“Fighting oppression wherever it exists”: the Communist Party of Great Britain and struggle against racism, 1962-1981

Eras Journal – Smith, E.:Fighting Oppression Wherever It Exists: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the Struggle Against Racism, 1962-1981

Evan Smith

(Flinders University)

This article outlines the anti-racist policies and strategies of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) between the years 1962 and 1981, observing the practical implications of how the Party attempted to counter the complex nature of racism within British society and how anti-racism correlated theoretically with the Party’s notion of class struggle. The CPGB’s anti-racist action during the 1960s and 1970s has been a neglected area of study, but it is significant for two reasons. The first being that anti-racism was one of the ‘new social movements’, alongside women’s liberation, gay rights, environmentalism and youth issues, that contributed to the use of cultural politics in the Gramscian/Eurocommunist re-evaluation of class-centred politics, which was at the centre of the Party’s internal divisions in the 1970s. The other was that the CPGB was a distinctive organisation in the anti-racist movement as it was a political party that had the general programme for the struggle for a socialist Britain with anti-racism comprised within this agenda, not as a final objective in itself. The scope for this article begins with 1962, as this is the year that the Conservative Party passed the first legislation against immigration from the New Commonwealth and the CPGB was on the ‘long road to recovery’ after the mass resignations of 1956 with the drive towards building a ‘mass party’.[1] The timeframe concludes with 1981, the year that the Anti-Nazi League unofficially dissolved and the ‘race’ riots occurred in Brixton in April then across Britain in July, and the CPGB was itself divided by internal schisms and suffering from the defeat of the Left by Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979. This article will look at the many practical and theoretical debates on the highly complicated issue of combating racism that the Party faced during the 1960s and 1970s.

The Communist party and the Concept of ‘Race’

In 1978, Gideon Ben-Tovim, a member of the Party’s National Race Relations Committee (NRRC), wrote: ‘The struggle against racism is one area in which the Communist party’s political intervention has not been much or recently underscored by theoretical analysis or discussion’.[2] Ben-Tovim argued that a Marxist analysis of race and racism had not been developed by Party theoreticians and suffered from ‘economic determinism and class reductionism’.[3]In Party literature, mostly written by Kay Beauchamp and Joan Bellamy, racism was portrayed as a capitalist construct to ‘make profit for a small handful of bosses, shareholders and bankers out of everybody’s labour’, juxtaposed against the British working class’s ‘traditions of tolerance’.[4] However, ‘despite virtuous statements from national union leaderships about equality and working class solidarity’, there was a distinct lack of sympathy among white workers for the problems faced by black and immigrant workers.[5] This class reductionism does not explain racism within the labour movement which saw the elimination of racism as part of the socialist revolution, ‘even though capitalism does not directly, exclusively, and necessarily “cause” racism’.[6]

The contribution of many black activists, intellectuals and academics to the expansion of the concept of ‘race’ during the 1960s and 1970s saw it removed from the simple aspect of class organisation, where ‘race’ was no longer analogous with a class position but viewed as a separate social construct.[7]The Left and the wider labour movement had to contend with practical consequences of the theoretical developments of class agency within the anti-racist struggle. The Communist Party asserted that the ‘root and fruit of racialism is profit … For this reason racialism will never be eradicated under capitalism’.[8] However, not all anti-racist organisations are anti-capitalist, and black separatist organisations for example, perceived anti-racism to be the final objective. The white Left was criticised by various black organisations for disregarding anti-racism in favour of the struggle for socialism. As Ben-Tovim wrote, ‘although race is a class issue, it is primarily a democratic and an ideological issue’.[9] Party literature maintained that ‘the motive force for racialism – the drive for profit’ would be eradicated under socialism ‘but racialism will not cease to exist automatically’.[10] The fact that ‘racialist ideas [had] been deeply embedded in man’s mind’ meant that efforts would have to be made in the anti-racist struggle for immediate gains.[11] One of the major concerns for the Party in their anti-racist work was getting white Party members to understand the problems that blacks faced in British society and convincing these white members to become active in the anti-racist movement.

The struggle against racism was a democratic issue and Ben-Tovim stressed that the anti-racist movement should include ‘Liberals, progressive Tories, Churches [and the] middle strata’, and not just a ‘narrow stratum of proletarian and socialist forces’.[12] The debate over the ‘new social movements’ and the Party’s place within other organisational fronts under the concept of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ was particularly significant in the anti-racist movement. The CPGB favoured working with other anti-racist groups, such as the Anti-Nazi League, the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, and the Movement for Colonial Freedom (after 1970, Liberation). This involved co-operating with other organisations that did not share the Party’s political programme, but were important to combating racism.

