The Communist Party and Mosley’s Union Movement, 1947-51

News came through this week that veteran anti-fascist campaigner Morris Beckman had died. Beckman had been involved in the 43 Group, a militant anti-fascist organisation set up in the late 1940s to combat Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement. The 43 Group worked alongside the Communist Party of Great Britain to fight the UM in the late 1940s and it can be argued that one of the reasons that Mosley fled to Ireland in the early 1950s was that the UM had encountered stiff anti-fascist resistance on the streets, led by these two organisations. Beckman’s account is worth reading, alongside Dave Hann’s history of militant anti-fascism – but the best account would still be David Renton’s book from 2000 on the subject.

The following post is an extract based on my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’, which, I anticipate, will be off to the publishers in the next week or so…

An anti-fascist meeting in the late 1940s

An anti-fascist meeting in the late 1940s

One of the key areas of the anti-racist struggle in the late 1940s was the fight against Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, which arose out of the ashes of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). A prominent organisation in building this anti-fascist resistance to the Union Movement was the Communist Party of Great Britain. The anti-fascist work of the CPGB during the inter-war period was one of the Party’s highest achievements and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, where the Communist Party helped lead over 100,000 people in a demonstration against the BUF in October 1936, had quickly become part of the Party’s mythology. In his study of Mosley and British fascism, D.S. Lewis wrote of the importance of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the history of British anti-fascism and the vital role the Communist Party played:

On the day itself the CP divided responsibility for different streets amongst its members, as well as establishing first-aid posts, information posts, and runners to carry messages to other sectors of ‘the front’. The rest, of course, is history.[1]

Mark Neocleous wrote in his study of fascism, ‘seeing fascism as a historical phenomenon that ended in 1945 or thereabouts… encourages a dangerous forgetting’.[2] While Mosley and leading members of the BUF, as well as the leader of the tiny Imperial League of Fascists, Arnold Leese were interned during the Second World War, this did not happen to the majority of fascists. Although the War and internment were huge blows to British fascism, it did not end in 1940.[3] Richard Thurlow correctly pointed out that the fascist organisations that existed in the inter-war period did not survive the War, but that did not stop Mosley and other fascists attempt to adapt fascism to the post-war period.[4] From 1945 and 1951, Mosley’s Union Movement, alongside other fascist organisations and agitators, revived a campaign of violence and intimidation, with a programme that still ‘smacked of fascism’, despite attempts by the Union Movement to distance itself from the BUF.[5] As the majority of British people were clearly hostile to fascism in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Union Movement was ‘always doomed to failure’, but as James Eaden and David Renton acknowledged, anti-fascists, including the CPGB, ‘can also claim some credit for having helped to hasten fascism’s demise’.[6] In the post-war period, the Communist Party was a leading organisation in the anti-fascist movement after the ‘failure of the Labour Party to take a lead in the street campaigns against Mosley’.[7] Alongside the CPGB were Jewish organisations, such as the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, progressive organisations, such as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), and the radical organisations, such as the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the 43 Group.

Despite the decision of the state to intern fascists during the Second World War, the post-war Labour Government was reluctant to act decisively against fascist agitators, believing the existing laws would contain the negligible fascist elements that existed in post-war Britain.[8] However the state was far from neutral on the issue of post-war fascism, with Noreen Branson recounting:

Home Secretary [Chuter] Ede had imposed a temporary ban on all political processions in London… Yet, as the Communist Party Executive pointed out, hundreds of police were being used to protect meetings by the fascist Oswald Mosley who was trying to re-establish his anti-semitic organisation.[9]

As E.P. Thompson wrote in a 1947 pamphlet, Fascist Threat to Britain, ‘It is quite clear that the fascists welcome the police at their meetings – not as a warning, but as protection from the justice of the people’.[10] This did not prevent the Communist Party from demanding that the state be used to contain fascist activity. Arguing against the common assumption that ‘the police already have enough powers to deal with [the fascists]’, Thompson declared, ‘If they have, they should use them. If they have not, they should be given the powers they need’.[11] As the Labour Government was viewed as not dealing effectively with the fascist resurgence, the Communist Party, with its ‘reputation for anti-fascist work going back to Cable Street’, began anti-fascist work against Mosley and the Union Movement.[12]

However there was a move by the CPGB leadership away from the direct militant action of the 1930s, such as that witnessed at Cable Street, to a position of reliance upon the state. In Thompson’s pamphlet, the actions advocated by the Party did not include direct action, instead demands were made that ‘spreading of specifically fascist doctrine… be outlawed’, ‘spreading of racial hatred and anti-Semitism… be made a crime’ and that ‘existing laws… be strictly enforced’.[13] Alongside this, the Party urged that other organisations ‘go on record for the outlawing of fascism’ and more immediately, ‘If the fascists come into your locality, get all the inhabitants to sign a petition of protest to the Home Secretary’.[14] Nigel Copsey suggested two reasons for this move away from direct militant action. The first was that the ‘decisive action taken by the state’ against the British fascists during the Second World War led the CPGB leadership to believe that a ‘non-confrontational policy towards fascism was the most appropriate’.[15] Secondly, the cautious post-war policy by the Communist Party should be read as a result of their support for the Labour Government in the early post-war years.[16] As part of the transformation by the CPGB to adjust to Britain’s post-war conditions, the Party leadership ‘officially discouraged any anti-fascist activity likely to give the Communist Party a bad name’. By demanding a state ban on fascism, the CPGB attempted to appear as a respectable political party.[17] This reliance on the state and reluctance to be involved militant actions contributed largely to how the Communist Party anti-fascist campaigns throughout the post-war period.

