Commentary Magazine


Rebecca West on Fascism

To the Editor:

Thank you for your courtesy in sending me a copy of the article by George Lichtheim [ “England: The Citizen on Trial” ] in your January issue. You invite my comments, and therefore I am delighted to inform you that the article appears to me to be a valueless morsel of Marxist baby-talk, and so far as it concerns me is impudent nonsense which is not even original. It is an echo of the rubbish which is at present handed out concerning me in Communist circles, because I have pointed out that in the highly artificial fascist-Communist clashes in North and East London the Communists are shamelessly exploiting the Jews, particularly the Jewish adolescents, in an attempt to create a state of civil disorder which is embarrassing to the Labor government.

Let me deal with one point at length. Mr. Lichtheim pours scorn on me because I complained that the din set up by the fascists “makes the enjoyment of the English Sunday impossible for the quiet householder and his family, and in particular by the use of loudspeakers,” and remarks with a sneer that this shows my blindness to the fact that the quiet householder “may also be concerned in some manner with the public good.” That I suggest that the use of the loudspeaker should be banned is put forward as proof of my petty superficiality.

It happens that I was asked by the Evening Standard to go down to North and East London and investigate the fascist agitation and its effect on anti-Semitism. I did this to the best of my ability, granted my prepossessions, which are anti-fascist and pro-Semitic. Obviously the first thing I had to do was to listen to what the people said.

They all complained, Jew ad Gentile alike, that these fascist and Communist meetings were making their lives intolerable. These meetings are held in thickly populated areas, in small squares opening off streets, or in some of the broader streets, and where a loudspeaker is used the bellowing of the orators can be heard in every room in every house in an area of some hundreds of square yards. They last from two to four hours, and are sometimes not over by eleven o’clock at night. Again and again, whether they knew that I was writing for the press or not, the householders complained to me that while the meetings were on it was impossible for a sick person or a child to sleep, that old people were disturbed and distressed by the incessant racket, and that it was almost impossible to prevent children running out to see what the noise was. The Jewish population were most emphatic in their disgust with the situation, and this was natural enough, considering that the words which were being bawled into their unwilling ears often conveyed insults against themselves.

Is it the opinion of you and your readers that I should have suppressed this complaint in order, as Mr. Lichtheim would have preferred, to “discuss the problem of fascist disintegration in a liberal democracy”?

For the rest, I will try to deal more briefly with Mr. Lichtheim’s accusations against me, which as I say are current Communist chat. I have great pleasure in informing you that his statement that “fascists who, openly or by implications, incite audiences to follow the Nazi example, and Jews who indulge in abusive and frequently stupid and ineffective heckling fall alike under Miss West’s displeasure,” is complete and absolute nonsense.

Anyone who says that I have ever put fascists and Jews on a level is telling a flat lie.

I find quite revolting in its indecency and attempt to throw mud at an opponent from behind a wall Mr. Lichtheim’s assertion that my statement that “we have all been persecuted by the powers of darkness” reveals “a remarkable failure to understand what the six million dead have meant for the Jewish consciousness in the modern world.” When I wrote that sentence I was thinking of many instances, of which I will give only one. A young boy to whom I talked in North London, who was strongly attracted by fascism, was the son of a manufacturer in a small way of business who, with the boy’s grandmother, sister, and brother, was killed by’a rocket. The boy and his mother, the only survivors of the family, were buried for some hours with the dead bodies, and when they were taken to hospital began a series of operations, which lasted nearly a year, at the end of which the mother had had both legs amputated and the boy had had one. His father’s business had been destroyed; his only uncle was killed abroad, and he had no relative to guide him into the labor market. Do you wonder that the boy was shattered and wild and had a sense of insecurity which left him credulous and gullible? Why does my mention of such cases as this show a failure to realize what the Jewish people have undergone? Could any honest critic think that it did?

One last word. Mr. Lichtheim, wrong about everything, talks of “the liberal-conservative upper class she represents,” meaning me. This is an explicable description if Mr. Lichtheim uses the deliberately slanderous vocabulary of the Communists. To all others it is not. I have nothing to do with the Liberal or Conservative parties, and little enough with the upper classes. I have never voted except for the Labor party. It occurs to me that Mr. Lichtheim, if his mistake is honest, has been misled by the fact that my articles appear in the Evening Standard, which is Tory-owned. But its feature columns are policy-free. I have no doubt that Mr. Lichtheim, in his pervasive ignorance, will sneer at this assertion, but it is proven by the fact that David Low, the Labor party cartoonist, has for many years worked for the Evening Standard.

Rebecca West
Buckinghamshire, England

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To the Editor:

Miss West seems more concerned to vent her irritation at a critic than to discuss the subject under review. In doing so she comes perilously close to misrepresentation of a rather serious sort. Leaving aside various forms of personal abuse, the substance of her complaint amounts to this: that my article represents “an echo of the rubbish which is at present handed out . . . in Communist circles,” and that it gives a false picture of her position.

