Month: October 2012

History reading for Halloween

With all the hoolah around Halloween nowadays, I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon, but with a historical twist. If you’re looking for something historically-minded to do this All Hallows Eve, I would suggest reading Shock Value by journalist and horror movie afficianado Jason Zinoman. The subtitle of the book is How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror and is a rollicking good read. A historian interested in popular culture, I was very interested to read how the horror films of the 1970s were both a reaction to and rejection of the political and socio-economic landscape of the United States at the time. And the Marxist in me was happy to see discussion of how the material base, in terms of the economics of making films at the time, the technology available and other practical limitations, shaped how the superstructure – the films themselves – was created.

The book really focuses on Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Carpenter’s Halloween and Ridley Scott’s Alien, but also discusses Hitchcock’s Psycho, Bogdanovich’s Targets, The Exorcist, Jaws and the ‘video nasties’ of the 1980s. The cover of the book (see above) is a homage to the cover of the Evil Dead video, but Evil Dead is actually only mentioned briefly in the book (in the concluding chapter).

Overall, it is a really good read and something that I read page-to-page in less than a week. So yay for history, horror and Halloween!

And don’t forget to listen to this today. Or this.


New book chapter available – Female Migrants: Sex, Value and Credibility in Immigration Control

 I am pleased to annouce that the edited collection, Borders and Crime: Pre-Crime, Mobility and Serious Harm in an Age of Globalization (edited by Sharon Pickering and Jude McCulloch) has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan, featuring a chapter by myself and Marinella Marmo on the treatment of migrant women to the UK. You can download the introduction to the collection from the Palgrave website.

The title of our chapter is ‘Female Migrants: Sex, Value and Credibility in Immigration Control’ and I am posting the abstract/introduction to our chapter below:

This chapter seeks to explore the continuities and changes in the treatment of female migrants by British immigration control by comparing and contrasting the immigration control policies of the 1970s with contemporary practices. It will provide a historical context for understanding how certain categories of female migrants have been criminalized within the immigration control system on the basis of values around moral decency and body integrity. The two case studies investigated here are: the practice of ‘virginity testing’, carried out by immigration officers on Indian subcontinent women at Heathrow Airport and at British High Commissions in the late 1970s; and the British immigration officers’ treatment of female victims of human trafficking for the sex trade in contemporary times.

This paper aims to contribute to the discussion on the arbitrariness of borders (Weber 2006) and the dichotomy of the infantilized versus the demonized trafficked woman (Segrave et al., 2009). We argue that the trafficked woman, reminiscent of the woman subjected to ‘virginity testing’, is considered by immigration officers and higher Home Office officials as a ‘body’ that fits – or does not – a purpose in the destination society. The body reveals worthiness – whether the woman deserves to be admitted as a valued instrument, not a human being, to be used and consumed in the destination country (Marmo & La Forgia, 2008).

We apply the infantilized/demonized dichotomy further to claim that these women are not considered people, but mere bodies. They are emptied of the range of human complexities, motivations, emotions, hopes and fears. Their reasons for desiring to reach the destination country do not matter. Now and in the past, they are rendered as socioeconomic and political tools of the destination society, and numbers for the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA). The executive, the Home Office, uses these women to fulfil their objective of sustaining a stable, moral and compartmentalized society, then and now.

Other contributors to the collection include Dario Melossi, Leanne Weber, Sanja Milivojevic, Gray Cavender, Nancy Jurik, Rob White, Patrik Olsson, Chris Cunneen, Dean Wilson and Jeremy Keenan. The book is available to buy now from the UK Amazon site, but the US Amazon site says it will be available on October 30. You can also purchase it from Book Depository.


Marmo, M. & La Forgia, R. (2008) ‘Inclusive National Governance and Trafficked Women in Australia: Otherness and Local Demand’, Asian Journal of Criminology, 3(2), 173–91.

Segrave, M., Milvojevic, S., & Pickering, S. (2009) Sex Trafficking: International Context and Response, Devon, Willan.

Weber, L. (2006) ‘The Shifting Frontiers of Migration Control’, in S. Pickering & L. Weber(Eds), Borders, Mobility and Technologies of Control, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, Springer, pp. 21–44.

Protest Laws and Political Radicalism in 1970s Australia: The making of the Public Order Act 1971

I have just submitted an article for peer-review on the development of the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 (Cth), a piece of legislation introduced by the McMahon Government to deal with the dual ‘threat’ of the anti-Vietnam War and anti-Apartheid movements that were growing in Australia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Due to the word count limits of the journal that I submitted the article to, I had to cut around 3,000 words from the paper. I thought I would use some of the finer parts that I had to cut to give a quick overview of my research….

In  the late 1960s and early 1970s, Australian witnessed an upsurge in radical social movements, that was mirrored across the globe. The most prominent social movements that emerged at this time were the anti-Vietnam War movement, building from various demonstrations in the mid-1960s to the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign in 1970-71, and the anti-Apartheid movement, which saw a growing resentment by Australians towards the racist policies of the South African government. Other movements, such as the student movement, women’s liberation and the push for Aboriginal rights, also grew during this era and there was much overlap between the different movements.

