Against 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.
The trajectory of those who left the CPGB varied. As several authors have pointed out, this was the beginning of a British ‘new left’ that sought to combine socialism with humanism and democracy. Divorcing themselves from party politics, Thompson and Saville started The New Reasoner in 1957, which alongside Stuart Hall’s Universities and Left Review became the focal point of the first wave of the New Left. What further galvanised the New Left in Britain was the rise of single-issue social movements that brought a younger generation of activists into contact with the left, the most predominant of which was CND. Although most of the leftist parties eventually supported CND, the campaign showed that political activism could be mobilised outside of party structures (or their front groups).
In terms of Trotskyism, The Club/SLL benefitted somewhat from the mass exodus from the CPGB in 1956. A small number of erstwhile CPGB activists joined Healy’s group, including the historian Brian Pearce, Ken Coates, the Scottish trade unionist Lawrence Daly and the Daily Worker journalist Peter Fryer, who had been in Budapest at the time of the Soviet invasion. Few if any of those who joined The Club/SLL from the CPGB were sudden converts to orthodox Trotskyism. Because of this, perhaps, The Club/SLL proved unable to hold onto many of these defectors for long and Trotskyist recruitment soon turned its attention to the youth wing of the Labour Party.
Peter Sedgwick’s description of the period between 1956 and 1968 as providing a ‘record of a political adolescence’ is particularly apt in regard to the far left4. The time roughly between the election of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government (1959) and the Seamen’s strike of 1966 was one of transition, with several Trotskyist and anti-revisionist groups in incubation ready to emerge in the next decade. After the catastrophes of 1956, the CPGB refocused its efforts on creating a ‘mass party’ which promoted closer ties with the trade unions and the Labour left in a ‘broad left alliance’. By 1964, the party had made up the 8,000 members it had lost less than a decade before. Two years later, and the party’s links to the trade union movement proved integral to the founding of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions that played such an influential role in the campaigns against Harold Wilson’s industrial relations reforms between 1966 and 1969. Even so, the CPGB’s shift towards a parliamentary road to socialism and ‘broad left alliance’ disappointed some in the party who sought inspiration in the Chinese Communist Party’s promotion of anti-revisionism. Thus, Britain’s first Maoist group was formed by Michael McCreery in 1961: the Committee to Defeat Revisionism for Communist Unity (CDRCU). In 1963, the CDRCU formally broke from the CPGB.
The Trotskyist left, meanwhile, tended to remain inside the Labour Party for the first half of the 1960s. In 1964, the entrist group that existed around the leadership of Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe started producing a newspaper, Militant, recruiting inside the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) for ‘the Tendency’. The IMG also started as a group on the Labour left gathered around The Week. Over the course of 1965–68, however, the activists behind the paper transformed into a political group that joined with other Trotskyists, ‘soft’ Maoists and left libertarians to produce Black Dwarf. By contrast, the Socialist Review Group – founded by Tony Cliff – emerged outside the Labour Party in 1968 as the International Socialists (IS), with a monthly theoretical journal called International Socialism and a weekly paper, Industrial Worker, that eventually became known as Socialist Worker.
Indeed, ‘1968’ marked a moment of transformation for the British far left. A multitude of international and domestic events spurred many (young) people into activist politics. Most significantly, perhaps, the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) served to alter the composition of the British far left. CPGB was not among the major beneficiaries of the radicalism fostered by the VSC. With Tariq Ali in a leadership position within the VSC, the IMG rose to some prominence, while the IS also made headway amongst the anti-war movement and the student radicals. Infamously, Healy’s SLL (soon to become the Workers’ Revolutionary Party; WRP) boycotted the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, distributing a leaflet titled ‘why the Socialist Labour League is not marching’ at Grosvenor Square in October 19685.
