Month: November 2013

Further reading on British Maoism

For those interested in the bizarre history of the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought, I thought I’d mention some of the other parts of the interweb discussing the WIMLMTT and British Maoism.


The Tendance Coatsey blog was probably the first to start publicly collating information on the WIMLMTT (mainly sourced from the EROL) and has led to an interesting discussion.

The Transpontine blog, which focuses on the history of politics and popular culture in South London, was also quick to have something on the Workers’ Institute and a discussion of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Keith Flett, from the London Socialist Historians Group, posted a defence of the ‘mostly harmless’ Maoists in Britain who were being lumped in with the extreme activities of the Workers’ Institute.

Author and activist Tariq Ali, formerly of the International Marxist Group, wrote about Maoism and the British left in the 1970s for The Guardian and tried to explain the attraction towards these minuscule Maoist groups back then.

Lucy Townsend asked for the BBC News website, ‘How common were Maoist groups in 1970s Britain?’ and found that there were around 20 different groups, each with only a handful of members.

Paul Flewers, editor of Revolutionary History journal, was interviewed by BBC Radio about the Workers’ Institute earlier in the week as well.

Phil at A Very Public Sociologist looks at why Maoism was short-lived in the UK, while Trotskyism had a much longer tenure.

Most of the mainstream media have been accessing the EROL website and a PhD thesis on sectarianism on the British far left written by Stephen Rayner in 1979 that has been digitised by University College London. But these sources have much more information than is being utilised.

If there are any other noteworthy sites, please let me know.


Inside the paranoid Maoist cults of 1970s Britain: A post at The Conversation UK


By now, the internet is awash with material on the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought and the alleged ‘domestic slavery’ case. The Conversation (UK) has published a brief article by myself on the Workers’ Institute and the political milieu they emerged from the 1970s. The piece opens with the following:

The couple accused in the case of alleged “domestic slavery” in London were reportedly the leaders of a tiny Maoist sect, the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, which had gone “underground” in the late 1970s. To understand how the Workers’ Institute ended up so far off the radar, we need to understand where they came from – the strange world of radical Maoist politics in 1970s London.

And the rest can be viewed here.

I would like thank Sam Richards from the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online for his help with sources and additional information, Matt Fitzpatrick and David Lockwood for reading the draft version  and Andrew from The Conversation for his editorial work.

The Workers' Institute would send greetings through the Morning Star in the mid-1980s.

The Workers’ Institute would send greetings through the Morning Star in the mid-1980s.

I thought readers might also be interested in some observations made by Sam, which I wasn’t able to incorporate into the final article:

1) It was the Cultural Revolution that inspired a new wave of Maoist organisations, largely populated by (previously non-aligned) students. They were joined by some anti-revisionists (mainly ex-Communist Party members)  active in the original groups, but those original groups faded away. English Maoism was at its most active a new, radical and immersed in Maoist rhetoric and imagery.

2) These groups were consciously internationalist: the Communist Party of England (ML) was (and remained throughout its name changes) part of ‘The Internationalist’ trend led by Hardial Bains, founder-leader of the Communist Party of Canada (ML).

3) Communist Unity Association (Marxist-Leninist) judged they had “adopted ’Maoism’ as a source of slogans, ritual chants and the focus for a student cult” in Imperialism and the Struggle for a Revolutionary Party (1974).

4) While the Workers’ Institute was both small in size and largely separate from the other maoist groups, there was always the embarrassment that they would be thought of as “typical Maoists”. In fact the splintering of the Maoist trend in the late 1970s did see the largest (Birch’s CPBML) and the third largest (CPEML under their new name of RCPBML) side with Albania – that is the “supermaoists” of the sixities denounced Mao as anti-Marxist.

5) An alternative journalist viewpoint from 1978, available on EROL, showed that at the time,  the Institute was equally regarded as strange.

“A short guide to Maoists in Britain”, The Leveller, No.20, November 1978:
“An encounter with the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought [“we have undertaken the unprecedented task of building the first stable base area in the imperialist heartlands, in and around Brixton …this has driven the British bourgeoisie up the wall”], truly the most lunatic of the lunatic fringe of left politics in Britain, can be an unsettling experience. Tiny in numbers and fanatical in zeal, carrying dogmatism, rhetoric and sectarianism to ever greater extremes, it is many people’s idea of a typical Maoist group.

Not so. Terry Ilott and John Dawes report that of the numerous Maoist groups, there are some which, though small and theoretically weak (unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the world) we might take more seriously than we do.”

Sam also provided some unseen pictures of the Workers’ Institute, which you can see in this post.

And as I wrote here, the history of British Maoism still needs to be written!


Having fun with Hansard

'Have you heard the last track on Viva Hate? It's amazing.'

‘Have you heard the last track on Viva Hate? It’s amazing.’

