R.P. Dutt

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


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.



New book project: British Communism and the Politics of Race

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

I am very happy to announce that I have recently signed a contract with Brill’s Historical Materialism book series for a forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Communist Party of Great Britain and the Politics of Race, deliverable early next year. Here is a little about the proposed book:

This book examines how the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as a large and an influential force within the British labour movement, responded to issues of ‘race’ and immigration from the late 1940s to the early 1980s – from the era of decolonisation and large scale migration to the early days of Thatcherism and the inner-city riots. Informed by its anti-colonial activism in the inter-war period, Communist Party was an attractive option for black workers who had migrated to Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s. In this period, the Communist Party was one of the first labour organisations that campaigned against racial discrimination and against racial incitement. However its anti-racism was subsumed by the wider struggle for socialism and industrial militancy, and the labour movement, including the CPGB, was often seen as unresponsive to the needs of Britain’s migrant communities and black workers. The CPGB can be seen as a microcosm of how the British labour movement related to the issue of ‘race’ and how the centrality of class was contested by other forms of politics, informed by ‘race’, such as black power, migrants’ rights and various forms of anti-racism.

The history of the Communist Party’s relationship with black workers was the history of a squandered opportunity, one that saw a steep decline from the 1940s and 1950s, when many black activists were attracted to the Party due to its historical anti-colonial stance, to the 1980s, when the Party was in disarray and the black communities were wary of a labour movement that had for so long minimized the problems of racism that black Britons faced. At the heart of the division between the CPGB and black workers was the belief that colonialism and racism were borne out of capitalism and that anti-racism/anti-colonialism were subordinate to the dynamics of class struggle. The CPGB faced major problems in convincing white workers, including the Party’s own members, to be actively involved in the fight against racism and colonialism – how and why this occurred is the focus of this book.

The theme of how the Communist Party lost its close relationship with black workers and the potential that was squandered frames the book’s investigation, addressing a gap in the cultural history of the British left. The book demonstrates an understanding of the extra-parliamentary forces at work in social policy in Britain and an insight into how government and its critics established social policy at legislative and practical level. The book takes up the argument that while the British left, particularly the Communist Party, has not been able to usher in a socialist revolution, its role in political activism, especially in the areas of anti-racism and anti-fascism, has been significant.

The book will attempt to show how the Communist Party went from one of the most influential political parties for Britain’s migrant workers to one of relative insignificance, overshadowed by other political organisations and by other forms of political activism. It will explore how the Communist Party, as part of the wider labour movement, was traditionally a vehicle for progressive politics and how the British labour movement has historically dealt with issues of ‘race’ and the problems facing Britain’s black communities. The book will argue that the Communist Party, as well as other sections of the British left, are integral to understanding the broader history of anti-racist politics in Britain and the transition from the more abstract anti-colonial politics of the early post-war era to the domestic anti-racism of the 1970s and 1980s.

I am very excited to be contributing to this excellent series of historical and political scholarship and am very grateful for the enthusiasm that the series editors have shown for the project. My recent trip to the UK garnered some brilliant new sources for the book (particularly the material from the Indian Workers Association archive in Birmingham and the Grunwick Strike Committee papers at the University of Warwick), which makes me doubly excited… Now on with the writing!

The ideological gymnastics of R. Palme Dutt: How to avoid the ‘inter-imperialist war’ issue


During my research on the relationship between the Communist Parties of Great Britain and India, I came across this reproduction of an interview with Rajani Palme Dutt with the People’s Age (an organ of the CPI) from 1946. In the interview, Dutt is confronted with a speech by Stalin (made in February 1946) that seemed to overturn the well-established Stalinist line that the first years of the Second World War (September 1939 to June 1941) was an ‘inter-imperialist war’ (as seen with this 1939 flyer produced by the CPGB). In February 1946, Stalin announced:

[T]he Second World War differed substantially in character from the first. It must be borne in mind that before attacking the Allied countries the major fascist states – Germany, Japan and Italy – destroyed the last vestiges of bourgeois-democratic liberties at home and established there a cruel, terroristic regime, trampled upon the principle of sovereignty and free development of small countries, proclaimed as their own the policy of seizing foreign territory and publicly stated that they were aiming at world domination and the spreading of the fascist regime all over the world; and by seizing Czechoslovakia and the central regions of China, the Axis Powers showed that they were ready to carry out their threat to enslave all the peace-loving peoples. In view of this, the Second World War against the Axis Powers, unlike the First World War, assumed from the very outset the character of an anti-fascist war, a war of liberation, one of the tasks of which was to restore democratic liberties. The entry of the Soviet Union into the war against the Axis Powers could only augment – and really did augment – the anti-fascist and liberating character of the Second World War.

To align with this new argument by Stalin and not contradict the older ‘inter-imperialist’ line, Dutt had to argue that the Second World War didn’t start in 1939, but actually in the mid-1930s:

When did the Second World War begin? Everybody knows it did not begin in 1939. It began before that… We are all aware how we have traced its development right from its inception over Manchuria in 1931, growing and expanding from that to Abyssinia, to Spain, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and broadening out into the character of a full world war… It is perfectly clear that the struggle of the Chinese people against the attack of Japanese Fascism, already beginning from 1931 in Manchuria and extending to China as a whole in 1937, was an anti-Fascist people’s struggle. The struggle of the Abyssinian people, supported by the international progressive forces all over the world, against Italian Fascism was a liberation struggle against Fascism. The struggle of the Spanish Republic against German and Italian Fascism, beginning from the summer of 1936 and drawing upon itself all the forces of the world on either side was a highly developed international struggle against Fascism.

Like the idea of the ‘phony war’, Dutt characterised the ‘inter-imperialist war’ as merely a phase’ within the wider conflict:

In the course of this entire development, a phase arose in September 1939 when CHAMBERLAIN and DALADIER declared war on Hitler, not for the purpose of carrying forward the struggle against Fascism, but in fact in pursuance of their same line of policy that they were already pursuing from Munich onwards, that is, to turn Germany from the West to the East. The reactionary character of their policy was shown by the complete passivity in relation to Germany and the concentration of their military preparations through Finland for war on the Soviet Union, which was only prevented by the speed with which the Red Army broke the Mannerheim Line. All this was one phase, one episode within the Second World War. It was an episode entirely expressing Anglo-French Imperialist policy, basically anti-democratic, basically anti-Soviet, and having nothing in common with the anti-Fascist liberation struggle of the peoples. That Imperialist episode ended in the most disastrous consequences, with the over-running of Europe by Nazism. But from this arose the further consequence – the rise of the liberation struggle in Europe through the resistance movements led by Communist Parties against the Nazi occupying forces… As a result when the opportunity came in June 1941 for the alliance to be reached with the Soviet Union, the same Britain which two years earlier had rejected that alliance when offered by the Soviet Union, now with the complete agreement of all political parties and sections immediately seized the chance of that alliance. Thus, there at last developed the full and united struggle of all peoples against Fascism and the victory over Fascism, for which we Communists had striven consistently from the outset. That is the total character of the development of the Second World War, the historical character of which was this liberation struggle of the peoples against Fascism and within which the Imperialist phase of the war, the reactionary policy and ‘phoney war’ of Anglo-French Imperialism in 1939, is one episode and not the beginning of the war.

Dutt referred to Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) from 1938 to strengthen his assertion that the Second World War had already begun by 1939. In Stalin’s 1938 book, he talked about the ‘second imperialist war’ and stated:

All these facts show that a second imperialist war has actually begun. It began stealthily, without any declaration of war. States and nations have, almost imperceptibly, slipped into the orbit of a second imperialist war. It was the three aggressor states, the fascist ruling circles of Germany, Italy and Japan, that began the war in various parts of the world. It is being waged over a huge expanse of territory, stretching from Gibraltar to Shanghai. It has already drawn over five hundred million people into its orbit. In the final analysis, it is being waged against the capitalist interests of Great Britain, France and the U.S.A., since its object is a redivision of the world and of the spheres of influence in favour of the aggressor countries and at the expense of the so-called democratic states.

