Month: June 2015

We’re all off to Newcastle: The AAEH 2015 Conference

Coming around every two years, the Australasian Association of European History conference is being held in Newcastle (Australia) in July and by all accounts, it is one of the funnest conferences to attend for historians in the field (see Brett Holman’s reports from 2013 and 2011). Like many others, I will be making my way via plane, train and bus (and possibly taxi) to the grand city of northern New South Wales for four days of history, high quality research and hi-jinks. The paper I am presenting is ‘Policing communism in the British Commonwealth: The co-ordination of anti-communism between Britain, Australia and South Africa in the early Cold War‘. Here is the abstract:

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the British Commonwealth faced the twin ‘threats’ of decolonisation and communism, with many across the Commonwealth seeing decolonisation as the first step towards communist dictatorship. Recent scholarship has shown that the British attempted to ‘manage’ the decolonisation process to prevent socialist movements or national liberation movements sympathetic to the Soviet Bloc from coming to power. Therefore Britain, along with the Dominions, co-ordinated their intelligence services to combat the communist threat across the Commonwealth. This paper will explore how this co-ordination of anti-communist efforts was implemented in Britain, Australia and South Africa in the early Cold War era, which involved the violent breaking of strikes using the armed forces, the close monitoring of ‘persons of interest’ and the (attempted) banning of the Communist Party. It will seek to demonstrate that the history of anti-communism, similar to communism, has a transnational dimension that is only starting to be investigated by historians.

So if you’re attending the conference, come and say hello. And if you’re not, why not? (If you’re interested in reading the paper and not attending, send me an email and I will send something to you after the conference)

Furthermore, a number of people from the newly formed Australian Modern British History Network will be attending, so discussions may be afoot about organising something under the AMBHN banner in the not too distant future. So if you’re attending and have an interest British history or the history of the British Empire/Commonwealth, also come and say hello (and join the FB group) and maybe help get this new network off the ground!

See you at the Hunter on Hunter!

And to finish, here is some classic music from the Newcastle region:


Review of our book in British Journal of Criminology

This is just a quick post to direct people to the British Journal of Criminology where a review of our book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control has been published. The review can be found here. And if that convinced you that you must own a copy, you can purchase the book (or tell your institutional library to do so) here.


Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa in the Far Right Popular Imagination

In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, it has emerged that the killer had been photographed in clothing bearing the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. While a lot has been written on this in the last two days, I thought I would post this on how these regimes (and their flags) are used as symbols of white supremacy and racialised anti-communism by the far right across the Anglophone world.

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Between the early 1960s and the early 1990s, Southern Africa became a focal point in the Cold War, where South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South-West Africa (now Namibia), Mozambique and Angola were seen as bulwarks against communism and Pan-African socialism. South Africa had adopted the policy of apartheid in 1948 which separated the population into distinct racial categories and denied most rights to its ‘non-European’ subjects. It also controlled, unofficially the territory known as South-West Africa, which it has inherited as a mandate territory from Germany after the First World War. Although the United Nations did not recognise South Africa’s mandate, South-West Africa was run on apartheid policies until it gained independence in 1990. Southern Rhodesia, also known as just Rhodesia, broke away from the British Commonwealth in 1965 in a Unilateral Declaration of Independence after the Prime Minister Ian Smith disagreed with pressure placed upon the country to broaden its parliamentary framework to include the African majority.

Mozambique and Angola were colonies of Portugal, which was under an authoritarian right-wing dictatorship until 1974. By the time that these two colonies gained independence in 1975, a ten year civil war had been fought in Angola, in which both the West and the Soviet blocs intervened, and soon after independence, Mozambique was drawn into a conflict between political groups backed by the West and the Soviets. These nations in Southern Africa allied themselves with the West, primarily the USA and the UK, portraying themselves as frontline states in a war against communist aggression, and in the Cold War era, this ensured that the Western powers supplied these countries (directly and by proxy) with military, political and economic support. At most times over this thirty year period, the systematic racism of these countries was overlooked in favour of their anti-communism.

Beginning in the late 1950s, anti-apartheid movements began in several Western countries (such as the UK, the USA and the Netherlands), highlighting the racism of the apartheid system in South Africa, as well as its neighbouring states, South-West Africa and Rhodesia. These movements boomed in the late 1960s and early 1970s and called for a series of economic, trade, cultural and sporting boycotts against these regimes. For many in the Western world, as well as in the Eastern Bloc and the ‘Third World’, apartheid was an anomaly in the post-war era, which should have been relegated to history like Nazism, fascism and European colonialism. Writing in 1976, Jack Woddis, a member of the British AAM, wrote:

Southern Africa clings on, a last stubborn outpost of a past epoch. White rule in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia is an anachronism. History has passed its verdict. Apartheid and all its works must go.

