Month: February 2014

The intersectional politics of the Grunwick strike

Over the last year or so, the concept of intersectionality has been hotly debated within the British left. Phil at A Very Public Sociologist has written some insightful stuff into the left’s grappling with the concept, but I think a lot of the debate has lacked a historical perspective. As I noted in this blog post, what we term as ‘intersectionality’ nowadays was recognised in the 1970s and 1980s as a challenge for the traditional assumptions of the British left and I think this is exemplified by the Grunwick strike of 1976-78, which raised questions concerning the overlapping and competing demands of class, race and gender politics. Below is a section from my PhD (that I’m currently working on turning into a monograph) which discusses how these different elements of the strike were interpreted during the strike and afterwards – but it needs some serious re-working! If I have time, I’d love to turn this into a paper that discusses the historical aspects of the challenge posed by intersectionality to the British left (and if there’s anyone willing to join me in writing such a paper, please get in touch).

grunwick

The strike at Grunwick began with a small number of Asian workers walking out ‘in protest at oppressive working conditions’ on 20 August 1976,[i] becoming one of the longest strikes in British history, before it was eventually defeated in July 1978. Asian workers led the strike, but the union leadership of APEX (the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staffs), the Brent Trades Council and the TUC opted for negotiation through the official industrial relations machinery of ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), whose decisions were ignored by the owner of the Grunwick plant, George Ward. This led to a long-running stalemate between the strikers and their supporters, the official bodies of the labour movement, the institutions of the state and those who supported George Ward, with several violent confrontations between the striking workers and the state. This stalemate led the different interested parties in the dispute to claim various issues raised during the strike, contesting what the strike was actually about and how it fit into wider narratives. The historical importance of the Grunwick strike can be found in many competing histories – in black history, in the history of the labour movement’s decline, in the history of anti-racism and anti-fascism, in the history of women’s liberation; and while these competing histories are not mutually exclusive, they take very different aspects of the strike to forge their narrative.

The strike drew together many elements of society, with Graham Taylor, a member of the Executive Committee of the Brent Trades Council, writing:

The Grunwick strike is focus for many different issues and struggles. For trade unionists it is a struggle for trade-union recognition; some fix on police brutality; feminists point to the oppression of female workers; while democrats denounce gross violations of the human rights to work, to speak freely and to associate. To many, Grunwick is part of the struggle against racialism and imperialism… Others regard the racial aspect as minimal and rally behind a simple class struggle by the under-paid. It is the importance of the Grunwick Strike that it embraces all these issues.[ii]

Taylor, along with Brent Trades Council Secretary Jack Dromey, wrote in their account of the Grunwick strike that the significance of Grunwick was that for the first time, the labour movement could mobilise significant support for black workers, while before Grunwick, ‘It would not have been capable of summoning up such solidarity for a tiny strike’.[iii] This can be seen as partly the result of the policy change towards positive action on issues of racism by the trade unions that had occurred in the mid-1970s.

The (primarily white) left saw the main issue of the dispute as George Ward’s refusal to recognise the demands of the strike made through APEX as the strikers had begun the strike without being members of the union. As the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) declared in a pamphlet on the strike, the ‘issue at stake was simple: trade union recognition’.[iv] Linked to this idea of union recognition was the fear that defeat at Grunwick would be followed a full-scale assault by the ruling class upon all trade unions and the fundamental rights of workers that unions were supposed to uphold. The International Marxist Group (IMG) depicted the strike as part of a longer union history, warning readers of their paper of what was thought to be at risk:

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

The Grunwick Strike Committee, organised by APEX, saw the strike as the first line of defence against an assault by the ruling class and the State. However the historical analogy put forward by the Strike Committee was an appeal to the white working class, stating in September 1977, ‘This strike is a Dunkirk for our great movement’.[vi] This analogy to Britain’s ‘finest hour’ may have made some connection with the white members of the trade unions, but this patriotic slant on the strike is an example of how the union officials disregarded the cultural sensitivities of the Asian strikers in favour of making appeals to the interests of the wider working class. The petition to white workers to become involved in actions of solidarity with black workers to prevent any further attack upon the trade unions and the struggles of black workers as the first line of defence against a larger capitalist offensive was widespread in leftist literature on anti-racism and black militancy. The sequence of the ruling class using racism to divide black and white workers in a time of crisis in order to prepare for an attack upon the trade unions was tied to the leftist historical analysis of inter-war fascism. The same anxieties that the left had about a defeat at Grunwick was applied to the campaign against the fascism of the National Front in the 1970s, especially as the economic crisis worsened. As the Trade Union Committee Against Racialism declared in the early 1970s: ‘But racialism is only the most obvious of [the National Front’s] anti-working class policies. For their aim is the aim of all fascists; to smash the trade union movement and make it servile to the state in the interests of state monopoly capital’.[vii]

However some black workers felt that to mobilise on the issue of union recognition ‘does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers’.[viii] What the demand for trade union representation by the white labour movement failed to recognise was that the presence of a trade union did not actually equate to countering racism within the workplace at Grunwick. The black workers at Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters had been members of a union at these factories and these trade unions had been ineffectual in combating the racism experienced within these workplaces.

A. Sivanandan wrote, the strike was ‘no longer about racism’, but was now about the ‘legality… of the weapons that unions may use’.[ix] The official union movement was not proving its commitment to black workers, but instead were ‘determining the direction that the strike should take and the type of actions open to the strikers’.[x] In February 1977, APEX’s Grunwick Strike Committee produced a bulletin listing the demands of the strike, which stated ‘What are we fighting for’: the right to belong to a union, for APEX to be recognised at Grunwick, the re-instatement of those strikers that had been fired after belatedly joining APEX, ‘a decent living wage, proper working conditions and an end to the abusive and tyrannical regime of our management’.[xi] However, there was no mention of combating racism anywhere within these demands.

With Grunwick’s owner George Ward dismissing the recommendations made by ACAS on recognition of trade union membership, the APEX leadership called off the strike, which ended in unclear circumstances on 14 July, 1978.[xii] Tom Durkin, a long-time CPGB member and Chair of Brent Trades Council, saw the defeat as the result of the domination of the right wing of the trade union movement, stating:

It was the Right within APEX, the General Council and the Government which took the strikers into a legal morass, worked might and main to prevent the full power of our movement being used to paralyse Grunwick and which then deserted and ditched the brave men and women of Grunwick.[xiii]

Others, such as the SWP, saw the defeat as the end result of the ‘increased involvement of trade union organisation in the machinery of government’ and the ‘involvement of senior shop stewards in the management policies of many firms’.[xiv] The apparent betrayal of the striking workers by the TUC and upper echelons of the trade union movement was portrayed by the SWP as a vindication of their rank-and-file strategy. For the SWP, the strikers who had maintained the mass pickets at Grunwick throughout 1977 had been ‘entirely deserted by the official leaders of the trade union and labour movement’, but winning the dispute meant ‘breaking with the official side of the… movement and making direct appeals to rank and file workers’.[xv] The SWP declared in the final stages of the strike, ‘The shift to rank and file tactics is the only way of avoiding humiliation and defeat’.[xvi]

