A paper given to the Northern Marxist Historians Group, 18 September 1996 by Dave Renton
Introduction: The Relevance Of Anti-Fascism
There is as yet no historical literature of anti-fascism. No historian has written at length about anti-fascism in Britain. The studies we have are partial; limited to particular campaigns or a set area. There are local histories of anti-fascist campaigns; and personal memoirs written by older or former activists. These accounts are personal and immediate. Only two - Morris Beckman's The 43 Group, and David Widgery's Beating Time - are even of book length. What we don't have is material written by professional historians, or written with any distance from the events described. Even as historians have neglected to study anti-fascism, they have devoted dozens of books and articles to the study of fascism. Each year, learned academic conferences discuss the role of ideas within the several fascist grouplets, or why it was that British fascism failed. This failure is explained, in turn, with reference to a whole complex of obstacles that the fascists had to endure: such as the strength of Parliamentarism, or the nature of the electoral system. The majority of the writers ignore the role of the anti-fascist movements. And when the historians do discuss anti-fascism, they inevitably dismiss it as a miserable and counter-productive failure. However, to ignore historical anti-fascism is to neglect an important part of our history. The size of the anti-fascist campaigns makes it clear that these movements were not peripheral or irrelevant: they were important campaigns which politicised millions of working-class people. At Hyde Park, in 1934, 100,000 people marched against fascism. There were at least 150,000 blocking the fascists at Cable Street, in 1936. Similar numbers took to the streets at Bermondsey in 1937. When Mosley was released from jail, towards the end of 1943, around one million people signed a petition to protest. The two Anti-Nazi League carnivals in London in the 1970s had 80,000 and 100,000 people on them. The most recent Anti-Nazi League carnival, in 1994, saw 100,000 march, and up to 250,000 people attend the concert afterwards. By comparison, even when the British Union of Fascists (BUF) was supported by Lord Rothermere, the Daily Mail, and a whole fleet of national newspapers, it never had more than 50,000 members. At the height of its activity, in 1948, Mosley's post-war Union Movement probably had only 2,000 members. The National Front (NF) reached its peak membership in 1972: it then had no more than 17,500 members. Later, when the NF had a larger activist membership, and was a more significant political force, it still had only 15,000 supporters. The real importance of anti-fascism has been that it has provided the most immediate obstacle to the growth of any more significant fascist party. At times, when groups like the BUF and the NF have been growing in strength, have pulled the political agenda to the Right, and have threatened to achieve some sort of break-though; organised anti-fascists have been able to transform the situation. Important anti-fascist movements, such as the campaign that led up to Olympia, or Cable Street, or Lewisham or Welling, have exposed the violence at the heart of fascism, discredited the fascist parties before their 'respectable' audience, and demoralised the fascist parties' members. In terms of explaining the failure of fascism, these anti-fascist campaigns were not the only historical factor, but they were an extremely important one. Of course, the historical orthodoxy maintains that these campaigns all failed. This idea that anti-fascism has ever actually succeeded is anathema to the historians. Part of the purpose of this paper, then, is to make precisely this case: by taking the example of the 1940s, I hope to make an example towards the general point: that these movements 'worked.'
Fascism And Anti-Fascism: The 1940's
In the last months of summer 1939, Britain's fascists enjoyed something of a mini-boom. In July 1939, for example, Mosley spoke to an audience of up to 20,000 people at Earl's Court. He told them that 'a million Britons shall never die in your Jews' quarrel.' Mosley's BUF, now re-named as the British Union, portrayed itself as the innocent party of the patriotic middle-classes: keen only to avoid another war on the scale of 1914-8. Meanwhile, there were a number of other groups, such as the Link, the Right Club, the Nordic League and the Anglo-German Fellowship, which also sought to promote pro-German feeling among the middle- and ruling-classes. In just a few months, in late 1939, the Link's membership rose from 1800 to 4300 members. Under the impact of war, however, most of the fascists' middle-class and patriotic audience deserted the fascist parties. And this 'boom' ended abruptly. To take just one indicator: the number of British Union meetings held in London fell from 313, in August 1939, to just 21, in September. Mosley, himself, tried to ride two horses at once: both urging his followers 'to do nothing to injure our country' and also blaming the war, this 'alien quarrel,' on 'the dope machine of Jewish finance.' When the BU stood candidates in 3 by-elections between late 1939 and early 1940, none of the candidates managed to win even 3% of the vote. Whatever the instincts of the ruling classes, objectively 'Britain' was at war with 'Germany.' And Germany was the world's major fascist power. The could only be won if millions of people felt themselves to be part of a popular crusade against fascism. So when the British army suffered a series of defeats, leading to the fall of Norway, Denmark, Holland and Belgium, and in a climate where millions saw the Mosley and the others as potential fifth columnists, the state was obliged to act. From 22 May 1940, the BUF was disbanded, and the authorities began to intern prominent fascists, including around 750 members of Mosley's party. Many historians have argued that internment dealt a terminal blow to British fascism, at least of the Mosley variety. According to Colin Cross, for example, 'British fascism ended in May 1940, and has not been revived under that name.' But most fascists were not interned. And those left at liberty were free to meet, or to start their own new papers and publications. So, in Bethnal Green, former BUF