35 years since Southall 1979

23 April is the 35th anniversary of the Southall ‘riot’ when police violently attacked a counter-demonstration against the National Front in the South London borough – an act of police violence that left dozens injured and one protestor dead. David Renton’s blog Lives Running has been documenting the aftermath of Blair Peach’s death at Southall in April 1979 and the fact that despite an internal police investigation narrowing the suspect list down to 6 police officers, no one was ever held responsible for the killing of Peach. I suggest that you browse the documents that David has posted over the last few weeks.

I have written about the reluctance of the British government (under both Labour and the Conservatives) to call for a public inquiry into the death of Blair Peach before, but thought I would post this brief section from my PhD thesis on the events of Southall 1979. Part of this material ended up in this article on the CPGB and anti-fascism in the 1970s.

Southall 1979

Southall 1979

Southall and the Death of Blair Peach

Southall had one of the largest concentrations of Asians in Greater London, originally attracted by the employment of Sikhs at Woolf’s rubber factory, but then expanding to other ethnicities and job opportunities.[i] The Asian community had suffered from racism for decades, but as stated in Southall: The Birth of a Black Community, ‘The black community of Southall… fought against racism all along the line’.[ii] With the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in June 1976, the Asian youth of Southall became militant, with ‘no time for resolutions, nor for reliance on the goodwill of politicians’, forming the Southall Youth Movement.[iii] For the SYM, ‘the racist attacks against young black people makes black people feel it is not safe to go out at night’ and after Chaggar’s murder, ‘whilst leaders were saying keep calm and trying to play down “isolated incidents”… [w]e knew it was time to organise ourselves’.[iv] While the Indian Workers Associations had been important organisations for Asian workers during the 1960s, by the 1970s, the second generation Asian youth felt that the IWA had begun to ‘degenerate into the position of mediator, into the posture of a support force and into downright conservative, leadership-seeking reaction’.[v] The Asian youth organised around the SYM sought a more active and militant organisation. The SYM was dedicated to ‘physically keeping racism off the streets of Southall’ and countering the ‘lack of youth provision in the Borough’.[vi]

The new militancy and self-reliance of the SYM and of Asian Youth Movements across Britain reflected the influence of ‘Black Power and Third World liberation movements’,[vii] rather than the emphasis on class struggle and industrial politics endorsed by the white left. John Rose wrote in International Socialism that the formation of the SYM ‘took the entire local left by surprise’, writing that they had ‘already given chase to the racists on the streets… and ultimately they will give the racists chase in the factories’.[viii] However Rose stated that the ‘only long-term chance that the SYM has for growth and development is if the leadership comes to decisively adopt revolutionary socialist politics’.[ix] The SYM experienced difficulties in maintaining its own identity when dealing with the left, as explained by the General Secretary of the SYM, Balraj Puriwal: ‘Every time we tried to protest and give our own identity the left tried to take it over… they gave us their slogans and placards… our own identity was subsumed, diffused and deflected all over the place’.[x] There was sympathy for the left amongst those involved in the AYMs, but not at the substitution of their own identity. As Nermal Singh wrote in Kala Tara, the publication of the Bradford AYM:

The white left tell us only the working class as a whole will be able to smash racism by overthrowing capitalism and setting up a socialist state.

This maybe so, but in the meantime are we, as one of the most oppressed sections of the working class, to sit by idly in the face of mounting attacks. No! We must fight back against the cancerous growth of racism.[xi]

To oppose the National Front’s meeting at Southall Town Hall on 23 April, 1979, a community meeting, called by the Southall IWA, was held on 11 April and decided on a course of action to petition the council to refuse the NF access to the Town Hall, march from Southall to Ealing Town Hall on 22 April and that ‘all businesses, restaurants, shops, etc. should shut down on 23 April from 1 p.m. onwards’.[xii] Sharma explained that this form of protest was called a ‘Hartal’ and was ‘quite a common tactic in India’.[xiii] Sharma also emphasised that the 11 April meeting had ‘decided not to resort to confrontation with the police’ and organised a ‘massive peaceful sitdown’ outside the Town Hall.[xiv] The SWP, the ANL and Socialist Unity, an organisation led by Tariq Ali that incorporated the IMG, had called for a protest march on 23 April, but had been ‘turned down by local groupings in favour of the sit-down protest’.[xv]

