Author: hatfulofhistory

Australian-British academic interested in history, politics and criminal justice issues, with a little pop culture on the side.

Peking Review and global anti-imperialist networks in the 1960s

This is a longer version of a conference I recently presented at the Amidst Empires conference at Flinders University last month. It is very much a work in progress, so feedback most welcome!

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There has been a significant amount of scholarship about the dissemination and influence of Maoist ideology (often referred to as Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought or just Mao Zedong Thought) across the globe, primarily by looking at the distribution and readership of Mao’s Little Red Book (Quotations of Chairman Mao), as well as other publications by the Foreign Language Press.[1] There is less scholarship on the Chinese publications for foreign consumption, Peking Review, China Pictorial and China Reconstructs. Cagdas Ungor, who has explored these journals in the most depth so far, has described these publications as part of a wider approach by the Chinese to situate themselves as an alternative anti-imperialist power to the Soviet Union between the 1950s and the 1970s. She has written:

Especially after the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, when the country was isolated from the socialist bloc as well as the West, China was left with few other options to exert its influence abroad… Therefore the rise in the foreign propaganda output was very much related to the PRC regime’s desire to compensate for the unavailability of official connections.[2]

 The new communist government in China started publishing foreign language materials in the early 1950s, but a reconstitution of the Foreign Languages Press in 1952 led to a higher degree of specialisation amongst the publications produced by Peking.[3] China Pictorial, which had existed since 1951, was ‘intended as a mass publication aimed at overseas audiences with average education’, offering ‘a lot of colorful pictures’ and ‘very little textual material’.[4] China Reconstructs ‘had a similar focus on society, economy and culture’ as China Pictorial, but ‘only with more articles and fewer pictures’.[5]

However Peking Review was a much more explicitly political journal, ‘aimed at readers who had the highest political awareness and educational level’.[6] Ungar suggests that the journal was ‘readable only by the intellectual elite abroad, among them government officials, journalists, China experts, and college youth’,[7] but it was also diligently read by avowed Maoists in the global West, as well as some within the national liberation movements in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America (although Ungar argues that in the Third World, Peking Radio was much more effective). The journal was published in English, as well as in French, Spanish, German and Japanese.

This paper will explore how Peking Review was used to disseminate anti-imperialist ideology amongst Maoists and people sympathetic to China across the world during the 1960s and early 1970s. Although established in 1958, two years before the formal Sino-Soviet split, in the post-split environment, Peking Review was an important vehicle for publicising the idea of China as the vanguard of the global anti-imperialist movement. To varying degrees, the journal was distributed, read and ingested by Maoists in the Third World and the global West. 

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China and global anti-imperialism in the Cold War era

Alongside a number of Cold War diatribes on China’s influence in Africa and Asia, there has been a significant increase in scholarship on China’s internationalism between the 1950s and 1970s and its support for various anti-imperialist movements and postcolonial movements. Known as the ‘Third World’ during this period, China increasingly promoted itself as the anti-imperialist vanguard, separate from the ‘Second World’ of the Soviet sphere of influence, but appropriating rhetoric from the Soviet Union’s anti-imperial traditions and the postcolonial Non-Aligned Movement. As Arif Dirlik has written, the Sino-Soviet split and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 ‘brought the People’s Republic to the centre of world radicalism and turned the Chinese revolutionary experience, embodied in Mao Zedong Thought, into a paradigm not only in the Third World… but also in the First’.[8] Robeson Taj Frazier has argued an awareness of race and racism became:

a primary lens through which China differentiated its model of global power from that of the United States and the Soviet Union, influenced oppressed populations of color, and increased the aura and power of Chinese communism on Chinese citizens.[9]

There has been debate over whether the Cultural Revolution created a sense of isolationism with China at the same time as pursuing a more internationalist outlook in China’s foreign affairs,[10] and an attempt to argue, as Julia Lovell has characterised, that ‘global Maoism was nothing to do with Chinese Maoism’.[11] However Lovell has suggested that China worked hard to ‘[disseminat[e] its soft power globally between 1949 and 1976’ and that the ‘stereotype of a closed-off, isolated Maoist China, shunned by the international community’ is false.[12] Dirlik has described the reach of Maoism in this era as spanning from ‘the Phillipines to Peru and Mexico, to India, Nepal and Turkey’ and to ‘the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Australia and Japan’[13] – although he does not mention Africa, particularly southern Africa, in places such as Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

In the United States, Maoism also a diverse influence, fostering a plethora of anti-revisionist and Maoist groups amongst the primarily white left, but also inspiring black, Asian and Latino radicalism. Keisha A. Brown has written:

Post 1949, the CCP foreign relations agenda placed American Blacks within the category of an oppressed peoples within the US… During the Cold War, the CCP placed the struggles of non-White people and countries into two main categories. The first is the broader general category aligning non-White continents (Asia, Africa, and Latin America are most often cited) in solidarity movements. The second is the more defined category of supporting specific oppressed countries in their struggles against some biased system or imperialist country…[14]

African-Americans were viewed as part of this second category, with the Chinese seeing them as ‘an entity within the larger international colored solidarity movement engaged in struggle with the common enemy of American imperialism’.[15] A number of scholars have outlined the inspiration that the China and Maoism gave to black radicals in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s,[16] and similar influence can be found other diaspora communities in the US,[17] as well as in Britain.[18]

For the left in the global West, Maoism became one of the entry points for anti-imperialist activism in the Cold War, alongside campaigns against apartheid in South Africa, against the Vietnam War, against US interventions in Latin America and against the oppression faced by indigenous people under settler colonialism. In the Anglophone world (Britain, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) as well as continental Europe (especially West Germany and France), a variety of anti-revisionist and Maoist groups emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike the Communist and Workers Parties that were associated with the Soviet Union, inheriting the relationship from the days of the Communist International and the Communist Information Bureau, the Maoist groups had varying degrees of affinity with the Chinese Communist Party and Peking had little organisational control over these groups, especially in the West. While its political, economic and military assistance to national liberation movements and postcolonial governments ensured a close relationship between China and the Third World, the CCP relied predominantly on ideology and propaganda to influence Western Maoists. The journal, Peking Review, was part of this attempt at gaining ideological influence.

