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International Socialism, March/April 1976


Martin Shaw

The Left in Britain


From International Socialism (1st series), No.87, March 1976, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


David Widgery has produced The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (Peregrine £4), a book of documents, connected by his introductions to the chapters, and generally introduced in an essay by Peter Sedgwick. It is a brave venture, for which Dave clearly expects little thanks:

‘I am resigned,’ he says, ‘to the fact that most “professional” readers (members of revolutionary organisations including my own) will feel ill-served by this book.’

And his presentation has already been criticised by one leading figure from the ‘fifties left, Edward Thompson, who is of course a professional historian. But without Dave’s efforts we should probably have had to wait 50 years before one of Thompson’s colleagues got round to the job, inevitably without the feel of the period and the sense of the immediate lessons which this book creates. It is a pity, indeed, that it has taken three years since it was finished for it to appear, and a scandal that Penguin have now issued it in the exorbitantly-priced, but still flimsily produced, Peregrine range, insulting us to boot with a cover design which features both orthodox Communist and Fourth International symbols which are singularly irrelevant to its theme and contents.

The years 1956-1968 do form a natural historical ‘period’, and as our immediate past, an important one for socialists today. I know that Dave wanted at one stage to take the book into the early ’70s, to cover the crucial years in which the revolutionary left (chiefly IS) developed a serious industrial base. But both he and Sedgwick see 1968 as the turning point it was – the year of the May Events, the Tet offensive, Czechoslovakia, student revolt, the end of the political infancy of the revolutionary movement. And the explosion of 1968 was equally the culmination of the crisscrossing campaigns, debates and struggles of the years going back to the world-shaking crises of 1956 – the year of the ‘double exposure’ of the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez invasion. After 1956, as Russian tanks slowly crushed the defiant workers of Budapest, Stalinism lost its tight rein on the left, unleashing new energies which found common cause with the youthful reaction against Eden’s imperialist follies, and soon with a wider protest against an apathetic consumer society murderously founded on the cone of the H-bomb. Between 1956 and 1968 socialist ideas were reborn, the working-class movement began slowly to awake to industrial struggle unprecedented since the ’20s, the Labour Party lost its hold on the young and active (and a good deal of its influence on the old and inactive), and the ferment bubbled over in the chaotic student movement of around ‘68 itself. David Widgery’s collection is full mainly of bits and pieces which reflect all this:

‘The aim is to rescue the tracts, manifestos and analyses of the far Left from the contempt and restricted currency with which official society would like to treat them. It also means making available again participants’ accounts of their own struggle, told in their own words with as little doctoring as possible.’

It isn’t made up of weighty extracts of political theory, but full of written materials of many kinds – articles, leaflets, transcripts of speeches, discussions and interviews, programmes of demands, extracts from Dave’s own diaries from 1968, Alex Glasgow’s Socialist ABC – which reflect what the left was actually like in those years. If you want to know what some of the ex-Communists actually thought after Hungary, how socialists viewed CND, what kinds of rank and file struggles were going on in the late ’50s – or the late ’60s – what kinds of leaflet were circulating in the colleges in the heady days of ’68, then this is where to look. As Dave says,

‘It’s a working manual to be consulted, dipped into and passed on in the hope it will be of some help in the reassembling of the modern revolutionary workers’ movement.’

The modest, lucid introductions to each chapter will give you much of the background necessary to see where the items chosen fit in.

As I write, the book has just been denounced on TV by Hugh Scanlon, who thinks ‘it’s so far left it’s right wing’ – or something like that – which is probably quite a good recommendation. And he’s not the only one it will displease: it is not much concerned with the progress of the left bureaucracy in the trade unions and the left MPs in parliament, or even with the frequency of publication in Clapham High Street. Dave doesn’t pretend to have written a full-scale history of the left as a whole. He’s primarily concerned with where, in this period which changed the shape of the left, there were signs of movement and life – new ideas, new movements, new kinds of action. He’s interested in those people who were not simply chugging along on well-worn tracks.

The Communist Party is little in evidence (less than it should have been because Labour Monthly refused permission to reprint). But this is broadly justifiable because, although Party activists were rarely absent from important struggles once they got under way, they were equally rarely among those who initiated the new developments or expressed them in ideas. The Party as a whole (after its decline in 1956-57) was stagnant throughout this period: one of the institutions of the left which the new militants reacted against, bypassed, and sometimes goaded into reluctant action.

Sectarian Trotskyism gets equally short shrift, except for the role of the Healy group in the ex-Communist discussions, and the early achievements of the Newsletter (the programme of its excellent 1958 rank and file conference is reproduced). But’ this again is broadly correct, for the striking feature of the revolutionary scene in these years is that the group with all the strength and promise in 1958 – the newly-formed SLL – had been easily overtaken by 1968, in both size and influence, by the least ‘orthodox’ of all its competitors, International Socialism.

The other 57 varieties have indeed a pretty uninteresting record during this period, and Dave is right to relegate them for the most part to his comprehensive glossary in which every sectarian can feast to his heart’s content. Typically, one significant political arena of this period which is not covered is the Young Socialists of the early ’60s, where the various revolutionary tendencies fought important battles for the allegiance of those politicised in CND.

David Widgery does not present any one thesis about the left in Britain, but he does argue that

‘Although Britain is commonly regarded as something of a backwater in the revolutionary movement, the 1956 crisis was to have a critical impact, antedating the formation of an independent Left in other countries by some years and setting intellectual and organisational precedents which have been highly influential.’

