Published on Sunday, 08 July 2012 16:05 Written by Dr Paul Jackson
My own specialism, history, adopts a number of points from such experts, and has been deeply concerned with the ebb and flow of the far right in twentieth century Britain. In particular, historians are concerned with how British far right movements act as a lens through which we can explore the origins and appeal of fascism, and the ways in which fascist groupings can develop into clandestine social movements – even in largely hostile settings.
Sources and analysis
Yet academics are rather akin to investigative journalists: their work is only as good as their source material will allow it to be. Consequently, there has always been an important relationship between the sources that anti-fascist organisations, such as Searchlight, produce and the types of analysis that academics can develop at a later date. Of course, good researchers will take into account the characteristically skewed processes of archiving material developed by campaigning organisations, and academics will also pursue other means of procuring data sets. Yet often, despite an understandable, in-built selectivity, the information that anti-fascist groups have and continue to generate are vital to on-going academic analysis of the hidden activities of the far right.
Moreover, in an ideal world, the relationship works the other way too. The discussions between academics and activists need to be dynamic ones, and campaigning organisations potentially have much to learn from academic approaches to identifying, critiquing and explaining the dynamics of the far right. Indeed, academia is now moving away from ‘ivory tower’ analysis and is increasingly concerned with making an ‘impact’. Essentially, this relationship works well if each party knows the strengths of their own skills, and their limits too. Good fences make for good neighbours.
By their nature campaigning organisations are focused on the present day situation. So some of the wider patterns of change, such as the intellectual roots of present groupings, or larger shifts in the dynamics of the political milieu, can become obscured when the focus is on finding out the latest developments. As a more historically focused analyst of the far right, I turn to Searchlight as a publication of record to find out what developments have happened in recent weeks and months. Meanwhile, historians such as myself have a lot to offer those seeking the richer context of the longer view.
The legacy of Arnold Leese
One case in point is highlighting the lasting impact of the often forgotten Arnold Leese. A fascinating figure in his own right, Leese’s legacy has been significant for various generations of British fascists, and indirectly still has a role to play in contemporary thinking. A minor British fascist, and primarily operative during the interwar heyday of fascist movements across Europe, in the 1930s Leese led Britain’s most virulent, Nazi-inspired movement: the Imperial Fascist League. Organisationally, the IFL was quite distinct from the Mosley-led British Union of Fascists, yet sought primarily to be a smaller elite of – to use their term – ‘Jew Wise’ activists, who promoted the idea that the world was run by a nefarious Jewish conspiracy. In his day, Leese even helped radicalise some interesting figures, such as the modernist poet and major propagandist for Italian Fascism during WWII, Ezra Pound.
Moreover, Leese was important as his writings promoted the full extremes of Nazism’s biological hatred of Jews – a particularly virulent strand of fascism that the IFL endorsed more fulsomely than even the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists. Nevertheless, Leese’s impact in the interwar period was ultimately limited; his profile eclipsed by that of Mosley and the BUF. Leese’s most high-profile encounter was in 1936, when he was sentenced to six months in prison for publishing materials alleging the continued practice of Jewish ritual murder. He was also interned along with other British fascists in 1940, and even went on hunger strike – though in his autobiography he boasted of secretly eating, but not letting on to the authorities.
In terms of his background, Leese was clearly a product of the British Empire as well as the epochal events of the first half of the twentieth century. He was an expert veterinarian by profession who went on to serve on the western front. He seems to have been mentally scarred by his wartime experiences before falling into an almost hysterical uptake of Nazi ideology after the crisis befalling the world in the wake of the First World War. Yet none of this excuses, for example, his promotion of the use of gas chambers to murder Jews – statements he made as early as 1935. Nevertheless, recognising his historical context is key to nuanced analysis of such extremists.
Passing the baton from Arnold Leese to Colin Jordan
Yet the Leese ‘story’ did not end with internment during WWII, as he went on to help a new postwar generation of fascist activists. Indeed, while Leese’s interwar impact was notable but minimal, his postwar legacy was far more potent. His most prominent protégé was Colin Jordan, who after Leese’s death went on to become leader of the National Socialist Movement, co-founder of the World Union of National Socialists, creator of the British Movement, and in his later life became the author of the magazine Gothic Ripples, an occasional publication initially published by Leese after the Second World War.