supporters met regularly throughout the war. In Bristol, ex-BUF members kept themselves going with small stunts, such as cutting telephone box cables. Other fascists tried to infiltrate the pacifist movement, including groups like the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), or the several heterodox semi-pacific and semi-fascist organisations, such as the British Council for Christian Settlement. The fascists that were interned in the camps were also able to hold themselves together: through regular political meetings, by printing newspapers, and through holding commemorations of Mosley's birthday, complete, in the larger camps, with 'Hail Mosley' toasts, and portraits of the 'Leader.' Because the fascist groups remained intact in the localities, and also because large numbers of fascists were very quickly released from internment; so the war years saw the emergence of a whole series of very small fascist grouplets. These would be formed, merge, split and re-form again, in bewildering succession. Between 1941 and 1944, active fascist groups included the British National Party, the English National Association, the League of Ex-Servicemen, the 18B (British) Aid Fund, the 18B Publicity Council, the League of Ex-Servicemen and (the only pre-war survivor) the British People's Party. As the new groups were launched, so anti-Semitic graffiti went up all over London: even the Lenin memorial was daubed with 'PJ' (i.e. 'Perish Judah'). While Mosley remained interned, however, it was unlikely that any of these groups would grow. The few prominent fascists that remained out of custody, such as Major-General 'Boney' Fuller, or the Duke of Bedford, did not have the personal stature to lead any significant movement. Thus the government's decision to release Mosley, in September 1943, on the grounds that he was suffering from phlebitis, was a major fillip to the fascist right: it signalled an end to the period of state action against fascism. The release was also bitterly unpopular. It was opposed by the TUC, the Communist Party, hundreds of trade union branches, and even a majority of Labour MPs. Herbert Morrison was the Home Secretary responsible for Mosley's release, and his biographers described the anti-release movement as 'the biggest storm of Morrison's wartime career.' Other fascists were also released. A.S. Leese was let out in 1944. He joined up with former members of the Imperial Fascist League (IFL), to publish a paper, Gothic Ripples. The revival of the old IFL was halted, though, in 1947: when Leese was sentenced to a year in jail for helping Dutch nazi prisoners of war to escape to Argentina. Some fascists, including Mosley, Bedford and Fuller, tried to link up with a renewed form of Social Credit. Another important fascist, A.K. Chesterton, was working with the other fascist stalwarts, Henry Williamson, GF Green, HT Mills and Bedford, to set up a group, called the National Front After Victory. Other new parties included the Britons Patriotic Society, the New Order Group, the Union of British Freedom, the British Vigilance Action Committee, the Imperial Defence League, the Order of the Sons of St. George, the League of Christian Reformers, the Gentile-Christian Front. The only one of these grouplets which acquired any size was the British League of ex-Servicemen and Women, led by Jeffrey Hamm. Hamm was prepared to hold public meetings, from as early as summer 1944, and even in places like Hyde Park, where he was likely to meet opposition. Then he quickly moved his meetings to East London, where the Mosleyite organisations had held together better than elsewhere. Hamm was also given some acknowledgement from Mosley, himself. Mosley claimed at the time that he was not looking to set up any new organisation. However, his later autobiography puts the matter rather differently: 'Directly the war was over and I was free to move anywhere in Britain I began the organisation of a political movement.' Between 1945 and 1948, the building blocks of a new party were assembled with a degree of co-ordination that suggests that someone had it planned. First, Mosley published two books, one My Answer, to provide an apology for his past; the other, The Alternative, to act as a programme for the future. Then, there was a Mosley paper, the Mosley Newsletter, which could be bought under the counter at WH Smiths. Next, a network of Mosley book clubs were set up, to provide a forum to discuss the leader's ideas, and also with the intention of recruiting a new layer of respectable fascists. Then, Mosley, Hamm, and Alexander Raven Thomson did the rounds of the several grouplets, encouraging even such renegade anti-Mosley fascists as John Beckett, to join the new organisation. Finally, in November 1947, Mosley held a large meeting, attended by Hamm, the British League, the book clubs, and about 50 organisations all told: to announce that he would soon form a new political party, the Union Movement. Mosley and his court biographer Robert Skidelsky, have both maintained that the Union Movement marked a radical departure from the pre-war BUF. Their argument is that Mosley rejected British nationalism in favour of a European nationalism. As he was no longer a nationalist, they argue, so he was no longer a fascist. Of course, Mosley did perceive that the combined effect of the war and the Holocaust had been to discredit fascism, and that if fascism was to regain any success, it must be based on a new synthesis. However, his fascism was different only in the sense that Mosley no longer looked to an autarkic Britain to escape from the world market, but an autarkic Europe. The idea was that a fascist Europe would be able to engage in primitive capital accumulation in Africa. European survival would, thus, be based on cross-class collusion in the rape of black Africa. Mosley justified his 'European,' project with a language of unapologetic racism,
'Have we a "sacred trust" to keep jungles fit for negroes to live in? Which matter most? The peoples who have achieved everything, or the peoples who have achieved nothing?'
One commentator, Mervyn Jones, commented that Mosley's purpose was
'To make each eager youngster envisage himself, suitably clad in khaki shorts and topee and carrying a whip or revolver, striding magisterially across a vast plantation where countless black backs bend in rhythm.'