The Communist Party developed a slogan, shared by the Movement for Colonial Freedom, ‘One Race, the Human Race’, which graced many of its flyers, pamphlets and banners during the 1960s and 1970s. This slogan was used to garner support for the anti-racist movement outside the socialist Left and illustrate to the many liberal and progressive groups that the CPGB favoured ‘united, broad democratic activity’ and wanted to include ‘all individuals and all organizations to join this fight irrespective of their views on other issues’.[13] As demonstrated in a 1968 flyer, the CPGB demanded that the reader ‘Oppose the racialists now’, but did not mention socialism, instead asking the reader to ‘stand for democracy, tolerance and working-class unity’.[14] Other leftist groups, such as the International Socialists (after 1976, the Socialist Workers Party) and Big Flame, criticised the CPGB for this platform, declaring that the slogan ‘One Race, the Human Race’ was ‘bourgeois’, based on a moral argument rather than a Marxist class analysis of the stratification between white and black workers.[15] The CPGB viewed the far Left’s position as ‘contempt for the fight for immediate policy’, which harboured ‘a false concept of united activity to see only the Communist Party and the Ultra-Left as the major components of the anti-racist struggle’.[16]

Executive Committee member Vishnu Sharma wrote in a 1979 CPGB pamphlet, ‘Although the National Front… continue to present a very real threat, the main racist injection into British politics … is likely to be the new legislation of the government’.[17] The Communist Party acknowledged that racism was a persistent feature in many aspects of British society and the predicament facing not just the CPGB, but all progressive and leftist organisations, was working on a strategy to effectively combat the multi-faceted challenge of racism.

Immigration Control

For the CPGB, both the Conservatives and Labour had contributed to turning race into a political issue by ‘developing immigration policies based on racial discrimination’.[18] Despite opposing the increasingly racist immigration controls passed by both the Conservatives and Labour between 1962 and 1971, the Party’s position on immigration control was not one of total opposition. The Party conceded that ‘governments have the right to regulate immigration and emigration’, emphasising that the Party was not opposed to ‘government control of immigration’, but wanted the present immigration regulations repealed as they were ‘based on colour discrimination’.[19] As Ben-Tovim wrote, those who campaigned for the abolition of all immigration controls, such as the Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group, were dealing with ‘abstract rhetoric’ and ignored ‘any serious consideration of strategic or tactical questions’ in fighting these laws.[20] This is reiterated by Vishnu Sharma: ‘The demand for the abolition of all immigrant controls … can make it more difficult to win people to campaign on the urgent, primary issue’.[21] The CPGB looked to the State, in this case the Labour Party, to repeal the racist immigration laws and the revolutionary rhetoric of ‘no immigration controls’ would have seriously damaged this campaign. This point is clearly stated by Sharma: ‘To put it bluntly, to end the vicious racism in the immigration system needs a great mass campaign. Under the slogan “no immigration controls at all” this will not be built’.[22]

The State as ‘Referee’

A major part of the Communist Party’s anti-racist strategy during the 1960s was campaigning for the Labour Government to pass the Race Relations Act, which would make racial discrimination punishable by law. Once the first such act was passed in 1965, the CPGB maintained the campaign to significantly strengthen it. The defects of the 1965 Race Relations Act were significant and numerous and considered by the CPGB to ‘represent concessions to the racialists’, but it was still regarded positively as the ‘first limited step … and called for its support in principle by all progressive people’.[23] The Race Relations Act was limited in its impact to combat racial discrimination, did not promote racial equality or in the more immediate sense, have enough scope to prevent organisations such as the National Front or the British Movement from spreading racist propaganda.

One of the major defects of the Act that had impacted upon the CPGB was the fact that it was based on provisions of the 1936 Public Order Act and ‘relates to incitement in public places‘.[24] The 1936 Public Order Act was passed in the aftermath of the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ and gave government the right to ban public gatherings if they were deemed to be a danger to society at large.[25] This legislation was passed with the aim of containing the British Union of Fascists (BUF), but it was also used to prevent leftist demonstrations.[26] Concerning the CPGB was Clause 4 of the Race Relations Act, which aimed to ‘extend the 1936 Public Order Act by adding a new offence of distributing or displaying signs or writings with intent to provoke a breach of peace’.[27] This ‘danger to democracy’, the Party feared, would be used against anti-fascists/anti-racists to ‘curb normal political activities’ and was moreover unnecessary, as ‘measures against racial incitement [were] already included in Clause 3’.[28]

Traditional Marxist-Leninist ideology viewed the State as a series of institutions to be demolished in the wake of the socialist revolution.[29] However inside the CPGB, the membership was divided over its relationship with the State – an issue that was emphasised during the debate over the 1977 draft of The British Road to Socialism. In practical terms, the Party implored the State to prosecute racist actions and ban racist organisations, with constant campaigns in the Morning Star calling for Home Secretary Melvyn Rees or Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir David MacNee to ban National Front marches during the 1970s. In the key 1978 CPGB pamphlet A Knife at the Throat of Us All, Dave Cook reminded the reader that socialists who do not co-operate with the State in banning racist and fascist organisations ‘should do well to read the account by Phil Piratin in Our Flag Stays Red‘, which argues that even if defeated, a call for a ban is a powerful piece of propaganda, in case of a counter-demonstration.[30]

