Saturday, 31 January 2015

Mike Sheridan on the Labour Independent Group: A fragment of the 1940s

In the run up to the LSHG conference on the Attlee Government of 1945 (on Saturday 28 February), we have been sent this piece by Mike Sheridan for the LSHG blog:

THE LABOUR INDEPENDENT GROUP: a fragment of the 1940s 
by Mike Sheridan

 The scale of the Labour victory in the 1945 General Election with an overall Parliamentary majority of 183 seats, was a shock to almost everyone, observers and activists alike. But it confirmed that the Labour Party represented the main repository of working-class political trust. This was in every way a remarkable turnaround after the difficult years of the 1930s when the Party split because of the defection of the MacDonald/Snowden/Thomas grouping to form a National Government whose main force was the Conservative Party.

 Despite that, there were other poles of attraction for working-class and Socialist voters and, in fact, generally the political landscape was skewed much further to the Left than the miserable vista we are presented with today. Firstly, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was the largest party claiming an adherence to Marxism with around 40,000 members (1). The CPGB had 2 MPs elected in 1945 – Phil Piratin was the victor in Stepney (Mile End) and Willie Gallagher retained the Fife West seat which he had won in 1935. In other constituencies the CPGB had secured sizeable votes. For instance in Hornsey, the CPGB candidate won 10,058 votes (21.5% of the Poll) and in Rhondda East, the Party General Secretary, Harry Pollitt, secured 15,761 votes (45.5% of the Poll) and only lost to the successful Labour candidate by 972 votes.

However, the CPGB had badly misread the post-War mood of the British working-class as, until late in the day, they were calling for a 'progressive coalition' to rule the country, which was actually to the Right of the wishes of most Labour voters. The left-of Labour Independent Labour Party (ILP) returned 3 MPs in 1945, all for Glasgow constituencies (where the Party's main organisational strength resided) including the redoubtable Jimmy Maxton. The Labour Party, CPGB and ILP all represented, in varying ways, a reformist approach to political, economic and social reconstruction.

The main players representing a 'revolutionary' approach were the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) but they were a marginal, if voluble, force. An RCP candidate had stood in a By-election earlier in 1945. Jock Haston had carried the RCP's hopes in Neath but had been trounced by the Labour candidate receiving only 1781 votes. The RCP did not re-enter the electoral arena (although, interestingly, a General Election candidate who had been in the Trotskyist movement did stand unsuccessfully - Reg Groves for Labour in Aylesbury. Then in a By-election in 1946 in Battersea, Hugo Dewar stood unsuccessfully for the ILP. It is certainly true that both Groves and Dewar still held views which the Labour leadership and the CPGB would have regarded as Trotskyist).

 In the post-War settlement, the Allies had carved up Europe into 'spheres of influence' with the western powers lording over western Europe and the Kremlin the hegemonic controllers of the eastern nations. Stalin's government took this to signify that they should export the Russian economic and political culture to those countries. Regimes apparently indistinguishable from the Russian model were established everywhere from Poland in the north to Albania in the south. The 'Cold War' began in which propaganda, rhetoric and suspicion featured as substitutes for military confrontation.

The Labour Party leadership had hitched their wagon securely to the international leadership of Washington and the Pentagon. Not without opposition from some MPs and constituency party members. The Left-wing was in a minority in the Party but a troublesome one to the Attlee/Morrison/Bevin Party leadership. Most of the Left-wing Labour MPs became associated with the Keep Left group, which was, in effect, a precursor of the Bevanites of the 1950s. However, there were a minority of Labour MPs on the Left who were certainly pro-Soviet (and pro-Stalin) and the Labour leadership was much less inclined to tolerate them, partly, no doubt, for fear of offending their American allies. Conflict with this group broke out in 1947/48 over the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and what became known as 'the Nenni telegram'.

 It is important to acknowledge that the influence of the 1917 Revolution still held enormous kudos and not just on the Left. It was commonly considered that the Stalinist regime in Moscow was Socialist. Tribune, the printed voice of the Labour reformist Left, certainly held this view. In a lead article published on 5 April 1946 they criticised the lack of democracy in the Soviet Union but commented approvingly on the economic gains of 'the Socialist country'. (2) The RCP concluded that the Soviet Union was a 'degenerated workers state' (as had been the formulation of Trotsky himself). They coined the term 'deformed workers states' to describe the other eastern European states in the Soviet Bloc but considered that economic base was Socialist (it was Tony Cliff who was to break with the theory with his notion of state capitalism). The ILP, not ones to immerse themselves in doctrinal schisms in the Trotskyist manner, took a position similar to Tribune but with concerns expressed for the lack of democratic practices in the Kremlin-controlled nations. The CPGB, of course, had no doubt that the whole of the Eastern Bloc represented the Communist future.

In the light of these factors a pro-Stalinist segment of the Parliamentary Labour Party is less than surprising. In April 1948 a group of Labour MPs sent a telegram of support to Pietro Nenni in Italy, leader of the Socialist Party, expressing their support for the Party in the forthcoming Italian General Election. This immediately provoked the ire of the Labour Party leadership as the Italian Socialists (PSI) had entered into an alliance with the Italian Communist Party (PCI) by establishing a Democratic Popular Front as a joint slate in the Election. Nenni was a figure of some substance in European Social Democracy. He had been imprisoned by the Mussolini regime. Later he was the Political Commissar of the Garibaldi Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. In 1942 he was living an uncertain day-to-day existence in Vichy France when he was arrested and returned to Italy. There he was again imprisoned. In 1944, at liberty again, he was appointed Secretary-General of the Italian Socialist Party. He held important posts in the first post-War Italian coalition government. In 1947 the right-wing of the Socialist Party split away and it became clear to Nenni that an alliance with the Communist Party represented the best chance of electoral success.

The PCI was, of course, much stronger than its British counterpart and, in the first Italian post-War elections in 1946, had secured 4,356,686 votes which gave it 104 seats in the Italian Parliament. In fact the Nenni/Stalinist alliance did not succeed in 1948. The Christian Democrats led by Alcide de Gasperi topped the Poll. The results showed that the Christian Democrats had gained 12,741,299 votes to the 8,137,047 for the Democratic Popular Front. This did not prevent the British Labour leadership, through the bureaucrats at Transport House, launching a hostile inquiry into the behaviour of the signatories to the 'Nenni telegram'. In vain did the signatories protest that the Labour Party had supported Nenni's Socialists in the 1946 elections and that the policy had not changed in the intervening period.

The Labour Party officials charged with spearheading the inquiry were Morgan Phillips, General Secretary of the Party, and Denis Healey (then working in the International Department of the Party). Healey had himself been a CPGB member until the early years of the War and in 1948 still in the future was his shinning up Labour's greasy pole to attain senior Ministries in the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan governments. In any event, Phillips and Healey were hardly well-qualified to be 'honest brokers' in the affair as they had recently returned from a trip to Italy where they had met for a cordial discussion with the politicians who had split from the Socialist Party. The cause of the signatories was not assisted by the nominally Left-wing Tribune which, with lofty disdain and a distinct lack of solidarity, declared that the MPs who had signed the telegram were 'simpletons who do not know what they are supporting'. (3) [It is an interesting commentary on the tendency of Tribune to significantly mute its independence of expression during periods of Labour Government that it was left to the New Statesman to publish the Keep Left manifesto in 1947]

 It was claimed that 40 MPs had supported the telegram. But they began to face pressure, not only from the Labour leadership, but from a hostile press anxious, as always, to cause difficulties for a Labour Government. Some of the signatories began to crack under the pressure. The first to give way was John Baird (MP for Wolverhampton North East and a future supporter of the Algerian Revolution and confidant of the Ted Grant/Peter Taaffe Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League). In a splendid example of the philosophy 'it weren't me, sir, it were 'im' he declared that he did not know how his name came to be on the telegram. (4) Some of the supporters could not be touched by the Labour hierarchy. Piratin and Gallagher were exempt from their inquiry as members of the CPGB. Another MP in support was Denis Nowell (always known as D N) Pritt, who sat in the House of Commons as an Independent Labour MP for the Hammersmith North constituency after having been expelled from the Labour Party in 1940 for his support of the Russian invasion of Finland.

 The nominal leader of the signatories was the stylish orator John Platts-Mills, MP for Finsbury, a man totally unnamenable to right-wing Labour bullying. Summoned by Phillips to Transport House to be interrogated, he travelled to the appointment by bicycle, something of a status mode of travel for image-conscious MPs these days, but then considered distinctly odd. Platts-Mills made sure that the press cameras were on hand to take photographs. On emerging from the meeting Platts-Mills gave a statement to the assembled journalists which contained the usual platitudes about 'a friendly and constructive exchange of views'. It is unlikely that the meeting had been either. On 28 April, the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party expelled Platts-Mills from the Party and coupled this with a letter to 21 other Labour MPs demanding that they cease acting as an organised group within the Party and repudiate their support for the telegram.