At this moment, there seemed to be a contrast between the groups that benefitted from the radicalism of the late 1960s and the ideas being simultaneously developed on the New Left. The New Left Review can be read as an indication of the Marxist theory that grew out of this era (and the worldwide spread of radicalism), with an enthusiasm for non-conformist communists such as Althusser, Marcuse, Poulantzas and Gramsci (and not necessarily the idea of Trotsky). But while these ideas were important for the development of the left in the 1970s, those associated with NLR had little impact on the practical politics of the period. Despite Trotsky not being read to the same extent as structural Marxists, it was the Trotskyist groups ‘on the ground’ that benefitted membership-wise.
Whatever the ideological underpinning, the ‘British upturn’ and the fight against Edward Heath’s industrial relations reforms saw the far left grow in confidence and optimism. For the CPGB, the industrial struggles and its presence inside the trade union movement made the late 1960s and early 1970s appear as an ‘Indian summer’6, with Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley recently stating (perhaps controversially) that the party’s ‘most successful achievement was its contribution to the trade union radicalism’ of this era7. Both the IMG and the IS grew exponentially in size, though this brought its own problems. For the IMG, the inter-party alliance that existed around Black Dwarf broke down as the IMG pushed for a more formalised youth wing and emphasised the leadership role of the student movement. In due course, Red Mole replaced Black Dwarf as the IMG paper. By 1970, the IS had also started to push for more formal leadership over the disparate movements that had emerged out of 1968. Greater links between the new social movements, the student movement and the trade unions (particularly the rank and file) were seen as essential to further political activism. This, subsequently, has been described as a ‘turn to class’, but the IS’ growth (and fear of Cliff’s over-optimism about recruiting factory workers) led to heated debate within the group. The end result was the expulsion in 1975 of key personnel, such as Jim Higgins and Roger Protz, with some suggesting that the loss of such experienced members marked the end of the libertarian and democratic IS and the beginning of a slow march towards Leninist suffocation8.
Arguably, it was the electoral victory of Labour in 1974 that signalled the end of left’s forward momentum, with Labour and the TUC settling on a ‘social contract’ to deal with inflation and limit the outbreaks of industrial action. For most of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the labour movement and the left seemed to be pulling in the same direction. The ‘social contract’, however, drove a wedge between the leadership of the trade unions, who supported Labour, and a left that opposed putting the brakes on industrial militancy. Coupled with the economic downturn sparked by the Oil crisis of 1973, the political and socio-economic landscape changed and the left’s strategy of confrontation served to isolate it from large swathes of the trade union movement. By the time the ‘Social Contact’ ran its course at the end of the 1970s, so the relationship between the labour movement and the left had all but fractured.
The result, taken generally, was strategic realignment across much of the left. In the CPGB, a number of party members began to question the tangible gains made by such a focus on industrial strategy and ‘broad left alliances’, especially if the Labour left and trade union leadership were willing to sacrifice them for political expediency. By concentrating on industrial militancy, the critics argued, the CPGB had discouraged other groups of people from joining or getting involved in activist politics. Accordingly, calls to reform the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, were manifest by the party congress in 1977.
For the IS/SWP, too, the ‘betrayal’ of the TUC demonstrated that alliances with the leaders of the labour movement were ineffective. In its place, the party promoted the mobilisation of the trade union rank and file (‘rank-and-filism’) to present the IS/SWP as a workers’ party committed to support the localised strikes that grew out of the economic crisis of the 1970s. Simultaneously, the IS/SWP saw new avenues of mobilisation emerging that related to the economic crisis – amongst the unemployed via the Right to Work campaign, and through anti-fascist activism aimed at a buoyant National Front. The latter, of course, facilitated the launch of Rock Against Racism (RAR) in 1976 and the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in 1977.
The fortunes of these single issue movements, particularly the ANL, pushed the SWP to prominence on the left. By contrast, the IMG saw their influence begin to slip away during the mid-to-late 1970s. Though it continued to exist into the 1980s, it became the Socialist League in 1982; an entrist group within the Labour Party that published Socialist Action. Militant, meanwhile, slowly gained influence within the local levels of the Labour Party.
