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.

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.

Notes
1 T. Ali, The Coming British Revolution (London: Jonathan Cape, 1972) p. 10.
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.

106 comments on “Excerpt from ‘Against the Grain: The British Far Left From 1956’

  1. At 75 quid this book should be titled ‘Having A Laugh’ surely. How can such a steep price possibly justified? I would be interested to know what the publishers believe their market is for a book on the intricacies and particularism of the far left costing 75 quid.

  2. George Hallam on said:

    John: I would be interested to know what the publishers believe their market is for a book on the intricacies and particularism of the far left costing 75 quid.

    Just a wild guess, but could they be thinking of People who have both an interest in non-conformist groups and a big budget to spend? Security services perhaps?

  3. #1 £75’s the cheaper version!

    I think it will almost entirely be bought by university libraries to be honest.

    I’ll be waiting for a second hand copy I suspect. I predict I’ll find one for no more than a fiver in a charity shop in a couple of years.

  4. Jellytot on said:

    George Hallam: People who have both an interest in non-conformist groups and a big budget to spend? Security services perhaps?

    They’d know everything about these groups already 😉

    A lot of these academic books, not meant for the mass market, have high price tags. Probably to do with the economics of that part of the book trade.

  5. Jellytot: Probably to do with the economics of that part of the book trade.

    Precisely – the publishers reckon on library sales and a few review copies. Typically, if they manage to shift 200 hardbacks, the publisher might bring out a digitally-printed paperback for under £30.

    US academic publishers tend to price their books more reasonably, but they are counting on a significantly larger market.

  6. Francis King: the publisher might bring out a digitally-printed paperback for under £30.

    Which I look forward to picking up in a second hand shop for £1.

  7. Vanya: Which I look forward to picking up in a second hand shop for £1.

    Patience pays off in the academic book market. In a year or two journals will be offloading unwanted review copies into the “remainders” sections of bookshops…

    This title may well have a longer shelf life than many, though – its potential audience goes a bit beyond the purely academic market.

  8. As a contributor I can assure you that it is somewhat dispiriting to find the volume being sold at such a price. I write in order to be read, in the hope that a better knowledge of history may make a modest contribution to the understanding of activists. Unfortunately it didn’t prove possible to find a left publisher willing to produce the book at an affordable price. Many of the contributors to this volume are activists rather than merely academic observers. I do hope that copies percolate through to the second-hand market so that it can be read by the people it was aimed at. And if enough copies are ordered by (mainly academic) libraries and if there are some favourable reviews then there is a possibility that there will be a cheap paperback edition. If any SU readers can help with either ordering copies for libraries or getting reviews it would be much appreciated if they could do so.
    I can assure George Hallam (though I don’t suppose he’ll believe me) that I didn’t write my piece to help the security services. I doubt if I know anything they don’t – and if I did I wouldn’t tell them.

  9. The accounts of what happened to the CPGB don’t seem entirely accurate from my recollection.

    I thought the Leninist people remained in the CPGB until the very end, which is why they were able to pinch the historic name.

    While the people who supported the Morning Star were either expelled or left in disgust, initially forming the CGG, before forming the CPB along with those elements of the Straight Left group who had not joined the Labour Party. Straight Left being another group who, like those who formed the NCP, were unhappy with criticisms of the USSR such as over the crushing of the ‘Czech spring’. (Also another reason the NCP split occured was the Morning Star’s sympathetic coverage of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia).

    If I’ve got any of that wrong I welcome correction myself btw 🙂

  10. George Hallam on said:

    Ian Birchall: I can assure George Hallam (though I don’t suppose he’ll believe me) that I didn’t write my piece to help the security services.

    Thank you for your assurance but it is unnecessary. My comment was an attempt to answer a question about the publishers, not the authors.

    John: I would be interested to know what the publishers believe their market is for a book on the intricacies and particularism of the far left costing 75 quid.

  11. Vanya: I thought the Leninist people remained in the CPGB until the very end, which is why they were able to pinch the historic name.

    There were hardly any of them. Their leaders were not readmitted to the CPGB from the NCP, they had a handful of acolytes, mainly in the YCL, and for a while in the mid-1980s they seemed to control one moribund party branch in NW London (“Temple Fortune”, IIRC), judging by the motions it put forward to congresses. For the most part its members were to be found standing outside CPGB congresses hawking papers rather than within them arguing their corner. They were in effect a separate party attempting entrism within the CPGB, but doing so in a way which was guaranteed to ensure they had neither allies nor weight within the host organisation. How many people they had in the CPGB by the end of 1991 is hard to say – it may have reached double figures – but they played no part in its internal life. They picked up the name at the end of 1991 because it had been left lying around and nobody else wanted it.

  12. Francis King,

    I seem to remember they once ‘occupied’ the main meeting room of St John’s Street- with an attendant Sky News team.

    I prefer their role nowadays as a gossipy snide Private Eye of the extreme left, because, let’s face, it even for left wing train-spotters The Leninist was unreadable.

  13. Pingback: Socialist Unity publishes excerpt from ‘Against the Grain’ | Hatful of History

  14. Pete Shield,

    They did, around 1990 or so. Unfortunately I wasn’t at work that day, so I missed the fun… I think the idea was to get the party leaders to call the police, so that they could be denounced as class traitors. This was a favorite stunt of theirs. They did much the same thing at a Hackney YCL meeting in someone’s house in the early 1980s, turning up en masse (relatively speaking) and provoking the person concerned to call the police. This incident was then exaggerated and mythologised in their press for months afterwards.

