Anti-racism

British Communism and the Politics of Race – out now!

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After 10 years in the making, my book British Communism and the Politics of Race, has been published in the Historical Materialism series by Brill. Please order a copy for your institutional library. Link is here. And a library recommendation form can be found here.

As with all HM books, a paperback edition will be published by Haymarket in the next  year or so. I will be sure to let you all know when this becomes available.

I still haven’t worked out whether I will do a book launch, so stay tuned!

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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!

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

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Image source: Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race, class and black rebellion in Britain, 1976-1981

To commemorate the passing of radical black activist Darcus Howe and the forthcoming anniversaries of the riots of 1980-81, I am posting an excerpt from an older article on how the British left and black activists interpreted the rebellious actions by black youth in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Howe, alongside Stuart Hall and A. Sivanandan, helped the British left develop a new language for understanding the interaction between race and class, stressing the importance of unity between black and white workers, but not at the expense of the demands of the black struggle being subsumed by the objectives of the primarily white labour movement. You can find the rest of the article here.

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Photo by Phil Maxwell

Black radicalism in the 1970s

In the mid-1960s, British black politics, and wider anti-racist politics, was beginning to shift from a focus on anti-colonialism to domestic anti-racism and saw the emergence of broad-based and moderate black organisations, such as the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, the United Coloured Peoples Association and the Institute of Race Relations. However the ineffectiveness of the official legislation, the Race Relations Act, to combat racism in British society and the increasing bipartisan consensus within the British Government that black immigrants were the ‘problem’ produced a more militant black political awareness, inspired by black power from the United States, Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial politics in the former British Empire. Black power in Britain was partially a reaction to the dissatisfaction felt amongst black activists with the existing anti-racist organisations; a belief that the labour movement had subordinated issues of ‘race’ for the class struggle and that the official race relations bodies were compromised by a tendency towards conciliation, rather than effective anti-racist actions. Black power – the idea that ‘black people needed to redefine themselves by asserting their own history and culture to project an image which they would develop without white people’[1] – inspired many disaffected activists, buoyed by the actions of African-Americans in the US and the widespread cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Black activists in Britain established their own political organisations, with the proliferation of radical publications and bookstores providing the structural centres for many black British militants. They were able to produce a number of radical publications, which advocated a black power position and often combined with a Marxist framework. These publications were often distributed out of black-owned bookstores, which became hubs for black radical and important landmarks for the black communities, functioning as what Colin A. Beckles has described as ‘Pan-African sites of resistance’.[2]

Beginning in 1958, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) had been established as a moderate and scholarly organisation to address ‘race relations’ and black politics in Britain and by the early 1970s, had two significant journals dealing with these issues – Race Today, which was a monthly magazine[3] and Race, which was a academically-minded journal published quarterly. However by this time, there was an increasingly vocal section within the IRR that the Institute needed to be much more pro-active in its discussion of ‘race relations’, rather than merely an ‘impartial’ scholarly body. As A. Sivanandan, one of the major critics of the ‘old’ IRR and founding editor of Race & Class, wrote, ‘We did not want to add to the tomes which spoke in obfuscatory and erudite language to a chosen few, we no longer believed in the goodwill of governments to listen to our reasoned arguments’.[4]

In 1973, Race Today became a separate entity from the IRR under the editorship of Darcus Howe, a black radical journalist, forming the Race Today Collective. Influenced by the work of Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, Howe rejected the view that it was necessary to ‘build a vanguard party to lead Blacks to some emancipation’[5] and the journal became a beacon for black political journalism, intertwining libertarian Marxism with a radical anti-racism. Max Farrar has described this position as ‘black self-organisation for socialism which is autonomous of, but not cut off from, the white majority’.[6] (My emphasis) Following the departure of Race Today from the IRR, the ‘old’ IRR shrank to three staff, who revitalised the Institute as a ‘servicing station for oppressed peoples on their way to liberation’.[7] The quarterly journal Race was changed to Race & Class in mid-1974 and conceptualised as a ‘campaigning journal, “a collective organizer”, devoted not just to thinking… but to thinking in order to do’, linking ‘the situation of black workers in Britain and the liberation struggles in the underdeveloped world’.[8] These journals promoted the idea that the black communities in Britain were not simply part of the British working class, but an autonomous political entity, which had different agendas, strategies, histories and points of entry to the traditional labour movement. Although an integral part of post-colonial British society, the black communities experienced ‘discrimination and exclusion’ in many aspects of life, which led to the development of ‘networks of black people organising, primarily without the help of white people, against the racism of employers, unions, police, local authorities, political parties and others’.[9] Their inspiration came partly from radical Marxism and class-based politics, but was just as informed by anti-colonial politics from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent, which intertwined to present a black British identity with a colonial legacy, rather than merely colonial subjects in the ‘Mother Country’. This article does not assert that Race Today and Race & Class saw ethnicity and class as completely separable entities (indeed the title Race & Class denotes an acknowledgement of the importance of class), but their main focus was on building autonomous black working class politics, with the debut editorial of Race & Class stating that the concern of the journal was ‘the oppression of black people in Britain’, primarily ‘the place of black workers’.[10] And importantly, in their interpretations of the episodes discussed in this article, they emphasised that these were acts of rebellion by black youth, reflecting the concerns of Britain’s black communities.

