The role of the Communist Party in the British anti-racist movement

 

Below is something that I wrote as an overview of the book that I have been writing over the last year and with the manuscript finally submitted to the publisher a few weeks ago (and deadlines for other projects looming), I thought I’d post this.

sharma

I have recently completed a book manuscript on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’ (currently with the publishers) which uncovers the prominent anti-racist role that the Party played in the post-war era. The history of the Communist Party’s role in the anti-racist movement in Britain is one of varying degrees of success and failure from the 1940s to the 1980s. As one of the initial political organisations to actively campaign against the racial discrimination faced by black people in Britain, it was at the forefront of the broad anti-racist movements of the 1950s and 1960s (borne out of the earlier anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements that the CPGB participated in). However by the 1970s and 1980s, the role of the Communist Party in the anti-racist movement was surpassed, on one hand by black activists who formed autonomous black-led organisations and on the other by the groups of the far left, such as the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group, who proposed a more radical political agenda, including a more confrontational anti-racist/anti-fascist programme. Although the shift towards embracing the new social movements, centred around those writing for Marxism Today, somewhat reinvigorated the CPGB in the 1980s and possibly promised a potentially more nuanced anti-racist strategy, the Party was on the verge of collapse and did not translate into practical anti-racist activism.

In 1957, Claudia Jones, the West Indian-American communist who had been deported from the USA, wrote in an article for the CPGB’s weekly journal discussing West Indians in Britain:

Our Party is judged among colonial workers by its policy, but much more so by its deeds.[i]

Spanning nearly the entire period of what Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘short twentieth century’,[ii] the Communist Party, throughout its existence, had campaigned against colonialism, the ‘colour bar’ and racial discrimination (and racist violence) in the colonial sphere and in Britain. The Communist Party was one of the first organisations within the British labour movement to have an explicit anti-racist agenda, opposing the ‘colour bar’ in the British Empire/Commonwealth then opposing it in the domestic sphere, as the number of Commonwealth migrants rose in the 1940s and 1950s.

The question that I have sought to answer in my book is how successful was the Party’s effort to help fight racism faced by Britain’s black and Asian communities and how successful was the Party in convincing other sections of the labour movement to take up the anti-racist struggle. In assessing this, my argument is that CPGB were constantly in a balancing act between looking to the trade unions and other labour organisations to spearhead the anti-racist movement, making white workers aware of the fight against racism, and working more closely with the black communities at the grassroots level, where there increasing scepticism over the eagerness of the trade unions to combat racism. As a Liverpudlian Party member asked in a letter to the Party magazine Comment in 1981:

On what terms do we involve the labour movement in the [anti-racist] struggle, as the vanguard taking over the direction of the struggle or as supporters of the black community bringing the power of the movement to bear where the black community itself feels the most urgent need?[iii]

Since the reformation of factory branches during the Second World War, and particularly as the Party’s post-war programme The British Road to Socialism saw them as key to any influence upon the Labour Party, the trade unions were central to the CPGB’s agenda, including in the fight against racism. While the Party was attracting a number of black workers, activists and students from across the Commonwealth in the 1950s, its literature focussed on attempts to convince trade unionists to welcome these fellow workers and campaign against ‘colour bars’ in the labour movement and the workplace. In the pages of the daily newspaper Daily Worker in the late 1950s, Party member Kay Beauchamp stressed ‘the need for the whole Labour movement to take up the fight against colour discrimination, for the trade unions to champion the rights of coloured workers and to make a special appeal to them to join the unions.’[iv] Although the trade unions supported campaigns, such as Fenner Brockway’s Movement for Colonial Freedom, at bloc level, getting individual trade unionists to take part in anti-racist activities was a much more difficult task. As others have pointed out, until the mid-1970s, trade unionists favoured a ‘colour blind’ approach that promoted no ‘special treatment’ for people based on ethnicity or nationality, but then offered little assistance to those who needed help in overcoming racial discrimination in the workplace.

