20 years ago today, I went to the screening of a documentary on the Battle of Cable Street, with my grandfather. Albert had been present at the great battle, which had taken place 60 years before that.
The battle against fascism is of supreme importance – today, more than at any time in the past 80 years. But the political landscape is deeply changed. Most disturbingly, the political left, once a bulwark against fascism, is now riddled with the very ideas that it once fought against.
From the opening of my book Porn Panic! –
Given the family and environment I was born into, it was virtually inevitable I would become immersed in political activism. My grandfather Albert Mann (later Albert Mann MBE), as a young Jewish man growing up in London’s East End ghettos, had been politicised by the rise of fascism, as well as by the poverty that surrounded him during his childhood. When the fascist leader Oswald Mosley tried to lead his blackshirts through the Jewish East End on 4th October 1936, Albert was one of many thousands who came out onto the streets to block Mosley’s progress. Jews, other locals and Communists united to physically beat the blackshirts out of the East End. Women threw heavy pots out of windows onto fascist heads. The police deployed their truncheons against the protesters, but were beaten back, along with the fascists. This victory of the left, known as the Battle of Cable Street, was a turning-point in the fight against British fascism.
The mainstream parties of left and right failed to either fully understand or strongly oppose fascism, and so in the 1930s many progressives (including Albert) joined the only strongly anti-fascist force, the Communist Party, which became a mass political party for the next two decades. During WWII, Albert fought in the RAF against fascism, and was among the returning soldiers who voted for the most left-wing government in British history. The Labour victory of 1945 secured the foundation of the National Health Service, the welfare state and universal education, institutions which Albert fought to defend for the remainder of his life (although, like many former Communists, he was eventually repelled by Stalinism and found his lifelong home in the Labour Party).
Albert’s stridently progressive views politicised his daughter, my mother. She was of the 1960s generation of young people attracted by second wave feminism (known at the time as the Women’s Lib movement), which campaigned for equal rights for women, and in particular for sexual liberation. Some of the first sexual writing I encountered, in my prepubescent years, was in the pages of my mum’s feminist magazines, such as Spare Rib. In such publications, women were told that they had a right to sexual pleasure, and were advised on how they might achieve it; men were teased for not being able to locate clitorises.
Post-Women’s Lib, many women were no longer ashamed to reveal their bodies, and sexual imagery became more daring and less censored. In more liberated countries than Britain – led by Denmark in 1969 – pornography was decriminalised. Social and religious conservatives watched in horror as carefully constructed walls of censorship and anti-sex morality were swept away.
In her father’s footsteps, my mum was also involved with the anti-fascist movement. In the 1970s, support for the National Front was surging, driven by concern about mass immigration. My mum took me to marches with her; the first I remember was a counter-protest against a march by an obscure far-right group, the British Movement, which had gained some popularity in West London. Perhaps a few hundred fascists had turned up, but there were tens of thousands of us, of all races, standing against them, and we prevented them from marching. On a smaller, gentler scale, I was repeating my grandfather’s experience in Cable Street, four decades earlier.
In the late-1970s, the Rock Against Racism movement was combining the music of my generation – reggae, punk, ska – with anti-fascist politics, and mobilising a new generation into politics. We went to music festivals and on political marches. Rastafarians danced to the same music as skinheads, and racial divisions began to break down. The transformation of Britain’s race relations was remarkably fast: the 1990s was a palpably different era from the 70s.
My political upbringing and my own activism meant that I spent my teens surrounded by activists from around the world: leading ANC exiles, fighting Apartheid from their temporary base in London; the children of left-wing activists who had fled state terror in Chile; political refugees from Zimbabwe, Mexico and dozens of other places. It was a dangerous, unsettled period, but an exciting time to be young, and in London. The alternative comedy scene was born, in small comedy clubs and rooms above pubs, giving us a welcome antidote to the stuffy, state-approved comedy on TV. The new comedy was left-wing, sweary, anti-establishment and sexually explicit. I joined one of the many Trotskyist organisations, the Militant Tendency. Riots erupted in inner cities; first in 1979, then more widespread in 1981. The early-80s felt like a revolutionary era, and we believed we were the vanguard of a socialist revolution that was about to sweep the globe.
But we were not, and it did not. Margaret Thatcher’s historic defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 marked the end of the power of the proletariat, which was supposed to overthrow global capitalism. The industrial working class was vanishing. Many of the left-wing activists of my generation drifted away from politics. By then I had a young son, a family to support, and the beginnings of a career as a software developer. I felt, a little guiltily, that I was abandoning the revolution. As it turned out, I was joining it.