Communism, anti-racism and the ‘imperialist war’ phase in South Africa, USA and Australia, 1939-41

With the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War this week, this post is an extract from a paper that I am writing on the Communist Parties in South Africa, the United States and Australia and their agitation for black soldiers to join the war effort after the Soviet Union joined the Allies in June 1941. This part of the paper actually looks at the ‘imperialist’ war phase, between September 1939 and June 1941, when the international communist movement rejected the war as an inter-imperialist battle.

 

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After the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact in late August 1939, the Soviet Union shifted from its prominent anti-fascist stance that it had taken since the beginning of the Popular Front period. When Britain and France declared war on Germany, the Soviets declared that the war was an ‘imperialist’ war to maintain British and French colonial possessions.[1] Individual Communist Parties followed the Soviet lead and by October/November 1939, denounced the war as an imperialist war and pushed for ‘peace’ between the European powers. Australia and South Africa soon joined the British war effort (which was at first welcomed, then criticised by the respective Communist Parties), but the United States remained out of the war until December 1941. In the USA, the Communist Party’s main slogan was, according to Harry Haywood, ‘Keep America out of the imperialist war!’[2]

This opposition to the war reframed the anti-racist activism of the Communist Parties in all three countries, but predominantly in South Africa and the United States (partially owing to the fact that the Communist Party of Australia was banned from June 1940 to December 1942). The argument of the Communist Parties became that for non-white people, there was little difference between fascism and the imperialism of Britain and France, or particularly the discrimination faced by black people in the US or South Africa. The CPSA asked rhetorically in their Party organ in June 1940, ‘What is the difference to the Non-Europeans between the Nazi regime in Europe and the Union Government in South Africa?’, which was followed by ‘How can we be interested in fighting Nazism thousands of miles away, while in reality we have a similar monster devouring us here daily?’[3] The Communist Party argued that it was hypocritical of white South Africans to ask their non-white countrymen to fight for the Union (and the wider British Empire) when they did not enjoy the rights of their white contemporaries. A 1940 flyer produced by the Party stated:

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.[4]

In February 1940, General Secretary of the CPSA, Moses Kotane, argued in Freedom that for Africans, there was ‘no enthusiasm among them for the war’,[5] while a pamphlet produced by the Johannesburg District Committee alleged that ‘the Coloured and African peoples are generally in a hostile frame of mind’, compared with the indifference of the Afrikaner population.[6]

However this hostility towards the war effort did not mean that Africans did not join the South African armed forces after the Union narrowly voted to go to war in October 1939. Despite the discrimination and segregation faced by Africans in the armed forces, David Killingray and Martin Plaut have calculated that more than 70,000 Africans enlisted into the Native Military Corps.[7] Although the CPSA was opposed to the war, they still campaigned for those non-Europeans who entered the armed forces to be treated as equals with white soldiers. Recognising that the armed forces offered a way out of unemployment for non-Europeans, the Party declared, ‘If the Government wants the non-Europeans to fight for it, let it give them the same rates of pay and chances of promotion as the Europeans.’[8]

Although the United States did not enter the war until after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, during the ‘imperialist war’ phase, the CPUSA warned of the ‘so-called liberal bourgeoisie’ who were seeking to ‘enlist the Negro’s support for American imperialism in this reactionary war’.[9] The CPUSA reminded its readers that African-American soldiers had fought in the Revolutionary Wars, the American Civil War and the First World War and had gained little from it, so while the ‘Negro masses [were] ever ready to fight for liberty, for real democracy’, they were not ready ‘to die again for the benefit of the swollen coffers of imperialist hangmen’.[10] This reflected broader trends in the attitudes of African-Americans towards the US armed forces in the lead up to America’s involvement in the conflict. As Daniel Kryder has noted, recruitment of African-Americans into (and retention within) the armed forces prior to Pearl Harbour was poor, with ‘widespread discontent’, so that by 1943, only one-fifth of black males eligible for service were successfully recruited (compared with one-third amongst eligible white males).[11]

Much more than the natives of South Africa and African-Americans, there was an initial enthusiasm amongst indigenous Australians (both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) to join the armed forces, although they were predominantly recruited to be support labour, rather than actual soldiers. When Australia entered the war in 1939, Noah Riseman reminds us that ‘[t]he Defence Act had no restrictions against enlistment of Aboriginal people’, although they were ‘exempt from call-up and from compulsory training’.[12] The Army had no little interest in actively recruiting indigenous people or the formation of indigenous units, but many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders did join up (approximately 3000 and 850 personnel respectively), with some seeing it as a way on encouraging the Australian Government to give its indigenous population citizenship rights.[13] Explaining the position of the influential Australian Aborigines’ League, Robert A. Hall summarised, ‘If Australia were to take seriously its fight against fascism,… then it had to take steps to end repression of Aborigines at home.’[14] However this recruitment was short-lived and in 1940, the government ‘explicitly prohibited the enlistment of all nonwhite persons into the army and navy’, although this was reassessed the following year as the threat of the Japanese loomed bigger.[15] By this time, the Soviet Union had entered the war and the position of the Communists in Australia, as well as everywhere else, had changed.

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[1] V. Molotov, Soviet Peace Policy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1941) p. 30.

[2] Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978) p. 496.

[3] ‘The War and Segregation’, Freedom, June 1940, p. 7. Italics are in the original text.

[4] ‘Non-Europeans and the War’ (Cape Town: CPSA flyer, 1940) BC 1081/O18.10, Ray and Jack Simons Collection, University of Cape Town Library.

[5] Moses Kotane, ‘The Africans and the War’, Freedom, February 1940, p. 7.

[6] J. Morkel, The War and South Africa, (Johannesburg: CPSA pamphlet, 1940) p. 5.

[7] David KIllingray with Martin Plaut, Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War (Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currie, 2010) p. 72.

[8] ‘Non-Europeans and the War’.

[9] Theodore R. Bassett & A.W. Berry, ‘The Negro People and the Struggle for Peace’, The Communist (April 1940) p. 326.

[10] Bassett & Berry, ‘The Negro People…’, p. 326.

[11] Daniel Kryder, Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State During World War

[12] Noah Riseman, Defending Whose Country? Indigenous Soldiers in the Pacific War (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2012) p. 10.

[13] Robert A. Hall, The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997) pp. 9-12; Riseman, Defending Whose Country? p. 10.

[14] Hall, The Black Diggers, p. 11.

[15] Riseman, Defending Whose Country? pp. 10-11. Italics are in the original text.

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Archive of Connolly Association’s ‘Irish Democrat’ now online

This is a guest post by Gerard Madden. Gerard Madden is an Irish Research Council funded PhD student in NUI Galway, currently completing a dissertation on ‘Irish Catholic anti-communism in the era of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, 1940-1971’. A founding member of the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class, he is interested in the cultural and political history of twentieth century Ireland, North and South, and the revolutionary left, both in Ireland and internationally.

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For historians of the British and Irish communist movements, Irish republicanism, the Northern Ireland conflict, and those examining the Irish community in Britain generally, the digitisation and uploading online of the newspapers of the Connolly Association, Irish Freedom (1939-1944) and the Irish Democrat (1945-2000), by the group are an important development that will make research much easier.

