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Nigel Copsey & David Renton, eds., British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State (Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave, 2005, £50.00, vii-209 pages, ISBN 1403939160)—Antoine Capet, Université de Rouen


It is a pity, sometimes, that the “Notes on Contributors” found in most academic collections should not mention dates of birth. In the volume under review, we have a few clues, though, since we learn that one took his Ph.D. in 2000 and two others in 2002. Why should that be important? Because it confirms one’s impression when reading the book that there is a (welcome) generation gap in the approach to Fascism and the discussion of the attitude of the working class to it. Older readers like the present reviewer were brought up to consider that Fascism’s appeal to the working class was a taboo subject—how could “the salt of the Earth”, “the repository of Revolutionary hopes” be associated with the arch-“class enemy” except by malevolent commentators, by “the enemies of Socialism”? At the height of the Cold War, journalists in, say, Le Figaro or The Sunday Telegraph who dared to point out the similarities between Hitler and Stalin were immediately accused of having a sinister axe to grind: their only aim was to divide the proletariat and divert it from its historical struggle to eliminate the bourgeois élite and its corrupt newspapers. Bullock’s volume, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, was seen at best as an embarrassment when it appeared—conveniently just after the demise of the “Motherland of Socialism,” in 1991 (1). In the 1990s, in countries like France, where it seemed that the declining Communist vote in underprivileged constituencies coincided with mounting support for the Front National, it was not politically correct to point out the parallel figures.

Refreshingly, the taboo is lifted in British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State. Not that it is written by agents provocateurs from the Murdoch press—in fact the authors are currently the best specialists on British Fascism and Anti-Fascism. Simply, they do not suffer from the “block in the mind” which affected older “progressive” writers on the subject. Thus those of us who always thought that the police was covertly (sometimes overtly) anti-Left and therefore pro-Fascist will read with profit Macklin’s chapter (2), in which he convincingly argues that “the Metropolitan Police, though guided by a pronounced anti-left-wing bias, were ultimately pro-police rather than pro-fascist” [47], or more subtly that it was “not merely…pro-police” but included “an institutionalised anti-anti-fascist bias” [64]. For introducing a difference between “anti-left-wing bias” and “anti-anti-fascist bias,” Macklin would of course have been burnt as a heretic in the past.

Also somewhat iconoclastic—though the fact has been repeated for years, but generally with no comment—is the set of figures quoted by Linehan (3) in connection with the Nazi Party:

Workers had constituted about a third of all members when Hitler took power, but their proportion among all new members reached 40 per cent by 1939 and 43 per cent by 1942-44. If master craftsmen were included in the category of workers, the percentages would be distinctly higher [161].

And Linehan excellently sums up the Progressive Gospel as the older generation mentioned above learnt it, only to immediately denounce its flaws:

‘Third International’ Marxism also claimed that fascism was essentially a middle class movement. Fascism is here defined as an offensive by the bourgeoisie against the working class and its representative organisations, an argument that not only assumed middle class support for this anti-proletarian project but saw fascism, eschatologically, as a derivative of capitalism, the latter’s final ugly phase. Fascism is thus conceptualised as the direct counterpart to revolutionary proletarian activity, its opposite and antithesis. The drawback of the ‘middle class fascism’ thesis, then, is that it asserts the essential homogeneity of the fascist social-class profile, whereas the empirical evidence tends to reveal heterogeneity [162].

With this specific introduction of the notion of “heterogeneity,” we get the guiding thread of the collection, as all contributors allude to it in some degree. Historically, the British Union of Fascists is—horribile dictu—largely a scion of the Labour Party, as Coupland (4) reminds us in two long paragraphs [96-97] which make extremely painful reading for the former worshippers of the Progressive Gospel. The beginning sets the tone:

Turning from rhetoric towards action, the BUF—via the abortive New Party—emerged, as Rajani Palme Dutt (5) wrote, 'from the heart of the Labour Party' (ILP). Mosley had been a member of the ILP, a Labour minister and sat on the party's National Executive Committee. Aneurin Bevan helped to write the National Policy with which the New Party was launched and Mosley counted the miner's leader Arthur Cook and John Strachey among his collaborators [96].

What obfuscates the issue is that the image of the British Union of Fascists which has endured is that of the late 1930s, when the reactionary bourgeois Right had definitely established its ascendency over the discontented proletarians. Coupland sees the turning-point in 1934, and he quotes an excellent report from The Observer on 21 January 1934, coinciding with Rothermere’s decision to support the BUF in his Daily Mail: “As with the Nazis there is a reactionary wing composed of violent anti-Socialists, and a revolutionary wing, recruited from the I.L.P. and the Communists” [105]. The gradual shift in the balance of power, away from the “revolutionary wing,” and in favour of the “reactionary wing” receives excellent treatment in the rest of the chapter, with Coupland insisting on what he calls the “socio-cultural divide” [111] inside the BUF.

