The 43 Group has long held a strange place in Jewish and anti-fascist memory. On the one hand, the story of a group of Jews who violently beat the fascists off the streets of post-war Britain has an obvious romantic appeal. On the other hand, there has been remarkably little serious history written about what was, at its peak, a very well-organised fighting organisation of anti-fascists with a regular newspaper, democratic structures, a substantial headquarters and hundreds of active members.
Before the publication of Daniel Sonabend’s new book We Fight Fascists, the last on the organisation was Morris Beckman’s The 43 Group. Beckman had been a leading member of the Group, and his first-hand account makes for gripping reading. However, precisely because of his proximity to events, it’s sometimes hard for the reader to escape the feeling they may be getting a less-than-impartial version of events, in which the scuffles invariably end with the fascists getting "a bloody good hiding".
Certainly, at the time of publication, Beckman received some gentle ribbing from fellow ex-members for describing the organisation in grandiose military terms, with volunteers described as "commandos" going on "operations".
The young historian Sonabend has the benefit of a bit of distance, and while he is clearly sympathetic to the aims of the group, his far more objective approach makes it easier to draw solid lessons from the Group’s experience.
We Fight Fascists begins by outlining the resurgence of British anti-semitism at the end of World War 2. Previously interned British fascists, many radicalised in their Jew-hatred by having been imprisoned alongside German Nazis, were released following the end of the war and tentatively began organising. Meanwhile, the poverty and destruction of post-Blitz London combined with a large influx of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust to produce the perfect conditions for scapegoating.
The East End had long been a centre for anti-semitic agitation, but Sonabend also focuses on Hampstead, where a petition opposing the settlement of Jewish refugees gained major support.
Faced with a sharp up-tick in antisemitism, thousands of demobbed Jewish soldiers weighed up their options. The Board of Deputies, the traditional communal leadership of British Jews, had alienated many young working-class people through its extreme caution in taking on the fascists. The new Labour government made it very clear it was not willing to suppress fascist mobilisations by force of law. Police officers were often openly sympathetic to the anti-semites.
These Jewish ex-service men and women had been through a unique life experience. Many had had their youth made a misery by the British Union of Fascists. They had then been trained to fight in the army. Finally, they had watched in horror as the truth of death camps and mass graves in Europe came to light. They were in no mood to let the fascists pick up where they’d left off, and they felt confident to fight them.
Following a chance encounter in which a group of Jewish friends successfully smashed up a fascist meeting in the park, an impromptu meeting was convened at the Maccabi sports club in West Hampstead. The decision was taken to set up a group to physically disrupt fascist activities until the government took action. The big majority of the new group’s members were Jewish ex-servicemen, although some non-Jews and many women were also involved.
The productivity of the 43 Group was amazing. At their peak, they were successfully dispersing multiple fascist meetings a week. They set up a newspaper, On Guard, established a London headquarters with a clerical staff, and convened conferences which elected a leadership. They used gentile or gentile-looking Jewish members to thoroughly infiltrate the fascist organisations at huge personal risk.
The Group set up a boxing and wrestling gym in Soho which all members were expected to attend regularly. The Group in theory tried to remain "non-political" and open to all anti-fascists, although in reality most members were broadly on the left, and much Group activity involved protecting left and labour movement meetings from the fascists.
By 1950, the Group voted to disband, considering the fascist threat to have receded. Certainly the personal accounts of the fascist themselves suggest constant Group harassment had severely limited their activity, although other factors like the improving economy and the end of the British conflict with the Zionist forces in Palestine were undoubtedly factors in fascist decline.
What, if anything, can we learn from the 43 Group? In many ways they were operating in totally different conditions. Clearly we do not have hundreds of highly motivated anti-fascist army veterans at our disposal. However, the Group’s example shows an alternative to the two models of anti-fascist organisation popular today.
Unlike the likes of Unite Against Fascism or Stand Up to Racism, the Group embraced the necessity of trying to physically confront fascists, rather than holding a rally and a concert on the opposite side of town. But in contrast to the highly-secretive, cliquish and impermeable organisation model of many anarchist and "black-bloc" anti-fascists, the Group went to some lengths to make itself accessible and democratic. It was able to attract and retain members, despite the huge risks involved, in part because it was felt to be a serious organisation, accountable and outward-facing, not just a gang of people-in-the-know who enjoyed a brawl.
That spirit, at least, is something we can seek to replicate today.