Taster video for my new book The New Authoritarians:
Taster video for my new book The New Authoritarians:
On 15 June 1974, clashes between anti-fascists and the police at London’s Red Lion Square culminated in a police charge against anti-fascist demonstrators. One anti-Front protester, Kevin Gateley, a student at Warwick University, died. He was the first person to be killed at a political protest in mainland Britain since 1919. The purpose of this piece is to explain how he was killed, who in fact was blamed, and to fit his death into the wide context of anti-fascism in British history.
The events leading up to his death began in April 1974, when the Front booked the large hall at Conway Hall, a venue long associated with secular humanism and the anti-war left. In early June, the anti-imperialist campaign group Liberation, headed by veteran Labour MP Fenner Brockway, learned of the Front’s booking and attempted to book a room of their own elsewhere in the building. By 9 June, the police were aware that both the Front and its opponents planned to hold demonstrations culminating at Conway Hall. The owners of Conway Hall, the South Place Ethical Society, through their General Secretary Peter Cadogan, released a press statement defending the decision to allow the Font a room on free speech grounds.
There were two demonstrations on 15 June. A Front contingent, about 900-strong, formed up at Tothill Street in central London and approached Red Lion Square from the southwest. They were held by the police and made to wait at the corner of Vernon Place and Southampton Row, about a hundred metres due west of the northwest corner of Red Lion Square. Meanwhile, 1500 or so Liberation marchers approached Red Lion Square from the northeast.
In a later report Lord Justice Scarman estimated that within the anti-fascist crowd there were about 400-500 supporters of the International Marxist Group, a smaller number of International Socialists and about 40-50 supporters of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist). The front of the demonstration marched from east to west along Theobalds Road and turned left down Old North Street where it approached Red Lion Square from the north. The organisers had reached an agreement with the police that on arriving at the Square the anti-fascists would be permitted to turn left and march clockwise around the eastern edge of Red Lion Square. They would pass Conway Hall, in the square’s northeast corner and settle in the south east corner where they would hold a static protest. On arriving at Red Lion Square, it was made clear however to the organisers that the police had changed their minds and would permit a public protest only in the northwest corner of the square, that is, at a much greater distance from the Front meeting. The police therefore instructed the demonstrators to turn right, away from Conway Hall. The Liberation organisers agreed to this re-routing of their protest and about 500 people followed. The rest of the marchers however remained where they were.
As for what happened next, there are two main versions. The first is the account given by police officers to the subsequent Scarman Inquiry. They reported that forty or so Maoists behind a red CPE (M-L) banner briefly pushed towards the police line on the North side of the square. In response, the officer in charge Deputy Assistant Commissioner J. H. Gerrard ordered his officers to clear all remaining anti-fascists from the northwards edge of Red Lion Square. This decision required the police to split the anti-fascist group in two: the Liberation contingent were allowed their meeting in the square’s northwest corner; the remaining anti-fascist were to be expelled from the square northwards leaving the area around Conway Hall free for the National Front to hold their meeting. In this account, it was as the demonstrators were being expelled from the square that Kevin Gateley was killed.
The other version of events is the one found by Lord Scarman. In his account, the Maoists were ignored in favour of members of the IMG (‘a front of determined-looking young men with their arms linked’) who had refused to follow the Liberation organisers and led instead what Scarman termed ‘a pushing affair – the weight of a small number of demonstrators’ against police lines. This tentative push, Scarman found, grew in force, even though the numbers involved were still tiny, becoming a first ‘vicious scrimmage’, then an ‘unexpected, unprovoked and viciously violent’ assault and in its final stages a ‘riot’, to which it was the police’s ‘duty’ to respond with unrestrained force. To an event greater extent even that the police themselves, Scarman blamed Gateley’s death not on the officers who struck him but on the IMG whose failure to disperse was (for Scarman) the effective cause of Gateley’s death.
