By Brendan Clifford
Why did the English State not become Fascist in the period between the two World Wars, when so many European States did?
Because it was Fascist enough already.
I had reason to ask that question about thirty years ago, and that is the answer I got.
In order to consider the question I had to form a definite idea of what Fascism was. In current usage on the Left it was a mere term of abuse which could be applied to any strong assertion of authority. And there was associated with it the notion of a Fascist psychology in a populace in the form of a predisposition towards deference to authority. Insofar as there was a notion of it as a distinct economic form, it was the Corporation (that is, a public body in which both sides of the class antagonism of Capital and Labour were represented).
The Corporation was taken to be a deviation from the norm—in fact from two norms which had become entangled in each other as a consequence of the War of 1941-45 in which Britain and the USA were allied with Bolshevik Russia. The norms were the Free Market in which each was in competition with all, and the Socialist economy in which all productive property was publicly owned by a state serving the interest of Labour.
To this notion of Fascism there might also be added at will, Imperialism, nationalism, irredentism, racism, slavery, genocide and thought control.
But all of these things were operative in the British system. (Nationalist irredentism was deliberately encouraged by Britain in Italy in 1915, for the purpose of bringing it into the War as an ally, and it was in that movement that Mussolini, hitherto a radical socialist, made the combination of Socialism and Nationalism which was the hallmark of Fascism. And French irredentism was the basis of the secret Anglo-French military alliance of 1908-1914, which led to European War in July 1914 and to World War in August 1914. And in 1917 British Imperialism backed the extreme irredentist claim of Jewish nationalism on Palestine and set in motion the movement of conquest and ethnic cleansing in the Middle East which remains a major source of disorder in the world today.)
One has to take language much as one finds it, and it would not have made sense in terms of the prevailing language to describe the English State as Fascist, even though it shared the features that were widely held to be the features of the Fascist State. Fascism as a distinct phenomenon had therefore to be defined on a much narrower ground.
If Fascist Italy was racist, it was so only in the forms of racism which were general to Europe, and which were more strongly marked in England than in Italy. If it was Imperialist, it was much less so than England, and its Imperialism followed lines approved by England in the secret Treaty of London in 1915 as an inducement to Italy to make war on Austria. But Italy was Fascist and England was not. What distinguished the Fascist State from the State which was not Fascist, therefore, lay elsewhere than in Imperialism, racism and other phenomena which were widely seen as essential features of Fascism, but were in fact the common features of most modern capitalist states. (And, as for anti-Semitism, Italy in the 1920s appears to be the state which had least of it.)
It seemed to me that Fascism was the means by which the authority of the state as the framework of national life was restored, and the social elements of the market, which had fallen into antagonism, were brought back into functional combination, after state authority and social cohesion had been disrupted by the World War, the destructive Peace which followed it, and the influence of the Bolshevik state and social system established in Russia in 1918.
Fascism differed from authoritarian restorations of order, such as had often occurred, in that the force which it applied to the re-establishment of the authority of the state was drawn from the elements of disorder themselves. Which is to say, Fascism succeeded in holding the ring against Bolshevism because it was a popular force capable of operating on the same ground. And neither in Italy in the 1920s, nor in Germany in the 1930s, was there anything like the slaughter which accompanied the suppression of the Paris Commune by Thiers and Marshal McMahon in 1871 on behalf of the orthodox bourgeois democracy. The enemy against which the capitalist order was saved by Mussolini and Hitler exerted a restraint on the means by which it was saved. Hitler and Mussolini knew they had to win over the forces of the enemy in large numbers, which was not a consideration for Marshal McMahon in putting down the Communards. (His military enemy, Germany, had gone home, leaving him to his own devices.)
Judged by historical standards, there was little killing in Italy and Germany until British foreign policy brought about a second World War. And the major killing was done after the Bolshevik State was brought into that war and became the major fighting force opposed to Germany.
When General de Gaulle took office in France in the late 1950s, bringing to an end the long series of ephemeral French Governments, the event was described as Fascist by socialist publications in Britain, including, as I recall, the Labour Party weekly, Tribune. While I thought that view was wide of the mark, I was not involved in politics and it did not cross my mind that I would ever be a writer of history, and I did not record my opinion anywhere.
Ten years later, having strayed into politics, I took up a position on the conflict in Northern Ireland which caused me to be regarded with suspicion by rightthinking people as a defender of Fascism in the shape of Ulster Unionism—and then, in the following decade, many of the right-thinkers leap-frogged over me to absurd extremes of Unionism which I would never have contemplated.
Around the same time, I allowed myself to be persuaded to go on a cheap package holiday to a Fascist State, that being the only way we could afford a holiday in the sun. I had myself little taste for either holidays or the sun, but I went along with it with the intention of enduring the holiday and the sun and ignoring the Fascist State. But, despite my best efforts, it began to be borne in on me after a couple of days that Franco Spain was a lively and surprisingly open society, that the prevailing notion of it as a Catholic-clerical regime was groundless, and that the set-up had a capacity to evolve.
My impressions of Fascist Spain, and of the Ulster Protestants, were made by simple perception—which is of course the most complex thing in the world, being infinitely more complex than the most elaborate theory. I subsequently backed up both impressions with some investigation, and went on record with both of them.
I assumed that Fascist Spain was capable of democratic evolution. And I was convinced that the People’s Democracies in Eastern Europe were cul-de-sacs incapable of evolving, and I never set foot in any of them when it became possible for me to do so. This went entirely contrary to general opinion on the Left, and against my own predisposition, but I had to go by what I saw.
It was as a matter of self-defence in Northern Ireland that I worked out the understanding of Fascism set out here. I first gave it general expression in connection with Spain. And then I heard a long interview with Anthony Eden, in disgraced retirement in the Caribbean, in which he explained that he had met the Fascist revival head-on at Suez and that, even though his invasion had failed, enough was done to stop Fascism in its tracks.
