Liberal anti-fascism: from the ANL to UAF

This is part 1 of a three part series. The intro is here. There series continues here.

UAF is a child of a strange marriage. One parent was the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a front organisation of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) originally launched in the 1970s to combat the National Front, then wound up for political reasons internal to the SWP, before being re-launched in the early 1990s to cater to the growing anti-fascist market due to the rise of the BNP. Its strategy was always to appeal to a low common denominator – the NF/BNP/EDL are constructed as “Nazis” and therefore to be automatically opposed by all decent people – via a combination of celebrity endorsements (from pop stars to Tory MPs) and the mobilisation of large numbers of passive bodies in heavily-policed High Street demonstrations.

Funded partly by affiliations from SWP-controlled branches of white collar public sector trade unions, its foundation stones were always the incredible discipline and organisational energies of the SWP membership and the party’s relatively good design skills and communications savvy. It was never a democratic membership organisation; its internal processes and financial affairs were always highly opaque; and its staff and leadership were always SWP cadres.

The other parent was the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR), itself a mutation of the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA), which had been launched within months of ANL’s second incarnation to appeal to the same growing market. The backstory behind the re-branding of ARA as NAAR is too byzantine even for a trainspotter like me, but involves several murky episodes involving personal empire-building and animosities, and allegations of careerism, nepotism and corruption (part of that story is told here). ARA/NAAR’s strategy differed markedly from ANL’s in some ways: it was black-led, focused on racism not fascism, and drew on a wide and diverse coalition of grassroots groups, political sects and trade unions, who held its leadership to account in more effectively than with the ANL.

In other ways, though, it resembled the ANL: a populist, moralistic message against racism, and a preference for high profile large-scale mobilisations over sustained local action. Although its activist core was more politically heterogeneous  than the ANL, it was largely staffed by the shadowy Labour entrist Trot sect, Socialist Action (a secretive but hard-working off-split of the International Marxist Group that generally worshipped Stalinoid dictatorships in the global South and was very intimate with political machine boss Ken Livingstone).

What made ARA/NAAR interesting, despite its flaws, was that it linked up – and fostered the growth of – locally-based anti-racist groups. These groups were often the sedimented leftovers of the period from the late 1960s to mid-1980s when there had been something of a mass, community-based, black-led, grassroots anti-racist movement across the UK, which had powerfully articulated the combined struggles for community, citizenship and social rights of the diverse black working class.

This movement had largely evaporated in the 1980s, with its increasingly embourgeoisified and professionalised leadership co-opted into the growing machinery of municipal socialism and the race relations industry. Thus the local groups left behind after the high tide mark were often marked by close ties with local municipal socialist political machines, but nonetheless had their ear to the ground in their communities and were able to address the local factors that make race politics subtly different in every locality. (Lewisham Anti-Racist Action Group (LARAG) is typical of this type of organisation.) When NAAR merged with the ANL to form UAF, these sorts of groups became local branches of UAF, and their activists had to find ways of sharing space with SWP cadres, and an interesting dynamic was created as this relationship played out.

The last decade has also seen the emergence of grassroots local groups across the country which do something similar, sometimes linked to church groups and/or to trade unions. Some of these local groups affiliate to UAF, a few affiliate to HnH, and some affiliate to both. These local groups emerge from specific local factors, and present a version of anti-fascism that points beyond the dead end in which the SWP led the ANL and has sought to lead UAF.


Jim Jepps said…
Oh you've whetted my appetite for part two now... really interesting.

In your view how real was that merger between groups on the ground though? My impression is that although the top table is a little broader the grassroots groups are either what were the ANL components or they've not done their work through UAF at all... that's my feeling.
Sarah AB said…
I read via one of the suggested links that militant anti fascism was characterised by an orientation towards the white working class, because of the WWC's supposed susceptibility to fascism. I wondered whether the fact Matthew Collins blogs regularly for HnH was relevant - suggesting that HnH was trying to get beyond the limitations of liberal anti-fascism.
bob said…
Part 2 now up

Jim, good question. In Lewisham, my impression is SWP and former NAAR types have managed to find a modus vivendi (is that the right phrase) in LARAG. But I don't know enough to say about them or other branches. The relationship between branches and the centre is a little opaque, and there are enough SWP activists on the ground to make sure branches toe the national line.

Sarah, interesting point. In some ways, HnH share more of the analysis of militant anti-fascism than UAF does. However, (a) they tend to advocate voting Labour as solution; and (b) they are very legalistic, police bans etc
bob said…
One other thing I meant to say re Sarah. Orientation to wwc probably shouldn't be part of definition of militant a/f. Militant a/f has two (sometimes overlapping) traditions: the self-defence of communities under attack (from Cable St to Brick Lane & Southall to today's mobilisations against EDL) and mobilisation of wwc in communities "at risk from" fascism (as with AFA/IWCA strategy). HnH have learnt some of the lessons of the latter, while UAF attempt to pose in the garb of the former.
Jim Jepps said…
I think that's a really interesting response and plays into something I've been thinking a while.

Where groups have some form of local autonomy and shape (most groups round the country are UAF not local formations) they are able to create something solid. Where they become franchises they tend to be the people from the dominant partner and little else...
darren redstar said…
When I left the SWP I had intended to be a friendly ex member- and retained my anl, and other SWP related memberships going.
It was the discovery that the anl had been wound up and incorporated into the uaf, without even bothering to inform the members, let alone allow them any say that made me an oppositionist. First with the cp and the red party and then as an anarchist.