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HOUSMANS bookshop hosts some bona literary and discussion events. What’s the left without a chance to pontificate meaninglessly on a pointless tangent?
I was there for the launch of David Renton’s new book Never Again – Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League 1976-1982, a book I'd already read, and it’s refreshing that it questions Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and gives time to the squadists.
I’m ever interested as to why the middle-class left is so terrified of working-class people organising themselves. There’s nary a working-class voice in the supposedly resurgent left of the moment. More please.
Renton was in discussion with Ruth Gregory, part of the RAR steering committee, and she stressed that RAR was grassroots and a collective narrative. It’s those grassroots that appealed to me then, as now.
“Our plan was to influence white punk youth because the NF was trying to lure bands,” Gregory explained. “Punk and reggae bands came from the same place.” The gigs RAR put on talked with, rather than down to, people.
For all the rhetoric the NF wasted on the threat of left-wing teachers — the dire liberal teachers I came across were the best method of driving school kids away from socialism — RAR’s ever visually interesting zine Temporary Hoarding encapsulated the slogan: “Music that knows who the enemy is.” Much music of the time certainly did.
Renton’s book looks at the failures of the period and the movement, as well as the successes. “Looking at the past, not every movement is a victory,” he said. While RAR certainly curbed the NF then, we’re living with an emboldened right whose ideas, far right then, are pushing to be acceptable now.
The far right learned from their defeats. “People have not been keen to examine the failures,” Renton said, and this got me thinking that this then leaves those responsible to portray them any way they want, to own those defeats as victories.
The closing down of the ANL and the SWP’s decision that fascism was no longer a threat is clearly an example. Perhaps the greater threat for those “leaders” was that working-class people were organising themselves?
“Shutting down of working-class autonomous organisation creates an antagonism within the left that continued to shape politics a long time after,” Renton replied when I asked him about this.
Seated by me was RAR’s Lucy Toothpaste. She wrote some sparky articles for Temporary Hoarding, as well as Spare Rib, and made the excellent comment: “The triumph was learning.”
Lest you think I’m focusing too much on failure here, RAR changed the face of a drab, politically festering Britain. Thatcher still got in but many of us became alive to possibility. In 1978, ANL supporter Keith Waterhouse wrote in the Daily Mirror: “What the Anti-Nazi League is, it seems to me, a manifestation of the new social class I once identified as the Polyocracy.
“It transcends all the old boundaries of accent, upbringing or postal district, laughs at the supposed differences between one shade of skin and another.” Lucy reminded us that politics “were informed by theatre and music. It was about getting people to think.”
Think we did, act we did, sing, dance, zine and all of those things countering fascism we did. That moment has gone but the need for them is here with us again. We need to look, realistically, to the past and practically to the future to see what to do now.
Just one thing I’d like to add. When discussions on music, race and RAR arise, how come no-one mentions Phil Lynott? The geezer rocked.
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