Beating the Fascists – the Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action was published in 2010 by Freedom Press. This review is based on AFA experience in the North. The review itself will be sticking mainly to what the book says, with further information in the Notes at the end.
Before going further, I think this is an important contribution to militant anti-fascist history, and every anarchist involved in anti-fascism should read it. The author is Sean Birchall but, as is obvious, this is AFA history as written from the perspective of the Marxist organisation Red Action – a founding member of AFA. This isn’t the first book or publication to come out about AFA so there is some overlap with previous histories, but this one is more detailed in many ways, and covers some areas other writings haven’t dealt with, or have avoided. Some of the book is more a personal history, from some of the key Red Action members. But a fair amount is political history and analysis of the years before, during, and (a bit) after Anti-Fascist Action.
Even if you disagree with Red Action on a number of levels, as an organisation Red Action has to be given a lot of credit for the time and energy they put into AFA at the time. Credit also has to be given to those Red Action members who were willing to put themselves on the frontline on the street, year after year.
However, and this is a big point, Anti-Fascist Action was much bigger than Red Action. There is some use in Beating the Fascists of what was out there in print already, but in terms of first-hand knowledge, this is Red Action relying on themselves. This may be understandable, but it means that, when other AFA activists can’t be ignored, guesswork (at best) ends up filling the holes. And these holes do exist in this book – they include both street actions which didn’t involve Red Action members, as well as bigger issues .
I’m going to take a closer look at one area which I know something about – the Northern Network. I’ll also have a brief look at some of the controversies with anarchists. 
The Northern Network was AFA between the Scottish border and the Midlands. It was the oldest and largest AFA region. In Beating the Fascists the accounts of the Northern Network are probably the weakest parts of the book. There are two reasons for this. First, unlike the accounts from London, there is a clear lack of first-hand accounts over the years. Secondly, the history of the Northern Network is skewed to fit the Red Action party line rather than describe how things really were.
I think it’s fair to split Northern Network history into two periods – from 1985 until the national AFA re-launch of 1992, and after 1992. For the first period, if we stick to Northern AFA mobilisations (ie not just Manchester activists), the Northern eye-witness accounts in Beating the Fascists end with Stockport in 1986 (p117). In fact, you get more information about Northern AFA actions in this period in Anti-Fascist Action - an Anarchist Perspective – and this is a short pamphlet which doesn’t go into details . There’s even a claim that the Northern Network only started around 1990 (p235).
Despite this claim, AFA mobilisations and confrontations in the North did occur during these years. Liverpool AFA (or Liverpool Anarchists wearing the AFA hat, which was almost the same thing in those years) were in Rochdale in 1989, for instance. There were a fair number of anti-fascists out that day, from all over the North. But not anyone writing this book, apparently. And this wasn’t the only event of those years .
The section on the Northern Network in Beating the Fascists really starts in 1991 (Chapter 3.13). However, once again, there is an obvious lack of eye-witness accounts. Most of the descriptions of the most important events are taken from articles – such as from the AFA magazine Fighting Talk or the Red Action paper Red Action. Many of the main Northern Network mobilisations of these years have already been covered previously in Dave Hann’s account in No Retreat, which, for all its faults, provides another view on these events .
I would agree that, after the national AFA re-launch of 1992, the Northern Network was better organised than previously. Part of the reason was the re-launch of Manchester AFA, and the involvement of activists from Manchester Red Action .
But there were a number of other reasons. The winding down of the anti-Poll Tax movement enabled anarchist activists to concentrate again on anti-fascism – and experience gained during the Poll Tax fed into the re-launch. Call-outs from 1992 also tended to have a better use of intelligence on the ground. This was partly due to a better use of scouts, but also due to some good information from Searchlight .
Another reason for the difference after the Northern Network re-launch was the tighter organisational approach. Previously Liverpool anti-fascists, for instance, would turn up at events and work fairly independently – though also meeting up and working with other anarchists and anti-fascists when possible. After 1992 all groups in a Northern Network call-out nominated a delegate to form an ad-hoc/temporary coordinating group during the event. This structure was proposed by Liverpool AFA and voted on at a Northern Network meeting very soon after the re-launch. From a Liverpool perspective, this idea came partly from experience of working with large groups on the street, and partly from anarchist history. It was also recognition of the actual nature of the Northern Network – with highly autonomous groups, often with strong anarchist representation.
