‘Madrid’s barricades are at the end of our street’; Wales and Fascism in Historical Context

Robert Stradling examines the historical context for Wales and Fascism

An ingenious recent novel by a young Welsh writer is set in the bleak winter of 1944-45. Some time before the action begins, the adult males of a farming valley on the Anglo-Welsh borderlands have committed themselves at all costs to resisting any invasion of Wales by the Nazis. So determined are they on this course that they keep the pact secret even from their womenfolk. On the opening morning of the drama the latter wake to find themselves abandoned, and with the enemy (literally) at their gates. Indeed, the novel’s title does not refer to the men – who, the reader subconsciously assumes, have gone to join up with the Welsh maquis somewhere in Eryri – but rather to the fraught, confusing, and ultimately tragic fate of the girls they’ve left behind them.[1]


This week on Click on Wales

For decades Plaid Cymru have stood accused of sympathising with Fascism during the 1930s. The publication of Richard Wyn Jones’s book on ‘Welsh Nationalism and the Accusation of Fascism’ in English earlier this year challenged the charges against Plaid.

Throughout this week Click on Wales will be examining this debate with a series of essays culminating in a free event on Wednesday evening.

Fascists! Fascists? Plaid Cymru and the charges of extremism will take place on October the 1st in Conference room 24 at Ty Hywel, National Assembly for Wales.

Limited places are still available. Please visit our Eventbrite page to book.

In the decade leading up to this fictional catastrophe, the real historical Wales of the 1930s was not confronted by a ruthless Fascist invader, but was certainly oppressed by the Great Depression, the Means Test, and what many regarded as a proto-fascist government intent on appeasing Nazi Germany. Along with London’s East End, greater Glasgow, and parts of middle and northern England, the South Wales mining valleys enthusiastically embraced the notion of a popular front against Fascism. In Swansea, Tonypandy, and one or two other townships, ‘bourgeois’ supporters of Oswald Mosley’s B.U.F. organised public meetings. Several riots resulted. In Cardiff, members of William Joyce’s National Socialist League (aka ‘Brownshirts’) – an anti-Jewish splinter-group which made Mosley seem moderate – attempted by force to board dockbound vessels on behalf of the Franco government, which claimed to own them.[2] No less a figure than Aneurin Bevan, MP for Ebbw Vale, gave serious attention to organising a secret army; a kind of suitably subterranean ‘miners’ brigade’ (or maquis) which might act to stiffen anti-fascist ‘resistance’ amongst the public at large. But the locus classicus of Wales’s struggle against ‘International Fascism’ was the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).[3]  Fervent partisanship on both sides gave birth to one of the most enduring legends of our history: that of a politically-conscious and conscientious Wales which played an unique role in the history of ‘anti-fascism’ in the British Isles.[4] 

In our close neighbour, the Irish Free State – where, as in Wales, a majority labouring underclass was dominated by a property-owning minority – matters in this respect were radically different. Across that narrow if stormy sea, people were not fashed about Fascism but rather haunted by the spectre of socialism. So manifest was the grand peur irlandais that Professor Hogan’s pamphlet Could Ireland Go Communist? sold out in numerous reprintings. The ‘Irish Christian Front’ (as its name suggests, designed as an antidote to the ‘Popular Front’) emerged as a major bi-partisan force. Some Catholic prelates gave their support to General O’Duffy’s volunteer brigade bound for Spain to fight for Franco in 1936. Above all, O’Duffy’s organisation, the Blueshirts (aka ‘Army Comrades Association’) which claimed nearly 50,000 members, became the largest Fascist party in Europe which was not actually in government.[5]

Indeed, for some years the Toiseach himself, Eamon de Valera, was distinctly nervous about a possible Blueshirt coup d’etat. Many feared a relapse into the civil war situation of 1922-23, a bitter and often atrocious affair in which O’Duffy and de Valera had been on opposing sides, and which still goes some way to defining political allegiances in contemporary Ireland. As often risibly remarked in pub conversations, the Free State exercised its freedom most notably in 1939, by refusing to stand up to the Nazis, opting to announce ‘The Emergency’ rather than declare ‘The War’. In a deeply ironic development, Irish Catholics thus found themselves in a murky territory, not far from that occupied by British Communists, who likewise – though in their case acting on the orders of Hitler’s ally, Stalin – rejected the ‘imperialist war’ of a ‘plutocratic’ ruling class.[6]

At the same time, a prominent Welsh Catholic was reacting to the war  not altogether unlike a loyal Stalinist, and in coincidental alignment with the Dublin government. Saunders Lewis, co-founder and President of Plaid Cymru, whom many regarded as its soul and conscience, exhorted his compatriots to stand aside from the war against Germany. Lewis was no blanket ‘bleeding-heart’ pacifist – though many of his fellow-countrymen conformed to some such description. He had fought in the seemingly endless trenches of the apparently endless ‘Great War’ of 1914-18. Yet it was not (mainly) this experience which moved him to call on the Welsh people to resist conscription and all that smacked of belligerency and militarism. His inspiration was the inner light of independence from England, the transcendant need to establish a palpable zone of difference, even if more ontological than physical, between Wales and Westminster.

The stand taken by Lewis in 1939 was the occasion of a painful upheaval in the ranks of his party.[7] The decade leading to the war of 1939 had seen many people of a liberal-socialist persuasion (including veteran Plaid activists) understandably tempted by the severe material plight of the working masses to flirt with ‘popular front’ and ‘anti-fascist’ solutions. In 1936, Lewis and two colleagues had procured unprecedented attention for the party by their headline-grabbing action against the London government’s construction of a RAF training school at Penyberth. The occasion intensified public anxieties about rearmament; but more significantly – arguably for the first time – excited widespread interest outside Wales in the issue of the Welsh language’s status and future. Serving their consequent heavy term in Wormwood Scrubs endowed ‘Y Tri’ with a halo (or at least a half-halo) of martyrdom.

