CND

New article with Labour History Review on the CPGB and ‘peace’ in the 1950s

This is just a quick post to let you all know that Labour History Review have published an article by myself and Nicholas Barnett titled ‘”Peace with a Captial P: The Spectre of Communism and Competing Notions of “Peace” in Britain, 1949-1960’. It is available for free via open access here.

Here is the abstract:

This article is concerned with different factions within the British peace movement during the 1950s and early 1960s, each of which gave the word ‘peace’ a different meaning. We argue that the movement was made up of several, often contradictory sections, and despite attempts by groups like the Peace Pledge Union to distance themselves from the communist controlled British Peace Committee, popular perceptions were tainted by association with communism until the mid-1950s. Following the onset of the H-bomb era, this taint lessened as people began to fear the destructiveness of hydrogen weapons. When the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament formed in 1958 it became the predominant British organization opposed to nuclear weapons and achieved popularity because it limited its objective to nuclear disarmament whereas the Peace Pledge Union demanded the condemnation of all war.

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Communism and the peace movement in the early Cold War era, 1949-1953

This week, the economist Paul Mason argued a ‘left-wing’ case for nuclear weapons for The Guardian, which was rebutted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Kate Hudson and Stop the War’s Lindsey German. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, the left in Britain has generally opposed nuclear weapons – although the Labour Party has fluctuated on this issue since the 1950s. One common misconception is that the Communist Party opposed nuclear disarmament until the emergence of the CND in the late 1960s, but research by myself and Nick Barnett demonstrates that the CPGB was committed to a multilateral peace since the late 1940s. This post, based on our forthcoming article in Labour History Review, argues that the opposite of this misconception seems to be the case, that the peace movement was so closely linked in the mainstream press and by anti-communist politicians to communism, it was difficult to mobilise around the issue of peace in Britain in the early Cold War era.

BPC

Scholars looking at the British left have long contended that the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was hostile towards the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) because it threatened the dominance of the British Peace Committee (BPC) over the peace movement in Britain.[1] As Willie Thompson explained:

In the first place it had seen the new movement as a distraction from what was really important, namely disarmament negotiations between the Great Powers… The second reason for the party’s suspicion was that the Campaign was seen as a potential rival to its own front peace organisation, the British Peace Committee…[2]

On the other hand, some scholars have argued that the attitude of the Communist Party towards the CND (and the peace movement more generally) was more ambivalent. As Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley point out in their biography of CPGB Industrial Organiser Bert Ramelson, the ‘main efforts [of the Party] were directed toward the peace campaign’ in the 1950s, but always on the multilateral platform of banning all nuclear weapons.[3] Richard Taylor has also stated, ‘Contrary to popular opinion both inside and outside CND, the Daily Worker had given considerable coverage to Peace Movement activities prior to the formation of CND.’[4]

The Communist Party of Great Britain, although initially supportive of the limited use of the atomic bomb in 1945,[5] had, since the Cold War began, been pushing for ‘peace’ amongst the Soviet and Western blocs. However peace had a particularly meaning for the CPGB and was tied to the prospects of multilateral disarmament, the dismantling of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the continued disarmament of West Germany, as well as non-interference by the West in places such as Greece, Malaya, China and Korea. Bob Darke, an ex-CPGB member who wrote an expose of the Party in 1952, described the Party’s position on peace in the new Cold War era:

the call for Peace, which had been more or less dormant on the Party’s cluttered platform, suddenly bounded into life… It began to appear more and more in Party propaganda. The Daily Worker began to print it with a capital P. It was top priority in all propaganda.[6]

The British Peace Committee was formed in 1949, with its chairman being Ivor Montagu, who was also a member of the Communist Party. An article in the Party’s weekly journal World News and Views on the foundation of the BPC alleged that ‘active propaganda for a Third World War is being carried out by a handful of powerful privileged interests in America and Western Europe’ and that ‘[m]alice, fear and hatred are being roused against the Soviet Union’.[7] While calling for ‘[f]riendship between peoples of all countries and particularly of Britain, China, France, the U.S.A., and the U.S.S.R.’ and that the BPC ‘treat[ed] none as enemies except the instigators of war’,[8] the BPC had an underlying pro-Soviet outloo

The Peace Pledge Union, on the other hand, had been established by ‘progressive’ sections of the Church of England in the mid-1930s after war in Europe seemed more likely after the accession of Nazi Germany. While a pacifist organisation, the PPU also pursued a line of appeasement towards Germany and although historians have debated whether this crossed the line from appeasement to some more active form of support, the CPGB in the 1930s saw the PPU as pro-fascist. In 1938, a Central Committee report at the Party’s 15th National Congress announced, ‘we have found it necessary to carry on a sharp ideological struggle against those tendencies in the Peace Movement who oppose collective security and seek reconciliation with Fascist countries, specially shown in the leadership of the Peace Pledge Union’.[9] This animosity between the CPGB and the PPU lasted into the Cold War era, where the PPU zealously indulged in anti-communism.

During the early years of the Cold War, the BPC and PPU dominated the small peace movement that existed in Britain. While the mainstream media and politicians were wary about the PPU because the Union’s stance in the lead up to the Second World War, they were more concerned about those who campaigned for peace or disarmament being covert communist agents and shared the anti-communism of the PPU. The BPC, as the British representative of the World Peace Council, established principally by the Soviet Union, allowed the media to portray the peace movement as communist and because of the WPC’s association with Soviet communism, Gunter Wernicke has written, a number of other peace groups across Western Europe refused to co-operate with the WPC,[10] which was the case in Britain.

For many politicians and those in the mainstream media, there was the assumption that peace was analogous with communism and throughout this period, the word ‘peace’ was regularly placed by many media outlets in inverted commas, suggesting a change in its meaning in the Cold War era. One of the key promoters of this idea was Christopher Mayhew, Labour Cabinet minister and founder of Labour’s Information Research Department (IRD), who stated in a Sheffield Telegraph article that ‘“peace”… meant a communist victory’.[11] Reiterating Mayhew’s suspicion of the term ‘peace’, Prime Minister Clement Atlee referred to the BPC in Parliament in November 1950 as the ‘so-called British Peace Committee’.[12] Tony Shaw has argued that Britain’s popular mainstream press followed this concept and was staunchly anti-communist throughout the early 1950s,[13] finding much to criticise the peace movement about.

