Category Archives: Labour History

Contemporary Trotskyism: parties, sects and social movements in Britain by John Kelly (Routledge, £29.99)

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In 1971 I became quite friendly with some people from the International Marxist Group n Glasgow, then a significant Trotskyist group. I did find it a bit strange – people had pretend “cadre” names, though everyone knew who each other was and it is hard to imagine for a second that the state didn’t have the odd implant within the group anyway.
I didn’t get that involved, but I did go to a conference where I found the various factions of the group hated each other more than they hated capitalism. Not for me.
That was my flirtation with Trotskyism. In the intervening years I have worked closely with some Trotskyists on anti-fascist work, seen the arse-end of their sectarianism, seen organisations built by them and organisations destroyed by them, stood appalled at some of their behaviour and made good friends with some individual Trotskyists who I know would have my back if the going got tough. But never thought of joining them.
John Kelly’s Contemporary Trotskyism: parties, sects and social movements in Britain is about as good a guide to that scene as you can get (with the exception of John Sullivan’s essential but dated skit A Soon as this Pub Closes, freely available online).
Kelly reveals there are (or were in 2017) 22 UK-wide Trotskyist parties or groups in Britain, whose membership ranges from a claimed 5,936 members of the Socialist Workers Party to the mighty two of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency in Britain. At least they do have two as that would be a very large banner for one to carry. Nine of the organisations have fewer than fifteen members, even the Spartacist League whose ten is a fairly small achievement for a group operating here since 1975. Having read the odd paper of the Sparts, the amazing thing is that ten have joined them. My sources in some of the groups indicate that Kelly’s membership figures are fairly accurate, but quite unbelievable about the SWP. During the period around 2012 when about a thousand active members left in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal (involving the SWP’s general secretary, Martin Smith, strangely missing from this book’s index) it became obvious that most of their “members” had never paid dues, never attended branches and many were students, say, who’d signed up at a meeting but were never seen again. One person I came across “joined” several times at a national demonstration, for a laugh. Attendance at any political demonstration nationally or in my home town of  Nottingham will tell you that the SWP is at a very low ebb.
The SWP is famously sectarian, forever setting up front organisations under their control. They were, for example, the only left group that would not join Notts Anti-Fascist Alliance. It was a little too democratic for them. In 1994 Mushroom Bookshop, where I worked, was attacked and wrecked by fifty or so Nazis, many of whom were arrested and about dozen of whom were eventually jailed. Immediately after the attack the local Anti-Nazi League ie the SWP called a press conference about the attack and a demonstration a week later. We were invited to attend their press conference and to speak at their rally about the attack on us! We declined – not least as we were busy putting the shop back together – and working with a much wider grouping to organise the biggest anti-fascist demonstration Nottingham had seen since the 1930s.
More on numbers – the fourth largest Trotskyist group listed is Socialist Appeal with 300 members. This is the group that stayed in the Labour Party when Militant (now the Socialist Party) left, the minority following the former Millie leader Ted Grant in staying. That’s fewer than one person in two parliamentary constituencies. Here in Nottingham the exotically-named Alliance for Workers Liberty has a significant presence, yet nationally only 140 members. These two are the biggest groups in the Labour Party but despite that Tom Watson, yes, that Tom Watson, in his long campaign against his party leader, claimed in 2016 that the Labour Party was at risk of a Trotskyist take over. Indeed, the impact of Corbyn has almost certainly to diminish the number of potential recruits to the main Trotskyist groups, as they are outside the Labour Party. The Socialist Party is a fraction of its size when, as Militant, it had two or three MPs in its ranks, control of Liverpool council and more full time workers than the Labour Party itself. Millie’s much vaunted record of control in Liverpool, by the way, is contested – it is worth finding an old copy of The Racial Policies of Militant in Liverpool published by the Runnymede Trust and the Liverpool Black Caucus during Militant’s high water mark in 1986.
