20th Congress of the CPSU

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!


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).


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]


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.

Feb 25, 1956: Khrushchev gives “Secret Speech” to 20th Congress of the CPSU

In his autobiography Interesting Times, Eric Hobsbawm wrote:

There are two ‘ten days that shook the world’ in the history of the revolutionary movement of the last century: the days of the October Revolution,… and the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (14-25 February 1956). Both divide it suddenly and irrevocably into a ‘before’ and ‘after’… To put it in the simplest terms, the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it.


On the final day of the CPSU’s 20th Congress, Nikita Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ which outlined the crimes of the Stalin era and the ‘cult of personality’ that allowed these crimes to occur. You can read the text of the speech here. Although it was viewed by many anti-revisionists retrospectively as an attack upon Stalin, Khrushchev was actually quite tempered in his criticisms of Stalin and his legacy. This passage near the end of the speech is an example of Khrushchev mealy-mouthedness:

We consider that Stalin was extolled to excess. However, in the past Stalin undoubtedly performed great services to the Party, to the working class and to the international workers’ movement.

This question is complicated by the fact that all this which we have just discussed was done during Stalin’s life under his leadership and with his concurrence; here Stalin was convinced that this was necessary for the defense of the interests of the working classes against the plotting of enemies and against the attack of the imperialist camp.

He saw this from the position of the interest of the working class, of the interest of the laboring people, of the interest of the victory of socialism and communism. We cannot say that these were the deeds of a giddy despot. He considered that this should be done in the interest of the Party, of the working masses, in the name of the defense of the revolution’s gains. In this lies the whole tragedy!

As word of the speech spread around the world, most Communist Parties became divided over the issue. I have written in an earlier post about how the CPGB dealt with the revelations of the ‘secret speech’, but I thought people might be interested in what R. Palme Dutt wrote about the character of the Stalin regime in the midst of the CPGB’s debates over the topic. In June 1956, Dutt wrote:


Was Stalin a ‘dictator’, a ‘tyrant’ or… a ‘scoundrel’?… There was here no parallel with the traditional forms of one-man rule, Bonapartism or the Fuehrerprinzip or fascist dictatorship. There was here no question of a proclamation of a constitution placing all power in the hands of one man, of an Emperor or a Leader, as the sole repository of power, from whom all authority is declared to spring (the authoritarian principle). On the contrary. The unique and peculiar character of the situation which arose during this period. was that nothing changed in the basis of class power… The party continued to lead the people. Nor was the main basic policy incorrect… The evils that arose affected primarily the functioning of the apparatus rather than the essence of the class power of the working people… Throughout this period, the masses of the people were continuing to enjoy and exercise self-rule in running their affairs to a degree unknown in any capitalist democracy, and continuing to justify Lenin’s description of Soviet democracy as the highest form of democracy yet known.

What, then, went wrong? What happened was that in a period of heavy strain after the rise of fascism, of continual war of threat-of-war conditions, the practice of leadership began to depart from the correct constitutional forms. During this period after fascism… Stalin, on the basis of the unique and well-earned theoretical and practical authority and mass influence he had won through his previous record of wise and successful Marxist leadership in the battle against disruption and for the victorious construction of socialism, began to operate new methods of working which departed from the methods of Lenin and the previous practice of the Communist Party… With close lines of direct contact with the masses…, and with the widest party and non-party masses looking to him as the wisest and ablest revolutionary leader in whom they felt full confidence, Stalin entered on the dangerous path of beginning increasingly to take major decisions in his personal capacity, without waiting for the endorsement of committee consultations. 

Hobsbawm may be right that Khrushchev’s ‘deStalinisation’ campaign irrevocably split the international communist movement, but it might be argued that other developments, such as the Sino-Soviet split and the rise of the new left (which further divided the movement), would have taken place sooner or later and were only hastened by the events of 1956.

So there’s $64,000 question: what would have happened to the international communist movement if Khrushcehv had not made his ‘secret speech’?

Is 2013 the Socialist Workers Party’s 1956?