The elections of Labour in 1964 and 1966 highlighted the differences between the labour movement and the needs of Britain’s black communities, and the problem that the Communist Party had in attempting to win the ‘mass party’ towards a Labour-Communist alliance and maintaining a credible anti-racist programme. Although Labour did introduce legislation against racial discrimination in public places, housing, employment and in social services in 1965 and in 1968, this was done in conjunction with further restrictions on immigration from the Commonwealth, which tied together the notions of integration with restriction. As Dilip Hiro wrote, this signalled a convergence between Labour and the Conservatives on the issues of immigration and racial justice:

[a]n advanced, albeit minor, on the front for ethnic minorities was conceded by the Conservatives in exchange for a retreat by Labour in the matter of immigration restrictions.[v]

It also signalled to black workers in Britain that Labour’s anti-racist idealism could be countered by the poll-driven necessity to be as ‘tough on immigration’ as the Conservatives. A major part of the Communist Party’s anti-racist agenda throughout the 1960s and 1970s was to campaign for Labour to repeal its commitment to racist immigration control measures and to place further powers in the Race Relations legislation, but the two terms of Harold Wilson in government showed that these were difficult demands to implement. It was absolutely necessary for the Communist Party to oppose these racist actions by the Labour Party, just as much as it opposed those perpetrated by the Tories, but this was juxtaposed with the CPGB’s support for Labour in many other areas, especially in the electoral sphere. This inconsistency convinced a number of black activists and workers that it was better to join black community or single issue organisations, rather than be a minority in the primarily ‘white’ labour organisations. This deviated from the strategy put forward by the CPGB, who were wary that these black community organisations would feed into the ‘black power’ movement and turn black workers away from the importance of the class struggle.[vi]

Even in the 1970s, as the trade unions became more aware of the issues of racism faced by black workers and new networks of solidarity were formed between the labour movement and the black communities, there were still tensions over the direction of political activity in these areas. In his book, Virdee describes the Grunwick strike from 1976 to 1978 and the success of the Anti-Nazi League between 1977 and 1981 as important steps for the British labour movement in overcoming the bifurcation of the working class that had existed in the 1960s and early 1970s,[vii] but these new bonds between black and white workers raised questions over political strategy and the aims of the various people involved in these actions. For example, was strike action at Grunwick primarily about defending the right to strike or combating racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace (or fighting the sexist treatment of South Asian women by the management at Grunwick)? Was the anti-fascist movement more concerned with the threat that the National Front posed to the working class, or did it concentrate on the racial violence and harassment experienced by black Britons at the hands of NF and other fascist sympathisers?

Although the Grunwick strike and the relative success of the Anti-Nazi League showed that the British labour movement could be mobilised around issues of ‘race’ and anti-racism (and both have been celebrated for this in the intervening years since), these achievements came on the cusp of a watershed moment in British history, which upended much of the positive work achieved in the late 1970s. The election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in May 1979 signalled the beginning of a decade long struggle for both the labour movement and for Britain’s black communities. And despite a connection being made between migrant workers and the labour movement at places like Grunwick, many of the younger generation of the ethnic minority communities were still suspicious of left-wing and progressive groups and felt that their problems were not being represented in the political arena. Against this background of disillusionment with the traditional political vehicles open to the ethnic minority communities, large numbers of Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth were involved in public disorder activities across the country in 1980 and 1981.

Meanwhile, as the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and of Eurocommunism developed within the Communist Party during this period, a number of those involved in anti-racist activities acknowledged these tensions and promoted engaging with black workers, activists and youth in other ways. However by this time, the CPGB’s influence within the anti-racist movement had diminished. Other black activist and far left groups, such as the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) and the Race Today Collective on one hand and the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Workers Party on the other, had emerged who were more radical, confrontational and less beholden to the trade unions and the Labour Party. The middle ground that the Communist Party was holding onto was growing ever smaller.

The isolated position of the Communist Party from others within the anti-racist movement was exacerbated by its acceptance, as laid out in The British Road to Socialism, of the potentially positive role of the state. Many on the left eschewed any co-operation with the structures of the capitalist state and this extended to their anti-racist activism, whilst numerous black activists argued that most black people in Britain had experienced the racism of the state in some form and therefore could not relied upon to support an anti-racist agenda. This was particularly the case with the more radical black organisations that appeared in the 1970s, such as the British Black Panther Movement, the Race Today Collective and the Asian Youth Movements. The Communist Party routinely called for the strengthening of the Race Relations Act and for prosecution of those who incited racial hatred or committed racially discriminatory actions. However the uneven prosecutorial history of the Act, which saw black power activist Michael X jailed in 1967, but no case brought against Enoch Powell in 1968,[viii] made the case for others that were sceptical about progressive political movements encouraging the use of the repressive apparatuses of the state to intervene on their behalf. This was reinforced by the violence wreaked by the police against the mass pickets at Grunwick, at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 and against the anti-fascist movement on numerous occasions (which resulted in the deaths of two protestors in 1974 and 1979).