I was searching the online UK Hansard database this afternoon, looking to see whether anyone had mentioned the television show The Young Ones in parliamentary debates. While this search was unsuccessful, I found some other interesting examples of popular culture infiltrating the hallowed walls of Parliament. I tweeted a lot of these today, but thought I’d compile them here as well.

While there was no mention of The Young Ones, other British comedies were mentioned. Besides obvious ones like Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, more recent ones included Men Behaving Badly and Absolutely Fabulous. In 2002, Lib Dem MP Phil Willis raised the issue of television in a debate on behaviour problems in UK schools. He said:

Let us consider the examples that our young people are given in, for example, popular television series such as “Men Behaving Badly” or even the one with those wonderful ladies, Joanna Lumley and co… [Mr Pound: ‘Absolutely Fabulous’] … There is a relish and glorification in the appalling behaviour depicted in those programmes, but in schools such behaviour is out of order.

Elsewhere, Blackadder was mentioned numerous times, but nearly always in relation to the character of Baldrick and his cunning plans. In fact, Baldrick has been mentioned in both Houses of Parliament 17 times since 1990. For example, in 2003, Labour MP Brian Jenkins said about the Post Office’s closure scheme:

That plan is a very cunning plan—the only very cunning plan that I have seen to match it was Baldrick’s in “Blackadder”.

Besides television comedies, I also searched for references to popular music. Some reflected particular episodes where popular music and wider politics/society intertwined. In 1982, the anarcho-punk band Crass released How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? as a single in protest to the Falklands War. Outraged by this, Tory MP Timothy Eggar asked the Attorney-General Michael Havers if he would prosecute Crass Records under the Obscene Publications Act. Havers replied: 

I have considered the record to which my hon. Friend refers and have decided that its publication does not amount to a contravention of section 2.

After The Stone Roses’ infamous Spike Island gig in 1990, Labour MP Graville Janner asked the Home Secretary:

[H]ow many people were injured at the Stone Roses concert at Spike island, Widnes, on 3 June; how many of the injured were treated in hospital; and how many were detained in hospital.

Under-Secretary for the Department of State, Peter Lloyd, answered:

I understand that, in addition to those people (number unknown) who received minimal first aid treatment at the concert itself, two people, who sustained injuries when attempting to get into the event without tickets by climbing over a high fence, were taken to hospital, treated and discharged the same day.

In 1991, the gangsta rap outfit NWA were charged with violating the Obscene Publications Act for the album Niggaz4Life and when the case was won by the group, Tory MP Michael Neubert asked the Home Secretary:

whether, in the light of the judgment in the NWA—Niggers with Attitude—case at Redbridge on 7 November, he will bring forward proposals to amend the Obscene Publications Act 1959.

Representing the Home Office, John Patten replied:

I cannot comment on the decision of a court in a particular case. The Government recognise that there is concern about the effectiveness of the Obscene Publications Act 1959. This is traditionally an area for Private Members and the Government are prepared to support any suitable proposals for amendments which would make the law more effective and which appear likely to command sufficient public and parliamentary support. 

In other instances, parliament debated a music subculture more broadly, usually reflecting the ‘moral panic’ surrounding a particular subculture. A fascinating discussion of punk and the changes in popular music in 1977 can be found in this debate on ‘pop concerts’, with Labour MP and Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Kenneth Marks, stating:

One of the problems with punk rock, as with the groups of the early ‘sixties, is that the whole idea is to be against the Establishment and the adult population. Now that the earlier groups have themselves become a well-paid part of the Establishment, there is a natural revolt against them.

But there is something rather more frightening. My hon. Friend quoted the Sunday People, but it is not only the popular papers which have been giving attention to this problem. The Economistsaid: The fans describe themselves as the ‘blank generation’, ‘hate’ and ‘destroy’ slogans are frequently used, the lyrics of the better groups, such as the Clash, who have dubbed themselves the ‘Sound of the Westway'”— with my former responsibilities for transport, I know what is meant by that— (after a London motorway built literally over the top of working-class housing developments) refer to urban decay, unemployment among the young and life in high-rise blocks. Mr. Mick Jones, of the Clash, once claimed that he had never lived below the 17th floor, though his fellow guitarist Mr. Joe Strummer went to a public school. The Economist says: The new wave is unlikely to produce a new Mozart. But if it causes Mr. Callaghan, Mrs. Thatcher and the rest”— presumably that means the rest of us— to wonder why Britain’s young people go around with safety-pins in their noses it may serve a useful purpose. So that is part of a much larger problem. It applies not only to pop music but to football, and my Department has done a great deal of investigation and work on that.

