a brief history of british left groups since 1950

In outlining the history of British Left Groups from 1950 I have concentrated on how the groups reacted to important events organisationally, that is in practice, rather than the political positions they took up, that is the theoretical issues.  I take the feminist view that the political is personal and the personal political so that the internal life and operation of a Left Group is of great importance. I have added various experiences of my own, since from the late 1950s until now I have been involved in Left politics in various groups and was present at most of the key events.

 

The important events which galvanised the working class and changed the participants’ consciousness I see as:

1. 1956   Khruschev’s speech to the 20th Congress, the Hungarian Revolution, Suez, the start of CND.

2. 1968  the Paris Uprising, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the revolt of the students, the shop stewards movement’s rejection of  the Labour government’s “In Place of Strife”

3. 1979    the election of Thatcher and the effects of neo-liberalism

4. 1989    the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of Stalinism

5. 1997    the election of a New Labour government

 

Most of the British Left Groups originate from the Trotskyist tradition. This tradition stems from The Left Opposition to Stalin inside the Bolshevik Party in 1923, leading to the formation of the Fourth International in 1938 (See the FI Manifesto “The Death Agonies of Capitalism and the Tasks of the FI”).  A characteristic of this Trotskyist tradition is a belief in “democratic centralism” – which in my experience is usually very heavy on the centralism and very rarely democratic.

After the 2nd World War the national sections of the FI that re-grouped found it difficult to apply the predictions of the FI Manifesto to the realities of the post-war period – that capitalism would collapse and that Stalinism would be overthrown by a political revolution.  In Britain the various Trotskyist groups united in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), established in 1944.  Here were to be found the three main leaders of the post-1950 Left – Gerry Healy (Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party), Ted Grant (Revolutionary Socialist League /Militant /Socialist Appeal) and Tony Cliff (Socialist Review/International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party).

The RCP split in October 1947, with the minority led by Gerry Healy and backed by the Fourth International based in New York, entering the Labour Party. The majority disbanded the RCP in July 1949 and joined Gerry Healy in the Labour Party. There was a fraught situation and Healy soon expelled Ted Grant and Tony Cliff who set up their own groups.  Hence the three competing groups from then on.

There are three key issues involved from this experience, in my view.

  1. The influence of the Fourth International on the      national groups      –“the official franchise of the FI” as it is sometimes called which passed      from Healy to Grant in the 1950s and to the IMG in the 1960s and now to      the ISG. There is money and prestige involved but also meddling. The      tactics and strategies of the national group are influenced by the policies      of the FI – top down. Often this happens without the members knowing. For      example I was a member of the NC of the ISG in the late 1980s. Peter      Tatchell came to speak at a meeting in Coventry and asked me what I      thought about the recent split in the French FI section. I said I wasn’t      aware of any split. He said, “That’s      funny I thought you were on the NC of the ISG. The ISG have signed one of      the faction documents!”   On      behalf of the ISG, the ISG secretary had signed one of the faction      documents of the French section without reference to the ISG membership or      even the NC. No democracy there then!
  2. The tactic or strategy of entry into the Labour Party. All three Trotskyist groups      were in the LP from 1950. The Healy group were expelled in 1964. The Cliff      group drifted out in 1967. The Grant group are still in the Labour Party      apart from the Socialist Party who split from Grant in 1992. The IMG      started off in the Labour Party. When,      if ever, is it appropriate to join the Labour Party?
  3. Basically there are no political differences      between the groups on the Left that could not be incorporated within one      organisation —      given an open and democratic constitution and reasonable comradely      internal behaviour. This was the position taken by Sean Matgamna’s Workers      Fight group founded in 1966 until they expelled Alan Thornett’s faction in      1984 and formed the AWL. Why are      the Left Groups not in one democratic organisation? Very often this is      blamed on “splitting” so well satirised in Monty Python’s “The Life of      Brian “ but actually new Left groups      are usually formed by expulsions from the old groups – expulsions      motivated by the leadership.

