British far left

New article on the Armagh women, the British left and women’s liberation

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A quick post to announce that a new article by Brodie Nugent and myself has been published in Contemporary British History journal. It is titled, ‘Intersectional Solidarity? The Armagh Women, the British Left and Women’s Liberation’. Here is the abstract:

In 1980, three Republican women prisoners held in Armagh prison in Northern Ireland joined the hunger strike being conducted by male Republican prisoners in Maze Prison. Overshadowed by the fatal 1981 strike, the 1980 strike involved these women in Armagh, who challenged the traditional nationalist notion of the strong male warrior, while generating sympathy and solidarity across the globe, including with the far left and the women’s liberation movement in Britain. This article will look at how the left and the women’s liberation movement in both Britain and Ireland looked to portray these women within their competing narratives.

You can access the article here. Contact me if you would like a copy.

 

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‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’ is out now

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This is just a quick email to let you all know that Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 is out now via Manchester University Press. Please recommend it for your institutional library.

You can read the introduction to the collection here.

Remember, the first volume, Against the Grain, is also available in paperback from here.

A platform for working class unity? The Revolutionary Communist Party’s Red Front and the 1987 election

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One of the most controversial groups on the British far left was the Revolutionary Communist Party. After its dissolution in the late 1990s, many of its leading members, including its leader Frank Furedi, went on to found the online libertarian/contrarian magazine, Spiked. Since the inception of the RCP in the late 1970s (originally the Revolutionary Communist Tendency until 1981), it has been regarded by many other groups on the left as sectarian and controversialist, with some arguing that the RCP indulged in cult-like behaviour.

The RCP broke away from the Revolutionary Communist Group in the late 1970s, particularly over their approach to South Africa and the role of the African National Congress/South African Communist Party, although wider disagreements emerged. The RCG had originally broken from the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, before the IS became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977. Both the RCT and the RCG campaigned strongly around the issue of Irish Republicanism and British imperialism in Northern Ireland, as well as around issues such as anti-racism. The RCT/RCP formed several front groups around single issues during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the most prominent being the Irish Freedom Movement and Workers Against Racism.

Being known by other left groups as promoting an ‘ultra left’ agenda, the RCP stood out from the rest of the left at this stage, even amongst the other Trotskyist and Leninist groups that were around during the 1980s. As well as disagreeing with several groups over the Falklands War and the Miners’ Strike, the RCP argued that the Labour no longer represented the British working class and admonished the rest of the British far left for calling for a vote for Labour in general elections. This led in 1987 to the formation of the Red Front, an electoral vehicle to challenge the hegemony of the Labour Party.

The Red Front manifesto

In early 1987, the RCP published a lengthy manifesto, The Red Front: A Platform for Working Class Unity, proposing an left-wing electoral alliance as an alternative to Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, led by the RCP. The RCP, the manifesto stated, was formed ‘in response to the urgent need to build a new party to advance the interests of the working class’ that was ‘not merely… within the framework of parliament and of British capitalism’. The ‘immediate objective’ of the RCP was ‘to build a revolutionary working class party in Britain’. The aim of the RCP and the Red Front was ‘not to win seats in parliament’, but instead ‘to rally a core of activists around a platform that can lead the struggle against the capitalist system before, during and after the election.’ The working class needed to be convinced, in the eyes of the RCP, that the only way to challenge the capitalist system was ‘not through elections and politicians, council grans or government quangos, but through the direct action of the working class itself.’ With a sense of grandeur, the party announced, ‘[w]hichever party wins the election, the future of the working class depends upon the success of this project.’

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The RCP lamented that the British left ‘cannot resist calling for a vote to put Kinnock in power’ and that overall, it was ‘axiomatic [for the left] to vote Labour’. Even though ‘[f]ew Labour supporters really believe[d] that a Labour government would bring significant advantages for the working class’. The RCP criticised the position of the British far left groups who saw Labour as the lesser of two evils between Thatcher and Kinnock, stating ‘[s]upporting Labour on the grounds that it is the lesser evil means abandoning working class politics’. The manifesto questioned whether Labour was really the lesser evil and remarked that it was ‘difficult to imagine that a Kinnock government could be as bad as the Thatcher regime.’

