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


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.

Centrist Marxism

English: Heading of an ILP letter

The material on centrist Marxism was removed from the Wikipedia article on Centrism, so I have created a new article on the former. It is very much a work in progress, so anyone reading this who is a Wikipedia editor, please work on it. It started like this:

Centrism has a specific meaning within the Marxist movement, referring to a position between a revolutionary and reformist position. For instance, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was seen as centrist because they oscillated between advocating reaching a socialist economy through reforms and advocating revolution. The members of the so-called Two-and-a-half and Three-and-a-half Internationals, who could not choose between the reformism of the social democrat Second International and the revolutionary politics of the Communist Third International, are exemplary of centrism in this sense; instances are the Spanish Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), ILP and Poale Zion.

Revolutionary Marxists often describe centrism in this sense as opportunistic, since it argues for a revolution at some point in the future but urges reformist practices in the mean time; Libertarian socialists and anarchists view any reformism as political opportunism because they view reformism as incapable of effecting structural changes to social organization.[1]

The term “Centrism” also denotes positions held by some of the Bolsheviks during the 1920s. In this context, “Centrism” refers to a position between the Right Opposition (which supported the New Economic Policy and friendly relations with capitalist countries) and the Left Opposition (which supported an immediate transition to a socialist economy and world revolution). By the end of the 1920s, the two opposing factions had been defeated by Joseph Stalin who eventually gained enough support from members of the factions through the application of various ideas formed by the factions’ various leaders. (i.e. Leon TrotskyNikolai Bukharin, etc.)


Blog notes

I don’t recommend Fatal Paradox often enough. This post is very, very interesting and very pertinent to the issues this blog covers. Extract:

Reading Mark Derby’s book Kiwi Compañeros (which compiles a wealth of primary source material detailing the involvement of New Zealanders in the Spanish Civil War) recently I was struck by the disjunction between the confused and often demoralising experiences of the some of the participants whose stories were reproduced in that volume and the traditional leftist narrative according to which the Spanish Civil War was the most glorious hour of the Popular Front and the struggle against Fascism.

I managed to miss this post at Boffy’s blog, introducing some of Comrade Bough’s favourite blogs, including, I am pleased to say, this one, and I find myself in fine company indeed. Not sure, though, I agree with Serge’s Fist’s analysis of the United Front and Popular Front, but need to read it more carefully. (And certainly I would endorse Trotsky’s excellent advice to the ILP. It is not unlike the advice I would give to the AWL in its foolishly positive response to the SWP’s sham unity letter, but that’s for another place.) Again, it’s a bit off the topic of this blog, but Arthur has some good posts about Iran.

I have other favours to acknowledge: Peter Storm for Vrije landen tegen Che en Obama, TNC for Friday round-up, Bob for Remembering Steve Cohen, Martin for Balancing beatitude and Loach, Garaudy and the reactionary left, Histomatist for In Defence of Leon Trotsky.

Talking of Ken Loach, here’s Norm on Loach’s strangebedfellows, the Chinese totalitarian regime. And, staying with Norm, on another topic I’ve covered here: Marx and politics, Kolakowski notwithstanding

And some other Histomatist posts of note: Sheila Rowbotham on the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Homage to John Saville and Hubert Harrison on how to review books. John Saville also got a lovely appreciation from Doreen Massey and Hilary Wainwright in the Gruaniad. Hubert Harrison features in this ISJ review.

Finally, also in ISJ, this is important: Luke Stobart’s review of Michael Eaude’s Triumph at Midnight of the Century: A Critical Biography of Arturo Barea. Barea is a vastly underrated person in the English-speaking world.

Arturo Barea

Arturo Barea: This drawing originally appeared with An Honest Man (March 6, 1975)

Not Just Orwell…

Having already reported on the visit to Ireland of Catalan POUM veteran Roma Marquez Santo [TOMORROW NIGHT IN DUBLIN], here are some more related links. Marquez Santo was also in Salford, at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford , for the launch of Not Just Orwell by Christopher Hall, telling the story of the ILP volunteers who fought in Spain against fascism. Not Just Orwell is published by Warren and Pell. A plaque to the ILP Contingent was also unveiled, and attended by Sidney Robinson, an Independent Labour Party activist in the 1930s who chaired the Newport Spanish Aid Committee. (Excellent report from Matthew Brown at the ILP. Good report at The Olive Press, including a wonderful YouTube of revolutionary Barcelona and George Orwell drinking tea [from George Orwell: A Life in Pictures]. Brief reports at SB News and Histomatist.)

Related material at Bataille Socialiste: a YouTube of the POUM cavalry in Barcelona.

More on the POUM from BS here, including just a couple of English texts:

Drawing clear lines

Today’s battles

1. The Popular Front has been one of the great dead ends of the socialist movement. Today, a terrible version of it has emerged in the NO2EU electoral front in the UK, an alliance of Stalinists and Stalinoid trade union hacks with the most reactionary Little Englanders, with a smattering of anorak left groupuscules to give it some hard left legitimacy. Reminiscent of some of the dangerous alliances created by the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s, when they allied with reactionary war-mongerers simply because they were anti-Nazi.  Yourfriendinthenorth neatly analyzes No2Eu here.

2. Historically, the flipside to the “anti-Nazi” Popular Front was (objectively pro-Nazi) pacifism. The argument for pacifism has recently been made by Nicholson Baker in Human Smoke. As mentioned already, Max Dunbar has been taking up the metaphorical cudgels against Baker (here, then here and then here). Terry Glavin has taken note:

I’m happy to see that Max Dunbar has now joined Anne Applebaum, William Grimes, Adam Kirsch and others in helpfully rubbishing Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke for being an ahistorical apologia for pacifism. Baker’s efforts at redeeming pacifism’s ill-deserved reputation in the context of the Second World War appear to follow exactly the same lines as Mark Kurlansky’s Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea, which I was happy to rubbish a while back.

George Orwell was there, of course, long before us, when he noticed that pacifism is “a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security.” Will I still be able to refer approvingly to Orwell’s many expressions of contempt for the bourgeoisie if the Liberal Party proceeds with granting the CHRC its greater powers?

You have to read the whole post for that last sentence to make sense, so please do.

3. The pacifist tradition that Baker and Kurlansky inherit is not an ignoble tradition. In the UK, its home was, for many decades, the Independent Labour Party. I have a lot of respect for the ILP and its heritage. Ken Coates is the contemporary figure who probably most represents the political tradition of the ILP. Over the years I’ve been influenced considerably by Ken Coates, his humanist socialism, his advocacy for workers’ control, his sense of industrial democracy as an extension of the republican liberties fought for by the likes of Tom Paine. However, in his little magazine, The Spokesman, I have long noted an unpleasant drift towards sloppy conspirationist thought, anti-American hysteria, a “New World Order” mentality. Habibi at Harry’s Place nails this trend, and shows how it spills over into very unpleasant antisemitic territory.

After the fold: Historical Notes, From the Archive of Struggle, Book notes, Blog notes. (more…)

Workers’ democracy

The Commune has published two 1950s ILP pamphlets from the 1950s:

socialism and workers’ councils (1957) and nationalisation: a socialist analysis (1958) both counterpose industrial democracy to nationalisation by the bourgeois state, and pose the question of how the working class can rule both economically and politically.

More (via La Bataille Socialiste):

Voir aussi sur les nationalisations:

  • The Labour Government 1945-1951 vidéos
  • Le réformisme du “Programme commun” en France (1974)
  • Published in: on September 10, 2008 at 2:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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