Eden was the leading anti-Fascist in British Establishment circles in the 1930s. Churchill, the voice in the wilderness denouncing appeasement, was not anti-Fascist at all. He went out of his way to praise Mussolini. He said that, if England had been defeated in the Great War, and subsequently humiliated as Germany had been, he hoped somebody like Hitler would have emerged to restore it to health and strength, and it was obvious who he had in mind. (In 1918-19 Churchill had advocated alliance with Germany against Bolshevism and the humiliating of Germany disgusted him, but he needed to be in power, so he swallowed his sense of honour and said “Hang the Kaiser!” in chorus with the rest of them.)
When Churchill resigned from the Government in the early 1930s, and went into the wilderness to condemn appeasement, the issue on which he did it was not Nazi Germany but India. He was outraged as an Imperialist by a minor appeasement of (that is, concession to) the Indian independence movement. And, when some time later he began demanding that preparation be made for another war on Germany, it was not the Fascist regime that he objected to but the fact that it was restoring the strength of the German State.
He understood Fascism and admired it, but the very thing he admired it for caused him to regard it as an enemy under England’s historic balance-of-power strategy towards Europe. That strategy determined that the strongest state in Europe should be regarded as an enemy, whatever the character of its regime—monarchical France or democratic Republican France from the 1690s to the 1790s, Imperial France in the early 19th century; democratic Germany in the early 20th century and Fascist Germany in the late 1930s.
But Eden was something of an Anti-Fascist. He was affronted by Italian conduct in the 1930s, even though balance-of-power considerations did not apply, while Churchill thought it was lunacy to alienate an ally on ideological grounds. Fascism was an issue for Eden, and he imagined that the Anti-Fascist War had made Fascist States legitimate targets. And so, when he became Prime Minister, and saw what he understood to be a Fascist resurgence in Egypt, he made war on it. But his war ended in disgrace, with Nasser being the generally-acclaimed hero of the hour. I did not think that Eden’s characterisation of Nasser’s regime was absurd. I therefore concluded from the affair that Fascist states were legitimate entities in the post-1945 world order, providing they were Fascist in substance only, and did not make a point of affronting the victors of 1945 by developing cults of Hitler or Mussolini. (Nasser’s regime was certainly not Liberal democratic, or Bolshevik, or feudal, or aristocratic-authoritarian, or military-authoritarian, or Napoleonic- Imperial. It was a non-Liberal, non-Bolshevik state of the popular kind, and it straddled an ideological antagonism.)
The misconception of Fascism—or the absence of any conception connected with the word—was not a mere matter of academic interest. I had no academic interest whatever in the matter, and the academics did not concern themselves with it in any way that I found relevant to practical affairs. But the use of the word with its hazy, or even self-contradictory associations, had seriously damaging practical consequences on two occasions in my experience. The first was in May 1974 in Northern Ireland, when popular Unionist opposition to a power-sharing Government of Unionists and Nationalists arose following the revelation in a Dublin Court that the Sunningdale Agreement under which it operated was based on a confidence trick. I supported the Unionist/Nationalist devolved Government, and also the Council of Ireland which the Agreement provided for. Unionist agreement to the Council was given on the understanding that the assertion of sovereignty over Northern Ireland made in Articles 2 & 3 of the Constitution of the Republic was to be withdrawn. Within two months of the Northern power-sharing Government taking office, the Dublin Government was brought to Court on a charge of being in breach of these Articles of the Constitution by recognising British sovereignty in the North. Its Defence pleading was that it had not recognised British sovereignty and the claim of sovereignty by the Republic still stood, and was not prejudiced by the Agreement. And the Government (whose Northern spokesman was Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien) let it be known that it did not intend to put an amendment of those Articles to a Constitutional referendum.
Unionist opposition to the establishment of the Council of Ireland then developed rapidly. But the devolved Government, supported by Dr. O’Brien in Dublin and by the Northern Ireland Ministers of the London Government, insisted that the establishment of the Council should go ahead, regardless of the revelation that Unionist acquiescence to it had been achieved by a confidence trick. This approach led in May 1974 to a General Strike of the Unionist population.
The leading Nationalist personnel in the Stormont Government were Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin, both of whom were Left Socialists of the British kind as well as Irish Nationalists. Dr. O’Brien, the spokesman of the Dublin Government, was then in his Socialist phase. And a British General Election in the Spring 1974 threw out Heath’s Tory Government, which had brought about the Sunningdale Agreement, and the Northern Ireland Office came into the hands of Left-Socialists who were long-standing associates of Fitt and Devlin: Merlyn Rees and Stanley Orme.
Faced with the General Strike against the Council of Ireland, Fitt and Devlin declared it to be a Fascist uprising with which there could be no negotiation, and they were supported in this view by Rees and Orme. All four were intent on crushing the Fascist revival and preventing a recurrence of what had happened forty and fifty years earlier in Germany and Italy, and they were encouraged in this course of action by Dr. O’Brien.
The British Trades Union Congress was enlisted in the Anti-Fascist campaign. Its General Secretary declared that it could not be an authentic strike since its object was political, and he presented himself to lead a strike-breaking back- to-work movement, which was ignored by all but a handful of Communist Party adherents.
Fitt and Devlin called on the British Army to break the Strike, and Rees did his best to respond. But the greater the strike-breaking pressure of the state, the greater the support for the Strike became within the Protestant community. It became a strike of the whole community. And then, inevitably, the Anti-Fascist campaign collapsed.
From the time of the Dublin Court action, I had been trying to persuade Fitt and Devlin to manoeuvre on the Council of Ireland in order to preserve the power- sharing in the North. But they wouldn’t hear of it. They would have no truck with Fascism. And they never did manoeuvre on the Council or negotiate with the opposition. Rather than concede on the point at issue, they preferred that the house should be pulled down. The entire Sunningdale arrangement was scrapped; which had not been an aim of the Strike.
