Marxism Today

After Grunwick: Trade unions and anti-racism in the 1980s

This is the latest post looking at the history of the turbulent relationship between the British labour movement and black and Asian workers in the post-war era, following on from posts on the Imperial Typewriters strike in mid-1974 and the Grunwick strike between 1976 and 1978. While Grunwick is seen as a turning point, there were still significant problems for black and Asian workers in the labour movement. These were exacerbated by the attacks on the trade unions (and the black and Asian communities) by the Thatcher government in the early 1980s. This post is based on extracts from my forthcoming book with Brill/Haymarket, British Communism and the Politics of Race.

Although the Grunwick strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since as compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recognised the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[1]

However the strike did not signal an end to the problematic relationship between the trade unions and black and Asian workers, particularly as the trade unions, as well as Britain’s black and Asian communities, came under attack in the early 1980s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many black and Asian workers remained dissatisfied with the trade unions, particularly for their limited reaction to the problem of racism faced by these workers. In 1977, the PEP (Political and Economic Planning) report, Racial Disadvantage in Britain, outlined the problems that black workers faced in their relationship with the trade union movement, noting that while the 1970s had seen developments in most of the trade unions adopting anti-racist and equal opportunities policies, there was ‘a contrast between this formal policy and its practical results’.[2] In interviews with eight of the largest unions in Britain, the report found ‘little evidence that any definite action had been taken’ by the trade union leadership to combat incidents of racial discrimination inside the unions.[3] The report revealed that the trade union leaders were likely to ignore cased of racial discrimination unless they reached the highest echelons of the unions’ complaint structures and as ‘very few complaints filtered up to head-office level,… leaders tended to interpret this as meaning that there was very little trouble of this kind.’[4] The trade unions, along with the Labour Party, were spurred into anti-racist action by the mid-to-late 1970s, as seen with the large scale mobilisation of trade union support for the Grunwick strike and the labour movement backing of the Anti-Nazi League. However as Phizacklea and Miles argued in 1987, the anti-racist campaigning by the trade unions (primarily the TUC) and the Labour Party ‘seemed to die away with the collapse of the National Front vote in the general election of 1979’.[5]

In August 1976, the TUC formed its Race Relations Advisory Committee and in 1981 created a Black Workers Charter, but several studies conducted in the 1980s revealed that these initiatives had a limited impact upon the efforts of the trade unions to combat racism in the workplace and within their own organisations. Phizacklea and Miles cited a 1981 investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the AUEW that it was the policy of the union to condemn racial discrimination, ‘no specific instructions about how such a policy should be implemented had been provided for either officials or members’ and this principled opposition to racism was ‘contradicted by both the open expression of racism’ by some union members and ‘the refusal of the officials to take any action to combat that racism’.[6] Gloria Lee stated that when interviewed, black members ‘saw themselves as grossly under-represented within their unions’ and ‘felt that as black members, they [were] more poorly served buy their union than white members’.[7] John Wrench cited in his 1986 paper that certain acts of explicit racism were still occurring in the trade union movement in the early 1980s, but there was also ‘the more passive collusion of union officers in practices which were discriminatory in their outcomes, and a reluctance to change these practices’, such as the use of word-of-mouth to hire people, which worked greatly against non-white applicants.[8]

The traditional position of the trade unions was to have no specific policies to assist black workers integrate into the labour movement, arguing for ‘equal treatment’ for both black and white union members.[9] Despite the actions taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the aforementioned initiatives by the TUC, the ‘equal treatment’ argument still remained with the trade unions. In 1977, the PEP report stated that some union officials justified their poor record on combating racism ‘by saying they make no distinction between black and white and that this means that no special action can be taken’.[10] Phizacklea and Miles claimed that this was still the case in the 1980s and declared ‘[r]acism can masquerade in the guise of colour-blindness, when there is clear evidence of cases containing discrimination and allegations of lack of support for Asian and Caribbean members from their unions.’[11]

