Last night 40 people came to the Library to the launch of Physical Resistance: Or, A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism by Dave Hann, with an introduction by Louise Purbrick. Thanks to Louise for coming up from Brighton especially for the event, and to her and all those who contributed to making it an informed and impassioned evening. Physical Resistance is published by Zero Books – http://www.zero-books.net/books/physical-resistance
David Hargreaves, Library volunteer, reviews the book below.
The difficulty in reviewing such a work lies in the fact that for many people their principal focus will be upon the degree to which the author has ‘correctly’ recognised the contributions of the various actors in the anti fascist struggles detailed. In writing the ‘collective history of anti-fascism’ the author inevitably highlights the sectarianism of such resistance; the changing alliances, the splits and the re–alignments, the never ending procession of acronyms.
But, this should not be the main focus of analysis. The emphasis should be upon the fact that this is an extremely able historical work containing some chapters of real quality. The use of oral history is very skilful in that the author allows people to speak and then provides well written contextual material. The skill of listening to people comes through in that it is clear that although the author knows enough of his subject to be able to have a discussion, an argument or even a row – he does not. He listens, records and respects the views of those who he interviews.
The strength of this approach is demonstrated by one of the best chapters in the book – ‘Hold Madrid for we are coming’, detailing the experience of comrades in the Spanish Civil War. Towards the end of that chapter an interviewee says of her grandfather,
‘He said what a waste it was because they were mostly people with great ideals and hopes for humanity and they were lying there dead. He never did come to terms with that part of it but he thought it was something he had to do.’
Those words link with a significant section of the Introduction written by Louise Purbrick who notes that physical force has been largely written out of working class history. Hann, she writes, ‘presents an alternative interpretation of political action that includes physical resistance as part of an everyday pattern of opposition.’
Such resistance is unambiguously male and in many respects the book chronicles male on male violence with the refrain that the Fascists were often surprised by the ‘hardness’ of the opposing forces. The role of women, on both sides, is subordinate. This is not a criticism of the work of the author but a reflection on the fact that physical resistance is a game for the ‘boys’. There is a clear line of argument that any non violent response to Fascism would play into the hands of the enemy. The fact that some manifestations of Fascism might have failed for other reasons is not explored in any detail. In the words of the Introduction, political opposition is ‘defined by acts of participation rather than any adherence to very precisely defined ideological standpoints.’ Broad, predominantly non violent participation in, for example, the Anti Nazi League played a major role in the decline of the electoral ambitions of the National Front.
The chapter on the Spanish Civil War is critical in that it serves to ensure that the struggle against Fascism both home and abroad is given equivalence. That challenges those on the Left who can appreciate and applaud those who fought Fascism in Spain but recoil at physical confrontation at home. The author does present a consistently well presented and well argued narrative and invites the reader to consider the defining question of the work: What would you do if Fascists were intimidating your neighbourhood, beating up ‘targets’ and (throughout most of the narrative) being actively protected by the forces of law?
The strength of the work lies in the quality of the scholarship; the first hand narratives and the relentless pursuing of the core question of physical resistance. The reward of reading it lies in the fact that once finished, it must be followed by further discussion about tactics on the Left. In this work there are so many Fascists and so many false Patriots vilifying so many different scapegoats over the years that it is clear that the struggle against them must continue. The work highlights the fact that many, especially in the Labour Party, are content to ignore this unpleasant fact. Physical Resistance is a chronicle of those who did not.
Note: The author of this work died in 2009 and Louise Purbrick has done an excellent job of preparing the book for publication.