Horatio Bottomley – through the eyes of his enemies


The account which follows is structured in three parts. First of all, I will say a bit about who Bottomley was. Then, I’ll discuss two main periods in Horatio Bottomley’s life: the second part of my paper will cover his upbringing and its impact on his beliefs from his birth in 1860 up until 1905 when he was elected to Parliament as a Liberal (indeed left-Liberal or “Radical”) MP. The third part will explore the last four years of his political life: his second stint in Parliament between 1918 and 1922 and his relationship then with the right and far right.

(1) Who was Bottomley?

Horatio Bottomley had, multiple careers: one in Parliament, one in the media, and one in business. In terms of Parliament, he was the MP for South Hackney between 1905 and 1912 and again from 1918 to 1922. He was initially elected as a Liberal MP in 1905, although he had abandoned that party by about 1910, made overtures to the Conservatives unsuccessfully, and from 1910 to 1912 he was effectively an Independent, and experimenting with creating a party of his own, the John Bull League. He was made bankrupt in 1912, after which he was forced to stand down from Parliament. He was then re-elected in 1918, again as an Independent. At the height of his power, in his second stint in Parliament, he had the support of about 10-12 MPs in a loose party caucus of Independents. Several of them had been elected as “Anti-Waste” MPs, a label I will explain in due course. This part of Bottomley’s life has, effectively, been forgotten, for a couple of reasons. One is his disgrace in business which overwhelms every other part of his life story. Another is that he was trying to create a party, outside the Conservatives and to their right, but not fascists. Future generations have found it incredibly hard to imagine what that could mean – our sense of the far right has been so swallowed up by the memory of Hitler and Mussolini – that until recently we couldn’t imagine what it would mean for there to be a group of people, attacking the Conservatives from their right and yet falling short of doing what the interwar fascists did and using violence repeatedly against their enemies.

As a press magnate, Bottomley founded John Bull magazine, building it to the point where between 1914 and 1918 it had a regular paid sale of between one and two million copies per issue. (It sold about ten times as many copies, in other words, as the most popular news weeklies in Britain today). John Bull was a “populist” magazine; it spoke constantly of “the people”, while excluding from the ranks of the people all sorts of enemies: trade unionists, lesbians and gay men, suffragettes, and campaigners for Irish independence. When miners struck during wartime, John Bull insisted that they should be “arrested, treated as deserters and punished according to martial law”. Bottomley’s most important campaign was one encouraging hatred against German civilians living in Britain. Of them, Bottomley wrote, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” As for German soldiers, he wrote, “I would put in the field an army of Zulus and Basutos and other native and half-civilised tribes – and let them run amok in the enemy’s ranks. I would give them all the asphyxiating gas they wanted.” Within days of that piece, riots had broken out against German civilians living in Britain. Bankers gathered wearing top hats on the steps of the Stock Exchange to pass a motion, “No Germans must be left in the City”. In Poplar, crowds attacked the houses of those suspected of harbouring Germans. This part of Bottomley’s career survives in public memory better than his time as an MP, but only a little better, essentially because John Bull magazine outlasted him. Julius Elias, a twenty-four-year-old owner of a small printing business when he met Bottomley in 1905 and became his publisher, switched on Bottomley’s demise to the Daily Herald and was made a Labour peer in 1946. John Bull magazine closed in 1964.

As for business, Bottomley was known in the press as a company promoter. In the early 1890s, he had a plan to amalgamate the printing and media industries within a single business, the Hansard Union. That failed in 1893, leading to a first fraud trial. From then, till 1905, he was promoting Australian mining businesses. In around 1905, Bottomley met a fellow crooked businessman, Ernest Torah Hooley, after which for several years, Bottomley gave up on company promoting, and worked instead by a method which was a form of very barely concealed theft. Essentially, he would find individual rich people, and prey on them to swap tens of thousands of pounds of their money for bogus shares. There were several court appearances, leading to his bankruptcy in 1912, and his first departure from Parliament. Between 1918 and 1922, while Bottomley was back in the Commons, his major project was a “Victory Bond Club”. Subscribers could buy shares which were supposedly tied to one-fifth of the government’s Victory Bonds (“Bonds”) by buying shares in Bottomley’s Club for £1 each. Bottomley took around £1.1 million in Club memberships, stored two-thirds of that sum in his private bank account, and paid various debts to his horse trainer, tame MPs, mistresses, and so on. Bottomley was tried in 1922, convicted and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. It is this trial, above all else, for which Bottomley has been remembered ever since. He became, in effect, one of those great rogues of history, whose name is remembered in collections of true crime stories, a shorthand for the corruption of Edwardian England.

In the rest of this paper, I will focus on Bottomley politics, its origins and his destination.

(2) Bottomley’s politics 1860 to 1905

In all previous biographies of Bottomley, two key details are mentioned, in passing. First, his mother Elizabeth was a secularist, as was his uncle George Jacob Holyoake. These details are used as props to get at what writers really want to talk about, a juicy piece of gossip, encouraged by Bottomley himself in later life, that he may have had a secret parentage, with either or both of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant having perhaps been his real parents.

On the secret parentage, this is utterly bogus: Besant and Bradlaugh did not meet until Bottomley was 14. Bottomley kept the story secret until Bradlaugh was long dead, so that the old man could not contradict him. The story caused distress to surviving members of Bradlaugh’s family. The one fact which supports it was that Bottomley, like Bradlaugh had a large, fleshy face. On the other hand, they were in other ways physically different: Bottomley as short as Bradlaugh tall. In any event, we do not know what the father named on Bottomley’s both certificate, a former shipwright, turned tailor, William Bottomley looked like. Without his picture, we can make no meaningful comparison with Bradlaugh.

Some new scraps of information have emerged about Horatio’s mother, Elizabeth Bottomley, who was a secularist. Stories have survived of her attending Bradlaugh’s talks at the Islington’s Hall of Science, and these traditions are corroborated, by several mentions to “E. H.” in the secularist press. A donation in that name of five shillings made on the launch of the newspaper, The Reasoner, which seems almost certainly to have been given by Elizabeth, She was then 14, and still living in Birmingham with her parents. Two decades later, Horatio’s birth was noted, with approval, in his uncle George Jacob Holyoake’s engagement diary. There was even an article written in The Reasoner published a few weeks before Horatio’s birth, a friendly review of Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, which can plausibly be attributed to Elizabeth.

Understanding that Elizabeth Bottomley was an active secularist, and her brother George Jacob Holyoake the founder of that movement, helps to explain the earliest years of Horatio Bottomley’s political engagement. He was a Radical Liberal, and a contributor to the secularist newspaper, The National Reformer. He helped by sub-editing that newspaper. In 1876, when Bottomley was 16, he attended lectures delivered by the English positivist and recent supporter of the Paris Commune, Professor Edward Beesly. A contributor to the National Reformer, “H. B.”, which must be Bottomley, summarises Beesly’s talks diligently.

At its top, secularism was a family business. Holyoake had been Bradlaugh’s mentor. Another Holyoake, George Jacob and Elizabeth’s brother, Austen, was Bradlaugh’s election agent. By the early 1880s, the Secularists could afford, in effect, three full-time workers bound by ties of close friendship: Bradlaugh, Besant, and Besant’s new lover, Edward Aveling. It may well be that Horatio Bottomley hoped to be the heir to the family business. But, if so, he flunked his audition. “Young Bottomley will turn out a bad man,” Bradlaugh said.

While the secularists had spurned Bottomley, he continued to idealise them. The best way to understand his career, between about 1880 and 1905, is of a series of attempts to persuade the secularists, or perhaps just himself, that he was carrying on the family tradition.

In 1882, when he was 22, Bottomley founded a first newspaper, the Hackney Hansard. He was employing the skills he had learned from his uncle and from Bradlaugh. In 1887, Bottomley was selected as a Liberal candidate for the first time, for Hornsey, after which he was chosen as the candidate for North Islington, then as today, a Radical constituency. He supported temperance and Irish Home Rule. This was the immediate aftermath of Bradlaughs victory in Northampton, and the debate over whether Bradlaugh could sit as an atheist.

In 1888-1889 Bottomley became the first Chairman of the Financial Times. He used the paper to reports of speeches delivered by his favourite politicians, principally Bradlaugh. Elected in 1905 as an MP, one of Bottomley’s first act was to deliver a speech to the Bradlaugh Fellowship, recalling the bitter days of Bradlaugh’s isolation before he was vindicated: “Wasn’t he a dangerous and vulgar agitator, a man who knew no God, a Republican who had dared to impeach the House of Brunswick?”

Occasionally, it has been argued that the great mistake made by the left made between 1880 and 1910 was to encourage the break-up of the Liberal coalition. (Those with long memories may recall Tony Blair arguing that, others have made the same point independently). The argument goes that in Victorian politics there was a single party on the left (the Liberals) and one on the right (the Conservatives). The left fractured, the right didn’t. And this is said to be why the Conservative kept winning elections in the twentieth century.

Yet it is worth seeing this period through the eyes of workers and trade unionists. So, as the Radical chairman of the Financial Times in 1888, Bottomley could have supported the matchgirls’ strike. This, Bottomley refused to do, insisting that the real victims of the ‘matchgirls’’ strike were not the workers with their low pay, and their phossy jaws, but the employers. Bosses in London wanted to pay more. What held them back, he wrote, were “the much cheaper productions of Sweden,” where wood cost almost nothing.

After 1900, when Bottomley was a prospective parliamentary candidate for South Hackney, he faced a recurring problem of workers from the local trades council threatening to stand candidates against him and his party. They called Bottomley “an unscrupulous Company Promoter” and “a City swindler”. In return, he threatened the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union and Hackney Trades Council with libel action: “your action leaves me no alternative but either to apply for an immediate Order for a criminal prosecution, or to impose a Writ against you for damages…” Bottomley’s stance was typical of a whole period of British politics. The left deserted the Liberals because of how little the Liberals offered them.

(3) Bottomley’s politics 1918 to 1922

There are various reasons why Bottomley moved to the far right. One is that he failed as a Liberal MP in 1905 to 1912. His strategy was to be such a loose cannon that the party had no option but to offer him a prize ministerial job. But the Liberal party was sitting on a shrinking parliamentary majority: it lost seats in 1910. It already possessed external factions: the Irish and Labour causes. It spent more time on them, sensibly, than it did on him. Bottomley’s magazine John Bull was such a commercial success, and his editorial line so anti-Liberal, that the stakes were too high for his party.

Where new people were breaking with Parliament in around 1910, as Bottomley did by launching the John Bull League, and calling for the replacement of politicians by businessmen, they tended to move to the right – Hilaire Belloc was another member of the generation and his book The Party System is indistinguishable from Bottomley’s thinking. 

The war fixed Bottomley’s new, right-wing, politics in stone. Initially anti-Serb, Bottomley realised that the war would be an opportunity to undo the stain of his bankruptcy and help him get back to Parliament. He therefore switched to taking a pro-Seb, and anti-Austrian line. After that, when not penning articles attacking German civilians or strikers, he was delivering public lectures, 300 of them altogether, calling on other men to risk their lives.

From 1914 onwards, the trend of his politics was outside and against democracy. Under a Business Government, Parliament (that “played-out institution”) would be abolished in favour of military rule. All his allies were on the far right: in 1916, Bottomley backed Noel Pemberton Billing with his claims that an “Unseen Hand” (i.e. Jews) were controlling Labour and the unions, and that a “black Book” held the names of 47,000 gay men and women a “Cult of the Clitoris” who had been blackmailed into giving support to the German war effort.

Another of Bottomley’s friend was George Makgill, founder of the Economic League, with his lurid fantasies of “Jews in every secret society, Jewish Anarchists and Communists especially”. In 1918, Makgill and Bottomley founded a People’s League, to lead the anti-Communist campaign against the left which they thought the Conservatives had abandoned.

Where Bottomley’s politics were taking him was shown by the anti-Waste campaign of 1919-21, during which seven by-elections were won by “Anti-Waste” (i.e. pro austerity) candidates opposed to the Liberal-Conservative coalition government. The context was the resumption of ordinary politics after the end of the 1914-18 war at a time when the composition of the Cabinet had not changed. Most right-wing voters hated Lloyd George. They despised his politics, seeing him as the inventor of the state pension, national insurance and rent controls.

In January 1920, a pro-Bottomley independent was elected at Wrekin. The following January, at a by-election in Dover, an “Anti-Waste” candidate won with the support of Bottomley and the press baron Lord Rothermere. At the campaign’s height, there were ten anti-Waste independents, generals and company directors, sitting in the House of Commons. Growing numbers of Conservative associations announced their support for the broad thrust of the anti-waste campaign, while others – among them a young Oswald Mosley – joined campaigns intended to copy it, including a Conservative-sponsored People’s League for Economy.

By spring 1921, Rothermere and Bottomley, the two pioneers of this new strand of militant Conservatism, were at odds. Rothermere believed an attack on social reforms would help crystallise middle-class politics around a shared distrust of the poor. If you could make the Conservatives the sole anti-socialist party, he thought, they would win every time.

By contrast, Bottomley’s aim was not a reinvigorated Conservatism. He did not want a Britain where Conservatives and Labour alternated in government, even if the former held power for longer. Unlike Rothermere, he wanted to see something more, in other words, left MPs in jail.

