43 Group

‘By whatever means necessary’: The origins of the ‘no platform’ policy

Recently the concept of ‘no platform’ was in the news again when there were attempts to cancel a talk by Germaine Greer at Cardiff University. While there is no doubt that the use of ‘no platform’ has expanded since its first use in the 1970s, the term is bandied about in the media with little definition and understanding of how it was developed as a specific response to the fascism of the National Front (and later the British National Party). This post looks back at the origins of the term and how it was developed into a practical anti-fascist strategy.

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In the early 1970s, the term ‘no platform’ was first used to describe the anti-fascist strategy of denying fascist organisations the public space to organise and disseminate their propaganda. The denial of public space had been an integral part of the militant anti-fascist movement since the 1930s, employed by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), various Jewish groups and other assorted anti-fascists. Fighting Oswald Mosley’s BUF, these anti-fascists broke up meetings, occupied spaces to prevent the BUF gaining access and mobilised massive demonstrations to physically confront the fascists in the streets. This continued after the war with various groups, such as the 43 Group, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Revolutionary Communist Party, joining the CPGB to combat Mosley’s Union Movement. As well as physically confronting the UM, part of the anti-fascists’ strategy was appealing to the local councils, particularly in boroughs where the Labour Party was in charge, to deny the UM (or its various aliases) access to any council property. The anti-fascist movement was quite successful in its approach and Mosley fled to Ireland in the early 1950s. Until the emergence of the National Front in late 1960s, the fascist groups in Britain remained small and the anti-fascist movement gradually faded away.

Forming in 1967, the National Front brought together a number of disparate fascist and anti-immigration groups and by the early 1970s, it was making headway by attracting disaffected Conservative Party voters who felt that the Tories were ‘too soft’ on immigration. Particularly when the Ugandan Asian controversy emerged in 1972, the NF publicised its opposition to letting these British citizens into the country after the Heath government acknowledged that it had legal reason to deny them entry. The first use of the term ‘no platform’ (that I have been able to find) comes from that year. The Red Mole was the newspaper of the International Marxist Group (IMG), a Trotskyist organisation that built quickly amongst the student and anti-Vietnam War movements in the late 1960s. In the issue for September 18, 1972, the front page headline declared ‘NO PLATFORM FOR RACISTS’. It described the NF and the Monday Club (a pro-empire and anti-immigration grouping within the Conservative Party) as ‘mortal enemies of the working class’ and stated that these two groups ‘must be stopped in their tracks’. The newspaper argued that these groups needed to be confronted and were ‘not going to be convinced by rational argument’, calling for ‘a concerted counter-attack’ at meetings of both groups.

The IMG proposed that groups like the NF could not be afforded ‘free speech’ because ‘their racist campaigns are a means to destroy the organisations of the working class which defend such bourgeois democratic rights’. The same issue claimed:

the only way to deal with fascist type organisations like the National Front is to break up their activities before they grow to a size where they can begin to smash the activities of the working class.

While acknowledging that ‘[w]e are nowhere near a threatened Fascist coup yet’, but said ‘the methods necessary on preventing such a threat must be explained and demonstrated in practice now… We must begin to adopt the right tactics right from the start.’

The IMG was one of the most influential leftist groups amongst the student movement in Britain in the early 1970s, but competed with the International Socialists and the CPGB (who were part of the Broad Left group with students associated with the Labour left). The NUS in 1974 was under the leadership of Steve Parry, a member of the CPGB and the Broad Left, and were in agreement (in principle) that a policy of ‘no platform’ should be applied to NF and other fascist organisations attempting to recruit students on university campuses. At the Liverpool conference in 1974, the policy of ‘no platform’ was devised as part of a wider stance against racism. Amendment 4 of the resolution on the fight against racialism stated:

Conference recognises the need to refuse assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societies… and to deny them a platform.

However conference believes that in order to counter these groups, it is also necessary to prevent any member of these organisations or individuals known to espouse similar views from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary (including disrupting of the meeting).

Student unions were called upon to ‘prevent any racist or fascist propaganda being displayed, sold, distributed, or propagated through meetings by whatever means may be necessary’.

Although agreed in principle the concept of ‘no platform’, the Communist Party, the IMG and the IS differed on the details of the resolution and how the strategy should be applied. The IMG felt that the joint action suggested in the resolution would not transfer into practice and declared that the other left-wing groups were unwilling to be involved in such joint practical action. Steve Webster wrote in Red Weekly (the renamed paper of the IMG):

The fascists will not be defeated by resolutions or statements alone. There are three specific issue which face us immediately: the activity of the right in the colleges, the campaign against the reactionary anti-abortion group, SPUC [the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children), and the fight against racism. The other groups of the left rejected joint action around these issues. But it is only by such joint mobilisations, by confronting the right wing head-on, that the fascists and racists will be routed.

