Posts Tagged ‘Conservatism’

IDS’ Beliefs and Fascist Irrationalism

February 17, 2014

Ian Duncan Rimmer

Ian Duncan Smith: The Sane Choice

‘Do I detect a little anti-intellectualism here? Must’ve started about 1982 [the year Reagan was elected] I think’,

– Comedian Bill Hicks on being reproached for reading in a Virginia waffle house.

‘This man is dangerous. He believes his own propaganda.’

– German Conservative politician on Adolf Hitler.

Ian Duncan Smith doesn’t seem to like defending his policies rationally. His department has repeatedly refused demands to release the figures of the numbers of people, who have died due to being denied benefit support as a result of his reforms. Such requests are decried as ‘vexatious’. Other excuses for not releasing them include the straightforward admission that these would create public opposition to them, and prevent their implementation. Mike’s blogged about this a number of times on Vox Political, after his own request for the figures under the FOI was turned down. These statements are a tacit admission by IDS and the rest of his department that they know their policies are killing people by the thousands, and that they simply don’t work in the way they’re claimed. They just don’t want you and the rest of the British public knowing it.

When challenged whether his views are correct, IDS has been known to retreat into mere statements of belief. They are correct, according to IDS, because he believes in them.

Another political figure, who used much the same arguments, stressing belief, rather than rationality, was the Right-wing German writer, Ernst Junger. Junger stated that it was completely unimportant whether a cause was true or not. What was important was ‘to sacrifice oneself for a faith, regardless of whether that faith embraces truth or error.’

Junger was one of the intellectual precursors to Nazism. He declared that it was a privilege to take part in the intellectuals high treason against intellect. Unlike the Left, who were horrified by war, Junger saw it as inspiring and ennobling, glorifying the First World War and its violence in his 1922 collection of essay Der Kampf als innere Erlebnis (Struggle as Inner Experience). He stated

Combat is one of the truly great experiences. And I have still to find someone to whom the moment of victory was not one of shattering exaltation… I should not like to do without this force among the complex of emotions that drive us through life.

Considering war as a necessity and a release, he further stated that in military combat

the true human being makes up in a drunken orgy for everything he has been neglecting. Then his passions, too long damned up by society and its laws, become once more uniquely dominant and holy and the ultimate reason.

He therefore urged for a state of Total Mobilization, in which work would be a preparation for war. This would lead the working class away from Socialism and Marxism, and spread nationalism further throughout society. Of the First World War he said

This war is not the end, but the chord that heralds new power. it is the anvil on which the world will be hammered into new boundaries and new communities. New forms will be filled with blood, and might will be hammered into them with a hard fist. War is a great school, and the new man will be of our cut.

Other Right-wing intellectuals also shared Junger’s irrationalism. Junger was influenced by Oswald Spengler, whose ‘The Decline of the West’ exerted a profound influence on Fascist and nationalist groups in Germany and throughout Europe. In his 1924 speech On the Political Duties of German Youth, Spengler declared

Whether one is right or wrong-that doesn’t amount to much in history. Whether or not he is superior to his adversary in a practical way, that is what decides whether he will be successful. .. To be honourable and nothing else-that’s not enough for our future… To train oneself as material for great leaders, in proud self-denial, prepared for personal sacrifice, that is also a German virtue. And, given the case that, in the hard times ahead, strong men will appear, leaders to whom we must entrust our fate, then they must have something upon which they can rely. They need a generation such as Bismarck did not find, which appreciates their kind of action and does not reject it for romantic reasons, a dedicated band of followers who have, but way of long and serious self-training, come to the point of understanding the necessary and do not-as would doubtless be true today -reject it as un-German.

Both Hitler and Mussolini saw their parties as movements, first and foremost, in which action and belief came before reasoned analysis and political programmes. Hitler refused to announce the Nazis’ programme for the 1933 German elections because

All programmes are vain; the decisive thing is the human will, sound vision, manly courage, sincerity of faith, the inner will.

