1956

‘The Far Left in Australia since 1945’ – forthcoming with Routledge

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Vietnam Moratorium march in Canberra, Sep. 1970 (via National Archives of Australia, NAA A9626/112)

We are pleased to announce that our forthcoming edited volume on the history of the Australian far left in the Cold War era has been put up on the Routledge website, with a Table of Contents. Unfortunately it is not available to pre-order just yet. We hope this is rectified soon!

You can check out the book and its TOC here: https://www.routledge.com/The-Far-Left-in-Australia-since-1945/Smith-Piccini-Worley/p/book/9781138043855

Meanwhile excerpts from the chapter written by myself and Jon Piccini on the Communist Party of Australia and the ‘White Australian Policy’ can be found here and here.

Announcing the chapter list for ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

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Image source: Getty Images

Now that we have entered the copy-editing phase, Matthew Worley and I are happy to announce the chapter list for our forthcoming volume with Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956. It is the second volume that Matt and I have co-edited for MUP (the first being Against the Grain) and we are very excited to showcase new scholarship by a range of established and upcoming scholars (including a number of activist-scholars). Like the previous volume, we have tried to cover a wide variety of different groups and movements and hope that these chapters inspire further research into the British (and international) far left. So here is chapter list:

Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left – Evan Smith and Matthew Worley

1          Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970–90 – Jodi Burkett

2          Not that serious? The investigation and trial of the Angry Brigade, 1967–72 – J. D. Taylor

3          Protest and survive: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party and civil defence in the 1980s – Jacquelyn Arnold

4          Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s – Gavin Brown

5          ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968–75 – Jack Saunders

6          Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956–85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley

7          Networks of solidarity: the London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike – Diarmaid Kelliher

8          ‘You have to start where you’re at’: politics and reputation in 1980s Sheffield – Daisy Payling

9          Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism,      1956–79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs

10        A miner cause? The persistence of left nationalism in postwar Wales – Daryl Leeworthy

11        The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn

12        The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Michael Fitzpatrick

13        The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey

14        Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain – Lawrence Parker

We hope that the volume will be available by the end of the year, or in early 2018. Further details will be on this blog as they come to us.

For those attending the Modern British Studies conference at the University of Birmingham in July, Matt and several of the contributing authors will be speaking about the collection. More details to follow soon.

Sydney, London, Moscow, Beijing: Schisms in the international communist movement, 1947-61

The following forms part of a forthcoming book chapter on the relationship between the Communist Parties in Britain, Australia and South Africa. It builds on previous posts (here and here) and will also be worked into the manuscript that I am currently developing from my postdoctoral research. As per usual, any feedback is most welcome!

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Mao Zedong meets Harry Pollitt, Nelson Clarke and L.L. Sharkey.

The relationship between the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Moscow started to deviate in the post-war period. In the era of decolonisation that started after the Second World War, the CPA increasingly look towards Asia and the revolutionary precedent established by the Communist Party of China. It is evident that as the dual processes of the Cold War and decolonisation got underway, there was a clear division of labour between Moscow and Beijing, with the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence concentrating on Europe, while it was accepted that the colonial countries of Asia would follow the ‘Chinese path’. As David Lockwood has argued, after 1949:

an informal ‘division of labour’ within the world movement seems to have been agreed upon between the Soviet and Chinese parties in which communists in the colonies, ‘semi-colonies’ and ex-colonies would receive their advice from Beijing.[1]

The CPA was to provide support to the anti-colonial movements in Asia and formed particularly close links with the Communist Parties of Malaya, Indonesia and India, as well as the Chinese Party. This support also caused friction between the Australian and British parties, particularly over the level of support that the British party gave to the national liberation movements in the British colonies.

On the eve of the Malayan Emergency in mid-1948, the CPA’s leadership used the situation in Malaya to attack the CPGB for its reformist tendencies. In the initial post-war period, the CPGB supported the Labour Government, who despite endorsing colonial independence in some instances, harshly put down anti-colonial movements which had communist links, such as in Malaya. The CPA saw the CPGB’s support for Labour as ‘Browderist’, based on the argument made by former CPUSA leader Earl Browder that separate Communist Parties were no longer necessary in the global West. The Australian party further accused the British party of substituting the struggle for socialism with the acceptance of bourgeois democracy. The CPA believed that the CPGB had lost its way and it would rather look towards Moscow (and Beijing) for direction.