Yet paradoxically, during the 1930s – at least in Lewis’s case – the half-halo came to be cancelled out by one diabolical horn. Lewis’s support for the dictatorships inaugurated first by Portugal’s Salazar and then Spain’s Franco became a subject of concern to Plaid members and voters. The deeply traditional, even reactionary, character of Lewis’s thinking was shared by close colleagues like Ambrose Bebb and J. D. Daniel. But only up to a point. Certainly, all three contemplated an utopian Wales of a pre-industrial society free from notions of ‘class war’. Theirs was an ethnocentric version of the rural idyll widely (even ubiquitously) cultivated in the decade following the industrially-driven mutual massacre of the Western Front. Moreover, Bebb and Daniel (like Lewis) firmly believed the Welsh language to be the natural – even indispensable – medium of communality, empathy, and co-operative action in our tiny nation.

However, Lewis’s utopia had historical and intellectual sources which differed significantly from those of his closest collaborators. Where the others envisaged a peculiarly pan-Celtic future with an essential ethnic-linguistic dimension, Lewis looked more broadly, to the history of Christian – in crucial aspects specifically Catholic – Europe. Whilst all three admired French civilization and were au fait with its political culture, Lewis’s wider and deeper vision derived from the radically contrasting attitudes of the reactionary Pope, Pius IX (1846-78) and his comparatively liberal successor, Leo XIII (1878-1903). He accepted the former’s dire warnings against socialism in all its forms, but he also embraced Pope Leo’s notions of a consensual, close-knit, egalitarian society inspired by the Sermon on the Mount. Yet unlike de Valera and O’Duffy – both of whom were in some ways frustrated priests – Lewis was in no wise a clericalist creature. His ideal state was not a theocracy, but rather one derived from the medieval (Thomist) conception of secular civic virtue, in the established constitutional environment of Christian Democracy.[8] Along with others who had spent time in France with the (at least immediate) aim of defending in arms its democratic independence, Lewis was an avowed francophile. Like Bebb, he acquired familiarity with the writings of Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras and other fin de siècle political writers. But, again diverging from the others, the range of Lewis’s political mind was much more ample, embracing a pan-Europeanism arguably closer to the world of Monnet than that of Maurras.

For the clear majority of Lewis’s compatriots, and significant elements of his own party, the exotic ingredients of this compound hardly mattered in themselves. When put to the taste, the recipe smacked unpleasantly of nothing Welsh – or even British – but rather of foreign Fascism. That test came in 1943, when Saunders Lewis was selected by party members to fight the parliamentary seat for the University of Wales. This event, coming as it did at a time when the fate of all Europeans hung in the balance, the moment of greatest fear and greatest hope, forced to the surface of Welsh politics a surge of resentments, fears and suspicions. More to the point, this magma of anxieties had potent agglutinating features. Only a year earlier, a well-known pacifist minister, Gwilym Davies, had published a devastating assertion of Plaid’s fascist sympathies.[9] Now, acting against the mainstream of his previous political life, Professor W. J. Gruffyd , a greatly influential Plaid mandarin, decided to challenge his party’s decision and accepted the Liberal Party’s offer to stand against Lewis in the by-election.

Gruffydd’s own reasons were rooted in the forbiddingly immovable base of Welsh prejudice against Roman Catholicism. This phenomenon was the grand-daddy of Welsh grands peurs, notably spawning the consciously contemptuous phrase which not too long ago was used to describe members of that particular Christian denomination: ‘Eglwys Babbyddol’.[10] Hardly less than their Elizabethan era ancestors, a majority of Wales’s citizens four centuries later looked upon Catholics as a sort of enemy within. This (by the 1930s) largely unspoken but nonetheless real concern was of course, an insidious product of the Protestant Reformation. The conflictual heritage of this profound sixteenth-century event was hugely reinforced in Wales by the Nonconformist revolution of the mid-1700s. Then, a century later, its negative power was suddenly and unexpectedly revived by the arrival of thousands of economic migrants from Catholic Ireland. In terms of modern history, the ‘Great Hunger’ of the 1840s, Ireland’s most devastating event, coincided with ‘the Industrial Revolution’, Wales’s most dynamic phase. Finally, from the 1880s, anti-papism gained a late access of intensity through the growing support of Welsh socialists for its fundamental aversions. This extraordinary coincidence of antipathy lay behind Plaid’s crise de conscience of 1939-43.

At the time of the 1943 election, W. J Gruffyd – one of Wales’s leading intellectuals, founder of the career-molding scholarly journal Y Llenor – was renowned for his almost unrestrained hatred of the Romish religion, often paraded as a patriotic badge.[11] Given the explicitly papist proclivities of his recent colleague and leader, Gruffydd’s one-issue platform was all too easily supplemented by a complementary agendum. It was widely – and this time, not unreasonably – believed that an existential link bound Catholicism tightly amongst the fasces, the nominative symbol of Italian fascism. During the Spanish War, the Catholic Church in Wales was frequently accused of proselytising not simply in search of conversions but also in aid of potential political tyranny. Despite the fact that a only a tiny minority of Catholics in Wales was aware of Saunders Lewis’s existence, leave alone his public significance, hundreds of non-Catholic clerics – Church in Wales as well as Nonconformists – were driven to denounce the ‘Franco-Fascist’ side more because of its explicit Catholicism than its alleged Fascism.[12]

Thus Gruffydd’s campaign of 1943 tapped (advertently or otherwise) from the ancient well of anti-papism into the fresher and larger pool of anti-fascism. From this broader and fuller perspective, Lewis and his closest associates could be seen as little short of traitors to the true Welsh way of life. And in this unexpected manner, an ideological bloc, wider in its remit than the ‘People’s Front’ itself, was erected across Plaid’s – and, in particular, Lewis’s – progress. In the minds of members of the broad Left-Liberal consensus, who saw Mussolini’s State as a by-product of Rome, or had noted the Catholic background of (e.g.) Messrs Hitler and Goebbels, the charge of ‘Fascism!’ seemed both logical and appropriate. Morever, as everybody knows, when (to use a necessary euphemism) mud is hurled at the palimpsest wall of History, at least a residue is inclined to stick.

