hitler’s methods, went himself to visit Mussolini in January 1932 and later that year formed the BUF – for, as he proclaimed, a ‘classless brotherhood’. He started his newspaper The Blackshirt and adopted that piece of clothing as his uniform.

He held frequent meetings at which there was often violence. On 22 April 1933 there were 10,000 at the Albert Hall. In early 1934 Lord Rothermere swung his newspapers, the Daily Mail, Evening News, Sun, Dispatch and Sunday Pictorial behind Mosley, and the Daily Mail came out on 15 January 1934 under the headline ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’:

Britain’s survival as a great power will depend on the existence of a well-organised Party of the Right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Mussolini and Hitler have displayed.

The BUF grew to 40,000 in 1934, with a headquarters staff of 140, a full-time paid defence force and vehicles. The membership reflected the classic fascist pattern: the leadership substantially middle class, two-thirds of them under 40, heavily ex-military, with a socially marginal membership. The BUF made a concerted appeal to farmers, shopkeepers, small tradesmen and the self-employed. Taxi drivers and clerical workers also registered support, as well as small businessmen, whose trade journals were generally favourable to the BUF, reflecting the small man against the big trusts and monopolies. [3]

A certain insight into the movement may be gained from a questionnaire sent out by the Labour Party in June 1934 to 900 constituency Labour Parties, agents and trades councils enquiring about local fascist activity. Three hundred and eighty were returned a month later. According to these, 30 areas seem to have had a large fascist presence: Paddington about 3,000, Liverpool 750, Ealing 6,000, Sheffield 350, among the largest. There were branches in 126 areas and, of the 39 replies giving approximate sizes, 12 were over 100. In 28 replies there was no indication of a branch but there was regular activity, and in 177 there were occasional meetings. The most regular activity was the sale of the paper The Blackshirt. In addition there was a free distribution of 10 Points of Fascism; in farming areas Fascism and Agriculture was sold and in many places Mosley’s The Greater Britain and a preçis of it, Fascism in Britain. The overriding impression was of a young membership of both men and women, sometimes organised in a youth movement. Sutton Labour Party, for instance, reported that ‘75 percent of local fascists are young men and women of independent means – sons and daughters of the military.’ Very few had yet succeeded in winning over prominent local businessmen. [4] This Mosley tried to correct.

At a massive rally in Olympia on 7 June 1934 the BUF tried to establish its credentials as a strong, disciplined organisation that would ‘stand no nonsense’ from the working class. Thousands of influential people had been invited and attended – and there were 3,000 of the fascist Defence Force to steward. Some hundreds of anti-fascists managed to infiltrate, and thousands more struggled with the police outside. The brutality of the fascist attacks on hecklers shocked even Tories, who were not used to this kind of violence on the British mainland. They wrote disparaging letters to the press. Three weeks later Germany’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’ did not allay anxieties, and business backers, including Lord Rothermere, deserted Mosley. Mosley tried to refurbish his image with a rally in Hyde Park on 9 September 1934. However, a massive 150,000 antifascists turned out after a big campaign led by the Communist Party, gave out one million leaflets and organised many publicity stunts. The fascists were ignominiously marched in by the police at 6 p. m. and marched out again at 7 p. m. [5]

Why were the capitalists so cool towards Mosley, while in Germany they embraced Hitler? Certainly they were not against fascism as such, and many, like Churchill, admired Mussolini and Hitler. The reason was that Britain, hard hit as she was by the slump, did not suffer anything like the catastrophe that Germany did. Industrial production was cut by 20 percent at its lowest point in 1932–3 compared with 1929, while in Germany it was over 40 percent. Unemployment was 3 million, about 23 per cent of the Insured population, compared with 6 million, or 30 percent of the German workers. Unemployment in Britain was also concentrated heavily in certain regions, while for those employed, living standards actually rose. [6] In addition Britain had ended the war a victor, increasing the area of what was already the largest empire in the world, and so could export misery. By contrast defeated Germany lost out heavily, and was desperate to conquer new territory and redivide the world.

Germany was in total crisis, both economically and politically. Her dire situation led to a much less stable political set-up than in Britain. The crisis in Britain did not drive the middle class to despair to anything like the same extent as in Germany. They remained with their traditional party of reaction, the Tories. The ruling class, too, were not comparably destabilised. Also, by 1934–5, the worst of the crisis was over and the economy was picking up again, with unemployment declining. The ruling class was therefore not so desperate to change its traditional means of keeping the working class in its place – the trade union bureaucracy and Labour Party – for the risky one of supporting the fascists. Who, so far, had been unable to prove that they could control the streets.

After his humiliation at Olympia and Hyde Park and subsequent abysmal defeat in the 1935 general election, Mosley decided on a new tack. Control of the streets is essential for a fascist movement. Mosley’s movement followed this teaching. According to the Labour Party Questionnaire mentioned above, nearly all the BUF branches held outdoor meetings, South Paddington at the rate of two or three per week at two venues, Bristol four per week, Sutton twice daily. Outdoor meetings were reported in three times as many cases as indoor meetings. The latter were often big rallies. By contrast, and in the nature of a fascist movement, trade union infiltration was tiny. Only a handful of areas reported activity in this area. In Newcastle some fascist busmen were active, in nearby Gateshead some TGWU members, in Coventry a number of members of the Typographical Association. These are the exceptions, not the rule. [7]

Mosley decided to concentrate on the streets of the East End of London to build a firm base while waiting for a new crisis to open up fresh possibilities for mass recruitment. London’s East End concentrated massive deprivation. Housing was dreadful in quality and totally inadequate in quantity. The population was poverty-stricken, one-sixth being below the official poverty line. Industry was overwhelmingly concentrated in small, unhealthy sweatshops. Unionisation in these was notoriously difficult to achieve as work was seasonal and precarious even at the best of times. Unemployment was heavy. Unions were almost unknown outside of some big factories. Casual labour was a traditional characteristic of the East End. There was also a concentration of Jewish immigrants, some of whom had fled from pogroms in Eastern Europe. Their presence was exploited by racists to rationalise their misery. Mosley, who had not previously used this issue, now adopted anti-semitism as a central focus, using all the Hitlerite jargon of the conspiracy of international Jewish financiers and Jewish Communists ‘sucking the nation’s blood’. ‘The big Jew’, went the propaganda, ‘puts you out of employment by the million, the little Jew sweats you in Whitechapel.’ [8] And he made headway. Fascist branches were set up in Bow, Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and Limehouse. [9] These included working-class people, though the leadership was petty bourgeois. [10] He held hundreds of meetings and rallies in the area, some as large as 5,000 people.

By this time the menace of fascism was patently obvious. In Italy and Germany all semblance of workers’ democracy, including the workers’ parties, had been smashed. In Britain the Labour Party opposed fascism, but, operating within the bourgeois democratic framework, it strove desperately to nurse crisis-ridden capitalism back to health. To this end it mercilessly attacked the living standards of the working class during its tenure of office in 1929–31, aiming to cut wages, unemployment benefit and social services, thereby creating conditions for the growth of fascism in Britain. The Labour Party opposed fascism because, like all social democratic organisations, it depends on bourgeois democracy for its survival. At the same time the Labour leaders opposed the Communist Party, which aimed to overthrow capitalism.

In the year Hitler came to power, 1933, the Labour Party published a number of documents denouncing fascism: Democracy versus Dictatorship – British Labour’s Call to the People; Notes for Speakers on Democracy or Dictatorship, and Hitlerism. The TUC published Dictatorship and the Trade Union Movement. [11] Note the use of the synonym dictatorship for fascism. This deliberately subsumed Communism under the same title, denouncing fascist and Communist dictatorships as of equal danger to democracy. At the Labour Party conference, 1933, Herbert Morrison, rebutting CP efforts at affiliation to the Labour Party, said:

You cannot hunt with the hounds and run with the hare. If we are opposed to dictatorship we must be open about it and say so. If we ourselves flirt with a dictatorship of the Left ... what are we doing? We are preparing a political psychology which, if we justify one form of dictatorship, gives an equally moral justification for a dictatorship in another direction ... If we ourselves at this juncture wish, as we all wish, to condemn that dictatorship which is destructive of freedom, individuality and initiative we ourselves must be above suspicion. [12]

In November 1935, at the height of the general election campaign, the Daily Herald, which voiced Labour Party policy, stated:

Equally towards the dictatorial ideas of Fascism and the dictatorial ideas of Communism, Labour’s attitude has been one of unremitting hostility. [13]

The bulwark against the revolutionary threat to ‘our whole civilisation’ was the constitutional government of the British state:

We have had such a long experience of constitutional government that a strong belief in democratic methods has become part of the national character. [14]

Fascism was therefore a foreign import and though bad, would find difficulty in taking root in Britain. According to Labour, Mosley’s organisation used

the techniques it has learnt from foreign countries ... which, fortunately, are contrary to British tradition and the best instincts of the British public ... The invasion of uniformed bodies of men, associated with a quasi-military organisation ... is not the kind of political organisation which the British temperament can approve or tolerate. [15]

The democratic state softened and overrode class differences. Attlee gave the Labour Party’s view of what makes constitutional government:

We feel in this House something that makes us all members one of another in the building up of the structure of Government, in which for so many years we have avoided these violent outbursts. We have managed to carry on and to make transformations in our society without rupturing friendly personal relations, without dividing house from house, without dividing our whole social life as it is divided in some continental countries by a political line. We believe that tradition is worth preserving and that it is essential to preserve it.

