Some time ago I was at a conference when one of the speakers from the floor commented that he used to be a historian, now he “was history”. This comment came to mind when reading Waiting for the Revolution as so many of the groups mentioned in the book, once the makers of history are now, literally and metaphorically history. You can find the remnants scattered round the Market Square on some Saturdays. The Socialist Party, once 8,000 strong as Militant with three MPs and Liverpool Council under their control. Now with what?, 1000 members, pleading with Labour to be readmitted; the Socialist Workers Party, once perhaps 10,000 strong (if you believed their membership figures) and with a paper selling 30,000, rent asunder as a result of alleged sexual abuse by their former General Secretary; the Revolutionary Communist Group, locally but not nationally the most active of the bunch, usually to be seen flying the flags of Cuba, Palestine and now Venezuela, countries in which they have no influence and no members.
All of these groups are covered here, as well as the old Communist Party of Great Britain (which survives with less than a thousand members in the form of the pre-dissolution hard line split off, the Communist Party of Britain – the size of membership the old CPGB once had in Nottinghamshire alone). The stuff of PhD theses… indeed the word PhD appears in many of the biographies of the contributors to this book, with only two of the seventeen contributors not being linked to a university.
For trainspotters of the left (of which I am one) this is a good read. Unusually for a book on the far left there is a chapter on anarchism, specifically about the Angry Brigade of the late 60s and early 70s, and this is one chapter I would like to see made into a book as there seemed to be much more to say. There’s material on the RCG and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which brought back the days of that group organising a non-stop picket of the South African Embassy against the wishes of those representing the main South African group in struggle, the African National Congress. There’s material on the role of the Communist Party in the National Union of Mineworkers and the role of the left in support groups for the miners. The chapter on the left and Northern Ireland was another chapter that felt like there was more to say.
The chapter I found most interesting was by Daisy Pailing on the urban left in 1980’s Sheffield in the earlier life of David Blunkett when he and a number of others tried to use local authority socialism as a bulwark against reaction.based on the strong socialist traditions of the city, generations of Labour families and the local trade union movement. This chapter came to mind at a recent Momentum debate on how to be a socialist councillor and how to use the Nottingham city council in the future as more than a dented shield. Unfortunately the councils have had endless cuts in budgets, a reduction of their powers and heavy loading on services due to an increasingly aged population. It won’t be so easy this time round.
The one chapter that perhaps should have been omitted was Michael Fitzgerald’s hagiography of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Fitzgerald was one of its leaders and one of those who led the organisation to become the reactionary group around Spiked who are to socialism what Melanie Philips is to progressive thought.
But turning to the issue raised over the SWP and their “Comrade Delta” affair, which led to so many activists leaving… their one time American affiliate has just wound itself up because of issues of sexual abuse and a botched cover-up within their leadership. The old Workers Revolutionary Party – which once had substantial support – blew apart because of their leader’s sexual abuse of women members. As did the Scottish Socialist Party over their leader’s alleged sexual behaviour and his alleged demand that members cover it up. Meantime the Socialist Party looks like it will split from its more successful Irish section which has fallen out with the SP’s British leader-for-life. Several of the other groups have had similar but less publicised sexual scandals and/or splits. It wasn’t Eric Hobsbawm’s idea of “The forward march of labour halted?” that was responsible.
Perhaps it goes back to their notion of democracy, democratic centralism whereby the old Revolutionary Socialist League (ie Militant, then the Socialist Party), quoted in the book, said that “All members of the RSL are required to enter the mass organisations of the working class under the direction of the organisation… for the purpose of of fulfilling the aims of the organisation.” And “All members holding public office, paid or otherwise, shall come under the complete control of the organisation…” Doesn’t sound too great does it? At least the Communist Party trade union members, mentioned in the book, were not generally put in the “impossible position” of always following Party policy in industry to the detriment of the views of those who had elected them to trade union positions.
This book, now in paperback, a companion to a set of essays called Against the Grain, was first published in 2017 and omits reference to the revival of what could be called the far left in the shape of Momentum, Corbynism and, in America, the Democratic Socialists of America. The current Socialist History (number 34) starts to bring the story up to date. Some would argue that there’s nothing far left about any of these groupings and it’s too early to say if they will stay the course, but, Trump and climate breakdown notwithstanding, we might have some more history to be written.