Wedding traditional Irish republicanism with socialism, the Connolly Association played a highly visible role in the Irish community in Britain after its establishment in 1938, having branches in most of the main cities to which Irish immigrants were attracted in the large-scale post-war migration across the Irish Sea. As Enda Delaney’s The Irish in Post War Britain notes, the group held frequent meetings in Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner in London, while in Birmingham Connolly Association members sold the Irish Democrat outside churches, in pubs, and to arriving Irish immigrants getting off trains.

The Irish Democrat’s editor from 1948 to 1988 and the Association’s most important figure was C. Desmond Greaves, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and an early biographer of several important figures in Irish radical history, notably James Connolly and Liam Mellows. While a majority of the Connolly Association’s members were not involved in the CPGB, something confirmed by the CPGB’s archives, the paper’s denials of CPGB links convinced few observers, limiting its appeal amongst the broader Irish community. Correspondence between Greaves and CPGB General Secretary Harry Pollitt in the CPGB archives confirms that the paper was seen by the party as a means for it to reach out to the Irish working class in Britain.

The paper was certainly identified by Catholic clerics, both British and Irish, as an attempt to recruit unwitting Irish Catholics into the British communist movement. Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, a Galway-born labourer and Connolly Association member, recalled seeing a comrade attempt to sell the paper to an elderly Irishman who snarled, ‘clear off with your oul’ paper, the Church doesn’t approve of it.’ The News of the World- also a bugbear of Irish Catholic clergy for its perceived immorality- was sticking out of the man’s pocket, prompting the paper-seller to turn ruefully to Mac Amhlaigh and ask, ‘just how mixed-up can Irishmen get?’ One particularly vocal anti-communist among the Irish Catholic hierarchy, Bishop Michael Browne of Galway, went as far as to write to the Irish Democrat denouncing it as communist in 1949 after it denied a claim by him that the group was a communist front, the paper publishing the letter but rejecting subsequent ones from Browne.

The Irish Democrat also covered other events of interest to the Irish community in Britain, in order to appeal to the working class Irish community which it targeted– for instance, it regularly reported on the events of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Britain, an important social outlet for Irish Catholic immigrants. The Irish language featured regularly in the paper – unsurprising, given Mac Amhlaigh, a well-known Irish language writer, was a regular contributor. It also covered broader social issues in Britain from a specifically Irish perspective, such as London’s racist Notting Hill riots of 1958, urging the Irish community to disavow racism and support their fellow immigrants against discrimination.

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Moving into later decades, the newspaper is also an important source when examining the emergence of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, campaigns surrounding the wrongful imprisonment of Irish people in Britain during the conflict, and the relationship of the British Labour Party and the broader British left towards Ireland. While Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with Sinn Féin in the 1980s has become a talking point of Labour’s current leadership election, also of contemporary interest is the appearance of Labour’s current acting leader, Harriet Harman, on the front of the January 1983 issue declaring her support for an united Ireland!

The Connolly Association’s newspapers were not easily accessible to historians before this- I had previously relied on the archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, of all places, to access the Irish Democrat for my current research on the Irish Roman Catholic Church and anti-communism during the Cold War, the Archdiocese under Archbishop John Charles McQuaid collating the paper to keep up to date with the activities of the Irish communist movement. In making them freely and easily accessible online, the Connolly Association have done both scholars and those interested in the Irish left more broadly a great service.

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Filed under Announcements, Archives, British far left, C. Desmond Greaves, Communist Party of Great Britain, Connolly Association, Contemporary history, Irish Democrat, Irish history, Irish left, Irish Republicanism, Marxism, Modern European History, New Left, Northern Ireland, Northern Irish Civil Rights Association

The intersection of race, class and gender at the Grunwick strike

On 23 August, 1976, six workers went on strike at the Grunwick Photo Processing Lab in North-West London, beginning a strike that lasted for almost two years and involved thousands of people over the course of it. The Grunwick strike is now considered a turning point in the history of British trade unionism and race relations. I have written elsewhere about the intersectionality of the strike, but this post, based on an extract from my forthcoming book, expands on how the issues of race, class and gender crossed over during the strike.

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Looking through the lens of critical race and feminist theory, it can be argued that the Grunwick strike was intersectional,[1] where issues of race, gender and class were all present and raised by different people involved in the strike. However while all of these issues were present (and recognised by those involved), the approaches formulated to tackle these issues were disparate and non-inclusive. While the trade union movement recognised racial and sexual discrimination were issues of resentment amongst those striking at Grunwick, the strategy for ‘victory’ was a class-based approach – primarily recognition of trade union representation from the owners of Grunwick.

In the coverage of the strike in the various left-wing, feminist and black activist publications at the time, the prominence given to the various issues of class, gender and race can be seen. The Socialist Workers Party declared in their pamphlet on the strike that, the ‘issue at stake was simple: trade union recognition’,[2] while the International Marxist Group depicted the Grunwick strike as part of a longer union history:

From Todpuddle to Tonypandy, from the Match Girls to the Miners, working people have fought for the right to organise. Trade Unionism is now under attack at GRUNWICK. A defeat for us would be a defeat for the whole working class.[3]

However it was suggested in the journal Race Today that some black workers felt that to mobilise on this issue ‘does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers’.[4] Meanwhile A. Sinanvandan, editor of the journal Race & Class, wrote that the strike was ‘no longer about racism’, but was now about the ‘legality… of the weapons that unions may use’.[5] In his eyes, the official union movement was not proving its commitment to black workers, but instead were ‘determining the direction that the strike should take and the type of actions open to the strikers’.[6] For example, in February 1977, APEX’s Grunwick Strike Committee produced a bulletin listing the demands of the strike, which stated ‘What are we fighting for’: the right to belong to a union, for APEX to be recognised at Grunwick, the re-instatement of those strikers that had been fired after belatedly joining APEX, ‘a decent living wage, proper working conditions and an end to the abusive and tyrannical regime of our management’.[7] However, there was no mention of combating racism anywhere within these demands. What the demand for trade union representation by the white labour movement failed to recognise was that the presence of a trade union did not actually equate to countering racism within the workplace at Grunwick. The black workers at Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters had been members of a union at these factories and these trade unions had been ineffectual in combating the racism experienced within these workplaces. As the Black Women’s Group Brixton stated in the following years:

The only basis on which the trade union movement and the White left would support the struggle of Black workers was on the condition that they subordinate the main issue of racism to trade unionism, which is of importance, but not sufficient to ignore the racist issue.[8]

The feminist magazine Spare Rib celebrated the role taken by women, particularly Asian women, in the strike, who, according to them, made up 60 per cent of strike. In January 1977, the magazine declared:

It takes a great deal of guts for an Asian woman to come out on strike and stand on a picket line in the full glare of publicity day after day. All sorts of psychological pressures are brought to bear on her. Members of her family may gossip and deprecate her, as it is considered a dishonour for a woman to put herself in the public eye.[9]

The magazine also highlighted the particular hardships faced by women employees at Grunwick and quoted one of the women on strike:

What I mean by slave treatment is that if a woman is pregnant, for example, she can’t get time off to go to the clinic. The management says why we can’t we go on Saturdays, but the cliniuc is not open on that day.

