Against the Grain: The British Far Left From 1956 is a new edited volume, put together by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, which will be published this month by Manchester University Press. While not attempting to be a comprehensive overview of the far left in Britain over the last 60 years, the book looks to highlight new areas of historical research into these left-wing groups and movements that have often been overlooked by other scholars. The book includes contributions from activists, established academics and up-and-coming scholars, presenting chapters on a wide range of political organisations and the movements that they were involved with.
Although it has a hefty price tag for the hardback edition, the editors are hoping that a paperback edition will be published in 2015-16. A slightly cheaper hardback edition can be bought from here (if you are willing to buy from large corporations).
Below is an edited excerpt from the book’s introduction, giving an overview of the history of the British far left from 1956. The editors hope that it piques the interest of Socialist Unity readers and leads to a fruitful debate about how we look at the history of the far left in Britain. As Mark Perryman wrote about the book for Philosophy Football: “this is one for the activists, the old hands for the nostalgia trip of reading of old battles, the new wave to read of past mistakes and dream of not repeating them.”
The editors are also keen to hear of anyone doing research into the British far left, particularly on areas that have been overlooked in this volume. Please send them an email here.
In 1972, Tariq Ali, editor of the radical newspaper Black Dwarf and leading figure in the International Marxist Group (IMG), wrote in the introduction to his book, The Coming British Revolution:
The only real alternative to capitalist policies is provided by the revolutionary left groups as a whole. Despite their smallness and despite their many failings, they represent the only way forward1.
At the time, the British left appeared in the ascendancy. And yet, within a short while, the fortunes of the British left began to fall as sharply as they had risen. Certainly, by the end of the 1970s, the far left’s forward march, which had been gathering pace since the political eruptions of 1956 seemed – in the words of Eric Hobsbawm – to have ‘halted’2. Thereafter, the British far left continued to debate how best to react to the changes in the political, economic and social landscape that occurred under Margaret Thatcher and New Labour. In so doing, it realigned itself, fractured and evolved as new struggles emerged to test preconceptions and continually thwart the expected ‘breakthrough’. Whatever way you shape it, the revolution did not come around. Nevertheless, the far left played its part in shaping what remains an on-going historical epoch, challenging social mores and providing a dissenting voice within the British body politic.
Outlining the history of the British far left
The year 1956 may be seen as representing ‘year zero’ for the British left. Prior to this, the CPGB had dominated the political field to the left of the Labour Party. The party had grown out of the unification of several socialist groups in 1920 and gradually built itself as the radical alternative to Labour during the inter-war period. By the end of the Second World War, its membership was over 40,000 and the leftwards shift by the electorate in the 1945 general election gave the Party hope that the transformation of British society towards socialism was imminent. The 1945 election saw the CPGB win two parliamentary seats and was soon followed by 215 communist councillors elected at a municipal level3. Simultaneously, the party began to suffer in the face of the anti-communist hysteria that came with the onset of Cold War. Even then, its promotion of a parliamentary road to socialism and a future Communist-Labour alliance ensured that it maintained a foothold in the British labour movement.
Trotskyism and left-communism developed as two oppositional currents in the Communist Party during the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until the post-war period that British Trotskyism really emerged as an alternative left-wing movement to the CPGB. The genesis of post-war British Trotskyism can be traced back to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which contained all of the subsequent leading figures of the Trotskyist movement and held the position of the official British representative of the Fourth International between 1944 and 1949. The RCP made some headway in the rank and file of the trade unions, particularly by supporting strikes when the CPGB was still promoting co-operation with the government, as well as in the anti-fascist activism against Mosley’s newly-formed Union Movement. However, the RCP soon split over questions concerning entrism within the Labour Party and how the Fourth International should view the ‘People’s Democracies’ of Eastern Europe. By 1956, Gerry Healy’s The Club (soon after the SLL) was the main Trotskyist group in Britain, with the others being relegated to discussion groups or journals in this period.
Such alignments across the British left would change in 1956. Khrushchev’s denunciation of the ‘cult of personality’ that arose around Stalin and admission that crimes had been committed during Stalin’s reign had a major impact on the CPGB. While many party members wanted a discussion over the CPGB’s uncritical support for the Soviet Union, the leadership sought to quash any frank and open debate, particularly amongst the rank and file at branch or district level. Soviet intervention in Hungary later the same year only exacerbated matters, leading to some 8,000 people leaving the CPGB between February 1956 and February 1958.