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L'autre

 | 
Janine Dove-Rumé
, 
Michel Naumann
, 
Tri Tran

V. Civilisation

The Other as a Home-grown Foreigner: British Anti-fascists and the Extreme Right

Jeremy Tranmer

Résumé

Although the extreme right in Britain has never been a major political force, anti-fascist organisations had over 40,000 members in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s. Given that anti-fascists define themselves solely in relation to the extreme right, the manner in which they construct it is intrinsically linked to their own identity. Not only do British activists see the extreme right as ‘fascist’, but they also view it as ‘Nazi’. The term ‘Nazi’ has thus been used systemically, leading to the main anti-fascists organisation being called the Anti-Nazi League, for example. This article aims to look in detail at how and why the extreme right has been constructed in this way. Going beyond debates about the precise nature of the far right, it will suggest that the reference to Nazism reactivates popular memories of the Second World War and appeals to patriotic instincts. In an interesting reversal, the extreme right, whose propaganda aims to whip up hatred against foreigners, is itself presented as being foreign to British politics.

Texte intégral

  • 1 The enemy is well defined, unlike the adversaries of other social movements. For example, the peace (...)
  • 2 Nigel Copsey: Anti-fascism in Britain, Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2000, p. 159.

1All political parties and social movements define themselves partly, implicitly or explicitly, in opposition to an Other. The specificity of anti-fascism is that it defines itself openly in relation to its other, the extreme right1. As Nigel Copsey, the author of the one full-length history of British anti-fascism, has stated, “anti-fascism is quintessentially a reactive phenomenon.”2 However, by viewing antifascism solely in this way, most historians have posited a rather simplistic relationship between anti-fascists and the far right, whereby the former respond to the latter in a relatively straightforward, transparent manner. This paper will suggest the relationship is more complex by exploring how British anti-fascists conceive of and represent the extreme right.

  • 3 Historians diverge in their definitions of anti-fascism. Some adopt a broad approach which includes (...)

2One particular organization shall be concentrated on, that is the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), which was founded in 1977, disbanded in 1982 and reformed in the early 1990s3. Given that the far right has never occupied a particularly prominent position in British politics, the subject of this paper may seem slightly surprising. It is a little known fact that the ANL had a membership of over 40,000 in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s. Although the figure may have been slightly inflated, it does show that the phenomenon was far from marginal and concerned a relatively large number of people. This paper will concentrate on the use of the word ‘Nazi’ and references to Nazi Germany by British anti-fascists in the late 1970s. Its aim is aim to go beyond a purely empirical analysis of to what extent the extreme right could be described as genuinely Nazi and look at the significance of the use of the word and its impact on anti-fascists’ visions of themselves.

  • 4 Dave Renton, When We Touched the Sky. The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981, London Pluto, 2006, p. 20.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 81.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 85, 109. This is an interesting example of post-modern identity politics being used in ai (...)
  • 7 See for example, Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison: Social Movements: A Cognitive Approach, Basingstok (...)

3According to Dave Renton, the author of a history of the ANL, the terms ‘fascist’ and ‘Nazi’ were interchangeable and were both used by activists in the 1970s4. Nevertheless, it is evident that from the late 1970s onwards the adjective ‘Nazi’ was used far more frequently and was accompanied by frequent references to Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. The very name chosen by the new organization, the Anti-Nazi League, is obviously significant, as is its founding statement: “For the first time since Mosley in the thirties, there is the worrying prospect of a Nazi party gaining significant support in Britain [...]. The leaders, philosophy, and origins of the National Front and similar organisations follow directly from the Nazis in Germany [...]. They must not go unopposed. Ordinary voters must be made aware of the threat that lies behind the National Front. In every town, in every factory, in every school, on every housing estate, wherever the Nazis attempt to organise they must be countered.”5 In much ANL literature, the National Front was systematically referred to as the ‘Nazi National Front’ and photos were published showing leading members of the National Front wearing Nazi regalia. Members and sympathisers of the ANL also created numerous groups such as Football Fans Against the Nazis, Women Against the Nazis, Vegetarians Against the Nazis and Teachers Against the Nazis, to name but a few6. The aim was clearly to link the National Front in the minds of the British population to the experience of German Nazism in the 1930s and to suggest that if the National Front came to power in Britain the results would be the same. Consequently, the ANL advocated refusing it freedom of speech and physically breaking up National Front demonstrations or meetings. Some sociologists have claimed that one of the main functions of a social movement is ‘cognitive praxis’ that is the creation of new knowledge which is spread as a message in its literature7. If this insight is applied to anti-fascism in the 1970s, it would appear that the fundamental contribution of the ANL to British politics was the idea that the National Front was, as a result of its ideology and activities, fundamentally different from other political parties and had to be treated accordingly.