  15. Pete Shield: even for left wing train-spotters The Leninist was unreadable.

    Did you ever see the other 1980s split from the NCP, “Proletarian”? They made “The Leninist” seem positively sophisticated.

  16. Francis King,

    Geoff Andrews says it was in August 1990 as a ‘bizarre mini replica’ of the coup in the Soviet Union to overthrow Gorbachev. Francis Beckett claims that they also picketed the 1991 CPGB Congress and ran four candidates in the 1992 election.

  17. Francis King,

    I was there- St John’s Street- just couldn’t remember the year. It was all a bit farcical as once they got in they didn’t really know what to do- so I gave them old copies of Marxism Today to tear up and asked them if they could give the bust of Karl Marx a polish as it was getting a bit dusty.
    After few hours or so they got bored, and wandered away- one had his dad waiting outside in his BMW to give him a lift home.

  18. A serious and elementary gaffe in the text offered is the entirely fallacious suggestion that Lawrence Daly joined the Healyites. This would seem to be a conflation of Daly’s Fife Socialist League with the Socialist Labour League. If such a basic misreading of the emergence of the post-Hungary New Left can be presented in the introduction, it poses major questions about the reliability of the entire book.

  19. Evan: Francis Beckett claims that they also picketed the 1991 CPGB Congress

    That’s the point – they were outside, “picketing” (all 6 or so of them) rather than inside, making their case as elected delegates.

  20. …and they were much less popular than Nikki Pearce, who also used to stand outside CPGB congresses giving away copies of her little book “God Loves Communists Too”. Everybody liked her…

  21. For anyone interested in the last Congress of the CPGB (1991), Channel 4? did a short documentary (which I can hardly bare to watch) following some of the delegates, some notably from Scotland. Many of these Scots wanted to retain a CP and created the CP Scotland after Democratic Left was formed. It was another great tragedy that the CPB & CPS didn’t manage to find common ground in the early years of the 90’s, the CPS don’t seem to function anymore due to age, whereas the CPB Scotland & YCL are rebuilding http://www.scottishcommunists.org.uk/ & http://youngcommunistleaguescotland.wordpress.com/
    The eagle-eyed amongst you will see a young Mark Fischer of the Weekly Worker shouting and bawling at Congress delegates from the pavement – so nothing much seems to have changed in his political career other than he does it from the comfort of a keyboard!

    The End of the Party
    Part 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbZeqwFxaQw
    Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKOCLXObLUY
    Part 3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilwwnJ56EVc

  22. Feodor on said:

    Francis King: Nikki Pearce … used to stand outside CPGB congresses giving away copies of her little book “God Loves Communists Too”.

    You ever read her book Francis?

    Is on Amazon for a penny, plus p&p of course. Tempted to get a copy. Might make a bit of fun bedtime reading…!?

  23. BigTam: A serious and elementary gaffe in the text offered is the entirely fallacious suggestion that Lawrence Daly joined the Healyites.

    Is this a confusion with John Lawrence?

  24. BigTam: A serious and elementary gaffe in the text offered is the entirely fallacious suggestion that Lawrence Daly joined the Healyites.

    From David North: Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HvND7IRiCEkC&pg=PA115&lpg=PA115&dq=lawrence+daly+healy&source=bl&ots=J8c-oHdksm&sig=cYyJBiozfzpdbjv1WWBzZy0qXj8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5VlGVOj2I6Wr7Abm7YHICg&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=lawrence%20daly%20healy&f=false
    “Daly was among those with whom Healy had held intensive discussions after the Khrushchev revelations of 1956. For a period thereafter, Daly had indicated some interest in the development of a revolutionary tendency inside the trade unions and even spoke on the platform of the Newsletter conference organized by Healy in 1957.”
    So not quite such a “serious and elementary gaffe”. While it would appear Daly did not actually join Healy’s Club (the SLL wasn’t formed till 1959) he was associated with the Healy group and spoke on its platform. There was very considerable ferment and to-and-froing in the immediate aftermath of 1956, and many, like Daly, discussed with Healy for a while before deciding, very wisely, not to pursue the relationship.

  25. BigTam on said:

    I think Ian needs to look more closely at his source. Leaving aside the egregious North himself, this quote is set in a context of Daly allegedly meeting up with Healy as an acquaintance from the Communist Party in the ’30s. Daly was famously precocious but, given that Healy was out of the CP by 1937 and Daly was born in October 1924, that would have been going some! This is propped up with a purported dialogue between the two which would degrade a bad remake of On The Waterfront. The whole piece reeks of fantasy, whether originated by North or recycled from ‘hard man’ Healy. As Ian knows, appearance on a Newsletter platform did not by any means equate with Healyite membership: by such reasoning, Reg Birch would have been marked down as an IS member in the ’60s. The allegation against Daly in the introduction presented above remains simply unsustainable.

  26. David Hillman on said:

    Reg Birch also wrote the forword to the IS pamphlet “Productivity deals – The employers offensive” though he was never a Trotskyite.