Anti-waste was ostensibly a movement united around a single cause, of shrinking the state, but the longer Bottomley was involved with anti-Waste, the more he quibbled with its basic premises. He wanted the army expanded, not cut. He liked to imagine British power extending across the globe. He tended to downplay “the cutting down of pensions”, which he reasoned would alienate as many as it attracted. His vision of a growing far-right was closer to the experiments in right-wing politics emerging in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

In the incipient split between Bottomley and Rothermere, Bottomley had a keener sense of the direction in which politics was heading.

Even in Britain, the Conservative party would grow in the 1920s and 1930s by exploiting other causes than Rothermere’s. They would win through an anti-Communist culture war (the Zinoviev letter) then, from 1932, an imperial tariff which enabled the party to link welfare benefits to the maintenance of the Empire.

Horatio Bottomley’s fraud conviction in 1922 brought an end to his political career. During his trial, the central issue was whether he had been loyal to the soldiers who had volunteered for the army then wagered their savings on him. He told the jury, “I hope to satisfy you, if they were the last words to pass my lips, that I am incapable of robbing an ex-soldier.”

Sentencing him, Mr Justice Salter said, “the crime is aggravated by your high position, the number and poverty of your victims, by the trust which they reposed in you and you abused.”

One way to read his life is as a play on an old theme; that patriotism really is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The other way to see it is an illustration of a different piece of political wisdom, one developed by the 1880s left: that Liberalism and Radicalism had been exhausted. And that nothing good would come from attempts to continue them.

(The above text is a talk I gave yesterday to the Socialist History Society; anyone who enjoys it is encouraged to consider buying a copy of the book, currently on 33% off at the Routledge website).

The man who invented the tabloid press; and the people who defeated him


There are few things wrong with Britain that cannot be traced back to the influence of our tabloid press. But where did this model of journalism originate? The usual answer is to date the tabloids’ rise to Lord Northliffe, the founder of the Daily Mail in 1896, or his younger brother Lord Rothermere who ran the same paper in the 1930s when it backed Mosley’s blackshirts. Before the career of either took off, however, the distinctive forms of the tabloid newspaper, its reliance on celebrities, its dumbing down of the news, its defence of the police, as well as its advocacy of tax and welfare cuts, had all been set in place. The founder of this model was a journalist five years older than either of them: Horatio Bottomley MP.

Bottomley launched his career with the Hackney Hansard, written for the local parliaments movement of the 1880s, in which local Conservative and Liberal politicians would meet and hold set-piece debates in emulation of their counterparts in Parliament. From there, Bottomley moved to the Municipal Review, which published puff-pieces abut local mayors, and then to a penny weekly, Youth magazine, which published improving short stories aimed at an audience of teenage boys. Bottomley was paid £150 to take over the magazine, also recruiting the paper’s ambitious sub-editor a barrister’s son named Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe).

In 1888-9, Bottomley served for a year as the first Chairman of the Financial Times. Bottomley turned that paper into a gossip sheet, puffing up the companies who were willing to advertise on his pages, and printing hostile rumours about those who refused. “Gold discovered – good prospects,” a typically baseless Bottomley story began.

In 1902, Bottomley bought an evening newspaper, the Sun (no connection to today’s paper of the same name). Bottomley hoped to build a mass readership by reporting crimes, especially murders. Alone among the Liberal press, the paper supported the Boer War. Bottomley tried to boost its circulation by recruiting celebrity guest editors, including the Test cricketer Ranjitsinhji. There was also a racing column and a lottery of sorts (‘Sunspots’).

His real breakthrough came in 1906, shortly after Bottomley was elected to Parliament as the MP for South Hackney. Bottomley launched a weekly newspaper, John Bull, which had achieved by 1916 a paid sale of around 2 million copies an issue – making it not merely the best-selling news weekly of its day but a far more successful publication that any equivalent magazine since – selling ten times more copies than today’s Economist or Private Eye.

The idea of “John Bull” had been coined around 150 years before, by a Tory journalist John Arbuthnot, who lampooned his eighteenth-century enemies as wasters of the public finance, wrong because they listened to England’s enemies abroad. By the 1850s and 1860s, John Bull was a regular character in Punch magazine, the incarnation of the patriotic Englishman.

Bottomley did not create that image, but he was content to plagiarise it. John Bull was “populist” in the sense that the term is often used today: to mean that it spoke constantly of the people, while excluding from the ranks of the people all sorts of enemies including trade unionists, suffragettes, and campaigners for Irish independence.

John Bull was at the height of its influence between 1914 and 1918. Bottomley wanted his paper to the most patriotic magazine you could buy – and was unafraid of seeming violent, cruel or even unhinged. There were tens of thousands of German civilians living in Britain. Of them, Bottomley wrote, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.”

Nor was extermination a mere linguistic flourish. He had put careful thought into how to murder them – without wasting the precious resources needed for the war. “I would put in the field an army of Zulus and Basutos and other native and half-civilised tribes – and let them run amok in the enemy’s ranks. I would give them all the asphyxiating gas they wanted.”

Within days of that article, riots broke out against German civilians living in Britain. Bankers gathered in their top hats on the steps of the Stock Exchange to pass a motion, “No Germans must be left in the City of London”. In Poplar, crowds broke into the houses of those suspected of harbouring Germans.

The British and the German populations had mingled for several generations. In thousands of homes, in all social circles, there was anger and disgust at the position he had taken. Yet rather than being isolated for such violence, Bottomley was rewarded. Lord Northcliffe, previously employed by Bottomley, made him one of the best-paid columnists in Britain Northcliffe’s papers spread the story that Bottomley was on the verge of a Cabinet appointment, covering London with placards reading “Bottomley wanted”.

And this message of war to the death was applied to all of British capital’s enemies. When miners struck, Bottomley and John Bull insisted that any workers following suit must be “arrested, treated as deserters and punished according to martial law”.

It is from the rise of John Bull onwards that we can see the essential character of the British tabloid press: its craven attitude towards the rich and those with the most social power, its hatred towards workers and the poor.

Yet there were always people trying to fight it. One of the first was a shorthand copyist Clarence Henry Norman, a member of the Independent Labour Party, the Society for Abolition of Capital Punishment and the Penal Reform League. Norman was a conscientious objector, one of 16,000 people in Britain to refuse conscription. Imprisoned, he had fought with his jailors. Confined to a straitjacket, he was force-fed through a nasal tube.

From his prison, Norman grasped that if he was going to defeat the war, he had to campaign against the people propagandising for it. He smuggled out a pamphlet: “Mr Horatio Bottomley has never ceased to claim that he is the best interpreter of the mind and morals of the ordinary hard-working decent British citizen.” He wrote about Bottomley’s career outside the media and politics, as a businessman whose scheme had repeatedly ended in business failure.

Norman ended his account, “With that we leave Mr. Horatio Bottomley, only reminding our readers that nothing could be more conclusive proof of the rottenness of British democratic and political life than the fact that such a man is consulted by the rulers of this country.”

Bottomley schemed to have Norman’s pamphlet banned. He found an intermediary, a Birmingham printer named Reuben Bigland, and asked him to find someone to have Norman’s pamphlet copied. Bottomley sued the printer who reproduced it, John Greaney. Greaney did not attend court, but sent a barrister to plead his case on his behalf. Greaney’s barrister (paid for by Bottomley) admitted libel and called on the judge to order the harshest punishment of his own client: “Whatever may be the result of the case, Mr Bottomley may leave the court at all event with the certainty that in one respect he has performed a public service, and that is by the skilful and temperate manner in which he has conducted his case”.

Bottomley was acting at the furthest edges of the law: inventing cases, bribing his supposed opponents, securing a conviction with the help of a naïve judge, Mr Justice Darling.

Three years later, however, the memory of this scheme came back to haunt him. Bigland broke with Bottomley, admitted his part in the fraud and then when Bottomley sued Bigland for criminal libel, Bottomley found himself in front of the same judge, Darling. This time, he was no longer willing to believe the lies Bottomley spun.

In 1922, Bottomley faced his last court case. After the war had ended, he had launched a Victory Bond Club, offering shares at £1 each, supposedly mirroring the value of the government’s War Bonds. He was accused of fraudulent conversion (in other words, using investors’ money for his own ends). Bottomley was sentenced to seven years in prison.

At the heart of his criminal trial, was the question of whether Bottomley had defrauded the patriotic former soldiers who bought shares in his Club, and whose support had made John Bull into a commercial success. “The dear boys”, Bottomley insisted, “whether they are sleeping or still with us, know that I have not betrayed them.”

But this is exactly what Bottomley had done, and what the tabloid press always does. It turns to its readers and invited them, on the basis of the patriotism they share with the editors of their newspapers, to suspend all critical intelligence. Having found a paper that agrees with them, they are expected to think that Conservatives are to be trusted, that the royal family is a model to the nation, and that no-one better understands the British economy than the ghouls who dominate the City. Bottomley used the gullibility of his audience to make himself rich. In the long years since, not one of his followers has behaved in any way differently.

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which is published by Routledge today].

[I’ll also be speaking about the book at a meeting of the Socialist History Society, later today (24.11.22) – all welcome].

The first Socialists: Owen, Southwell, Holyoake…


George Jacob Holyoake

In the 1820s and 1830s, by far the most important figure on the British left was Robert Owen, Born into relative poverty (his father was a saddler), Owen became in 1800 a manager at the New Lanark textile mill, near Glasgow. New Lanark became famous as a model workplace, where work was well paid, the workers were productive, their children educated, and there were neither police nor courts. In 1817, Owen announced his conversion to socialism, after which he toured the United States and Europe arguing for similar utopian communities.

The Owenite newspaper The Pioneer told its readers to break apart the great houses of the rich and to share their wealth: “At a very early period, we shall find the idle possessor compelled to ask you to release him from his worthless holding.”

“Every pupil,” Owen wrote, “shall be encouraged to express his or her opinion.” Religious instruction would not be imposed on anyone. Everyone would be encouraged to learn, irrespective of their career or their parents’ standing: “All shall be treated with equal kindness. Both sexes shall have equal opportunities of acquiring useful knowledge.”

We can get a sense of the appeal of the Owenites by looking at the lives of some of the movement’s recruits, for example George Jacob Holyoake, how had been employed from the age of ten as a metal-worker Eagle Iron Foundry, one of two dozen factories in Birmingham making pots, safes, weights, garden rollers, gear wheels, gates and fire hearths.

In June 1836, George Jacob heard Owen speak for the first time. Six months later, aged 19, he recorded in his diary that he himself “spoke for the Owenites” at a meeting.

Holyoake followed Owen in advocating Mechanics’ Institutes, in other words, part-time colleges providing teaching at evening and weekends to an audience largely composed of skilled workers who had left education (as was common) before their teenage years.

In February 1838 Holyoake joined Owen’s new Association of All Classes of All Nations. He also participated in the Chartist movement, which was demanding a vote for every man, for annual parliaments, for secret ballot, for payment of MPs and for reform of electoral districts. A petition delivered to Parliament by Birmingham’s Radical MP Thomas Attwood, was signed by 1.3 million people. Holyoake attended Chartist rallies in Birmingham.

He walked to Derbyshire, dreaming of liberating himself from the factory, and all workers from slavery. “Over the foundry walls where I worked had come gleams of the sun, which had made me long to see the outlying world on which it shone unconfined. Now I was in that world: happy days were those, for my heart was as light as my purse.”

In 1840, the Owenites thanked Holyoake for collecting funds to enable the purchase of a socialist chapel in Lawrence Street. In August he lectured in Worcester, after which the Owenites there invited him to join them as a full-time worker. The socialists in the town offered him 16 shillings a week, enough to feed his wife and their daughter, Madeline.

In 1841, the Owenites made him a “social missionary” in Sheffield, and his salary doubled to £80 per year. The Owenite headquarters was in Sheffield’s Rockingham Street, with a school with fifty pupils which held meetings in the evening and at weekends.

From the early 1840s onwards, it is possible to trace a decline of Owenite radicalism. Chartism may have provided the socialists with a mass audience, but they struggled to recruit within it. A movement of hundreds of thousands of people, hazy as it was about its end goal, seemed more attractive than building a smaller caucus of the convinced.

Part of the problem for the Owenites was that they struggled under attack from their opponents in working-class districts. Increasing numbers of churchmen made it their business to denounce the socialists and demand their prosecution. This posed a sharp tactical question to the Owenites: should they ignore religion, or counter it with attacks of their own?

Owen argued that his followers should ignore the Church, and win converts by appealing to the areas of socialist strength – their programme of mutual aid and social transformation. Several of Owen’s followers, including Holyoake, disagreed.

In 1841, Holyoake’s friend Charles Southwell had also been made a social missionary, in Bristol. The first issue of Southwell’s newspaper The Oracle of Reason had sold six thousand copies, in large part because of the atheism which ran alongside and obscured its socialism. In his paper, the Bible was described as the “disgust of wise men. It is a history of lust, sodomies, wholesale slaughtering and horrible depravity.”

Southwell was arrested and charged with blasphemy. Holyoake demanded that the Owenites support Southwell. William Galpin, General Secretary of the Owenites, replied with tepid reassurance that the Owenite Central Board would “not fail to assist Mr Southwell all they can.” Nevertheless, Southwell’s chosen course of confronting the Church, “was in direct opposition from what the Board have always advocated.”

