Month: May 2015

Before Podemos and Syriza was Eurocommunism: The last time the British left looked to Europe

BRS1977

In the wake of a disastrous general election for the British left, people have been looking to Europe for inspiration, primarily Spain and Greece, and there has been great talk of how to transfer the ‘success’ of Podemos or Syriza to the UK. Projects such as Left Unity and writers such as Owen Jones have been at the forefront of these kinds of discussions that pre-date the 2015 election, but have certainly increased in the last two weeks.

However this is not the first time that the British left has looked to Europe for a different form of politics and hope to incorporate it into the British political landscape. In the 1970s, a number of socialists in Britain, particularly those in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), looked to the examples of the Communist Parties in Italy, France and Spain and embraced the idea of ‘Eurocommunism’. The Communist Parties in these Western European countries chose to distance themselves from the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and promoted the idea of working within the framework of Western liberal democracy, contesting elections and co-operating with the institutions of the capitalist state. These parties argued that the Soviet model of armed insurrection was no longer an option for Western Communist Parties and that each Communist Party needed to follow its own ‘national’ path. Santiago Carillo, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), stated in his 1977 book that Eurommunists essentially agreed:

on the need to advance to socialism with democracy, a multi-party system, parliaments and representative institutions… and the development of the broadest forms of popular participation at all levels and in all branches of social activity. (Carillo 1977, p. 110)

With its post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism, the CPGB had essentially agreed to this platform since the 1950s, seeking to enter into a Labour-Communist electoral coalition, forged through the trade union movement, and a ‘broad popular alliance’ against monopoly capitalism. However Eurocommunism was twinned in Britain with a rediscovery of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and for many inside (and outside) the CPGB, opened up a stream of socialist politics that moved beyond the industrial militant strategy favoured by the Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As I have argued elsewhere, the CPGB had invested heavily in working in a broad left alliance with the trade unions and Labour left in the period between 1966 and 1974, when the miners’ strike brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government. Despite this, a number of CPGB members saw the ‘Social Contract’ entered into between the TUC and the newly formed Labour government as evidence that this strategy had not produced the desired results and called for alternative strategies to put forward. Party intellectuals and activists, such as Martin Jacques (future editor of Marxism Today), Mike Prior, David Purdy, Dave Cook, Sarah Benton, Willie Thompson and Jon Bloomfield (amongst numerous others), used the ideas of Gramsci and Eurocommunism to challenge the perceived wisdom of the CPGB leadership and ignite a debate about the future of the CPGB.

In this debate, the term ‘Eurocommunism’ was used to illustrate the strategy based on the ‘extension of democracy’ through a ‘dense network of social, cultural and political groupings based on a voluntary commitment’, accepting that the Soviet model of the October Revolution was ‘inappropriate… for advanced capitalist societies’ (Aaronovitch 1978 p. 222). This idea of the ‘extension of democracy’ was used to explain that the acceptance of socialism through parliamentary democracy had been established with The British Road to Socialism since 1951 and now simply widened the scope of the Party’s allies against monopoly capitalism.

The result of this debate was that in 1977, the Party drafted a new edition of The British Road to Socialism, which reflected the influence of the Gramscian/Eurocommunist ideals upon those in the Party who pushed for internal reform. Some of these reformers had been able to acquire positions within the Party leadership, such Martin Jacques as editor of Marxism Today, Sarah Benton as editor of the fortnightly journal Comment and Dave Cook as the Party’s National Organiser. Unveiled at the Party’s 35th National Congress in late 1977, the importance of the new edition was the official, yet highly disputed, acceptance that the struggle for socialism needed ‘not only an expression of class forces, but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression’. The programme proposed that the CPGB needed to be at the centre of a ‘broad democratic alliance’ between the traditional labour movement and other social forces, with the Communist Party, ‘as the organised Marxist political party’, acting as a pivotal organisation with the ‘special role… in developing broad left unity’. (CPGB 1978, p. 29; p. 34)

The acceptance of the new Party programme at the 1977 Congress led to the defection of a group of hardline pro-Soviet members who formed the New Communist Party, and built a pool of discontent amongst many others, which eventually led to the split between the CPGB and its paper, the Morning Star in 1983. Although the promotion of Eurocommunism and the notion of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ seemed of great importance at the time, Willie Thompson (1992: p. 171) has argued that the anxiety caused by the change from ‘broad popular alliance’ (included in the 1968 edition) to the ‘broad democratic alliance’ was ‘more of style and terminology than of real substance’. The 1968 edition had already proposed the ‘broad popular alliance’ consisting of ‘trade unions, co-operatives, the left in the Labour Party and the Communist Party’ in alliance against monopoly capitalism, although it did acknowledge that this alliance could also include ‘workers in factories, offices, professions, working farmers, producers and consumers, owner-occupiers and tenants, housewives, young people and students, pensioners, workers in the peace movement’ among others. (CPGB 1968, p. 22; p. 28) In his 1992 (p. 171) history of the CPGB, Thompson states that the ‘broad democratic alliance’ did not fundamentally challenge this concept, but was more aimed at ending the ‘oppression… rooted in anti-democratic structures at every level and in every sphere of society’, and ‘at most represented a modification of outlook rather than a fundamental alteration’.

