Friday 6 October 2023

Perverted patriotism

Perverted patriotism

Richard Griffiths’ Patriotism Perverted (1998) is about the Right Club in 1939-40 and is a follow-up to his previous book on British pro-Nazism, anti-Semitism, etc., in 1930-39, Fellow travellers of the Right. Perverted centers on Archibald Ramsay (“Captain Ramsay”), a Conservative MP who was so pro-Hitler that he was interned for four years while still an MP. He was head of the Right Club, whose main focus was anti-Semitism and the "Jewish conspiracy" theory.
The difference between Ramsay and other right-wing Conservative MPs of the late 1930s seems to have been that he was more vulnerable to conspiracy theory and less able to perceive other levels of reality. So once he had identified that there was a secret war against Christianity, and identified this with the Communist Party in Moscow, and identified the Jews with the Bolsheviks, his attitude to Hitler followed logically. He does not seem to have had the intellectual resources to realise that secularism had made a great start with the Enlightenment, in the mid 18th century, or that Christianity was not a logical and reasonable construct, that not all Jews were Bolsheviks, and finally that Hitler did not have the best interests of Great Britain at heart. Of course this involved depersonalising everyone who was not a right-wing Christian, and the link between belief in conspiracy and a lack of belief in the agency and reasoning powers of other people is striking.

To go back, the Depression in the 1930s made investment in the British and US economies unattractive. There was an over-supply of productive capacity and new investment was not able to generate income enough to make it worthwhile for the investor. However, the Third Reich was re-arming at a stunning rate and was keen to facilitate foreign capital investment. It was inevitable that funds would flow into the Reich from Britain and the USA. Equally logically, the investors, and their lobbyists or media agents, agitated against war with Germany, or anything raising tension between the Reich and the democracies. Politicians who rang up experts to find out the attitude of the City would be told that criticising German foreign policy was a Very Bad Thing. There was a whole apparatus discouraging attitudes, either public ones or among the political class, which could lead to a breach with Germany or even to running accurate stories about Kristallnacht, conditions in Dachau, aircraft production, and so forth. The information I have is that the City changed its attitude within days of the outbreak of war. To start with, the investments in German industry were no longer real – a dictatorship had as little respect for private property as it did for freedom of speech. The two things are intimately related. Secondly, they were in general patriots and could only be on one side in a war which had actually broken out. Thirdly, British re-armament was obviously going to be a source of profits beyond measure. This was the new focus for business, whatever else had closed down for the duration. So City funding for pro-German lobbying groups just dried up. Something similar happened to groups which had combined anti-Bolshevism with pro-Nazism. They rediscovered their patriotism. But, this left a residue of the irreducibles – people who were too pro-Nazi, or pro-Mussolini, to shift sides just because of a world war. And these irreducibles were likely to end up being interned without trial under a Defence Regulation.

Griffiths started his book, he records, with the Red Book, a ledger containing a membership list of the Right Club dating from 1940 and seized by the police when they arrested Parker Tyler, which mysteriously turned up in the safe of a solicitor's office when they were clearing out the stored documents of a client, in the late 1980s. The client was deceased, not necessarily recently. Someone at the office recognised that the aged ledger had some historical value and delivered it to Griffiths – they had read Fellow travellers of the Right. Griffiths concluded, after a while, that the use of a formal membership list was to impress hesitating potential recruits. The list might therefore contain many names of people too sober and stable to join up with a conspiracy (aiming to change British foreign policy and frustrate His Majesty's Government). It might well be a fake list. A list of headstrong Fascisti would not be persuasive for someone hesitant. Griffiths therefore felt that the ledger was not a reliable piece of historical testimony, although he also does not accept that it was for show (p.124).

It is bizarre that the ledger was in the flat of a US citizen, a traitor to the US government, at the moment when he was arrested by the police. This suggested a link between Ramsay and active supply of secret information to the Italian government (so indirectly to the German government, which no longer had an Embassy open in London). That link led directly to Ramsay’s arrest and internment, along with a raft of Far Right opponents of the war. However, it was never tested in court. Ramsay was never convicted of giving aid to the enemy. The Red Book was returned to him, since it was possible evidence in a case which was never going to be brought.

Maxwell Knight of MI5 was present when the arrest was made and if you are a right-wing conspiracist you surely believe that the Red Book was a fake and that Knight planted it in Tyler’s flat to justify a group arrest of Far Right conspiracists. It would have been a key document in a mass trial of Hitler supporters and peace-makers – which never took place. Most of the people whose names appear on the list were never interned.