It is worth noting that on the fringes of the far left, Maoism and anti-revisionism also experienced a brief fillip in the 1970s. Probably the most successful Maoist organisation was the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Established by Reg Birch, a member of the CPGB and Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), the CPB (M-L) grew out of concern over the CPGB’s ‘reformism’ and the party’s unwillingness to support Birch against Hugh Scanlon in an AEU election. As a result, the CPB (M-L) had a strong base in the AEU, with Birch’s election to the TUC leadership in 1975 giving the party a certain gravitas in comparison with comparable leftist groups. Other Maoist sects emerged in the 1970s, but most only gathered a handful of members. Nor did the Maoists make significant inroads into the new social movements, though some influence was evident among students and, importantly, within South Asian communities in Britain9. By the end of the 1970s, Maoism in Britain had more or less faded into obscurity.
At the opposite end of the anti-revisionist spectrum, the pro-Stalin section of the CPGB that had remained in the party despite its moves away from Stalinism broke in 1977 in protest against the revised British Road to Socialism. Led by Sid French and the Surrey District of the CPGB, these pro-Stalinists formed a New Communist Party (NCP) that peaked in the late 1970s before going into decline in the 1980s. Thereafter, a section of the NCP’s youth wing decided to re-enter the CPGB in the early 1980s under the auspices of The Leninist, which in turn became involved in further factional disputes before being expelled in the mid-1980s.
In hindsight, the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979 may be seen as a watershed moment in British politics that coincided with a period of turmoil across the British far left. Alongside Stuart Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ (published in Marxism Today in late 1978) captured the mood amongst reformers in the CPGB, recognising – as it did – that Thatcherism represented a fundamental shift in British politics and that traditional Labour strategies had reached an impasse. Reformers in the CPGB believed that the party and Labour left had to work together to encourage the non-conventional Labour Party supporter to become involved in leftist politics and align against what became the Thatcherite hegemony. For many of these reformers, who started to group around Marxism Today and the ideas of Eurocommunism, the struggles of the CPGB had to incorporate a pro-actively ideological dimension rather than the defensive and primarily economic industrial struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s. Schisms had already emerged after the ‘broad democratic alliance’ was incorporated into the CPGB programme in 1977, but the splits solidified and grew after an article in Marxism Today by Tony Lane criticised the practices of the trade unions under Thatcherism. The editorial board of the Morning Star was generally staffed by supporters of the party’s existing industrial strategy (connected to Mick Costello, the Industrial Organiser) who used the paper to attack the ideas being promoted in Marxism Today. Amidst much recrimination, splits and division, the party moved closer to its endgame.
In the SWP, Tony Cliff confronted a similar problem to that presented by Hobsbawm – what was to be learnt from the decline of organised industrial militancy and the rise of more sporadic industrial action of the late 1970s? Cliff’s analysis was that it reflected a ‘downturn’ in the industrial struggle, which he envisioned as a relatively short-term problem (in contrast to Hobsbawm’s long-term diagnosis). Equally, Cliff showed concern that initiatives like RAR and the ANL had reached people outside the conventional structures of the left but had not really served to benefit the SWP in terms of recruitment10. By the time that the SWP recognised Thatcherism to be far more of a genuine threat than first anticipated (particularly as experienced by the Miners’ strike of 1984–85), it had lost the initiative on many fronts to Militant and, in some areas, the revived anarchist movement11.
The first of these, Militant, had slowly built its base within the Labour Party, primarily through the LPYS. By the early 1980s, a significant number of its members (officially ‘supporters’) held positions of influence in local branches and on Labour councils. The breakthrough came in 1982–83, when Militant gained control of Liverpool City Council and used its influence to foster local resistance to Thatcher’s monetarist policies. Between 1982 and 1987, Liverpool was – along with Sheffield City Council and the Greater London Council – one of the primary sites of council opposition to the Conservatives.