In 1950, the BPC was involved in two initiatives that saw the mainstream media and politicians from both the Labour Party and the Conservatives claim that the BPC was not working for ‘peace’, but for Soviet-styled communism. Firstly, the BPC campaigned on behalf of the Stockholm Appeal, a call made by the World Peace Council for an end to all nuclear weapons. Launched in March 1950, the BPC was involved in collecting signatures from the British public in support of this appeal. The text of the appeal was brief, yet very broad, but was taken by many anti-communists in Britain as a pledge for support of communism. The conservative historian Max Beloff stated in The Listener:

The Stockholm appeal was not simply an appeal for peace; it was an appeal for peace on the Soviet terms; it was an appeal to accept the Soviet pattern of life for ourselves; because if we resist its imposition, force will be used, as it is being used elsewhere.[14]

Secondly, the WPC announced that it would hold its annual congress in Sheffield, which agitated many anti-communists in Britain. This caused considerable anxiety for the Labour government and sections of the mainstream press. The Atlee government attempted to disrupt the planning of the Sheffield Congress by denying entry into the country of many foreign delegates.[15] Whilst some in the press thought that banning the entry of these foreign delegates was anti-democratic and moved into the realm of authoritarianism, some of the tabloid newspapers, such as Daily Mail, criticised the government for not going far enough. The newspaper continued its long-held narrative that Labour was ‘too soft’ on communism or was a crypto-communist government and that its usual ‘controlling’ nature was reserved in circumstances when dealing with supposed communist fellow travellers. The newspaper rhetorically asked, ‘odd is it not that a government who propose to control the British people hand and foot cannot stop a lot of subversive aliens coming in’.[16] The editorial continued:

No one wants to see our liberties infringed, but it may be necessary to take something from them to preserve them. That happened in the last war – and we are at war again, though they call it a Cold War now.[17]

The criticism of the non-communist peace organisations being naïve and misled by the communists in the BPC/WPC became widespread. The PPU, as the longest established peace group, was particularly concerned about this and was aware that association with the communist-led peace organisations could inflict damage upon their cause. Douglas Hyde, a Catholic journalist who defected from the CPGB, criticised the pacifist movement in the Catholic Herald, stating that the campaign of the BPC, led by the British Communist Party, had ‘puzzled, and in some cases deceived, many genuine peace lovers’, but warned that it was actually ‘timed and designed to aid the USSR, which stands to benefit so much by the disarmament of the West.’[18]

The PPU tried to engage with the mainstream to undo this association with the communist slant of the BPC. In late 1951, Peace News, with the broad support of the PPU’s leadership, launched ‘Operation Ghandi’ and called for direct action against nuclear weapons and Britain’s Civil Defence programme.[19] In January 1952, they organised a sit-in protest at the War Office in Westminster, which resulted in 11 arrests. The leaflet distributed to by the protestors at this demonstration emphasised the non-communist stance of the PPU, stating:

We owe you an explanation. We are not crackpots and we are not communists.

We know we look silly. We are doing it to appeal to your intelligence and your conscience, although it may lead to arrest and imprisonment…

We who give you this leaflet refuse to take part in war or violent struggle for either West or East.[20]

Against a mainstream media and a bipartisan government commitment to anti-communism, the PPU and other non-communist peace campaigners found it difficult to put forward their own narrative of peace and successfully disassociate themselves from the Communists. The result was that a number of non-communists dropped out of the movement in frustration over the communist involvement in the BPC. J.B. Priestley, who later became central to the organisation of CND, declined offers to join the World Peace Council because of its connections with communism.[21] Andrew Bone suggests that Bertrand Russell refused to back disarmament, during the early 1950s, on the grounds that nuclear weapons would still be manufactured during any war (Instead he advocated a world government which maintained a monopoly of weapons).[22] This refusal by many, who eventually were key proponents of disarmament, reveals the fragmentary nature of the peace movement during the early 1950s. The popularity of the movement achieved under the stewardship of well-known figures such as Russell and Priestley suggests that the communist taint was a chief reason why the movement was unable to make much headway in the early 1950s.

———————————————-

[1] See: David Widgery, The Left in Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976) p. 106; Nigel Young, An Infantile Disorder? The Crisis and Decline of the New Left (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) p. 154; Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict, p. 147; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004) p. 30.

[2] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992)  p. 116.

[3] Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley, Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2012) p. 47; p. 56.

[4] Richard Taylor, ‘The Marxist Left and the Peace Movement in Britain since 1945’, in Richard Taylor & Nigel Young (eds), Campaigns for Peace: British Peace Movements in the Twentieth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987) p.163.

[5] See: Malcolm MacEwen, The Greening of a Red (London: Pluto Press, 1991) pp. 133-138.

[6] Bob Darke, The Communist Technique in Britain (London: Penguin Books, 1952) p. 143.

[7] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, World News and Views, 5 Nov., 1959, p. 532.

[8] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, p. 532.

[9] CPGB Central Committee, Report of the Central Committee to the 15th Party Congress, September 16-19, 1938, http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/central_committee/1938/09/report.htm (accessed 23 January, 2014).

[10] Gunter Wernicke, ‘The Communist Led World Peace Council and the Western Peace Movements: The Fetters of Bipolarity and Some Attempts to Break in the Fifties and Early Sixties’ Peace and Change 23, 3 (1998), p. 270.

[11] Cited in Christopher Mayhew, A War of Words: A Cold War Witness (London: I.B. Taurus, 1998), p. 81.

[12] HC Deb. 9 Nov. 1950, vol 480, col. 1099.

[13] Tony Shaw, ‘The Popular Press and The Early Cold War’, History, 83 (1998), pp. 80-85.

[14] Max Beloff, ‘The Soviet Approach to History’, The Listener, 1134, 23 Nov. 1950, p. 580.

[15] Phillip Deery, ‘The Dove Flies East: Whitehall, Warsaw and the 1950 World Peace Congress’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 48/4 (2002)

[16] ‘Comment: The Red Carpet’, Daily Mail, 10 November, 1950, p. 1.

[17] ‘Comment’, p. 1.

[18] Douglas Hyde, ‘“Peace-War” Chiefs Meet In London’, Catholic Herald, 8 June, 1950, p. 8.

[19] Sean Scalmer, Gandhi in the West: The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 135.

[20] Leaflet reproduced in ‘Operation Gandhi: A Call to YOU’, Peace News, 18 Jan 1952, p. 3.

[21] ‘Open Letter to a Russian Colleague’, cited in Wittner One World or None, p. 200.

[22] Andrew G. Bone ‘Russell and the Communist-Aligned Peace Movement in the Mid-1950s’ Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, 21 (2001) pp. 34-6.

The final years of the CPGB and the legacy of Marxism Today

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, many journalists and commentators are looking back to the 1980s and delving into the history of the British left. A lot of this has focused on Militant and the battles between the entrist group and Neil Kinnock, but journalists have also revived interest in the post-IMG entrist group, Socialist Action, which is linked to some of Corbyn’s staff. Corbyn himself was involved in several left-leaning social movements in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Anti-Fascist Action.

However what truly interested me was an article in The Guardian by John Harris on the Communist Party of Great Britain’s journal Marxism Today and how the Party in its final years pointed to new directions for the left, which, Harris argues, are useful for understanding the political situation today. The following is based on an extract from my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of race (Brill/Haymarket) and looks at the final years of the Communist Party, as well as its legacy (and its flagship journal).