The CPGB and the Police

Closely linked to the issue of the State as the adjudicator for the CPGB in combating racist and fascist activity was the question of the role of state institutions, such as the police force. The police force was the primary state institution at the forefront of the problem of racism within British society and contributed significantly to the notion of institutionalised racism.[31] For the CPGB, the issue of racism and the police force was highlighted in areas such as the use of police to enforce the immigration laws and the use of the SUS in predominantly black areas (see below). The Immigration Act and the police enforcement of the Act were, Sharma asserted,’as much concerned with controlof black people in Britain, as they are to do with immigration ‘, with over 5,000 people being imprisoned under the 1971 Immigration Act between 1973 and 1979.[32]

The police force, wrote Dave Cook, were ‘shot through with racist elements and regard young blacks as their targets’.[33] During the 1970s, the SUS law – an interpretation of a vagrancy law passed in 1824 – was used to intimidate sections of British society, particularly black youths.[34] The Young Communist League highlighted that police harassment was ‘an everyday occurrence’ in some of the highly populated immigrants areas.[35] In addition to this harassment, the police were often used to protect NF demonstrations and coerce anti-fascist demonstrators, leading to violence, in places such as Lewisham, Ladywood, Blackburn and Southall. Demonstrations against the National Front with large police contingents resulted in the deaths of two anti-fascist demonstrators – Kevin Gately in Red Lion Square in June 1974 and Blair Peach in Southall in April 1979.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially in the aftermath of Blair Peach’s death, ‘the role of the police has become a central issue of anti-racist politics’ and the increasing details of police racism in the black communities ‘loom[ed] large in any serious discussion of “institutionalised” racism and how to combat it’.[36] Since the early 1970s, the Communist Party had warned that ‘relations between black people and the police are explosive’ and ‘signs of revolt’ could be seen in young West Indian and Asian youth.[37] Police activities were ‘a tool for the racial harassment of black people’ and the police involvement in upholding the Immigration Act continued to ‘make life intolerable’ to those black immigrants who had already settled.[38] The CPGB forwarded a proposal at the London District Congress in 1980: ‘To campaign to focus public opinion on the use of the Metropolitan Police to attack black families, and to press for public accountability in policing to an elected body’.[39] By 1981, a ‘charter of demands’ had been put forward, which included demands for the abolition of the ‘sus’ law, the disbanding of the Special Patrol Group, strengthening of laws against racists, greater involvement with the police inside the black communities and the end of enforcement by the police of the racist Immigration Act.[40]

In the aftermath of the Brixton riots and the riots that occurred around the country during 1981, the CPGB stressed that areas like Brixton ‘need community policing with democratic accountability and control, not saturating policing’.[41] Prior to the Brixton riots, the Hackney CP branch warned that riots, such as those in Bristol in April 1980, were not ‘spontaneous’, but were the results of ‘economic crisis, urban decay, unemployment, exploitation’.[42] In the CPGB’s draft statement on the ‘race riots’ of 1981 submitted to the Executive Committee, it stated, ‘Thatcher is blind to the part played by her disastrous economic and social policies in causing the disturbances, and the police chiefs are blind to the connections between their everyday methods and the violence they face’.[43]

The Conservative Party

In 1962, the Conservative Party passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, the first piece of legislation created to regulate immigration from the ‘New Commonwealth’ (former British colonies that had gained political independence in the post-war period, such as India, Pakistan and the West Indies).[44] The Act made entry into Britain dependent on the possession of a work voucher, although immigrants from Ireland and the European Economic Community were exempt from the voucher system. Despite voting against the Bill while in opposition, the Labour Government did not repeal the Act after election in 1964 and in 1968, strengthened the Act. The Communist Party saw the Conservatives as the major purveyor of racist sentiment and although ‘the Labour Government’s record on race relations was bitterly disappointing’, the Conservatives were the obstacle for both white and black workers in the struggle for a socialist Britain.[45] As Vishnu Sharma wrote in 1979, ‘All along the line Labour and Conservative governments have retreated in the face of racist clamour. Now we have a government which is not being pushed. It is leading.’ [46]

The rise of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s was a particular problem for the CPGB and the political shift that occurred with her election in May 1979 signalled for the British labour movement an era of decline and confrontation. After her appointment as leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, Thatcher inherited much of her rhetoric from Enoch Powell and the ‘threat’ of the ‘enemy within’ that was developed during the industrial militancy of 1968-1974. Thatcher was able to swing the Conservatives to the right in a way that Powell had not, and also popularised the themes of ‘law and order, the need for social discipline and authority in the face of a conspiracy by the enemies of the state’.[47]