This idea of a ‘second imperialist war’ was not just limited to Stalin (and revived by Dutt). In September 1939, Mao Tse Tung announced that the ‘second imperialist war’ had begun, but referred to the war only breaking in 1939. The Trotskyist Fourth International also referred to the conflict in 1940 as a ‘new imperialist war’, but again, specified that this new war had broke out in 1939.

I haven’t found reference in any other pieces of CPGB literature to the Second World War actually beginning before 1939 (but it is still early days) and I’m wondering whether this was just a one-off ideological gymnastic routine by Dutt. If anyone has any other information about this issue, please get in touch!

EDITED TO ADD: I found this in the April 1946 editorial of Dutt’s journal Labour Monthly which is very close to the wording of Stalin’s 1946 speech:

Dutt war

Envisioning the postcolonial world: The Communist Party of Great Britain and post-imperial relationships

One of the overarching aspects of my research is the anti-colonial (and anti-imperialist) activism of the Communist Party of Great Britain from the 1920s to the 1970s. Part of my current research project looks at how the CPGB worked within the British Empire/Commonwealth and how these imperial structures impacted upon how the Communist Party conducted its own affairs. This is something that I touched upon in my PhD research and will be presenting a paper at the British Scholar conference this June in Newcastle (UK) on the subject. This forthcoming conference paper will be on the CPGB’s Special 25th Congress in April 1957, which is most well-known for the fallout after the crises of 1956, but less well-known for the debate over the Party’s anti-colonial programme between Party heavyweights Rajani Palme Dutt and Emile Burns. This post will give a little bit of background to this debate and look at how the CPGB envisioned postcolonial relationships with Britian’s former colonies from the 1930s to the 1950s.

During the 1920s, the CPGB developed the thesis that colonial independence was necessary for the struggle for socialism and that the victory of socialism in Britain was inherently tied to the victory of national independence in the colonies. As this 1924 resolution on colonial independence stated:

In our struggle with British Imperialism therefore, apart from the immediate tasks of organising the workers for revolutionary struggle in Britain, it is of the utmost importance that our struggle should be linked up with that of the workers in these Colonies and Crown Dominions. The extent to which those nations held in subjection by Great Britain struggle for autonomy and separation, to that extent is the hegemony of Imperialism rendered more precarious. We have a duty to assist directly and indirectly in the struggles of the workers in the Colonies and Crown Dominions. The continued enslavement of the Colonial people makes our own freedom in this country absolutely impossible, hence it is necessary in the interests of our own struggle here that assistance should be rendered to the workers in the Colonies. Every act, of repression should be exposed, continuous agitation conducted to secure for the workers of these Colonies the same rights as have been won for the workers here and a propaganda must be carried on with a view to educating the masses in this country to oppose relentlessly the military oppression of these people.

But by the 1930s, the Communist Party seemed to have become concerned with the practicalities of these colonies breaking away from the British Empire/Commonwealth and what impact this would have on Britain. In several publications aimed at convincing British workers to support the CPGB, the Party attempted to convince the British worker that the national independence of the colonies would not economically upset the British way of life and that it would actually benefit Britain materially. The assumption was that Britain, if free of its colonies, would still require raw materials and goods from its former colonies and that these former colonial territories would want to be involved in trade with Britain and become consumers of British-made goods. A 1933 pamphlet by Ralph Fox stated:

Not only would the granting of freedom to the Colonies mean that every factory in England would be kept busy supplying them with textiles and articles of consumption, but it would also mean that the industrialisation of these countries would for many generations keep British heavy industry working to capacity. [Ralph Fox, The Colonial Policy of British Imperialism (London: Martin Lawrence Ltd, 1933) p. 118]

The 1935 CPGB manifestoFor Soviet Britain, said in the section under industry:

In addition, an immense export market will develop when colonial countries like India, liberated from the yoke of British Imperialism, are freed from the burden of interest on imperialist loans and the upkeep of British forces. The British engineering industry, under workers’ control, will be able to propose co-operation with the colonial peoples, who will be able at last to build their own economy and develop their own industry and transport. They can get the iron and steel and machinery they require from Britain and other such countries in exchange for the foodstuffs (tea, rice, etc.)and raw materials (cotton, rubber, etc.) which cannot be obtained in such countries as Britain.

In the manifesto’s section on the British Empire, it declared:

After taking power, the British Workers’ Councils will immediately proclaim the right of all countries now forming part of the British Empire to complete self-determination up to and including complete separation. The British Workers’ Councils will hand over, free of charge, all docks, buildings, railways, factories, plantations, canals, irrigation works, etc., etc., that have been constructed from the sweat and blood of the colonial workers and peasants. The immediate guarantee of this will be the withdrawal of all British armed forces and police, and the cancellation of all the claims of British Imperialist finance…

Because of the freeing of all parts of the present Empire from the burden of interest on loans, profits taken away by British concerns, and heavy taxation to maintain the British military and civil authorities, it will be possible for the less industrially developed countries to exchange their products for the machinery and other industrial equipment they require in order to build up their own industries. But only in so far as the British workers repudiate imperialist rule and imperialist ideology now, will the colonial countries be willing to exchange their products for British Soviet goods. Given this outlook on the part of British workers, then, in spite of the deep hostility that Imperialism has generated in the colonies, there will be friendly relations with the British Soviets and fraternal interchange of products, whether in fact these former colonies also set up Soviet Governments at once or not.


A 1938 pamphlet by J.R. Campbell, assistant editor of the Daily Worker, the Party tried to reassure potential recruits that colonial independence would not mean the end of trade between Britain and its former colonies. The pamphlet said:

Communists are for giving the Colonies the right of self-determination, which includes the right to break away from the British Empire. This would certainly deprive the British ruling class of the right to rob the people of the Colonies.

It would not deprive the British workers’ government of the possibility of obtaining colonial food-stuffs, and raw materials in exchange for British manufactured products…

All the alleged advantages of Empire – the obtaining of tropical foodstuffs for our people and raw materials for our industries – could be got in the ordinary way of exchange between this country and the former colonies. (J.R. Campbell, Questions & Answers on Communism (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1938) pp. 12-14)

This position remained in the post-war era as the decolonisation process got underway and was enshrined in the first version of the Party’s new manifesto, The British Road to Socialism, published in 1951. The new manifesto proposed:

All relations between the peoples of the present Empire which are based on political, economic and military enslavement must be ended, and replaced by relations based on full national independence and equal rights. This requires the withdrawal of all armed forces from the colonial and dependent territories and handing over of sovereignty to Governments freely chosen by the peoples.

Only by this means can Britain be assured of the normal supplies of the vital food and raw materials necessary for her economic life, obtaining them in equal exchange for the products of British industry, needed by those countries for their own economic development.

This would provide the basis for a new, close, fraternal association of the British people and the liberated peoples of the Empire. Only on this basis can true friendship be established between the peoples of the present Empire to promote mutually beneficial economic exchange and co-operation, and to defend in common their freedom against American imperialist aggression.

