Month: October 2014

The Communist Party and the debate over gay rights

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One of the areas of the history of the British left that is under-explored is the relationship between the left and gay liberation/rights. Lucy Robinson’s 2007 book is a pioneering work in the field and Graham Willett (who has written extensively about the Australia left and gay rights) has recently contributed a chapter in this collection on the topic. Both Robinson and Willett provide overviews of how a range of left-wing parties engaged with the question of gay rights from the 1960s to the 1990s, including the Communist Party of Great Britain. Both authors describe how the Communist Party first supported in the pages of the Morning Star a National Union of Students motion supporting gay rights and then after pressure from several local branches at the Party’s 1975 National Congress, the CPGB’s Executive Committee finally issued a statement in September 1976.

This intersects with work done on the CPGB and the shifts in the Party during the 1960s and 1970s that led to the rise of Eurocommunism, Gramscism and the 1977 version of The British Road to Socialism (and to some, the inevitable decline of the Party). The support for gay rights as part of this shift in the outlook of the Party is mentioned in the work by Mike Waite, Geoff Andrews and Richard Cross, for example.

Both Robinson and Willett mention an interview in the journal Gay Left from 1977 with CPGB members Beatrix Campbell and Sarah Benton (editor of the fortnightly Party journal Comment). In this interview (pages 9-13), Campbell and Benton mentioned that this statement supporting gay rights created enormous debate within the Party. Looking through issues of Comment, one can see the differing reaction by different Party members who wrote to the journal after the EC statement was published in September 1976. Although just one resource to look at a major policy debate within the Party (there is probably much more available in the Party archives in Manchester), the articles and letters in this journal provide a different perspective on the Party’s changing attitude towards gay liberation.

Prior to the EC statement, Comment (3 April, 1976, p. 108) featured in its regular ‘Viewpoint’ column a piece by John Gowling, a leading member of the Young Communist League, on the Party’s attitude towards gay rights. Gowling started the piece with:

I think many Communist Party members are unsure as to whether we have a policy on gay civil rights or homosexual equality/law reform…I find it very difficult to discover what the attitude of Communist Party members in this country is towards homosexuality. I have yet to come across a discussion of gay civil rights in our press;…

Gowling’s piece described the difficulties faced by gay people in the 1970s and stated:

The fact is we do exist, therefore we have a right to exist and enjoy equal civil liberties… Homosexuality is a fact of every society, whether repressed or accepted.

And he concluded the piece with:

I do not think that they gay struggle should be shelved by Communists because it is embarrassing. There are many civil rights to be won. These can only be won when we all turn around and face them.

In October 1976, the Executive Committee’s statement was published in Comment (16 Oct, p. 328). It began by stating that the CPGB ‘opposes discrimination and victimisation against homosexuals’ and supported several changes in the law, in particular:

The criminal law should not distinguish homosexual activities from heterosexual activities

Just as there has been legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sex or race, so legislation should be passed to outlaw discrimination in the grounds of sexual orientation…

The Party also stressed that ‘much more than legal reforms is necessary to achieve homosexual liberation’ and called for several actions, including an end to the regarding of homosexuality as a mental illness, the end to exclusion of gat parents from having custody of their children, sex education to include discussion of homosexuality, an end to police harassment. The Party announced in the statement:

A fundamental change in attitude will require political struggle and work to change the general climate of opinion which is hostile to, or derisive of, homosexuals…

We must help to combat sexist and anti-gay attitudes wherever they are found, including among the left, in the labour movement and in our own party.

The Communist Party supports the right of people to be actively and openly gay, and gives support and encouragement to gay comrades to work in the gay movement.

In order to assist these changes in law and attitude, the Communist Party will establish a committee to promote discussion and analysis on gay rights, and assist the party in activity on these questions.

Alongside the publication of the Party’s official position on the issue of gay rights, Comment also published the text of a speech to the EC by the Party’s National Organiser, Dave Cook (16 Oct, 1976, pp. 327-328). Cook claimed that ‘hostile attitudes to homosexuals are essentially sexist’ and reinforced that the Party’s 1975 resolution on women ‘committed the party to fight sexist attitudes wherever they appear’. Cook’s speech reflected the Gramscian/Eurocommunist attitudes within the CPGB in the mid-1970s and was similar in phrasing to the 1977 draft of The British Road to Socialism. He stated:

We as Marxists are concerned with all aspects of oppression… [The Party’s] objectives will themselves be divided and held back if the oppression for example of women, of racial minorities and all other oppressed minorities, homosexuals included, is not actively opposed by the working class.

Cook urged that the CPGB ‘declare itself totally opposed to discrimination and oppression against homosexuals’ and with that, they needed ‘to recognise that this means we must help to oppose sexist and anti-gay attitudes wherever they occur, including in our own party’. This was not just to be a top-down decision by the EC and Cook advised that several committees (at national and district level) be established ‘to promote discussion and analysis’.

