Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fascism in Britain (2005)

Book Reviews from the August 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Martin Pugh: Hurrah for the Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars. Jonathan Cape.£20.00.

Nigel Copsey and David Renton, eds: British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State. Palgrave Macmillan. £50.00.

These two books are not recommended for the various views expressed by the authors and contributors, but for the wealth of information, much of it new, on British Fascism.

The first fascisti, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, was founded in Italy in 1919; Britain’s first Fascist organisation emerged in May, 1925, six months after Mussolini’s coup. It, too called itself Fascisti, but the following year changed its name to the British Fascists. Most of its leaders were aristocrats or men from military or naval backgrounds. They were militantly anti-Jewish and, through endorsement by such newspapers as the Times, Morning Post and the Daily Mail, believed in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy as portrayed by the infamous forgery, The Proctocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The British fascists soon, however, split into even more extreme sects such as the National Fascisti and Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League.

Martin Pugh demonstrates in considerable detail the close connections between the Fascist groups and parties and rightwing, and even “mainstream”, conservative politicians. The Fascists were often looked upon as more decisive Tories who. wanted a more powerful, corporate state which would, hopefully, keep the “lower orders” in control and stop “alien” immigration. Many members of the Conservative Party would also be members of one of the fascist groups at the same time. Both could be depended upon to defend the Nation and the Empire. Indeed, between the two world wars, not a few members of the Royal family, including the then Prince of Wales, were sympathetic to Mussolini’s Fascism  and later Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill expressed admiration for Mussolini, and the Prince of Wales had Nazi friends.

Of course the Fascists opposed the General Strike of 1926. In fact, as Pugh notes, they were particularly enthusiastic anti-strike volunteers, enrolling in the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, and as Special Constables. Chief constables welcomed the Fascists, but only as individuals and not as uniformed members of Fascist parties as these had hoped.

In 1920, the Conservative Member of Parliament, Oswald Mosley, crossed the floor to sit as an independent; in 1924, he joined the Labour Party. His views were already interventionist, corporatist, almost Fascist, but he was enthusiastically welcomed into the Labour Party. By 1929, Mosley was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but he soon resigned, and in February 1931 he launched his New Party.Then in 1932, after visiting Rome, he founded the British Union of Fascists. The BUF adopted the Corporate State, with the abolition of political parties, as its official policy. At this stage, Mosley and the BUF looked to Italy for their model, and it was not until 1936 that the BUF became pro-Nazi. Pugh notes that Mosley regularly visited Italy, and was rewarded with funding by Mussolini for several years. Mosley did not meet Hitler until 1935. During this period, the British Union of Fascists, which added the phrase “and National Socialists” to its title, became increasingly anti-Jewish. The BUF was organised militarily, complete with uniforms until these were banned in 1936. For a number of years, the Daily Mail, owned by Lord Northcliffe, supported the BUF and promoted Fascism.

Besides the BUF, there were still a number of small Fascist parties, as well as various “front” groups such as the January Club and Anglo-German Fellowship and, later, the Link. As in the 1920s, such groups had many Tories, rightwing and mainstream, as members. Indeed, most Conservatives, in Parliament and the country at large, were either pro-Fascist Italy, pro-Nazi Germany or, like Neville Chamberlain, appeasers, as Martin Pugh demonstrates in some detail. Many of them continued to hold similar ideas even after Britain had declared war on Germany, on 3 September, 1939. In 1940, Oswald Mosley, as well as about 800 Fascists and others considered to be pro-German, were arrested and imprisoned. But by 1942, most had been released. Mosley was conditionally released from prison in 1944. The BUF had been banned in June, 1940.

British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State is a collection of fairly short and diverse essays by various authors. Richard Maguire discusses the use of Fascists by the Conservative Government in defence of what Stanley Baldwin called the “community” in defeating the miners, and during the General Strike of 1926. And, as noted in Pugh’s book, the authorities were more than prepared to use Fascists as strike-breakers, their views being that the Fascists could be depended upon as Special Constables and the like.

Richard Thurlow outlines the formation of the Security Service (MI5), and its collaboration with Special Branch in surveillance of the Communist Party, and Comintern agents in Britain, particularly during the 1920s and  1930s. After about 1933, MI5 and Special Branch began to interest themselves in the British Union of Fascists, which hitherto they had not done. Interestingly, Thurlow points out that Maxwell Knight of MI5 had himself been the British Fascists’ Director of Intelligence in 1927. Graham Macklin discusses the attitude of the police and magistrates towards the Fascists in their confrontations with the Communists, and shows that in general they were more sympathetic towards the Fascists than the Communists. Not surprisingly, Oswald Mosley was particularly effusive in his support for the police, many of whom were anti-Jewish. Philip Coupland outlines what he calls “left-wing fascism”, in which the BUF use leftwing terminology to attract workers and disillusioned Labourites and Communists. In parts of the country this was quite successful.