The RCP lambasted the SWP in particular for trying to ‘give pessimism the stamp of revolutionary approval’ for arguing that the left was in retreat after the Miners’ Strike and calling for a vote for Labour in 1987. In Socialist Review in June 1987, Donny Gluckstein argued that ‘People vote Labour because they are working class and identify the party with that class’. Gluckstein then reasoned:

So the Labour Party’s vote must be understood as a partial rejection of capitalist ideas. Despite Kinnock’s right wing stance and the record of previous Labour governments, workers do not vote Labour because they want worse social services, lower wages or higher unemployment. They want improvements in these spheres… They vote Labour because, through its rhetoric and its history of organisational links with the trade unions, it is seen as a party of the working class.

 For this reason, the SWP proposed calling for a vote for Labour, while building its own membership as a revolutionary alternative. The RCP also saw themselves as an alternative to Labour and ‘recognise[d] that at present our influence is limited’, but put forward the Red Front as an electoral vehicle to challenge Labour at the voting booth. They presented the Red Front as an exercise in tactical unity across the British left, stating:

We believe that there are thousands of activists just as concerned as we are about the future of the working class. We do not expect them to agree with the full programme of the RCP. Nor we do expect those with long associations with the Labour Party to change their views overnight. What we propose is a way of giving the working class a voice in the political struggle around the general election.

Arguing that the case for the Red Front was ‘overwhelming’, the RCP suggested that even ‘those who reject the revolutionary communist analysis of Labour should seriously examine our proposal’ and should concede that ‘a successful campaign for workers’ interests will put more pressure on the Labour Party than the continuation of the current inertia’.

While condemning many on the British left for their critical support of the Labour Party electorally, the RCP attempted to portray the Red Front as a viable vehicle to unify the fractured left. The manifesto asserted:

The Red Front will be simply an agreement of individuals and organisations to fight together around a set of basic demands… Anybody who committed to the interests of the working class should support it.

The RCP saw the Red Front as an ‘electoral bloc’ where there was an agreed basic platform, but with each organisation, including the RCP, putting forward their own wider programme. The ‘basic’ demands of the Red Front were:

  • Work or full pay
  • Defend union rights
  • Equal rights for all
  • Stop the war drive

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However the expanded explanations of these demands in the Red Front manifesto reflected the world-view of the RCP and while some of their ultra-left policies may have resonated with the rest of the far left, there were other points that highlighted the significant differences between the RCP and its rivals.

The RCP did not offer any economic policies in the manifesto because they believed ‘there are no economic solutions to the problems facing the majority of people in Britain’. While wanting to end unemployment and poverty’, the RCP stated ‘we are certain that these objectives can be achieved only through a wide-ranging political struggle against the capitalist order’.

The RCP emphasised more strongly the fight against the trade union bureaucracy, which they accused of ‘class collaboration’ and narrow defensism. In the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike and the Wapping Printers Strike, the RCP saw the trade unions, particularly the Trades Union Congress, as unwilling to take radical action and having a ‘bureaucratic strangehold’ on the labour movement that dissipated the energies of striking workers. Like many on the Trotskyist left, especially the SWP, the RCP emphasised the rank-and-file membership of the trade unions, writing:

Unless we turn our unions into organisations whicb are accountable to the rank and file – organisations which can effectively defend their members’ interests – nothing will stop the spread of scab unionism.

Proclaiming that ‘[t]he RCP has played an active role in the trade unions and in strikes ever since the foundation of the party’, the manifesto made the following policy statement as a basic demand of the Red Front:

We stand for the repeal of all laws that restrict the rights of workers to take action in defence of working class interests. We reject all restrictions on striking, picketing and solidarity action. We reject all state intervention in strike ballots, union elections or any other labour movement activity.

One of the defining features of the RCP, which is greatly demonstrated by its eventual transition into Living Marxism and Spiked, was its libertarianism. In the Red Front manifesto, it emphasised its resistance to state interventions of any kind and the rejection of what it saw as ‘reactionary moralism’. While rightly criticising the social conservatism and ‘law and order’ agendas of the Thatcher, the RCP sometimes strayed into dismissing concerns of others. For example, on the issue of women’s rights, the manifesto stated:

Politicians, the press and television now take an inordinate interest in child abuse and in rape. This is partly to indulge a prurient public opinion, but it serves a much wider purpose. It encourages a climate of tension and anxiety which leads people to distrust one another and instead put their faith in the authorities.

But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Red Front manifesto was its attitude towards HIV/AIDS. While many gay rights groups were concerned about the spread of AIDS in the 1980s, the RCP stated, ‘The dangers from Aids have in fact been grossly exaggerated’, adding ‘The principal threat to homosexuals in Britain today is not from Aids, but from the safe sex campaign.’ The manifesto expanded upon this by arguing that ‘safe sex will not save lives as long as homosexuals remain oppressed’, dismissing the safe sex message as ‘divisive moralism and phoney public health propaganda of the establishment’. Instead the RCP proclaimed:

the Aids panic is neither a moral nor a public health problem. It is a political challenge to the workers’ movement. It is impossible to deal with Aids in a technical way because of the position of homosexuals as an oppressed section of society.