During the 1970s, things started to move faster in Southern Africa. As mentioned above, Mozambique and Angola gained independence from Portugal, which spurred the Zimbabwean national liberation movement towards victory in its struggle against the Smith regime, despite the military intervention by South Africa. Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, alongside Angola, became the frontline warzone in Southern Africa, with the fight between Patriotic Front (made up of the Soviet-backed ZAPU and the Chinese-backed ZANU) and the Rhodesian/South African armed forces, supported (at least by supply of weapons) by the US and the UK.

As Matthew Cheney has shown, Soldiers of Fortune magazine highlighted the conflict and acted as a recruiting agent for mercenaries and paramilitarists from across the Western world, particularly from the USA. This pamphlet, produced in the late 1970s, also shows the vast amount of recruiting done by the Rhodesian regime in South Africa and the propaganda that promoted the idea of a racialised anti-communism linking the two countries. Declaring that Rhodesia and South Africa were fighting for ‘the West’, the pamphlet states:

The truth of the matter is that the West has lost the will to fight to defend the principles and values that made them great. They are in fact so fearful of having to fight that they have devised a number of ploys to appease any Soviet or Black demand made on them. This appeasement is called ‘détente’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘majority rule’ and the results are always the same; multiracial democracy must give way to black socialist dictatorship!

But the true South African hasn’t lost his willingness to fight…

This racialised anti-communism also made South Africa and Rhodesia popular symbols of white supremacy for fascists and neo-Nazis across the world. As the Africa is a Country blog has shown the far right in the United States has long celebrated South Africa and Rhodesia as bastions of anti-communism and white supremacy. More recently in 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Centre reported that the South African apartheid-era activists Arthur Kemp, who had extensive ties with the British National Party, was liaising with several neo-Nazi groups in the US.

The British fascist movement had long flirted with apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. The first leader of the National Front, A.K. Chesterton, spent much time in South Africa during the 1960s, attempting to foster links between the apartheid regime and his fascist groups in the UK, firstly the League of Empire Loyalists and then the NF. Anti-apartheid activist Brian Bunting wrote in the late 1960s that Oswald Mosley and several of his associates had visited South Africa and had meetings with top-level figures inside the nationalist government. According to Bunting, Mosley declared during one visit to the country, ‘I think South Africa is one of the healthiest places in the world’. In the UK itself, a ‘tradition’ amongst NF and BNP members in the late 1980s was to attempt to attack the non-stop picket outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square as an expression of solidarity with the apartheid regime.

Australia’s neo-Nazis also expressed ‘solidarity’ with South Africa through attacks on anti-apartheid activists and organisations. Most notably, the former leader of National Action, Jim Saleam, was jailed for a shotgun attack on African National Congress representative Eddie Funde in 1989, while the Pan-African Embassy (a protest structure outside the South African Embassy in Canberra) was allegedly firebombed a year later. A national inquiry into racist violence held in 1991 found that members of National Action and other far right organisations had maintained a campaign of intimidation and harassment against ANC and SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation) representatives in Australia.

Although both Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa have disappeared, these former regimes are held up by racists across the world as examples of white supremacy ‘betrayed’ by the liberalism of the Western world. Like the Confederate flag (or the swastika), the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa are historical symbols used by the far right to ‘remember’ idealised versions of the past, where white people were able to assert their supremacy. To the rest of the world, they represent racism, violence and murder on a systematic basis.

The Last Stubborn Outpost of a Past Epoch: The British Communist Party and National Liberation in Zimbabwe, pt. 3

This is the third (and final) post in a series looking at how the Communist Party of Great Britain viewed and interacted with the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. The other instalments can be found here and here.


