In 1927 Henry Williamson published Tarka the Otter, the story of an otter living in the Torridge River in Devon, UK. Recognised today as a classic of nature writing, it has seldom been out of print.
Though Williamson described the creature’s world in knowledgeable detail, he was not born and bred in Devon. Like a lot of soldiers who returned from the trenches of the Western Front, he abandoned London and headed out to the countryside to recuperate among the quiet villages and patchwork fields.
And like a lot of returned soldiers, he also came around to thinking that the British landscape and the people who worked it were worth defending against the corporations, banks and their political allies who threatened traditional ways of life.
In 1936 he joined Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and became a blackshirt, believing that fascism was the only ideology with a sensible programme for protecting the land.
The argument that fascism was a way to protect the land was persuasive and pervasive. It is a history that continues to resonate at the intersection between labour and politics. Reverberations were felt during the 2016 Brexit referendum and in its aftermath.
The history of the environmental movement in Britain emerges from several strands. Its roots in the extreme right wing are usually ignored. But Williamson belonged to a vocal group who believed organic farming was key to restoring rural Britain’s economic stability and future prosperity.
It sounds perverse that contemporary organic farming has its origins in fascism. But both the hard left and hard right shared some common ground during the inter-war period. Both were in support of the worker against industrial capital; both were suspicious of mechanization in agriculture; and both argued that power should reside in the collective.
Both also freely used terms like “international banking” as code for a conspiracy against the working classes. Spotting the difference was difficult: For example, Mosley, (founder of the British Union of Fascists) always insisted he came from the left.
Another shared belief was that Britain’s national identity had been founded in the countryside. No figure better represented the ideal of the British character than the farmer, with his physique moulded by work, his hands stained with soil, his leathery face beaten by the weather.
By the 1930s more people lived in cities than rural centres but the ploughman and the shepherd remained emblematic: Staple images from Anglo-Saxon poetry and Medieval manuscripts through to Victorian photography. It was easy to make the equation from this mix of nostalgia and sentimentality that strengthening the rural economy invigorated the national character and vice versa.
Through small-scale, organic farming, Britain would not only rediscover its cultural origins but it would become self-sufficient.
An earlier generation of socialists, led by writer and textile designer William Morris, had advocated something similar: A return to traditional farming methods as a protection against the destruction that mechanization threatened to wreak on the agricultural sector.
Morris’s critical failure lay in his romanticism. What he proposed was essentially a form of self-improvement for men of property but there were no direct benefits for the working class in any of his arguments.
Protecting British ‘root stock’
Purity was a key word for the organic farming movement. Beyond the idea of produce free from contaminants, organic farming added lustre to that image of the farmer as being one with the soil. From the moment his pair of hands planted a seed to that when another picked the fruit, produce and process would be untainted.
Unfortunately, this idea of purity invoked another: Eugenics.
It is convenient to forget but eugenics was once a platform for a number of avowed socialists: HG Wells, Marie Stopes and John Maynard Keynes all advocated eugenics.
The argument that intellectual, moral and physical weakness could be bred out sounded, if anything, compassionate to people who believed that the answer to the nation’s survival lay with science.
Organic farming was an effort to introduce the same concept of purity to agriculture in order to protect Britain’s root stock. The food placed on the English dinner table would be as wholesome as that image of the farmer.
Kinship in Husbandry
Williamson is one of the better known figures from the hard right wing of the organic farming movement but the key thinkers were Rolf Gardiner, Jorion Jenks and Gerard Wallop.
In 1941 Williamson joined them as a founding member of Kinship in Husbandry, an organisation of rural revivalists who believed that organic farming with its return to traditional methods would restore the moral, physical and economic health of the nation.
Writing in the 1945 manifesto, The Natural Order, HJ Massingham explained that husbandry was the group’s chosen term because, even though it evoked an earlier age of “hock-carts, wassails, and reaping the corn with songs and sickles,” it also implied a “loving management … acting towards nature in a family spirit.”
Not all the members supported fascism. The poet Adrian Bell argued that Nazism was essentially an urban movement and its platforms on agriculture were misguided. Philip Mairet, who would translate Sartre, also believed that purity and self-sufficiency were central to good farming but rejected right wing politics.
Post war, Kinship in Husbandry’s Nazi links proved an embarrassment, but only for the more moderate members. Jorion Jenks went on join Eve Balfour in establishing the Soil Association in the late 1940s and he continued to use the charity as a vehicle to espouse his extreme right views into the late 1950s.
The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, with its exposé of the ways pesticides were poisoning the environment firmly shifted the argument for organic farming away from eugenics and nationalism towards more fundamental issues of public health.
This history challenges the assumption that environmentalism and progressive politics are symbiotic, or at the least inevitably compatible. It also reminds us of uncertainties that still resonate today.
When a working class base of British Labour supported UKIP and Brexit during the 2016 European Union referendum, we heard echoes of that inter-war period when the politics of left and right were suddenly difficult to differentiate.
Once again, there were arguments from both sides that by breaking free from Europe, Britain could rediscover a more pure sense of identity.
John Toohey, PhD Candidate, Art History, Concordia University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.