In 1951, the Party’s outlook was very positive, looking at the implementation of the welfare state in Britain under Labour and the ‘victories’ of communism in Eastern Europe and China, and thus believed that a socialist Britain was not that far off. The Party anticipated that a socialist victory in Britain would be complemented by anti-colonial victories in the Commonwealth, but by the mid-1950s, national liberation movements had been far more successful than the CPGB and this became a problem for how the Party saw postcolonial foreign relations between Britain and its former colonies. In 1954, General Secretary Harry Pollitt spoke of the ‘new, close, fraternal association of the British people and the liberated peoples of the Empire’ as only coming into being when socialism had been victorious in the domestic and the colonial sphere. He wrote:

The fraternal association cannot be built while any vestige of the present oppression and exploitation of the colonial peoples ermines, but only after the joint fight of the British and colonial peoples has resulted in all the peoples of the present Empire achieving their complete independence. 

The fraternal association can only come into being in the future as a result of the fighting alliance of the British and colonial peoples now. (Harry Pollitt, ‘The National Independence of the Colonies’, World News, 10 July, 1954, p. 543)

But others within the Party started to think that now independent former colonies, such as India, Pakistan and Burma, would want to keep close relations with Britain, even though the socialist revolution had not occurred, and that this current arrangement (through the Commonwealth) could be used to build this ‘fraternal association’ in the future. Emile Burns approvingly suggested that:

many formerly subject countries have won independence, but they are remaining in the Commonwealth. Why? For economic and political reasons, even though Britain is imperialist…

When we win a socialist Britain, there will be in existence an association with other countries in the Commonwealth, even though every colonial country has won independence. (Emile Burns, Contribution to ‘From a Discussion’, World News, 18 May, 1957, p. 316)

This was a significant problem for those CPGB members who were from these colonies, now residing in Britain. The Party’s West Indian Committee was the strongest proponent of changing the Party’s stance on postcolonial relations between Britain and its former colonies. The WIC stated that the position outlined in the 1951 version of the The British Road to Socialism:

(a) Does not take into consideration that the freed colonies may wish to associate more closely with other countries for geographical and other reasons, e.g. Malaya.

(b) Smacks of imperialism in a new way… It is necessary to recognise the acute distrust which colonials have of British imperialism and the feeling which exists that no British Government can be trusted to treat colonials or coloured people fairly. (West Indies Committee, ‘Recommendations of West Indies Committee on The British Road to Socialism’, n.d., CP/IND/DUTT/07/05, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester)

The WIC suggested an alternative for the new version of the Party’s programme:

Instead of proposing a close alliance, we should think in terms of fraternal relations, which the former colonies could enter into with any and all countries which respect their equal rights.

This proposal by the WIC was taken up by Rajani Palme Dutt and in the lead-up to the 1957 Congress, the pages of World News and the Daily Worker featured debate over the Party’s relationship with the former colonies and the wording of the Party programme. Dutt promoted changing it, while Burns headed the campaign to keep the wording the same. Dutt argued that maintaining the current position:

inevitably creates the impression that we envisage the continuance of the role of the countries of the Empire as an agrarian hinterland for an industrial Britain – the very system against which the colonial and dependent peoples whose economic development has been retarded by imperialism are in revolt. (R. Palme Dutt, ‘Future Relations of Countries of the Present British Empire’, World News Discussion Supplement, p. 18)

Contributing to the debate, John Williamson, a Scottish-American member of the CPGB, agreed with Dutt, claiming:

there are still some remaining formulations which could given the impression of a paternalistic relationship, with a socialist Britain still being the “Big Brother” that must look out for the welfare of the peoples of the former colonies. (John Williamson, letter to discussion on The British Road to Socialism, World News Discussion Supplement, 26 January, 1957, p. 14)

Speaking at the Congress, Burns replied, ‘This is not big brotherism any more than the Soviet industrialisation of Asia was big brotherism’, but Dutt’s warned:

Our Colonial comrades, including the West Indian and West African branches, in the overwhelming majority support the minority formulation… We should not lightly ignore their opinion.

Since 1951 no Communist Party in the Empire has accepted or taken up our formulation of fraternal association. If the Communist Parties of the Empire were putting forward this proposal, that would be a different matter.