The NF meeting was to begin at 7.30pm and the protest had been scheduled to commence from 5pm, but confrontations between police and youth had been occurring since the early afternoon. With over 2,700 police involved, around 2,000 demonstrators were confronted by the police and the Special Patrol Group (SPG), which began to prevent demonstrators from protesting out the front of the Town Hall.[xvi] Dave Renton has written that, ‘Between 7.30 and 9 p.m., Southall witnessed a full-scale police riot’.[xvii] The SWP pamphlet, Southall: The Fight For Our Future, described the events:

The first lines of foot police opened up and made way for SPG men with riot shields and hoards of baton-wielding police on horseback. Some demonstrators tried to defend themselves by throwing bricks. But it was useless. The mounties ran amock, joking, laughing and making racist remarks as they smashed skulls with their batons. The footmen followed up using riot shields as weapons and arresting anyone… The police violence did nothing to control the situation.[xviii]

At around 7.45pm, Blair Peach, an ANL and SWP member, was ‘struck on the head by an assailant widely believed to have been a member of the SPG’, dying of his injuries after midnight.[xix] By the end of the night, 342 people, ‘mostly Asian and local’, had been arrested.[xx]

The following day’s Morning Star, having gone to press before Blair Peach’s death was announced, reported the ‘total shutdown’ of Southall.[xxi] The paper reported the police claims of 250 demonstrators arrested during the evening and 77 arrested in the afternoon, along with forty people taken to Ealing Hospital, including eighteen policemen.[xxii] The next day’s Morning Star contained the headline, ‘Curb The Mad Dogs Of Racism!’, declaring that ‘Rees, McNee and Thatcher – All to Blame in Southall Tragedy’.[xxiii] Home Secretary Merlyn Rees was accused of allowing the NF ‘to spread its racist poison in clear violation of the Race Relations Act’ and that the ‘holding of an election does not annul the Race Relations Act, nor absolve Mr Rees of the responsibility to ensure that it is rigorously applied’.[xxiv] Metropolitan Police Commissioner David McNee was also accused of ‘protecting a handful of racist hoodlums’, when it was McNee’s ‘duty to protect the freedom of the citizens of Southall’, but he had failed to do so and, ‘On the contrary, his men assaulted them, left, right and centre’.[xxv] Thatcher was also criticised for ‘encouraging the growth of racism’ and the Morning Star declared, ‘it is sheer humbug for Mrs. Thatcher and Co. to prattle on about law and order when she talks about Britain being swamped by black people’.[xxvi] The CPGB reiterated its line that ‘throwing missiles at the police is not the way to fight racism’, but understood ‘the sense of frustration, anger and outrage’ felt by the black community in Southall.[xxvii] Whatever violent action was taken by the protestors on 23 April, the Morning Star stated that the ‘real violence in Southall was the officially sponsored violence from mobs of police, apparently including the notorious Special Patrol Group, who simply went beserk [sic]’.[xxviii] The death of Blair Peach and the violent clashes in Southall were ‘the direct result of the toleration of the National Front provocations by the authorities’, declared CPGB General Secretary Gordon McLennan, tolerance that the CPGB thought should be remedied by the use of the Race Relations Act to its full extent.[xxix]

Approximately 15,000 people marched through Southall on 28 April, 1979 in memory of Blair Peach.[xxx] An official inquest, like that held after Red Lion Square, was never held, but the NCCL held an unofficial inquest and Scotland Yard’s Complaints Investigation Bureau also conducted a report. The Leveller reported in January 1980 that this report implied that ‘prime suspicion for Peach’s murder was narrowed down to six police officers’.[xxxi] No one has ever been indicted for his murder.


