The Far Left in Britain During the Cold War
For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment […]. Its existence helped to drive up welfare standards in the west, boosted the anticolonial movement and provided a powerful counterweight to western global domination.
No one, not even Stalin, ever became a communist in order to do evil.
That communists had good motives was regarded as a truism in the left-leaning, Guardian-reading environment that I grew up in. While we all acknowledged that communism in the Soviet Union (when we paid it any attention at all) had worked out somewhat badly, this particular failure was variously attributed to the wrong people getting into power, an unfortunate response to Western aggression, or that it was simply never real communism. Meanwhile, any challenges to the left about their closeness to the actual dictatorial regime of the Soviet Union were dismissed as McCarthyist smears, while reports of “loony left” councils were regarded as mere hysteria on the part of the tabloids.
So what was the relationship between communists and the rest of the left? The opinions and attitudes that surrounded me as a teenager in the 1990’s would have been formed during the Cold War. I will look at the activities of the far left in Britain during the Cold War, from its start in the immediate aftermath of World War II until its end with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and will look at how the far left were received by the mainstream left as represented by the Labour Party in particular.
I will argue that while communism wasn’t the dominant goal of the mainstream left in Britain, communist groups were nonetheless accorded a lot of respect among the left as a whole, and this despite the evident failures of communism around the world. While the Labour Party managed for much of its history to keep itself free of revolutionary communist activity, there was a significant period in the 1970’s in which they provided succour to revolutionary communist groups. It was only with some significant effort that the non-communist left regained control of the party and managed to reduce the influence of the far left. But even when they did so, they were largely motivated by tribal politics and public relations. They did not, for the most part, make criticisms of the ideology or the record of communism.
The meaning of communism is a much-debated topic and no definitions are agreed on by everyone. In particular, it is common to assert that the system of government as practiced in the USSR was not genuinely communist, because there was never worker control of the means of production. However, my argument will not hinge on the question of whether the USSR was or was not “real” communism. Regardless of what it is called, there was an acceptance of an illiberal, anti-democratic strain of political thought on the left. And while the failures of the USSR were a cause for concern, they did not prevent acceptance of the policies that directly led to those failures.
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.
The Second World War ended with the eastern side of Germany under Soviet occupation, and the countries of eastern Europe which had been liberated from Germany and the Axis Powers quickly found themselves dominated by the USSR. Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, the eastern parts of Poland, as well as parts of Finland and Romania were annexed into the USSR. Meanwhile, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Albania and Yugoslavia were made satellite states of the USSR, with heavy involvement of the USSR in their government and affairs. Both Germany as a whole and Berlin individually were divided into quarters controlled by the Americans, British, French and Soviets, but while the Western Allies worked together to form the Federal Republic of Germany, the Soviet Union withdrew from discussions and installed a communist government in its areas, thus creating the German Democratic Republic. In none of these countries was there anything that could be described as a democracy. Each was a one-party state, with only the communist party allowed to participate in the political process. The cooperation between the Soviet Union and the other Allies of World War II came to an end and so the Cold War began.
The Communist Party of Great Britain
Until the mid-1950’s, the Communist Party of Great Britain was the dominant communist organisation in the UK, and the years immediately following the Second World War saw it at the peak of its influence. In 1945, two Communist Party MPs won seats in the general election.
The Communist Party of Great Britain had been established in 1920. It was established by the Third International, also known as the Communist International or – following the Soviet fashion for abbreviated names - the Comintern. The Comintern was an international organisation of communist parties, dedicated to achieving communist revolution across the world. Run along democratic centralist lines, it held a position of authority over its sections in each country. Over time, Stalin strengthened his grip over the Comintern, making it effectively a tool of the USSR, but he dissolved it in 1943 to allay the fears of the UK and Britain during World War II. Even after the dissolution of the Comintern, the CPGB maintained close links with the USSR, receiving money from the USSR up until the end of the Cold War.
The CPGB was, at its formation, hesitant to affiliate with the Labour Party on the grounds that the parliamentarian approach encouraged reformism and the winning of votes at the expense of the principles of socialism. It was Lenin himself who argued otherwise: the Labour Party was the voice of the working classes; if they gained power and then failed to carry out socialist ideas then the working classes would grow disillusioned and then be drawn to more radical solutions. So in 1920 and again in 1921 the CPGB applied to affiliate with the Labour Party. The Labour Party, however, which had been formed from an alliance of trades unions and socialists and saw itself as a constitutional and parliamentarian organisation, and had rejected both attempts. A further attempt in 1928 to unite the left, led by James Maxton, the leader of the Independent Labour Party, and Arthur Cook, a miners’ leader, failed and fuelled the subsequent split between the ILP and the Labour Party. Further attempts were made during the 1930’s, but, as before, they were rebuffed.
The CPGB was never a major party, but succeeded in winning a single seat in the 1922, 1924 and 1935 general elections, before winning two seats in 1945. The success that they saw in 1945 was not repeated, however, and they lost those two seats in 1950. The events of the 1950’s ensured that they would not return.
The CPGB made an explicit endorsement of Stalin in its manifesto pamphlet, The British Road to Socialism, first published in 1951:
[The Communist Party’s] policy and programme is based on the impregnable foundation of Marxist theory. The science embodying the experiences of the international working class, as developed by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and demonstrated in history as the theory and practice which brings victory to the working class and socialism.4
It also was notably Panglossian in its evaluation of the USSR’s record on peace:
Since then the Soviet Union has fought for a lasting peace to follow the people’s victory over fascism, a peace based on national independence, colonial freedom, and a democratic and demilitarised Germany and Japan.
That commitment to national independence had not been so apparent when, in 1948, the Red Army camped on the borders of Czechoslovakia, threatening to enter if a communist coup didn’t go their way. But whereas in Czechoslovakia the possibility of Soviet intervention had remained only a threat, though nonetheless a decisive one, 1953 saw a more active role for the Soviet military. At the request of the East German government, 20,000 Soviet troops were sent in to suppress of an uprising in East Germany against the communist government there.
It was only in 1956 that the facade really began to crumble when two events in 1956 shattered many communists’ faith in Stalin’s USSR, and acted to destroy the credibility of the CPGB. In February, Khrushchev’s speech, On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences, delivered to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was the first official acknowledgement – albeit limited and self-serving – of Stalin’s ‘excesses’ including the show trials of the 1930’s. Though the speech was given to a private audience with no journalists present, the text of the speech made its way out (via Poland and Israel) to the USA and it was published by the New York Times that summer. Khrushchev was careful to implicate only Stalin and specific others such as Lavrentiy Beria in his speech, and to praise the party as a whole, making no mention of the famines, for example. Even so, it was a jarring change of tune for those who had accepted the Soviet Union’s previous depictions of Stalin as a wise and benevolent leader.
It is important to be aware, though, that this was not the first that the West knew of Stalin’s crimes. In the early 1930’s, for example, Malcolm Muggeridge5 and Gareth Jones6 had reported on the famine and in the North Caucasus and the Ukraine and had indicated the forced nature of the collectivisation. And the Dewey Commission (though admittedly a vehicle for Trotsky’s defence) had concluded in 1937 that the confessions extracted in the show trials of the Great Purge could not possibly have been true,7 while H.R. Knickerbocker reported in 1941 on the scale of the purges.8
In November 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to put an end to the Hungarian Revolution and to install a government subservient to the Soviet Union, the CPGB’s credibility took another large hit. Peter Fryer, who had joined the Daily Worker in 1948 and had reported on the show trial of László Rajk in 1949, was sent to Hungary to cover the events. He found that his reports were censored by the Daily Worker. He left the paper and wrote a book, Hungarian Tragedy about the events, indicating that contrary to the CPGB’s line, the uprising had not been organised by fascists and reactionaries, but rather by workers unhappy with the repressive communist government. Fryer was expelled from the CPGB for his criticisms of it. He wrote:
By supporting this aggression the leaders of the British Party proved themselves unrepentant Stalinists, hostile in the main to the process of democratisation in Eastern Europe. They must be fought as such.9
The events of 1956 led to much disillusionment among CPGB members and there was an exodus from the party, with around a fifth10 to a third11 of the party leaving, and permanent damage done to the reputation of the party. Those that supported the Soviet use of tanks to quell the uprising gained the pejorative nickname ‘Tankies’. But despite being severely damaged by the events of 1956, the CPGB soldiered on.
