Monthly Archives: June 2013

Peter Sedgwick: the dissidents’ dissident


“Peter is a Liverpudlian; his voice betrays the characteristic twang and he can turn on the full accent when he feels like it. He is an eclectic Christian but a member of the Church of England. His first terms are chiefly memorable for a grotesque beard and a gay parasol. He lost both absent-mindedly. In his first term he came to a talk on Communism to disprove Marx…”

This account of Peter Sedgwick comes from an article which appeared in Oxford’s student magazine Isis in February 1956, before the Communist Party went into crisis. This piece by Gabriel Pearson linked the fate of two young Marxists, Raphael Samuel (in this article still Ralph) and Sedgwick. Samuel had joined the Communist Party much earlier, as a schoolboy in London, and appeared at Balliol aged 17 in 1952. By 1956, Samuel had been Secretary of the Communist Club, and had edited the magazine Oxford Left, to some acclaim. He was already showing signs of a talent for nineteenth century history, his later career. “He has helped to make twenty recruits to the Communist Party”, Pearson recorded, “and some seven in Oxford”. Among these recruits was the argumentative Christian, Sedgwick:

Instead of persuading the Communists, Sedgwick was persuaded by them. His first political activities on the left were in defence of the Rosenbergs, and then the campaign for independence for Guiana. Following discussions with Raph Samuel, Sedgwick joined the Communist Party in spring 1954. He became Secretary of the Communist Club, a role he held for a year. He wrote for Oxford Left and Isis, and spoke at meetings of both the Communist and the Labour Club.

“Academically he is distinguished; he gained a First Classical Mods, with apparently no effort. The night before the examination he was found reading Das Kapital. Now he is reading P.P.P. [Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology], and he hopes to research on psychology after Schools.”

The concluding sections of Pearson’s article describe talents which would remain with Sedgwick all his life, “With some effort he has made himself a good speaker and always commands attention. An impish streak of humour endears him to his friends. He has a genius for mischievous and life-like cartoons.” (G. Pearson, ‘Red Idols: Ralph Samuel and Peter Sedgwick’, The Isis, 22 February 1956)

Sedgwick worked as a psychology demonstrator and then as an educational psychologist in Oxford before in his mid-30s beginning a career as a Lecturer in Politics at the Universities of York and Leeds, as a result of which he moved to Shipley near Bradford. The student beard returned; the fate of the umbrella is unknown.

Sedgwick’s name will always be remembered on the left not only for his activism (although that is important) but for the precious evening hours of his best years which he dedicated to translating the Memoirs of Victor Serge.

His friend David Widgery tells the story: “Having been introduced by Pierre Marteau, the French surrealist, to the 1951 Éditions du Seuil in Oxford in 1958, he devoted himself to the preparation of an English edition, teaching himself French to do so. As is well known, Serge was keen to have an English edition and had sent George Orwell a manuscript. And it was Isaac Deutscher (whose biography of Trotsky was the only easily accessible account of the period from an anti-Stalinist perspective) who supported Sedgwick’s proposal to OUP – of all people – to make his translation”

Sedgwick’s authorial introduction to the Memoirs made the case for his subject and for Serge’s unorthodox (I would say, dissident) Marxism:

“It is this continuous record of fundamental unorthodoxy that makes Victor Serge’s record so different from most other ex-Communist autobiographies. Through his personal tenacity and his intellectual pluralism Serge could mentally balance the various risks of political action, hedging, as it were, expectations which for others were staked upon a fanatic’s throw of all or none, and so insuring himself against the chances both of blind commitment and of stark disillusion. Harking back to the turbulent and frightful years of his youth, he could remark simply je ne regrette rien pour moi, and there is the same absence of personal remorse when he recounts his Bolshevik career. The vividness and immediacy of Serge’s recollections do not strike us as being artificially tinted by hindsight; and in fact the judgements he passes on Russian events are very often repeated identically in writings separated by decades, quoted back and forth with a touch of clairvoyant’s vanity.” (

Within IS, Sedgwick was (with Alasdair MacIntyre) one of a few recruits from the New Left milieu. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps in the context of thinking towards his new job at York, he set out to demolish for IS Herbert Marcuse, subsequently the inspiration of the universities’ revolt. Sedgwick attacked Marcuse not (at the easiest point) for his politics, but where he seemed strongest, at his superficial commitment to a “scientific” Marxism:

“In the work of Herbert Marcuse, “matter”, and its institutional science, are held to have vanquished the critical spirit, and we are asked to bear witness to the final triumph of the inert. In the other wing of the disjunction (the modern “Critical School”), it is the spirit that presides in judgment over sullen, soggy matter. The material loop joining theory and practice, which evolution has reeved in the modelling, testing properties of human nervous tissue and its sensori-motor connections, is snapped and de-natured. Practice, now parted from its work of verification, becomes “praxis”, pure will-towards-action, which may be allotted the objective embodiment (e.g. in the party or an idealized class) which a post-Hegelian age requires. Marcuse has avoided the voluntarist path in his solution, only (as we have seen) to fall into a total and enervating determinism” (

Sedgwick was a pillar of IS branches in Liverpool, then Oxford, and then York. “Partly because his name was on the Editorial Board”, Ian Birchall recalls, “I subscribed to a new journal called International Socialism; one of the more fateful decisions of my life.”

Dave Phillips recalls the Sedgwick of the mid-1960s: “Peter definitely fitted my own picture of the radical democratic Marxist – shock of frizzy fair hair, glasses, Trotsky-like, wonderfully dishevelled appearance – and, above all, this sense of a tremendous intellectual energy, of ideas rushing forth, a constant torrent of thought. A man racing to keep up with the rush of his own thoughts – he clearly found speech a hopelessly inadequate vehicle of expression for keeping up, he was so intellectually active and creative.”

Sedgwick’s role in the IS internal debates of 1968-1971 was to prick the pomposity of anyone claiming the mantle of “Leadership”, whether in the Party or the Class. After one Chris Harman speech in support of Cliff’s Leninist turn, Sedgwick leafleted the IS conference with an account of a Bolshevik historian who had produced Lenin’s Collected Works on perforated paper, allowing any quotation to be produced, no matter how badly torn from its context.

Another article in the IS Internal Bulletin began: “I would err grievously in my revolutionary duty, not only to the Party comrades out also to the non-Party masses of the entire world, if I failed to reply to the arch-bureaucratic contribution of Comrade Trotsky in the latest Internal Bulletin…”

And Sedgwick took this same spirit of playful iconoclasm everywhere in the movement. “Once”, Widgery recalls, “when dubbed a ‘Cliffite lapdog’ during an intra-Trotskyist debate on Soviet industrial policy in Minneapolis, he snuffled round the platform on all fours and mimed pissing on his oppponents’ socks before returning to the podium to continue his elegant analysis of the New Economic Policy.”

A 1969 essay for the ISJ on George Orwell rescued that writer from the contempt of the Stalinists and the false praise of the liberals, showing Orwell’s debt to the libertarian Marxism to which Sedgwick saw himself and IS as loyal (

Sedgwick’s surprisingly “Leninist” introduction to Dave Widgery’s collection The Left in Britain argues that around 1968 political conditions in Britain had changed requiring a turn to a daily political struggle, unlike the propaganda habits of the old IS. What enthused Sedgwick about Cliff’s turn to Lenin was not the Sovietology but the promise underlying it that the left could convert itself quickly from being a milieu of students, and become once more what it should always have been, a movement of the poor, of those whose lives were worst stymied by capitalism, and of the workers whose location in the heart of capital accumulation gave them the greatest power to resist:

“Workers are particularly suspicious of people from Marxist groups who show up only when there is some excitement at the factory in the form of a strike, and are nowhere to be seen during the many periods, some of them amounting to years, when the activity of the working class falls short of open strike action. Nor can one play the part of the adept servitor of trade unionism, the technician of facts and figures who just happens to have more time to do research for the shop floor. The Socialist must join the workers’ movement as a trade unionist in his own right, with card, rule-book and box of anti-management tricks, undergoing the same problems of skill and morale in leadership as those he is addressing. His politics must be open: not regurgitated by the yard into every resolution with a practical content but visible to everyone, displayed on his lapel rather than tucked away behind it.”

