Notes towards the recovery of the tradition of the British dissident left

Here are three completely (well, not completely) unrelated items from Dave Renton’s excellent “lives; running” blog.

1. What Engels’ supporters did next

This is a nice post on the dissidents in Henry Hyndman’s SDF who broke with the authoritarian social democratic cult (it’s hard not to read the SWP of the last decade or two into Renton’s description) to experiment with a more supple, democratic, libertarian socialism in the Socialist League, in particular Frederick Engels, William Morris, Tom Maguire and Eleanor Marx. The SL, for a while, included both Marxists and anarchists, and represents an important alternative possibility, a path not travelled, in the history of the left. It gave birth (along with Tom Mann, who left the SDF for the ILP) to both the centrist Independent Labour Party and the British anarchist movement.

Renton is harsh on the SL anarchists, over-emphasising their affinity for terror. He talks about the ex-SLers that went into “anarchism of the deed” without mentioning that many of them were actually crucially involved in mainstream anarchism’s turn from insurrectionist violence to syndicalism (again along with Tom Mann) and anarchist-communism. It is also interesting that the ILP, despite being to the right of the SL, maintained good contacts with anarchists on and off; Keir Hardie fought to keep anarchism within the newly formed Second International, for example, and Orwell’s connection with the anarchists represents the coming back together of the two main traditions of the Socialist League.

Finally, I think Renton is overplays the description of the ILP as bureaucratic, reformist and parliamentary. In fact, I think, the ILP kept alive the spirit of Morris – democratic, utopian, anti-parliamentary, critical – within the heart of a labour movement otherwise burdened by the twin curses of reformist social democracy and Stalinism that were the SDF’s bequest.

(If you  are interested in this, see also Frank Kitz’s Reflections, including recollections of Morris in the East End, and the late Terry Liddle on the heritage of William Morris.)

Hogsbjergcover2. A new life of CLR James

This is a notice about Christian Hogsbjerg’s new biography of Nello.

It is a compelling book, of the right length for its material (280 pages), which sheds significant light on three aspects of James’ development, first his debt to revolutionary Nelson, second the impact of cricket on his Marxism, third, his (re)discovery of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

James himself stated repeatedly that he learned his revolutionary politics among the Lancashire weavers, and in particular in the small town of Nelson, to which he travelled in 1932 as Learie Constantine’s ghost-writer. Hogsbjerg tracks down details of James’s career as a visiting member of Nelson’s second XI. He finds examples of Nelson being described as a Little Moscow in the 1920s. He locates the source of James’ copy of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution – loaned by a fellow bibliophile Fred Cartmell. He vividly portrays the almost insurrectionary 1931-2 “More Looms” cotton strike, the immediate prelude to James’ arrival in the town. And he finds notes of James’ meetings for the ILP branch in Nelson.

The post-colonial version of James is often these days separated from the Trotskyist version of James, so it is good to see them brought together here. And the story of James encountering dissident Marxism within a milltown ILP branch belies the dismissive version of the ILP in Renton’s Engels post above.

3. Love is run on fascist lines

sedge

This is a poem by Peter Sedgwick, written in 1956, the year he made the same move as William Morris, leaving the Communist Party (the inheritor of the SDF tradition) to join Tony Cliff’s Socialist Review group, as Stalin’s tanks rolled into Budapest applauded by the CPGB’s loyalists. The SR group, which became the International Socialists (IS), for a while represented something of the same spirit as Morris’ Socialist League, heavily influenced by the late ILP (the term “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was actually coined by the ILP, although the IS/SWP would claim it as their own). Sedgwick left the IS in 1976 when it became the SWP, i.e. when it took on the role of the SDF (with Cliff as its Hyndman); hindsight shows how right he was.

Anyway, read the poem.

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From the archive of struggle, no.77: Encounter

Taking a break from my well-behind trawl through MIA, UNZ, a website of free periodicals, has uploaded loads of back issues of Encounter. For those of you who think I’m a neocon, my pleasure at this will be further evidence.  For those of you less well versed in all of this, here’s Wikipedia:

Encounter was a literary magazine, founded in 1953 by poet Stephen Spender and journalist Irving Kristol. The magazine ceased publication in 1991. Published in the United Kingdom, it was a largely Anglo-American intellectual and cultural journal, originally associated with the anti-Stalinist left. The magazine received covert funding from the Central Intelligence Agency, after the CIA and MI6 discussed the founding of an “Anglo-American left-of-centre publication” intended to counter the idea of cold war neutralism. The magazine was rarely critical of American foreign policy, but beyond this editors had considerable publishing freedom

Here’s just some of the material in the amazing first issue from 1953:

Interesting global range, and a larger number of female contributors than many other cultural journals of the day (though still not many).

Here are other things that jumped out at me. From 1953:

From 1954:

From 1955:

Then, fast forwarding to the late 1960s, the mood has not changed one bit, with just the slightest sense of the cultural revolution at large in the world. Here’s some stuff from 1967:

Other periodicals available from the site:

1930s+

1950s+

1960s+

1970s+

Stalin in Clerkenwell Green

From Eric Lee:

This article appears in Solidarity.  Feel free to add your comments below.


