British far left

New covers for paperback editions of books on the history of the British far left

I am very happy to announce that for the new paperback editions of Against the Grain and Waiting for the Revolution – our two books on the British far left from 1956 – Manchester University Press have designed new covers for each volume. Inspired by the left-wing pamphlets of the 1970s, Matt and I are excited to see them!

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The new edition of Against the Grain is available to order now from here.

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The new edition of Waiting for the Revolution is available for pre-order here. It will be published in March 2019.

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New book: ‘Communists and Labour: The National Left-Wing Movement 1925-1929’ by Lawrence Parker (with extract)

Lawrence Parker, author of The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991, has published a new book, Communists and Labour: The National Left-Wing Movement 1925-1929.

The National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM), set up by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1925–26 to pull the Labour Party rank and file towards Communist politics, was one in which Marxists worked in a largely open fashion to promote specific programmatic principles.

This publication sheds new light on how the early CPGB approached its work inside the Labour Party and points to a more variegated picture of the CPGB in the mid-to-late 1920s as still capable of producing rational and principled responses to the class struggle — albeit, in the case of the NLWM, partially flawed and unsuccessful ones.

The NLWM had another goal forced upon it of protecting Communists and their sympathisers from a Labour leadership intent on expelling and disaffiliating such elements in a pursuit of respectability. This monograph seeks to qualitatively measure the impact of that disaffiliation process on the CPGB, the NLWM and Labour sympathisers.

You can order the book here. Below is an extract from the book’s introduction.

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Members of the disaffiliated Bethnal Green Trades Council and Labour Party in 1928. Joe Vaughan, Britain’s first CPGB mayor, is front-centre

The National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM), an oppositional force inside the Labour Party in the mid-to-late 1920s, designed to pull rank-and-file Labour members towards the politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), has the status of a relative historical curio. In the ever-expanding literature on the CPGB, the NLWM has received only cursory treatment.

This ‘novelty-item’ status is probably a reflection of the ‘grander’ historical events surrounding the NLWM in the trajectory of the 1920s CPGB. If people know anything about the CPGB in this era, they know of Lenin’s ‘hanged-man’ advice on affiliation to the Labour Party;the party’s role in the General Strike of 1926; and its adoption of disastrous sectarian tactics in the late 1920s.Compared to this, the NLWM is a relative blind spot.

The CPGB itself evinced very little understanding of the NLWM up to its dissolution in 1991. In one historian’s words, the Comintern’s seventh congress of 1935, which saw the popular front take centre stage in world Communist politics, came to be seen by CPGB members as a “foundation congress”.[1] This creates instant problems for the reception of formations such as the NLWM, which was constructed around the pursuit of a process of differentiation with a more ideologically diffuse Labour left, whereas later CPGB approaches to this constituency were hedged around with more modest ideas of adaptation and accommodation — the popular front being the exemplar of such tactics.

Thus, in its latter decades, while the CPGB was still concerned to promote unity with the left of the Labour Party, a nebulous courtship was conducted from a distance, and Communists, in general, did not organise within Labour (this had largely come to an end in 1940). As the CPGB became ever more concerned with notions of respectability (which, in this case, meant respecting the bourgeois proprietorial rights that the Labour Party bureaucracy expected to wield over its patch) and as its chances of becoming a mass organisation that could become an attractive partner to the Labour Party receded, such ‘unity’ became steadily more chimerical. Even though its programme, The British Road to Socialism (first published in 1951), in many ways represented the Communists writing the Labour left’s programme for it, the CPGB was generally forced to rely on more indirect means of influencing Labour, such as the trade unions.

This conservative approach had definite implications for the manner in which the CPGB handled the radicalism of past movements such as the NLWM. When, for example, the CPGB chose to emote on Communist-Labour relations in 1977-78,[2] there was no way, of course, that the historical experience of the NLWM could be central to that debate, given that it was set up to differentiate Communist politics inside a more generic Labour left and act as a bridge to the CPGB (although Monty Johnstone did at least outline a rudimentary awareness of the NLWM in 1978).[3] Official histories of the CPGB offer a bland outline of the NLWM. For example, Noreen Branson, having spoken to one of the NLWM’s secretaries, Ralph Bond,[4] does offer up some useful details but her narrative doesn’t reveal any of the key contradictions of the movement — in a similar fashion to Stalinist economists discussing the quantities of pig iron produced in the Soviet Union.[5] In other words, we know some of the facts of the NLWM’s existence but we know very little of how and why it existed.

