What was Straight Left? An introduction by Lawrence Parker

Last week it was announced that Guardian journalist Seamus Milne was to become Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s new Director of Communications. A number of media reports remarked that Milne was once attached to the Communist Party factional journal Straight Left. However few, particularly in the mainstream media, know much about the Straight Left faction or its role in the final years of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I asked Lawrence Parker, an expert on the hardline oppositional and anti-revisionist groups that emerged from the CPGB, to write a little introduction to those unfamiliar with the history of the Straight Left faction.

Lenin-Leninist small_art_full

Origins

Straight Left’s origins lie in the left pro-Soviet oppositions that emerged in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1960s. In this period, a definite ‘party within a party’ emerged, with figures such as Sid French, district secretary of Surrey CPGB, becoming key leaders. The general critique that emerged from this faction was a concern over the CPGB leadership distancing itself from the Soviet Union (such as around the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) and other ‘socialist’ countries; a preference for a more ‘workerist’ identity (for example, the faction would have been happy with the CPGB’s paper remaining as the Daily Worker in 1966) and a concentration on workplaces/trade unions; and a sense that the party was squandering its resources in futile election contests and alienating the left of the Labour Party, with whom it was meant to be developing a close relationship on the British road to socialism (BRS), the CPGB programme. However, a significant part of the faction felt that the BRS was ‘reformist’ and ‘revisionist’ in all its guises from 1951, counter-posing a revolutionary path to the parliamentary road to socialism envisaged in the CPGB’s existing programme. This stance was clouded in ambiguity in many sections of the CPGB’s left, with the default position usually being expressed in a preference for the 1951 version of the BRS overseen by Stalin, as opposed to later versions modified by a ‘revisionist’ CPGB leadership.[i] This opposition suffered a major split in the run-up to the CPGB’s 1977 congress, with Sid French taking away 700 or so supporters to form the New Communist Party (after French realised that the CPGB’s leadership was intent on a reorganisation of his Surrey district, which would have deprived him of his organisational bridgehead). The rump left opposition in the CPGB coalesced around Fergus Nicholson (other key figures were John Foster, Brian Filling, Nick Wright, Susan Michie, Pat Turnbull and Andrew Murray) who had been the CPGB’s student organiser until 1974. The Straight Left newspaper was launched in 1979, with a theoretical magazine, Communist, also appearing. Membership figures are impossible to guess. However, judging from the Communist, the faction did have a wide national infrastructure beyond London through the 1980s and was certainly on a par with, if not in some places more deeper rooted than, the other oppositional stream around the Morning Star (see below).

Factions and fictions

The Straight Left group provoked a lot of enmity from its factional rivals in the CPGB. Thus, Mike Hicks, who was involved in the Communist Campaign Group (CCG), set up after the rebellion of Morning Star supporters against the CPGB leadership in the mid-1980s, and later the first general secretary of the 1988 Communist Party of Britain split (both criticised and opposed by the Straight Left faction), said in the late 1990s: “Straight Left was neither straight nor left.”[ii] Similarly, a CCG document complained: “The individuals grouped around Straight Left have their own newspaper, their own organisation, and their own objectives.”[iii] I have been told anecdotally by CPGB activists of the time that Straight Left was thought to have three circles: an inner ‘Leninist’ core; a broader circle of sympathisers in the CPGB; and the ‘softer’ Labourite and trade unionists grouped around the Straight Left newspaper (non-CPGB trade unionists such as Alan Sapper and Labour MPs such as Joan Maynard were on its advisory board). Certainly, the majority of the content of the newspaper was hewn from the same, dry ‘labour movement’ template used by the Morning Star, with little indication that it was the work of communists, apart from its commentary on the Soviet Union and other international matters. (The Communist journal, obviously aimed at CPGB sympathisers, was much more orthodox and harder Marxist-Leninist in tone, with a lot of very interesting commentary on inner-party CPGB matters.) So, Straight Left was a faction and did indulge in political camouflage but in this it was merely of its time. For example, the CCG’s disavowal of Straight Left’s factionalism was merely an attempt to throw people off the scent from the CCG’s own factionalism (the CCG unconvincingly complained it wasn’t a faction at all; just a group that wanted to follow the CPGB’s rules — which fooled nobody). The CPGB was riddled with factions in the 1980s (and throughout the post-war period), not least those grouped around Marxism Today and the party machine. Similarly, on Straight Left’s broad left camouflage in its newspaper and other forums, this was the modus operandi of nearly the whole far left, from the Morning Star to various Trotskyist groups i.e. communists clothing their politics in everything from trade unionism to feminism and concealing their true aims in the pursuit of mass influence. Again, in hindsight, Straight Left doesn’t strike one as very exceptional in this regard. In retrospect, the enmity aimed at it on these counts stands revealed as the product of mere factional rivalry.