At forty years distance, some of Scarman’s findings just about ring true. The measures of linking arms was a recurring anti-fascist tactic, which had travelled to Britain via the IMG from Paris. The suggestion that a couple of dozen protesters may have pushed at police lines is plausible; the police were, after all, blocking the agreed route to Conway Hall. At demonstrations, it is far from unusual for police pushes to be resisted and for something like a ‘scrimmage’ (i.e. a rugby scrum) to follow between protesters and the police. Members of the IMG, a party which in its subsequent history was never at the militant wing of anti-fascism, may well have seen the CPE (M-L) and may have pushed in the same the direction as them. Even if we accept that they pushed as hard as they could while still linking arms (Scarman’s ‘vicious scrimmage’), this is no force at all. Anyone who has attended more than a handful of protests will have seen desultory pushing of this sort; the reason why Red Lion Square is remembered is not because of this push but because of the police response, which was to escalate the conflict by charging at the crowd with batons drawn.
Photographs from the day show mounted police striking at the heads of demonstrators with sticks. Nick Mullen, a twenty-eight-year-old student from an Irish family was one of those struck on the head. He had been on Old North Street at the same time as Kevin Gateley and a picture shows Mullen’s face thick with blood. In Mullen’s account, the fatal conflict began when the policemen on foot received an order to attack, causing them to lift their batons. One demonstrator called out, ‘Why don’t you put your truncheons away?’ To which a policeman answered, ‘You must be fucking joking.’ There was a push and one of the demonstrators fell. Mullen claims to have heard a policeman shout, ‘One of the bastards is down. Let’s trample him.’
The last photographs before Gateley suffered the blow that killed him show the student at the junction of Red Lion Square and Old North Street with his way seemingly blocked by police officers. Between Gateley and Conway Hall there are mounted policemen, riding their horses into the crowd. Gateley is three rows back from them, facing mounted officers to his front and police on foot to his side. Subsequent photographs show Gateley after he collapsed. Officers reached for Gateley’s unconscious body and lifted his foot before it fell weightless to the ground.
The post-mortem was conducted by Dr Iain West of St Thomas’s Hospital. West indicated that the cause of death was a haemorrhage resulting from a head injury. He found an oval bruise at the back of Gateley’s ear about three quarters of an inch long. The injury had been caused by a hard object. It was impossible to tell from the shape of the bruise what had caused the injury, other than that it was likely to be a blunt object, possibly a police truncheon.
By quarter past four, the police had succeeded in clearing the north east corner of Red Lion Square, after which they were able to bring in the Front to their meeting. Aside from Gateley, some 48 people were reported to have been injured and by the end of the day some 51 anti-fascists were arrested.
Martin Walker noted that in the aftermath of the events, the Front was jubilant. It was the Front who ‘emerged as the innocent victims of political violence, the Left who emerged as the instigators.’ Richard Clutterbuck, an academic writer about terrorism, also read the day as a victory for the Front: ‘Television films showed the NF marchers standing stock still with closed ranks on one side of Southampton Row while “dirty, hairy lefties” swarmed about in a chaotic battle with the police on the other … The result was precisely what the NF would have wished: publicity for the purposes of their demonstration, discrediting of their detractors.’
So assured was the Front of its moral authority after Red Lion Square that Martin Webster wrote to the Home Secretary demanding that ‘the leaders of the International Marxist Group, the International Socialists, the Communist Party and their individual associates on the Executive of the National Union of Students be indicted for conspiracy to incite and promote acts of criminal violence.’
At Lord Scarman’s Inquiry into the Red Lion Square disorders, Martin Webster admitted that he and John Tyndall had a history of anti-Semitism. He acknowledged the chants used by the Front, ‘The Reds, the Reds, we’ve got to get rid of the Reds,’ and admitted that the Front expected their opponents to respond angrily to them. Webster named the two heads of the Front’s honour guard, Ron Tier and Ken Merritt and claimed not to know that just four years before Merritt had spent six months in prison for robbery with violence. As for the suggestion that the National Front was led by self-confessed Nazis and Hitlerites (i.e. himself and John Tyndall), Webster said that it was led ‘by people who ten or twelve years ago were National Socialists but have long ceased to be so.’ Webster became ill-tempered as his evidence wore on and his answers petulant. He later wrote to Scarman to apologise for the way he had given his evidence, ‘I am a rather quick-tempered person … and it may be that I over-reacted.’ Ultimately, Scarman’s conclusions gave succour to the Front, absolving the police and concluding that ‘those who started the riot,’ by which he meant the IMG, ‘carry a measure of moral responsibility for [Gateley’s] death.’
