Militant/Socialist Party

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

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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.

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…

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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 British left and the end of the miners strike: A guide to online sources

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On 5 March, 1985, the miners’ strike against the Thatcher government came to an end when the National Union of Mineworkers called off the strike. A decisive moment in the history of the British labour movement and in the history of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, it wasn’t so clear-cut for the British left at the time. This post is a collection of the various reactions by sections of the British left to the end of the miners’ strike that can be found online. I am trying to finish up a few other things at the moment, but I compiled this to hopefully turn into an article in the (hopefully) near future.

In April 1985, the Communist Party’s Marxism Today featured a roundtable dedicated to assessing the strike, featuring several members of the NUM in different capacities. One of the most interesting things about this roundtable is the debate over whether the end of the strike could be labelled a ‘defeat’. The journal also ran two pieces on the future of the NUM by Hywel Francis in April and August 1985 (with the April piece being much more positive than the August piece). In a piece in the journal in May 1985, Jimmy Airlie wrote:

It will be the height of folly and do the movement and the miners in particular a disservice if the Left failed to that the miners have suffered a major defeat. The strike ended not with a negotiated settlement, but under the compulsion of an accelerating drift back to work…

In the March issue of Socialist Worker Review, the SWP’s Tony Cliff compared the defeat with the end of the 1926 strike and again, much of the blame for the end of the strike was laid at the feet of the TUC. In the same issue, the SWP warned against the retreat into ‘Labourism’ by Militant and the ‘abandonment’ of class politics by the Eurocommunists and argued that only a revolutionary party, like the SWP, could offer a way forward. The SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism published a lengthy piece by Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons on the strike which essentially argued this at great length, stating in their conclusion:

The ultimate reason why the miners lost was because capital had a determined, ruthless, highly class-conscious leadership while the working class did not. Fortunately the working class lost only a battle in 1985. But to win the war will require a different sort of leadership, one which builds on every workers’ struggle in order to launch eventually an assault on the citadel of capitalist power in the state machine.

A revolutionary party was seen as necessary for providing the labour movement with strong leadership and a commitment to revolutionary socialism.

The journal edited by John Saville and Ralph Miliband, Socialist Register, featured two pieces on the end of the strike. One by Richard Hyman and one by John Saville, with Saville looking at the strike as the end result of the Conservatives’ long-held plan for tackling the unions developed from the mid-1970s.

Copies of The Militant have not been digitised yet (as well as their journal Militant International Review), but here is Peter Taaffe’s account of the strike, taken from his book on the history of Militant, written in the early 1990s.

Apart from these larger left-wing groups, many of the smaller groups had their own interpretation of the end of the strike. The Spartacist League, in its paper the Workers’ Hammer, declared, ‘The strike has been defeated, but the NUM had been broken”. Red Action portrayed the end of the miners’ strike as a symbol of the Thatcher’s pursuit of privatisation and the strike’s end gave Thatcher the ‘authority’ to take on any industry that the Tories wanted,

And here is a view of the strike from the Communist Party of Australia’s Australian Left Review.

This is only a small sample of the available literature. If anyone can point me to more online stuff (or even interested in collaborating on writing something on this – hint hint), please let me know.

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!

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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.

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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).

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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’…

 

Far Left book has arrived!

I am back at work after two weeks with dreadful sickness and was happy to have received a package from MUP.

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The book can be pre-ordered from Manchester University Press now. I know that 75 quid is a tad on the pricey side, but if enough institutional libraries (and the like) buy copies now, a much more affordable paperback edition should be out next year.

Writing the History of the British Far Left: Book launch talk on Youtube

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Last month, Matthew Worley and I pre-emptively launched our forthcoming edited collection, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2014), at the London Socialist Historians Group seminar series, located within London’s Institute of Historical Research. The launch was well attended, but was a bit more formal than I had anticipated. So I gave a 30 min talk on compiling the book (reading a few excerpts from the intro) and we had a short Q&A (which was perhaps dominated by discussion of whether the book should have included pictures).  The IHR now records most of its seminars and the talk I gave is now available on Youtube. You can listen to it below.

As with all my media appearances, I haven’t been able to listen to myself speak, but hopefully it is enlightening to others.

By the way, the book will be out in October. Please recommend it to your university, college or council library.

EDITED TO ADD: You can now also listen to the talk as a podcast here.

Against the Grain: The British far left from 1956 – chapter list announcement

The proofs have been handed back to Manchester University Press. The index has been compiled. All we need to do now is wait until the book is published.

And with that, I’d thought I would finally publish the list of chapters and authors contributing to the collection. We are very happy with the wide range of topics and of authors, both activists and academics, as well as young and more established scholars. Matt and I have enjoyed putting this collection together and hope it will be widely read by all of those interested in the British far left, from either an academic or activist perspective (or both).

So here it is:

From the third issue of 'The Reasoner' (Nov 1956) by E.P. Thompson and John Saville

From the third issue of ‘The Reasoner’ (Nov 1956) by E.P. Thompson and John Saville

AGAINST THE GRAIN: THE BRITISH FAR LEFT FROM 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2014)

Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds)

Introduction: the far left in Britain from 1956

Evan Smith and Matthew Worley 

Part I Movements

1 Engaging with Trotsky: the influence of Trotskyism in Britain

John Callaghan 

2 The New Left: beyond Stalinism and social democracy?

Paul Blackledge

3 Narratives of radical lives: the roots of 1960s activism and the making of the British left

Celia Hughes

4 Marching separately, seldom together: the political history of two principal trends in British Trotskyism, 1945–2009

Phil Burton-Cartledge 

5 Opposition in slow motion: the CPGB’s ‘anti-revisionists’ in the 1960s and 1970s

Lawrence Parker

6 Dissent from dissent: the ‘Smith/Party’ Group in the 1970s CPGB

Andrew Pearmain

7 British anarchism in the era of Thatcherism

Rich Cross

Part II Issues

8 Jam tomorrow? Socialist women and Women’s Liberation, 1968–82: an oral history approach

Sue Bruley

9 Something new under the sun: the revolutionary left and gay politics

Graham Willett

10 ‘Vicarious pleasure’? The British far left and the third world, 1956–79

Ian Birchall 

11 Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968–79

Satnam Virdee

 12 Red Action – left-wing pariah: Some observations regarding ideological apostasy and the discourse of proletarian resistance

Mark Hayes

13 Anti-fascism in Britain, 1997–2012

David Renton

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Hopefully the book will be out in the next few months. As soon as publication date has been set, be sure that I will announce it on this blog.