This upsurge in political and cultural radicalism worried the Liberal-Country Party Government, which had held power in Australia at federal level since 1949. For the Government, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, there was a concern that the protestor of the late 1960s/early 1970s was different from the typical protestor from other eras, such as the unemployed worker from the Depression era or even the Communist and/or trade unionist of the early Cold War era (Douglas 2004: 60), and they were fearful that this new breed of protestors were unlikely to obey the ‘rule of law’. For example, Thomas Hughes (1970a: 2-3), the Attorney-General from November 1969 to March 1971, argued that, ‘[i]f any substantial group of citizens… decide that civil disobedience is to be a regular and accepted manner of bringing to notice their disagreement with [the] law, our system will break down.’ To address this concern, McMahon’s predecessor as Prime Minister, John Gorton, announced publicly in August 1970 that the Government was to introduce the Public Order Bill, first devised, as the records of the National Archives show, as the protection from Unlawful Demonstrations Bill in early 1970. (Draft legislation, Sep. 24, 1970) Apart from addressing these concerns about the threat of demonstrations to the rule of law,  Malcolm Saunders (1982: 372) has argued that this Bill was part of a wider ‘law and order’ campaign by Liberal and Country Party backbenchers, rallying against the ‘permissive society’ that seemed to be emerging in the late 1960s in Australia.

There were two factors that initially pushed the Government towards introducing public order legislation. Firstly, there was a concern that Canberra would increasingly become the focus of demonstrations during the 1970s and secondly, the authorities seemed to be frustrated by the demonstration tactic of the ‘sit-in’ and the legal grey area that surrounded it.

Regarding the first factor, while demonstrations regularly occurred in other capital cities, the Federal Government suggested that the ire of the protest movement was more likely to be directed towards Parliament House in Canberra and other institutions of the Federal Government in the ACT in the forthcoming years.  The reasoning behind this suggestion was that the anti-Vietnam War movement were protesting against Australian involvement in the War, a federal policy decision, and against conscription, handled by the Commwealth Department of Labour and National Service. An internal document generated during Cabinet discussions over the proposed legislation stressed that ‘Commonwealth laws are being attacked… involving the use of force and violence by demonstrators’, which, the Government argued, required particular laws concerning public order to be enacted by Commonwealth (Cabinet document, n.d.). This was reiterated in a submission to Cabinet by Thomas Hughes (1970b: 5) which stated that ‘[i]n recent times, demonstrations involving force and violence have been directed solely against Commonwealth laws’ and in response to this, ‘it is desirable that laws relating such matters… should be Commonwealth laws’. (Emphasis in the original text) Nigel Bowen (1969: 1) had said the same thing a year earlier, saying that ‘[m]ost of the demonstrations have been directed have been directed against Commonwealth policy or legislation, such as the National Service,’ adding that foreign embassies were also the target of much protest. On the other side of politics, leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam seemed to concur with this assessment, stating that the main demonstrations that have occurred on Commonwealth territory have been ‘on matters where the Federal Government’s policy has stirred people up’, adding that ‘[t]here are 2 particular matters in this regard, apartheid and Vietnam’. Whitlam went on to declare:

One cannot expect men and women of 18,19 and 20 years of age to respect laws which they abominate. They are entitled to express their views about them, and I believe that future generations of Australians will be grateful that the members of today’s younger generation have shown that they abominate apartheid and the Vietnam War. (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 7 April, 1971, 1580)

The second factor was the tactic of the ‘sit-in’, which unnerved the Government and the police. A tactic inspired by the civil rights movement and the student movement in the United States, the sit-in was utilised at anti-Vietnam War and other demonstrations in Australia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As it was generally a non-violent tactic, used more as an act of obstruction rather than anything more aggressive, it was debated within government whether this form of peaceful occupation of Government premises and/or public areas in the ACT was, in fact, breaking any Commonwealth laws. As Andrew Hiller (1973: 252) wrote, in the preparation of the legislation, ‘account was taken of sit-in demonstrations and intrusions upon the peaceable occupation of land and premises by their lawful occupiers.’ Senator George Hannan complained that the Commonwealth lacked the necessary legislation to deal with this form of protest, stating:

Commonwealth premises have been to some extent an area of no-man’s land… [R]ecently we had in Melbourne people who I would in fact describe as hoodlums but who describe themselves as protestors, who attempted to set fire to wastepaper baskets in the General Post Office…

We have seen in this country in recent times a growth in what has been euphemistically described as ‘sit-ins’. Only the States of New South Wales and Victoria have appropriate legislation to deal with this particular activity. (Hansard, Senate Parliamentary Debates, 28 April, 1971, 1078-79)