Within just a couple of years, the IS had converted itself to the SWP, the split with Higgins had taken place, and Labour’s in power had clamped down on unofficial strikes. Sedgwick acknowledged that Cliff’s wager on history had been misplaced. The 1970s and 1980s were not going to be an “Age of Majorities”, and the task facing the SWP was exactly the one that the IS had just spurned, the accumulation of cadres, with humility and humour and a historian’s sense of patience.

Sedgwick’s skewering of what he considered “the SWP fraud” was but the inevitable preliminary to his own departure:

“The case made for the SWP was partly an element in this ‘electoral strategy’. Otherwise there is no particular reason to start an SWP at this moment there is no particular reason, on the other hand, not to start an SWP. Since we cannot, in the present bad political climate, change class reality very much, the conclusion is drawn that we have to perform changes on the name of IS itself, in the delusion that this is some step towards the actual construction of a revolutionary socialist workers’ party. If the CC decided that we should walk around with our bottoms painted bright green, doubtless it would have a electrifying effect on the morale of our membership (for a short time at least). There might even be a case for some such publicity venture; joking apart, we can always do with fresh propaganda on party questions. But what would anyone think of a Party whose Central Committee produced its suggestions for Green Bottoms in a few badly argued paragraphs, circulated, without real District discussion, before a Party Council, got a resounding 99 per cent vote for the proposed face-lift from the Council with virtually no argument on this or the obvious points about the election, and proceed to give us six months to declare ourselves to the world in this new disguise. This is not a party, but a circus. it does not form the basis for a democratic workers party but for a bureaucratic charade, sanctioned by plebiscite without discussion.” (

Sedgwick’s book Psychopolitics (1982) was first of all an attack on “anti-psychiatry”, a mood common to the 1960s (Laing-inspired) and 1980s (postmodernist) lefts, which rejected the category of “mental illness” altogether. An understandable rhetorical device in response to the institution of the public asylum, Sedgwick insisted that the politics of anti-psychiatry was no more than this, a nihilistic and empty rhetorical gesture. “Cynics are, quite simply, people who have no hope and therefore have no capacity to express any demands for the future ….. and the cynic cannot really be a critic; the radical who is only a radical nihilist or a radical tragedian, is, for all practical purposes the most adamant of conservatives.”

Sedgwick’s alternative vision was of consistent demands upon the health services, which would transform and deepen (not negate) the principle of care.

One feature of his book which operates as a standing rebuke to the organisational politics of our recent crisis was Sedgwick’s insistence on translating and popularising the ideas of the writers with whom he disagreed most fiercely. If his readers wanted to know the errors of Foucault, he insisted, they should read and judge them for themselves. We are all familiar with the methods of potted summary, selective quotation and manipulation of positions away from what a person has actually said to “the logic of where they are going”. This was never Sedgwick’s approach. Even more than winning it, he was passionate first of all for actually having the argument.

Much of the book is revised versions of earlier published academic articles, many from the early 1970s (ie from Sedgwick’s “high” period of activism) in IS. That this wasn’t all his theory of psychiatry is apparent from a paper he presented at the Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrist in London in July 1982.

Here he bemoaned the way in which: “the post-war consensus around matters of social welfare is being dissolved in favour of a new set of assumptions which emphasize the individual’s recourse to law or to legally-embodied appeal procedures, even at the expense of more collective rights which were  previously enshrined … in State-sponsored welfare provision … [There is] a serious and unmistakable competition, between the claims of a legally-inspired and individualistic approach and the aspirations of medicine and psychiatry which are grounded in the availability of collective provisions: collective in a double sense, as being both the product of politically organized popular demand and also the expression of structured interventions by the State and other social agencies aligned with the State. It is this dualism between medicine and law, or at a more rarefied level between an individualism founded on contractual civil relations and a collectivism rooted in the institutions of mass democracy and public spending, which I feel needs most justification…” (

The tone of the paper is cautious, very far from Sedgwick’s old approach in which all problems in life could be pushed aside through the sheer motive power of class, humour and logic.

Through all his life, Sedgwick wrote in careful, measured tones. He had the patient dignity of an Atticus Finch. There was however a gap between the calmness of Sedgwick’s writing and the torrent of his life (and his speech). Stephen Lukes’s obituary in the New Statesman implies that over time it was the torrent which won, referring to Sedgwick’s “private tragedy, in which his mind became clouded, amid a sense of political collapse and personal isolation.” Sedgwick was found dead in unexplained circumstances in 1983.

This is how his friend David Widgery chose to remember him: “He dressed like a Basque beatnik, wrote footnotes to his own footnotes, typed (like Serge) in single, uncorrected spacing on flimsy paper, collected tins of mulligatawny … Almost uniquely among the many Marxist intellectuals of the 1956 vintage, [Sedgwick] didn’t just write about the left but made it, shaped it and served it…”

That notion of service is important. Set against the requirements of the contemporary university system for quantifiable output (“publications”, “research assessment”, “metrics”), Sedgwick’s record of just one book in two decades as a university lecturer would be reckoned a failure. But Sedgwick was never primarily an academic; he was first of all an activist.

The tasks he gave his time to – building IS branches, translating Serge, advocating for Cliff’s turns when they were healthy and against when they were not – could by definition have their fruits only in the products of others.

In the same way, Michael Kidron’s genius was reflected not merely in the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy, but in the brilliance of the old International Socialism journal, under his stewardship, and his encouragement of its contributors. And Duncan Hallas’ genius was in the confidence his speeches gave to others.

Sedgwick shared this focus on collective work; on the group. His departure from IS/SWP was a sign not of his weakening but of how far his comrades had travelled.

In his last years Sedgwick had returned to Serge, hoping to find in his first inspiration the explanation for what the left had got wrong and how it might be rescued. Mere fragments of this project survive. One, at least, was published posthumously, an article for History Workshop on Victor Serge, “The Unhappy Elitist”.

Here Sedgwick admitted that Serge had not always been the transparent critic that the left prefers to view him. In the early 1920s, he had kept quiet about acts of repression which had contributed, ultimately, to Stalinism. The fault, Sedgwick maintained, was not his Marxism, but the training provided to him by his early populism, which left him with a depoliticsed, heroic idea of a revolution, and an elitist conception of its leaders’ duties. Such ideas prevented him for several years from truly admitting what a perilous moral stage the revolution was in. The libertarian component to Serge’s personal marriage of Lenin and liberty was simultaneously the source of his initial blindness and his later vision,

“Having counted the costs of Bolshevism’s violence and administrative centralism, Serge makes it clear that they are, for him, acceptable: his judgments about particular facts and issues in the Soviet politics of the time are bent in line with that unswerving acceptance. Consequently, the quality of historical analysis in these early documents of his is crude, inconsistent and sometimes flagrantly deluded. All the same, his rationalizations are of a distinct sort which will shortly enable their transcendence. It is noticeable that Serge still takes the revolution as the object of an ethical scrutiny which is independent of the official justifications of the Leninist regime.” (

It is a brave critic who has the courage to admit that their heroes’ mistakes (and by extension their own) were the product of their very dissidence.

Duncan Hallas; Party and Class


Born in 1925, Duncan’s father was a paver. His mother had been a mill worker from the age of ten, and his grandmother had worked in the same trade from an even earlier age (eight). He used to recall the sheer effort it took his mother to keep the house clean. “Hours it took her, by the mangle, with the stove”. It was a household where politics were openly discussed; he was aware of the Tory victory at the 1935 general election, the Civil War in Spain, and Mussolini’s victory in Abyssinia.

Duncan became an engineering apprentice at 14, joining the huge Metro Vickers engineering plant in Trafford Park where once Harry Pollitt the General Secretary of the Communist Party had worked. “All the electrical work”, he recalled, “was done by women, whereas all the machine work was done by men.” Duncan’s own route to socialism began in the same year. He joined the Young Communist League. The following year, he met Rachel Ryan selling the paper of the (Trotskyist) Workers international League. The very small WIL was in the middle of the merger talks that would lead to the formation of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).

The RCP’s position was that its members should serve in their country’s armed forces and agitate there. Duncan was conscripted into the infantry, the 1st South Lancashire Regiment, and served in France, Belgium and Germany. Later in life, Nigel Harris recalls Duncan keeping a shot gun to shoot pigeons.