However the enthusiasm for Eurocommunism was short-lived within the CPGB. By the early 1980s, the Communist Parties in France and Italy had suffered setbacks from their parliamentary alliances and this had been recognised in Britain amongst its supporters. The CPGB itself was still experiencing a declining membership and had been shaken by the electoral victory of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. Inspired by Gramsci, the journal Marxism Today became a safehouse for those on the left who viewed Thatcherism as a new form of political threat, dramatically different from how the Conservatives had been under Edward Heath in the early 1970s. But this only represented one faction within the CPGB in the 1980s. Many others in the Party looked back to the early 1970s (before Eurocommunism) to a time when the CPGB seemed to exude a strong influence within the British labour movement and sought to replicate the strategies that had brought down Heath in an attempt to bring down Thatcher. Ultimately unsuccessful, the CPGB turned on itself during the 1980s and amidst dwindling membership, tore itself apart through a series of defections, resignations and expellments.

By the mid-1980s, Eurocommunism had been marginalised as a political strategy on the continent and in many of the contemporary articles written during the final years of the CPGB, the term ‘Eurocommunist’ was used to describe the wing of the Party that had gained control of the Party leadership and associated with the theoretical journal, Marxism Today, mostly contrasted with the traditional industrial militants associated with the daily paper, Morning Star, of which the Party lost control in 1984-85. In 1985, John Callaghan (p. 171)  wrote that the ‘Eurocommunist’ wing could be ‘more accurately described as pragmatists or “machine-minders” who have been persuaded more by the circulation success of Marxism Today than by the ideas of Antonio Gramsci’. In the same year, Ian Birchall (1985: p. 67), writing for the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialism journal, proposed that since the ‘Eurocommunists’ had taken charge of the Party leadership in 1977, the ‘issue at stake is not reform versus revolution’, but a choice of either ‘Stalinism or social democracy’.

The collapse of the Communist Party of Great Britain in December 1991 was seen as a vindication of those who eschewed the ideas of Eurocommunism and argued that the Marxism Today version of Gramsci was a misinterpretation. On the British left, it was Blairism and New Labour on one side that was victorious (with some, such as this, partially blaming Eurocommunism and Marxism Today for this abomination) and the various Trotskyist groups on the other, primarily the SWP and Militant (now the Socialist Party of England and Wales). There have been a few attempts to re-assess the Eurocommunist influence upon the CPGB and the impact that Marxism Today had upon British politics (most prominently here and here), but many on the left use it as a cautionary tale. Perhaps those arguing for the left to look to the current movements in Spain and Greece should take heed of this.

Hobsbawm-Tony-Benn-Marxism-Today

References:

Aaronovitch, S (1978) ‘Eurocommunism: A Discussion of Carrillo’s Eurocommunism and the State’, Marxism Today (July) pp. 222-227

Birchall, I (1985) ‘Left Alive or Left for Dead? The Terminal Crisis of the British Communist Party’, International Socialism, 2/30 (Spring) pp. 67-89

Callaghan, J (1985) ‘The Long Drift of the Communist Party of Great Britain’, Journal of Communist Studies, 1/3 (Sept) pp. 171-174

Carillo, S (1977) ‘Eurocommunism’ and the State (London: Lawrence & Wishart)

CPGB (1968) The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet)

CPGB (1977) The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet)

Thompson, W (1992) The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press)

Thinking historically about acid house & early rave culture: The soundtrack to late Thatcherism

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Most discussions of the soundtrack to the Thatcher years concentrates on the early-to-mid-1980s and the rise of Thatcherism. For example, many have referred to The Specials and The Beat at the time of 1981 riots, Duran Duran and Wham! as the Thatcherite hegemony won the 1983 election and Billy Bragg and the Style Council during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. But I want to think about the soundtrack to late Thatcherism (and the early Major years), particularly acid house and early rave culture.

Exported from the United States, house music made its way into the UK club scene in the mid-1980s and acid house became a phenomenon from around 1987 to 1991, before morphing into various strains of rave music in the early 1990s. The rise of acid house coincided with the opening of new wave of clubs across the UK and beginnings of the warehouse and open air ‘raves’, situated against a backdrop of high Thatcherism, which included heightened deindustrialisation and the growth of the high finance capitalism in the City of London

Thatcher was returned to office in 1987 after her third electoral victory and this could be considered the high point of Thatcherism as a hegemonic project. After defeating the trade unions during the Miners’ Strike in 1985, Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatisation and deindustrialisation across the country. Already under pressure, many heavy industries in the north of England, as well as Scotland and Wales, collapsed, leaving to massive unemployment in these regions. Where jobs were available to replace the traditional heavy industries, they were usually unskilled, low paid and short-term, leaving many without the stability of employment enjoyed by the previous generations.

