Soviet Union

The Communist Party of Britain, the Morning Star and the Legacy of the Soviet Union

With the recent controversy surrounding the Morning Star and the Communist Party of Britain’s Russophilia, I thought people might be interested in this, which I wrote a few years ago on how the CPB reacted to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991. It is an extract from this book chapter that also looked at how the CPGB and the SWP reacted to the events of 1989.

For those interested in reading further on this, Lawrence Parker is contributing a chapter on the CPB to the forthcoming edited volume for Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956, vol. II. Keep an eye out for this in the new year!

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

The Communist Party of Britain was, and remains, probably the most significant party that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism. The CPB had emerged from the discontent inside the CPGB during the mid-1980s as the Party tried to grapple with the ‘victorious’ Thatcher Government, who had defeated the Argentineans in the Falklands War, had defeated Labour in the 1983 election and looked to defeat the trade unions in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. The fierce debate over the role of the industrial unionism had rumbled on within the CPGB since Tony Lane criticised the role of the trade unions inside the pages of Marxism Today in late 1982.[1] The Morning Star, under the editorship of the traditionalist Tony Chater, became increasingly critical of the reformers (or ‘Euros’) in the Party and a beacon for those dissatisfied with the way the CPGB seemed to be going. Between 1983 and 1988, a series of expulsions, resignations and heated arguments led to several factions being formed around various discontented Party and ex-Party members,[2] including the Straight Left and The Leninist factions, but most importantly for the CPB was the Communist Campaign Group, which eventually formed the Communist Party of Britain in 1988. Many believed that the CPB would sink into oblivion like the New Communist Party and the various Maoist outfits which left in the 1960s and 1970s, but the saving grace of the CPB was its links to the Morning Star. Although it was nominally under the control of the People’s Press Printing Society since 1946, Kevin Morgan has stated that ‘[t]he paper nevertheless remained the acknowledged voice of the CP[GB] until the factional disputes of more recent years’.[3] ‘Control’ of the Morning Star by the CPB meant that the fledgling group had a widely read and well-established organ to reach into the British labour movement and until the mid-1990s, provided the CPB with a significant income.

Even though the CPB was sympathetic to Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism, the Party was not in favour of the Leninist method of armed insurrection or the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the CPB opting to maintain The British Road to Socialism as their programme. The Party’s favourable opinion of the Soviet Union was an almost historical hangover, based on nostalgia and popular memory, rather than seeing the Eastern Bloc as a blueprint for a socialist revolution in Britain. But even this view of the Soviet Union acknowledged the severe shortcomings of the Soviet experiment. As would be expected, the language used in the Morning Star in its reporting on the events from 1989 to 1991 was much more moderate than what was expressed in Marxism Today or the Socialist Worker, but there were many positive stories about the people’s uprisings in Eastern Europe and the moral and political bankruptcy of the collapsing regimes. When the Ceaucescu regime was toppled in Romania in December 1989, the Morning Star editorial team published on the front page:

The Morning Star salutes the heroism of the Romanian people and sends it condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the struggle.

Despite the enormous difficulties still to be overcome, Romania is set to join the movement for democracy and Socialism sweeping Eastern Europe. We wish them every success.[4]

In a further editorial a few days later, the Morning Star stated that the ‘unbridled exercise of personal power’ used by Eastern European dictators like Ceaucescu had ‘nothing to do with the ideas of Socialism’.[5]

Within the pages of the Morning Star, Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost were celebrated as important reforms that allowed the people to achieve ‘democracy’ in the former People’s Democracies. A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the paper reported that the ‘winds of perestroika have reached the GDR’, but this ‘[did] not mean a crisis of Socialism,… because the majority of the GDR population is not going to abandon human Socialism.’[6] Discussing the revolution in Romania, the editors of the paper claimed that it was ‘the essence of perestroika’ that was ‘at the heart of the complex changes taking place throughout Eastern Europe.’[7] When the August Coup failed in the summer of 1991, the front page headline for the paper declared ‘GREAT DAY FOR PERESTROIKA!’,[8] and when Gorbachev resigned in December 1991 and the Soviet Union dissolved, the editorial team celebrated Gorbachev as ‘[h]e tried to rescue the Socialist ideal from the authoritarian straitjacket that was suffocating it to death.’[9]

This ‘authoritarian straitjacket’ that was ‘suffocating’ the Soviet Union was a theme returned to repeatedly in the Morning Star’s reporting on the final days of the Soviet Bloc. While the paper and the CPB commended the Soviet Union for transforming Russia ‘from its state of backwardness in 1917’ into ‘a highly industrialised state with enormous potential’ and defeated the Nazis in the Second World War, it criticised the ‘inertia of the bureaucratic-command system that it created’ and argued that during the Cold War, this centralised command economy ‘ultimately stultified social development and limited the democratic participation of the people.’[10] Tony Chater argued that it was ‘this bureaucratic command model of Socialism which [had] failed, not the Socialism ideals of the revolution’ and that from the 1920s onwards, ‘Soviet society became ossified’.[11] In the days after the August coup, the paper argued that the ‘events we have witnessed were the death throes of an authoritarian, bureaucratic way of organising Socialist society’.[12] In November 1992, the CPB published their resolution on the Soviet Union (republished in 1998), which stated a very similar argument, stating:

[t]he root cause of the collapse lay in the particular forms of economic and political structure which developed in the Soviet Union. Specifically, the great mass of working people came to be progressively excluded from any direct control over their economic and social destiny. This erosion of the very essence of socialism increasingly affected all aspects of Soviet society.[13]

As Robert Griffiths, the General Secretary of the CPB in 1998, wrote, ‘With the working class excluded from a genuine mass role in the administration of industry and the state… and the party exercising state power as a bureaucratic-centralist organisation, Marxism-Leninism was distorted into a dogma and adopted as a state religion’.[14]

But the CPB and the Morning Star was still sympathetic to the ideals of the Soviet Union and were not completely dismissive of its ‘achievements’. In his article, Chater claimed that criticisms of the Soviet Union ‘cannot alter the overwhelmingly positive contribution made… toward the elaboration of a new system of international relations based on peace and co-operation’, and ‘[h]ad it not been for the Soviet Union, fascism would not have been crushed’.[15] The CPB’s 1992 resolution expanded on this:

This is not to deny what was achieved in the Soviet Union. Large-scale industry was developed. There were massive advances in education, and a cultural revolution which changed the face of what had been a very backward country. The development of the Soviet Union’s scientific potential is beyond question. In health, housing and social services big steps forward were recorded.

The Soviet Union made a tremendous impact on the movement for national liberation against imperialism in the world. Its role supporting the anti-colonial movement and in the fight for peace is beyond dispute.[16]

But the Party concluded, ‘the fact remains that the defects in the Soviet system sapped socialism of its strength within the Soviet Union’.[17] However in the end, the CPB remained (and remains) sympathetic to the ideals of the Soviet Union, with Robert Griffiths stating, ‘[w]ere we to draw up a balance sheet, the positive features of the socialist experience would far outweigh the negative ones.’[18]

The CPB acknowledged that ‘[i]t is understandable that there is disappointment, even despair, at the collapse of the Socialist system in the Soviet Union and the other Socialist countries’, but claimed ‘the struggle isn’t over.’[19] The first General Secretary of the CPB, Mike Hicks, was quoted in the Morning Star, declaring in 1991, ‘we do not believe that Socialism is dead… Nor do we believe that millions of Communists around the world have stopped dreaming of and aspiring to a better future.’[20] For the CPB, The British Road to Socialism programme and the name ‘Communist Party’ remained important as they represented ‘a living expression of the application of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete conditions of Britain in the world today’, with Hicks stating that the Party would not consider ‘abandoning the title Communist, nor the Leninist structure of our party.’[21] Hicks added:

We are proud of the name Communist. We are proud to reach out over the years to those great pioneers of our party – Pollitt, Gallacher and Dutt, to name but three.[22]

The Morning Star from 11 Nov, 1989 (all pics from microfilm copies of the paper so text is probably unreadable)

The Morning Star from 11 Nov, 1989

[1] See: Tony Lane, ‘The Unions: Caught on the Ebb Tide’, Marxism Today, September 1982, pp. 6-13.

[2] For discussions of these disputes within the CPGB, see: F. Beckett, Enemy Within, pp. 190-228; Edmund & Ruth Frow, The Liquidation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, E. & R. Frow, Salford, 1996; G. Andrews, Endgames and New Times, pp. 201-223; K. Laybourn, Marxism in Britain, pp. 114-147; Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1960-1991, Rotten Elements, n.d., pp. 54-71.

[3] Kevin Morgan, ‘The Communist Party and the Daily Worker 1930-56’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan (eds), Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party, Pluto Press, London, 1995, p. 142.

[4] ‘We Say’, Morning Star, 23 December, 1989, p. 1.

[5] ‘Socialism and Democracy’, Morning Star, 27 December, 1989, p. 2.

[6] Nokolai Portgugalov & Vladimir Markov, ‘Perestroika Wind in GDR’, Morning Star, 30 November, 1989, p. 4.

[7] ‘Socialism and Democracy’, p. 2.

[8] John Haylett, ‘Great Day for Perestroika!’, Morning Star, 23 August, 1991, p.1.

[9] ‘A Tragic Farewell for Gorbachov’, Morning Star, 27 December, 1991, p. 4.

[10] ’72 years of Socialism; Perestroika – A New Stage’, Morning Star, 7 November, 1989, p.2.

[11] Tony Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, Morning Star, 7 November, 1991, p. 5.

[12] ‘Socialism, What Now?’, Morning Star, 27 August, 1991, p. 2.

[13] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’, Resolution of the Reconvened 41st Congress of the Communist Party of Britain, November 1992, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=345%3Aassessing-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union&catid=51%3Achinas-line-of-march&Itemid=22&limitstart=1, accessed 1 November, 2010.

[14] Robert Griffiths, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union: Introduction’, September 1998, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=345%3Aassessing-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union&catid=51%3Achinas-line-of-march&Itemid=22, accessed 1 November, 2010.

[15] T. Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, pp. 4-5.

[16] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’.