Staring with this issue, Comment’s letters section featured several letters from Party members debating the EC statement and the issue of gay liberation, with both pro- and anti-gay positions reflected. Several of the letter writers identified as gay and wrote to the journal to welcome the EC’s statement. Bill Thornycroft, a veteran of the Party since the 1940s, wrote:

I welcome the EC statement on homosexual oppression, gay civil rights and gay liberation. For far too long have we as a party remained silent in this issue and ignored the growth of the gay liberation movement…

Prejudice and ignorance is widespread throughout the party as well as elsewhere… To dispel this ignorance every branch should hold discussions either with gay comrades or by inviting along to a branch people involved in the gay movement.

Thornycroft concluded his letter with this appeal:

Finally, I would like to appeal to all gay comrades to come out, It’s like getting into a cold bath, the first step is the worst. All the ensuing hassles are nothing compared to the strength and joy we can get from one another – and we can’t get it if we remain invisible.

Another letter in the same issue, written by Eric W. Edwards, argued that while ‘we must agree that the point of view concerning the repressed minority position of homosexuals was correct’, the Party’s position ‘would have been improved by an analysis of what homosexuality is, as well as its relevance to the class struggle as a whole’. Edwards proceeded to concentrate on defining homosexuality and had little to say on the class struggle, calling homosexuality as an ‘anomaly’ and linking it to ‘transvestism, fetishism, sado-masochism and exhibitionism’. Edwards stated:

[W]e can see that homosexuality of the habitual and exclusive kind is a persistent expression of selfish individualism, the socio-political origins and implications of which we should know only too well.

In other words, it is a form of love or liaison that functions as an antithesis of normal, evolutionarily selected but plastic sexual activity.

Therefore, Edwards proposed, ‘gay liberation is a secondary issue to the main direction of the class struggle’ and concluded, ‘Gay liberation without scientific class analysis will certainly create… a diversion.’

These two letters essentially provided the framework for the debate between the authors of the letters sent to Comment in the last months of 1976. In the following issue (30 Oct, 1976, p. 350), Peter Mason argued against the biological determinism of Edwards, writing:

[I]t is not so much that the Eysenckian biological arguments are unconvincing (though they are). It is rather that Marxism has always stressed the need to make the start of one’s analysis the differentiation of mankind from the animal world by its constitution as a society.

For Mason, it was capitalism that transformed homosexuality into a ‘problem’ and in a capitalist society, communist politics was considered just as ‘deviant’ as homosexuality. But Mason also warned against seeing gay liberation as something wholly determined by the class struggle:

The relation of the struggle for sexual liberation to the class struggle is not an either/or situation. Though linked to the class struggle, the gay movement has its own specificity, and its relation to the class struggle is a complex one. The slow rate of development of sexual liberation in a number of socialist countries indicates that the achievement of socialism does not by itself bring about sexual liberation at the same time.

Similar to the words of Cook and the theory of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ being developed inside the CPGB at the time, Mason ended his letter with:

[T]hose sectors who see that the objective conditions of their struggle are similar to those facing the working class in its struggle are people whom the Communist Party must be prepared to support.

In the 13 November, 1976 issue (pp. 365-366), two gay Party members, Frank Langan and Brian Allbutt, wrote to welcome the EC’s statement and suggested that ‘many left wing gays’ viewed it as ‘the most positive statement on gay liberation made by any major political party in Britain’. They described Edwards’ opinions as ‘closer to Catholic puritanism than even the beginnings of a Marxist analysis’ and took further issue with the assumption ‘that homosexuality is a product of bourgeois society and will be resolved in a socialist one.’ Langan and Allbutt wrote, ‘We disagree entirely with the comrade’s assertion that the struggle for gay liberation is a ‘secondary issue’ to the main direction of the class struggle’ and used the text of The British Road to Socialism to reinforce this, mentioning ‘the common factors’ between social movements. The organised gay movement, they argued, had supported the fight against the Industrial Relations Act, the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, the pro-choice movement and the Chile Solidarity Movement, and concluded with this, ‘And yet the comrade accuses us of selfish individualism.’

John Gowling contributed another letter to the same issue of Comment. Gowling also welcomed the Party’s statement, but bemoaned the fact that the gay liberation movement tended to be centred around London and that the struggle was much more difficult in the North, Scotland and Wales. He explained:

The tragedy of London, as I see it, the large drift of Northern and Scottish political and apolitical gays who have left their hometowns because they cannot cope with the isolation; nothing is solved, the same oppression still exists in sizeable Northern towns. Many of these migrants are Communists. I hope the new CP policy will seta precedent, and as a result the heterosexual majority of comrades in town branches and provincial districts will help us gay comrades to fight our oppression. For I believe the gay comrades have much to offer and none of us can turn from one sort of oppression when oppression concerns us all.

While these previous letters were mostly positive, the next letters printed on the topic (11 Dec, 1976, p. 397) were quite homophobic and covered similar ground to the letter submitted by Edwards. The first letter by O.M. Olynyk complained that ‘[w]e seem to have become bemused of late with the homosexual cult’, adding:

Nothing we can do or say makes homosexuality normal and all I see us doing at the moment is making a laughing-stock of ourselves by letting the whole thing get out of all proportion to its importance.

Olynyk, like Edwards, suggested that working on matters of gay liberation diverted attention away from the class struggle and the issues concerning the rank-and-file membership of the CPGB. Olynyk finished with:

Come down from your ivory towers into the ranks of the party, to the branch meetings and find out what our problems really are, instead of being sidetracked into fighting artificial battles which will do us infinite harm.

