Radical Britain? The Reception of ‘Foreign’ Radical Ideas in Twentieth Century Britain

Session Abstract : In the wake of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, there is a renewed need for historians of modern Britain to question ideas of British exceptionalism. This panel looks to highlight Britain as a site of ideological exchange across borders and continents. In particular, we aim to highlight the influence of radical ‘foreign’ ideas upon twentieth-century British political culture. Despite Britain’s enduring attachment to a broad (and flexible) political centrism, different factions have, at different times, looked abroad for inspiration; just as radical foreign actors have sought to propagate native ideas in Britain. Focusing principally on non-state actors and those who were, perhaps, most vulnerable to the allure of radical ideas of foreign provenance, the notion of ‘British values’ as forming a principal part of the nation’s exceptionalist discourse will be questioned.

The panel aims to elicit a wide-ranging conversation that examines how the reception of radical ‘foreign’ ideas in twentieth century Britain can be understood at a time when new ideas, narratives and values, often extreme in nature, are clutching power around the world. It considers to what extent, in the process of transnational and transcultural ideological exchange, twentieth century British political agents have been receptive to ideas that challenge UK political orthodoxy. What, moreover, were the impacts of these ideas upon the political landscape in Britain, and on the policies and actions of distinct actors? Finally, what lessons can be drawn for future exchanges? Exploring both the inter-war and post-war periods, and both formal and informal networks and actors, through official Labour Party-Soviet politics, militant fascism and esoteric Italian inspirations, and British-Chilean feminist activist networks, the utility of historical analysis of Britain’s engagement with radical ideas from abroad will be examined with regard to its present political endeavours.

Session Chair: Matthew Worley

Paper 1 Abstract : Swaying Opinions: Soviet Channels of Influence within the Labour Party in Inter-War Britain

Max Hodgson, University of Reading

Throughout the inter-war period, the USSR became an example of ‘socialism in action’ that the British Labour Party could both look towards and define itself against. Visitors to Russia criticized and acclaimed aspects of the new Soviet state, but were always, consciously or not, subject to the furtive manipulations of Soviet authorities. Through the 1920s the Soviets pursued a novel style of cultural diplomacy, centred around the idea of kul’tpokaz, or the exhibition of culture, and British guests largely bore the brunt of early Soviet efforts. The Soviets sought to convince British visitors of the veracity of emerging Soviet communism, to ensure that Britons reported positively to the movement at home, and, optimistically, to convert visitors to communism. This paper examines the visits of the British labour movement to model Soviet prisons – a key feature of the kul’tpokaz programme – and the broader effect this had on the relationship between social democracy and communism in Britain. Using new material from the Russian archives, the paper demonstrates how the Soviet authorities, at Politburo level, sought to shape the itineraries of foreign delegations to the interests of guests and the ‘current political tasks of the moment’, in order to precipitate nascent communist sentiment in Britain. It then examines the effects of this manipulation in the form of a deep admiration for the Soviet prison system, but a limited impact on Labour Party policy in this area. Situating this within a broader framework of the British labour movement’s internal tussles over the competing notions of social democracy and communism, it is argued that a failure to affect policy should not proscribe reappraisals of these notions or the Soviet-Labour Party relationship, both of which were more complex than is currently permitted in the established historiography.

Paper 2 Abstract : Men Among the Ruins (of Modern Britain): Julius Evola and the Radical Ideological Trajectory of Post-War British Fascism

Benjamin Bland, Royal Holloway, University of London

Despite the popular tendency to believe that the British are uniquely immune to fascism, the extreme right could be said to have a longer – and more complicated – history in Britain than it does almost everywhere else (bar, of course, Italy, Germany and France). Britain has not only imported fascist ideas from abroad but it has also exported them, and has been the home of several important fascist and neo-fascist ideologues. This paper explores this multi-directional transnational exchange of extreme right ideas through the figure of Italian philosopher Julius Evola (1898-1974). In 1951, when on trial having been accused of attempting to revive the Fascist Party, Evola defended himself by suggesting that he was no mere fascist but a ‘superfascist’. He was acquitted. Despite the fact that many of his views were extreme even by Fascist standards, Evola, helped by the 1953 publication of his post-war reflections Men Among the Ruins, has become one of the most influential post-war fascist ideologues. Whilst this has been explored in some depth in relation to Italian neo-fascism’s terrorist inclinations, Evola’s profound influence on radical British neo-fascism has hitherto been analysed only briefly. The impact of his ideas became particularly pronounced in the 1980s with the rise of the “political soldier” faction of the National Front (which included a young Nick Griffin). Members of this faction not only borrowed and recontextualised Evola’s ideas but also reworked them, sometimes in ways that directly contradicted aspects of Evola’s thought. This paper shall emphasise the growing prominence of Evola-ian ideas on British extreme right thought over the course of the post-war period. It shall then use the “political soldier” faction to highlight the fact that British fascists have not only imported ideas from abroad but have also modified these ideas for export to a global audience of fellow extremists.

Paper 3 Abstract : Gendered Solidarity and Feminism: Transnational Connections Between Britain and Chile During the 1980s

María Fernanda Lanfranco, University of York

The until recently unchallenged assumption that feminism tailed off at the end of the 1970s has been contested as new analyses suggest its expansion in new directions during the 1980s (Setch 2002; Stevenson 2015; Thomlinson 2016). Adding to the recent accounts that build up this perspective by re-interpreting different aspects of the Women’s Liberation Movement, this paper explores the transnational feminist connections between Britain and Chile. The women’s struggle in Chile against Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990) and the international women’s campaign in response to Chile’s plight became a source of inspiration that contributed to the ways in which women organised politically in Britain. The creation of the Women’s Section of the Chile Solidarity Campaign in 1984, which sent a successful women-only delegation to Chile and launched its own newsletter ‘Somos Mas’, successfully challenged traditional leftist politics of solidarity. It represented a women’s space of activism that gave room for women’s concerns and priorities within the solidarity movement, and allowed the encounter of ‘different strands’ of feminism within the UK (ranging from Greenham Common activists to trade union women’s branches). Moreover, Chilean women’s experiences triggered contested interpretations that fuelled the imagination of a socialist-feminist political alternative, but also contributed to the development of a gendered approach to human rights. Thus, the different ways in which Chilean women’s experiences connected with women in Britain explain the appeal and the transformation of solidarity politics, which can also be interpreted as part of the reconfiguration of feminism in the 1980s. In this sense, by highlighting women’s transnational connections between feminists in Britain and South America, and arguing that women’s activism in Chile influenced the development of feminism in United Kingdom, new possibilities are set up for understanding feminism in Britain beyond an exclusively national framework, or, at best, in a dialogue with their north American counterparts assuming that women’s rights struggles spread unilaterally North-South or West-East.