Meanwhile in the south-east of England, especially in London, the economy boomed, fuelled by the deregulation of the finance industry in 1986. Heavy industry, especially around the East End of London and the docks, also dried up and the inner city began its path towards gentrification. The story since the mis-1980s was that London became too expensive for many workers and those who benefited from the boom in the finance industry moved in.

As the north and south of England diverged upon two parallel roads – one towards a post-industrial decline and one towards a post-industrial regeneration – the emerging youth subculture that rose to prominence at this time was acid house and rave/club culture. I believe that the subculture surrounding acid house and the early rave scene reflected this north/south divide and reflected the two Britains that were developing under Thatcher.

Coinciding with the emergence of MDMA (or ecstasy), the acid house and early rave scene became the focus of a moral panic about out of control youth on drugs and gathering en masse to celebrate this fusion of drugs and music. Unlike punk or reggae (or even rap), this subculture was seen to have no redeeming socio-political features and was viewed as just an excuse to indulge in social drug experimentation.

Many viewed acid house and early rave culture as hedonistic and the pretext to (publicly) waste a lot of money of partying. This was probably true to some degree in the south, where the more affluent young people could indulge in this hedonism and spend a considerable amount of money on weekend activities.

But in the north, acid house also exploded – in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and other cities. In the northern acid house scene, it was not just hedonism, fuelled by a large disposable income, but a chance to escape from dreary post-industrial world that had been delivered by nearly a decade of Thatcherism. Not sites of resistance to Thatcherism, but a withdrawal from engagement with it.

Furthermore, with the decline of heavy industry in the north, factories and fields, once the sites of a booming industrial sector, were transformed from empty spaces into potential venues for clubs and raves – the economics of putting on a show was merely finding a suitable sound system. An enterprising person, the kind of whom was praised under Thatcherism, could hire (or buy) a large PA system, bring in some local DJs and with a little promotion, make a lot of money from those entering (and possibly the selling of illicit drugs).

Unlike punk, reggae or folk music, acid house and early rave culture did not really get political and for most, was more an apolitical rejection of the Thatcherite status quo, using music (and the drugs) to collectively cast off the burden that Thatcherism brought down on young people in the late 1980s. Although I would say that acid house was given a political edge by its crossover with the gay scene in Britain in the 1980s. Under Thatcher, gay men and women were persecuted for their sexuality and the AIDS epidemic and Clause 28 were used by those in power to publicly harass gay men and women, arguing that their lifestyles were deviant. Acid house became the dominant sound in many of Britain’s gay clubs and this deviancy and portrayal as the ‘folk devils’ of the 1980s was transformed into a particular subcultural identity, combining the hedonism of acid house culture with the ‘deviancy’ of being gay in Thatcherite Britain.

However the apolitical nature of acid house and rave culture changed in the early 1990s. Concerned about the amount of illicit drugs being allegedly sold and used in the scene, the government and the police cracked down on raves and dance clubs, using the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and a revised version of the Public Order Act 1986 to shut down underground raves and strictly monitor licensed clubs. In 1992, the Major Government started to draft the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill (which eventually became law in 1994), which included an entire section dedicated to the policing of raves. This led to significant political resistance and raves became part of a political battle over the use of public space. Taking some inspiration from the anarchist ‘Stop the City’ protests of the 1980s, a serious protest movement developed, using the method of occupying public spaces and putting on ‘free parties’. This crossed over at stages with the rise of the Reclaim the Streets movement and other green/anarchist protests.

This post has attempted to give an overview of how acid house and early rave culture fits within the wider history of Thatcherism and that of contemporary Britain. What I need to do is delve into primary sources of the period, primarily the documents produced by the subculture itself – the zines, the magazine interviews, the flyers, media reports and government files, as well as any oral history and reminisces of the period. Any suggestions for where to find relevant materials would be greatly appreciated – however, as usual, there are a million other projects that I need to finish beforehand!

Launching the Australian Modern British History Network (AMBHN)

labourmanifesto1983

This is just a quick plug for the new Facebook group that I help set up today – the Australian Modern British History Network (AMBHN). A few people had been discussing that a British history network was needed for scholars in Australia, whose work is often subsumed by other historical organisations, and it was felt that British history in this country needed its own identity. The FB page was put together today as a way of making connections between those interested in modern British history across Australia and hopefully will develop into something more in the future.

Here is the blurb from the website:

The Australian Modern British History Network (AMBHN) is a group that brings together historians of modern Britain (1688 onwards) and the British Empire/Commonwealth living or working in Australia. This FB page will be used to make announcements, call for papers and the like that would interest historians of Britain and its Empire who are in Australia.

Stay tuned for more!

So if you’re in Australia and have a research interest in modern British history or the history of the British Empire/Commonwealth, join this group. I’m sure it’ll be great.

Review of far left book, ‘Against the Grain’, in Twentieth Century British History journal

Madeleine Davis has written a review of our book, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, in the journal Twentieth Century British History. She concludes the review with:

This is not, perhaps, a collection for the completely uninitiated. It is however, a valuable re-engagement with a
neglected but significant history, which should stimulate further research.

