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International Socialism, September 1974


Colin Sparks

Fascism in Britain


From International Socialism, No. 71, September 1974, pp. 13–28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The recent growth of the National Front has caused a great deal of discussion in the Labour movement about fascism. This article attempts to explain the nature of fascist movements and to show how we can successfully fight them.

1. What is Fascism

AT ALL times, capitalist society breeds sick and unpleasant people who see fascism as the answer to their problems, but during periods of boom they are regarded, even by the capitalist class, as eccentrics on the fringe of society. The ruling class can afford to allow reforms and it does not need to fight to the death against working-class organisations. In these periods it finds it useful to propagate myths about peace, freedom and democracy, and it has no time for the wild men of the extreme right.

Crisis, however, is built into the capitalist system, and it is then that fascist movements grow. In a crisis the ruling class finds itself threatened as its profits fall and as workers’ organisations resist cuts in living standards. In these circumstances, it has three possible strategies open to it.

The first is to use the leaders of the established working-class parties and trade unions as assistants in the attacks on workers’ living standards. Such leaders have shown themselves prepared to go to great lengths to prop up the system. For instance, in Germany in January 1919, it was the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, lifted into government on the backs of armed workers two months before, who played the key role in organising the counter-revolutionary actions that led to the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

It is important to note that the ‘social democratic’ strategy for attacking workers’ living standards did not rule out the use of physical force. But that does not mean that there is not a difference between social democracy and the other methods of maintaining capitalist rule.

Despite their preparedness to sell their members down the river, the leaders of reformist parties and unions cannot always go as far as they would like in propping up capitalism. If Union leaders agree to too many wage cuts and redundancies, they face the dangers of new, uncompromising leaders coming to the fore. When the crisis becomes really desperate and massive attacks on workers’ living standards are demanded, the reformists cannot cope.

This was the dilemma of the Social Democrats in Germany in the early 1930s. The world crisis of 1929 found the SPD in power as the largest party in a coalition government. Its leader, Müller, began the old routine of saving profits at the expense of workers’ living standards, but this time he could not deliver. The leaders of the unions, terrified of the reaction of their rank and file members, refused to agree to cuts in unemployment pay. The government fell and the German ruling class was forced to look to direct repression to solve its problems.

The most obvious form of repression is that of the state machinery – the police and the army. These bodies are trained in the use of arms and modern equipment; they are highly disciplined; they are led by the friends and relatives of the ruling class; they can attack quickly and efficiently; and they are not likely to bite the hands that feed them. It is to its tried and trusted servants in the armed forces that the ruling class turns first in a crisis, and they can prove very effective – as the tragic example of Chile demonstrates.

However, the armed forces may not be able to provide a stable solution. They may not be strong enough and their rank and file may be unreliable. The armed forces may be capable of winning a short sharp military victory, but they may not be capable of rooting out all opposition to the rule of capital. Above all, they are clearly separate bodies in the service of the state and their use for unconcealed class aims destroys the lingering myths of the neutral state and provokes intense opposition.

Fascism is the other alternative open to the capitalist class. The capitalists hesitate before choosing this alternative, looking to the traditional right-wing parties, the army, everything else, but in the end they may be forced to give the fascists a free hand. They have good reasons for hesitating, because fascist movements are quite different from the ‘normal’ weapons of the ruling class.

Fascism is, above all, a popular movement: it gathers behind its banners massive numbers of people who genuinely believe it can solve their problems. What is more, it does not aim simply to ban trade unions and workers’ parties, or even to shoot and torture militants. Fascism attempts to sweep away all workers’ organisations and to replace them by new organisations tightly controlled by the fascist state. Even the largest and best secret police or army cannot do this. These bodies are by their very nature separate organisations whose members are apart from the rest of society. They can hunt down opponents, outlaw papers and parties, terrorise people into submission, but they cannot re-organise society. Fascism can. Because it has a mass base, it can penetrate into every factory, every street, every social club, every leisure organisation. It can root out all opposition and provide a straitjacket for the working class. It can even win over potential opponents because it offers them a weird, distorted but superficially convincing answer to their problems.

The fascists can provide a horde of shock troops to reinforce the state machine for a head-on physical confrontation with the working-class organisations. More important than that, they can provide the manpower at every level for the systematic organisation of society in the interests of profit. Once the working class organisations have been smashed and their leaders packed into cattle trucks for the death camps, new organisations are set up for work, leisure, sport, youth, holidays, women, education – every area of social life. All these are tightly controlled by reliable fascists.

The results of complete control and obedience are simple. Wages are forced down and conditions cut to shreds. Guerin gives some figures for the impact of Italian fascism:

‘According to the figures supplied by the Italian press itself, between 1927 and 1932 nominal wages were reduced by half, ... (and by 1936) it would be no exaggeration to say that wages have been reduced from the 1927 level by from 60 to 75 per cent.’ [1]

Given the chance, fascism can provide a strong social base for monopoly capitalism. It can drive down wage rates, use massive state aid to prop up the profits of bankrupt industries and crush all opposition at birth.

The ruling class hesitates before employing this tactic because the very fact that fascism is a mass movement makes it appear dangerous to the capitalists themselves. The leaders of fascist movements are not usually members of the ruling class and in order to attract and hold their followers they often engage in radical-sounding attacks or capitalism. Before they are ready to use dangerous plebeian demagogues, the ruling class need to be convinced that there is no other solution.

‘Mass demonstrations must burn into the little man’s soul the proud conviction that, though a little worm, he is nevertheless part of a great dragon.’


How Fascist Movements Are Built

FASCIST MOVEMENTS are built around the mobilisation of the middle class which provides the backbone of their shock troops. In normal times these people are orderly, timid, well-behaved and ill-organised. Fascism turns such rneek people into bestial screaming stormtroopers ready to shoot it out on the streets with armed workers. As Hitler expressed this aim: ‘Mass demonstrations must burn into the little man’s soul the proud conviction that, though a little worm he is nevertheless part of a great dragon.’

A crisis in capitalism hits these people very hard. They do not have the large bank balances which cushion big business, they cannot obtain credit, their customers cannot afford to buy, their debtors go bankrupt, the monopolies charge them high prices and undercut them on the market. Office workers are made redundant and their student sons and daughters are forced to take ‘menial’ jobs. The whole miserable army of small businessman, self-employed worker, lawyer and lower manager is driven to bankruptcy or the dole queue. Those who manage to retain their jobs suffer a drastic cut in their standard of living as they do not have the same traditions of militant organisation as industrial workers. Caught in the iron vice of the crisis these people are driven to look for a solution to their problems and it is to these people that fascism appeals. Its aim is to weld them into a mass fighting organisation.

However, fascism is not inevitably successful in trying to win these people. It is capitalism which has ruined the ‘little men’, and if can offer them no real future. Socialism, on the other hand, provides the possibility of a sane and rational society free from want, unemployment and insecurity. The problem for the working class, and particularly for the revolutionary party as the most conscious section of the class, is to convince the middle class that this future is possible. A workers’ party can do this partly by propaganda.

But convincing words are not enough. It is the task of the revolutionary party to provide the sort of clear and firm leadership with which the working class can prove by its deeds that it is both willing to fight capitalism and able to organise a new society. When the working class is on the offensive, not only do previously backward layers of the class itself move into action and discover a new political consciousness but the best elements of other classes swing towards it. Not, all will be won over to socialism, but the waverers can be persuaded to stay neutral and the irreconcilable enemies can be intimidated or crushed.

If the working class cannot provide a clear lead to its potential allies, then the fascists have a chance. If the trade unions fail to defend their members’ living standards and jobs, or if power has been within the grasp of the working class and then let slip away, support begins to ebb. Many workers begin to doubt that a new society is possible, or even that their own organisations are worth defending. They begin to desert both their political party and their trade unions. If the working class organisations cannot keep their own members, they cannot offer a way out of the crisis to the middle class.

It is in conditions of working-class retreat and demoralisation that fascist movements grow. Italy provides a good example. Immediately after the first world war, the Italian working class launched a massive offensive which culminated in a nation-wide wave of factory occupations in the late summer of 1920. At the same time, the peasants were taking over the land of the big landowners for themselves, agricultural labourers were organising unions, and rural collectives were being set up. The Italian army was in a state of chaos and in June 1920 a regiment of crack troops mutinied at Ancona.

