Thinking historically about acid house & early rave culture: The soundtrack to late Thatcherism

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Most discussions of the soundtrack to the Thatcher years concentrates on the early-to-mid-1980s and the rise of Thatcherism. For example, many have referred to The Specials and The Beat at the time of 1981 riots, Duran Duran and Wham! as the Thatcherite hegemony won the 1983 election and Billy Bragg and the Style Council during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. But I want to think about the soundtrack to late Thatcherism (and the early Major years), particularly acid house and early rave culture.

Exported from the United States, house music made its way into the UK club scene in the mid-1980s and acid house became a phenomenon from around 1987 to 1991, before morphing into various strains of rave music in the early 1990s. The rise of acid house coincided with the opening of new wave of clubs across the UK and beginnings of the warehouse and open air ‘raves’, situated against a backdrop of high Thatcherism, which included heightened deindustrialisation and the growth of the high finance capitalism in the City of London

Thatcher was returned to office in 1987 after her third electoral victory and this could be considered the high point of Thatcherism as a hegemonic project. After defeating the trade unions during the Miners’ Strike in 1985, Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatisation and deindustrialisation across the country. Already under pressure, many heavy industries in the north of England, as well as Scotland and Wales, collapsed, leaving to massive unemployment in these regions. Where jobs were available to replace the traditional heavy industries, they were usually unskilled, low paid and short-term, leaving many without the stability of employment enjoyed by the previous generations.

Meanwhile in the south-east of England, especially in London, the economy boomed, fuelled by the deregulation of the finance industry in 1986. Heavy industry, especially around the East End of London and the docks, also dried up and the inner city began its path towards gentrification. The story since the mis-1980s was that London became too expensive for many workers and those who benefited from the boom in the finance industry moved in.

As the north and south of England diverged upon two parallel roads – one towards a post-industrial decline and one towards a post-industrial regeneration – the emerging youth subculture that rose to prominence at this time was acid house and rave/club culture. I believe that the subculture surrounding acid house and the early rave scene reflected this north/south divide and reflected the two Britains that were developing under Thatcher.

Coinciding with the emergence of MDMA (or ecstasy), the acid house and early rave scene became the focus of a moral panic about out of control youth on drugs and gathering en masse to celebrate this fusion of drugs and music. Unlike punk or reggae (or even rap), this subculture was seen to have no redeeming socio-political features and was viewed as just an excuse to indulge in social drug experimentation.

Many viewed acid house and early rave culture as hedonistic and the pretext to (publicly) waste a lot of money of partying. This was probably true to some degree in the south, where the more affluent young people could indulge in this hedonism and spend a considerable amount of money on weekend activities.

But in the north, acid house also exploded – in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and other cities. In the northern acid house scene, it was not just hedonism, fuelled by a large disposable income, but a chance to escape from dreary post-industrial world that had been delivered by nearly a decade of Thatcherism. Not sites of resistance to Thatcherism, but a withdrawal from engagement with it.

Furthermore, with the decline of heavy industry in the north, factories and fields, once the sites of a booming industrial sector, were transformed from empty spaces into potential venues for clubs and raves – the economics of putting on a show was merely finding a suitable sound system. An enterprising person, the kind of whom was praised under Thatcherism, could hire (or buy) a large PA system, bring in some local DJs and with a little promotion, make a lot of money from those entering (and possibly the selling of illicit drugs).

Unlike punk, reggae or folk music, acid house and early rave culture did not really get political and for most, was more an apolitical rejection of the Thatcherite status quo, using music (and the drugs) to collectively cast off the burden that Thatcherism brought down on young people in the late 1980s. Although I would say that acid house was given a political edge by its crossover with the gay scene in Britain in the 1980s. Under Thatcher, gay men and women were persecuted for their sexuality and the AIDS epidemic and Clause 28 were used by those in power to publicly harass gay men and women, arguing that their lifestyles were deviant. Acid house became the dominant sound in many of Britain’s gay clubs and this deviancy and portrayal as the ‘folk devils’ of the 1980s was transformed into a particular subcultural identity, combining the hedonism of acid house culture with the ‘deviancy’ of being gay in Thatcherite Britain.

However the apolitical nature of acid house and rave culture changed in the early 1990s. Concerned about the amount of illicit drugs being allegedly sold and used in the scene, the government and the police cracked down on raves and dance clubs, using the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and a revised version of the Public Order Act 1986 to shut down underground raves and strictly monitor licensed clubs. In 1992, the Major Government started to draft the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill (which eventually became law in 1994), which included an entire section dedicated to the policing of raves. This led to significant political resistance and raves became part of a political battle over the use of public space. Taking some inspiration from the anarchist ‘Stop the City’ protests of the 1980s, a serious protest movement developed, using the method of occupying public spaces and putting on ‘free parties’. This crossed over at stages with the rise of the Reclaim the Streets movement and other green/anarchist protests.

This post has attempted to give an overview of how acid house and early rave culture fits within the wider history of Thatcherism and that of contemporary Britain. What I need to do is delve into primary sources of the period, primarily the documents produced by the subculture itself – the zines, the magazine interviews, the flyers, media reports and government files, as well as any oral history and reminisces of the period. Any suggestions for where to find relevant materials would be greatly appreciated – however, as usual, there are a million other projects that I need to finish beforehand!

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Filed under Acid house, British History, Club culture, Deindustrialisation, DIY, Drugs, Electronic music, John Major, Law & order, LGBT rights, Margaret Thatcher, North/South divide, Pop music, Popular culture, protest, Protest laws, Public order issues, Rave culture, Tories, Youth culture, Zine history, Zines

Launching the Australian Modern British History Network (AMBHN)

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This is just a quick plug for the new Facebook group that I help set up today – the Australian Modern British History Network (AMBHN). A few people had been discussing that a British history network was needed for scholars in Australia, whose work is often subsumed by other historical organisations, and it was felt that British history in this country needed its own identity. The FB page was put together today as a way of making connections between those interested in modern British history across Australia and hopefully will develop into something more in the future.

Here is the blurb from the website:

The Australian Modern British History Network (AMBHN) is a group that brings together historians of modern Britain (1688 onwards) and the British Empire/Commonwealth living or working in Australia. This FB page will be used to make announcements, call for papers and the like that would interest historians of Britain and its Empire who are in Australia.

Stay tuned for more!

So if you’re in Australia and have a research interest in modern British history or the history of the British Empire/Commonwealth, join this group. I’m sure it’ll be great.

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Filed under Announcements, Australian Modern British History Network, British Commonwealth, British History, Empire, Facebook, Internetz, Public service announcements, Research

Review of far left book, ‘Against the Grain’, in Twentieth Century British History journal

Madeleine Davis has written a review of our book, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, in the journal Twentieth Century British History. She concludes the review with:

This is not, perhaps, a collection for the completely uninitiated. It is however, a valuable re-engagement with a
neglected but significant history, which should stimulate further research.

The rest of the review here.

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Filed under Announcements, Books, British far left, Public service announcements

Communist Attitudes towards Polish Migration to Post-War Britain

This post was inspired by a recent analysis on the reception of Polish migrants by the NUM in Wales in 1940s and 1950s by Daryl Leeworthy over at his History on the Dole blog. It had formerly been an article that I was trying to write on the subject, but has been on the backburner for a long time. Sections will be included in my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of ‘race’, which will be published by Brill’s Historical Materialism series. As usual, feedback is welcome!