Contemporary Trotskyism starts by explaining what Trotskyism is, bringing back happy memories of debating permanent revolution, the united front, united fronts of a special kind, transitional demands, the revolutionary vanguard party, democratic centralism, rank and fileism and, ultimately, the dictatorship of the proletariat. But primarily this book is about their organisational presence as parties, as internationals (you are nobody unless you have a sister group or two overseas), and within social movements.
And it is in the latter that most people will come across them, often not so much in the vanguard as trying desperately to catch up. This happened in my lifetime with the miners’ strike, the anti-poll tax campaign, CND and the anti-fascist movement. But they were ahead of the game with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War and others. In the latter the SWP provided the organisational framework for the Stoppers, until two of its leaders, John Rees and Lindsey German, were turfed out, forming Counterfire. The power couple had been blamed for the SWP’s lash up with George Galloway in his Respect Coalition.
John Kelly’s book has many charts such as growth, income and membership of Trotskyist groups but he could have done to have added a chart of longevity of individual leaders. Most of the Trotsskyist groups have the same leaders for life. Tony Cliff (born Yigael Gluckstein in Palestine) founded the SWP (as the Socialist Review Group) in around 1950 and he was still leader fifty years later when he died. Ted Grant (born Isaac Blank in South Africa) formed the group that became Militant in 1937 and was still at the helm in 1992 when he was defenestrated, setting up the Socialist Appeal group which he run until his death in 2006. Gerry Healy was an early colleague of Grant’s before setting up the fiefdom that became the Workers’ Revolutionary Party in 1950 which he led for 35 years before his sexual abuse and bullying led to the implosion of the group, after which he still led a fragment of true believers. Sean Matgamma, like Healy, an Irishman, has led the group that became AWL since 1966 and still leads it, when he is not writing his famously bad poetry. Peter Taaffe was in Militant’s leadership when Ted Grant was expelled and has already racked up twenty years as the leader of the Socialist Party. Alan Thornett…. well, you get the message.
Much of this can be laid at the door of they way these parties seem to operate – outgoing central committees suggest their slate for the incoming committees, and are based round a group of full-timers. Membership commitment (the SWP aside) is high and dues are sometimes 10% of your wage.
Kelly’s book is well-written, given it is a book for trainspotters of a special kind, though strangely its cover features a banner from a tiny Maoist group which must have annoyed some people, not least those members of the Maoist group. Anyone seriously into Trotskyist trainspotting, however, should sign up to receive the bulletins of Splits and Fusions which also has an online archive of current, long-dead and half-forgotten Trotskyist papers and organisations, including the semi-mythical Internal Bulletins. It’s encouraging that the website is self-mocking in its title as, well, that’s what Trotskyist do – split and fuse.
Turning back the International Marxist Group and Nottingham… Our own Ken Coates’ International Group, which became the IMG in 1967 is barely mentioned, nor is (Pat Jordan’s) International Bookshop in Nottingham. Indeed the Trotskyist bookshops are mentioned on one page only and only as a source of funds for the party. Anyone wanting to explore this further should go to http://www.leftontheshelfbooks.co.uk/images/doc/Radical-Bookshops-Listing.pdf which has the best listing of past radical bookshops, communist, Trotskyist and libertarian. But what is worth mentioning is that whereas I rarely come across anyone who used to be in the awful WRP, which at one time had perhaps 6,000 members, in Nottingham at least all the former members of the IMG I know here are still involved in politics, have been and are major and beneficial contributors to trade unions, local and labour history, the women’s movement, refugee support groups and environmental campaigns. Perhaps I should have paid more attention at that conference in 1971.
One final point, given that this website is about left culture, though the Trotskyist movement has produced some excellent writers of non-fiction – Paul Foot and David Widgery stand out – they have produced little left culture of their own. Aside from Rock Against Racism, which was Trotskyist influenced, I’m struggling to think of any long term or even short term arts project coming from that milieu save for a very short-lived coffee-bar and venue run in London by Counterfire modelled, perhaps, on the Partisan coffee house of the late fifties and early sixties. But there is hope, I am told (by a very cultured member) within the Socialist Party. At a recent conference this subject attracted a very large attendance and the SP has spawned an art magazine, Bad Art. I can’t help but think old Ted Grant would think that a bourgeois deviation from the real class struggle.
Ross Bradshaw