The situation was ripe for workers’ power. But nobody was ready to take it. The Italian Socialist Party was very far from being a revolutionary party and it was not prepared to lead a struggle for power. The factory occupations were called off with marginal gains. By November, one month after the revolutionary upsurge, the mood in the factories was one of despair.

During all this time, the fascists had been a tiny organisation which did not dare to attack the workers. Immediately demoralisation set in, they launched a murderous offensive, growing rapidly. The extent of demoralisation among Italian workers, unable to defend their wages and jobs, is vividly illustrated by the figures for trade union membership: In 1921 it stood at over 3,000,000 but by 1923 it was down to about 1,500,000. Faced with an enemy on the retreat, the fascists had a chance to grow and attack. They took it.

The growth of a fascist movement is not a simple and gradual one: crises by their very nature contain sharp twists and turns which throw masses of people into confusion and the fascists are effected by these rhythms as much as anyone. In the boom, there are very few real fascists and their influence is restricted to the fringes of society, but the beginnings of a crisis brings these small groups much more into the centre of the stage. They begin to publicise their ideas on a wider scale, and other right wing currents are won over to their ideas. At the same time, they begin to build up fighting organisations which cut their teeth strike-breaking and attacking workers’ meetings.

In the increasing instability, the fascists can grow very quickly. Mussolini’s fascists were a very small organisation in 1919, claiming only 35 branches and when they ran candidates in Milan they got only 5,000 votes. 12 months later, the fascists had 800 branches and 100,000 members and in 1921 they won 36 seats in the general election. By November 1921, when the fascist party itself was founded, it had 320,000 members.

At the same time as building up this mass membership, the fascists carried on a campaign of savage violence against workers. They began in late 1920 with an attack on the weak and new peasant unions, but by April 1921 they felt strong enough to burn down the Chamber of Labour in Turin – a stronghold of workers’ militancy.

When the social crisis reaches really intense proportions – in Germany about 20,000,000 people were dependent on unemployment pay in 1932 – the fascists move openly for political power. The size of their organisations continues to increase very quickly: the Nazi party vote shot up from 810,000 (a mere 2½ per cent of the total) in 1928 to 6½ million in 1930 and to nearly 14 million in 1932; they recruited 400,000 members in the year 1932 alone.

It is at this point that fascism’s relation to big business becomes crucial. If they are to finance such huge organisations, they need millions. Some capitalists are always ready to pay out money to fascist groups, either because they agree with their ideas or as payment for strike-breaking, but the seizure of power needs the support of the capitalist class as a whole. In order to get this support, the fascists have to convince the capitalists that they pose no threat to their profits and that they are capable of destroying all opposition.

Hitler had long received support from some big business men like the coal boss Kirdoff and the steel owner Thyssen, but he needed to convince wider sections of the ruling class. At a meeting of the ‘Industry Club’ in January 1932, he told the assembled capitalists exactly what he had in mind:

‘Unless Germany can master this internal division ... no measure of the legislature can stop the decline of the German nation ... Here is an organisation which is filled with an indomitable, aggressive spirit ... And when people cast in our teeth our intolerance, we proudly acknowledge it-yes, we have formed the inexorable decision to destroy marxism in Germany down to its very last root ...’ [2]

Hitler’s pleading convinced the capitalists, and the marks rolled in.

Fascist Ideology

IN THE COURSE of building a mass movement, the fascists say and do the most contradictory things. Although it is important for us to understand these ideas, it should be remembered that they matter very little to the fascists. The basis of a fascist movement is not analysis, consistency or thought but ‘action’. Provided that they can provide a certain glamour from mass meetings, paramilitary marches and the occasional brawl, the fascists can give their members the illusion of progress.

‘Action’ can mean different things to different people, and different things at different times. Just before he launched his attack on the working class, Mussolini claimed to support the wave of factory occupations, and at the founding conference of his party he said:

‘It is necessary to support the principles of the working class. Will they want the eight-hour day? And insurance for old age and sickness? A nd control of the factories? We will support all these demands, above all because we want, little by little, to make the working classes capable of directing the enterprises ... Economic democracy, that is our slogan!’

At the same time as he was saying this, negotiations were going on with the big landlords and employers for the finance needed for a physical attack on the working class.

In the course of its life, fascism shuffles together every myth and lie that the rotten history of capitalism has ever produced like a pack of greasy cards and then deals them out to whoever it thinks they will win. What is important is not the ideas in themselves, but the context in which they operate. Many of the ideas of fascism are the commonplaces of all reactionaries, but they are used in a different way. Fascism differs from the traditional right-wing parties like the British Conservative Party not so much in its ideas but in that it is an extra-parliamentary mass movement which seeks the road to power through armed attacks on its opponents.

The key ideas of a fascist movement are at root designed to blur class differences. The radical sounding ‘anti-capitalist’ rhetoric stops very short of being a class attack on capitalism as a system. The fascists concentrate their attacks on the financier as an unnatural ‘usurer’ who does nothing but suck

the blood of the hardworking. This is true, but the finance capitalist is part and parcel of modern capitalism, and to attack the root of finance capital it is necessary to attack capitalism as a whole. The fascist definition of who is hard working reveals their aims: they have nothing against the ‘productive capitalist’. What they are arguing when they attack finance capitalism is that workers should make an alliance with shareholders of British Leyland against the shareholders of Lloyds Bank.

Intense nationalism is another characteristic feature of fascism. The fascists argue that the problems of capitalism in their own country are really caused by nasty foreign capitalists. This is of course nonsense, for capitalism is an international system quite ready to exploit anyone anywhere, but it is a useful argument for fascists. It diverts workers from fighting the boss of their own company and his class while allowing them to rage against some distant foreign capitalist whom they can’t attack. The small businessman, too, has his rage directed from the monopolies in his own country to those far away, and to the ‘foreign agitators’ in the pay of foreign monopolies who stir up workers at home. Lastly, it fits the needs of big business which needs the state to prop up its profits in periods of crisis.

Racialism plays a similar role. Instead of the clear differences between worker and capitalist, the fascists argue that worker and capitalist are united in being of the same ‘race’ or ‘blood’. This is most convenient, as capitalists do well out of life, whereas the fascist supporter is poor or even starving. The anger of the fascist supporter is turned away from his real exploiters against workers of a different ‘race’.

None of these ideas is peculiar to fascism. In particular, not all fascist movements use racialism as a driving force. Italian fascism, apart from occasional rhetorical outbursts, was not officially anti-semitic until July 1938 – 16 years after it came to power, and in 1932 the Chief Rabbi of Italy was a member of the fascist party.

Racialism flourishes on feelings of primitive and irrational fear, but it is not in itself enough to provide the basis for a long term political movement. It is basically a passive attitude which may lead to insults and sporadic acts of violence, but it is not a force around which a massive attack on workers’ organisations can be launched. What racialism does provide is an excellent breeding ground for fascism: the mind which believes that the Black or the Jew is responsible for its misery is wide open to fascist ideas and a working class which is split along the lines of race is bound to be defeated and demoralised.

If the fascists can succeed in building up a solid core of middle-class support around these ideas, then they can drag towards them all sorts of other groups. The sheer momentum of a fascist movement which holds mass demonstrations which infuse its members with fire and enthusiasm acts as a powerful magnet to the crushed and exploited. The small farmer, the peasant, the criminal, the unemployed, even the backward worker, can all be dragged into the fascist movement.

How Fascism Can Be Beaten

THE TACTIC of colossal rallies and demonstrations, plus the powerful paramilitary apparatus, gives the fascists an appearance of great strength, and this has led many on the left to take a fatalistic attitude towards fighting fascism. The truth, however, is that for all their size fascist movements are very fragile. The groups they draw towards them are notoriously difficult to organise and liable to fly off at the first defeat. At the end of 1932, only weeks before taking power the German Nazi party nearly fell to pieces. It lost two million votes in the elections. Its finances were in a desperate state. Sections of stormtroopers went over to the Communist Party. Others mutinied in their-barracks. A well-organised offensive from the working class organisations at that point would have smashed it.

