Eurocommunism

Announcing the chapter list for ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 5.18.39 pm.png

Image source: Getty Images

Now that we have entered the copy-editing phase, Matthew Worley and I are happy to announce the chapter list for our forthcoming volume with Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956. It is the second volume that Matt and I have co-edited for MUP (the first being Against the Grain) and we are very excited to showcase new scholarship by a range of established and upcoming scholars (including a number of activist-scholars). Like the previous volume, we have tried to cover a wide variety of different groups and movements and hope that these chapters inspire further research into the British (and international) far left. So here is chapter list:

Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left – Evan Smith and Matthew Worley

1          Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970–90 – Jodi Burkett

2          Not that serious? The investigation and trial of the Angry Brigade, 1967–72 – J. D. Taylor

3          Protest and survive: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party and civil defence in the 1980s – Jacquelyn Arnold

4          Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s – Gavin Brown

5          ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968–75 – Jack Saunders

6          Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956–85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley

7          Networks of solidarity: the London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike – Diarmaid Kelliher

8          ‘You have to start where you’re at’: politics and reputation in 1980s Sheffield – Daisy Payling

9          Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism,      1956–79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs

10        A miner cause? The persistence of left nationalism in postwar Wales – Daryl Leeworthy

11        The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn

12        The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Michael Fitzpatrick

13        The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey

14        Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain – Lawrence Parker

We hope that the volume will be available by the end of the year, or in early 2018. Further details will be on this blog as they come to us.

For those attending the Modern British Studies conference at the University of Birmingham in July, Matt and several of the contributing authors will be speaking about the collection. More details to follow soon.

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 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.

The role of the Communist Party in the British anti-racist movement

 

Below is something that I wrote as an overview of the book that I have been writing over the last year and with the manuscript finally submitted to the publisher a few weeks ago (and deadlines for other projects looming), I thought I’d post this.

sharma

I have recently completed a book manuscript on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’ (currently with the publishers) which uncovers the prominent anti-racist role that the Party played in the post-war era. The history of the Communist Party’s role in the anti-racist movement in Britain is one of varying degrees of success and failure from the 1940s to the 1980s. As one of the initial political organisations to actively campaign against the racial discrimination faced by black people in Britain, it was at the forefront of the broad anti-racist movements of the 1950s and 1960s (borne out of the earlier anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements that the CPGB participated in). However by the 1970s and 1980s, the role of the Communist Party in the anti-racist movement was surpassed, on one hand by black activists who formed autonomous black-led organisations and on the other by the groups of the far left, such as the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group, who proposed a more radical political agenda, including a more confrontational anti-racist/anti-fascist programme. Although the shift towards embracing the new social movements, centred around those writing for Marxism Today, somewhat reinvigorated the CPGB in the 1980s and possibly promised a potentially more nuanced anti-racist strategy, the Party was on the verge of collapse and did not translate into practical anti-racist activism.

In 1957, Claudia Jones, the West Indian-American communist who had been deported from the USA, wrote in an article for the CPGB’s weekly journal discussing West Indians in Britain:

Our Party is judged among colonial workers by its policy, but much more so by its deeds.[i]

Spanning nearly the entire period of what Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘short twentieth century’,[ii] the Communist Party, throughout its existence, had campaigned against colonialism, the ‘colour bar’ and racial discrimination (and racist violence) in the colonial sphere and in Britain. The Communist Party was one of the first organisations within the British labour movement to have an explicit anti-racist agenda, opposing the ‘colour bar’ in the British Empire/Commonwealth then opposing it in the domestic sphere, as the number of Commonwealth migrants rose in the 1940s and 1950s.

The question that I have sought to answer in my book is how successful was the Party’s effort to help fight racism faced by Britain’s black and Asian communities and how successful was the Party in convincing other sections of the labour movement to take up the anti-racist struggle. In assessing this, my argument is that CPGB were constantly in a balancing act between looking to the trade unions and other labour organisations to spearhead the anti-racist movement, making white workers aware of the fight against racism, and working more closely with the black communities at the grassroots level, where there increasing scepticism over the eagerness of the trade unions to combat racism. As a Liverpudlian Party member asked in a letter to the Party magazine Comment in 1981:

On what terms do we involve the labour movement in the [anti-racist] struggle, as the vanguard taking over the direction of the struggle or as supporters of the black community bringing the power of the movement to bear where the black community itself feels the most urgent need?[iii]