Neil Brown, a Liberal MP, made a similar complaint, stating in the Second Reading of the Public Order Bill in the House of Representatives in April 1971:

the former Attorney-General indicated in his second reading speech that there is no law except in New South Wales and Victoria under recent amendments to the law there, to cover the offence known popularly as a sit-in. I would have thought the events of the last few days in Melbourne indicate that there is a need for such a law. Surely this type of conduct should be an offence and surely the law should adequately cover that type of situation so that it can be stopped. (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 20 April, 1971, 1709)

To overcome this problem, the Public Order Act provided the powers of arrest for ‘sit-in’ explicitly, regardless whether or not the demonstration was violent or non-violent.  Section 9 of the Act stated:

A person who, in a Territory or on Commonwealth premises, while taking part in an assembly, engages in unreasonable obstruction is guilty of an offence…

The other relevant section (section 12.1-2) legislated against sit-ins by stating:

A person who, without reasonable excuse, trespasses on Commonwealth premises is guilty of an offence…

A person who –

(a) engages in unreasonable obstruction in relation to the passage of persons or vehicles into, out of, or on Commonwealth premises or otherwise in relation to the use of Commonwealth premises;

(b) being in or on Commonwealth premises, behaves in an offensive or disorderly manner; or

(c) being in or on Commonwealth premises, refuses or neglects, without reasonable excuse, to leave those premises on being directed to do so…

is guilty of an offence…

Once the Public Order Bill entered Parliament in April 1971, the Government seemed to portray the new legislation was a much broader antidote to all forms of ‘violent’ demonstrations and rallied against the anti-Vietnam War movement across Australia, suggesting that it was run by violent militants and Communist agents. Bob Katter Sr. of the Country Party announced, ‘Every decent Australia will treat the Moratorium with the contempt it deserves. Do not fall for this business about peaceful demonstrations.’ (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 14 April, 1970, 1078)

At different points in the Second Reading of the Public Order Bill in the House of Representatives in April 1971, Liberal MPs referred to 10 public order episodes that occurred in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane that could not have been dealt with under Commonwealth legislation, but were used to bolster their argument and portray the ‘chaos’ that required new legislation to be dealt with. John McLeay Jr., a South Australian MP, raised an episode of a Vietnam Moratorium demonstration in Adelaide, alleging that flag poles ‘of some other country’ were being used ‘against the police force’. The Liberal member for Boothby claimed that ‘[d]uring that demonstration I think 17 policemen were admitted to the Royal Adelaide Hospital as a result of injuries received in this peaceful demonstration’, adding that one person was arrested for kicking a constable in the chest and face and calling him a ‘fascist pig’. McLeay pronounced, ‘[t]his is the sort of peaceful person whom members opposite think should be permitted to demonstrate’, leaving out the fact that it was not up to the Commonwealth government to permit or police demonstrations in the capital cities, unless they were in the vicinity of a foreign consulate. (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 7 April, 1971, 1610-1611)

Another Liberal MP, John David Jess raised more episodes of protests that had occurred in the States, with only one incident raised in this section of his speech falling under the proposed legislation. Jess announced in Parliament:

Let us look at more of these occurrences. On 11th April 1969 more than 180 arrests were made during violent anti-Vietnam demonstrations in Sydney and Adelaide. On the same day students of the MonashUniversity occupied the Oakleigh Commonwealth Employment Service office. On 1st May 1969 there was another incident. On 5th May 1969 hundreds of students stormed the Monash administration building. On 12th June 1969 students occupied the Senate room at the University of Queensland. There were other incidents on 24th June 1969, 4th July 1969, 12th July 1969, and so it goes on. It is a repeat performance of people coming into buildings, taking over offices, opening files, distributing documents and terrifying civil servants working in these offices. And the Opposition says that nothing should be done. (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 20 April, 1971, p. 1721)

In response to this characterisation of the anti-Vietnam War movement as violent, Gordon Bryant asked the Government rhetorically, ‘Who are the people of violence in the community? Who are the people who are visiting violence upon us continuously?’ and suggested that it was the Liberals at Federal and State level, as well as the police, who were ultimate perpetrators of violence. Bryant said, ‘We should be trying to produce a situation in which the police are not associated with violence. Do not tell me that the police are not unduly rough on many occasions.’ (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 7 April, 1971, 1615)

To deal with an unruly, and potentially violent, demonstration, the Public Order Act gave the police the powers of dispersal, in what Barry York (1984: 64) has described as an updating of the old Riot Act legislation, an 18th century Act inherited from British law. Like the reading of the Riot Act, all the police officer needed to do to invoke the Public Order Act, and the police powers granted under the Act, was to declare:

In pursuance of the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act of the Commonwealth of Australia, I [name of police officer], being a Sergeant [or higher rank, as the case may be] in the [name of Police Force], direct all persons taking part in this assembly to disperse forthwith. Persons who fail to disperse may render themselves liable to the penalties provided by the Act. (Section 8 Part 2)

If the crowd did not disperse within 15 minutes, the police officer was allowed to ‘use such force, as he believes, on reasonable grounds, to be necessary for that purpose’, which was open to a variety of interpretations by those policing protests in the 1970s. It seems that the authorities intended to use the Public Order Act to establish the message that any form of unruliness from a demonstration would be met with considerable force by the police with the powers to arrest most disobedient demonstrators. However, the government was warned that this approach could be a slipper slope, as some protestors could ‘provoke’ a reaction by the police to highlight the ‘violence’ of the state/system. ASIO warned Nigel Bowen (1969: 7) that it was possible that ‘extremist groups will reach the conclusion that more violent action will be required in order to attract the maximum amount of publicity and compensate for an anticipated loss of support from the mass of students’.