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

The CPGB and colonial migrants

When Afro-Caribbean workers started to migrate to Britain in large numbers during the 1940s and the 1950s, the Communist Party was one of the principal organisations that appealed to these immigrants. Many of those who were attracted to the Communist Party had been political activists or trade unionists in their home countries and looked to the Party, as both an anti-colonial force internationally and an influential trade union presence domestically. The Party had a tradition of involvement in the anti-colonial movement, with chief theoretician on anti-colonial policies, R. Palme Dutt, citing Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism: ‘Stalin emphasized that “the victory of the working class in the developed countries”, e.g. in Britain, “is impossible” unless this common front and alliance with the struggles of the colonial peoples is established’.[1] Viewing the people in the British colonies as ‘fellow fighters… against the common enemy’ of British imperialism,[2] the Party welcomed the black immigrants and attempted to incorporate them into the Party, with varying levels of success.

The Communist Party acknowledged that racial discrimination was evident in Britain, but for the most part, this was attributed to a ‘prejudiced, stupid and sometimes vicious minority’, identified as ‘fascists’, ‘Tories and employers’ and ‘Leaders of the Government’.[3] This largely absolved the working class from being responsible for acts of racial discrimination as race prejudice was largely seen as ‘a conscious part of the policy of the most reactionary sections of British capitalism’.[4] However the Party did admit that ‘amongst a minority of workers, some racial feelings still exist’.[5] In the 1955 pamphlet, No Colour Bar in Britain, the CPGB welcomed immigration from the Commonwealth, claiming that the arrival of ‘colonial workers’ was a ‘great opportunity before British working people’.[6] In a declaration of CPGB policy, the pamphlet stated that the ‘attitude of the Communist Party is clear… It welcomes the arrival of colonial immigrants’, stressing that ‘colonial people are British subjects’ and were entitled to enter Britain freely.[7] For immigrants from outside the Commonwealth, the Party’s attitude was much more divisive.

The campaign against Polish resettlement

In May 1946, the Labour Government announced the formation of the Polish Resettlement Corps, a ‘noncombatant military unit… in which Polish veterans were encouraged to enrol by promise of resettlement’ to direct Polish workers into ‘essential’ industries, such as construction, agriculture and coal mining.[8] The TUC and various unions ‘voiced suspicions about threats to jobs and conditions of employment’, as well as the ‘potential threat’ to British working class politics and culture posed by these European recruits.[9] The Communist Party was heavily involved in opposition to the migration and settlement of Poles and other Eastern Europeans in the late 1940s. As the polarisation of the Cold War began to take place, the CPGB greeted the establishment of the People’s Democracies and was, in the words of socialist journalist Paul Foot, ‘upset that anyone should not volunteer to enjoy the rigours of Stalinism in the Russian satellites of East Europe’.[10]

The Polish workers were labelled ‘fascist Poles’ and were treated with ‘accustomed shabbiness and chauvinism’ by the Party.[11] In the Parliamentary debate on the Polish Resettlement Bill in early 1947, the two MPs who opposed the bill were Phil Piratin and Willie Gallacher (Communist MPs for Mile End and West Fife respectively). Piratin declared that the Polish Resettlement Corps was ‘an affront to the Polish Government and a hindering of its progress’, and a ‘dangerous move for this country to maintain a body of men under a reactionary leadership’.[12] In a 1946 leaflet titled ‘No British Jobs for Fascist Poles’, the CPGB claimed that ‘at least a third’ of the 160,000 Polish troops in Britain ‘actually fought for Hitler’, while ‘the remainder are fascists who do not wish to return to their own country’.[13] The CPGB claimed that ‘nearly 2 million organised British workers have expressed their opposition to the presence in this country of these Polish troops’ and the Party proposed repatriating them to Poland where ‘they should accept the democratic will of the majority of the people and work for the reconstruction of their own country’.[14]

As well as these ‘political’ objections, the Party press made other accusations towards the Poles, particularly the sexual threat of the Polish migrants to British women and the Poles taking vacant housing away from homeless Britons during a shortage of adequate housing. The Daily Worker accused Polish officers of fraternising with young girls at a Polish Army camp in Yorkshire, with the ‘majority of the girls [being] between 14 and 18 years of age’.[15] A few months earlier, at the height of the Squatters Movement led by the CPGB,[16] the paper reported that Poles were being given accommodation at various camps, while squatters were being fined and removed from housing.[17] Syd Abbott declared in the December 1946 issue of the Communist Review:

if the Government would send home Anders and his Poles, many of them fascists, a further 265 camps occupied by 120,000 Polish troops, could be freed, and made available to house the people.[18]

These accusations were similar to the racist falsehoods that numerous people accused Commonwealth migrants of, which the Communists routinely refuted in their anti-racist activities.

The CPGB saw the Polish Resettlement Corps, routinely described as ‘Anders’ Poles’ after conservative Polish leader General Anders under British command, as an ‘anti-Soviet [and] anti-democratic’ force, whose presence in Britain was ‘obviously insincere’.[19] While depicted by the British Government and British industry as a solution to the post-war labour shortage, the Communist Party claimed that the Poles of the Resettlement Corps had no desire to ‘be absorbed as loyal citizens of this country’, but looked to ‘use Britain as a temporary base from which to pursue, at some future date, an armed crusade against the U.S.S.R. and the new Poland’.[20] The Daily Worker quoted a statement by the Polish Embassy in London, saying that the resettlement of Poles was ‘nothing but diplomatic eyewash’, adding ‘No sensible person… can understand why training for civilian jobs should be carried out according to units and arms’[21] – evidence for the Communist Party that Poles in Britain were organising resistance to the Polish Government.

Welsh miners’ leader and member of the CPGB’s Executive Committee, Arthur Horner announced in 1945 that the Communist Party would ‘not allow the importation of foreign – Polish, Italian, or even Irish – labour to stifle the demands of the British people to have decent conditions in British mines’.[22] In the 1946 leaflet, the Party declared that there was ‘no room in Britain for fascists’ and that there was ‘no reason why British jobs should be given to these Poles’.[23] In February 1947, Horner, now General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), spoke against foreign workers in the mining industry, declaring that the Government ‘might get Poles or displaced persons but not coal’.[24] The Party declared that the Poles ‘should be sent home, to work out their own salvation’ and according to Paul Foot, Piratin and Gallacher ‘never missed an opportunity to point out that the Poles were dirty, lazy and corrupt’.[25] In Parliament, Piratin routinely asked the Government whether Polish workers were trade union members or willing to work as directed by the Ministry of Labour. Piratin was accused of having a ‘vendetta against Poles who want to work here rather than return to Communist Poland’, but Piratin claimed that his persistent questioning was ‘merely to ensure that such Poles who are in this country do not in any way scab or blackleg on British labour’.[26]

