Three aspects of British leftist history that need researching

4th international

With the far left edited collection in the final stages of production (hopefully), I have been thinking about the future of research in British leftist history and the gaps in research that exist. If I was advising postgraduate students interested in British left-wing history, I think there are three main aspects that would be worth investigating. These areas have not been extensively researched and have significant archival material available.  I fantasise about undertaking some of these projects, but realistically I have too many research ideas at the moment. So here they are:

The History of the International Marxist Group

The International Marxist Group (IMG) emerged from an entrist group within the Labour Party in the mid-1960s and through the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, as well as the subsequent student radicalism, gained a significant level of influence in the student movement and some white-collar trade unions. With Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn as the IMG’s most recognisable public faces, the group were involved the multi-party Black Dwarf, then published Red Mole and Socialist Challenge once the non-IMG elements left. By the early 1980s, the IMG had transformed into Socialist Action, a pressure group that resought entryism into Labour.

Besides the work of John Callaghan from the 1980s, little has been written on the IMG, even though many of the group’s papers are now available. The Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick holds the papers of the IMG, as well as the papers of former members Chris Arthur, E.A Whelan, Bob Purdie and Chris Bambery (who later joined the SWP and was editor of Socialist Worker). The MRC also holds many other archival records on the various Trotskyist groups in Britain (see here for further details).

There is also a blog called Red Mole Rising that has started digitising parts of the IMG’s publication output, with most issues of Black Dwarf and Red Mole available in pdf.

British Maoism and Anti-Revisionism

Although Lawrence Parker’s The Kick Inside book has documented the rise of anti-revisionist groups within the CPGB and Tom Buchanan has written about British left and Communist China in his book East Wind, there is still much more to be written about the various anti-revisionist, Maoist and Marxist-Leninist groups that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. While I do not know of any archival papers relating to these groups being made available, besides the files that the Communist Party of Great Britain kept on them (available at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre in Manchester), the Encyclopaedia of Anti-Revisionism Online (through the Marxists Internet Archive) has digitised or transcribed many of these groups publications, leaflets and internal documents. While the section dedicated to anti-revisionism in the United States is the largest, there is a sizeable section dedicated to UK groups. As Maoism was a particularly influential strain of Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s worldwide (especially in the USA, France, Germany and Australia), a worthwhile research project would be to examine why Maoism in Britain was not able to gain the same critical mass as elsewhere and why it remained tiny, compared with the Trotskyist groups and the CPGB.

The British left and Ireland

This is the subject that fascinates me the most. The ‘Irish Question’ and then Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’ was seen by many on the British left as a fundamental issue relating to the nature and power of British imperialism. Most groups followed the advice from Marx that as long as Britain ruled over Ireland, it could never be a proper socialist society and that Northern Ireland was a demonstration of the power of British imperialism, as well as it achilles heel. As the ‘Troubles’ developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the British left was deeply divided on which position to take and which groups to support, and also had many theories on how the ‘Irish Question’ could be solved.

There are a number of files in the CPGB archive relating to Ireland/Northern Ireland, but most groups published a lot of material in their publications on Northern Ireland and this would be fairly straightforward to locate. Many of the pamphlets dedicated to Northern Ireland produced by the British left have also been digitised and stored at the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog.

The Troops Out Movement, started by members of the IMG (I believe) and involving many from the various British left groups, also has an extensive archive at London Metropolitan University.

So there you go. If you are interested in conducting research in any of these areas (or any other area of British left-wing history), please get in contact.

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hatfulofhistory at gmail dot com

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