Hobsbawm-Tony-Benn-Marxism-Today

Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in May 1979 was a watershed moment, emphatically pronouncing the end of the post-war social democratic consensus of the role of the state that had been in decline since the late 1960s. Thatcher’s victory was a demonstration of the ascendancy of the rightist populism that considered British society on the verge of collapse. The Thatcherite solution was to confront and control the ‘subversive’ elements in society, whether it was trade unionists, Irish republicans, youth or Britain’s black population. Margaret Thatcher combined a social conservatism from the traditional Tory right (previously espoused by Enoch Powell and the Monday Club) with an economic liberalism that preached free markets and privatisation at its core – something that the Conservatives since the 1950s had shifted away from. This was a break with Britain’s post-war social democratic consensus and a realignment of state power upon the framework of a market-led economic base – what is known to many now as ‘neo-liberalism’. The Thatcherite model of neo-liberalism was more than classic laissez-faire liberal economics, but a rearrangement of the relationship between the state and the individual citizen to favour certain forms of economics. As Michel Foucault wrote in 1978, neo-liberalism is not merely Adam Smith or a market society, but assumes:

the overall exercise of political power can be modeled on the principles of a market economy … to discover how far and to what extent the formal principles of a market economy can index a general art of government.[1]

Under neo-liberalism, the governance of the state favours market principles so that democratic concepts, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, are defined by consumer ‘choice’, resulting in citizneship not being defined by an individual’s obligations to and rights within a democratic society, but by their consumer power. Richard Seymour has argued that under Thatcher, while championing the idea of ‘choice’ for rational and infomed consumer citizen, the state pushed individuals towards accepting certain rationalities of the free market in some circumstances and on other occasions, intervened heavily to ensure an outcome preferable to the government.[2] This meant financial incentives for financial capitalist ventures in the City, a divestment in manufacturing, a drive towards privatisation and most importantly in the first half of the decade, the use of state power, through legilsation and police force, to ‘tackle’ the trade union ‘problem’. This desire of Thatcher and other Conservatives to ‘smash’ the trade unions was borne out of the victory of the miners in 1972, where the Heath government was unable to stand up to the tactics taken by the labour movement, and the experience of the Grunwick strike, where the National Association For Freedom campaigned that the presence of a trade union was anathema to the freedom of the individual worker. This desire resulted in early confrontations with the unions, such as the 1980 Steel Strike, but did not really gain momentum until March 1984 when the Miners’ Strike began. Before the confrontations with the trade unions, the first massive confrontation between the represstive appartus of the state and the people was between the police and black and Asian youth in Britain’s inner cities across the country in 1981.

Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques first viewed ‘Thatcherism’ as a defining change in Conservatism in the late 1970s before the Conservatives were elected in May 1979. Hall and Jacques, writing in the theoretical journal Marxism Today, saw that the agenda put forward by Margaret Thatcher was the representation of a shift to the right that had been gathering momentum since the upturn in industrial militancy and cultural radicalism in the late 1960s. This shift to the right was as much an ideological shift as it was a response to the economic crisis conditions of the mid-to-late 1970s. This analysis of Thatcherism and the emphasis upon ideology was part of a larger dynamic shift on the left that encompassed the Communist Party, of whom Jacques was an Executive Committee member and editor of Marxism Today. Jacques was a leading reformer within the CPGB, who was pushing that the Communist Party should have incorporated a wider political approach than focusing on industrial militancy and traditional class based politics. The push to reform the Party’s political strategy was encompassed in the redrafting of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, in 1977.

This redrafting of the Party manifesto came at a time in the late 1970s when the CPGB seemed to be in a severely weakened position. Despite having considerable influence in the trade union movement at the executive level during the previous decade of heightened industrial militancy, this had failed to produce any real political gains or stem its dramatically decreasing membership numbers. This decline in membership was exacerbated by the schisms that had formed within the Party after the introduction of the Social Contract between the Labour Government and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This schism was defined between the reformers, influenced by Gramscism and Eurocommunism, who believed that the Party’s limited industrial approach had alienated potential allies within the new social movements and on the other side, the traditional industrial militants, who viewed the centrality of class politics and the emphasis upon Labour-Communist unity in the trade unions as essential to the creation of a socialist Britain. The 1977 edition of The British Road to Socialism promoted the strategy of the broad democratic alliance, which signified the official, yet highly disputed, idea that the struggle for socialism needed ‘not only… to be an association of class forces,… but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production’.[3] The CPGB, ‘as the organised Marxist political party’, imbued itself as a vital organisation in mediating between the traditional labour movement and the other social forces to establish this alliance.[4]

For many of the reformers within the Party, it seemed as if the strategies put forward by the left (including the Communist Party) were from another era (principally the late 1960s and early 1970s) and this made them seem out of touch, particularly as the Conservative side of politics was mutating into a more confrontational and ideologically driven threat. It seemed evident that the traditional strategies of the left were not going to draw massive support from those who had been involved in the inner-city riots, despite a large disaffection with Thatcherism from both areas of British society. Hall and Jacques, along with others centred around Marxism Today, sought to reinvigorate the left and attempted to appeal to those who were disaffected by Thatcherism, but not part of the traditional left and the labour movement. To understand how the Conservatives were to combated in the 1980s, Hall and Jacques were instrumental in determining what Thatcherism meant and how it differed from previous post-war Conservatism. Particularly, Hall and Jacques (along with others, such as Andrew Gamble, Paul Gilroy and Joe Sim) recognised the ‘strong state’ emphasis by Thatcher and the need to confront the ‘enemies within’, all the while using terms such as ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ to describe the role of the individual in 1980s British society. As Stuart Hall wrote in 1980, ‘Make no mistake about it: under this regime, the market is to be Free; the people are to be Disciplined’.[5]

Renewal or defeat at the end of the decade?