In the 1945 General Election campaign, the CPGB had proposed that anti-Semitism become a criminal offence, an attempt to attract support from the local Jewish circles and emphasise the Party’s anti-fascist stance.[18] While a proposal for banning anti-Semitic propaganda and agitation was a practical task to deal with the immediate threat of fascism, the total banning of fascist organisations by the state was much more problematic. As seen with the 1936 Public Order Act, while the Government stressed that ‘any legislation would apply equally to the Left as well as to the Right’, in practice the state used this legislation ‘almost entirely… against anti-fascist protestors’.[19] The CPGB bore the brunt of the state’s zealousness to keep the status quo and as David Renton has written, the state frequently used its laws to harass the CPGB while sympathising with the fascists.[20]

This did not prevent all Communist members from being involved in militant action to stop the Union Movement organising, with some members of the CPGB working closely with the anti-fascist collective, the 43 Group. Formed in March 1946 as a militant anti-fascist group with the aim to ‘go on the attack against the emergent fascists with a view to destroying them’,[21] a ‘number of prominent members of the Communist Party’ David Renton wrote, ‘had taken part in the discussions leading to the formation of the 43 Group’ with a ‘party cell’ existing within the Group.[22] It was believed at the time by the police and the fascists that the 43 Group was a Communist front organisation, but as Morris Beckman, one of the founders of the Group, told Socialist Review:

It was said that the 43 Group was a subversive Communist organisation… We were not connected to any organisation, but sometimes we worked with the Communists. They wanted to take us over… Sometimes we found ourselves attacking the same fascist meetings as the Communists. We would even pass information to them.[23]

Beckman wrote in his memoir of the 43 Group, ‘the enemy of our enemy was our friend, and the Communists were actively attacking the fascists’.[24] The CPGB leadership could not publicly condone the actions of the 43 Group, but there was no disciplinary action against those Party members involved.

The Communist Party and its anti-fascist work of the 1930s and 1940s has been largely identified with the Jewish population of London and the considerable Jewish membership within the Party. The relationship between the Jewish community and the CPGB has been well-documented by Henry Srebrnik, who described the Party’s anti-fascist legacy and its stature among East End Jews as tapping into a ‘specifically ethnic means of political expression’.[25] For the Jews of East End London, their attraction to the CPGB was the Party’s ‘self-appointed role as a steadfast opponent to all manifestations of domestic fascism’.[26] In the Stepney branch, one of the Party’s biggest, around fifty per cent of the one thousand members in 1945 were Jewish.[27] As the Union Movement began to agitate in the early post-war period, Communist Party members and Jewish activists both fought against the fascist revival, utilising the memory of the Party’s anti-fascist work of the inter-war period. However by the early 1950s, the Jewish Communist subculture had fallen into decline, although as late as 1965, it was estimated that around ten per cent of the CPGB’s membership was Jewish.[28]

There are several factors for this decline. David Renton stated that the physical destruction of London’s East End by the Blitz meant that large numbers of the Jewish population moved north and west, out of the areas where the BUF had drawn support and with the end of the war, more former East End Jews became employed in middle-class jobs, with the number of Jews in trade unions dropping dramatically.[29] Alongside this, Chimen Abramsky, Secretary of the CPGB’s National Jewish Committee, suggested that in the post-war period, ‘Fascism was not the main issue of the day’ and the CPGB was ‘more concerned with the danger of the Cold War, with the Marshall Plan, with the future of India, of the future of Palestine’, believing that Mosley was ‘a spent force’.[30] There was also the Communist Party’s opposition to Zionism, based on Stalin’s statement that Zionism was ‘reactionary nationalist trend of the Jewish bourgeoisie’, as well as the Party’s uncritical support for the Soviet Union when details of widespread anti-semitism amongst the CPSU began to surface in the 1950s.[31] However there was an uneasiness amongst some CPGB members towards the large Jewish membership in London, which is possibly indicative of the latent working class racism that the Party had to face in the post-war period, demonstrated by this passage in Bob Darke’s 1952 exposé on the Communist Party:

Yet I never felt happy with Jewish Communists. They were too sensitive, their feelings were too close to the skin. They were certainly among the hardest-working, most active members of the Party, but they made me uncomfortable. And a great many Gentile comrades felt the same way.[32]

