Sunday 21 January 2024

Fascist culture


I was impressed by Thomas Linehan’s British fascism 1918-39 and especially by its two chapters on fascist culture. Since the fascists were just conservatives with a reduced level of inhibition and since there is no coherent statement about right-wing cultural attitudes in Britain, this fills a gap and gives us a moment of heightened awareness of how literature intersects with right-wing views of fantasies. (The lower-case f is a signal that he is dealing with a genre of tiny parties with vague allegiance to Italian fascist values, and not a single dominant brand – which arrived later.)
I think the situation is different with the BUF, which did not arrive until 1935, and which was in some ways radical and in some ways influenced by Nazism. However, the numerous fascist grouplets before that time were not influenced by Nazism, had little grasp of what Italian Fascism meant (a question hard to answer in concrete terms), and were strikingly similar to what Conservative voters uttered and favoured. Resistance to socialism and a burning wish to defend the Empire were prominent for all of them. Linehan can speak in exact and concrete terms because he is consulting particular texts, notably by CRF Boulton and Alexander Raven Thomson. I can’t disguise the fact that I regard a category of 70s-style definitions (usually Marxist in inspiration) of Right culture as hopelessly prejudiced and short on facts. They typically were confused about whether they were discussing German, French, Tsarist, American or British right groupings. They tended to paraphrase revered Grand Masters even where their writings had no reference to Britain and were decades out of date. There was a gap to be filled. It is difficult, on the other hand, to distill an ideology out of a right-wing world which dislikes generalisations, claims perfect individual autonomy, and also tends to build a wall between culture and politics. Right attitudes to culture certainly vary a great deal, all the same there is a set of unconscious inhibitions which are defended with frenzied energy when someone violates them. The set of these unconscious fixed positions is a cohering Fixed Position, and this is of interest to historians. There is a whole group of attitudes which tend to cluster together. The number of elements is fairly small – as is clear when one reads Linehan’s crisp analysis.

I think this is of limited use in analysing poetry of the last fifty years. Very few poets have taken in these right-wing symbols. They may be wary of politics or of generalisations, but that is a different matter. What I do find in Linehan is a compact reference statement, which can be used to discuss whether a given set of symbols actually are right-wing. I have just been reading the Australian historian of Italy RJB Bosworth mocking Norberto Bobbio for saying “where there was culture there was no Fascism, where there was fascism there was no culture”. This is too much of a let-out for Italian writers and artists, quite a few of whom had a fascist (PFN) membership card. Bosworth is right, and equally it can't be true that English culture was free of imperialism or that English imperialism was free of culture. It can’t be true that English literati did not identify with British crypto-colonial domination of Egypt over an eighty-year period, or that all of them were instinctively against the Suez campaign of 1956 and the plan to take back control of the Suez Canal. We are talking about an unconscious investment which became conscious when it was challenged (by Egyptian anti-colonialism). Unfortunately Egypt is just one example out of forty different countries where Britain had colonial authority (whether disguised as some form of protectorate or not).

Linehan is good at describing earlier phases of which 1920s fascism was a certain successor – so the Imperial Preference alliance of opinion, rejecting free trade to reinforce imperial identity, and the current which supported a naval arms race against Germany from roughly 1890 to 1914. This is important because we have difficulty in connecting poetry to anything like inter-war British Fascism. Inspiration from Italy was not of much relevance, whereas the preoccupation with military power, territory, and with the nightmare of decline in both, was highly relevant. What was expansive in 1880 became defensive and conservative in 1920 without alterations at a deeper level. And attitudes towards culture discarded the idea of apolitical culture, to use it as a proxy for physical struggle over territory and authority.