As part of the TUC’s efforts to combat racism, special education classes were created to inform trade unionists about the impact of racism upon black workers and how to tackle this, but critics asserted that as these classes were voluntary to attend, it had not reached the right audience and was not well supported by the unions.[12] Wrench argued that ‘those…who would benefit most from attending such courses tend to stay away as they feel that such provisions are a waste of time and money’.[13] A 1984 report by the Greater London Council’s Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group found that the GMWU, ACTT and NUT all held equal opportunities and ‘racism awareness’ training courses, but only the AUEW-TASS ran any ‘positive action’ programmes, which supported ‘appointing officials with ethnic background, or females, to the union’.[14]

John Wrench wrote in 1986 about this GLC report, stating:

The findings of the GLC survey confirm the suspicions of many activists that despite the history of disputes and struggles, the research, the educational material, and the prosecutions, there remains a body of trade union officers who simply do ot understand – or are wunwilling to acknowledge – what racism and racial equality are, what their effects are, how they operate, and what sorts of measures are needed to oppose them.[15]

However most of these reports from the 1980s pointed to areas where the trade unions were progressing on issues of ‘race’. Phizacklea and Miles wrote that ‘we have witnessed some concern amongst some unions to increase the participation and representation of Asian and Caribbean workers and restatement of a commitment amongst the same union to tackle racism within their own ranks and the wider society.’[16] John Wrench also noted that in the era of austerity and the Thatcherite onslaught against the trade union movement, ‘there has been an awareness of common cause and common interest’ between black and white workers and that this had been ‘part of one positive development of recent years – the increasing organisation of black workers and their success in making their influence felt within the labour movement.’[17]

This eventually led to the establishment of black sections or caucuses within several trade unions, as well as the Labour Party, which were seen as highly controversial at the time. Despite opposition from Labour Opposition leader Neil Kinnock, the black sections motion was passed by the 1983 Labour Party conference and the Party, alongside several public service unions, established black caucuses or sections as part of their internal structures. In a 1985 roundtable organised by Marxism Today, Stuart Hall and the Indian Workers Association (Southall) General Secretary Vishnu Sharma (also a leading CPGB member) argued that black caucuses and sections were beneficial for the labour movement, while Race & Class editor, A. Sivanandan, described them as a ‘distraction from the struggle that the black community has to face today’.[18] Hall countered this by saying:

If you say that the real problem is maintaining the momentum of the black struggle then I can see that the black sections are a distraction. But if you are concerned, an I am concerned, about the question of the white working class, you have to recognise that the Labour Party is a majority working class party. It has hegemonised the working class since the beginning of the twentieth century, whether we like it or not… So the black struggle must have some idea about how to get into that organisationally, how to transform that organisation…[19]

He argued that bringing the black struggle to the Labour Party was a ‘double struggle which is both with and against’ and required taking the fight to the Labour Party’s constituent elements, as well as the TUC –‘blowing it apart from the inside’.[20] To transform the ideas and actions of the labour movement, Hall proposed, one had to ‘mak[e] the internal structured organisation of the labour movement aware of the impact and history of racism.’[21]

Despite their initial controversy, the general political consensus is that the black caucuses within the trade unions and the black sections inside the Labour Party proved useful for promoting an awareness of issues of racial discrimination and equal opportunity within the labour movement, remaining until today. At a time when Thatcherism seemed at its hegemonic peak and the labour movement was at one of its lowest ebbs, the formation of the black caucuses/sections in the face of fierce resistance was a victory that buoyed those in the anti-racist struggle.

nalgo-blame-thatcher-not-ted

[1] McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2014, ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, p. 600.

[2] Smith, David J. 1977, Racial Disadvantage in Britain: The PEP Report, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, p. 193.

[3] Ibid., p. 202.

[4] Ibid., p. 204.

[5] Phizacklea, Annie and Robert Miles 1987, ‘The British Trade Union Movement and Racism’, in The Manufatcure of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveride, Milton Keynes: Open University, p. 119.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lee, Gloria 1987, ‘Black Members and Their Unions’, in The Manufacture of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveridge, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, p. 151.

[8] Wrench, John Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, Policy Papers in Ethnic Relations no. 5, 1986, pp. 11-2.