In 1982, punk found itself again under attack in parliament by Tory MP, Jocelyn Cadbury, who urged criminologists to study the ‘disturbing effects’ of punk on young people. Cadbury declared:

There are many reasons why crime has increased. There is a whole range of cultural factors involved. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) referred to television, and, quite rightly, mention has been made of the press. The press has had a bad effect. I do not know whether any hon. Members listen to the so-called punk rock music. Occasionally, I have tried to decipher some of the words of the songs which come under the heading of punk. It is difficult because the singers usually screech out the lyrics, but when I have been able to understand the message it sometimes seems to propagate an ethos of violence which must have a disturbing effect on the behaviour of young people. Criminologists should study those cultural factors. To some extent, they must influence human behaviour for the worse.

In several debates on glue sniffing in 1984-85, Tory MP Harry Greenway raised the issue on punk rockers indulging in the practice. In May 1984, Greenway alleged:

In a conversation with a distinguished public figure today I learnt that in a reputable store last Saturday he saw a packet of glue sold to a punk rocker aged about 13 or 14 years. When the punk rocker had gone he spoke to the assistant who had sold the glue, who appeared to be a responsible person. He said, “You should not have sold the glue.” The assistant replied, “If she wants to kill herself that way, who am I to stop her?”

In January 1985, Greenway told a similar anecdote:

I went into a well-known shop the other day, and as I was being served a punk rocker came in. He asked for glue and was sold glue. A man standing next to me said to the person who had sold the glue, “You know that glue is going to be abused.” The man behind the counter said, “Yes, I do, but what is it to me if people choose to kill themselves in that way?” That is disgraceful. The Bill will overcome that and I welcome it in that spirit.

In the late 1980s, the ‘moral panic’ over acid house emerged. In 1988, Tory MP, Gillian Shepherd, asked the Home Secretary about ‘the spread of the acid house cult’, to which Douglas Hogg, representing the Home Office, stated:

I assume that my hon. Friend’s particular concern is with misuse of certain drugs—notably MDMA, also known as ecstasy, and LSD—said to be associated with the acid house craze. The Government give the highest priority to tackling drug misuse, and have devised a balanced strategy which aims at reducing both the supply of, and demand for, drugs. Effective law enforcement action is a key element of the strategy, and hon. Members will have noted the operations against acid house parties undertaken by several police forces in the home counties during the weekend of 5 and 6 November.

Throughout 1989 and 1990, the issue of acid house parties and the policing of them was raised continually in parliament, as seen here.

As well as these more political occasions, other musical acts were mentioned in Hansard in more random ways. My favourite example is when Labour MP Tony Banks made fun of Terry Dicks who opposed state funding for the arts and his lack of knowledge of contemporary music:

I am grateful to the hon. Member. His muscular approach to the arts is well known in this House. Does he recall the fact that Spandau Ballet performed at the Royal Festival hall when it was being run by the Greater London council? Unfortunately, he probably also knows that those people put up Spandau Ballet because they thought it was a ballet from Spandau.

I am sure there are many others. But that is most of the good ones that I could find today. If you find any more, please comment below.

Seminar paper – Communism in the British Commonwealth: The transmission of Marxist anti-colonialism between Britain, Australia and South Africa

This is the text of my seminar paper that I gave last month on my new research project, ‘Communism and Anti-Colonialism in the British Commonwealth’. It is my first foray into the history of the Communist Parties in Australia and South Africa, and the paper is as much about getting the history in order in my own head as it is for a wider audience. I’m still getting to grips with some areas of CPA/CPSA history, so I welcome any feedback, but please be kind!

free the colonies


In the wake of the Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War, there was enthusiasm for socialist revolution and for colonial liberation, often intertwined. The Soviet Union established the Third International (Communist International) in 1919 to co-ordinate these dual revolutions. In 1920, Comintern called for establishment of Communist Parties across the globe (with allegiance to Comintern) and also established congress to unite anti-colonial activists across the former Russian Empire and other Asian nations.

In most Western nations, socialist and workers’ parties (many inspired by Marx and Engels) had existed since late 19th century, but the October Revolution and the subsequent formation of the Third International had prompted these parties in many countries to enter into talks about unity and support for the fledgling Soviet Union. In Britain, Australia and South Africa, a number of smaller parties all agreed to unite as Communist Parties in the period between 1919 and 1921. Unlike the mass Communist Parties that existed in mainland Europe at the time, the CPGB, the CPA and the CPSA were all numerically very small, in the shadow of a much larger (and electorally significant) Labour Party, but still managed to gain influence in the trade unions.

Particularly in the early 1920s, the Soviet Union, fighting in the Russian Civil War, placed its hopes in the revolution expanding beyond Russia, into Europe, but also across the colonies (especially those who belonged to the defeated imperial powers). The British Empire, while victorious in the war, had been firmly shaken by the war’s length and great stock was placed by the Russians in anti-colonial fervour to rise across the Empire. The Communist Party of Great Britain, as the party in the metropole of the largest existing empire, was tasked by the Soviets with co-ordinating and providing support for anti-colonial rebellions across the Empire. While smaller than the CPGB, the CPSA and CPA were also expected, by the Comintern and by the CPGB, to help foster revolution in their ‘spheres of influence’.