In common with other soldiers, Duncan’s regiment was kept in service after the end of the Second World War, defending in his case Ismaliya in the canal zone of Egypt. A platoon sergeant, his troops refused to do guard parade and other duties. For “about three and a half weeks”, Duncan later recalled, “the authorities had no force. The only units they could rely on were the military police. But they were facing a whole infantry division who were trained to fight. So they couldn’t do anything.” Some 23 soldiers were eventually charged, with Duncan receiving 3 months in military prison. In the protest’s aftermath, the troops were demobilised rapidly.

Duncan returned to Metro Vickers, to engineering, and to his former life as a Trotskyist militant. On the RCP’s demise in 1948, he followed Cliff into the Socialist Review Group, and then worked as a tutor for the National Council of Labour Colleges, moving to Edinburgh in 1953. (I remember the contempt with which he uttered the words ‘Ruskin College’, when I was later foolish to bring up in conversation the name of the rival labour education institution).

Around 1954, Duncan dropped out of political activity, to reappear at the 1968 conference of the International Socialists, giving, in Cliff’s reckoning, “the most impressive intervention at the conference.”

The party was growing incredibly fast – quadrupling its membership in the space of a single, revolutionary year. Duncan’s wit, his skills as a speaker and debater, all helped to hold together what might otherwise have been an unsustainable mix of worker-activists, impressionable students, long-term cadre and new members.

Something of the tone of Duncan’s then Marxism is captured by a 1971 essay, ‘Towards a Revolutionary Socialist party’, which was then re-published with other essays by Cliff and others, in a collection ‘Party and Class’:

“The self-education of militants is impossible in an atmosphere of sterile orthodoxy. Self-reliance and confidence in one’s ideas are developed in the course of that genuine debate that takes place in an atmosphere where differences are freely and openly argued. The “monolithic party” is a Stalinist concept. Uniformity and democracy are mutually incompatible.”

“Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”

It is also worth noting the relative humility with which Duncan (in common with other IS authors) put the case for the International Socialists: a group several times larger than any party now to be found on the British left, more active and better-implanted in a much more confident working class. He began by noting that for many years the left in Britain (as a whole) had been noteworthy for its sectarianism,

“The root cause of the sort of sectarianism that has plagued the British left is the isolation of socialists from effective and influential participation in mass struggles. The isolation is rapidly diminishing but its negative effects – the exacerbation of secondary differences, the transformation of tactical differences into matters of principle, the semi-religious fanaticism which can give a group considerable survival power in adverse conditions at the cost of stunting its potentiality for real development, the theoretical conservatism and blindness to unwelcome aspects of reality – all these persist.”

IS sought to break with sectarianism; it did not pretend to be anyone’s vanguard:

“The[se effects] will be overcome when, and only when, a serious penetration and fusion of layers of workers and students outside sectarian circles has been achieved. The International Socialism group intends to make a significant contribution to that penetration. Without having any illusions that it is “the leadership” the group exists to make a theoretical and a practical contribution to the regeneration of socialism in Britain and internationally.” (

Duncan’s speeches, Nigel Harris recalls “were remarkable for clarity, precision, for consistency, without frills or pretensions – and for a solid non-conformist northern Englishness … Duncan’s strength was in a plain republican style, honed before the mirror in the morning bathroom.”

It was not just how he spoke, but what he spoke about, the ease with which Duncan would pass from the ancient Assyrians to the Oriental Mode of Production, from the class forces beneath the fall of the Roman Empire to the history of the international labour movement, Marxian economics, historical materialism and philosophy.

In the early 1970s, Duncan edited the SWP’s Internal Bulletin, which then appeared monthly in a print run of 1350 copies.

Paul Foot recalled working with Duncan on Socialist Worker: “He would grab himself a disgusting coffee, light up an infernal cigarette, bark out testy comments about the state of the world, and then, grabbing a biro, would scribble out in longhand an impeccable editorial. He was the most coherent socialist I ever knew, whether he was writing or speaking.”

In 1975, the International Socialists suffered the most protracted (and second-nastiest) split of the organisation’s entire history. The definitive account was published years afterwards by the split’s main victim, Jim Higgins, then a journalist on Socialist Worker, and before that the party’s national secretary (

During the four years of the Heath government (1970-4), IS grew rapidly, both in terms of membership and audience. The paper reached its peak sale of around 40,000 copies a week. A party which had recently been a mere collection of former students took on something of the character of a workers’ party. From the start of the Labour government,  there were fewer strikes, and the party began to stgnate. Cliff, as was his habit, sought to deal with the crisis by moving around the figures in the leadership, demoting Higgins and Roger Protz, the editor of Socialist Worker.

To Cliff’s surprise, the party’s second-rung leadership held firm in support of Higgins, with the party’s industrial militants in particular backing the victims of this purge. And when I say industrial militants, this battle was not 2013 in reverse: the SWP’s shop steward members were then seriously implanted in industry, and had played a prominent part in successful campaigns such as the miners’ victory at Saltley Gates. They were genuinely workers, shop stewards who had led mass strikes, with real roots in the factory democracy of the time.

Jim Higgins, Roger Protz, Ross Pritchard (printers’ union activist and founder of the SWP printshop), Harry Wicks (one of the few remaining Trotskyists of the 1930s generation), the Birmingham engineers, and the best of the party’s industrial cadre were now in open revolt against Cliff. Improvising furiously, Cliff denounced his critics, imagining new errors to blame them with and generating a self-serving assessment of the political period. Only a party of youth, Cliff now argued, could stand firm against Labour’s betrayals, and the support they were receiving from the shop stewards as well as the union bureaucracy.

In Higgins’ recollection, “He informed us that Socialist Worker had entirely the wrong focus, the emphasis on advanced militants was misconceived. The people moving to revolution were the young and traditionless, while their elders were bent, having established comfortable niches for themselves in the shop steward’s committees and union branches … At the time I failed to realise that Cliff did not believe in his prescription any more than I did. A moment’s reflection would have indicated that … [if Cliff had believed what he was now arguing then his] books on Incomes Policy and Productivity Bargaining were an exercise in daydreaming, not to speak of a more or less total denial of Leninism. If it meant that the whole trade union machine, both official and unofficial, was rigged, then our first task would be to see how we could assist in building new revolutionary syndicates, an essay into dual unionism, another Industrial Workers of the World.”

For most of its duration, the Opposition was marshalled by Hallas. Nigel Harris stood aloof from it and voted with Cliff: “The more messy the fight, the more Cliff dug his feet in until all his efforts were single-mindedly directed, not to persuading anyone, but to digging out Duncan, Jim [Higgins] and the rest, regardless of the cost to the organisation. In the end, Cliff and his supporters carried the day and the opposition was expelled or left in rage … Before the final catastrophe, Duncan had a long talk with Cliff and decided to join him.”

There has never been a proper explanation of why Duncan changed sides at the eleventh hour. I like to think that maybe some of Nigel’s own reasoning applies to Duncan too: “Most of us in the leadership were bewildered, rooted from our beginning in the politics embodied in Hallas and Higgins, but knowing Cliff’s genius for sensing trends ahead of us all and knowing that, even if the opposition won, they would never rebuild a new SWP out of the fragments left behind by the split. We were given only one wager, and if it failed, we could not start again.”

Higgins, to his immense credit, was able to recall this episode without rancour: “After a lengthy discussion with Cliff, Duncan informed us that he no longer wished to be associated with our opposition. It has to be said that this was disappointing. Not only was he one of the more persuasive speakers and writers in the group but he was also the most vigorous proponent of our original protest.”

Duncan’s “reward”, if that is the right word, was a further twenty years in the leadership, speaking to local branch meetings, drinking afterwards with activists until closing time.

Duncan was immensely popular within the organisation. I remember watching him speak at Marxism, and the rapt faces of his audience. He spoke with authority and a gentle humour. His tone was simple and direct. There was no artifice about him at all; he was in his element, a worker at the head of a party which if it was not very working-class (unlike the old IS), at least grasped the necessity of recruiting workers to socialism.

He was without ambition for himself. You could not imagine Duncan selling out a strike; you could not imagine Duncan engaging in the long wars of petty intrigue necessary to establish a Professorial chair.

I was fortunate to be in a branch with Duncan at the end of the 1990s after his retirement from the leadership of the SWP, and even to lodge briefly in the same house as him. I recall vividly the friends who gave Duncan the greatest support in this period. None are in the leadership of today’s organisation.

