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International Socialism, Summer 1994


Chris Bambery

Bookwatch: Understanding fascism


From International Socialism 2:63, Summer 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


’Fascism ... is a razor in the hands of the class enemy’ [1]

Any examination of the fascist threat must start with Trotsky’s writings on Germany. What Trotsky did was understand the extent of the danger presented by fascism, from where it drew its support and offered a clear way to combat it. The threat was clear and went beyond the repression imposed by more usual forms of right wing authoritarian rule:

Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society. The task of fascism is not only in destroying the Communist vanguard but in holding the entire class in a state of forced disunity. To this end the physical annihilation of the most revolutionary section of the workers does not suffice. It is also necessary to smash all independent and voluntary organisations, to demolish all the defensive bulwarks of the proletariat, and to uproot whatever has been achieved during three quarters of a century by the Social Democracy and the trade unions. [2]

Fascism could do this because it set in motion a force which was larger, more rooted and more ideologically committed than the police and army: ‘Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie, and bands of the declassed and demoralised lumpenproletariat; all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy’. [3]

Hitler offered hope to those whom:

In the atmosphere brought to white heat by war, defeat, reparations, inflation, occupation of the Ruhr, crisis, need and despair, the petty bourgeoisie rose up against all the old parties that had bamboozled it. The sharp grievances of small proprietors never out of bankruptcy, of their university sons without posts and clients, of their daughters without dowries and suitors, demanded order and an iron hand. [4]

How could the catastrophic victory of Hitler be stopped? Trotsky drew on the strategies of Lenin’s Communist International to argue for a united front of all the workers’ organisations – revolutionary and reformist – in common action against the Nazis:

March separately, but strike together! Agree on how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded with the devil himself, with the grandmother, and even with Noske and Grzesinsky. On one condition, not to bind one’s hands. [5]

Noske was the leader of the Social Democratic Party who had ordered the smashing of the 1919 workers’ revolution, while Grzesinsky was the Social Democratic chief of police in Berlin who had ordered his men to open fire on a Communist May Day march in 1929.

How does Trotsky’s analysis stand the test of time? William Sheridan Allen has produced an excellent study of one town’s reaction to the Nazis’ rise to power, that of Thalburg near Hanover in northern Germany. [6] As well as examining the middle class background of the Nazi core it shows how the workers remained immune to Hitler and were prepared to resist if a lead was given:

The Thalburger Reichsbanner [the Social Democratic Party’s militia]itself was ready to fight in 1933. All it needed was the order from Berlin. Had it been given, Thalburg’s Reichsbanner members would have carried out the tested plan they had worked on so long – to obtain and distribute weapons and to crush the Nazis ... So they waited and waited and prayed for the order to come, but it never did. And while they waited the Nazis began tracking them down, one by one. [7]

Of 400 Reichsbanner members in the town just ten would go over to the Nazis.

Further proof of a desire to resist Hitler’s takeover comes from the memoirs of a future Social Democratic chancellor, Willy Brandt. In his youth Brandt was a left wing socialist who broke with the SPD over its slavish devotion to the constitution to join the SAP (the Socialist Workers Party which stood between revolutionary and reformist politics). Brandt’s My Life In Politics devotes a chapter to this period of his life in the Baltic city of Lübeck. [8] He brings out the criminal lack of any response to the Nazi takeover by the SPD and the trade unions, contrasting it with the fighting mood of the rank and file. Brandt highlights the response in Lübeck to the arrest of a leading socialist in the hours after Hitler took office:

On the evening of 31 January 1933 Julius Leber was attacked by Nazi stormtroopers. One of the uniformed Nazis was killed in the scuffle, it was self defence. When the news of Leber’s arrest became known, there was unrest in the labour movement, and the workers in one large firm went on strike. I and a few friends tried to organise a general strike in protest. We all went to the head of the German Trades Union Federation. He lost his temper when we put our request: ‘Take that off my desk. Don’t you know striking is strictly forbidden now? They must know what ought to be done in Berlin. We’re awaiting instructions, and we don’t want any provocation’. All the same, there was a one-hour walkout in the city on 3 February, and on 19 February, in bitterly cold weather, Lübeck saw its greatest protest since 1918.

