International communist movement

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 As well as these institutional initiatives, others are digitising their historical documents at the grassroots level.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.

Celebrating VE Day in the Tribune and Daily Worker

To celebrate the 71st anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allies in May 1945, here’s how the Communist Party of Australia’s Tribune celebrated the victory, compared with the reporting of the victory by the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Daily Worker.

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Hobsbawm, 1956 and the Mythology of the CPGB Historians’ Group

British historian Eric Hobsbawm at work in January 1976

The Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain is historically significant for two main reasons. Firstly the historians involved in the Group became some of the most influential in contemporary British history, helping to pioneer the theory of ‘history from below’. Secondly, the historians involved in the Group were significantly involved in three major acts of rebellion within the Communist Party in 1956 as the Party went into crisis. The impact of those who were part of the Historians’ Group, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Dona Torr, A.L. Morton and Raphael Samuel (amongst others), upon historiography is hard to deny. The recent celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class are testament to this. However this post will deal with the second point and will explore the role that members of the Historians’ Group played in the rebellion against the Party leadership in 1956.

Until recently, there was not much written about the Historians’ Group, besides some work by Harvey Kaye and Bill Schwarz on the Group’s contribution to historiography,[1] and Hobsbawm’s account of the Group, written in the late 1970s. As a prominent member of the Group and the author of (for a long time) the most comprehensive account of the Group’s activities between 1946 and 1956, Hobsbawm’s narrative had become definitive and widely accepted by those who have subsequently discussed the Group. Despite acknowledging that ‘the Group itself did not express any… collective views and was indeed increasingly split’ on the issue, Hobsbawm asserted, ‘the fact that many of the most vocal critics came from among its members is a matter of record’.[2] By the time that Hobsbawm had his autobiography published in 2002, the equivocations had been removed. In Interesting Times, he wrote that in 1956, ‘the group emerged almost immediately as the nucleus of vocal opposition to the Party line’ and claimed that the Group ‘made the two most dramatic challenges to the Party’.[3]

The three acts of rebellion described to by Hobsbawm were the publication of The Reasoner by Saville and Thompson, the publication of a letter signed by a number of historians in Tribune and the New Statesman and Christopher Hill’s involvement in authoring the Minority Report on Inner-Party Democracy for the 25th Special Congress of the CPGB held in April 1957. These acts have subsequently been referred to in most histories of the Group as important intervention in the communist discourses of 1956. For example, Adrià Llacuna has written that the events of 1956 ‘generated a virtually en bloc opposition from the ranks of the Historians’ Group… to the party’s position on the events’.[4] Varying degrees of importance have been placed upon the three acts involving different members of the Historians’ Group, but despite this disagreement, most consider the publication of The Reasoner to be the most controversial act at the time, and also the one that had the longest effect, with Saville and Thompson’s The New Reasoner becoming one of the founding journals of the British New Left in the late 1950s.

Hobsbawm was chair of the Historians’ Group in 1956, but despite a motion passed by the Group in April of that year, in which ‘profound dissatisfaction’ was expressed at the Party’s ‘failure to discuss publicly the implications for the British Party of the 20th Congress [of the] CPSU’,[5] the Group did not engage in organised action as a group against the CPGB leadership. Of the actions, by individual members of the Historians’ Group, Hobsbawm was only publicly involved in one of them, putting his signature to the New Statesman/Tribune letter. This letter, originally sent to the Daily Worker, stated:

We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact, and failure by British Communists to think out political problems for themselves.[6]

However the letter also concluded with the line, ‘Not all the signatories agree with everything in this letter, but all are in sufficient sympathy with its general intention to sign with this reservation.’[7] Some critics, such as the Trotskyist Terry Brotherstone, suggest that this allowed Hobsbawm the necessary leeway to be a signatory of the letter, but not be held to its entire contents.[8]

Brotherstone uses the words of Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker who quit the Party after learning that his reports from Budapest in October-November 1956 were being unjustly edited or ignored, to describe Hobsbawm’s protests during that year as having ‘all the force of a pop-gun fitted with a silencer’.[9] Although Hobsbawm signed the letter that was published in the New Statesman and the Tribune, Brotherstone points to another letter by Hobsbawm published in the Daily Worker in early November 1956 that concluded with the sentence:

