“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.”
He 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.
In 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.
Within 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.