From Powell to Brexit
Alex Carnovic interviews Evan Smith about his forthcoming book 'British communism and the politics of race'
It has been 48 years since Tory minister Enoch Powell delivered his Birmingham speech in opposition to Commonwealth immigration and a proposed anti-discrimination law: “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation,” he polemicised, “to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population.” Powell closed with the now famous words: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”
In his forthcoming book, British communism and the politics of race, Evan Smith explores how Powell opened up a political space to the right of the Conservative Party, hitherto confined to marginal neo-fascist sects that are subsequently gathering populist support on the back of anti-immigration sentiment. The author’s focus, however, is the response of the Communist Party of Great Britain: Smith traces its history, beginning with the post-war period, during which the CPGB represented a leading anti-racist force in British society. He documents years of its being overshadowed on the anti-racist front by migrant organisations and the fronts of the ‘new left’ all the way until the official leadership liquidated itself in 1991.
Judging by a sneak preview, Smith’s work offers a valuable and detailed account of the hitherto scarcely documented anti-racist history of the CPGB. However, it also bears the hallmarks of academic (post) Marxism. Class-centric politics and conceptions of history are often equated with the narrow workerism pushed by ‘traditionalists’ and counterposed to a paradigm in which structural components such as class, gender and race ‘intersect’ on an equal footing. Consequently, the author does not identify the CPGB’s gradual orientation towards cross-class ‘broad democratic alliances’ from the 1970s onward as a further political rightward drift, but merely appears to conceive of it as a belated update.
Evan Smith is a visiting adjunct fellow in the School of History and International Relations at Flinders University, South Australia. He has written widely on the British left, the history of immigration and transnational political activism. He is the co-author of Race, gender and the body in British immigration control (London 2014) and the co-editor of Against the grain: the British far left from 1956 (Manchester 2014). He blogs at Hatful of History.1
From Powell to Brexit
Could you outline the contents and central argument of your book?
The book is about the Communist Party of Great Britain and its role in the anti-racist movement in Britain from the late 1940s till the early 1980s. The CPGB was one of the first organisations in the labour movement to engage with migrant workers. It was much more ready to organise and unionise migrant workers and fight discrimination within the labour movement and white British society than, say, the Labour Party or the trade unions. While the Labour Party found it very difficult to recruit non-white workers, the CPGB was much more proactive with regard to this, and the same goes for its engagement with non-white students: the CPGB was heavily involved with the West African Student Union in 1950s London and Manchester, for instance.
The central argument of the book is that the CPGB was ahead of its time in engaging with non-white workers and migrant communities. However, once the non-white communities found their own political vehicles, the CPGB ceased to be central to their struggles. In the mid-60s, there was a shift towards organisations set up by the black and Asian communities that were inspired by the American civil rights and black-power movements. The CPGB, which had been at the forefront in the late 40s to early 60s, was then no longer driving the anti-racist movement. In the 1970s, anti-fascism becomes important, and the CPGB was overtaken by the Socialist Workers Party. By the early 1980s, the CPGB was negligible in anti-racism, as it had been outflanked both from its left by anti-fascist organisations and by migrant community organisations.
Your book states that Enoch Powell in his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech “appropriated the crude racism expressed in the pubs”, and that a Gallup poll in May 1968 revealed that “74% of those questioned agreed in general with his views”.2 Where did this reservoir of crude popular racism stem from in the first place?
Well, it had a long history that was synonymous with the history of the British empire and how British people perceived the world in terms of their racial and cultural superiority. In the 1950s-60s, there comes with decolonisation what Paul Gilroy refers to as postcolonial melancholia. The ordinary British public had a lot of investment in empire - and with that came a popular racism. It wasn’t a politically mobilised, hard-right racism - it was just a general feeling that there were British people and there were others.
When these ‘other people’ started to come from the colonies during the post-war period, there was resentment and fear that they were taking jobs or were involved in crime. All of this added up to a nebulous popular racism with all the well-known, contradictory tropes: they steal jobs, but also scrounge benefits; they are too strict and conservative, yet also sexually devious; and so on. Hence, Powell exploited a long formed, imperial popular racism that already existed.
Would you nonetheless agree with the notion that Powell’s speech was a cause of racist violence?
There are indeed suggestions that Powell’s speech mobilised racist sentiment. Afterwards, there was an explosion of racist violence, and for the next few years the papers would report of a significant increase in ‘Paki-bashing’. There is a new article by Satnam Virdee and others published in the latest issue of Race and Class that testifies to the outbreak of racial violence in the period right after Powell’s speech.
Was all that violence orchestrated at this early stage?