Long term CPGB member John Hukin also wrote a letter railing against the new position of the Party towards gay rights, using similar arguments to Edwards and Olynyk. Hukin called the statement by the EC ‘ill conceived and premature’ and reiterated the homophobic concern that the Party was wrong to see that ‘homosexuality is a normality, equal to the functions of heterosexuals.’ Like Edwards and Olynyk, Hukin saw homosexuality as a ‘sexual abnormality’ and while he agreed that it should be legal, he was against the ‘absolute free expression’ of gay rights ‘without due regard for society in general’. Like Edwards, Hukin was concerned with the ‘individualism’ of the gay rights movement, claiming ‘the preoccupation of homosexuals’ was ‘the promotion of their own sexual ideas and activities, rather than concerning themselves in the everyday struggle for socialism’.

Hukin argued against the EC’s proposal that anti-gay sentiment should be fought in all arenas, qualifying his statement with:

I suggest these matters depend very much on whether anti-‘Gay’ attitudes have justification or that discrimination is necessary to safeguard others in society…

He also called into question the ‘general conduct of homosexuals themselves’ and suggested that it was their own conduct that made them subject to oppressive laws and societal attitudes. His letter concluded by seeking to ‘draw attention’ to:

The danger of ideas which are directed at promoting sexual self interest which at the same time begin to challenge the very fabric or organised society namely the family unit, which despite all its problems is till and will be the basis of organised society socialist or otherwise.

From these letters, we can see that a number of the Communist Party clung to its social conservatism developed between the 1930s and 1960s and so aptly described by Raphael Samuel in his ‘Lost World of British Communism’ series. As Sarah Benton told Nigel Young in her interview with Gay Left:

There’s a certain puritanism which is very strong on the British left generally, which associates a strong family and straightforward sex with a man and wife, with communist

morality. Bourgeois morality is seen as living in sin, promiscuity. Sexual athletics and bourgeois morality is not seen as good family structure … it isn’t seen as a good solid working class unit.

As Graham Willett shows in his chapter, the progressives within the Party eventually won, despite the Party collapsing in on itself during the 1980s, and most left-wing groups moved in the same direction towards the support of gay rights. Nowadays it would be rare to find a left-wing party that did not embrace gay rights in some way (at least on paper), but this was not so clear in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As the movie Pride depicts quite well is that the British labour movement was slow to accept gay liberation as part of its agenda, and arguably the 1976 statement by the CPGB helped to progress these attitudes.



The CPGB response to the New Statesman letter and the Historians’ Group: From the newly released MI5 files on Hobsbawm

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The National Archives have just released a series of MI5 files, including a number of files on British Marxist historians Erich Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill. 8 files on Hobsbawm have been released, with two digitised. The first of these digitised files is particularly interesting because it covers the period 0f 1956, when the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain was involved in dissenting actions towards the Party leadership. One of the Historians’ Group’ actions was the writing of a letter that criticised the Party’s support for the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which was intended for publication in the Daily Worker. It was not published the newspaper and thus the letter was sent to the New Statesman and Tribune, who subsequently published on December 1, 1956. I have blogged about the letter here.

In this file, there is the transcript of a letter, intercepted by MI5, sent from Betty Grant to Edwin Payne, both members of the Historians’ Group. Dated December 3, 1956, the letter addressed the New Statesman letter and individual members of the Historians’ Group, such as Eric Hobsbawm and John Saville. Grant’s displeasure with Hobsbawm and Saville can be seen in several statements within the letter. Concerning the New Statesman letter, Grant wrote:

In the view of the letter to the N.S. (and, I gather, also Tribune) Eric will have to make up his mind pretty soon where all this is leading to. He seems not entirely his own master now.

On the topic of Saville and his recent departure from the Party (after the publishing of the third issue of the dissident journal The Reasoner), Grant told Payne that she had appealed for him to consider re-joining the Party and working on Historians’ Group’s publications in the near future. Grant wrote that his response was ‘a sort of apologia for his political actions, which are really rather revealing, but not entirely honest’. Grant then transcribed a section of a Saville’s letter that said:

[Eric] told me in general terms what was being proposed, viz, that the new grouping was to be a Marxist Historians Group not affiliated to the C.P. I don’t think there was any alternative because although all of us outside want very much to continue the personal, political and intellectual contacts we have developed over the past decade, we should not have been prepared to continue within a Party framework. Nor, should I add, will I be prepared to accept a Party fraction inside the new organisation,…

Grant finished the letter by saying that ‘I no longer think the main task of the Hist. Gr. is to “keep sweet” those who have left or are intending to leave’.

Alongside this intercepted letter, MI5 also bugged two phone calls that shed a little bit more light on how the Party leadership reacted to the New Statesman letter. One was a ‘telecheck’ of a discussion between J.R. Campbell, editor of the Daily Worker, and George Matthews, the Party’s Assistant General Secretary, dated November 20, 1956. The file shows that Campbell read the entire letter to Matthews and finished with ‘George supposed CAMPBELL wanted to know what to do, and he would ring him back.’