Marx's famous dictum from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

Marx’s famous dictum from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

After the SWP convened its ‘special conference’ in March this year, I posted a blog positing the question whether this was a turning point for the far left in Britain. I wondered whether the number of people turning away from the SWP and its diminishing stature within the wider leftist, labour and progressive circles in Britain would mean that the SWP would head towards oblivion or start the long road towards regeneration. I used the example of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the years following the events of 1956 to contrast with the contemporary scenario of the Socialist Workers Party. Although I disagree with Marx and would argue that history does not repeat itself, maybe past events, such as the CPGB’s wilderness years between 1956 and 1964-68, might highlight some things that may occur in the fallout of the SWP’s schisms. A number of people questioned whether the events of 2013 were analogous to those of 1956 for two reasons. Firstly, quite a few people stated that the schism in the CPGB was much more momentous, losing about 8,000 members from around 24,000, compared with the much smaller numbers involved in the SWP fallout. Secondly, some of those more inclined to the SWP suggested that while this controversy was a source of friction, it was not on the same magnitude as the CPGB’s crisis – that this, in their eyes, was a minor problem more akin to the fractures which occurred over Respect and over the Rees/German split.

Now that the SWP’s annual conference has passed and this has led to a much wider exodus of prominent SWP members, including Pat Stack and Ian Birchall, I would now argue that the crisis facing SWP now is similar to the crisis faced by the CPGB in 1956. The old leadership has remained (fairly) intact and seems to suggest that it considers adherence to democratic centralism is more important than reflection and substantial reform. The SWP leadership seem to believe that its self-proclaimed role as the revolutionary socialist vanguard of the working class must be maintained at all costs, and that sincere re-evaluation and reform might jeopardise this.

Alex Callinicos, leading figure of the current SWP

Alex Callinicos, leading figure of the current SWP

Can we look at the period between 1956 and 1968 and make any reasonable assumptions about the next decade for the British far left?

If we look back to the British far left after 1956, there are a few points that could be made about the situation of the far left in 2013. In 1976, Peter Sedgwick described the period between 1956 and 1968 as a time of ‘political adolescence’ and it is fair to say that this period was one of rejuvenation and a shift in political focus. While still numerically the largest group to the left of the Labour Party, the CPGB could not maintain its position as the most influential far left group and was rivalled by the figures of the new left and the Trotskyists. Former CPGB members such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville and Raymond Williams, along with a whole bunch of fellow travellers, such as Stuart Hall, Perry Anderson and Ralph Miliband, advocated socialism mixed with humanism and encouraged a non-party aligned milieu between the Communist Party and the Labour left. Initially buoyed by its interaction with social movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, these people helped to inspire a new era of left-wing thought, but the early 1960s, it was evident that this did not necessarily lead to practical action and there was a swing back towards Labour, now under Harold Wilson. On the Trotskyist left, Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League reaped the initial benefits of the exodus from the CPGB, with a few people, such as Peter Fryer and Ken Coates, moving from the Communist Party to the SLL, but this was not because they were suddenly converts to orthodox Trotskyism, but because the SLL was the only other game in town at this stage. But Healy’s leadership caused much friction and most former CPGB members left shortly after joining. By the mid-1960s, most of those who had left the CPGB between 1956 and 1958 ended up in the Labour Party or abstaining from activist politics.

A similar situation might be in store for those who have left the SWP. Although a number of those who have resigned have stated that they would continue to be involved in activism and left-wing politics, it is much more likely that this will be in various social movements and single-issue campaigns, rather than joining another party (with the exception of possibly joining the Labour Party). The Socialist Party (formerly Militant) might be the next biggest left-wing group at the moment, but they probably won’t benefit from the SWP’s losses membership-wise, and the same could be said about the various other groups who have had long standing disputes with the SWP. One of the differences between 1956 and 2013 organisationally is the emergence of the Left Unity project. This might create a more actively involved space between the Leninist far left and the Labour Party, and this might draw the ex-SWP crowd, but how sustainable this project will be is still up in the air.