Throughout the 1970s, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was seen as a weak link in the imperialist rule that spanned Southern Africa at the time. From 1972 (when the Pearce Commission was held) until the withdrawal of Portugal from Mozambique and Angola in 1975, Rhodesia was the primary battleground between the national liberation movements, the Soviet-backed ZAPU and the pro-Chinese ZANU, and the Rhodesian Army, supported by the South African regime (and by proxy the USA and the UK). After Mozambique and Angola became independent in 1975, the racist states of South Africa, Namibia and Rhodesia were further isolated. On the global stage, the US and the UK were now wavering in their (outright) support for these white-ruled countries and pressure, particularly from the US, was put upon Rhodesian leader Ian Smith to accept majority rule. The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain, especially the Communist Party of Great Britain, were galvanised by these developments. In a 1976 pamphlet, the head of the CPGB’s International Department, Jack Woddis, wrote:

Southern Africa clings on, a last stubborn outpost of a past epoch. White rule in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia is an anachronism. History has passed its verdict. Apartheid and all its works must go.

After the Pearce Commission in 1972, the Communist Party suggested that any ‘settlement’ in Zimbabwe would have to take in the wishes of the Zimbabwean people and it had realistically put the end to any secret deal between the British Conservative government and the Smith regime. Writing in CPGB fortnightly journal Comment (August 11, 1973) Martin Gostwick stated that ‘a “settlement” now which does not enable the people to take the power and win independence will have to be made over heads’ and despite the ‘conniving’ of the British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home and Ian Smith, it was unlikely that the Zimbabwean people would allow this to happen. The British, Gostwick argued, still had a role to play in ending white rule in Zimbabwe and urged ‘progressive forces’ in Britain to ‘aid the struggle in the ways which the peoples think will help’. However ultimately reminded readers that ‘Prime responsibility in the struggle for self-determination rests with the people of Zimbabwe’.

The granting of independence to Mozambique and Angola in 1975 changed the dynamic in southern Africa, with Mozambique (which shared a border with Zimbabwe) heavily assisting the ZANU and its armed section ZANLA and the civil war in Angola drawing in the South African military in a proxy war with the Soviet Union and Cuba. Rhodesia was becoming increasingly isolated and although the apartheid regime in South Africa still largely supported the Smith regime, South Africa was being pushed to the limits militarily and economically. As Mike Terry wrote in Comment in April 1975:

With the overthrow of the fascist and colonial Caetano regime in Portugal and with Mozambique and Angola on the road to independence, a key factor in how the struggle in southern Africa develops as a whole is the situation in Zimbabwe…

Apart from the external factors, the mid-1970s were also a turning point in the Zimbabwean struggle as it brought together the two largest national liberation forces into a formal alliance. Since the Pearce Commission broke down in 1972, there had been agreement between ZAPU, ZANU and the various African groups within Zimbabwe that the African National Council (ANC) would be an umbrella organisation for the different strains involved in the struggle. As the CPGB resolution on Southern Africa at the Party’s 1975 National Congress (republished in Comment in November 1975) stated:

In Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), the ANC… co-ordinates the various forms of struggle which have led to the increasing insecurity of the settler regime, and leads the fight against the growing repression, and to win full liberation, based on democratic majority rule.

As talks were to begin in Geneva in late 1976, the leading figures of ZAPU (Joshua Nkomo) and ZANU (Robert Mugabe) met in Lusaka to discuss a military and political alliance. The result of these negotiations was the establishment of the Patriotic Front, which was a formal alliance between the two groups, and the PF represented the national liberation movement in Zimbabwe at Geneva in December 1976, facing off against representatives from the Smith regime, as well as the Americans and the British. Combat intensified in Zimbabwe as the Geneva talks broke down, as Smith demanded a long ‘transition’ to majority rule under white supervision, which was rejected by the PF.

Despite being traditionally pro-ZAPU and highly critical of Mugabe’s ZANU, the CPGB welcomed the formation of the PF, with John Sprack calling the PF an attempt to ‘eliminate the chances of a civil war’ (Comment March 5, 1977). In May of the same year, Denis Shaw further outlined in Comment the Communist Party’s position, conceding that while ZANU had ‘many of the features of the right wing breakaway of the Pan Africanist Congress [in South Africa]’, it had ‘increasingly adopted a more progressive character’ and had ‘borne the brunt of the military operations of the liberation movement’ since 1972. For the CPGB, they argued that ‘coordination at a political was necessary if [unity] was to be maintained militarily’ and saw the PF as ‘the expression of this political cooperation’. By the time of the CPGB’s National Congress in November 1977, it seemed, on paper at least, that any apprehensions towards the role that ZANU were playing in the PF had disappeared. The resolution on Southern Africa boldly asserted:

We salute the heroic people of Zimbabwe who, in the face of Smith’s terror regime, are strengthening their unity under the leadership of the Patriotic Front in the fight to end white minority rule, win national liberation, and introduce a regime of democracy and equal rights, which will enable the people to complete their economic and social emancipation.