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Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

The militancy of black youth

The clashes between the police and black youth correlate with the increasingly confrontational nature of the police in the mid-to-late 1970s and throughout the Thatcherite era. At the heart of this confrontation was the ‘criminalisation’ of black youth.[11] Both Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth faced many of the hardships that had been experienced by their migrant parents, but they also had grown up in Britain, which altered their experiences, particularly in terms of cultural identity and their expectations. The children of post-war black migrants had experienced similar developments in their young lives as their white contemporaries and in many ways, shared closer ties with white British society than to the culture of their parents’ homeland, but were still divorced from many of the opportunities offered by a white identity. Chris Mullard wrote of this as the ‘black Britons’ dilemma’:

He will be British in every way. He will possess understandable values and attitudes; he will wear the same dress, speak the same language, with the same accent; he will be as educated as any other Englishman; and he will behave in an easy relatable way. The only thing he will not be is white.[12]

In a 1974 discussion of youth culture in the Communist Party journal Marxism Today, Imtiaz Chounara claimed that ‘most young coloured people are caught in between two cultures – that of Britain and that of their parents’.[13] Chounara appealed for the CPGB to incorporate black youth (not just black workers in the industrial sector) into the Party, to counter the appeal of ‘black power’, which the CPGB believed to share an affinity with ‘deviant’ versions of Marxism, such as Maoism and Trotskyism.[14] Chounara suggested:

We must therefore fight for black youth to mix culturally with white youth but at the same time to retain their own cultural identity. This is an important part of the fight for black consciousness – to get respect for black people and their culture, not only amongst young white people but also amongst black people themselves. This cannot be done in a “black power” manner, putting black above white, but in a true Marxist manner, fighting for the rightful place of black workers alongside their white brothers as equals.[15]

However the CPGB had to compete with other groups on the far left, such as the International Socialists (after 1977, the Socialist Workers Party), and radical black activists, who both saw black youth as a far more positive force for revolutionary political action.

For them, black youth were deemed to have the same divorced position from the organised labour movement, but were less closely associated with the traditional organisations of the black communities and more likely to be involved in militant actions. This willingness to confront the perpetrators of racial violence and the state led many to idolise their spontaneity and militancy. Ian Macdonald declared in Race Today that black youth were ‘the vanguard of a world-wide proletarian movement’.[16] Cathie Lloyd points to the fetishisation of the rebellion of black youth seen through The Clash’s punk song ‘White Riot’, which ‘expressed admiration for combative black youth at [the Notting Hill] Carnival ‘76’.[17] ‘While black workers were still seen as victims’, Lloyd wrote, ‘there was also admiration and a feeling that they [especially black youth] were at the forefront of a challenge to the established social order’.[18]

For the IS/SWP, the revolutionary potential of black youth was realised as their acts of rebellion, such as the Notting Hill Carnival riot in August 1976, coincided with the Party’s campaign strategies. In a 1976 internal bulletin, the Party declared that ‘the twin themes of fighting racialism and fighting for the right to work now dominate our immediate perspective’,[19] attempting to incorporate those affected by racism and unemployment, which were both experienced by black youth. Acts like the riot at the Notting Hill Carnival were seen by the IS/SWP as the beginning of a series of events that ‘highlighted the question of the political role of black youth’, where the seemingly spontaneous rebellion presented ‘new opportunities’ for socialists.[20] Tony Bogues, in the journal International Socialism, defended the actions of those at the Carnival as not mere lawlessness or the deeds of the ‘lumpenproletariat’, declaring that these youth were ‘part of the strata in the working class that is exploited and oppressed’.[21]

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Notting Hill Carnival 1976

The 1981 Riots as Social Protest

The first term of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership saw extensive rioting by black youth, first in Bristol in 1980, then in Brixton and across Britain in 1981. For commentators, academics and activists on the left and within the black communities, these riots have been viewed as either part of a wider malaise by the lower classes against the neo-liberal policies of Thatcherism, or the unstructured reaction by black youth to years of racial harassment and discrimination that continued on from the black struggles of the 1970s.