But while Left Unity is a new organisation, it is made up of many of the old faces from the far left as it has stood over the last decade. The other major process underway in the period between 1956 and 1968 was a generational change. Apart from Gerry Healy (and possibly other figures from the 1940s Revolutionary Communist Party, such as Ted Grant), most of those who formed the nuclei of the emerging Trotskyist groups were from a younger generation, predominantly joining after spending time in the Labour Party Young Socialists or in the CND. The non-party aligned new left also proved attractive to a younger generation, coming into contact through the CND, as well as new left publications such as The New Reasoner and Universities & Left Review. Even the Communist Party experienced a shift in political focus as a younger generation came up through the ranks. By the late 1960s, most of the Party’s leadership that had presided over proceedings during the crisis of 1956 had either retired or died and this allowed a new generation of CPGB members to flourish (and eventually challenge the Party’s long-term strategies), although some old-timers, such as John Gollan, James Klugmann and Bert Ramelson, remained in leadership positions until the mid-1970s.

Nowadays, the SWP leadership is predominantly made up of an older generation, recruited into the Party in the 1970s and 1980s, and now firmly entrenched in their positions. Many have claimed that the SWP had become stratified between this older leadership and a younger base of recruits, primarily university students, and that there was not much in between these two extremes in terms of membership. After this present crisis, one wonders how difficult it will become for the SWP to recruit younger people into the party and whether younger people will deem the SWP to be ‘out of touch’ and avoid them, just like many did in the 1960s and 1970s with the CPGB, eschewing the outmoded Communist Party for the newer Trotskyist groups, such as the International Socialists or the International Marxist Group.

The current SWP leadership cannot hold on forever and the real question may be whether there is still a party to revive once they are gone. Taking the example of the CPGB, after 1956, it took more than a decade to really rejuvenate, recruiting a new, younger (and more diverse) cohort of members, but also coinciding with a wider social and political upswing. Until the late 1960s, the CPGB was sustained by its presence in the trade unions and its efforts to build a ‘mass party’ started to bring some limited rewards. The SWP does not have the same level of integration into the trade union movement and many of the union leaders that it had been associated with over the last decade have now drifted towards the Left Unity project. It may be that a different generation of people will take over leadership roles within the SWP and steer it in new directions, but this would be a long process and the SWP might not be in a suitable condition to be revitalized by then. If this is the case, 2013 might not be the SWP’s 1956, but its 1989.

The CPGB leadership in the late 1940s or early 1950s (pic from People's History Museum collection)

The CPGB leadership in the late 1940s or early 1950s (pic from People’s History Museum collection)

As I said earlier, I don’t believe in Marx’s maxim that history repeats itself, but it might allow us insights into what the present holds. The SWP’s current crisis is not the same crisis faced by the Communist Party in 1956-57, but the aftermath of the CPGB’s crisis may provide some food for thought for those interested in what might lie ahead for the SWP and for the wider British far left in 2014 and beyond. From the eye of the storm, this seems like a turning point for the British far left, but only with the ability of hindsight can we really tell.

Seminar paper – Communism in the British Commonwealth: The transmission of Marxist anti-colonialism between Britain, Australia and South Africa

This is the text of my seminar paper that I gave last month on my new research project, ‘Communism and Anti-Colonialism in the British Commonwealth’. It is my first foray into the history of the Communist Parties in Australia and South Africa, and the paper is as much about getting the history in order in my own head as it is for a wider audience. I’m still getting to grips with some areas of CPA/CPSA history, so I welcome any feedback, but please be kind!

free the colonies


In the wake of the Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War, there was enthusiasm for socialist revolution and for colonial liberation, often intertwined. The Soviet Union established the Third International (Communist International) in 1919 to co-ordinate these dual revolutions. In 1920, Comintern called for establishment of Communist Parties across the globe (with allegiance to Comintern) and also established congress to unite anti-colonial activists across the former Russian Empire and other Asian nations.

In most Western nations, socialist and workers’ parties (many inspired by Marx and Engels) had existed since late 19th century, but the October Revolution and the subsequent formation of the Third International had prompted these parties in many countries to enter into talks about unity and support for the fledgling Soviet Union. In Britain, Australia and South Africa, a number of smaller parties all agreed to unite as Communist Parties in the period between 1919 and 1921. Unlike the mass Communist Parties that existed in mainland Europe at the time, the CPGB, the CPA and the CPSA were all numerically very small, in the shadow of a much larger (and electorally significant) Labour Party, but still managed to gain influence in the trade unions.