We believe that the changes that we want must be brought about in such a way that, as in the past, we can transfer from one state of society to another without violence, without civil war, without events that might bring down our whole civilisation. [16]

Total reliance on the state implied total reliance on legislation to deal with the fascists. Its particular form was to be a Public Order Act which had been demanded over a number of years. The Daily Herald said after Mosley’s Hyde Park defeat by massed ranks of anti-fascists:

The Mosley fiasco was mainly owing to the splendid police organisation and the good sense of the London workers, who observed the direction of the TUC and took no part in the counter-demonstration! [17]

The corollary to this ideology – turning its back on the class struggle – was clear. The fascists must be opposed, but the Labour movement must have nothing at all to do with their opponents, the Communists. Communist methods, crudely described as ‘fighting in the streets’, must be avoided at all costs.

The Labour Party did hold demonstrations against fascism, for instance on 9 June 1933, on 12 July 1936, and supported an ex- servicemen’s march on 1 September 1936, but being completely unconnected with any timed fascist provocation, they were tame affairs. Fortunately the Labour Party was not the only group which opposed fascism. The real physical battle to smash the fascists went on in the daily street skirmishes in the East End, and in the huge counter-demonstrations to the fascist rallies called mainly by the Communist Party (which in 1933 had 5,400 members), and also by the Independent Labour Party and some (not all) Jewish organisations. They heeded Hitler’s words in 1933:

Only one thing could have stopped our movement – if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day had smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.

The decisive battle to smash the fascists was the Battle of Cable Street, which has rightly passed into history as a crucial victory for the British working class. Mosley decided to fight the London County Council elections in March 1937 and to drum up support announced a series of marches and rallies, one of them, on Sunday 4 October, to pass through the heart of the Jewish area in Stepney, East London. The rising level of anti-fascist opposition made it clear that this provocation would foment big battles. As soon as Mosley announced his intentions, Stepney members of the Communist Party, and after some bitter internal quarrels, the London Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, and the Jewish Ex-Servicemen’s Association swung into action in a massive campaign to bring the East London population out against Mosley. The slogan was ‘They shall not pass’, the slogan of the Spanish workers defending Madrid from the fascists at the time. Besides the enormous amount of postering, leafletting, whitewashing, loud-hailing, and holding of meetings, the CP prepared motor-cyclists for communications, first aid posts manned by doctors and nurses, people to guard their platforms in Limehouse and Victoria Park from 7 a.m., and a headquarters for constant telephonic communication. The Jewish People’s Council collected 100,000 signatures in a few days to ask the Home Secretary to ban the march.

How did the Labour Party prepare for this crucial struggle which was inflaming the whole of the East End? The Labour Party, the Daily Herald (and the Jewish Board of Deputies) all appealed to people to stay away. Communists were condemned as ‘troublemakers’. The fascists intended to form up in Mint Street at 2.30 p.m., where they would be reviewed by Mosley, then break into four columns to march to four different destinations where rallies would be held. George Lansbury, Labour MP for Poplar, one of the outstanding personalities of the district, wrote to the Home Secretary, Sir John Simon. He stated that he was not asking the Home Secretary to prohibit the march, but to divert it from Aldgate and High Street, Whitechapel. The reason? A large part of the street was ‘up’ for the reconstruction of Aldgate East underground station and the streets were congested. ‘What I want is to maintain peace and order, and I advise those people who are opposed to Fascism to keep away from the demonstration.’ [18] The Daily Herald editorial comments:

I advise people to keep away from the Fascist demonstration in the East End. That is sound advice by Mr Lansbury.

Fascist meetings are in themselves dull. The platform is dull. The speeches are dull. The ‘message’ is dull.

The only attraction is the prospect of disturbances.

Withdraw that attraction, and Fascist meetings would die on the organisers’ hands.

Well, it can be withdrawn whenever the opponents of Fascism are cool and disciplined enough to decide to do so. [19]

Meanwhile the five East London mayors sent a deputation to the Home Secretary to get the march banned. The Labour Mayor of Stepney, Mrs Roberts, said: ‘What I am concerned about is to maintain law and order.’ [20] And from the London Trades Council, its secretary, A.M. Wall, added his mite of wisdom. The Labour and trade union movement, he said, ‘Would do everything it could to keep the people off the streets.’ [21] The Home Secretary refused to budge on banning.

The mobilisation resulted in something like 150,000 people thronging the area, setting up barricades, particularly in Cable Street. Many local Labour Party, trades council and other union bodies and rank-and-file members participated, against their leaders’ pressure, some later being admonished or even expelled for collaborating with the Communist Party. The 10,000 police present were vicious, making repeated baton charges against the anti-fascists to try and hack a way through for Mosley, but so great and determined was the throng that it proved too risky, and the Commissioner of Police, Sir Philip Game, ordered the 3,000 fascists away at 3.40. They marched westwards to the Embankment under a heavy police guard and dispersed. The East End had won a famous victory, and victory meetings and celebrations went on well into the night.

Labour Party reactions the next day? Lansbury: ‘I am surprised at the depth of feeling displayed’! Mrs Roberts was struck by the splendid behaviour and good humour of the police. [22] A day, and no doubt many verbal battles later, she actually did state that it had been ‘a moral triumph for the people of the East End that it had not been much worse’, and now blamed the Home Secretary and Commissioner of Police for the disturbances for refusing to ban the rally. [23] But it was Herbert Morrison who pronounced the official Labour Party view on 5 October, the first day of the Labour Party conference in Edinburgh. In moving an emergency motion condemning the government’s unwillingness to ban the fascist march, he said that the Labour Party would be the last in the world to do anything which interfered with the sacred rights of liberty of expression. He opposed

... counter demonstrations from Communists and from the ILP.

I have no more sympathy with those who desire to stimulate disorder from one side than I have with those who desire to provoke it from the other.

This raised cheers from the conference. He went on:

When the fascist march was about to begin, when it was apparent there would be bloodshed and disturbance, the Commissioner of Police quite properly and courageously jumped in.

I respect him for that action ... No blame rests on him ... I congratulate Sir Philip Game on the decision he made and the action he took.

He then drew the logical conclusion of his way of thinking – that the government needed to introduce legislation to outlaw ‘militarised politics’. [24] Hearty congratulations to Sir Philip Game, under whose charge the police had arrested and injured many hundreds of antifascists. None for the people of the East End!

Of a victory march the next Sunday, Morgan Philips, organising secretary of Whitechapel, later General Secretary of the Labour Party, even said, ‘This march too should be banned ... We will not join in the demonstration.’

At Mrs Roberts’s urgent request the East London MPs succeeded in getting police reinforcements into East London, which the Daily Herald proclaimed ‘will bring to thousands hope of relief from persecution and intimidation’. [25]

Pressure for a Public Order Act banning uniforms rose. After all, as A.M. Wall, London Trades Council Secretary, said: ‘We only recognise one army, and that is the army of the King.’ The Weimar Republic before Hitler’s accession to power had introduced laws banning the Brownshirts. Its effect on the morale of the storm-troopers was exactly nil. [26] The Public Order Act was pushed through in a mere two months. It banned paramilitary uniforms, but it gave the police new powers to fine and arrest people without a warrant and re-route and ban demonstrations. This was aimed more at the left than the right, and was subsequently used almost exclusively against the left. Very soon three anti-fascists were sentenced to up to four months hard labour. [27] Throughout 1937 fascist marches and meetings were permitted, while blanket bans were invoked time and again against all processions when the left might be affected, for instance May Day trade union marches. The Parliamentary Labour Party supported the Bill, even allowing the Second Reading to be carried without a division. The Daily Worker by contrast described it as ‘A Bill against liberty’.

Success for defeating Mosley was claimed by both the Labour Party (through the Public Order Act: ‘the Bill did the trick’, they claimed) and the CP, through the Battle of Cable Street. [28] There is no doubt who was right.

Preventing the fascists marching is only one aspect of the fight against fascism. The other is trying to organise against the exploitation which drove people to look for a saviour in the shape of Mosley. This task the Communist Party undertook with enthusiasm in the East End, winning battles against evictions and other housing evils, gaining support among tenants in fascist heartlands and undermining support for the fascists by showing that they offered no practical assistance. The Communists also undertook the difficult job of trying to unionise workers, becoming for a time the natural leaders of a large number of workers who turned to them. [29]

The fascists did not disappear after the Battle of Cable Street. In fact temporarily their support increased on the strength of the publicity gained and in revenge they instituted a reign of terror against individual Jews. But Cable Street essentially broke their back by giving confidence to the Labour movement, which, unlike previously, now often banned fascists from civic halls and insisted on the banning of marches. It became difficult for the fascists to operate as they had not been able to build a sufficient base to overcome such impediments, particularly since every time they did appear, anti-fascists were there in force. A near repeat of Cable Street took place in Bermondsey on 3 October 1937. Here there were no Jews, yet the numbers of anti-fascists equalled or exceeded Cable Street. Again barricades were erected, again the police did not manage to baton through the crowds, and the 3,000-strong fascist column had to be re-routed through a deserted area. [30]

The fascists’ activity and support thus dwindled, until they were formally disbanded in 1940. This was no thanks to the Labour Party and trade union leaderships. It was due to the hundreds of thousands of workers, led by the Communist Party and Independent Labour Party, who fought.

The National Front

The National Front was founded on 7 February 1967, an amalgamation of a number of tiny extreme right groups – the Greater Britain Movement, British National Party, League of Empire Loyalists, Racial Preservation Society and Anglo-Rhodesian Society. John Tyndall became its Chairman and Martin Webster its National Activities Organiser. These two had been members of Colin Jordan’s openly Hitlerite National Socialist Movement, and Tyndall always maintained its ideology, including the Fuhrer (leadership) principle, immigrant repatriation policy and international Jewish financial conspiracy theory.