In particular, the Australian Communist Party, strongly influenced by the Chinese Communist Party (and for a time, the Tito regime in Yugoslavia), accused the British Communist Party of not fully committing the struggle against colonialism.[2] This began in 1947 with Sharkey’s heavy criticisms in the newspaper Tribune of the new pamphlet by CPGB General Secretary Harry Pollitt, Looking Ahead for ‘mislead[ing] the British working-class’ and evading the logic of Marxism-Leninism.[3]

The CPA had close ties to the Communist Party of Malaya (based in Singapore), who were debating whether to launch an armed insurrection against the British colonial government. Part of the CPA’s critique of the CPGB was that as the British party supported the Labour Government under Clement Atlee, they were unwilling to fully support anti-colonial rebellions in the British Commonwealth as this would upset any prospective ‘Labour-Communist’ alliance. On the other hand, the CPA was very supportive of communist anti-colonialism in the South-East Asia region (on the doorstep of Australia). With its enthusiasm for the Malayan Communist Party, the CPA could highlight the contrast between its agenda and the ‘reformism’ of the CPGB and also depict itself as a supporter of the emerging anti-colonial movements in Asia.

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A letter from the Central Committee of the CPGB to Sharkey in July 1948 accused him of ‘uncomradely and un-Communist’ behaviour for using the theoretical journal of the Malayan Communist Party to attack the CPGB.[4] The CPGB described Sharkey’s article, titled ‘The International Situation and Opportunism’, as ‘an entirely false presentation of the policy of our Party’ and pronounced:

Such methods as you have seen fit to adopt have nothing in common with international practice among Communist Parties and between Communist Party leaders.[5]

In a further exchange of letters between the two parties, published in the CPGB’s World News and Views, Sharkey further criticised the British party over its anti-colonial work, accusing it of

insufficient struggle on behalf of the independence of the colonies; and worse still, the example of the British comrades which led to opportunism and confusion in a number of the colonial Communist Parties.[6]

Although Sharkey did not elaborate on this accusation, it is true that some national liberation movements and Communist Parties in the colonial sphere, such as those in India, believed that the resolve of the CPGB on anti-colonial issues had waned in the 1940s.[7] The CPGB believed that the Australian party was possibly ‘pro-Tito’ (and thus willing to criticise the British party) because Sharkey had spent time in Calcutta with a Yugoslav delegate in 1948 as the only two non-Asian communist representatives at the congress of the Communist Party of India.[8]

In further private correspondence between Sharkey and Pollitt, the Australian Communist leader wrote, ‘you have an incorrect understanding of the present day maneuvers of British imperialism in relation to the colonial revolutions’.[9] However the CPGB maintained that anti-colonial politics was central to its programme and that ‘as the Party in the ruling centre of the Empire’, it held ‘the greatest responsibility… to combat the vicious and harmful policies of imperialism’.[10] And despite these fractures, the Communist Party of Australia still sent delegates to the CPGB’s Communist Parties of the British Empire conferences in 1947, 1954 and 1958, while several leading CPGB members, such as Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallacher, toured Australia in the 1950s.

Throughout the 1950s, the CPA looked increasingly to the Chinese Communist Party for direction and as Mark Aarons has written, ‘[t]he CPA was the first Australian political party to understand that Australia is geographically located in Asia.’[11] Although Australia was a settler colonial power, rather than a colony, it seemed to make sense, geographically, for the CPA to build closer ties with China, rather than simply looking to the Kremlin and the CPGB in London, with whom ties had been loosened throughout the late 1940s.

After the denunciation of the ‘crimes’ of the Stalin era by Khrushchev in 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956, Communist Parties across the world went into shock, with many suffering significant membership loss and debate spilling over into the public sphere. Inside the British Communist Party, dissidents, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Brian Pearce, Peter Fryer and Malcolm MacEwen (amongst others), sought channels outside the Party to denounce the actions of the Soviet Union, as well as the lack of internal debate within the Party. Phillip Deery and Rachel Calkin have shown that similar scenes occurred in the CPA.[12] Although the leadership of both the CPGB and CPA supported the invasion of Hungary in October 1956, the backlash in these Parties fostered a much deeper debate about the role of the Soviet Union in the international communist movement. In Britain, the Communist Party lost over 8,000 members between February 1956 and February 1958,[13] leading to the creation of the first New Left that attempted to negotiate a path between Western capitalism and Stalinism.[14] In Australia, Communist Party membership ‘slumped from about 8000 to less than 6000’,[15] which was followed by further divisions inside the CPA over the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s.

