Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Mosley's BUF and the Narrative of Victimisation



A recent discussion about ANTIFA and its viability brought an interesting article from History Today, to my attention. User Jondwhite shared it as they believed it supported their overall point that physical resistance isn't effective. The article does give that tone though I'm not really sure that was what the author was going for. However I do think its worth reading and I especially think certain sections of it are really important even the author doesn't seem to have been fully aware of the implications.

The argument goes that contrary to common belief the defeat of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) on the 4th of October 1936 marked a terminal decline for the movement the publicity generated from that defeat helped them resurge. There is evidence that the BUF membership increased after the events of Cable Street and that anti-Semitic attacks increased in the following years. For example this passage seems fairly conclusive and damming

In its monthly report on extremist political activity Special Branch observed in October ‘abundant evidence that the Fascist movement has been steadily gaining ground in many parts of east London’. Its sources suggested an influx of over 2,000 new recruits in the capital, a considerable boost given that party membership in London had stood at less than 3,000 earlier in the year.In the week after Cable Street the BUF ‘conducted the most successful series of meetings since the beginning of the movement’, attracting crowds of thousands and little opposition. Mosley made an ‘enthusiastically received’ address to an audience of 12,000 at Victoria Park Square, which was followed by a peaceful march to nearby Limehouse. By contrast the Communists’ efforts to consolidate their victory had ‘met with a very poor response’. ‘A definite pro-Fascist feeling has manifested itself’, the Special Branch report concluded: ‘The alleged Fascist defeat is in reality a Fascist advance.’


However that isn't the full picture and the part that's overlooked in this narrative I think is the really important dimension in the argument of whether victimisation is real and what role it actually plays in our responses to Fascism.

The article explains the growth as such (emphasis mine)


In this context Cable Street simply thrust the BUF back into the limelight after two years of relative national obscurity and provided it with a stage on which to play out its claims of victimhood. This, Mosley argued, had been a perfectly lawful procession, sanctioned by the authorities. The East End housed the core of his supporters. They had every right peacefully to express their political beliefs, yet had been forcibly prevented from doing so by a disorderly mob. This portrayal of events clearly struck a chord with many locals. In an internal document the Fascists observed that the ‘strong sense of local patriotism’ in the East End had been ‘gravely offended by the rioting of Jews and Communists last October ... [which] was felt as a disgrace to the good name of east London’.



The bit in bold is I think the key here, they experienced growth not out of a sense of general sympathy and love of freedom of speech, but anti-Semitism. The East End was the part of the UK with the largest Jewish community and the area with most racial and anti-Semitic tensions. This is why Moseley chose the route of the march in October to go straight through predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods, the party had embraced a platform of xenophobia and anti-Semitism and it wanted to win support from the hostile local "native" British population.

Mosley’s adoption of antisemitism in 1934 was from the outset portrayed not as a choice but as a move forced upon him by Jews themselves. ‘Small’ Jews had attacked the Blackshirts in the street and invaded their meetings, while ‘big’ Jews financed the anti-fascist  movement and used their wealth and influence to turn the media and government against the BUF. It had also become clear, Mosley alleged, that Jews were the power behind Fascism’s two chief adversaries: international finance and Communism.

Even the article supports the assertion that this post Cable Street growth was tied heavily to exploitation of anti-Semitism by the BUF.

Cable Street – the most substantial manifestation of Jewish anti-fascism to date – fitted the BUF’s narrative perfectly. The internal publication mentioned above noted with satisfaction that ‘the impudent use of violence ... to deny east Londoners the right to walk through their own part of London ... [had] sent a wave of anti-Jewish resentment’ through the area. Speakers were advised that propaganda should take advantage of this fact.
The demonstration was immediately branded by the BUF as ‘Jewry’s biggest blunder’, while the police were accused of ‘openly surrender[ing] to alien mobs’. It was claimed that ‘financial democracy’ and ‘Soviet-inspired Communists’ had colluded to inhibit legitimate activity by ‘British patriots’ in the East End. As a result, the district had in effect been ‘handed over ... as the Jews’ own territory’. It was time, the BUF declared, for the true British people to reclaim their land. Such appeals were well received. Special Branch recorded that among the cohort of new Fascist recruits were a ‘large number of gentiles with grievances against the Jews’.
However the case is more substantial, the post Cable street growth of the BUF was almost exclusively limited to the East End of London. Its branches outside of it seem to have continued to stagnate or collapse. The article quotes an Exeter BUF member remarking about Cable street "now we have active opposition in Exeter I think we shall make great progress there" but that doesn't seem to have been the case at all. The BUF didn't see much of a revival in Devon, its peak in the area was a 1,000 strong branch in Plymouth which collapsed in 1934, Exeter never exceeded this, the most high profile event they managed in this period seems to have been a speech by Mosley in 1937 which had an attendance of around 1,500. But despite his speech viciously attacking Jews and happening in the aftermath of Cable street and the local BUF having to resort to police protection from anti fascists it doesn't seem to have led to much of a revival of BUF fortunes.

