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fringe political essays archives

Speakers' notes and party circulars (CP/CENT/SPN, CP/CENT/CIRC, CP/CENT/STAT, CP/CENT/ED)
In the task of guiding the party and ensuring consistency of policy at all levels, the central executive committee in the 1920s began the circulation of speakers' notes, not just as a source of information of the type but as a way of directing party policy as expressed from the platform. Speakers' notes in the CPGB archives include extensive examples from the inter-war years and a more comprehensive coverage from the later war years to the early 1970s, when the practice appears to have been discontinued. Coverage of press and policy statements issued by the party follows a similar pattern but continues into the final years of the party. Education materials and study guides include those issued by the CPGB itself, through its Central Education Department, as well as the Educational Commentary on Current Affairs issued by the Marx Memorial Library and between 1942 and 1956. The aspiration to provide a nationally co-ordinated lead on key issues of current politics is nowhere better conveyed than by this plethora of documentation.

According to the rules adopted in 1943, the National Congress was the 'supreme authority' of the party and responsible for laying down the 'general lines' of its work. Delegates' notes on party congresses, like those of its leading committees, can again provide a useful source of supplementary information, although the more open character of these events and their occasional nature meant that it was often feasible and acceptable to provide full stenographic reports. Along with a mass of related documentation, there are full reports of all congresses from the 20th (1948) to the 28th (1963). For all earlier congresses, beginning with the First Unity Convention in 1920, printed materials are variously supplemented by circulated reports and congress materials, delegates' and observers' notes and press cuttings. There are also full proceedings for the CP's 15th and last pre-war congress, held as a symbolic protest in Chamberlain's home city of Birmingham in September 1938. From 1973, proceedings were tape-recorded and the tapes, along with other sound materials formerly in the CPGB archives, are now deposited with the National Sound Archive. Stenograms of earlier congresses will be found in the Moscow archives. In between the more turbulent affairs of the 1920s and the 1980s, one could have wished that party congresses had been less meticulously choreographed. There were, however, moments of tension, as in 1945, 1956-7 and increasingly from 1968 as party unity ebbed. For the values, the rituals, the language and the political culture of British communism, as well as insights into a wide spread of party activities, the congress materials provide an important source.

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A third salient feature of this nouveau radicalism is its emphasis on spontaneous, disruptive and localized struggle as the means of politics. Taking their cues from the legacy of anarchism and third-world indigenous struggles such as the Zapatistas, these tactics are seen as the essence of a democratic politics of resistance. The basis for new movements is now seen to be the emergence of new identities, themselves created from the exaggerated subjectivity of the modern, narcissistic self. Rejecting the state and conceiving of a post-state politics is now a central dogma of the new “radical” theorists. Since the state is seen to be inherently despotic, only the spontaneous, autonomous collection of groups who act against the state and outside of it are viewed as vehicles of political change. The absence of domination is now cast as the freedom to explore narcissistic lifestyles as well as expand an already exaggerated subjectivity where participatory and direct democracy become the political ideal. In the end, they valorize the individual’s resistance to the state and the power of localism.

This has been the result, we contend, of a lack of concern with real politics in contemporary radical theory. Further, we believe that this is the result of a transformation of ideas, that contemporary political theory on the left has witnessed a decisive shift in focus in recent decades – a shift that has produced nothing less than the incoherence of the tradition of progressive politics in our age. At a time when the left is struggling to redefine itself and respond to current political and economic crises, a series of trends in contemporary theory has reshaped the ways that politics is understood and practiced. Older thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida, and newer voices like Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, David Graeber and Judith Butler, among others, have risen to the status of academic and cultural icons while their ideas have become embedded in the “logics” of new social movements. As some aspects of the recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have shown, political discourse has become increasingly dominated by the impulses of neo-anarchism, identity politics, post-colonialism, and other intellectual fads.

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Indeed, one of the more recent fruits of this new radical theory has been the renewed interest in Marxism by so called “millennial Marxists” and their associated publications, like Jacobin, n+1, and others. They put forth no new body of theoretical arguments but seek a rediscovery of Marxism and class politics. But Even this relatively modest claim to fame cannot be further from the truth. An undeserved self-confidence and moral self-righteousness abound while concrete political analysis vanishes. To be sure, this new trend is scarecely more than a pseudo-radicalism with no real politics in view rendering its pursuits shallow and bereft of critical content. Far from opposing the trends of the culture industry and its very technique of commodifying culture and thought, their efforts are merely its expression. Radicalism now acts as a cultural tag, a new identity, at best a means to vent moral rage without genuine political acuity. In a mesmerizing sleight of hand, these new “radicals” have turned the discourse of Marxism and other figures of a past radicalism that once nourished organic labor and social movements against the realities of exploitation and human debasement into limp caricatures.

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Ben Bradley (CP/IND/BRAD)
Benjamin Francis Bradley (1898-1957) was a communist metalworker, born in Walthamstow, who was sent to India to promote militant trade unionism in 1927 and sentenced in the infamous Meerut Conspiracy Trial five years later. This provoked an enormous outcry, and in Britain, according to Stephen Howe, "probably inspired more left-wing pamphlet literature than any other colonial issue between the wars". Bradley's papers are an indispensable source for the episode and include extensive prison correspondence, documents from the Meerut trial and records of the international campaigns of solidarity with the defendants. They also contain his notes for a projected autobiography and materials relating to his later political activities. For several years Bradley continued to be involved in anti-colonial activities and between 1934 and 1940 served as secretary of the League Against Imperialism and its successor, the CPGB's Colonial Information Bureau. He also spent periods as the 's circulation manager and, briefly before his death, as national organiser of the Britain-China Friendship Association. His papers bear witness to the genuine internationalism that was one of the outstanding qualities of many communist activists.