[9] Wrench, John and Satnam Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised: “Race”, Poor Work and Trade Unions’, in The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, edited by Peter Ackers, Chris Smith and Paul Smith, London: Routledge, p. 245.

[10] Smith 1977, p. 193.

[11] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 123.

[12] Lee 1987, p. 149.

[13] Wrench 1986, p. 13.

[14] GLC Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group, Racism Within Trade Unions, 1984, London: GLC, p. 16.

[15] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 22.

[16] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 121.

[17] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 24.

[18] ‘Black Sections: Radical Demand or… Distraction?’, Marxism Today, September 1985, p. 33.

[19] ‘Black Sections’, p. 34.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

Corbyn, Labour and the limits of the British far left

This is something that I’ve been playing with while trying to write the intro to our second volume on the British far left’s history, titled Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 vol. II and to be published through Manchester University Press in 2017. Parts of it may or may not end up in the final version, but I thought I’d post this while the topic is still being debated…

jeremy-corbyn-john-mcdonnell

While putting together our second edited volume dedicated to the history of the British far left, we have witnessed a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s stint as leader of the Labour Party. This has, in turn, brought a renewed interest in the far left’s history.

Corbyn’s victory in July 2015 had been on the back on a wave of enthusiasm amongst different sections of the Labour Party membership – trade unionists, young people, those who flirted with the Greens and other minor parties, working class members, and, of course, refugees from the British far left. Many on the far left had written off the Labour Party as unreformable in recent years, but Corbyn’s entry into the leadership contest after the 2015 election made a number of the Party’s leftist critics reassess their analysis of Labour.

The election of Corbyn as Labour leader seemed to many to overturn the assumed position of the far left since the advent of New Labour in the 1990s. From Militant Labour (later the Socialist Party of England and Wales) to the Revolutionary Communist Party, it was presumed that the Labour Party was unsalvageable, a bourgeois party that had abandoned the working class. Entrism was left to the rump of Militant and the other groups began a long line of alternative electoral vehicles to Labour – Socialist Alliance, Respect, No2EU, TUSC, the Left List (for example). Admittedly, some groups, such as the Communist Party of Britain, still called a Labour vote at general elections, but asked people to metaphorically hold their nose while doing so. But the initial period after Corbyn’s victory seemed to suggest that there was political life left in Labour, awoken from its slumber by the thousands of veteran activists from the social movements of the 2000s that Corbyn had been involved in, primarily Stop the War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Unite Against Fascism, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

However as the last year has proved, trying to reform the outlook and membership base of Labour Party (which has been the intention of many of those supporting Corbyn) while trying to maintain the emphasis on electoralism (which has been the focus of the Party since 1945 at least) has brought the Party to near schism. Looking at the long history of the relationship between the British far left and the Labour Party, it seems that the lessons of the 1960s (when the IMG and IS became entities in their own right) or the 1990s (when Militant Labour had its ‘open turn’) might have to be learnt all over again. Entrism has its limits and it is possibly far better for the far left to be social forces outside the Labour Party putting pressure from without than to be marginalised while attempting to apply pressure from within. Since the Labour Party refused to affiliate with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the 1920s, the far left has had to negotiate how much to work with (or within) Labour and how much to differentiate and present an alternative.

The Communist Party of Great Britain had sought affiliation with the Labour Party several times during the inter-war period, but after its last attempt failed in 1945-46, the CPGB devised another way to influence the Labour Party and bring forward the future possibility of a Labour-Communist alliance. This influence would come through the structures of the trade union bureaucracy. Most other groups on the far left looked to seek influence in the trade unions at rank-and-file level, but wrote off the higher echelons of the trade unions as reformist and too conservative. However this strategy of working through the trade unions formed the basis for the CPGB’s post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism. As John Callaghan has noted, almost all the elements of the CPGB’s plan to gain influence inside the Labour Party through the trade unions came together in the period between 1973 and 1983 (between the defeat of the Heath Government and Labour’s ‘radical’ 1983 manifesto),[1] but as we now know, there were little tangible gains from this strategy. The victory of the trade unions over Edward Heath only resulted in a crisis-ridden Labour Government beholden to the International Monetary Fund and Labour were roundly defeated in the 1983 election by Margaret Thatcher, after the Party’s leftwards shift caused a section of the right to break away to form the Social Democratic Party.