By the mid-1920s, the worldwide socialist revolution had not occurred and the Soviets had grown less ambitious in their outlook, with the internal dispute over the successor to Lenin allowing Stalin to promote the idea of ‘socialism in one country’. The corresponding position of the Comintern from 1922-23 to 1928-29 was for Communists to build ‘united fronts’ with other sections of the labour movement and to seek unity where possible, to ensure that the ideas of socialism are not entirely overlooked. This seemed straightforward in many of the Western nations, but in the colonies (and in the dominions of South Africa and Australia) this position was turned into co-operating with nationalist anti-colonial groups whenever possible, as well as developing Communist Parties where a critical mass of activists could be located, such as in India or China.

In the British case, Moscow encouraged the CPGB to send liaisons to develop anti-colonial links in the colonies, such as Benjamin Bradley in India and James Crossley in Egypt, as well as cooperating with the Comintern’s Colonial Bureau in Berlin, Paris and Moscow (principally the work of the Dutt brothers).[1] In Australia and South Africa, the Parties followed the same line as the European parties into ‘united front’ work, but at the same time, were encouraged to foster stronger links with the ‘natives’ and other migrant groups. In South Africa, the 1922 Rand Revolt, which pitted white and black workers against each other was used by the Comintern as a catalyst to castigate the CPSA for not challenging racial prejudice and to draft more black workers into the Party. By the late 1920s, the majority of the CPSA’s membership was black, but the leadership positions were mainly taken by white people.[2] In Australia, the Party was criticised for not opposing the ‘White Australia Policy’ strongly enough and to make more endeavours in making contacts with Aboriginal workers. While the overall direction of the international Communist movement was provided by the Comintern at this moment, with each party undergoing some level of ‘Bolshevisation’, in the Anglophone world, the Comintern delegated responsibility to the Communist Party of Great Britain and also to the Anglo-American Bureau/Secretariat.

The process of ‘Bolshevisation’ involved in many instances the purging of many members thought to be ‘disloyal’ to the ‘movement’ (and possible Trotskyists) and the leadership of the parties made up by (slightly) younger members with strong ties to the Soviet Union. The ‘Bolshevisation’ process takes place at the same time as the ‘Third Period’ commences, which is an about turn on the previous strategy of co-operating with the wider labour movement and any bourgeois or reformist groups denounced as ‘social fascists’. In some colonies, such as in India, the CPI refused to work with the National Congress, but in some settler colonies, the dismissal of links with bourgeois/reformist groups led to the ‘Native Republic’ thesis being put forward. The ‘Native Republic’ thesis was developed primarily in the United States and South Africa, but other settler colonies, such as those in Latin America, which proposed that the black population could, in principal, take their own road to self-determination and in South Africa, emphasised that the black peasantry did not have to align themselves to the demands of white workers and also could achieve self-determination without a black bourgeoisie. The ‘Native Republic’ thesis did flow to Australia, where the CPA proposed that rural Aboriginals could form their own republics in central, north and north-western Australia,[3] but Aboriginal workers based in the cities were to be incorporated into the labour movement, with demands of equal rights and equal pay between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers.[4]

The ‘Third Period’ was disastrous for most Communist Parties. In Britain, Australia and South Africa, membership collapsed. But this was undone by the popular Front strategy that was developed from 1933 onwards and officially announced at the Seventh Comintern Congress in 1934. This meant that Communist Parties were to ditch the sectarianism of the last five years and proceed to work with the bourgeoisie and other reformist elements to prevent the onslaught of fascism. In Britain, this meant working with the Labour Party, if not the National Government (who both favoured retaining the Empire), and many accused the CPGB of promoting anti-fascist alliances above the struggle against imperial exploitation. In South Africa, the ‘Native Republic’ thesis was recanted and an anti-fascist alliance was encouraged between white and black workers, but in its efforts to attract more Afrikaner workers towards the CPSA and away from Nazi-tinged racism, the black elements of the Party were often ignored (Allison Drew points to the title of the CPSA paper being changed from Umsebenzi to The South African Worker as evidence of this shift).[5] In Australia, the Party continued to work in the area of Aboriginal rights, but xenophobic attitudes towards the Japanese started to grow.[6]

The Popular Front boosted the fortunes of the Communist Parties in Britain, Australia and South Africa, but the focus of these parties was on fighting fascism (both locally and internationally), which meant that all likely allies against fascism (including pro-imperialist sections of society) were embraced. The governments in each country were denounced more for their appeasing attitudes to Nazi Germany, their non-co-operation in the Spanish Civil War and the continued hostility towards the USSR, rather than the continued imperialism of the British Commonwealth (which the British Empire became in 1931). However the parties did not give up entirely on promoting anti-colonial politics. The CPGB pushed the notion that an independent India could become a bulwark against the ‘fascist’ expansionism of the Japanese, while in South Africa, black workers were seen as natural allies against fascism and racism.

