Anti-colonialism

Forthcoming with Brill, ‘British Communism and the Politics of Race’

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Ten years in the making, I am very happy to announce that Brill will be publishing my monograph British Communism and the Politics of Race as part of its Historical Materialism series later this year. You can pre-order a copy here.

Here is a short blurb:

British Communism and the Politics of Race explores the role that the Communist Party of Great Britain played within the anti-racism movement in Britain from the 1940s to the 1980s. As one of the first organisations to undertake serious anti-colonial and anti-racist activism within the British labour movement, the CPGB was a pioneering force that campaigned against racial discrimination, popular imperialism and fascist violence in British society.

And as part of the Historical Materialism series, it will be available as a paperback via Haymarket Books in the next year or so.

Tell your institutional library to order a copy!

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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).

The Communist Party of Australia and Anti-Colonial Activism in Papua New Guinea

This is the extended part of a paper that I wrote with Padraic Gibson for the Eric Richards’ Symposium in British and Australian History, which was held at Flinders University last week. The abstract for our paper was as below:

Alongside the Communist Party of Australia’s (CPA) work for Aboriginal rights, the Party’s demands for independence for Papua New Guinea (PNG) arose in the late 1920s from a more complex understanding of the specific form of Australian imperialism. Originally the CPA made no differentiation between British imperialism and the settler colonialism that existed in Australia. This contributed towards an uncritical attitude to immigration restrictions and a silence on the colonial oppression experienced by Aboriginal people on this continent and Indigenous peoples in Australia’s ‘mandated territories’ in the South Pacific. In dialogue with the Comintern, from the late 1920s, the party developed a more nuanced theory of imperialism that highlighted the independent interests and initiative of the Australian bourgeoisie. In this context, the CPA started to campaign against Australian imperialism in New Guinea, highlighting the violent and exploitative rule by the Australians in the mandated territory. This provided an orientation that led to the development of important links between Communist Party members in northern Australia and the independence movement in the territories of New Guinea and Papua. In the lead up to the Second World War and during the early Cold War era, these links particularly worried the Australian authorities (including ASIO) as they thought that a successful anti-colonial movement in the territory would allow firstly the Japanese, then the Chinese or Indonesian communists to gain a base close to the Australian mainland. This paper will explore at this overlooked part of the history of the Australian Communist Party and the campaign against Australian imperialism in the Asia-Oceania region.

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However the paper that we wrote was too long to confine into one conference paper, so I am posting the second half of the paper, on the post-1945 period, here. This is very much a work in progress piece, so any feedback is welcome.

The period after the Second World War looked to present the international communist and anti-colonial movements with an ‘interlude of hope’ as the forces of socialism and national liberation seemed to gather pace.[1] Based on Lenin’s theory of imperialism,[2] communists saw the collapse of the European colonial systems in Africa, Asia and the Americas as the catalyst for worldwide socialist revolution.

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 Parties of Malaya, Indonesia and India, as well as the Chinese Party. A 1949 report on communism in Australia compiled by the CIA noted the support that the CPA had given to communists in Indonesia, Malaya and India, and stated, ‘It is one of the strongest Communist parties of the region and has extended assistance to various independence movements’.[3] The same report claimed, via ‘unverified reports’, that the CPA has set up amateur radio station in Queensland to communicate with sister parties in South-East Asia, and also used ‘smugglers and seamen’ to help in communicating with the armed rebellions in Malaya and Indonesia.[4]

As well as fighting British, Dutch and French imperialism in South-East Asia, the Communist Party revived the fight against Australian imperialism in the aftermath of the Second World War. During the Second World War, the CPA was relatively silent about New Guinea and self-determination for its people. Criticism of Australian imperialism was substituted for criticism of Japanese and German imperialism in the region and New Guinea was predominantly mentioned as a battleground against the Axis powers. Like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who fought the Japanese during the war, the Communist Party celebrated those Papuans who helped the Australian Army and saw this fight against fascism as the beginnings of a longer fight against imperialism and racism.

During the war, the security services that predated ASIO started to be interested in any inroads that the CPA were making amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities in northern Australia. Of particular concern was the CPA’s activism with Indigenous people in the northern parts of Western Australia and in early 1944, inquiries were made out about possible communist activism in another frontline area – PNG. A memo from the Deputy Director of Security in Western Australia wrote to the Director of Security in Canberra, however, noted ‘[t]here is no evidence that the Communist Party in this State has show any interest in the future of the natives of New Guinea.’[5]

In July 1944, the Party first announced its programme for the nation once the war ended, looking to prevent Australian capitalism filling the vacuum after the Japanese occupiers left. In Tribune, the Party stated:

Now that the Japanese are pushed back and the danger is over, New Guinea capitalists are clamouring to return to their plantations and business with complete freedom to exploit and enslave the natives as before.[6]

Self-determination to the people of PNG was the ultimate goal, but the CPA also made several interim demands, particularly as the Communist Party argued that the people of PNG had ‘not developed to the point of setting up democratic organisations’.[7] These interim demands included restrictions on ‘non-native private enterprise and commerce’, restrictions on exploitation of land and the assistance of ‘native agriculture’, the funding of health and education services, and the ‘abolition of the indenture system’.[8] These interim measures, the Party claimed, were ‘aimed to assist [the] people of New Guinea to advance toward nationhood and to exercise their right to self-determination.’[9]