There can be no doubt that Fitt and Devlin were in the grip of a genuine delusion that the issue was Fascism, and that the British Ministers were in sympathy with their view. And so, at that critical moment in their political careers, and in the history of Northern Ireland, their misconception of Fascism deprived them of the capacity for political manoeuvre and led them to destroy what they wanted to preserve. And they were lost souls thereafter.
Dr. O’Brien was a different case. He was something of a European intellectual. A few years after he had helped to wreck Sunningdale, he lost his seat in the Dail and set up as an intellectual again, and the attitudes he then struck appeared to me to be very similar to those of the Italian intellectual, Pareto, who became one of Mussolini’s Senators. And O’Brien’s book on The Millennium argues that liberal civilisation must be defended, against the world which it has disrupted, by severe measures of elitist authoritarianism.
My view of the Sunningdale Agreement was that it provided a one-off chance for an internal settlement in Northern Ireland. After the Dublin Court case I argued for a deferral of the Council of Ireland pending a resolution of the sovereignty issue. When the Government decided to press ahead with the Council regardless of the scale and reasonableness of the opposition, I saw it as launching itself on a course of self-destruction because it acted in a fantasy environment where Fascism loomed. When I saw that the strike against the Council was a Strike, rather than an outbreak of hooliganism such as William Craig had sponsored about a year earlier, I began to issue Strike Bulletins for the purpose of countering provocation. Midway in the Strike it so happened that an Irish Labour History Conference was held at Queen’s University. It discussed the Limerick Strike held in the context of the War of Independence over half a century earlier, and it was not pleased when I drew attention to the fact that there was a strike going on all around them even as they spoke. The Conference did not discuss it but, as far as I could judge, the feeling was in accordance with Fitt’s view that a Fascist uprising was being confronted. I have been persona non grata in those circles ever since.
The second occasion on which a misconception of Fascism had damaging practical consequences occurred in Britain three years later over the proposal of a Royal Commission to establish a system of Workers’ Control in industry. This was rejected by virtually the entire spectrum of socialism because it had the form of “corporatism”, and corporatism was vaguely, but pervasively, felt to be the means by which capitalism in crisis subjugated labour. “Corporatism”, in the sense of official bodies on which both sides of the class antagonism of capital and labour were represented, was taken to be a hallmark of Fascism in the 1920s-30s, and this continued to be the case for decades after 1945. It involved class collaboration between workers and capitalists and it was unacceptable in principle to the strict ideologists of both sides. In the Liberal view, the only proper arrangement was universal competition between individuals. In the strict Socialist view (systemised in Bolshevism, but held by a wide swathe of opinion beyond the Communist Parties) the only proper arrangement was control over the economy and the state by the working class as a collective body, with no place for anything else: and, until that could be brought about, there should be no alleviating, class-collaborationist arrangements, because such arrangements were only a means of preserving capitalism.
Insofar as I took part in British Socialist affairs, it was from the viewpoint of Ernest Bevin, the great Trade Union boss, organiser of the massive union of general workers, who entered the Cabinet in the crisis of May 1940 without having a seat in Parliament. A seat in Parliament was got for him but he never acquired the Parliamentary manner. He ran the country as Minister for Labour from 1940 to 1945, and laid the foundations for the welfare state that was rapidly constructed after 1945.
Bevin wielded working class power for a constructive purpose in a way that was never done before and has never been done since. Parliamentary socialists, ideologically well to his Left (such as Aneurin Bevan and James Maxton) were scandalised by his un-Parliamentary conduct and his class-collaborationism. He made deals with the Tories, who were then in a chastened condition, and implicated them in the arrangements he was making for the post-war era, instead of proceeding in the manner of class antagonism, and saving up the reforms for the time when Labour would win the post-war election and introduce them in the style of class war. And his Socialist critics wondered what was the point in the war against Fascism when Fascism was being built in Britain under cover of it.
Most of the wartime critics were given practical things to do by the post-war Government. Bevan was given the job of constructing the National Health Service, and he got on with it. But, once the predominating personal influence of Bevin was removed in the early 1950s, Bevan and his colleagues reverted to their own ideology. No major reform of society was ever again enacted by the Labour Party. And the socialist outlook, which had harassed Bevin in the 1940s but was unable to stop him, succeeded in stopping others from building on the post-1945 reform.
The Communist Party held by its understanding that corporatism was the essence of Fascism while the Left Socialists were mustered for corporatist work by Bevin and Attlee, and it described the post-war reform as “creeping Fascism”. The Left Socialists, while not disowning what they had been led to do in 1945-50, never investigated how that great reform had been brought about and, when left to their own devices after 1951, they gravitated naturally towards the Communist Party view when further reforms were proposed.
In the 1970s the great issue in Britain was how to harness working class power to the economic process. That power had become very great under the 1945 reform, but socialist ideology continued to depict the workers as an oppressed proletariat.
Trade Union power, exempt from the law of contract, had become destructive of the economic process. Bevin’s idea was that the workers should acquire property rights in the economy (and thereby cease to be what is meant by a proletariat). But Bevanite socialism had no time for that class collaborationist idea.
In 1973 Ted Heath’s Tory Government proposed the establishment of a great Corporation for the determination of relative incomes. The existing method was that Trade Unions leap-frogged each other in the gaining of wage increases, each leap usually having the form of a strike, the annual round of wage increases therefore being an annual round of strikes. Heath proposed that incomes differentials should be established by a Prices and Incomes Board on which the Trade Unions would be represented, along with the Employers and the Government. The Trade Unions would have been the major power on the Board, the employers being then in a very weakened condition (by reason of Trade Union power and the very high rate of taxation). But the Unions rejected the proposal, preferring that incomes differentials (that is, the different rates of payments for workers in different industries) should be determined through the market.