In late January 1978, Margaret Thatcher spoke in an interview of the legitimacy of the British people’s fears of ‘being swamped’, in which she stated, ‘the moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened’.[48]In the days following, the CPGB leadership called Thatcher’s remarks ‘the most sinister [statement] on race relations since Powell’s “Tiber running with blood” speech’ and the Conservatives were ‘now openly using the language of Powell and the National Front’.[49] In 1978 CPGB General Secretary, Gordon McLennan, issued ‘An Open Letter to the Labour Movement from the Communist Party’, which recognised the ‘serious danger’ that, if elected, Thatcher’s government would be ‘the most reactionary Tory government for decades’, which had ‘now adopted the racist policies and language of the National Front’.[50] The Party leadership warned that Thatcher wanted the ‘people who now vote National Front to vote Tory’, but the ‘effect of her references to the National Front is to increase its prestige instead of exposing it’.[51] Thatcher’s illiberal stance against immigration and views on strong ‘law and order’ issues siphoned off many votes and members from the NF and although they had been losing support since 1976, the Conservative victory consigned the National Front to political obscurity and factional fighting throughout the 1980s. With the election of Thatcher as Prime Minister in May 1979, the Communist Party passed a resolution at their 36th National Congress in December 1979 declaring, ‘the offensive by the Conservative government … helps create the atmosphere in which racist and fascist ideas can gain support and black people be blamed for the evil results of Tory policies’.[52]

The National Front

The National Front was a fascist party that inherited the political traditions of the inter-war fascist groups and was formed in 1967 as a merger between several far-right groups. The National Front campaigned for the end of immigration and the repatriation of non-white Britons, spreading the fear of the ‘threat’ of non-white immigration to transform ‘an obscure political sect into a potential mass movement’.[53] Although its extremism gave it little chance for long-term political viability, the NF were still able to make an impact in elections (such as West Bromwich in 1973 and the GLC elections in 1977) and exploit popular unease towards immigration through publicity stunts and controversial street demonstrations in areas with large immigrant populations.

The Communist Party acknowledged that ‘fascism and racism are not identical’, but ‘there is plenty to overlap between them’.[54] The National Front, warned Gordon McLennan in 1978, ‘stirred up hatred between black and white people to prepare the way for attacks on all trade unionists and democrats’.[55] While the CPGB campaigned against the NF during the 1970s and highlighted the dangers of their activities, they cautioned that people ‘should not make the mistake of thinking that Britain is on the edge of a fascist takeover’. A bigger threat came from the rise of Margaret Thatcher and ‘the more openly asserted authoritarian face of the Conservative Party’.[56] However, while the threat of fascism to the working class may have been forestalled, the threat of the NF to minorities, such as immigrants and black British citizens, was very real indeed, with thirty-one racist murders occurred between 1976 and 1981.[57] ‘Action against the National Front cannot wait … the conditions in which fascist ideas get a response exist, and indeed worsen now in the actual conditions of people’s lives’, wrote Dave Cook.[58] Nonetheless, ‘although the first to suffer have a black skin’, reminded Cook, ‘Ultimately fascism is a knife which stabs at the throat of us all ‘.[59]

Anti-Fascism, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Anti-Nazi League

Between the formation of the National Front in 1967 and March 1978 when the CPGB joined the Anti-Nazi League, the NF reached its height, during 1973, of around 17,500 members. The Communist Party’s response was nominal, compared to its anti-fascist legacy of the 1930s, with the SWP becoming the most prominent organisation in anti-fascist action from the Left.

From 1976 to 1979, the National Front was haemorrhaging members, but putting forward more candidates in by-elections and increasing its presence in public, mainly through controversial street demonstrations. During this period, the anti-fascist/anti-racist movements grew significantly in terms of popular support, with the establishment of the Anti-Nazi League in late 1977. This period is particularly important because it highlights the difference between the CPGB and the SWP and their influence on the anti-fascist movement. Between 1973 and 1979, the CPGB’s membership dropped from 30,000 to just over 20,000, although the estimated number of ‘active’ members was thought to be much lower than the official figures.[60] At the same time, the Socialist Workers Party, one of the few groups on the far Left to sustain its growth after the radicalism of the late 1960s, was emphasising the shift towards fighting racialism and the Right to Work campaign.[61] The SWP were credited with attracting younger people, as well as blacks and Asians, by advocating physical demonstrations against the National Front and ‘mobilising a new generation of young radicals into political activity’.[62] The launch of Rock Against Racism in late 1976 (an offshoot of the SWP) highlighted anti-racist politics by combining them with popular culture and was ‘one of the timeliest and best constructed of cultural interventions’.[63] Meanwhile the Young Communist league was drastically losing members, seemingly unable to offer a counter-measure to the ‘despair’ of youth in 1970s Britain, which the National Front was attempting to exploit.

