Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Lefts and Letters of Peter Sedgwick: Part Two

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Having joined the Socialist Review Group, Sedgwick’s perspectives were shaped by a dual loyalty. To the SRG, then a party of only around 40 people, he paid subs, he gave meetings, and he sold the Group’s magazine Socialist Review. The most likely source of recruits for the new group came from those, like Sedgwick himself, who had been members of the Communist Party. More of the former Communists found a home in the New Left, but this milieu was both larger and smaller than SRG. It was larger in its audience, its resources, its presence in the press and on television and yet smaller in the demands that the New Left made on most of its members, and in the opportunities they were given to shape the politics of the movement. In a 1964 obituary for the New Left (published in SRG’s successor IS’, theoretical magazine International Socialism), Sedgwick listed some of assets of the early New Left, starting with its offices in Soho, housed above the New Left’s Partisan coffee shop:

“The uppermost floor held the editorial-cum-administrative office for the publications and groupings of the movement; the latter included the Universities and Left Review Club (1957-8; re-christened New Left Review Club from 1959 on), which used to attract hundreds to weekly lectures and discussions in the larger basements of central London, and further regular meetings were held by such autonomous sections as the Education, History of Socialism, Left Scientists, Social Priorities and Literature groups, the International Forum, and the London Schools Left Club, a self-governing unit for youngsters still at school. Between thirty and forty local Left Clubs ran on a modest scale outside London, mostly either in the South-East or in the industrial North (including Scotland)” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1964/08/2newlefts.htm).

The best indication of sheer scale is the initial subscription base of Universities and Left Review (2,500 by the time of issue 1) and the merged New Left Review (8,000). In the same 1964 article Sedgwick spoke of the New Left’s “expansive and apparently tireless dynamism”, beside which it seems almost churlish to recall Tony Cliff’s contemporary joke: “For the New Left, what is theory? A speech by Edward Thompson. And what is practice? Going to hear an Edward Thompson speech.”

Sedgwick attended the meetings of the New Left and wanted it to flourish. And yet by early 1960, Sedgwick had begun to warn of the movement’s limits. The first issue of New Left Review had proposed in an editorial (penned by Stuart Hall) that the New Left should keep some distance from the Labour Party: “Where the candidates are good, we should concentrate our forces, swing the enthusiasm of a Left Club behind someone who will vote NO to the Bomb, when the rest of the parliamentary fraternity troop through the door into no-man’s land: where the candidate is weak, bad, compromising, we – should withdraw away from political blackmail as if from the plague.” Sedgwick replied with the fable of Lidchester Left Club, sending its canvassers to four neighbouring constituencies, where the attempt to vote as left as its members could had resulted in the Club backing four different parties.

“For the Old Left”, Sedgwick concluded (with “old left” standing for “Marxist left”, i.e. the CP at one time and the SRG now), “a vote for Labour was a vote for a national movement independently representing the working class as a social and political force. The personalities and principles of the candidates (including the leadership) might be equally repulsive, and those of his Tory or Liberal opponents enlightened and decent as far as they went (which might, in some individual cases, go quite far). Nonetheless, one voted Labour, and, given the courage of one’s convictions, got other people to vote Labour too. The Old Left primitives, unschooled as they were in contemporary thinking, would say that a mass Labour vote is an outstanding index of at least some form of class-consciousness. Reformism (or Labourism as it is now sometimes called), despite its inadequacies and betrayals, is at least a working-class ideology, involving as it does the separate organisation of the workers even for limited ends, and the participation of the trade union movement in national politics” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1960/02/lidchester.htm).

The recurring theme of Sedgwick’s critique of the New Left was a rejection of its disappointment with the working class. On this occasion, that emphasis would cause him to argue for a Labour vote irrespective of the Labour candidate. As the next five years wore on, he would more often criticise the New Left for a dependence on Labour which falsely compensated for its own declining organisation.