In the final months of 1978, Dave Cook responded to the decline of the CPGB after the 35th National Congress – defeats of union action at British Leyland and Grunwick, the secession of the hardline Stalinists to the New Communist Party, hostile reaction by some traditionalists within the Party to the broad democratic alliance, continuing decline in Party membership – by reaffirming the relevance of the Party’s programme in an article in Marxism Today, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’.[6] Cook argued that the traditional labour movement was ‘far from corresponding with the whole working class’ and that class exploitation was not the sole politicising force for workers.[7] The ‘renewal of Marxism over recent years [had] tended to remain at abstract level’ and it was the purpose of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ to expand ‘collective action’ between the labour movement and the new social movements for a ‘much closer relationship between [the Party’s] theoretical work and practical activities’.[8] There were some in the Party who were sceptical about the changes in The British Road to Socialism and Cook’s article, alongside Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, presented at the 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture, generated furious debate in Marxism Today throughout 1979. In his study of the CPGB’s industrial strategy, John McIlroy asked what these new social forces of action outside the ‘old axis of the unions, Labour Party and CP’ could achieve if the ‘big industrial struggles of the 1970s had failed to qualitatively advance socialist consciousness’.[9]

However it was not the intention of Cook or the other reformists to have the CPGB select either industrial militancy or the broad democratic alliance, but rather attempt to synthesise the two strategies. In Cook’s article, the ANL was used as an example of successful co-operation between the labour movement and the social movements, with a ‘range of cultural sponsorship and involvement’, such as ‘Rock Against Racism, actors, sports, festivals’ to ‘trigger off such a response from predominantly working class youth’.[10] However either strategy put forward by the Party in The British Road to Socialism could not overcome the fact that the Party was in decline. In 1979, the Party had 20,599 members, having lost over 10,000 in ten years and only 126 factory branches, having less than half than it did in the mid-1960s.[11] The Party had had no MPs since Phil Piratin and Willie Gallacher lost their seats in 1950 and only five candidates had been elected in local elections.[12]

Much of the optimism portrayed by the reformers around The British Road to Socialism was quashed by the convincing Conservative victory at the General Election in May 1979. The election of Margaret Thatcher saw the lowest share of the vote for the Labour Party since 1931 and a swing to the right by skilled working class voters, with around a third of trade unionists voting for the Conservatives.[13] Martin Jacques saw this shift to the right as part of the ‘crisis of hegemony’ and while the Party developed the concepts of ‘the broad democratic alliance, the mode of rule and the revolutionary process’ inside The British Road to Socialism as a response to this crisis, Jacques acknowledged in October 1979 that this ‘reorientation is not yet complete’.[14] ‘The biggest single weakness of the Party’s practice’, stated Jacques, was to ‘underestimate the extent of the crisis and the range of issues around which popular support can be mobilised’.[15] After the 1979 election, Eric Hobsbawm, who had criticised the ‘almost entirely economist militancy’ of the traditional labour movement in ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ in late 1978,[16] maintained that this Conservative victory demonstrated that the limits of ‘trade union consciousness’ had not been overcome and that unions ‘by themselves cannot offset, the setbacks of the labour movement in other respects’.[17] Effectively Hobsbawm was arguing that trade union militancy by itself could not automatically create class-consciousness or organise a radical socialist advance. Ideally, this was the responsibility of the Communist Party. However, with membership just over 20,000 in 1979 (further declining to 18,458 in 1981),[18] diminished workplace presence and internal divisions between the traditionalists and the reformists, the CPGB was hardly in a position to, as Jacques hoped, ‘transform the labour movement and popular consciousness’.[19]

The ‘limits’ of trade unionism in the 1980s

Most of those connected to the pushes for reform within the Party and Marxism Today were of the opinion that the traditional reliance of the labour movement on the trade unions had limited success and argued that this had been borne out by the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Eric Hobsbawm had argued in ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ in 1978 that ‘straight-forward economist trade union consciousness may at timesd actually set workers against each other rather than establish wider patterns of solidarity’,[20] and for those who endorsed the CPGB’s ‘broad democratic alliance’, these ‘wider patterns of solidarity’ could not be expended just to maintain the trade unions on side. Despite the debates surrounding Hobsbawm’s thesis and its links to the newly promoted ‘broad democratic alliance’, which filled the pages of Marxism Today between 1978 and 1980, the early 1980s saw an uneasy truce between the two main factions, the ‘Euros’ and the ‘Tankies’ (although two opposition factional journals started to appear that argued that both of these larger factions as ‘anti-party’ – Straight Left and The Leninist).[21]

The ‘match on the blue touch paper’, as Francis Beckett described it,[22] that re-ignited this division and led to irrepairable damage within the Communist Party was an article in Marxism Today in late 1982 by Tony Lane, which criticised the trade union strategy promoted by some inside the CPGB, particularly censuring the trade union bureaucracy for failing to deal with the significant changes to the manufacturing industry in Britain and the decline of large scale urban factories where traditionally the most organised workforces. For Lane, these long term economic shifts had a more profound effect upon the trade union movement than ‘resurgent laissez-faire Toryism’, writing:

Trade union leadership at all levels, from the local to the national, has been so stuinned by the reactionary nature of shopkeeper Toryism that it often seems to take more notice of isdeology than it does of material changes in its environment.[23]

Lane blamed ‘sectional interests’ and ‘a lack of will to fight’ for the trade unions’ ‘crisis of legitimacy’, explaining that this had caused a schism between the trade union leaders (including the shop stewards) and the rank-and-file membership and the feeling that there was little democracy within the movement.[24] Unless there was a clear leadership over how to face the problems facing the unions in the 1980, as well as more interactive democracy at the rank-and-file level, Lane argued, the rank-and-file would face ‘uncertainity as to whether unions are worth fighting for’.[25]

Lane’s was not particularly different from other criticisms made by Hobsbawm and others since the late 1970s and could not be seen as especially controversial – as Andrew Pearmain has written, ‘[i]t was a mildly populist critique of the trade union bureaucracy, which would not have seemed out of place in The Sunday Times or Socialist Worker’.[26] But the CPGB’s Industrial Organiser Mick Costello and editor of the Morning Star Tony Chater used the article as an issue to force the centrist Party leadership under General Secretary Gordon McLennan to take action against the journal and its editor, Martin Jacques, as well as airing critiques of Lane, Jacques and the journal in the pages of the daily paper. Disciplinary action for Jacques and the journal by the Party’s internal bodies was defeated (narrowly according to Pearmain),[27] but the same bodies also severely rebuked Chater, Costello and the paper for, in the words of Willie Thompson, ‘forming a cabal to attack another rparty journal and to use the party’s name without reference to the EC [Executive Committee].’[28] In the ensuing aftermath, Costello resigned from his post as Industrial Organiser and joined Chater at the Morning Star. The newspaper, nominally run independently from the CPGB by the People’s Press Printing Society, was used by Chater as a base for criticising the Party and its leadership, who, it was believed, were unwilling to stand up to the ‘Euros’. On the other hand, Jacques had, according to Francis Beckett, lost faith in reforming the Party[29] and moved towards transforming Marxism Today into a separate entity, although it still relied on funding from the Party. While two of the major Party organs drifted away from any form of oversight by the Party leadership, the Party itself fractured, unclear of its direction and role within the British political landscape. As Geoff Andrews wrote:

From this point on, the party was split in two; the leadership and Gramscian-Eurocommunists were in control of the party and the Costello/Chater group controlled the Morning Star, and, with it, a notable list of trade union leaders, and contact with a declining trade union base. Neither side could decribed as ultimate victors in this battle. The party was deprived of its daily paper and with it, what was left of its trade union base; and the ‘hardliners’ were now detahced from the party, its political machine and its resources.[30]

At the 1983 AGM of the PPPS and Communist Party’s National Congress in the same year, the issue of control of the newspaper became a heated one, leading to the expulsion of several Party members from the Morning Star group. By the time that the Miners’ Strike broke out in March 1984, the industrial strategy of the Communist Party was in total disarray and at the national level, the Party was slow to come up with a programme of action to help the National Union of Mineworkers, leaving it to local activists to take the initiative.

