Month: April 2016

Powellism and the advent of the British far right: The Communist Party response

48 years ago this week, Tory Minister Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, in which he predicted dire consequences for Britain if further immigration from the Commonwealth continued. While criticised by many at the time, Powell’s speech opened up a political space to the right of the Conservative Party, mobilising around the issue of non-white immigration. This opening of the political space allowed far right organisations, such as the Monday Club, the National Front and the British Movement, to come to the fore and take advantage of the expression of popular racism by sections of the British public. For the burgeoning anti-racist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Powellism presented a significant threat that had been underestimated by many anti-racists and those on the left, including the Communist Party.

This post is based on an extract from my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of race between the 1940s and the 1980s. I submitted the final version to the publishers today, so look out for it in early 2017!

34585831

Although concerns over the social impact of non-white immigration had been expressed in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary discourses since the 1940s, a major turning point in the discourse was Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in April 1968, who brought the populist tone of the far right to a mainstream audience. Speaking at a local Conservative Party meeting in Birmingham, Powell launched a tirade against non-white migration, stating:

We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre…

We are on the verge here of a change. Hitherto it has been force of circumstance and of background which has rendered the very idea of integration inaccessible to the greater part of the immigrant population… Now we are seeing the growth of positive forces acting against integration, of vested interests in the preservation and sharpening of racial and religious differences, with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow immigrants and then over the rest of the population…

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.[i]

Powell’s speech alluded to the views of the ‘ordinary British citizen’ on race relations, immigration and ‘alien cultures’, appropriating the ‘crude and inconsistent racism expressed in the factories, shopping centres and pubs… endorsed by a politician who had the authority of education, political office and a position in the Shadow cabinet’.[ii] Powell attributed one of the most controversial remarks of the speech to an anonymous constituent, ‘a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man’, exploiting the anxieties of a large section of the British population in his declaration: ‘In this country in fifteen of twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip over the white man’.[iii] Although dismissed by Edward Heath for the shadow cabinet, Powell’s exploitation of popular racism generated much support for him with a Gallup Poll in May 1968 revealing that ‘74 per cent of those questioned agreed in general with his views and 24 per cent said they would like him to be leader of the Conservative Party if Edward Heath retired’.[iv] In the week following Powell’s speech, a series of strikes occurred across Britain, most prominently amongst the London dock workers, in support of Powell, either for his racist views or his right to free speech.

It was also Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that allowed the National Front to exploit popular racist attitudes as Powell ‘brought the language and arguments of the neo-fascist political fringe into the heart of the establishment’.[v] ‘There can be little doubt’, Richard Thurlow wrote, ‘that the NF would not have survived if Enoch Powell had not unwittingly given it such a helping hand in its infancy’.[vi] Powell’s speech gave the NF a massive boost, with it claiming 10,000 members in April 1968, although Searchlight editor, Gerry Gable estimated that it was probably around 7,000 ‘fully paid up’ members.[vii] However Powell was still seen as part of the Conservative establishment, which the NF tried to distant itself from. This led to a clash between the NF’s Director and BUF veteran, A.K. Chesterton and the more militant members, such as John Tyndall and Martin Webster, who were ‘desperate… to capitalize on support for Enoch Powell’ – a strategy that Chesterton, who eschewed the populism of Powell, had ‘resolutely opposed’.[viii] This clash resulted in Chesterton resigning in October 1970, with John O’Brien, a recent convert from the Conservative right via the National Democratic Party (NDP), becoming chairman in February 1971.[ix] Of the other founding members, Andrew Fountaine had earlier been expelled by Chesterton in mid-1968 and John Bean (from the British National Party) publicly disassociated himself from those who ousted Chesterton, despite being suggested for the post and withdrew from active politics.[x] O’Brien attempted to purge the NF of its neo-Nazi elements, represented in the leadership by Tyndall and Webster and throughout 1971, the factional fighting continued, but Tyndall was able to survive. In early 1972, O’Brien and his supporters defected to the National Independence Party (NIP), with Tyndall replacing him as chairman.[xi]

The formation of the National Front in February 1967 largely escaped protest from anti-fascist forces, with Nigel Copsey explaining that ‘opposition to the NF in the late 1960s was mainly restricted to a small amount of militant anti-fascists who followed the pattern of covert activity undertaken against the NF’s immediate predecessors’.[xii] This covert anti-fascist strategy, as well as the National Front’s relative obscurity, saw the Communist Party not particularly involved in anti-fascist action against the NF. The CPGB, symptomatic of the left in Britain as a whole, was ‘more concerned about the racial populism of Enoch Powell than the National Front’.[xiii]

Enoch Powell’s speech had encouraged ‘vicious racialist and fascist forces’ into ‘stirring up hatred against coloured people’ and ‘trying to whip up mass fear and hysteria’, but the ‘real enemy of all working people’, the Communist Party stated, was capitalism and the ‘Tory and right wing Labour Governments [who] keep the system going’.[xiv] Powell was described by Joan Bellamy in a 1968 CPGB pamphlet as ‘a diehard Tory who has never done anything to help the working people’, but this did not mean he was a fascist.[xv] However, by using the racist language normally associated with the fascist far right, Powell had ‘deliberately chose[n] to use words that would fan the flame of hatred, words that help to create an atmosphere in which people no longer listen to rational argument and facts’.[xvi] Joan Bellamy stating that, ‘Leading fascists were quick to recognise what Powell was doing’, noting that Colin Jordan, Oswald Mosley and Dennis Harmston of the Union Movement were in public agreement with Powell’s argument.[xvii]

