Cable Street
The anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street mural in east London, created by artist Dave Binnington

This article is a preview from the Spring 2018 edition of New Humanist

One day in about 1934, a leading Catholic was considering joining the British Union of Fascists, and went to Oswald Mosley’s headquarters in Kings Road, Chelsea to see a senior fascist whom he happened to know.

He said he was worried about the idea that if the leader said it, that was that. His fascist friend replied that the Catholic was prepared to accept revealed truth in religious matters; why not in politics too? The Catholic said: “I don’t mind the Pope laying down a dogma every 1,000 years, but I’m not having Mosley lay one down every five minutes.”

I don’t know who the Catholic was, but the fascist, from whom I heard the story, was my father, John Beckett, and a decade or so later, when fascism had failed him, he too turned to the Catholic Church.

My father had a point. Fascism is different from other political isms. If I tell you that someone is a socialist, or a libertarian, or a communist, you know roughly what principles would govern that person’s perfect society. If I tell you someone is a fascist, all you know is that the person has put their faith in a leader. You don’t argue with the leader, any more than you argue with the Pope. Fascism is as near as you get in politics to the idea of revealed truth.

I am not arguing Catholics are fascists, or religious folk are fascists. But the good fascist, like the good Catholic, must contract out their thinking. “I am done with those who think,” said Mosley on the day that he abandoned democratic politics for fascism. “Henceforth I shall go with those who feel.” Those who feel but do not think require someone to do their thinking for them, and that, in Mosley’s view, was what the Leader (it always has an upper-case L in fascist circles) was for.

That might help to explain the prevalence of superstition among top fascists. Mosley’s three top propagandists were Beckett; William Joyce, who went to Germany in 1940 and broadcast for Hitler throughout the war, becoming known as Lord Haw-Haw, and was hanged in 1946; and A. K. Chesterton, who in 1967 was to found the National Front. All three were intensely superstitious men. Among many other odd things – ghosts and strange bumps in the night and table rapping – all three believed that Chesterton’s wife Doris was a medium who could foretell the future.

My father told me a story of how he had once visited the Chestertons, and found them surprised to see him because Doris had predicted that he would by now have murdered someone and been on trial for his life. And the extraordinary thing (you’re way ahead of me) is that just the previous week, he had come within an inch of murdering someone.

The military strategist Major General J. F. C. “Boney” Fuller, Mosley’s confidante and his only senior military supporter, who thought the League of Nations was “a pink Jew-Bolshevik baby” and that “mentally and morally, the Jew does not fit into the Christian World Order”, was an occultist, associated with Aleister Crowley, the self-styled apocalyptic “beast”. Fuller was the founding chancellor of a spiritual order which Crowley founded to reform the British occult society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He helped Crowley launch his spiritual movement, Thelema.

In 1945 Fuller helped found something called the Constitutional Research Association, and in his speech to the inaugural meeting “he foresaw disaster after disaster for the world until it acknowledged that there were superior men and inferior men, and saw to it that the superior men were permitted to take their natural place in the leadership of the world.”

He didn’t address the problem of distinguishing inferior from superior men, nor who might undertake this delicate task, but I don’t suppose elections were Fuller’s preferred method. I suspect that making this distinction required the services of a supreme being. His decision on who was the superior man would have to be final, and asking the people would be at best unnecessary, at worst dangerous.

But secular governments in Europe after 1945 persisted in the error of asking the people. On 6 January 1956, the Catholic Herald’s front page lead story carried perhaps the most revealing headline ever written. A report of the French elections, in which the Catholic-supported party had been soundly defeated, was headlined: “THE PEOPLE FAIL FRANCE AGAIN”.

Exactly 20 years before, the Catholic Church had been up to its neck in General Franco’s campaign to prevent the Spanish people from failing Spain by electing a government of which the Catholic Church disapproved. The Church unerringly and enthusiastically took the side of dictatorship against democracy. Not every Catholic supported this, but the hierarchy allowed, even encouraged, Franco to present himself as a Christian crusader holding back the forces of Antichrist and Communism.