There were basic differences between the conditions in which Mosley’s movement and the National Front developed. Mosley’s BUF was part of a general fascist movement whose centre of gravity was in Germany. The Nazis rose on the defeat of a proletarian revolution followed by a deep economic slump. Hence for the Nazis a central theme was anti-Communism, the anti-semitism card being used as a crutch for anti-Communism. The rise of the National Front came about in very different conditions – the slow decline of the long boom. Hitler’s supporters were thrown into a frenzy by the horrors of the catastrophic slump. Their attachment to the Nazis was therefore very deep. The National Front supporters were not only smaller in number than those following Mosley, but were in less of a panic about their conditions of life. The National Front was thus a weak replica of the Mosley movement. It had many similarities, but quite big differences. The most outstanding of these was that Mosley and his supporters looked upon themselves as part of a rising world movement. The fascists ruled important countries and were marching forward in Spain and elsewhere. By contrast, in the period when the National Front grew fascism was on the retreat. In 1974 fascism was overthrown in Portugal, in 1977 Franco died and bourgeois democracy was introduced into Spain.

Furthermore, the class structure of contemporary British society is very different from that of Germany in the 1930s. In particular the old middle class is much smaller and the working class much bigger proportionately. [31] Also, a higher proportion of workers are members of trade unions. The difference is particularly marked when we contrast white-collar workers: in Germany in the pre-Nazi period at most only one in eight was a union member, compared to about 40 percent in Britain today. [32]

It is not easy to come by an assessment of the class character of the National Front, but according to a survey undertaken by the Socialist Workers Party in August 1978, even in this country the National Front fitted Trotsky’s description, its membership drawing a surprisingly high proportion from the classic petty bourgeoisie (about a quarter), slightly under the proportion of white-collar workers, and about a third manual workers – well under the national percentage of the population. [33] They were overwhelmingly young males. The membership fluctuated wildly, but at its peak in 1978 it was possibly 14,000 (20,000 claimed) and in 1977 13,000 claimed. [34]

Labour’s capitulation to the racists, particularly over the key issue of immigration, helped prepare the ground for the growth of the National Front. This field has been covered recently by Peter Alexander in his book Racism, Resistance and Revolution, so I shall deal very briefly with this subject.

In 1948, under the Labour government, a Colonial Office Working Party tried to get immigration stopped at source and sought funds for the repatriation of destitute colonials. It would ‘go far to relieving the British taxpayer of the burden of maintaining these colonial drones.’ [35] These ‘drones’, incidentally, held British passports. In June 1950 the Labour Cabinet again examined measures to stop immigration at source. One proposal was: deport any immigrants resident under two years if: 1) they had applied for national assistance; 2) had been convicted of a serious offence; 3) had been involved in any attempt tocreate industrial unrest [36].

Even though, during the thirteen years of Tory rule till 1964, the Labour Party allowed a myth to be created that it was opposed to racist legislation, it was a Labour member, John Hynd, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the previous Labour government, who in 1954 protested against West Indian immigrants ‘pouring into the country every year’. [37] In 1955, the TGWU bowed to the pressure, calling for strict control over black immigration at its biennial conference. The same year saw a rash of racist strikes among transport workers in the West Midlands and all this when the labour shortage for 1956 was nearly a million; a mere 20,000 West Indians had immigrated, and emigration exceeded immigration by hundreds of thousands.

Reactions were low level compared with the sensation caused by the 1958 Nottingham and Notting Hill riots, when gangs of white youths attacked black residents. A poll taken after them showed 80 percent in favour of immigration control. [38] The Labour MPs for Nottingham North and Kensington North quickly bent before the prevailing wind, calling for the quick introduction of control legislation. George Rogers of Kensington North went further, laying the blame for domestic vices on black immigrants:

Overcrowding has fostered vice, drugs, prostitution and the use of knives. For years the white people have been tolerant. Now their tempers are up. [39]

With no campaign against racial prejudice by the Labour leaders, and a fanning of the flames by some, the atmosphere was ripe for the Tories to promise immigration control.

Labour, being in opposition, campaigned against the Bill. The interesting result of Labour’s campaign was that a Gallup poll taken after its second reading and the powerful speeches made by Gaitskell and others showed that the number of people favouring the Bill dropped by a dramatic 14 percent, from 76 to 62 percent. [40] ‘Public opinion’, it seems, can be changed. The main sensation of the 1964 election was the campaign in one constituency, Smethwick, which racism as a vote winner. The slogan chanted by the supporters of Peter Griffiths, the Tory candidate, was: ‘If you want a nigger for yourneighbour, vote Labour’. The result was a swing to the Tories of 7.2 percent against the national swing to Labour of 3.5 percent. The Labour Party, now in government, made a quick U-turn, renewing the Tory Immigration Act and introducing even tougher controls on 4 February 1965. [41]

Roy Hattersley elucidated Labour’s thinking. He confessed to the House on 23 March 1965 that the Labour Party should have supported the Immigration Act: ‘We must impose a test which tries to analyse which immigrants, as well as having jobs or special skills, are most likely to be assimilated into our national life.’ [42] For more than six months after the election, the left around Tribune kept silent about the issue of control, then hinted that it was impossible to plan the British economy without controlling the numbers of immigrants settling in the country. [43] The Labour Party was consistent about immigration controls in one respect: when in opposition it opposed new controls (1905, 1919, 1961–2, 1972); whenin office it used them more ruthlessly than its opponents (1924, 1929, 1948, 1964–70, 1974–9).

Since the 1965 White Paper black immigration declined in favour of European immigration, which rose sharply. But in 1967, Kenya, deciding on independence to Africanise its economy, caused Asian British passport-holders to lose their jobs and seek emigration. A campaign against allowing them in was conducted by Enoch Powell and Duncan Sandys, which reached a climax in February when some 10,000 panic-stricken Kenyan Asians arrived. Callaghan, now Home Secretary, capitulated and rushed a new immigration Bill through all its stages inthree days. The Act included a clause that maintained the right of free entry for those, almost all white, who had a grandparent born in the UK.

Two months later, on 20 April 1968, a confident Enoch Powell made his sensational ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech:

We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation, to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents ... It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. [44]

For this he was immediately sacked from the Shadow Cabinet by Edward Heath. But the effect on ‘public opinion’ was alarming. Over 4,000 dockers came out on strike under the slogan ‘Enoch is right’ (they had been demoralised by a defeat a year earlier), and Smithfield meat porters joined them. Polls taken straight after his speech found no less than 82 percent of voters agreeing with his views, and 73 percent critical of Heath for sacking him. Before March 1968 Gallup found 1 percent thought Powell the best man to succeed Heath as leader; by September 1968 he was running neck to neck with Heath for leader and prime minister.

The Wilson government of 1964–70 helped create conditions favourable to the launching and first growth of the National Front. The government incomes policy, the breaking of the seamen’s strike in 1966, the attempt to introduce a drastic Industrial Relations Act (In Place of Strife) disillusioned Labour supporters. There was a significant decline in the number of Labour voters. Labour lost a large number of seats in local council elections, and in the 1970 general election the Labour vote was quite considerably lower than in 1966. A further period of growth occurred under Heath’s Tory government. In 1972 Asians were expelled from Uganda. This time the Tory government let them in and some pains were taken to settle them. The NF agitated around the issue and in a single month, September 1972, they gained 250 new members. Martin Webster addressed Smithfield meat porters, after which they marched through London to the Home Office. [45] (The dockers this time refused to march – they had just won the battle of Pentonville and their confidence was restored). Tory anger swelled the ranks of the Monday Club, many of whom defected to the NF. [46] At this time it was largely angry Tories who came over to the NF.

But though there were a few significant polls in elections (e.g. 16.2 percent in West Bromwich in a May 1973 by-election, 20 percent and 13 percent in Blackburn and Leicester respectively in local elections the same year), the progress of the NF was still far too slow for it to become a serious threat to the Labour movement.

A much more serious take-off came under the Labour government of 1974–79. In 1976 the International Monetary Fund intervened to save the pound from collapsing. In return it demanded massive cuts in welfare which the Labour government delivered. Hundreds of hospitals were closed and education funds were cut. Housing suffered badly. Unemployment rose sharply from 600,000 in 1974 to 1,600,000 in 1977, wages fell and for the first time since the war there was a decline in the real standard of living. Around this time, in spring 1976, another set of unfortunate Asians was kicked out, this time by Malawi. The hysteria mounted again. The Sun screaming: ‘Scandal of £600 a week immigrants’ (the cost to a racketeering hotelier), the Daily MirrorNew Flood of Asians to Britain’, Telegraph, ‘Invasion of Asians Forces Borough to Call for Help’ and even the Guardian wrote, ‘Asians Riled Neighbours’ when white families set upon the Asians. [47] In the midst of this hysteria Socialist Worker put out a leaflet headlined ‘They’re Welcome Here’.

Although the NF had suffered severe internal problems leading to a major split (which created the National Party), they rallied sufficiently for another period of frantic activity, leading to some substantial electoral gains in 1976. In local elections in Blackburn both parties together got an average of 38 percent of the vote, the National Party gaining two councillors; in Leicester the National Front got 44,000 votes with 48 candidates – an average of 18.5 percent. And in Deptford (Lewisham), in a parliamentary by-election in July 1976 the two parties together got 44 percent (possibly over half the white vote) – more than the successful Labour candidate who got 43 per cent. [48] It was clear that the electoral pandering of the Labour Party leadership to the traditional racism of the majority, instead of campaigning on the issue (which had been shown on the rare occasions it was carried out to have yielded a significant shift of attitude) had allowed the National Front to build sizeable bases, entrench themselves in other areas, and raise expectations of massive growth. After all, the German Nazis got only 2.6 percent of the vote in 1928; four years later they got 37.4 percent. [49]

There was clearly a distinct danger, which thousands of Labour Party members understood. The leadership’s response to their anxiety was hardly a clarion call to action. The Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, said in the Commons on 4 March 1976:

There is a clear limit on the amount of immigration which this country can absorb and in the interests of the racial minorities this means maintaining a strict control over immigration.

Belatedly, on 8 July 1976, the Labour Party proposed a nationwide anti-racist campaign, culminating in a march which attracted nearly 30,000 people. But in a radio broadcast on 24 July, Roy Jenkins, supporting the campaign against the National Front, described how best to get rid of them – ignore them!