In January 1842, Southwell was convicted, fined £100, and sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. In Sheffield, Holyoake renounced all religion. He had been “born pious, and nursed in orthodoxy,” but any beliefs he had once held “in the humanising tendency of Christianity” had been destroyed. “The persecution of my friend has been within these few weeks, the cradle of my doubts, and the grave of my religion … my faith is no more.”

Holyoake left Birmingham to help Southwell. In May, he addressed a meeting of the Cheltenham Mechanics’ Institution on ‘Home Colonisation’, the Owenite proposal that poverty be resolved with a positive programme of public works taking the form of self-sufficient working-class villages. Around 100 Chartists and socialists were present to hear him. A Mr Maitland (a “sort of local preacher”) noted that Holyoake’s speech had made no mention of chapels. Did the socialists, he asked, see no role for religion in their future society?

At first Holyoake stuck to the Owenite script, acknowledging that he had avoided all talk of God in the body of his speech. But why was he here, if not to help his friend Southwell? He said, “I appeal to your heads and your pockets if we are not too poor to have a god? If poor men cost the state so much they would be put like officers on half-pay. I think while our distress lasts it would be wise to do the same with the Deity.

On 26 May, after a meeting with Southwell in Bristol, Holyoake saw the Cheltenham Chronicle’s third-page report on his lecture on Socialism, under the title ‘ATHEISM AND BLASPHEMY’. Socialism, yelled the newspaper, was “more appropriately termed, Devilism”.

Holyoake was tried for blasphemy in August 1842. He spoke for nine hours in his defence, expounding the doctrines of socialism, and appealing to the principle of free speech: “What can we think of the morality of a law which prohibits the free publication of opinion?” At the end of the hearing the judge sentenced him to six months imprisonment.

1842 also saw another great wave of Chartist activity, a second petition was signed, this time by three and a half million people, there were strikes in the Midlands and the industrial North and riots in the Potteries (with 116 men and women imprisoned), and Feargus O’Connor and almost every member of the national executive was prosecuted.

On release Holyoake toured Gloucester and Cheltenham before giving a lecture in Rochdale to the Socialist Society, on the merits of Owenite land colonies and co-operation. The following year, 28 skilled artisans, with Owenite socialists prominent among them, would establish the first modern cooperative society, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

In 1846, having settled in London, Holyoake founded his own newspaper, its first issue declaring: “The Reasoner will be Communistic in Social Economy – Utilitarian in Morals – Republican in Politics – and Anti-theological in Religion”. This communistic social economy was a reference to Owenism, and early articles addressed themselves to supporters of the movement: “The late retardation of our views has opened our eyes, not damped our ardour.”

When Chartism and the battle for the People’s Charter surged again in 1848, Holyoake had become one of its best-known speakers. On 10 April, some 20,000 Chartists marched from Kennington Common in South London, along a route lined by more or less sympathetic 200,000 spectators. The government signed up 85,000 special constables to prevent disorder, and placed 7,000 soldiers around Westminster.

After this last flowering, the campaign declined. The press attacked the Chartists, insisting that the petition’s numbers had been inflated. Mocked, the Chartists came to believe in their defeat. Feargus O’Connor, their best-known leader, became an alcoholic. In 1852, he struck three of his fellow MPs, after which he was held in an asylum. The same year Robert Owen converted to spiritualism. He had never stopped believing that human beings could live under fairer conditions; he now presented the dead as their allies in that struggle, titling one pamphlet, The Future of the Human Race; or Great Glorious and Future Revolution to Be Effected Through the Agency of Departed Spirits of Good and Superior Men and Women.

The socialists splintered; many emigrated. Holyoake sought to keep the movement going by mixing his socialism and atheism, and moderating his opinions. He ceased to be a socialist pioneer, and became a leading figure in the emergence of secularism.

The generation below – including Holoyoake’s nephew, Horatio Bottomley – were to split in yet further directions as the century wore on, but that’s another story.

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November].

[I’ll also be speaking about the book at a meeting of the Socialist History Society, this Thursday – all welcome].

The anti-German riots of 1915


Bigotry does not always need deep roots. When it suits the interests of the state or of the rich, it can be summoned into being quickly. One of the worst race riots in British history occurred a little more than 100 years ago; their victims were a group of people who had never been previously been treated as any sort of racialised other – German civilians living in England after the outbreak war in 1914.

The war enabled grifters to make themselves rich by performatively attaching themselves to the conflict, even as they lived their normal lives hundreds of miles from the fighting. The worst of the jingos was Horatio Bottomley, the owner of John Bull magazine. In his columns, Bottomley allowed no distinction between Germany as a state and her people, even as increasing numbers of the latter were demonstrating their opposition to war. He told his readers all Germans were evil even those who had no connection to the fighting: “If by chance you should discover one day in a restaurant that you are being served by a German waiter, you will throw the soup in his foul face, if you find yourself sitting at the side of a German clerk, you will split the inkpot over his vile head.”

There could be no restraint against the Germans: “War is the eagle’s business, with neck outstretched and beak stern for combat, with talons outspread ready to fasten in the back of the foe and never lose hold until every drop of blood has dripped from the quarry.” In Bottomley’s view, this was not a matter of nationality alone, but one of race. A person born in England to a German father and an English mother was outside the British race. They too had no right to remain in Britain – and no right to live.

Where prejudice came from

Britain and German had never previously been at war. Up until the 1890s, Germans had been the largest group of migrants to the UK from the Continent. As late as 1914, around 100,000 Germans lived in the United Kingdom. Whole areas of life saw British and German people correspond and co-operate: science, literature, socialism, sport, music.

The historian of Anglo-German antagonism, Paul Kennedy, has spoken of British and German elites “drit[ing] steadily apart” between 1900 and 1914 over the former’s imperial conquests, and the latter’s economic competition. The press targeting of Germans had begun even before the war began with stories of Teutonic spies exploring the southern coast, and novelists including William Le Queux and HH Munro imagining a German invasion. The ground had been prepared for increased military spending – and for anti-German xenophobia.

Race riots

Bottomley’s campaign reached its height in mid-1915, following the sinking on 7 May of the passenger ship HMS Lusitania, in which 1,198 people died: 785 passengers and 413 crew. Many of the crew were from Liverpool. The first attacks occurred there on the evening of the sinking, with crowds of people smashing up the shop of businesses with German-sounding names: Fischer’s, Dimler’s, and Deeg’s.

Bottomley’s response to these attacks appeared in John Bull on 15 May. He proposed that German people in Britain should be made to wear badges. The German civilians should be deported. If that was impossible, he urged his readers to wage a blood feud, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” Nor was this call for genocide a mere linguistic flourish. Bottomley had put careful thought, into the mechanics of mass killing, “I would put in the field an army of Zulus and Basutos and other native and half-civilised tribes – and let them run amok in the enemy’s ranks. I would give them all the asphyxiating gas they wanted.”

John Bull was the best-selling weekly news magazine in Britain. “On the same day that Bottomley’s article appeared,” writes Panikos Panayi, the historian of the Anglo-German community, “riots broke out through the country.” Germans were attacked in Poplar, in Deptford, in Keighley and in Crewe. British nationals with German-sounding surnames found themselves having to advertise their Englishness in the press. “I, William Andrew Utz,” one such announcement read, “am a British-born subject. I was born at 42 High Street Poplar … I have been in the business of a butcher for many years, following my father in his long-established shop at the said 42 High Street Poplar.”

Smithfield porters hung signs from their necks: “No business transacted with Germans.” In Poplar crowds swarmed into the houses of those suspected of harbouring Germans. Bankers gathered on the steps of the Stock Exchange where a mass meeting passed a motion: “No Germans must be left in the City of London.”

Fostering hatred – and resisting it

The press was not alone in encouraging hatred. Brigadier-General Crozier wrote in 1915 of how army training had to be used, to break the widespread anti-war instincts of new recruits: “I, for my part, do what I can to alter completely the outlook, bearing and mentality of over 1,000 men … blood lust is taught for purposes of war in bayonet fighting itself and by doping the minds of all with propagandic poison. The German atrocities (many of which I doubt in secret), the employment of gas in action, the violation of French women and the ‘official murder’ of Nurse Cavell all help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is so necessary for victory. The process of ‘seeing red’, which has to be carefully cultured if the effect is to be lasting, is elaborately grafted into the makeup of even the meek and mild… The Christian churches are the finest blood lust creators which we have and of them we make free use … The British soldier is a kindly fellow … It is necessary to corrode his mentality.”

Others, meanwhile, were fighting for a world without racism or war. East London was the base of the Sylvia Pankhurst and the suffragette left. The Women’s Dreadnought complained of unnamed newspaper magnates “fill[ing] their columns with articles intended to inflame the populace to anti-German riots, articles which consume ignorant, nervous, excitable people with a suspicious terror that transforms for them the poor Hoxton baker and his old mother into powerful spies, able at will to summon fleets of Zeppelins.” Two members of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes who had married German men found their homes under attack, while another member was hurt in her efforts to stop the rioting.

In West London, libertarian socialists organised a communist kitchen, deliberately staffed by both French and German workers. The unemployed themselves peeled potatoes, prepared the vegetables, and washed dishes, pots and pans. According to one regular diner, Rudolf Rocker, “It was wonderful to see German and French workers engaged together in this common work of help, while over on the continent millions of German and French proletarians were killing each other on the orders of their governments.”

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November].

Re-learning what we forgot: Thoughts on ‘Workers Can Win’


Learning how to be an effective trade unionist is much harder than it should be. The past twelve months excepted, for much more of the past 40 years employers have been ahead and for only a small part of them have workers been winning.

The reasons for employers’ dominance include the anti-union laws. You cannot strike legally except after carrying out a ballot, and winning majorities both among those voting and those eligible to vote. The fear of being sued has transferred power upwards within unions, giving officials more reasons than ever to police or block strikes.

The law operates as a further pressure; in that, in many workplaces, a new rep is expected to earn their spurs by representing fellow workers in grievance and disciplinary hearings, which forces them to assimilate a great deal of employment law.

Last of all, new reps join the movement at a time when many of its former institutions are gone or in rapid decline. In particular, trade union studies departments are a shell of what they were, meaning that it’s can be struggle to obtain the training new reps need.

In that context, Ian Allinson’s new book is a service to the entire movement. It explains, in easy, accessible, language, how to start out as a trade unionist, especially in a workplace where few colleagues are members and how to win an audience.

He describes the different models of trade unionism which inform different parts of the movement from “servicing”, which treats members as isolated individuals and the purchasers of services mainly insurance against dismissal paid for by members’ subs, to “mobilising”, which is still a top-down but at least envisages periodic bouts of activity, requiring to be set in motion by officials, to his ideal of an “organising” union.

Allinson describes some of the methods by which a union member can choose the issues around which to organise, and communicate them to colleagues. When he’s talking about organising meetings, his advice includes: make sure that any publicity for the event explains properly what it will discuss, have someone to introduce the meeting, introduce the participants, vary the agenda and format from meeting to meeting, make sure new speakers are prioritised to speak, keep the atmosphere friendly and supportive.

These points may strike experienced reps as familiar, but we are in a moment when a great deal of organising skill and technique has been shed, and these sorts of practical lessons need to be relearned so that the movement can renew itself.

Allinson is an important, rank-and-file voice. He was a workplace activist at Fujitsu. In 2017, he stood to be General Secretary of UNITE, winning 17,000 votes. He is the best-known member of the group RS21, of which I too was a member for several years.

He discusses some of the techniques used by managers to derail union, and gives examples of how trade unionists have responded effectively to them.

Allinson explains why unions can feel contradictory and the role played by full-timers in holding unions together as well as, at times when members are pushing for militant action, demobilising them. He reminds readers of moments when strikes have taken place and been effective despite the caution of national officials – as during the “Drive for 35” in the engineering industry in the 1980s, which led to a significant reduction in the working week, and was implemented by a fiercely right-wing leadership.

When I think about the trade unionists I meet, they correspond very broadly to three broad patterns. Many, especially in London, are members of new trade unions organising among people previously neglected by the movement. A second group are involved in public sector trade unions. A third group are of what you might call “legacy” private sector unions, in other words, workplaces which have sustained high trade density often among skilled and highly-paid workers.

It is a credit to Allinson that, although his own background was among the third of these groups, he has written a guide which workers can use whatever industry they’re in.

I imagine trade unionists reading Workers Can Win in a single setting, and leaving it on their shelves. Then each time their boss has some new cunning plan, bringing it out again and again to frustrate them.

Horatio Bottomley: The real-life Toad of Toad Hall


In October 1908, the recently retired company secretary of the Bank of England Kenneth Grahame published a short children’s book, The Wind in the Willows. The novel is dominated by its antihero, a fad-driven creature, Toad. He dines on lobster and drinks champagne, squandering money recklessly. Toad’s self-admiration is captured in the song he sings on his escape from jail: “The world has held great Heroes, As history-books have showed But never a name to go down to fame Compared with that of Toad!”

Kenneth Grahame had long been obsessed by what he perceived to be the declining morality of the times, and of business in particular. He hoped to preserve the England of his youth which had been pre-industrial, agricultural and aristocratic. This world, he believed, was under attack from an alliance of the new rich and the working class.

In February 1887 Grahame had watched the unemployed rioting in Trafalgar Square. More recently still, in November 1903, one George H. Robinson entered the Bank of England and demanded to speak to whoever was in charge. In the Governor’s absence, Grahame presented himself. As they spoke, Robinson shot Grahame twice. At Robinson’s subsequent trial, the would-be murderer was found to hold “Socialistic views”.