The Communist Party relied on reports from Jewish organisations, the anti-fascist journal Searchlight and its own intelligence for knowledge on the fascist far right. The most detailed CPGB document on the NF in the early period was a May 1969 internal memo on ‘Rightist and Fascist Development’, which outlined the major figures in the NF and the structure of the organisation.[xviii] This report claimed that the ‘most serious and dangerous organisation appears to be the National Front… trying to take over right groups’ and able to ‘mobilise people quickly’.[xix] However as an article in Comment in July 1969 stated, for the CPGB, ‘Enoch Powell emerges ever more clearly as the most reactionary influence in British politics today’, with the author declaring that the Party must ‘redouble our efforts to defeat Powellism’.[xx]

Enoch-Powell-007

Powell’s speech tapped into existing feelings of popular racism and in the week following, a series of strikes occurred across Britain, most prominently amongst London dockworkers, in support of Powell, either for his racist views or his right to free speech. The response by the Communist Party was to emphasise who Powell was and what his politics were, stating that Powell was a ‘diehard Tory who has never done anything to help working people’ and a ‘declared enemy of the trade unions’.[xxi] At the executive level of the labour movement, where the CPGB held significant influence, the Morning Star reported on official motions of opposition to racism by the trade unions,[xxii] but at shopfloor level, the Party’s presence was less prominent. John Callaghan described the Communist Party members on the docks, who distributed leaflets denouncing Powell and ‘bravely addressed hostile mass meetings’, but acknowledged that the support for Powell demonstrated how marginal the Communist Party’s influence could be.[xxiii] With its members on the docks put ‘clearly on the defensive’ by the Powellite strikes,[xxiv] CPGB and LCDTU member, Danny Lyons ‘decided to bring in one of the Catholic padres to speak at the dock-gates’ in a hastily organised meeting.[xxv] While this action was felt to be misguided by other Communist dockworkers, Jack Dash, a leading Party member on the docks, stated retrospectively, ‘I thought it was wrong but then they had to do something’,[xxvi] which turned out, in the end, to be very limited. The Party’s limited influence on the docks at rank-and-file level and its dependence on its broad left allies in the labour movement had a significant impact upon its ability to fight racism during the Powellite strikes, but what the strikes did reveal was the level of popular racism still existing within the organised labour movement and the difficulties ahead for the Party in the struggle against racism.

In the wake of this, there was push in late 1968 and early 1969 to emphasise the campaign against racism by the Party and the YCL. A memo from the National Organiser at the time, Gordon McLennan to Frank Stanley, the London District Secretary, in May 1969 called for greater activity, particularly amongst the labour movement. This was to include ‘[t]he distribution of a Party leaflet on a wide scale at factories, trade union meetings, houses, etc, as well as ‘[f]actory gate and street meetings in which the fight against racialism will feature.’[xxvii] Most of the Party’s anti-racist literature produced between 1968 and 1970 concentrated on Enoch Powell and the influence that he had over sections of the Conservatives. What the Communist Party were anxious over was the continual tightening of controls as both Labour and the Conservatives made tougher proposals. As John Hostettler wrote, the Labour Government was ‘trying to show it [was] not to be outdone by Mr Heath who [was] trying to show he [was] not far behind Mr Powell’.[xxviii]

Throughout the early 1970s, Enoch Powell continued to dominate Conservative thinking about immigration and there is a suggestion by scholars that the Conservatives were eventually convinced by Powell’s argument, leading to the introduction of the Immigration Act 1971.[xxix] The Communist Party attempted to emphasise the association between Powellism and the National Front, trying to break the ‘respectable’ racism of Powell and the Monday Club. In a flyer distributed by the Westminster CPGB branch, it announced that ‘fascism is on the march again’, warning that it ‘wears the “respectable” face of Enoch Powell’, as well as appearing in ‘its most naked form in the National Front’.[xxx] The flyer called for the banning of a NF march in London, but also warned against Powell, ‘who pours out racialism whenever he appears on the telly’ and ‘publicly stated that whenever he sees a rich man he thanks God!’[xxxi] For the CPGB, the NF were ‘working to strengthen the capitalist system’, blaming black immigrants for the problems of capitalism and despite any appeal to the interests of the working class, ‘racialism plays into the hands of the capitalist class’.[xxxii] The aim of the NF was ‘to smash the trade union movement and make it servile to the state in the interests of state monopoly capital’, with ‘racialism… only the most obvious of their anti-working class policies’.[xxxiii] Essentially this was viewed as the same agenda as Enoch Powell, who Joan Bellamy described as ‘a declared enemy of the trade unions’.[xxxiv] The consensus was that Powell’s speech had given the fledgling NF valuable exposure that allowed the fascist fringe to exploit popular racism and anti-immigration sentiment. ‘“Enoch is Right” became the slogan of everyone from the Tory Monday Club through the National Front out to every tinpot little nazi sect’, Bob Campbell wrote in the Morning Star, linking Powell, the NF, various anti-immigration groups and the Orange movement.[xxxv] However there were differences between the various elements of the far right. Powell, as a traditional Conservative, ‘warned of the dangers of a corporate state emerging from the relationship between the Labour Government, the TUC and the CBI’, while the NF ‘tend toward[s] corporate statism… and suggest they are opposed to capitalism’.[xxxvi] But ‘what unites all the elements of the ultra right in Britain’, he wrote, ‘is the racist campaign on the question of immigration, and against black people as a whole’.[xxxvii] Although in private correspondence with Vishnu Sharma, a CPGB and IWA member, Joan Bellamy criticised Campbell for elevating the danger of these far right organisations when ‘the major enemy is racialist attitudes among people who do not have a consistent fascist or even right wing position, and the cowardly connivance of Troy and Labour politicians with right wing demands.’[xxxviii]

However, while Powell enjoyed wide popularity as an individual between 1968 and 1974,[xxxix] his political momentum stalled as he became a Tory backbencher and decided not to join one of the many anti-immigrant or far right groups that supported him (or form a party of his own). ‘Powellism’ and its anti-immigration message was soon overtaken by the Conservatives with the Immigration Act 1971, and then by the fascism of the National Front – and in the end, this racist populism was imbibed by early Thatcherism.

