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  • Are the Kids United? The Communist Party of Great Britain, Rock Against Racism, and the Politics of Youth Culture
  • Evan Smith

One of the themes that has arisen in the growing body of literature surrounding Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the antiracist campaigns of the late 1970s has been that RAR and its sister organization the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), both offshoots of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), were able to attract politicized youth through the language of youth culture and identity politics, whereas the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as the traditional home for many left-wing and antiracist activists, looked culturally conservative and apprehensive to the youth-oriented politics of RAR. Through the success of RAR and the ANL in providing widespread opposition to the far right National Front, the SWP established itself as a force on the political Left and an organization of considerable influence in the antiracist movement in Britain. On the other hand, the Communist Party, already plagued by falling membership and internal schisms over the direction of the Party, appeared to be increasingly out of touch with the antiracist movement and with black and white youth, who drifted toward the Trotskyist left or single-issue pressure groups (if politically involved at all). The relationship between the CPGB and the ANL has been examined elsewhere; what this article seeks to explore is how the CPGB's relationship with youth culture became fractured in the late 1970s as Rock Against Racism was able to engage with the emerging youth [End Page 85] cultures of punk and reggae, and how this interaction with youth culture helped to create an antiracist consciousness informed by the politics of the SWP, rather than the CPGB. The decline of the CPGB in the political arena to the left of Labour and its increasing retreat from the forefront of antiracist politics, alongside the rise of the SWP, provides the historical backdrop to demonstrate how radical leftist politics, youth culture, and antiracism converged and diverged in the 1970s.

The Threat of the National Front

Established in the late 1960s, the National Front (NF) was a far-right organization that exploited populist fears about immigration from the British Commonwealth to promote a program that focused heavily on the forced repatriation of nonwhite Britons and violent opposition to the supposed threats to white British society. The NF experienced early peaks of support by disaffected Conservatives in 1968, after Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, and in 1972, after the Conservative government allowed Asian refugees expelled from Uganda to enter Britain, with membership reaching its highest numbers of between 14,000 and 17,500.1 However, this support did not translate into tangible gains at the electoral booth, with the NF recording dismal results at the 1970 and (both February and October) 1974 elections. As the economic crisis continued after 1974 elections, the NF started to move away from trying to attract Conservative supporters and began to appeal to traditional Labour Party voters, claiming that nonwhite immigration was responsible for the decrease in employment, housing, and welfare during the economic downturn. This switch to concentrating on attracting working-class support saw the NF change its tactics toward increasing its public presence through provocative street marches and confrontations with antifascist protestors, the police, and Britain's black communities. This push to occupy the streets was combined with a campaign of intimidation, which saw a dramatic increase in violent attacks against Britain's black population, resulting in several deaths and "scores of other similar incidents of unprovoked and savage racist attacks."2

To counter the growing menace of the National Front, numerous anti-fascist and antiracist groups and fronts started to campaign against the NF, including the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party (before 1976, the [End Page 86] International Socialists [IS]), and the International Marxist Group (IMG). The CPGB had a long history of antifascist activism, stretching back to the 1930s, but their antifascist strategies in the 1970s reflected a changing attitude toward the institutions of the state and working within the democratic system. Broadly agreeing with the leftist position of "no platform" for fascists, the CPGB promoted peaceful demonstrations against the National Front...


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