As we know, the British Union of Fascists did not survive the war—at least in name—and Thurlow’s chapter (6) illustrates Macbeth’s famous phrase, “We have scorched the snake, not killed it,” in that it excellently documents how “MI5 was successful in destroying ‘Old Fascism.’” We are told that “the political surveillance of released internees effectively monitored and controlled the possibility of a post-war resurgence of fascism,” but then all depends on the meaning of “post-war,” since we all know that a resurgence of the Fascist movement, whatever the official names of the groups and parties which formed it, did take place. Indeed Thurlow himself describes that resurgence in the same page:

The eventual crawling out of the political woodwork of what was called ‘new fascism’ saw the emergence of various syntheses of racial populist, anti-Semitic and Fascist and Nazi mimetic movements after 1945, heavily influenced by the regrouping of Blackshirt traditions in the internment camps [42].

Beyond this obvious contradiction, the distinction which he seems to make between “old” and “new” Fascism is not clear, as it is arguable that “Old Fascism” was itself the result “of various syntheses of racial populist, anti-Semitic” and other Right-wing movements.

However that may be, Linehan documents the persistence of the Fascist working-class vote forty years later with the National Front—and seventy years later with the British National Party, the extreme example being in North-West England: “In the Oldham West and Royton constituency, a Labour stronghold, the 6,552 votes and 16.4 total poll share for the BNP Leader Nick Griffin represented the largest vote ever for a far-right candidate in a British Parliamentary election” [174]. Linehan attempts to explain this in terms of the wider European movement away from old-established Left ideologies:

A kaleidoscope of new political forms, the women’s movement, sexual politics, life politics, global protest, the green movement, issue politics, deconstruction, post-modernism and identity politics, have indeed emerged in the last three decades to challenge the hegemony of conventional modes of working-class collective action as embraced by the traditional labour movement [172].

The implicit analogy is of course striking with the post-1918 world which was widely held to have “lost its bearings,” what with female emancipation, Berlin transvestites and “entartete Kunst.” The confusion of values which the intellectual Left welcomes and indeed sometimes encourages has of course its drawback—it encourages the rise of quack doctors who claim they have the solution. Hence Linehan’s reflection that “there are many in the working class in Britain, and across Europe, who seem mystified and excluded by much of the language of the new left and alienated by its agendas, particularly less skilled young white males” [172]. Linehan’s seductive explanation is that the resurgence or continued existence of Fascist groups is therefore largely due to the increasing cultural heterogeneity of the working class—or at least the increasing cultural gap between the ordinary population and the Left-wing political elites.

Indeed, in his study of the North East, 1974-1979 (7), Renton insists that the pre-Thatcher labour movement was the best rampart against the spread of National Front ideas: “The class character of anti-fascism was most evident in those regions where trade-unionism predominated. In the North East, working-class anti-fascism went back to the interwar years” [148]. Extending the notion to the whole of Britain, Renton convincingly concludes—for that period—that “While individuals from working-class backgrounds might have been open to fascist ideas, there was no danger of fascism becoming a working-class force, while the unions were opposed” [156-157]. But many readers (and his co-author Linehan) will probably find it hard to join him in his optimism when he derives a sort of mathematical projection from this:

Thirty years later, trade unions are still the largest voluntary organisations in Britain. The basic incompatibility between trade union solidarity and the ideas of racial exclusion remains in place. Although many jobs in mining and manufacturing have been lost, a new generation of workers has emerged in industries that are just beginning to be organised. In this sense, the history of the anti-fascist campaigns represents a stock of experience on which activists can still draw [157].

Interestingly, if we accept Renton’s theses on what Copsey (8) calls “Old Labour and the National Front in the 1970s” [182], we have to accept a sort of duality in the labour movement, because if Renton demonstrates that the trade unions were at the forefront of the anti-fascist struggle, Copsey writes that “prior to 1976, the emergence of the NF occasioned little response from the Labour Party” [183]. Why was 1976 a turning-point? Because of electoral considerations, as the National Front made great progress at local elections in that year. Copsey notes that the National Front foundered at the 1979 General Election (1.3%), though he explains why it is impossible to assess the impact of the Labour Party’s vigorous campaign against racism, identified as the major asset of the extreme right. In its recent resurgence under a new label, that of the BNP, the extreme right also feeds on racism—this time by targeting asylum-seekers. Confirming Linehan’s arguments on the estrangement between the people and its elites, Copsey cites Tony Blair’s electoral advisors, pointing out that some “insisted that many working-class voters felt increasingly abandoned by New Labour, that they regarded themselves as very British, not European, and that they sharply resented the rising numbers of asylum-seekers entering Britain” [191]. But, Copsey argues, Labour is not closing the gap by educating the population—instead, Party leaders like David Blunkett show how good they have been at stopping immigration, which leads him to conclude that “in terms of its response to contemporary British fascism, New Labour is clearly not the party it once was” [198].