Anti-immigration march by Smithfield market porters

[i] Powell, Enoch, 1991, ‘To the Annual General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre’, in Reflections of a Statesman: The Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell, selected by Rex Collings, London: Bellew Publishing, p. 375; pp. 378-79.

[ii] Miles, Robert & Phizacklea, Annie, 1984, White Man’s Country: Racism in British Politics, London: Pluto Press, p. 64.

[iii] Powell 1991, pp. 373-74.

[iv] Miles and Phizacklea 1984, p. 64.

[v]Thurlow, Richard 1987, Fascism in Britain: A History 1918-1985, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 276.

[vi] Ibid., p. 279.

[vii] ‘Rightist and Fascist Developments’, 2 May 1969, in CPGB archives CP/CENT/SUBS/04/16, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[viii]Walker, Martin 1977, The National Front, London: Harper Collins, p. 94.

[ix]Shipley, Peter 1978, ‘The National Front’, Conflict Studies, 97, p. 14.

[x] Anti-Fascist Research Group, Anti-Fascist Bulletin, 5, March-June 1971, p. 27.

[xi]Lewis, D.S. 1987, Illusions of Grandeur: Mosley, Fascism and British Society, 1931-81, Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 252.

[xii] Copsey 2000, p. 116.

[xiii] Copsey 2000, p. 116.

[xiv] Bellamy, Homes, Jobs, Immigration – The Facts, pp. 2-3.

[xv] Bellamy, Joan, 1971, Homes, Jobs, Immigration – The Facts, >London: CPGB pamphlet, p. 3.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] ‘Rightist and Fascist Developments’

[xix] ‘Rightist and Fascist Developments’

[xx] Barnsby, George, ‘Wolverhampton and Powell’, Comment, 12 July 1969, p. 442.

[xxi] Bellamy, 1971, p. 3.

[xxii] Morning Star, 25 April 1968.

[xxiii]Callaghan, John, 2003, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68, London: Lawrence & Wishart, p. 112.

[xxiv]Lindop, Fred, 2001, ‘Racism and the Working Class: Strikes in Support of Enoch Powell in 1968’, Labour History Review, 66, 1, p. 91.

[xxv] Jack Dash, interview by Fred Lindop, 1984, MSS.371/QD7/Docks 2/10/1, Trade Unionism in British Docks, in Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Letter from Gordon McLennan to Frank Stanley, 28 May 1969, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/02/02, LHASC.

[xxviii] Hostettler, John, ‘Immigrants, Race Relations and the Law’, Comment, 12 July 1969, p. 438.

[xxix] See: Ben-Tovim, Gideon and John Gabriel 1982, ‘The politics of race in Britain, 1962-79: A review of the major trends and of recent debates’, in ‘Race’ in Britain: Continuity and Change, edited by Charles Husband, London: Hutchinson, pp. 150-51; Miles and Phizacklea 1984, pp. 68-9; Turner, Alwyn W. 2008, Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s, London: Aurum Press, p. 27.

[xxx] ‘Westminster Communists Say… Outlaw the Racists’, n.d., London: CPGB flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/EVNT/03/07, LHASC.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] ‘Don’t Be Fooled By The National Front!’, n.d., London: CPGB flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/IND/KAY/03/05, LHASC.

[xxxiii] Trade Union Committee Against Racialism, ‘National Front – Election Campaign Notes’, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/05, LHASC.

[xxxiv] Bellamy, 1971, p. 3.

[xxxv] Morning Star, 22 February 1973.

[xxxvi] Morning Star, 1 March 1973; Italics are my emphasis.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Letter from Joan Bellamy to Vishnu Sharma, 15 March 1973, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/05, LHASC.

[xxxix] Schofield, Camilla 2013, Enoch Powell and the Making of a Postcolonial Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 317.

Advertisements

Communism and the peace movement in the early Cold War era, 1949-1953

This week, the economist Paul Mason argued a ‘left-wing’ case for nuclear weapons for The Guardian, which was rebutted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Kate Hudson and Stop the War’s Lindsey German. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, the left in Britain has generally opposed nuclear weapons – although the Labour Party has fluctuated on this issue since the 1950s. One common misconception is that the Communist Party opposed nuclear disarmament until the emergence of the CND in the late 1960s, but research by myself and Nick Barnett demonstrates that the CPGB was committed to a multilateral peace since the late 1940s. This post, based on our forthcoming article in Labour History Review, argues that the opposite of this misconception seems to be the case, that the peace movement was so closely linked in the mainstream press and by anti-communist politicians to communism, it was difficult to mobilise around the issue of peace in Britain in the early Cold War era.

BPC

Scholars looking at the British left have long contended that the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was hostile towards the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) because it threatened the dominance of the British Peace Committee (BPC) over the peace movement in Britain.[1] As Willie Thompson explained:

In the first place it had seen the new movement as a distraction from what was really important, namely disarmament negotiations between the Great Powers… The second reason for the party’s suspicion was that the Campaign was seen as a potential rival to its own front peace organisation, the British Peace Committee…[2]

On the other hand, some scholars have argued that the attitude of the Communist Party towards the CND (and the peace movement more generally) was more ambivalent. As Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley point out in their biography of CPGB Industrial Organiser Bert Ramelson, the ‘main efforts [of the Party] were directed toward the peace campaign’ in the 1950s, but always on the multilateral platform of banning all nuclear weapons.[3] Richard Taylor has also stated, ‘Contrary to popular opinion both inside and outside CND, the Daily Worker had given considerable coverage to Peace Movement activities prior to the formation of CND.’[4]