The hold of fascists over the industrial proletariat has in the past always been very weak. Although the Nazis claimed to be a workers’ party, the figures do not bear this out. Hitler was made Chancellor on 30 January 1933 and immediately launched a reign of terror against the German workers. In the elections to the factory councils two months later (in March) the results were: Social Democrats 73.4 per cent; Nazis 11.7 per cent; Catholics 7.6 per cent; Communists 4.9 per cent. Further election results were suppressed as they were too embarrassing to the Nazis. (The low vote of the Communists is explained by the fact that most of their members were unemployed. In 1932 only 8 per cent of their members had jobs in the Ruhr district, only 5 per cent in Kiel, and only 1 per cent in Lübeck. [3])

The organised industrial proletariat is rarely penetrated by the fascists and it provides a strong base for a counter attack. Unlike the fascists, the working class is disciplined and organised by the experiences of its daily life, and as a fighting force it is potentially far superior to a mass of lawyers, small shopkeepers and students. The problem is: will it use its strength?

The German working class, despite its defeats, remained very strongly organised. The SPD alone had a defence force – the Reichsbanner – which could mobilise 3,000,000 people, among them an armed wing of 500,000. In individual fights against the SA the German workers fought well and bravely. On 17 July 1932 the Nazis attempted to march through the working class town of Altona near Hamburg. They were ambushed by armed workers who opened fire from the rooftops. In the gunbattle which followed, 19 people were shot dead and 285 wounded. Courage and organisation were not absent – what was lacking was a leadership capable of defeating the fascists.

When Hitler was appointed Chancellor on 30 January 1933, there were spontaneous and violent demonstrations all over Germany. A meeting took place between the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, the trade union leaders and the commanders of the Reichsbanner. The latter presented the political leaders with a detailed plan for armed insurrection. The leaders rejected it and issued the order: ‘Keep calm, act legally.’

The Nazis unleashed two months of violent terror against workers. Fascists were drafted into the police and thousands of workers were rounded up, imprisoned or murdered.

‘Finally, on the night of March 5, the responsible leaders of the Reichsbanner divisions in the principle cities of Germany went to Berlin by motorcycle, begging to be given the order to fight. The received the reply: “Be calm! Above all, no bloodshed”.’ [4]

Obviously the leaders of a mass reformist party could not be relied upon to lead a fight against fascism, but better should be expected from the leadership of the Communist Party (KPD). The KPD was a mass organisation, although most of its members were unemployed. It undoubtedly organised the finest and most active of the German working class. It was also a tightly disciplined Stalinist Party. The KPD was not in a position to take power on its own, and its immediate problem was to win over the militant members of the SPD for a fight against the Nazis.

The tactics it adopted were the notorious ‘Third Period’ ones, which were more or less guaranteed to turn the Social Democratic workers against it. It branded the SPD as a ‘Social Fascist’ party and argued that Germany was already fascist. It organised breakaway ‘Red’ unions and on a number of occasions voted against the SPD in alliance with the Nazis. If you tell workers that they are already living under fascism, and in addition attack their unions as ‘social fascist’ unions it is impossible to win them to fight real fascism. The KPD too dug its own grave.

Things were not so bad for the leaders. Many of them could escape on forged passports to Moscow or Prague, but for the millions who supported them there was no easy way out. The backbone of the German working class was left exposed to the weight of Nazi terror without leaders and without a fight.

Only a strong and resolute revolutionary party can lead a real fight against fascism, for to fight fascism is to fight the system that breeds it. Only on the basis of class politics can workers be mobilised to fight fascism and only on the basis of the struggle for socialism can the potential supporters of fascism be won over. The victory of fascism is no more ‘inevitable’ than the victory of socialism. The outcome depends on the balance of forces on each side.

2. In the 1930s

FASCIST LEADERS love to portray themselves as the heroes of dramas. Hitler saw himself as a figure from Wagner’s operas. The theatrical inspiration of British fascism was the Punch and Judy Show. Compared with the massive European movements, the British fascist movements have been dwarfish, crude and almost amusing.

The conclusion which many writers draw is that the good sense and decency of the British people, or the peculiar virtues of the British Constitution, are responsible for this failure. The real reasons are quite different.

Fascism gained a number of followers in Britain. The end of the First World War saw a coalition of various rich eccentrics, retired Army officers and professional racists and anti-communists which formed the first fascist movements in Britain. These groups remained small, but they did organise some threatening actions. In March 1925 they kidnapped Harry Pollitt, then secretary of the Minority Movement, while he was travelling to its Liverpool conference. He was released unharmed, but the Fascists had proved that they meant business. However, British capitalism succeeded in breaking the power of organised workers a year later, when the union leaders sold out the General Strike. There was no real need for a massive fascist organisation, although many fascists were active in the government-run Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies which was set up to scab on the strike.

The crisis of the 1930s saw a new growth of fascism, and a movement developed in Britain which was, briefly, much more dangerous than those of the 1920s. The leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, had been one of the bright new stars of British parliamentary politics. He had entered politics as a Tory MP – quite natural for an enormously rich landowner – but he changed his party and became a Labour Minister in the 1928 Ramsey MacDonald government. He resigned when the government proved incapable of dealing with the economic crisis, and got a standing ovation from the 1930 Party Conference for his stand. He quickly moved from ‘Keynesian’ economic policies to fascism, and set out to build a mass party. He was able to gain support on a wide scale, and had considerable finance and massive publicity in the press. For a time, in 1933-4 it looked as though fascism in Britain was going to develop into a real force.

1932-3 was the low point of the Depression in Britain. Industrial production was back by a third compared with 1929 and unemployment rose until 23 per cent of the insured population were jobless. Even in the relatively prosperous South Eastern Area it hit 13.7 per cent. The Union leaders were busy in talks with government and the employers, while the rank-and-file, despite some bitter struggles, suffered wage-cut after wage-cut.

In these conditions, Mosley’s movement had an appeal to sections of the ruling class, the middle class and even some workers.

In the 1920s, the British ruling class had admired fascism in foreign countries but thought it unnecessary in Britain. Winston Churchill summed it up when he addressed Italian fascists in Rome in 1927: ‘If I had been an Italian, I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.’

In the depths of the depression, all this changed. It suddenly became fashionable for certain sections of the ruling-class to look to fascism to deal with problems in Britain. The most notable supporter of the Mosleyites was Lord Rothermere. His newspapers – the Daily Mail, the Evening News, the Sunday Dispatch and the Sunday Pictorial – supported the fascists to the hilt: ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ was the Daily Mail headline of 15 January 1934.

Rothermere was not alone in his attitude. According to Baroness Ravensdale, many leading Tories considered joining the fascists, and the Tory leader, Baldwin, had to appeal to Tories not to breakaway to joinMosley. The Mosleyites ran a very respectable upper-class front organisation called the January Club which organised monthly dinners at which Mosley and his lieutenants would speak. A large number of influential people attended these meetings and gave Mosley a sympathetic hearing. Although few were prepared to join, many gave the fascists support and some gave money – in this period Mosley was able to move into a big headquarters and employ a large staff of administrators and thugs. For a brief period, the British ruling class hesitated over the choice of a fascist solution.

Mosley was able to build up a political machine and he could hold large meetings in different parts of the country. The fascist HQ, in London housed a full-time ‘defence force’ of about 400, complete with transport to move them into action. At rallies all over the country they went into action together with the part-time blackshirts. At Belle Vue in October 1933 there were 2,000–2,500 uniformed blackshirts. At a meeting in Bristol in early 1934, there were 400–500 out of an audience of 2,000. At Sheffield there was a meeting of 3,000 stewarded by 300 blackshirts. The high point of the growth of the British Union of Fascists was the Olympia rally of June 1934, when Mosley was able to address 15,000 people, including leading Tory MPs. Many upper and middle class people were impressed by these displays of force and the savage violence with which hecklers and counter-demonstrators were attacked. It was obvious that Mosley meant business.