Leber was released. [9]

The realities of Nazi rule were almost immediately clear, as Allen points out:

Roughly by July 1933, any Thalburger who had his wits about him knew that he no longer lived in personal freedom, that if he were even indiscreet the whole arsenal of the police state might be used against him. At the very least he might expect a raid and search of his house, at the worst the dread but largely unknown experience of the concentration camp. [10]

This was true even for the middle classes. After a doctor was denounced for mimicking Hitler at a party, Allen reports that ‘social life was cut down enormously – you couldn’t trust anyone any more’.

It is often claimed that the German Communist Party, the largest outside Russia, refused to fight the Nazis. This is not true, although it is true that the party made gross errors like supporting a referendum called by the Nazis to remove the Social Democratic government of Prussia.

Eve Rosenhaft’s Beating The Fascists tells how Communists were involved, day after day, month after month, in the physical fight to stop the Nazi advance. [11] With 30,000 members in Berlin and a third of the total vote, the party should have been well placed to mount such resistance and to link with those Social Democratic workers who wanted to fight.

But the Communists refused to make any such approach. Rather they relied on their own forces. Alone they could not match the Nazis who were backed up by the police.

After a campaign aimed at closing down Nazi taverns in working class areas of Berlin had failed following a series of shoot outs, a leading Berlin Communist argued: ‘In my opinion, mass terror is a sheer impossibility ... Fascism can only be held down by terror now, and if that fails, in the long run everything will be lost.’ [12] But small, conspiratorial groups of Communists, however committed, could not defeat the Nazis. That required mass action, not just by the minority of Communist workers, but involving the majority of employed workers organised in the Social Democratic Party and its unions. Rosenhaft shows this was possible when, in Brunswick, mass workers’ action did drive the Nazis from the streets in 1931 – even though the local state government was Nazi run.

The key was addressing the disparity between the desire of Social Democratic workers to fight and the slavish respect their leaders showed to the constitution. As late as January 1933 the party’s theoretician, Hilferding, was arguing:

Although the fascist movement appeared on the point of seizing power in Germany it had been kept from doing so thanks to the tactics of the Social Democrats, whose policy of ‘toleration’ prevented the bourgeoisie from uniting in a reactionary mass under fascist leadership, and so obstructed the entry of the fascists into the government during the period of their ascent ... The National Socialists are now confined within the bounds of legality.

Hilferding echoed the SPD slogan ‘Germany is not Italy’ adding that ‘after the Italian tragedy comes the German farce’. [13] Hilferding died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Any book which sets out to prove that big business cannot be held responsible for the Nazis’ rise to power might seem unpromising stuff, but H.A. Turner’s German Big Business And The Rise Of Hitler provides a wealth of detail which, ironically, negates the author’s stated aim. [14] Turner points out that, ‘Aside from a few minor executives who belonged, for the most part, to the younger generation ... only one capitalist of note, Fritz Thyssen, became a loyal adherent of Nazism before 1933’. And he adds, ‘It was among lesser businessmen, not among the great capitalists of Germany, that Nazism made inroads during its rise to power’.

What Turner does, despite himself, is to provide arguments which reinforce Trotsky’s analysis. He shows fascism was a mass movement of millions with the classic small businessmen providing the crucial core. Also this mass movement was forced onto German big business when all other political alternatives were exhausted. Big business handed over political control of the German state to Hitler but maintained a firm grip on its factories, its banks and profits.

How did ordinary Germans respond to all this? Detlev J.K. Peukert’s Inside Nazi Germany looks at every day life in Hitler’s Germany. [15] He shows that despite the demoralisation of defeat, the banning of working class parties and the destruction of the trade unions, organised resistance did take place. ‘Resistance by workers’, Peukert writes, ‘formed the most significant component of the German resistance movement’, quoting an underground resistance report which said that two years after Hitler took power ‘the National Socialists have not conquered the factories. The standing of the National Socialists’ shop stewards has constantly fallen, while that of the old free union works’ committees has risen in corresponding degree’.

The Nazis’ base of support is also firmly placed by Peukert within the middle classes and the book charts the resistance of youth who listened to the swing and jazz music banned by the Nazis, had sex and tried to defy the barrack rules of Nazism.