The loss of the 1983 election is routinely blamed upon the far left entrists in the Labour Party who pushed the party to the left, resulting in a manifesto that alienated the political centre. Roy Hattersley is attributed as saying the Party’s ‘Trotskyists, one-subject campaigners, Marxists who had never read Marx, Maoists, pathological dissidents … played a major part in keeping the Conservatives in power for almost twenty years.’[2] Although the actual reasons for Labour’s disastrous showing at this election are far more complex, the shadow of 1983 has loomed large over the party since Corbyn’s leadership victory.[3] Since becoming Labour leader, many have predicted that Corbyn will repeat the mistakes of Labour under Michael Foot – giving too much leeway to the far left and thus encouraging a split with the centre-right. The far left is portrayed by many commentators as a nebulous force set to derail Labour’s ability to present a credible opposition to the Conservatives and one of the main reasons that Labour will lose the 2020 general election (if not called sooner). While the spectre of various Trotskyists and Communists inside the Labour Party has been raised, it also vastly overestimates the influence that the far left has within the Labour Party nowadays.

In his recent book on the Corbyn ‘revolution’, Richard Seymour has suggested that the Labour Party ‘may simply be untenable in its current form’.[4] The gap between the electoral desires of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the grassroots call for reforms by a large section of the Party’s membership, not to mention to shifting voting base for the Labour Party, seems unsurmountable – and a resolution to suit all involved is unrealistic. Journalist and economist Paul Mason has recently suggested that the Labour Party should become a social movement, rather than simply an electoral political party. However the post-war history of the British far left highlights the difficulties in creating a social movement around an organised political party, rather than a single issue organisation. As Phil Burton-Cartledge showed in our last volume, Against the Grain, the success of the far left has come when it has spearheaded a broad-based social movement,[5] such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War movement, rather than when it has tried to consolidate and centralise its membership into a particular party. The history of the far left in Britain has shown that when different parties have attempted to transform momentum from a broad social movement into concrete party membership, this has not been easily translated. An understanding of the history of how the far left has operated and functioned in Britain since the 1950s is important to understand the limits of a radical agenda within a reformist framework (essentially where the Labour Party finds itself in 2016). It is hoped that our forthcoming book, as well as the previous volume, will help provide readers with this understanding.

 

[1] John Callaghan, ‘The Plan to Capture the British Labour Party and its Paradoxical Results, 1947-91’, Journal of Contemporary History, 40/4 (2005) p. 707.

[2] Cited in, Mark Steel, Reasons to be Cheerful: From Punk to New Labour (London: Scribner, 2001) p. 116.

[3] For example, see: Peter Dorey & Andrew Denham, ‘“The Longest Suicide Vote in History”: The Labour Party Leadership Election of 2015’, British Politics (2016) doi:10.1057/s41293-016-0001-0

[4] Richard Seymour, Corbyn: the Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (London: Verso, 2016) p. 12.

[5] Phil Burton-Cartledge, ‘Marching Separately, Seldom Together: The Political History of Two Principal Trends in British Trotskyism, 1945-2009’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) pp. 80-97.

From Powell to Brexit: My interview with the Weekly Worker on ‘race’, anti-racism and the British left

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This week, the CPGB’s Weekly Worker (see here for more info on its background) conducted an interview with me about my forthcoming book, British Communism and the Politics of Race, as well as on my research in general and the anti-racist movement in Britain since the 1960s. You can read the full interview here. It was an interesting experience and some challenging questions!

The Communist Party’s campaign for the Race Relations Act 1965

This month is the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1965 by the Wilson government, the first piece of legislation dealing with racial discrimination in the United Kingdom. As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), a major part of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s anti-racist activism between the 1950s and the 1970s was the introduction and use of legislation to combat racial discrimination, namely the Race Relations Act. The following post looks at the CPGB’s call for legislation before 1965 and how it responded to the Act once it was in effect.

