Was the Abbott Government fascist? Many people have asked this question, and since September 2013 many articles in both mainstream and independent media have attempted to answer it. Some of the answers have been hysterical to say the least, some have been well-argued, but until now no forensic analyses have ever been undertaken. Dr George Venturini*, in this 50 part series which begins today, explores the depths of this question and provides the reader with many surprising answers.
Enjoy the journey over the next 50 days.
The word ‘Fascist’ has become a term of abuse, rarely employed in Australia, quite often by people who are short of arguments, and in many cases by people who do not know precisely what the word means. A clarification is essential before proceeding.
Fascism, historically speaking, was a bloody political movement which was linked with Syndicalist-Corporativism. It was born in Italy, existed just 21 years, between 1922 and 1943. There was a criminal ’coda’ on the service of the German occupiers between 1943 and 1945. Any better definition has proved contentious. Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have engaged in long debates concerning the exact nature of Fascism and its core tenets.
In the words attributed to Benito Mussolini, but most probably provided by the Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism, because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”
Literature on the subject is monumental, and with a restricted view to Australia there have been several attempts, all of them following the attributes of a Fascist movement listed in a seminal work by L.W. Britt, ‘Fascism anyone?’, Free Inquiry Magazine, Vol 23, no. 2 (July 2004). Among those which specifically referred to Australia, and by now of certain vintage, are: A. Broinowski, ‘A fascist Australia?’, (2006), G. Hassan, ‘The Rise and Rise of Super Fascism’ (2011), G. Venturini, ‘Is Australia Fascist?’, (2011), P. Cannon, ‘The characteristics of Fascism and how we might note its presence today’, (2014), accessible at Parallax (blog). These authors followed Dr. Britt’s categorisations; they agreed on fourteen of them. And they had all been preceded by the eminent philosopher U. Eco in ‘Eternal Fascism: Fourteen ways of looking at a blackshirt’, The New York Review of Books (June 1995). There are of course many other examinations, in more comprehensive works, such as Michael Cathcart, Defending the National Tuckshop: Australia’s Secret Army intrigue of 1931 (Melbourne 1988), Andrew Moore, The Secret Army and the Premier (Sydney 1989), David S. Bird, Nazi dreamtime: Australian enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany (Melbourne 2012). And there is, of course, the famous Kangaroo by D.H. Lawrence (London 1923).
With respect, many of those efforts are not completely satisfactory for reasons too long to explain here. Naturally, most of the basic elements on which they concentrate are present in Australia. None of those writers, however, provided a definition. One will be attempted by way of conclusion. Of course, there are many elements of comparison, and they are shared between Australia and Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and National-Catholic Spain. Comparisons could be drawn from time to time in the following presentation which respects the order of points common to the above scholars, particularly to Dr. Broinowski. But the presentation is more by way of a hypothesis than of a thesis.
It can’t happen here?
Australia in 1919-1920 seethed with continual unrest.
In the 1920s sections of the Australian ruling class quickly became sympathetic to Fascism and its aim of completely destroying trade unions, the Left and working class organisations. There was particular admiration for what Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, had achieved after he was called to power by the Savoy king in 1922. This was preceded by the assassination of many anti-fascists, and later followed by the imprisonment of all opposition leaders and the banning of all opposition political parties and newspapers.
When he returned from Italy in 1923 the Nationalist Premier of Victoria, Harry S. W. Lawson, proclaimed Mussolini as the one, “whom Providence wanted to lead Italy.”
The manager of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Bank of Commerce, today’s Westpac, was pleased to hail Mussolini as, “certainly one of the most wonderful men I have ever seen.”
After the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti in June 1924 and the farce of ‘elections’ in Italy, a returning Premier of New South Wales, Sir George W. Fuller, expressed his admiration “of the man who saved Italy … from Bolshevism.”
During the 1925 seafarers’ strike, the Sydney Morning Herald reminded its readers that, “Italy … was only saved from Red Dominance by the heroic remedy of Fascism – a dreadful medicine for sure, and yet less bitter than the plague it stopped.”
