The final years of the CPGB and the legacy of Marxism Today

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, many journalists and commentators are looking back to the 1980s and delving into the history of the British left. A lot of this has focused on Militant and the battles between the entrist group and Neil Kinnock, but journalists have also revived interest in the post-IMG entrist group, Socialist Action, which is linked to some of Corbyn’s staff. Corbyn himself was involved in several left-leaning social movements in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Anti-Fascist Action.

However what truly interested me was an article in The Guardian by John Harris on the Communist Party of Great Britain’s journal Marxism Today and how the Party in its final years pointed to new directions for the left, which, Harris argues, are useful for understanding the political situation today. The following is based on an extract from my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of race (Brill/Haymarket) and looks at the final years of the Communist Party, as well as its legacy (and its flagship journal).


Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in May 1979 was a watershed moment, emphatically pronouncing the end of the post-war social democratic consensus of the role of the state that had been in decline since the late 1960s. Thatcher’s victory was a demonstration of the ascendancy of the rightist populism that considered British society on the verge of collapse. The Thatcherite solution was to confront and control the ‘subversive’ elements in society, whether it was trade unionists, Irish republicans, youth or Britain’s black population. Margaret Thatcher combined a social conservatism from the traditional Tory right (previously espoused by Enoch Powell and the Monday Club) with an economic liberalism that preached free markets and privatisation at its core – something that the Conservatives since the 1950s had shifted away from. This was a break with Britain’s post-war social democratic consensus and a realignment of state power upon the framework of a market-led economic base – what is known to many now as ‘neo-liberalism’. The Thatcherite model of neo-liberalism was more than classic laissez-faire liberal economics, but a rearrangement of the relationship between the state and the individual citizen to favour certain forms of economics. As Michel Foucault wrote in 1978, neo-liberalism is not merely Adam Smith or a market society, but assumes:

the overall exercise of political power can be modeled on the principles of a market economy … to discover how far and to what extent the formal principles of a market economy can index a general art of government.[1]

Under neo-liberalism, the governance of the state favours market principles so that democratic concepts, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, are defined by consumer ‘choice’, resulting in citizneship not being defined by an individual’s obligations to and rights within a democratic society, but by their consumer power. Richard Seymour has argued that under Thatcher, while championing the idea of ‘choice’ for rational and infomed consumer citizen, the state pushed individuals towards accepting certain rationalities of the free market in some circumstances and on other occasions, intervened heavily to ensure an outcome preferable to the government.[2] This meant financial incentives for financial capitalist ventures in the City, a divestment in manufacturing, a drive towards privatisation and most importantly in the first half of the decade, the use of state power, through legilsation and police force, to ‘tackle’ the trade union ‘problem’. This desire of Thatcher and other Conservatives to ‘smash’ the trade unions was borne out of the victory of the miners in 1972, where the Heath government was unable to stand up to the tactics taken by the labour movement, and the experience of the Grunwick strike, where the National Association For Freedom campaigned that the presence of a trade union was anathema to the freedom of the individual worker. This desire resulted in early confrontations with the unions, such as the 1980 Steel Strike, but did not really gain momentum until March 1984 when the Miners’ Strike began. Before the confrontations with the trade unions, the first massive confrontation between the represstive appartus of the state and the people was between the police and black and Asian youth in Britain’s inner cities across the country in 1981.

Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques first viewed ‘Thatcherism’ as a defining change in Conservatism in the late 1970s before the Conservatives were elected in May 1979. Hall and Jacques, writing in the theoretical journal Marxism Today, saw that the agenda put forward by Margaret Thatcher was the representation of a shift to the right that had been gathering momentum since the upturn in industrial militancy and cultural radicalism in the late 1960s. This shift to the right was as much an ideological shift as it was a response to the economic crisis conditions of the mid-to-late 1970s. This analysis of Thatcherism and the emphasis upon ideology was part of a larger dynamic shift on the left that encompassed the Communist Party, of whom Jacques was an Executive Committee member and editor of Marxism Today. Jacques was a leading reformer within the CPGB, who was pushing that the Communist Party should have incorporated a wider political approach than focusing on industrial militancy and traditional class based politics. The push to reform the Party’s political strategy was encompassed in the redrafting of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, in 1977.

This redrafting of the Party manifesto came at a time in the late 1970s when the CPGB seemed to be in a severely weakened position. Despite having considerable influence in the trade union movement at the executive level during the previous decade of heightened industrial militancy, this had failed to produce any real political gains or stem its dramatically decreasing membership numbers. This decline in membership was exacerbated by the schisms that had formed within the Party after the introduction of the Social Contract between the Labour Government and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This schism was defined between the reformers, influenced by Gramscism and Eurocommunism, who believed that the Party’s limited industrial approach had alienated potential allies within the new social movements and on the other side, the traditional industrial militants, who viewed the centrality of class politics and the emphasis upon Labour-Communist unity in the trade unions as essential to the creation of a socialist Britain. The 1977 edition of The British Road to Socialism promoted the strategy of the broad democratic alliance, which signified the official, yet highly disputed, idea that the struggle for socialism needed ‘not only… to be an association of class forces,… but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production’.[3] The CPGB, ‘as the organised Marxist political party’, imbued itself as a vital organisation in mediating between the traditional labour movement and the other social forces to establish this alliance.[4]

