Mainstreaming antifascism: the Anti-Nazi League in Britain

Words: Jack Stewart

In recent months, antifascism has become a political buzzword. Trump has stoked fears of societal collapse by characterising the Black Lives Matter protests as a descent into anarchy orchestrated by a monolithic ‘Antifa’; in the UK, similar protests led to discussion on the functionality of direct action in redressing domestic racism. 

In truth, antifascism – as a belief and as a movement – has a long and diverse history. It’s a history comprising hundreds of organisations from across the world and across the 20th and 21st centuries. One of the most successful antifascist organisations operating in the postwar era was the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a broad-based group that sought to challenge the rise of neo-Nazism in the UK. 

The tensions that birthed the ANL had their roots in the growth of organised racism in the 1960s. The immediate postwar period was a difficult time for the far-right, as the legacy of the Third Reich and the Holocaust encouraged public hostility, and the groups that did manage to form were fractured and disloyal to one and other. But by 1967, various groups of Neo-Nazis, racists and ardent British nationalists had coalesced under one banner: the National Front (NF). 

Unable to replicate the explicit fascism of their interwar ancestors – like the British Union of Fascists – the NF instead exploited growing popular hysteria against immigrants. Their political strategy involved a combination of traditional electoral politics, provocative demonstrations and street-level violence. 

From the start, antifascists mounted fierce opposition to the NF. Local Anti-Fascist Committees made up of socialist, anti-imperialist and Black Power groups countered NF demonstrations and disrupted attempts by NF activists to pass out their literature. Immigrant communities often took justice into their own hands, too – caught between violent racists and an unsympathetic police force, they shaped themselves into defensive organisations like the Bradford Youth Movement

The opposition consistently demotivated the Front and made it hard for them to mobilise. Events in Lewisham in August 1977 saw the Front humiliated by a mass turn out of local residents who forced the NF to abandon their march. But while Lewisham was interpreted by many as a success, violent confrontations usually meant bad press for the antifascist left, and the clash led the government to consider an increase in the use of the Public Order Act in the hope of curtailing further antifascist demonstrations. 

It was in this moment that the Socialist Worker’s Party – which had been a driving force behind much of the antifascist organising throughout the 1970s – proposed the ANL as an ‘anti-fascist pact’ between various strands of both the radical and liberal left, supported by celebrities and public figures like football manager Jack Charlton. The ANL served as a single-issue campaign working on a national level: an alternative to the more ideologically-entrenched and localised political groups that had so far made up the antifascist movement in Britain. 

Numerous subgroups formed to unite the population in their everyday experiences against the threat of fascism, including School Kids Against the Nazis and Women Against the Nazis. These groups allowed for opposition to the NF to develop in schools, pubs and other vital spaces in local communities, and developed the campaign against the NF without defaulting to the often violent counter-demonstrations. 

The specific intention of the ANL was to expose the neo-Nazi elements in the Front, and link them with the national memory of the Hitler’s Germany in order to ward voters away in the run up to the general election. During the ANL’s lifespan, over one million badges and five million leaflets circulated through local markets, postboxes and schools, informing their readers about neo-Nazi activity in the Front. Much of the information they displayed was supplied by Searchlight, an anti-fascist publication that had printed images of the NF’s leader, John Tyndall, dressed in full Nazi regalia during his time in the National Socialist Movement. 

Searchlight’s investigations confirmed that the NF weren’t simply ‘British Nationalists’, but organised neo-Nazis stoking anti-immigrant sentiment in order to further a fundamentally violent agenda. The ANL publicised this information to a much larger audience, exposing the roots of the NF to those who had not previously engaged with the antifascist movement.

Perhaps the greatest success of the Anti-Nazi League was its ability to engage young people in the politics of antifascism. The ANL united with Rock Against Racism (RAR), an artist network that moblised anti-racist musicians and organised shows to encourage young people away from the politics of the NF, and towards a radical conception of anti-racism. The dynamic nature of RAR was a vital injection of energy into the British antifascist movement, and allowed antifascists to become more creative in their campaigning. 

Throughout 1978, the ANL and RAR collaborated to organise huge open-air concerts they called Carnivals. The first ‘Carnival Against the Nazis’ took place in London’s Victoria Park on the 30th April 1978, and featured The Clash, Aswad, The Tom Robinson Band and others. By melding antifascist activism with a celebratory festival atmosphere, the ANL and RAR mobilised 80,000 people – the largest antifascist demonstration in London since the 1930s. 

The success of the first Carnival made further shows inevitable, and plans were made for a second in September 1978. But Carnival 2 exposed the difficulties of integrating an event like a music festival into an overall antifascist strategy: its high publicity allowed the NF to exploit the concentration of antifascist resources in one area. The NF organised a provocative march through Brick Lane to coincide with the Carnival, and the ANL was unable to divert demonstrators to counter their presence. The League was slammed for their failure, with critics calling the Carnival a ‘monstrous diversion’ from practical opposition to the far-right. 

In the run-up to the 1979 general election, the ANL returned to more localised campaigning. The NF’s attempt to organise a meeting in Southall was opposed by a broad nexus of members of the ANL, Southall Youth Movement (SYM) and People’s Unite. Attempts to petition the local council to stop the meeting failed, and on the day, the police’s violent suppression of antifascist counter-demonstration resulted in the death of a schoolteacher named Blair Peach. The tragedy exposed the difficulties of attempting to wrangle with fascism from within the confines of the state, since the monopoly of violence was held and executed by an institution that chose to align with the far-right. 

The general election would prove a resounding failure for the Front – but it certainly wasn’t a victory for the anti-racist movement. Margaret Thatcher successfully siphoned support away from the NF by appropriating anti-immigrant sentiment, albeit without the blatant neo-Nazism. The moderation of their racist rhetoric helped carry Thatcher’s Conservatives to victory, and forced the NF to abandon electoral politics.

The legacy of the ANL is one of success and failure. In widening the parameters of antifascist action, the League engaged huge swathes of the population in the politics and praxis of antifascism, and the Carnivals have been credited with cementing the dominance of antiracism in British popular culture. But as critics have pointed out, the organisation’s moderation proved problematic. The ANL has been charged with failing to address the widespread racism the made the NF (and subsequently, Thatcher’s Tories) so attractive, instead interpreting them as a bigoted minority – and episodes like Carnival 2 demonstrate the challenge of moderating tactics in the face of a violent opposition. Forty years later, the ANL is a lesson in the various shapes the future of antifascism might take. And with the radical right enjoying significant gains, we need creativity now more than ever.

learn more

  • BOOK: There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation – Paul Gilroy
  • BOOK: Never Again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League – David Renton
  • BOOK: Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge – Daniel Rachel

Jack Archie Stewart is a freelance researcher and writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He graduated with an MA in History from Queen’s University in 2019. He is interested in radical politics, extremism and protest. Follow him on Twitter.