This ideological crisis, which had a resonance far wider than Plaid Cymru (and Welsh Nationalism generally) forms the dialectical crux of Professor Jones’s remarkable exercise in historical polemic. His tour-de-force of revisionist writing, inevitably and consciously controversial, yet as logically rigorous and thoroughly-grounded as any master-barrister’s brief, is unique in professional Welsh historiography. It has even attracted the vitriolic disapproval of one Welsh intellectual exiled in Australia, who lays claim to the extraordinary achievement of never having succumbed to socialism.[13] Jones’s basic objective was to retrace the original accusation of Plaid’s alleged tendency to Fascism to its original 1930s context and sources. This procedure fairly establishes it as a convenient tactic of a ‘popular front’ of the party’s democratic rivals. In its day this was perhaps inevitable and even understandable: but its continual and cynically opportunistic revival since the effective extinction of Fascism in 1945 is another matter. As Richard Wyn Jones’s strikingly fresh perspective demonstrates, the canard of a ‘Fascist Plaid’ tells us much more about the need to preserve the bankrupt gerontocracy of ‘Labour Wales’ than it does about Welsh Nationalism or about Saunders Lewis

For the present writer, Dr Tim Williams’s intervention has spotlighted the kangaroo in the room of the ‘Plaid and Fascism’ debate. What – we must now ask – is the opinion of historical scholarship on the matter? The short answer (so far as the present writer’s search extends) is that the subject has an impressive absence of profile in our historiography. Most general approaches to modern Welsh history are not moved enough to spare it a mention.[14] An objective observer might regard this as being produced by embarrassment over such a shabby episode in Wales’s political history. The problem here is that (as Jones demonstrates) it has resembled a basso ostinato more than a one-off obligato in the ongoing concert of Welsh politics. Perhaps our historians have a genuine unconcern about the matter; even a certain ingenuousness cannot be entirely dismissed. In any or all of these cases, the near-silence of university libraries adds up to a noisy endorsement of Richard Wyn Jones’s conclusions. There are – nonetheless – four books which command our attention. These are commented in inverse order of relevance and importance.

Any reader of the monumental monograph history of ‘The Fed’ by Dai Smith and Hywel Francis cannot avoid concluding that Fascism was a serious and imminent threat to personal freedom in inter-war south Wales. Indeed in this book, Wales seems to have been the birthplace of ‘premature anti-fascism’ – as it post-maturely became known. Even in the 1920s, miners’ leaders talked in military terms (to men who had fairly recently been in uniform) about armed defence against police-backed strikebreaking. In the immediate wake of Hitler’s access to power, ‘activists in the coalfields … began to view their localised preoccupations in international terms’. As noted above, a paramilitary project to counter Fascism was proposed by Bevan and others as early as the spring of 1933. Thus, it seems, anti-fascism came to Wales almost before Fascism itself, when we recall that Mosley’s B.U.F. was formed in October 1932, and that Hitler took power in Germany in January, 1933. The Fed also devotes much space to inter-factional negotiations for the formation of an anti-fascist front – a notion which dominated left politics, possibly even before a black shirt or an armband was ever spotted in Wales. But not a word is ventured in The Fed about a covert Fascist penetration of Plaid.[15]

In what has become the standard survey, John Davies’s History of Wales, close attention is paid to the 1943 by-election. But the contextual furore over Plaid’s ‘Fascism’ fails to attract the author’s notice. In his view (surely correct) it was ‘the passions aroused by the challenge of fascism in mainland Europe’, much more than any domestic version, which marked Wales’s history in the 1930s. True to his word, he simply ignores the latter phenomenon. But also, in a paragraph insisting on the foreground impact of the Spanish Civil War in Wales, he neglects to mention the roles of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Spanish Catholic Church as Franco’s allies.[16]

D. G. Evans’s textbook contains the most concise and effective treatment of this essay’s main concern. Its description of the B.U.F.’s presence in Wales contains detail not available elsewhere. It reveals (for example) that the party claimed to have branches in no fewer than seven south Wales townships. The author has also unearthed the ephemeral success in Cardiff of a Mosleyite competitor to the (Labour) Trades Councils. For all this, ‘hardly any [Welsh] Fascists were interned in 1940, apart from one Pembrokeshire farmer and his daughter’. On the key issue too, Evans is concise and definitive: ‘Plaid was frequently accused of leaning towards Fascism …Lewis was alsounfairly accused of showing sympathy for Mussolini’s corporate state…’[17]

By far the most extensive (ditto repetitive) treatment of our main theme occupies more than five pages in G.A. Williams’s When Was Wales? A lifelong communist who nevertheless joined Plaid Cymru in the course of writing his book, Gwyn Alf was in an agonising ferment of mind over its alleged 1930s fascist-flirting.[18] He beats the bushes of the period’s cultural production, being struck by ‘the degree to which the rival European sectarianisms commandeered the world of Welsh-language writing’: but adding specifically that ‘writing in Welsh was suddenly invaded by Europe and by a particular, right-wing, traditionalist and often Catholic Europe’. Despite inbred ideological disastes for both Catholicism and Nationalism, Williams cannot disguise a certain admiration for Saunders Lewis himself. For all this, whilst avoiding explicit endorsement of the ‘pro-fascist’ charge, his cogitations force him finally to observe that

In view of what happened in Europe at the time, not least in Brittany, to its Nationalists, its Communists, and to plenty of people who were neither, it was as well for Wales that there was an English Channel in 1940.[19]

The implications of this dark remark may be spelled out. Wales’s greatest twentieth-century historian – at the time, an active Nationalist – suspected that in circumstances approximating to the plot of Owen Sheers’s Resistance, Welsh Nationalists might well have become Quislings, just as so many (Catholic) Breton Nationalists actually did.[20]