The Public Order Act received the royal assent in early May 1971 and was used in several demonstrations that year. Amongst the most notorious uses of the Act were during the ‘Days of Rage’ in May 1971, when protestors conducted two days of protest, the first as a ‘sit-in’ outside the South African Embassy and the second against the Vietnam War, which involved several marches and occupations of public space within Canberra City Centre and the Parliamentary Zone. In clashes with the police, 24 people were arrested at the South African Embassy, including 19 arrested under the Public Order Act (Anonymous report 1971: 2) and 190 were arrested on the second day, with the Canberra Times (22 May, 1971) reporting that ‘more than twice the number arrested at any previous demonstration’, with ‘two-thirds… charged with obstruction, and about one-third with failing to disperse, all under the new Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act.’ In an internal memo of the Commonwealth Police (1971), written in July of the same year,  it was argued that the Act had ‘had a sobering effect on demonstrators in the A.C.T.’ and claimed that ‘[m]ore than one local identity has voiced his concern over the thought of being prosecuted under this legislation.’

However massive use of the Public Order Act, as seen in 1971, fell as the level of protest activity in the ACT ebbed and flowed throughout the 1970s.

Number of demonstrations in ACT, 1970-1979

Period Number of demonstrations
July 1970 – June 1971 49
July 1971 – June 1972 51
July 1972 – June 1973 45
July 1973 – June 1974 36
July 1974 – June 1975 n/a
July 1975 – June 1976 n/a
July 1976 – June 1977 78
July 1977 – June 1978 35
July 1978 – June 1979 N/a
Oct 1979 – Dec 1979 15

(Source: Human Rights Commission 1985: 207)

After the initial flurry of protest in Canberra after the Governor-General’s decision to dissolve the Whitlam Government and call for fresh elections, the Government believed, and were informed by the police and ASIO, that the much larger threats to Parliament and security in Canberra were from terrorists, rather than the left-wing groups and social movements, which had grown exponentially during the late 1960s and early 1970s and were responsible for the majority of demonstrations in the ACT. ASIO (1978: 3-4) still warned that Parliament House would still be focus of attention for ‘revolutionary groups’ as of its ‘symbolic political value’, but viewed the threat from the leftist groups as negligible, stating that ‘[f]orewarning and the opportunity for appropriate briefing of police is therefore likely to be available before demonstrations of significant size [can] occur outside Parliament House.’ Instead the threat of political violence was thought to come from anti-Yugoslav terror groups from the Croatian diaspora community and the Ananda Marga. In the review of national security by Justice Hope (1979: 312), ordered by Lionel Murphy in 1973 after the Commonwealth Police raided the offices of ASIO in regards to links between Australian security services and these terrorist groups, it was shown that the number of incidents of anti-Yugoslavia political violence and/or vandalism was 67 incidents between 1963 and 1978, the second highest behind anti-conscription incidents (91 in the same time period) and far higher than anti-apartheid incidents (28 overall, with 26 occurring in 1971).

In an epilogue to the developments in the policing of protest in the ACT in the 1970s, in 1982, the Fraser Government passed a Public Assemblies Ordinance for the Australian Capital Territory to prevent ‘Women Against Rape’ demonstrations from interrupting ANZAC Day proceedings (Human Rights Commission 1985: 11-19). The Public Assemblies Ordinance 1982 (ACT) is quite unique in Australian legislation as it recognised ‘the right of peaceful assembly’; however it also put many limitations on what was considered ‘authorised public assembly’ and required potential demonstrations to seek permission to demonstrate on ‘a day of national, historic, religious or social significance or solemnity to or for the people of Australia, the community in the Territory or a section of that community’ (Public Assemblies Ordinance 1982 (ACT), s. 3-5). Labor MPs, such as Tom Uren, believed that the Ordinance ‘constitute[d] a serious infringement of civil liberties’ (Hansard, House of Representatives Parliamentary Debates, 23 August, 1983, 116) and the Ordinance was repealed by the first Hawke Government in 1983. It was also noted that the Ordinance only pertained to the ACT and the recognition of the right to peaceful assembly could be over-ridden by the Commonwealth legislation of the Public Order Act.