[i] Paul Harrison, ‘The Patience of Southall’, New Society, 4 April, 1974

[ii] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 45

[iii] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 52

[iv] Bahaj Purewal, cited in, ‘Against Racism in Southall’, Challenge, 36, August/September 1976

[v] Race Today Collective, The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain, Race Today Publications, London, 1983, p. 17

[vi] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 54

[vii] Anandi Ramamurthy, ‘The Politics of Britain’s Asian Youth Movements’, Race & Class, 48/2, p. 39

[viii] John Rose, ‘The Southall Asian Youth Movement’, International Socialism, 1/91, September, 1976, p. 5

[ix] J. Rose, ‘The Southall Asian Youth Movement’, p. 6

[x] Cited in, Shivdeep Singh Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s? Southall and the Conjuncture of 23 April 1979’, Socialist History, 23, 2003, p. 21

[xi] Nermal Singh, ‘Racism: Time to Fight Back’, Kala Tara, 1, p. 3, http://www.tandana.org/pg/PDF/SC/SC2.PDF, accessed 14 March, 2007

[xii] Cited in, David Renton, When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981, New Clarion Press, Cheltenham, 2006, p. 141

[xiii] ‘Interview with Vishnu Sharma’, Marxism Today, December 1979, p. 22

[xiv] ‘Interview with Vishnu Sharma’, p. 22

[xv] S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 3

[xvi] D. Renton, When We Touched the Sky, p. 143; S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 4

[xvii] D. Renton, When We Touched the Sky, p. 146

[xviii] SWP, Southall: The Fight For Our Future, SWP pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 3

[xix] S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 5

[xx] CARF/Southall Rights, Southall, p. 60

[xxi] Morning Star, 24 April, 1979

[xxii] Morning Star, 24 April, 1979

[xxiii] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxiv] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxv] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxvi] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxvii] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxviii] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxix] Morning Star, 25 April, 1979

[xxx] S. Grewal, ‘Capital of the 1970s?’, p. 6

[xxxi] ‘Six Names Out of the Blue’, The Leveller, 34, January 1980, p. 6

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Filed under anti-fascism, Anti-Nazi League, Anti-racism, Asian Youth Movement, British 'race relations', British far left, British History, Commission for Racial Equality, Communist Party of Great Britain, Contemporary history, Criminology, Daily Worker/Morning Star, Fascism, International Marxist Group, IS/SWP, National Front, Political violence, protest, Protest laws, Public order issues, Racist violence, Right-wing extremism/radicalism, Southall 1979

The Youtube clip I’ve been waiting for: Tony Martin doing Billy Bragg

This is the greatest bit from The Late Show. I’m glad someone’s finally uploaded it. Enjoy!

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Filed under Billy Bragg, British History, John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Pop music, Popular culture, Popular memory, Punk, Television, Thatcherism, The Late Show (Aust.), Tony Martin, Youth culture

CFP: Racism and Anti-Racism: from the labour movement to the far-right (University of Glasgow, 5-6 Sep 2014)

Satnam Virdee, who is contributing a chapter to our far left book, has asked that I mention this two-day conference that he is organising at the University of Glasgow.


(University of Glasgow, 5-6 September 2014)

The first decades of the 21st century have seen two worrying developments for anyone concerned with opposing oppression:

  • the continuing mutation and expansion of racism into new ‘cultural’ forms, above all in the form of a virulent Islamophobia; and
  • the electoral consolidation of parties of the far-right, who are not always fascist, but committed to deeply reactionary positions on most social issues, above all in relation to migration.

These two developments are distinct, but overlapping. On the one hand, racism is more widespread than on the far right, institutionally embedded over centuries in even the most notionally liberal states and exerting an influence even in the labour and trade union movement which might be thought to have most to lose from the divisions which it engenders. On the other hand, the far-right almost always includes racism among its repertoire of mobilising issues, but has politics which extend beyond it.