The Heath Government fell four months later in an election precipitated by a Coal Strike. (I wrote a pamphlet supporting the Tories.) Heath was removed from the Tory leadership. Margaret Thatcher’s understanding was that Capitalism had been granted a reprieve, and she was determined to make the most of it. A Labour Government headed by Harold Wilson followed. Wilson, though a Bevanite, understood that the existing state of affairs could not continue, and he was supported in this view by another Bevanite, Barbara Castle. The Trade Unions had to be brought into a position of responsibility in the economic process. Wilson set up a Royal Commission to inquire into the feasibility of a system of Workers’ Control. The Commission (chaired by Ernest Bevin’s biographer, Alan Bullock) reported in favour, and proposed equal representation for Shareholders and Trade Unions on the controlling bodies of enterprises, with Government representation in an arbitrating function. The proposal was rejected across the entire spectrum of the Labour movement, from the Communist Party to anti-Communist free marketeers like Frank Chapple. The Institute for Workers’ Control, which was Marxist in outlook, rejected it. And Neil Kinnock, who was Bevanite Socialist, rejected it. He wrote an article against it for the New Statesman criticising the Bullock proposals as not establishing simple control by the workers all at once—and not many years later he set about reshaping the Labour Party into a capitalist party under the influence of Thatcherism.
The Bullock proposal was not acceptable to the Left (which was then the greater part of the Labour movement) because it was not the Revolution. And it was not acceptable to the ideologists of capitalism because it was much too close to being a revolution. And thus capitalism was given a second reprieve. That was in 1977. Thatcher came to power in 1979. She played effectively on the dangers of Corporatism. Somebody in her entourage understood that this was a way of disabling influential elements of the ideological Left, for which Corporatism was the threshold of Fascism, if not Fascism itself. The position of Bevanite Socialism (as well as of the Communist Party) dissolved very quickly after 1979. It was caught between two conflicting views of Thatcherism—it had defeated Corporatism, which was incipient Fascism; or it was itself Fascism in the other sense of authoritarianism. Neil Kinnock gave expression to the latter view in a piece of powerful rhetoric on the eve of Thatcher’s 1983 election victory. Then, replacing Michael Foot as Party leader, he set on foot the process of adaptation to Thatcherism, which culminated in Blairism.
Fascism is taken to be a deviation from the norms of a stable system. But it arose in the region between two mutually exclusive systems, and this led to two mutually exclusive norms being applied to criticism of it. Liberal-democratic capitalism and Bolshevik socialism each had its standard of normality from which Fascism was seen as an unstable deviation. From the Bolshevik view it was seen as a class collaborationist deviation from the norm of proletarian dictatorship. From the Liberal-democratic capitalist viewpoint it was seen as a “corporatist” deviation from the norm of general individualist competition in a free market operating with minimal state control.
While Fascism undoubtedly did deviate from the liberal capitalist ideal, or ideology, it was characterised by Bolshevism as the final defence of Capitalism. And it is not reasonably disputable that that is what it was. It was in fact recognised as performing that function by many of the leaders of the liberal capitalist world, including its future leader in what came to be called the Anti-Fascist War, Winston Churchill.
In the Europe disrupted by the Great War, and by the catastrophic Peace imposed at the end of it, capitalism was not sustainable on the basis of what was taken to be its characteristic ideology and political system: liberal democracy. Fascism borrowed heavily from Bolshevism in the work of saving Capitalism from Bolshevism.
This state of affairs, which was relatively clear in the 1920s-30s, was clouded by the Anti-Fascist War in which Liberal-capitalism and Bolshevism were allies. In the course of that war the mutually exclusive conceptions of the norm from which Fascism was seen as a deviation were merged into an incoherence, through which it became all but impossible to see its distinguishing features.
The two great antagonistic forces in the world were Bolshevism and Capitalism. When these two forces found themselves in military alliance against the Fascist states of Germany and Italy, and the war of the Grand Alliance of 1941-45 was called the Anti-Fascist War, that conjured up Fascism as a monstrous power, drawing its energy from some infernal source, against which all the other forces of mankind had to bond together for survival. But, if one traces the actual history of the period chronologically, that Grand Alliance of fundamental enemies is seen to be the product of the misconceived and erratic foreign policy of Britain, the dominant power in the world after 1918.
The Anti-Fascist War might be described as a deviation from the normal, inherent, antagonism of the post-1918 world, caused by the bungling and irresponsible British foreign policy. That inherent antagonism was briefly suspended in 1941-44. It sprang back into operation the moment the deviation was got out of the way. But, between 1941 and 1944, the war effort of the Western Allies was entirely dependent on the success of the vastly greater war effort of the Bolshevik ally, and this dependency caused some strange phenomena. There was, for example, a major Hollywood feature film on the Moscow Trials of the late thirties, Mission To Moscow, showing them as a preparation of the Soviet Union for its historic task of saving civilisation from Fascist barbarism. Both before and after that era of collaboration, the Moscow Trials were depicted in the dominant propaganda of the West as barbaric atrocities, and Bolshevism was presented either as a cause of Fascism, or as a kind of ‘Totalitarianism’ which shared many of its features. But the collaboration of 1941-45—and the fact that it was Bolshevism that defeated Nazism and, by doing so, saved Britain from having to make a humiliating settlement in the war that it declared in 1939 but lacked the will to prosecute with its own resources—left an enduring impression on influential strata of British opinion until the 1980s. This was the case both with the Trade Unions, which were immensely influential institutions of British public life until then, and with the Universities, where most of the leading intellectuals were members of the Communist Party or some other Marxist organisation.
The ideology of the Anti-Fascist War thus ran on for forty years after the defeat of Germany and Italy, and the two mutually-exclusive conceptions of the norm from which Fascism was a deviation were squashed against each other. And, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the forms of Marxism associated with it withered, the habit of characterising enemies as Fascist if they were not Communist had become ingrained. And, even the last more or less Communist state in Europe, Yugoslavia (which did not collapse with others because it had sustained itself for forty years in conflict with the Soviet Union and in alliance with the West), was usually described as Fascist rather than Communist in the Western propaganda campaign against it. And, once that last survival of Communism was got rid of, a new universal enemy was raised in its place: Islamo-fascism. The resistance of the Islamic world to Western liberal subversion (conducted by military, economic, and cultural means) was characterised as Fascist, even though there is no substantial point of similarity between it and the political movement which saved the capitalist order in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.