The end of the party

The Thatcherite years also had a dramatic effect upon the Communist Party of Great Britain. As those reformers connected to Marxism Today argued in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Thatcherism was more than a stricter continuation of previous Conservative Governments and represented a widespread ideological shift to the right that embodied strong notions of ‘law and order’, combined with the neo-liberalism of free market economics. The reformers believed that this shift to the right needed to be addressed by more than traditional class based politics and demanded a greater emphasis on the long-term ideological aspects that had allowed this rightwards shift. This emphasis on ideology and the insufficiencies of class based politics by the reformers has been viewed as a central reason for the eventual collapse of the CPGB. By the end of the 1980s, the ‘New Times’ approach, presented by Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall in Marxism Today,[31] was described by critics as a defeatist attitude and a vindication of Thatcherism. A. Sivanandan, who had previously criticised the left for its failure to address other issues outside the class politics of industrial militancy, wrote in Race & Class in 1989:

New Times is a fraud, a counterfeit, a humbug. It palms off Thatcherite values as socialist, shores up the Thatcherite market with the pretended politics of choice, fits out the Thatcherite individual with progressive consumerism, makes consumption itself the stuff of politics. New Times is a mirror image of Thatcherism passing for socialism. New Times is Thatcherism in drag.[32]

With the Communist Party becoming increasingly divided between the reformers and the traditional industrialist wing, polarised through the respective publications of Marxism Today and the Morning Star, the Party also witnessed further defeats on the industrial front, experienced, along with the wider labour movement, during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. For many in the labour movement, the defeat of the strike represented an end to the traditional approach of class politics through industrial actions and trade union militancy and was symptomatic of a wider crisis in the British left. Thatcher’s monetarist policies had hastened the decline of heavy industry throughout Britain and the upheaval in many British towns caused by this decline, demonstrably felt through high levels of unemployment, was difficult for the left to counter. Raphael Samuel wrote that the ‘disarray of the Left in the face of the miners’ strike [was]… part of a large discomfort both about the alternative to Thatcherism, and of the very possibility of a socialism which [was] in any sense representative of popular desire and will’.[33]

The defeat of the strike further demoralised the remaining traditionalists within the CPGB, who were already in open conflict with the reformers in the Party leadership and had suffered from the leading traditionalists being expelled by the Executive Committee. Although the CPGB leadership and Marxism Today supported the strike, the assumptions of the reformers of the limited actions of industrial militancy seemed to be further validated by the strike’s defeat. During the 1980s, the Communist Party’s membership rapidly declined, hastened by the internal Party splits. In 1981, membership had been 18,458 and this had fallen to 12,711 in 1985, which then fell to a mere 7,615 in 1989 at the time of the collapse of the Soviet bloc.[34] Although those remaining in the Party launched a new Party programme in 1989 titled A Manifesto for New Times (expanding on a series of articles published in the October 1988 issue of Marxism Today), there was little enthusiasm for continuing the Party as a political organisation and at the December 1991 National Congress, the membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, after more than seventy years of its existence, voted to dissolve itself.

Thinking intersectionally about Marxism Today and the ‘broad democratic alliance’

Kimberle Crenshaw first used the term ‘intersectional’ in the late 1980s to describe the position of black women in the United States and their struggles with the US criminal justice system[35] and over the last 25 years, the term has become a valuable concept within many academic disciplines. Looking back at some of the struggles of the 1970s in Britain, it can be seen that many of these struggles were intersectional and for those involved, their politics often combined class-based, racial and gendered perspectives. For example at the Grunwick strike, this combined those interested in the strike as a demonstration of class unity and the fight for trade union recognition, those interested in the strike to fight racial discrimination in the workplace and those interested in the strike as chance to highlight the particular difficulties faced by South Asian women in this ‘sweatshop’ environment. Although the concept did not exist at the time, it was widely understood by many, especially those who excited by the rise of the new social movements in the late 1960s and those who pushed for their recognition in the Communist Party, that class was just part of a wider spectrum that informed someone’s political identity.

The 1977 version of The British Road to Socialism started to acknowledge this with the promotion of the broad democratic alliance as recognition that the political struggle was moving beyond ‘an expression of class forces’ and had to recognise the ‘other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production.’[36] In the same year, Barry Hindess at the Communist Party’s annual Communist University of London (CUL) lecture series stated, ‘At any given time,… working-class politics must contain features that are not reducible to class position’[37] and as a leading reformer inside the CPGB, pointed to an article by Sam Aaronovitch from 1973 to demonstrate that this reconsideration of class politics had a longer history inside the Communist Party of Great Britain. It is worth quoting Aaronovitch beyond Hindess’ initial notes here to highlight the connections between the arguments being put forward by some within the Communist Party in the 1970s and the theoretical concept we now know as ‘intersectionality’:

The nature of the issues posed by contemporary capitalism brings into action (or can do so) a series of intersecting forces which comprise: various section of the working class as broadly defined;…

People may be brought into action by the way they are affected in their different roles; workers as tenant or shopper; worker as parent.

They are intersecting forces in the sense that their memberships overlap but they also interact.[38]

The work of Stuart Hall (and others such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe) in Marxism Today in the 1980s further promoted this idea that people were likely to be guided in their actions by notions of class, as they were to be guided by notions of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, or any other form of ‘identity politics’. After their defeat at the 1987 elections, Hall wrote an important piece for the journal on Labour’s shortcomings in the ideological battle against Thatcherism and the shifting support bases for both major parties in the 1980s, which further encapsulated the idea of the intersecting experiences and identities that form an individual’s political outlook. Hall wrote:

Electoral politics – in fact, every kind of politics – depends on political identities and identifications. People make identifications symbolically: through social imagery, in their political imaginations. They ‘see themselves’ as one sort of person or another. They ‘imagine their future’ within this scenario or that. They don’t just think about voting in terms of how much they have, their so-called ‘material interests’. Material interests matter profoundly. But they are always ideologically defined.

Contrary to a certain version of Marxism, which has as strong a hold over the Labour ‘Centre’ as it does on the so-called ‘hard Left’, material interests, on their own, have no necessary class belongingness. They influence us. But they are not escalators which automatically deliver people to their appointed destinations, ‘in place’, within the political-ideological spectrum.

