Friday, 5 September 2008

Branch Meeting: British Union of Fascists

Last night's Stoke Socialist Party meeting had the pleasure of listening to a lead off by AVPS's very own Brother S. His topic was the British Union of Fascists.

The story of the BUF is closely intertwined with the person of Oswald Mosley, its founder and leader. Mosley was born into an aristocratic land-owning family in Staffordshire and had an upbringing befitting a man of his class. In the Great War he saw active service as an observer for the Royal Flying Corps and later an infantryman in the trenches. His experience profoundly affected him and Mosley emerged from the war with the determination to build a new society. By the time he was 23 Mosley was the Tory MP for Harrow. But he was a strange kind of conservative - he campaigned for slum clearance, welfare, higher wages, nationalisation of key industries and shorter working hours. It wasn't long before he found himself outside the party, resigning the whip to become an independent who supported the then ruling Liberal coalition before finally joining Labour in 1924.

More or less straight away Mosley became a maverick figure on the left of the PLP. He advocated government intervention and the nationalisation of the banks, but very quickly it became apparent he didn't have much time for democracy, which he believed was an unnecessary fetter on government action. But this was no bar to achieving high office. He ascended to a junior non-portfolio ministerial position in the 1929 Labour government with a responsibility toward unemployment. Between January and July 1930, unemployment tripled from one to three million. Mosley's response was a radical programme that would have seen the raising of tariff walls to protect British jobs and a lowering of the retirement age. But it was too much for the cabinet and the Labour party generally, and so Mosley founded his New Party on a corporatist basis. It was unique for developing a network of political youth clubs organised explicitly for dealing with hecklers at public meetings and outdoor addresses ... and as a defence force against any communist uprising. But despite the blaze of publicity that greeted its formation it fared badly at the unexpected 1931 general election. Of 24 candidates, all but two lost their deposits - even the CPGB, smarting under the lunacy of 'third period', polled better. The experience convinced Mosley that the old way of doing things was too ineffective and slow and began to look to Mussolini and Hitler.

Mosley founded the BUF in 1932, bringing together elements of the New Party and the old British Fascisti (an obscure group founded in 1924 against 'communism, anarchists, atheists and free love'). The BUF grew to be a sizeable organisation - 10,000 flocked to see Mosley speak at the Albert Hall and then there was the notorious meeting at Olympia - another 10,000 were present but was this time marked by some very ugly scenes. This caused soft support, such as that coming from the Daily Mail ("Hurrah for the Blackshirts!") to fall away. It wasn't helped by Hitler's attack on his SA in the Night of the Long Knives, nor did the BUF's adoption of anti-semitism.

The BUF did retain pockets of support, mainly on the south coast, the east end of London ... and Stoke. In the mid-30s, A.K.Chesterton, then a BUF organiser, came to Stoke, which was then host to the biggest Blackshirt branch in the country with a membership of about 400. He described a most "unsatisfactory situation" that was "part thieves' kitchen, part bawdy house". 300 were purged from the rolls.

It underwent a reorganisation in 1935 and officially titled itself the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists. The fascist "defence force" was wound up, and seemingly, at least for that year's election, its electoral intervention. Instead Mosley called for a boycott and, given the very low turn out, felt as though the British people had heeded his propaganda. This no doubt helped enable the mass following the BUF had picked up in the east end. Support was drawn mainly from the hundreds of small businesses located there plus unemployed workers, who blamed the local Jewish and Irish communities for their plight. This culminated in the Battle of Cable Street, which I won't dwell on here. But what it did was deal British fascism a blow it never recovered from until the rise of the National Front in the 70s.

As for the BUF, its fortunes began to slide. It ran out of money, there were personality quarrels, and ideological divergences between anti-semitism and more conventional patriotism. With the outbreak of the war Mosley opposed it on the grounds that Britain really didn't have a quarrel with Germany. In 1940 after the Dunkirk debacle, the BUF was shut down by the government. 1,200 fascists were imprisoned and Mosley and his family interned in Holloway prison.