(One reason for the current use of the word appears to be that many of the spindoctors of the post-Thatcher British regime were either members of the Communist Party or some other such body at the start of their careers, or they are the children of members of those bodies, and the term of disapprobation which comes naturally to them, now that they have become leading members of the capitalist elite of the world, is Fascist.)
The Great War, which broke up the evolving civilisation of Europe, began as a European War. As a European war, it would probably have run its course without undermining the basic structure of things. France desired the recapture of the nationally-mixed area of Alsace-Lorraine, which it had conceded to Germany as a consequence of its failed aggression of 1870 (the object of which was to prevent the political unification of Germany). For this purpose it formed an alliance with Tsarist Russia, a straightforwardly expansionist State which aimed to drive through the Balkans and acquire Constantinople/Istanbul) as an outlet to the Mediterranean. The trigger for war was a Serbian act of aggression in Bosnia, which had become a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following its withdrawal from the Ottoman Empire. Neither Austria nor Germany had expansionist aims. Their object was security within their existing boundaries.
A war between those three expansionist states and the two central states whose objects were defensive would in all probability have ended in a settlement which did no more than modify or confirm boundaries. And this would certainly have been the case if Britain had used its influence as the most powerful State in the world to impose limits on the conduct of the war.
In the first week of the war, however, Britain declared war on Germany and within a couple of weeks it had placed an army in a pre-arranged position alongside the French. The preparations for this had been made in effective secrecy many years before the war, and French conduct was determined by this secret alliance. German conduct, on the other hand, was influenced by the understanding that Britain had nothing at stake in the European war and would remain neutral. The German Government tried to ascertain British intentions and this is what it had been led to believe.
But Britain declared war on 4th August on the excuse of German infringement of Belgian neutrality. But, if its object had been to ensure that Belgian neutrality was respected, it need only have informed the German Government that it would treat any infringement of it by Germany as a reason for making war on Germany. It was well known that the German war plans in the face of the Franco-Russian alliance, by which it was greatly outnumbered, involved a flanking march through Belgium with the purpose of dealing with France before the Russian steamroller gathered momentum. If Britain had declared its intention of going to war over Belgian neutrality, Germany would have foregone the advantage of the flanking march rather than add Britain to its enemies. But Britain played its cards in a way that leaves little room for doubt that its purpose was to gain the infringement of Belgian neutrality as a moral reason for making war.
This is the kind of amoral morality which I have described as forensic—a kind of special pleading in a court in which the advocate and the judge are one and there is no cross-examination. But it works extraordinarily well in England, and the English populace (and a great part of the Irish) went to war in a state of high moral indignation. That moral character of the British war effort was one of the influences subverting European civilisation. The other (connected with it) was the purpose of destroying Germany as an economic rival. An equation was made between virtue and profit by Richard Baxter, the Protestant divine, in the 17th century, and so it has been ever since.
Germany, though greatly outnumbered, displayed an unexpected power of resistance. Britain used up its regular army very quickly. Then it used up its vast Volunteer armies. Finally, it resorted to conscript armies of the Continental kind, which it had hitherto deplored. And the greater the human cost of the war became, the greater became the moral stance, and the more vehement became the rejection of proposals for a settlement. Total victory or downfall—a position groundlessly attributed to Germany by British propaganda—was in fact the British position. In a war animated by fundamentalist morality which denied any purpose of material gain, what other stance was reputable?
A reckless ideology of ultra-democracy became part of the war propaganda and influenced the conditions imposed on the defeated states in 1919. The Italian Government was lured into the war in 1915 by means of a secret Treaty which recognised its maximum irredentist claims in Austria, both in the region of Trent and in the Adriatic. A large part of Italian society, including the Catholic Church, was against taking part in the war. Prominent among the forces advocating war was Mussolini, hitherto a radical Socialist, who now combined irredentist nationalism with Socialism.
Italy suffered greatly in the war. Its militarism was not of the stolid kind that one finds throughout English society.
Much of Italian society never supported the war. At the end of the war it was found that some of the irredenta, which England had promised to Italy in 1915, it had since promised to somebody else. Thus Italy, having suffered greatly from the stress of a war of whose advisability much of the population had not been convinced, was swindled out of the fruits of victory for which the Government had been persuaded to make war. The Bolshevik Revolution made an immediate and profound impact on the demoralised condition of post-war Italy. The political order of the Italian State broke down. The pre-war democratic order could not be restored. And Mussolini’s 1915 merger of Nationalism and Socialism, by means of which he helped to take Italy into war, re-emerged in the post-war situation to restore the authority of the State over elemental and divisive democracy. And it preserved the capitalist order by means of the “corporations” which overcame raw class antagonism and reconciled a sufficient part of the working class to class collaboration. (Where capitalist economy is functional there is de facto class collaboration. It was when the labour and capital elements fell into antagonism, and the labour movement could not dominate the situation by abolishing the system, that the two elements were brought back into conjunction, or collaboration, by the formal organisation of corporations. There has always been extensive class collaboration in England beneath the veneer of all-out class conflict.)
A functional economy exists within an effective system of national authority. It must be national in the sense that the various human elements of the economy, which are also social elements, must tolerate each other and engage in relatively stable interaction with each other, within a generally accepted collective framework.
By reason of the Great War and the destructive Peace which followed it, there was a breakdown in systems of authority and an associated breakdown in the relationship of the social elements to each other, both politically and economically. Liberal democracy was powerless to draw the antagonistic elements back together in a system of national authority. The Fascist movement did it by force, in the sense of doing it outside the system of Parliamentary representation and the organs of force which it authorised. But the force, by which the antagonistic elements were brought back into combination, was derived from those elements themselves by a vigorous political movement with a blunted ideology which was able to draw to itself substantial numbers of people from both sides of the antagonism.