For many of the reformers within the Party, it seemed as if the strategies put forward by the left (including the Communist Party) were from another era (principally the late 1960s and early 1970s) and this made them seem out of touch, particularly as the Conservative side of politics was mutating into a more confrontational and ideologically driven threat. It seemed evident that the traditional strategies of the left were not going to draw massive support from those who had been involved in the inner-city riots, despite a large disaffection with Thatcherism from both areas of British society. Hall and Jacques, along with others centred around Marxism Today, sought to reinvigorate the left and attempted to appeal to those who were disaffected by Thatcherism, but not part of the traditional left and the labour movement. To understand how the Conservatives were to combated in the 1980s, Hall and Jacques were instrumental in determining what Thatcherism meant and how it differed from previous post-war Conservatism. Particularly, Hall and Jacques (along with others, such as Andrew Gamble, Paul Gilroy and Joe Sim) recognised the ‘strong state’ emphasis by Thatcher and the need to confront the ‘enemies within’, all the while using terms such as ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ to describe the role of the individual in 1980s British society. As Stuart Hall wrote in 1980, ‘Make no mistake about it: under this regime, the market is to be Free; the people are to be Disciplined’.[5]

Renewal or defeat at the end of the decade?

In the final months of 1978, Dave Cook responded to the decline of the CPGB after the 35th National Congress – defeats of union action at British Leyland and Grunwick, the secession of the hardline Stalinists to the New Communist Party, hostile reaction by some traditionalists within the Party to the broad democratic alliance, continuing decline in Party membership – by reaffirming the relevance of the Party’s programme in an article in Marxism Today, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’.[6] Cook argued that the traditional labour movement was ‘far from corresponding with the whole working class’ and that class exploitation was not the sole politicising force for workers.[7] The ‘renewal of Marxism over recent years [had] tended to remain at abstract level’ and it was the purpose of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ to expand ‘collective action’ between the labour movement and the new social movements for a ‘much closer relationship between [the Party’s] theoretical work and practical activities’.[8] There were some in the Party who were sceptical about the changes in The British Road to Socialism and Cook’s article, alongside Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, presented at the 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture, generated furious debate in Marxism Today throughout 1979. In his study of the CPGB’s industrial strategy, John McIlroy asked what these new social forces of action outside the ‘old axis of the unions, Labour Party and CP’ could achieve if the ‘big industrial struggles of the 1970s had failed to qualitatively advance socialist consciousness’.[9]

However it was not the intention of Cook or the other reformists to have the CPGB select either industrial militancy or the broad democratic alliance, but rather attempt to synthesise the two strategies. In Cook’s article, the ANL was used as an example of successful co-operation between the labour movement and the social movements, with a ‘range of cultural sponsorship and involvement’, such as ‘Rock Against Racism, actors, sports, festivals’ to ‘trigger off such a response from predominantly working class youth’.[10] However either strategy put forward by the Party in The British Road to Socialism could not overcome the fact that the Party was in decline. In 1979, the Party had 20,599 members, having lost over 10,000 in ten years and only 126 factory branches, having less than half than it did in the mid-1960s.[11] The Party had had no MPs since Phil Piratin and Willie Gallacher lost their seats in 1950 and only five candidates had been elected in local elections.[12]

Much of the optimism portrayed by the reformers around The British Road to Socialism was quashed by the convincing Conservative victory at the General Election in May 1979. The election of Margaret Thatcher saw the lowest share of the vote for the Labour Party since 1931 and a swing to the right by skilled working class voters, with around a third of trade unionists voting for the Conservatives.[13] Martin Jacques saw this shift to the right as part of the ‘crisis of hegemony’ and while the Party developed the concepts of ‘the broad democratic alliance, the mode of rule and the revolutionary process’ inside The British Road to Socialism as a response to this crisis, Jacques acknowledged in October 1979 that this ‘reorientation is not yet complete’.[14] ‘The biggest single weakness of the Party’s practice’, stated Jacques, was to ‘underestimate the extent of the crisis and the range of issues around which popular support can be mobilised’.[15] After the 1979 election, Eric Hobsbawm, who had criticised the ‘almost entirely economist militancy’ of the traditional labour movement in ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ in late 1978,[16] maintained that this Conservative victory demonstrated that the limits of ‘trade union consciousness’ had not been overcome and that unions ‘by themselves cannot offset, the setbacks of the labour movement in other respects’.[17] Effectively Hobsbawm was arguing that trade union militancy by itself could not automatically create class-consciousness or organise a radical socialist advance. Ideally, this was the responsibility of the Communist Party. However, with membership just over 20,000 in 1979 (further declining to 18,458 in 1981),[18] diminished workplace presence and internal divisions between the traditionalists and the reformists, the CPGB was hardly in a position to, as Jacques hoped, ‘transform the labour movement and popular consciousness’.[19]

