James Turley reviews Nigel Copseys Contemporary British fascism Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, pp264, £19.99
The rise and rise of the British National Party is a source of much consternation in contemporary Britain, among bourgeois society and the left alike.
The BNP is viewed as a fascist interloper, sneaking into ‘mainstream’ politics with murderous intent. Yet there is remarkably little analysis of what it actually means to call a formation fascist, let alone whether the BNP fits the bill. The challenge of systematically accounting for fascist formations in the capitalist social order largely lies unfulfilled, despite interesting - if flawed - works in the post-war Marxist tradition, notably Nicos Poulantzas’s Fascism and dictatorship (1974).
Nigel Copsey, is reader in modern history at the University of Teeside - ie, a bourgeois academic. His book, while for the most part a work of contemporary British political history, does propose a theory of fascism which - he contends - includes the BNP. While fundamentally flawed, his analysis in this regard does highlight certain limitations to the ‘classic’ writings of the Marxist tradition; as such, it is worth closer examination.
The historical side to the book is perhaps the least controversial from our angle. Indeed, Copsey’s work provides a concise, but still detailed, history of the BNP, which is highly illuminating. He opens with a biographical sketch of John Tyndall, which pays great attention to his various political apprenticeships: he came into politics through the League of Empire Loyalists, a rabidly pro-imperialist ginger group on the fringes of the Tory Party. The LEL’s leader was AK Chesterton, cousin to the illustrious GK - while the latter was a rather lukewarm anti-Semite with Zionist leanings, the former was a full-blooded advocate of esoteric Jewish-conspiracy theories. In Copsey’s view, it is Chesterton’s influence that confirmed Tyndall as the virulent anti-Semite he remained until his death (p8).
Through the LEL, Tyndall met many future associates, including Martin Webster and Colin Jordan. Before long, all had tired of the LEL’s disorganised political work and ideological moderation (Jordan in particular, an overt neo-Nazi, chafed with the Tory-imperialist outlook). After a complicated series of factional struggles, Tyndall and Jordan were united in the 1960s incarnation of the BNP.
Within its ranks, an increasingly eccentric Jordan formed a hardened (if slightly self-parodic) SS-type organisation called Spearhead, including Tyndall - it is this group, and the self-explanatory National Socialist Movement that grew out of it, which would dog Tyndall for the rest of his career, photographic evidence of the stiff-arm-saluting Spearhead cadre providing precious ammunition to anti-fascists. Tyndall would later call it a “profound mistake” (p13). The shambolic end to the NSM resulted in the long run in Tyndall’s abandonment of ‘hard’ Nazism for the racialised British nationalism of the National Front and later the BNP.
The identification of Tyndall with this Nazi episode was convenient for the NF’s opponents. But Copsey points out that the ideas which made Jordan’s Nazism attractive - biological racism, anti-Semitism - had domestic sources apart from Hitlerism. Chesterton we have already noted, but the fascists of the 1950s-60s were also highly influenced by the racial pseudo-science of Arnold Leese (Jordan even charmed Leese’s widow into naming him his political heir (p9)). Tyndall was no exception.
Copsey’s view of the history of the BNP is highlighted by his subtitle - the British National Party and the quest for legitimacy. Tyndall is portrayed as flirting with the big time, but consistently falling back on ‘hard’ fascist ideology as a means of cementing his own power over the organisation. While in the 1980s the BNP could be viewed as a more ‘domesticated’ variant of fascism (as opposed to the bizarre flirtations with quasi-revolutionary third positionism and Strasserite ‘left’ Nazism favoured by different factions of the rump NF, of Italian and German extraction respectively).
It is the latter milieu in which the BNP’s current leader, Nick Griffin, cut his own political teeth. Again, Copsey’s biographical information is highly interesting, and goes into some detail on the esoteric lurches in the NF. The third positionists advocated the creation of a hardened cadre of ‘political soldiers’, entirely and superhumanly dedicated to the cause: their aim was to break down the global capitalist system, leaving all nations autarkic and self-determining. And they meant all nations - the August 1987 issue of National Front News declared in a headline, “Black is beautiful” (p45). Amazingly, this idea never achieved much traction among the broader far right …
Griffin’s ideologically protean character is infamous: mere months before outing himself as a BNP moderniser, he was editor of the holocaust-denial journal The Rune, and he was recruited into the BNP by Tyndall as a ‘hard-line’ supporter against the ‘modernising’ wing.
A key turning point is the first BNP victory in a local council seat, in a Millwall by-election in 1993. Copsey devotes a chapter to this episode, and the subsequent drop-off in support. Behind the apparent breakthrough lay a strategy of patient community organising among the white population of Tower Hamlets, a notoriously deprived borough racially divided primarily between whites and ethnic Bangladeshis.
The BNP’s efforts, however, began against the background of some very fishy manoeuvres from the mainstream parties. The Liberal Democrats in the area, in particular, had already been nicknamed ‘London’s secret racists’, for their covert appeals to the chauvinist insecurities of white residents about Bangladeshi immigration. For Copsey, the Lib Dems prepared the ground for the BNP, who only had to emerge as the ‘best fighters’ for ‘rights for whites’ (pp51-75). It is the generalisation of this strategy of building ‘legitimacy’ at the local level which, combined with the self-imposed moderation of the BNP’s public image, has enabled it to grow so powerful in this decade - but only against a background of a hysterical reactionary press, to which the political mainstream constantly panders (pp141-45).
In his analysis of fascism as such, Copsey is on shakier ground. He chooses to define it wholly in terms of ideology, attempting to identify fascism’s differentiae specificae in the tropes of its discourse.