An excerpt of that speech
http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_events/british-union-fascists.php
“We say that Jews may not stay in this country organising as a State within the State, setting the interest of their own race above the interest of the nation as a whole. Therefore such Jews will have to leave Great Britain, and I do not disguise the opinion that the only final solution for the Jewish problem of the world is for the Jews should go together to another land in one of the many unpopulated ares of the world and become themselves a nation.”

In Liverpool the BUF remained so small and weak that in 1937 it couldn't even hold a public demonstration without it being completely disrupted and overwhelmed.

 So if the violent confrontations in Cable street were so disastrous for anti-fascism because they gave the BUF its victimisation validation, why the drastically different fortunes in different parts of the UK? The fighting on Cable street were filmed, photographed and recorded and became national news, that's partly how its become so iconic, so we should've seen a general trend of revitalisation but at best we see a localised surge and continued stagnation elsewhere. The only real difference is the fertile soil the BUF's anti-Semitic platform could find in the East End but it wasn't as attractive a message elsewhere. If violent confrontation and victim framing were the key then the BUF would have been far stronger as national organisation it faced direct opposition in nearly all localities that it had a presence in, but in many areas the pressure and defeats seem to have proven the Exeter Black shirt wrong, they didn't make great progress at all.



On Olympia

There is another plank in this argument though, the events two years early at the Olympia Hall meeting. A group of anti-fascist protestors including Vera Brittain, Richard Sheppard and Aldous Huxley managed to get into the meeting and started heckling Moseley. In response Black shirt stewards physically assaulted many of them and ejected them. Several of them were severely injured, it was what we now call a PR disaster for the BUF. A lot of their respectable supporters like the Daily Telegraph which had been rather kind in its coverage previously

Margaret Storm Jameson pointed out in The Daily Telegraph: "A young woman carried past me by five Blackshirts, her clothes half torn off and her mouth and nose closed by the large hand of one; her head was forced back by the pressure and she must have been in considerable pain. I mention her especially since I have seen a reference to the delicacy with which women interrupters were left to women Blackshirts. This is merely untrue... Why train decent young men to indulge in such peculiarly nasty brutality?"

But not all of them though, the Daily Mail stuck by them

George Ward Price
"If the Blackshirts movement had any need of justification, the Red Hooligans who savagely and systematically tried to wreck Sir Oswald Mosley's huge and magnificently successful meeting at Olympia last night would have supplied it. They got what they deserved. Olympia has been the scene of many assemblies and many great fights, but never had it offered the spectacle of so many fights mixed up with a meeting."

The numbers declined quite badly, but curiously the BUF did experience a bump in new memberships 

After the Olympia meeting, for example, although respectable supporters abandoned the BUF in droves, there was also a short-term influx of new recruits angry at attempts to silence Mosley.
What we have here with Olympia is another example of an event affecting different sections of the population differently. People who agreed with the BUF's then largely economic platform but weren't ok with the BUF's increasing violence or growing anti-Semitism left the party, but in exchange it attracted people who were on-board with this political realignment. The same thing happened after Cable street, a large mobilisation against the Jewish community and a demonstration of the power of that community attracted thousands of anti-Semites to the BUF. This is the crux of the victimisation narrative, its not that a far right movement is losing a fight that attracts some people to the far right. Its that in getting into a fight and losing to a minority group or radical leftist current they are appealing to and alarming that segment of the population that largely agreed with them anyway.

Local Anti-Semites rallied to the BUF in the aftermath of Cable street because they saw it as a champion of their interests and their community. If you see a group of violent reactionaries getting driven off and you feel sympathetic for them and not the community they were terrorising then you're probably a fellow traveller yourself.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Guilt by Association: Weak Arguments Then and Now

"Never had a Revolution more surprised the revolutionaries" Benoit Malon






A few days ago twitter user Jehu provided a crystal clear example of a really poor arguing style that is sadly very common in political debate and squabbling. That is a form of guilt by association, here we have Jehu blaming Bakunin for the Paris Commune and its subsequent defeat. The evidence is that Bakunin called for a workers insurrection and in March of 1871 the Parisian working class districts rose up, ousted their government and proclaimed a city wide Commune.

