Burning like a volcano under our feet

“Fascists resemble nothing so much as the Death Watch Beetle. Tirelessly they attack the great timbers of our society until the whole fabric is so riddled and honeycombed that the structure crashes on the heads of the people. As long as the are allowed to work, the Death Watch is in our own homes and in our own futures. They are capable of pulling down the whole of civilization in their effort to grab power.”

It is such a powerful metaphor. And astonishing too when I discovered that the author was barely 23 years old at the time it was written, in 1946. I found his pamphlet the other day, rummaging through archive materials on Post-war fascism at the Bishopsgate Institute Library.

The author continues: “Throughout Europe and Asia gas-chambers and mass graves were opened, families were torn apart, trade unions and hard-won freedoms were bloodily stamped out, our cultural inheritance was defiled and burnt. The trees in the parks of beautiful cities were turned into gallows, jackboots passed up and down under the windows at night”

In this searing account of the global destruction that fascism wreaked, it is the image of the trees transformed into gallows that is etched most powerfully and painfully in my mind. The writer’s own brother was brutally killed by fascism. He was on a parachute mission in Bulgaria during the war but was captured and executed by Bulgarian fascist forces. In the new post-war Bulgaria they erected a monument to him.

The writer of the pamphlet makes visible the combination of methods that bring fascist groups to power, as they opportunistically utilise any democratic outlet offered to them: “Fascists,” he says,  “have no use for the democratic rights which they demand for themselves. They prefer to gain power by lies, rumour-mongering, forgeries, intrigue, lead-piping and jackboots, assassination by terrorism, than by straight political argument. Once they seize power the whole force of the state is turned to organised gangsterdom.”

In 1946 he was recording the manner in which the British far right was beavering away,  reorganising itself, making one or two ostentatious appearances but keeping most of their activities “quiet and underhand”. He states, “…old supporters in business and political life, in the high ranks of the Services, on national and local newspapers and among spivs and drones of high society have been contacted once again. Chains of ‘study groups’ or ‘ex-service groups’ of dupes and criminals established.”

11e9ae26d492cff11a46fbbe83cb90cbHe notes that Britain’s pre-eminent fascist leader of the 1930s, Sir Oswald Mosley, who had led the British Union of Fascists, had formed a new “British Union” and was ready to work openly to rekindle his thwarted dreams, so rudely interrupted by a war with fascism.

In common with more than 1700 other suspected fascist fifth columnists, Mosley had been imprisoned for much of the war under a piece of quite draconian legislation – Rule 18b – but let out early protesting health problems. He feared that he would need to have a leg amputated because of thrombo-phlebitis, In December 1945, just months after fascism was defeated, the writer informs us that an 18b Reunion Dance had taken place at the Royal London Hotel.

He goes on to warn of the threat that a new fascist movement posed to Britain’s “glorious freedoms” which he reminds us, “were not written into the Magna Carta or granted from on high. They were wrested from the capitalists after bitter struggle by the people. By men like Thomas Hardy the shoemaker and Richard Carlile the bookseller. The right to vote was won by the Chartists and their successors, by the workers from the cotton mills of Lancashire, who met in torchlight demonstrations on the Moors”.  He adds that “these freedoms we have won are worth our care. We should defend them with inflexible purpose. We should deny them to fascists.”

The pamphlet closes with a call to action through a dire warning: “As long as capitalism and big business remain, and are threatened by the people, fascism burns like a volcano under our feet. We may block it here and there. But it will burn up again in another place.”

Who was this young writer?  Some readers may have guessed by now. I first knew him through his incredible work published in 1963 which I was reading in my student days in the late 1970s: The Making of the English Working class. His other great works included a biography of William Morris published in 1955, subtitled From Romantic to Revolutionary.

cndmarchIn addition to his written output, I admired him for his work in the peace movement, especially through CND.  I recall seeing images of him on a CND march (I was on the same march but sadly in a different section) where he and his close colleagues are parading under a banner with a slogan against nuclear destruction that only radical historians could have dreamed up: “We demand a continuing supply of history”

He is, of course, E P Thompson, the gifted writer and great campaigner who died far too young in 1993. He had begun his history studies at Cambridge, and was elected President of the Cambridge University Socialist Club at the age of 19 in 1942. He joined the Communist Party that same year.

