Entryism

Announcing the chapter list for ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 5.18.39 pm.png

Image source: Getty Images

Now that we have entered the copy-editing phase, Matthew Worley and I are happy to announce the chapter list for our forthcoming volume with Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956. It is the second volume that Matt and I have co-edited for MUP (the first being Against the Grain) and we are very excited to showcase new scholarship by a range of established and upcoming scholars (including a number of activist-scholars). Like the previous volume, we have tried to cover a wide variety of different groups and movements and hope that these chapters inspire further research into the British (and international) far left. So here is chapter list:

Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left – Evan Smith and Matthew Worley

1          Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970–90 – Jodi Burkett

2          Not that serious? The investigation and trial of the Angry Brigade, 1967–72 – J. D. Taylor

3          Protest and survive: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party and civil defence in the 1980s – Jacquelyn Arnold

4          Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s – Gavin Brown

5          ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968–75 – Jack Saunders

6          Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956–85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley

7          Networks of solidarity: the London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike – Diarmaid Kelliher

8          ‘You have to start where you’re at’: politics and reputation in 1980s Sheffield – Daisy Payling

9          Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism,      1956–79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs

10        A miner cause? The persistence of left nationalism in postwar Wales – Daryl Leeworthy

11        The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn

12        The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Michael Fitzpatrick

13        The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey

14        Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain – Lawrence Parker

We hope that the volume will be available by the end of the year, or in early 2018. Further details will be on this blog as they come to us.

For those attending the Modern British Studies conference at the University of Birmingham in July, Matt and several of the contributing authors will be speaking about the collection. More details to follow soon.

Advertisements

Corbyn, Labour and the limits of the British far left

This is something that I’ve been playing with while trying to write the intro to our second volume on the British far left’s history, titled Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 vol. II and to be published through Manchester University Press in 2017. Parts of it may or may not end up in the final version, but I thought I’d post this while the topic is still being debated…

jeremy-corbyn-john-mcdonnell

While putting together our second edited volume dedicated to the history of the British far left, we have witnessed a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s stint as leader of the Labour Party. This has, in turn, brought a renewed interest in the far left’s history.

Corbyn’s victory in July 2015 had been on the back on a wave of enthusiasm amongst different sections of the Labour Party membership – trade unionists, young people, those who flirted with the Greens and other minor parties, working class members, and, of course, refugees from the British far left. Many on the far left had written off the Labour Party as unreformable in recent years, but Corbyn’s entry into the leadership contest after the 2015 election made a number of the Party’s leftist critics reassess their analysis of Labour.

The election of Corbyn as Labour leader seemed to many to overturn the assumed position of the far left since the advent of New Labour in the 1990s. From Militant Labour (later the Socialist Party of England and Wales) to the Revolutionary Communist Party, it was presumed that the Labour Party was unsalvageable, a bourgeois party that had abandoned the working class. Entrism was left to the rump of Militant and the other groups began a long line of alternative electoral vehicles to Labour – Socialist Alliance, Respect, No2EU, TUSC, the Left List (for example). Admittedly, some groups, such as the Communist Party of Britain, still called a Labour vote at general elections, but asked people to metaphorically hold their nose while doing so. But the initial period after Corbyn’s victory seemed to suggest that there was political life left in Labour, awoken from its slumber by the thousands of veteran activists from the social movements of the 2000s that Corbyn had been involved in, primarily Stop the War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Unite Against Fascism, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

However as the last year has proved, trying to reform the outlook and membership base of Labour Party (which has been the intention of many of those supporting Corbyn) while trying to maintain the emphasis on electoralism (which has been the focus of the Party since 1945 at least) has brought the Party to near schism. Looking at the long history of the relationship between the British far left and the Labour Party, it seems that the lessons of the 1960s (when the IMG and IS became entities in their own right) or the 1990s (when Militant Labour had its ‘open turn’) might have to be learnt all over again. Entrism has its limits and it is possibly far better for the far left to be social forces outside the Labour Party putting pressure from without than to be marginalised while attempting to apply pressure from within. Since the Labour Party refused to affiliate with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the 1920s, the far left has had to negotiate how much to work with (or within) Labour and how much to differentiate and present an alternative.

The Communist Party of Great Britain had sought affiliation with the Labour Party several times during the inter-war period, but after its last attempt failed in 1945-46, the CPGB devised another way to influence the Labour Party and bring forward the future possibility of a Labour-Communist alliance. This influence would come through the structures of the trade union bureaucracy. Most other groups on the far left looked to seek influence in the trade unions at rank-and-file level, but wrote off the higher echelons of the trade unions as reformist and too conservative. However this strategy of working through the trade unions formed the basis for the CPGB’s post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism. As John Callaghan has noted, almost all the elements of the CPGB’s plan to gain influence inside the Labour Party through the trade unions came together in the period between 1973 and 1983 (between the defeat of the Heath Government and Labour’s ‘radical’ 1983 manifesto),[1] but as we now know, there were little tangible gains from this strategy. The victory of the trade unions over Edward Heath only resulted in a crisis-ridden Labour Government beholden to the International Monetary Fund and Labour were roundly defeated in the 1983 election by Margaret Thatcher, after the Party’s leftwards shift caused a section of the right to break away to form the Social Democratic Party.

The loss of the 1983 election is routinely blamed upon the far left entrists in the Labour Party who pushed the party to the left, resulting in a manifesto that alienated the political centre. Roy Hattersley is attributed as saying the Party’s ‘Trotskyists, one-subject campaigners, Marxists who had never read Marx, Maoists, pathological dissidents … played a major part in keeping the Conservatives in power for almost twenty years.’[2] Although the actual reasons for Labour’s disastrous showing at this election are far more complex, the shadow of 1983 has loomed large over the party since Corbyn’s leadership victory.[3] Since becoming Labour leader, many have predicted that Corbyn will repeat the mistakes of Labour under Michael Foot – giving too much leeway to the far left and thus encouraging a split with the centre-right. The far left is portrayed by many commentators as a nebulous force set to derail Labour’s ability to present a credible opposition to the Conservatives and one of the main reasons that Labour will lose the 2020 general election (if not called sooner). While the spectre of various Trotskyists and Communists inside the Labour Party has been raised, it also vastly overestimates the influence that the far left has within the Labour Party nowadays.