By the early 1980s, the CPGB was promoting the popular idea (amongst the Gramscian and Eurocommunist left, at least) that the Thatcher government had ushered in a new era of authoritarianism and that the working class, particularly black people, suffered at the hands of the police and other state agencies, but still pushed in its ‘Charter of Demands’ for greater state interventions in some areas, such as

Existing race relations and public order law must be firmly enforced against racists. These laws must be given more teeth to outlaw the advocacy and practice of racism.[ix]

The revised version of The British Road to Socialism that was drafted in 1977 also promoted greater co-operation with the state at the local level, with a number of CPGB activists proposing that local councils, particularly those controlled by the Labour Party, could serve as sites of resistance to the Thatcherite neoliberal state at the national level. These local councils became involved in what was described as ‘municipal anti-racism’, which tried to redistribute funding and services to ethnic minority communities and organisations, as well as promoting an ‘acceptable’ form of anti-racism. This was criticised by some, such as the AYMs, for only giving funds to those organisations and campaigns that were willing to acquiesce to the rules of the local council, arguing that this meant that the anti-racism of certain radical organisations was blunted. Others criticised the anti-racist training for buying into the Thatcherite paradigm and viewing racism as a solely ideological and individualistic problem, which overlooked the structural and socio-economic basis for racial inequality and racial discrimination. The result of this was, as Alana Lentin has argued, that independent anti-racist organisations and campaigns became increasingly institutionalised, co-ordinated (and co-opted) by local government agencies.[x] This dissipated much of the radical sections of the anti-racist movement during the 1980s, including the role of the Communist Party, who, for other reasons, was already on the verge of collapse.

BRS1977

In his discussion of the British left and the fight for gay rights, Graham Willett wrote about looking at how these Marxist groups dealt with movements that fought other types of oppression (rather than class oppression) from today’s perspective:

Deciding on these position depends on whether one assumes that socialists can be expected to transcend the limitations of their own times; whether they should be expected to hold to or, alternatively, to move beyond the most advanced politics available.[xi]

Although anti-racism was a much more accepted political objective than gay rights, with the socialist left promoting opposition to racial discrimination since the 1920s, Willett reminds us that those involved in anti-racist activism had to work within a labour movement (and wider political landscape) where racism was not taken as seriously as it is today and we cannot transpose contemporary political values onto the past. Whatever their actions, it is important to remember that the Communist Party of Great Britain was one of the most vocal anti-racist organisations from the 1920s to the 1980s. When black workers started to migrate to Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, it was one of the few organisations to consistently campaign for inclusion of black workers into the labour movement, as well as promoting a broader campaign against racial discrimination in British society. There were certainly limitations to this approach, particularly as the CPGB focused heavily upon the trade unions as a force for change within the anti-racist movement, while it seems that the trade unions lagged behind other sections of the movement to wholeheartedly put their weight behind the issue. From the late 1960s onwards, other left-wing and black activist organisations were able to surpass the position put forward by the CPGB, but their reach beyond the anti-racist movement, the far left and Britain’s substantial black communities was limited, while the CPGB had the potential to reach into the more centrist labour movement. The Morning Star, as a widely read daily newspaper amongst many trade unionists, covered anti-racist issues of a regular basis, forming a significant action on behalf of the Communist Party’s anti-racist programme. The fact that the Communist Party had its feet in both the trade union movement, but also inside radical left milieu and other progressive movements meant that in some ways it was in advantageous position, potentially reaching a broad audience for its programme, as outlined in The British Road to Socialism. But it also meant that the CPGB’s message often fell through the cracks – too radical for some, not radical enough for others – and its actions were diluted by this, with its activists being subsumed into larger social movements and organisations (and in the process losing any identity as a CPGB member). This was the case for the Party’s cohort of dedicated anti-racist activists.

At the 38th National Congress of the CPGB in 1983 (the Congress that saw the Morning Star faction break away from the CPGB over the political line put forward by Marxism Today), the Party’s resolution on the issue of racism criticised the Party for its lack of black membership:

The Congress is concerned at the under-representation of black people in the CPGB and believes that this is in part due to residual racialist attitudes and practices inside the Party.[xii]