While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly, that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.[10]

As I have argued previously, Hobsbawm tried to negotiate the balancing act between maintaining his political and historical integrity through his relationship with those that left the Party and staying within the Party, which he believed was important for the health of British politics at the time. MI5 surveillance files showed that the Party leadership was highly critical of Hobsbawm’s position of being neither in nor out of the Party during this period. Dennis Dworkin has argued that Hobsbawm believed that, however seriously flawed, the CPGB was the only working class party in Britain ‘committed to revolution’ and might eventually re-establish itself as a political force.[11] However Hobsbawm himself admitted that after the events of 1956, the Party had become so weak that despite his criticisms, the Party couldn’t throw him out and ‘didn’t want to anyway’.[12]

In an interview with Tristram Hunt in The Observer in 2002, Hobsbawm stated that this decision to stay in the Party was not ‘out of idealisation of the October Revolution’, but stemming from a political awakening when living in Berlin in the early 1930s when Hitler rose to power.[13] As Dworkin put it, Hobsbawm had joined the Party when anti-fascism and Popular Frontism were at its height and his deep personal attachment to this sense of solidarity and immediacy probably influenced his decision to remain inside the Communist Party.[14] In Hobsbawm’s history of the Historians’ Group and in a number of other discussions of the Group, the Popular Front era (from roughly 1934 1939 then from 1941 to 1945) is seen to have a significant impact upon the Group’s politics and its relationship with the structures of the Communist Party. As John Callaghan has written, the Popular Front created a bigger and more pluralistic Communist Party[15] and Hobsbawm, and others, have argued that this pluralism was reflected in the work of Historians’ Group.

According to Hobsbawm, the Historians’ Group believed that Marxist history was ‘not an isolated truth’, but the ‘spearhead of a broad progressive history… represented by all manner of radical and labour traditions in British historiography’.[16] This drove the Group to engage with non-Marxists based on a flexible and open-ended reading of the Marxist view of history,[17] with this dialogue eventually leading to the establishment of the journal Past and Present. In their history of the early years of the journal, Hill, Hobsbawm and Rodney Hilton argued that the journal was an example of the Historians’ Group attempting to bring the broad-based politics of the Popular Front era into the historical profession in the era of the early Cold War.[18] Despite this, the Communist Party leadership viewed the Historians’ Group as a concentration of loyal and active party members, who drew little controversy or attention to themselves.

While Hobsbawm and several others have pointed to the Popular Front politics of the Historians’ Group as a positive influence upon their historical and political work, others have viewed it as having a negative impact upon the Group. David Renton and Sam Ashman have both proposed that the politics of the Popular Front era and the Second World War, with the emphasis on ‘national roads to socialism’, blunted the revolutionary nature of the Historians’ Group’s work, and there was a focus by many with the Group on the exceptional nature of English/British populism and the inherent radicalism of the English people.[19]

In retrospect, Hobsbawm and others have portrayed this adherence to the principles of Popular Frontism and broad-based unity as evidence that while being loyal members of the CPGB, those in the Historians’ Group did not compromise their intellectual integrity and remained historians first and Party members second. As Madeleine Davis has written:

Associated with the somewhat looser intellectual discipline and populist imperative of the Popular Front period, the main representative of this ‘muffled’ or ‘premature’ revisionism is often thought to be the CPGB Historians’ Group, in whose histories can be seen a more sophisticated interrogation of social being than ‘orthodoxy’ strictly permitted…[20]

However there was little dissidence amongst those in the Historians’ Group in the decade leading up to 1956. As Hobsbawm himself recognised in a letter to the Party journal World News in January 1957, writing:

We tell them that we do not give the USSR “uncritical support”, but when they ask us when we disagreed with its policy, all we can point to is Nina Ponomareva’s hats.[21]

One explanation for this lack of controversy was that the Historians’ Group did little history of the twentieth century and therefore did not interfere in the history of the Soviet Union, which had to be negotiated carefully. This is only half the story, with members of the Group explicitly demonstrating their loyalty to Moscow and the Stalinist regime. For example, Thompson wrote in his biography of William Morris in 1955 (published in 1961 in the USA):