Many of our women have small children at school or in nurseries. The management tells you halfway through the day that you must work overtime that night – but this is terrible because you can’t pick up your children and you can’t contact your home.[10]

Interviewed at the height of the mass pickets in July/August 1977, Jayaben Desai talked positively about the support that came from different areas for the women on strike:

Before the mass picketing began in June the issue was not so clear in our community, it was misty before. But now the Asian community see what we are fighting for.

And before, the trade unions in this country were felling that our community was not interested – this was wlways a gap in our community. But this will bring the distance nearer.We can all see the result – people coming here from all over the country were seeing us as part of the workers now.[11]

These differing persepctives on the focus of the Grunwick strike have led to much debate over whether the strike was a class-based strike or a strike against racism (or both), with the female aspect of the strike overlooked by many scholars. A. Sivanandan wrote in 1981 that the ‘basic issue for the strikers was thw question of racist exploitation’, acknowledging that union recognition was part of this.[12] Ron Ramdin also acknowledged that racial discrimination was an issue at Grunwick, but wrote, ‘[w]hile low pay, racism and the oppression of women were contributory factors, the main cause of the Grunwick strike was the ‘conditions of work’.[13] Following on from this argument from Ramdin, several authors have argued that Grunwick brought black and white workers together as a class to fight for trade union recognition and to combat racism in the workplace. Gary Macfarlane stated that the strike ‘ demonstrated that class unity could be forged in action and racism challenged head on’,[14] while Satnam Virdee wrote ‘during Grunwick, ‘key groups of workers had moved towards a more inclusive lanhuage of class that could now also encompass racialized minority workers.’[15]

Although the main emphasis of APEX and the Brent Trades Council was on trade union recogition, as mentioned above, there were moments when these organisations did not acknowledge that there was a racial aspect to the strike. In a letter from the Basingstoke General branch of APEX to the General Secretary of the TUC, there was a call for a national campaign by the TUC to highlight the struggle at Grunwick, with letter ending, ‘Let all know about the Grunwick employers Dickensian nature of employment, mainly of Asian origin, thus making the issue additionally delicate in the matter concerning race relations.’[16] Furthermore, in a flyer produced by APEX to call for the mass pickets in mid-1977, it was stated in bold capitals at the top of the flyer:

GRUNWICKS STRIKE IS ABOUT

IMMIGRANTS             WOMEN

TRADE UNION RIGHTS

WORKING CLASS SOLIDARITY[17]

However other academics, such as Jack McGowan, have rejected that racism was an issue at Grunwick, writing that a ‘race-driven narrative is a tenacious trope in the accounts of Grunwick from the Left.’[18] McGowan cited the Commission for Racial Equality as stating, ‘It cannot be shown that the management at Grunwick practised racial discrimination’, and further argued that the strike could not be about ‘race’ because the co-owner of Grunwick, George Ward, was of Anglo-Indian descent.[19] Criticising a particular BBC Radio 4 documentary on the strike produced by Melissa Benn, McGowan lamented that ‘Benn’s radio audience might… misinterpret Grunwick as a case of white exploitation of ethnic workers’ and argued:

[Benn] appears to conflate the profound difference between the structural, socio-economic status of a sector of the labour force – regardless of ethnicity – with an implied willingness on the part of an employer deliberately to exploit workers on the grounds of race alone.[20]

McGowan here takes a very narrow concept of racism and does not consider that Grunwick’s owners and management relied on the structural position of the Asian manual workers (especially the female workers), largely informed by their ethnicity and recent migrant status, to treat them poorly as employees. As Pratibha Parmar and Parita Trivedi have argued, Asian women were viewed as ‘passive’, ‘submissive’ and ‘meek’ and ‘pushed into unskilled and semi-skilled jobs’ in ‘small organized sweatshops or doing homeworking’.[21] These racist and sexist assumptions, along the difficulties of trade union organising in these workplaces, made Asian female workers vulnerable to exploitation, but as the Grunwick strike has shown, these women were willing to challenge these assumptions and were able to take the lead in militant industrial action.[22]

The importance of the strike in fighting sexual discrimination has traditionally been overlooked in discussions of the strike, although since Amrit Wilson first wrote about the strike in the 1978 edition of Finding a Voice, it has been acknowledged by feminist scholars that the discrimination that workers faced as women informed the militancy of the women involved on the picket line.[23] As the quotes from Spare Rib above show, women at Grunwick experienced specific discrimination based upon their gender, which was often combined with discrimination based upon their ethnicity. The recent work by Linda McDowell, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson suggests that previous accounts of the strike have ‘neglected the complex intersections between class, gender and ethnicity’ at Grunwick and therefore argue that the strike should be viewed through an intersectional lens.[24] For the labour movement, there was an emphasis on class, although there was an increasing acknowledgement of the extra problems faced by ethnic minorities and by women – but the strategies put forward for combatting the intersecting forms of class, gender and racial oppression always emphasised class unity and using the tools of class mobilisation, such as the mass picket and the accession to the trade union leadership.

Although the strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since because of this compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recogniswed the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[25]

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[1] See: Crenshaw 1989, pp. 139-68; Crenshaw 1991, pp. 1242-300.

[2] SWP, Grunwick, p. 4.

[3] Socialist Challenge, 3 November 1977.

[4] ‘Grunwick Strike: The Bitter Lessons’, Race Today, November/December 1977, p. 154.

[5] ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 292.

[6] ‘Race, Class and the State (2)’, p. 70.

[7] Grunwick Strike Committee (APEX), Strike Committee Bulletin, 29, 21 February 1977, G1548/9, MSS.464 Box 1, in Grunwick Dispute Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[8] Black Women’s Group Brixton, ‘Editorial’, Speak Out, 2, 1981, p. 3, DADZIE/1/8/3, in Stella Dadzie Papers, Black Cultural Archives, London.

[9] Rossiter, ‘Risking Gossip & Disgrace: Asian Women trike’, Spare Rib, January 1977, p. 18.

[10] Campbell and Charlton, ‘Grunwick Women’, Spare Rib, August 1977, p. 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sivanandan 2008, p. 130.

[13] Ramdin 1987, p. 288.

[14] MacFarlane 2013, p. 87.

[15] Virdee 2014, p. 135.

[16] Letter from APEX Basingstoke General branch to TUC General Secretary, 18 April 1977, MSS 292D/253.119/3, in TUC Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[17] APEX flyer, August 1977, MSS.464/20, in APEX papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[18] McGowan 2008, p. 389.

[19] McGowan 2008, pp. 389-90.

[20] McGowan 2008, p. 390.

[21] Parmar 1986, p. 245; Trivedi 1984, p. 45.

[22] Although a recent study has suggested that African-Caribbean women, who also went on strike at Grunwick, have been erased from the visual and collective memory of the stike. McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 606.

[23] Wilson 1981, pp. 60-71.

[24] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2012, p. 134.

[25] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 600.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crenshaw, Kimberle 1989, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp. 139-168.