For a figure who had spent so long in the party’s senior positions Duncan had surprising reserves of scepticism. I remember going with him to a party conference and sitting with him as the sheets were distributed bearing the list of the next year’s Central Committee. I should explain that in marked contrast to its predecessor of twenty years before (or indeed its successor today), the Central Committee of the SWP was then a very stable organisation, the slate was never challenged at conference, its occupants appeared to have a job for life.

An announcement form the chair explained that the forms had to be returned for security reasons. For some strange reason, that year’s list had been printed on a different colour of paper to all the other pages in our delegates’ packs. “You know why they want them back”, Duncan muttered to a friend, “So they can put the same list in the packs for next year’s conference.”

Frail now, and only able to walk with a stick, Duncan remained extraordinarily loyal to the party (only a true hack would fail to gasp the close intersection of scepticism and loyalty). One week we began a new sale at a sweatshop in east Hackney. We continued this sale for four weeks, typically selling more copies of our Turkish paper, but always selling one or two Socialist Workers, to the mostly-female mostly-immigrant workforce. By the fourth week, the branch lacked a second person to continue the sale. I spoke to the meeting, with as much passion as I could muster, stressing the political importance of this work. While twenty-or-more of us recent ex-student comrades stared guiltily at the floor, Duncan Hallas waved his stick in the air. This was Cliff’s politics – always seeking to raise theory to the level of practice. Whether he could walk or not, Duncan insisted on doing the sale.

Michael Kidron and the Permanent Arms Economy


For a new member of the International Socialists in the early 1960s, the public face of the organisation was not Paul Foot (still in Glasgow), nor Chris Harman (then a raw student recruit), nor Duncan Hallas (working as an adult lecturer, in temporary retirement from active politics). Tony Cliff was prominent, but he was not the only strong personality within the group. Cliff’s publisher and IS’s guiding mind was Michael Kidron.

Nigel Harris who joined IS in the early 1960s came into IS though the good influence of Kidron rather than Cliff (Birchall, Cliff, p211). He was not the only one. James D. Young also came into IS through a friendship with Kidron who he met in Oxford in 1955.

Born in South Africa in 1930 (thirteen years after Cliff), Kidron’s own conversion to socialism had begun in 1944. He had fallen ill on a Zionist youth camp in Johannesburg, an entire continent’s width away from his home in Capetown. A hospital visitor read him Stalin’s ‘A Short Course of the History of the CPSU(B)’. “It was a grey volume,” Kidron later recalled. The result of the attempted indoctrination was that after weeks of this attention, “I was foreseeably driven towards Trotskyism.”

Kidron’s elder sister Chanie met and was courted by Ygael Gluckstein. Michael met Cliff briefly but remained in Palestine for a further eight years, arguing against Zionism and translating Rosa Luxemburg. He eventually arrived in London in 1953, joining Chanie and Cliff in the Socialist Review Group. His arrival, he recalls, transformed the group’s prospects. Before he came, there were just six of them. His arrival spurred them on to seven. “Within two months of coming, I was the editor of Socialist Review”. Making best use of his time as a research student, it became a regular monthly publication, and then, three years later, a fortnightly.

Kidron edited the IS’s magazine for its first five years, from 1960 to 1965. “It was a very personally warm period”, Kidron later recalled, “And the group was so small and so obviously ineffectual and, within our very hard class analysis, we could say what we liked. We were searching round for a little bit of soil to drop a seed into. Cliff himself was shifting around. One morning he woke up as Rosa Luxemburg, another he was Lenin, the third Trotsky. And very occasionally he was Marx.”

James D. Young memory of the International Socialists is of a group that was culturally “Jewish”, i.e. discursive, argumentative, and held together by feelings of intense, personal loyalty towards Cliff, Kidron and the leadership. Formal politics played a part too, “What kept the Group together and allowed the young members to recruit new members was the emphasis on libertarian Marxism in the concrete shape of workers’ control, workers’ democracy and the egalitarianism seen in the Paris Commune of 1871 and the early stages of the Russian Revolution.”

Kidron’s intellectual contribution to IS was the idea of the Permanent Arms Economy. Chris Harman has summarised Kidron’s theory as follows: “His central argument was that capitalism was militarised to a degree unknown before in peacetime. This militarisation may have arisen out of the struggle between rival empires to colonise the rest of the world, but had taken on a life of its own. The sheer scale of arms spending had produced a massive growth of manufacturing production, but had also reduced the tendency towards periodic crises. It provided a guaranteed market for key sections of industry. And it reduced upward pressure on Marx’s ‘organic composition of capital’, so offsetting the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The system had brought stability by becoming more barbaric than ever before. And along with the barbarism went a waste of human resources on an enormous scale.”

The Permanent Arms Economy (PAE), in its original elaboration, was intended to characterise the likely evolution of the world economy – for a considerable period to come. This can be seen in the way Kidron explained the theory to a passing American journalist George Thayer, who interviewed him in 1964:

“Kidron feels that capitalism has stabilized itself on the basis of its expenditure on arms by exporting inflation which, he claims, has minimized the fluctuations of ordinary business cycles. He believes that this stabilizing will become increasingly more viable in the 1970s when Russia reaches the point of military strength equal to that of the West. This may lead, he adds, to a nuclear war which could only be averted by workers’ control of the state and industry. His solution is based, he says, on a re-examination of Trotsky’s analysis that private ownership is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism. Kidron claims that, on the contrary, capitalism is only the unplanned accumulation of wealth and that Trotsky’s stress on nationalization as a means to material abundance must be replaced by stress on workers’ control as a means to human freedom.”

The emphasis on stabilizing factors can also be seen in Kidron’s article ‘ A Permanent Arms Economy’, published in IS in 1967 ( In a 6,000 word piece, less than a sixth is devoted to the “slow erosion of arms expenditure at the periphery and its increasing concentration at the core”, the rising capital intensity in the arms industry, and the tendencies towards increased unemployment, all of which might bring revolution back into play (the only alternative Kidron could then foresee to the continuation of this stage of capitalism). Five sixths of the piece is given over to spelling out the factors which tend to make arms expenditure permanent. Kidron’s 1968 book Western Capitalism since the War is very similar.

The SWP’s present analysis of the breakdown of PAE is that the dynamics which were stabilising capitalism (i.e. arms spending) were sustained by fewer and fewer of the major powers (essentially just America and Russia), and that this represented a massive levy on these particular economies, both of which were in relative stagnation by the end of the 1960s compared to rivals who were not involved in expenditure on this scale, with the Soviet Union in particular never recovering its postwar growth levels. The world drew back from the arms race, and the PAE ceased to operate on a sufficient scale to stabilise the system as a whole.

This argument is only partially foreshadowed in Kidron’s 1967 and 1968 statements of PAE. He was certainly alive to the contradictions between the Franco-German and the American economies and at times you feel that he could sense the possibility of a non-revolutionary solution to the arms race. But even in Western Capitalism Since the War a book for the hardly-revolutionary publishers Penguin, Michael Kidron preferred to end by emphasising the prospects for revolutionary change rather than any other possibility: “Western capitalism is once again creating conditions for the convergence of working-class protest and revolutionary politics that could change the world. Whether or not that convergence will take place in the seventies depends as much on the revolutionaries as on anything discussed here.”

Kidron eventually broke with IS in the mid-1970s, signalling his departure with a 1977 article ‘Two Insights don’t make a theory’, noting the fragmentation of the state capitalist economies, their strength compared to domestic capitals but their weakness within the system as a whole. He complained that the group’s ideas were losing pace with the development of capitalist reality, “Although the International Socialists and their forerunners in the Socialist Review group were known as the “state caps” for many years, and presented a “state capitalist” analysis as their central, distinguishing tenet, our collective expressed view has not kept pace with the formation and consolidation of state capitalism as a world system; and the analytical variant of “state capitalism” current in the organisation remains locked into the limited partial insight of its original formulation.”

