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From An Historian’s Notebook: The Story of a Fascist Missionary

Major James Strachey Barnes was, in fact, an Anglo-Indian born in Simla. He had grown up with his maternal grandparents in Italy, then he studied
Major James Strachey Barnes
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In November 1933, the anti-imperialist Anglican, Reverend Charlie Andrews, a friend of the political and social worker Mohandas Gandhi’s, and a co-worker of the poet Rabindranath Tagore’s, wrote to the socialist Jawaharlal Nehru about the new Reuters’ representative in India, one Major Barnes, whom Andrews believed would be more sympathetic in his reporting of India. Reuter’s, the pioneering news agency, had become over the years something of an in-house information agency of the British Empire: preferential tariffs and close cooperation in sending wires across the world made it in practice a friendly voice of Empire since its inception, in an era in which without regular custom, the existence of its massive infrastructure would simply be too expensive to sustain. Reuters had worked particularly closely with the Empire during the Great War; some of the Empire’s own propagandists and future bureaucrats and diplomats, such as John Buchan, author of the Richard Hannay series of spy stories, and of the Great War novel, Greenmantle, were former Reuters men (and Buchan returned to Reuters after the War). Andrews, however, was at least a little out of date in November 1933 if he was still unable to distinguish socialist from fascist. 

 

Major James Strachey Barnes was, in fact, an Anglo-Indian born in Simla. He had grown up with his maternal grandparents in Italy, then he studied at Eton and Sandhurst (he entered Sandhurst as a King’s India Cadet a term later than scheduled, in September instead of February 1909, owing to his having failed the medical examination in the first instance). He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1914; and he served in the First World War, rising to the rank of Major, a title he often used in his public persona. Among the several persons interested in fascism in Britain, he also ran, for a while, the Italian-influenced Centre International d’Etudes sur le Fascisme (CINEF) in Lausanne, in neutral Switzerland, founded in 1927, which was a sort of think tank that claimed to study fascism ‘objectively’ and ‘scientifically’. Despite these claims, it conducted important propaganda for Mussolini’s Fascists, even attempting to find a more intellectual and philosophical set of justifications for fascism. Barnes, incidentally also a cousin of the Bloomsburyite Lytton Strachey’s, was CINEF’s leading figure and Secretary-General, and the author of two books and several articles on fascism as an ideology for the world. CINEF itself did not survive the onset of the Great Depression, and Barnes’ Indian sojourn with Reuters also ended in a mere two years, when he left for Abyssinia after the Italian Fascists invaded it, to become Reuters’ chief war correspondent with the Italian forces. He left Reuter’s in 1937 and returned to Italy in 1939 shortly before the Second World War began.

C F Andrews recommended Major Banrnes.

Barnes was to write that Fascism could provide the spiritual revival that the modern age needed. He believed that ‘the whole of the civilised world, not Italy only, should properly be considered in various degrees Rome’s heir.’ Fascism is a movement that parallels the renaissance in its significance. But whereas the renaissance revived the spirit of Greece and made God the creation of man, Fascism restored God as the creator of man and reharmonised the spiritual world. Barnes referred to Fascism’s approach to history as a ‘spiritual interpretation of history’. It is this that makes Fascism essentially different from other forms of nationalism ‘based fundamentally on individualism’; but Fascism does not reject the materialist interpretation of history of the Marxists altogether; it merely sees it as one of several possible interpretations. Fascism is thus ‘eminently synthetic, intuitive’, and ‘anxious to preserve everything of value in the thought of our modern era’. But he believed that ‘fascism is determined to educate the new generation into one of believers in a Divine Providence, the heralds of an age of faith’ – a ‘new generation of heroes’ who would fearlessly sacrifice themselves and ‘welcome martyrdom with a smile’ in a ‘worthy cause’. This claim to the spirituality of Fascism is not something that all its supporters shared or backed up at least in public debates; that the ‘heroes’ had to be forced into heroism is something Barnes backed without irony.

Unsurprisingly, it was the authentic Italian peasant who had ‘preserved intact’ the values that Barnes found essential to the glorious future of Fascism and the world. Fascism, he wrote, was conservative in the sense that it ‘aimed at the preservation and creation of values worth preserving’ though he insisted it was also progressive. The peasant preserved in himself the ‘traditions of the early and pre-renaissance era’ (and for Barnes the early renaissance and pre-renaissance eras were not yet too individualistic). Another factor for good was the powerful influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy (and Barnes at least is in no doubt that the Church ought to play along with the Fascists). But the ‘sturdy peasant’ makes the ideal fascist:

He is sober, hard-working, thrifty and sparing, well disciplined and exceedingly respectful of authority. Above all he is profoundly pious in the Latin sense of the word which implies a reciprocal devotion and respect between parents and their offspring. … The peasant, besides, presents a strongly marked sex differentiation; the men are manly, the women womanly, the former exceedingly robust, full of a healthy animal, combative spirit, loyal, generous and fearless – the latter, mothers in instinct before all else, with an appealing tenderness and power of sympathy, a love of home and of domestic pursuits.