At the end of the Second World War, it was fairly evident that Britain’s ability to hold onto its colonies had diminished greatly and there was a reluctant acceptance in some areas to allow independence for certain colonies, predominantly India and Pakistan. As the Cold War began in 1947, Britain (as well as the United States) was less likely to allow colonies to become independent if there was a chance of a communist (or pro-Soviet) takeover, such as in Malaya or Ghana. Thus decolonisation was a haphazard (and sometimes violent) affair in the British Commonwealth – an attempt to procure decolonisation on British terms that was somewhat orchestrated in foreign policy, but not in execution.[7] At the same time, the Soviet Union (under the auspices of the short-lived Cominform) promoted the idea that the world was being divided into two camps: the fascist/imperialist camp and the anti-fascist/anti-imperialist camp. The Soviet Union was, theoretically, to support all anti-colonial struggles and where possible, the local Communist Party was to help lead the rebellion. As the Cominform only incorporated the countries of the Eastern Bloc, plus the Communist Parties in France and Italy, the Communist Party of Great Britain was given the task of being a liaison between Moscow and the anti-colonial movements in the Commonwealth.

The CPGB embraced the networks established by the British Empire to act as the co-ordinating influence for Communist Parties and other anti-colonial movements across the Commonwealth under the assumption that this imperial network can be transformed into a ‘fraternal association’ between independent countries (although it found during the 1950s that it was not necessarily so that people in the former colonies wanted to maintain ties with its former imperial master). In 1947, it hosted a conference of the Communist Parties of the Empire which attempted to co–ordinate socialist and anti-colonial activism across the colonies and dominions, while many leaders of the Communist Parties in the Commonwealth visited London to liaise with the CPGB (often in conjunction with visits to Moscow).

In the early Cold War period, the absence of the Comintern as a directing hub for the international Communist movement meant that competing metropoles open up for the movement, particularly within the British Commonwealth. While Moscow was the main determinant of policy and strategy for the international Communist movement (although this was much more informal and internalised after the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943), the delegation of responsibilities to the British Party meant that Communist Parties in the colonies, ex-colonies and dominions could look to Moscow or London, sometimes with conflicting advice. In South Africa, the Cold War period saw the installation of the apartheid regime by the National Party and the banning of the CPSA, which meant that much of the CPSA leadership sought exile in London, Moscow or other parts of Africa (but Mostly London).[8] From 1950 onwards, the CPGB lent the remnants of the CPSA, now exiled in London, practical support on the administrative side, while the new South African Communist Party (established in 1960) and the African National Congress looked to Moscow for military support, starting in the early-to-mid-1960s.[9]

The relationship between the Communist Party of Australia, the CPGB and Moscow was very different from that of the CPSA. In the era of decolonisation that started after the Second World war, the CPA increasingly look towards Asia and the revolutionary precedent established by the Communist Party of China. It is evident that as the dual processes of the Cold War and decolonisation got underway, there was a clear division of labour between Moscow and Beijing, with the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence concentrating on Europe, while it was accepted that the colonial countries of Asia would follow the ‘Chinese path’. The CPA was to provide support to the anti-colonial movements in Asia and formed particularly close links with the Communist Party of Malaya and the Chinese Party.

On the eve of the Malayan Emergency in mid-1948, the CPA’s leadership used the situation in Malaya to attack the CPGB for its reformist tendencies. In the initial post-war period, the CPGB supported the Labour Government, who despite endorsing colonial independence in some instances, harshly put down anti-colonial movements which had communist links, such as in Malaya. The CPA saw the CPGB’s support for Labour as ‘Browderist’ and substituted the struggle for socialism with the acceptance of bourgeois democracy. The CPA believed that the CPGB had lost its way and it would rather look towards Moscow (and Beijing) for direction. (See this post)

The drift towards the Chinese continued throughout the 1950s and exacerbated by the events of 1956. Between 1956 and 1960, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China seemed to heading towards a major split in the international communist movement and it was up to each individual country or Communist Party to decide where their support lay. Right up until 1960, the CPA seemed to take the side of the Chinese in the dispute, but pulled back at the last moment and shifted its support back to Moscow,[10] as well as re-establishing closer ties with the CPGB.



This is what I am really interested in – the complex relationships that exist within the international Communist movement and within the Communist Parties of the British Commonwealth. Firstly, the fact that Moscow (and then Beijing) act as directing centres for the international communist movement, with other parties deferring to these two metropoles for policy and strategy, reflects a hierarchy in the international communist movement that runs opposite to the movement’s anti-colonialist tendencies. Secondly, that these hierarchies are repeated within the British Empire/Commonwealth, relying on the colonial networks established under British imperialism.

