In August 2018, Labour’s John McDonnell called on Twitter and then in a press release for the relaunch of the Anti-Nazi League. Citing the success of Tommy Robinson and Boris Johnson’s Islamophobic likening of Muslim women to letterboxes, the shadow chancellor said, "Maybe it’s time for an Anti-Nazi League type cultural and political campaign... The ANL pioneered highly influential cultural movements like the Rock Against Racism, which attracted tens of thousands of people of all ages to anti-racist festivals and protests.” The response was predictably partisan: the New Socialist was in favour, Dan Hodges against. Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, complained that McDonell was plotting against parliament. ‘McDonnell believes – and says so – that true democracy is on the streets. This seemingly well-meaning tweet needs to be seen in that context. In government, ‘the street’ would be a key weapon in the hard left armoury.’
This piece considers why the demand periodically arises either for a new Anti-Nazi League (ANL), or for a new Rock Against Racism (RAR), and asks: if there were political forces capable of resurrecting RAR, what would such a campaign need to do?
The starting point has to be the context in which the right of the 1970s was able to grow. As Tony Kushner has shown, fascism was a greater presence in British life in the 1970s than it had been even in the immediate aftermath of the war. The same was also true in America and throughout Western Europe: in 1945 and for decades afterwards, the war’s victims did not want to discuss the horror they had witnessed while mainstream politics also struggled to explain the enormity of a conflict in which tens of millions had died.
By summer 1976 – when RAR was launched – those barriers had come down and public life in Britain was dominated by a generation of people who repeatedly used the war as a symbol of the greatness that Britain had once enjoyed but since lost. During the war, the chair of the Conservative Party Willie Whitelaw had been a Major in a tank brigade. The shadow Home Secretary and pioneer of neoliberalism (or, in the contemporary term ‘monetarism’) Keith Joseph had been an artillery captain. The previous Prime Minister Edward Heath had witnessed the Nuremberg Trials. Even the pacifist Tony Benn had undergone military service as a young RAF Pilot Officer. The war was a constant presence on 1970s TV screens; in Dad’s Army, Are you Being Served? and Coronation Street, where adversity would be answered with patriotic singsongs and bitter complaints about the young who did not understand what their parents had sacrificed for them.
As the 1970s wore on, the conservative nostalgia of those who had lived through the 1940s, of the war films, the boys’ comics and the television documentaries seemed to give way to a fascination with the defeated enemy. Luchino Visconti’s film The Damned about a family of German industrialists who make peace with the Nazis was first shown in the UK in winter 1969-1970. The subject of Frederick Forsyth’s 1972 best-selling novel The Odessa File was a conspiracy of former Nazis travelling between Germany and Argentina. Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli, was released in 1972 and The Night Porter in 1974, with both films exploring the sexualised appeal of fascism. In John Gardner’s 1975 novel, The Werewolf Trace, a conspiracy of former Nazis was hiding from capture in England. The same theme of fascist rebirth could also be seen in Ira Levin’s 1976 novel, The Boys from Brazil.
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 (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 Bill Grundy’s Today show, Siouxsie Sioux, Soo Cat Woman, Sid Vicious, Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, Mark E. Smith, 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 to goad them.
When an aggressive and non-Conservative right emerged, its supporters had to decide where they stood in relation to the memory of the war. At first, the National Front insisted on in its non-fascist credentials: its founding chairman A. K. Chesterton had fought for Britain not Germany in 1939-45, and espoused a form of elitist reactionary politics that rejected the street fighting politics of the 1930s. The younger neo-Nazis of the far right (John Tyndall, Colin Jordan) were excluded from membership of the Front. Indeed the formative experience which drew the different factions of the right and led to the launch of the National Front was the success of a far right candidate John Bean at Southall in 1966. The Front was seriously considering moving away from fascism in the direction of electoral politics; but, with the exception of the MSI in Italy there were few other electoral parties to copy. The Front’s ‘reform’ initiatives petered out: Chesterton resigned, Tyndall (chastened by a brief period in jail) was allowed to join and promoted to the leadership.
Because of the Front leadership’s inability to formulate a coherent non-fascist model of far-right politics, by the mid 1970s that party had drifted back to a recognisably fascist style, combining a military campaign for the streets with electoral politics. When the Front’s national organiser Martin Webster was interviewed by journalists, his message took the form of barely regurgitated passages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Writing under the pseudonym of Richard Harwood, the Front’s Richard Verrall was one of Europe’s most effective Holocaust deniers. The fascist past was prettified, imitated and proclaimed.
By the end of the decades, the Front’s politics were to change subtly again. Elections became the Front’s focus. Yet this was not because (like more recent Euro-fascist parties) the Front had permanently ceded the political terrain to conventional parliamentary politics. It was because, rather, the Front was repeatedly outnumbered on the streets and losing the physical clashes, most famously at Lewisham in summer 1977. As it did so, the older members retired from political activity and were replaced by a smaller number of younger, more aggressive militants who were increasingly separated, politically and socially, from the majority of the British right. This tactical and not strategic electoralism was a desperate attempt to rescue the Front from isolation. It was in this context – of physical and political confrontation and of decline – that the Front was unable to survive the Conservatives’ pitch to far-right voters, culminating in Thatcher’s victory in 1979.