Curiously—or is it that really curious?—the feeling that the British community was under threat also provided the prime motive for conservative (small c) and Conservative (capital C) action against the General Strike, as Maguire argues (9), with an excellent quotation from the East Anglian Daily Times (27 July 1925), which maintained that the question was:

Whether any body of workers who are dissatisfied with the conditions under which they are employed should have the right to down tools at the order of their trade union, thereby inflicting grievous injury upon an entirely innocent community outside [14].

When Maguire writes that if one followed such reasoning “this was a conflict between those who stood to protect a good society against those whose sought to destroy it” [14], the reader is reminded of the familiar themes of BNP or Front National propaganda today. But is this their preserve? Is this a typical Fascist characteristic? Many movements—and from both Right and Left—have attracted a following “to protect a good society against those whose sought to destroy it.” Interestingly, Thurlow indicates that MI5 justified its action against the British Union of Fascists with the same type of argument: “MI5 portrayed itself as the guardian of democracy against totalitarian threats” [39]. Maguire’s chapter in fact raises the question of the dividing lines between conservatism (small c), Conservatism (capital C), Populism, pre-Fascism, crypto-Fascism, neo-Fascism and outright Fascism and Nazism—a question which used to be taboo on the Right, but a question which is equally embarrassing for the self-critical Left when confronted with the persistence or resurgence of the extreme-Right working-class vote.

Yet there is of course another obvious kind of “divide” which, Julie Gottlieb tells us (10), has so far been largely neglected: “One of the schisms within Britain’s anti-fascist movement that has not as yet received much scholarly attention is that between men and women” [69]. It is clear from her chapter that there is a definite “gap in the historiography,” as she puts it [71], trying to ascertain the reasons for it. It is equally clear that the worst form of sexist abuse was levelled at the women who dared to enter the territory of anti-fascism, with Gottlieb reproducing an extraordinary exchange of letters between Ellen Wilkinson and Willie Gallagher [70-71]. The contempt shown by Gallagher—a man of the uncompromising Left with otherwise impeccable “progressive” credentials—calls to mind the discussion by Mates (11) of the distinction between humanitarianism and politics apropos the “Aid Spain” campaign. What feelings could a man like Gallagher have towards his fellow creatures, male or female? Mates argues that the lines between “human” and “political” are often totally blurred, and he puts a convincing case for this in the case of aid to Spain [125-126]—but it seems that some men of the Left like Gallagher concentrated so much on politics in the narrow sense that they forgot the ultimate humanitarian objective of their liberation struggle.

All those who believe, in Brecht’s words, that “the womb from which that filthy beast emerged is still fertile” (Der Schoß ist fruchtbar noch, aus dem dies kroch) will find plenty of interest in British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State. It is still not clear why Fascism re-emerged, when it “had become as dead as the dodo in the immediate post-war years after 1945,” as Thurlow puts it [42]—but even though a lot of research is naturally needed to take full advantage of the gradual release of “sensitive” archival material (12), the book gives us a welcome state-of-the-art picture of knowledge as it stands in the early years of the new millenium. The editors should also be congratulated on their meticulous proof-reading—not a single typo was detected. Even though it often makes for depressing reading, the book should be in all Politics, Sociology, British Studies and History Department Libraries.


1/. Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. London: Harper Collins, 1991.

2/. Chapter 3: Macklin, Graham D. “‘A plague on both their houses’: fascism, anti-fascism and the police in the 1940s”.

3/. Chapter 8: Linehan, Thomas P. “Whatever happened to the Labour movement? Proletarians and the far right in contemporary Britain.”

4/. Chapter 5: Coupland, Philip M. “‘Left-wing fascism’ in theory and practice.”

5/. Dutt, Rajani Palme (1896-1974). A prominent British Stalinist and leading intellectual of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Cf. Callaghan, John T. Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1993 and Callaghan’s entry in the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004:

6/. Chapter 2: Thurlow, Richard C. “The security service, the Communist Party of Great Britain and British fascism, 1932-51.”

7/. Chapter 7: Renton, David. “Guarding the barricades: working-class anti-fascism, 1974-79.”

8/. Chapter 9: Copsey, Nigel. “Meeting the challenge of contemporary British Fascism? The Labour Party’s response to the National Front and British National Party.”

9/. Chapter 1: Maguire, Richard Charles. “ ‘The fascists... are... to be depended upon’: The British state, fascists and strike-breaking, 1925-26.”

10/. Chapter 4: Gottlieb, Julie V. “Feminism and anti-fascism in Britain: militancy revived?”

11/. Chapter 6: Mates, Lewis. “Practical anti-fascism? The ‘Aid Spain’ campaigns in north east England, 1936-1939.”

12/. Thurlow has an interesting discussion of the matter in his sub-chapter, “The ‘Opening of the Books’” [29-31].


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