The rest of the review here.

Communist Attitudes towards Polish Migration to Post-War Britain

This post was inspired by a recent analysis on the reception of Polish migrants by the NUM in Wales in 1940s and 1950s by Daryl Leeworthy over at his History on the Dole blog. It had formerly been an article that I was trying to write on the subject, but has been on the backburner for a long time. Sections will be included in my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of ‘race’, which will be published by Brill’s Historical Materialism series. As usual, feedback is welcome!

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

The CPGB and colonial migrants

When Afro-Caribbean workers started to migrate to Britain in large numbers during the 1940s and the 1950s, the Communist Party was one of the principal organisations that appealed to these immigrants. Many of those who were attracted to the Communist Party had been political activists or trade unionists in their home countries and looked to the Party, as both an anti-colonial force internationally and an influential trade union presence domestically. The Party had a tradition of involvement in the anti-colonial movement, with chief theoretician on anti-colonial policies, R. Palme Dutt, citing Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism: ‘Stalin emphasized that “the victory of the working class in the developed countries”, e.g. in Britain, “is impossible” unless this common front and alliance with the struggles of the colonial peoples is established’.[1] Viewing the people in the British colonies as ‘fellow fighters… against the common enemy’ of British imperialism,[2] the Party welcomed the black immigrants and attempted to incorporate them into the Party, with varying levels of success.

The Communist Party acknowledged that racial discrimination was evident in Britain, but for the most part, this was attributed to a ‘prejudiced, stupid and sometimes vicious minority’, identified as ‘fascists’, ‘Tories and employers’ and ‘Leaders of the Government’.[3] This largely absolved the working class from being responsible for acts of racial discrimination as race prejudice was largely seen as ‘a conscious part of the policy of the most reactionary sections of British capitalism’.[4] However the Party did admit that ‘amongst a minority of workers, some racial feelings still exist’.[5] In the 1955 pamphlet, No Colour Bar in Britain, the CPGB welcomed immigration from the Commonwealth, claiming that the arrival of ‘colonial workers’ was a ‘great opportunity before British working people’.[6] In a declaration of CPGB policy, the pamphlet stated that the ‘attitude of the Communist Party is clear… It welcomes the arrival of colonial immigrants’, stressing that ‘colonial people are British subjects’ and were entitled to enter Britain freely.[7] For immigrants from outside the Commonwealth, the Party’s attitude was much more divisive.

The campaign against Polish resettlement

In May 1946, the Labour Government announced the formation of the Polish Resettlement Corps, a ‘noncombatant military unit… in which Polish veterans were encouraged to enrol by promise of resettlement’ to direct Polish workers into ‘essential’ industries, such as construction, agriculture and coal mining.[8] The TUC and various unions ‘voiced suspicions about threats to jobs and conditions of employment’, as well as the ‘potential threat’ to British working class politics and culture posed by these European recruits.[9] The Communist Party was heavily involved in opposition to the migration and settlement of Poles and other Eastern Europeans in the late 1940s. As the polarisation of the Cold War began to take place, the CPGB greeted the establishment of the People’s Democracies and was, in the words of socialist journalist Paul Foot, ‘upset that anyone should not volunteer to enjoy the rigours of Stalinism in the Russian satellites of East Europe’.[10]

The Polish workers were labelled ‘fascist Poles’ and were treated with ‘accustomed shabbiness and chauvinism’ by the Party.[11] In the Parliamentary debate on the Polish Resettlement Bill in early 1947, the two MPs who opposed the bill were Phil Piratin and Willie Gallacher (Communist MPs for Mile End and West Fife respectively). Piratin declared that the Polish Resettlement Corps was ‘an affront to the Polish Government and a hindering of its progress’, and a ‘dangerous move for this country to maintain a body of men under a reactionary leadership’.[12] In a 1946 leaflet titled ‘No British Jobs for Fascist Poles’, the CPGB claimed that ‘at least a third’ of the 160,000 Polish troops in Britain ‘actually fought for Hitler’, while ‘the remainder are fascists who do not wish to return to their own country’.[13] The CPGB claimed that ‘nearly 2 million organised British workers have expressed their opposition to the presence in this country of these Polish troops’ and the Party proposed repatriating them to Poland where ‘they should accept the democratic will of the majority of the people and work for the reconstruction of their own country’.[14]

As well as these ‘political’ objections, the Party press made other accusations towards the Poles, particularly the sexual threat of the Polish migrants to British women and the Poles taking vacant housing away from homeless Britons during a shortage of adequate housing. The Daily Worker accused Polish officers of fraternising with young girls at a Polish Army camp in Yorkshire, with the ‘majority of the girls [being] between 14 and 18 years of age’.[15] A few months earlier, at the height of the Squatters Movement led by the CPGB,[16] the paper reported that Poles were being given accommodation at various camps, while squatters were being fined and removed from housing.[17] Syd Abbott declared in the December 1946 issue of the Communist Review:

if the Government would send home Anders and his Poles, many of them fascists, a further 265 camps occupied by 120,000 Polish troops, could be freed, and made available to house the people.[18]

These accusations were similar to the racist falsehoods that numerous people accused Commonwealth migrants of, which the Communists routinely refuted in their anti-racist activities.

