Category Archives: fascism

When No Platforming really did mean No Platforms


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.


Them and Us at Cable Street


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.

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



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.

Ellen Wilkinson: anti-fascism in the 1920s


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.



Britain’s first anti-fascist: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and the NUCF


In his new book, Fascism, Roger Griffin observes that the first people to write seriously about the far right were Marxists. This is true, but when thinking about Britain it is insufficient. Here, the first anti-fascists of any stature were not just socialists, they were also women: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Ellen Wilkinson.

Here I will describe Holdsworth, a later piece will be dedicated to Wilkinson.

In most accounts of anti-fascism in British history Holdsworth is given a brief mention. She is described as a poet who lived in the Yorkshire village of Hebden bridge and inspired the National Union for Combating Fascism, a non-violent body which warned local Labour Parties about the fascist threat. That account underestimates the significance of Holdsworth as a writer and activist and does little justice to the range of groups within the labour movement with which she worked

Ethel Cranie Holdsworth had worked as a spinner in the Lancashire cotton industry from 1897, when she had been aged just eleven. By the time she was thirteen, She was working full-time. Holdsworth later wrote poetry, children’s stories and published ten novels, including Miss Nobody(1913), a social realist romance whose themes include trade unionism, tramping, and gender politics in the family, and Helen of Four Gates (1971), which was turned into a successful silent film. Holdsworth is sometimes described as this country’s first working-class women novelist. Her fiction was feminist: there are men in her books, and relationships, good and bad. But the action is resolved by the decision of women.

Holdsworth’s contacts ranged across the left: born into a Marxist family, she wrote for the Labour Party press and for the anarchist journalFreedom, where in winter 1924 she added her name to an early demand for the closure of Solovetsky prison, which held a number of the regime’s left-wing critics.

Between 1923 and 1925, together with her husband the poet Alfred, Ethel Holdsworth edited The Clear Light. It was a one penny paper, whose message was that the left needed to unite against capitalism, militarism and religion. The paper was sold principally in Yorkshire, although some issues name sellers in Scotland and in London. Other contributors included William Holt, a Communist from Todmorden, and the anarchist feminist Rose Witcop. Holdsworth was sympathetic to the Labour Party but skeptical of the actual Labour government that was formed in 1924, on a modest programme, and with a number of non-Labour ministers.

Anti-fascism became a central theme of The Clear Lightonly in the paper’s second year’ Holdsworth was disturbed by the support of the British royal family for Mussolini, as well as signs of fascist organizing in nearby Leeds. In summer 1924, The Clear Lightannounced its support for the National Union for Combating Fascism (NUCF). Holdsworth explain that fascism was a movement of exclusion and slavery, the opposite of democracy. She noted that the Duke of Northumberland, one of Britain’s wealthiest coal plutocrats, had gone over to fascism.

The NUCF had not been founded by Holdsworth but by Eric Burton Dancy, an activist in Chiswick. Having heard of his nascent campaign, they threw their weight behind it. The Clear Light urged its readers to join the NUCF, publishing the group’s membership form and with them the famous concluding words of Shelley’s poem The Mask of Anarchy: ‘Ye are many – they are few’.

The paper printed lists of fascist atrocities and an extract from the murdered socialist Matteoti’s The Fascists Exposed.

Holdsworth was at times despairing, warning in one article that most workers in Britain were blithely unconcerned with the fascist threat. Indeed, her sense of foreboding grew more intense with the plainly faked Zinoviev letter, and the success of the right-wing fringe in toppling the first Labour government.

Fascists threatened The Clear Light’s printer, William Ackroyd.

The July 1925 issue of the newspaper featured a number of recent successes: new NUCF branches being established in Burnley and Holdsworth. There were also urgent appeals for funds. The issue turned out to be the paper’s last.

We can only speculate about why The Clear Light was shut down: it seems that Holdsworth was living on the proceeds of her books and films, using them to subsidise the paper. The paper’s writers came from a narrow group, and it was competing against the better financed publications of the Labour and Communist parties.

The message of anti-fascism did not yet have a mass appeal; Holdsworth’s enemy the British Fascists recruited principally in an aristocratic milieu far way from their socialist opponents. The BF’s moment in the public eye – the General Strike – was still a year away. And its success, when it was obtained would be short lived; involvement in strike-breaking, working alongside the Conservative Party, caused the BF to split with a majority returning to the Tory fold.

At the same time that Holdsworth was drifting away from the anti-fascist movement, she was finishing her boldest novel,This Slavery (1925). This uses the setting of a city besieged by mass strikes, the attempts by socialists and syndicalists to foment mutinies among soldiers, and the poverty of people living on nothing better than ham bones and potato peelings. It describes the part played by working class women in leading the people around them into struggle.

Holdsworth’s politics lived on beyond her involvement in the campaign. She left an anti-fascist legacy in the mill towns: nearby Nelson would be an epicentre of the conflict between fascists and anti-fascists in the 1930s.

Changing tack


For the last couple of months I have been writing updates and articles about what the far-right is doing – at the rate of maybe 2-3 a week (including longer posts on facebook) – going back to the internationalisation of the right, its success, the convergence of mainstream and extremists…

Post-Bolsonaro I’m going to pause on that. Everyone can see that this is a moment of breakthrough for the right in almost every country. It’s their “1960s”.