Grahame hated not merely the Socialists but even the Radicals and Liberal who were much more visible in Edwardian England. To one such Radical the poet and essayist Arthur Quiller-Couch Grahame wrote, only half in jest, that he would not wish him luck “in your nefarious designs on our savings, our cellars and our garden-plots”.

In The Wind in the Willows, Grahame warns against ostentatious spending, which might tend to encourage envy among the poor. Wealth needed to be spent responsibly, with a view to the future. Toad’s defining fault is that has come into money without learning how to control it. He is conceited and aimless; first he gives up boating for a horse-drawn caravan, then when a motorcar startles his horse, he determines to buy one for himself. In all, he crashes seven cars, spending a fortune on fines, before being tried and sentenced to 20 years.

How not to live

Bottomley’s biographer Peter Green has written that the man who inspired Toad was Horatio Bottomley, a Radical Liberal journalist and after 1906 Hackney MP, whose “flamboyant, gabby, vulgarian” politics were a source of particular distress to Grahame.

The Wind and the Willows is more than a satire on what Grahame called “gentleman in difficulties,” or on the risks posed by the excessive consumption of the leisure class. It was also directly a message to Grahame’s hothead son, Alastair, and a warning as to how an upright person should behave in relation to their contemporaries.

In a key passage, Rat explains to Mole: “There are a hundred things one has to know which we understand all about and you don’t as yet. I mean pass-words, and signs, and saying which have power and effect and plants you carry in your pocket, and verses you repeat, and dodges and tricks you practise.” All of these were “simple enough if you know then, but they’ve got to be known if you’re small, or you’ll find yourself in trouble.”

In the 1880s, Bottomley had been one of a small group of people, alongside James Sheridan and Harry Marks, who had helped to found the financial press in Britain. In 1888 and 1889 he had been the first Chairman of the Financial Times.

After leaving the FT, Bottomley had founded the Hansard Union, a speculative printing business from which he skimmed £150,000 over two years, leading to the “trouble” of a fraud trial. By the early years of the twentieth century, Bottomley had survived the Hansard Union prosecution, and personal insolvency, and had built a new career as a company promoter.

After being elected to Parliament in 1906, Bottomley founded a magazine, John Bull. On its masthead was a cartoon of that character with a union jack waistcoat and top hat. Bottomley hinted that as a politician he could provide his readers with unique information about the workings of government. His magazine’s business pages provided a stream of warnings that firms were on the verge of bankruptcy. In effect, Bottomley was blackmailing the companies: either he would keep up a series of articles accusing them of wrongs, or they would pay to advertise in John Bull, whereupon the negative coverage would stop.

The magazine denounced the parties who claimed to stand for a moral cause (the Labour Party, or his own party, the Liberals), accusing them of hypocrisy.

Bottomley grasped that he could maximise his circulation by publishing alongside news stories, racing tips, and competitions. Lotteries were then illegal, but Bottomley dodged the rule by setting up a Derby sweepstake, with its headquarters in Switzerland.

John Bull’s most famous scoop was published during the war, when it broke the news that the prominent anti-war politician and Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald was (as the magazine put it), “the illegitimate son of a Scotch servant girl”.

After the war, Bottomley established a Victory Bond Club, supposedly an unofficial scheme contributing to Britain’s efforts to pay off the nation’s war debt. This hazy association with the nation contributed to the Club’s success. When the club was launched, there had been just £7 left in Bottomley’s bank account. Within days he was writing cheques of several thousand pounds to his bookmakers, his friends and mistresses.

Jailed in 1922, and sentenced to seven years in prison, Bottomley spent his declining years working on the cold stone floors of Maidstone Prison’s printers’ shop.

Fraudster and Radical

At the time that The Wind in the Willows was published Bottomley was still on the rise. His final defeat lay 14 years in the future yet we can see why Grahame took against him. It was not just because of the financier’s avarice, toxic as that was. Just as important to Grahame was Bottomley’s message that he was a Liberal, indeed a Radical Liberal, and on the side of the poor as they looked with envy on the great homes of England’s rural elite.

On trial in 1893, Bottomley sought his blame that prosecution on his supposed advanced political views. “Radical and Democrat” he called myself, hinting at a mysterious conspiracy which had supposedly brought him low.

Through the 1890s Bottomley sought to combine an extravagant lifestyle with a professed support for Radical opinions. He attended gatherings of the Charles Bradlaugh Fellowship, claimed to have learned from the old apostle of Secularism, “the true Gospel, the Gospel of Humanity, with Reason for its creed and Human Emancipation for its faith,” and even put about the rumour that Bradlaugh was his real father.

In his life, and on the stump, Bottomley insisted that the rich and the Radicals could co-exist and be allies. But, in truth, Bottomley was no advocate of wealth redistribution. No twisting of labels, no appeal to Secularist forebears could make him a revolutionary. He wished to live the life of a plutocrat, with the support of the Edwardian ruling class and the law.

The Wind and the Willows treats this fantasy as a lie. When a mob comes to plunder Toad Hall, it is led by a crowd of weasels and stoats. Toad is not among them.

The message, we might say, is that one person cannot be at same time both Sherriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood; neither in fiction, not in real life.

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November].

Austerity from below: Horatio Bottomley & the anti-Waste campaign of 1919-21


The appointment of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister has failed to dent Labour’s giant lead in the polls. The Conservatives’ problems, it follows, date not just from Truss’s six weeks of chaos but from the public’s understanding of Sunak’s plans to clear up the mess afterwards. If there is any iron law to British politics it’s this: governments which offer endless spending cuts tank in the polls. This rule applies as much to principled governments with a reformist legislative agenda (eg Labour in 1945-51) as it does to ministries promising little more than jobs for the boys (the Conservatives in 2010-16). Saint or sinner, austerity is electoral suicide.

You need a long historical to memory to recall the last time cuts were a cause thrust to the margins, and with more popular appeal than the politicians thought. The one moment when it did have some seeming mass support was at the end of the first world war. Between November 1919 and August 1921, seven by-elections were won by “Anti-Waste” (i.e. pro austerity) candidates opposed to the Liberal-Conservative government.

Anti-Waste appealed to Conservative voters, at a time when their natural party was struggling. Five years earlier, the Conservatives had responded to a previous crisis, with a move of some boldness. As the British war-effort had stagnated, the governing Liberal Party had fractured, replacing one Prime Minister Herbert Asquith with another, David Lloyd George. The Conservatives had encouraged the latter and were now in coalition with him.

But most right-wing voters hated Lloyd George. They despised his politics, seeing him as the inventor of the state pension, national insurance and rent controls. And they loathed his personality, his belief that as an outsider the normal rules of politics did not apply to him, his venality (which is about the only thing popular memory recalls of Lloyd George). A Lloyd George-Conservative coalition might have been necessary to win the war, in pracetime it made about as much sense as if you had a Boris Johnson government now, kept in power by Labour votes. Beneath the supposed programme of the anti-waste Independents there was another message which was simpler and more insistent: the Conservatives should dump Lloyd George, that’s all.

A far right worthy of the name

Today’s power struggles on the right are often said to pitch moderate Conservatives, uninterested in culture wars, against a demagogic far right. The former are cutters; the latter spenders, as in Boris Johnson (admittedly more often announced than delivered) pledges to “level up”. In the 1920s, by contrast, that the factions were seemingly the other way around. Mainstream Conservatives wanted the coalition with Lloyd George to continue even if it meant more spending; while it was the far right led by populist media bosses, Horatio Bottomley and Lord Northcliffe, who were calling for faster and deeper cuts.

During the 1914-18 war, Bottomley had built an audience as the owner of John Bull magazine and a columnist for Lord Rothermere’s Sunday Pictorial. He was the most jingoistic author of the age. Of German civilians living in England, Bottomley wrote, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” Within days of that article appearing, riots broke out against people of German ancestry living in Britain. Bankers gathered on the steps of the Stock Exchange and passed a motion, “No Germans must be left in the City of London”. In Poplar in the East End, crowds broke into the homes of people suspected of sheltering German civilians.

After the war, Bottomley launched a far-right street party, the People’s League. Its vice-chair was George Makgill, a patron of the British fascists, advocate of industrial espionage to smash the unions, and a fantasist who spent his days wracked by terror at the thought of a red revolution, which would come about, he insisted, as a result of a Jewish conspiracy.

The joy of causing suffering

In January 1920, a pro-Bottomley independent was elected at Wrekin. The following January, at a by-election in Dover, an “Anti-Waste” candidate won with the support of Bottomley and the press baron Lord Rothermere. The latter instructed his journalist to back right-wing candidates against the Conservatives: “The middle classes now find themselves threatened with extinction [but] it is the Conservative element in the Ministry which backs up expeditions to Russia, which wants a huge air force and an Army and Navy that we cannot afford to maintain, which paralyses every attempt to introduce a spirit of economy into the Administration.”

The middle classes were not in danger of extinction. What Rothermere meant was that workers were benefiting from the first moves towards state education, from unemployment benefits and schemes for the unemployed to find work. He wanted to see every local authority home given away to private landlords. Such anti-reforms would not have saved most middle-class families much, or anything, but what they would have done was make the lives of working-class people harder. Neither Bottomley nor Rothermere could make the lives of pensioners or blue-collar managers easier, but they could make other people much poorer, and allow the privileged the compensating joy of watching other people’s suffering.

There were two Englands, wrote one liberal commentator C. F. G. Masterman. Suburban, middle-class opinion, “can walk but a few yards and it is in, say, Hoxditch where all the inhabitants are dingy … and the public houses flare at every corner; and it realises that this is the ‘Labour’ against which it is warned by all the supporters of things as they are.” The south-east, christened by Masterman “Richford”, “hates and despises the working classes … Labour only enters its kingdom as a coal supply rendered ever more limited and expensive by the insatiable demands of the coal-miners to work short hours for immense wages.”

Wooed – and split

At the anti-Waste campaign’s height, there were ten anti-Waste independents, mainly generals and company directors, sitting as a loose caucus in the House of Commons. Growing numbers of Conservative associations announced their support for the broad thrust of the anti-waste campaign, while others – among them a young Oswald Mosley – joined campaigns intended to copy it, including a Conservative-sponsored People’s League for Economy.

The Spectator denounced the likes of Bottomley as dangerous blowhards: “Anti-Waste, as the barbarous, bombastic, and aggressive term connotes, is as far removed from economy as axes are from pruning hooks. The cry ‘save us from our friends!’ might well come from the lips of every true economist, for the cause of prudent and statesmanlike economy has been hurt by this bungling intolerance and indiscrimination of the Anti-Waste campaign.”

By spring 1921, Rothermere and Bottomley, the two pioneers of this new strand of militant Conservatism were at odds. Rothermere believed an attack on social reforms would help crystallise middle-class politics around a shared distrust of the poor. If you could make the Conservatives the sole anti-socialist party, he thought, they’d win every time.

Bottomley’s aim was less a reinvigorated Conservatism than the formation of what he called “Business Government”, under which “every editor who either knowingly or recklessly publishes false news will be shot.” Ministers should be strengthened and parliament weakened. He did not want a Britain where Conservatives and Labour alternated in government, even if the former held power for longer, he wanted to see Socialist MPs in jail.

Anti-waste was ostensibly a movement united around a single cause, of shrinking the state, but Bottomley wanted the army expanded. He liked to imagine British power extending across the globe. He tended to downplay “the cutting down of pensions”, which he reasoned would alienate as many as it attracted. His vision of a growing far-right was closer to the experiments in right-wing politics emerging in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

The last Anti-Waste candidate to stand and win was Brigadier-General John Nicholson, in the Westminster Abbey by-election in June 1921. Two months later, Lloyd George set up a government committee, with orders to find £75 million of cuts. Once anti-Waste had become government policy: as far as its supporters were concerned, the battle had been won.

The Conservative party would grow in the 1920s and 1930s by exploiting other causes: first culture wars (the Zinoviev letter and the General Strike) then, in 1932, an imperial tariff which enabled the party to link welfare benefits to the maintenance of the Empire.

The ascendancy of the cutters after 1921 was temporary. What most Conservative politicians grasped is something we can all see around us. Under a democracy, people will vote for the party which offers the most compelling chance of improving voters’ lives. You can win an ascendancy of a few months by promising to make other people suffer; but, relatively quickly, a democracy punishes those who can only talk of cuts.

This piece is based on my new book, ‘Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism’, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November. I’ll be speaking the same evening at a talk for the Socialist History Society: you can sign up for free here

The Drag Queen protests: convergence between a left and the far right


Another day on social media, another friend writes: “A crowd of nasty jeering bigots showed up at the library in Lincolnwood IL tonight to try to ban LGBTQ books. One ‘concerned dad’ told a library defender that being gay was a mental illness.”

Let’s put the story in some context. 2021 was the worst year for freedom of opinion in America since the days of Joe McCarthy and the House un-American Activities Committee. 2,532 books were banned. (A roughly 15-fold increase compared to 2000). The people pushing for bans were the very people who go on social media calling themselves the “free speech” right. Of the banned books, the main thing they had in common (41% of titles) was the presence of pro-LGBT themes.

This year, first in America and then in Britain, a main focus of far-right campaigning has been the attempt to ban drag queen story hours: event in which adults take over a library for an hour and read stories to children.