But if only the British Party, at the centre of imperialism, is putting it forward and all our brother Parties are turning away from it, then we should think twice. (Daily Worker, 22 April, 1957)

In the end, a vote to change the wording was passed by 298 votes to 210. The 1958 edition of The British Road to Socialism thus stated:

An essential part of a Socialist Government’s policy would be the ending of all relations with colonial peoples which are based on British economic, political and military domination. This involves in the first place the withdrawal of all armed forces from colonial and dependent territories or occupied spheres of influence and the handing over of sovereignty to governments freely chosen by their peoples. All natural resources and assets owned by the Crown or British capital in the former colonies must be handed over to their peoples.

In the gigantic tasks of reconstruction on which the former colonial peoples will be engaged to end the heritage of colonial economy—to industrialise their countries, modernise agriculture and raise living standards—British industry can play a valuable part through technical and economic aid and the supply of machinery and technicians.

The carrying out of this policy will be the effective recognition of the complete independence and right of self-determination of all countries in the Empire. A Socialist Government in Britain can seek to promote close voluntary fraternal relations for economic, political and cultural cooperation of mutual benefit, on the basis of national independence, equal rights and non-interference in internal affairs, between Britain and the former colonial countries and existing Commonwealth countries willing to develop such relations.

BRS 58

As I will argue in my conference paper, this colonial migrant members rebellion by the of the Party, predominantly in the West Indian Committee, demanded that the CPGB leadership pay more attention to the desires of those seeking independence from Britain and respect the agency of the colonial citizens in the decolonisation process. With the support from Dutt, the subsequent edition of the Party programme included a much stronger commitment to anti-colonialism and should be remembered as a rare victory of rank-and-file CPGB members in changing party policy from the grassroots level.

See you in Newcastle in June!

Communist Party’s ‘Charter of Rights for coloured workers in Britain’ (1955)

As mentioned last week, I have been flat out trying to prepare some draft chapters for a publisher of my proposed book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of race. I have just sent them off to the publisher and thought that the left-wing trainspotters that read this blog might be interested in this ‘Charter of Rights for coloured workers in Britain’, prepared by the Party’s International Department in 1955.

  1. No form of colour discrimination by employers, landlords, publicans, hotel proprietors, etc., or in any aspect of social, educational and cultural activity. Any racial discrimination to be made a penal offence.
  2. Opposition to all Government restrictions and discrimination against coloured workers entering Britain.
  3. Equality of treatment in access to employment, wages and conditions. To receive the rate for the job (including equal facilities for apprenticeship and vocational training), and the maintenance of full rights to social security benefits.
  4. Full encouragement to join their appropriate trade union on equal conditions of entry with British workers and to exercise their trade union and political rights.

Looking at this Charter, it is a pretty impressive document for the mid-1950s (although how much of it was put into practice is a subject of debate) – compare it with anything that the Labour Party produced from around the same time and you will see the CPGB was quite progressive in the area of ‘race relations’ in this era. Although, as I have written here, by the mid-to-late 1960s, the CPGB was overtaken by other, more radical, organisations.

Fingers are currently being crossed regarding the proposed book. Any news will be broadcast on this blog in the future!

Is 2013 the Socialist Workers Party’s 1956?

Marx's famous dictum from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

Marx’s famous dictum from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

After the SWP convened its ‘special conference’ in March this year, I posted a blog positing the question whether this was a turning point for the far left in Britain. I wondered whether the number of people turning away from the SWP and its diminishing stature within the wider leftist, labour and progressive circles in Britain would mean that the SWP would head towards oblivion or start the long road towards regeneration. I used the example of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the years following the events of 1956 to contrast with the contemporary scenario of the Socialist Workers Party. Although I disagree with Marx and would argue that history does not repeat itself, maybe past events, such as the CPGB’s wilderness years between 1956 and 1964-68, might highlight some things that may occur in the fallout of the SWP’s schisms. A number of people questioned whether the events of 2013 were analogous to those of 1956 for two reasons. Firstly, quite a few people stated that the schism in the CPGB was much more momentous, losing about 8,000 members from around 24,000, compared with the much smaller numbers involved in the SWP fallout. Secondly, some of those more inclined to the SWP suggested that while this controversy was a source of friction, it was not on the same magnitude as the CPGB’s crisis – that this, in their eyes, was a minor problem more akin to the fractures which occurred over Respect and over the Rees/German split.

