Comment

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

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

A CPGB pamphlet from the late 1960s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 9.19.29 pm

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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What was Straight Left? An introduction by Lawrence Parker

Last week it was announced that Guardian journalist Seamus Milne was to become Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s new Director of Communications. A number of media reports remarked that Milne was once attached to the Communist Party factional journal Straight Left. However few, particularly in the mainstream media, know much about the Straight Left faction or its role in the final years of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I asked Lawrence Parker, an expert on the hardline oppositional and anti-revisionist groups that emerged from the CPGB, to write a little introduction to those unfamiliar with the history of the Straight Left faction.

Lenin-Leninist small_art_full

Origins

Straight Left’s origins lie in the left pro-Soviet oppositions that emerged in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1960s. In this period, a definite ‘party within a party’ emerged, with figures such as Sid French, district secretary of Surrey CPGB, becoming key leaders. The general critique that emerged from this faction was a concern over the CPGB leadership distancing itself from the Soviet Union (such as around the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) and other ‘socialist’ countries; a preference for a more ‘workerist’ identity (for example, the faction would have been happy with the CPGB’s paper remaining as the Daily Worker in 1966) and a concentration on workplaces/trade unions; and a sense that the party was squandering its resources in futile election contests and alienating the left of the Labour Party, with whom it was meant to be developing a close relationship on the British road to socialism (BRS), the CPGB programme. However, a significant part of the faction felt that the BRS was ‘reformist’ and ‘revisionist’ in all its guises from 1951, counter-posing a revolutionary path to the parliamentary road to socialism envisaged in the CPGB’s existing programme. This stance was clouded in ambiguity in many sections of the CPGB’s left, with the default position usually being expressed in a preference for the 1951 version of the BRS overseen by Stalin, as opposed to later versions modified by a ‘revisionist’ CPGB leadership.[i] This opposition suffered a major split in the run-up to the CPGB’s 1977 congress, with Sid French taking away 700 or so supporters to form the New Communist Party (after French realised that the CPGB’s leadership was intent on a reorganisation of his Surrey district, which would have deprived him of his organisational bridgehead). The rump left opposition in the CPGB coalesced around Fergus Nicholson (other key figures were John Foster, Brian Filling, Nick Wright, Susan Michie, Pat Turnbull and Andrew Murray) who had been the CPGB’s student organiser until 1974. The Straight Left newspaper was launched in 1979, with a theoretical magazine, Communist, also appearing. Membership figures are impossible to guess. However, judging from the Communist, the faction did have a wide national infrastructure beyond London through the 1980s and was certainly on a par with, if not in some places more deeper rooted than, the other oppositional stream around the Morning Star (see below).

Factions and fictions

The Straight Left group provoked a lot of enmity from its factional rivals in the CPGB. Thus, Mike Hicks, who was involved in the Communist Campaign Group (CCG), set up after the rebellion of Morning Star supporters against the CPGB leadership in the mid-1980s, and later the first general secretary of the 1988 Communist Party of Britain split (both criticised and opposed by the Straight Left faction), said in the late 1990s: “Straight Left was neither straight nor left.”[ii] Similarly, a CCG document complained: “The individuals grouped around Straight Left have their own newspaper, their own organisation, and their own objectives.”[iii] I have been told anecdotally by CPGB activists of the time that Straight Left was thought to have three circles: an inner ‘Leninist’ core; a broader circle of sympathisers in the CPGB; and the ‘softer’ Labourite and trade unionists grouped around the Straight Left newspaper (non-CPGB trade unionists such as Alan Sapper and Labour MPs such as Joan Maynard were on its advisory board). Certainly, the majority of the content of the newspaper was hewn from the same, dry ‘labour movement’ template used by the Morning Star, with little indication that it was the work of communists, apart from its commentary on the Soviet Union and other international matters. (The Communist journal, obviously aimed at CPGB sympathisers, was much more orthodox and harder Marxist-Leninist in tone, with a lot of very interesting commentary on inner-party CPGB matters.) So, Straight Left was a faction and did indulge in political camouflage but in this it was merely of its time. For example, the CCG’s disavowal of Straight Left’s factionalism was merely an attempt to throw people off the scent from the CCG’s own factionalism (the CCG unconvincingly complained it wasn’t a faction at all; just a group that wanted to follow the CPGB’s rules — which fooled nobody). The CPGB was riddled with factions in the 1980s (and throughout the post-war period), not least those grouped around Marxism Today and the party machine. Similarly, on Straight Left’s broad left camouflage in its newspaper and other forums, this was the modus operandi of nearly the whole far left, from the Morning Star to various Trotskyist groups i.e. communists clothing their politics in everything from trade unionism to feminism and concealing their true aims in the pursuit of mass influence. Again, in hindsight, Straight Left doesn’t strike one as very exceptional in this regard. In retrospect, the enmity aimed at it on these counts stands revealed as the product of mere factional rivalry.