However, the best book to recommend after Trotsky’s writings on Germany is Daniel Guerin’s Fascism and Big Business. [16] He shows how big business was driven to support Hitler and Mussolini not because of personal preference but because in a situation of growing class polarisation they required desperate solutions. Guerin sets this against the failure both in Germany and Italy of the left to make the revolution.


The alternative responses offered by the left are detailed in David Beetham’s Marxism In The Face of Fascism. [17] The initial response of the newly formed Communist Parties grouped in the Third International was to deny that fascism represented any significant development: ‘The Italian Communist Party believed that fascism would provide a temporary phase of reintegration in a capitalist system which, in order to survive, would assume a social democratic form’. [18] What Beetham does is detail how this idea was taken up at a later date by the Russian leader Stalin when faced with Hitler’s rise in Germany from 1929 onwards.

Hitler was presented as simply a tool of the bankers and big business, having no independent base of support within German society. The German Social Democrats were still seen as the ‘natural’ party of government for capitalism and thus they were the main enemy. The hostility of the Social Democrats to the Soviet Union meant they were labelled by Stalin as ‘social fascists’, twins of Hitler.

In a country with the biggest Social Democratic Party and the biggest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union the consequences of this were disastrous as both parties refused to work together against the Nazis.

After Hitler took power Stalin suddenly became aware that Nazism was established in power and threatened war in Russia. Now he changed tack towards securing alliances with the ‘liberal’ democracies, Britain and France. The Communist Parties across the world were then prepared to work with any employer, banker, duchess, bishop or whoever permitting no criticism as long as they looked favourably on such an alliance with Stalin. This was the policy of the popular front.

To justify this the old analysis of fascism was dusted down and given a new twist. Once again Hitler was presented as a reactionary gangster whose ruling clique inflicted damage on Germans of all classes and threatened capitalist stability across Europe.

This analysis is repeated by Martin Kitchen in his textbook Fascism. [19] Whilst criticising those today who apply the tag fascist to any and every right wing authoritarian regime, he argues that fascism does represent only a narrow section of the ruling class, that it goes against the interests of big business. But he endorses the popular front policy arguing in support of unity with ‘the anti-fascist wing of the national bourgeoisie’. [20]

What Kitchen fails to mention is that such a policy failed disastrously in France and Spain in the 1930s (as well as in more recent cases like Chile in 1973). Trotsky pointed out that such unity, far from offering strength, weakens the fight against fascism:

The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is addition: Communists plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus Liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter, the more the component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant may prove equal to zero ... the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie ... as a general rule is capable only of paralysing the revolutionary force of the proletariat. [21]

Trotsky’s writings on the disastrous consequences of such a popular front strategy during the Spanish Civil War and in France in 1936 are among the best of his writings. [22]

Confirmation of his arguments comes from the British writer George Orwell in Homage To Catalonia. [23] What makes this account more interesting is that Orwell, at the beginning at least, was more sympathetic to the Communist Party’s arguments than to their critics on the left. The bitter experiences which led to his change of mind are brilliantly explained.

For further reading on the Spanish Civil War, Felix Morrow’s Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain is an account by a contemporary American Trotskyist, [24] Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain looks at events through the experiences of a series of eyewitnesses [25] while Pierre Broue and Emile Temime’s Revolution and Civil War in Spain provides the best detailed account. [26] For further reading on the French Popular Front the best available book is Julian Jackson’s The Popular Front In France. Defending Democracy 1934–38. [27]


There are two things most people know about Mussolini: one that he made Italy’s trains run on time, and secondly that he seized power through the fascists’ March on Rome. Both are bogus.

Mussolini actually arrived in Rome on the morning of 30 October 1922 by sleeping car. He was driven, wearing his blackshirt, to be presented to the king who appointed him prime minister. He is said to have announced, ‘Majesty I come from the battlefield – fortunately bloodless’. [28] The plan was for Mussolini’s blackshirts to assemble – by train – at four points around the capital. The historian, Lyttleton, describes events thus:

In reality, the March on Rome, in the strictest sense was a colossal bluff. The city was defended by 12,000 regular army, under the loyal General Pugliese, who would have been able to disperse the fascist bands without difficulty. Many of the fascists failed to arrive at their point of concentration; they were travelling by train and were stopped by the simple expedient of taking up a few yards of track. Those who did arrive were poorly armed and they were short of food. They could do nothing except hang around miserably in the torrential autumn rain. The grandiose ‘pincer movement’ on Rome could never have been carried out with any chance of success. [29]

Mussolini had only a handful of deputies when he was appointed prime minister. He ruled thanks to the votes of Liberals, the support of big business and the Vatican. In all of this there are chilling parallels today with the advent of the fascist MSI in a government led by the media magnate, Berlusconi.

