protest

Love Milkshakes, Hate Racism: A short history of throwing food at the far right

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In the last month, milkshakes have been lobbed at several far right candidates in the Euro elections. First it was former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, then UKIP’s misogynist YouTuber Carl Benjamin and now Nigel Farage as he was out campaigning in Newcastle for his new Brexit Party. When Farage visited Edinburgh, the local police advised McDonald’s not to sell milkshakes and there has been further news that Farage refused to step off his tour bus after being threatened with further milkshakings.

This has followed on from the egging of right-wing politicians in Australiaand of neo-Nazis in the United States. Some commentators have argued that these milkshakings and eggings are a form of political violence, while defenders of those who have thrown milkshakes and eggs have countered that these are non-violent forms of protest, designed to humiliate rather than injure. Compared with the prospect of violence from the far right, the dousing of political opponents in food stuffs is relatively minor.

On social media, opponents of the far right have been quick to use eggs and milkshakes as cultural symbols of anti-fascism. The throwing of food stuffs at politicians has a long history in most parts of the world, but there is a discernible history of food stuffs being used to combat the far right in Britain going back to the 1930s and the fights against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

In June 1934, shortly after the violent clashes between anti-fascists and the BUF at Olympia, eggs and fruit were thrown at the BUF in Melksham, Wiltshere, alongside a car being overturned. Later in the same year, eggs and bottles were thrown at the BUF in Gillingham, Kent. At the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936, various accounts say that eggs, rotten fruit and flour were hurled at the marching fascists and the police. In the weeks following ‘Cable Street’, eggs, vegetables and tomatoes bombarded fascist speakers in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

After the war, Oswald Mosley still attracted protests involving food. After being invited to speak at the Cambridge Union in 1958, Mosley was hit in the face with a custard pie. Invited again to speak in 1960 to the same union society, Mosley was slapped with a jelly across the face, while protestors chanted ‘Sharpeville, Notting Hill’.

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When the fascists attempted to go out in public, they were also confronted with food stuffs. When Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement held a rally in Trafalgar Square in July 1962, he had tomatoes and rotten eggs pelted at him. A few months later, Mosley attended a Union Movement (the successor organisation to the BUF) in Bethnal Green in East London and endured a hail of fruit and bad eggs while he tried to speak. As he fled to his car, he was egged again. When Jordan married Francoise Dior in Yorkshire in 1963, eggs were among the things thrown at those attending the Nazi wedding.

In the 1970s, when the National Front held provocative rallies, there was a clash in North London in April 1977 at the ‘Battle of Wood Green’ (with a young Jeremy Corbyn involved in organising the protest). Bags of flour, rotten eggs and fruit were gathered and thrown at the NF.

During the protests against visiting hard right politicians in the 1970s and 1980s, several MPs had food stuff thrown at them. Sir Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s early supporters, was pelted with flour bombs and eggs when he came to speak at Essex University in February 1977. Home Office minister David Waddington was doused in beer in December 1985 when he tried to address a meeting at the University of Manchester and Enoch Powell had a ham sandwich thrown at him the following year during a visit to Bristol University.

And the tradition of egging the far right continued into the twenty first century. Days after winning a seat in the 2009 European elections, leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, was egged as he tried to hold a press conference. When the English Defence League attempted to march through Nottingham in August 2016, eggs (alongside the protestor’s popular choice, smoke bombs) were thrown as anti-fascists largely outnumbered the small EDL crowd.

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After the egging of Nick Griffin,Gerry Gable, the long-time editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight wrote that while seeing food stuffs being dumped over Griffin’s head ‘certainly brought a smile to many people’s face’, it was ‘going to take more than a few well-aimed eggs and worthy placards to finish the BNP for good.’ This is certainly the case, but a well-aimed egg or milkshake (especially in the era of social media where such spectacles can shared and replayed by millions) can lift the spirits of anti-fascists everywhere.

 

 

 

 

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Two new opinion pieces on the history of fascism and anti-fascism

A quick post to let people know that I have had two opinion pieces published this week on the history of fascism and anti-fascism in Britain and Australia.

Firstly, the Times Higher Education website published a piece on the pre-history of ‘no platform’ and the protests against far right speakers on university campuses in the 1950s and 1960s.

Secondly, in response to the debate over whether those who attended a far right in St Kilda earlier in the month were Nazis, Overland published a longer piece on the history of neo-Nazism in Australia and the far right.

Now back to the book!

Free speech at Australian universities: Learning from the British experience

I wrote this for an outlet, but it has not been published, so I am posting here.

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Last month, the Minister for Education announced that former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French, would conduct an inquiry into free speech at Australian universities. Although the scope of the inquiry seems to be wide, Tehan seems to be have been driven to launch this inquiry after concerns were raised in the press about students protesting against certain speakers at events on campus. Students protesting against speakers, such as Bettina Arndt, have been accused of shutting down debate and using the threat of public disorder to force event organisers to pay a substantial amount of money for security or to cancel the event.

At a time when Tehan and his predecessor, Simon Birmingham, were being heavily criticised for their intervention in the grant awarding process of the Australian Research Council and denying funds to 11 projects that had been recommended to receive funding, an inquiry into freedom of speech and academic freedom at Australian universities seemed a perplexing choice. For many in the higher education sector, it seemed like another culture war tactic by a government that was appealing to its conservative base.

Speaking about the inquiry, Tehan suggested that one of the outcomes of the inquiry may be an adoption of an Australian version of the Chicago Statement, an initiative by a small cluster of US universities to commit to the maintenance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Focus on the Chicago Statement has been a recent development in the discourse on freedom of speech at universities in Australia, although the statement was first adopted by the University of Chicago in 2012. Professor Kath Gelber from the University of Queensland has argued that an adoption of the principles of the Chicago Statement by Australian universities would be ‘unlikely to be of benefit in resolving the issues with which the minister appears to be concerned’, and called the whole inquiry ‘expensive and unnecessary’.

The Chicago Statement was given significant attention in the Institute of Public Affairs’ two recent reports into free speech on campus, with the IPA’s ‘audits’ of free speech at Australian universities inspired heavily by similar reports on US and UK universities by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and spiked! respectively. The recent interest by both the IPA and the Liberal government in the Chicago Statement could be seen as another indicator of the importing of culture war tropes from the United States and the United Kingdom, particularly around the issue of free speech on campus.

As the discourse of free speech at Australian universities seems heavily influenced from other countries, it would be wise to consider how the debate on free speech and ‘no platform’ has recently developed in the UK, where the then Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, launched an inquiry into this topic late last year.

The concern over free speech at universities has existed in Britain for a long time, with complaints about violent students shutting down freedom of speech on campus since the late 1960s. When the National Union of Students implemented a policy of ‘no platform’ for fascists and racists in 1974, many commentators and politicians viewed this a form of ‘left-wing fascism’. The ‘no platform’ policy has existed more or less in tact since the late 1970s and is routinely held up by conservatives and libertarians as an infringement upon the freedom of speech, portraying controversial speakers as hostage to the proponents of ‘identity politics’ and ‘grievance studies’.

The Thatcher government attempted to legislate against this in 1986 by mandating that universities had a duty to ensure freedom of speech, with possible disciplinary actions taken against universities which failed to comply with the legislation. However student unions were, and are, separate legal entities to the universities and the legislation did not apply to them.