In his recent book on the Corbyn ‘revolution’, Richard Seymour has suggested that the Labour Party ‘may simply be untenable in its current form’.[4] The gap between the electoral desires of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the grassroots call for reforms by a large section of the Party’s membership, not to mention to shifting voting base for the Labour Party, seems unsurmountable – and a resolution to suit all involved is unrealistic. Journalist and economist Paul Mason has recently suggested that the Labour Party should become a social movement, rather than simply an electoral political party. However the post-war history of the British far left highlights the difficulties in creating a social movement around an organised political party, rather than a single issue organisation. As Phil Burton-Cartledge showed in our last volume, Against the Grain, the success of the far left has come when it has spearheaded a broad-based social movement,[5] such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War movement, rather than when it has tried to consolidate and centralise its membership into a particular party. The history of the far left in Britain has shown that when different parties have attempted to transform momentum from a broad social movement into concrete party membership, this has not been easily translated. An understanding of the history of how the far left has operated and functioned in Britain since the 1950s is important to understand the limits of a radical agenda within a reformist framework (essentially where the Labour Party finds itself in 2016). It is hoped that our forthcoming book, as well as the previous volume, will help provide readers with this understanding.

 

[1] John Callaghan, ‘The Plan to Capture the British Labour Party and its Paradoxical Results, 1947-91’, Journal of Contemporary History, 40/4 (2005) p. 707.

[2] Cited in, Mark Steel, Reasons to be Cheerful: From Punk to New Labour (London: Scribner, 2001) p. 116.

[3] For example, see: Peter Dorey & Andrew Denham, ‘“The Longest Suicide Vote in History”: The Labour Party Leadership Election of 2015’, British Politics (2016) doi:10.1057/s41293-016-0001-0

[4] Richard Seymour, Corbyn: the Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (London: Verso, 2016) p. 12.

[5] Phil Burton-Cartledge, ‘Marching Separately, Seldom Together: The Political History of Two Principal Trends in British Trotskyism, 1945-2009’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) pp. 80-97.

The final years of the CPGB and the legacy of Marxism Today

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, many journalists and commentators are looking back to the 1980s and delving into the history of the British left. A lot of this has focused on Militant and the battles between the entrist group and Neil Kinnock, but journalists have also revived interest in the post-IMG entrist group, Socialist Action, which is linked to some of Corbyn’s staff. Corbyn himself was involved in several left-leaning social movements in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Anti-Fascist Action.

However what truly interested me was an article in The Guardian by John Harris on the Communist Party of Great Britain’s journal Marxism Today and how the Party in its final years pointed to new directions for the left, which, Harris argues, are useful for understanding the political situation today. The following is based on an extract from my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of race (Brill/Haymarket) and looks at the final years of the Communist Party, as well as its legacy (and its flagship journal).

Hobsbawm-Tony-Benn-Marxism-Today

Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in May 1979 was a watershed moment, emphatically pronouncing the end of the post-war social democratic consensus of the role of the state that had been in decline since the late 1960s. Thatcher’s victory was a demonstration of the ascendancy of the rightist populism that considered British society on the verge of collapse. The Thatcherite solution was to confront and control the ‘subversive’ elements in society, whether it was trade unionists, Irish republicans, youth or Britain’s black population. Margaret Thatcher combined a social conservatism from the traditional Tory right (previously espoused by Enoch Powell and the Monday Club) with an economic liberalism that preached free markets and privatisation at its core – something that the Conservatives since the 1950s had shifted away from. This was a break with Britain’s post-war social democratic consensus and a realignment of state power upon the framework of a market-led economic base – what is known to many now as ‘neo-liberalism’. The Thatcherite model of neo-liberalism was more than classic laissez-faire liberal economics, but a rearrangement of the relationship between the state and the individual citizen to favour certain forms of economics. As Michel Foucault wrote in 1978, neo-liberalism is not merely Adam Smith or a market society, but assumes:

the overall exercise of political power can be modeled on the principles of a market economy … to discover how far and to what extent the formal principles of a market economy can index a general art of government.[1]

Under neo-liberalism, the governance of the state favours market principles so that democratic concepts, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, are defined by consumer ‘choice’, resulting in citizneship not being defined by an individual’s obligations to and rights within a democratic society, but by their consumer power. Richard Seymour has argued that under Thatcher, while championing the idea of ‘choice’ for rational and infomed consumer citizen, the state pushed individuals towards accepting certain rationalities of the free market in some circumstances and on other occasions, intervened heavily to ensure an outcome preferable to the government.[2] This meant financial incentives for financial capitalist ventures in the City, a divestment in manufacturing, a drive towards privatisation and most importantly in the first half of the decade, the use of state power, through legilsation and police force, to ‘tackle’ the trade union ‘problem’. This desire of Thatcher and other Conservatives to ‘smash’ the trade unions was borne out of the victory of the miners in 1972, where the Heath government was unable to stand up to the tactics taken by the labour movement, and the experience of the Grunwick strike, where the National Association For Freedom campaigned that the presence of a trade union was anathema to the freedom of the individual worker. This desire resulted in early confrontations with the unions, such as the 1980 Steel Strike, but did not really gain momentum until March 1984 when the Miners’ Strike began. Before the confrontations with the trade unions, the first massive confrontation between the represstive appartus of the state and the people was between the police and black and Asian youth in Britain’s inner cities across the country in 1981.

Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques first viewed ‘Thatcherism’ as a defining change in Conservatism in the late 1970s before the Conservatives were elected in May 1979. Hall and Jacques, writing in the theoretical journal Marxism Today, saw that the agenda put forward by Margaret Thatcher was the representation of a shift to the right that had been gathering momentum since the upturn in industrial militancy and cultural radicalism in the late 1960s. This shift to the right was as much an ideological shift as it was a response to the economic crisis conditions of the mid-to-late 1970s. This analysis of Thatcherism and the emphasis upon ideology was part of a larger dynamic shift on the left that encompassed the Communist Party, of whom Jacques was an Executive Committee member and editor of Marxism Today. Jacques was a leading reformer within the CPGB, who was pushing that the Communist Party should have incorporated a wider political approach than focusing on industrial militancy and traditional class based politics. The push to reform the Party’s political strategy was encompassed in the redrafting of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, in 1977.