A final question cannot be evaded: what was ‘Fascism’? Why does this defunct mode of political activity, even colder in its grave than Soviet Communism, still have the incantatory power to blacken the reputations not only of certain personages of our past, but even of contemporary politicians (pace Mr. N. Farage!). Modes of discourse about violent political change, class war, expropriation of property, proscription and elimination of dissidents, all in the context of revolutions of both Left and Right, became ubiquitous in the interwar decades. It was a fearful era, when the two competing monsters of Communism and Fascism – a ferocious fight to the death between Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops – dominated public consciousness and inspired fear of civil war and/or class war across Europe’s national boundaries. Any fourteen-year-old today can point out the differences between the two creatures just metaphorically denominated. However, they may also have been taught that both belonged to the same genus; that is, they shared a perceptible number of genes. In 1936, year of the Spanish Civil War, the great majority of politically-conscious Europeans were convinced that Communism and Fascism were as opposed as the Minotaur and the Matador, endorsing an irreconcilable and violently antipathetic antithesis about the future of humanity. But when examined in terms of historical evolution, as well as political practice, these equally frightening, totalising phenomena are found to be strongly interrelated.[21]

To understand Fascism we need to trace its origins. This is an appropriately positivist procedure, because we must now re-locate to the nineteenth century; to the dizzy culminating years of European Romanticism; to be precise, to 1848. This was the year of revolutions, spreading over Europe’s face like an infectious rumour on Facebook. Even in London, only the happenstance of a day of heavy rain thwarted a long-planned Chartist insurrection. Elsewhere, rusting iron crowns and noble rumps trembled as barricades and rockets went up. Crucially, it was the moment when the idea of freedom ceased to be indissolubly linked to the individual – whether peasants or middling sorts, liberated by the French Revolution (1789) from feudal dues and clerical charges – and was finally transferred to The Nation; that is, to the collective destiny of a (self-perceived) unique community. These communities had defining, exclusive characteristics which were historical, geographical, and ethno-linguistic. Thus, in Paris, Vienna, Dresden, Budapest and even Rome the mortmain of old regimes was ended and a now-mature capitalist middle class – led by representative intellectuals and artists – succeeded to power. Thus, ‘Fraternity’ became the primary key to political progress, whilst ‘Equality’ and ‘Liberty’ took less equal and less libertarian roles; both, over time, becoming subsumed in and subordinated to the national will-to-power. Freedom now meant national fulfilment. Alex Salmond, like Vladimir Putin, is a long-lost son of 1848.

Gwlad! Gwlad! Plediol wyf i’m Gwlad!

But even whilst acknowledging this, we hear the discordant voice of another revolutionary stream, sounding underneath the noise of populist revolution and the clamorous cries of infant nations. That same year, two seriously unrepresentative German socialists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published The Communist Manifesto, summoning the working class (if not yet the class struggle) onto the stage of progressive politics. In so doing, they indelibly characterized nationalism as false consciousness, not only misguided and misleading but also inimical to human progress. The outcome was that by the 1930s, nationalism and communism were coming to be seen as eternal enemies, and their opposed aspirations had local habitations and names; Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany on the one hand, Communist Russia on the other. On cinema screens all over the western world, increasingly famous (or notorious) faces, places, flags, salutes, parades, marches and all manner of semiotics were diurnally displayed. It was a concentrated, mutually-exclusive, no-holds-barred competition between Coca and Pepsi.

A distinguished American historian once divided his profession into those who stressed the differences between political and social groups in any given era or location (‘Splitters’) and those who were more impressed by the similarities (‘Lumpers’).[22] One present-day cyberspace ‘Splitter’ has attempted to annihilate all diachronic and pragmatic differences by issuing an online decalogue – actually, fourteen rather than ten commandments – of Fascist uniqueness. However, when scrutinized in comparative context not a single one of the features described is more pervasively characteristic of Fascist than of Communist regimes.[23] Here, the present writer is not proposing that Fascism and Communism were identical. (Such an interpretation would be excessively Lumperproletarian.) Rather, it is argued that they were branches of totalitarianism which grew from common historical roots.[24]

Several French writers admired by 1930s Plaid leaders, and often regarded as precursors of Fascism, actually considered themselves to be anarchists or socialists rather than nationalists.[25] The binary discourse of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ itself did not come into common use until upheavals in Russia and Italy in 1917-22 created the first Marxist and Fascist governments. Communism and Fascism had far more in common than advocates of either side dared to contemplate. Indeed, in the last analysis, only one inalterable element divided them: their national-geographic origins and affiliations. Both nurtured socially-conscious elements in scripture and practice; both were powerfully concerned with dirigiste economic planning as a way out of the giddily destructive capitalist cycle; both were obsessed with theatrical display and pageant; both revelled in their contributions to the arts and sports of peace; and both tended irresistibly towards a horizon dominated by a war for survival – eventually, a war of extermination.

In early 1930s Britain, the intimate overlap of ‘Communist’ and ‘Fascist’ notions of progress is vividly illustrated by the experience of the ‘New Party’ founded by Oswald Mosley to advance his radical ideas on economic reform. This, of course, was the period of acute disillusionment with the Labour leadership’s ‘betrayal’ in forming a National Government. In the brief period which intervened between this event in March 1931 and the establishment of the B.U.F. in October 1932, a spectrum of dissident Marxists shared a tendency towards Mosley’s platform. These included six Labour M.P.s (including John Strachey), an equal number of  I.L.P. stalwarts, and the ex-T.U.C. General Secretary, A.J. Cook. Even Aneurin Bevan – within a remarkably short interval the hammer of Fascism in Wales – helped to draft the ‘Emergency Programme’ which later (mutatis mutandis) became the Mosley blueprint for a Fascist Britain.[26] Somewhat in contrast, neither Saunders Lewis, nor any other Welsh Nationalist of note, evinced a glimmer of interest in this or later manifestations of Mosleyism.[27]

Evidence suggests that Germans generally did not welcome war in 1939 any more than did Saunders Lewis or the vast majority of Britons. Nonetheless, the Third Reich had given the former back their national pride. For good measure they (or rather, the complaisant ‘Aryan’ majority) also got full employment, improved wage-rates, a raft of public amenities, and subsidised summer holidays on Baltic beaches. Conversely, those who chanted ‘Fascism means War!’ in the 1930s had conveniently forgotten that the Soviet Union was born not – like the Nazi regime – via democratic elections, but on the contrary by means of violent overthrow of an apprentice democracy.[28] Furthermore, it was baptised in the blood of atrocious civil war and went to school in the fire of its unprovoked attack on Poland. At the very moment (in 1939) when observers believed them to have reached a climax of mutual loathing, Nazi Germany and the USSR became allies. Both sides immediately issued enthusiastic appraisals of the others’ achievements, to the extent of welcoming them as ‘comrades’ in political belief as well as in the forthcoming war. The vast majority of contemporaries found this event startling. Millions were profoundly shocked. But war – as the sages say – is the acid test of both nation and truth.

