Peter Sedgwick

Farewell, Grosvenor Square


Peter Sedgwick, Introduction: Farewell, Grosvenor Square, in The Left in Britain, ed. David Widgery, Penguin 1976, pp.19-41.
Marked up by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The story of the British Left from the 1956 split in the Communist Party up till the growth and disintegration of the Vietnam Solidarity movement is the record of a political adolescence. And who can review his own adolescence without an embarrassed blush or an amused smile at follies recognized as such too late? Not all of it will have been folly, of course: but even what was ardent and delightful is now revealed as without issue, harbouring from the outset the contradictions that would dissolve or defeat its hope. Where have all the flowers gone? sang the marchers; and, in pacific elegy, Where have all the soldiers gone? And now, a few years later, where have all the marchers gone? The years of my own biological teens were haunted, not by politics, but by the fear and joy of God: a God who would reckon each jet of sperm from my myriad masturbations and, on the day of judgement, present me with the final account. ‘SEE WHAT YOU’VE DONE!’ God would thunder at me, shaking His sage head and pointing to the great transparent bag, filled to the brim with futile sex-juice, a glistening mass many times my own size. The moment before I was to be hurled into this vat of sin, the spermatozoa released themselves from the goo and pranced before me in swarms of thousands, heads agape and reproachful, chanting ‘WASTE! WASTE’ in piping voices. Nowadays it is the memory of political waste which summons a reckoning of time misspent: the sperm-dance is performed by hordes of young heads, waving the banners of causes either (like Ban the Bomb) lost or (like Vietnam) won by other agencies than our protest. A generous but possible estimate of the largest CND march, the one from Aldermaston and Wethersfield into Trafalgar Square at Easter 1961, is of a final turnout of 100,000 participants. The great Vietnam solidarity demo of October 1968 took the whole width of Central London’s streets under marchers’> control; the Press scare about impending violence and the known record of the Metropolitan Police on these occasions meant that nobody could have come on the march without a realistic fear of trouble on the way; and the occasion drew, at a fair approximation 100,000 participants. But it was not the previous hundred thousand grown up by seven and a half years. In terms of personnel, the demonstrating Left of Britain simply did not cumulate. Witness not merely the great mass mobilizations but the countless local marches, occupations, conventions, moods and manias: in 1970, to take one single issue, direct-action episodes, supported by the mass of students, took place in one third of British universities following the disclosure of political file-material kept by the authorities on both teachers and taught at the University of Warwick. If the movements generated in these successive waves had possessed any capacity to educate in wider political horizons, the United Kingdom would now have a permanent cadre of several hundred thousand left-wing activists. In fact, most of the people whose middle-class manifestations are described in this book are now leading very quiet lives. And the apparently radical alignment of their actions and beliefs, from march to sitdown, college occupation to insurrectionary newspapers, was a temporary excitement within a liberalism whose subsequent career was to be indistinguishable from that evoked in the least militant of their generation. The only dramatis personae who can be identified as recurring from the scenes of the Left in the late fifties right along to the sixties and the seventies consist of two sorts of people: militant trade-unionists and active (usually Marxist and usually card-carrying) revolutionaries.

The other movements have seen an inversion of Christ’s Law of the Proportions of Backsliding (‘One of you twelve will betray me’); in the end, at best, there has been one solid burgher for the city of radical politics to every eleven hundred, or eleven thousand, tourists. The incorrigible stayers of Socialism got used to the passing scene, and anticipated the dereliction of the multitudes. All the more precious became the newcomer who was going to remain true: we learnt to snatch the chosen from the uncircumcised throng and to concentrate our attachments on him or her with the marks of the honesty that is strength; but more often than not, to our great sadness, we picked the wrong one.

Hence the strange age-distribution of the radical middle-class Left, that pyramid of the years crammed in its lower echelons by massed banks of eager Youth, thinning sharply to a tip at which a few veterans in their thirties, and an even fewer who were any older, looked at one another and then down and away into their rival factions of juniors. It was a distribution both statistically abnormal – for in the population as a whole the proportion of the elders was steadily rising – and subjectively pathological. It was possible to think, ‘All these marvellous young people’ at the first, second or even third Aldermaston or Young Socialist march, but by the seventh or ninth, when it became obvious that these were different young people each time, the effect was less rejuvenating. How hollow now seems the announcement of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International that an ‘international mass youth vanguard’ was on its way to us in the run-up to the seventies. The youth movement was, increasingly over the years, a movement of students or near-students, reflecting but also distorting, through their upbringing in an elitist enclave, the pressures and demands of their generation. Each intake of the youth rebellion graduated into separate experiences of career, home, family, never again to re-assemble. Soon to be dispersed by the same competition and mobility which had socialized them for a while in a common privileged setting, the class of ‘58, of ‘68, of ‘72 reacted with a precocious consciousness to the first great horror of the world that came its way, to the Bomb, to the Vietnam war, to Ireland, and to the truncheon-swinging police. Its crowds swirled across streets and newsreels, related through a zigzag causality to other crowds, other issues: tenants, rent increases; workers, redundancies and wages; black people, discrimination and rotten jobs. The Instant Left was abstract, brave, verbally fluent and powerless. The working-class protest was concrete, cautious, verbally stereotyped and often successful. The student and middle-class movement was not (as some of its theoreticians argued) ‘the little motor that sets the big motor turning’; it was symptomatic rather than effective, the stormy petrel whose appearance is a sign that the real storm is about to come. The stormy petrel does not cause the storm which it precedes; its movement towards the watchers is caused by the storm ahead of which it flies, not vanguard but herald. There are those who have told us that the petrel, that gallant little bird, is really the storm: they suffer from bad eyesight.

