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.


  1. Three excellent suggestions. I would suggest that anyone interested satrts work fairly soon – there are a lot of survivors, but they are getting on and may not last much longer.
    The IMG may have played a role in initiating the TOM, but it was initially a much broader organisation, involving among others James Wellbeloved MP, a right-wing Labourite who later joined the SDP.

  2. Some work on the IMG has been done by Mike Macnair, a former member:
    “I am also writing [this essay] partly from my own unpublished work on its [the IMG’s] history, finished in 1986” [28 Oct 2010]

    Macnair’s wording is a lil ambiguous, but having read him for a number of years it’s more likely that (1) this is quite comprehensive, a “history”, not something patchy, a series of sketches, & (2) the writing, but also perhaps the history, stopped in 1986. But I may be wrong.

    The quote is from the first endnote of an informative essay that starts, “This article is the first of a three-part series about the Trotskyists and the Labour Party. Specifically, the Trotskyists [both words italicised] and the Labour Party, not Trotskyism [italicised] and the Labour Party.” They were published in successive weeks.

    In the endnote Macnair also mentions a 1972 history by Pat Jordan, a “duplicated history”, implying it was a wonder of the pre-Xerox machine. This was ‘Aspects of the History of the IMG’, according to Steve Cohen’s obituary of Jordan in ‘Revolutionary History’. Jordan (1928-2001) was a former CPGB full-time (!) district treasurer, leaving after Hungary to become the member of a succession of Trotskyist groups, including co-founding the International Group which became the IMG (of which he was Secretary).

  3. I’ll have to pass up on the anti-revisionist project, fascinating although that is, as I have another project around the cpgb and the arts post-2WW. It did strike me from spending a couple of days reading the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online that British Maoism in the 1970s was unsurprisingly like Elbaum’s story of the US New Communist Movement but in reduced circumstances and, as Evan suggests, in a situation where the Maoists where outnumbered by Trots (unlike the US experience). The comparative thing is very interesting.

  4. […] After last week’s post about new avenues of research for British leftist history, I just thought I’d mentioned that another resource has appeared online. The Newsletter was edited by Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker reporter who had left the Communist Party of Great Britain after the invasion of Hungary in late 1956, after his departure from the CPGB and during his brief membership in The Club. The Club was an orthodox Trotskyist entrist group run by Gerry Healy, who later formed the Socialist Labour League (which transformed in the 1970s into the Workers Revolutionary Party). The Newsletter was edited by Fryer while he was involved in The Club, but after 1958, the publication was taken over by Healy and it became an SLL publication shortly afterwards, alongside Healy’s Labour Review (which also attracted former CPGB members, such as Brian Pearce). The ‘independent’ version of The Newsletter, under Fryer’s editorship from May 1957 to December 1958, has now been digitised by Steve Drury and is available on Norman Harding’s blog Staying Red (Harding was a long-term member of the SLL/WRP), as well as on the Marxist Internet Archive’s ETOL site. […]

  5. I’m just commencing a PhD in the National University of Ireland, Galway, on anti-communism as a force in Irish politics in the 20th century. My research would involve Britain, as there was strong concern among some Irish Catholic hierarchy/lay Catholic activists that Irish immigrants would join the CPGB and would strengthen communism in Ireland when they returned. Just came across this blog today, very interesting.

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