[1] Sheers (2007).

[2] Stradling (1996), 60-65. The present writer discovered in his teens that relatives had once belonged to the future Lord Haw-Haw’s organisation. Supporters were wont to gather on an open patch of ground near a large Presbyterian church in Grangetown.

[3] Despite the German-Italian ‘Axis’ (1936), no organisation existed which – like the Soviet Comintern – co-ordinated Fascist parties internationally. Moreover, the degree of threat posed by the B.U.F. to British democracy can be guaged by the fact that it never won a local council seat, and never felt strong enough to fight a parliamentary election; see J. Stevenson (1993), 264-82.

[4] About 150 men from Wales fought in Spain; possibly another 50 left home for this purpose, but never achieved it: Stradling (2004), 183-88.

[5] See F. McGarry(1999) and M. Cronin (1997).

[6]6 On the CPGB’s comportment in 1939-41, Stradling (2011). On Irish army deserters who (with thousands of other compatriots) fought against Germany, see (e.g.) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22425684

[7]  It may be compared in many respects to the contrary attitude of Harry Pollitt, leader of the CPGB, in support of the war – a stand which brought censure from Moscow and his suspension from the Party.

[8] G. A. Williams (1985), 82-83, asserts that Lewis was Wales’s version of Spain’s José Calvo Sotelo, leader of the quasi-fascist Renovación Española, whose assassination by leftist policemen in July 1936 sparked off the Civil War. But Lewis’s political make-up suggests something much closer to José Gil Robes, leader of the Catholic Centre Party (CEDA), which – until the last days of peace – was avowedly both anti-fascist and non-violent. CEDA endorsed the writings of St Thomas Aquinas (hence ‘Thomism’) salient political philosopher of medieval Europe, which argued that God allowed politics to exist so as to maintain a stable society, in which the means of salvation (i.e. the Church) would be more readily available to believers.

[9] Davies explicitly labelled Plaid as ‘the Fascist Party in Wales’: see Wyn Jones (2014), 7ff. It’s worthy of note that a similar accusation has now been made against the S.N.P: see G. Bowd (2014). But pressure from bloggerworld recently forced the author into retreat. See (e.g.) his article in The Scotsman and correspondence arising @ http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/books/gavin-bowd-reveals-some-uncomfortable-truths-in-fascist-scotland-1-2881250

[10] The present writer encountered this pejorative via a Penarth road sign giving directions to a specific ‘Eglwys Babbyddol’ – i.e. St Joseph’s Parish Church, precisely (as it happens) where Saunders Lewis worshipped during more than one extended phase of his life

[11] Photographic evidence displays certain physical resemblances between Gruffydd (on the one hand) and two apostles of Irish anti-papism (on the other): namely Sir Edward Carson, founder of modern Loyalism, and his stentorian successor, Mr. Ian Paisley.

[12] Stradling (2004), 23-31 & 60-66. Pope Pius XI expressed support for Catholic victims of Republican terror as early as September 1936; endorsement of ‘National Spain’ by the Spanish Church came in July 1937. In point of fact, Francoism was not fascist. Whilst the former appropriated the Falange’s outward show, both Franco’s Movimiento and the Church had grave objections to its social radicalism.

[13] This apparently gratuitous revelation comes near the start of Dr T. Williams’s riposte to Professor Jones; See ‘Know a hero by his heroes: Saunders Lewis beyond apologetics’.  The present writer is ignorant of its authors’ relationship to Roman Catholicism – if any..

[14] In addition to J. Davies’s text, all other surveys of Welsh history present in the ‘List of Sources’ (see below) belong to to this discreet category.

[15] Francis & Smith (1980), 195-7. Bevan and his advisor, Strachey, both recently close to Mosley, were (presumably) privy to advance notice of Fascism’s arrival. At one point, Bevan told a Cardiff group which had splintered from a Trades Council meeting that ‘among the objects of [his ‘defence’ organisation] would be ‘the cleansing of working class bodies’. (my emphasis). But – here as elsewhere in the present essay – we should bear in mind that in the 1920s discourse antipathy between extreme Left and Right was not as set as now assumed. Notably enough, before Saunders Lewis was considered a Welsh Franco, the Western Mail characterised Bevan as ‘a Cymric Hitler’ (ibid.197).  

[16]Davies (1994), 595-99.

[17]Evans (2000), 102-07.

[18] Despite joining Plaid in despair, following the miners’ defeat of 1985 and a huge Welsh vote for Mrs Thatcher in 1987, Williams typically threw himself heart and soul into helping the party – on and off the TV screen

[19]Williams (1985), 278-83. Gwyn Alf also wrote – of course – as a veteran of the D-Day landings. (My emphasis in quotation.) For the impact of Nazi occupation on Breton nationalism, see Stradling (2014).

[20]In an essay lumbered with a seriously misjudged title, the outstanding Welsh writer on Fascism, Richard Griffiths, is unequivocal in his attribution of both Fascism and antisemitism to Saunders Lewis. See Griffiths (2004).

[21]The one-time hegemonic Marxist dogma on Fascism finally faded out in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1990s. Probably its last hurrah was the precarious wheelchair excursion of M. Mann’s Fascists (2004).

[22] D. Kagan, as related by Hexter (1979),  241-2.

[23] See ‘Dr. Lawrence Britt Source Free Inquiry.co 5-28-3’, http://rense.com/general37/char.htm (accessed 20 Jan 2014). For a rigorous explanation of the absurdity of attempting to encapsulate Fascism in this way, see X.. M . Núñez Seixas (2014).

[24] I use the past tense because fairly sure  that no existing nation describes itself as ‘Communist’, and certain sure that none describes itself as ‘Fascist’. To all pragmatic intents and purposes, therefore, these words are strictly terms of historical reference, like – as Bertrand Russell exemplified – ‘The King of France’.

