Political Extremism & Radicalism Archive: Why Create it and Why it is Important Now More Than Ever?

Political Extremism & Radicalism Archive: Why Create it and Why it is Important Now More Than Ever?

| By Rachel Holt |

When telling friends and family that I was working on a digital archive focusing on right-wing extremists, far-left militants and a wide range of radical movements in between, the most common response was ‘why’?  To answer that I must explain the motivation that triggered this project, as well as why such an archive is important now more than ever.

As an Acquisitions Editor, my primary purpose is to commission resources that meet the changing research needs of scholars. I was therefore intrigued to find out that not only was there an increase in scholarly articles and monographs on far-right movements, but a growing number of research centers dedicated to the alt-right and political extremism. Such centers as the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, the (upcoming) Center for Analysis of Democracy and Extremism at the University of Georgia, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, the Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies at Teeside University, the C-REX – Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo and the independent Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, to name a few.

What caused this influx of scholarly research on the far-right? Many argue that a resurgence of extreme right-wing parties has many asking where these groups came from and how they relate to mainstream politics. These groups are ever present in the news from the Charlottesville rally in August 2017 to the tripling of incidents of white supremacist propaganda appearing on U.S. college campuses.[1]  Some have cited the election of Donald Trump and the appointment of his (ex) chief strategist Steve Bannon as a reviving factor; but others argue that to understand the white-nationalist, racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic issues that we are encountering today, we must explore the development, actions and ideologies of these groups. This is what the Political Extremism & Radicalism archive enables researchers to do.

The Political Extremism & Radicalism archive is more than a resource on the radical right; many different groups and movements are represented. The American Radicalism Collection from Michigan State University not only contains holdings on the alt-right, but includes leftist politics, anti-war movements; racial equality, feminism, gay rights as well as a range of radical twentieth-century social, economic and environmental movements. By providing primary sources from a wide range of viewpoints (from the Ku Klux Klan to the Black Panther Party) which have shaped the world’s political and civil rights history, researchers of contemporary topics can examine the origins and development of present-day issues such as religion, globalization, gender, and activism. This resource contains several materials crucial to the study of international history, political science, sociology and government studies.

When in discussions with curators of the collections, it became apparent that extreme groups or fringe movements are rarely studied in isolation. Scholars want to understand opposing parties and draw connections between different movements to explain how unorthodox or nonconformist political thought evolve. It was important to respect how the original collections were compiled and to not cherry-pick holdings for digitization, thus the initial concept expanded to cover an extensive spectrum of fringe groups such as anti-Catholicism, various civil rights, communists and socialists, creationist, environmentalist, hate, gay and gender rights, holocaust denier, and survivalist.

Sometimes it’s debatable whether these movements could be considered ‘extreme’ or if they would describe themselves as such. However, all were deemed ‘radical’ by their contemporaries. For instance, environmental rights may not be thought of as revolutionary today, but many communal experiments and green parties such as the Earth First organization would certainly be considered radical in the 1970s and 1980s. As a broad rule, material has been included if it advocates social change from outside the political or cultural mainstream of the time. There is great value in presenting student researchers with issues and ideas from outside the conservative norm to encourage independent and critical thinking as well as fostering an open dialogue.

Lastly, there are three elements to this digital archive that benefit libraries and make it important for researchers:

1. Includes rare and never-before-digitized primary sources. Extremist literature has always been difficult to find because its authors intended material for a limited number of true believers. Consequently, print runs of periodicals and ephemera tend to be small, erratic and intended to be discarded. In the case of most of these collections, it has taken a dedicated effort to amass materials of this type and often an individual’s life’s work. Furthermore, much of the material has only been released for public access in the last few years. For instance, from The National Archives at Kew, we have digitized previously top-secret files from the British Security Service or MI5 on individuals deemed ‘extreme’ and ‘a threat’ by the government such as:

  • British right-wig extremists Oswald Mosely and Arnold Leese as well as their organizations, the British Union of Fascists and Imperial Fascist League.
  • Suspected communist sympathizer and famous author George Orwell.
  • British physicist and a confessed and convicted Soviet spy Alan Nunn May, who supplied secrets of British and U.S. atomic research to the Soviet Union during World War II.
  • Papers relating to Leon Trotsky’s travels from 1915 to 1917, to his time in the Soviet Government and to the period after his exile in 1928 till his death in 1940.
  • Australian physicist and humanitarian Eric Burhop, involved in the Manhattan project investigated as a possible spy who passed scientific information to a Soviet intelligence officer in the US.
  • Intelligence reports on Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin.
  • BBC journalist and suspected communist sympathizer Harold Walter Muller.
  • Summaries of Sylvia Pankhurst’s political activities in relation to her communist, anti-war and anti-fascist activity.
  • Nobel Prize winning writer Doris Lessing, who was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until 1956.
  • Records of Marxist historian Christopher Hill.
  • Files on Unity Mitford, fervent admirer of Hitler before the Second World War.

2. Audio files and transcripts of interviews with several antifascist activists. Thanks to an oral history project conducted in 2015 by Dr Gavin Bailey, Manchester Metropolitan University and Dr Ben Lee, Lancaster University the Political Extremism & Radicalism archive hosts recordings of several activists talking about their experiences of fighting fascists from the 1940s to the 1980s. These include people such as Ray Hill, informant on the British Movement and British National Party as well Jules Konopinski, commando in the 43 Group.

3. Exciting stories behind the collections. The very nature in which the collections were compiled are of historic import. Much of material documenting the activities of British and international fascist and racist organizations, from the British National Party and Norwegian Nazi Party to the Australian National Socialist Party, was sourced from the Searchlight archive; the collections result of the Searchlight Associates investigations and exposes on fascism, antisemitism, and racism. Their network includes several anti-racist organizations around the world and their periodical Searchlight published many notable journalists including author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson whose magazine Expo is considered Searchlight’s sister publication.

Another incredible story is the Hall-Hoag collection of dissenting and extremist printed propaganda. The collection began when Gordon Hall, an American veteran of the Pacific Theatre during the World War II, first encountered the printed propaganda issued by a domestic hate-your- neighbor organizations/groups in the late 1940s. He supported his investigations and research of these organizations by giving public lectures. Materials from all corners of the U.S. were collected, enabling him to document statements made in lectures as well as in a growing number of expository articles written for newspapers and magazines.

This is an incredibly diverse, fascinating and timely digital primary source resource which will have relevance to researchers for decades to come. That is why the Political Extremism & Radicalism archive was created it and why it is important now more than ever.

You can view our news release on this new archive, as well as visit the Political Extremism & Radicalism archive webpage.

[1] Anti-Defamation League. (2018, February). White Supremacist Propaganda Surges on Campus. [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/adl-finds-alarming-increase-in-white-supremacist-propaganda-on-college-campuses

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