Between September 1977 and December 1980, a series of talks were held by the British and the Americans in an attempt to broker a deal between the Patriotic Front, the internal African groups and the Smith regime. Starting with the White Paper Rhodesia: Proposals for a Settlement (published in Sep 1977), the British proposed a staged transition to majority rule and an agreed ceasefire. Writing for Comment in December 1977, AAM activist Margaret Ling wrote that these proposals ‘were quite incapable of bringing about the kind of Zimbabwe for which the Patriotic Front are striving’ and condemned the British for putting forward this proposal. Ling wrote:

More than twelve years after UDI, Britain is still operating on the assumption that Rhodesia’s white minority can somehow be persuaded to voluntarily relinquish their powers and privileges, and can offer no guarantee whatsoever that by the time the proposed independence date arrives, the racialist regime would actually have been physically removed.

In March 1978, the Smith regime convinced the African groups inside the country to a new round of parliamentary elections where a number of seats were allocated to African voters. The Salisbury Agreement, or the Internal Settlement as it was more widely known, was boycotted by the Patriotic Front as it left the Smith government in power and the structures of the racist state still in tact. As Brian Bunting (from the South African Communist Party and CPGB/AAM member Christabel Gurney wrote in March 1978:

In Zimbabwe and Namibia…, the West recognises that the days of the white minority regime are numbered and that if no other ‘solution’ is found, the regimes face inevitable defeat by the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe and by SWAPO in Namibia.

So they have intervened – not to ensure genuine majority rule in these countries, but to frustrate it by attempting to tie the hands of the only movements which can lead their peoples to genuine freedom.

The internal settlement saw the installation of Bishop Muzorewa, who had been a leading opposition figure at the time of Pearce Commission, as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, with his United African National Council the only legal African party. In Comment (Nov 1978) the Muzorewa regime was accused of only surviving via South African support, with Jill Sheppard writing, ‘its war against the Zimbabwean people and neighbouring states is massively subsidised by South Africa.

The internal settlement was also criticised in the pages of Marxism Today by John Ngara, ZANU’s representative in London. Ngara described the purpose of the newly installed Muzorewa government was ‘to perpetuate the repressive regime through the cosmetic involvement of some Africans in a government in which the Rhodesian Front [Ian Smith’s party] wielded all power’. The publication of a piece by a ZANU representative in a CPGB journal might have been a demonstration of how seriously the Communist Party in Britain, and the wider Anti-Apartheid Movement, took the Patriotic Front alliance. Even the SACP’s African Communist ran a similar version of Ngara’s article, although the ANC (the close ally of the SACP) was, at the time, sceptical about ZANU’s overtures towards closer ties.

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During 1979, talks increased between the Smith regime and the PF, with Britain and Australia joining the negotiations at Lancaster House. A ceasefire and an agreement was finally signed by the Patriotic Front in December 1979 and elections were held in February 1980. While nominally the Patriotic Front still existed, both ZAPU and ZANU campaigned separately and both featured on the ballot. When the results were announced on March 4, 1980, it emerged that out of a total of 80 seats, ZANU had won 57 seats, ZAPU had won 20 and the UANC won 3. Christabel Gurney wrote in Comment that month that these results were ‘a great triumph for the Zimbabwean people’s liberation struggle’ and now ‘represent[ed] the interests and aspirations of the majority of its people’.

However the electoral result suggested Mugabe’s ZANU was looking to abandon the Patriotic Front and started openly criticising Nkomo’s ZAPU. The CPGB published a subsequent article by Ngara in Marxism Today (May 1980) which now attacked ZAPU and pronounced Mugabe’s government as the way forward for Zimbabwe. Ngara alleged that:

ZANU’s dependence upon Zambia, a country heavily dependent on Rhodesia and South Africa for its economy, tended to circumscribe ZAPU’s operations against the Smith regime.

This was compared with ZANU’s reliance upon Mozambique, which ‘tended to make the party more ideological’ and ‘led to its adoption of Marxism-Leninism as its guiding philosophy’. Ngara announced that Mugabe was committed to building socialism in Zimbabwe, but this would be implemented in a cautious and pragmatic fashion.