However, another area of criticism aimed at Straight Left may have more mileage in terms of a lasting judgement. The group was deemed by its CPGB factional rivals (both in the CCG and the small group around The Leninist) to have a ‘heads down’ approach to CPGB work. In the words of the CCG such an approach “counsels caution and compliance with the authority of the [CPGB’s] Executive Committee. It says that if there is disagreement and dissatisfaction with the Eurocommunists [the faction then dominating the party’s leadership], then opposition must be expressed and conducted via the normal party channels. That is to say, we must try at successive congresses to defeat and remove the Eurocommunists.”[iv] This led to notorious moves such as Straight Leftists walking out with the CPGB leader Gordon McLennan when he closed down a London District Congress in November 1984 that threatened to become a point of opposition to the party leadership. Mike Hicks, in the chair of this meeting, later contemptuously observed that Straight Left “ended up selling Marxism Today [CPGB theoretical journal much despised by the party’s left in the 1980s for its Eurocommunist proclivities] instead of the Morning Star because the executive told them to”.[v] However, what this Straight Left strategy of avoiding open conflict eventually led to, in the context of a CPGB that was being set on a liquidationist course, was it being left somewhat high and dry. Straight Left had built a considerable base in London by the end of the 1980s “by showing a willingness to take on responsibilities at a time when few candidates were to be found”.[vi] This was to be a very hollow victory indeed given that the CPGB was soon to pass into oblivion and the succession of congresses to win was coming to an end.

Labour pains

In terms of the Labour Party, Straight Left took the BRS injunction of developing an alliance with Labour to effect radical changes to its logical conclusion by arguing that the CPGB should affiliate to the Labour Party and, more controversially for both the left and right of the CPGB, that the party should end its independent electoral work. Thus a typical article in Communist argued: “… it is difficult to see there being much movement against the exclusion of communist trades unionists from the Labour Party until our electoral strategy is based on non-sectarian principles and imbued with a thoroughly consistent and positive attitude to the Labour Party.”[vii] Thus Straight Left picked up clearly on the attitude of the pro-Soviet CPGB opposition of the 1960s, which consistently drew attention to the political impact of declining electoral votes on the avowed Labour-Communist strategy of the party. However, this opened up Straight Left to jibes of ‘liquidationism’ from both left and right in the CPGB[viii] and, in retrospect, isolated the group further.

Men of steel
The Straight Left group, again showing its origins in the CPGB’s pro-Soviet left of the 1960s, took an extremely uncritical view of the Soviet Union and other ‘socialist’ nations, and viewed the actions of the CPGB as a ‘national’ sin against the ‘internationalist’ probity of the Soviet Union’s camp. Straight Left publications were filled with reprints from Soviet agencies such as Novosti and other press agencies from the Eastern Bloc. Thus, an article in Communist argued:

Democracy for the working class has at all times been infinitely greater in the Soviet Union than in Britain. Political power in the Soviet Union is exercised for the working class and not against it. Concretely the Soviet citizen has human rights we are denied. He works for himself, collectively; and he is not unemployed.

Neither did this stance seemingly allow criticism of even the most crisis-stricken and sickly military dictatorships of countries such as Poland in the early 1980s. Straight Leftist Charlie Woods, complaining bitterly of CPGB criticisms of the Polish regime in 1983, said: “After all, how would our [CPGB] leadership take it if the over two-million-strong Polish United Workers Party took time off from trying to solve the problems of socialism to remonstrate with our 16,000-member party’s failure to achieve it at all.”[ix] The implication of this little homily being, of course, that those British communists really shouldn’t venture to criticise their Polish brethren at all. Fergus Nicholson used the pseudonym ‘Harry Steel’ when writing in Straight Left (Harry after Harry Pollitt, the CPGB’s most-revered general secretary; and Steel after Joseph Stalin the so-called ‘man of steel’). The attitude that the faction took to the Soviet Union shows that this was no idle affectation.

The Straight Left journal existed until the early 1990s, but many of its followers ended up joining the Communist Party of Britain, which was set up from the CCG in 1988. Unlike The Leninist faction, which became the new CPGB in the late 1990s, the Straight Left faction faded into obscurity after the breakup of the original Communist Party of Great Britain.

Lawrence Parker is the author of the book, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991. He has also contributed a chapter on anti-revisionism inside the CPGB in the 1950s and 1960s for our edited collection, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956.

———————————————————–

[i] It was difficult for a generally Stalin-supporting left in the CPGB to discard the legacy of the 1951 version of the BRS, particularly after John Gollan had helpfully pointed out that Stalin oversaw its incarnation. See John Gollan ‘Which road?’ Marxism Today July 1964. For a clear example of this ambiguity being shown to the BRS, see the contribution of Fergus Nicholson to the CPGB’s 1977 pre-congress debate in Comment 1 October 1977.

[ii] Francis Beckett Enemy within: the rise and fall of the British Communist Party London, 1998 p234. The accession of a group of ex-Straight Leftists (including Andrew Murray and Nick Wright, who had split from Straight Left to form Communist Liaison in the early 1990s) into the ranks of the Communist Party of Britain, contributed to a bitter faction fight in the organisation, in which Hicks was eventually deposed as general secretary and a strike by Morning Star staff.

[iii] Communist Campaign Group The crisis in the Communist Party and the way forward (no date but circa 1985)

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Beckett op cit

[vi] Willie Thompson The good old cause: British communism 1920-1991 London, 1992 p205

[vii] ‘40th congress of the Communist Party’ Communist September 1987

[viii] For the right wing of the CPGB, see Dave Cook in the pre-congress discussion of 1981; and for the left, Alan Stevens in the same context. Both in Comment 17 October 1981.

[ix] Charlie Woods The crisis in our Communist Party: cause, effect and cure 1983. Woods was a miner and party veteran from County Durham who was expelled for writing this pamphlet although he was very much viewed as a ‘fall guy’, with Fergus Nicholson or Brian Topping thought of as the more likely authors.

The Last Stubborn Outpost of a Past Epoch: The British Communist Party and National Liberation in Zimbabwe, pt. 3

This is the third (and final) post in a series looking at how the Communist Party of Great Britain viewed and interacted with the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. The other instalments can be found here and here.