Militant was further buoyed by the election of two of its ‘supporters’ as Labour MPs in 1983; Terry Fields in Liverpool and Dave Nellist in Coventry. Such successes pushed Militant to the fore of the opposition to Thatcher while also causing considerable distress to the Labour Party. The result was a protracted struggle first signalled in 1982 with the expulsion of Militant‘s editorial board from Labour. On Neil Kinnock’s becoming Labour leader following the 1983 electoral defeat, moreover, so the ‘witch-hunt’12 began in earnest, with a major purge of Militant supporters occurring in 1986 and expulsions continuing thereafter.
Despite this, Militant’s influence at a municipal level meant that it was particularly well-placed to take part in opposing the infamous ‘poll tax’, which from 1987 facilitated a major reform of how local tax rates were calculated, with the burden of the reforms impacting heavily upon those in lower socio-economic areas. Though by no means the only group involved in resisting the tax, Militant was often the public face of the revolt, with Nellist and Tommy Sheridan both jailed for taking part in non-payment protests. The crescendo of the anti-poll tax movement was the ‘Poll Tax riot’ of April 1990, which proved significant in destabilising Thatcher’s premiership. When she resigned six months later, the initiative of the British left seemed to be with Militant, though this would again prove but a short-lived illusion of potential breakthrough.
The anarchist movement also came to the fore in the poll tax protest. The British anarchist movement of the 1980s had two main prongs, which sometimes overlapped but often worked in isolation: anarcho-punks borne out of milieus that existed around bands such as Crass; and Class War, a more militant anarchist group with its roots in Wales. The anarcho-punks emerged in the late 1970s and mobilised around issues such as pacifism, animal rights and squatting.
Class War began in 1983 and rejected the pacifism of the anarcho-punks, becoming involved in political activism at the fringes of industrial disputes, often in confrontation with the police13. Both sets of anarchists were involved in Stop the City demonstrations between 1983 and 1985, but Class War became the primary anarchist group of the late 1980s. Class War mixed publicity in the mainstream press, community activism and appeals to youth culture (such as the Bash the Rich tour of 1987) to promote their political agenda. Though membership remained small, its public profile and publication – Class War – gained a much larger circle (estimated to be in the thousands) of sympathetic supporters. By the early 1990s, Class War also engaged into anti-fascist activism in loose co-operation with Anti-Fascist Action.
As all this suggests, the far left changed significantly through the 1990s. Most importantly, the CPGB voted to dissolve itself in 1991, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union underpinning its decision. Already, in 1989, the influence of those writing in Marxism Today had led to The British Road to Socialism giving way to the Manifesto for New Times. The latter was criticised for its argument that the 1980s–90s had ushered in a new era of ‘post-fordism’ and its alleged deviation away from the centrality of class-based politics. Thereafter, a section of party reformers forged the Democratic Left as a left-wing pressure group/think-tank, while the title of the CPGB was eventually taken up by those around The Leninist. A Communist Party of Britain (CPB) had already been formed by party traditionalists in 1988, after the Morning Star divorced itself from the old CPGB but retained links to the trade union movement. As for Marxism Today, though undoubtedly an influential left-wing journal in the 1980s, it could not survive without the CPGB and closed in December 1991. Although some have accused Marxism Today and the Manifesto for New Times of helping to create New Labour, this is vehemently denied by its key writers, such as Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall.
The SWP fared rather better, retaining its membership levels as the CPGB declined. Indeed, the SWP was able to portray itself as a ready alternative – an independent and recognisable party with a widely read (in terms of the far left) newspaper and distinct ideology. The return of the ANL in response to the rise of the British National Party (BNP) also tapped into the heritage of the SWP and gave the party presence. Militant, on the other hand, was somewhat encumbered by the successes of the 1980s. An internal debate raged over whether the Labour Party still represented the interests of the working class and whether the opportunity had presented itself to break away and become an independent organisation. The Scottish wing of Militant parted ways with Labour in April 1991, while the 1991 congress saw a split in the main British party. The majority of Militant members, led by Peter Taaffe, favoured becoming an independent political party; the minority, led by Ted Grant and Alan Woods, chose to remain inside Labour. The majority thus formed Militant Labour, who continued to publish Militant; the minority formed the International Marxist Tendency. In 1997, Militant Labour became the Socialist Party of England and Wales (usually referred to as the Socialist Party, but not to be confused with the Socialist Party of Great Britain), the second largest organisation on the British left after the SWP. Militant became The Socialist.