——— 1991, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43, 6, pp. 1242-1300.

MacFarlane, Gary 2013, ‘From Confrontation to Compromise: Black British Politics in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism, edited by Brian Richardson, London: Bookmarks.

McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2012, ‘Striking Similarities: Representing South Asian Women’s Industrial Action in Britain’, Gender, Place & Culture, 19, 2, pp. 133-152

——— ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, pp. 754-775.

McGowan, Jack 2008, ‘“Dispute”, “Battle”, “Siege”, “Farce”? – Grunwick 30 Years On’, Contemporary British History, 22, 3, pp. 383-406.

Parmar, Pratibha 1986, ‘Gender, Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’, in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, London: Hutchinson, pp. 236-275.

Ramdin, Ron 1987, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Aldershot: Gower.

Sivanandan, Ambalavaner 2008, Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation, London: Pluto Press.

Trivedi, Parita 1984, ‘To Deny Our Fullness: Asian Women in the Making of History’, Feminist Review, 17, 34-50.

Virdee, Satnam 2014, ‘Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968-79’, in Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 209-228.

 

 

 

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Filed under Anti-racism, APEX, British 'race relations', British far left, British History, Colonial/Postcolonial History, Commission for Racial Equality, Communist Party of Great Britain, Contemporary history, Daily Worker/Morning Star, Grunwick, International Marxist Group, Intersectionality, IS/SWP, Marxism, Marxism Today, NAFF, protest, Race Today, Racial discrimination, Spare Rib, Strikes, TGWU, Trade unions, TUC, Women's history, Women's liberation

How the Daily Worker reported the death of Leon Trotsky

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The following day, it added:

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On page 6, Campbell, the editor of the Daily Worker, announced: ‘A Counter-Revolutionary Gangster Passes’.

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Crime, Masculinity and the Post-War Era in Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire

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WARNING: CONTAINS POTENTIAL SPOILERS

 

I have recently finished watching the entire five series of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, set in the 1920s in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the era of prohibition, spanning the decade until 1932. Earlier this year, I also watched both series of the UK drama Peaky Blinders, which was set in Birmingham at the end of the First World War. Both series are about the rise of criminal gangs in the post-war era and have many overlapping themes. I think these overlapping themes are worth exploring and here are some preliminary thoughts about them.

The reintegration of ‘damaged’ men at the end of the war

Both series focus heavily on the plight of the returned soldier at the end of the First World War. In Boardwalk Empire, Jimmy Darmody is the protégé of the Treasurer and crime boss of Atlantic City, Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson and has returned from the Western front after dropping out of Princeton University. Rather than resume his studies, Darmody becomes Thompson’s driver and right-hand man, convinced by the brutality of the war that there is no social good and that crime is the only path open for him now. At the end of the first series and at the beginning of the second, Jimmy joins forces with several others to attempt to remove Thompson from power. This is partly driven by Jimmy’s disdain for those older men who encouraged him (and other young men) to fight in the war, but left those who returned with little reward. Darmody also suffers from the guilt of surviving the war, which leads him to befriend another former soldier, Richard Harrow, a sniper with a disfigured face. Both Darmody and Harrow use the skills they learnt in the war to become ruthless criminals in the post-war era.

In Peaky Blinders, brothers Tommy and Arthur Shelby had fought on the Western front and the younger brother, Tommy, had earned commendations for his actions during the war. Back in Birmingham in 1919, the Shelbies, along with many other young men, use their military experience to commit criminal acts, or in the case of Freddie Thorne, to agitate for a communist revolution. It seems that Tommy Shelby had become been the leader of many of the local men in France and they still looked to him as a leader in the peacetime. The Shelbies are able to exploit this as they seek to expand their criminal empire. Both Tommy and Arthur, as well several others, suffer from flashbacks and remain traumatised by their wartime memories. The worst of these is suffered by Danny ‘Whizz-Bang’ Owens, who has repeated hallucinations that he is back in the trenches, leading to him to stab to death a local bystander during one episode.

Both series depict the trauma experienced by soldiers during the First World War is a reason for their inability to reintegrate into society in the post-war era and serves as a partial explanation for their criminal behaviour.

Patriarchal figures and the attempts to build a ‘family’

In both series, the patriarchal figure in the criminal ‘family’, Nucky Thompson and Tommy Shelby, are obsessed with the idea of family and go to extreme lengths to maintain their families. In Boardwalk Empire, we learn that Thompson’s wife and child had died a long time ago, so Thompson lives vicariously through the large family of his brother, Eli, who begins the series as the local sheriff. Thompson eventually marries an Irish woman (whose husband is killed by Eli and other police officers), Margaret Schroeder and adopts her two children as his own. However Thompson’s criminality means that both of these families are driven away, with Margaret separating Thompson and living on her own in New York, while Eli’s family suffers from his exile to Chicago after killing a FBI agent.

In Peaky Blinders, Tommy is obsessed with keeping the family together, but his ambition also provides tensions between family members, particularly as his siblings feel that he puts the idea of ‘family’ above their well-being. Tommy’s younger sister, Ada marries Freddie, the communist activist, and eventually runs away to London to escape Tommy’s grip. On the other hand, Tommy’s younger brother John is convinced to marry the daughter from another crime family to help Tommy’s criminal ambitions.

Both Nucky and Tommy try to argue that their actions were for the good of their family and to provide a legacy. However both series show that this idea of ‘family’ is warped by their criminality and each time they attempt to secure their family’s future, their actions negatively impact on those around them.

Crime as social mobility

At the heart of both series is that the idea that crime can bring some form of social mobility, generating extraordinary wealth, but it cannot bring legitimacy. In the first series of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby’s plan is to takeover the bookmakers’ operations at racetracks across the south and west of England and then transform these into a legitimate bookmaking business. In the second series, it shows that this does not quench Tommy’s ambition and he is keen to seize the business of other bookmakers in London and across the north of England.

In Boardwalk Empire, Thompson and his brother already occupy positions of power within Atlantic City and are economic and political kingmakers, but while extremely wealthy and powerful, Thompson is plagued by feelings of illegitimacy. For Thompson, his continued involvement in the bootlegging business brings him into contact with the criminal elements of society, which he detests. In the final series, he campaigns for an end to prohibition (which had brought him enormous wealth over the previous decade) in the belief that this would bring him legitimacy and confirm his role at the high end of society. However even as he campaigns for this, he finds that many businessmen are unwilling to associate with him because of his criminal associations.

Like many other cinematic and televisual depictions of organised crime, both series become morality tales of how crime can bring people almost to the top, but their criminality (and ambition) will always make them fall in the end – although we are yet to see what happens in the third series of Peaky Blinders.

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The Irish as ‘outsiders’

In the inter-war period, the Irish in Britain and the United States were still viewed by many with suspicion and those of Irish descent were often associated with criminality and deviance. This is explicit in Peaky Blinders where the authorities bring in a Protestant Chief Inspector from Belfast to investigate the criminal and subversive behaviour of the Irish community in Birmingham, specifically looking for a weapon before it falls into the hands of the Irish Republican Army (or the communists). For the Shelbies, this suspicion of the Irish in England convinces them that the only way to move up the social ladder is to become involved criminal enterprises.

