Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Literature review

The historiography of fascism is vast in both breadth and depth covering almost all conceivable angles and oddities. Ranging from fundamental questions like ‘what is fascism?’ and studies of national variations in ideology, organisations, individuals, style and period, through to more specialised and niche scholarly endeavours covering everything from fashion,4 football,5 cinema,6 sex, opera,7 literature, art, culture and women8 under fascism. The study of anti-fascism has its own extensive historiography9 though not anywhere near as encompassing as that of fascism itself. However, despite the abundant and ever increasing canon of secondary literature devoted to the ‘Fascist Century’,10 it falls short of comprehensive, and gaps remain that still demand scholarly investigation.

In the case of British fascism finding such a gap can prove challenging due to the seemingly oxymoronic situation where the mass of published work is indirectly proportional to the scale of the historical phenomena. W.D. Rubinstein stated that, ‘Seldom indeed, has so much ever been written about so little’11 while perhaps the leading historian of British fascism, Richard Thurlow, conceded that, ‘rarely can such an apparently insignificant topic have been responsible for such an outpouring of ink’.12 Stanley Payne made his evaluation of the importance of British fascism crystal clear in his mammoth A History of Fascism by dedicating fewer than two pages to the interwar British movement, arguing that it ‘never escaped total insignificance’.13 However, charges of‘insignificance’ are ordinarily based on a narrow notion of what constitutes significance, namely being in power or electoral success. While the electoral performance of the vast majority of both prewar and postwar fascist organisations has indeed been dismal, the same cannot be said about the British National Party, which peaked in 2010 with two members of the European Parliament and over 60 councillors. If one believes that there is a direct and unbroken line both ideologically1'1 and in some cases with respect to personnel,1’ from the interwar ‘classic’ fascism, through the postwar period right up to contemporary times, as this book does, then British fascism has had periods when it has escaped electoral insignificance. In addition the failure to break through into the political mainstream does not necessarily determine irrelevance. The far right has always had a gravitational pull that has the ability to shift the centre ground of political discourse further to the right on issues such as immigration and identity.16 Furthermore, many British fascists rejected democratic politics altogether in favour of direct action,17 meaning solely measuring importance through electoral success is of limited use.18 Anyone who remembers the London nail bomb campaign carried out by David Copeland in April 1999 or taking note of the record number of far-right terrorism arrests in 2019 would certainly challenge any charge of irrelevance.

The existing historiography of British fascism is at present an uneven one with a ‘bias towards the 1930s (BUF), 1970s (NF) and 1990s (BNP)’.19 Roger Griffin states in his Oxford Reader on fascism that,

there has been a conspicuous lack of scholars prepared to trace the continuity between interwar and postwar fascism, either at an organizational or ideological level. . . . Almost without exception monographs or edited volumes on the subject have focused on events up to 1945 (usually in Europe), and have been content to confine their reflections thereafter to a few perfunctory remarks or a superficial chapter at most. For the period after 1945 the subject has fallen into the domain of political scientists and journalists.21

Since then however both Graham Macklin and Dave Renton have produced monographs that have begun the process of filling in this hole in the historiography by focusing on what one might call the ‘forgotten years’ of British fascism. Renton correctly states in the introduction to Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s that,

One further reason for writing about British fascism as it existed in the 1940s is simply that nobody else has. The existing literature on the period is scanty, especially when compared to the literature on fascism in the 1930 s or the 1970’s.2'

Despite both Renton and Macklin having begun the much-needed investigation into the immediate postwar era, it still offers the exciting opportunity to tread genuinely new ground.