Mussolini attempted to give Fascism a quasi-religious element in the policy of Fascismo Mistica, that would render it invulnerable from rational attack. Ten years before Hitler’s statement, he declared that Fascism was, above all, a myth:

We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, it is passion. It is not necessary that it shall be a reality.

George Sorel

This Right-wing celebration of the forces of unreason, of belief and violence instead of rationalism and intellectual analysis and discussion, ultimately derives from Georges Sorel. Sorel was a Syndicalist, who believed that the workers should use trade unions to seize power in through violent revolution in a General Strike. However, it was not necessary that the General Strike should actually occur. All that mattered was that it should provide an inspiring myth that would encourage the workers to action against the bourgeoisie.

This irrationalism was designed to place the central, mobilising ideas of Fascism and Nazism beyond rational criticism.

Just to assert the supreme importance of such things as race, blood, soul, will character, and manly courage is to place all politics beyond criticism, since obviously belief in such things is impervious to rational attack. To say that modern Italy is the heir of Imperial Rome, that the Third Reich is the continuation of the empire of Barbarossa, that liberalism is foreign to the ‘Latin mind’, that purity of race is more important than thought, that ‘insight’ is more valuable than ‘barren intellectualism’-all of these assertions may be ridiculous, but they are argument at a level above-or below-that at which refutation is possible.

Lane W. Lancaster, Masters of Political Thought III: Hegel to Dewey (London: George Harrap & Co. Ltd. 1959) 300.

And so it is with Ian Duncan Smith. His statements that he ‘believes’ in his policies towards the unemployed and the disabled is also intended to put them beyond rational questioning.

Now Conservativism isn’t Fascism, even though many of the proto-Nazi writers of the Weimar period, such as Moeller van den Bruck, considered themselves ‘revolutionary conservatives’. Nevertheless, Conservatism does share with Fascism a stress on the irrational, and an appeal to social solidarity rather than rational arguments. This is particularly clear in Private Eye’s review of Roger Scruton’s 1987 Untimely Tracts

Roger Scruton is an anomaly: a conservative intellectual. In the past, few Tories have felt a need to theorize and few have been able to write or enunciate clearly. Even now most Tory utterances are pleasantly uncomplicated: the faithful barking of Paul Johnson, say, or the appreciative gargling of Auberon Waugh.

But this will not do for Professor Scruton. He wants his arguments; he has to have his reasons. Of course, to well-brought-up Tories this simply show him up as a grammar school bug, too keen by half. Scruton knows that intellectuals are a bit off, but he just can’t help himself. He is a philosopher, through and through. For the social solidarity which stiffens most reactionaries, he seeks to substitute a flow of ‘hences’ and ‘therefores’.

‘Rogers’ Thesaurus’ in in Francis Wheen, ed., Lord Gnome’s Literary Companion (London: Verso 1994) 287-8.

Hence the furious denunciations of Left-wing intellectuals and academics for daring to question rationally traditional society and its institutions. It’s therefore not surprising that Scruton in the above book declared that most teachers were ‘diseducated’, lamented that the majority of MPs ‘are no longer from a social class which feels no need to use the Commons for the purpose of social gain’ and defends hereditary peerages as essential to economic stability.

Now I am not accusing IDS of being a Fascist, but his appeal to belief to defend his policies, rather than reasoned argument, is part of Fascist irrationalism. You can also see a Fascistic element in his militarism, and the determination to use mass mobilisation – workfare – to mould the working class to take them away from socialism. Under IDS this is much less to do with forming work as preparation for war, and so giving the workers an element of excitement, but of simply crushing their wills to reduce them to the level of servile drones for international capitalism.

All this needs to be challenged, and IDS held to account. His appeal to belief, rather than facts and figures, is ridiculous and dangerous, just as it was to a far great extent with the Nazis and Fascists.

The Real Source of the Coalition’s Employment Policy: Morgus from Dr. Who’s ‘The Caves of Androzani’

November 30, 2013

Sometimes, life really does follow art. This week we had Boris Johnson telling a gathering of City bankers that ‘greed is right’, almost, but not quite, following Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko. The other night it struck me that the government’s way of tackling unemployment also seems to bear more than a little resemblance to another piece of 80s screen fiction, the Dr Who story ‘The Caves of Androzani’.