For Thompson and his brother, they cynically tap into the divisions between Anglo and Irish American society to gain favour with those in the Irish-American community in Atlantic City. This involves obtaining money and votes from the community when needed. Thompson also makes overtures to the IRA in Ireland to obtain whiskey in exchange for weapons and uses a shared Irish heritage to try to convince the IRA leadership to accept this deal.

The plight of the Irish in America is also portrayed in Boardwalk Empire through the character of Margaret Schroeder (later Thompson), a migrant from Ireland. Margaret occupies a range of professions during her life in America and lives close to the poverty line while married to her first husband in Atlantic City. She escapes this by marrying Nucky Thompson, but once she leaves him and moves to New York, she once again struggles to keep herself and her children housed until she strikes a deal with gangster, Arnold Rothstein.

The changing role of women in Western society

Following from this, we also see the changing role of women in Britain and America after the First World War. The first series of Boardwalk Empire takes place in 1920 when the debate over whether to give women the vote in the US was raging. Thompson is in favour of giving women the vote as he believes that they will vote for him, as he is running for re-election as Treasurer. To ensure this support, Thompson speaks at the local chapter of the Women’s Temperance Movement and uses this as a platform to call for the vote for women and his re-election. For the women of the Temperance Movement, 1920 was a victorious year, gaining the right to vote as well as seeing the prohibition of alcohol.

In Peaky Blinders, the changing role of women is demonstrated through the character of Aunt Polly. While the Shelby boys were away during the war, Polly looked after the family business and raised the remaining Shelby children (including John and Ada). When the war ended, Tommy (and to a lesser extent, Arthur) came back to Birmingham to take over the business from Polly. Polly resents that after running the business for the duration of the war, she is now supposed to go back to her pre-war role – a situation that was commonly experienced by working class women across Britain in the years after the First World War.

Political extremism in the post-war era

Both Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire depict the great political upheaval that occurred at the end of the war and these crime dramas play out against a background of political violence and extremism. In Peaky Blinders, the ‘threat’ of communism and Irish republicanism is ever present and intermingle with each other and the criminal underworld in Birmingham. Tommy Shelby negotiates with both political movements in his plans to take over the bookmaking business of his rival Billy Kimber.

In Boardwalk Empire, the spectre of communism and the ‘red scare’ is conspicuously absent, but Irish republicanism does feature, as mentioned above. The threat of the Ku Klux Klan is depicted in several episodes and is shown as a nuisance to Thompson’s business, who helps Albert ‘Chalky’ White take revenge on the KKK in return to White’s loyalty in the bootlegging business. In the last two series, the Pan-Africanist organisation of Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, is featured heavily as Dr. Valentin Narcisse emerges as a rival to ‘Chalky’ White, selling heroin out of an establishment in Harlem.

In both series, the authorities (the Special Branch in Peaky Blinders and the fledgling FBI in Boardwalk Empire) are more concerned with the political threats than the criminal activities of Shelby and Thompson. However individual agents, namely CI Chester Campbell in Peaky Blinders and Agent Jim Tolliver in Boardwalk Empire, press that the focus should be on Tommy Shelby and Nucky Thompson, rather than the IRA or the UNIA. In the end , these become personal vendettas that are blown apart by the changing political situation in both Britain and the USA during the inter-war period.

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These are just some initial thoughts and hopefully I will have time to flesh these out in the near future. As usual, any comments or queries are most welcome. And if you know of any scholarly work looking at these two series, please let me know.

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Filed under American history, Boardwalk Empire, British History, Crime, Criminology, FBI, Female suffrage, Film and history, First World War, Irish terrorism, Northern Ireland, Peaky Blinders, Popular culture, Prohibition, Television, US history, Women's liberation

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’ and the anti-fascist challenge to the Communist Party

On 13 August, 1977, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ occurred on the streets on south-east London – a confrontation between anti-fascist protestors, the police and (some) members of the National Front, who attempted to march through the borough. In many of the accounts of anti-fascism in Britain in the 1970s, this episode has been characterised as the point where the Socialist Workers Party became the leading group in the anti-fascist movement and overtook the traditional role of the Communist Party. The following post is based on a short extract from my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of race between the 1940s and the 1980s.

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By 1976-77, the Communist Party was at a crossroads over its anti-fascist strategy as the National Front (NF) moved to campaigning in the streets. At this time, the CPGB’s National Student Committee had removed ‘no platform’ as a slogan and acknowledged that the ‘real debate on racialism had been lost in this controversy over “No Platform”’.[i] In the immediate steps to combat the NF, the CPGB called for ‘a ban on all racist activity and strengthen the Race Relations Act against incitement to race hatred’ and to ‘develop the broadest united campaign of all anti-racist forces to resist racist activities’.[ii] However the CPGB’s Political Committee believed that there was still no ‘basis for forming some new, national anti-racialist organisation’ and the Party ‘should not try to form at this stage a national organisation… which presents the danger of being a grouping of Left wing organisations and another area of disruptive activity for ultra-Lefts’.[iii] By the end of 1976, it looked as if the Socialist Workers Party and the Asian Youth Movements were to provide the two forms of political organisation that would confront the National Front on the streets in the late 1970s, although as Anandi Ramamurthy has pointed out the white left and the AYMs disagreed over the centrality of the struggle against racism and the strategies to be pursued.[iv]

The CPGB had traditionally been the dominant anti-fascist force, but by the mid-1970s, they had been overtaken by the IS/SWP. By 1976, the economic crisis had stalled the IS/SWP’s efforts to revolutionise the union’s rank-and-file and ‘in an attempt to bolster its flagging industrial perspective, but without losing its foothold in the union camp’, the SWP launched the Right to Work campaign.[v] The IS/SWP’s concerns were now focused on the Right to Work and combating the NF, announcing that ‘the twin themes of fighting racialism and fighting for the right to work now dominate our immediate perspective’.[vi] This emphasis signalled a significant shift for the SWP, ‘away from established union and political structures and towards the young working class’.[vii] In relation to defining itself as an alternative to the CPGB, Ian Birchall explained that part of this was an appeal to the Communist Party’s heritage, which reflected two things, ‘the hunger marches… and anti-fascist activity, especially Cable Street’ and in the 1970s, the SWP ‘were the ones who were emulating the “golden age” of the CP’.[viii]

In his history of the IS/SWP, Birchall recognised the SWP’s strategy against the National Front was twofold. Firstly they emphasised that ‘racism and fascism were a product of a system of crisis’ and anti-racism ‘had to be combined with a critique of the system as a whole’.[ix] On the other hand, the NF’s marches were part of a fascist attempt to control the streets and build a mass organisation, so ‘organised fascism had to be confronted physically’.[x] The SWP criticised the CPGB for ‘[m]erely shouting ‘One race – the human race’ as those attracted to the NF were ‘fed up with rhetoric from politicians, they are impressed by action’.[xi] To prevent the building of a fascist mass movement required a strategy of ‘uncompromising opposition to any form of publicity, meeting or demonstration’ for the NF, which meant physically confronting the NF in the streets.[xii] The SWP were wary of police protection for fascist marches, but declared that ‘if five or ten thousand people assembled with the clear purpose of physically stopping a nazi march – then the police would probably not allow them to march’.[xiii] As the SWP stepped up their anti-fascist strategy of confronting the NF in the streets, they warned, ‘physical action will become the litmus test for distinguishing those who are seriously attempting to build a revolutionary alternative from those who are merely careerists and hacks’.[xiv] By August 1977, this ‘litmus test’ had come with the major street battle of the 1970s between the NF and the anti-fascist left, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’.