Between 1956 and 1960, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China seemed to heading towards a major split in the international communist movement and it was up to each individual country or Communist Party to decide where their support lay. Right up until 1960, the CPA seemed to take the side of the Chinese in the dispute, with Nick Knight claiming that during the late 1950s, ‘virtually the entire National Secretariat of the CPA was ideologically and psychologically in favour of the Chinese position’.[16] However Sharkey, despite visiting China in 1959 and 1961, pulled back at the last moment and shifted its support back to Moscow when attending the 81 Communist and Workers Parties conference in Moscow in November 1961.[17] ASIO noted that the Sino-Soviet split also had a major impact upon the CPA’s relationship with the Communist Party of New Zealand (the only Western Communist Party to side with China in the split).[18] While Mark Aarons suggests that Sharkey was partially swayed by some large cash payments by Moscow, Tom O’Lincoln suggests that the rank-and-file membership had little appetite for the extreme rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party at this time, while Knight argues that it was Sharkey’s probable realisation that the CPA ‘would become isolated from the fraternity of the international communist parties should its support for the Chinese position continue’.[19]

After the realignment of the CPA towards Moscow, a pro-Chinese faction broke away and formed the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in 1963, led by Ted Hill. In Britain, the CPGB experienced similar breakaways from anti-revisionists. In the same year that the CPA (M-L) was formed, Michael McCreery formed the Committee to Defeat Revisionism for Community Unity and led a small number of party members disgruntled with the ‘revisionism’ of The British Road to Socialism.[20] A larger group left in early 1968 when AEU leader Reg Birch formed the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).[21]

By the 1960s, the international communist movement had fractured, caused partly by the events of 1956, partly by the Sino-Soviet split and partly by the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, which presented an alternative to both Stalinism or Maoism for the new decolonised nations across the global South. This was very different from the situation in 1945 when communists the world over looked the newly triumphant Soviet Union, the People’s Democracies in Eastern Europe and the Chinese Communist Party on the verge of winning a decades long civil war. As the Cold War got underway, coinciding with the era of decolonisation, Communist Parties in the West shifted to the left and embraced this enthusiasm for socialism and anti-imperialism, including the Communist Party of Australia. The Communist Party of Great Britain, although taking a more conciliatory approach to domestic politics, was charged by Moscow with assisting anti-colonial struggles within the British Empire/Commonwealth. The CPA quarrelled with the CPGB over its reformism and alleged that this political shift had left the CPGB unable to assist its comrades in the colonial sphere. This tumultuous relationship was not repaired until the 1950s, when important figures such as Harry Pollitt visited Australia, and grew closer after L.L. Sharkey was replaced as Party leader in the mid-1960s. However the enthusiasm for Stalinism and Maoism, which had characterised the outlook of the Party in the 1940s and 1950s had given way to a proto-Eurocommunism by the late 1960s.

CPA pamphlet

[1] David Lockwood, The Communist Party of India and the Indian Emergency (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2016) pp. 10-11.

For further discussion of this division of labour, see: John Herouvim, ‘Australian Communists and Peking: New Light on an Elusive Source’, Politics, 20/1 (1985) pp. 127-129.

[2] See: ‘Exchange of Letters Between the Australian and the British Communist Parties’, World News and Views, 31 July, 1948, pp. 332-339.

[3] L.L. Sharkey, ‘Critical Comment on Harry Pollitt’s Book’, Tribune, 25 October, 1947, p. 7.

[4] Letter from CPGB to L.L. Sharkey, 16 July, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, CPGB archive, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[5] Letter from CPGB to L.L. Sharkey.

[6] ‘Exchange of Letters Between the Australian and the British Communist Parties’, p. 334.

[7] Smith, ‘National Liberation for Whom?’, p. 289.

[8] Letter from Brian Pearce to CPGB Executive Committee, 7 August, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[9] Copy of letter from L.L. Sharkey to Harry Pollitt, 22 October, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[10] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Political Report to the Conference of the Communist Parties of the British Empire’, in CPGB, We Speak for Freedom (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1947) p. 24.

