There remains a taboo in this country as to what extent progressive social aims have been furthered by illegal means. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter runs the hoary old phrase, a cliché due to its truth. Would women have won the vote without the lawless disruption of the suffragettes? Would we now be so aware of the dangers of climate change if the illegal PR stunts of Greenpeace in the 80s had not first highlighted the peril? Would the moral scandal of high end tax avoidance be one of the leading issues today if not for the pranks of UK Uncut? Indeed, did it not take the Poll Tax riots to finally throw out Thatcher? In short, have the powerful ever relinquished their power without an element of threat? High-minded liberals say no, realistic radicals say yes.
For the past century there has been another great illegal tradition in Britain, that of physically – which often means violently – opposing the rise of our various strains of homegrown fascism. It is this tradition which Dave Hann, a man once personally involved in such confrontations himself, explores in Physical Resistance. The book is an extensive slice of social history drawing from the personal testimonies of dozens of activists over the years; those manning the barricades to halt the strutting advance of thug-rake Mosley and his British Union of Fascists, those marching against the racist rabble of the 70s National Front, and those mobilising against the BNP and EDL delinquents of today. Based on the reminiscences of individuals recounting particular groupings and grapplings, clashes and confrontations, this is not an exhaustive organisational history. As the anti-fascist movement has usually been by its very nature loosely formed and diffuse (usually without the backing of major party leaders) this scattered and informal approach is both a necessity, and one which mirrors the movement well.
A grittily enlightening picture emerges from the reports of those involved. The stories of those struggling against Mosley in the 30s are particularly evocative: in the main normal young working-class people, sometimes Jewish, sometimes not, nearly all with some association with the trade union movement, and every one seeing fascism for what it was: the ally of the tyrannical governments massacring their brothers and sisters on the continent. They knew the enemy where they saw it, and they didn’t need a sociology degree to find it.
There are first-hand descriptions of major events such as the 1936 Battle of Cable Street , the 1974 Red Lion Square Disorders, and the 1977 Battle of Lewisham; huge and terrifying conflagrations where the major protagonists were not the fascists themselves, but their protectors – the police. The shocking violence from the police, illegal weapons to hand, lashing out with vicious abandon, which led to the deaths of activists Blair Peach and Kevin Gateley in the 70s, are recounted from several different perspectives in grim and upsetting detail. Most anecdotes are on a much smaller scale – such as a Manchester youth Bernard McKenna throwing stones at Mosley as he tried to speak at Hulme town hall in the 30s, or 70s London punk Suzy Harding ganging together with her pogo-loving friends against the British Movement boot-boy thugs who were threatening them, throwing bottles in music gigs which became more less a fun night out, more an ideological warzone.
One chapter is very different to the others – this time describing an actual warzone. This is the reminiscence of those volunteers who went on from skirmishing from Mosley and his followers to fighting a far more deadly strain of Fascism – Franco’s forces in Spain – trading in rocks for rifles. This is a more harrowing story, with the fear of death no longer a rare extremity, but an everyday reality. All the same, the honesty of reportage remains the same.
This is evocative social history. Building from the disparate fragments broader pictures emerge too. The leading lights tended to be communists in the 30s, Jewish activists in the 50s, Trotskyists in the 70s, and anarchists in the 90s. The most effective anti-fascist activists have always acted outside the influence of major party leaderships – Labour Party leaders has always been opposed, while even the Communist Party leadership denounced the mobilisation which led to the famous victory at Cable Street. There has also always been a tension between committed but essentially peaceful activists, and those prepared to wield a fist or a brick. In the 30s the split was between the more robust tactics of the National Unemployed Workers Union and their communist allies, and the more pacifistic liberal League of Blue and White Shirts. In the 90s it was between the increasingly demo-based Anti Nazi League, and the openly shock-troop tactics of Anti-Fascist Action.
Probably the most violent anti-fascists were the street-fighting 43 Group in the immediate post-war years, Jewish ex-serviceman with memory of the Holocaust fresh in their mind, with no hesitation in mercilessly, effectively kicking in the heads of Mosley’s Union Movement wherever they found them. By the mid-50s however, militant anti-fascism faded. For Hann, a defining vindication of the militant strategy is that some the worst violence meted out by the fascists was the Notting Hill and Nottingham race riots of the 50s –scores of innocent black people viciously assaulted – at precisely the same time that there was no mass anti-fascist mobilisation. The tedious infighting and atomisation which seem perennial to the left props up from time to time in the book when it comes to organisations, although interestingly it seems that when it came to the actual practical job of stopping Nazis on the streets, unity tended to hold up well. A lesson there perhaps.
The violence, being described is frequent, ubiquitous and shocking, especially to those raised on the myths of Britain as a peaceable political culture. This is serious, nasty stuff, which at its most extreme edges could mean bricks to the head, razors to the face. The violence is meted out by both sides, which leads to the old moral equivalence accusations. Fascism is by its very nature intrinsically violent, a cult of sadism. Fetishising force, shrouding its inherent vacuity within a cloak of physical supremacy, it is utterly reliant on intimidation. Moreover – and perhaps this is the key moral issue – many of those it attacks are attacked not even for their beliefs, but for their race, their gender or sexuality. It seems the worst kind of ‘beautiful soul’ pacifism to present one as bad as the other. The broken bones of the blameless black men savaged by the Notting Hill rioters give the lie to the ‘don’t stoop to their level’ moralisers.
I interviewed Dave Hann several years ago after he had co-authored another book, a more personal memoir of his own experiences squaring up to the thugs of Combat 18 and the BNP in the north west of the 90s. Thoughtful and quietly spoken with his west country accent, he seemed came over as a decent and determined character. This determination clearly made it through to this book. Physical Resistance is a posthumously released work – Dave was suffering from the late stages of cancer as he was finishing the work before his tragic early death at the age of 48 in 2009 (a foreword to the book by his partner Louise recounts this in touching detail.) It should be noted that the last chapter on more recent mobilisations against the English Defence League is easily the weakest, a patchier portrait of a more strange and complex enemy – which proclaims non-racism while practicing its opposite. This is a reflection perhaps of Hann’s fading powers and his detachment from the anti-fascist movement in his final years. Taken as a whole however the book is a fine read, and a magnificent achievement.
Any Cop?: Even for those who would denounce the tactics and antics of Hann’s forbears and descendants, this is a fascinating insight into an untold side of British political and social history.