Some points which are worth noting: these events aren’t new. While they have only been going under the name Drag Queen Story Hour since 2015, drag readings were common in London libraries a decade ago. And if you wanted to know how far back pantomime dames go, as a form of children’s entertainment – the answer’s more than 200 years.

In Britain, the main group who have been pushing this campaign over the summer have been the neo-Nazis of Patriotic Alternative – PA called or joined protests in Crewe, Cheshire, Bexleyheath and Norwich, where their banner dominated the square (until anti-fascist and trans people surrounded it). In August, they were joined by the far-right anti-vax campaigner, Piers Corbyn, for an anti-drag event in Brighton. And by far-right campaigner Posie Parker.

At least initially, the involvement of far-right campaigners was welcome by a surprising number of people in the mainstream, centre-left, “gender critical” campaign against trans rights. Helen Joyce for example said that if the far-right were allying with the gender criticals well, then, obviously, that was the fault of the left for disagreeing with her. (This is my best summary of what she wrote, if you can make more sense of it, then good luck to you).

Anti-trans artist Claudia Clare wrote that any drag queens “with an ounce of sense of decency” would accept “they are NOT for young children.”

The same newspapers, which have amplified gender critical activists spent the summer whitewashing the far right campaign. In the Telegraph, what was going on was not a political campaign by far-right activists here emulating their US counterparts but a mere “backlash from parents“. The Daily Mail’s approach was the same.

In fairness, some people pushed back: Harvey Jeni wrote that she was fed up with the far right live streaming anti-trans events: “I can never, ever be part of any movement that sits on the same side of a police line with fascists”. Even Julie Bindel was willing to notice that neo-Nazis shouting anti-LGBT slogans might be a problem: “I wonder if it is laziness, or if some of the anti-drag queen protesters are actually anti lesbian/gay. As I say, I am no fan of drag, and I REALLY hate the sexualised version, but have a think about what you are saying and how you are saying it?”

But what no-one seemed willing to admit was that the three previous months wasn’t something new but the culmination of a longer process in which anti-trans activists have been pushing back at all the myriad forms of trans and allied experience. Helen Joyce first started calling drag queens “an open door to paedophiles” as long ago as spring 2021.

Moreover, key gender critical activists have long been open to an alliance with the far right (just so long as they weren’t seen to be in alliance): from Julie Burchill agreeing to a publishing deal with publishing house Stirling Press which was run by a member of Patriotic Alternative (in fairness to her, she cancelled the deal after opinions of her publisher were pointed out), to Julie Bindel attacking Mermaids using the exact same language of child safety as the library protesters.

The gender critical feminists play a role within the women’s movement in which they pull their supporters towards right-wing positions. But it is essential to their self-presentation that they are of the left not the right, champions of women’s equality, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual causes if only the latter could somehow be purged of all gender non-conforming behaviour except for a tiny narrow sliver of non-confirming behaviour that confirms to patterns worked out in the 1980s and repeated ever since. Gender critical feminists keep on telling anyone who will listen that they want the Equality Act to survive, and they obtain prestige and profile from their association with the left.

But this is just the moment that we’re in. Whether it’s in Boris Johnson’s choice of advisors, or who he nominated for life peers, or the identity of the people working or Liz Truss’s favourite thinktank, quite large parts of the present right-wing advance depend on people who started off on the left and can give you the most plausible explanations for why they’re now somewhere else.

Again, on fascism and feminism


Alongside the other piece I’ve reposted on here today (on exclusionary radical feminism and its 1980s targets), I thought I’d reshare this, a version of an article which originally appeared in Socialist History (back in 2000), a review of Martin Durham’s book ‘Women and Fascism’. The seeming alliance between a group of left-wing anti-trans feminists in Britain and sections of the electoral and street right, including in demands to cancel drag hour events in librairies, has produced a number of articles, asking whether that alliance between feminism and fascism is new. Eg pieces by Jude Doyle and Serena Bassi and Greta LaFleur. A number of writers this year appear to be revisiting books such as Martin Durham’s ‘Women and Fascism’ or Julie Gottlieb’s ‘Women and Fascism’. This piece below was a long review article of the former, criticising Durham for over-empahasising women’s agency in fascism, and under-emphasising the extent to which fascism offered only reactionary answers to the “women’s question”. On the points which are considered by Bassi and LaFleur – is it meaningful to say that a feminism shouldn’t be given that name, if it is in alliance with fascists? – they say No. These days, unlike then, I’d probably agree with them. In other words, my own politics have more space for layers and contradiction than they did 20 years ago. That said, I’m proud of this piece, if for nothing else for the way it gathers together a set of feminist anti-fascist sources from the 1970s and 1980s.

Women and Fascism: a Critique

Elsewhere I have criticised fascism studies, a way of looking at the history of fascism which focuses on the ideas of the far-right, to the exclusion of its practice. The pressure to come up with new approaches to the subject is intense. Yet the impact of new theories is not always positive. The love of controversy has given a spur towards new approaches, some of which assert the originality of their argument at the expense of the material which would be needed to defend their case. This paper will criticise one strand of fascism studies, namely the recent study of the relationship between gender and fascism. The authors I have in mind are mostly writing in Britain, and several chose British fascism for the object of their historical study. This paper will first discuss and criticise the work of these recent authors, and then offer an alternative theoretical model of how the relationship could be understood. That counter-theory will be based on the work of a generation of anti-fascist activists from the 1970s, historians who were part of a large anti-racist milieu, and whose theories offered more vivid insights than the approach of these more recent authors.

The literature which I criticise is one that challenges the older argument that fascism and women’s interests were incompatible. I do not suggest that merely writing about women and fascism should be problematic. The study only becomes controversial when the authors have accepted fascist claims that their movement represented women’s interests. One good example of the problematic literature is Martin Durham’s recent book, Women and Fascism. This study addresses the nature of women’s support for fascism. As its author points out, millions of women voted for the fascist parties or supported the fascist regimes. Indeed women often represented Mussolini or Hitler’s greatest admirers. For evidence, we only need to see the pictures of the huge fascist rallies – with teenage girls screaming with a gusto that puts contemporary teen-band-groupies to shame.

What is Durham’s distinctive argument? The first general claim is that for too long historians have written gender out of the picture. ‘Fascism has much to say about women, and discussions of the extreme right are woefully incomplete of they do not make this crystal clear.’ The second claim is that the traditional historical assumption that fascism was anti-female is too simple, ‘It is hard now (although, unfortunately not impossible) to envisage an account of the extreme right that does not take the importance of gender seriously. Instead the great danger may now be that studies will recognise the importance of the relationship between the extreme right and women but in such a way as to obscure its complexity.’ The traditional approach is regarded as over-simplistic, historians ‘can no longer believe that fascism is to be seen by definition as a masculine movement pursuing a misogynist agenda.’ The purpose of Women and Fascism, is summed by a sentence from its introduction, ‘Conventional accounts see fascism as, by definition, an anti-feminist movement devoted to the removal of domestic servitude and the unceasing production of children… In important ways, this study is intended to subvert that supposition.’

Martin Durham establishes that fascism was a feminist issue, but he has more difficulty in making the case that fascism was itself a feminist movement. His difficulties might be compared to those of a comparable historian of Islamic fundamentalism. It is agreed that many Islamist parties have received their strongest support from women, but how far does that make these organisations objectively women’s parties? The most persuasive test would lie in the practice of the ideology, in the extent to which women were involved in the actual running of the organisation, in the ideas which were promulgated, and in the nature of the laws which were introduced when the movement achieved state power.

Tested in these ways, Durham’s own research makes it clear that fascism was an anti-feminist ideology. In Italy, Benito Mussolini campaigned to return women into the family, insisting that Italian birth-rates were too low. Contraception was banned and feminism described as a ‘Jewish’ invention. Within Adolf Hitler’s party, women made up just six to eight percent of the membership. The British Union of Fascists (BUF) may have been more sympathetic to women than its sister parties, and a minority of its writers did accept that women might have a right to work. Yet even in this Martin Durham’s home case, the party as a whole was eugenicist, fixated with increased birth-rates, and opposed to women’s independence. Indeed the third chapter of Women and Fascism demonstrates that the few recognisable feminists within fascism (including Mary Richardson and Mrs. Carrington) left the BUF precisely because it would not meet their demands.

All these examples are taken from Durham’s book, although it would be possible to add further evidence of fascism’s hostility to women’s independence which has been discovered by other historians over the past twenty years. The obvious starting point is Weimar Germany. According to Anne Alexander, this was a relatively liberal and female-friendly society, a positive example of women’s relative equality, ‘Liberation meant more than the chance to vote. Weimar Germany witnessed a cultural flowering which seemed to promise both sexual and artistic fulfillment. More than 150,000 Germans subscribed to the journals of sex reformers such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Helene Stöcker, the leading figure in the radical Bund für Mutterschutz. Music hall songs celebrated women’s sexual and political confidence: “Chuck all the men out of the Reichstag” was one popular chorus.’ The contrast with what was to follow could not have been more striking. In power, the NSDAP attempted to ban women from professional employment. The measures introduced fitted with Nazi ideology, while also increasing opportunities for men seeking work. The state introduced marriage loans, dependent both on the political loyalty of the family, and the woman’s consent to give up paid employment. Nazi racism had a particular impact on women. It was mothers who would breed the new race of fit Germans, free from racial and political taint. The implementation of eugenic policy meant an unprecedented increase in the state supervision of the birth process. Older women were surplus to requirements. Younger women could only hope that their child would not be one of the 100,000 German children killed in cold blood for their inherited disability.

Richard Evans has described how after Hitler’s victory in 1933, even Nazi women’s organisations felt a need to condemn the independent status of women. So Gertrud Bäumer, the leading figure in the BDF supported women who resigned from political office in the early 1930s and retreated into the home, on the grounds that the rough and tumble of politics was ‘foreign to women’s natures’. In a similar vein, Stefan Berger points to the failure of the German government to mobilise women workers, even during the war. ‘In January 1943 the regime finally decreed that all women between the ages of 17 and 45 had to register with the unemployment office. Yet out of 3.1 million women, only 1.2 million were regarded as fit to work.’ Democratic Britain and Stalinist Russia, neither of them exactly havens for women workers, did not make the same mistake as Adolf Hitler.

Meanwhile, similar notions of eugenics and natalism reinforced the unequal status of women in Mussolini’s Italy. A National Agency was established to regulate maternity and infancy. Family loans and allowances were granted to the most productive women, their production being measured in childbirth. A demographic campaign was established to push up the birthrate (it largely failed). Women were instructed to leave employment, both in order to ‘return’ their jobs to men, but also to resume their natural role as the keeper of the home. With the expansion of the Italian empire into Africa, and the copying of anti-Semitism from Hitler’s Nazis, anti-feminism and racism were mixed together. White women were instructed to breed. If they failed to carry out this instruction, their failure was blamed on the memory of ‘Jewish’ feminism. One difference, though, in the Italian experience, was the residual legacy of the Catholic Church, which reinforced the misogyny of the regime, while drawing on the values of traditional Italy to justify its role.

So there is a considerable body of established scholarship, which is rejected by the new writers, because its analysis of women’s roles lacks ‘complexity’, and because any crude account of women’s lives will write real people out of history. But how do you argue against the experience of the majority, what can you say when so much of women’s experience was so negative? The author of Women and Fascism is aware of many of the points made here, and skates over the contradiction in his book between the argument and the evidence by invoking a series of yes-buts. ‘Italian Fascism was not ascribed with anti-feminism from its beginnings… The party was not uniformly misogynist… A closer examination suggests a more complex picture… Nazism is not to be understood as the uncomplicated expression of patriarchal power… There is more fluidity than we might have thought in fascist notions of the feminine.’ The tone of the argument is uncertain.

There are other ways to write about fascism and its impact on women. Twenty-five years ago, there was a large milieu of socialist and feminist historians in Britain, organised in the History Workshop and other Socialist History networks. Members of this movement did write about fascism, but in a more critical way. One reason for the greater hostility to fascism expressed in their work is that many writers were actively involved in the large anti-racist campaign that was so important in Britain at the end of the 1970s. This campaign gave birth to an array of organisations, including Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League, and Women Against Racism and Fascism. The contention of this paper is that the activist history produced by writers sympathetic to the anti-racist movement offered a more compelling explanation of the relationship between women and fascism, than that offered in Durham’s book. So what did these historians argue?

One important collective was the ‘Women and Fascism Study Group’, based at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham. This group contributed to a Women Against Racism and Fascism (WARF) conference held in Birmingham in early 1978, and then published a pamphlet of their own, the following year. Their argument was that fascism should not be seen primarily as a racist movement, but rather as a party which was sexist and homophobic as well. In their words, ‘Fascism does address women as women – or rather, as wives and mothers, breeders for race and nation – and it aims to win support on that basis. Fascism also addresses men – it sees itself as virility personified, and regards liberalism as “feminine”.’ Members of the group saw the phrase ‘breeders for race and nation’ as central to their argument, and this became the title of their pamphlet. Having criticised mainstream writers for neglecting the distorted masculine politics at the heart of fascism, the Women and Fascism Study Group did not replace the existing one-sided theories with a further one-sided approach of their own. Instead they sought to integrate their analysis of fascism and sexism into a total argument which also emphasised the racist and nationalistic character of fascism as well. Sections of their pamphlet addressed racism, eugenics, and also the impact of the demand for women’s liberation.