The Trotskyist movement has a much better record of trying to excavate the history of the NLWM, led by Brian Pearce, who originally published an important essay ‘The British Communist Party and the Labour left, 1925-1929’ in 1957 (under the pseudonym of Joseph Redman). This offered a sympathetic analysis of the NLWM and the CPGB’s work in establishing it.[6] Pearce was a pioneer in this field and is deserving of respect. However, I have been critical of some of his approach in this study and, in particular, of his preference for quantifying the NLWM’s impact through bare statistics over exploring the qualitative evidence, which, in its very consistency, offers up a far less optimistic picture of the movement’s prospects. Nevertheless, Pearce, in identifying the NLWM as a positive force emanating from the CPGB beyond 1925 (i.e. after Stalin’s bureaucratic faction began to talk hold of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), is an important figure in pointing up a more variegated picture of the CPGB in the mid-to-late 1920s.

Unfortunately, Pearce’s example has generally not been followed and when Britain’s two major Trotskyist organisations of the 1980s, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and the Militant Tendency, investigated the NLWM, the jaundiced picture that emerged had more to do with factional manoeuvring and soap-powder-type brand differentiation than with the real dynamics of the history involved. The Militant Tendency was an entrist group working inside the Labour Party and falsely denied that it had a separate organisation outside Labour. The SWP was Militant’s opponent, inventing spurious reasons as to why entry into the Labour Party was a thoroughly bad idea. This set the scene for their reception of the NLWM. Militant was obviously the more sympathetic but was publicly suspicious of the CPGB for maintaining a separate organisation outside the Labour Party (i.e. exactly what Militant itself did).[7] The SWP, on the other hand, in Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein’s desperate works of the period, felt duty bound to present the NLWM essentially as a ‘right-opportunist’ gambit and a capitulation to reformism, in order to do down Militant and thus any idea of entry work in the Labour Party.[8]

Academic works haven’t generally offered up anything better on the NLWM than the occasional, often trivial, aside,[9] the exception being Leslie Macfarlane’s 1966 work on the CPGB in the 1920s, which offers some useful detail and was a suggestive source of ideas for this work.[10]

However, there is another side to this partial disappearance of the NLWM from the history books. It was a badly organised and unsuccessful venture that lasted for barely three-and-a-half years. In fact, these years saw the removal of Communists from the Labour Party’s ranks and its political defeat at the hands of the Labour bureaucracy. So the question would be: why do we need a study of the NLWM?

The author doesn’t really have a pat answer to this question beyond his own cussedness and interest in obscure political formations. This work probably began with a set of different intentions and conceptions, roughly based on the thought that it would be a useful project since Jeremy Corbyn’s accession to the Labour Party leadership in September 2015 — the most left-wing leader in the party’s history — to understand the history of left-wing revolts in Labour. The author rapidly jettisoned these ideas, partly because he became suspicious of the utilitarian projections some of his friends put on the work.

The history of the NLWM has no specific bearing on today’s situation in the Labour Party. The NLWM was organised by a serious force to the Labour Party’s left: the CPGB, which was part of and exterior to the Labour Party in the first half of the 1920s. It was organised, in theory, on a precise political programme to offer a bridgehead for Left-Wing workers into the CPGB. Today, the Labour Party has a left-wing leader who is panicking the establishment (and is worth supporting for that reason alone) but there is no serious Marxist organisation to its left — merely a gaggle of incompetent sects. The idea that an organised Marxist conspiracy propelled Corbyn to power is a bizarre fantasy peddled by tabloid newspapers… and the Labour Party’s deputy leader Tom Watson. The movement that propelled Corbyn to power is ideologically incoherent and scarcely animated by socialist, let alone Marxist, ideas, instead being composed of people inspired by a loose amalgam of politically correct good causes and a weird cult of non-personality around Corbyn himself. So, ultimately, nothing has animated this work beyond the author’s own interest in the NLWM and filling a gap in the historical record.