Although there have been controversies over the application of the ‘no platform’ policy at British universities since the 1970s, media attention around this subject seems to have grown in recent years, possibly exacerbated by social media. Amongst the possible reasons for this is the resurgent far right across the globe and greater opposition to this, including actions to keep racists off British campuses. Another is that there has been growing opposition to the presence of trans-exclusionary feminists, such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, on campuses and there has been a significant spotlight on the application of the ‘no platform’ policy by individual student unions and groups to these speakers.

At the same time, the Conservatives under David Cameron significantly revised the Prevent strategy, which was first devised after the July 2005 bombings to stop the propagation of radical and extremist ideas, including at universities. As a 2015 House of Lords Library Note shows, this was the main concern about the infringement upon freedom of speech until recently. It has been contested by a number of scholars and commentators that Prevent is much more damaging to free speech and academic inquiry than ‘no platforming’.

In October 2017, Jo Johnson called for the newly established Office for Students (OfS) to ‘champion free speech in UK universities’ and the following month, he announced that a parliamentary inquiry would be held. With over 100 pieces of written evidence submitted and over 35 people presenting oral testimony to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the inquiry went from December 2017 to March 2018. In comparison with the discourse surrounding the Australian inquiry, there was little, if any, mention of the Chicago Statement by any those giving evidence.

The inquiry’s report found that while there had been incursions on ‘lawful free speech’, the committee ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested’. The report did, however, call for greater intervention by the Charity Commission against student unions that ‘inhibit lawful free speech’ and recommended that ‘[e]ffective action should be taken against protestors’ who attempt to disrupt or shut down events. It was suggested that the OfS take over from the Charity Commission in regulating student unions and publish an annual report on the topic of free speech at universities.

In October 2018, a BBC Reality Check story, using FOI documents, showed that the number of incidents where free speech was curtailed at British universities was very small. Receiving responses from 120 of the 136 universities in the UK, the BBC reported that since 2010, there were only six occasions ‘on which universities cancelled speakers as a result of complaints’.

The outcome of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry, as well as the figures provided by the BBC, suggest that the concern around freedom of speech on university campuses is being promoted by conservatives and libertarians amidst a wider culture war and not driven by what is actually concerning both students and academics in higher education. Although Dan Tehan has launched a similar inquiry into free speech at Australian universities, the UK experience indicates that such an inquiry is not needed and reveals a government intent on unwisely interfering in the university sector.

From Olympia to Hyde Park: British anti-fascism in the summer of 1934

On 9 September 1934, a BUF rally at Hyde Park was opposed by a massive anti-fascist counter-demonstration, coming a few months after anti-fascists attempted to disrupt a BUF rally at Olympia and after a summer of similar confrontations across a number of metropolitan areas in England. This post is based on an early chapter from my book project on the history of no platform, to be published by Routledge’s Fascism and Far Right series.  

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The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was formed by Oswald Mosley in late 1932 and it grew exponentially in its first years, with nearly 50,000 members allegedly joining.[1] Enjoying support from Lord Rothmere’s Daily Mail and other sections of the Conservative right, Mosley attempted to establish the BUF through a series of public meetings, demonstrating its supposed mass support at rallies, inspired by Mussolini and Hitler. There were frequent mobilisations by anti-fascists against these public meetings and rallies in the early years of the BUF, culminating in two events in 1934 that solidified the militant anti-fascist approach of physical confrontation and also revealed the violent nature of the BUF.

Robert Skidelsky suggested ‘[f]or both fascists and anti-fascists Olympia was the epic battle of the 1930s’, explaining:

Fascists looked back with satisfaction on the ‘beating’ they had given the ‘Reds’ and claimed that it had restored ‘free speech’ in Britain. Anti-fascists regarded it as the moment when they unambiguously exposed the brutal face of fascism and condemned it thereafter in the eyes of all decent Englishmen.[2]

Olympia was to be a demonstration of the strength of the British Union of Fascists. As mentioned above, its membership growth had been strong throughout its first 18 months. After several well-attended meetings at the Albert Hall, Mosley believed that a larger venue, such as that of Olympia Stadium, was necessary. Around 10,000 people filled the stadium, with anti-fascists (primarily members of the Communist Party) securing around 500 tickets. The Communist Party portrayed Olympia as a chance to build the anti-fascist movement and confront the growing BUF. Regarding threats made in the run up to the meeting by Mosley, the Daily Worker declared:

Already the Blackshirts have used provocative threats against the workers…

They have made such threats at many meetings, but [past] events have shown that all their thuggish methods were unable to prevent the workers having their say. To-night will again prove this rule…

[T]he workers’ counter-section will cause them to tremble. All roads lead to Olympia to-night.[3]

A counter-demonstration by anti-fascists was held outside the venue, while anti-fascists heckled the speakers, including Mosley, and sought to disrupt the meeting. These disruptions were staggered over the evening, so to ensure the maximum disruptive effect. As The Times reported the following day, ‘The campaign of interruption had been well planned so that it should affect every part of the meeting in the course of the evening’.[4]

BUF bodyguards violently ejected the anti-fascist protestors, with The Times stating the constant interruptions were ‘countered with similar thoroughness and with a uniformity of treatment which suggested a prescribed technique of violence’.[5]The newspaper continued:

Stewards at once made for the offenders. If they resisted ejection the incident at once became an affair of fisticuffs and, if the victim remained standing at the end of his resistance he was seized ju-jitsu fashion and dragged out. Quite a number were borne out limp bodies after the frays.[6]

Once ejected, there were a number of arrests of anti-fascists outside the venue, where further violence was meted out by the police. The Daily Workerreported that outside Olympia, ‘seething crowds of thousands of workers kept up a continual anti-Fascist uproar, despite the enormous special concentration of police forces which had been gathered… for the Blackshirts’ protection’.[7] The following day, the newspaper stated that 24 anti-fascists had been arrested, compared to one BUF supporter, claiming that this was ‘a striking fact, which [spoke] volumes’ about the differing treatment by the police towards the BUF and the CPGB.[8]

Mosley and the BUF complained about the tactics used by the anti-fascists, described as ‘highly organized groups of Reds’, to break up the public meeting. Quoted in The Times, Mosley claimed:

For over three weeks certain Communist and Socialist papers have published incitements to their readers to attack this meeting. The result was that a large Red mob gathered outside the hall for the purpose of intimidating those who entered, and very many of the audience were in fact jostled before they managed to enter the meeting at all.[9]

In the BUF press, the violence was blamed on the Communists, but the fascist response was also celebrated, with A.K. Chesterton declaring it a ‘fascist victory’ and the ‘Red Terror Smashed’.[10] On the other hand, the Communist Party also claimed a victory as Olympia, with the Daily Workerdeclaring the following day:

Terrific scenes were witnessed at Olympia last night, when the workers of London staged a mighty counter-demonstration to the Mosley Fascists. Mosley’s carefully-planned arrangements were turned into a complete fiasco.[11]

There was an outcry by some in the press and some politicians at the violence witnessed at Olympia, which has been documented by a number of scholars. For example, The Times quoted Conservative MP Geoffrey Lloyd as declaring, ‘I am not very sympathetic to Communists who try to break up meetings, but I am bound to say that I was appalled by the brutal conduct of the Fascists last night’.[12] Although a number argued that the tactics of the anti-fascist protestors was just as deplorable as the actions of the BUF stewards. The Timesreported on debates in the House of Commons in the aftermath of Olympia, summarising that ‘members were about equally divided between unqualified condemnation of alleged Fascist brutality towards interrupters, and the feeling that allowances must be made for those who had been sorely provoked by Communists’.[13] Rajani Palme Dutt, a leading CPGB figure, wrote in his editorial for Labour Monthly that it was only because of the anti-fascist demonstrators that ‘the eyes of millions’ had been opened ‘to the real character of Fascism’.[14] Dutt proclaimed, ‘It is solely thanks to their stand that the present universal outcry against Fascism has developed, where before there was silence or indifference or amused toleration’.[15]