So, instead of trying to fill everyone with gloom I’m going to write more about anti-racists and anti-fascists, about strategies which have worked and ones which haven’t. And why.

There’s no shortage of pessimism of the intellect out there – what we’re missing is optimism of the will.

What it means to ask if Bolsonaro is a fascist


In response to recent pieces by Alfredo Saad-Filho and Valerio Arcary:

When writers on the left debate whether X individual or Y political party is a fascist, we do so for specific reasons. In the last hundred years, the richest countries of the world have with one exception been free from civil war, genocide and even direct military conflict. The major exception was fascism. It follows that fascist parties are an exceptional form under capitalism, which are capable of talking all the hatred and the violence on which capitalism thrives but concentrating and taking them further; much further than is possible under any other form of politics. All sorts of practical conclusions (indeed the whole anti-fascist tradition, in all its varieties) follow from this premise.

For at least two years, we have been living through a moment of far-right advance, which has included victories for the right in major powers (which are therefore capable of emulation): Brexit, Trump, the thirty-three percent of the vote won by the Front National in the second round, etc. But until very recently, these victories were being won by forces which were clearly closer to conservatism than what we ordinarily understand as fascism. The key personalities, Farage, Trump, Le Pen, were electoral politicians with neither fascist political nor a base of sup-port (a mass movement) outside the electoral sphere. With the likely victory of Jair Bolsonaro in tonight’s election that changes; very many Brazilian socialists regard Bolsonaro as a fascist, he uses a language of authoritarianism and makes promises of violence whose sadism seem to make him a definite step to the right compared with what has gone before – not just in Brazil but internationally. Here, I am not going to attempt my own definition of Bolsonaro’s movement – readers who want that detail are directed to the pieces I linked to at the start – rather what I want to do is make some general points about the period we are living in and what it means even to ask whether a particular movement is fascist.

Why Bolsonaro is unlike fascism:

There have been many political authoritarians in history who were not fascists

Part of the claim that Bolsonaro is a fascist rests on his frequent invocations of the military rule of Brazil’s generals and his attempts to eulogise that regime including its use of torture. If the judges stand up to him, he says he will send the army to crush them. He calls on the existing repressive institutions of the state to destroy the liberal ones. But the twenty-year dictatorship of the Brazilian generals was not a fascist regime. It was a top-down, anti-democratic regime but it did not practise violence against its own population on the scale of the interwar regimes. It is horrible and offensive to have to think like this, but of the different estimates for the numbers killed by the generals the most common are in the hundreds or the low thousands. Compare, for example, the terror experienced in Spain after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, during which at least a hundred times as many people were killed. In terms of its economic policies, it was a corrupt developmentalist dictatorship well within the bounds of conservative politics.

When writers on the left have attempted to define fascism, one common argument has been it is a form of politics which emerges outside traditional regimes, and seeks to organize a mass movement against the existing capitalist class, and it is this outsider quality which enables it to govern more aggressively than conventional right-wing politics. If Bolsonaro introduces a personal form of rule which goes on to recreate the social content of the Brazilian military dictatorship, then his is a regime which must be urgently resisted. But it will not be fascist.

Part of what makes fascism is a commitment to certain core ideas (the leadership principle, sexism, anti-semitism, the identification of the left as the movement’s antagonist, autarky, the creation of a new fascist man…)

On this score as well, Bolsonaro’s ideas seem to be closer to ordinary right-wing thinking. His economic advisers are neoliberals rather than advocates of national protection. They (and he) speak of recreating Pinochet’s Chile rather than the 1930s.

But how did fascism get to be fascism?

Part of the danger when making these arguments is that, even if they are “correct” they rest on static categories when what is taking place before our eyes is a process: the birth of an international movement combining different elements. So, Brexit (which was not in itself a step to the far right even if it had some of those qualities) contributed to the rise of Trump (whose conservatism edges much closer to what we think of as far right) and then gave impetus to Le Pen whose party had been set up in order to convey the false impression of normality on what were initially a fascist leadership). Trump’s support, and the last-minute intervention of Steve Bannon, both contributed significantly to the success of the League in Italy. Different right-wing elements are boosting and competing with each other to be the most violent and the most influential movement on the right.

This process has an affinity with the rise of fascism which saw parties of different origin (the plebeian fascists of the NSDAP; the reactionary Catholics of Franco’s regime and in Romania…) competing with each other internationally to be the most aggressive, and in that way moved them from one point on the political spectrum to something new. Even the fascism of the 1930s was considerably more radical than the fascism of 10 years before.

This is the only possible or even most likely outcome, there are other models of right-wing convergence: Thatcher and Reagan 1979-80, for example, which fell far short of fascism.

The limits to how far convergence goes does not depend only on the context (post 9/11 authoritarianism, the 2008 economic crisis), or even on the starting-point of the various right-wing figures, but also on how quickly the left finds new ways of reinvigorating itself in response to them.

There is indeed no reason to assume that the murderous authoritarians of the future will be fascists. If we assume that capitalism is going to last for (say) another century – despite dictatorships, environmental degradation … – then it is likely that all sorts of violent political forms will emerge which will be in various ways unlike what has gone before.

Finally, fascism remains a despised tradition. And while the presence of fascism in our collective memory has declined compared to previous generations (a process which makes life easier for the violent right), fascism is still a tradition which offends as much as it attracts. For that reason, it is more likely that even a party which wanted to occupy much the same political space as fascism would give itself a new name.