A children's rally in Fascist Italy.

One of Barnes’ tasks while in India was to attempt the conversion of the emergent focal point of socialist trends in the Indian National Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru, to fascism. Nehru had been one of the ‘leaders’ to emerge to fame in the late 1920s as mobilisers of ‘youth’ in India, the other being Subhas Chandra Bose, the future ‘Netaji’, who was intimate with the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis very early on, even aspirationally plagiarising Mussolini’s uniform and strutting across the 1928 Calcutta Congress grounds on a horse. Nehru was perfectly aware that a fascist tendency existed both within and outside India that wished to exert pressure upon him to accept the role of Indian Führer, but he insisted on keeping a distance from it.

But Barnes, at least, was persistent. From 1934 to 1937, he kept up a hopeful correspondence with Nehru, attempting to visit him in jail in October 1934 (Nehru had already had his weekly visitor, so this proved impossible), and wished him well for securing his own release. ‘I would like’, Barnes wrote, ‘to see you in a position to take your wife to Europe for a cure & for you to take the opportunity of seeing something of Italy’. Something like an offer of mediation or assistance seemed implied, though the gaps in the preserved correspondence do not allow us to follow this up. At any rate, Barnes sent Nehru books to read while in prison (and Nehru’s prison diaries indicate that he did a lot of reading in jail, including on fascism, but again we cannot ascertain whether he had any of these books from Barnes or not). 

Barnes was to write that Fascism could provide the spiritual revival that the modern age needed. He believed that ‘the whole of the civilised world, not Italy only, should properly be considered in various degrees Rome’s heir.’ Fascism is a movement that parallels the renaissance in its significance. But whereas the renaissance revived the spirit of Greece and made God the creation of man, Fascism restored God as the creator of man and reharmonised the spiritual world. Barnes referred to Fascism’s approach to history as a ‘spiritual interpretation of history’.

The correspondence that has survived (and we cannot, again, rule out a carefully sifted and sanitised set of papers, for which sanitisation there is ample evidence elsewhere) starts abruptly with a typewritten letter from the Cecil Hotel, Simla, dated August 1934, responding to a set of objections of Nehru’s to an earlier letter of Barnes’s, in which Nehru is quoted by Barnes as having objected to Fascism’s ‘“interpreting the moral law through an elite”’. In his response to Nehru, Barnes expressed his dissatisfaction with a liberal world view, which had the disadvantage that ‘there can be no criterion of what is good except what is provided by egoistic, individual, class and national interests which must then fight the matter out between themselves’. Secondly, without a firm and ‘objective’ view of progress without the softness of debates about what that might entail, ‘progress means nothing else but meaningless movement either backwards or forwards, because without knowing what is good, who knows which way we are going? Indeed, Liberalism only rests on a shadowy faith in inevitable evolution towards an unknown and undefinable meliorization of the human lot’. Barnes characterised Nehru’s views as ‘liberal’, though we might note in passing that Nehru preferred, in self-description, the term ‘socialist’. 

If ‘egoisms’ can be controlled, the Major continued, modern scientific conditions and the control of an elite assured, and laissez-faire liberal doctrines abolished, ‘social conditions can be indefinitely improved’; and Fascism places ‘the moral satisfactions of life above the purely material’, though he conceded that his ‘little book on Fascism’ might have ‘over-emphasized the mystic and intuitional temper of fascists’ as a reaction against ‘the rational and analytical temper of previous ages’. What needed to be sought was a Fascist ‘balance’. Again, it was the Italian version that could provide the civilisation and the balance required to realise a proper Fascism. Nazism was ‘the Fascism of the Barbarian’; their God was not the true God Almighty but the ‘tribal God’ Wotan – and it was only ‘the countries of Europe which have remained Romanised which can be truly fascist (relatively speaking), because through Rome, civil and ecclesiastical, they have come to experience a more universal life’. This was why ‘England’ was more ‘civilised’. ‘The East’, and India in particular, needed ‘a revolution from the top’ in which England could be helpful. England’s ‘collaboration and authority’ would prevent India ‘falling into chaos’ and therefore under the influence of ‘rich, vulgar, self-indulgent, arbitrary rajas on the one hand, and a fierce intolerant barbarian Moslem power on the other, with all that is evil and rigidly formal in Brahminical caste rule reinforced throughout Hindu society’. 

Nehru in prison during the Indian Freedom Movement.

And England, in turn, would require Indian help: lessons in ‘the idea of a revolution of ideas and methods from the top’, for she had begun to lose her ‘Roman characteristics’ and had ‘partially relapsed into her Carthaginian origins’. Should these lessons be learned, there would be a ‘new British Raj’ compatible with ‘the progressive forces of India’, men like Gandhi and like Nehru himself, in a form of ‘genuine trusteeship’ that would be government ‘from India in the name of the King-Emperor alone in the overriding interests of India first, backed by all the nationalist and progressive forces of India itself and opposed only by those forces on which, alas, the Raj now relies to its inevitable detriment’ – the bureaucracy; capitalists, both British and Indian, both urban and rural; the Indian princes, ‘the Moslem power’, and (this was added by hand in the margin of his letter) Brahmins.