The problem here is that its merely an allegation, there's no substantive proof to any of it. This was the start of a 250+ tweet thread and in not one of them does Jehu provide by explanation or a link any proof that Bakunin led the workers of Paris to anything. There's two very serious flaws here, the first is that this is a complete misrepresentation of Paris in 1870-71 and the events that led to the founding of the Commune, and its not even an accurate summary of Bakunin's advocacy of insurrection. I'll deal with the second first quickly.

Bakunin didn't urge the workers of Paris to rise up against their government, he urged all workers to rise up against all governments. For example in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war he denounced the German Social Democrats for trying to build a national coalition of German workers and its plans for building a German state precisely because this would hinder the ability of German workers to fight a class war in alliance with the workers of other nations.

If, in case of conflict between two states, the workers would act in accordance with Article 1 of the social-democratic program, they would, against their better inclinations, be joining their own bourgeoisie against their fellow workers in a foreign country. They would thereby sacrifice the international solidarity of the workers to the national patriotism of the State. This is exactly what the German workers are now doing in the Franco-Prussian War. As long as the German workers seek to set up a national state – even the freest People’s State – they will inevitably and utterly sacrifice the freedom of the people to the glory of the State, socialism to politics, justice and international brotherhood to patriotism. It is impossible to go in two different directions at the same time. Socialism and social revolution involve the destruction of the State: – consequently, those who want a state must sacrifice the economic emancipation of the masses to the political monopoly of a privileged party.
Now the example here is particular, the workers of the German states, but its still linked to the need for an international workers revolt. He was consistent on the need for working class internationalism even when speaking about individual sections of it.

 So even on the superficial man said something, then thing like that happened level this is an incorrect argument. Now onto the heart of the matter.

There is absolutely no evidence that Bakunin was a major influence on the workers of Paris in 1870-71. There was an Anarchist and an insurrectionist current active at that time in Paris that did have influence and support amongst some of the population but the Anarchists were supporters of Proudhon's Mutualism, (in most historical texts they're referred to as Proudhonists), and the Insurrectionists were supporters of the Communist Auguste Blanqui. Bakunin's supporters were part of the French section of the International Workingmen's Association (IWMA) and at that time they sat and organised with the other tendencies within it including the supporters of Marx. Officially the view of Marx held the most weight within the group and they as an organisation urged the workers of Paris to be restrained and patient.

Though a few like Eugene Varlin did take part in anti government demonstrations.



Blanqui on the other hand was an enthusiastic supporter of  insurrection, and quite an influence on the Commune. He was declared in absentia because he was in prison the President of the Commune, his supporters were elected to it, and the Commune was willing to trade all of its hostages for Blanqui, the government of Theirs declined.

His believe in the power of insurrection by a small revolutionary elite was so great that he tried to engineer an insurrection on the 14th of August 1870. It failed very quickly, because it had no support, Balnqui and his members were literally expecting the army and the workers of the district of Belleville to join his armed demonstration. It didn't work. The uprising against the Bonaparte regime three weeks later (September fourth 1870) doesn't seem to have had any instigation from the Blanqui current, though he did become notable in the insurrection of October 31st as one of a group of revolutionaries who briefly toppled the government before troops loyal to General Trochu restored power to the "Government of National Defence". His constant pushing for armed insurrection was considered dangerous enough to get on the most wanted list, and he was arrested on the 17th of March a whole day before the insurrection that lead to the creation of the Paris Commune.

So we know that Blanqui was a tireless advocate of insurrection and was present at several abortive attempts before March 18th 1871. And yet there is no evidence that Blanqui had much of an impact on that day either. Blanqui was quite curious for a Communist, he believed the working classes couldn't achieve revolution on their own and had to be lead by a small elite of the enlightened middle class. And I do mean small, I've seen one figure put the party membership as high as 800 in 1868 with a few fellow travellers, and that was all in Paris. That's the reason why the insurrection in August was a failure Blanqui and his comrades had just assumed the workers of Paris would rally to them once they started the insurrection, they didn't actually know that the workers would support them. It may seem contradictory given how prominent the Blanquists were once the Commune got going but its easy to explain. Blanqui had spent most of his life denouncing a series of governments that were seen as corrupt and brutal, and championing the poor. He had also tried multiple times to topple these governments and took part in these attempts at uprising taking on great risks and suffered many punishments, spending over half his life in various prisons.

To quote from one of his many court appearances:

I am accused of having said to 30 million French people, Proletarians like myself, that they have the right to live... Yes, there is a war between the rich and the poor, but the rich have brought it on themselves because they are the aggressors... These privileged people live in luxury from the sweat of the Proletariat.
As such Blanqui the man was well known to political circles and had a lot of respect, but his methods and the groups paternalistic ideology doomed it to futility. Its no accident that Blanqui and his party did better in the October insurrection and the Paris Commune, these were general revolts with the support of other groups and individuals, while solo attempts at action like in August fizzled out very quickly.