Generally speaking the influence of Healy was greatest from 1956 to 1967; the influence of Cliff was greatest from 1967 to 1980; and the influence of Grant was greatest from 1980 to 1992. From 1992 until today the Left has been relatively impotent.

1956 was a key year

Khruschev’s speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party vindicated many of Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalin; the Hungarian Revolution caused mass defections from the CPGB; the Suez fiasco showed the weakness of British Imperialism.  There was ferment and debate on the Left and in the Labour Party. CND was formed in 1957 and the Healyites put “Ban the Bomb” resolutions to the LP Conferences.  New Left Review gathered a number of ex CPers and others as radical critics of capitalism; they operated as a group, setting up NLR Cafes in most big cities. The Healyites picked up a large number of influential ex-CP members both intellectuals and workers. At the same time the youth were finding their feet with the Rock ‘n Roll/Teddy Boy generation. Working class students from the Grammar Schools were in the Universities.

The Labour Party lost the 1959 general election and one result was they set up the Young Socialists to attract new members.  I was a delegate to the first YS Conference at St Pancras Town Hall in 1960 and later I joined the SLL. There were a lot of independents at the Conference but three organised factions – the right wing with their paper “New Advance” edited by Roger Protz (later of Keep Left, Socialist Worker and CAMRA), the “centrists” (Grantites and Cliffites, united!) with their paper “Young Guard” and the “revolutionaries” (Healyites) with “Keep Left”.   By 1964 the Healyites and Keep Left had won a majority in the YS and all seats on the National Executive of the YS — and were promptly expelled. They had gained dominance by organising discos for the working class youth in Council Estates. It was uplifting to hear the various dialects from the delegates as they came up to speak at the YS conferences – e.g. Glasgow Drumchapel, Sheffield Brightside, Birmingham Acocks Green. There were 8,000 youth at the 1964 LP Conference protesting about their expulsion.

The Healyites recruited at first in a non-sectarian manner and their magazine “Labour Review” was of good quality and broad appeal.  However many of the new recruits became fed up with Healy’s dictatorial manner and left.

Solidarity, the anarcho-syndicalist group was formed by a group leaving the SLL in 1960 around Chris Pallis. Ken Weller’s article on why he left the SLL is very interesting as is Peter Fryer’s letter of resignation.

Paris 1968, the Anti-Vietnam War campaign, the students’ revolts

In October 1967 I was at the Grosvenor Square Anti-Vietnam War demonstration when I took a leaflet from a Healyite member — “Why We Are Not Marching”. I couldn’t believe it.  There was a mass demonstration with more to follow and the Healyites were boycotting it.  Basically they objected to the International Marxist Group (IMG) organising the march because the IMG had the FI franchise and were a bunch of petty bourgeois upstarts as far as the SLL were concerned. (The IMG broke up in 1982). Well 1967 was the end of the Healyites being the largest Trot group. 

With the anti-Vietnam War demos, the student unrest, the shop stewards’ movement’s rejection of  the Labour government’s “In Place of Strife” and the Paris 1968 events, the Cliffites came into their own.  The Grantites were firmly at rest in the Labour Party. Cliff made an appeal for all groups to join the IS – including IMG and Solidarity (neither took up the offer) and promised faction rights. There are mixed messages as to why Cliff made this appeal and as far as I know there is no printed evidence. I thought at the time it was a genuine move on Cliff’s part to build a mass socialist movement to the Left of the Labour Party. Jim Higgins says that it was because Cliff was frightened that Enoch Powell would trigger off a racist movement. Others have said it was just the usual Cliff opportunism to gather socialists together under his leadership.

In the event there were five factions in the IS in 1968 and a lively internal bulletin but the only organised group that did join was a new small group founded in 1966 by Sean Matgamna called Workers Fight, of which I was a member. Up till then the IS had a federal structure but Cliff wanted it to become more centralised. He particularly encouraged ex-SLL members, like members of Workers Fight, disillusioned with Healy, to join to help “to harden up” the organisation.