IMG_0579

Throughout the 1970s, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was seen as a weak link in the imperialist rule that spanned Southern Africa at the time. From 1972 (when the Pearce Commission was held) until the withdrawal of Portugal from Mozambique and Angola in 1975, Rhodesia was the primary battleground between the national liberation movements, the Soviet-backed ZAPU and the pro-Chinese ZANU, and the Rhodesian Army, supported by the South African regime (and by proxy the USA and the UK). After Mozambique and Angola became independent in 1975, the racist states of South Africa, Namibia and Rhodesia were further isolated. On the global stage, the US and the UK were now wavering in their (outright) support for these white-ruled countries and pressure, particularly from the US, was put upon Rhodesian leader Ian Smith to accept majority rule. The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain, especially the Communist Party of Great Britain, were galvanised by these developments. In a 1976 pamphlet, the head of the CPGB’s International Department, Jack Woddis, wrote:

Southern Africa clings on, a last stubborn outpost of a past epoch. White rule in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia is an anachronism. History has passed its verdict. Apartheid and all its works must go.

After the Pearce Commission in 1972, the Communist Party suggested that any ‘settlement’ in Zimbabwe would have to take in the wishes of the Zimbabwean people and it had realistically put the end to any secret deal between the British Conservative government and the Smith regime. Writing in CPGB fortnightly journal Comment (August 11, 1973) Martin Gostwick stated that ‘a “settlement” now which does not enable the people to take the power and win independence will have to be made over heads’ and despite the ‘conniving’ of the British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home and Ian Smith, it was unlikely that the Zimbabwean people would allow this to happen. The British, Gostwick argued, still had a role to play in ending white rule in Zimbabwe and urged ‘progressive forces’ in Britain to ‘aid the struggle in the ways which the peoples think will help’. However ultimately reminded readers that ‘Prime responsibility in the struggle for self-determination rests with the people of Zimbabwe’.

The granting of independence to Mozambique and Angola in 1975 changed the dynamic in southern Africa, with Mozambique (which shared a border with Zimbabwe) heavily assisting the ZANU and its armed section ZANLA and the civil war in Angola drawing in the South African military in a proxy war with the Soviet Union and Cuba. Rhodesia was becoming increasingly isolated and although the apartheid regime in South Africa still largely supported the Smith regime, South Africa was being pushed to the limits militarily and economically. As Mike Terry wrote in Comment in April 1975:

With the overthrow of the fascist and colonial Caetano regime in Portugal and with Mozambique and Angola on the road to independence, a key factor in how the struggle in southern Africa develops as a whole is the situation in Zimbabwe…

Apart from the external factors, the mid-1970s were also a turning point in the Zimbabwean struggle as it brought together the two largest national liberation forces into a formal alliance. Since the Pearce Commission broke down in 1972, there had been agreement between ZAPU, ZANU and the various African groups within Zimbabwe that the African National Council (ANC) would be an umbrella organisation for the different strains involved in the struggle. As the CPGB resolution on Southern Africa at the Party’s 1975 National Congress (republished in Comment in November 1975) stated:

In Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), the ANC… co-ordinates the various forms of struggle which have led to the increasing insecurity of the settler regime, and leads the fight against the growing repression, and to win full liberation, based on democratic majority rule.

As talks were to begin in Geneva in late 1976, the leading figures of ZAPU (Joshua Nkomo) and ZANU (Robert Mugabe) met in Lusaka to discuss a military and political alliance. The result of these negotiations was the establishment of the Patriotic Front, which was a formal alliance between the two groups, and the PF represented the national liberation movement in Zimbabwe at Geneva in December 1976, facing off against representatives from the Smith regime, as well as the Americans and the British. Combat intensified in Zimbabwe as the Geneva talks broke down, as Smith demanded a long ‘transition’ to majority rule under white supervision, which was rejected by the PF.

Despite being traditionally pro-ZAPU and highly critical of Mugabe’s ZANU, the CPGB welcomed the formation of the PF, with John Sprack calling the PF an attempt to ‘eliminate the chances of a civil war’ (Comment March 5, 1977). In May of the same year, Denis Shaw further outlined in Comment the Communist Party’s position, conceding that while ZANU had ‘many of the features of the right wing breakaway of the Pan Africanist Congress [in South Africa]’, it had ‘increasingly adopted a more progressive character’ and had ‘borne the brunt of the military operations of the liberation movement’ since 1972. For the CPGB, they argued that ‘coordination at a political was necessary if [unity] was to be maintained militarily’ and saw the PF as ‘the expression of this political cooperation’. By the time of the CPGB’s National Congress in November 1977, it seemed, on paper at least, that any apprehensions towards the role that ZANU were playing in the PF had disappeared. The resolution on Southern Africa boldly asserted:

We salute the heroic people of Zimbabwe who, in the face of Smith’s terror regime, are strengthening their unity under the leadership of the Patriotic Front in the fight to end white minority rule, win national liberation, and introduce a regime of democracy and equal rights, which will enable the people to complete their economic and social emancipation.

Between September 1977 and December 1980, a series of talks were held by the British and the Americans in an attempt to broker a deal between the Patriotic Front, the internal African groups and the Smith regime. Starting with the White Paper Rhodesia: Proposals for a Settlement (published in Sep 1977), the British proposed a staged transition to majority rule and an agreed ceasefire. Writing for Comment in December 1977, AAM activist Margaret Ling wrote that these proposals ‘were quite incapable of bringing about the kind of Zimbabwe for which the Patriotic Front are striving’ and condemned the British for putting forward this proposal. Ling wrote:

More than twelve years after UDI, Britain is still operating on the assumption that Rhodesia’s white minority can somehow be persuaded to voluntarily relinquish their powers and privileges, and can offer no guarantee whatsoever that by the time the proposed independence date arrives, the racialist regime would actually have been physically removed.

