On 13 August 1977, in the midst of the manufactured moral panic around ‘mugging’, the far-right National Front staged a march through Lewisham in south-east London. A counter-protest was organised by the All-Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF), a broad alliance of several thousand people including trade unionists, church groups, Labour councillors, the Indian Workers Association, and the Communist Party. The day has become known as the ‘Battle of Lewisham’.
While working with ALCARAF, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) took a more militant approach, breaking through police lines and helping the community give the National Front a humiliating rout. The battle inspired the launching of the major anti-fascist campaign of the 1970s, the Anti-Nazi League.
However, often marginalised in accounts of the Battle of Lewisham is the pivotal organising role of Black radical activists. For Anti-Nazi League Organising Secretary Paul Holborow, while ‘there was a spontaneous reaction by the inhabitants of Lewisham, which was a strongly African-Caribbean area at the time’, there is ‘no doubt that it was the SWP that gave focus to that opposition, both in terms of propaganda and of mobilising.’
Yet, what is traditionally seen as a purely organic response of the Black community actually reflected sustained political activity in the area. In the preceding months, police had raided homes across the borough, smashing down doors and arresting dozens of Black men. Anti-racist activists responded by forming the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee, which included Kim Gordon and B. Anthony Bogues of the SWP’s Black caucus, Flame.
This was the hightide of the Black Power era in Britain. The growth of political consciousness among the African-Caribbean community was displayed during the Notting Hill Carnival ‘disturbances’ in 1976, when Black youths confronted an invading police force while chanting ‘Soweto, Soweto!’ in reference to the uprising in South Africa. Many of the activists drawn to Black Power in Britain held prior commitments to socialist politics, and the Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James was a formative influence on the movement. The Flame newspaper ‘sought to connect struggles of black workers in Britain and the Caribbean to ongoing anti-colonial movements in Africa and elsewhere’. Bogues, a Jamaican socialist, recalled how the success at Lewisham owed to the Defence Committee’s adoption of ‘a different style from the British left’: We didn’t leaflet people. We asked what they thought … I made initial contacts, with the people in Flame and also with family, friends … [Tariq Ali’s] International Marxist Group had a guy called Fitzroy, from Nigeria. There was the Black Marxist Collective in Croydon. It was a different kind of politics, based on the immigrant cultures.
Support funds were also raised in the local Irish pubs. It was the political work of the Defence Committee and the SWP, engaging with the community in the days and weeks before the National Front march, which facilitated the coming together of Black self-defence and socialist anti-fascism during the Battle of Lewisham. One Lewisham resident described the bonds forged on the ground in August 1977: ‘There was a very friendly feeling. At times I saw guys sitting on walls – a really militant black guy sittin chattin with a white guy which normally he’d never do. In the crowd they were drawn together.’ Leading Black activist Darcus Howe was also there on the day. Socialist journalist David Widgery described him as ‘a Trinidadian giant with a hand megaphone’ who was ‘thoughtfully advising the crowd, rather as a cricket captain might place his field.’
Keenly aware that the National Front had been emboldened by the racism of the police, a demonstrator later recalled that: ‘The cry went up from the marchers, “Let’s go to Ladywell station”, but we [SWP members] meant to go to the train station, to go home. The black youth took it up, “To Ladywell, Ladywell police station” … They stoned the station.’
Flame celebrated the foray as ‘the day that the Black youth gave the police a beating’. But while enthused by a historic victory, Bogues cautioned against complacency, writing in the SWP journal that:
Lewisham went some way to forging links between black and white, but the links have not been cemented. Many more struggles will have to be fought before we can see any real cementing of this unity. [Black people’s] experience of racism goes back hundreds of years. One day cannot eradicate that.
Subsequent events would indeed show the fragility of the solidarities won at Lewisham. The following year, in the context of wider centralising impulses within the SWP, leader Tony Cliff initiated moves to shut down the Black caucus, with accusations about its members ‘confusing’ oppression for exploitation. Bogues and his Flame comrades were charged with promoting reactionary Black nationalism. As Kim Gordon has pointed out, however, the ‘underlying assumption behind much of the CC [Central Committee]’s argumentation against Flame is that the struggle against oppression is external to the working class and the workplace.’ Bogues soon left for America, where he would become an eminent historian of the Black radical tradition.
Bogues’s ‘different kind of politics’ were to remain marginal on the left. While the Anti-Nazi League (formed on the SWP’s initiative a few months after the Battle of Lewisham) dramatically broadened the popular support for anti-fascism, it submerged the questions raised about the relationship between far-right violence on the streets and state-driven racism, as well as the significance of Black political power. The Anti-Nazi League worked with Black and Asian political movements, but it often side-lined their emphasis on community self-defence, and their struggles against racism in the trade unions. For many established anti-racist activists, the ANL’s alliance with the parliamentary left was seen to reduce the need for criticism of the Labour government’s racist immigration and carceral policies. ANL Organising Secretary, Paul Holborow, still reduces these deeply political tensions to a dispute between the black nationalists and people who argue for black and white unity – an unhelpful simplification which is reproduced in scholarship on the anti-fascist movement.
The strategic questions left unaddressed in Holborow’s narrow framing of ‘the arguments about racism’ were not trivial. Writing in 1980, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations, pointed out that because the ANL was a movement against neo-Nazism, and only ‘incidentally against racism’, when Margaret Thatcher’s authoritarian-populist New Right came to power in 1979 and ‘stole the National Front’s clothes’ the League was unable to effectively respond.
Acknowledging these complications is not to dismiss the Anti-Nazi League’s achievements. Darcus Howe, a staunch contemporary critic of the ANL, later stated that his youngest child was able to grow up ‘black in ease’ thanks to the impact of the League, and the preceding left-wing Rock Against Racism campaign. Anti-fascist cultures of resistance forged in the 1970s also have enduring legacies today in Lewisham, Bradford, Tower Hamlets, Southall and elsewhere. As argued by Marxist historian and author of The Wages of Whiteness David Roediger, being wary of the ‘enervating desire for solidarity to be easy’ should not lead to despondency, but rather a sober assessment of the challenges involved in building effective anti-racist coalitions. It also speaks to the importance of Sivanandan’s reminder, that ‘unity has to be forged and reforged again and again’.