Kidron asked aloud whether he had been right to see PAE as the dynamic feature of the long boom. Perhaps it been rather the growth of cities, the integration of millions of former peasants into an urban capitalist economy, etc:

“Assuming the foundations of the state capitalist system to have been effectively laid during the second world war, it is hard to sustain the view that it was the permanent arms economy that fuelled the long boom. On the contrary, such expenditure must have worked towards stagnation. And if in reality heavy spending on arms coincided with an unprecedented expansion of capital, it can only be because the effects of arms vending were overpowered by the effects of something much more fundamental – the changes that attended the consolidation of the state capitalist system; changes that redirected vast working populations from barely-productive work in agriculture towards highly productive occupations in industry; changes that reduced the amount of social capital required for the new workers and so sharply lightened the capital structure throughout the world; changes that increased the technical division of labour sharply arid reduced duplication of effort as capitals themselves grew to national proportions. On this reading it was despite the arms economy, not because of it, that the first years of state capitalism were years of release of the productive forces and of expansion.” (

If Kidron was right – and I am not an economist, so I raise this only as a question – might his refinement of PAE not point us towards a better explanation of the changes to the world economy in the past 30 years? Under this approach, the “second boom” for 20 years from the mid-1980s would be explained by the same factors which Kidron had identified in 1977, urbanisation and rapid technological development, or, in a word, globalisation. These factors are clearly not altogether exhausted (India’s and China’s continued growth strongly indicates their continuation) but their declining power would be reflected in the weakening of the world economy from 2008 in particular.

This refinement would not, as Kidron argued, refine PAE out of existence, but a sense of PAE’s dual consequence (as both stabiliser and break) might enable us to have a theory of the economy beyond (for example) Chris Harman’s developed answer, which was that growth levels in the economy went into decline from the early 1970s and have never picked up since. The weakness of Harman’s approach, of course, was that it allowed very little analytical space for the real boom which the economy did see especially between about 1998 and 2008 – a pattern very visible if we see the world not only from England or even America but also from South Africa, India, China or Brazil – nor indeed, for the sharp decline that the economy has seen in the last five years.

I have described Kidron’s theory and its political utility; it would be wrong to separate it from his personality and the ideas he had for the development of the group. If the arms economy was a permanent economy, it followed that IS had in front of it several years in which it could grow, without needing to be a mass party, without formulating perspectives for the class as a whole, without the bluster which characterised orthodox Trotskyism in Britain, and against which the International Socialists polemicised very effectively in the 1950s and early 1960s.

George Thayer’s description of IS’ virtues is revealing. He sees the group as very small. Their lack of size was however compensated for by an “intellectual” approach (not to be confused with an “academic” one, Thayer was well aware that IS was competing in “the political arena”, in the Labour Party, and among young workers). “In their own words, they carry on a ‘Marxist dialogue’, presenting new twists to old theories, reinterpreting Socialist needs in light of present developments, and fending off those theses which they deem as no longer suitable.”

In this context that it is worth noting Kidron’s refusal to describe the IS as “Trotskyist”. According to Thayer, “He claims that the group is not Trotskyist but Trotskyist-derived, pointing out that Socialism is his first concern and that his conclusion may only incidentally incorporate the thoughts and these of Trotsky. He adds that he welcomes all Socialist thought – from Marx, Lenin, E. V. Debs or anyone else – if it can be of assurance to him.”

One of Kidron’s fellow International Socialists Dave Widgery later recalled his “inward groan” as Kidron arrived to address some building workers during the industrial agitation of the late 1960s wearing a chamois jacket instead of the issue Trotskyist rig-out. “But they loved the speech … and the bloody jacket.”

Widgery concluded: “What Kidron’s life asks is what kind of a Marxism should we adopt to go beyond the Left’s patriarchal, puritanical, pre-electronic, almost deliberately unpopular presentation of itself? A Marxism that doesn’t lose rigour, traditions and an understanding of what Kidron calls “the system’s major, seismic, fault. The conflict between labour and capital in production.””

Our goal is democracy


I had seen her photographed, standing with friends in Gezi Park. I knew that she subscribed to the programme of the Taksim Solidarity Platform (“We do not accept the construction of Taksim Military Barracks, and we will not allow anyone to loot our parks and our living spaces…”). Once, a long time ago, we had stood together on picket lines outside drab, Victorian council offices in east London. So I felt entitled to ask; what, now are you marching for?

Her one word answer was unsurprising but still instructive: “democracy”.

This very week an NGO in Cairo reported that during May the country had seen 1,300 protests, or an average of two an hour, 42 a day, and 325 a week. Ask in Tahrir Square, and I don’t doubt the same question would deliver nine times out of ten exactly the same reply. We say the word democracy so many times, it threatens to become meaningless, and yet the desire it expresses is so basic and still dramatically unfulfilled.

The last three decades have seen the most dramatic increase in the rates of exploitation in every country, with all of us working harder and longer and for less. Common spaces such as Gezi Park have been enclosed, typically not for governments but for the benefit of private companies. In these circumstance the old collective fear of the inevitable rise of the machines (in which an army of robots stood for million of men and women standing besides lathes), gives rise to new, digital fantasies. The number of business in Britain has grown from 3 million at the start of the millennium to 4.5 million now.

The average daily turnover in shares at the London Stock Exchange was already £1 billion in 2000, today it is a staggering £5 billion. While we sleep, armies of intangible interests are bought into being, wage virtual wars on behalf of their corporate creators, are destroyed and constantly re-made

The running down of the old, inefficient bureaucratic welfare systems, has brought all of us into much more direct, even intimate, relationships with the market . “The bourgeoisie”, Marx and Engels wrote, “wherever it has got the upper hand … has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.” Those words describe the world of today so much better than even than the societies of 30 or 25 years ago.

Even while neo-liberalism refuses us any meaningful decisions at all in our lives, at the same time it prospers on a false narrative of choice. In the bad old days, there were just four television stations, now there are 400. (So many programmes to choose from, but why won’t any channel commission a Solomon Hughes, or a Brendan Montague, to give the politicians and their paymasters hell?).

In the same way that a supermarket customer can choose between two dozen different brands of detergent (all of which are produced by subsidiaries of Proctor and Gamble); so the people planning a new GP surgery can contract under PFI terms with Carillion or Balfour or Kier or any one of around 40 major construction companies. But what they are not allowed to do is to build without multinational involvement, and without signing up to complex financial arrangements under which the companies (as a group) will profit to the tune of ten or more times their actual spend.

The anger of the voters becomes the theme of elections. In almost every country, the primary motivation of the electorate is to punish the incumbent party. This mood of anti-politics reproduces itself in the small just as much as the big: in council elections, in union elections, at meetings in bitter interactions between former friends.

Socialists should be uniquely well-placed to relate to this general desire for a greater say. At the very core of our politics is the idea that we want to complete the democratic project left incomplete under capitalism. We want workers’ control of their workplaces, tenants’ control of their homes, women’s control of their bodies…

This was why Tony Cliff published his pamphlet about Rosa Luxemburg, all those years ago, to agree with her criticisms of the Bolsheviks, and to side with her in championing the class over a minority purporting to act in its name: “The heart of Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution, as of all she wrote and said, was a belief in the workers, the conviction that they, and they alone, are capable of overcoming the crisis facing humanity. She fervently believed that workers’ democracy is inseparable from proletarian revolution and socialism…” (

By quoting Cliff, I do not mean to separate his ideas from the general mood of the best of the post-1956 left. CLR James’ writing on direct democracy (, the ideas of a Dunayveskaya, or a Castoriadis, were all cut from the same cloth.

For a reader with a sense of the left’s history, it is a salutory experience to go from those writers, brimful with enthusiasm for the mission of winning direct democracy, to the present-day left, cautious as it is so often in its support of revolutionaries who might upset a regional balance of power, and near-mute in articulating a democratic assault on capitalism.

The left is, it seems, more defensive than the right in the face of the new anti-politics. Precisely because we say that we are better, people have higher expectations of us. People are watching us. And every time a socialist behaves in a way which is intended to make other people feel powerless, their pettiness and spite turns someone, somewhere off politics for ever. We know the risks; obsessed by them, we fear to say anything at all.

The long, withdrawing roar of 1917 also leaves an immense legacy of harm. You may recall the fatal quip which did for Gordon Brown: “from Stalin to Mr Bean in just a few weeks”. The first half of the joke was just as effective as its end. Nobody wants to be ordered around anymore; the method of the command just doesn’t work.

Meanwhile those of us still in the party would be wise to admit that there is also a close connection between what one friend described to me recently as “your leadership’s lack of any capacity for mere human empathy” during our recent crisis, and the way in which the most interesting of this year’s new left alliances (i.e. ACU, LU) have some of the character of survivor’s groups. Our mistakes were so awful that anyone trying to rebuild the left is going to have to say, “we are not at all like them. We have a different culture of openness and free discussion”. If they fail to make that clear, and if they fail to keep strictly to their promise, they simply will not survive.