This sense of betrayal by the white trade union leadership was also seen in the comments made by Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the Grunwick strike, when she declared in late 1977, ‘The union views itself like management… We are the real fighters… But the union just looks on us as if we are employed by them’.[xvii] For black activists, it was the use of ‘official channels’ that had ‘steered the black workers away from community based support’ and towards the unions, who in the end ‘finally betrayed them’.[xviii] The impact of the defeat upon the black workers, and the wider black communities, was that the labour movement had failed to respond adequately to the demands of the struggle against racism in the workplace. The left and the labour movement had traditionally portrayed themselves as accessible vehicles for progressive politics, but the aims of these organisations could not be interchangeable with those of Britain’s black population. The left celebrated its anti-colonial (and anti-fascist) legacies and saw their anti-racist work in the post-war period as a continuation of these former struggles. However a number of black activists saw the left and the wider labour movement as complicit in recreating the labour aristocracy that saw some socialists and trade unionists support the British Empire in the domestic environment.

In 1973, a study of trade unions and racism in Race Today stated:

Yet despite the obvious deficiencies of union organisation in the area, it is interesting to note that not one leading black militant involved in any of the above disputes is in favour of forming separate structures outside the trade union movement. Despite the apparent failure of the official organisation to support black workers in struggle, leading figures still want to fight on inside the present union set-up.[xix]

However by the late 1970s and early 1980s, black activists such as Sivanandan and Darcus Howe argued that the practical benefits of the trade unions in black industrial struggles were lost on many black workers. The Race Today Collective wrote in their history of Asian workers in Britain in 1983 that a common feature of strikes involving black workers was left-wing politicians, who ‘don’t believe in the independent movement of the black section of the working class’.[xx] The Collective emphasised that, ‘Not a single industrial strike of Asians or black workers has been won through this network of assistance’.[xxi]

It is a widely held viewpoint that the defeat at Grunwick was a watershed moment; one that saw the end of more than a decade of black political action and a precursor of the neo-liberal agenda to destroy the organised labour movement. The widening schism between the organs of the labour movement and the black workers is seen to have left the black communities without a readily accessible vehicle for political recognition. The victory of the neo-liberal elements of the ruling class at Grunwick and the alleged ‘betrayal’ by the union leadership of its rank-and-file is seen by some as the starting point of a longer history of the end of traditional militant labourism. For many, it foreshadowed an end to class politics that was eventually realised with Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of the Miners’ Strike in 1985. In the 1980s, there were arguments that the machinery of the trade unions, through ‘proper procedures’ and their emphasis on ‘British ways’, had hastened the decline of black political action that was receptive to wider working class politics. As Paul Gordon wrote:

More important, perhaps, than the defeat itself was the fact that Grunwick marked the end of an era of vibrant and creative black struggles which had threatened to bring a political dimension to industrial struggle. It was an end brought about by the invasion of official trade unionism, which had moved from a position of opposition or apathy towards black workers to a strategy of control through co-option.[xxii]

A number of activists and scholars have drawn on the continuity between the black struggles of the 1970s and the defensive struggle of the labour movement’s existence during the Miners’ Strike, viewing the state as increasingly geared towards an explicit ‘law and order’ mode, with Trevor Carter writing, ‘You could say that the black community had a head-start of three years over the rest of the left in the battle against Thatcherism’.[xxiii] Although the left (and the trade union movement) had been significantly involved the fight against the National Front with the Anti-Nazi League and had given mass support to the strike at Grunwick, it was almost always done, Paul Gordon argued, ‘on their terms’[xxiv] and the aims of the left and of the black communities did not coincide, with ‘little involvement by the labour and trade union movement in the main concerns of black people’.[xxv] The defeat at Grunwick to the challenge to the unions by Thatcherism can be seen as part of a wider narrative of the rise of identity politics and a realisation of the limitations of organised unionism, which have thus shaped the function of British politics in the post-Thatcherite (and New Labour) period. As Carter wrote, ‘it took Thatcher’s defeat of Labour to drive the left into its first serious examination of the identity and whereabouts of the working class and to accept that it was not only white and male’.[xxvi]

I know I’ve completely overlooked the gender aspect of the Grunwick strike despite mentioning it in the first paragraph. It’s something that I recognise will need to be emphasised much more if I am to re-write this into a proper paper. In the meantime, I will point to the work (here and here) of Sundari Anitha, Ruth Pearson and Linda McDowell as part of the Striking Women project


[i] Andy Forbes, ‘In the Wake of Grunwick’, Marxism Today, December 1978, p. 386

[ii] Graham Taylor, ‘Grunwick’, Broad Left, 12, n.d., p. 8; Italics are in the original text

[iii] Jack Dromey & Graham Taylor, Grunwick: The Workers’ Story, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1978, p. 190

[iv] SWP, Grunwick, SWP pamphlet, London, 1978, p. 4

[v] Socialist Challenge, 3 November, 1977

[vi] Grunwick Strike Committee, Bulletin 53, 5 September, 1977, G1402/7, MSS.464 Box 1, Grunwick Dispute Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

[vii] Trade Union Committee Against Racialism, ‘National Front – Election Campaign Notes’, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/05, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, People’s History Museum, Manchester

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

[ix] ‘Grunwick (2)’, Race & Class, 19/3, 1978, p. 292

[x] ‘Race, Class and the State (2)’, Race & Class, 19/1, 1977, p. 70

[xi] Grunwick Strike Committee (APEX), Strike Committee Bulletin, 29, 21 February, 1977, G1548/9, MSS.464 Box 1, Grunwick Dispute Archive, MRC

[xii] Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Gower, Aldershot, 1987, p. 307

[xiii] Tom Durkin, Grunwick: Bravery & Betrayal, Brent Trades Council pamphlet, London, 2006, p. 23

[xiv] SWP, Grunwick, p. 16

[xv] SWP, Grunwick, p. 15

[xvi] SWP, Grunwick, p. 15

[xvii] Cited in, ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 294

[xviii] ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 292; A. Sivanandan, ‘RAT and the Degradation of Black Struggle’, Race & Class, 26/4, 1985, p. 7

[xix] ‘The East Midlands: A Cameo in Conspiracy’, Race Today, August 1973, p. 239

[xx] Race Today Collective, The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain, Race Today Publications, London, 1983, p. 15

[xxi] RTC, The Struggles of Asian Workers in Britain, p. 15

[xxii] Paul Gordon, ‘“If They Come in the Morning…”: The Police, the Miners and Black People’, in Bob Fine & Robert Millar (eds), Policing the Miners’ Strike, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1985, p. 172; p. 173

[xxiii] Trevor Carter, Shattering Illusions: West Indians in British Politics, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1986, p. 115

[xxiv] P. Gordon, ‘If They Come in the Morning…’, p. 172; Italics are in the original text.