The CPGB and the Daily Worker were careful to follow the GDR’s line on the Berlin Wall. The Daily Worker’s GDR correspondent, Alan Winnington wrote that the wall was a measure to prevent Western espionage and economic destabilisation, and that it was widely supported by East Germans. And yet in private he maintained that this was a falsehood that would be rejected by the public in Britain.12
Between 1958 and 1979 the CPGB received direct funding from the Soviet Union, delivered in secrecy to Reuben Falber. This was initiated by the Soviets who were concerned about the loss in members following 1956. During the 1960’s this funding was as much as £100,000 per year (almost £2 million in 2019 prices).13 Meanwhile, the Daily Worker, renamed to the Morning Star in 1966, was also funded by the USSR, initially with direct cash contributions and after 1974 by bulk orders from Moscow. In 1989 this was for 6,000 copies per day.
By the time of the Prague Spring in 1968, the CPGB was caught in a bind: not wanting to repeat the events of 1956, the CPGB made some mild criticisms of the USSR’s actions (calling it an “intervention” rather than an invasion), but still the more traditionalist members felt that the CPGB was abandoning Marxism-Leninism.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the tight hold that the Soviet Union had over the positions taken by the CPGB, it was especially welcoming to historians. From 1946 onwards it was home to the Communist Party Historians Group, which included a large roster of notable figures – for example, Oxford historian Christopher Hill, who wrote in 1947:
[T]he U.S.S.R. has demonstrated in practice that socialism is a system which can work even under the most unpromising conditions, and the Soviet single-party system has put before all the highly industrialized countries of the world one possible solution of the conflict between economic planning and political liberty. It is becoming increasingly obvious that absolute freedom of private enterprise is incompatible with the demand of the average citizen for freedom from want and freedom from fear. The achievement of rational planning, full employment and universal economic security in the U.S.S.R. has already set standards of which the rest of the world is having to take account.14
It is interesting to note that in 1949 Hill’s application to the position of chair of History at Keele University was turned down on account of his membership of the Communist Party, so there were social consequences, particularly at the start of the Cold War, to communist sympathies.
An even more influential figure in the Communist Party Historians Group was Eric Hobsbawm, well known for his best-selling books on 19th and 20th century history. He was a prolific contributor to Marxism Today and his articles were also reprinted in The Guardian. He had joined the CPGB in 1936 and, despite his opposition to the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Prague, maintained his membership until shortly before the party’s dissolution in 1991. Despite never being in the Labour Party, he was referred to as “Neil Kinnock’s favourite Marxist” and was undoubtedly influential there.15
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
While we have so far spoken of communism in the abstract, and looked at its pro-Soviet supporters, we have not yet looked at the actual aims of the CPGB and other communist groups. The ideology of Marxist communism has been somewhat whitewashed in recent years. While the world changed around them, the rhetoric of the hard left – ossified into “proletariat” versus “bourgeoisie” – became harder to understand in the post-Cold War world. Meanwhile, we have built up a romanticised image of the revolutionary, as represented by Che Guevara’s face on a t-shirt. The otherworldliness of the Marxist narrative, combined with a disinclination to believe that the good guys might be impure, has left us confused about what is meant by communism.
This is a blind spot that afflicted even Anthony Crosland when he wrote in 1956:
But of course underlying them [the social and economic aspirations of socialists], and taken for granted, was a passionate belief in liberty and democracy. It would never have occurred to most early socialists that socialism had any meaning except within a political framework of freedom for the individual.16
The importance of revolution in Marxist theory is rarely emphasised. Yet the Communist Manifesto itself says:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.17
And Lenin was absolutely clear that revolution was necessary:
We have already said above, and shall show more fully later, that the theory of Marx and Engels of the inevitability of a violent revolution refers to the bourgeois state. The latter cannot be superseded by the proletarian state (the dictatorship of the proletariat) through the process of “withering away”, but, as a general rule, only through a violent revolution.18
The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat needs some unpacking. In the Marxist worldview, states are instruments for the suppression, by the ruling class, of all other classes. In the capitalist countries, it is the bourgeoisie that suppresses the proletariat. The aims of Marxism include a revolution to overthrow the bourgeoisie and replace it with a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Lenin made no bones about what he was aiming at:
[D]ictatorship does not necessarily mean the abolition of democracy for the class that exercises the dictatorship over other classes; but it does mean the abolition (or very material restriction, which is also a form of abolition) of democracy for the class over which, or against which, the dictatorship is exercised. […] The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.19
In reality, this period [of transition from capitalism to communism] inevitably is a period of an unprecedently violent class struggle in unprecedentedly acute forms, and, consequently, during this period the state must inevitably be a state that is democratic in a new way (for the proletariat and the propertyless in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoisie).20
For all their protestations about wanting true democracy, no one considered bourgeois would be granted a vote:
And the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy. Simultaneously with an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery, their resistance must be crushed by force; it is clear that there is no freedom and no democracy where there is suppression and where there is violence.21
In theory the period of the dictatorship was to be eventually followed by a withering away of the state since classes would no longer exist and therefore there would be no need for any class to suppress another:
Only in communist society, when the resistance of the capitalists have disappeared, when there are no classes (i.e., when there is no distinction between the members of society as regards their relation to the social means of production), only then “the state… ceases to exist”, and “it becomes possible to speak of freedom”. Only then will a truly complete democracy become possible and be realized, a democracy without any exceptions whatever. And only then will democracy begin to wither away, owing to the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities, and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims. They will become accustomed to observing them without force, without coercion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state.22
And yet, by the start of the Cold War, after the USSR had experienced thirty years of “dictatorship of the proletariat”, the state was showing no signs of withering away.
It should be noted that there are strains of Marxist thought that reject Lenin’s interpretation. Rosa Luxembourg was a critic of Lenin’s authoritarianism, for example. And yet, with the relatively minor exceptions of the New Left and the Eurocommunists, the organisations we are looking at all accepted Leninism.
While the CPGB did not advocate for revolution explicitly in The British Road to Socialism, they were clear that they should expect and be ready for violent confrontation as part of putting their programme into place:
It would be wrong to believe that the big capitalists will voluntarily give up their property and their big profits in the interests of the British people.
It would be more correct to expect them to offer an active resistance to the decisions of the People’s Government, and to fight for the retention of their privileges by all means in their power including force.
Therefore the British people and the People’s Government should be ready decisively to rebuff such attempts.23
And so the transformation of society that they were hoping for was to be achieved by civil war and the violent suppression of those who stood in their way. Naturally this would be done in the name of “true democracy”. The example of the USSR, in which any pretence at democracy had very quickly fallen by the wayside after the October Revolution, was regarded by the CPGB as a positive example.
Fellow Travellers in the Labour Party
Though the Labour Party had resisted affiliating with the CPGB and had split with the more radical ILP, it still had a number of MPs with communist and pro-Soviet sympathies, particularly in the years immediately following the Second World War. This was not a popular position though, and MPs such as Konni Zilliacus and John Platts-Mills were expelled from the party in the late 1940’s over the issue. Along with three other ex-Labour politicians they formed the Independent Labour Group, which eventually settled on a pro-Stalinist position.