[11] Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc, 2010) p. 172.

[12] Phillip Deery & Rachel Calkin, ’”We All Make Mistakes”: The Communist Party of Australia and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, 1956’, Australia Journal of Politics and History, 54/1, pp. 69-69-84.

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

[14] Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995); Wade Matthews, The New Left, National Identity and the Break-Up of Britain (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2013) pp. 1-26.

[15] Tom O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism (Sydney: Stained Wattle Press, 1985) p. 98.

[16] Nick Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 28/2, 1998, p. 236.

[17] Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, p. 236; Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010) pp. 172-185.

[18] ASIO, ‘Oceania: Communism’s Last Target ’, A 12388, 81 PART 2, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[19] O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream, p. 102; Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, p. 236; Aarons, The Family File, p. 192.

[20] Parker, The Kick Inside, pp. 45-50.

[21] Will Podmore, Reg Birch: Engineer, Trade Unionist, Communist (London: Bellman Books, 2004).

Paperback edition of ‘Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956’ is out now

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This is a quick announcement that the paperback version of Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (edited by myself and Matthew Worley) is now available. If you haven’t ordered a copy yet, you really should do so. If you are in the UK, I would recommend buying via here (or asking Bookmarks, Housmans or News From Nowhere for it). Or if you are in Australia, please buy from here. And wherever you are in the world, do support your local independent book stores and ask whether they can order it in for you.

I am pleased to announce that the second volume, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far left from 1956 vol. II, will be published by Manchester University Press, probably late in 2017.

 

South African progressives and the Suez Crisis of 1956

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On 29 October, 1956, the Suez Crisis began with an Israeli attack upon Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, with the UK and France intervening the subsequent days to ‘protect’ the Suez Canal. Many historians have viewed these actions as the last major ‘roll of the dice’ for the British and French governments hoping to stem the decolonisation process in Africa and the Middle East, and the drawing of the postcolonial world into closer ties with the Soviet Bloc.

From South Africa, progressives watched as imperialist forces invaded one of its former colonies to prevent a programme of nationalisation, occurring amidst the wider decolonisation process across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. This worried the various progressive groups that still existed in South Africa in the mid-1950s. Eight years into Apartheid rule, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) had been banned in 1950 and its membership driven underground (its successor, the South African Communist Party (SACP), was not officially established until 1960). The African National Congress (ANC) was still a legal organisation, but a month later, most of its leadership would be arrested and put on trial for treason by the Strijdom government. The remnants of the CPSA that remained in South Africa were often also members of the ANC, while other former CPSA activists coalesced around organisations, such as the ex-servicemen group, the Springbok Legion.

The Suez Crisis, coming at the same time as the Soviet invasion of Hungary, shocked these progressives as a blatant imperialist reaction to the decolonisation process, and an affront to the sovereignty of these newly formed postcolonial nations. In their journal Liberation, the ANC called the action a ‘blatant aggression’ and stated:

British, French and Israeli troops have invaded Egypt and occupied Egyptian territory by force of arms; a wanton, premeditated act of aggression taken in defiance of solemn undertakings under the United Nations Charter.

The reason for this invasion, the ANC declared, was control of the Suez Canal and the revenue generated from this, with the Israeli invasion providing a pretext for seizing control. The journal continued:

[T]hat in fact is exactly what the English and French imperialists are out for – loot. They want to grab the Suez Canal. The Israeli attack was just a feeble excuse (no doubt it was fixed up in advance with the Israeli Government)…

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Meanwhile, the newspaper New Age, run by a number of ex-CPSA members, such as Ruth First, published on its front page a statement drawn up by several progressive organisations in South Africa, such as the ANC, the Indian National Congress, the Coloured People’s Association and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). The statement read:

The invasion by the Israeli army and the decision of the British and French Governments to re-occupy the Suez Canal zone constitute a serious act of aggression against Egypt which will have world-wide repercussions…

These acts are in total disregard of the territorial sovereignty of the Egyptian people and cannot be justified by any alleged provocations. Britain and France have used Israel as a spearhead to re-establish themselves as masters of the Suez Canal in order to maintain their domination over colonial countries in Africa and the Middle East.

