A review of Evan Smith and Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British far left from 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2014), £75
The need for a genuine left alternative to cuts, privatisation, racism, war and climate change is urgent. The huge enthusiasm around the election of left winger Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party shows the immense potential for unified struggles. However, a glance at the history of the British left will confirm a record of multiple organisations and groups that can be confusing, especially to those new to the movement.
Much of the left have been defined by their response to Stalinism, especially after two events in 1956: Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” exposing the atrocities of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Against the Grain takes up the considerable task of exploring how the various “far-left” organisations in the UK intervened in debates and movements from 1956 onwards. The collection of 13 essays, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, is not a comprehensive history, but rather aims to spark a discussion among left activists about the relationship between post-1956 left wing groups and current organisations and movements.
Tony Cliff, a founding member of the Socialist Review Group, later the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), made a key contribution to the understanding of Stalinism and the arguments that were taking place within the Troskyist Fourth International who described the Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state”. Cliff argued, from the late 1940s, that Russia had stopped being a workers’ state in the late 1920s when the Stalinist bureaucracy emerged as a ruling class. Russia had started to act as any other capitalist state, with exploitation of workers at home and competition internationally. Class division in Stalinist Russia, along with brutal oppression of the masses by the state, meant it could not be defined as socialist or communist. Genuine socialism could only come about through a bottom-up revolutionary struggle for direct control by the working class and oppressed groups (socialism from below), not through a bureaucratic, reformist or parliamentary road (socialism from above/Stalinism).
The key division on the left is between those advocating socialism from above and those calling for socialism from below. However, although the fight for workers’ self-emancipation is raised in a number of the articles, Against the Grain tends to treat the “far-left” as anything to the left of the Labour Party. This includes the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), Red Action, the Socialist Party (SP), the SWP, other left groupings and anarchist groups. This aggregation of the “far-left” will (for some) paint an interesting political/sociological picture. However, it could lead the reader to draw pessimistic conclusions about the potential for unity on the left. The book highlights divisions between the groups, while underplaying the centrality of revolutionaries in helping to boost the self-confidence of the working class through work in trade unions and in broad movements.
Against the Grain does a good job at presenting the conflict within the Communist Party after the events of 1956. Paul Blackledge provides an understanding of the debates among those in the New Left, who split from the Communist Party and began to reject both Stalinism and the social democracy of the Labour Party. He explains their relationship to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and their attempts to return to the roots of Marxism, the need for worker-led revolution from below. He hints at the defining feature of the International Socialists, the analysis of Stalinist Russia as state capitalist and not socialist, as an offshoot of the debates among the New Left.
John Callaghan’s article on Trotskyism gives a fascinating insight into the life of George Orwell and the influence of Leon Trotsky on British communists, anti-revisionists, Fourth Internationalists and the Revolutionary Communist Party. He also hints at Orwell’s own understanding of Stalinist Russia as state capitalist.
The analyses of anarchist groups during the Margaret Thatcher era, the CPGB and its various splits, and the differences between the SWP and SP all offer useful introductions to the history of the debates within and between these organisations. Most notably, Phil Burton-Cartledge’s chapter, “Marching Separately, Seldom Together”, documents the histories of the SP and the SWP. While this gives an overview of the two organisations, Burton-Cartledge seems fixated on the parties’ electoral work. The chapter doesn’t put the organisations in the context of the broader class struggle, under-emphasising their work in supporting and shaping workers’ struggles in the workplace and in building united fronts.
A number of the articles use oral histories to tell individual activists’ stories, some of which are very useful. Sue Bruley’s oral history of the women’s movement tells of the impact of the 1979 TUC march for abortion rights on the movement and on the left as a whole. Graham Willett also gives evidence of the centrality of raising workplace demands and changing opinions on the left about LGBT+ liberation. These articles also explain how much of the left lagged behind the women’s movement and what was then called the gay movement. It was through the process of class struggle that the argument that liberation is central to socialism was won with sections of the left.
Ian Birchall gives a critical analysis of “third worldism”, which dominated large sections of the left in the decades following the Second World War. “Third worldism” was a tendency to look to the movements in “Third World countries” and their leaders: Mao in China; Nasser in Egypt; Josip Tito in Yugoslavia. Birchall explains that the ideas of third worldism were developed most concretely by the Communist Party. It centred around the idea that the “Third World” (or less developed countries) held a greater potential for revolution, because of their common enemy—American imperialism. These ideas were encouraged by the successful anti-colonial movements in Africa and India, the Cultural Revolution in China and the Cuban Revolution. Proponents of third worldism tended to see the role of the British working class in fighting their own ruling class as secondary, partly due to the full employment and rising living standards of the post-war boom. While the 1950s and 1960s did see workers’ militancy, it lacked “generalisation”.