Particularly in the early 1920s, the Soviet Union, fighting in the Russian Civil War, placed its hopes in the revolution expanding beyond Russia, into Europe, but also across the colonies (especially those who belonged to the defeated imperial powers). The British Empire, while victorious in the war, had been firmly shaken by the war’s length and great stock was placed by the Russians in anti-colonial fervour to rise across the Empire. The Communist Party of Great Britain, as the party in the metropole of the largest existing empire, was tasked by the Soviets with co-ordinating and providing support for anti-colonial rebellions across the Empire. While smaller than the CPGB, the CPSA and CPA were also expected, by the Comintern and by the CPGB, to help foster revolution in their ‘spheres of influence’.

By the mid-1920s, the worldwide socialist revolution had not occurred and the Soviets had grown less ambitious in their outlook, with the internal dispute over the successor to Lenin allowing Stalin to promote the idea of ‘socialism in one country’. The corresponding position of the Comintern from 1922-23 to 1928-29 was for Communists to build ‘united fronts’ with other sections of the labour movement and to seek unity where possible, to ensure that the ideas of socialism are not entirely overlooked. This seemed straightforward in many of the Western nations, but in the colonies (and in the dominions of South Africa and Australia) this position was turned into co-operating with nationalist anti-colonial groups whenever possible, as well as developing Communist Parties where a critical mass of activists could be located, such as in India or China.

In the British case, Moscow encouraged the CPGB to send liaisons to develop anti-colonial links in the colonies, such as Benjamin Bradley in India and James Crossley in Egypt, as well as cooperating with the Comintern’s Colonial Bureau in Berlin, Paris and Moscow (principally the work of the Dutt brothers).[1] In Australia and South Africa, the Parties followed the same line as the European parties into ‘united front’ work, but at the same time, were encouraged to foster stronger links with the ‘natives’ and other migrant groups. In South Africa, the 1922 Rand Revolt, which pitted white and black workers against each other was used by the Comintern as a catalyst to castigate the CPSA for not challenging racial prejudice and to draft more black workers into the Party. By the late 1920s, the majority of the CPSA’s membership was black, but the leadership positions were mainly taken by white people.[2] In Australia, the Party was criticised for not opposing the ‘White Australia Policy’ strongly enough and to make more endeavours in making contacts with Aboriginal workers. While the overall direction of the international Communist movement was provided by the Comintern at this moment, with each party undergoing some level of ‘Bolshevisation’, in the Anglophone world, the Comintern delegated responsibility to the Communist Party of Great Britain and also to the Anglo-American Bureau/Secretariat.

The process of ‘Bolshevisation’ involved in many instances the purging of many members thought to be ‘disloyal’ to the ‘movement’ (and possible Trotskyists) and the leadership of the parties made up by (slightly) younger members with strong ties to the Soviet Union. The ‘Bolshevisation’ process takes place at the same time as the ‘Third Period’ commences, which is an about turn on the previous strategy of co-operating with the wider labour movement and any bourgeois or reformist groups denounced as ‘social fascists’. In some colonies, such as in India, the CPI refused to work with the National Congress, but in some settler colonies, the dismissal of links with bourgeois/reformist groups led to the ‘Native Republic’ thesis being put forward. The ‘Native Republic’ thesis was developed primarily in the United States and South Africa, but other settler colonies, such as those in Latin America, which proposed that the black population could, in principal, take their own road to self-determination and in South Africa, emphasised that the black peasantry did not have to align themselves to the demands of white workers and also could achieve self-determination without a black bourgeoisie. The ‘Native Republic’ thesis did flow to Australia, where the CPA proposed that rural Aboriginals could form their own republics in central, north and north-western Australia,[3] but Aboriginal workers based in the cities were to be incorporated into the labour movement, with demands of equal rights and equal pay between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers.[4]