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’ on August 13, 1977, when anti-fascist demonstrators clashed with the National Front and the police in the London borough of Lewisham was a turning point for both the CPGB and the SWP in the anti-fascist movement. Attempting to exploit the recent arrest of a number of young blacks, the NF called for an ‘anti-muggers’ march, to assemble near New Cross station in Lewisham.[xv] In response to this announcement, the anti-fascist movement in Lewisham called for a ban from Home Secretary Merlyn Rees and Metropolitan Police Commissioner David McNee. The Lewisham council appealed to Rees to ban the march under the 1936 Public Order Act, while McNee ‘suggested a three month ban on all marches’.[xvi] However the Morning Star stated that under the Act, Rees could have ordered a ‘one-off’ ban, claiming that the three month period proposed by McNee was a ‘red herring’ and it was only police practice to ban all marches.[xvii] However Commissioner McNee stated that ‘he was turning down calls to ban the NF march because to do so would be to give in to “mob rule”’.[xviii]

The All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) was formed in January 1977, a broad-based alliance, including in its own words ‘conservatives and socialists, church people and trade unionists, blacks and whites’.[xix] Nigel Copsey has noted that at a national level, the CPGB ‘had done little to counter the National Front’, but its members ‘were often key figures in local anti-fascist committees’,[xx] which was the case with ALCARAF. With the refusal to ban the NF march, the Lewisham CPGB branch announced that ‘ALCARAF should encourage all Borough organisations…to support a counter-demonstration… calling for a peaceful, democratic, multiracial society based on social harmony’, as well as, ‘to reject fascism and end unemployment’.[xxi] ALCARAF and the CPGB urged a ‘powerful but peaceful demonstration’, which was scheduled to take place at a different time, away from the location of the NF’s march at Clifton Rise.[xxii] The SWP, on the other hand, announced its own demonstration at Clifton Rise, where the NF were meeting, with the notion of confronting the NF on the streets. The SWP recognised the ALCARAF march, but declared that ‘it will provide no substitute for confronting the fascists directly’.[xxiii] The Morning Star announced that, ‘it almost goes without saying that the Socialist Workers Party has prepared itself for the definitive game of cowboys and indians’.[xxiv]

On the day of the demonstration, around 4,000 people attended the ALCARAF march..[xxv] In the flyer handed out to marchers, the CPGB called for marchers not to attend the SWP demonstration, appealing for them to resist ‘violent confrontation with the National Front or the police’ and remain ‘united and disciplined’, asserting that organisations, such as the SWP, ‘who insist on the ritual enactment of vanguardist violence only damage the hard, patient work that has been put in over the years in the area by anti-racists and anti-fascists’.[xxvi] The SWP distributed its own leaflet amongst the ALCARAF march to join the demonstration at Clifton Rise. SWP District Secretary Ted Parker described the event in Dave Renton’s history of the Anti-Nazi League:

We knew one pivotal thing was to get as many people as possible from the first march up to Clifton Rise… The fascinating thing was that people wanted to march to Clifton Rise, but they just wouldn’t line up behind a Socialist Workers Party banner… Eventually, we found some members of some other groups like the IMG with a banner for some united campaign against racism and fascism. People agree to group behind that. It taught me a lesson for later – many people would support a united campaign, they didn’t all want just to line up behind the SWP.[xxvii]

Around 3,000-5,000 demonstrators congregated at this point, compared with 500-600 NF marches and ‘as police made snatch raids into the crowd…counter-demonstrators retaliated with bottles, bricks, and soft drink cans’.[xxviii] Fighting also broke out between police and counter-demonstrators on Lewisham High Street at the end of the NF march. By the end of the day, 110 people had been injured, including 56 policemen and 210 people detained, with 204 charged with offences.[xxix]

The following week’s Socialist Worker’s headline declared ‘We Stopped The Nazis…And We’ll Do It Again!’[xxx] Thousands of people – ‘black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14-year-olds and veterans of Cable Street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists’ – had come out to demonstrate against the National Front. The NF, ‘cowering behind massive police lines’, were ‘forced to abandon their march before it was half completed’.[xxxi] The SWP saw the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ as a major victory, when the ‘Nazi Front got the hammering of their lives’.[xxxii] Central London Organiser of the SWP, Jerry Fitzpatrick described Lewisham as ‘our Cable Street…it was our generation’s attempt to stop fascism. It was rugged, scrappy. It got bad publicity. But it was a real success. The NF had been stopped, and their ability to march through black areas had been completely smashed’.[xxxiii] The black SWP paper, Flame called Lewisham ‘the day that the Black youth gave the police a beating’ and declared, ‘For the black community it was a day of victory’.[xxxiv] The Socialist Worker reported that the ‘angriest anti-fascists were not those who had travelled many miles to take on the Nazis, but the local people, the blacks especially’.[xxxv] The paper quoted the father of one of the Lewisham 21 as saying, ‘I don’t agree with everything the Socialist Workers’ Party says but they were the only organisation to stand up for the rights of black people here’.[xxxvi]

For the Communist Party, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ demonstrated the need for widespread political pressure to ensure that the Public Order Act and the Race Relations Act were used effectively to ban provocative racist marches and in the case of this ban not being implemented, the need for a broad-based counter-demonstration, rather than street fighting. The Party was outraged at Police Commissioner McNee’s refusal to ban the NF march and asserted that instead of police mobilising ‘to carve a way for a few thousand supporters of the National Front’, the NF’s marches ‘must be stopped by police’.[xxxvii] If this did not occur, then ‘political, mass struggle… will be found to finish with the National Front and its like’ and ‘not the staging of ritual confrontations and street fights between the police and handfuls of protestors’.[xxxviii] The CPGB condemned the ‘crass adventurism’ of the SWP to assemble where the NF were marching.[xxxix] While Dave Cook acknowledged the ‘courage and determination’ of those who took part in the protest at Clifton Rise, the ensuring clashes ‘gave the capitalist press the chance to present that day as being a violent struggle between two sets of “extremists”’.[xl] What was needed for a successful anti-racist campaign was a broad-based movement including the labour and progressive movements, as well as the black communities, which had the potential to be isolated by the violent clashes of the SWP. As Dave Cook wrote, ‘The problem about street fighting is that only street-fighters are likely to apply, and it is this which can make it difficult to achieve the mobilisation of the labour movement’.[xli] Some members within the CPGB, particularly those involved in the militant anti-fascism of the 1930s and 1940s, defended the confrontational tactics against the NF, but this was more likely to be support for the local black community in Lewisham, than for their Trotskyist rivals. Tony Gilbert, one of the CPGB’s leading anti-racist activists and a former International Brigades volunteer, ‘commented on the courage of the young blacks’ after Lewisham at a National Race Relations Committee (NRRC) meeting, but stated that the main lesson of Lewisham was that ‘the presence of the Party must always be visible on any anti-fascist demo’.[xlii]

