The ‘Battle of Lewisham’ and the anti-fascist challenge to the Communist Party

On 13 August, 1977, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ occurred on the streets on south-east London – a confrontation between anti-fascist protestors, the police and (some) members of the National Front, who attempted to march through the borough. In many of the accounts of anti-fascism in Britain in the 1970s, this episode has been characterised as the point where the Socialist Workers Party became the leading group in the anti-fascist movement and overtook the traditional role of the Communist Party. The following post is based on a short extract from my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of race between the 1940s and the 1980s.

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By 1976-77, the Communist Party was at a crossroads over its anti-fascist strategy as the National Front (NF) moved to campaigning in the streets. At this time, the CPGB’s National Student Committee had removed ‘no platform’ as a slogan and acknowledged that the ‘real debate on racialism had been lost in this controversy over “No Platform”’.[i] In the immediate steps to combat the NF, the CPGB called for ‘a ban on all racist activity and strengthen the Race Relations Act against incitement to race hatred’ and to ‘develop the broadest united campaign of all anti-racist forces to resist racist activities’.[ii] However the CPGB’s Political Committee believed that there was still no ‘basis for forming some new, national anti-racialist organisation’ and the Party ‘should not try to form at this stage a national organisation… which presents the danger of being a grouping of Left wing organisations and another area of disruptive activity for ultra-Lefts’.[iii] By the end of 1976, it looked as if the Socialist Workers Party and the Asian Youth Movements were to provide the two forms of political organisation that would confront the National Front on the streets in the late 1970s, although as Anandi Ramamurthy has pointed out the white left and the AYMs disagreed over the centrality of the struggle against racism and the strategies to be pursued.[iv]

The CPGB had traditionally been the dominant anti-fascist force, but by the mid-1970s, they had been overtaken by the IS/SWP. By 1976, the economic crisis had stalled the IS/SWP’s efforts to revolutionise the union’s rank-and-file and ‘in an attempt to bolster its flagging industrial perspective, but without losing its foothold in the union camp’, the SWP launched the Right to Work campaign.[v] The IS/SWP’s concerns were now focused on the Right to Work and combating the NF, announcing that ‘the twin themes of fighting racialism and fighting for the right to work now dominate our immediate perspective’.[vi] This emphasis signalled a significant shift for the SWP, ‘away from established union and political structures and towards the young working class’.[vii] In relation to defining itself as an alternative to the CPGB, Ian Birchall explained that part of this was an appeal to the Communist Party’s heritage, which reflected two things, ‘the hunger marches… and anti-fascist activity, especially Cable Street’ and in the 1970s, the SWP ‘were the ones who were emulating the “golden age” of the CP’.[viii]

In his history of the IS/SWP, Birchall recognised the SWP’s strategy against the National Front was twofold. Firstly they emphasised that ‘racism and fascism were a product of a system of crisis’ and anti-racism ‘had to be combined with a critique of the system as a whole’.[ix] On the other hand, the NF’s marches were part of a fascist attempt to control the streets and build a mass organisation, so ‘organised fascism had to be confronted physically’.[x] The SWP criticised the CPGB for ‘[m]erely shouting ‘One race – the human race’ as those attracted to the NF were ‘fed up with rhetoric from politicians, they are impressed by action’.[xi] To prevent the building of a fascist mass movement required a strategy of ‘uncompromising opposition to any form of publicity, meeting or demonstration’ for the NF, which meant physically confronting the NF in the streets.[xii] The SWP were wary of police protection for fascist marches, but declared that ‘if five or ten thousand people assembled with the clear purpose of physically stopping a nazi march – then the police would probably not allow them to march’.[xiii] As the SWP stepped up their anti-fascist strategy of confronting the NF in the streets, they warned, ‘physical action will become the litmus test for distinguishing those who are seriously attempting to build a revolutionary alternative from those who are merely careerists and hacks’.[xiv] By August 1977, this ‘litmus test’ had come with the major street battle of the 1970s between the NF and the anti-fascist left, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’.

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’ on August 13, 1977, when anti-fascist demonstrators clashed with the National Front and the police in the London borough of Lewisham was a turning point for both the CPGB and the SWP in the anti-fascist movement. Attempting to exploit the recent arrest of a number of young blacks, the NF called for an ‘anti-muggers’ march, to assemble near New Cross station in Lewisham.[xv] In response to this announcement, the anti-fascist movement in Lewisham called for a ban from Home Secretary Merlyn Rees and Metropolitan Police Commissioner David McNee. The Lewisham council appealed to Rees to ban the march under the 1936 Public Order Act, while McNee ‘suggested a three month ban on all marches’.[xvi] However the Morning Star stated that under the Act, Rees could have ordered a ‘one-off’ ban, claiming that the three month period proposed by McNee was a ‘red herring’ and it was only police practice to ban all marches.[xvii] However Commissioner McNee stated that ‘he was turning down calls to ban the NF march because to do so would be to give in to “mob rule”’.[xviii]

