Rock Against Racism

Closet Cleaner: I just thought I might post this in the run up to the 30th anniversary of RAR event next saturday [click here or on the picture]. This is an excerpt from my book Critique of Exotica (2000)but originally written as part of an article with Virinder Kalra and Sanjay Sharma in Dis-Orienting Rhythms (1996) – which really is due for re-release as its out of print and not cheap on the used and abused section of Amazon (note zed folks, how about it?).



Way back in 1976, on stage in Birmingham, befuddled rock star and prime candidate for exploitation agent status, Eric Clapton announced that he supported ultra-racist Enoch Powell and thought Britain was ‘overcrowded’.[1] In the south of London punky anarcho-poseur Johnny Rotten snarled at such dinosaur rocksters to ‘fuck off’ and said he ‘despised’ the National Front, that ‘no-one should have the right to tell anyone they can’t live here because of the colour of their skin’ (Zigzag 1977, no 77: 4) and that ‘England was never free. It was always a load of bullshit … punks and Niggers are the same thing’ (quoted in Gilroy 1987: 124).

In September of that year, Rock Against Racism was formed as a response by concerned activists to the racist comments of Clapton and other musicians, and the perception of an increasing turn towards racism and fascism within some sections of British society. Tony Parsons, writing in Zigzag, reported that the National Front ‘intended to ban all music with black origins from the airwaves and replace the “jungle music”, as they put it, with some Great British marching music’ (Zigzag 1977 no.76: 4). At the conjunction of music and politics, two trends of music history are often associated at the birth of RAR in the available record: the anti-everything anarchism of punk and the prominence of reggae with its anti-Babylon, anti-capitalist slacker messages. It is always difficult to assess political content and context for popular cultural forms, and never more so for those formations which attracted the moral panic that punk and Rastafari generated. Nonetheless, with many punk and reggae bands on the bills, Rock Against Racism managed to organise almost 800 events in Britain between 1976 and 1979. The largest of these ‘carnivals’ in collaboration with the Anti-Nazi League attracted 80,000 people in May 1978 (Gilroy 1987: 132) and 100,000 in September 1978 (Anti-Nazi League education pack).[2]

Paul Gilroy argues that the formation of a mass anti-racist movement in Britain ‘has passed largely unacknowledged’ (1987: 134).[3] It would be inappropriate to place too much emphasis on the lack of readily available histories of Rock Against Racism and the ANL, but the proliferation and significance of histories of the poll tax campaigns, anti-roads protests, and of the miners’ and docker’s strikes (from both anarchist and socialist presses) as documentations of counter-hegemonic struggle remind us it is important to recuperate multiple versions of what goes on in anti-racism in Britain. There are various interpretations of why the Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League assemblage is important. One suggests that RAR and the ANL ‘gave expression to the feelings of young people who had seen the inadequacy of racist explanation [and] revealed for all to see the implicit politics of youth cultures which were defined by and often copied from Black forms and traditions’ (Gilroy and Lawrence 1988: 146). The SWP orthodoxy is that ‘Rock Against Racism aimed at promoting racial harmony through music, and was one of the first organisations to mix black and white bands at gigs’ (Anti-Nazi League educational pack), and with the ANL showed the way, indeed the ‘lesson’ of how, to fight fascism. More extravagant and optimistic assessments can be arrayed alongside these orthodoxies – most famous amongst them Tariq Ali’s proclamation at an early RAR event that ‘Lots of people will come for Rock Against Racism today and will see that it should be Rock Against the Stock Exchange tomorrow’ (NME 6 May 1978).