For the CPGB, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ signalled the end of a ‘primarily defensive phase’ against the NF, where ‘mobilisation reflected the intentions of the fascists’.[xliii] The need was not the ‘occasional dramatic “confrontation”’ with the NF, but a ‘detailed, systematic, painstaking’ campaign to ‘promote propaganda and education… to show the benefits of living in a peaceful multiracial society’.[xliv] For the SWP, Lewisham showed that it was clear that ‘many people outside the SWP were keen to oppose the National Front but wanted little to do with the SWP itself’.[xlv] As David Widgery wrote in Beating Time:

The black community, who had successfully defended their patch, had had a glimpse of a white anti-racist feeling which was much bigger and more militant than the liberal community-relations tea parties might suggest. A lot of ordinary people thought it was a Good Thing that the Little Hitlers had taken a bit of stick. Every racialist was made smaller.[xlvi]

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[i] National Student Committee, ‘National Student Conference’, 17 February 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/PC/14/06, LHASC.

[ii] Morning Star, 12 July 1976.

[iii] ‘Draft for Political Committee’, 1 July 1976, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/PC/14/01, LHASC.

[iv] Anandi Ramamurthy 2013, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements, London: Pluto Press, p. 38.

[v] Ian Goodyer 2002, ‘The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism’, MA Thesis: Sheffield Hallam University, p. 24.

[vi] IS Central Committee, ‘The Anti-Racialist Fight and the Right to Work Campaign’, IS Post-Conference Bulletin, 1976, in Alastair Mutch Papers, MSS.284, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[vii] Goodyer 2002, p. 25.

[viii] Email from Ian Birchall to the author, 22 May 2005.

[ix] Ian Birchall 1981, Building the “Smallest Mass Party in the World”: Socialist Wirkers Party 1951-1979, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1981/smallest/index.html.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] ‘Fascism in Leicester’, International Socialism, 1/93, November/December 1976, pp. 18-9.

[xii] ‘News from the Nazi Front’, International Socialism, 1/80, July/August 1975, p. 5.

[xiii] ‘Fascism in Leicester’, p. 19

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] David Renton 2006, When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981, Cheltenham: New Clarion Press, p. 57; Nigel Copsey 2000, Anti-Fascism in Britain, Macmillan: Houndmills. p. 123.

A police campaign in the Lewisham area had arrested a number of young blacks, which became known as the ‘Lewisham 21’. During a demonstration in support of the Lewisham detainees in early July 1977, a number of demonstrators were attacked by NF members.

[xvi] Morning Star, 10 August 1977.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Morning Star, 11 August 1977.

[xix] All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism And Fascism, Why You Should Support ALCARAF, 1977, London: ALCARAF flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/05/04, Labour History Archive and Study Centre (hereafter LHASC).

[xx] Copsey 2000, p. 127.

[xxi] Lewisham CPGB Branch, ‘National Front Provocation in Lewisham’, 9 July 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC.

[xxii] Lewisham CPGB Branch, ‘ALCARAF Demonstration August 13th’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC; Copsey 2000, p. 126.

[xxiii] Socialist Worker, 13 August 1977.

[xxiv] Morning Star, 12 August 1977.

[xxv] Copsey 2000, p. 127.

[xxvi] ‘A Message From Lewisham Communists to the ALCARAF Demonstration’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC.

[xxvii] Renton 2006, p. 60.

[xxviii] The Guardian, 15 August 1977.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Cited in, Renton 2006, p. 72.

[xxxiv] Flame, September 1977.

[xxxv] Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Morning Star, 15 August 1977.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Morning Star, 2 September 1977.

[xl] Morning Star, 26 August 1977.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Minutes of NRRC meeting, 19 September 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/02/06, LHASC.

[xliii] Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, 1978, London: CPGB, p. 23.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Copsey 2000, p. 130.

[xlvi] David Widgery 1986, Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, London: Chatto & Windus, p. 49.

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Filed under anti-fascism, Anti-Nazi League, Anti-racism, Asian Youth Movement, Books, British 'race relations', British far left, British History, Communist Party of Great Britain, Contemporary history, Daily Worker/Morning Star, David Widgery, Fascism, IS/SWP, Lewisham, National Front, Police violence, Policing history, Political violence, protest, Public order issues, Racist violence, Right-wing extremism/radicalism, Rock Against Racism, Socialist Worker, Trotskyism

2011 was not 1981. And 2015 is not 1983.

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Back in 2011, I wrote about how many people viewed the riots that swept across the UK through the lens of the 1981 riots. I wrote in this article:

Karl Marx famously paraphrased Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, saying that “all facts and personages of great importance in world history, as it were, twice”, adding, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Marx 1969, p. 15). Marx’s point was that in periods of great societal upheaval, many of those who observe and attempt to explain these events look to past historical events for an interpretative framework, or as Marx (1969, p. 15) put it, “they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them”. While Marx was writing about the French counter-revolution that occurred after the uprising of 1848, these words could be used to describe any number of rebellions, revolutions or episodes of disorder. The focus of this article is on the riots that spread across the UK in early August 2011 and how most commentaries and analyses of these riots sought to explain them through the prism of the riots that occurred in the UK in 1981 (first in April in Brixton and across the UK in the summer of the same year). While Marx (1969, p. 15) wrote about how those observing the events of 1848-1851 looked back to the “Thermidor” period of the French Revolution, substituting “Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848-1851 for the Montagne of 1793-1795”, those writing on the riots of 2011 looked back to 1981, substituting David Cameron for Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May for Willie Whitelaw and the black, white and Asian youth of 1981 for the black, white and Asian youth of 2011.

The parallels between the events of 2011 and 1981, and their surrounding socio-economic and political conditions, seem, at first glance, to be very similar. David Cameron’s Conservative Government was pushing “austerity” measures to cut public spending and reduce the “debt” inherited from Labour, akin to the monetarist policies sought by the first Thatcher Government, which meant less money for the poorer sections of British society reliant on some form of government assistance and less spending on other public services in poverty-afflicted areas of the UK. In 2011, as well as thirty years ago, these austerity measures, combined with a wider globalised financial crisis, had led to great increases in unemployment, particularly amongst the UK’s ethnic minority communities and amongst young people. Alongside these economic factors, both years saw concerns arise about the powers of the police, particularly in the operation of stop and searches (or “sus” laws in 1981) and the perceived targeting of ethnic minorities by the police, as well as other sections of the lower classes and young people in general.