If the movements have gone, and if both the leaderships and the ranks which staffed them have nearly all vanished from political activity, can anything be said for the effectiveness of the British independent Left over 1956 to 1968? It will be easy for any reader from the established radical and revolutionary groupings to mock the incoherent and Utopian assemblies that were the forerunners of today’s Socialism. In 1974 we have an official national student body, the NUS, aligned with left policies to the great terror of the liberal media, the leadership for its militancy contested within a spectrum ranging from radical to Trotskyist. Over most of the period described in this book, control of the NUS was firmly in the grip of right Labour or arrant conservative careerists, some of them conniving with the overseas operations of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government. The NUS took no part whatever in the mass episodes of demonstration and direct action that embraced thousands upon thousands of young students. How was the transition effected and what was its nature? Basically, what the non-unionized student movement did was to create precedents for the unionized, breaks in the long tradition of inertia and acquiescence; while the personnel and the issues disappeared, the structures of aspiration and action remained. It was the nutty, bedraggled conclaves with no future, the Radical Student Alliance, the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation, even the defunct NALSO (the Labour Left student organization in permanent war with Transport House) that dragged the entirely misnamed National Union of Students – which for most of its existence was no more than the annexe to a travel bureau – into this century of revolution. The same process of pressure and infiltration, shifts in agitational style, followed by collapse, followed by a further shift, took place at the local student base in the universities and institutions; college life, that coagulated ground of deference and insecurity, piled with obsequious sods of ideological clay in which nothing could grow except a BA (Hons) degree, was broken down finely by the repeated tilling of innumerable small hoes, duplicated incitements left on canteen tables, arid debates among veterans from last year’s demo, electrifying spates of demagogy by enraged psychopaths, sudden midnight fucks with the wrong person and desperate unposted letters to the right one, besieged occupations, paranoid stashings of dope in unfindable hidey-holes, the slow learning of organization, reliability, discipline, presence.

A similar role was performed for the general political movement by the fertilizing, founding New Left of yesteryear. We scattered brazen images across the land, gryphon and giraffe ideas which had legs and wings, to fly through windows and run up and down walls into the people’s houses, seizing the bodies of the sleepy sons and dutiful daughters, waking up the neighbours into marches and outcries: penetrating, eventually, into those cages of mind-annulling repetition, the workplaces.

The contrast from then to now is evident in the very nature of a demonstration. People simply gawped and gaped at the first public CND marchers; we were external to the public upon the pavements, and for much of the time conscious that we would be viewed and judged as an alien force. We were adventists, witnesses like those of Jehovah, prepared to face the contumely of the world in the cause of our imperative, a many-headed version of the eccentric little bloke with the sandwich-board saying PREPARE TO MEET THY DOOM. And now there simply is no longer a public which is exterior to demonstration and visible mass action. Everybody is within the constituency of possible political crowds: miners with their picket armies; anxious parents protesting for zebra crossings; villagers on the streets against juggernaut lorries; nurses massed in the irresistible appeal of mercy’s uniform; tenants blown together from a thousand separate dwellings by moneylenders and bailiffs; pensioners, council clerks, civil servants, dockers, Fenians, Fabians, teachers, schoolkids, binmen, clothing workers, and, still as ever, students, students, students. There are still the uninvolved on the side-walks, temporary consumers or permanent petty-bourgeois, chronic incapables of the private domestic patch and the 57 varieties of bewildered individualism. But nowadays, even the Right has learned to marshal its collectives for the streets, the headlined housewives striking against strikers, the bigoted pecksniffs of the anti-Abortion Lobby, the Festival of Pharisees, the State’s own parades of armed might in the environs of Heathrow to announce that was done in Bogside can be done here. Demonstration has demonstrated its own necessity so demonstratively that we even have the counter-demonstration and the counter-counter-one: those who started the long trek to the Nuclear Weapons Research Establishment in 1958 have a lot to answer for. We got people into the habit: twenty and even ten years ago you knocked nervously at the council house door with a leaflet and remarked, as if advertising a jumble-sale for the Buddhists, ‘Er, we do have this, well, demonstration coming up, if you’d like to hear ... Ah no, well cheerio’; and now the woman who opens the door will take the leaflet and say, ‘Thanks, luv, see you at t’demo then.’ It wasn’t all our fault, it has something to do with the crisis of the capitalist system and the squeeze on wages and the pressures of de-colonization, the arms race, the credibility gap and whatever else you have. But it had to be got going: a task performed, thanklessly at the time, by knots of dishevelled enthusiasts, some of whom still survive into organized campaigning activity to reap the reward of a public response denied to many of their comrades who became dispirited.

Goodbye Rudi Dutschke, farewell Grosvenor Square, it’s a long, long way to Aldermaston and nobody’s there. The passing of the Golden Horde of the middle-class Left symbolizes a distinct set of transitions peculiar to the fate of Britain in the late fifties and the sixties. Political demands do not become salient, urgent, agitable material solely or even primarily because of their own star quality as issues which ought to excite the general interest. In the heyday of CND the general interest was excited by the awareness that the existence of human civilization and life on earth was imperilled by nuclear armaments and nuclear strategies, that our rulers had contingency plans for the extermination of everybody save themselves (who were to be secure from fall-out in their deep concrete shelters), and that a mistaken signal from a monitoring screen, reading a flight of missiles for a flight of ducks, could detonate World War Three. These ultimate horrors reigned over the world even before the arrival of CND and its successors, and still hold good now that the anti-nuclear movements have been dispersed from the field. The Polaris submarines and their rivals in the killer-packs of the Soviet fleet patrol under the ocean surface, the annihilation of cities in their torpedo-tubes; the H-Bomb airplanes are still in the skies over all the twenty-four hours; the deliverers of death hidden in silos maintain their targeting scrupulously, replaced only by other teams that take over when they sleep; we are still dependent for our lives and the lives of our children on the sane, sober judgement of the authors of Indochina’s murder, Czechoslovakia’s invasion, the torturers regime in Chile and the suppression of all readable Russian literature. But the type of movement which could at one time capture and canalize public consciousness on the nuclear issue demanded not only the issue but also a social setting, an economic conjuncture a given point in history. The movement began in a Britain that had de facto lost its position in the international Big League, but had not yet forgotten its Great Power aspirations. Unilateralism, the marchers insistence that Britain should ‘give.> a lead to the world’, was the product of a moment in political history when this country stood divested of Empire and as yet unclad in a European mantle. The accusation from the Right that CND stood for a ‘little England’ mentality was profoundly unfair, since the movement was internationalist, directed against power-blocs abroad and towards fraternal campaigns within those blocs. But its internationalism still expressed a sense of active mission which would be impossible to rekindle in a Britain already in relative decline during the boom years of the late sixties and now, within the gloomy economic context of the mid-seventies, manoeuvring desperately for solvency. The dating of this internationalism can be seen precisely in its demand that Britain break with its military alliances and form a new ‘neutralist’ bloc with the less-aligned nations. ‘Britain’, white missionary Britain, still maintains its identity within this foreign-policy revolution: whereas the first essential requirement of present-day internationalism is that we transcend ethnic barriers within Britain itself, in the battle against racism in daily employment and living. The response to Enoch Powell’s anti-black speeches of 1968 revealed the precariousness of the decent liberal sentiments which the Left had taken for granted as existing in the majority. Echoing Karl Liebknecht’s old slogan ‘The enemy is at home’, the Campaign had sought to alert its public to the responsibilities of the home government. None of us knew – as we should have known – that the enemy was not only in Whitehall, the rocket-range and the stockbroking belt but actually in our midst, at home in an almost literal sense. CND fought bravely for an internationalism whose validity would one day be tested in the advent of a determined anti-nuclear government. The internationalism of today’s Left is at stake every day: it requires immediately, for any expression of itself at all, not as a handy culmination that will complete the work, the development of mass working-class sensitivities capable of fighting the chauvinist poison in production, housing, education, ideology and manners. For its own survival, the Left can no longer stand outside the factory gates, it must be inside; it can defer its moral absolutes no longer into the gestures of a future government, it must project them, defend them and uninterruptedly expand them now.