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An advertisement for Peking Review on the back cover of the SACP’s African Communist from 1963

Peking Review in Africa

Over the decade of the 1950s, Chinese publications, via the International Bookstore, slowly made their way into Africa, with a base set up in Nasser’s Egypt in 1957.[19] At this time, Ungor cites Chinese documents stating that book circulation in Africa had reached up to 210,000, before further growth in 1959 in West Africa as China established diplomatic relations in Guinea, Mali and Ghana.[20] Heavily subsidised by the Chinese government and also heavily discounted for readers in developing countries, Peking Review also reached East and Southern Africa, with records of it being sold in Zanzibar in the early 1960s for ‘low prices’, alongside airmail editions of Moscow News and other Chinese literature.[21] References to Peking Review in the South African journal New Age[22] (aligned the now underground South African Communist Party)[23] in the early 1960s reveals that the journal was read by activists in the apartheid regime, as well as by SACP exiles in London, demonstrated by references to (and advertisements for) the journal in African Communist journal.[24]

American journalist John K. Cooley wrote in 1963 that ‘Red China has a well-coordinated publication program aimed at Africa’, adding ‘[i]ts political backbone is the weekly review Peking Review’.[25] Colley described the distribution methods in Africa during the early 1960s:

Peking Review is given away in some areas, and sold at subscription rates ranging from about fifty cents to $1.25 a year in others. Local Chinese emissaries regularly compile address lists of key persons, who then receive free introductory copies. An African publisher who buys an additional subscription for himself or someone else receives a color calendar. A second extra subscription brings a Chinese scroll, and a third, a desk diary.[26]

We only have anecdotal evidence of the actual readership or influence of Peking Review in Africa, but more archival research and oral histories, particularly regarding the postcolonial governments in Tanzania, Angola and Zimbabwe, may shed more light in the future.

Peking Review in the global West

 There is a debate amongst scholars over the relationship between anti-revisionism in the global West and Maoist internationalism. Several scholars have argued that the first wave of Maoism in the West grew organically out of the resistance within the official Communist Parties towards the ‘revisionism’ of the international communist movement in the 1950s. Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch have written:

Maoism in the United States was exported from China. If anything, for those Maoists schooled in the Old Left, its source can be found in Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party Soviet Union in 1956, which prompted an antirevisionist movement throughout the pro-Stalinist left.[27]

With regards to the early Maoist groups in Britain, Lawrence Parker has argued that those eventually formed the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) were anti-revisionists foremost and eventually became attracted to China because of its opposition to ‘peaceful co-existence’ and the Soviet Union.[28] Parker describes the CPB (M-L)’s leader Reg Birch as ‘a fairly typical CPGB trade unionist with a sprinkling of Maoist politics picked up after China broke with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s’.[29]

Julia Lovell further cites Richard Wolin on the organic and domestic origins of French Maoism and former Italian Maoist to suggest that the ‘dominant view of… Western Europe’s engagement with Maoism is to see it largely as a home-grown phenomenon’, describing this view of seeing Western Maoism as ‘an eccentric youthful experiment in alternative politics, an intellectual and cultural outburst divorced from China itself’.[30] However, as mentioned above, Lovell argues that China did have a conscious desire to build Maoist movements outside of China,[31] to build alternatives to the Soviet sphere of influence, but also to promote anti-imperialism across the Third World. Parker suggests that China ‘never sought to establish a functioning Maoist international, but rather worked through a set of bilateral links.’[32] Parker explained this process:

The CPC would bring sympathetic groups to China to meet leading figures; give them publicity; and provide such groups with political material for use in their own publications.[33]

This was the purpose of Peking Review in the global West.

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Peking Review and Maoism in the United States

The Maoist movement in the United States was possibly one of the largest in the West and most of the Chinese imported publications were distributed via Henry Noyes’ China Books and Periodicals in San Francisco, which, according to Cagdas Ungor, ‘remained… the only outlet for Chinese foreign language magazines and book in the US throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s’.[34] Via Noyes’ bookstore, Chinese periodicals, including Peking Review, reached most urban places in the United States. The Hammer and Steel group in New England referred to Peking Review in a 1963 discussion of anti-semitism and racism, stating ‘The correct Marxist-Leninist policy of the Chinese Party on formerly oppressed nations and national minorities is implemented in that great nation’ and citing an article in the journal from the previous year.[35] On the other side of the country, the journal of the Communist Party of the USA (Marxist-Leninist), People’s Voice, reprinted articles from Peking Review, such as that included in the journal’s second issue (written after the Watts Rebellion in August 1965) on the ‘negro struggle’ and proclaiming ‘ALL ANTI-IMPERIALIST FORCES SUPPORT THE HEROIC STRUGGLE OF PEOPLE OF LOS ANGELES’.[36]

As mentioned above, there was a great enthusiasm in China for black radicalism in the United States during the mid-to-late 1960s. The August 1966 issue of Peking Review republished a statement from Mao Zedong made three years earlier ‘supporting the American Negroes in their just struggle against racial discrimination by US imperialism’, which proclaimed:

I call on the workers, peasants, revolutionary intellectuals, enlightened elements of the bourgeoisie and other enlightened persons of all colours in the world, whether white or black, yellow or brown, to unite to oppose the racial discrimination practised by US imperialism and support the American Negroes in their struggle against racial discrimination.[37]