[xxv] T. Carter, Shattering Illusions, p. 116

[xxvi] T. Carter, Shattering Illusions, p. 115

Advertisements

Feb 25, 1956: Khrushchev gives “Secret Speech” to 20th Congress of the CPSU

In his autobiography Interesting Times, Eric Hobsbawm wrote:

There are two ‘ten days that shook the world’ in the history of the revolutionary movement of the last century: the days of the October Revolution,… and the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (14-25 February 1956). Both divide it suddenly and irrevocably into a ‘before’ and ‘after’… To put it in the simplest terms, the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it.

khrushchev

On the final day of the CPSU’s 20th Congress, Nikita Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ which outlined the crimes of the Stalin era and the ‘cult of personality’ that allowed these crimes to occur. You can read the text of the speech here. Although it was viewed by many anti-revisionists retrospectively as an attack upon Stalin, Khrushchev was actually quite tempered in his criticisms of Stalin and his legacy. This passage near the end of the speech is an example of Khrushchev mealy-mouthedness:

We consider that Stalin was extolled to excess. However, in the past Stalin undoubtedly performed great services to the Party, to the working class and to the international workers’ movement.

This question is complicated by the fact that all this which we have just discussed was done during Stalin’s life under his leadership and with his concurrence; here Stalin was convinced that this was necessary for the defense of the interests of the working classes against the plotting of enemies and against the attack of the imperialist camp.

He saw this from the position of the interest of the working class, of the interest of the laboring people, of the interest of the victory of socialism and communism. We cannot say that these were the deeds of a giddy despot. He considered that this should be done in the interest of the Party, of the working masses, in the name of the defense of the revolution’s gains. In this lies the whole tragedy!

As word of the speech spread around the world, most Communist Parties became divided over the issue. I have written in an earlier post about how the CPGB dealt with the revelations of the ‘secret speech’, but I thought people might be interested in what R. Palme Dutt wrote about the character of the Stalin regime in the midst of the CPGB’s debates over the topic. In June 1956, Dutt wrote:

dutt

Was Stalin a ‘dictator’, a ‘tyrant’ or… a ‘scoundrel’?… There was here no parallel with the traditional forms of one-man rule, Bonapartism or the Fuehrerprinzip or fascist dictatorship. There was here no question of a proclamation of a constitution placing all power in the hands of one man, of an Emperor or a Leader, as the sole repository of power, from whom all authority is declared to spring (the authoritarian principle). On the contrary. The unique and peculiar character of the situation which arose during this period. was that nothing changed in the basis of class power… The party continued to lead the people. Nor was the main basic policy incorrect… The evils that arose affected primarily the functioning of the apparatus rather than the essence of the class power of the working people… Throughout this period, the masses of the people were continuing to enjoy and exercise self-rule in running their affairs to a degree unknown in any capitalist democracy, and continuing to justify Lenin’s description of Soviet democracy as the highest form of democracy yet known.

What, then, went wrong? What happened was that in a period of heavy strain after the rise of fascism, of continual war of threat-of-war conditions, the practice of leadership began to depart from the correct constitutional forms. During this period after fascism… Stalin, on the basis of the unique and well-earned theoretical and practical authority and mass influence he had won through his previous record of wise and successful Marxist leadership in the battle against disruption and for the victorious construction of socialism, began to operate new methods of working which departed from the methods of Lenin and the previous practice of the Communist Party… With close lines of direct contact with the masses…, and with the widest party and non-party masses looking to him as the wisest and ablest revolutionary leader in whom they felt full confidence, Stalin entered on the dangerous path of beginning increasingly to take major decisions in his personal capacity, without waiting for the endorsement of committee consultations. 

Hobsbawm may be right that Khrushchev’s ‘deStalinisation’ campaign irrevocably split the international communist movement, but it might be argued that other developments, such as the Sino-Soviet split and the rise of the new left (which further divided the movement), would have taken place sooner or later and were only hastened by the events of 1956.

So there’s $64,000 question: what would have happened to the international communist movement if Khrushcehv had not made his ‘secret speech’?

Envisioning the postcolonial world: The Communist Party of Great Britain and post-imperial relationships

One of the overarching aspects of my research is the anti-colonial (and anti-imperialist) activism of the Communist Party of Great Britain from the 1920s to the 1970s. Part of my current research project looks at how the CPGB worked within the British Empire/Commonwealth and how these imperial structures impacted upon how the Communist Party conducted its own affairs. This is something that I touched upon in my PhD research and will be presenting a paper at the British Scholar conference this June in Newcastle (UK) on the subject. This forthcoming conference paper will be on the CPGB’s Special 25th Congress in April 1957, which is most well-known for the fallout after the crises of 1956, but less well-known for the debate over the Party’s anti-colonial programme between Party heavyweights Rajani Palme Dutt and Emile Burns. This post will give a little bit of background to this debate and look at how the CPGB envisioned postcolonial relationships with Britian’s former colonies from the 1930s to the 1950s.

During the 1920s, the CPGB developed the thesis that colonial independence was necessary for the struggle for socialism and that the victory of socialism in Britain was inherently tied to the victory of national independence in the colonies. As this 1924 resolution on colonial independence stated:

In our struggle with British Imperialism therefore, apart from the immediate tasks of organising the workers for revolutionary struggle in Britain, it is of the utmost importance that our struggle should be linked up with that of the workers in these Colonies and Crown Dominions. The extent to which those nations held in subjection by Great Britain struggle for autonomy and separation, to that extent is the hegemony of Imperialism rendered more precarious. We have a duty to assist directly and indirectly in the struggles of the workers in the Colonies and Crown Dominions. The continued enslavement of the Colonial people makes our own freedom in this country absolutely impossible, hence it is necessary in the interests of our own struggle here that assistance should be rendered to the workers in the Colonies. Every act, of repression should be exposed, continuous agitation conducted to secure for the workers of these Colonies the same rights as have been won for the workers here and a propaganda must be carried on with a view to educating the masses in this country to oppose relentlessly the military oppression of these people.

But by the 1930s, the Communist Party seemed to have become concerned with the practicalities of these colonies breaking away from the British Empire/Commonwealth and what impact this would have on Britain. In several publications aimed at convincing British workers to support the CPGB, the Party attempted to convince the British worker that the national independence of the colonies would not economically upset the British way of life and that it would actually benefit Britain materially. The assumption was that Britain, if free of its colonies, would still require raw materials and goods from its former colonies and that these former colonial territories would want to be involved in trade with Britain and become consumers of British-made goods. A 1933 pamphlet by Ralph Fox stated:

Not only would the granting of freedom to the Colonies mean that every factory in England would be kept busy supplying them with textiles and articles of consumption, but it would also mean that the industrialisation of these countries would for many generations keep British heavy industry working to capacity. [Ralph Fox, The Colonial Policy of British Imperialism (London: Martin Lawrence Ltd, 1933) p. 118]

The 1935 CPGB manifestoFor Soviet Britain, said in the section under industry:

In addition, an immense export market will develop when colonial countries like India, liberated from the yoke of British Imperialism, are freed from the burden of interest on imperialist loans and the upkeep of British forces. The British engineering industry, under workers’ control, will be able to propose co-operation with the colonial peoples, who will be able at last to build their own economy and develop their own industry and transport. They can get the iron and steel and machinery they require from Britain and other such countries in exchange for the foodstuffs (tea, rice, etc.)and raw materials (cotton, rubber, etc.) which cannot be obtained in such countries as Britain.