David Renton discusses the so-called anti-Fascism, during the 1974-79 period, by such organisations as the Anti-Nazi League, the Trade Unions and the SWP, all of which from a socialist viewpoint achieved nothing in defeating fascist ideas and activities. Indeed, a party like the BNP today probably has as much support as did the BUF in 1935. Possibly more.
Peter E. Newell

A brief history of Public Relations (2011)

From the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Are workers brainwashed by capitalism?

If you want to know the truth, you cannot rely on newspapers. We have that on good authority – in fact, on the authority of the more honest newspapers. (The more honest papers are those that are read mainly by capitalists who need reliable information about the world in order to make investment decisions, as opposed to those that are read mainly by workers.)

In a startlingly frank appraisal of the history and practice of the public relations (PR) industry, The Economist (18 December 2010) admits that PR was invented in the early 20th century to counter working-class struggles, and rising popular resentment against capitalism, by getting newspapers and journalists, until then sympathetic to the workers, on the side of the business class. American business was at the time worried by the rise of a new phenomenon: public opinion. The business √©lite feared this, especially as it was developing in an anti-capitalist direction, and were determined to take control of it and manipulate it for their own ends. PR’s founding father, Edward Bernays, was quite explicit about the aim: ‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised opinions and habits of the masses’.

That all this is true, and that the century-long and ongoing pro-capitalist PR campaign was and is a great success, to the extent that there are today no mainstream media outlets that are not pro-capitalist, is pretty much indisputable. This means that, today, newspapers and news programmes (those read and watched by the working class) are not what they appear and claim to be. Their role is not to enlighten and inform, but to mould public opinion so that it reflects the interests of the capitalist class and the state. ‘News’ is propaganda, not genuine journalism.

The truth of this has, however, led to a logical but erroneous conclusion among many radical thinkers – that the working class accepts capitalism because it has been brainwashed into it by clever capitalist PR. The argument can even take a Marxian-sounding form: capitalist society, say some Marxists, maintains and reproduces itself through the dissemination of the ‘ruling ideology’ – i.e., the ideas, beliefs and values of the ruling capitalist class – and its acceptance by the working class. The working class, in accepting these ideas, as they learn them from newspapers and so on, is thereby integrated into capitalism and comes to accept its own subordination. This theory has the added appeal, for Marxists, of seeming to explain something that stands rather in need of explanation in Marxian theory – the failure of the class struggle to materialise into the revolution predicted by Marx.

The argument is compelling but mostly false, as shown in an excellent essay by Conrad Lodziak in the journal Radical Philosophy (‘Dull Compulsion of the Economic: The Dominant Ideology and Social Reproduction.’ No. 49, Summer 1988). The essay, and the empirical data and ethnographic studies it draws upon, is obviously now dated in some respects. But its arguments are still strikingly relevant and persuasive. This article will reprise Lodziak’s argument and briefly consider its implications for socialist politics.

Dull compulsion versus brainwashing

The idea that working-class acceptance of capitalism can be ascribed to the workers’ ‘false consciousness’, Lodziak calls ‘the dominant ideology thesis’, and it is, he says, ‘taken as a self-evident truth amongst a majority of the left’. But is it true? It is, after all, a proposition capable of empirical proof or disproof. Do workers in fact believe and accept the ideas that make up the ‘ruling ideology’? The answer, says Lodziak, is yes – and no.

It is true that most workers accept certain key ideas that are essential to the continuation of capitalism – for example, they accept the justness of ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’, they accept meritocracy (the idea that it’s OK for people to rise above them in the social hierarchy if the rise is based on merit and talent), they accept that most people should get a job or career and strive to ‘get ahead’, and so on. They do not, however, universally accept or agree with other aspects of the ruling ideology, such as property and inheritance rights, principles of capital accumulation and the right to a profit, state neutrality, occupational structure, distribution of incomes, the right to manage, and so on.

At this point, a Marxist might say, OK, the ‘dominant ideology thesis’ is then justified: the working class does accept the most important aspect of the ruling ideology, which is the acceptance of the inevitability of working for wages. But this is not so, says Lodziak. To prove the ‘dominant ideology thesis’, you must show not just that workers accept certain ideas, but that those ideas are sufficiently important to them for them to commit to the ideas and act upon them. And this is where the thesis falls down: ‘the required degree of ideological motivation appears to be absent amongst a majority of the populations of advanced capitalist societies’. Instead, what you find is ‘an absence of belief’: passivity, resignation, bewilderment, confusion, disorientation and marginalisation are all more important in determining working-class actions than so-called ‘false consciousness’. And the explanation for this passivity is easier to find in ‘largely publicly identifiable features of the social environment’ than in ‘some mysterious process of class brainwashing or collective hypnosis’. 

The ideas which do dominate working-class thinking tend to be those ‘directly relevant to the practical and immediate demands of the everyday life-world as experienced’ – ideas related to things over which workers do have some control, such as deciding whether to resign and look for a new job, or wait for a promotion; whether to get married, or divorced; how to organise home life and what to do with free time, and so on. Workers’ thinking is, quite understandably and sensibly, focused on finding security, and avoiding insecurity. This is impossible without building relations of dependence and subordination with an employer, the state, or a breadwinner. Workers are materially, not ideologically, subordinated; economic necessity and state coercion are more important than ideology. Workers do what they do because they must – not because they’ve been tricked into thinking it’s a good idea.

