For some Communists, the 'Prague Spring' in 1968 appeared to be a replay of the Hungarian crisis of 1956. But this time, the Czech Communist Party had initiated the mass demonstrations of support for its 'democratisation' of political and economic life.
The Dubcek government clearly enjoyed public and working class support, and carefully avoided any talk of withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact. The Morning Star and CP in Britain welcomed 'the positive steps taken to tackle the wrongs of the past and strengthen socialist democracy'.
When Soviet and allied forces entered Prague on August 20, they met overwhelming but passive, non-violent resistance. The next day, like other Communists in the developed capitalist countries, the Party in Britain opposed the 'intervention'. While understanding Soviet security concerns, they could not share the Soviet assessment that counter-revolution had been underway in Czechoslovakia.
The YCL went further, characterising the intervention as an 'invasion'. Divisions within Young Communist ranks polarised sharply between 'revisionists' and Marxists-Leninists.
Similar differences had also surfaced during debates around the new edition of The British Road to Socialism published in 1968. It identified 'state-monopoly capitalism' as the obstacle to progress on every front and to socialism, because 'the capitalist state is intertwined with the great banks and monopolies'. The immediate need, therefore, was to construct a 'broad popular alliance around the leadership of the working class, fighting every aspect of the power of the monopolies'.
However, the programme also emphasised the importance of a 'democratic advance to socialism', with a multi-party system including parties hostile to socialism continuing after working class state power had been achieved. Instead of seeking to undermine, weaken or split the Labour Party, the CP wanted to see it reject reformism, fight capitalism and help build a socialist society.
Indeed, such points had featured as a central theme of CP contributions to a 'Christian-Marxist dialogue' conducted in large public meetings and the Party press, led by James Klugmann and Canon Paul Oestreicher.
Other Communists saw the programme as diluting the class basis of the Party's strategy to take and maintain state power, placing too much store by electoral work and capitulating to 'bourgeois' concepts of democracy.
Communist involvement in the struggle against South African apartheid was less contentious. London was becoming an important base for South African CP and African National Congress exiles.
Britain's Communist Party had responded to an appeal from the two organisations to supply white volunteers who, having no connection with South Africa, would not be known to the apartheid regime. Mostly recruited from within the YCL, and with financial and other help from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, they travelled to South Africa and neighbouring countries to carry out clandestine military and publicity work. The military work, which lasted into the early 1990s, consisted mainly of reconnaissance, transporting weapons and equipment, and helping ANC fighters to enter South Africa. Some comrades received training in the Soviet Union and Cuba.
In Liverpool, the CP recruited Communist seamen for an abortive mission, organised by Joe Slovo, to land ANC fighters on the South African coast in the Aventura.
In every year from 1967 to 1971, YCL and CP members, along with non-communists recruited in Britain, planted specially-designed 'leaflet bombs' or similar devices in South African cities. These distributed thousands of ANC leaflets to startled crowds in up to five cities simultaneously. The volunteers also arranged street broadcasting of amplified recordings of ANC speeches and songs. These activities helped the ANC to re-establish a presence inside South Africa following the Rivonia trial, after which most ANC and SACP members who were not imprisoned had been forced into exile.
YCL member Sean Hosey was captured and jailed for 5 years. Communist Party member Alex Moumbaris, sentenced to 12 years, escaped from Pretoria Prison in 1979. The others kept their activities secret over many years.
In Britain, as access to higher and further education grew in the 1960s and early 1970s, the student movement gained in social weight and political significance. The Communist Party's national student committee, working with the Labour left and the Young Liberals in the Radical Students Alliance, played a central role in breaking the grip of the Labour right wing in the National Union of Students (NUS).
After CIA links with the International Student Conference (set up to undermine the International Union of Students) were exposed in 1967, the CP had become the leading political force in the Broad Left which also included left-wing Labour students. The election of Communist Digby Jacks as its president in 1971 indicated the extent to which the NUS was turning into a mass campaigning organisation on issues such as student finances, student union resources, racism, South African apartheid and peace—although the Communist and Labour left leadership increasingly came under attack from Trotskyist and other far left elements.
Even more significantly, the Party was strengthening its alliances in the labour movement. A further shift to the left in the biggest trade unions had been signalled by the election in the late 1960s of ex-CP member Hugh Scanlon and ex-International Brigader Jack Jones to lead the AEU and the TGWU, respectively. Dockers, engineers, airplane pilots, bus workers and train drivers were among those taking action during the period.