The Communist Party of Great Britain, although initially supportive of the limited use of the atomic bomb in 1945,[5] had, since the Cold War began, been pushing for ‘peace’ amongst the Soviet and Western blocs. However peace had a particularly meaning for the CPGB and was tied to the prospects of multilateral disarmament, the dismantling of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the continued disarmament of West Germany, as well as non-interference by the West in places such as Greece, Malaya, China and Korea. Bob Darke, an ex-CPGB member who wrote an expose of the Party in 1952, described the Party’s position on peace in the new Cold War era:

the call for Peace, which had been more or less dormant on the Party’s cluttered platform, suddenly bounded into life… It began to appear more and more in Party propaganda. The Daily Worker began to print it with a capital P. It was top priority in all propaganda.[6]

The British Peace Committee was formed in 1949, with its chairman being Ivor Montagu, who was also a member of the Communist Party. An article in the Party’s weekly journal World News and Views on the foundation of the BPC alleged that ‘active propaganda for a Third World War is being carried out by a handful of powerful privileged interests in America and Western Europe’ and that ‘[m]alice, fear and hatred are being roused against the Soviet Union’.[7] While calling for ‘[f]riendship between peoples of all countries and particularly of Britain, China, France, the U.S.A., and the U.S.S.R.’ and that the BPC ‘treat[ed] none as enemies except the instigators of war’,[8] the BPC had an underlying pro-Soviet outloo

The Peace Pledge Union, on the other hand, had been established by ‘progressive’ sections of the Church of England in the mid-1930s after war in Europe seemed more likely after the accession of Nazi Germany. While a pacifist organisation, the PPU also pursued a line of appeasement towards Germany and although historians have debated whether this crossed the line from appeasement to some more active form of support, the CPGB in the 1930s saw the PPU as pro-fascist. In 1938, a Central Committee report at the Party’s 15th National Congress announced, ‘we have found it necessary to carry on a sharp ideological struggle against those tendencies in the Peace Movement who oppose collective security and seek reconciliation with Fascist countries, specially shown in the leadership of the Peace Pledge Union’.[9] This animosity between the CPGB and the PPU lasted into the Cold War era, where the PPU zealously indulged in anti-communism.

During the early years of the Cold War, the BPC and PPU dominated the small peace movement that existed in Britain. While the mainstream media and politicians were wary about the PPU because the Union’s stance in the lead up to the Second World War, they were more concerned about those who campaigned for peace or disarmament being covert communist agents and shared the anti-communism of the PPU. The BPC, as the British representative of the World Peace Council, established principally by the Soviet Union, allowed the media to portray the peace movement as communist and because of the WPC’s association with Soviet communism, Gunter Wernicke has written, a number of other peace groups across Western Europe refused to co-operate with the WPC,[10] which was the case in Britain.

For many politicians and those in the mainstream media, there was the assumption that peace was analogous with communism and throughout this period, the word ‘peace’ was regularly placed by many media outlets in inverted commas, suggesting a change in its meaning in the Cold War era. One of the key promoters of this idea was Christopher Mayhew, Labour Cabinet minister and founder of Labour’s Information Research Department (IRD), who stated in a Sheffield Telegraph article that ‘“peace”… meant a communist victory’.[11] Reiterating Mayhew’s suspicion of the term ‘peace’, Prime Minister Clement Atlee referred to the BPC in Parliament in November 1950 as the ‘so-called British Peace Committee’.[12] Tony Shaw has argued that Britain’s popular mainstream press followed this concept and was staunchly anti-communist throughout the early 1950s,[13] finding much to criticise the peace movement about.

In 1950, the BPC was involved in two initiatives that saw the mainstream media and politicians from both the Labour Party and the Conservatives claim that the BPC was not working for ‘peace’, but for Soviet-styled communism. Firstly, the BPC campaigned on behalf of the Stockholm Appeal, a call made by the World Peace Council for an end to all nuclear weapons. Launched in March 1950, the BPC was involved in collecting signatures from the British public in support of this appeal. The text of the appeal was brief, yet very broad, but was taken by many anti-communists in Britain as a pledge for support of communism. The conservative historian Max Beloff stated in The Listener:

The Stockholm appeal was not simply an appeal for peace; it was an appeal for peace on the Soviet terms; it was an appeal to accept the Soviet pattern of life for ourselves; because if we resist its imposition, force will be used, as it is being used elsewhere.[14]

Secondly, the WPC announced that it would hold its annual congress in Sheffield, which agitated many anti-communists in Britain. This caused considerable anxiety for the Labour government and sections of the mainstream press. The Atlee government attempted to disrupt the planning of the Sheffield Congress by denying entry into the country of many foreign delegates.[15] Whilst some in the press thought that banning the entry of these foreign delegates was anti-democratic and moved into the realm of authoritarianism, some of the tabloid newspapers, such as Daily Mail, criticised the government for not going far enough. The newspaper continued its long-held narrative that Labour was ‘too soft’ on communism or was a crypto-communist government and that its usual ‘controlling’ nature was reserved in circumstances when dealing with supposed communist fellow travellers. The newspaper rhetorically asked, ‘odd is it not that a government who propose to control the British people hand and foot cannot stop a lot of subversive aliens coming in’.[16] The editorial continued:

No one wants to see our liberties infringed, but it may be necessary to take something from them to preserve them. That happened in the last war – and we are at war again, though they call it a Cold War now.[17]

The criticism of the non-communist peace organisations being naïve and misled by the communists in the BPC/WPC became widespread. The PPU, as the longest established peace group, was particularly concerned about this and was aware that association with the communist-led peace organisations could inflict damage upon their cause. Douglas Hyde, a Catholic journalist who defected from the CPGB, criticised the pacifist movement in the Catholic Herald, stating that the campaign of the BPC, led by the British Communist Party, had ‘puzzled, and in some cases deceived, many genuine peace lovers’, but warned that it was actually ‘timed and designed to aid the USSR, which stands to benefit so much by the disarmament of the West.’[18]

The PPU tried to engage with the mainstream to undo this association with the communist slant of the BPC. In late 1951, Peace News, with the broad support of the PPU’s leadership, launched ‘Operation Ghandi’ and called for direct action against nuclear weapons and Britain’s Civil Defence programme.[19] In January 1952, they organised a sit-in protest at the War Office in Westminster, which resulted in 11 arrests. The leaflet distributed to by the protestors at this demonstration emphasised the non-communist stance of the PPU, stating:

We owe you an explanation. We are not crackpots and we are not communists.