Australia earned its own history of mass Fascist movements. The most serious was the emergence of the Fascist New Guard in New South Wales in the late 1920s. It came as a product of a period of intense class struggle and working class radicalisation which led to the election of a reformist state Labor government amidst what was then the worst economic crisis in the history of capitalism.
Secret and not-so-secret right-wing militias emerged as Australia headed into Depression in late 1929 and Labor Party governments took office.
Anti-democratic ideas became respectable. The press argued openly that such militias might be proved necessary if Labor was re-elected or things got “out of hand”.
There were numerous calls for a dictatorship or a government run by “a committee of experts.” Many conservatives hoped that General Sir John Monash, a first world war commander, could be installed as dictator. The Bulletin argued in 1930 that: “There is only one man who can save Australia … John Monash. Let the remnants of the Old Brigade rally around him and give him a council of financial experts.” To his credit, Monash rejected the invitation, saying that he did not intend to betray the ‘present constitutional system’. He rejected a subsequent written request put to him by a powerful group of Sydney businessmen.
Fascism as a mass phenomenon is a product of a capitalist system which is in deep social and political crisis. That was the case with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The crisis of the Depression years led to a political and social polarisation along class lines. More than 30 per cent unemployment, wage cuts, widespread evictions and mass poverty led masses of workers to question the whole basis of capitalist society.
On 18 February 1931 the New Guard was formed by retired Colonel Eric Campbell, a solicitor, and seven other ex-officers turned businessmen, at the Imperial Service Club in Sydney. It was formed as a breakaway from the much larger and more powerful Old Guard, which had prominent capitalist supporters and operated secretly.
In New South Wales the radical populist Labor Premier Jack Lang won an enormous following. To the left of Lang, the Socialisation Units – which were committed to the immediate introduction of socialism – enrolled tens of thousands. The Communist Party also grew.
The New Guard, with 36,000 members, was an open Fascist organisation which physically attacked union, the Australian Labor Party, unemployed and communist meetings. Its leader, Eric Campbell, visited Italy and Germany and established close relations with the Fascists there.
The New was more middle class in character than the Old Guard. At its peak in November 1931 it claimed 36,000 paid-up and active members, and probably twice that in supporters – about 80,000 members in total. This is a vast membership considering Sydney then had only 1.5 million people and a police force of 1850.
Its dramatic rise had come in response to the election of Labor’s Jack Lang as New South Wales Premier in October 1930. Ruling class opinion was hysterical about Lang. Lang was no revolutionary, but he was seen as opening the way for all the disloyal elements in society – the Reds, the unemployed and the Irish Catholics. Irish Catholics were the Muslims of the day – they had betrayed the Empire during its hour of need during the first world war by revolting against Protestant rule.
Every state had its own Fascist or far right organisations. In March 1931 the League of National Security staged a trial run at a coup. Its armed militias seized dozens of towns across rural Victoria.
In 1931-32 there were 130,000 Australians under arms, out of a population of just over 6 million. They trained and drilled with an assortment of Fascist or far right paramilitary organisations. These were ‘respectable’ citizens: solicitors, doctors, dentists, graziers and business owners.
The conservative governments which came to power federally and at the state level shared many of the values of the New and Old Guard. Indeed, at one time at least 20 New South Wales members of parliament were members of the New Guard. There were others from the Old Guard.
The parliamentary arm of the Right achieved a lot of what the paramilitary wing desired: democratic rights sharply undermined, major attacks on free speech, a harsh censorship regime, and a crackdown on the Left, the unions and the unemployed.
At one point the New Guard made plans to kidnap Jack Lang and to stage a coup d’état to place the state under martial law.
The New Guard is best-known for the actions of Captain Francis De Groot, who upstaged proceedings at the official opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in March 1932 to cut the ceremonial ribbon with his sword.