In March 1978, the Smith regime convinced the African groups inside the country to a new round of parliamentary elections where a number of seats were allocated to African voters. The Salisbury Agreement, or the Internal Settlement as it was more widely known, was boycotted by the Patriotic Front as it left the Smith government in power and the structures of the racist state still in tact. As Brian Bunting (from the South African Communist Party and CPGB/AAM member Christabel Gurney wrote in March 1978:

In Zimbabwe and Namibia…, the West recognises that the days of the white minority regime are numbered and that if no other ‘solution’ is found, the regimes face inevitable defeat by the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe and by SWAPO in Namibia.

So they have intervened – not to ensure genuine majority rule in these countries, but to frustrate it by attempting to tie the hands of the only movements which can lead their peoples to genuine freedom.

The internal settlement saw the installation of Bishop Muzorewa, who had been a leading opposition figure at the time of Pearce Commission, as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, with his United African National Council the only legal African party. In Comment (Nov 1978) the Muzorewa regime was accused of only surviving via South African support, with Jill Sheppard writing, ‘its war against the Zimbabwean people and neighbouring states is massively subsidised by South Africa.

The internal settlement was also criticised in the pages of Marxism Today by John Ngara, ZANU’s representative in London. Ngara described the purpose of the newly installed Muzorewa government was ‘to perpetuate the repressive regime through the cosmetic involvement of some Africans in a government in which the Rhodesian Front [Ian Smith’s party] wielded all power’. The publication of a piece by a ZANU representative in a CPGB journal might have been a demonstration of how seriously the Communist Party in Britain, and the wider Anti-Apartheid Movement, took the Patriotic Front alliance. Even the SACP’s African Communist ran a similar version of Ngara’s article, although the ANC (the close ally of the SACP) was, at the time, sceptical about ZANU’s overtures towards closer ties.

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During 1979, talks increased between the Smith regime and the PF, with Britain and Australia joining the negotiations at Lancaster House. A ceasefire and an agreement was finally signed by the Patriotic Front in December 1979 and elections were held in February 1980. While nominally the Patriotic Front still existed, both ZAPU and ZANU campaigned separately and both featured on the ballot. When the results were announced on March 4, 1980, it emerged that out of a total of 80 seats, ZANU had won 57 seats, ZAPU had won 20 and the UANC won 3. Christabel Gurney wrote in Comment that month that these results were ‘a great triumph for the Zimbabwean people’s liberation struggle’ and now ‘represent[ed] the interests and aspirations of the majority of its people’.

However the electoral result suggested Mugabe’s ZANU was looking to abandon the Patriotic Front and started openly criticising Nkomo’s ZAPU. The CPGB published a subsequent article by Ngara in Marxism Today (May 1980) which now attacked ZAPU and pronounced Mugabe’s government as the way forward for Zimbabwe. Ngara alleged that:

ZANU’s dependence upon Zambia, a country heavily dependent on Rhodesia and South Africa for its economy, tended to circumscribe ZAPU’s operations against the Smith regime.

This was compared with ZANU’s reliance upon Mozambique, which ‘tended to make the party more ideological’ and ‘led to its adoption of Marxism-Leninism as its guiding philosophy’. Ngara announced that Mugabe was committed to building socialism in Zimbabwe, but this would be implemented in a cautious and pragmatic fashion.

Vladimir Shubin, the Soviet Union’s liaison with the national liberation movements in South Africa, admitted that the Soviets were unhappy with ZANU gaining power and that Mugabe’s regime had developed links with China and North Korea. The Communist Party in Britain didn’t, in public at least, seem to share these same concerns, and pronounced that the victory of the PF in Zimbabwe gave great hope for SWAPO in Namibia and the ANC/SACP in South Africa. Gurney reminded readers that:

We must recognise that neither Zimbabwe not any other country in Southern Africa can develop in peace and security while apartheid South Africa remains.

There was considerable debate over whether the events that led to the liberation of Zimbabwe, particularly the long military campaign, would serve as a framework for the eventual destruction of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. However, when interviewed in Marxism Today in 1984, SACP/ANC figure Joe Slovo distanced the approach that the SACP/ANC were taking to what had occurred in Zimbabwe:

We are going to have our own model. In a sense, I don’t believe in simply following models.

The Communist Party, through the pages of Marxism Today, were also distancing themselves from the two parties of the former Patriotic Front. In a May 1983 article, David Jones claimed that ‘ZAPU was no left wing party’ and described both ZAPU and ZANU as no more than national liberation movements with ‘a bundle of interests united against the overriding oppression of Ian Smith and his settler government’. Costa Gazidis, a member of the Pan Africanist Congress, wrote into the journal and criticised Jones’ claims:

For many years during the war of national liberation, the left in Britain gave exclusive support to ZAPU because it was regarded as the only ‘authentic’ and ‘socialist movement, while ZANU was all but ignored. The unexpected success of ZANU threw ZAPU supporters in Britain into disarray. The eclipse of ZAPU deeply saddened the Anti-Apartheid movement, and their support group ZECC (Zimbabwe Emergency Co-ordinating Committee) was quickly disbanded.

While Gazidis described the Mugabe government as a ‘revolutionary government’ and declared that the ‘national bourgeoisie in Zimbabwe are a progressive and patriotic force’, the CPGB was cooling any support it had for Mugabe, but still believed that victory in Zimbabwe was an important step for the forthcoming dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa.

