Palazzo dell’Arengario, arch. Giovanni Muzio, Piero Portaluppi, Enrico Agostino Griffini, Pier Giulio Magistretti, 1936-1942 puis terminé en 1956. Bas-reliefs de Giacomo Manzù et Arturo Martini
The debate over the existence and the use of fascism as a historical category of analysis in Britain has been at the heart of a rich – although many would say tiresome – historiographical debate between those arguing that mainstream conservatism was always dominant in Britain and fascism therefore inexistent, those who argued that fellow-travellers of the right or “pro-Nazi patriots” were local avatars of fascism who never felt the need for a separate party because the Conservative Party was such a congenial home for them, and those who saw the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and organisations such as the Link, the Association for Anglo-German Fellowship, as evidence of the existence of a form of fascism similar to that found on the Continent. Competing definitions of the concept of fascism have placed issues of terminology at the centre of the debate. In trying to make sense of these, Matthew Feldman proposes an extremely useful overview of the recent literature on fascism, the “new consensus” and the dangers of its uses and misuses, the dangers of “disinterring fascism”, raising the question of its transnational dimension. Julie Gottlieb then focusses on the British case and “the past imperfect”, giving a nuanced account of the interwar period and shedding new light on the gendered issues around fascism. How are these debates relevant today? Eventually, Robert Saunders offers a short coda on the difference and articulation between Conservatism, populism and fascism.
Professor Matthew Feldman is the director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). He has written extensively on fascist ideology and the far-right in Europe and the USA. His publications include Clerical Fascism in Interwar Europe (Routledge, 2008); A Fascist Century (Palgrave, 2008); and, with Roger Griffin, the five-volume collection Fascism. Critical Concepts (Routledge, 2003). More recent volumes include Doublespeak. The Rhetoric of the Far-Right since 1945 (Columbia University Press, 2014) and The “New Man” in Radical Right Ideology and Practice, 1919-1945 (Bloomsbury 2017).
Professor Julie Gottlieb is an expert in the history of political extremism, with a focus on right-wing extremism in Britain, in women’s history and gender studies, in comparative fascism and race and ethnicity in the British context. Her publications include Guilty Women, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), The Culture of Fascism. Visions of the Far Right in Britain (I.B Tauris, 2004), Feminine Fascism. Women in Britain’s Fascism Movement, 1923-1945 (I.B. Tauris, 2000-2003).
Dr Robert Saunders is Reader in Modern British History at Queen Mary University, London. He specializes in the history of democracy and democratic thought in Britain. He is the author of Democracy and the Vote in British Politics, 1848-1867. The Making of the Second Reform Act (Farnham, Ashgate, 2011); Making Thatcher’s Britain (with Ben Jackson, Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Matthew Feldman, “Disinterring Fascism” and the debates around the “New consensus”
Like the undead, the question “what is fascism?” simply refuses to stay buried1. It was already seen as a new political force, not just a new party, by Italian onlookers at the time. In the decades since, several attempts at a “fascist international” were undertaken – including CAUR before the war and Mosley’s “Europe a Nation” after it – which have since moved online and likewise refuses to stay dead. Yet even the spectre of fascism as a concept was condemned to non-existence only two generations ago, in a landmark article in the American Historical Review that opens: “Perhaps the word fascism should be banned”2. Both then and since, this view is usually borne of exasperation with taxonomy wars in academia, which is as understandable as it is misguided.
The tendency to conflate fascism with “political views or regimes I dislike’ is”, like fascist ideology itself, ideologically promiscuous. To give but two examples, conservative writers like Jonah Goldberg attempted to give life to the veritable meme “liberal fascism”, conjuring a kind of doppelganger tradition from Woodrow Wilson to Hillary Clinton. To give but one taste of this mischief placing fascism on the extreme left rather than the extreme right of the political spectrum, consider the following: “Vegetarianism, public health and animal rights were merely different facets of the obsession with the organic order that pervaded the German fascist mind then, and the liberal fascist mind today.” Revealing, one explicit reason Goldberg gives for writing such a mischievous book is “to puncture the smug self-confidence that simply by virtue of being liberal one is also virtuous”3. This tradition, finding its analogue in an equally foolish tradition attacking all conservatives as “fascists”, may be effective ammunition in ongoing culture wars but it does virtually nothing to add to the store of human knowledge on this subject.