The first New Left of Britain, that formed by the collision and fusion of the two world-wide shock waves of Suez and Hungary, entered the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and perished with the host from which it fed. Invisible within the great marches that wound around and through the metropolis, there lay a conscious general staff for a wider social transformation, a small mobile headquarters not for this action, nor for the next engagement, but the total war that is the politics of Socialism. Peggy Duff (the Organizing Secretary of the Campaign for its entire active phase) concludes that ‘in one way, CND did them (the New Left) no good. It swallowed them up as a political force in Britain.’ The 1956–60 vintage of the independent Left was one of extraordinary potential, numbering many thousands of experienced cadres from the Communist Party crisis, hundreds of Labour Lefts bursting from their Party prison, contingents of determined and defiant pacifists and, within a short while, the Children’s Crusade of teenagers from all classes, sensitized to the reality of war and violence through contact with conscript brothers and the proximity, over most of their conscious lifetime, of compulsory military service. When in 1961 I arrived, in my capacity as a Child Guidance Centre psychologist, in the playground of a girls’ school for Educationally Sub-Normal Pupils and found the CND emblem painted (incorrectly) on an exterior wall, I knew at last that the campaign had penetrated society. As an initial rally-point CND was wonderful: but as a training-ground for a permanent commitment to radical politics, it was a dreadful failure. The sophisticated militants from the New Left embroiled themselves in high diplomacy or counter-electoral strategy around the Labour Party, they remained glued to foreign policy, they refused to educate the ranks of the Campaign either in general Socialist theory or in the sordid practicalities of mass action around immediate bread-and-butter questions. And, truth to tell, the CND rankers did not want to be educated like this: ‘there were too many people in CND who disliked and distrusted politics and too few with the will or the capacity to transform the movement into a different and more political entity.’ Thus once again Peggy Duff, who in her memoir of CND points to the ‘escapism’ of foreign-policy campaigns which ‘can wrap themselves up in their single issues and in the purity of their pacifist concerns, ignoring the essential links between repression and arms, between imperialisms and the arms race, between liberation, revolution, and peace’. While its grass-roots success and the sheer creativity of many of its participants remain unparalleled before or since in British politics, the basic model of the anti-nuclear campaign was that of the pressure-group trying to right a specific injustice, like the campaign to abolish hanging before it, and the campaign to abolish the slave-trade before that, and the abortion-reform lobby of recent years. CND could not even shift its concerns and resources towards action on the Indochina war, even though a moral fervour which takes to the streets in opposing the possible annihilation of London but remains paralysed in the face of the actual obliteration of Vietnam is surely rather suspect. And the very conception of single-issue activity in which the Campaign was rooted reflects an over-intellectual, over-ideologized vision of influence and power. The rest of politics does not stand still while you push on the question that you have selected as the supreme topic. Issues are levers which take persons and movements another step on their development (or their death) and which, once used for that purpose, must be left to go rusty.

The range of differing tactics and philosophies that operated in the anti-nuclear movement from 1958 to 1963 formed only an apparent diversity: all the contenders, however disputatious factionally, were addicts of the same brand, the single-issue blockbuster. By the time the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign came in the later sixties, sophistication had extended to the encouragement of ‘links’ between issues that could be seen as related to one another. According to the Theory of Links (whose proponents loomed no less large in the International Socialists than in the other left organizations around VSC) the main task of revolutionaries in their work around the war was to point to the connections between foreign-policy and domestic urgencies, among military, economic and political realities that were normally presented as separate. Dialectical materialists are trained to believe that everything is connected with everything else, and over long years have become adept at rising from the back of the hall after the speaker has finished with an eloquent complaint that something vital has been left out, an omission which conclusively proves the idiocy, idealism, mechanism, Menshevism and general bankruptcy of the speaker himself, the chairman and the sponsoring organization. The Vietnam campaign in Britain was the first one in which Marxist revolutionaries had to drop the role of interlocutor and critic, and themselves assume the responsibilities whose abdication they had denounced in others. It was a crucial experience for the revolutionary Left; their speakers now had to extend the issues of the campaign without diluting its impact or competing with the role of a more general political organization; the tortuous tactical debates and nerve-racking diplomacies of a pluralistic ‘umbrella’, the containment or expulsion of ultra-left splinters, the finesse of choosing and executing a date and route for a major demo – once the prerogative of the despised liberal elders of the nuclear campaign – became, quite suddenly, our hot potato. Virtually on the eve of the October 1968 demonstration in London – an event heralded in Press and TV alarums with rumours of violence, riot, and insurrection and better-authenticated reports of police practice in crowd-smashing at their training-ground in Hendon – the VSC awoke to the fact that no arrangements had been made for stewards or marshals, and asked the International Socialists to organize the control of the manifestation. After an inadequate gaggle of us had received our briefing and our NCO’s armbands in a dingy hall above a pub, the clandestine Chief Steward, an unattached Greek nationalist working at the time around IS, turned to me on the stairs and said: ‘We’re going to be massacred.’ The event, for good or ill, proved to be peaceful, as the fuzz desisted from the main body of demonstrators. As the thousands filed into Hyde Park, the YCL speaker orated, and Tariq Ali was his usual self, and then after all that there was the opportunity, if ever, for the IS speaker to Draw the Lessons and Show the Links and Point the Way Forward. But, overwhelmed by the occasion, he produced an endless burble: ‘This is a wonderful demonstration ... never seen anything like it ... and the crowds are still coming in ... this is really tremendous ...’ It was a fitting expression of the general tone of anti-climax.