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As I have argued over these three blog posts, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was seen as a vital battleground in the fight against racism, imperialism and apartheid in Southern Africa and for most of the 1970s, the Communist Party of Great Britain, as well as many others on the British left, viewed Rhodesia/Zimbabwe as the weakest link in the imperialist chain (to paraphrase Lenin). Roger Fieldhouse, quoting Abdul Minty (Honorary Secretary of the AAM in Britain), suggests that the struggle in Zimbabwe sometimes overshadowed the fight against apartheid in South Africa. However, as Fieldhouse acknowledges, others disagree and see the collapse of the Smith regime in Rhodesia as an important step for the national liberation of the whole of Southern Africa.

This is the line that the Communist Party took, expressing solidarity with national liberation movements across the developing world – while defeating apartheid in South Africa was important, it was only one arena in a larger struggle against imperialism and racism worldwide. At the same time, while the CPGB was heavily invested in the victory of the PF (and before that, ZAPU) in Zimbabwe, it became clear soon after Mugabe’s victory that things were developing differently to how it was predicted by the international communist movement.

Before Podemos and Syriza was Eurocommunism: The last time the British left looked to Europe

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In the wake of a disastrous general election for the British left, people have been looking to Europe for inspiration, primarily Spain and Greece, and there has been great talk of how to transfer the ‘success’ of Podemos or Syriza to the UK. Projects such as Left Unity and writers such as Owen Jones have been at the forefront of these kinds of discussions that pre-date the 2015 election, but have certainly increased in the last two weeks.

However this is not the first time that the British left has looked to Europe for a different form of politics and hope to incorporate it into the British political landscape. In the 1970s, a number of socialists in Britain, particularly those in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), looked to the examples of the Communist Parties in Italy, France and Spain and embraced the idea of ‘Eurocommunism’. The Communist Parties in these Western European countries chose to distance themselves from the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and promoted the idea of working within the framework of Western liberal democracy, contesting elections and co-operating with the institutions of the capitalist state. These parties argued that the Soviet model of armed insurrection was no longer an option for Western Communist Parties and that each Communist Party needed to follow its own ‘national’ path. Santiago Carillo, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), stated in his 1977 book that Eurommunists essentially agreed:

on the need to advance to socialism with democracy, a multi-party system, parliaments and representative institutions… and the development of the broadest forms of popular participation at all levels and in all branches of social activity. (Carillo 1977, p. 110)

With its post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism, the CPGB had essentially agreed to this platform since the 1950s, seeking to enter into a Labour-Communist electoral coalition, forged through the trade union movement, and a ‘broad popular alliance’ against monopoly capitalism. However Eurocommunism was twinned in Britain with a rediscovery of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and for many inside (and outside) the CPGB, opened up a stream of socialist politics that moved beyond the industrial militant strategy favoured by the Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As I have argued elsewhere, the CPGB had invested heavily in working in a broad left alliance with the trade unions and Labour left in the period between 1966 and 1974, when the miners’ strike brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government. Despite this, a number of CPGB members saw the ‘Social Contract’ entered into between the TUC and the newly formed Labour government as evidence that this strategy had not produced the desired results and called for alternative strategies to put forward. Party intellectuals and activists, such as Martin Jacques (future editor of Marxism Today), Mike Prior, David Purdy, Dave Cook, Sarah Benton, Willie Thompson and Jon Bloomfield (amongst numerous others), used the ideas of Gramsci and Eurocommunism to challenge the perceived wisdom of the CPGB leadership and ignite a debate about the future of the CPGB.

In this debate, the term ‘Eurocommunism’ was used to illustrate the strategy based on the ‘extension of democracy’ through a ‘dense network of social, cultural and political groupings based on a voluntary commitment’, accepting that the Soviet model of the October Revolution was ‘inappropriate… for advanced capitalist societies’ (Aaronovitch 1978 p. 222). This idea of the ‘extension of democracy’ was used to explain that the acceptance of socialism through parliamentary democracy had been established with The British Road to Socialism since 1951 and now simply widened the scope of the Party’s allies against monopoly capitalism.

The result of this debate was that in 1977, the Party drafted a new edition of The British Road to Socialism, which reflected the influence of the Gramscian/Eurocommunist ideals upon those in the Party who pushed for internal reform. Some of these reformers had been able to acquire positions within the Party leadership, such Martin Jacques as editor of Marxism Today, Sarah Benton as editor of the fortnightly journal Comment and Dave Cook as the Party’s National Organiser. Unveiled at the Party’s 35th National Congress in late 1977, the importance of the new edition was the official, yet highly disputed, acceptance that the struggle for socialism needed ‘not only an expression of class forces, but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression’. The programme proposed that the CPGB needed to be at the centre of a ‘broad democratic alliance’ between the traditional labour movement and other social forces, with the Communist Party, ‘as the organised Marxist political party’, acting as a pivotal organisation with the ‘special role… in developing broad left unity’. (CPGB 1978, p. 29; p. 34)

The acceptance of the new Party programme at the 1977 Congress led to the defection of a group of hardline pro-Soviet members who formed the New Communist Party, and built a pool of discontent amongst many others, which eventually led to the split between the CPGB and its paper, the Morning Star in 1983. Although the promotion of Eurocommunism and the notion of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ seemed of great importance at the time, Willie Thompson (1992: p. 171) has argued that the anxiety caused by the change from ‘broad popular alliance’ (included in the 1968 edition) to the ‘broad democratic alliance’ was ‘more of style and terminology than of real substance’. The 1968 edition had already proposed the ‘broad popular alliance’ consisting of ‘trade unions, co-operatives, the left in the Labour Party and the Communist Party’ in alliance against monopoly capitalism, although it did acknowledge that this alliance could also include ‘workers in factories, offices, professions, working farmers, producers and consumers, owner-occupiers and tenants, housewives, young people and students, pensioners, workers in the peace movement’ among others. (CPGB 1968, p. 22; p. 28) In his 1992 (p. 171) history of the CPGB, Thompson states that the ‘broad democratic alliance’ did not fundamentally challenge this concept, but was more aimed at ending the ‘oppression… rooted in anti-democratic structures at every level and in every sphere of society’, and ‘at most represented a modification of outlook rather than a fundamental alteration’.