Others Labour politicians were more fortunate. S.O. Davies, MP for Merthyr Tydfil, remained in the party during this period, despite controversies, though his wife, Sephora Davies, was expelled from the party for her association with the British Soviet Friendship Society. During the 1953 uprising in East Germany he faithfully toed the Soviet line, asking in the Commons whether the government was aware that ‘Nazis and agent provocateurs from the West Zone of Berlin have been bribed […] to join in and help create disturbances in the Eastern Zone.’24 When it came to the Hungarian Uprising and the Prague Spring he was notably silent. He was eventually expelled from the Labour Party in 1970, with the party cited his age as the reason. But he had been frequently critical of the Wilson government, and this, rather than age or Soviet sympathies, was almost certainly the real issue.
Degrees of Soviet sympathising within the Labour Party continued throughout the Cold War. James Lamond, MP for Oldham East, was also vice-president of the Soviet-funded World Peace Council, for example. Meanwhile, Platts-Mills had been readmitted to the party in 1969. And in 1990, as the Cold War was coming to a close, Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, made the historically unjustifiable claim that:
A country that lost 20 million people in the second world war fighting fascism is not about to embark on a war against anyone.25
The miners’ strikes of the 1980’s were a defining event in the history of the British left-wing. They were led by Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers. He was elected president of the NUM in 1981 with around 70% of the vote. Prior to that he had been active in the Yorkshire NUM and had been involved in strikes in Yorkshire and the Midlands. Though he joined the Labour Party at some point thereafter, Scargill’s start in politics had been in 1955 with the Young Communist League, the youth section of Communist Party of Great Britain:
At the age of fifteen I decided that the world was wrong and I wanted to put it right, virtually overnight if possible. I did two things. First of all I wrote to the Labour Party and asked them if there was any youth organization which I could belong to, or if there was any association at all where I could play a part. Additionally I wrote to the British-Soviet Friendship Society; I was reading the Daily Worker at this time, and asked them if I could join because I wanted to further friendship between peoples. […] I was in the Young Communist League for about six or seven years and I became a member of its National Executive Committee responsible for industrial work. The secretary at this time was a very good friend of mine called Jimmy Reid, and we’re still close friends. A lot of other people on the National Executive at that time went on and became very respectable Labour MP’s in Parliament. Many of us started in the 1950’s in the Young Communist League.26
Though Stalinist flavours of communism had lost a lot of their appeal and credibility following the events of 1956 and 1968, Scargill remained a consistent supporter of the USSR and its satellite state governments. On the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980’s he said: “I am opposed to Solidarity because I believe it is an anti-socialist organisation which desires the overthrow of a socialist state.”27 This was certainly a controversial opinion. The mood of the left was generally in favour of Solidarity, seeing states like Poland as not representing genuine socialism. Scargill got himself into some trouble for this and other views. The Annesley branch of the NUM put forward a vote of no confidence:
This was for disparaging comments he had supposedly made against the Solidarity Trade Union in Poland and the shooting down of a Korean airliner by the Soviet Union in 1983. Scargill faced his accusers by addressing a Special Branch Meeting at Annesley Miners Welfare in December 1983. He managed to successfully talk round most of the Annesley meeting. However this was done with a certain amount of showmanship as the author recalls. Questions were taken three at a time and ‘political type speeches’ given. The meeting overturned the vote of no confidence into a vote of confidence. Commenting on the turn around, Steve Williamson, Annesley NUM Branch Secretary, said “It was complete reversal of opinion”.28
Much controversy surrounds Scargill, even now. But this controversy is largely focused on the tactics used during the miners’ strikes (principally the decision to call a strike without a ballot) and legal disputes with the NUM in the two decades following the strikes. While it obviously did not endear him to any on the right in the unions, his background in communism posed little barrier to him achieving a position of power within the NUM.
During the miners’ strikes relations between Labour and Scargill were abysmal, with a feud developing between Labour leader Neil Kinnock and Scargill. Kinnock later said of Scargill, “Oh I detest him. I did then, I do now, and it’s mutual. He hates me as well. And I’d much prefer to have his savage hatred than even the merest hint of friendship from that man.”29 But despite the enmity between Scargill and Kinnock, Scargill only left Labour in 1996. He did this in order to form the Socialist Labour Party as a response to Tony Blair’s change of Clause IV. He wrote:
At the time of its formation, the Labour Party had both a constitution and policies which projected a Socialist philosophy, policies and programme.
Its affiliates included the Communist Party, Cooperative Party, various Socialist societies and trade unions whose members were automatically regarded as being members of the Party. For example, candidates for Parliament and local authorities were selected at meetings where trade unions were allowed to send substantial numbers of delegates; even if they were not in individual membership of the Party, they were accepted as members as a result of belonging to affiliated unions.
The party later became a so-called “broad church” because the “modernisers” of the time wanted to embrace sections which were not committed to a fundamental change in the nature of society. The term “broad church” was introduced to assist the right-wing, not the left.
It was the “modernisers” who were responsible for expelling the Communist Party from affiliation and introducing the bans and prescriptions which were prevalent in the ’30s and later during the Cold War period of the ’50s.30
In his later years Scargill became a member of the Stalin Society, who describe themselves thus:
The Society was formed in 1991 to defend Stalin and his work on the basis of fact and to refute the capitalist, revisionist, opportunist and Trotskyist propaganda directed against him.31
So while the bulk of the Labour Party rejected the Soviet Union, there was a noticeable pattern on the fringes of the party of varying degrees of support for the Soviet regime, and furthermore an unclear response from the Labour Party to that fringe.
The New Left and Eurocommunism
In the fallout from the revelations of the Khrushchev speech, two members of the Communist Party Historians Group, E. P. Thompson and John Saville, began publishing a dissident journal within the CPGB called Reasoner. For this they were suspended from the CPGB. Thompson and Saville continued publishing The Reasoner after their suspension from the Communist Party of Great Britain as The New Reasoner between 1957 and 1959, after which it merged with the Universities and Left Review to become the New Left Review, still in publication today.
This was the start of a movement that came to be known as the New Left. It was not a concrete doctrine or group, but rather a broad change in attitude that occurred in response to the events of 1956. In a 1959 essay Thompson wrote:
1956 marks the watershed. In the first place, since 1956, there has been a world-wide and continuing movement of Communist dissidence which […] has not entered into the worn paths of traumatic anti-Communism, God-That-Failedism, Encounterism, and the rest; but which has, on the contrary, sought to affirm and develop the humane and libertarian features of the Communist tradition.32
Prior to 1956, with the exception of a relatively small number of Trotskyists, the CPGB had comprised almost the entirety of the communist movement in Britain. But the disillusionment created by Khrushchev’s secret speech and the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising led to a broad desire for a communism that wasn’t directed and controlled from the Kremlin, and furthermore was open to more individualistic and less orthodox attitudes.
One of Thompson’s objections was to the vanguardism and democratic centralism of both the CPGB and the Trotskyist organisations:
These forms [adopted by the Socialist Labour League] are those of vanguardism, in full Leninist purity; and after this quarter century it is difficult to look forward with elation to the seizure of State power by any vanguard, however dedicated its members. We do not want the conquest of power by the vanguard, but the distribution of power among the people.
Despite his reservations about vanguardism in the Socialist Labour League, he was nonetheless supportive of the position of Trotskyism within the Labour Party, writing: “An open Trotskyist organisation has as much right to claim a place within the federal structure of the Labour Party as, for example, the Fabian Society.”
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, formed in 1959, was largely an outgrowth of the New Left movement. While many of those associated with the New Left eschewed political parties, some, such as Terry Eagleton, joined the International Socialists while others, such as Tariq Ali, joined the International Marxist Group, both Trotskyist organisations.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s the communist parties in Western Europe, and in France, Spain and Italy in particular, developed a strain of revisionist thought known as Eurocommunism in opposition to the influence of the Soviet Union. This also had an influence on the CPGB, with the leadership of the party also moving towards Eurocommunism. This change in attitude was not universally popular among CPGB members, AND several groups broke off to form new parties, including the Appeal Group in 1971, the New Communist Party in 1977, and the Communist Party of Britain In the 2017 general election, the CPB gave its support to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn instead of fielding any of its own candidates.
in 1988. The CPB in particular see themselves as the true continuation of the CPGB and not as a breakaway group. There was also an internal faction of the CPGB, Straight Left Several of the figures involved in Straight Left were at the time or have more recently become associated with the Labour Party:
Andrew Murray, who served on the Communist Party of Britain’s executive committee from 2000 to 2004, joined the Labour Party in 2016 and worked at Labour headquarters during the 2017 general election. In 2015 he said: “Communism still represents, in my view, a society worth working towards – albeit not by the methods of the 20th century, which failed.”33
Seumas Milne, who was business manager for the paper, later was Comment Editor for The Guardian and since 2015 has been the Labour Party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications.