This idea of Britain and France reasserting their imperial dominance over the postcolonial world was something that was also highlighted by the ANC. As well retaking the Suez Canal, the ANC suggested that the Anglo-French aims were ‘to overthrow the Nasser Government and re-occupy Egypt as a colony’ in the short term, and ‘to teach the peoples of the colonies and former colonies of Africa, Asia and the Middle East “a lesson”’ in the long term. At this time, the British were fighting anti-colonial movements in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya, while the French were fighting the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

However the actions of the British and French were not successful and both countries were chastised by the United Nations. Both the ANC and those attached to the New Age newspaper celebrated the fact that Egypt had not been defeated by the imperialist forces. Two weeks after the fighting stopped, the New Age newspaper wrote:

The force of world anger at the British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt has led to a cease-fire and brought to a temporary halt the use of naked aggression to crush the Nasser government. This is a victory for the forces of progress, but it is by no means a final victory.

The ANC were just as celebratory, writing:

The plot to conquer Egypt has failed; the “lesson” has turned out to be the greatest fiasco in modern history. As we write, the aggressors’ armies are still in Egypt, but we cannot doubt that the massive reaction of the peace-loving people of the whole world will compel them to withdraw unconditionally, and to compensate the innocent Egyptian people for the damage and suffering that they have caused.

From this, both publications expressed solidarity between the progressive and anti-imperialist forces in South Africa and the Egyptian people as allies in the fight against imperialism and racialism. The ANC declared that the Suez Crisis had inspired ‘the awakening millions of Britain’s African empire’ and ‘[i[nstead of frightening the colonial world’, the Anglo-French-Israeli attack had:

raised against themselves a storm of mass solidarity, indignation and determination that can only hasten the doom of imperialism and colonialism through-out the world.

The aforementioned statement on the front page of the New Age finished with this expression of solidarity:

On behalf of all peace-loving South Africans we demand an end to force and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Egyptian territory. We express our sympathy with the Egyptian people and our support for their just claim to sovereignty in the own country.

In an editorial contained in the same issue, the links between progressives in South Africa and the Nasser government in Egypt were reiterated:

As an African country we are closely involved in this invasion of Africa. As members of the liberation movement we are closely involved in this attack on a liberation movement. As opponents of national oppression and colonialism we are involved in this oppressive and imperialist war…

We dare not remain quiet. Our voices must be heard in the call for an end to the war in Egypt – in the demand for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the territory of that country.

But while these various groups expressed solidarity in the face of imperialist attack, they did not all consider Colonel Nasser in the same light. Moses Kotane, the General Secretary of the CPSA and then the SACP, stated in New Age that Nasser was ‘no fascist’ as the Western media and politicians had described him, but was ‘an ardent nationalist whose main concern is the freedom, independence, progress and honour of Egypt and her 25 million inhabitants’. Kotane explained that Nasser played an important role in the worldwide anti-colonial movement, saying, ‘Colonel Nasser desires to see colonialism ended in Africa, Asia and the rest of the world.’ He concluded his outline of Nasser with this:

The South African people must clearly understand that the continued independence and progress of the Egyptian people means a lot to their own struggle against apartheid and injustices in this country.

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Lionel Bernstein, a comrade of Kotane in the CPSA/SACP and editor of the Springbok Legion’s Fighting Talk, was much more critical of Nasser and his government. The revolution that was led by Nasser and his fellow army generals was, according to Bernstein, simply passing Egypt ‘into the hands of the new dictatorship of the military junta, acting without consultation with the people, without elections, without any authority save the force they commanded’. Bernstein pointed to locking up of all political opponents, including Egypt’s communists, as a very negative aspect of the regime, but also pointed to positive changes, such as the creation of a ‘democratic’ constitution. However this constitution was deemed to be a constitution of the bourgeoisie – ‘the creation of the Nasser regime, of the middle-class revolutionaries representing the middle class of Egypt’. Teleologically it was moving the country ‘steadily away from military dictatorship towards bourgeois democracy’, but for Bernstein, the Nasser regime was not socialist.

On the other hand, Bernstein recognised Egypt’s commitment to anti-colonial solidarity:

It is a government of fighters against foreign subjection, taking the first steps against colonialism, against the backward heritage of imperialism. Let its enemies look to their own record in their own territory – in Kenya and Algeria, in Cyprus and in Malaya and Morocco and compare the record.