Scholars have debated whether the violence had a negative effect on the popularity of the BUF in 1934. David Renton has written that after Olympia, Lord Rothmere withdrew his support and that ‘BUF membership fell from 40,000 to 5,000 by the summer of 1935’.[16] Both Martin Pugh and Stephen Dorril have shown that some were put off by the violence on display at Olympia, but to some BUF supporters, the violent confrontations with the Communists solidified theirdedication to Mosley.[17] The columns of the mainstream newspapers were filled with both expressions of horror at the violence and letters of praise for Mosley’s tactics. As Pugh has explained:

The truth is that while the violence alienated some people, it also added to the appeal of the BUF among the young and militant anti-Communists, with the result that the organisation experienced a major turnover of membership during 1934-35.[18]

Whether the violence turned people away from the BUF or attracted them to it, it was clear that violence was an inherent part of the BUF’s programme.

The violence meted out to anti-fascists who broke up the meeting at Olympia roused the anti-fascist movement. Dave Hann wrote, ‘[a]nti-fascists had certainly taken a beating at Olympia but their growing movement responded in force, with an increase in the number of BUF public appearances interrupted by anti-fascists and the number of people involved in anti-fascist activity.[19] By the latter months of 1934, the anti-fascist movement was confident of disrupting the BUF’s staged rallies and while expecting fascist violence and police intimidation, were also confident that popular sentiment (particularly amongst workers) was turning against Mosley.

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After Olympia, there had been in-roads made by the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and some trade unions to form a broad anti-fascist front. The Communist Party, transitioning from the ideas of ‘social fascism’ and ‘Class Against Class’ of the previous half decade to the Popular Front against fascism and imperialism of the mid-to-late 1930s,[20] sought to lead the anti-fascist movement and work with the ILP, while criticising the timidness of the Labour Party and the TUC.[21] As the General Council of the TUC debated its approach towards fascism in September 1934, the Daily Worker rhetorically asked, ‘who was it that had led the struggle in Olympia? Who was going to lead the struggle at Hyde Park on September 9?’[22]

On September 9, 1934, the BUF planned to hold a massive outdoor rally in Hyde Park, London. Taking the initiative seized at Olympia and continued through the summer of 1934, the CPGB and ILP attempted to mobilise a large contingent of workers and anti-fascists to Hyde Park. In the lead up to the event at Hyde Park, the CPGB warned:

Incitement to violence and the carrying out of the most bestial brutality is the stock-in-trade of the Blackshirt thugs of Mosley.

Olympia showed this plain for all to see.[23]

‘Should any violence take place on Sunday with regard to the great anti-Fascist demonstration’, the Daily Worker editorial declared, ‘then the responsibility dfor this rests on Mosley’s gang’. With the experience of Olympia in recent memory, the CPGB readied itself for potential violence, while at the same time, it warned against unnecessary violence. Jon Lawrence has suggested that this was part of the CPGB’s attempts to build the United Front with the ILP and a general shift away from violent confrontation by the Party leadership.[24] However it could also be argued that the CPGB (and the ILP) had learnt the lessons of Olympia and did not want individual anti-fascist protestors from suffering the same level of violence at the hand of BUF stewards or from the police. In the end, there was a massive turnout against the BUF at Hyde Park (between 60-150,000), with ‘much booing, heckling and ridicule from anti-fascists’, but ‘no serious disorder’.[25] Two days later, the Daily Worker reported that 18 people had been charged with a variety of offences after being arrested at the Hyde Park demonstration,[26] down from around 24 after Olympia, but with much larger number of anti-fascist demonstrators.

The Daily Worker called the demonstration at Hyde Park a ‘great blow against fascism’ and that Mosley’s rally had been ‘an utter fiasco’.[27] Despite the Labour Party and the TUC not supporting the demonstration and the police presence to maintain order (or to protect Mosley’s Blackshirts), the large crowd swamped the BUF rally ‘in a sea of organised working-class activity’.[28] On the other hand, the BUF claimed this was ‘the most remarkable display of the strength of Fascism ever seen in Britain’, but complained about the ‘intimidation of the opposition and the most definite attempts to create an impression that there would be considerable disorder in the Park’.[29] Even if the large crowds were not dedicated anti-fascists as the CPGB proclaimed, the BUF were vastly outnumbered and failed to win over those who had assembled in Hyde Park.

The momentum shifted away from the BUF after 1934, towards the anti-fascist movement, but also towards the National Government. As a number of a scholars have shown, the events of 1934 had led the National Government to debate laws regarding the policing of political meetings and public order, but shelved at the time. This was partly due to a reluctance by some politicians to curtail the freedom of political expression and partly because the BUF began to co-operate with the police.[30] Martin Pugh also suggests that the BUF avoided large urban cities where there was more likely to be an anti-fascist mobilisation, preferring to hold meetings across provincial England.[31] It was not until 1936, when Mosley and the BUF shifted tactics towards explicit anti-Semitism and trying to attract more working class supporters in the East End of London, that confrontations between anti-fascists, the police and the National Government reached a new crescendo with the ‘Battle of Cable Street’.

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The mainstream media’s take on events at Hyde Park

[1]Michael A. Spurr, ‘“Living the Blackshirt Life”: Culture, Community and the British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940’, Contemporary European History, 12/3 (2003) p. 309.

[2]Robert Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (London: Papermac, 1990) p. 365.

[3]Daily Worker, 7 June, 1934, p. 1.

[4]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[5]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[6]The Times, 8 June, 1934, p. 14.

[7]Daily Worker, 8 June, 1934, p. 1.

[8]Daily Worker, 9 June, 1934, p. 1.

[9] The Times, 9 June, 1934, p. 11.

[10]The Blackshirt, 15 June, 1934, p. 3.

[11]Daily Worker, 8 June, 1934, p. 1.

[12]The Times, 9 June, 1934, p. 11.

[13]The Times, 12 June, 1934, p. 14.

[14]R. Palme Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, Labour Monthly, July 1934, p. 390.

[15]Dutt, ‘Notes of the Month’, p. 390.

[16]David Renton, This Rough Game: Fascism and Anti-Fascism (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2001) p. 139.

[17] Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism (London: Penguin 2007), pp. 298-301; Martin Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars (London: Pimlico, 2005), pp. 156-163.

[18]Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, p. 162.

[19] Dave Hann, Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2013) p. 46.

[20]See: Matthew Worley, Class Against Class: The Communist Party in Britain Between the Wars (London: IB Tauris, 2017).

[21] Nigel Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain (London: Routledge, 2017) pp. 21-24.

[22]Daily Worker, 5 September, 1934, p. 1.

[23]Daily Worker, 8 September, 1934, p. 2.

[24]Jon Lawrence, ‘Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-War Britain: The Olympia Debate Revisited’, Historical Research, 76/192 (May 2003) pp. 259-261.

[25]Copsey, Anti-Fascism in Britain, p. 26.

[26]Daily Worker, 11 September, 1934, p. 1.

[27]Daily Worker, 10 September, 1934, p. 1.