Workers were very disillusioned with the Labour government and in 1967 many of the Councils in the large cities went to the Tories for the first time. Barbara Castle introduced “In Place of Strife” to try to get Unions and managements together, just at the time when employers were introducing productivity deals.  Cliff launched his book “The Employers’ Offensive” which was very popular with shop stewards. In Coventry for example we sold 500 copies. IS students from the university began meeting shop stewards and organising factory bulletins along the lines of Lutte Ouvriere in France with factory gossip on one side of a sheet of A4 and political comment on the other. These were given out outside the factory every fortnight and Socialist Worker was sold every week outside the factory gate. IS membership grew. Rank and File papers were produced and IS had a real influence in the shop stewards’ movement which was under attack.

In the early days IS had a number of “problems” as the leadership saw it but actually were good educative disputes in my opinion. It is surely a good thing to have disagreements and to argue them out and learn from the experience.  It was exciting even if you lost the debate. The first “problem” was on Northern Ireland. In October 1969 British troops were sent into Northern Ireland to ostensibly help the Catholics from being murdered. The IS paper Socialist Worker came out in support of the troops being sent in.  A large section of IS objected to this line and a Conference was called.  My main memory of this Conference was of a very tense situation, a really good debate apart from the appalling demagogy of Paul Foot but mainly for the contribution of a young Martin Barker from Bristol, a firm Cliff loyalist who unfortunately went so far as to imitate Cliff’s mad professor mannerisms. It’s one thing to hear Socialist Party loyalists putting on a mixture of Liverpool and Swansea accents when speaking in debates, but to imitate Cliff is a different matter. Martin was attacking the opposition for leaving the Catholics with no defence. Throwing his arms in the air he declaimed in a high voice “And vy do these people want a pogrom?” The answer came from the delegates, “I vill tell you vy!” (classic Cliff) amid joy and merriment from the oppositionists, anger from the loyalists and embarrassment from Martin Barker.  A magic moment showing a good democratic organisation.  But as my father used to say, “If you fart in the face of authority, expect a reaction.”  And there was to be a reaction in the form of a closing down of any opposition to the leadership. Instead of welcoming debate and differences, Cliff wanted conformity.

The “problem” that brought about the bringing down of the portcullis on democracy by Cliff was the question of the referendum on Europe. The official IS position on Europe, agreed at Conference, was a neutral one, neither for nor against Europe. However Socialist Worker came out with a Vote No recommendation. There was an immediate attempt by oppositionists led by Workers Fight to get sufficient branches to sign a petition for a special conference – according to the IS constitution.  When the required number had signed up, the National Committee said it was a waste of precious resources to organise a conference on this issue. They did however have sufficient resources to organise a witch-hunt against the Trotskyist Tendency/Workers Fight and then to call a conference to get us expelled. The witch-hunt was very nasty.  I was invited to speak at two branches where I had friends. Cliff had been to speak and had told them a complete pack of lies, obviously not expecting anybody from Workers Fight to turn up. This really did surprise me. One shop steward who had joined WF in Coventry was an artist who made posters for sale for the IS branch. They came to his house when he wasn’t there and took all his paints, brushes and equipment. He was also French by birth and had translated a pamphlet about the Chrysler-Simca factory which we were about to print. They seized a copy and re-printed it as their own.  Former comrades would cross the road rather than be seen talking to members of Workers Fight.  When Cliff came to the Coventry branch the TGWU convenor from Chrysler who was a member of the IS-NC denounced him for his lies. He was the only non WF member on the NC to vote against the expulsion.  He wasn’t elected to the NC again! Jim Higgins might find the whole episode amusing in his memoirs but it wasn’t funny to be on the receiving end and it did tremendous damage to what could have been a broad democratic workers’ party.  And of course Jim Higgins and his Workers Opposition got the same treatment of expulsion a few years later, as did Yaffe’s faction, Workers Power and others. Bureaucratic centralism was well and truly established in IS/SWP by the expulsion of Workers’ Fight in 1971. 