[25] See esp. R. Griffiths (2005), 11-28.

[26] Newman (1989), 26-47.

[27]27 For all this, it sometimes seems that Fascism was once to be found on every street. This came home to the present author when he discovered from a Madrid archive that in 1938 the Falange Espanola set up a branch office at Boston Buildings, 70 James Street (at that time in Cardiff  Docks). This site is a whistle away from the present location of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

[28]In the context of its evolution into political practice and then power in Italy (1919-22) Fascism can be seen as a ‘heresy’ of Leninism – inspired and led as it was by a renegade disciple of Marx. The most penetrating modern analyses of Fascism are by N. O’Sullivan (1983), R. Griffin (1995), and R. Griffiths (2005). Of these, the first is the most original. An impressive parallel examination of Fascism and Communism from a mainly philosophical perspective is J. McGregor (2000).

Robert Stradling is professor emeritus of history at Cardiff University. He is a leading authority on the Spanish Civil War who has published extensively on the topic and made a number of documentaries for Spanish television and BBC Wales.

19 thoughts on “‘Madrid’s barricades are at the end of our street’; Wales and Fascism in Historical Context

  1. Thank goodness. Chaos is restored to the universe and manufactured dichotomies are blown into a thousand moving parts.

    Faith restored IWA…

  2. Great analysis. While constitutional reform is a key item on the IWA agenda, we need to face up to the ghosts of the immediate past in order to clarify and understand the narrative. Then use that understanding to advantage. Well done!

  3. We must all be thankful to RS for this detailed and considered response. While it clearly requires several re-readings in order to extract all the material in it, RS has plainly read RWJ’s book very carefully, and added several intrigung riders of his own.

    Before I go further, I might not that RS, in my view, over-simplifies the Emergency on both sides of the Border in Ireland. From what I have read, and have heard from people who were there at the time, the whole thing was a great deal more nuanced than urban legend would allow. However, this point is not central to the current discussion.

    Both RS and RWJ seem to agree that the confessional issue was the main thrust of the accusation of fascism at the time of the University By-election. This would certainly be consistent with a lot of the stuff one reads in the Welsh press from the time. As RWJ notes, it’s significant that the accusation comes at some delay after the production of the texts used as evidence. And both of them say, both explicitly and by implication, that the array of sources for JSL’s thought constituted a massive non-starter for the social and cultural context of Welsh politics.

    What would have happened to Plaid in the event of a German occupation? If the experience of the occupied or German-allied countries is any guide, its members would have divided between those determined to fight, and those wishing to take advantage of an unsettled situation. (For what it’s worth, I once wrote a treatment for an alternative-history film in which Wales is a Protectorate with Lloyd George as Regent, Hugh Dalton as Minister of Fiance, Saunders Lewis as Minister of Defence, and James Griffiths as Minister of Manpower.) Presumably there would have been renewed outbursts of anti-Semitic violence in anglicizing areas of the Southeast, and we must assume that the local fascists would have put on their black shirts, emerged into the open, and set out to take over the violence and direct it purposefully.

    While Pabydd/Pabyddol/Pabyddiaeth were indeed orginally formed as pejorative terms, my strong impression is that much of the ‘ergyd’ has been lost. When I was a student, contemporaries of that persuasion quite cheerfully described themselves as ‘Pabyddion’, although others would not have done this. However, at the time when JSL was setting out his stall this hostility was of a quite existential order for most Welsh people.

    Another important point is that of awareness of, and attitudes to, the Shoah. While it was going on, the response of non-Jews in the Nazi-controlled territories ranged from enthusiastic support, via indifference, to breathtakingly courageous resistance. Attitudes in neutral and Allied countries again varied, bearing in mind that the full horror was concealed from most people. Traditional anti-Semitic attitudes continued to thrive in all the countries of Britain (my parents told me some pretty hair-raising stories from the time), and I’m afraid that JSL’s loathsome remarks were not particularly noteworthy. (Ernest Bevin can be quite hair-raising at times.) In retrospect, we have come to see combatting the Shoah as a central Allied war aim. At the time, however, Allied leaders saw it as marginal at best.

    An interesting question, hinted at by RS and pretty much spelled out by RWJ, is why Labour apologists still trot this canard out from time to time. Lewis disengaged himself from Plaid Cymru, and while ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ was an attempt to reinvigorate that party, it led in fact to the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith. JSL would in turn disassociate himself from Cymdeithas, on the issue of pacicism. (This happened, I think, about the time of the Cardigan Eisteddfod.)

    Another interesting, although secondary, point is the assertion that TW now holds himself never have to have succumbed to socialism. If this is the case, then this is the second major biographical revision of his political trajectory – at least, as far as I am aware.

  4. Since Eric Hobsbawm has died I feel I must defend communism from the calumnies of Professor Stradling. It was unfortunate to be adopted by Russia, a country with a profoundly autocratic tradition that has never had a decent government of any ideology in all of its history. Nonetheless it clearly failed as a statist economic system. But the original Marxist conception was a noble vision of the emancipation of the working class and social equality. Fascism was not a similar distortion of a noble ideal. In so far as it had an ideology it was racial supremacy. No country calls itself communist now but then no country ever did. The Soviet Union described itself as socialist and did not claim to have reached the stage of communism, although ruled by a communist party. Since the fall of Soviet socialism, however, the situation and relative income of the proletariat has deteriorated markedly in advanced capitalist countries – ironically demonstrating, comrades, the advantage of competition over monopoly, even in ideologies.

  5. Mr Tredwyn, although one suspects you were playing ‘Devil’s advocate,’ as is sometimes your wont and no bad thing in itself, your defence of Communism is no laughing matter. A defence of Communism should be on a par socially and politically with a defence of National Socialism. After all, while National Socialism is responsible for the greatest individual crime in human history, the Shoah, Communism is responsible for far more deaths overall and for suffering on a much wider scale. The reason for this is that where National Socialism has always had limited appeal, Communism has everywhere attracted ‘useful idiots,’ including otherwise intelligent people who buy the ‘noble vision’ line.