In the manifesto’s section on the British Empire, it declared:

After taking power, the British Workers’ Councils will immediately proclaim the right of all countries now forming part of the British Empire to complete self-determination up to and including complete separation. The British Workers’ Councils will hand over, free of charge, all docks, buildings, railways, factories, plantations, canals, irrigation works, etc., etc., that have been constructed from the sweat and blood of the colonial workers and peasants. The immediate guarantee of this will be the withdrawal of all British armed forces and police, and the cancellation of all the claims of British Imperialist finance…

Because of the freeing of all parts of the present Empire from the burden of interest on loans, profits taken away by British concerns, and heavy taxation to maintain the British military and civil authorities, it will be possible for the less industrially developed countries to exchange their products for the machinery and other industrial equipment they require in order to build up their own industries. But only in so far as the British workers repudiate imperialist rule and imperialist ideology now, will the colonial countries be willing to exchange their products for British Soviet goods. Given this outlook on the part of British workers, then, in spite of the deep hostility that Imperialism has generated in the colonies, there will be friendly relations with the British Soviets and fraternal interchange of products, whether in fact these former colonies also set up Soviet Governments at once or not.

IMG_4259

A 1938 pamphlet by J.R. Campbell, assistant editor of the Daily Worker, the Party tried to reassure potential recruits that colonial independence would not mean the end of trade between Britain and its former colonies. The pamphlet said:

Communists are for giving the Colonies the right of self-determination, which includes the right to break away from the British Empire. This would certainly deprive the British ruling class of the right to rob the people of the Colonies.

It would not deprive the British workers’ government of the possibility of obtaining colonial food-stuffs, and raw materials in exchange for British manufactured products…

All the alleged advantages of Empire – the obtaining of tropical foodstuffs for our people and raw materials for our industries – could be got in the ordinary way of exchange between this country and the former colonies. (J.R. Campbell, Questions & Answers on Communism (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1938) pp. 12-14)

This position remained in the post-war era as the decolonisation process got underway and was enshrined in the first version of the Party’s new manifesto, The British Road to Socialism, published in 1951. The new manifesto proposed:

All relations between the peoples of the present Empire which are based on political, economic and military enslavement must be ended, and replaced by relations based on full national independence and equal rights. This requires the withdrawal of all armed forces from the colonial and dependent territories and handing over of sovereignty to Governments freely chosen by the peoples.

Only by this means can Britain be assured of the normal supplies of the vital food and raw materials necessary for her economic life, obtaining them in equal exchange for the products of British industry, needed by those countries for their own economic development.

This would provide the basis for a new, close, fraternal association of the British people and the liberated peoples of the Empire. Only on this basis can true friendship be established between the peoples of the present Empire to promote mutually beneficial economic exchange and co-operation, and to defend in common their freedom against American imperialist aggression.

In 1951, the Party’s outlook was very positive, looking at the implementation of the welfare state in Britain under Labour and the ‘victories’ of communism in Eastern Europe and China, and thus believed that a socialist Britain was not that far off. The Party anticipated that a socialist victory in Britain would be complemented by anti-colonial victories in the Commonwealth, but by the mid-1950s, national liberation movements had been far more successful than the CPGB and this became a problem for how the Party saw postcolonial foreign relations between Britain and its former colonies. In 1954, General Secretary Harry Pollitt spoke of the ‘new, close, fraternal association of the British people and the liberated peoples of the Empire’ as only coming into being when socialism had been victorious in the domestic and the colonial sphere. He wrote:

The fraternal association cannot be built while any vestige of the present oppression and exploitation of the colonial peoples ermines, but only after the joint fight of the British and colonial peoples has resulted in all the peoples of the present Empire achieving their complete independence. 

The fraternal association can only come into being in the future as a result of the fighting alliance of the British and colonial peoples now. (Harry Pollitt, ‘The National Independence of the Colonies’, World News, 10 July, 1954, p. 543)

But others within the Party started to think that now independent former colonies, such as India, Pakistan and Burma, would want to keep close relations with Britain, even though the socialist revolution had not occurred, and that this current arrangement (through the Commonwealth) could be used to build this ‘fraternal association’ in the future. Emile Burns approvingly suggested that:

many formerly subject countries have won independence, but they are remaining in the Commonwealth. Why? For economic and political reasons, even though Britain is imperialist…

When we win a socialist Britain, there will be in existence an association with other countries in the Commonwealth, even though every colonial country has won independence. (Emile Burns, Contribution to ‘From a Discussion’, World News, 18 May, 1957, p. 316)

This was a significant problem for those CPGB members who were from these colonies, now residing in Britain. The Party’s West Indian Committee was the strongest proponent of changing the Party’s stance on postcolonial relations between Britain and its former colonies. The WIC stated that the position outlined in the 1951 version of the The British Road to Socialism:

(a) Does not take into consideration that the freed colonies may wish to associate more closely with other countries for geographical and other reasons, e.g. Malaya.

(b) Smacks of imperialism in a new way… It is necessary to recognise the acute distrust which colonials have of British imperialism and the feeling which exists that no British Government can be trusted to treat colonials or coloured people fairly. (West Indies Committee, ‘Recommendations of West Indies Committee on The British Road to Socialism’, n.d., CP/IND/DUTT/07/05, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester)

The WIC suggested an alternative for the new version of the Party’s programme:

Instead of proposing a close alliance, we should think in terms of fraternal relations, which the former colonies could enter into with any and all countries which respect their equal rights.

This proposal by the WIC was taken up by Rajani Palme Dutt and in the lead-up to the 1957 Congress, the pages of World News and the Daily Worker featured debate over the Party’s relationship with the former colonies and the wording of the Party programme. Dutt promoted changing it, while Burns headed the campaign to keep the wording the same. Dutt argued that maintaining the current position:

inevitably creates the impression that we envisage the continuance of the role of the countries of the Empire as an agrarian hinterland for an industrial Britain – the very system against which the colonial and dependent peoples whose economic development has been retarded by imperialism are in revolt. (R. Palme Dutt, ‘Future Relations of Countries of the Present British Empire’, World News Discussion Supplement, p. 18)

Contributing to the debate, John Williamson, a Scottish-American member of the CPGB, agreed with Dutt, claiming:

there are still some remaining formulations which could given the impression of a paternalistic relationship, with a socialist Britain still being the “Big Brother” that must look out for the welfare of the peoples of the former colonies. (John Williamson, letter to discussion on The British Road to Socialism, World News Discussion Supplement, 26 January, 1957, p. 14)

Speaking at the Congress, Burns replied, ‘This is not big brotherism any more than the Soviet industrialisation of Asia was big brotherism’, but Dutt’s warned:

Our Colonial comrades, including the West Indian and West African branches, in the overwhelming majority support the minority formulation… We should not lightly ignore their opinion.