[28]Daily Worker, 11 September, 1934, p. 1.

[29]The Blackshirt, 14 September, 1934, p. 1.

[30]Richard C. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in Tony Kushner & Nadia Valman, Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society (London: Valentine Mitchell, 2000) pp. 83-84; Lawrence, ‘Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-War Britain’, p. 263,

[31]Pugh, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’, pp. 169-170.

Race, class and black rebellion in Britain, 1976-1981

To commemorate the passing of radical black activist Darcus Howe and the forthcoming anniversaries of the riots of 1980-81, I am posting an excerpt from an older article on how the British left and black activists interpreted the rebellious actions by black youth in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Howe, alongside Stuart Hall and A. Sivanandan, helped the British left develop a new language for understanding the interaction between race and class, stressing the importance of unity between black and white workers, but not at the expense of the demands of the black struggle being subsumed by the objectives of the primarily white labour movement. You can find the rest of the article here.

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Photo by Phil Maxwell

Black radicalism in the 1970s

In the mid-1960s, British black politics, and wider anti-racist politics, was beginning to shift from a focus on anti-colonialism to domestic anti-racism and saw the emergence of broad-based and moderate black organisations, such as the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, the United Coloured Peoples Association and the Institute of Race Relations. However the ineffectiveness of the official legislation, the Race Relations Act, to combat racism in British society and the increasing bipartisan consensus within the British Government that black immigrants were the ‘problem’ produced a more militant black political awareness, inspired by black power from the United States, Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial politics in the former British Empire. Black power in Britain was partially a reaction to the dissatisfaction felt amongst black activists with the existing anti-racist organisations; a belief that the labour movement had subordinated issues of ‘race’ for the class struggle and that the official race relations bodies were compromised by a tendency towards conciliation, rather than effective anti-racist actions. Black power – 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’[1] – inspired many disaffected activists, buoyed by the actions of African-Americans in the US and the widespread cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Black activists in Britain established their own political organisations, with the proliferation of radical publications and bookstores providing the structural centres for many black British militants. They were able to produce a number of radical publications, which advocated a black power position and often combined with a Marxist framework. These publications were often distributed out of black-owned bookstores, which became hubs for black radical and important landmarks for the black communities, functioning as what Colin A. Beckles has described as ‘Pan-African sites of resistance’.[2]

Beginning in 1958, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) had been established as a moderate and scholarly organisation to address ‘race relations’ and black politics in Britain and by the early 1970s, had two significant journals dealing with these issues – Race Today, which was a monthly magazine[3] and Race, which was a academically-minded journal published quarterly. However by this time, there was an increasingly vocal section within the IRR that the Institute needed to be much more pro-active in its discussion of ‘race relations’, rather than merely an ‘impartial’ scholarly body. As A. Sivanandan, one of the major critics of the ‘old’ IRR and founding editor of Race & Class, wrote, ‘We did not want to add to the tomes which spoke in obfuscatory and erudite language to a chosen few, we no longer believed in the goodwill of governments to listen to our reasoned arguments’.[4]

In 1973, Race Today became a separate entity from the IRR under the editorship of Darcus Howe, a black radical journalist, forming the Race Today Collective. Influenced by the work of Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, Howe rejected the view that it was necessary to ‘build a vanguard party to lead Blacks to some emancipation’[5] and the journal became a beacon for black political journalism, intertwining libertarian Marxism with a radical anti-racism. Max Farrar has described this position as ‘black self-organisation for socialism which is autonomous of, but not cut off from, the white majority’.[6] (My emphasis) Following the departure of Race Today from the IRR, the ‘old’ IRR shrank to three staff, who revitalised the Institute as a ‘servicing station for oppressed peoples on their way to liberation’.[7] The quarterly journal Race was changed to Race & Class in mid-1974 and conceptualised as a ‘campaigning journal, “a collective organizer”, devoted not just to thinking… but to thinking in order to do’, linking ‘the situation of black workers in Britain and the liberation struggles in the underdeveloped world’.[8] These journals promoted the idea that the black communities in Britain were not simply part of the British working class, but an autonomous political entity, which had different agendas, strategies, histories and points of entry to the traditional labour movement. Although an integral part of post-colonial British society, the black communities experienced ‘discrimination and exclusion’ in many aspects of life, which led to the development of ‘networks of black people organising, primarily without the help of white people, against the racism of employers, unions, police, local authorities, political parties and others’.[9] Their inspiration came partly from radical Marxism and class-based politics, but was just as informed by anti-colonial politics from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent, which intertwined to present a black British identity with a colonial legacy, rather than merely colonial subjects in the ‘Mother Country’. This article does not assert that Race Today and Race & Class saw ethnicity and class as completely separable entities (indeed the title Race & Class denotes an acknowledgement of the importance of class), but their main focus was on building autonomous black working class politics, with the debut editorial of Race & Class stating that the concern of the journal was ‘the oppression of black people in Britain’, primarily ‘the place of black workers’.[10] And importantly, in their interpretations of the episodes discussed in this article, they emphasised that these were acts of rebellion by black youth, reflecting the concerns of Britain’s black communities.

Darcus Howe

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

The militancy of black youth

The clashes between the police and black youth correlate with the increasingly confrontational nature of the police in the mid-to-late 1970s and throughout the Thatcherite era. At the heart of this confrontation was the ‘criminalisation’ of black youth.[11] Both Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth faced many of the hardships that had been experienced by their migrant parents, but they also had grown up in Britain, which altered their experiences, particularly in terms of cultural identity and their expectations. The children of post-war black migrants had experienced similar developments in their young lives as their white contemporaries and in many ways, shared closer ties with white British society than to the culture of their parents’ homeland, but were still divorced from many of the opportunities offered by a white identity. Chris Mullard wrote of this as the ‘black Britons’ dilemma’:

He will be British in every way. He will possess understandable values and attitudes; he will wear the same dress, speak the same language, with the same accent; he will be as educated as any other Englishman; and he will behave in an easy relatable way. The only thing he will not be is white.[12]

In a 1974 discussion of youth culture in the Communist Party journal Marxism Today, Imtiaz Chounara claimed that ‘most young coloured people are caught in between two cultures – that of Britain and that of their parents’.[13] Chounara appealed for the CPGB to incorporate black youth (not just black workers in the industrial sector) into the Party, to counter the appeal of ‘black power’, which the CPGB believed to share an affinity with ‘deviant’ versions of Marxism, such as Maoism and Trotskyism.[14] Chounara suggested:

We must therefore fight for black youth to mix culturally with white youth but at the same time to retain their own cultural identity. This is an important part of the fight for black consciousness – to get respect for black people and their culture, not only amongst young white people but also amongst black people themselves. This cannot be done in a “black power” manner, putting black above white, but in a true Marxist manner, fighting for the rightful place of black workers alongside their white brothers as equals.[15]

However the CPGB had to compete with other groups on the far left, such as the International Socialists (after 1977, the Socialist Workers Party), and radical black activists, who both saw black youth as a far more positive force for revolutionary political action.

