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The History of the ANL: A Response to Toby Abse

Dave Renton

SIX YEARS ago, Toby Abse reviewed my first book on fascism for the journal Revolutionary History. He contrasted my work to that of the other SWP authors including Donny Gluckstein who had written about fascism and concluded that my writing was unmarked by weaknesses that he had detected in other writers: a tendency to put criticisms of Israel (and Israeli historians’ use of the Holocaust) centre stage and a failure therefore to understand the Nazi genocide on its own terms. Toby’s point was not merely that I was unusual among SWP writers on fascism, but in particular that I was unusual because I was not Jewish. "Unlike the non-Jewish Renton", Abse wrote, "Gluckstein instantaneously grasps when he might be skating on very thin ice" (Revolutionary History, Vol.7 No.3, 2000, pp.323-31).

I was not very impressed by the argument, well intentioned as I am sure it was. A check of recent back issues of Jewish Socialist (or indeed a quick phone call) might have shown Toby that my own view of my ethnicity is different from what he had thought. More to the point, I have always felt that it was a stupid way to begin any analysis: a Jew must think X, a non-Jew will automatically think Y.

The world is divided into two camps: elephants and goldfish. There are those writers whose memory is reliable, and who when they forget a fact have the good sense to check it against a document. This is a very small category of people. With Al Richardson’s demise, Ian Birchall is the last elephant remaining on the left. Then there is a second group: the majority of us, who rely on anecdote and produce accidental fiction. It ill-behoves any one of us to accuse any other of inaccuracy. Toby should acknowledge that he belongs to the second camp: as of course I do.

In response then to Toby’s points, and following the order in which they appear: my book on the 1940s appeared in 2000 rather than 1999, and the reliance in that earlier book on written archives is considerably greater than with my recent book on the Anti-Nazi League. "Renton makes no reference to any surviving ANL archive", Toby complains: I made no reference in my book, for the simple reason that no archive exists. The ANL had an office. On its ending, the contents of the office were passed on to the last ANL national official and were subsequently lost.

Far from possessing a secret "Kremlin" trove of documentation, the SWP does not even retain copyright in the photographs that were taken by its employees, which appeared in the newspaper during the period of the ANL. I have not been a member of the SWP since November 2003, but when I approached Socialist Worker to ask for permission to use these photographs its journalists were as helpful and polite as anyone could have been. The independent photographer John Sturrock responded to some correspondence, before refusing to answer any further. My publisher’s last letter, and the one which seemed to have earned Sturrock’s hostility, was one in which my publisher observed that as a small and impecunious outfit, he would only be able to pay movement and not market rates. At that point, Sturrock lost interest. Toby may find it satisfying to construct an image of an omnipotent bureaucracy crushing the historical desire for accuracy and completeness. In my own experience, the bureaucracy was sympathetic, small business was a much worse barrier.

Toby is right to point out the difficulty I faced in identifying some sources but not others, and some of the problems that leaves in the text. The earlier drafts of the manuscript named every interviewee in full (there were over 80; a large proportion being activists from Yorkshire and the North West who never played a national role), and gave in the footnotes the date of each interview. The problem I had, however, was that two interviewees contacted me independently both asking that they should not be named. Both mentioned their unwillingness to be publicly outed – in the context of the BNP’s current growth – as longstanding anti-racist activists.

The result in the book is an uneasy compromise: where people have been named in books or recent newspapers as having been involved in the campaign, I could not see the purpose of keeping their identity hidden. Google would supply the surnames, even if I did not: hence Balwindar Rana is identified in full. The same with Red Saunders: I named Balwindar and Red in full (but not for example Keith Flett) for the reason that the other two activists have been repeatedly identified in Socialist Worker, David Widgery’s Beating Time and elsewhere as the people who led the campaign. Keith, who played a local role in the 1970s, has not been identified publicly with the anti-fascist movement, save in the publication Toby mentions.

I do wish Toby had not mentioned these two names, and I do hope that no-one else speculates on them. My idea was not to keep people secret from their fellow activists, and I had always assumed that some degree of "code" but would be broken. But I do wish to keep identities secret from forces hostile to our movement.

Alex Callinicos can look after himself. As I suppose can Stop the War, but if Toby really wishes to argue that it was the presence of an "SWP-CPB-jihadi bloc" that drove away the majority of demonstrators after February 2003, then he might like to explain the equivalent decline of protests in other countries where Marxists took trouble to police what I assume would have been Toby’s preferred solution: small demonstrations at which Muslims were made to feel strictly unwelcome.

I would also say that Toby’s reminiscence of the left in Cambridge is indicative only of the unreliability of memory: how does he fit such stalwarts of the day-glo left as Ben Watson, then an SWP fellow traveller at the university, into his stereotype?

The above points excepted, I am grateful for Toby’s review.