The Workers Revolutionary Party and the Anti-Nazi League

This was originally posted on my Patreon here. A scan of the pamphlet discussed below can be found here.

In mid-1978, the Workers Revolutionary Party published a pamphlet titled The Anti-Nazi League and Fascism, based on articles written for their newspaper, Newsline, by Jack Gale. The WRP, led by Gerry Healy, was an orthodox Trotskyist group (until 1973, it had been the Socialist Labour League), which in the 1970s was infamous for its catastrophism, its closer connections with Middle Eastern dictatorships and the membership of the Redgraves. 

While many groups on the British left supported the Anti-Nazi League, an organisation started in late 1977 by the Socialist Workers Party and members of the Labour left to combat the National Front, the WRP did not. This was partly to do with a disagreement about whether the National Front was a fascist threat and partly to do with sectarianism on the left. 

The WRP were sceptical whether the NF constituted a fascist threat, compared with the Nazis in Germany or the British Union of Fascists, ‘despite its thoroughly reactionary nature’. The pamphlet stated: 

We believe that, by trying to equate the National Front with Hitler’s Nazi Party or Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the founders of the Anti-Nazi League hide the real origins of fascism, distort the processes by which it develops and exaggerates its nature as an imminent threat in Britain.

For the WRP, the NF was not a fascist threat because it was not supported by the capitalist class (unlike Lord Rothmere supporting the BUF), was not connected to other fascist governments in Europe and came at a time of supposed working class strength (unlike the BUF coming after the 1926 General Strike and the Great Depression). It is interesting to note that despite the WRP’s catastrophism in the 1970s and the claims that a military dictatorship was in the offing, this pamphlet suggested that the British working class was in a position of strength, writing that its ‘fighting strength is unimpaired’. Gale continued:

Its readiness to struggle has been shown time and time again since the miners forced the Heath government out of office in February 1974.

This supposed strength (written about just before the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and Thatcher’s electoral victory) was a reason that the WRP eschewed the ANL, which it saw as a class collaborationist alliance to protect capitalist democracy from fascism. The WRP argued that the ANL was a reconstitution of the Popular Front of the 1930s which was ‘directly responsible for the defeat of the Spanish revolution at the hands of Franco and the betrayal of the wave of sit-down strikes in pre-war France’. 

And from this defensive alliance against the NF, the WRP saw the ANL as a step towards the ‘rejection of Marxism’ and the ‘participation of “socialists” in capitalist governments’. This would be done, the WRP claimed, in the name of anti-Nazi unity. This, Gale alleged, is why the Tribune left within the Labour Party were ‘among the most vociferous champions of the Anti-Nazi League’. Furthermore, the WRP saw the politics of the ANL as akin to the Communist Party of Great Britain’s ‘British Road to Socialism’ programme and saw the involvement of the ‘Stalinist’ CPGB in the Anti-Nazi League as a further reason to be against it.

The alternative was the united front that Trotsky argued for in the 1930s and a position supported by nearly all Trotskyist groups in the 1970s. The SWP was also supportive of the united front line and when the ANL was organised in the late 1970s, there was discussion about whether the ANL was a united or popular front (see Ian Birchall’s review of David Widgery’s Beating Time in the mid-1980s for a brief overview of this). 

The WRP saw the ANL as the propping up of capitalist ‘democracy’ by socialists against fascism and that if the crises intensified, the middle class and the capitalists would choose fascism over the working class. And any ‘rights’ that the workers had under the present capitalist system were only allowed at the behest of the capitalist ruling class, with the WRP arguing that these rights, such as the right to strike, the right to free speech and the right to free association, were being curtailed in the 1970s. The pamphlet stated:

The attack on these rights begins, in fact, even before fascism is called in. Fascism merely completes the process.

The WRP instead championed a working class defence informed by revolutionary Marxism, represented by workers’ militias and workers’ councils. The ANL and the various left-wing groups that were involved in it were denounced as abandoning socialism and collaboration with the capitalist class. The WRP concluded that it was:

the only party which today warns the woking class and youth that the growth of fascism is not weakened, but encouraged, if its real origin is obscured and false methods of ‘fighting’ it are advocated by political groups whose purpose is to achieve cheap publicity for themselves, irrespective of the damage caused to the working class in the process.

Compared with the ANL and the left groups that supported it (the SWP as well as the International Marxist Group and the Communist Party of Great Britain), the WRP had little influence on the anti-fascist movement in Britain in the 1970s, although it still had some impact on the wider left and labour movement up until the implosion of the group in the mid-1980s.

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