Chris Ford of The Commune outlines the very British origins of fascism. He argues that attempts to invoke Second World War nostalgia and the great ‘British democratic tradition’, to dismiss today’s British fascists as just some alien Nazi import, fail to get to a key root of the problem – British nationalism.

In an exercise in deception, British Left and Right historians have placed an Italian label on this movement. This insistence on emphasising the foreignness of fascism is actually retarding the ability to resist the rise of forces such as the British National Party. Fascism in fact better deserves a British label for first movement of 20th century fascism emerged in 1910 to enforce the unity of the United Kingdom. It was a time of militant workers’ struggles and a resurgent national democratic movement in Ireland. The crisis over the national question split the British ruling class. The liberal wing advocated devolution within the Union, then called Home Rule. The most reactionary wing, without a parliamentary majority, set its frontline on the Irish question. The Tory Unionist Sir Edward Carson raised the 80,000 strong Ulster Volunteer Force, to defend the empire. Two decades before German generals moved behind National Socialism, British generals were backing the British nationalist UVF as a rallying force for counterrevolution in the UK. Orange reaction set about the sectarian division of the working class. It was the shape of things to come in Europe as a whole.

International revolution and counter-revolution

The Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, followed a year later by the Bolshevik led October Revolution, heralded the International Revolutionary Wave. Amidst the slaughter of the First World War, millions of workers and peasants rose up to challenge social and national oppression. The uprooting of capitalism and construction of a communist society was no longer a distant utopia but a living possibility. It was no coincidence that at this moment in history a movement as barbaric as fascism should emerge. World capitalism unleashed everything from its arsenal to prevent communism and to maintain its own rule. The ‘democratic’ League of Nations launched an Anti-Bolshevik Crusade. Communists at the time saw fascism as inseparable from the overall offensive of capital. The Lyons theses, of the old Communist Part of Italy by Gramsci and Togliatti in 1926, offered the following definition:

It replaces the tactic of agreements and compromises by the project of achieving an organic unity of all the bourgeoisie’s forces in a single political organism under the control of a single centre, which would simultaneously direct the party, the government and the State.

Through the state, the capitalist class sponsored the fascists in a variety of ways in different countries to meet its own ends. Fascism they asserted must be seen, therefore, not as a victory won over the revolution, but as a consequence of the defeat suffered by the revolutionary forces through their own intrinsic weakness.

The UK did not escape the world revolutionary wave and the working class which arose form the First World War, nor did it escape from this fascist backlash. Whilst fascism is an independent movement, the decisive factor determining the extent of its power and influence stems from the capitalist state. In the UK the myriad fascist forces which emerged in this period were almost in their entirety initiated by the British state security forces. Organisations like the BEU were engaged in activities against the workers’ movement such as organising strike breaking, goon squads and intelligence work. In 1918 the far Right stood under the populist cloak of the National Democratic Labour Party, backed by the BEU. They gained 10 MPs. When the Duke of Northumberland founded the British Fascists in 1923 they received MI5 assistance. Through direct state support the early fascists formed a rightist prop to the Anti-Bolshevik Crusade. The director of the Economic League, James White, admired the British Fascists for having achieved an end for which it has never been credited. It forced the Communist Party to abandon much of its militant activity.

The Six Counties – fascism in action

It was the Irish revolution, however, which provided the main focus for British Fascism. The same directors of the state security services which had coordinated activities in England, Scotland and Wales throughout the International Revolutionary Wave, saw their actions as closely linked to the continuation of the counter-revolution in Ireland. In 1921, having forced a Partition Agreement upon the split forces of Irish Republicanism, they set about the task of imposing it in the Six Counties. The traditional British left view completely fails to see any connection between fascism and this episode. Field Marshall Wilson set up the Specials, a force of 48,000 drawn from the old UVF and Cromwell Clubs. Lloyd George described them as analogous to the fascisti in Italy. In the years 1920 to 1922 these British fascists forced 23,000 people from their homes and killed 400 in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Having imposed partition, Wilson and Co looked beyond Irish horizons to the rest of the UK and the possibility of forming a ‘real conservative party’. The implementation of the reaction plotted by the Real Conservatives (a name which could well be applied to the far Right of today’s conservatives, with their allies in the security services, amongst the Ulster Unionists) never spread beyond the Six Counties.