However the enthusiasm for Eurocommunism was short-lived within the CPGB. By the early 1980s, the Communist Parties in France and Italy had suffered setbacks from their parliamentary alliances and this had been recognised in Britain amongst its supporters. The CPGB itself was still experiencing a declining membership and had been shaken by the electoral victory of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. Inspired by Gramsci, the journal Marxism Today became a safehouse for those on the left who viewed Thatcherism as a new form of political threat, dramatically different from how the Conservatives had been under Edward Heath in the early 1970s. But this only represented one faction within the CPGB in the 1980s. Many others in the Party looked back to the early 1970s (before Eurocommunism) to a time when the CPGB seemed to exude a strong influence within the British labour movement and sought to replicate the strategies that had brought down Heath in an attempt to bring down Thatcher. Ultimately unsuccessful, the CPGB turned on itself during the 1980s and amidst dwindling membership, tore itself apart through a series of defections, resignations and expellments.

By the mid-1980s, Eurocommunism had been marginalised as a political strategy on the continent and in many of the contemporary articles written during the final years of the CPGB, the term ‘Eurocommunist’ was used to describe the wing of the Party that had gained control of the Party leadership and associated with the theoretical journal, Marxism Today, mostly contrasted with the traditional industrial militants associated with the daily paper, Morning Star, of which the Party lost control in 1984-85. In 1985, John Callaghan (p. 171)  wrote that the ‘Eurocommunist’ wing could be ‘more accurately described as pragmatists or “machine-minders” who have been persuaded more by the circulation success of Marxism Today than by the ideas of Antonio Gramsci’. In the same year, Ian Birchall (1985: p. 67), writing for the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialism journal, proposed that since the ‘Eurocommunists’ had taken charge of the Party leadership in 1977, the ‘issue at stake is not reform versus revolution’, but a choice of either ‘Stalinism or social democracy’.

The collapse of the Communist Party of Great Britain in December 1991 was seen as a vindication of those who eschewed the ideas of Eurocommunism and argued that the Marxism Today version of Gramsci was a misinterpretation. On the British left, it was Blairism and New Labour on one side that was victorious (with some, such as this, partially blaming Eurocommunism and Marxism Today for this abomination) and the various Trotskyist groups on the other, primarily the SWP and Militant (now the Socialist Party of England and Wales). There have been a few attempts to re-assess the Eurocommunist influence upon the CPGB and the impact that Marxism Today had upon British politics (most prominently here and here), but many on the left use it as a cautionary tale. Perhaps those arguing for the left to look to the current movements in Spain and Greece should take heed of this.

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References:

Aaronovitch, S (1978) ‘Eurocommunism: A Discussion of Carrillo’s Eurocommunism and the State’, Marxism Today (July) pp. 222-227

Birchall, I (1985) ‘Left Alive or Left for Dead? The Terminal Crisis of the British Communist Party’, International Socialism, 2/30 (Spring) pp. 67-89

Callaghan, J (1985) ‘The Long Drift of the Communist Party of Great Britain’, Journal of Communist Studies, 1/3 (Sept) pp. 171-174

Carillo, S (1977) ‘Eurocommunism’ and the State (London: Lawrence & Wishart)

CPGB (1968) The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet)

CPGB (1977) The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet)

Thompson, W (1992) The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press)

The Communist Party and the debate over gay rights

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One of the areas of the history of the British left that is under-explored is the relationship between the left and gay liberation/rights. Lucy Robinson’s 2007 book is a pioneering work in the field and Graham Willett (who has written extensively about the Australia left and gay rights) has recently contributed a chapter in this collection on the topic. Both Robinson and Willett provide overviews of how a range of left-wing parties engaged with the question of gay rights from the 1960s to the 1990s, including the Communist Party of Great Britain. Both authors describe how the Communist Party first supported in the pages of the Morning Star a National Union of Students motion supporting gay rights and then after pressure from several local branches at the Party’s 1975 National Congress, the CPGB’s Executive Committee finally issued a statement in September 1976.

This intersects with work done on the CPGB and the shifts in the Party during the 1960s and 1970s that led to the rise of Eurocommunism, Gramscism and the 1977 version of The British Road to Socialism (and to some, the inevitable decline of the Party). The support for gay rights as part of this shift in the outlook of the Party is mentioned in the work by Mike Waite, Geoff Andrews and Richard Cross, for example.

Both Robinson and Willett mention an interview in the journal Gay Left from 1977 with CPGB members Beatrix Campbell and Sarah Benton (editor of the fortnightly Party journal Comment). In this interview (pages 9-13), Campbell and Benton mentioned that this statement supporting gay rights created enormous debate within the Party. Looking through issues of Comment, one can see the differing reaction by different Party members who wrote to the journal after the EC statement was published in September 1976. Although just one resource to look at a major policy debate within the Party (there is probably much more available in the Party archives in Manchester), the articles and letters in this journal provide a different perspective on the Party’s changing attitude towards gay liberation.