It was at the height of this hysteria, with the National Front hitting the headlines almost daily, that a Labour spokesman, the Chief Whip, Bob Mellish, MP for Bermondsey, spoke in parliament on 18 May 1976:

This nation has done all it should have done. Its record is one of great honour and integrity, but I say ‘enough is enough ’ ... This burden cannot go on being taken by our people alone. If we do not face up to it now we will have to later on. (Labour and Conservative cheers) ... A fascist black man of the worst order had taken over the dictatorship of his country, abolished and imprisoned the opposition, and had decided to expel Goans who had committed no crime. Was it improper to talk about that because Dr Banda happened to have a dark skin? What he has done and the way he has done it are an outrage to civilisation ...

Let us start talking about whether we cannot.... pay their fares and their rehabilitation back in India from the money we should have been giving to Dr Banda. [50]

After this it was perfectly natural that the very next speaker should be Enoch Powell, who whipped up further hysteria around Mellish’s catchphrase ‘enough is enough’:

there were cities and areas ... where assaults on police occurred daily and where even in daylight many people were unwilling and afraid to go abroad. Those living in those areas saw them being transformed beyond all recognition, from being their own homes and country, to places where it was a terror to be obliged to live ... The thing goes forward acting and reacting until the position is reached – I will dare to say it -where, to those areas, Belfast today might seem an enviable place.

Measures were needed: the first was that they should terminate net immigration and say ‘Enough is enough’. [51]

‘Enough is enough’ was then taken up and bandied about by the press and the racists. Even compassionate Michael Foot, bowed down by the responsibility of being Deputy Prime Minister and Employment Secretary, succumbed to the dictates of office when, having to consider the fate of an Asian being deported to probable death in East Africa, he said: ‘Although I sympathise with his difficulties you will realise my main concern is to safeguard employment opportunities for resident people.’ [52] It is no wonder the National Front went on to even greater electoral successes in 1977. In the Greater London Council elections in May they stood in 85 out of the 92 constituencies, getting 119,063 votes (5 percent – compared with 0.5 percent in 1973) and beating the Liberals into third place in 33 constituencies. An Essex University survey suggested National Front support during this period would give it 25 MPs under proportional representation.

Support for the National Front was clearly coming predominantly from inner-city, traditionally Labour seats like Hackney South and Shoreditch. This was an area which suffered massive deprivation, with a long tradition of Labour councils failing to halt the decline, even in those areas where they bore direct responsibility, such as housing. The Labour Party itself was decaying and feeble and unable to address the problems to any remotely sufficient degree. Although there was a substantial black population in Hackney Central and an Asian community in neighbouring Tower Hamlets, the population of Hackney South and Shoreditch consisted mainly of council tenants who were white, working-class and disenchanted with the major parties. In these conditions what Powell called the ‘great simplicities’ appeared attractive. A party which scapegoated the ‘coloureds’ and attacked Labour and Tory alike could gain popular support. In the 1977 Greater London Council elections the National Front in this constituency secured four times their average London vote with 20 percent of the poll. In some wards the National Front actually had a majority.

Given the class composition in Britain it was inevitable that that the National Front should, in the short term, attempt to build a base in the working class, even though its long-term aim was to smash working-class organisation. Spearhead, the National Front mouthpiece edited by John Tyndall, in March 1973 explained: the National Front ‘have made barely any impact at all among the upper classes, but great gains are possible among the working classes.’ [53] That meant being ready to work in the trade unions. In May 1974 Tyndall wrote:

An organisation would be formed which would aim at securing for the National Front a foothold in the trade unions. This organisation would assist National Front trade unionists in getting elected to office ... The intention of the National Front is to do what the Tories have not and cannot do, to fight the Left in its own ground in the unions. [54]

They set up a National Front Trade Union Association open only to whites. This came after there had been a number of strikes in which racism had played a key role – Mansfield Hosiery in 1973 where a prominent Hosiery Workers’ Union officer was also a prominent member of the National Front [55], and Imperial Typewriters in Leicester in 1974, where the National Front had active members. In Imperial Typewriters the white workers, spurred on by National Front members, scabbed on Asian strikers. The local TGWU refused to make the strike official – or indeed any of a number of Asian strikes in Leicester – and when the Asians won, the whites, led by their convenor, came out on a day’s strike against their reinstatement. The National Front organised a ‘white workers of Imperial Typewriters’ march, which was countered by Asian workers and other trade unionists. [56] The division thus engendered was so deep that when the employers closed its Imperial Typewriters factories in Britain a year later there was an occupation by the workers against it in the Hull factory, but no fight at all in Leicester.

The National Front made inroads into a few other unions, notably the postal workers, highly demoralised after a major defeat in 1971. Postal workers in the North London Divisional Post Office in Upper Street, Islington, which was controlled by the National Front, collected for Tyndall’s deposit for the Hackney South and Shoreditch constituency in the 1979 elections. They got so much support that they were able to pay for eight other National Front deposits. In the May 1979 local elections a number of postal workers stood for the National Front. Many wore badges to work. Yet in 1977 it was a Labour Party delegate to the UPW conference who moved a resolution calling for tighter immigration controls. By now, however, the anti-fascist movement had spread its influence among workers. Only 25 out of 5,000 delegates voted for the resolution.

The National Front tried to set up a National Front Railwaymen’s Association in spring 1977 and had a presence in the drivers’ union, ASLEF. There were half a dozen National Front shop stewards in Leyland’s Longbridge works, which had the biggest National Front branch in the country – 70 members. There was even a presence in the NUM (in Barnsley).

The National Front’s aims regarding trade unions were the same as Hitler’s and Mussolini’s. They said they would abolish existing trade union structures and replace them with industrial trade unions similar to Mussolini’s corporations. They were opposed to the closed shop and wished to forbid workers from taking industrial action against their employers. They criticised the Tory Industrial Relations Act for being too weak and advocated the detention without trial of trade union leaders who resisted the government’s attempts to break strikes. [57] They advocated the use of water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets against the Grunwick pickets. At the same time, as in Nazi Germany, they had to pander to the working class and so supported some strikes, notably the popular 1974 miners’ strike. Because of the basic contradiction between their long-term and short-term aims, the National Front cannot recruit workers in large numbers as workers, that is, as part of a collective, but only as individuals who aim at getting rid of the blacks from the unions and getting benefits for whites only.

In 1977 the National Front also set up a youth wing for those aged 14 to 25. The Young National Front, with a publication called Bulldog, edited by Joe Pearce, were told

to hold pickets outside schools with posters naming teachers considered to be left wing. It also suggests that they should display photographs of the teachers concerned. [58]

With the National Front now a significant and growing movement, it decided to do what Mosley had attempted in the East End – to hold a provocative march. It was to be held through the heart of a black area, Lewisham in South London, on 13 August 1977. In the previous year’s local elections the National Front and National Party had together won 44 percent of the vote in the area. In true Hitler tradition Tyndall proclaimed:

I believe our great marches, with drums and flags and banners, have a hypnotic effect on the public and immense effect in solidifying the allegiance of our followers, so that their enthusiasm can be sustained.

A few months before, the police in Lewisham staged what they called Operation 39 PNH. PNH stood for Police Nigger Hunt. Following early morning raids, young blacks were rounded up on trumped up charges of conspiracy to rob. They formed the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee, which was attacked by the National Front and the police for over two months. To smash it was one of the purposes of the Lewisham march. [59] By this time, the anti-fascist forces, led by the Socialist Workers Party had consistently attacked National Front meetings and marches, and the National Front were practically unable tomove without fear of attack. Police protection and assistance was the only way they managed to show themselves at all. The numbers on their national marches had therefore dwindled. At the beginning of 1976 they could mobilise 1,500. Later in the year, on the first demonstration they faced united mass opposition; at Wood Green in North London they were down to 1,500; at Lewisham they managed a bare 500.

Just as in 1936, the local authorities pleaded with the government, now Labour instead of Tory, to ban the march, which the deputy leader of Lewisham Council said, ‘has the inevitability of a Greek tragedy – we all know what will happen.’ [60] The mayor of Lewisham headed a deputation to the Home Office to ask for a ban. Labour ministers, a Labour MP, the TUC, most of the national press and all the local press, and even a petition of 1,500 Christians all called for a ban. Merlyn Rees, Home Secretary, refused, on the grounds of ‘free speech’. In the last few days Lewisham council applied to the High Court for a banning order, without success. The Labour Party’s attitude to parliament and the laws it promulgates makes it natural for its members to look to bans, carried out by the state, to check fascist activity.

Revolutionaries do not call for bans. There are two reasons for this. First, the state is not neutral between the classes, but is the instrument of the capitalist class and reflects its requirements. The result is that bans – and indeed all legislation called for against the right – have been used predominantly to check the left. Secondly, ideologically the call for a ban acts against the interests of the working class, by boosting confidence in the power of the state and police rather than in their own power to beat the fascists. In any case, the government, Tory or Labour, will not impose a ban until the workers’ movement is so successful in smashing the fascists that the government becomes scared of the further independent activity of the workers. And then the ban is directed against the left, and only incidentally the right. The history of Mosley in the 1930s and the National Front in the 1970s bears this out very clearly.

Really fighting the fascists – second time around

In Lewisham two counter-demonstrations were called against the National Front march, one by the All London Committee Against Racism and Fascism (Alcaraf), to be led by the three main political parties, with Mayor Godsiff and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, at its head, ending a mile away from the National Front march; the other by the Socialist Workers Party, the Right to Work Campaign and individual members of the Labour Party and Communist Party, to assemble at the National Front’s assembly point before they were due. Meanwhile motorists were told to keep away, shops were closed and boarded up, and old and disabled people evacuated to welfare centres. Emergency teams of workmen were on hand, and observation posts set up. Hospitals were warned to prepare for many injured. A quarter of the Metropolitan police force were drafted in and were supplied with 200 riot shields and helmets – the first time these were used on mainland Britain.

One distinct difference with 1936 was the role played by the Communist Party. Then they proudly led the fight against Mosley. That role was now played by the Socialist Workers Party, while the Communist Party imitated the Labour Party. The Communist Party said:

To equate the SWP’s tactics at Lewisham with what happened at Cable Street ... is dangerous nonsense ... The line of historic continuity between the great victory and the struggle against fascism today runs through the approach argued for by Communists in the Alcaraf and not through the tactics of the SWP ... [61]

Instead, the Morning Star said the National Front’s marches ‘must be stopped by the police’. [62] The day before the event they argued:

It almost goes without saying that the SWP has prepared itself for the definitive game of cowboys and Indians. It has delivered ‘They Shall Not Pass’ leaflets around the borough, and has even laid on doctors to attend to casualties. [63]

Now listen to Phil Piratin, writer of the definitive Communist Party book on the Battle of Cable Street, Our Flag Stays Red:

The slogan was issued: ‘The fascists shall not pass’ (p. 20). First aid posts in the care of anti-fascist doctors and nurses were opened up in a number of shops and houses near the scene of the battle (p. 21).

On Alcaraf’s morning march the Communist Party distributed a leaflet urging people not to go near the National Front assembly point, but instead to turn the other cheek and rely on ’peaceful, orderly methods’. ‘We totally oppose the harassment and provocative march planned by the SWP’, it said, and attacked ‘those who insist on the ritual enactment of vanguardist violence.’ The morning after the Morning Star accused the demonstration that stopped the Nazis of ‘staging ritual confrontations and street fights’:

The problem about street fighting is that only street fighters are likely to apply, and it is this which can make it more difficult to achieve the mobilisation of the labour movement. [64]

The Morning Star on 26 August devoted a long article to explaining why the SWP were wrong, but praised ‘the courage and determination of those who took part.’ This was exactly the attitude of the Daily Herald in 1936.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A council manual worker told the Morning Star: ‘The National Front won’t be showing up round here for a long time.’

Two-thirds of the Alcaraf march of 4,000 answered the SWP’s call to confront the National Front. Very large numbers of local black youth, Labour Party and Communist Party members, even some Cable Street veterans of the Communist Party, made up the numbers. They broke through police lines twice and cut the terrified National Front march in two. It was quickly diverted and dispersed under police protection. The police then violently attacked the anti-fascists in a battle that raged for hours. There were 214 arrests. Then, just as in the 1930s, the press and the Labour Party treated the National Front and Socialist Workers Party to equal abuse. The Daily Mirror said the SWP was ‘as bad as the National Front’. The Lewisham East Labour Party delegate at the Labour Party conference that year failed to understand what had happened under his very nose:

The Law – whether the Public Order Act or the Race Relations Act – must be amended [to strengthen it against the NF], particularly in the London area. Certainly one could say, ‘the answer is not in violent confrontation with the National Front’, and ask. ‘Who won on 13 August in Lewisham? Only the National Front.’ [65]

Syd Вidwell, Labour MP for Southall, which had seen some of the worst clashes with the National Front, could expostulate:

I have no time for hooligans [in the NF] ... and for those crackpot adventurers who have yet to take their part in responsibility in the real Labour movement. We cannot counter them by a strategy of trying to out-thug the thugs of the National Front, because we have the strength to do it otherwise. [66]

Michael Foot, then Deputy Prime Minister, said:

You don’t stop the Nazis by throwing bottles or bashing the police. The most ineffective way of fighting the fascists is to behave like them. [67]

Ron Hayward, General Secretary of the Labour Party, appealed to all its members to keep away from extreme left and extreme right organisations. He saw little difference between the violent demonstrators (i.e. SWP) and ‘NF Fascists’. [68] The Labour candidate who won the seat in the Ladywood by-election five days after Lewisham claimed: ‘Lunatic elements of right and left were no friends of Labour’ and were ‘urban guerrillas calling themselves politicians’. The Labour Party West Midlands organiser went on in the same vein about the Socialist Workers Party after an anti-fascist demonstration in Birmingham on 15 August 1977: ‘They are just red fascists. They besmirch the good name of democratic socialism.’ [69] Tom Jackson, Post Office Workers’ leader, added: ‘There is little to choose between the SWP and the National Front. Both are political bootboys.’

As in 1936, the Labour Party’s solution to the problem, as stated by the minister at the Home Office, was to consider strengthening the law – to stop the use of knives and ammonia in demonstrations. To set the right tone he went to visit the policemen in hospital – 56 out of the 110 injured. As in 1936, this physical confrontation broke the back of the National Front. As then, the National Front took terrible revenge in terrorist attacks on blacks and other socialists, numbers of whom were murdered or injured. The publicity briefly increased their membership, but their morale was smashed, and subsequent events did not enable them to recover. The Socialist Workers Party, leading the Anti Nazi League, took away their ability to act.

Pleading to the Labour government failed to get a ban on the march, just as it failed with the 1936 Tory government. But the victory at Lewisham achieved just that, and blanket bans were now put on a large number of subsequent demonstrations, aimed at left-wing counter-demonstrations, but thereby including the National Front. Up and down the country local authorities, particularly Labour ones, now banned the use of halls and other Council property for National Front meetings. Transport House also asked Labour Party candidates in 1979 not to share a platform with the National Front. In this way the National Front were refused many election platforms. Thus, despite no improvement in the economic conditions, support shifted away from the National Front. It was Lewisham that achieved this.

The National Front’s ideological clothing was largely stolen by the Tories after Mrs Thatcher’s notorious ‘swamp’ speech on the World In Action programme on 30 January 1978, in which she said: ‘People are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture.’ This was part of the Tories’ hardening of line on immigration, aiming to end it completely. The 1979 general election results were disastrous for the National Front – a mere 1.5 percent of the electorate where they stood. They faded out of the headlines. Further splits, followed by demoralisation and massive decline soon followed. In 1987, for the first time, the National Front put up no candidates in the general election. Instead a Barking National Front leaflet said, ‘Don’t vote’. Only three other extreme right candidates stood and between them they polled a bare 839 votes – a mere half the Official Monster Raving Loony Party’s 1,974 votes with four candidates.

How to fight the fascists

After Hitler came to power in Germany the Communist International feared preparations would be made for a war against Russia. It therefore switched its policy from the disastrous ultra-left ‘Third Period’, which equated Social Democracy with fascism, to one of looking for allies against Germany among the Social Democrats and bourgeois liberals of the West. It joined Popular Front governments in France and Spain. The policy in Spain led to the disaster of fascism under Franco, in France to the ditching of the revolutionary possibilities that existed in 1936. In Britain the Communist Party made overtures to the Labour Party, and spoke of including Liberals and even ‘progressive Tories’ like Churchill and Anthony Eden in a Popular Front.

A popular front is a completely wrong policy for socialists. In a workers’ united front a revolutionary party can win over the Social Democratic masses as the class struggle develops. A popular front, on the other hand, cannot be formed without the workers’ parties making damaging concessions to the bourgeois parties to persuade them to join. Once part of the Popular Front, the bourgeois parties are on the constant lookout for ways of weakening the workers’ side. As the bourgeois parties gain confidence they demand more concessions of the workers until they succeed in gaining full control and put an end to the popular front altogether. When workers make alliances with members of the bourgeoisie there is no doubt who calls the tune. The Labour Party rejected the Communist Party’s call for a popular front against fascism, not on revolutionary grounds, but because it would have no truck with the Communist Party over anything.

A successful fight against fascism needs to combine three elements: mass physical confrontation, propaganda and class struggle against social ills and a struggle for socialism.

On mass physical confrontation: you have to first show you have a fist to show you have a brain. From when the fascists first appeared as a threat they were physically confronted by large groups of anti-fascists consisting of Labour Party, Communist Party, left-of-Communist Party groups, and most important, large numbers from the ethnic minorities in the area – usually, but not always, led by the Socialist Workers Party. But the National Front’s success in the Greater London Council elections and its aggressive insistence on marching showed the need to broaden and organise the anti-fascist forces. In November 1977, the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) was bom, a united front set up by the Socialist Workers Party, Peter Hain and Labour MP Ernie Roberts and, among other MPs, Neil Kinnock, Audrey Wise and Martin Flannery, who were on the left of the party. Paul Holborow of the Socialist Workers Party was the organiser, and Nigel Harris, also from the Socialist Workers Party, was on the steering committee. The Socialist Workers Party was without doubt the driving force pushing action, organisation and ideas throughout. The ANL’s aim was the single one of smashing the National Front, and it fought and beat attempts to narrow its appeal with commitments to, for instance, oppose all immigration controls.

The ANL became an immensely popular movement. To give a focus for youth against the NF – the age group they drew most of their support from – the ANL organised its first Carnival in London at the end of April 1978, before the local elections. Its success was beyond everyone’s expectations, bringing 80,000 on a march from Trafalgar Square to a music festival in Victoria Park six miles away. Together with Rock Against Racism huge Carnivals were, organised in Manchester (35,000), Cardiff (5,000), Edinburgh (8,000), Harwich (2000), Southampton (5,000), Bradford (2,000) and London again (100,000). The National Front vote in the subsequent local elections collapsed. In Leeds it declined by 54 percent, in Bradford by 77 percent, even in its heartland of the East End it dropped by 40 percent. There is no doubt that the ANL was largely responsible. ANL groups sprang up all over the country. For instance in one week of May 1978 Oxford set up an ANL at a meeting of 450 people, Bath 100, Aberdeen 100, Swansea 70. From 22 April to 9 December the following ANL groups organised themselves: Schoolkids Against the Nazis (SKAN), Students, Fordworkers, Longbridge workers, civil servants, railworkers, firemen, busworkers, teachers (which held a rally of 1,000), miners (which held a conference of 200 delegates), engineers, NUPE, two Halifax night spots. Football Against the Nazis, which held an AGM after some period of existence, and many others.

The ANL was widely sponsored. As early as mid-April 1978, before the Carnival, there were 30 AUEW branches and districts, 25 trades councils, 11 NUM areas and lodges, six to 10 branches from the TGWU, CPSA, TASS, NUJ, NUT and NUPE, 13 shop stewards’ committees in major factories, and 50 local Labour Parties. Numbers grew after the Carnival. [70]

While physically opposing every move the Nazis made on the streets, the ANL also took the battle into the workplaces. Even in the relatively few places, like the Post Office, railways, Fords and Longbridge where the National Front managed to organise, it was confronted. For instance in Longbridge 200 assembly line workers refused to work with a National Front supporter, who was moved elsewhere. In the Post Office attempts were made to black National Front election material – delivery was a statutory obligation. The National Front material was altered and delivered. But the UPW did succeed, after two years’ negotiations, in getting the Race Relations Act included in a post office form for election agents. [71] A school NUT sent an NFer to Coventry; he eventually left. In Keighley a National Front candidate was fined for window smashing and therefore sacked from his job as a busman. The National Front did nothing for him. He appealed through the union, and, getting the full support of the Pakistanis, was reinstated. He left the National Front and rejected racism. [72]

The CPSA took action in a number of offices winning the right to wear ANL badges, and getting a racist disciplined by union action. Railworkers succeeded in getting a ban on driving trains if they were daubed with racist slogans. Hackney Gazette journalists went on strike for three days to prevent the printing of a National Front advertisement. In International Harvesters a National Front member was strung upside down. TV workers aimed, unsuccessfully, to pull the plugs on a National Front broadcast, and picketed instead. A steward at Salisbury Transmissions described the election campaign in his factory, where the works manager was Tom Finegan, who stood as a parliamentary candidate for the National Front:

Well, there wasn’t one. One of the lads stuck his posters up round the factory with a swastika drawn on his fanny. And someone else wrote a song which wound up with the chorus line, ‘When Finegan’s in Parliament, we’ll all sing Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!’

On 17 July 1978, 8,000 black workers throughout East London went on strike, called out by Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee against racism, including most of the night shift and paint, trim and assembly workers in Fords Dagenham. The ANL got a lot of support from black, particularly Asian, organisations and a number of self-defence organisations were set up in Southall, Brick Lane and Bradford.

What was the Labour Party’s attitude to all this successful activity? Sadly the same old attitude, based on attachment to parliamentary democracy, persisted in the upper reaches, even though the rank and file were participating in the ANL in large numbers. The Communist Party, by contrast, much smaller, waning, and afraid of being totally outflanked, approached the Socialist Workers Party to join the ANL after the April Carnival, and a member came on to the steering committee.

The second ingredient of the fight against the National Front was an attack on the ideological front which, because of the physical successes, had widespread resonance. The National Front tried terribly hard to become a respectable party in British politics in order to achieve power and then carry out its fascist programme, as Hitler did. It therefore strove hard to bury Tyndall’s and Webster’s Nazi past, the uniforms and Sieg Heils and the Hitler birthday parties. If these were exposed, they dismissed them as youthful indiscretions. But this past dogged them throughout, because the ANL exposed it ruthlessly. Its slogan was, ‘The National Front is a Nazi Front’, and all its literature emphasised the point. Their physical confrontations with the National Front, besides smashing their organisation, facilitated their ideological exposure as Nazis. It prevented them masquerading as a respectable electoral party by forcing their violent racist thuggery into the open. Millions of leaflets, posters and information packs, educational material for schools and badges drove the message home. Eventually even the Labour Party took it up, and when they did agree to a campaign against the National Front (which included a TV broadcast) they issued a leaflet entitled National Front/Nazi Front.

The third aspect of the fight against fascism derives from its nature as a mass movement of the petty bourgeois driven mad by the crisis of capitalism. As long as capitalism lasts there will be crises, and therefore the potential for fascism exists. To get rid of the fascist threat therefore means getting rid of capitalism. To do that means fighting the class struggle permanently, at all levels, even at the level of fighting for the smallest reforms, leading struggles to improve workers’ conditions and win them over to hope and socialism, not despair and fascism. Here, of course, the Labour Party fails lamentably, not only in fighting for socialism, but even for small reforms. When in office, from 1974 onwards, instead of instituting reforms, just as the SPD had done in Germany, it cut back those reforms it had previously introduced. Its base was thus eroded. The National Front was an active agent in its erosion, offering a solution that seemed clear and simple – remove the immigrants and there will be jobs and houses for all.

Only a revolutionary party dedicated to arguing for the overthrow of capitalism can successfully fight the fascists; it must not submerge itself within a united front. The Socialist Workers Party kept its identity and politics very clear; it aimed to lead the movement, which it unquestionably did, and win other ANL supporters to its politics. And the ANL’s success was undoubtedly due to the fact that the Socialist Workers Party did lead the movement. The obituary of the National Front is provided by Martin Webster himself, who, in a libel case brought by Peter Hain in December 1982, bitterly expressed his frustration at the way the ANL had smashed the National Front. Prior to 1977, he said, the NF were unstoppable and he was well on the way to becoming Prime Minister. Then suddenly the ANL was everywhere and knocking hell out of them. The sheer presence of the ANL had made it impossible to get NF members on to the streets, had dashed recruitment and cut away at their vote. It wasn’t just the physical opposition to the marches, they had lost the propaganda war too. [73]

What are the prospects of a fascist movement arising again in Britain? We have seen that fascism becomes a threat in periods of crisis which bring about rapid changes in the economic and social structure. In the 1930s there was the big slump, in the 1970s the harsh cuts, rapid rise in unemployment and decline in incomes. On the political side there was disillusionment with the two major parties’ ability to improve the conditions of workers and the unemployed – particularly with Labour in the late 1970s. In areas where collective struggles for improvement was absent because union organisation was very weak, individuals’ fears for their livelihood created a ready audience for the simple solutions provided by the fascists.

There are two main reasons why fascism is not likely to rise in Britain at the present moment. First, fascism is less likely to grow, even though there may be a crisis of even worse proportions (3 million unemployed) where the changes are not sharp, causing a frenzy, but slow, giving people time to adjust to the dole and a lower standard of living. The panic is taken out of the unwelcome changes. This by itself, however, does not prevent fascism. The other reason is that the fascist movement was nipped in the bud by the ANL. When there are sudden sharp changes for the worse, fascism can grow out of nothing. When there are not, but the crisis continues, they can grow provided they built a sufficient base beforehand. The ANL prevented this.

How not to fight the fascists: lessons from France

If the Anti-Nazi League is a good example of fighting fascism, the recent events in France warn us what tactics are employed. France presented all the conditions for the growth of fascism in a manner not dissimilar to Britain in the 1970s. After the war immigrants from North Africa were drawn into the labour-hungry economy. The Socialists came into office in 1981, for the first time after 25 years, amid high expectations of reform. A lot was indeed delivered in the first couple of years – the minimum wage rose by 38 percent, family allowances by 50 percent, old age pensions by 62 percent, large-scale nationalisation was enacted (with compensation), 150,000 new jobs created, and taxes on the rich introduced. But the world crisis inevitably produced acute problems for a government wedded to nursing capitalism back to health. June 1982 produced a second devaluation of the franc and a wage and prices freeze. Inevitably the reforms were cut back with a vengeance, and at a rapid pace. From the latter half of 1982 there were tens of thousands of sackings, the scrapping of the wage index linked to inflation, and the promised 35-hour week became a 39- hour week. After a series of strikes purchasing power was cut. [74] These were perfect conditions for the growth of fascism.

The main threat comes from Le Pen’s Front National (FN). Le Pen’s fascist pedigree goes back to his student collaboration with the Petainists and Nazis during the war. He fought as a paratrooper in Vietnam, suffering the shame of France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Back home, in 1956 he became a deputy for the semi-fascist petty bourgeois Poujadist movement from 1956–62, then an Intelligence Officer for a special army squad in Algiers where he systematically tortured Algerian prisoners. Back home he joined the ‘Algerie Française’ reactionaries of the OAS. In the Presidential elections of 1965 he was an election agent for a fascist candidate. [75] In 1968 he was convicted of touting recordings of Hitler’s speeches and Nazi marching songs. He was condemned in a French civil court for anti-semitism as recently as June 1986. [76] In Marseilles the FN has a ‘security service’ which beats up young immigrants. In Lyons the FN systematically prowl around the immigrant estates at night with violent results. [77] The European Parliament’s Report on the Rise of Racism and Fascism in Europe has detailed examples of violence involving FN members. They include an FN organiser in Beziers charged with blowing up an immigrant’s house, two FN members charged with carrying hand grenades at a political meeting, and an FN security officer in Savoie convicted of blowing up a cafe in Annecy. [78] Outright neo-Nazi elements of the FN were to be seen parading in Lyons during the Klaus Barbie Nazi war crimes trial and openly dishing out literature that claimed that the Nazi death camps were ‘a hoax’. Wherever Le Pen goes, racist violence follows. And after his recent whistle-stop nationwide tour, there were near pogroms against Arabs, blacks and Jews in several cities. [79] There have been 150 racist murders of young Arabs over the last five years, many times the number in Britain in the 1970s.

But as in Britain it was a struggle to keep some seeds of fascism alive during the years of capitalist boom. In 1972, the Ordre Nouveau, an outright fascist organisation, founded the FN as a cover to attract wider electoral support. With Le Pen, its link with the past, as leader, the FN’s support, true to fascist form, comes from farmers, shopkeepers, royalists, skinheads, Parisian yuppies, students from traditionally right-wing bourgeois families and also from the unemployed, the young, and workers who live in rundown council flats where immigrants are unwelcome. [80]

In elections in 1974 the FN got a mere 0.74 percent of the votes, in 1976 0.33 percent, in 1981 0.5 percent, in 1983 0.11 percent. It was the Socialist government’s sharp cutbacks, resulting petty bourgeois fears of bankruptcy and unemployment and the anger of the lumpen proletariat and unemployed youth that brought about the explosion of support for the FN. With 1.5 million ex-Algerian colons – the pied noir – and indigenous racism, the two million Arab immigrants from North Africa (half the total of immigrants in France) were obvious scapegoats. Blue-collar workers could be spurred into resentment of cheap Arab labour on the one hand. On the other the upper classes see these people as the reason they lost the Empire. Whatever animosities the pied noir and immigrants may have harboured against one another since Algerian independence in 1962 it took the conditions brought about by the Socialist government for fascism to actually gain a foothold.

March 1983 saw the first breakthrough of the FN in municipal elections, with the town hall of Dreux, a working-class district, being captured. In 1984 the FN polled 11 percent of the votes (about 2 million). In the March 1986 parliamentary elections it won 35 MPs – as many as the Communist Party. The large cities of the south, where the ex-Algerian colons settled, constitute the FN’s main base. Here their poll is double the national average, reaching nearly 30 percent in 1986. [81] An official government survey in summer 1987 put their potential national vote at 17 percent and in Nice, sixth biggest city, at 30 percent [82] (far above the Communist Party whose estimated vote was put at less than 10 percent). [83] A striking finding by the leading French pollsters SOFRES is that 40 percent of FN voters are former Communist Party or Socialist Party voters. [84] The FN has stolen the protest vote from the Communist Party, and also some of its members. Andre Losardo, previously a Communist Party councillor, is now the Front’s Number Two in Marseilles. He scored 30.6 percent in 1986, the FN’s top vote in Marseilles. Marseilles dockers, who used to vote Communist, attended a 15,000-strong FN rally on 20 September 1987.

As in Britain, the rapid rise of the FN put a premium on racism as an electoral tool, and pushed all the parliamentary parties, anxious to preserve their electorates, over to the right. Socialist Party Prime Minister Mauroy said in 1983 of the striking semi-skilled car workers that they were manipulated by Ayatollahs and plotting to destroy the nation’s industry. In 1983 the Socialist Party candidate in Marseilles, former Socialist Interior Minister Gaston Deferre, plastered the town with posters accusing the previous right-wing governments: ‘The Right – 20 years of illegal immigration. With the Left at last firm control whose effects can be felt.’ In 1984 the former Socialist Party mayor of Dreux boasted in the National Assembly that the left had turned 12,000 immigrants away at the frontier. [85] The left in the Socialist Party got the government to produce an anti-racist pamphlet, Living Together – Immigrants in our Midst. One million were printed before the March 1983 elections; none were ever circulated. [86] On 5 March 1987 the FN held a demonstration of 15,000 in Marseilles. The Socialist Party held one of similar size three weeks later, the Communist Party another two days before this. [87] The Communist Party is far from blameless on the question of racism. Even before Le Pen popularised it the Communist Party mayor of Vitry was calling for the demolition of the town’s immigrants’ reception centre, because other municipalities insisted on dumping their immigrants on Vitry. [88] On 21 September 1987 the Communist Party consented to debate with Le Pen on TV for 90 minutes – something even the Labour Party in Britain refused to do with the National Front after Lewisham. In the debate the Communist Party came out against any immigration – as of course did Le Pen, who trumped the Communist Party by demanding immigrants who had been unemployed for over a year be sent home. [89]

The left opposition inside the Socialist Party and the organisations outside the established parliamentary parties responded badly and late. The enchantment of most of them with Mitterrand took time to wear off and Le Pen was well established before the anti-fascist organisation SOS Racisme was set up in 1984–5. Unfortunately the methods of SOS Racisme are not at all like those of the ANL. They do not prevent fascists from having any room to manoeuvre through permanent confrontation, and constant exposure of the Nazis. Most of its leaders and apparatus came from the Socialist Party, who were more concerned to set up a movement which could take advantage of financial and material aid from the government than embarrass it with massive counter-demonstrations against the FN. Their actions, therefore, have been limited to the distribution of one million anti-racist badges with the slogan ‘Hands of my Mate’, massive concerts attended by hundreds of thousands, and demonstrations away from the FN.

On occasion SOS Racisme refers to social conditions as a cause for the rise of fascism. On the TV Harlem Desir, its president, said: ‘If the FN is progressing it is not thanks to the talents of M. Le Pen; it is simply that he profits from the shortcomings of French society. It is these shortcomings which we must tackle’. [90] But mostly it talks in moralistic, humanistic terms. Harlem Desir defines SOS Racisme as ‘a human rights organisation, not only a moral organisation’. [91] He talks of the bad effect of racist language and ideas, and appeals to tolerance and the force of reason to prevent racist acts. He even hopes to see a delegation of young people going to South Africa to attempt to get the voice of sweet reason to prevail. [92]

This humanitarian view of the problem leads to much of the organisation’s time being spent on helping individual victims of discrimination and racist attack, and to initiatives such as Action Against Hunger worldwide and locally soup kitchens for the poor. [93] Whereas in Britain the ANL was started and led by the SWP, SOS Racisme eschews ‘politics’. Harlem Desir was never a member of a political party. [94] Instead he looks to public opinion to uproot racism, and expects an equal contribution from left and right-wing organisations. He says:

The issue of fighting racism is not a left-wing or right-wing issue... I think the electors of the right-wing democratic and traditional parties cannot accept any kind of alliance between their party and the extremist neo-Nazi ideology. So we are organising a big campaign all over the country. We show that a majority of the French people, left-wing or right-wing, refuse the idea of racist violence, of segregation. [95]

Though SOS Racisme holds demonstrations, these are not designed to physically confront the FN. In fact when Le Pen was intending to speak at a fringe meeting of the Conservative Party conference in Britain in October 1987, SOS Racisme was invited by the SWP to sponsor and attend the proposed picket. It refused, saying that its policy was not to picket the FN. At the same time Harlem Desir did come to Britain to address the converted at the Tribune rally at the Labour Party conference the week before. It is not surprising that SOS Racisme’s campaign did not dent Le Pen’s advance to any great extent. But whereas little might have been expected from the reformist parties, one should have been able to look to an energetic campaign to smash the fascists from the revolutionary left. Sadly this is missing. The Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), French Section of the (Mandel’s) Fourth International, had such a euphoric attitude to the Socialist Party’s assumption of office in 1981 that it took an awfully long time to sober up to the true implications of this office -longer than the FN, who began to break through in 1983. As Jacques Fournier says of the LCR in his article The Parliamentary Road to ... Capitalism – The Socialist Party and the Left in France 1981–86 in International Socialism:

‘It had spent its time putting pressure on the leaderships of the reformist parties and had not built a force capable of opposing the FN on the ground. For several weeks the LCR appealed for an anti-racist united front on the front page of its paper. In vain. No significant organisation replied favourably.’ [96]

After SOS Racisme was formed the LCR joined in enthusiastically, but it again adapted its ideas, this time to the dominant humanitarian ideas of SOS Racisme. Its main slogan was the right for immigrants to vote, and it campaigned for other human rights – a far from adequate response to the rise of a fascist movement. The LCR was badly compromised by the experience of the left government, then buried itself uncritically in SOS Racisme. [97] No wonder it is considerably weakened, losing out to parties of right or left which fudged things less, and so is not a force leading the fight against fascism. Lutte Ouvrière (LO) was not thus compromised and maintained a hard line towards Mitterrand. It has recruited on this basis and is today perhaps the largest far left organisation. However its penchant for abstract propaganda, and its almost total immersion in the 200-plus workplaces in which it has members to the exclusion of other workplaces (even if strike-bound) and movements that grow up outside their workplaces, meant that when Le Pen broke through, LO adopted a totally abstentionist position. It refused to organise or participate in counter-demonstrations or even make anti-racist and anti-fascist propaganda on the grounds that it would ‘be making publicity for Le Pen’.

After Le Pen’s big vote in the 1984 elections and the assaults on leftist militants and immigrants it changed tack. But its insistence that the anti-racist struggle be carried on in the workplace – correct – and only in the workplace – incorrect – meant abandoning hundreds of thousands of young people to the reformist and humanitarian ideas of SOS Racisme. In practice this also left the streets to the FN. Although LO members were present at SOS Racisme’s concerts and demonstrations, and participated in the stewarding, it did not sell its paper or appear in any way as an independent organisation, thus offering no revolutionary Marxist solution to racism and fascism – and no way forward to prevent the growth of the FN. [98]

All the left parties proclaim the need to get rid of the social roots of fascism, and the revolutionary left go on to show that only the class struggle can ensure the end of the fascist threat. But in fact, of the three requirements for nipping the fascists in the bud – mass physical confrontation, ideological exposure, class struggle and the struggle for socialism proclamations about the third are the easiest option. The first two require clear political and organisational activity, courage and initiative and a cadre and membership that is ready for activity. To omit the first two activities is to allow the fascists to consolidate a base from which to launch a bid for power.

