Saturday, 19 September 1987


Paul Anderson, review of The Far Left in British Politics by John Callaghan (Blackwell, £7.95), Tribune, 18 September 1987

John Callaghan has written an interesting but flawed left critique of one of the longest-running farces in British left politics: Leninism.

Callaghan begins with the sorry tale of British communism. He relates how, almost from its very beginning, the Communist Party of Great Britain was handicapped by its slavish subordination to the Mosrcow line. Until the Popular Front period of the thirties, Comintern dogma rendered it incapable of building a stable membership base; and the moderate successes of the Popular Front were soon dashed by the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.

The CP rebuilt itself after 1941 on the back of a revived Popular Frontism based on the wartime alliance of Britain and the Soviet Union; but since 1945 its story has been one of slow, inexorable decline.

With the onset of the Cold War, Stalin tore the party away from the Popular Front tactic; then in 1956 the CP effectively collapsed in the wake of the Nikita Kruschev's "secret speech" at the 20th Soviet party congress and the "socialist" suppression of a workers' revolution in Hungary. After that, the party maintained an influence in some trade unions, but even this waned with the onset of recession in the seventies.

In the very recent past, the "Eurocommunists" around Marxism Today have gone a little way towards transcending the legacy of Leninism; but as Callaghan puts it: "The innovators may simply have become masters of a sinking ship." I can't help but think that I don't care if they have: Marxism Today's revisionism is too tepid to enthuse about. Not that any of the other currents of British Leninism deserve a better fate. The most important and influential of these is Trotskyism — "57 varieties, all unfit for human consumption", as the libertarians said in the sixties.

Callaghan gives a reasonably competent account of the split-ridden origins and history of four of the 57: the Healyites (otherwise known as the Socialist Labour League or Workers' Revolutionary Party, proprietor Gerry Healy); the Cliffites (otherwise known as the International Socialists or Socialist Workers' Party, proprietor Tony Cliff); the Grantites (otherwise known as the Revolutionary Socialist League or Militant, proprietor Ted Grant); and the group that started out as. the International Marxist Group and became the Socialist League (which, unlike the others, doesn't really have a proprietor).

There are other Trots, of course; and Callaghan really should have said a little more about the Workers' Socialist League (which split from the Healyites in 1974 and which, through Socialist Organiser, had a significant impact on Labour left politics in London and student circles) and the Revolutionary Communist Party (the product of a mid-seventies split in IS, with a peculiarly barmy hyper-activism that seems to be selling well today among disaffected university-educated proto-yuppies).

The near-absence of these two gangs from Callaghan's account, along with his failure to note the continued presence of an influential Healyite entrist presence in the Labour Party (most obviously on the pre-1985 Lambeth Council), makes this book less comprehensive than it could be.

A more serious fault is that Callaghan does not give any evidence of understanding the non-Leninist far Left (local, "alternative", libertarian, feminist, green and anti-militarist) that has initiated many of the fundamental changes that the British left political agenda has seen in the past 30 years.

A trivial illustration of this is that Callaghan describes the libertarian Marxist group Big Flame as "Trotskyist" (which it never was). More important, he ignores the influence of feminism and the gay movement except insofar as they caused ructions in the IMG and SWP (and were condemned by the WRP and Militant). He does little more than gesture towards the ways in which the non-Leninist far left contributed to the peace movement in the sixties and again in the eighties. He has nothing to say about the impact of the new left in the late fifties and early sixties, the alternative press of the sixties and seventies, the squatting movement, or the development of a radical ecological sensibility from the mid-seventies.

It is easy to explain these omissions: the non-Leninist far left is rather more difficult to follow than the Leninist sects simply because of its heterogeneity. To explain is not to excuse, however. The bizarre political turns of the Leninists make sense only when it is recognised that the CP and the 57 varieties were competing with other forms of (no-less-radical) political expression. Callaghan does give hints that he knows this, but hints are not enough. The history of the far left in Britain (and its quite astonishingly deep influence on the left as a whole) remains to be written.