This was Peter Davison’s final regular appearance as the fifth Doctor. In it, the Doctor and Peri land on Androzani Minor, where they get caught up in a struggle between government forces, led by Major Chellak, and an army of androids, created by the mad scientist Sheraz Jek. Androzani Minor is the source of the drug Spectrox, which massively extends the human lifespan. Its production is controlled by a massive industrial combine, the Conglomerate, whose chairman is the avaricious and ruthless Krau Morgus. This has, however, been disrupted by Sheraz Jek. Jek had previously been employed by the Conglomerate, creating an android workforce, who could harvest the raw Spectrox safely. He was, however, betrayed by Morgus. Androzani Minor is subject to periodic mudbursts, geyser-like blasts of boiling mud caused by tidal action when the planet passes close to its larger twin, Androzani Major. Morgus sabotaged Jek’s instruments so that he was caught without warning in one of the mudbursts. Horribly disfigured and driven by an all-consuming desire for revenge, Jek has stopped production of the drug in order to force the Androzani government to kill Morgus. The government, in its turn, has sent in troops under Chellak to quell Jek and his androids and restore production.

Morgus, however, has managed to turn this situation to his own advantage. A ruthless businessman with absolutely no morals, Morgus is deliberately using the war to raise the price of Spectrox. He supplies the government forces with the arms and equipment they need, while also secretly supplying Jek through a group of mercenaries in return for shipments of Spectrox.

Spectrox in its raw state is highly poisonous, with the victims of Spectrox toxaemia dying in three days. The Doctor and Peri contract this after falling into a Spectrox nest. The plot revolves around the Doctor’s and Peri’s attempts to escape from Chellak, Jek and the mercenaries, and the Doctor’s efforts to find the antidote before they finally succumb to the poison. He is concerned primarily with saving himself and his companion. His mere presence on Androzani acts as a catalyst for increasing confrontation between Chellak and Jek, and the political and criminal machinations by Morgus, which finally culminate in his overthrow and downfall by his PA, Trau Timmon.

It’s a taut story, which combines the political thriller with elements of Restoration drama and Jacobean tragedy. At certain crucial points, Morgus turns to speak directly to camera. As in Jacobean tragedy, nearly everyone dies at the end, with the exception of Peri, Trau Timmon and the Doctor. Here’s a fan trailer for it from Youtube:

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It’s Youtube address is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjH_hZZhaXw.

Morgus himself is smooth talking, exploitative and ruthless. When he finds out that one of the Conglomerate’s mines has produced too much copper, he arranges new equipment containing a bomb to be sent to the plant, which is destroyed in the resulting explosion. Fearing that Androzani’s president is aware of his duplicity, he personally pushes him down an empty lift shaft. Calling Trau Timmon to inform her of the tragic accident, he muses, ‘Still, it could have been worse.’
‘How so?’, she asks.
‘It could have been me.’

Here’s another fan produced piece from Youtube, showing Morgus as one of the fifty great Dr Who villains of all time.

It’s on Youtube at:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3mlkV6tmA0.

Particularly noteworthy here is Morgus’ solution to the social problems caused by unemployment. At 0.55 on the video he states ‘those without valid work permits will be sent to the eastern labour camps’. Morgus makes this comment in a conversation with the President, who drily observes ‘Where they’ll work for you for free’.
‘I hadn’t thought of that’, replies Morgus.
To which the President simply says, ‘I know’, while all the while looking at Morgus with eyes that say the complete opposite.

It’s this episode that reminds me very strongly of the government’s policy. After all, what is the Conglomerate’s deportation of the unemployed to forced labour camps except a form of workfare?