Now that the SWP’s annual conference has passed and this has led to a much wider exodus of prominent SWP members, including Pat Stack and Ian Birchall, I would now argue that the crisis facing SWP now is similar to the crisis faced by the CPGB in 1956. The old leadership has remained (fairly) intact and seems to suggest that it considers adherence to democratic centralism is more important than reflection and substantial reform. The SWP leadership seem to believe that its self-proclaimed role as the revolutionary socialist vanguard of the working class must be maintained at all costs, and that sincere re-evaluation and reform might jeopardise this.

Alex Callinicos, leading figure of the current SWP

Alex Callinicos, leading figure of the current SWP

Can we look at the period between 1956 and 1968 and make any reasonable assumptions about the next decade for the British far left?

If we look back to the British far left after 1956, there are a few points that could be made about the situation of the far left in 2013. In 1976, Peter Sedgwick described the period between 1956 and 1968 as a time of ‘political adolescence’ and it is fair to say that this period was one of rejuvenation and a shift in political focus. While still numerically the largest group to the left of the Labour Party, the CPGB could not maintain its position as the most influential far left group and was rivalled by the figures of the new left and the Trotskyists. Former CPGB members such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville and Raymond Williams, along with a whole bunch of fellow travellers, such as Stuart Hall, Perry Anderson and Ralph Miliband, advocated socialism mixed with humanism and encouraged a non-party aligned milieu between the Communist Party and the Labour left. Initially buoyed by its interaction with social movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, these people helped to inspire a new era of left-wing thought, but the early 1960s, it was evident that this did not necessarily lead to practical action and there was a swing back towards Labour, now under Harold Wilson. On the Trotskyist left, Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League reaped the initial benefits of the exodus from the CPGB, with a few people, such as Peter Fryer and Ken Coates, moving from the Communist Party to the SLL, but this was not because they were suddenly converts to orthodox Trotskyism, but because the SLL was the only other game in town at this stage. But Healy’s leadership caused much friction and most former CPGB members left shortly after joining. By the mid-1960s, most of those who had left the CPGB between 1956 and 1958 ended up in the Labour Party or abstaining from activist politics.

A similar situation might be in store for those who have left the SWP. Although a number of those who have resigned have stated that they would continue to be involved in activism and left-wing politics, it is much more likely that this will be in various social movements and single-issue campaigns, rather than joining another party (with the exception of possibly joining the Labour Party). The Socialist Party (formerly Militant) might be the next biggest left-wing group at the moment, but they probably won’t benefit from the SWP’s losses membership-wise, and the same could be said about the various other groups who have had long standing disputes with the SWP. One of the differences between 1956 and 2013 organisationally is the emergence of the Left Unity project. This might create a more actively involved space between the Leninist far left and the Labour Party, and this might draw the ex-SWP crowd, but how sustainable this project will be is still up in the air.