Olympia, however, was the high point of Mosley’s attempt to build a mass movement. From that point on support for the BUF began to decline. In particular, the upper class supporters began to drift away. There have been a number of explanations for this. One is that Mosley revealed his anti-semitism at this point and thus frightened away his respectable upper-class supporters like Rothermere. This explanation hardly fits the facts. Anti-semitism had always been a part of the BUF’s message, although it was slightly veiled at the time of the Mosley-Rothermere alliance. Rothermere was prepared to excuse Hitler’s policy for the Jews, but he was not an ardent supporter of out-and-out anti-semitism in Britain, and Mosley was prepared to put money and publicity before ‘principle’ during his alliance with Rothermere. The bulk of the ruling class remained very friendly towards Hitler until he began to threaten their own imperialist interests, and no one could mistake the anti-semitism of his policies.

When the Nazi persecution led to attempts at emigration from Germany and Austria, the response of the British ruling class was to tighten the Aliens Act to prevent Jewish refugees from finding shelter in Britain.

Another mistaken explanation is the view that a peculiar ‘British’ distaste for violence turned the ruling class against Mosley. The British ruling class has never been against violence, and at this time was using it regularly against workers in India. In Britain, the violent intentions of the blackshirts had been apparent from the beginning, but when it was proposed that political uniforms be banned in 1934, there was no support for the measure in the House of Commons. The police continued to safeguard the streets for fascists and to beat up and arrest left-wing counter-demonstrators. The parliament which refused to take steps against the fascists passed the Incitement to Disaffection Bill aimed at the left (still in force) and the police were enforcing a ban on left-wing meetings outside of the labour exchanges.

There is a much more convincing explanation for the change of heart among the wealthy sympathisers of the BUF. By the summer of 1934, Britain was emerging from the worst of the depression under a conventional Tory government and without any great upsurge of trade union activity. The ruling class was doing very well indeed without Mosley and had little need to take the risks involved in his methods.

The slump of the 1930s was a terrible experience for millions of working people, but it was far less disastrous for the British ruling class than for many of their foreign rivals. The British economy was already in a depressed state in 1921, with unemployment never less than 10 per cent and with the traditional industries of mining, shipbuilding and textiles in continual decline. The slump was less of a shock than elsewhere, and from 1934 onwards there was considerable growth of new industries in the South East and the Midlands. While the traditional export industries rotted and rusted, the economy as a whole was helped by the ruin of the economies of the British Empire. Millions could sweat and starve in Africa and Asia to maintain the profits of the British capitalist class.

The contrast between the situation in Britain and that in Germany is shown by the figures for manufacturing production:














While manufacturing production in Germany fell by 40 per cent in three years, in Britain it fell by ‘only’ 20 per cent. This meant that British big business was never driven to the same desperate measures as its German competitors.

The British middle class suffered far less than their German class brothers. In Germany the middle class was driven to despair as they saw their savings eaten up and their businesses driven into bankruptcy. For much of the British middle class, the 1930s was a period of relative prosperity when they could think for the first time of buying a house and even a small car. They were not driven mad by desperation, and the Tory party was a more natural vehicle for their ingrained prejudices than a fascist organisation.

In Britain too, the working class was very much less of a danger to profits than in Germany. Despite the betrayals and defeats, the organisations of the German working class were still immensely strong in 1932-3. They provided German workers with possible weapons for resisting the cuts in living standards needed to restore profit rates. In Britain, by contrast, 10 years of depression in industry and fairly high unemployment meant that the working class was finding it very difficult to recover from the defeat inflicted in 1926. Many workers had lost faith in the ability of political or industrial action to deal with their problems and were quite incapable of resisting wage cuts.

Under these conditions, British capitalism could survive without fascism. The measures it needed to save its profits were not quite as extreme as those in Germany and working-class resistance was less intense. The ‘moderate’ Conservatism of Baldwin, plus occasional police violence rather than the regular use of fascist terror, could rescue British capitalism.

His ruling class supporters turned away from Mosley by the middle of 1934, although they were not hostile to the ideas of the BUF. They no longer saw Mosley as an immediate candidate for power, but they kept him in reserve, just in case they needed him later. In these circumstances, Mosley could not hope for political power, but he could still build a sizeable movement which could push official politics to the right and wait in the wings for the next economic crisis. Everybody expected the next slump to come quickly and to be very severe: with a firm base, Mosley could hope to attract financial support from big business and to win over a large section of the middle class. But Mosley’s hopes in this respect were smashed by the organised activity of the left wing.

Even after the slump was over, there were large areas of the country with high levels of unemployment and little prospect of recovery: in 1934 (a year of ‘improvement’) 37 per cent of the work force in Glamorgan and 36 per cent in Monmouth were out of work, and the same sort of conditions persisted in the Lowlands of Scotland and the North East of England. In all of these areas, the fascists tried hard to win support but instead of a welcome all they got was a hail of bricks and bottles. The traditions of the labour movement and the use of organised force by the left wing stopped the fascists gaining a hearing, let alone a serious foothold. When the BUF attempted to organise a big rally in Tonypandy in South Wales the meeting broke up in disorder after less than 30 minutes. The police restored ‘order’, arresting only left-wing demonstrators. The ensuing court cases were legal frame-ups of a long list of the best militants in the South Wales labour movement.

Mosley was faced with failure: apart from some branches in the seaside towns to which Army officers and businessmen retired, he had no real support. In order to maintain his movement, he decided to concentrate all his resources in one area, hoping to be able to build a strong enough base during the relatitive prosperity to enable him to launch a mass movement when the economy returned to slump conditions. The area he chose for this concentrated drive was the East End of London.

The East End

ON THE FACE of it, this was a good choice. In the 1930s the East End was the equivalent to the sort of areas in which the National Front tries to organise today. The area had a huge immigrant population: at the end of the Nineteenth Century hundreds of thousands of Jews, fleeing from the pogroms of the Tsarist empire had settled in London, chiefly in the East End.

Housing in the area was terrible, with huge decaying tenement blocks packed to bursting with workers’ families. Poverty was widespread: nearly one sixth of the population lived below the official poverty level – which was little above the starvation line. The area was packed with small sweatshops employing handfuls of workers at low wages and in bad conditions: trade unionism was almost unknown in the area outside of some of the larger industries. Anti-semitism had for long been used by established right-wing politicians in the area as a means of gaining votes. If there was anywhere in Britain the BUF could build up a base, it was the East End.

The BUF poured the bulk of its resources into the area. Every night there was a rowdy street meeting, usually ending in a punch-up with Communists or Jewish workers. The best speakers were sent into the area. A flood of anti-semitic propaganda aimed at the East End poured from the BUF presses. The full-time ‘defence force’ was constantly mobilised to ‘protect’ meetings or to carry out anti-semitic provocations. Plush premises were opened in key areas and well-paid full-timers sent in to organise the work.

All this effort began to pay dividends. At the first big East End rally in June 1936 there were 3,000–5,000 Mosleyite supporters. In the London County Council elections of 1937 the BUF picked up 7,500 votes in Bethnal Green – 23 per cent of the poll. In Limehouse they won 19 per cent and in Shoreditch 14 per cent. The votes were based on a purely racist platform – the message was best expressed in the marching chant of the BUF: ‘Yids, yids, we’ve got to get rid of the yids’. (It tells us a lot about the present day National Front that they have taken over that slogan with one minor change. On demonstrations they chant: ‘Reds, reds, we’ve got to get rid of the reds’.)

However, the BUF was after more than votes. They were interested in trying to build up a real and stable base by physically dominating the area. Votes had to be complemented by the use of violence. They began to win recruits; Phil Piratin recalls that: ‘the BUF won recruits, particularly among the younger elements in Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Stepney.’ These recruits were quite clear as to what they were joining. The BUF set out to create a reign of terror in the Jewish areas of the East End. A News Chronicle reporter wrote at the time that the situation for Jews was one of: ‘bolted doors, lighted fireworks being thrown into the windows of Jewish shops, threatening letters, and people frightened to, go out.’ Piratin sums up the BUF campaign:

‘Jews were attacked every time they were outnumbered or in no position to defend themselves, such as elderly people or children. Strife and tension characterised the atmosphere in East London in those years.’

