Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1


Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s

Dave Renton
Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s
Macmillan, Basingstoke 2000, pp. 203, £42.00

THE difference between the printed page and the events portrayed (unless the writer is a talented novelist) is that the excitement, danger, commitment and camaraderie come over flatly, or not at all. I was there at Ridley Road, together with other comrades of the Revolutionary Communist Party, on a Saturday evening in the late 1940s, to take and defend the pitch and so prevent the fascists from getting a platform. Some of the comrades were actually sleeping rough overnight. The era for me is represented by milling crowds, the antagonism of the police, fear of arrest, the Cossacks (mounted police) riding in, and our determination.

Renton, under the heading of Method (p. 7), says that the main purpose of the work is to portray the attempted revival of British fascism in the late 1940s; ‘not any one dominant argument or thesis, but a series of secondary claims. At every stage, these arguments are linked together.’ These secondary points include:

  1. That fascism did revive after 1945.
  2. That fascism is better understood as a movement than as an ideology.
  3. That anti-fascism was an appropriate response to British fascism.
  4. That the state failed to take an active rôle in combating fascism.
  5. That fascism failed.

I agree that the fascist organisations revived in the late 1940s. As Renton points out, fascist organisations were spurred on by the Cold War, in which both the government and the labour movement played its part. Renton records that 134 civil servants identified as ‘Communists’ were removed or sacked by the Labour government as ‘extremists’. One fascist was also sacked. It has to be remembered that at this time the trade unions also barred ‘Communists’ from holding office, and removed them from their posts.

As Renton points out, the fascists at this time took advantage of the results of British policy in Palestine, under which Ernest Bevin refused the Jews fleeing from Europe permission to settle in Palestine. This brought retribution from militant Zionists in the murder of British soldiers. In the UK, this encouraged anti-Semitism, racism and fascism.

I must admit that I don’t understand what Renton means when he says that fascism is better understood as a movement than as an ideology. I think the main problem is that Renton confuses fascism and racism, as if they were one and the same, and, of course, this is not so. Anti-Semitism was endemic in the UK, and the Immigration Bill passed in 1906 was aimed against further Jewish immigration from Russia and Poland. Immediately before the Second World War, the number of Jewish refugees accepted from Nazi Germany was low indeed, and, as Renton points out, most of them were interned during the war on the Isle of Man, or shipped out to Canada or Australia. (Several hundreds on the Arandora Star drowned when a U-boat torpedoed the ship.) This type of racism, together with the refusal of golf clubs to admit Jews (p. 61) is not necessarily fascism, and many of the organisations Renton cites were High Tory rather than fascist. Fascism demands an economic, social and political programme, populist in that it appeals to the mass, although funded by big business. Of this programme, racism is only part.

I fully agree with Renton’s statement that anti-fascism was an appropriate response to British fascism, and that ‘anti-fascism provides the most immediate obstacle to the growth of fascist parties’.

The state certainly failed to take an active rôle in combating fascism; but does Renton really expect the state to have done so? For he himself points out that during the interwar years, MI5, taking the view that the British state was ‘under assault from minorities, extremists and Communists’ (p. 126), employed a number of fascists (apparently fascists were not included in ‘minorities’!), some of them continuing to be active in M15 during 1945–51. In fact, Maxwell Knight, a long-standing member of a fascist organisation, became head of Section F4, the wing of M15 with responsibility for placing agents within the Communist Party.

This is not to say that pressure should not have been put upon Chuter Ede, the Labour Home Secretary, by Labour Party members and the trade unions, against the antagonism of the police and the arrest of anti-fascists. With regard to banning fascist meetings, as Renton himself points out, bans for the most part work against the left, and not the right.

Did fascism fail? Renton points out in his preface that the fascist organisations in the UK, re-established at the end of the Second World War, ‘collapsed within the year’. He remarks that ‘the ascent and decline of immediate postwar fascism seemed sudden and inexplicable to contemporaries and needs to be explained’. While not underplaying the necessity for anti-fascist activity wherever and whenever fascism raises its ugly head, it has to be remembered that in the late 1940s the country was in a process of change. The East End of London, as well as other cities, had been badly bombed during the war, and families had moved out, never to return. Following the war, successive governments were engaged in building new towns out in the sticks, to which the working-class population was being decanted. This was taking place throughout the UK. Therefore, in the East End, the old Jewish communities on which the fascists based their racism were disappearing. Added to that, in a period of full employment and the inauguration of a welfare state, unlike Mosley in the 1930s at a time of economic crisis, the postwar fascists were deprived of a social (or anti-social) programme which would appeal to the mass of the people. It was not for some years until immigrants from Bangladesh settled in the East End that the race card was played again, and this time by a Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrat Council!

I smiled to read Renton’s remark that the fascists in the 1940s propagated the theory that economic slump was just around the corner, for this was the line of Gerry Healy, later to become leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party, but in his case it was used to forecast the Socialist revolution! As the poet William Empson wrote in his smack at Auden ‘waiting for the end boys, waiting for the end’.

I was surprised to find that Renton attributes much of the anti-fascist demonstrations and activity taking place at Ridley Road to Common Wealth, an ethical Socialist party formed by Sir Richard Acland to break the electoral truce during the war. To my knowledge, following the landslide Labour victory in the 1945 general election, Common Wealth MPs joined the Labour Party, as did many lay members. Therefore, finance dried up, the offices at 4 Gower Street were closed, the staff were sacked, and all that remained was one small office across the road, manned by two ex-servicemen and a secretary. Later publications were issued from Bloomsbury Street. Apart from the fact that Common Wealth was a middle-class movement, not given to scuffling with fascists or police, I doubt whether manpower would have been available in great enough numbers actively to oppose the fascists, although I am not arguing that members, or former members, of Common Wealth were not present at anti-fascist demonstrations.

In the 1930s, thousands of Mosley supporters, packed in the back of lorries, were conveyed to large fascist rallies. The fascist newspaper was sold outside Jewish shops throughout London and the suburbs; local fascist groups advertised on notice-boards – these were supported largely by small shopkeepers and businessmen. In the 1940s, as today, fascist demonstrations are infinitesimal compared with this, but I agree with Renton that it is always necessary to oppose actively the attempted re-emergence of fascist organisations.

Sheila Lahr

Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011