Vladimir Shubin, the Soviet Union’s liaison with the national liberation movements in South Africa, admitted that the Soviets were unhappy with ZANU gaining power and that Mugabe’s regime had developed links with China and North Korea. The Communist Party in Britain didn’t, in public at least, seem to share these same concerns, and pronounced that the victory of the PF in Zimbabwe gave great hope for SWAPO in Namibia and the ANC/SACP in South Africa. Gurney reminded readers that:

We must recognise that neither Zimbabwe not any other country in Southern Africa can develop in peace and security while apartheid South Africa remains.

There was considerable debate over whether the events that led to the liberation of Zimbabwe, particularly the long military campaign, would serve as a framework for the eventual destruction of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. However, when interviewed in Marxism Today in 1984, SACP/ANC figure Joe Slovo distanced the approach that the SACP/ANC were taking to what had occurred in Zimbabwe:

We are going to have our own model. In a sense, I don’t believe in simply following models.

The Communist Party, through the pages of Marxism Today, were also distancing themselves from the two parties of the former Patriotic Front. In a May 1983 article, David Jones claimed that ‘ZAPU was no left wing party’ and described both ZAPU and ZANU as no more than national liberation movements with ‘a bundle of interests united against the overriding oppression of Ian Smith and his settler government’. Costa Gazidis, a member of the Pan Africanist Congress, wrote into the journal and criticised Jones’ claims:

For many years during the war of national liberation, the left in Britain gave exclusive support to ZAPU because it was regarded as the only ‘authentic’ and ‘socialist movement, while ZANU was all but ignored. The unexpected success of ZANU threw ZAPU supporters in Britain into disarray. The eclipse of ZAPU deeply saddened the Anti-Apartheid movement, and their support group ZECC (Zimbabwe Emergency Co-ordinating Committee) was quickly disbanded.

While Gazidis described the Mugabe government as a ‘revolutionary government’ and declared that the ‘national bourgeoisie in Zimbabwe are a progressive and patriotic force’, the CPGB was cooling any support it had for Mugabe, but still believed that victory in Zimbabwe was an important step for the forthcoming dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa.


As I have argued over these three blog posts, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was seen as a vital battleground in the fight against racism, imperialism and apartheid in Southern Africa and for most of the 1970s, the Communist Party of Great Britain, as well as many others on the British left, viewed Rhodesia/Zimbabwe as the weakest link in the imperialist chain (to paraphrase Lenin). Roger Fieldhouse, quoting Abdul Minty (Honorary Secretary of the AAM in Britain), suggests that the struggle in Zimbabwe sometimes overshadowed the fight against apartheid in South Africa. However, as Fieldhouse acknowledges, others disagree and see the collapse of the Smith regime in Rhodesia as an important step for the national liberation of the whole of Southern Africa.

This is the line that the Communist Party took, expressing solidarity with national liberation movements across the developing world – while defeating apartheid in South Africa was important, it was only one arena in a larger struggle against imperialism and racism worldwide. At the same time, while the CPGB was heavily invested in the victory of the PF (and before that, ZAPU) in Zimbabwe, it became clear soon after Mugabe’s victory that things were developing differently to how it was predicted by the international communist movement.

New review of ‘Against the Grain’ in British Politics journal

This is just a quick post to note that British Politics journal has published a short review of Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956. The review concludes:

All in, this is an interesting book and a useful overview, covering a wide variety of issues. Although most could be dealt with in more depth, the book nonetheless is an essential contribution to the limited literature on the far left in Britain.

We note the criticisms and hopefully the following volume that we are trying to put together now will address these. Th link to the review is here.

The Communist Party and Mosley’s Union Movement, 1947-51

News came through this week that veteran anti-fascist campaigner Morris Beckman had died. Beckman had been involved in the 43 Group, a militant anti-fascist organisation set up in the late 1940s to combat Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement. The 43 Group worked alongside the Communist Party of Great Britain to fight the UM in the late 1940s and it can be argued that one of the reasons that Mosley fled to Ireland in the early 1950s was that the UM had encountered stiff anti-fascist resistance on the streets, led by these two organisations. Beckman’s account is worth reading, alongside Dave Hann’s history of militant anti-fascism – but the best account would still be David Renton’s book from 2000 on the subject.