Even in 1955, while the Party tried to combat racism amongst workers against Commonwealth immigrants, Party literature claimed that the ‘real menace… comes from the far greater number of displaced Poles and Germans whose attitude is hostile to militant trade unionism’.[27] This was compared with the black immigrant workers, who were seen to have the ability to ‘greatly strengthen the fight of the trade unions’.[28] The contradicting attitudes can also be seen in the oral history of CPGB member and Secretary of the Armthorpe NUM Branch, Jock Kane, originally recorded by radical journalist Charles Parker. In one section, Kane described an argument with the NUM area leaders over black workers:

Then I’d another run-in with them about coloured labour. He wasn’t going to have coloured labour. He wasn’t having any ‘half-caste bastards’ running about the streets of his villages. I said: ‘You’re a Nazi. We fought a bloody war to defeat bastards like you.’[29]

But Kane’s description of the Polish miners was very different, accusing them of being work-shy and a hostile class:

I can remember in 1947 we paid wages to thousands of Poles for months and months on end. They never came into this industry and never did a bloody day’s work… There were thousands of Polish ex-army men in camps… A shower of arrogant bloody swine, ex-officer bloody class, and the coal board paid them wages for months on end.[30]

In a 1961 pamphlet, John Moss wrote that immigration had little effect on the total population increase that Britain had experienced in the early post-war period,[31] but the Party still objected to the presence of around 100,000 Poles and other Eastern Europeans and their apparent drain on resources. This campaign against Polish immigration and settlement ran counter to the very arguments the CPGB had been using to convince British workers that immigrants from the Commonwealth were not in competition for employment, housing or welfare.

Back in 1947, R. Palme Dutt discussed that the ‘crucial shortage of man-power’,[32] linking the CPGB’s anti-colonial programme with opposition to the Polish workers. As Dutt argued continually through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Britain’s maintenance of its colonies, its role in NATO and its other activities during the Cold War caused a huge drain on its economy, resources and manpower.[33] Dutt cited that in November 1946, over 1.5 million men were in the armed forces, while another 474,000 were ‘engaged in making equipment and supplies for the armed forces’ – ‘a total of close on two millions [sic] or one-tenth of the available man-power’.[34] Meanwhile more than half a million workers were needed in British industry to assist with reconstruction, with the British Government enthusiastically recruiting European labour, including the Poles. Dutt lamented the fact that the Government’s solution was ‘sought to be found in the settlement of Polish fascists in Britain or the retention of German prisoners of war’.[35] For Dutt, decolonisation and end of Britain’s involvement in ‘imperialist commitments in the Near East or the Far East’ was the solution to Britain’s labour shortage, rather than recruiting Polish ‘fascists’.[36]

The Communist Party were also sceptical whether the deployment of the Polish Resettlement Corps to the mines would actually have any impact upon the labour shortage, with the Daily Worker reporting that less than 2,000 Polish workers – ‘not half of whom are trained miners’ – would be available by mid-1947.[37] In an interview with the Evening Standard’s Industrial Reporter, Arthur Horner, under the headline ‘Foreigners: Mr. Horner Says NO’, stated that ‘[e]ven if the Poles were willing to come into the industry they could not be taught English and be trained to work in the mines in less than six months’.[38] Thus the Daily Worker’s Industrial Reporter, George Sinfield, asked rhetorically, ‘Is this infinitesimal force worth the big and detrimental repercussions it might have if it were used?’[39] If this was the case, the implication the Communists were making was that the British Government was not interested in recruiting Polish workers to fill the gaps in the labour market, but for a more sinister political purpose, possibly to rein in militancy amongst the miners or provide assistance to anti-Communist forces in the early manoeuvres of the Cold War. The Daily Worker posed rhetorically whether to Labour Government’s moves to nationalise coal production was to be counter-balanced by ‘the introduction of men who hold trade unionism in contempt’ or ‘the introduction of men who are avowed opponents of their own Government, which is backed by all working-class parties in Poland’.[40]

The Trades Union Congress and immigration

The reasoning that the CPGB opposed the Polish migrants purely on the grounds that the CPGB was devoted to the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ Republics in Eastern Europe can only be part of the reason for the hostility towards the Poles. While this can be an easily identifiable target for criticising the CPGB, it doesn’t explain why anti-Polish sentiment was expressed by a large number of trade unionists and why the TUC voted against the settlement of Polish soldiers in 1946. As Paul Burnham wrote, ‘[t]his was not just a campaign of the Communist Party’.[41] At the TUC Congress in 1946, the General Council of the TUC demanded that, ‘no Poles should be employed in any grade in any industry where suitable British labour was available’, with a bloc majority of 884,000 voting for this.[42] Although the TUC is not a monolithic organisation and cannot be seen as interchangeable with the various policies and actions of the entire labour movement, some authors have seen a convergence at this point between the protectionist nationalism of the TUC and the sentiments put forward by the CPGB. Both Keith Tompson and Robert Winder have used a quote from Harry Pollitt to demonstrate the hostility of the labour movement towards the Poles and a reflection that the unions were ‘traditional opponents of migrant workers’ in general:

I ask you, does it make sense that we allow 500,000 of our best young people to put their names down for emigration abroad, when at the same time we employ Poles who ought to be back in their own country…?[43]

But it would be rash to conflate the attitudes and motives of the Communist Party with that of the Trades Union Congress. Although the CPGB was influential in some trade unions, it would not have been able to influence the decisions of the TUC General Council. It is also important to note that it was during this time that Cold War was taking shape and that anti-communist sentiment started to grow within the British trade union movement, specifically within the higher echelons of the TUC. As Richard Stevens has demonstrated, during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, ‘[t]he TUC remained deeply involved in anti-Communist activity’.[44]

While the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers can be viewed, ideologically at least, as contradictory to their general anti-racist position, the TUC’s policy on ‘race’ and immigration during this period has long been described as ‘muddled’.[45] The exclusionism of the trade unions opposed Polish and other Eastern European workers can be viewed as similar to their opposition to workers who migrated from the Commonwealth. The general policy of the TUC, as Barry Munslow wrote, had been to ‘play down the subject, stress the need for immigrants to integrate and oppose special provisions’.[46] The TUC General Council expressed the need for immigration controls and implicitly accepted that it was the immigrants that were ‘the problem’ and the ‘view that immigration should be controlled flowed logically from that premise’.[47] While the Congress opposed, on paper, racial discrimination, their position on immigration was that ‘immigrants were a problem and their arrival in Britain should consequently be controlled’.[48]

Neville Kirk has recently argued that in the early post-war period, in comparison with the explicit racism of the Australian labour movement, the British labour movement ‘adopted a predominantly positive attitude to the issues of immigration and “race”’, stating that the TUC ‘prided itself on its efforts to promote trade unionism and worker solidarity, irrespective of colour’.[49] But the fact is that the TUC did support immigration controls and in the case of the Polish workers, called explicitly for Poles to be prevented from entering the British job market, or if they were employed, that the Poles would be the first dismissed. The trade unions may have ‘opposed on economic grounds’ to the introduction of the Polish workers, as ‘trade union leaders and members feared alike the return of the mass unemployment of the 1930s’, but Diana Kay and Robert Miles have also suggested that there was also a ‘vigorous nationalism [that] ran through the trade union movement’.[50] Citing Kay and Miles, Kenneth Lunn noted that the argument has been made that the British labour movements’ response to European immigration was ‘not racist’.[51] A similar argument is made by Stephen Catterall and Keith Gildart in their study of trade union reactions to Polish and Italian miners in the post-war era, arguing that, rather than racism or xenophobia:

[h]ostility from rank and file members arose from the perceived ‘threat’ that the workers posed as a result of prodigious output performance and the mining skills they brought or through domestic and social tensions.[52]

While fears about job security and unemployment may help to explain why racist sentiments were expressed by trade union members, it cannot excuse that Polish workers faced discrimination based on their nationality. As Kenneth Lunn declared, ‘[b]y any reasonable definition, a policy of “Poles out first” is racist’.[53]

Conclusion

In 2004, Paul Burnham stated that ‘[t]he response to the Polish migrants is not an episode that reflects any credit on the left in Britain’.[54] The opposition to the Polish workers in Britain in the late 1940s has been overlooked by many historians of the British left and of British immigration, contrasted with the research concentrated upon the impact that black migration had upon post-war Britain and the left’s anti-racist work in the 1960s and 1970s. But when it has been the focus of research, the opposition has been construed in several different ways, with the actions of the Communist Party of Great Britain during this period under particular scrutiny. Some have used the TUC’s opposition, shared by the CPGB, to portray the British labour movement as nationalistic protectionists, who opposed Polish migrants, just as they opposed migrants from the Caribbean and South Asia. Others have used the CPGB’s opposition to demonstrate their loyalty to Stalinism and their descent into nationalism, following the Popular Front politics on the Second World War. However the Party’s opposition to the Polish workers has not been contrasted with their acceptance of West Indian migrants. This presents a dilemma for those who want to essentialise the CPGB as either inherently racist or inherently Stalinist, as both inclinations can be found within the Party’s disparate approach to post-war migration. The Party’s support for the Soviet Union did affect their position on Polish workers who did not want to return to the Soviet bloc, but it doesn’t explain why they were receptive of West Indian workers or why the TUC adopted a similar approach.

This piece has argued that the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers was partially inspired by the Party’s loyalty to the Soviet Union, but the Party was also imbued with a sense of Soviet-inspired internationalism and anti-colonialism which saw the Communists (on paper at least) champion West Indian migrants who came to Britain in the late 1940s as comrades against imperialism and capitalism. The Party welcomed these migrants who arrived in the early post-war period, declaring in 1955, ‘It is most urgent that the Labour movement… set out to welcome the coloured workers who come to this country and win them for the trade unions’.[55] However the anti-racist rhetoric of the CPGB literature did not always filter down into the Party’s rank-and-file, nor was the Party able to counter the often xenophobic attitudes of the wider labour movement. The CPGB was primarily made up of skilled and semi-skilled workers and in the in the early post-war era, it was significantly representative of the nation’s working class.[56] The Communist Party, by recruiting workers, could not be immune to some forms of racial prejudice amongst its members, with racist beliefs harboured within the working class and the institutions of the labour movement, such as the TUC. This wider chauvinism in the labour movement can also be a partial explanation for the hostility directed towards the Polish workers, that reflected a streak of nationalism or ‘jingoism’, but also a misplaced apprehension towards migrant workers in a time of economic and industrial uncertainty. The opposition to Polish workers put forward by the CPGB is a murky episode in the Party’s history, but the reasons for this opposition, like that of the wider labour movement, are much more than complex than other scholars and commentators have previously suggested. At the same time, the vocal (and leadership endorsed) opposition to the Poles seems an aberration in the history of the CPGB’s anti-racist work, where the Party made quite significant efforts to highlight the issue of racism in Britain and recruit Commonwealth migrants into the CPGB. But similar to the longer history of the CPGB’s anti-racism, the Party tried to balance its position between its commitments to the anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles and its attempts to maintain its influence to the wider labour movement, which in the end, cost the Party support from both sides.

The different ways in how sections of the British labour movement have reacted to migration from Europe is still a contentious issue today, as the free movement of labour within the European Union allows many migrants from Central and Eastern Europe to work and settle in Britain. In early 2009 a significant number of workers went on unofficial strikes across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[57] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union. But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’, used by some involved in the strike to rally against foreign workers, the European Union and the New Labour Government. Although many denounced the use of this slogan, the fact that it was raised shows that issues faced by the British Labour movement, and the Communist Party, in the 1940s and 1950s in regards to migrant workers still remain today. The response to migrant workers by the British labour movement has often been one of solidarity, but resistance has reared its head on many occasions, but even this resistance is informed by a number of different factors, including xenophobia/racism, fear of competition, issues of class and international concerns. As Catterall and Gildart have argued, ‘even the most enlightened sections of organised labour could take reactionary measures when faced with economic uncertainty and threats to job security’.[58] This article has shown, despite the anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist work that the British labour movement and the British left has conducted over the years, opposition to foreign workers has been an problem that it has suffered from on a number of occasions, and one, unfortunately, that seems to still be of concern in the twenty first century. But while any forms of racism or xenophobia within the labour movement must be countered, it is just as important to understand the reasons for this racism and how it is manifested.

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[1] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and the Colonies – II’, World News, 9 January, 1954, p. 25; J. V. Stalin, Works vol. 6, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1954, p. 150

[2] Harry Pollitt, Britain Arise, London, 1952, p. 18

[3] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[4] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[5] CPGB, Brothers in the Fight for a Better Life, London, 1954, p. 11

[6] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 3

[7] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[8] K. Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 68

[9] Ken Lunn, ‘Complex Encounters: Trade Unions, Immigration and Racism’, in John McIlroy, Nina Fishman & Alan Campbell, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, Aldershot, 1999, p. 74

[10] Paul Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, Harmondsworth, 1965, p. 118

[11] Harry Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles, CPGB flyer, London, 1946, Ref. 35/3, CPGB Leaflets, Working Class Movement Library, Manchester; P. Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 118

[12] Hansard, 12 February, 1947, col. 428

[13] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[14] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[15] Daily Worker, 16 December, 1946

[16] For further information on the Squatters’ Movement, see: James Hinton, ‘Self-Help and Socialism: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’, History Workshop Journal, 25, 1988, pp. 100-126; Noreen Branson, The History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1941-1951, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1997, pp. 118 –128

[17] Daily Worker, 23 August, 1946

[18] Syd Abbott, ‘The Mood of the People’, Communist Review, December 1946, p. 7

[19] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[20] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[21] Daily Worker, 22 August, 1946

[22] Arthur Horner, ‘The Communist Party and the Coal Crisis’, 25 November, 1945, from Marxist Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/horner/1945/11/coal.htm, accessed 28 July, 2010

[23] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[24] Cited in, Paul Flewers, ‘Hitting the Pits: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the National Union of Miners’, New Interventions, 7/1, Winter 1996, p. 21

[25] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles; Paul Foot, ‘Immigration and the British Labour Movement’, International Socialism, 1/22, Autumn 1965, p. 10

[26] Hansard, 19 February, 1948 col. 1333

[27] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[28] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[29] Jock Kane, with Betty Kane and Charles Parker, No Wonder We Were All Rebels – An Oral History, http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=697&Itemid=63, accessed 1 December, 2009