The ‘Third Period’ was disastrous for most Communist Parties. In Britain, Australia and South Africa, membership collapsed. But this was undone by the popular Front strategy that was developed from 1933 onwards and officially announced at the Seventh Comintern Congress in 1934. This meant that Communist Parties were to ditch the sectarianism of the last five years and proceed to work with the bourgeoisie and other reformist elements to prevent the onslaught of fascism. In Britain, this meant working with the Labour Party, if not the National Government (who both favoured retaining the Empire), and many accused the CPGB of promoting anti-fascist alliances above the struggle against imperial exploitation. In South Africa, the ‘Native Republic’ thesis was recanted and an anti-fascist alliance was encouraged between white and black workers, but in its efforts to attract more Afrikaner workers towards the CPSA and away from Nazi-tinged racism, the black elements of the Party were often ignored (Allison Drew points to the title of the CPSA paper being changed from Umsebenzi to The South African Worker as evidence of this shift).[5] In Australia, the Party continued to work in the area of Aboriginal rights, but xenophobic attitudes towards the Japanese started to grow.[6]

The Popular Front boosted the fortunes of the Communist Parties in Britain, Australia and South Africa, but the focus of these parties was on fighting fascism (both locally and internationally), which meant that all likely allies against fascism (including pro-imperialist sections of society) were embraced. The governments in each country were denounced more for their appeasing attitudes to Nazi Germany, their non-co-operation in the Spanish Civil War and the continued hostility towards the USSR, rather than the continued imperialism of the British Commonwealth (which the British Empire became in 1931). However the parties did not give up entirely on promoting anti-colonial politics. The CPGB pushed the notion that an independent India could become a bulwark against the ‘fascist’ expansionism of the Japanese, while in South Africa, black workers were seen as natural allies against fascism and racism.

At the end of the Second World War, it was fairly evident that Britain’s ability to hold onto its colonies had diminished greatly and there was a reluctant acceptance in some areas to allow independence for certain colonies, predominantly India and Pakistan. As the Cold War began in 1947, Britain (as well as the United States) was less likely to allow colonies to become independent if there was a chance of a communist (or pro-Soviet) takeover, such as in Malaya or Ghana. Thus decolonisation was a haphazard (and sometimes violent) affair in the British Commonwealth – an attempt to procure decolonisation on British terms that was somewhat orchestrated in foreign policy, but not in execution.[7] At the same time, the Soviet Union (under the auspices of the short-lived Cominform) promoted the idea that the world was being divided into two camps: the fascist/imperialist camp and the anti-fascist/anti-imperialist camp. The Soviet Union was, theoretically, to support all anti-colonial struggles and where possible, the local Communist Party was to help lead the rebellion. As the Cominform only incorporated the countries of the Eastern Bloc, plus the Communist Parties in France and Italy, the Communist Party of Great Britain was given the task of being a liaison between Moscow and the anti-colonial movements in the Commonwealth.

The CPGB embraced the networks established by the British Empire to act as the co-ordinating influence for Communist Parties and other anti-colonial movements across the Commonwealth under the assumption that this imperial network can be transformed into a ‘fraternal association’ between independent countries (although it found during the 1950s that it was not necessarily so that people in the former colonies wanted to maintain ties with its former imperial master). In 1947, it hosted a conference of the Communist Parties of the Empire which attempted to co–ordinate socialist and anti-colonial activism across the colonies and dominions, while many leaders of the Communist Parties in the Commonwealth visited London to liaise with the CPGB (often in conjunction with visits to Moscow).

In the early Cold War period, the absence of the Comintern as a directing hub for the international Communist movement meant that competing metropoles open up for the movement, particularly within the British Commonwealth. While Moscow was the main determinant of policy and strategy for the international Communist movement (although this was much more informal and internalised after the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943), the delegation of responsibilities to the British Party meant that Communist Parties in the colonies, ex-colonies and dominions could look to Moscow or London, sometimes with conflicting advice. In South Africa, the Cold War period saw the installation of the apartheid regime by the National Party and the banning of the CPSA, which meant that much of the CPSA leadership sought exile in London, Moscow or other parts of Africa (but Mostly London).[8] From 1950 onwards, the CPGB lent the remnants of the CPSA, now exiled in London, practical support on the administrative side, while the new South African Communist Party (established in 1960) and the African National Congress looked to Moscow for military support, starting in the early-to-mid-1960s.[9]

The relationship between the Communist Party of Australia, the CPGB and Moscow was very different from that of the CPSA. 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’. The CPA was to provide support to the anti-colonial movements in Asia and formed particularly close links with the Communist Party of Malaya and the Chinese Party.