The second was the transcript of a phone discussion between John Gollan, the new General Secretary of the CPGB, and Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm had written a letter, intended for publication in the Party fortnightly journal, World News, on Lenin and Party factions in the Bolsheviks and how this applied to the forthcoming Special Congress of the CPGB. Gollan said that World News would be printing the letter, but he was disappointed in Hobsbawm’s attitude, alleging that he was misrepresenting Lenin’s argument.

The telephone conversation took place on November 22, 1956, and there seems to be an undercurrent that Gollan knew that the Historians’ Group letter had been sent to the New Statesman. This is alluded to in the opening description of the call:

ERIC said JAMES had suggested he (ERIC) rang JOHNNIE to find out what happened about ‘this letter of mine which has been discussed today.’ JOHNNIE said did he mean the letter to WORLD NEWS, it was that letter and it would be going into WORLD NEWS…

Another part of the conversation that alluded to the New Statesman letter was when Gollan complained:

if you want the thing in WORLD NEWS, we’re now getting to the stage when everybody points pistols to our heads, if it doesn’t go into WORLD NEWS one week it will go into the New Statesman the next week and frankly I don’t like the whole attitude.

The rest of the conversation between Gollan and Hobsbawm makes for fascinating reading as it shows how the Party leadership tried to keep the debate inside the Communist Party and felt that the Party was being very accommodating in the letters that it was publishing in World News. Gollan said ‘I don’t think any comrade can have much criticism about what they’re getting printed now. Its a very fair crack of the whip for different points of view.’ But Hobsbawm reminded Gollan that the past behaviours of the Party press had led people to be suspicious of attempts to stifle debate. Although Hobsbawm said that no one really wanted to take the debate outside the Party press, he qualified this by saying:

there’s a lot of suspicion about the printing which has cropped up in the past… if people knew that responsible statements which are not just silly are likely to get printed they wouldn’t start saying well they’ve had to be printed elsewhere.

Gollan complained about this approach, arguing:

See comrades want to have it both ways, they want to keep the fight in the Party and they want to keep the fight outside the Party. And you can’t have it like that, life’s not like that.

Gollan then added:

I don’t like this type of attitude. I don’t think its particularly Communist and I don’t think its particularly comradely.

The CPGB’s correspondence relating to the New Statesman letter and the dissenting actions of the Historians’ Group’s members are held in the CPGB archive at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. As revealing as this internal correspondence is, the MI5 surveillance files add something else to our knowledge of what was occurring within the Communist Party in 1956. The documents I have discussed here are only the tip of the iceberg!

Socialist Unity publishes excerpt from ‘Against the Grain’

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The folk at Socialist Unity have been very kind and have let us post an excerpt from the introduction to our new edited volume, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, on their website. You can read the excerpt here – but be warned, it is a tad long!

We hope that it sparks the interest of some SU readers, as well as spark a discussion. Let the debates begin, I say!

Trends in myths about immigration


Today The Guardian published a very thorough Q&A about European immigration to the UK and addressed some of the routinely asked questions about immigration, particularly as UKIP and the Tories seem to want to make immigration an issue at the next election. As I was reading the article, I was reminded that many of the persistent questions that people have about immigration have existed for a long time and have been addressed, in one way or another, since the 1960s. One of my ideas for a future research project would be to map which questions have been continually addressed in anti-racist literature since the 1960s and how these ‘myths debunked’ or ‘questions answered’ pieces have changed since then.

As a quick experiment, I found five pieces written in this format since 2001 (including today’s piece). The five pieces were:

Ceri Mollard, Asylum: The Truth Behind the Headlines (Oxfam, 2001)

Richard Smith, ‘Asylum – Myths of Truths’ (BBC, 2003)

Socialist Worker, ‘Migrant Myths’ (Socialist Worker, 2004)

Isabelle Koksal, ‘Mythbuster: Immigration – The Real Story’ (Red Pepper, 2012)

Jonathan Portes, ”Immigration: Could we – should we – stop migrants coming to Britain?’ (The Guardian, 2014)

All address the issue of immigration to the UK, although two of the earliest (from 2001 and 2003 respectively) focus on asylum while the latter focus on EU immigration (as well as asylum in the case of one from 2o12). I looked to see whether similar questions were raised in all five and which questions were specific to each piece – hoping to see some some trends and indicators of the wider debate about immigration occurring at a particular time.

Some of the reoccurring themes that were present were:

The severity of Britain’s immigration control system

Myth:… Britain is a ‘soft touch’ (2001)

MYTH: Britain is a soft touch (2012)

That ‘bogus’ asylum seekers outnumber genuine ones

Myth: Only a tiny proportion of refugees are genuine, and the rest are ineligible for asylum. (2001)

Aren’t most of them “bogus”? (2003)

Migrants receive a greater amount of state benefits

Myth: Asylum seekers get huge State handouts (2001)

Why do they get more benefits than people who’ve always lived here? (2003)

Myth 1 Migrants are ‘benefit tourists’ (2004)

MYTH: They come here for our generous welfare system (2012)

Do we have a problem in the UK with benefit tourism? (2014)

Migrants are abusing the NHS

Myth: The numbers of asylum seekers using State-provided services, such as the National Health
Service,are spiralling out of control and crippling the services. (2001)

Myth 3 Migrants are ripping off the NHS (2004)

MYTH: They are draining public services (2012)

But what about the argument about pressure on the public services? (2014)

Migrants are taking British jobs

Myth: Most asylum seekers are ‘economic migrants’. (2001)

Why are they allowed to take our jobs? (2003)

Myth 2 Migrants will take British jobs (2004)

But how can this be? Isn’t it just the economics of supply and demand – if you increase supply of workers, wages will fall? And if an immigrant takes a job, then a British worker can’t. (2014)

As part of my research into the history of British immigration control, I had a copy of a 1973 pamphlet by the Runnymede Trust that answered questions on immigration and found that similar questions could be found in the 1970s to those in the pieces from post-2001.

