Excerpt from ‘Against the Grain: The British Far Left From 1956′

Against The Grain - The British Far Left From 1956Against the Grain: The British Far Left From 1956 is a new edited volume, put together by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, which will be published this month by Manchester University Press. While not attempting to be a comprehensive overview of the far left in Britain over the last 60 years, the book looks to highlight new areas of historical research into these left-wing groups and movements that have often been overlooked by other scholars. The book includes contributions from activists, established academics and up-and-coming scholars, presenting chapters on a wide range of political organisations and the movements that they were involved with.

Although it has a hefty price tag for the hardback edition, the editors are hoping that a paperback edition will be published in 2015-16. A slightly cheaper hardback edition can be bought from here (if you are willing to buy from large corporations).

Below is an edited excerpt from the book’s introduction, giving an overview of the history of the British far left from 1956. The editors hope that it piques the interest of Socialist Unity readers and leads to a fruitful debate about how we look at the history of the far left in Britain. As Mark Perryman wrote about the book for Philosophy Football: “this is one for the activists, the old hands for the nostalgia trip of reading of old battles, the new wave to read of past mistakes and dream of not repeating them.”

The editors are also keen to hear of anyone doing research into the British far left, particularly on areas that have been overlooked in this volume. Please send them an email here.


In 1972, Tariq Ali, editor of the radical newspaper Black Dwarf and leading figure in the International Marxist Group (IMG), wrote in the introduction to his book, The Coming British Revolution:

The only real alternative to capitalist policies is provided by the revolutionary left groups as a whole. Despite their smallness and despite their many failings, they represent the only way forward1.

At the time, the British left appeared in the ascendancy. And yet, within a short while, the fortunes of the British left began to fall as sharply as they had risen. Certainly, by the end of the 1970s, the far left’s forward march, which had been gathering pace since the political eruptions of 1956 seemed – in the words of Eric Hobsbawm – to have ‘halted’2. Thereafter, the British far left continued to debate how best to react to the changes in the political, economic and social landscape that occurred under Margaret Thatcher and New Labour. In so doing, it realigned itself, fractured and evolved as new struggles emerged to test preconceptions and continually thwart the expected ‘breakthrough’. Whatever way you shape it, the revolution did not come around. Nevertheless, the far left played its part in shaping what remains an on-going historical epoch, challenging social mores and providing a dissenting voice within the British body politic.

Outlining the history of the British far left

The year 1956 may be seen as representing ‘year zero’ for the British left.  Prior to this, the CPGB had dominated the political field to the left of the Labour Party. The party had grown out of the unification of several socialist groups in 1920 and gradually built itself as the radical alternative to Labour during the inter-war period. By the end of the Second World War, its membership was over 40,000 and the leftwards shift by the electorate in the 1945 general election gave the Party hope that the transformation of British society towards socialism was imminent. The 1945 election saw the CPGB win two parliamentary seats and was soon followed by 215 communist councillors elected at a municipal level3. Simultaneously, the party began to suffer in the face of the anti-communist hysteria that came with the onset of Cold War. Even then, its promotion of a parliamentary road to socialism and a future Communist-Labour alliance ensured that it maintained a foothold in the British labour movement.

Trotskyism and left-communism developed as two oppositional currents in the Communist Party during the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until the post-war period that British Trotskyism really emerged as an alternative left-wing movement to the CPGB. The genesis of post-war British Trotskyism can be traced back to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which contained all of the subsequent leading figures of the Trotskyist movement and held the position of the official British representative of the Fourth International between 1944 and 1949. The RCP made some headway in the rank and file of the trade unions, particularly by supporting strikes when the CPGB was still promoting co-operation with the government, as well as in the anti-fascist activism against Mosley’s newly-formed Union Movement. However, the RCP soon split over questions concerning entrism within the Labour Party and how the Fourth International should view the ‘People’s Democracies’ of Eastern Europe. By 1956, Gerry Healy’s The Club (soon after the SLL) was the main Trotskyist group in Britain, with the others being relegated to discussion groups or journals in this period.

Such alignments across the British left would change in 1956. Khrushchev’s denunciation of the ‘cult of personality’ that arose around Stalin and admission that crimes had been committed during Stalin’s reign had a major impact on the CPGB. While many party members wanted a discussion over the CPGB’s uncritical support for the Soviet Union, the leadership sought to quash any frank and open debate, particularly amongst the rank and file at branch or district level. Soviet intervention in Hungary later the same year only exacerbated matters, leading to some 8,000 people leaving the CPGB between February 1956 and February 1958.

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CLASS conference

Class (Centre for Labour and Social Studies) was founded with the intention to come up with bold, brave and radical ideas to support the challenges facing working people.

Class is holding its second annual conference on Saturday, 1st November 2014 at TUC Congress House, London, commencing at 10.00am.