 As ever, the Labour leadership were determined to extract as much blood from the stone as possible. On 30 April the MPs responded to the demand by stating that they could not withdraw their support for a telegram which had already been sent and by that they wished to know when the Party's policy towards the PSI had changed as the Party had supported them in the previous Italian General Election. The NEC did not trouble themselves to reply to the legitimate question. The Finsbury Labour Party Management Committee then expelled Platts-Mills who issued a statement to the effect that he would continue to fight for a free, independent, Socialist Britain and commenting acidly on Ernest Bevin (the Foreign Secretary) that 'Bevin's policy is to surrender Britain and the Commonwealth to America for a handful of dollars' (a reference to the Marshall Aid financial support provided by the US Government). (5)

 Other Labour MPs involved in the fracas were more fortunate with their constituency parties. Both Geoffrey Bing in Hornchurch and P G Barstow in Pontefract were given votes of confidence by their local activists. Meanwhile, Sidney Silverman, the MP for Nelson and Colne, a Left libertarian and a serial rebel against the Labour leadership until his death in 1968, commented 'Italian conditions are different from ours'. He wished the Democratic Popular Front well but he was not a Communist (this was quite true and he had opposed CPGB affiliation to the Labour Party). It was left to Benn Levy, the MP for Eton and Slough, and no rebel to spell out what the core issue involved really was when he expressed the view that there was no third choice for Britain, she must travel the Russian road or the American road. Britain was committed to the Western Union which was the lesser of two evils. A neat formulation which, in simple terms, summed up the Cold War period, although it was doubtful if Ernest Bevin would have been pleased to hear the concept of siding with American Imperialism as evil. (6)

 Marshall Aid (so-called because the plan had been drawn up by George Marshall the US Secretary of State) had originated in 1947. It promised significant financial aid for those countries in Europe which agreed with the American plan for the reconstruction of the continent from the devastation inflicted during the War years. In other words the US money would be made available to those governments who agreed with America's preferred strategy. It was no surprise that the offer was accepted by 16 Western European nations but rejected by the Soviet Union and her satellites to the east. After the kerfuffle over the Italian elections this became the next verbal battleground on which the Left in Parliament took on the Government. The Tories and Liberals had been happy to muddy the water over the Italian issue they now, naturally, had no interest in criticising the intentions of the US Government. D N Pritt weighed in with the warning 'There will be pretty formidable strings attached to Marshall Aid'. One of the 2 CPGB MPs, Willie Gallagher, rhetorically challenged Bevin: Can we hear one word from the Foreign Secretary about the evils of capitalism which the socialist movement was brought into existence to destroy? (7) He probably didn't expect any agreement from Bevin on that sally and was not to get it.

On another occasion, Platts-Mills made reference to the 'banana republics in South America' to which Bevin responded disingenuously that he knew of no such places in South America but of a number in eastern Europe, which, if taken literally, did not suggest that Bevin's knowledge of the fruit crops and exports of the the Soviet satellites was impressive. In July 1948 in the House of Commons, Platts-Mills and Pritt moved an amendment to the Government's proposal for the House to approve the Marshall Aid offer. The amendment was couched in the terms of not ratifying the Marshall Aid agreement but to initiate trade agreements with the Soviet Union and the countries of eastern Europe. The amendment was not called.

 Another of the Labour rebels on the Italian election question had been Konni Zilliacus, the MP for Gateshead. Zilliacus had been a thorn in the flesh of the Labour leadership since 1945 but did not confine his polemics in their direction. In a Parliamentary debate he roared at the Tories 'they landed us in the last War, now they think they can compensate by landing us in World War 3'. In September 1948 Zilliacus was in Belgrade and was received for lunch by Josip Broz, better known to the watching world as Marshall Tito, Prime Minister of Yugoslavia. Tito's country was considered in the Soviet sphere of influence but Tito had already fallen out with the Soviets over the collectivization of agriculture which he was not prepared to force through at the rate demanded by the Kremlin. This, and other issues, was to lead to a serious split with the Soviets which reverberated though the world Stalinist movement for many years.

In England, the CPGB theoretician, James Klugman, issued in 1951 his notorious book From Trotsky to Tito which reaffirmed the CPGB's low level of tolerance for any members of the family who dared dissent from the line. (It is fascinating to conjecture if Trotsky and Tito would have been amused or insulted by Klugman's lumping them together as like-thinking heretics). The fact that Zilliacus chose to lunch with Tito and publicised the event is clear evidence that he was not quite the Moscow stooge portrayed by the Labour right wing and the Tories. On 7 February 1949, Platts-Mills rose to his feet in the House of Commons and asked Hector McNeil, an Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office (i.e. one of Bevin's junior Ministers) about the proposed North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). No doubt with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, he asked 'Would the Secretary of State invite the USSR to join the proposed North Atlantic Treaty?' McNeil responded by reading out the answer prepared for him by the Foreign Office officials that all attempts at collective security under the United Nations had been obstructed by the Soviet Government. Platts-Mills then retorted that, in his view, the proposed Treaty was simply anti-Soviet as it extended to establishing bases in the South Seas. What is absolutely priceless about this exchange is that we now know that one of McNeil's civil servants, Guy Burgess, actually was a Soviet spy!

 In the same month the Gateshead Constituency Labour Party resisted the pressure of Labour's NEC and unanimously endorsed Zilliacus as their candidate in the forthcoming General Election. In May 1949 Ernest Bevin sought the approval of the House of Commons to British participation in NATO. He repeated the by-now well-worn line that the efforts of the USA, Britain and their allies in the United Nations had failed to achieve international agreement and NATO was needed for defensive purposes against a belligerent USSR. In the debate, Zilliacus waded in once again stating that the establishment of NATO would shatter the UN Charter, split the world and start a Third World War (he was to prove correct on the first 2 predictions). Phil Piratin reminded the House that US troops were stationed within 10 miles of where the debate was taking place. He prophesied that the next War would be directed by the USA but the brunt of the suffering would be on British shoulders. Bevin's motion was decisively carried by 333 votes to 6. The rebels were left high-and-dry, the MPs publicly associated with Tribune filing into the lobbies with the Labour right-wing and the Tories (Hansard does not record whether or not the sounds of 'Baa, baa' could be heard from their lips at this pivotal moment).

 The Labour leadership were not ones to shirk kicking a man when he is down and, no doubt also with an eye to pleasing their senior partners in Washington, expelled from the Labour Party 6 days later, Zilliacus and Leslie Solley (MP for Thurrock) who had been one of the 6 rebels. The affair rumbled on to the Labour Annual Conference held that year in June in Blackpool. An attempt to have Solley and Zilliacus re-instated was debated. In support of the 2 expellees, Geoffrey Bing said he had been to eastern Europe with Zilliacus and heard him defending the Labour Movement to Stalin and Molotov. Sidney Silverman said that if the expulsions were voted on solely by Constituency Labour Parties then the 2 would be reinstated immediately (which Silverman's acute mind knew was simply another way of saying that the Parliamentary leadership and the NEC were out of touch with the mass membership). Then a constituency delegate, a certain G Healy from east London, said the NEC were simply aping practices more common in Moscow and Prague. Benn Levy spoke of the danger of a heresy hunt. All of this was to no avail. The expulsions were upheld by 3,023,00 votes to 1,993,000.

By the summer of 1949 5 MPs were acting publicly as a Labour Independent Group (LIG) -Lester Hutchinson (MP for Manchester, Rusholme), Platts-Mills, Pritt, Solley and Zilliacus. On 5 October they were composing and sending another telegram, this time to the government headed by Mao Zedong in China. It read 'Our country needs the friendship of the Chinese people. We need not imperialist provocations but peaceful trade. We call on our government to sever all relations with the bankrupt cliques in Canton and Formosa and to accord immediate recognition to the Government of the Chinese People's Republic'.

 By early 1950, a General Election was not far away. The Labour NEC had 're-organised' the Gateshead Constituency Party. This was a cosmetic way of saying that they had replaced the local leadership with a hand-picked group of loyalists charged with selecting candidates for the 2 seats into which the constituency was being divided. Official Labour candidates were also put in place for the other constituencies for which LIG MPs sat. The LIG issued its own General Election statement in which they emphasised that their main differences with the Labour Government were in the realms of foreign policy. They pointed out that Britain could not be considered as an independent country as US combatant forces were permanently based in the country. They called for the removal of the American forces from British territory. They urged friendship with the Soviet Union as well as the USA and the development of trade with eastern European countries and with China. (8)

 All of this was to be of no avail. Faced with a choice between official Labour Party candidates and Labour Independents, Labour voters opted overwhelmingly for the official candidates. The Independents were routed, as the following election statistics illustrate:

Gateshead East Labour vote 15249 - Zilliacus 5001
 Hammersmith North  Labour vote 13346  Pritt 8457
Shoreditch and Finsbury Labour vote 22510 Platts-Mills 7602
Thurrock  Labour vote 22893 Solley 4250

 Lester Hutchinson chose not to re-contest Manchester Rusholme but to make his battle against the outgoing Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, in Walthamstow West. It would have represented an upheaval of monumental proportions with huge political repercussions had he been successful. He wasn't and Attle garnered 21,095 votes to Hutchinson miserly 704. Thus ended the short but intense life of the Labour Independent Group.