For the left, the 1981 riots were indicative of a widespread antipathy towards the socio-economic policies of the Conservative Government, which saw a reaction by the ‘most oppressed group in the inner city areas’ – black youth – who ‘drew into the struggle the slightly less oppressed’ – white youth.[22] As black youth were amongst the most affected by these economic conditions, coupled with the more immediate burdens of police harassment and the impact of institutional racism, they were the most likely to react, albeit in a manner that was outside the organisation of the left.

The SWP were adamant that the 1981 riots were ‘class riots’ and not ‘race riots’.[23] Colin Sparks stated the riots were the work of ‘a mainly working class community against the symbols of oppression and deprivation’.[24] The riots were the ‘common result of unemployment and crisis’, exacerbated by the experience of racism and the unequal distribution of economic hardship upon black youth.[25] What demonstrated the class aspect of the riots was, Chris Harman wrote, the fact that ‘in virtually all the British riots there has been significant white involvement alongside blacks, and the involvement has not just been of white leftists, but of white working class youth’.[26] For Harman, the ‘immediate background of the riots lies… in a huge increase in unemployment’,[27] with the result being a common experience of repression and economic hardship that contributed to the lower class rebellion. Harman portrayed the riots as a modern incarnation of previous rebellions by the lower classes in Britain. While there was a strong narrative of resistance flowing from the black industrial struggles of the 1970s and the disturbances at Notting Hill and Bristol, Harman linked the riots to previous unemployment struggles in 1886-87 and in 1931-32.[28] For the left, the riots were seen as a starting point for resistance to Thatcherism. The SWP declared that the riots were the symptoms of a ‘bitterness brewing… from the experience of Tory government and economic crisis’, which would ‘sooner or later… explode in the factories as well as on the streets’.[29] It was up to socialists to ‘seize the opportunities to build unity in struggle’[30] that would present themselves as Thatcherism emboldened its attacks upon the ‘subversive’ elements of society.

While not denying the common economic causes of the riots or the involvement of white youth, black activists and journalists emphasised the role of black youth and the racial discrimination and harassment experienced by the black communities that were integral factors in the outbreak of the rioting. For the journal Race & Class, the reasons for the riots were clear, quoting a black youth interviewed for the Sunday Telegraph: ‘It is not against the white community, it’s against the police’.[31] The journal emphasised the repressive nature of the police and the continual harassment faced by black people in everyday life. The repeated harassment by the police formed a long narrative that heightened with the events of the late 1970s, before exploding with the riots of the early 1980s. The journal tried to emphasise the continuity between the events, stating, ‘In many ways what happened during and after the 1976 Carnival was a premonition of the later “riots”’.[32]

The journal also drew a historical continuity between the hundreds of racial attacks that had occurred since the mid-1970s and the rioting; a process from which black people were ‘attacked,… criminalised… and rendered second-class citizens’ to the violent response against the racists and the police, who had failed to adequately protect the black communities.[33] Quoting the Hackney Legal Defence Committee, the journal portrayed the riots as the long awaited reaction to this continual racism:

Black youth took to the streets to defend our communities against police and racial violence. From Brixton to Toxteth, Moss Side to Southall black youth said: “No more: enough is enough!”[34]

Both Race & Class and Race Today portrayed the riots as the result of a lack of a political voice for Britain’s black communities in conventional party politics. As A. Sivanandan was quoted, ‘The black community is a community under attack and, increasingly, a community without redress’.[35] Looking at the political situation for black Britons throughout the early 1970 and the early 1980s, both journals saw the long process of the black communities attempting to work within the system, but still facing exclusion – from the mainstream political parties, trade unions, local government and the left, amongst others – which could burst into spontaneous acts of rebellion. The riots were a forceful recognition of the limited space in which black people in Britain could enter the political sphere, as well as an unplanned reaction to years of racial discrimination, police harassment, violence and economic hardship. The left and black activists recognised that these riots had a political dimension, but there was disagreement on whether this dimension was characterised by notions of ‘class’ or ‘race’.

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The Brixton riots, 1981

[1] Kalbir Shukra, ‘From Black Power to Black Perspectives: The Reconstruction of a Black Political Identity’, Youth and Policy (Summer 1995) p. 6

[2] Colin A. Beckles, ‘“We Shall Not Be Terrorised Out of Existence”: The Political Legacy of England’s Black Bookshops’, Journal of Black Studies, 29/1 (September 1998) p. 51

[3] Race Today was first published by the IRR in 1969 until the Race Today Collective broke away in 1973. From this time until the mid-1980s, the magazine was under the editorship of Darcus Howe. Leila Hassan took over editorial duties in 1985, but the magazine and the Collective folded in 1988. The George Padmore Institute in London and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford hold archival material of the magazine and the Race Today Collective.