The Vietnam campaigners were for their own part quite receptive to the generalization of their politics beyond its initial entry-point. The year of the NLF’s Tet offensive was also that of France’s semi-revolution of workers and students, of Prague’s liberalizing springtime and Stalinizing autumn; on the home front yet another flock of starry-eyed Social-Democrats were learning the bitter truths of Labourism’s betrayal, looking for the real meanings of the words that had been tarnished by Wilson, and for other words with fresh meanings. Gone was the old liberal campaign’s desperate concern to be unsullied, to keep faith with the vicars and the MPs: after all, there were now no vicars or MPs around. During the unofficial and illegal seamen’s strike of 1960 the speech of an anti-nuclear campaigner at an open-air rally in Liverpool could be cut short with a shush-shush from the chairman because he mentioned the sailors’ march, in defence of the jailed Paddy Neary and against the tyranny of shipowner and union boss, that was taking place in the city on the same day. During the later shipping strike of 1966 it was a Trafalgar Square mass rally of the seamen themselves that cheered Bertrand Russell when he came down to give fraternal good wishes from the Vietnam movement and to say that it was all one struggle. It was not often that the orbits of working-class planet and student comet came near one another in this phase. But in future years the link between foreign and trade-union issues, demonstrator and striker, high-minded altruist and class-conscious egoist would cease to be a matter of verbal advocacy and analysis and become a part of common experience in the labour and socialist movement. Lenin’s vision of the Russian revolution was that it depended on a link – the smychka, he called it – between the working class and the poorer peasantry. The British Left had in its attitude towards students and graduates something of Bolshevism’>s ambivalence towards the peasantry, at once part of the toiling masses and a layer of the petty-bourgeoisie, even conceivably a mainstay of capitalism: but, along with the ambiguity and uncertainty, came a determination that the worker student smychka must be maintained.

The development of the smychka in Britain was certainly not a synchronous process whereby campus and factory ignited in simultaneous combustion. Industrial unrest proceeded under its own momentum: days lost in strikes and lock-outs per 100 union members moved to 113 in 1968-72 (from 30 in 1960-67 and 38 in 1952-59); the percentage of union members involved in stoppages followed a straight progression, from 8 per cent in 1952-59 through 12 per cent in 1960-67 to 16 per cent in 1968-72, at approximately the proportion of strikers among the organized work-force during the peak of militancy in this century from 1901 to 1925. The number of workers per dispute is also climbing, and the duration of strikes is getting longer: the epoch of the short, sharp stoppage in which a small key section of highly organized and strategically placed workers won a quick victory as a precedent for themselves and for others is now clearly over. But the style and manner of militancy increasingly partook of a new experimentalism and confidence, particularly in the rise of the factory occupation as a form of pressure against redundancies – over 100 of these seizures occurred between March 1971 and the mid-1974 – and in the avalanche upheavals, here one moment and gone without trace the next, that shook hitherto backward industries and dormant sections of workers in this period.

Strikes and lock-outs, UK: short summary of annual averages from officially recorded figures [1]
Annual averages in relation to union membership






Disputes per 10,000 union members

c. 2.00




Aggregate day lost per 100 union members

c. 290




Workers involved per 100 union members

c. 16




Averages per dispute

Duration (days)

c. 18



Number of workers involved

c. 850


506 [2]


The above extracted from a detailed analysis of strike trends to be summarized in John
Westergaard and Henrietta Resler, Class in Contemporary Britain (forthcoming).

The exuberance of this working-class revolt, its insistence on expanding within its local base and squeezing the opportunities there to the full, followed closely on a wider cultural revolution of protest and Your Own Thing, manifested as much in May events in France and in the hippie-politics alliance in the United States as in any happenings nearer home. As the worker movement summated locally and nationally to the grand climax of direct action that liberated five dockers from Pentonville, shattered the Tories’ intransigence before the miners and reduced Heath’s bluster of early 1974 to a deflated departure from office, the student movement lost its heroic altruism and abstraction: students now fought their own battles, not those of others, no longer for the great liberal causes but for the gritty indispensables of everyday existence: higher grants, lower rents, payment for postgraduates, union recognition, fair academic assessment. Just as the euphoria of the old student-based radicalism had been the harbinger of an expansive buoyancy in the demands of workers, employees and tenants, so the new bread-and-butter militancy of the NUS and its local affiliates bespoke a necessary change in priorities: with inflation rampant and the job-market retrenched, the traditions of rebellion that had been constructed in the clouds had to find their proof, or else their refutation, here on earth. In 1972-4, while the experienced structures of organized manual labour held back or were constrained by their leadership, it was the white-collar and professional sections of trade-unions, the teachers, local government workers, nurses and hospital staff who were able to make a similar movement from new, sometimes barely existent traditions or organization to a forthright challenge against de facto wage-cuts and attendant worsenings of the conditions of toil. The ideals of the masochistic devotee to duty, of the loyal public servant, of dear Mr Chips who slaves on pushing his pupils through their certificates, of our Wonderful Nurses Doing a Grand Job, Bless Them (but don’t pay them), have suffered as sharp an erosion as the high principles of the mass sit-down and the marathon teach-in. Who can afford, nowadays, to be noble?