Regarding the severity of the immigration control system, the 1973 pamphlet had two questions:

How much illegal entry is there? Are the penalties severe?

Regarding the receipt of state benefits, it had this question:

Do immigrants cost the social services as a whole more?

And this one on the NHS:

Do immigrants cost the health service more?

And finally, on the issue of migrants taking jobs, the pamphlet asked these questions:

Do immigrants take white workers’ jobs? Do immigrant women go out to work? Are immigrants concentrated in a small number of jobs? Has the availability of immigrant labour prevented modernisation in industry?

So it seems evident from the small amount of source material that I have looked at that similar questions about immigration have persisted for a long time, although they are adapted or modified over time. I would like to try this on a much larger scale. Any suggestions of where to find more FAQs would be most welcome.

What might be just as interesting is seeing what kind of questions were asked in the past that are not asked today. For example, the 1973 Runnymede Trust pamphlet included the following questions:

Why have immigrants come here?

What about the Irish?

Why should we oppose racial discrimination if ‘discrimination’ in general is a part of life?

How do we know that racial discrimination is common?

Is it discriminatory to keep racial statistics?

Are ‘coloured unions’ desirable?

At this stage, this research project is only a pipe dream, but as usual, anyone interested should get in touch.


Thatcher, the Brighton bombing and the British left


Like July 1981, October 1984 was a crisis point for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. The miners’ strike was now six months in and Thatcher faced possible strike action by the pit deputies’ union, Nacods, which would have increased the severity of the strike. If Nacods had initiated strike action, many believe that Thatcher would not have been able to endure the effect that it would have on the British economy. In July 1984, Thatcher had addressed a private meeting of the 1922 Committee, a pressure group within the Conservative Party, and has referred to the miners as the ‘enemy within’. From papers released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation this month, we now know that she was going to return to this theme at the Conservatives’ 1984 Party Conference, to be held in Brighton.

However the Brighton Conference became known for a different set of events. On the morning of October 12, 1984, a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in the hotel hosting the conference. Five people, including one MP, were killed and another 31 were injured. It was revealed this week that Thatcher ripped up her original ‘enemy within’ speech and gave a defiant speech to those who remained at the conference.

In the week of the bombing, the Tories lead over Labour was 2 per cent, according to The Guardian/ICM polls, but this rose to 9 per cent the following month. The Tories experienced a fillip in the polls until February 1985 when they returned to a 2 per cent lead. But resentment towards Thatcher was still high and many were unsympathetic about the near miss.

Cabinet's response to the bombing

Cabinet’s response to the bombing: CAB 128/79/10, National Archives, p. 1.

I wondered how the British far left responded to the bombing in the midst of one of the most important strikes in contemporary British history. Thanks to the staff at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, I was able to get copies of the Morning Star and Socialist Worker from the days following the bombing.

As a way of bit of background information, the Communist Party of Great Britain, to which the Morning Star was still nominally attached at this stage, was opposed to the bombing campaign of the Provisional IRA. At the Party’s 1981 Congress, a resolution on Ireland stated:

Congress unreservedly condemns the military campaign of the Provisional IRA in Britain and Ireland. The result is not just continual violence taking the lives of hundreds more people, Irish and British, but also a deepening political polarisation within the working class in Northern Ireland…

The SWP, on the other hand, supported the Provisional IRA in their struggle against British ‘imperialism’, but did not necessarily condone their bombing campaign. A 1980 pamphlet (scanned by the Irish Left Archive) stated:

As socialists we give full support to all those who fight oppression and for the right of self-determination, whereever in the world they may be. This applies equally to the Provisionals, who are fighting a war against the oppression of a minority in Britain’s oldest colony. But this does not mean that we necessarily support the politics of the Provisionals, nor we consider them socialists, nor that we support all the tactics they use.

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The Morning Star covered the story on the front page of the newspaper the day after the bombing, complemented by a statement by the paper’s staff under the headline, ‘No to Terrorism’. The statement began with the sentence:

The Provisional IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton was a piece of reckless adventurism which should be condemned without reservation.

The statement continued with the proposal that a ‘democratic solution’ to the problems in Northern Ireland (and in Britain) would ‘need not terrorism, but mass extra-parliamentary activity combined with the struggle inside parliament.’ It followed with:

Terrorism divides the working people and makes it more difficult to establish the unity between the working people of Britain and Ireland which is needed to solve problem in Northern Ireland.

It opens the door of more and more authoritarian measures which are then applied to the left as a whole.