The only one of the expellees to re-enter Parliament was Konni Zilliacus (probably the most independent minded of the Group as illustrated by the support he received from such figures as J B Priestley and George Bernard Shaw in his 1950 Election campaign). He was re-admitted to the Labour Party in 1952 and became Labour MP for Manchester Gorton in 1955.

 The immediate post-War years were ones in which the Left needed to be alert to new realities. The Cold War ushered in a period in which the military power of the USA came to be the dominant factor in the 'free West'. Opposed to them were the Soviet Union and her allies. Pritt, the original Labour Independent MP had, in earlier years, been prepared to excuse the Russian Show Trials of the 1930s and the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Pressure from the Labour Right in the 1940s was unlikely to sway him from his convictions. But the others still in the Party also refused to back down during the life of the Parliament. The Cold War put pressure on the Left generally in the western nations. Whether that excused the soft Left around Tribune largely capitulating around such issues as NATO is another matter (but, in any event, their silence on NATO made their later support for CND something of a hypocrisy).

 Pro-Stalinism as a set of ideas continued to exercise some influence on some sections of the Labour Movement until 1956 when its presumptions were shattered by the Khrushchev speech and the Soviet invasion of Hungary (and thereafter it continued to flicker amongst the stubborn). The significance of recalling the saga of the Labour Independent Group is not, of course, to mull over the fate of a few rebellious Labour MPs (their expulsion was much in accord with the Labour hierarchy's custom of showing the door marked 'exit' to Left-wing critics) but as a revealing barometer of the diverse strands involved in the post-War Labour movement and the depressing tendency of the Right-wing to maintain a firm hold on power in the Labour Party.

Some more on leading figures in the drama

Ernest Bevin
 Born into conditions of poverty in Somerset in 1881, Bevin was involved in trades union activity from the beginning of his working life. He became a full-time official of the dockers union and was one of the main architects of bringing together 32 unions to form the Transport and General Workers Union, for whom he served as General Secretary between 1921 and 1940. He then served in Churchill's War time coalition as Minister of Labour and National Service. In 1945 Attlee appointed him as Foreign Secretary, a post he continued to hold until 1951. His reputation during this period was as pro-American, anti-Soviet and he prided himself as being a hammer of the Left in the Labour Movement, particularly if they displayed any sympathy with regimes critical of the Western Alliance. He died in 1951

Geoffrey Bing
Born near Belfast in 1909, Bing followed an education at Lincoln College, Oxford, by entering into a legal career as a barrister. His left-wing views were already well-developed in the 1930s and he abandoned his blossoming legal career to act as a journalist with the International Brigades in Spain. During World War 2 he reached the rank of major in the Royal Signals. His election as Labour MP for Hornchurch came in 1945 (he sat until 1955) and, if his initial experience of Parliament, was as a backbencher during a period of majority Labour Government, this did not prevent him from rebelling against the Party line when he thought appropriate. He returned to a full-time legal career after his Parliamentary stint and was particularly associated with cases of miscarriages of justice. Moving to Africa, he built up a legal firm in Ghana where Kwame Nkrumah appointed him as the country's Attorney-General in the first post-colonial government. After Nkrumah's downfall in 1966, Bing was arrested and endured a torrid time in a Ghanaian prison before returning to Britain where he died in 1977.

 Willie Gallagher
One of the finest militants ever to emerge in the British Labour Movement. Born into poverty in Paisley in 1881, he became one of the leading figures on 'Red Clydeside'. During World War One he became involved in campaigns and industrial action to limit the hours in the working week which eventually led to 'Bloody Friday', 31 January 1919 when the Government ordered troops supported by tanks into Glasgow to break the strike. Gallagher served a period in prison following these events and was back in confinement in 1925 for agitation against the Incitement to Mutiny Act. Gallagher had joined the CPGB from the outset and in 1935 was elected MP for West Fife, a seat he was to hold until 1950. He wrote several books, including 'Revolt on the Clyde' detailing his version of the events on 'Red Clydeside'. He died in 1965 an unrepentant member of the CPGB.

Dennis Healey
One of the few senior Government Ministers in this country who had held membership of the CPGB. Born in 1917, he entered Baillol College, Oxford, in 1936 and, whilst a student joined the CPGB in 1937, holding membership until 1940 (his membership thus co-incided with the Show Trials and 'the Great Terror'). He served with distinction in the Royal Engineers in World War 2 seeing combat service in North Africa and Italy. After the War he began his career as an official at Transport House which ended on his election as Labour MP for Leeds South-east in 1955 (a seat he held until his retirement in 1991). A pillar of Labour's right-wing he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the period 1974-1979. He campaigned for Tony Blair to become leader of the Labour Party, an act which is only partly redeemed by his being one of the few politicians who penned a readable biography – 'The Time of My Life'.

Lester Hutchinson 
Born in 1904, his stint as the MP for Manchester Rusholme only lasted from 1945-1950 when he lost his seat. He never returned to front-line politics but applied his talents to writing and teaching.

Benn Levy
Born in 1900, Levy saw service in both World Wars. Levy was a highly successful playwright until 1939 with several of his plays featuring in long-runs at London's West End theatres. His period as an MP lasted from 1945 to 1950 when he took the decision to retire. He was later prominent in the campaign to abolish theatre censorship during the 1960s.

Morgan Phillips
Welsh born in 1902 from a coal mining tradition. In the 1930s he served as a councillor on Fulham Borough Council, he became a full-time employee at Labour Party headquarters in 1937 and by 1944 had been appointed Secretary of the Party (later re-named General Secretary). He held the post until his retirement in 1961 and died in 1963. His daughter is the former right-wing Labour MP, Gwyneth Dunwoody.

Phil Piratin
Although he served a 5-year stint as a voluble Member of Parliament from 1945-1950, Piratin (born 1907) is best remembered for his rank-and-file activities. He was a doughty campaigner for tenants rights and in the front-line of opposition to Mosley's Fascists in the 1930s. He also served as a local councillor in Stepney and for some years in the 1950s was Circulation Manager of The Daily Worker (a role which would probably defeat most of us). After the break-up of the CPGB, he became a member of the Democratic Left from 1991. He died in 1995.

John Platts-Mills
New Zealand born (1906) Platts-Mills came to Britain on a Rhodes Scholarship to Bailloil College, Oxford and stayed in the country for the rest of his life. A barrister, he joined the Labour Party in 1936 and in World War 2 joined the Royal Air Force. It seems that MI5 made life difficult for him as a serviceman and in 1944 he volunteered to work as a coal miner and was an underground worker for over a year. The following year he was elected as an MP and served until losing his seat in 1950. Thereafter he returned to the law and became something of a popular celebrity with his defence work for the brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Great Train Robbers and others. The Labour Party re-admitted him into membership in 1969. He died in 2001.

D N Pritt
Pritt was born in 1887 and joined the Labour Party in 1914. Educated at Winchester College and the University of London. He became a barrister (and was later appointed a King's Counsel). By the 1930s he was representing Labour movement interests in the Courts and Tom Mann and Harry Pollitt were acquitted after he appeared for their defence on charges of sedition. However, he attended the first of the Show Trials in Moscow in 1936 and did not hesitate to conclude that the defendants were guilty as charged. So much so that he wrote a notorious text The Zinoviev trial which gave complete support to Stalin's purges. He had been elected as the Labour MP for Hammersmith North in 1935 and was an outspoken opponent of the National Government. His Labour Party membership ended in 1940 when he was expelled for his support of the Russian invasion of Finland. He continued to sit in the House of Commons as an Independent Labour MP and was returned in 1945 with a majority of over 11,000 over his Conservative and Labour opponents. He lost his seat in 1950. Thereafter he continued his legal career and wrote prolifically including 3 volumes of autobiography His loyalty to the Moscow regime was rewarded when he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954. He died in 1972.

Sidney Silverman
A left-wing Labour MP of the rebellious variety of a type rarely seen today. Born in 1894 he became MP for Nelson and Colne in 1935 (Nelson was, of course, where C L R James spent some time and learned much more from working people). The best type of Left reformist who was unafraid of verbal or organisational bullying from the Labour Party's right-wing and bureaucracy, he remained a rebel and an MP until his death in 1968.

