Oswald Mosley ReconsideredKeith Stimely
In the five years and twenty issues of its existence, this journal of contemporary history, devoted to the unusual and the unsung — to histories untold or told generally from only one point of view, to people and ideas, movements and events and interpretations not often given (so we from our perspective suppose) a fair hearing — has never touched on the subject of Oswald Mosley and the tumultuous, though unsuccessful, political movements he led in Britain during the middle third of this century. All historical study entails not only the consideration of events transpired, but of alternatives untried; for “revisionary” history, the kind whose students and practitioners for one reason or another carry a predisposition to look and think twice, the draw to the latter, to imagination and reconstruction, must be especially powerful. And for history considered as politics, creator through sheer power-wield of what we like or don’t like about the world around us. all the more compelling must be that draw — particularly if it transcends “what if” speculation and involves consciously the desire to glean useful lessons from the past, quite as much from failures as from successes, what didn’t as from what did happen.
Oswald Mosley’s strange, spectacular, and absolutely unique career within the broad polity of an entrenched liberal-democratic society of our time touched, in its long course, on virtually every great public issue and theme that faced and still faces such a society in this age of continuing turmoil and change. Peace and war, the division of the world, European union, colonialism, government, empire, democracy, communism, socialism, fascism, corporatism, syndicalism, trade unionism, protectionism, capitalism, Keynesianism, public works, militarism, technocracy, managerialism, violence, race, treason, free speech, coercion, philosophy, culture — all these met their treatment in earnest study and debate, and impassioned advocacy, at the hands of Mosley and his various followers and opponents, at various times. And while it would be wrong to suggest that, excepting the two fiery decades of his meteoric political ascendancy after World War I, Mosley and “Mosleyism” were at or even very near the center of all these discussions in Britain, nevertheless his approaches to the problems of the twentieth century have left their mark on events and ideas. With passions of former years subsiding, old combatants mellowing (or just dying), and inevitable curiosity piquing at what is, after all, a most interesting and instructive political story, recent years have seen the emergence in his own country of a profound reawakening of interest in just who Mosley was, what he stood for, what led him to stand for it — and how all or some of it might have made a difference. For decades he was kept quite out of “serious” discussion, though never really out of the public eye. The revival of interest in him is serious, and it is hardly unnatural that much of it takes the form, mild yet, of a reaction against the long-standing former “consensus” interpretation of the man as the very epitome of political evil. Mosley is being revised — and the revisionist process truly to be such need only amount to a gradual reconsideration of his ideas and proposals simply on their merits. The persistence into the present of the problems Mosley addressed, often in studious detail and with an eloquence conceded even by his worst enemies and since unmatched, makes for his relevance to the contemporary political discussion. As in Britain, so this discussion would bear hearing in America — though on these shores the “reconsideration” of Mosley is really his consideration in the first place; not too much has been said of him here, perhaps naturally enough. But for American students of Fascism, indeed of the clash of political ideas in this century generally, there must be an especial usefulness in considering the British case since, of all countries with Fascist movements successful or unsuccessful, that one does bear the closest resemblance to our own in terms of political and cultural structure and tradition, the degree of development and modernization — and it is, of course, the most readily accessible to understanding because of a shared language. The lessons of Mosley for Britain are not necessarily restricted to Britain. Nor need be simple interest.
To the end of introducing Oswald Mosley to American readers we present as our lead article this issue Robert Row’s “Sir Oswald Mosley: Briton, Fascist, European,” followed by an extensive, though not exhaustive, bibliography for those who might care to pursue their interest. Nothing like either has ever appeared in an American publication. About Mr. Row’s contribution two points should be made. First, it is not an objective historical study, but an appreciation by a longtime political associate and partisan; it introduces Mosley from the frank Mosleyite perspective of the present day, and as such — a “political” treatment — tends to give his post-1945 ideas and proposals as much attention as those of the prewar Fascist period — a rare, and valuable, thing. (Those seeking other perspectives are referred to the bibliography, where will be found anti-Mosleyana in magnificent abundance.) Second, it speaks in some degree — with several rather interesting quotations, considering from whom they come — to the current phenomenon of a “new objectivity” in approaching Mosley. Though already mentioned here, it is to this point that some further few words might yet with profit be addressed.