One ally that Sedgwick had kept from his time with the Communists was Raph Samuel, who had also left the CP in early 1957, and their correspondence from the 1960s gives a flavour of their continuing friendship. Just as Sedgwick was at a turning point of his political development so was Samuel. In 1962, Samuel would secure his defining employment, as a lecturer at Ruskin College in Oxford. Ruskin was a union college, and its typical course involved a year’s release for working-class students, nominated by their union for a sabbatical from their work duties. In 1967, Samuel helped to found the History Workshop movement, which pioneered history from below, starting very often with the oral histories told by Ruskin students or others from working class backgrounds. Samuel’s lectures were packed, with students from different Ruskin courses and from outside the College playing truant from their official studies to attend. Samuel was an inspiring, encouraging figure. He was also, in many respects, the very opposite of the figure of the professional insurrectionary. While revolutionaries are supposed to be disciplined and rigorous, Samuel was constantly losing himself in his latest enthusiasm, causing deadlines to be missed and projects shelved. A typical Ruskin memory would involve Samuel setting off on his lecture, shuffling his weight from foot to foot, and carrying on walking as he spoke, only to wake up from his own reverie halfway down Oxford’s Walton Street, to wonder aloud what he and his audience were doing there.

Samuel’s Theatres of Memory: volume 1, his 1994 magnum opus, reads less like the work of Chernyshevky’s Rakhmetov (who trained himself to read Marx by sleeping on a bed of nails) than Peter Jackson’s Radagast the Brown. Its positive utopia combines Camra, Covent Garden and the Body Shop in an eclectic idealisation of popular memory (“heritage”). But the Raph Samuel of the late 1950s and early 1960s remained to a considerable extent the “fanatic”, recalled by his fiancée Jean McCrindle who had won Sedgwick to Marxism, “He was a brilliant student and he wouldn’t take no for an answer when arguing with potential Party recruits.”

Samuel’s articles for Universities and Left Review included in 1958 a blistering attack on the French Communist Party for having paved the way to De Gaulle by its failure to stand unequivocally against the Algerian War: “It called for peace in Algeria—but in the spring of 1956, searching desperately for parliamentary unity with the socialists, it voted the special powers under which Mollet was to extend the Algerian war and fetter the opposition to that war … [T]he Party had a higher reason, a supreme value to which all else could be trimmed and, if necessary, sacrificed: its one absolute was the Party itself.” In the same year, Samuel responded to the 1958 race riots by questioning the response of Labour and the trade union movement: “The TUC, focussing attention upon the activities of Mosley and the Union Movement, evaded the critical problem of Notting Hill: the problem of what had happened to its people. Nothing was said about the xenophobia of many labour voters, evident at the time of Suez and swelling with the war in Cyprus, and the riots themselves. And so Notting Hill was not seen as a challenge to Labour, as a demonstration that even the most human legislation … cannot serve substitute for the wining of men’s minds in the here and now to the values of human brotherhood which must always be the principal function of a socialist movement.” And in a third Universities and Left Review article, from 1959, Samuel had bemoaned the way in which capitalism annexed ever wider areas of human experience; “we live in a business civilisation, and the boss, for the present, is in command.” There may have been phrases in any of these articles which Sedgwick would have queried; but Samuel’s tenor and general approach remained the same as his.

One letter from Sedgwick to Samuel is from 1960, “The Cliffs and [Michael] Kidron were here today & yesterday. A good time was had by all. Cliff still thinks of himself as Trotskyist and Kidron doesn’t.”

Sedgwick referred to the 1960 strike of Liverpool Seamen, part of which was a revolt by supporters of a rank-and-file group the National Seamen’s Reform Movement against the leadership of the National Union of Seamen (NUS) after the Executive of the NUS had accepted a pay offer without consulting its members. They were striking for a 44-hour week and a £4 a month pay rise. The SLL was actively supporting the seamen, as was almost everyone else on the far left, with the notable exception of Eric Heffer, a 1956-era CP-ex member, Labour councillor, recently a fellow-traveller of SRG, and a future Labour Left MP.

“The seamen are going strong”, Sedgwick wrote, “The Trades Council mediated, which meant giving a platform for [the NUS’ Assistant General Secretary] Scott to try and get the men to go back to work, with the magnanimous offer of a branch meeting after they had all gone back to the sea. Eric Heffer was, I am afraid, involved in it all to the hilt. Good job he decided not to join Socialist Review after all.”