But the most historic strike was that of women machinists at Ford's in Dagenham and then Halewood in June 1968. Their demand was for regrading to reduce pay inequality with their male colleagues. Employment minister Barbara Castle intervened and the action ended after three weeks with a wage rise short of parity. But the episode paved the way for the first Equal Pay Act in 1970. A number of the shop stewards organising the action were Communist or broad left activists.
The Communist Party used its influence among London's Dockers to combat Enoch Powell's racist scaremongering about 'funeral pyres' and rivers 'foaming with much blood'. Communists liaised with their Asian, African and Caribbean comrades in Britain to launch the Campaign Against Racist Laws to oppose further immigration controls against black and Asian Commonwealth citizens. Two of Britain's biggest-ever anti-racist demonstrations followed.
The Labour government's January 1969 White Paper, In Place of Strife, set out to shackle shop-floor trade unionism by imposing strike ballots, delaying industrial action and outlawing so-called unofficial 'wildcat' walk-outs. A labour court would preside over the new system.
The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions called a one-day general strike on May 1. Other strikes in the motor, refuse collection and coal mining industries showed the determination of workers to take official and unofficial action in defence of their living standards. Wilson and Castle dropped their anti-union proposals, and a divided Labour Party lost the 1970 General Election.
The Tory government under Edward Heath tried to pick up where Labour had been compelled to leave off. But fresh attempts to assert state authority over collective bargaining through compulsory ballots and a labour court proved catastrophic.
Five states of emergency were declared between 1970 and 1974 (there had been only seven in the preceding fifty years). A work to rule on the railways created chaos—but an enforced ‘cooling off’ ballot turned into a six-to-one vote of confidence in the unions and their action.
The LCDTU took the lead in putting unions and the TUC under pressure to resist Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill. One-day 'Kill the Bill' stoppages called by the Liaison Committee and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers in December 1970 and then in March 1971—when three million workers came out—forced the TUC to respond. At a special congress, the trade unions decided not to cooperate with the anti-union legislation.
In June 1971, the Tory government announced its intention to withdraw trade credits from the semi-nationalised Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, immediately jeopardising more than 6,000 jobs. Former YCL general secretary and CP Scottish secretary Jimmy Reid, together with fellow Communist shop stewards Sammy Barr and Jimmy Airlie, led a work-in which occupied all four yards in Glasgow and Clydebank. As Reid put it: 'We are taking over the yards. We refuse to accept that faceless men can take these decisions'.
They ran the company for 15 months, assisted by an enormous outpouring of national and international solidarity including two one-day strikes across Scotland, until the government backed down. The yards were saved, although not all the jobs.
The UCS work-in inspired other workers to resist closures as two hundred occupations broke out across Britain over the following twelve months. Further action by the women machinists at Dagenham led to improvements in the equal pay law.
In the last week of July 1972, mass working class action called by the LCDTU secured the release from Pentonville prison of five Dockers' leaders (two of them Communists). They had been imprisoned for organising 'secondary' (i.e. solidarity) action in the course of a dispute involving the TGWU. With the TUC finally threatening a one-day general strike, the government used an obscure legal functionary to free the five. The Industrial Relations Act was now a dead duck.
Communists working with allies in the broad left played a central role in the 1972 miners' strike against government pay controls. The Security Service (MI5) and senior civil servants informed Prime Minister Heath that eight of the 28-strong NUM executive were CP members—and therefore 'wreckers' who opposed the 'existing political system generally' and whose aim was to bring down the Tory government.
Party militants initiated a mass picket of Saltley coke works in Birmingham, winning the support of shop stewards in the city's giant factories. In what became known as the ‘Battle of Saltley Gates’, tens of thousands of engineers and car workers left work to swamp the depot, closing it at the very moment that the government had decided to surrender to the miners.
The Tories took revenge for some of these defeats with the arrest of dozens of local militants six months after a national building workers' strike. Communist Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were gaoled on trumped-up conspiracy charges, the former remaining in prison even after the Tories had been turfed out.
In the north of Ireland, the unionist regime and sectarian local security forces tried to suppress resurgent demands from Catholics for equal rights. The British Army imposed curfews and rampaged through nationalist communities. Thousands of nationalists and republicans were interned without trial under special powers legislation.
As a result of Connolly Association lobbying, the British TUC adopted a substantial policy on Ireland in 1971 which included opposition to the unionist veto on progress.
In January 1972, a huge anti-Internment rally was organised in Derry. The march itself passed off peacefully, but British paratroopers opened fire on protestors and killed 14 unarmed people on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday'. Heath brought the province under direct London rule.