I believe it was mainly spontaneous. The National Front formed in 1967, and the British Movement in 1968. They definitely benefited from the racist language Powell used, with the NF siphoning off disillusioned Tory voters in particular. However, I don’t believe they organised much of the violence that occurred at that stage - it would have been spontaneous attacks committed by people who were moved along with the popular currents.
Was the early National Front a fascist organisation?
The NF only started its campaign of street violence around 1973-74. However, I think it’s fair to say that even in its early stages, it was fascist in the sense that it was about mobilising in the streets, boots on the ground, marches, flags and other extra-parliamentary activism.
Ideologically, there was an early split. On the one hand, there was AK Chesterton - a former member of the British Union of Fascists and League of Empire Loyalists - who wanted the NF to be a pro-empire group in the tradition of the pro-imperial pressure group in the Conservative Party, the Monday Club. On the other, there was a more hard-line neo-Nazi element around John Tyndall and Martin Webster, who wanted it to be an outright extra-parliamentary fascist group.
Were the supporters of Powell and the early NF disgruntled petty-bourgeois Tories, or did the far right make inroads into the working class at that stage?
In 1968, you had a small amount of dock workers marching either in support of Powell or free speech for Powell. However, at that stage the support base was still largely a traditional, disgruntled, petty bourgeois one. For this period, the National Front tried to pick off disaffected Tories, particularly from the Monday Club. John Kingsley Read, an early NF leader in the 70s, defected from the Monday Club, as did a few other figures.
They also picked up on the Ugandan Asian controversy.3 The NF portrayed the Conservatives as ‘weak’ on this issue - it happened just prior to the 1971 Immigration Act coming into effect in January 1973 - and via the Monday Club, the NF promoted itself as the home for disillusioned Tories concerned about immigration. But the influx of former Monday Club members into the NF created a rival power base to the Tyndall/Webster axis and a series of power struggles occurred, partially rehashing the debate over the NF’s strategy of either being a pressure group for disaffected Tories or an extra-parliamentary vehicle more likely to attract working class support.
So it was only after 1974 that the NF started to target working class Labour voters and supporters more. This wasn’t a Strasserist turn within the NF, but, as the economic crises of the 1970s wore on, the NF realised that those feeling most of the pressure of the economic downturn - the working class - could be mobilised around the issue of immigration much more readily, especially as the Labour Party was in power during this period.
You argue in your book that the CPGB’s dependency on its broad left allies undermined its influence on the docks at rank-and-file level. How so?
At this stage, the CPGB strategy was to work with people higher up, and its rank-and-file membership was decreasing. From the early 1960s onwards, young people who came into the workforce and joined the unions at a low level did not tend to become CPGB members. The rank and file became more diverse: young people joined the Labour Party or various Trotskyist, Maoist and anti-revisionist groups, which were dividing up the trade union left at rank-and-file level. Although the CPGB still had significant influence over the leadership, it did not have sufficient influence among the rank and file to counter spontaneous outbursts such as the dockworkers marching for Powell. The International Socialists (later to become the SWP), on the other hand, might not have had very many people, but enough activists at rank-and-file level to organise relatively spontaneous counter-demonstrations against Powell.
You write that the ‘new left’ criticised the CPGB for underestimating Powellism as a threat. Do you agree with this assessment?
Yes. I think it underestimated how much ‘ordinary people’ and workers would be swayed by anti-immigrant sentiment. The CPGB largely confined itself to describing Powell as an arch-Tory, millionaire and enemy of the working class - it did not address the issue of racism very much at all, emphasising the threat that Powell was to workers in general.
Today, it tends to be the other way round: the left confines itself to shouting ‘racist’ at Powell-type figures while barely addressing the class issue.
Yes - it has become easier to criticise the racist part of rightwing populism than its anti-working class aspect. The ‘new left’ criticism was that the CPGB did not do enough to mobilise white workers against racism. Today, the situation has shifted, in that we are generally much more aware of racism, but often lack the understanding of how class feeds into it. The ideal case would be not to just tackle either class or race, but try to address both issues.
You describe how in the 1970s younger CPGB members wanted to branch out beyond the labour movement and form anti-racist alliances with the new social movements. Did this not go hand in hand with a move to the right: ie, towards cross-class popular frontism?
Yes, one of the criticisms is that the people who pushed for more engagement with new social movements ended up being the first to endorse identity politics. Today, the criticism is often made that the post-Marxist left has become all about identity politics and has forgotten how to discuss class - it’s all about race, gender and sexuality.