Since the introduction of the Public Order Act, over 40 years ago, successive governments (both Liberal and Labor) have debated whether to introduce further laws to deal with demonstrations and issues of public order, but as other scholars, such as Janis Bailey and Kurt Iveson, David Baker and Iain Macintyre, have shown, this has often been through other means, rather than the implementation of the Public Order Act* or other pieces of new legislation. At the same time, the Public Order Act has been used only sparingly over the last decade as the authorities have engaged in other forms of policing and negotiation to cope with demonstrations in Canberra. Although it was considered to be extensive in scope and in the powers it bestowed, the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 was actually an over-blown legislative response to an over-estimated threat that seemed to dominate the concerns of a conservative government on its last legs, and in practice, has been rather limited in its use.

*According to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, 60 summary charges were made under the Public Order Act in 1999-2000 and this number has wavered between 49 charges in 2002-03 and 1 charge in 2005-06. In 2010-11, only 12 summary charges against the Act were reported. (CDPP, 2000: 23; 2001: 19; 2002: 20; 2003: 27; 2004: 30; 2005: 37; 2006: 71; 2007: 70; 2009: 108; 2010: 94; 2011: 131)
The research undertaken for this project was conducted while I was an Australian Prime Ministers Centre Fellow with the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra, during January 2010.

Another little piece I have written on my research into this topic can be found here.


Anonymous report (1971) ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act, 1971: Application at Canberra for demonstrations held on Wednesday, 19th May 1971, and Friday, 21st May, 1971’, A432 1970/5108 Part 4, NAA

ASIO (1978) ‘ASIO Assessment of the Threat to Parliament House’, Paper 714, 1978 Cabinet Series, NAA

Bowen, N (1969) Nigel Bowen, ‘Public Order’, Cabinet submission draft, April, A432 1970/5108 Part 1, NAA

Cabinet document (n.d.) ‘Public Order’, A432 1970/5108 Part 2, NAA

Commonwealth Police (1971) ‘CPF memo’, 15 July, A6122 2116, NAA

Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (2000 – 2011) CDPP Annual Reports 1999-2000 – 2010-2011 (CDPP: Canberra)

Douglas, R (2004) Dealing with Demonstrations: The Law of Public Protest and its Enforcement (Federation Press: Leichhardt)

Draft legislation (1970) ‘Protection from Unlawful Demonstrations Bill’, draft legislation, 24 September, A2863 1971/26, NAA

Hiller, A (1973) ‘Law and Order and the Public Order Act 1971’, Australian Law Journal, 47 (May)

Hope, J (1979) Protective Security Review Report: Unclassified Version (Australian Government Publishing House: Canberra)

Hughes, T (1970a) ‘Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Bill: General Note on Civil Liberties’, A432 1970/5108 Part 4, NAA

Hughes, T (1970b) ‘Public Order: Supplementary Paper by the Attorney-General’, Cabinet submission no. 507, 2 September, A432 1970/5108 Part 2, NAA

Human Rights Commission (1985) The Right of Peaceful Assembly in the ACT, Occasional Paper no. 8 (Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra)

Saunders, M (1982) ‘“Law and Order” and the Anti-Vietnam, War Movement: 1965-72’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 28/3, pp. 367-379

York, B (1984) ‘Police, Students and Dissent: Melbourne, 1966-1972’, Journal of Australian Studies, 14 (May) pp. 58-77

The deadline for the Australasian Association for European History 2013 conference draws nigh

The deadline for the submission of abstracts for the 2013 conference of the Australasian Association for European History, to be held at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand (2-5 July), closes on October 31. The theme of the conference is ‘Faultlines: Cohesion and Division in Europe from the 18th Century to the 21st’. Keynote speakers for the conference include Geoff Eley, Joanna Burke and Peter McPhee. The website of the AAEH is here and the CFP can be downloaded from here.

The AAEH is a great conference that brings together historians of Europe and their empires from across Australia and New Zealand, as well as guests from overseas, and is held biannually. It is a particularly good for conference for postgraduates, giving them an opportunity to present their work to, and interact with, like-minded scholars.

A selection of papers presented at the conference are usually published in a special issue of the Australian Journal of Politics and History. The September 2012 issue featured a selection of papers from the AAEH conference held in Perth in July 2011.

In previous years, Australian Humanities Press has also published a proceedings of the conference, complimentary to the AJPH special issue. These previous proceedings can be found (and bought from) here, here and here.

The AAEH conference is a pretty nice conference to attend and it is a chance to go to New Zealand. I will be submitting my abstract this week and I hope to see many fellow historians there!

The CPGB Historians’ Group’s New Statesman Letter

Following on from my post the other day about Eric Hobsbawm’s legacy, I thought people might be interested in the letter that the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain wrote to the New Statesman and The Tribune in late 1956. Most of the following is based on notes from my Honours thesis, which I’m hoping to finally turn into an article eventually – when I finally get a chance to re-read all the CPGB archival documents on the Historians’ Group and 1956.