The statement condemned the failure of the British labour movement to effectively mobilise around the issue of Northern Ireland and concluded with this passage:

The failure to grasp this problem, and mobilise the mass movement needed, leaves the vacuum which is then filled by desperate acts of terrorism.

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The Socialist Worker in the week following the bombing (20 Oct) did not put the bombing on the front page, instead focusing on the breakdown of ACAS proceedings between the NUM and the government. Coverage of the bombing was relegated to page 2. The paper featured two articles detailing the violence of the British Army and the RUC in Northern Ireland, explaining why the Provisional IRA enjoyed popular support. And like the Morning Star, the paper carried a statement from the SWP on the bombing under the headline ‘No Way to Win’. This statement acknowledged that many socialists would not have been upset if the bombing had inflicted more casualties amongst the Conservatives, but still condemned the bombing as the incorrect way to defeat Thatcher and to remove the British from Northern Ireland. The paper said:

We think the IRA made a mistake in planting the bomb last week, because such methods are not going to inflict a real defeat on the Tories…

In fact, the result would have been very different. The establishment would have found another set of Tory politicians to represent them, and these would have used the confusion caused by the bombing to push through repressive measures aimed at anyone sympathising with the cause of Irish freedom…

Indeed it would have made it easier for the system to continue in both Britain and Ireland. In Britain it would provide a wonderful excuse for the Tories to increase their repressive powers. In Ireland, it would have encouraged the illusion that a few courageous people with guns and bombs can act as a substitute for the struggles of the mass of the people.

The SWP stated that they would not condemn the IRA in the manner of the right-wing press, but also understood that the IRA ‘cannot win by bombing campaigns’. The SWP concluded:

The only thing which can shift an employing class is the mass activity and resistance of those its exploits. No amount of individual heroics or clever military stunts can substitute for that.

I wasn’t able to find copies of Militant or Newsline from this period, but due to the wonders of the internet, I thought it would be interesting to also look at how Red Action, a small splinter group from the SWP dedicated to militant anti-fascism, reacted to the bombing, as all copies of Red Action are now online. The attitude of Red Action towards the bombing is significant because Red Action was probably the most pro-Republican leftist group in Britain at the time. As Mark Hayes has written on his chapter on Red Action in our forthcoming volume on the British far left:

Red Action supported local Irish activities and sustained practical political contact with Republican paramilitary organisations. Red Action believed that genuine revolutionary socialist groups should place Irish national liberation high on their agenda.64 According to Red Action the liberal left in Britain had, in effect, abandoned the issue of ‘Northern Ireland’ when the struggle for civil liberties was transformed into an armed insurrection. Even the Trotskyist left, which had the habit of offering ‘conditional support’ for Republicanism, was decidedly equivocal when it came to the use of armalites and semtex… Red Action, on the other hand, resolved to offer unwavering support.

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Issue 15 of Red Action from November 1984 contrasted the IRA bombing with the sinking of the Belgrano by the British (under Thatcher’s orders) during the Falklands War and argued that violence was given a moral worth depending on who perpetrated it. The paper noted that the reaction from the working class towards the bombing was quite muted and that this had changed from the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent during the 1970s. It was argued that this latest bombing incident was different because it ‘attacked an obvious and clearly political target’ and because the government ‘had done no favours to the British working class since it had been in office’.

Using the example of the 1981 riots, Red Action stated that the paramilitary policing tactics employed in Northern Ireland were now being used on the British mainland. The group thought that this might create a greater understanding in Britain of the Republican cause. The article finished with this:

Perhaps some of the working class are now beginning to realise that the IRA/INLA are not looney crazed terrorists – just people who realised that the only way that their voice would be heard was by their taking direct physical action against the state.

It cannot be said that the news of the Brighton bomb brought cheers of ‘up the provos’ [sic] but there were plenty of people who thought that it would hsve been better if it had been more successful.

The Brighton bomb gave Thatcher a brief respite from the pressure of the miners strike and public opinion swung behind her momentarily for the first time really ‘since the Falklands War. But many of those who were involved in the strike did not sympathise with Thatcher in the wake of the bombing, although most were critical of the strategies used by the Provisional IRA. The bombing also solidified in her mind that the ‘enemy within’ was a clear and present threat, even though if she wasn’t willing to say it on October 13, 1984 – Irish Republicans, trade unionists, communists, etc, were to be handled with the necessary toughness that the situation required. This line of thinking informed the political and criminal justice outlook of the Thatcher government until its end in November 1990.

Review of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archives

This is just a quick post to note that my review of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archives (Melbourne University Press, 2013) has been published in the latest issue of Agora, the journal of the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria. As the journal is not really available online, I have posted a pre-print version of the review below.


Sheila Fitzpatrick’s second memoir, A Spy in the Archives, begins with a story of being denounced as something akin to a spy by a Soviet magazine when she was in Moscow during the late 1960s on a research trip. This denunciation had to possibility of being quite harmful for Fitzpatrick’s research and her liberty but, as she explains, no one in her circle seemed aware of it and it was only when she returned to her university in Oxford that people brought it to her attention. Fitzpatrick’s book leads with this anecdote, but the rest of the memoir doesn’t discuss this episode in any further detail. While this might be construed as a disappointment by some readers, Fitzpatrick’s stories about being an Australian/British PhD research student in Moscow during the early Brezhnev era are fascinating in themselves and do not need the opening account to make them compelling reading.

