Evan Smith: British Communism and the Politics of Race

interviewed by Selim Nadi

The Black Panther Project

 A French version was originally published in Période as 'Le communisme britannique face à la question raciale : entretien avec Evan Smith'.

Evan Smith is a Visiting Adjunct Fellow in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University, South Australia. He has written widely on the British and Australian left, anti-racism, immigration control and youth culture. He is the co-author of Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control (Palgrave Macmillan 2014) and the co-editor of Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press 2014) and its companion volume, Waiting for the Revolution (Manchester University Press 2017). His first single authored monograph, British Communism and the Politics of Race, will be published by Brill as part of its Historical Materialism series in 2018.

Selim Nadi (SN): In your book British Communism and the Politics of Race (Brill, 2017), you explore the role the Communist Party of Great-Britain (CPGB) played in the anti-racist movement in the second half of the 20th Century: how did you become interested in this topic? Why did you specifically choose to explore this issue from the 1940s to the 1980s?

Evan Smith (ES): I first became interested in the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain after reading Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography Interesting Times. My Honours thesis was on the Communist Party’s Historians’ Group (of which Hobsbawm was a part) and their role in the events of 1956, when a significant portion of the Party’s membership revolted against the CPGB leadership. One of the reasons that many Party members have for being in the CPGB during the first decade of the Cold War and remaining in the Party even after 1956 was the Party’s anti-fascist legacy. My doctoral research was originally on how this anti-fascist legacy informed anti-fascism in the post-war era and eventually widened to look at the CPGB’s anti-racism more broadly.

I chose to focus on the period between the late 1940s and the early 1980s because this was the period that was the height of the CPGB’s post-war trajectory, and it mirrors the rise of the anti-racist movement in Britain. The book begins with the early days of the Cold War, which also saw the spread of decolonisation across the British Empire and a massive influx of migrants to Britain from these former colonies. The CPGB came out of the Second World War with an increased membership, political influence in the trade union movement and two MPs, as well as hundreds of councillors at the local government level. During the 1950s, they were the first (and most influential) organisation within the British labour movement to appeal to migrant workers and campaign against racial discrimination in Britain.

The book follows the involvement of the CPGB in the wider anti-racist movement through the 1960s and 1970s, with the narrative being that the Party was highly influential in the 1950s and early 1960s, but eventually overtaken on one hand by black activist groups and on the other by the Trotskyist and Maoist left. The Socialist Workers Party was able to co-opt the legacy of the CPGB’s anti-fascism of the 1930s, including the famous ‘Battle of Cable Street’, and formed the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s, which spurred on a new generation of anti-racist activists.

It ends with the early 1980s and the riots the broke out in 1980 and 1981 across Britain under Thatcher. These riots came at a time when the left, including the Communist Party, was in flux, perturbed by the rise of Thatcherism and the neoliberal assault on various sections of British society seen as ‘subversive’, including the labour movement and Britain’s black communities. The left saw the riots through the spectrum of class and tried to see them as part of a longer history of episodes of public disorder perpetrated by the unemployed and the lower classes. However many black activists saw the riots as part of a longer history of black rebellion, going back to the 1919 riots in Cardiff. These differing interpretations are a microcosm of the shifting attitudes towards class and race in the 1980s, problematized further by the threat of Thatcherism to the post-war social democratic consensus.

At the same time, the Communist Party itself was in disarray, reeling from the deep schisms in the Party that were exposed in the late 1970s over the split regarding the influence of Eurocommunism and Gramscism on the Party’s programme. By 1983, these schisms ripped the Party apart with a large section of the Party’s labourist wing leaving the CPGB (including the editors of the newspaper Morning Star) and the decline of the Party seemed inevitable from this moment onwards. I finish the book at this juncture because the Party, as both a political organisation and as part of the anti-racist movement, probably ceases to be relevant at this point.

SN: A highly interesting point is that, according to your book, the CPGB had a real understanding of the concept of “race” which was “heavily informed by Marxist theory” (p. 8) : could you please come back on this understanding and how it evolved from the End of World War II to the 1980s? Did the concept divide the member of the Party?

ES: Throughout the inter-war period, the Party campaigned against the ‘colour bar’ in the colonies, but did not really formulate a theoretical understanding of the ‘colour bar’ during this time. In the 1950s and 1960s, as more migrant workers came to Britain, the Party started to expand on the idea of how racism fit into broader Marxist theory and the notion of capitalist exploitation. Two members of the Party’s International Department, Kay Beauchamp and Joan Bellamy, were the two main authors of the Party’s anti-racist literature during this period, although CPUSA exile and African-American Claudia Jones and the Caribbean Winston Pinder both contributed to the Party’s publications on the problems facing black workers in Britain too.