But while Left Unity is a new organisation, it is made up of many of the old faces from the far left as it has stood over the last decade. The other major process underway in the period between 1956 and 1968 was a generational change. Apart from Gerry Healy (and possibly other figures from the 1940s Revolutionary Communist Party, such as Ted Grant), most of those who formed the nuclei of the emerging Trotskyist groups were from a younger generation, predominantly joining after spending time in the Labour Party Young Socialists or in the CND. The non-party aligned new left also proved attractive to a younger generation, coming into contact through the CND, as well as new left publications such as The New Reasoner and Universities & Left Review. Even the Communist Party experienced a shift in political focus as a younger generation came up through the ranks. By the late 1960s, most of the Party’s leadership that had presided over proceedings during the crisis of 1956 had either retired or died and this allowed a new generation of CPGB members to flourish (and eventually challenge the Party’s long-term strategies), although some old-timers, such as John Gollan, James Klugmann and Bert Ramelson, remained in leadership positions until the mid-1970s.

Nowadays, the SWP leadership is predominantly made up of an older generation, recruited into the Party in the 1970s and 1980s, and now firmly entrenched in their positions. Many have claimed that the SWP had become stratified between this older leadership and a younger base of recruits, primarily university students, and that there was not much in between these two extremes in terms of membership. After this present crisis, one wonders how difficult it will become for the SWP to recruit younger people into the party and whether younger people will deem the SWP to be ‘out of touch’ and avoid them, just like many did in the 1960s and 1970s with the CPGB, eschewing the outmoded Communist Party for the newer Trotskyist groups, such as the International Socialists or the International Marxist Group.

The current SWP leadership cannot hold on forever and the real question may be whether there is still a party to revive once they are gone. Taking the example of the CPGB, after 1956, it took more than a decade to really rejuvenate, recruiting a new, younger (and more diverse) cohort of members, but also coinciding with a wider social and political upswing. Until the late 1960s, the CPGB was sustained by its presence in the trade unions and its efforts to build a ‘mass party’ started to bring some limited rewards. The SWP does not have the same level of integration into the trade union movement and many of the union leaders that it had been associated with over the last decade have now drifted towards the Left Unity project. It may be that a different generation of people will take over leadership roles within the SWP and steer it in new directions, but this would be a long process and the SWP might not be in a suitable condition to be revitalized by then. If this is the case, 2013 might not be the SWP’s 1956, but its 1989.

The CPGB leadership in the late 1940s or early 1950s (pic from People's History Museum collection)

The CPGB leadership in the late 1940s or early 1950s (pic from People’s History Museum collection)

As I said earlier, I don’t believe in Marx’s maxim that history repeats itself, but it might allow us insights into what the present holds. The SWP’s current crisis is not the same crisis faced by the Communist Party in 1956-57, but the aftermath of the CPGB’s crisis may provide some food for thought for those interested in what might lie ahead for the SWP and for the wider British far left in 2014 and beyond. From the eye of the storm, this seems like a turning point for the British far left, but only with the ability of hindsight can we really tell.

“Class Before Race”: Article on CPGB and post-imperial ‘race relations’ reaches 1000 downloads on academia.edu

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

This is just a brief post to announce that my article, ‘”Class Before Race”: British Communism and the Place of Empire in Post-War Race Relations’, has reached 1000 downloads on academia.edu. The article was first published in Science & Society in late 2008, with the following abstract:

The Communist Party of Great Britain, as the largest organization to the left of the Labour Party and an influential body within the trade union movement, occupied an important position in the anti-racist and anti-colonial movements in Britain from the 1920s until the 1970s. As black immigration from the Commonwealth flowed into Britain between the late 1940s and early 1960s, the CPGB was involved in campaigns against racism and for colonial independence. However it continually encountered the difficult task of situating its anti-racist activities within the wider class struggle. At the same time, the Party’s traditional Marxist understanding of the issues of racism and colonialism were altered significantly by the decolonization process and the rise of new social movements. The CPGB viewed the issues of “race” and racism, within a Marxist framework, and this had implications for the practical issues in the struggle against racism. At the core of this problem was overcoming the traditional view on the white left of black workers as still “colonials” or “outsiders,” whose problems had been subsumed within the wider class struggle.

If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you enjoy it. I have been re-reading as I delve into the anti-colonialism of the CPGB in the inter-war years.