For those interested in Soviet history and in academia, Fitzpatrick’s memoir opens up two engrossing worlds of a bygone era. She first visited the Soviet Union in 1966 and was a frequent traveller to the city as a doctoral student through to 1969. She arrived in the Soviet Union during the ‘thaw’ in Soviet cultural society that had begun under Khrushchev and continued somewhat under Brezhnev. An increasing number of foreign visitors (including students) were travelling to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, but as Fitzpatrick describes were viewed by the Soviet authorities as potential threats to national security and by ordinary Soviet citizens as captivating oddities.

Fitzpatrick’s topic of research was the work of the first People’s Commissar for the Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky. Partially through the figure of Lunacharsky and the position he occupied in post-Stalinist Russia, Fitzpatrick is able to describe Soviet culture in the mid-to-late 1960s as it came to a crossroads. Lunacharsky had been removed from the public record during the purges of the late 1930s and was ‘rehabilitated’ in the Khrushchev era, but his collected works had yet to be compiled and his biography remained to be written. By studying the works and political output of Lunacharsky in the 1920s, Fitzpatrick was delving into how the philosophical idealism of the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ translated into practical actions in the post-revolutionary period.

However, at the same time, she was also delving into contemporary political debates about the relationship between Soviet-styled socialism and humanist principles. A large section is dedicated to her relationship with the ‘defenders’ of Lunacharsky, his daughter Irina and his secretary and brother-in-law, Igor Sats. Through Sats, Fitzpatrick encountered the world of Soviet intellectuals and the debates that raged around literary journal, Novy Mir. Most famous in the West for publishing the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Novy Mir pushed the envelope about what could be publicly criticised in Soviet society and Fitzpatrick colourfully illustrates this era of relative intellectual freedom – giving a sense of how the ‘socialism with a human face’ thesis spread in places such as Czechoslovakia before the Brezhnev regime cracked down on this kind of thinking.

The authoritarian nature of the Soviet regime, which would quickly put down the Czech attempts at this socialist humanism, bubbled shallowly below the surface and Fitzpatrick highlights this very nicely. Throughout the book, there are references to the ever present threat of Russian spies trying to lure foreigners into compromising positions (thus potentially turned in to a Russian asset), with Fitzpatrick recalling several efforts to entrap her using friendly Russian (or Eastern European) men. She ponders at different points within the memoir whether her room and belongings were secretly searched by KGB agents and describes how foreigners never really felt at ease in the Soviet Union – not until their plane took to the air from Domodedovo airport.

But while Fitzpatrick does not shy away from showing the sinister side of the Soviet Union in the 1960s, she also clearly had fallen in love with the place (and repeatedly mentions that she prefers Moscow to Oxford). The book is very humorous in places, when she describes some of the oddities of Soviet society, such as the absence of telephone books, street maps, restaurants and hardware stores. She does well to describe the liminal space that foreign students occupied in the Soviet Union – they were not ordinary Soviet citizens, nor were they short-term tourists where everything was catered for and organised, so foreign students had to become masters at getting by on their own and learning how to ‘fit in’ with the wider population.

For those in the world of academia, A Spy in the Archives also reveals some things about academic life that have changed dramatically since the 1960s and some things that seem to have been ever present. Fitzpatrick enters the Oxbridge world of nepotism just as some of the more egregious practices were being phased out, but some of her descriptions of the ‘old boys club’ that she encountered at Oxford remind the modern reader of how elite universities used to run. But then again some things that she describes give the impression that academia has not changed at all, such as the fractious relationships between students and supervisors, the ‘onemanupship’ of tenured professors and the petty bureaucratic nature of some archival staff.

Overall, A Spy in the Archives is a very enjoyable book that weaves personal memoir with social and cultural history. Although possibly aimed at historians and academics, Fitzpatrick’s writing style will make this a wonderful read for anyone interested in modern Russian history and the historian’s craft.

Evan Smith

Flinders University

UK border control has long history of screening for ‘unhealthy’ migrants

High on the excitement of a potential by-election victory this week, UKIP’s Nigel Farage has called for immigration restrictions on people with HIV. This proposal has been roundly criticised as prejudiced against people with HIV, as well as impractical (as argued by The Guardian‘s Sarah Boseley). But Farage’s suggestion taps into a longer history of the UK border control system being used to screen and reject incoming people who were viewed as ‘unhealthy’ or a threat to the health of the body politic. Below is a short excerpt from our new book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, that provides a bit of historical context for this, looking at how the border control system was used to prevent people from entering the country for ‘medical reasons’. People interested in this might also want to check out this 1983 article by Paul Gordon and this 2006 volume edited by Alison Bashford (who has written extensively about this subject in the Australian context).


The ways in which the physical body was to be examined within the British immigration system were codified in the various pieces of immigration control legislation and the internal instructions for immigration control staff and medical examiners circulated by the Home Office and the FCO. Officially, the primary purpose of the medical examinations to be conducted upon arriving migrants was to detect any health issues that might threaten the domestic population (and the migrant themselves); but this rationale was often used to disqualify ‘undesirable’ applicants and to extract further information from applicants (which could then be used to interrogate their claims if deemed unreliable).