Since the reformation of factory branches during the Second World War, and particularly as the Party’s post-war programme The British Road to Socialism saw them as key to any influence upon the Labour Party, the trade unions were central to the CPGB’s agenda, including in the fight against racism. While the Party was attracting a number of black workers, activists and students from across the Commonwealth in the 1950s, its literature focussed on attempts to convince trade unionists to welcome these fellow workers and campaign against ‘colour bars’ in the labour movement and the workplace. In the pages of the daily newspaper Daily Worker in the late 1950s, Party member Kay Beauchamp stressed ‘the need for the whole Labour movement to take up the fight against colour discrimination, for the trade unions to champion the rights of coloured workers and to make a special appeal to them to join the unions.’[iv] Although the trade unions supported campaigns, such as Fenner Brockway’s Movement for Colonial Freedom, at bloc level, getting individual trade unionists to take part in anti-racist activities was a much more difficult task. As others have pointed out, until the mid-1970s, trade unionists favoured a ‘colour blind’ approach that promoted no ‘special treatment’ for people based on ethnicity or nationality, but then offered little assistance to those who needed help in overcoming racial discrimination in the workplace.

The elections of Labour in 1964 and 1966 highlighted the differences between the labour movement and the needs of Britain’s black communities, and the problem that the Communist Party had in attempting to win the ‘mass party’ towards a Labour-Communist alliance and maintaining a credible anti-racist programme. Although Labour did introduce legislation against racial discrimination in public places, housing, employment and in social services in 1965 and in 1968, this was done in conjunction with further restrictions on immigration from the Commonwealth, which tied together the notions of integration with restriction. As Dilip Hiro wrote, this signalled a convergence between Labour and the Conservatives on the issues of immigration and racial justice:

[a]n advanced, albeit minor, on the front for ethnic minorities was conceded by the Conservatives in exchange for a retreat by Labour in the matter of immigration restrictions.[v]

It also signalled to black workers in Britain that Labour’s anti-racist idealism could be countered by the poll-driven necessity to be as ‘tough on immigration’ as the Conservatives. A major part of the Communist Party’s anti-racist agenda throughout the 1960s and 1970s was to campaign for Labour to repeal its commitment to racist immigration control measures and to place further powers in the Race Relations legislation, but the two terms of Harold Wilson in government showed that these were difficult demands to implement. It was absolutely necessary for the Communist Party to oppose these racist actions by the Labour Party, just as much as it opposed those perpetrated by the Tories, but this was juxtaposed with the CPGB’s support for Labour in many other areas, especially in the electoral sphere. This inconsistency convinced a number of black activists and workers that it was better to join black community or single issue organisations, rather than be a minority in the primarily ‘white’ labour organisations. This deviated from the strategy put forward by the CPGB, who were wary that these black community organisations would feed into the ‘black power’ movement and turn black workers away from the importance of the class struggle.[vi]

Even in the 1970s, as the trade unions became more aware of the issues of racism faced by black workers and new networks of solidarity were formed between the labour movement and the black communities, there were still tensions over the direction of political activity in these areas. In his book, Virdee describes the Grunwick strike from 1976 to 1978 and the success of the Anti-Nazi League between 1977 and 1981 as important steps for the British labour movement in overcoming the bifurcation of the working class that had existed in the 1960s and early 1970s,[vii] but these new bonds between black and white workers raised questions over political strategy and the aims of the various people involved in these actions. For example, was strike action at Grunwick primarily about defending the right to strike or combating racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace (or fighting the sexist treatment of South Asian women by the management at Grunwick)? Was the anti-fascist movement more concerned with the threat that the National Front posed to the working class, or did it concentrate on the racial violence and harassment experienced by black Britons at the hands of NF and other fascist sympathisers?

Although the Grunwick strike and the relative success of the Anti-Nazi League showed that the British labour movement could be mobilised around issues of ‘race’ and anti-racism (and both have been celebrated for this in the intervening years since), these achievements came on the cusp of a watershed moment in British history, which upended much of the positive work achieved in the late 1970s. The election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in May 1979 signalled the beginning of a decade long struggle for both the labour movement and for Britain’s black communities. And despite a connection being made between migrant workers and the labour movement at places like Grunwick, many of the younger generation of the ethnic minority communities were still suspicious of left-wing and progressive groups and felt that their problems were not being represented in the political arena. Against this background of disillusionment with the traditional political vehicles open to the ethnic minority communities, large numbers of Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth were involved in public disorder activities across the country in 1980 and 1981.

Meanwhile, as the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and of Eurocommunism developed within the Communist Party during this period, a number of those involved in anti-racist activities acknowledged these tensions and promoted engaging with black workers, activists and youth in other ways. However by this time, the CPGB’s influence within the anti-racist movement had diminished. Other black activist and far left groups, such as the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) and the Race Today Collective on one hand and the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Workers Party on the other, had emerged who were more radical, confrontational and less beholden to the trade unions and the Labour Party. The middle ground that the Communist Party was holding onto was growing ever smaller.

