John Cato is not your run of the mill punk who had a youthful flirtation with racism. By his own account, he is a life-long National Socialist. During the 1990s, he was a prominent ideologue in Combat 18, the wannabe paramilitary group blamed for violent attacks on its opponents before it imploded in a murderous feud. Cato's particular contribution was his apparent enthusiasm for the US Nazi William Pierce, whose ideas famously influenced Timothy McVeigh to murder 168 people in the 1995 Oaklahoma Bombing. Cato drew on Pierce's ideas in his writings for C18-linked publications, as summarized by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke:
"In The Order, the magazine named after the US terrorist group, editor John Cato paid fulsome tribute to its martyred leader, Robert Jay Mathews. It quoted Mathews's "declaration of war" against a "Jewish controlled mongrelized society, which is depriving White Aryans of their existence and homeland'... In the pages of Putsch, Cato exults in Pierce's advocacy of individual acts of violence against blacks and Jews. After fleeing from Kent to Spalding in Lincolnshire, Cato started a new magazine, The Oak, which reprinted many of Pierce's articles. Paul Jeffries set up Life Rune Books in Leeds as the UK distributor for William Pierce's National Alliance. In June 1994 Cato and Jeffries formed the National Socialist Alliance as a federation of C18, several rebel BNSM sections with their magazines Sigrun and Europe Awake, and the Blood and Honour groups in a British version of Pierce's American organisation." [NGC]
But at the time The Order were launching their short lived race war in the US, including killing the Jewish radio presenter Alan Berg in 1984, Cato was hanging round squats in London with a load of punks, anarchists and animal liberationists. Just the kind of ‘race traitors’ who William Pierce’s fantasy warriors in his novel The Turner Diaries would wipe out without a second thought.
Cato was apparently involved with the British Movement before being in the band. The BM’s membership was dominated by racist boneheads, famous for launching violent attacks at punk gigs, so it would have been quite a move from this to fronting a band playing just the kind of gigs that his former associates sought to disrupt. Nevertheless he now claims to have been a hardcore racist all along. In an interview published in 2006, Cato declared: ‘“Ask me if I’m racist now, and was I back then? And I’ll tell you, fucking right I am! And damn right I was back then too. Like I said I haven’t changed in twenty years”.
If this is true, it was not something that seemed to feature in the band’s activities. At the time AYS were playing, there was a scene of explicitly racist punk bands like Skrewdriver playing White Noise / Rock Against Communism gigs for the converted. AYS steered clear of this and seemed to have played live exclusively on the anarcho-punk/squat gig circuit, in venues like the Ambulance Station on the Old Kent Road in London.
Equally the band's lyrics don't seem to reflect any particular extreme right-wing agenda. Their stance, like their hard and fast sound, seems to have been influenced by US hardcore bands. Indeed their first EP included a cover of Minor Threat's In my Eyes, and Cato says that he was in touch with singer Ian MacKaye by phone, letter and occasionally in person during that period. There’s plenty of cynicism, nihilism and rage but very little in the way of explicit political comment in their output, as shown by their song titles - Expect No Mercy ('don't fuck with me'), Keep your mouth shut, You're just a jerk… AYS clearly didn’t buy into the predominant anarchist protest politics of the bands they played alongside, but neither did they seem to articulate an alternative political viewpoint.
In short, Cato doesn't seem to have used AYS as a platform tor spout fascist ideas, or to try and link up racist and anarcho-punk music scenes. If he did hold racist views at the time he seems to have kept them to himself, so it could be argued that they are immaterial to his involvement in punk.
With hindsight it is possible to find a few clues that could be taken as evidence of fascist sympathies. Most obvious is the fact that on the sleeve of the band's debut EP, Expect No Mercy - If You Cross Your Real Friends (1985) on Mortarhate, there is a cross in a circle symbol. The Celtic Cross is not an exclusively fascist symbol, but it was the main symbol of the British Movement. But many people who came across Cato at the time, such as bands who played with AYS, seem to have been both unaware of any dubious leanings and horrified by his later development (see for instance comments by Nic from Napalm Death at Kill Your Pet Puppy). I saw AYS play myself and went to lots of anarcho-punk gigs, but never heard a whisper about Cato and Fascism.