Both charges are best answered by drawing the attention of your readers to a piece of evidence which Miss West did not care to mention: On November 4th last, the Tribune, a well-known Labor party weekly of strong anti-Communist tendencies (with whose editorial line I happen to be in full agreement) published a lengthy and detailed criticism of Miss West’s articles in the Evening Standard, in the form of an “Open Letter” not signed by name and most certainly not written by myself.

The chief grounds of criticism were almost Identical with those I had chosen, i.e. Miss West’s disregard of all forms of fascism except the most plebeian one, and her tendency to place Jews and fascists on the same level, politically and morally if not individually. To this charge, which I regard as fully justified, Miss West replied in a letter displaying marked irritation, but of course refrained from hurling the damaging epithet “Communist.” Since the Tribune is sharply anti-Russian and intensely disliked by the Communists, the accusation would have recoiled upon herself and made her ridiculous.

“Anyone who says that I have ever put fascists and Jews on a level is telling a flat lie,” says Miss West. Well, the charge was made by the Tribune, and I am quite willing to repeat it. But I must make it plain that I am not concerned with Miss West’s good intentions. The whole point of the argument lies in her blindness to the mechanics of fascist disintegration operating on all levels of society, including her own. In this context Miss West’s statement that she supports the Labor party is hardly more than another irrelevancy. I have no doubt she is strong for civil liberties, but so are the Liberals and most of the Tories. In the Labor party, of which I happen also to be a supporter, the discussion as to the best means of combating fascism proceeds on lines familiar to anyone in touch with Continental developments. Among socialists at any rate it is a commonplace that the processes constricting the formerly ample “living space” of the upper classes in society are a particularly important agency of fascist disintegration on a social level where people neither “bellow” nor throw stones at their neighbors. To Miss West this may seem a novel and daring point of view to adopt, but it is not peculiar to Communists and nothing except further mental confusion is gained by flinging the epithet “Communist” indiscriminately at anyone who employs a political vocabulary more up to date than hers.

Since I do not move in Communist circles, I have no means of knowing whether my criticism of Miss West’s spirited but ill-directed series of articles overlaps at some points with what has been said or written by Communists . . . . But the point seems of no importance.

As to the subject of better methods of combating Mosleyism, I am satisfied that I did not caricature Miss West’s view when I said that it seemed to be representative of upper-class concern for order and decorum rather than of anything in the nature of principled opposition to fascism. What irritated me most about her articles—and the same effect was produced on several acquaintances—was their tendency to build up in the minds of the readers a picture of two noisy but unrepresentative gangs—one Gentile-fascist, the other Jewish-Communist—combining to desecrate the English Sunday. This initial twist, coupled with certain minor misplacements of emphasis, leads to a generalized” plague o’ both your houses” attitude which is the very reverse of a truly democratic position. It amounts in fact, whatever Miss West many say to the contrary, to “placing Jews and fascists on the same level.” It is true that while Miss West habitually, and misleadingly, refers to Communists as “Red Fascists,” she does not indicate in so many words that Jews as Jews are as much to blame for the outrageous situation in the East End as the Mosleyite hordes who invade that neighborhood weekly under the benevolent protection of the police authorities. The absurd argument over loudspeakers has nothing whatever to do with the matter. I cannot understand why Miss West imagines that I am fond of these contraptions. The point is that to demand a general ban on loudspeakers instead of a specific ban on Mosleyite provocations is utterly absurd, and suggests, among other things, a rooted inability to perceive that politically and morally the demonstrators and though they may be equally noisy and repellent though they may be equally noisy and repelant as individuals. Miss West must be aware that numerous Labor members of Parliament have witnessed these weekly events and have come away with the strong impression that the police are favorable to the Mosleyites and that but for police protection—often amounting to drastic action against hecklers—these demonstrations could not take place. She must equally be aware that the Trade Union Congress has asked the Home Secretary to intervene, and that several of the Labor party’s legal advisers are of the opinion that there exist sufficient legal grounds to forbid these incitements to riot. She must finally be aware—since her attention was drawn to it by the Tribune article already referred to—that Mosley can count on a certain amount of tacit support among the educated and the well-to do, and that any attempt to interfere with the activities of his gangs is likely to be resisted by the Conservative party in the name, if you please, of political liberty. Although a ban on these activities would manifestly not end the matter, it is the very least that anyone really concerned with civil liberties must demand.

For the Labor party, which Miss West supports, there is an additional obligation: to counter fascist propaganda not by ignoring it, but by educating the public as to its meaning and by providing social centers where slum youth can learn the elements of citizenship. This is something quite different from reliance on domestic life and Sunday quiet, and I do not expect Miss West to agree with me, but I must insist that it represents the outlook of socialists in the Labor party, though it may be new to Miss West. In conclusion, Sir, may I say that I regret that your readers have been presented with unduly lengthy letters on a subject on which there ought to be no difference in principle among people who support democracy, whether they are liberals like Miss West—I cannot think of her in any other terms—or socialists like myself.

George Lichtheim
London, England

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