Even good faith attempts to warn about returning to fascism’s metastising between the wars can suffer from this bias. Works by Yale philosopher Jason Stanley and leading American diplomat, both appearing in 2018, fall into this maximal category as well. The former includes “illiberal democracies” like Orban’s Hungary and Kazsinski’s Poland, with interspersed vignettes about Donald Trump. All are objectionable and radical right; none are fascists.
Likewise with Fascism. A Warning, which takes a similar thematic, or “tickbox”, approach to fascist ideology. Opening with her graduate class, she asked two dozen students to name “characteristic that were, to their minds, most closely associated with the word”. The responses were instructive of the dangers of this back-to-front approach; above all, that other totalitarian or theocratic regimes often act like the Axis regimes between the 1930s and 1940s:
“A mentality of ‘us against them’, offered one. Another ticked off ‘nationalist, authoritarian, anti-democratic’. A third emphasized the violent aspect. A fourth wondered why Fascism was almost always considered right-wing, arguing, “Stalin was as much a Fascist as Hitler.” [….] Fascism should perhaps be viewed less as a political ideology than as a means for seizing and holding power.”4
The problem with this approach is exemplified by the inclusion of subsequent chapters on “The President of the United States” and the “Man from the KGB”; that is, Trump and Putin respectively. Both are autocrats. Neither are fascists. Why not?
And what gives?
In attempting to address the latter question, this response to Passés Futurs’ kind invitation will, necessarily briefly, address two main questions. First, can or should fascism be approached generically; that is, as a comparative, transnational, extant ideological phenomenon? Closely related, even if such an understanding is possible, how can such a concept retain specificity and usefulness, or put another way, how does it pass the “Isn’t Trump (or Putin, alongside many others according to preference) a fascist?” Yet with both points it is vital to bear two perhaps decisive considerations in mind; namely that the global revulsion of Axis crimes from 1945 – the denouement of which was the Holocaust, which remains today humanity’s greatest evil – has left a crippling stigma for fascists. They rarely called themselves fascists after 1945, a tendency continuing today given that this remains a sure path to the political fringe anywhere in the world. The comprehensive defeat of fascism during the Second World War, moreover, has meant that academic understandings of fascism, which only matured in the postwar era, emerged from the “anti-fascist” consensus of the Cold War, with fascism most often seen in terms of what it stood against: leftism, Jews, democracy, pluralism, and so on. The problem of course is that many non- and even anti-fascist regimes, like the Soviet Union, also betrayed these tendencies. The point is that understandings of fascism where shaped by this Cold War context, a time when listening to fascists about what they believed was absolutely taboo.
This began to shift in the 1990s with the emergence of a so-called “new consensus” that, in its most recent formulation, starts from a “fascist minimum” rooted in revolutionary nationalism; that is, “a mythic focus point for the fascist to feel part of a supra-personal community of belonging, identity and shared culture (whether based on history, language, territory, religion or blood, or a mixture of several such components)”. In turn, this “ultra-nation” is plagued by “sick”, destructive forces that needing to be destroyed in order for a “healthy” totalitarian new order to emerge, by “a socially engineered population of believers”5. Significantly, this approach considers fascism a generic ideology – one not bounded by either “western” geography or pre-1945 chronology – and points up both reasons for appeal for followers as well as those negative characteristics of fascism that led from them: the leader worship, the violence, the camps. This is because the most important document of “new consensus” are the remarkable similarities of outlook brought together in scores of excerpts by fascists themselves in the landmark Fascism. A Reader’s Guide. In assembling literally scores of fascist voices saying much the same thing, an unmissable lowest common denominator emerged: fascism’s quasi-religious belief in a reborn community, refashioning itself through a revolution that was as much social and cultural as it was martial and revolutionary. Recent works also drawing upon Fascist Voices – to name perhaps the most telling account of recent years, drawing upon hundreds of archived diaries compiled under Mussolini’s regime – have argued that fascism acted as a kind “political religion” with all the secularized trappings of institutionalised faith6.