For them, black youth were deemed to have the same divorced position from the organised labour movement, but were less closely associated with the traditional organisations of the black communities and more likely to be involved in militant actions. This willingness to confront the perpetrators of racial violence and the state led many to idolise their spontaneity and militancy. Ian Macdonald declared in Race Today that black youth were ‘the vanguard of a world-wide proletarian movement’.[16] Cathie Lloyd points to the fetishisation of the rebellion of black youth seen through The Clash’s punk song ‘White Riot’, which ‘expressed admiration for combative black youth at [the Notting Hill] Carnival ‘76’.[17] ‘While black workers were still seen as victims’, Lloyd wrote, ‘there was also admiration and a feeling that they [especially black youth] were at the forefront of a challenge to the established social order’.[18]

For the IS/SWP, the revolutionary potential of black youth was realised as their acts of rebellion, such as the Notting Hill Carnival riot in August 1976, coincided with the Party’s campaign strategies. In a 1976 internal bulletin, the Party declared that ‘the twin themes of fighting racialism and fighting for the right to work now dominate our immediate perspective’,[19] attempting to incorporate those affected by racism and unemployment, which were both experienced by black youth. Acts like the riot at the Notting Hill Carnival were seen by the IS/SWP as the beginning of a series of events that ‘highlighted the question of the political role of black youth’, where the seemingly spontaneous rebellion presented ‘new opportunities’ for socialists.[20] Tony Bogues, in the journal International Socialism, defended the actions of those at the Carnival as not mere lawlessness or the deeds of the ‘lumpenproletariat’, declaring that these youth were ‘part of the strata in the working class that is exploited and oppressed’.[21]

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Notting Hill Carnival 1976

The 1981 Riots as Social Protest

The first term of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership saw extensive rioting by black youth, first in Bristol in 1980, then in Brixton and across Britain in 1981. For commentators, academics and activists on the left and within the black communities, these riots have been viewed as either part of a wider malaise by the lower classes against the neo-liberal policies of Thatcherism, or the unstructured reaction by black youth to years of racial harassment and discrimination that continued on from the black struggles of the 1970s.

For the left, the 1981 riots were indicative of a widespread antipathy towards the socio-economic policies of the Conservative Government, which saw a reaction by the ‘most oppressed group in the inner city areas’ – black youth – who ‘drew into the struggle the slightly less oppressed’ – white youth.[22] As black youth were amongst the most affected by these economic conditions, coupled with the more immediate burdens of police harassment and the impact of institutional racism, they were the most likely to react, albeit in a manner that was outside the organisation of the left.

The SWP were adamant that the 1981 riots were ‘class riots’ and not ‘race riots’.[23] Colin Sparks stated the riots were the work of ‘a mainly working class community against the symbols of oppression and deprivation’.[24] The riots were the ‘common result of unemployment and crisis’, exacerbated by the experience of racism and the unequal distribution of economic hardship upon black youth.[25] What demonstrated the class aspect of the riots was, Chris Harman wrote, the fact that ‘in virtually all the British riots there has been significant white involvement alongside blacks, and the involvement has not just been of white leftists, but of white working class youth’.[26] For Harman, the ‘immediate background of the riots lies… in a huge increase in unemployment’,[27] with the result being a common experience of repression and economic hardship that contributed to the lower class rebellion. Harman portrayed the riots as a modern incarnation of previous rebellions by the lower classes in Britain. While there was a strong narrative of resistance flowing from the black industrial struggles of the 1970s and the disturbances at Notting Hill and Bristol, Harman linked the riots to previous unemployment struggles in 1886-87 and in 1931-32.[28] For the left, the riots were seen as a starting point for resistance to Thatcherism. The SWP declared that the riots were the symptoms of a ‘bitterness brewing… from the experience of Tory government and economic crisis’, which would ‘sooner or later… explode in the factories as well as on the streets’.[29] It was up to socialists to ‘seize the opportunities to build unity in struggle’[30] that would present themselves as Thatcherism emboldened its attacks upon the ‘subversive’ elements of society.

While not denying the common economic causes of the riots or the involvement of white youth, black activists and journalists emphasised the role of black youth and the racial discrimination and harassment experienced by the black communities that were integral factors in the outbreak of the rioting. For the journal Race & Class, the reasons for the riots were clear, quoting a black youth interviewed for the Sunday Telegraph: ‘It is not against the white community, it’s against the police’.[31] The journal emphasised the repressive nature of the police and the continual harassment faced by black people in everyday life. The repeated harassment by the police formed a long narrative that heightened with the events of the late 1970s, before exploding with the riots of the early 1980s. The journal tried to emphasise the continuity between the events, stating, ‘In many ways what happened during and after the 1976 Carnival was a premonition of the later “riots”’.[32]

The journal also drew a historical continuity between the hundreds of racial attacks that had occurred since the mid-1970s and the rioting; a process from which black people were ‘attacked,… criminalised… and rendered second-class citizens’ to the violent response against the racists and the police, who had failed to adequately protect the black communities.[33] Quoting the Hackney Legal Defence Committee, the journal portrayed the riots as the long awaited reaction to this continual racism:

Black youth took to the streets to defend our communities against police and racial violence. From Brixton to Toxteth, Moss Side to Southall black youth said: “No more: enough is enough!”[34]

Both Race & Class and Race Today portrayed the riots as the result of a lack of a political voice for Britain’s black communities in conventional party politics. As A. Sivanandan was quoted, ‘The black community is a community under attack and, increasingly, a community without redress’.[35] Looking at the political situation for black Britons throughout the early 1970 and the early 1980s, both journals saw the long process of the black communities attempting to work within the system, but still facing exclusion – from the mainstream political parties, trade unions, local government and the left, amongst others – which could burst into spontaneous acts of rebellion. The riots were a forceful recognition of the limited space in which black people in Britain could enter the political sphere, as well as an unplanned reaction to years of racial discrimination, police harassment, violence and economic hardship. The left and black activists recognised that these riots had a political dimension, but there was disagreement on whether this dimension was characterised by notions of ‘class’ or ‘race’.

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The Brixton riots, 1981

[1] Kalbir Shukra, ‘From Black Power to Black Perspectives: The Reconstruction of a Black Political Identity’, Youth and Policy (Summer 1995) p. 6

[2] Colin A. Beckles, ‘“We Shall Not Be Terrorised Out of Existence”: The Political Legacy of England’s Black Bookshops’, Journal of Black Studies, 29/1 (September 1998) p. 51

[3] Race Today was first published by the IRR in 1969 until the Race Today Collective broke away in 1973. From this time until the mid-1980s, the magazine was under the editorship of Darcus Howe. Leila Hassan took over editorial duties in 1985, but the magazine and the Collective folded in 1988. The George Padmore Institute in London and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford hold archival material of the magazine and the Race Today Collective.