Straight Left’s editorial board included three Labour MPs (James Lamond, Joan Maynard and William Wilson) and an MEP (Alf Lomas).
, formed around the newspaper of the same name, that lobbied for a return to a pro-Soviet position. Though they stayed in the CPGB after 1988, most of the Straight Left group eventually joined the CPB.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Eurocommunist leadership of the CPGB chose to disband the party and instead form the Democratic Left think tank, which continued under the leadership of Nina Temple during the nineties, and which undoubtedly benefited from the money that the CPGB had received from Moscow. After a couple of name changes and a merger with Charter 88 to form Unlock Democracy, it has now essentially removed itself from its communist roots.
Brian: Are you the Judean People’s Front?
Reg: Fuck off! Judean People’s Front… We’re the People’s Front of Judea! […] Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.
After the Khrushchev thaw and the Soviet military repressions of the Hungarian Uprising and the Prague Spring, it became relatively easy to identify Stalin as an oppressive dictator. And yet it was still possible for many on the left to see Soviet oppression as a particular failure of Stalinism and not as a reflection on the aims of communism more broadly, and this undoubtedly added to the appeal of one of the Soviet Union’s first dissidents: Leon Trotsky.
Trotsky became involved in Marxist revolutionary activity in 1896 and was one of the first members of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which later split into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Though initially associated with the Mensheviks, Trotsky was an advocate of reunification. Shortly prior to the October Revolution, he joined the Bolsheviks. He led the uprising to overthrow Kerensky’s Provisional Government, receiving the praise of Stalin:
All practical work in connection with the organization of the uprising was done under the immediate direction of Comrade Trotsky, the President of the Petrograd Soviet. It can be stated with certainty that the Party is indebted primarily and principally to Comrade Trotsky for the rapid going over of the garrison to the side of the Soviet and the efficient manner in which the work of the Military Revolutionary Committee was organized.35
By the early 1920’s, however, Stalin saw Trotsky as a threat to his power, and engineered to have him first sidelined and then expelled from the party. Trotsky had Lenin’s patronage, but Lenin’s declining health limited his effectiveness. The situation became more difficult for Trotsky after Lenin’s death in 1924, and in 1927 Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party. In 1928 Trotsky was exiled to Kazakhstan. Over the next decade he would make his way to Mexico via Turkey, France and Norway. He died in 1940, assassinated on Stalin’s command by NKVD agent Ramón Mercader.
Even after his exile, Trotsky held back for several years from establishing a rival organisation to the Comintern for fear of dividing the communist movement. However, he had a change of mind in the 1930’s, considering the Comintern to be dominated by Stalinists and ultimately counter-revolutionary. In 1938 he established the Fourth International which would direct the worldwide proletarian revolution that had been abandoned by Stalin. The Fourth International was established at a conference in Paris attended by delegates from European and American communist parties. Those in the Fourth International saw themselves as the true continuation of a revolutionary movement that had, under Stalin’s influence, lost its way.
Though those in the Fourth International would have considered themselves ultimately Trotskyist in orientation, Trotsky himself was a close associate of Lenin’s and was largely in agreement with Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism. In 1937 Trotsky was at pains to point out that twenty years earlier Lenin had said of him:
Trotsky long ago said that unification [with the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionists] is impossible. Trotsky understood this and from that time on there has been no better Bolshevik.36
While he would naturally have had his differences, broadly speaking Trotsky was very much a Leninist.
As we have seen above, the aims of the Leninists precluded the possibility of democracy being granted to those considered bourgeois. There is nothing in the Trotskyist programme which contradicts this. While one may distinguish Trotskyism from Stalinism, that should not be mistaken for a sign of a more liberal political philosophy. Indeed, during the 1920’s, Stalin was considered the more moderate of the two.
Other hints as to the meaning of Trotskyism can be seen in the actions of the man himself. Trotsky was part of the Bolshevik movement and played a major role in the October Revolution. (The February Revolution had overthrown the tsars. The October Revolution installed the communist government that ruled until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.) While he later came to see the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state – in which the power that had been seized by the proletariat came to be concentrated in the hands of the state bureaucracy – it did not have that status prior to Stalin’s consolidation of power. We can therefore expect see something of the practical effects of Trotsky’s ideas in the Russia of the early 1920’s. Trotsky was leader of the Red Army during its suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921, for example, with many of the rebels being executed or sent to the Solovki prison camp, described by Solzhenitsyn as the “mother of the GULAG”. He was also committed to the militarisation of labour:
Compulsory labor service is sketched in our Constitution and in our Labor Code. […] The only solution of economic difficulties that is correct from the point of view both of principle and of practice is to treat the population of the whole country as the reservoir of the necessary labor power – an almost inexhaustible reservoir – and to introduce strict order into the work of its registration, mobilization, and utilization.
Many of the features of the Soviet Union that seemed disagreeable were present right from its inception and often created by Trotsky himself.
To a large extent during the Cold War period Marxists were able to deflect criticism based on comparisons with the Soviet Union by protesting that they were as horrified as anyone else by the repressive nature of the regime. In the Trotskyist analysis, the USSR was a degenerated workers’ state: the genuine dictatorship of the proletariat that was in place after the revolution had been betrayed and taken over by a bureaucratic state. Even if this were correct, it would not mean that they shared the ideals of liberalism that are frequently assumed by the rest of society. To anyone not familiar with the history of the Russian revolution, it would not have been clear just how little was implied by a repudiation of Stalinism. It was not a repudiation of revolution, nor of dictatorship of the proletariat. They would still be in favour of the violent repression of the bourgeoisie, and of the forced collectivisation that ended up starving millions in the Ukraine.
Trotskyism in Britain
The Trotskyist left in Britain during the latter half of the twentieth century was dominated by three figures and the groups that formed around them: Gerry Healy’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party, and Ted Grant’s Militant. All three groups had their roots in the Revolutionary Communist Party. The Fourth International worked with groups local to each country they operated in. In 1944 the FI had established the Revolutionary Communist Party as their official British section from a merger of the Workers’ International League and the Revolutionary Socialist League. This was not to be a long-lived party, but for a few years after the Second World War the Trotskyists in Britain were united. But while the People’s Front of Judea, Monty Python’s parodic depiction of revolutionary groups, could have represented any of the far left groups of the 1970’s, there are none that better exemplified the tendency to split into impossibly small divisions than those associated with Trotskyism.
Gerry Healy, originally from Galway, Ireland, had come to Britain at the age of 14 and worked as a ship radio operator. He soon joined the CPGB, but left in 1937 to join a succession of Trotskyist organisations. He was a member of the Revolutionary Socialist League during the merger that formed the RCP.
In 1947 the issue of entryism created a rift in the RCP. Gerry Healy led a small group that that was in favour and had formed The Club, an entryist group within the Labour Party. The majority of the RCP was opposed, but the FI weighed in on the side of the entryists and they eventually gained the upper hand. In 1950 the FI decreed that the RCP should be dissolved, and that all of its members should enter the Labour Party and join The Club, with The Club officially becoming the FI’s British section.
Healy tended to clash with other members of The Club, and the two splits that happened shortly after the formation of The Club created the three broad strands that comprised the UK’s Trotskyist movement during the second half of the twentieth century. First Tony Cliff and then Ted Grant left The Club to form their own groups.