This redrafting of the Party manifesto came at a time in the late 1970s when the CPGB seemed to be in a severely weakened position. Despite having considerable influence in the trade union movement at the executive level during the previous decade of heightened industrial militancy, this had failed to produce any real political gains or stem its dramatically decreasing membership numbers. This decline in membership was exacerbated by the schisms that had formed within the Party after the introduction of the Social Contract between the Labour Government and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This schism was defined between the reformers, influenced by Gramscism and Eurocommunism, who believed that the Party’s limited industrial approach had alienated potential allies within the new social movements and on the other side, the traditional industrial militants, who viewed the centrality of class politics and the emphasis upon Labour-Communist unity in the trade unions as essential to the creation of a socialist Britain. The 1977 edition of The British Road to Socialism promoted the strategy of the broad democratic alliance, which signified the official, yet highly disputed, idea that the struggle for socialism needed ‘not only… to be an association of class forces,… but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production’.[3] The CPGB, ‘as the organised Marxist political party’, imbued itself as a vital organisation in mediating between the traditional labour movement and the other social forces to establish this alliance.[4]

For many of the reformers within the Party, it seemed as if the strategies put forward by the left (including the Communist Party) were from another era (principally the late 1960s and early 1970s) and this made them seem out of touch, particularly as the Conservative side of politics was mutating into a more confrontational and ideologically driven threat. It seemed evident that the traditional strategies of the left were not going to draw massive support from those who had been involved in the inner-city riots, despite a large disaffection with Thatcherism from both areas of British society. Hall and Jacques, along with others centred around Marxism Today, sought to reinvigorate the left and attempted to appeal to those who were disaffected by Thatcherism, but not part of the traditional left and the labour movement. To understand how the Conservatives were to combated in the 1980s, Hall and Jacques were instrumental in determining what Thatcherism meant and how it differed from previous post-war Conservatism. Particularly, Hall and Jacques (along with others, such as Andrew Gamble, Paul Gilroy and Joe Sim) recognised the ‘strong state’ emphasis by Thatcher and the need to confront the ‘enemies within’, all the while using terms such as ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ to describe the role of the individual in 1980s British society. As Stuart Hall wrote in 1980, ‘Make no mistake about it: under this regime, the market is to be Free; the people are to be Disciplined’.[5]

Renewal or defeat at the end of the decade?

In the final months of 1978, Dave Cook responded to the decline of the CPGB after the 35th National Congress – defeats of union action at British Leyland and Grunwick, the secession of the hardline Stalinists to the New Communist Party, hostile reaction by some traditionalists within the Party to the broad democratic alliance, continuing decline in Party membership – by reaffirming the relevance of the Party’s programme in an article in Marxism Today, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’.[6] Cook argued that the traditional labour movement was ‘far from corresponding with the whole working class’ and that class exploitation was not the sole politicising force for workers.[7] The ‘renewal of Marxism over recent years [had] tended to remain at abstract level’ and it was the purpose of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ to expand ‘collective action’ between the labour movement and the new social movements for a ‘much closer relationship between [the Party’s] theoretical work and practical activities’.[8] There were some in the Party who were sceptical about the changes in The British Road to Socialism and Cook’s article, alongside Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, presented at the 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture, generated furious debate in Marxism Today throughout 1979. In his study of the CPGB’s industrial strategy, John McIlroy asked what these new social forces of action outside the ‘old axis of the unions, Labour Party and CP’ could achieve if the ‘big industrial struggles of the 1970s had failed to qualitatively advance socialist consciousness’.[9]

However it was not the intention of Cook or the other reformists to have the CPGB select either industrial militancy or the broad democratic alliance, but rather attempt to synthesise the two strategies. In Cook’s article, the ANL was used as an example of successful co-operation between the labour movement and the social movements, with a ‘range of cultural sponsorship and involvement’, such as ‘Rock Against Racism, actors, sports, festivals’ to ‘trigger off such a response from predominantly working class youth’.[10] However either strategy put forward by the Party in The British Road to Socialism could not overcome the fact that the Party was in decline. In 1979, the Party had 20,599 members, having lost over 10,000 in ten years and only 126 factory branches, having less than half than it did in the mid-1960s.[11] The Party had had no MPs since Phil Piratin and Willie Gallacher lost their seats in 1950 and only five candidates had been elected in local elections.[12]

Much of the optimism portrayed by the reformers around The British Road to Socialism was quashed by the convincing Conservative victory at the General Election in May 1979. The election of Margaret Thatcher saw the lowest share of the vote for the Labour Party since 1931 and a swing to the right by skilled working class voters, with around a third of trade unionists voting for the Conservatives.[13] Martin Jacques saw this shift to the right as part of the ‘crisis of hegemony’ and while the Party developed the concepts of ‘the broad democratic alliance, the mode of rule and the revolutionary process’ inside The British Road to Socialism as a response to this crisis, Jacques acknowledged in October 1979 that this ‘reorientation is not yet complete’.[14] ‘The biggest single weakness of the Party’s practice’, stated Jacques, was to ‘underestimate the extent of the crisis and the range of issues around which popular support can be mobilised’.[15] After the 1979 election, Eric Hobsbawm, who had criticised the ‘almost entirely economist militancy’ of the traditional labour movement in ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ in late 1978,[16] maintained that this Conservative victory demonstrated that the limits of ‘trade union consciousness’ had not been overcome and that unions ‘by themselves cannot offset, the setbacks of the labour movement in other respects’.[17] Effectively Hobsbawm was arguing that trade union militancy by itself could not automatically create class-consciousness or organise a radical socialist advance. Ideally, this was the responsibility of the Communist Party. However, with membership just over 20,000 in 1979 (further declining to 18,458 in 1981),[18] diminished workplace presence and internal divisions between the traditionalists and the reformists, the CPGB was hardly in a position to, as Jacques hoped, ‘transform the labour movement and popular consciousness’.[19]

The ‘limits’ of trade unionism in the 1980s

Most of those connected to the pushes for reform within the Party and Marxism Today were of the opinion that the traditional reliance of the labour movement on the trade unions had limited success and argued that this had been borne out by the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Eric Hobsbawm had argued in ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ in 1978 that ‘straight-forward economist trade union consciousness may at timesd actually set workers against each other rather than establish wider patterns of solidarity’,[20] and for those who endorsed the CPGB’s ‘broad democratic alliance’, these ‘wider patterns of solidarity’ could not be expended just to maintain the trade unions on side. Despite the debates surrounding Hobsbawm’s thesis and its links to the newly promoted ‘broad democratic alliance’, which filled the pages of Marxism Today between 1978 and 1980, the early 1980s saw an uneasy truce between the two main factions, the ‘Euros’ and the ‘Tankies’ (although two opposition factional journals started to appear that argued that both of these larger factions as ‘anti-party’ – Straight Left and The Leninist).[21]

The ‘match on the blue touch paper’, as Francis Beckett described it,[22] that re-ignited this division and led to irrepairable damage within the Communist Party was an article in Marxism Today in late 1982 by Tony Lane, which criticised the trade union strategy promoted by some inside the CPGB, particularly censuring the trade union bureaucracy for failing to deal with the significant changes to the manufacturing industry in Britain and the decline of large scale urban factories where traditionally the most organised workforces. For Lane, these long term economic shifts had a more profound effect upon the trade union movement than ‘resurgent laissez-faire Toryism’, writing:

Trade union leadership at all levels, from the local to the national, has been so stuinned by the reactionary nature of shopkeeper Toryism that it often seems to take more notice of isdeology than it does of material changes in its environment.[23]

Lane blamed ‘sectional interests’ and ‘a lack of will to fight’ for the trade unions’ ‘crisis of legitimacy’, explaining that this had caused a schism between the trade union leaders (including the shop stewards) and the rank-and-file membership and the feeling that there was little democracy within the movement.[24] Unless there was a clear leadership over how to face the problems facing the unions in the 1980, as well as more interactive democracy at the rank-and-file level, Lane argued, the rank-and-file would face ‘uncertainity as to whether unions are worth fighting for’.[25]

Lane’s was not particularly different from other criticisms made by Hobsbawm and others since the late 1970s and could not be seen as especially controversial – as Andrew Pearmain has written, ‘[i]t was a mildly populist critique of the trade union bureaucracy, which would not have seemed out of place in The Sunday Times or Socialist Worker’.[26] But the CPGB’s Industrial Organiser Mick Costello and editor of the Morning Star Tony Chater used the article as an issue to force the centrist Party leadership under General Secretary Gordon McLennan to take action against the journal and its editor, Martin Jacques, as well as airing critiques of Lane, Jacques and the journal in the pages of the daily paper. Disciplinary action for Jacques and the journal by the Party’s internal bodies was defeated (narrowly according to Pearmain),[27] but the same bodies also severely rebuked Chater, Costello and the paper for, in the words of Willie Thompson, ‘forming a cabal to attack another rparty journal and to use the party’s name without reference to the EC [Executive Committee].’[28] In the ensuing aftermath, Costello resigned from his post as Industrial Organiser and joined Chater at the Morning Star. The newspaper, nominally run independently from the CPGB by the People’s Press Printing Society, was used by Chater as a base for criticising the Party and its leadership, who, it was believed, were unwilling to stand up to the ‘Euros’. On the other hand, Jacques had, according to Francis Beckett, lost faith in reforming the Party[29] and moved towards transforming Marxism Today into a separate entity, although it still relied on funding from the Party. While two of the major Party organs drifted away from any form of oversight by the Party leadership, the Party itself fractured, unclear of its direction and role within the British political landscape. As Geoff Andrews wrote:

From this point on, the party was split in two; the leadership and Gramscian-Eurocommunists were in control of the party and the Costello/Chater group controlled the Morning Star, and, with it, a notable list of trade union leaders, and contact with a declining trade union base. Neither side could decribed as ultimate victors in this battle. The party was deprived of its daily paper and with it, what was left of its trade union base; and the ‘hardliners’ were now detahced from the party, its political machine and its resources.[30]

At the 1983 AGM of the PPPS and Communist Party’s National Congress in the same year, the issue of control of the newspaper became a heated one, leading to the expulsion of several Party members from the Morning Star group. By the time that the Miners’ Strike broke out in March 1984, the industrial strategy of the Communist Party was in total disarray and at the national level, the Party was slow to come up with a programme of action to help the National Union of Mineworkers, leaving it to local activists to take the initiative.

The end of the party

The Thatcherite years also had a dramatic effect upon the Communist Party of Great Britain. As those reformers connected to Marxism Today argued in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Thatcherism was more than a stricter continuation of previous Conservative Governments and represented a widespread ideological shift to the right that embodied strong notions of ‘law and order’, combined with the neo-liberalism of free market economics. The reformers believed that this shift to the right needed to be addressed by more than traditional class based politics and demanded a greater emphasis on the long-term ideological aspects that had allowed this rightwards shift. This emphasis on ideology and the insufficiencies of class based politics by the reformers has been viewed as a central reason for the eventual collapse of the CPGB. By the end of the 1980s, the ‘New Times’ approach, presented by Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall in Marxism Today,[31] was described by critics as a defeatist attitude and a vindication of Thatcherism. A. Sivanandan, who had previously criticised the left for its failure to address other issues outside the class politics of industrial militancy, wrote in Race & Class in 1989:

New Times is a fraud, a counterfeit, a humbug. It palms off Thatcherite values as socialist, shores up the Thatcherite market with the pretended politics of choice, fits out the Thatcherite individual with progressive consumerism, makes consumption itself the stuff of politics. New Times is a mirror image of Thatcherism passing for socialism. New Times is Thatcherism in drag.[32]

With the Communist Party becoming increasingly divided between the reformers and the traditional industrialist wing, polarised through the respective publications of Marxism Today and the Morning Star, the Party also witnessed further defeats on the industrial front, experienced, along with the wider labour movement, during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. For many in the labour movement, the defeat of the strike represented an end to the traditional approach of class politics through industrial actions and trade union militancy and was symptomatic of a wider crisis in the British left. Thatcher’s monetarist policies had hastened the decline of heavy industry throughout Britain and the upheaval in many British towns caused by this decline, demonstrably felt through high levels of unemployment, was difficult for the left to counter. Raphael Samuel wrote that the ‘disarray of the Left in the face of the miners’ strike [was]… part of a large discomfort both about the alternative to Thatcherism, and of the very possibility of a socialism which [was] in any sense representative of popular desire and will’.[33]

The defeat of the strike further demoralised the remaining traditionalists within the CPGB, who were already in open conflict with the reformers in the Party leadership and had suffered from the leading traditionalists being expelled by the Executive Committee. Although the CPGB leadership and Marxism Today supported the strike, the assumptions of the reformers of the limited actions of industrial militancy seemed to be further validated by the strike’s defeat. During the 1980s, the Communist Party’s membership rapidly declined, hastened by the internal Party splits. In 1981, membership had been 18,458 and this had fallen to 12,711 in 1985, which then fell to a mere 7,615 in 1989 at the time of the collapse of the Soviet bloc.[34] Although those remaining in the Party launched a new Party programme in 1989 titled A Manifesto for New Times (expanding on a series of articles published in the October 1988 issue of Marxism Today), there was little enthusiasm for continuing the Party as a political organisation and at the December 1991 National Congress, the membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, after more than seventy years of its existence, voted to dissolve itself.