This gradualism in the call for self-determination in New Guinea is very different from the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the CPA and its support for national liberation movements in South-East Asia that were emerging at the same time. In 1945, the Party called for the rights promised under the Atlantic Charter to be applied to the countries liberated from Japanese rule,[10] including political independence, but by 1948, the Party demanded that ‘the labor movement as a whole must stand unswervingly for independence for the colonies’ as well as giving ‘fullest support to the great national revolutions proceeding in India, China, Indonesia, Viet-Nam, Malaya and Burma.’[11] In the same 1948 pamphlet, the Party warned that the ‘Australian imperialism is developing its own colonial empire’, but still insisted that the ‘natives’ in PNG, Fiji and other Pacific Islands needed ‘protection… against slavery to Australian capital’ and granting them ‘assistance… in the raising of their political and educational level’.[12]

A 1964 report on the activism of the Communist Parties of Australia and New Zealand in the Oceania region outlined some of the ways in which the CPA promoted raising the ‘political and educational level’ of the people of New Guinea. One was the encouragement, via the Australian trade union movement, of the formation of a Papuan Workers’ Union.[13] In Tribune, the Party argued:

Formation of such a union plus the establishment of co-operatives are two of the first steps in Papua towards realising UNO Charter aims of improving social, economic, educational and health standards of the peoples of the South West Pacific territories and assisting them to become in the shortest possible time fully independent self-governing communities.[14]

In the 1958 resolution on New Guinea published in Communist Review, the CPA announced that it ‘welcome[d] the ACTU decision directed towards the extension of trade union protection and rights to these workers.’[15]

In the early 1960s, ASIO noted, the Party also suggested an end to individual leases by ‘native occupiers’ on communal land, with farming co-operatives to be set up as alternatives to the capitalist exploitation of the farming population of Papua and New Guinea.[16] This system, Jim Cooper wrote in Communist Review, ‘would not be a violent change from the present communal lands, or the social set up’, but would ‘mean smooth transition by the New Guinea people [from the] commercial exploitation of their land’.[17] It would, Cooper argued, ‘guarantee the New Guinea people’s lands to them, and make for a prosperous and contented people as our near neighbours.’[18]

After increasing episodes on unrest in Papua and New Guinea in the early-to-mid-1960s, the Party more frequently featured the territory in the party press, particularly Communist Review, the monthly journal of the CPA. These episodes of unrest coincided with attempts by the Australian and British governments to establish some form of self-government in the territory of Papua and New Guinea, with a report by Sir Hugh Foot proposing in 1962 the election of a 100 member local parliament by 1964. The CPA saw these attempts at establishing a self-government by the Australian government to be an attempt to ‘hang on and develop a fully fledged capitalist economy’ in Papua and New Guniea.[19] The Party supported the reforms suggested by the Foot report, but argued that these proposals ‘would not mean independence’, and instead maintained:

The only policy for the Australian working class is the principle of independence for the people of Papua and New Guinea. Assistance to help the people develop their country would come from socialist and neutral countries and even Australia itself with no strings attached.[20]

This push for immediate independence was a shift away from the view that the Party had in the late 1940s that the people of New Guinea were not ready for self-determination. Laurie Aarons, the General Secretary of the CPA since the mid-1950s, wrote in Communist Review in 1963 that both the trade union and national movements were growing in size and that the ‘past few years [had] seen many important struggles on a very broad front’, including ‘class struggles for wages and conditions’, ‘struggles to defend the land from alienation’ and ‘struggles against oppression and for democratic rights’.[21] Like other statements from the mid-1960s, Aarons stressed the importance of independence for Papua and New Guinea, but also proposed that the Australian labour movement had ‘to learn from the New Guinea people what their aims are and what help they require from our working class.’[22]

In the late 1960s, the Papuan independence movement became more militant and the CPA saw it in a similar vein to the other anti-imperialist and national liberation movements happening across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. In 1971, Alec Robertson, the editor of the CPA newspaper Tribune, called PNG ‘the last domino’ in Australian Left Review, writing:

PNG – a country very well suited to guerrilla warfare – is approaching a state of crisis already seen in SE Asia and is a potential theatre of large-scale counter-revolutionary war by Australia’s rulers. Each step in that direction should be opposed strenuously by the Australian anti-war movement, for it is essentially the same issue as Vietnam.[23]

From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, ASIO were seemingly more worried about international intervention in PNG, particularly Indonesia, China and the Soviet Union,[24] but there was also a concern about the role that the CPA was playing in the Papuan independence movement. Files at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra reveal that in the early-to-mid-1950s, ASIO closely monitored CPA members and fellow travellers who visited PNG, often from Queensland.[25] Rhys Crawley has suggested that while ‘ASIO expected the CPA to continue its vocal criticism of Australian colonial rule in TPNG’ during the 1960s, it found that ‘there was no organised CPA or communist front activity’ in the territory.[26] It seems as though the role that the Communist Party of Australia played in the campaign for independence for Papua New Guinea was primarily a propaganda role in increasing awareness amongst the Australian labour movement.