The old issues, spearheaded by zealous crusaders with one guiding, mobilizing idée fixe, have gone with the boom that was, and with them the forms of organization that could satisfy their clientele. When the customers moved on, they moved into straight Marxism, an open-ended structure that could handle new issues and areas as they arose, or into a domestic, job-centred radicalism around one or other of the white-collar professions, or out of it all, into ‘relationships’ (i.e., three other people and the TV) and the quiet life. On the whole, among activists and former activists the experience of the fifties and sixties seems to have produced a permanent inoculation against any involvement in the Labour Party. The party was very much part of the scene of left debate in the late fifties, with the great Bomb controversy, the Clause Four battle among rival ideologues (for in those days the Right as well as the Left cared to spell out philosophies and programmes), and the heated sectarian forum that was the Young Socialists. While the Left is now past its maximum period of retraction from the party – in 1970 some of us, in keeping with a widespread mood among working-class electors, argued unsuccessfully in the Marxist groups for a boycott of the ballot – there is no chance that the militants will extend their endorsement of Labour to any greater loyalty than the act of voting for Wilson on the mainly negative grounds of knocking the Tories and the Liberals. Transport House may regard this indifference of revolutionaries as no loss: but the revolutionary Left has come to fulfil the role laid down prophetically for the older New Left by E.P. Thompson: ‘the bureaucracy will hold the machine: but the New Left will hold the passes between it and the younger generation.’ A positive Social-Democratic revival has been blocked off, not least through the antics of Wilson and his minions both in office and in opposition, but also because alternative Socialist traditions have been revitalized, have in fact become available for masses of people, especially those with any inkling of enthusiasm, to flirt with, to mess about with, perhaps even to embrace wholeheartedly.

Even the odd Labour Minister is not immune from the temptations of dalliance with ideas whose very attractiveness stems from their long serious relationship with Socialism’s steadies. For there is every reason to believe that Mr Benn really is taken by the charms of workers’ control and a militant-gradualist perspective on Socialist advance drawn variously from the late Robert Owen, the late G.D.H. Cole and the late Salvador Allende, The sectarian Left are quite wrong to see Bennery as yet another of Mr Wilson’s many rubber faces: Mr Wilson, no less than Mr Jenkins and Mr Rees-Mogg, detests Benn’s New Left language and is worried by it. There is a long, definite and traceable genealogy of anti-capitalist policies and prescriptions for industry, running from the early Utopian Socialists through the Marxists and the Industrial Unionists and the Syndicalists into the Guild Socialists, latterly bandied around the Trotskyist and academic Left, preserved in formalin in the documentation and discussion of the Institute for Workers’ Control, diluted in half-measures and conference rhetoric by Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and other high union officers, whom the Institute imagines to be its allies, mixed in with rival programmes for the co-determination of private industry by joint boards of trade-unionists and capitalists and served up as such in official Labour Party policy, whittled further (in order to appease business fears of anything approaching Socialism) by the fraction of the Labour Party – a distinctly unrepresentative sample of its members – that actually runs the Government, and then postponed indefinitely for any actual legislation because of the crowded Commons timetable, the minority status of the Labour Government, and, irrespective of other circumstances, the independence of the Parliamentary Party. Benn’s expansionary proposals for nationalization are the surfacing of a Left undercurrent in this confused tradition.

Normally, at each stage whereby the concepts of workers’ control are transmitted onward into a further bureaucracy, of trade-union hierarchs or careful academics or expensive Cabinet ministers, their content is sensibly modified till it no longer has a cutting edge which can be turned against the system by any actual group of workers that needs to exercise control over its problems. But Benn’s insistence that large and profitable firms rather than failing lame ducks are eligible for State takeover, and his sympathy for the producers’ co-operative as a means of keeping the workers’ jobs in bankrupt enterprises, amount to a timely resuscitation of reformist Socialism of a type which would have been recognizable in most of the parties of the Second International before a neo-capitalist or a technocratic liberalism became their dominant creed. Benn is not a solitary swallow: apart from the other Ministers and Under-Secretaries with a left Social-Democrat disposition there is the intriguing emergence of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee as the Second Consul of the new Wilson administration, vetting, vetoing and consulting with its own sub-committees and those of the TUC whenever a promise of future legislation is to be drafted. The bonds between an incumbent Labour Government and the extra-parliamentary institutions of Labour have never been as close as now: and, in the context of the anti-capitalist politics of some of the watchdogs both inside and outside the Government, we can speak of Labour’s own New Left as a force to be reckoned with.

But, having reckoned with it, we must at once discount it. The bourgeoisie may tremble, or make a show of trembling, before the name of Benn: as Trotsky commented when Hitler went into hysterics on hearing a speculation that the exiled man of October might prove to be the real victor of the Second World War, ‘They fear revolution, and give it a man’s name.’ In the case of Benn they have given it a veritable misnomer, for the Government’s proposals for a National Enterprise Board are no more than a continuation of the programme for a State Holding Company outlined in the 1969 NEC document Labour’s Economic Strategy, where the new institution is explicitly modelled ‘along the lines of the Italian IRI’, the State-enterprise conglomerate founded under Mussolini and developed under Christian Democracy without any noticeable butchery of business leaders. The proposed Planning Agreements for the largest companies ‘designed to bring an end to the “trench warfare” that has existed between the two sides of industry and break down the remoteness in the relationship between Government and industry’ (Labour Weekly, 23 August 1974) have already been welcomed by the Guardian and The Times. If the present proposed dose of State capitalism is more than the Tories and the CBI can at present stomach, we may be sure that, by the General Election of 1984 (that is, if there still are General Elections in 1984), they will claim to have thought of the whole idea in the first place. The well-known process of bureaucratic transmutation of leftist slogans, from expropriation to nationalization, from nationalization to public ownership, from public ownership to national enterprise, from Tom Mann to Lord Robens, has already buffered Britain from any risk of a Socialist progression under the Labour Party. The moderate programmatic shift leftwards was the very least that could occur given the deterioration of the economy and private capital’s failure to invest: the complacency of the Gaitskell-Crosland-Jenkins-Jay programme Industry and Society, which stated that ‘the Labour Party recognizes that, under increasingly professional managements, large firms are as a whole serving the nation well’ and proposed that the State should become an equity stockholder (not a manager) in private industry to give the community ‘the opportunity of participating in the almost automatic capital gains of industry’, would nowadays be impossible.