Leslie Solley
Solley was little known in political circles until his election as a Labour MP in 1945 and played no significant part in political life after losing his seat in 1950. Born in 1906 he was a lawyer who was called to the Bar in 1934. He died in 1968

Konni Zilliacus
The father of Konni Zilliacus had been a Finnish fighter for independence from Russia and this undoubtedly influenced Konni's thinking during his life. Born in 1894, he lived a cosmopolitan life attending schools in England, Finland, Sweden and the USA. He graduated from Yale University and, served in the First World War as a medical orderly. The experience indelibly informed his outlook and he was devoted to the idea of negotiation rather than confrontation for the rest of his life. Returning to Britain he became involved in the League of Nations and the Labour Party. Seeing Fascism as the great menace in the 1930s, he proposed an alliance between Britain, France and the Soviet Union. He was a supporter of the 1917 Revolution but one who became steadily more critical as the years passed and, unlike some of his colleagues, he did not rush to defend the Show Trials. After being expelled from the Labour Party because of his opposition to NATO and his abiding hostility to US Imperialism, he was re-admitted in 1952 and became MP for Manchester Gorton in 1955, a seat he held until his death in 1967. One of his final acts of rebellion in Parliament was to call on the Prime Minster, Harold Wilson, to condemn US policy in Vietnam. His friend, Ian Mikardo, probably summed up the man best when he said 'He was a man of political ideas, but he wasn't very good at politics'.

(1) Under the Red Flag, a history of Communism in Britain by Keith Laybourn/Dylan Murphy, page 131
 (2) Tribune 5 April 1946
 (3) Tribune 23 April 1948
 (4) The Times 20 April 1948
 (5) The Times 28 April 1948
 (6) The Times 5 May 1948
 (7) House of Commons 4 May 1948
 (8) The Times 5 February 1950

What's Happening in Black British History? II

University of Liverpool - Thursday 19 February
Like the WHBBH1 event hosted in London in October 2014, presentations at WHBBH2 will cover a wide range of topics - from Sport to CultureWW1 soldiers to West End sound systems - so there’s sure to be something for everyone.
More details and tickets etc here

Reminder of upcoming LSHG seminars

Monday February 2 - Matthew Burnett-Stewart, 'Arming both sides. The Armaments industry in World War One'.

Monday February 16 - Deborah Lavin, 'Anti-Socialist Working Class Radicalism in the Second Half of the 19th Century'

Saturday February 28 - '70 years since the 1945 Attlee Government': Francis Beckett, Ian Birchall, John Newsinger and others From 11.30am - [LSHG Conference]

Monday March 16 - Launch of A History of Riots (CSP) Keith Flett and others

All seminars take place in Room 102 at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, WC1 and start at 5.30pm with the exception of February 28th - all welcome. For more information please contact Keith Flett at the email address above

Upcoming events at Salford Working Class Movement Library

Some upcoming talks at the excellent Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Invisible Histories talk - Notoriously militant: the story of a union branch at Ford Dagenham

Event date : 22nd Apr 2015
Notoriously militant: the story of a union branch at Ford Dagenham - Sheila Cohen 
Sheila Cohen's book Notoriously militant, based on original research and oral history, covers the history of Ford's Dagenham plant - and its roots in Henry Ford's early US activities - from 20th century shop floor struggles to the 21st century fight against plant closure.

Invisible Histories talk - The People: the Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010

Event date : 8th Apr 2015
The People: the Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 - Selina Todd
Based on first person accounts of servants, factory workers, miners and housewives, Selina Todd's book The People charts the history of working class people over the last century. It has been shortlisted for Political History Book of the Year 2015.

Invisible Histories talk - ''Red Nelson": the English working class and the making of C.L.R. James

Event date : 25th Mar 2015
''Red Nelson": the English working class and the making of C.L.R. James - Christian Hogsbjerg
The ten months that the black Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James spent in the cotton textile town of Nelson in NE Lancashire from 1932-33 were 'ten months that shook his world'. This talk will discuss how James's experience in Nelson shaped his emergence as one of the most important socialist intellectuals in Britain during the Great Depression.

The Great War: myths and realities

Event date : 19th Mar 2015
This exhibition makes a welcome return, probing behind the myths of war and its "glories". It explores topics such as Salford's response to the outbreak of war, the strength of the anti-war movement locally and nationally, what happened to the campaign which had gathered momentum by 1914 to get the vote for women - and the realities of trench warfare.
Open Wednesdays to Fridays 1-5pm.

Invisible Histories talk - From Bilbao to Manchester: the Basque child refugees of 1937

Event date : 11th Mar 2015
From Bilbao to Manchester: the Basque child refugees of 1937 - Charles Jepson
In June 1937 a large group of Basque refugee children arrived in Manchester. They had fled their homes in Bilbao in order to escape the daily bombardment inflicted by Franco's fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. They would spend the next two years living in a number of Basque Colonies in the Manchester region.

International Women's Day - Tansy Hoskins, 'Stitched Up'

Event date : 7th Mar 2015
We mark International Women's Day this year with a talk by Tansy Hoskins about her book Stitched Up - The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion.

CfP for Volume 2 of British Far Left book

Evan Smith (Flinders University) and Matthew Worley (University of Reading) are considering chapter proposals for a second edited volume on the British far left in the post-war era (1945 to the present). We are currently seeking chapter proposals on the following topics: 

• The new (and non-aligned) left
• Feminism, the women’s movement and the left
• The left and the politics of sex/sexuality
• The role of the left in the trade union movement
• The changing attitudes towards class by the far left
• Militant/Socialist Party (and the politics of entryism)
• The left and devolution
• The Healyite groups – The Club, Socialist Labour League, Workers Revolutionary Party
• Anti-revisionism/Maoism in Britain
• The left and electoral politics (Socialist Alliance, RESPECT, TUSC, etc)
• Anti-War/Peace movements and the left
• The role of intellectuals on the left (such as Stuart Hall, E.P. Thompson, Perry Anderson, etc)
• The left’s internationalism in the Cold War era
• The role of migrants and ethnic minorities on the left
• Or any other aspect of the British far left if suitably interesting.

 We welcome proposals from both scholars and activists, but emphasise that chapters must be presented in an academic format, written ‘objectively’ and with references to primary source materials.

300 word abstracts and a short bio should be sent to: or Please email either editor with any further questions.


Details of the first volume, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2014), can be seen here:

Thursday, 29 January 2015

London seminars in contemporary Marxist theory

The Seminar in Contemporary Marxist Theory is a collaborative project by Marxist scholars at King’s College London based in the departments of European and International Studies, Geography, and Management. 
 The following  talks are scheduled, and there are more to follow.

Matt Vidal (King's College London)
‘Postfordism: the geriatric stage of Atlantic capitalism’
18 February 2015 5pm
King’s College London room TBC

Lucia Pradella (University of Venice Ca' Foscari and SOAS)
‘Globalization and the critique of political economy: new insights from Marx’s manuscripts'
18 March 2015 5pm
King’s College London room TBC

Please direct any enquiries to Stathis Kouvelakis,
Published in

Monday, 26 January 2015

Workshop on the British Far Left

Workshop: Matthew Worley and Ewan Smith (eds) Against the Grain: the British Far Left From 1956
PSA Labour Movements Group
Queen Mary College, Mile End Road, Geography Building, Room 2.20
Wed 28 Jan 2.00 -5.00
2.00 – 3.30 Against the Grain: an assessment
Madeleine Davis, Queen Mary College
John Kelly, Birkbeck
3.30 – 3.45 Coffee
3.45 – 5.00 Against the Grain: a response
Matthew Worley, University of Reading, co-editor

John Callaghan, University of Salford, contributor

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Jim Cronin - 1942-2014

Members of the LSHG will be sorry to have heard of the passing of Jim Cronin, a longstanding socialist who supported the work of the LSHG.  A celebration of his life has been organised:

Saturday 7 February 2015, 3pm,
Jacksons Lane Theatre,
Studio One,
269a Archway Road,
London N6 5AA
(100 yards from Highgate tube. 43, 134 and 263 buses stop outside)
If you can make it, let us know!

Friday, 23 January 2015

Book launch: George Padmore and Decolonisation from Below

George Padmore and Decolonisation from Below 

Tuesday 3 February 2015, 6.30 - 8.00pm, room B.13, 32 Lincoln's Inn Fields
Speaker: Dr Leslie James; Discussants: Professor Richard Drayton, Professor Bill Schwarz; Chair: Professor Arne Westad

The British Empire is now seen as a ‘patchwork’ of connections negotiated in precise contexts over time, rather than an integrated imperial structure shaped by a unified vision. Concurrently, the rising tide of anti-colonial activity after the First and Second World Wars is often described as part of a changing ‘mood’, where anti-racism and human rights held greater currency and where diplomacy was redefined and relocated outside sovereign state structures as part of a crucial ‘moment’ where new futures were imagined. But if the British Empire was not a hegemonic structure but a loose system, what implications did this have for anti-colonial organisers?

From his base in London, the Trinidad-born Marxist, George Padmore, directed a constantly evolving strategy to end British imperial rule across Africa and the Caribbean. In this public talk, Leslie James will discuss her new bookGeorge Padmore and Decolonization From Below: Pan-Africanism, the Cold War, and the End of Empire, which will be launched at the event.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Reminder: Upcoming LSHG Seminars and Conference

London Socialist Historians Seminars Spring Term 2015

Monday January 19 - Marika Sherwood, 'Black Soldiers in World War One'

Monday February 2 - Matthew Burnett-Stewart, 'Arming both sides. The Armaments industry in World War One'.

