Purifying the Party: Lessons from 20th Century Radical Right Parties

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The pattern of leadership squabbles, purges, and brutal attempts to crush dissent dominates the history of the radical right. Such episodes are extremely instructive in the week following UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s, expulsion of 21 Conservative MPs. The question this therefore begs is: why right-wing leaders so consistently felt the need to expel troublesome members within their own parties, even when it meant that they lost supporters in parliament, alienated their constituencies and risked their political futures?

In February 1925, for example, Adolf Hitler demanded members of the German Nazi Party (NSDAP) swore absolute obedience to the NSDAP and began dismissing members who refused to toe the party line in April 1931. In June 1934 he ordered the arrest and murder of scores of Sturmabteilung (SA) leaders during the Night of the Long Knives.

Moreover, the right-wing Romanian politician A. C. Cuza purged other members of his parliamentary party in during the summer of 1927, provoking one of his younger supporters, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, to form the fascist Iron Guard. In turn, in September 1934 Codreanu accused one of the Iron Guard’s leaders of trying to assassinate him, an accusation that led to the man’s brutal murder.

In addition, when António de Oliveira Salazar became Prime Minister of Portugal in July 1932, he turned against the more revolutionary fascists among his supporters, eventually wiping out the National Syndicalists in 1933 in order to secure his control of the National Union, the country’s only remaining right-wing movement of note.

Furthermore, in Austria, the right-wing chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, found his party with only a one-seat majority in March 1933 so he used a minor procedural irregularity to dissolve parliament, thus abolishing democracy in Austria. He then banned the Austrian Nazi Party, whose policies were similar to his own but whose alliances with Adolf Hitler were too close for his liking. Ten Nazis assassinated him just over a year later.

Finally, and turning to the UK in January 1935, Oswald Mosley reorganized the British Union of Fascists (BUF), establishing himself as a leader who could not be questioned. He expelled those of his supporters who wanted more democracy in the movement. Two years later, a number of senior members of the party left to form the National Socialist League.

This pattern of leadership squabbles, purges, and brutal attempts to crush dissent dominated the history of the radical right after the Second World War as well. Factionalism and power struggles between John Tyndall, Roy Painter, Nick Griffin, and others dogged Britain’s National Front throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. What lessons can be drawn from this?

Firstly, and with the exception of Hitler’s ordered killing of George Strasser over ideological differences, in most cases these conflicts were about strategy and control over the party, not about ideas. When Hitler came out of prison at the beginning of 1925 he found the Nazi Party divided by ideological differences and petty power struggles. His response was not to adjudicate and support one side or another, but to demand that all of the various factions subordinate themselves to him alone. ‘My task as leader of the movement is not to look for the causes of a previous quarrel or to assess who was right,’ he said, ‘but to mould the movement into a unified weapon regardless of the interests of individuals. Thus I shall not inquire into the past of those comrades who rejoin, but only work to ensure that the past will not repeat itself in the future. … But I expect the leaders, in so far as they come from the old camp, to give me the same obedience as we all give to the common idea.’ The result was known as the Führerprinzip – the idea that Hitler’s word was law and that no-one else had the right to determine doctrine or strategy.

Secondly, those who led the party and those who left usually had a great deal in common. In fact, often factionalism in fascist parties arose because new leaders appeared who had the potential to challenge the existing leader for power. Codreanu turned against Mihail Stelescu, for example, because the younger man had demonstrated himself to be a better organizer and speaker than his leader. Codreanu accused him of trying to establish his own party within the Iron Guard that would challenge Codreanu for power. Once his hand was forced and it was clear that he had no future in the Iron Guard, that was precisely what Stelescu did. Codreanu also reorganized the movement that year, establishing his word as the only one that mattered and creating a clear hierarchy between those who had been in the movement – before and after 1934. At times, he handed out arbitrary punishments or gave senseless commands just to test the obedience of his followers.

Thirdly, and turning back to the UK, such purges by radical right leaders are often used to reassert their role as the sole authority figure in the party. For example, during Oswald Mosley’s aforementioned reorganization the BUF in 1935, the movement had grown significantly in the previous couple of years, with a number of energetic and talented people throwing their support behind fascism. Articles in The Blackshirt from late 1934 had argued that ‘single leadership in practice proves the more effective instrument’, and now Mosley was trying to ensure that the BUF spoke and acted with a single voice and according to a single will.

To conclude, in all of these cases, the desire of the leader for absolute control over his followers was more important than preserving a majority in parliament or embracing a wider number of followers. The passion for hierarchy that has characterized the radical right from its inception presupposes that the leader knows best because he is a superior human being. Reinforcing strict party discipline and rejecting any sort of internal coalition-building has thus been a consistent policy of radical right-wing leaders throughout the twentieth century.

Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here.

© Roland Clark. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).