Dave Renton, Red Shirts and Black: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Oxford in the 'Thirties
In May 1933, the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, had a hundred members inside Oxford. The BUF was violent, anti-Semitic and ascendant. In Oxford, as across Europe, Fascism seemed unstoppable. By contrast, the Left seemed paralysed and divided. Yet within three years, Oxford's socialists, Communists and trade unionists had stopped Mosley in his tracks. This pamphlet describes their struggle.
Published by Ruskin College Library, Oxford, 1996. ISBN 0900183195. £4. Ruskin College, Walton Street, Oxford OX1 2HE.
Review: Andrew Thorpe, Labour History Review, Summer 1998
This short publication studies the fascist movement in Oxford, and the resistance to it, during the 1930s. The author, a research student at Sheffield University, offers a lively account, which is both well-researched and perceptive. Renton shows that fascism in Oxford had not been at all strong during the 192Os, but that it gained a new lease of life with the formation of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932. Initially, the new organisation recruited quite strongly within the university, although very weakly in the city itself. The branch was quite active, and between 1933 and 1936 there was 'a constant level of violence between fascists and anti-fascists'. However, the left (mainly outside the university) soon began to organise against fascism, and the branch began to suffer as a consequence of this and other causes, to the extent that after the Carfax meeting, held by Mosley in 1936 and with similar violent consequences to the more famous Olympia meeting two years earlier, the BUF's existence in the city became tenuous in the extreme. But, as the title suggests, the book is about anti-fascism as well as fascism, and some of Renton's best arguments, in fact, relate to the role of the left. In particular, he takes a sensitive line towards the Communist Party's role in events, showing that the idea of the CPGB as simply following prepackaged policies decided in Moscow is nonsense, and stressing the amount of room that there was for initiative and agency on the part of Communists on the ground. He also shows, in perceptive comments on the Labour Party, how and why it was that, whatever Transport House said, the Labour Party in Oxford, and in many other parts of Britain, was by no means unwilling to work with the Communists, at least in limited campaigns such as that opposing the fascists.
Renton's basic argument is that the anti-fascist movement was crucial in keeping fascism at bay in Oxford, and this is not surprising given that the publication boasts its author's membership of the Anti-Nazi League as well as his stated intention of describing 'a period from which anti-fascists can still learn'. This is, of course, a noble and important aim. But one wonders whether, ultimately, the author lets his enthusiasm get the better of him in this regard. He argues that the anti-fascists in Oxford 'provided a barrier to fascism which the BUF could never overcome', yet this comes at the end of a section in which he has outlined numerous other reasons for fascism's failure. In other words, Renton asserts that anti-fascists were a major obstacle to fascism, but does not really investigate the counter-factual - namely, how much further would the fascists have got had the left been less active, as Transport House wanted? If, as seems possible, the answer is 'not much further at all', then the emphasis on the left's active anti-fascism as an obstacle might be overdone. Still, this is a minor criticism. On the whole this is a useful and informative little book which is well worth the attention of anyone interested in inter-war politics and society.
Review: Kenneth Lunn, Immigrants and Minorities, July 1996
In what is fairly rapidly becoming a comprehensive series of local studies on the impact and significance of fascism in inter-war Britain, this particular pamphlet displays some of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of much of the genre. Written explicitly with the view to describing 'a period from which anti-fascists can still learn' (p.2), its own anti-fascist politics are clearly identifiable. This makes it a powerfully-written and sometimes celebratory piece, certainly with regard to left opposition to the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. In addition, as its bibliography and footnotes indicate, it rests upon solid academic and empirical research. From this perspective, it is a thorough and valuable contribution to our overall knowledge with regard to the specifics of British fascism.
However, in some senses the analysis offers little that is new. Much of the book's attention is focused on the nature of the opposition towards fascism in Oxford and details the contributions of the local Labour Party, the Communist Party, the Trades Council and 'unaffiliated' individuals and groups. As the study concludes: 'The large Left presence in Oxford provided a barrier to fascism which the BUF could never overcome' (p.48). A good deal of the material in the pamphlet is devoted to the emergence of a local 'United Front' and the ways in which this left presence was able to dominate, at least by the later 1930s, any potential mushrooming of the BUF locally. Detailed information on the growth of trade union and party links, as well as individual campaigns directed against the BUF, is provided. This is a valuable adjunct to the history of the labour movement in Oxford.