Liberal democracy was dysfunctional in post-war Europe, because where it is functional it is always much more than it appears, and because in post-war Europe all it was was its ideology.
Functional Liberal-democracy necessarily exists within a strong system of state authority, though in its presentation of itself that is never explicit. In its pure ideological form it is only the tip of the iceberg. And what surprised me was the extent to which, in its response to Italian Fascism, it showed an understanding of its own authoritarian pre-conditions, which it never describes, or does so only by euphemism.
When I say that England did not go Fascist between the Wars because it was Fascist enough already, what I mean is that it did not need to reconstruct itself as a functional system of authority, because its system of authority, far from breaking down in consequence of the war, had actually been strengthened by the triumphant militarism of the event.
In 1914 there was the prospect of severe class struggle, a kind of war had broken out over votes for women, and civil war between the two major parties was threatening over Irish Home Rule. The war swept all of this aside. The most extensive of all the Reform Acts, that of 1918, was carried through without adverse consequence under cover of the universal Jingoism of the time. And the War Coalition, consisting chiefly of Tories, won the post-war Election by a landslide. The system of authority was reinforced even though one of its pillars, the Liberal Party, self-destructed in 1916 under the stress of the War for which it was itself responsible. Its place was taken by the Labour Party (which had supported the War). And Labour was groomed into a routine of subordination to the established system with the help of eminent Liberals who joined it. Nevertheless, party-politics was suspended as a precaution in 1931 in the face of the great economic crisis of capitalism. This was done by the formation of a National Coalition of the Labour, Tory, and Liberal Parties, under a Labour Prime Minister to begin with, and later under a Tory Prime Minister. Mainstream party-politics was not resumed until 1945.
The National Coalition was not Fascism, since it was enacted by agreement within the Parliamentary forms. But it warded off Fascism by moving next door to it. And Winston Churchill went into the wilderness in order to be available as the Fascist leader in case one was needed.
In Germany there was no effective system of national authority in operation after 1918. Britain insisted that things should be done with the state in Germany which went entirely against the practices which it considered necessary to the maintenance of political stability in its own affairs. The monarchy was abolished on Allied insistence and a form of ultra-democracy derived from first principles replaced it. The most influential philosopher of affairs of state in Britain was Edmund Burke. Burke was a Whig who never ceased to be a Whig, but he was adopted by the Tory revival of the early 19th century, and later by the radical Liberals. John Morley wrote an approving biography of him.
If Burke had one basic principle, it was that in affairs of state first principles should be avoided like the plague, and that the construction of a democratic state from first principles could only lead to catastrophe. When change was necessary, it should be brought about through a modification of what existed, and the less the better. This was the meaning of his criticism of the French Revolution, which was the guiding philosophy of those who managed state affairs in England throughout the 19th century. But in Germany in 1919 the monarchical state with which people were familiar (and which was as democratic as the British state) was abolished, and a new, theoretically-perfect, ultra-democratic republic was constructed in its place. (Corresponding changes also occurred in the devolved states within Germany.) This was done under the supervision of the Versailles Conference, in which Britain was the dominant power. And then the Weimar democracy, which had no entrenched structures of authority, was required to make a confession of guilt on behalf of the German people for causing the War. The confession of guilt was signed, although everybody knew it was a false confession, because the Versailles Powers threatened, in the event of refusal, to resume the war against this new, disarmed and helpless German state. And, on top of this, Weimar had to agree to pay the victor states the entire cost of the War.
The ultra-democracy of the Weimar system, in which there was no effective structure of authority behind the democracy, facilitated the proliferation of political parties, and the antagonism of the parties prevented the establishment of a structure of authority by the Parliament. In this situation, political parties acquired structures of state for themselves. The great economic crisis of the early 1930s led to a situation in which a weak, floundering Parliamentary system was confronted with two Opposition-States, one Communist, the other Fascist. And when Hitler, as leader of the largest party, assumed the office of Chancellor early in 1932, he did not so much come to power by acquiring that office, as bring power with him to the office.
He then suppressed the welter of conflicting parties very quickly—more quickly than Mussolini had done. And, as was the case with Mussolini, the power to do so was largely drawn from the parties that were suppressed. Once authority was asserted forcefully, it became an attractive alternative to the futile conflict of parties in the Weimar system.
Burke’s critique of the democracy of the French Republic applies with much greater force to the democracy of the Weimar Republic—but somehow it is never applied to it.
The case with regard to Fascism is entirely different in Ireland than it is in England. For most of the modern era Ireland was held by the English State on the basis of naked force, and what was called the ‘Irish Government’ was merely a Department of the London Government, responsible like all other Departments of Government, to the English electorate, such as it was. Even when an Irish Party representing the great bulk of the Irish population appeared in the Westminster Parliament, the Government of Ireland was conducted by the English parties on a mandate given by the English electorate. Fascism is a form of government thrown up in a democratic body politic, and there was no Irish Government based on an Irish body politic until the 1920s.
For a long period after the conquest of Ireland by the British Glorious Revolution of 1688, the experience of government by the Irish was similar in kind to the experience of government by a number of peoples in Eastern Europe after the Nazi conquests of 1939 and 1941. Using the term in the very loose sense in which it is so often used, it might be said that there was Fascist government in Ireland from 1690 until 1829 at least, though in the light of what the British State did in Ireland after its authority was rejected by the first democratic election held in Ireland, 1921 would be a more realistic date, if not 1923. But that had nothing to do with the Irish, who were mere victims.
Irish Fascism, in the sense in which I use the term, was not possible before 1922. It was only then that the semblance of a sovereign body politic operating in freedom came into being in Ireland.