Currently, Graham Macklin’s Very Deeply Dyed in Black provides the most comprehensive existing work to tackle this period and succeeds in its stated aim of providing ‘a firm empirical foundation from which further studies into the nature of postwar British fascism can be launched’.22 Indeed, this book builds directly upon this firm foundation. Unlike much of the literature that treats this period as an epilogue to the history of interwar fascism or a foreword to studies on the National Front and the British National Party, Macklin demonstrates the unbroken lineage of British fascism between the pre and postwar periods showing how, ‘the re-emergence of the Mosleyite movement provided an important personal and ideological bridge’.23 Focusing primarily on Oswald Mosley and the Union Movement, Macklin explains the tentative early steps of postwar fascism as its attempted to relaunch itself amidst the ‘stink of humiliating defeat’.24 Interestingly, he builds upon the ideas of Roger Eatwell and offers a ‘unique micro-case study of how “coterie charisma” ensured the survival and comparative triumph of fascist ideology over adversity’25 with strong emphasis being placed on the importance of the internment of some British fascists during WWII. While not confined to the immediate postwar period, there is also much to learn from Macklin’s more recent book Failed Fiihrers: A History of Britain’s Extreme Right.26 This enormous and important work is a prosopography that tells the history of the British far right through the biographies of its six principle figures, including Leese, Mosley and Chesterton. This work, likely to become the definitive work on British fascism for some time, spans both the pre and postwar careers of these key individuals, meaning its revelations in relation to the immediate postwar period are scattered throughout this book.

Dave Renton’s book, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, is the only other full-length monograph dedicated solely to British fascism in the immediate postwar period. Notably, he explores the contributing factors that resulted in the ‘remarkable’ rebirth of fascism in the face of ‘a broad anti-fascist consensus, shared across the whole political spectrum, from the left wing of the Communist Party (CP), to the right fringes of Conservatism’.27 Renton argues that despite public hostility, fascism underwent a bell curve of success between 1945 and 1951 that peaked during the troubles in Palestine (1947—48) but had retreated back by 1951. As its name suggests, Renton’s book also investigates both popular and state anti-fascism in the same period, giving the work a balanced and comprehensive feel. More recently, Daniel Sonabend’s book on the 43 Group, Wf Fight Fascists, has shed much needed new light on anti-fascism in the late 1940s, tactfully correcting some of the inaccuracies in Morris Beckmans autobiographical account of the period.28

In addition to the two full-length monographs by Renton and Macklin, numerous other historians have tackled the immediate postwar era in a plethora of shorter articles, chapters or sections of chapters. The earliest such work is actually a 1965 political science book called The British Political Fringe: A Profile by George Thayer, which investigated a wide array of contemporary marginal political movements, extremist parties and groupuscules from across the political spectrum. Thayer profiled Oswald Mosleys Union Movement, A.K. Chestertons League of Empire Loyalists and what he calls ‘the Neo-Nazis’, namely Colin Jordan, John Bean, Martin Webster and John Tyndall. The relevant chapters of this lucid and thoroughly readable book may not be as detailed, illuminating or thoroughly researched as later academic works, but they are interesting for two reasons. First, through a series of fascinating anecdotes of personal meetings Thayer gives the reader an insight into the personalities and demeanours of many of the primary individuals covered in this thesis, including Tyndall. Jordan, Mosley and Austen Brooks of the LEL. However, more important is how clearly he portrays both the ideological and personnel links between the prewar fascists and those who went on to be the future leaders of the postwar far right. For example, Thayer explains that, ‘The high priest of postwar neo-Nazism was Arnold Spencer Leese’29 and that ‘If Hitler was [Colin] Jordan’s God, then Leese was his spiritual father’.30 Interestingly, writing in 1965 it seems that Thayer saw no need to break British fascism into pre and postwar, instead treating the phenomenon of British fascism as an unbroken lineage. Through a series of short biographical vignettes, it becomes clear that the immediate postwar period was an incestuous yet often fractious ideological school that saw the nurturing of the flickering flame of British fascism, a flame that unbeknown to Thayer at the time of writing was to burn much brighter in the decades to come.

