A review of Joseph Pearce’s Race with the Devil.
How does a working class Englishman with the minimum of formal education, a history of heavy drinking, skinhead hooliganism, active racism, neo-Nazism, social violence, and two jail terms end up as one of the foremost English biographers of his generation?
In Race with the Devil — My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love Joseph Pearce switches from telling other men’s stories to telling his own. When I asked him if writing an autobiography wasn’t based on the rather arrogant assumption that other people want to pay good money to read about oneself, Pearce quietly pointed out that the book is a conversion story—not an autobiography. It’s a fine distinction because a conversion story is the chronicle of grace in a person’s life while an autobiography is too often one long brag.
Joseph Pearce was born in the Suffolk town of Haverhill, England in 1961. His parents had moved with crowds from the East End to escape the deprivations of post-war London. Haverhill was developed as both a rural retreat and a deliberate attempt to re-distribute the English population. Pearce was a bright and accomplished student in the little village school, but all changed when at the age of twelve he and his family moved back to Barking in London. He was thrust into a huge, rough inner city school and it was there that the implicit racism of his English-proud father blossomed into racial hatred.
Struggling with the surge of immigrants from India, Pakistan and Africa, right wing Englishmen responded with nationalistic fury. Race riots flared up and at the age of fourteen Pearce was already getting involved in the youthful and youth-fueled National Front. By the age of sixteen he had founded, and was editing a racist right wing tabloid called The Bulldog. Already a brilliant writer with a sharp turn of phrase and an eye for controversy, it was his editorship of The Bulldog which brought him up against England’s strict laws against publishing material that is likely to incite racial hatred. Pearce admits that he not only published such material, but actively promoted it—selling copies outside schools and football grounds.
Pearce’s astounding story continues as he gets involved in the violent politics of Northern Ireland—taking the side of the Protestants against the bitterly hated Irish Catholics. He protested the visit of Pope John Paul to Britain, fomented racial hatred through British football hooliganism and was involved in politically motivated rock music. The portrait is painted of a highly intelligent, articulate young rebel who definitely had a cause, and conservatives should be fascinated because that cause is conservatism twisted into paranoiac hatred.
Pearce’s father had taught him to love England, the Queen, Shakespeare and everything English. A conservative wishes to conserve all that is good from the past and use it to build a positive present and a hopeful future. The elder Pearce gave his son a nostalgic and noble vision of England—the center of a great empire and the land of hope and glory. Growing up in urban London in the bleak mid-1970s, when the country was finally brought to its knees by the unemployment, inflation, and economic collapse caused by post war socialism, Joseph Pearce felt frustrated and furious at what he perceived as the destruction of England and the deprivation of the English people. Pearce’s furious activism shows how easy it is for the conservative love of country and heritage to become twisted into a xenophobic hatred of all that threatens what one loves.
Eventually Pearce was arrested for publishing The Bulldog. He was sent to jail shouting abuse at the judge, and soon became a martyr to the nationalist cause. “Free Joe Pearce” was daubed on bridges and buildings around Britain. The rebel with a cause became a cause celebre. Newspapers blazed his name in headlines as a victim of the harsh English laws suppressing freedom of speech, and when he emerged from prison he proudly returned to his paper and flouted the law by getting more engaged in his great struggle.
There is tremendous energy in rage, but eventually it turns on itself. Like most rage-fueled movements the brotherhood started in destruction and ended in self-destruction. The movement became riddle with rivalries, personal animosity, ambition and suspicion. By the time Pearce went to prison the second time he had discovered some great writers—most notably G.K. Chesterton, but also Solzhenitsyn, C.S.Lewis and Tolkien. Through them he began to develop a deeper and more lucid vision of another land of Hope and Glory—he started to realize that he was destined to be a citizen of that other United Kingdom—the Country of Christ the King. As he began his second prison term he sat in solitary confinement with nothing but a Catholic rosary and he began to mutter the only prayer he knew: the Our Father.
That the turning point of Pearce’s story is him humbly praying the Our Father reminds one that all great stories are the story of the Prodigal Son or the search for the Father. Pearce’s story has several profoundly moving moments—his love for his earthly father, his love for his fatherland of England, the love for his literary father G.K.Chesterton, and eventually the love he found for his heavenly father. Pearce’s story, like all great conversion stories is the story of the lost son who finds his way home. Viewed from a conservative perspective it is the story of a twisted conservatism that is straightened out to become true, for the true conservative does is not filled with rage, but rational love.
By “rational love” Pearce means love that makes sense—love that is not sentimental and subjective, but rooted in reason made intelligible through religion. This love that Pearce found through the struggle of his tumultuous early years, he has turned into astounding success as a writer, lecturer and college professor, husband, father and American citizen.
Joseph Pearce tells a powerful story, but my grumble about his book is that it is too brief. He takes time to muse on his meanderings, but there could have been more exploration of the underlying problems in English society and in his own life. His relationships with his family (apart from that of his father) are skimmed over and his personal relationships are only touched on. This is to be expected while friends and family are still living, and discretion is correct. I confess, however to have wanted more in this area.
I would also have enjoyed more of Pearce’s acute political observations and his reactions to his adopted homeland of the United States. Having unique perspectives as a working class Londoner—what does he think of American politics and culture, the American South (he now lives in South Carolina) and the future of conservatism and Catholicism in America.
These quibbles aside, Joseph Pearce’s Race with the Devil is a remarkable read. His astounding story and his conversion from twisted conservative to true conservative will inspire, move and educate. More than that: his journey from being a feisty Neo Nazi on a downward spiral to an articulate and radiant Christian witness shows that in his relentless race with the devil—the devil lost.
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