[4] A. Sivanandan, ‘Race and Resistance: The IRR Story’, Race & Class, 50/2 (2008) p. 28

[5] Darcus Howe, interviewed by Ken Lawrence, in Paul Buhle (ed.), C.L.R. James: His Life and Work (London, 1986) p. 147

[6] Max Farrar, ‘“You Don’t Have to Have Read James to be a Jamesian”: Preliminary Notes on the relationship Between the Work of CLR James and Some of the Radical Black, Anti-Racist and Left Movements in the UK, 1970s to 1990s’, Paper delivered at the CLR James Centennial Conference, St Augustine, 20-23 September, 2001, p. 9, http://www.maxfarrar.org.uk/docs/CLRJamesPaperUnivWI2001.pdf, accessed 14 July, 2009

[7] A. Sivanandan, ‘Race and Resistance’, p. 28

[8] Editorial Working Committee, ‘Editorial’, Race & Class, 16/3 (1975) p. 232; p. 231

[9] Kalbir Shukra, ‘The Death of a Black Political Movement’, Community Development Journal, 32/3 (July 1997) p. 233

[10] EWC, ‘Editorial’, p. 231

[11] See: Paul Gilroy, ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’, Socialist Register (1982) pp. 47-56; Cecil Gutzmore, ‘Capital, “Black Youth” and Crime’, Race & Class, 25/2 (1983) pp. 13-30

[12] Chris Mullard, Black Britain (London, 1973) p. 145

[13] Imtiaz Chounara, ‘Trends in Youth Culture’, Marxism Today (October 1974) p. 318

[14] International Affairs Committee, ‘Racialism and “Black Power”’, CP/LON/RACE/02/01, LHASC

[15] I. Chounara, ‘Trends in Youth Culture’, pp. 318-319

[16] Ian Macdonald, ‘The Capitalist Way to Curb Discrimination’, Race Today (August 1973) p. 241

[17] Cathie Lloyd, ‘Antiracist Mobilization in France and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Danièle Joly, Scapegoats and Social Actors: The Exclusion and Integration of Minorities in Western and Eastern Europe (Houndmills, 1998) p. 159

[18] C. Lloyd, ‘Antiracist Mobilization in France and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s’, p. 159

[19] IS Central Committee, ‘The Anti-Racialist Fight and the Right to Work Campaign’, IS Post-Conference Bulletin (1976) MSS.284, Alastair Mutch Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

[20] Tony Bogues, ‘Black Youth in Revolt’, International Socialism, 1/102 (October 1977) p. 12

[21] T. Bogues, ‘Black Youth in Revolt’, p. 13

[22] SWP Central Committee, ‘The Riots and After’, SWP Internal Bulletin, 4 (1981) MSS.284, Alastair Mutch Papers, MRC

[23] SWP CC, ‘The Riots and After’; Italics are in the original text.

[24] Colin Sparks, ‘A Class Riot Not a Race Riot’, Socialist Review (May 1981) p. 7; Italics are in the original text.

[25] C. Sparks, ‘A Class Riot Not a Race Riot’, p. 9

[26] Chris Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis’, International Socialism, 2/14 (Autumn 1981) p. 14; Italics are in the original text.

[27] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 15

[28] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, pp. 15-16

[29] SWP CC, ‘The Riots and After’

[30] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 40

[31] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, Race & Class, 23/2-3 (Winter 1981-Autumn 1982) p. 225

[32] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 239

[33] ‘The “Riots”’, p. 232

[34] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 231

[35] Cited in, ‘The “Riots”’, p. 236

ASIO and surveillance of the women’s liberation movement in Australia in the 1970s

This post is an extended version of the paper that I gave recently for the ‘How the Personal Became Political’ symposium, hosted by the ANU Gender Institute. I am posting this on International Women’s Day 2017, so enjoy!

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In the volume of the official history of ASIO that deals with what Greg Langley has described as the ‘decade of dissent’, 1965 to 1975,[1] there is one mention of the women’s liberation movement and ASIO’s surveillance of it. In his volume, John Blaxland lists the women’s liberation movement as just one of the social movements that was monitored by ASIO during the late 1960s and early 1970s, alongside the peace movement, and the movement for Aboriginal rights.[2] Blaxland does not go beyond this mention, but we know from other autobiographical works on the material history of ASIO, such as Anne Summers’ chapter in the Meredith Burgmann’s Dirty Secrets anthology,[3] that the security services did extensively monitor feminists and the women’s liberation movement during this period.

Unlike the National Archives in London, the National Archives of Australia have been very forthcoming in releasing ASIO files from the 1960s through to the early 1980s, particularly due to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by people who were subject to ASIO surveillance, as well as by a small number of interested journalists and academics. Although, as Tim Sherratt has written,[4] the publicly available ASIO files often have the most controversial elements still redacted, while more sensitive files are retained by the government. Still the amount of material that has been released has been highly useful for contemporary historians.

Most of the publicly available ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement have been digitised and cover the period from 1970 to 1980. As well as four national files (which are the papers that I have explored), there are a number of files dedicated the movements in New South Wales (9), Victoria (4) and the Australian Capital Territory (2). There are probably more files dedicated to the movements in the other states and territories, but some files on South Australia and Tasmania are incorporated into the national files.

ASIO were not the only branch of the state to be involved in the monitoring of the women’s liberation movement. The Special Branches of each state police force were involved in the surveillance of feminist activists across Australia, with Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter revealing the in-depth monitoring of socialist feminist Carole Ferrier by the Queensland Special Branch between 1975 and 1989.[5] The Special Branch files in most states have been destroyed (or are deemed not locatable),[6] with only glimpses of the work of these Special Branches being seen in their correspondence with ASIO maintained in the released ASIO files (one exception to this being the papers of the South Australian Special Branch made public during the inquiry by Justice White into the Special Branch’s security records in 1977).[7]

As Henderson and Winter, as well as Jon Piccini,[8] have noted in their research into ASIO and Special Branch files, while these files give us a detailed record of events, they also present a narrative of activism as determined by the surveiller and not by the subject of the surveillance. Their actions are deemed noteworthy if they fit in with ‘paranoid’ outlook of the security services, who were trained to see potential threats from a multitude of otherwise innocuous sources. As much as we see the behaviour of the activist in these files, we also see the thinking underpinning the actions of the state, who were much more readily to believe that many independent actors were part of a wider conspiracy against the established political and social order in Australia at the time.

The ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement assembled at the national level begin in early 1970. This provides evidence of three main motivations for surveillance of the movement. Firstly, the file contains plenty of clippings on the women’s liberation movement in the United States and their radicalism, and, as Ruth Rosen has shown, the FBI showed great interest in these feminist activists for a variety of reasons. This suspicion was transferred from the US to Australia, as Australian women started to read Kate Millet, Betty Friedan and other US feminist writers. Secondly, the files also note the beginning of various Women’s Liberation Groups formed in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in 1969-70, who are in communication with each other and looking to organise on a national scale, with the Sydney group coming first and then others taking inspiration in the other cities. Thirdly, ASIO were already heavily monitoring the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the Trotskyist Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA) and it is from these two groups that many of the more militant socialist feminists emerged.

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CPA feminist Olga Silver selling ‘Tribune’

Both the CPA and SYA were involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the wider cultural radicalism of the era and tried to organise around the issue of women’s liberation, both within their party structures and within broader activist circles. In the fourteen years since 1956, the CPA had undergone a significant change from a very pro-Stalin and pro-Chinese militant party to a proto-Eurocommunist party that sought to embrace the new social movements that arose in the 1960s. As Margaret Penson has shown, under the new leadership of Laurie Aarons, the CPA started to take the idea of women’s liberation seriously and several women party members were involved in organising around the issue, with a national conference on women held by the CPA in 1970.[9] At the same time, those within the Party who eschewed these social movements (and held a more pro-Soviet viewpoint) started to agitate against the Aarons leadership and eventually broke away in 1971 to become the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA).

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The SYA were a Trotskyist group that emerged out of the anti-war movement at Sydney University, influenced by the US Socialist Workers Party and the Mandelite Fourth International, including the British International Marxist Group. Critical of the Communist Party’s ‘Stalinism’, the SYA emphasised its anti-imperial solidarity work, including the establishment of the Third World Bookshop in Sydney, which became an organisational hub for the SYA (but also bugged by ASIO).