The CPGB saw the Polish Resettlement Corps, routinely described as ‘Anders’ Poles’ after conservative Polish leader General Anders under British command, as an ‘anti-Soviet [and] anti-democratic’ force, whose presence in Britain was ‘obviously insincere’.[19] While depicted by the British Government and British industry as a solution to the post-war labour shortage, the Communist Party claimed that the Poles of the Resettlement Corps had no desire to ‘be absorbed as loyal citizens of this country’, but looked to ‘use Britain as a temporary base from which to pursue, at some future date, an armed crusade against the U.S.S.R. and the new Poland’.[20] The Daily Worker quoted a statement by the Polish Embassy in London, saying that the resettlement of Poles was ‘nothing but diplomatic eyewash’, adding ‘No sensible person… can understand why training for civilian jobs should be carried out according to units and arms’[21] – evidence for the Communist Party that Poles in Britain were organising resistance to the Polish Government.

Welsh miners’ leader and member of the CPGB’s Executive Committee, Arthur Horner announced in 1945 that the Communist Party would ‘not allow the importation of foreign – Polish, Italian, or even Irish – labour to stifle the demands of the British people to have decent conditions in British mines’.[22] In the 1946 leaflet, the Party declared that there was ‘no room in Britain for fascists’ and that there was ‘no reason why British jobs should be given to these Poles’.[23] In February 1947, Horner, now General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), spoke against foreign workers in the mining industry, declaring that the Government ‘might get Poles or displaced persons but not coal’.[24] The Party declared that the Poles ‘should be sent home, to work out their own salvation’ and according to Paul Foot, Piratin and Gallacher ‘never missed an opportunity to point out that the Poles were dirty, lazy and corrupt’.[25] In Parliament, Piratin routinely asked the Government whether Polish workers were trade union members or willing to work as directed by the Ministry of Labour. Piratin was accused of having a ‘vendetta against Poles who want to work here rather than return to Communist Poland’, but Piratin claimed that his persistent questioning was ‘merely to ensure that such Poles who are in this country do not in any way scab or blackleg on British labour’.[26]

Even in 1955, while the Party tried to combat racism amongst workers against Commonwealth immigrants, Party literature claimed that the ‘real menace… comes from the far greater number of displaced Poles and Germans whose attitude is hostile to militant trade unionism’.[27] This was compared with the black immigrant workers, who were seen to have the ability to ‘greatly strengthen the fight of the trade unions’.[28] The contradicting attitudes can also be seen in the oral history of CPGB member and Secretary of the Armthorpe NUM Branch, Jock Kane, originally recorded by radical journalist Charles Parker. In one section, Kane described an argument with the NUM area leaders over black workers:

Then I’d another run-in with them about coloured labour. He wasn’t going to have coloured labour. He wasn’t having any ‘half-caste bastards’ running about the streets of his villages. I said: ‘You’re a Nazi. We fought a bloody war to defeat bastards like you.’[29]

But Kane’s description of the Polish miners was very different, accusing them of being work-shy and a hostile class:

I can remember in 1947 we paid wages to thousands of Poles for months and months on end. They never came into this industry and never did a bloody day’s work… There were thousands of Polish ex-army men in camps… A shower of arrogant bloody swine, ex-officer bloody class, and the coal board paid them wages for months on end.[30]

In a 1961 pamphlet, John Moss wrote that immigration had little effect on the total population increase that Britain had experienced in the early post-war period,[31] but the Party still objected to the presence of around 100,000 Poles and other Eastern Europeans and their apparent drain on resources. This campaign against Polish immigration and settlement ran counter to the very arguments the CPGB had been using to convince British workers that immigrants from the Commonwealth were not in competition for employment, housing or welfare.

Back in 1947, R. Palme Dutt discussed that the ‘crucial shortage of man-power’,[32] linking the CPGB’s anti-colonial programme with opposition to the Polish workers. As Dutt argued continually through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Britain’s maintenance of its colonies, its role in NATO and its other activities during the Cold War caused a huge drain on its economy, resources and manpower.[33] Dutt cited that in November 1946, over 1.5 million men were in the armed forces, while another 474,000 were ‘engaged in making equipment and supplies for the armed forces’ – ‘a total of close on two millions [sic] or one-tenth of the available man-power’.[34] Meanwhile more than half a million workers were needed in British industry to assist with reconstruction, with the British Government enthusiastically recruiting European labour, including the Poles. Dutt lamented the fact that the Government’s solution was ‘sought to be found in the settlement of Polish fascists in Britain or the retention of German prisoners of war’.[35] For Dutt, decolonisation and end of Britain’s involvement in ‘imperialist commitments in the Near East or the Far East’ was the solution to Britain’s labour shortage, rather than recruiting Polish ‘fascists’.[36]