A further aspect of the Women and Fascism Study group pamphlet is worthy of mention. In order to sustain a consistently anti-sexist understanding of fascism in inter-war Italy and Germany and post-war Britain, the authors drew on an earlier generation of witnesses to fascism, including Wilhelm Reich, Virginia Woolf and Winifred Holtby. I will mention only one of these earlier writers here. Virginia Woolf’s 1938 essay ‘Three Guineas’, asked how to prevent the collapse into fascism and European war. Her conclusion described the fascist invocation of a cult of muscularity:

Another picture has imposed itself upon the foreground. It is the figure of a man; some say, others deny that he is Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations. He is a man certainly, His eyes are glazed; his eyes glare. His body, which is braced in an unnatural position, is tightly cased in a uniform. Upon the breast of that uniform are sewn medals and other mystical symbols. His hand is upon a sword. He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him lie ruined houses and dead bodies men, women and children.

The importance of this symbol to Woolf was that it raised clearly the connection between ‘the public and the private worlds’. A public dictatorship could only become a private dictatorship, a society in which women would be dependent and at home. Yet if fascism made a claim to understand the universal status of Man, so did anti-fascism. ‘The human figure even in a photograph suggests other and more complex emotions. It suggests that we cannot disassociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure.’ This discussion provided Woolf’s conclusion, the need was to challenge the fascist image of universal man, ‘we can prevent war not by repeating your worlds and following your methods but by finding new worlds and creating new methods.’ It was a message endorsed by the authors of Breeders for Race and Nation.

Another group which attempted to study the gender dynamics of fascism was the Liverpool socialist group, Big Flame, in a pamphlet, Sexuality and Fascism. This was typical of the literature of the 1970s, in that it began by stressing the sexist character of fascism, ‘Discussions of the ideology of National Socialism has often underestimated, or ignored, the vast importance of their anti-feminist ideas.’ What made fascism sexist? First, fascism’s anti-liberalism demanded an assault on women’s organisation. Second, fascism’s racism required control of the birth process, which justified a draconian supervision of the private sphere. Third, fascism’s alliance with conservatism reinvigorated the traditional Christian dominance over women’s lives. The authors of this pamphlet were motivated by the rise of fascism in 1970s Britain, the threat of the National Front (NF). Big Flame observed that the NF did recruit some women to its organisation. Yet this fact was connected to the contemporary crisis in the family, the rise in divorce and abortion, the emergence of alternative lifestyles and gay sexuality. One of the Front’s appeals to women was that it claimed to defend the family. This call may have represented a defence of the subordination of women, but this was not the first time in history that people have supported a demand which was opposed to their own objective interests.

Still in 1970s Britain, the socialist writer Jane Hardy wrote an important article for the magazine Women’s Voice on ‘Women and Fascism’. Her piece argued for anti-fascism from an explicitly socialist feminist perspective. First of all, she described how Hitler’s Germany had forced women back into the home. Next she gave examples of how fascist speakers, Hitler and Goebbels had defended their vision of women’s role in society. Then Hardy showed that these right-wing ideas had come back to haunt in more recent times, ‘What is so sickening is that it is not so very different from what we hear every day; women should give up their jobs, the 1967 Abortion Act should be tightened or restricted or abolished; Gay News is threatening our moral fibre. These are not attacks by fascists, but it is a thin line that divides conservative ideas from those of the extreme right.’ Women’s Voice operated around this time as the main publishing vehicle for another woman’s anti-fascist organisation, Women Against the Nazis. For the editors of this magazine, the question of women’s relationship to fascism was a consistent theme. In February 1978, Women’s Voice ran an interview with Miriam Karlin. She was a prominent member of the ANL, responsible for recruiting several fellow actresses, including Mia Farrow, Janet Suzman, Peggy Ashcroft, Glenda Jackson and Dorothy Tutin. Karlin’s felt that too many men were thinking about their career, ‘Women are far more prepared to stand up and be counted on their gut reaction to something.’

Another organisation to mention was Rock Against Sexism, again part of this general, anti-racist and anti-sexist milieu. In an article for the magazine Temporary Hoarding on Wilhelm Reich, a radical psychologist anti-fascist from Weimar Germany, Lucy Toothpaste the founder of Rock Against Sexism attempted to demonstrate that fascism (and indeed all political authoritarianism) represented an onslaught against sex, not just in the 1930s, but forty years later as well: ‘In case all that lot seems a bit far-fetched to you, we couldn’t resist giving you some living proof of the connection between authoritarianism in the home and in the state. “Love and discipline went together. My father sometimes took his pit belt off and leathered me. I shed tears, but I knew he was right and I was wrong.” That’s what James Anderton said in an interview in the Observer in February. It was a belief that right and wrong were as distinct as black and white that reinforced his one and only ambition “to be a policeman and if possible the biggest policeman of all.” Sadly by 1979 James Anderton’s goal had been achieved, as Lucy Toothpaste went on to record, ‘Well, he grew up to be a policeman alright, the chief constable of Greater Manchester to be exact, the second most powerful cop in the country.’

The interest in Reich was common across the writers in this milieu, but why did he exert such influence? Half of the answer lies outside the question of the relationship between fascism and gender. A Dialectics of Liberation Conference was held in 1968 at the London School of Economics. The speakers present at this conference included R. D. Laing, David Cooper, Lucien Goldmann and Paul Sweezy. The glue binding together this disparate range of economists, psychologists and cultural studies writers was (as one participant David Widgery observes) ‘neither Sartre nor Fanon, but the Marxist Reich of the inter-war years’. Taking place at such pivotal time and location for the counter-culture, this Conference had a symbolic appeal and remained a point of reference for the British left for at least the next ten years to come. The other reason for Wilhelm Reich’s appeal has more to do with the subject under discussion. Reich’s theories appealed to anti-fascist writers in the late 1970s because of his interest in questions of gender, sexuality and the fascist mass movement. So Wilhelm Reich was a key reference-point for the authors of Breeders for Race and Nation. For them, the significance of Reich lay in his interest in the mass psychology of fascism, ‘Reich was one of the few in the 30s to pose the question of why fascism appeals to the mass of men and women. Why did so many join the Nazi movement. What anxieties and fears was fascism addressing? These questions are still central to a feminist and socialist analysis of right wing and fascist movements.’

In order to explain the appeal of fascism, Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), combined insights from Marxist economics and Freudian psychology. For Reich, the crisis of the 1930s was a crisis of sexuality. Capitalism was in crisis, and disrupting the traditional structures of family and sexual life. As a consequence, sexual desires were repressed, both for men and women. Yet fascism appeared to celebrate the sexual unfreedom of women in particular. Political reaction consciously exploited ‘the sexual effect of a uniform, the erotically provocative effect of the rhythmically executed goose-stepping’. The classic example of this process was the swastika. Reich believed that this symbol had been chosen deliberately for its historic, sexual connotations. Not only did fascism exploit sexuality, but it did so in a way understood by its audience, ‘The exhibitionistic nature of militaristic procedures have been more practically comprehended by a sales girl or an average secretary than by our most erudite politicians.’ The rise of fascism, the adversary of sexual freedom, represented a failure of human creativity, it was an extended sado-masochistic response to the suppressed man of our authoritarian machine civilisation and its mechanistic-mythical conception of life.’

In the 1970s, a number of writers attempted to develop and extend the insights of Reich’s work. Beyond those already mentioned, Reich was also cited by David Widgery, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism (RAR), the anti-racist organisation which acted as the inspiration for the later Anti-Nazi League. This for example is his description of the Carol Grimes concert at which RAR was effectively launched:

It was a success, not just packed out and a great atmosphere but highly political in quite a new way. There was one East End racist in the audience who happened to like Carol Grimes. There he was enjoying himself but there was a big banner up there saying ‘Black and White Unite’ and stickers and leaflets asking ‘What are we going to do about the NF?’ He was up to the neck in left-wing ideas but having a good time. Wilhelm Reich, the avant-garde German psychiatrist who diagnosed as a fatal weakness in the German Left’s opposition to Hitler its refusal to take seriously the cultural and sexual tensions of fascism’s appeal, would have loved it.

Here Reich was used as a symbol of resistance to fascism, rather than as a detailed critic of how fascism’s sexual mysticism worked.

One author who mined Reich’s work most deeply was the Italian leftist Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, whose ‘Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology’ was translated by Jane Caplan for the first issue of the socialist-feminist journal, Feminist Review. Macciocchi went out of her way to criticise those anti-fascist writers who romanticised the relationship between women and fascism, exaggerating the extent of resistance, and thus writing women out of history. She described this process as the ‘new female metaphysics which risks making the women’s movement digress into a childish creed: Women the Supreme Being, Women the Absolute Good.’ From Reich, Macciocchi borrowed an emphasis on sex, and the manipulation of an ideology of sex, as one foundation of the regime. In her words, ‘The characteristic of fascist and nazi genius is their challenge to women on their own ground: they make women both the reproducers of life and the guardians of death, without the two terms being contradictory.’ Perhaps one difference which separated Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi from Wilhelm Reich was her greater emphasis on death, ‘The body of fascist discourse id rigorously chaste, pure, virginal. Its central aim is the death of sexuality: women are always called to the cemetery to honour the war dead, to come bearing crowns and they are exhorted to offer their sons to the fatherland.’ So fascism was about the denial of sexual pleasure – procreation combined with ‘a violent rejection of all sex’. Did that mean that fascism appealed to a general condition, in which women would always oppose the implications of ‘femininity’ (feminism)? Macciocchi was less confident about the past, more so about the present. ‘We are in the presence of the opening up of a new continent of history’, she argued, ‘If all the feminist movements, if all the revolutionaries could understand this, one day we can do away forever with fascism.’

These Reichian insights have not been restricted to feminists and activists of the left. Since the 1970s, several working historians have attempted to integrate them into more conventional histories of fascism. One such is George Mosse, whose account of fascist sexuality in Hitler’s Germany makes much of the relative invisibility of women’s bodies in fascist art – compared to the abundance of men’s bodies, especially in fascist sculpture. As Mosse documents, even female fascists observed the contradiction implied in the Nazi party’s rhetorical support for procreation when this was combined with an ideological hostility to sex. One female Nazi affected by this conflict was Lydia Gottschewski, the organiser of the League of German Girls (BDM). Although Gottschewski was an extreme anti-feminist, she observed that the Nazi denial of bodily love could only reduce the status of women. Similar perspectives inform Klaus Theweleit’s two-volume Male Fantasies, a compelling reading of the books and letters produced first by members of the Freikorps, and then by male Nazis. His interest like Reich’s is in the overlap between fascism as a form of class-rule and fascism as a form of gender-domination. In his words, ‘along with capitalist relations of production, a specific male-female (patriarchal) relation might belong at the centre of our examination of fascism, as a producer of life-destroying realities.’

This analysis of fascism has also spread beyond the confines of academic history. The Canadian author Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale represents an attempt to translate this understanding of fascism into the sphere of literature. In her book, a contemporary clerico-fascism conquers North America, leaving Japanese tourists in their knee-length skirts to photograph the surviving and fully-veiled women, divided into a complex hierarchy of wives, cooks, and biological mothers. Older women disappear, to work in conditions of extreme manual labour in the Republic’s colonies. The novel’s heroine Offred is a Handmaid, which means that she is trained to produce the children of her Commander. Outside the bedroom, her day is spent wandering veiled head-to-toe, bored and desperate for amusement. Women are also denied the freedom to read and write. Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale is not a historically-accurate account of what fascism was like, indeed its targets includes American fundamentalism Christianity, as well as fascism. The truths of literature are different. Instead the book points in an exaggerated way to one real aspect of historic fascism – namely its intense restriction of the lives of women.

From the literature which has been described here, four key points emerge. First, in power fascism represented a attack on women. Considerable attempts were made to remove women from the public sphere of work and politics, and to place women instead in the private sphere of home life. Second, such misogyny was connected to other themes in fascist ideology. For example, fascism’s concern with race was part of a general concern with the help of the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’, or national community. Both in Germany and Italy, fascist parties attempted to supervise the birth process, increasing the number of births and decreasing women’s control over their own bodies. Third, as Wilhelm Reich pointed out, fascism was a sexualised movement. A large part of its appeal (to both men and women) relied on a visual imagery, which glorified the human body, while remaining resolutely hostile to the representation of sex. Fourth, fascism’s hostile attitude towards women’s rights was not merely a matter of past history. Neo-nazi and fascist parties in post-war Europe have been equally hostile towards the goals of Women’s Liberation.

In all fairness, Martin Durham could argue that these potential criticisms are tangential to his central argument, which is that at times women did join the fascist parties. If fascism was so hostile to women, then how could any woman ever join a fascist party? To answer this point, however, requires going beyond the recent literature. In so far as its authors have a consistent theory to explain women’s occasional support for fascism, it is simply to repeat (with some distance) the claims of fascists themselves, that there was something objectively pro-female about fascism. Hence the quote cited earlier, ‘fascism was not uniformly misogynist’. The alternative explanation is to indicate that (in general terms) people are capable of supporting a movement which is hostile to their interests.

The best known (but not the only) theory of ‘false consciousness’ is the Marxist theory of ideology. This maintains that at certain times, people are quite capable of supporting a party or a trend which is hostile to their interests. In the work of Karl Marx himself, the classic example of such an observation, was his analysis of the role of Christianity, ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ This claim is a dual observation: religion is believed by ordinary people and engages with the alienation that millions feel in their lives; but this belief is partial, and needs to be renewed if it is to be sustained. A parallel claim could be made to explain the position of that minority of women who supported the fascist parties. Although fascism was not in their interests, fascism raise enough important questions for at least some women to find its answers appealing. Fascism could not be a women’s movement – but it could do enough to recruit some women. In contrast to the recent work criticised here, such an argument would be neither controversial nor new.