The same issue had a statement made by black power proponent Robert Williams, who was a state visitor of China at the time, which aligned Maoism with black radicalism and thanked Mao for ‘his great and inspiring statement in support of our struggle’.[38] Williams enthused:

to our great Chinese brothers and true revolutionaries throughout the world, we revolutionary Afro-Americans vow that we shall take the torch of freedom and justice into the streets of racist America and we shall set the last great stronghold of Yankee imperialism ablaze with our battle cry of Black Power!…

Long live the militant friendship between the Chinese and revolutionary American people![39]

Peking Review had previously made similar statements and referred to Robert Williams as an authoritative figure on the black struggle in the United States.[40] However some Maoists disagreed with Peking Review’s line on Afro-American liberation, with the Hammer and Steel group criticising the Chinese in 1965 for listening to Robert Williams, rather than black Marxist-Leninists in the United States, such as Harry Haywood (as well as two CPUSA stalwarts, William Z. Foster and James W. Ford, who had promoted the ‘black belt’ thesis in the 1930s).[41] The group complained that ‘[m]ost of the people from the US that Peking Review quotes are middle class professional people who have little knowledge of the working class in our country and its revolutionary efforts in theory and organisation.’[42] The group argued that ‘Peking Review maintains that the Afro-American question is primarily one of “racial discrimination”’, but suggested that, using CPUSA literature from the 1940s, that the problem was not racial discrimination but national oppression.[43] The group also admonished the Chinese journal for describing the black struggle as a question of class, stating, ‘According to this logic the Afro-American must place their destiny in the hands of whites and wait for their inclinations’.[44]

While there were some disagreements between Maoists in the United States and the line advanced through Peking Review and other publications from China, particularly as the Cultural Revolution zigzagged throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Peking Review was still promoted in various Maoist and black radical publications. For example, advertisements for Peking Review were published in The Black Panther and People’s Voice newspapers, while the American Communist Workers Movement (Marxist-Leninist) announced that all members should ‘distribute widely the Red Book, Five Articles by Chairman Mao, and Peking Review’.[45]

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Pic from The MAO Projekt.

Peking Review and Maoism in West Germany

Owing to the fractured nature of communism in West Germany after the Communist Party of Germany was banned in 1956 and the spectre of East Germany looming over the West German left, Maoism in Germany gained a foothold in West Germany as it was able to present itself as a radical socialist alternative to Soviet-styled socialism on the other side of the Berlin Wall.[46] Like in the United States and France, Maoism heavily intersected with the student movement in West Germany, emerging from the Socialist German Student Union/League (SDS) and developing into the Red Guards (the name taken from the similar movement in China), then the Communist Party of Germany (Marxist-Leninist) (KPD (M-L)).

Rudi Dutschke, the student activist leader, enthused about China and the Cultural Revolution, using Peking Review (or Peking Runschau) to justify his arguments at times.[47] As Slobodian has explained, West German leftists took inspiration of the Chinese ideas of encirclement and ‘contradiction’, both promoted in Peking Review.[48] Encirclement developed an idea from Lin Biao (before his fall from his position in 1969)[49] of the ‘encircling the cities from the countryside’ onto the global stage, proposing that ‘the revolutionary struggles of the “world villages” were leading to an encirclement of the “world cities” of North America and Western Europe.’[50] While the idea of contradiction was that there were ‘multiple, fundamental national and international contradictions’, in which the Third World and its allies in China, as well as anti-imperialists in the West, stood in ‘primary contradiction’ to US imperialism.[51]

The Chinese started to publish the German language version of Peking Review in 1964, while the German language version of China Pictorial (China im Bild) had been published since 1956, but with the onset of the Cultural Revolution, it displayed a ‘clear Maoist agenda’ from 1966 onwards.[52] Unlike the United States, where Chinese publications were imported by an American bookseller and then distributed around the country, Chinese publications were initially smuggled into West Germany from the Chinese Embassy in East Berlin.[53] West German students ‘made day trips from West Berlin to the embassy’ to purchase wholesale copies of Peking Review and other Chinese publications, such as the Little Red Book.[54] As Quinn Slobodian has shown, Maoist publications were also popular amongst East German youth who looked to rebel against the state socialism of the GDR. An interest in Chinese literature from both sides of the Wall peaked in 1967, with the Chinese distributing ‘3000 packages monthly with 6000 issues of Peking Review and China im Bild’.[55]

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Peking Review and Maoism in New Zealand

The Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) gained notoriety as the only Western Communist Party to side with China in the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s. The CPNZ is an interesting case study in the use of Peking Review in building Maoist solidarity across the world. After Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956, the CPNZ leadership, under the leader V.G. Wilcox, started to move against ‘revisionism’ in the international communist movement. Although its sister party the Communist Party of Australia (which was quite pro-Chinese in the 1950s) eventually returned to the Soviet sphere of influence, the CPNZ deliberately shifted closer to the Chinese and in March 1964, Peking Review published an article by Wilcox proclaiming their support for the Chinese and denouncing the Soviet Union.[56] This article praised Mao Zedong as a ‘great creative Marxist-Leninist leader’ and called the Soviet Union ‘the puny leaders of modern revisionism’.[57] Herbert Roth notes this article also came at a time when the Communist Parties in New Zealand and Australia were entering into joint talks, but this attack on the pro-Soviet communist movement, including the denunciation of the CPA, scuppered these talks.[58] Roth stated, ‘Wilcox in China adopted a hard, unyielding position which made any meaningful talks with the Australians impossible’.[59]