Taking place just six months before the 2015 general election, “What Britain Needs” promises to be one of the biggest gatherings of trade unionists and activists in the run-up to the next election, and may be one of our last chances to ensure the voice of working people is heard in the policy arena.

There will be sessions on many of the key issues of interest to trade union activists, particularly public ownership, public services and making work pay and GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny is one of the keynote speakers.

It would be good for as many trade union members and activists as possible to attend the conference and Class have launched a brand new conference website – http://classonline.org.uk/conference2014  and have also launched a campaign on social media. You can find out more on their Facebook page, on Twitter @classthinktank and via the hashtag #classconf14.

Kobane – we have met the enemy and it is us

Morning Star

On the Turkish frontier, around the town of Kobane in northern Syria, the world is witnessing the very best of humanity alongside the very worst.

The very best are of course the Kurdish defenders of the town, whose courage and heroism in resisting an onslaught by the forces of Isis is such that songs will be written about them in years to come.

The sight of those men and women, many barely out of their teens, holding the line with light weapons against the barbaric hoards of Isis fighters attacking the town from three sides with heavy artillery and tanks conjures up parallels with Barcelona, the Warsaw Ghetto, even Stalingrad in microcosm.

And given the medieval ideology of Isis, under which women are reduced to the status of slaves, the fact that women are playing such a key role in the town’s defence adds an extra dimension of defiance to the barbarism they are facing.

Isis has emerged and erupted across northern Syria and Iraq as a direct consequence of the West’s disastrous policy of military intervention in the region, going back to 2003 with the war in Iraq.

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Left Unity – the limits of the personal and the political

You will recall that we recently discussed controversy in group, Left Unity, over the attempts by some members to seek clarification of the role played by Bianca Todd as an employer in the past, where her employees successfully took her to a Employment Tribunal.

Ms Todd has subsequently resigned as principal speaker of Left Unity, saying she’s going to re-stand in order to get a vote of confidence. She claims she’s been under sustained personal attack (because of course, worries about her withholding workers’ wages are just personal rather than political).

Below is the email sent out to Left Unity National Council.

Position of Principal Speaker

Following from what I can only describe as a systematic sustained attack on me for over the past six months. I have come to the decision that in order to remain true to the principles of the party, which for me is about accountability, doing politics differently and ensuring that members have a real voice within the party I feel that it is essential for me, to resign from the position of principal speaker.

I take this decision in order that the party can remain true to its principles, it will also allow those who have been my critics to nominate a person who they feel will meet the needs of the post, although it is my intention to stand for this position again at the re-election.

I apologise for the additional work that this re-election will create, however it is the only way that I can currently see to address the issues that have arisen and enable the focus of the work to move from personalities back to politics.

Yours in Solidarity,
Bianca Todd

Syrian Kurds need support

Morning Star Editorial

Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) battling to defend Kobane are effectively fighting on two fronts — against both Isis terrorist forces and Turkey’s corrupt government.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who presides over a big business administration with an Islamist tinge, has announced baldly that Kobane will fall.

He is urged by Washington to help defeat Isis but remains indifferent because his priority is to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Erdogan makes clear that Turkish intervention will have clear guidelines — a Turkish buffer area on Syrian territory to corral refugees, a no-fly zone to ground Syrian warplanes and the explicit aim of replacing the Assad regime.

Millions of Kurds and their supporters are in the streets of Turkey and other countries demanding that Ankara ends its de facto collaboration with Isis.

The BBC informs us that the demonstrators demand Turkish army action to relieve Kobane.

Nothing like it. The last thing that the Kurds of Kobane or Kurdish regions of Turkey now subject to a state of emergency need or want is Turkish troops marching over them.

Kobane needs reinforcements and weapons supplies, but Ankara has closed the border to obstruct Turkey’s Kurds from assisting their cousins in Syria.

What a contrast to the Turkish government’s earlier stance of allowing thousands of jihadists, trained and financed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, free entry into Syria to join the anti-Assad struggle.

US Vice-President Joe Biden hit the nail on the head last week when he told a Harvard University meeting that these states had “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons against anyone who would fight Assad.”

All these supplies, together with the military assets surrendered by the corrupt and unmotivated Iraqi army, have ended up in the hands of Isis and the al-Qaida-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.

That’s why the siege of Kobane is fought between one side that has tanks, artillery and mortars and another with automatic rifles and grenades.

Washington’s much-touted anti-Isis military alliance has launched some air strikes around Kobane and may have eased the tightening stranglehold on the town, but it is window dressing that covers up a lack of clear thinking.

Nato-led imperialist forces, including Britain, have been up to their necks in boosting Isis and other obscurantist elements because of their hostility to Assad, Iran and their allies in Lebanon and Iraq.

If David Cameron had had his way, British bombers would have played the role of the Isis air force a year ago.