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’ and substituted 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. (See this post)

The drift towards the Chinese continued throughout the 1950s and exacerbated by the events of 1956. 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, but pulled back at the last moment and shifted its support back to Moscow,[10] as well as re-establishing closer ties with the CPGB.



This is what I am really interested in – the complex relationships that exist within the international Communist movement and within the Communist Parties of the British Commonwealth. Firstly, the fact that Moscow (and then Beijing) act as directing centres for the international communist movement, with other parties deferring to these two metropoles for policy and strategy, reflects a hierarchy in the international communist movement that runs opposite to the movement’s anti-colonialist tendencies. Secondly, that these hierarchies are repeated within the British Empire/Commonwealth, relying on the colonial networks established under British imperialism.

There are two aspects to this second point. One is that there seemed to be a delegation of responsibility on anti-colonial issues from Moscow to London to Johannesburg or Sydney, where the CPSA was responsible for supporting anti-colonial and workers groups in the rest of Southern Africa and before the success of the Chinese, the CPA has considerable responsibilities in maintaining links with anti-colonial and communist groups in South East Asia and Oceania (New Zealand’s Communist Party was, for a while, an outpost of the CPA). Another is that the CPGB struggled with the notion that movements and groups in the colonies did not necessarily want to take instructions or maintain ‘fraternal relations’ with their former imperial masters in any form.

An illustration of this is the slow build of resistance in the Party’s International Department to the CPGB’s policy on decolonisation from the late 1940s until it was changed in 1957 at the 25th Special Congress. Rajani Palme Dutt, a leading figure of the CPGB and dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist, was also the Party’s chief anti-colonial theoretician and led a rebellion against the rest of the Party leadership to change the wording regarding the Party’s attitude towards decolonisation. From the mid-1930s onwards and enshrined in the Party’s post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism, was the resolution that the former colonies would become self-governed entities within a reformed Commonwealth, which would rely on a notion of mutual assistance to ensure that Britain retained its supply of goods and raw materials from these former colonies. As the Party increased its membership of people from the former colonies, primarily from the Caribbean, West Africa and India, in the 1950s, there was an internal debate over whether the Party was truly committed to national liberation. At the 1957 Congress, there was a push from these newer recruits for the Party to recognise that national liberation of the colonies would mean that these countries were free to choose their own diplomatic relationships, and would not be automatically tied to the Commonwealth (nor a Soviet-aligned bloc either). This rebellion by the colonial migrant members of the Party demanded that the CPGB leadership pay more attention to the desires of those seeking independence from Britain and respect the agency of the colonial citizens in the decolonisation process. Eventually supported by Dutt, the 1958 edition of the Party programme included a much stronger commitment to anti-colonialism and should be remembered as a rare victory of rank-and-file CPGB members in changing Party policy from the grassroots level.

I am particularly interested in the period from the end of the Comintern in 1943 to the early 1960s, when decolonisation in the British Commonwealth is almost complete. The dissolution of the Comintern throws up this idea of the competing metropoles and coincides with the greatest level of decolonisation.


There are three main archives that I need to visit for this project. In February this year, I visited the Communist Party of Great Britain archive at the Peoples History Museum in Manchester, with additional research at the Hull History Centre (where the papers of the British wing of the League Against Imperialism are kept), the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick and the National Archives at Kew. At the CPGB archives, I was primarily interested in the papers of the Party’s International Department, which co-ordinated the Party’s anti-colonial work, published the Colonial Information Bulletin and the Africa Newsletter and organised the two Communist Parties of the Empire conferences in 1947 and 1954. The other important section of the CPGB papers was those belonging to the Party’s correspondence, which had many documents relating to the correspondence between the CPGB and the Parties in Australia and South Africa. One of the interesting things that arrived from the correspondence papers is the level of travel of members between the three parties. While only a small number of people had dual membership, the Parties often sent representatives to foster stronger connections between them. Leading figures of the CPGB often travelled to Australia (usually on tours of South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent), while the CPSA and the CPA sent rank-and-file members, as well as leadership figures, to Britain. Once the CPSA is threatened under the Apartheid regime in the late 1940s and banned in the 1950s, there is an exodus of leading CPSA personnel to London.