As the far left realigned in the early 1990s, so the novelty of ‘New Labour’ and the desire to overturn eighteen years of Conservative rule made the Labour Party under Tony Blair an attractive option for many. By 1999, however, just two years after the landslide Labour election of 1997, such appeal began to fade as many drawn to Labour became disillusioned with a number of the government’s policies and actions. This disillusionment was exacerbated by two international events in 1999, which the far left endeavoured to capitalise on: the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Seattle and the Blair-backed NATO airstrikes in Kosovo.
The British left (primarily the SWP) campaigned against NATO airstrikes on Serbian forces in Kosovo, a military operation prominently co-ordinated by Tony Blair as part of a strategy of humanitarian intervention. Many on the left opposed NATO’s operations in the Balkans and viewed military intervention for humanitarian purposes as an oxymoron. But as the campaign also led to schisms. The SWP was accused of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, and the party’s embrace of (electoral) alliances with single issue pressure groups led also to concern that more sustainable party building was being neglected for short-term political point-scoring. Despite this, the ‘War on Terror’ and the anti-Muslim backlash that occurred in Britain saw the SWP further develop its strategy. The party was a key player in the anti-war movement that appeared after 11 September 2001. The Stop the War Coalition included the SWP’s John Rees and Lindsay German among its leadership (alongside representatives from Labour, the CPB and CND) and worked closely with the Muslim Association of Britain to develop a campaign against NATO involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Claiming to be Britain’s biggest mass movement ever14, Stop the War led a sustained campaign against the proposed invasion of Iraq and, in February 2003, over a million people marched in London to oppose military intervention in the Middle East.
The SWP further capitalised on this resentment by forming Respect and contested the 2005 general election on a progressive platform, focusing on those who opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as disillusioned Labour voters. For a left-wing party, Respect did well. Galloway won Bethnal Green and Salma Yaqoob narrowly missed out on a seat in Birmingham. Subsequent council elections saw Respect record victories in Birmingham and London. Somewhat predictably, however, tensions between SWP supporters in Respect and George Galloway, particularly over Galloway’s political style, led to a breakdown between the two groups. The SWP left Respect to form the Left List for the 2007 local elections, though proved unable to regain the footing it had in the early 2000s.
In some ways, the SWP’s policy of alliance and emphasis on single-issue politics has led to resentments similar to those felt within the CPGB by the mid-1970s. Despite protestations from the SWP leadership that membership figures remained healthy, the party has more recently been characterised by a series of splits, expulsions and resignations over issues of direction, organisation and procedure. As things stand, the Socialist Party remains the second largest far left organisation in Britain and has established itself to a certain degree within the trade union movement. But neither it nor any other party of the left can really claim to have taken advantage of the political vacuum opened up by the decline of New Labour or the schism within the SWP.
More importantly, perhaps, the global economic crisis would appear to contain much potential for the revolutionary left. The evident failure of neo-liberal capitalism has led many to take to the British streets in opposition to the austerity measures of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, not to mention the widespread anger at ‘the system’ displayed by the riots that broke out across Britain in August 2011. The revolutions across the Arab world, as well as the Occupy movement, suggest people remain willing to challenge the status quo. The current wave of political activism certainly seems more sustained and localised than that of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite this, the far left in Britain has to date seemed only to react to such protest. The left has in no way claimed the debate over the cause of the financial crisis, nor shown a leadership role in moving beyond it. The Occupy movement that made camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London was a space where the left had to tread carefully, with many involved wary about ‘Trots’ coming into the movement with notions of vanguardism. Similarly, if the left can claim a presence at demonstrations called against public sector cuts, pension policy and student fees, then these have tended to be mobilised by institutions such as the TUC or NUS rather than the clarion calls of the left.