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[1] Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism & the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1950 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 143.

[2] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Peking; Foreign Languages Press, 1975).

[3] CIA, The Communist Influence in Australia, 11 April, 1949, p. 3, CIA-RDP78-01617A00300070002-5, CIA Online Library, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp78-01617a003400070002-5.

[4] CIA, The Communist Influence in Australia, p. 3.

[5] Letter from Deputy Director of Security for WA to Director General of Security, Canberra, 4 May, 1944, A6122 357, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[6] ‘Party Asks for New Deal for NG Natives’, Tribune, 6 July, 1944, p. 8.

[7] CPA, Jobs Freedom Progress: Draft Resolution for 14th National Congress of the Australian Communist Party (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1945) p. 5.

[8] CPA, Programme of the Australian Communist Party (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1945) p. 20.

[9] CPA, Programme of the Australian Communist Party, p. 20.

[10] CPA, Jobs Freedom Progress, p. 5.

[11] CPA, The Way Forward (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1948) p. 17.

[12] CPA, The Way Forward, p. 17.

[13] ASIO, ‘Oceania – Communism’s Last Target’, 1964, p. 3, A12839 A30 Part 5, National Archives of Australia.

[14] ‘New Deal for Papua is Urgently Needed’, Tribune, 31 January, 1947, p. 5.

[15] ‘New Guinea’, Communist Review, May 1958, p. 228.

[16] ASIO, ‘Oceania’, p. 9.

[17] Jim Cooper, ‘New Ordinance and New Guinea Land Rights’, Communist Review, January/February 1965, p. 12.

[18] Cooper, ‘New Ordinance and New Guinea Land Rights’, p. 12.

[19] Harry Stein, ‘Decline of Imperialism in Papua New Guinea’, Communist Review, January 1963, p. 30.

[20] Stein, ‘Decline of Imperialism in Papua New Guinea’, p. 30.

[21] Laurie Aarons, ‘On New Guinea’, Communist Review, June 1963, p. 183.

[22] Aarons, ‘On New Guinea’, p. 184.

[23] Alec Robertson, ‘The Last Domino’, Australian Left Review, 29, March 1971, p. 43.

[24] David Horner, The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO 1949-1963 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014) p. 159; Rhys Crawley, ‘Australia’s Cold War Frontline: ASIO in Papua New Guinea, 1962-1975’, in John Blaxland, The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015) p. 289-299.

[25] See: A6122 357, NAA.

[26] Crawley, ‘Australia’s Cold War Frontline’, p. 299.

The Communist Party of Great Britain and the ‘Irish Question’, 1949-1968

This is the text of a paper I gave last week at the 22nd Australasian Irish Studies Conference held at Flinders University. It is my first foray into a very contentious issue (see this discussion between Anthony Coughlan and Matt Treacy) so I would be grateful for any feedback, but please be kind!

From the Daily Worker, 11 February, 1933

From the Daily Worker, 11 February, 1933

Since the partition of Ireland at the end of the Anglo-Irish War in 1921, which occurred almost simultaneously with the establishment of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the Party has generally supported the reunification of Ireland and, since 1969, has supported the call for the removal of Britain’s military and political presence in Northern Ireland. This support for a free and united Ireland originally stemmed from the position of the Communist International in support of the national liberation struggles of all colonial and semi-colonial peoples across the globe, and from the Leninist assumption that revolutions in the colonial sphere would help spark revolutions in the West. Specifically for the British working class, Lenin argued in 1914 that ‘[t]he English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke.’[1]

The CPGB and Ireland in the inter-war period

The CPGB had a substantial Irish membership and had close links to the communist movement in Ireland. Although this was, at times, a strained relationship at times, with the Irish Communists often feeling that their sister party overshadowed them, and in the eyes of Moscow, had to often defer to the leadership of the CPGB. With the Irish Communists going through several different organisations in the inter-war period, the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) came into being in 1933, ‘Bolshevised’, but still wavering between advocating a broad anti-colonialist front against the British and a more united front against the British and ‘their Irish agents, Cosgrave [and] De Valera’.[2] The CPI and its previous incarnations had attempted to win over left-leaning Republicans from Soar Éire and the IRA (although dual membership had been banned until 1933), but the IRA was deeply divided over left-wing Republicanism as evidenced at its 1934 conference.[3] In response to this, the CPGB, in the journal Labour Monthly, criticised the ‘petty-bourgeois leadership’ of the IRA as ‘unwilling to conduct a fight’ against the De Valera government.[4] However as the 1930s progressed, the British party recognised the IRA as part of a broad anti-fascist Popular Front during the late 1930s, particularly as a number of former IRA men went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.[5]

Compared to its British counterpart, the CPI remained numerically very small during the Popular Front period and during the ‘imperialist war’ phase of the Second World War, resolved to dissolve itself, in line with dominant attitudes towards Irish neutrality in the country at the time. A remnant of the party still existed in the six counties as the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI), which existed until 1970, while the CPI was reconstituted as the Irish Workers League in the Irish Free State in 1948, becoming the Irish Workers Party in 1962 and finally merging back into the CPI (including the CPNI) in 1970.