The isolated position of the Communist Party from others within the anti-racist movement was exacerbated by its acceptance, as laid out in The British Road to Socialism, of the potentially positive role of the state. Many on the left eschewed any co-operation with the structures of the capitalist state and this extended to their anti-racist activism, whilst numerous black activists argued that most black people in Britain had experienced the racism of the state in some form and therefore could not relied upon to support an anti-racist agenda. This was particularly the case with the more radical black organisations that appeared in the 1970s, such as the British Black Panther Movement, the Race Today Collective and the Asian Youth Movements. The Communist Party routinely called for the strengthening of the Race Relations Act and for prosecution of those who incited racial hatred or committed racially discriminatory actions. However the uneven prosecutorial history of the Act, which saw black power activist Michael X jailed in 1967, but no case brought against Enoch Powell in 1968,[viii] made the case for others that were sceptical about progressive political movements encouraging the use of the repressive apparatuses of the state to intervene on their behalf. This was reinforced by the violence wreaked by the police against the mass pickets at Grunwick, at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 and against the anti-fascist movement on numerous occasions (which resulted in the deaths of two protestors in 1974 and 1979).

By the early 1980s, the CPGB was promoting the popular idea (amongst the Gramscian and Eurocommunist left, at least) that the Thatcher government had ushered in a new era of authoritarianism and that the working class, particularly black people, suffered at the hands of the police and other state agencies, but still pushed in its ‘Charter of Demands’ for greater state interventions in some areas, such as

Existing race relations and public order law must be firmly enforced against racists. These laws must be given more teeth to outlaw the advocacy and practice of racism.[ix]

The revised version of The British Road to Socialism that was drafted in 1977 also promoted greater co-operation with the state at the local level, with a number of CPGB activists proposing that local councils, particularly those controlled by the Labour Party, could serve as sites of resistance to the Thatcherite neoliberal state at the national level. These local councils became involved in what was described as ‘municipal anti-racism’, which tried to redistribute funding and services to ethnic minority communities and organisations, as well as promoting an ‘acceptable’ form of anti-racism. This was criticised by some, such as the AYMs, for only giving funds to those organisations and campaigns that were willing to acquiesce to the rules of the local council, arguing that this meant that the anti-racism of certain radical organisations was blunted. Others criticised the anti-racist training for buying into the Thatcherite paradigm and viewing racism as a solely ideological and individualistic problem, which overlooked the structural and socio-economic basis for racial inequality and racial discrimination. The result of this was, as Alana Lentin has argued, that independent anti-racist organisations and campaigns became increasingly institutionalised, co-ordinated (and co-opted) by local government agencies.[x] This dissipated much of the radical sections of the anti-racist movement during the 1980s, including the role of the Communist Party, who, for other reasons, was already on the verge of collapse.

BRS1977

In his discussion of the British left and the fight for gay rights, Graham Willett wrote about looking at how these Marxist groups dealt with movements that fought other types of oppression (rather than class oppression) from today’s perspective:

Deciding on these position depends on whether one assumes that socialists can be expected to transcend the limitations of their own times; whether they should be expected to hold to or, alternatively, to move beyond the most advanced politics available.[xi]

Although anti-racism was a much more accepted political objective than gay rights, with the socialist left promoting opposition to racial discrimination since the 1920s, Willett reminds us that those involved in anti-racist activism had to work within a labour movement (and wider political landscape) where racism was not taken as seriously as it is today and we cannot transpose contemporary political values onto the past. Whatever their actions, it is important to remember that the Communist Party of Great Britain was one of the most vocal anti-racist organisations from the 1920s to the 1980s. When black workers started to migrate to Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, it was one of the few organisations to consistently campaign for inclusion of black workers into the labour movement, as well as promoting a broader campaign against racial discrimination in British society. There were certainly limitations to this approach, particularly as the CPGB focused heavily upon the trade unions as a force for change within the anti-racist movement, while it seems that the trade unions lagged behind other sections of the movement to wholeheartedly put their weight behind the issue. From the late 1960s onwards, other left-wing and black activist organisations were able to surpass the position put forward by the CPGB, but their reach beyond the anti-racist movement, the far left and Britain’s substantial black communities was limited, while the CPGB had the potential to reach into the more centrist labour movement. The Morning Star, as a widely read daily newspaper amongst many trade unionists, covered anti-racist issues of a regular basis, forming a significant action on behalf of the Communist Party’s anti-racist programme. The fact that the Communist Party had its feet in both the trade union movement, but also inside radical left milieu and other progressive movements meant that in some ways it was in advantageous position, potentially reaching a broad audience for its programme, as outlined in The British Road to Socialism. But it also meant that the CPGB’s message often fell through the cracks – too radical for some, not radical enough for others – and its actions were diluted by this, with its activists being subsumed into larger social movements and organisations (and in the process losing any identity as a CPGB member). This was the case for the Party’s cohort of dedicated anti-racist activists.