The plenaries and workshop sessions will interrogate:

  • racism in all its multifarious forms;
  • the new far-right of the neoliberal era (i.e. mid-1970s onwards), in both its fascist and non-fascist aspects, particularly its growing electoral impact; and
  • how the different varieties of racism and the far right can be challenged on the ground, and by whom.

Although our focus is international, no conference held in Scotland during September 2014 can avoid the fact of the independence referendum. While the national question is not our subject, any discussion of racism inevitably has to deal with its role in national formation, particularly in the case of the imperial powers of which Britain was once so preeminent. Themes which we hope to address in relation to Scotland are the reality (or otherwise) of claims that it suffers less from racism than England or other areas in Western Europe, and the reasons why, to date, it has remained relatively immune to the electoral appeal of the far-right.

Themes which the conference might address can include, but need not be restricted to the following:


  • Racism, class and globalised capitalism
  • Racism and neoliberalism
  • State racisms, in particular the racialization of migration and asylum
  • Anti-Muslim racism and the appropriation and mobilization of feminist discourses
  • Racism and the ‘white’ working class
  • Forms of anti-racist activism: from social movements to the everyday
  • Theorizing contemporary racisms – Feminist, Critical Race Theory, Postcolonial and Neo-Marxist perspectives are particularly welcomed.
  • The legacy of anti-Irish racism in Scotland
  • Scots, the Empire and the externalisation of racism
  • Different attitudes to immigration in Scotland and England

The Far Right

  • The changing class basis of far right party membership
  • Distinguishing the ‘non-fascist’ far-right from fascism
  • Tensions between neoliberalism and far-right policy (the Tea Party, UKIP, etc.)
  • The far-right and the different phases of capitalist development
  • Working class electoral support for far-right parties
  • Campaigning against the far-right
  • Scottish Loyalism and far-right politics in Scotland
  • Why is the far-right weaker in Scotland than England?

We invite proposals for individual papers or panels from both established academics and postgraduate students, but also from those involved in addressing racism on a practical basis in advocacy groups, community campaigns, anti-racist mobilisations and trade unions.

Proposals should be no longer than 250 words and submitted to both organisers:
neil.davidson@glasgow.ac.uk and satnam.virdee@glasgow.ac.uk by 16 May 2014

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Filed under Announcements, Call for Papers, Conferences, Papers/Seminars

South Africa and anti-Apartheid in British popular culture before Mandela (1976-1983)

This post is partly inspired by my work on The Young Ones and the cultural depictions of the history of Thatcherite Britain. In the first episode, ‘Demolition’, which aired in late 1982, Rick and Neil have an argument over whether the vegetables in the meal were from South Africa (there was an international campaign for a boycott of South African produce at the time). Apartheid in South Africa was a hot topic amongst political activists in the UK, particularly from the mid-1970s onwards, after the Soweto uprising in 1976 and the death of activists Steve Biko in 1977, and the issue permeated through British popular culture, as demonstrated by this scene from this alternative comedy show.

In the wake of the Nelson Mandela’s death in December last year, some commentators reminded readers that Mandela was not always the focal point of anti-apartheid activism or a popular representation of the oppression of the apartheid regime outside of South Africa. As the online archive of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement outlined, awareness about Mandela’s imprisonment was raised by campaigns by the United Nations and the South African Sunday Post paper in the early 1980s and this had gained significant momentum by the mid-1980s. In the UK, the image of Mandela as the representative figure of the oppressive nature of Apartheid South Africa was bolstered by the 1984 hit by Jerry Dammers (from The Specials/Special AKA), ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.