Goebbels, the chief Nazi propagandist and a man who knew a lot about the subject, had summed up the key to the fascist strategy: ‘Whoever controls the streets also conquers the masses and whoever conquers the masses thereby conquers the state.’ The aim of the BUF in East London was to put this into practice by gaining control of the streets of the area. That was the logic of their attempt to march through the area which led to the famous Battle of Cable Street in October 1936. This was to be the decisive demonstration that Mosley and his thugs controlled the area.

The official leaders of the labour movement presented no obstacles to Mosley’s plans. The Labour Party and the TUC leadership issued formal warnings about the dangers of fascism, but they refused outright to have anything to do with direct organisation against the BUF. The National Council of Labour sent a letter to all affiliated bodies urging them to stay away from the counter-demonstration to Mosley’s Hyde Park Rally in 1934, and the TUC-run Daily Herald complained that counter-demonstrations only advertised fascism. The same story was repeated in the period before the planned march in 1936. If the Labour leaders had had their way, Mosley would have marched through empty streets. The former Labour leader George Lansbury – who in his day had been ready to go to prison on a point of principle – advised ‘all anti-fascists’ to stay away. So did the Labour Party, the TUC and the Daily Herald.

The rank and file of the Labour movement showed better judgement. More than 100,000 workers turned out onto the streets of the East End to stop Mosley marching. The fascists never even started to march. The police repeatedly attacked the anti-fascists in an attempt to clear a path for Mosley and fought pitched battles around barricades at Gardiner’s Corner and in Cable Street. After several hours of fighting, the police were beaten – Mosley did not pass.

The dramatic story of Cable Street has been told many times and it is a popular legend among socialists. Unfortunately, too many people tell the story without learning the lessons. Cable Street was a great victory for the Labour movement, and a massive defeat for fascism, but it did not stop the BUF working in the East End. Immediately after Cable Street, the fascists launched another offensive in an effort to gain ‘revenge’. In one incident: ‘a gang of one hundred youths burst into the Mile End Road, smashing windows of Jewish shops and homes and assaulting everyone in sight they thought was Jewish.’ One of their great victories was to throw a four-year-old girl through a shop window; her injuries cost her the sight of one eye. Defeating the BUF was much more than one big demonstration. Even that demonstration itself did not just happen as a result of mass spontaneous hatred for fascism. It was made possible by the hard work of organisation and preparation.

What Made Cable Street Possible ?

THE LEADING FORCE in working class opposition to fascism was the Communist Party. All the reasons which made the East End a good area for the BUF made it difficult for socialists to organise. The Communist Party had worked long and hard in the area, and had made some headway. It had been particularly successful in leading the unemployed workers’ struggles, and its employed members were active in their workplaces. But this was not the same thing as having the sort of mass base necessary to prevent the fascists dominating the area.

The problem which faced the Communist Party was that it was possible to drive groups of fascists off the streets by physical force, but that left unresolved the problem of how to prevent the fascists picking up working class recruits when the relatively weak forces of the Communist Party were not present. As Piratin, a leading member of the Party in the area summed it up:

‘While the Communists were clear in their opposition to fascism, the problem was to prevent this opposition becoming more and more vexed. To expose the fascists, to rouse the workers to refuse to give them a hearing, to carry out propaganda, to expose the National Government as the main enemy of the people which was deliberately inflicting the fascists upon them-these activities built up the anti-fascist movement. But were they enough?

‘I remember the constant discussions in the Stepney branch committee of the Communist Party. There were those who said “Bash the fascists whenever you see them.” Others among us used to ask ourselves: How was Mosley able to recruit Stepney workers? This in spite of our propaganda exposing the fascists. If they saw in the fascists an answer to their problems, why? Did we in our propaganda offer a solution? Was propaganda itself sufficient? Was there more that ought to be done?’ [5]

The local Party branch was only able to come to terms with these questions by understanding that the fascists were picking up support by promising to give a lead on issues which affected people deeply and on which nobody was prepared to give a class lead. The Communist Party was able to undercut the basis of support for the fascists by giving a lead to real struggles over these issues and by carrying the struggle into the areas where the fascists already had support. A large part of the Party membership had to be won to these ideas first, as most were advocates of simple physical force in dealing with fascism, but at last the party began to take up the problem of destroying the fascist.base.

The Communist Party had a good knowledge of those areas in East London which were ‘Red’ (i.e. a strong Communist Party), which were ‘Pink’ (i.e. Communist and Labour Party strength) and which were ‘Black’ (i.e. strong Fascist support). The Communist Party resisted the temptation to concentrate on those areas where it could make easy gains. Instead, while maintaining its base, it opened an offensive in the ‘Black’ areas of known fascist strength. This was difficult and sometimes dangerous work, but it offered people influenced by fascist ideas an alternative way forward. They could compare the ideas of the two groups in practice.

The issues which the Communist Party took up were three. They worked hard to unionise new areas of workers. This was difficult as there were so many small employers, and the traditions of trade union organisation were very weak. It took long and hard work to establish even minimal organisation, but in the end successes were gained. The second area was unemployment. The Communist Party was already active in this area, but in some places the fascists had attempted to organise. They had plenty of money to bribe starving workers to support them, and they began to pick up recruits. The Communist Party had to break out of the routine of organising in those areas where it already had strength and to go into the fascist strongholds. Its tactics of militant confrontation with the ‘Poor Law’ authorities produced results which the fascists could not match with their bribes and rhetoric. The fascist base was cut away here too.

The third, and most important, area was housing. The slums of East London were terrible, and the landlords as bad as any that are around today. The fascists had begun to make some headway by denouncing ‘Jewish’ landlords, and were picking up recruits in the ‘Black’ areas. The Communist Party concentrated its efforts in the areas of known fascist strength.

Their very first success showed the difference between the two policies. Quite by chance, the Communist Party found two families who were threatened with eviction – they were both members of the BUF. They asked them what the fascists were doing to stop the evictions, and, of course, got the answer: ‘Nothing’. Members of the Communist Party helped the tenants in the block to organise resistance against the police and bailiffs who came to enforce the eviction order. After a successful battle and concessions from the landlords, the two families tore up their BUF membership cards. In the test of action, the class politics of the Communist Party proved clearly superior to the windy rhetoric of the BUF. The success was vigorously followed up. Communist Party . members organised thousands of tenants, sometimes around issues which, at first sight, appeared trivial, but about which people felt very strongly. The Communist Party went from strength to strength; support for the fascists ebbed away.

It was on the basis of this sort of political support that the Communist Party was able to mobilise so successfully for the street fight against the fascists. The support they managed to get can be judged from the story of one incident. A Communist Party member was walking through Whitechapel when he found the fascists holding a meeting unopposed. He rushed into a packed local cinema, bought a ticket and ran to the front in the middle of the performance. The man, Barney Becow, had a powerful voice, and he shouted out above the soundtrack: ‘Fascists in Whitechapel; Communist Party calls all out!’ The cinema emptied as the audience – apart from the elderly and infants – rushed out into the street. They ran the fascists out of the East End, and then all returned to watch the rest of the programme.

The political and physical struggle against fascism were closely interlocked – one was impossible without the .other. So successful were the Communist Party that when the lower middle class owner-occupiers began to move against jerry-builders and mortgage companies the Communist Party was at the head of the movement. This group was a ‘natural’ base for the fascists, but the leader who emerged was a Communist Party member.

The lessons of the defeat of the most determined campaign ever carried out by fascists in Britain are very simple. Unless militant Socialists are prepared to lead struggles over issues which various groups – including working people – feel strongly about, then the fascists will pick up supporters. Only if this political fight is waged at the same time will the direct physical confrontation with the,fascists bring results.

By the time the left really began to confront the fascists seriously on the streets, the possibility of the fascists moving rapidly to the political dominance was already past. A relatively prosperous ruling class did not need the methods of fascism. But the driving of the fascists from the streets was nevertheless important. It meant that Mosley was never able to build up a stable political base from which to prepare future challenges for power. It meant that fascism never existed as a political current of importance, even a minority political current, weakening the working class movement and pushing political life to the right. The recovery of British capitalism prevented Mosley making any real bid for power. But it was organised action on the streets that prevented him remaining around as a force to be reckoned with.