For the anti-fascists of the 1970s, it was not enough merely to announce that fascism was an anti-feminist ideology (in this sense of the term). Instead, this generation of writers progressed from a general theory of ideology to a much more specific and historical theory of fascism, rooted in Wilhelm Reich’s work on sexuality. As such, an explanation was offered for the success of fascism, namely that this movement had a sexualised appeal to women which co-existed with the anti-feminist imperative to drive women back into their homes. The total impression of fascism which emerges then is of a contradictory movement, which offered young women the chance to worship their leaders, while simultaneously denying them the chance to lead fulfilling lives inside and outside domestic sphere. This emphasis on the contradictory character of fascism co-existed with an emphasis on the ultimately sexist nature of the movement. To borrow from one of the most common fascist images, under Mussolini and Hitler, women could play a role in the crowd, but they were not allowed to appear on the platform. One of the motives of fascism was always to deny women a role as real agents in shaping their own lives.

The argument of this paper should be clear. To explain the paradox of female support for Hitler and Mussolini, arguments are required which the recent literature does not supply. Here, the anti-fascist literature of the 1930s and 1970s becomes especially valuable. These writers attempt to explain fascism’s gendered appeal to women, without in any way suggesting that fascism was in women’s interests. Their theories offer a more compelling insight into the contradictory relationships of the past.

When Radical Feminism was about excluding (the wrong sort of) lesbians


I’ve been digging out old articles from twenty years ago, and wanted to reshare this which appeared in a collection edited by Paul Reynolds (M. Cowling and P. Reynolds (eds), Making Sense of Sexual Consent (London: Ashgate, 2004)). There are, I’m sure, typos, mistakes, imprecisions in the paper that follows, but rather than confront them, I’ve left it as it is. The piece is so old that it is in itself a historical document, the product of a conference which brought together sex-positive and sex-negative feminists, to discuss sex work, the trans contribution to feminism, etc. Positions weren’t as divided as they are now, and my piece reflects that: it points out the destructiveness of one theoretical intervention (Sontag’s attempt to portray all porn as fascist) and another practical intervention that seems to have been forgotten since then (1980s-era feminism’s attempt to police the boundaries of acceptable lesbian sex, and to say that anyone who was into BDSM was a fascist). If I was to write the piece now, I think I’d be less guarded in insisting that Sheila Jeffreys and her allies shared much more with historical fascism than they did with any recognisable anti-fascist tradition of thinking about sex, fascism and liberation (Reich, Hirschfeld). I have cited the image above to show that the same debates about BDSM were happening in the United States at much the same time in the 1980s that they were happening here. it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that (in the above image) a gathering of US radical Jews found a greater natural affinity with advocates of sexual freedom than they did (or, we do) with a part of the left which promises to do away with sexual deviance.

Sex is Violence: A Critique of Susan Sontag’s ‘Fascinating Fascism’

Although I will be critical of Sontag’s work, it worth emphasising that Susan Sontag was a leading activist within a generation of feminist writers that rightly condemned the sexual mores of post-war Europe and America. In discussing the issue of sexual violence, it is always necessary to remember their point that sexual behavio ur takes place in a society marked by structural division and relationships of inequality. As Sontag’s contemporary, the libertarian sexologist Alex Comfort wrote, ‘Both women and men have always run the risk of violence from a sexual partner. For evident reasons, women are overwhelmingly the more vulnerable – in our society, intensely so, since injury by a husband or lover is one of the commonest medical problems they experience. Society offers them remarkably little support. The police are traditionally uninterested in “domestic” violence, and folklore treats it as a sign of passion’ (Comfort, 1973: 212-3). Thirty years on, the relationships within the family remain unequal, and the behaviour of the police unhelpful. If this paper appears to give a partial affirmation of some forms of sexual ‘violence’, it does not in any way defend the many oppressive practices that have been justified by violent men in the name of ‘fun’.

This is a paper about sexual violence and consent. The question of whether violent sex can ever be consensual has already generated much discussion. Several authors have written about one-form of violent sex, S/M sex, and its treatment in law (Thompson, 1994; Reynolds, 1997; Archard, 1998). This paper adds to the debate through an extended critique of one previous essay in particular, namely Susan Sontag’s article, ‘Fascinating Fascism’, which was first published in 1975 in the New York Review of Books (Sontag, 1980: 73-108). Ostensibly a critique of the art of the Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl, Sontag’s essay rapidly became an attack on the sexualisation of violence in all its forms. At its simplest, Sontag’s argument claimed that all sado-masochism was ‘fascistic’ and hence illegitimate. Susan Sontag could be criticised for its misunderstanding of fascism, but here my target is Sontag’s understanding of violence. I simply do not agree with her identification of fascism and sexual violence. The relationship is more complex than Sontag suggests.

‘Fascinating Fascism’

The occasion of Susan Sontag’s article was an exhibition of the art of Leni Riefenstahl. Sontag argued that there had been a tendency since 1945 for liberal writers to discuss Riefenstahl’s work apart from its political context. Leni Riefenstahl’s most famous film, Triumph of the Will, was an open work of Nazi propaganda, a celebration of the 1934 Nuremberg congress, and it is hard to reinterpret this film as pure art. Instead, the focus of revisionism was on Riefenstahl’s recent book, The Last of the Nuba, a series of erotically-charge photographs of this perfect, muscular, noble tribe. Although the images here of wrestling Africans seem a distant from the Nazi preoccupation with uniforms, Sontag observed that Riefenstahl pictures contained many familiar themes of Nazi art, including a glorification of the masculine, a love of violence, and a contempt for thought. ‘Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorises death’ (Sontag: 91; Renton, 2000) For Sontag, fascist art was fascism, and art which plays with fascist imagery was the same.

Having criticised the reception of Riefenstahl’s art, Susan Sontag went on to criticise what she saw as a process in which properly-fascist aesthetics had intruded into every-day art and culture. This is how she described the general themes of fascist imagery, ‘Fascist aesthetics’, she wrote, ‘flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behaviour, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.’ Because fascism had thrived on this aesthetic, so any use of this imagery threatened to recreate the social conditions of fascism. To demonstrate the point that fascism was a deviant sexuality, Sontag examined the many picture books of the Third Reich. Of one publication Sontag wrote, ‘One knows that its appeal is not scholarly but sexual. The cover already makes that clear. Across the large black swastika of an SS armband is a diagonal yellow stripe which reads “Over 100 Brilliant Four-Color Photographs Only $2.95”, exactly as a sticker with the price on it used to be affixed – part tease, part defence to censorship – on the cover of pornographic magazines, over the model’s genitalia’ (Sontag: 98). In such histories, the depiction of aggressive masculine crimes have become something else, the glamorisation of brutality. Sontag’s argument was a telling critique of an entire way of writing history, and one which continues today.

            Having described the role of dominance and submission in Nazi art and the commodification of fascist imagery as a form of violent pornography, Susan Sontag went on to identify fascism with all forms of violent sexuality, ‘Between sadomasochism and fascism’, she wrote, ‘there is a natural link’. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism, ‘Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism.’ Between fascism and sexual violence, one common theme was the glamorisation of military clothing, ‘There is a general fantasy about uniforms. They suggest community, order, identity, competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence.’ Another constant was the glorification of slavery. Thus for Sontag fascism can best be understood as the political sexualisation of violence, and if fascism was wrong – then so was any other practice which turned the processes of consent and domination into a sexual game (Sontag: 99, 102, 108).

            Susan Sontag argued that there was a strong link between the sexualisation of violence (sado-masochistic sex) and the imagery of fascism. It followed that violent sex could never be legitimate or properly consensual. Although this paper will criticise Sontag’s argument for this point, it should not be assumed that the argument here is a total rejection of Susan Sontag’s case. There are many aspects of ‘Fascinating Fascism’ which should be endorsed. For example, Sontag’s criticism of Riefenstahl’s art was timely and well-observed. Also, Susan Sontag was not the only writer to have observed some overlap between violent sexuality and reactionary politics. ‘Fascinating Fascism’ could be compared to Klaus Theweleit’s work on the culture of the German Freikorps, the pre-Nazi student bands and officer corps who opposed the German revolution of 1918-23. One difference is that Theweleit located fascism in the denial of sexuality, ‘the core of all fascist propaganda is a battle against anything that constitutes enjoyment and pleasure.’ Partly because Theweleit’s work is based on a sustained study of primary materials (250 Freikorps novels and memoirs from the 1920s) it seems to capture the dynamic interplay between political and sexual reaction far more vividly than Sontag’s essay (Theweleit, 1989: xii-xiii; Theweleit, 1987; Mosse, 1985: 153-81). Indeed Theweleit’s theories have gained in popularity over the past few years, and several writers have attempted to apply them, not always successfully, to other forms of male aggression (King, 1997; Smith, 1999). So there is space for a comparison of fascism and violent sexuality – but Sontag missed the key dynamics, and is simplistic in her claim that all forms of violent sex were the same.

One of the several interesting aspects of Sontag’s article is that it seems to pre-empt a certain radical feminist argument which would be expressed on several occasion through the late 1970s and early 1980s, namely that all violent sexual was male, aggressive and therefore non-consensual. Sontag’s work could be seen as an early counterpart to the notion of ‘gendered consent’ defended by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. For these later authors, all heterosexual sex takes place under conditions of domination (MacKinnon, 1989a; MacKinnon, 1989b; Dworkin, 1988). According to Dworkin all men oppress all women through the terror of rape, ‘Men develop a strong loyalty to violence. Men must come to terms with violence because it is the prime component of male identity.’ Or, to quote Dworkin more succinctly, ‘Force … [is] the essential purpose of the penis’ (Dworkin: 55; Segal, 1987: 177). It follows that all heterosexual sex is rape, and that consensual heterosexual sex is a contradiction in terms. One key argument in this literature is that women can never enjoy heterosexual sex – a claim fiercely contested by Alison Assiter, among others (Assiter and Carold, 1993: 14). As this chapter will argue, the debate over violence and male sexuality has not been restricted to radical feminist lecturers, and nor has their discussion been restricted to the norms of polite, academic discussion.

Sontag Applied

One of the problems with the rejection of violent sex as a ‘male’ phenomenon has been how to understand this sex, when no men were involved. Across both sides of the Atlantic, through the 1970s and 1980s, there was a repeated debate between feminist opponents of all forms of violence and female supporters of sado-masochist sex. One controversy involved the San Francisco S/M group, Samois. In the early 1980s, they were practically the only visible lesbian S/M group in the US. To their surprise, the members of Samois were banned from renting rooms in the San Francisco Women’s Building. This took place at a time when the building’s owners were desperate for income, and rented space to virtually anyone else. The ban was overturned, but only in 1989 (Rubin, 1996). In the same year, another conflict involved the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which was closed to sadomasochist women. Lesbian separatists accused sadomasochists of being ‘heteropatriarchal’, that is, behaving like men. One exasperated activist, who found herself thrown out of the concert by female guards, described how she saw the debates,

In the context of dyke S/M debates, heteropatriarchal is being used the same way young boys use the word faggot: it’s thrown back and forth as a synonym for bad. Thus, debates consist of some women insisting, ‘You are oppressive, heteropatriarchal, and trying to control other women’s bodies and restrict women’s sexual freedom,’ while others respond, ‘No you are heteropatriarchal and brainwashed, imitating male patterns of violence’. And somehow, in the course of those debates, the real heteropatriarchal gets forgotten and is no longer a target for resistance – a resistance that’s vitally necessary (Kaplan, 1996).

The key phrase here is ‘male patterns of violence’. Some of the radical feminist critics of sado-masochism criticised by Rebecca Dawn Kaplan seem to have possessed a remarkably deterministic way of looking at the world, in which the bad was male and anyone they disagreed with could be placed in this category. But if women could become ‘heteropatriarchal’ like men – then what limits or meaning could be given to the term?

            In Britain, the conflict between lesbian sado-masochists and radical feminists was expressed most clearly in the equally heated debate over whether sado-masochistic groups should be allowed to meet at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLGC) which dragged on for six months from 1985 to early 1986 (Ardill and O’Sullivan, 1986). Despite any numbers of protests, the centre’s management committee not only refused to allow S/M groups to meet on their premises, they also refused to debate the issue, declaring any vote unconstitutional. The management committee received the backing of a group which went under the name of Lesbians Against Sadomasochism (LASM). A typical LASM leaflet from this period expressed the same formula that was there in Sontag’s piece, namely that violent sex is non-consensual sex, and non-consensual sex is fascism:

Q. But isn’t Lesbian and Gay Liberation about freedom, not more limitations?

A. Total freedom is the freedom of the powerful to oppress – do you condone racism, anti-semitism, heterosexism?

Q. But I like wearing long spiked belts and dog collars – and I’m not into S/M.

A. So what. If you don’t care that others see them as racist, anti-Semitic etc then you are being racist anti-Semitic, fascist (Ardill and O’Sullivan: 50).