Since 1951 no Communist Party in the Empire has accepted or taken up our formulation of fraternal association. If the Communist Parties of the Empire were putting forward this proposal, that would be a different matter.

But if only the British Party, at the centre of imperialism, is putting it forward and all our brother Parties are turning away from it, then we should think twice. (Daily Worker, 22 April, 1957)

In the end, a vote to change the wording was passed by 298 votes to 210. The 1958 edition of The British Road to Socialism thus stated:

An essential part of a Socialist Government’s policy would be the ending of all relations with colonial peoples which are based on British economic, political and military domination. This involves in the first place the withdrawal of all armed forces from colonial and dependent territories or occupied spheres of influence and the handing over of sovereignty to governments freely chosen by their peoples. All natural resources and assets owned by the Crown or British capital in the former colonies must be handed over to their peoples.

In the gigantic tasks of reconstruction on which the former colonial peoples will be engaged to end the heritage of colonial economy—to industrialise their countries, modernise agriculture and raise living standards—British industry can play a valuable part through technical and economic aid and the supply of machinery and technicians.

The carrying out of this policy will be the effective recognition of the complete independence and right of self-determination of all countries in the Empire. A Socialist Government in Britain can seek to promote close voluntary fraternal relations for economic, political and cultural cooperation of mutual benefit, on the basis of national independence, equal rights and non-interference in internal affairs, between Britain and the former colonial countries and existing Commonwealth countries willing to develop such relations.

BRS 58

As I will argue in my conference paper, this colonial migrant members rebellion by the of the Party, predominantly in the West Indian Committee, 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. With the support from Dutt, the subsequent 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.

See you in Newcastle in June!

Celebrating Stuart Hall and Marxism Today: A list of Hall’s articles 1979-1998

MarxismToday-1979jan

I am still in the midst of ARC writing, so blogging is a bit light for the moment. But I thought people might be interested in this. From the UNZ archive of Marxism Today (which goes back to 1958, unlike the Amiel & Melburn Trust archive), you are able to browse by author, so here is a list of the 23 articles written (or co-written) by Stuart Hall for MT from 1979 to 1991 (plus the special one-off 1998 issue). They start at number 10 on the list and go through to number 33. Enjoy!

Forthcoming: Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control – Subject to Examination

Palgrave cover

I am pleased to announce that the forthcoming book by Marinella Marmo and myself, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control: Subject to Examination, will be published in July by Palgrave Macmillan and is already available for pre-order! The description of the book on Palgrave’s website is:

Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control provides the most detailed account of the virginity testing controversy in the late 1970s, and demonstrates that this abusive practice, which was endured by South Asian women for more than a decade, was part of a wider culture of mistreatment and discrimination that occurred within the immigration system authorized by the state. Using recently opened government documents, Smith and Marmo offer a unique insight into this matter and uncover the extent to which these women were scrutinized, interrogated and subject to physical examination at the border. Combining cutting edge criminological theory and historical research, this book proposes that the contemporary British immigration control system should be viewed as an attempt to replicate colonial hierarchies upon migrants in the post-imperial era. For this reason, the abuses of human rights at the border became a secondary issue to the need of the post-imperial British nation-state to enforce strict immigration controls.

We are very excited that the book is part of Palgrave’s ‘Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship’ series. Be sure to order it for yourself or your library now!

Stuart Hall, Marxism Today and the ruptures in Thatcherism’s early years

Like many in academia and on the left, I have been saddened by the death of Stuart Hall, one of the pioneers of what we now know as ‘cultural studies’. A good summary of the obituaries can be found here. I am still grappling with the beast which is known as the ARC grant application, but thought I’d post this section of an unpublished paper on how Stuart Hall and Marxism Today tried to understand, as well as challenge, Thatcherism in the period before 1982-83. I have posted another section of the past same unpublished paper (on the 1981 riots) beforehand here. It might leap around a bit, but hopefully it reads ok…

MarxismToday-1979oct

While the term ‘Thatcherism’ has become part of the language describing late British history, the original analysis from which the term emerged has been largely refuted. Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques first viewed ‘Thatcherism’ as a defining change in conservatism in the late 1970s before the Conservatives were elected in May 1979. Hall and Jacques, writing in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s theoretical journal Marxism Today, saw that the agenda put forward by Margaret Thatcher was the representation of a shift to the right that had been gathering momentum since the upturn in industrial militancy and cultural radicalism in the late 1960s. This shift to the right was as much an ideological shift as it was a response to the economic crisis conditions of the mid-to-late 1970s. While Hall’s work with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies has been celebrated as an important contribution to the field of cultural studies, his work with Jacques for Marxism Today on Thatcherism is dismissed by many as reformism and a refutation of class politics or an outdated Marxist approach to a fundamental shift from post-war Keynesianism. However I would argue that, in practical terms, Hall and Jacques’ notion of an ideological alternative to Thatcherism, which had been developed on Marxism Today since 1979, was an important step for the left in Britain in the period between May 1979 and March 1982 (before the outbreak of the Falklands War), when the fixity of Margaret Thatcher’s rule was not assured as it was throughout the rest of the decade. The work of Hall and Jacques was maligned by many, on both the left and the right, but their analysis of Thatcherism was very insightful into the Conservatives were changing the political landscape, but had not yet reached their hegemonic height, which characterises the 1983 to 1987 period.

One of the most significant points that Hall and Jacques made concerning the Conservatives’ emphasis upon ‘law and order’ and the need for a strong state was that Thatcherism was unlike previous Conservative Governments and it required a different approach than, in the most recent case, the tactics that the left had utilised against Edward Heath’s 1970-74 Government.  This phenomenon of ‘Thatcherism’ was developed by Hall and Jacques in the pages of Marxism Today during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Although Hall was not a CPGB member, but a close supporter, he became one of the most influential thinkers for the Communist Party, with significant impact on the Party’s approach to ‘race’ and cultural politics, eventually becoming a member of the journal’s editorial board. In January 1979, Marxism Today published Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, which analysed the politics of Thatcherism, describing it as more than simply ‘the corresponding political bedfellow of a period of capitalist recession’,[1] but the result of a longer ideological shift away from the parameters of the post-war social democratic consensus. Thatcherism encompassed many themes of the right – ‘law and order, the need for social discipline and authority in the face of a conspiracy by the enemies of the state, the onset of social anarchy, the “enemy within”, the dilution of British stock by alien black elements’[2] – but found a greater reception for the repressive measures needed to deal with these concerns in the economic crisis of the late 1970s. This is what Jacques described as ‘the underlying crisis of hegemony’, in which Thatcher asserted a ‘popular and authoritarian rightism’ as the solution to ‘a more divided and polarised society’.[3] Written in the months following Thatcher’s electoral victory, Jacques outlined two main themes within Thatcherite ideology. The first was an emphasis on traditional laissez-faire economics – ‘the virtues of the market, competition, elitism, individual initiative, the iniquities of state intervention and bureaucracy’.[4] The other was using the right’s traditional theme of ‘law and order’ – ‘reacting against trade union militancy, national aspirations, permissiveness [and] women’s liberation’, replacing it with ‘an essentially regressive and conservative solution embracing such themes as authority, law and order, patriotism, national unity, the family and individual freedom’.[5]