So if Blanqui and Bakunin didn't lead the working class to slaughter, who did? The answer is simply no one. The Paris Commune is one of those events that's been celebrated by so many (Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Trotsky, CLR James, Gluckstein, etc) that it's easy to forget how it actually happened.



How it Actually Happened
 Image result for paris commune montmartre

On the 18th of March 1871 the people of Paris awoke to find a hostile army had seized the heights of Montmartre, they captured and killed several guardsmen and were busy trying to seize the cannons on the heights and thus disarm the defences of the city. The army was lead by a General who was known to have carried out massacres in French cities under his control. Of course this wasn't the triumphant Prussians, they were the French army lead by General  Clément-Thomas and the massacres he was infamous for happened in Paris in 1848.

Alarmed the workers of the Montmartre district -many of whom were women and children not exactly typical acolytes of radical political insurrectionist cells- rose up with what weapons they could muster and attacked this threat. Fortunately the rank and file of this army refused the orders to fire and the opposition collapsed. The Generals Clément-Thomas and Lacomte who had ordered his troops to fire on the workers of Montmartre were executed instead.

The revolt spread from Montmarte, the National Guard threw its support behind it and the standing army left in Paris either fled or surrendered, soon a demonstrators and guardsmen had occupied the abandoned government buildings and the Commune was declared. While its possible that Bakunin and Blanqui and Marx and Proudhon et al may have inspired some Parisian workers before hand there is no escaping the simple fact that the insurrection was an act of defence against an already hostile and murderous regime. No one lead the workers of Montmartre on the 18th of March they discovered a threat and defended themselves, and in the process toppled what was left of the government. The only conspiracy was the secret plans by the French General Staff to reinforce their hold on Paris. It caught everyone by surprise. The quote at the top comes from the socialist Benoit Malon, who was in Paris at the time and would serve on the Commune Council.

The IWMA the organisation that included Marx and Bakunin and their supporters in Paris, was caught so unaware by the events that the first official comments by the organisation were made on the 23rd five days later.

Funnily enough what the user Jehu, is doing is just what the reactionary press did to Marx in the aftermath of the Commune. He was repeatedly accused of planning an insurrection and of being responsible for the damage and bloodshed that followed. He responded to these allegations in an interview with a reporter from the New York World.

I: And the last uprising in Paris?
Dr. Marx: First of all I would ask you to prove that there was any kind of a conspiracy and that everything which occurred was not simply the inevitable result of the existing circumstances. And even if we assume that there was a conspiracy, I would still ask you to prove to me that the International Association took part in it.

I: The presence of so many members of the Association in the Commune.

Dr. Marx: Then it could just as easily have been a conspiracy of Freemasons, for their individual part in it was not small by any means. I really would not be surprised if the Pope did try to push the whole uprising onto their account. But let us try to find another explanation. The uprising in Paris was carried out by the Parisian workers. The most capable workers must therefore have been the ones who led it and carried it out; yet the most capable workers are also members of the International Association. But nevertheless, the Association need not be responsible for their actions in any way.

I: The world will look at it through different eyes. People are talking about secret instructions from London and even about financial assistance.Can it be maintained that the allegedly open activity of the Association rules out any secret communications?

Dr. Marx: Has there ever been an association which carried out its work without having confidential as well as open communications? But to speak of secret instructions from London as if it were a question of decrees in questions of belief and morals, emanating from some centre of papal rule and intrigue, would be to completely misunderstand the nature of the International. This would presuppose a centralised form of government in the International; in reality, however, the organizational form of the International gives the greatest scope to the working class; it is more of a union or an association than a centre of command.
The allegation of a conspiracy regardless of alleged mastermind is just a form of red baiting, by blaming internal dissent on outside agitators. So we should be very wary of those who use this tactic especially when corroborating evidence is not forthcoming.

Conclusion

Does this matter outside of this narrow subject? I would say yes, what the press of the 1870's and Jehu are doing is a form of guilt by association to discredit a view or tendency they don't like. You may think its a bit silly comparing an international press to one user on twitter and I agree, but like I said at the beginning this is just one example of very common practice in discourse. Its not really the size of the influence or even the subject at hand, I just picked this one because I know a lot about the Paris Commune so its easy for me to show the problems with it here.

This practice when used actively strangles debate and education. It actively spreads disinformation and makes it harder to learn lessons from the past. This doesn't help anyone at all. Even if you hate Marx or Bakunin or just disapprove of insurrection in general this tactic doesn't help you, you don't learn anything much about either you just get some emotional reassurance.


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