Those who pushed for a widening of the ‘broad democratic alliance’, as outlined in the CPGB’s The British Road to Socialism, and for the CPGB to take seriously these other social movements have been accused of abandoning class politics and ushering in Blairism with the Marxism Today venture. But, like identity politics in general, this has to be seen in its historical context - it was a push back against the very narrow Labourite agenda of the CPGB in the 1960s and 1970s.
How do you evaluate the anti-fascism presented by the Anti-Nazi League at the end of the 1970s and later by Unite Against Fascism? Was its politically ‘broad’, popular front-styled approach adequate to combat racism and street fascism?
I do understand the critique made by the likes of Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action - ie, that the Anti-Nazi League was far too broad-based to fight some of the more extreme elements of the far right. What I think the ANL did very well was to break away support in that nebulous zone between the Tories and the NF - a place today occupied by the likes of Ukip. In my view, the ANL was part of the reason why support for the NF declined as massively as it did within a two- or three-year period.
However, as the National Front split in the early 1980s, it changed its strategy and became all about street violence, and the ANL was not the best vehicle to counter that. Nonetheless, it did succeed in creating an anti-racist consciousness among that generation of British youth.
Would it be fair to say, though, that by setting up broad anti-racist fronts without specifically addressing working class issues, the left lost sections of the manual working class to the far right? A British News bulletin of January 1979 declares that the far right needs to ensure that, now that the left has become associated with students and minority groups, a “grassroots movement of workers and leadership of the working class does not rest with the communists and left, but with the right”.4
There is a truth to that, but I do not think that it was just the turn to new social movements that left the working class to feel abandoned by the Communist Party and the left. In my view, it boils down to the crisis that the labour movement faced in the mid-1970s. Once the Heath government was defeated by the labour movement, the Wilson government instituted the ‘social contract’. The working class - even the rank-and-file trade unionists - began to realise that the benefits of a Labour government were not going to flow down to the working class. And, since the CPGB with its broad left strategy was so invested in the notion of a Labour government, this affected working class support for the communists too.
Substantial sections of the working class did not turn to the far right, but to Thatcher. As Eric Hobsbawm noted in a response to the debate in Marxism Today about his 1978 piece, ‘The forward march of Labour halted’, a third of trade union members vote for Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 election.5
But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the NF had a considerable support base in neighbourhoods such as Shoreditch and Hoxton, often among the poorest, most casually employed sections of the blue-collar working class. These are often conveniently dismissed as ‘lumpen’ by a left that does not want to face the problem.6
Yes, that is true - one thing that happened in the early 1980s is that the left did not know how to engage with unskilled labour and young unemployed people in post-industrial areas. The language that the left spoke and the way it organised failed to make any headway into these sections. In his memoirs, Mark Steel, who was then in the SWP, talks about trying to encourage young people signing on in job centres to come along to SWP meetings, but met with very little response. By and large, they were not interested.
The gentrification of the left and its inability to engage with the manual working class was criticised at the time by the likes of Red Action, which I think was justified. However, the political groups that emerged out of Red Action and AFA - such as the Independent Working Class Association - then indulged in a twisted workerism that ‘takes real concerns about immigration seriously’. It’s a slippery slope.
Indeed. What we often have today is people saying that ‘we need to talk about the white working class’ and that there are ‘real concerns about immigration’. One side of this is that one does need to understand what people are concerned about - but the slope to giving credence to racist and anti-immigration sentiments is certainly very slippery.
As Richard Seymour observed on his blog, Lenin’s Tomb, the ‘white working class’ is seen in the relevant discussions of the Labour right in terms of being white: ie, white British people who happen to be working class. Their agency as workers is completely removed, and their lack of agency fixated on their whiteness. While people like Andy Burnham or Owen Smith talk about the white working class, they would really prefer to talk about a white lumpenproletariat, devoid of any agency and differentiated only by being white. They are spoken of in terms of being victims, including in the rhetoric employed in the wake of the European Union referendum: they are people who have no voice and no agency, so the Brexit protest vote is all they had. It’s dangerous to look at them as an apolitical mass.
Interestingly, you write in your introduction that the post-war CPGB made opposition to immigration controls one of the two central issues of its anti-racist campaigning. Was that a blanket demand to scrap immigration controls altogether or somehow qualified?
Initially, the CPGB had a blanket position against all immigration controls. However, as immigration controls were introduced in the 1960s, it began to argue that there shouldn’t be ‘racist’ or discriminatory immigration controls. The first reason was the construction of the Berlin Wall: the CPGB started to argue that states have a right to control the flow of people across borders, obviously in defence of the Soviet bloc.