Yet there was already a tension at the heart of this approach that often goes unremarked. On one hand, it aptly characterised the self-understandings of “rightwing revolutionary rebirth” that separated, say, Franco’s Spain or Pinochet’s Chile from – let alone Stalin or Putin’s Russia – from fascists like Antonescu’s interwar Legionnaires or postwar neo-Nazis. Like most approaches to ideology, however, it based these formal political statements on leaders and (usually middle-class, male) doctrinaires. Rarely were the rank-and-file consulted, let alone heard. Their voices were often very different than the ideologues’; a consideration that applies to all political ideologies, but which is especially piqued given the informal nature of fascism’s ideological formation.
Put another way, when fascism emerged from the battlefields of the War To End All Wars, it was born of no father, and as twins. Following liberalism in the 18th century and socialism in the 19th century, Juan Linz has rightly called fascism an ‘ideological latecomer’, meaning that it necessarily had to choose positions already in existence; necessarily adapting aspects from the already-familiar left-right political spectrum. In the early years leading up to World War One, this entailed a synthesis of political positions on both left and right, particularly in belle epoque France, as Zeev Sternhell has admirably shown7. Then came the caesura of birth: World War One, and all the death for nation, unprecedented statist intervention – economic, socio-cultural and above all militaristic – amidst the apparent meaninglessness, sacrifice of youth, and veritable collapse of the European old order that went along with it. Christened in civilization-shattering war, fascism arose from a nationalistic facing of literal bullets in continental Europe: these bullets did not discriminate by class, and the conflict was very simply victory or death. Turning this ethos inward, at the socio-political resurrection of the nation understood in (para)military terms, was fascism’s Mark of Cain at birth.
This sense of emergency contrasts starkly with the gradualism of liberalism and socialism. Even the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary form of socialism, Marxist-Leninism, emerged from the serenity of library. That’s precisely the point, that existing ideologies had canons, existing doctrine that could be updated and amended, but at the same time identified as theoretical primus inter pares: Hume and Diderot, Adam Smith; or Saint-Simon and Fournier, Bebel and Trotsky. By contrast, the template for “national regeneration” first went over the top as part of Mussolini’s so-called “trenchocracy” of war veterans (and modernist artists) in May 1919, touting a mix of semi-socialist ideas and integral nationalism in an Italian context of near civil war conditions. Whereas liberalism and socialism emerged from an evolving doctrine later taken up by political movements and leaders; fascism, Linz’s ideological scavenger, emerged as both doctrine and practice at the same time. Fascism had no ideological “father” in the sense of Rousseau or Marx. Instead, fascism came into being by dint of political leaders of a stamp like Mosley, Szálasi, Hitler and Mussolini, who were as fundamentally marked by the Great War in which they served as they were to be shaped by events to come (above all the paradigm-shifting March on Rome in 1922).
Alongside this bastard parentage, “fascism” swiftly came to mean two things: Mussolini’s Fascismo in interwar Italy; and a new political force, or worldview, that appeared outside Italy in the 1920s and especially 1930s. The first is comparatively easy to establish in works about Mussolini and the PNF, although it bears noting that, of course, both changed greatly over time (for instance, with “leftist” elements gradually removed between 1919 and 1943, when several appeared again in the Nazi satrapy, the Salo Republic). Il Duce’s blackshirts also increasingly provided for a self-perpetuating template in the 1920s: a successful example of quasi-legal, paramilitaristic consolidation of power from the revolutionary right.
The latter, of course, had enormous appeal transnationally – at first. And not just amongst hardened veterans or revolutionary idealists all too ready to dehumanize and exterminate enemies both real and imagined: women joined auxiliary organisations and shirted youth movements sprang like poisoned mushrooms across Europe. “Mussolinism” had captured part of the interwar zeitgeist: Valois’ Le Faisceau was founded in 1925 and Konrad Hallgren’s Sveriges Fascistiska Kamporganisation, for instance a year after that. In British terms, Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League was established in 1929 – while only a year before that, the short-lived CINEF published its first yearbook, including “fascists” from across Europe as ideological confreres. This kinship was further redoubled under the contemporaneous Fasci Italiani’Estero from the early 1920s, spreading a doctrine of “universal fascism” that reached its apogee in the Action Committee for the Universalisation of Fascism, or CAUR, in the ominous year 19338. Consequently, CAUR was later eclipsed by the German variant of fascism under the Third Reich, which identified nationhood “in the blood”, leading to a proliferation of fascist groups taking on the sobriquet “national socialist” as far afield as Chile and South Africa, let alone central Europe9. Culminating in the thankfully brief “new order” under Nazi occupation, the lived experience of transnational fascism in wartime Europe was closer to hell on earth than any of the utopian visions set out by revolutionary nationalists before 1945.