Thatcherism was significantly different from previous Conservative Governments, seeing the issue of ‘law and order’ as central to revitalising the British nation, which involved the state confronting supposedly ‘subversive’ elements in British society. This emphasis upon the politics of confrontation, although usually portrayed by historians of Thatcher as a showdown between the ‘victorious’ government and the trade unions, can be seen in Thatcher’s first term, with the first major confrontation between the state and these so-called ‘subversive’ elements being the inner-city riots of 1981. As Trevor Carter, a member of the Communist Party’s National Race Relations Committee and ‘closely aligned’ to the reforming politics of Hall and Jacques,[6] wrote, Thatcher’s victory only compounded the upsurge in racism that had already begun in the mid-1970s, and a result, ‘the black community had a head-start of three years over the rest of the left in the battle against Thatcherism’.[7] Carter wrote in 1986, ‘it took Thatcher’s defeat of Labour to drive the left into its first serious examination of the identity and whereabouts of the working class and to accept that it was not only white and male’.[8] Hall and Jacques’ analysis of Thatcherism in Marxism Today was significant at this juncture, as a major contribution to the left’s self-examination, as well as an important understanding of how Thatcherism evolved into its popular incarnation in the mid-1980s.

The politics of confrontation that resulted in the 1981 riots and other watershed moments for the Conservatives, such as the breaking up of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, did actually not begin with Margaret Thatcher’s attainment of leadership of the Conservative Party. As Paul Gilroy and Joe Sim, formerly students of Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, noted in a 1985 article (published in the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike), there had been a view on the left of Thatcherism that ‘dates the arrival of authoritarianism and its new right forces in the Spring of 1979’.[9] While Thatcher was explicit in her ‘law and order’ agenda and her willingness to enter into confrontations with dissenters, as seen in her anti-union stance, the basis for this shift to the right that was attributed to Thatcherism had actually existed since the late 1960s and Thatcher could not have implemented any actions without sharing a considerable amount of consensus with the British population. The view that Britain was on the verge of collapse had existed since the industrial militancy and cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and had been exacerbated by the economic crisis of the mid-1970s. Thatcherism was a response to this anxiety about the collapse of British society and was now openly willing to challenge the elements that were seen as ‘threats’ to Britain’s economic recovery and the ‘British way of life’.

As Stuart Hall explained in an interview with the Merseyside socialist publication Big Flame, the issues of ‘law and order’ had been monopolised by the right and the left had to ‘grasp the importance of what they once dismissed as non-political issues’.[10] Hall and others, in the seminal 1978 work Policing the Crisis,[11] had demonstrated how the issues of crime and policing were utilised by the Government (and its opponents on the right) to present the appearance of practical measures being taken to combat the crises of the 1970s. As the economic crisis continued, the police were increasingly used to deal with ‘subversive’ elements of British society, dissatisfied with Labour’s ineffective policies. The perceived lack of initiative of the Labour Government on the economic crisis and the issues of law and order allowed the Conservatives to sway traditional Labour voters with the populist notions of a strong state to deal with the trade unions, crime, illegal immigrants and other ‘subversive’ elements. The appeal of Thatcherite populism was part of the reason why around a third of trade unionists voted for the Conservatives in the May 1979 General Election.[12] But these populist notions and the result of a more restrictive police presence were not merely creations of Thatcher herself. Gilroy and Sim acknowledged this, stating, ‘as far as law and order, policing and criminal justice matters are concerned, the Thatcher governments do not represent a decisive break with patterns in preceding years’.[13] The elements for a centralised and militarised police force had been present in the ‘fudged social democracy of the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan years’,[14] but under Thatcher, the repressive institutions of the state were different, as they were explicitly used against certain demonised parts of society and there was consent for this use amongst large sections of the British public.

For many historians nowadays, the relationship between Stuart Hall and the Communist Party of Great Britain may seem peculiar and it may seem odd why a left wing journal that averaged circulation numbers of between only 2,500 and 4,000 before the late 1970s[15] became the forum for some of the most significant writing on Thatcherism in the early years of her Prime Ministership. This analysis of Thatcherism and the emphasis upon ideology was part of a larger dynamic shift on the left that encompassed the Communist Party, of whom Jacques was an Executive Committee member and editor of Marxism Today. Jacques was a leading reformer within the CPGB, who was pushing that the Communist Party should have incorporated a wider political approach than focusing on industrial militancy and traditional class based politics. The push to reform the Party’s political strategy was encompassed in the redrafting of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, in 1977. The work by Hall and Jacques on ideology and the alternative approaches for a wider leftist movement were the basis of their analysis of Thatcherism, which led to a major ideological rethink for the left in the 1980s. The collapse of the CPGB, under the apparent ‘revisionist’ leadership, in 1991 has often been attributed to the reformism and defeatism of Jacques and other reformers in the Party, primarily through their writings in Marxism Today and New Times, and linked by several authors to the centralism of New Labour. The shifts in analysis by Hall and Jacques occurred in the 1980s as Thatcherism seemed pervasive meant that the original analysis in the late 1970s has been disregarded by many on both the right and the left.

By the late 1970s, the CPGB was in a severely weakened position. Despite having considerable influence in the trade union movement at the executive level during the previous decade of heightened industrial militancy, this had failed to produce any real political gains or stem its dramatically decreasing membership numbers. This decline in membership was exacerbated by the schisms that had formed within the Party after the introduction of the Social Contract between the Labour Government and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This schism was defined between the reformers, influenced by Gramscism and Eurocommunism, who believed that the Party’s limited industrial approach had alienated potential allies within the new social movements and on the other side, the traditional industrial militants, who viewed the centrality of class politics and the emphasis upon Labour-Communist unity in the trade unions as essential to the creation of a socialist Britain. The 1977 edition of The British Road to Socialism promoted the strategy of the broad democratic alliance, which signified the official, yet highly disputed, idea that the struggle for socialism needed ‘not only… to be an association of class forces,… but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production’.[16] The CPGB, ‘as the organised Marxist political party’, imbued itself as a vital organisation in mediating between the traditional labour movement and the other social forces to establish this alliance.[17]

The CPGB was plagued by internal divisions and declining membership during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but there were some within the Party that recognised the shift to the right that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative leadership represented. The analysis of this by Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques in Marxism Today had a massive impact on the how the liberal-left viewed Thatcher as the Conservative Prime Minister, coining the phrase ‘Thatcherism’ in early 1979. While their analysis of the political changes under Thatcherism provided the left with an important theoretical framework, the political abilities of the CPGB in the early 1980s to counter the Thatcherite Government and its emphasis upon strong ‘law and order’ was almost non-existent.