Although Wilson was finished off by an IRA bullet there are wider reasons for the failure of the first wave of British fascism and important lessons for today. Ireland was the only place in the UK that the British ruling class was challenged by insurgent masses demanding social and national liberation. The Easter Rising had demolished the liberal agenda of Home Rule under the Crown and proclaimed a Republic.

In the rest of the UK the post-war upheaval took another direction opening the way to a different solution for the British ruling class. It remains a matter of historical controversy as to how revolutionary the situation was in 1918-1919, nevertheless the communist forces remains damagingly fragmented. The most militant and physical force wing did not cohere into the new CPGB, instead its main body comprised the more centrist and reformist milieu of the left of the ILP and old British Socialist Party.

The majority of the workers’ movement remained tied to Labourism and the majority of communists to a syndicalist struggle. The capitalist state was not challenged for political power. The class collaboration of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy provided the ruling class with a solution within the framework of parliamentary democracy. The Crown Powers still provided the state security forces with the means to sponsor fascism, depending on what was required. The history of pre-war fascism shows that bourgeois liberal democracy and fascism are not absolute opposites. As the German communist leader August Thalheimer pointed out the 1918-1923 German governments used fascist regiments but were not of a fascist nature, similarly the British government instituted fascist terror in Ireland to preserve the UK state and the façade of parliamentary democracy was allowed to remain intact.

British nationalism – reinforcing the UK state

In the past the super profits of the British Empire held together the constituent nations of the United Kingdom and united a ruling class in their British nation. With the loss of empire and facing increasingly stiff competition, the UK may appear a great power but it is in a state of terminal decline. Increased nationalism and chauvinism has been a key characteristic of multi-national, capitalist states that have entered into such decline, i.e. Tsarist Russia and Habsburg Austria. Such nationalism, although often ignored by the traditional British Left, has been ever present in the UK. British nationalism is changing relative to this situation, we are witnessing new forms of retrogression into the worst chauvinism, racism and authoritarian control. It is not the nationalism of empire building and the great white mission but of a social system in decay and for the preservation of the UK state itself. This national chauvinism has justified the attacks on migrant workers, laying the groundwork for attacks on the working class as a whole.

Back in the 1990’s the pre-Griffin BNP manifesto declared that, “We are dedicated to maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We oppose any devolution schemes which threaten to loosen ties between the component parts of the United Kingdom”. They are standing in the tradition of British fascism which has always reflected the Britishness of the ruling classes setting its frontline on the unity of the Union. Under the Griffin leadership this is approach is more nuanced taking account of the fissures posed to the UK by the national question – thus the BNP state: ‘While we recognise the United Kingdom as a political entity, the BNP does not arrogantly seek to impose one set of Westminster dominated decisions across these nations.’

Whilst the traditional Left has been looking for fascism of swastikas it has failed to see that these were Nazi symbols built out of a German nationalism. Groups like the SWP and Unite Against Fascism like to emphasise the essentially foreign nature of fascism, painting a picture of 1930’s German Nazis. This misses the reality of how British fascism feeds off British nationalism. As the establishment politicians nourish an environment of chauvinism through state racism, the BNP is flourishing. With the move towards an electoral strategy of nationalist populism under the Griffin leadership it has jettisoned the overt British outrider of German Nazis posture, something also adopted by Mosley unsuccessfully in the 1930s. Just as anti-fascism appeals to the national heritage of the Guns of Navarone and D-Day, so the BNP have sought to appropriate the Second World War and a wider nationalist image.

Whilst it is certainly the case that historical truth must be defended against this misappropriation in terms of actual anti-fascist aspects of historical struggles, this in itself will not defeat the BNP. That requires a class based politics which challenges militant British Nationalism itself head on. Such forms of nationalism find other expressions in its fascistic form. We can see the seeds in such mobilisations as by the Orange Order in defence of the Act of Union. Beyond communal sectarianism there is contained within this political movement the same forms as undertaken by Carson and the Generals before –indigenous fascism will as readily act under the the Orange sash and the Lambeg drum just as the flag of St George and defence of English Heritage of the BNP.