After six years of anti-fascist activity, the Union Movement went into decline and in 1951, Mosley left Britain for self-imposed exile in Ireland. This can be viewed as the end of ‘classical’ fascism in the vein of the inter-war movement, although not the end of fascism in Britain (as the rise of the National Front demonstrated). The defining organisation for the post-war fascist movement was the League of Empire Loyalists (LEL), formed in 1954 by former BUF Director of Propaganda, A.K. Chesterton and an organisation through which nearly all the important figures of post-war fascism passed. However the fascists were now a response to the collapse of world imperialism and the decolonisation process. In the Cold War polarisation between Washington and Moscow, Britain had lost its significance as a world power and for the fascist organisations of the mid-1950s onwards, non-white Commonwealth immigrants became the new scapegoat for the fascists’ perceived threat to the ‘remnants of the British Empire and way of life’.[33]

Once Mosley left for Ireland in 1951, the other fascist organisations that existed were more influenced by the inter-war Imperial Fascist League’s Arnold Leese than Mosley, emphasising anti-Semitism and racism against Britain’s black immigrants. What characterised British fascism between 1951 and the formation of the National Front in 1967 was a series of splits into tiny organisations featuring the same individuals, the result of attempting to adjust fascism to post-war Britain and a succession of personal clashes. From 1957 onwards, the same names – Colin Jordan, John Tyndall, Martin Webster, John Bean, Andrew Fountaine – were involved in various groups, which despite numerous splits and different organisational titles, were only superficially distinguishable from each other, primarily the White Defence League (WDL), National Labour Party (NLP), British National Party (BNP), National Socialist Movement (NSM) and the Greater Britain Movement (GBM). Despite involvement in and brief notoriety from the anti-immigrant agitation of the Notting Hill riots, these fascists achieved little during this period. Copsey remarked that, ‘[f]or the most part, the 1950s in Britain were quiescent years for both fascists and anti-fascists’,[34] despite appealing to populist anti-black racism. The focus of anti-racist activists, including those in the Communist Party, in the 1950s and 1960s was the mainstream prejudice against newly arrived Commonwealth immigrants.

————————————————————–

[1] D.S. Lewis, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society, 1931-81, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1987, p. 125

[2] Mark Neocleous, Fascism, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1997, p. xi

[3] David Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, Macmillan, London, 2000, p. 23

[4] Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History 1918-1985, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987, p. 233

[5] Lewis, Illusions of Grandeur, p. 239

[6] James Eaden & David Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, Palgrave, Houndmills, 2002, p. 108

[7] Eaden & Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, p. 108

[8] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 74

[9] Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-1951, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1997, p. 203

[10] Edward Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1947, p. 12

[11] Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, p. 12

[12] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 80

[13] Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, p. 14

[14] Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, p. 14

[15] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 87

[16] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 87

[17] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 87

[18] Henry Srebrnik, London Jews and British Communism, 1935-1945, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1995, p. 75

[19] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, Macmillan, Houndmills, 2000, p. 64; Richard C. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in T. Kushner & N. Valman, Remembering Cable Street, p. 91

[20] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, pp. 101-129

[21] Morris Beckman, The 43 Group, Centerprise Publications, London, 1993, p. 26

[22] David Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2001, pp. 176-177

[23] ‘Our War Against Fascism’, interview with Morris Beckman, Socialist Review, March 1993, p. 23

[24] Beckman, The 43 Group, p. 30

[25] Henry Srebrnik, ‘Sidestepping the Contradictions: The Communist Party, Jewish Communists and Zionism, 1935-48’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan (eds), Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party, Pluto Press, London, 1995, p. 136; Italics are in the original text

[26] Henry Srebrnik, London Jews and British Communism, 1935-1945, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1994, p. 53

[27] Tony Kushner, ‘Jewish Communists in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Zaidman Collection’, Labour History Review, 55/2, 1990, p. 66

[28] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 89; Kushner, ‘Jewish Communists in Twentieth-Century Britain’, p. 66

[29] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 89

[30] Cited in, Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 89

[31] J. Stalin, ‘Marxism and the National Question’, in J. Stalin, Works vol. 2, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1953, p. 418, fn. 131

[32] Bob Darke, The Communist Technique in Britain, Penguin Books, London, 1952, p. 44

[33] Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 239

[34] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 102

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3 comments

  1. You might say a little more about the contribution of the RCP, which was quite significant at the Ridley Road demonstraions. As I wrote in my biography of Tony Cliff “From the summer of 1947 fascist leader Oswald Mosley tried to make a comeback, holding meetings in Ridley Road, Dalston. The RCP were heavily involved in the demonstrations against Mosley, which mobilised up to 2000 people. Every Saturday the Mosleyites and the anti-fascists would compete to be the first to set up a platform, which they would then have to guard until Sunday. The police protected the Mosleyites and there were violent clashes. On occasion the Mosleyites were pelted with stones and rubbish from the market. Chanie and Tommy Reilly, the RCP’s Anti Fascist organiser, toured Jewish-owned shops in Hackney and sweatshops in the East End, collecting money. This was the RCP’s final involvement in mass struggle.” Chanie must be one of the few surviving participants in those actions; I saw her at a bus stop a few weeks ago. She still goes swimming every day, and I have seen her on demonstrations in the last couple of years.

  2. You seem to have forgotten Joe Jacobs ‘Out of The Ghetto’

    It may also be worth pointing out that the LEL are the forebears of UKIP, their rhetoric being very similar

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