Twenty year ago even among Socialists and Communists, many must have regarded Morris’ picture of ‘A Factory as It Might Be’ as an unpractical poet’s dream: today’s visitors return from the Soviet Union with stories of the poet’s dream already fulfilled. Yesterday, in the Soviet Union, the Communists were struggling against every difficulty to build up their industry to the level of the leading capitalist powers: today they have before them Stalin’s blue-print of the advance to communism.[22]

In a 1953 issue of the CPGB’s journal Modern Quarterly, published shortly after Stalin’s death, Christopher Hill wrote hagiographically about Stalin’s contribution to the Marxist theory of history. Hill called the former Soviet leader as ‘a very great and penetrating thinker, who on any subject was apt to break through the cobwebs of academic argument to the heart of the matter’ and a ‘highly responsible leader, who expressed a view only after mature consideration and weighting the opinions of experts in the subject’.[23] He continued by stating:

His statements, therefore, approximate to the highest wisdom of the collective thought of the USSR.[24]

He concluded the article with this claim:

Such was the final legacy to his peoples of the great Marxist thinker who had himself made history more effectively than any of his contemporaries: considered guidance on the practical measures necessary for the creation of a communist society… It was Stalin’s greatest happiness that he was able to contribute so largely to the creation of such a society, to know what he was creating, and to see that knowledge spread among the men and women who were joining with him in its creations. Humanity, and not only in the USSR but in all countries, will always be in his debt.[25]

reasoner

Even during the turmoil of 1956, those in the Historians’ Group who raised questions about the Party leadership’s reaction to Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and the invasion of Hungary were often at pains to stress that they were loyal party members pushed to take action. As Michael Kenny has shown in his history of the first New Left in Britain, when Thompson and Saville published The Reasoner, their original intention was to foster discussion inside the party about how to reform itself and encourage greater inner-party democracy.[26] As Saville wrote in a letter to Yorkshire District Committee leader Bert Ramelson defending their actions:

It is necessary at the outset to emphasise that The Reasoner was conceived entirely in terms of the general interests of the Party… I am as firmly convinced as ever of the need for a Communist Party in Britain. Those who have sought to present it as an ‘opposition’ journal, aiming a destructive or factional attack upon the Party leadership, are entirely mistaken.[27]

Before their production of The Reasoner, both Saville and Thompson had written in World News, calling for greater scrutiny of the Party’s past inability to criticise the Soviet Union. Thompson wrote a piece in late June 1956 titled ‘Winter Wheat in Omsk’, which claimed that the Communist Party had alienated themselves from the rest of the British labour movement and from the British people by ignoring the crimes of the Stalin era. In this, he wrote, ‘the British people do not understand and will not trust a Monolith without a moral tongue’.[28] In his book on the British new left, Dworkin has written that Thompson’s article echoed the collective voice of the Historians’ Group,[29] but the collective voice of the Group was more fragmented than Dworkin (and Hobsbawm) have argued. A letter from Christopher and Bridget Hill to World News stated, ‘We did not agree with most of what Comrade Thompson said, and we did not much like the way he said it’.[30] Hill tried to push reform through the Party’s official channels and became a member of the Party’s Commission on Inner Party Democracy, set up after the 24th National Congress of the CPGB in April 1956 and the intra-party discussion over the ‘Secret Speech’. He only resigned from the Party after the Minority Report on Inner Party Democracy, which he co-authored with Daily Worker journalist Malcolm MacEwen and Peter Cadogan, was rejected at the CPGB’s Special 25th National Congress in April 1957.

The dissidence of certain members of the Historians’ Group during 1956 has led to Hobsbawm (and others) to claim that the Popular Frontism that permeated the Group’s membership had created a rebellious intellectual contingent within the Communist Party in the first decade of the Cold War – a retrospective attempt to portray the Group as a font of humanist integrity in opposition to the Stalinised leadership of the CPGB. However, as Lawrence Parker, Neil Redfern and Phillip Deery have shown, [31]most of the dissent within the Communist Party in the decade after the Second World War was by hardliners within the Party who rejected the ‘reformism’ of The British Road to Socialism. Some intellectuals, such as Edward Upward, supported the criticism of the CPGB by the Australian Communist Party in 1948, which called out the ‘Browderism’ of the British party and maintained a strong allegiance to the Soviet Union.[32]