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’ on August 13, 1977, when anti-fascist demonstrators clashed with the National Front and the police in the London borough of Lewisham, emphasised the differences between the CPGB and the SWP within the anti-fascist movement. The SWP appropriated the Communist Party’s anti-fascist legacy and the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ to substantiate the militancy of their demonstrations. The ‘official’ counter-demonstration to the Lewisham NF march was organised by the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF), a ‘broad anti-racialist committee’ supported by the CPGB and chaired by prominent CP member, Mike Power.[64] In the days leading up to the demonstration, the Lewisham branch appealed for a ‘powerful but peaceful counter-demonstration’ and distributed flyers calling for marchers not to attend the SWP demonstration organised closer to the National Front march route.[65] The flyer appealed for marchers to resist ‘violent confrontation with the National Front or the police’ and to remain ‘united and disciplined’, asserting that organizations such as the SWP ‘who insist on the ritual enactment of vanguardist violence only damage the hard, patient work that has been put in over the years in the area by anti-racists and anti-fascists’.[66]

While the ALCARAF demonstration was held away from the National Front, the SWP organised their counter-demonstration at Clifton Rise, the starting point for the National Front march. Around 4,000 demonstrators congregated at this point and were involved in ‘ugly and violent scenes as police made snatch raids into the crowd … and counter-demonstrators retaliated with bottles, bricks, and soft drink cans’.[67] A second flashpoint was at the end of the NF march on Lewisham High Street, where counter-demonstrators, police and National Front members became involved in outbreaks of fighting. By the end of the day, 110 people had been injured, including 56 policemen, and 210 people detained, with 204 charged with offences.[68] In the aftermath, the Communist Party criticised the SWP for its violent approach, while the SWP’s paper, Socialist Worker, proudly declared ‘We Stopped the Nazis … And We’ll Do It Again!’.[69]

In the following months, the SWP launched the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) – a broad alliance between the Left and reformist elements of the Labour Party and the trade union movement – to counter the National Front, thus popularising the ‘NF is a Nazi Front’ tagline. While the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ had seen the SWP branded as ‘extremists’ by the police and by some within the press, the ANL established the SWP in its prominent position within the anti-fascist movement, due to the fact that it was able to create a successful single issue campaign that achieved mass support, where the physical opposition to the NF had alienated moderate support. Originally hesitant towards the ANL, Gordon McLennan and the CPGB Executive Committee agreed to support the campaign in March 1978. The CPGB supported the ANL as a ‘propaganda and campaigning organization against the National Front‘ but declared that the ANL was not ‘an appropriate body to carry out the detailed systematic work against racism … for which broad anti-racist committees are the most appropriate’.[70] The Anti-Nazi League was one of the biggest mass movements in British political history and was largely successful in dissipating support for the National Front.

Working Class Racism

Racist beliefs and attitudes within the British working class have been written about at length by other historians and sociologists, however it is important to examine racism within the labour movement and the efforts the CPGB took to combat this racism. For the Party, one of the first actions to be taken in the fight against racism ‘must be to get an anti-racist consciousness among militant workers … The main battle here tends to be to show the need to fight racism rather than ignoring it’.[71] In the 1960s, there was a shift in trade union strategy away from creating a Communist rank-and-file in opposition to the trade union leadership towards attempts to gain positions at the executive level of the unions. This led to criticisms that the CPGB was politically isolated from the rank-and-file, with a questioning of its ability to effectively combat racial populism within the labour movement and facilitate co-operation between white and black workers in the movement.

Despite most unions passing resolutions against racism and racial discrimination, racism within the labour movement remained a large problem for the CPGB. During the 1960s and 1970s, several incidents of industrial action were affected by racist attitudes, notably the strikes at Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters, where striking workers received little help from their unions. The International Socialists (later the SWP) criticised the ‘traditional organisations of the Left’, the Labour Party and the CPGB for failing to ‘offer real, socialist alternatives to capitalism or to combat the racist upsurge’.[72] Despite numerous working class militants within the Party, the CPGB had ‘responded to racism too little and too late’.[73]

The most significant incident for the issue of race within the labour movement during the 1970s was the Grunwick strike. In August 1976, a group of East African Asians went unofficially on strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant and over the next two years, remained on strike until they were finally defeated in July 1978. Although the strikers were recognised by APEX (the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staffs) George Ward, the owner of the plant, refused to negotiate with the strikers and the strike turned into one of the longest in British history. The CPGB were influential in the Brent Trades Council, Grunwick’s local representative of the TUC, and closely linked to its secretary, Jack Dromey. Through this association, the Party played a significant role at Grunwick. The Party was ‘more comfortable when issues of “race” were part of broader industrial struggle’ and the Grunwick strike was seen as ‘typical of the way in which class struggles could overcome sectional interests’.[74]However it was felt by some Asian workers in the strike that the socialist organisations and the trade union movement were using the strike to their own advantage and ‘carelessly forgetting the consequence the black people have to suffer’.[75] As written in Race Today, the involvement of the white socialist left was seen as ‘a takeover bid for the independent movement of Asian workers by the left-wing of the labour movement, whose immediate interest is to keep the union kite flying’.[76]

Locally Based Anti-Racism and the ‘Broad Democratic Alliance’