At the National Archives, various files of the security services have been opened that disclose the monitoring of the CPGB and other Communist Parties within the Commonwealth, with a particular focus on individuals suspected of being communist agents travelling to the colonies. These files are exceptions to the 30 year rule and are being opened on an ad hoc basis. Since my visit in February, more relevant files have been opened and I plan to return to the UK sometime in 2014.

Due to the federal nature of the Communist Party of Australia, there are several different archives to visit. I am travelling to the Mitchell Library next week to start work on the CPA’s National papers and the papers of the NSW branch. To view the CPA’s records, permission had to be granted by the SEARCH Foundation, the successor organisation of the CPA when it wound up in 1991. In November, I will be travelling to the University of Melbourne to look at the papers of the CPA’s Victorian Branch, as well as the papers of CPGB/CPA member Mary Docherty. I hope to also go to Brisbane sometime to look at the Queensland branch’s papers located at the University of Queensland.

The National Library of Australia has the personal papers of several CPA members from inter-war period that I hope to examine too. One of those is Esmonde Higgins, one of the few people to have dual membership to the CPGB and the CPA. Other personal papers of those involved in the CPA can be found at the Noel Butlin Archives at ANU, which I also hope to visit next year. The National Archives of Australia also hold numerous records on the Communist Party of Australia and thankfully a lot of those are digitised.

I am looking to travel to South Africa in the first half of next year to visit the various archives of the CPSA. The main archival sources are at the University of Cape Town, but there are several others, such as those at the University of the Western Cape and the University of Witwaterstand. I have been in touch with scholars who have conducted research on the CPSA and some scholars located in South Africa have offered to help me find the necessary resources.

CPA pamphlet dixon


There are two main problems for this project. One is that the records of the Comintern are difficult to access. They are held in a Russian archive and to access the necessary documents, it will take an extended period of time and will be a significant cost. There is an online archive of Comintern records, but no library in Australia has access to it (and it is prohibitively expensive). I am hoping to overcome this problem by using the Comintern documents found in the various CPGB, CPSA and CPA archives, but the situation is also helped that there was an edited collection which compiled a significant amount of the correspondence between the CPA and Moscow that was published in 2008,[11] and a similar two-volume collection published in 2003 relating to the CPSA and Moscow.[12] If I have time and money after my trips to the UK and South Africa, I will have to see whether it is possible to visit the Russian archives.

The second problem relates also relates to the difficulty of sources. A number of Communist International publications are hard to locate, such as The International and The Negro Worker, so I need to be diligent on my next research trip to the UK. The British Library holds some of these documents, but some are also held at the Marx Memorial Library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford.


One of the ways around accessing the Comintern records in Moscow is to shift my project’s timeframe. As my research progresses, I am becoming more interested in the period after 1943, when the Comintern is dissolved as this throws up the question of Communist parties being ‘loyal’ to Moscow and whether it was necessary to follow the line of the Soviet Union. The immediate period after the Second World War is perhaps the most interesting period of all as the decolonisation process really gets underway and the success of the Communist Party in China means that Beijing increasingly becomes a focal point for communists and anti-colonialists in the Australasia region. This may be the way forward for my research, although more will become clear after my research trips to Sydney, Melbourne and South Africa.

[1] John Callaghan, ‘The Communist and the Colonies: Anti-Imperialism Between the Wars’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan, Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party (London: Pluto Press, 1995) pp. 8-9.

[2] Allison Drew, Discordant Comrades: Identities and Loyalties on the South African Left (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000) p. 94.

[3] Douglas Jordan, Conflict in the Unions: The Communist Party of Australia, Politics and the Trade Union Movement, 1945-60 (Sydney: Resistance Books, 2013) p. 185.

[4] Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegallity (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998) p. 265.

[5] Drew, Discordant Comrades, p. 182.

[6] Tom O’Lincoln, into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism (Sydney: Stained wattle Press, 1985) p. 49.