In stylistic contrast to The British Political Fringe is the rather dry yet informative article ‘ “Tell me chum in case I got it wrong. What was it we were fighting during the war?” The Re-emergence of British Fascism, 1945—58’ by Nicholas Hillman that appeared in Contemporary British History in 2001. Of all the published work covering the same period as this book, Hillman’s short article is the most aligned, as,

It considers what sort of people supported fascism after 1945 and argues that those who remained active were part of a continuous ideological thread linking the nascent fascism of the 1920’s, the British Union of Fascists and the plethora of neo-fascist groups formed between the 1950s and 1990s. ’1

Hillman considers the re-emergence of fascism and identifies the need for further detailed work into the period and, while recognising Renton’s contribution to the historical record, criticises it for working in an ‘inappropriate Marxist framework’.32 The article interestingly summarises the ‘views and impact’ of Mosley, Chesterton and Leese, concluding that Mosley’s ‘Europe a Nation’ policy situated him firmly within the mainstream of continental fascism but resulted in his influence on postwar British fascism falling ‘a long way short of the impact of Leese and Chesterton’.33 These short introductions are a useful starting point from which to launch the far more detailed ideological analysis within this book.

Far more abundant than specific works on the immediate postwar period are chapters within broader works on British fascism.34 As is to be expected these vary in both relevance and quality. Among the more recent additions to the expanding cannon is Nigel Copsey and John E. Richardson’s edited volume - Cultures of Postwar British Fascism.** Building on Julie Gottlieb and Thomas Linehan’s earlier collection of essays - The Culture of Fascism: Visions of the Far-right in Britain — it adds a much needed postwar perspective to the ‘cultural turn’ in generic fascist studies. Some of these ideas, especially Janet Dack’s contribution on ‘cultural regeneration’, are discussed in the ideologies chapter of this book.

Most interesting among this plethora of relevant literature is the work of the doyen of the history of British fascism, Richard Thurlow. Both the primarily historiographical Fascism in Modern Britain and the chapter ‘New Wine for Old Bottles’ in Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts to the National Front offer intriguing hypotheses on postwar ‘neo-fascism’. Unlike Macklin, Renton or Hillman who emphasise continuity, Thurlow argues that ‘Classic fascism died in 1945’36 and instead emphasises the revisionist nature of‘neo-fascism’. While accepting that Arnold Leese’s bias ‘hardened significantly’,37 he does strongly insinuate a major revision in the nature of Oswald Mosley’s postwar ideology, primarily in reference to its Europeanisation. However, this shift is discerned via a phenomenological approach that relies too heavily on the public pronouncements of Mosley himself. Renton far more convincingly argues that,

In terms of core politics, anti-communism, anti-socialism, eugenicism, elitism, racism, and 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 little different from its predecessor, the BUF.38

Most likely, the actual truth lies somewhere between the two views.

Far more convincing, however, are Thurlow’s views on the fascist revisionism of A.K. Chesterton, rightly concluding ‘that his antisemitism showed important changes’.39 While in the British Union of Fascists, Chesterton wrote his most visceral antisemitic tracts in a series of articles for the British Union Quarterly, which were later compiled into his infamous work The Apotheosis of the Jew. Much of his interwar antisemitism takes a racial form and could be construed as quasi-genocidal.40 He referred to Jews as ‘a rabble race’ and ‘blood-cousins of the maggot and the leech’.41 While there is no doubt that he remained a vehement antisemite, even after the Holocaust, the tone and style changed.

If one is to properly understand Chesterton it is imperative to engage with the two biographies, David Bakers Ideology of Obsession and the more recent A.K. Chesterton and the Evolution of Britain’s Extreme Right, 1933-1973 by Luke LeCras.42 The former has useful biographical information and focuses mainly on Chesterton’s road to becoming a fascist in the 1930s while LeCras focuses more on the postwar period of his career, emphasising his ‘status as a transitional figure who played a substantial role in the survival and evolution of Britain’s extreme right across two distinct periods’.43 The work of Paul Stocker, who deals specifically with the British far-right, empire and imperial decline is also useful for understanding the politics and Chesterton and the LEL. He fills in a hole in the postwar historiography by exploring Mosley’s Union Movement and A.K. Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists, ‘relationship with imperialism and more specifically, decolonisation’ in the postwar period.44 His thesis also spans the war years, starting in the 1920s and finishing in 1963, providing further evidence to the unbroken thread between the pre and postwar British far right.45