4When asked about the use of the word Nazi, members and sympathisers of the ANL tend to be surprised and reply along the lines of ‘Well, they were Nazis, aren’t they’. It was clearly the commonsense view of the dominant strand of British anti-fascism. There was much to support their line of argument. Many of the National Front’s leading figures had, at some point in the course of their political careers, expressed their admiration for Hitler and worn Nazi uniforms during private meetings. Furthermore, members of the National Front attacked Blacks and Asians in the streets of numerous British cities simply because of their origins. It also clearly attempted to drive its most vocal left-wing opponents off the streets by intimidating them physically. If the reference to Nazism had not been credible it would not have become the main plank of anti-fascist propaganda, would not been used systematically and would not have caught on in the same way among members and sympathisers.

  • 8 It is quite striking that the French anti-fascist movement has not systematically compared the extr (...)

5However, it can be argued there was nothing inevitable about this aspect of anti-fascist discursive strategy. Other vocabulary could have been used, such as fascist, extreme right or far right, and other aspects could have been emphasized8. At this point it should be made clear that this paper has no intention of going into the complex and heated debates about the true nature of fascism and Nazism as well as their relationship to one another, or trying to determine to what extent the National Front could be defined as Nazi rather than neo-fascist. Important though these debates are, historians and political activists involved in them miss other important points such as why British anti-fascists chose to emphasize the far right’s links with Nazism and how that comparison functioned.

  • 9 For a presentation of the politics of the SWP in the 1970s, see John Callaghan: The Far Left in Bri (...)
  • 10 Leon Trotsky: Fascism. What It Is and How to Fight It, New York, Pathfinder, 1996.
  • 11 This view downgraded the specificities of British political culture and held hope that the SWP itse (...)
  • 12 For example, recently the SWP analysed the 1990s as the 1930s in slow motion, suggesting that econo (...)

6To a certain extent, it results from the characteristics of the dominant political force within the ANL. The ANL was founded by members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)9, although members of the Labour Party and trade unionists were also involved. The extent of the role of the SWP within the Anti-Nazi league is open to debate, some claiming that it dominated the movement, others that it was merely one group among many active in the the organization. It would appear that, although its members were in a minority, they were hegemonic in that they exercised political, intellectual and moral leadership over the organization. As a consequence, many of its basic assumptions became those of the ANL. Following Trotsky’s analyses, the SWP believed that, at time of economic and social crisis, the ruling class could turn to the far right in order to crush the labour movement in an attempt to restore stability to capitalism10. This general vision contributed to the ANL’s approach to the struggle against the National Front in the 1970s, a time of high inflation and rising unemployment which, at least superficially, presented similarities with Germany in the 1930s. Partly as a result of this, the SWP viewed British politics as being particularly fluid and open to rapid change11. In addition, the SWP has always given a great deal of importance to Marx’s comments at the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte about history repeating itself the first time as tragedy the second time as farce and has frequently seen the present as being a rerun of the past12. The successes of the National Front were therefore seen as a repetition of the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Nevertheless, these factors alone cannot account for the numerous references to the 1930s in ANL literature.

  • 13 Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: the Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Lon (...)
  • 14 Ibid., p. 119

7To understand the ANL’s strategy, it is important to look briefly at some of Paulo Gilroy’s insights into British anti-fascism. In his classic account of attitudes to race in Britain, There ain’t no black in the Union Jack, Gilroy expressed unease at British anti-fascists’ tendency to hark back to the Second World War13. According to Gilroy, anti-fascists made " the popular memory of the Second World War the dominant source of images with which to mobilize against the dangers of contemporary racism14 and revived the “very elements of nationalism and xenophobia which had seen Britannia through the darkest hours of the Second World War.” In other words, by referring to the National Front as Nazis, the ANL attempted to rekindle collective memories of war-time patriotic unity and use them in the struggle against the new Nazis.

  • 15 Renton, op. cit., p. 126.