Lucy Robinson has shown that the RCP’s line on AIDS was met with ‘particular suspicion’ by gay rights groups, which saw the RCP’s approach as the ‘antithesis of AIDS activists’ universalising model’. Thus the gay rights movement ‘became increasingly resistant to the RCP’s interventions’.

The other organisations

Despite the Red Front’s call for unity, the only two organisations to put forward their support for the Red Front were Red Action and the Revolutionary Democratic Group, which both, like the RCP, emerged from splits with the SWP. Red Action was predominantly known for its role in Anti-Fascist Action and its support for militant Irish Republicanism. In June 1987, the Red Action newspaper made a front-page statement of their support for the Red Front on the grounds that they ‘always supported the idea of trying to build the greatest possible unity between all far left groups, and will always support all initiatives which aim at this.’ Acknowledging that the Red Front was ‘a very new and embryonic movement’, and ‘obviously limited in what it can hope to achieve’ at the election, Red Action still stated:

we believe that such an initiative, if it is given the sort of support it deserves, has the potential to grow into something which could in the not to [sic] distant future start to achieve a decent impact…

VOTE TO SUPPORT A WORKING CLASS FIGHTBACK VOTE RED FRONT

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The other group to support for the Red Front was the Revolutionary Democratic Group, which had split from the SWP in the early 1980s. Regarding themselves as an ‘external faction’, they championed the programme of the International Socialists in the 1970s and felt that the current SWP was ‘ultra left’ and ‘isolationist’. The RDG welcomed the Red Front’s appeal for unity, decrying a similar call by the SWP the previous year. They qualified their support by saying, ‘[i]f the Red Front is to be the foundation for genuine left unity we believe certain points need open discussion by those “left wing organisations and individuals”, and called for a joint meeting of any interested groups. This, the RDG argued, ‘should answer any criticism that the Red Front is just a front for the RCP.’ While agreeing with the four main points of the Red Front manifesto, the RDG quipped that ‘contrary to the RCP’s view, the demands can’t just be plucked out of thin air with the aim of appealing to as many people as possible’. To form a platform that would attempt to unify the left, the RDG proposed a ‘Workers’ Platform’ that would be open to discussion. 

The RDG published an open letter to the RCP in their journal Republican Worker that they asked to be printed in the RCP journal The Next Step. This letter welcomed the call for unity and as mentioned above, stressed the need for joint meetings to determine a united platform. Following this, it also stated:

We must be sure that our rights are protected in the event of any political dispute. In this respect our differences such as they may be, be publicly recognised by being given reasonable space to explain them in The Next Step. With such as safeguard we for our part will recognise the need to give away to the majority if unity is to be maintained.

This reflected the concern that the RDG had about democracy within the organisations of the far left, developed from their days as members within the SWP during a period of upheaval and disruption. But despite their friction with the SWP in the 1980s, the RDG also proposed to the RCP:

As the SWP is the largest and most influential group on the revolutionary left, we would place particular emphasis on involving them in the discussion on the united front/Red Front.

Steve Freeman of the RDG had a letter published in The Next Step on the issue of unity under the banner of the Red Front. The RDG clarified that they had not joined the Red Front, but had ‘called for a vote for Red Front candidates’. Freeman characterised the Red Front as contradictory, writing:

Insofar as it is an opening up of a genuine unity approach, attempting to address real problems of our movement, we welcome it. Insofar as its only real purpose is to promote the RCP we criticise and reject it.

 The RDG felt that the Red Front could not ‘provide a real answer to the problems faced by our movement’ as it dismissed the United Front approach, a tactic which had first been proposed by the Communist International in the 1920s to build links between revolutionary communists and social democrats. Freeman claimed:

The United Front stems from the needs of the class not from the needs of any political grouping to recruit more members… The United Front tactic provides a method of approaching the working class and its advanced sections. Even a small organisation can adopt, although size will influence how it can be put into practice. This is why we urge Marxists in the RCP, SWP, WRP, etc, to fight for this policy. We hope that The Red Front initiative will be a positive part of that debate.