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The CPGB in 1943 was at almost the high point of its organisation, with an ambitious district structure typically including a number of paid officials and at least one party bookshop. With the major exception of the London district, the archive's local holdings are nevertheless not very extensive. Important materials can be found in CP/CENT/ORG, but the centralisation of the party was not reflected in the systematic collection of such records. Indeed, in June 1979, as thoughts turned again to the more systematic preservation of party records in the aftermath of James Klugmann's death, the advice given district party organisations was to send copies of congress reports, bulletins, election addresses and leaflets to the Marx Memorial Library, possessing as it did "all the facilities of a well-run library". The representation of local records is certainly greater than in the case of other political parties, but comprehensive research will also require the use of other archives, notably the Welsh Political Archive of the National Library of Wales and the Gallacher Memorial Library at Glasgow Caledonian University.

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Young Communist League (CP/CENT/YCL)
Communist women, in contrast to their Labour Party counterparts, were often resistant to the idea of separate women's groups. Younger adherents, on the other hand, had what was technically a fully autonomous vehicle for their aspirations in the shape of the Young Communist League (YCL). Traditionally the YCL was considered, if at all, merely as a disciplined detachment of the adult movement. Recently, however, Mike Waite has used the League to illuminate the intergenerational tensions to which communism was as prone as any other movement. Waite's own working materials, including questionnaire responses, can be found in the archives at CP/HIST. But there are also extensive YCL files dating mainly from the mid-1930s, including minutes, congress proceedings and vast amounts of printed propaganda. The YCL was always as much a cultural and social organisation as a political movement and, alongside materials from local branches and broader youth campaigns, there are files relating to cultural and sporting activities. An ironical sidelight on generational changes is the existence both of files from the 1930s on the ILP Guild of Youth, inside which communists were then busily disruptive, and of disciplinary files from the 1960s recording the infiltration of the YCL itself by Trotskyists. Though records of the YCL survive into the 1980s, by this time it was a shadow of its former self.

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For opponents of the CPGB, one of the most disturbing features of British communism was its alleged manipulation of trade union grievances to promote economic chaos. These were bogeys that went back to the Party's syndicalist origins and were vigorously revived during the years of the Marshall Plan, when an extensive communist industrial presence was mobilised against the dominant western conception of industrial recovery. Though CPGB membership was by this time declining, such anxieties probably reached their peak with the industrial conflict of the 1960s and 1970s, as members and former members of an earlier vintage reached the pinnacle of their trade union careers. If Harold Wilson seemed to see a "tightly knit group of politically motivated men" behind disputes like the seamen's strike of the 1966, which at least confirmed the continuing industrial significance of the party. For those set on exposing or celebrating such machinations, the archives will be found to contain only fragmentary information. For the National Minority Movement of the 1920s, there is a file in the papers of its then general secretary Harry Pollitt, but little from the same period on the industrial activities of the party itself. Nor, in this particular case, is the coverage as extensive as it might be in the post-war period. Doubtless the communists' networking and caucusing in the unions were sometimes more informal than opponents believed. Nevertheless, it is clear that they had also learnt the necessity of discretion in the compiling of written records of discussions of any sensitivity. Bert Ramelson, the CPGB's national industrial organiser from the mid-1960s, was at the heart of these discussions. Famously, he boasted on one occasion that he had only to "float an idea early in the year and it will be official Labour Party policy by the autumn." Again in Ramelson's own deposit of papers, the instructions that he circulated to communist delegates before TUC and other trade union conferences may be examined to test the validity of that claim. There is also much that is relevant in the papers of Wal Hannington, whose activities in the Amalgamated Engineering Union included several years as a national organiser in the 1940s. Again, the papers of George Matthews include files relating to the CPGB's industrial policies in the 1950s, and the archive also has transcripts of the ETU ballot-rigging trial (CP/MISC/ETU). Though the Industrial Department files contain materials of interest for the party's final years, in general the record of its very considerable industrial presence needs to be traced through the papers of other key activists, officers and committees.

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The value of the archives would not be universally accepted. Judged by conventional electoral criteria the CPGB was always something of an irrelevance and many of its political concerns can seem esoteric. Some have suggested that British historians should therefore be looking at other movements, and communist historians at other countries. "Of course none of it mattered," A.J.P. Taylor commented in 1966, "Supporting the unions, attacking the unions, trying to join the Labour Party, attacking the Labour Party, United Front, Class against Class—all were phases of no consequence. The story has to be told for its own sake, providing fresh demonstrations of perverse and inexhaustible ingenuity." That may indeed be a fair comment on the tireless mapping out of the 'party line', particularly since this became possible in so much more detail than was ever previously possible. Nevertheless, historians have been drawn to the archives by much more than just the 'bizarre fascination' which Taylor conceded. Partly this is down to the old cliché that the CPGB's influence was disproportionate to its size, and that its more successful initiatives – from the hunger marches and Left Book Club, to the industrial coalitions of the 1970s – did actually count for something. But the CPGB archive also provides a distinctive perspective, both on the often troubled course of twentieth-century British history and on international communism as one of the century's defining movements. Not just for political historians, but for those with interests in cultural history, industrial relations, social movements, memory studies – for historians with the widest spread of interests there is material of interest in the CPGB archives. In the years since their deposit in Manchester they have become an increasingly well-used and widely cited resource. With still greater possibilities of access, this trend is only likely to continue.

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