In the years between the two world wars, fascism triumphed in Italy, Germany, Spain and elsewhere, coming to power after intense struggles with the labour movements of those countries. This book analyses the way in which the British left responded to this new challenge. How did socialists and communists in Britain explain what fascism was? What did they do to oppose it, and how successful were they? In examining the theories and actions of the Labour Party, the TUC, the Communist Party and other, smaller, left-wing groups, the book explains their different approaches, while at the same time highlighting the common thread that ran through all their interpretations of fascism. The author argues that the British left has largely been overlooked in the few specific studies of anti-fascism which exist, with the focus being disproportionately applied to its European counterparts. He also takes issue with recent developments in the study of fascism, and argues that the views of the left, often derided by modern historians, are still relevant today.
This introductory chapter briefly sets out the purpose of the book, which is to counter myths about the British left and fascism in the inter-war years. It then considers why, when the British left is considered in relation to fascism and anti-fascism, its main organisations, namely the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress, have suffered a grievous neglect. The chapter suggests that a re-examination of the British left and fascism may contribute something to the ongoing debates within the historiography of fascism, and perhaps may aid us in the recovery of some essentials which are in danger of being overlooked in today's ‘fascism studies’.
Despite a general agreement as to the essential political alignment of fascism, the parties of the left differed concerning its relationship to the state and other social forces, as well as over how best to oppose it. These elements of concurrence and divergence regarding fascism can be seen in the left's responses to earlier and parallel movements. The differences in their analyses lay in the fundamentally different psychologies of reformist and revolutionary parties, and in the contrasting conclusions each drew from their experience of the war itself and from the bitter struggles that convulsed Europe between the Russian revolution of 1917 and Mussolini's assumption of power in Italy in 1922. It was these formative events that set in place the prism through which fascism was initially perceived by the British left. An examination of certain features of these years, which perhaps seem disparate and unrelated at first glance, but which later emerge either as aspects of fascist movements, regimes or ideology, is therefore valuable.
The British left certainly had differences of opinion concerning Italian fascism. Moderates argued that it had flourished in a climate of fear engendered in the middle and upper classes by revolutionaries within the labour movement. British revolutionaries asserted that, on the contrary, fascism had been so aggressive and so successful because of the timidity of the socialist leaders in responding to its attacks. Labour and the Trades Union Congress argued that it had conquered a state with weak parliamentary structures and had conquered it largely from without, maintaining their view that the best defence against fascism was to support the concept and institutions of democracy. Communists, on the other hand, pointed out that fascism had come to power with the connivance of powerful elements within Italian democracy, and of supposed servants of the ‘democratic’ state, which here, as elsewhere, was no more than a convenient cover for capitalist rule. Yet despite these differences, all parties of the left in Britain concurred that Italian fascism's overwhelmingly distinctive characteristic was its anti-working class stance: a feature which had marked it throughout all its phases.
With the benefit of hindsight, it can be difficult to imagine that people in Britain were ever unsure about what Nazism stood for, yet it was the case that early impressions were developed without knowledge of what was to come, and it is with this in mind that their accuracy or otherwise should be judged today. As Nazism followed its winding course from the margins of German political life, in Britain it was the far left that subjected it to the closest scrutiny. Although British Marxism became increasingly associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s, some of the smaller revolutionary groups active in the early part of the decade were also perceptive observers of the young Nazi movement, and it was in their publications that several of the first reports on it appeared.
When considering the threat of fascism in Britain, the left repeated the familiar arguments they had had regarding Italy and Germany, and divided over the nature of the democratic state, as well as the potential of reaction to emerge from within it. This was especially true concerning the National Government, which the parliamentarians of Labour and the Trades Union Congress saw as a legitimately elected government that could only be defeated at the polls. Talk of extra-parliamentary action was not only inimical to Labour's creed, but would, the party felt, increase the danger of fascism by provoking a backlash from the right. British revolutionaries, however, looked on the National Government as a dangerous step towards, or a precursor of, fascism, feeling that the necessary response to this was the radicalisation of the labour movement and a move away from constitutional methods. To do otherwise, which they felt had happened in Italy and Germany, had left workers weakened and demoralised in the face of the fascist threat.
The very existence of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), formed by Oswald Mosley in October 1932 after the failure of the New Party, was enough to command the attention of the left parties, regardless of its aggressive campaigning. They invested considerable time and effort in analysing and opposing the BUF, addressing many of the issues that divide historians of fascism today, and, in so doing, have bequeathed an invaluable body of evidence, often overlooked, concerning the composition, policies and activities of Mosley's movement.
As the 1930s progressed, the left had new opportunities to observe fascism and deepen its understanding of the phenomenon. In Spain in 1936, there was another assault from the right on a European democracy. Despite the differing perspectives the left parties had of the Spanish Civil War, there was broad agreement on the nature and purpose of the fascist challenge there. In Italy, Mussolini's regime had become firmly established, the final centres of opposition were nullified and the actions of a ‘mature’ fascist state could be seen. In Germany, Hitler had moved far more quickly than his Italian counterpart to impose a dictatorship, and the nature of a functioning economy under Nazism soon became apparent. The early claims of fascist and Nazi movements as to the kind of societies they would create and the balance of class relations they would oversee could now be tested against reality.
That fascism should be understood primarily in economic terms was a belief retained by the left from its initial awareness of the movement in Italy in 1919 up to and beyond the outbreak of war in 1939. By using the simple expedient of enquiring into who actually ruled and who actually benefited, the left have bequeathed to us a model that we can use today to break through the still-resonant and apparently still-seductive assertions that fascism made in its own defence. The question of whether the British left's methods of opposing fascism can stand comparison with the tactics used abroad is addressed. The left parties in each country attempted to fight fascism in ways that accorded with their own political ethos and which they judged to be suitable at the time, each framing their opposition in the light of the threat as they perceived it. The extensive study of anti-fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain has tended to overshadow the struggle in Britain. Yet it can be argued that the British left utilised tactics that complemented the strategies of the various parties, which were appropriate to the nature of the fascist threat, and were decisive in limiting the growth of such groups as the British Fascisti and the British Union of Fascists.