We know we look silly. We are doing it to appeal to your intelligence and your conscience, although it may lead to arrest and imprisonment…

We who give you this leaflet refuse to take part in war or violent struggle for either West or East.[20]

Against a mainstream media and a bipartisan government commitment to anti-communism, the PPU and other non-communist peace campaigners found it difficult to put forward their own narrative of peace and successfully disassociate themselves from the Communists. The result was that a number of non-communists dropped out of the movement in frustration over the communist involvement in the BPC. J.B. Priestley, who later became central to the organisation of CND, declined offers to join the World Peace Council because of its connections with communism.[21] Andrew Bone suggests that Bertrand Russell refused to back disarmament, during the early 1950s, on the grounds that nuclear weapons would still be manufactured during any war (Instead he advocated a world government which maintained a monopoly of weapons).[22] This refusal by many, who eventually were key proponents of disarmament, reveals the fragmentary nature of the peace movement during the early 1950s. The popularity of the movement achieved under the stewardship of well-known figures such as Russell and Priestley suggests that the communist taint was a chief reason why the movement was unable to make much headway in the early 1950s.

———————————————-

[1] See: David Widgery, The Left in Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976) p. 106; Nigel Young, An Infantile Disorder? The Crisis and Decline of the New Left (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) p. 154; Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict, p. 147; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004) p. 30.

[2] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992)  p. 116.

[3] Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley, Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2012) p. 47; p. 56.

[4] Richard Taylor, ‘The Marxist Left and the Peace Movement in Britain since 1945’, in Richard Taylor & Nigel Young (eds), Campaigns for Peace: British Peace Movements in the Twentieth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987) p.163.

[5] See: Malcolm MacEwen, The Greening of a Red (London: Pluto Press, 1991) pp. 133-138.

[6] Bob Darke, The Communist Technique in Britain (London: Penguin Books, 1952) p. 143.

[7] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, World News and Views, 5 Nov., 1959, p. 532.

[8] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, p. 532.

[9] CPGB Central Committee, Report of the Central Committee to the 15th Party Congress, September 16-19, 1938, http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/central_committee/1938/09/report.htm (accessed 23 January, 2014).

[10] Gunter Wernicke, ‘The Communist Led World Peace Council and the Western Peace Movements: The Fetters of Bipolarity and Some Attempts to Break in the Fifties and Early Sixties’ Peace and Change 23, 3 (1998), p. 270.

[11] Cited in Christopher Mayhew, A War of Words: A Cold War Witness (London: I.B. Taurus, 1998), p. 81.

[12] HC Deb. 9 Nov. 1950, vol 480, col. 1099.

[13] Tony Shaw, ‘The Popular Press and The Early Cold War’, History, 83 (1998), pp. 80-85.

[14] Max Beloff, ‘The Soviet Approach to History’, The Listener, 1134, 23 Nov. 1950, p. 580.

[15] Phillip Deery, ‘The Dove Flies East: Whitehall, Warsaw and the 1950 World Peace Congress’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 48/4 (2002)

[16] ‘Comment: The Red Carpet’, Daily Mail, 10 November, 1950, p. 1.

[17] ‘Comment’, p. 1.

[18] Douglas Hyde, ‘“Peace-War” Chiefs Meet In London’, Catholic Herald, 8 June, 1950, p. 8.

[19] Sean Scalmer, Gandhi in the West: The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 135.

[20] Leaflet reproduced in ‘Operation Gandhi: A Call to YOU’, Peace News, 18 Jan 1952, p. 3.

[21] ‘Open Letter to a Russian Colleague’, cited in Wittner One World or None, p. 200.

[22] Andrew G. Bone ‘Russell and the Communist-Aligned Peace Movement in the Mid-1950s’ Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, 21 (2001) pp. 34-6.

New review essay: Solidarity and transnational labour history

The latest issue of the journal Twentieth Century Communism is out now through Lawrence & Wishart. It features, amongst other things, a review essay by me on the concept of solidarity and its place within transnational labour history. The essay looks at the following four books:

David Featherstone Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism (London/New York: Zed Books, 2012)

Christian Høgsbjerg C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014)

Neville Kirk Labour and the Politics of Empire: Britain and Australia 1900 to the Present (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)

Irina Filatova & Apollon Davidson The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2013)

If you use academia.edu, you can access the essay here.

Hobsbawm, 1956 and the Mythology of the CPGB Historians’ Group

British historian Eric Hobsbawm at work in January 1976

The Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain is historically significant for two main reasons. Firstly the historians involved in the Group became some of the most influential in contemporary British history, helping to pioneer the theory of ‘history from below’. Secondly, the historians involved in the Group were significantly involved in three major acts of rebellion within the Communist Party in 1956 as the Party went into crisis. The impact of those who were part of the Historians’ Group, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Dona Torr, A.L. Morton and Raphael Samuel (amongst others), upon historiography is hard to deny. The recent celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class are testament to this. However this post will deal with the second point and will explore the role that members of the Historians’ Group played in the rebellion against the Party leadership in 1956.