    What both have in common is that they are collectivist ideologies which rely on hatred and resentment of an ‘out’ group in order to develop cohesion and support within an ‘in’ group. The only difference is the selection of the ‘out’ group: for the Socialist it is ‘the rich,’ for the Nationalist it was ‘the Jews,’ and for the National Socialist ‘the rich Jews.’

    In every case, the psychology is the same. Far from being a ‘noble ideal,’ Communism is an appeal to the basest aspects of human nature, envy and the abdication of personal responsibility. It can be implemented only by the sustained application of extreme violence.

    You are right about only one thing: what Marx called Communism is not Communism but Socialism and Communism was never actually ‘achieved’ by the so-called Communist countries which were actually Socialist. This is because Marx’s idea of Communism is a pseudo-religious fantasy, contrary to all human nature and requiring a violently coercive centralised state to impose it. Ironically, the only non-coercive communes that survived for any length of time started with a strong religious ethos.

    Moreover, since so-called Communism is in fact Socialism, what does that say about Socialism? While most of the drawing room Socialists who make up the Welsh political and academic
    Establishment would seek to distance themselves from the atrocities of Communism, the difference is only one of degree, which is why apologia for Communism are still far more respectable in Socialist circles than they ought to be.

    People like Hobsbawn should not be indulged as lovable eccentrics and minor national treasures but treated as the moral equivalent of Holocaust deniers they are.

  6. JWR, I don’t think Hobsbawm would attempt to defend the Stalinist or Maoist regimes which professed socialism and I certainly would not. It is disputed ground, however, whether mass murder was an inevitable outcome of Marx’s teachings or was the result of a seizure of power by a coup and civil war in countries with very autocratic traditions. The latter is obviously far more likely, whatever ideology was being professed. Cuba has an autocratic government and is a complete economic failure (though with social advances in health and education unique in Central America) but there has been no mass murder. Indeed there have been more politically inspired killings in Guatamala, Salvador, Chile etc under US-sponsored regimes.
    I reject your assertion of equivalence between communism and fascism. The ‘in’ group in fascism is the nation or race. The assertion of its dominance implies war with the rest of mankind. The ‘in’ group in communism is mankind itself. No-one is excluded per se. No-one is obliged to be hundreds of times richer than his or her fellow citizens by birth or fate. Anyone can join the workers’ struggle.
    As it turned out communism as a doctrine was very bad for the people in countries where it was professed. I do not deny that for a moment. However, it was rather good for people in capitalist countries since the existence of a rival ideology tempered capitalism to the benefit of the working class. If you doubt that look around you at the the tide of reaction and the slide in ordinary incomes that has followed the collapse of the communist states. The story is more nuanced than history’s victors would have you believe, comrade. The economic failure of state socialism, more than any innate tendency to autocracy, means it is finished as a political proposition. Our dilemma is this – without it as a threat or alternative, how do we get back to the middle of the see-saw from our current state of rampant plutocracy?

  7. Mr Tredwyn, with respect, and without doubting your sincerity, you are more than a little selective in your reading of Marx and of history.

    The Cuban Revolution was in fact followed by an extremely well-publicised wave of executions, most infamously those at La Cabana presided over by ‘Che’ Guevara, to whom popular culture has been far too kind. Since free speech is still repressed in Cuba, which to this day imprisons people for their political beliefs, the exact numbers are impossible to ascertain. Some of those shot might have deserved severe punishment. Others definitely did not.

    A lifelong Communist is, by definition, one who actively did defend Stalin and Mao. The folly of submitting to any collectivist ideology is that one has no control over where the collective might go but one remains responsible for what it does.

    Moreover, Stalin and Mao were not aberrations but consciously the heirs of Marx. They were at pains to point this out in detail, and Marx himself gave them all the material they needed. Although Karl may have been no more than a lascivious drunk who probably never killed anyone in his life, his writings are very clear about the violence necessary to establish and maintain his system.

    When Marxists talk loudly of helping Mankind, what they mean is that proportion of Mankind which submits totally and without question to their ideology – an ideology in which actual individual human beings are a secondary consideration.

    The Marxist obsession with class always missed the point. So did the obsession with economic inequality, which is even more irrelevant now when the real issue we should all be discussing in the modern world is population. How is our overcrowded planet going to cope with so many people when technological advances are making large workforces increasingly unnecessary? That is the question the Left is ignoring as it would rather try to refight battles it lost decisively a long time ago.

  8. JWR / Mr Tredwyn,

    By setting out your theses and antitheses in contradistinction I wonder whether a synthesis is any clearer?

    Your dialectic is certainly helpful to passive observers such as myself. So, for the record, thank you.


    Spending two weeks in Cuba and two weeks in Puerto Rico talking to young, ambitious men about their respective life’s opportunities is a fruitful intellectual exercise, as is spending two weeks in East Berlin and West Berlin talking to old ladies about their respective experiences of gender equality and vocational fulfilment. I wonder if the contradictions will ever be resolved by dialectics?

  9. You cannot understand what is happening in contemporary global capitalism without reading Marx. His analysis remains relevant 150 years on. He was understandably indignant and wanted to change the system. Remember when he wrote workers did not have the suffrage in any country. His proposed solution was never spelled out in detail. He thought the workers would do that after the revolution. The notion of a vanguard party that would act undemocratically in the workers’ name was a Leninist, not Marxist conception. Marx correctly diagnosed the illness. He failed to prescribe a workable cure. The Leninist approach was a bloody dead end. We still have to find the way,comrades.

  10. Mr Tredwyn, it all depends what is meant by Marxian, as opposed to Marxist, analysis. Growing up in Wales in the 1970s, where only one side of the argument was ever put, it was hard not to develop a respect for the notion of the historical dialectic which never quite goes away, as Phil’s comments demonstrate.

    However, Karl’s application of that dialectic to economics was flawed from the start. His obsession with class made it questionable even in the more class-conscious but far from inflexible time and place in which he wrote, and now makes it totally irrelevant to our current situation. The great achievement of the ‘grammar school’ generation of leaders, Margaret Thatcher above all, was to undermine the whole idea of class as an economic factor in the UK. At the same time the ethos of the United States, where the class system was never as well developed as it was in the Europe with which Marx was familiar, prevailed globally.