These parallels were picked up upon by many commentators. For example, Gilroy (2011) remarked in a speech on the riots that there was “a temptation … to say it’s the same game as it was thirty years ago” and citing Stafford Scott, said that “unemployment numbers, school exclusion numbers, stop and search numbers [his emphasis] … In terms of these things, the number are as bad as or worse than they were thirty years ago”. In their research as part of The Guardian and LSE’s Reading the Riots project, Newburn, Lewis and Metcalf (2011) wrote that the conditions for the riots of 1981 were “in many ways similar to those that blighted England this summer”, pointing out that “[b]oth took place while a Conservative prime minister grappled with the effects of global economic downturn and rising unemployment”. Wheatle, the novelist and participant in the 1981 Brixton riots, also wrote in The Guardian (2011) that the circumstances between the two periods of rioting were “remarkably identical”, identifying factors such as “economic crisis, disenfranchised young people, deep cuts in public services and a deterioration between young black people and the police”.

Even before the August 2011 riots, commentators had remarked that the socio-economic and political environment in the UK seemed to mirror that of the early 1980s, and in discussing the thirtieth anniversary of the riots of 1981, there were speculations of the possibility of riots in the near future. An article in The Guardian on the upcoming anniversary of the Brixton riots stated that “some community leaders are warning that similar tensions could, again, spill over into violence”, describing “a toxic cocktail of factors reminiscent of 1981, including rising youth unemployment, cuts to local services and deep suspicion of the police”, as well as “the politicisation of a new generation of anti-cuts protests … and anti-tuition-fees marches” (Walker 2011). The article also quoted Alex Wheatle as saying:

You’re going into dangerous territory, eroding services for young people … I can imagine a repeat of 1981. I can feel the anger. I can feel the resentment towards authority. You’re getting a lot of young people with degrees and big debts, but not jobs. What was really striking in 1981 was the lack of hope. When you have no hope you’re going to confront the police, you’ve got nothing to lose. (cited in, Walker 2011)

Another article on the riots in Liverpool in 1981 in The Guardian quoted a community worker who had experienced the riots as a youngster, who saw parallels between Liverpool in the present day and the city in the 1980s:

First, there was deindustrialisation, now there’s a recession, and you hear people worried about losing their jobs and how they will now in all probability have to work longer for their pensions. It makes some of us quite jealous, because at least you had jobs consistently enough to enable you to build a pension in the first place. I look at these people now and think to myself: “Welcome to our world. Welcome back to 1981.” (cited in, Vulliamy 2011)

However, as Hughes (2011) has said, “[h]istory doesn’t repeat itself exactly” and there is logic in the government assertion that 2011 is not 1981 (McSmith 2011). Many commentators and scholars have noted that there are a number of differences, both in the context from which the riots developed and how the riots actually unfolded, between the riots that have recently occurred and those that happened thirty years before. This article accepts the argument that while these riots occurred quite spontaneously, they did not arise from nowhere and were not completely unexpected, and while one cannot draw a direct line between the riots of 1981 and the riots of 2011, the history of riots, public unrest and civil disorder in the UK does show that there is a precedent for what occurred last year and the riots were not an a-historical episode. The point of this article is that while the recent history of riots that have occurred in the UK since the mid-1970s can provide us with an insight into the most recent outbreak of urban unrest, much of the discourse on the 2011 riots was presented through the prism of 1981. On one hand, the events of 1981 were upheld by some commentators (mostly on the centre-right, but some on the centre-left) to contrast the “criminality” of those participating the most recent riots with the more “political” and “socially aware” riots of the early 1980s. On the other hand, there seemed to be a number of people, particularly on the left, who saw a teleological narrative that formed a direct connection between the events of 1981 with the present era, putting forward that the lessons of 1981 and the struggle against Thatcherism were instructive to how the left should respond to today’s crises. This article does not want to present a guise of political neutrality and certainly aligns itself more closely to the interpretation of the events as put forward by the left, but acknowledges that for political expediency, some of the more nuanced details of what occurred in August 2011 (and in 1981) may be shaped to fit the left’s practical programme. As Smith (2010) has argued, riots and episodes of public unrest do not fall neatly into categories of political struggle and the motives and actions of those involved are open to a multitude of interpretations.

The article concluded:

Power (2011) wrote in The Guardian after the initial burst of public disorder in North London last year that “[i]mages of burning buildings, cars aflame and stripped-out shops may provide spectacular fodder for a restless media … but we will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and the context in which they occur”. This article has looked at how different commentators, journalists, politicians, scholars and activists have interpreted the historical context of the riots that happened across the UK in August 2011, particularly focusing on how the most recent riots have been seen through the lens of the riots from 1981. Although providing a historical background to the 2011 riots helps us to understand that these riots did not occur from out of nowhere or that they were unprecedented in any way, but the comparison of the two events has, in many ways, crystallised how the 1981 riots are perceived in the collective memory. Notions of what “the 1981 riots” or “the Brixton riots” or “the Toxteth riots” have come to symbolise are essentialised ideas of the “noble” or “justified” riots against institutional racism and Thatcherism – in other words, the events of 1981 were explicitly political.

This article has argued that framing the 1981 riots in this way has had two effects on how the 2011 riots are perceived. Firstly, commentators, journalists and politicians on the right (as well as some on the liberal-left) have used the idea of the 1981 riots as expressions of political frustration against “legitimate” targets to condemn the criminal and destructive activities of the rioters involved in the unrest in 2011, arguing that those involved in the most recent riots were motivated by consumerist desire and anti-social behaviour and thus, the response by the authorities should be criminal justice oriented, rather than making political concessions. Secondly, commentator and activists on the left have taken the framework of the 1981 riots as explicitly political actions from the lower classes to show that the riots of 2011 were just as political and represented the anger of the growing “underclass” in the UK. For many on the left and within activist circles, the same neoliberal/monetarist agenda by the Conservatives (resulting in high unemployment and cuts to public services), combined with the institutional racism of the police and the judiciary, were the underlying causes of the riots of 2011 and those that occurred in the early 1980s, and that the lessons of the battles against the Thatcher government are to be heeded.

However, this essentialised version of the 1981 riots, and the comparison with contemporary events, overlooks the fact that the riots that broke out across Britain thirty years ago were not as neat to categorise and interpret as they look in hindsight, and that at the time, there were clear differences in how the riots were understood by different sections of society. Even for those that agreed that the riots were political disagreed on whether the riots were a response by the lower classes to socio-economic policies of the Thatcher government or a response by the black communities to the racism that they faced in Britain on a day-to-day basis. The evoking of the riots of 1981 in the discourse on the August 2011 riots has been used by commentators from both sides of politics to portray the most recent riots in a particular manner, using the supposed explicit political nature of the riots of the past to dismiss or emphasise the political nature of the riots of the present. While historical comparisons are useful for understanding the wider context of events, such as the public unrest of 2011, in too many scenarios, the past is distorted and simplified to fit the political demands of the present.

new labour working

I feel that similar evocations of the past are being made in commentaries on the Labour leadership campaign. Jeremy Corbyn is not Michael Foot and the 2020 manifesto (if he wins) will not resemble the 1983 manifesto. While it might be more progressive than the 2015 manifesto, no one expects Corbyn to reverse 30 years of neoliberalism inflicted upon the Party. There is not the organised entryism by Militant and Socialist Action that there was between 1979 and 1983 and the threat of a rightwards split seems predicated on the belief that there is the political space for another centre-right party.

As much as it might seem that way, we are not reliving the 1980s.

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