Between 1951 and 1953 a series of discussions within the Fourth International over the role of entryism in the worldwide Trotskyist movement led to a split, with one party being known as the International Committee of the Fourth International and the other the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. The Club had been part of the group that formed the ICFI, and so remained their official British section. Though the ICFI and ISFI agreed in 1963 to form a re-united Fourth International, Healy’s group notably abstained and maintained a separate ICFI until 1985.
While the events of 1956 had led on the one hand to the emergence of the New Left, they also lent some support to the position of the Trotskyists, who had long been the Soviet Union’s critics on the left. Some of the exodus from the CPGB at that time ended up in The Club, providing a significant boost to Healy’s group, and in 1958 they began The Newsletter as a weekly paper edited by Peter Fryer – previously expelled from the CPGB for his writing on the Hungarian Uprising.
In February 1959 The Club was renamed to the Socialist Labour League, and declared its Trotskyist agenda openly. This attracted the attention of the Labour Party leadership, with general secretary Morgan Phillips writing: “The principal group is so well disciplined and financed that it is slowly emerging as a serious nuisance to the democratic Socialism which it outwardly accepts and covertly derides”. The SLL was shortly thereafter expelled from the Labour Party in March 1959.
In 1973 the SLL was renamed to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. It is a sign of the relative respectability of far left politics was that the Workers’ Revolutionary Party counted siblings Corin and Vanessa Redgrave among its members, as well as Frances de la Tour. All have had extensive acting careers, and while Vanessa Redgrave has been no stranger to political controversy, her membership of a revolutionary communist party doesn’t seem to have been the cause of any of it.
Healy was expelled from the WRP in 1985 following allegations of sexual abuse of female party members. The party fragmented afterwards into a multitude of small parties and groups. Organisations that could trace their ancestry back to the WRP include the Movement for Socialism, the Workers’ International League, the Workers International to Rebuild the Fourth International, the Socialist Equality Party, and the Peace and Progress Party.
Ted Grant was a South African Trotskyist who came to London in 1934, having realised that the prospects for building a revolutionary movement were limited at home. He adopted the name Ted Grant on the journey, having supposedly been born Isaac Blank, though that surname too was likely false. When he arrived he joined the Marxist Group, an entryist group in the Independent Labour Party, which had at that point recently disaffiliated from the Labour Party. Trotsky suggested that the group should enter the Labour Party instead, and when the leadership disagreed, Grant was one of small group to split off and form the Militant Group to carry out Trotsky’s suggestion. After another split Grant and several others from that group formed the Workers’ International League, and thus Grant was present during the merger with the Revolutionary Socialist League that formed the RCP.
Though he had previously been a member of the Militant Group and then the Workers’ International League, both of which had been practising entryism into the Labour Party, Grant had been opposed to entryism as a member of the RCP. But as the entryists gradually gained the upper hand, Grant saw no possibility of changing the minds of his fellow Trotskyists. When the Fourth International ruled that the RCP be dissolved, Grant reluctantly joined The Club. Like Tony Cliff’s supporters, though, Grant soon clashed with Healy, and in 1952 he was expelled.
It was after this that Grant established a new RSL. Grant had clearly had a change of mind on the subject of entryism by this stage, and the RSL operated as an entryist group inside the Labour Party. Initially it fared poorly. The events of 1956 drove many away from the CPGB but into the arms of The Club rather than Grant’s RSL. When the Fourth International split in 1953, with Healy’s group associated with the ICFI, the ISFI looked around for their own British section and eventually settled on the RSL. Even so, this initially did little to help Grant’s group. However, after the Socialist Labour League was expelled from the Labour Party, and with Cliff’s Socialist Review Group beginning to withdraw from entryism,38 that left the RSL as the most significant Trotskyist group operating within the Labour Party.
Parliamentary democracy was no more acceptable to the RSL than it was to the CPGB. Ellis Hillman Ellis Hillman was member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and then The Club, later defecting to the Revolutionary Socialist League. He was elected to the London County Council in 1958, where he remained for over 20 years, and in the 1990’s was elected Mayor of Barnet. He was also the co-author, with Richard Trent, of London Under London, a fascinating book about London’s hidden rivers, tunnels, bunkers and crypts.
wrote in his 1961 guide for members of the RSL:
The Marxists … do not accept the view that it is possible, within the framework of Parliament or the existing structure of local government, to achieve socialism. The parliamentary system has to be replaced by the soviet system. This applies on a local as well as a national level.39
It is necessary to bear in mind that the phrase “soviet system” does not mean the system of the USSR necessarily, but rather that decisions should be made by workers’ soviets, a pyramid structure of councils in which the higher councils are formed from the delegates sent by the lower councils. While a peaceful transition might in theory be preferable, there was no expectation on the part of the RSL that this could actually be possible. Pat Wall was a Militant member and also the Labour MP for Bradford North between 1987 and 1990. Early in the 1980’s he had come under fire for his comments regarding the transition to socialism under Labour:
It would mean the abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords, the sacking of the generals, the admirals, the air marshals, the senior civil servants, the police chiefs and in particular, the judges and people of that character … We will face bloodshed. We will face the possibility of civil war and the terrible death and destruction and bloodshed that would mean.40
The name “Militant” came first from the newspaper that the RSL began publishing in 1964, with Peter Taaffe as editor. By the end of the 1960’s they were no longer referring to themselves as RSL and had adopted Militant as the name for the group itself.
Militant continued the Fourth International’s preferred strategy of infiltrating the Labour Party and trying to influence the party towards its hard-left goals. It did this both within the Labour Party itself and in the Labour Party youth section. The task was easier in the youth section because the Trades Unions, which have traditionally leaned to the right, had no involvement there. Militant members would join a local youth section branch and there sell copies of the paper and suggest programmes of speakers, all the while looking out for recruits to the organisation. Militant found that the youth section was fertile ground for Trotskyist ideas.
Though the ISFI had originally chosen the RSL as their British section, relations were never good, and in 1965 the ISFI broke off the arrangement. The ISFI transferred their affiliation to the International Marxist Group instead, which had been formed by Ken Coates and Pat Jordan, both of whom had for a short while been members of the RSL. For nine years the RSL operated independently, but in 1974 they were founding members of a new organisation, the Committee for a Workers’ International. Organised along the same democratic centralist lines as the FI and choosing to remain somewhat secretive, it began with sections from 12 countries, and now has sections in over 40. From 1974 until the end of the Cold War the CWI maintained a policy of entryism. Militant’s affiliation with the CWI was a clear breach of the Labour Party’s rules, which forbade affiliation with any international body other than the Socialist International.41
As Militant, the group began to flourish, particularly in Labour’s youth organisations. Throughout the 1970’s they saw consistent growth, going from 217 members in 1971 to 1,850 by 1980.42 But it wasn’t just their numbers that gave them power. Thanks to their strong organisational skills and their use of strategies that exploited the left’s frequent adherence to the principle of democratic centralism, they began to exert an influence out of proportion to the size of the group.
The principle of democratic centralism has been, explicitly or implicitly, a pillar of left-wing philosophy. It was articulated most notably by Lenin, who summarised it as “freedom of discussion, unity of action”. In 1917, at the Bolshevik’s Sixth Party Congress, they defined democratic centralism as follows:
- That all directing bodies of the Party, from top to bottom, shall be elected.
- That Party bodies shall give periodical accounts of their activities to their respective Party organizations.
- That there shall be strict Party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority.
- That all decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on all Party members.43
While in theory limited to activities of the party, there was always an implication that this model of democracy should apply more broadly in society, and indeed, the Soviet Union’s 1977 constitution made it explicit that the state was to be run according to democratic centralist principles:
The Soviet state is organised and functions on the principle of democratic centralism, namely the electiveness of all bodies of state authority from the lowest to the highest, their accountability to the people, and the obligation of lower bodies to observe the decisions of higher ones. Democratic centralism combines central leadership with local initiative and creative activity and with the responsibility of the each state body and official for the work entrusted to them.44
It is clear that democratic centralism was not seen as a merely tactical consideration to hasten the arrival of the revolution. It was to structure the socialist society after the revolution too.