Mussolini took power because liberalism was terrified by an insurgent workers’ movement which had seized the factories during the two Red Years of 1919 and 1920. So paralysed had Italy’s employers been that the head of FIAT, Agnelli, offered to turn his factories over to the workers!

Two books, Gwyn Williams’s Proletarian Order and Paolo Spriano’s The Occupation of the Factories recount the failure of the Italian left to develop this moment into a successful revolution. [30] They show how Italy’s landlords first employed Mussolini’s squads against landless labourers who were seizing their land and then, as recession bit, unleashed a wave of terror against the working class in the cities.

The liberal editor, Albertini, had complained then of ‘the bitter shameful agony ... the bitter consequence of a regime which was no longer functioning’. By 1923 he could say, ‘But above all else, I was hoping for a profound reaction from the bourgeoisie: that reaction which has fortunately come and of which the Hon Mussolini has been the organiser’. [31]

What was that reaction? The writer, Michael Sheridan, claims that:

A halcyon interlude followed his consolidation of power. Fascism provided stability and the state intervened to protect the poor from the viciousness of the economic cycle. Crime was sternly dealt with and the Sicilian Mafia was more effectively repressed than under any Italian government before or since. [32]

This is wrong on every account. For proof of how Mussolini drove down living standards for both workers and peasants, unleashed terror on any opponents whether of the left or centre and relied for support on the Mafia, read Lyttleton or Giampiero Carocci’s Italian Fascism. [33]

Some of this is available in Denis Mack Smith’s biography of Il Duce, Mussolini. [34] But there is no mention of the factory occupations which triggered the collapse of the Italian parliamentary system and drove Italian big business into Mussolini’s hands. Nor does it detail the wave of terrorism the blackshirts employed in 1921 and 1922.

In 1924 Mussolini ordered the murder of his critic, the right wing socialist, Matteotti. The reaction threatened to topple Mussolini. Smith claims, however, there were no demonstrations against the regime. In reality: ‘Spontaneous demonstrations in favour of the Opposition broke out in the streets, which was something that had not been seen for a long time’. [35] The opportunity was wasted by the socialists who simply walked out of parliament rather than build on these protests.

To cheer yourself up read an excellent account of the defeat of fascism by the Italian workers in Maria de Blasio Wilhelm’s The Other Italy. [36] This details the liberation in advance of the Allies of all of Italy’s major cities beginning in Naples in 1943 and ending with Mussolini’s capture and execution. This is also recounted in Paul Ginsborg’s A History of Contemporary Italy. [37] This also tells of the near insurrection in Genoa which prevented Italy’s ruling Christian Democrats bringing the MSI into government in 1960.

The Holocaust

Scarcely a day passes without socialists and anti-racists having to try and stem the filth that claims the Holocaust never took place. The Nazi Holocaust by Ronnie S. Landau provides much needed hard evidence and detailed information, including a wealth of chilling statistics detailing the mass murder by the Nazis. [38] But what gives a chilling reality is the eyewitness accounts presented by the author.

Arno Meyer describes himself as a liberal-Marxist and has written Why Did The Heavens Not Darken? [39] examining the Holocaust from that perspective. Mayer argues that Nazism did not spring from within capitalism but from within the remains of the old feudal order which still retained political power. Thus he argues:

But while big business at critical moments encouraged the Nazi defiance, it was not its prime mover ... in all other respects – social, cultural, political – the bourgeoisie remained the junior partner of the feudal element and its confederates ... Fascism prevailed in Germany less because some sectors of big business used it as a stratagem to save capitalism than because the old elites resorted to it to preserve their superannuated positions of class, status and power. [40]