Throughout this period, working closely with their Irish comrades, Britain's Communists raised these issues inside the labour movement and beyond. This became increasingly difficult as the British government and media concentrated on the threat of Irish Republican Army 'terrorism'.
The Communist Party, on the other hand, condemned state terrorism in Ireland, while making clear its opposition to all military actions against civilians. It warned that repressive legislation would be extended to Britain and, arguing that there could be no military solution, called for the reunification of Ireland by peaceful means.
As far as the national question within Britain was concerned, almost alone on the left, Communists had long advocated parliaments for Scotland and Wales. Scottish TUC general secretary Jimmy Milne and NUM vice-president Mick McGahey championed the cause in the labour movement. Arising from the solidarity of the miners' strike and other battles, South Wales NUM secretary Dai Francis played a vital part in establishing the Wales TUC in 1973, against the opposition of right-wing trade union leaders.
The Party's particular appeal in the Celtic countries was demonstrated in that year's local elections, when 608 candidates polled 165,743 votes to win 13 seats in Scotland, six in Wales and four in England.
At the beginning of 1973, the CP launched a women's journal, Link. It marked the culmination of a debate within the Party about its relationship to the women's liberation movement. Communists had played a major part in drafting the demands of the 1970 Women's Liberation Conference in Oxford for abortion and contraception rights, childcare facilities and equal opportunities in employment and education. Florence Keyworth, Gladys Brooks and others had then joined non-Party members Sheila Rowbotham and Audrey Wise to produce a feminist magazine, Red Rag.
In September 1973, the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a CIA-backed military coup. Communists initiated the Chile Solidarity Campaign, also assisting many Chilean Communists and socialists to find safety in Britain. Refugee members of the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, the armed wing of the anti-fascist resistance, were secretly transported across Europe and on some occasions rescued from deportation to Chile by trade union action.
At home, a miners' overtime ban prompted the Tory government to impose a three-day week and power cuts. When ministers threatened harsher measures still, Mick McGahey caused a storm by declaring that he would—if necessary—appeal to soldiers to disobey orders and assist the miners. In the face of an all-out strike in February 1974, Heath called a General Election on the question of 'Who Governs Britain?' The electors gave their answer, twice in one year. Wilson returned to office on the basis of a Labour manifesto which promised 'a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families'.
Jimmy Reid, one of the leaders of the UCS work-in, trebled the CP vote in Dumbarton Central which included 'Red Clydebank' with its Communist councillors and more than one thousand Party members. His high profile campaign won 5,928 votes, 15 per cent of the poll, in the wake of a vicious anti-Communist and clerical crusade against him. In the fifty or so other seats contested by the Party in the two 1974 elections, its candidates were seen by the mass media and many electors as irrelevant as far as the most important outcome was concerned.
That year, too, Communists and allies on London Trades Council proposed a Working Women's Charter which was taken up enthusiastically by trade union, women's centres and tenants' associations in other towns and cities. Its demands included equal pay and opportunities, a national minimum wage, equal rights in law, free daytime nursery provision, additional maternity rights, free contraception and abortion and a bigger role for women in trade union and political life.
In the 1975 referendum campaign, the CP fought hard as part of the broad alliance for a 'No' vote against Britain's continuing membership of the European Economic Community. The Communist position had been consistent since the 1957 Treaty of Rome: based on the free movement of capital, goods and labour, the Common Market was a 'bosses' club'.
Although Wilson succeeded in keeping Britain in the EEC, the Labour government also replaced Tory laws with new rights for workers and trade unions, repealed punitive council rent legislation and nationalised the aircraft and shipbuilding industries.
Also in 1975, former assistant general secretary and Morning Star editor George Matthews displayed a live MI5 microphone discovered in a wall at the Party's King Street headquarters. For decades, the intelligence servies had conducted an enormous campaign of espionage, burglary and communications interception against many Party activists and sympathisers.
Matthews also made a decisive intervention at that year's Party congress, tipping the balance in favour of a resolution opposing discrimination against gays and lesbians. When this followed by further executive committee statements attacking anti-gay prejudice and calling for full and equal rights in law, the Gay Times congratulated the CP for having the 'fullest and most far-reaching such policy ever adopted by a non-gay organisation'.
Hoping to avoid the conflict over statutory wage controls that had brought down its Tory predecessor, the Labour government concluded a 'Social Contract' with the TUC leadership, including Jones and Scanlon. It promised higher social expenditure and public investment in return for higher productivity and voluntary pay restraint.
The problem was that Labour also hoped to placate the City of London by trying to prop up the value of sterling through high interest rates. This made industrial investment and imports more expensive. Wage rises fell way behind inflation, while company profits and dividends raced ahead. Bert Ramelson renamed Labour's deal 'the Social Con-trick' and the label stuck.
Ken Gill, Communist general secretary of technicians' union TASS, led the counter-attack at successive TUC conferences. He proposed the Alternative Economic Strategy devised by CP and the Labour left economists and trade unionists. It called for limits on the export of capital, selective import controls, public ownership of strategic industries and enterprises, planning agreements, lower interest rates, higher public investment, price controls, free collective bargaining, higher pensions and benefits, a shorter working week and reductions in overtime. In 1975, Gill's motion was defeated by 6.4 million to 3 million on a card vote.
In August 1976, low-paid Asian women went on strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London. They struggled on heroically for almost two years, sustained by mass solidarity and Brent Trades Council with its substantial Communist influence.
Locked into a balance of payments crisis, with unemployment climbing towards two million, the Labour government accepted a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The strings included public spending cuts and job losses. A series of strikes, notably by public sector workers in the fire service and local government, engulfed Labour's pay policy.
The 25th anniversary of Elizabeth Windsor's accession to the throne was intended to reinforce patriotic feelings of national unity among the British people. Communists saw it as celebration of social inequality, class privilege and undemocratic rule. An alternative 'People's Jubilee' in June 1977 attracted 11,000 people to Alexandra Palace, London, in what the CP leadership declared was 'a great expression of the internationalism of our party. It demonstrated our closeness to the struggles of the British people, and showed the relationship of these to the battle for socialism in Britain'.
One of the organisers of the People's Jubilee was jazz musician Paul Rutherford, a Communist in the tradition of bandleader Harry Gold and his 'Pieces of Eight', while the Party's presence on the folk and jazz-rock scenes about to be renewed by the likes of Dick Gaughan and Robert Wyatt.
Despite its influence in the trade unions, the Communist Party was not strong enough to force new prime minister Callaghan to change course. Even so, newspapers reported Bert Ramelson as claiming that the CP could decide a policy in the autumn, get it adopted by most major unions by the spring, see it become TUC policy in September and Labour Party policy in October.
But the Labour Party leadership now simply ignored its own conference policies, as did some compliant right-wing trade union leaders. Abandoned even by the TUC at the end, Callaghan and Labour were defeated in the General Election by Margaret Thatcher's Tories.
The Communist Party ended the decade with a membership of 20,599, compared with its high-point of 29,943 in 1973. The decline had accelerated after 1977, when a new draft of the Party's programme The British Road to Socialism was debated and adopted. Once more, deepening political and ideological differences had come into the open, prompting a group around Surrey district secretary Sid French to split and form the New Communist Party.
At the other end of the spectrum, a small faction of 'modernisers' questioned the centrality of the working class to the struggle for socialism. They pointed to the diversity of the working class as evidence that it could no longer be seen as a single force with one over-riding identity or even one fundamental class interest. 'New social forces' based on gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, or motivated by concerns for the environment and peace, could play the leadership role which the working class and the labour movement had failed to fulfil.
This was their interpretation of the 'broad democratic alliance' which replaced the programme's perspective of a 'broad popular alliance' aimed at the monopolies and their state. Selecting and distorting some concepts developed by the Italian Marxist-Leninist Antonio Gramsci, the latter-day 'Gramscians' labelled Communists who based their political theory and practice on class as 'left sectarians' who were guilty of 'class reductionism'.
Echoing the 'Eurocommunist' outlook expressed by the Communist Party leaders in Italy, Spain and to a lesser extent France, the faction emphasised the need to 'democratise' both capitalism and socialism. The Soviet Union was a model to be shunned or repudiated rather than critically or uncritically supported.
Subsequently, the Eurocommunists took control of the YCL and then the Party's national student committee. Breaking traditional alliances with the Labour left, they disorientated and then demobilised both bodies. This was made possible by the patronage of a CP leadership seeking 'new' ideas.
Like Eric Hobsbawm in his 1978 Marx Memorial Library lecture 'The Forward March of Labour Halted?', the Eurocommunists were raising some interesting questions—but then providing some very wrong answers. Taking control of the Party's theoretical and discussion journal Marxism Today enabled them to spread further confusion and division, not least about the character of the Thatcher government.