Throughout the 1960s, Peking Review published numerous articles by Wilcox and another CPNZ leading figure, Ray Nunes, dedicated to praising Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party. However while the CPNZ’s Communist Review published a ‘high proportion’ of material from Chinese sources, these were more likely to be from domestic Chinese publications, such as the People’s Daily,[60] rather than Peking Review. Thus the articles by Wilcox and Nunes in Peking Review became vehicles for promoting pro-Chinese sentiment to other Maoist groups across the world, most likely in the global West, rather than for internal consumption in New Zealand by CPNZ members. Roth has written:

However negligible its influence within New Zealand, the NZCP is a most valuable asset to the Chinese leaders on the international scene…

The appreciation of New Zealand’s pro-Chinese stand is expressed in many ways: in heroes’ welcomes to New Zealand Communist leaders who visit Peking with increasing frequency, and in worldwide distribution of their writings, giving Latin Americans an opportunity to read La Firme Posicion del Partido Comunista de Nueva Zelandia, a ninety-page pamphlet by camarada V.G. Wilcox, while French readrs are provided with Aller Parmi le Peuple, a l’Assaut du Monopole by the same author.[61]

As the 1960s continued, the relationship between China and the CPNZ became increasingly mutually beneficial. The CPNZ relished the attention lavished upon it by the Chinese, while the Chinese used the CPNZ as an example of its ability to penetrate the international communist movement and attract Marxist-Leninists away from the Soviet sphere of influence.

In the 1970s

 By the mid-1970s, the outlook of the Chinese government had changed. Although the Cultural Revolution still raged on at home, China’s foreign policy shifted towards rapprochement with the United States and the cooling of its promotion of global anti-imperialism. China still maintained connections with some national liberation movements and postcolonial governments, such as the FLNA and UNITA in Angola, ZANU in Zimbabwe and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (amongst a number of others). This was done partly to counter Soviet influence in the Third World and to strengthen its own geopolitical hand.

Peking Review was still published, but became a weapon in the sectarian fights that occurred across most Western Maoist groups in the aftermath of Mao’s death in 1976, the end of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four controversy.

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[1] Alexander C. Cook (ed.), Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

[2] Cagdas Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade: Chinese Communist Propaganda Abroad (1949-1976), unpublished PhD thesis, Binghamton University/State University of New York (2009) p. 5.

[3] Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade’, pp. 92-93.

[4] Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade’, p. 160.

[5] Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade’, p. 161.

[6] Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade’, p. 162.

[7] Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade’, p. 162.

[8] Arif Dirlik, ‘Mao Zedong Thought and the Third World/Global South’, Interventions, 16/2 (2014) p. 246.

[9] Robeson Taj Frazier, The East is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014) p. 11.

[10] See: Patrick Laboon, ‘Peaceful Co-Existence: Sino-African Relations and the Evolution of Maoist Internationalism’, unpublished MA thesis, University of California Santa Barbara (2016) p. 25; Dirlik, ‘Mao Zedong Thought and the Third World/Global South’, p. 235

[11] Julia Lovell, ‘The Use of Foreigners in Mao-Era China: “Techniques of Hospitality” and International Image-Building in the People’s Republic, 1949-1976’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 25 (2015) p. 138.

[12] Lovell, ‘The Use of Foreigners in Mao-Era China’, p. 138.

[13] Dirlik, ‘Mao Zedong Thought and the Third World/Global South’, pp. 246-247.

[14] Keisha A. Brown, ‘Blackness in Exile: W.E.B. Du Bois’ Role in the Formation of Representations of Blackness as Conceptualized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’, Phylon, 53/2 (Winter 2016) p. 24.

[15] Brown, ‘Blackness in Exile’, p. 24.

[16] Robin D.G. Kelley & Betsy Esch, ‘Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution’, Souls (Fall 1999) pp. 6-41; Bill V. Mullen, ‘By the Book: Quotations From Chairman Mao and the Making of Afro-Asian Radicalism, 1966-1975’, in Cook (ed.), Mao’s Little Red Book, pp. 245-265.

[17] For the effect of Maoism on Asian Americans, see: Daryl J. Maeda, ‘Black Panthers, Red Guards and Chinamen: Constructing Asian American Identity Through Performing Blackness, 1969-1972’, American Quarterly, 57/4 (2005) pp. 1079-1103; Karen L. Ishizuka, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties (London/New York: Verso, 2016) p. 43.

For the effect of Maoism on Latino radicals, see: Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, ‘History of the Development of the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization’ (August 1974), Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-1/prrwo-history.htm (accessed 22 January, 2018); Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London/New York: Verso, 2006) pp. 104-110.

[18] For the effect of Maoism on South Asian activists in Britain, see: DeWitt John, Indian Workers Associations in Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1969) pp. 66-81; Sasha Josephides, ‘Organizational Splits and Political Ideology in the Indian Workers Associations’, in Pnina Werbner & Muhammad Anwar (eds), Black and Ethnic Leaderships in Britain: The Cultural Turn of Political Action (London: Routledge, 1991) pp. 253-276.

For the effect of Maoism on African-Caribbean activists in Britain, see: Rosaline Eleanor Wild, ‘“Black was the Colour of Our Fight”: Black Power in Britain, 1955-1976’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield (2008) pp. 94-95.

[19] Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade’, p. 209.

[20] Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade’, p. 209.

[21] Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade’, p. 211.

[22] ‘Oil for the Lamps of China’, New Age, 15 September, 1960, p. 2; ‘Indian Authorities Must Not Miscalculate’, New Age, 25 October, 1962, p. 7.

[23] Alan Wieder, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Auckland Park, SA: Jacana Media, 2013) p. 103.

[24] For example, see advertisement for Peking Review in African Communist (April-June 1963).

[25] John K. Cooley, East Wind Over Africa: Red China’s African Offensive (New York: Walker & Company, 1963) pp. 196-197.