Undoubtedly, there were periods when physical confrontations with anti-fascists sapped the morale of the Front’s supporters, reducing attendances at marches and public meetings and isolating the Front from potential supporters. But at other times and especially when the Front was able to claim the mantle of victimhood, physical confrontation seems to have boosted the Front’s morale. In June 1974, the academic Nigel Fielding was carrying out fieldwork among Front branches in South London. He records the ‘keen interest,’ with which members discussed the possibility of ‘confrontation with opponents’. Branch members wanted to discuss practical plans to prevent anti-fascists from attacking their coaches while the Front marched. Some Front supporters were impressed by the security arrangements at Conway Hall, where sixty-five members of the Front’s Honour Gard had been tasked with protecting the venue. One exchange between members ended with the NF’s Branch Organiser saying, ‘The Front knows how to defend itself.’
Around this time, Halifax National Front established a ‘flying squad’ with a goal of confronting marches by ‘communist, leftist, immigrant or other groups’.
Four months after Gateley’s death, the NF branch in Birmingham wrote to its supporters: ‘It is doubtful if many members are aware of the intense hostility which our campaign in Birmingham has engendered.’ The letter described an attack which had been made by members of the IS and IMG on a Front meeting in Handsworth. That had been repulsed. However, it continued, ‘We have received information that another public meeting, to be held on Tuesday 8 October at 8pm, is most certainly going to be subjected to the same treatment by the opposition who are determined to try and “Smash the National Front in Birmingham”. The meeting will be their Waterloo and all activists are urged in the strongest possible terms to attend.’
The events at Red Lion Square fit awkwardly into anti-fascist narratives of the 1970s. For anti-fascists, it is much easier to remember a political victory (a march which demoralised our opponents and contributed materially to their isolation) than a draw or a defeat. While the accusation that the left had significantly contributed to Gateley’s was unjust, the opinion of a single Judge with too much power, too much authority, and too little insight; there must be people still living who have doubts as to how the anti-fascist contingents were organised. The key participants on the left – the IMG even the Communist Party (whose members diligently attended the inquest and published the best account of it we have), even the Maoists – aren’t the people that most historians go back to when researching the story of the 1970s. As for the setting, a central London street with no politicised black community to draw on; this is one in which the left has rarely flourished. It is also, of course, exactly the scene in which anti-fascism has been located repeatedly over the past two years.
As readers may know I have two books coming out in the next four months: Never Again, which is a history of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, and is published by Routledge next week, and the New Authoritarians, which is about the ways in which the contemporary far right differs, for example, from the global far right of the 1970s. That appears with Pluto / Haymarket, next April.
In the run up to the publications of these books, I’ve been doing a number of interviews with podcasts, and readers may enjoy either of the following:
This week, I’ve been on the Better Off Red podcast, talking about anti-fascism in the 1970s. (Link above).
I also gave an interview a couple of months ago to Novara Media, putting the rise of the DFLA in the context of how the far right has been growing internationally (Link below).
I hope you enjoy both of them.
Anyone who has attended an anti-fascist meeting, worth of the name, will have heard the phrase “no platform”. The idea is that fascism is a unique and urgent threat to the left, not just communists or anarchists but even the most moderate forms of social democracy. It threatens to remove the right to vote, the right to organise in workplaces, and the welfare state. To prevent this catastrophe, anti-fascists must deprive the far right of any opportunity to spread its message.
For much of the time, the phrase “no platform” is not meant literally: as Evan Smith has shown, the term was coined in 1972, i.e. at about the time that the National Front secured its highest by-election vote (Martin Webster won 16 percent of the vote at West Bromwich in 1973), and when the Front by standing in sufficient number of parliamentary seats was able to put on party political broadcasts, which were watched by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. No platform was a statement of intent, not a description of the real balance of forces between different groups.