A 1971 report on the Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference, organised by the CPA’s Aileen Beaver, explicitly outlined the ASIO’s interest in the women’s liberation movement in Australia:

Over the past months the Women’s Liberation Movement has been gaining increasing support… and many of the Groups appear to be dominated by Communist Party of Australia (CPAS) members, eg, the Working Women’s Women’s Liberation Group in Sydney or by Maoists eg, the Worker Student Alliance Women’s Liberation Group in Melbourne or by Trotskyists eg, Sydney Bread and Roses Women’s Liberation Group. It is for this reason that ASIO is maintaining an interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement. (my emphasis)[10]

Much of ASIO’s surveillance of the women’s liberation movement came from its surveillance of the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance, through the bugging of the CPA and SYA offices, and reports by agents at meetings and conferences. As David Lockwood has noted, these ASIO files often observed the mundane every-day activities of those involved in progressive and left-wing politics. Page after page is filled with short memos outlining particular people of interest, their links to other people and organisations under surveillance and often with a short description of the person. With the case of feminist activists, these candid remarks by ASIO agents reveal the sexist contempt that they had for the women’s liberation movement at the time. For example, a memo on Isabelle Sandford (also known as ‘Coonie’) stated:

Coonie is approximately 23 years of age, approximately 5’2” tall, with shoulder length straight dark brown hair. She has brown eyes, weights approximately 8 stone. She has a good figure, is neat and well groomed. She is not popular with the other members of the Women’s Liberation Group as they consider she talks a lot of rot, and has in fact been accused on occasions of being a liar.[11]

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Another memo on Elisabeth Elliott seemed to complain that while she was considered ‘a very attractive girl’, she was deemed to be ‘untidy in her general appearance’.[12]

The CPA had overseen the establishment of the Union of Australian Women (UAW) in the 1950s, but by the early 1970s, it was being taken over by the Women’s Liberation Groups which involved both CPA and SYA members. One report from November 1970 noted ‘a lot of bickering’ at a South District branch meeting over whether the UAW was still the ‘main CPA women’s organisation’,[13] with dissidents (who would eventually form the SPA) allegedly pressing for the traditional organisation to maintain its role. In March 1971, ASIO further noted that future SPA leading figure Pat Clancy:

spoke disparagingly of the CPA leadership’s attitude of concentrating on Women’s Liberation as he feels that the potential of Women’s Liberation is minor compared to the possibility of organising women in the industrial area.[14]

The CPA maintained its support for women’s liberation movement and published a pamphlet in 1971 titled, What Every Woman Should Know, under the guise of the Women’s Liberation Working Women’s Group. An ASIO intercept report noted that the CPA sold out its initial run of the pamphlet and that hundreds of copies were to be sent to CPA bookshops in Melbourne and Perth.[15] In July 1972, ASIO still saw the CPA as ‘the best appointed Women’s Liberation’ group, but noted that ‘even within it there is quite strong opposition from many of the men’.[16] An agent’s briefing from 1972 National Congress of the CPA noted that one male Communist Party member spoke out against women’s liberation at the Congress, reporting:

He was very much against the part of Women’s Liberation where they were men hating. He felt that this was a bad attitude which could do nothing but harm to the organisation.[17]

As Steve James has written, the primary function of ASIO was intelligence gathering,[18] but one wonders about what use the information gathered by ASIO agents would be. For example, after a Women’s Liberation Conference held in Guthega in NSW in January 1972 by a faction within the SYA, a brief called for the following from any agents or informants attending the conference:

  • Identification of persons attending the Conference with particular reference to their political leanings…
  • Information concerning the reported split within the Socialist Youth Alliance over the issues of Women’s Liberation.
  • Information concerning a possible split in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Sydney following the formation of the New Communist Party (Socialist Party of Australia).[19]

The first three national files are dedicated to the years from 1970 to 1972, but the last file covers the years from 1972 to 1980, suggesting a reduction in interest from ASIO, particularly in relation to the links between the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance to the women’s liberation movement, which was, as quoted above, the main reason for ASIO’s surveillance of the movement. This neatly coincides with the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972 and the reform of ASIO after the raid ordered by Attorney-General Lionel Murphy in early 1973.

However surveillance did not stop entirely in this period and it seems that ASIO seemed to shift their focus of concern from the women’s liberation movement being a political concern with regards to Communist and Trotskyist entrism to a concern about the impact that the movement was having socially and culturally. One document drafted in November 1972, just before the election of Whitlam, argued explicitly that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a subversive movement… in a unique manner.’[20] Firstly, the report acknowledged, as had been ASIO thinking over the last few years, that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a target movement… for communist action organisations.’[21] The report expanded on this, stating:

This feature of Women’s Liberation, by itself, would make Women’s Liberation of security interest as the expressed aim of the communists is to capture, control, exploit every critical, reformist movement or organisation and develop it into a new revolutionary context.[22]

But this communist infiltration was not the only concern of ASIO. The same report purported:

Women’s Liberation… is not directly concerned with political subversion but is concerned with subversion on a higher and more sophisticated level, (that is social subversion, into which political subversion is incorporated).[23]

This suggested that certain people within the security services believed that the women’s liberation movement were actively undermining the moral fabric of Australian society in the 1970s. The report outlined at length the ways in which this moral subversion alleged manifested itself, including through the degradation of the education system, reconfiguration of sex values and conduct, promotion of drug use, rejection of traditional social values, and undermining of traditional understandings of ‘democracy’.

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ASIO outlines the ‘subversive’ agenda of the WLM in Australia (1972)

‘Because of its relentless critique of the existing social order, and the unique nature of its critique,’ ASIO stated, the women’s liberation movement was ‘a fertile field for communist activity’.[24] The report continued…

Women’s Liberation is engaged in the same process of dismantling existing institutions that the communists engage in AFTER the revolution (and, of course, continuously attempt). The communists are delighted to have a ‘captive audience’ which can be mobilised against the capitalist system…

From the Women’s Liberation social analysis, then, it is a short step to the communist analysis of political and social power in capitalist societies.[25]

However as the 1970s progressed, the focus of ASIO on communist entrism in the Women’s Liberation Movement shifted to other parties than the CPA and the SYA (which had become Socialist Workers League after 1972). Between 1972 and 1975, ASIO noted the increased interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement from the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). The aforementioned report from November 1972 noted that the CPA(M-L) held the line that women should organise inside the Communist Party as ‘Marxism-Leninism is the only correct theory on this question.’[26] Two memos from 1975 reveal that some within the SPA, who were originally sceptical of the Women’s Liberation Movement’, argued that the Party ‘must associate with groups such as Women’s Liberation and the Women’s Electoral Lobby because in these groups is where the progressive people are.’[27] Geoff Curthoys was quoted as saying that ‘the S.P.A. must not sever connections with these groups’.[28] Freda Brown reportedly agreed with Curthoys, but stated that ‘the S.P.A. has not got the women’s forces’ to work with these groups.[29]

By 1980, the focus had moved the Australian branch of the Spartacist League, a highly sectarian orthodox Trotskyist group that had grown from the US and UK in the late 1970s. A memo from June 1980 commented that the Spartacist League of Australia and New Zealand were ‘active in two main groups… the Gay Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement as a whole, not in individual groups within the movements’, with the Women’s Action Committee identified as the group that the Spartacists were ‘specifically interested in’.[30] In one document from 1980, ASIO outlined the strategy of the Spartacists to acquire members, remarking ‘[i]t is a very long slow process but they gradually draw people away from groups like Gay Liberation and Women’s Rights’.[31] However a document from 1977 had already noted that the Women’s Liberation Movement had already expelled a number of Spartacist League members.[32]

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From ‘Australian Spartacist’, May 1980.