[30] J. Kane, No Wonder We Were All Rebels

[31] John Moss, Together Say No Discrimination, London, 1961, p. 8

[32] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and Empire’, Labour Monthly, February 1947, p. 34

[33] See: R. Palme Dutt, Crisis of Britain and the British Empire: Marxist Study Themes no. 7, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1953; R. Palme Dutt, The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1957;

[34] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[35] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[36] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, pp. 34-35

[37] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[38] Arthur Horner, interviewed by Anne Kelly, Evening Standard, February, 1947, from Security Service file on Arthur Horner, KV 2/1527, National Archives, London

[39] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[40] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[41] Paul Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946: South Bucks Squatting in the National Context’, paper presented at the New Socialist Approaches to History seminar series, Institute of Historical Research, London, 23 February 2004

[42] TUC, The General Council’s Report to the 78th Annual Congress, TUC, Brighton, 1946, p. 171; p. 364

[43] Cited in, Keith Tompson, Under Siege: Racial Violence in Britain Today, London, 1988, p. 71; R. Winder, Bloody Foreigners, pp. 323-324

[44] Richard Stevens, ‘Cold War Politics: Communism and Anti-Communism in the Trade Unions’, in Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman & John McIlroy, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. I: The Post-War Compromise, 1945-64, Aldershot, 1999, p. 171

[45] Beryl Radin, ‘Coloured Workers and British Trade Unions’, Race, 8/2, p. 161

[46] Barry Munslow, ‘Immigrants, Racism and British Workers’, in David Coates & Gordon Johnson (eds), Socialist Arguments, Oxford, 1983, p. 204

[47] Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, Bristol, 1977, p. 7; p. 11

[48] R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, p. 2

[49] Neville Kirk, ‘Traditionalists and Progressives: Labor, Race and Immigration in Post-World War II Australia and Britain’, Australian Historical Studies, 39/1, 2008, p. 64; p. 67

[50] Diana Kay & Robert Miles, Refugees or Migrant Workers? European Volunteer Workers in Britain 1946-1951, London, 1992, pp. 76-77

[51] Kenneth Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, in Kenneth Lunn (ed.) Race and Labour in Twentieth-Century Britain, London, 1985, p. 24

[52] Stephen Catterall & Keith Gildart, ‘Outsiders: Trade Union Responses to Polish and Italian Coal Miners in Two British Coalfields, 1945-54’, in Stefan Berger, Andy Croll & Norman LaPorte (eds), Towards a Comparative History of Coalfield Socieities, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, p. 164

[53] K. Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, p. 24

[54] P. Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946’

[55] ‘Talking Points On… Colonial Workers in Britain’, World News, 19 March, 1955, p. 238

[56] K. Newton, The Sociology of British Communism, p. 55; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2004, pp. 23-24

[57] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, ‘Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates’, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; ‘This is a Strike Against Bosses’, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, ‘Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength’, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, ‘Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes’, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, p. 4; ‘Blame the Bosses not “Foreign Workers”’, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, p. 1; p. 3

[58] S. Catterall & K. Gildart, ‘Outsiders’, p. 174

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Filed under anti-fascism, Anti-racism, British 'race relations', British far left, British History, British Road to Socialism, Britishness, Communist Party of Great Britain, Contemporary history, Daily Worker/Morning Star, Fascism, Historiography, Immigration, Marxism, NUM, Polish migration, Racial discrimination, Refugees, Soviet Union, Strikes, TUC, UK Labour Party

Communists and the enlistment of ‘native’ soldiers in the Second World War

From the CPSA pamphlet, 'Death From the Air'.

From the CPSA pamphlet, ‘Death From the Air’.

Although there was no uniform policy across the British Empire, in South Africa and Australia, ‘natives’ were discouraged from enlisting in the armed forces during the Second World War and if enlisted, were not provided with the same level of training and equipment given to white soldiers. In both countries, the Communist Party were one of the groups that agitated for their enlistment into the armed forces and to be given the same training and equipment as all other soldiers. The Communist Parties of South Africa (CPSA) and Australia (CPA) had supported the war effort ever since the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and called for a ‘people’s front’ against the Axis Powers. Both the CPSA and the CPA had long histories of anti-racism and fighting for the rights of the indigenous populations in both countries, as well as a long involvement in anti-colonialist activism.

At the outbreak of the war and following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, both the South African and Australian parties denounced the war as an ‘inter-imperialist war’ between rival imperial powers and argued that there was not difference between fascism and British/French colonialism. For Australia’s Indigenous and South Africa’s black populations, the horrific treatment they experienced at the hands of the government (and part of the British Empire) seemed in some ways to confirm this argument. The CPSA wrote in a 1940 leaflet:

It is an insult to the intelligence of the African, Coloured and Indian people to ask them to fight against a system of Nazi tyranny when they themselves suffer under terrible oppression and injustice.

However when the Soviet Union entered the war, the Communist Parties wholeheartedly supported the war effort and attempted to encourage the indigenous populations in South Africa and Australia to also support the war, even though this would mean, in the short while, supporting British colonialism and its Dominions. In a CPSA pamphlet from early 1943, the Communist Plan for Victory, the Party acknowledged that the racism faced by black and other ‘non-white’ South Africans discouraged them from supporting the war effort and that fascist propaganda exploited this. The pamphlet said:

The policy of race discrimination breeds discontent, apathy and even passive hostility to South Africa’s war effort…

It is this system of White domination that the Japanese propagandists have relied upon to gain sympathy from non-White peoples and weaken the Allied nations.

The same pamphlet warned that if fascism was victorious, things would be worse than under present system:

A victory for Fascism means more race oppression and the adoption throughout the world of a deliberate policy of reducing the conquered peoples to a position of serfdom.

A Hitlerite victory will mean for the non-White peoples of South Africa the adoption of a rigid policy of racial discrimination and segregation, the loss of even the few democratic rights which they now possess, the forcible suppression of their national organisations and trade unions, and the rule of the sjambok.

In 1942, the black General Secretary of the CPSA, Moses Kotane, wrote a pamphlet, Japan – Friend or Foe?, which called for the ‘non-Europeans’ in South Africa to realise that the Japanese would not provide them with their freedom and it was time to support the war effort, and prepare to push forward with the struggle for national liberation:

Our country is in danger of being invaded by the enemies. It is our duty to see that no enemy is allowed to come here. In doing so we shall be fighting for our own freedom. We must demand that non-Europeans be properly trained in the use of arms and be armed to defend our country; that we be trained for and allowed to do skilled work; that all soldiers, irrespective of colour, be treated alike as regards pay, conditions and chances of promotion; that the Pass Law and Poll Tax, segregation and trading restrictions be abolished.

The CPSA proposed that this would give non-Europeans an equal share in the eventual victory over fascism and would prepare them:

for the period after the war when they will have to play their part in building up a Socialist South Africa.

From a CPSA statement, 'Why We Must Support the Government In the War Against Fascism', 23 June, 1940.

From a CPSA statement, ‘Why We Must Support the Government In the War Against Fascism’, 23 June, 1941.