The All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) was formed in January 1977, a broad-based alliance, including in its own words ‘conservatives and socialists, church people and trade unionists, blacks and whites’.[xix] Nigel Copsey has noted that at a national level, the CPGB ‘had done little to counter the National Front’, but its members ‘were often key figures in local anti-fascist committees’,[xx] which was the case with ALCARAF. With the refusal to ban the NF march, the Lewisham CPGB branch announced that ‘ALCARAF should encourage all Borough organisations…to support a counter-demonstration… calling for a peaceful, democratic, multiracial society based on social harmony’, as well as, ‘to reject fascism and end unemployment’.[xxi] ALCARAF and the CPGB urged a ‘powerful but peaceful demonstration’, which was scheduled to take place at a different time, away from the location of the NF’s march at Clifton Rise.[xxii] The SWP, on the other hand, announced its own demonstration at Clifton Rise, where the NF were meeting, with the notion of confronting the NF on the streets. The SWP recognised the ALCARAF march, but declared that ‘it will provide no substitute for confronting the fascists directly’.[xxiii] The Morning Star announced that, ‘it almost goes without saying that the Socialist Workers Party has prepared itself for the definitive game of cowboys and indians’.[xxiv]

On the day of the demonstration, around 4,000 people attended the ALCARAF march..[xxv] In the flyer handed out to marchers, the CPGB called for marchers not to attend the SWP demonstration, appealing for them to resist ‘violent confrontation with the National Front or the police’ and remain ‘united and disciplined’, asserting that organisations, such as the SWP, ‘who insist on the ritual enactment of vanguardist violence only damage the hard, patient work that has been put in over the years in the area by anti-racists and anti-fascists’.[xxvi] The SWP distributed its own leaflet amongst the ALCARAF march to join the demonstration at Clifton Rise. SWP District Secretary Ted Parker described the event in Dave Renton’s history of the Anti-Nazi League:

We knew one pivotal thing was to get as many people as possible from the first march up to Clifton Rise… The fascinating thing was that people wanted to march to Clifton Rise, but they just wouldn’t line up behind a Socialist Workers Party banner… Eventually, we found some members of some other groups like the IMG with a banner for some united campaign against racism and fascism. People agree to group behind that. It taught me a lesson for later – many people would support a united campaign, they didn’t all want just to line up behind the SWP.[xxvii]

Around 3,000-5,000 demonstrators congregated at this point, compared with 500-600 NF marches and ‘as police made snatch raids into the crowd…counter-demonstrators retaliated with bottles, bricks, and soft drink cans’.[xxviii] Fighting also broke out between police and counter-demonstrators on Lewisham High Street at the end of the NF march. By the end of the day, 110 people had been injured, including 56 policemen and 210 people detained, with 204 charged with offences.[xxix]

The following week’s Socialist Worker’s headline declared ‘We Stopped The Nazis…And We’ll Do It Again!’[xxx] Thousands of people – ‘black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14-year-olds and veterans of Cable Street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists’ – had come out to demonstrate against the National Front. The NF, ‘cowering behind massive police lines’, were ‘forced to abandon their march before it was half completed’.[xxxi] The SWP saw the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ as a major victory, when the ‘Nazi Front got the hammering of their lives’.[xxxii] Central London Organiser of the SWP, Jerry Fitzpatrick described Lewisham as ‘our Cable Street…it was our generation’s attempt to stop fascism. It was rugged, scrappy. It got bad publicity. But it was a real success. The NF had been stopped, and their ability to march through black areas had been completely smashed’.[xxxiii] The black SWP paper, Flame called Lewisham ‘the day that the Black youth gave the police a beating’ and declared, ‘For the black community it was a day of victory’.[xxxiv] The Socialist Worker reported that the ‘angriest anti-fascists were not those who had travelled many miles to take on the Nazis, but the local people, the blacks especially’.[xxxv] The paper quoted the father of one of the Lewisham 21 as saying, ‘I don’t agree with everything the Socialist Workers’ Party says but they were the only organisation to stand up for the rights of black people here’.[xxxvi]