  27. BigTam originally claimed that it was a “serious and elementary gaffe” to say that Daly had been a member of the Healy organisation, and surmised that the editors must have been confusing the Fife Socialist League with the SLL. I quoted North to show that there seems to be some evidence that Daly did have contacts with Healy for a while and appeared on his platform. BigTam does not deny this.
    I do not endorse the whole of North’s account – his claim that Daly settled for “an opportunist career in the NUM bureaucracy” is a gross ultra-left simplification of Daly’s role in, for example, the VSC and the later miners’ strikes.
    I in fact accepted that it was a mistake to say that Daly had been a member of the Healy organisation. We should be grateful to BigTam for pointing this out.
    As I said, the movements of individuals in the post 1956 period were complex and difficult to trace, and I know of no authoritative reference source. There is nothing comparable to the French Maitron which enables one to trace the movements of all individuals involved in the movement. (And I’m sure there are mistakes in the Maitron).
    What I am puzzled by is BigTam’s eagerness to move on from correcting one error to suggesting the whole book is unreliable. If every book that contained a mistake were committed to the flames, we should not have much reading matter left. The book consists of a number of essays by different authors – why we should all be seen as unreliable because there is a small mistake in the introduction I don’t know. Or do we have to wait until BigTam publishes his memoirs?

  28. “What I am puzzled by is BigTam’s eagerness to move on from correcting one error to suggesting the whole book is unreliable.”

    I would have thought that during your research into the far left the answer to this question would be obvious!

    While there have been momentous economic/demographic/cultural shifts that mean the left need to re-align the movement, the new information technology (e.g. Internet) presents an opportunity for the left to make new ground.

    We should also be advocating to all our colleagues, friends and families such media outlets as RT, which is a invaluable tool to see a more rounded picture of what is going on. Before RT and such news channels the only information people had was from the BBC! Thank the lord for RT.

  29. I never knew there was any association between IS and the CPB ML in any context at all other than reading somewhere that John Ross had been a member of both before joining the IMG (which may of course be nonsense).

  30. marko,

    Not to disrupt this discussion on the history of the far left any more than one comment, but in the eternal words of John McEnroe, ‘You cannot…’ I know, over used.

    I happened to flick on RT News this morning for a few minutes. The financial news was on with Max Keiser, the Keiser Report no less. Speaking of the current rise in property prices in London which is indeed making buying a house an impossibility for all but the rich (or even the very rich in swathes of the capital), he said – and this is more or less word for word – ‘A holocaust is being perpetrated on a whole generation by Osborne and Cameron, the same as happened in the 1930s’. Run that one past me again Max. People not being able to buy a house (of course a historic trend) is equivalent to them being rounded up and annihilated by the million.

    Last word on the appalling RT.

  31. BigTam on said:

    Firstly, the misidentification of Lawrence Daly as a Healyite recruit IS a serious and elementary gaffe which should have been picked up in any competent peer review. Given the editors’ expressed desire for further comment, I would have thought it would be better that it be flagged up in this format rather than in a major public review.
    Secondly, given the ambition of the editors to present “an overview of the British far left from 1956”, such a gaffe inevitably raises questions about whether similar lapses occur elsewhere in the volume.
    Thirdly, I think that Ian might have made clear that he is in fact a contributor to the volume in question. Does this explain why he seems intent on offering to this discussion more red herrings than a Marxist fishwife holding a fire sale?
    Fourthly, while I have no desire to query Ian’s erudition, he himself does not encourage confidence by citing a source whose account of a purported encounter between Daly and Healy is an obvious and preposterous fabrication, even to anyone who never met either man.
    And fifthly and finally, identifying this gaffe has nothing to do with “committing to the flames” books wherein errors may be found: it is about setting straight the record. The implication of this phrase is obvious, odious and quite unworthy of you and your record, Ian.

  32. George Hallam on said:

    Sam64: I happened to flick on RT News this morning for a few minutes. The financial news was on with Max Keiser, the Keiser Report no less. Speaking of the current rise in property prices in London which is indeed making buying a house an impossibility for all but the rich (or even the very rich in swathes of the capital), he said – and this is more or less word for word – ‘A holocaust is being perpetrated on a whole generation by Osborne and Cameron, the same as happened in the 1930s’. Run that one past me again Max. People not being able to buy a house (of course a historic trend) is equivalent to them being rounded up and annihilated by the million.

    Where is multiculturalism when you need it?
    In our culture exaggeration tends to be frowned on. In this context the reference to the Holocaust was in the worst possible taste.
    But Max is an American. So you need to assess his comments in the context of American culture. In Max’s culture exaggeration, even extreme exaggeration, is accepted and allowed for.

    Failure to make allowance for such difference can lead to miscommunication.

    For example, in the battle of the the Imjin River the 1st Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment (650 fighting men), tried to stop an entire Chinese division – (possibly as many as 10,000 men). The Chinese attackedat midnight Sunday 22nd April 1951.The Glosters resisted but by Tuesday they were running out of ammunition. Relief never came and the surviving Glosters were forced to surrender on Wednesday.

    A debate rages to this day over whether the Glosters could have been pulled out or relieved sooner. Cultural differences were a factor in the confusion.

    “On Tuesday afternoon, an American, Maj-Gen Robert H Soule, asked the British brigadier, Thomas Brodie: “How are the Glosters doing?” The brigadier, schooled in British understatement, replied: “A bit sticky, things are pretty sticky down there.” To American ears, this did not sound too desperate.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1316777/The-day-650-Glosters-faced-10000-Chinese.html

  33. I did make clear that I am a contributor to the volume at #8 above.
    I am not sure why BigTam is getting so excited. If there is a mistake in the volume it is good that it should be pointed out. I have no vested interest in the volume – if there are other mistakes they should also be pointed out.
    But what is the nature of this mistake? Whether or not there are other errors in North’s account BigTam does not seem to actually deny that Daly may have been in discussions with Healy in the aftermath of 1956. As I have already pointed out there was much toing-and-froing in this period.
    What does surprise me is that at #28 BigTam refers to this as an “allegation against Daly”. I would not have thought there was anything whatsoever discreditable about having connections with the Healy group in this period. The group contained some very fine socialists, such as Peter Fryer and Brian Pearce; the Newsletter and Labour Review were very good publications. One might have disagreements with their analysis, but they were a far cry from the degenerate WRP of the 1980s.
    The phrase about committing to the flames which seems to have so irritated BigTam is a quotation from the distinguished Scottish philosopher David Hume.
    However, I really do not feel this kind of argument achieves anything; I have better things to do with my time.