[17] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’.

[18] R. Griffiths, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union: Introduction’.

[19] T. Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, p. 5.

[20] Cited in, Isolda McNeill, ‘Vital Role for the CPB’, Morning Star, 11 November, 1991, p. 3.

[21] Cited in, ‘CPB Call on British Road’, Morning Star, 30 November, 1989, p. 3.

[22] Cited in, ‘CPB Call on British Road’, Morning Star, p. 3.

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How to navigate the Comintern archives online: A guide for the non-Russian speaker

In 2015, the Russian government made freely available the scanned papers of the Communist International that had been digitised in the 1990s. Access to this digital archive was limited to a number of universities in Europe, as well as the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The new portal made the thousands of scanned documents free to view, but the portal is only navigable in Russian. This post is an attempt to help people navigate the Comintern archives without knowing Russian.

There are two ways to try and find relevant material using the archive – browse and search.

Start with this URL: http://sovdoc.rusarchives.ru/#main

To browse

On the home page of the archive, choose the third from the left link along the top that says “Документальные комплексы”.

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This should lead to a page with four options. Click the second link.

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This will bring a long list of links in Russian organised by fond (for example, Ф.495. Оп.3.) If you use the LOC guide, you can try to locate specific fonds. For example 495/3 is the fond of the ECCI Political Secretariat.

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Once you click on this link, you will find a page describing the fond. In the bottom left hand corner, there is a hyperlinked number.

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Once you click on this link, you will find links broken down by individual file. For example, Дело 1, 2, 3, etc. In the 495/3 fond, there are 513 individual files.

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If you have a reference for a particular file in a book/article/thesis, it will usually say something like RGASPI 495/3/1. This is the level that each reference is broken down to usually.

Included in each link is a short title of the file in Russian. For example, the first link (495/3/1) is “Protocols and materials to the minutes of the Political Secretariat of the ECCI meeting”. On the right is the date scope for the file.

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Once you click on a link, it will take you a page with further information about the file.

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In the bottom left hand corner, it will have the words “Количество графических образов” (number of graphic images) and a hyperlinked number.

If you click on the hyperlinked number, you will be taken to an image gallery, with an individual thumbnail for each scanned page, organised into pages of 20 thumbnails.

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If you click on a thumbnail image, it will bring up a gallery where you can easily browse through each individual page. However each page of 20 has its own browsing gallery.

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Remember that the various bodies of the Comintern were based in several European cities, such as Moscow, Berlin and Brussels, so the documents are in several languages, including Russian, German, French and English.

To search

To search requires a little ingenuity. To find the search bar, once again, choose the third from the left link on the top on the archive’s home page.  As you can only search in Russian, I use a translation tool (such as Google Translate) to translate possible search terms into Russian and then cut and paste into the search bar.

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This can be hit and miss, but if you keep it broad like ‘Ireland’, ‘Australia’ or ‘imperialism’, for example, then you will find some stuff. Some of the fonds listed are not currently available, due to some arrangement between the Russian government and Yale University, but most stuff from the 495 series is available.

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Once the links to each file come up, follow the above steps to view each individual image.

Printing/Saving

As these images are all JPGs, they can be individually saved by the viewer. Once downloaded, I have found that printing from those saved images is the best way.

Happy archive exploring! If these steps are helpful, please let me know. If anything is unclear, let me know also.

Communism and the peace movement in the early Cold War era, 1949-1953

This week, the economist Paul Mason argued a ‘left-wing’ case for nuclear weapons for The Guardian, which was rebutted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Kate Hudson and Stop the War’s Lindsey German. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, the left in Britain has generally opposed nuclear weapons – although the Labour Party has fluctuated on this issue since the 1950s. One common misconception is that the Communist Party opposed nuclear disarmament until the emergence of the CND in the late 1960s, but research by myself and Nick Barnett demonstrates that the CPGB was committed to a multilateral peace since the late 1940s. This post, based on our forthcoming article in Labour History Review, argues that the opposite of this misconception seems to be the case, that the peace movement was so closely linked in the mainstream press and by anti-communist politicians to communism, it was difficult to mobilise around the issue of peace in Britain in the early Cold War era.

BPC

Scholars looking at the British left have long contended that the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was hostile towards the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) because it threatened the dominance of the British Peace Committee (BPC) over the peace movement in Britain.[1] As Willie Thompson explained:

In the first place it had seen the new movement as a distraction from what was really important, namely disarmament negotiations between the Great Powers… The second reason for the party’s suspicion was that the Campaign was seen as a potential rival to its own front peace organisation, the British Peace Committee…[2]

On the other hand, some scholars have argued that the attitude of the Communist Party towards the CND (and the peace movement more generally) was more ambivalent. As Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley point out in their biography of CPGB Industrial Organiser Bert Ramelson, the ‘main efforts [of the Party] were directed toward the peace campaign’ in the 1950s, but always on the multilateral platform of banning all nuclear weapons.[3] Richard Taylor has also stated, ‘Contrary to popular opinion both inside and outside CND, the Daily Worker had given considerable coverage to Peace Movement activities prior to the formation of CND.’[4]