On the BUF, details are less forthcoming. Membership appears to have originated almost exclusively within the university, with little direct involvement from the town population, middle-class or working-class, It seems that fascism made little political impact on mainstream Conservative support, an issue which is returned to in the conclusion. Most of the BUF's ideological concerns seem focused on anti-left sentiment. According to Renton, anti-Semitism was part of the public rhetoric at many BUF meetings but never translated itself into attacks against Jews or against Jewish institutions. The explanation offered for this is that, in trying to maintain a respectable aura in middle-class Oxford, the party would have had to eschew anti-Semitic violence, in obvious contrast to, say, its strategy in the East End of London. However, the details and analysis of the BUF's local membership and tactics is, it must be said, somewhat sketchy and does not offer the kind of detail required to advance any significant understanding of the particular nature of the local party. In fairness, this kind of evidence is always difficult to obtain but, in this case, the overall arguments of the study are somewhat weakened by this absence.
Where Renton does attempt to explore more profoundly the features of both local and political culture which led to what he calls fascism's 'failure', what is offered really does not open up any new avenues of interpretation. In his consideration of national factors whilst querying the usefulness of arguments about Britain's liberal tolerance which condemned any political extremism to failure, he locates the explanation for the lack of success firmly within the lack of depth of the British depression and the relative success of Conservative policy in dealing with the economic crisis. This prevented any significant drift from Conservatism towards more radical right-wing politics. In local terms, the strength of the left and the disinclination of the local middle class to engage with a politics which was 'beyond the pale' are the essential factors.
Without looking more closely, however, at the nature of local Conservative politics, at any significant shifts within its ideological concerns and any changes in political agendas, such claims are particularly difficult to evaluate. It may be that the central issue of whether or not British fascism was 'successful', in other words comparing it, however unintentionally, with events in Italy or Germany between the wars, creates a distorting prism. As Renton makes clear, British fascism has its own pedigree, its own cultural and political roots, and thus should be evaluated within this framework. In that sense, it was neither a success nor a failure and assessing its impact needs to be constructed without that perspective. Perhaps, therefore, we need to ask rather different questions of the evidence and move away from the comparisons with Nazi Germany, which inevitably plays down the impact of British fascism.
On balance, this local study provides much of the necessary information to add to our knowledge of fascist organization in 1930s Britain, if perhaps falling short in terms of advancing an understanding of its complexities. It does try to offer explanations for the relatively minimal impact in Oxford and displays a clear awareness of the wider context for such political shifts. Its purpose is clearly to address a contemporary audience and it suggests lessons for those currently interested in challenging fascism, always a timely reminder of the dangers of non-intervention against such a potentially lethal political force.
Review: Harold Pollins, Oxford Menorah, Spring 1997
Not many Jews were permanent residents of Oxford in the 1930s, and there were not all that number of students either [sic]. The author of this pamphlet quotes a figure from David Lewis's The Jews of Oxford that in 1935 there were 100 Jews in Oxford of whom 77 were undergraduates. So that the aspect of Jewish history that gets most attention here is anti-Semitism. This follows from the author's main interest, an account of fascist activity in the city (although mostly confined to university members) and the successful efforts by various groups and individuals to combat the British Union of Fascists.
The broad story he tells can be quickly summarised. There was a great deal of fascist activity in Oxford between 1933 and 1936 but after the latter year hardly anything was known of it. He examines the various organisations that opposed fascism, including Ruskin College students, the Labour Party, the trade unions and the Communist Party. Thus he shows how the famous and successful strike at Pressed Steel in 1934, for trade union recognition, greatly enhanced union membership in the town which, in the context of the Labour movement's growing influence, was instrumental in the fight against fascism.
One major reason for the loss of support for fascism was the violence that accompanied a fascist meeting at Carfax in November 1936, the culmination of a trend towards violence at such meetings. The author shows how the BUF had become more openly violent and at the same time its message became increasingly anti-Semitic. Sir Oswald Mosley, the BUF leader, was reported in the local newspaper in May 1933 as condemning the Nazis' anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting and even opposed the anti-Semitism of the Imperial Fascist League. How odd to read that in September 1933 the Oxford University Jewish Society claimed that "our greatest supporters in our fight against the Imperial fascists are the Mosley fascists themselves.
This changed very quickly and after about 1935 the BUF's emphasis was attacks on Jews. These were purely verbal and there was no evidence of physical attacks on Jews in Oxford. The author ponders the reasons for this, since there were such events elsewhere, given also, he says, that many of Oxford's prominent left-wing individuals were themselves Jewish, including the Communist Party's District Organiser, Abe Lazarus. I thought about the prominent Oxford left-wing individuals of the time. I could identify some, stretching the meaning of "left-wing" somewhat, but who were the Jews among them?
The main reason for the absence of physical violence against Jews in Oxford, he argues, was precisely that the fascists were so weak in the city. They wanted to recruit among the wealthy and respectable members of society and while it was legitimate to attack working-class opponents on the grounds of self-defence, they could not attack integrated, 'neutral', individual Jews for fear of losing support among their potential recruits. That is a plausible interpretation but I prefer another one he proposes. Because the fascists were so weak in Oxford they would have lost in any full-scale Left-Right war" especially if anti-Semitic violence had led to greater support for anti-fascist groups. Thus, It was because the fascist groups were so weak, and the anti-fascists so much stronger, numerically, that there was no anti-Semitic violence.
