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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlining the history of the British far left

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

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

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

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Public services under attack – international austerity and the fight-back

Speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s 2014 International Summer School Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International, gave an account of the struggles public service workers are facing. This article draws on her speech to delegates in Tuesday’s opening plenary.

Public service jobs used to be considered the gold standard in much of the world. Well paid, good pension, decent holidays and solid trade union rights. In an era of neoliberalism however, these previously ‘most formal of formal workers’ are facing the kinds of attacks previously only associated with the most ruthless companies.

International Struggles

There’s an ideological background to this. Labour market and union ‘reform’ has been factor in almost all post-crash countries. In South Korea, the government has recently initiated the most violent attack on public services – derecognising unions in each sector. Privatisation of the rail industry and the mass firing of union activists have turned the country into what one delegate called ‘a war zone’ for workers.

Public Services International, the Global Union Federation for public service workers, is used to privatisation battles – organising in industries which are often publicly funded and subsidised, but increasingly privately owned.

In the US, the Supreme Court last week ruled that there’s no obligation for care workers to pay union dues to unions collectively bargaining for them. These workers often work alone. They are now even more isolated – especially if their unions become toothless in the face of the court decision.

And internationally, at the last ILO conference, for first time delegates couldn’t reach a conclusion on the centrality of the right to strike – despite convention 87 of the ILO convention deeming it fundamental – because employers were so strongly against. It’s a frightening turn for workers of all sectors, as that is one of the only legal bases unions have on the global scale.

But there is some good news. The UN Women’s organisation recently recognised the role of unions as key to addressing the problems of women.

Moreover, until recently trade unions were previously not allowed to participate in UN discussions on migration. Now, after years of struggling from PSI and others, they can. With migration becoming a vehicle for new kinds of slavery, it’s an important milestone.

For public service workers, the water campaigns in the UN are equally important. In 2010, water was deemed a human right, providing the legal background for the massive 2013 struggles in Europe for water to be publicly owned – many of which won, in Paris and elsewhere.

And in the IMF, Christine Lagarde has recently said austerity is creating more injustice and poses a threat to democracy.

A turning point?

The ruling class, then, is getting scared. We are at critical point of class conflict. In response to a global ruling class, unions must likewise organise internationally, not just in one workplace. The welfare state wasn’t won in one shop floor but by the entire working class.

Multinational capital has a strategy. Unions can’t afford to navel-gaze. Whether in care homes, railway stations or outsourced water plants, public service workers in today’s climate of privatisation, cuts and union-busting know this better than ever.

Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. You can follow all of the conference online on the GLI site, through Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter, using the hashtag #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘The Fall & Rise of Labour?’

Socialist Workers Party: Comrade ‘X’ resigns

This article has been re-posted from Phil’s site, A Very Public Sociologist.

Socialist Worker burningThe below comes from ‘Comrade X’, the woman who, like ‘Comrade W’ made a sexual assault complaint to the SWP’s Dispute Commission about the alleged behaviour of a former leading member. Again, it is worth reiterating that “Delta” has never had charges brought against him and is entitled to the presumption of innocence like anyone else. The scandal, the putrescent stench has always been about the appalling handling of those allegations and hounding of alleged sexual abuse survivors by active SWP’ers. As you can see from X’s resignation note (original here via Ciara Squires), her experience too is of being bullied, harassed and smeared. What a disgusting bunch.

I’m glad to hear that now SWP conference has closed, those few decent socialists who’ve remained are packing their bags and bidding farewell. Good. A slow, painful fade into the footnotes of labour movement history now awaits the SWP, a decline that cannot come soon enough.
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Thoughts on British Maoism

by Bob Pitt

The recent publicity over the disturbing events in Brixton, among a group of people originating in a Maoist collective headed by Aravindan Balakrishnan, inspired me to take out my copy of the We Only Want the Earth CD, a collection of Maoist propaganda songs from the 1970s by Cornelius Cardew. (I would stress that Cardew can’t be held responsible for Balakrishnan’s group. His lot expelled “comrade Bala” in 1974.)

