…and why it will be different this time. How can anti-fascists find a cultural politics to fit the current moment? David Renton speaks to Colin Revolting about Rock Against Racism, the Anti Nazi League and his new book: Never again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League 1976-1982 (London, Routledge: 2018).
CR: 1976 was a crisis year; how did this play into the possibilities – both for the fascists and for the left?
DR: Just like today, you had a government which lacked any effective majority in Parliament. In spring 1976, the Labour government failed to pass its spending plans. The government was able to make good the shortfall in its budget only by applying to the IMF for a loan. Afterwards economic policy tilted hard towards austerity. Plans were announced to cut public spending. There were tax cuts for the rich. Inflation was running at over 16 percent but Chancellor Denis Healey ordered employers to cap pay rises to a maximum of 4.5 percent.
All through 1976, unemployment stood at over one million; it was the longest it had remained at this level since 1945. Every week there were factory closures. In that context it is very hard to speak of possibilities for the left: the Labour government was breaking down, and activists were fighting to defend the workplaces and communities on which socialism was supposed to be based. This was a difficult and potentially a brutal moment in which politics was moving to the right.
Another part of the crisis was the decline of Britain as an imperial power. In 1945, the British Empire included most of the Caribbean, all of the Indian sub-Continent, much of the Middle East and a third of Africa. Almost all of these possessions had been ceded by 1976. Tens of thousands of black people came to Britain to work, and rightly insisted on equal treatment here.
Days before the local elections in 1976, the press reported that new arrivals from Malawi had been seen in a hotel while Crawley Social Services decided whether or not to house them. The Sun claimed that refugees were living in four-star hotels; The Mirror condemned a ‘New Flood of Asians into Britain’. The Daily Express predicted that 145,000 people would follow. Such figures were always exaggerated. There were no more than two hundred British passport holders among the Asian population of Malawi; there were just two Malawian families in Crawley.
But these reports emboldened the National Front, which sent its members to Gatwick, where they chanted at baffled tourists, ‘Don’t unpack, you must go back.’ In the elections that followed, the average Front candidate won 9% of the vote. In Leicester, the Front came within 60 votes of winning its first council seat. Three months later Eric Clapton performed in Birmingham, and gave the racist speech which led to the formation of Rock Against Racism.
Can you say something about how local RAR groups operated?
RAR began with a letter sent by Red Saunders to the music press after the Eric Clapton gig, calling for ‘a rank and file movement against the racist poison in rock music.’ Several hundred people wrote back expressing their interest.
In the first few months, there was a single RAR committee based in London. It comprised Saunders himself, various other signatories to his letter who were involved like Saunders with radical theatre groups (Peter Bruno, Jo Wreford and Angela Follett), various friends of Saunders from the SWP printshop (Syd Shelton, Ruth Gregory), and relatively few musicians. Through the singer Tom Robinson RAR recruited the campaign’s first full-timer, Kate Webb.
The thinking which underpinned the decision to launch a local RAR group varied from town to town. In some cases, it was people who had read Saunders’ original letter; elsewhere it might be a musician who took the initiative, or actors, or members of any of the existing left groups.
In Leeds, Paul Furness, Linda Nunns, and others organised a one-off benefit gig in a prefab building backing on to Leeds Polytechnic’s student union. The performers were a local band and friends of the organisers, Foxy Maiden. Over time this became a weekly venue, the Leeds RAR Club, with performances by important punk acts, the Mekons, Gang of Four and Delta 5.
In Birmingham, RAR was set up after a letter in local magazine Broadside called for volunteers. The group ran a weekly club night at Digbeth Civic Hall and West Midlands post-punk band the Au Pairs were part of the organising committee.
In Deptford, RAR involved the Combination Theatre Group and bands Eddie and the Hot Rods, Menace and Amber. In Lymington (described by local activists as ‘the most boring place in the world’), RAR held a first gig with the band Criminally Insane. In Nottingham, the organisers were socialists frustrated with what they saw as a ‘populist, mediocre’ local Anti-Nazi League.
The view from London was that the local groups could be trusted to find their own way. Saunders tells the story of being rung up by someone from Aberystwyth asking for his advice on how to set up a group. ‘Right,’ Saunders said, ‘you’re the RAR Aberystwyth committee.’ The caller was baffled. ‘Can’t you help?’ he asked. Saunders said, ‘No, I’ve only got two rolls of Sellotape and that’s it.’
Could you convey what David Widgery’s influence was?