Birchall then introduces the theory of “deflected permanent revolution”, the contribution to the debate by Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron. Cliff and Kidron retained Trotsky’s notion of “permanent revolution” (the idea that successful revolutions could take place in more economically backward countries, so long as they were led by the working class). However, they noted that the revolutions in countries like Cuba and China were “deflected”: the role that the working class should be playing in controlling the running of society was, in these cases, being usurped from above by a “revolutionary intelligentsia”.
Birchall goes on to describe how the events of 1968: the Tet offensive in Vietnam; the French general strike and the Russian attack on Czechoslovakia, radicalised a generation and galvanised the left. Cliff’s group in particular benefitted from the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign aided by its clear analysis of the regimes of the “Third World” in China, Cuba, Egypt and Vietnam as state capitalist and not socialist. Birchall is also clear that the campaign against the Vietnam war and the “third worldist” movements, created a deep understanding of internationalism among sections of the British working class, which provided the foundation for even bigger international solidarity movements like the boycotts of apartheid South Africa and the 2 million-strong Stop the War demonstration in 2003. As Birchall concludes, the difference was that in 2003, hardly any of the 2 million who marched would have held sympathy for Saddam Hussein. In many ways this shows how far the British left and the working class have come.
Several articles in Against the Grain discuss the role of the left in the fight against racism and fascism. Satnam Virdee tells the inspiring story of the 1977 strike at Grunwick’s in north London involving mainly Asian workers. The strike generated solidarity from unions across the country, and helped tackle the racism that existed in the labour movement. Other articles share vital lessons in the importance of the united front approach adopted by the Anti Nazi League (ANL) in stopping the National Front and the British National Party, with Rock Against Racism (RAR) presented as a central unifying force on the left. Mark Hayes’s history of Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action explains their sectarian attitude to the rest of the left and squadist approach to taking on the fascists.
David Renton’s article on the struggle against fascism in Britain 1992-2012 explores the activities of the ANL, Anti-Fascist Action, Hope Not Hate, Unite Against Fascism (UAF), RAR and Love Music Hate Racism. Renton traces the relationship between anti-fascist organisations under the New Labour government, and the fears of many seasoned activists that the 1997 Labour victory might give confidence to the Nazi BNP. This was indeed reflected in the growth of BNP membership, but not in electoral success. Renton reports the success of the ANL (led by Julie Waterson) in mobilising thousands of anti-fascists in the late 1990s, including the 50,000-strong protest against the Front National in Strasbourg in March 1997.
UAF was formed in 2003 as a coalition of the ANL, the National Assembly Against Racism and others. Renton explores the divisions between UAF and Hope Not Hate and the key argument of understanding the rise of Islamophobia and the need to confront the BNP and their street fighting group the English Defence League on the streets. Renton examines the electoral success of the BNP in the European Parliament elections in the North West in 2009 and the high numbers of street protests by the EDL. He paints a picture that shows how consistent electoral work by UAF and other anti-facist organisations in key areas like Barking and Dagenham in 2010 and anti-fascist street mobilisations against the EDL in hundreds of cities across the country were eventually victorious.
However, he doesn’t describe how the fight was actually won: through the consistent application of united front tactics to draw local mosques, trade unions and other forces into activity alongside revolutionaries, ensuring that as many people as possible came out to stop the EDL.
Against the Grain uncovers a history of activists, actions and arguments of the post-1956 period that might otherwise not have been shared. However, it is important that the book is read with a grain of salt. For revolutionaries, the struggle of the working class and the oppressed is always the starting point. The history of the left is only useful when seen in the context of the broader class struggle; as a way of understanding how revolutionaries and other left groups have intervened in an attempt to shape and (hopefully) push the struggle forward. Unfortunately, Against the Grain does not always manage to do this successfully, as it has a tendency to look inward. Still, the anecdotes and analysis it provides give insights which, if read carefully, can help to inform revolutionaries today.
Emma Davis is a teacher and activist based in north London.