Barack Obama appears now to view Isis as a greater threat to the US than Assad, even though he forced Biden to apologise so as not to alienate his Turkish and Arab allies.

The US president understands what a propaganda boost it would be for Isis to capture Kobane in the face of US air strikes and what a humiliation it would be for Washington and its allied air armada.

Kobane will not be saved by token air strikes. Nor will they rid Syria and Iraq of Isis.

The Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi governments are key to resolving this issue, as is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is falsely labelled a terrorist organisation.

Nato member states, including the US, have to rethink previous self-defeating positions, drop their sanctions against the anti-Isis alliance and send arms to those in the front line of this epic struggle.

A breath of fresh air

Mark Perryman reviews an exceptionally strong list of autumn political reading

This autumn has been dominated already by two lots of morbid symptoms. The unseemly sight of Labour Unionism cosying up to theTories, Lib­Dems, the financial and media establishment in defence of the ancien regime. Accompanied by Ukip’s spectacularand seemingly irresistible rise, now fracturing the Tory Right’s vote more effectively than ever, the protest vote that just won’t go away.

What possible cause for any optimism then? Because outside of the parliamentary parties’ mainstream there is a revived freshness ofideas. Two writers in particular serve to symbolise such brightness of purpose. Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things is the latest collection of her writing. The spiky subversiveness of Laurie’s journalism best summed up by her book’s sub­title ‘sex, lies and revolution’. This is feminism with no apologies given, no compromises surrendered and a sharp­edged radicalism all the better for both. The Establishment by Owen Jones is every bit as much a reason for igniting readers’ optimism but also the cause of a quandary. Owen is an unrepentant Bennite, a body of ideas and activists with next to no influence in Miliband Labour. The organised Left outside of Labour in England at any rate, borders on the non-existent. Owen is described on the book’s cover by Russell Brand no less as ‘Our generation’s Orwell’ a bold yet fitting accolade. Yet Owen’s writing aims, like Laurie’s, at something beyond being simply a critical media voice. Quite how, is the quandary for both.
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The spirit of 1945 revisited

Politics is a cruel game, and there is a developing narrative from some in the Labour Party that next year’s general election campaign is in trouble. According to this sorry tale, all the money has been spent in Scotland, Ed didn’t make a good enough conference speech, and the party is either to rash or too cautious on policy depending on your preference. It is therefore worth stepping back and looking for some perspective.

First of all, while it is fashionable to nostalgically look back at the landslide of 1945, which with the benefit of hindsight was our greatest achievement, how did that election look before the event.

The 1944 conference had a particularly flat mood, as the party was pessimistic about its prospects. And the period of 1943 and 1944 had seen the party riven by factionalism. In 1943 the party had a furious row over the implementation of Beveridge that led to Ernest Bevin withdrawing entirely from party life, and effectively withdrawing the support from the biggest union, TGWU, from the party. This rift was not healed until March 1945. Bevin continued in government, but not as part of the Labour Party.
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GMB cleaners strike over pay

GMB members employed by contractor ISS at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich are taking part in 24 hours of strike action which started at 6am this morning.

Over 200 GMB members are employed by ISS at the hospital as cleaners, security, ward hostesses, caterers, on the switchboard and as porters. Members want the same pay rates and weekend enhancements and unsocial hours rates as the staff directly employed by the Trust.

ISS workers are paid between £7.10 and £7.32 per hour. The lowest rate for directly employed staff is £7.33 ph which moves in yearly increments to £7.51 and £7.69 under the current NHS pay progression system.
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Philosophy Football: 20 years of success

perryman's 20 years

The predecessor project to the Socialist Unity, the Socialist Unity Network website started about ten years ago, and there have been a number of political collaborations along the way. Those associated with the project at one time or another, have included Salman Shaheen and Jim Jepps, Louise Whittle, John Nicholson, and others.

One of the most lasting relationships has been with Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football, and I am delighted to see that the literally self-styled “outfitters of intellectual distinction” are celebrating their 20th anniversary. One of the distinctive traits that SU has tried to champion, is that despite sharp debate, we have never believed that any single part of the left has privileged access to the truth, and there have been a few times when Mark has sharply disagreed with articles or comments on this blog. I regard that as a good thing.

One of the great strengths of Hugh Tisdale and Mark Perryman is that they have robustly ploughed their own furrow, and demonstrated that politics is not one-size-fits-all endeavour. Not only have they produced a huge number of T-shirts that allow people to demonstrate their left wing sensibilities (including a number worn by Tommy Sheridan on Celebrity Big Brother), but they have combined this with organizing a regular series of cultural events. As Mark himself says “The revolution is just a T-shirt away? Sadly not though by working with the TUC, Unison, Unite, GMB, FBU, RMT and others we’ve found a T-shirt is perhaps one of the best ways to wear our hearts on our sleeves, or to be strictly accurate on our chests! ”
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