One reason why they don’t is because people have conflicting social interests, sometimes reflecting conflicting identities. As a worker a person might put ‘wages’ first: in a period of high unemployment, ‘job security’ may come higher; a woman might prioritise ‘child-care’. But what does a ‘working woman’ put first? Which of her identities is the one that determines her political choices?[39]

In 1988, Homi Bhabha wrote that the arguments put forward by Stuart Hall in 1987, alongside similar ones made in the pages of Marxism Today by Eric Hobsbawm and Beatrix Campbell represented ‘the “hybrid” moment of political change’.[40] ‘Here the transformational value of change lies in’, Bhabha said discussing the role of women in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, ‘neither the One (unitary working class) nor the Other (the politics of gender) but something else besides which contests the terms and territories of both.’[41] Similar to the concept of intersectionality, Bhabha’s notion of hybridity reflected what Hall described as people’s ‘conflicting social interests’[42] and recognized that the traditional Marxist approach to the question of ‘race’ (or gender or sexuality) was inadequate to assist in their contemporary struggles against inequality. For Bbabha and other postcolonial thinkers, such as Ranajit Guha or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,[43] traditional Marxism could not adequately explain the politics of ‘race’ and ethnicity, or effectively uphold the notion that racism and colonialism were simply parts of the wider phenomenon of capitalist exploitation. But the inadequacies of Marxism were not merely to be replaced by other forms of identity politics, with the ideas of postcolonialism opening up spaces of political and cultural hybridity. At this point, the broad democratic alliance and the counter-hegemony discussed within Marxism Today transformed into what Homi Bhabha called the ‘Third Space’. For Bhabha, Hall’s writing in Marxism Today introduced ‘an exciting, neglected moment… in the “recognition” of the relation of politics to theory’[44] and demonstrates that although the Communist Party of Great Britain itself declined, its impact has continued to resonate in various ways since.

The final Marxism Today in 1991 - will 2013 mark the end of the ISJ?

[1] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p. 131.

[2] Richard Seymour , The Meaning of David Cameron (Winchester: Zero Books, 2010) p. 31.

[3] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London, 1977) 29

[4] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism, 34

[5] Stuart Hall, Drifting into a Law and Order Society (Amersham, Cobden Trust, 1980) p. 5.

[6] Dave Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, Marxism Today, December 1978, pp. 370-379

[7] D. Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, p. 372

[8] D. Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, p. 374

[9] John McIlroy, ‘Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Politics’, p. 224

[10] D. Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, p. 378

[11] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218; J. McIlroy, ‘Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Politics’, John McIlroy, Nina Fishman and Alan Campbell (eds), British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999) p. 222

[12] Richard Cross, ‘The CPGB and the “Collapse of Socialism”, 1977-1991’, unpublished PhD thesis, University Mnchester, 2007, p. 314

[13]Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted? – A Response’, Marxism Today, September 1979, p. 265; Willie Thompson, The Long Death of British Labourism (London: Pluto Press, 1993) p. 112

[14] Martin Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, Marxism Today, October 1979, p. 13

[15] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, p. 13

[16] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today, September 1978, p. 286

[17] E. Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted? – A Response’, p. 266; p. 267; Italics are in the original text

[18] W. Thompson, The Good Old Cause, p. 218

[19] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, p. 13

[20] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today, September 1978, p. 286.

[21] Lawrence Parker, Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1960-1991 (London: November Publicatuons, 2012) p. 104.

[22] Francis Beckett, Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (London: Merlin Press, 1995) p. 194.

[23] Tony Lane, ‘The Unions: Caught on the Ebb Tide’, Marxism Today (September 1982) p. 7.

[24] Lane, ‘The Unions’, p. 13.

[25] Lane, ‘The Unions’, p. 13.

[26] Andrew Pearmain, The Politics of New Labour: A Gramscian Analysis (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2011) p. 129.

[27] Pearmain, The Politics of New Labour, pp. 130-131

[28] Thompson, The Good Old Cause, p. 184.

[29] Beckett, Enemy Within, p. 197.

[30] Andrews, Endgames and New Times, p. 207.

[31] The October 1988 edition of Marxism Today was dedicated to the ‘New Times’. The Manifesto for New Times was the programme adopted by the CPGB at its 1989 National Congress that occurred as the Soviet bloc was collapsing. After the collapse of the CPGB in November 1991, some remnants of the Party formed the Democratic Left, which published the journal, New Times, throughout the 1990s. See: Stuart Hall & Martin Jacques, New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s, Verso, London, 1990

[32] A. Sivanandan, ‘All that Melts Into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times’, Race & Class, 31/3, 1989, p. 1

[33] Raphael Samuel, ‘Preface’, in Raphael Samuel, Barbara Bloomfield & Guy Boanas (eds), The Enemy Within: Pit Villages and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1986, pp. xiv-xv

[34] ‘Communist Party Membership’, CP/CENT/ORG/19/04, LHASC.

[35] See: Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, pp. 139-168; Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43/6, July 1991, pp. 1242-1300.

[36] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism, p. 29

[37] Barry Hindess, ‘The Concept of Class in Marxist Theory and Marxist Politics’, in Jon Bloomfield (ed.) Class, Hegemony and Party (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1977) pp. 100-101.

[38] Sam Aaronovitch, ‘Perspectives for Class Struggles and Alliances’, Marxism Today (March 1973) p. 69. Italics are in the original text.

[39] Stuart Hall, ‘Blue Elections, Election Blues’, Marxism Today, July 1987, p. 33

[40] Homi K. Bhabha, ‘The Commitment to Theory’, New Formations, 5 (Summer 1988) p. 13.

[41] Bhabha, ‘The Commitment to Theory’, p. 13; Italics are in the original text.

[42] S. Hall, ‘Blue Elections, Election Blues’, p. 33; Italics are in the original text.

[43] See: Ranajit Guha & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (eds), Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard University Press, London, 2003.

For a critical overview of the relationship between Marxism and subaltern studies, see: Vinay Lal, ‘Subaltern Studies and Its Critics: Debates over Indian History’, History and Theory, 40/1, February 2001, pp. 135-148.

[44] Bhabha, ‘The Commitment to Theory’, p. 8.

Review: Constructing Post-Imperial Britain by Jodi Burkett

burkett

My review of Constructing Post-Imperial Britain: Britishness, ‘Race’ and the Radical Left in the 1960s by Jodi Burkett (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) has just been published online by Contemporary British History journal. Here is the opening paragraph of my review:

Jodi Burkett’s book, Constructing Post-Imperial Britain: Britishness, ‘Race’ and the Radical Left in the 1960s, is a well-executed examination of the new social movements that arose in Britain in the post-war era, exploring how these movements related to the end of the British Empire and the emergence of a post-imperial Britain. Burkett looks at four different ‘single-issue’ organisations, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and the National Union of Students (NUS), who all acted as the focal point of wider social movements they sprung from—the peace movement, the anti-Apartheid movement, the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and the student movement, respectively. The book examines these four movements through the turbulent decade of the 1960s against a backdrop of great political, social and cultural shifts in British society, with Burkett focusing on one transformation in particular—the break-up of the British Empire and the establishment of a ‘multi-racial’ Commonwealth.

