Trevor Blake: Fire Over Europe
On 1 October 1942, the Absolute Union of Democracy held a public meeting titled Fire Over Europe.
It could be these two undated photographs give a flavor of what Fire Over Europe might have looked like.
The Absolute Union of Democracy published books and handbills including Crusade or Suicide!, Unity and Tolerance and Total Union Now!
A newspaper clipping of 9 October 1942 described Fire Over Europe:
NEW CRUSADE OF DEMOCRACY
Absolute Union States Its Case
UNIQUE MEETING AT CLAPHAM AROUSES CURIOSITY
It may have been the time at which it was held; it may have been that people are just not interested in political meetings – even super-political meetings. Whatever the cause, Fire Over Europe, the mass meeting organised by the Absolute Union of Democracy at St. Mary’s Hall, Clapham, on Friday, was not exactly massive.
St. Mary’s Hall has a seating capacity of several hundred. On Friday it held barely fifty people, and even they seemed prompted as much by curiosity as by enthusiasm for the A.U.D.
The Absolute Union is a comparatively new organisation, and it finds the path of pioneers is hard.
As it was, Fire over Europe just needed a packed hall to make the proceedings truly impressive.
A background to the platform had as a dominating feature the symbol of the Union – a white sword on a scarlet shield, symbol, too of the Crusaders. The device was also prominently displayed round the hall. The motto is: “Total union; total war; and total democracy.” Fire over Europe was dedicated to a great democrat and a man of high principle, Abraham Lincoln. Much was made of his famous words declaring “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” There were recordings on a gramaphone of speeches by Lloyd George in the Queen’s Hall in September, 1914; by Mr. Churchill in 1918 and 1940; of Mr. Neville Chamberlain at Munich and Heston; and also the ravings of Adolf Hitler.
Fire over Europe was in fact a review in words and pictures of the period 1914-1942 – the last war; the rise of Mussolini and Hitler; the Italian attack on Abyssinia; the German rape of Austria; the fall of Czecho Slovakia; Hitler’s “No more territorial demands to make upon Europe”; and then the declaration of the present war. Recordings made at the time of the Battle of Britain gave a realistic touch to that phrase in the struggle – the sound of aero engines and machine gun fire seeming to be overheard in the skies above Clapham.
This dramatic presentation ended with a reminder of the Russians desperately defending Stalingrad, the Japs menacing Siberia, and the U.S.S.R. waiting for a blow to be struck at Hitler’s Western Front.
It was Mr. Richard Tathan [sic, Tatham] (general secretary of the South London Region of the Union) who explained the implications of Fire over Europe. The A.U.D. describes itself as a super-political organisation, and Mr. Tathan declared that it has within its ranks people of all parties. Only by unity could anything be achieved, he said.
Mentioning the fact that the religious bodies of Steatham had got together, Mr. Tathan commented: “If religious bodies can do that, so can political bodies.”
The A.U.D. did not wish to stop people holding their own beliefs – it wanted total unity which could bring about total democracy.
Total democracy did not mean men standing in dole queues, kiddies starving, or insecurity. What, then, was total democracy? He described it as both economic and political democracy.
A great misunderstanding had been cleared away, he went on, and the Russian and Western democracies were seeing a lot of things they had not seen before.
“It is clear,” said Mr. Tathan, “that we have one-half of the new world in this country and one-half in Russia. Russia has got economic democracy, we have got political democracy here. If put together, then surely haven’t you got just that kind of new world that everybody is waiting for?”
It would not be achieved by squabbling or party differences.
“People have been so busy in the past sorting differences among themselves that agreements were passed to one side,” observed Mr. Tathan. “There is nothing on this earth which a determined nucleus of people cannot achieve.”
And what was the answer of Youth to the problem of the world?
“This is the answer: ‘From here we will go on. We do not care how many setbacks – we are determined to go through with this.”