In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton drafted a letter and collected signatures for a letter to be sent to the CPGB’s newspaper, the Daily Worker, protesting against the invasion of Budapest. In his autobiography Interesting Times (Verso, 2002, p. 207), Hobsbawm states the Historians’ Group was responsible for the initiative behind the letter, but other Party intellectuals, connected with the Party’s National Cultural Committee, also signed. The letter was sent to the Daily Worker on November 18, 1956 and was not published, but on December 1, the letter was printed in the New Statesman and The Tribune.

The letter that was published was signed by Hill, Hilton, Hobsbawm, an another Group member Victor Kiernan, as well as Chimen Abramsky, Hyman Levy, Robert Browning, Paul Hogarth, Jack Lindsay, Henry Collins, George Houston, Hugh Macdiarmid, Ronald Meek, Doris Lessing and E.A. Thompson. In Interesting Times (p. 207), Hobsbawm states that another Historians’ Group member, Maurice Dobb, signed the letter, but this is not substantiated by the published letter. It is possible that Dobb signed under a pseudonym, a practice not unknown to oppositionist intellectuals in the Communist movement. It may be possible that the signatory E.A. Thompson is E.P. Thompson, misspelt when published, but this is unlikely as there is no mention of this in any of the other accounts on Thompson and the Historians’ Group (Scott Hamilton of Reading the Maps blog might know more on this).

The letter was barely over 300 words, but brought the ire of the CPGB leadership upon the letter writers. The text of the letter is as follows:

SIR, – The following letter was sent to the Daily Worker on November 18. As it appears that it will not be published there, the signatories would be grateful if you could find space for it.

“All of us have for many years advocated Marxist ideas both in our own special fields and in political discussion in the Labour movement. We feel therefore that we have a responsibility to express our views as Marxists in the present crisis of international Socialism.

“We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact, and failure by British Communists to think out political problems for themselves. We had hoped that the revelations of made at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would have made our leadership and press realise that Marxist ideas will only be acceptable in the British Labour movement if they arise from the truth about the world we live in.

“The exposure of grave crimes and abuses in the USSR and the recent revolt of workers and intellectuals against the pseduo-Communist bureaucracies and police systems in Poland and Hungary, have shown that for the past twelve years we have based our political; analyses on a flase presentation of the facts – not an out-of-date theory, for we still consider the Marxist method to be correct.

“If the left-wing and Marxist trend in our Labour movement is to win support, as it must for the achievement of Socialism, this past must be utterly repudiated. This includes the repudiation of the latest outcome of this evil past, the Executive Committee’s underwriting of the current errors of Soviet policy.”

Not all the signatories agree with everything in this letter, but all are in sufficient sympathy with its general intention to sign with this reservation.

Thanks to the online archive of The Tribune that is now available, you can see a scan of the original letter here.

This letter was seen by the CPGB leadership as a serious breach of Party rules and according to John Saville, John Gollan sent a strongly worded letter to the signatories warning that ‘such an action is unpermissable and will not to be tolerated in future’, adding that the act was technically punishable by expulsion from the Party. (Saville, ‘The 20th Congress and the Communist Party’, Socialist Register, 1976, p. 16, p. 23) Quoting from Saville’s account (p. 23), Gollan stated that the signatories had ‘the same righst as all other Party members to put your views on Party policy in your Party branch and in the Party press’, but the complaint from those who signed the letter was the same that had existed since the 24th Congress of the CPGB and the cause for Saville and Thompson to publish The Reasoner – the right to express views in Party branches and press only existed in principle, but was meaningless in practice, as the leadership censored and disallowed opinions contrary to the official Party line.

After the Executive and Political Committees passed resolutions on the ‘factional dangers’ of collecting signatories and the ‘impermissable act’ of criticising the Party in the non-Party press, George Matthews, the Assistant Party Secretary, wrote the official position of the Party leadership in an article that appeared in the CPGB weekly paper, World News, on 19 January, 1957, titled ‘The Lessons of the Letter’. Matthews declared that the letter was an ‘attack on the Party’ and a major violation of Party rules, and appeared concerned that the letter’s signatories saw ‘nothing at all that is good or positive’ in the twelve years since the end of the Second World War and establishment of the Eastern Bloc ‘peoples’ democracies’. He maintained the Party line that ‘errors’ occurred under Stalin, but the ‘great contribution which [Stalin] made to the Communist and working class movement’ outweighed these errors. Repeating the Party’s jargon-laden pronouncements of the Stalin question and its support for the Soviet Union, Matthews escaped any satisfactory debate on the Communist Party’s support of the Soviet line towards the Hungarian invasion and the unquestioning support the Party had given in the past.