The Communist Party of Great Britain, although initially supportive of the limited use of the atomic bomb in 1945,[5] had, since the Cold War began, been pushing for ‘peace’ amongst the Soviet and Western blocs. However peace had a particularly meaning for the CPGB and was tied to the prospects of multilateral disarmament, the dismantling of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the continued disarmament of West Germany, as well as non-interference by the West in places such as Greece, Malaya, China and Korea. Bob Darke, an ex-CPGB member who wrote an expose of the Party in 1952, described the Party’s position on peace in the new Cold War era:

the call for Peace, which had been more or less dormant on the Party’s cluttered platform, suddenly bounded into life… It began to appear more and more in Party propaganda. The Daily Worker began to print it with a capital P. It was top priority in all propaganda.[6]

The British Peace Committee was formed in 1949, with its chairman being Ivor Montagu, who was also a member of the Communist Party. An article in the Party’s weekly journal World News and Views on the foundation of the BPC alleged that ‘active propaganda for a Third World War is being carried out by a handful of powerful privileged interests in America and Western Europe’ and that ‘[m]alice, fear and hatred are being roused against the Soviet Union’.[7] While calling for ‘[f]riendship between peoples of all countries and particularly of Britain, China, France, the U.S.A., and the U.S.S.R.’ and that the BPC ‘treat[ed] none as enemies except the instigators of war’,[8] the BPC had an underlying pro-Soviet outloo

The Peace Pledge Union, on the other hand, had been established by ‘progressive’ sections of the Church of England in the mid-1930s after war in Europe seemed more likely after the accession of Nazi Germany. While a pacifist organisation, the PPU also pursued a line of appeasement towards Germany and although historians have debated whether this crossed the line from appeasement to some more active form of support, the CPGB in the 1930s saw the PPU as pro-fascist. In 1938, a Central Committee report at the Party’s 15th National Congress announced, ‘we have found it necessary to carry on a sharp ideological struggle against those tendencies in the Peace Movement who oppose collective security and seek reconciliation with Fascist countries, specially shown in the leadership of the Peace Pledge Union’.[9] This animosity between the CPGB and the PPU lasted into the Cold War era, where the PPU zealously indulged in anti-communism.

During the early years of the Cold War, the BPC and PPU dominated the small peace movement that existed in Britain. While the mainstream media and politicians were wary about the PPU because the Union’s stance in the lead up to the Second World War, they were more concerned about those who campaigned for peace or disarmament being covert communist agents and shared the anti-communism of the PPU. The BPC, as the British representative of the World Peace Council, established principally by the Soviet Union, allowed the media to portray the peace movement as communist and because of the WPC’s association with Soviet communism, Gunter Wernicke has written, a number of other peace groups across Western Europe refused to co-operate with the WPC,[10] which was the case in Britain.

For many politicians and those in the mainstream media, there was the assumption that peace was analogous with communism and throughout this period, the word ‘peace’ was regularly placed by many media outlets in inverted commas, suggesting a change in its meaning in the Cold War era. One of the key promoters of this idea was Christopher Mayhew, Labour Cabinet minister and founder of Labour’s Information Research Department (IRD), who stated in a Sheffield Telegraph article that ‘“peace”… meant a communist victory’.[11] Reiterating Mayhew’s suspicion of the term ‘peace’, Prime Minister Clement Atlee referred to the BPC in Parliament in November 1950 as the ‘so-called British Peace Committee’.[12] Tony Shaw has argued that Britain’s popular mainstream press followed this concept and was staunchly anti-communist throughout the early 1950s,[13] finding much to criticise the peace movement about.

In 1950, the BPC was involved in two initiatives that saw the mainstream media and politicians from both the Labour Party and the Conservatives claim that the BPC was not working for ‘peace’, but for Soviet-styled communism. Firstly, the BPC campaigned on behalf of the Stockholm Appeal, a call made by the World Peace Council for an end to all nuclear weapons. Launched in March 1950, the BPC was involved in collecting signatures from the British public in support of this appeal. The text of the appeal was brief, yet very broad, but was taken by many anti-communists in Britain as a pledge for support of communism. The conservative historian Max Beloff stated in The Listener:

The Stockholm appeal was not simply an appeal for peace; it was an appeal for peace on the Soviet terms; it was an appeal to accept the Soviet pattern of life for ourselves; because if we resist its imposition, force will be used, as it is being used elsewhere.[14]

Secondly, the WPC announced that it would hold its annual congress in Sheffield, which agitated many anti-communists in Britain. This caused considerable anxiety for the Labour government and sections of the mainstream press. The Atlee government attempted to disrupt the planning of the Sheffield Congress by denying entry into the country of many foreign delegates.[15] Whilst some in the press thought that banning the entry of these foreign delegates was anti-democratic and moved into the realm of authoritarianism, some of the tabloid newspapers, such as Daily Mail, criticised the government for not going far enough. The newspaper continued its long-held narrative that Labour was ‘too soft’ on communism or was a crypto-communist government and that its usual ‘controlling’ nature was reserved in circumstances when dealing with supposed communist fellow travellers. The newspaper rhetorically asked, ‘odd is it not that a government who propose to control the British people hand and foot cannot stop a lot of subversive aliens coming in’.[16] The editorial continued:

No one wants to see our liberties infringed, but it may be necessary to take something from them to preserve them. That happened in the last war – and we are at war again, though they call it a Cold War now.[17]

The criticism of the non-communist peace organisations being naïve and misled by the communists in the BPC/WPC became widespread. The PPU, as the longest established peace group, was particularly concerned about this and was aware that association with the communist-led peace organisations could inflict damage upon their cause. Douglas Hyde, a Catholic journalist who defected from the CPGB, criticised the pacifist movement in the Catholic Herald, stating that the campaign of the BPC, led by the British Communist Party, had ‘puzzled, and in some cases deceived, many genuine peace lovers’, but warned that it was actually ‘timed and designed to aid the USSR, which stands to benefit so much by the disarmament of the West.’[18]

The PPU tried to engage with the mainstream to undo this association with the communist slant of the BPC. In late 1951, Peace News, with the broad support of the PPU’s leadership, launched ‘Operation Ghandi’ and called for direct action against nuclear weapons and Britain’s Civil Defence programme.[19] In January 1952, they organised a sit-in protest at the War Office in Westminster, which resulted in 11 arrests. The leaflet distributed to by the protestors at this demonstration emphasised the non-communist stance of the PPU, stating:

We owe you an explanation. We are not crackpots and we are not communists.

We know we look silly. We are doing it to appeal to your intelligence and your conscience, although it may lead to arrest and imprisonment…

We who give you this leaflet refuse to take part in war or violent struggle for either West or East.[20]

Against a mainstream media and a bipartisan government commitment to anti-communism, the PPU and other non-communist peace campaigners found it difficult to put forward their own narrative of peace and successfully disassociate themselves from the Communists. The result was that a number of non-communists dropped out of the movement in frustration over the communist involvement in the BPC. J.B. Priestley, who later became central to the organisation of CND, declined offers to join the World Peace Council because of its connections with communism.[21] Andrew Bone suggests that Bertrand Russell refused to back disarmament, during the early 1950s, on the grounds that nuclear weapons would still be manufactured during any war (Instead he advocated a world government which maintained a monopoly of weapons).[22] This refusal by many, who eventually were key proponents of disarmament, reveals the fragmentary nature of the peace movement during the early 1950s. The popularity of the movement achieved under the stewardship of well-known figures such as Russell and Priestley suggests that the communist taint was a chief reason why the movement was unable to make much headway in the early 1950s.

———————————————-

[1] See: David Widgery, The Left in Britain (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976) p. 106; Nigel Young, An Infantile Disorder? The Crisis and Decline of the New Left (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) p. 154; Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict, p. 147; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004) p. 30.

[2] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992)  p. 116.

[3] Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley, Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2012) p. 47; p. 56.

[4] Richard Taylor, ‘The Marxist Left and the Peace Movement in Britain since 1945’, in Richard Taylor & Nigel Young (eds), Campaigns for Peace: British Peace Movements in the Twentieth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987) p.163.

[5] See: Malcolm MacEwen, The Greening of a Red (London: Pluto Press, 1991) pp. 133-138.

[6] Bob Darke, The Communist Technique in Britain (London: Penguin Books, 1952) p. 143.

[7] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, World News and Views, 5 Nov., 1959, p. 532.

[8] ‘Resolution of the British Peace Congress’, p. 532.

[9] CPGB Central Committee, Report of the Central Committee to the 15th Party Congress, September 16-19, 1938, http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/central_committee/1938/09/report.htm (accessed 23 January, 2014).

[10] Gunter Wernicke, ‘The Communist Led World Peace Council and the Western Peace Movements: The Fetters of Bipolarity and Some Attempts to Break in the Fifties and Early Sixties’ Peace and Change 23, 3 (1998), p. 270.

[11] Cited in Christopher Mayhew, A War of Words: A Cold War Witness (London: I.B. Taurus, 1998), p. 81.

[12] HC Deb. 9 Nov. 1950, vol 480, col. 1099.

[13] Tony Shaw, ‘The Popular Press and The Early Cold War’, History, 83 (1998), pp. 80-85.

[14] Max Beloff, ‘The Soviet Approach to History’, The Listener, 1134, 23 Nov. 1950, p. 580.

[15] Phillip Deery, ‘The Dove Flies East: Whitehall, Warsaw and the 1950 World Peace Congress’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 48/4 (2002)

[16] ‘Comment: The Red Carpet’, Daily Mail, 10 November, 1950, p. 1.

[17] ‘Comment’, p. 1.

[18] Douglas Hyde, ‘“Peace-War” Chiefs Meet In London’, Catholic Herald, 8 June, 1950, p. 8.

[19] Sean Scalmer, Gandhi in the West: The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 135.

[20] Leaflet reproduced in ‘Operation Gandhi: A Call to YOU’, Peace News, 18 Jan 1952, p. 3.

[21] ‘Open Letter to a Russian Colleague’, cited in Wittner One World or None, p. 200.

[22] Andrew G. Bone ‘Russell and the Communist-Aligned Peace Movement in the Mid-1950s’ Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, 21 (2001) pp. 34-6.

