Review of ‘Against the Grain’ in Political Studies Review

The latest issue of Political Studies Review has a review of our book Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 by John Kelly. It is a brief, but very nice, review. Here is the text:

The far left in Britain – communism, Trotskyism and anarchism – has been the subject of relatively little academic research. One reason may be the view that their dismal electoral performance renders them uninteresting, but the editors of this volume argue persuasively that the far left has been influential in voicing dissent from mainstream political positions and in building or supporting social movements to articulate that dissent. The most compelling evidence for this claim stems from the role of the Trotskyist movement in creating two kinds of social movement. These were the anti-war movements of the 1960s and 2000s: the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Stop the War Coalition, respectively, both of which mobilised hundreds of thousands of protestors. Over the same period, Trotskyists were also active in initiating anti-racist campaigns – most notably the Anti-Nazi League, which was one of the most successful British social movements. At its height, it comprised over 40,000 members in 250 branches, easily dwarfing its less impressive successors Anti-Fascist Action and Unite Against Fascism. Three chapters in the book argue that these organisations were relatively successful in curtailing the spread of far-right organisations such as the National Front, British National Party and the English Defence League. Individual Trotskyists played a major role in all of these organisations, and they did so with the explicit approval, and often at the instigation of, their parent organisations.

On the other hand, other chapters show that Trotskyist organisations struggled to come to terms with the women’s and gay rights movements. The main reason is that feminist and gay activists in groups such as the International Socialists often demanded a degree of autonomy that clashed with the highly centralised organisational structures favoured by Trotskyists. The Communist Party (CPGB) appears to have been more open to the influence of ‘new social movements’, but its positive engagement with women and gay activists was soon overwhelmed by the bitter inner-party struggles of the 1980s prior to the CPGB’s dissolution in 1991. Other chapters on the CPGB throw new light on the factionalism within the organisation, undermining the idea that splits and divisions are peculiar to the Trotsyist movement.

Overall this is a very valuable, path-breaking study of a neglected, but significant facet of British political culture.

We are hopeful that a paperback version of the book will be available some time in 2016, but if you don’t want to wait for that, Blackwell’s is still selling the hardback version with a £10 discount and free shipping.

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