One of the signatories, Hyman Levy, replied to Matthew’s accusations in a ‘pre-Congress discussion’ in the World News, which charged Matthews with deliberate misrepresentation of the letter’s content (Levy, ‘Lessons of an Article’, World News, 2 March, 1957). For Levy, Matthews’ article (as well as other actions by the Party leaders) demonstrated clearly that ‘the whole principle of democratic centralism’ was called into question, and for this principle to work satisfactorily, it required ‘genuineness and honesty of the Centre vis-a-vis the members, and the alertness and frankness of the members vis-a-vis the Centre’. Levy proposed that only a ‘drastic change in attitude and in atmosphere’ at the 25th Special Congress of the CPGB would allow the Party to continue.

Gollan replied to Levy in another ‘pre-Congress discussion’ article that ‘the content of the letter was not the issue’ and repeated the leadership’s insistence on obedience to the rules and practices of the Party (Gollan, ‘The Cause of the Party is Socialism’, World News, 9 March, 1957). Gollan’s article was a polemic against those in opposition, particularly addressing the intellectuals, and described them as having ‘placed themselves above the Party’ and joining in the ‘attacks of the class enemy’. Gollan asked rhetorically, ‘If the Communist Party is not the Marxist instrument for achieving socialism, what is?… There is no such Marxism [outside the Party]’ and stated that those who remained in the Party were ‘better comrades than those who have left’. Gollan suggested that the intellectuals within the Party had ‘lost all sense of [their] class position’ (as the Party leadership presumed that no working class members were opposed to them) and that there was a gap between their moral and political arguments and their class position, which was believed to be linked to the Party. For Gollan, to be in opposition to the Party was to be in opposition to the working class. The overall message Gollan was conveying through his piece was for the intellectuals to either ‘get behind’ the Party leaders, or leave. The drastic change that the signatories of the letter had hoped for at the 25th Special Congress now looked unattainable, and most of those who signed the letter left the Party shortly after.

For further reading, see:
Revolutionary History journal issue 31
Keith Flett (ed.), 1956 and All That Cambridge Scholars, 2007

A quick note on the legacy of Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, has died aged 95. Tributes, obituaries and analyses of his legacy are already appearing and I’d like to add some quick thoughts on Hobsbawm’s legacy on British Marxism and modern historiography. Hobsbawm was the author of numerous books on labour history and a pioneer of the historical field known as ‘history from below’. He is probably best known (history-wise) for his Age of… series, as well as the books Nations and Nationalism since 1789, Industry and Empire and Labouring Men. But he is also known politically for his life-long membership to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Hobsbawm joined the Party in 1936 and remained a member until the Party dissolved itself in 1991. I am sure that the labels of ‘Stalinist’, ‘Eurocommunist’ and ‘Neil Kinnock’s favourite Marxist’ will be used in many discussions of Hobsbawm over the next few weeks, but I think he was a much more complex figure historically and politically, and he actually transcends these simple labels.

Hobsbawm, along with E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, A.L. Morton, Rodney Hilton, Raphael Samuel, Maurice Dobb and Victor Kiernan amongst others, was a member of the CPGB’s Historians’ Group, which was instrumental in providing an informed Marxist-based analysis of British history from 1066 to the Victorian era, and key in the development of the concept of ‘history from below’. Alongside this major contribution to modern historiography, the importance of the Historians’ Group was its prime role in opposing the leadership of the CPGB during the events of 1956.

In 1956, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech on the crimes of the Stalin era and the ‘cult of personality’ caused massive ruptures in the international communist movement, including the CPGB. The Party leaders, taking their cues from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, argued that the crimes of the Stalinist regime were the result of the abandonment of the principles of democratic centralism. The leadership of the Party attempted to minimise any frank discussion of Khrushchev’s revelations and used its principles of strict internal discipline to damper any opposition to the analysis put forward by the CPSU, refusing to discuss the issue at length at the 24th Party Congress in April 1956. The Historians’ Group opposed this analysis, arguing that adherence to the principles of democratic centralism had actually allowed these crimes to occur, by letting the upper echelons of the Soviet regime to act without any constraint and suppress any opposition. The Group appealed for a greater analysis of the crimes of the Stalin era and the uncritical support given by the British party to the Soviet Union during the Stalin years.

Three of the main acts of opposition to the leadership during 1956-57 were led by Historians’ Group members, as individuals or as a group – the publication of the discussion journal The Reasoner by Saville and Thompson, the writing of a letter to the New Statesman and The Tribune criticising the lack of debate within the Party and the authorship of the Minority Repory on Inner-Party Democracy by Hill (along with Malcolm MacEwen and Peter Cadogan). Hobsbawm, as chair of the Group at the time, was a signatory of the New Statesman letter (and a contributor to the New Reasoner later on), but unlike Thompson, Saville, Hill, Samuel and Rudé, he chose to remain in the Party. 