That marked the end of the BUF. After the war Mosley set up a pan-European fascist organisation that advocated a united Europe that could ensure it competed on an equal footing with the super states of the east and the west. He remained virulently anti-immigrant, and tried to use the 1958 Notting Hill riots for an ill-fated political comeback. Mosley died in relative obscurity in 1980.

In the discussion, P noted that previous British fascist organisations always invite comparison with today's BNP. But how we do the comparison is important. What we shouldn't do is take the BUF as a 'classical fascist' template and see how the BNP measures up to it. Such an approach smacks of abstracting both formations from their historical contexts and reducing the comparison to superficial and often secondary features. It is much more fruitful to consider them in their respective political climates and look at the processes that fuelled their growth and influence, and what, if anything, the BNP takes from the BUF. He suggested the BNP have drawn constitutionalist lessons from this and their own street fighting experiences.

F said he'd taken a look at the 1938 BUF pamphlet, The Coming Corporate State. It advocated dividing the economy into 12 sections, each responsible for agriculture, mining, retail, etc. Each conglomerate would be run by a board composed of workers, consumers (i.e. business) and the state. The government itself would be very small as the corporations would be self-governing. The problem for this, P pointed out, is for a government run on the leader principle, the autonomy of the corporate agencies leave an awful lot of room for bases of opposition within the regime to take root. Or, it can be a recipe for administrative chaos. In Hitler's regime, there was no government programme as such. Each department was left to its own devices. Their heads received no direction from the fuhrer, instead they had to "work toward" what they thought would please him. He would only intervene if a dispute between departments flared up or if a decision had to be made by him.

Returning to comparisons, G thought it was interesting how the BUF's areas of strength - Stoke, the south coast and the east end are bases of BNP support today. C mentioned how the decline of the BUF didn't necessarily mean a decline in nationalist and/or fascist ideas. Sometimes the kinds of sentiments fascists feed off and encourage can be absorbed into the mainstream, as was the fate of the NF at the 1979 election - Thatcher's Tories campaigned hard on law and order and immigration.

For A, we have to remember the historical role played by fascism, which is as a battering ram against the labour movement. It's no mistake that Marxists, as the most militant and conscious elements of our class are always the first in the camps or up against a wall. In Britain, the reason why the BUF failed was because the labour movement had failed. The working class hadn't recovered from the 1926 general strike and wasn't a threat to the rule of capital, so a fascist movement was more or less superfluous and failed to pick up significant support in ruling circles. Today, it's difficult to say if the British ruling class would turn to fascism as a last resort if it was faced by a confident and advancing socialist movement. Because the Nazis had a mass base it was able to subordinate big business to the state, especially so as the war progressed. In effect the bourgeoisie lost control of their state and paid the price with loss of independence and German capitalism part-expropriated by Stalin's armies.

Lastly, A felt duty-bound to defend Stoke's honour. It might be true the Potteries once paid host to the BUF's biggest branch, but whenever they marched in their Longton "stronghold" they were met with bricks, stones, coins and fists.

In sum, Brother S did a great job shedding light on this episode of British political history.


Anonymous said...

Mosley was MP for Smethwick and he was still MP (if memory serves me right) when he came back from Germany and Italy in the early 1930s.
I remember interviewing a man in the mid 1980s for my O Level History project about the '26 General Strike (esp. labour movement organisation in B'ham) and he talked about Mosley (the loathing he had for the man was palpable). He was at the LP when Mosely talked about what he had seen in Italy and Germany. And this man I interviewed, Arthur, heckled Mosley by shouting, "That's fascism". And a fight broke out between Mosley and his fascist goons and socialists in the LP.

There was a demonstration in Smethwick against Mosley and Arthur helped organise it (along with socialists, trade unionists and anti-fascists).

They lined up (military style as I think many had served in the First World War)and blocked Mosley and his supporters from going any further.

Arthur, even after 50 odd yrs, still recalled that event vivdly and his eyes seem to brighten when he said, "We kicked Mosley out of Smethwick"..

Anonymous said...

And now we have New labour. never mind.