1970s, The SWP and the Shop Stewards’ movement                                                                                    There is a great deal of mythology about workers’ militancy during the 1970s. Basically it was defensive against the employers’ offensives, unlike the militancy of the 1950s and 60s which improved wages and working conditions. This earlier militancy created the self-confidence of the shop stewards’ movement as opposed to the TU bureaucracy. The shop stewards recognised their power in organising strikes to demand better pay and conditions.  Politically they were from a CPB background, the Labour Left and the SWP. In the 1970s this militancy was used to gain some spectacular victories.  The miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 are acknowledged as defeating the Heath Tory government.  All very well, but what did they replace it with? – the same old discredited Labour government of Harold Wilson!  The working class learned very little from these experiences and stuck to the sole tactic of strike action. Meanwhile the defeated Tories developed plans to defeat the Trade Unions and to shut down manufacturing altogether – which they did ultimately with the defeat of the miners in 1985. The Trade Unions, the shop stewards movement and the Left made no strategic plans at all.  Looking back, it is quite incredible – we were like sitting ducks.

In the SWP the main criticism made by dissidents was that of “workerism”.  What this meant was that the leadership tended to idolise the militants and flattered them to keep them loyal.  There was no attempt to develop consciousness through internal debate and education from below. The SWP was ruled by a bureaucracy.  When the bureaucracy decided to give up on the shop stewards and Rank and File bulletins and papers, it caused a revolt from the “Workers’ Opposition” the leaders of which had been loyal Cliffites and voted for the expulsion of numerous comrades. When they were expelled, there were no dissidents left to vote against their expulsion. Although they were the largest group to be expelled, they disappeared like smoke into the air.   The remaining Cliffites went for broad, one issue organisations they thought they could dominate like the ANL and “Women’s Voice.”  They avoided joining the Labour Party during the 1980s and basically walked into the wilderness.

1979, Thatcher and the turn to the Labour Party   

The victory of the Tories in 1979 brought in an era of monetarism which devastated British manufacturing industry, the public sector and the organisations of the working class.  The reaction of the working class was to join the Labour Party, to vote for Tony Benn for deputy leader and to democratise the Party from below.  That’s where all the fights were. The Left took over many constituencies, de-selected MPs and councillors and elected Left MPs and councillors to fight the cuts. I was elected as West Midlands Labour County Councillor for Coventry South East constituency in 1981. There were a number of groups in the LP, some passive, some active.  The Militant, later Socialist Party was the largest because they had been there inertly from the early 1950s. They could have opened up their organisation like Healy did in 1956 or as Cliff did in 1967 and swept all the Left into one group but they did not.  In fact I can’t remember the SP ever attending a Broad Left meeting. They certainly resented other Left groups who they saw as rivals to themselves. They always voted for the right wing against the left candidate unless they thought the left candidate was recruitable or could be influenced. When I became a councillor for what they considered to be their LP constituency, South East Coventry, the Militant had voted for a right-winger against me and when I got elected I was threatened with physical violence and other dire consequences by them. I tried to get them to see the funny side but without success. Their behaviour was exactly the same in the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign. They saw themselves as being the leadership and woe betide anybody who challenged that.  I would call that typical sectarian behaviour, endemic in the British left groups.

There is a difference in the behaviour of the three Trotskyist groups when their moment came to star.  Both the SLL/WRP and IS/SWP started out as being open and non-sectarian, “all smarm and bullshit” as one shop steward described Cliff.  The Militant have never used a charm offensive.

Although it is often claimed by Militant that they were the most influential group in the LP in the 1980s, the vast majority of the Left activists were not affiliated to any group. This was a new phenomenon.  In periods of heightened class struggle, activists look for an organisation to join – not for leadership but for solidarity and development of consciousness.  In the 1980s most LP activists avoided the Militant — and the politics of these activists (for example on feminism and gay rights) were well to the left of the Militant. In more recent times those demonstrating against the war in Iraq and on other issues have avoided the Left Groups. There must be reasons for this.

The only other organisations that could have had a major impact in the 1980s were Labour Briefing and WF/AWL. There were some brave initiatives but it came to nothing. The fact that Sean Matgamna set about a deliberate faction fight at the start of the national miners’ strike showed a lack of strategic thinking. The history of WF/AWL is a separate and smaller issue.