The British State partially relinquished control of three quarters of Ireland in 1922, but it did so on terms which enabled it to manipulate the independence movement into conflict with itself. The Irish were presented with a dictated Treaty which conceded extensive self-government, but within the British Empire and under the sovereignty of the British Crown, with the threat of immediate and terrible war if that Treaty was not accepted and complied with. A substantial part of the independence movement rejected the British ultimatum. A majority of the Dail bowed to the British ultimatum, as did the electorate. The party which accepted the Treaty under duress was manipulated into making war on the party which rejected it in order to establish the Treaty State. That war is generally called the Civil War, which in my opinion is a gross misnomer, since there was no conflict of ideals between the combatants, their only difference being on the issue of whether to submit to the British threat of overwhelming force.
The Treaty Party governed for ten years. But, as the British threat receded, the electorate returned to the Republican position. The Anti-Treatyites won the Election of 1932 and confirmed its victory in another Election in 1933. In a situation of some social conflict, the Treaty Party in opposition reorganised itself, changed its name to Fine Gael, adopted a Fascist programme, and organised a kind of Fascist militia, the Blueshirts, and also a League of Youth.
The Anti-Treaty Party, Fianna Fail, was supported at the critical juncture of transition by the IRA, which had remained in being as a considerable force, though defeated in the Treaty War of 1922-24. Fianna Fail won a series of elections during the next decade, warded off the Fascist party, and consolidated the State as a Parliamentary democracy. In 1936 Fine Gael exerted considerable pressure on the Government to recognise the Fascist insurrection in Spain against the elected Government, but Fianna Fail refused to do so until Franco achieved actual control of Spain three years later.
A widespread agitation in support of Franco’s insurrection was organised by Fine Gael throughout the 26 Counties in the form of the Irish Christian Front, and a body of volunteers went to Spain to fight for Franco, led by a founder of Fine Gael, General Eoin O’Duffy.
The Fascist Party was the party of the wealthier and more respectable part of the society. That was normal for the 1930s. But, in later generations, the wealthy and respectable did not wish to remember what they had been then, and so we get this kind of ‘history’:
“One could argue that the 1930s IRA, with its hatred of free speech and its willingness to ally itself with Nazism and Italian fascism, was more truly fascist than was the Blueshirt movement, shirted as it was because of parochialism rather than because of genuine adherence to core fascist values.”
That is from page 22 of 1922: The Birth Of Irish Democracy by Tom Garvin, Professor of Politics at University College, Dublin (Gill & Macmillan, 1996). Professor Garvin does not say what he thinks “true fascism” is, or list its “core values“, and does not mention the fact that the party which declared Fascism to be its ideology and aim was Fine Gael. And his suggestion that the Blueshirt movement was “parochial” (by which I assume he means ‘backwoods’) is very misleading indeed. Two of the leading academics of the time, Michael Tierney and James Hogan, were among the active leaders of the Irish Fascist movement.
But Professor Garvin’s misrepresentation of history is mild compared with that of the London Times on 14th August 1995, which illustrated an article on Fascism with a large photo of De Valera and Mussolini in 1939, and the caption was:
“Irish premier Eamon de Valera (in silk hat, third from left) with Fascists in Rome in 1939; under his 1937 constitution he styled himself Taoiseach in imitation of Duce”.
Thus the leader of the Anti-Fascist Party is conjured into the leader of Irish Fascism. And there was no protest from the History Departments of the Irish Universities. (In fact De Valera was in Rome for the Coronation of Pius XII and spent most of his time at the Vatican. He had a brief formal meeting with Mussolini, as was customary for statesmen visiting the Vatican, and he gave the British Prime Minister a report of it on his way home.)
Professor Garvin characterises the IRA as the “truly fascist” party because of its “hatred of free speech” (unreferenced) and its alliance with Germany. He does not show that its connection with Germany was anything other than military. It was as far as I know only a connection with its enemy’s enemy, without ideological alignment. The ideological Fascism was in Fine Gael, with which the IRA had no ideological affinity. And if the military connection is sufficient to make the IRA Fascist, what are we to say of the support, military and political, that Britain gave the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1938, even though it was supposed to be the guarantor of the Versailles Treaty?
A body of Republican volunteers that went to Spain to fight against Franco was very much more effective than the body of Fine Gael volunteers that went to fight for him.
I had long been interested in what might be termed the ‘pre-history of Fascism’ in England, but my determination to produce something concrete on the matter crystallised when Athol Books was offered Professor Manuel Sarkisyanz’s Hitler’s English Inspirers to translate and publish. (It appeared in 2003.) The author’s thesis was that important elements which went into the making Nazism—such as social uniformity, class deference, national superiority, critical double standards, social darwinism, racism, imperialism, xenophobia, genocide—had first been pioneered and made ‘respectable’ in the public life of England and its Empire which saw itself as setting standards for the world. And he gives ample chapter and verse to prove his case. Whilst the Professor does detail the English fascists of the inter-war period, he is clear that Hitler’s inspiration came not from these, but from politicians, academics and philosophers of the mainstream. Many of the people he mentions are only remembered as names these days, if that. But, while the people may be gone, their legacy remains embedded in current British culture and attitudes. Taking a closer look at these people is vital to understanding the present—and influencing future developments.
In a review of Manuel Sarkisyanz’s book in 2004 I wrote:
“Hitler’s inspiration was England, rather than any particular line of Englishmen. The English who declared themselves Fascist influenced him least of all. Hitler looked to the mainstream rather than the fringe, and to actions rather than words—although he specifically acknowledged his debt to the English war propaganda in the use of words. The English writers and politicians particularly singled out by Sarkisyanz are Burke, Carlyle, Disraeli, Baden-Powell, Churchill, Curzon, Milner, Kingsley, Kipling, Neville Chamberlain, G.B. Shaw and H. G. Wells” (p 8 Irish Political Review, February 2004).
What is virtually unique about Sarkisyanz’s work is the way he applies the critical methods, normally applied by British writers to other countries, to England itself. The English are quite unselfconscious about the way they apply moral standards to the conduct of other countries, whilst viewing their own actions pragmatically. But Sarkisyanz will have none of this. He assesses the conduct of the Anglo-Saxon world from a rigorously democratic and humanist standpoint— and rejects contemptuously the idea that a civilising mission could justify the havoc that was wreaked around the world in the name of progress.