Indisputably the British new left partially emerged out of the dissenting acts of those within the Communist Party, with several of those involved in the Historians’ Group (primarily E.P. Thompson, John Saville and Raphael Samuel) giving voice to discontent felt by many CPGB members – although Thompson spent more time with the Party’s Writers’ Group than the Historians’ Group.[33] But while the rebelliousness of the first new left grew out of the intra-party rebellion that occurred in 1956, it is wrong to suppose that this rebelliousness predates this year. Up until 1956, those in the Historians’ Group were considered loyal and congenial members of the Communist Party and even when dissent started to emerge after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, those from the Group who dissented attempted to do so through official channels, such as through the letter pages of the Daily Worker and the World News.[34] The mythology of the Historians’ Group as described by Hobsbawm and others suggests that an anti-Stalinist humanism bubbled just below the surface throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, until the events of 1956 unleashed a torrent of dissent. It is more the case that those in the Historians’ Group who disagreed with the Party leadership were provoked into taking more and more radical actions as the year progressed and the leadership dug in its heels, only begrudgingly making any admissions of past errors. By the end of 1957, a large proportion of the Group had left the CPGB, including E.P. Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, Rodney Hilton, Brian Pearce and Raphael Samuel,[35] but these resignations came reluctantly and only after discourse within the Party was shut down. Although much romanticised, those within the Historians’ Group were not the vanguard of a humanist rebellion inside the British communist movement, rather they were loyal comrades hesitantly pushed further towards dissent over the course of a year and a half. As Bryan D. Palmer wrote, ‘The dissident communism of 1956 and the reasoner rebellion… thus served as midwife to the birth of the British Marxist historians’.[36]

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[1] Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995); Bill Schwarz, ‘“The People” in History: The Communist Party Historians’ Group, 1946-56’, in Richard Johnson, et. al. (eds) Making Histories: Studies in History-Writing and Politics (London: Hutchinson, 1982) pp. 44-95.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Historians’ Group of the Communist Party’, in Maurice Cornforth (ed.), Rebels and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A.L. Morton (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978) p. 40.

[3] Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (London: Abacus, 2002) p. 206.

[4] Adrià Llacuna, ‘British Marxist Historians and Socialist Strategy: Within, Beyond and After the Communist Party’, Twentieth Century Communism, 9 (2015) p. 151.

[5] Minutes of Historians’ Group meeting, 8 April, 1956, CP/CENT/CULT/06/01, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[6] Tribune, 30 November, 1956, p. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Terry Brotherstone, ‘Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012): Some Questions from a Never-completed Conversation About History’, Critique, 41/2 (2013) p. 276.

[9] Cited in, Ibid., p. 275.

[10] Ibid., p. 276.

[11] Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997) p. 50.

[12] Eric Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writing 1977 – 1988 (London: Verso, 1989) p. 200.

[13] ‘Man of the Extreme Century’, The Observer, 22 September, 2002.

[14] Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain, p. 50.

[15] John Callaghan, ‘The Road to 1956’, Socialist History, 8 (1995) p. 19.

[16] Interview with Eric Hobsbawm, in H. Abelove, et. al. (eds) Visions of History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983) p. 33.

[17] Robert Gray, ‘History, Marxism and Theory’, in Harvey J. Kaye & Keith McLelland (eds) E.P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990) p. 153.

[18] Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton & Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Past and Present: Origins and Early Years’, Past and Present, 100 (1983) pp. 4-5.

[19] David Renton, ‘Studying Their Own Nation Without Insularity? The British Marxist Historians Reconsidered’, Science & Society, 69/4 (2005) pp. 559-579; Sam Ashman, ‘The Communist Party’s Historians’ Group’, in John Rees (ed.) Essays on Historical Materialism (London: Bookmarks, 1998) pp. 145-159.

[20] Madeleine Davis, ‘Edward Thompson’s Ethics and Activism 1956-1963: Reflections on the Political Formation of The Making of the English Working Class’, Contemporary British History, 28/4 (2014) p. 443.

[21] ‘Other Readers Say…’, World News, 26 January, 1957, p. 62.

[22] E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961) p. 760.

[23] Christopher Hill, ‘Stalin and the Science of History’, Modern Quarterly, 8/4 (Autumn 1953) p. 209.

[24] Ibid., p. 209.

[25] Ibid., p. 212.

[26] Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995) pp. 16-17.

