Peter Sedgwick

Welfare work or revolutionary
politics – the choice for the Left

(26 April 1969)

From Socialist Worker, No. 119, 26 April 1969, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Delegates to the National Convention of the Left must decide between pressure groups and building a new workers’ party

THIS WEEKEND the National Convention of the Left will be meeting at St Pancras Town Hall in London.

The occasion has an ambitious title which so far seems to be justified by the sheer number and variety of the socialist individuals and groups that have agreed to participate.

People from single-issue groups like Child Poverty Action Group or the Save Biafra Committee, representatives of the Young Liberals, the Tribune Socialist Charter, the Young Communist League and the Communist Party, as well as members of IS and other revolutionary formations, will be in attendance in order (in the terms of the organisers) to:

define, as socialists and radicals, the central issues of contemporary politics
discuss forms of action in relation to these issues, and generate new and connected campaigns
establish some continuing form of liaison
demonstrate the existence of a real alternative to the present system that is real and worth fighting for.”

Laudable aims indeed. What can be expected from the convention?


The impulsion for the convention has come from the May Day Manifesto group, a small group of professional socialists, some of whom are heavily influenced by the style of politics manifested in the American student movement before the latter went marxist.

The virtues and vices of this style are: a glad-handed openness of approach which helps to break the ice on the Left; an insufferable tendency to fuzzy and loose verbiage with absolutely no practical meaning of any consequence.

The politics of May Day Manifesto are, at an explicit level: “the formation of a political movement, radical and socialist, primarily extra- parliamentary but accepting the significance of a national presence while rejecting the notion of parliamentary socialism represented by the Labour Party.”

Yet the convention it has summoned will include Tribunites and CPers who are still committed to ‘parliamentary socialism’ as well as a host of people with a primarily single-issue commitment and others whose politics are at present poorly defined.

Clearly, then, no consensus on the most elementary practical points can be expected from the convention as a whole. For example, the problem of the General Election will not receive any firm answer, since the right wing of the audience will undoubtedly prefer orthodox parliamentary procedures.

Many of the bodies present consist of a national ‘head’ (i.e. an intellectual position as manifested in publications: Catholic-Radical, Pacifist- Militant, Third-World Revolutionary) but no local limbs that could put any actual proposals into action.

Previous attempts to gain unity on the Left on this kind of ‘umbrella’ basis have meant that comrades with a primarily local-work orientation (such as the International Socialists) have found themselves loaded with organisational commitments on behalf of others who were either unable or unwilling to take on anything serious at all. So some of us will be very careful about getting lumbered again.

The best work of the convention, as is usual at events of this kind, will probably be done at the specialised groups which will meet when the jamboree sessions break up.

There is, for instance, one on trade unions, another on race, another on imperialism. Even here, however, it will be all too easy to generate trains of ‘transitional programmes’ and ‘structural demands’ which may sound very comforting inside the small group discussing them, but appear to pale somewhat when one is confronted by the stark realities of one’s workplace or locality on the following day.

One comrade in the latest May Day Manifesto Bulletin has come out with a tremendous programme for the Left ranging from “Residents and households of the United Kingdom not to be allowed more than one bank account” to “The Ericson Company in Sweden to be engaged to instal a telephone in every household within five years.”

No doubt there will be many other participants bursting to tell the convention their bit. it would be a pity, if in the general enthusiasm of togetherness, some important points were to be overlooked, such as:


Finally, what is this ‘Left,’ which the organisers of the convention appear to think of as a conglomerate of pressure-groups ‘active on issues ranging from housing to wages, social welfare to workers’ control, the democratisation of education to anti-imperialism and peace’?

Is it a collection like that, defined by some specialised charitable concern, or is it basically defined in class terms. If the latter, the basic constituency of the Left is the working class, and any ‘common strategy’ depends on and focuses around the workers’ own struggle.

And such a strategy must imply, not perhaps as an immediate end but as a declared foreseeable aim, the establishment of a revolutionary working-class party to achieve what no rank and file political resistance to capitalism and ad hoc federation can ever manage: the creation of a socialist order.

Last updated on 15 January 2021