That said, there was a time when anti-fascists could use the term accurately: in the immediate aftermath of the second world war.
Between about 1946 and 1951, the characteristic form of anti-fascism was the 43 Group, an organisation of militant anti-fascists, dominated by young Jews, very many of whom had recently seen active service.
It was never the only form of anti-fascism: the Labour Party and the Communist Party (CP) both supported anti-Mosley campaigns; probably the single most effective group in this period in turning out large numbers of people to oppose the fascists were local trades councils.
The 43 Group, moreover, was not a single generation of people with a shared strategy. At one wing, it shaded into Zionism (43 Group literature was effusive about the Irgun). At the other, it overlapped with the CP. Several 43 group members dual carded; including Maurice Essex, Phil Piratin’s election agent, and Len Rolnick, who helped to found the group. A full list would run into the dozens.
The 43 Group came as close as any anti-fascists in British history ever had to literally “no platforming” the Union Movement.
One of the Group’s distinctive tactics was to group a dozen of its members into an arrow-head shape, then charge into a fascist crowd, with the view of finding the speaker and knocking him down from the platform.
To explain how this tactics could work, certain things need to be remembered:
In an era before mass ownership of television, almost all public political discussion took place in the open, with speakers standing on boxes or small steps, in one of a large number of local “speakers’ corners”.
The Union Movement was sustained by a close-knit generation, at the heart of which were the 750 or so fascists who had been detained in war time. This group went from private to public meetings following instructions from Mosley, reaching a peak of around 20 meetings a week in autumn to winter 1947. With sufficient intelligence, in other words, anti-fascists could establish who would be speaking, at what times, and be pretty confident that they knew every potential fascist “pitch”. Indeed there are reports of 43 Group members travelling by car from place to place, knocking over far-right speakers. A small number of anti-fascists could have a very considerable effect.
Moreover, this was immediately after the war, and the majority of onlookers needed no persuading that fascism was a violent and despicable tradition, or that physical resistance to it was a reasonable response.
The fascists had relatively few other means of putting their ideas across. They experimented with other approaches – fascist book clubs under neutral-sounding names, entryism in Conservative Parties, employers groups and unions… But they had no real means of going public other than these speaker meetings.
By winter 1947-8, the Union Movement had settled on a single tactic to avoid these confrontation, i.e. pulling together all its London meetings into a single venue, and using almost all the group’s active members to protect the stage and prevent its speakers from being knocked over. But this approach could be no long-term answer: by restricting themselves to a single venue (the Ridley Road market in Dalston), their ability to find a new audience was reduced; moreover, the centralisation of British fascists into a single place, made it much easier for local trade unionists, socialists, and communists to organise against them.
In March 1951, Mosley announced that he was leaving England for Ireland, complaining, “No man can start a crusade from within a gaol”. He recognised that sustained anti-fascist campaigning had made it almost impossible for his supporters to speak.
It is certainly possible to imagine other kinds of anti-fascist victory more relevant to today’s world of decentered communication and social media. Maybe the goal should no longer be the total incarceration, as it were, of fascism but its containment below a level so far below its present level of success that even today’s popularity seems unattainable to its cadres. But when we think of previous cycles of fascist/anti-fascist conflict, we will always look back to the 1940s. This was the lowest point for the British right since the fascist parties were launched a hundred years ago.
The Battle of Cable Street has gone down in popular memory as the decisive moment when British fascism was confronted on the streets; a victory for anti-fascists which proved once and for all that we were the majority and would not tolerate fascism here.
Certainly, the supporters of the British Union of Fascists were heavily outnumbered, with fewer than 2,000 of their supporters being faced down by over 100,000 anti-fascists.
It is also the case that in the aftermath of the protest, the left presented the events of 4 October as an enduring victory. The Daily Worker produced a special booklet, ‘They Did Not Pass’. Writer Frank Griffin published a novel, October Day. A decade later, with young Jewish activists determined to confront Mosley’s postwar Union Movement in opposition to leaders of the Communist Party (CP) who saw such activism as ultra-left, the CP commissioned Mile End MP Phil Piratin to write a history of the events. His book, Our Flag Stays Red, both commemorated and tamed Cable Street. He presented the victory as the consequence of the Communist Party imposing “strict discipline” on the turbulent class fighters of the East End. The Red Flag of his title, Piratin explained in an epilogue, was held by the Communists, and carried in Parliament in their work (alongside the Attlee government) to extend the welfare state.