Monday February 16 - Deborah Lavin, 'Anti-Socialist Working Class Radicalism in the Second Half of the 19th Century'

Saturday February 28 - '70 years since the 1945 Attlee Government': Francis Beckett, Ian Birchall, John Newsinger and others From 11.30am - [LSHG Conference]

Monday March 16 - Launch of A History of Riots (CSP) Keith Flett and others

All seminars take place in Room 102 at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, WC1 and start at 5.30pm with the exception of February 28th - all welcome. For more information please contact Keith Flett at the email address above

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Keith Flett on William Cuffay and the Medway By-Election

From LSHG Newsletter # 54 (January 2015)

 In October 2011 I spoke to an audience of around 100 people in Medway on a labour history related topic. Considering that getting into double rather than treble figures for any meeting touching on working class history can be an achievement, the turnout was excellent. I doubt it was my oratorical skills, such as they are, that packed them in, however.

Rather it was because the talk was about the black Chartist William Cuffay a local Medway radical in whom there is a lot of interest. The biography of Cuffay makes interesting reading given that on 20 November 2014 in the Rochester and Strood by-election, the UKIP candidate took the seat [which until then he held as a Tory].

  The life of William Cuffay is now quite well known. Indeed his Wikipedia entry is tolerably accurate. He was born in Chatham. His father was from St Kitts and a cook on a British navy ship. He was apprenticed as a tailor, moved to London around 1819 and by the 1830s he was an active trade unionist and Chartist.

 Cuffay became a leading figure in London Chartism in the 1840s. He was tried and convicted for his part in a revolutionary conspiracy in August 1848. Transported to Australia, Cuffay remained politically active until his death in 1870, aged 82.

 Cuffay left no papers and wrote no autobiography so what we can recover of his life comes from newspaper reports and a few official records. Mark Gregory has done excellent work, reported in a Morning Star article, about Cuffay’s activities in Tasmania and there is a new biography by Martin Hoyles that provides some interesting new perspectives, for example Cuffay’s theatrical talents.

How we can make sense of Cuffay’s life? There are two key issues. Firstly to see Cuffay in the context of the ‘Black Atlantic’ a concept developed by historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in their book The Many Headed Hydra. The point is that there is an imperial link between the Americas, the Caribbean and the UK in the nineteenth century. That link is slavery, slave ships and the British navy, which in the 1790s was around one quarter black. Cuffay, the son of a black sailor on a British ship, was born in one of the central points of the British naval empire — Chatham.

He found his way to the very centre of that empire in London, where he organised as a Chartist to try and bring it down. Frustrated by the state in that endeavour, he found himself shipped to another part of the Empire — Tasmania, where he continued to be active.

These are uncomfortable points indeed for a party like UKIP and not something Tories are likely to be much keener on.

 The second point, something pointed out to me by Lord Bill Morris, is that Cuffay was the organiser of London Chartism, the man behind the great demonstration of 10 April 1848. Perhaps Cuffay’s imperial background uniquely fitted him for that role. It may explain why he continued to be active into old age when others did not.

 With the Medway by-election focussed on immigration it is worth remembering William Cuffay, a notable figure in British history, the son of a slave, born in Chatham, because of the importance of British imperial power but someone who fought all his life for the rights of ordinary working people. Empire and imperialism provide some of the framework for Medway today but not in the way UKIP would have it. 

This piece originally appeared in the Morning Star - see here:

Book Review: Fighting Slavery in the Eighteenth Century

Cugoano Against Slavery
By Martin Hoyles
216pp paperback
Hansib 2015

Martin Hoyles is that relatively rare thing, someone who produces solidly researched books with appropriate academic apparatus but ones that can be read with profit by a general reader too. References are included in the text rather than foot or end noted and there is a comprehensive bibliography.

His latest book is about one of the leading but also one of the least well known black figures in eighteenth century England. It looks further into work he focused on with his last volume on the black Chartist leader William Cuffay, around the history of black Britons, the fight against slavery and for equality.

Ottobah Cugoano was born in 1757, sold into slavery when he was 13 in 1770 and gained his freedom when he came to England in 1772. We know of Cugoano primarly because he wrote and published an anti-slavery book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in 1787. He produced an edited version in 1791 after which nothing further is known of his life.

Hoyles has an important  take on the fight against slavery and the slave trade. He argues that ‘it is important to remove Wilberforce from centre stage’. He suggests that two other men, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, were more important but the key was the mass movement which led to a national campaign against slavery.

The campaign organised a boycott of sugar, a key element of the slave trade, which Hoyles notes was
supported by hundreds of thousands of people.

However, Hoyles emphasises that black resistance to the slave trade, both in places like Grenada, where Cugoano was set to work after being kidnapped and on slave ships themselves, where poor conditions often led the deaths of slaves, and indeed ordinary sailors too, was central to motivating the campaign.

While William Cuffay’s father had come to Britain as a cook on a British Navy ship, Cugoano found a different route to freedom. In Grenada he came to ‘work’ for an English bourgeois, Alexander Campbell, as his personal slave. Campbell took Cugoano to England as his personal servant.  A legal victory (the Mansfield ruling) won by Sharp meant that, in effect, Cugoano was not a slave once on English soil.

Cugoano’s book is based partly on his own personal experiences in Grenada and partly on the arguments then current in the anti-slavery movement. Hoyles suggests that Equiano helped in the editing of the book.

Cugoano was a Christian. He had been baptised at St James’s Church, Piccadilly by the Rev. Thomas Skinner.  The arguments of the Bible influenced his thought but along with Equiano he was also an activist in London dealing with practical issues of the slave trade and the anti-slavery campaign.

Hoyles writes of Cuguano’s involvement in an attempt, partially successful, to set up a settlement for former slaves, Freetown in Sierra Leone. It was far from unproblematic but there is some evidence that it did work to some extent.

It was perhaps however the strength of Cuguano’s anti-slavery writing that had the most impact. As Hoyles notes he was almost alone in calling not just for action on the slave trade but also for the total abolition of slavery. That of course is something that still has to be campaigned for now.

The book concludes that Cuguano has remained very largely hidden from British history. When Lambeth Council named some buildings after prominent black figures in 1985 it provoked the Daily Mail to question who exactly Cuguano might be.

As Hoyles notes both Cuguano’s writings and the cause he fought for remain very much current questions in 2015. The book contains many interesting pictures and maps and is an important volume for anyone seeking to find out the realities of British history, beyond what ‘great and good’ white men did or often, did not, do.

Keith Flett
From LSHG Newsletter #54 (January 2015) 

Book Review: Campaigning for Socialism


Eugene V Debs Reader
Edited by William A Pelz
Merlin, London, 2014, £14.95

In the US presidential elections of 1912 and 1920 Eugene Debs got close on a million votes, standing as a Socialist opposed to “the corrupt Republican Party and the corrupt Democratic Party – the gold-dust lackeys of the ruling class.” (Making allowance for limitations to the franchise and increase in population, that would be equivalent to around seven million votes today. Compare the under three million that Nader got in 2000, running on a less radical programme.)

Debs was no theoretician, but he was a superb propagandist, able to condense the arguments for socialism into brief and memorable phrases: “As a rule hogs are only raised where they have good health and grow fat. Any old place will do to raise human beings.”

So it is very welcome that William Pelz, of the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago, has produced this useful anthology of Debs’s articles and speeches. (To see Pelz talking about Debs go to )

Lenin famously argued that the working class, by its own efforts, developed only trade union consciousness, but that socialism grew out of theories elaborated by intellectuals. Debs is almost a text-book example of this development. Working as a locomotive foreman, he became deeply involved in trade unionism, and helped to found the American Railroad Union. As he tells in his article “How I Became a Socialist”, “up to this time I had heard but little of Socialism”. But as a result of the 1894 Pullman strike he found himself in Cook County jail in Chicago. Here he tells us, “books and pamphlets and letters from Socialists came by every mail”. (One can see why the Tories have been keen to ban prisoners from receiving books.)

He read Blatchford and Bellamy’s Looking Backward (which provoked Morris’s News From Nowhere), and also Kautsky, who introduced him to Marxist theory. Perhaps not the ideal reading list one might have chosen, but it transformed Debs into a Socialist campaigner and propagandist.

At the same time his trade-union experience had shown Debs that craft unionism was obsolete and needed to be replaced by industrial unionism. This meant in his own occupation “organizing, not the firemen merely, but the brakemen, switchmen, telegraphers, shop men, track hands, all of them in fact”.  But it was also a question as to whether trade unions should simply bargain within the existing order, or seek to overthrow it:

“While the craft unionist still talks about a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, implying that the economic interests of the capitalist and the worker can be harmonized upon a basis of equal justice to both, the Industrial Worker says, “I want all I produce by my labor.”

