Friday, October 06, 2023

100 years of anti-fascism in Britain

Mussolini's ascent to power in Italy in 1922 was the start of a terrible period in European history, followed by similar far right dictatorships in Germany, Spain, Romania, Hungary and other places - leading to war and genocide. Mussolini's admirers in Britain set up their first organisation, the British Fascisti, in 1923. There was opposition from the start, so 2023 marks the centenary of  both organised fascism and anti-fascism in Britain.

In his excellent  history of 'Anti Fascism in Britain', Nigel Copsey dates anti-fascism here from efforts to disrupt the founding meeting of the British Fascisti in London's Hyde Park in 1923: 'The roots of Britain's anti-fascist tradition can be traced back to 7 October 1923, when Communists disrupted the inaugural meeting of the British Fascisti (BF). This rally of Britain's first fascist organisation, attended by some 500 people, ended in 'pandemonium'. Two further meetings, both held in November 1923 in London's Hammersmith, were also disrupted'. These early British fascists were a wannabe paramilitary outfit with a main focus on anti-communism and defending King, Country and Empire (with anti-semitism never far behind). 

Their public launch in October 1923 followed several months of secretive organising but it was described in the Daily Herald (8 October 1923) as 'British Fascisti's Comic Show' interrupted by hecklers:

There does seem to have been a slightly earlier anti-fascist effort in London associated with the milieu around Sylvia Pankhurst's Women's Dreadnought (later Workers Dreadnought) paper. Sylvia, the most radical of the famous suffragette family, had by this point helped established a Communist Workers Movement independent and critical of the mainstream Bolshevik inspired Communist International.

In March 1923 Sylvia Pankhurst spoke at 'A protest meeting against the fascist reaction in Italy' held at Signor Dondi's Club in Clerkenwell (Eyre Street Hill).  Also on the bill was Pietro Gualducci, a long term anarchist exile in London  who had once been jailed in Italy for singing anarchist songs.The paper also advertised 'Il Comento', an Italian anti-fascist newspaper. 

In May 1923 it was reported that 'An Anti-Fascist Organisation, specially appealing to young people between 15 and 30 has been formed. It proposes to attend demonstrations, carry banners. collect, sell literature, and so on  on. It will organise classes and meetings for the young. A Red Shirt uniform is being discussed. Secretary, Mr H . T. Noble. 157 Church Street, Stoke Newington'. Copsey dates the first anti-fascist organisation to 1924 when the People's Defence Force was established in Soho, but this seems to predate that. How long it lasted is unclear but this does seem to be the first specifically anti-fascist organisation in Britain.

Interesting to see that the Dreadnought crew held a series of jazz dances in this period at Circle Gaulois in Archer Street off Shaftesbury Avenue. The fascists too were dancing, with a Black Shirt Gala Ball  held at the Cecil Hotel in the Strand with Italian fascists and their supporters  in February 1923.

[sorry to have missed Alfio Bernabei’s exhibition “Sylvia and Silvio” is at the Charing Cross Library earlier this year, which covered some of the above - see his article here]

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