In terms of core politics - anti-Communism, anti-Socialism, eugenicism, elitism, and racism; a belief in the use of force against its opponents, in the destruction of trade unions, and in the abolition of democracy - the Union Movement was no different from its predecessors. Even in terms of membership, there was very little difference. As Skidelsky puts it (though his tone, of course, is one of wistful regret): 'the prevalence of the 'old guard' soon gave it a depressingly familiar look. Like the Bourbons, the fascists seemed to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.' The best indicator of continuity is the way in which the Union Movement continued the anti-Semitic tradition of the BUF. Formally, no anti-Semitism was tolerated. However, there was plenty of anti-Semitism in practice. For example, a 1948 survey of open-air meetings found that Mosleyite speakers referred to the Jews as 'Filthy lice, underhanded swine, black marketers corrupting the children of the country.' Other speakers claimed that 'the reason why so many British mothers were dying in childbirth was because the hospitals were full of alien refugees.' One suggested that 'the Jews should be given food, they have to be alive for when we want them later.' Other speakers gave the PJ signal, or attacked 'Jewish Communists,' or claimed that the Labour government was controlled by the Jews. One said that 'Jews are responsible for the black market everywhere and anywhere including Germany.' Another said that 'Communist shop stewards were exploiting their comrades' welfare for the benefit of their alien Jewish bosses.' This anti-Semitism went right to the top. Following the November 1947 pre-launch meeting, Mosley gave an interview to the press. He said that Jews would not be allowed to join the Union Movement, that a Union Movement government would deport Jews from Britain, that Buchenwald and Belsen were 'unproven', and that the German gas-chambers had been designed to burn the corpses of Jews killed by British bombing. Different organisations responded to the fascist threat in different ways. For example, a large number of Conservative Party members would have claimed to object to fascism, and they would have believed that they found the ideas of fascism objectionable. But most Conservatives objected to fascism in a partial and hesitant manner. In practical terms, there was a spectrum. At the right end, were the owners of the Conservative newspaper Truth, who gave an editorial post to the fascist, A.K. Chesterton. Nearer the middle, was Winston Churchill. Before 1939, Churchill had frequently expressed his admiration for Mussolini and Hitler. After 1945, he peppered his history of the Second World War, with documents suggesting that Communists, not Mosley, should have been interned in 1941. At the left extreme was Quintin Hogg. He stressed that Conservatives would find Mosley's ideas disgusting, but did not believe in using the law to stop them. It was not the Conservative Party, but the Labour Party, that was in government for most of this period. And the Labour Party did have a tradition of fighting fascism. Many Labour Party members and MPs, including Clement Attlee, had supported the Republicans in Spain. In the 1930s, Labour had conducted surveys to examine the extent of the fascist danger, had published anti-fascist pamphlets, and had even called demonstrations against Mosley, in 1933 and 1936. As late as 1943, a majority of Labour MPs voted against Morrison's decision to release Mosley. In other words, many Labour Party members were prepared to put principled anti-fascism before party loyalty: even to the extent of voting for the likely resignation of 'their' Cabinet minister. Between 1945 and 1951, however, the Labour Party (as a national organisation) did nothing to stop fascism. There were no Labour-sponsored demonstrations against fascism, no speaking tours, no pamphlets, and no campaigns. There was no change in the law, to ban fascist parties or to outlaw anti-Semitic propaganda. The police were not instructed to close fascist meetings. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that they were encouraged to keep fascist meetings open at any cost. By August 1947, the typical Jeffrey Hamm meeting in Ridley Road was being stewarded by between 200 and 300 policemen. Given the size of the anti-fascist crowds, this high level of policing was necessary. Any less, and the meetings would have had to close. In terms of policy, the government was no from the different from the Conservative ('National') governments of the 1930s. So, in 1946, the Labour Party set up a Government Committee on Fascism. The Home Secretary, Chuter Ede, contributed a memorandum, The Case Against An Attempt To Suppress Fascism. In 1948, the Porter Report on defamation pointed out that there was no provision in the law for civil proceedings against racial vilification. The Report advocated several technical changes in the law, and the government failed to implement even these. Not surprisingly, this policy of radical inaction was criticised from within the Labour Party. There was an amendment calling for the fascist parties to be banned at the 1946 Labour Conference. Again, at the 1948 Conference, there was an amendment calling for the banning of 'defamatory statements concerning groups identifiable by race, creed or colour.' Harold Laski replied for the party's National Executive Committee (NEC), expressing 'our hatred on this platform for Fascism and our determination to prevent the spread of its poison.' Laski asked the individuals who had moved the amendment to accept his personal assurance that the government would act to destroy fascism. They, then, dropped the amendment. Finally, in 1949, a delegate from Hackney South, asked why it was that despite the promises from the NEC, 'nothing has in fact been done' to stop Mosley. Laski replied that Chuter Ede had been 'continuous in the devoted attention that he has given to the control of any fascist menace in this country.' The delegate then called for the NEC report to be referred back to Conference - and he was defeated on the vote. In addition to these Conference motions, a small number of Labour MPs, including Solley and Platt-Mills, did speak out against fascism, did support anti-fascist demonstrators in court, and did call for anti-fascist laws. Solley and Platt-Mills were then expelled in 1948, ostensibly for sending a message of greeting to the wrong Socialist party in Italy, but probably as a general warning to the rest of the Labour Left. Abroad, and in the aftermath of the war, the Labour government failed to take any active role in removing prominent German nazis. It acted in support of 'responsible' elements, typically prominent members of the Catholic Church, who had profited from the nazi era, and who opposed the 'irresponsible' types, German Socialists, Communists and Jews who expected the Allies to remove at least the worst of the war criminals. The Cabinet also opposed Jewish emigration to Britain, preferring to meet labour shortages by taking in Latvians, Poles and Ukrainians, including former concentration camp guards. Christopher Mayhew, who was then a member of the government, later claimed that the Cabinet knew as early as 1947 that fascist war criminals were entering Britain. The failure of the Labour Party to take a lead in the campaigns against Mosley meant that there was a vacuum, which was filled by the next largest party on the Left, the Communist Party (CP). The Communists did have a right to claim this role. In the 1930s, the CP had led the anti-fascist demonstrations at Olympia and Hyde Park, Cable Street and Bermondsey. Even then, however, this leading