But as Dorian Lynskey wrote, Mandela was not part of the popular conception of South Africa and apartheid before the mid-1980s. Lynskey stated:

It was Steve Biko, not Mandela, who became the first anti-apartheid icon. When the young leader of the radical black consciousness movement died in police custody in 1977, he inspired songs by the folksinger Tom Paxton, the prog-rock star Peter Hammill, the reggae artists Steel Pulse and Tappa Zukie, and, tardily but most famously, Peter Gabriel.

I am interested in how South Africa and apartheid was represented in British popular culture from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, when both British popular culture and South Africa were dramatically changing. In British popular culture, it was the rise and demise of punk and its surpassing by the various streams of post-punk, as well as the birth of alternative comedy. In South Africa, the 1976 Soweto uprising signified a change in the resistance to the apartheid regime inside the country, demonstrating that ordinary people were willing to undertake militant actions against the regime and regenerating the anti-apartheid forces outside the country. After Biko’s death in 1977, many Black Consciousness Movement followers joined the African National Congress in exile and swelled the resistance to the South African government.

From 1976 onwards, Soweto and Steve Biko became the main representations of South Africa in the British popular consciousness and were referred to in various ways. Paul Gilroy notes that during the Notting Hill riots in August 1976, a number of people involved chanted ‘Soweto, Soweto’ while confronting the police. Apparently ‘Soweto’ was a familiar cry at many demonstrations and episodes of public disorder in Britain during this period. An article in the Communist Party journal, Comment, in 1980 mentioned the chant of ‘Soweto, Soweto’ at a counter-demonstration against the National Front in London as well.

Most famously, Peter Gabriel recorded the song ‘Biko’ in 1980 as part of his Peter Gabriel III (or Melt), but Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse also recorded ‘Biko’s Kindred Lament’ for their 1979 album Tribute to the Masters and Jamaican/UK reggae producer Tapper Zukie recorded a song in 1978 called ‘Tribute to Steve Biko’.

Punk figure Malcolm Maclaren released a single called ‘Soweto’ in 1983, while Afro-Caribbean-UK dub/fusion band Steel an’ Skin recorded a song ‘Fire in Soweto’ in 1979. Most interestingly, The Clash recorded a demo called ‘Where You Gonna Go (Soweto)’ during the London Calling sessions in 1979.

From a precursory glance, it seems that the Soweto uprising and the death of Steve Biko dominated popular conceptions in Britain of South Africa and the brutality of the apartheid regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The boycott of South African produce (one of the many ways that the Anti-Apartheid Movement strove to bring attention to what was occurring in South Africa to the British public) was also a reference point in British popular culture in the early 1980s. For example, in Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (first published in 1982), the protagonist recorded:

In afternoon did shopping in Sainsbury’s with my father. Saw Rick Lemon dithering at the fruit counter; he said selecting fruit was an ‘overtly political act’. He rejected South African apples, French golden delicious apples, Israeli oranges, Tunisian dates, and American grapefruits.

I think this changes with the focus of anti-apartheid activists on freeing Nelson Mandela, which was reinforced in the British popular imagination by the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and the 70th birthday celebration in Wembley Stadium in 1988 (what Mark Perryman referred to as ‘the Mandela moment’).

So, I throw it over to you, connoisseurs of British popular culture – can you inform me of any other mentions of South Africa/Apartheid in British pop culture between circa 1976 and 1983 (songs, television, film)?




Filed under academia, African National Congress, Anti-apartheid, Anti-racism, British 'race relations', British far left, British History, Colonial/Postcolonial History, Communist Party of Great Britain, Pop music, Popular culture, Popular memory, Riots, Rock Against Racism, South Africa, Television, The Young Ones, Youth culture

Anti-communism across the Commonwealth


It had long been argued by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) that the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 was inspired by the Apartheid regime in South Africa, in particular the Suppression of Communism Act 1950 introduced by the Malan Government. In 2004, Justice Michael Kirby gave a paper at the University of Chicago in which he argued:

In the United States,… the Supreme Court had held up as valid the Smith Act which was in some ways similar to the Australian anti-communist legislation. It, in turn, had borrowed elements from a South African law which subsequently became the model for “suppression of terrorism” laws in a number of British colonies.