How the Morning Star reported the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in December 1989

By late December 1989, the revolution sweeping across the Eastern Bloc had reached Romania and in the days before Christmas, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu attempted to shore up his regime by launching a military offensive against those protesting against the dictatorship. On December 21, Ceausescu attempted to give a speech in Bucharest which descended into open revolt and a massively violent crackdown by sections of the army and police loyal to Ceausescu.

The Ceausescus fled the capital, but were captured by sections of the military who supported the revolution. On Christmas Day 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were quickly tried and executed on national television.

The Morning Star, formerly the daily newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain but by then connected to the breakaway Communist Party of Britain, had reported on the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, but, as I have shown here, had reported the events from a very sympathetic to the Soviet Union perspective.

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However the reporting of the final days of the Ceausescu regime revealed a much more celebratory tone. For example, on December 23 1989 – two days after Ceausescu’s ill-fated last speech – the Morning Star editorial team published on the front page:

The Morning Star salutes the heroism of the Romanian people and sends it condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the struggle.

Despite the enormous difficulties still to be overcome, Romania is set to join the movement for democracy and Socialism sweeping Eastern Europe. We wish them every success.

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However inside the newspaper, it was qualified that Ceausescu became a ruthless dictator after 24 years in power, reminding readers that he had opposed in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

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In a further editorial on December 27, the Morning Star stated that the ‘unbridled exercise of personal power’ used by Ceaucescu had ‘nothing to do with the ideas of Socialism’ and further celebrated the ‘heroism of the Romanian people in the face of terrorism of the so-called security forces’.

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Finally on December 28, the paper published excerpts from the trial of the Ceausescus and reported that life was returning to normal in Bucharest after the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime.

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As I wrote in this book chapter, the newspaper’s favourable opinion of the Soviet Union was an almost historical hangover, based on nostalgia and popular memory, rather than seeing the Eastern Bloc as a blueprint for a socialist revolution in Britain. But even this view of the Soviet Union acknowledged the severe shortcomings of the Soviet experiment. As would be expected, the language used in the Morning Star in its reporting on the events from 1989 to 1991 was much more moderate than what was expressed in Marxism Today or the Socialist Worker, but there were many positive stories about the people’s uprisings in Eastern Europe and the moral and political bankruptcy of the collapsing regimes.

Within the pages of the Morning Star, Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost were celebrated as important reforms that allowed the people to achieve ‘democracy’ in the former People’s Democracies. A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the paper reported that the ‘winds of perestroika have reached the GDR’, but this ‘[did] not mean a crisis of Socialism,… because the majority of the GDR population is not going to abandon human Socialism.’ Discussing the revolution in Romania, the editors of the paper claimed that it was ‘the essence of perestroika’ that was ‘at the heart of the complex changes taking place throughout Eastern Europe.’ When Mikhail Gorbachev eventually resigned in December 1991 and the Soviet Union dissolved, the editorial team celebrated Gorbachev as ‘[h]e tried to rescue the Socialist ideal from the authoritarian straitjacket that was suffocating it to death.’

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.

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REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What was Straight Left? An introduction by Lawrence Parker

Last week it was announced that Guardian journalist Seamus Milne was to become Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s new Director of Communications. A number of media reports remarked that Milne was once attached to the Communist Party factional journal Straight Left. However few, particularly in the mainstream media, know much about the Straight Left faction or its role in the final years of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I asked Lawrence Parker, an expert on the hardline oppositional and anti-revisionist groups that emerged from the CPGB, to write a little introduction to those unfamiliar with the history of the Straight Left faction.

Lenin-Leninist small_art_full

Origins

Straight Left’s origins lie in the left pro-Soviet oppositions that emerged in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1960s. In this period, a definite ‘party within a party’ emerged, with figures such as Sid French, district secretary of Surrey CPGB, becoming key leaders. The general critique that emerged from this faction was a concern over the CPGB leadership distancing itself from the Soviet Union (such as around the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) and other ‘socialist’ countries; a preference for a more ‘workerist’ identity (for example, the faction would have been happy with the CPGB’s paper remaining as the Daily Worker in 1966) and a concentration on workplaces/trade unions; and a sense that the party was squandering its resources in futile election contests and alienating the left of the Labour Party, with whom it was meant to be developing a close relationship on the British road to socialism (BRS), the CPGB programme. However, a significant part of the faction felt that the BRS was ‘reformist’ and ‘revisionist’ in all its guises from 1951, counter-posing a revolutionary path to the parliamentary road to socialism envisaged in the CPGB’s existing programme. This stance was clouded in ambiguity in many sections of the CPGB’s left, with the default position usually being expressed in a preference for the 1951 version of the BRS overseen by Stalin, as opposed to later versions modified by a ‘revisionist’ CPGB leadership.[i] This opposition suffered a major split in the run-up to the CPGB’s 1977 congress, with Sid French taking away 700 or so supporters to form the New Communist Party (after French realised that the CPGB’s leadership was intent on a reorganisation of his Surrey district, which would have deprived him of his organisational bridgehead). The rump left opposition in the CPGB coalesced around Fergus Nicholson (other key figures were John Foster, Brian Filling, Nick Wright, Susan Michie, Pat Turnbull and Andrew Murray) who had been the CPGB’s student organiser until 1974. The Straight Left newspaper was launched in 1979, with a theoretical magazine, Communist, also appearing. Membership figures are impossible to guess. However, judging from the Communist, the faction did have a wide national infrastructure beyond London through the 1980s and was certainly on a par with, if not in some places more deeper rooted than, the other oppositional stream around the Morning Star (see below).

