When (and When Not) to Fight With Fascists

Britain’s history of confrontational encounters with far-right groups shows that aggressive tactics work — but only to a point.


Historians have long discussed why fascism failed to form regimes anywhere outside Germany and Italy before World War II. One explanation is that in most of the dozens of other countries where fascist movements emerged in the interwar period, conditions — economic, social, cultural, political, institutional — were never conducive for fascism to succeed. Another factor is the weaknesses and miscalculations of fascist leaders and parties themselves. But a vital part of the answer also lies in the strength and the nature of opposition fascist movements faced.

Which brings us to Charlottesville. Over the past weekend, the world watched violent clashes in this Virginia college town between radical nationalists and their opponents. While acknowledging that it is undoubtedly the white nationalists who are primarily at fault for the violence, it is also an opportune moment to contemplate the effectiveness of aggressive anti-fascist tactics. This debate is more than intellectual: Cities around the United States are bracing for this weekend, when white nationalist groups have pledged to stage rallies in locations from Boston to Seattle. Those looking for a sense of how to respond most effectively — both in the present and over the longer term — would benefit from looking to the successes and failures of anti-fascism in 1930s Britain.

Few people outside the country are aware that the United Kingdom had a domestic fascist movement. Even among the British themselves, it is generally regarded as a marginal phenomenon that caused some trouble on the streets, and threatened the Jewish community in particular, but made no political impact.

While it is hard to dispute this perception, it is also easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to forget that for a time Britain’s main fascist party, the British Union of Fascists (BUF), made genuine headway. Led by the charismatic Sir Oswald Mosley — perhaps 20th-century Britain’s greatest political orator and a former rising star in both the Conservative and Labour parties — the BUF grew rapidly in the first two years after its founding in 1932.

By mid-1934, membership had risen to an estimated 50,000 people; Mosley’s speeches drew audiences of thousands; and his movement attracted positive interest among conservatives, both at the grassroots level and within the political and business establishment, who saw in fascism a means of reinvigorating the right and meeting the threat of the far-left. Most notably, it gained the support of press magnate Lord Rothermere, who used his publications to advertise Mosley’s movement. “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” trumpeted the Daily Mail, Britain’s highest-circulating newspaper of the period, referring to BUF supporters.

This success stemmed in part from the fact that — unlike previous, failed British fascist groups — the BUF distanced itself somewhat from Italian fascism and German Nazism. While Mosley expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Mussolini’s achievements, he emphasized that his party would eschew their more extreme methods: Anti-Semitism was prohibited in the BUF, and violence would only be used defensively.

This was, of course, a facade: The BUF trained its uniformed “defense force” in preparation of street violence, and many of the party’s leading figures, including Mosley himself, saw anti-Semitism as integral to their ideology. But in public Mosley branded his movement as a “peculiarly British” form of fascism, molded to suit the country’s more moderate political traditions.

A similar dynamic was at work in Virginia. While I do not wish to compare America’s radical right to interwar British fascism in terms of ideology, organization, and activity, there is an interesting parallel in their success at rebranding. The self-created label “alt-right” is itself indicative of this: It consciously sheds the accumulated baggage of terms like “white supremacist/nationalist” or “neo-Nazi/fascist,” instead repackaging those ideas in a more palatable form. This has attracted interest, sympathy, and support from many beyond the usual radical fringe, including parts of the conservative establishment, while in the process energizing those already at the extremes, who finally see their ideas being validated and mainstreamed.

Mosley’s movement had similar successes. But they came to an end once the BUF was exposed for what it really was. And this was achieved by anti-fascists. In June 1934, the BUF organized its largest-ever meeting, at which Mosley would address an audience of 15,000 in London’s Olympia hall. A loose ticketing policy, however, allowed large numbers of left-wing opponents to gain entry. Once Mosley began his speech — already 45 minutes late due to delays caused by mass protests outside the venue — anti-fascists inside made it impossible for him to be heard for more than a couple of minutes at a time by constantly chanting and heckling. Mosley’s defense force removed many of the protesters by force but did so, observed the police, using “unnecessary violence … quite out of proportion to the necessity of using force to eject any person.” At least 12 people were hospitalized, with doctors noting that many of the injuries appeared to have been caused by sticks and knuckle-dusters.