However, another area of criticism aimed at Straight Left may have more mileage in terms of a lasting judgement. The group was deemed by its CPGB factional rivals (both in the CCG and the small group around The Leninist) to have a ‘heads down’ approach to CPGB work. In the words of the CCG such an approach “counsels caution and compliance with the authority of the [CPGB’s] Executive Committee. It says that if there is disagreement and dissatisfaction with the Eurocommunists [the faction then dominating the party’s leadership], then opposition must be expressed and conducted via the normal party channels. That is to say, we must try at successive congresses to defeat and remove the Eurocommunists.”[iv] This led to notorious moves such as Straight Leftists walking out with the CPGB leader Gordon McLennan when he closed down a London District Congress in November 1984 that threatened to become a point of opposition to the party leadership. Mike Hicks, in the chair of this meeting, later contemptuously observed that Straight Left “ended up selling Marxism Today [CPGB theoretical journal much despised by the party’s left in the 1980s for its Eurocommunist proclivities] instead of the Morning Star because the executive told them to”.[v] However, what this Straight Left strategy of avoiding open conflict eventually led to, in the context of a CPGB that was being set on a liquidationist course, was it being left somewhat high and dry. Straight Left had built a considerable base in London by the end of the 1980s “by showing a willingness to take on responsibilities at a time when few candidates were to be found”.[vi] This was to be a very hollow victory indeed given that the CPGB was soon to pass into oblivion and the succession of congresses to win was coming to an end.

Labour pains

In terms of the Labour Party, Straight Left took the BRS injunction of developing an alliance with Labour to effect radical changes to its logical conclusion by arguing that the CPGB should affiliate to the Labour Party and, more controversially for both the left and right of the CPGB, that the party should end its independent electoral work. Thus a typical article in Communist argued: “… it is difficult to see there being much movement against the exclusion of communist trades unionists from the Labour Party until our electoral strategy is based on non-sectarian principles and imbued with a thoroughly consistent and positive attitude to the Labour Party.”[vii] Thus Straight Left picked up clearly on the attitude of the pro-Soviet CPGB opposition of the 1960s, which consistently drew attention to the political impact of declining electoral votes on the avowed Labour-Communist strategy of the party. However, this opened up Straight Left to jibes of ‘liquidationism’ from both left and right in the CPGB[viii] and, in retrospect, isolated the group further.

Men of steel
The Straight Left group, again showing its origins in the CPGB’s pro-Soviet left of the 1960s, took an extremely uncritical view of the Soviet Union and other ‘socialist’ nations, and viewed the actions of the CPGB as a ‘national’ sin against the ‘internationalist’ probity of the Soviet Union’s camp. Straight Left publications were filled with reprints from Soviet agencies such as Novosti and other press agencies from the Eastern Bloc. Thus, an article in Communist argued:

Democracy for the working class has at all times been infinitely greater in the Soviet Union than in Britain. Political power in the Soviet Union is exercised for the working class and not against it. Concretely the Soviet citizen has human rights we are denied. He works for himself, collectively; and he is not unemployed.