Mr. Frank Stone came to the point of what the Union is going to do in Clapham.
“We have been here a matter of a few weeks,” he said, “and compared with any other political organisation, the number of members we have rallied round our banner is considerable. But for a super-political organisation – which this is – the results are only mediocre. Why? Because throughout the land there is a terrible apathy. This apathy seeps into every corner and crack. It seeps into every organisation, and we see it even among those people who committed themselves in support of the cause for which we stand. But with a little faith we can spread rapidly in this borough. We must increase our membership, and increase it rapidly.”
But his next statement roused dissent. “The fact you are here shows you are in agreement,” he said. This declaration immediately brought forth a series of “Noes.” Mr. Stone was undaunted, however. He put his point in another way: –
“You stand for the defeat of Fascism. To that extent we are united. Can we agree that, in order to defeat Fascism, we must fight a total war? All nations must unite as one great force and strike at the Axis – with all their might, with equality of sacrifice.”
To Mr. Harold Walesbury [sic, Walsby] (Regional Organiser for South London) fell the lot of answering questions.
Do you seriously suggest Russia is a democracy?
To this Mr. Walesbury replied that there was a form of democracy distinguished as economic democracy.
Is there a government of the people, by the people, for the people in Britain?
Mr. Walesbury declared that government was something more than sitting at Westminster, although so often thought of as such. Government was something in which everybody could take part, and Britain had got political democracy.
Why don’t you try to get rid of the political truce? Do you expect a Union of Conservatives – who would be in the majority – to agree to the abolition of unemployment and other things put forward?
Mr. Walesbury described the A.U.D. as anti-Parliamentary, instead advocating a Supreme Council with representatives of all parties, and a non-party chairman. Branches of the Union were carried on in this way, and he thought that answered the second question.
Total union is totalitarian?
“Yes, I would say we are totalitarians,” replied Mr. Walesbury. “We want in this country a total and complete democracy, and not a half-baked one.”
FINDING THE WINNER
Mr. Walesbury was asked one last question. It was given in jest, but his reply was prompt.
“Do you know Saturday’s winner?” was the query – to the laughter of the audience.
“The vast majority of people are more interested in the vain struggle to ‘find the winner’ than they are in political matters, and I think a great deal of the evils that exist to-day can be traced to the apathy and disinterest of the majority of people in their communal welfare.”
The Socialist Party of Great Britain kindly provided gwiep.net with this undated, uncredited newspaper article about Fire Over Europe:
Permit me a few observations on the report of the inaugural meeting of the Absolute Union of Democracy.
First, just what is this new outbreak on the body politic? Can you please inform as to who are or is the instigator or originators?
I have listened to their meetings on Clapham Common, and so far have noticed many of the old arguments which have been put forward by the New Party and the B.U.F. It would appear, in essence, a move to lead us, not toward Democracy, but into a Totalitarian state.
Mr. R. Tatham’s remarks at that meeting can only be taken, not only as a slur upon Government, but also as an unwarranted attack upon the British Public, and in particular the people of Clapham.
Mr. Tatham tells us that “we find from top to bottom of this nation, self interest before common interest is most prevalent.” He singles out a few delinquents, and that small minority he enlarges to fit the whole nation. Just the opposite would be nearer the truth.
The self-sacrifice in the common interest of our airmen will for ever remain immortal. The courage and devotion to duty of our Navy and Merchant Navy also in the common interest, have given their all and risked untold dangers that we may be fed.
The thousands upon thousands of men and women who have entered the Army, and made the supreme sacrifice, together with the Navy and Air Force, in making this island safe from Fascism, all give the lie to this terrific slander. Also, I would remind him of the many thousands of people who have entered the Civil Defence Services, in service free and ungrudging to their fellow beings.
Lastly, I would add a further tribute to the glorious women of this our land, whose life in this struggle has been more self sacrificing than ever. Up and down the country, millions of mothers are starving themselves in order that their husbands and children may be fed. Let Mr. Tatham, and the A.U.D., think on these things, and deeply, and more than once.