Given the scale of what was at stake, the historical record has left surprisingly limited evidence of who exactly was at Cable Street and what motivated them.
Richard Bellamy, Nellie Driver and other supporters of the BUF, acknowledged Cable Street as a set-back while praising the very few fascists who were able to engage in hand-to-hand combat with anti-fascists. (You can see some of those clashes at 1 minute 35 in: here). The East End remained sympathetically to Mosley, they insisted. Above all, the most popular approach taken by BUF speakers after 1936 was to blame the Cable Street “mob” on a bankers’ conspiracy, with one fascist John Beckett maintaining that “Jewish Finance” had paid for the Communist crowd. These and similar accounts maintain a contempt for the left that goes back to interwar fascism – and a fundamental inability to see the Jewish population of the East End as fully human.
Although the Communist Party called on all its London branches to take part in the Cable Street protests, and although film of the day shows several demonstrators giving a Communist clenched fist salute, the CP was a minority. Even if the party had been able to mobilise its entire national membership, they would not have been more than at most one in twenty of those taking part.
Who, then, was there? One way to see Cable Street is at the forerunner of a kind of community mobilisation which was seen repeatedly in the 1970s. IE a generation of first and second-generation migrants identified with the political left, drawing on a combination of left-wing traditions predating exile, plus their own situation as both workers and victims of racism.
There are a huge number of memoirs (plus novels, plays…) from the East End which confirm this picture. The East End had been a centre of organising by anarchists going back to the unemployed protests of the 1880s, by socialists from the 1889 dock strike to the Poplarism of the 1920s, and by Communists, starting with Sylvia Pankhurst’s campaign among East End women and going on from there to the generation of syndicalists who followed her into the CP. In all these different periods of left-wing organising, Jewish socialists had been prominent.
They were, in this way, the forerunners of the British black community which Sivanandan saw emerging among British Sikhs at Southall in 1979.
It is worth saying that this *isn’t* necessarily how participants saw themselves. According to Morris Beckman of the 43 Group, Cable Street was a class, not a community mobilisation: “South Wales miners, the slate workers, they sent contingents, Sheffield steel workers, Tyneside shipbuilders, and from London docks of course, a lot of seamen jumped form the ships and joined the anti-fascists. Also the nursed and doctors of London hospital, the Whitechapel hospital, turned out…”
On this account, Cable Street was the return of a debt of Jewish-gentile solidarity, which could be traced back to the effects of the London Dock Strike in 1889, in sparking a near insurrectionary general strike in the local area with dozens of workplaces (many of them Jewish) turning out in support. Because the garment workers had supported the dockers in 1889, so the dockers turned out, fifty years later.
There must be some truth to that explanation: the sheer size of the crowds points against them being a purely Jewish mobilisation. The standard estimate of the total Jewish population of Britain in the 1930s is 300,000 people: with perhaps half living outside London, and half of the remainder being too young or too old to have been at Cable Street. Just from numbers alone it seems unlikely that more than half of the people there were – or could have been – Jewish.
Yet, of the groups named by Beckman, there are precious few sources to corroborate that there were Welsh miners present on 4 October or that shipbuilders came in a delegation from the North East. The one group we know for sure were there are the dockers, but even then the sources are thin: Jack Dash says in his autobiography that he was there, but gets the date wrong. Could you imagine one of the many young Jews who were at Cable Street and later recorded their memories of the day – a Harold Rosen, perhaps, making the same mistake?
Back in 2016, the Irish Times ran an interview with Cable Street veteran, Communist councillor and lifelong socialist Max Levitas describing how he had stood at Cable Street alongside his father and other members of their family. Levitas’s parents had met in Dublin having escaped pogroms in Latvia and Lithuania in 1913. They then participated in strikes in Dublin, where Levitas was born. He described the participation of dockers at Cable Street. No-one could criticise a mainstream paper for taking such care with working class history.