Neither did this stance seemingly allow criticism of even the most crisis-stricken and sickly military dictatorships of countries such as Poland in the early 1980s. Straight Leftist Charlie Woods, complaining bitterly of CPGB criticisms of the Polish regime in 1983, said: “After all, how would our [CPGB] leadership take it if the over two-million-strong Polish United Workers Party took time off from trying to solve the problems of socialism to remonstrate with our 16,000-member party’s failure to achieve it at all.”[ix] The implication of this little homily being, of course, that those British communists really shouldn’t venture to criticise their Polish brethren at all. Fergus Nicholson used the pseudonym ‘Harry Steel’ when writing in Straight Left (Harry after Harry Pollitt, the CPGB’s most-revered general secretary; and Steel after Joseph Stalin the so-called ‘man of steel’). The attitude that the faction took to the Soviet Union shows that this was no idle affectation.

The Straight Left journal existed until the early 1990s, but many of its followers ended up joining the Communist Party of Britain, which was set up from the CCG in 1988. Unlike The Leninist faction, which became the new CPGB in the late 1990s, the Straight Left faction faded into obscurity after the breakup of the original Communist Party of Great Britain.

Lawrence Parker is the author of the book, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991. He has also contributed a chapter on anti-revisionism inside the CPGB in the 1950s and 1960s for our edited collection, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956.

———————————————————–

[i] It was difficult for a generally Stalin-supporting left in the CPGB to discard the legacy of the 1951 version of the BRS, particularly after John Gollan had helpfully pointed out that Stalin oversaw its incarnation. See John Gollan ‘Which road?’ Marxism Today July 1964. For a clear example of this ambiguity being shown to the BRS, see the contribution of Fergus Nicholson to the CPGB’s 1977 pre-congress debate in Comment 1 October 1977.

[ii] Francis Beckett Enemy within: the rise and fall of the British Communist Party London, 1998 p234. The accession of a group of ex-Straight Leftists (including Andrew Murray and Nick Wright, who had split from Straight Left to form Communist Liaison in the early 1990s) into the ranks of the Communist Party of Britain, contributed to a bitter faction fight in the organisation, in which Hicks was eventually deposed as general secretary and a strike by Morning Star staff.

[iii] Communist Campaign Group The crisis in the Communist Party and the way forward (no date but circa 1985)

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Beckett op cit

[vi] Willie Thompson The good old cause: British communism 1920-1991 London, 1992 p205

[vii] ‘40th congress of the Communist Party’ Communist September 1987

[viii] For the right wing of the CPGB, see Dave Cook in the pre-congress discussion of 1981; and for the left, Alan Stevens in the same context. Both in Comment 17 October 1981.

[ix] Charlie Woods The crisis in our Communist Party: cause, effect and cure 1983. Woods was a miner and party veteran from County Durham who was expelled for writing this pamphlet although he was very much viewed as a ‘fall guy’, with Fergus Nicholson or Brian Topping thought of as the more likely authors.

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15 comments

  1. It seems to me a little disingenuous to say nothing of the implications of the name “Straight Left”. The sense of “unambiguously left” was obvious, as was the boxing metaphor. But this was a time when there was growing support for gay rights in sections of the CP, especially on the Eurocommunist wing. The name “Straight Left” seemed to me – as a fairly distant observer – to be making an appeal to the more “old-fashioned” section of the CP membership, making it clear that it was distancing itself from campaigning for gay rights. It would be interesting to know if Straight Left carried any material on the gay question from any perspective.

  2. Hi Ian, yes I think part of the SL was an appeal against the CPGB’s position on gay rights (formulated in 1976). I asked Lawrence whether SL or any of the other hardline groups made any comment about gay rights and he said that seemingly they chose to stay silent on the issue.

    1. This is complete nonsense. The metaphor was a boxing one. The ‘anti-gay smear’ against communists is a long standing gambit of the Chamberlain cult.
      The Weekly Worker’s Lawrence Parker is no more an ‘expert’ on the Communist Party than I am a cosmonaut.
      This whole enterprise is a forlorn attempt by the pretend ‘CPGB’ Provisional Central Committee to lend itself a spurious air of legitimacy

      1. Nick Wright — this site is run by Evan Smith, a historian who has no connection with the Weekly Worker other than erm… maybe reading it occasionally. I don’t know.