Many others on the left, such as Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnett, Simon Bromley and Tom Ling, Alex Callinicos and Peter Kennedy, have proposed that Hall and Jacques emphasis on the ideological hegemony of Thatcherism had promoted a notion of paralysis within the traditional left.[18] Critics on the left have traditionally taken issue with how ‘hegemonic’ Thatcherism actually was and more importantly, what actions could the left take to practically counter the Thatcherite Government.[19] In the mid-1980s, Jessop et al argued in New Left Review that while Thatcherism was ‘dominant politically and ideologically’, it had ‘not won the battle for hegemony’.[20] This was an important point for leftist critics as it allowed room for manoeuvre on the left to find an effective course of action as support for the traditional institutions of the labour movement declined. For Hall (and other reformers in Marxism Today) to suggest that the left needed to undergo serious re-evaluation of its strategies in the face of the decline of militant labourism, the critics saw the emphasis by Hall and Jacques on the ideological domination by Thatcherism ‘inhibit[ed] constructive strategic thinking’.[21] This emphasis upon the ideology of Thatcherism, rather than the class-based contradictions of the Conservative Government, was seen by many on the left as the failure of Hall’s (and Marxism Today’s) analysis, viewed by critics as part of the wider ‘revisionism’ undertaken by the Eurocommunists in the CPGB. In his critique of Hall, Brendan Evans has claimed that Hall’s attempts to ‘reconcile the social authoritarian and economic liberal strands in Thatcherism’, his analysis had ‘neglect[ed] the changing emphases of Thatcher’s policies at different stages’ of her Prime Ministership and ‘over-homogenises Thatcherism’.[22]  Evans’ critique of Hall and could well be applied to many leftist critics of Hall and Jacques (and the politics of Marxism Today). By viewing Marxism Today as the revisionist vehicle for the ideological development of New Labour and responsible only the ‘hokum of New Times’,[23] the innovative original analysis of Thatcherism is depicted only as the beginning of the rejection of class-based politics within the Communist Party. Alongside Eric Hobsbawm’s 1978 article ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’,[24] Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ is dismissed as the conception point of New Labour and the obsession with the ‘modernisation’ of the left, although as Andrew Gamble has noted, Hall ‘delivered a passionate denunciation of New Labour…, refusing to recognise it as in any sense a legitimate exponent of the new politics which he had advocated in the 1980s’.[25]

The election of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Prime Minister in May 1979 is a watershed moment in modern British history, but it must be acknowledged that the conditions for her electoral victory had existed long before 1979, as Thatcher capitalised on rightist ideas that had been expressed in various circles throughout the 1970s – by the Government, the right of the Conservative Party, other right-wing groupings and the mainstream media, especially the tabloids. What Thatcher did was to make the issue of ‘law and order’ to deal with alleged ‘subversives’ an explicit and central part of her political platform. However in the historiography of Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, the analysis of ‘Thatcherism’ by Hall and Jacques is viewed through the lens of the decline of traditional labourism, which is considered redundant to many historians of Thatcher and derided by critics on the left for its contribution to the pessimism of modern socialist thought in Britain and the rise of New Labour. Any historical examination of the early Thatcher period needs to fully take into account the disillusionment of wide sectors of the British working class with the official labour movement institutions, which Hall and Jacques attempted to redress with their emphasis upon the ideological shift to the right that Margaret Thatcher represented.


[1] Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Marxism Today (January 1979) 14

[2] S. Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, 16

[3] Martin Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, Marxism Today (October 1979) 10; Italics are in the original text

[4] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism’, 10

[5] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism’, 10

[6] Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004) 159

[7] Trevor Carter, Shattering Illusions: West Indians in British Politics (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1986) 115

[8] T. Carter, Shattering Illusions, 115

[9] Paul Gilroy & Joe Sim, ‘Law, Order and the State of the Left’, Capital & Class, 25 (Spring 1985) 16

[10] Interview with Stuart Hall, Big Flame (February 1979)

[11] See: S. Hall, et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1978)

[12] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted? – A Response’, Marxism Today (September 1979) 265

[13] P. Gilroy & J. Sim, ‘Law, Order and the State of the Left’, 18

[14] P. Gilroy & J. Sim, ‘Law, Order and the State of the Left’, 18

[15] Herbert Pimlott, ‘Write Out of the Margins: Accessibility, Editorship and House Style in Marxism Today, 1957-91’, Journalism Studies, 7/5 (2006) 785

[16] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London, 1977) 29

[17] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism, 34

[18] See: Bob Jessop, et al., ‘Thatcherism and the Politics of Hegemony: A Reply to Stuart Hall’, New Left Review, 153 (September/October 1985); Bob Jessop, et al., ‘Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations, and Thatcherism’, New Left Review, 147 (September/October 1984); Alex Callinicos, ‘The Politics of Marxism Today’, International Socialism, 2/29 (Summer 1985) 128-168; Peter Kennedy, ‘A Critique of Existing Theories of Thatcherism and a Contribution to a Marxist Theory of Capitalist Decay’, Critique, 26/1 (1998) 95-133

[19] More centrist-conservative historians have not distinguished between Hall’s analysis and others on the Marxist left. Anthony Seldon and  Daniel Collings have written that the left had difficulty in defining Thatcherism and to ‘Marxists’, including Hall, Thatcherism was simply, ‘the most nakedly pro-capitalist Conservative government since the war, deliberately emasculating organised labour and hounding the far left… resulting in a widening gap between rich and poor,… and the haves and the have-nots’. Seldon and Collings also mention a differing Labour left critique, by Kenneth Morgan and Andrew Gamble, but do not elaborate on their reductionist definition of the Marxist position. Eric J. Evans dismisses any Marxist critique as they ‘rarely think other than ideologically anyway’, who Evans has described as being ‘bamboozled’ and ‘antagonized’ by Thatcher, because she was ‘far more effective than the intellectual left at getting her message across’. A. Seldon & D. Collings, Britain Under Thatcher, 88-89; Eric J. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism (London: Routledge, 1997) 2; 120

[20] B. Jessop, et al., ‘Thatcherism and the Politics of Hegemony’, 97

[21] B. Jessop, et al., ‘Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations, and Thatcherism’, 60

[22] B. Evans, Thatcherism and British Politics 1975-1999, 216-217

[23] A. Sivanandan, ‘All that Melts Into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times’, Race & Class, 31/3, (1989) 1

[24] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today (September 1978)

[25] Andrew Gamble, ‘New Labour and Old Debates’, in Gerry Hassan (ed), After Blair: Politics After the New Labour Decade (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2007) 31

Sectarian hilarity for the left-wing trainspotter! The UK Spartacist League’s papers from 1978-2011 now digitised and online

spart nk

Taking a break from writing book chapters and ARC proposals, I have been plunging into bizarre world of the Spartacist League (UK) through the recently digitised Spartacist Britain (1978-84) and Workers’ Hammer (1984-2011), made available online through the Riazanov Library Digitization Project and the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism Online. The Spartacist League were a breakway group from the Workers Socialist League (led by Alan Thornett) who had broken away from Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party in the mid-1970s. The SL joined up with other Spartacist groups in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, forming the International Communist League – a version of the Fourth International that opposed the Mandelite Fourth International which the IMG belonged to. In his 1984 work, John Sullivan described the Spartacist League as ‘very unpopular’ and ‘increasingly unbalanced’ and are probably best known nowadays for their absurd defence of regimes such as North Korea (accompanied by unintelligible placards announcing their position – see here).