  34. Vanya: I never knew there was any association between IS and the CPB ML in any context at all other than reading somewhere that John Ross had been a member of both before joining the IMG (which may of course be nonsense).

    There was never any connection between the IS and the CPBML. Birch wrote the preface to the pamphlet on incomes policy by Cliff and Colin Barker at a time when he was breaking with the CP and looking for new friends, but well before the formation of the CPBML. The pamphlet was published by the London Shop Stewards Defence Committee, which I suppose it would be fair to say was an IS front, but did involve other people (including the Militant). Birch’s preface was not uncritical.
    John Ross was a member of IS briefly before going to the IMG. This was c 1969-70, when he was a student, so if he had previously been a member of the CPBML it must have been when he was very young, perhaps as a school student.

  35. George Hallam,

    Ahh, said I wouldn’t, can’t help it… Max was interviewing what sounded like another American at the time who was clearly embarrassed by the grotesque comparison, although he seemed to agree with some of Max’s points about the precarious nature of financial capitalism. In the maybe 5 minutes I watched, Max also opined that British house owners spend their rise of £480 a day in the equity of their property ‘drinking, falling over and then defecating’ – because that’s what all British people do.

    As a Londoner and perhaps a house owner, I wouldn’t expect for a moment you ‘ll be offended by that, I just trust you’ll conclude Max is an idiot.

  36. As one of the editors of this book, thank you for pointing out the error concerning Lawrence Daly. Although the introduction was read by several different people before publication, sometimes error slip into the final version. We hope that this small mistake does not deter people from reading the book further as there are some excellent contributions included.

  37. Feodor,

    Nikki Pearce’s book is pretty standard evangelical Christian fare. Unfortunately, she hadn’t done very much in the CP before she “saw the light”. Douglas Hyde she wasn’t. But she would always chat with anyone who stopped to talk with her, and took all the jokes directed at her with good humour. She was part of the cultural landscape of the old CP in London, so to speak.

    Andy Newman,

    No. Present day “Proletarian” is almost certainly CPGB(ML). The 1980s offering was 2 thick journals of impenetrable text, all just 1 article. No. 1 IIRC dealt with “Economism, Tailism and the New Communist Party”. Its argument seemed to be that the communist movement in Britain had to follow exactly all developmental stages of the RSDRP(b), and we were probably at the 1912 stage at that time. Or something. I think there were 4 of them, they all lived in Lambeth, and through the CND and AAM I had the unmissable privilege of meeting all of them. They split after a while…

  38. A bit of additional information. Labour Review (the – excellent – theoretical journal of the Healy group) contains in Vol 2 No 6 (Nov-Dec 1957) a “communication” from Lawrence Daly. See http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/lr/
    Unfortunately the text of this communication is not on-line – and of course it may be a stinging denunciation of Healy. But it does seem to confirm that there was some sort of dialogue between Daly and the Healy group. I will try and dig this issue of LR out when I am in the British Library.

  39. Evan,
    Evan – many thanks for this graceful acknowledgement, which does much to encourage considered evaluation of the volume as a whole. I wish it well.
    Ian – you did identify yourself as a contributor – my apologies, and fair play to you for that. As for the implication of a predilection for book-burning, disguised under an unattributed quote (or paraphrase, to be more accurate) of David Hume – well, thanks. That covers you, then, and we jocks had never heard of the fella till you pointed him out. But what, to continue the analogy, has this whole issue got to do with experimental or abstract reasoning? Harry McShane would have had stern (but wise and kindly) words with you about such sloppy coat-trailing.
    I see from your most recent contribution that you’re still flogging this as an issue of Daly engaging in dialogue with the Healyites – it’s not: it’s about the inaccurate allegation that he joined them. I thought you had “better things to do with your time” – stop digging.

  40. I’m still interested in this suggestion that Reg Birch was a member of the IS.

    Was it something to do with state capitalism?

  41. Vanya,

    Vanya, I suspect you’re trying to be funny, but just in case you’re serious:

    Birch was never a member of IS. That is a fact, no question. I was there. Birch fell out with the CP – I think probably partly because they were going to back Scanlon rather than run Birch in the AEU election. At this stage I don’t think he was a fully developed Maoist. In any case he could have been in no doubt as to our position on China – it had been set out very clearly in articles by Cliff and Nigel Harris. But he thought the Cliff/Barker pamphlet was a valuable contribution and well-researched – which it was. However, in his introduction he did criticise aspects of the pamphlet saying: “I do not accept that the extension of shop stewards’ organisations, their increase in number, will automatically lead to the development of a Socialist movement. There needs to be politics – working class politics.”
    Birch was a highly respected militant, and the fact that his name was on the cover undoubtedly increased sales among militants in the AEU. We were using him – but he was no fool and doubtless realised what was going on and was, for the moment, prepared to go along with us. It didn’t last long.
    Podmore’s biography of Birch, a very dishonest work, sheds no light whatsoever on this episode.