Although conjunctions of punk and reggae music inspired activists, it was the case that RAR remained mostly white boys’ adventure rock for both organisers and performers – the Buzzcocks, the Clash, Tom Robertson. With the exception of lesser known and often obscure local reggae outfits, and perhaps Marion Elliot, aka Poly Styrene, from X-Ray-Specs (Marcus 1989: 77), RAR was into a more mainstream form of cross-over like UB40 and ‘stars’ like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, than a forum for local black cultural productions. It is worth noting that the British bhangra (Indy-pop) scene was running parallel to these developments, but there was no involvement of Asian bands in RAR. Bhangra bands were playing the circuits of weddings and community events in a context largely neglected by the organisers of RAR. Politically oriented Asian musicians, for example from the Indian Workers Association, might have been invited to events, but as the imagined Other were inaccessibly beyond translation.[4] In one example the RAR organisers abandoned plans to stage an event in Southall with Asian bands on the bill (Street 1986: 78­–9). The potentially huge Asian audiences that might have been reached were all but ignored.[5] The diversity of the RAR crowds were often declared: ‘punks with green and pink hair mingled with skins, hippies, students, and the occasional lonely representative of the middle-aged middle classes. A lot of black kids too, though fewer Asians’ (NME 30 September 1978).

Political Front or Popular Struggle?

A key issue of interpretation that impinges upon evaluations of the nature and usefulness of this mode of cultural work which is discussed in the available histories rests on the relation between the Anti-Nazi League as organised mainly by Socialist Workers Party cadre, and the Rock Against Racism collectives working throughout the country. While RAR was formed some time before the ANL, and organised many successful local gigs, it was when the two organisations joined forces to promote the large London marches and carnivals and a three-day ‘festival’ in Manchester that the movement gained widest public prominence.[6]

Gilroy’s suggestion is that the difficult cross-over of punk and reggae,[7] manifest as a broad anti-capitalist anti-racism, dissolved in the face of the organisational bureaucracy of the Anti-Nazi League. He offers two explanations for this, both of which seem to have resonance in general black organisation complaints about the white left. First of all ‘an emphasis on neo-fascism as the most dangerous embodiment of contemporary racism inevitably pulls discussion of “race” away from the centre of political culture and relocates it on the margins where these groups are doomed to remain’ (Gilroy 1987: 148). Second, the neo-fascist use of the British flag and patriotism spawned an equally suspect nationalism on the part of the ANL (written elsewhere, but reclaimed?). ‘The idea that the British Nazis were merely sham patriots who soiled the British flag by their use of it was a strong feature of ANL leaflets’ (Gilroy 1987: 131). With the ANL’s appeal to older voters with the slogan ‘Never Again’, an appeal to put Britain first and above the interests of ‘foreigners’ was not far behind.

The first of Gilroy’s criticisms might be questioned on the grounds that the intention of the ANL/SWP was indeed to bring a version of RAR anti-racism to a wider constituency, although it is conceded that their methods and tactics were insufficient as they clumsily grasped the symbolism of Nazism, and therefore an anti-Nazi politics, and made it stand for anti-racism. The second criticism, of a nationalist undercurrent within the ANL itself, is difficult to refute since in the second manifestation of the ANL in the 1990s this tendency could again be found. The way in which the SWP’s Chris Bambury claims the ANL organisation and the lessons of the 1970s are ‘the model of how to organise against the Nazis’ (Bambury 1992: 34) might be questioned when he even goes so far as to recommend an ANL structure to French anti-fascists, along with a large dose of anti-communist sectarianism. This might raise suspicions that there is more hype in the SWP/ANL front than content – and especially so for those exposed to increasing racist attack on UK streets. Support for Gilroy’s analysis could be found in the work of Bonnett who summed up: ‘Unlike anti-Nazi anti-racism, the radical anti-racist perspective is firmly committed to some form of anti-capitalist critique’ (Bonnett 1993: 120).