It’s been said that all Science Fiction is, despite its settings in the future, or on other worlds or parallel universes, about the issues facing present society. Workfare was certainly being discussed in the 1980s, when it was first introduced in America by the Reagan presidency. It’s been pointed out that much of the SF of the period is a reaction to the new, Conservative policies of the period, the privatisation of the economy and the growing power of frequently ruthless corporations. It is the Corporation in Alien and its sequel, Aliens, that sacrifices Ripley’s crewmates aboard the Nostromo, and the planet’s colonists and the marines sent to rescue them fifty years later in order to acquire the Aliens for the company’s weapons’ division. Another corporation, OCP, is also the villain in Robocop. The company acquires Detroit’s police force after it is privatised, and sets up a young, rookie cop, Murphy, to be gunned down in order to turn him into cybernetic law enforcement officer of the title. Morgus and the ruthless, exploitative Conglomerate can similarly be seen as a comment on the economic and social policies of Reagan and Thatcher. It is possible to go somewhat further, and suggest that the story’s also a disguised treatment of the Iran/Contra affair, in which the US government supplied arms to Iran and the Contras in Nicaragua, in return for the freeing of US hostages in Lebanon, and the shipment of cocaine into the US by the anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua.

It also needs to be noted, on the other hand, that the story is not necessarily an explicit comment on free-market capitalism. It’s assumed that the Conglomerate is privately owned, but it’s not stated. Both the Fascist and Communist dictatorships have used forced labour in industry, and so the use of unemployed slave labour in Morgus’ work camps could simply be based on those examples, especially as the work camps are on the ‘eastern continent’. Dr Who’s writers were clearly well aware of the way totalitarian states, particularly Nazi Germany, operated when devising their villains, such as Davros in The Genesis of the Daleks. Even so, free market capitalism under David Cameron has very definitely followed Morgus’ Conglomerate in the introduction of forced labour for the unemployed, even if they haven’t started to send people to Siberia yet. As for Morgus deliberately manipulating production to keep it profitably low, and create a reservoir of the unemployed, which he can exploit for free, the Angry Yorkshireman over at Another Angry Voice has pointed out that Neo-Liberal economics demands a constant unemployment rate of 6 per cent or so to keep labour cheap.

So, one way or another, Cameron’s government is following the Science Fictional policies of Dr Who’s Trau Morgus. Only without bombing mines and personally assassinating leading politicians. And it’s similarly time that someone brought it all to an end, though hopefully we won’t have to wait for a visitor from beyond the stars.

Spamfish on Modern American ‘Inverted Totalitarianism’

August 3, 2013

There’s a very interesting piece of political philosophy over at Spamfish’s site, Oprichnik Rising. Entitled ‘Inverted Totalitarianism’, it discusses the political philosopher, Sheldon Wolin’s, characterisation of modern American as an ‘illiberal democracy’, managed through policies and special lobbying groups, with the relationship between the government and corporations forming an inverted, mirror image to those of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. It begins

Inverted totalitarianism is a term coined by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin to describe the emerging form of government of the United States. Wolin believes that the United States is increasingly turning into an illiberal democracy, and he uses the term “inverted totalitarianism” to illustrate the similarities and differences between the United States governmental system and totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.[

Inverted totalitarianism and managed democracy

Wolin believes that the United States (which he refers to using the proper noun “Superpower”, to emphasize the current position of the United States as the only superpower) has been increasingly taking on totalitarian tendencies as a result of the transformations that it underwent during the military mobilization required to fight the Axis powers, and during the subsequent campaign to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War

Spamfish’s article is at http://spamfish23.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/inverted-totalitarianism/.

It’s well worth reading and I think Wolin’s central idea is largely correct. My only criticism is that in many ways the parallels between the Nazi ‘co-ordination’ of industry and the contemporary influence of private industry on government policy and organisation is actually much closer. Others on the Left have described the modern, Conservative co-option of industrialist and big corporations as ‘Corporativism without the working class’. In Fascist Italy, a corporation was a giant industrial organisation formed to represent the interest of that industry in the Fascist state. There were 12 of these corporations, whose representatives sat in an Industrial Chamber as part of new, Fascist Italian parliament. Each Corporation contained a representative from the unions and the employers’ organisation for that industry, as well as a member of the Fascist party, to represent ‘the people’. In Nazi Germany the middle class organisations, such as the guild and handicraft organisation, which had been campaigning for the greater representation of their interests in the Nazi state, were forcibly incorporated into the Reich Corporation of German Handicraft and the Reich Corporation of German Trade. These formed a kind of compulsory cartel under the leadership of the Nazi party.