The Menzies government went into the December 1949 elections with the promise to ban the Communist Party if elected. Menzies had used the Crimes Act 1914 to ban the CPA during the Second World War (while the CPA was in its ‘imperialist war’ phase), but this ban was overturned by Labor’s John Curtin when he became Prime Minister in 1942.

The National Party under Malan had been elected in 1948 and in the subsequent years, had pushed through several pieces of legislation creating the Apartheid regime that existed until the early 1990s. The National Party had been concerned about the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) particularly since a widespread 1946 strike and there had been efforts by the United Party government to put the leaders of the CPSA on trial for sedition.

We know from documents at the National Archives of Australia that both the Menzies and Malan governments were developing similar legislation at the same time in 1950 – the Australian bill was introduced to Parliament in April 1950, while the South African bill was passed in June of the same year. Letters from the Australian High Commission in Cape Town show that the Malan government passed on the draft legislation to the Menzies government before the Dissolution Bill was introduced in Australian Parliament. The letter, dated 3 March, 1950, says:

The Union Government has made available for your strictly confidential information, a copy of the draft bill to combat Communism, which I am sending by today’s airbag. It has yet to receive the final approval of Cabinet.

The Union Government state they would seek particulars of any Australian Government measures directed to the same object.

I am yet to look through the non-digitised files in Canberra relating to the Dissolution Bill to see whether this South African connection is expanded upon further, and I have found the website of the South African National Archives impossible to navigate.

But I did find an interesting Commonwealth link in the newspaper of the CPSA, The Guardian. In an article dated February 16, 1950, the newspaper claimed that the National government was busy drafting an anti-communist bill, based on Canadian legislation and that ‘[s]imilar legislation is contemplated by Australia and by Southern Rhodesia’. The article explained that the legislation was based on the former section 98 of the Canadian Criminal Code which was repealed in 1936, but was used to harass the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) , various Trotskyist groups and trade unions after the Winnipeg strike of 1919. The article claimed that the Canadian government was considering re-enacting the legislation against the Labour-Progressive Party of Canada (the name of the reconstituted CPC between 1943 and 1959).

Similar to the CPA, the CPC had been banned under wartime restrictions in 1940, but unlike the CPA, this ban remained enforced through the war and early Cold War period. The remnants of the CPC formed the LPPC in 1943 to capitalise on the Soviet Union entering the war, which gave a boost to Communist Parties across the Western world, including the CPA and the CPSA.

The Guardian article went onto claim that ‘anti-Communist measures are being co-ordinated throughout the Commonwealth’ by MI5. This is interesting as it suggests that there was a clear anti-communist programme across the Commonwealth to ensure that the decolonisation process did not lead to communist subversion within the former British Empire and that the Dominions were entrusted with particular responsibility to crack down on communists throughout the Anglosphere. There are several documents in the National Archives in London (here and here for instance) which bolster this argument.

All of this suggests that both communism and anti-communism politics found useful links within the imperial network of the British Commonwealth, which is great for my project (and possible forthcoming project if the ARC feeling like giving me a DECRA). However it also seems that my project may have to cast an eye on the Communist Party of Canada at some point, which means more work for me!

Do any readers have any suggestions for reading material on the CPC?

