The anti-racist movement in the United States has antecedents in Britain, and was first organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), which in turn traces its intellectual roots all the way back to the Trotsky’s Fourth International of 1938. The SWP’s anti-racist activity was in response to the success in Britain of the National Front.
With up to 14,000 members, John Tyndall and Martin Webster’s National Front was at the height of its success in the mid-1970s, performing well—for a nationalist party—in local and parliamentary by-elections. Though the NF won no seats, in the Greater London Council election of 1977, for example, it got nearly 120,000 votes, and polled better than the Liberals in 33 of 92 constituencies.
The SWP’s original anti-fa group was the Anti-Nazi League (ANL, though some prefer ANaL), organised in 1977. ANL had sponsors who were either prominent or went on to prominence. One was the anti-Apartheid campaigner and former Youth Liberals president Peter Hain, who later joined the Labour Party and remains a prominent supporter of Unite Against Fascism. Until he was forced to resign for failing to declare campaign donations, Mr Hain held cabinet positions under Gordon Brown’s and Tony Blair’s Labour administrations, and was Leader of the House of Commons during half of Mr Blair’s second term.
Another Anti-Nazi League sponsor was Neil Kinnock, who was later Labour Party leader, member of the European Parliament, and Vice-President of the European Commission. He now sits in the House of Lords, having accepted a peerage despite previously refusing (allegedly out of principle) even to set foot in the upper chamber. The ANL also enjoyed the support of many trade unions.
The ANL was linked to the Rock Against Racism campaign, started in 1976 by Sunday Times photographer Red Saunders, after Eric Clapton declared support for Enoch Powell and shouted the NF slogan—“Keep Britain White”—at a concert in Birmingham. Another impetus to Rock Against Racism was David Bowie’s “racist” and “pro-Nazi” declarations (“Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars”) in 1976. Mr Bowie later blamed these comments on drug use and an obsession with occultism and Nietzsche.
Rock Against Racism enjoyed support from pop, rock, and reggae, but it overlapped with the punk movement to a significant degree, and its “Carnival Against the Nazis,” organised jointly with the ANL in 1978, included groups such as The Clash, Buzzcocks, Sham 69, X-Ray Spex, and Generation X. Other punk groups supported later festivals.
The Anti-Nazi League targeted the National Front and Colin Jordan’s British Movement, though the league was primarily anti-police, and became known for its violent street-fighting gangs, referred to as “squads.” These were formed first in Manchester and then elsewhere, with the aim of assaulting National Front members—and the police, whom they saw as instruments of fascism—on every possible occasion. (Manchester remains the capital of militant anti-fascism.) This was not the only tactic used by ANL squadists: One of them, Steven Tizley, was imprisoned for kidnapping a young skinhead in his efforts to discover the address a family of NF activists then living in Lancashire.
Yet it was not the Anti-Nazi League that eventually stopped the National Front, but Margaret Thatcher, who by 1979 had moved the Conservative Party to the Right, offering a “respectable” alternative after five years of miserable Labour governments. Many former Conservatives, who had defected to the NF, rejoined the Conservative Party, and the NF, afflicted by internal problems, went into sharp decline. By 1981, the ANL had thoroughly discredited itself because of its violent squadism, and was finally disbanded by the Socialist Workers’ Party, which expelled ANL members from the party.
This was not the end of anti-fa terrorism, however. Former ANL members quickly formed an equally violent working-class group, Red Action, grouped around a newspaper of the same name that was sold in Left-wing bookshops. Red Action was mostly Irish, pro-IRA, and anti-police. One of Red Action’s leading members, Patrick Hayes, who was English, was involved in street fights against NF members from the beginning, and would later run an IRA bombing campaign. When he was finally arrested in 1993, the police found Semtex, handguns, ammunition, and electronic detonators in his basement flat, plus keys to a north-London garage filled with home-made explosives.
Red Action provided leaders for Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), a group formed in 1985. Violence was at the center of the AFA’s strategy and it even criticised the ANL for not having been confrontational enough with the National Front and for having cooperated with “bourgeois” (i.e., “conservative”) groups linked to the state. These included the Labour Party and even such “anti-racist” but non-violent publications as Searchlight.
In 1988, Red Action developed a musical arm called Cable Street Beat, which organised concerts and published an occasional magazine. The bands had a strong DIY (“do it yourself,” meaning independently produced and marketed)/punk flavour and included The Men They Couldn’t Hang (folk punk), The Neurotics (punk rock/post-punk), Attila the Stockbroker (folk punk), The Blaggers (Oi!/punk rock), Angelic Upstarts (Oi!/punk rock).
Origins of Anti-Racist Action
Anti-Racist Action was founded in 1988 by a Minneapolis-based group of Left-wing skinheads, who had adopted the name “Baldies” in 1986. According to Minnesota journalist Matt Snyders:
The Baldies began as a small, insular group of friends hanging out, drawn together by a shared love of oi! music—working-class punk rock with unpretentious, street level lyrics. Many were straight-edge—no drugs or drink—and all harbored a disdain for racists, particularly neo-Nazis.Their main target was the White Knights, a Klan group, whom they would attack (give a “boot party”) on sight.