The lesson of the CPGB’s fight against fascism in the 1930s was that the way to combat fascism encroaching on the working class was to eradicate the socio-economic factors on which the fascists based their support. This meant working in the local community and providing help to those who needed it. The people often attracted to Mosley’s BUF were ‘living miserable, squalid lives’ in slum houses and were either unemployed or in low-paid jobs.[77] The Communist Party branch in Stepney urged its members to ‘help the people to improve their conditions of life’, which would ‘show them who was really responsible for their conditions, and get them organised to fight against the real exploiters’.[78] The Party went into areas that were known as fascist strongholds and took up ‘the very little issues like repairs, rents, lighting … and organised the tenants to fight collectively’.[79] In 1978, Phil Piratin reminded Communist Party members that the ‘main aim must be to rally masses of people for a struggle which eliminates the festering social and economic conditions in which fascism can thrive’.[80]

One of the most significant ways the CPGB could combat racism was through local community politics. The CPGB espoused the notion of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ which saw members work within other organisations and community groups. Although the ‘broad democratic alliance’ was pushed by the reformist elements within the CPGB, the Party leadership had long encouraged Party members to work within anti-racist and ethnic minority groups. Gordon McLennan urged that the Communist Party, along with the organised labour movement, ‘help set up and reinforce broad campaigning committees against racism in every locality’ and as illustrated before, the Political Committee saw ‘broad anti-racialist committees’ as the most effective organisations to combat racism and fascism at local levels.[81]

The most important documents of the Communist Party’s anti-racist work were Dave Cook’s A Knife at the Throat of Us All and Racism: How to Combat It, and an ‘action guide’ issued by the CPGB’s National Race Relations Committee, both published in 1978. Cook’s pamphlet detailed the analysis of the CPGB of the ‘separate but inter-connected features of capitalist society’, racism and fascism and demonstrated a coherent ideological notion of how racism had developed in Britain through the various institutions of the State, the Conservative Party and the National Front.[82] Being one of the major proponents of the ‘Left Alternative Strategy’, the other platform emphasised by the reformists alongside the ‘broad democratic alliance’, Cook saw local politics as an important political challenge for the CPGB in the fight against racism. For Cook, the ‘Left Alternative Strategy’ was the ‘concept of recreating the community must be placed at the heart of the fight against racism and fascism’, which meant ‘more government money, Community Development Projects … Community and Neighbourhood Councils, community newspaper, the single issue campaigns which proliferate in every city’.[83]

The pamphlet issued by the CPGB’s National Race Relations Committee was published to suggest practical steps in which action could be taken in relation to the issues discussed in Cook’s pamphlet. This pamphlet, distributed to Party branches, did not discuss the ideological nature of racism, but split into seventeen sections, covering practical political action to combat racism. As well as sections on multi-racialism, the 1977 CPGB resolution on racism and fascism, broad anti-racist committees and the Anti-Nazi League, the pamphlet detailed what various anti-racists, such as Communist Party branches, trade councils, union branches, school teachers, the tenants association and the women’s movement could do to stop racism.

In the thirty years since the beginning of large-scale immigration, the CPGB had attempted to incorporate anti-racism within the wider struggle for socialism, with the difficult task of presenting the mainly white Party as an effective organisation in the anti-racist movement. By the late 1970s, the Party had produced a coherent programme with guidelines for practical anti-racist activity, which for a party of the CPGB’s size and influence, the most practical and effective areas were in local community based politics, trade union work and in the anti-fascist movement. However, the Party’s membership had been steadily declining since the mid-1960s (down from 34,281 in 1964 to 18,458 in 1981)[84] and cultural politics, of which anti-racism was a part, had been at the centre of the division between the traditional industrial militants and the Gramscian/Eurocommunist reformists. This declining membership and massive internal schisms had inhibited the CPGB from establishing a significant co-ordinating or leadership role within the anti-racist movement and the involvement of individual Party members in other political activity produced little ‘tangible political benefits’.[85] In conclusion, whatever potential the CPGB had within the anti-racist movement, the fact was that falling membership numbers and internal divisions prevented the Party from making many significant contributions to the anti-racist struggle.

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[1] Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2004, p. 30; Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991, Pluto Press, London, 1992, p. 133. Back

[2] Gideon Ben-Tovim, ‘The Struggle Against Racism: Theoretical and Strategic Perspectives’, Marxism Today, July 1978, p. 203. Back

[3] Gideon Ben-Tovim, ‘The Struggle Against Racism’, Marxism Today, July 1978, p. 203. Back

[4] Joan Bellamy, Homes, Jobs, Immigration – The Facts, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1968, pp. 3, 8. Back

[5] Trevor Carter, Shattering Illusions: West Indians in British Politics, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1986, p. 52. Back

[6] Gideon Ben-Tovim, ‘The Struggle Against Racism’, p. 205. Back

[7] The word ‘black’ is used in this article to describe both Afro-Caribbeans and Asians as in most studies, this is term used. Authors, such as Peter Fryer, Ron Ramdin and Kalbir Shukra, have used ‘black’ to denote non-white persons, although it is recognised that the use of this term does not allude to an ‘homogenous community’ between non-white Britons. See: Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1984, p. xi; Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Gower, Aldershot, 1987, p. x; Ron Ramdin, Reimaging Britain: Five Hundred Years of Black and Asian History, Pluto Press, London, 1999, p. x; Kalbir Shukra, The Changing Pattern of Black Politics in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1998, p. 125; Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation , Routledge, London, 2002, p. 36.