There were also short-lived attempts to establish the same kind of corporativist structurre in Nazi German. Attempts to reorganise and align German big business in line with Nazi ideology and policy was countered by the leaders of those industries through their close relationship with Hitler himself, and the support other leading Nazis such as Schacht, Hugenberg, Schmitt and Goring. Following a meeting with fifty leading industrials and bank directors, including Krupp, Thyssen, von Siemens, Stinnes, springorum, Bosch, Vogler and von Stauss, and the heads of the state departments for economic policy and Nazi’s own economic policy advisors, an agreement was made to establish a permanent General Council of the Economy. Heavy industry had a very strong presence in this. Some German industrial leaders were already strongly sympathetic to the Nazis and a corporatist reorganisation of the industrial and social structure. Fritz Thyssen had had contact with Hitler since 1923 and supplied financial support to the Nazis. In collaboration with the advocates of the corporatist state in the NSDAP regional staff, he had set up Institute for Corporatist Organisation in Dusseldorf. Despite this, the party soon rejected such corporativist organisations, and Thyssen’s Institute was forcibly dissolved in 1935. In 1934 the Reich Association of Industry was replaced with the Reich Group Industry. Its leaders and those of the other business associations and chambers were appointed by the state.

The Influence of Private Industry on the Nazi Industrial Organisations

Other Nazi economic organisations were founded as private industries. The Economic Research Association, which was branch of the Reich ministry of Economics, was established in 1934 as private limited company. This was particularly concerned with the construction of fuel depots in strategically important areas. This, and similar departments, were largely untouched by the demands of the state bureaucracy The Nazi state did not attack the principle of private capitalist industry. The state economic planning apparatus curtailed company director’s freedom to manage their own firms, nevertheless the Nazi state tried to operate with the minimum of bureaucracy. In so doing, it allowed the state’s organs of administration and control to be strongly influenced by experts and representatives of private industry. The result of this was, according to historian Martin Broszat, a type of economic leader, who was half state official, and half private businessman.

Nazi Economic Organisation Close to Thatcherite and Reaganite ‘Public-Private Partnerships and PFI

This seems to challenge Wolin’s theory somewhat. Both the Fascist and Nazi states certainly attempted to use the state’s corporativist institutions to control private industry. The above examples from the Nazi regime also shows how private industry attempted to influence Nazi policy, which was frequently carried out through state organisations founded as private companies. The parallels between the Nazis’ policies in this area, and those of Mrs. Thatcher’s and subsequent administrations are particularly striking. Under these administrations, representatives of industry have entered government, and they and their thinktanks and special advisors have formulated government policy. They have also set up private corporations to carry out public policy. An example of this is the Urban Development Corporations Mrs Thatcher set up to circumvent local authorities’ influence and control over the process of urban regeneration. The core of these policies were ‘Public-Private Partnership’ between private industry and the state, and the use of the Private Finance Initiative and government subsidies to support private industry. The Tories’ proposed privatisation of the courts, and the outsourcing of welfare administration to private companies, can also be seen as another example of private industry acting as a government bureaucracy or department similar to Nazi policies in this area.

The Ultimate End-Point of Privatisation: But Would the Tories Privatise the Courts?

July 17, 2013

Much of contemporary Cameronite Conservatism is based less on traditional Tory ideology, but on American Libertarianism. This entered Conservatism in the 1970s, when the Right turned to Von Hayek. Von Hayek influenced Sir Keith Joseph, who strongly influenced his protégé, the future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was from Libertarianism that the New Right took the ideas of private enterprise prisons and police forces. I can remember the idea of streets patrolled by private policies forces appealing particularly to one of the female members of John Major’s cabinet. I think it may have been Virginia Bottomley, but I can’t really remember. This particular Tory lady wrote a piece in the Daily Mail imagining what it would be like if women ran the country. This was one of the Libertarian policies this politico believed that a female-dominated administration would introduce.