[7] See: Benjamin Fitz-Gibbon, Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 1-3.

[8] Mark Israel, South African Political Exile in the United Kingdom (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1999) pp. 25-30.

[9] See: Vladimir Shubin, ANC: A View From Moscow (University of the Western Cape: Mayibuye Books, 1999).

[10] Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne: Black Inc.: 2010) pp. 172-185.

[11] David W. Lovell & Kevin Windle (eds), Our Unswerving Loyalty: A Documentary Survey of Relations Between the Communist Party of Australia and Moscow, 1920-1940 (Canberra: ANU Press, 2008)

[12] Apollon B. Davidson, et. al. (eds), South Africa and the Communist International, vol. 1: Socialist Pilgrims to Bolshevik Footsoldiers, 1919-1930 (London: Frank Cass, 2003); Apollon B. Davidson, et. al. (eds), South Africa and the Communist International, vol. 2: Bolshevik Footsoldiers to Victims of Bolshevisation, 1931-1939 (London: Frank Cass,2003).

Doris Lessing’s letter to The Reasoner (November 1956)

The author Doris Lessing died yesterday at the age of 94. Raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Lessing was a member of the short-lived Southern Rhodesian Communist Party, a proxy member of the Communist Party of South Africa and then a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She joined the rebellion in the Party in 1956 after Krushchev’s revelations of the crimes of the Stalin era and the inability of the CPGB leadership to acknowledge the uncritical support that they gave the Soviet Union during these years. I thought people might be interested in a letter that she wrote for the third issue of the mimeographed journal The Reasoner, published by E.P. Thompson and John Saville as an attempt to foster discussion within the CPGB. Thompson and Saville resigned from the Party in November 1956 after being threatened with expulsion and developed The New Reasoner in 1957. The letter, dated 19 October, 1956, is as follows:

Lessing in 1961, with John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave and Shelagh Delaney.

Lessing in 1961, with John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave, John Berger and Shelagh Delaney.

The Cult of the Individual

The reaction to the 20th Congress has been expressed in party circles throughout the world in the phrase ‘the cult of the individual’. That these words should have been chosen as the banner under which we should fight what is wrong with the party seems to me as a sign of the corruption in our thinking.

For they suggest that what caused the breakdown of inner-party democracy was an excess of individualism. But the opposite is the truth. What was bad is not that one man was a tyrant, but that hundreds and thousands of party members, inside and outside the Soviet Union, let go their individual consciences and allowed him to become a tyrant.

Now we are discussing what sort of rules we should have in the party to prevent the emergence of bureaucracy and dictatorship. A lot of worried and uneasy people are pinning their faith in some kind of constitution which will ensure against tyranny. But rules and constitutions are what people make them. The publication of the Constitution of the Soviet Union, an admirable document, coincided with the worst period of the terror. The party rules in the various communist parties are (I believe) more or less the same; but the development of the different communist parties has been very dissimilar.

I think that this talk about changing the rules is a symptom of the desire in all of us to let go individual responsibility on to something outside ourselves, something on to which we can put the blame if things go wrong. It is pleasant to have implicit trust in a beloved leader. it is pleasant and comfortable to believe that the communist party must be right simply because ‘it is the vanguard of the working class’. It is pleasant to pass resolutions at a conference and think that now everything will be all right.

But there is no simple decision we can make, once and for all, that will ensure that we are doing right. There is no set of rules that can set us free from the necessity of making fresh decisions, every day, of just how much of our individual responsibility we are prepared to delegate to a central body – whether it is the communist party, or the government of the country we live in, be it a communist or a capitalist government.

It seems to me that what the last thirty years have shown us is that unless a communist party is a body of individuals each jealously guarding his or her independence of judgement, it must degenrate into a body of yes-men.

The safeguard against tyranny, now, as it always has been, is to sharpen individuality, to strengthen individual responsibility, and not to delegate it.


Lessing resigned from the CPGB shortly after this letter was published, but was still involved in progressive politics, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, in the 1960s.

EDITED TO ADD: The New Statesman has republished a short article by Lessing on being a communist in South Africa and Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s here.