EDITORS NOTE: The term ‘Asian’ in the British sense is used in reference to individuals with cultural/ethnic roots in the Indian sub-continent (including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma), unlike in Australian public discourse where the term refers to those of East-Asian ethnicity (China, Japan, Korea, South-east Asia, etc.). Back

[8] Kay Beauchamp, Black Citizens, CPGB pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 13. Back

[9] Gideon Ben-Tovim, ‘The Struggle Against Racism’, p. 205. Back

[10] Kay Beauchamp, Black Citizens, p. 13. Back

[11] Kay Beauchamp, Black Citizens, p. 13. Back

[12] Gideon Ben-Tovim, ‘The Struggle Against Racism’, p. 205. Back

[13] Draft for Political Committee, 1 July, 1976, CP/CENT/PC/14/01, CPGB Archive, National Museum of Labour History, Manchester (hereafter NMLH). Back

[14] One Race, the Human Race … Two Classes, Workers and Bosses, CPGB flyer, 1968. Back

[15] ‘Why I Was A Racist’, Big Flame, May 1978. Back

[16] Draft for Political Committee, 1 July, 1976, CP/CENT/PC/14/01, NMLH. Back

[17] Vishnu Sharma, No Racist Immigration Laws, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1979, p. 11. Back

[18] ‘Resolution: The Fight Against Racialism in Britain’, Comment, December 1973, p. 406. Back

[19] Joan Bellamy,Homes, Jobs, Immigration, p. 9. Previously the CPGB’s policy on immigration had been elaborated in Tony Chater’s Race Relations in Britain: ‘Restrictions on immigration should never have a racialist bias and in any case are only justifiable if immigration is threatening the country with political, economic and social harm … No one can seriously maintain that this applies today’. Anthony Chater, Race Relations in Britain, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1966, p. 62.Back

[20] Gideon Ben-Tovim, ‘The Struggle Against Racism’, p. 206. Back

[21] Vishnu Sharma, No Racist immigration Laws, p. 16. Back

[22] Sharma, No Racist immigration Laws, p. 16 (Italics are in the original text). Back

[23] Harry Bourne, Racialism: Cause and Cure, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1965, p. 12. Back

[24] ‘Memorandum on the Future of the Community Relations Commission and Local Community Relations Committees’, CP/CENT/PC/13/19, NMLH. Back

[25] The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ is at the heart of the CPGB’s anti-fascist legacy, when on October 4, 1936, over 100,000 people blockaded the East End of London against a march by the British Union of Fascists through Cable Street and Gardiner’s Corner, where a large Jewish population lived. Both the British Left and Jewish circles regard the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ as an important part of their history. Back

[26] For more details on the use of the Public Order Act in diffusing public demonstrations of ‘political extremism’, see: Richard C. Thurlow, ‘The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back: Public Order, Civil Liberties and the Battle of Cable Street’, in Tony Kushner & Nadia Valman (eds), Remembering Cable Street: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Society, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 2000, pp. 74-94; Richard Thurlow, The Secret State: British Internal Security in the Twentieth Century , Blackwell, Oxford, 1994, pp. 182-203; Nigel Copsey,Anti-Fascism in Britain, Macmillan, Houndmills, 2000, pp. 64-66.Back

[27] Harry Bourne, Racialism, p. 12. Back

[28] Harry Bourne, Racialism, p. 12. Back

[29] In a debate with Alex Callinicos over The British Road to Socialism in SWP journal International Socialism, CPGB member Geoff Roberts declared that the revolutionary rhetoric of ‘smashing the state’ was ‘not rooted in any concrete analysis of the present-day British state’. Referring to Lenin’s Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, the State was not ‘a monolithic structure’ and while necessary to ‘smash’ the repressive institutions, such as ‘the standing army, the police and the bureaucracy’, there is the state apparatus that ‘performs a vast amount of work of an accounting and statistical nature’ which should be kept. For Roberts, ‘the British Road perspective is merely an extension and development’ of Lenin’s analysis of the State. Geoff Roberts,’The CP, the SWP and the Strategy for Socialism in Britain’, International Socialism , 1/99, June 1977, p. 23; V.I. Lenin, Collected Works vol. 26, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1964, p. 106. Back

[30] Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All: Racism and the National Front, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1978 p. 17.Back

The section that Cook quotes from is: ‘A hundred thousand signatures were obtained in the course of a few days, calling on the Home Secretary to forbid this demonstration… The most powerful campaign of propaganda and preparation took place, unequalled in any other action of recent working class history, with the exception of the 1926 General Strike’. Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, p. 17; Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1978, p. 19.Back