role had produced tensions. Frequently, the CP saw anti-fascism as a diversion: the real enemy was not Mosley, but the capitalist system which produced racism and enabled fascism to grow. The solution was not a large anti-fascist campaign, but a larger Communist Party. There was a definite conflict between those members of the Communist Party, who wanted the party to engage in more anti-fascist 'street' activity, and the CP leadership, who stressed the importance of recruiting in the trade unions. Thus, the Communist Party leadership originally dismissed the plans leading to Cable Street, claiming that the campaign was a 'stunt' and arguing that party members should support, instead, a Young Communist League (YCL) rally in Trafalgar Square. Most Communists were principled anti-fascists, but they were also principled Communists, and the CP leadership tended to pick and choose which moments made anti-fascist campaigns appropriate. Between 1929 and June 1934, the 'party line' insisted that the Labour Party was 'Social-Fascist': so in this period, anti-fascist groups, such as the Red Shirts of Oxford or the Anti-Fascist League in Newcastle, tended to originate outside the CP, in response to a local need. Again, between 1939 and 1941, 'the Communist Party generally ignored the Mosleyites... preferring to attack the "fascist bosses in this country."' There was a close connection between the global politics of the international Communist movement, and the immediate response of the British CP to the idea of anti-fascism. In 1939-1941, the CP was anti-war. Mosley was also anti-war. If Communist Party members were involved in pacifist groups, like the PPU, then they would have soon found themselves in strange company. There were open fascists there, and also a number of middle-class and very right-wing pacifists, who acted, in effect, as fascist fellow-travellers. The best response to the ambiguities of the situation was to keep quiet, and not to draw any attention to the problems. From June 1941, however, and following the invasion of Russia the CP was pro-war. In this situation, it made sense to draw attention to the revival of fascism, as a stick with which to beat the entire pacifist movement, including the pacifists on the Left. Douglas Hyde, who was one of the editors of the Daily Worker, but later converted to Catholicism, and only then wrote his memoirs, has suggested that the anti-fascist politics of the CP after June 1941 were entirely cynical. The paper needed a good campaign, therefore it invented the fascist threat. 'Party members took up the campaign... It was exactly what the paper and the party needed.' To justify this argument, Hyde claims that there were no fascists in Britain in 1941 and 1942. There was only the occasional 'Christian pacifists,' such as the Duke of Bedford, who was (though Hyde omits to mention this) the leader of the British People's Party, a publisher of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semite and a fascist. In fact, by the end of the war, Hyde's filing cabinet contained the details of 'over fifty different fascist, near-fascist and crypto-fascist organisations' - so the threat was real, and the CP's response was more genuine than Hyde suggests. The best way to understand the war-time anti-fascism of the Communist Party is to see it as the corollary of the CP's industrial line. In the factories, the Communist Party tried to combine a persistent stress on increasing production, even to the extent of supporting strike-breaking, with a verbal radicalism stressing the inefficiency of existing management. In the CP language, it would be the workers, not the managers, who would increase production, save Soviet Russia, and win the war. There was an implied bargain: the managers could increase their profits, and dramatically, if they accepted the CP's right to criticise them. Such an 'agreement' had a mixed success: it enabled the Communist Party to recruit a new layer of members, and grow very rapidly, but it also made the Communists unpopular with a whole layer of shop-floor militants. The anti-Mosley campaigns again combined a radical language with a reformist practice; however the language was rather more radical, even if the 'reforms' (the re-internment of Mosley) could still have been granted without in any way endangering capital. So principled Communists did what they felt they 'should' - while at the same time, doing what was good for the Party. Even before Mosley's release, the CP took a strong anti-fascist line. The Daily Worker began to report details of fascist meetings, and to call for a ban on fascism, from as early as February 1943. Acting on a tip-off, and even before Mosley had been released, the CP published a leaflet, Keep Mosley In Prison. Then, at the moment that Mosley was released, the CP threw its entire resources into the campaign of protest. Douglas Hyde, described the anti-fascist movement as 'the biggest thing in the [party's] history':
'Housewives took petitions from door to door demanding that Mosley should 'remain behind bars,' they collected names in stones and fish queues. Men in the Forces set round-robin letters in motion to which the names of officers as well as men were appended. In the factories members of the management in many cases signed petitions or supported resolutions.'
There was a huge feeling of anger against Mosley's release. Millions felt that it symbolised the class-bias of the government: workers were dying in the army, while the ruling class was looking after its own. According to Tom Harrison of Mass Observation, there was more feeling against Mosley's release than on any other issue that Mass Observation had examined. This anger was not created by the CP: it would have existed independent of the Communists, and without the Party there would still have been protests. And yet the CP did play an extremely important role. Communist Party members were able to push the campaign forwards, and provide it with a structure and leadership. The Party called two demos against the release, one made up entirely of delegates from the factories engaged in war-time production. Probably one million people signed the petitions of protest; including 100,000 who signed the petition in Coventry, out of a total population of 180,000, and in just three days. If the campaign against Mosley's release stands as the highpoint of the Communist Party's involvement in the anti-fascist movement, then the situation after 1943 is more complicated and contradictory. The Party did continue to hold information on the various fascist groups. Likewise, the Daily Worker continued to publish anti-fascist reports. In specific areas, the Communist Party remained the bedrock of any anti-fascist movement. We know, for example, that the CP was the largest organised anti-fascist force active in Bethnal Green right through the period between 1945 and 1950. Where the Party was actively anti-fascist, the idea was probably to repeat the successes of the 1943 campaign: as with its industrial strategy, there was a tendency for the Communists to continue their pre-war practice into the post-war world. However, there were also areas where anti-fascism was unnecessary, or where anti-fascism was necessary, but the CP failed to meet the need. At a national level, and after 1943, the CP did not call any co-ordinated campaign against Mosley. There were leaflets, but no national demonstration, and very little co-ordination. Anti-fascism was left to the localities. And in certain areas, especially in Hackney, the CP simply did not have the resources to stop fascism alone. The result, then, was a strange situation, in which the CP and the YCL were willing to claim