But in speaking of the dockers, Levitas was talking about people who could draw on different experiences to his own: the war for independence, the part played by the Black and Tans, the history of anti-Catholic sectarianism in Liverpool and Birmingham and London. These experiences could give rise to a social democratic consciousness (as in post-1918 Liverpool, where the Labour Party which printed its leaflets not in red but in purple) but its heroes were different from those of the Jewish East End tradition, seeped as it was in Bundism, anarchism and Bolshevism. When Levitas told his interviewer, “We knew the Irish would stand with us,” the “we” is the Jews of Cable Street. Born as he had been in Dublin, for Levitas, the Irish dockers remained a “them”.
There is a gap in our knowledge of the events. Henry Srebrnick’s London Jews And British Communism provides a collective political history of the Jewish East End in the 1930s and 1940s, Thomas Linehan’s East End for Mosley does something similar for the BUF, but no historian – as far as I know – has ever written the equivalent community study of the politicised, Catholic, dockers of the East End and their families.
Think of the Jewish East End which produced Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley – and ask yourself what the Catholic equivalent of that play would be. I wonder if we will ever fully understand the protest, until we have that play (or its equivalent).
If it right that Cable Street was first of all a community mobilisation of young and left-wing Jews, and only then drew on support from other workers on a class basis, that understanding might provide a context to one feature of contemporary fascism and anti-fascism: for the last 18 months, the far right has had considerable success in mobilising events in the “deserted zone” of Whitehall at weekends. The best anti-fascist mobilisations in history – Cable Street, Lewisham, Walthamstow – have come about where the left was able to mobilise beyond its usual numbers and bring in wider numbers of people, through a cultural or a community mobilisation. Whether by accident or design, the far right has not been giving us that opportunity.
Whether through a new cultural campaign of our own, or by some other means, anti-fascists need – urgently – to find a way of mobilising which makes up for that gap.
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.
A previous article described Ethel Carnegie Holdsworth as Britain’s first anti-fascist. It is pleasing coincidence that the second anti-fascist in British history was also, like her, a working-class woman. Published in October 1924, presumably to accompany the second anniversary of Mussolini’s seizure of power, the first sustained piece of anti-fascist writing in Britain was published by a left-wing radical education campaign, the Plebs League. Thirty-eight pages long, and printed in a distinctive gothic front, the cover shows the image of a skull, presumably to represent the fate of the left if it did not respond adequately to the new far right.
The pamphlet’s publishers, the Plebs League, were the distant ancestors of today’s trade union education movement, with a network of organisers giving classes to some 30,ooo students a year in trade unionism, psychology, economics, geography, the politics of trade unionism and of the industrial co-operatives.
The author chose to remain anonymous, giving herself no more than the initials LW. The members of the Plebs League executive at this point include the historian of the feudal economy Maurice Dobb, the publishers Eden and Cedar Paul, the writer Raymond Postgate, JT Walton Newbold (who had been, briefly, one of Britain’s first Communist MPs), Ellen Wilkinson, and Winifred and Frank Horrabin. The most likely candidate is Wilkinson, who has gone down in history as the MP who led the Jarrow March, and was later the Minister of Education in Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government. She was in 1924 a full-time official of the precursor of today’s USDAW shopworkers’ union, the newly-elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough East and a recent ex-Communist. She was also a creative writer and her 1929 novel Clashtells a story of romantic entanglements and revolutionary politics in the Yorkshire coalfields during the 1926 General Strike.
LW’s pamphlet Fascism tries to steer a narrow course between parliamentary and revolutionary socialism, which would be consistent with Wilkinson’s recent membership of the CP. Indeed Wilkinson would travel to Italy in July 1925 and meet anti-fascists there, and in 1935 she would publish a further pamphlet Why Fascism?together with Edward Conze, an anti-fascist Communist in exile from Bonn.
