Anti-fascism in the 1930s: from minority to majority

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In the collective memory of the 1930s, we think of the decade as one in which the left was always destined to out-number the right (at least in Britain, France…). So that big set-piece occasions, such as the Battle of Cable Street, saw huge left-wing crowds outnumber a much smaller fascist contingent, with the police intervening on behalf of the beleaguered right. But the 1930s didn’t begin like that. Between about 1930 and spring 1934 the news filled with repeated fascist victories: the NSDAP breakthrough in Germany 1930, the consolidation of their vote in two elections in 1932, Hitler’s accession to power January in 1933. The defeat of the Viennese Socialists in 1934…

A better indication of the respective strength of the far left and the far right is the membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the British Union of Fascists. The CP began the decade with just 2,500 members, growing to around 7,000 by the decade’s end. The BUF saw first an extraordinary rise in its membership from a couple of thousand former supporters of the small group right to 40,000 by 1934, a sharp fall to around 4,000 a year later, modest regrowth in 1935-6, and a brief revival in 1939.

The period where the right was at its most confident and the left at its weakest was in 1933-4. One reason the CP grew later was because of its involvement in anti-fascism. But at the start of this period, a much greater role is played by individual anti-fascists and local anti-fascist coalitions, notably the Anti-Fascist League (the “Grey Shirts) on Tyneside and the Council of Action Against War and Fascism (the “Red Shirts”) in Oxford.

7 June 1934 saw a major clash between the left and right at Olympia in West London. Mosley was at the height of his authority. He has the support of the Daily Mail which over a period of several months made itself the party publication of his movement, publicising BUF meetings, providing free tickets for them, offering discounted holidays to those who joined the Blackshirts. Olympia itself is one of the largest public venues in London, with a capacity of over ten thousand. Mosley was confident of filling the space, with several hundred MPs, peers, diplomats and potential business donors invited to attend.

A thousand-strong crowd of anti-fascists demonstrated outside the hall. A smaller number of anti-fascists made it inside. L. W. Bailey had applied to the Mail for free tickets, explaining why he was thinking of joining the fascists: “I want to die for my country and they seem to offer the best opportunity”. (The dark humour was lost on the Mail staffer who approved his application).

Inside the hall, anti-fascists attempted to heckle Mosley. He in turn paused mid-speech so as to allow his supporters to shine spotlights on those who were trying to disrupt him. Anti-fascists were struck with chairs, belts and knuckle dusters.

Dave Hann’s book Physical Resistance includes an interview with one anti-fascist Lou Kenton, who recalls going  limp as he was dragged out. “I could see another bloke in front of me being continuously kicked and punched as he was thrown out. He was covered in blood and was pretty well unconscious by the time they got to the foyer.”

In the days that followed, anti-fascists insisted that this violence was not accidental but was a recurring character of fascism: first in Italy, then in Germany and now here. The Conservative MPs and then the right-wing newspapers turned on Mosley. One Tory MP Geoffrey Lloyd, PPS to the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, told the Yorkshire Post,“I came to the conclusion that Mosley was a political maniac and that all decent people must combine to kill this movement.”

Olympia “was the first time,” Kenton argues, “that people became aware of what fascism was.”

Mosley, who must have thought that he was on the verge of a return to frontline politics, was rejected by the British establishment. Deprived of backing from the mainstream, his party shrank from 40,000 to 4,000 members in twelve months.

None of this, incidentally, is to portray Olympia as any sort of model. No anti-fascist worthy of the name would argue that he left needs to take the beating which a previous generation suffered in June 1934. But today is not the first time in history that the left has faced a confident and growing antagonist, nor indeed that the right has seemed to outnumber us. Then, as today, the left could not guarantee that it would overwhelm the right by sheer force of numbers. Then, as now, the left had to bring new people into politics – or face the risk of an even worse, lasting, defeat.

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