While the organisation after 1992 was tighter, it was still very informal, and quite loose. Terms like “steward” or sometimes “chief steward” were used – terms like “superior” were never used. When words like “superior” are used in Beating the Fascists (p203) this is about Red Action, not Northern AFA, though the book doesn’t make this clear.
In the light of the above, it would be hard for Red Action to claim all the credit in the Northern Network, and there is some acknowledgment of others – Liverpool DAM gets a nod, for instance (p260), and Bolton AFA get a brief walk-on part (p310).
But one of the main points in Beating the Fascists is asserting Red Action leadership in AFA, and this claim is also made, to some extent, in what is written about the North. For instance “with the exception of Red Action” no-one had “real experience” (p260) and only Manchester had a “capacity to operate unilaterally on the street” (p172). There’s even talk of a “Northern Network leadership” (p266) – which looks like it is supposed to be Manchester Red Action.
There are a number of problems with this approach. As Beating the Fascists makes clear, in London the AFA leadership (“the strategists”) were those “invariably ‘first through the door’” (p171). In the North though, those literally “first through the door” were often not in Red Action, and were often anarchists . This isn’t to claim all the credit for anarchists either – just to make the point that ‘leadership’ in the North wasn’t a simple case of ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ and was actually quite fluid.
Probably the clearest example of the problems with this approach, in Beating the Fascists, is shown by an AFA event in Rochdale in April 1992. This was pretty standard for the times – a Northern mobilisation followed by decisions and actions based on facts on the ground. But the main Manchester Red Action activists of this time had been arrested beforehand, so no Red Action leadership can be realistically claimed. The authors of Beating the Fascists get around this by claiming success was due to Red Action “deputies” (p262) – but who these “deputies” were is a complete mystery to anyone there on the day.
Beating the Fascists ends, as you’d expect, with the move to the Independent Working Class Association from 1995, but only gives the Red Action line. Other accounts give a different view .
The main anarchist organisation Beating the Fascists mentions is the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (DAM). The DAM was an important part of AFA, both in London and nationally, and Beating the Fascists does quite a good job in recognising this. A serious attempt is made to give credit to the DAM – or at least particular DAM members. But it looks like the authors of Beating the Fascists didn’t ask any ex-DAM members for their opinions. Instead, a couple of Albert Meltzer’s remarks in his autobiography, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels, seem to be used as a stand-in for the DAM.
An example of this is the claim in Beating the Fascists that some DAM members had “resentment” that Red Action were hogging the limelight within AFA (p343). This seems to be based on a single comment by Albert Meltzer. A few may have shared Albert’s opinion, but it’s not typical of what was said or written at the time. The “resentment” claim also doesn’t make a lot of sense given the nature of the DAM where, while anti-fascism was always important, the main focus over the years was much broader – including strike support, workplace organisation, and community-based struggles such as against the Poll Tax .
Perhaps part of the reason for the “resentment” claim is to provide some background for events in Glasgow. The Glasgow Red Action attack on anarchists has been mentioned before , and Beating the Fascists gives a bit more detail (p343). The claim that anyone intended to set up an “anarchist only AFA” in Glasgow, though, is something that only came from Red Action at the time. The attack in Glasgow caused a major crisis within AFA. As Beating the Fascists mentions there was a meeting held in London between London DAM members and Red Action. But the claim that the whole issue was “put to bed” by this meeting is only partially true. Outside of London it was messier than that and didn’t just involve DAM members . Ultimately, the situation in Glasgow was completely overshadowed by a much bigger crisis in London – the Harrods bomb.
If there’s one of the places where Beating the Fascists can really claim to be the “Untold Story”, it’s the Harrods bomb. This is where the London AFA organiser, a member of Red Action, was arrested for IRA activity in March 1993 (p310). Beating the Fascists gives a good account of the subsequent disintegration of the Red Action/Searchlight relationship. It also gives a reasonable account of the reaction in London among DAM members. I think it’s fair to say, as the book does, that DAM members took the Harrods bomb “particularly badly” (p311). Once again, though, Albert Meltzer’s autobiography stands in for the DAM .
It’s up to ex-London DAM members to give a proper account of why anarcho-syndicalists left London AFA. Explaining this was because “the DAM had dissolved under the weight of internal disputes” (p393) isn’t going to convince many .