The LSE branch of the International Socialists put together a newsletter called The Red Agitator which stated that they believed that the policy was ‘fundamentally correct’, but took issue with the lumping together of racists and fascists in the resolution as there was a difference in approach to fascists and those in the mainstream who promoted racist ideas. The IS raised the point of the racist claims made by the psychologist Hans Eysenck who toured universities in the early 1970s, espousing the idea that there were significant differences in mental capacity between the races. Eysenck was a racist, but not a fascist, and the IS suggested approaching his meetings in a slightly different way than the employment of the ‘no platform’ strategy:

To debate with Eysenck, to treat him as a genuine scientist, is thus to indirectly legitimise Powellism. This is not to say that we should go out to break up meetings which he addresses – the real threat lies in organised fascist groups – but rather that we should picket them and organise counter-meetings in order to show up the real nature of his ideas.

But dealing with the openly fascist NF, the IS agreed with the IMG. The Red Agitator newsletter finished with this:

The racists and fascists of today are not something that we can ignore. They are a growing menace. The liberties we have today are worth defending, small though they are. Fascism aims to smash, racism creates the conditions for their destruction. We cannot allow the open fascist, or the concealed fascist working in the Monday Club or some similar organisation to gain a hearing. Every meeting that they hold gives them confidence. Every apologist for racism lends them comfort. Every liberal who debates with them gives them aid – much against their will.

Every time they are stopped from meeting, every time their meetings are broke up, their task becomes harder and harder. The moral of the fascists fall. People turn away from them as a miserable and pathetic group with nothing to offer. Every success that we have demonstrates to the waverers that we are a better solution. That is the only way to fight fascism and racism.

The Communist Party’s National Student Organiser Dave Cook also took exception with the broad nature of the ‘no platform’ resolution devised by the NUS. Cook, writing in the CPGB’s Morning Star, argued that the second part of the resolution calling for the prevention of those speaking who espoused ‘similar views’ by any means necessary endangered support for the NUS policy because of its broad interpretation and could have potentially isolated the more moderate and centrist elements in the NUS. Cook proposed that there should not be all-applying response set at the national level, but allow each individual student council to decide whether to implement the policy of ‘no platform’. Like the Party’s wider anti-fascist strategy in the 1970s, Cook also warned against the vanguardist approach of breaking up meetings by a minority of students, writing ‘It is important that direct action does not become a substitute for the often more difficult task of winning the majority.’

In the Party’s internal documents, the broad and all-applying response of ‘no platform’ was criticised further. The Communist Party was particularly concerned with making the distinction between the fascism of the National Front and the racism of the Conservatives (and other right-wing groups), which nonetheless operated within a democratic framework. The Political Committee stated:

It is important to state from the start that the resolution is not a threat to the right of the Tory party to politically operate in the colleges. The resolution clearly and correctly differentiates between the expression of a Conservative viewpoint and organisations whose declared objective is racist. This is not to say that racism is an attitude that stops at the boundaries of the Conservative Party. On the contrary. Certain Tory leaders are more potent symbols of racism than anyone in the National Front… However it id important to draw the distinction between individual Tory racists, and organisations that are part of the Tory party like the Monday Club on one hand; and organisations whose declared objective is to further race hatred on the other – not because our opposition to them is any less intense, but because they are often best fought in different ways. It is so that it can more effectively fight them that NUS policy must hinge on this distinction. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, 22 May, 1974, CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

The Party also felt that the resolution could be used to enact the ‘no platform’ policy against individuals, rather than organised fascist groups, and that this went past necessary anti-fascist activism and contravened the idea of ‘free speech’. Another internal document made this clear:

No matter how nauseous we find the views of individuals who are not members of such [fascist] organisations, e.g. [Hans] Eysenck and [William] Shockley; or the views of the right wing of the Tory Party, e.g. the Monday Club; the fact is that both of these differ significantly from organisations whose aims is declaredly fascist. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, n.d., CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

While the NUS resolution, as well as the IMG and the IS, all saw the Monday Club to resemble a proto-fascist organisation that should be barred from meeting and organising on university campuses, the CPGB stressed that the Monday Club (from which there was a conveyer belt of recruitment into the NF in the early 1970s) was merely a group within the Conservatives and thus should be allowed to organise publicly.

Furthermore, the CPGB was worried that the phrase ‘by any means necessary’ could be interpreted in a number of ways and was concerned about physical violence at public events involving sections of the non-fascist right wing, such as Eysenck’s university tours. This had already occurred the previous year when the tiny Maoist group the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) (featuring the future leader of the Workers Institute for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, Comrade Bala) broke up a presentation by Eysenck at the LSE.