Debs was thus sympathetic to the Industrial Workers of the World when it was founded in 1905; but he was hostile to sabotage and “direct action”, and preferred to direct his energies to the Socialist Party. He certainly did not share the hostility to women sometimes attributed to syndicalists; he insisted on “the absolute equality of the sexes”.

Likewise he was well ahead of his time in stressing the importance of total opposition to racial discrimination:
“The race question as we come to understand it, resolves itself into a class question. At bottom it is a class question. The capitalist cares no more about the white worker than about the black worker. What he wants is labour power – cheap labour power; he does not care whether it is wrapped up in a white skin or a black skin.”

Syndicalism was also often marked by a distrust of intellectuals in the labour movement. On this question too Debs’s position was clear. He did not believe intellectuals should play a leading role in the movement. “I believe that as a rule party officials and representatives, and candidates for public office, should be chosen from the ranks of the workers. The intellectuals in office should be the exceptions, as they are in the rank and file.”

But he was scathing about any possibility that legitimate caution about intellectuals should spread into anti-intellectualism in the movement:

“The increasing cry …. that only the proletariat is revolutionary and that ‘intellectuals’ are middle class reactionaries is an insult to the movement, many of whose staunchest supporters are of the latter type. Moreover, it would imply by its sneering allusion to the ‘intellectuals’ that the proletariat are a brainless rabble, revelling in their base degeneracy and scorning intellectual enlightenment.”

Debs opposed World War I, and directed his passionate contempt towards its apologists. Notably he condemned the role of the churches in backing the war:

“The army chaplain is one of the interesting by-products of war. He is a shining example of Christian patriotism – praying for war, shouting for war, thirsting for blood and “ministering” to the soldier boy with his legs shot off, being careful always to keep his own legs out of the shrapnel zone.

“How many army chaplains were killed in the late world war? There was an army of them, but if any had their eyes shot out I have not heard of them.”

Not surprisingly Debs welcomed the Russian Revolution, declaring: “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it.”

What impresses above all in Debs is not just the insights, but the passion and sheer hatred with which those insights are expressed.  He dismissed with contempt the claim that capitalists have “superior brains”:

“It is true that they have the brains that indicates the cunning of the fox, the wolf, but as for brains denoting real intelligence and the measure of intellectual capacity they are the most woefully ignorant people on earth. Give me a hundred capitalists and let me ask them a dozen simple questions about the history of their own country and I will prove to you that they are as ignorant and unlettered as any you may find in the so-called lower class.”

If a shadow cabinet member used such language today they would be promptly sacked. But all the same Debs was right.

Ian Birchall

From LSHG Newsletter #54 (January 2015). 

A reply to Sheila Cohen by Ian Birchall on Tony Cliff

From LSHG Newsletter # 54 (January 2015)
Class Struggle and Socialism

A reply to Sheila Cohen by Ian Birchall

I am most grateful to Sheila Cohen for the extended review she has written of my biography[i] of Tony Cliff.  That she has devoted so much space to the topic[ii] is a clear indication that she recognises the significance of Cliff’s life and work, and the influence it has had on one of the main currents of the British far left. She has focussed in particular on certain themes in Cliff’s work confronting the relationship between political organisation and working-class struggle. Though she expresses major criticisms of Cliff’s thinking and organisational practice, her articles are an important contribution to an ongoing debate about strategy for the left. My reply, I hope, will not be couched in defensive terms, but will try to contribute constructively to that debate.

I must say that I was therefore a little disappointed at the tone of some her remarks, notably the rather sneering manner in which she refers to Cliff as “our hero” and myself as “the faithful Birchall”.  Irony is like salt; a little enhances flavour, but too much can make a dish inedible. I shall try (perhaps not always successfully) to avoid imitating this tone, and to respond positively to the arguments put forward. And whereas I am referred to in distant/academic style as “Birchall”, I shall call her Sheila, since I know her.

I should add as a preliminary that I believe most people read biographies because they are interested in the subject matter, not in the author. I saw my job as being to establish the facts about Cliff’s life and work, and to draw out the main substance of his political arguments. I don’t think readers would expect me to make constant obtrusive interventions to express my own opinions.

Nonetheless various reviewers have commented on the fact that my account is at times quite critical – Nigel Harris, for example calls it an “unflinching exposure”.[iii] I might add that when I submitted a first draft I confidently expected to be asked to tone down some of the more critical remarks. It is entirely to the credit of the SWP Central Committee (and of Alex Callinicos in particular) that they did not ask me to withdraw any of my criticisms.

Sheila’s main theme is that Cliff and the SWP became increasingly obsessed with “party-building”, and that as a result the organisation “began to depart from its relatively healthy, non-sectarian and workplace-oriented approach”. This point, repeated several times, takes us to the very heart of the question; as she quite rightly observes, “for some of us at least the issue of how socialists relate to the working-class vanguard remains as central as ever”.

The question is clearly posed, and it is one which remains of central relevance for all socialist activists. However, I am less than convinced that Sheila provides an adequate answer to the question.

Socialists welcome and encourage self-organisation and resistance by all oppressed groups in society – ethnic minorities, nationalities, women, gays etc., etc. But socialists, and especially those in the Marxist tradition, have always attributed a particularly important role to the working class. It is the value created by workers’ labour  which enables capitalism to exist as a system; workers engaged in collective production offer the potential for an alternative organisation of society. Hence, for example, Lenin argued that “Every strike brings thoughts of socialism very forcibly to the worker’s mind.”[iv]

I don’t think Sheila disagrees with this. But having read her review and various of her other writings, I am still genuinely confused as to how she perceives the question of socialist organisation. There are at least four possible answers:

i.       There is no need for socialist organisation. Working people will carry through the transition to a socialist society through their own spontaneous self-activity.

ii.      Trade-union organisation will carry through the transition to socialism as well as engaging in the day-to-day defence of workers’ conditions. This is of course the classic syndicalist position whose weaknesses were revealed by the First World War, but which still survives.

iii.     A socialist organisation will be necessary at some point in the future, but we’ve a long way to go before we get there, so we don’t need to discuss it at present.

iv.     We do need a socialist organisation, but it needs to be radically different from the model offered by the SWP.
Sheila repeatedly accuses the SWP of “sectarianism” and suggests that this flows from Cliff’s preoccupation with party-building. Now I would certainly not want to claim that there are no examples of SWP members acting in a stupid or sectarian fashion – I am sure there are plenty. But I would not accept that such sectarianism was systematic. I think the SWP’s relative success (relative within the context of the far left) in recruitment in the 1970s and 1980s could not be explained if the SWP was consistently sectarian. When I used to travel around the country speaking to SWP branches I would frequently ask members I met when and why they had joined. Frequently the answer was a reference to a major campaign – ANL, miners’ strike, poll tax etc. People had become involved in struggles against racism and war, and for workers’ rights – and had been attracted to the SWP because they were perceived as among the best fighters in the campaign. People do not join an organisation whose only concern is to build itself.

I should add that my argument here refers to the period covered in my book, up to Cliff’s death in 2000.  I am no longer a member of the SWP and I do not want to comment here on the post-Cliff SWP. I have written another piece on this question, which anyone interested can consult at

In similar vein Sheila writes: “In 1995, again at Marxism, Cliff backflipped once more; lecturing on Engels, he ‘drew out’ what Birchall describes as a ‘fundamental point’, viz that ‘the whole history of Marxism was about learning from the working class.’ Even more bizarrely, he ended his speech by fulminating against what had in effect been his own long-term practice: ‘I can never understand the idea…that the party teaches the class. What the hell is the party?...The dialectic means there is a two-way street…’

Here I think she is plain wrong. The idea that the revolutionary party must learn from the class and generalise from the experience of workers is a constant theme in Cliff’s work, from the early essay on Substitutionism through the biography of Lenin up to the last articles in Marxism at the Millennium.[v]  I could illustrate with quotations, but it might be wearisome. A careful reading of my book would prove the point.

Likewise Sheila repeatedly mocks Cliff’s “obsession with numbers”. But she fails to notice or comment on the explanation I give. (pp.84, 413) Cliff’s experience in the 1930s and the whole experience of the left in this period illustrates the simple fact that the best political programme in the world is useless if it does not have the social forces to fight for its implementation. To take the most obvious and tragic example:  Trotsky was absolutely correct to argue that a united front could have prevented Hitler’s accession to power. But the tiny forces of the Trotskyists were quite unable to do more than to put this forward as a propaganda point. The consequences we all know. 

Cliff’s “obsessions” were no more than a recognition that in order to achieve their goals socialists need to be organised. That imperative runs through all his writing, speaking and political activity, and explains why he inspired so many to commit themselves to the socialist cause. Of course his judgments may have been mistaken and they deserve to be subjected to rigorous criticism.  But I remain unconvinced that Sheila offers any viable alternative.

