British far left

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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Competition ahoy! Win a copy of ‘Against the Grain’

We are running a competition to win a copy of the recently published paperback version of Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956. Click on the link here to go to the Hatful of History Facebook page. To enter, all you need to do is ‘like’ the page and tag someone in on the post.

The competition will end on the morning of March 8 (Australia time). A name will be randomly chosen and contacted via FB Messenger soon after.

So what are you waiting for?!

And remember, you can always order the book from Manchester University Press here.

The Communist Party of Britain, the Morning Star and the Legacy of the Soviet Union

With the recent controversy surrounding the Morning Star and the Communist Party of Britain’s Russophilia, I thought people might be interested in this, which I wrote a few years ago on how the CPB reacted to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991. It is an extract from this book chapter that also looked at how the CPGB and the SWP reacted to the events of 1989.

For those interested in reading further on this, Lawrence Parker is contributing a chapter on the CPB to the forthcoming edited volume for Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956, vol. II. Keep an eye out for this in the new year!

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

The Communist Party of Britain was, and remains, probably the most significant party that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism. The CPB had emerged from the discontent inside the CPGB during the mid-1980s as the Party tried to grapple with the ‘victorious’ Thatcher Government, who had defeated the Argentineans in the Falklands War, had defeated Labour in the 1983 election and looked to defeat the trade unions in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. The fierce debate over the role of the industrial unionism had rumbled on within the CPGB since Tony Lane criticised the role of the trade unions inside the pages of Marxism Today in late 1982.[1] The Morning Star, under the editorship of the traditionalist Tony Chater, became increasingly critical of the reformers (or ‘Euros’) in the Party and a beacon for those dissatisfied with the way the CPGB seemed to be going. Between 1983 and 1988, a series of expulsions, resignations and heated arguments led to several factions being formed around various discontented Party and ex-Party members,[2] including the Straight Left and The Leninist factions, but most importantly for the CPB was the Communist Campaign Group, which eventually formed the Communist Party of Britain in 1988. Many believed that the CPB would sink into oblivion like the New Communist Party and the various Maoist outfits which left in the 1960s and 1970s, but the saving grace of the CPB was its links to the Morning Star. Although it was nominally under the control of the People’s Press Printing Society since 1946, Kevin Morgan has stated that ‘[t]he paper nevertheless remained the acknowledged voice of the CP[GB] until the factional disputes of more recent years’.[3] ‘Control’ of the Morning Star by the CPB meant that the fledgling group had a widely read and well-established organ to reach into the British labour movement and until the mid-1990s, provided the CPB with a significant income.

Even though the CPB was sympathetic to Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism, the Party was not in favour of the Leninist method of armed insurrection or the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the CPB opting to maintain The British Road to Socialism as their programme. The Party’s favourable opinion of the Soviet Union was an almost historical hangover, based on nostalgia and popular memory, rather than seeing the Eastern Bloc as a blueprint for a socialist revolution in Britain. But even this view of the Soviet Union acknowledged the severe shortcomings of the Soviet experiment. As would be expected, the language used in the Morning Star in its reporting on the events from 1989 to 1991 was much more moderate than what was expressed in Marxism Today or the Socialist Worker, but there were many positive stories about the people’s uprisings in Eastern Europe and the moral and political bankruptcy of the collapsing regimes. When the Ceaucescu regime was toppled in Romania in December 1989, the Morning Star editorial team published on the front page:

The Morning Star salutes the heroism of the Romanian people and sends it condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the struggle.

Despite the enormous difficulties still to be overcome, Romania is set to join the movement for democracy and Socialism sweeping Eastern Europe. We wish them every success.[4]

In a further editorial a few days later, the Morning Star stated that the ‘unbridled exercise of personal power’ used by Eastern European dictators like Ceaucescu had ‘nothing to do with the ideas of Socialism’.[5]

Within the pages of the Morning Star, Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost were celebrated as important reforms that allowed the people to achieve ‘democracy’ in the former People’s Democracies. A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the paper reported that the ‘winds of perestroika have reached the GDR’, but this ‘[did] not mean a crisis of Socialism,… because the majority of the GDR population is not going to abandon human Socialism.’[6] Discussing the revolution in Romania, the editors of the paper claimed that it was ‘the essence of perestroika’ that was ‘at the heart of the complex changes taking place throughout Eastern Europe.’[7] When the August Coup failed in the summer of 1991, the front page headline for the paper declared ‘GREAT DAY FOR PERESTROIKA!’,[8] and when Gorbachev resigned in December 1991 and the Soviet Union dissolved, the editorial team celebrated Gorbachev as ‘[h]e tried to rescue the Socialist ideal from the authoritarian straitjacket that was suffocating it to death.’[9]

This ‘authoritarian straitjacket’ that was ‘suffocating’ the Soviet Union was a theme returned to repeatedly in the Morning Star’s reporting on the final days of the Soviet Bloc. While the paper and the CPB commended the Soviet Union for transforming Russia ‘from its state of backwardness in 1917’ into ‘a highly industrialised state with enormous potential’ and defeated the Nazis in the Second World War, it criticised the ‘inertia of the bureaucratic-command system that it created’ and argued that during the Cold War, this centralised command economy ‘ultimately stultified social development and limited the democratic participation of the people.’[10] Tony Chater argued that it was ‘this bureaucratic command model of Socialism which [had] failed, not the Socialism ideals of the revolution’ and that from the 1920s onwards, ‘Soviet society became ossified’.[11] In the days after the August coup, the paper argued that the ‘events we have witnessed were the death throes of an authoritarian, bureaucratic way of organising Socialist society’.[12] In November 1992, the CPB published their resolution on the Soviet Union (republished in 1998), which stated a very similar argument, stating:

[t]he root cause of the collapse lay in the particular forms of economic and political structure which developed in the Soviet Union. Specifically, the great mass of working people came to be progressively excluded from any direct control over their economic and social destiny. This erosion of the very essence of socialism increasingly affected all aspects of Soviet society.[13]

As Robert Griffiths, the General Secretary of the CPB in 1998, wrote, ‘With the working class excluded from a genuine mass role in the administration of industry and the state… and the party exercising state power as a bureaucratic-centralist organisation, Marxism-Leninism was distorted into a dogma and adopted as a state religion’.[14]

But the CPB and the Morning Star was still sympathetic to the ideals of the Soviet Union and were not completely dismissive of its ‘achievements’. In his article, Chater claimed that criticisms of the Soviet Union ‘cannot alter the overwhelmingly positive contribution made… toward the elaboration of a new system of international relations based on peace and co-operation’, and ‘[h]ad it not been for the Soviet Union, fascism would not have been crushed’.[15] The CPB’s 1992 resolution expanded on this:

This is not to deny what was achieved in the Soviet Union. Large-scale industry was developed. There were massive advances in education, and a cultural revolution which changed the face of what had been a very backward country. The development of the Soviet Union’s scientific potential is beyond question. In health, housing and social services big steps forward were recorded.

The Soviet Union made a tremendous impact on the movement for national liberation against imperialism in the world. Its role supporting the anti-colonial movement and in the fight for peace is beyond dispute.[16]

But the Party concluded, ‘the fact remains that the defects in the Soviet system sapped socialism of its strength within the Soviet Union’.[17] However in the end, the CPB remained (and remains) sympathetic to the ideals of the Soviet Union, with Robert Griffiths stating, ‘[w]ere we to draw up a balance sheet, the positive features of the socialist experience would far outweigh the negative ones.’[18]

The CPB acknowledged that ‘[i]t is understandable that there is disappointment, even despair, at the collapse of the Socialist system in the Soviet Union and the other Socialist countries’, but claimed ‘the struggle isn’t over.’[19] The first General Secretary of the CPB, Mike Hicks, was quoted in the Morning Star, declaring in 1991, ‘we do not believe that Socialism is dead… Nor do we believe that millions of Communists around the world have stopped dreaming of and aspiring to a better future.’[20] For the CPB, The British Road to Socialism programme and the name ‘Communist Party’ remained important as they represented ‘a living expression of the application of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete conditions of Britain in the world today’, with Hicks stating that the Party would not consider ‘abandoning the title Communist, nor the Leninist structure of our party.’[21] Hicks added:

We are proud of the name Communist. We are proud to reach out over the years to those great pioneers of our party – Pollitt, Gallacher and Dutt, to name but three.[22]

The Morning Star from 11 Nov, 1989 (all pics from microfilm copies of the paper so text is probably unreadable)

The Morning Star from 11 Nov, 1989

[1] See: Tony Lane, ‘The Unions: Caught on the Ebb Tide’, Marxism Today, September 1982, pp. 6-13.

[2] For discussions of these disputes within the CPGB, see: F. Beckett, Enemy Within, pp. 190-228; Edmund & Ruth Frow, The Liquidation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, E. & R. Frow, Salford, 1996; G. Andrews, Endgames and New Times, pp. 201-223; K. Laybourn, Marxism in Britain, pp. 114-147; Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1960-1991, Rotten Elements, n.d., pp. 54-71.

[3] Kevin Morgan, ‘The Communist Party and the Daily Worker 1930-56’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan (eds), Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party, Pluto Press, London, 1995, p. 142.

[4] ‘We Say’, Morning Star, 23 December, 1989, p. 1.

[5] ‘Socialism and Democracy’, Morning Star, 27 December, 1989, p. 2.

[6] Nokolai Portgugalov & Vladimir Markov, ‘Perestroika Wind in GDR’, Morning Star, 30 November, 1989, p. 4.

[7] ‘Socialism and Democracy’, p. 2.

[8] John Haylett, ‘Great Day for Perestroika!’, Morning Star, 23 August, 1991, p.1.

[9] ‘A Tragic Farewell for Gorbachov’, Morning Star, 27 December, 1991, p. 4.

[10] ’72 years of Socialism; Perestroika – A New Stage’, Morning Star, 7 November, 1989, p.2.

[11] Tony Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, Morning Star, 7 November, 1991, p. 5.

[12] ‘Socialism, What Now?’, Morning Star, 27 August, 1991, p. 2.

[13] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’, Resolution of the Reconvened 41st Congress of the Communist Party of Britain, November 1992, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=345%3Aassessing-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union&catid=51%3Achinas-line-of-march&Itemid=22&limitstart=1, accessed 1 November, 2010.

[14] Robert Griffiths, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union: Introduction’, September 1998, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=345%3Aassessing-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union&catid=51%3Achinas-line-of-march&Itemid=22, accessed 1 November, 2010.

[15] T. Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, pp. 4-5.

[16] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’.

[17] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’.

[18] R. Griffiths, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union: Introduction’.

[19] T. Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, p. 5.

[20] Cited in, Isolda McNeill, ‘Vital Role for the CPB’, Morning Star, 11 November, 1991, p. 3.

[21] Cited in, ‘CPB Call on British Road’, Morning Star, 30 November, 1989, p. 3.

[22] Cited in, ‘CPB Call on British Road’, Morning Star, p. 3.

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]

iwl

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.

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

9781526107343

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

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