The British Fascisti and the Imperial Fascist League
The first political organisation in Britain openly to proclaim itself to be a fascist party was founded on 6 May 1923 by the then 28-yearold Rotha Lintorn-Orman. The fledgling fascist party would refer to itself as the British Fascisti during its first year of life, an indication of its founder's admiration for Mussolini's new fascist experiment in Italy. Most historians of the BF agree that, from its formation until 1926, there was very little evidence of fascism in its ideology or programme. The IFL had a relatively coherent ideology and was more an overtly fascist party than most of its native contemporaries, including the British Fascisti. Its doctrine of Nordic supremacy and racial anti-semitism provided the IFL with much of its ideological coherence. Most historians of British fascism have discounted the significance of the IFL.
This book provides a clear and accessible guide to the essential features of interwar British fascism. It focuses on the various fascist parties, fascist personalities and fascist ideologies. The book also looks at British culture and develops the knowledge of undergraduate students by providing a solid source of background material on this important area of interwar British history. The focus on fascist culture throws new light on the character of native fascism and suggests a potentially rich vein of new enquiry for scholars of British fascism. The book considers the membership strength of Britain's interwar fascist parties. The ideas of racial Social-Darwinism influenced British fascism in a number of ways. To begin with, hereditarian ideas and biological determinist models contributed to the emergence of racial theories of anti-semitism. The anti-semitism of the Imperial Fascist League was of a very different order from that of the British fascism. Moreover, to Britain's fascists, artistic modernism, with its creative use of distortion, disintegrative images and general disdain for the traditional discipline of the art form, made a virtue of deformity. The search to uncover the anti-liberal and anti-capitalist pre-fascist lineage would become a highly subjective exercise in invention and take the fascists on an imaginative journey deep into the British past.
This chapter describes a number of points that are in need of clarification. Firstly, there is no necessary or natural correlation between fascism and anti-semitism. Secondly, the analyst and student of fascist anti-semitism needs to be alive to the fact that there are numerous strains of the antisemitic virus, ranging from the common-or-garden anti-Semitism to the more virulent racial-biological kind with its potentially genocidal implications. Thirdly, a tradition of anti-semitism existed in Britain long before the advent of domestic fascism, much of it potent and highly articulate, as Colin Holmes's admirable Anti-Semitism in British Society, from 1876 to 1939 demonstrated. The anti-semitism of the Imperial Fascist League was of a very different order from that of the BF. The IFL advocated a doctrine of racial anti-semitism and Nordic supremacy that would set it apart from the great majority of its contemporaries on the interwar fascist fringe.
Like the majority of the interwar fascist parties, both in Britain and on the continent, the British Union of Fascists came to prominence on the back of a domestic internal crisis. The BUF was very much the child of the economic crisis from 1929 to 1931, while its subsequent political life unfolded against the backdrop of the trade depression that came after it. The BUF sought to apply corporate principles to virtually all the key sectors of industrial life. When contemplating the reasons for the BUF's ultimate political failure during the 1930s, Benewick Benewick suggested that it was due to its alienation from the British political culture. The BUF's attempts to refute philosophical Marxism also bore the mark of Nietzsche's insights on the 'will-to-power' and the 'superman'.
In the fascist mind Bloomsbury 'intellectualism', together with changing trends in leisure and sexual behavior were decadent phenomena which heralded the dissolution of culture. However, in the view of many of Britain's fascists between the wars, the supreme paradigm of decadence and the ultimate symbol of the destruction of culture in the modern age was the city. Consistent with its fascist ideology, however, its views on the countryside were of an even more extreme kind. In fascist ideology, particularly that of the 'mature' Mosleyite variety, 'true' culture was indelibly bound up with the countryside and the soil. Apprehension about the machine and the machine age was prevalent in British fascist discourse. Fascist unease about the machine, industrialisation and mass production was not only shaped by perceptions of the Industrial Revolution, Fordist industrial capitalism and Bolshevik productivism.
Culture was at the centre of the fascist political project in interwar Britain. British fascism was a cultural phenomenon as much as it was a movement for political or economic change. With regard to the former, British fascist culture developed within the broad European-wide cultural critique of liberal rationalism and positivism that originated in the 1890s, and was thus an organic element of it. Culture was imagined in a number of ways by British fascists. Indeed, like fascism and its ideology, it did not project a single uniform identity. True culture, for the fascists was meant to convey a sense of the eternal and enduring. Fascist culture was meant to convey and reinforce the idea of a harmoniously integrated society, united in its pursuit of prescribed political goals.
The origins of British fascism can be traced to a range of intellectual currents and developments that germinated in the period prior to 1914. Domestic fascism also grew out of the traumatic experience of the Great War. The early postwar years, however, would prove to be just as crucial for the emergence of a native fascism. In broad outline it is possible to detect traces of an incipient fascism of the type of genus that characterised the fully matured variety of the later 1920s. This chapter addresses the question of the relative importance of the early postwar organisational and publicistic forms to the emergence of 1920s fascism. Although it is vital not to underestimate the significance of the pre-fascist groups for the fascist parties that came after them, therefore, we should not forget that each, in the main, belonged to a different organisational and ideological realm.
The British fascist imagination during the interwar period was racked by a morbid dread of impending national dissolution. A veritable kaleidoscope of nightmarish new forms and practices appeared on the fascists' mental horizon as a result of the sexual revolution. Many fascists believed that this revolutionary wave had burst the dam of conventional decency and moral restraint, unleashing a tide of sexually promiscuous behaviour and decadent sexual perversity on modern Britain. Fascism and literary modernism were also contemptuous of 'mass culture' and the alleged 'Americanisation' of British culture. In addition, the supremacy of elites in culture and other areas of society was deemed unavoidable. Fascists accused rationalism of presiding over a fundamental divorce between intellect and emotion. By elevating mind and reason to a privileged position of authority within the human condition, rationalism was charged with denying man's subjective nature.
A degree of intellectual confusion would mark the earliest attempts to comprehend fascism. The contemporary Marxist view of fascism as a secondary phenomenon shared many of the historicist and teleological assumptions. The notion of fascism as a temporary lapse into insanity, a moral and cultural deviation that drove a wedge into European history and diverted it from its path to reason and enlightenment, failed to appreciate the distinct lines of continuity between fascism and the European society and culture that spawned it. In order to comprehend more accurately the essence of British fascism, it must be viewed as an organic element of the fin-de-siecle intellectual and cultural revolt. The 'anti-' model of fascism serves as a useful analytical device to probe the reactionary, negative and imprecisely formulated pronouncements of 1920s manifestations of fascist ideology in Britain, particularly Rotha Lintorn-Orman's British Fascists.
This chapter considers the membership strength of Britain's interwar fascist parties, and other areas of related interest such as the social-class and occupational profiles of fascist 'joiners'. Reliable material on the membership in the official fascist sources, in particular, is extremely scarce. Fascist newspaper sources are less useful, however, if we are attempting to arrive at an estimation of a fascist party's membership strength. Membership figures put out by the fascist press are notoriously unreliable. The significance of the National Fascisti and the IFL lay in areas other than the number of members they attracted, though. Both parties had pitifully small memberships. Social-class and occupational analyses of fascist memberships undoubtedly help us to arrive at a greater awareness of the nature of fascism, not least because they impel us to focus on the structural or objective determinants of recruitment.