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CPGB member C. Desmond Greaves helped to establish the Connolly Association (CA) in 1938, whose aim was to promote Irish Republicanism within the British labour movement. Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn have written that the Connolly Association provided ‘a vehicle for socialist republicanism under communist direction, but without any suggestion of rivalry with established communist party structures’.[6] Publishing the monthly newspaper, the Irish Democrat, the CA had a more symbiotic relationship with the republican movement in Ireland and the IRA, rather than King St, which gave lip service to them in the party press, but put much more emphasis on the trade unions. According to the Association’s 1955 constitution, the aims and objects of the CA were:

To organise Irish men and women resident in Britain for the defence of their interests, in united struggle with the British working class movement, and in particular –

(a) To win support for the struggle of the Irish people for a united independent Republic, and to fight for the removal of all obstacles placed in their way by British imperialism…[7]

Unlike the militarist road of the IRA, the CA promoted obtaining these aims and objects via the following tactics:

(a) Winning majority support for them in the organised working class and democratic movement in Britain.

(b) Working for the unity and strength of the Labour movement, especially the unity of British and Irish workers…

(f) Co-operating with other organisations in matters of common concern and affiliating to or accepting affiliation from appropriate bodies as may be decided.[8]

Although individual CA (and CPGB) members had links to the IRA, particularly through the Wolfe Tone Society,[9] the only two organisations that the CA affiliated with were two organisations that the CPGB had links to, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF).[10]

National Liberation or Peaceful Devolution?

In the era of decolonisation that followed the Second World War, the CPGB believed that the Irish Free State would gain full independence similar to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (which did occur in 1949), but also accepted the idea that British rule in Northern Ireland was a form of neo-colonialism to be challenged by the Northern Irish population (especially the labour movement). In 1958, Greaves described the partition of Ireland as ‘a political arrangement designed to create and perpetuate precisely what has happened – to facilitate the expropriation of Irish capitalists by British financers, instead of by Irish workers’.[11] In the same year, John Hostettler suggested that Northern Ireland existed in the liminal space between a colony and part of the United Kingdom, with practices by the British having ‘the same pattern in the colonies’, but also ‘so near home’ that government and policing practices could be transferred to British sphere.[12]

The CPGB, as the Communist Party at the metropole of the largest empire at that time, were dedicated to anti-colonialism and fostering links with anti-colonial movements across the Empire. Unlike its support for the insurgent national liberation movements that emerged in the British colonies, such as in Malaya, Kenya and Nigeria, the CPGB chose to support the united Irish labour movement (including the Irish Workers League), rather than the more militarised republican movement embodied by Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army. In the post-war era, the CPGB leadership under Harry Pollitt resolved that armed insurrection, akin to what occurred in October 1917, was a foolish adventure for Western Communist Parties, and endorsed a parliamentary road to socialism, based on capturing the trade unions and building an alliance between Labour and the Communist Party. Despite the military presence of the British in Northern Ireland, the CPGB viewed the socio-political conditions of Ireland as similar to Britain and believed that focusing on developing the strength of the labour movement to gain political power, rather than armed rebellion, which was happening elsewhere in the British Empire. In 1947, the CPGB hosted a conference that brought Communist and Workers’ Parties from across the British Empire to London. At this conference, a representative from the IWL pronounced:

Our policy is aimed to bring about a strong united labour movement which, in alliance with the working farmers and progressive forces, will provide the country with a Government which can direct it along the path of advance to socialism.[13]

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The Party called for the remaining British troops stationed in the North to be removed, but believed that this could done peacefully. In some instances, the situation in Northern Ireland was seen as more akin to the political landscape in Scotland or Wales, thus requiring a strategy of progressive devolution-cum-independence, rather than the strategy of insurgent national liberation needed in many other colonies. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist Party advocated for devolution in Scotland and Wales, with their own parliaments, but keeping within the United Kingdom, but saw Northern Ireland as a superficial entity that needed to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland. For example, in the 1958 version of The British Road to Socialism, the Party stated:

The withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland is necessary to end the enforced partition of Ireland, and leave the Irish people free to establish their united Republic.[14]

Speaking on the national question in Marxism Today in 1968, leading Welsh Party member Idris Cox wrote ‘Northern Ireland would have no part as such in a British federal system’ as envisaged by the CPGB at that time.[15] However Greaves, with his focus on Ireland, was one of the few in the late 1960s in favour of full self-determination for Scotland and Wales, as well as the break-up of the United Kingdom.[16]

Relationship with militant Republicans and NICRA

Supporting the push for civil rights for the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, as well as an end to the ‘police state’ present in the North, the Party was sympathetic to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which included people from the Communist Party of Northern Ireland and the Wolfe Tone Society. After a series of civil rights marches were attacked by the police and Loyalist gangs in August 1968, Labour Monthly (edited by long-time CPGB figure R. Palme Dutt) published an account of these attacks by NICRA and CPNI member Betty Sinclair.[17]