The Communist Party of Australia advocated a similar argument for the Indigenous population of Australia and their enlistment into the war effort (although it was not as central to the Party’s programme as the South African party). In an issue of the CPA’s weekly paper Tribune from July 1942, the CPA called for Indigenous soldiers to be given modern weapons as the authorities were reluctant to arm them. The British had not armed the local populations in several South Asian countries and the islands near Australia and the CPA argued against this policy, which also affected Indigenous people in Australia. The article claimed:

The heroic Chinese guerillas have often fought with even less than spears. They fought for their homeland, their national liberty.

Australian Aborigines will fight in the same way – to disarm them means disarming allies in the face of an enemy. Why not give them modern arms? Teach them to use these, and produce some of the best guerilla fighters this war has known?

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 11.47.31 pm Although accused by some of swapping the anti-imperial struggle for an alliance with the national bourgeoisie that ruled the British Empire, the Communist Parties of South Africa and Australia emphatically supported the war effort after June 1941 and promoted this as a progressive war against fascism and racism. Part of this anti-fascist and anti-racist struggle was campaigning for the end of racial discrimination within the armed forces, who were at the forefront of the war effort (although few indigenous soldiers from either country were sent overseas). Both the CPSA and the CPA were amongst the few groups to call for the integration of indigenous soldiers into the rest of the armed forces and to be provided with the same training and equipment as other soldiers. This is an overlooked part of the history of both parties, their anti-racist activism and the Party’s contribution to the war effort in both countries. Seventy years on from the end of the Second World War, this history is worth exploring further.

From the 'Programme of the Australian Communist Party', 1945.

From the ‘Programme of the Australian Communist Party’, 1945.

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Filed under Anti-colonialism, Anti-racism, Australian history, Colonial/Postcolonial History, Communist Party of Australia, Communist Party of South Africa, Empire, Fascism, Indigenous activism, Nazi Germany, Racial discrimination, Second World War, South Africa

The Communist Party and the 1981 riots

Over the weekend of April 10-12 1981 (34 years ago this last weekend), black and white youth rioted on the streets of Brixton and these riots, along with the riots that spread across the country’s inner cities in July of the same year, became a symbol of the unrest caused by Thatcherism, as well as the long and uneasy relationship between Britain’s black communities and the police. The following post is based on a draft chapter from my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and anti-racism, but is still being tinkered with at the moment – so any feedback is welcome!

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Between the events of Southall on 23 April 1979 and July 1981, there had been increasing riots in inner city areas across Britain, where black and white youth had reacted against the police and in some places, such as Southall, fascist agitation. Although there has been major emphasis in studies of the Thatcherite Government from 1979 to 1990 on Thatcher’s abhorrence of the trade unions and the focus of her Government on destroying an organised labour movement, the riots that occurred across Britain in 1981 have been largely overlooked. While the anti-union legislation and the Miners’ Strike are important elements of the dominance of Thatcher’s neo-liberalism during the 1980s that involved high levels of confrontation between the state and the labour movement, the first major confrontation between the repressive institutions of the state and the ‘subversive’ sections of British society was not with the trade unions, but with Britain’s black population, particularly black youth in the inner cities.

The first major riot was in Bristol on 2 April 1980, followed by a much larger outbreak in Brixton between 10-12 April, 1981 before culminating in riots across Britain in July 1981. These riots can be seen as the reaction to the lack of a political voice by Britain’s black communities and to the racism of the police directed primarily at black youth, as well as against the Conservative Government. The riots were symptomatic of the wider disillusionment, shared by both black and white youth, with the Conservative Government’s repressive police tactics and monetarist economic policies, which contributed to high unemployment. The problem of police racism, at the centre of these riots, was, as Stuart Hall wrote, ‘where blacks and others encounter a drift and a thrust towards making the whole of society more policed’.[1] By the early 1980s, the police strategy in the urban inner cities was making a strong and visible presence of police power under the auspices of maintaining ‘law and order’ and taking a strong stance against street crime. As the Communist Party declared in May 1980, ‘the hawks are in control in the Metropolitan police force’.[2]

The first major confrontation was on 2 April, 1980 in the St Paul’s District of Bristol, when approximately fifty policemen raided a café that was patronised primarily by Afro-Caribbeans, which caused a confrontation between 2,000 mainly black citizens and over 100 policemen.[3] The confrontation was significant because of its scale and intensity, including burning and looting of private property and the racial aspect of the incident.[4] The clash was, Dilip Hiro wrote, a reaction to the confrontational tactics of the police against the black community.[5] The CPGB saw that the events in Bristol ‘were no “spontaneous riot” because there was nothing spontaneous about racial oppression – or its response’.[6] What Bristol demonstrated, Neville Carey predicted in Comment, was that ‘we are heading towards open warfare in deprived areas containing large numbers of unemployed youth’ as the police were being increasingly used to deal with troubles caused by the combination of racism and unemployment.[7] A petition with these immediate demands was circulated by the CPGB following the riot, but Carey admitted that the Communist Party was ‘doing far too little’ in working with the black communities, who mistrusted the opportunism and arrogance of the white left.[8] Carey warned that it would ‘take a great deal of mass pressure from the Left and progressive movements to stop this Law and Order government from encouraging the use of even greater force to deal with social discontent’.[9] But Bristol was only ‘the shape of things to come’.[10] As Harris Joshua and Tina Wallace wrote, ‘the same basic pattern of violence was to be repeated in almost every major city with a black population, precipitating a crisis of race unprecedented in the post-war era, and a crisis of law and order unprecedented since the 1930s’.[11]

On 10 April, 1981, a riot broke out in Brixton after the police stopped an injured youth on the street and the crowd reacted to the heavy police presence. Two events preceded the Brixton riots that contributed to eruption of action against the police. In January 1981, a fire on New Cross Road in Deptford led to the deaths of thirteen black youth. The fire was believed to have been started by a white racist, but the police investigation failed to arrest anyone connected to the fire, further angering the black community.[12] This resulted in large protests by the black communities, with little involvement from the white left and progressive movements, which was different from the political mobilisations of the late 1970s around Grunwick and the Anti-Nazi League. The mobilisation of thousands after the New Cross Fire ‘indicated the extent to which they had been frustrated… from expressing themselves politically’.[13] This mobilisation was against the disinterest and ineptitude of the initial police investigation and the mainstream press until the black protest had ‘drawn attention to the deaths and the official silence by marching through central London’.[14] Paul Gilroy wrote, ‘The tragic deaths set in motion a sequence of events which lead directly to the explosion in Brixton in April 1981, and provided a means to galvanize blacks from all over the country into overt and organized political mobilisation’.[15]

Another event that contributed to the Brixton riots was the strategy launched by the police in the week before the riot. Operation ‘Swamp 81’ was launched by the Lambeth police on 6 April, 1981. The purpose of ‘Swamp 81’ was to ‘flood identified areas on “L” District [Lambeth] to detect and arrest burglars and robbers’ with success, according to the police, depending on a ‘concentrated effort of “stops”, based on powers of surveillance and suspicion proceeded by persistent and astute questioning’.[16] In four days, the squads stopped 943 people and arrested 118, with only seventy-five charged, one with robbery.[17] The fact that so many police were deployed to street patrols in the immediate days preceding the riots contributed to the massive police response to the riots. Even after the first confrontations on 10 April, the operation continued with an extra ninety-six officers deployed to Brixton on 11 April. After the initial confrontation between police officers and a crowd of black youth on the evening of 10 April, 1981, rumours of police violence and several other incidents involving police and youths erupted into rioting across Brixton on 11 April and was finally quelled the following day. In the course of the events over that weekend, around 7,000 police officers were deployed to Brixton to restore order, although as John Benyon claimed, ‘during the worst night of violence on Saturday 11 April it seems that a few hundred people were involved’.[18] In the aftermath, 450 people, including many policemen, were injured, with 145 buildings and 207 vehicles damaged and the total damage bill amounting to £6.5 million.