[26] Cooley, East Wind Over Africa, p. 197.

[27] Kelley & Esch, ‘Black Like Mao’, p. 11.

[28] Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991 (London: November Publications, 2012) p. 69.

[29] Parker, The Kick Inside, p. 63.

[30] Lovell, ‘The Use of Foreigners in Mao-Era China’, pp. 137-138.

[31] Lovell, ‘The Use of Foreigners in Mao-Era China’, p. 138.

[32] Parker, The Kick Inside, p. 44.

[33] Parker, The Kick Inside, p. 44.

[34] Ungor, ‘Reaching the Distant Comrade’, p. 241.

[35] Hammer & Steel Newsletter, April 1963, p. 3. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/periodicals/hammer-and-steel/hs-4-63.pdf (accessed 27 January, 2018).

[36] People’s Voice, 30 August, 1965, p. 1. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/periodicals/peoples-voice/pv-1-2.pdf (accessed 27 January, 2018).

[37] Mao Zedong, ‘Statement supporting the American Negroes in their just struggle against racial discrimination by US imperialism’, Peking Review, 12 August, 1966, pp. 12-13.

[38] Robert Williams, ‘Speech by US Negro Leader Robert Williams’, Peking Review, August 1966, p. 27.

[39] Williams, ‘Speech by US Negro Leader Robert Williams’, p. 27.

[40] For example, see: Mao Zedong, ‘Calling Upon the People of the World to Unite to Oppose Racial Discrimination by U.S. Imperialism and Support the American Negroes in Their Struggle Against Racial Discrimination’, Peking Review, 8 Aug, 1963, https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1963/PR1963-33a.htm (accessed 27 January, 2018).

[41] Hammer & Steel Newsletter, September 1965, pp. 4-5. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/periodicals/hammer-and-steel/hs-9-65.pdf (accessed 27 January, 2018).

For further information on Harry Haywood, see: Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978).

[42] Hammer & Steel Newsletter, September 1965, p. 5.

[43] Hammer & Steel Newsletter, September 1965, p. 6.

[44] Hammer & Steel Newsletter, September 1965, p. 7.

[45] American Communist Workers Movement (Marxist-Leninist), ‘Youth and Students Unite!’, The Workers’ Advocat, 3/1 (13 November, 1972) https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-8/youth-students.htm (accessed 27 January, 2018).

[46] See: Quinn Slobodian, Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Timothy Scott Brown, West Germany and the Global Sixties: The Anti-Authoritarian Revolt, 1962-1978 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[47] Slobodian, Foreign Front, p. 53.

[48] See: ‘Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in the Hearts of the People of the World’, Peking Review, 22 July, 1966, https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1966/PR1966-30e.htm (accessed 28 January, 2018); ‘People’s War is Invincible’, Peking Review, 14 July, 1967, p. 8; ‘Chairman Mao on Continuing the Revolution Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, Peking Review, 26 September, 1969, p. 3-10.

[49] Frank Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) pp. 242-252.

[50] Slobodian, Foreign Front, p. 172.

[51] Slobodian, Foreign Front, p. 172.

[52] Sebastian Gehrig, ‘(Re-)Configuring Mao: Trajectories of a Culturo-Political Trend in West Germany’, Transcultural Studies, 2 (2011) p. 209.

[53] Gehrig, ‘(Re-)Configuring Mao’, p. 211.

[54] Quinn Slobodian, ‘Badge Books and Brand Books: The Mao Bible in East and West Germany’, in Cook (ed.), Mao’s Little Red Book, p. 220.

[55] Quinn Slobodian, ‘The Maoist Enemy: China’s Challenge in 1960s East Germany’, Journal of Contemporary History, 51/3 (2016) p. 654.

[56] V.G. Wilcox, ‘V.G. Wilcox’s Speech at Party School in Canton’, Peking Review, 20 March, 1964, pp. 14-21.

[57] Wilcox, ‘V.G. Wilcox’s Speech at Party School in Canton’, p. 21.

[58] Herbert Roth, ‘Moscow, Peking and NZ Communists’, Politics, 4/2 (1969) p. 177.

[59] Roth, ‘Moscow, Peking and NZ Communists’, p. 177.

[60] R.H. Brookes, ‘The CPNZ and the Sino-Soviet Split’, Political Science, 17/2 (1965) p. 6.

[61] Herbert Roth, ‘Fragmentation on the Left’, Comment, 27 (June 1966) p. 16.

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No Platform book project: An appeal for sources

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I am very excited that my book project on the history of the NUS policy of no platform in the UK is moving forward. At the moment, I am on the lookout for further primary sources from no platform campaigns from the 1970s to the present (particularly from the 1980s and 1990s). So if anyone has any material relating to specific campaigns, please send an email to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com.

I am especially interested in any material relating to campaigns to prevent Enoch Powell and representatives of the apartheid regime in South Africa from speaking on university campuses in the mid-to-late 1980s.

In the meantime, you can also read this book chapter which gives an overview of the no platform policy in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Quiz competition to win a copy of ‘Waiting for the Revolution’

university challenge

To celebrate the publication of Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 by Manchester University Press, I am running a quiz competition to win a copy of the book. Below are ten questions on various aspects of the history of the British far left. In order to enter the competition, please send your answers to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com (with the subject line “Far Left Quiz”) by  Midnight, Sunday, January 7 (Adelaide time). Entries that get all ten answers right will go into a draw to be conducted by me on Monday, January 8. I will then send the book to the winner (anywhere in the world).