the kudos for having defeated fascism, but where fascism remained very much alive and dangerous. In practice, the Communist Party tended to work alongside the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL). This had the advantage of being 'neutral' ground: National Council members included Tory MPs, Labour, Liberal and Communist Party supporters, Church groups, Jewish groups, and other often 'unaffiliated' individuals. The NCCL had either anti-fascist groups or contacts in Bethnal Green, Brighton, Bristol, Crewe, Derby, Hackney, Hendon, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Oxford and Scunthorpe. It also had a solid anti-fascist pedigree. The organisation had published anti-fascist pamphlets even in 1940, and early 1941, when the CP was far more quiet; and organised a national conference as early as April 1943, several months before Mosley's release. The Council acted as a central repository for information, and also a co-ordinating centre. It shared the CP's insistence on the need to ban fascism. However, when it came to drafting anti-fascist laws; and to presenting the drafts to the Committee on Defamation, the NCCL was clearly the appropriate body. The largest NCCL campaign took place in Hackney. There, the National Council called a delegate conference, which was attended by 48 delegates, from 7 trade union branches, 5 Communist groups, I Liberal Association, 2 Labour party branches, and 1 Conservative Association. The group collected statements, with evidence of fascist anti-Semitism, and of police attacks on anti-fascists. There was a CP petition calling for an NCCL Towns meeting. Over a thousand people went to the Towns meeting. 8000 people signed the petition, coming out of the Towns meeting, calling on the Home Secretary to ban fascism. The language of the NCCL was usually 'loyal' and patriotic. The NCCL, and also the CP, stressed the anti-democratic nature of fascism, and the unpatriotic role played by the various British fascists, who had been interned during the Second World War. There was very little stress on the class interests behind fascism, or on the idea that racism and anti-Semitism acted to hide the real economic inequalities in society. The NCCL pamphlet, Look What's Crawling Out Again attacked the BUF as a foreign import:
'The British Union of Fascists, founded by Sir Oswald Mosley in 1932, was modelled on the Nazi and Italian Fascist parties. Mosley paid visits to Hitler and Mussolini, and the Home Secretary, Mr Chuter Ede, has stated in the House of Commons that in 1935 Mosley was receiving about -5,000 a month from Mussolini.'
In Hackney, stress was put on the sacrifices that the people of Hackney had made during the war. The typical NCCL flier began,
'Today - after 6 years of war - Fascists are marching through the streets of Hackney shouting "Heil Mosley" and "Heil Hitler." 'Remember what Hitler's Bombs did to Hackney.'
As well as the Communist Party and the National Council for Civil Liberties, the rest of the Left was also involved in the anti-fascist campaigns, as far as resources, and the limits of their own politics, permitted. So Common Wealth, for example, which had several members in Bristol, tried to set up a broad anti-fascist committee in that city. Unfortunately, Common Wealth also debated with the most prominent local fascist, John Webster. And, as a result, the local Jewish Defence Committee and the local Labour Party both refused to work with these compromised anti-fascists. Similarly, the Socialist Party of Great Britain published a long pamphlet against racism: The Racial Problem: A Socialist Analysis. Outside the ranks of the CP and the NCCL the most significant anti-fascists on the orthodox Left were the Fourth Internationalists of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Anti-fascism was a major part of the group's activity. The first RCP internal discussion bulletin was a critique of the abstentionist approach taken by the party's parent groups, when faced by Mosley's release. Likewise, the last RCP activity before the group collapsed was to hold a platform, and thus to prevent Jeffrey Hamm from speaking to a public meeting in Ridley Road. In between, the organisation published anti-racist leaflets in opposition to a racist and probably fascist anti-refugee campaign in Hampstead; and Ted Grant wrote an important pamphlet, The Menace Of Fascism: What It Is And How To Fight It. This pamphlet is of interest for the line that it takes on the question of whether or not fascism should be banned. Grant argued that the state would never act decisively against fascism. It was up to the workers' movement to take the lead, and defeeat fascism from below:
'In campaigning for the Labour movement to "ban the fascists" the workers must bear in mind that history has taught that the enforcement of laws by a capitalist state inevitably acts to the disadvantage of the working class. The state rests upon the army, the police and the courts. And these are riddled with elements sympathetic to the aims of fascism, especially at the top... 'Our demands can only be effective if backed by determined organised activity on the part of the workers.'
Alongside the working-class Left, there were also a number of Jewish groups which organised against the fascist threat. These groups were motivated by the fear that many Jews felt, that the revival of fascism was leading also to a revival of anti-Semitism. This fear mixed with a sense of anger: that even after the War, and Holocaust, such anti-Semitism still had to be fought. As one Jewish activist put it:
'We had all witnessed the outdoor meetings where speakers shouted blatantly, "Get rid of the Jews!" and "Burn the synagogues!", and we had each seen the white-painted swastikas and the letters "PJ" with the lightning-flash painted between on the walls of synagogues and other institutions.'
Thus whereas standard left-wing anti-fascism was based on working class politics, the Jewish anti-fascists of the 1940s mixed class politics with a form communal solidarity. And the different mixtures of these two elements explains the political divisions within the Jewish anti-fascist camp. The most 'Jewish' and least 'working class' were those middle-class Jews that lived in the areas furthest from the anti-Semitic flashpoints. They adopted a form of communal politics that was reflected in the anti-fascist work of the Board of Deputies. The Board clearly preferred the quiet persuasion of leading politicians, to any public campaigning role. The typical Board of Deputies initiative was to publish a book of figures and statistics, planned to dispel anti-Semitic myths, and aimed at the businessman, the journalist, or the politician. Even this was done through a subsidiary group: the Board's traders' group, the Trades Advisory Council (TAC). Because it was the most middle-class of all the Jewish groups, so the Board was the least determinedly anti-fascist: in 1943, it rejected calls for a law against anti-Semitism, likewise the Jewish Chronicle did not oppose Mosley's release in 1943. The most 'working class' and least 'Jewish' group was made up of those Jews that were members of the Communist Party, or basically associated with it. Such 'Jewish Communists' were activists, typically members of the Workers Circle, and their trade union. If they were members of the Communist Party, then they would agree with the sentiment of the pamphlet written by Issie Panner, a member of the CP's National Jewish Committee:
'Every Jewish man and woman, young or old, must be a convinced, unbreakable anti- fascist... But they cannot face Fascism alone. They must have allies. These the progressive organisations alone can provide.'