He follows another academic, Cas Mudde, in defining the “extreme right” as uniting notions of “(ultra) nationalism, racism, xenophobia, anti-democracy and the strong state” (p78). Fascism takes this “to the revolutionary extreme”, advocating the overthrow of the existing regime (p79), thus distinguishing it from the neo-populist Front National in France and so forth, which prefer to “ethnically homogenise [liberal] democracy” rather than overthrow it (p80). From here, he arrives at the “consensus” definition of contemporary “fascist studies” - “an attempt to create a new form of post-liberal national community - an alternative modernity - by a movement or regime that aspires to the total or ‘totalitarian’ transformation of culture and society” (original emphasis, p81).
The primary weakness of Copsey’s approach is that, taken to its logical conclusion, it is little more than a taxonomical pedantry with no consequences for social theory. Thus the BNP - an analysis of a 2004 drive to formalise its ideology attests - falls under this ‘generic fascist’ definition, and the Italian Alleanza Nazionale does not. So what? It certainly appears in that case the ‘fascists’ are perfectly capable of assuming the political practice and public image of the ‘non-fascists’. Copsey behaves not so much like a political theorist or historian as an unimaginative literary critic.
For a definition to have theoretical value, it must generate perspectives which can orient practice. A Marxist approach is necessarily more dynamic. For the classic writings of Marxists on the subject, fascism is a conjunctural phenomenon, thrown up by the defeat of the revolution in western Europe. In the famous phrase of Clara Zetkin, fascism is “a punishment of the proletariat for failing to carry on the revolution begun in Russia” (www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1923/08/fascism.htm). Reactionary ideas traditionally associated with a decaying aristocracy coalesce in mass movements of a sometimes religious and always fanatically nationalistic character; the state monopoly of armed force breaks down, as the bourgeoisie becomes reliant on the paramilitary formations of the fascists. Fascism so comes to dominate anti-communist reaction in the period that even a Catholic military man like Francisco Franco adopts fascist ideology and absorbs Falangist militias into his forces.
Yet we are still talking about the 1920s and 30s here, where these ideas do orient practice; in many ways, and not least due to the political decrepitude of ‘official communist’ popular frontism, Marxist theory on the subject is put ‘on hiatus’, as it were, after the war. After the fascist countries are defeated in 1945, fascism is chased to the margins of politics throughout Europe. It no longer has the character of a mass movement. Yet the classical Marxist account is founded on its mass character.
Copsey correctly challenges any theory of fascism to account for “the post-Auschwitz period [which] has seen fascism adapting to pariah status” (p79). And we may concede to him that the momentousness of fascist power in its prime has attained a persistence through time with a heterogeneous yet closely related assemblage of ideological elements.
What, we can legitimately ask, does it all have to do with the price of eggs? Copsey’s answer is conterminous with his politics - a ‘revolutionary’ formation cannot be considered ‘legitimate’ by the regime it seeks to destroy; thus it provides a rationale for escalating state sanctions against the BNP (and who knows who else?). Alas, he opines, “given the rapid expansion of electronic media”, to “exclude its representatives from the mainstream social and political arena” is “not as easy as it once was” (p200). Instead, anti-fascists must tackle the BNP “head-on”: not with “physical force” (bad news for some on the left …), but by “setting the record straight” on the grievances exploited by the BNP, and winning its broader base back to liberal democracy (pp201-02). He also advocates an alternative vote system to replace the current first-past-the-post method (p202).
Obviously this answer is not good enough for communists - we do not want to win people to liberal democracy, but to its radical democratic negation; we certainly do not advocate electoral ‘reforms’ which are actually less democratic than the present system. However, the role of ideology in cohering the core of contemporary fascist organisations has to be acknowledged. BNP leader Nick Griffin, in his arguments over reforming his party, maintains the need to “teach the truth to the hardcore” - and, in fact, Copsey argues that the BNP set-up encourages this division between a hardened cadre base and a broader, more publicly respectable peripheral membership, through denying recruits full membership rights for several years (p171).
Yet this amounts to a serious contradiction in the BNP; it faces similar difficulties to many leftwing groups in maintaining a ‘hard’ ideological identity at variance with its political practice. The BNP is a fascist organisation; it is not simply that there are fascists in it, but the fascists in it form the leadership and party apparat, with the non-fascists kept sweet at arm’s length. Yet its fascism is itself in contradiction to its political strategy; either it will dissolve itself into the ‘mainstream’ far right, with the remaining fascist activists splitting off (as happened with the Italian AN), or its fascist character will ‘win’, and the party will be forced into a wrenching reorientation when the contradiction exacts its retribution.
The BNP will not simply trudge ever onwards, slowly increasing its vote, until - pouf! - we are under the iron heel of a motley crew of holocaust deniers, Islamophobes and chauvinist white van men. Its success is coterminous with the decline of bourgeois politics as a meaningful practice to large sections of society - particularly at the local level. In the bigger picture, the contradiction between capitalism’s immanently global nature and its parasitism on national state formations generates small far-right groups as a necessary excrescence; exactly how small depends on the conjuncture, and this happens to be a relatively propitious one, but panic over the BNP remains misplaced.
To cut off the BNP’s support in any serious way, we must build a serious political alternative to capitalism, which will empower the masses in their unity rather than set sections at odds with each other. In a word, we need to build a serious socialist movement which can challenge bourgeois hegemony, and as a consequence of that the fascist rodents nibbling at its heels. The conventional wisdom has it the other way round - and it must be abandoned. The system generates groups such as the BNP: defeating them amounts not to defending the system, but superseding it.