So here’s the quiz…

  1. In what year did the Daily Worker change to the Morning Star?
  2. What union did the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)’s Reg Birch belong to?
  3. The International Socialists became the Socialist Workers Party on what date?
  4. The Revolutionary Socialist League was better known as what group?
  5. Ken Livingstone wrote for which publication aligned with the Workers Revolutionary Party?
  6. Who was the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Industrial Organiser at the time of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike?
  7. What two groups supported the Revolutionary Communist Party’s Red Front in 1987?
  8. Militant was aligned to which Tendency inside the African National Congress in South Africa during the 1970s-80s?
  9. The journal Gay Left first appeared in which year?
  10. Alan Thornett formed which group after leaving the Workers Revolutionary Party (until 1973 the Socialist Labour League) in 1974?

Good luck comrades!

If you are not the winner, you can still purchase a copy of the book for 45% off via Book Depository. And if you haven’t picked up the previous volume, Against the Grain, you can get the paperback version for only £13.99 via Blackwell.

The cover is ready!

Very excited to unveil the cover of our forthcoming edited volume, The Far Left in Australia since 1945. It will be published by Routledge as part of their Studies in Radical History and Politics series in February next year. A paperback version should be available for the Australian and New Zealand market at the time as well. More details on the book can found here.

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We thank Meredith Burgmann for allowing us to use the cover photo. According this blog post by Kurt Iveson, the women featured in the photo are (from left to right) Glenys Page, Lyn Syme, Rhonda Ellis, unidentified, Michelle Fraser, Janne Reed, Caroline Graham.

London and the south-east regional divide in television sitcoms in Blair’s Britain

This is an extended conference paper by Lauren Pikó and myself, originally presented at the Eric Richards British and Australian History conference earlier this year. It is part of an on-going research project that we are working on looking at representations of political and socio-economic change in modern Britain through television comedies. Our previous work on The Young Ones and Men Behaving Badly can be read here.

“Go to London! I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway.” – Alan Partridge

 While many have discussed the North/South divide in England that has widened since the days of Margaret Thatcher, at the same time, many have overlooked the divide between London and the regional south-east, where the divide between Greater London and its surrounding counties has become increasingly blurred in a geographic sense, but a stark contrast has emerged socio-economically. Cities as far away as Norwich in East Anglia have become commuter towns to London, while conversely, much of the non-customer service work that used to be conducted for the city has been moved out to its outliers, such as Slough and Staines. In these commuter towns and outlying places in the Greater London region, the workplace (and the working class) has become irrevocably changed by the shift away from industry and manufacturing to service industries and white-collar office work. London, to those on its fringes, is not a place of opportunity, but an expensive and anonymous place to be avoided.

This post looks at how this regional divide plays out in three British sitcoms made in the Blair years, which normalised and encoded the economic transformations of Thatcher’s Prime Ministership. These are I’m Alan Partridge (set in Norwich), Da Ali G Show (set in Staines) and The Office (set in Slough). Through their liminal fringe south-eastern settings, and their tortured main male characters, these programmes negotiate the tensions and borders between ‘Middle England’ and the glamorous, but ultimately unfamiliar metropolis.

Liminal spaces in the Blairite metropolis

The explicit divide-and-rule policies of the Thatcher governments pitted the post-industrial service-based economies overwhelmingly located in the south-east of England against heavy industries, manufacturing, and those associated with communities in the North of England, by exploiting deindustrialising macroeconomic trends and weaponising them against communities and regions who were politically hostile to the new political order. While this phenomenon has been well explored by historians, it is significant to note that it was understood as an explicit and overt policy at the time; the very concept of “the enemy within” during the Miners’ Strike exemplifies Thatcherite attempts to Other and present northern working-class communities as not only outside of national norms, but as being in opposition to it.[1]

The willingness of the Thatcher governments to accelerate and weaponise wider global macroeconomic trends against communities it judged as hostile helped establish a new economic geography of Britain, which was also mapped onto a moral political rhetoric. The fullest expression of this rhetoric would be developed under the Major government, through the concept of “Middle England”. While this was far from being a historically new term, its usage during the mid-1990s came to reflect a historically specific set of economic and class allegiances associated with suburban petit-bourgeois individualism, a hostility to working-class cultures and to state “intervention”. Middle Englanders were associated with the geography of south-eastern England’s post-industrial economies that had been encouraged by Conservative deregulation of urban planning protections. From the extensive service and logistics industries populating the new geographies of out of town “industrial estates”, the transformation of motorway sidings through the expansion of “services”, “big-box” distributing centres and fringe leisure complexes, the primary and visible economic functions of British landscapes changed drastically during the 1980s and through the 1990s.[2]

At the same time as these communities and regions were being actively redefined as outside of the national norm, the Thatcher governments actively cultivated the idea of a south-eastern English aspirational middle class aesthetic, lifestyle and individualistic value set as a universal norm and as an ideal moral and economic type of its voting base. Through political rhetoric and the constant media generation of associated ideotypes such as Essex Man, Basildon Man, Mondeo Man, and White Van Man, the conceptualisation of the typical or privileged voter as white, male, lower-middle-class, and south-eastern English were codified through cycles of political and media repetition.[3] This process established a mythological norm which privileged a specific image of embattled bourgeois whiteness and presented it as intrinsically linked to the new forms of productivity generated by the south-eastern English landscape.

This would become all the more profoundly normalised as the Blair government, elected in 1997, deliberately refrained from attempting to remedy these drastic changes to maintain their idea of political legitimacy. For all its rhetoric of change, its appeals to authority relied primarily on making only superficial aesthetic changes to the existing economic order; the divisions left by the Thatcher governments could only have been addressed through the kind of interventionism and regulation which postwar Labour governments had used to shape and control market influence, and these were no longer seen to be politically palatable to a “New” Labour. While they were elected on a hopeful campaign promising change from 18 years of Conservative rule, one of the Blair governments’ primary political contributions was to reinforce the neoliberalisation of the British state. While high-profile support for Blair amongst musicians, comedians, and writers peaked during 1996 and 1997 at the time of the election, once New Labour began to be seen as business as usual, this mood mellowed.