IMG_2895Within the Party he added considerably to the work of an emerging group of brilliant historians who were Party members, who were articulating a “history  from below” that told the story of Britain through the struggles of ordinary people for social change. He left the Party in 1956 in the wake of the revelations about Stalin’s crimes and the invasion of Hungary, and then contributed much to the more radical New Left movement, that filled an intellectual vacuum as the Party declined. It was such a pleasure reading this incredible pamphlet penned when he was so young.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 years after Powell predicted rivers of blood

People remember Enoch Powell’s chilling “Rivers of Blood” speech delivered inpowellL0411_468x825 Birmingham on 20th April 1968, which happened to be on Hitler’s birthday. At that time Powell was a Conservative politician, and through that speech he deliberately set out to embolden already growing racist and anti-immigrant forces and spread fear through ethnic minority communities working all hours to eke out a living and provide better opportunities for their children. Intimidation and violence against those minorities inevitably followed in the weeks and months after that hair-raising speech. People, though, are far less familiar with Powell’s speech at a public event in Billericay, Essex, a decade later, on 10th June 1978. By then, of course, he was outside the ranks of the Conservatives and was representing Ulster Unionists in South Down. What happened the very next day may have just been a coincidence but on that occasion he talked explicitly about violence: “Violence,” he said, “does not break (out)… because it is willed, or contrived… but because it lies in the inevitable course of events.” He predicted that, within 20 years, “one third of the inner metropolis of key cities will have passed to the control of a population which by reason of the strongest impulses  and interests of human nature, neither can, nor will identify itself or be identified with the rest.”

He continued menacingly: “…those who foresaw and feared they would be swamped will be driven by equally strong impulses and interests to resist and prevent it.”

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Local NF leader Derrick Day and some of their followers at the corner of Brick Lane

For several months during 1978, there had been a regular National Front (NF) presence on Sunday mornings on the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane, right outside a shop selling camping equipment, which was owned by a middle-aged Jewish couple. The NF sold papers – usually National Front News and sometimes Holocaust News. They set up a bookstall with choice titles such as Did 6 Million Really Die? and shouted abusive racist slogans. All within a stone’s throw of two Jewish-run beigel shops and the groceries and cafes that the newly-settled Bengali population had established in this section of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End.

Many of the fascists who gathered on that corner were relatively local, from Hoxton and Shoreditch. And their threatening mob included more and more young skinheads as the numbers grew generally and as their own influence among skinheads increased. But fascist supporters were also coming there from out of the area – from Hackney, Tottenham, and into Essex.

On 11th June, 1978, just 24 hours after Powell’s incendiary Billericay speech, the NF concluded their gathering that day with a terrifying rampage down Brick Lane. Some 150 skinheads, grabbing  bottles, bricks and rubble as they went, smashed windows, threw bottles and lumps of concrete, and chanted hate slogans while attacking people in their way. In a manner reminiscent of the response to the outrage against worshippers near two Finsbury Park mosques very recently, some of the attackers in June ’78 were kettled and held by the community until the police arrived. The police made a tiny number of token arrests.

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Altab ali

This was just five weeks after Altab Ali, a 24-year-old Bengali clothing worker had been stabbed to death on his way home from work by a teenage gang whose minds had been poisoned by the NF’s racism. After Ali’s death, protesters held a huge march to Downing Street behind his coffin. A range of Bengali and anti-racist organisations were created especially among the youth, and they challenged both the fascists and the wider racist atmosphere the fascists were benefiting from.