The party’s movement towards industrial Statism was a halting, fumbling response to the storm-warnings of coming economic collapse signalled in the payments crisis of the first Wilson Government. It did not proceed from any mobilization of the Left within the constituencies or union delegations. For there was no recurrence of the Bevanite Left revolt during the 1964-70 government, nor in the opposition period afterwards. In betraying the party’s hopes, the Wilson cabinet also ravaged its flesh and poisoned its circulation, as droves of constituency workers moved out of activity in disillusionment. It is useless now for the left ministers and union leaders to consecrate to the old cults of Socialism a party whose fabric is still in fundamental human and ideological disrepair. Even if Benn and Jones were attempting to preach a more vigorous gospel, they would be addressing a very thin congregation. Outside the party the mass of the electorate, watching their own hands tighten over belts, cynical and disengaged towards all politicians, has no interest in the rivalry between ex-revisionists and ex-anti-revisionists, neo-Gaitskellites and neo-Bevanites jousting from on high. Circuses have no pull when there is such a widespread and intense preoccupation with bread.

The middle-class New Left has finished. Labour’s New Left will not begin. What then of Socialism’s future, in a Britain now leading the deceleration of the world capitalist economy in the same spirit of stoicism with which it long ago presided over the system’>s more expansionary destinies? The politics of liberal enthusiasm and of social-democratic reform have elapsed. Class-politics, in this heartland of enmity founded on industrial division, remains as ever, has indeed become more powerful. The rank-and-file movement of workers in industry and public service was long advocated by International Socialists and others, as a means both of organizing against employer and State tactics and of supplanting the weak and bureaucratized leaderships of trade unions. This movement has now begun to make a serious appearance. For many years a revolutionary political organization like IS could function only in a propagandist or narrowly servicing relation to the active elements of trade-unionism. Fifteen years ago, one sold the organization’s paper outside the meetings called by larger, grander bodies and built an essentially morale-boosting local group for isolated and highly theoretical revolutionaries. The Liverpool group at this time, for example, included a garrulous french-polisher, a couple of dropouts from the ILP, a mathematics lecturer, and an affable joiner of immense hostile intransigence against any involvement in the Labour Party, who once denounced Stan Newens, then a comrade of the same sectarian persuasion, as ‘basically a Social Democrat’; the joiner’>s name, by the way, was Eric Heffer. Five years ago, one lobbied any conceivable trade-union activist to buy Tony Cliff’s expose of productivity deals, The Employers’> Offensive, became a specialist in bonus schemes and manning agreements, and tried to integrate worker-recruits into an IS ambience whose meetings were dominated at worst by gurus, groupies, hairies or routinist hacks, and at best by keen young folk without a regular industrial base. A good many trade-unionists survived the ordeal, infiltrating a structure that was supposed to be ready to receive them but in practice had to undergo its own transformation, with the establishment of factory branches and a constant pressure from head office to face outwards, before it could start to become a workers’> organization. Rank-and-file work in industry is now open to Socialist revolutionaries, as never since the twenties. In November 1973 the Socialist Worker Industrial Conference in Manchester drew an audience of nearly three thousand, with speakers from mining, the docks, the fire service, telecommunications, engineering, chemicals, construction, print, teaching, Pilkingtons, Fine Tubes, LIP in France, and IS itself. Twenty-three industrial fractions met briefly during the day, a foretaste of the founding convention of the Rank-and-File Movement which took place in the following spring.

A Marxist organization, conceived as a micro-splinter of the Left in inauspicious circumstances during the Korean war, a reject from Cold War pressures and Trotskyist acrimony, has now found itself endowed with unaccustomed powers and unpredecented dimensions. The International Socialists acquired their hegemony in that vacuum of the Left that opened out suddenly in 1968 as the wake from Enoch Powell’s racist bombshells. Winning its organizational spurs within largely student or white-collar campaigns but with a long record of work among shop stewards in manufacturing industry, the IS now faces the problem of extending its serious but – in the context of capitalist power – small implantation inside the heavy brigades of the labour movement. The last era of the independent Left, from 1956 to roughly 1970, can be termed the Age of Minorities. The strength of a radical demonstration, whether numbered in hundreds, or in scores of thousands, reflected the ingathering of local weaknesses, tiny powerless groups who in their own terrain were unable to win the mass of people around them except perhaps in the temporary euphoria of one college or one work-shop. The great mobilizations of the sixties were compounded as an assemblage of these manifold minorities, the Left seemed to be everywhere precisely because it enjoyed a stable mass support nowhere, its quick local industrial victories during the boom epoch of labour-shortage and wage-drift risked a certain thinness in the loyalty of workers to stewards and ensured that a nationwide solidarity of strikers in any industry would be rare, an untested weapon. When the test came, in the wave of redundancies and productivity deals that purged the economy in the late sixties, or in the outburst of worker-racism around Powell’s speeches, the stewards and the left militants usually found themselves isolated under fire, dazed by the enemy’s capacity to hit deep into their shop-floor base. The middle-class Left in its various campaigns swung from action to inertia, paying the price of the exhausted forerunner but leaving a residue of cadres for future contests. In the coming era of mass unemployment, general job-insecurity and inflation-led cuts in real wages, the defensive traditions of the Age of Minorities must be junked as so much garbage, and recycled. The ground formerly occupied by middle-class radicalism and working-class Labourism lies naked to all corners, susceptible to any new thrust that emerges after the collapse of old party loyalties, open to the opportune probings of the Nationalists and Liberals, to the temptations of the fascisms whether latent or blatant, and to the activity of a realistic and courageous Marxism. For revolutionary Socialists it now has to be the Age of Majorities: the majorities which have to be won, in factory after factory, workplace after workplace, in every cell of social and economic organization, to ensure that the workers, be they of the blue collar or the white, do not have to bear across their own hides the lash of capital’s retrenchment. The policy demands of this majority-winning process cannot be uniform, cannot be drafted by committees meeting behind the backs of those whose livelihoods are at stake in the real struggle. Socialist cadres must keep one step ahead of their constituency, two or three steps at the most, and generate their slogans from what can be seen as the next link in the chain of solidarity. In 1973, for example, any trade-unionist who raised the demand of Threshold Agreements was well to the right of the wages programme that could be seriously fought for, in terms both of the amounts to be obtained and the criteria to be used in making effective claims. Threshold Agreements were in any case the standby of the Heath government to try and offset organized militancy. In mid-1974, however, the ability to obtain a Threshold Agreement, in the face of employer resistance and government reluctance, became in the worsening economic situation an important valid test of organized militancy. There are, in general, no specific ‘transitional demands’ for the present period of working-class consciousness. Any demand which unites workers and takes them forward together is to that extent transitional. Some of these demands are roughly foreseeable but by no means all. Nobody knew, for example, that the abolition of pay-beds would become the marshalling-point of direct action among health-service workers.