There are natural allies of an anti-fascist movement which could have been mobilised and united against an organisation exposed as Nazi. In Marseilles, for example, there are large numbers of Jews and also of Arabs. These could be brought together in a united front against a fascist organisation which is anti-semitic and anti-immigrant. Instead of the left undertaking this task, it is the FN which is using the Jews – it talks of opening a dialogue with the ‘oriental Jews’ whom it feels shares its anti-Arab racism and nationalism, advocating a Jewish state with all Arabs expelled. These it differentiates from the European Jews, whom they call ‘left-wing degenerates’, ‘obsessed with genocide’ (i.e. the Holocaust), and willing to talk to ‘PLO terrorists’. [99]

It is the feebleness of the revolutionary left that encourages the feebleness of the mass anti-fascist movement, SOS Racisme. This allows the FN to bring off the appearance of being a normal electoral party – a situation fraught with danger for the future. That is something the British National Front were never allowed to get away with. [100] The passivity of the left in France has enabled Le Pen to gain electoral respectability, and even to make the preposterous claim that he is not racist. To give some credibility to this claim, in February 1987 he even met and dined with 24 representatives of United States Jewish organisations in New York. [101] And a leading FN MP, Pascal Arrighi, visited Israel as head of the parliamentary Franco-Israeli Friendship Society. He returned just as, in a radio interview on 13 September 1987, Le Pen uttered his notorious description of the gas chambers as ‘a mere detail of history’! [102] At crowded supporters’ meetings Le Pen himself refrains from saying anything against Jews. He merely mentions a name, which happens to be Jewish, and waits ... for the audience to jeer and bellow. Then another ...

The growth of support for the FN has been dramatic. In the 1974 presidential elections the FN won 190,000 votes, or 0.7 percent of the total. After the Socialist Party came to office in 1981 it gained a new lease of life. In the 1983 municipal elections the FN made its first serious breakthrough. In the following year it got 10.9 percent in the European Parliamentary elections. Two years later, in 1986, with the change to proportional representation, the FN scored 9.6 percent in the French legislative elections, and won 35 seats in the National Assembly. Finally, in the presidential elections of 24 April 1988, Le Pen won 4,282,406 votes, or 14.4 percent of all the votes cast. In Marseilles he gained 29 percent of the vote. He also did very well in Lyons and Paris.

The unfortunate difference between Britain and the fightback in France is that Le Pen has been given a chance the National Front in Britain were not allowed to build a sizeable national base under the veneer of respectability. Though its fortunes may vary, this presents a threat for the future. The lessons of Cable Street and the ANL need to be remembered if fascism raises its ugly head again, particularly if a Labour government comes to office to be capitalism’s doctor instead of its gravedigger.


A central aim of the present work is to show whether the Labour Party (Social Democracy) is able to fight fascism. Its whole history shows its bankruptcy in this field – the dominant element in Labour Party policy is passivity. This passive attitude towards stopping the fascists is part and parcel of its attitude to the state. The assumption that the state is neutral between the classes means it has to be preserved. The experience that the capitalist state always defends capitalism, that if the capitalists need a fascist dictatorship the state supports this to the hilt, is entirely forgotten. When Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922, the Italian state’s army defended the march from its opponents. In Germany the Social Democrats called on Hindenburg, the President, to protect democracy, but it was Hindenburg who invited Hitler to become Chancellor. At best the Labour Party has called on the state to ban fascist marches. This not only enhances the power and prestige of the state but also undermines the self-activity of workers, which is the key to stopping the fascists.

The Labour Party, being an electoral party, adapts itself to the prevailing ideas in society which are, as Marx said, the ideas of the ruling class. Racism is one of the most poisonous ruling-class ideas. To the extent that racism is rooted in Britain’s imperial past, the Labour Party, which never rejected imperialism, accepts its racist conclusions. Left-wing members, even black members of the Labour Party, make concessions to these ideas. Witness the pathetic picture of Bernie Grant, the black Labour MP for Tottenham who, before becoming MP, exclaimed that the police got the hiding they deserved at the Broadwater Farm riots in October 1985, reading, on the eve of the 1987 general election, a statement by a Tottenham police inspector praising him. This failed to avert a 7 percent swing against Labour in Tottenham. But without the commendation, Bernie Grant would no doubt claim, the swing would have been bigger. And he is probably right, but those are the inevitable snares of electoral politics.

Social Democracy and fascism are not compatible. The role of fascism is to smash all workers’ organisations including Social Democracy. But this does not mean that Social Democracy will make an effective stand against fascism. The Labour Party is a bourgeois workers’ party. As a workers’ party it is not compatible with fascism; as a bourgeois party it cannot fight fascism consistently. In the final analysis the latter aspect is overriding. Left to itself Social Democracy always prepares the ground for the victory of fascism.

* * *


1. C. Sparks, Fascism and the Working Class, International Socialism 2 : 2, Autumn 1978.

2. L. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York 1971), p. 127.

3. J. Stevenson and C. Cook, The Slump (London 1977), pp. 212, 214.

4. Archives of the British Labour Party, Series III, Part 6, Reel 8.

5. J. Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto (London 1978), p. 144.

6. C. Sparks, Fascism in Britain, International Socialism 71, September 1974.

7. Archives, op. cit.

8. N. Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927–41 (London 1985), p. 160.

9. Stevenson and Cook, op. cit.

10. C. Sparks, International Socialism 71.

11. M. Newman, Democracy vs. Dictatorship: Labour’s Role in the Struggle against British Fascism 1933–1936, quoted in History Workshop Journal, No. 5, 1977.

12. Labour Party Annual Report 1933, p. 219.

13. A. Hutt, The Post-War History of the British Working Class (London 1937), p. 273.

14. TUC, Dictatorship and the Trade Union Movement, quoted in History Workshop, ibid., p. 69.

15. Labour Party Annual Report 1936.

16. Hansard, vol. 290, 14 June 1934, cols. 1934–5, quoted in History Workshop, op. cit., p. 71.

17. Hutt, op. cit., p. 257.

18. The Times, 1 October 1936.

19. Daily Herald, 1 October 1936.

20. Daily Herald, 30 September 1936.

21. Daily Herald, 3 October 1936.

22. Daily Herald, 5 October 1936.

23. Daily Herald, 6 October 1936.

24. Ibid.

25. Daily Herald, 9 October 1936.

26. P. Sedgwick, The Problem of Fascism, International Socialism 42, February/March 1970.

27. Socialist Worker, 4 October 1986.

28. Hansard, vol. 395, 1 December 1943, col. 471, quoted in History Workshop, op. cit., p. 73.

29. P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (London 1978).

30. Branson, op. cit., pp. 168–71.

31. C. Sparks, Never Again (London 1980), p. 82.

32. Ibid., p.  84.

33. C. Sparks, Fascism and the Working Class Part 2 – The National Front Today, in International Socialism 2 : 3, Winter 1978/9.

34. R. Miles and A. Phizacklea (eds.), Racism and Political Action in Britain (London 1979) p. 131.

35. LAB 8/1517 EM 2576/1954, West Indian Immigrants. General Policy on Admission to Britain of Coloured Workers from the West Indies, 1948.

36. CAB 129/44, Immigration of British Subjects from the UIL, CP(51), 12 February 1951.

37. Hansard vol. 532, 5 November 1954, cols. 822–4

38. Hansard, 5 December 1958, quoted in Z. Layton-Henry, The Politics of Race in Britain (London 1984), p. 36.

39. Daily Sketch, 2 September 1958.

40. P. Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics (London 1965), p. 172.

41. Hansard, 4 February 1965, cols. 1284–5

42. Hansard, vol. 709, 23 March 1965, col. 381.

43. Hansard, 17 November 1964, quoted in Foot, ibid., p. 192.

44. Quoted in Layton-Henry, op. cit., p. 71.

45. M. Walker, The National Front (London 1977), p. 133.

46. Ibid., p. 137.

47. Ibid., p. 196.

48. Labour Research Department, No. 9, 1976.

49. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 261.

50. The Times, 19 May 1976.

51. Ibid.

52. Socialist Worker, 13 November 1976.

53. Socialist Worker, 13 October 1973.

54. Spearhead, May 1974.

55. Walker, op. cit., p. 156.

56. International Socialism 1 : 102, October 1977.

57. Walker, op. cit., p. 157.

58. Daily Telegraph, 29 October 1977.

59. Socialist Worker, 27 August 1977.

60. The Times, 9 August 1977.

61. Morning Star, 26 August 1977, quoted in [Alex Callinicos & Alastair Hatchett, In defence of Violence,] International Socialism 1 : 101, September 1977.

62. Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

63. Morning Star, 12 August 1977.

64. Morning Star, 26 August 1977.

65. Labour Party Annual Report 1977, pp. 310–11.

66. Ibid., p. 314.

67. Socialist Worker, 4 October 1986.

68. The Times, 17 August 1977.

69. Morning Star, 17 August 1977, quoted in International Socialism 1 : 101, September 1977.

70. Socialist Review, 2 May 1978.

71. The Guardian, 8 February 1979.

72. Socialist Worker, 8 April 1976.

73. Interview with P. Hain and D. Widgery, Beating Time (London 1986), p. 111.

74. J. Fournier, The Parliamentary Road ... to Capitalism – the Socialist Party and the Left in France 1981–86, International Socialism 2 : 33, Autumn 1986.

75. Socialisme International, 7 December 1986.

76. Tribune, 25 September 1987.

77. Socialisme International, 10 June 1987.

78. The Independent, 21 September 1987.

79. Tribune, 25 September 1987.

80. New Statesman, 2 October 1987.

81. Ibid.

82. The Guardian, 18 August 1987.

83. Financial Times, 1 August 1987.

84. New Statesman, 21 August 1987.

85. Fournier, op. cit.

86. Socialisme International, No. 3, Winter 1986.

87. SWP Internal Document, July 1987.

88. Interview with Gareth Jenkins.

89. Financial Times, 23 September 1987.

90. Observer, 23 August 1987.

91. Channel 4, Bandung File, 10 October 1987.

92. Socialisme International, No. 3, Winter 1986.

93. Ibid.

94. Observer, 28 August 1987.

95. Ibid.

96. International Socialism 2 : 33, Autumn 1986.

97. Ibid.

98. Ibid.

99. New Statesman, 2 October 1987.

100. The only organisation which looks to a united front like the ANL is Socialisme International, sister organisation of the SWP. But it is too minuscule to attempt to build such a united front.

101. Observer, 20 September 1987.

102. New Statesman, 2 October 1987.

Chanie Rosenberg Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 10 August 2018