The relationship with Sinn Fein and the IRA, despite some links between them, the Wolfe Tone Society and the Connolly Association, was much more fractious for most of the 1960s. In a bulletin published by the CPGB’s International Department in 1968, the Party wrote that Sinn Fein’s United Irishman newspaper ‘increasingly reflects the interests of petit-bourgeoisie and small independent capitalists’, but welcomed the leftwards turn that Sinn Fein had taken in the mid-1960s.[18] Even the Connolly Association asserted in July 1966 that it favoured ‘the political strength of the working class movement’ to the ‘power of the gun’ proposed by Seamus Costello,[19] at that time a leading figure in the IRA.

an-phoblacht-no-8-nov-dec-1966Despite taking a leftwards turn, some within the militant Republican movement were highly critical of the criticisms made by the Connolly Association, with the Cork based Irish Revolutionary Fighters, describing the Association’s position on the armed struggle as ‘reactionary politics’[20] and writing in 1966:

We would suggest that the protégés of the Connolly Association… return to the orbit of the British Communist Party, and keep their cotton-picking-fingers [sic] out of our business.[21]

It also had harsh words for the CPGB, doubting its revolutionary character and describing it as ‘nothing more than the “servant boy” of British imperial interests’.[22]

The outbreak of the conflict in 1968 and the arrival of British troops in Derry in 1969 changed the outlook of the British left towards what was happening in Northern Ireland and the wider ‘Irish Question’. The CPGB continued to call for mass movement to fight for civil rights in the north and against the British presence in the statelet, while some Trotskyist groups, such as the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists, ‘critically’ supported the Provisional IRA after the split within the Irish Republican movement in 1969-70. Like many other social movements that the CPGB was involved in, the Party had been at the forefront of building solidarity between the British and Irish labour movements for the purpose of a reunited Ireland, but was slowly overtaken by more radical groups in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.

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[1] V.I. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch08.htm (accessed 6 January, 2015).

[2] Letter of Anglo-American Secretariat to Ireland RE: elections (7 January, 1932), Comintern Archives, RGASPI 495/89/75/1. As cited in, David Convery, ‘Internationalism or Paternalism? Relations Between British and Irish Communists, 1920-1941’ (forthcoming).

[3] See: Richard English, ‘Socialism and Republican Schism in Ireland: The Emergence of the Republican Congress in 1934’, Irish Historical Studies, 27/105 (May 1990) pp. 48-65. As cited in Convery, ‘Internationalism or Paternalism?’

[4] Jim Shields, ‘The Republican Congress and Ireland’s Fight’, Labour Monthly (November 1934) p. 687.

[5] David Convery, ‘Revolutionary Internationalists: Irish Emigrants in the Spanish Civil War’, in Mícheál Ó hAodha & Máirtín Ó Catháin, New Perspectives on the Irish Abroad: The Silent People? (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books 2014) pp. 131-144.

[6] Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen & Andrew Flinn, Communists and British Society 1920-1991 (London: Rivers Oram Press, 2007) p. 201.

[7] Connolly Association, What is the Connolly Association? Constitution and Explanation (Derby: Connolly Association, 1963) p. 1.

[8] Connolly Association, What is the Connolly Association?, p. 2.

[9] Kenneth Sheehy, ‘In the Shadow of Gunmen: The Wolfe Tone Society, 1963-1969’, unpublished paper, https://www.academia.edu/8441579/In_the_Shadow_of_Gunmen_The_Wolfe_Tone_Society_1963-1969 (accessed 30 November, 2016).

[10] Connolly Association, What is the Connolly Association?, p. 14.

The CPGB had close relationships with both the NCCL and the MCF, with some Party members holding leadership positions in both organisations. See: Christopher Moores, ‘From Civil Liberties to Human Rights? British Civil Liberties Activism and Universal Human Rights’, Contemporary European History, 21/2 (May 2012) pp. 179-181; Josiah Brownell, ‘The Taint of Communism: The Movement for Colonial Freedom, the Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1954-70’, Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2007, pp. 235-258.

[11] C. Desmond Greaves, ‘What of Northern Ireland?’, World News (12 July, 1958) p. 438.

[12] John Hostettler, ‘Northern Ireland’, Marxism Today (November 1958) p. 332.

[13] W. McCullough, ‘Ireland’, in CPGB, We Speak for Freedom (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1947) p. 60.

[14] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1958) p. 24.

[15] Idris Cox, ‘The National Problem in Britain’, Marxism Today (June 1968) p. 191.

[16] Desmond Greaves, ‘The National Problem in Britain’, Marxism Today (October 1968) p. 312.

[17] Betty Sinclair, ‘Aftermath of Derry’, Labour Monthly (December 1968) pp. 555-559.

[18] CPGB International Department, International Affairs Bulletin: Ireland, 3/1 (May/June 1968) p. 8.

[19] ‘Force or Agreement?’, Irish Democrat (July 1966) p. 3.

[20] Paddy Mac, ‘The Neo-Parnellites: Irish Democrat Flies True Colours’, An Phoblacht, 7 (September 1966) p. 11.