There are two aspects to this second point. One is that there seemed to be a delegation of responsibility on anti-colonial issues from Moscow to London to Johannesburg or Sydney, where the CPSA was responsible for supporting anti-colonial and workers groups in the rest of Southern Africa and before the success of the Chinese, the CPA has considerable responsibilities in maintaining links with anti-colonial and communist groups in South East Asia and Oceania (New Zealand’s Communist Party was, for a while, an outpost of the CPA). Another is that the CPGB struggled with the notion that movements and groups in the colonies did not necessarily want to take instructions or maintain ‘fraternal relations’ with their former imperial masters in any form.

An illustration of this is the slow build of resistance in the Party’s International Department to the CPGB’s policy on decolonisation from the late 1940s until it was changed in 1957 at the 25th Special Congress. Rajani Palme Dutt, a leading figure of the CPGB and dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist, was also the Party’s chief anti-colonial theoretician and led a rebellion against the rest of the Party leadership to change the wording regarding the Party’s attitude towards decolonisation. From the mid-1930s onwards and enshrined in the Party’s post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism, was the resolution that the former colonies would become self-governed entities within a reformed Commonwealth, which would rely on a notion of mutual assistance to ensure that Britain retained its supply of goods and raw materials from these former colonies. As the Party increased its membership of people from the former colonies, primarily from the Caribbean, West Africa and India, in the 1950s, there was an internal debate over whether the Party was truly committed to national liberation. At the 1957 Congress, there was a push from these newer recruits for the Party to recognise that national liberation of the colonies would mean that these countries were free to choose their own diplomatic relationships, and would not be automatically tied to the Commonwealth (nor a Soviet-aligned bloc either). This rebellion by the colonial migrant members of the Party demanded that the CPGB leadership pay more attention to the desires of those seeking independence from Britain and respect the agency of the colonial citizens in the decolonisation process. Eventually supported by Dutt, the 1958 edition of the Party programme included a much stronger commitment to anti-colonialism and should be remembered as a rare victory of rank-and-file CPGB members in changing Party policy from the grassroots level.

I am particularly interested in the period from the end of the Comintern in 1943 to the early 1960s, when decolonisation in the British Commonwealth is almost complete. The dissolution of the Comintern throws up this idea of the competing metropoles and coincides with the greatest level of decolonisation.


There are three main archives that I need to visit for this project. In February this year, I visited the Communist Party of Great Britain archive at the Peoples History Museum in Manchester, with additional research at the Hull History Centre (where the papers of the British wing of the League Against Imperialism are kept), the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick and the National Archives at Kew. At the CPGB archives, I was primarily interested in the papers of the Party’s International Department, which co-ordinated the Party’s anti-colonial work, published the Colonial Information Bulletin and the Africa Newsletter and organised the two Communist Parties of the Empire conferences in 1947 and 1954. The other important section of the CPGB papers was those belonging to the Party’s correspondence, which had many documents relating to the correspondence between the CPGB and the Parties in Australia and South Africa. One of the interesting things that arrived from the correspondence papers is the level of travel of members between the three parties. While only a small number of people had dual membership, the Parties often sent representatives to foster stronger connections between them. Leading figures of the CPGB often travelled to Australia (usually on tours of South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent), while the CPSA and the CPA sent rank-and-file members, as well as leadership figures, to Britain. Once the CPSA is threatened under the Apartheid regime in the late 1940s and banned in the 1950s, there is an exodus of leading CPSA personnel to London.

At the National Archives, various files of the security services have been opened that disclose the monitoring of the CPGB and other Communist Parties within the Commonwealth, with a particular focus on individuals suspected of being communist agents travelling to the colonies. These files are exceptions to the 30 year rule and are being opened on an ad hoc basis. Since my visit in February, more relevant files have been opened and I plan to return to the UK sometime in 2014.

Due to the federal nature of the Communist Party of Australia, there are several different archives to visit. I am travelling to the Mitchell Library next week to start work on the CPA’s National papers and the papers of the NSW branch. To view the CPA’s records, permission had to be granted by the SEARCH Foundation, the successor organisation of the CPA when it wound up in 1991. In November, I will be travelling to the University of Melbourne to look at the papers of the CPA’s Victorian Branch, as well as the papers of CPGB/CPA member Mary Docherty. I hope to also go to Brisbane sometime to look at the Queensland branch’s papers located at the University of Queensland.

The National Library of Australia has the personal papers of several CPA members from inter-war period that I hope to examine too. One of those is Esmonde Higgins, one of the few people to have dual membership to the CPGB and the CPA. Other personal papers of those involved in the CPA can be found at the Noel Butlin Archives at ANU, which I also hope to visit next year. The National Archives of Australia also hold numerous records on the Communist Party of Australia and thankfully a lot of those are digitised.

I am looking to travel to South Africa in the first half of next year to visit the various archives of the CPSA. The main archival sources are at the University of Cape Town, but there are several others, such as those at the University of the Western Cape and the University of Witwaterstand. I have been in touch with scholars who have conducted research on the CPSA and some scholars located in South Africa have offered to help me find the necessary resources.