You find the rest of the review here. And you can purchase (or order for your library) the book here.

The CPGB and the CND: A reply from Tom Sibley

I have received a short reply to the posts by myself and Nick Barnett on the relationship between the CPGB and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from Tom Sibley, one of the authors of the biography of Bert Ramelson (see here for a review). While I still don’t agree with some of the assertions made by Sibley and would like to see some references to some of the arguments made (such as Bruce Kent’s quote and the assertion made in point 2), I am posting it in the interest of furthering academic debate. The piece is slightly edited to remove some minor rhetorical flourishes, because y’know, my gaff, my rules, but it is essentially the original piece emailed to me. So below is the piece from Sibley…

 

After Evan’s latest admirable research efforts it is clear that many previous assessments of the CP’s position on nuclear disarmament and the Party’s relationship with CND are badly flawed (on this more later). I think it would be helpful to future academic  research and to those studying these questions if it was made it clear that the notion of a “people’s bomb” is totally alien to the CP’s position and approach during this period or at any time at all.  It is probably based on an anecdote from Jack Straw’s autobiography – a totally unreliable source.  It would also help to explore how the various commentators (as quoted by Evan) got it wrong. For example:

  1. Nigel Young’s statements that “Communists have played little part in sustaining the first anti-nuclear protests “and that the Daily Worker attacked CND are utterly wrong.  As was Willie Thompson when he stated that the CP originally opposed CND.  Similarly Thompson’s assessment that the Party had been “griping” about the CND is wide of the mark.
  2.  John Callaghan is also wrong to say that it was not until 1960 that the Party backed the Aldermaston march.  It was well represented at the very first march in 1958 and on every subsequent demonstration.
  3. Andrews’ history is wide of the mark when suggesting that the CP’s initial opposition to unilateralism was prompted by loyalty to the Soviet Union.  The CP, as did the majority of labour movement activists at the time believed that the only real protection against the Bomb was its total worldwide abolition and that this could only be achieved through international agreement.  There were high hopes that such agreement could be attained in the late 1950s but these were scuppered by the Pentagon in 1960.
  4. As for Widgery it is risible to suggest that the CP, in the late 1950s, controlled the majority of union block votes at the Labour Party Conference.  Remember CP members were not allowed to represent their unions at Labour Party Conferences and that less than a handful of mainly small unions could be said to be communist led in 1957/58.  And Widgery neglects to tell his readers that before 1959 not one union conference supported the unilateralist position.  And it is incorrect to claim that this was a left-right issue – the real division was between those who wanted to keep the bomb as a deterrent  and a symbol of British power (the right wing) and those who wanted to ban it a divided left consisting of both multilateralist and unilateralist.

By 1960 it was clear that international agreement on banning the Bomb was no longer a feasible short term objective and that the best protection for the British people was the development of a mass peace movement campaigning for a wide range of unilateralist and multilateralist initiatives, a position shared by both the CP and CND.  The relationship between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the CPGB had no bearing on this.  Understandably the Soviets wanted Britain to use its influence in support of international agreement to ban the Bomb and felt that unilateralism weakened these prospects.  But the British Party’s first concern was the security of the British people and there is no documented or other reliable evidence to suggest that Moscow attempted to influence CPGB policy.

Nick Barnett rightly points out that several individuals and a few unnamed organisations (they came and went) campaigned on the issue during the 1950s prior to CND’s formation.  Although these efforts were important they do not bear comparison to consistent mass work undertaken by the British Peace Council and the Communist Party.

Bruce Kent, when General Secretary of CND, was very clear about the vital role played by the CP when publicly  thanking the Party for its work in sustaining the broad peace movement over several decades.  It was the CP-led British Peace Council which collected over 1 million signatures to a ‘Ban the Bomb’ petition in 1950 and which campaigned throughout the post war period (from 1945 onwards) for all nuclear weapons to be outlawed.  And it was Communist led unions such as the ETU and the FBU which during this period championed nuclear disarmament at TUC Congresses.

What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism? part one

This is the beginning of a work-in-progress piece I have been devising on The Young Ones and Thatcherism. I thought I would post it as the clip is great and rather topical. If you can think of any particular bits in the series that have historical relevance for understanding Thatcherite Britain, please comment below.

In one of my history topics that I used to team-teach in, I presented a lecture of Thatcherism and Britain in the 1980s. In this lecture, I showed my students a clip from the episode ‘Cash’ from the UK television comedy show The Young Ones. The scene portrays one of the characters pretending to have a baby in a non-furnished house. In the panic of the impending ‘baby’ (the character, Vyvyan, is actually male), another character, Rik (the typical student-lefty stereotype), yells:

We can’t, we haven’t got any money. Vyvyan’s baby will be a pauper. Oliver Twist, Geoffrey Dickens. Back to Victorian values. I hope you’re satisfied, Thatcher![1]

As well as the delightful pun of mixing the author Charles Dickens with the Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens, this exclamation by Rik echoes a theme that emerged around the time of 1983 General Election, when Margaret Thatcher used the phrase ‘Victorian values’ to describe her political outlook:

The other day I appeared on a certain television programme. And I was asked whether I was trying restore ‘Victorian values’. I said straight out, yes I was. And I am… I believe that honesty and thrift and reliability and hard work and a sense of responsibility for your fellow men are not simply Victorian values. They do not get out of date.[2]

Using this clip is not just for entertainment purposes or an excuse to show some audio-visual material to wake up first year students who may have been asleep. I would argue that watching The Young Ones has a definite pedagogical benefit for students. Most of the students in the class would not have seen the television show before and for them, it is history. The Young Ones touches on many of the historical themes that I raised in my lectures on Thatcherism and British society in the 1980s and does so in a very engaging manner.

However this does not mean that The Young Ones is an accurate reflection of the times per se – the show is obviously an over-the-top and surreal portrayal of student life in Thatcherite Britain. We, as historians and students of history, don’t watch The Young Ones to observe an authentic depiction of life under Thatcherism as it actually was, but because we can see certain themes and concepts (important for understanding Thatcherism and 1980s Britain) depicted in the television show. I would argue that a whole history topic or a weighty tome could be dedicated to the historical themes portrayed in The Young Ones. It is a ‘simulacrum’ of Thatcherite Britain, but we watch it in acknowledgement as a simulacrum, rather than as a trustworthy first-hand account of the times. The show works as an excellent demonstration of the zeitgeist of Britain under Margaret Thatcher, but at the same time, it is factually inaccurate and stakes no claim to historical authenticity. In future parts to this work, I hope to uncover some of the key themes of the Thatcherite zeitgeist and highlight how scenes from The Young Ones can reflect on how we understand more traditional historical concepts of Thatcherism and Britain in the 1980s, such as unemployment, the left, police harassment, the threat of nuclear war, racism, women’s rights, apartheid and the ‘generation gap’.

