Anti-racism

There is no such thing as the ‘alt left’

Earlier in the week, a journalist at the ABC asked me some questions about whether there was such a thing as the ‘alt left’ and the possibility of left-wing violence in the twenty first century. I responded, but in the article published, there were no quotes from me. As the article has attracted significant criticism online, I thought I would quickly post my original comments (only with a slight edit). 

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The term ‘alt right’ was first used as a branding tool by those on the populist and far right, who wished to do away with the connotations with traditional far right politics and white supremacism. It is often used nowadays to describe the various groups and individuals who inhabit the space between hard right conservatism and the organised far right (primarily in North America), with a lot of crossover with what some people have described as right-wing populism.

Some have proposed that a left-wing populism is necessary to counter right-wing populism, but the term ‘alt left’ has not been a popular term and it is not a very useful one. Some on the American left, particularly around certain podcasts, have described themselves as the ‘dirtbag left’, which has been used to identify a ‘non-PC’ left – although this is a mixture of left contrarianism and class reductionism (seeing class as the most important form of oppression to the detriment of any other struggles against oppression). It is unclear how far this concept has permeated into the organised left in North America, such as around the Democratic Socialists of America – although the self-described ‘dirtbag left’ have championed the DSA in the past.

Some others have used the term ‘alt left’ to describe websites that support Jeremy Corbyn, such as The Canary or Skwawkbox in the UK, but I also don’t find this useful. Left populist might be a better term.

The far left has traditionally been organised around distinct political parties or entrist groups inside parties such as the Labour Party in Britain. The decline of the organised left outside the Labour Party, particularly in Britain, has meant that there are more independent leftists inside Labour nowadays, although these activists should not be labeled ‘alt left’.

The number of left-wing organisations involved in explicit political violence in the Western world have been minimal. The Weather Underground in the US, the Red Army Fraction in West Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy captured the headlines in the 1970s, but they were always on the fringes of the left.

Other leftists have been involved in direct physical action over the years, such as militant anti-fascism, but this has primarily been a self-defence measure against racist, fascist and state violence. Destruction of property at demonstrations, such as those committed by some anarchists, has been sensationalised in the media over the years, but is also a minor part of left-wing activism in most Western countries.

Far right terrorism and political violence is far more prevalent and dangerous than any militant left-wing activism. The right have attempted to portray ‘antifa’ as a violent and organised left-wing movement, but antifa is a broad term used to describe various and often unconnected people involved in anti-fascist activism. The supposed ‘extremism’ of antifa is a moral panic stirred up by the right and perpetuated by conservative media.

I would like to return to this topic in the near future, but due to time constraints, this will do for now. 

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15 June, 1974 – ‘No Platform’ and Red Lion Square

15 June, 1974 saw both an emergency conference held by the National Union of Students on the issue of ‘no platform’ and a counter-demonstration against the National Front in Red Lion Square. The two incidents were a pivotal moment for the emergent anti-fascist movement in Britain. Below is based on a passage from my forthcoming manuscript on the history of ‘no platform’.

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The front page of the IMG’s newspaper the week after Red Lion Square

At the National Union of Students (NUS) conference in April 1974, the policy of ‘no platform’ was devised as part of a wider stance against racism, in particular the discrimination faced by international students in Britain. A resolution stated:

Conference recognises the need to refuse assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societies… and to deny them a platform. However conference believes that in order to counter these groups, it is also necessary to prevent any member of these organisations or individuals known to espouse similar views from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary (including disrupting of the meeting).[1]

 Student unions were also called upon to ‘refuse any assistance to openly racist or fascist organisations or individuals’, as well as ‘prevent any racist or fascist propaganda being displayed, sold, distributed, or propagated through meetings by whatever means may be necessary’.[2] Although the resolution was successful, it caused considerable controversy and soon after the conference ended, there were pushes by some student unions to have the resolution overturned.