  42. Podmore’s biography of Birch says:

    “In reaction to the CPGB’s decay, some were attracted to various brands of Trotskyism. Reg strongly opposed this. in his introduction to a 1966 pamphlet, ‘Incomes Policy, Legislation and shop Stewards’, he criticised the politics proposed by its Trotskyist authors, Tony Cliff and Colin Barker…”

  43. #45 & 46 Of course it does depend on what is meant by, ‘sheds no light’.

    So at what stage did he become a, ‘fully fledged Maoist’?

    Did pro-China elements remain in the CPGB after the CDRCU split, and was he connected to them?

  44. Francis King,

    Proletarian, 1980s version, was a tiny cult whose point of honour and Shibboleth was that the CPSU as led by Brezhnev, Andropov and (possibly) Chernenko was the most advanced revolutionary force on the planet. This was based on their discovery that some of the works produced by Progress Publishers were on a higher theoretical level than the writings of Sid French. Their second issue applied the late-Soviet theory of ‘revolutionary democracy’ to Ireland. Whether Sinn Fein appreciated the compliment of being compared to the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan is lost to history.

    I knew a young guy who was a member. He invited me to a day school they had called to discuss, if I recall correctly, the booklet What is Scientific Communism? by Leonid Seleznev and Vladimir Fetisov (Progress, Moscow, 1983). Out of idle curiosity I went along. I don’t know what the other thirty or so attendees were there for but I was struck by the absence of lively political discussion in the lunch break. Then again, once you’ve risen to the level of the political thought of Konstantin Chernenko there’s little left to discuss.

    It’s fascinating to speculate how they would have reacted to Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, but by the time these policies had got seriously under way the grouplet had not so much split as disintegrated. Its leader, who wrote and edited the journal (noted for the issue-long article and the page-long paragraph) disappeared from political life after his partner revealed that he’d been battering her for years. She was a strong woman who remained active politically and academically but I don’t know what became of her.

  45. Vanya,

    I’m pretty sure there were pro-China elements in the CPGB after McCreery’s lot left in 1963 and most probably left with Birch in 1967, but Lawrence Parker’s work would shed the most light on this subject.

  46. No mention of the Socialist Labour Party?
    The CPGB (M-L) has already been mentioned, but what about these guys? Does anyone know anything about them?

    http://www.rcpbml.org.uk/

    http://www.stalinsociety.org.uk/

    The RCG is another group that has had some successes, I first came across them on a demo outside South Africa House back in 1982, and worked on their brilliant paper Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! for a while. We have remained firm friends since. Their contribution was critical in ensuring the success of the 1986-1990 non stop picket calling for Nelson Mandela’s release. They are still very much around and active especially in grass roots campaigns, the latest being the Focus E15 Mothers.

    http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/

    https://nonstopagainstapartheid.wordpress.com/

  47. red snapper,

    Yes, the RCG is important and we are hoping that any secondary volume will have a piece on the group. Alongside the City Group anti-apartheid picket (brilliantly described at Gavin’s blog, Non-Stop Against Apartheid), the RCG were also heavily involved in anti-deportation campaigns, such as those of Anwar Ditta and Viraj Mendis.

    The other offshoot from the RCT was, of course, the Revolutionary Communist Party, which became Living Marxism and now Spiked! Someone needs to write something about these folk!

  48. David Hillman on said:

    Evan,
    I think that the Birch group were not essentially pro-China, except almost accidently and tactically, rather they were anti-revisionist: that is against the Parlimentary emphasis of “The British Road to Socialism”, against subordinating possible mass action to the needs of leftist reformists, against Eurocommunism (which had come to terms with the EEC and NATO), against the “Social Contract”, and against what they saw as the corporatist aspects of Bennism. This did not mean a rejection of tactical alliances with Labour politicians, or a total lack of appreciation of the intellectual contributions of such as Hobsbawn, but it did mean an emphasis, almost syndicalist, on independent mass workers struggles. In contrast to IS they did not judge that all liberation movements including Ho Chi Minhs would end up as Stalinist bureaucracies. Indeed they tried to justify the career of Joseph Stalin. Based originally around industrial workers, they found most of their following to be hard-working idealistic students, and their politics degenerated when their national line was insufficiently differentiated from chauvinism. They were isolated at the time in characterising Wilson’s and Healey’s (even Benn;s) policies as corporatist – but others looking back now use this term. They did not have any real loyalty to any particular faction in Mao’s China, though they did misunderstand the admittedly complicated Cultural Revolution as in some way a mass movement.

  49. David Hillman: though they did misunderstand the admittedly complicated Cultural Revolution as in some way a mass movement.

    I’ve just finished reading Alan Badiou’s ‘Communist Hypothesis’ in which he also asserts the mass mobilisation character of the Cultural Revolution, designed to resist the creeping conservatism and bourgeoisification within the party. He describes the Great Leap Forward as the catalyst for the eruption of pre-existing contradictions that were present between the masses and the party, rather than the cause of a leadership struggle with the Red Guards mobilised by Mao in the course of said struggle.

    It was, in his analysis, an attempt to ‘relaunch the revolution’ by revolutionary students who were free of the conservatism associated with the status quo. It failed, he asserts, because of the “impossibility truly and globally to free politics from the framework of the party-state that imprisons it”.

    It’s an interesting analysis, not one I necessarily agree with, but certainly a departure from the conventional interpretation of this seismic event.