Thinking intersectionally about Marxism Today and the ‘broad democratic alliance’

Kimberle Crenshaw first used the term ‘intersectional’ in the late 1980s to describe the position of black women in the United States and their struggles with the US criminal justice system[35] and over the last 25 years, the term has become a valuable concept within many academic disciplines. Looking back at some of the struggles of the 1970s in Britain, it can be seen that many of these struggles were intersectional and for those involved, their politics often combined class-based, racial and gendered perspectives. For example at the Grunwick strike, this combined those interested in the strike as a demonstration of class unity and the fight for trade union recognition, those interested in the strike to fight racial discrimination in the workplace and those interested in the strike as chance to highlight the particular difficulties faced by South Asian women in this ‘sweatshop’ environment. Although the concept did not exist at the time, it was widely understood by many, especially those who excited by the rise of the new social movements in the late 1960s and those who pushed for their recognition in the Communist Party, that class was just part of a wider spectrum that informed someone’s political identity.

The 1977 version of The British Road to Socialism started to acknowledge this with the promotion of the broad democratic alliance as recognition that the political struggle was moving beyond ‘an expression of class forces’ and had to recognise the ‘other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production.’[36] In the same year, Barry Hindess at the Communist Party’s annual Communist University of London (CUL) lecture series stated, ‘At any given time,… working-class politics must contain features that are not reducible to class position’[37] and as a leading reformer inside the CPGB, pointed to an article by Sam Aaronovitch from 1973 to demonstrate that this reconsideration of class politics had a longer history inside the Communist Party of Great Britain. It is worth quoting Aaronovitch beyond Hindess’ initial notes here to highlight the connections between the arguments being put forward by some within the Communist Party in the 1970s and the theoretical concept we now know as ‘intersectionality’:

The nature of the issues posed by contemporary capitalism brings into action (or can do so) a series of intersecting forces which comprise: various section of the working class as broadly defined;…

People may be brought into action by the way they are affected in their different roles; workers as tenant or shopper; worker as parent.

They are intersecting forces in the sense that their memberships overlap but they also interact.[38]

The work of Stuart Hall (and others such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe) in Marxism Today in the 1980s further promoted this idea that people were likely to be guided in their actions by notions of class, as they were to be guided by notions of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, or any other form of ‘identity politics’. After their defeat at the 1987 elections, Hall wrote an important piece for the journal on Labour’s shortcomings in the ideological battle against Thatcherism and the shifting support bases for both major parties in the 1980s, which further encapsulated the idea of the intersecting experiences and identities that form an individual’s political outlook. Hall wrote:

Electoral politics – in fact, every kind of politics – depends on political identities and identifications. People make identifications symbolically: through social imagery, in their political imaginations. They ‘see themselves’ as one sort of person or another. They ‘imagine their future’ within this scenario or that. They don’t just think about voting in terms of how much they have, their so-called ‘material interests’. Material interests matter profoundly. But they are always ideologically defined.

Contrary to a certain version of Marxism, which has as strong a hold over the Labour ‘Centre’ as it does on the so-called ‘hard Left’, material interests, on their own, have no necessary class belongingness. They influence us. But they are not escalators which automatically deliver people to their appointed destinations, ‘in place’, within the political-ideological spectrum.

One reason why they don’t is because people have conflicting social interests, sometimes reflecting conflicting identities. As a worker a person might put ‘wages’ first: in a period of high unemployment, ‘job security’ may come higher; a woman might prioritise ‘child-care’. But what does a ‘working woman’ put first? Which of her identities is the one that determines her political choices?[39]

In 1988, Homi Bhabha wrote that the arguments put forward by Stuart Hall in 1987, alongside similar ones made in the pages of Marxism Today by Eric Hobsbawm and Beatrix Campbell represented ‘the “hybrid” moment of political change’.[40] ‘Here the transformational value of change lies in’, Bhabha said discussing the role of women in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, ‘neither the One (unitary working class) nor the Other (the politics of gender) but something else besides which contests the terms and territories of both.’[41] Similar to the concept of intersectionality, Bhabha’s notion of hybridity reflected what Hall described as people’s ‘conflicting social interests’[42] and recognized that the traditional Marxist approach to the question of ‘race’ (or gender or sexuality) was inadequate to assist in their contemporary struggles against inequality. For Bbabha and other postcolonial thinkers, such as Ranajit Guha or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,[43] traditional Marxism could not adequately explain the politics of ‘race’ and ethnicity, or effectively uphold the notion that racism and colonialism were simply parts of the wider phenomenon of capitalist exploitation. But the inadequacies of Marxism were not merely to be replaced by other forms of identity politics, with the ideas of postcolonialism opening up spaces of political and cultural hybridity. At this point, the broad democratic alliance and the counter-hegemony discussed within Marxism Today transformed into what Homi Bhabha called the ‘Third Space’. For Bhabha, Hall’s writing in Marxism Today introduced ‘an exciting, neglected moment… in the “recognition” of the relation of politics to theory’[44] and demonstrates that although the Communist Party of Great Britain itself declined, its impact has continued to resonate in various ways since.

The final Marxism Today in 1991 - will 2013 mark the end of the ISJ?

[1] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p. 131.

[2] Richard Seymour , The Meaning of David Cameron (Winchester: Zero Books, 2010) p. 31.

[3] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London, 1977) 29

[4] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism, 34

[5] Stuart Hall, Drifting into a Law and Order Society (Amersham, Cobden Trust, 1980) p. 5.

[6] Dave Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, Marxism Today, December 1978, pp. 370-379

[7] D. Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, p. 372

[8] D. Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, p. 374

[9] John McIlroy, ‘Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Politics’, p. 224

[10] D. Cook, ‘The British Road to Socialism and the Communist Party’, p. 378

[11] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218; J. McIlroy, ‘Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Politics’, John McIlroy, Nina Fishman and Alan Campbell (eds), British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999) p. 222

[12] Richard Cross, ‘The CPGB and the “Collapse of Socialism”, 1977-1991’, unpublished PhD thesis, University Mnchester, 2007, p. 314

[13]Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted? – A Response’, Marxism Today, September 1979, p. 265; Willie Thompson, The Long Death of British Labourism (London: Pluto Press, 1993) p. 112

[14] Martin Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, Marxism Today, October 1979, p. 13

[15] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, p. 13

[16] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today, September 1978, p. 286

[17] E. Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted? – A Response’, p. 266; p. 267; Italics are in the original text

[18] W. Thompson, The Good Old Cause, p. 218

[19] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, p. 13

[20] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today, September 1978, p. 286.

[21] Lawrence Parker, Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1960-1991 (London: November Publicatuons, 2012) p. 104.

[22] Francis Beckett, Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (London: Merlin Press, 1995) p. 194.

[23] Tony Lane, ‘The Unions: Caught on the Ebb Tide’, Marxism Today (September 1982) p. 7.

[24] Lane, ‘The Unions’, p. 13.