If they were not members, then they might agree more with the ideas behind Joe Jacobs' speech to the NCCL's 1943 conference against fascism and anti-Semitism:
'I tell you that the more a Jew takes his place in the general fight against Fascism, the more vocal he becomes... the greater co-operation he will get... Anywhere where Jews and non-Jews mix, it is the Jew who takes the most active part... in the trade union, who gets elected by his non-Jewish fellow workers to represent them - not because he is a Jew, but because he is a fighter, and they like fighters.'
During the war, these Jewish Communists mobilised almost the entire Jewish East End in support of the Soviet war effort. They raised thousands of pounds for the Jewish Fund for Soviet Russia (JFSR), and helped the Stepney Communist Party become one of the most successful CP branches in Britain. This period reached its peak in 1945, with Phil Piratin's election victory, based on the Jewish voters of Stepney. After 1945, the Jewish Communist sub-culture went into rapid decline. However, even after 1945, the Jewish Communists were important: putting pressure on the Communist Party to take anti-fascism seriously, and providing the base for the several Jewish Communist newspapers, such as the Jewish Clarion, Jewish Opinion and Jewish Forum, all of which publicised the anti-Mosley campaigns. One group which tried to combine the politics of the Board of Deputies, with the drive of the Jewish Communists was the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen (AJEX), organised by Lionel Rose. AJEX's activity revolved around public meetings, in which ex-army speakers would defend Zionism, or the role of Jews in the war. The idea was to put forward a positive, philo-Semitic, message; and thus to undermine anti-Semitism through education. However, what most Jewish activists wanted was an immediate struggle against the immediate fascist threat, and not a campaign that looked to 'public opinion.' For this reason, AJEX flourished far better in Manchester, where the fascist parties were very weak, than in London, where the physical threat was far more immediate. As one of AJEX's Jewish anti-fascist rivals puts it, 'the efforts of AJEX were gallant, but without any great influence. Their audiences mostly comprised the already converted, Jewish supporters - plus those jeering youths who were not to be converted.' The last of these Jewish anti-fascist groups was the 43 Group. Its campaign is the best documented of all, thanks to Morris Beckman's book of the same name, and the memoirs of another member of the group, Alexander Hartog. The Group was founded by 43 Jewish ex-Servicemen. By 1946, it had 300 members. At its peak, it had 2000. The politics of the Group were similar to the politics of the Jewish Communists, but with the residual Communism taken out. Thus 43 Group as a whole believed primarily in community defence, and many of its members were Zionists: 30 Group members actually went on to fight against the British in Palestine. They linked up with non-jewish and left-wing anti-fascists: early sponsors of 43 Group literature included the Labour MP Tom Driberg, Frederick Mullally, and the Communist fellow travellers, D.N. Pritt and Hewlett Johnson (the 'Red' Dean of Canterbury). The 43 Group ran its own newspaper, On Guard; and sent infiltrators into the Mosley Book Clubs and the Union Movement. The Group seems to have specialised in turning over fascist platforms. A typical activist might close down 13 fascist meetings in one Sunday's work. The tactic was to use the minimum number of people, plus the maximum level of organisation, to disrupt fascist meetings. At first, this was clearly a success: in 1946, a 43 Group spy heard Alexander Raven Thomson say 'You know, if we don't find a way to finish off those bastards, they'll do for us.' There was, however, one obvious weakness with this tactic, and quickly became apparent. The 43 Group could mobilise a maximum of 200 or 300 'commandos' for any one stunt. They were tough men, war veterans; but they were not enough to close down Jeffrey Hamm's meetings, once his average audience had grown to 2000 or 3000 a week. This weakness is evident even in Morris Beckman's book. According to his chronology, everything in 1945 and 1946 is heroic, 'Boys Own' stuff. The 43 Group is turning over fascist platforms with great success. The fascists are isolated, and they are losing the street battles. Then, there is a large gap. The focus shifts beyond London. Beckman describes meetings in London, but the heroics have gone: Mosley is able to speak, and the 43 Group are no longer large enough to stop him. Suddenly, the focus returns. It is 1949, and the Group is winning the battles again. Beckman senses that the task of the 43 Group is almost complete: 'By the end of the summer of 1949 the Union Movement had declined to a point where it utterly lacked cohesion and direction, and its membership was reduced to confusion and despondency.' Ultimately, the battle is won: by 1950, the 43 Group has defeated fascism. And the group can disband. In fact, there is not one gap in Morris Beckman's book, but two. Beckman's book is a history of the 43 Group. As such, it consistently underestimates the contribution of the rest of the anti-fascist movement. What he misses is the way that, at the local level, without much official co-ordination and despite all number of political differences, the effect of the combined activity of the Jewish and working-class anti-fascists was the same as if the two wings had been consciously working together. In the local areas, the 43 Group would turn over fascist platforms, while the local Trades Council and the Communist Party would organise petitioning and anti-fascist demonstrations. What the fascist speakers experienced was a single anti-fascist opposition. One arm of the movement won the local community to the politics of anti-fascism, while the other arm attacked fascist street meetings. Both, together, made it more and more difficult for the Mosleyites to hold a simple public meeting. And Beckman's failure to see anti-fascism as a whole may explain the gap in chronology, between mid-1947 and early 1949. The effect of the heroic-but-elitist tactics of the 43 Group was to compel the fascists groups to centralise their resources: there was no point having meetings of 15 in every borough of London, if each of these meetings was going to be successfully disrupted. Thus, at exactly the time that the Union Movement was being formed in late 1947, so the size of the very largest fascist meetings increased: at Ridley Road, for example, the numbers attending rose from about 700 in early September, to about 3000, one month later. However, these meetings grew because the Union Movement was pulling in