The Communist Party were also sceptical whether the deployment of the Polish Resettlement Corps to the mines would actually have any impact upon the labour shortage, with the Daily Worker reporting that less than 2,000 Polish workers – ‘not half of whom are trained miners’ – would be available by mid-1947.[37] In an interview with the Evening Standard’s Industrial Reporter, Arthur Horner, under the headline ‘Foreigners: Mr. Horner Says NO’, stated that ‘[e]ven if the Poles were willing to come into the industry they could not be taught English and be trained to work in the mines in less than six months’.[38] Thus the Daily Worker’s Industrial Reporter, George Sinfield, asked rhetorically, ‘Is this infinitesimal force worth the big and detrimental repercussions it might have if it were used?’[39] If this was the case, the implication the Communists were making was that the British Government was not interested in recruiting Polish workers to fill the gaps in the labour market, but for a more sinister political purpose, possibly to rein in militancy amongst the miners or provide assistance to anti-Communist forces in the early manoeuvres of the Cold War. The Daily Worker posed rhetorically whether to Labour Government’s moves to nationalise coal production was to be counter-balanced by ‘the introduction of men who hold trade unionism in contempt’ or ‘the introduction of men who are avowed opponents of their own Government, which is backed by all working-class parties in Poland’.[40]

The Trades Union Congress and immigration

The reasoning that the CPGB opposed the Polish migrants purely on the grounds that the CPGB was devoted to the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ Republics in Eastern Europe can only be part of the reason for the hostility towards the Poles. While this can be an easily identifiable target for criticising the CPGB, it doesn’t explain why anti-Polish sentiment was expressed by a large number of trade unionists and why the TUC voted against the settlement of Polish soldiers in 1946. As Paul Burnham wrote, ‘[t]his was not just a campaign of the Communist Party’.[41] At the TUC Congress in 1946, the General Council of the TUC demanded that, ‘no Poles should be employed in any grade in any industry where suitable British labour was available’, with a bloc majority of 884,000 voting for this.[42] Although the TUC is not a monolithic organisation and cannot be seen as interchangeable with the various policies and actions of the entire labour movement, some authors have seen a convergence at this point between the protectionist nationalism of the TUC and the sentiments put forward by the CPGB. Both Keith Tompson and Robert Winder have used a quote from Harry Pollitt to demonstrate the hostility of the labour movement towards the Poles and a reflection that the unions were ‘traditional opponents of migrant workers’ in general:

I ask you, does it make sense that we allow 500,000 of our best young people to put their names down for emigration abroad, when at the same time we employ Poles who ought to be back in their own country…?[43]

But it would be rash to conflate the attitudes and motives of the Communist Party with that of the Trades Union Congress. Although the CPGB was influential in some trade unions, it would not have been able to influence the decisions of the TUC General Council. It is also important to note that it was during this time that Cold War was taking shape and that anti-communist sentiment started to grow within the British trade union movement, specifically within the higher echelons of the TUC. As Richard Stevens has demonstrated, during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, ‘[t]he TUC remained deeply involved in anti-Communist activity’.[44]

While the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers can be viewed, ideologically at least, as contradictory to their general anti-racist position, the TUC’s policy on ‘race’ and immigration during this period has long been described as ‘muddled’.[45] The exclusionism of the trade unions opposed Polish and other Eastern European workers can be viewed as similar to their opposition to workers who migrated from the Commonwealth. The general policy of the TUC, as Barry Munslow wrote, had been to ‘play down the subject, stress the need for immigrants to integrate and oppose special provisions’.[46] The TUC General Council expressed the need for immigration controls and implicitly accepted that it was the immigrants that were ‘the problem’ and the ‘view that immigration should be controlled flowed logically from that premise’.[47] While the Congress opposed, on paper, racial discrimination, their position on immigration was that ‘immigrants were a problem and their arrival in Britain should consequently be controlled’.[48]

Neville Kirk has recently argued that in the early post-war period, in comparison with the explicit racism of the Australian labour movement, the British labour movement ‘adopted a predominantly positive attitude to the issues of immigration and “race”’, stating that the TUC ‘prided itself on its efforts to promote trade unionism and worker solidarity, irrespective of colour’.[49] But the fact is that the TUC did support immigration controls and in the case of the Polish workers, called explicitly for Poles to be prevented from entering the British job market, or if they were employed, that the Poles would be the first dismissed. The trade unions may have ‘opposed on economic grounds’ to the introduction of the Polish workers, as ‘trade union leaders and members feared alike the return of the mass unemployment of the 1930s’, but Diana Kay and Robert Miles have also suggested that there was also a ‘vigorous nationalism [that] ran through the trade union movement’.[50] Citing Kay and Miles, Kenneth Lunn noted that the argument has been made that the British labour movements’ response to European immigration was ‘not racist’.[51] A similar argument is made by Stephen Catterall and Keith Gildart in their study of trade union reactions to Polish and Italian miners in the post-war era, arguing that, rather than racism or xenophobia:

[h]ostility from rank and file members arose from the perceived ‘threat’ that the workers posed as a result of prodigious output performance and the mining skills they brought or through domestic and social tensions.[52]

While fears about job security and unemployment may help to explain why racist sentiments were expressed by trade union members, it cannot excuse that Polish workers faced discrimination based on their nationality. As Kenneth Lunn declared, ‘[b]y any reasonable definition, a policy of “Poles out first” is racist’.[53]

Conclusion

In 2004, Paul Burnham stated that ‘[t]he response to the Polish migrants is not an episode that reflects any credit on the left in Britain’.[54] The opposition to the Polish workers in Britain in the late 1940s has been overlooked by many historians of the British left and of British immigration, contrasted with the research concentrated upon the impact that black migration had upon post-war Britain and the left’s anti-racist work in the 1960s and 1970s. But when it has been the focus of research, the opposition has been construed in several different ways, with the actions of the Communist Party of Great Britain during this period under particular scrutiny. Some have used the TUC’s opposition, shared by the CPGB, to portray the British labour movement as nationalistic protectionists, who opposed Polish migrants, just as they opposed migrants from the Caribbean and South Asia. Others have used the CPGB’s opposition to demonstrate their loyalty to Stalinism and their descent into nationalism, following the Popular Front politics on the Second World War. However the Party’s opposition to the Polish workers has not been contrasted with their acceptance of West Indian migrants. This presents a dilemma for those who want to essentialise the CPGB as either inherently racist or inherently Stalinist, as both inclinations can be found within the Party’s disparate approach to post-war migration. The Party’s support for the Soviet Union did affect their position on Polish workers who did not want to return to the Soviet bloc, but it doesn’t explain why they were receptive of West Indian workers or why the TUC adopted a similar approach.

This piece has argued that the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers was partially inspired by the Party’s loyalty to the Soviet Union, but the Party was also imbued with a sense of Soviet-inspired internationalism and anti-colonialism which saw the Communists (on paper at least) champion West Indian migrants who came to Britain in the late 1940s as comrades against imperialism and capitalism. The Party welcomed these migrants who arrived in the early post-war period, declaring in 1955, ‘It is most urgent that the Labour movement… set out to welcome the coloured workers who come to this country and win them for the trade unions’.[55] However the anti-racist rhetoric of the CPGB literature did not always filter down into the Party’s rank-and-file, nor was the Party able to counter the often xenophobic attitudes of the wider labour movement. The CPGB was primarily made up of skilled and semi-skilled workers and in the in the early post-war era, it was significantly representative of the nation’s working class.[56] The Communist Party, by recruiting workers, could not be immune to some forms of racial prejudice amongst its members, with racist beliefs harboured within the working class and the institutions of the labour movement, such as the TUC. This wider chauvinism in the labour movement can also be a partial explanation for the hostility directed towards the Polish workers, that reflected a streak of nationalism or ‘jingoism’, but also a misplaced apprehension towards migrant workers in a time of economic and industrial uncertainty. The opposition to Polish workers put forward by the CPGB is a murky episode in the Party’s history, but the reasons for this opposition, like that of the wider labour movement, are much more than complex than other scholars and commentators have previously suggested. At the same time, the vocal (and leadership endorsed) opposition to the Poles seems an aberration in the history of the CPGB’s anti-racist work, where the Party made quite significant efforts to highlight the issue of racism in Britain and recruit Commonwealth migrants into the CPGB. But similar to the longer history of the CPGB’s anti-racism, the Party tried to balance its position between its commitments to the anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles and its attempts to maintain its influence to the wider labour movement, which in the end, cost the Party support from both sides.

The different ways in how sections of the British labour movement have reacted to migration from Europe is still a contentious issue today, as the free movement of labour within the European Union allows many migrants from Central and Eastern Europe to work and settle in Britain. In early 2009 a significant number of workers went on unofficial strikes across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[57] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union. But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’, used by some involved in the strike to rally against foreign workers, the European Union and the New Labour Government. Although many denounced the use of this slogan, the fact that it was raised shows that issues faced by the British Labour movement, and the Communist Party, in the 1940s and 1950s in regards to migrant workers still remain today. The response to migrant workers by the British labour movement has often been one of solidarity, but resistance has reared its head on many occasions, but even this resistance is informed by a number of different factors, including xenophobia/racism, fear of competition, issues of class and international concerns. As Catterall and Gildart have argued, ‘even the most enlightened sections of organised labour could take reactionary measures when faced with economic uncertainty and threats to job security’.[58] This article has shown, despite the anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist work that the British labour movement and the British left has conducted over the years, opposition to foreign workers has been an problem that it has suffered from on a number of occasions, and one, unfortunately, that seems to still be of concern in the twenty first century. But while any forms of racism or xenophobia within the labour movement must be countered, it is just as important to understand the reasons for this racism and how it is manifested.