Within one hundred days of Lang’s election, no less than 18 separate right-wing action groups were formed. This included four movements in regions like New England and the Riverina demanding separation from the state. In 1931, 10,000 people rallied in Wagga Wagga to demand a separate state.
All these groups received financial support from big business. Prominent New Guard supporters included Sir Frederick Stewart, a bus company owner and director of the Sydney Sun newspaper, and the aviators Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm.
The New Guard’s Finance head was Captain James R. Patrick, of Patrick stevedore and shipping company. He was assisted by F. W. Radford, the managing director of Patrick’s shipping line, Charles MacDonald, head of the Northern (N.S.W.) Collieries Association and Sidney Bennett of the Retailers’ Association.
Its membership was drawn mainly from the wealthy professional middle classes in banking, law and insurance, the Stock Exchange, and the wealthy North Shore and Eastern suburbs of Sydney. Campbell referred to them as “the right-thinking young men of the business and professional classes.”
The New Guard aimed at the “Suppression of any disloyal and immoral elements in government, industrial and social circles.” This meant attacking working class demonstrations and strikes in particular. Campbell had attempted this in August 1925 during the seafarers’ strike.
Stanley Bruce, the conservative Prime Minister, said he wanted a force of scabs to break the strike if the police could not do it.
Campbell and another former military officer handpicked 500 ex-soldiers. But in the end they were not needed. (The same tactic would be used by the Howard Government against the Maritime Union of Australia in the Australian waterfront dispute of 1998. It was a watershed event in Australian industrial relations history, in which the same Patrick Corporation undertook an illegal restructuring of their operations for the purpose of increasing the productivity of their workforce. Scabs especially trained in Dubai were brought on to the waterfront in balaclava and assisted by assault-dogs). Nihil sub sole novum.
What distinguished the New Guard from other right-wing groups was that it aimed to build a para-military organisation capable of physically crushing left-wing demonstrations, political parties and unions. This focussed on building a mass movement of street thugs marked it out as a Fascist group distinct from conventional right-wing parties.
In April 1932 the New Guard organised a riot outside Sydney’s Central Police Station as a trial run for a coup. It went badly. But just over a month later Lang was gone. The Guard, which had close connections with the police, the armed forces and the security apparatus, and the leadership of which read like a who-is-who of the Sydney establishment, had mobilised to bring his government down. As well as a secret military wing, the Guard had an open front organisation of 130,000 members called the All Australia League.
On the evening of 13 May 1932 Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed Premier Jack Lang – an action which was regarded as unprecedented in Australia politics. (But it was repeated, with the complicity of the monarch in 1975, when Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam Government).
In 1932 a brigade of several hundred New Guardsmen was stationed in the basement of a department store building, several hundred metres from the State Parliament House. They had threatened to march upon Parliament House and stage a coup attempt if Premier Lang would refuse to resign. (An enfeebled trade union leadership could not find the strength quickly and decisively to respond to the coup d’état of 1975).
At Anzac Day parades between 1930 and 1937, Italian Fascists were welcomed to march as a distinct group. Their Fascist salutes provoked no adverse comment in the major newspapers.
Support for Hitler and Mussolini was widespread in establishment circles.
In 1933 the Melbourne Herald ran a series of articles titled “Why I have become a Fascist” by Wilfrid Kent Hughes, a Victorian MP. Kent Hughes came from a well connected Melbourne family. He had been school captain at Melbourne Grammar and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He went on to become deputy premier of Victoria. In the 1950s he was a minister in Menzies’ federal Liberal government.
Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister, was glowing in his praise of Nazi Germany. In 1938, when federal attorney general, he visited the Nazified country and enthused about the “really spiritual quality in the willingness of Germans to devote themselves to the service and well being of the state.”
Hitler and Mussolini were viewed as heroes by conservatives because they had crushed the socialist movement and smashed the unions. They had ensured that profits kept rolling in.
Tomorrow: It can’t happen here? (continued)
* In memory of my friends, Professor Bertram Gross and Justice Lionel Murphy.
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975 he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra. He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.
➡️ Part 2