The following post is an extract based on my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’, which, I anticipate, will be off to the publishers in the next week or so…

An anti-fascist meeting in the late 1940s

An anti-fascist meeting in the late 1940s

One of the key areas of the anti-racist struggle in the late 1940s was the fight against Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, which arose out of the ashes of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). A prominent organisation in building this anti-fascist resistance to the Union Movement was the Communist Party of Great Britain. The anti-fascist work of the CPGB during the inter-war period was one of the Party’s highest achievements and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’, where the Communist Party helped lead over 100,000 people in a demonstration against the BUF in October 1936, had quickly become part of the Party’s mythology. In his study of Mosley and British fascism, D.S. Lewis wrote of the importance of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the history of British anti-fascism and the vital role the Communist Party played:

On the day itself the CP divided responsibility for different streets amongst its members, as well as establishing first-aid posts, information posts, and runners to carry messages to other sectors of ‘the front’. The rest, of course, is history.[1]

Mark Neocleous wrote in his study of fascism, ‘seeing fascism as a historical phenomenon that ended in 1945 or thereabouts… encourages a dangerous forgetting’.[2] While Mosley and leading members of the BUF, as well as the leader of the tiny Imperial League of Fascists, Arnold Leese were interned during the Second World War, this did not happen to the majority of fascists. Although the War and internment were huge blows to British fascism, it did not end in 1940.[3] Richard Thurlow correctly pointed out that the fascist organisations that existed in the inter-war period did not survive the War, but that did not stop Mosley and other fascists attempt to adapt fascism to the post-war period.[4] From 1945 and 1951, Mosley’s Union Movement, alongside other fascist organisations and agitators, revived a campaign of violence and intimidation, with a programme that still ‘smacked of fascism’, despite attempts by the Union Movement to distance itself from the BUF.[5] As the majority of British people were clearly hostile to fascism in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Union Movement was ‘always doomed to failure’, but as James Eaden and David Renton acknowledged, anti-fascists, including the CPGB, ‘can also claim some credit for having helped to hasten fascism’s demise’.[6] In the post-war period, the Communist Party was a leading organisation in the anti-fascist movement after the ‘failure of the Labour Party to take a lead in the street campaigns against Mosley’.[7] Alongside the CPGB were Jewish organisations, such as the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, progressive organisations, such as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), and the radical organisations, such as the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the 43 Group.

Despite the decision of the state to intern fascists during the Second World War, the post-war Labour Government was reluctant to act decisively against fascist agitators, believing the existing laws would contain the negligible fascist elements that existed in post-war Britain.[8] However the state was far from neutral on the issue of post-war fascism, with Noreen Branson recounting:

Home Secretary [Chuter] Ede had imposed a temporary ban on all political processions in London… Yet, as the Communist Party Executive pointed out, hundreds of police were being used to protect meetings by the fascist Oswald Mosley who was trying to re-establish his anti-semitic organisation.[9]

As E.P. Thompson wrote in a 1947 pamphlet, Fascist Threat to Britain, ‘It is quite clear that the fascists welcome the police at their meetings – not as a warning, but as protection from the justice of the people’.[10] This did not prevent the Communist Party from demanding that the state be used to contain fascist activity. Arguing against the common assumption that ‘the police already have enough powers to deal with [the fascists]’, Thompson declared, ‘If they have, they should use them. If they have not, they should be given the powers they need’.[11] As the Labour Government was viewed as not dealing effectively with the fascist resurgence, the Communist Party, with its ‘reputation for anti-fascist work going back to Cable Street’, began anti-fascist work against Mosley and the Union Movement.[12]

However there was a move by the CPGB leadership away from the direct militant action of the 1930s, such as that witnessed at Cable Street, to a position of reliance upon the state. In Thompson’s pamphlet, the actions advocated by the Party did not include direct action, instead demands were made that ‘spreading of specifically fascist doctrine… be outlawed’, ‘spreading of racial hatred and anti-Semitism… be made a crime’ and that ‘existing laws… be strictly enforced’.[13] Alongside this, the Party urged that other organisations ‘go on record for the outlawing of fascism’ and more immediately, ‘If the fascists come into your locality, get all the inhabitants to sign a petition of protest to the Home Secretary’.[14] Nigel Copsey suggested two reasons for this move away from direct militant action. The first was that the ‘decisive action taken by the state’ against the British fascists during the Second World War led the CPGB leadership to believe that a ‘non-confrontational policy towards fascism was the most appropriate’.[15] Secondly, the cautious post-war policy by the Communist Party should be read as a result of their support for the Labour Government in the early post-war years.[16] As part of the transformation by the CPGB to adjust to Britain’s post-war conditions, the Party leadership ‘officially discouraged any anti-fascist activity likely to give the Communist Party a bad name’. By demanding a state ban on fascism, the CPGB attempted to appear as a respectable political party.[17] This reliance on the state and reluctance to be involved militant actions contributed largely to how the Communist Party anti-fascist campaigns throughout the post-war period.