  50. David Hillman,

    Yes, the CPBML weren’t really Maoist but anti-revisionist, although they were enthusiastic about China in the beginning. Birch visited China in 1967 before forming the CPBML and made good contacts with Zhou En Lai (I think). Before the Sino-Albania split, I think the CPBML boasted about having fraternal relations with both countries, but they favoured Hoxha’s regime after the split. But unlike most Western Maoist groups, the CPBML rejected ‘Third Worldism’ and became very ‘Britain’ focussed – as you mention, crossing the line into nationalism and xenophobia.

  51. John: It’s an interesting analysis, not one I necessarily agree with, but certainly a departure from the conventional interpretation of this seismic event.

    I thoroughly recommend in the same spirit, Mobo Goa’s “The Battle for china’s Past”, which not only makes a spirited defence of Mao, but also discusses the contested nature of perceptions of the GPCR in China today

    Mobo’s book is available as a PDF: http://www.strongwindpress.com/pdfs/EBook/The_Battle_for_Chinas_Past.pdf

    Related to the economics of the Great Leap Forwand and the GPCR, there is a discussion of the period in Justin Lin’s thoroughly brilliant book “Demystifying China’s economy”.

  52. David Hillman on said:

    Andy Newman,

    Thanks Andy, I am reading this when I should be doing something else. I did not realise that in the beginning that the intellectuals sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants were largely volunteers. I do know that speaking to Chinese friends they have told me, with no apparent axe to grind, that their parents were well treated by the local peasants who would not let them carry heavy loads cos they weren’t used to it.

  53. David Hillman: I do know that speaking to Chinese friends they have told me, with no apparent axe to grind, that their parents were well treated by the local peasants who would not let them carry heavy loads cos they weren’t used to it.

    The interesting point that Mobo makes is that perceptions of the GPCR are often related to the class position of those expereincing it.

    For urban intellectuals, many of whom may have been educated oversees, being precipitated into the rural hinterland as a personal catastrophe; and there was genuinely a lost generation in acadmic life. That point of view is valid, but it has – according to mainstream thought in China, including party members – become the only valid perspective.

    From the point of view of the rural poor, the period was experienced as dynamic and exciting, and a period where living standards improved.

  54. I am suprised that there has been little comment on Evan’s opening contention that:

    >

    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.

    Whilst this claim may be supportable in a few isolated instances; the broad sweep of history of the post war period might suggest that the organised far left has mostly been irrelevent?

  55. Andy Newman: Whilst this claim may be supportable in a few isolated instances; the broad sweep of history of the post war period might suggest that the organised far left has mostly been irrelevent?

    This seems to be the fallback position of the far left when faced with the reality of their inability to achieve any traction electorally. The claim made by adherents of Stop the War falls into this category – i.e. that the antiwar movement shaped public opinion, forcing Blair’s resignation in 2007 and last year’s No vote in the parliamentary debate on military action against Syria.

    In a sense they have to take this position in order to justify their existence politically, not to mention the years wasted in micro organisations waiting for the revolution to arrive. Not that I mean to dismiss them. Some on the far left are undoubtedly serious thinkers and activists, whose commitment to class struggle is eminently commendable. It’s the refusal to break with ideological purity that is the abiding weakness of the far left in my experience, responsible for reducing their role in British political life to the pages of a 75 quid book that if lucky will be read by very few people.

  56. Duncan on said:

    No mention of the Socialist Alliance, which I thought was an odd omission given that much smaller groups are covered.

  57. George Hallam on said:

    John: It’s the refusal to break with ideological purity that is the abiding weakness of the far left in my experience, responsible for reducing their role in British political life to the pages of a 75 quid book that if lucky will be read by very few people.

    The root cause of their weakness is not so much a refusal to break with ideological purity; it’s the refusal to engage with the reality that is the real stumbling block. And that refusal to engage is by no means a failing confined to the far left.

  58. Alan Ji on said:

    BigTam,

    I knew that though the episode was all over long before I needed to know what Trotskyite fringe groups were up to.

  59. Alan Ji on said:

    red snapper,

    The RCG & RCP developed around a fella called David Yaffe (maybe Jaffe) in the late 1970s & early 1980s. Since they made no headway in the trade unions or student unions and didn’t practice entrism in the Labour Party, nobody except the Anti-Apartheid Movement had to find them a nuisance.

  60. John: The claim made by adherents of Stop the War falls into this category – i.e. that the antiwar movement shaped public opinion, forcing Blair’s resignation in 2007 and last year’s No vote in the parliamentary debate on military action against Syria.

    Yes, and let us also remember that the anti-war movement in its broadest sense also included the Daily Mirror, the Lib Dems, dozens of Labour MPs, and most trade unions.

    I am certainly not minimising the importance of the grass roots activism that I know that both you and I were involved in (in different countries!) , and speaking for my own case, my commmitment to that cause was informed by the politics I held at that time; and regarding the issues of war and Empire, my views have not significantly changed.

    had the far left groups not existed, then who is to say that grass roots activism would not still have happened, and a more spontaneous campaign may have been able to sustain a broader campaign longer without some of the plastic Lenins

  61. I’m sorely tempted – although the price-tag means it will have to wait because I’ll need to save up for it. It will also have to take it’s place in the queue: the next book I intend to buy is Towards a Science of Belief Systems by Edmund Griffiths (Palgrave Macmillan), which has just come out.