8His observations were controversial. Renton, for example, rebuts them, stating that there are in fact very few direct references in ANL literature to wartime patriotism and no openly patriotic15 rhetoric. However, direct references were not necessary given the number of times the struggle against Nazism in the Second World War was mentioned. It was implicit that a similar mobilization would help destroy the National Front. Furthermore, in the 1970s the British as a nation were still collectively obsessed with World War Two. For those who remembered the war, it represented a highpoint of British heroism and altruism of which they proud. Those too young to have experienced it were brought up in a culture which bathed in nostalgia and provided constant reminders of the past in war films, TV programmes etc. One of the more interesting points of the celebrations in 1977 of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee was the holding of street parties which were reminiscent of those organized on VE day (Victory in Europe Day, 8th May 1945). The loss of the British Empire and economic decline combined to strengthen nostalgia for what many saw as a glorious past. British people reading ANL literature would, almost inevitably, understand the link between the past and the present. It could therefore be argued that the ANL’s choice to concentrate on Nazis imagery and language was, at least partly, the reflection of a more general British obsession with the Second World War and actually contributed to reinforcing it.

  • 16 IRA bombing in mainland Britain had led to the re-emergence of long-standing prejudices.
  • 17 Richard Weight, Patriots. National Identity in Britain 1940-2000, London, Macmillan, 2002, p. 104.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 340.

9Moreover, the use of references to Nazism also allowed the SWP to tap into latent Germanophobia. It is well known that racism was rife in British society in the 1970s. It concerned not only blacks and Asians, but also the Irish16 and Germans. Germanophobia resulted partly from the Second World War. During the war there was a shift in how it was perceived by most British people. It was no longer seen as a struggle against the Hitler regime but against the German people in general17. This confusion was reinforced by the decision to create a single Remembrance Day for the victims of both world wars: “By merging those two ideologically different conflicts into one, the British emphasized that the human cost of all wars was terrible. But the overriding effect was to envelop the war against Nazism in a general commemoration of British-German conflict18. In the 1970s Germanophobia was particularly present in popular culture, fuelled by envy of Germany’s economic success as well as fear of the loss of sovereignty following membership of EEC. Consequently, it is possible to question the extent to which most British people were able to differentiate between Nazis and Germans.

10It could be argued that only the most politicised or those with an interest in history were able to tell the difference. By presenting the National Front as Nazis, the ANL attempted to stress the ideological and political characteristics of the Nazi regime. However, the Nazi regime existed in a particular country, at a particular time. As a result of the cultural context in which they lived, many British people would have given more importance to the national origins of Nazism rather than its ideological and political features. There may thus have been a gap between the intended message of ANL propaganda and how it was received by large sections of the British public. As a result, the ANL’s othering of the far right was potentially ambiguous and may have contributed to reinforcing xenophobic attitudes in general and Germanophobia in particular.

  • 19 Tony Benn, The End of an Era. Diaries 1980-90, London, Arrow, 1994 (first published by Hutchinson i (...)
  • 20 http://www. dailymail.co.uk/pages/text/print.html?in_article_id=403348&in_page_id

11This is, of course, highly ironical given the aims of the ANL and the fact that its leading figures considered themselves as internationalists who opposed English and British patriotism. Nevertheless, presenting the Other as a foreigner or as a foreign organization is far from uncommon in British politics. The Communist Party was presented for many years as little more than an outpost of the Soviet Union. This was the case in the 1970s, for example during the February 1974 general election campaign when the Conservatives tried to link Labour with Communists and by implication the Soviet Union. For many years, left-wingers of any hue were told to ‘get back to Russia’. During the miners’ strike of 1984/5, Margaret Thatcher refered to the miners as the ‘enemy within’ linking them to Argentina, which the United Kingdom had fought during the Falklands War. More often, Others have been linked to Nazi Germany. The left-wing Labour politician Tony Benn, for example, was likened to Hitler (and occasionally Stalin) in press cartoons and articles in the 1970s and early 1980s19. More recently, In 1998 countryside protesters railed against the “urban jackboot” of the British government, while last summer the Daily Mail harangued its readers about “green gauleiters” in local government who were forcing people to recycle their rubbish20.

12It can be concluded from these examples that politicians or political groups who deviate from the perceived norms of British parliamentary democracy or the perceived British traditions of freedom are liable to be othered as foreigners by their opponents. By presenting them as unBritish or non-British, their opponents hope to delegitimize them in the eyes of the population. The Communist Party’s support for class struggle and aim of radically different non-capitalist society set it apart from the mainstream political parties. Tony Benn advocated mass extra-parliamentary activity, which was unusual for a Labour politician. The miners were engaged in an exceptionally long and bitter struggle, and their leader Arthur Scargill had made it clear that he had polical as well as industrial aims. Countryside protester believed their traditional rights were being eroded, while the Daily Mail objected to councils taking too close an interest in people’s rubbish and therefore their private lives. In the case of the National Front, its overt racism and use of violence differentiated it from British political traditions, allowing it to be ‘othered’ as foreign. Ironically, Trotskyite members of the ANL were doing to the National Front, what others had on occasions done to them.