From looking at the material published by the Communist Party and examining its internal records, it is hard to agree with this assumption made by in this resolution that racist attitudes existed within the CPGB. It is more likely that while nearly all members of the CPGB nominally agreed to an anti-racist programme, only a number were dedicated to anti-racist activism. The preceding sentence in the resolution is more accurate, that Congress ‘is aware that the [anti-racist] campaigning issues referred to [in the resolution] have not become an essential part of regular activity of every Party branch.’[xiii] Parallel to John Callaghan’s response when Marika Sherwood criticised the CPGB of being racist in the 1930s, while Party had ‘undoubted shortcomings’ in its recruitment of black members, it was just ‘not very good at recruiting any section of the population’ during the 1980s.[xiv] Its membership in 1983 was 15,691 (a loss of more than 14,000 members over the previous decade) and as Willie Thompson wrote, the Party was ‘being rendered incapable of doing anything very much apart from operating on its own body.’[xv] The resolution continued to state that ‘[w]hilst Congress welcomes the work of white comrades involved in anti-racist organisations such as CARL [the Campaign Against Racist Laws], this is no substitute for the task of bringing more black comrades into the Party.’[xvi] This highlights the crux of the problem for the CPGB anti-racist activists in the early 1980s – a section of its membership was heavily involved in various anti-racist campaigns and organisations, but this did not translate into tangible gains for the Party, which was in a downward spiral by now. But it also highlights some over optimistic feelings within the Party at the same time as it was unrealistic to expect many new members joining the Party during this period, particularly from a demographic that had been traditionally overlooked within the broader structures of the CPGB and the labour movement.

This post (and hopefully my book as well) has attempted to outline the importance of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the history of anti-racism in post-war Britain and its legacy, but also to highlight the difficulties faced by the Party and the limitations of its strategies. Without understanding the role that the CPGB played in the formation of the modern anti-racist movement in Britain, we cannot understand how the anti-racist movement has developed in the decades since then. The Communist Party was a pioneering force in the anti-colonialist and anti-racist movements from its birth in the 1920s until its slow demise in the 1980s, but it was also a ‘prisoner’ of this time and although sections of the Party promoted reform, it was unable to survive the seismic domestic and international political shifts of the 1980s and early 1990s and was thus was transcended by a new wave of anti-racist, radical and black activist groups. And with this transcendence, the forward march of the Communist Party and its role in the anti-racist movement had been, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, halted.[xvii]

grunwick

[i] Claudia Jones, ‘West Indians in Britain’, World News, 29 June, 1957, p. 416.

[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 2004) p. 3.

[iii] ‘Letters’, Comment, 17 October, 1981, p. 14.

[iv] Kay Beauchamp, ‘Democracy v Racial Prejudice’, Daily Worker, 16 May, 1957.

[v] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain (London: Paladin, 1992) p. 211.

[vi] Willie Thompson, ‘Black Power’, Cogito, n.d., pp. 4-5, CP/YCL/21/01, CPGB archive, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[vii] Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) p. 123.

[viii] Robin Bunce & Paul Field, Darcus Howe: A Political Biography (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) p. 30; Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) pp. 251-252.

[ix] Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds) Black & Blue: Racism and the Police (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1981) p. 29.

[x] Alana Lentin, Racism & Anti-Racism in Europe (London: Pluto Press, 2004) p. 143.

[xi] Graham Willett, ‘Something New Under the Sun: The Revolutionary Left and Gay Politics’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) p. 175.

[xii] ‘Racism’, Communist Focus (December 1983) p. 31.

[xiii] ‘Racism’, p. 31; Italics are my emphasis.

[xiv] John Callaghan, ‘Colonies, Racism, the CPGB and the Comintern in the Inter-War Years’, Science & Society, 61/4 (Winter 1997-98) p. 520.

[xv] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218; p. 190.

[xvi] ‘Racism’, p. 31.

[xvii] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today (September 1978) pp. 279-286.

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4 comments

  1. This is a fair minded enough review but because it relies on written sources it fails to account for the full spectrum of activity by communists. In particular the role of communists, including Kay Beauchamp and Tony Gilbert and others in Liberation (formerly the MCF), the close relations with the Indian Workers Association, the activity of the Guyanese with the CPGB, the critical role of communists in the anti apartheid struggle (which crossed over with anti racist work at many levels), Caribbean Labour Solidarity, etc, etc.

    Also missing is the vital theoretical work by Communist academics and others and teachers on intelligence, genetics and education which underpinned big shifts in educational theory and was critical in putting racist theories on the back foot..

  2. Thanks for the comment, Nick. Beauchamp and Gilbert, as well as the work of the MCF/Liberation get a fair mention in the book. Same with the IWA (especially Vishnu Sharma) and those involved in international solidarity work with the AAM, CLC, etc.

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