Beyond the Soviet Union, though, principles of majoritarianism and centralism have been adopted widely across the left. Trades unions, for example, have generally held to the rule that all members must participate in strike action if it is decided in a ballot, and trades union leaders have often wielded block votes on behalf of their members. And it turned out that this majoritarian tradition was vulnerable to exploitation by Militant. The Militant process went something like this: A group of Militant members would meet prior to a Labour Party branch meeting, for example, and decide amongst themselves what their position was to be on an upcoming vote; then they would make sure that they had enough members at that meeting to ensure that they could carry a majority. With good organisation and disciplined members, particularly when set against a relatively disorganised opposition, they could manipulate a larger group to follow their will.
The Revolutionary Socialist League’s constitution states:45
All decisions of the governing bodies are binding upon all members and subordinate units. Any member violating these decisions shall be subjected to disciplinary action.
While co-operating in the carrying out of all democratic decisions all minorities have the right to present their viewpoint within the organisation, verbally and by means of the Internal Bulletin.
This “right to present their viewpoint” is the only concession offered to its members’ autonomy. Later it states:
All members holding public office, paid or otherwise, shall come under the complete control of the party and its organs.
Militant were able to get two of their members, Terry Fields and Dave Nellist, elected as MPs, as well as getting numerous members elected to local councils and other public bodies. If the constitution is to be taken seriously, they were under Militant’s “complete control”. Furthermore, given that the Militant was the British section of first the ISFI and later the Committee for a Workers’ International, they would at least nominally have been under the control of these organisations too.
The principle of democratic centralism is very much at odds with more liberal conceptions of democracy. Liberal philosophies are careful to reserve a space for individual conscience and action regardless of the will of the majority. Friedrich Hayek observed that the communist, by contrast, is a totalitarian:
The various kinds of collectivism, communism, fascism, etc., differ between themselves in the nature of the goal towards which they direct the efforts of society. But they all differ from liberalism and individualism in wanting to organise the whole of society and all its resources for this unitary end, and in refusing to recognise autonomous spheres in which the ends of the individuals are supreme. In short, they are totalitarian in the true sense of this new word which we have adopted to describe the unexpected but nevertheless inseparable manifestations of what in theory we call collectivism.46
One of the puzzles presented by the far left is why they so frequently split and split again, ending up as tiny groups. Why were they so spectacularly incapable of presenting a united front? Despite their calls for “solidarity”, and despite their fantasies of leading the working class to revolution, they couldn’t even bring together one united far left party. The answer perhaps lies in their commitment to democratic centralism, which meant that while they were officially allowed to present their disagreements, they were nevertheless under obligation to carry out the decided line of action, whatever it was and even if they continued to disagree with it. As Hayek observed, there was no respected sphere of individual conscience or action. They were under the full direction of their party.
Furthermore, one of the corollaries of the Marxist worldview that the material conditions of the class determine the beliefs of its members is that it doesn’t allow any room for individual differences. In the Marxist worldview, the bourgeoisie wish to oppress and exploit while the proletariat wish to emancipate themselves, with any deviation from these positions being explained away as false consciousness or class treason. While this supports a centralist, majoritarian philosophy, it also means that genuine disagreement is thought to be impossible, and so any apparent disagreement is taken to be a betrayal and is met with expulsions.
Militant and Labour
While Healy’s Socialist Labour League had been cast out of the Labour Party with relatively little struggle, and Cliff’s group had left of its own accord, Militant held on much more tenaciously – and with much more support from within the Labour Party.
For much of its history Labour had made efforts to prevent membership of other organisations with conflicting goals to the party, starting in the 1930’s when it sought to clarify that membership of the recently disaffiliated Independent Labour Party and related organisations were incompatible with membership of the Labour Party. Likewise, the Labour Party rejected affiliation with the CPGB throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. The NEC responded to attempts at infiltration from the far left by publishing its famous List of Proscribed Organisations. In the 1950’s there was another wave of concern about communism inspired by the start of the Cold War. But by the 1970’s, though, the Labour Party’s taste for proscription had waned and the list was unmaintained and finally abandoned in 1973. This allowed Militant to grow unchecked, whereas they had remained under the radar (more by accident than design) during stricter times. Though the Labour Party’s constitution still maintained that membership of certain types of organisation was disallowed, specifically those that operated as a “party within the party”, the 1970’s saw very little enforcement of this rule.
In the 1960’s the task of removing Trotskyists from Labour’s youth organisation, Young Socialists, had fallen to assistant national agent Reg Underhill. The Young Socialists had been established in 1960 and had shortly thereafter become dominated by a faction around the Keep Left newspaper published by the Socialist Labour League, with a smaller group formed around the International Socialists’ Young Guard newspaper. In 1964 Underhill was tasked with expelling several members of the dominant Keep Left faction.
Underhill was therefore on his guard against entryists, and when Militant took over the then renamed Labour Party Young Socialists in 1970, Underhill took note. In 1975, now as national agent, he asked the NEC for its approval to write a report on their activities within the party. It assented, but the final report, called simply ‘Entryist Activities’ and mostly concerning Militant but also covering the Socialist Labour League and International Socialists, was dismissed when it was put before the NEC. Eric Heffer proposed that due to the low turnout of the Organisation Sub-Committee at the time the report was presented, the report should be left to ‘lie on the table’ – in other words, to do nothing. This motion was seconded by Militant member Nick Bradley. However, parts of the report were leaked to the press, with The Times publishing significant extracts from it. The NEC’s refusal to publish the report led to speculation that the Labour Party was experiencing a takeover by extremists and trying to cover up this fact.
Underhill revised the report with additional information on Militant in 1980. He sent a copy to David Hughes, his successor as national agent, who did not even read it. But the press were interested, with articles on Militant appearing in the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Times and New Statesman, as well as a report on Newsnight. The NEC opted only to send a questionnaire to all the pressure groups within the party, but again declined to publish Underhill’s report. Underhill then self-published the report at his own expense:
I said to my wife, ‘How much can we afford?’ and then we printed 750 copies at our own expense. I had built up a list of addresses of constituency secretaries, and my daughter typed out the labels and filled the envelopes. We sent a copy to each NEC member, each constituency party and every affiliated trade union.47
Despite the concern in the press about extremists in the Labour Party, the attitude of the party itself was split. The hard left of the party, such as Eric Heffer and Tony Benn opposed attempts to expel Militant members from the party, and they had the upper hand in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Eric Heffer’s constituency of Walton had a strong Militant presence. Heffer himself was neither a member of Militant nor a Trotskyist, but he was sympathetic to revolutionary communism. In the 1940’s he had been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and then in the 1950’s he briefly left the Labour Party to form the Federation of Marxist Groups, later renamed to the Socialist Workers’ Federation. In 1957 he criticised the CPGB for watering down their commitment to revolution and argued against the possibility of socialism within a parliamentary system:
As a first step, Socialism can only be introduced through Worker Power—expressed through the democratic organs of the workers themselves. There is no other way, and naturally such power will be resisted by those who have it today. […] Join with us of the S.W.F. and help to ensure that Britain does really take the Socialist Road, the road which leads to the overthrow of the present system, and genuine workers’ power.48
Eric Heffer compared the campaign against Militant to Goebbels’ propaganda. And when asked about Underhill’s report by a journalist, Tony Benn was dismissive: ‘As far as I can make out [they] came in plain envelopes from the Intelligence Service or wherever.’49 So while Underhill’s report gave strength to those concerned by the influence of Militant, it did not lead to a change of mind on the part of the party as a whole, and no further action was taken for the next two years.