“I am off to resist, I will be back”

There could be resources to reorient the left, if we chose to use them. Brian Roper’s Marxist History of Democracy finds a recurring tension between two kinds of democratic practice: the class struggle democracy of ancient Athens, and the top-down passive Republicanism of ancient Rome; 1649 versus 1688; October 1917 as against February. History, in this model, is but a series of approximations, some better worked out than others, towards a future of active participation.

Paul Foot’s last book The Vote describes the “undermining” of the allure of universal suffrage, and in particular of social democracy, which he portrays as the principal carrier of the original vision of the Chartists. He is right, but more is at stake even than that. The whole idea of revolutionary socialism is that in a different society people might control every aspect of their lives, even those economic relationships which capitalism removes from democratic scrutiny. If we can’t win the battle for the meaning of people’s scepticism about the parliamentary road, then we will simply go further along the Weimar path towards a proliferation of competing right-popular parties, each more radical than the last, and each with a greater base than our own.

The most energetic traditions in five years’ time will be those which can relearn habits of humility and co-operation and fruitful internal and external debate; those which can instil in their members a cumulative sense of their increasing involvement, their own essential powerfulness.

We won’t retake society unless we begin with our own groups. It’s no good having Tahrir square without toppling Mubarak. The dictator, it seems, is not located anywhere else but in our own hearts. In the caution of an opposition that dares not come out openly and confront the leadership. In a leadership which will do nothing to acknowledge or confront the draining away of people, time, ambition. Mubarak is our seemingly-shared willingness to delay making the changes which must come.

We have to break the habit that new ideas are initiated by a centre, and the majority of the organisation (if it has any role at all) is at best a sounding board for others’ ideas, or a mechanism for their transmission to that great, unloved general public. That top-down model is the opposite of what socialism was ever supposed to be about.

Democracy begins with the way in which we  speak to ourselves; in that moment of self-realisation that no-one is better than you, and you are not better than anyone else. Democracy begins with teaching others to address each other and you with respect. Democracy begins with regime change.

When trade unionism changed: 1888-1891


The total number of trade union members in Britain has fallen by very roughly half in 30 years, from around 13 million in 1979 to just over 7 million people today. Superficially, if we see trade unions primarily as large structures, with buildings, employees, funds, etc, this decline has had surprisingly little effect. Some unions have shrunk from significant bastions to mere shells (notably the miners’ union NUM, and Community, which was previously the steel workers’ ISTC and the textile union KFAT). But these are very much the exceptions. If we look beyond then, what is really striking is the mixture of continuity (at least in terms of membership base), and merger (i.e. unions have fused their structures to manage their decline).

Forty years ago, like today, there were private sector unions with a base in manufacturing (AEEU, MSF, EEPTU, now merged to form UNITE), transport (TGWU, now part of UNITE, and RMT) and sales (USDAW), and public sector unions with a base in the civil service (CPSA, now PCS), teaching (NUT, NASUWT, and the NATFHE and AUT further and higher education unions now merged as UCU), the utilities (FBU, and UCW now CWU), and local government and health (NALGO, NUPE and COHSE, now UNISON), as well as some “general” unions which straddled the public-private divide (notably GMB).

Overall trade union membership has fallen, and what unions do has subtly altered, but at the level of organisation this broad pattern has not significantly changed. Were the trade unions to grow rapidly, of course, we should expect these structures to change very quickly; as has always been the case during past strike waves.

Two weeks ago, I posted an article discussing the weaknesses of trade unions in Britain, their poor implantation in the private sector especially, and the problems of the ageing and isolation of trade union reps. In the same article, I also tried to sketch out what a renewal of trade unionism might look like. “The next economic upturn may look quite a lot like New Unionism, when the “old”, skilled unions which had dominated the TUC for 20 years (eg the engineers) played little part, while the newest and most militant part was played by workers in industries which were previously considered un-organisable because of their economic precariousness (ie dockers, gas workers). New Unionism took place after a period of five or six years in which Britain’s first socialist party the SDF had organised, sustainedly, among the unemployed. And a disproportionate part was played by socialists who had recently been recruited to the SDF and were influenced by it. For the dockers and the gas-workers, imagine call centre workers, the drivers who deliver online purchases, workers in the huge out-of-town retail factories; they are our generation’s potential equivalents.” (

The purpose of this piece is to fill in a little of the historical detail, to show what the upturn of 1888-1891 meant, and in particular how socialists were involved in it.

Britain’s first recognisably socialist party, the Democratic Federation was founded in 1883, taking the full name Social Democratic Federation (or SDF) a year later. When asked what their party was about SDF members would come up with various familiar answers, the collective ownership of the means of production, internationalism, and above all the idea that the working class could change society through class struggle. Belfort Bax put the idea like this: “The doctrine of the class war as the general historical method of realising the new form of society” ( Class struggle was a recurring theme of socialist propaganda; and can be found routinely in the writings of such SDF “celebrities” as H. M. Hyndman, Harry Quelch and others. But what qualified as “class struggle” for the SDF was mysterious.

To properly grasp the Federation’s history, you have to bear in mind two things. First, the SDF was the pioneer. If it had a model it was the Chartist campaign of the 1840s. Former Chartists were a definite presence within the SDF; they attended its meetings, and argued in support of different factional positions taken before by long-dead Chartist leaders. But Chartism was a campaign rather than a party. It, unlike the SDF, was neither socialist nor Marxist. It left very few practical lessons as to how to organise. And there had been no parties in the intervening years which offered any other sort of model either. Second, the SDF long preceded the “Leninist turn” which all the Communist Parties, starting with the Russian one, were expected to implement after Lenin’s death. It was expressly a multi-tendency party, soon working in collaboration with other forces on the left, several of which (trade unions, secular societies, the Fabians) shared an overlapping membership with it. Inevitably, the Federation’s politics were chaotic; one week’s campaign might contradict that week’s headline in Justice. In an earlier period, historians tended to see the organisation as sharing all the foibles of its dominant personality, the former Tory stockbroker H. M. Hyndman. The more we know about the SDF the less true that seems.

The first campaign in which the SDF took part to give the idea of “class struggle” any specific meaning concerned the rights of unemployed workers. This began with a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in February 1886 over the right to work which ended with windows smashed and Mayfair shops looted. The campaign then revived in November 1887 with further marches which were attacked by the police, and at which hundreds of people injured, and one demonstrator Alfred Linnell killed. Some 120,000 people are said to have attended his funeral on 27 November 1887. The campaign, despite its flaws, brought the SDF’s name into the public domain, and earning it a respect (and notoriety) out of all proportions to its numbers.

In 1884, the SDF split over the autocratic internal habits of its leader H. M. Hyndman, and various rebels including William Morris and Marx’s daughter Eleanor, founded a new organisation the Socialist League. Understandably, given his immense stature within the international workers’ movement, historians have tended to followed Frederick Engels’ verdict on the 1886 riots and on the SDF without always acknowledging the extent to which Engels was both correct and factionally-minded in his criticisms. This is how he described the riots to Laura Lafargue:

“Of course you know what a meeting at 3pm in Trafalgar Square consists of: masses of the poor devils of the East End who vegetate in the borderland between working class and Lumpenproletariat, and a sufficient admixture of roughs and ‘Arrys to leaven the whole into a mass ready for any “lark” up to a wild riot [about nothing]…”

“To make a revolution – and that [about nothing] when and where [Hyndman and Co] liked – they thought nothing else was required but the paltry tricks sufficient to ‘boss’ an agitation for any vile fad, packed meetings, lying in the press, and then, with five and twenty men secured to back them up, appealing to the masses to ‘rise’ somehow, as best they might, against nobody in particular and everything in general, and trust to luck for the result” (

Subtly, the focus of socialist agitation was to change over the next three years from the East End unemployed to groups of workers in the same districts who were at the border of secure and insecure employment. The three best known incidents which illustrate the change were the Match Girls strike of summer 1888, the recruitment of 3,000 workers at Beckton Gas Works to a new general union in spring 1889, and the London dock strike of summer 1889. The latter especially involved tens of thousands of workers, and brought, as the historian John Charlton has shown, around 50 other workplaces out in a movement which came close to becoming a London-wide general strike (J. Charlton, It just went like Tinder (London: Redwords, 1999), pp. 98-9). Engels’ enthusiastic account of the dock strike shows how much had changed:

“Hitherto the East End was bogged down in passive poverty. Lack of resistance on the part of those broken by starvation, of those who had given up all hope was its salient feature. Anyone who got into it was physically and morally lost. Then last year came the successful strike of the match girls. And now this gigantic strike of the lowest of the outcasts, the dock labourers … This host of utterly despondent men, who every morning when the dock gates open fight a regular battle among themselves to get the closest to the fellow who does the hiring, literally a battle waged in the competitive struggle among the much too numerous workers — this motley crowd thrown together by chance and changing daily in composition has managed to unite 40,000 strong, to maintain discipline and to strike fear into the hearts of the mighty dock companies. How glad I am to have lived to see this day!” (

Prior to 1889, there were already unions. The most important was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (the distant ancestor to today’s UNITE), while others included the Operative Bricklayers’ Society, the Amalgamated Society of Iron Founders, and the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. The “Old Unionism” had given birth to the TUC in 1868; its typical forms were unions which sought to represent a single profession, generally skilled workers. The various Amalgamated Societies offered a multiplicity of workplace benefits (insurance against death, sickness, or unemployment); their strike funds however were deliberately modest. In The History of Trade Unionism (1894) and Industrial Democracy (1897), Beatrice and Sidney Webb praised their leaders as a “class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity”. Yet the workers who signed up to the “New Unionism” of 1888-1891 were not working in the industries which had previously been organised.

New Unionism broke from Old Unionism in many important respects. It was a movement of the unskilled, rather than skilled workers. They were “general unions”, their intention was to recruit all the workers in a particular workplace or industry. Socialists played a prominent part in the leadership of the strikes and of the new unions. The New Unions, at least initially, prioritised strike pay over other benefits. In consequence, they tended to be dismissive of both the politics and even the social base of the Old Unionism. At the TUC, according to John Burns, “the ‘old’ unionists looked like respectable city gentlemen; wore very good coats, large watch chains, and high hats… Among the new delegates not a single one wore a tall hat. They looked workmen; they were workmen. They were not such sticklers for formality or court procedure, but were guided more by common sense.”

Eleanor Marx, who was delegated by the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers [NUGW] to attend the International Socialist Workers’ Congress of 1891, explained the differences between the Old and New Unions as follows:

“It is an indisputable fact that for many years the old Unions have ceased to be an active and militant body, and that the vast mass of the army of labour has been left absolutely outside all organisation by them. Nay, it was to a large extent the aim and object of these old Unions to limit the number of their members and it is only recently that they have begun to recognise the suicidal character of such a policy…”

“The first successful attempt of the so-called “unskilled” workers to do for themselves that which — to their own greatest harm — the “skilled” Unions had never seriously tried to do for them, was in the March of 1889 when the Gas Workers of London determined to organise and to demand what no other body of men had yet, as a body, demanded — an eight hours working day…”

“In spite of many a bitter struggle; in spite of some defeats, [the NUGW] is today the best organised Union of unskilled workers: it counts within its ranks men and women belonging to over seventy different kinds of labour: it has obtained for thousands of men an eight hours day; for thousands upon thousands of others an increase of wages, ranging from five to as much as 50 per cent per week…” (

The transformation from “Old” to “New Unionism” was significantly assisted by the changing industrial perspectives of a generation of young socialist activists, who either were or had been members of the Social Democratic Federation. Most however were in the process of breaking with Hyndman’s leadership. A few biographies give a sense of how important the SDF was to New Unionism:

Annie Besant, the socialist journalist who publicised the struggles of the Bryant and May match-girls, was a member of the SDF having been converted to socialism in late 1885 and had acted as a pall-bearer at Linnell’s funeral in 1887. Following the split between the SDF and the Socialist League she had been suggested as a compromise figure who might edit a joint paper of both the factions (E. P. Thompson, William Morris (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), pp. 395, 524, 761). In 1888, her interest in the Bryant and May factory was sparked by another SDFer, henry Hyde Champion, who had spotted the company’s huge profits. Besant had recently founded a campaigning newspaper, The Link, publishing her account of their working conditions under the headline “White slavery in London”. Encouraged by Beasant the women workers went on strike for 3 weeks. Bryant conceded union recognition. Besant broke with the SDF in 1889, ultimately becoming a Theosophist.

John Burns began speaking on SDF platforms in 1884. In 1886 and 1887 he, even more than Hyndman, was the public face of the party. Jailed for his part in the 1887 riots, Burns’ speech in his defence was published as a pamphlet, “Socialism is a theory of society which advocates a more just, orderly, and harmonious arrangements of the social relationd of mankind than that which prevails now…” Burns became dissatisfied with the leadership of the SDF in 1888-9, writing in his diary that he had dedicated his life to the wrong man [i.e. Hyndman]. An engineer, he was invited into the organising group of the 1889 dock strike, raising money for the strikes, and arguing for action by other groups of workers. He, along with Tom Mann, was used by the strike leader Ben Tillett as a sort of mobile strike news, and picketing service. Burns was needed to call out dockers, and in particular to break up the employer’s attempts to bring in strike-breakers, some from as far away as Belgium. Burns became a left-wing councillor on the LCC (the fore-runner to the GLC) and was elected to Parliament in 1892, becoming in effect a left-wing Liberal.

Will Thorne had joined the SDF in 1884. He did not play a prominent part in the unemployed agitation, but when challenged about it in the Beckton gas works, quoted back at his critics John Burns’ trial speech. At Beckton, the principal issue was the introduction of the “iron man”, a technology for drawing off the coke and increasing the intensity of labour. Thorne began to campaign for an eight hour day (a longstanding piece of Socialist propaganda). He launched the NUGW at a huge meeting in Canning Town Hall, speaking alongside Ben Tillett of the dockers union and Harry Hobart, also of the SDF. Thorne later described New Unionism as “the culmination of long years of Socialist propaganda” (D. Torr, Tom Mann and His Times (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1957), pp. 163-4, 279). Unusually, he remained loyal to Hyndman’s leadership for many years to come. He became an SDF MP and was, like Hyndman, a jingo in 1914-1918.

Eleanor Marx had been a member of the SDF before departing at the time of the Socialist League split. In 1889, she dedicated her spare time to supporting Will Thorne’s activism, including teaching him to read and write. She spoke at the founding meeting of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers and helped to draw up the union’s provisional constitution and served on its executive, including for a time as its President. Under her influence, the union adopted a policy of equal pay for men’s and women’s work as early as 1890.

Another SDF member Ben Tillett had first founded a dock union, the Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union, at Tilbury in 1887. The 1889 strike began when dockers unloading a ship called The Lady Armstrong became dissatisfied with their pay and the deductions operated by sub-contractors. They turned to Tillett for help, and by turning to other dockers for support, he was able to turn a union of a few hundred members into one tens of thousands strong. Tillett was later a socialist on the LCC from 1892 and an candidate for the Independent Labour Party (the fore-runner of today’s Labour Party) at several general elections.

Tom Mann, another leader of the dock strike, had been sent by the SDF in 1888 to recruit miners in the Northumberland coal field. He founded 18 such branches, including one at Ashington with 100 members out of the SDF’s total national membership of just 783 (Charlton, p. 74). During 1889, he served with Burns as a public speaker for the dockers. Mann remained an activist for the longest of his generation. He was in the 1890s the Secretary of the ILP, in 1910-1914, a proponent of revolutionary trade unionism, in 1920, a founder of the Communist Party, and in the 1930s again a supporter of the campaigns of the unemployed.

This generation of SDF or ex-SDF activists was at odds with the dominant policy of their party, which even at the height of the dock strike tended to see the unemployed agitation, rather than the strike, as the appropriate form of socialist propaganda among the poor. The SDF newspaper Justice for example, responded scornfully to the dockers’ victory, with an article in September 1889 “congratulat[ing] on the v ery little modicum of success that has been achieved at so great a cost.” Another article in 1890 looked back on the dock strike as “a lowering of the flag, a departure from active propaganda, and a waste of energy”. And similar language could be found even in William Morris’ Socialist League. But the paradox remains that had it not been for the SDF the activists would not have met, would not have worked together, and would not have been in the position they were to lead the strikes.