Thus she tells us that “Cliff appears to have lost, or at least severely damaged, his antennae regarding the significance of workplace struggle: ‘When a German comrade told how they had set up a regular informal meeting for contacts from a factory, Cliff…shouted that most people were attracted by revolutionary ideas, not by discussion about the workplace’ (p. 407). Hmmm – no dialectical relationship between the two, then?”

Sheila’s indignation here seems unnecessary. Most workplaces are not in a state of permanent confrontation. Workers have grievances, and often they will elect militants to represent them because they want someone who will stand up to management. But when a strike is not imminent, discussion of these issues can easily become tedious. All Cliff was saying is that to maintain a workplace discussion group, exciting and interesting ideas are necessary, and generally these will not be generated inside the workplace. As far the “dialectical relationship” between the workplace and general politics, I think Cliff understood it far better than Sheila, for whom the latter seems to remain something extremely vague.

Likewise Sheila points to what she calls “the central paradox typifying so many ‘revolutionaries’; that the class, and the society, closest (at least potentially) to their own daily experience appears as the least significant. Like the US SWP member disseminating pro-Cuban propaganda in the aisles of an assembly plant, the more exotic and less relevant the more worthy of concentrated ‘revolutionary’ effort.”

Now I have no particular sympathy for the  US SWP (no connection to the British SWP) and I don’t share their enthusiasm for the Cuban regime. But if it were indeed true that a socialist society were being built in a neighbouring country, might that not be very “relevant” to US workers as showing an alternative to the alienation and exploitation they suffered? Does Sheila think British (or French, German, Italian, American, etc.) workers in the early 1920s who were fired with enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution should have disregarded such an “exotic” topic in favour of an exclusive preoccupation with their own wages and conditions? Was Eugene Debs capitulating to “exoticism” when he declared ““From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet I am Bolshevik, and proud of it”? Should he have forgotten Russia and concentrated on workers’ “daily experience”? I think it is Sheila who is in danger of forgetting the “dialectical relationship” between workplace struggle and general politics.

Sheila refers to the major dispute inside the International Socialists in 1975, where “The issue was the refusal of IS engineering union members to put forward an IS candidate for a union post, instead supporting the existing Broad Left (aka CP) candidate. Rather than understanding and commending these activists’ informed choice, IS expelled the dissident engineering workers.”

Now as I make clear in my book, I think there is reason to believe that this affair was handled badly and that the losses could have been minimised. Nonetheless it is clear that Sheila has not read my account carefully enough. (pp. 403-4) This was not simply a dispute between the “leadership” and “IS engineering union members”. It was a disagreement between different groups of engineering workers in IS, some of whom supported the Broad Left candidate, and some of whom (in fact the majority at a fraction meeting) backed an independent candidate. Perhaps if she thinks about it a little, instead of trying to score instant points, Sheila will realise there is a real problem here. Different activists were making different choices, presumably “informed” in all cases.

So what should happen? Should different members have been allowed to go their own way, arguing different positions? In which case it would have been very difficult for other people to work with IS, since they would never know what the organisation’s policy was. Or should comrades have agreed to accept a majority position, so that IS could have a consistent stance in the eyes of the world?  I’m quite happy to accept the argument that much greater efforts should have been made to achieve a compromise, but there was a real problem, and I don’t think Sheila enhances her credibility by refusing to recognise this.
And when Sheila refers to “the SWP’s rapid progression to a form of Leninist Stalinism” it is hard to take her seriously. The phrase “Leninist Stalinism” seems to imply a continuity between Lenin and Stalin, but that is another argument. It is certainly possible to argue that internal democracy in the IS/SWP has sometimes been deficient, with the organisation prioritising intervention in the external world over adequate internal discussion. But the term “Stalinism” takes us into a different universe. It trivialises the very real historical crimes of Stalinism, and suggests that Sheila has very little understanding of how Stalinist parties used to operate. That the “demonstration” of this was a debate (in public) at Marxism, in which Cliff spoke against the allegedly “Stalinist” position (pp. 493-4) merely underlines the fragility of Sheila’s argument.

Sheila tells us that “the mid-1970s were the beginning of the end, if not of workplace struggle then of IS’s primary orientation towards that dynamic”.  It was hardly the fault of the growing numbers of unemployed that they no longer had a workplace to orient to. Young jobless, potentially the most militant, had often never been employed and therefore were not eligible for union membership. Yet Sheila deplores the setting up of the “Right to Work Campaign – addressed at unemployed workers rather than employed activists - complete with a Right to Work march, mass rallies and all.”

In fact Sheila doesn’t seem to have read my account of the Right to Work Campaign. It was not addressed solely at unemployed workers, but aimed to achieve unity between employed and unemployed. The first Right to Work march in spring 1976 was sponsored by over four hundred trade-union bodies, including seventy shop stewards’ committees. Marchers joined picket lines and even entered factories where sackings were being threatened in order to encourage workers to fight. This was very different from the “hunger marches” of the twenties and thirties,  which had great difficulty in making contact with employed trade unionists, and scarcely ever entered workplaces. (p. 409)

Likewise Sheila dismisses the Anti-Nazi League: “Worse was to come – or at least more moves away from any primary class orientation.” Presumably Sheila recognises that racism is a class issue, and that racism is a fearsome obstacle to united action by workers. The ANL was not a move away from class; indeed, a lot of the ANL’s activity was aimed at winning support in labour movement organisations. But it also involved a recognition of something that Sheila, with her relentless focus on the workplace, seems to forget: workers (happily) do not spend their entire lives in the workplace, they also watch sport and listen to music, among many other activities. Hence an imaginative use of cultural struggle could be more effective than handing out dreary anti-racist leaflets at the factory gate.

Sheila describes both the ANL and Rock Against Racism as “popular fronts”.  I was a little surprised by this, as this particular criticism generally emanates from the more dogmatic groupings of orthodox Trotskyists, and whatever else Sheila may be, I had never thought of her as an orthodox Trotskyist. In any case she seems to have missed my footnote (p. 421), where I make the historical point that “The Popular Fronts of the 1930s involved alliances with the political organisations of the bourgeoisie. The ANL contained people from a range of political positions, including some who were undoubtedly wealthy, but not the direct political representatives of the ruling class.”

Sheila also notes the involvement of Neil Kinnock in the ANL. She simply comments “!?!”. I’m not quite sure what the political significance of these punctuation marks is, but it seems to indicate disapproval. In 1978 Kinnock was a young MP on the left of the Labour Party; he was also a fluent and well-liked speaker. His many betrayals were still far in the future, as was his oratorical incoherence, which grew ever more disastrous as the responsibility of imagined future office weighed more heavily on his shoulders.

On what possible grounds could he have been excluded from the ANL? And if he had been, what message would it have sent to the thousands of left-wing Labour supporters who could be potentially involved in the ANL?  Once again Sheila has allowed the temptation of point-scoring to prevent her from thinking through the logic of her arguments.

Sheila’s other main complaint against the SWP, and Cliff in particular, concerns the “downturn” in struggle which Cliff started to analyse in 1978-79. She does not, apparently, disagree that there has been a downturn – indeed the decline in the level of industrial struggle since the 1970s is self-evident, and the “downturn” has lasted very much longer than Cliff ever expected. Her disagreement is more specific, and concerns mainly the analysis of the late seventies.

Thus she tells us that Cliff’s analysis is contradicted by “the biggest strike revolt (in terms of working days lost) of British history – the Winter of Discontent”, and even refers to “the quasi-revolutionary potential of the Winter”.

Now I am not an expert in industrial relations, but I have always understood that crude figures for days lost (or as Cliff always insisted “gained”) in strike action are not the most reliable indicator of the level of struggle. A quick victory involves far fewer strike-days than a long drawn-out defeat. (Miners were on strike for far more days in 1984-85 than in 1972 or 1974 – but they lost.)

In fact Cliff’s analysis of the downturn was set out in his article “The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years”. Sheila does not appear to have consulted this, although it is available online.[vi] As I summarise in my book, Cliff did not confine himself to mere statistical arguments:

“…he allowed workers to speak for themselves. The article contained lengthy extracts from accounts written by militants and activists in the SWP …. Though …. he used statistics and graphs to support his argument, he also made a devastating critique of the inadequacy of official statistics. For example, these did not record occupations and political strikes, and did not distinguish between strikes and lockouts. He noted that there was ‘often an inverse relation between growth of union membership and the strength of shop organisation’. He drew on research by Dave Beecham on over 1,000 disputes in the period from 1977 to 1979. But his use of accounts by individual workers enabled him to give a picture of the total experience of workers.” (pp. 443-4)

A debate is always most informative and useful if one takes on one’s opponents at their strongest point rather than their weakest. If Sheila has taken on Cliff’s arguments in “The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years” it would have been much more illuminating than the simple scoring of some rather flippant points.