The ‘limits’ of trade unionism in the 1980s

Most of those connected to the pushes for reform within the Party and Marxism Today were of the opinion that the traditional reliance of the labour movement on the trade unions had limited success and argued that this had been borne out by the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Eric Hobsbawm had argued in ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ in 1978 that ‘straight-forward economist trade union consciousness may at timesd actually set workers against each other rather than establish wider patterns of solidarity’,[20] and for those who endorsed the CPGB’s ‘broad democratic alliance’, these ‘wider patterns of solidarity’ could not be expended just to maintain the trade unions on side. Despite the debates surrounding Hobsbawm’s thesis and its links to the newly promoted ‘broad democratic alliance’, which filled the pages of Marxism Today between 1978 and 1980, the early 1980s saw an uneasy truce between the two main factions, the ‘Euros’ and the ‘Tankies’ (although two opposition factional journals started to appear that argued that both of these larger factions as ‘anti-party’ – Straight Left and The Leninist).[21]

The ‘match on the blue touch paper’, as Francis Beckett described it,[22] that re-ignited this division and led to irrepairable damage within the Communist Party was an article in Marxism Today in late 1982 by Tony Lane, which criticised the trade union strategy promoted by some inside the CPGB, particularly censuring the trade union bureaucracy for failing to deal with the significant changes to the manufacturing industry in Britain and the decline of large scale urban factories where traditionally the most organised workforces. For Lane, these long term economic shifts had a more profound effect upon the trade union movement than ‘resurgent laissez-faire Toryism’, writing:

Trade union leadership at all levels, from the local to the national, has been so stuinned by the reactionary nature of shopkeeper Toryism that it often seems to take more notice of isdeology than it does of material changes in its environment.[23]

Lane blamed ‘sectional interests’ and ‘a lack of will to fight’ for the trade unions’ ‘crisis of legitimacy’, explaining that this had caused a schism between the trade union leaders (including the shop stewards) and the rank-and-file membership and the feeling that there was little democracy within the movement.[24] Unless there was a clear leadership over how to face the problems facing the unions in the 1980, as well as more interactive democracy at the rank-and-file level, Lane argued, the rank-and-file would face ‘uncertainity as to whether unions are worth fighting for’.[25]

Lane’s was not particularly different from other criticisms made by Hobsbawm and others since the late 1970s and could not be seen as especially controversial – as Andrew Pearmain has written, ‘[i]t was a mildly populist critique of the trade union bureaucracy, which would not have seemed out of place in The Sunday Times or Socialist Worker’.[26] But the CPGB’s Industrial Organiser Mick Costello and editor of the Morning Star Tony Chater used the article as an issue to force the centrist Party leadership under General Secretary Gordon McLennan to take action against the journal and its editor, Martin Jacques, as well as airing critiques of Lane, Jacques and the journal in the pages of the daily paper. Disciplinary action for Jacques and the journal by the Party’s internal bodies was defeated (narrowly according to Pearmain),[27] but the same bodies also severely rebuked Chater, Costello and the paper for, in the words of Willie Thompson, ‘forming a cabal to attack another rparty journal and to use the party’s name without reference to the EC [Executive Committee].’[28] In the ensuing aftermath, Costello resigned from his post as Industrial Organiser and joined Chater at the Morning Star. The newspaper, nominally run independently from the CPGB by the People’s Press Printing Society, was used by Chater as a base for criticising the Party and its leadership, who, it was believed, were unwilling to stand up to the ‘Euros’. On the other hand, Jacques had, according to Francis Beckett, lost faith in reforming the Party[29] and moved towards transforming Marxism Today into a separate entity, although it still relied on funding from the Party. While two of the major Party organs drifted away from any form of oversight by the Party leadership, the Party itself fractured, unclear of its direction and role within the British political landscape. As Geoff Andrews wrote:

From this point on, the party was split in two; the leadership and Gramscian-Eurocommunists were in control of the party and the Costello/Chater group controlled the Morning Star, and, with it, a notable list of trade union leaders, and contact with a declining trade union base. Neither side could decribed as ultimate victors in this battle. The party was deprived of its daily paper and with it, what was left of its trade union base; and the ‘hardliners’ were now detahced from the party, its political machine and its resources.[30]

At the 1983 AGM of the PPPS and Communist Party’s National Congress in the same year, the issue of control of the newspaper became a heated one, leading to the expulsion of several Party members from the Morning Star group. By the time that the Miners’ Strike broke out in March 1984, the industrial strategy of the Communist Party was in total disarray and at the national level, the Party was slow to come up with a programme of action to help the National Union of Mineworkers, leaving it to local activists to take the initiative.

The end of the party

The Thatcherite years also had a dramatic effect upon the Communist Party of Great Britain. As those reformers connected to Marxism Today argued in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Thatcherism was more than a stricter continuation of previous Conservative Governments and represented a widespread ideological shift to the right that embodied strong notions of ‘law and order’, combined with the neo-liberalism of free market economics. The reformers believed that this shift to the right needed to be addressed by more than traditional class based politics and demanded a greater emphasis on the long-term ideological aspects that had allowed this rightwards shift. This emphasis on ideology and the insufficiencies of class based politics by the reformers has been viewed as a central reason for the eventual collapse of the CPGB. By the end of the 1980s, the ‘New Times’ approach, presented by Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall in Marxism Today,[31] was described by critics as a defeatist attitude and a vindication of Thatcherism. A. Sivanandan, who had previously criticised the left for its failure to address other issues outside the class politics of industrial militancy, wrote in Race & Class in 1989:

New Times is a fraud, a counterfeit, a humbug. It palms off Thatcherite values as socialist, shores up the Thatcherite market with the pretended politics of choice, fits out the Thatcherite individual with progressive consumerism, makes consumption itself the stuff of politics. New Times is a mirror image of Thatcherism passing for socialism. New Times is Thatcherism in drag.[32]

With the Communist Party becoming increasingly divided between the reformers and the traditional industrialist wing, polarised through the respective publications of Marxism Today and the Morning Star, the Party also witnessed further defeats on the industrial front, experienced, along with the wider labour movement, during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. For many in the labour movement, the defeat of the strike represented an end to the traditional approach of class politics through industrial actions and trade union militancy and was symptomatic of a wider crisis in the British left. Thatcher’s monetarist policies had hastened the decline of heavy industry throughout Britain and the upheaval in many British towns caused by this decline, demonstrably felt through high levels of unemployment, was difficult for the left to counter. Raphael Samuel wrote that the ‘disarray of the Left in the face of the miners’ strike [was]… part of a large discomfort both about the alternative to Thatcherism, and of the very possibility of a socialism which [was] in any sense representative of popular desire and will’.[33]

The defeat of the strike further demoralised the remaining traditionalists within the CPGB, who were already in open conflict with the reformers in the Party leadership and had suffered from the leading traditionalists being expelled by the Executive Committee. Although the CPGB leadership and Marxism Today supported the strike, the assumptions of the reformers of the limited actions of industrial militancy seemed to be further validated by the strike’s defeat. During the 1980s, the Communist Party’s membership rapidly declined, hastened by the internal Party splits. In 1981, membership had been 18,458 and this had fallen to 12,711 in 1985, which then fell to a mere 7,615 in 1989 at the time of the collapse of the Soviet bloc.[34] Although those remaining in the Party launched a new Party programme in 1989 titled A Manifesto for New Times (expanding on a series of articles published in the October 1988 issue of Marxism Today), there was little enthusiasm for continuing the Party as a political organisation and at the December 1991 National Congress, the membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, after more than seventy years of its existence, voted to dissolve itself.

Thinking intersectionally about Marxism Today and the ‘broad democratic alliance’

Kimberle Crenshaw first used the term ‘intersectional’ in the late 1980s to describe the position of black women in the United States and their struggles with the US criminal justice system[35] and over the last 25 years, the term has become a valuable concept within many academic disciplines. Looking back at some of the struggles of the 1970s in Britain, it can be seen that many of these struggles were intersectional and for those involved, their politics often combined class-based, racial and gendered perspectives. For example at the Grunwick strike, this combined those interested in the strike as a demonstration of class unity and the fight for trade union recognition, those interested in the strike to fight racial discrimination in the workplace and those interested in the strike as chance to highlight the particular difficulties faced by South Asian women in this ‘sweatshop’ environment. Although the concept did not exist at the time, it was widely understood by many, especially those who excited by the rise of the new social movements in the late 1960s and those who pushed for their recognition in the Communist Party, that class was just part of a wider spectrum that informed someone’s political identity.

The 1977 version of The British Road to Socialism started to acknowledge this with the promotion of the broad democratic alliance as recognition that the political struggle was moving beyond ‘an expression of class forces’ and had to recognise the ‘other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production.’[36] In the same year, Barry Hindess at the Communist Party’s annual Communist University of London (CUL) lecture series stated, ‘At any given time,… working-class politics must contain features that are not reducible to class position’[37] and as a leading reformer inside the CPGB, pointed to an article by Sam Aaronovitch from 1973 to demonstrate that this reconsideration of class politics had a longer history inside the Communist Party of Great Britain. It is worth quoting Aaronovitch beyond Hindess’ initial notes here to highlight the connections between the arguments being put forward by some within the Communist Party in the 1970s and the theoretical concept we now know as ‘intersectionality’:

The nature of the issues posed by contemporary capitalism brings into action (or can do so) a series of intersecting forces which comprise: various section of the working class as broadly defined;…

People may be brought into action by the way they are affected in their different roles; workers as tenant or shopper; worker as parent.

They are intersecting forces in the sense that their memberships overlap but they also interact.[38]

The work of Stuart Hall (and others such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe) in Marxism Today in the 1980s further promoted this idea that people were likely to be guided in their actions by notions of class, as they were to be guided by notions of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, or any other form of ‘identity politics’. After their defeat at the 1987 elections, Hall wrote an important piece for the journal on Labour’s shortcomings in the ideological battle against Thatcherism and the shifting support bases for both major parties in the 1980s, which further encapsulated the idea of the intersecting experiences and identities that form an individual’s political outlook. Hall wrote:

Electoral politics – in fact, every kind of politics – depends on political identities and identifications. People make identifications symbolically: through social imagery, in their political imaginations. They ‘see themselves’ as one sort of person or another. They ‘imagine their future’ within this scenario or that. They don’t just think about voting in terms of how much they have, their so-called ‘material interests’. Material interests matter profoundly. But they are always ideologically defined.

Contrary to a certain version of Marxism, which has as strong a hold over the Labour ‘Centre’ as it does on the so-called ‘hard Left’, material interests, on their own, have no necessary class belongingness. They influence us. But they are not escalators which automatically deliver people to their appointed destinations, ‘in place’, within the political-ideological spectrum.