It indeed became fashionable toward the end of, and after, Mosley’s life for even the British intellectual Establishment, whose members by-and-large had waged alternately hot and cold wars against him for decades, to praise Mosley — or at least to raise him up somewhat from the “out of sight, out of mind” political and moral dustbin to which he had been consigned. Mosley himself contributed in great measure to his (partial) rehabilitation with the publication by a major house in 1968 of his autobiography, My Life. (The final chapter of this book, incidentally, should be read intently by anyone seeking to understand the fundamental difference in outlook on life between a Fascist and a Marxist.) The trend of looking at Mosley in a new, less jaundiced way was heralded by Colin Cross’s rancor-bereft historical study The Fascists in Britain, of 1961. By the time of its appearance Mosley had already been gaining some sympathy of a kind because of heavy-handed, often violent, attempts to curb his and Union Movement’s rights of free speech in public places. Robert Skidelsky’s magisterial and controversial 1975 biography, Oswald Mosley, marked the real milestone in revising “standard” interpretations of the man. After it no one could look at its subject in quite the same way; this included the work’s many strident critics, who demonstrated the fact by sole virtue of adopting some countering lines of argument that they had not, theretofore, felt it necessary to raise, probably even to consider. So by the time of his death in 1980 at the age of 84, a new way of looking at Mosley, more respectful and quite respectable, had developed into being. It was manifest in many of the hundreds of mainstream-press obituary articles and broadcasts that papered and sounded over Britain and caused the people of that land — at least those with memories — to pause of a day and reflect on the loss of one who, variously adored or hated, praised or reviled, looked to enthusiastically as likely Labour Prime Minister or feared as would-be Fascist dictator, stirring and shaking huge crowds in monster auditoriums or pacing in a tiny Brixton Prison cell, putting forth policy in the highest councils of national government or standing against charges of planned violent subversion, had been a part of their political tradition and consciousness for more than four decades.
But a slightly specious note may be discovered in many of the good words of recent years that have been said about Mosley. (Said especially since his death; if it is bad to criticize a dead man on the grounds that he can’t reply, is it any better to reserve the full flowering of relative kindliness and fairness for the time when he can’t benefit?) This note sounds in the one basic qualification generally attached to those words, lending a resounding “Yes, but…” effect. The line goes something like this: “Ah, Mosley… tsk, what a tragedy. He could have accomplished great things with all that talent and some of those modern ideas of his. If it just weren’t for that fall into extremism and Fascism; must have been a character flaw there. Well, the major parties lost a great one, for sure. Could have used him. Yes, too bad about that Fascist thing, too bad…” Thus the “tragedy of Mosley” — that a man of such high station, so full of early influence and exalted promise, could “succumb” (to something or other) and take himself down “the wrong path” (or “the twisted path"), leading only to the pale and beyond. Here we have Mosley considered not really on his own terms but, as usual, on the terms, from the singular perspective, of the Establishment. For a long time criticized and condemned on those terms, lately praised and lamented on those terms: the tragedy of how Mosley was lost to the use of the old ways — not of how possible new, radically new, ways were lost to the use of Britain.
Surely this lament for “the lost Mosley” does not amount finally to the lament that, oh, what a shame, Labour in the '40s could have had a much more dynamic and photogenic leader than Clement Atlee! Mosley would laugh in his grave. He could not but have left Labour eventually (at least any Labour Party likely ever to have been constituted), precisely as he did leave it in 1931. He was made for more than that, and his cause — which came to him gradually — was far greater than that; he finally knew it, he tried for more, and he failed. He failed right at the vigorous prime, not at all toward the enfeebling end, of his life, still a young man with much ahead of him. The times, the situation, had determined when he would make his gamble for “The Greater Britain.” (They determined also — and this is very importan — that and how he would make the gamble.) He never regretted his course, though he had decades in the political wilderness to help persuade him to do so. Rather he kept on, with a new movement suited. he said, to the post-1945 world realities. New vehicle notwithstanding, the guiding cause was really the same, with the difference now that it was a greater one, not just Britain's. As Mosley put it: “Europe a Nation.” But no regret — and certainly no apology. For Mosley, surveying the course of Britain and Europe since the Second World War, there could only be regret that the cause to which he had sacrificed his career, and which had promised a far, far different future for his nation, its continent and culture, had not succeeded. Hardly could there be any other regret, certainly not on fundamentals, when the very evidences — massive, innumerable, overwhelming — of vindication, the what-is compared with the what-could-have-been, stared back unblinking, like Nietzsche’s abyss, into the souls of all who cared to look, and had a European soul so to be affrighted.
Just who had taken “the wrong path” — Mosley in turning to Fascism, or those who rejected and condemned him and it? That can only be answered after it has been asked. and the Establishment, for all its “new objectivity” in treating Mosley, has not yet got around to asking that. When it does, as it will one day, we will see finally considered with all due seriousness (and that is no little seriousness) the ideas and program of, yes, Mosley the Fascist and European unionist. Nevermore just Mosley the “lost leader” of Labour (or, for that matter, of the Tories), not just the Mosley who “could have been another Lloyd George if he'd played his cards right,” but as well the Mosley who could utterly renounce the old parties and the old philosophies to provide his countrymen with the great and revolutionary alternative of a new philosophy and synthesis. The Mosley of the British Union Peace Programme of 1939, of the Declaration of Venice of 1962, not just of the rejected Labour “Memorandum” of 1930. Only when this Mosley is considered in wide and serious measure will objectivity have run its course, to do which it must pass through the pale itself, using as a guide precisely that “wrong” path Mosley was alleged to have taken. To where that path, in time, leads will also be found the answer to the question of just whose real and great tragedy the Mosley story, the brilliant Mosley failure, described. For those who have already ventured in their hearts down that path, reaching the precipice that is also a lookout, the answer stands clear: more than a man's; more than a nation's; Europe's.