Widgery did not sign RAR’s launch letter; nor was he on the steering committee in its first weeks. By spring 1977 however, when RAR launched its fanzine Temporary Hoarding, Widgery had been recruited. He wrote an article for the first issue, ‘What is Racism?’ which in brutal, unsparing language, insisted that the new campaign was against all forms of racism, not just fascism. ‘The problem is not just the new fascists from the old slime … the bigger danger is the racist magistrates with their cold sneering authority … policemen for whom answering back is a crime.’ This insistence in seeing racism as a whole was important for RAR, and made the campaign attractive to a number of young black activists – the likes Linton Kwesi Johnson or Paul Gilroy – who were suspicious of the existing left.
Widgery wrote a further series of articles for Temporary Hoarding, including an interview with Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and an article for the special issue sold at RAR’s huge first carnival at Victoria Park, Hackney in April 1978.
As far as Widgery was concerned, Rock Against Racism was a model example of a left politics which expressed itself in music and images, not simply words. And which brought out the radical potential contained in public culture: whether that means Mayakovsky’s poetry, Billie Holliday’s songs, or the likes of the Sex Pistols or the Clash.
There’s a lovely interview in the New Musical Express in April 1979, in which Angus Mackinnon and Charles Shaar Murray tried to convey the personalities of the different people of the RAR committee. They were mainly looking to celebrate other music lovers, the likes of Lucy Toothpaste, a writer on the RAR committee who had begun by publishing a fanzine JOLT from her own bedroom and who had corresponded with many of the best-known punk bands. They were looking to criticise Dave Widgery and other socialists as dogmatic political commissars.
But when they asked the members of the RAR committee whether, for example, they thought there might be a radical potential in forms such as heavy metal or disco, the only RAR supporter who answered with an unequivocal (and well-informed) yes, was Dave Widgery. In that moment, you can see the likes of Shaar Murray grasping for the first time the combined cultural and socialist politics which was at the core of RAR and which enabled the movement to flourish.
Was Widgery moving away from the Socialist Workers Party when he got involved in RAR?
The International Socialists changed their name to the SWP in winter 1976-7. This was a period where IS/SWP was much in the news and recruiting rapidly. Overall, however the membership of IS/SWP actually shrank between 1974 and 1979.
There were two basic reasons for the group’s problems. First, during the previous decade IS had concentrated on recruiting workers in industry. It was much harder to retain shop stewards on a perspective of workers’ power during an epoch of mass redundancies. Indeed at about the same time as RAR was launched, IS/SWP turned towards recruiting young workers rather than industrial militants. Its former recruits became less important and many just drifted away.
Second, the name ‘Socialist Workers Party’ was chosen on a maximalist perspective, that the SWP was capable of becoming ‘the’ party of radicalised workers and a major player on the British left. The person who saw this most clearly was Widgery’s close collaborator Peter Sedgwick who resigned from IS, denouncing what he called ‘The SWP Fraud.’ ‘When the struggle rises,’ Sedgwick wrote, ‘will it help that we have made ourselves electorally ridiculous and given ourselves a somewhat more inflated name?’ Other friends of Widgery resigned from the SWP at around this time including Syd Shelton, Ruth Gregory and Nigel Fountain.
It would be wrong though to exaggerate Widgery’s disenchantment. After all, he was still a member of the SWP as late as 1992 when he died.
But at about the same time as RAR was at its peak, Widgery was one of the main signatories of a brief attempt to democratise the SWP, a faction with the subtly self-deprecatory title of The Faction for Revolutionary Democracy, or FRED.
Within RAR, Widgery argued for what he termed as ‘separat[ing] a bit’ from the Anti-Nazi League, which (unlike RAR) was tightly controlled by the SWP. In 1978, the two groups worked together on huge mass carnivals in central London. The following year however, and under Widgery’s influence, there was a turn away from mass carnivals back towards the local groups. It’s possible to see this move as an expression of Widgery’s growing doubts with the strategy of his party.
Can you say something about how the RAR groups morphed to meet other needs, such as Rock Against Sexism or Rock Against Sectarianism?
Rock Against Sexism came out of a gig at Brighton Poly, where the Fabulous Poodles played a number of songs with creepy, ogling, lyrics: ‘Convent Girls,’ which is about a grown man driving his car to follow underage women, and Tit Photographer’s Blues, whose chorus went, ‘I got the Tit, Tit, Tit Photographer’s Blues.’ Heckled by women in the audience, the night ended in a stand-off between these feminists (including several women in other punk bands) and the organisers (including Paul Gilroy).
Temporary Hoarding published the letter of complaint, together with an apology. RAR then produced a contract for all musicians playing on RAR stages, requiring them not to play songs which could be heard as oppressive. Very quickly, and with the active support of the RAR committee, a sister campaign, Rock Against Sexism was established. Some RAR groups simply switched overnight to organising gigs for the new campaign – this happened in South East London, for example.