His reasons to remain inside the Party after 1956 have been criticised as weak and unsatisfactory by many. Hobsbawm had, at various times, attempted to explain his reasons for staying. In an interview with The Observer in 2002, he stated that his decision to stay was ‘out of idealisation of the October Revolution’ (Sep. 22, 2002). In his book Politics for a Rational Left (Verso, 1989, p. 201), he argued that his decision to become a Communist stemmed from a ‘political awakening’ in the aftermath of Hitler’s rise to power in Berlin and as Dennis Dworkin has suggested, his deep personal attachment to the Communist movement’s anti-fascist legacy influenced his reluctance to resign (Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain, Duke Uni Press, 1997, p. 50). Also in Politics for a Rational Left (p. 200), Hobsbawm admitted that the CPGB had become so weak that despite his critical stance, the Party couldn’t throw him out and ‘didn’t want to anyway’. His lack of political activity inside the Party during the 1960s and 1970s, and his association with the activities of his former colleagues, such as the New ReasonerNew Left Review and the Socialist Register, allowed him to present himself primarily as a Marxist historian of the broader left, rather than as a Communist historian.

Between the late 1950s and the late 1970s, Hobsbawm produced many innovative historical works, such as those I mentioned earlier, and did not publicly engage in many political debates. However this was to change in 1978 when he gave the Marx Memorial Library titled ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’. Hobsbawm’s thesis was that the Labour Party and the trade unions, as the traditional political vehicles of the working class, had reached a point of fatigue and had only achieved limited reforms in the face of the crisis of capitalism during the 1970s. The organs of the British labour movement represented certain section of the working class – the older white heterosexual male skilled or semi-skilled worker – and that it’s march was halted as the working class fragmented.

Alongside Stuart Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ article, Hobsbawm’s lecture, reproduced in Marxism Today (link), generated much internal debate within the CPGB (already undergoing massive changes due to the rising influence of the Gramscians/Eurocommunists) and amongst the wider labour movement. Over the next decade, Hobsbawm remodelled himself as a politically engaged public intellectual, writing for Marxism Today and other left publications. As a member of the CP during the Popular Front and a great admirer of the Italian Communist Party, Hobsbawm often wrote on the lessons that Popular Frontism and Gramscism could have for those navigating the political landscape of the 1980s. It is interesting to note that he was one of the few historians that wrote for Marxism Today under the editorship of Martin Jacques. Although criticised for his association with the Eurocommunist wing of the CPGB and his ‘romantic’ depiction of the Popular Front, I believe that Hobsbawm generated some very thought provoking work in the 1980s and his ‘Forward March’ lecture launched an important debate that the British left needed to have.

Incidentally, Hobsbawm was instrumental in my own development as a historian. I was inspired to write my Honours thesis on the Historians’ Group after reading the debate between Hobsbawm and Martin Amis on remaining a Communist after 1956, and reading Hobsbawm’s autobiography Interesting Times, which in part detailed the role of the Group in the events of that tumultuous year. I wanted to explore why people, after the revelations of the crimes of the Stalin era, chose to remain in the Communist Party. So that explains my obscure field of research!

I think Hobsbawm produced some thoroughly readable history books and his sense of grand narrative was quite masterful (which is why The Age of… series worked so well). I would heartily recommend Bandits or Industry and Empire to anyone interested in modern history and undergraduates would do well to invest in a copy of The Age of Extremes, his pioneering history of the ‘short twentieth century’. So, in summary, Eric Hobsbawm – more than a ‘Stalinist’, ‘Euro’ or ‘Neil Kinnock’s guru’. Rather he was a very important historian and public intellectual. Now I should really re-read Captain Swing!

A month has passed (doing the numbers on my blog)

As of today, my blog is one month old. It has been a learning experience for me, but it has been quite fun too. It has been difficult not to let it dominate my thought, although it has to compete with article writing, archival research, literature writing and social media navigating for my attention (not to mention family and social life).

One of the fascinating features of blog writing is looking at the metrics of the blog. As an academic exercise, I thought I would do some basic analysis of the blog’s numbers.

Overall, I have had 958 visitors to my site in the first month (c’mon people, let’s make it an even 1,000!) The most views I have had in one day is 147, which was after I wrote a post on Gary Foley and The Clash. According to the wise sage known as the Internet, the average number of visitors to my page is 29.

The post with the most views is the one on Gary Foley and The Clash with 228 views.   This is greatly more significant in numbers than the next highest, which was my post on historians and the contemporary record, that has had 72 views.

Unremarkably most of the visitors to my blog are from Australia with 522 views, followed by the US (203) and the UK (138), but interestingly, Greece and France are in fourth and fifth places (with 23 and 17 respectively).

I like to think of my blog as a portal to wonders of the Internet (just kidding) and the  ‘most clicked’ links from my blog have been to a YouTube clip of The Clash live with Gary Foley from 1982 and a clip from the short film, Green Bush. On the other end, most of these who have clicked on my blog have been referred by Facebook (despite my lack of a Facebook account)!

My blog has not really been the feature of many google searches so far, but of those who have come across my page via search engines, most have been searching for ‘CPGB’, but the best search term has been ‘stupid things Morrissey has said’.

So there you have it, a month’s worth of blogging number-crunched. Now is anyone reading this still?