In the 1945 General Election campaign, the CPGB had proposed that anti-Semitism become a criminal offence, an attempt to attract support from the local Jewish circles and emphasise the Party’s anti-fascist stance.[18] While a proposal for banning anti-Semitic propaganda and agitation was a practical task to deal with the immediate threat of fascism, the total banning of fascist organisations by the state was much more problematic. As seen with the 1936 Public Order Act, while the Government stressed that ‘any legislation would apply equally to the Left as well as to the Right’, in practice the state used this legislation ‘almost entirely… against anti-fascist protestors’.[19] The CPGB bore the brunt of the state’s zealousness to keep the status quo and as David Renton has written, the state frequently used its laws to harass the CPGB while sympathising with the fascists.[20]

This did not prevent all Communist members from being involved in militant action to stop the Union Movement organising, with some members of the CPGB working closely with the anti-fascist collective, the 43 Group. Formed in March 1946 as a militant anti-fascist group with the aim to ‘go on the attack against the emergent fascists with a view to destroying them’,[21] a ‘number of prominent members of the Communist Party’ David Renton wrote, ‘had taken part in the discussions leading to the formation of the 43 Group’ with a ‘party cell’ existing within the Group.[22] It was believed at the time by the police and the fascists that the 43 Group was a Communist front organisation, but as Morris Beckman, one of the founders of the Group, told Socialist Review:

It was said that the 43 Group was a subversive Communist organisation… We were not connected to any organisation, but sometimes we worked with the Communists. They wanted to take us over… Sometimes we found ourselves attacking the same fascist meetings as the Communists. We would even pass information to them.[23]

Beckman wrote in his memoir of the 43 Group, ‘the enemy of our enemy was our friend, and the Communists were actively attacking the fascists’.[24] The CPGB leadership could not publicly condone the actions of the 43 Group, but there was no disciplinary action against those Party members involved.

The Communist Party and its anti-fascist work of the 1930s and 1940s has been largely identified with the Jewish population of London and the considerable Jewish membership within the Party. The relationship between the Jewish community and the CPGB has been well-documented by Henry Srebrnik, who described the Party’s anti-fascist legacy and its stature among East End Jews as tapping into a ‘specifically ethnic means of political expression’.[25] For the Jews of East End London, their attraction to the CPGB was the Party’s ‘self-appointed role as a steadfast opponent to all manifestations of domestic fascism’.[26] In the Stepney branch, one of the Party’s biggest, around fifty per cent of the one thousand members in 1945 were Jewish.[27] As the Union Movement began to agitate in the early post-war period, Communist Party members and Jewish activists both fought against the fascist revival, utilising the memory of the Party’s anti-fascist work of the inter-war period. However by the early 1950s, the Jewish Communist subculture had fallen into decline, although as late as 1965, it was estimated that around ten per cent of the CPGB’s membership was Jewish.[28]

There are several factors for this decline. David Renton stated that the physical destruction of London’s East End by the Blitz meant that large numbers of the Jewish population moved north and west, out of the areas where the BUF had drawn support and with the end of the war, more former East End Jews became employed in middle-class jobs, with the number of Jews in trade unions dropping dramatically.[29] Alongside this, Chimen Abramsky, Secretary of the CPGB’s National Jewish Committee, suggested that in the post-war period, ‘Fascism was not the main issue of the day’ and the CPGB was ‘more concerned with the danger of the Cold War, with the Marshall Plan, with the future of India, of the future of Palestine’, believing that Mosley was ‘a spent force’.[30] There was also the Communist Party’s opposition to Zionism, based on Stalin’s statement that Zionism was ‘reactionary nationalist trend of the Jewish bourgeoisie’, as well as the Party’s uncritical support for the Soviet Union when details of widespread anti-semitism amongst the CPSU began to surface in the 1950s.[31] However there was an uneasiness amongst some CPGB members towards the large Jewish membership in London, which is possibly indicative of the latent working class racism that the Party had to face in the post-war period, demonstrated by this passage in Bob Darke’s 1952 exposé on the Communist Party:

Yet I never felt happy with Jewish Communists. They were too sensitive, their feelings were too close to the skin. They were certainly among the hardest-working, most active members of the Party, but they made me uncomfortable. And a great many Gentile comrades felt the same way.[32]