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

Since the end of the Second World War, the Communist Party had campaigned for the introduction of legislation combat racial hatred and the incitement to racial violence. With the influx of Commonwealth migrants in the 1950s, the Party also campaigned for legislation to fight the racial discrimination faced by many of the new arrivals to the country. In 1955, the International Department published the pamphlet No Colour Bar in Britain, which contained the ‘Charter of Rights’ for Commonwealth migrants coming to Britain. The first point of this Charter called for:

No form of colour discrimination by employers, landlords, publicans, hotel proprietors or any aspect of social, educational and cultural activity. Any racial discrimination to be made a penal offence.[i]

This meant support for Fenner Brockway’s attempts to pass legislation that would ban racial discrimination and the ‘colour bar’ in Britain. In June 1956, Brockway introduced a Bill ‘to make illegal discrimination to the detriment of any person on the grounds of colour, race and religion in the United Kingdom’.[ii] Brockway acknowledged that ‘there must be a limitation to the powers of legislation’, but cited three main areas where legislation was ‘justified and necessary’ – public areas, housing and employment.[iii] At this time, Brockway was also National Chairman of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, which founded in April 1954.[iv] Between 1956 and the introduction of the Race Relations Act in 1965, Brockway proposed a bill on racial discrimination a number of times, all defeated by the Conservative majority. Kay Beauchamp wrote in Marxism Today in 1967 that Brockway had introduced a Bill on racial discrimination ‘no less than eight times’ and this had been supported by the MCF, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and other progressive organisations, as well as the Communist Party itself.[v]

There were two main arguments made by the Communist Party for the introduction of the Race Relations Act. The first was a continuation of the CPGB’s anti-fascist stance, calling for a ban on the incitement to racial hatred. The other was the wider argument for legislation to combat racial discrimination that was much more widespread and institutionalised than that explicitly perpetrated by the fascist far right minority. The CPGB argued that this was not an issue of free speech, but stated that preventing race hatred was a ‘guarantee of peace, democracy and progress’.[vi] To defend these ideals, the Party demanded that fascist organisations, such as Mosley’s Union Movement, be banned from using public halls, and that workers should ‘oppose every form of colour discrimination’ and make ‘such discrimination or propaganda for it, a criminal offence’.[vii]

This argument was raised again in July 1962, when anti-fascists, in what were the beginnings of the Yellow Star Movement, battled in Trafalgar Square against the fledgling National Socialist Movement (NSM), led by Colin Jordan and future National Front leader, John Tyndall. According to The Guardian, the first public meeting of the NSM ‘ended with 20 arrests, fights, bleeding faces, abuse, and tears’.[viii] In the weeks following, the CPGB demanded that ‘racial incitement be made illegal… as a result of the widespread and deep indignation aroused by the recent re-activisation of fascist organisations in Britain’.[ix] The Party repeated that Fenner Brockway had been proposing legislation against racist propaganda for years and declared that it, along with the British working class, would ‘give its wholehearted support to the efforts being made for the carrying of such legislation in Parliament’.[x]

However, the Party was wary about the state using the 1936 Public Order Act to combat public racist agitation. In the same article, it warned that a ‘Tory MP, incidentally, has seized the opportunity to propose a ban on ALL political meetings in [Trafalgar] Square’,[xi] which would have had a much harder impact on the left and other progressive movements than the fascist far right. The fact that the Public Order Act had been ‘mainly used against those who resent and protest against provocative racialist propaganda’ was one of the reasons why the Communist Party supported Brockway’s Bill, rather than amending the 1936 Act.[xii] In a memorandum presented by the London District Committee in December 1964, the Party declared that:

There should be no question of amending the Public Order Act (1936) instead of introducing a Bill. The Public Order Act is an Act directed against the working class movement and any strengthening of it will tend to be used not against fascists, but as in the past, against anti-fascists.[xiii]