Factions and fictions

The Straight Left group provoked a lot of enmity from its factional rivals in the CPGB. Thus, Mike Hicks, who was involved in the Communist Campaign Group (CCG), set up after the rebellion of Morning Star supporters against the CPGB leadership in the mid-1980s, and later the first general secretary of the 1988 Communist Party of Britain split (both criticised and opposed by the Straight Left faction), said in the late 1990s: “Straight Left was neither straight nor left.”[ii] Similarly, a CCG document complained: “The individuals grouped around Straight Left have their own newspaper, their own organisation, and their own objectives.”[iii] I have been told anecdotally by CPGB activists of the time that Straight Left was thought to have three circles: an inner ‘Leninist’ core; a broader circle of sympathisers in the CPGB; and the ‘softer’ Labourite and trade unionists grouped around the Straight Left newspaper (non-CPGB trade unionists such as Alan Sapper and Labour MPs such as Joan Maynard were on its advisory board). Certainly, the majority of the content of the newspaper was hewn from the same, dry ‘labour movement’ template used by the Morning Star, with little indication that it was the work of communists, apart from its commentary on the Soviet Union and other international matters. (The Communist journal, obviously aimed at CPGB sympathisers, was much more orthodox and harder Marxist-Leninist in tone, with a lot of very interesting commentary on inner-party CPGB matters.) So, Straight Left was a faction and did indulge in political camouflage but in this it was merely of its time. For example, the CCG’s disavowal of Straight Left’s factionalism was merely an attempt to throw people off the scent from the CCG’s own factionalism (the CCG unconvincingly complained it wasn’t a faction at all; just a group that wanted to follow the CPGB’s rules — which fooled nobody). The CPGB was riddled with factions in the 1980s (and throughout the post-war period), not least those grouped around Marxism Today and the party machine. Similarly, on Straight Left’s broad left camouflage in its newspaper and other forums, this was the modus operandi of nearly the whole far left, from the Morning Star to various Trotskyist groups i.e. communists clothing their politics in everything from trade unionism to feminism and concealing their true aims in the pursuit of mass influence. Again, in hindsight, Straight Left doesn’t strike one as very exceptional in this regard. In retrospect, the enmity aimed at it on these counts stands revealed as the product of mere factional rivalry.

However, another area of criticism aimed at Straight Left may have more mileage in terms of a lasting judgement. The group was deemed by its CPGB factional rivals (both in the CCG and the small group around The Leninist) to have a ‘heads down’ approach to CPGB work. In the words of the CCG such an approach “counsels caution and compliance with the authority of the [CPGB’s] Executive Committee. It says that if there is disagreement and dissatisfaction with the Eurocommunists [the faction then dominating the party’s leadership], then opposition must be expressed and conducted via the normal party channels. That is to say, we must try at successive congresses to defeat and remove the Eurocommunists.”[iv] This led to notorious moves such as Straight Leftists walking out with the CPGB leader Gordon McLennan when he closed down a London District Congress in November 1984 that threatened to become a point of opposition to the party leadership. Mike Hicks, in the chair of this meeting, later contemptuously observed that Straight Left “ended up selling Marxism Today [CPGB theoretical journal much despised by the party’s left in the 1980s for its Eurocommunist proclivities] instead of the Morning Star because the executive told them to”.[v] However, what this Straight Left strategy of avoiding open conflict eventually led to, in the context of a CPGB that was being set on a liquidationist course, was it being left somewhat high and dry. Straight Left had built a considerable base in London by the end of the 1980s “by showing a willingness to take on responsibilities at a time when few candidates were to be found”.[vi] This was to be a very hollow victory indeed given that the CPGB was soon to pass into oblivion and the succession of congresses to win was coming to an end.

Labour pains

In terms of the Labour Party, Straight Left took the BRS injunction of developing an alliance with Labour to effect radical changes to its logical conclusion by arguing that the CPGB should affiliate to the Labour Party and, more controversially for both the left and right of the CPGB, that the party should end its independent electoral work. Thus a typical article in Communist argued: “… it is difficult to see there being much movement against the exclusion of communist trades unionists from the Labour Party until our electoral strategy is based on non-sectarian principles and imbued with a thoroughly consistent and positive attitude to the Labour Party.”[vii] Thus Straight Left picked up clearly on the attitude of the pro-Soviet CPGB opposition of the 1960s, which consistently drew attention to the political impact of declining electoral votes on the avowed Labour-Communist strategy of the party. However, this opened up Straight Left to jibes of ‘liquidationism’ from both left and right in the CPGB[viii] and, in retrospect, isolated the group further.