Because of the controversial nature of ‘no platform’ resolution, the NUS held a special emergency conference in London on 15 June, 1974. Students from the International Marxist Group, who were instrumental in pushing though the policy back in April, accused the Communist Party faction within the NUS of wavering, suggesting that the Party ‘began to tremble at the thought that they were losing support inside the NUS’ and eventually ‘cracked under the strain’.[3] In the lead up to the conference, the IMG warned that the Communist Party faction wanted to weaken the resolution and restrict ‘no platform’ to non-violent means only, effectively getting rid of the phrase ‘by whatever means necessary’.[4]

At the June conference, the debate was over the application of resolution. A motion was put forward by several student unions arguing that ‘violent disruption of a meeting of a racialist speaker gives that speaker publicity which she or he would welcome’ and that the NUS should have used ‘any non-violent tactics necessary to combat racialism’.[5] The student union from City University London had been significant in the lead up to the June conference in the campaign to revise the ‘no platform’ resolution and a representative from this student union stressed that any action ‘must be non-violent because violent disruption was unacceptable on a moral level and politically bankrupt and ineffective on a tactical level’.[6]

However a number of representatives again defended the ‘by whatever means necessary’ part of the resolution. A representative from Portsmouth Polytechnic said that it didn’t matter whether violent disruption received negative publicity in the press and that ‘students should not be interested in winning this mythical idea that somewhere there was the average man or the average student who symbolised public opinion’.[7] Another representative from Birmingham Polytechnic argued that fascists ‘were willing to use whatever means necessary to achieve their policies’ and thus, ‘[t]heir opponents should be the same’.[8]

The emergency conference happened to be scheduled for the same day that the National Front attempted to hold a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and a counter-demonstration was held by Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) and other anti-fascists, including the IMG. A number of those who came for the conference also attended the counter-demonstration. The resulting melee between anti-fascists and the police led to the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately.

News of the police actions at Red Lion Square filtered back to the NUS conference. John McGeown, an IMG member and University of Kent representative, announced to the conference during the ‘no platform’ debate:

Someone had just come to the rostrum with blood over his face and body. The wound had been inflicted by the police who were preventing people from demonstrating against the National Front.[9]

McGeown linked the action at Red Lion Square to the debate being held at the conference, arguing that the violence experienced by the (largely student) demonstrators emphasised ‘the importance of the debate today’.[10] He continued:

While students were sitting here and liberals came to the rostrum and talked about free speech and the right to do this and to do that, student were actually being attacked by fascists in conjunction with, and in alliance with, the police force… Such violence was being inflicted by the police force outside Conway Hall today in alliance with the fascists. Students had the opportunity to make a big contribution to the fight against the fascists today and they ought to be doing that by upholding the Liverpool conference resolution.[11]

The death of Gately at an anti-fascist demonstration bolstered the argument made by the Trotskyist groups – if fascism was not countered ‘by any means necessary’, then people on the left were to become targets of violence. As Dave Hann has shown, throughout the mid-1970s, NF activists violently broke a number of meetings by the left, leading to the need for meetings to be stewarded by militant anti-fascists.[12]

The NUS produced a pamphlet in the aftermath of Gately’s death that called a mobilisation of an anti-fascist movement against the National Front, but while not mentioning the ‘no platform’ on university campuses, also called for other institutions to implement a ‘no platform’ policy. The pamphlet proclaimed:

we call upon the government and local councils to recognise their responsibilities and ban further marches by the National Front and other fascist groups, and to deny them the use of public facilities. Such measures alone will not alone win the fight against racism and fascism, but will be an expression of the government’s resolve to check its growth and to protect hard-won democratic rights of working people.[13]

It is quite likely that the violence witnessed at Red Lion Square convinced many at the time that ‘no platform’ was necessary to combat fascists in a time of supposed ascendancy and that to allow these fascists to publicly organise was to risk fascist violence in the future. The tragic events at Red Lion Square occurred at a pivotal moment for anti-fascist movement in Britain and the promotion of ‘no platform’ as an anti-fascist tactic. By the late 1970s, the ‘by any means necessary’ phrase had been removed from the NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy and the policy was entirely revoked between December 1977 and April 1978. It was resinstated in the same month as the first Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism Carnival was held in London, happening as the anti-fascist movement gained momentum. Despite the initial controversy around its implementation, the NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy has remained in place for over 40 years.

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An IMG pamphlet from 1974

[1]NUS, April Conference: Minutes and Summary of Proceedings (London: NUS, 1974) p. 79. Bold in original text.

[2]Ibid., p. 79.

[3]Red Weekly, 31 October, 1974, p. 2.

[4]Red Weekly, 23 May, 1974, p. 6.