Looking up the string 'Right Club' gave me a group of hits identifying the Right Book Club, an association whose publication might give an outline iconography of the cultural Right. If you look at the committee of this club, you can see names which also occur in Griffiths’ book as pro-Hitler and indeed English Fascists. Wikipedia gives a complete list of their books.
I also thought to collect some elementary material for a future discussion of the Right in poetry. So, here goes.

Edmund Blunden. Was so anti-war as to be pro-Hitler in the 1939-40 period.
David Jones. Was much influenced by Spengler and had difficulties with the Jewish Question and the anti-Bolshevik question. See an earlier post on this blog where I explore some neglected utterances of Jones.
CH Sisson. Was pro-Franco and emotionally committed to Charles Maurras and the position of Action Française. Seems to have had a phobia for the Left and for the State solving social problems.
Kathleen Raine. A very anti-political person but was connected to the Counter-Enlightenment and so opposed a range of processes following on the Enlightenment, characterised as “the rise of materialism”. She identified the decline of the arts with the rise of materialism. She married two very left-wing husbands but this is not unambiguous in its implications.
Peter Abbs. used imagery from Spengler in some of his most powerful poems. Is strongly christian and by implication anti-materialist. Disliked the culture of demonstration in the 70s. Later poetry involves the promotion of Great Men as part of an anti-modernist position. I have just been reading an essay by Alan Sinfield which discussed Abbs as part of an analysis of different policies of teaching English in schools. Abbs comes out as a “progressivist”, so one who believes in the inner needs of the pupil emerging and turning into an adult personality, through culture. This is derived from Lawrence, although it has developed over the following decades. Teaching is central to Abbs and that argument does not lend itself to left-right oppositions, or not easily.
DH Lawrence. This is probably an out of date issue. In the 1950s, people wanted to say that Lawrence was like Nazism because both believed in the irrational and instinct. This was probably part of saying that free verse led to the breakdown of character and civilised constraints, as part of promoting regular metre and so on. I doubt anyone living today takes this stance. Lawrence does not have much to do with the Conservative Party, who were certainly the local Right, so there are major problems in defining his ideas, or a subset of them, as Right. He certainly had a German wife but equally certainly the attitudes which she shared with her friends were a million miles away from Nazism. One of her cousins was a fairly prominent nationalist, but that doesn't prove anything.
Robert Conquest. Was a communist as a student and possibly learnt Russian as part of this. Served in the Army during the Second World War and ended up in military intelligence, it would seem, on the way to becoming a sovietologist. His professional career was inside the defence establishment. He was firmly anti-communist although this is not the same as being right-wing.
Philip Larkin. Was a great fan of Thatcher and the likelihood is that he regretted every aspect of modern life after 1945 which Thatcher was later an enemy of.
Agenda. Agenda magazine was set up on the instructions of Ezra Pound and had an abiding link with reverence for Mussolini, which led to editors resigning on at least two occasions. It was the main editor who was a fan of Pound and Mussolini, and I am not clear that other poets appearing in Agenda had the same enthusiasms. There were other right-wing poundians, for example Denis Goacher, but these are not much-read poets. Agenda may have been a focal point for right-wing poets, but I do not have information on this.
Hugh MacDiarmid. According to Wikipedia "MacDiarmid flirted with fascism in his early thirties, when he believed it was a doctrine of the left. In two articles written in 1923, Plea for a Scottish Fascism and Programme for a Scottish Fascism, he appeared to support Mussolini's regime. By the 1930s, however, following Mussolini's lurch to the right, his position had changed[.]” Mussolini himself said that his regime was neither Left nor Right, so working out the implications of supporting him is a baffling task. As he said that he had no ideology, establishing what fascist ideology was is arduous and can never reach a satisfactory conclusion. MacDiarmid did not understand politics, he was tone-deaf when it came to politics. (Mussolini did not lurch to the Right in 1930, although he took on racial politics in 1938. This is not a meaningful statement if we take “by the 1930s” to mean “by the end of 1930”. His regime was militarist and expansionist from the word go.)
Peter Russell. As a poet, Russell was amazingly unimportant. He did edit the magazine Nine, a source for right-wing culture of the early 1950s. Encounter. Everyone knows that Encounter was financed by the CIA through various front foundations, and that it aimed to dissuade the centre Left from making common cause with the more solid Left. It published a lot of poetry, partly because it paid more than anyone else. It does not follow that the poems are right-wing. Encounter always spoke with a centre-left voice, even if it was always convincing people to move further towards the right. It did not favour overtly political poems (although it did publish at least one, by CH Sisson.) The point, not made explicitly, was that high culture was in favour of the status quo and so of the Cold War. It is not a good source for studying the Right itself.