By 1987 they tried to widen their influence and introduce a more explicitly political approach to their brand of anti-racism. They approached student groups, including the University of Minnesota Black Law Student Association, of which now-Congressman Keith Ellison was then an officer. The name Anti-Racist Action was a variant on Anti-Fascist Action, the British group founded two years earlier. ARA copied the “no platform” (i.e., no debate with opponents) policy of the AFA. Mr Snyders continues:
That summer, two carloads of Baldies followed Blind Approach on their tour to New York City. For two weeks, the crew acted as the Johnny Appleseeds of the ARA, planting the seeds of what would become a national movement. They cruised the streets of Chicago; Milwaukee; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Rochester, New York, shouting the international skinhead greeting to any Doc Martens-wearing, close-cropped chap they passed: “Oi!”Many of the groups they came across were scattered, unorganised, and nameless. Upon learning about the activities of Anti-Racist Action, some simply decided to adopt the name “ARA” and operate as a chapter. ARA affiliates sprang up in Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Vancouver, and Front Range, Colorado. The first gathering of the national network was held in Portland, Oregon, in 1988.
As with their antecedents in Britain, ARA’s ideology mixes anarchism and Trotskyism. The Love and Rage Anarchist Federation, a revolutionary organisation, played a key role building the ARA network during the 1990s.
Love and Rage was launched at a conference in 1989. Its predecessors were the Minnesota-based Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League (RABL), and a faction of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), an orthodox Trotskyist group, from which Love and Rage obtained the Aspect Foundation, its tax-exempt, non-profit organisation.
The RABL had been founded by members of the Back Room Anarchist Books collective who wanted more militant, explicitly revolutionary anarchist politics. The group gained notoriety during a protest of Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Nicaragua in 1988, when someone who was probably a member of the Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League threw a bowling ball through the window of a military recruiting center. Some of the Baldies/ARA were involved with RABL, and it is probably through this group that anarchist politics became integral to the ARA program.
Love and Rage members had scant regard for anarchist orthodoxies, and from the beginning were influenced by several varieties of Marxism, most notably support for national liberation struggles and the embrace of a white-privilege analysis of racism in the US. They claimed that white workers received material and psychological benefits at the expense of non-white—especially black—workers, and since white privilege undermined multi-racial working class unity, it had to be confronted directly.
These ideas were reinforced by prison-solidarity work, which forged personal relationships between Love and Rage members and former members of groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, the Weather Underground Organization, and the George Jackson Brigade.
Noel Ignatiev, now a history professor at the Massachusetts College of Art, was one of the writers who was influential in linking black nationalism and American Communism. In the late 1950s, Prof Ignatiev had been a member of the Provisional Organizing Committee, a proto-Maoist breakaway from the Communist Party USA. Prof Ignatiev then became active in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and played a leading role in the Sojourner Truth Organisation, which blended Maoism and Italian Autonomist Marxism.
Prof Ignatiev briefly joined Love and Rage when it was founded, and is now probably best known for his book, How the Irish Became White. He also edited a journal, Race Traitor, which was notorious for its motto, “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” and for its calls to “abolish” the white race. He is frequently cited as an authority by ARA activists.
One of the most important contributions to the ARA mindset may have been the ideology of the Weather Underground Organisation. Indeed, it is similar to the ARA: clandestine, militant, confrontational, violent, conspiratorial, and attracts young, mostly white members with its egalitarian-universalist moral idealism. Originating from the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) faction of the SDS, members of the Weather Underground were dissatisfied with the previous strategy of non-violent resistance and opted for domestic terrorism.
The Weathermen issued a declaration of war against the United States, and from 1969 until the mid-1970s, conducted a violent anti-government campaign, included bombings and arson, targeting, in particular, the police and the FBI. The Weathermen hoped that urban guerrilla warfare would catalyse a revolutionary uprising that would support a Marxist-Leninist Party in the United States, overthrow the government, and support national liberation movements in the Third World. The Weathermen had contacts with the governments of Cuba and North Vietnam, but also with the Chinese government, then three years into the Cultural Revolution. (Up to 20 million people were killed in the violence of the Cultural Revolution, according to Daniel Chirot.) The FBI soon put the Weathermen on its ten-most-wanted list.
Citing Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), the Weathermen thought that “the main struggle going on in the world today is between US imperialism and the national liberation struggles against it.” Like Marx, the group claimed that oppressed people were the rightful owners of the wealth of empire, because they created it. The Weathermen saw their goal as “the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism.” Their 1969 founding document, You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows, takes its title from a verse of a song by Bob Dylan.
Most importantly for our purposes, the Weathermen were vociferous advocates of the theory of “white privilege,” against which they supported non-white identity politics. Bernardine Dohrn, a leading theorist of the terrorist group (and now, ironically—without ever having served a prison sentence, due to a judge’s error—an associate professor of law at the Northwestern University School of Law), stated, “White youth must choose sides now. They must either fight on the side of the oppressed, or be on the side of the oppressor.” This has since become textbook ARA language.