Olympia proved to be a pivotal juncture. Conservative figures turned decisively against the BUF, most significantly Lord Rothermere, who formally ended his support for Mosley the following month. More respectable members of the party left in droves. Increasingly desperate for new impetus, and with anti-fascist disruption continuing over the following weeks, Mosley decided to reveal his anti-Semitism, which was adopted as official policy in the autumn, further pushing him to the political margins. By 1935, the BUF had seen its membership fall by 90 percent.

In this context, recent events in Charlottesville have the potential to be an “Olympia moment” for the alt-right. The “Unite the Right” event was organized by a figure, Jason Kessler, who embodies the effort to bring white nationalism into the mainstream. He wrote articles for Tucker Carlson’s conservative Daily Caller. The organization he fronted, Unity and Security for America, was received earlier this year by a Republican congressman.

Yet on the weekend of Unite the Right, events rapidly spun beyond Kessler’s control, as they had at Olympia for Mosley. Its participants, when confronted with anti-fascist opposition, revealed their true, violent nature, most tragically resulting in the death of Heather Heyer. As a consequence, conservative figures across the spectrum have raced to distance themselves from the event and anyone even indirectly associated with it (including President Donald Trump). This may be the moment that the alt-right went “beyond the pale,” to borrow the words famously used by Mosley’s son Nicholas to describe his father’s fascist career.

But — and this is vital — there is a postscript to Olympia. When the BUF was on the up and seeking respectability, aggressive, confrontational anti-fascist opposition helped expose its true face and condemn it to the fringes. But later organized resistance had the opposite effect, drawing attention to a dying movement and helping sustain it.

By 1935, the BUF had largely disappeared from the public eye; the media only reported on its activity when violence occurred — and Mosley was well aware of this. He thus began to focus the BUF’s activity in areas where large numbers of poor, working-class Jews were congregated, particularly London’s East End, hoping to exploit preexisting anti-Semitism among non-Jews and to incite an aggressive response from Jews themselves, which would create publicity for his movement and substantiate his claims that British nationalists were being victimized by alien interests.

By mid-1936, Jews, suffering a vicious Blackshirt campaign of anti-Semitic abuse, did indeed begin to organize themselves in response, disrupting BUF events and clashing on the streets. The most famous such episode was that October’s Battle of Cable Street, at which a crowd of more than 100,000 anti-fascists, a large proportion of them Jews, violently prevented a column of Mosley’s Blackshirts from marching through the East End. Today, the event is remembered as a great victory against fascism. But it is important to remember that at the time it in fact played into Mosley’s hands.

The scenes at Cable Street, widely reported in the press and newsreels, fit perfectly into the narrative the BUF aimed to create — of a Jewish, communist-inspired mob violently denying British patriots the right to march through their own streets. Mendacious as such claims were, they attracted sympathy in many quarters. In the weeks following the battle, thousands of new members joined the BUF; the following March, at local elections, the party got 18 percent of the vote (and probably around 30 percent of the non-Jewish vote) in the three East End districts where its activity was concentrated.

Worst of all, Mosley used Cable Street as an excuse to intensify verbal and physical violence against Jews. The Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism — the period’s most prominent confrontational anti-fascist body and one of the main organizers of the Cable Street demonstration — soon came to realize that the event had led to “an intensification of Fascist Jew-baiting and hooliganism.” It began urging Jews to stay away from BUF meetings and marches.

The British example shows that confrontational anti-fascism can play a vital part in exposing the violence and racism of a rising radical nationalist movement that seeks to present itself in a more palatable form. But once the movement is exposed, confrontation becomes counterproductive, drawing unnecessary attention to a fringe group, bolstering its victimhood narrative, and causing retaliatory violence against ethnic and religious minorities.

If Charlottesville does transpire to be an Olympia moment for the American alt-right, expect white nationalist groups over the following months and years to attempt to provoke their opponents into conflict, in a desperate attempt to keep themselves and their ideas in the public eye. Anti-fascists, however, would do well to heed the words of Britain’s Jewish People’s Council. In 1938, after it had realized the consequences of its confrontational anti-fascism, it warned its followers: “Do not fall into the fascists’ trap.”

Photo credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Tilles is assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow and the author of British Fascist Antisemitism and Jewish Responses, 1932-40 (Bloomsbury, 2015).

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