[21] ‘The Yahoos and An Phoblacht’, An Phoblacht, 8 (November/December 1966) p. 7.

[22] ‘Wolfe Tone Society Exposed’, An Phoblacht, 9 (January 1967) p. 8.

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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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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Rhodesia, the UDI and the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1960s

This is a continuation of my research into how the Communist Party of Great Britain campaigned around the issue of national liberation and majority African rule in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, looking at the period from the breakup of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland to the aftermath of the UDI. Today is the 50th anniversary of Ian Smith’s  Unilateral Declaration of Independence (11 November, 1965), which is often forgotten when compared with the other historical anniversaries that the day represents.

A CPGB pamphlet from the late 1960s

The role of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) within the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in Britain is well documented and it is generally acknowledged that while a number of key personnel within the AAM were members of the CPGB, these Party members did not try to assert the Communist Party’s perspective on South Africa onto the Movement. Inspired at this moment in its history by the idea of ‘broad popular alliance’ (CPGB 1968: 1), the Communist Party emphasised that it was willing to work alongside other progressive organisations and social movements and not try to dominate them. This meant working with potential allies in the Labour Party, the trade union movement, progressive Christian groups, various other left-wing groups and non-aligned anti-apartheid activists. While critics of the AAM attempted to portray it as a communist front, the influence of the CPGB at the leadership level was greatly limited.

However in an adjacent conflict to the fight against apartheid in South Africa, the Zimbabwean war of national liberation, the Communist Party was less constrained by the AAM and promoted its own line on the Zimbabwean struggle, influenced by a reading of the struggle as part of a wider conflict in the Cold War period. The CPGB saw South Africa and Rhodesia as two arenas of the same battle against capitalism and imperialism being waged in Southern Africa, also taking in Mozambique and Angola. From the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith in 1965 to the elections held under African majority rule in 1980, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was viewed by the CPGB as the ‘weakest link’ in the chain of the imperialist system and an important battle against racial oppression on the road to fight against apartheid.

In the year prior to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the Smith regime, leader of the Communist Party’s International Department, Idris Cox (1964a: 38), wrote in Marxism Today:

Within the past seven years the number of independent states in Africa has trebled… With the exception of South Africa (which is ‘independent’ only for the European minority) these independent states account for over 80 per cent of the African territory, and 85 per cent of its population.

After Harold Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ speech in South Africa in 1960, decolonisation amongst Britain’s African colonies rapidly increased so that by 1965, the only British colony left on the continent was the Dominion of Southern Rhodesia. Rhodesia (as it was also known) was joined by the Republic of South Africa (which had left the Commonwealth in 1960) and by the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique. These four nations formed a bloc of imperialist states where white racial supremacy mixed with anti-communism to maintain ‘Western civilisation’ in the face of the broader decolonisation movement and as part of the global West in the Cold War. When declaring Rhodesia’s UDI in late 1965, Smith described the action as striking ‘a blow for the preservation of justice, civilization and Christianity’, rhetorically asking, ‘does anyone believe that Rhodesia would be the last target of the communists of the Afro-Asian block?’ (The Times, 12 November, 1965).

In an attempt to delay potential problems with the seemingly inevitable transition to majority African rule in their southern African colonies, the Conservative Government in Britain had overseen the creation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1953, which combined both Southern and Northern Rhodesia, as well as the protectorate of Nyasaland. By 1963, this federation had collapsed, leaving Southern Rhodesia as one of the few imperialist states in Africa that maintained rule by the white minority, denying the majority African population many political and social rights. Resistant to pressures from the British government (and other members of the Commonwealth) to integrate the African population into the body politic of the former settler colony, the Rhodesian Front (RF), under the leadership of Ian Smith, promoted that Southern Rhodesia (increasingly referred to as just Rhodesia) should remain a white-ruled Dominion. Formally taking power in 1964, Smith’s RF initiated the beginnings of a fight against the emergent national liberation movements inside the country, awoken by the slow collapse of the Federation since the early 1960s. Criticised by the incoming Labour government under Harold Wilson, Smith announced the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in November 1965, withdrawing Rhodesia from the Commonwealth and initiating a long battle against majority African rule.

The Communist Party had long been involved in anti-colonial and anti-imperialist politics in Africa and in the Party’s publicity material for the 1964 general election, proudly stated:

The Communist Party is the only political party which has always opposed imperialism and all forms of colonial rule and exploitation. It fully supports the efforts of the colonial and newly independent peoples.

We have stood consistently by the peoples of Africa and Asia, and never hesitated in that cause to oppose our own Government and condemn the actions of our own military forces (CPGB 1964a: 2).