One area that Thurlow covers well but is surprisingly only given a cursory reference in Renton’s book is the major impact of non-white immigration beginning in the late 1940s.46 Thurlow argues that,

There can be little doubt that fascism would not have survived as a political irritant in Britain after 1945 if those who adopted revisionist forms of the prewar doctrine . . . had not latched on to the problems created by the influx of new commonwealth immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s.47

Macklin is in accord stating that Mosley’s activists in Notting Hill during the race riots had ‘inadvertently discovered the formula around which fascism could emerge from the political ghetto’.48 Likewise, Roger Eatwell writes that Mosley believed immigration would be ‘the populist issue that would lead him triumphantly back to centre stage’.49 Hence the lack of in-depth scholarly work into the effect of the birth of non-white immigration on Britain’s embryonic postwar far right is surprising and something this book sets out to correct.

Where focus on early non-white immigration on British fascism does exist, it is overwhelmingly focused on Oswald Mosley and the Union Movement.50 Stephen Dorril’s lengthy and thoroughly informative biography of Mosley, Blackshirt, though primarily weighted towards the prewar period, does venture into Mosley’s postwar career, shedding new light onto the effect of the so-called coloured invasion.’1 Dorill clearly articulates the opportunist nature of the UM’s tactics in Notting Hill following the riots in 1958, stating:

Mosley’s UM did not spark off the riots, nor was it responsible for them . . . but in the atmosphere of hostility which began to surround migrants it provided “a vocabulary and a programme of action which shaped the resentments of inarticulate and disgruntled people”.52

The role of other contemporary far-right groups is far less documented than that of the UM. Martin Walker’s 1977 work The National Front, still to be bettered, does tackle the role of what he calls the ‘dissident graduates of the League of Empire Loyalists who were simultaneously active in Notting Hill’.53 He investigates the role of John Bean’s National Labour Party (NLP) and Arnold Leese and Colin Jordan’s White Defence League (WDL), albeit only briefly. In addition some of the literature that deals with race,’4 ethnicity and the immigrant experience also briefly touches upon the racial nationalists of the period. For example, Edward Pilkington’s Beyond the Mother Country explains how Notting Hill ‘became one of the centres of the postwar fascist revival’55 and proceeds to analyse the role of the NLP, WDL, LEL and the UM in the Notting Hill riots. ‘The fascist groups did not so much create racial hatred, as exploit and encourage it’,’1' he argues. However, as with much of the secondary literature that only pays a cursory glance to this subject, it is often interesting but lacks the in-depth primary research included here.

With a view to discerning if anti-immigration actually replaced antisemitism as the primary ideological focus of British fascism or whether it was simply viewed as more politically expedient, it is necessary to read Thurlow’s work in conjunction with Michael Billig’s work on the later National Front. Thurlow states in reference to the postwar period that, ‘If antisemitism was toned down in comparison to prewar attitudes, more strident racial views were noticeable’.57 Billig argues that the ideology' of‘neo-fascism’ developed an anti-immigration superstructure on top of a core of a Nazi Nordic base.’8 Thurlow adds that, ‘Whereas members were recruited, typically as a result of an anti-immigration campaign, this exocentric appeal was deepened to indoctrinate members into the inner-core ideology' of the movement’.59 Martin Walker, when discussing Colin Jordan’s 1950s White Defence League, stated that, ‘For Jordan, the great advantage of the immigration issue was that it made people think in terms of race and thus be more sympathetic to his anti-Semitic propaganda’.“’ Similarly', Edward Pilkington points out that John Bean’s National Labour Party, ‘still lingered on the theme of the “Judaeo-Communist-Masonic plot” . . . but the target of its invective had shifted from the “Jewish Red Peril” to the new “Coloured Peril’”.61 This duality, with an anti-immigrant ‘superstructure’ with an antisemitic ‘core’ would become the norm for the British far-right for decades to come, but it was developed in the immediate postwar years.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics