The Taint of Communism: The Movement for Colonial Freedom, the Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1954-70

By Brownell, Josiah | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

The Taint of Communism: The Movement for Colonial Freedom, the Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1954-70


Brownell, Josiah, Canadian Journal of History


In the British politics of decolonization, the Labour Party and the various anticolonial organizations were forced to craft their political strategies ever mindful of the uneasiness that the decolonization process engendered among the British electorate. (1) The most effective anticolonial organization was the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF), founded by Fenner Brockway in 1954. While actively applying pressure both on and within the British government, the MCF was simultaneously fighting a rear-guard campaign against the constant threat of infiltration into the organization from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), a Party urgently trying to play a meaningful role in anticolonial politics. It was politically vital for the MCF to maintain a public distance between itself and the CPGB due primarily to the threat of proscription from the Labour Party, which would have doomed the MCF to isolation outside the political mainstream. Out of this same political logic, the Labour Party leadership sought to distance itselfpublicly from the MCF, as the MCF's real and imagined links with subversive elements, including foreign and domestic communists, at times proved embarrassing for a Labour Party keen to win the confidence of the British electorate. The three-way relationship between the Labour Party, the MCF, and the CPGB brings to light these organizations' independent struggles to achieve mainstream respectability in the delicate politics of anticolonialism, and reveals a broad process of strategic associations and disassociations. These associative shifts were political projections on the part of these organizations towards broader public appeal and, for the Labour Party and the MCF, away from more embar

rassing ideological cousins whose taint could adversely affect their long-term political goals.

Yet as Shaw's Dora Delaney rhetorically queried, can you blame them? These political projections by the Labour Party, the MCF, and the CPGB expose the strong tension between what was considered by most on the British Left as the right of colonial peoples to be free, pulling hard on one side and, pulling on the other, the strong feeling of the wider British public that its leaders not surrender Britain's global power and prestige. (2) This process should in addition be viewed against the backdrop of the Labour Party's thirteen-year exclusion from power, and its attempt to prove its dependability and trustworthiness as a potential Party in power. A perceived vulnerability to charges of radicalism informed the Party's relationship with the MCF, and also the MCF's relationship with the CPGB. As historian Nicholas Owen writes, "For the critics of Empire to be politically effective, they had not merely to develop an ideological critique of imperialism, but also to harness their cause to the party system. This could only be done at the cost of bending and reshaping anti-imperialism in the interests of party unity and electoral appeal." (3) Accordingly, the MCF was at times forced to modify its radical anticolonial agenda for pragmatic political reasons. And through fits and starts, the opposition Labour Party cautiously came to support many of the MCF's colonial policies, even while occasionally pressuring the MCF to dampen down some of its more controversial positions until public opinion could be coaxed into tow. (4)

The MCF's trajectory of power paralleled the trajectory of decolonization. It peaked at the time of the most intense activity of decolonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s and declined after it became apparent to all but the most obdurate imperialists that the Empire was dissolving. By the end of the 1950s, the MCF had come to supplant the Fabian Colonial Bureau as the primary policymaking organization driving Labour's colonial policies. (5) Even though the MCF came to be the dominant anticolonial organization with a significant impact on Labour's colonial policies, (6) it was the Conservative Party that was in power during the period of the most rapid decolonization. …

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