Peace in the Gulf! Western forces out! Revolutionary Communist Students manifestos for 1991

This post originally featured over at my Patreon here and is part of some work in progress stuff for the book project on the history of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Following on from my previous post on the Revolutionary Communist Students’ election manifestos for the NUS conference in April 1990, I am writing about the RCS manifestos for the 1991 conference. Again the RCS put forward four candidates, but rather than the quite extensive manifestos that they produced the previous year, these manifestos had little on the candidates and were mainly a standardised statement dedicated to the campaign against the First Gulf War.

The manifestos produced for the 1990 conference highlighted the activism records of the RCS candidates, but this time the only information given was about the candidate’s degree, institution and the post they were standing for. So there is:

Judith Ellman is studying law at University College London. She is standing for the post of National Secretary.

Daniel Lloyd is studying history at the University of Wales College of Cardiff. He is standing for the post of National Treasurer.

Kayode Olafimihan is studying Russian at the School of Eastern European and Slavonic Studies. He is standing for the post of President.

Vicky Richardson is studying architecture at the Polytechnic of Central London. She is standing for the post of Vice President Education.

Unlike the quite lengthy standardised statement of the RCP/RCS programme that was produced in the previous year’s manifesto, the shorter statement focused on the First Gulf War, which had been going for nearly a year by this point. The British left responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom in January 1991 by denouncing the Western intervention, but were divided over other aspects, such as their approach to Saddam Hussein’s regime and how to build the anti-war campaign. 

The Socialist Workers Party, alongside left-wing sections of the Labour Party, took part in the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf (CSWG), while there was also the Campaign Against War in the Gulf (CAWG) which was led by Socialist Organiser (precursor to the Alliance for Workers Liberty) and Socialist Outlook. The Revolutionary Communist Party and the organisation that it split from in late 1970s, the Revolutionary Communist Group, were both involved in the Ad Hoc Hands Off the Middle East Committee.

Between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the US/UK invasion of Iraq, nearly all of the British left criticised Saddam Hussein’s initial invasion of Kuwait and highlighted the fact that Iraq had recently been a Western ally against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war that last most of the 1980s. Most groups on the left also argued that the Hussein regime was a dictatorship that persecuted communists in Iraq for decades and supported self-determination for the Kurds that lived within Iraq’s borders. However there was a discrepancy over whether to call for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, alongside the campaign against Western intervention. This was a demand of CAWG, while the SWP was more ambivalent. A pamphlet produced by them claimed that an Iraqi withdrawal would not deter George Bush Snr from invading. 

Prior to January 1991, the RCP argued that it did not support the Iraqi invasion, but also did not recognise Kuwait’s right to self-determination and that the most pressing problem was the possibility of Western intervention (The Next Step, 7 September, 1990, p. 5). After the Western invasion, the RCP swung behind Iraq, proclaiming ‘peace can only come about through the defeat of Western imperialism at the hands of the Iraqi people. That is why we take sides with Iraq in the Gulf war’ (The Next Step, 1 February, 1991, p. 1). The RCP lamented other groups on the British left for not opposing US imperialism more forthrightly, although the aim of their ire was the CND, which allegedly called for Iraq out of Kuwait, alongside US/UK out of the Gulf, raising the spectre of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era.

The tensions between the Hands Off the Middle East Committee and other British groups on the left meant that the RCP (and RCG) were denied opportunities to speak at protests organised by other groups, such as the SWP. This eventually led to the SWP and RCP allegedly boycotting each other’s marches (Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, 15 September 1990, p. 10).

In the NUS candidate manifestos, the RCS stated that ‘[o]pposing the war means rejecting the West’s justification for war and siding with the people of Iraq against the West.’ The RCS emphasised that the Gulf War had also meant a crackdown on Iraqi students in Britain. About 160 Iraqis were detained and deported from Britain during this time, with more than 30 Iraqi students deported. The RCS declared that ‘NUS has done nothing to protect them or organise protest against this action’. 

The NUS leadership was primarily controlled by the National Organisation of Labour Students in the late 1980s and early 1990s and many on the left – not just the RCS – criticised the NOLS-led NUS for failing to mobilise opposition to the war. While individual student unions passed resolutions against the war and the detention of Iraqi students, the NUS leadership was rebuked for dragging its heels on this issue. This is possibly why the RCS placed so much emphasis on this issue in their candidate manifestos.

But the Gulf War was not the only issue for the NUS at this time. A look at candidate platforms in 1991 for student union elections at various universities show that proposed cuts to student grants and the on-going issue of the Poll Tax (even a year after the Poll Tax Riot in central London) were still major issues for students at this time. But the RCS ignored these issues in their manifestos for 1991. 

Regarding the Poll Tax, the RCP had long argued that they felt that the rest of the British left placed too much emphasis on fighting the Poll Tax and felt that it had limited ability to mobilise the working class beyond calling for a revoking of the tax – although by 1991, this scepticism had somewhat waned after the March 1990 riot and the resignation of Thatcher in the previous November. The RCP suggested that the anger generated by the anti-Poll Tax movement had nowhere to go, a topic that the party would return to throughout the early 1990s.

On this last point, it must be acknowledged that these manifestos also came in the wake of a changing direction for the RCP more generally, signalled, amongst other things, by Frank Richards’ article in Living Marxism in December 1990 titled ‘Midnight in the Century‘. Richards argued that the situation in Britain and Eastern Europe demonstrated that both Labourism and Stalinism had failed. Yet unlike others on the Trotskyist left, who put themselves forward as the revolutionary alternative to both, Richards claimed that there was no political vehicle left for the working class, implying that the revolutionary communist vanguard that the RCP promoted itself as during the 1980s was no longer a viable option. Opposition to US imperialism was possibly one programme point that the RCP/RCS could hold onto in a time of flux. 

Since writing this post, Lawrence Parker has written two very interesting blog posts on the later years of the RCP (here and here), touching on some of the same issues discussed above. Have a read!

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