its entire support from all over London, and closing its smaller meetings in other areas: in autumn and winter 1947, the fascists held street meetings in fourteen London boroughs; by spring 1948, they were only holding meetings in three or four areas. In other words, the success of the 43 Group in closing down small meetings, forced the fascists to rely on large meetings; which the group could not disrupt. The 43 Group's success (and the fascist response to this success) led to a change which made the group appear almost redundant. However, by concentrating its resources, the Union Movement was actually weakening itself, and undermining its own future. The change reduced the number of new people that the fascists could relate to politically. At large meetings of 2000 or 30000 people, the Mosleyites could address much the same people each week. What they could not do is build a large new audience. The shift also made the Movement's own political weakness more obvious. And this objective weakness seems to have been experienced by onlookers in terms of the lack of quality of the fascists' leadership. Because the new organisation was so geographically isolated, thus it was forced to rely on ever grander meetings, in which the key personality was not Hamm but Mosley. And Mosley had clearly lost the charisma which had held together the pre-war BUF, and led so many of his followers through internment to the Union Movement. Finally, the shift (in effect) from street meetings to weekly rallies made it easier for the larger forces of the working-class Left to disrupt and discredit the Union Movement. From mid-1947, the most important conflicts between fascists and anti-fascists were the large confrontation in Ridley Road. The size of the audiences suggest that there were around 2000 people who looked to the Union Movement. But the Communist Party had 50,000 members; and over 10,000 in London alone. Hackney Trades Council could easily mobilise 2000 on anti-fascist counter-demonstrations. The combined resources of the anti-fascist Left were so much greater than the resources of the Mosleyite Right, that if the conflict was simply about the large set-piece demonstrations, the Left was bound to win. Certainly, the organised activity of the anti-fascist is not a complete or sufficient explanation of the failure of the Union Movement. The victory of the anti-fascists was possible only because the Union Movement remained politically isolated. If the fascists had been able to grow more quickly, then they would not have become geographically isolated in their 4 or 5 large 'patches.' And, although the opposition of the Left was part of the reason why the fascists could not grow, there were other, more fundamental explanations: such as the fact that most British nationalists had supported the Second World War, and thus would not link their nationalism to fascism, not even through the 'European' synthesis proposed by Mosley. Still, it is also clear that by 1950 or 1951, the Union Movement had suffered a real set-back. The size of its meetings declined rapidly in 1949, and again in 1950. By 1951, Mosley had left Britain for Ireland. He, himself, had renounced any practical activity. Organised anti-fascism was a major part of his defeat. The hostility of anti-fascists reduced Mosley's potential audience. It reinforced the political isolation of the Union movement, it exposed the weakness of the fascists to their audiences and to themselves, and it left the Union Movement in a state of decline, with its key activist despondent and more interested in fighting themselves than building any large fascist movement.
Conclusion: What Is Anti-Fascism?
'Anti-fascism' is not an unproblematic term. When fascist movements are growing and gaining publicity, a whole raft of individuals and organisations will describe themselves as anti-fascist. A number of historians have fallen for this, and characterised even such individuals as Douglas Reed or A.K. Chesterton as somehow 'anti-nazi.' In Reed's case, the argument is that he as an anti-fascist because he supported Strasser against Hitler; in Chesterton's case, because his particular brand of anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist politics was based on a belief in the key role of British, rather than German, nationalism. So the definition of anti-fascism is not self-identification: the set of people and groups who are anti-fascist is not quite the same as the set of those who claim to be anti-fascist. The important point is that anti-fascism must be distinguished from non-fascism. In the period of the mid to late 'Forties, the Conservative party was not fascist. Its members were not neo-fascists, nor semi-fascists, nor even partial fascists. But nor were they anti-fascists. They did not act to stop fascism. They argued against those anti-fascists that aimed to stop Mosley from below, through demonstrations and campaigns at the street level. They even argued against those anti-fascists that aimed to stop Mosley from above, through Parliamentary delegations, and through 'anti-fascist laws.' And a similar point could be made about the Labour Party. Although the majority of its members were committed anti-fascists, and although a significant minority of its members were active members of the several anti-fascist movements; the Labour Party as a national organisation did nothing to stop fascism, and thus the Labour Party as a whole did not act as an 'anti-fascist' organisation. So the first way in which anti-fascists have distinguished themselves from non-fascists is through their stress on activity. Anti-fascists, by definition, have been activists: people who object to the rise of fascism, who hate the doctrines of fascism, and who do something about it. Thus Morris Beckman's book opens with a description of the mood among Jewish ex-Servicemen in London in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Beckman describes the anger these Jews felt, after the War and the Holocaust, at the revival of organised anti-Semitism.
'I recollect standing on the corner of Star Street in Kilburn on a cold and wet January evening in 1946 with my cousin, Harry Rose, who had just been demobilised. Harry had been a sergeant in General Wingate's chindit force that had operated behind Japanese lines in Burma. He'd had a hard war. Harry listened open-mouthed to the fascist speaker on the platform, then exclaimed, '"I'm going to shut that bastard up!" '"You can't", I held his arm, "Cause a disturbance and those police over there could arrest you, heckle, fight, push over the platform and you could go inside." '"Bloody worth it," growled Harry, adding, "Isn't anybody doing anything about it?" '"That," I replied, "Is what we're all asking ourselves. What to do, and how to set about it."'