Beauchamp and Bellamy both emphasised the origins of notions of racism and racial superiority in the colonial expansion of the British Empire, imported from the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the 1500-1600s.  Racism was a conscious part of the imperial project to justify the conquest of new territory, the exploitation of the indigenous population and the extraction of raw materials. The capitalist system promoted racial division amongst black and white workers to divide the working class and prevent revolt against the ruling class. From this, it was argued that racism would still exist until the capitalist system was overthrown. In practical terms, many of the Party’s black members believed that this attitude saw the Party overlook anti-racist campaigning in favour of ‘bread and butter’ trade union issues – the fight against the capitalist system was first and foremost, and the fight against racism was a by-product of this primary struggle. When black members, such as Jones or Pinder, wrote about racism, they focused much more on the everyday racism and racial discrimination faced by black workers in Britain and called for much more practical activism.

A new generation of Party members writing on the issues of race emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as Stuart Hall, Dave Cook, Vishnu Sharma, Martin Rabstein, Dorothy Kuya and Gideon Ben-Tovim. Most of these people were much more sympathetic with Eurocommunism and the embrace of new social movements, such as an anti-racist movement led by black activists. The interpretation of how racism fit within the wider capitalist system became less rigid and there was a increased consensus that racism was a form of exploitation and oppression, but was not necessarily caused directly by capitalism and the ruling class. Racial discrimination, like sexist discrimination, was something to be fought against at the same time as fighting against capitalism.

SN: What kind of consequences did this involvement from the CPGB in the British anti-racist movement had concerning its relationship with trade-union? And more broadly with its allies on the Left?

ES: The relationship between the Party and the trade union movement was paramount to the CPGB’s post-war programme and while the Party campaigned against racial discrimination in the labour movement, it found it difficult to gain much traction for anti-racism within many sections of the labour movement. Until the late 1970s, the labour movement was pretty slow to take racial discrimination seriously and even into the 1980s, combating racism was seen as a side issue concerning only a minority of trade unionists. Therefore the CPGB was caught in a balancing act, trying to convince trade unions to take the fight against racism seriously but not wanting to alienate its allies in the labour movement.

On the far left, the International Marxist Group, the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party) and some of the Indian Maoists attached to the Indian Workers Associations were able to promote themselves as more militantly anti-racist than the CPGB. Particularly in the fight against the National Front in the 1970s, the IMG and the IS/SWP pushed a much more confrontational approach, developing the policy of ‘no platform’ for fascists and building the Anti-Nazi League. While the CPGB supported some of these initiatives, they stressed their differences with these other groups and accused them of ‘adventurism’ and ‘ultra leftism’ on several occasions.

SN: In his book Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, Satnam Virdee writes that “From the mid-1930s, it [the CPGB] embraced the strategy of the Popular Front forcing it to nationalize its Communist message. The language of class war and proletarian internationalism was subsumed in an emergent discourse that spoke increasingly of the ‘British nation’ and the ‘British people’. (…) While many were draw towards the CPGB precisely because of its changing orientation, particularly its attempt to entwine the communist project with a radical British patriotism, the specific focus on anti-imperialism and anti-racism was increasingly sidelined. Long-term ethnic minority members like Clemens Dutt (…) was one of the first to raise objections, claiming that such activity was increasingly left to minority communists, and accused the party of ‘white chauvinism’” (Palgrave McMillan, 2014, p. 96). The French and the US Communist parties had similar attitudes during the Popular Front, which has huge consequences on their anti-colonial and/or anti-racist politics. How did the CPGB evolved from its Popular Front Period to the 1940s on the issue of race?

ES: The Popular Front definitely did hinder the Communist Party’s anti-colonial activism and practically the issue of colonial liberation was de-emphasised in the Party’s publications and in their propaganda material. But at the same time, the issue did not go entirely away. Support for eventual colonial freedom was still expressed in the Party’s publications, particularly regarding India. The CPGB promoted a view that the colonies should assist Britain in the fight against fascism and once victorious, this anti-fascist struggle could be transformed into an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggle.

SN: While in 1936, the fight of Cable Street opposed some antifascist activists (including communists) against the British Union of Fascists, protected by the police, could you please come back on the way the CPGB opposed fascism afterwards? Cable Street is a well-known event in the history of British antifascism but what is, maybe, less know (especially for foreign readers) is the attitude the CPGB had not only during WWII but also after the War on the issue of fascism. Could you, especially, develop the relationship of some communist militants with the 43 Group? Could you come back on the relationship between the Jewish community and the CPGB after the War?