As the Federation broke up in the early 1960s, the Communist Party saw Southern Rhodesia on the cusp of either majority African rule or joining ‘the familiar henchmen of imperialism’, such as the UK, the USA and South Africa (Buckle, 1962: 374). The head of the Party’s International Department, Idris Cox (1963: 229), declared that ‘[t]he Federation is now dead’ and predicted that ‘[s]ooner or later Southern Rhodesia will become independent – but not under European minority rule’, proclaiming that independence ‘must be democratic independence under African majority rule’. After the transition to majority African rule by Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), the Communists saw Southern Rhodesia as the next to fall and would leave apartheid South Africa vulnerable and isolated. Support for the national liberation forces in Southern Rhodesia became paramount to defeating imperialism and colonialism on the African continent, with Jack Woddis (1963: 776) writing, ‘it would be no exaggeration to say that Southern Rhodesia is one of the most dangerous explosions points in Africa.’ By the following May, Cox (1964b: 291) stated that if Smith maintained his position on resisting majority African rule, there would be ‘more violence and bloodshed in Southern Rhodesia and would be ‘another “trouble spot”’ for the British (following from the counter-insurgencies in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus).

The Communist Party put its support behind the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), a national liberation organisation established in the early 1960s and led by Joshua Nkomo. Despite being banned by the Smith government, ZAPU first agitated against white minority rule in Southern Rhodesia, calling for the mobilisation of the African population and demanding the British and the UN intervene in negotiations with the regime. Before the UDI in late 1965, the demands of ZAPU were:

  1. Suspend immediately the Constitution of the Colony.
  2. Order the release of Joshua Nkomo and all other political prisoners.
  3. Appoint an Executive pending the calling of a Constitutional Conference.
  4. Make available units of the British forces for emergency action against any attempted act of treason by the white minority Smith Government against the Crown (as cited in, Cox 1964: 292).

However the resistance of the Smith regime to any form of negotiations of the prospect of majority African rule and the persecution of the national liberation movement in Southern Rhodesia led ZAPU to take up the idea of the armed struggle, establishing the military wing the Zimbabwe People’s Republic Army (ZIPRA) in 1964 in Zambia. ZAPU formed links with the African National Congress (ANC), exiled from South Africa, and both organisations were supported by the Soviet Union. The ANC, along with the South African Communist Party (SACP), had adopted the notion of the armed struggle in the early 1960s, with the formation of its military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) in December 1961. This served as a framework for ZAPU/ZIPRA and the two organisations would fight together against the Rhodesian and South African armed forces in the near future (such as the raids on Wankie in 1967).

The CPGB published a statement by ZAPU in the fortnightly journal Comment in September 1964, which called for people to support either ‘Smith and his fascist group’ or ‘the majority, who are the Africans, led by Mr. Nkomo’, declaring ‘[t]here is no question of pedalling in the neutral zone’ (ZAPU 1964: 566). Taking inspiration from the anti-fascist struggles of the Second World War (as well as the armed struggle advocated by the ANC), ZAPU (1964: 566) argued that if the Smith regime was unwilling to negotiate on the issues of democracy and ending ‘the venom of minority rule’, it would fight to liberate the majority African population ‘from the yoke injustice, domination [and] exploitation’. The statement ended with this declaration:

We cannot condone violence and bloodshed nor can we condemn it, for there is no course left in Zimbabwe. The people have been frustrated so much that they cannot see any other course open but the REVOLUTIONARY WAY! GO ON FREEDOM FIGHTERS – FOR IN OUR BATTLE THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS!!

At this moment in 1964-65, Rhodesia seemed to be at a turning point – it was either going go the way of the other British colonies in Africa, such as Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Kenya and Tanganyika (later Tanzania), who all gained independence and majority African rule in the early 1960s, or it was either going to join South Africa, South-West Africa and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique as part of a network of imperialist states ruled by a white minority. The Communist Party (1964b: 562) noted the two options open to Rhodesia, posing the question, ‘shall white minority domination continue or shall democracy prevail and the country advance to independence based on the rule of the African majority?’ And it was once again felt that Rhodesia was the lynchpin of the imperialist system in Southern Africa, which, if it fell to majority African rule, would put enormous pressure on the existing imperialist states. The Party saw the Dominion as such, writing:

Imperialism sees Southern Rhodesia as the central bastion in the line of colonialist strongholds stretching across the southern part of the African continent, linking the Portuguese colonies of Angola in the west and Mozambique in the East (CPGB 1964b: 562).

As Ian Smith consolidated his hold on power in Rhodesia, he proposed that the country’s 1961 Constitution allowed for him to claim its independence from the British Commonwealth and maintain white minority rule. Both sides of the British government attempted to bring Smith back from the brink of declaring the UDI during 1965 and called for a compromise, with Smith retaining the 1961 Constitution, but allowing for Africans to have the vote. Jack Woddis (1965: 358), the future Head of the International Department, wrote that this was no suitable compromise as ‘the African people and their organisations and leaders have repeatedly rejected the 1961 Constitution… and have emphasised time and again that they will never accept this constitution as the basis for independence’. But on 11 November, 1965, Smith pronounced Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence and refused to impose majority African rule, declaring that the British and the other constituent parts of the former Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland had tried ‘to foist the same dogma [of ‘racial harmony’] on to Rhodesia’ (The Times, 12 November, 1965).