The current batch of files run out in 1980, but the last file of the series demonstrates that ASIO’s interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement had greatly waned by the late 1970s. Over the preceding decade, the movement had moved from the extra-parliamentary sphere to the heart of parliamentary politics and policy, as evidenced, for example, by the appointment of Elizabeth Reid as the first Advisor on Women’s Affairs by Gough Whitlam in 1973. The role that the far left played in Australian politics had also waned after the upturn in radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We know that surveillance of the far left and other social movements continued into the 1980s, but the files relating to the Women’s Liberation Movement do not continue into Hawke era.

[1] Greg Langley, A Decade of Dissent: Vietnam and the Conflict on the Australian Homefront, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992).

[2] John Blaxland, The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015) p. 4.

[3] Anne Summers, ‘Number C/57/61: What ASIO Knew’, in Meredith Burgmann, Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files (Sydney: New South, 2014).

[4] Tim Sherratt, ‘Turning the Inside Out’, Discontents, October 24, 2016, http://discontents.com.au/turning-the-inside-out/ (accessed 6 March, 2017)

[5] Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter, ‘Memoirs of Our Nervous Illness: The Queensland Police Special Branch Files of Carole Ferrier as Political Auto/Biography’, Life Writing, 6/3 (2009) pp. 349-367.

[6] Andrew Moore, ‘“A Secret Policeman’s Lot”: The Working Life of Fred Longbottom of the New South Wales Special Branch’, in John Shields (ed), All Our Labours: Oral Histories of Working Life in Twentieth Century Sydney (Kensington: UNSW Press, 1992) pp. 193-226; Mark Finnane, ‘Long Gone, But Not Forgotten’, Griffith Review, 21 (2008) https://griffithreview.com/articles/long-gone-but-not-forgotten/ (accessed 7 March 2017).

[7] Justice White, Special Branch Security Records: Initial Report (Adelaide: Government of South Australia, 1977); Richard G. Fox, ‘The Salisbury Affair: Special Branches, Security and Subversion’, Monash University Law Review, 5/4 (June 1979) pp. 251-270; Anna Kovac, ‘ASIO’s Surveillance of Brian Medlin’, Flinders Journal of History and Politics, 31 (2015) pp. 132-133.

[8] Jon Piccini, ‘“People Treated Me With Equality”: Indigenous Australians Visiting the Soviet Bloc During the Cold War’, Labour History, 111 (November 2016) p. 2.

[9] Margaret Penson, Breaking the Chains: Communist Party Women and the Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1975 (Broadway, NSW: Breaking the Chains Collective, 1999).

[10] ‘Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference’, August 1971, A6122 2573, National Archives of Australia (Canberra).

[11] ‘Isabelle SANDFORD’, 6 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[12] ‘Elizabeth ELLIOTT’, 8 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[13] ‘South Coast District – Communist Party of Australia’, 13 November, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[14] ‘Communist Party of Australia Dissidents – Activities in Trade Unions’, 30 March, 1971, A6122 2274, NAA.

[15] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1971, A6122 2573, NAA.

[16] ‘Communist Party of Australia 23rd National Congress – Women’s Liberation’, 12 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[17] ‘Leslie William SMITH (S/65/20)’, 10 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[18] Steve James, ‘Policing Political Violence in Australia’ in, David Lowe, et. al., Examining Political Violence: Studies of Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Internal War (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013) p. 342.

[19] ‘Women’s Liberation Conference, Guthega, New South Wales, 29th-31st January, 1972’, 13 January, 1972, p. 2, A6122 2573, NAA.

[20] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1972, p. 1, A6122 2575, NAA.

[21] Ibid., p. 1.

[22] Ibid., p. 1.

[23] Ibid., p. 2.

[24] Ibid., p. 2.

[25] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[26] Ibid., p. 4.

[27] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206003’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[28] Ibid.

[29] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206005’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[30] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Interest in Mass Issues’, 30 June, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[31] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Tactics at Demonstrations’, 23 July, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[32] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ)’, 20 June, 1977, p. 3, A6122 2575, NAA.

Forthcoming volume: The Far Left in Australia since 1945

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I am happy to announce that Jon Piccini, Matthew Worley and I have recently signed a contact for an edited volume tentatively titled The Far Left in Australia since 1945 as part of Routledge’s Studies in Radical History and Politics. While there is no publication date yet, here is an outline of the forthcoming book as a preview…

The far left in Australia – as has been revealed by edited collections on its equivalents in the UK, USA and elsewhere – had significant effects on post-war politics, culture and society. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) ended World War II with some 20,000 members, and despite the harsh and vitriolic Cold War climate of the 1950s, seeded or provided impetus for the re-emergence of other movements. Radicals subscribing to ideologies beyond the Soviet orbit – Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists and others – also created parties and organisations and led movements. All of these different far left parties and movements changed and shifted during time, responding to one political crisis or another, but they remained steadfastly devoted to a better world.

Equally, members and fellow travellers of the CPA and other far left groups instigated or became centrally involved in struggles for indigenous rights, gender equality, ending immigration restrictions, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and fostering peace—alongside continuing work in trade unions. In starting these groups, providing personnel, funding and guidance, far left activists contributed in no small way to the reforms that have changed Australian from the racist, sexist and parochial society of 1945 to one which is now multicultural, champions gender equality and is open to the world. The far left’s contribution to culture also cannot be ignored, with the CPA in particular providing a home for writers, poets, film makers and others who found their experimentation unwelcomed in an Australia in the grips of the cultural cringe.

Lastly, the Australian far left has also had a fascinating – if troubled and convoluted – career of ‘mainstreaming’ itself, whether through aforementioned cultural organisations, or through working with the social democratic Australian Labor Party, forming their own electoral alliances, or reaching out with mass market books. As such, while the far left might have never led a revolution in Australia, it has inarguably played a central role in revolutionising it.

The study of protest movements is exploding around the world. Major research and publishing projects charting the far left – particularly set around that halcyon year of 1968 – have appeared in most western nations in recent years. Yet, no such comparable body of work exists for Australia’s vibrant and exciting far left movements in the post-war era – from the Communist Party of Australia to smaller ideological groups, their intersections with broader movements for women’s, indigenous and gay liberation and broader effects on culture and society. By analysing far left movements in Australia from 1945 to the 1980s, these interconnections are explored in depth, and a light can be shone on the current state of Australia’s left and progressive movements.

As such, this book’s key strengths lie in its broad range of topics – from the politics of Australian communism in its various forms to the far left’s interactions with the women’s, gay, anti-nuclear, anti-war and indigenous groups, as well as attempts to mainstream its appeal via electoral politics, government compromises and mass media.

This work exists at the intersection of academia and activism, offering politically and theoretically informed chapters which provide both valuable scholarly interventions into key local and global debates, as well as casting light on contemporary struggles around the world. As such, its readership will be broad, encompassing activists of all ages and across a variety of causes, as well as the growing body of academics and postgraduate students studying and teaching global radicalism, as well as scholars engaged in 20th century history in general.

This collection, bringing together 14 chapters from leading and emerging figures in the Australian and international historical profession, for the first time charts some of these significant moments and interventions, revealing the Australian far left’s often forgotten contribution to the nation’s history.

Stay tuned to this blog for further information about the volume in the near future!

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