CPA pamphlet dixon


There are two main problems for this project. One is that the records of the Comintern are difficult to access. They are held in a Russian archive and to access the necessary documents, it will take an extended period of time and will be a significant cost. There is an online archive of Comintern records, but no library in Australia has access to it (and it is prohibitively expensive). I am hoping to overcome this problem by using the Comintern documents found in the various CPGB, CPSA and CPA archives, but the situation is also helped that there was an edited collection which compiled a significant amount of the correspondence between the CPA and Moscow that was published in 2008,[11] and a similar two-volume collection published in 2003 relating to the CPSA and Moscow.[12] If I have time and money after my trips to the UK and South Africa, I will have to see whether it is possible to visit the Russian archives.

The second problem relates also relates to the difficulty of sources. A number of Communist International publications are hard to locate, such as The International and The Negro Worker, so I need to be diligent on my next research trip to the UK. The British Library holds some of these documents, but some are also held at the Marx Memorial Library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford.


One of the ways around accessing the Comintern records in Moscow is to shift my project’s timeframe. As my research progresses, I am becoming more interested in the period after 1943, when the Comintern is dissolved as this throws up the question of Communist parties being ‘loyal’ to Moscow and whether it was necessary to follow the line of the Soviet Union. The immediate period after the Second World War is perhaps the most interesting period of all as the decolonisation process really gets underway and the success of the Communist Party in China means that Beijing increasingly becomes a focal point for communists and anti-colonialists in the Australasia region. This may be the way forward for my research, although more will become clear after my research trips to Sydney, Melbourne and South Africa.

[1] John Callaghan, ‘The Communist and the Colonies: Anti-Imperialism Between the Wars’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan, Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party (London: Pluto Press, 1995) pp. 8-9.

[2] Allison Drew, Discordant Comrades: Identities and Loyalties on the South African Left (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000) p. 94.

[3] Douglas Jordan, Conflict in the Unions: The Communist Party of Australia, Politics and the Trade Union Movement, 1945-60 (Sydney: Resistance Books, 2013) p. 185.

[4] Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegallity (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998) p. 265.

[5] Drew, Discordant Comrades, p. 182.

[6] Tom O’Lincoln, into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism (Sydney: Stained wattle Press, 1985) p. 49.

[7] See: Benjamin Fitz-Gibbon, Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 1-3.

[8] Mark Israel, South African Political Exile in the United Kingdom (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1999) pp. 25-30.

[9] See: Vladimir Shubin, ANC: A View From Moscow (University of the Western Cape: Mayibuye Books, 1999).

[10] Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne: Black Inc.: 2010) pp. 172-185.

[11] David W. Lovell & Kevin Windle (eds), Our Unswerving Loyalty: A Documentary Survey of Relations Between the Communist Party of Australia and Moscow, 1920-1940 (Canberra: ANU Press, 2008)

[12] Apollon B. Davidson, et. al. (eds), South Africa and the Communist International, vol. 1: Socialist Pilgrims to Bolshevik Footsoldiers, 1919-1930 (London: Frank Cass, 2003); Apollon B. Davidson, et. al. (eds), South Africa and the Communist International, vol. 2: Bolshevik Footsoldiers to Victims of Bolshevisation, 1931-1939 (London: Frank Cass,2003).

Irish Left Archive relaunched

CPGB NI pamphlet

This is a brief post to promote the relaunched and rebooted Irish Left Archive put together by the people at The Cedar Lounge Revolution blog. An explanation of the reboot can be found here, but essentially the CLR people are launching the Irish Left Archive as a stand-alone website to be added to weekly. At the moment, there are over 300 documents (downloadable in pdf format) on the left in Ireland/Northern Ireland and by the British left on Ireland/Northern Ireland, alongside commentaries of each document, and this will be growing!

This is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the history of the left and the Irish/Northern Irish politics and much of this history has yet to be written. The people at CLR wrote this about this point:

Collectively all these sites are building into something that has never been possible before, easy, free and open access to our history with little or no mediation by others allowing us all to view, read and make up our own minds about these materials. Recently I noted how many yard ago in conversation with a then WP (later DL) TD I mentioned that it would be good to get a history of the Irish left written. The response wasn’t exactly positive, but that’s not the point. That project, in book format, remains to be done, but in a way this is better, more wide ranging and more collective and individual way of achieving that end.

As the CLR blog notes, the history of the Irish left remains unwritten and as I wrote in a previous post, it is a similar story for the history of the British left’s relationship with Ireland/Northern Ireland. So labour/political historians, I implore you to use this valuable database!