Until recently, there was not much written about the Historians’ Group, besides some work by Harvey Kaye and Bill Schwarz on the Group’s contribution to historiography,[1] and Hobsbawm’s account of the Group, written in the late 1970s. As a prominent member of the Group and the author of (for a long time) the most comprehensive account of the Group’s activities between 1946 and 1956, Hobsbawm’s narrative had become definitive and widely accepted by those who have subsequently discussed the Group. Despite acknowledging that ‘the Group itself did not express any… collective views and was indeed increasingly split’ on the issue, Hobsbawm asserted, ‘the fact that many of the most vocal critics came from among its members is a matter of record’.[2] By the time that Hobsbawm had his autobiography published in 2002, the equivocations had been removed. In Interesting Times, he wrote that in 1956, ‘the group emerged almost immediately as the nucleus of vocal opposition to the Party line’ and claimed that the Group ‘made the two most dramatic challenges to the Party’.[3]

The three acts of rebellion described to by Hobsbawm were the publication of The Reasoner by Saville and Thompson, the publication of a letter signed by a number of historians in Tribune and the New Statesman and Christopher Hill’s involvement in authoring the Minority Report on Inner-Party Democracy for the 25th Special Congress of the CPGB held in April 1957. These acts have subsequently been referred to in most histories of the Group as important intervention in the communist discourses of 1956. For example, Adrià Llacuna has written that the events of 1956 ‘generated a virtually en bloc opposition from the ranks of the Historians’ Group… to the party’s position on the events’.[4] Varying degrees of importance have been placed upon the three acts involving different members of the Historians’ Group, but despite this disagreement, most consider the publication of The Reasoner to be the most controversial act at the time, and also the one that had the longest effect, with Saville and Thompson’s The New Reasoner becoming one of the founding journals of the British New Left in the late 1950s.

Hobsbawm was chair of the Historians’ Group in 1956, but despite a motion passed by the Group in April of that year, in which ‘profound dissatisfaction’ was expressed at the Party’s ‘failure to discuss publicly the implications for the British Party of the 20th Congress [of the] CPSU’,[5] the Group did not engage in organised action as a group against the CPGB leadership. Of the actions, by individual members of the Historians’ Group, Hobsbawm was only publicly involved in one of them, putting his signature to the New Statesman/Tribune letter. This letter, originally sent to the Daily Worker, stated:

We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact, and failure by British Communists to think out political problems for themselves.[6]

However the letter also concluded with the line, ‘Not all the signatories agree with everything in this letter, but all are in sufficient sympathy with its general intention to sign with this reservation.’[7] Some critics, such as the Trotskyist Terry Brotherstone, suggest that this allowed Hobsbawm the necessary leeway to be a signatory of the letter, but not be held to its entire contents.[8]

Brotherstone uses the words of Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker who quit the Party after learning that his reports from Budapest in October-November 1956 were being unjustly edited or ignored, to describe Hobsbawm’s protests during that year as having ‘all the force of a pop-gun fitted with a silencer’.[9] Although Hobsbawm signed the letter that was published in the New Statesman and the Tribune, Brotherstone points to another letter by Hobsbawm published in the Daily Worker in early November 1956 that concluded with the sentence:

While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly, that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.[10]

As I have argued previously, Hobsbawm tried to negotiate the balancing act between maintaining his political and historical integrity through his relationship with those that left the Party and staying within the Party, which he believed was important for the health of British politics at the time. MI5 surveillance files showed that the Party leadership was highly critical of Hobsbawm’s position of being neither in nor out of the Party during this period. Dennis Dworkin has argued that Hobsbawm believed that, however seriously flawed, the CPGB was the only working class party in Britain ‘committed to revolution’ and might eventually re-establish itself as a political force.[11] However Hobsbawm himself admitted that after the events of 1956, the Party had become so weak that despite his criticisms, the Party couldn’t throw him out and ‘didn’t want to anyway’.[12]

In an interview with Tristram Hunt in The Observer in 2002, Hobsbawm stated that this decision to stay in the Party was not ‘out of idealisation of the October Revolution’, but stemming from a political awakening when living in Berlin in the early 1930s when Hitler rose to power.[13] As Dworkin put it, Hobsbawm had joined the Party when anti-fascism and Popular Frontism were at its height and his deep personal attachment to this sense of solidarity and immediacy probably influenced his decision to remain inside the Communist Party.[14] In Hobsbawm’s history of the Historians’ Group and in a number of other discussions of the Group, the Popular Front era (from roughly 1934 1939 then from 1941 to 1945) is seen to have a significant impact upon the Group’s politics and its relationship with the structures of the Communist Party. As John Callaghan has written, the Popular Front created a bigger and more pluralistic Communist Party[15] and Hobsbawm, and others, have argued that this pluralism was reflected in the work of Historians’ Group.

According to Hobsbawm, the Historians’ Group believed that Marxist history was ‘not an isolated truth’, but the ‘spearhead of a broad progressive history… represented by all manner of radical and labour traditions in British historiography’.[16] This drove the Group to engage with non-Marxists based on a flexible and open-ended reading of the Marxist view of history,[17] with this dialogue eventually leading to the establishment of the journal Past and Present. In their history of the early years of the journal, Hill, Hobsbawm and Rodney Hilton argued that the journal was an example of the Historians’ Group attempting to bring the broad-based politics of the Popular Front era into the historical profession in the era of the early Cold War.[18] Despite this, the Communist Party leadership viewed the Historians’ Group as a concentration of loyal and active party members, who drew little controversy or attention to themselves.