Prior to the EC statement, Comment (3 April, 1976, p. 108) featured in its regular ‘Viewpoint’ column a piece by John Gowling, a leading member of the Young Communist League, on the Party’s attitude towards gay rights. Gowling started the piece with:

I think many Communist Party members are unsure as to whether we have a policy on gay civil rights or homosexual equality/law reform…I find it very difficult to discover what the attitude of Communist Party members in this country is towards homosexuality. I have yet to come across a discussion of gay civil rights in our press;…

Gowling’s piece described the difficulties faced by gay people in the 1970s and stated:

The fact is we do exist, therefore we have a right to exist and enjoy equal civil liberties… Homosexuality is a fact of every society, whether repressed or accepted.

And he concluded the piece with:

I do not think that they gay struggle should be shelved by Communists because it is embarrassing. There are many civil rights to be won. These can only be won when we all turn around and face them.

In October 1976, the Executive Committee’s statement was published in Comment (16 Oct, p. 328). It began by stating that the CPGB ‘opposes discrimination and victimisation against homosexuals’ and supported several changes in the law, in particular:

The criminal law should not distinguish homosexual activities from heterosexual activities

Just as there has been legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sex or race, so legislation should be passed to outlaw discrimination in the grounds of sexual orientation…

The Party also stressed that ‘much more than legal reforms is necessary to achieve homosexual liberation’ and called for several actions, including an end to the regarding of homosexuality as a mental illness, the end to exclusion of gat parents from having custody of their children, sex education to include discussion of homosexuality, an end to police harassment. The Party announced in the statement:

A fundamental change in attitude will require political struggle and work to change the general climate of opinion which is hostile to, or derisive of, homosexuals…

We must help to combat sexist and anti-gay attitudes wherever they are found, including among the left, in the labour movement and in our own party.

The Communist Party supports the right of people to be actively and openly gay, and gives support and encouragement to gay comrades to work in the gay movement.

In order to assist these changes in law and attitude, the Communist Party will establish a committee to promote discussion and analysis on gay rights, and assist the party in activity on these questions.

Alongside the publication of the Party’s official position on the issue of gay rights, Comment also published the text of a speech to the EC by the Party’s National Organiser, Dave Cook (16 Oct, 1976, pp. 327-328). Cook claimed that ‘hostile attitudes to homosexuals are essentially sexist’ and reinforced that the Party’s 1975 resolution on women ‘committed the party to fight sexist attitudes wherever they appear’. Cook’s speech reflected the Gramscian/Eurocommunist attitudes within the CPGB in the mid-1970s and was similar in phrasing to the 1977 draft of The British Road to Socialism. He stated:

We as Marxists are concerned with all aspects of oppression… [The Party’s] objectives will themselves be divided and held back if the oppression for example of women, of racial minorities and all other oppressed minorities, homosexuals included, is not actively opposed by the working class.

Cook urged that the CPGB ‘declare itself totally opposed to discrimination and oppression against homosexuals’ and with that, they needed ‘to recognise that this means we must help to oppose sexist and anti-gay attitudes wherever they occur, including in our own party’. This was not just to be a top-down decision by the EC and Cook advised that several committees (at national and district level) be established ‘to promote discussion and analysis’.

Staring with this issue, Comment’s letters section featured several letters from Party members debating the EC statement and the issue of gay liberation, with both pro- and anti-gay positions reflected. Several of the letter writers identified as gay and wrote to the journal to welcome the EC’s statement. Bill Thornycroft, a veteran of the Party since the 1940s, wrote:

I welcome the EC statement on homosexual oppression, gay civil rights and gay liberation. For far too long have we as a party remained silent in this issue and ignored the growth of the gay liberation movement…

Prejudice and ignorance is widespread throughout the party as well as elsewhere… To dispel this ignorance every branch should hold discussions either with gay comrades or by inviting along to a branch people involved in the gay movement.

Thornycroft concluded his letter with this appeal:

Finally, I would like to appeal to all gay comrades to come out, It’s like getting into a cold bath, the first step is the worst. All the ensuing hassles are nothing compared to the strength and joy we can get from one another – and we can’t get it if we remain invisible.

Another letter in the same issue, written by Eric W. Edwards, argued that while ‘we must agree that the point of view concerning the repressed minority position of homosexuals was correct’, the Party’s position ‘would have been improved by an analysis of what homosexuality is, as well as its relevance to the class struggle as a whole’. Edwards proceeded to concentrate on defining homosexuality and had little to say on the class struggle, calling homosexuality as an ‘anomaly’ and linking it to ‘transvestism, fetishism, sado-masochism and exhibitionism’. Edwards stated:

[W]e can see that homosexuality of the habitual and exclusive kind is a persistent expression of selfish individualism, the socio-political origins and implications of which we should know only too well.

In other words, it is a form of love or liaison that functions as an antithesis of normal, evolutionarily selected but plastic sexual activity.

Therefore, Edwards proposed, ‘gay liberation is a secondary issue to the main direction of the class struggle’ and concluded, ‘Gay liberation without scientific class analysis will certainly create… a diversion.’

These two letters essentially provided the framework for the debate between the authors of the letters sent to Comment in the last months of 1976. In the following issue (30 Oct, 1976, p. 350), Peter Mason argued against the biological determinism of Edwards, writing:

[I]t is not so much that the Eysenckian biological arguments are unconvincing (though they are). It is rather that Marxism has always stressed the need to make the start of one’s analysis the differentiation of mankind from the animal world by its constitution as a society.