Hitler was appointed chancellor by the East Prussian aristocrat Field Marshal Hindenburg, but this step was agreed upon at a meeting on 4 January 1933, between Hindenburg’s representative von Papen and Hitler, held at the home of a big Cologne banker, von Schroeder, who was tied to the heavy industrialists of Rhenish-Westphalia. [41] The Nazis were summoned forth out of obscurity by the steel magnates Fritz Thyssen, who had never ‘let down’ his friend Hitler, and Emil Kirdof, head of the powerful Gelsenkirchen metal trust, who was decorated with the Third Reich’s highest honour and whose funeral saw the Führer place a wreath on the coffin. The ‘new’ chemical and electrical industries became champions of Hitler’s war drive with the chemical giant IG Farben setting up its factories in Auschwitz as well as supplying the gas for the death chambers.

Mayer’s argument has its dangers in implying that fascism today is outmoded by capitalist development and that in particular circumstances it cannot re-emerge as a danger. Furthermore it explains the extermination of the Holocaust as a consequence of the German ruling class’s crusade against the USSR.

Yet the anti-Semitism which led to the Holocaust was central to Nazism from day one. Even when it conflicted with the prosecution of Germany’s war in 1944 and 1945, the Nazis ensured massive resources were tied up in this extermination programme.

Amidst a welcomingly growing number of books on the Holocaust which give the lie to those like David Irving who peddle ‘Holocaust denial’ filth, Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman’s The Racial State: Germany 1933–1945 places Nazi racial cleansing in a wider context. [42] The first victims of the extermination programme were the mentally ill. By the autumn of 1941, 90,000 had died and, while the extermination programme was formally ended then, it continued in reality to the war’s end. The sick, the old and shell shocked servicemen from the First World War were killed, often gassed by those who would go on to develop their ‘skills’ in Auschwitz and other death camps.

From January 1934 onwards the Nazis introduced a compulsory sterilisation programme in order to ‘improve’ Germany’s racial stock. Those considered racially unfit were barred from having children. Doctors (half of the Third Reich’s doctors belonged to the Nazi Party) decided men and women would be sterilised on the basis of feeble mindedness, antisocial behaviour, drunkenness, promiscuity and idleness! By the start of the war 320,000 people had been sterilised. The Nazis planned to sterilise anywhere between 5 and 30 percent of the population.

The Ghetto Fights will move you to tears. [43] It is the account of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising by one of its few surviving leaders. Whatever the horror of the Holocaust, ordinary Jewish men and women fought back in the most terrible of circumstances.

Another account of that fightback comes from a Polish Jewish Communist, Len Crome, of his own struggle in the camps. [44] The book is uncritical of the Communist Party and of the USSR but it charts how prisoners organised in order to survive and fight.

Yet two books which for me bring the Holocaust to life are Primo Levi’s story of his imprisonment in Auschwitz, If This Is Man, and Jorge Semprun’s The Cattle Truck. [45] I cannot do more than say read them.


Fascism is usually held up as something that is alien to the British way of life. The Fascist Movement In Britain by Robert Benewick provides a detailed history of Mosley’s Blackshirts but concludes that fascism in Britain during the 1930s was a non-starter because of the deep liberal allegiance to parliamentary democracy which exists in this country. [46]

A far better analysis of the British Union of Fascists comes in D.S. Lewis’s Illusions Of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Fascism 1931–81 which challenges that view. [47]

Following the BUF’s inception it enjoyed a period of respectability which allowed it to grow to a possible 40,000 members by the early summer of 1934. [48] Mosley addressed a Foyle’s Literary Luncheon, he also debated with Clement Attlee at the Cambridge Union, debated with the Independent Labour Party leader James Maxton, with former Prime Minister Lloyd George in the chair, and debated with Megan Lloyd George on the airwaves of the BBC.

This respectability peaked with the alliance between Mosley and Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail. Explaining this move in a signed editorial headlined Hurrah For The Blackshirts, Rothermere explained the BUF was ‘Britain’s only safeguard against such insanity’ (communism). [49] Beyond that the BUF’s supporters included General J.C. Fuller, the poet Wyndham Lewis, the carmaker William Morris and the industrialist Lord Inchcape, while it received donations from Courtaulds, ICI and Sanders Roe. We now also know more about the deposed King Edward VIII’s links with fascism in its German, Italian and British varieties.