  • 21 Linda Colley, Britons, Yale, Yale UP, 1992.
  • 22 For an analysis of the rise and consolidation of Germanophobia, see John Ramsden, Don’t Mention the (...)

13This form of othering can be explained by the significance of foreign others in the development of British identity. The historian Linda Colley demonstrated convincingly that British national identity developed, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in opposition to the main foreign power of the time, Catholic and then revolutionary France21. During the twentieth century, it evolved in opposition to Germany22. Because of this, it is hardly surprising that figures or organizations that appear to break with dominant conceptions of Britishness are presented as being foreign.

  • 23 Paul du Gay, Jessica Evans and Peter Redman (eds), Identity: a Reader London Sage, 2000, p. 2.
  • 24 See for example, Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race ethnicity,’ in David Morle (...)

14Given that “identities are constituted in and through difference”23, the form taken by the ANL’s othering of the National Front had a major impact on British anti-fascists’ own identity. Before looking at that impact, it is important to examine some of the specificities of anti-fascist identity. Stuart Hall’s work on identity can help us understand some of them24. Hall has written that it is impossible to reduce a person’s identity to a single essential core since we do not have one single identity but ‘multiple identities’. He has also stressed the fact that identities are constructed, created, and are not natural. Although anti-fascism can be traced back to the 1920s, it has had high points of almost frenetic activity and low points when very little activity has been undertaken. The changes correspond mainly to the fortunes of the far right. When the far right has been particularly present, it has led to the formation of antifascist groups and anti-fascist activity. When the far right has been dormant, activists who had been involved in anti-fascism engaged in other forms of activism, in a political party or a trade union, for example. Activists’ anti-fascist identity is therefore not constant. It is present when the far right is active and protests against it are undertaken, but it then fades into the background becoming merely latent in favour of other identities when the extreme right declines. It is only reactivated when the far right reappears as a threat. Antifascist identity thus contrasts with other political identities which are of more permanent nature due to the different type of commitment involved. A political party or a trade union has a long-term presence, existence which makes more regular demands on activists and develops a different type of identity.

15What links the various left-wing identities is the notion of activism, that individuals acting collectively can have an impact on the course of events, can influence the world around them. Individuals do not have to experience the world passively. This perspective is also what differentiates anti-fascists from non-fascists. At first sight, anti-fascists and fascists would appear to exist in a bipolar world in which anti-fascist identity is constructed solely in opposition to the extreme right. Yet, between the two are non-fascists, usually the majority of the population, who, although not sharing the views of the far right, are not inclined to become actively opposed to it. It is the idea of active opposition which separates antifascists from non-fascists and explains the existence of anti-fascist organizations. This is one part of anti-fascist identity.

  • 25 In 1974, an anti-fascist demonstrator, Kevin Gately, was killed during clashes with the police at R (...)
  • 26 This is very noticeable in the pages of Socialist Worker, the weekly newspaper of the SWP.

16Obviously the main factor in the construction of anti-fascist identity is the perception of the far right. By considering the far right to be Nazi, anti-fascists believed that it had to be challenged ideologically and physically. At the heart was the concept of ‘no platform for Nazis’. In other words, because of its aims and activities the far right did not have the right to freedom of speech. Meetings and demonstrations could be disrupted by force if necessary. Antifascist violence could thus be justified. The most famous example of physical-force anti-fascism in the 1970s is the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ of 1977, during which anti-fascist demonstrators managed to prevent a National Front demonstration. Violent clashes occurred as antifascists attacked the police and the far fight. Although this was not the first violent anti-National Front demonstration, the scale of the violence and the number involved were much greater than previously25. In the following days, the press roundly condemned anti-fascist violence. The Anti-Nazi League was founded in the aftermath of this incident. Its creation represented a quantitative and qualitative change in the struggle against the far right. From this time onwards, the far right was systematically challenged and that the use of the word ‘Nazi’ became systematic among anti-fascists26. This allowed them to connect with the dominant culture, justify their acts and partially disguised the fact that they were going beyond the limits of liberal democracy. Members and supporters of the ANL saw themselves as the most active opponents of the far right and as defenders of the working class, ethnic minorities, women and other groups who they deemed to be threatened. The use of term ‘Nazi’ also signalled to the outside world the ANL’s radical opposition to the extreme right, allowing it to differentiate itself from more moderate organizations. The term was thus not simply a way referring to the far right but it also contributed to anti-fascists’ self-definition.