Lesbian sadomasochists responded to this criticism from their opponents by asking ‘Who are the Real Fascists?’. In their words, ‘To label SM fascist is to trivialise the real fight against fascism. To throw the word fascism about with no reference to what it means is to make the real fight more difficult. To use people’s sexual revulsion as a scare tactic against sexual freedom is a real insult to fascism’s victims’ (Ardill and O’Sullivan: 50).

This debate became one of the key influences behind Sheila Jeffreys’ important book, The Lesbian Heresy (Jeffreys, 1994; Walker, 1982). In an appendix, Jeffreys gave her own response to the GLC debate. A former activist in LASM, Jeffreys maintained that S/M represents ‘the erotic cult of fascism’. As evidence of the link, Jeffreys’ cited the presence of gay men among fascist circles in 1930s Berlin; she gave a graphic description of fisting from a 1980s S/M primer; she mentioned the wearing of the swastika; and the sadism of German fascism; Jeffreys also described a scene witnessed on American television in which one white (Hispanic) and one black women acted out a ritual of racial domination. Jeffreys concluded in terms resonant of Sontag’s earlier argument:

Are S/M proponents fascist? Probably they are not members of fascist organisations and do not care for any aspects of fascism apart from the erotic one … Most are not fascists, even though experiencing pleasure from the terrorising of other lesbians by wearing fascist regalia comes pretty close, but promoters of fascist values. The eroticising of dominance and submission, the glamourising of violence and of the oppression of gays, Jews and women, is the stuff of fascism (Jeffreys: 218).

The claim that S/M supporters promotes fascism seems to rely on two misleading elisions, between fascism and fascists, and between violence and oppression. As to the first, fascism was not merely an accumulation of individual choices, it was a program for government. To reduce the phenomenon to the sexual choice of individuals is to reduce and misunderstand fascism. Indeed Jeffreys seems to recognise this point, admitting in her words the distinction between fascist parties and ‘the stuff of fascism’. As to the second point, it seems odd that ‘the eroticising of dominance’ should be confused with dominance itself. Those who make a theatre of power, are not generally the powerful. Often it is the worst victims of power who repeat the forms of their oppression, but when they do so the content is changed. Whether this notion of theatre as a means to revisit and overcome pain is accepted, the relationship is more complex than Jeffreys would suggest (Renton, 1999).

To return to the original GLC debate which sparked Jeffreys’ intervention, it appears that the language on both sides grew sharper – but the tone of the radical feminist LASM was far more pointed, and even became intimidatory towards fellow activists. Indeed the naive claim that only men can be aggressive could not explain the sheer hostility of the debate. The similarity with events in America is striking.

More recently Linda Wayne has challenged the identification of fascism and sexual violence from the perspective of an activist within the lesbian S/M scene. Wayne’s argument is with what she sees as a general tendency among feminists to treat all forms of violent imagery as if they were the same. In reply, she suggests that ‘subgroup symbolism’ can take symbols from the ‘dominant imagery’ of capitalism and subvert them. By removing them from their original historical context, these symbols lose their old meaning, and take on a different message, ‘through group agreement’. Although there is much to be said for this approach, it does seem that the process which Linda Wayne describes is actually more complex than she suggests. The meaning of words can be challenged, but only to a certain historically-determined limit. The desire to use old signs differently does not determine the effect of these symbols on an audience which receives them in the light of its own understanding of the past. Interestingly, Wayne strongly defends the use of particular symbols of sexual domination which can be stripped of their older meaning (the belts and dog collars criticised by LASM above), while challenging the use of others (the swastika) which continue to be associated today with the far-right. For Wayne, one crucial question to ask is how great a ‘distance’ can be placed between meanings of the past and the meanings of the same symbols used in a different context today? Susan Sontag’s simple equation, which identifies all forms of violence as being fundamentally the same, cannot provide any useful answer (Wayne, 1996: 242-51).

Fascist Violence And Legitimate Violence

Before coming on to the key theme of this article – the claim that violent sex can never be legitimate, it is worth saying a something more about the relationship between fascism and violence. As this chapter has shown, one of the main rhetorical strategies of those who regard all violence as identical has been to label all violence as fascist. Yet there have been writers who have attempted to elaborate a non-fascist understanding of violence. One example of a non-fascist defence of violence is Gorge Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (Sorel: 1950). The best way to make sense of Sorel’s philosophy is to follow his own distinction between force, which he believed was illegitimate, and violence, which he described as potentially just. ‘Force’ meant any attempt by a governing minority to impose the organisation of the established social order. ‘Violence’, for Sorel, referred to any form of collective activity which tended to undermine the capitalist order. Georges Sorel argued that violence was capable of providing a better world which could be created by no other means. New laws and new ways of living would result, based on what Sorel called ‘free producers working in a factory without masters’ (Sorel: 241). Although Sorel has been criticised for placing too much trust in the advocates of elite theory (Sternhell, 1984; Payne, 1995), the ‘free’ is not accidental, Sorel’s belief in free association and self-determination was genuine. Georges Sorel distinguished between violence for its own sake, and violence against violence. Expressed this way, the point is not to ask whether all violence is fascistic, but rather how realistic it is to see violence as a means by which power can be opposed?

            One of Georges Sorel’s claims was that violence does not emerge in the minds of warped individuals, but rather in the structures of capitalism, which give violence a spur. Recently Penny Green has drawn our attention to the role of the capitalist state in creating violence. Her claim is that violence is an ‘ideologically imbued concept’, whose meaning is determined by the society we live in. When we think of violence, most of us do not think of the 400 people killed each year in Britain through violent ‘accidents’ at work, but rather of the violence of individuals, which is used to justify police and state supervision of society. Penny Green argues that ‘Individual acts of violence are widespread in our society but rape, assault, and other forms of interpersonal aggression cannot be explained in any useful sense at the level of the individual. Like the violence systematically conducted by states and corporations against citizens and consumers, violence between individuals has its roots in the organisation of power in society.’ Class, gender and racial divisions ‘create a climate in which social violence is readily generated’, while unemployment and poverty also make violence such an endemic part of our lives (Green, 1994: 20-9).

            The importance of Green’s argument is that it reminds us that sexual consent takes place in a social context. The law treats the sexual decision as the prerogative of two independent adults, alternating between judgements based on intention (hence the importance of consent) and judgements based on effect (hence the distrust of S/M). In law, the missing consideration is equality and power. Despite my criticisms of ‘Fascinating Fascism’, I recognise this as a strength of Sontag’s argument. Her distrust of S/M springs from a desire to take questions of power seriously. Sontag failure is to equate the playing out of games based on power – with the functioning of real power in society.

Vanilla Sex And Violence

Perhaps the debate between radical feminists and sado-masochists was misplaced. The overwhelming majority of violent sexual acts takes place in the form of ‘vanilla sex’, that is heterosexual sex between socially-defined couples, and when intercourse is a consequence, it takes place usually in the missionary position. You could also argue that Sontag’s assault on the sexualisation of violence was misplaced. Rather than discriminating between different forms of violent behaviour, Sontag tended to lump all violence in together. This begs the question of what constitutes ‘violence’? It is a wide term, referring to different and often contradictory patterns of behaviour. Most societies are not based on a glorification of violence, but in all societies violence is endemic, ‘an ordinary part of life’ (Fawcett, 1996; Hall, 1978; Newburn and Stanko, 1994; Stanko, 1985; Witte, 1996; Stanko, 1990: 5). There is no society in which people have yet lived without war and violent rebellion, without crime, without private acts of violence, without street attacks, without police aggression and domestic violence. Surely it is not useful to treat violence as one and the same thing, irrespective of who committed these acts and why.

Instead, the best way to make sense of violence is to contextualise it, separating out different forms of violence according to the consequences of these acts. Two distinctions have already been made, between offensive and defensive violence, and also between the violence of private individuals and of corporations or the state. The differentiation between acts of aggression and self-defence should be familiar, as this distinction is entrenched in most moral and legal codes. As for the contrast between the violence of the state and the violence of the individual, this distinction reminds us just how violent most states actually are. Indeed our every-day definition of the state depends on its monopoly of armed power, and our use of language reflects these concerns. The government provides healthcare and education. By contrast, it is the state which jails and declares war (Malmo, 1998).

            In the context of sexual violence, the English language already makes several useful distinctions. In addition to the two examples already discussed, one further distinction is the decisive contrast between consensual and non-consensual sex. The primary indicator of non-consensual sex is the absence of a clear spoken affirmation of consent. Several writers have discussed the status of the sexual contract, and the ‘principle of communication’ – the claim that communication is the sine qua non of legitimate sex – is the major theme of David Archard’s book Sexual Consent, which has already been mentioned in this chapter (Archard: 136-47). An acceptance of the overriding importance of consent raises further dilemmas, can consent be withdrawn? Can consent be degraded? Can anyone consent to ‘bad’ or unpleasant sex? To raise these dilemmas does not detract from the overriding importance of communication. The ultimate form of non-consensual sex is rape; and any rape is in some senses an act of sexual violence. Yet if the test of rape is the absence of consent, then it by no means follows that all sexual violence equals rape.

A fourth division exists between physical and emotional violence. When people commit acts of brutality on each other, these injuries very often take the form of emotional hostility. Here is Alex Comfort again, ‘Both sexes need to realise that there is a healthy streak of hostility in all lasting adult love (where it’s a defence being too taken-over by another person) and that some sexual approaches are wholly hostile: notch-cutting by either sex, for example seduce-and-abandon operations by males, husband-hunting by females. Adults can often – but not always – recognise the state of play, but in adolescence once can far more easily get hurt or trapped’ (Comfort: 57). The language in this quotation is ambiguous. At one level Comfort regrets the importation into sex of confrontational behaviour which has emerged outside the sexual sphere. In another sense, the author acknowledges the damaging impossibility of a sexual behaviour solely dominated by romantic notions of monogamous love. In Alex Comfort’s opinion, occasional hostility is better than the disappearance of either self. Whatever the origins of such emotional violence – it is often the most destructive form of violent sexual behaviour.

A fifth useful differentiation can be made between passion and cruelty. The point which this contrast highlights is a distinction according to intention. It is perfectly possible that violent sexual activity could occur in a context in which both or either partners saw themselves as continuing their passionate activity. Many people would view such sexual ‘violence’ rather differently from similar acts which came about because one individual had the specific intention of doing harm to another. Here, the traditional doubt should be mentioned which applies to all notions of morality based on intent. How can any third person truly know what was the intention of the participants at that time?

            A sixth distinction exists between vigour, force and might. This is not a matter of intention, but of the level of physical pressure implied in the sexual process itself. Sex is a vigorous physical activity. It relies on heat, friction and rapid motion. Almost all sex involves some low level of ‘vigour’, and many consensual sex acts imply a greater energy, or ‘force’. In Rex v. Donovan (a discussion heavily cited in the later case of Regina v. Brown), the degree of bodily harm was defined as that which while it need not be permanent, should ‘be more than merely transient and trifling’ (Archard: 112). To cause such harm, overbearing physical ‘might’ would need to have occurred.

            From these six distinctions, it should be clear that any blanket criticism of sexual ‘violence’ runs the risk of conflating questions of communication, process, motive and outcome. In any lived situation, discord in one sphere is likely to imply discord in another. For example, a moment of violent and unwanted sex could easily take a form which combined every one of the aspects of violence listed above. Yet if this overlap of categories is a possibility at any one moment in time, it is not an a priori certainty.

Sado-masochism is one context in which the violence of outcome is often directly proportional to the level of prior communication. The more violence, the greater the prior discussion. This link is especially close when these acts involve active participants on the S/M ‘scene’. Indeed this observation would suggest a further paradox, that pleasurable sado-masochist sex depends on the most obvious forms of sexual communication. Such are the levels of agreement required that conscious efforts must continuously be made to create and renew trust. Yet several writers have made the point that the high levels of scene communication can conceal a smaller number of individuals who do not conform to the necessary rules (Califia, 1996: 264-77). It would be ridiculous to claim that all sado-masochists are necessarily better than all heterosexuals at sexual communication. But some are better, and maybe the rest of us have something to learn.

            While sado-masochistic sex would constitute one example of violence with communication, it is equally possible to imagine non-communication without violence, or certainly non-communication without the physical intensity of ‘force’ or ‘might’ (given the meanings of these terms suggested above). Degraded consent can take place without requiring overt physical violence. Indeed, this is probably the condition of most sexual acts which take place in the societies we live in. In most steady relationships, whether gay, lesbian or heterosexual, there is not a high level of verbal communication prior to sexual behaviour. Such communication as exists is often non-verbal, when it is not merely assumed in the sense of ‘I thought you’d like it, we tried this position last week’.

            The consistent argument of this paper has been that violence should not be used as the only indicator of non-consensual sex. Susan Sontag’s claim that sexual violence is fascistic and hence illegitimate, has been rejected for two reasons. First, her argument is not a convincing account of the sexual dynamics of fascism. Second, Sontag also seems to misunderstand violent sex. The claim has been made here that it is wrong to see all violence as possessing one unitary set of properties. Violence is a broad term, whose common meaning is hard to pin down. Non-oppressive forms of violence can be envisaged, including the libertarian syndicalist violence defended as a principle by Georges Sorel. In the context of sexual activity, violence can be said to have taken place when there acts which were non-consensual, ill-intentioned or rough. Yet each of these instances is analytically distinct. The key question to ask of all sexual activity is ‘did consent take place?’ If this is the key issue, then the presence of violence is only a secondary question. Much violent sex is non-consensual or illegitimate – but some violent sex is based on consent.


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