It is precisely this experience that has ensured that fascism is more often used as a term of abuse than as an ideological category – even as the last survivors of the Holocaust pass away. But the memory of how revolutionary, how extreme, the practice of fascist praxis actually was should never be forgotten. Even when they are roots grafted from the same ideological tree, as in the case of the MSI in Italy or the FPO in Austria – both making gains sizeable enough to compel Umberto Eco to pen the memorable, if hit-and-miss, “Ur Fascism” – the revolutionary, eliminationist and quasi-religious aspects more properly associated with fascism are absent. That is to say, even if radical right groups today are most closely associated with the fascism of the past, most operate – and formally accept – the reformist context of liberal democratic hegemony. Even the worst offenders, like Modi’s BJP and Trump’s Republicans, have not (yet) shed the framework of inalienable rights, the separation of powers, and primacy of the electorate that remains the hallmark of liberalism.
In truth, fascism was defeated more comprehensively in 1945 than socialism was in 1991. One has retained respectability, while the other remains a pariah. More to the point, explicitly fascist or national socialist movements since 1945 have always paled in comparison with the mass movements and totalitarian rule of their Axis forebears. Instead, they are insular and furtive, more often a joke than a threat, and nowhere at risk of seizing power. That seems unlikely to change, short of a “fascist zeitgeist” close to the crisis conditions between the world wars. Simply put, the erosion of liberties by radical right, even parafascist movements – like Franco and Pinochet of old – remains a much greater threat to liberal democracy than contemporary fascism. Whether one wishes to emphasise the differences or the similarities between fascism and the radical right, the revolutionary thrust and “political faith” separating fascists and national socialists from their diluters is a real and important, a distinction well-recognised by fascists themselves.
Needless to say, that is no argument for ceasing vigilance of this most poisonous of political ideologies, nor is it do discount the ethnic and religious minorities so often targeted by fascists today, including in acts of so-called “lone wolf” terrorism. If anything, it underscores the importance of continuing to ask not the first question, “what is fascism?” – which has a heuristic answer that at least offers a useful point of departure10– but the second: where is fascist praxis manifested today? That is less a litmus test along the lines of “Is trump a fascist” or the like, and more about patient research, and the retention of fascism and a specific historical and ideological phenomenon. Granted this contribution will not bury the “what is fascism” corpse. Fundamentally contested concepts never can be, and that is a good thing. But let us not be afraid of ghosts either.
Palazzo della Provincia, arch. Giovanni Muzio, 1938-1941. Bas-reliefs de Salvatore Saponara
Julie Gottlieb, “The Past Imperfect” or a gendered vision of fascism
This special issue raises questions about the legacies of fascism across Europe and the particular manifestations of fascism in different countries. In the British case, fascism – in a pure form and one that took its inspiration from Italian Fascismo and German National Socialism – failed in the inter-war period, and variations and permutations of the same have continued to fail in electoral terms. What is the nature of British fascism? How has it changed over time? Has there been a resurgence of fascism in contemporary Britain?
A number of peculiar characteristics of British political culture have been seen to account for keeping fascism stranded at the margins: the first-past-the-post system; Britain’s physical isolation as an island, apart from the Continent; the success and stability of Conservatism, on the one hand, and of constitutional and evolutionary labourism, on the other; being on the winning side in the First World War and therefore the absence of a stab-in-the-back myth; a national history of evolutionary rather than revolutionary change; the monarchy and the aristocracy, and the way the elites adapted to mass democracy (why do we think Downton Abbey is so popular?!); a vague but character-defining idea of British tolerance and pluralism within the frame of empire; and even the British sense of humour that cannot abide the silliness of the trappings of fascism (see P.G Wodehouse’s depiction of the Black Shorts!).
Each of the above factors that seem to account for the failure of fascism have been and should continue to be tested and contested, and there are indubitably further aspects to take into consideration. But what is plain is that by some political chemistry or alchemy – or perhaps just plain good luck – fascists have never achieved power. The most successful of the fascist and far Right organization to model themselves on Italian fascism was, of course, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), and despite building its electoral machinery from 1935 (but not announcing its prospective Parliamentary candidates until after the 1935 General Election), and running candidates in the London County Council, municipal elections, and two wartime by-elections, no fascist was ever elected before 1945. Decades later the British National Party (BNP) met with limited but nevertheless alarming electoral success when Derek Beakon won a council seat in the East End of London at a by-election in 1993. The BNP also won two seats in the European Parliament in 2009, its first ever win in a nationwide election.