[4] A. Sivanandan, ‘Race and Resistance: The IRR Story’, Race & Class, 50/2 (2008) p. 28

[5] Darcus Howe, interviewed by Ken Lawrence, in Paul Buhle (ed.), C.L.R. James: His Life and Work (London, 1986) p. 147

[6] Max Farrar, ‘“You Don’t Have to Have Read James to be a Jamesian”: Preliminary Notes on the relationship Between the Work of CLR James and Some of the Radical Black, Anti-Racist and Left Movements in the UK, 1970s to 1990s’, Paper delivered at the CLR James Centennial Conference, St Augustine, 20-23 September, 2001, p. 9, http://www.maxfarrar.org.uk/docs/CLRJamesPaperUnivWI2001.pdf, accessed 14 July, 2009

[7] A. Sivanandan, ‘Race and Resistance’, p. 28

[8] Editorial Working Committee, ‘Editorial’, Race & Class, 16/3 (1975) p. 232; p. 231

[9] Kalbir Shukra, ‘The Death of a Black Political Movement’, Community Development Journal, 32/3 (July 1997) p. 233

[10] EWC, ‘Editorial’, p. 231

[11] See: Paul Gilroy, ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’, Socialist Register (1982) pp. 47-56; Cecil Gutzmore, ‘Capital, “Black Youth” and Crime’, Race & Class, 25/2 (1983) pp. 13-30

[12] Chris Mullard, Black Britain (London, 1973) p. 145

[13] Imtiaz Chounara, ‘Trends in Youth Culture’, Marxism Today (October 1974) p. 318

[14] International Affairs Committee, ‘Racialism and “Black Power”’, CP/LON/RACE/02/01, LHASC

[15] I. Chounara, ‘Trends in Youth Culture’, pp. 318-319

[16] Ian Macdonald, ‘The Capitalist Way to Curb Discrimination’, Race Today (August 1973) p. 241

[17] Cathie Lloyd, ‘Antiracist Mobilization in France and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Danièle Joly, Scapegoats and Social Actors: The Exclusion and Integration of Minorities in Western and Eastern Europe (Houndmills, 1998) p. 159

[18] C. Lloyd, ‘Antiracist Mobilization in France and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s’, p. 159

[19] IS Central Committee, ‘The Anti-Racialist Fight and the Right to Work Campaign’, IS Post-Conference Bulletin (1976) MSS.284, Alastair Mutch Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

[20] Tony Bogues, ‘Black Youth in Revolt’, International Socialism, 1/102 (October 1977) p. 12

[21] T. Bogues, ‘Black Youth in Revolt’, p. 13

[22] SWP Central Committee, ‘The Riots and After’, SWP Internal Bulletin, 4 (1981) MSS.284, Alastair Mutch Papers, MRC

[23] SWP CC, ‘The Riots and After’; Italics are in the original text.

[24] Colin Sparks, ‘A Class Riot Not a Race Riot’, Socialist Review (May 1981) p. 7; Italics are in the original text.

[25] C. Sparks, ‘A Class Riot Not a Race Riot’, p. 9

[26] Chris Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis’, International Socialism, 2/14 (Autumn 1981) p. 14; Italics are in the original text.

[27] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 15

[28] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, pp. 15-16

[29] SWP CC, ‘The Riots and After’

[30] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 40

[31] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, Race & Class, 23/2-3 (Winter 1981-Autumn 1982) p. 225

[32] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 239

[33] ‘The “Riots”’, p. 232

[34] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 231

[35] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 236

Archiving the left – CPGB’s ‘Racism: How to Combat It’ (1978)

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In 1978, the Communist Party of Great Britain produced two pamphlets dealing with anti-racism and anti-fascism. One was A Knife at the Throat of Us All: Racism and the National Front by National Organiser, Dave Cook. The other was Racism: How to Combat It by the CPGB’s National Race Relations Committee. Cook’s pamphlet outlined the history and theory of racism and anti-racism in Britain, with particular reference to the threat posed by the National Front. The pamphlet produced by the NRRC was a much more practical document, outlining the various ways in which Communist Party members and other labour movement activists could participate in anti-racist actions in a variety of settings.

Coming soon after the revised British Road to Socialism, which pushed for a greater emphasis on the new social movements, these two pamphlets outlined the importance of anti-racism and anti-fascism was for the CPGB in the late 1970s. However as my forthcoming book shows, it was difficult at times for the Communist Party to integrate itself into the anti-racist movement, even though the Party had a long history of anti-racist campaigning.

As part of the efforts by various people to digitise the ephemera of the global left, I have scanned a copy of the NRRC pamphlet, which can be found here.

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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.

No Platform documentary on BBC Radio 4 (featuring me!)

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Last month I was interviewed about the history of the NUS policy of ‘no platform’ by BBC Radio 4 for a documentary on the subject, hosted by Professor Andrew Hussey from SOAS. It aired on Saturday night in the UK and is now available to listen to on the BBC iplayer. You can find the programme here.