A review of a book looking at militant anti-fascism in Britain in the 1940s.
Title We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post War Britain
Author Daniel Sonabend
Publisher Verso Books, 2019
ISBN 1788733266, 9781788733267
Length 384 pages
Fascism in its original manifestations didn’t come to power throughout Europe. There are many reasons why. One in the case of Britain is that there was a strong anti-fascist movement which helped beat them back. That the 1930s’ and 40s’ has been the main focus of attention among those studying the phenomenon is to be expected. That’s when Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany were in power. They had contact with sympathisers such as the British Union of Fascists (BUF) headed by the renegade aristocrat Oswald Mosley. By wars end, Europe was destroyed and millions of dead attested to the political bankruptcy of the fascist project. Yet supporters of Mosley began to regroup surprisingly soon after the collapse. ‘We Fight Fascists’ by Daniel Sonabend, looks at this lesser known period.
Daniel Sonabend was minding his own business when he received a call from a friend. The friend had just finished watching a documentary about the famous hair stylist Vidal Sassoon. Daniel is bald so he wondered why he was being told about this. It turned out that in his youth the Jewish Sassoon had been a member of an organisation called the ‘43 Group’. Between 1946-50 they had taken a militant stance of actively combatting neo-fascists on the streets of London and yet Daniel was both surprised not to have heard of the group and intrigued to learn more. Thus he embarked on 6 years of research that included checking archives and interviewing participants. The result is this book.
His central purpose is to relate forgotten events. He therefore doesn’t engage in highly analytical academic debates. There’s nothing wrong with those discussions, but this isn’t one. Daniel provides a chronologically linear narrative that is stylistically crisp. He assumes the reader has a good idea of what fascism is and that she is not in sympathy with it. There is no faux-balance or relativist bullshit on display. This clear stance and narrative approach geared to the general reader is good, though occasionally more exploration of certain events and their implications would have been welcome. Take for example, the invocation of the Public Order Act to prevent Mosley marching in 1948. What are the implications of allowing the state to determine which movements can act politically? It’s a serious point that isn’t addressed, the preference being to keep the story moving.
None of this means he lacks sophisticated understanding. For example, the writer recognises polls indicating that “In the 1940s the British public did not see Anti-semitism and fascism as inextricably linked, and so had no problem hating fascists and Jews in equal measure” (p.107). He also notes that the early re-grouping of Mosley’s acolytes is not as strange as it may at first seem. The poor economic conditions that prevailed in 1946 are significant. That year was one of the coldest on record and coal stockpiles had frozen. Rationing got worse and unemployment skyrocketed from 400,000 at the start of January to 1.75 million in February. Fascism elsewhere rose initially due to poor economic conditions and resentments. The situation in post-war Britain mimicked this in microcosm.
The strength of Daniel’s work is in his biographical portraits of the main players in the story that unfolds. In the clash between dedicated fascists and the 43 Group we are introduced to the aptly named (for an anti-semite) Jeffrey Hamm. He had been an unimportant follower of Mosley before the war. Post-war by sheer chutzpah he out-maneuvered his rivals for the mantle of acknowledged loyal retainer to Mosley and established a group called the British League of Ex-Servicemen. His own participation in an organisation with that name being ironic, given that Hamm had spent much of the war interned in a prison camp for Nazi sympathisers!
There were a number of other misfits, political spivs and ne’er-do-wells who accompanied Hamm around the country. They tried selling their tatty ideological rags on street corners and stood on makeshift outdoor platforms, spouting lies into the wind while being heckled. Well, not just heckled. They were physically prevented from speaking by the likes of Gerry Flamberg, the London-born son of Polish Jews. He was a tough ex-paratrooper who had fought hard during the war. He was joined by other young fighters such as Morris Beckman, Len Sherman and Alec Carson. They and dozens of others, chased Hamm and Mosley and their associates wherever they showed up in public. If it wasn’t for Sonabend’s account, it is likely that many of the participants (who are mostly now dead) would have their deeds forgotten. They weren’t famous, overly educated, articulate or rich, just ordinary folks who knew a bad thing when they saw it.
Physically attacking fascists was the most obvious public manifestation of the work the 43 Group did. It wasn’t the full picture. There is a danger that by only focusing on the dramatic fisticuffs it glorifies violence and ignores all the other hard work involved. As Sonabend acknowledges, the street fighters were actually part of a “…sophisticated, multifaceted, and highly effective organisation” (p. 127). A lot of the effort behind the scenes required meticulous note keeping and intelligence work monitoring the ordinary movements of the fascists. Standing on a rainy London street corner for hours just to see who came out of a house wasn’t glamorous but made a contribution to the struggle.
Others undertook gruelling undercover work as spies within the fascist organisations. The author doesn’t fall for a macho glorification of the job. As an example, he provides an account of the spying efforts of Wendy Turner. She gained a position as a secretary deep inside the Union Movement (UM) a successor organisation to the British League. She was clever and conscientious and helped the 43 Group in numerous ways. Unfortunately she committed suicide and Daniel comments “…it is clear that this bright, vivacious young woman was deeply traumatised by her experiences and likely never recovered from them” (p. 219). Again, without Daniel’s tome,it is probable such a worthy person would go unrecognised.
Eventually the 43 Group became a victim of its own success. The wider economic situation improved, tensions eased between Britain and the newly established state of Israel, Mosley changed ideological focus from narrow nationalism to a pan-European vision that alienated some supporters and the 43 Group had done an excellent job of tackling the fascists. The older members of the 43 Group began to feel exhausted and drifted into lives that were dominated by kids, mortgages and making a living. Eventually the group just faded away with a whimper rather than a bang, though leaving behind a mostly honourable record of activity.
We have to say mostly honourable because from an Anarchist or even generically radical Leftist position, there are some problematic aspects to how the 43 Group operated. They were ecumenical towards membership. The perception the fascists tried to give was that it was no more than a cabal of Jews and Communists. Its true there was a significant component of both those sectors within the membership. It would be strange if that wasn’t so in the circumstances of immediate post-war Britain. However, anybody was allowed membership. Many gentiles were involved and the Communists were occasional allies not controllers of the 43 Group. Political discussions beyond general anti-fascism were actively discouraged within the organisation, in the name of cohesion. Broad participation is important to avoid elitism within anti-fascist movements. However, this supposedly a-political position can lead to questionable habits. The 43 Group passed on intelligence to Special Branch and sometimes worked with individually sympathetic cops. Not something we can condone. Likewise, some of the attitudes of members on gender and sexual issues were no more progressive than the rest of the society of the time. So, it’s a mixed bag.
Daniel Sonabend has written a book that does justice to an unfairly neglected time period and movement. He shows the value of taking an axiomatically militant approach against fascism. That is, one that allows for the calibration of a response in tune with the size of the threat but never discounts Fascism itself. He also provides sobering accounts of the toll that this kind of activism can take. It’s a worthwhile endeavour but not an easy one. There are useful lessons for today’s anti-fascists in the experiences of the 43 Group that don’t confine its significance purely to the past. Their
story as outlined in ‘We Fight Fascists’ is well told and certainly worth reading.