There was during the 1940s and 1950s a Right Book Club. Richard Griffiths has used lists of names to point out the overlap between its selection committee and British Fascist or pro-Nazi groups up to 1940. This sounds then like an excellent source of evidence, but from a quick inspection there is a lack of statements at the theoretical level and the books chosen tend to be peripheral as well as anti-intellectual (or even anti-political). I am embarrassed to see that I have read some of them, but then some of the titles are comic and about social manners and not very political. (an Inn-Keeper’s Diary, by John Fothergill – he is a snob and makes a joke of this throughout. Of course he wants to make money and dislikes customers who don’t have any. Somehow this book expresses right-wing values but also makes them a source of laughs. He was also published by Penguin and Faber.) I am unclear how a biography of Dr Johnson could turn out to be a right-wing book. I am not impressed by earnest attempts to map modern politics onto the 1740s. No doubt Johnson was a Jacobite, he disliked the Hanoverian dynasty, and no doubt there is some kind of flow from Jacobitism into later versions of the Right, in particular supporters of various exiled dynasties... but there was no Right and Left in 1750. Am I supposed to define the Hanoverians as left-wing? Why did the Right Book Club publish the memoirs of Guild-socialist Eric Gill? This just isn't a high-garde source.

One can speak of a crisis of modernism between the wars, as the stimulus which brought about an anti-modernist reaction to drive it away. Linehan is very astute in describing the fascist rejection of any kind of modernism in the arts, and we have to acknowledged that while a stratum of people were becoming fans of modernism there was a whole other stratum which detested it altogether (whether examining it as evidence or rejecting it sight unseen). So for example Linehan quotes a report from a fascist who attended the Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 and saw it as an example of modern decadence. Since the focal experience for the Right was hatred of the new, the art they favoured was defined initially by features missing from it and not by any positive content. I think it is a waste of time to identify any formally conservative art with political conservatism. To start with we are looking at features which by definition are not there, to be looked at, and to go on with someone with a radical political message probably uses conservative artistic languages to reach the broadest audience. If the Soviet bloc used 19th C artistic conventions for propaganda, we cannot suddenly define that mass (slew?) of art as conservative. And evidently committed left-wing art in western Europe or north America has tended to use similar artistic conventions to carry a message.

I was tantalised by the appearance of Philip Mairet as joining the British People’s Party in about 1939 (they were a very fugitive fascist and anti-war group). Mairet probably provided some of the imagery for Four Quartets and represented a sort of anti-industrial, back to the land, organic farming, craft current which surfaces in Four Quartets. I had not defined him as a fascist and now realise I have some work to do to track down his intellectual biography. I now see that he wrote a large essay for a 1945 symposium edited by Maurice Reckitt, who was the leading Christian Socialist of the mid-20th century. The going may be soft in this district, but some more definite conclusion needs to be sought. I imagine that his goal was to protect Europe from war rather than to roll back socialism.

The shortage of right-wing poets goes back to the 1920s rather than the 1960s. Edmund Blunden was someone with Right positions and a dubious record of association with pro-Hitler opponents of the war. But does anyone read him any more? He was not a militarist.

Where we find writing about modern art, it is usually by people with a real interest in the art. There probably is a whole group of people who have conservative attitudes on many scores but also like modern art. This disguises the fact that so many people rejected modern art altogether. With poetry, one has to reckon with people who reject free verse altogether, even if they are not writing anything on the subject.

It is unpleasant to read quotes from a book justifying Hitler because the homosexual culture of Berlin had become intolerable, so in need of cleansing and constraint, along with descriptions of visibly gay people in parts of Berlin, and then find that the author quoted is Wyndham Lewis. Lewis is a good example of an English fascist. If you read his art criticism, he takes a whole series of ideas very productive in creating art, and demolishes them. For example, Paleface looks at artists connecting to Third World art, to myth and the unconscious, to pre-classical art, etc., and ridiculed them. But this idea has been one of the most productive in 20th C art. Lewis is very similar to someone denouncing modern art altogether – he never seems to find anything positive in modern art. I feel the key is his inability to identify with any kind of reformist political ideas – he dislikes anyone with radical ideas so much that in the end he detests radical ideas. This remains true even if he produced startlingly modern paintings. You have to look at his writing in isolation. With Lewis, the feeling is occasionally that he hates other people in general. But he liked Hitler.

There is a whole series of Far Right leaders, in this country, who admired Hitler and imitated him as far as they could. That strand has nothing to do with conservatism. The comparison I am making relates only to the fascists of roughly 1920 to 1935, who didn’t have much interest in race or in a radical transformation of society. Foreign comparisons are likely to be misleading where we are dealing with a mature political culture with a long history of debate being freely carried on.

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