Despite the failure to make significant electoral inroads, fascism has been a much more consistent presence in British political culture and in popular culture than the above narrative would suggest. Yes, we can think of this in the sense of Umberto Eco’s vivid description of “Ur-fascism”, and variants of far-Right populism and racism have certainly morphed into an array of quazi- and para-fascist forms in the post-war period.
More specifically, British fascism itself has been much more of a continuing presence than what is demonstrated by the measure of electoral success alone. Notwithstanding its political foundering, fascism still sits at one pole on the political spectrum. In one sense this has meant that British politics has been defined not by but against fascism. There is a healthy tradition of anti-fascism both in terms of direct action (from the “soldiers” at the “Battle of Cable Street” of 1936, to the 43 Group to the Anti-Nazi League), and in a more general sense that since the 1930s political legitimacy has derived from and has depended on being anti-fascist-- it is so fundamental that it can go unsaid. The construction of Britain’s People’s War (1939-1945) – however mythological and problematic – was so potent because Britain and Britons imagined themselves to be the anti-thesis to the Nazis.
It is telling that when in 2005 the BBC History Magazine put together a list of the worst Britons over the past 1000 years, Oswald Mosley had the dubious honour of topping the poll. In historiographical terms as well, it is often remarked upon that studies treating the history of British fascism significantly outweigh scholarship on the post-1918 British Liberal Party. The asymmetry is all the more striking when we remember that the BUF only ever attracted 50,000 members at its height, while the Liberal Party’s story may indeed have been one of decent into a strange death but it nonetheless had hundreds of MPs in Parliament. Why this disproportionate attention? The allure, or the appeal of the villainy, of Mosley as cultural icon/democratic iconoclast persists, from the 4-hour biopic Mosley in the late 1990s, and only last year he was depicted in two popular TV programmes, Peaky Blinders and the BBC’s mini-series World on Fire. In both these 2019 representations there was little concern for historical accuracy. Mosley – or at least the miscast specters of “the Leader” – is getting all this screen time because fascism is assumed to be back in fashion. Mosley or Mosley-ish characters and caricatures seem to appear when we are in need of explanations for the mess we are in, relying on forced historical analogy to make sense of the zeitgeist of social and political crisis in Brexit Britain. Who is the scariest person people can think of when gripped by fear of a new wave of extremism? It’s Mosley, of course.
As a number of scholars have shown, fascism is rooted in British political culture, putting under strain and under scrutiny the narrative of British exceptionalism in terms of pluralism, liberalism, tolerance and fair play. The Far Right has consistently used and innovated political technologies in its bid for power and influence. As the political outsider since the 1920s, this was a way of making a virtue out of necessity, muscling in on the closed shop that was the 2.5 party system. The BUF developed a brand, with accessories to match, and projected in the stylized violence and para-militarism, the spectacle of fascist rallies and marches, the use of loud speaker vans, cinema, photography and graphic art, etc., and of course the Blackshirt uniform. When their opportunities for political expression were curtailed with the passage of the Public Order Act (coming into force on 1 January, 1937), then even more innovative techniques were devised to spread the creed. Violence, the threat or rather the promise of it, was a major appeal for members and participants; that seems pretty clear.
All dressed up with nowhere to go, armed and ready for the call to power that never came, the would-be- perpetrators developed an image of themselves as the victims. There are lots of resonances here, especially the way Mosleyites talked about how they were in fact the ones standing up for “free speech”; from 1938 how they were the true peace lovers who only wanted to stop the “Jews’ War”; and finally how they were the victims of state violence and corruption when detained without charge under the Defence Regulation 18B 1(a) starting in May 1940. Sacralized violence was always imagined as defensive, both in an individuated sense and in the name of the British race and nation, while the true perpetrators were the anti-fascists (identified as Reds, Pinks, Jews, women, or rather the cowardice of the latter was demonstrated by the fact they sent their women into the fray). Related to this, another recurrent pattern is how the far-Right and its direct-action opponents and resistors are co-dependent (think milkshakes), with the press magnifying their encounters and clashes. In the 1930s the fascists and communists were fighting proxy street wars, and we see the same happening in clashes between figures like EDL-founder Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon) and Antifa.