    Like Against the Grain, it too has a fairly unappealing price to volume ratio.

    http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/towards-a-science-of-belief-systems-edmund-griffiths/?K=9781137346360

    There is a review on the C.C.S. website http://communistcorrespondingsociety.org/beliefsystems.html

    As far as I can work out, it outlines a methodology for understanding why people believe the things they do and for understanding how it feels to hold those beliefs. So it may well provide some tools for understanding the far Left (as well as other currents of opinion)…

  62. I suppose everyone will be familiar with John Callaghan’s 1987 book, the Far Left in British Politics. That’s very readable, seems fair, and is as much as I, or most people, need to know. I’m suppose most who were deeply involved will have their quibbles, but it seems good enough for anyone but serious historians. I guess this new book is aimed at the latter. For the average Joe, coverage of the last 25 years since Callaghan’s book could maybe be boiled down to a short cheap pamphlet.

  63. When I was a teenager I had a copy of David Widgery’s The Far Left in Britain., which iirc also began with 1956.

    It was an informative and interesting read but spoiled slightly by its pro IS/SWP bias, ameliorated by Widgery not being a sectarian hack and having a lively style and an obvious sense of humour.

  64. Andy Newman,

    I wrote about this recently here: http://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2014/09/02/what-have-the-trotskyists-ever-done-for-us/. And I wrote:

    Here is a very quick list of areas of British politics that Trotskyists have had a significant part in:

    Fight against Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement in late 1940s
    Critique of Soviet Union while not (or rarely) indulging in anti-communism
    Significant part in campaign against Vietnam War
    Establishment of Rock Against Racism and Anti-Nazi League
    Resistance to Thatcherite policies by Liverpool City Council in 1980s
    Significant part in anti-Poll Tax movement
    Leading role in Stop the War campaign

    Now I’m sure we can all think of incidents where Trotskyists have behaved poorly, but we cannot dismiss their impact outright.

    Now that was specifically the Trotskyist groups, but I’m sure most of us would agree that the CPGB also had a significant impact upon the trade union and various social movements, including the LCDTU, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the peace movement, the anti-colonial struggle, the fight against fascism (esp the 1930s-60s), the 1972 strikes, etc.

  65. #66 Remembering Widgery’s book made me realise that another group missing from tha account above is this lot:

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Flame_(political_group)

    Wonder if that was because they weren’t considered that significant. I don’t endorse their politics particularly but from the number of ex members I’ve come accross I suspect at least in far left terms that they were.

  66. Vanya,

    Widgery’s book was great, but only covered the period from 1956 to 1968. It also was mainly primary documents, rather than analysis. And the CPGB allegedly refused any of their stuff to be included in the book.

    Here is Ken Coates review of it from Socialist Register in 1977:
    http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5396#.VEjGaufTKb8

    And here’s Martin Shaw’s verdict from IS (first series):
    https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1976/no087/shaw.htm

  67. Phil BC on said:

    jock mctrousers:
    I suppose everyone will be familiar with John Callaghan’s 1987 book, the Far Left inBritish Politics.That’s very readable, seems fair, and is as much as I, or most people, need to know.I’m suppose most who were deeply involved will have their quibbles, but it seems good enough for anyone but serious historians.I guess this new book is aimed at the latter.For the average Joe, coverage of the last25 years since Callaghan’s book could maybe be boiled down to a short cheap pamphlet.

    My contribution to the volume looks specifically at the development of the SP and SWP after 1987, among other things.

  68. John Edwards on said:

    I think David Yaffe started in the SPGB then did entry work in IS with the intention of setting up his own group. The RCG were very pro-IRA publishing a journal called Hands Off Ireland and regarded everyone else as petty bourgeois opportunists (or something similar). Yaffe himself got very exercised about defending the labour theory of value (or criticising it, I forget which).

  69. John Edwards on said:

    Vanya,

    I remember Widgery’s book contained some quite interesting material and he was a good writer. However, it received a withering review from Ken Coates in the Socialist Register for an extraordinary number of inaccuracies. I hope this book contains fewer.

  70. #73 Thanks for that. It doesn’t seem to explain why (if this is the case) there’s no reference to them at all though.

  71. #75 Thanks. I didn’t know about that. Do you have a link or reference?

    #74 If that’s true about Yaafe’s origins it explains a lot.

    Btw someone once told me he sounded like Frank Sidebottom. What do others think?

  72. Jellytot on said:

    Vanya: It was an informative and interesting read but spoiled slightly by its pro IS/SWP bias, ameliorated by Widgery not being a sectarian hack and having a lively style and an obvious sense of humour.

    His book on the RAR/ANL called “Beating Time” was hated by the SWP top tier when it was published and got sniffy reviews. I don’t know why as I thought it was rather good. Maybe because it didn’t credit the SWP enough??

    He also published a book about his time as an East End doctor called “Some Lives” which is also worth reading.

  73. Evan,

    My review was not a reply to Pat Stack – I don’t think I’d read Pat’s piece when I wrote it, but an attempt at a balanced assessment. Whether I succeeded is for others to judge. My review is at
    https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1986/xx/beatingtime.html
    Widgery replied defending his book:
    http://www.marxists.org/archive/widgery/1987/xx/beatingtime.html
    I have always relished the description of myself (Footnote 6) as a “sniffer dog of orthodox Trotskyism” and at one time considered having it put on my gravestone.
    It is interesting to note that at that time it was possible to have a debate in International Socialism that was both vigorous and good-humoured. It wouldn’t happen under the present management.

  74. Given that I haven’t read Beating Time, perhaps I shouldn’t say anything about Pat Stack’s review of it.

    The problem is that it’s so awful and contradicts so much my own experience of the period 1977-80 as a 14-17 year old that I find it difficult not to.

    One general point I would make is that it is another clear piece of evidence that the more a trotskyist group bang on about anti-stalinism the more of a stalinist culture they replicate.