Historians sympathetic to these groups conceive them as part of a tradition of American anti-racist white organising that goes back to the 19th century, beginning with the radical wing of the abolitionist movement, which sought both an end to slavery and racial equality. These efforts continued with the white anarchists and socialists of the labour movement, including the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. This led into the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. For Chris Crass, author of Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy, ARA was part of a continuation of this tradition into the 1990s that also included Earth First!, Food Not Bombs, Anarchist Black Cross, Books to Prisoners, Homes Not Jails, Lesbian Avengers, Anarchist Youth Federation, and Art and Revolution.
The Anti-Racist Action network’s national structure was finally formalised in 1994 at the Midwest Anti-Fascist Network meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The network is decentralised, with chapters spread throughout the United States. It has a logo, but no central office—although it has released a compilation CD giving an address in California, which may simply be a chapter. It does have four points of unity, upon which every chapter must agree:
- We go where they go. Whenever fascists are organising or active in public, we’re there. We don’t believe in ignoring them or staying away from them. Never let the Nazis have the street!
- We don’t rely on the cops or courts to do our work for us. This doesn’t mean we never go to court, but the cops uphold white supremacy and the status quo. They attack us and everyone who resists oppression. We must rely on ourselves to protect ourselves and stop the fascists.
- Non-sectarian defense of other anti-fascists. In ARA, we have a lot of different groups and individuals. We don’t agree about everything and we have a right to differ openly. But in this movement an attack on one is an attack on us all. We stand behind each other.
- We support abortion rights and reproductive freedom. ARA intends to do the hard work necessary to build a broad, strong movement against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination against the disabled, the oldest, the youngest, and the most oppressed people. We want a classless, free society. We intend to win!
I have already noted that the “anti-racist” movement has links to the punk subculture, and that ARA is proud of its ethos of violence. This is evident in all its propaganda, which is crude, hastily thrown together, and designed for maximum visual aggression. White, black, and red are the dominant colours; faces in masks, hoodies, and balaclavas are common. The archetypal “anti-racist” activist is always depicted as angry, in aggressive postures, about to commit or committing an assault against an unseen victim, who is sometimes the viewer. Indeed, the main theme is intimidation and bodily assault. The most common weapons depicted are fists, slings, and baseball bats.
ARA literature delights in displaying smashed swastikas and bleeding skinheads and neo-Nazis, surrounded by blocky, screaming slogans, and humorous, triumphalist copy. In style and content, their prose suggests little reading or education; any knowledge they have was most likely acquired second-hand from their comrades, and in their minds it is reduced to slogans. In look and feel it is like the do-it-yourself ethos of the 1970s punk scene, only updated with personal computers and simple publishing software.
Compared to the bravado of their graphics, ARA activists are unimpressive: scrawny, unkempt, wearing informal, worn-out clothes from charity shops. Far from the image they cultivate of tough street warriors clad in black and wearing Doc Marten’s boots, they wear soft cotton clothing and comfortable shoes. There is no evidence of involvement in sports. The women, who are always a minority, are consistently unglamorous.
Despite the romanticised conception given to them by people like Mr Crass, it seems that the main appeal of ARA is that it lets activists engage in anti-social acts of violence and vandalism against private people and property under the cloak of moral idealism. It seems improbable that a person with high self-esteem, talent, and good prospects in life would choose ARA activism as a lifestyle or as the most meaningful way to improve the world. These young activists seem to have concluded early that their prospects in life were minimal, and that ARA terror was the only way to give their lives meaning. They find significance in lashing out.
Their choice of targets is instructive. In their war against privilege and racial supremacy, they target the most marginalised, disprivileged, and powerless: Klansmen and Neo-Nazis. This suggests cowardice because they are dishonest about their simple desire for cathartic violence, and because they choose unpopular, ridiculous, weird, or powerless targets from the far reaches of society. Their choice of enemies also shows a lack of ambition. They keep their sights low by targeting people who are, in essence, just like them, only at the opposite extreme of their race-based worldview.
This worldview is so intensely polarised, exaggerated, and stripped of nuance that they end up—comically—applying incongruous labels to middle-class proponents of Euro-American identity politics. Indeed, they are baffled when confronted with ideas or people who defy their system of classification. American Renaissance, the National Policy Institute, and Arktos Media, whose editor John Morgan lived for many years in India, are perplexing to them. For the ARA, these must necessarily be Nazis and Klansmen who have disguised themselves in suits and ties in order to deceive a credulous public; indeed, an ARA activist recently complained on Internet radio that Richard Spencer was intelligent.
Ultimately, ARA activism represents a psychopathological mindset, a form of militant masochism. In it we have a group of near- or self-disenfranchised white youths assaulting white folk who campaign—in a variety of guises—for what is essentially in their interest. The pathological nature of this mindset is obscured by the fact that many of the groups they target are unserious, unpopular, and considered immoral. In a society in which egalitarianism was considered immoral, ARA activism would be incomprehensible, comical, and would deserve clinical study.