We are all familiar with the perennial debates about fascism as ideology, and the not-so-new “New Consensus”. Without rehearsing those debates here, let’s not forget that fascism is as fascism does, and this is, arguably, more important than its generative and regenerative/palengenetic system of belief or its policy promises. For these reasons it is illuminating to look at its culture, its output, its media, its adaptions of the machinery of democracy, and its “marketing of megalomania”.
This applies as much to the present, and the past 30 years or so, as it does to the inter-war years. New information technologies – put to political and social use with speed and alacrity – have been more than the midwife of the new generation of extremism. Rather, the medium is the message. It is not enough to observe, as we all do, that social media has amplified and emboldened extremism. I think the point we need to make is that the available political technology has created the new wave of political extremism, its ideas, its psychology and psychoses, its hostilities and hatreds, and its victims. Pacts of Steel are being replaced by pacts of fiber optics (broadband).
In this sense, in observing how it does what it does, there is nothing particularly nationally-specific about the emergent fascisms of our age. The technology is not merely international but supra-national, and so are the causes, the concerns, the solutions, the behaviours and the language – and the scapegoats. This then begs the question: where does and where can ultra-nationalism figure in this globalistic populism? It is no accident that historians of pre-1945 manifestations of fascism have taken, in recent years, the transnational turn. We are all inevitably trying to find the back story for this paradoxical state of transnational ultra-nationalism. On this question and at this stage I have more questions than answers.
How do we square the circle that is ultranationalist transnationalism? Before the journey on the transnational turn, British fascist studies took the gender turn. Where does gender figure in all this? Are there noticeable differences between the position of women and the construction of masculinity in British fascism in the 1930s and in the context of contemporary extremism?
As I have shown in my work, the Blackshirts were ambiguous and ambivalent about women’s participation. Similarly, some women belied expectation, especially those with feminist pedigrees, by embracing fascism. While the three former-suffragette fascists were a minority within a minority within a marginal movement that vacillated over the lunatic fringe, their life stories and political trajectories force us to question lazy assumptions about the nature (and the practice) of both fascism and of feminism.
These presumptions about the ultra-masculinity and machismo of extremism persist, and there is still a sense of incredulity and theoretical cul-de-sac when we try to make sense of women leaders of far-Right and alt-right parties, women haters, and women baiters. Sexist stereotypes of women as nurturers, as the peaceable sex, as innately diplomatic continue to exercise their power, making it difficult for many to acknowledge that women are just as capable as men of being intolerant, exclusionary, and hostile to peoples not deemed within their own national or ethnic group. Sexism plays its part too, in that women in public life and especially those who rise to positions of leadership, in any party, face an enormous amount of sex-based abuse and violence. In recent years, many of the most familiar examples of far-Right women leaders are American, French and German – as well as other examples from Eastern Europe – but it is noteworthy that UKIP had a woman leader, Diane James, albeit for only 18 days. After James resigned, another woman, Suzanne Evans, put herself forward to replace her, although she was not successful. This is not to say that UKIP is fascist, and we need to be careful here. Further to the extreme, beyond the pale, “Angry white women” join forces with their male counterparts to spread hate in barely re-styled neo-Nazi apparel. An obvious example is Jayda Fransen, one of the leaders of Britain First.
Despite these woman figureheads, contemporary far-Right culture is more hostile to women, more overtly misogynist, and even angrier with women, as a species but especially with feminism and all that it is imagined to connote, than inter-war manifestations. One example would be tragic enough, and it is painful to have to record the many instances when a double helix of hate – misogyny and racism – have motivated acts of terrorism and murder (the murder of Jo Cox MP, and Incel terrorists in Canada, the USA and Germany).
Certainly, the predatory misogyny that has been on open display and has had virtually no consequences for some present-day world leaders is both cause and symptom here. As an aside, Mosley, also a notorious womanizer with a reputation as both seducer and predator, would have been in good company with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – more or less, Mosley felt that the rules didn’t apply to him, and it was therefore understandable that as BUF leader he made a vigorous case for freedom in private life and discipline in public life. This being said, I would argue that inter-war fascism was at once more sophisticated and more naïve in its approach to women. The BUF was more sophisticated in the sense that as a nascent movement women were given a chance to realize their political ambitions in the framework of British fascism, while more naïve in the sense that they could not grasp the fundamental incompatibility between fascism and women’s citizenship rights.
