Anti-Fascism in Twentieth Century Britain

The 1930s saw the very serious threat of fascism in Britain. This led to the growth of anti-fascism among the left, which differed significantly between the Labour Party and the Communist Party. The main source of disagreement was the fact that the Labour Party believed in the principle of liberal democracy, and that preserving this would maintain the strength of the state, making it difficult for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascism (BUF) to sew the seeds of division among the working class. In contrast, the Communist Party believed that the rise of fascism, in fact, had much to do with the state, as structural inequality, and capitalism in crisis had given rise to fascism in continental Europe. Thus, the most effective manner in combatting fascism was through militarisation, as social revolution was a viable antidote to these problems. Before we assess these differing theories, I would recommend my first blog post to you, as it discusses some of the terms that will be mentioned in this blog, such as W.U.N.C, which may sound like bogus otherwise.

To begin with, let us see the Labour Party’s response to the rise of fascism in Britain. As mentioned earlier, their aim was to use the strength of the state to undermine the fascist movement. However, in addition to this, they were in opposition to the Communist Party, claiming that they were just as divisive a force as the fascists. In wanting to preserve the strength of democracy in Britain, they argued that the communists posed a threat of dictatorship as well as the fascists, and thus, were not allies they wanted in this battle.

Labour argued that fascism would grow where ‘the tradition of parliamentary democracy was not well-established’ (Michael Newman). Following the Battle of Cable Street, we can see Labour’s commitment to a strong state structure, through their support for the Public Order Act. The Act was created to repel extremist political groups such as Mosley’s BUF, and banned for example, wearing political uniforms in public meetings. (To refer back to my first blog, one form of symbolising Unity according to Charles Tilly, in a social movement is through matching uniforms or colours e.g. Blackshirts). Labour’s support for the Act however, was not only influenced by their belief in the state. There was another factor behind their support for greater state powers. They were of the view that the militarisation of politics would lead to greater enmity and division among the working class, and that this would only strengthen the fascist movement, hence their purposeful political distancing from the Communists.


In contrast to the Labour Party, the Communist Party was of the opinion that the real cause of fascism was not weak democracy, but actually a result of capitalism in crisis. As the crisis deepened, the state would resort to more draconian forms of control to repel opposition and discord, and thus, it was important to combat the legitimacy of the state. The use of the state against fascism was counter-productive in the Communist Party’s eyes, as the defeat of fascism would see the rise of greater private invasion by the state, and the erosion of freedom. Their opposition to the ruling class is clear, and fair. It must be remembered that at this time, the racist and oppressive British Empire ruled harshly over its colonies, and had itself committed atrocities throughout them, such as the Amritsar Massacre.

For the Communist Party, the more effective manner in dealing with fascism, was through the militarisation of the working class, and through street demonstrations. They argued that the Battle of Cable Street was a great example in showing how the fascists could be fought. By using Tilly’s W.U.N.C model, we can see in hindsight, that the Communist Party approach successfully combined N (Numbers) and C (Commitment). This is due to the fact they were successful in mobilising the working-class, as can be seen through the fact that the BUF’s attempts at penetrating the trade unions failed. Through the Cable Street battle we can see that the fascists did not have the numbers to cope physically. Furthermore, the anti-fascists willingness to engage in violence revealed a passion for their beliefs, and showed that they were willing to sacrifice a great deal. Undoubtedly, this caused fear and apprehension for potential fascists who may have been attracted to Mosley. However, the Labour Party’s approach to anti-fascism was also helpful. Through their support for the Public Order Act, the weight of the state machine against the fascists gave Mosley and his sympathisers the appearance of unworthiness, and a lack of legitimacy. Labour’s use of democracy and the appearance of sober rationalism achieves W (Worthiness) in Tilly’s model.


The sad truth about fascism in Britain in the Twentieth Century, is that fascist movements were not confined to the 1930s, but remained present, even if they weren’t as public. In reality, the reactions of the state were weak and only enabled their beliefs through anti-immigration policy, as well as national jingoism in the 1980s during the Falklands War. As I have mentioned that the threat of fascism never truly disappeared, it is vital that we understand the motivations of protests against threats such as racism, and also the reasons for their timing. Sidney Tarrow writes that protests occur in cycles. This is due to the fact that:

“interrelated collective actions and reactions to them whose aggregate frequency, intensity and forms increase and then decline in rough chronological proximity”.

Taking this Protest Cycle theory into account, we can see that the 1970s was a period of ‘collective actions and reactions’ as this was the high point for the far-right, and as a consequence, the left-wing anti-fascist movement too. As Worthiness slipped away from fascists because racism became less acceptable, groups such as the National Front aimed to win back support by broadcasting their Numbers and Unity through high profile marches. In response, anti-fascist movements mobilised, resulting in events such as Rock Against Racism (1978), and the formation of the Anti-Nazi League. One specific horrific incident saw the mobilisation of Bangladeshi, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani people against fascism. The racially motivated murder of Altab Ali on the 4th May 1978, was the last straw, and came as a ‘watershed moment in the self-organisation of the community’, says Sander L. Gilman.


So, in conclusion, we can see through applying Tilly’s approach, that the fight against fascism was fought in different ways. The Labour Party’s approach was ruled by their belief in the system of democracy, and that through its successful functioning, the threat of fascism could be fought. The approach of the Communist Party was decidedly different. In contrast, they believed that fascism should be fought through the use of social mobilisation, and working class militarisation. Together, both parties showed forms of Worthiness, Unity, Numbers, and Commitment. Furthermore, we can apply theoretical understanding of social movements through Tarrow’s Cycles of Protest, which shows the reasons for the timings of protests, and counter protests. Finally, though it oversteps the limit of this blog, which is 2003, we can see today that the mobilisation of the far right in America has also seen the rise of the anti-fascist left as a result, which adds further weight to Tarrow’s theory.


Michael Newman, ‘Democracy versus dictatorship: Labour’s role in struggle against British Fascism, 1933-1936’, History Workshop Journal, Issue 5, Socialist Historians/Oxford Journals

Charles Tilly, Social Movements 1768-2004, Paradigm

Sidney Tarrow, ‘Cycles of Collective Action: Between Moments of Madness and the Repertoire of Contention’, (Mark Traugott, Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action, 1995)





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