One reason why they don’t is because people have conflicting social interests, sometimes reflecting conflicting identities. As a worker a person might put ‘wages’ first: in a period of high unemployment, ‘job security’ may come higher; a woman might prioritise ‘child-care’. But what does a ‘working woman’ put first? Which of her identities is the one that determines her political choices?[39]

In 1988, Homi Bhabha wrote that the arguments put forward by Stuart Hall in 1987, alongside similar ones made in the pages of Marxism Today by Eric Hobsbawm and Beatrix Campbell represented ‘the “hybrid” moment of political change’.[40] ‘Here the transformational value of change lies in’, Bhabha said discussing the role of women in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, ‘neither the One (unitary working class) nor the Other (the politics of gender) but something else besides which contests the terms and territories of both.’[41] Similar to the concept of intersectionality, Bhabha’s notion of hybridity reflected what Hall described as people’s ‘conflicting social interests’[42] and recognized that the traditional Marxist approach to the question of ‘race’ (or gender or sexuality) was inadequate to assist in their contemporary struggles against inequality. For Bbabha and other postcolonial thinkers, such as Ranajit Guha or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,[43] traditional Marxism could not adequately explain the politics of ‘race’ and ethnicity, or effectively uphold the notion that racism and colonialism were simply parts of the wider phenomenon of capitalist exploitation. But the inadequacies of Marxism were not merely to be replaced by other forms of identity politics, with the ideas of postcolonialism opening up spaces of political and cultural hybridity. At this point, the broad democratic alliance and the counter-hegemony discussed within Marxism Today transformed into what Homi Bhabha called the ‘Third Space’. For Bhabha, Hall’s writing in Marxism Today introduced ‘an exciting, neglected moment… in the “recognition” of the relation of politics to theory’[44] and demonstrates that although the Communist Party of Great Britain itself declined, its impact has continued to resonate in various ways since.

The final Marxism Today in 1991 - will 2013 mark the end of the ISJ?

[1] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p. 131.

[2] Richard Seymour , The Meaning of David Cameron (Winchester: Zero Books, 2010) p. 31.

[3] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London, 1977) 29

[4] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism, 34

[5] Stuart Hall, Drifting into a Law and Order Society (Amersham, Cobden Trust, 1980) p. 5.

[6] Dave Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, Marxism Today, December 1978, pp. 370-379

[7] D. Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, p. 372

[8] D. Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, p. 374

[9] John McIlroy, ‘Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Politics’, p. 224

[10] D. Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, p. 378

[11] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218; J. McIlroy, ‘Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Politics’, John McIlroy, Nina Fishman and Alan Campbell (eds), British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999) p. 222

[12] Richard Cross, ‘The CPGB and the “Collapse of Socialism”, 1977-1991’, unpublished PhD thesis, University Mnchester, 2007, p. 314

[13]Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted? – A Response’, Marxism Today, September 1979, p. 265; Willie Thompson, The Long Death of British Labourism (London: Pluto Press, 1993) p. 112

[14] Martin Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, Marxism Today, October 1979, p. 13

[15] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, p. 13

[16] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today, September 1978, p. 286

[17] E. Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted? – A Response’, p. 266; p. 267; Italics are in the original text

[18] W. Thompson, The Good Old Cause, p. 218

[19] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, p. 13

[20] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today, September 1978, p. 286.

[21] Lawrence Parker, Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1960-1991 (London: November Publicatuons, 2012) p. 104.

[22] Francis Beckett, Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (London: Merlin Press, 1995) p. 194.

[23] Tony Lane, ‘The Unions: Caught on the Ebb Tide’, Marxism Today (September 1982) p. 7.

[24] Lane, ‘The Unions’, p. 13.

[25] Lane, ‘The Unions’, p. 13.

[26] Andrew Pearmain, The Politics of New Labour: A Gramscian Analysis (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2011) p. 129.

[27] Pearmain, The Politics of New Labour, pp. 130-131

[28] Thompson, The Good Old Cause, p. 184.

[29] Beckett, Enemy Within, p. 197.

[30] Andrews, Endgames and New Times, p. 207.

[31] The October 1988 edition of Marxism Today was dedicated to the ‘New Times’. The Manifesto for New Times was the programme adopted by the CPGB at its 1989 National Congress that occurred as the Soviet bloc was collapsing. After the collapse of the CPGB in November 1991, some remnants of the Party formed the Democratic Left, which published the journal, New Times, throughout the 1990s. See: Stuart Hall & Martin Jacques, New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s, Verso, London, 1990

[32] A. Sivanandan, ‘All that Melts Into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times’, Race & Class, 31/3, 1989, p. 1

[33] Raphael Samuel, ‘Preface’, in Raphael Samuel, Barbara Bloomfield & Guy Boanas (eds), The Enemy Within: Pit Villages and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1986, pp. xiv-xv

[34] ‘Communist Party Membership’, CP/CENT/ORG/19/04, LHASC.

[35] See: Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, pp. 139-168; Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43/6, July 1991, pp. 1242-1300.

[36] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism, p. 29

[37] Barry Hindess, ‘The Concept of Class in Marxist Theory and Marxist Politics’, in Jon Bloomfield (ed.) Class, Hegemony and Party (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1977) pp. 100-101.

[38] Sam Aaronovitch, ‘Perspectives for Class Struggles and Alliances’, Marxism Today (March 1973) p. 69. Italics are in the original text.