  75. It seems to me that the more isolated an ostensibly socialist organisation is from the daily lives of working class people, the more grotesque, conservative and authoritarian it’s political/organisational practice.

  76. robert p. williams on said:

    #84 I agree, but the Labour Party doesn’t call itself socialist anyway and they would be horrified to think that the ‘socialist’ label was being used for them.

    There are still a few activists left in the Labour Party who think of themselves as socialists, I’m sure they will feel uncomfortable at the next election as they fight for the anti-immigration policies that red-ed is pushing as a so-called ‘alternative’ to UKIP and the tories.

  77. #85 ‘…but the Labour Party doesn’t call itself socialist anyway…’

    ‘The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party…’ (Clause 4, Labour Party Constitution).

  78. Uncle Albert on said:

    John,

    That’s an example of sound political judgement. She has the sense to abandon the ship before it hits the rocks.

  79. robert p. williams on 24 October, 2014 at 8:49 pm said:

    #84 I agree, but the Labour Party doesn’t call itself socialist anyway and they would be horrified to think that the ‘socialist’ label was being used for them.

    I wasn’t thinking of the Labour Party – that’s been a dead loss for a long time – but organisations outside it.

  80. #65 – wouldn’t be too sure about the Revolutionary Cabbage Patch Kids eschewal of entrism. The Jim Murphy whose overthrow of Johann Lamont has just been achieved used to be found selling Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism on the streets of Glasgow as he pursued his seamless career of student union bureaucracy to uber-Blairite Cabinet Minister.

  81. Back on subject. The excerpt above includes this bizarre passage:
    “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.”

    This woeful passage fails to get to grips with the interplay of forces in the working class movement and the Communist Party in this period.

    The party (and the Morning Star) campaigned powerfully against the ‘Social Contract’ to the point of sharply disagreeing with some of its allies in the leadership of trade unions. This disagreement was not simply between a betrayed ‘rank and file’ and an homogenous union leadership but ran right through the trade union movement up to the leadership.

    Opposition to such class collaboration came from factory and workplace based organisations, industry wide ‘unofficial’ bodies, as well as ‘official’ union structures at district and branch level and was backed up by key sections of the leadership.

    The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, which brought together sections of the ‘official’ movement with the actually existing ‘rank and file’ structures was one expression of this multi faceted strategy.

    This strategy was opposed often in words if not in concrete actions by such trotskyite organisations that had the means to send delegates to its conferences.

    I recollect one bizarre confrontation between, on one side, a group of SWPers arguing for their ‘rank and file’ approach and on the other, the communist leaders of the sheet metal workers, constructional engineers and furniture workers unions and the communist leaders of the ‘unofficial’ building workers, power industry and bus workers in which the latter group were, rhetorically, denied their status as genuine rank and filers because they agreed with their ‘official’ comrades.
    Rank and fileism for these SWPers seemed to be a psychological state and a subjective category not an objective fact.

    The internal critics of the Communist Party’s industrial strategy included those who actively desired a class collaborationist strategy, some even argued in favour of the Bullock Report, and those who, proceeding from one sided analysis of the changing class structure were abandoning class as an analytical category altogether.

    Critics of the party programme came naturally from the left rather then from this tendency which, at the initial stages of the controversy assumed the mantle of its most loyal defenders, only later abandoning it for a more complete abandonment of class politics.

  82. NollaigO on said:

    Vanya:
    I never knew there was any association between IS and the CPB ML in any context at all other than reading somewhere that John Ross had been a member of both before joining the IMG (which may of course be nonsense).

    The main (only?) source of this was a Seán Matgamna passing reference in an article in the early 1970s.

  83. Any coverage of the SPGB in this book? Surely no coverage of the British left could be complete without reference to the oldest surviving party of the British left.

  84. Dave,

    Not in this book unfortunately. We did have someone lined up to write about the SPGB for the next volume, but that hasn’t eventuated so far, although if anyone is interested, please get in touch.

    Some critics might argue that they ‘hey-day’ of the SPGB was prior to 1956, which we were trying to keep as the starting point of our book.

  85. Vanya,

    (To the tune Bonnie Dundee)
    If you think the treatment of workers is wrong,
    Oppose any measure that helps them along;
    Don’t join up with Labour, don’t join the CP,
    But fight the whole lot in the SPGB

    If you want to live in a world without war,
    Don’t go on the march, don’t sit down on the floor;
    Don’t join the Committee, don’t join CND,
    But fight the whole lot in the SPGB.

    (Composed R Condon, c. 1963)

  86. #101 I forgot about them. It could be argued that their omission is a bit euro-centric given that in some countries in Latin America they were a current with some relative base/ weight, in spite of their exotic politics.

    For example Adolfo Gilly, author of a classic work on the Mexican Revolution and who incurred Fidel’s wrath at the 1967 Tricontinental conference for putting forward the theory that Che Guevara (who had disappeared apparently into thin air and was yet to resurface in Bolivia) had been dispensed with to placate the USSR because of his alleged support for China in the split between the two.

    Or Yon Sosa, leader of one of the largest guerrilla armies in Guatemala.

  87. Yeah and their views weren’t always completely off the wall. The nuclear war and UFOs stuff didn’t appear until later. I’m inclined to believe that being tortured caused poor Posadas to go mad. I was actually reading an interview with a former Italian Posadist recently. He was adamant that the interest in UFOs has been exaggerated and that they were actually big into nuclear war dammit!

    http://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&o=85038

  88. #104 I liked the bit about how he became softer on the PCI after they helped him get sanctuary in Italy.