ES: Although the CPGB leadership was actually divided over whether to mobilise against the BUF at the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936 (the initiative was taken up by members of the Young Communist League and Jewish members of the Party in the East End of London), the fact that the CPGB was heavily involved in the actions of that day, as well as other confrontations with the BUF during the 1930s was publicised greatly in the following years. During the 1945 election, the CPGB strongly campaigned on its anti-fascist legacy and this legacy, as well as a large Jewish membership in London, helped Phil Piratin win the seat of Stepney and Mile End.

This legacy also inspired some CPGB members, including some of its Jewish members, to become involved in the fight against Oswald Mosley’s post-war organisation, the Union Movement. Starting in 1946, Mosley attempted to rehabilitate his image and used the events in Palestine (and the 1948 creation of Israel) to revive the BUF’s inter-war anti-semitism in the new organisation. Members of the CPGB, alongside members of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, fought the UM in pitched street battles in London, Manchester and Birmingham, while the CPGB also campaigned for the UM to be banned under the Public Order Act 1936 (ironically introduced after Cable Street and as David Renton has shown, primarily used by the police against the CPGB in the 1940s). Part of this post-war anti-fascist movement was the 43 Group, which involved several Jewish CPGB members and were looked upon sympathetically by the Party leadership, even though they stressed that the two organisations were not formally linked.

Eventually the Jewish population in the East End dissipated, with many moving to other boroughs of London, and the CPGB’s anti-fascist legacy faded, until it was revived in the 1970s in the fight against the National Front, but often utilised by the Trotskyist left to condemn the ‘reformism’ of the contemporary CPGB.

SN: How did the Commonwealth immigration evolved after WWII and how did the CPGB react to this evolution of the British Working Class? Besides the direct political reaction to immigration, was there a theorization of this issue from Communist intellectuals?

ES: Commonwealth migration started to increase in the late 1940s and continued throughout the 1950s. In the early 1960s, there were restrictions placed by the Conservative government on Commonwealth migration and Labour strengthened these restrictions in 1965 and 1968. By the early 1970s, labour migration from the Commonwealth had declined significantly, with most migrants from the Commonwealth coming for the purpose of family unification. Although the CPGB campaigned against the racial discrimination faced by black workers, the Party’s perception of the British working class for many years was that it was still white (and male and heterosexual). This was eventually broken down in the 1970s and 1980s, as more black workers fought for recognition, inside the CPGB and in the wider labour movement.

Similar to concept of racism as part of the capitalist system, the Party was unclear about how migrant workers fit into the broader class dynamics in Britain. Inspired by the Marxist sociologists of the 1960s and 1970s, there was some theorising that migrant workers were part of a ‘reserve army of labour’ used by the ruling class to divide the working class and dampen down industrial militancy. However these theoretical debates were quite limited (featuring primarily in the not widely read Marxism Today of the 1960s) and these concepts were quietly dropped by the Party in the 1970s and 1980s as a new generation of membership started writing about issues of race for Party publications.

SN: How did the CPGB analysed and react to the development of black organisations in Britain in the 1960s? Was there a difference between the CPGB and other leftist groups concerning their relationships to black organisations?

The Party was wary of the overt ‘black power’ organisations of the late 1960s and early 1970s, seeing them as promoting separatism instead of black and white unity, and likely to be influenced by the ultra-leftism of Trotskyism and Maoism. The CPGB preferred to deal with organisations such as Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) and the Indian Workers Association, which had several CPGB members, such as Vishnu Sharma, in leadership positions.

The IMG and the IS/SWP were much more sympathetic to these black-led organisations, with Tariq Ali forming ties with several black power activists in Britain, such as Darcus Howe. But at the same time, these black activists often viewed these Marxist organisation with suspicion.

SN: Did the rise of new social movements in the 1960s/70s changed anything in the relation the CPGB had toward the anti-racism movement?

The new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the anti-racist movement, the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement, impacted heavily upon the Communist Party. A younger generation of CPGB members, partially inspired by the works of Antonio Gramsci, the Prague Spring and Eurocommunism, called for the Party leadership to take these new social movements more seriously and argued that they challenged the traditional labourism of the Party. These new social movements highlighted forms of oppression that existed alongside class oppression and these reformers inside the Party proposed that the Party programme, The British Road to Socialism, reflect this. This eventually culminated in a revision of the programme in 1977, which proposed a ‘broad democratic alliance’ between the Communist Party and those involved in these new social movements, with Party members encouraged to be involved in a number of anti-racist organisations, including the Anti-Nazi League, the Campaign Against Racist Laws and the Community Relations Committees set up by the Race Relations Act 1976.