[27] Cited in, John Saville, ‘The Twentieth Congress and the British Communist Party’, Socialist Register (1976) p. 9.

[28] E.P. Thompson, ‘Winter Wheat in Omsk’, World News (30 June, 1956) p. 408.

[29] Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain, p. 48.

[30] ‘Forum’, World News, 18 August, 1956, p. 525.

[31] Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991 (London: November Publications, 2012) pp. 15-43; Phillip Deery & Neil Redfern, ‘No Lasting Peace? Labor, Communism and the Cominform: Australia and Great Britain, 1945-50’, Labour History, 88 (May 2005) pp. 63-86.

[32] See the correspondence contained in the CPGB archival file, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[33] Davis, ‘Edward Thompson’s Ethics and Activism’, p. 443.

[34] According to Willie Thompson, the editor of the Daily Worker, J.R. Campbell declared discussion of the 20th Congress to be closed as early as 12 March, 1956, only a few weeks after the Congress had ended in Moscow. Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 100.

[35] Hobsbawm, A.L. Morton and Maurice Dobb remained within the Party, with Morton and Dobb both maintaining their membership until their deaths. Hobsbawm stayed a party member until the Party dissolved in 1991.

[36] Bryan D. Palmer, ‘Reasoning Rebellion: E.P. Thompson, British Marxist Historians, and the Making of Dissident Political Mobilization’, Labour/Le Travail, 50 (Fall 2002) p. 214.

1951 and the attempt to ban the Australian Communist Party: When Turnbull’s predecessor gambled on a double dissolution election

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Yesterday Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that if the Senate did not pass two pieces of legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), he would call for the Governor-General to issue the writs for a double dissolution election. This would mean that all seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate would be contested at the election to be held on 2 July. Only a handful of double dissolution elections have occurred sine Federation in 1901, with the first double dissolution called by a Liberal Prime Minister occurring in 1951, requested by Sir Robert Menzies.

Menzies had won government in December 1949, defeating Ben Chifley’s Labor government, which had been in power since the end of the Second World War. The Liberal-Country Party coalition had made significant gains in the House of Representatives, but Labor still controlled the Senate, which made the passing of controversial legislation difficult, especially as a central part of the LCP’s programme in the lead up to the election was the proposal to ban the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

The CPA had been briefly banned during the war while Menzies was Prime Minister, but this was reversed by Chifley’s predecessor, John Curtin. As the Cold War erupted in the late 1940s, the CPA took a particularly militant line, partially inspired by the rise of communism in Asia and assertion by the Soviets that the world was falling into two opposing camps – the democratic and ant-fascist bloc of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European ‘People’s Democracies’ (soon to be followed by China) and the anti-democratic and fascist bloc of the Western nations. This led to fierce battles in the Australian labour movement over its stance towards Chifley’s Labor government, with the CPA-led trade unions pushing for confrontational industrial militancy in several industries. This came to a head in 1949 with the Coal Strike that led to the Chifley government ordering troops to break the strike and the imprisonment of several Communist trade unionists.

Sir Robert Menzies

Sir Robert Menzies

This industrial unrest gave Menzies the opportunity to campaign on the programme that an LCP coalition would ban the CPA. Drawn in tandem with the Suppression of Communism Bill by the Malan government in apartheid South Africa, the Menzies government drafted the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in early 1950. First introduced into the House of Representatives in April 1950, the Bill was opposed by Labor and heavily criticised outside of Parliament by the Communist Party and a significant portion of the trade unions. Initially rejected by the Labor controlled Senate, Menzies threatened a double dissolution election and Labor senators, possibly against the public statements made by Chifley, passed the Bill into law in October 1950. The legislation banning the CPA was broad in its scope and meant that fellow travellers who sympathised with Soviet communism could be prosecuted, as well as ‘official’ members of the Party.

As soon as the Bill became law in November 1950, it was subject to a High Court challenge by the Communist Party and several trade unions, with H.V. Evatt (soon to be Labor leader) acting as one of several counsels for the trade unions in this case. On 9 March, 1951, a 6-1 majority of the High Court of Australia found that the Communist Party Dissolution Act was unconstitutional and its powers to prosecute individuals for their alleged connection to the CPA violated what could be included in Commonwealth legislation. To re-introduce legislation banning the CPA would need a change to the Constitution, which itself needed a referendum to allow these changes. Without control of the Senate, Menzies felt that he would be unable to pass the necessary legislation to alter the Constitution and subsequently, formally ban the Communist Party of Australia.