For Mason, it was capitalism that transformed homosexuality into a ‘problem’ and in a capitalist society, communist politics was considered just as ‘deviant’ as homosexuality. But Mason also warned against seeing gay liberation as something wholly determined by the class struggle:

The relation of the struggle for sexual liberation to the class struggle is not an either/or situation. Though linked to the class struggle, the gay movement has its own specificity, and its relation to the class struggle is a complex one. The slow rate of development of sexual liberation in a number of socialist countries indicates that the achievement of socialism does not by itself bring about sexual liberation at the same time.

Similar to the words of Cook and the theory of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ being developed inside the CPGB at the time, Mason ended his letter with:

[T]hose sectors who see that the objective conditions of their struggle are similar to those facing the working class in its struggle are people whom the Communist Party must be prepared to support.

In the 13 November, 1976 issue (pp. 365-366), two gay Party members, Frank Langan and Brian Allbutt, wrote to welcome the EC’s statement and suggested that ‘many left wing gays’ viewed it as ‘the most positive statement on gay liberation made by any major political party in Britain’. They described Edwards’ opinions as ‘closer to Catholic puritanism than even the beginnings of a Marxist analysis’ and took further issue with the assumption ‘that homosexuality is a product of bourgeois society and will be resolved in a socialist one.’ Langan and Allbutt wrote, ‘We disagree entirely with the comrade’s assertion that the struggle for gay liberation is a ‘secondary issue’ to the main direction of the class struggle’ and used the text of The British Road to Socialism to reinforce this, mentioning ‘the common factors’ between social movements. The organised gay movement, they argued, had supported the fight against the Industrial Relations Act, the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, the pro-choice movement and the Chile Solidarity Movement, and concluded with this, ‘And yet the comrade accuses us of selfish individualism.’

John Gowling contributed another letter to the same issue of Comment. Gowling also welcomed the Party’s statement, but bemoaned the fact that the gay liberation movement tended to be centred around London and that the struggle was much more difficult in the North, Scotland and Wales. He explained:

The tragedy of London, as I see it, the large drift of Northern and Scottish political and apolitical gays who have left their hometowns because they cannot cope with the isolation; nothing is solved, the same oppression still exists in sizeable Northern towns. Many of these migrants are Communists. I hope the new CP policy will seta precedent, and as a result the heterosexual majority of comrades in town branches and provincial districts will help us gay comrades to fight our oppression. For I believe the gay comrades have much to offer and none of us can turn from one sort of oppression when oppression concerns us all.

While these previous letters were mostly positive, the next letters printed on the topic (11 Dec, 1976, p. 397) were quite homophobic and covered similar ground to the letter submitted by Edwards. The first letter by O.M. Olynyk complained that ‘[w]e seem to have become bemused of late with the homosexual cult’, adding:

Nothing we can do or say makes homosexuality normal and all I see us doing at the moment is making a laughing-stock of ourselves by letting the whole thing get out of all proportion to its importance.

Olynyk, like Edwards, suggested that working on matters of gay liberation diverted attention away from the class struggle and the issues concerning the rank-and-file membership of the CPGB. Olynyk finished with:

Come down from your ivory towers into the ranks of the party, to the branch meetings and find out what our problems really are, instead of being sidetracked into fighting artificial battles which will do us infinite harm.

Long term CPGB member John Hukin also wrote a letter railing against the new position of the Party towards gay rights, using similar arguments to Edwards and Olynyk. Hukin called the statement by the EC ‘ill conceived and premature’ and reiterated the homophobic concern that the Party was wrong to see that ‘homosexuality is a normality, equal to the functions of heterosexuals.’ Like Edwards and Olynyk, Hukin saw homosexuality as a ‘sexual abnormality’ and while he agreed that it should be legal, he was against the ‘absolute free expression’ of gay rights ‘without due regard for society in general’. Like Edwards, Hukin was concerned with the ‘individualism’ of the gay rights movement, claiming ‘the preoccupation of homosexuals’ was ‘the promotion of their own sexual ideas and activities, rather than concerning themselves in the everyday struggle for socialism’.

Hukin argued against the EC’s proposal that anti-gay sentiment should be fought in all arenas, qualifying his statement with:

I suggest these matters depend very much on whether anti-‘Gay’ attitudes have justification or that discrimination is necessary to safeguard others in society…

He also called into question the ‘general conduct of homosexuals themselves’ and suggested that it was their own conduct that made them subject to oppressive laws and societal attitudes. His letter concluded by seeking to ‘draw attention’ to:

The danger of ideas which are directed at promoting sexual self interest which at the same time begin to challenge the very fabric or organised society namely the family unit, which despite all its problems is till and will be the basis of organised society socialist or otherwise.

From these letters, we can see that a number of the Communist Party clung to its social conservatism developed between the 1930s and 1960s and so aptly described by Raphael Samuel in his ‘Lost World of British Communism’ series. As Sarah Benton told Nigel Young in her interview with Gay Left:

There’s a certain puritanism which is very strong on the British left generally, which associates a strong family and straightforward sex with a man and wife, with communist

morality. Bourgeois morality is seen as living in sin, promiscuity. Sexual athletics and bourgeois morality is not seen as good family structure … it isn’t seen as a good solid working class unit.

As Graham Willett shows in his chapter, the progressives within the Party eventually won, despite the Party collapsing in on itself during the 1980s, and most left-wing groups moved in the same direction towards the support of gay rights. Nowadays it would be rare to find a left-wing party that did not embrace gay rights in some way (at least on paper), but this was not so clear in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As the movie Pride depicts quite well is that the British labour movement was slow to accept gay liberation as part of its agenda, and arguably the 1976 statement by the CPGB helped to progress these attitudes.