Aside from receiving financial support from Leese’s estate, Jordan also learned from Leese some key messages that helped him reinterpret Nazism for a new generation of activists. In the 1960s, alongside other radicals such as John Tyndall, Jordan’s activities often landed him in prison. Meanwhile, he encouraged others to carry out violent, anti-Semitic attacks – events well documented by the emerging Searchlight organisation. This included selling reprints of Leese’s interwar writings to help fund his on-going activities. Jordan’s hard-line alternative to the National Front, the British Movement, even developed its own, shadowy terrorist operation, the National Socialist Group, which quickly disappeared after it was exposed by anti-fascists. Such revealing material collected by anti-fascists of the period is now set to become a valuable source for historians such as myself who are examining the history of these clandestine movements.
As his profile as an organiser waned, Jordan later copied the tactic of the American fascist William Pearce, author of The Turner Diaries. He wrote trashy fiction promoting hatred of non-whites, and the ideals of violent revolution, notably Merrie England 2000 and The Uprising. Again, these were steeped in extreme Nazi themes he learned from his mentor, Arnold Leese. In Jordan’s later non-fiction writing, meanwhile, he preached a two-pronged approach to developing a fascist revolution, via the ballot box and via violent direct action. Indeed, as with previous generations of Nazis, he felt violence was central to overthrowing a democratic society.
Colin Jordan’s legacy today
Moving to the present day, Jordan’s legacy (which is still steeped in themes first developed in Britain as a result of Leese’s interwar promotion of Nazism) has found a new audience. This renewed interest includes the New Right’s recent IONA meetings. For example, in May 2012, in one such meeting headed up by the German National Democratic Party’s Günter Deckert, Jordan’s legacy was well discussed. Current British Movement leader Steven Frost talked positively of Jordan’s ideas, and suggested that he would be able to make more of his extensive writings available to the next generation of activists. Deckert even praised Merrie England 2000 as a major inspiration for his own activism.
So it is important when examining such contemporary groupings to recognise the roles these play in the wider neo-Nazi social movement. Moreover, although IONA meetings and the British Movement are very small-scale gatherings, as with the interwar IFL, their impact as ideological clearinghouses is nevertheless very important. While the current incarnation of the British Movement is tiny in terms of members, it does have an important role in providing the intellectual backcloth for ongoing neo-Nazi activities. As with Leese in the 1960s, Jordan’s legacy lives on from beyond the grave, and he is now becoming a key ideological lodestar for contemporary extremists. Furthermore, for academics, we know of this new interest in Jordan primarily through the recent reporting of IONA meetings in the pages of Searchlight.
Another key area where the anti-fascist activities of Searchlight are continuing to aid fresh academic analysis is the linkups between American and British far right activists. This ‘special relationship’ arguably began in earnest in 1962, when Jordan and Tyndall teamed up with the leader of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, to launch the World Union of National Socialists – a network that attracted interest from Europe and even South Africa. A range of prominent academics have examined the US far right over the years, while its dynamics are monitored by a wide variety of activists too. Two of the most notable academic voices to explore the world of Rockwell and American neo-Nazism more widely include Professor Leonard Weinberg and Dr Martin Durham. The latter has also been a contributor to Searchlight’s pages, while his key 2007 volume White Rage offers some of the most penetrating scrutiny of the US movements.
To help further examine the relationships between American and British activists, the Radicalism and New Media research group will be bringing together such academic voices in a conference dedicated to exploring the connections between the British and American far right since 1945. Yet, as well as inviting academic voices, our public conference – A Special Relationship of Hate – will include contributions from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR). With speakers including expert voices such as Leonard Zeskind, President of the IREHR, and a key player within policy debates on the US far right (whose major work Blood and Homeland offers another authoritative overview of US far right activities, and whose writings have more recently examined the phenomenon of the Tea Party movement), working with Searchlight allows our academic research group to pool the collective thoughts of academics and experts based outside of universities.
‘Passing the baton’
To conclude by returning to the title of this piece, ‘passing the baton’, we can see that in this article the term refers to at least two layers of transfer, vital for better understanding the dynamics of the far right. Firstly, academics and campaigners alike need to examine the links that have developed between fascist and far right activists internationally, as well as through the generations. As we can see by the relationships between Leese and Jordan, as well as between Jordan and Rockwell, Nazi ideals have been developed and reinterpreted for new contexts. We still need to know more about these linkages, and how they are impacting on the present.
Secondly, to help better understand these dynamics, we need to value the positive relationships that develop between academics and investigate journalists. The more the clandestine activities of the far right are documented month by month by magazines of record, such as Searchlight, the better informed academic examination of the phenomenon of far right activity will become. More generally too, the datasets that are currently being generated by campaigning organisations will provide a valuable archive for future generations of historians examining the shifting sands of the far right at this crucial time in its development.