[39] Stuart Hall, ‘Blue Elections, Election Blues’, Marxism Today, July 1987, p. 33

[40] Homi K. Bhabha, ‘The Commitment to Theory’, New Formations, 5 (Summer 1988) p. 13.

[41] Bhabha, ‘The Commitment to Theory’, p. 13; Italics are in the original text.

[42] S. Hall, ‘Blue Elections, Election Blues’, p. 33; Italics are in the original text.

[43] See: Ranajit Guha & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (eds), Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard University Press, London, 2003.

For a critical overview of the relationship between Marxism and subaltern studies, see: Vinay Lal, ‘Subaltern Studies and Its Critics: Debates over Indian History’, History and Theory, 40/1, February 2001, pp. 135-148.

[44] Bhabha, ‘The Commitment to Theory’, p. 8.


Filed under 1989, Anti-apartheid, Antonio Gramsci, British far left, British History, British Road to Socialism, CND, Communist Party of Great Britain, Contemporary history, Daily Worker/Morning Star, Entryism, Eric Hobsbawm, Eurocommunism, G.C. Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Intersectionality, Jeremy Corbyn, Margaret Thatcher, Martin jacques, Marxism, Marxism Today, Neo-liberalism, New Labour, New Left, New Times, Stuart Hall, Thatcherism, UK Labour Party

Full run of IMG’s ‘The Red Mole’ is now online

The first issue of The Red Mole (March 1970)

The first issue of The Red Mole (March 1970)

This is just a quick post to note that the blog Red Mole Rising has been resurrected and is now uploading many new interesting documents relating to the International Marxist Group, the USFI and Socialist Action. As part of this, the blog has uploaded the entire run of the IMG newspaper The Red Mole, alongside most of the run of its predecessor The Black Dwarf. As we wrote in the introduction to our book on the British far left, the IMG had emerged out of an entrist group within the Labour Party in 1965, splitting with the Revolutionary Socialist League that would eventually become Militant. Moving from orthodox Trotskyism towards a left libertarianism (similar in area of the pre-1970s International Socialists), the IMG dived into the radical student movement and the counterculture of the late 1960s, with a particular eye on the ‘Third World’ and anti-imperialism (including heavy involvement in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign). Aligned with those organised around New Left Review, the IMG helped produce an intra-party publication titled The Black Dwarf, which was a mixture of Trotskyism, Third Worldism and ‘soft Maoism’. But by 1970, tensions within the paper over its direction led to the IMG establishing The Red Mole as a dedicated party publication. The Red Mole probably coincided with the height of the IMG’s influence on the British left, with a much more youthful focus than many of its rival publications. It lasted until mid-1973 when the IMG replaced it with Red Weekly, which signalled a change in line for the party.

Flicking through the collection, the thing that struck me was the forthright internationalism present in The Red Mole and the support for national liberation and ‘terrorist’ groups across the globe. The IMG, an influential force in the Troops Out Movement, was particular notorious for its critical support of the IRA during the early 1970s, which is reflected in this paper.

This is now a valuable resource for historians of the British left and I hope that more material follows in the near future. As I have written in the past, we still haven’t seen a recent history of the International Marxist Group!

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Filed under 1968, Archives, British far left, British History, Contemporary history, Fourth International, International Marxist Group, Irish Republicanism, Marxism, New Left, Red Mole, Research suggestions, Tariq Ali, Terrorism, Troops Out Movement, Trotskyism, Youth culture

Damned Whores and God’s Police, liberation and the power of activist language: A guest post by Jon Piccini


A few days ago, a conference wrapped up celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the feminist classic, Damned Whores and God’s Police by Anne Summers. A bestseller in its publication year of 1975, as historian Michelle Arrow points out, it has also greatly influenced not only the rise of feminist historiography in Australia, but also society itself, famously selling over 100,000 copies and remaining in print over multiple editions to this day.

The conference allowed for a discussion of just how much Australia – and the world – has changed since the hey-day of the second wave feminist movement. An all-star lineup of men and women from a diversity of fields reflected on how much has been achieved, and what still is to be done. The book itself was obviously central, and its effect on Australia was lauded by all, yet in many ways Summers’ book might be to modern readers a strange work, almost alien.

Summers herself even found re-reading the book to be a surprising experience, particularly due to the language the book employed, or rather, didn’t. “It seems extraordinary today but in the mid-1970s we did not use terms like “domestic violence”, “sexual harassment”, “date rape” or “glass ceiling” because they had not yet been coined.” Activists of the period did not possess today’s highly developed language and understanding of the complexities of female oppression.

Yet, what interested me – as historian of 20th century activism – re-reading the book, was the language that was in it. Words like ‘Liberation’, for example, which seem out of place in the activist lexicon of today. Terms which Steve D’arcy in his work on shifts in activist rhetoric calls that of the ‘New Left’. This language employed words such as liberation, solidarity, oppression and the people, and was the inherited by the many activist groups of the sixties and seventies from the civil rights movement in the USA and anti-colonial struggles in the third world. And it had a decidedly collectivist hue, concerned with webs of power and privilege in a highly stratified capitalist society.