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Filed under Anti-apartheid, Anti-colonialism, Anti-communism, Archives, Australian history, Australian Labor Party, British History, Colonial/Postcolonial History, Communist Party of Australia, Communist Party of Canada, Communist Party of South Africa, Contemporary history, International communist movement, Marxism, National Archives (UK), National Archives of Australia, Robert Menzies, Security services (UK), The Guardian (CPSA)

Review: Constructing Post-Imperial Britain by Jodi Burkett


My review of Constructing Post-Imperial Britain: Britishness, ‘Race’ and the Radical Left in the 1960s by Jodi Burkett (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) has just been published online by Contemporary British History journal. Here is the opening paragraph of my review:

Jodi Burkett’s book, Constructing Post-Imperial Britain: Britishness, ‘Race’ and the Radical Left in the 1960s, is a well-executed examination of the new social movements that arose in Britain in the post-war era, exploring how these movements related to the end of the British Empire and the emergence of a post-imperial Britain. Burkett looks at four different ‘single-issue’ organisations, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and the National Union of Students (NUS), who all acted as the focal point of wider social movements they sprung from—the peace movement, the anti-Apartheid movement, the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and the student movement, respectively. The book examines these four movements through the turbulent decade of the 1960s against a backdrop of great political, social and cultural shifts in British society, with Burkett focusing on one transformation in particular—the break-up of the British Empire and the establishment of a ‘multi-racial’ Commonwealth.

You find the rest of the review here. And you can purchase (or order for your library) the book here.

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Filed under Announcements, Anti-apartheid, Anti-colonialism, Books, British 'race relations', British History, Britishness, CND, Colonial/Postcolonial History, Contemporary history, Enoch Powell, Immigration, Journal announcements, National Union of Students, Northern Irish Civil Rights Association, Racial discrimination, Reviews, Smethwick, UK Labour Party

The SACP and Czechoslovakia 1968


I have been in the Mayibuye Archives at the University of the Western Cape this week and found in the papers of Yusuf Dadoo a draft statement by the South African Communist Party on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The draft statement began by declaring:

The Central Committee of the South African Communist Party fully supports the action taken in fraternal Czechoslovakia by the Socialist countries united in the Warsaw Pact in response to an appeal for help by Communist and progressive forces…

Today the imperialists seek through guile and cunning to achieve a change in the balance of power in Europe which has always historically threatened world war. In the interests of the revolutionary gains of the Czechoslovak people; the international working class and of peace in the world, the Socialist countries could not stand aside and allow these grave developments. (SACP, ‘Imperialist Counter-Offensive Halted in Czechoslovakia’, n.d., 2.4.7, Yusuf Dadoo Collection, Mayibuye Archives, University of the Western Cape)

A look at the 4th issue of African Communist from 1968 shows that the SACP embellished upon this draft statement with a long editorial justifying the invasion (pp. 5-15) and the inclusion of several statements of the SACP on the Czechoslovak ‘crisis’ over the previous few months (pp. 94-96). The justification for the invasion for the SACP was that this measure was necessary in the era of imperialist aggression to protect the gains of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and to prevent Western forces from reaching the borders of the Soviet Union. The editorial stated that events of August 1968:

must be viewed, above all, in relation to the central and overriding clash of our era – that between aggressive international imperialism on the one hand and the forces of socialism and human liberation on the other. Any estimate of those events which minimises or overlooks this great central issue must be one-sided or false… We must remember the geographic and strategic position of this country as a key-point for the security of the heartlands of socialism – and we must be acutely conscious of the whole international situation of rampant imperialist aggression on a global scale (pp. 6-7).

Recent works on the SACP indicate that not everyone in the Party supported the Soviet invasion, in particular there was a significant dispute between Ruth First and Joe Slovo, but the public face of the SACP was outwardly pro-Soviet.  The stance taken by the SACP is interesting because it is in stark contrast to the position taken by the two other Communist Parties that I have been studying, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of Australia. As Keith Laybourn noted, the Executive Committee of the CPGB issued a statement in September 1968, ‘deploring the intervention of the Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia’ (p. 79). In the case of the CPA, Andy Blunden documents that the Party’s newspaper Tribune pronounced:

We cannot agree to the pre-emptive occupation of a country by another, on the alleged threat from outside, particularly when such action is taken without prior notification to the government and CP of Czechoslovakia. … It is hard to believe that [the Soviet leaders] realise the damage they cause to their own standing and the image of socialism throughout the world by acting in this way.