It is obvious that I haven’t identified any right-wing poets born after 1940. This is probably a genuine result, although there might be a lot of evidence which I am just not aware of. I think the biggest problem in this area has to do with seeing the Right as something unitary and in which all parts share exactly the same set of ideas, which leads necessarily on to the idea that almost everything is secret and that the invisible evidence would support the unitary theory!). One has to allow for most poets not being very political – they are too immersed in poetry. Most invisible things are not visible because they are not there. I feel that more research is needed in this area, that is uncovering visible evidence and not invisible speculations.
One of the titles published by the Right Book Club was the 1938 This England: a book of the shires and counties, by W S Shears. This raises a real can of worms. The one certain thing is that the people in charge at this reactionary club thought that topography and provincial interests were of interest to consumers on the Right. When we start to extend this to proposals such as “writing about landscape is right-wing” or “writing about anything outside the big cities is right-wing” or “writing about the past of any district in Britain is right-wing”, these proposals sound totally unconvincing and we are faced with the prospect of doing a lot of fine-grained work and ending up with results which are also fine-grained but unimpressive and, in the end, inconclusive. I have a weary feeling that we are going to spend much, much work on this precisely because it there are no undisputed facts.
I have great difficulty in supporting the proposal that we can identify poetry about landscape as right-wing from the word go. I can extend that to saying that I am impressed by ideas that art has to have serenity, has to represent something larger than humanism and more stable, that it gives us access to abstract ideas by showing objects stable enough to make thought about them possible. So I can’t just identify art with what is critical, depicts conflict, undermines individual consciousness, and so forth. These things may appeal to many left-wing cultural thinkers but they do not characterise the Left as a whole.
I have also been reading Raphael Samuel’s Island stories: Unravelling Britain, his last, notably unfinished, work about how British people remember the British past. He was the son of two communists and remembers going on hikes through beautiful countryside in groups of young people organised by the Party. So there they were, looking at landscapes, seeing remote parts of the country, experiencing the past by seeing old (possibly ruined) buildings. This cannot have been a right-wing experience. (The essay is “Country visiting: a Memoir”, and is 20 pages long.) The date he specifically mentions is 1940-1 but I get the impression that he, or his family did a lot of hiking in the 1930s and 1940s.
I have no doubt that there is a right-wing way of imagining the past and the landscape, integrating real things into a fantasia which has a minimal connection to reality. I have much more doubt about finding such fantasias in poetry of the past 80 or so years.
Captain Ramsay, interned in Brixton jail, was still allowed to ask parliamentary questions because he was still an MP. Griffiths records him asking one which dealt with the activities of the Advisory Music Council. This organised music for the armed forces and was headed by Sir Victor Schuster (1885-1962), a name which could be Jewish. The question “asked the Secretary of State for War whether he is aware that, under the chairmanship of Sir Victor Schuster, the Radio Music Council has been overburdening the musical programmes for the Forces with renderings characteristic of Oriental and African races; and whether he will ensure that programmes shall contain a greater proportion of music characteristic of the white races and especially those inhabiting the British Islands.” (Hansard) This was debated on 3 August 1944. The wording is a code for jazz, felt to be something African which was often played by Jews. I am listening to a Benny Goodman recording to check this out. Fabulous! I guess that the music in question was not jazz but non-improvised dance-oriented pop with an African-American influence, so swing. This is a moment when a Right view of culture comes into the open. The point was clear in 1944 but I don’t think it holds good today, the conservative-supporting newspapers expect their readers to listen to rock music, and no doubt they are right. The Sixties changed everything and we have to work out a description of right-wing cultural preferences which is accurate for today and not for 1944.
(I have consulted Hansard and the reply was “I am informed that the Advisory Music Council over which Sir Victor Schuster presides acts in an advisory capacity only to E.N.S.A., and possesses no executive authority.“ So this would relate to music given at Army entertainments, by ENSA, and not to military music as used for marching, on parades, etc. The government spokesman said further that “The Advisory Music Council is concerned solely with the place and share of classical music” in ENSA, so was not even involved in the dance music which ENSA might use, in revues for example. The question was framed entirely because Schuster is a possibly Jewish name. Most of the classical music played under government auspices during the war was put on by the CEMA, not ENSA, so I am not clear that the Music Advisory Council had any importance. Is there somewhere a master list of "wartime committees which didn't really do anything"?) **

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