We hear a lot about the International Brigades who fought for Republican Spain, but there were foreign volunteers – nothing like so many, of course – who travelled to Spain to fight for Franco. By far the biggest contingent was from Ireland – 700 volunteers, and Ireland could have sent more if Franco had bothered to send ships to collect them. They were recruited and led by Ireland’s fascist leader General Eoin O’Duffy, who saw it as an act of Catholic solidarity.

England provided very little support for Franco, except for a few wealthy English Catholics who made Franco’s rebellion possible, by arranging to fly the generalissimo from the Canary Islands to Morocco, so that he could take charge of the army of Africa. These included Douglas Jerrold, editor of the English Catholic Review. He was recruited for the task by the head of the nationalist press office, Luis Bolin, whose perfect English had been learned at the British Jesuit public school Stonyhurst – which educated many of Franco’s key officers. Jerrold in his 1938 book The Future of Freedom: Notes on Christianity and Politics wrote: “Christians not only can but must wish and pray for General Franco’s success.”

Franco, of course, was quite happy to strike bargains with any religion: he bought the loyalty of his Moroccan troops partly by enforcing Sharia law in Morocco. Of course, not all Catholics supported Franco, and it does not follow that if you support an authoritarian religion, you will support authoritarian politics. My friend the late Harry Conroy, who was general secretary of the National Union of Journalists and later editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer, was the sort of rigid Catholic who could, and did, say: “It’s what the Pope says, that’s good enough for me.” But no fiercer defender existed of democracy and of the underdog than Harry Conroy.

Nor does it follow that fascism is in some way religious. It isn’t, and one of the 20th century’s most fearsome authoritarian regimes, that of Stalin, was officially atheist. Stalin, too, relieved his people of the burden of thinking for themselves, and in Britain at least, in the 1930s and 1940s, there was a good deal of traffic between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party.

But religion – all religion – relies on revealed truth. No one any longer claims that there is an a priori process that will lead you to religion. At some stage, anyone who believes in God has to take someone else’s word for it, or believe they are in touch with God. And fascism also relies on taking someone else’s word for it. It’s authoritarian by definition. In fact, you could argue that authoritarianism is its only defining characteristic, though it generally also involves blaming people of another race for whatever is wrong in the world.

That makes it infinitely adaptable, and it doesn’t always come labelled “fascism”. Professor Halford E. Luccock of Yale Divinity School said in a 1938 sermon: “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.”

Enter the author of “Put America first” and “Make America great again”. Donald Trump’s way with hecklers was Oswald Mosley’s way. Trump, like Mosley, was the leader of his movement because he was the money, and Trump, like Mosley, identified racial enemies, at whose door all the hardships and frustrations of voters’ lives could be laid: Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, “illegals”, the “liberal elite”, Washington.

Trump, like Mosley, owes his rise to having sold the idea that the world would be a better place without democratic politicians, without all the grubby compromises that democratic politics demands. Trump also asks his supporters to contract out their thinking to him, and they do it.

And this is much easier to do if you are a person of faith. Four in five white evangelicals who cast a vote in the presidential election voted for Trump, according to the exit polls. This group tends to vote Republican, but this was the highest proportion the Republican candidate received since 2004.

Stranger still, Catholics went for Trump by 52 per cent to 45 per cent – compared with the last two presidential elections, when Catholics voted for Obama by margins of 9 per cent in 2008 and 2 per cent in 2012.

Of course, evangelicals and Catholics were partly motivated by their wish to impose their religious views in the matter of abortion on the rest of America. And yet. Trump is not a religious man, and you cannot imagine evangelicals and Catholics voting en masse for any other politician who was caught talking about using his fame to grab women “by the pussy”. Part of his attraction to them must be that he offers a total answer, and the answer is him.

You can sub-contract your thinking to him. It’s almost as good as having a religion.

Francis Beckett’s memoir of his father, “Fascist in the Family: the Tragedy of John Beckett MP”, is published by Routledge