After the Brixton riots, there was outrage from the Government, high-ranking police officials and the mainstream press, with Lord Scarman appointed to launch an inquiry into the events. But as Dilip Hiro wrote, ‘the root causes which led to the Brixton rioting persisted and Britain experienced a spate of violent disorders a few months later’.[19] Most major cities with black populations experienced rioting of some level, beginning on 3 July in Toxteth and Southall before spreading to Mosside and then to most other cities over the weekend of 10-12 July, 1981. ‘The incidents which ignited the disturbances varied enormously from place to place’ noted Chris Harman, with some incidents sparked by police harassment, others by racist attacks and fascist agitation or elsewhere, ‘the eruptions were “spontaneous” – youth on the streets just started looting and that was it’.[20] The official estimate of the total costs of damage caused during the July riots was £45 million, with £17 million caused to private property.[21] Around 4,000 people were arrested and ‘of the 3,704 for whom data was available, 766 were described as West Indian or African, 180 as Asian, 292 as “other” and 2,466 or 67% were white’, while around sixty six percent were under the age of twenty one and about half were unemployed.[22]

‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’: The Communist Party’s Reaction

The CPGB’s National Race Relations Committee (NRRC) had first begun preparing for a discussion conference, ‘Racism and the Police’ in October 1980, declaring that the ‘role of the police has become a central issue of anti-racist politics…loom[ing] large in any serious discussion of “institutionalised” racism and how to combat it’.[23] The NRRC invited representatives from black organisations, political parties, anti-racist, civil liberties and legal organisations, labour movement bodies and individuals to ‘assist the process of drawing up clear proposals for which the labour, democratic and anti-racist movements can campaign’.[24] The NRRC acknowledged that it would ‘not be a policy-making Conference’, but felt that the issue of police racism ‘urgently needs bringing down from the level of generalities to practical proposals’.[25] The conference was attended by around 160 delegates and put forward a ‘Charter of Demands’, published in Comment on 21 February, 1981 and then reproduced, along with the conference speeches, in a pamphlet Black and Blue, published in November 1981.[26]

The editors of the pamphlet, Dave Cook and Martin Rabstein, emphasised the wide range of groups involved in the conference, although many of the groups were represented by members of the Communist Party. Through this conference, the Communist Party believed it was ‘performing its key role of welding together…toward[s] the construction of the broad democratic alliance’.[27] The Party hoped that the ‘Charter of Demands’ was ‘one component part of a programme to democratise, to force democratic victories in the teeth of what will be the most powerful opposition in various parts of the apparatus of state’.[28]

Keeping with the framework of the broad democratic alliance, the ‘Charter’ called for consultation between the police and ‘genuine representatives of black communities’ as Britain’s black communities needed ‘community policing with democratic accountability and control, not saturation policing’.[29] ‘Hard’ policing, such as Operation ‘Swamp 81’, was seen as keeping the black communities under control, rather protecting it and the ‘Charter’, like the resolutions put forward at the CPGB’s National Congress, called for the removal of ‘SUS’ and the disbanding of the SPG.[30]

Included in the ‘Charter of Demands’ were proposals put forward by the Communist Party previously, calling for ‘race relations and public order law’ to be ‘firmly enforced against racists’ and ‘given more teeth to outlaw the advocacy and practice of racism’.[31] As with the Party’s stance on immigration control, the Race Relations Act and anti-fascism, the repressive and anti-left bias of the state was weighed against the practical use of the state to combat racism. The police, who were at the forefront of the fractuous relationship between the black communities and the state, were widely seen as incapable of mending community relations, but, in line with the ideals of the broad democratic alliance, the CPGB stated its commitment to the ‘rights of the “non-political” individual – the right to be free of harassment, the right to walk without fear on the streets’, which the Party believed needed to be protected by some kind of police force.[32]

After the riots in July, the CPGB’s Executive Committee released a statement, ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, describing the disturbances as a reaction to long-term problems that had developed in the urban inner-cities, ‘in the context of both the deep crisis affecting our economy, and the particular consequences of Thatcher’s policies’.[33] However the Party noted that it was ‘crude economic reductionism’ to simplify the argument to ‘economic crisis = disturbances on the streets’, recognising the ‘important racial dimension’ of the riots.[34] The riots were not an isolated issue of ‘law and order’, but partly a wider reaction to the repressive actions of the police and the monetarist economic policies under Thatcherism, with the CPGB leadership stating:

 Thatcher is blind to the part played by her disastrous economic and social policies in causing the disturbances, and the police chiefs are blind to the connections between their everyday methods of policing and the violence they face.[35]

Therefore, the black and white youth were ‘not rioting against society at large, but were rioting against the police, against unemployment, against racism’.[36] The Party saw the broad democratic alliance put forward in The British Road to Socialism as the necessary strategy for the working class ‘to force democratic victories’ within ‘the most powerful opposition in various parts of the apparatus of state’,[37] which looked to working within the present system for immediate victories while attempting to build popular opposition for long-term reform. The response by the labour movement and the left had to be, the Party declared, more than simply ‘getting rid of the Tories’, instead it was to ‘respond to the immediate demands of the black community’, as the Party urged these organisations to campaign at local level, ‘linked to the need for left alternative policies nationally’.[38]

Lord Scarman’s Report and the Denial of Institutional Racism

Unlike the triumphalism of the state and strong Government celebrated by the Conservatives after the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike, the aftermath of the 1981 riots saw the Government having to partially retreat from its forceful ‘law and order’ position and make concessions that police tactics in the black communities did involve racist and alienating behaviour. Although there was much speculation over the cause of the riots and numerous objections to their violence, many acknowledged that the heavy-handed police actions in the black communities over the previous decade had been a principal factor in provoking such a violent reaction by black youth.