Rothbard, Anarcho-Individualism and the Virtual Elimination of the State

Going much further than this are the views of some Anarcho-Individualists, such as Rothbard, who was, I believe, the leader of the American Libertarian Party. These appear to be influenced by the American political philosopher, Nozick. In his 1980s book, Anarchy, the State and Utopia, Nozick rejected the Social Contract view of the origins of political authority. He argued instead that the state should be reduced as far as possible. He considered that its only role should be the enforcement of contracts. Rothbard believed that such extreme Libertarian would create a freer, non-coercive society similar to that desired by Left-wing Anarchists and Libertarians, with obvious exception that this would be based on capitalist individualism, rather than the collective ownership of property. Rothbard thus advocated the creation of private enterprise courts. He argued that the courts should be sold off and funded by private investment. The obvious objection to this is the question how the courts would enforce their rulings in the absence of state power. Once again, market forces and competition would provide the answer. The courts would compete to provide the most justice decisions, which would be voluntarily adopted by the parties in the dispute. Even when the judgement went against them, they would recognise the value of impartial justice and that such courts could be relied on to protect their lives and property in turn, and so obey their rulings. Of course, this is a wildly unrealistically optimistic view of human nature. Nevertheless, such minarchism has influenced sections of the New Right, although I don’t know any mainstream politicians, who currently argues for such an extreme position. Nevertheless, contemporary Conservatism seems to be strongly informed by less extreme forms of Libertarianism, which need to be tackled.

It is not only Left-wingers, who object to some of the Libertarian policies that are now being adopted. Conservative traditionalists, such as Peter Hitchens, have also voiced their opposition to the privatisation of the police force and the prison service. For Hitchens only the state has the moral authority to persecute and punish crime. It’s an important point that deserves attention as the essential functions of the state are further eroded and pass into private hands. It may be too much to hope for that these traditional Conservatives will also join the Left in stopping the further destruction of the state infrastructure and the lives and livelihoods of the people relying on it.

Gun Rights in 19th Century Britain: A Left-Wing Cause

July 7, 2013

The issue of gun rights – the right of the individual to bear arms, as stated in the American 2nd Amendment, is today pretty much the preserve of the Conservative Right in America and Britain. There are some Democrats and Radicals, however, who support the individual’s right to arm him- or herself against tyranny. In 19th century Britain, however, gun rights were supported and demanded by radical members of the disenfranchised working class.

Peter Hitchens on Contemporary Politics and the British Empire

After the last shooting tragedy in America, Peter Hitchens’ posted his views on the issue on his blog on the Mail on Sunday webpage. Hitchen’s is very much a man of the Right, having rejected his youthful Trotskyite Marxism and moved across the floor to Conservatism. He is also a staunch defender of Christianity, unlike his late brother, Christopher, who was a militant New Atheist. Nevertheless, politically Hitchen’s is very much his own man. He heartily despises David Cameron for his rejection of tradition, Conservative marriage and sexual morality. He frequently derides him as ‘Mr. Slippery’ for Cameron’s electoral duplicity and lack of any consistent morals. Some of his views seem to be those of the traditional Left, or Butlerian Conservatism, rather than modern Cameronite post-Thatcherism. He had opposed the sale to the private sector of council houses and the railway network, and objects to private policing and prisons on the grounds that only the state has the moral authority to prosecute and punish crime. Many of his views are eccentric and highly controversial. He believes that we should have stayed out of the Second World War, for example. In his view this would have allowed us to preserve our national independence and Empire against the supranational, unaccountable misgovernment of the European Union. I believe he is profoundly mistaken in this. In one of his articles from the 1930, George Orwell describes watching a parade of Black African troopers in the French army in Morocco. Orwell describes the troopers’ expectant looks as they saluted the watching White officers. He stated that at that point, he knew what every white man there was thinking, ‘How long can we keep on fooling these people?’ The break-up of the British Empire was partly a product of Britain’s economic exhaustion and near-defeat by the Axis during the Second World War. Nevertheless, the independence movements in Africa and particularly India predate the War. Modern historians of the British Empire have pointed out that the Empire was actually an economic drain on Britain after c. 1900. In many ways the Second World War merely accelerated a process that had already began, rather than caused the break-up of the Empire.

