Lewisham 1977: Where the Fascists Met their Match
Twenty Five years ago – on 13 August 1977 – some 800 members of the fascist National Front (NF) provocatively tried to march through Lewisham, a working-class area with a big black and Asian population.
This was supposed to be the NF’s big national mobilisation but the fascists took such a beating that NF leader John Tyndall was reduced to complaining bitterly that they hadn’t had enough protection – there were 4,000 cops on the streets, armed with riot shields!
When news had broken of the NF’s plans, the influential local body, All-Lewisham Campaign against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF), comprising Labour Party ‘lefts’, Communist Party and religious leaders, opposed confronting the fascists. They wanted a protest meeting at Ladywell Fields, hours before the NF demonstration and miles away from New Cross where the fascists planned to march.
Party Young Socialist (LPYS) representative on ALCARAF was a supporter of Militant, The Socialist’s predecessor, He argued that the march should carry on to New Cross. Militant supporters got a resolution passed through Deptford Labour Party calling for socialists and trade unionists to directly counter the NF.
At a meeting before the ALCARAF demo Militant supporter Nick Bradley, the LPYS rep on Labour’s National Executive stood out from the timid moralistic claptrap at this demo by saying that only united action by the working class on the lines of Cable Street could defeat the fascists.
In Cable Street in London’s East End in 1936, workers had come out onto the streets and physically stopped Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists from marching through an area of largely Jewish workers.
Hitler himself had said: “Only one thing could have broken the [Nazi] movement – if the adversary had understood its principle and from the first day had smashed the nucleus of our new movement.” The ‘principles’ of fascism are the smashing of the working class and the building of a huge mass movement of the middle layers of society, especially the small farmers and shop keepers.
Although the strength of the working class had cut the power of the middle layers of society, the workers’ leaders still need to give a lead and cut the ground from under the fascists.
After ALCAIRAF’s meeting: on the morning of 13 August, many protested ignored the organisers’ advice and made their own way through the huge police cordon to New Cross.
A LARGE contingent of LPYS members congregated around the Militant banner which also attracted support from others such as Deptford Labour Party and even the Young Liberals.
The LPYS contingent was most disciplined section of the counter-demonstration, and showed how to organise effective action against the fascists.
For the first time in Britain the police used riot shields, as deployed for years on the streets of Northern Ireland, in Lewisham.
The police first of all smuggled small groups of fascists through the back streets. Then came the charge as three ranks of police on horse back trampled down protesters as they cleared the way for the NF just at the point where the LPYS contingent had formed.
Even before a barrage of bottles, bricks and smoke bombs came down on them, many fascists looked scared at the size of the anti-Nazi response. They started cowering beneath their coats and banners for protection. As they strayed onto the pavements, with the police in disarray, the anti-fascists gave them a hammering.
When a second contingent of fascists came through, led by Edinburgh NF, they were forced to retreat in panic. Protesters burned the fascist flag. At that sight, around a quarter of their 800 odd fascist refuse to March.
The fascist faced bottles and an enraged population in New Cross and were humiliated – many of the older members were shaking. Angry Black, Asian and white youths confronted at the fascists in New Cross and later in the day, angry young Black’s fought with the tooled-up police who had been seen to support the NF.
After the event at some of the Tory press, who had previously given at least tacit support to the NF’s propaganda claimed that anti-fascist marchers were trying to stop the fascist’s “democratic right” to demonstrate where it wished.
Militant pointed out that these papers “deliberately ignored the NF’s real aim: the complete destruction of democracy. We stand that the right to strike, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
“We support the right of our pro-capitalist opponents, if they formally uphold democracy, to express their point of view. But we cannot allow the sworn, proven enemies of democracy a free hand to smash the Labour movement and stamp out every democratic right.
“Those who deplore Saturday’s violence also forget that the police chiefs, in undertaking to defend their NF March, fully expected massive resistance, and mobilised the Special Patrol Group, special riot squads and mounted police precisely to ensure that these abhorrent thugs could march streets.”
The NF aimed use middle-class and unorganised sections of society as a human battering ram to destroy the gains of the working class. One week before the NF march an unsuccessful attempt was made to burn down the offices of Militant. Physical attacks on Black and Asian people and on labour movement activists were increasing.
But the strength of the opposition warned the ruling class that the NF and other fascist organisations had limited hopes of success.
After Lewisham, the establishment’s attitude towards the fascists evolved towards seeing them as auxiliaries who would use cowardly racist violence against Blacks and Asians and keep racism as a potent tool in the hands of the ruling class.
In 1979 Thatcher’s Tories used parts of NF divide and rule racist politics as a thread in their policies designed to transfer wealth and power to the already wealthy and powerful.
Militant’s editorial dated 19 August 1977, warned that you need to fight against racism and fascism on the basis of a socialist programme.
“The fascists play on all the worst prejudices bred by imperialism and capitalism through generations of exploitation, social humiliation and indoctrination. They aim at the sections of society hit or threatened by the crisis of British capitalism, in many cases the most downtrodden, who have lost all confidence in the ability of the labour movement to improve their lot.
“Ultimately the labour movement will be able to conquer racism and fascism only if it is to be seen to be fighting to change the rotten conditions on which it spawns, by fighting for jobs, decent wages, more and better houses, better education and health services and for a socialist planned economy that would make these things possible for all.”