It is of course possible that Cato has exaggerated the consistency of his views over his lifetime. After all if it is embarrassing for anarchists to admit that they had a Nazi in their midst, it is equally embarrassing for a figure like Cato to admit to hanging around with a bunch of vegan pacifists. A charitable interpretation might be that after a teenage involvement with the British Movement (which fell apart in 1983), Cato moved away from the far right before re-engaging with them in the early 1990s.
If Cato did hold extreme right views at the time, it certainly wasn't widely known, but then again it is hard to believe that it would not have been known to those closest to him, such as band-mates and personal friends. Which brings us on to Colin Jerwood, lead singer with Conflict. Following the demise of Crass, Conflict were by far the biggest of the anarcho-punk bands in the London area. They were also responsible for Mortarhate Records, which released material by many of the other punk bands in that scene, including AYS. And by all accounts, Cato and Jerwood were very close at this time and shared a flat at some point. According to Cato: "I have probably been closer to Colin, friend-wise, than I have been to anyone else, whether it was twenty years ago or not. And even further still, when Colin used to tell everyone we were brothers, I don't recall a single person not believing it".
It is actually not that surprising that Colin, or indeed many other working class punks in that period, would have personally known people who had been involved with the far right. According to Mark Wallis from Liberty (another SE London anarcho-punk band) "In the early days, Colin was an anarchist living on an estate in Eltham [the Coldharbour estate] with John and Paco, surrounded by NF skinheads". In those days, different punk factions were polarised with anarchists at one end and the White Noise bands like Skrewdriver at the other. In the middle were a whole lot of punk bands, such as those associated with the Oi scene, which featured people with a wide range of political positions. All of these were rooted in predominately white working class youth scenes disaffected from the mainstream.
So even the most anti-fascist of punks might well have gone to school, lived on estates, drunk in the same pubs, or even played in bands with people who either had been, were, or went on to become involved with the far right. This doesn’t mean there was any sense of mutual tolerance – as people got more politically involved, violent conflicts could erupt. Indeed Conflict earned a reputation as a band prepared to deal very forcibly with fascists who turned up at gigs, and indeed to take the fight to them outside of gigs.
Still, not everyone followed the advice of The Specials, in their 1984 single, that "if you have a racist friend, now is the time for your friendship to end". Perhap Jerwood believed that at this time Cato was moving away from his former mates in the British Movement – if not, you would certainly have to wonder why he actively promoted his musical efforts with AYS. More curious is why, according to accounts at the Collective Zine forum, Cato was spotted hanging out at a Conflict gig after he was publically exposed as a Nazi (he was on the front cover of Searchlight magazine in October 1994, Conflict reformed in 2000). And why did Mortarhate release a CD of old AYS material as recently as 2005? OK, so the music wasn’t fascist, but putting out the CD would presumably have involved some co-operation with Cato.
All quotes (except Goodrick-Clarke) are from Ian Glasper, 2006, The Day the Country Died: A History of Anarcho-Punk 1980-10984, Cherry Red Books, London; an exhaustive overview of the many bands in that scene which includes an interview with Cato. Glasper does state that he finds Cato’s politics ‘repugnant’ but he gives him a remarkably easy ride in the interview, allowing him to state that his "racism is rooted in love – of my own kind – and not in hatred on anyone else" and that "National Socialism, is borne of positive and profound ideals". Cato may be telling the truth that he had never personally participated in a racist attack, but a cursory glance over his record shows that he certainly wasn’t pushing peace and love with Combat 18!
NGC: Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, 2002, Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity, New York University Press, NY.
In the discussion at ‘Kill Your Pet Puppy’, ‘Chris’ states: "Strange John Cato’s membership of the BM (BNP didn’t formally exist at the time AYS were going) wasn’t better known. He didn’t exactly hide it, In fact Andy Martin ‘commended’ him on this on one of the Apostles EP covers at the time this stating that however loathsome his views he had more respect for him admitting to it than the supine anarcho punk wankers who just ignored like a flatulent grandparent at a Christmas dinner". I have been unable to find this Apostles reference.