Men of steel
The Straight Left group, again showing its origins in the CPGB’s pro-Soviet left of the 1960s, took an extremely uncritical view of the Soviet Union and other ‘socialist’ nations, and viewed the actions of the CPGB as a ‘national’ sin against the ‘internationalist’ probity of the Soviet Union’s camp. Straight Left publications were filled with reprints from Soviet agencies such as Novosti and other press agencies from the Eastern Bloc. Thus, an article in Communist argued:

Democracy for the working class has at all times been infinitely greater in the Soviet Union than in Britain. Political power in the Soviet Union is exercised for the working class and not against it. Concretely the Soviet citizen has human rights we are denied. He works for himself, collectively; and he is not unemployed.

Neither did this stance seemingly allow criticism of even the most crisis-stricken and sickly military dictatorships of countries such as Poland in the early 1980s. Straight Leftist Charlie Woods, complaining bitterly of CPGB criticisms of the Polish regime in 1983, said: “After all, how would our [CPGB] leadership take it if the over two-million-strong Polish United Workers Party took time off from trying to solve the problems of socialism to remonstrate with our 16,000-member party’s failure to achieve it at all.”[ix] The implication of this little homily being, of course, that those British communists really shouldn’t venture to criticise their Polish brethren at all. Fergus Nicholson used the pseudonym ‘Harry Steel’ when writing in Straight Left (Harry after Harry Pollitt, the CPGB’s most-revered general secretary; and Steel after Joseph Stalin the so-called ‘man of steel’). The attitude that the faction took to the Soviet Union shows that this was no idle affectation.

The Straight Left journal existed until the early 1990s, but many of its followers ended up joining the Communist Party of Britain, which was set up from the CCG in 1988. Unlike The Leninist faction, which became the new CPGB in the late 1990s, the Straight Left faction faded into obscurity after the breakup of the original Communist Party of Great Britain.

Lawrence Parker is the author of the book, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991. He has also contributed a chapter on anti-revisionism inside the CPGB in the 1950s and 1960s for our edited collection, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956.

———————————————————–

[i] It was difficult for a generally Stalin-supporting left in the CPGB to discard the legacy of the 1951 version of the BRS, particularly after John Gollan had helpfully pointed out that Stalin oversaw its incarnation. See John Gollan ‘Which road?’ Marxism Today July 1964. For a clear example of this ambiguity being shown to the BRS, see the contribution of Fergus Nicholson to the CPGB’s 1977 pre-congress debate in Comment 1 October 1977.

[ii] Francis Beckett Enemy within: the rise and fall of the British Communist Party London, 1998 p234. The accession of a group of ex-Straight Leftists (including Andrew Murray and Nick Wright, who had split from Straight Left to form Communist Liaison in the early 1990s) into the ranks of the Communist Party of Britain, contributed to a bitter faction fight in the organisation, in which Hicks was eventually deposed as general secretary and a strike by Morning Star staff.

[iii] Communist Campaign Group The crisis in the Communist Party and the way forward (no date but circa 1985)

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Beckett op cit

[vi] Willie Thompson The good old cause: British communism 1920-1991 London, 1992 p205

[vii] ‘40th congress of the Communist Party’ Communist September 1987

[viii] For the right wing of the CPGB, see Dave Cook in the pre-congress discussion of 1981; and for the left, Alan Stevens in the same context. Both in Comment 17 October 1981.

[ix] Charlie Woods The crisis in our Communist Party: cause, effect and cure 1983. Woods was a miner and party veteran from County Durham who was expelled for writing this pamphlet although he was very much viewed as a ‘fall guy’, with Fergus Nicholson or Brian Topping thought of as the more likely authors.

Russia and the United States have been fighting for dominance in Syria since 1957

British Cabinet document on possible US invasion of Syria, Sep. 1957

British Cabinet document on possible US invasion of Syria, Sep. 1957

Of the latest release of files from the National Archives, most media attention has focused on the files relating to the investigation into the Cambridge Spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. However there was one file relating to the possible reaction by the USSR to an invasion of Syria by the United States in the wake of the Suez Crisis of late 1956. Competing parts of the Syrian leadership were sympathetic to both the Soviet Union and the Pan-Arabism promoted by General Nasser in Egypt. Some promoted closer ties with Egypt, and were worried about the growth of the Communist Party in Syria, while others looked to the Soviet Union to rival any planned Western intervention, particularly in the wake of the failed intervention by the British, French and Israel in Egypt the previous year. This led to the ‘Syrian Crisis’ of 1957, where hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union were raised significantly.

From this, the British prepared a document looking at the repercussions from the Soviet Union if the United States did invade Syria. Probably the largest threats that the British believed might arise from a US invasion would be Soviet aggression towards Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, as well as the encouragement of further hostilities towards Israel or the assassination of one of the leaders of a US ally in the Middle East, such as King Hussein, Nuri as Said, Camille Chamoun or King Saud. There was a fear that the Soviets would also forment rebellions in Yemen and Oman.

Although a US invasion did not eventuate, it shows that Syria has been an important part of the Middle East strategy for both Russia/Soviet Union and the United States since the 1950s.

What’s that saying about history repeating?