3. The Fascists Today

THE POSTWAR YEARS were lonely ones for the British fascists. A small rump of Mosleyites remained active, and occasionally they would find a small audience for their anti-semitic and anti-black verbiage. Full employment and rising living standards denied them any chance of a mass base. The climax of their activity was to scrawl ‘Mosley or Slump’ on walls in working class districts – but the slump never came and the fascists lost even their previous support in the East End.

Mosley lived abroad most of the time, in palatial splendour outside Paris, waiting in hope that times would change and his hour would come. Meanwhile, his followers’ attempts to spread his ideas on the streets were physically prevented by the left and the Jewish organisations.

Mosley thought his time had come in 1958–9, after the race riots in Nottingham and Netting Hill. At the end of August and the beginning of September 1958, hundreds of white youths armed with sticks, iron bars and knives were roaming the streets around Netting Hill Gate and attacking isolated West Indians. Mosley’s supporters, now organised in the ‘Union Movement’, were quickly on the scene, leafleting the area with the message ‘Get the Blacks out’ and holding meetings at Latimer Road Station and other places where the rioters had assembled (Times, 3.9.58).

The street riots did not last long, but Mosley saw his. chance. 177 people had been arrested in the largest racialist disturbances since the 1930s. Mosley returned to England and attempted to build in Notting Hill as he had built in the East End before the war. The climax of his campaign was standing as parliamentary candidate for North Kensington in the election of 1959. During the campaign his propaganda was openly racialist:

‘sordid tales of sexual offences by coloured men, spiced by such nasty remarks as that West Indians provided cheap labour because they could at a pinch live off a tin of Kit-E-Kat a day ...’ [6]

It seemed he was enjoying considerable success. Speaking four times a week, ‘he was frequently able to command a crowd of about 600’. [7]

His campaign seemed able to gain a hearing that the main parties could not.

‘It was he (Mosley) alone who managed to rouse the enthusiasm of teenagers. Day in, day out throughout the campaign one saw as through a flashback nightmare, the birth of fascism in miniature. [8]

In the election, however, Mosley came bottom of the poll, with 2,821 votes, 8.1 per cent of the total, and he was unable to build much out of it. His movement does not seem to have gained any base in the area and it did not stand in subsequent elections. Racialism certainly had a strong grip on many voters, but the conditions of unemployment and despair which could drive them onto the streets for more than a few nights, or make them break their old political allegiances, did not yet exist.

The main result of the Notting Hill riots and of the fascist intervention was to push the other political parties to the right over the immigration issue. As the fascists shifted their emphasis from traditional ‘jew-baiting’ to attacks on the blacks, established political parties discovered reasons for introducing racialist legislation, hoping to steal the thunder of the far right. As the post-war boom faltered in the sixties, so the demand for cheap labour which had previously been met by immigration fell off, and racialist legislation could be pushed through without treading too heavily on the toes of big business. For a tiny group of people, changing national policy might seem a big victory, but in reality the fascists gained nothing from it. They failed to establish themselves as a permanent political force.

The new generation of fascist leaders who emerged faced the same problem which had dogged the Mosleyites. Their ideas and actions were modelled on pre-war continental fascism, but conditions were such that they were unable to build the sort of mass movement they longed for. It takes more than a few Swastikas and ‘pure Aryan blood’ to build a mass movement. The present leaders of the National Front faced this dilemma: John Tyndall and Martin Webster helped Colin Jordan set up the National Socialist Movement. It proclaimed that: ‘The only basis for Britain’s future greatness is Aryan, predominantly Nordic blood. It is the first duty of the state to protect and improve this blood’, and Webster boasted: ‘We are setting up a well-oiled Nazi machine in this country’. [9] Both Jordan and Tyndall were busy organising Nazi training camps in Gloucestershire and were imprisoned in October of that year for controlling a paramilitary organisation called ‘Spearhead’.

Small groups isolated from real action tend to split, and the British fascists were no exception. Tyndall and Webster broke away from Jordan a year later to form the Greater Britain Movement. They were still firmly rooted in the old fascist tradition, celebrating Hitler’s birthday and denouncing the growing conspiracy of ‘Jew-Communism’. The first public act of the new organisation was an assault on President Kenyatta during a state visit to London for which Webster was imprisoned. That sort of activity did not fit in with the plans of the, ruling class and the police kept a watch on them. A raid on the headquarters of the movement in 1967 led to Tyndall’s imprisonment for the unlawful possession of a gun and ammunition.

All the fascist groups active at the time failed to make any real inroads. It was possible to gain electoral support on the basis of racialism. The British National Party, led by John Bean, had limited but significant success on these terms: in the 1966 general election its candidates in Deptford and Southall got 7 per cent and 7.4 per cent of the vote respectively. This compares well with current National Front votes, but it was hardly better than the votes obtained by Mosleyites in Handsworth (Birmingham) with 4.1 per cent, Shoreditch with 4.6 per cent or South West Islington with 3.3 per cent.

What the fascists could not do was to translate this electoral support into activity on the streets. Without this sort of perspective, even their electoral base tended to disintegrate: it is interesting to note that Southall and Deptford, which had a high fascist vote in 1966, did not return high fascist votes in 1974.

The fascists were caught in a contradiction between their hard-core activists and their electoral base. The fascist ‘cadre’ of activist supporters were motivated by bitterness and a desire for ‘action’. Seven or eight per cent of votes in an election do not provide that even in parliamentary terms. They were nowhere near strong enough for real ‘action’ – marching on the streets and physically attacking blacks, Jews or trade unionists. Their ambitions therefore went unfulfilled and it was all too easy for them to drop out of active politics. Their voting base, on the other hand, were people who had deeply ingrained racialist prejudices, but they were not ready-made storm-troopers. They were prepared to vote for fascist candidates, but they were not driven by economic desperation to the point where they would work heart and soul for the movement, especially if there were risks of physical counter-attacks from the left wing.

This contrast was shown most clearly in 1968. When Enoch Powell made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, attacking immigrants, there were a number of one day strikes and demonstrations from different groups of workers who supported him. The fascists thought they had an opportunity of gaining a mass base. For a short period, they were leading marches, recruiting, and winning support in new areas. The mood did not last long: within months, they were organising national demonstrations which attracted only a couple of hundred supporters, and in the 1970 election their votes, as a percentage of the total poll in each area, were no greater than four years before.

The Formation of the National Front

FACED WITH these problems, the leading fascists looked for a new strategy, and out of this re-orientation came the National Front The multitude of small fascist groups which had existed in the 1960s began to merge. The new Front had a much wider geographical coverage than its predecessors and were able to run 50 candidates in 1974 as against eight fascists in 1966.

The quantitative growth assisted the new line. The strategy of the National Front leadership seems to have been to build up their electoral base and membership by attracting ‘passive’ racialist support through electoral and other activities. In doing this, they have attempted to present themselves as a respectable party alongside the other parties. To gain this new electoral image they have tried to play down the more vicious measures to which they are committed – thus their election manifesto this year spoke of ‘repatriation by the most humane means possible’.

The ‘soft’ mask worn for public consumption does not mean that the leaders have abandoned their long-term aims, and the mask itself keeps slipping to show the skull beneath. The first chairman of the Front, the ex-Mosleyite A.K. Chesterton, resigned because:

‘I had had more than enough of stamping out nonsense such as plots to set fire to synagogues. Two per cent of the members of the National Front are really evil men ... Some of these men are close to the centre of things.’

The next chairman, the ex-Tory John O’Brien, also resigned, complaining that

‘there is a small caucus working within the National Front attracted by the trappings and ideologies of foreign nationalisms from the past. These people see Britain’s future best served by her becoming a rigidly administered, authoritarian police state. They sought to use me as a docile puppet behind whose respectability they could operate from the shadows.’

According to O’Brien, these men ‘were now in the leadership of the National Front.’ [10] When he was chairman, he received information that ‘members of the National Front were going over to Germany, seeing ex-Nazis and ex-members of the SS and taking part in their reunions.’

The ‘soft’ image has aided the NF in its attempts to penetrate the traditional Tory far right via the Monday Club. For a time this policy was fairly successful. When the Monday Club organised a ‘Battle of Britain Rally’ in September 1972 the stewards were National Front thugs with truncheons under their jackets. The NF monthly magazine Spearhead claimed ‘this was the first time Tory MPs joined what was in effect a National Front march.’