On 15 March, 1951 – a week after the High Court’s decision – Menzies formally requested that the Governor-General order a double dissolution election, on the grounds that the Labor controlled Senate had already twice rejected his Commonwealth Bank Bill. Two days later, both houses of Parliament were dissolved and a bicameral election was held on 28 April, 1951. While Labor gained five seats in the House of Representatives, Menzies won control of the Senate and now had a majority in both houses.

This allowed the Menzies government to introduce legislation that would start the process to change the Constitution that would render any new Bills to ban the Communist Party legal and without grounds to challenge. With control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Menzies government quickly passed the Constitution Alteration (Powers to Deal with Communism and Communists) 1951 Act and a referendum was held on 22 September 1951.

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As the above graph shows, the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia voted ‘no’ and at the federal level, a slight majority voted against altering the Constitution to allow the banning of the CPA. While the gamble of the double dissolution had paid off for Menzies, his attempt to change the Constitution to ban a specific political organisation failed and was seen as government over-reach by many commentators.

The CPA's weekly newspaper, The Tribune, after Menzies' referendum defeat.

The CPA’s weekly newspaper, The Tribune, after Menzies’ referendum defeat.

Since Menzies, there have only been four double dissolutions, by Gough Whitlam in 1974, by Malcolm Fraser (in caretaker mode) in 1975 and 1983, and by Bob Hawke in 1987. Each time the incumbent government, besides Fraser in 1983, has retained power – although in the case of Whitlam, only briefly. It could be argued that powerful political conviction on a controversial, yet important, topic has helped governments get over the line in double dissolution elections. The question is whether the Turnbull government have this conviction or the right issue to take to the electorate if they proceed with a double dissolution.

Another reason to #FundTrove: Communist Party of Australia material now digitised

The first issue of 'Communist Review' after the ban was lifted by the Curtin Government on the magazine.

The first issue of ‘Communist Review’ after the ban was lifted by the Curtin Government on the magazine.

It was recently announced that funding for the National Library of Australia’s digital database Trove was under threat due to the Turnbull government’s search for ‘efficiency dividends’. This has led to a large social media campaign by academics, archivists and general enthusiasts of history from across the globe to #FundTrove, with several petitions to maintain funding for the website.

As this blog seeks to keep you all informed of online material relating to the history of communism and the global left, I thought you would like to know that Trove’s newspaper archive has now digitised several publications of the Communist Party of Australia. This includes:

The Communist (weekly from 1921 to 1923)

The Workers’ Weekly (weekly from 1923 to 1939)

Communist Review (monthly from July 1941 to June 1943)

The Tribune (weekly from 1939 to 1954)

The best way to find these titles is by using the ‘browse’ function in Trove’s digital newspaper section.

This is a valuable resource for those interested in communism in Australia, covering some of the most controversial periods of the CPA’s history. If you haven’t already signed the petition to fund Trove, do so here!

The Communist Party and Black Power in the UK (new scanned doc from YCL’s Cogito)

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As part of my on-going series of scanning various far left documents, I have now uploaded Willie Thompson’s 1968 article on ‘Black Power’ for the Young Communist League theoretical journal, Cogito. This essay is possibly the most developed article by the CPGB (or the YCL) on the issue of black power and black radicalism at the time, even though the black power movement in the UK didn’t reach its height until 1969 to 1971. At the time of writing, Thompson was a young Scottish communist and eventually became attached to the ‘Eurocommunist’ wing of the Party, writing the first history of the Party in 1992. Furthermore, Thompson wrote this article at a time when the Party’s views on ‘race’ were changing, moving from seeing it predominantly as an extension of the ‘colonial’ question to seeing it as a problem faced everyday by black workers in Britain.