Flicking through these SL journals bring the reader the joys of reading some of the most sectarian and rant-filled material ever created by the British left. The first issue of Spartacist Britain, published in April 1978, claimed that the fusing of the London Spartacist Group and the breakaway Trotskyist Faction of the WSL into the Spartacist League was the ‘rebirth of British Trotskyism’, calling the gathering of less than 60 people ‘one of the largest and most important in the 15 year history of the Spartacist tendency’. 001_1978_04_british-spart_Page_01

In October 1978 (p. 3), the paper railed against the IMG for being Eurocommunist, declaring:

The IMG, as it tails the rab-bag around the NLR — which itself flutters about with every wind from Paris, Rome and Madrid — will never advance either the theory of programme of Marxism.

Despite its often ragged and dog-eared appearance, however, the IMG is the British section of the largest world organisation claiming to be Trotskyist. Within its ranks are scores of subjectively revolutionary militants, now deeply cynical, clinging to this burlesque of Marxism only because of the United Secretariat’s size and reputation. The road to the rebirth of the Fourth International necessarily passes through the political destruction of the United Secretariat and the winning of its best militants to the authentic Bolshevism of the international Spartacist tendency.  005_1978_10_british-spart_Page_3In the aftermath of Thatcher’s 1979 electoral victory, the SL accused ‘Labour traitors’ of helping pave Thatcher’s way to power, singling out the SWP and the IMG for calling for a Labour vote, stating that ‘In contrast the Spartacist League emphatically insisted that the workers had no interest in returning the Labour strikebreakers for another five years of anti-working class attacks’. (June 1979, p. 2) The SL acknowledged that during the 1974 elections its previous incarnations had ‘called for critical support to Labour candidates’, but declared:

But to call for votes to Labour at a time when it had thoroughly demonstrated its treachery and was running on its openly anti-working class record and programme would have been to junk Leninist tactics designed to win militant workers away from social democracy, in favour of unvarying and de facto unconditional support for the reformist betrayers.

In opposition to the pro-Callaghan electoral machines, both official and pseudo-revolutionary, we said in our leaflets and interventions through the election campaign: ‘No vote to the Labour traitors, any more than to the bourgeois parties’.

012_1979_06_british-spart_Page_2In the same June 1979 issue (p. 5), the SL wrote its verdict on the counter-demonstration against the National Front in Southall in April 1979 where an anti-fascist protestor, Blair Peach, was killed by the police. The SL complained that the tactics of the Anti-Nazi League and the SWP had ‘been tried and found wanting’:

suicidal attempts to battle the cops to get at the fascists; popular-frontist alliances and calls on the state… to outlaw the fascists; candy floss, toffee apples and the music of Tom Robinson; the wads of paper, cheap tin badges, the throw-away placards churned out in place of the thousands of workers who need to be brought out to confront the fascists in the streets. All these — and nothing substantial or lasting to show for it.

The SL instead called for ‘defence guards’ to combat the NF on the streets:

[T]he way to throttle the Front is through drawing on the mass strength of the working class. Workers defence guards drawn from the car factories, the steel works and the coal mines, experienced in common struggle and backed by thousands of organised workers, are the force that can pulverise the National Front into the ground. Such defence guards will only be established by waging a sharp struggle inside the unions, against the bureaucrats who do nothing but thump the social-democratic pulpit and sermonise on the evils of racialism. They must be ousted from the leadership of the labour movement and a revolutionary party forged to carry forward the struggle for a new social order — workers government and a planned socialist economy. This is the only road for ending for good the anarchy of capitalism which, in its death throes, inevitably spawns and nourishes the fascist scum.

012_1979_06_british-spart_Page_5In May 1981, as Thatcher’s popularity waned in the wake of the Brixton riots and the death of Bobby Sands (and Tony Been challenged Dennis Healy for deputy leader), the SL warned against viewing Labour as an alternative to Thatcher. Once again, the SWP and the IMG were singled out for the capitulations to social democracy:

Cliff & Co. long ago sold their soul to the bourgeoisie, but they have carved out a sort of niche as a small, organisationally independent, virulently anti-Soviet ‘militant’ syndicalist competitor to the Labour ‘lefts’. But the IMG is centrist, and by virtue of that incapable of any consistent perspective and orientation. (p. 2)

032_1981_05_british-spart_Page_02In the same issue (p. 3), the SL proclaimed their support for the Soviet Union against ‘US imperialists’ and ‘clerical-nationalist reaction’ of Solidarity, stating:

Revolutionaries and all class-conscious workers must oppose this imperialist provocation [the emergence of Solidarity] and unconditionally defend the Soviet bloc states against counterrevolutionary attack.

032_1981_05_british-spart_Page_03The support for the Soviet Union remained steadfast as Gorbachev’s reforms were introduced and the the Eastern Bloc started to break-up. In January 1990, the Workers’ Hammer (the now bimonthly paper of the SL) claimed that the position of the ‘British fake left’ on East Germany, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was a ‘spectrum of betrayal’, documenting how each publication of the various leftist groups had ‘sold out’ the DDR, calling Militant ‘present-day Scheidemann and Noskes’, the SWP supporters of ‘some of the darkest forces of imperialist reaction’ and the Communist Party of Britain (publisher of the Morning Star) ‘prostrate before the historic betrayal of Gorbachev’s announcement that re-unification [of Germany] under capitalism is “inevitable”. (p. 3; p. 11)

112_1990_01-02_workers-hammer_Page_03These are just some snippets of the sectarianism and ideological contortionism that the Spartacist League has indulged in since the late 1970s. I’m sure if you read these digitised copies, you will find much more hilarity and bizarreness. If anyone finds any more howlers worth mentioning, please post them in the comments below.

PS – if this is public face of the Spartacist League, imagine what craziness you could find in their internal documents! Researchers interested in the sectarianism of the British far left can find the archival records of the SL at the University of Warwick’s Modern Records Centre.

Save