[25] Lane, ‘The Unions’, p. 13.

[26] Andrew Pearmain, The Politics of New Labour: A Gramscian Analysis (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2011) p. 129.

[27] Pearmain, The Politics of New Labour, pp. 130-131

[28] Thompson, The Good Old Cause, p. 184.

[29] Beckett, Enemy Within, p. 197.

[30] Andrews, Endgames and New Times, p. 207.

[31] The October 1988 edition of Marxism Today was dedicated to the ‘New Times’. The Manifesto for New Times was the programme adopted by the CPGB at its 1989 National Congress that occurred as the Soviet bloc was collapsing. After the collapse of the CPGB in November 1991, some remnants of the Party formed the Democratic Left, which published the journal, New Times, throughout the 1990s. See: Stuart Hall & Martin Jacques, New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s, Verso, London, 1990

[32] A. Sivanandan, ‘All that Melts Into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times’, Race & Class, 31/3, 1989, p. 1

[33] Raphael Samuel, ‘Preface’, in Raphael Samuel, Barbara Bloomfield & Guy Boanas (eds), The Enemy Within: Pit Villages and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1986, pp. xiv-xv

[34] ‘Communist Party Membership’, CP/CENT/ORG/19/04, LHASC.

[35] See: Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, pp. 139-168; Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43/6, July 1991, pp. 1242-1300.

[36] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism, p. 29

[37] Barry Hindess, ‘The Concept of Class in Marxist Theory and Marxist Politics’, in Jon Bloomfield (ed.) Class, Hegemony and Party (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1977) pp. 100-101.

[38] Sam Aaronovitch, ‘Perspectives for Class Struggles and Alliances’, Marxism Today (March 1973) p. 69. Italics are in the original text.

[39] Stuart Hall, ‘Blue Elections, Election Blues’, Marxism Today, July 1987, p. 33

[40] Homi K. Bhabha, ‘The Commitment to Theory’, New Formations, 5 (Summer 1988) p. 13.

[41] Bhabha, ‘The Commitment to Theory’, p. 13; Italics are in the original text.

[42] S. Hall, ‘Blue Elections, Election Blues’, p. 33; Italics are in the original text.

[43] See: Ranajit Guha & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (eds), Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard University Press, London, 2003.

For a critical overview of the relationship between Marxism and subaltern studies, see: Vinay Lal, ‘Subaltern Studies and Its Critics: Debates over Indian History’, History and Theory, 40/1, February 2001, pp. 135-148.

[44] Bhabha, ‘The Commitment to Theory’, p. 8.

2011 was not 1981. And 2015 is not 1983.

brixton

Back in 2011, I wrote about how many people viewed the riots that swept across the UK through the lens of the 1981 riots. I wrote in this article:

Karl Marx famously paraphrased Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, saying that “all facts and personages of great importance in world history, as it were, twice”, adding, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Marx 1969, p. 15). Marx’s point was that in periods of great societal upheaval, many of those who observe and attempt to explain these events look to past historical events for an interpretative framework, or as Marx (1969, p. 15) put it, “they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them”. While Marx was writing about the French counter-revolution that occurred after the uprising of 1848, these words could be used to describe any number of rebellions, revolutions or episodes of disorder. The focus of this article is on the riots that spread across the UK in early August 2011 and how most commentaries and analyses of these riots sought to explain them through the prism of the riots that occurred in the UK in 1981 (first in April in Brixton and across the UK in the summer of the same year). While Marx (1969, p. 15) wrote about how those observing the events of 1848-1851 looked back to the “Thermidor” period of the French Revolution, substituting “Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848-1851 for the Montagne of 1793-1795”, those writing on the riots of 2011 looked back to 1981, substituting David Cameron for Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May for Willie Whitelaw and the black, white and Asian youth of 1981 for the black, white and Asian youth of 2011.

The parallels between the events of 2011 and 1981, and their surrounding socio-economic and political conditions, seem, at first glance, to be very similar. David Cameron’s Conservative Government was pushing “austerity” measures to cut public spending and reduce the “debt” inherited from Labour, akin to the monetarist policies sought by the first Thatcher Government, which meant less money for the poorer sections of British society reliant on some form of government assistance and less spending on other public services in poverty-afflicted areas of the UK. In 2011, as well as thirty years ago, these austerity measures, combined with a wider globalised financial crisis, had led to great increases in unemployment, particularly amongst the UK’s ethnic minority communities and amongst young people. Alongside these economic factors, both years saw concerns arise about the powers of the police, particularly in the operation of stop and searches (or “sus” laws in 1981) and the perceived targeting of ethnic minorities by the police, as well as other sections of the lower classes and young people in general.

These parallels were picked up upon by many commentators. For example, Gilroy (2011) remarked in a speech on the riots that there was “a temptation … to say it’s the same game as it was thirty years ago” and citing Stafford Scott, said that “unemployment numbers, school exclusion numbers, stop and search numbers [his emphasis] … In terms of these things, the number are as bad as or worse than they were thirty years ago”. In their research as part of The Guardian and LSE’s Reading the Riots project, Newburn, Lewis and Metcalf (2011) wrote that the conditions for the riots of 1981 were “in many ways similar to those that blighted England this summer”, pointing out that “[b]oth took place while a Conservative prime minister grappled with the effects of global economic downturn and rising unemployment”. Wheatle, the novelist and participant in the 1981 Brixton riots, also wrote in The Guardian (2011) that the circumstances between the two periods of rioting were “remarkably identical”, identifying factors such as “economic crisis, disenfranchised young people, deep cuts in public services and a deterioration between young black people and the police”.

Even before the August 2011 riots, commentators had remarked that the socio-economic and political environment in the UK seemed to mirror that of the early 1980s, and in discussing the thirtieth anniversary of the riots of 1981, there were speculations of the possibility of riots in the near future. An article in The Guardian on the upcoming anniversary of the Brixton riots stated that “some community leaders are warning that similar tensions could, again, spill over into violence”, describing “a toxic cocktail of factors reminiscent of 1981, including rising youth unemployment, cuts to local services and deep suspicion of the police”, as well as “the politicisation of a new generation of anti-cuts protests … and anti-tuition-fees marches” (Walker 2011). The article also quoted Alex Wheatle as saying:

You’re going into dangerous territory, eroding services for young people … I can imagine a repeat of 1981. I can feel the anger. I can feel the resentment towards authority. You’re getting a lot of young people with degrees and big debts, but not jobs. What was really striking in 1981 was the lack of hope. When you have no hope you’re going to confront the police, you’ve got nothing to lose. (cited in, Walker 2011)