As for the left; John McDonnell’s press release began life as a tweet liked by 14,000 people (around thirty times as many as the posts which preceded and followed it). It is likely that a good portion of his audience had lived through the 1970s. They liked his message because it reflected a campaign of which they remained proud.
For that generation, anti-fascism was a simple and effective, moral cause. The Anti-Nazi League was a mass movement. Its 250 branches with some 40-50,000 members sold around 750,000 badges and distributed perhaps 9,000,000 leaflets.
The same is still more true of Rock Against Racism. RAR felt relevant: it engaged with all the exciting bands of one of the most tumultuous periods in musical history, i.e. the high period of punk. The Sex Pistols were interviewed in RAR’s paper Temporary Hoarding, the Clash played at the first RAR Carnival. Whatever the ambiguities of their musical politics, Joy Division played RAR gigs. This relationship with mass culture enabled RAR to earn an audience for anti-fascist politics that was many times larger than the conventional left-wing audience (shop stewards, the peace campaigns…). Given that the combined attendance at the two London RAR carnivals was around 250,000 people, and the very large numbers who joined similar events in most of Britain’s cities; we can reasonably infer that at least one percent of the British population saw themselves not merely as passive anti-fascists but as active participants in the anti-NF campaign.
Plainly, if people are going to defeat today’s right – capable of winning national elections, repeatedly mobilising larger numbers onto the streets than the left, and finding a sustenance online – something on a similar scale will be needed.
It is no surprise therefore that Paul Holborow and Peter Hain, two of the original founders of the Anti-Nazi League, responded to McDonnell’s appeal by echoing it. Both are supporters of Stand Up to Racism, a campaign which portrays itself as the ‘successor’ to the Anti-Nazi League. But this begs the obvious question: why should a new ANL be needed, if one already exists? Acknowledging the implied rebuke contained in McDonnell’s appeal, Hain and Holborow suggested that any new alliance should be based around Stand Up to Racism, but that the latter needed to be ‘deepened and extended’.
For Hain and Holborow, the missing absence was a larger political campaign. Yet this wasn’t quite what McDonnell actually had in mind. When listing the achievements of the 1970s, in his press release, McDonnell’s focus was on the musical: the success of the League was, in his words, that the campaign ‘pioneered highly influential cultural movements like … Rock Against Racism’. The real absence for him was not an alliance between left and far-left but a mass campaign outside what normally counts as politics.
Even this was to ignore the formal continuities between the past and forty years ago. Just as ANL has a nominal successor in SUTR; so, RAR has been followed by a campaign, Love Music Hate Racism, whose events have included a 2008 Victoria Park carnival, at which the likes of Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 and Paul Simonon of the Clash played. The crowd were frisked on their way in by a private security company, the stage was professionally built and the PA in perfect condition. But there was none of the excitement or transgression of the original. Part of this is a matter of control. McDonnell may have assumed that ANL ‘pioneered’ (i.e. initiated) Rock Against Racism, in fact the popular campaign preceded the League by a year. When the ANL was launched this was not a case of a significant, established and popular alliance opening the way to a cultural newcomer; rather it was RAR which had the roots, the track record and the name.
Moreover, Rock Against Racism was an unruly coalition of designers, writers and musicians. They organised concerts, a fanzine (Temporary Hoarding), conferences and gigs. For the most part the League and RAR campaigned in separate spheres. 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 Socialist Workers Party took any meaningful interest in it.
By contrast, LMHR was launched by a generation of political activists, and has never achieved independence from them. At the time of writing, seven of the most recent ten tweets on the LMHR account advertise SUTR events. It is the weaker echo of SUTR’s publicity machine – the glorified ents department of the existing left that RAR was determined never to become – rather than a campaign in its own right.
If we move on from the organisations of the left and think of what is happening from below, there have been numerous attempts over the past twelve months to revive RAR or at least to remind people of what it stood for. Syd Shelton's photographs of RAR have been shown in numerous galleries across Europe. At the Migration Museum's exhibition at The Workshop in Lambeth ‘No Turning Back,’ the late 1970s have been chosen as one of seven pivotal moments in British migration history. RAR is memorialised through a display of letters sent to the campaign's magazine Temporary Hoarding, and a black and grey hand-stitched Union Jack, made by leading RAR activist Ruth Gregory and decorated with the badges worn by her and other of the group’s stalwarts. St Mary's College in Hull has been showing an exhibition of Hull Rock Against Racism posters. City Museum in Leeds has put on a Music Sound Bites display, including video interviews with veterans of Leeds RAR, tickets, badges and copies of the Leeds RAR newsletter.
There is even a Facebook group, Bring Back Rock Against Racism, whose two thousand members put on events, sell badges and t-shirts, and promote ska and Oi! bands. The imperative in their title conceals who it is that is supposed to bring back RAR: the 1970s generation, the admins of the new Facebook group, or indeed the group’s own members?