I’ll finish here. In summary, Beating the Fascists is an important book. It’s definitely part of the Untold Story of both militant anti-fascism and the history of Anti-Fascist Action. But it’s not the full story by any means – trying to get a complete story of AFA from one book is probably unrealistic anyway, given the geographical spread, the number of years, and the political groups involved. Read it, think about what its saying, but be aware of the gaps.
An ex-Liverpool AFA member
1) As an example of a street action that Red Action wasn’t involved in: Fascists were finally driven from their pitch in Brick Lane in London in 1993. According to Beating the Fascists this action was “by and large recognised as a ‘Militant Tendency’ group” (p212). This is partly true. But if you dig a bit deeper you find that a mixed crew was involved – including Militant, ex-AFA, and other anti-fascists.
2) This has been checked by some other ex-AFA members for feedback.
3) Anti-Fascist Action - an Anarchist Perspective (Kate Sharpley Library, 2007).
4) Just from the pages of the Merseyside Anarchist Newsletter – which ran from 1988-1992 – the following anti-fascist mobilisations in the North were mentioned: 1988 York; 1989 Rochdale, Dewsbury, Bradford, York; 1990 Wigan, Newcastle (Leeds anarchist report); 1991 Manchester. Rochdale 1989 is also in Hate by Matthew Collins (Biteback Publishing, 2011) where a “mob of reds from Manchester” gets a mention (p64).
5) No Retreat (Milo Books, 2003) by Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey. The second half of the book is on AFA by ex-Red Action member Dave Hann. Dave Hann died in 2009. His second book Physical Resistance – 100 Years of Anti-Fascism was finished after his death and came out in 2013 (5.5). It’s clear there was no love lost between Dave Hann and the Red Action leadership after 1996, and scores are settled in both No Retreat and Beating the Fascists – though Beating the Fascists is more blatant about this. I’d agree that Dave Hann did his duty, had some good ideas at the time, and had a good claim to be one of the chief stewards on some of the Northern Network mobilisations in the North West. But there are problems with his account.
5.5) Physical Resistance – 100 Years of Anti-Fascism (Zero Books, 2013, by Dave Hann. Edited and completed by his partner Louise Purbrick). The section on AFA includes some more perspectives. The book has gaps, but is worth reading for contributions such as that from Red Action founder member Mick O’Farrell.
6) The solid state of Manchester AFA is also shown by the AFA National Office being in Manchester from early 1994, with Manchester providing the funding.
7) The problems with Searchlight have been mentioned in previous publications – see Bash the Fash (Kate Sharpley Library, 2001), No Retreat, Anti-Fascist Action – an Anarchist Perspective. Beating the Fascists goes into this in some depth.
8) This is very much an outsider’s view of Liverpool AFA. Anarchists of all stripes were involved, as were non-aligned socialists, and a whole range of people over the years who were prepared to get stuck in but probably didn’t use any label apart from ‘anti-fascist’.
9) One example would be the Hare And Hounds pub in 1993. Anarchists were first through the door. I’ll leave it there – no-one I knew was into personal recognition and everyone had their part to play.
10) See Anti-Fascist Action – an Anarchist Perspective. Also see Dave Hann’s comments in No Retreat. The later comments by Bolton Anarchists in Physical Resistance – 100 Years of Anti-Fascism (p359) are also relevant.
11) DAM strike support included fund-raising, organising boycotts, and a Congress for Industrial Action during the Miners Strike in Jan 1985, with NUM speakers. In the late 1980s/early 1990s DAM members launched the Despatch Industry Workers Union, and Industrial Networks were launched by workers in Transport, Public Service, and Education.
12) Anti-Fascist Action – an Anarchist Perspective.
13) If there are any lessons from Glasgow it’s the need to avoid the poor communication and fragmented responses of the time (independent responses taking place in both London and the Northern Network). The deteriorating situation in Glasgow should have been ringing alarm bells throughout AFA well before things turned ugly – but it didn’t. Glasgow should have been dealt with properly – among anarchists, the DAM, and within AFA – at a national level, but wasn’t.
14) See I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels (AK Press 1996), p357
15) The move from the DAM to the Solidarity Federation is pretty well documented. Being ex-DAM – either in the SF or not – didn’t prevent AFA involvement in the North.
[Publication details, provided by KSL: Beating the Fascists: the untold story of Anti-Fascist Action by Sean Birchall. Published by Freedom Press, £15. ISBN 9781904491125