Beating The Fascists by Sean Birchall from Freedom Bookshop, £15.
Any political biography from whatever quarter is going to involve some degree of score settling and any one version of events is inevitably disputed. Beating The Fascists is no different. It has caused more controversy than it deserves. There was a string of disgraceful and embarrassing accusations on Indymedia with people slagging the book before they had even read it and many accusations were levelled. This must have given the fascists a good laugh and merely amplified the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ aspect and bitter sectarianism in the anti-fascist camp. One of the main disputes on Indymedia was over the proposed moniker ‘the Authorised’ version of Anti Fascist Action (AFA). This has now been changed to the Untold Story. Fair enough. The book should actually be called the Untold Story of London AFA by Red Action as it is mainly focussed on London AFA and Red Action in particular. Unsurprising seeing as who wrote it.
The book is well written, at times funny, and although from a fairly singular point uses insider information from the folk who were actually there which makes it very readable. The case for physical opposition is made absolutely clear and uncompromisingly. Physical force is not for everyone but that does not mean it cannot be employed alongside other strategies against fascism. All the big events are described in some detail: the Crass gig riot at Conway Hall and the bands subsequent criticism of Red Action; Blood and Honour at Hyde Park; the battle of Waterloo; Ian Stuart Donaldson’s various kickings; and there is a good analysis of the National Black Caucus march at Bermondsey which got seriously attacked and saw fascist rioting for the rest of the day with the police totally losing control. The book rightly criticises the organisation for a massive blunder and a rout that could have been avoided. One AFA member recalls the day and how he barely escaped. And it is these anecdotes – rather than the dry analysis of SWP hacks like Dave Renton – that give the book its flavour. Some of the stories have clearly been well polished over the bar but are honest and unflinching in the descriptions of fear and outright violence. Accounts of events will always be disputed and obviously, in the heat of battle, participants’ experiences and views of events can differ radically but the subjective nature of the descriptions counter balance any dry theorising (of which there is little, save the skipworthy introduction).
Beating The Fascists makes clear the SWP’s appalling behaviour over their expulsion of the defence squads and the treachery of their leadership. The Central Committee, then as now, have no idea what goes on at street level and their concerns over the anti-fascist squads were about their autonomy rather than anything else. The apocryphal story of Tony Cliff seeing the squads in action against the NF then drinking in the same pub is only one example of the C.C’s Stalinist fictions. Also, the person who started the squads, Graeme Atkinson, was charged with dismantling them by the SWP which was designed to humiliate). At the time of writing, 2 groups of UAF and SWP were routed from Manchester and Oldham which shows they never learn. In dodgy places, security is needed. Anyway, the expulsion of the Squaddists did them a favour as now Red Action could exclusively focus on successful and militant anti-fascism whilst the SWP could ‘fight the torys.’ And a fat lot of good that did.
The book puts forward Red Action’s case against Steve Tilzey and Dave Hann and does not miss an opportunity to mention Hann’s ‘legal troubles’ a couple of times. Hann does not mention the case in his No Retreat book (which should be read in the same way as this – with amused scepticism) so it is difficult to cross reference and come to our own conclusions. The score settling about the No Retreat book and Steve Tilzey’s relationship with Searchlight does leave a slightly sour taste.
Beating The Fascists quickly dismisses the nonsense point of view that anti-fascists are somehow fighting on behalf of black or Asian people. Anti-fascists fight against fascists because of political opposition not as some misguided social work. The book also refutes the fascist claims that all anti-fascists are ‘soft’ or ‘middle class.’ Even some fascist websites acknowledge that AFA/Red Action were a force to be reckoned with on the day:
“90% of today’s “nationalists” would have shit a brick faced with AFA and not the lollypop brigade of today’s UAF . They did have firms in Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and down south but I always rated the Manchester lot as their main boys they were very tasty … when the boot was on the other foot like in Moston when they ambushed a small group of us and we came of worse you just had to say fair play.” (from Stormfront).
The book does point up the heavy white male aspect of Red Action (although AFA was much more gender mixed) but this kind of anti-fascism is not for the meek. It requires violence, physical stamina and people able to dish it out as well as take it. There can be no dispute over Red Action’s organising skills, the hassles and isolation that they faced with the internecine disputes amongst the left, and their uncompromising ability to take it to the Nazis. And, more importantly, win. Anarchists should read it with the expectancy that it is biased towards Red Action and realise the need for an anarchist version of events that, in particular, put more focus on AFA in the North and Scotland, anarchist versions that either contradict, compliment or rectify the version put forward by Beating The Fascists.
Verdict: Buy it, then write your own.