After six years of anti-fascist activity, the Union Movement went into decline and in 1951, Mosley left Britain for self-imposed exile in Ireland. This can be viewed as the end of ‘classical’ fascism in the vein of the inter-war movement, although not the end of fascism in Britain (as the rise of the National Front demonstrated). The defining organisation for the post-war fascist movement was the League of Empire Loyalists (LEL), formed in 1954 by former BUF Director of Propaganda, A.K. Chesterton and an organisation through which nearly all the important figures of post-war fascism passed. However the fascists were now a response to the collapse of world imperialism and the decolonisation process. In the Cold War polarisation between Washington and Moscow, Britain had lost its significance as a world power and for the fascist organisations of the mid-1950s onwards, non-white Commonwealth immigrants became the new scapegoat for the fascists’ perceived threat to the ‘remnants of the British Empire and way of life’.[33]

Once Mosley left for Ireland in 1951, the other fascist organisations that existed were more influenced by the inter-war Imperial Fascist League’s Arnold Leese than Mosley, emphasising anti-Semitism and racism against Britain’s black immigrants. What characterised British fascism between 1951 and the formation of the National Front in 1967 was a series of splits into tiny organisations featuring the same individuals, the result of attempting to adjust fascism to post-war Britain and a succession of personal clashes. From 1957 onwards, the same names – Colin Jordan, John Tyndall, Martin Webster, John Bean, Andrew Fountaine – were involved in various groups, which despite numerous splits and different organisational titles, were only superficially distinguishable from each other, primarily the White Defence League (WDL), National Labour Party (NLP), British National Party (BNP), National Socialist Movement (NSM) and the Greater Britain Movement (GBM). Despite involvement in and brief notoriety from the anti-immigrant agitation of the Notting Hill riots, these fascists achieved little during this period. Copsey remarked that, ‘[f]or the most part, the 1950s in Britain were quiescent years for both fascists and anti-fascists’,[34] despite appealing to populist anti-black racism. The focus of anti-racist activists, including those in the Communist Party, in the 1950s and 1960s was the mainstream prejudice against newly arrived Commonwealth immigrants.


[1] D.S. Lewis, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society, 1931-81, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1987, p. 125

[2] Mark Neocleous, Fascism, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1997, p. xi

[3] David Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, Macmillan, London, 2000, p. 23

[4] Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History 1918-1985, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987, p. 233

[5] Lewis, Illusions of Grandeur, p. 239

[6] James Eaden & David Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, Palgrave, Houndmills, 2002, p. 108

[7] Eaden & Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, p. 108

[8] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 74

[9] Noreen Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-1951, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1997, p. 203

[10] Edward Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1947, p. 12

[11] Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, p. 12

[12] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 80

[13] Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, p. 14

[14] Thompson, Fascist Threat to Britain, p. 14

[15] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 87

[16] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 87

[17] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 87

[18] Henry Srebrnik, London Jews and British Communism, 1935-1945, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1995, p. 75

[19] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, Macmillan, Houndmills, 2000, p. 64; Richard C. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in T. Kushner & N. Valman, Remembering Cable Street, p. 91

[20] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, pp. 101-129

[21] Morris Beckman, The 43 Group, Centerprise Publications, London, 1993, p. 26

[22] David Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2001, pp. 176-177

[23] ‘Our War Against Fascism’, interview with Morris Beckman, Socialist Review, March 1993, p. 23

[24] Beckman, The 43 Group, p. 30

[25] Henry Srebrnik, ‘Sidestepping the Contradictions: The Communist Party, Jewish Communists and Zionism, 1935-48’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan (eds), Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party, Pluto Press, London, 1995, p. 136; Italics are in the original text

[26] Henry Srebrnik, London Jews and British Communism, 1935-1945, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1994, p. 53

[27] Tony Kushner, ‘Jewish Communists in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Zaidman Collection’, Labour History Review, 55/2, 1990, p. 66

[28] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 89; Kushner, ‘Jewish Communists in Twentieth-Century Britain’, p. 66

[29] Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 89

[30] Cited in, Renton, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Britain in the 1940s, p. 89

[31] J. Stalin, ‘Marxism and the National Question’, in J. Stalin, Works vol. 2, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1953, p. 418, fn. 131

[32] Bob Darke, The Communist Technique in Britain, Penguin Books, London, 1952, p. 44

[33] Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 239

[34] Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 102