He understands very well that this is more than a matter of academic importance. The English modus operandi has a disabling effect upon other countries which are induced to view their past in this light. Two examples spring to mind immediately: Germany and Ireland. Burdened with the Nazi legacy which is seen outside the context of standards set by the Anglo-Saxon world down the centuries, Germany has been unable to play its due part in Europe. (Indeed, guilt for what Hitler did to European Jewry even today prevents Germany judging the actions of Israel in Palestine by the same standards by which it views its own past.) And Ireland is now being reintegrated into the British sphere by an English-inspired critique of its recent past.
While what Professor Sarkisyanz has done is invaluable in drawing attention to the precursors of Fascism and in exposing English humbug, I felt that there was still more to be said on the question of Fascism. Above all, I feel it is important to analyse the various components which can go into its making.
Supposing England had lost this Great War of its own making, and had been treated as it treated Germany—losing its overseas markets and its Empire and subjected to penalties which expropriated most of its domestic products, and its monarchy abolished—it is highly improbable that its mode of Parliamentary government through party-political conflict of two essentially patriarchal parties would have continued. Its existential crisis would have been as great as that which it imposed on Germany and its economic crisis would have been even greater as its dependence on exploiting the material resources of the world was greater.
In these circumstances it is probable that there would have been a great proliferation of parties, each reflecting some particular grievance or interest, and that the hegemonic authority which had always existed behind the display of party conflict would have evaporated.
And, supposing that there was a development in accordance with Churchill’s wishes—and order and a sense of national well-being was restored by an English Fascist movement—the body of literature which I outline here would form part of the literature of that movement. There would be no need to create a new body of literature for it. The intellectual inheritance of Fascism in England would consist in great part of the literature of: the 18th century aristocracy; of the war against the French Revolution; of the middle-class democracy of the 1832 Reform; of the globalist economic development beginning with the war to compel the Chinese State to allow its subjects to purchase English opium; and of the populist Imperialism of the late 19th-early 20th centuries which was the precondition of social welfare reform.
(The pre-history of Fascism in Germany has been dwelt upon in infinite detail by English writers. Features of German life before 1933 which were also features of the Nazi state were sought out and mulled over. Lists of Germans whose influence was conducive to Fascism were drawn up, but the thing was done with little objectivity and different writers drew up different lists. For example, Fichte, the philosopher, and Bismarck, the statesman, might appear either in the lineage of Fascism or in the token group of ‘good Germans’.
Unless one believes in some very strict order of determinism in human affairs, the possibility must be allowed that a different course of political action at certain junctures between 1919 and 1933 might have brought about a continuation of the Weimar Republic. But the pre-history of Fascism, that has been written about so extensively, would still have existed even though it did not happen to culminate in the Fascist state. And, if Fascism is not to be explained in terms of the political crisis which threw up the Fascist State, and the prior history of the society over many generations is to be invoked, I do not see what reasonable objection there can be to the idea of the pre-history of Fascism in England.)
Fascism would be a drawing together in concentrated form of features which had always formed a substantial part of the regime of the Glorious Revolution in England. That is what I mean by describing this collection of material by mainstream English writers as the pre-history of Fascism. (What appears here is a very small selection from the pre-Fascist English intellectual heritage, due to constraints of space. I’m proposing to return to the matter in a further publication.)
Where the basic authority of the State has to be restored against the chaos of anarchic democracy, that is where Fascism arises. Ever since the English State was put on a secure footing over three centuries ago, the maintenance of its authority, partly by use of force and partly by the inculcation of deference in the populace, has been given absolute priority. What is called democracy—but which Rousseau would not recognise as democracy at all—was gradually introduced in the form of incremental enlargements of the electoral franchise in the course of many generations, in such a way that the pre-existing structures of authority remained intact. Authority was not established by this democracy. Edmund Burke thought it a mad idea that it might be. What happened was that authority introduced a kind of democracy amongst a deferential populace which had been so habituated to the authority of the state as to be scarcely aware of it. And the era of democratic reform in England was also the era of the most intensive militarism and Imperialism. And those in authority took it to be self-evident that militaristic Imperialism was a precondition of safe democratisation, with the result that the democracy of the British State almost unconsciously took militaristic Imperialism as part of the natural order of English affairs. And the condition of this democracy, as democracy, is brought out by the fact that the electorate now has to be badgered into voting, and it is being seriously considered that they should be enabled to do so as part of their shopping.
Fascism is part of the history of Capitalism. While capitalism as a system was under threat by reason of the elemental forces generated and unleashed by England’s Great War for civilisation, Fascism was accepted as part of the legitimate order of civilisation. That is to say, capitalist or semi-capitalist States which did not conform to liberal-democratic norms were tolerated. But, when the threat to capitalism as a world system ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the restraint which had been imposed on the militaristic centre of global capitalism— Ameranglia, the US-UK—no longer applied. Today we live in the era of democratic imperialism, when any State which is not ruled in the same way as Britain and America are governed is declared to be a legitimate target. What Anthony Eden thought he was right in doing in 1956 has now become unquestionably right. A moral right has been asserted to invade States which deviate from what Ameranglia holds to be the democratic norm. Targets are chosen in accordance with the expedience of the moment. States which serve the interest, for the moment, of advancing Ameranglian global dominance are temporarily safe. But they are legitimate targets under the new morality, no less than the States listed in George Bush’s “Axis of Evil”.
The old, mindless view of Fascism will no longer do for anybody who does not want to be implicated in militaristic imperialism. A realistic critical understanding of the subject is required.
Brendan Clifford, October 2005
Problems Magazine, Issue 42, 2nd Quarter 2020. July 1920.
See https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/ for other issues.
This is an introduction, followed by many examples. You can get it as a free PDF: https://labouraffairsmagazine.files.wordpress.com/2020/07/unionjackery.88pp.pdf.