For Beckman, the point in recording this dialogue is not to show that he, the author, was especially determined to do something, or uniquely certain as to what should be done. The point, rather, is to stress the generality of his experience. All over Hackney, he suggests, there were Jews, and ex-Servicemen, asking the same questions. And hundreds, or even thousands, agreed: something had to be done. It was when they heard this or a similar dialogue, and had come to the same political conclusion, that action would be more successful that inaction: only then were they really anti-fascists. The second point at which anti-fascists have distinguished themselves from non-fascists is through their stress on organisation. Almost every anti-fascist has shared the belief that fascism cannot be beaten by individuals, but only by some sort of anti-fascist group or campaign. This follows from the stress on activity: if a number of people are going to act against fascism, then it follows that they should work in a collective, organised, efficient and disciplined manner. So the whole history of anti-fascism is a history of organisations. In the 1930s, this was a history of the Red Shirts, the Anti-Fascist League, the Jewish People's Council, and also such Popular Front organisations as the Unity campaign, the Crusade for Unity, and Crusade for the Defence of the British People. In the 1940s, this was a history of the NCCL, AJEX, the 43 Group, and so on. Because the history of anti-fascism is a history of organisations, so it is inseperable from the history of the political parties of the Left that have built and led these campaigns. The history of anti-fascism in Britain in the 1930s is a story of the Communist Party. And the history of the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s is very much a story of the Socialist Workers Party. The anti-fascism of the 'Forties is dominated by the role of the Labour government and the Communist Party. All of the groups protested at the way in which the government allowed the law and the police to be used to protect fascist meetings. All of the groups had to link at some time either with the Communist Party itself, or with those of its militants that provided the bulk of the anti-fascist movement. The third way in which anti-fascists have distinguished themselves is through their adoption of particular anti-fascist politics. Most anti-fascist movements have seen that if you are going to fight fascism, you must have some positive agenda, some alternative values, against which the values of fascism can be counterposed. Thus when Willie Gallacher was writing the Introduction to Phil Piratin's book, Our Flag Stays Red, he stressed that the most important part of the book was the section dealing with housing issues, starting with the campaigns around Fieldgate Mansions. Gallacher suggested that only the positive fight for better housing could undercut the populist side of fascist politics: 'it is only when the people take part in the fight that they get the opportunity to find out for themselves who are their false friends and their real champions.' Different anti-fascist movements have offered their own, different, alternatives. The basic politics of the 43 Group, for example, was community defence: the group responded to the anti-Semitism of the Union Movement, by exposing the specific lies of the fascists, and portraying themselves and their fellow Jews, as ordinary, 'patriotic' Britons. Thus the symbol of the 43 Group was a '43' contained within a Star of David. The group's first leaflet, explained its formation, saying,
'Public sympathy, aggravated by the happenings in Palestine, turns against the Jew. Anti-Jewish signs appear in the streets, on our shop windows, our houses and Synagogues. Windows of Jewish properties have been broken; our sacred places of worship have been desecrated. The Fascists openly, unchecked, state 'Clear out the Jews' - this is happening in England TO-DAY.'
This politics of community defence can be contrasted to the 'class' politics of the Revolutionary Communist Party. This organisation attempted to trump the populist nationalism at the heart of fascism with a working-class internationalism. So when an anti-refugee group in Hampstead called for housing to be restricted to the 'English', the RCP replied by stressing that refugees had a right to housing.
'There is apparently no suggestion that English people who came into Hampstead during the war should be expelled. But these refugees are here, not because they wanted to leave their own countries, but because they were driven out for their opposition to fascism or because they happened to be Jews. Had they stopped, they should have been sent to Belsen or such places... 'If we drive them out, we should sink to the level of the fascists ourselves.'
As part of the message of internationalism, the Trotskyists stressed the class interests at the heart of racism:
'...The [fascist] campaign is an old dodge of diverting the people's resentment over a real grievance away from those really responsible, by fixing it upon innocent people who happen to have a different skin or talk a different language... Hitler used it: he pretended that the Jews were responsible for Germany's ills, in order to divert the attention of people away from the financiers and the industrialists... 'Only one force can take real measures against the landlords and the profiteers and that is the Labour movement.'
The great weakness of this campaign, was of course that the RCP and groups like it, had so few resources to put into the anti-fascist struggle. It would be wrong, however, to see the RCP as being especially principled, or distinctively internationalist in their politics. Inside the history of anti-fascism, such internationalism is not at all unique. Rather, it should be seen as a recurring theme, that runs like a thread right through the various campaigns. Internationalism can be seen in the decision of the volunteers of the International Brigade to fight in Spain, or in the slogan at Cable Street, La Passionara's 'They Shall Not Pass.' It explains the slogan of the 43 Group: after the Holocaust, 'Never Again.' It expressed itself also in the anti-racism of those campaigners that moved in the late 1970s, from fighting the skinheads of the National Front, to defending the Asian women workers of Grunwicks. And so also with class politics. The Red Shirts of Oxford in the 1930s saw themselves as fighting fascism in order to raise the standard of the working class. Similarly, most groups in the 1940s, were fully aware that 'our governing class is not, and cannot be, consistently anti-fascist.' And in the 1970s, the bedrock of the Anti-Nazi League, and of the anti-fascist movement more generally, was made up of the parties of the working class Left. The movement around Grunwicks stands again, as an example of class politics, and of a class orientation, as well as anti-racism and internationalism. Indeed, it is that that makes the study of anti-fascism both interesting and relevant: the several different ways that generations of anti-fascists have sought to combine these two enduring themes: the message of internationalism, and the politics that looks to the working class as the key agent of change.
Dave Renton University of Sheffield