Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s (2001)

Dave Renton, Fascism, Anti-fascism and Britain in the 1940s (Macmillan, 2000)
Written By: Sarah Glynn
Date: January 2001
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 11: Lent 2001 

This book chronicles the brief renaissance of British fascism immediately after it was supposed to have been exterminated and buried by the great anti-fascist war, and while people were still struggling to come to terms with the enormity of the Holocaust: a revival made possible by the climate of cold-war anti-communism and by a revived anti-Semitism fed on the experiences of the British army in Mandate Palestine.

Dave Renton acknowledges that, under the shadow of Hitler and the Holocaust, the odds were heavily stacked against the fascists achieving even their pre-war success, and that their chances were even further limited by a situation of almost full employment, by the revival, after 1947, of the Tory Party (the traditional home of the right), and by the end of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1948. However, he argues that ‘at a time when the fascists were already experiencing major difficulties, the intervention of anti-fascists proved decisive, their hostility effectively reduced Mosley’s potential support, reinforced the political isolation of the Union Movement as a whole, and exposed the weakness of the fascists to their audiences and to themselves.’ And in significant corroboration of this argument he quotes the ex-Mosleyite anti-fascist Michael Maclean: ‘I believe a united and bitter opposition amongst the audience is effective... provided such opposition is sustained.’

By anti-fascism Renton means both sustained campaigning in the form of leafleting, meetings and demonstrations, and also more militant action to disrupt and close down fascist meetings. Although he stresses the routine nature of much of the work involved, more emphasis could perhaps have been given to the type of grass roots work carried out by the Stepney Communist Party from the late 30s in addressing local issues. It was this work which enabled the party to build a strong community base, politicising and organising the victims of fascism and undermining potential and actual fascist support.

Crucially, Renton demonstrates the futility of waiting for the authorities to take action, and it is here that his careful chronicling of individual incidents comes powerfully into its own. He shows the cosy relationship between some key fascists and state agencies such as MI5, and the extraordinary lengths to which the police would go to keep open fascist meetings in the name of free speech, whilst routinely closing anti-fascist ones.

The book’s strength is in its detailed use of archival sources, but written records are less useful when trying to understand the fascist movement itself. Renton outlines the different theories and tactics of the leaders, extracts the class make-up of the movement (which was disproportionately middle-class though with a stronger working class element in the East End), and details the kind of actions they promoted, but he can only speculate on what attracted some thousands of men and women to fascism and how they saw their roles.

While not questioning Renton’s decision to avoid fascist apologists, I wonder if he could have interviewed some of the many grass roots ex-fascists who must remember those days. What makes this omission especially significant is his convincing argument against regarding fascism simply as ideology: ‘The important point is that the ideas of fascism are not in themselves distinctive. What makes fascism is not its language but its method of political mobilisation.’

Renton presents us with a strong case for anti-fascist action as the only successful way of fighting fascism, but, in comparing the situation in the 1940s with more recent battles, it is important not to overlook some significant differences. Among those who fought against British fascism in the 30s and 40s, the main victims of its dominating racism - then the Jews - played a leading part, not only on the streets but in the main anti-fascist organisations orchestrating the campaign, such as the Communist Party. In the 70s, 80s and 90s the Black and Asian victims of the National Front and BNP fought the fascists in their turn, but although they welcomed the organisational skills of the various left wing groups who helped co-ordinate that fight, most were with but not of these organisations, remaining suspicious of their wider motives, and preferring to group together along ethnic lines. This may not have hampered the immediate fight, but it did little to help in the wider battle to alter the economic and social conditions which allow fascism to grow. How to get beyond this situation is a question for us all.

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