        I haven’t been a member of the CPGB for 14 years. I write occasional articles for the WW, have a few friends in the organisation and they were kind enough to publish the second edition of my book. I agree with them on some political issues but not on others.

        Evan asked me to write this as an individual; the CPGB were not involved in any capacity. Indeed, I suspect that they might accuse me of being rather soft on Straight Left.

        I’m not sure you aren’t a cosmonaut given that you do seem to be on another planet.
        Lawrence

  3. Ian,
    you are probably right. However, I cannot find any hard evidence to prove that Straight Left was pro or anti-gay. I didn’t mean to be disingenious — just cautious.
    Lawrence

  4. Reblogged this on Socialist Fight and commented:
    Mandatory reading to understand the political background of Jeremy Corbyn’s new right hand man Seamus Milne. His origins are in Straight Left and uncritical support for Joe Stalin and the 1951 version of the British Road to Socialism, overseen by Uncle Joe himself.

  5. The Straight Left name had absolutely nothing to do with sexual orientation. There were gay supporters of SL, same as all the other trends / factions in the old CPGB. There was no culture of homophobia.

    1. Did SL ever produce a statement/writings on the gay movement? I’ve searched through my back issues of Communist. There is certainly plenty on the women’s movement but I haven’t found anything on gay liberation. I would be genuinely interested to read anything that other people are aware of.
      Lawrence

  6. The SL current in the CPGB was distinguished above all by its refusal to accept any public criticism of the USSR or current Soviet positions. Male homosexuality was illegal in the USSR. To have engaged with the question of gay rights would have meant dealing with criticism from gay rights activists within and outside the CP of the position in the USSR. I assume that is one of the main reasons why SL chose to avoid the issue – there were plenty of other important and less troubling questions to be getting on with.

  7. Nick Wright and “All Good” are getting very defensive. I originally raised the point, as someone who was active on the left, occasionally saw Straight Left on salke and even more occasionally read it. I made no suggestion of a “culture of homophobia” – and nor did Lawrence Parker, who didn’t even mention the point. (As for the “Chamberlain cult” I know nothing of it except that he was prime minister when I was born.)
    It is in no way a smear to recognise that anti-gay prejudices did exist among the older generation of CP members, as they did in every other current of the left – certainly including my own organisation the IS/SWP – until we were challenged by the emerging gay movement.
    All I can say is that if those who used the name Straight Left did not recognise the double entendre they must have been very innocent folk who had led an extremely sheltered existence.

  8. Straight Left often argued that British communists should devote more time to explicitly seditious activity such as infiltrating the army and the police. Whether they ever managed to do so seems unlikely. Having said that, I vividly remember the occasion when one of Straight Left’s leading members spoke at a meeting of my university’s Communist Society in the 1980s. Bearded, bigoted and almost insanely egotistical, he proudly told us that he’d recently tried to indoctrinate a class of police cadets with Marxist propaganda. I remember being very unimpressed that his desire to preen in front of a teenage audience had betrayed him into a public confession of sedition.

  9. Hendon police college used to invite speakers from all sorts of political groups to talk to the cadets. I remember George Matthews talking about being invited as a spokesman of the CPGB (the real one). I suppose the thinking was that given that the plods were going to need to police and watch these groups, it made sense to fill them in on what they all were, where they stood and the sort of behaviour that might be expected of them.

  10. I was a sympathiser of SL in the CP in the eighties and voted with for its position on a few things. There was no public culture of homophobia, even in the eighties this wouldn’t have been very progressive or cool. But speaking as a gay guy (back then in my twenties) I wouldn’t have wanted to come out to anyone from SL. They were vey disproving of what they called ‘fads’ and it was clear that homosexuality was one of them. They weren’t alone in the CP on this.

    There was also this running joke of ‘we won’t talk about insurrection or the red terror in the meeting comrades, we’ll do it the pub later’. This was all silly and I eventually realised they were just windbags.

    As for Nick Wright, I remember him in a meeting in Haringey in the late 198os calling Tony Chater and the Morning Star all the names under the sun for walking out on the CP. I guess he doesn’t like being reminded of such happy times given that he is now a member of the very thing that caused him such outrage.

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