At the 38th National Congress of the CPGB in 1983 (the Congress that saw the Morning Star faction break away from the CPGB over the political line put forward by Marxism Today), the Party’s resolution on the issue of racism criticised the Party for its lack of black membership:

The Congress is concerned at the under-representation of black people in the CPGB and believes that this is in part due to residual racialist attitudes and practices inside the Party.[xii]

From looking at the material published by the Communist Party and examining its internal records, it is hard to agree with this assumption made by in this resolution that racist attitudes existed within the CPGB. It is more likely that while nearly all members of the CPGB nominally agreed to an anti-racist programme, only a number were dedicated to anti-racist activism. The preceding sentence in the resolution is more accurate, that Congress ‘is aware that the [anti-racist] campaigning issues referred to [in the resolution] have not become an essential part of regular activity of every Party branch.’[xiii] Parallel to John Callaghan’s response when Marika Sherwood criticised the CPGB of being racist in the 1930s, while Party had ‘undoubted shortcomings’ in its recruitment of black members, it was just ‘not very good at recruiting any section of the population’ during the 1980s.[xiv] Its membership in 1983 was 15,691 (a loss of more than 14,000 members over the previous decade) and as Willie Thompson wrote, the Party was ‘being rendered incapable of doing anything very much apart from operating on its own body.’[xv] The resolution continued to state that ‘[w]hilst Congress welcomes the work of white comrades involved in anti-racist organisations such as CARL [the Campaign Against Racist Laws], this is no substitute for the task of bringing more black comrades into the Party.’[xvi] This highlights the crux of the problem for the CPGB anti-racist activists in the early 1980s – a section of its membership was heavily involved in various anti-racist campaigns and organisations, but this did not translate into tangible gains for the Party, which was in a downward spiral by now. But it also highlights some over optimistic feelings within the Party at the same time as it was unrealistic to expect many new members joining the Party during this period, particularly from a demographic that had been traditionally overlooked within the broader structures of the CPGB and the labour movement.

This post (and hopefully my book as well) has attempted to outline the importance of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the history of anti-racism in post-war Britain and its legacy, but also to highlight the difficulties faced by the Party and the limitations of its strategies. Without understanding the role that the CPGB played in the formation of the modern anti-racist movement in Britain, we cannot understand how the anti-racist movement has developed in the decades since then. The Communist Party was a pioneering force in the anti-colonialist and anti-racist movements from its birth in the 1920s until its slow demise in the 1980s, but it was also a ‘prisoner’ of this time and although sections of the Party promoted reform, it was unable to survive the seismic domestic and international political shifts of the 1980s and early 1990s and was thus was transcended by a new wave of anti-racist, radical and black activist groups. And with this transcendence, the forward march of the Communist Party and its role in the anti-racist movement had been, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, halted.[xvii]

grunwick

[i] Claudia Jones, ‘West Indians in Britain’, World News, 29 June, 1957, p. 416.

[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 2004) p. 3.

[iii] ‘Letters’, Comment, 17 October, 1981, p. 14.

[iv] Kay Beauchamp, ‘Democracy v Racial Prejudice’, Daily Worker, 16 May, 1957.

[v] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain (London: Paladin, 1992) p. 211.

[vi] Willie Thompson, ‘Black Power’, Cogito, n.d., pp. 4-5, CP/YCL/21/01, CPGB archive, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[vii] Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) p. 123.

[viii] Robin Bunce & Paul Field, Darcus Howe: A Political Biography (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) p. 30; Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) pp. 251-252.

[ix] Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds) Black & Blue: Racism and the Police (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1981) p. 29.

[x] Alana Lentin, Racism & Anti-Racism in Europe (London: Pluto Press, 2004) p. 143.

[xi] Graham Willett, ‘Something New Under the Sun: The Revolutionary Left and Gay Politics’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) p. 175.

[xii] ‘Racism’, Communist Focus (December 1983) p. 31.

[xiii] ‘Racism’, p. 31; Italics are my emphasis.

[xiv] John Callaghan, ‘Colonies, Racism, the CPGB and the Comintern in the Inter-War Years’, Science & Society, 61/4 (Winter 1997-98) p. 520.

[xv] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218; p. 190.

[xvi] ‘Racism’, p. 31.

[xvii] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today (September 1978) pp. 279-286.

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

BRS1977

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.

Hobsbawm-Tony-Benn-Marxism-Today

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)