For the Communist Party, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ demonstrated the need for widespread political pressure to ensure that the Public Order Act and the Race Relations Act were used effectively to ban provocative racist marches and in the case of this ban not being implemented, the need for a broad-based counter-demonstration, rather than street fighting. The Party was outraged at Police Commissioner McNee’s refusal to ban the NF march and asserted that instead of police mobilising ‘to carve a way for a few thousand supporters of the National Front’, the NF’s marches ‘must be stopped by police’.[xxxvii] If this did not occur, then ‘political, mass struggle… will be found to finish with the National Front and its like’ and ‘not the staging of ritual confrontations and street fights between the police and handfuls of protestors’.[xxxviii] The CPGB condemned the ‘crass adventurism’ of the SWP to assemble where the NF were marching.[xxxix] While Dave Cook acknowledged the ‘courage and determination’ of those who took part in the protest at Clifton Rise, the ensuring clashes ‘gave the capitalist press the chance to present that day as being a violent struggle between two sets of “extremists”’.[xl] What was needed for a successful anti-racist campaign was a broad-based movement including the labour and progressive movements, as well as the black communities, which had the potential to be isolated by the violent clashes of the SWP. As Dave Cook wrote, ‘The problem about street fighting is that only street-fighters are likely to apply, and it is this which can make it difficult to achieve the mobilisation of the labour movement’.[xli] Some members within the CPGB, particularly those involved in the militant anti-fascism of the 1930s and 1940s, defended the confrontational tactics against the NF, but this was more likely to be support for the local black community in Lewisham, than for their Trotskyist rivals. Tony Gilbert, one of the CPGB’s leading anti-racist activists and a former International Brigades volunteer, ‘commented on the courage of the young blacks’ after Lewisham at a National Race Relations Committee (NRRC) meeting, but stated that the main lesson of Lewisham was that ‘the presence of the Party must always be visible on any anti-fascist demo’.[xlii]

For the CPGB, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ signalled the end of a ‘primarily defensive phase’ against the NF, where ‘mobilisation reflected the intentions of the fascists’.[xliii] The need was not the ‘occasional dramatic “confrontation”’ with the NF, but a ‘detailed, systematic, painstaking’ campaign to ‘promote propaganda and education… to show the benefits of living in a peaceful multiracial society’.[xliv] For the SWP, Lewisham showed that it was clear that ‘many people outside the SWP were keen to oppose the National Front but wanted little to do with the SWP itself’.[xlv] As David Widgery wrote in Beating Time:

The black community, who had successfully defended their patch, had had a glimpse of a white anti-racist feeling which was much bigger and more militant than the liberal community-relations tea parties might suggest. A lot of ordinary people thought it was a Good Thing that the Little Hitlers had taken a bit of stick. Every racialist was made smaller.[xlvi]

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[i] National Student Committee, ‘National Student Conference’, 17 February 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/PC/14/06, LHASC.

[ii] Morning Star, 12 July 1976.

[iii] ‘Draft for Political Committee’, 1 July 1976, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/PC/14/01, LHASC.

[iv] Anandi Ramamurthy 2013, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements, London: Pluto Press, p. 38.

[v] Ian Goodyer 2002, ‘The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism’, MA Thesis: Sheffield Hallam University, p. 24.

[vi] IS Central Committee, ‘The Anti-Racialist Fight and the Right to Work Campaign’, IS Post-Conference Bulletin, 1976, in Alastair Mutch Papers, MSS.284, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[vii] Goodyer 2002, p. 25.

[viii] Email from Ian Birchall to the author, 22 May 2005.

[ix] Ian Birchall 1981, Building the “Smallest Mass Party in the World”: Socialist Wirkers Party 1951-1979, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1981/smallest/index.html.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] ‘Fascism in Leicester’, International Socialism, 1/93, November/December 1976, pp. 18-9.

[xii] ‘News from the Nazi Front’, International Socialism, 1/80, July/August 1975, p. 5.

[xiii] ‘Fascism in Leicester’, p. 19

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] David Renton 2006, When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981, Cheltenham: New Clarion Press, p. 57; Nigel Copsey 2000, Anti-Fascism in Britain, Macmillan: Houndmills. p. 123.

A police campaign in the Lewisham area had arrested a number of young blacks, which became known as the ‘Lewisham 21’. During a demonstration in support of the Lewisham detainees in early July 1977, a number of demonstrators were attacked by NF members.

[xvi] Morning Star, 10 August 1977.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Morning Star, 11 August 1977.

[xix] All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism And Fascism, Why You Should Support ALCARAF, 1977, London: ALCARAF flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/05/04, Labour History Archive and Study Centre (hereafter LHASC).

[xx] Copsey 2000, p. 127.

[xxi] Lewisham CPGB Branch, ‘National Front Provocation in Lewisham’, 9 July 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC.

[xxii] Lewisham CPGB Branch, ‘ALCARAF Demonstration August 13th’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC; Copsey 2000, p. 126.

[xxiii] Socialist Worker, 13 August 1977.

[xxiv] Morning Star, 12 August 1977.

[xxv] Copsey 2000, p. 127.

[xxvi] ‘A Message From Lewisham Communists to the ALCARAF Demonstration’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC.

[xxvii] Renton 2006, p. 60.

[xxviii] The Guardian, 15 August 1977.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Cited in, Renton 2006, p. 72.

[xxxiv] Flame, September 1977.

[xxxv] Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Morning Star, 15 August 1977.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Morning Star, 2 September 1977.

[xl] Morning Star, 26 August 1977.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Minutes of NRRC meeting, 19 September 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/02/06, LHASC.

[xliii] Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, 1978, London: CPGB, p. 23.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Copsey 2000, p. 130.

[xlvi] David Widgery 1986, Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, London: Chatto & Windus, p. 49.

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