The other side to the campaign for legislation against racial discrimination was the much more widespread and institutionalised racism that black people in Britain faced in public places, in employment, in seeking housing and in their interactions with the state. Any legislation brought in could not eliminate all racism within British society, but Fenner Brockway’s aimed to ‘end, by legislation, the practice of race discrimination in… public relations’.[xiv] Despite the very real instances of racial discrimination that were experienced by blacks in Britain, the Conservatives opposed any legislation, declaring that ‘it would be almost impossible to prove that a person had been turned away on the grounds of colour and on the grounds of colour alone’.[xv] Describing Brockway’s proposals as ‘badly drafted and ill-conceived’, Conservative MP Bernard Braine claimed during a Parliamentary debate on the Bill that ‘a large number of coloured people… have not experienced any form of discrimination ‘ and ‘discrimination, therefore, is something which ought not to be tackled by legislation, but… by education’.[xvi]

The Communist Party countered these claims by the Conservatives that legislation was unnecessary in the Daily Worker and other CPGB literature. In a memorandum submitted to the Labour Government by the London District Committee in March 1965, the Party declared that racism was ‘widespread in relation to employment, housing and recreational facilities’ with ‘many examples of refusal to serve coloured people in restaurants, public houses and other public places’.[xvii] To counter this, the Party proposed that discrimination should be made illegal:

  • by a keeper of a Hotel, Public House, Café or Restaurant…;
  • by a keeper of any kind of Boarding House, Common Lodging House or in granting a tenancy;
  • by a keeper of any public place of entertainment… to which the public are admitted.[xviii]

In the sphere of employment, the Party proposed legislation making it illegal for ‘employers or workers to refuse employment, apprenticeship, training or promotion’ on the grounds of race, along with attempts to ‘pay a lower rate to a worker’ on racial grounds.[xix] The Party proposed that any public incitement of racial hatred or contempt should be an offence, to be applied to the spoken word and that used in leaflets, newspapers or any other printed or duplicated material. The Party reiterated that ‘existing legislation is inadequate with this menace’ of explicit racial prejudice and ‘the matter cannot be effectively dealt with by amending the Public Order Act’.[xx]

Throughout the Communist Party’s campaign to support the creation of what became the Race Relations Act, there was the acknowledgement of the limitations of legislation without wider education and efforts made at local grassroots level. ‘No one would pretend that such legislation, by itself alone, would be sufficient to wipe out colour-bar practices’, wrote Kay Beauchamp, ‘let alone to rid people’s minds of the racial ideas which more than three hundred years of capitalist rule have plated there’.[xxi] But what it was hoped the Race Relations Act would do was ‘deter those who at present practice racial discrimination’ and ‘restrain those… who deliberately incite racial hatred’, as well as preventing ‘the more open forms of their insidious propaganda’.[xxii]

In November 1965, the Race Relations Act was enacted by the Labour Government. On the issue of discrimination, the Act made it illegal for places of public resort to ‘practise discrimination on the ground of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins against persons seeking access to or facilities or services at that place’.[xxiii] In the sphere of housing, tenancy could not be withheld on the grounds of race, but this only applied to freestanding properties and not to lodgings where the landlord also lived.[xxiv] The Labour Government established a Race Relations Board to investigate complaints of violations of the Act and facilitate conciliation between the parties concerned. Punishment for violation of the Act could only be delivered by the Attorney General, to whom the Race Relations Board would report. While racial discrimination was now in violation of civil law, it made racial incitement, published, distributed or publicly spoken, a criminal offence. However the final clause of the Act also amended the 1936 Public Order Act, extending it to any words or writings deemed ‘threatening, abusive or insulting, with intent to provoke a breach of the peace’ and not limited to the issue of ‘race’.[xxv]