However, while the author would be highly suspicious if his work were to become some kind of handbook for today’s militants inside the Labour Party, it does perhaps provide some more general — pessimistic — lessons as to the inherent problems of revolutionaries working inside reformist organisations. The CPGB of the 1920s largely worked in an open fashion inside the Labour Party and while it was able to animate a supportive section of Labour members inside the NLWM, it is doubtful this led to many long-term gains in the sense of making substantial numbers of Communists (or at least Communists willing to accept the CPGB as the ultimate organisational broker of their political identity). Later endeavours of the CPGB in the 1930s and subsequent entrist adventures in the Labour Party by smaller Trotskyist groups tried to offset the major drawback of open work (i.e. exposure to bureaucrats intent on expulsion and disaffiliation) by clothing themselves in the outward garb of social-democratic reformism and hiding their Marxist politics to a greater or lesser extent. It is doubtful if this later entrism achieved a balance sheet of anything more than the traditional leftist twin evils of opportunism and sectarianism.

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[1]K Morgan Against fascism and war: ruptures and continuities in British communist politics 1935-41 Manchester 1989 p33.

[2]See, for example, G McLennan ‘Interview on the Communist Party and unity’ Marxism Today March 1977; D Priscott ‘Problems of Communist-Labour relationships’ Marxism Today October 1977; and M Prior ‘Communist-Labour relations’ Marxism Today February 1978.

[3]M Johnstone ‘Early Communist strategy for Britain: an assessment’ Marxism Today September 1978. ‘Official’ histories of the CPGB also offer a bland outline of the NLWM — see, for example, N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927-41 London 1985.

[4]Ralph Bond (1904–89) became better known as a documentary filmmaker and co-founded the London Workers’ Film Society in 1929. He remained with the CPGB until his death.

[5]N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927–41 London 1985 pp 4–11.

[6]I have used this version: B Pearce ‘The Communist Party and the Labour left, 1925-1929’ in B Pearce and M Woodhouse A history of communism in Britain London 1995 pp 184-210.

[7]T Aitman ‘Labour’s purge of the 1920s’ Militant 18 April 1986. Aitman said: “Militant is a newspaper whose supporters represent a trendof opinion in the [Labour Party] — unlike the Communist Party of the [1920s,] which was a separate and distinct organisation.”

[8]  See T Cliff and D Gluckstein Marxism & trade union struggle: the general strike of 1926 London 1986; and T Cliff and D Gluckstein The Labour Party: a Marxist history London 1988. See chapter 2 for more on this.

[9]For an example of such trivia, John Callaghan argues: “[The NLWM] was designed to seduce the Labour left into joint work with the communists and succeeded, up to the General Strike, in fostering some sort of united front…”[9]— J Callaghan Rajani Palme Dutt: a study in British Stalinism London 1993 p 117.

As this study will argue, if this was a seduction then it was a remarkably unsuccessful given that the courtship had in fact foundered long before the General Strike.

[10]LJ Macfarlane The British Communist Party: its origin and development until 1929 London 1966.

Communist Party of Australia’s Rupert Lockwood on the Common Market (c.1961)

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In the early 1960s, Britain first tried to join the Common Market. The British Labour Party, the trade unions and the Communist Party opposed this, arguing that it was creating a supranational capitalist entity that served no purpose for the British working class (or the other working classes of Western Europe). This can be seen in the literature on the Common Market by the Communist Party of Great Britain produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Australian labour movement and the Communist Party of Australia also opposed Britain’s entry into the Common Market. In the early 1960s, CPA journalist Rupert Lockwood wrote a pamphlet for the Sydney Branch of the Boilermakers’ Society that outlined the Communist-influenced trade unions’ position towards the Common Market.

As part of my endeavours to make some of the more hard-to-find resources on leftist history, I have scanned and uploaded a copy of this pamphlet. In the era of Brexit, I thought it would be interesting to revisit this pamphlet of an earlier era of ‘Euroscepticism’ on the international left.

The Poll Tax ‘Riot’: Thatcher, the Met and its aftermath

This is an extract from some work that I have doing with Jac St John, with assistance from the Special Branch Files project and via this project, journalist Solomon Hughes.