In the book’s final chapter, “Prospects for Liberation”, Summers defines liberation thusly:

Liberation is all about altering the most fundamental tenants of our social organisation; it is about abolishing privilege and exploitation and consolidated power. Unless the interrelationship of all determinants of an oppressed person’s existence are taken into account then we are not talking about liberation. We are merely concerned with juggling the levels of the existing social hierarchy…the concept of liberation explicitly challenges the present distribution of power in society and the fact that a small group of people control the lives of the majority (p. 463-5).

A few things are evident in this brief definition. Firstly, the idea of Liberation is tied to challenging what Sixties (broadly speaking) activists saw as ‘the system’, enwrapped in layers of exploitation and power. Secondly, these layers of oppression could not easily be untangled – there was little point challenging women’s oppression in the workplace, or in education, if you were not to challenge the totality of the ideological state apparatuses which governed women’s (and everyone else’s, to varying extents) lives under capitalism.

Summers also defines liberation in opposition to three other conceptual frames – equality, freedom and rights. And it is in these three frames that much contemporary feminism is framed – it is rare outside of the far-left socialist milieu to find a self-identifying ‘women’s liberationist’. Instead, demands for ameliorating the dreadful conditions of women under 21st century capitalism are often framed around these very terms Summers attacks – freedom of choice, women’s equality and respect for human rights.

So, why does Summers so stridently oppose these activist discourses, which today almost monopolise the language not only of the mainstream feminist movement, but many other progressive causes? In short, none of these terms ask the questions that the framework of the ‘New Left’ did. “Equality of the sexes”, Summers puts it, “has become a new and constantly reiterated catch-cry, an unimpeachable goal which requires no rationalisation and little explanation” (465).

As such, everyone form the League of Women’s Voters to the Liberal Party had adopted its rhetoric. Equality for these groups meant that “women ought to be squeezed into the existing system”, leading them to be “slot…into an extant exploitative sexist class system”. Looking into the future, Summers thought it unlikely that even a Liberal government would turn back the path to women’s equality, but in the end what would be achieved but “the right to be equally exploited alongside men” (465)?

This idea of ‘rights’ – now held up in the form of “Human rights” as the universally applicable political ideology of the present – is largely absent from the book, at least in a positive sense. Instead, demands for objectives like “the right of women to control their bodies” are presented as “generalised and often fairly abstract”—needing to be reimagined in line with local circumstances (460). For instance, in Australia “we could not expect a Bill of Rights…to necessarily alter women’s cultural impotence”, Summers argues, highlighting that the sort of government level changes and laws that are the mainstay of rights activism do little to alter those social relations of exploitation that the language of liberation highlight (466).

The idea of ‘freedom’ comes in for equal criticism – how can we demand freedom of choice – to choose an abortion, or to choose what sort of life we want to lead – when our present scope of freedom is “limited by a form of social existence which is hierarchical, stratified and patently unequal”. Freedom is “usually related to law and to custom” within the apparatus of the sexist, capitalist state and culture, while liberation highlights that “one cannot simply select…one level of the hierarchy to fight against, because all are interconnected”. (463)

This discussion of language and its powers might appear pedantic. What does it matter what words activists use, so long as the meaning is communicated? Indeed, Summers herself makes several positive references in the above mentioned article to the “struggle for equality”, seemingly in contradiction to her previous opposition to the term. As Steve D’arcy points out in his discussion of activist languages, activist words and phrases shift in meaning over time and activists could (and do) use the term equality, for instance, to argue for something closer to liberation.

But still, looking at the language employed in Damned Whores and God’s Police makes one ask questions – particularly why the language of liberation – and the ‘New Left’ vocabulary as a whole, went in to such decline during the 1980s and 1990s. D’arcy asks whether the waning of ‘New Left’ discourse “in the wake of the Reagan/Thatcher era and the wave of defeats inflicted on the Left in those years, indicate that the new vocabulary is not so much innovation as errancy, straying from radical politics in the direction of a de-fanged adaptation to defeat and political marginality?” D’arcy finds more complex answers to these questions, as I hope to in my new project looking closely at changes in Australian activist rhetoric in the post WWII period.

Dennis Altman, author of 1971’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation and an avowed liberationist who has lost none of his 1960s passions, gave a keynote at the #DWGP40 conference, asking why nobody argues for liberation anymore. Altman contended that perhaps the grand scope and ambition of liberation activism to remake the world might be seen as too utopian in 21st century Australia. However, he argued, it might be just what we need to find a path outside of capitalist hegemony.

Jon Piccini is a historian of social movements. His book, Global Radicals: Transnational protest, Australia and the 1960s is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan. He tweets at @JonPiccini.

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Filed under Anne Summers, Australian history, Books, Contemporary history, Feminism, human rights, language, liberation, New Left, Women's history, Women's liberation

Are labour historians still doing labour history?

Today I have been having a discussion with several friends on social media over the question that an academic posited to me – is labour history dead? As part of that discussion, most of us have argued that labour history isn’t dead, but it has evolved since its heyday in the 1970s and has benefitted from interaction with other historical sub-disciplines, such as women’s history, transnational history, migration history, cultural history and oral history. The scope for what is considered ‘labour history’ has widened over the last few decades and could now be considered ‘people’s history’, as the Welsh labour history Llafur recognised when they changed their masthead in 2002.