As I have written here:

The reason for the change in the CPGB’s ideological position on the concept of ‘race’, which thus informed its practical political position, was twofold – the rise of the black separatist organisations and the increasing promotion of new social movements within the broad democratic alliance in the 1970s, primarily by those influenced by Gramscism and Eurocommunism. In Britain, politically active black immigrants had initially drifted towards the Communist Party, the Movement for Colonial Freedom and the Labour Party, but support for the problems facing black immigrants ‘turned out to be very limited’. (Huntley, 1982, 71) By the late 1960s, black political action underwent a significant change as a black militant position started to emerge. Inspired by American black militants, such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael and later by the Black Panthers and Angela Davis, black power was the idea that ‘black people needed to redefine themselves by asserting their own history and culture to project an image which they would develop without white people’. (Shukra, 1995, 6) Black militancy, which included both black separatist organisations and a Marxist-inspired black radicalism, ‘captured and reactivated many of the disaffected activists’ that had been neglected by the labour movement or felt compromised working within official race related bodies. (Carter, 1986, 62) For the emerging black organisations, the Communist Party’s marginalisation of ‘race’ was rejected in favour of an active acceptance of the political and cultural definition of ‘race’, the basis for black militancy.

The importance of black militancy for the CPGB was that it had shown black activists that there was a way to organise outside of the Communist Party. (Carter, 2000, tape 09) Black militancy was concerned with the white left’s ‘pervasive need to “integrate” the Black class struggle under their organizational/political domination’ (Cambridge & Gutzmore, 1974, 199) and the call for specifically black organisations reflected this apprehension. For the Communist Party, black power was ‘seriously compromised by a lack of class analysis implied in the concept’. (Thompson, n.d., 2) The Party was also suspicious of black militancy due to its revolutionary approach outside the established trade union movement and its inclusion of revolutionary violent rhetoric. The Communist Party’s main strategy during this period was industrial action through the labour movement and co-operation with the Labour left, committed to parliamentary democracy and the ‘broad popular alliance’ as outlined in The British Road to Socialism. Black militancy, in particular the black radical Marxism as promoted in journals such as Race and Class, Race Today and Black Liberator, while advocating black trade union action, shared a greater revolutionary affinity with the far left. The CPGB was criticised for its ‘primary expression of Labourism’, where the Party continued to support voting for the Labour Party, ‘whilst patiently “raising class consciousness” and “politicising” the masses inside this labourist hegemony’. (Cambridge & Gutzmore, 1974, 199) On the other hand, the Communist Party warned that black militancy could ‘embark on the dangerous path of “all blacks against all whites” and… lead to serious consequences’. (International Affairs Committee, 1968)

Despite this hostility towards black power from the CPGB, there was some recognition of the importance of the black militant movement in radicalising people outside what was perceived as the economic confines of the class struggle, which was increasingly promoted with the reforms to The British Road to Socialism in the late 1970s and the broad democratic alliance. One of those associated with the reformer wing of the CPGB was Willie Thompson who wrote an article on black power for the YCL’s theoretical journal, Cogito, which discussed the developments within the attitudes towards Britain’s black population and more importantly, black activism. Although Thompson reiterated the traditional Party line that ‘racial conflict arises because the coloured people are a specifically exploited group’ by capitalism and ‘not from any inherent biological antagonism between races’, he acknowledged that black power is ‘power to combat persecution’ because the ‘racial line represents certain social facts’. (Thompson, n.d., 4-5) This constituted a significant step within the Party’s attitude towards ‘race’ after coming into contact with black militancy, that despite the Party’s insistence of its falsity as scientific fact, ‘race’ was a political and social classification that formed a necessary partner in the struggle against oppression and thus could not be ignored.

You can download the article here.

Refs:

Cambridge, A.X. & Gutzmore, C., 1974, ‘The Industrial Action of the Black Masses and the Class Struggle in Britain’, Black Liberator, 2/3, 195-207.

Carter, Trevor, 1986, Shattering Illusions: West Indians in British Politics, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

– 2000, interview by Mike Squires, 21 February, CPGB Biographical Project, British Library, C1049/26/01-09.

Huntley, Eric, 1982, ‘The Left, Liberals and the Police’, Race Today (February/March).

International Affairs Committe, 1968, ‘Racialism and “Black Power”’, 10 May, CP/LON/RACE/02/01,  LHASC.

Shukra, Kalbir, 1995, ‘From Black Power to Black Perspectives: The Reconstruction of a Black Political Identity’, Youth and Policy (Summer) 5-19.

Thompson, W., n.d., ‘Black Power’, Cogito, 1-7, CP/YCL/21/01, LHASC.