As I mentioned above, any suggestions for key scenes from the show and how they illuminate our historical understanding of Thatcherism would be greatly appreciated. Otherwise, enjoy the clip.

Boomshanka, Evan.

 

 


[1] ‘Cash’, episode 8, The Young Ones, 1984

[2] Margaret Thatcher, Speech to Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, 28 January, 1983, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/105244

Disarming Britain before CND: A Guest Post by Nick Barnett

This post is by Nick Barnett, a PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University, and is a response to my post on the CPGB and the CND. Nick’s thesis looks at reactions in British culture to changes within the Soviet Union during the Cold War, with particular emphasis placed upon the Khrushchev era. This is the first guest post on this blog. I am not opposed to hosting more guest posts in the future, but I think they will need to be linked to previous discussions had on this blog. So here goes…

CPGB CND demo

I was prompted to write this blog entry in response to Evan’s account of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley have suggested that before the establishment of the CND in 1958, British disarmament movements were limited to the Soviet front organisation, the World Peace Council and several Quaker groups. However, nuclear disarmament was a more popular position than Seifert and Sibley allow. Whilst there was no unified protest movement, there were many disparate voices, at numerous levels of society, who wanted either a unilateral disarmament policy or worldwide agreements for the reduction of arms. Early disarmers were generally centre left groups affiliated to the Labour Party, as well as scientists and various intellectuals (many of whom would eventually form the CND).

The CND was post-war Britain’s first truly mass movement and this point should be considered when examining anxieties around the emergence of nuclear arms. The movement was unprecedented. Nevertheless, opposition to nuclear arms and anxieties emerging from coverage of the bomb, were clearly visible in Britain. Adrian Bingham’s recent article on the British Press and Nuclear arms has challenged previous assumptions that newspapers were reliant on official sources and generally supportive of nuclear weapons (Bingham 2012: 609-24). Instead Bingham argues that the press often challenged the perceptions of nuclear weaponry, especially following the mass coverage that America’s Castle Bravo test in March 1954. Presentations of the bomb are vital to this period as mass movements, which in the 21st century can mobilise upwards of 1,000,000 and are readily dismissed by governments, who praise themselves for facilitating protest, had yet to manifest themselves. When the CND mobilised at least 60,000 for the 1960 march, the Daily Mirror described it as the largest mobilisation since V.E. day (19 April 1960: 6).

The CND emerged from a set of historic developments, which cumulatively worried many British people. One of these key events was the mass publication of America’s official photographs of an earlier thermonuclear test in spring 1954. Several newspapers reverted to religious language to describe the bomb. The Daily Mirror’s star columnist, William Connor, adopted an apocalyptic tone in his ‘Cassandra’ column. He wrote:

WELCOME, Dear Bomb. Welcome and bless you.

Bless those who made you. Bless those who set you roaring and flaming and vaporising the face of the earth.

Bless the hellish heat of you. Bless the bursting heart of you (29 March 1954: 7).

Many more British people reverted to a traditional Christian trope of apocalypticism. Several wrote letters which expressed their fear that the world could end. One of these was Pauline Dawson who wrote to the Daily Herald:

I have read in the paper about the horror bomb. I am 12 years old and I have three brothers and two sisters younger than me, and I love the children of the world.

I have seen on the television about the people who are suffering from the bomb.  Please don’t let us have war (13 April 1954:4).

Apocalyptic thinking was exacerbated by the invention of the Hydrogen bomb and became widespread in British society, causing a tragedy, which Jonathan Hogg has recently uncovered. Two parents committed suicide, along with their children, because they feared ‘new wars which will mean the extermination of masses of people.’ (Hogg 2012: 535)

Following increasing apocalyptic unease Coventry City’s Labour Council made an announcement which became a national concern – they refused to fulfil their Civil Defence requirement. The announcement was made on 5 April 1954 and became an international issue. Coventry Council’s leader, Sidney Stringer, received letters from as far away as New Zealand and from an American Congressman. Domestically the council were both supported and derided. Much of the support maintained a patriotic approach and I intend to analyse this aspect of the incident in a future journal article. Stringer received supportive letters from people who declared their patriotism. Much of the ensuing debate, which emerged in the press, focussed on the city’s wartime myth as a blitzed city and supporters suggested that Coventry’s experience of destruction placed it in a key position to take a sensible approach. Moreover, Civil Defence recruiters had often encountered resistance from people, who Matthew Grant identifies, as declaring they ‘had enough in the last war (Grant 2011: 52-78). War precautions and nuclear weapons, therefore, were not entirely popular with the British population during the 1950s.

In a forthcoming article in Media History I have argued that the USSR launch of Sputnik in October 1957 caused some anxiety of nuclear war. The launch and the almost simultaneous fire at the Calder Hall nuclear plant prompted the disarmers, who Jodi Burkett describes as emerging from a radical liberal tradition, to act (Burkett 2010: 184-205). They included several figures who were long-term critics of both nuclear weapons and communism: Bertrand Russell, the Daily Mirror cartoonist Vicky, and a former wartime MP and media commentator, Sir Stephen King-Hall. These three, amongst others, had long records of speaking out about nuclear armaments and also criticised communism, reaching large audiences with their arguments. They helped to inform the anti-nuclear debate long before the CND formed and produced an ideological hegemony that was both non-communist and anti-nuclear.

Aldermaston-Marchers-005

Media coverage of the CND’s early marches is interesting. Whilst no newspapers supported unilateralism, both the Daily Mirror and Daily Herald praised the CND marchers for doing something (Mirror 8 April 1958: 2; Herald 7 April 1958: 2). The Daily Mail described mass mobilisations as ‘un-english’, but they also depicted the first march as a kind of middle England fight-back against fear (7 April 1958: 4). The liberal News Chronicle initially suggested the disarmers were largely Communist. They were forced to backpeddle, however, when they received a barrage of complaints from their readership (7 April 1958: 1, 5, 9 April 1958: 4). Having initially mocked and opposed the marchers, within three years, even the Tory Daily Sketch declared, ‘Though some may scorn the marchers’ methods, few of us in our hearts deny the common sense of their minds’ (19 April 1960: 20). The word ‘peace’ had been seemingly besmirched by the World Peace Council’s Communist dominance. Nevertheless, the press were not universally hostile to the early  CND. Their readerships would not have tolerated absolute opposition to universal disarmament.

Whilst I don’t accept that unilateralism was massively popular, many in Britain feared nuclear weapons and wanted bilateral disarmament. Before the organisation of CND by socialists and radical liberals, organised opposition to nuclear weapons was patchy but it was far from limited to the CPGB, despite many peoples’ tainting of the movement with the communist tag. Disarmament was a popular position within the Labour Party’s rank and file and amongst Britain’s broader ‘apolitical’ society.