Just two days after the rampage, anger was expressed not just on the streets, but in a public hall – the Montefiore Centre on Hanbury Street off Brick Lane. The anger was directed that night not principally at the NF but at a harebrained scheme to make Bengalis safer from racist attacks, dreamed up quite a distance from the East End  in County Hall by the Conservative controlled Greater London Council (GLC). They proposed to create Bengali-only estates. Bengali organisations and spokespersons had certainly demanded better, safer housing and had expressed a wish to live near each other, but no Bengali organisation had asked for segregated or ghettoised housing. They wanted to live on multi-racial estates building good and lasting relations with their neighbours.

These explosive situations occurred in a tumultuous decade of East End history. During that decade, as around 15,000 new Bengalis immigrants supplemented the 3,000 or so who had already settled by the end of the 1960s, the overall population of the borough of Tower Hamlets plummeted to its 20th century low – just 139,000 people. The boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney, which were amalgamated into Tower Hamlets in 1965, were home to nearly 500,000 people in the late 19th century, when the wealthy Victorian businessman-cum-social researcher Charles Booth was tramping the streets gathering demographic data.

From the 1980s that population grew again, not least as the fairly recently settled Bengali population had children, and more families were reunited. But the social, economic and cultural dislocation of that decade – white flight to Essex and Kent as the Bengali population grew substantially; the loss of half the remaining jobs on the London docks; the closure of longstanding local firms – created an environment in which groups like the NF with their scapegoating methods could flourish, and malevolent politicians within the mainstream, such as Powell added to the incitement.

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Brick Lane late 1970s through the eyes of the artist and activist Dan Jones

Fast forward to today and the very recent penchant for acid attacks which has included those in East London, some of which have been carried out for reasons of Islamophobic race hate. And the police, for all their experience of race attacks, still remain so slow to acknowledge that element when it is obviously there. Though, it is true that the majority of attacks are not on Muslims specifically but on a wider category, the poor and economically marginalised of all communities black, brown and white, including for example Latin American migrant workers most likely raised as Catholics, who are compelled to take risky precarious work as moped-riding delivery drivers. Other victims have been white middle-class moped riders using them as a lifestyle choice. Many attacks are being used to steal mopeds which are favoured vehicles by drugs gangs for quick sales and quick getaways.

And, Tower Hamlets residents continue to face housing problems. Bangladeshi Muslims in East London make up a significant proportion of those who face a housing crisis today, but it is  one that is less concerned with physical safety from racists than a crisis fuelled by increasing gentrification of the area’s prime sites, with its knock-on effects on the prices of everything and the reduction of public housing stock.

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Demonstration 1978: youth in the forefront

However, as we face our current troubles, we still have so much to learn from the experiences of those populating the streets in and around Brick Lane in the 1970s, not least about the spirit of resistance, solidarity and determination to bring about change that was so much in evidence then and ultimately pushed the fascists away.

The story of this dramatic decade is the subject of my newest walk, which will be having  its third outing on the morning of Sunday 30th July. Further details and booking information are here:

Battleground Brick Lane 1970s is a 2.5 hour guided walk through a dramatic decade in the life of the East End and London as a whole, taking place next on 30th July. Fee £8 (£5 unwaged). Book online at: http://www.eastendwalks.com/?page_id=82

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entering the House with honest intentions?

It’s an important political anniversary today. Exactly 125 years ago, on 4 July, 1892, voting began in the General Election that saw the first two socialist MPs elected to Parliament. They were James Keir Hardie in West Ham and John Burns in Battersea. Both came from backgrounds vastly different to most of the puffed up toffs they would be sitting among. The moment they both entered parliament was captured in a beautiful observation by the extraordinary socialist and feminist activist Charlotte Despard. I will come back to that later as it has a bearing on current political arguments.

IMG_4832So who were these two new kids on the Westminster block? John Burns was one of 16 children born in Lambeth to a Scottish father and English mother. After his father disappeared from the scene, John Burns’ mother moved the family into a basement in  Battersea. Burns left school at 10 to be apprenticed as an engineer.  One of his fellow workers was Victor Delahaye – an exiled Paris Communard who became Burns’ early political mentor.  In the early 1880s Burns helped form the Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The SDF was Britain’s first Marxist organisation.