17To conclude, anti-fascism exists in many countries, but the forms it takes vary according to the national context. By portraying the far right as Nazis, British anti-fascists presented it as being irreconcilably different, as an enemy which needed to be fought. Elements of the extreme left were thus able escape from the margins of British political culture and attempt to move towards the mainstream. This representation results from political and ideological considerations, but it also reflects British national culture, particularly the importance of the Second World War and Germanophobia. The German Nazi remained the ultimate other in British politics in the 1970s.

Notes

1 The enemy is well defined, unlike the adversaries of other social movements. For example, the peace movement’s main enemy could be the British government, a foreign government, a political party or the arms industry depending on the context. The environmental movement opposes governments, companies, individual behaviour etc.

2 Nigel Copsey: Anti-fascism in Britain, Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2000, p. 159.

3 Historians diverge in their definitions of anti-fascism. Some adopt a broad approach which includes individuals, organizations and even the state. Others prefer a narrow definition based on anti-fascist organizations. This paper is clearly situated in the second trend. It does not suggest that the Anti-Nazi League was the only organization involved in the struggle against the far right. It was, however, by far the largest and most influential.

4 Dave Renton, When We Touched the Sky. The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981, London Pluto, 2006, p. 20.

5 Ibid., p. 81.

6 Ibid., p. 85, 109. This is an interesting example of post-modern identity politics being used in aid of what was in many ways a rather traditional left-wing campaign.

7 See for example, Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison: Social Movements: A Cognitive Approach, Basingstoke, Polity, 1991.

8 It is quite striking that the French anti-fascist movement has not systematically compared the extreme right with Nazi Germany and or used the term Nazi. Admittedly, since the mid 1990s slogans such as ‘F comme fasciste et Ν comme Nazi’ have been used in demonstrations, but they have not had a central place in Ras l’Front literature, or in that of SOS Racisme and other organizations before it. This difference was not lost on the ANL. In 1992, some of its members distributed a leaflet at a demonstration in Paris criticizing French anti-fascists for being too cautious verbally and refusing to denounce Le Pen systematically as a Nazi.

9 For a presentation of the politics of the SWP in the 1970s, see John Callaghan: The Far Left in British Politics, Oxford, Blackwell, 1987, p. 84-112.

10 Leon Trotsky: Fascism. What It Is and How to Fight It, New York, Pathfinder, 1996.

11 This view downgraded the specificities of British political culture and held hope that the SWP itself could be come a major player in the future.

12 For example, recently the SWP analysed the 1990s as the 1930s in slow motion, suggesting that economic problems would lead to a slide towards authoritarianism.

13 Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: the Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, London, Routledge, 1993 (first published by Unwin Hyman in 1987). He was also critical of the ANL’s concentration on organized neo-fascism rather than the more widespread phenomenon of racism in British society.

14 Ibid., p. 119

15 Renton, op. cit., p. 126.

16 IRA bombing in mainland Britain had led to the re-emergence of long-standing prejudices.

17 Richard Weight, Patriots. National Identity in Britain 1940-2000, London, Macmillan, 2002, p. 104.

18 Ibid., p. 340.

19 Tony Benn, The End of an Era. Diaries 1980-90, London, Arrow, 1994 (first published by Hutchinson in 1992), p. 152.

20 http://www. dailymail.co.uk/pages/text/print.html?in_article_id=403348&in_page_id

21 Linda Colley, Britons, Yale, Yale UP, 1992.

22 For an analysis of the rise and consolidation of Germanophobia, see John Ramsden, Don’t Mention the War: The British and the Germans Since 1890, London, Little, Brown, 2006.

23 Paul du Gay, Jessica Evans and Peter Redman (eds), Identity: a Reader London Sage, 2000, p. 2.

24 See for example, Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race ethnicity,’ in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds), Stuart Hall. Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, London, Routledge, 1996, p. 411-440 (first published in 1986 in the Journal of Communication Inquiry).

25 In 1974, an anti-fascist demonstrator, Kevin Gately, was killed during clashes with the police at Red Lion Square in London. Five years later, another anti-fascist was killed, this time at a demonstration in Southall in South London.

26 This is very noticeable in the pages of Socialist Worker, the weekly newspaper of the SWP.

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IDEA, Nancy Université

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2008

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