Thus Sheila claims that the SWP “leadership seemed to be blind to” the potential of the Winter of Discontent.  Again she fails to justify this claim. She might well have done a little research, examining the issues of Socialist Worker for early 1979. Failing that she might at least have read my account of the period, which, like so much else in the book she is supposedly reviewing, she seems to have skipped:

During the “winter of discontent” Socialist Worker had hailed the revival of struggle. A front-page headline proclaimed that “1979 is the year to win”,[vii] and an editorial stated that “we are witnessing the beginning of a new period of confrontation between workers and government, and between pickets and the law, of the sort that took place between 1969 and 1974,” though recognising that “there are important limitations to the present movement”.[viii]  (p. 441, see also pp. 435-6)

When Sheila refers to “the ‘dual power’ nature of some sections of this nationwide strike wave” I think she is living in a fantasy world, but there were certainly elements of workers’ control which emerged in the strikes. I quote Paul Foot’s comments on this. (p. 436)  (Interestingly Sheila is derisive about my claim that “unofficial strikes were symptoms of an aspiration for workers’ control” in an earlier period. (p. 261) )

However it is hard to endorse Sheila’s claim that “trade unionism was at a historic high in 1979-80”.  The contrast with the events of 1972-1974 is visible. In 1972 over ten thousand engineering workers joined miners at the Saltley picket and the government was left with no alternative but to surrender. Later that year mass action in support of the five jailed dockers forced a head-on confrontation with the law courts and the government, and again the state had to back off. (I remember seeing the release of the dockers on the television in a pub in Hull – never in my entire life before or since have I had quite that sense that “our side” had won a victory.) And in 1974 strike action by miners led to the fall of Heath’s Tory government. Unfortunately nothing in 1979 revealed a similar level of struggle.

Sheila quotes Rosa Luxemburg as arguing that working-class consciousness “does not proceed in a beautiful straight line but in a lightning-like zigzag”.  Absolutely. But if our aim is, as Sheila correctly recommends, “noting and building on existing working-class struggles”, then we cannot sit back and watch the lightning; we have to attempt to estimate how consciousness will develop, so that we can relate to it. And that means attempting to predict. Sheila repeatedly mocks Cliff’s predictions, but unfortunately any form of action requires prediction. The important thing is to be flexible, so that when predictions prove inaccurate, we are able to correct our tactics as quickly as possible.
So Sheila notes sardonically that in 1975 “IS insisted on ‘pessimism of the will’; a 1975 conference document argued gloomily, ‘We underestimated the speed with which the economic crisis would drive workers to draw political conclusions’.” (Actually the document stated “overestimated”, not “underestimated” – otherwise Sheila’s observation would not make sense. (p.376) ) But clearly this was an adjustment of perspective based on a recognition of the uneven development of consciousness. Why Sheila finds this so lamentable, and what her alternative (short of always being right in the first place) would have been are not at all clear to me.

And Sheila does a serious injustice to Steve Jefferys. She alleges that he “resigned as industrial organiser, not in protest against the strategic confusion but because ‘The decay of working-class organisation and the shift to the right in the trade union movement has gone so far that all we can do in this period is to make socialist propaganda as actively as possible’.” In her haste to score a point she has skipped a line; this was emphatically not Jefferys’s view, but rather the position he (somewhat polemically) attributed to Cliff, and with which he disagreed sharply. (p. 437)

Finally, what is the alternative? What is the better path that Cliff and the SWP should have followed? With true proselytising zeal Sheila leaves us in no doubt – repeatedly she invokes the American publication and organisation Labor Notes. Now I know relatively little about Labor Notes. As Sheila points out, it is not in the index of my book –  because I saw my subject as being what Cliff said and did, not what he ought to have done.

I have tried to remedy my culpable ignorance by consulting the Labor Notes website.[ix] I have also read a fascinating interview with Kim Moody[x] (this was published in International Socialism, the journal of the SWP, perhaps suggesting that the SWP is not quite so sectarian as Sheila claims). Kim gives a wide-ranging account of industrial and political struggles in the United States.  I get the impression that Kim is rather less of an “unrepentant workerist” than Sheila. Thus he tells how Labor Notes supported the Nader presidential campaign in 2000, and attempted to relate to the effort in the 1990s to set up a “Labor Party”. He explains how environmentalism,  abortion and gay marriage have become important issues for trade unionists.

Obviously the work being done by Labor Notes is valuable and is to be commended. But I am left with a problem. The Labor Notes website gives us this account of the organisation’s activities:

“Labor Notes is a media and organizing project that has been the voice of union activists who want to put the movement back in the Labor movement since 1979.

“Through our magazine, website, books, conferences and workshops, we promote organizing, aggressive strategies to fight concessions, alliances with workers’ centers, and unions that are run by their members.

“Labor Notes is also a network of rank-and-file members, local union leaders, and Labor activists who know the Labor movement is worth fighting for. We encourage connections between workers in different unions, workers centers, communities, industries, and countries to strengthen the movement—from the bottom up.

“That movement is needed because workers are being hit hard by their employers. We have lower real wages, less job security, and smaller, weaker unions than our mothers and fathers did.
“With more than 30 years of movement building behind us, Labor Notes exists as a resource for leaders and union members who want to combat these trends and chart a new course for the Labor movement.”

Now these are thoroughly commendable activities, and any socialist should be happy to support them. But there is a substantial gap in this statement of aims. While it unambiguously sides with workers against employers, it does not actually challenge the property relations which lie behind the conflict. It would be quite possible to support Labor Notes while having no objection to the existing ownership of the means of production, but simply thinking workers should have a bigger share of the cake. In short the word socialism is conspicuous by its absence.

Kim confirms this in the interview: “Most of us started with the International Socialists at that time, but the idea was that it would not be controlled by the organisation and that it would be independent, which is what by and large has happened, although the staff tend to be socialist for the most part.”

Now I am not trying to score points here. Because of the cold war experience communism, Marxism and socialism have been completely marginalised in the United States, and I appreciate that using the term might be seen as a barrier in some circumstances. And I am sure the Labor Notes staff are totally honest; if they get into discussion with trade-union activists they don’t conceal their personal commitment to socialism. (Failure to “come out” stores up trouble, leaving the possibility of a witch-hunt at a later date.) But it still leaves the question of whether an explicitly socialist organisation is needed. If socialism is ever to take root in the United States again, then surely explicitly socialist propaganda is required. In this connection I would mention the excellent work being done by Haymarket Books. And of course the applicability of the Labor Notes  model to Britain, where the socialist tradition has been rather more tenacious, is questionable.

One of the rare points at which Sheila commends Cliff is for his advocacy, in 1972, of “a rank and file strategy” (p. 333). Cliff defined this in terms of  a “cog wheel” between revolutionaries and the working class, proposing “the organisation of militants in different unions and industries who work together around specific issues…wider than those affecting a small group of workers in one place of work [but] not going as far as to aim at a complete emancipation of the working class…”

And Sheila comments: “Common sense at last”. But Cliff’s cog-wheel metaphor (borrowed from Trotsky) requires three cogs – the working class, the rank-and-file movement, and the socialist organisation. (p. 334). If we adopt the Labor Notes model, where is the third wheel?

For Tony Cliff socialism was paramount. Strategies and forms of organisation might vary according to objective circumstances, the state of the movement and the balance of class forces. But everything was subordinated to the struggle for socialism. Perhaps he made seriousmisjudgements at various points in his life. In my book I attempted to set out his changing positions so that they can be subjected to serious criticism and so we can learn from our mistakes.

I would add another consideration relating to our present situation. In a period where the level of struggle is lamentably low, I don’t think it is the case, as Lenin believed at one time, that workers first develop “trade-union consciousness”, and then have to move beyond that to an acceptance of socialism. On the contrary, often the only people willing to do the generally tedious and unglamorous work of keeping trade-union organisation alive are those who are already motivated by a socialist commitment. This is, by the way, clearly the case with Labor Notes, where Kim Moody was an active socialist over two decades before becoming involved in the establishment of Labor Notes. As a result I would argue, following Cliff (and William Morris) that our priority at the present time is to make socialists.

Despite my belief that many of her criticisms are seriously misguided, I welcome Sheila’s critique. I very much agree with Cliff’s formulation that “ideas are like a river and a river is formed from lots of streams”. (p. 529).  When – if – the working class reawakens, then I’m sure both the SWP and Labor Notes, as well as many other tendencies, will have made their contribution to the new movement that emerges..

Until then, perhaps a little modesty is called for. None of us have made the revolution, none of us have even managed to block the continuing onslaught against working-class organisation and living standards. We should aim for fraternal exchange of views and experience rather than the defence of entrenched positions. I’m sure I have much to learn from Labor Notes; I hope Sheila is prepared to return the compliment and study Cliff’s work a little more carefully.

Ian Birchall

[i] I Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Tine, London, 2011. All page references given in brackets in the text.
[vii] Socialist Worker, 6 January 1979.
[viii] Socialist Worker, 3 February 1979.