This also goes some way to explaining why Marx’s prediction of revolution was premature, and why workers often eschew ‘oppositional’ politics. ‘Workers rightly believe that opposition may lead to redundancies or closures, and that it may be impossible to get another job.’ And the more intolerable the alternatives are, the worse the prospect of unemployment is, the worse pay and conditions workers will be prepared to accept – explaining the present government’s determination to push through punitive benefit reform, even though unemployment is on the rise.

In short, the consciousness of the working class is best understood not in terms of ideology, but in terms of ‘needs-based motivations’. By talking in terms of indoctrination, the left displays an ‘insensitivity to the lived experience’ of the working class.

Political conclusions

We in the Socialist Party are often accused by our opponents, and even sometimes by our supporters, of not having made any progress in our 100-year history. What the foregoing arguments should have made clear is that it is not within our power to make the kind of progress demanded of us. The working class generally is ideologically indifferent, and accepts capitalism because it must. The only thing that can disrupt this to the advantage of socialists is, says Lodziak, ‘effective oppositional practices inscribed with oppositional viewpoints’ – in other words, the development of the class struggle. We can contribute to the development of this struggle, and we do, but it is not within the power of a small party such as ours to determine its course. The failure of sufficiently large and powerful oppositions to arise is down not to a lack of energy or dedication on the part of socialists, nor the absence of a sufficiently clever socialist advertising campaign, but to the power of economic necessity and state coercion.

This article may seem to have argued itself into a corner. If all this is true, what can be done? The answer may not satisfy socialists who understand the urgent need for radical change, but it is inevitable all the same: we just keep struggling.

Lodziak has three other main concluding points of advice for any socialist opposition. (The commentary that follows the advice is of course ours, not Lodziak’s.)

First, participation in organised politics must be made sufficiently attractive to entice people out of their privatised worlds. This means that the boring treadmill of reformist politics and the ridiculous sectarianism, authoritarianism and leadership-dominated activity of Leninist sects is out. Of course, the Socialist Party has not been wildly successful at attracting people, but it is a commonplace on the left that we have at least managed to be human and charming, make our meetings places of free and open discussion, and our activity the result of freely arrived at decisions and voluntary activity. Our members tend to join and remain members for life; most rival leftist outfits operate a ‘revolving door’ policy.

Second, ‘effective opposition is, amongst other things, always an effective ideological opposition’, which means engaging in a ‘vigorous and continuous ideological contestation in the public sphere, not only in challenging the dominant, but also in the advocacy of oppositional alternatives’. Again, we cannot claim sufficient success in this area, but we have at least taken the challenge seriously, unlike the left generally, which is content to pander to prejudice rather than challenge it, propagate the ruling ideology rather than contest it, and mock the advocacy of alternatives as utopian. Credibility for socialism, says Lodziak, can only come from ‘the relentless public display of commitment to oppositional alternatives, and from the unwillingness of agents of opposition to compromise principles’. Yet again, the Socialist Party, unlike the left, can lay claim to a proud history of doing just that.

Third, we need to demonstrate the relevance of socialism to the needs of the vast majority. Most people will not struggle or even vote for abstract things or ideas, says Lodziak, but will fight to win material benefits to improve the quality of their lives and guarantee the future of their children. This might seem to argue against the Socialist Party’s case. Indeed, we are often accused by our leftwing opponents of doing nothing but try to win support for abstract ideas. This is not true: what we have tried to do is show that many of the material benefits people are fighting for are only possible of realisation in a socialist society. If what you want is a pay rise, then you can join a union. If you want to fill the lonely, empty nights, you can join an evening class or the local darts team. And so on – workers will need no advice from socialists on these counts. But what if you want a full and satisfying life for you and your children – with meaningful and enjoyable work, plenty of free time to spend with your family, friends and loved ones, and to pursue your interests and passions, a life free of stress and anxiety and boredom (if you’re lucky), and of extreme poverty and violence and war and environmental catastrophe (if you’re not)? In that case, you will have to think carefully about what socialists say. What we say is that this is a laudable aim – indeed, our rightful inheritance as human beings – but is impossible to achieve under capitalism.

This is clearly a difficult argument to make, especially to ‘ideologically indifferent’ workers. But we live in interesting times – capitalist crisis is to a large extent making our argument for us, and making it more strongly and reaching more people than we have ever been able to. As the foregoing arguments should have made clear, crisis can have the effect of making workers feel even more insecure and therefore even less likely to become socialist. But it also calls into question the viability of the system, and makes it more obvious than ever that it cannot satisfy our needs as human beings. This crisis has a dual potential: it makes aspects of the socialist case for us, even as it threatens to drive the working class further into the welcoming arms of capitalist domination and exploitation. Which way it goes is down at least in part to what socialists and workers think and do over the next decade. Our work as socialists is therefore more urgent than ever.

Stuart Watkins