A common black criticism of organised left groups like the SWP and ANL was that they arrive with leaflets and resources to impose a different agenda upon local struggles which then develop in ways which are sometimes at odds with the broad aims of black groups. Writing of black mobilisations against racism in the aftermath of the Notting Hill ‘riots’, Farrukh Dhondy warned that ‘there are well enough anti Nazi fronts in existence with well organised badges, posters and marching orders’ (Dhondy 1978: 85). These fronts were otherwise characterised as ‘a rag bag of local letterhead processors … and project hatchers’ (Bengali Housing Action Group 1978: 109). Although the sincerity of many of those SWP members who did get involved in local manifestations of anti-Nazi anti-racism could not be faulted, it is clear that often the limits of this perspective caused resentment and disruption to other anti-racist concerns. Describing such worries as ‘hysterical’, Graham Lock summarised: ‘the argument goes that the ANL is merely a front for the Socialist Workers Party’ (NME 30 Aug. 1978, italics in original). In Sounds the ‘smiling, laughing, dancing, happy’ carnival-ists gave ‘the lie to all those cynics who try to paint the ANL as some sinister Socialist Workers Party plot’ (Sounds 30 September 1978). In a less credible association, the ANL/RAR was described as ‘a wide ranging celebration of solidarity for freedom and against uniformity and bigotry, fired by the same spirit that fires dissidents in Russia and trade unionists in Chile’ (Sounds 30 September 1978).

The Spartacist League’s pamphlet Militant Labour’s Touching Faith in the Capitalist State, as already mentioned, slated ‘the tradition of the ANL’ popular-frontist practice of linking up with ‘Anglican vicars and Labourite politicians’ to confront fascism with dances. Spartacist assessment of the ANL in the late 1970s deserves consideration: ‘When the fascist National Front marched through the East End in 1978, the ANL organised an ‘anti-racist’ carnival ten miles across town [SL italics], deliberately preventing thousands of anti-fascist militants from confronting and defeating the National Front’ (Touching Faith 1994: 4). Lock, in the NME, reported that repeated calls at the carnival for ‘volunteers to defend Brick Lane elicited little response. People preferred to lie in the sun and enjoy the music’, and speculated that perhaps the absence of an Asian contingent at the carnival was thus explained: ‘maybe they were in Brick Lane, or maybe it is their culture tends to get overlooked on occasions like this. Where are you now Ravi Shankar?’ (NME 30 September 1978). Other reports suggest that the SWP leadership intentionally ignored the Asian activists (and some SWP cadres) who had assembled to confront the fascists in Brick Lane. In this scenario the SWP central committee actively worked to close out those SWP local branches with tendencies towards ‘squadism’ (organised militant anti-fascist squads). Subsequently, many of these cadres broke with the SWP into other formations and micro-sects.[8] The Spartacist Touching Faith pamphlet pointed out that ANL equivocation was not confined to the 1970s, and had continued into the 1990s – going on to record that although the large October 1993 anti-fascist rally was a significant event (known as the Welling Riot by readers of The Guardian), the follow-up ANL carnival at Brockwell Park was nothing more than a rehearsal of this populist avoidance (more on this below).

Gilroy, writing with Errol Lawrence, characterised as ultra-leftist those criticisms of the RAR/ANL that argued it was mere ‘fun music with no political connections beyond the private affiliations of the musicians’. A ‘chorus of professional revolutionaries’ (Gilroy and Lawrence 1988: 147) insisted that RAR had to be structured with delegates, conferences and cadres. That this ‘ultra-leftism’ did not organise RAR and that instead the SWP/ANL moved in with a popular front anti-Nazism does not seem an important distinction at this distance. Nevertheless, the calls of the Spartacist League for Workers’ Defence squads as a response to the Nazis, and those of the Revolutionary Communist Tendency and other revolutionary communist groups, and the editorial collective of Race Today, for ‘community defence’ groups to combat racist attack, are considerably different from what the ANL offered.

Jump to 1991. The SWP moved to re-establish the ANL in the face of renewed awareness of increasing racism in Britain and escalating racial terror in Europe. Fascists were again standing for political positions and the British National Party was successful in gaining a council seat in one London Borough. In the face of this resurgent threat the SWP declared that Nazism was again an issue – the ‘lessons of the 70s’ (Bambury 1992) were to be rehearsed once again. Yet old problems remained, and the ANL was without, on this occasion, a national network of grassroots activists, previously provided by RAR, able to give organised left politics a hip edge. Where previously ANL/RAR rallies had been flamboyant affairs, the 1990s versions were still further dominated by the mass-printed bright yellow lollipops. This was seriously uncool. Nevertheless, the popular support for anti-racist expression did draw considerable numbers to ANL rallies and the Welling demonstration in October 1993 was a success in terms of numbers mobilised, although police protection of fascists and confrontational tactics led to some disarray.