1989 and the implosion of Stalinism

Al Richardson of Revolutionary History explains very well the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites on the Left in his Introduction to “In Defence of the Soviet Union” (1995). He mentions the demoralising effect upon the international Labour movement and the confusion created theoretically within the Left political parties. We can still see the consequences of that now. On the state of the Left Groups, Al makes this point:

It has to be said that the collapse of the Soviet Union caught them all napping. In spite of their claims to scientific socialism, possession of this science gave them no predictive powers whatever and apart from Critique magazine you can scan their journals right up to the event without any suggestion of what was coming.  Nor has any coherent explanation emerged since.

I think this criticism is accurate, still stands and can be applied to other phenomena like the new global economy and its crises and even the Left’s own history.

In 1989 I was a member of the new group ISGformed in 1987 from factions of the old IMG, from the WSL, the Dem.Cent.Faction of WF and later Labour Briefing.  Again the founding conference promised open and democratic functioning which was enthusiastically welcomed by the new members at the founding conference. After being on the NC for 6 months I asked why my resolution which had been passed at the founding Conference – for an internal bulletin so that the various political differences from the various political backgrounds could be aired – had not been implemented. I was told that the leadership did not agree with an IB. I said that was irrelevant since the membership had passed it at conference. I was asked how I knew that, since no minutes of the conference decisions had been taken! At the next conference I put the same resolution and it was passed but again never implemented. I also put a resolution on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the velvet revolution in Eastern Europe. I asked for a discussion to be opened up on the nature of the Soviet Union since clearly Trotsky’s prediction of a political revolution had not come about and that Ernest Mandel’s notion that the nationalised industries of the USSR were superior to those of the West was clearly wrong since if it were true, the workers would have defended those industries. The fury of the leadership—remember they have the FI franchise — was unbelievable over this resolution and it was thrown out.  I left soon afterwards — the most dysfunctional organisation in my experience I have ever belonged to.  The point is that the events of 1989 were very important in the history of the Left, the collapse of so-called “workers’ states” into capitalism and the implosion of mass Stalinist workers’ parties throughout the world.  To the British Left however it was business as usual.

 

From 1996

The implosion of Stalinism left Social Democracy without competition on the Left and so allowed SD a free run to the right and to neo-liberalism. In Britain Clause 4 was renounced by the Labour Party and New Labour was born. There was clearly a need to create a Left alternative, particularly for the 1997 election and the times afterwards when Labour were likely to be in government. Two groups were formed — the Socialist Labour Party by Arthur Scargill and the Socialist Alliance by independent socialist groups and the Socialist Party. In Scotland the Socialist Alliance became the Scottish Socialist Party after Scottish Militant split from the Socialist Party.

The SLP was at first very promising, attracting audiences of up to 400 in the main cities. In Coventry we had a meeting of 300 and 50 people joined including most of the local Socialist Alliance activists. The votes we received in the general election were quite encouraging. The problem came with the first SLP Conference in 1997. There were a number of small groups who had joined but basically the SLP was split between Stalinists and Trotskyists — and Arthur Scargill is a Stalinist. He had a stooge in the Conference with 3,000 votes in his pocket, purporting to represent the Lancashire miners – more votes than all the rest of the delegates combined. Rather stupidly the stooge declared his 3,000 votes in a dispute over voting on a resolution — and pandemonium broke out. The Cardiff branch stormed the platform and demanded to know what Scargill was playing at.  Actually I thought they were correct; there is no room for politeness in such circumstances and they had got the largest SLP vote in the general election. Half the conference left to meet elsewhere. That was the end of the SLP initiative. All of our 50 members disappeared apart from two members of The Stalin Society who think that democracy is a bourgeois liberal concept, and not enough people were shot in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Socialist Alliance was also promising. The Socialist Party joined basically to make the SA an alternative to the SLP. Later other Left groups joined and then eventually the SWP which had a majority. All the Left Groups were in one organisation! Oh dear! The SP left the SA after the SWP joined and allowed the SWP to exercise its majority by closing down the SA in 2005. The SWP wanted to build Respect. Note they did not leave and thus let the rest of us continue with the SA. They closed it down and took the money. The worst aspect of this was seeing loyal SWP members queuing up at the desk like sheep to join the SA on the day in order to go into the SA conference to provide the SWP with a majority to close the SA down. Some of us had been in the SA for 13 years! What words can describe such loyalty and such leadership? “Communist” is not one of those words! There is a DSA pamphlet on the history of the SA which gives an accurate account. I will try to put it on the website.