However the RCP rejected the notion of the United Front. Frank Furedi, writing under the pseudonym of Linda Ryan, replied in The Next Step (after the 1987 election) that the tactic did not ‘tackle the real conditions of today’ and urged that it made ‘no sense to try to impose classical schemas on the situation we face in the aftermath of the 1987 election’. Mass work amongst the trade unions was deemed to be ‘not an achievable task for today’, with Ryan/Furedi stating instead:

Our immediate job is more modest, but crucially important. It is to organise a core movement, made up of the existing anti-capitalist forces.

 The Red Front tactic is designed to deal with this problem… The Red Front initiative offers an opportunity to pull them together around an agreed agenda, to fight as a coherent force on the central issues facing the working class in the late eighties.

 Most of the rest of the far left ignored the Red Front. Of the few that noticed it, Workers’ Power called the Red Front manifesto as ‘an ultra-left and sectarian position on social democracy with an opportunist stance on questions of platform and programme.’ The Spartacist League in their newspaper Workers’ Hammer wrote that the RCP’s ‘supposed “Red Front”’ was ‘sub-reformist piffle’ that was ‘[v]irulently anti-Soviet and unsavoury at best’.

The Greenwich by-election and the Red Front candidates

 The first announcement of the Red Front seems to be in The Next Step in early February 1987. In an article titled ‘We Can’t Win with Kinnock’, the RCP announced:

The Revolutionary Communist Party is campaigning for support for The Red Front – a platform for working class unity – as a way to fill the gap left by Labour. We want The Red Front to be an electoral bloc that can bring together left-wing groups and individuals around basic working class demands…

 The article outlined these basic demands which were replicated in the manifesto and in other RCP literature.

In the same month, the RCP’s Kate Marshall stood as a candidate in the Greenwich by-election ‘as an alternative to Labour’. She received 91 votes. The following week, The Next Step argued that this by-election brought home the need for the Red Front. The RCP suggested there was a groundswell of discontent amongst the British working class towards Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party that the Red Front could try to tap into, writing:

While canvassing local estates, we met many Labour supporters who were unhappy about Kinnock’s project of presenting his party as a harmless and inoffensive body. Others had seen enough of what Labour would do for working class people in the years they had suffered under a Labour council.

 However they argued that ‘once the SDP bandwagon got rolling’, most Labour supporters voted for Deidre Wood, the Labour candidate, ‘for no other reason than a desire to keep out the openly pro-capitalist candidates’. The RCP concluded that despite the low vote, ‘there were some encouraging signs beneath the surface of the RCP campaign’, claiming that the ‘level of anti-Labour feeling among left-wing people was at a new high’. This indicated, the RCP believed, ‘the possibility of building support for The Red Front, as a bloc of left-wingers who want to put fighting for the working class before supporting the Labour Party’.

An editorial in the same issue of The Next Step outlined the way forward for The Red Front in the lead up to the 1987 general election:

We cannot promise you election-winning parties like the one the SDP held last week. But we can promise you that if we don’t start speaking up for our class now, the red-baiters will seriously set back the prospects for real change.

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The Red Front put up 14 candidates for the general election, announced in The Next Step in May 1987 with the declaration, ‘The only candidates speaking out clearly for our class are those standing for The Red Front’. On election day, the most votes attracted by a Red Front candidate was by Dave Hallsworth in Knowsley North with 538 (1.37% of the vote). This was actually a decrease from the 664 votes that Hallsworth received in a by-election in the same ward in November 1986.

The Next Step featured several articles dissecting the Red Front’s performance at the election. Although ‘modest’, Frank Furedi (under the pseudonym Frank Richards) argued that the RCP had ‘made an important intervention in the election campaign’ as the Red Front ‘provided the only organised expression of the independent interests of the working class.’ Furedi/Richards claimed that there was ‘insufficient time… to gain wide support’ before the election and that they ‘underestimated the intense fear of isolation that prevails among people who want a revolutionary change.’ He also complained that the other left groups that supported the Red Front lacked resources and thus ‘the RCP had to carry The Red Front more or less on our own’.

The experience of the Red Front at the election gave the RCP both optimism and pessimism. Looking somewhat positively, Furedi/Richards wrote:

The RCP now has an enormous responsibility. Most of the left, including those who consider themselves revolutionary, have abandoned the political arena to Labour…

The fight for The Red Front is the party’s most important initiative up to now. It provides a framework for bringing together anti-capitalists and maximising their influence. The Red Front is even more important now. Without a clear national focus through which to organise the action of anti-capitalists, the various struggles take on by workers will remain isolated and ineffective.