The author goes into some detail about the various anti-fascist organisations, quite usefully adding to the historiography of Oxford in that period. In that part he looks at the obverse, viz., the absence of any Jewish self-defence organisation. In this, he writes, Oxford can be contrasted with East London where there was, for example, the Jewish People's Council to organise against fascism. There will be those who might consider a comparison of 100 or so Jews in Oxford with the many thousands then living in East London to be quite far-fetched. Yet he does make some interesting observations to account for the lack of a specifically Jewish presence in the anti-fascist campaign in Oxford. There were those who preferred to keep hidden but a majority took the opposite direction, becoming more overtly Jewish, including activity in the University Jewish Society. He rightly emphasises the growth of Zionism, for to many it was clear that racism was inescapable, there was not a great deal of point in fighting it and the only solution was a Jewish homeland.
One notes that the author refers to relevant publications about Oxford Jewry in the period. David Lewis's book of course, and also the memoirs in Freda Jackson's collection, Then and Now, as well as Irene Roth's life of Cecil Roth. This pamphlet is well worth reading and is readable, but I do wonder about one reference he makes to Ralph Glasser's Gorbals Boy at Oxford. Glasser describes a scene he witnessed while standing at the Bodleian end of Holywell; I give it in full from Glasser's book:
After providing a translation, Glasser goes on to describe two girls in the front row leading the "chanting". Glasser published his autobiography some five decades after the I event. The whole of his book has an air of accuracy. Yet I do find it difficult to accept this bicycling scene. Surely Hatikvah does not readily lend itself to such an exercise. I haven't actually tried riding a bicycle, ringing its bells and "chanting" Hatikvah, but I doubt if it would work. Perhaps someone could try it as an experiment. (Not in the Broad, please: Ed.).
Review: Unjum Mirza, Socialist Review, October 1996
In May 1933 the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had around 100 members in Oxford. They held public meetings introduced by leading members, including William Joyce and Oswald Mosley. They even enjoyed enough support to disrupt a National Unemployed Workers' Movement meeting. Yet, as Dave Renton explains, 'by 1936, the character of Oxford politics was reversed. An isolated left was able to oppose and undermine the formerly confident BUF.' How this turn was to occur is the subject of this pamphlet.
The social composition of the BUF in Oxford reflected the classic fascist pattern: substantially middle class and ex-military, with a more socially marginal membership. 'The typical recruit came from the children of the insecure middle classes, the sons of an artist, a retired company manager, a brigadier and a schoolmaster.' The BUF never made any real inroads in the town. Its main focus was around the university.
This is significant, for as Dave demonstrates, when it came to the strike at Pressed Steel of July 1934 - 'the moment when Oxford became a union town' - not only was the strike successful but the Communist Party was instrumental in that victory.
The strike brought together the Communist Party and individuals from the Labour . Party and student left in a united front that held joint meetings and raised substantial amounts for the strike fund. Pressed Steel was Oxford's largest industry and all workers' organisations benefited. The TGWU recruited 1,000 members including 100 from the Morris Motors plant where the owner was anti-union and a subscriber to The Patriot, the BUF's paper. He had donated £50,000 to Mosley's New Party, the forerunner of the BUF, in 1931.
The Communist Party was transformed into a party of, workers. It had recruited inside the factory including five or six stewards. This was instrumental in organising and mobilising against the BUF.
Dave focuses his pamphlet around the Battle of Carfax, a BUF public meeting with Mosley on the platform. The 'battle' has been compared to the Olympia meeting where Mosley tried to pose his organisation as strong and disciplined, capable of 'dealing' with the working class. In the event the brutal handling of hecklers at the hands of the fascists saw Mosley lose, rather than gain, backing -including that of Lord Rothermere who had previously run a front page headline in the Daily Mail, 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts'.
Likewise the Carfax meeting was to address the likes of factory owners, councillors and prominent Conservatives. It ended in disaster for the BUF. The Communist Party demonstrated outside the meeting and was joined by local striking bus workers. The meeting itself degenerated into a fight. A heckler was 'ejected' but the brutality of the act angered workers who 'were there to defend anyone being' 'attacked by stewards.'
The press turned against Mosley. Thank God, Oxford is not likely to be impressed by the mechanical bleatings of this gimcrack fencing master.' Dave argues it was the role of the Communist Party and other anti-fascists who organised against the fascists which was key to smashing them. It is such organisation that remains key today. This little pamphlet is an enjoyable read and a useful supplement to the literature available on the fight against fascism in Britain.