The community charge, better known as the ‘Poll Tax’, was introduced by the Thatcher Government as an ideological reform of local council rates, which led to a severe backlash in the final years of her Prime Ministership. First introduced in Scotland in 1989, the flat rate tax was then introduced in England and Wales in 1990, which led to massive backlash, from the Labour Party, but more significantly, from the grassroots.

Although the Labour Party had decided against a campaign of non-payment at its 1988 conference, a number of groups were created by activists on the left to support the non-payment of the tax and assist those who experienced legal troubles as a result of non-payment. The most important of these groups was the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF), organised by Militant, which used the local trade unions to help build a campaign of non-payment. The Socialist Workers Party, the other major far left organisation in Britain at the time, had a much more ambivalent attitude towards non-payment and the ABAPTF, which allowed Militant to become the dominant group campaigning against the Poll Tax. Outside of the Trotskyist far left, several anarchist groups also supported non-payment, especially the Anarchist Communist Federation who produced a pamphlet called Beating the Poll Tax (ACF 1990). The role that these groups played in the anti-Poll Tax campaign led the authorities to identify these groups as particular threats and pre-empt ‘trouble’ when dealing with them, feeding into the ‘outside agitators’ thesis that has been explored above. This has come to light through Metropolitan Police files released via FOI to the journalist Solomon Hughes in 2005 (Hughes has written about these files here).

Prior to the national Anti-Poll Tax march in London at the end of March 1990, the Home Office’s F8 Division noted that there was ‘evidence of Militant and Socialist Workers Party involvement’ at several regional demonstrations, such as Bristol and Haringey, but this involvement was ‘not uniform’ (HO 1990a). The memo suggested that demonstrations were at their ‘most vociferous and active’ when these groups were involved, but also acknowledged that there was ‘no indication of national co-ordination of the demonstrations’ (HO 1990a). Another memo written the following day further implied that it was far left agitators that stirred up trouble with the police, writing:

It is hard to imagine defaulters and/or dissatisfied payers coming together spontaneously in sufficient numbers with intent to cause serious public disorder (HO 1990b).

With this anticipation of violence, the Metropolitan Police prepared for confrontation at the national Anti-Poll Tax demonstration that happened in central London on 31 March 1990. Over 200,000 attended the march from Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square, but as some marchers deviated towards protests at Downing Street and Whitehall, the massive police presence clashed with some protestors. Danny Burns (1992: 89) described the police attack upon those demonstrating at Downing Street:

300 people sat down, and then the police brought in the horses. Mounted riot police baton-charged the crowd. The crowd, angered by this violent provocation retaliated throwing sticks, banner poles, bottles – anything they could find. Young people, armed only with placards fought hand to hand with police. Some demonstrators were batoned down with truncheons, others has riot shields thrust into their faces.

Further clashes broke out at Trafalgar Square, including out the front of the South African Embassy, and some protestors then ran amok through the West End as the evening wore on.

Addressing Parliament two days later, the Home Secretary stated that by the end of the day, 339 people were arrested (mainly for public order offences) and 86 people were injured. Out of 2,198 police officers on duty, Waddington announced that 374 of them had been injured, with 58 requiring hospital treatment. Materially, there were around 250 reports of property damage as well (Hansard, 2 April, 1990, col. 893). Despite the opposition, including Roy Hattersley, Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, calling for a public inquiry into the riot, the Conservative government were unwilling to allow this, with David Waddington stating that there would only be a criminal investigation into those protestors who broke the law and an internal inquiry ‘carried out by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to see what lessons can be learnt’ (Hansard, 2 April, 1990, col. 895). In reply to people contacting the Home Office to assist with any potential inquiry, the Home Office explained:

The review which [the Metropolitan Police] undertake will be a thorough examination of the police handling of the event right through from the planning stages to the actions taken on the day. It will be very much concerned with operational matters. The Met will not call on the assistance of outside advisers during the course of the review. In the circumstances they suggest that correspondents should not be encouraged (HO 1990c).