Revolutionary Yiddishland – a history of Jewish radicalism by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg (Verso, £16.99)

Revolutionary-yiddishland-1050stThere’s nowhere called Yiddishland, except it is everywhere, it’s a state of mind. You don’t have to be fluent in Yiddish, you don’t have to be Jewish (though both of these make life easier). And you don’t all have to be in the same state of mind as the other inhabitants, other than to value the diaspora and have an interest in the shared history of a disparate community of Yiddish speakers. 

Not every part of Yiddishland in the past was a happy place, Hersh Mendel, quoted in this book, remarked that he “cannot remember one single joyful hour” at heder (religious education classes). He became a revolutionary.This was the period, one of the periods, when Jews lived in abject poverty. Yaakov Greenstein recalls “a neighbour’s farm where there were eight children at home. The father went from village to village with a colleague, collecting scrap metal. They had a cart but no horse to pull it; one of them took the front, the other pushed, and they went along the roads, in this way, among the goyim, from dawn to night.” For some, the answer lay in socialism which could lead to family problems such as disapproval from religious parents annoyed because the Bund (the main Jewish socialist organisation) published its daily newspaper on Shabbos, on the Sabbath.

The revolutionary Yiddishland that people like Mendel and Greenstein joined was that of the Bund, of Poale Zion (the socialist Zionist group) and even the Communist Party where they had their own battles to survive and hold on to their Jewish culture. This is the milieu that the authors cover, the world not of industrialists or prominent figures but “the tailors, shoemakers, furriers, carpenters, tinsmiths and other Yiddish craftsmen…” internationalists who were “exploited in the wretched workshops of Warsaw, Bialystok and Vilnius.”
Revolutionary Yiddishland was first published in France in 1983 when there was a critical mass of people still alive from that period to interview. The new English-language edition keeps their memory alive, as the best parts of the book are the interviews, quotes and reminiscences of those who were the history younger people can only experience secondhand. We read of people like Pierre Sherf, wounded while taking part in the Spanish Civil War, a volunteer in the French army against the Nazis and then active in the underground Resistance with other Romanian immigrants in France. People like Hanna Levy-Haas from Sarajevo, another member of the Resistance, this time to the Italian occupation of Montenegro. As an elder, living in Israel, she became active in the women’s movement and against the war in Lebanon.
Those who were Communists had the greatest problems over the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact. Unease would be an understatement and in France the Yiddish left paper Naie presse could barely hold the Party line. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Adam Rayski said “And so, for us to become ourselves again – that is Jews, Frenchmen, anti-fascists – we needed Hitler’s aggression.” But it was not over yet with activists like Artur London arrested as part of the anti-Semitic Slansky round-up in Czechoslovakia. The fact that he survived being in Mauthausen concentration camp helping to prove his culpability. This was the revolution betrayed.
Brossat and Klingberg return to the early debates within the Jewish socialist world, including the warning of the Bund leader Henryk Erlich against the likely Bolshevik dictatorship. Erlich was later murdered by Stalin’s men. Organisations split over their attitude to the Russian Revolution leading to now long-forgotten groups like the Faraynikte and the Kombund, the latter being the group of Bundists who went over to the Communists after the Revolution, as did many members of Poale Zion. Odd to think the British descendant organisation of Poale Zion in this country is the right-wing Jewish Labour Movement.
Within Russia policy on Jews changed constantly. Yiddish schools flourished, while Yevsektsia (the Jewish section of the Communist Party) sought Jewish agricultural colonisation in the Crimea, more popular than the Birobidzhan Yiddish “homeland” and more successful economically. That Birobidzhan was designated a republic in 1936 did not stop the Jewish leadership there being decimated in the Great Purges of 37 and 38. Editors, bureaucrats, committed Communists were wiped out. Anybody with a Bundist or Poale Zion history was at particular risk. Colonisation projects were closed, newspapers were suppressed and Yiddish was replaced in most schools by Russian. Brossart and Klingberg write “by the end of the 1930s the entire ‘national’ and ‘democratic’ gains of the Jewish population had been reduced to nothing.”
Committed Jewish communists would continue to be arrested, post-war, with the closure of the of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Russia. The final spasms being the anti-Semitic Gomulka purges in Poland in 68 and 69, when the “anti-party element” David Szarfharc, expelled from the CP, said that “five minutes of a certain speech by Gomulka had done more for that [the desire to emigrate to Israel] than decades of Zionist propaganda.”
Ironically Israel became the  home for many of these revolutionaries, including Sylvie Klingberg’s own father Marcus Klingberg who, despite everything, spied for the Soviet Union. He was finally arrested in 1983 and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Sylvie Klingberg became an activist in the Israeli socialist group Matzpen which was an anti-Soviet breakaway from the Israeli Communist Party. They must have had some interesting family discussions.
Ross Bradshaw
This review first appeared in Jewish Socialist, issue 70 (www.jewishsocialist.org.uk)

Radical Walking Tours of New York City by Bruce Kayton (Seven Stories, £11.99)

In the era of Trump I won’t exactly be rushing back to the USA, but I wish I’d known of this book on my one previous visit, when I spent some time in New York. During that visit I joined some friends in marching with a largely Hispanic demonstration against police brutality. I don’t speak any Spanish but it did not take much knowledge of the language to know why big, tearful, poor Hispanic women were holding up pictures of their sons. There had been a lot of Hispanic men from “the Projects” shot in the back, allegedly when running away from burglaries. Immediately after the demonstration I joined a distant relative at a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. It had a luxurious men’s room where a Black man handed you a towel…

Poverty and wealth then. Most of the New York guides concentrated on the latter, this book the former, or at least attempts to break the poverty, racism – including restrictive employment practices, red-baiting, union-busting and environmental damage on which the wealth is built. In any one chapter you can find details of union struggles, anti-war activism, socialist bookshops, Black self-organisation from the nineteenth, twentieth and early in this century.