As what is described as ‘labour history’ often crosses over with other historical sub-disciplines, I was intrigued to see what was being published in journals that were explicitly categorised as ‘labour history’ journals. I found five history journals in from across the Anglophone world with the word ‘labour’ in the title and decided to browse the articles that they had published since the beginning of 2014. The journals were Labour History Review (UK), Labor History (US), Labour History (Australia), Labour/Le Travail (Canada) and International Labor and Working Class History (US/UK), which gave a good cross-section of the field in different parts of the world. I avoided other journals that could have potentially crossed over, such as Past & Present, History Workshop Journal, International Review of Social History, Socialist History Journal and Radical History Review, because while they (explicitly or implicitly) shared a popular history ‘from below’ approach, they were not specifically ‘labour history’ journals.

By examining the titles and abstracts of original research-based articles from the five journals, I made a list of the broad categories of the content of each article published in 2014-15. The number of articles in each journal issue and the frequency of publication fluctuated. For example, I examined eight issues of Labor History, while only two issues of International Labor and Working Class History were available for perusal at the time that I was doing my ‘research’. Also Labour History had up to eleven articles in one issue, while one issue of Labour History Review had as little as four. I tried to categorise the articles by the issues that they dealt with and not by region, which would have thrown up a bias towards UK or US history. Articles often straddled multiple categories and the numbers do not equate one article with one category only.

So here are the topics dealt with the most by articles published recently in specifically labour history journals:

Trade Unions 17
Strike 17
Industrial Relations 13
Race 12
Sport 10
Military 10
Colonialism 10
Transnationalism 10
Protest 8
Migration 7
British/Australian Labour Party 7
Deindustrialisation 6
International organisations 5
Ethnic communities 5
Environmental issues 5


In the table above, industrial relations broadly refers to the arbitration between workers, employers and the government, as well as specific pieces of IR legislation. Transnationalism refers to a number of things including the movement of ideas and people across borders, the building of solidarity networks across borders and supra-national labour organisations. Most of the other categories are self-explanatory (I hope).

These were the top fifteen categories, and overall I listed 45 different categories. This is skewed by the fact that there were several special issues, with Labour History having a special issue of ANZACs and labour during the First World War, Labour History Review having an issue dedicated to the strike wave of 1911, Labor History having an issue of transnational labour history and International Labor and Working Class History dedicating a special issue to African labour history.

With these qualifications, the results are bit surprising. Most people had agreed that the field of labour history had widened considerably over the last few decades and the traditional focus of the sub-discipline on straight, white working class men and their organisations (primarily the trade unions and the Labour Party) had been superseded by, for example, studies of women, ethnic minorities, and people from the colonial sphere/Global South. But I could find only three articles dealing with women. A high number of articles were still dealing with the long established topics of trade unionism, strikes, and industrial relations. Perhaps weighted by the special issue on African labour history, there were a number of articles dealing with issues of race and colonialism, as well as migration. I was surprised by the number of articles that dealt with the issue of sport and its relation to the working class and labour organisations.

While scholars are still dealing with these topics, it almost inevitable that they are looking at these topics in different ways and through the lens of the multitude of sub-disciplines that have grown since the 1970s and the ‘cultural turn’. The history of trade unionism written in 2015 is not going to be the same as if its was written in 1975. But scholars are still dealing with the same topics.

What does this mean for the field of labour history? Possibly not much. People are writing about the same things, but probably in different ways than before. But maybe it indicates that labour history is maintaining its definition in these specialised journals, while those ‘doing’ labour history are also publishing elsewhere, combining the traditions of labour history with the techniques of other sub-disciplines.

This is not an exhaustive study of the state of labour history, but a cursory glance. I’d be interested in crunching more numbers, but maybe someone with more quantitative skills might help me out (hint hint). And possibly there needs to be a content analysis too. For another time!


Filed under academia, Historical methods, Historiography, history from below, labour history, Research, Research suggestions

For Tony Abbott…

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Filed under Australian history, Liberals, Tony Abbott, Tories

New article on Australian Border Force for Salvage mag

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.00.47 pm

This is just a quick post to let people know that the new left-wing magazine from the UK, Salvage (established by ex-SWPers China Miéville and Richard Seymour, amongst others) has just published an online article by me on the failure of Operation Fortitude and the Australian Border Force controversy. You can find the article here.

This follows on from a tweet of mine about the failed Operation making it into a report from the Sydney Morning Herald that day. You can see my *hilarious* tweet here.

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Filed under 'White Australia Policy', Announcements, Anti-racism, Asylum, Australian Border Force, Australian history, Border control studies, Contemporary history, Criminology, Elections, Immigration, Profiling, Public service announcements, Racial discrimination, Refugees, Tony Abbott

Far left book introduction

far left cover

This is just a quick post to let people know that I uploaded the (proof version of the) introduction to our edited collection Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 to the website. A condensed version was posted on the Socialist Unity website last year, but I thought people might be interested in reading the full introduction.

If the introduction tantalises you, you can buy a copy here (although I know they’re quite expensive). Or better yet, convince your library to order a copy from here.

EDITED TO ADD: Blackwell’s is currently selling the book with a £10 discount here.

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Filed under academia, Announcements, bloggy stuff, Books, British far left, British History, Marxism, Marxism Today, Marxism-Leninism, New Left, Public service announcements