I am a Social Democrat, and have worked in Clapham for some years now, and claim to know something of the political tempo of Clapham. I would point out to the A.U.D. that in that inaugural speech they have fired a damp squib. Clapham never has been nor ever will be, moved by that type of propaganda.
Harold Walsby was the founder of the Absolutist and the Social Science Association. He was the subject of the Walsby Society. He made reference to “senso-propaganda” in his 1946 book The Domain of Ideologies:
If we begin to doubt the mass-rationality assumption – as, in view of our preliminary study, we are so entitled to do – then certain events will start to take an a new significance, and certain apparently unconnected events can be related together mare than has been possible hitherto. To illustrate, take the case already referred to (p.52) – and described in detail by Chakotin in The Rape of the Masses – of the rejection, in Germany, in 1932, by the Left-wing leadership, of the proposal to introduce on a large scale, what Chakotin calls “senso-propaganda” (scientific but violently emotional propaganda) into the Left-wing’s struggle with the Nazis far popular support and consequent power. As we have stated earlier, the new scientific methods were tried out an a comparatively small scale with great success.
‘Scientific Propaganda’ was mentioned in the 1948 booklet The Social Science Association Introduces Democratic Union:
SCIENTIFIC PROPAGANDA: Democracy must inspire the enthusiasm of the great mass of people. Anti-democratic forces have no qualms about using all the modern methods of propaganda: democracy must reply in an even louder voice, using a highly scientific appeal. The broad masses must be addressed in spiritual and emotional terms, not in terms of logic: that is a psychological axiom. If democracy hesitates to do this, fascism certainly won’t hesitate. Therefore, Democratic Union will make its meetings as spectacular as possible, with symbols, slogans, emotional oratory, pageantry: in short, its propaganda methods will be similar to those advocated by Chakotin in his famous Rape of the Masses.
Nat Nesbit was a member of the Absolute Group and later the Social Science Association. He wrote about the use of “senso-propaganda” in his 1963 essay A Project of Amity:
The Social Science Association, originally known as the Absolute Group [was] organised primarily around the person of Harold Walsby, from 1938. […] It was […] considered that, to the extent that political movements expressing higher levels of insight failed to meet the emotional needs of [the] majority, a danger existed of the eruption of these needs into the purest and most typical expression of the mass mode of thought: fascism. The SSA therefore from time to time put forward a political programme for a multiple organisation of all the major “democratic” tendencies – conservative, liberalism, labourism and communism – on a platform of opposition to fascism coupled with the use of “senso-propaganda” techniques for arousing the enthusiasm of the unreasoning masses.
Peter Shepherd was a member of the Social Science Association and the Walsby Society. He wrote about “senso-propaganda” in his April 1965 essay Origins and Limitations of the Walsby Viewpoint:
[Harold Walsby] held that fascism was always liable to reappear to the extent that the exponents of democratic ideologies failed to provide an outlet for the irrational needs of this lowest layer. Thus the SSA tried for a time to sponsor a political programme whereby a multiple organisation of all the major “democratic” tendencies – conservatism, liberalism, labourism and communism – would systematically combat fascism by using techniques of “senso-propaganda” (a term coined by Chakotin in The Rape of the Masses) to arouse enthusiasm in the unreasoning mass “layer.” At that time there were some signs of a resurgence of Mosley’s movement in Britain, but as they died away so the SSA’s political raison d’etre disappeared. Its scientific pretensions had never been more than rather nominal, and were quite insufficient to prevent moribundity and finally death, early in 1956.