The requirements of an age of majorities mean that every socialist must engage, as the first call on his or her time and energy, in mass work within a real rank and file. This is, incidentally, one more reason why the committed revolutionary or radical will be unable to support the Labour Party in any other way beyond attendance at the polling-booth: if he has his priorities right, he will simply have no time for electoral canvassing. The calendar of class-struggle does not keep step with the dissolution and re-election of Cabinets: if we are truly within the orbit of our mates, the pull of their gravitation will guide our path more readily than that of the politician’>s planet. As well as being too disillusioned to work for Wilson, we shall be, and should be, too busy.

The acquisition of active, campaigning roles by Socialists within a local constituency should ideally present few difficulties. In theory that is what militant socialism is all about. But practically the transition is likely to be somewhat painful. We have all fled from the tasks of the Socialist campaigner, into the peculiar satisfactions of the prophet or the administrator, the minimal shop steward or the archetypal student leader, the paper-selling wanderer or the paper-reading follower: these postures are so much less demanding, so much more fulfilling in the short term, than the role of the active ferment among a group of people who see us every working day, know us by name and face and will call us to account for every word and action. When Nicolas Krasso, a young Hungarian Marxist who was a disciple of Lukacs, saw the necessity in late 1956, after the Russian occupation, of convening all the revolutionary workers’ councils of Greater Budapest into one assembly, he and a few student friends passed the word among the factories of the city. Clandestinely and circumspectly under the gaze of the patrolling tanks of the USSR, the workers’ delegates made their way to the meeting-place, a hall in an electric-lamp factory on the outskirts, where Krasso was asked, on trying to enter: ‘What are you doing here? You’re not a worker.’ The suspicious question was in large part misconceived (for of course revolutionary student groups have every right to try and meet worker groups) but not entirely so. The questioner was also asking: What role are you playing here? Define it, please. He was asking, too: Who are you accountable to, where do you come from? In effect, the older New Left defined their own roles out of any existence in relation to the type of workers’ movement that we have today. One cannot arrive on the scene as a theoretician or publicist and say, ‘Look, workers, here I am.’ Workers are particularly suspicious of people from Marxist groups who show up only when there is some excitement at a factory in the form of a strike, and are nowhere to be seen during the many periods, some of them amounting to years, when the activity of the working class falls short of open strike action. Nor can one play the part of the adept servitor of trade-unionism, the technician of facts and figures who just happens to have more time to do research for the shop floor. The Socialist must join the workers’ movement as a trade-unionist in his own right, with card, rule-book and box of anti-management tricks, undergoing the same problems of skill and morale in leadership as those he is addressing. His politics must be open: not regurgitated by the yard into every resolution with a practical content, but visible to everyone, displayed on his lapel rather than tucked away behind it. The crowning aim of the Age of Majorities is to construct, within the working class, a majority of conscious Socialists. Every act, every demand in revolutionary mass work must be subordinated to that first and final aim.

The road that runs from the capturing of active minorities to the securing of real majorities has very few signposts. Most of those that we have show us, as Rosa Luxemburg remarked, the way not to go. But it is clear that the way forward lies through a sharpening polarization of society, whose coming is not the creation of Socialists – even though it forms their greatest opportunity – but the product of an anarchic social system based on competitive profit. The extremisms are now on the agenda, and the middle position of moderation has to balance itself more and more precariously in relation to those extremes, and to become somewhat more extreme itself, on both the Left and the Right. It is important that we should not be deterred or gulled by the threat of right-wing violence, whether from the State or from extra-parliamentary quarters. No process of radicalization has ever taken place in any nation without a corresponding threat of radical Rightism. But it would be wrong to raise the perspective of a repetition of the thirties. The forces of the Left are far better organized and more powerful than in the thirties. Europe entered the decades of fascism in the grip of massacre’s nightmare following the First World War, its petty bourgeoisies inflamed by despair, its labour movements crushed or worn down in a contracting market. The working class of this country has no memory of any major defeat. Its organization into trade unions has proceeded, in a heavy impetus of expansion and amalgamation, without respite since 1940. While the horizons of its economic expectations are still narrower then those of American and Continental labour, its appetites are zestful, its confidence unimpaired. The organized workers have at present little to fear from any counter-movement of the individualist middle classes, since the former professions are themselves now enrolled in trade unions with militant habits and a TUC alignment. Even from the universities the worst that the workers can fear is from the dons, for in the event of a re-run of 1926, the students of the present day will not be seen driving the trams but harassing the scabs. And the labour movement has new regiments of its own whom it has scarcely begun to muster, whom indeed it has often caused to turn back from its recruiting offices because it was known the reception there would be frosty: the blacks, the Asians, the migrants from Europe, and the women. In impending polarization, these millions can be won to a Socialist mass movement. The relaxation of manners and rules among younger people has produced an anti-authoritarian complex which, while far from constituting an arm of Socialist militancy, produces a numerous reserve of benevolent neutrals for any future punch-ups with established authority. For the moment the proper response to a hint of military takeover or paramilitary violence is to say: how very interesting and very salutary if they try anything on. Let them just dare.

