Digital humanities

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

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

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

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

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Some highlights from the CIA’s recent document dump online

This week, the Central Intelligence Agency uploaded more than 12 million documents onto its online library, allowing access to previously unavailable declassified material ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s. There is a lot of interesting material for researchers to wade through, but here are some of my initial highlights:

  1. A 1949 report on the communist movement in Australia.
  2. A 1949 report on the communist movement in New Zealand
  3. A June 1956 report on the fall out amongst Western Communist Parties after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in February 1956
  4. A 1957 report on Titoism and World Communism
  5. A 1958 report on the Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference held in Cairo in 1957 (just after the Suez Crisis).
  6. A 1976 report on the emerging ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ regime in Cambodia
  7. A 1981 report on the states that supported terrorist movements in Europe and North Africa/Middle East
  8. Two reports on the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party from July and November 1983
  9. A 1984 report on the relationship between Australian Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke and the trade union movement.
  10. A 1985 report on terrorism in Western Europe

These are just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg, so if there’s any documents you think are particularly interesting, leave a comment below and I might try to compile a further list soon.

Starting a discussion about self-archiving political movements and the international left

I have been in discussions with various people over the last few months about how movements ‘remember’ themselves and how they engage with their ephemeral history. I am interested in how these movements have often self-archived their materials and what they have done with these materials – are they open to researchers and people interested interested in the history of these movements? Some organisations and movements (as well as certain individuals) have donated their historical papers to various university archives or museums. These are valuable to researchers, but still privilege those who can gain access – usually academics and independent researchers who can afford to do archival research on site.

However some organisations and enterprising researchers are overcoming these obstacles by scanning and digitising the materials of the various progressive and left-wing movements across the Anglophone world. Sites such as the Marxist Internet Archive have been scanning many American, Canadian, British, Irish and Australian documents from the international communist movement, including various Trotskyist and anti-revisionist groups. A number of institutions across the globe have followed, such as the University of Wollongong’s Communist Party of Australia journals, the collection of South African radical material digitised by DISA, the Anti-Apartheid Movement collection at Oxford University, and the Amiel and Melburn Trust collection of British new left journals and the CPGB’s Marxism Today. As well as these institutional initiatives, others are digitising their historical documents at the grassroots level. This can be seen with the Red Mole Rising website, which is archiving online the materials of the International Marxist Group, the Irish Left Archive, the Red Action archive and the Anti-Fascist Archive, amongst others.

The wonderful thing about these online archives is that they are democratising the research of these movements. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can now access these documents, without incurring the costs of doing archival research. This is particularly helpful for those conducting research internationally. The downside is that these initiatives are often costly in terms of equipment and labour, with individuals having to volunteer a lot of their time and effort to provide these resources for others. Also by relying on the efforts of individuals with access to certain collections, there are significant gaps in what is available online. For example, I would like to see more stuff from Militant and the Workers Revolutionary Party made available.

It is exciting to be conducting research in this era of increased digitsation, but there are limits to what we can access at the moment. More people need to get involved – either providing original documents, or offering their services in the scanning process, or by helping out with the costs of hosting the websites (particularly as Scribd and Dropbox are increasingly used to hold these large file depositories).

At the same time, many original activist documents are languishing in people’s attics, basements, garages and other storage areas. These need to be located and preserved. If you have a collection of left-wing ephemera stored away somewhere, do try to find it and think about donating (or selling or at least, lending) it to people who can digitise it and preserve this (often obscured) history.

I hope this starts a discussion about how historians and activists can work together to help ensure that the documentary history of the international left is not overlooked.

How to navigate the Comintern archives online: A guide for the non-Russian speaker

In 2015, the Russian government made freely available the scanned papers of the Communist International that had been digitised in the 1990s. Access to this digital archive was limited to a number of universities in Europe, as well as the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The new portal made the thousands of scanned documents free to view, but the portal is only navigable in Russian. This post is an attempt to help people navigate the Comintern archives without knowing Russian.

There are two ways to try and find relevant material using the archive – browse and search.

Start with this URL: http://sovdoc.rusarchives.ru/#main

To browse

On the home page of the archive, choose the third from the left link along the top that says “Документальные комплексы”.

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This should lead to a page with four options. Click the second link.

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This will bring a long list of links in Russian organised by fond (for example, Ф.495. Оп.3.) If you use the LOC guide, you can try to locate specific fonds. For example 495/3 is the fond of the ECCI Political Secretariat.

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Once you click on this link, you will find a page describing the fond. In the bottom left hand corner, there is a hyperlinked number.

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Once you click on this link, you will find links broken down by individual file. For example, Дело 1, 2, 3, etc. In the 495/3 fond, there are 513 individual files.

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If you have a reference for a particular file in a book/article/thesis, it will usually say something like RGASPI 495/3/1. This is the level that each reference is broken down to usually.

Included in each link is a short title of the file in Russian. For example, the first link (495/3/1) is “Protocols and materials to the minutes of the Political Secretariat of the ECCI meeting”. On the right is the date scope for the file.

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Once you click on a link, it will take you a page with further information about the file.

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In the bottom left hand corner, it will have the words “Количество графических образов” (number of graphic images) and a hyperlinked number.

If you click on the hyperlinked number, you will be taken to an image gallery, with an individual thumbnail for each scanned page, organised into pages of 20 thumbnails.

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If you click on a thumbnail image, it will bring up a gallery where you can easily browse through each individual page. However each page of 20 has its own browsing gallery.

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Remember that the various bodies of the Comintern were based in several European cities, such as Moscow, Berlin and Brussels, so the documents are in several languages, including Russian, German, French and English.

To search

To search requires a little ingenuity. To find the search bar, once again, choose the third from the left link on the top on the archive’s home page.  As you can only search in Russian, I use a translation tool (such as Google Translate) to translate possible search terms into Russian and then cut and paste into the search bar.

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This can be hit and miss, but if you keep it broad like ‘Ireland’, ‘Australia’ or ‘imperialism’, for example, then you will find some stuff. Some of the fonds listed are not currently available, due to some arrangement between the Russian government and Yale University, but most stuff from the 495 series is available.

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Once the links to each file come up, follow the above steps to view each individual image.

Printing/Saving

As these images are all JPGs, they can be individually saved by the viewer. Once downloaded, I have found that printing from those saved images is the best way.

Happy archive exploring! If these steps are helpful, please let me know. If anything is unclear, let me know also.