Another article on the riots in Liverpool in 1981 in The Guardian quoted a community worker who had experienced the riots as a youngster, who saw parallels between Liverpool in the present day and the city in the 1980s:

First, there was deindustrialisation, now there’s a recession, and you hear people worried about losing their jobs and how they will now in all probability have to work longer for their pensions. It makes some of us quite jealous, because at least you had jobs consistently enough to enable you to build a pension in the first place. I look at these people now and think to myself: “Welcome to our world. Welcome back to 1981.” (cited in, Vulliamy 2011)

However, as Hughes (2011) has said, “[h]istory doesn’t repeat itself exactly” and there is logic in the government assertion that 2011 is not 1981 (McSmith 2011). Many commentators and scholars have noted that there are a number of differences, both in the context from which the riots developed and how the riots actually unfolded, between the riots that have recently occurred and those that happened thirty years before. This article accepts the argument that while these riots occurred quite spontaneously, they did not arise from nowhere and were not completely unexpected, and while one cannot draw a direct line between the riots of 1981 and the riots of 2011, the history of riots, public unrest and civil disorder in the UK does show that there is a precedent for what occurred last year and the riots were not an a-historical episode. The point of this article is that while the recent history of riots that have occurred in the UK since the mid-1970s can provide us with an insight into the most recent outbreak of urban unrest, much of the discourse on the 2011 riots was presented through the prism of 1981. On one hand, the events of 1981 were upheld by some commentators (mostly on the centre-right, but some on the centre-left) to contrast the “criminality” of those participating the most recent riots with the more “political” and “socially aware” riots of the early 1980s. On the other hand, there seemed to be a number of people, particularly on the left, who saw a teleological narrative that formed a direct connection between the events of 1981 with the present era, putting forward that the lessons of 1981 and the struggle against Thatcherism were instructive to how the left should respond to today’s crises. This article does not want to present a guise of political neutrality and certainly aligns itself more closely to the interpretation of the events as put forward by the left, but acknowledges that for political expediency, some of the more nuanced details of what occurred in August 2011 (and in 1981) may be shaped to fit the left’s practical programme. As Smith (2010) has argued, riots and episodes of public unrest do not fall neatly into categories of political struggle and the motives and actions of those involved are open to a multitude of interpretations.

The article concluded:

Power (2011) wrote in The Guardian after the initial burst of public disorder in North London last year that “[i]mages of burning buildings, cars aflame and stripped-out shops may provide spectacular fodder for a restless media … but we will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and the context in which they occur”. This article has looked at how different commentators, journalists, politicians, scholars and activists have interpreted the historical context of the riots that happened across the UK in August 2011, particularly focusing on how the most recent riots have been seen through the lens of the riots from 1981. Although providing a historical background to the 2011 riots helps us to understand that these riots did not occur from out of nowhere or that they were unprecedented in any way, but the comparison of the two events has, in many ways, crystallised how the 1981 riots are perceived in the collective memory. Notions of what “the 1981 riots” or “the Brixton riots” or “the Toxteth riots” have come to symbolise are essentialised ideas of the “noble” or “justified” riots against institutional racism and Thatcherism – in other words, the events of 1981 were explicitly political.

This article has argued that framing the 1981 riots in this way has had two effects on how the 2011 riots are perceived. Firstly, commentators, journalists and politicians on the right (as well as some on the liberal-left) have used the idea of the 1981 riots as expressions of political frustration against “legitimate” targets to condemn the criminal and destructive activities of the rioters involved in the unrest in 2011, arguing that those involved in the most recent riots were motivated by consumerist desire and anti-social behaviour and thus, the response by the authorities should be criminal justice oriented, rather than making political concessions. Secondly, commentator and activists on the left have taken the framework of the 1981 riots as explicitly political actions from the lower classes to show that the riots of 2011 were just as political and represented the anger of the growing “underclass” in the UK. For many on the left and within activist circles, the same neoliberal/monetarist agenda by the Conservatives (resulting in high unemployment and cuts to public services), combined with the institutional racism of the police and the judiciary, were the underlying causes of the riots of 2011 and those that occurred in the early 1980s, and that the lessons of the battles against the Thatcher government are to be heeded.

However, this essentialised version of the 1981 riots, and the comparison with contemporary events, overlooks the fact that the riots that broke out across Britain thirty years ago were not as neat to categorise and interpret as they look in hindsight, and that at the time, there were clear differences in how the riots were understood by different sections of society. Even for those that agreed that the riots were political disagreed on whether the riots were a response by the lower classes to socio-economic policies of the Thatcher government or a response by the black communities to the racism that they faced in Britain on a day-to-day basis. The evoking of the riots of 1981 in the discourse on the August 2011 riots has been used by commentators from both sides of politics to portray the most recent riots in a particular manner, using the supposed explicit political nature of the riots of the past to dismiss or emphasise the political nature of the riots of the present. While historical comparisons are useful for understanding the wider context of events, such as the public unrest of 2011, in too many scenarios, the past is distorted and simplified to fit the political demands of the present.

new labour working

I feel that similar evocations of the past are being made in commentaries on the Labour leadership campaign. Jeremy Corbyn is not Michael Foot and the 2020 manifesto (if he wins) will not resemble the 1983 manifesto. While it might be more progressive than the 2015 manifesto, no one expects Corbyn to reverse 30 years of neoliberalism inflicted upon the Party. There is not the organised entryism by Militant and Socialist Action that there was between 1979 and 1983 and the threat of a rightwards split seems predicated on the belief that there is the political space for another centre-right party.

As much as it might seem that way, we are not reliving the 1980s.

The British far left and Scottish devolution in 1979

As the referendum on Scottish independence draws ever closer, Phil BC over at ‘All That is Solid’ (formerly A Very Public Sociologist) has done an excellent job of summarising the positions of the main Trotskyist groups in Britain on Scottish independence. Furthermore, someone on the Leftist Trainspotters mailing list summarised the three possible positions taken by nearly all the far left groups in the UK on the topic:

YES: Counterfire, ISG (Scotland), SWP, SPEW, rs21 (inc. IS Scotland), SSP, RCPB-ML, Socialist Resistance, Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, Class War, Solidarity, RCG, A World to Win

NO: Workers Power, Socialist Action, CPGB-ML, AWL, Socialist Appeal, CPB-ML, Socialist Fight, CPB, Spartacist League, International Communist Current, SEP, WRP (Newsline), Communist Workers Organisation (Aurora), International Socialist League, Respect

ABSTAIN / NO LINE / OTHERS: IS Network (no line but majority for Yes), CPGB(PCC) (abstain), SLP (no position but will respect outcome of vote), SPGB (abstain), Plan C, Left Unity (no position nationally but Republican Socialist Tendency pushing for Yes), Anarchist Federation (vote yes or abstain), Spartacist League (“The referendum does not pose an issue of principle and we are not taking a stand for or against independence”)

In my discussions about this with Phil, I suggested that it would be interesting to compare the positions of the far left groups with their position on Scottish devolution back in 1979. Without going to the library to get the physical copies of the various left-wing journals from the time, I have had a quick scan of the internet and found some material on the positions of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Workers Party. Material relating to Militant and the late 1970s International Marxist Group are hard to find on the internet!