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[1] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and the Colonies – II’, World News, 9 January, 1954, p. 25; J. V. Stalin, Works vol. 6, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1954, p. 150

[2] Harry Pollitt, Britain Arise, London, 1952, p. 18

[3] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[4] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[5] CPGB, Brothers in the Fight for a Better Life, London, 1954, p. 11

[6] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 3

[7] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[8] K. Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 68

[9] Ken Lunn, ‘Complex Encounters: Trade Unions, Immigration and Racism’, in John McIlroy, Nina Fishman & Alan Campbell, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, Aldershot, 1999, p. 74

[10] Paul Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, Harmondsworth, 1965, p. 118

[11] Harry Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles, CPGB flyer, London, 1946, Ref. 35/3, CPGB Leaflets, Working Class Movement Library, Manchester; P. Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 118

[12] Hansard, 12 February, 1947, col. 428

[13] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[14] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[15] Daily Worker, 16 December, 1946

[16] For further information on the Squatters’ Movement, see: James Hinton, ‘Self-Help and Socialism: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’, History Workshop Journal, 25, 1988, pp. 100-126; Noreen Branson, The History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1941-1951, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1997, pp. 118 –128

[17] Daily Worker, 23 August, 1946

[18] Syd Abbott, ‘The Mood of the People’, Communist Review, December 1946, p. 7

[19] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[20] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[21] Daily Worker, 22 August, 1946

[22] Arthur Horner, ‘The Communist Party and the Coal Crisis’, 25 November, 1945, from Marxist Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/horner/1945/11/coal.htm, accessed 28 July, 2010

[23] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[24] Cited in, Paul Flewers, ‘Hitting the Pits: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the National Union of Miners’, New Interventions, 7/1, Winter 1996, p. 21

[25] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles; Paul Foot, ‘Immigration and the British Labour Movement’, International Socialism, 1/22, Autumn 1965, p. 10

[26] Hansard, 19 February, 1948 col. 1333

[27] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[28] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[29] Jock Kane, with Betty Kane and Charles Parker, No Wonder We Were All Rebels – An Oral History, http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=697&Itemid=63, accessed 1 December, 2009

[30] J. Kane, No Wonder We Were All Rebels

[31] John Moss, Together Say No Discrimination, London, 1961, p. 8

[32] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and Empire’, Labour Monthly, February 1947, p. 34

[33] See: R. Palme Dutt, Crisis of Britain and the British Empire: Marxist Study Themes no. 7, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1953; R. Palme Dutt, The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1957;

[34] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[35] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[36] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, pp. 34-35

[37] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[38] Arthur Horner, interviewed by Anne Kelly, Evening Standard, February, 1947, from Security Service file on Arthur Horner, KV 2/1527, National Archives, London

[39] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[40] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[41] Paul Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946: South Bucks Squatting in the National Context’, paper presented at the New Socialist Approaches to History seminar series, Institute of Historical Research, London, 23 February 2004

[42] TUC, The General Council’s Report to the 78th Annual Congress, TUC, Brighton, 1946, p. 171; p. 364

[43] Cited in, Keith Tompson, Under Siege: Racial Violence in Britain Today, London, 1988, p. 71; R. Winder, Bloody Foreigners, pp. 323-324

[44] Richard Stevens, ‘Cold War Politics: Communism and Anti-Communism in the Trade Unions’, in Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman & John McIlroy, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. I: The Post-War Compromise, 1945-64, Aldershot, 1999, p. 171

[45] Beryl Radin, ‘Coloured Workers and British Trade Unions’, Race, 8/2, p. 161

[46] Barry Munslow, ‘Immigrants, Racism and British Workers’, in David Coates & Gordon Johnson (eds), Socialist Arguments, Oxford, 1983, p. 204

[47] Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, Bristol, 1977, p. 7; p. 11

[48] R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, p. 2

[49] Neville Kirk, ‘Traditionalists and Progressives: Labor, Race and Immigration in Post-World War II Australia and Britain’, Australian Historical Studies, 39/1, 2008, p. 64; p. 67

[50] Diana Kay & Robert Miles, Refugees or Migrant Workers? European Volunteer Workers in Britain 1946-1951, London, 1992, pp. 76-77

[51] Kenneth Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, in Kenneth Lunn (ed.) Race and Labour in Twentieth-Century Britain, London, 1985, p. 24

[52] Stephen Catterall & Keith Gildart, ‘Outsiders: Trade Union Responses to Polish and Italian Coal Miners in Two British Coalfields, 1945-54’, in Stefan Berger, Andy Croll & Norman LaPorte (eds), Towards a Comparative History of Coalfield Socieities, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, p. 164

[53] K. Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, p. 24

[54] P. Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946’

[55] ‘Talking Points On… Colonial Workers in Britain’, World News, 19 March, 1955, p. 238

[56] K. Newton, The Sociology of British Communism, p. 55; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2004, pp. 23-24

[57] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, ‘Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates’, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; ‘This is a Strike Against Bosses’, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, ‘Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength’, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, ‘Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes’, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, p. 4; ‘Blame the Bosses not “Foreign Workers”’, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, p. 1; p. 3

[58] S. Catterall & K. Gildart, ‘Outsiders’, p. 174