LW begins her pamphlet with smashing of the Italian labour movement in 1919 -20, Mussolini’s beating and burning of his opponents: ‘The murderous policy of the Fascists during the period preceding their seizure of power was directed almost entirely against the workers.’ Fascism, LW acknowledged, used a language of class collaboration, and hinted at the possibility that one day workers might enjoy some say over the control of Italian industry. But this, LW insisted, was mere ‘nauseating cant’ (pg. 6). Fascism was ‘a force directed against the interests and ideals of the workers’, (pg. 7). LW referred to Clara Zetkin’s June 1923 presentation to the Executive of the Communist lnternational (republished in 2018 by Haymarket), from which LW drew the conclusion that fascism was the punishment of the propertied for the Italian left’s failure to carry through the revolution that had been possible in 1918.
The author blamed the defeat of the Italian workers on the Italian Socialist Party which as late as 1920 had attempted to fudge the difference between the reformist and the revolutionary approach to seizing power (pg. 12). The pamphlet was familiar with figures such as the parliamentarians Serrati and Turati (Wilkinson had attended the April 1921 Congress of the Communist International, where the respective failings of each had been discussed). The Communists, ‘Zinoviev and his friends,’ LW writes, ‘were right’ to demand the removal of reformists from the Italian Socialist Party; ‘and Serrati’ (who had sought to hold both reformists and revolutionaries together within a single left-wing party) ‘was wrong. There is a time to hold one’s hand and a time to strike hard, and the hour for striking hard had come in Italy in the autumn of 1920’ (pg. 14).
LW described the occupation of the Italian factories in 1920 as the high-point of recent struggle, showing the potential for ‘workers’ control’ (pg. 15). From their leader’s irresolution all subsequent defeats had followed. Fascism, the pamphlet argued, was a ramp of ‘industrial capitalists’ – not the landowners, not the army, not the professions – but the employers of heavy industry. If, under Mussolini, workers had joined its corporations this was only ‘out of fear’ (pg. 21). Elements of the industrial class remained aloof from fascism, it found its keenest support among employers in military production (pg. 28).
The author concluded her section on Italy by envisaging the possibility of a capitalist rejection of fascism, or of both the fascists and the capitalists being overturned by the workers (pg. 30). If anything, LW appears to have underestimated the capacity of Italian capital to maintain conditions of dictatorship and one-sided class war against the workers.
In common with Zetkin and other Marxist writers of this period, LW treated fascism as an international force: ‘a menace to the workers throughout the world’ (pg. 35). She acknowledged the success of Hitler and referred to his ‘temporar[y] retire[ment]’ from active political life – in October 1924, he was nearing the end of his eight-month sentence for participation in the Beer Hall putsch. She describes the success of fascist parties in Austria, Poland and Hungary. In a warning to those who attempt to describe a developing movement before it has fully formed LW wrote, overconfidently, that ‘In France, Spain … there is no real Fascist movement except in name’ (pg. 33). She was on stronger ground in describing the British Fascists as ‘an object of laughter … a glorified Boys’ Brigade’ (pg. 35).
‘Fascism,’ LW argued, ‘is a move in the class war, and its opponents can hope to succeed only if they recognise this fact and act accordingly’ (pg. 35). In terms which pre-empt the united front discussions of the 1930s, the author called for complete unity among working-class parties (i.e. Socialists and Communists) but radical distancing from the bourgeoisie. The fascists, she argued, were the direct expression of big business and the landlords, the Liberal politicians their indirect expression. Neither were the answer. ‘The courage and the political sense of the Italian workers have often been proved; if their leadership and organisation can only reach the same high standards in the coming struggle; Fascism can be crushed and a workers’ government set up in Italy’ (pg. 38).
Given the range of Wilkinson’s personal experience, her time as a worker and a union organiser in a largely female industry, and her own creative writing, there are perhaps omissions. Fascism and its opponents are examined in purely economic and social categories, there is no sense of fascism’s dependence on the Church and the monarchy, still less any integration of these power realities with a sense (for example) of the gendered way in which fascism appealed to workers.
That said, LW is an acute observer of fascism; her pamphlet stands on an equal footing with the most cited work of this generation – Gramsci’s writings on fascism, Zetkin’s, or the likes of Trotsky or Thalheimer.