The history of the far left in Britain suggests such limitations do not necessarily mean decline. Rather, the initiative – or impetus – tends to shift to different groups and different areas of struggle. One of the constant features of the British far left is its oscillation between periods of unbridled enthusiasm and periods of profound pessimism, both of which may be seen in the left’s current analysis of the prevailing socio-economic and political climate.
The need for a history of the British far left
The purpose of this collection is to explore the role of the far left in British history from the mid-1950s until the present. It is not supposed to be a straight forward and all-encompassing narrative of the left during this period. Rather, it hopes to highlight the impact made by the far left on British politics and society. Even if the parties themselves have not been successful in ushering in the socialist revolution, they have still had a profound effect upon the political landscape in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly through the social movements that emerged since the 1950s. The chapters in this collection, for the most part, do not concentrate on individual parties or groups, but look at wider left-wing movements such as Trotskyism, anti-revisionism and anarchism, or at those political and social issues where the left sought to stake its claim. Taken as a while, the collection should demonstrate the extent to – and ways in – which the far left has weaved its influence into the political fabric of Britain.
As editors of this collection, we hope that this book reveals new episodes in the history of the British far left. This collection cannot serve as a comprehensive history of the far left in Britain since the 1950s. At the very least, it hopes to encourage further research and point towards new sources relevant to the subject. We would, too, like to think that the collection will spark a dialogue amongst activists in the present era about the history of the far left over the last sixty years and how this impacts upon contemporary left-wing politics. As Karl Marx famously wrote, ‘the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’15
Thanks to Evan for giving us this excerpt. Please visit the site here to buy your copy of Against the Grain: The British Far Left From 1956.
2 E. Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, in M. Jacques & F. Mulhearn (eds), The Forward March of Labour Halted? (London: Verso, 1981), pp. 1–19. ↑
3 J. Callaghan, Cold war, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951–68 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2003), p. 185. ↑
4 Sedgwick, ‘Introduction’, in D. Widgery (ed.), The Left in Britain: 1956-1968 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 19. ↑
5 This leaflet was reproduced in Widgery (ed.), The Left in Britain, p. 349. ↑
6 W. Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920–91 (London: Pluto Press, 1992), p. 218. ↑
7 R. Seifert & T. Sibley, Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2012), p. 21. ↑
8 M. Shaw, ‘The Making of a Party? The International Socialists 1965–76’, Socialist Register (1978), 100–45; J. Higgins, More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP (London: IS Group, 1997). ↑
9 See D. John, Indian Workers’ Associations in Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 66–81; S. Josephides, ‘Organizational Splits and Political Ideology in the Indian Workers Associations’, in P. Werbner & M. Anwar (eds), Black and Ethnic Leaderships in Britain: The Cultural Dimension of Political Action (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 253–76; S. Richards, ‘Second Wave Anti-Revisionism in the UK’, Marxists Internet Archive http://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ uk.secondwave/2nd-wave/section13.htm (accessed 27 February, 2013). ↑
10 J. McIlroy, “‘Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned’: The Trotskyists and the Trade Unions’, in J. McIlroy, N. Fishman and A.Campbell (eds), British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics vol II, 285; P. Baberis, J. McHugh and M. Tyldesley (eds), Encyclopaedia of British and Irish Political Organisations (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), p. 167. ↑
11 M. Smith, ‘Where is the SWP Going?’, International Socialism, 2, 97 (Winter 2002), 43. ↑
12 P. Taaffe, The Rise of Militant: Militant’s 30 Years (London: Militant Publications, 1995), p. 279. ↑
13 B. Franks, Rebel Alliances: The Means and Ends of Contemporary British Anarchisms (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2006) p. 77. ↑
14 A. Murray & L. German, Stop the War: The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement (London: Bookmarks, 2005). ↑
15 K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1969), p. 15. ↑