[1] Fighting the Nazi Threat, Anti-Nazi League educational pamphlet.

[2] An SWP pamphlet claims each event attracted 100,000 (Bambury 1992: 33), Sounds reported an estimate by Lambeth Council of 150,000, ITV news said 60,000. Who knows?

[3] Much of the material for discussion of musical anti-racism is found only in obscure pamphlets, the left press and in forgotten histories, but Paul Gilroy’s 1987 book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack usefully refuses to allow Rock Against Racism to be forgotten. David Widgery’s study Beating Time: Riot n Race n Rock n Roll (1986) has been out of print for several years;, histories of punk only offer brief reminiscences, and histories of reggae and ‘Two-Tone’ remain either unwritten, or focus solely on the reggae of Anglo-British bands like The Police and associated personalities. Widgery was a co-founder of Rock Against Racism and member of the Socialist Workers Party, and though his book was described by Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock as ‘full of insults for the groups who supported RAR’ (Savage 19911: 484), it was the best of a small lot.

[4] This point is emphasised in Kalra (2000a).

[5] Doubtless this occlusion should not be overvalued since part of the explanation for the distance between bhangra and ‘mainstream’ English music culture was an intentional and organisational separation. It is worth mentioning that this continues today in bhangra, despite occasional major label signings.

[6] Critical discussion of the relation between the ANL/SWP and RAR is important because it illustrates a difference of political practice that is common to the relations between the white and liberal left and  Black political activity. It is not without recognising this tension that Gilroy points out that RAR had an element of anti-capitalist critique which was effectively curtailed by the anti-Nazi focus of ANL Gilroy writes that ‘Rocking Against Racism had allowed space for youth to rant against the perceived iniquities of “Labour Party Capitalist Britain”. The popular front tactics introduced by the ANL closed it down’ (Gilroy 1987: 133). In contrast the SWP claim that the ANL support of Rock Against Racism was ‘important in building support for anti-racism in schools, workplaces and the community, as well as exposing the Nazis of the National Front’, and ‘Of course this did not mean that institutionalised racism … or racial harassment was stopped’ (Anti-Nazi League educational kit). In reply to Gilroy’s criticisms, Alex Callinicos says: ‘It is in the nature of a united front that it brings together divergent political forces which are prepared to work together around a single issue, in this case combating the Nazis’, and shows that he is aware of the need to shore up criticism of this single issue focus when he adds that ‘Focusing in this way on the fascists wasn’t a retreat from the more general struggle against racism’ (Callinicos 1993:64).

[7] Gilroy claims that the general anti-capitalist orientations of RAR came mostly from reggae and some aspects of punk rebellion, although this latter with ambiguities since some punks flirted with the iconography of the National Front . A June 1977 editorial in the punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue had characterised the National Front as ‘crud’, but also linked them with the ‘commies, the Socialist fuckin’ Workers, the head-in-the-sand brigade and the poxy Evening News’ (Sniffin’ Glue 10, June, 1977). Whatever the status of the Nazi symbols, it is acknowledged that punk brought an anti-authoritarian and anti-state orientation that complemented reggae’s evocation of Black urban militancy Gilroy points out that the Notting Hill Carnival uprising coincided with the emergence of punk (Gilroy 1987:125) and so RAR came together in a way that broke from what was considered a ‘dour and self-defeating’ approach, ‘devoid of fun’ (Gilroy 1987: 127). An organiser of RAR commented in the NME that ‘for some reason or other the British left have always thought that anything electric couldn’t possess any true political awareness and that acoustic folk was the only possible music they could ally themselves with’ (NME 6 May 1978). There was no doubt that ANL and RAR were part of a moment in the political history of Britain that, alongside tumultuous musical developments, heralded a comprehensive change of tempo.

[8] The more interesting of these are Anti-Fascist Action, Red Action and the Colin Roach Centre (see ANL-Critical Examination Pamphlet, Colin Roach Centre 1995).

Check the book for full refs.