The National Front penetration of the Monday Club was resisted by the old leadership of right-wing Tories. Last year the struggle came to a head over the election of officers. The Club virtually disintegrated when Scotland Yard were called in to ‘investigate attempts by outside bodies to interfere with elections’.

Another tactic employed by the National Front has been that of dabbling, like the Liberals, with community politics. Typically, the local paper in Crawley, Sussex, reports that the National Front organiser is trying to form an association which campaigns for housing rights for young people. In South London the National Front have taken part in the ‘Deptford forum’ which was set up to challenge the S.E. London dock development scheme.

Presenting a face that ‘cares’ serves to cement together the election machine and defuse associations with a vulgar past. It attracts regular local and sometimes national press coverage. The National Front are obsessed with their press coverage. Spearhead runs a letter-of-the-month competition where the best National Front signed letter to a local paper is reproduced.

The strategy of the National Front has led to important gains compared with previous fascist groupings. They have built up a national organisation, no longer confined to a few small groups in different localities, and they have established themselves as the leading racialist organisation. At the same time they have been able to recruit people who would have been put off by the openly Nazi image – even if only by nationalist memories from the Second World War.

The best example of their success is their increasing presence in industry. In the past twelve months IS members have reported National Front members at work in bus garages, docks, and in engineering plants. The reports follow a similar pattern with race as the only unifying factor. At Park Royal Vehicles in North West London National Front members organised a petition to ‘keep Uganda Asians out’. An IS busman reports from Blackburn that National Front members refused to work with an Asian busman who was sacked and then re-instated, although there was no support for the National Front on this issue even after one of their members had been suspended over it.

A TGWU convenor reports from London airport how he discovered that a TGWU shop steward was in the National Front when the steward tried to squeeze an Asian out of his job on the grounds that he wasn’t in the union. It turned out that the worker was in the union but belonged to the wrong branch. The AUEW convenor of Edbro Engineering in Bolton stood as a National Front candidate at the recent local elections. When the local AUEW District Committee tried to convene a disciplinary tribunal, the shopfloor signed a petition stating that their convenor could stand for whoever he liked.

The leaders of the National Front see industry as one of the key areas for their work. As John Tyndall, now national chairman, explained: ‘The intention of the National Front is to do what the Tories have not done and cannot do, to fight the left on its own ground in the unions and wrest control of the unions from it.’ In line with this, recent issues of their journal Spearhead and their paper Britain First have devoted a great deal of space to ‘communism’ in industry and elsewhere.

Much of this material is undoubtedly designed to educate their own members and to give them a common fascist policy, for the task of organising in industry is not an easy one for the National Front. Their members in industry do not form a homogeneous group. Some of them are scabs, some are apathetic and a few are militant on economic issues. Only their common racialist views hold them together and they are too easily split on other issues.

The difficulty is increased as the contradictory views of the membership are reflected by the contradictory views of the leadership. Spearhead, for instance, supported the Industrial Relations Act, advocates compulsory ballots for strikers, and described the Shrewsbury pickets as ‘criminal thugs’. Yet at the same time it claimed to support the miners and to oppose Phase Three.

‘Communist inspired’ trade union leaders are condemned for acting from selfish motives, but care is taken to make the point that neither trade union leaders nor their members actually cause strikes or in any way contribute to inflationary crises:

‘So long as the worker sees the value of his wage packet going down every week in the face of rocketing prices, fust what alternative has he to putting in more and more claims for higher pay? He is the victim of an unjust economic system entirely outside his control; he can only use the weapons known to him.’ (Spearhead 64)

The problem for the leaders of the Front is to stop their members and supporters taking seriously the contradictions of their statements on industrial issues. This the Front attempt to do on wider ideological grounds by presenting a picture of the world in which ‘international finance’ and its ‘communist allies’ are the enemies to be fought against by an alliance of British workers and productive British capitalists. They speak of a struggle:

‘Against a massively powerful international organisation ... which has in its grasp all the modern apparatus of political power beginning with control of most of the world’s money and by means of that, ex tending down through the agencies of propaganda and thought control, espionage and assassination, industrial unrest and street violence, and which has at its service a sizeable number of people who are fanatics at their particular vocations.’ (Spearhead 36)

The conspiratorial elite comprises liberals, left wingers and communists who, allied with international financial power, are said to control the press, television and the universities so that the truth about communism promoting violent upheaval can be kept secret.

In pre-war days the linkman between international finance and communism was the Jew. This is not stated explicitly in National Front propaganda. Instead anti-semitic publications are advertised as recommended reading for National Front members and the role of Jews in the news is commented on.

The conspiracy leads to a continual running down of our national culture and heritage. The main aim of patriots must be to expose the conspiracy and to defend the national culture and become ‘aware of the links of men of our race of the past and of the future.’

But the main pre-occupation of Spearhead is its fanatical contempt for black people. Almost all references are cruel and insulting. Its images associate blacks with leprosy, cannibalism, rat worship, polygamy, living on national assistance, assaults on children and adults, drug taking, rape and murder, communism, incompetence and aggression by coloured doctors and nurses, disgusting eating habits and Mau Mau rituals.

Certainly it is racialism which forms the main basis for the Front’s support in industry. Its main hope here lies in the de facto segregation that characterises many workplaces. The trend in many industries has been for black people to work at labouring or semi-skilled jobs, while skilled positions have remained the preserve of whites.

Since the skilled trades have also tended to dominate the local union organisation, blacks have been effectively excluded both from the best jobs and from an adequate means of defending their wages and conditions. It has been very easy for racialists among the white workforce to present the demands of blacks for improved conditions and for access to training for skilled jobs as a threat to the white workers, and for them to use the machinery of the union to back up their racist position. This was the pattern which underlay at least three disputes in the last year: the Mansfield Hosiery strike, the Standard Telephone strike in North London, and the Imperial Typewriters strike in Leicester.

The Strength of the National Front

THE NATIONAL Front has been more successful than any fascist group since the war, but it is important not to overestimate its strength. The claim of 20,000 members hardly holds water. The largest of its street demonstrations has not been above 1,000 strong, and its meetings are in small halls like the Conway Hall in London rather than the massive ones like Olympia or the Albert Hall which Mosley could fill in the 1930s.

The electoral support of the Front is much larger, but this too should not be exaggerated. In the last general election the Front received only about 3 per cent of the vote. Even in the areas in which it did particularly well – West Bromwich, Newham South and Leicester East – the vote was no better than that for Mosley in North Kensington in 1959 or for the British National Party in Deptford and Southall in 1966. More importantly, most of this vote cannot be called a genuinely fascist vote. The vote is overwhelmingly that of people who are deeply racialist but who are not yet likely to go out on the streets to attack black people or the labour movement.

If the leaders of the Front are to succeed in turning this support into a genuine mass base for a fascist movement it is the power to mobilise on the streets which must be their goal. If they cannot do this, then they will be unable either to give their supporters purpose and direction or be a useful weapon for big business in a period of crisis. They will be caught in the same trap as other traditional right-wing parties.

The leaders of the National Front are well aware of this problem. A circular recently sent to all National Front branches by the leadership reveals a deep division of opinion between the hardline fascists at the centre and many of those who have organised the electoral support In the circular, Webster complains that:

‘It has come to the attention of Party Headquarters that some populist elements in the Party are bent on a change of policy for the sake of votes. They are blaming Party HQ and myself for the apparent lack of success in the General Election ... It is precisely what “they” want. One word for this sort of view is compromise, a better word is sabotage. We should not trim our sails to Populist demands. Who needs the middle ground? The problem of immigration is race not numbers.’ [11]

Having built the Front into a viable national formation by ‘watering down’ its policies, the hard-line Nazis around Webster and Tyndall now seem concerned to ensure that it still has a firm fascist core. In recent issues of their publications, more and more stress has been laid on the need to confront the left physically, and opposition to ‘communism’ has caught up with anti-black filth as the most popular subject for articles.