This is perhaps not the only occasion in the history of the left where people’s sympathies have seen them right, despite their parties’ formal politics.

The break with Old Unionism meanwhile was not a complete break. The New Unions affiliated to the TUC, and grew in the upturn of 1889-1891 before declining as the number of strikes fell especially after 1893. In the fullness of time, the dockers’ and gas workers’ union would become the TGWU and GMB; no longer revolutionary exponents of mass strikes, but significant players within the union movement.

The activists of the 1880s would not have used such terms as “the privilege of backwardness” (i.e. to refer to the way in which newly organised industries are often the most strike-prone). But what they did understand was that trade unionism was a minority working-class experience. In 1892 (i.e. even after the breakthrough of New Unionism), there were just 1.6 million trade union members in Britain, representing about 10% all workers, compared to today when the 7.2 million people in unions include just 16% of all private sector workers ( Then, like today, most workers were outside the unions. From this reality, previous generations of activists drew the conclusion that if their priority was the interests of the whole working class, then they needed to look beyond the ranks of the already organised. Had they not had the courage to do so, today’s trade unions would be a much depleted force.

If there is, in conclusion, a coherent theme to this history is it simply this. No previous generation of revolutionaries, worthy of the name, has ever contented itself with simply seeking to implant itself in the “bastions” of trade union strength, whatever those bastions were at any time. The people whose names are recorded as pioneers in socialist and labour histories had in mind a quite different vision, of organising the workers who were likely to be most combative in future, and therefore best placed to pass on an experience of struggle to others. Their socialism and their trade unionism was never based merely on what already existed but on what could be.

I will not cry: a second arrested anti-fascist speaks


A guest post

I’d like to thank my friend and comrade for inspiring me to write this. You’ll know who you are. Our voices are loudest in concert.

I’m not sure which part of Saturday has occasionally made my eyes teary since being arrested. Is it the sound of hundreds of voices in chorus chanting “Black and white unite” whilst linking arms on the front line? It could also have been because we thoroughly outnumbered the BNP. We had sent a clear political message that echoes and chimes: racism will not be tolerated, we will not be divided. I had been part of sending that message with my comrades of all colours. I am proud.

Perhaps, though, I’m teary even now after having seen a friend and comrade being snatched by the police for protesting against Nazis. I too was snatched by the police for protesting against Nazis. I was then patronised by the officer who arrested me: “you’re young and inexperienced love. You don’t know anything”. I was then laughed at while being led like a child to a double decker bus. Perhaps I’m teary because as soon as I lifted my foot off the ground to step onto the bus I realised I had left the world of citizenship and entered the one of criminality: “sit the prisoner over there”. And learnt of a new kind of depersonalization: “this one, she’s nicked under section 14 of the public order act and obstructing police arrest”.

The process of demoralisation begins as soon as you realise you have been snatched out of a crowd, thrown to the ground, your arms are distorted behind your back, your face is lying parallel to the ground, you’re 20 years old and told you’re not allowed to pick up your glasses or hat, you’re not allowed to sit up, you must remain face-planted on the floor, with someone’s knee digging into your back and hand across your face. All of which is occurring outside parliament. All of which is occurring lawfully. And all because you stood in solidarity with every Muslim being scapegoated by racist scum.

This, though, is why they do it. And it is for this reason that I may be teary eyed but I will not cry.

They didn’t arrest us because we are criminals or a threat to public safety or even because we were a threat to the BNP. Central London was not about to be ransacked by a group of eccentric communist anti-fascists, with red in our eyes and revolution on the tips of our tongues.

We were a threat to every Islamophobe, every racist, every fascist. We were a threat to every politician who has brewed a boiling broth of racism and fed it to us by the gallon. We were a threat to the status quo, to the common sense that immigrants, not bankers, are to blame. Our voices broke through the chords of racism; our tones were the loudest, our pitch the highest. They try to demoralise us because they don’t want us to fight. Because if we fight, we win.

For this reason, I will not cry. My bail conditions will not demoralise me. Those 6 hours sat zoned out in a cell will not demoralise me. Your handcuffs do not scare me. Your patronising does not anger me. And I know, for certain, my composure scares you.

“My best run”: an arrested anti-fascist speaks


A guest post 

When they let me out I was too polite, I said ‘night night’ to the duty skipper and then instantly regretted it. Once I got out of the yard S, L, M and some people from Green and Black Cross were waiting for anyone who was coming out and started cheering. At half past three in the morning that means something. They all headed up north and I trotted up to the bus stop. Sitting down, realising that the next bus wasn’t coming for at least another 50 minutes, one of the Made in Chelsea knock-offs that were piling out of the Brasseries guffawed at me; “you know your flies are undone don’t you”. I tried to give him a withering look, I wanted to show him my bail sheet, but he was too fucked to keep up the jibe. Rather than waiting, I started running home.

My flies weren’t undone: my trousers were just completely shorn of buttons, they had holes on the knees where I’d been dragged along the ground. My shirt was ripped apart completely. One of the ways I tried to kill time in the cell was by fashioning a belt from the shredded remains of my shirt. When the Met’s Tactical Support Group officers were ordered to lift people they were impressively efficient. I just remember them pointing at me and then grabbing. They were so determined to get me that they ripped every piece of material on me, my bag, my trousers, my shirt and, when they were walking me away back behind the police lines, journalists were just taking pictures of me with my chest out and my trousers trailing around my ankles. I asked them ‘Is that really necessary?’. I should have told them to fuck themselves.

It was a stupid way to run. My shoes had no laces. They had been taken out in case I decided to strangle myself. I could hear them wheezing and flopping. My clothes were held together by knots and I couldn’t wear my bag because the straps had been torn off, so I had to switch it from hand to hand and pump the alternate arm. But it felt  wonderful.

In spite of the exhaustion, where I’d tried to sleep only to wake up again on the plastic mat covered in sweat, the halogen still on and still sneering, in spite of that I was just able to run. It definitely wasn’t my best pace, and I could feel that my bones were suffering from what my muscles were refusing to do as I clodhopped up through Wandsworth towards Clapham Common. The difference between this run and all of my best runs was that I had forced myself to run well in the past. Now I was running because I was compelled to, because I wanted to be as far as possible from Battersea police station, because I could. I’d spent those nine hours pacing, estimating the dimensions of the cell, practising handstands, looking up at the grated window and trying not to be melodramatic. I ran the four miles home, across South London and enjoyed every moment.

Not once, in the whole process, did I panicked. When your face is being ground in the tarmac and your hands are being cable-tied together behind your back you quite quickly recognise that there’s little you can do. Either that or I’m just a pushover. I was only really concerned that my partner would be mad with me that I had ruined our holiday plans. She wasn’t, for the record.

What happened between 3 and half 4 that afternoon was incredibly confusing. When I got back, when the sun was rising, my partner woke up and reminded me we’d won, because the BNP couldn’t march. It was of course far better than Monday, but it didn’t feel like we’d won. It felt like we’d been punished. We held the line because we were led to believe that was what was necessary to stop them passing. I hope it was. I think to some extent we had the easier target, we didn’t have the EDL. We need to remember that when the police pulls a fascist attempt to march before it ends, its because they realise that they can’t police it if the community tries to drive them back. If they move it from outer to central London, its because they want to ensure that they can control the situation and disarm resistance with greater ease. Its their turf. We can’t get away with the things we got away with in Tower Hamlets and Walthamstow. Ironically the first time I was arrested was on the second demonstration I ever went to, and it was less than fifty metres away from where I got arrested on Saturday, when the EDL marched on parliament in solidarity with Geert Wilders.

I can’t pretend that a night in a holding cell is anything like custodial sentence. But you can feel the things that become the themes of prison films start to show themselves. The loneliness and the boredom, the sensory deprivation, then mistaking the people who check on you and who bring you water for anything other than screws. So when I was running, I didn’t feel miserable, I felt rejuvenated. I ran past cul-de-sacs in backstreet Wandsworth that looked like the art deco suburbs from Hollywood’s boom. I ran down Clapham High Street. I ran past bus stops of people going in for early morning cleaning shifts in central London. The run wasn’t my best time, it wasn’t particularly fast or the longest distance. But it was my best run.

The author is among 58 anti-fascists who were arrested at Whitehall on 1st June