The requirement that Commonwealth migrants be subjected to a medical examination was enshrined in the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. The power to refuse entry on medical grounds after such an examination was outlined in the Act as follows:

2 (4) Nothing in subsection (3) of this section shall prevent an immigration officer from refusing admission into the United Kingdom in the case of any Commonwealth citizen to whom section one of this Act applies –

(a) if it appears to the immigration officer on the advice of a medical inspector or, if no such inspector is available, of any other duly qualified medical practitioner, that he [sic] is a person suffering from mental disorder, or that it is otherwise undesirable for medical reasons that he [sic] should be admitted.

However, the full parameters of the medical examination and its purpose in the immigration control system were only outlined in internal documents. Instructions given to Medical Inspectors in 1967 detailed six categories of Commonwealth migrants that could be referred to a Medical Inspector:

  • holders of Ministry of Labour vouchers and their dependants (emphasis in the original text);
  • other Commonwealth citizens intending to make their home in this country or to remain for more than six months…
  • any immigrant appearing to … be mentally or physically abnormal or both;
  • any immigrant appearing … not to be in good health;
  • any immigrant appearing to be bodily dirty;
  • any immigrant in regard to whom there is any mention of health as a reason for his visit.[i]

The medical examination posed a bureaucratic hurdle for most Commonwealth migrants entering during the 1960s, as they entered on work vouchers that depended on a clean bill of health; but the fact that dependent wives and children were also subjected to these examinations demonstrates the ‘desire for order’ of the immigration control system. The Home Office acknowledged that the ‘power to refuse on medical grounds does not apply to persons entitled to admission as wives … or children under 16’, but their referral to Medical Inspectors reinforced notions that migrants from the former colonies needed to be inspected to ascertain their physical ‘worthiness’ and that they needed to be screened as harbingers of disease. The FCO’s argument was that, although dependants could not be refused entry for medical reasons:

it is in their interests to be medically examined before leaving home, since if they require medical treatment, the medical report they bring with them will enable the British authorities to ensure that they receive such treatment as soon as possible after arriving in this country.[ii]

We would argue that it was in the interests of the British state to encourage those who did not technically require a medical examination to submit to one as this presented another administrative obstacle for the applicant, and could be used as an impetus for the authorities to find another official reason to deny them entry. FCO advice released in 1969 reiterated that dependants could be refused entry on medical grounds, but if an examination voluntarily submitted to ‘reveals that the dependant will need treatment in the United Kingdom’, the FCO stated that ‘a condition on admission may be imposed’.[iii]

The powers of Immigration Officers to refer migrants to a Medical Inspector and to refuse entry on medical grounds were made more explicit in the Immigration Act 1971. Schedule 2 of the Act simply stated:

(2) Any such person, if he [sic] is seeking to enter the United Kingdom, may be examined also by a medical inspector or by any qualified person carrying out a test or examination required by a medical inspector.

The Immigration Rules concerning medical examinations put forward that the ‘general aim’ of such examinations was ‘to enable [the] Immigration Officer to refuse entry to persons having a serious illness which might endanger the health of others’ or ‘persons suffering from a mental disorder or some serious condition which would prevent them from supporting themselves and their dependants’.[iv] However medical examinations were used to discredit the claims made by potential migrants and to intensify the scrutiny placed upon them. The scrutinising gaze of the immigration control system was thus cast upon the physical body as a marker of ‘truth’ when other forms of evidence (such as oral testimony and written documents offered by the applicants) were considered to be unsatisfactory.

Under the intense scrutiny of the border control authorities, if testimony and documents were not considered to be adequately convincing, the focus of the authorities shifted to physical examination, with the body becoming the marker of ‘truth’. As Didier Fassin and Estelle d’Hallunin wrote about refugees in the French border control system, ‘their word is systematically doubted [and] it is their bodies that are questioned’.[v] Unlike Foucault’s concept of torture, whereby the physical body is manipulated to extract the confession of ‘truth’ and the ‘truth’ is uttered or written by the tortured individual[vi], in the context under examination here the body becomes a text that is ‘read’ by the authorities, and the ‘truth’ is thus determined by those who ‘read’ it. In this process, the body reveals what the authorities want to see.


[i] ‘Instructions to Medical Inspectors’, n.d., FCO 50/132, National Archives, London.

[ii] ‘Medical Examination Overseas of Commonwealth Citizens Coming to the United Kingdom’, n.d., p. 2, FCO 50/132, NA.

[iii] ‘Advice to Medical Referees’, n.d., pp. 102, FCO 50/284, NA.

[iv] ‘Instructions to Medical Inspectors’, p. 1, RCRF/1/08, Runnymede trust archives, Black Cultural Archives, Lambeth.

[v] D. Fassin and E. d’Halluin, ‘The Truth from the Body: Medical Certificates as Ultimate Evidence for Asylum Seekers’, American Anthropologist, 107(4), 2005, p. 598.

[vi] See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1991) pp. 35-42; Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 (London: Penguin Books, 2008) pp. 58-61.