And he does write from a particular standpoint, which is broadly that of the International Socialists. One of the continuities in this book is the voice of Tony Cliff, Mike Kidron and other comrades, expounding a revolutionary world-view, commenting on Labour’s dilemmas, intervening in struggle. Dave obviously believes – and Peter Sedgwick is more explicit – that the emergence of IS is one of the most important threads in this period.

No doubt this is a major source of E.P. Thompson’s disagreements, and will be at the root of most of the critical attention the book will receive. But before the sneers begin, let us ask: what other political tradition could have linked the diverse anti-stalinist, anti-war, rank and file workers’ and students’ movements of that time? What other tradition did? If Dave had had twice the space he might have reprinted some of the alternative ‘revolutionary’ points of view to set off the vitality of the contributions here. Those who believed in ‘workers’ bombs’ (there was a nice song about that which Dave has been heroically non-sectarian in keeping out of this book) could hardly have offered much to a movement against the horrors of nuclear war. Those who believed in left MPs and union leaders (or even in constantly ‘exposing’ them) could hardly have understood and guided the rank-and-file militancy. Those who condemned students as ‘petty-bourgeois’ (or even those who worshipped them as ‘the new vanguard’) could hardly articulate student revolt.

One of the weaknesses of this book is that only in the first section do we directly encounter many of the arguments about what socialism really means, and here all the voices, except fora 1967 Cliff speech on Revolutionary Traditions, are from the (rather limited) post-Hungary debates. And yet this question, the meaning of socialism, which confronted all the ex-Communists as they shed their Stalinist illusions, was alive in virtually all the movements of 1956-68. It was the distinctiveness of IS’s answer to this question, our belief in real, direct workers’ control in industry and society, established by mass action from below, which enabled us to gain our unique influence. This was what enabled us to clearly answer the questions raised by the crisis of Stalinism, to provide a class underpinning for the anti-nuclear position, to relate to workers’ self-activity on the shop floor, to develop a programme of democratic control for the student movement.

Of course what we did with these ideas, and what other workers (and students) did and thought in their real life situations, is more important than all the generalised political arguments, and so in a sense Dave’s focus, which takes us into the day-to-day issues, is right; but it also plays down something very important, without which a lot of it might not have happened. As Cliff says in his speech: ‘It’s true that theory without action is sterile, but activity without theory is blind.’ It is a pity, in view of this, that the only full-length article in the book is Sedgwick’s on the New Left (reprinted from IS 17) – an excellent piece on a fascinating subject, beyond a doubt, but perhaps it reflects an over-emphasis on the wrong sort of intellectuals and the wrong sort of ideas. There are no substantial pieces by Cliff – extracts from his article Trotsky on Substitutionalism (reprinted in Party and Class) would have shown the ideas which were generally influential in the ‘sixties – or even by Thompson or Alasdair MacIntyre, whose writing Widgery rightly admires.

Sedgwick’s lively Introduction (but I wonder if his iconoclastic style is quite the best way of bringing the uninitiated to the secrets of the left?) provokes me to push this criticism further. For Sedgwick, ‘58-’68 was ‘the last era of the independent Left’, an ‘Age of Minorities’, and its main use was that ‘enough little cells got fertilised (with revolutionary ideas) ... to achieve the beginnings of a generation’. What he means by ‘era of the independent Left’ is, I assume, a period in which political movements arise which are dependent neither on the reformist or Stalinist left, as in the past, nor on the revolutionary left, as (hopefully) in the coming period. By ‘Age of Minorities’ he means that this was a period of middle-class protest combined with struggle in some isolated fragments of the working class. These things are changing though (he says), and all that the period that is past has left us are the few thousands, out of all the hundreds of thousands who passed through the protest movements, who have been won to revolutionary politics. The traditions of ‘middle-class radicalism and working-class Labourism’ have had their day.

‘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 trouble with this is that traditions are rarely ‘junked’. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’, Marx said: men and women make history ‘only under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’. It would be foolish to think that 1968 is so far behind us. The world economy is drastically altered, and we have seen mass confrontations in the period of Tory rule which took us far from the localised struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s which are described in this book. But still the defensive traditions remain, and we have to work on them; still we can be forced back into smaller sectional battles, as since the return of Labour in 1974; and still the revolutionaries are a very small minority in the class. And it is not enough to say that ‘cells were fertilised’: the question is, what were we fertilised with? And here it is vitally important to remember, as Cliff reminds us, that revolutionaries also have traditions:

‘Now the truth is this, that when you look at Marxism ... then of necessity the question of tradition is central to it.’

The IS tradition, as Cliff defines it here, centres on the working class as the agent of socialism; opposition to all rising bureaucracies; the international nature of the revolution; and insistence on working out theoretically the changes in modern capitalism, not repeating cliches about slumps in a non-slump situation.

Although, as Cliff says, much of this is taken from Trotsky (against his particular conclusions, of course), and through him from the earlier history of marxism, it was also confirmed and enriched in the period under review. In a very real sense, participation in the struggles of these years, Age of Minorities or not, middle-class protests or working-class fragments, strengthened these bare principles: our tradition grew from them. It may not have grown enough – as David Widgery points out, the pre-1968 Left had a (virtually) ‘complete lack of interest in the particular situations of women and immigrants’. But the traditions developed in those years, when people rediscovered that socialism meant human freedom and real working-class power, should have given us the strength to respond. If, as Widgery seems to suggest, we have not responded adequately, then one of the reasons is that we have not understood and applied our own traditions. Revolutionary socialists should read this book because this is our past: to be criticised, certainly not revered, but nevertheless understood and not dismissed. Naiveties and follies there are quite a few, particularly in the chapters on the student left and 1968: but even there we shall learn quite a bit about what we stand for.

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