It was a beautiful May morning, one of the first warm and sunny days we’ve had all year. In Clerkenwell Green, hundreds of people were assembling for the annual official London May Day march. Many of you will not have been there — in fact there were very few trade unionists at all on this year’s march.

So let me tell you who was there — the twentieth century’s greatest serial killer, Joseph Stalin. Stalin was on several banners, and not only his image side by side with Lenin and Mao, but huge banners just with his picture alone — and quotations from his writings.

As I marched along with some trade union leaders and a traditional brass band, I could not help feeling ashamed at what the march would have looked like to onlookers, of whom there were many along the route. Ashamed and disgusted.

It’s disgusting because holding aloft iconic images of Stalin at a trade union march shows a complete lack of moral judgement. Seventy years ago, it may have been understandable — the second world war was raging, the Soviet leadership had not yet acknowledged Stalin’s crimes. But after 1956, anyone who still believed that Stalin was a great revolutionary leader was delusional. (more…)

The anti-Stalinist left: some notes from the literature. Part I: The French anti-Stalinist left

This post is the first in a short series that include extracts from the academic literature on the anti-Stalinist left. Part of the purpose of the series is to argue that there has been a strong a cohesive entity that could be called “the anti-Stalinist left”, a position I take in opposition to those who would simply say that some leftists have happened to be anti-Stalinist. Hence, it is not intended to form some kind of coherent narrative, but rather gathers together evidence from the literature for the existence of such an entity.

THE FRENCH ANTI-STALINIST LEFT

In this edition, we focus on the anti-Stalinist intellectuals associated with the surrealist movement, including Andre Breton and Georges Bataille.  (more…)

All The Right Enemies

From Slack Bastard:

The death of Grods has brought new life to the blogosphere, and A Fresh Start in August. I’d tell Bron to cheer up but the definition of a pessimist is someone who hasn’t yet heard the bad news. Instead, I’ll simply refer to the title of Dorothy Gallagher’s biography of Carlo Tresca: All the Right Enemies.

Often described as a “freelance revolutionary,” Carlo Tresca (1879-1943) was one of the most compelling and colorful figures of the American left prior to World War II. A newspaper editor, labor organizer, civil libertarian, anarchist, anti-Fascist and anti-Stalinist, Tresca had absorbed his fiery socialist principles and had been active as a trade-unionist and editor in his native Abruzzi before immigrating to the United States in 1904.

After joining the International Workers of the World (IWW) in 1912, Tresca was involved in a number of strikes, including the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike (1912), the New York City hotel workers’ strike (1913), the Paterson silk strike (1913), and the Mesabi Range, Minnesota, miners’ strike (1916). He edited a newspaper called L’Avvenire (The Future), first in Pennsylvania and, from 1913, in New York City. Its successor, from 1917, was Il Martello (The Hammer). Tresca’s uncompromising anarcho-syndicalist views resulted in frequent clashes with local and federal authorities, and repeated confiscation of his publications.

He devoted considerable energy to campaigning on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s and also became preoccupied with the struggle against fascism. Pursued by the U. S. government at the behest of the Mussolini regime, he survived several assassination attempts by fascist supporters. The Spanish Civil War intensified his anti-Communist activity and propaganda, earning him more enemies on the American left.

On the evening of January 11, 1943, Tresca was shot to death on the sidewalk in front of his office at Fifth Avenue and 15th Street. Over the years there has been a lively debate about which of Tresca’s many enemies might have been behind the murder. His murder was never prosecuted.

In the same post, Slack Bastard notes:

Poumista, as ever, offers a truly superb neat-o experience dining on radical history… although Poumista’s blogroll suffers from one, rather obvious, lapse.

I’ll correct that ommission when I finish this post.

Also in the same post, this link:

ZAPAGRINGO is a blog by RJ Maccani, who sounds like a righteous d00d. His (?) blog documents the continuing relevance and global effects of the Zapatista uprising of 1994, a revolt by some of the poorest, most oppressed sectors of Mexican society, whose struggles continue and whose determination continues to inspire creative resistance everywhere.

Finally, a great Billy Bragg and Wilco YouTube: Woody Guthrie’s ‘Aginst Th’ Law’ from Mermaid Avenue Volume II.

Talking of Woody, here’s a snippet from a communist blog:

I am a communist. According to a number of talking heads and a handful of vocal rightist mobs, I should be ecstatic. After all, they say a bona fide socialist is sitting in the White House at this very moment! But skewed politics and fear mongering aside, the reality is that Obama is as far from socialism as I am from George Bush.

Socialism is born out of proletarian revolution, in which the working masses rise up and take control of the tools and technology they use for making and distributing the things people want and need. In the process of democratizing production and reorganizing it to meet human need, the working class does away with the very basis for the existence of classes. This opens the door to the establishment of communism, a worldwide, classless society in which all affairs are administered in common. This is what was advocated as historic necessity by people like Albert Einstein, Woody Guthrie, Jack London, Harry Belafonte, Stephen Jay Gould and Karl Marx.

Read the rest. It’s relevant to this.

Sorry, I said finally, but this Slackster post on ex-Sojourner Truth Organization cadre Leonard Zeskin is kind of relevant to our topic.