The alliance with Rothermere, and Mosley’s respectability, broke down when the real face of fascism was revealed at Mosley’s monster rally at Olympia in June 1934. The high and mighty gathered to hear Mosley speak. Debutantes arrived with Union Jacks draped round their shoulders. As Mosley began to speak hecklers interrupted. Mosley stopped speaking. A searchlight pinpointed the interrupter and Mosley directed blackshirted stewards to deal with them. This involved very public, savage beatings. The Prime Minister Baldwin’s private secretary, Tory MP Geoffrey Lloyd witnessed:

... case after case of single interrupters being attacked by ten to 20 fascists. Again and again, as five or six fascists carried out an interrupter by arms and legs, several other Blackshirts were engaged in hitting and kicking his helpless body ... I do not think that I saw a single heckler ejected from the meeting in a decent and ordinary way. On the other hand, I saw several respectable looking people who merely rose in their places and made no struggle, treated with the unmerciful brutality that I have described. [50]

It wasn’t so much a sense of decency that lost Mosley support. It was the spirited opposition to Mosley both inside and outside the hall that night and at subsequent mobilisations against the BUF. Lewis is good in charting these battles including the mass mobilisations at Cable Street in October 1936 and in Bermondsey a year later. He also points to the attitude of the police who saw the ‘reds’ as the main enemy and on one occasion openly acted alongside the Blackshirts.

Benewick holds up the 1936 Public Order Act and the ban on fascist uniforms as the body blow for the BUF. Such bans were enacted in Weimar Germany to no avail in the absence of any mobilisations against Hitler. Lewis points out that the Public Order Act, far from being designed for use against Mosley, was based on legislation drawn up four years earlier to deal with the hunger marches of the unemployed.

Who were the Blackshirts? Rawnsley’s essay in British Fascism quotes the Humberside chair of the Chamber of Trade as saying that national meetings of that body in the 1960s were ‘like going to a BUF reunion’. [51]

The main biography of Mosley is Robert Skidelsky’s Oswald Mosley. [52] This constitutes a whitewash of Britain’s proto-Hitler. For instance Skidelsky, confronted by the overwhelming evidence of Mosley’s anti-Semitism, claims this was in response to Jewish opposition to the fascists and that Jews should take ‘a large share of the blame’. [53] This was the exact justification Mosley trotted out when explaining why Jews were banned from BUF membership in one of his more rabid speeches.

Referring to Mosley’s vicious campaign against the Jews in London’s East End, Skidelsky says this ‘was anti-Jewish but not anti-Semitic. It was a political campaign along ethnic lines, the basic issue being whether local power should be with the “British” or the Jews’. [54] Skidelsky goes on to claim there is no evidence of police partiality towards the Blackshirts [55] and that accounts of fascist violence at Olympia are exaggerated. [56]

Two vivid accounts from the East End present a rather different picture, Phil Piratin’s Our Flag Stays Red and Joe Jacobs’ Out of the Ghettos. [57] Both were leading figures in the Stepney Communist Party during the 1930s. Piratin became a Communist MP for the area, while Jacobs was expelled from the party twice, in 1938 and again in 1952. Both were deeply involved in the East End’s resistance to fascism.

Our Flag Stays Red should be read by everyone who wants to fight fascism. It provides an epic account of the battle of Cable Street, when 100,000 workers stopped Mosley marching into the East End. But it goes further by showing how the Communists also mobilised politically to undermine the BUF’s working class support in the area, in particular over housing conditions.

His description of the battle against evictions at Paragon Mansions, during which the CP organised to prevent a fascist family being thrown onto the streets, shows how the fight against fascism connects with the battle against the conditions which drove people to follow Mosley’s scapegoating.

This is a book which comes, however, from the heyday of British Stalinism when the party could do no wrong. What is skipped over is that the Communist Party argued against mobilising at Cable Street until just hours before. It was popular pressure, both within and without the party, which forced this last minute change.