Barnes’s critical remarks on caste as ‘rigidly formal’ show the extent to which his (Fascist) ‘elite’ was compatible with an elite based on an allegedly moral caste-like order – as Mohandas Gandhi had often defended in public. And he has in common with Gandhi an understanding that this elite had a right to lead, without answering the question of who would recognise the elite in any clear way (though of course a belief in a God outside the machine would be common to both). Here, then, was a fascism that was Catholic-inflected and caste-compatible, available for piracy in Indian conditions.

Nehru’s reply is not recorded, but his unresponsiveness was noted; and it would appear that Barnes recruited his wife, an Italian Catholic, who tried a different approach two years later: she wrote to Nehru noting that her husband had failed to convince Nehru ‘that Fascism is not as devilish as you seem to think’. In her new approach, she wrote Nehru a letter in the form of a biblical parable: ‘one of the reasons that urges me to write to you, is that I feel sorry for your spiritually empty, pointless existence, which doesn’t know the why or wherefore of anything, because certainly you do not know why you exist’. A potted history of Christianity as the religion of the downtrodden, the one true religion which strengthened Christians so that they ‘willingly allowed themselves to be devoured alive by lions’ is accompanied by the assertion that the greatness of Europe was in no small part due to its Christianity – which he, Nehru, who ‘hate[s] the mention of God’, could not understand. The explicit connection between her Christianity and her husband’s fascism was not spelled out; but she ended her letter explicitly comparing Subhas Bose, a more sympathetic spiritualist and also a man sympathetic to fascism, with Nehru, implicitly to the latter’s disfavour. 

in April [1936] I happened to travel to India on the same boat as Subhas Bose. He seemed to be travelling incognito, so that when my husband’s firm – Reuter’s agency in Bombay – sent me a telegram asking me to try and get a “story” from him for the Press I had some difficulty in identifying him. I had a morning’s talk with him and would be grateful if you would tell him, whenever you shall have the opportunity, that I admire him for his courage.

Nehru replied: ‘It may be quite possible that I am spiritually empty, though I have never had that sensation.’ India, he said, could not be accused of lacking a religious outlook, but he himself was ‘out of tune with that religious outlook, whether it is represented in India or in Rome’.

Barnes’s critical remarks on caste as ‘rigidly formal’ show the extent to which his (Fascist) ‘elite’ was compatible with an elite based on an allegedly moral caste-like order – as Mohandas Gandhi had often defended in public. And he has in common with Gandhi an understanding that this elite had a right to lead, without answering the question of who would recognise the elite in any clear way (though of course a belief in a God outside the machine would be common to both).

The Barneses failed to make an impact on Nehru, who conducted his own denunciation of fascism in public, and to a different public by writing an anonymous article in 1937 denouncing himself as a potential fascist. The article warned readers of a growing tendency to see Nehru as a saviour of some sort, even a Führer, and suggested that it might even appeal to Jawaharlal’s not inconsiderable vanity to see himself as a Napoleon or a Caesar, but made it clear that such thinking was detrimental to the democratic principles for which an Indian national movement ought to stand. 

Can we turn this little tale into a nonbiblical and unfascist parable? The territory upon which these events happened has long been very clearly presented as a land of spiritual virtue, which is opposed to ‘Western’ materialism. According to this logic of exceptionalism, fascism cannot exist in India, which is ‘different’ from the West. If a claim that fascists had the forces of the spiritual on their side is made (and such a claim is far from unknown: in 1933, the Swadeshi activist, polyglot, and world traveller, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, hailed Adolf Hitler as ‘Vivekananda multiplied by Bismarck, and declared that he would restore Germany’s spiritual virtues), then perhaps fascisms are not quite as opposed to ‘Indic’ traditions as has been claimed. We know now that it is the antifascists who are supposed to be betraying the spiritual tradition of the-Mystic-East-that-is-Bharat-which-was-once-India by taking ‘Western’ ideas too seriously. It might be a matter of curiosity to some that there were times when Fascism claimed to be the ideology of spirituality; fascism in India, then, might at least be considered less of a ‘foreign’ idea, with that spirituality in common. 

Images courtesy: Picryl, Amazon, South Asia Monitor

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of thespace.ink or its editorial team members. 

Benjamin Zachariah works at the Georg Eckert Institute for Educational Media in Braunschweig, and with the project on the contemporary history of historiography at the University of Trier. He was trained in the discipline of history in the last decade of the previous century. After an uneventful beginning to a perfectly normal academic career, he began to take an interest in the importance of history outside the circle of professional historians, and the destruction of the profession by the profession. He is interested in the writing and teaching of history and the place of history in the public domain.

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