British television comedy in the 1990s

The history of British television comedy defies easy compartmentalization and the rise and fall of different comedy trend are difficult to categorize. On a broad level, the mid-to-late 1990s can be somewhat characterized as the start of a shift away from the ‘laddish’ comedy culture of the early-to-mid-1990s, typified by Baddiel & Skinner and Men Behaving Badly. Tim Edwards has described this as the ‘New Lad’ phenomenon, which spanned television, film, magazines and novels, pointing to the following examples:

The BBC situation comedy, Men Behaving Badly, gam shows such as They Think It’s All Over and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, as well as movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels… in very different ways play upon and invoke the theme of the New Lad. Loud and sexist humour often tied in with rudeness and bad behaviour, if not extreme violence, characterize all of these representations of masculinity that, for the most part, appear to have direct appeal to a young, aggressive and sel-consciously working class male audience or its admirers.[4]

The ‘laddish’ comedy trend had originally been partly in reaction to the ‘political correctness’ of the alternative comedies of the 1980s, such as The Young Ones and The Comedy Strip Presents. Many sitcoms in the 1990s took the flatmate/sharehouse premise and extended it, often with the protagonists no longer being students (like in the Young Ones), but now older, in some form of employment and in some form of relationship. Furthermore, these were comedies were dominated by men, often in their late 20s or early 30s, putting off the pressures of ‘adulthood’. This can be seen in Men Behaving Badly and Game On (and later in shows like Coupling, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and even Peep Show). The locations that these shows are set in are the traditional house or flat, as well as the pub/bar and sometimes the workplace). Most, except for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, were set in London. In many ways, these shows reflect a transition in the way in which the British family and household were changing in the 1990s, as people were increasingly likely to buy a house and start a family later in life.

The shows that we are looking at transgress these traditional settings, moving away from the home and the communal area of the pub to the workplace and the liminal spaces on the edges of the metropolis. The programmes under examination here all formally depart from classic sitcom formulae and from the domestic setting of many popular comedies from prior to 1997. All are located in liminal south-Eastern English cities and within these, in “non-place” post-industrial settings (motorway sidings; industrial estates; suburbia/housing estates). They all share a critical and subversive relationship to television comedy genres, and all use a form of humour which deliberately provokes the edges of social norms through their main male characters. In this post, we examine the relationship between the liminal landscapes and liminal values these programmes navigate, and use them to trace the social, economic and geographic normalisation of neoliberalism during the early Blair government.

I’m Alan Partridge

The first series of I’m Alan Partridge aired from November 1997. A successor to the sketch show The Day Today and to the talk show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, the programme continued to document Steve Coogan’s character of a failed Norwich-based television and radio presenter in a new context. While using a laugh track, I’m Alan Partridge adopts a fly-on-the-wall style which at times approaches documentary style. The series opens with Alan living in one of the typical liminal spaces of the post-Thatcherite deregulated south-eastern English landscape; Linton Travel Tavern, a carefully fictionalised Travelodge located on the motorway services halfway between London and Norwich. Alan’s life is in a similar transitional space, as he fails to negotiate a new BBC contract, his optimistically titled autobiography Bouncing Back fails, and he is forced to liquidate his production company.

The gap between Alan’s aspirations and failures is mirrored in part through his occupation of what Marc Augé termed the “non-places” of late capitalism; motorway sidings, service stations, carparks, ring roads.[5] Partridge’s comfort with these settings even as he seeks to escape them is central to the humour of the programme, with his conservative enjoyment of mass produced foods, music, and even clothing which are so mainstream as to be passé. Like Alan’s preferences for consumption, and the settings of the programme, the plots satirise ideas and aesthetics which presume the audience is both familiar with and therefore contemptuous of, with Alan’s failure to realise his own faux pas making him the target of jokes. Phillip Wickham has written that the first series of I’m Alan Partridge, ‘broadcast in the year of raised hopes as New Labour came to power in 1997, suggests a world where… the individual has become dislocated from society and where codes of personal morality, solidarity and self-belief are rendered meaningless’.[6]

The second series of I’m Alan Partridge, broadcast in 2002, shifted its setting to Alan’s caravan and under-construction Barratt-style home, further exploited Underpinning these stories of Alan’s striving for status are flashes of narratives of repression, whether of his innermost sexual desires or reflections on past breakdowns.[7] Even while he constantly seeks to escape his surroundings, his antipathy to London as the site of his professional failures, and indeed any other city, region or country, entraps him with his refusal to transcend the comforts of what he knows.

Da Ali G Show

The first series of Da Ali G Show was broadcast in 2000 on Channel 4. In some ways Ali G echoed Coogan’s earlier invocation of Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing You, in its constant attempts to subvert the format of a smoothly functioning talk show by introducing tension (interrupting music segments, simulating mistakes and technical failures). Much of the humour, however, arose from actively exploiting the guile of guests who believed the show would conform to conventional talk show formulae. While creator Sasha Baron-Cohen, like fellow character creators Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan, subsequently took these characters into other settings (including America) in subsequent series, the setting of the first series of Da Ali G Show is frequently referred to as Staines, the staid Middlesex commuter town on subsumed into the exurbia of London’s Western fringes.

The gap between Ali G’s persona and the show’s setting exploits racialised stereotypes of “urban yoof” subcultures associated with inner cities, and the gentrified commuter landscape of the fringes of Greater London. The gap between expectations of what is “allowed” to be said and what Ali G, Borat, or Bruno would in fact say, and the ensuing discomfort of guests and audiences, relies on the perception of being “out of place”, mirroring the programme’s juxtaposition of stereotypes with their setting. Locating Ali G in an implied stronghold of Middle England works to subvert both the supposed homogeneity of the ideotype, and to point to the limits of cultural and political stereotypings of race, class, and youth subcultures. The space between expectation and reality as a source of recognition for the audience, as well as of humour, is mirrored in the programme’s landscape as well as its social relations.