The Suez Crisis coincided with the Soviet invasion of Hungary and this led to a schism amongst communists, socialists and other progressives across the globe. Unlike other Communist Parties in the West, the fact that the CPSA had disbanded and gone underground meant similar open debates that occurred in the British, French and Italian parties could not happen, and in general, amongst South African progressives, the events in Hungary were seen as justified in comparison with the Anglo-French-Israeli actions in Egypt. In the New Age, it was pronounced that comparison between the two interventions was a ‘false analogy’, stating:

  • The Anglo-French aggression was directed against the Egyptian government; the Soviet [gave] assistance on the invitation of the Hungarian government.
  • The Anglo-French forces invaded Egypt. The Soviet forces were stationed in Hungary with the recognised responsibility of protecting Hungary’s independence and preventing her return to fascism.
  • Britain and France had no shred of legal right to invade; the Soviet armed forces were legally in Hungary in terms of the Warsaw pact.
  • Most important of all – the issue of Egypt is between imperialism and national liberation; the issue in Hungary is between socialism and reaction…

In the editorial of Liberation, the ANC made a similar case for the differences between Suez and Hungary:

we should not forget that the Soviet Union has not suddenly ‘invaded’ Hungary, as the British and French have invaded Egypt. Soviet troops have been in Hungary ever since the end of the second world war, and as a result of that war.

From these statements, it is evident that the progressive forces in South Africa were particularly concerned about other national liberation movements in Africa (and across the rest of the world) in their fight against imperialism and colonialism. Experiencing a severe racialist reaction against the decolonisation process in the form of Apartheid, South African progressives expressed solidarity with the Egyptian people and viewed the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion as part of a wider reaction by the global West against decolonisation. In the following years, southern Africa would be viewed as anomaly where the imperialist powers had not relinquished their stranglehold on these settler colonies, in the face of a generally decolonised African continent.

On the other hand, those progressives that were part of the SACP and ANC looked to the Soviet Union, as well as the Non-Aligned Movement (which had first met the previous year in Bandung) as guiding forces in the anti-colonial struggle. The ANC called the USSR ‘a great power openly and irrevocably hostile to imperialism’ that had ‘enabled the former colonies triumphantly to proclaim and consolidate their independence’. Criticism of the Soviets would come later on, but in 1956, there was little dissent amongst what the ANC and the underground SACP expressed towards the Soviet Union.

Like the putting down of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Suez Crisis showed South African progressives that the British were unwilling to give up control of some colonies that had strategic value to them, or where they felt that communists could potentially take power. Although Harold Macmillan would speak of ‘winds of change’ across Africa a few years later, the long struggle against Apartheid and imperialism in southern Africa was only just beginning.

 

 

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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.

CFP FOR EDITED VOLUME ON HISTORY OF THE AUSTRALIAN FAR LEFT

CPA pamphlet

Evan Smith (Flinders University), Matthew Worley (University of Reading) and Jon Piccini (University of Queensland) are calling for chapter proposals for an edited volume on the Australian far left in the post-war era (1945 to the present). Expanding on our work looking at the history of the British far left, we believe that a survey of the exciting new work being done of the far left in Australia and its influence on wider Australian political history is due.

We are currently seeking chapter proposals on the following topics:

  • The CPA and Cold War espionage
  • 1956 for the Australian left
  • The peace/nuclear disarmament movement
  • The student left and the anti-Vietnam War movement
  • Radical Marxism since the 1960s (Trotskyism, Maoism, anti-revisionism)
  • Anarchism in Australia
  • ASIO and the new left
  • The left and Indigenous rights
  • The left and the women’s movement
  • The left and gay rights
  • The anti-apartheid movement in Australia
  • Nationalism and internationalism on the far left
  • Trade unionism, the ALP and the left
  • The Green Bans
  • Environmentalism and the Greens as a ‘left’ party
  • Or any other aspect of the Australian far left if suitably interesting.

We welcome proposals from both scholars and activists, but emphasise that chapters must be presented in an academic format, written ‘objectively’ and with references to primary source materials.

An internationally recognised publisher has already shown interest in publishing the collection.

300 word abstracts and a short bio should be sent to: evan.smith@flinders.edu.au (Please CC in m.worley@reading.ac.uk and Jon.Piccini@uqconnect.edu.au into all emails)

Please email any editor with any further questions.

DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS – 4 APRIL, 2016

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