While Hobsbawm and several others have pointed to the Popular Front politics of the Historians’ Group as a positive influence upon their historical and political work, others have viewed it as having a negative impact upon the Group. David Renton and Sam Ashman have both proposed that the politics of the Popular Front era and the Second World War, with the emphasis on ‘national roads to socialism’, blunted the revolutionary nature of the Historians’ Group’s work, and there was a focus by many with the Group on the exceptional nature of English/British populism and the inherent radicalism of the English people.[19]

In retrospect, Hobsbawm and others have portrayed this adherence to the principles of Popular Frontism and broad-based unity as evidence that while being loyal members of the CPGB, those in the Historians’ Group did not compromise their intellectual integrity and remained historians first and Party members second. As Madeleine Davis has written:

Associated with the somewhat looser intellectual discipline and populist imperative of the Popular Front period, the main representative of this ‘muffled’ or ‘premature’ revisionism is often thought to be the CPGB Historians’ Group, in whose histories can be seen a more sophisticated interrogation of social being than ‘orthodoxy’ strictly permitted…[20]

However there was little dissidence amongst those in the Historians’ Group in the decade leading up to 1956. As Hobsbawm himself recognised in a letter to the Party journal World News in January 1957, writing:

We tell them that we do not give the USSR “uncritical support”, but when they ask us when we disagreed with its policy, all we can point to is Nina Ponomareva’s hats.[21]

One explanation for this lack of controversy was that the Historians’ Group did little history of the twentieth century and therefore did not interfere in the history of the Soviet Union, which had to be negotiated carefully. This is only half the story, with members of the Group explicitly demonstrating their loyalty to Moscow and the Stalinist regime. For example, Thompson wrote in his biography of William Morris in 1955 (published in 1961 in the USA):

Twenty year ago even among Socialists and Communists, many must have regarded Morris’ picture of ‘A Factory as It Might Be’ as an unpractical poet’s dream: today’s visitors return from the Soviet Union with stories of the poet’s dream already fulfilled. Yesterday, in the Soviet Union, the Communists were struggling against every difficulty to build up their industry to the level of the leading capitalist powers: today they have before them Stalin’s blue-print of the advance to communism.[22]

In a 1953 issue of the CPGB’s journal Modern Quarterly, published shortly after Stalin’s death, Christopher Hill wrote hagiographically about Stalin’s contribution to the Marxist theory of history. Hill called the former Soviet leader as ‘a very great and penetrating thinker, who on any subject was apt to break through the cobwebs of academic argument to the heart of the matter’ and a ‘highly responsible leader, who expressed a view only after mature consideration and weighting the opinions of experts in the subject’.[23] He continued by stating:

His statements, therefore, approximate to the highest wisdom of the collective thought of the USSR.[24]

He concluded the article with this claim:

Such was the final legacy to his peoples of the great Marxist thinker who had himself made history more effectively than any of his contemporaries: considered guidance on the practical measures necessary for the creation of a communist society… It was Stalin’s greatest happiness that he was able to contribute so largely to the creation of such a society, to know what he was creating, and to see that knowledge spread among the men and women who were joining with him in its creations. Humanity, and not only in the USSR but in all countries, will always be in his debt.[25]

reasoner

Even during the turmoil of 1956, those in the Historians’ Group who raised questions about the Party leadership’s reaction to Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and the invasion of Hungary were often at pains to stress that they were loyal party members pushed to take action. As Michael Kenny has shown in his history of the first New Left in Britain, when Thompson and Saville published The Reasoner, their original intention was to foster discussion inside the party about how to reform itself and encourage greater inner-party democracy.[26] As Saville wrote in a letter to Yorkshire District Committee leader Bert Ramelson defending their actions:

It is necessary at the outset to emphasise that The Reasoner was conceived entirely in terms of the general interests of the Party… I am as firmly convinced as ever of the need for a Communist Party in Britain. Those who have sought to present it as an ‘opposition’ journal, aiming a destructive or factional attack upon the Party leadership, are entirely mistaken.[27]

Before their production of The Reasoner, both Saville and Thompson had written in World News, calling for greater scrutiny of the Party’s past inability to criticise the Soviet Union. Thompson wrote a piece in late June 1956 titled ‘Winter Wheat in Omsk’, which claimed that the Communist Party had alienated themselves from the rest of the British labour movement and from the British people by ignoring the crimes of the Stalin era. In this, he wrote, ‘the British people do not understand and will not trust a Monolith without a moral tongue’.[28] In his book on the British new left, Dworkin has written that Thompson’s article echoed the collective voice of the Historians’ Group,[29] but the collective voice of the Group was more fragmented than Dworkin (and Hobsbawm) have argued. A letter from Christopher and Bridget Hill to World News stated, ‘We did not agree with most of what Comrade Thompson said, and we did not much like the way he said it’.[30] Hill tried to push reform through the Party’s official channels and became a member of the Party’s Commission on Inner Party Democracy, set up after the 24th National Congress of the CPGB in April 1956 and the intra-party discussion over the ‘Secret Speech’. He only resigned from the Party after the Minority Report on Inner Party Democracy, which he co-authored with Daily Worker journalist Malcolm MacEwen and Peter Cadogan, was rejected at the CPGB’s Special 25th National Congress in April 1957.