Fighting the Fascists

ONE OF the reasons for the leaders of the National Front hardening their attitude in recent months is that they see the period ahead as one which will give them far greater opportunities than at any time since the war. The signs of crisis are so plain that even a fascist can see them. The threat of heavy unemployment and the escalation of inflation mean that in the future large numbers of people will become ever more bitter and discontented and driven into desperation of a kind not known for years. The fascists hope to benefit from this.

The National Front’s aim in building electorally, in the factories, and on the streets is to prove to the ruling class that it is capable of coming to the aid of capitalism in a crisis.

This perspective means that the fight against the influence of the Front is one that the revolutionary left cannot ignore. If they can build up a viable base now, before the crisis matures, they will become a real danger at a later stage.

It is important, however, not to overemphasise the role which the Front can play at the present time. Some sections of the left see the fascists, rather than the ruling class and its state machine, as the main enemy. The trouble with this perspective is that it leads to important practical mistakes which can, in the long run, aid the fascists.

At present the National Front is a potential rather than a real force in most situations in the class struggle. The Front is far too small, and not nearly well-organised enough, to be of much real assistance to the employers, and they themselves are not yet in such desperate straits as to turn to a fascist solution. The power of the organised workers is such that even the most vicious of the big employers prefer to rely on the trade union bureaucracy or, in the last resort, the state machine. Faced with a strike, Lord Stokes will phone up a Jack Jones or a Hugh Scanlon, not a Martin Webster or a Colin Jordan.

The main task for the revolutionary left is therefore the struggle to increase the confidence, organisation and self-activity of the class, and the main obstacle remains the grip of reformism and the trade union bureaucracies. The central focus of the struggle is not the struggle against fascism.

If the fascists were a real threat to the lives of black people or to the work of trade unionists, then large numbers of workers would be forced into the struggle against it. The fight against fascism would for them be a question of life or death. In those circumstances the anti-fascist struggle would become the litmus test distinguishing those who were serious about fighting for workers’ interests from those who were not.

In the present period, while the fascist forces remain small, the problem is a different one. It is easy for many in the trade union movement to make rhetorical speeches about fighting fascism without having to do anything about it. People who are very radical in denouncing fascism can at the same time be completely silent on the immediate problems facing the working class. It is one thing to state an opposition to fascism, but it is quite another to fight consistently against the system that breeds it. The lower ranks of the trade union bureaucracy can be very strong in its condemnation of the National Front and at the same time refuse to lead a consistent fight against racialism on the factory floor, or remain silent about the behaviour of Jones and Scanlon. It is the failure of the Scanlons and Joneses to put up a real fight for their members’ interests, which are laying the basis for disillusionment and despair within the working class movement. If that situation arises, then the fascists will be able to gain support on a large scale.

The struggle against the National Front has to be taken up by the left, but it is not the main priority in the present period. It is certainly not a substitute for fighting the ruling class and those who aid it. Despite the more alarmist voices on the left, the National Front is not yet able to mobilise a mass of storm-troopers to crush the labour movement. It is at present trying to build a firm base which can make it a force of national importance when the crisis forces vast numbers of people into political activity. It is our task to prevent it building such a base.

We can do this in a number of ways:

ONE: The Front has to be kept off the streets. A fascist organisation that cannot take to the streets cannot gather support behind it. The marching with drums and flags and banners is an important part of the fascists’ appeal. It gives excitement and purpose to the crushed and hopeless, and it forms the ‘action’ they are longing for. Preventing such displays has always been a vital factor in the fight against fascism. An important part of the reason why Mosley could not gather support in the areas of really high unemployment in the 1930s was because the labour movement physically prevented him from speaking. The lack of a similar response to the National Front has helped it develop into a national force in the last few years.

The fight against fascism on the streets is a physical combat, and what decides it is the strength of the forces on both sides. It is important that we clearly recognise that we are talking about mass working class action against fascism, and not the isolated heroics of a few individuals. We have to work to commit the organised labour movement to the struggle to keep the fascists off the streets; we need far more than pious resolutions for this – we have to be able to march with trade union banners alongside of workers who do not necessarily share all our ideas but who are prepared to fight. We must be ready to welcome as anti-fascist allies all of those who are prepared to engage in the physical combat.

When we talk about this sort of ‘united front’ work, we must always be clear that we are speaking of united fronts within the working class movement. This does not mean that we should hand over the struggle to the full-time officials who will kill it stone dead with token gestures or routine press statements, but it does mean that we have no time for endless meetings with tiny groups in back rooms who represent nothing in the working class. Our work has to be directed towards trades councils, district committees, trade union branches and shop stewards committees in order to mobilise them into action against the fascists.

One of the chief problems we will face in this work is the idea that we can rely on the state machine to fight the fascists for us. To call on the state to drive the fascists off the street is to give the impression that the ‘forces of law and order’ are in some way neutral and above the class struggle. In periods of relative calm and prosperity the capitalist class will occasionally use the state machine against the wilder lunatics of the right, but in periods of crisis and upheaval it recognises too clearly that it may one day need the fascists to act against them.

TWO: It is obvious that the physical defeat of fascism is not possible unless we can win the political fight. We will never be able to mobilise large numbers of workers for the physical struggle unless we can convince them that our way forward is clearly superior.

In the factories we have to be able to give a lead against fascism and racism over the everyday issues which concern workers. Racists are able to deflect the struggles of white workers away from real issues to questions of maintaining marginal privileges over black workers. This cannot be dealt with except by fighting for a united workers’ struggle for improved wages and conditions for all. The liberal message of the reformists about the need for all men of good will to unite and share miserable conditions and low wages will command no support. The fight against racism cannot be separated from the fight for a class line against the reformist approach.

We cannot postpone this fight until the fascists are already an established force. The fascists are best able to operate where there is already a de facto segregation based on access to skilled jobs and control of the local union organisation. If revolutionaries can succeed in breaking down this segregation and improve the conditions of black workers without damaging those of white workers, then they can weaken the chances of the fascists’ taking advantage of the situation.

The fight against fascism in the localities is similar to the fight in the factories. The fascists gain support when they are the only people offering solutions to real problems. Their policies for dealing with bad housing or crowded schools are illusory and contradictory but it is not enough just to point that out. We have to be in a position to offer a real alternative solution through militant working-class action.

Propaganda against the fascists – pointing out their Nazi backgrounds and telling what happened to the working class in Italy and Germany – is all very necessary, but it does not even half solve the problem. If we restrict ourselves simply to anti-fascist propaganda, then all we are doing is asking people to reject the fake solutions of the fascists without providing real ones – and leaving them the choice of the fake solutions of other capitalist parties. Faced with two fake solutions, many workers will be inclined to accept the one which at least offers some prospect of activity. We need to go beyond this and to demonstrate that a real socialist solution exists.

It is not enough for us merely to state, in leaflets and meetings, that socialism is the promised land which will solve all problems. We have to demonstrate in practice that we can give a fighting lead which can produce results. This can only be done if we can overcome the gap which all too often exists between revolutionary organisations and the mass of the working class population. Our organisation has to be rooted deeply in the localities, and it has to be looked to as the natural leadership. Establishing such a position will mean hard and patient work around issues which seem trivial compared with the grand work of building barricades, but they are part of the indispensable preparation for that.

The fascists will not go away: they are part and parcel of a rotting and dying capitalism. They are, potentially, our most dangerous enemy. We have to meet them and defeat them both politically and physically. The two tasks are not separate, and they do not contradict our main task of building the revolutionary party. If we work correctly in fighting the fascists we can advance our work in building the party: if we can build a revolutionary workers’ party we can bar the road to the fascists.

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1. Guerin, Fascism and Big Business, p. 194.

2. A. Bullock, Hitler.

3. Figures quoted in Braunthal, The History of the International, vol. II.

4. Guerin, op. cit., p. 127.

5. P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red.

6. Butler and Rose, The British General Election of 1959, p.%nbsp;100.

7. Ibid.

8. M. Kullman, in New Left Review, no. 1.

9. Quoted in The Listener, 28.12.72.

10. Ibid.

11. Reproduced in Socialist Worker, 29 June 1974.

12. Private Eye, no. 331. (This reference seems not to have been included in the printed version of the text. – ETOL)

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