The history of the Scottish Socialist Party can be read on the RCN website and by reading Alan McCoombe’s recent book on Tommy Sheridan. It makes grim reading.  The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party feature yet again as villains.

The fact is that both the SP and SWP sabotaged the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party and we now have no Broad Left workers’ party in this country. No Left Group was up to the job of providing an alternative to New Labour – opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – answering the global recession – or fighting the coming cuts. 

***************************************************************************

 

The Smaller groups

WF/AWL

Workers Fight was formed in 1966. Its first magazine called for a”Trotskyist Re-groupment”. It had a policy that there were no political differences between the Left Groups that warranted them being in separate organisations. They therefore welcomed Cliff’s offer to join the IS/SWP in 1967 and became the “Trotskyist Faction” in IS.  In 1971 they were expelled from the IS/SWP. In the 1970s they made unity offers to various groups that were expelled or split from the main Left Groups. Workers Power/League for the Fifth International who had been the Left Faction in the SWP were expelled from the SWP in 1974 and took up WF’s offer. Later they withdrew leaving a number of comrades behind in WF. In 2006 there was a split in the League for a Fifth International over views of the world economy. In the UK the majority remained as Workers Power, the minority became Permanent Revolution.

The Workers Socialist League who had been expelled from the WRP in 1975 also took up the WF offer in 1981.  In 1984 during the miners’ strike Sean Matgamna expelled the Thornett faction of the WSL without allowing them the right to vote against their own expulsion. The Democratic Centralist Faction of WF was formed to oppose the undemocratic expulsion of the WSL.  The DCF was made up of ex-WF, ex-WSL and ex-WP members. Matgamna called both the Thornett faction and the DCF “non-Marxists” which broke the policy of all Left groups being in one organisation. There have been no fusions since.  He also formed the AWL which has different politics entirely – based on Schachtmanism –from the former WF.  Obviously Matgamna did not want to put those politics to the vote in a larger organisation.  He recruited new members from student politics to carry out the expulsions and the changes in policy. The Thornett faction and the DCF joined forces and in 1987 joined with former factions of the IMG to create the ISG/Resistance which was given the FI franchise.

The implosion of the WRP in 1985.

In 1985 the membership of the WRP expelled their long-time leader Gerry Healy. He was accused of the sexual abuse of young female members of the organisation over a period of time, the “droit de seigneur” so common amongst leaders of cults. This decision followed the feminist principle that the personal is political and the political personal. Defenders of Gerry Healy, including Corin and Vanessa Redgrave said that his personal behaviour had nothing to do with his politics.  Likewise John Sullivan in his pamphlet on the British Left talks of Healy’s “peccadillos”.  As though the abuse of the membership by the leadership of organisations– sexual, physical, verbal and emotional is acceptable or of no consequence! Many of the leaders of the WRP must have known about Healy’s behaviour and kept quiet. To them it had nothing do with politics. This is precisely the point made by the feminist movement against the Left in the 1970s – that sexism was rife in their organisations and needed to be rooted out. It took a brave woman, I think his secretary Aileen Jennings, to expose Healy’s sexism.

I remember very well the day I decided to leave the SLL in 1964. It was a regional conference where Healy was coming round “pruning the branches, cutting out the dead wood”.  He was a braggart and a bully denigrating members who had some standing and respect in the local Trade Union and Labour movement. They took it like the dreadful sinners in church from the priest. I wasn’t prepared to stand for it.  A short while later an old RCPer described the SLL to me — “The members are like sheep herded into a corral by a wolf called Healy”.  An accurate description and not an isolated one unfortunately. In the vanguard party the vanguard like to throw their weight around and flick the boys and girls in the face to show who’s who and what’s what. I’ve seen other self-appointed Lenins try it out but none has quite the style and venom of Gerry Healy.