Sir Peter Imbert, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, told Thatcher that two inquiries were underway, the first being into ‘those who had conspired to organise the violence and those who perpetrated it’ and the second ‘to learn any lessons for future policing of such occasions’ (Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Colin Walters, 3 April 1990, PREM 19/3021, NA). Briefing the Prime Minister on this meeting with Imbert, her Private Secretary Andrew Turnbull stated that ‘[a]lthough the police were under great pressure and showed great courage, it cannot be said that their handling of the event was faultless’ (‘Meeting with Sir Peter Imbert’, 3 April, 1990, PREM 19/3021, NA).

Stott and Drury (2000: 257) have argued that because the police ‘treated the crowd as a single unit, regardless of any individuals’ prior activities or intentions’, when disorder did break out and a ‘small number of demonstrators actively engaged in conflict’, the police treated these individuals with the same ‘aggressive policing activity’ as those who did not engage in this conflict. For Stott and Drury, ‘the police had the ability to impose their perceptions of a uniformly dangerous crowd upon crowd members through their use of indiscriminate coercive force’. Reading the archival record, the police attempted to portray themselves as unprepared for this disorder. Imbert told Thatcher that they ‘expected around 1,500 trouble-makers’, but ‘[w]hat had been completely unexpected was the degree of violence used’, further claiming that ‘[s]ome of his officers came close to being murdered’ (Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Colin Walters, 3 April 1990, PREM 19/3021, NA). For Imbert, the ‘restraint shown was highly commendable’. In contrast to the police perceptions of the day’s events in its aftermath as revealed in these recently disclosed papers, Stott and Drury’s interviews with police officers involved in policing the march show that the police perceived the crowd ‘as a uniform danger’ and ‘chose to act against the crowd’ in combative manner (Stott and Drury 2000: 261).

In 1988, nearly three years after the riots in Handsworth and Broadwater Farm, the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd stated, ‘Public order training has been refined and improved throughout the 80s, and we have provided the police with better protective and other equipment’, meaning, in his eyes, that the police were ‘more skilled and better prepared, both individually and collectively, for tackling disorder and preventing its escalation’ (‘Public Order in the Inner Cities’, 21 June, 1988, PREM 19/3021, NA). However the policing of the Poll Tax riot just under two years later seem to demonstrate that while public order policing had become more efficient, it was still unable to prevent events from escalating to a episode of disorder.

References

ACF (1990) Beating the Poll Tax (London: ACF pamphlet).

Burns, D. (1992) Poll Tax Rebellion (Stirling: AK Press).

Home Office (1990a) Memo dated 7 March.

Home Office (1990b) Memo dated 8 March.

Home Office (1990c) Letter dated 10 April.

Stott, C. & Drury, J. (2000) ‘Crowds, Context and Identity: Dynamic Categorization Processes in the “Poll Tax Riot”’, Human Relations, 53/2, pp. 247-273.

 

Quiz competition to win a copy of ‘Waiting for the Revolution’

university challenge

To celebrate the publication of Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 by Manchester University Press, I am running a quiz competition to win a copy of the book. Below are ten questions on various aspects of the history of the British far left. In order to enter the competition, please send your answers to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com (with the subject line “Far Left Quiz”) by  Midnight, Sunday, January 7 (Adelaide time). Entries that get all ten answers right will go into a draw to be conducted by me on Monday, January 8. I will then send the book to the winner (anywhere in the world).

So here’s the quiz…

  1. In what year did the Daily Worker change to the Morning Star?
  2. What union did the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)’s Reg Birch belong to?
  3. The International Socialists became the Socialist Workers Party on what date?
  4. The Revolutionary Socialist League was better known as what group?
  5. Ken Livingstone wrote for which publication aligned with the Workers Revolutionary Party?
  6. Who was the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Industrial Organiser at the time of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike?
  7. What two groups supported the Revolutionary Communist Party’s Red Front in 1987?
  8. Militant was aligned to which Tendency inside the African National Congress in South Africa during the 1970s-80s?
  9. The journal Gay Left first appeared in which year?
  10. Alan Thornett formed which group after leaving the Workers Revolutionary Party (until 1973 the Socialist Labour League) in 1974?

Good luck comrades!

If you are not the winner, you can still purchase a copy of the book for 45% off via Book Depository. And if you haven’t picked up the previous volume, Against the Grain, you can get the paperback version for only £13.99 via Blackwell.