Writing in the CPGB aligned journal Labour Monthly, R. Palme Dutt (1965: 529-530; 541) described the UDI as a ‘fascist type’ and ‘racialist’ coup by the Smith regime and likened the British government’s reaction as akin to the policy of appeasement of the 1930s. The UDI, Dutt argued, was a counter-revolutionary and ‘rearguard action of a fanatical racialist minority’ against the ‘advancing African Revolution’, but one which was ‘doomed to defeat’ as European imperialism was removed from the African continent by the forces of national liberation. He declared that the ‘interests of African freedom and of world peace demand the unconditional defeat and destruction of the racialist regime in Rhodesia’, looking to ZAPU and the country’s neighbouring African-led governments to intervene. Like others, Dutt saw the struggle for majority African rule in Rhodesia as part of a struggle against racism and imperialism in the rest of Southern Africa, writing:

The question of Rhodesia cannot finally be separated from the question of South Africa and of the Portuguese colonies. The fight to end racial servitude and win democratic freedom in these territories is a common fight… It is a common battle of all the African peoples, as proclaimed already by all the independent African governments, with support of all the progressive peoples of the world, of the socialist nations, the newly independent states outside Africa, and of all who support these common anti-imperialist aims in the imperialist countries. 

However support for this by the British trade unions was lacking at the time, beyond affiliation to the MCF and support for an embargo for South Africa, with Dutt thus imploring, ‘it is the vital interest of the British labour movement to play its full part in this common fight’.

In an emergency resolution passed at the CPGB’s 29th National Congress in November 1965, the Party made three demands on the issue of Rhodesia:

  1. The removal of the illegal Smith Government in Southern Rhodesia;
  2. Release of all political prisoners and those in detention;
  3. Suspension of the 1961 constitution, and a fully representative conference to frame a new constitution based on universal adult suffrage and majority rule (CPGB 1965: 64).

Furthermore the resolution expressed ‘firm solidarity’ with ZAPU which it described as ‘the spearhead of the African liberation movement in Southern Rhodesia’. Like Dutt’s conclusion, the resolution called for members of the CPGB ‘to do their utmost to win the organised labour movement to bring the maximum pressure to bear upon the Wilson Government to put these measures into effect’.

There seemed to be general consensus in Britain and in Africa that the Smith regime, with the oil embargo, pressure from the United Nations and the national liberation campaign being waged by both ZAPU and ZANU, would not be able to hold out for long on its own. Harold Wilson, perhaps infamously, declared that Rhodesia would feel the brunt of sanctions ‘within weeks, not months’ (Cited in, Coggins 2006: 371). This initial enthusiasm was tempered by the failure of the Wankie Raids by the ANC and ZAPU, when the armed wings of both organisations, the MK and ZIPRA, attempted to attack the Smith regime within its borders (to create a communication link between ANC camps in Botswana and Zambia) and were repelled by the Rhodesian Army, with assistance from the South African Defence Force (SADF) (Ralinala, et. al. 2004). By the late 1960s, the Rhodesian ‘bush war’ seemed headed for a stalemate, and further negotiations between Wilson and Smith (the Tiger and Fearless talks) failed to break the political deadlock.

At this stage, the international campaign for solidarity with the national liberation forces in Zimbabwe shifted, believing that the armed struggle and co-operation between the ANC and ZAPU would intensify in the late 1960s – as shown in the Marxism Today from September 1969 below. This is covered in the other posts that I have written on the subject.

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 9.19.29 pm

REFERENCES

Buckle, D. (1962) ‘The United Nations and Southern Rhodesia’, Labour Monthly (August) pp. 372-376.

Coggins, R. (2006) ‘Wilson and Rhodesia: UDI and British Policy Towards Africa’, Contemporary British History, 20/3, pp. 363-381.

Cox, I. (1963) ‘The Real Issue in Southern Rhodesia’, Comment (April 13) p. 229.

  • (1964a) ‘Socialist Ideas in Africa’, Marxism Today (February) pp. 38-45.
  • (1964b) ‘Zero Hour in Southern Rhodesia, Comment (May 9) pp. 291-292.

CPGB (1964a) ‘Finish with Colonialism! Draft for General Election’, CP/CENT/EC/09/08, LHASC.

  • (1964b) ‘Salazar – Smith – Verwoerd’, Comment (September 5) p. 562.
  • (1965) ‘Emergency Resolution: Southern Rhodesia’, in CPGB, 29th Communist Party Congress Report (London: CPGB pamphlet) p. 64.
  • (1968) The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet).
  • (1969) International Affairs Bulletin: Rhodesia Special Issue, 3/4 (January/February) CP/CENT/INT/08/08, LHASC.

Gurney, C. (2000) ‘“A Great Cause”: The Origins of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, June 1959-March 1960’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 26/1 (March) pp. 123-144.

Ralinala, R.M, et. al. (2004) ‘The Wankie and Sipolilo Campaigns’, in South African Democracy Education Trust (eds), The Road to Democracy in South Africa: Volume 1, 1960-1970 (Arcadia, SA: UniSA Press) pp. 479-540.

Woddis, J. (1963) ‘What Next for Southern Rhodesia?’, Comment (December 7) pp. 776-778.

  • (1965) ‘Rhodesia’s 1961 Constitution’, Marxism Today (December) pp. 358-364.

ZAPU (1964) ‘The Revolution Gripping Zimbabwe’, Comment (September 7) p. 566.