The resolution was heavily criticised in the mainstream media, with even The Guardian’s John Fairhall describing the move as a denial of free speech, voted for by student ‘under the spell of Mr Parry’s oratory’ (April 9, 1974). Fairhall predicted that ‘[t]rouble and violence seem inevitable’ and warned:

Students should perhaps remember that frustration which leads to a denial of the right of one section of society is not something new. It is classic pattern of fascism.

Parry replied in a latter to the newspaper (April 16), arguing:

Our members overseas have been singled out for abuse, threats and outright economic attack by powerful extreme right-wingers during the time of the last Government. All our conference agreed was that at least they should not be subject to that abuse in our own student union.

Parry further addressed his critics in the press in an article in the journal Labour Monthly (June 1974) which had been run since the 1920s by CPGB stalwart, R. Palme Dutt. Unlike the position taken by Dave Cook, Parry saw the Monday Club and the National Front as very similar and posed the question, ‘What is the difference between the ideologies of the National Front and the Nazi party?’ Responding to the claim that the notion of ‘no platform’ put restrictions on ‘free speech’, Parry answered at length:

One must accept that to deny racists and fascists a platform is to ‘limit freedom of speech’ but one cannot see this freedom as something which exists in the abstract. It is a freedom which is already limited by such laws as the Race Relations Act and the law of libel, and must also be seen in the context of a class society in Britain which limits the freedom of speech for the vast majority of people… In refusing to assist the spread of racism the NUS is fighting for a freedom of even greater importance: the freedom to live without discrimination on the basis of race. It is only in relation to reality that principles of freedom can be seen. It is not an abstract intellectual exercise.

Because of the controversial nature of this resolution, the NUS held a special emergency conference in London on 15 June, 1974. This was the same day that the NF attempted to hold a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and a counter-demonstration was held by Liberation and other anti-fascists, including the IMG. The resulting melee between anti-fascists and the police led to the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately.

At the June conference, the debate was over the application of resolution. Dave Cook, writing again in Morning Star (21 June, 1974), said that the IMG and the IS wanted to maintain the resolution as it was passed, ‘which dictated a common response to all racist and fascist organisations in all situations’. The Communist-affiliated Broad Left group opposed this arguing that ‘the best way to implement national policy was for decisions to be made by each individual union in accordance with its local situation’. Put to a vote, the amendment suggested by Broad Left failed to get over the line and the resolution remained as it was, despite the Federation of Conservative Students seeking the opportunity to defeat the resolution in its entirety. But the death of Gately at an anti-fascist demonstration bolstered the argument made by the Trotskyist groups – if fascism was not countered ‘by any means necessary’, then people on the left were to become targets of violence.

By this time, the National Front were starting change tactics. For most of the early 1970s, the NF had played up its ‘respectability’ and tried to attract disaffected Tory voters (and members) who were anti-immigrant, pro-empire and anti-Common Market. ‘No platform’ was probably at its most controversial, but also very necessary, during this period, when a determined anti-fascist movement was needed to break the respectable veneer that the NF was putting forward while trying to woo the Tory right.

It reached its highest membership during this period and concentrated on electoral politics. The NF continued to contest elections from 1974 to 1977, but switched to an attempt to siphon off right-leaning Labour voters. However the small electoral fortunes of the NF kickstarted the anti-fascist movement against them and the years from 1977 to 1979 saw increasing confrontation between the NF and anti-fascists on the streets. By the late 1970s, the idea of ‘no platform’ seemed fairly straightforward – occupy the streets and the places where the NF seek to publicly assemble. Colin Sparks, from the SWP, explained in a 1978 pamphlet, Fascism and the National Front:

We do not engage in this sort of activity because we like violence or because the NF are reactionary. There are many other reactionary organisations around, for instance the Tory Party, which we do not attempt to smash up. The National Front differs from the Tories because their aims are precisely to control the streets, to build a mass fighting movement. In this, they need the marches and rallies. (p. 41)

The Communist Party, which was largely critical of the SWP’s ‘adventurist’ approach, also recognised the need to confront the NF, but argued that this needed to be done on a mass scale. But they also advocated using the Race Relations Act to combat the NF and their ‘claim to have a democratic right to flaunt their racism’. In the 1978 pamphlet, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, Dave Cook, now the CPGB’s National Organiser, wrote:

Communists support, and will defend to the utmost, the right of people to freely speak their mind. But to attack people because they are black is not a political argument. People form their political views on the basis of conviction. They are born with their colour. That is why to attack someone because of his or her race is to attack that person as a human being. Their political views can change, colour cannot.

To permit the NF the ‘freedom’ to be anti-human can end up destroying the freedom of us all. That is why incitement to racial hatred must have no place in a civilised society. (p. 28)

Even the Labour Party accepted a form of ‘no platform’ for the National Front, when the Party’s National Executive Committee in 1978 declared:

Labour candidates should not share platforms at meetings or appear on constituency programmes on radio or television with candidates or other members of the National Front.