[31] The issue of the police force as an example of institutional racism has been widely discussed in other works. For detailed analysis of this issue, see: Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, pp. 84-145; Stuart Hall (ed.),Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, Macmillan, London, 1978. Back

[32] Vishnu Sharma, No Racist Immigration Laws, pp. 5-6 (Italics are in the original text). Back

[33] Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, pp. 28-29. Back

[34] In an internal document, the Hackney CP Branch states ‘a study done in Hackney in 1977 showed that 60% of those arrested on SUS were black – but only 20% of people in hackney are black’. Hackney CP Branch Internal Policy Document, CP/LON/BRA/09/11, NMLH.Back

[35] Challenge , 23, 1974?, p. 5. Back

[36] CPGB Executive Committee Invitation to Discussion Conference on ‘Racism and the Police’, October 1980, CP/LON/RACE/02/01, NMLH. Back

[37] ‘Brutality and Racist Abuse By Police Played Down’, Morning Star, 14 September, 1972. Back

[38] Hackney CP Branch Internal Policy Document, CP/LON/BRA/09/11, NMLH. Back

[39] ‘Racism: Branch Resolutions’, London District Congress, 1980, CP/LON/CONG/06/18, NMLH. Back

[40] ‘Racism and the Police’,Comment, 21 February, 1981, p. 7. Back

[41] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, 12-13 September, 1981, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, NMLH. Back

[42] Hackney CP Branch Internal Policy Document, CP/LON/BRA/09/11, NMLH. Back

[43]’Crisis in the Inner Cities’, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, NMLH.Back

[44]Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, White Man’s CountryRacism in British Politics, Pluto Press, London, 1984, p. 12. The reaction to immigration by the Conservative Government (1951-1964), described by Paul Foot as ‘a story of undiluted cynicism, chauvinism and human neglect’, as well as the capitulation by the Labour Party, has been discussed at length in other studies. See: Paul Foot,Immigration and Race in British Politics, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1965, p. 160; Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1997, pp. 131-190; Peter Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution, Bookmarks, London, 1987, pp. 29-44; Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, pp. 226-231; Peter Fryer,Staying Power, pp. 381-386. Back

[45] Joan Bellamy, Unite Against Racialism: Defeat the Immigration Bill, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1971, p. 10-11.Back

[46] Vishnu Sharma, No Racist Immigration Laws, p. 11. Back

[47] Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, in Stuart Hall (ed.), The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, Verso, London, 1988, p. 44. Back

[48] Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 106; Guardian, 1 February, 1978. Back

[49] CPGB Political Committee Weekly Letter, February 2, 1978, CP/CENT/CIRC/68/07, NMLH. Back

[50] ‘An Open Letter to the Labour Movement from the Communist Party’, March 1978, CP/CENT/STAT/03/07, NMLH.Back

[51] CPGB Political Committee Weekly Letter, 2 February, 1978, CP/CENT/CIRC/68/07, NMLH. Back

[52] ‘Racism’, Comment, 1 December, 1979, p. 411. Back

[53] Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History, 1918-1985, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987, pp. 270-271.Back

[54] Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, p. 5. Back

[55] ‘An Open Letter to the Labour Movement from the Communist Party’, CP/CENT/STAT/03/07, NMLH. Back

[56] Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, p. 8. Back

[57] David Widgery, Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, Chatto & Windus, London, 1986, p. 17; Peter Fryer,Staying Power, p. 395. Back

[58] Dave Cook , A Knife at the Throat of Us All, p. 17. Back

[59] Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, pp. 2-3 (My emphasis). Back

[60] Steve Jeffreys, ‘Out at 60?: The Communist Party (CPGB) in 1979’, Socialist Review, 13, July/August 1979, p. 37.Back

[61] Ian Goodyer, ‘The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism’, unpublished MA Thesis, Sheffield Hallam University, 2002, p. 25. Back

[62] James Eaden & David Renton,The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, Palgrave, Houndmills, 2002, p. 168. Back

[63] Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, p. 42. Back

[64] Lewisham Borough Communist Party on ALCARAF Demonstration, 13 August [1977], CP/LON/LEW/02/06, NMLH. Back

[65] Lewisham Borough Communist Party on ALCARAF Demonstration, 13 August [1977], CP/LON/LEW/02/06, NMLH. Back

[66] ‘A Message From Lewisham Communists to the ALCARAF Demonstration’, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, NMLH. Back

[67] Guardian, 15 August, 1977. Back

[68] Guardian, 15 August, 1977. Back

[69] Socialist Worker, 20 August, 1977. Back

[70] CPGB Political Committee Weekly Letter, 6 April, 1978 , CP/CENT/PC/14/22, NMLH (Emphasis is in the original text). Back

[71] CPGB National Race Relations Committee, Racism: How to Combat It, CPGB pamphlet, p. 4. Back

[72] ‘The Urgent Challenge of Fascism’, in David Widgery, The Left inBritain: 1956-1968, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1976, p. 411. Back

[73] ‘The Urgent Challenge of Fascism’, in Widgery, The Left in Britain, p. 411. Back