Evidence of this is produced by Joe Jacobs but his account lacks the strengths of Piratin’s book, in part because the author died before the manuscript could be edited. But more importantly Jacobs’ criticism focused solely on the party dropping a policy of physical confrontation. This means the book is highly one sided with the emphasis being one of physical confrontation versus ‘politics’. The question for revolutionaries is how they can retain their political flexibility to do both.

Regarding British fascism in the post-war period the only available account of Mosley’s return to action following his release from detention in 1944 is Morris Beckman’s The 43 Group. [58] This is a great read. It comes as a shock to discover the liberty Britain’s Nazis were allowed even as the death camps were being liberated.

Beckman’s account centres on the activities of a group of tightly disciplined Jewish ex-servicemen in breaking up Mosley’s meetings. Two major battles stand out – the long running campaign to stop the fascists holding rallies in Hackney’s Ridley Road market and the opposition to Mosley’s May Day march of 1948 which he hoped to use as the launchpad for his revived Union Movement.

But because the book centres on the 43 Group’s activities it does not present the wider background as to how it could function successfully. It was able to pick up on the legacy of the mass mobilisations of a decade earlier while wider forces including the Communists, trade unionists and the smaller forces of the British Trotskyists could turn out large numbers determined to stop Mosley’s marches, rallies and street meetings.

In the 1970s the rise of the National Front once again brought attention to Britain’s Nazis. Martin Walker’s National Front was the most read book at the time. [59] If you can get hold of a copy it provides a rich mine of facts about and quotations from the likes of John Tyndall. Yet there is an ambivalence about this book. Walker writes:

I am enough of a democrat to accept that they have a right to make their point to the electorate, to hire public halls, and to stand for elections. If they win a British general election they are entitled to my respect.

When he wrote the book Walker seemed to see the National Front’s rise as irresistible. As of yet there is no book which details the efforts of the Anti Nazi League which insured that wasn’t so, although Beating Time by David Widgery comes nearest. [60]

Widgery traces the rise of the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. He recalls the Asian murders, the growing NF vote and the racist utterances of David Bowie and Eric Clapton at that time. Here too are the battles on the streets against the Nazis. Widgery explains how the Socialist Workers Party went against the stream in arguing for physically confronting an NF march through the racially mixed area of Lewisham and how this idea lit a spark among black and white youth in the area.

The ANL/RAR Carnivals of 1978 are brought to life as Widgery describes how at the first Carnival in the East End:

Outside a couple of pubs near Brick Lane there were a few Fronters with their mates ... They had come for a good laugh at the do-gooders. Three hours and 100,000 demonstrators later, the smiles were well and truly wiped off their faces and their bloated egos had evaporated into the swill at the bottom of their glasses.

Like everything Widgery turned his pen to it is a beautiful read but ... he gets things the wrong way round. He sees the key to these mass mobilisations as being Rock Against Racism and the music. Rather the hundreds of thousands marched and rallied primarily because of their concern at increasing racism and the rise of the Nazis. These mobilisations were built by political activists at grass roots level. And none of this could have taken off if the SWP had not lit that spark when they confronted the Nazis in Lewisham. Nevertheless Beating Time gives you an idea of just how exciting the ANL was first time round.

Ray Hill was a mole within Britain’s Nazis for the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight for five years. His The Other Face of Terror [61] says a lot about John Tyndall, führer of the British National Party. What is important about the book is it shows how, in the absence of any socialist alternative, racist ideas could attract a dissatisfied working class bloke. It also points to the importance of mobilising against the Nazi threat: ‘After its first flush of success, the NF was knocked back by the hugely successful campaigns of the Anti Nazi League which organised rallies of tens of thousands against the NF, and produced millions of highly effective leaflets which circulated in factories, offices and housing estates’. [62]


1. L. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism In Germany (Pathfinder 1972), p. 68.

2. Ibid., p. 144.

3. Ibid., p. 155.

4. Ibid., p. 400.

5. Ibid., pp. l38–139.

6. W.S. Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power. The Experience of a Single German Town 1930–1935 (New Viewpoints 1973, new edition, Penguin 1989).