Over all, however, is the blight of gentrification. One of the flats rented by the anarchist Emma Goldman was recently on the market for $4000 a month while the Black gay poet Langston Hughes’ old house in Harlem would set you back a million.  The writer suggests that if you want to visit Revolution Books, the best radical bookshop in New York, you check its website first as it has moved so many times, most recently from Chelsea to Harlem, as it has been priced out of premises after premises.

The section on Brooklyn Bridge remembers how many men died in its construction and the terrible illnesses the underwater workers suffered. The Bridge has become a way of snarling up the city and over 700 Occupy marchers were arrested there. At least some aspects of New York’s radical past continue.

This is a great book to dip into, full of interesting snippets of labour history, though an index would have been a great help.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, volume 2, Britain 1965-1970 by Ernest Tate (Resistance Books, £13)

Yes, I can feel your eyes glazing over already, but there’s more to this book than you think, not least the many photographs of Vanessa Redgrave, Tariq Ali and Richard Branson at the front of big London marches against the Vietnam War. BRANSON? Yes, the world’s worst balloonist and train operator hung out with revolutionaries in the 1960s. At least Stephen Hawking (pictured likewise, walking with canes) kept his socialist principles.
The local – Nottingham – interest is with the late Ken Coates, one of the key people in the International Group which joined with others to form the nucleus of what became the International Marxist Group, British section of the Fourth International (that’s the Trotskyist one). Pat Jordan, who once ran a radical – and comic – bookshop in St Anns is also there at the start. Pat came to a sad end, some of which is covered here.
Ken Coates went on to be the key person in the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which continues in Radford with a set up involving Spokesman Books and Russell Press.
In this book he features large in a long chapter on the Russell Tribunal on the Vietnam War which pulled together an investigative panel including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The author spends too long discussing the disastrous finances of the Tribunal but at last I started to understand the mercurial Ralph Schoenman who was at the centre of the various controversies around the Tribunal and anti-Vietnam War activity until his (American) passport was taken away, meaning he could not travel to Europe any more.
Opposition to the Vietnam War is at the centre of the book and Tate takes us behind the scenes as he was an organiser of the mass mobilisations in London in the 1960s.
Equally fascinating,but in a car-crash kind of way, are the later chapters of the book where Tate describes the work of the Fourth International when they decided to take to the hills, Cuban style, to ferment guerrilla uprisings in South America. Few of the participants survived. Tate had been sent from Canada to build a group in the UK and returns home, exhausted and broke. Volume one covers his earlier years building the Canadian movement but he is frozen out of his own organisation as it descends into a cult-like grouping. They take a “turn” to industry. Having mostly failed to organise a working class base they substitute themselves for the working class by sending previously professional workers onto the factory floor. Hilariously, he describes holding bi-weekly training sessions on how to be working class (which he was himself) including showing people how to use basic tools so that they were not completely ignorant after they left their middle class jobs.
It’s beyond the scope of the book but his former UK comrades did the same here.
Not surprisingly, it was the beginning of the end.
Ross Bradshaw

Rebel Footprints, a guide to uncovering London’s radical history by David Rosenberg (Pluto, £9.99)

Dave is one of a number of Five Leaves’s writers who graduated from our finishing school and – with our blessing – joined a bigger publisher. His Five Leaves’ Battle for the East End was about Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s. Here he operates on a wider canvas, but with the same view of how people make history. His chapters – all followed by walking guides – cover Clerkenwell Green, Bow, Spitalfields, Bloomsbury, Battersea, Poplar, Bermondsey and, no surprise, Cable Street. There’s also a chapter on suffragettes. Dave is a walk guide and runs regular trips round most of these places, including bespoke walks (with lots of pub stops if you are the RMT!). Of course this is history – there are not too many members of the Amalgamated Stevedores Union around these days and the Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club’s Facebook page seems to be down but it was these workers, often Irish or Jewish immigrants, often women workers, who broke the sweatshops and the fascists, who won the right to vote, who took on the landlords and cruel factory bosses. We owe them. Dave’s book brings forgotten names and battles back to life. It’s worth reading in an armchair in Nottingham, and worth a couple of trips to London to follow some of the guided walks.
Ross Bradshaw