Looking at the parties that opposed the Soviet invasion (such as the CPGB and the CPA, as well as the French and Italian Communist Parties),  most of them were Western parties operating in a liberal democracy. The SACP noted the opposition by the CPGB, PCF and PCI, stating:

An indication of the exceptionally complicated and severe nature of the Czechoslovakian crisis is that this time the critics who have condemned the Soviet Union and her allies include even some of the leaderships of Communist Parties, especially in Western Europe, including Italy, France and Britain. We should make it clear at the outset, that we differ radically from the analysis made and the conclusions reached by the leaders of these Parties (p.6).

But the SACP seemed to argue that the Western European parties were arguing against the Soviet invasion from a privileged position:

If our comrades in Western Europe have discussed and made statements about this questions, so have our comrades in Vietnam, Korea, the United States, Cuba, the Middle East, Africa (p. 11).

I think this split between Communist Parties in Western liberal democracies and Communist Parties in less democratic conditions over the issue of Czechoslovakia may go back to the events of 1956 and the changes to the international communist movement. After the denunciation of the ‘crimes’ of the Stalin era by Khrushchev in 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956, Communist Parties across the world went into shock, with many suffering significant membership loss and debate spilling over into the public sphere. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, dissidents within the CPGB, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Brian Pearce, Peter Fryer and Malcolm MacEwen (amongst others), sought channels outside the Party to denounce the actions of the Soviet Union, as well as the lack of internal debate within the Party. Rachel Calkin has shown that similar scenes occurred in the CPA. Although the leadership of both the CPGB and CPA supported the invasion of Hungary in October 1956, the backlash in these Parties fostered a much deeper debate about the role of the Soviet Union in the international communist movement. This debate bubbled away during the 1960s and mixed with the rise of the new social movements of the mid-to-late 1960s, I would argue that this created the conditions that allowed these Western Parties in 1968 to criticise the actions of the Soviets publicly.

On the other hand, the SACP had not undergone this public bloodletting in 1956 and a much more orthodox approach to the Soviet Union remained amongst the SACP leadership in 1968. I have been thinking that because the Communist Party of South Africa was banned in 1950 and the underground SACP was caught up in  a series of major struggles in the late 1950s, this caused those who chose to remain in the illegal Party to take a much more hardline (and orthodox Marxist-Leninist) outlook. Those in South Africa who probably would have formed the ‘new left’ and broke away from the CPSA were probably also unlikely to be involved in the underground SACP, which maintained a strict democratic centralist line. Under the Apartheid regime, it might be argued that the conditions were not available to develop a socialist humanist Marxism.


Although we do know that there was some dissent within (and around) the SACP over Hungary. A look at the letters page of the New Age journal (a proxy publication of the SACP) from late 1956 shows that some were willing to criticise the Soviet invasion, but were quickly retorted by the pro-Soviet journal editors. Raising the issue of the Suez invasion as well as Hungary (and the right of countries to self-determination), someone wrote to New Age rhetorically asking:

Could this be that a ‘police-action’ by Western states is to be condemned, but a similar action by a Socialist state is to be supported?

The editors of the journal replied:

In the case of Hungary, was it the Soviet troops or the counter-revolutionaries who prevented the Hungarian people from exercising their right to self-determination? Would Hungary under a right-wing government , and with a capitalist economic system, dependent on Western support for its existence, have been more independent than she is now?

This attitude was still in place in the SACP in 1968, but had faded somewhat in many other Western Communist Parties. Did the fact that the SACP had to go underground reinforce a Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy within the Party? Has this had a negative effect on the SACP since the 1960s? Any thoughts would be much appreciated!


Filed under 1956, 1968, Anti-apartheid, Archives, British far left, Communist Party of Australia, Communist Party of Great Britain, Communist Party of South Africa, Contemporary history, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, International communist movement, Joe Slovo, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Research, Ruth First, South Africa, South African Communist Party