Henry Snell described Burns as “one of the SDF’s best speakers…(whose) power as a popular street-corner orator was probably unequalled in that generation. He had a voice of unusual range… and he possessed great physical and nervous vitality. His method of attracting a crowd was, immediately he rose to speak, and for one or two minutes only, to open all the stops of his organ-like voice. The crowd once secured, his vocal energy was modified, but his vitality and masterful diction held his audience against all competitors.” The trade unionist Tom Mann said Burns’ voice “could fill every part of the largest hall or theatre, and, if the wind were favourable, could reach a 20,000 audience in the parks”.

Burns took up many causes and was especially committed to demonstrations about unemployment. In 1887 he began leading processions of unemployed workers to Sunday services at fashionable London churches. In my book Rebel Footprints I highlighted an  occasion in St. Paul’s Cathedral where Reverend Gifford began preaching against socialism at a service when John Burns was present. According to reports, “Burns promptly rose to his feet and sang a socialist parody of a well-known hymn. A ‘disturbance’ inevitably followed.”

When Burns stood for parliament in 1892 he had the backing of local socialists and trade unionists but also the local Liberal association: what some might call a “progressive alliance”.

Unlike Burns, Keir Hardie had no formal schooling at all, bHardie_electut his mother taught him to read and write. His working life also began at the age of 10 – down the mines. Just like  Burns, though, he became a well-respected orator at a relatively young age, highlighting the grievances of miners in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. As he began exploring political parties and groups he initially hoped that the Liberals would be able to enact social change that would benefit workers, but came to the stark conclusion that “we need a Labour Party to replace the historic Liberal Party”.

So what did Charlotte Despard actually say on that day in July 1892? She had been less impressed than many others by Burns’ claims that he stood above all for the needs of the “common people” and his declaration that “I am not ashamed to say I am the son of a washerwoman”. He had also stated “The better the dress and position, the bigger the snob and the greater the rogue.” And yet, as Despard observed, while they were filing into the newly elected Parliament in that summer of 1892, Keir Hardie wore plain simple clothes and a cloth cap, whereas “Burns wore an exclusive suit paid for by his supporters”. This surely told us something. In the years that followed Keir Hardie consolidated the Independent Labour Party with its principled ethical socialism, but Burns edged closer and closer to the Liberal Party hierarchy, finally accepting a Liberal Party Cabinet post in 1906. Despard was neither shocked nor surprised by this “development”.

by Mrs Albert Broom, cream-toned velox print, 1900-1925That 1892 election did hold one surprise though. In Finsbury Central the liberals beat the Tories by a whopping majority of three votes and returned the first Asian MP to Westminster – a Parsee named Dadabhai Naoroji who had been one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. When Naoroji chased a seat in a neighbouring constituency at the previous election, Lord Salisbury had said, “I doubt whether we have yet got to that point of view where a British constituency will take a black man to represent them.”  This time around, in a letter to The Times, Sir Lepel Griffin, a former colonial administrator in the Punjab, described Naoroji as “an alien in race, in custom, in religion, destitute of local sympathy or local knowledge,” and claimed that “no more unsuitable representative could be imagined or suggested.” Griffin described Parsees as “the Jews of India”. That was not intended as a compliment.
dadabhai-naoroji

Naoroji stood for the Liberals when Parliamentary elections were principally a two-horse race of Tories and Liberals. Burns and Keir Hardie broke the mould with openly socialist programmes. Naoroji had close associates well to the left of the Liberals, but was unlikely to get anywhere near succeeding without the endorsement of a more mainstream party.

What to make of the Liberals or as they are now – Lib Dems. In the last two months some of my friends have been urging me to see them as potential partners in a “progressive alliance”. Unlike John Burns I have recoiled from that, basically not trusting them as far as I could spit (not very far these days). Just after the election I told these friends to expect the Tories to stitch up a new grubby deal with the Lib-Dems. Instead we had an even grubbier deal with the DUP, but just this morning it has emerged that the Tories have indeed also been having behind the scenes talks with the Lib-Dems. I am about as surprised as Charlotte Despard was about Burns throwing in his lot with that band of opportunists.