Peter Hitchen’s on Gun Ownership

However strange or peculiar Hitchen’s views are, they are always historically informed. According to Hitchen’s, 19th century Britain had an attitude towards the freedom to buy arms that makes modern Texan legislation look positively effeminate. The licensing of firearms was only introduced in the 1920 when governments feared a possible revolution. I don’t know, but this sounds about right. The 1917 Russian Revolution had been accompanied by radical revolutionary campaigns throughout Europe. A soviet revolution broke out in Germany in 1919, comprising independent radical Socialists and anarchists, which then gave rise to a full-scale Communist insurrection in German, Austria and Hungary. Italy in the same period saw ‘Red Week’ and the invasion of the factories, again by radical Socialists. Even after these were put down, the situation was still very unstable politically, with militant anti-democratic movements of both Left and Right. These included the Nazis in Germany, and the seizure of power by Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy. It was against the rise of these violent, paramilitary movements, including the British Union of Fascists, that the government introducing legislation banning uniformed political organisations. My guess is that the restriction on firearms ownership was part of this legislation.

19th Century British Chartism

In 19th century England, the right to own guns and other weapons was demanded by the ‘physical force’ Chartists, militantly campaigning for the franchise to be extended to the working class. Government at that time was strongly aristocratic, and the franchise was very much restricted to the landed aristocracy and gentry and the middle classes. Poverty, disease and squalor were common. Working hours were long, and conditions appalling. Fourteen hours days were the norm. One German writer in the 1820 in Bavaria said he knew young people in their 1920s who already looked like old men, so worn out were they by hard work. Chartism was an attempt by the working class to gain the right to vote and political freedom against this background of hardship and inequality. Led by the London cabinet-maker, William Lovett and Francis Place, a master tailor, the movement’s charter, from which it took its name, had six demands:

1. Votes for all men over 21.
2. No property qualifications.
3. Annual parliaments.
4. Equal Representation (which meant that all electoral constituencies were to be equal in size)
5. Payment of MPs
6. Vote by ballot.

Chartism and the Right to Bear Arms

Beyond the Charter, the movement could be extremely diverse with no uniform political philosophy. Most Chartists were laissez-faire economic liberals. Some were Socialists. There were Christian Chartists, who combined a radical programme of political democracy with worship of the Lord in their own chapels. There was also a division between ‘physical force’ Chartists, who were prepared to use violence to advance their gaols, and the more respectable ‘moral force’ Chartists, who believed that only logic and rational persuasion should be used. Among the ‘physical force’ Chartists were Joseph Rayner Stephens and R.J. Richardson. Stephens was a radical Methodist minister from Ashton-Under-Lyne, who had been disowned by the Methodist Conference for his views. He exhorted working men to take up arms to defend their constitutional rights against a brutal, centralizing authority. R.J. Richardson, who came from Salford, joined him in his demands. In 1839 he gave a lecture to the Chartist National Convention ‘to show the advantage and propriety of arming the people as the best guarantee of the liberties of a country’, citing authorities as diverse as Aristotle, Queen Elizabeth and Dr. Johnson.

Decline of Chartism and Hitchen’s View of Gun Ownership

Chartism declined after the middle of the century from a number of causes. Partly this was ridicule, as the monster petitions of millions of signatures presented to parliament by the Chartists to secure constitutional reform consisted mostly of forged signatures, like ‘the Duke of Wellington’ and ‘Queen Victoria’. Another cause was the rise in living standards as the economy expanded and legislation improved housing and working conditions. Lastly, successive legislation enlarging the franchise, culminating in that of Disraeli’s Conservatives, gave nearly all working men except the very poorest the vote, thus making the Charter obsolete. Nevertheless, its history does show that in the 19th century the right to bear arms was a demand of the revolutionary Left, rather than the Conservative Right as it is today. As for Hitchens’ view of gun ownership, he stated that in his view you should have the right to own one, but having seen what they did to the human body, you shouldn’t really want one.