Despite the original NUS resolution targeting specifically openly fascist and racist organisations, such as the NF and (perhaps controversially) the Monday Club, there were fears that the policy could widened to be used against any political organisation and individual that fell foul of the NUS leadership. In their 1974 pamphlet, Fascism: How to Smash It, the IMG gave instances where ‘no platform’ had been applied to political ‘enemies’ who were not fascists:

Racists like Powell or Harold Soref – who are not fascists – have often been driven off university campuses. This is because the effect these people can have is similar to fascists – that is, terrorising black people or others chosen as scapegoats for capitalism’s social ills, and encouraging social violence, legal or otherwise, against them…

‘No Platform’ has been applied to many people by the workers’ movement. Trade unionists, for example, would generally expel employees who attended their meetings. Print workers sometimes censor by blacking a newspaper editorial attacking the unions. When Mr. Godber, Tory Minister for Agriculture, [was] sent to Birmingham one day last year to do a public relations job for Tory price policy, he was mobbed off the street by angry housewives. All these actions are against ‘free speech’ and sometimes involve a physical struggle.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘no platform’ policy was challenged at the NUS annual conference. At the 1977 conference, concerns were raised about demonstrations against Sir Keith Joseph speaking at Essex University. In The Guardian (March 23, 1977), John Fairhall wrote that the NUS Executive Committee felt that actions, such as the one against Joseph, were ‘against the interest of the union, and damage an anti-racialism campaign’. Alan Elsner, a member of the Union of Jewish Students, wrote in the New Statesman (May 13, 1977) that the Joseph incident ‘heightened the fear that “no platform” policy could be used as a means of silencing people whose views might be controversial or unpopular’. Elsner also raised the controversy over the use of ‘no platform’ against organisations that were explicitly Zionist or supporters of Israel.

Fairhall reported that some on the NUS Executive Committee wanted to change the policy from ‘no platform’ to ‘no invitation’, allegedly supported by the Communists in the Broad Left coalition, but this was defeated, 182,333 to 154,033 (with 33,948 abstentions) (The Guardian, April 1, 1977). Future Labour MP Charles Clarke was, at the time, NUS President and a member of the Broad Left, but after the vote, defined the existing policy of ‘no platform’ as:

A student union would do anything it could physically – such as picketing and demonstrating – to prevent people whom the student union decided by a general meeting vote were racists or fascists from speaking on a campus. But prevention would stop short of violence.

The Times’ Ian Bradley stated that the policy was dropped by the NUS in December 1977 but reinstated at the 1978 NUS conference just four months later (April 7, 1978). Although the moderate NUS leadership opposed it, the far left, including the National Organisation of Labour Students, managed to get the policy reinstated. Trevor Phillips, the incoming NUS President and who was personally against the policy, maintained that the policy would be used against the National Front, but ‘would oppose any attempt to use it against Mrs Thatcher or other members of major political parties’. The outgoing NUS President, Susan Slipman added, ‘The new policy will not mean the infringement of the democratic right of any members and it will definitely not mean reraising the question of banning Jewish student organisations.’

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By 1979, the NF had fallen into disarray, marginalised by the growing anti-fascist movement from one side and by the right-wing shift of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher from the other. However the ‘no platform’ policy was maintained and many would argue, succumbed to the newly developed interest in ‘identity politics’. Writing in Socialist Worker Review in 1986, Lindsey German said:

the policy often means little in confronting racism and sexism on more than an individual level. But what is more, it broadens the definition of no platform to an almost unworkable degree. The original no platform went for stopping organised fascists and racists, because their organisation was such a threat. That is not the case with individual members of the rugby club, however noxious they might be. Those people have to be defeated politically, in open and hopefully large union meetings.

German defended the policy, but argued that it needed to be limited to its original intent – against the National Front and other fascist organisations, such as the emerging British National Party. She warned that there were two things that were to be avoided if the NUS was to maintain the policy:

The first is to widen the policy far too far, and therefore allow the right wing to make capital from particular issues. The second is to get trapped into allowing the right to pose as defenders of free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It seems that student activists at British universities have not heeded German’s warning and that the strategy of ‘no platform’ employed against political opponents far removed from the original targets, the organised fascist far right. ‘No platform’ was developed as a specific tactic to prevent the encroachment of the National Front (and the Monday Club) onto university campuses in the mid-1970s. However it seems that almost from the time of its implementation, it has been open to misinterpretation and abuse by certain student groups. This post has sought to show that before it became a widely used tactic by various student groups, ‘no platform’ had a discreet and specific context to be used in an explicitly anti-fascist framework. Contemporary discussions in the media of the tactic often ignore this origin story, but do so at their own peril.

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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.

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[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