Thirty years ago this week the apparently unstoppable rise of the Nazi National Front (NF) met a serious challenge. On Saturday 13 August 1977 a Nazi march through Lewisham in south London faced a counter demonstration by thousands of anti-fascists. The fascists’ march was stopped. Though the confrontation was condemned in all the national media for violence, it lit the spark that would soon lead to the founding of the Anti Nazi League, and set back the fascists for a generation. Here we reprint excerpts from our coverage at the time.
Socialist Worker, 27 August 1977
The Nazi Front got the hammering of their lives last Saturday.
Thousands of people responded to the Socialist Workers Party’s call to stop them marching.
Black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14 year olds and veterans of Cable Street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists – all joined in a massive united action against the Nazis.
The Nazi march was only able to assemble at all because of protection from 5,000 police – the biggest number ever used for any demonstration in London.
And even then it could not intimidate the black people of Clifton Rise, as it had hoped, but had to assemble in a miserable back street.
The Nazis remained in the back streets cowering behind massive police lines until they were finally forced to abandon their march before it was half completed.
The scale of the victory over the Nazis is shown by a simple set of figures.
A year ago their marches were 1,500 strong. On the first demonstration where they faced united mass opposition – at Wood Green in north London – their numbers were down to about 1,000.
On Saturday there were probably no more than half as many.
The leaders of the Nazis want to build a mass movement based on widespread racial prejudice so as to take command of the streets.
They believe they would then be able to attack, burn out and murder black people and trade unionists at will.
They have been foiled in this attempt. Despite the considerable number of votes they get in elections, they hardly dare crawl through the back streets, let alone put their Nazi aims into effect.
Chris Harman and John Rose
Socialist Worker, 27 August 1977
The day began with a large demonstration called by the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism.
It brought together large numbers of trade unionists and socialists, although the leadership included the local bishop.
It assembled at the other end of Lewisham to the Nazis and its leaders accepted a police order to disband it well away from the Nazi assembly point.
But at least two thirds of the marchers saw that the Nazis will never be stopped by peaceful pleading, and side stepped the police lines to walk to the Nazi’s assembly point in New Cross.
They were joined by thousands of other people who had responded to the Socialist Workers Party’s call to stop the Nazis.
The Nazis were allowed through police cordons to join the march by showing their Nazi membership cards.
Suddenly hundreds of police and a score of police horses began to charge down the road clearing a path for the Nazi column.
The crowd of anti-fascists exploded. Sticks, smoke bombs, rocks, bottles were thrown over the police heads at the Nazis.
The would-be master race were now huddled onto the opposite pavement into bedraggled groups, hardly a march at all.
Their humiliation was crowned when, in at least two separate points, anti-fascists rushed across the road to break into the Nazi ranks.
Later, as the defeated Nazis dispersed the police turned on the demonstrators.
The Special Patrol Group (SPG) jumped out of their vans, truncheons out, hitting and grabbing at random.
They flung one anti-fascist through a shop window.
The effect was to remind the local black people of the harassment and humiliation they’ve suffered at the hands of the police in the past.
Several thousand demonstrators had been marching down the road peacefully, chanting “We stopped the Front” and “The workers united will never be defeated” to applause from groups of local people gathered at the ends of their roads.
They were clearly about to disperse. Police vans tore into this march from behind, breaking it up and then chasing black youngsters, nearly running them down at 40mph.
Alex Callinicos and Alastair Hatchet
International Socialism magazine, September 1977
By marching unhindered through black areas the NF leaders hope to create a sense of aggressive self confidence among their supporters and fear and intimidation among black people.
In this atmosphere attacks on black people will be multiplied, and new members attracted to the National Front and turned into hardened Nazis who will one day be used against the trade union movement itself.
To stop the Nazis therefore we must stop their marches. No more than in the 1930s will the willingness to take a lead in the physical struggle necessarily isolate the anti-fascists as the Communist Party claims.
One of the most important features of Lewisham was the SWP’s success in involving thousands far beyond its ranks in the fight against the Nazis.
As in the 1930s, the experience of struggles like Lewisham is likely to draw more people into the fight against the fascists. Many blacks will feel heightened self confidence as a result of the victory in Lewisham.
For others the role of the police in protecting the Nazis will have convinced them of the need of direct action against the NF. Lewisham and the earlier success at Wood Green could mark the beginning of a mass anti-fascist movement.