Lord Scarman’s Inquiry was primarily focused on the events in Brixton, although the Government asked Scarman to take the July riots into account, but as Joe Sim noted, ‘This request was not evident in the final draft’.[39] The Scarman Report, wrote Stuart Hall, ‘was no panacea’, but ‘broke the prevailing law-and-order consensus’ that left the police blameless,[40] instead arguing that the ‘problem of policing a deprived, multi-racial area like Brixton cannot be considered without reference to the social environment in which the policing occurs’.[41] In reference to the environment of deprivation that existed in Britain’s inner cities, which increasingly suffered from the monetarist policies of the Conservative Government, the Scarman Report explicitly stated that there could be ‘no doubt that unemployment was a major factor… which lies at the root of the disorders in Brixton and elsewhere’.[42] Scarman acknowledged that the black community face similar problems to the wider working class in areas such as education, unemployment and discrimination, but on a much more severe scale. The result of this was that ‘young black people may feel a particular sense of frustration and deprivation’.[43] Scarman also found the riots to be ‘a spontaneous reaction to what was seen as police harassment’.[44]

However while Scarman criticised some of the actions by the police, the Report, on the whole, stood in favour of the police force. Scarman concluded that ‘the power to stop and search’, one of the immediate factors for racial harassment by the police, was ‘necessary to combat street crime’.[45] From this decision, Scarman found that ‘the direction and policies of the Metropolitan Police are not racist’, but did admit that ‘racial prejudice does manifest itself occasionally in the behaviour of a few officers on the streets’.[46] What the Brixton riots did reveal for Lord Scarman was ‘weakness in the capacity of the police to respond sufficiently firmly to violence in the streets’, finding that ‘the use of “hard” policing methods, including the deployment of the Special Patrol Group, is appropriate, even essential’.[47] Scarman concluded that ‘racial disadvantage and its nasty associate, racial discrimination’ still existed in British society, but controversially declared that ‘“Institutional racism” does not exist in Britain’.[48] This denial of institutional racism by Scarman demonstrated, according to Martin Barker and Anne Beefer, that Scarman’s Report was ‘a liberal Report, but one within entirely racist parameters’.[49]

The Scarman Report was criticised by the Communist Party’s National Race Relations Committee for its failure to recognise the existence of institutional racism, describing the Report as ‘full of contradictions’.[50] Some positive elements to the Report conceded by the Party were the connections between the disturbances and the economic crisis, racism within the police, community policing, the banning of racist marches and anti-racist training for the police, although many of these points included criticisms of their weaknesses.[51] Other parts of the Report were described as ‘just plain bad’, with the Party asserting that the Report contained ‘no explicit criticism of the Government’s economic and social policies’, the token gesture of a liaison committee with only ‘consultative’ powers, the negligent mention of racist attacks on black people and most importantly, the denial of institutional racism.[52]

At the CPGB’s National Congress in December 1981, the Party repeated the call for an accountable and co-operative police force, working with the black community, while calling for greater Party work within local communities, particularly in response to unemployment, the police and racism.[53] On the issue of racism, the Party recognised the ‘rightward shift in British politics affecting all aspects of life’ and expressed ‘great concern [at] the growing activities of racist and fascist organisations, and particularly the growing attacks on black people’.[54] The Anti-Nazi League had defeated the National Front electorally but fascists were ‘now returning to [the] traditional policy of street terrorism and underground activity’.[55] In the struggle against racism, the Party stated that it ‘must seek to win many more black members to its ranks’, but recognised that this was difficult and would ‘only happen inasmuch as the Party is consistently involved in fighting on the issues that the black community recognises as the most urgent’.[56] While the CPGB saw potential for the Party and the Young Communist League to help the youth, such as those involved in the riots, to ‘become involved… in non-anarchic, non-individualistic forms of mass action’, the Party failed to make headway in the black community and the Party’s membership continued to decline. Youth unemployment did not propel many youth towards the left, with the ‘overwhelming majority of the young unemployed remain[ing] apolitical’ and as Kenneth Roberts wrote, ‘Rather than being channelled into party politics, their discontents are more likely to be expressed on the streets’.[57] By the time of the 1985 riots in London and Birmingham, Thatcher had defeated the trade unions in the Miners’ Strike, had seen the British Army victorious in the Falklands War and had led a sustained campaign of privatisation of British industry – unlike the vulnerability experienced after the 1981 riots, Thatcherism was now at its hegemonic height.

British Crime - Civil Disturbance - The Brixton Riots - London - 1981

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[1] Stuart Hall, ‘Policing the Police’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds), Black & Blue: Racism and the Police, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1981, p. 7

[2] Jackie Heywood, ‘Police Hawks Come Out On Top’, Comment, 10 May, 1980, p. 151

[3] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain, Paladin, London, 1992, p. 85

[4] H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7

[5] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 86

[6] Hackney CP Branch Internal Policy Document, n.d., CP/LON/BRA/09/11, LHASC

[7] Neville Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, Comment, 26 April, 1980, p. 136

[8] N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 137

[9] N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 136

[10] Chris Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis’, International Socialism, 2/14, Autumn 1981, p. 1

[11] H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7

[12] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87

[13] Darcus Howe, ‘Brixton Before the Uprising’, Race Today, February/March 1982, p. 69

[14] P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 130

[15] P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 129

[16] Cited in, Lord Scarman, The Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10-12 April 1981, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1986, p. 95, Italics are my emphasis

[17] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87; P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 132

[18] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 88; John Benyon, ‘Going Through The Motions: The Political Agenda, the 1981 Riots and the Scarman Inquiry’, Parliamentary Affairs, 38/4, 1985, p. 409

[19] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 88

[20] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 5

[21] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 90

[22] J. Benyon, ‘Going Through The Motions’, p. 410

[23] Conference Invitation to ‘Racism and the Police’, October 1980, CP/LON/RACE/02/11, LHASC

[24] Conference Invitation

[25] Conference Invitation

[26] ‘Racism and the Police’, Comment, 21 February, 1981, pp. 6-7

[27] D. Cook & M. Rabstein, ‘Inner City Crisis’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6

[28] Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 32

[29] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 6

[30] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7

[31] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7

[32] D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6

[33] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, Executive Committee Statement, 12-13 September, 1981, p. 1, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC

[34] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 2

[35] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 6

[36] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 9; Italics are in the original text

[37] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 11

[38] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 10; p. 11

[39] Joe Sim, ‘Scarman: The Police Counter-Attack’, Socialist Register, 1982, p. 58

[40] Stuart Hall, ‘From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence’, History Workshop Journal, 48, Autumn 1999, p. 188

[41] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194

[42] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 205

[43] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194

[44] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 195

[45] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 207

[46] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 198; Italics are my emphasis

[47] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 201

[48] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 209

[49] Martin Barker & Anne Beezer, ‘The Language of Racism – An Examination of Lord Scarman’s Report and the Brixton Riots’, International Socialism, 2/18, p. 108

[50] ‘The Scarman Report’, December 1981, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC

[51] ‘The Scarman Report’

[52] ‘The Scarman Report’

[53] ‘Social and Economic Policy’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 39

[54] ‘Racism’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 37

[55] ‘Racism’, p. 37

[56] ‘Racism’, p. 38

[57] Kenneth Roberts, ‘Youth Unemployment and Urban Unrest’ in, J. Benyon, Scarman and After, p. 182

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Even more Communist online resources

This is just a very quick post, taken between writing binges to complete my book manuscript, to let people know about some more online resources for those interested in Communist and Soviet history. The Internet Archive is a very random collection of stuff, but someone has uploaded a whole load of scanned Soviet documents from the 1960s to the 1980s in English, which are worth looking at.

Secondly, the group Socialist Truth in Cyprus (London Bureau) has uploaded hundreds of Communist documents from the 1920s to the 1960s. Most of from the Soviet Union, but the Communist Party of Great Britian and the Communist Party of India are also represented.

I am slowly making my way through these resources, but I should really get back to writing about the CPGB and anti-racism! Enjoy.

 

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