Finally, and back to what I term the “double helix of hate”, what does the resurgence of antisemitism in the past couple of years in Britain say about continuities and disjunctures in the story of British political extremism? To be clear, British fascism was never free of antisemitism, despite claims that it was not until 1934 that political antisemitism was decisively adopted as party policy. The fascist groups of the 1920s, the British Fascists in particular, were obsessed with the alleged power and influence of world Jewry, and spoke openly and unapologetically about the “Alien Menace”. Among these groups, women were as open about their prejudices as men, and Nesta Webster, who was involved with the BF, is one of the best-known conspiracy theorists of all time. Not only was the BUF a breeding ground for it before 1934, but members of Mosley’s New Party already indulged in anti-Jewish violence. In any case, when the BUF came out as antisemitic, all gloves were off. A recurrent motif in BUF antisemitism was misogyny, and this was expressed both figuratively and physically, with Jewish women representing a soft target for fascist rage.
Fast forward to the late 2010s, and the hounding of Jewish women in public life, especially four (the latter three now former) Labour MPs Margaret Hodge, Luciana Berger, Ruth Smeeth and Louise Ellman. In general, women in public life are being badly affected by the sky-rocketing toxicity levels in the political culture since the EU Referendum, and minority women have come in for the worst of that abuse.
The main difference, of course, is that contemporary antisemitism is no longer the preserve of the far Right, and Left-wing antisemitism is hardly distinguishable – in its tropes, in its targets, in its scapegoats, in its victim blaming and in its intensity – from its expressions at the opposite end of the spectrum. What is perhaps most shocking in its own way is how antisemitism has become such a problem and such a focal point of political discourse in contemporary Britain. It is never good for Jews and for any other perceived minority when ‘Jews are News.’ We already saw how Mosley has received so much attention because of his exceptionalism, because fascism was an unmitigated political failure, and because the British thought the Blackshirts and their ilk just too funny. There is still some humour and (not only English) irony to be espied on social media, but somewhere along the way our political culture has been high-jacked by armies of key-board warriors who are both resuscitating the language, rage and grips of the 1930s and generating a dangerous brew of new ones.
Should historians contribute to the political and cultural debate of their time? There is no simple answer for this, and as historians we have been in no better position to predict the unfolding of events than those in adjacent disciplines. Perhaps we have been even worse off, actually, especially as today’s politicians have been predictably unpredictable, whimsical, and either deliberately or unintentionally capricious. In the end, we can only hope that as historians our powers of prediction are indeed fallible, and that we have been too quick off the mark in seeing in our present and near future a “return to fascism”.
Palazzo dell’Arte Fondazione Bernocchi, siège de la Triennale, arch. Giovanni Muzio, 1931-1934
Robert Saunders, “Populist visions of democracy”
The British Union of Fascists, under Sir Oswald Mosley, anticipated most of what is now understood as “populism”. Fascism, said Mosley in 1933, was “not dictatorship in the old sense of the word, which implies government against the will of the people”. It was “dictatorship in the modern sense … which implies government armed by the people with complete power of action”. In Mosley’s vision, government would “no longer depend on the intrigues and manoeuvres of conflicting parties, but on the will of the nation directly expressed”. The only liberty that would be suppressed was “the false liberty of a few old men to talk for ever in the present Parliamentary system”. In its impatience with Parliament, its belief that “the will of the people” required unity of purpose, its conviction that the popular will could be better expressed by a heroic individual than by parliamentarians, and its tendency to treat dissent as treason against the people, the BUF anticipated later populist visions of democracy – and did so then, as now, with the backing of populist newspapers like The Daily Mail.
The BUF in Britain drew much of its support from women, as Julie Gottlieb’s work has shown. But it had a strong sense of sexual difference. Its ideology, its practices and even its uniforms valourised a particular ideal of manliness, rooted in physical strength and the ability to support a family economically. Its vision of femininity was based on very different principles, which sought the dignity of woman chiefly (though not exclusively) in marriage, motherhood and domesticity.