But such a response should be only momentary. To engage in a public mental rehearsal of the scenarios of civil confrontation is merely to repeat the follies of the retired Blimps, who delight in the drafting of contingency plans as a recompense for the fact that nobody any more is offering them actual contingencies to deal with. Contingencies there indeed are, and scenarios, but they contain well-tried actors with familiar faces: government, employers, TUC, top union officials, the Special Patrol Force of the Metropolitan Police, the established political parties. Both the pace and the scope of the developing social confrontation in Britain are virtually unknown quantities. Whole phases from the classical drama of revolution and counter-revolution could be extended over years, telescoped into days, skipped completely, turned round into anticlimax or become aborted into a further period of stalemate (alias ‘consensus’). And, while the actors of the ruling classes and the controlling elites are already listed in the cast, the agencies of working-class struggle, of rank-and-file mobilization, remain obscure in their character and their possible composition. If the resources of the British Left are stronger than in the thirties, it is because then they were pitiful, infinitesimal. Today the forces of capital and of labour both suffer from a discrepancy between their state of organization and their state of morale: but the contradiction is slanted in an opposite direction within the two camps. The centralized organization and planning capacity of the ruling class and its State compensates for their loss of political conviction, economic confidence and general savoir faire. By contrast, the working class is buoyant and potentially highly assertive: but its organization is in fairly poor shape, and its leadership appalling both in structure and in staffing. The national trade-union bureaucracies of both Left and Right are vying in a contest for the lowest public profile: with the exception of the passively conducted miners’ strike just before the election of Wilson, no major section of manual workers has engaged in a serious official action since the great upheavals of 1972. The unions’ honeymoon with the Labour Government is a passionless repetition of the first fling of 1964-7; observers stationed around the bridal suite of the Hotel Social Compact so far report little evidence of action, not even the noise of smashing crockery, This in an epoch of looming redundancies, soaring home-costs, and washed-out wages, when bacon and beef were first appreciated as delicacies. Further down the hierarchy of labour, several hundred thousand shop-stewards are looking at their pay-conscious workmates, at their quiescent union superiors and at the chances that now arise for substantial wage improvements with the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act and the end of Tory incomes policy. Those mass actions that have already occurred – such as the wave of strikes in Scotland and the national bakers’> strike – have been forced forward in the teeth of union head-office opposition, even from the ‘lefts’ of the TGWU and AUEW ; in the recent period, unions less cemented in the ‘Social Contract’ psychology than the main TUC hierarchs have been able to push past their obstruction, and it may that some of the smaller unions will play a vanguard role in the opposition to wage-restraint. On the political Left, the membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain slumbers on, counting left MPs as it snores, its parliamentary dreams only temporarily disturbed by the sad news of the crushing of an identical electoral strategy in Chile. The more recent news of the Portuguese Communist Party’s entanglement with the military regime has set off no qualms whatever in Britain’>s Communists: there had been no debate, no analysis, no sense of any parallel between the trust of the Chilean Left in the progressive military and the perilous coalition in Lisbon. While the CPGB will continue to recruit, it will also continue to refuse political training to its members: politics are no longer in command there, not even Stalinist politics, and in the coming stresses we can expect from the CP little or no initiative except from a few capable individuals.

It is thus in a political and economic context of mounting urgency with an alarmingly small accumulation of any resources whatever from the previous massive investments of Left tradition, that socialists must gauge their next responsibilities. Short of an accelerated pre-revolutionary situation, a 1917 of Imperial Russia or 1936 of Republican Spain, which can at present be ruled out from any working perspectives, the expansion which any Marxist organization can envisage in its activities and recruitment must be modest by comparison with the seriousness of its goals. Boiled down to the proportions of immediately realizable possibility, the revolutionary work in the Age of >Majorities means increasing the nucleus of politically minded workers in a pit or depot from around two to around six, selling Chingari the socialist monthly produced in Urdu and Punjabi, to those Asians who are confident enough to take its programme to heart; building a trade-union base in a shift of sixty women without previous experience of organization; winning a vote in a union branch for firm policies against wage restraint; systematically working over a street on a council estate, finding the few workers there who will be already predisposed towards Socialist attitudes, and forming a political, not simply a sociable, relation with them; in a hostile workshop, with management keen to fire troublemakers and a frightened or apathetic labour-force, it will mean finding one other person with whom to discuss the next step, without risking exposure by breaking cover. There will also be the big jobs and the central occasions, the industry-wide gathering of stewards, the physical cordon against fascist marchers, the delegate conference of revolutionaries waging a fraternal polemic on perspectives, taking the decisions and dispersing to implement them. But the age of the majorities, unlike that of the minorities without a base, consists for the most part of a cellular, even molecular chain-building. It is the march of the spermatozoa into the eggs, the duplication, over and over again, of specialized cells, the use of tiny living templates for the growth of a new organism. A lot of the other sperms from older days have been and gone, quite a few of the eggs got flushed away down the loo, but it wasn’t all a wank or a waste. Because enough little cells got fertilized, as we know now, to achieve the beginnings of a generation. A generation equipped to enter the decisive political battles of the next decade, battles that will either advance the cause of the workers by gigantic strides or else throw them back in a terrible retrogression.

February 1975
Peter Sedgwick



1. Official records understate industrial conflict by excluding, not only very small disputes, but also ‘political’ strikes and industrial action short of strikes (e.g., go-slow, working to rule, overtime bans).

2. A ‘freak’ average – raised to a high level by the exceptional scale of strikes in only one year (1962, when there was one very large national dispute), whereas in all other years of the period the averages ranged from 280 to 370 only.


Last updated on 9.11.2004