SN: What was the 1971 Immigration Act? How did it change something in the debate on racism and was the CPGB (and more widely, the British Left) able to fight it?

The Immigration Act 1971 was introduced by the Heath government at the same time as the Industrial Relations Act 1971. The labour movement was mobilised on a massive scale to fight the Industrial Relations Act, with several members of the CPGB in leadership positions within the trade union bodies involved in this campaign, including the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. A number of the Party’s black members, including Winston Pinder and Trevor Carter, criticised the CPGB for mobilising its members against one bill and not the other, particularly as the Immigration Act would place heavy restrictions upon the rights of migrant workers in Britain.

In the fight against racism, the Immigration Act made it harder for migrants coming to the UK and their families. Starting in the mid-1970s, defence campaigns for those affected by the Immigration Act was increasingly a major part of the anti-racist movement’s agenda. Campaigns such as the Anwar Ditta Defence Campaign involved some CPGB members in the North-West, as well as members of the IMG, SWP and the Revolutionary Communist Group.

SN: Did the CPGB evolved in its anti-racist strategy with the successes of the British National Front at the End of the 1970s and in the 1980s? Could you especially explain how the rise of the SWP as the dominant anti-fascist force and the organizing of a new kind of anti-fascist militancy (like the anti-Nazi league) influenced the CPGB’s anti-fascist strategy?

In the post-war period, the CPGB increasingly campaigned for the authorities to use the Public Order Act and the Race Relations Act to ban fascist and racist organisations and/or curtail their public activism. This was a constant feature of the CPGB’s anti-fascist campaign against the National Front during the 1970s. The SWP, on the other hand, promoted a much more confrontational approach, as evidenced at the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977, when SWP activists, alongside local black youth, fought with the NF and the police, while the CPGB held a ‘peaceful rally’ away from the epicentre of the clashes. In the lead up to this event, and also in its aftermath, the SWP utilised the legacy of the CPGB’s anti-fascism of the 1930s to justify their approach.

Even when the SWP adapted its approach to encourage a broad-based anti-fascist movement with the Anti-Nazi League, they were seen as taking the initiative, while the CPGB, which was originally hesitant to endorse the ANL, was made to look like it had ‘missed the boat’.

SN: How did the CPGB, who was weakened in the 80s, managed the turn toward an “authoritarian populism”, with the elections of M.Thatcher in 1979, concerning their anti-racist activities? A very interesting point that you develop in the last chapter of your book is that “[w]hile the left, including the CPGB, had been successful as part of the Anti-Nazi League’s defeat of the National Front, it had not made the same headway in combating other forms of popular and institutional racism. For the Communist Party, the proposition of the broad democratic alliance, envisioned to bring wider movements, such as black activists, into progressive leftist politics, failed to appeal to a disillusioned black community, who felt betrayed and patronised by the white left, which had for so long minimised the role of ‘race’ within the class struggle and the fight against racism” (p. 271): could you please explain this point?

Many of the left saw Thatcherism as just a revision of the Heath government, while some within the CPGB, primarily Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques proposed that Thatcher presented something different. Writing in Marxism Today in 1979 and 1980, Hall and Jacques argued that Thatcherism presented a threat to many different sections of British society, including both the labour movement and Britain’s black communities. They argued against the complacency of the success of the ANL in defeating the National Front, pointing to future confrontations between black people and the state, pre-empted by police behaviours at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, during the Grunwick strike in 1977 and at Southall in 1979.

While the ANL, including the CPGB, was successful in the campaign against the NF, many black activists felt that this has been at the expense of a broader anti-racist campaign and many felt that the black communities were abandoned once the threat of the NF had passed. When the riots broke out in 1980 and then 1981, a number of black activists, including Paul Gilroy and Darcus Howe, expressly asked the left wing organisations that had been involved in the ANL where they had been over the last few years.

SN: Does an effective anti-racist movement still exist in Britain today? If yes, would you say that the CPGB had a sort of theoretical influence on it?

The anti-racist movement in Britain still exists, although it is very different from the anti-racist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, when the CPGB was its post-war height. The CPGB probably has had an influence, because it was one of the first organisations to campaign for the wider labour movement to take racism seriously. People like Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques have had an influence because they proposed taking new social movements seriously and encouraged the left to attempt to incorporate these social movements (including the rise of identity politics) into a broadly class-based outlook. But possibly the most lasting legacy of the CPGB is still its anti-fascism on the 1930s. The ‘Battle of Cable Street’ is still seen as an important framework for militant anti-fascism over 80 years since it happened and in a world where the far right seems to be growing, the inspiration of that day in October 1936 still guides anti-fascists and anti-racists today.