Secondly, it was a halfway point to avoid alienating parts of the labour movement: the CPGB claimed that it could not make ‘unrealistic’, radical demands for open borders if it wished to engage with all of the labour movement, yet needed some kind of position in order to engage with migrant-worker communities. So it was a balancing act.
The ‘realistic’ position against ‘racist immigration controls’ persists in the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, but also in the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Is that an anachronism?
Well, I think the trade union movement still has this idea that if you opened the borders migrants would bring down wages. Hence, the Socialist Party has held on to its Labourite position since the days of Militant. Ditto the Morning Star/CPB, which has a conciliatory relationship with the trade unions: open borders would be nice, it says, but it’s just not feasible at the moment, as it would allow exploitation of migrant workers and wages to be driven down. Other groups on the left, such as the SWP and the Weekly Worker/CPGB, have a ‘no border controls’ position, of course.
True, even if the CPGB position is based on the long-term interest of the working class: capital is international and moves freely, therefore labour must too. Perhaps that is also the SWP’s reasoning, but publicly it argues in a moralistic manner: ie, by claiming that all border controls are by definition racist. What are your impressions of how the Weekly Worker addresses migration issues?
I have been taking an interest in what the Weekly Worker writes on the issue of migration - not least because it has quoted me in the past - and I do think it does a good analysis of the problem. I cannot say I know the paper’s positions on everything, but I generally think the paper provides very good coverage.
Would you say that today’s Britain is a ‘racist’ society, or has there been an ideological shift away from racism?
I suppose there is an official anti-racism at a rhetorical level, but that does not mean that institutions, the government and other parts of the state and civil society do not engage in racially charged rhetoric. Of course, the government would deny that it is racist. However, you cannot look at how the home office works and deny that it has racially discriminatory rhetoric and practices.
In his infamous speech, Powell lamented the “growth of positive forces acting against integration, of vested interests in the preservation and sharpening of racial and religious differences”. Today, in contrast, there seem to be two contending bourgeois ideologies: the pro-integration one that never quite places immigrants above suspicion of constituting a fifth column; and, on the other hand, multiculturalism - separate ethnic communities to which the state communicates through ‘community leaders’. These days, the left tends to defend multiculturalism against the idea of integration. Is that not parasitic on bourgeois discourse - and does the working class not have a long-term interest in integration?
The way integration operated, migrants had to abandon their cultures and assimilate into white British society, so you can see how progressive multiculturalism came about as a reaction to it - in the same way that identity politics is about experiences outside the dominant paradigm. However, as the likes of Red Action criticised, multiculturalism can separate people into essentialised groups.
Also, as is the case with official anti-racism, people like Cameron may celebrate something innocuous like chicken tikka masala, but not necessarily other aspects of migrant culture. So, while multiculturalism is a way of being officially non-racist, the left has taken to defending it because this multiculturalism is undermined by the way parts of the state act in a racially discriminatory fashion.
Looking at the Brexit campaign and events in its wake, for instance - was this racism proper, or was it rather a nativism that cuts across ‘race’?
There were racist elements to the Brexit campaign, but also English nationalism - both were wrapped up in rhetoric about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking the country back’. Of course, not everybody who campaigned for Brexit was a racist, but there were racial overtones in a lot of the rhetoric from the Brexit camp.
On the History and Policy website, you and Steven Gray link the Brexit ideology to the nostalgic notion of a “white commonwealth”, based on the shared “British culture and values” of Anglo-Saxon peoples, a concept that you trace back to the 19th century and earlier.7 Do these themes really play a role in the consciousness of Brexiters?
The likes of Ukip and Farage certainly have an imperial nostalgia and hark back to that lineage. When Farage talks about the Commonwealth, he does so in terms of returning it to the way it was. Even Boris Johnson in some of his writings talks about new imperialism that does not apologise - as if the old British imperialism had ever apologised for what it has done.
Of course, Boris is a ‘free spirit’ and might not be representative of many other Brexiters in the Tory Party, but in Ukip the imperial nostalgia is definitely present. I will explore this issue further in a book I’m writing on rhetoric around race in Britain from Blair to Brexit.
3. After the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972, many Asians who were citizens of Britain and the colonies migrated to the UK.
4. Cited by Matthew Worley in ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!: class, locality, and British punk’ at http://tcbh.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/03/20/tcbh.hwt001.full#fn-17.
5. E Hobsbawm, ‘The forward march of Labour halted - a response’ Marxism Today September 1979, p265.
6. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Martin Thomas, who in a pro-gentrification polemic positively celebrated the pricing out of the racist white ‘lumpenproletariat’ from the East End, might serve as a particularly egregious example: www.workersliberty.org/node/25680.