The Race Relations Act was a significantly weaker Act than the one which had been proposed by Fenner Brockway and was, as Dilip Hiro noted, ‘criticized by liberal opinion both inside and outside Parliament’, including criticism from the Communist Party.[xxvi] The Act was described as ‘marred by weakness which represented a dangerous concession to the most reactionary and racially prejudiced of the Tory Party’.[xxvii] Tony Chater claimed that the Act worked as a ‘barrier against prosecution for incitement to racial hatred’ as it relied on the Attorney General to initiate any proceedings.[xxviii] Conciliation machinery was viewed as ‘very desirable, but only within the framework of criminal proceedings’, not as a substitute for legislation.[xxix] ‘If such machinery becomes a substitute for legislation against racial discrimination’, warned CPGB member Harry Bourne, ‘then full licence will be left to the racialists to carry on their foul work’.[xxx]

In July 1967, Beauchamp wrote in Marxism Today:

The Race Relations Board recently reported that out of 309 cases referred to it, 224 referred to matters outside its powers, including 97 on jobs and 23 on housing. Of the remaining 87, 17 had been settled out of court, 2 had been referred to the Attorney General and 31 were being looked at.[xxxi]

The amendments to the Public Order Act in the 1965 Act were claimed by the CPGB to have ‘nothing to do with race relations’ and its extensions going ‘beyond the intention’ of the Act, with the possibility of it being ‘used to curb the normal political activities of the people’.[xxxii] Despite its weaknesses, the Communist Party saw the Act as ‘a first limited step to combat the spread of racial discrimination and incitement’ and called for support for it ‘in principle by all progressive people’.[xxxiii] The CPGB continued to call for ‘amending of the Race Relations Act to make it more effective against incitement to race hatred and against discrimination, particularly in housing and employment’.[xxxiv] It also proposed that ‘it should be easier for a victim… to have recourse to law without having to seek the Attorney General’s intervention’.[xxxv] However as the Act was strengthened by the Labour Government in 1968, this happened as more severe restrictions were placed on black immigration in Britain.

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Beauchamp’s 1967 article in Marxism Today

 

(Full refs are available upon request)

[i] Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 11.

[ii] Hansard, 12 June 1956, col. 247.

[iii] Hansard, 12 June 1956, col. 248-49.

[iv] Howe 1993, p. 231.

[v] Beauchamp, ‘Racialism in Britain Today and How to Fight It’, Marxism Today, July 1967, p. 203.

[vi] ‘Stop Racial Propaganda’, n.d., Manchester: CPGB flyer.

[vii] ‘Stop Racial Propaganda’

[viii] The Guardian, 2 July 1962.

[ix] Jones, ‘Outlaw This Incitement to Racial Hatred’, Comment, 11 August 1962, p. 381.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Zaidman, ‘Fight Race Hate Here Too’, Comment, 5 October 1963, p. 631.

[xiii] London District Committee, ‘Memorandum on a Bill against Racial Discrimination and Incitement’, 16 December 1964, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/01/01, LHASC.

[xiv] Hansard, 30 April 1958, col. 388.

[xv] Hansard, 24 May 1957, col. 1604.

[xvi] Hansard, 24 May 1957, col. 1602; col. 1606.

[xvii] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement: What Should Be in the Bill?, March 1965, p. 2, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/01/04, LHASC.

[xviii] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement, p. 5.

[xix] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement, p. 6.

[xx] London District Committee, Against Racial Discrimination & Incitement, pp. 8-9.

[xxi] Beauchamp, ‘Colour Bar’, Comment, 11 January 1964, p. 22.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Race Relations Act, 1965, 1 (1)

[xxiv] In most discussions of the shortcomings of the first Race Relations Act, it is generally mentioned that ‘it did not apply to the areas of employment and housing’. While employment was not included in the Act, some mention of housing was included, but this is commonly overlooked. Even contemporary reports in the Communist Party press generalised about the weaknesses of the Act, stating that, ‘Discrimination in the important fields of employment and housing is not within its scope’. Miles and Phizacklea 1984, p. 57; Hiro 1992, p. 210; Moore 1975, p. 103; Chater 1966, p. 62; Daily Worker, 29 April 1965.

[xxv] Race Relations Act, 1965, 7

[xxvi] Hiro 1992, p. 210.

[xxvii] ‘Political Committee Statement on Race Relations Bill’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/01/02, LHASC.

[xxviii] Chater 1966, p. 62.