[5]NUS, Minutes of Extraordinary Conference (London: NUS, 1974) pp. 34-35.

[6]Ibid., p. 35.

[7]Ibid., p. 36.

[8]Ibid., p. 36.

[9]NUS, Minutes of Extraordinary Conference, p. 36.

[10]Ibid., p. 36.

[11]Ibid., p. 36.

[12]Dave Hann, Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism (London: Zero Books, 2013) pp. 250-251.

[13]NUS, The Myth of Red Lion Square (London: NUS pamphlet, 1974) pp. 21-22.

Paperback edition of ‘British Communism and the Politics of Race’ is ready for pre-order!

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This is just a quick announcement to let you all know that the paperback edition of my book British Communism and the Politics of Race will be out next month through Haymarket Books. You can pre-order it now here.

You can read an interview I did with Selim Nadi for the Historical Materialism blog about the book here. And you can read an interview I did Alex Carnovic for the CPGB’s Weekly Worker here.

No Platform book project: An appeal for sources

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I am very excited that my book project on the history of the NUS policy of no platform in the UK is moving forward. At the moment, I am on the lookout for further primary sources from no platform campaigns from the 1970s to the present (particularly from the 1980s and 1990s). So if anyone has any material relating to specific campaigns, please send an email to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com.

I am especially interested in any material relating to campaigns to prevent Enoch Powell and representatives of the apartheid regime in South Africa from speaking on university campuses in the mid-to-late 1980s.

In the meantime, you can also read this book chapter which gives an overview of the no platform policy in the 1970s and 1980s.

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British Communism and the Politics of Race – out now!

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After 10 years in the making, my book British Communism and the Politics of Race, has been published in the Historical Materialism series by Brill. Please order a copy for your institutional library. Link is here. And a library recommendation form can be found here.

As with all HM books, a paperback edition will be published by Haymarket in the next  year or so. I will be sure to let you all know when this becomes available.

I still haven’t worked out whether I will do a book launch, so stay tuned!

Forthcoming with Brill, ‘British Communism and the Politics of Race’

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Ten years in the making, I am very happy to announce that Brill will be publishing my monograph British Communism and the Politics of Race as part of its Historical Materialism series later this year. You can pre-order a copy here.

Here is a short blurb:

British Communism and the Politics of Race explores the role that the Communist Party of Great Britain played within the anti-racism movement in Britain from the 1940s to the 1980s. As one of the first organisations to undertake serious anti-colonial and anti-racist activism within the British labour movement, the CPGB was a pioneering force that campaigned against racial discrimination, popular imperialism and fascist violence in British society.

And as part of the Historical Materialism series, it will be available as a paperback via Haymarket Books in the next year or so.

Tell your institutional library to order a copy!

Announcing the chapter list for ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

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Image source: Getty Images

Now that we have entered the copy-editing phase, Matthew Worley and I are happy to announce the chapter list for our forthcoming volume with Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956. It is the second volume that Matt and I have co-edited for MUP (the first being Against the Grain) and we are very excited to showcase new scholarship by a range of established and upcoming scholars (including a number of activist-scholars). Like the previous volume, we have tried to cover a wide variety of different groups and movements and hope that these chapters inspire further research into the British (and international) far left. So here is chapter list:

Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left – Evan Smith and Matthew Worley

1          Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970–90 – Jodi Burkett

2          Not that serious? The investigation and trial of the Angry Brigade, 1967–72 – J. D. Taylor

3          Protest and survive: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party and civil defence in the 1980s – Jacquelyn Arnold

4          Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s – Gavin Brown

5          ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968–75 – Jack Saunders

6          Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956–85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley

7          Networks of solidarity: the London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike – Diarmaid Kelliher

8          ‘You have to start where you’re at’: politics and reputation in 1980s Sheffield – Daisy Payling

9          Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism,      1956–79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs

10        A miner cause? The persistence of left nationalism in postwar Wales – Daryl Leeworthy

11        The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn

12        The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Michael Fitzpatrick

13        The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey

14        Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain – Lawrence Parker

We hope that the volume will be available by the end of the year, or in early 2018. Further details will be on this blog as they come to us.

For those attending the Modern British Studies conference at the University of Birmingham in July, Matt and several of the contributing authors will be speaking about the collection. More details to follow soon.