Cardew was a member of a Maoist organisation called the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), who stood in the 1978 Lambeth Central by-election under the name of the South London People’s Front. In support of their candidate, the RCPB(ML) put up posters around Brixton reading “Down with the revisionist Three Worlds theory. Victory to the revolutionary people of Albania”. They got 38 votes. (Which to be fair is 13 more than TUSC got in a recent by-election in Stoke.)

Perhaps this comes under the heading of guilty pleasures, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Cardew’s Maoist songs, not least because of their unabashed absurdity. A particular favourite is “Smash the Social Contract”, which sought to rally the working class against the agreement the TUC reached in 1974 with the then Labour government to implement a policy of voluntary wage restraint.
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Link: Socialist candidate Kshama Sawant heading towards historic Seattle victory

From Common Dreams


It has been several decades since a socialist candidate has won a citywide office race in the United States but that could all change soon as polls are showing Seattle City Council candidate Kshama Sawant with a 402 vote lead on Wednesday evening and no signs of the margin shrinking.

Sawant’s victory over 16-year incumbent Richard Conlin would also make her the first openly socialist candidate to be elected to a city office in Seattle’s history.

“This is new territory. There really isn’t any precedent,” said Stuart Elway, a longtime political pollster. “You think Seattle has a pretty liberal electorate, but you haven’t seen someone who calls themselves a socialist win.”

With roughly 20,000 votes left to count in the state’s mail-in voting system, the Associated Press is reporting that it could be days or even weeks before the Nov. 4 election results can be officially declared.

However, things were looking good for Sawant Wednesday, a candidate who ran on a “Occupy Wall Street” inspired platform including proposals to tax the rich and raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15.

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SWP: Party members write full narrative of Comrade Delta rape case

SWP members angry about the Comrade Delta case have contacted SU and asked us to publish this article. It was due to appear in one of the party’s ‘pre-conference bulletins‘, which are documents for members to argue and debate issues before the annual conference.

This year, the party’s leadership has done something highly unusual: They’ve been censoring these contributions. They’re removed paragraphs and, earlier in the year, refused to carry certain articles altogether. This is all related to accusations of rape and sexual harrassment against a former leading member. A large number of party members have left or are likely to leave, because the party leadership (plus an undeclared ‘secret’ faction) seems bent on destroying it rather than accept that they really have let these women down. With another SWP member alleging that she was raped and the same bad method being used to deal with it (as well as the person making the complaint being told not to talk about her experiences) this issue is far from resolved, no matter how many times the SWP’s leaders claim to have drawn a line under it.

The document below appears in full, as it was sent to us. It is a complete narrative of the story, and it shows that the leadership has done everything it can to avoid dealing with the issue – allowing bullying to run unchecked, driving hundreds of people out, and worse than all of that, doing nothing at all to help the women at the centre of these events. When you realise that party members have spent £thousands to help send Comrade Delta to university after he stepped down from his SWP job, you realise just how rotten these people’s politics and morals are. The SWP always appeals to people not to make these documents public, to “protect” people. But what we’ve seen this year is that ‘confidentiality’ and ‘privacy’ have been used not to protect political discussions and people’s jobs, but to make sure that party members don’t have access to information, and that those who want people to know what’s happened to them are forced to keep quiet.

Moving forward means acknowledging mistakes and holding our leadership to account

by Simon F (Birmingham), Viv S & Rita M (Hackney)

This document is a narrative of the events leading up to and following a Disputes Committee (DC) hearing in October 2012 in which Comrade W accused a then CC member (M) of rape. We do not go into the detail of the case here but focus on the mishandling of the situation by the CC and their deliberate campaign of misinformation and intimidation, supported by a layer of leading comrades, once the case became known in the wider party. In producing this narrative we hope to elucidate the issues needing redress before the party can move forward.