During this period, a number of more centrist Labour members left the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party, feeling that there had been a takeover of the party by hard-left extremists. The experience with Militant and the fact that in some areas they held power over the selection of parliamentary candidates was a significant factor driving this decision. Despairing of the prospects for returning Labour to a more moderate position, they saw their only hope in the creation of a new party.
The turning point in the fight to remove Militant from the Labour Party came at the end of 1982. Militant had succeeded in getting parliamentary candidates put forward in safe Labour seats, and at the same time they were seeing increased influence among the trades unions. This led to pressure both from the PLP and from the more right-wing trades unions for Labour to curtail Militant’s influence. In December 1982 the NEC finally ruled that Militant were a proscribed organisation. From Reg Underhill’s report in 1975, it had taken seven years for the party to take action against Militant.
When Neil Kinnock became leader of the party in 1983, he took Militant seriously as a threat to the goals of the party. Along with the miners’ strike, the clash with Militant defined Kinnock’s early years as leader.
In 1983 five members of Militant’s editorial board were expelled from the party, including Taaffe and Grant. Militant had claimed that this was the entire editorial board, but in reality there were probably around ten people on the board, and these five were effectively lightning rods whose expulsion deflected attention from the rest of the group. Furthermore, whether or not they were members of the Labour Party was relatively unimportant – they remained active in Militant and Militant remained active in the Labour Party. Accordingly, the expulsion of the five was by no means the end of the issue. It left untouched eight parliamentary candidates, as well as the unnamed members of the editorial board and all of the rank-and-file of the group.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn used the pages of London Labour Briefing to announce the Defeat the Witch-Hunt Campaign in support of Militant: “BRIEFING wishes to make it clear that no grounds exist for discriminating between ourselves and MILITANT in respect of politics or the way in which we organize: if expulsions are in order for MILITANT, they should apply to us too.”50
Labour continued to have problems with Militant in Liverpool, where they had gained control of the council, throughout the mid-1980’s. Derek Hatton, who had been elected to Liverpool Council in 1979 and become council deputy leader in 1983, arguably wielded more power than the council leader thanks to his charismatic personality and a well-organised Militant base.
During the council elections of the early 1980’s, the Trotskyist beliefs of the Labour councillors would have been apparent to voters, and yet they were not deterred.51 While it is true that Militant were a secretive organisation, they were only secretive about the fact that they were so organised. They were not secretive about being Trotskyists.
Local councils were funded at that time by a system of property tax known as rates. In the early 1980’s the Thatcher government set about curbing spending by local government, reducing central government grants and penalising councils that were deemed to be overspending. Councils responded to this by raising rates, so in 1984 central government put a cap on rate increases. Liverpool’s council had been elected on a platform of increased spending, putting them on a collision course with central government. Along with a number of other local councils, Liverpool began a showdown with central government by refusing to set a rate.
While this was a confrontationist hard-left policy and while Militant certainly helped it along, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t at all unique to Militant or to Trotskyism in general. Eighteen councils had their rates capped, and only two of them accepted it without protest. The rest, plus three others that were not themselves capped, protested by delaying or refusing to set rates. While Militant members such as Derek Hatton had a high profile in this rebellion, it’s entirely likely that any Labour council in Liverpool would have come into conflict with central government over this issue.
In 1985 the council approved an illegal deficit budget, in effect daring the Tory government to provide more funding or to send in commissioners to take over the council. The former would have been hailed by Militant as a victory, but even the latter would have suited their agenda by creating confrontation with the Tories and providing material for politicising the populace.
By the end of 1985, with money running out, the council was obligated to issue 90 day redundancy notices to its workers. In all likelihood they never intended to make anyone redundant, but it was a tactical move in a strategy of brinkmanship in their negotiations with central government. However, that message was not adequately transmitted to the workers in the city. The workforce was divided between those who supported the plan and those who were opposed.
In 1985 Kinnock delivered a speech to the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth. The actions of Militant had been in the headlines that year, and Kinnock addressed them:52
I shall tell you again what you know. Because you are from the people, because you are of the people, because you live with the same realities as everybody else lives with, implausible promises don’t win victories. I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, mis-placed, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end up in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.
Eric Heffer had been on the platform with Kinnock as he delivered his speech, and at this point he stormed off in protest.
Though Kinnock himself was no Trotskyist, nor even a Marxist, it is notable that he confined his criticisms of Militant to the tactical and refrained from criticising their underlying philosophy and goals. Indeed, referring to Aneurin Bevan, he said later in the speech:
Comrades, I offer you this counsel. The victory of socialism, said a great socialist, does not have to be complete to be convincing.
The implication here is that the aims of the Trotskyists are the legitimate aims of a the Labour Party, but that they shouldn’t threaten the intermediate goals of the party. That Militant were revolutionary communists was not a matter that received any attention.
Ultimately the rates rebellion failed. With greater or lesser degrees of fudging, all councils were forced to set rates which abided by the caps. Liverpool reached a settlement with central government at the end of November 1985, involving £30 million loans from Swiss banks. Militant described this as an ‘orderly retreat’, and took to blaming the national Labour Party leadership as well as local unions for the ‘temporary setback’. Derek Hatton was expelled from the party in June 1986 for his membership of Militant.
In terms of its short term goals of increasing recruitment to Militant the events in Liverpool were largely successful. Militant’s internal figures show membership in excess of 8,100 by 1986.53 For comparison, during the 1980’s, Labour Party membership hovered around 250,000. At its peak in 1972, the National Front had around 17,500 members according to Searchlight.
However, this had come at the cost of raising Militant’s profile further and hardening opinions within the Labour Party against the group.
After the showdown in Liverpool, it still took several more years to remove Militant from the party, and they continued to attract attention to themselves. Militant member and Labour MP Terry Fields was jailed for refusing to pay the poll tax in 1991. It was only after the Walton by-election in July 1991 in which Militant member Lesley Mahmood stood against a Labour MP that Labour expelled Fields and Dave Nellist,54 the only remaining Militant members among Labour MPs.
After the expulsions, most Militant members felt that there was no possibility of continuing as an entryist group within the Labour Party, and this was mirrored in the outlook of the CWI internationally. However, a minority faction, notably including Ted Grant, saw this as a temporary setback and wanted to continue the entryist route. The majority won the day, though, and Militant announced its “Open Turn” in 1991. Grant was expelled from the party he had spent much of his life building. Together with Alan Woods, who was expelled at the same time, he founded Socialist Appeal and a group based around that magazine and affiliated with the International Marxist Tendency has remained in the Labour Party since then.
Militant seemed to provoke antagonism wherever they had successes. Broadly speaking, opposition to Militant was motivated by three factors:
- Philosophical: substantive disagreement about goals and values.
- Public relations: fear that Militant’s rhetoric would be off-putting to voters.
- Tribalism: displeasure at seeing a rival group do well.
It should not be underestimated that there were plenty in the party who did have genuine philosophical differences with the Marxists. Those on the right of the party whose vision was in tune with Crosland’s The Future of Socialism would have had a strong preference for reformism over revolution, for the strengthening of trades unions as negotiators in a market economy, and for the Nordic social democracy model. Shortly after the end of the Cold War this became clear with the emergence of the New Labour project. Yet in the 1980’s the centrists saw their only hope outside the Labour Party, leading to the formation of the SDP.
Meanwhile, it is also possible to be somewhat cynical about Militant’s opponents: one can easily imagine that Militant’s aggressive takeovers of local groups must have made a few enemies, regardless of ideology; and some in the Labour Party will have simply been concerned that Militant’s rhetoric was off-putting to potential voters. These were perhaps the dominant factors that led to the expulsion of Militant.
Much of the controversy that has surrounded Militant has focused on whether or not it was in breach of the Labour Party’s constitution, and relatively little attention has been given to what Militant actually stood for. While this is understandable since this was core to the process of expelling Militant, it is nonetheless the case that it left the philosophical ground uncontested. Aiming to create a dictatorship of the proletariat may have been outside of the aims of the Labour Party as a whole, but it was no barrier to membership of the party.