Doris Lessing’s letter to The Reasoner (November 1956)

The author Doris Lessing died yesterday at the age of 94. Raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Lessing was a member of the short-lived Southern Rhodesian Communist Party, a proxy member of the Communist Party of South Africa and then a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She joined the rebellion in the Party in 1956 after Krushchev’s revelations of the crimes of the Stalin era and the inability of the CPGB leadership to acknowledge the uncritical support that they gave the Soviet Union during these years. I thought people might be interested in a letter that she wrote for the third issue of the mimeographed journal The Reasoner, published by E.P. Thompson and John Saville as an attempt to foster discussion within the CPGB. Thompson and Saville resigned from the Party in November 1956 after being threatened with expulsion and developed The New Reasoner in 1957. The letter, dated 19 October, 1956, is as follows:

Lessing in 1961, with John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave and Shelagh Delaney.

Lessing in 1961, with John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave, John Berger and Shelagh Delaney.

The Cult of the Individual

The reaction to the 20th Congress has been expressed in party circles throughout the world in the phrase ‘the cult of the individual’. That these words should have been chosen as the banner under which we should fight what is wrong with the party seems to me as a sign of the corruption in our thinking.

For they suggest that what caused the breakdown of inner-party democracy was an excess of individualism. But the opposite is the truth. What was bad is not that one man was a tyrant, but that hundreds and thousands of party members, inside and outside the Soviet Union, let go their individual consciences and allowed him to become a tyrant.

Now we are discussing what sort of rules we should have in the party to prevent the emergence of bureaucracy and dictatorship. A lot of worried and uneasy people are pinning their faith in some kind of constitution which will ensure against tyranny. But rules and constitutions are what people make them. The publication of the Constitution of the Soviet Union, an admirable document, coincided with the worst period of the terror. The party rules in the various communist parties are (I believe) more or less the same; but the development of the different communist parties has been very dissimilar.

I think that this talk about changing the rules is a symptom of the desire in all of us to let go individual responsibility on to something outside ourselves, something on to which we can put the blame if things go wrong. It is pleasant to have implicit trust in a beloved leader. it is pleasant and comfortable to believe that the communist party must be right simply because ‘it is the vanguard of the working class’. It is pleasant to pass resolutions at a conference and think that now everything will be all right.

But there is no simple decision we can make, once and for all, that will ensure that we are doing right. There is no set of rules that can set us free from the necessity of making fresh decisions, every day, of just how much of our individual responsibility we are prepared to delegate to a central body – whether it is the communist party, or the government of the country we live in, be it a communist or a capitalist government.

It seems to me that what the last thirty years have shown us is that unless a communist party is a body of individuals each jealously guarding his or her independence of judgement, it must degenrate into a body of yes-men.

The safeguard against tyranny, now, as it always has been, is to sharpen individuality, to strengthen individual responsibility, and not to delegate it.


Lessing resigned from the CPGB shortly after this letter was published, but was still involved in progressive politics, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, in the 1960s.

EDITED TO ADD: The New Statesman has republished a short article by Lessing on being a communist in South Africa and Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s here.

Communist Party of Australia pamphlets digitised by State Library of Victoria

This is just a quick post to let people know of an amazing online collection of Communist Party of Australia pamphlets digitised (and available for public access) by the State Library of Victoria. It is difficult to link to the exact spot in the catalogue, but if you click on this link, it should take you to the catalogue using the keyword ‘communist party of australia’ with the option of showing only online resources. If you click that, this will allow you to peruse (and print/download) the 101 CPA pamphlets that the SLV have digitised. This is a fantastic resource for those interested in Australian labour history. The pamphlets range from pre-CPA Australian Socialist Party’s 1919 manifesto Australia and the World Revolution to the CPA’s A Programme for the People from the Party of Peace from the late 1940s.

CPA pamphlet

I won’t link to all 101 pamphlets, but thought I’d mention some of the gems in the collection:

Australia’s Part in the World Revolution (click here): An outline of the CPA’s adherence to the politics of the ‘Third Period’ and evidence to prove to Moscow that the Party was following the Comintern line, published in 1930.

Unite for Peace, Freedom, Democracy (click here): The draft programme of the CPA from its 1938 Congress at the height of the pre-1939 Popular Front era.

Communism: An Outline for Everyone (click here): A pamphlet based on something written by the CPGB, rewritten by R.W. Robson, and published in 1943 as pro-Sovietism and the Communist Party reached their popular heights.

Programme of the Australian Communist Party (click here): In 1945, the CPA, like many Communist Parties around the world, believed that Soviet victory had laid groundwork for further socialist revolution and this pamphlet presents the CPA at its most optimistic. Although a Labor Government was in power, the CPA, unlike the CPGB, were more sceptical about what it could achieve and pushed for militant action against the Chifley Government.

The Communist Way Forward (click here): This pamphlet, written by J.D. Blake and published the Party’s Victoria Branch, encapsulates the militant attitude that CPA encompassed in the late 1940s that progressed with the ‘two camps’ thesis promoted by the Cominform in 1947-48.

Happy hunting left-wing trainspotters! Thanks State Library of Victoria!