Before the hearing

At Marxism 2010 two woman comrades (Sadia J and Donna G) approached former CC member Viv S to discuss a serious allegation regarding sexual harassment involving the then national secretary (M) and a young woman comrade (W). This allegation surrounded incidents that had occurred a year earlier.
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Making the case for a progressive common-sense

Mark Perryman reviews Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea’s unpicking of how opinions are made and unmade

After neoliberalismAs the Party Conference season draws to a close the disconnect between the politics of the Westminster bubble and the rest of us couldn’t be more obvious. Persons in suits, mostly men, addressing other persons in suits, mostly men, given huge chunks of airtime while their party membership figures plummet and the great unsayable for the political class, that fewer and fewer can be bothered to vote for one, other or any of this lot scarcely gets a mention.

Stuart Hall was one of the founders of the 1950s British New Left. Decades later he looked back in an autobiographical essay to explain why the New Left took popular culture seriously.

“First, because it was in the cultural and ideological domain that social change appeared to be making itself most dramatically visible. Second, because the cultural dimension seemed to us not a secondary, but a constitutive dimension of society. Third, because the discourse of culture seemed to us fundamentally necessary to any language in which socialism could be redescribed.”

This position represented a fundamental challenge to how politics was traditionally defined, by Left and Right alike:

“In these different ways the New Left launched an assault on the narrow definition of ‘politics’ and tried to project in its place an ‘expanded definition of the political.” The logic implied by our position was that these ‘hidden dimensions’ had to be represented within the discourses of ‘the political’ and that ordinary people could and should organise where they were, around issues of immediate experience; and build an agitation from that point.”

Thirty years ago in the mid 1980s, following Labour’s 1983 General Election defeat, Stuart Hall came to prominence as one of the Left’s most influential political analysts. There was at the time some kind of sense that the understanding of, and immersion in, popular culture, by the political Left was an important part of any kind of progressive renewal. We could read about it in the pages of Marxism Today and the Labour Party’s New Socialist. Experience it in practice as Ken Livingstone’s GLC launched a programme of free festivals and all manner of other cultural initiatives . Or dance to it with the launch of the Red Wedge pop and politics coalition. None of this amounted to establish anything resembling the beginning of a progressive common sense but there was at least some sort of a loosely defined left culture that connected to, or at least related to, the popular.

In 2013 much of this has disappeared. 14 years of neoliberal Labour did its best to dismantle much of the hope and belief that the alternative to Thatcherism would be something fundamentally different. In the closing remarks to his brilliant book on Martin Luther King, The Speech author Gary Younge makes an essential point :

“While it is true that we cannot live on dreams alone, the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral centre and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible in any given moment.”

Gary Younge is describing precisely the predicament that neoliberal Labour has lumbered us with. The Blairist and Brownite versions combining to achieve the ultimate on privatisation, of idealism. This is what Stuart Hall , and his co-writer Alan O’Shea , set out to unpick in their chapter Common-Sense Neoliberalism, the latest addition to the After Neoliberalism Manifesto. The authors place an understanding of the meaning of the ‘commonsensical’ at the centre of the remaking of a progressive politics. Describing common-sense as:

“It is a form of ‘everyday-thinking which offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world. It is a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting only the realities of daily life and answering the needs of the ‘common people’ for practical guidance and advice.”

This suggests a very different kind of politics to one the Left is used to. We might imagine Nigel Farage and UKiP as the past and present masters of the ‘commonsensical’ in politics and not what anything to do with any such project. But this is incredibly defeatist, not to say dangerous. Take a fondly remembered victory, the Poll Tax, or the beginnings perhaps of a new win, the Bedroom Tax. A common-sense argument against the unworkable injustice of these taxes linked to their hugely effective renaming for what they are by their opponents. Or tax avoidance. ‘Pay your taxes, just like the rest of us, we don’t have the choice of offshore accounts or cosy deals with HMRC so why should you?’ Again the beginnings of a progressive common-sense.

Hall and O’Shea, drawing on the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, call this ‘good sense’. And they make the case that “Good sense provides a basis on which the Left could develop a popular strategy for radical change – if it takes on board that common sense is a site of political struggle.”

Mike Marqusee in a typically excellent article A Party To Dream Of describes the prospects for an Outside Left as a ‘long haul’. In or out of Labour, part of one part of the Left, or another, or none, there is perhaps no better place to begin that journey of hope with the ambition of a new common sense.

Common-Sense Neoliberalism is available as a free download from here