In my book, this incident reflects the principled character of RAR, its much greater flexibility for example than the SWP-dominated Anti-Nazi League which faced a similar challenge a few months later – when fascists marched at the same time as the second Carnival – but dealt with that challenge in a much less impressive way.
Rock Against Sexism wasn’t the only time when RAR tried to reinvent itself. I’ve referred already to the 1979 move away from a model of organising huge London carnivals. The result was RAR’s 1979 Militant Entertainment Tour, featuring 40 bands at 23 concerts, including the Ruts, the Specials and the Angelic Upstarts. The tour covered some 2,000 miles on the road beginning with Cambridge, Leicester, West Runton in deepest Norfolk and ending in a six-hour show at Alexandra Palace.
Rock Against Sectarianism really belongs to a later period, when the National Front had been hammered in the April 1979 general election, when several of the RAR stalwarts were exhausted and the group was experimenting with how to build under Thatcher. RAR was approached by an Irish Republican political prisoner Felim O’Hagan who sent the group a note handwritten in pencil in block capitals on stuck-together pieces of cigarette paper, warning them that unless there were protests in England Bobby Sands would be dead in just a few weeks. Jerry Fitzpatrick, John Dennis and John Ellis organised a tour to Belfast and Derry in support of the H-Block prisoners who went on hunger strike for political status.
Music was far more central to youth culture in the past; what are the areas where fascism needs to be challenged today?
The far right has its cultural wing online: in reddit, in 4chan, and on Youtube. That’s also where it finds its fellow-travellers, the likes of the obnoxious PewDiePie, whose promotion of other youtube channels with antisemitic content is the obvious counterpart to the likes of Eric Clapton forty years ago.
Rock Against Racism grew in 1977 in the context of a music scene where images of fascism were ubiquitous, reflected in the name of bands (The Clash’s Mick Jones’ London SS), in their music (the bleak and repetitive sounds of Joy Division) and most infamously in the decision of numerous punk acts to wear swastikas: Simon Barker, part of the Sex Pistols’ entourage on the Bill Grundy show, Siouxse Sioux, Soo Cat Woman, Sid Vicious, Steve Jones of the Pistols standing with Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 who had played at both RAR Carnivals and many others. When the members of this generation explain forty years on why they had worn the swastika they insist that they were not racist; they had no greater plan than to provoke. The enemy was the conservative older generation (their parents, the despised politicians), the intention nothing more than to goad them.
Looking back at this period, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols has written about wearing a swastika, ‘I’m not a racist and never have been. I suppose it was just a way of summing up the darkness I felt.’
The ideal we should be working towards is one in which the likes of say, Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer, or any number of similar figures can have an audience in forty years time only by admitting what creeps they were in 2016-19 and distancing themselves from their own present obsession with fascism.
Isn’t there a danger in trying to replicate what worked in the past? Don’t we need something new for the battles against the far right today?
All my political life, there have been people trying to recreate RAR, whether that is the SWP who organised a new Anti-Nazi League Carnival in 1993, or Love Music Hate Racism who put on a thirtieth anniversary carnival in 2008, or the facebook groups trying today (in their words) to ‘Bring Back Rock Against Racism’.
Rock Against Racism was an unruly coalition of designers, writers and musicians who engaged with all the exciting bands of one of the most tumultuous periods in musical history. RAR existed for a little less than six years (1976-82), save for the year of the two London carnivals (1977), neither the ANL nor the ANL’s parent the SWP took any meaningful interest in it.
By contrast, Love Music Hate Racism was launched by a generation of political activists, and has never achieved independence from them. Last time I looked, almost all the tweets on the Love Music Hate Racism account were publicising events organised by another group, Stand Up to Racism. It is the weaker echo of SUTR’s (unimpressive) publicity machine. It is the glorified Ents department of the existing left that RAR was determined never to become – rather than a campaign in its own right.
Any living anti-fascist campaign would need to change significantly from its predecessor. This, after all, is what the right learned during its isolation in the 1950s and 1960s: that in order to be popular, fascism (or whatever else was to follow it) would need to change materially. The left has never yet gone through a similar process of distancing in order to orient towards the future.
What anti-fascists need, it follows, is a step away from past models. That was the spirit in which I wrote my book, in the hope that by understanding what was compelling and successful about the past, future generations might think away from it. That they could create something new, relying on different cultural politics better suited for our moment. That if they understood the anti-racism and anti-fascism of the 1970s, they could be even bolder than the generations of forty years ago.
Apologies to Jimmy Pursey for an earlier version of this interview which wrongly said he was wearing a swastika rather than that he appeared with Steve Jones who was wearing a swastika.