The dissidence of certain members of the Historians’ Group during 1956 has led to Hobsbawm (and others) to claim that the Popular Frontism that permeated the Group’s membership had created a rebellious intellectual contingent within the Communist Party in the first decade of the Cold War – a retrospective attempt to portray the Group as a font of humanist integrity in opposition to the Stalinised leadership of the CPGB. However, as Lawrence Parker, Neil Redfern and Phillip Deery have shown, [31]most of the dissent within the Communist Party in the decade after the Second World War was by hardliners within the Party who rejected the ‘reformism’ of The British Road to Socialism. Some intellectuals, such as Edward Upward, supported the criticism of the CPGB by the Australian Communist Party in 1948, which called out the ‘Browderism’ of the British party and maintained a strong allegiance to the Soviet Union.[32]

Indisputably the British new left partially emerged out of the dissenting acts of those within the Communist Party, with several of those involved in the Historians’ Group (primarily E.P. Thompson, John Saville and Raphael Samuel) giving voice to discontent felt by many CPGB members – although Thompson spent more time with the Party’s Writers’ Group than the Historians’ Group.[33] But while the rebelliousness of the first new left grew out of the intra-party rebellion that occurred in 1956, it is wrong to suppose that this rebelliousness predates this year. Up until 1956, those in the Historians’ Group were considered loyal and congenial members of the Communist Party and even when dissent started to emerge after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, those from the Group who dissented attempted to do so through official channels, such as through the letter pages of the Daily Worker and the World News.[34] The mythology of the Historians’ Group as described by Hobsbawm and others suggests that an anti-Stalinist humanism bubbled just below the surface throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, until the events of 1956 unleashed a torrent of dissent. It is more the case that those in the Historians’ Group who disagreed with the Party leadership were provoked into taking more and more radical actions as the year progressed and the leadership dug in its heels, only begrudgingly making any admissions of past errors. By the end of 1957, a large proportion of the Group had left the CPGB, including E.P. Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, Rodney Hilton, Brian Pearce and Raphael Samuel,[35] but these resignations came reluctantly and only after discourse within the Party was shut down. Although much romanticised, those within the Historians’ Group were not the vanguard of a humanist rebellion inside the British communist movement, rather they were loyal comrades hesitantly pushed further towards dissent over the course of a year and a half. As Bryan D. Palmer wrote, ‘The dissident communism of 1956 and the reasoner rebellion… thus served as midwife to the birth of the British Marxist historians’.[36]

——————————————————————————-

[1] Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995); Bill Schwarz, ‘“The People” in History: The Communist Party Historians’ Group, 1946-56’, in Richard Johnson, et. al. (eds) Making Histories: Studies in History-Writing and Politics (London: Hutchinson, 1982) pp. 44-95.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Historians’ Group of the Communist Party’, in Maurice Cornforth (ed.), Rebels and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A.L. Morton (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978) p. 40.

[3] Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (London: Abacus, 2002) p. 206.

[4] Adrià Llacuna, ‘British Marxist Historians and Socialist Strategy: Within, Beyond and After the Communist Party’, Twentieth Century Communism, 9 (2015) p. 151.

[5] Minutes of Historians’ Group meeting, 8 April, 1956, CP/CENT/CULT/06/01, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[6] Tribune, 30 November, 1956, p. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Terry Brotherstone, ‘Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012): Some Questions from a Never-completed Conversation About History’, Critique, 41/2 (2013) p. 276.

[9] Cited in, Ibid., p. 275.

[10] Ibid., p. 276.

[11] Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997) p. 50.

[12] Eric Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writing 1977 – 1988 (London: Verso, 1989) p. 200.

[13] ‘Man of the Extreme Century’, The Observer, 22 September, 2002.

[14] Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain, p. 50.

[15] John Callaghan, ‘The Road to 1956’, Socialist History, 8 (1995) p. 19.

[16] Interview with Eric Hobsbawm, in H. Abelove, et. al. (eds) Visions of History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983) p. 33.

[17] Robert Gray, ‘History, Marxism and Theory’, in Harvey J. Kaye & Keith McLelland (eds) E.P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990) p. 153.

[18] Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton & Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Past and Present: Origins and Early Years’, Past and Present, 100 (1983) pp. 4-5.

[19] David Renton, ‘Studying Their Own Nation Without Insularity? The British Marxist Historians Reconsidered’, Science & Society, 69/4 (2005) pp. 559-579; Sam Ashman, ‘The Communist Party’s Historians’ Group’, in John Rees (ed.) Essays on Historical Materialism (London: Bookmarks, 1998) pp. 145-159.

[20] Madeleine Davis, ‘Edward Thompson’s Ethics and Activism 1956-1963: Reflections on the Political Formation of The Making of the English Working Class’, Contemporary British History, 28/4 (2014) p. 443.

[21] ‘Other Readers Say…’, World News, 26 January, 1957, p. 62.

[22] E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961) p. 760.

[23] Christopher Hill, ‘Stalin and the Science of History’, Modern Quarterly, 8/4 (Autumn 1953) p. 209.

[24] Ibid., p. 209.

[25] Ibid., p. 212.

[26] Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995) pp. 16-17.

[27] Cited in, John Saville, ‘The Twentieth Congress and the British Communist Party’, Socialist Register (1976) p. 9.

[28] E.P. Thompson, ‘Winter Wheat in Omsk’, World News (30 June, 1956) p. 408.

[29] Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain, p. 48.

[30] ‘Forum’, World News, 18 August, 1956, p. 525.

[31] Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991 (London: November Publications, 2012) pp. 15-43; Phillip Deery & Neil Redfern, ‘No Lasting Peace? Labor, Communism and the Cominform: Australia and Great Britain, 1945-50’, Labour History, 88 (May 2005) pp. 63-86.

[32] See the correspondence contained in the CPGB archival file, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[33] Davis, ‘Edward Thompson’s Ethics and Activism’, p. 443.

[34] According to Willie Thompson, the editor of the Daily Worker, J.R. Campbell declared discussion of the 20th Congress to be closed as early as 12 March, 1956, only a few weeks after the Congress had ended in Moscow. Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 100.

[35] Hobsbawm, A.L. Morton and Maurice Dobb remained within the Party, with Morton and Dobb both maintaining their membership until their deaths. Hobsbawm stayed a party member until the Party dissolved in 1991.

[36] Bryan D. Palmer, ‘Reasoning Rebellion: E.P. Thompson, British Marxist Historians, and the Making of Dissident Political Mobilization’, Labour/Le Travail, 50 (Fall 2002) p. 214.