In Britain, it has become increasingly common to denounce the Brexit Party, Boris Johnson, Brexit and the Right more generally as “fascist”. My own view is that we should be careful not to cheapen the term, out of respect to the millions who died under immeasurably worse political movements than any of these. We can, however, try to understand the intellectual trajectories from which fascism emerged, and be alert to the direction of travel. In particular, we should be aware of the capacity of fascism to feed off a corrupted version of democracy, which views “the will of the people” as a single entity. While there is no serious challenge to democracy as an abstract principle in Britain, democracy comes in many forms. At present, we are at risk of normalizing authoritarian versions of democracy that seek to shut down dissent and minority opinion by labelling them as anti-democratic. The best defence against fascism is pluralism: a recognition that “the people” are not a single intelligence, but a chaotic mass of different ideas and opinions, between which a democratic system must seek to arbitrate. That understanding is currently in headlong retreat.
Historians should contribute to public debate, but they should do so with a degree of humility. The past is not a pack of tarot cards that we can use to read the future, and phrases like “history proves...” or “historians will say that...” are usually unwise. History only really teaches one lesson: that the world we live in is contingent, not fixed; that ideas and assumptions that seem “natural” can be and have been challenged. That’s why every radical movement of the twentieth century turned to history, generating schools of women’s history, queer, history, black history and labour history. History challenges us to expand our imaginative understanding, by putting ourselves into the minds of people who thought and lived differently to us. That can make it a force for reconciliation, at a time when people of different political views tend to see one another as morally depraved. It can also help us to understand why people who may not have been so different to ourselves embraced heinous ideas such as fascism – and why they might do so again.
I am grateful for the invitation to contribute to this special issue, and to Clarisse Berthezène for patience and professionalism in helping these comments into print.
Gilbert Allardyce, “What Fascism Is Not: Thoughts on the Deflation of a Concept”, The American Historical Review, 84/2, 1979, p. 367.
Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism, Penguin, London, 2009, p. 389, 318-319. The book is demolished by several historians in a 2010 special issue of the History News Network, to which I must declare an interest; see the introduction by David Neiwert, available online at: www.hnn.us/articles/122469.html.
Cited in Madeleine Albright, Fascism. A Warning, London, William Collins, 2018, p. 8-9; see also Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works. The Politics of Us and Them, London, Random House, 2018.
Roger Griffin, Fascism, London, Polity Press, 2018, p. 43-44.
That fascism’s “sacralization of politics” has moved to the forefront of historical interpretation is largely due to the efforts of Emilio Gentile, who has long, and increasingly influentially, argued that Mussolini’s “Fascism was the first nationalist totalitarian movement that fully displayed the characteristics of a political religion, as it indeed proclaimed itself to be”: “There was an inherent and necessary link in [F]ascism between the totalitarian will to conquer the monopoly of political power and the way in the which it conceived its own ideology as a fundamentalist and dogmatic religion that could not tolerate the coexistence of other political convictions and demanded that Italians believe in its myths and celebrate its rituals.” Cited in Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion, Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 33; see also Hans Maier (ed.), Totalitarianism and Political Religions, 3 vol., London, Routledge, 2001-2003; and Richard Shorten, “The Status of Ideology in the Return of Political Religion Theory”, Journal of Political Ideologies, 12/2, 2007.
See Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, trans. David Maisel, London, Princeton University Press, 1995). His influential chapter of the same name initially appeared in Walter Laqueur, Fascism. A Reader’s Guide, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1976, p. 315-378.
See James Strachey Barnes (ed.), CINEF, A Survey of Fascism. The Year Book of the International Centre of Fascist Studies, vol. 1, London, Hazell, Watson & Viney Ld., 1928; and Michael Ledeen, Universal Fascism. The Theory and Practice of the Fascist International, 1928-1936, London, H. Fertig, 1972. See also Claudia Baldoli, Exporting Fascism, London, Berg, 2003; and Aristotle Kallis, “From CAUR to EUR: Italian Fascism, the ‘myth of Rome’ and the pursuit of international primacy”, in The Ideologues and Ideologies of the Radical Right. A special issue guest-edited by Matthew Feldman and John Pollard, 50/4-5, 2016.
Dietrich Orlow, The Lure of Fascism in Western Europe. German Nazis, Dutch and French Fascists, 1933-1939, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2009.
See Roger Griffin with Matthew Feldman, Fascism. Critical Concepts, 5 vol., London, Routledge, 2004.