[xxix] Chater 1966, p. 63.

[xxx] Bourne, Racialism, p. 12.

[xxxi] Beauchamp, ‘Racialism in Britain Today and How to Fight It’, p. 203.

[xxxii] ‘Political Committee Statement on Race Relations Bill’

[xxxiii] ‘Political Committee Statement on Race Relations Bill’

[xxxiv] Beauchamp, ‘Racialism in Britain and the Fight Against It’, p. 617.

[xxxv] Bourne, Racialism, pp. 12-3.

‘Fortress Britain’ and the end of the Cold War

Timothy Garton Ash wrote in The Guardian this week that the walls and barriers that had fallen in 1989 were being rebuilt in 2015. A cartoon in the pages of Marxism Today published in December 1989 seems to have made the same argument – that while the West celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the same time, they were seeking to build metaphorical walls of their own to keep out ‘undesirable’ migrants.

Wall 1989

In 1982, Thatcher described the Berlin Wall as ‘a monument to oppression and cruelty, but also to futility’. The British border control system, which was significantly strengthened during her Prime Ministership, could be described in the same terms.

Since Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, the free movement of people within the borders of the EEC (and then the European Union) meant that Britain experienced significantly more numbers of migrants from Europe than from the Commonwealth and other nations, whose numbers were cut dramatically by the introduction of the Immigration Act 1971. Although opposition to Britain joining the European Community has been widespread, but diffuse, since the late 1960s, opposition to migration from within Europe was only a minor feature in the discourse on immigration in Britain until the 1990s.

The most reasonable explanation for this is because there was free movement within the EEC’s borders, labour migration was not permanent and numbers seemed to rise and fall in line with changes in the economic landscape. But there is also the possibility that objections to European migration were muted because most migrants within the EEC were “white”. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1991 and the enlargement of the European Union in the early 2000s have shifted the discourse on European migration in Britain.

A substantial part of the discourse has been a concern over migrants from Eastern Europe to Britain, replicating fears expressed over previous waves of migrants to Britain – that Eastern Europeans, particularly Polish migrants, have been taking jobs away from British people and that others, particularly Romanians, Bulgarians and Albanians, have been involved in crime in Britain, from petty offences to trans-national organised crime. These objections to migration from Eastern Europe have been usually, but not always, part of a wider objection to the European Union and a push for Britain to leave the EU.

Furthermore in 2015, the nations that exist on the edges of the EU, such as Greece, Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania have been seen as having porous borders that have allowed asylum seekers and ‘illegal immigrants’ from the Middle East and South Asia into Europe. Under the Conservatives (and driven to the right by UKIP), anti-European and anti-immigrant sentiment had reached such a height that Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU and Cameron has pushed for a renegotiation of the nation’s obligations to Europe. This is possibly the biggest assertion of British self-interest within the EU since Margaret Thatcher refused to join the Schengen Area in the late 1980s.

In 1985, the Schengen Agreement was first signed by member countries of the EEC to discard the operation of border control between these countries, which has expanded within the EU to twenty-five countries. Thatcher refused to join and during an infamous speech in Bruges in 1988, stated:

Of course, we want to make it easier for goods to pass through frontiers. Of course, we must make it easier for people to travel through the Community. But it is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants.

By this time, ‘Fortress Britain’ had already excluded most Commonwealth immigrants and now it resisted relaxing its controls with regards to people from within Europe.

As travel restrictions between East and West Germany were abolished in November 1989, Thatcher expressed that she hoped that ‘this is only a prelude to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.’ As the rest of the Soviet Bloc collapsed, while many proposed greater integration of the former Eastern ‘people’s democracies’ into the European Union, Thatcher and other Eurosceptic Tories worried about expansion of the EU eastwards. However by the time that EU expansion was actually tabled, Labour was in power, who did not oppose this, much to the chargrin of many.

While the walls are going back up across mainland Europe now, Britain’s (metaphorical) walls have been erected since the dying days of the Cold War.

 

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

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

A CPGB pamphlet from the late 1960s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 9.19.29 pm

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.