The awkward truth is that the left has brought back RAR, has done so repeatedly since the early 1990s. If you drop a stone into water its ripples diminish. So it is with historical memories. A model of political organizing has been lessened by repetition.
Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire describes how the instinct to recreate past models causes people to produce something quite different from what they intended; tragedy, farce, not Napoleon I the emperor of Europe but his nephew the caricature. The social revolution, he concludes, cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.
If people were serious about recreating RAR, how could it be done? Any living anti-fascist campaign would need to change significantly from its predecessor. This is what the right learned during its long postwar isolation: that in order to be popular, fascism (or something like it) would need to change materially. The left has not yet gone through a similar process of distancing in order to orient towards the future.
Ever since 1945, the right has been learning to shed its own history. One of the reasons why this process has gone much further in France, for example, than Britain is that there a generation of political activist made a much more sustained rejection of fascism in order to rediscover what was essential. One of the most important texts in this process was Dominique Venner’s pamphlet Pour une critique positive, written in 1963 by a former French soldier who had taken part in numerous activities of the French far right, including a 1956 attack on headquarters of the French Communist Party and membership of groups widely blamed for terrorism. The far right, Venner complained, lived in a permanent atmosphere of unreality, with its supporters reading spy novels, memoirs from participants in the war years or the secret services. He insisted that nationalists needed to maintain their vision of the complete reconstruction of society but argued that this required a change of approach compared to twenty years before. A fascist seizure of power, he insisted, would face numerous obstacles, including that fact that the inhabitants of Europe were richer than they had ever been and disinclined to accept military rule. What the far right needed, Venner argued, were ‘a hierarchical body of cadres’ working in the tradition of National Socialism. The far right faced a battle of battles, he argued a conflict ‘without glory or panache’. Venner’s pamphlet was taken up by others on the right, including François Duprat, the Toulouse organiser of Jeune Nation, and later a member of the fascist party Ordre Nouveau. It was Duprat who persuaded ON to set up the Front National in 1972 after which he was, in effect, the FN’s deputy to Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the year of the Front’s formation, Duprat wrote that Venner’s pamphlet had been as influential for the right as Lenin’s What is to be Done? had been for the French left.
It is not that Steve Bannon (for example) rejects Hitler or Mussolini. We know rather from his repeated positive references to Julius Evola that he admires a particular strain of Italian fascism – the one that rejected Mussolini as an opportunist and called for a Nazi-style makeover of the Italian party. But the war has been joined in the far right’s collective imagination by the War on Terror and 9/11. Here the far-right’s story, that the West is being destroyed by the migration of Muslims who are hostile to ‘our’ values, enables its partisans to represent themselves as the clear-sighted successor to the mainstream politicians of fifteen years ago. The parts of the right which show the greatest similarity to interwar fascism (Jobbik, Golden Dawn, the DFLA) are having the least success; those that present themselves as something new: rebels and outsiders standing up to political correctness (Trump, Tommy Robinson, Bolsonaro) are enjoying unprecedented success.
What anti-fascists need, it follows, is a step away from past models; and at the very minimum a reorientation towards a new cultural milieu capable of playing the same role that young music fans did during the previous generation of anti-fascism. From the perspective of 2018 it is not easy to envisage what kind of cultural politics could be capable of moving hundreds of thousands of people. But whatever it is, the answer will not be punk or reggae music, nor even will it be (in all likelihood) music itself. The way we listen to music is different: the experience has become more private, more atomized, less essential. The musical forms which are innovating and subject to contestation are different. It is hard to imagine any kind of musical culture becoming as insistent as punk once was, so that everyone from sixteen to twenty-one ‘had’ to hear a new single as soon as it was released, whether they were entranced or appalled by it.
The far right, of course, has its cultural wing online: in reddit, in 4chan, and on Youtube. In the Pepe the Frog memes and the denunciations of SJWs. Indeed the American far right has enjoyed, with the Gamergate controversy, the rise of Breitbart and the election of Trump, a moment of cultural and political convergence on the right just as effective for the right as RAR was for the left forty years ago.
Is it too much to hope that when a new generation of cultural anti-fascists cohere, they do so in the parts of the cultural world where the right is strongest and the opportunities for a DIY culture of the left are also at their greatest?
 ‘McDonnell calls for launch of new anti-racist movement to resist far-right,’ Labour List, 9 November 2018
 T. Kushner, The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination: A Social and Cultural History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 206-8, 213.
 P. Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Mariner, 2000).
 D. Sabbagh, ‘Anti-Nazi League founders call for new national campaign’, Guardian, 15 August 2018
 D. Venner, ‘Pour une critique positive,’ Europe-Action 5 (May 1963), 3–80.
 N. Lebourg and J. Beauregard, François Duprat: L’homme qui inventa le Front National (Paris: Éditions Denoël, 2012), p. 27; F. Duprat, Les Mouvements d’extrême-droite en France depuis 1944(Paris: Albatros, 1972), p. 122.
David Renton is a writer based in London and the author or Lives; Running (Zero Books, 2013), and the newly released Never Again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League 1976 - 1982 (Routledge, 2018).