    Moreover, as you point out ,Marx never had a clear idea where he was going or how to get there. It was left to Lenin to come up with the specifics, but he was careful to make sure his detailed plans stuck to the letter of Marx’s original vision. His ruthless application of violence was no more than the real-world implementation of Marx’s pub-talk in the Mile End Road. The establishment of a well-disciplined revolutionary cadre was not a departure from Marx but the only way anything was ever going to get done. Lenin was a murderer, but he was a logical and intellectually consistent murderer. Marx’s airy theorising was the equivalent of giving a man like Lenin a loaded revolver: he should have known that such a man was bound to fire it – repeatedly.

  11. At the funeral of Karl Marx one of his supporters told Mrs,Marx that her husband had written the defining book on Capital and the world would never be same. Yes,she said but its a pity for me that he didn’t spend more time MAKING some capital that obsessing about it!!!

  12. JWR I am surprised that you take the view that the only way to get anything done, by which you appear to mean secure a radical change, is through the application of violence by a disciplined revolutionary cadre. Much of what Marx wanted, universal suffrage, social mobility, was achieved by Western social democracy through democratic politics, contrary to Marx’ own expectations. But did that progress require the existence of state socialist countries, frightening the plutocrats into propitiating the workers? The extent of the reaction in the West since the end of state socialism suggests it might have been. That is regrettable for anyone who hopes to see a fairer society as the result of politics rather than violence.
    While I have a great respect for the thoughtfulness of many of your contributions, I must say the idea that Mrs Thatcher undermined the importance of class in UK economics can only be described as laughable – and that’s putting it kindly. We are back at levels of wealth and income inequality not seen since well before World War Two and social mobility on any measure is in retreat. Whatever her intention the misguided woman reinforced class advantage.

  13. Mr Tredwyn, whether a political system is established more efficiently by coercion or by consent depends on the nature of the political system. State socialism is based on violence, so Leninism is the most efficient way to establish it. A libertarian system, by contrast, is based on free choice. This is one of the reasons why some of us would rather have a libertarian system.

    To attribute all political and social progress to a reaction against Marxism is a complete misreading of history. A progressive philanthropy was active long before Marx came on the scene. The abolition of slavery, the Factory Acts, the expansion of free education, and the principle of a duty to relieve poverty pre-date Karl. The main motivating factor was Christianity. Marx was, if anything, an obstacle to that progress.

    A gradual increase in social mobility was one aspect of that progress that began long before Marx. It reached its zenith in the 1980s, when millions who could never have done so before bought their own homes, millions more set up their own businesses, university tuition was free for most people, and we had a Prime Minister who was living proof that a woman from a modest background who went to grammar school could get to the top.

    That the Thatcher Years were the high point of social mobility is proved by the fact that – as you point out yourself – it has declined since then. The abolition of grammar schools was a major long-term factor, but the Blair Government’s introduction of university fees and its anti-small business policies also played their part. Social mobility has also been undermined by confusing it with income equality and by harping on about out-dated class hang-ups. If you want it back, dropping anti-Thatcher prejudices is a good place to start.

  14. The social mobility of the period 1940s-1980s was a product of the post-war settlement with universal free education and health and progressive taxation. I and my siblings were great beneficiaries. Thatcher inherited that mobility and by promoting the neo-liberal reaction to the post-war settlement began the process of undermining it. It is quite true the process continued under her successors. Thatcher was responsible not only for the sale of council houses , which was fine in itself, but also for refusing to allow councils to keep the money to produce more social housing, with consequences we see today. I know many on the right idolize Mrs Thatcher but in the area of social mobility and equality her influence was mainly if not entirely malign.

  15. PS for a process to reach a high point, it must have been rising previously and declining subsequently. Mrs Thatcher you say coincided with the high point. Just so. What does that tell you?

  16. Mr Tredwyn, that social mobility peaked under Mrs Thatcher indicates that policy since then has not promoted it. Two specific examples were given. A third mistake was mentioned which pre-dates her Ministry, and Margaret herself must take a share of the blame: the decline of grammar schools, which were the means by which so many talented Welsh youngsters escaped the conditions into which they were born.

    You are better when you write in your own words than when you recommend the widely-derided Piketty. As mentioned above, the leftist obsession with equality and income distribution simply distracts from the real issues we need to be discussing urgently. In particular, in a global economy that can be run efficiently by a few million computer programmers and their support staff, what are the 7,000,000,000 rest of us going to do?

    This is not to a question politicians like to ask in a democracy, for obvious reasons, but, as usual, the longer we put it off, the greater the problem will become.

  17. JWR, If your vision of the future is right, income distribution is the only issue we face. If a sufficiency can be achieved by the work of just a few, we should be able to abolish want and let everyone cultivate the good life! Any answer to your dilemma must consist of ensuring that the fruits of the production process are not monopolised by a few people in control of it but shared more widely. I recommend a brilliant proposal to achieve that by a Belgian, Philippe van Parijs. His book ‘Marxism Recycled’ sets it out. Don’t be put off by the title; he rejects state socialism and is producing compost from its corpse.

  18. Mr Tredwyn, has it occurred that those who produce everything might begin to question why they should carry on making the sacrifices necessary to produce in order to provide a permanent subsidy for healthy people who sacrifice nothing and produce nothing? Moreover, could the latter ever be satisfied or feel their lives had value knowing they were living permanently off the efforts of others? Could that ever be called ‘cultivating the good life’? We have seen in Wales how the aspect of long-term unemployment or underemployment that has proved most problematical is not income but demoralisation, in the literal sense of the word. Keeping people alive is relatively easy, and obviously desirable in itself, but not enough in itself. They need to feel they are contributing and that increasingly will not be the case. This moral consequence of technological development combined with overpopulation, not income distribution, is what our leaders and our best minds should be addressing.

    In any case, Van Parijs’ vision would, like Marxism, require a powerful, centralised coercive state to implement it, which rather negates his professed objective of increasing personal freedom of choice.

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