MarxismToday-1977dec

The UNZ archive of the CPGB’s Marxism Today shows that the Communist Party did support Scottish (and Welsh) devolution and devolved parliamentary bodies, but were divided over the prospect of future Scottish independence. Firstly, like many in the radical ‘Yes’ campaign today, Willie Thompson, editor of the CP’s Scottish journal Scottish Marxist, argued in 1977 that devolution offered the possibility of breaking away from centralising influence of monopoly capitalism in Britain (emanating from London) and the possibility of establishing a socialist foothold through the proposed devolved assemblies. Bert Pearce, the CPGB’s Welsh Secretary, argued that devolution was important for the advance of socialism in Britain, but warned against Scottish or Welsh independence, writing:

To recognise the right of self-determination does not at all mean that it is always and everywhere essential or progressive to opt for the separation of each nation into its own national state. The struggle for national rights, and for progress and socialism, can effectively combine and reinforce each other within a multi-national state. In Britain it is clearly in our best interests for the rapid achievement for socialism and for the quality of society when we get it, to maintain and strengthen our unity. 

Scottish Morning Star journalist, Martin Gostwick, challenged Pearce in a 1978 issue of Marxism Today, saying that he equated ‘advancing the unity of the peoples with the continued existence of the Union of Great Britain’. Gostwick’s position was that Scottish (and Welsh) devolved governments might eventually want to assert their independence and, like Thompson, Gostwick believed that this might be the starting point for a socialist alternative to the current ‘monopoly-dominated state’. However Gostwick warned that independence could not be an immediate goal and suggested the slogan ‘independence – if, and not yet’.

Glasgow Area Secretary for the CPGB, Douglas Bain, wrote in August 1978 that the Communist Party supported devolution and acknowledged that the devolution of power might lead to a longer term push for self-government (and possible independence), but highlighted that in the forthcoming referendum, the Scottish National Party might subvert the devolution debate towards nationalist ends and stifle any attempts to implement a more socialist agenda. After the failure of the 1979 referendum, Jack Ashton, the CPGB’s Scottish Secretary, stated that the prominence of the SNP in the campaign for devolution had driven many trade unionists to vote ‘no’ or abstain from voting. Ashton also blamed Scottish Labour for isolating itself on the ‘yes’ campaign and its refusal to work with others, such as the CPGB.

MarxismToday-1978aug

In contrast to the CPGB, the Socialist Workers Party came out in favour of a possible Scottish socialist republic, offering a critical ‘yes’ vote at the referendum because the break-up of the present unionist state was necessary to challenge the capitalist status quo led from London. Taken from the Socialist Review archive, I was able to find an article on Scottish devolution and the SWP’s attitude towards the SNP. I have reproduced it below because it is difficult to link to the specific article within the archive (hopefully it is readable).

sr1-30

sr1-31

This position was different from the one put forward the Central Committee of the SWP in September 1977, where they argued in the journal International Socialism for an abstention from voting in any forthcoming referendum. The statement said:

This means that if a referendum is eventually held in Scotland and Wales we abstain. This is not a position that means ducking the arguments. Far from it. Most of the time our members in Scotland will be arguing with people who are in the ‘Yes’ camp. We will be saying to them:

‘We do not mind if you get your devolved (or independent) parliament. But don’t believe that it will improve your condition one iota. Only class struggle can do that.’

Our abstention will mark us off from the rest of the Labour movement, retreating in fear before the new reformism, without aligning us with the Unionist, British nationalist camp.

Our position will be somewhat analogous to that of our American comrades faced with a choice between Democrats and Republicans. They know that most of their workmates will vote for the bourgeois reformism of the Democrats, and have to say to them, ‘OK, vote Democrat then – and see what good it does you!’

It’s not as nice as being able to earn the applause of one side or the other – but it is a distinctive revolutionary position that will enable us to put our politics across.

I have been unable to find anything from Militant from 1979, but found a 1992 piece from Ted Grant on Scottish nationalism. The piece is interesting because it was written amidst the schism within Militant over whether the group should become a formal political organisation or remain an entrist one inside the Labour Party, with Scottish Militant Labour being the first foray by Militant into open politics. Grant opposed this move and used this piece to attack SML.

While searching the depths of the internet, I found two interesting pieces on the Encyclopaedia of Anti-Revisionism Online regarding the positions of Britain’s Maoist parties on devolution. The Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), started by ex-CPGB member Reg Birch, opposed devolution as seen in this article. The CPB (M-L) saw devolution as part of a counter-revolutionary plot to split the working class in Britain, writing:

The British working class whether in Scotland, Wales or any other part of Britain should declare a resounding NO to devolution, or any other policies which will come in the future, aimed at dividing and weakening our class. We as Marxist-Leninists are totally opposed to divide and rule. -We have to make the ruling class’s divide and rule inoperable by our unite and liberate…

Working class unity makes it impossible for the capitalists to go on in the old way of divide and rule. Working class unity enables us to combine our tactics for defending our class with the strategy of liberating our class. Working class unity is revolutionary.

Chwyldroad nid Trosglwyddiad.

We are for REVOLUTION not DEVOLUTION.

On the other hand, the small Communist Workers Movement, a breakaway group from the CPB (M-L), supported devolution if desired, but also proposed that Scottish and Welsh workers might be better served if they remained within the UK and co-operated with the English working class. In their journal, New Age, the CWM wrote:

English communists should take on the work of convincing English working people that Wales and Scotland should have the right to leave Britain if they choose. Welsh and Scottish communists should mainly work to persuade the working people of their nations that, although they should have the right to decide whether or not to remain within the British state, they should use that right in favour of staying with the English working class in the same state.

The question of devolution back in 1979 might seem more straight forward than the referendum on Scottish independence to be held next Thursday and the disarray that the British far left has found itself in over the prospect of an independent Scotland. But looking back at these documents from the late 1970s, the British far left was far from united on the question of devolution for Scotland and Wales.To paraphrase Karl Marx, ‘once as tragedy, twice as farce’…