7. Ibid., p. 180.

8. W. Brandt, My Life In Politics (Penguin 1992).

9. Ibid., p. 84.

10. W.S. Allen, op. cit., p. 173.

11. E. Rosenhaft, Beating The Fascists: The German Communists and Political Violence, 1929–33 (Cambridge 1983).

12. Ibid., p. 127.

13. See D. Beetham, Marxism In The Face of Fascism (Manchester University Press 1983), p. 261.

14. H.A. Turner Jnr, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (Oxford University Press 1987).

15. D. Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Everyday Life (Penguin 1991).

16. D. Guerin, Fascism and Big Business (Pathfinder 1973). For more on Guerin, see L. German, Socialist Review, No. 174, April 1994.

17. D. Beetham, op. cit..

18. G. Williams, Proletarian Order (Pluto Press 1975), p. 300.

19. M. Kitchen, Fascism (Macmillan 1978).

20. Ibid., p. 78.

21. L .Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution 1931–9 (Pathfinder 1973).

22. Ibid., and L. Trotsky, On France (Pathfinder 1979).

23. G. Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (Penguin 1989).

24. F. Morrow, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain (Pathfinder 1974).

25. R. Fraser, Blood of Spain (Penguin 1979, new edition, Pimlico 1994).

26. P. Broué and E. Témime, Revolution and Civil War in Spain (Faber and Faber 1972).

27. J. Jackson, The Popular Front in France: Defending Democracy 1934–38 (Cambridge 1988).

28. A. Lyttleton, The Seizure Of Power. Fascism in Italy 1919–29 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1983), p. 95.

29. Ibid., p. 86.

30. G. Williams, Proletarian Order, and P Spriano, The Occupation of the Factories (both Pluto Press 1975).

31. A. Lyttleton, op. cit., p. 142.

32. Independent On Sunday, 15 May 1994.

33. G. Carocci, Italian Fascism (Penguin 1975).

34. D.M. Smith, Mussolini (Paladin 1983, new edition, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1993).

35. A. Lyttleton, op. cit., p. 241.

36. M. de Blasio Wilhelm, The Other Italy (W.W. Norton 1988).

37. P. Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy (Penguin 1990).

38. R.S. Landau, The Nazi Holocaust (I.B. Tauris 1993).

39. A. Mayer, Why Did The Heavens Not Darken? (Verso 1990).

40. Ibid., p. 94.

41. D. Guerin, Fascism and Big Business (Pathfinder Press 1973), p. 40.

42. M. Burleigh and W. Wipperman, The Racial State: Germany 1933–45 (Cambridge 1993).

43. M. Edelman, The Ghetto Fights. Warsaw 1941–43 (Bookmarks 1990).

44. L. Crome, Unbroken: Resistance and Survival In The Concentration Camps (Lawrence & Wishart 1988).

45. P. Levi, If This Is a Man (Abacus 1989), J. Semprun, The Cattle Truck (Serif 1993).

46. R. Benewick, The Fascism Movement in Britain (Allen Lane 1972).

47. D.S. Lewis, Illusions Of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Fascism 1931–81 (Manchester University Press 1987).

48. See S. Rawnsley’s study of the BUF in northern England in K. Lunn and R.C. Thurlow, British Fascism (Croom Helm 1980).

49. D.S. Lewis, op. cit., p. 65.

50. Ibid., p. 119.

51. K. Lunn and R. Thurlow, op. cit., p. 80.

52. R. Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (Macmillan 1975).

53. Ibid., p. 381. For a taste of Mosley’s rhetoric take this extract from a speech at Stratford Town Hall in the summer of 1935: ‘The yelling mobs of Socialists and Communists [are] paid by the Jews. The big Jew finances and controls the Old Parties, both Conservative and Socialists, the little Jew sweats you in the sweat shop’. Cited by Lewis, op. cit., p. 97.

54. Ibid., p. 393. This claim could be echoed by ex BNP councillor Derek Beackon.

55. Ibid., p. 420.

56. Ibid., pp. 374–375.

57. P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (Lawrence & Wishart 1978), Joe Jacobs, Out Of The Ghetto (J. Simon 1978).

58. M. Beckman, The 43 Group (Centreprise Publications 1992).

59. M. Walker, The National Front (Fontana 1978).

60. D. Widgery, Beating Time. Riot n’ Race n’ Rock n’ Roll (Chatto 1986).

61. R. Hill with A. Bell, The Other Face of Terror (Grafton 1988).

62. Ibid., p. 203.

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