 

The CPGB/Weekly Worker 

“There are only two things wrong with the CPGB,” said a friend of mine, “the CP and the GB.”  The acronym shows the CPGB’s roots in British Stalinism and the faction fighting when the majority went Euro-communist. The route has been a long one since 1977 and the CPGB are now more Trotskyist than Stalinist in their politics, though Kautsky has raised his ugly head recently.  But the CPGB’s organisational methods are still basically Stalinist.  Despite a thin veneer of openness and “extreme democracy” declared in their paper, the internal workings of the CPGB are authoritarian to say the least.  Watch them at work in a Conference of the Left.  Their leader Jack Conrad strides about and absents himself from the Conference to show his contempt for the whole proceedings and then gets in a huddle with his fellow PCC members to decide on their line. They sit at the front so that when the vote comes, all CPGB members can see the PCC’s hands raised and can raise their hands to follow suit. Apparently reasonable and personable comrades can behave in this fashion.  They call it “democratic centralism”.

Similar behaviour is shown in emails where the leader focuses on “comrades” he has a grudge against and then declares open season on them for all his members to pile in with personal abuse.  If the sufferer should complain, he is told that he obviously can’t stand “robust debate.” If he should go so far as to threaten a bully with a fist fight, the wolves demand his immediate expulsion with great glee, for physical violence.

The CPGB are not averse to the black arts of the Stalinist school of falsification when it suits them.  A classic occasion was Jack Conrad’s visit to a Committee meeting of the Campaign for a Marxist Party in Birmingham.  He gave his “report” in the following week’s Weekly Worker.  He declared that the proceedings had been affected by the drunkenness of the participants.  To emphasise the point, a quarter of a page featured a picture of a pint of Guinness.  This was a deliberate lie, written to discredit the CMP Committee who Jack Conrad did not approve of. Of the eight members present, six were teetotal, two had two pints of beer in the course of five hours. The rest of his “report” was a high-pitched attack full of errors, lies and distortions.  Many of the CPGB members knew this or could see this from reading the article. None of them broke ranks and they either defended the article or found the whole attack amusing.  The end of the CPGB’s involvement in the CMP was that they behaved in exactly the same manner as they had learned from the SWP in the SA. They used their majority — with some of their comrades lining up to join the CMP on the day of its conference – to close the CMP down.  So much for openness and extreme democracy.  The CPGB are a classic case of stated political positions being at variance with their organisational behaviour internally and externally.

Note

The Revolutionary History website is a good store of information on the history of non-Stalinist groups internationally. Most oppositionists to Stalinism were either killed by the Stalinists or by the Nazis in the Second World War.  There is a whole wealth of good communist literature that has been side-lined or almost lost.  The Revolutionary History comrades are dedicated to retrieving it. Unfortunately they tend to stop at 1950. On British Trotskyism to 1950 there are two outstanding books written by the founders of Revolutionary History, Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson – “Against the Stream” and “War and the International”. The magazine “New Interventions” which is loosely linked to Revolutionary History and was started by an independent Trotskyist Ken Tarbuck in the early 1990s contains articles on the movement since 1950. I have a complete set of these and will try and copy the titles of any relevant articles.  Another source of interest on the groups after 1950 is John Sullivan’s satirical and scurrilous pamphlets “Go Fourth and Multiply” and “When this Pub Closes” – published in one volume by New Interventions.   I have a number of copies of this for sale. John was a member of Solidarity and the SWP

2 thoughts on “a brief history of british left groups since 1950

  1. Would have been interesting to hear your thoughts on the Red Action expulsion from the SWP and their founding of Anti-Fascist Action.

    “The only other organisations that could have had a major impact in the 1980s were Labour Briefing and WF/AWL”

    I think RA and AFA comes within the remit of having an impact if Labour Briefing and other small grouplets have.

    Like

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