The Office

This was especially the case in The Office (airing from 2001), which used mockumentary style to depict the mundanity of working life in the regional office of Wernham Hogg paper company, located in Slough. Existing on the fringes of the London commuter belt, Slough represents an anonymous ‘anywhere’ in Britain outside of London proper, but is also a representation of the ‘local, specific and particular’.[8] As Tara Brabazon has suggested, The Office represents ‘the specificity of a post-Blair, post-union, post-industrial, post-feminist, insular, open-plan office’.[9]

The setting of the comedy in Slough, and its regional tensions with Swindon branch, is inextricably interwoven with the aimlessness and escapist desires of its main characters, who are presented as socially and economically enmeshed with their unfulfilling environment. This underpins both the normative characters Tim and Dawn, whose dissatisfaction is expressed overtly, and through the escapist, compulsive approval seeking of the office manager David Brent, who barely sublimates his dreams of fame and an exceptional life into being a “cool boss”.

Like Partridge, however, Brent’s affection for the landscape of his entrapment reinforces his wider social failings: in an interview scene where Brent reads and ineptly critiques John Betjeman’s poem “Slough”, his defense of the town is represented as over-familiarity with the undesirable or distasteful, much as his racism, ableism, sexism, and general insensitivity is ostensibly mocked for its failure to conform to new social norms. Brent’s escapist desires is offset by his desperation to keep his job, which he is fired from as he stretches his “relaxed” attitude to the point of untenability. With an identity predicated on stretching the boundaries of acceptable workplace behaviour, Brent’s workplace persona relies on remaining in tension with social and economic expectations, much as his regional office is a tense and precarious link in the wider supply chain of Wernham Hogg.

We propose that the shared humour style of representation in these programmes, and the landscapes they depict, are distinctly related. Cringe humour can be seen in this way as one that plays with uneasy interpellations, and the tensions and liminal spaces of comfort and discomfort, familiarity and unfamiliarity. It relies on the audience recognising particular character types, settings, and situations, but identifying with them at least partly unwillingly, whether through recognising social faux pas, vulnerable emotions, or behaviours that are outside of the established norm. The humour in each of these programmes derives from discomfort, whether that of the audience, the main character/s, or other characters reacting with distaste due to their expectations of a social norm not being met. The gap between uplifting rhetoric and economic realities is presented as the source of displeasure, unfulfilment, and the striving for places and economic roles outside the norm; the characters either want to escape, or are ridiculed for their level of comfort with the new environment. Unlike comic forebears such as Abigail’s Party, whose satires of social mores responded to suburbia and which ended in tragedy, these comedies are workplace-focused with a heavy emphasis on individual pursuits of fame as an exit-strategy. In these comedies, the failed promises of neoliberal economics and the landscapes which it has created are inextricable subjects of ridicule.

Cringing is a form of emplaced dramatic irony, making reference to the uneasy space between familiarity and contempt, knowing and wishing not to know, while locating the audience as a moral arbiter over the characters’ failures to differentiate the behaviours that are dictated and required by this particular setting. In the programmes under discussion here, the use of post-industrial “non places” reinforces and emphasises the literal “edgy-ness” of the type of humour being used; familiar and yet distasteful, both inside and outside of the expectations of the projected audiences. On the one hand these can be contextualised within longer patterns of elite satire of mainstream working conditions, lifestyles and aesthetics which recur throughout modern British culture, however these comedies deliberately targeted settings, lifestyles and expectations in ways which were made possible by their being both relatively historically new and deeply familiar and recognisable. The constant juxtaposition of emotional repression and economic striving, and perpetual entrapment within liminal, unfulfilling spaces not only shapes the humour of these programmes but maps them onto the specific post-industrial landscape of south-eastern England, which are seen as familiar but also as morally desolate sites of discomfort, precarity and unease.

[1] Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[2] Joe Moran, Reading the Everyday (London and New York: Routledge, 2005); “The Strange Birth of Middle England,” Political Quarterly 76, no. 2 (2005).

[3]Imogen Tyler, “”Chav Mum Chav Scum”,” Feminist Media Studies 8, no. 1 (2008); T. Jensen and I. Tyler, “‘Benefits Broods’: The Cultural and Political Crafting of Anti-Welfare Commonsense,” Critical Social Policy 35, no. 4 (2015); Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, Class and Contemporary British Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[4] Tim Edwards, ‘Sex, Booze and Fags: Masculinity, Style and Men’s Magazines’, Sociological Review, 51/1 (2003).

[5] Marc Augé, Non-Places : Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London/New York: Verso, 1995).

[6] Phillip Wickham, ‘British Situation Comedy and “The Culture of the New Capitalism”’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter (2013).

[7] Joe Moran, On Roads (London: Profile Books, 2009); “‘Subtopias of Good Intentions’: Everyday Landscapes in Postwar Britain,” Cultural and Social History 4, no. 3 (2007).

[8] Tara Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”: The Office, (Post) Reality Television and (Post) Work’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 8/1 (2005).

[9] Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”’.

Speaking about the Australian far left at Historical Materialism Sydney

This is just a quick announcement for people in Sydney this week. Jon Piccini, Elizabeth Humphrys and I will be speaking at the Historical Materialism conference at the University of Sydney on Friday morning (8 December) about writing the history of the Australian far left. This is based on our forthcoming edited volume for Routledge.

For a full programme of the two day conference, see here. You can register for the conference here.

I will also be selling cheap-ish copies of my book, so hit me up for one!