Admittedly Militant was a secretive organisation. They maintained a public front that was at odds with their revolutionary intentions. There was no easily accessible manifesto laying out their revolutionary goals. And yet it was no great secret that they were Trotskyists. Ultimately, the Labour Party, under the influence of figures such as Heffer and Benn, was disinclined to even investigate Militant. As a whole, the Labour Party for a long period felt too much affinity with communism to reject the Trotskyist entryists.
Ken Livingstone’s Trotskyist Supporters
Ken Livingstone was a household name among Londoners for three decades, from leader of the Greater London Council during the 1980’s to Mayor of London in the 2000’s, as well as making frequent television and radio appearances. Though he never adhered to Marxism, or indeed any other well-defined political philosophy, his friends and allies were on the far left of the Labour Party. He was supported during the 1980’s by three publications from the Trotskyist left: Socialist Organiser, published by the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory; London Labour Briefing, edited by Graham Bash, Chris Knight, Keith Veness and others; and later by Socialist Action, published by a secretive Trotskyist group.
In addition to these publications, Labour politician and Trotskyist Ted Knight was a friend of Livingstone’s for many years. Livingstone joined the Labour Party in 1968, and in 1970 met Knight at the Norwood branch. Knight had joined the Labour Party in 1948 and became involved with The Club. He was expelled from the party in 1956 for being a supporter of Socialist Outlook, a paper associated with The Club. He was shortly thereafter a founding member of the Socialist Labour League. In 1970 he was allowed to rejoin the Labour Party: “at the interview I mentioned very firmly that I was a Marxist, that Marxism was a legitimate tendency within the working class movement and that Marxists have the right to be inside the broad party of the working class”.55 Knight and Livingstone, together with Matthew Warburton, worked together to publish a weekly newspaper, the Labour Herald, which was printed at a press owned by Gerry Healy’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party.
London Labour Briefing was launched in 1980 by Graham Bash, Chris Knight and Keith Veness. Jeremy Corbyn became a regular contributor. Chris Knight had previously published The Chartist[^chartist] after having been expelled from Militant in the late 1960’s. One of Chris Knight’s Chartist editorials from 1971 on the subject of preparations for a general strike ends with:
We would immediately proceed to legislate the nationalization of the giant monopolies—Ford, ICI, the Insurance Companies—without compensation and under workers’ control. We would ruthlessly crack down on any attempt to “mutiny” in support of the “Crown” or the old order, if necessary appealing to the troops against their officers, arming the entire working class if need be. That is how we would act if we were in the shoes of the trade union and Labour leaders in the period ahead. That course of action is what we mean by our “socialist programme”. That is how we pose our demand that the TUC and Labour leaders call a General Strike to force the Tories to resign. For us it is part and parcel of the programme of revolution which we openly proclaim.56
The Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory coalesced from Sean Matgamna’s International-Communist League The International-Communist League was formed in 1975 by Sean Matgamna and his followers after their faction, the Trotskyist Tendency, was expelled from the the International Socialists in 1971.
and Alan Thornett’s Workers’ Socialist League, with support from the London Labour Briefing group. Ostensibly it was a broad organisation of the revolutionary left, but in practice it was dominated by Matgamna and Thornett. However, the Socialist Organiser newspaper that they published, along with London Labour Briefing provided a platform for Livingstone in his successful bid to become leader of the Greater London Council in May 1981.
In 1983 the publishers of Socialist Organiser split with Ken Livingstone over the issue of the GLC increasing rates to offset cuts in central government funding of local councils. Socialist Organiser was eventually proscribed by the Labour Party in 1990.
Socialist Action moved in to support Livingstone after he fell out with the Socialist Organiser group over the rates issue. The group are known from their publication of the same name, having previously been the International Marxist Group The International Marxist Group formed in 1961 when Pat Jordan and Ken Coates split from the Revolutionary Socialist League. Prior to joining the RSL they had run the International Group, and it was at the Fourth International’s request that they merged with RSL, but this was not a successful union. After Coates and Jordan left again, the Fourth International decided that their new International Marxist Group would be the the official British section, ending the Fourth International’s association with the RSL.
The IMG was involved in publishing a number of newspapers during its existence: The Black Dwarf, Red Mole, Red Weekly, Socialist Challenge, Black Liberation and Socialism and Socialist Action. Rather than being entirely the product of IMG, these newspapers would instead have a majority of IMG members on the editorial board. In 1968, Tariq Ali joined the IMG and became editor of The Black Dwarf. In autumn 1968 The Black Dwarf published a special edition devoted to Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries, which carried an introduction written by Fidel Castro, as well as a statement by Ali which concluded with: “As for ourselves we can do no better except to declare ourselves for the Cuban revolution and its extension to the whole of Latin America – an ideal for which Che perished – NOT IN VAIN.”57 Ali went on to be a frequent contributor to The Guardian and the London Review of Books.
. When the IMG entered the Labour Party in 1982 they were briefly known as the Socialist League, but fearing a expulsions in the manner of Militant, they reduced the public face of the organisation and adopted code names to avoid detection. The group fragmented in the 1980’s with one part forming the International Group, another part being expelled and founding the Communist League, and the remainder, including John Ross, Simon Fletcher and Redmond O’Neill, continuing to publish Socialist Action. Ross, Fletcher and O’Neill remained closely associated with Ken Livingstone. When Livingstone was Mayor of London, O’Neill became his deputy chief of staff, and Ross was an economic advisor. Livingstone said of Ross and Fletcher, “They aren’t just my closest political advisers… they’re also mostly my best friends.”58
Though ultimately Livingstone’s success in becoming GLC leader would lead the Conservative government to abolish the GLC, during his time in office Livingstone was able to increase the GLC’s funding of left wing voluntary organisations and campaign groups by an order of magnitude. Ken Livingstone has remained a prominent figure both inside and outside of the Labour Party ever since. He left Labour in order to run for Mayor of London against Tony Blair’s wishes in 2000, winning the election. During his time as mayor he offered his support to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, making a deal to provide expertise to the Venezuelan government in return for oil.
We can see then that revolutionary communism was never far from the Labour Party. While the party had done a reasonable job of resisting the Soviet-aligned communists during the 1930’s, by the 1960’s it was doing a poor job of resisting the Trotskyist communists, and continued to do badly until the 1980’s. Furthermore, Trotskyist communism, while it often attracted criticism from the right of the party for its hardline stances, it did not attract criticism qua communism. It was not a decisive barrier to election for the handful of Militant MPs and councillors, and nor for their sympathisers such as Heffer, Benn, and Corbyn. Indeed, even in its pro-Soviet forms, communism was not a barrier for politicians such as S. O. Davies or Arthur Scargill. This is not to say that revolution and the overthrow of parliamentary democracy was a serious possibility during this time, but discussion of it was firmly within the bounds of acceptable discussion and was not uncommon nor unwelcome within the mainstream of the left.
This was not just a failure of the Labour Party. Indeed, Labour’s desire for electoral respectability at least kept some of the more troublesome figures at bay. But across the left more generally there was little hesitation to make alliances with the revolutionary left and no attempt to investigate their record. While there might be annoyance at, for example, the way that the SWP worked its way into popular left campaigns, there was no will to reject them. Many who had nothing to do with the SWP were nonetheless willing to carry their placards on marches. Even Seumas Milne’s and Eric Hobsbawm’s associations with the CPGB did not prevent them from becoming influential figures in their fields.
While the revolutionaries more often looked like the People’s Front of Judea than serious politicians, they had their occasional successes. Moreover, they were accorded a degree of respect despite being in some cases the agents of the Fourth International – an organisation which accepted Lenin’s vicious ideology and was unabashed in its desire to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. However haphazard and inadequate their plans for revolution may have been, given the sad history of communism as it has actually been practised, to treat these revolutionaries as comrades, as the left has done and continues to do, is deeply misguided.
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