Proud Journey: a Spanish Civil War Memoir by Bob Cooney (Marx Memorial Library and Manifesto Press, £5.00)

I knew Bob Cooney in Aberdeen, and interviewed him once for Aberdeen Peoples Press about the Spanish Civil War. I can’t find my copy of the interview but do remember that our meeting did not go well. Bob was an unreconstructed Stalinist and I was a young libertarian socialist. The local Young Communist League worked well with the libertarians, both then strong in Aberdeen, sharing a similar view of the Tankies, as they were called. Bob was one of nineteen volunteers from Aberdeen who joined the International Brigades, five of whom were killed in action. This book is based on a manuscript written by him in 1944 and never before published.

I am not and never have been a Trotskyist, but I found the opening chapter of Bob’s book hard to stomach. That he called his opening chapter “Fascists and Trotskyists” is something of a trigger warning, but when he says that “Trotskyists … served as the lieutenants of fascism within the labour movement” and “… time and again the Spanish Trotskyists under the cover of left-wing phrases gave active assistance to Franco…” I was tempted to go no further. Some years ago my late friend (and Five Leaves’ author) Walter Gregory – who is mentioned in passing in this book – mentioned that in Spain the Trotskyist-influenced POUM put up graffiti saying “Dondo Nin? (were is Nin?) referring to their missing leader Andres Nin. The CP replied with “Ask the fascists!”, but the POUM knew that their leader had been taken by the communists. He was murdered by them. Walter remarked that people were fooled. Oddly, however, in Bob Cooney’s book the anarchist union CNT is mentioned favourably.

It’s a pity that these outrageous remarks start the book as it is a remarkable record of the war, particularly of Bob’s long journey back to the Ebro as the Republic was forced to retreat. Of the 500 men who started with him only 20 were left to cross the Ebro. He describes the night marches, the lack of food, the torn footwear and the desperate attempts to hold the line or cover the retreat. Friends steadily fall in battle.

Even when not in retreat the situation was desperate. In the campaign to take Hill 481 “Lieutenant John Angus was in command. He fell seriously wounded in the chest. His successor, Lieutenant Walter Gregory, got a bullet in the neck [though survived]. Sergeant Bill Harrington took over, till he too was seriously wounded and Corporal Joe Harkins …. assumed command. Harkins fell, mortally wounded, just before Lieutenant Lewis Clive, the original company commander, returned from hospital. Clive was killed on the following day.”

Cooney was lucky. He was captured prior to this battle, with Joe Harkins, but in the heat of the combat they were able to escape. He was hit by one bullet, but though “red hot” it was spent and did him no damage. As a record of the war, this is worth reading, though we know that the Republic, starved of arms, had little chance of surviving against Franco and his German and Italian supporters.

The book is also worth reading for Bob’s account of street battles with homegrown fascists on the streets of Aberdeen. This section included a great story of him infiltrating an identity parade with a CP leaflet in hand to ensure he was picked out by fascist “witnesses”. Except he had not been at that particular incident so his being picked out effectively discredited the testimony against his arrested comrades and they got off.

Ross Bradshaw

Who Dips in the Tin? The Butty System in the Nottinghamshire Coalfield by Barry Johnson (Notts and Derbyshire Labour History Society, £2.50)

This short pamphlet is a reminder of the bad old days before the mines (remember them?) were nationalised – a reminder why it was so important to take them out of the hands of the masters. The butty system was a method of sub-contracting. The owners contracted out getting coal to individual men who paid day labourers to work for them. This was bad because the labourers had no guarantee of employment, had to work their socks off to be taken on again, took risks with safety and could be rejected on the whim of the contractor. It suited the owners to have men divided against each other and the contractor doing the dirty work while they piled up the profits.

The miners campaigned against this system and for the “throw-in” system whereby all those who worked the “stall” had an equal share of the piece work earnings.

With casualisation, sub-contracting and franchising the butty system is back of course in industry after industry. It does not have the force it had when dockers’ and miners’ wages were forced down and people struggled to earn a living, but it’s all part of the same system. Anyone who thinks sub-contracting is a good system would do well to read this forgotten part of Nottinghamshire history. It’s a pity the N &D LHS did not spend a little more on production quality though – the typesetting is awful, large gaps between the lines and a tiny typeface!

Ross Bradshaw