But at the same time, there was acceptance of the problems facing the Red Front, with Furedi/Richards acknowledging that ‘[a]t present The Red Front has no real existence: it is still a perspective waiting to be implemented.’ Another article stated that despite the calls for unity, ‘The Red Front is not at this stage an attempt to build a mass movement.’ Its purpose after the election, as the RCP saw it, was ‘to provide an organisational framework for those who are already prepared to fight back.’ Unity was to come through action, rather than through a common programme, with the ‘most immediate aim’ of the Red Front being ‘to create the conditions in which those who want to fight back have the means to do so.’

In 1986, the RCP started the journal Confrontation, which was somewhat similar in style to the CPGB’s Marxism Today or possibly the SWP’s International Socialism. In the second issue, Furedi, writing as Linda Ryan, looked over the strategy of the Red Front. Criticising the British left for having ‘made a virtue of not fighting back’ against the Labour Party, Ryan/Furedi proposed that the left had long regarded ‘beyond question that it should support the Labour Party in elections’. This had led some on the left, such as the aforementioned RDG to suggest the tactic of the United Front, building links between the Labour Party and far left groups. Returning to the arguments that the RCP had with the RDG, Ryan/Furedi stated that because ‘revolutionaries are a numerically insignificant minority’ in 1987 and thus there was an ‘absence of a vanguard in the working class today’, the United Front approach was ‘quite inappropriate’.

The Red Front was the way forward according to the RCP as it was ‘an attempt to forge an alternative political focus to Labour’. The British left would ‘have to learn to work independently if it is to influence events’, supposedly through vehicles such as the Red Front, or as Ryan/Furedi claimed, ‘[t]he alternative is another 65 years in the wilderness’. The article concluded:

The future of the British working class depends on a fundamental re-orientation proposed by the Revolutionary Communist Party. At a time when the employers stand ready to launch a new offensive the labour movement will pay a heavy price for lack of solid organisation and clear direction. Only by getting Labour off our backs will we succeed in advancing the historic destiny of the working class.

Aftermath

Despite initial enthusiasm for the Red Front, the electoral bloc did not last. Red Action and the RDG seemed to quickly forget about their support for the Red Front. In his satirical look at the British far left, John Sullivan wrote about the RDG’s dalliance with the RCP:

It caused some surprise when they supported the RCP’s Red Front in the 1987 General Election, but the minimalism of the programme appealed to their nostalgia for the SWP of the 1970s. They seemed, when we spoke to them, a little shamefaced about that episode, and admitted that the RCP are a ‘rum lot’, hardly a convincing Marxist analysis.

The RCP also dropped the Red Front as the late 1980s wore on. When the 1992 election campaign began, the RCP fielded eight candidates (plus a separate Workers Against Racism candidate in Holborn and St Pancras). Kenan Malik was the only candidate to stand in both the 1987 and 1992 elections for the Red Front and the RCP.

The RCP wound up in 1996. Many of those who were part of the RCP continued to contribute to LM, formerly Living Marxism journal. After being wound up in 2000, Furedi and a number of former RCP members helped create Spiked Online. The Red Front was ignored by most of those on the British left and seems to have left little in the historical memory of the post-RCP incarnations. For an organisation that prided itself on its difference from the rest of the left, the Red Front seemed to be an odd attempt at unity, and was possibly one of the many catalysts that pushed the RCP towards further individualism and definitively breaking with the leftist milieu that existed in the 1980s-90s.

Why is the Red Front worth revisiting historically? The RCP, for better or worse, was one of the most infamous left-wing groups in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s and their influence has reverberated far beyond their relative size in the two decades since dissolving. The Red Front was an episode in the RCP’s history when the group attempted to break out of its contrarian persona and whether sincere or not, tried to build links with other leftist groups and activists. Initiatives to build unity across the British far left have occurred throughout the twentieth century (and even into the twenty-first), usually in times of ascendency, and have almost always failed. The Red Front is an interesting example of this at a time when the British left was in retreat in the face of Thatcherism. More needs to be researched and written about the groups on the fringes of the far left and this case study is a beginning to undertake this research.

An activist account of the RCP written by Michael Fitzpatrick is included in our forthcoming edited volume, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956, out next month through Manchester University Press.

Thanks to James H, Kieron S. and David M. for their assistance in sourcing primary sources for this post.

 

‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’ now available for pre-order from Manchester UP

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We are excited to announce that you can now pre-order our forthcoming volume Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 from Manchester University Press. According to the MUP website, it should be available physically in December.

Furthermore, as part of MUP’s election sale, you can buy the first volume Against the Grain for only £9.00!

Celebrate the resurgence of the British left with these books. Forward to victory!

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.

Darcus Howe

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