Peter Shepherd wrote about “senso-propaganda” in his circa 1976 essay Harold Walsby, Independent Thinker:
Walsby at this time [1940s] appears to have been more concerned to elaborate a political programme and framework of activity which would serve to nullify the emotional appeal of movements of the Nazi and Fascist type than to develop a theory of the nature and forms of political consciousness. As he saw it, democracy would be in constant or at least recurrent peril as long as anti-democratic forces were better able to take advantage of the emotional suggestibility of the masses – a theme in fact pursued in Chapters 4 and 8 of this book. That nine pages are there devoted to a discussion of Serge Chakotin’s The Rape of the Masses and the successful use of ‘senso-propaganda’ on a local basis by anti-Nazis in Germany in 1932, in a book containing little more than 200 pages of text, is significant. Walsby was much impressed by Chakotin’s findings.
What Walsby and his little group tried briefly to do was to form a ‘democratic union’ of members of the democratic parties – conservatives, liberals, labour-socialists and communists (considered for these purposes to be attached to democracy) – to combat Nazism and Fascism by the use of an equivalent of ‘senso-propaganda’. Their adventure failed utterly and, as some of them saw it, disastrously. Part of the reason, no doubt, was that it was not clear to them or anyone else just what their programme (apart from anti-fascism) was to be; more important may have been their gross lack of skills and experience relevant to ‘normal’ politics, the politics of issues and interests, as distinct from the abstract or theoretical politics of cafe disputation and the advocacy of general standpoints.
Robert Barltrop wrote about Fire Over Europe in his 1975 book The Monument.
What was needed, Walsby thought, was for the select group at the top to realize that followings were obtained not by reasoning but by the grosses appeals to the heard. Chakotin’s Rape of the Masses, a book which described the Nazis’ techniques of mass propaganda, indicated the way it should be done: rehearsed ritual, meaningless slogans, assemblies in which hysteria was carefully provoked. An attempt was made to translate this insight into practice. The SSA hired a hall in South London. The meeting was to be a highly theatrical one, rising to a hypnotic climax with a spotlight on a figure standing in white robes before the huge audience which would be there. The event, when it took place, was not up to expectations, though some blamed the weather. Only a few people came: the masses did not know that they had escaped a rape that night. – Robert Barltrop: The Monument, The Story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. London, Pluto Press 1975. Copyright © 1975 Pluto Press.
George Walford wrote about Fire Over Europe in his 1976 book The Ideology of a Monument.
The Monument is not perfect. There are errors of fact, some of them serious, but these can be corrected in a later edition without affecting the main body of the work. My own special knowledge concerns the account given, on pages 149-150, of Harold Walsby and the Social Science Association. This falls below the level of accuracy which, as far as my knowledge goes, is maintained, by the remainder of the book. I was out of London at the time of the events described in the sentence beginning “The SSA hired a hall…” on page 150, and cannot speak of them from direct knowledge. I know of them from report, at the time and afterward, and I believe the account given in The Monument to be a distortion. I know Robert Barltrop is wrong in saying the SSA did these things. It could not have done them. It was not in existence at the time. It was not founded until October 1944. Where Harold Walsby, his work and the SSA are concerned, Robert Barltrop is so badly wrong on so many things of which I have direct knowledge, and sometimes conclusive evidence (see below), that I am compelled to disregard, and advise the reader to disregard, everything he says on these subjects.
George Walford was out of London at the time of the events described in The Monument because he was in jail for using an identity card which did not belong to him. Walford was living underground as a conscientious objector.
George Walford may have been thinking of Fire Over Europe and senso-propaganda when he wrote Where Do We Go From Here? in 1981:
There is nothing in systematic ideology to prevent it being accepted by each of the major ideological groups in an interpretation that accords with the ideology of that group. Such acceptance does not call for Machiavellian subtlety of manipulation on the part of those concerned with the theory.
The participants in Fire Over Europe such as Harold Walsby, Richard Tatham and others went on to found the Social Science Association. In 1998 George Walford’s life-long friend and critic Ike Benjamin told Trevor Blake that he was in attendance at Fire Over Europe. His description? “A lot of rubbish.”