Why would Samuel have been interested in news of a local activist who had not joined SRG, and the pending birth of a child to an SRG couple? Sedgwick clearly thought that more was at stake than merely his student friendship with Samuel. He assumed Samuel knew who Kidron and Cliff were – and while the former had been part of the left in Oxford in recent years, and had even written for the New Reasoner in autumn 1959 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1960/02/limits.htm) Cliff did not have the same local or national profile. It seems that Sedgwick saw Samuel, and therefore the editors of the New Left Review, as sympathetic allies likely to be interested in news of another, friendly grouping on the left.

In 1961, Samuel telephoned Sedgwick to ask him to participate in the New Left Review, from which Edward Thompson was being slowly removed, in favour of the man who we now know would be his long-term successor, Perry Anderson. Sedgwick was unable to take the call and responded by letter:

“I had not realized that it was so important for you that I contribute in some sort of way to the new NLR. I find it heart moving that you should phone me about it, although I also feel that it argues some isolation on your part that my participation on your part should be so keenly asked. Of course you must understand that I am in at least two minds over NLR, even NLR with you and Denis [Butt] and Gary and Perry [Anderson] running it. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, nor even that it’s a matter of IS people. NLR has had a long run for its money, and an awful lot of people have been wounded or even embittered by the ancient regime, and in any case have evolved a political life and set of habits in which NLR has not loomed at all large.”

“Of course I am pleased that the good fight has been fought and (so far as we see) won on the NLR E[ditorial] B[oard], and especially that you have been fighting and winning it. Only today, writing a review for IS, I found myself referring to the new left in the third person. I corrected it, but after some thought.” Sedgwick welcomed Anderson and Samuel’s present ascendancy over Thompson, but expressed his scepticism that there was any more an audience for the New Left Review.

“[T]here is no longer a rank-and–file New Left (as distinct from a new Left). The malaise of the Clubs, I am sure now, is something deep-rooted and irreversible. People are just too busy on activities to be able to afford the time and the concern with politics-as-a-whole that we would like to see. Either that or they are played out, either obviously or under the guise of Labour Party Politics. If not in the Clubs, where is there a readership for the portmanteau politics-and- life periodical? Where else can one flog it for one thing? I don’t despair of this centrifugality (I think that this is the [Michael] Kidron term), but it probably has to be dealt with as S[ocialist] R[eview] is doing, but latching on to the bits that are flying apart and flying with them, part of the way at least (by having a Y[oung] S[ocialists’], and an industrial, and a theoretical, and a general journal).”

IS had not achieved all this yet; but plans for a set of publications were in hand: the YS journal would be Young Guard (jointly run with the foreunners of Militant), the industrial journal Labour Worker, ultimately Socialist Worker. The theoretical magazine Socialist Review was giving way to a quarterly, International Socialism.

Sedgwick continued with a call for a magazine that felt less culturally middle class, comparing New Left Review to the sorts of articles that you might find on the Third Programme (ie Radio 3) or in a Sunday newspaper: “Then too I have a feeling that the Left’s publications should have some flavour of scruffiness and unestablishment; [and] should be right outside the intellectual currency of the Third programme talk and the fashionable reference in the weekly culture-dispenser. NLR has a hell of a past to live down in this respect, and I don’t know if it can fade into a decent obscurity among people who matter.”

“All this is horribly negative, and (believe me) I am aware of the potentialities, prospects, etc, on the other side. I have in fact been arguing with Mike about it, he being very much more sceptical about any good coming out of the new NLR.”

A further letter from July 1961 returned to Samuel’s difficulties on the NLR board:

“I have seen no evidence”, Sedgwick replied, “to suggest that NLR can in fact recover. EP T[hompson]’s organisational proposals are, as you say, the resuscitation of a corpse by a corpse. On the other hand, your and Dennis [Butt]’s proposals for a change of heart are useless without a change of personnel…”

Sedgwick’s solution was preserved for his next letter: “A pity if you trap yourself inside NLR … There is a lot of much healthier activity incipient. Sooner or later, Edward [Thompson], you and IS will have to amalgamate.”

Could the idea of an IS-New Left merger have worked? Thompson rarely had good words to say about any Trotskyists; while others in his close circle, notably John Saville, were more inclined to distinguish carefully between Healy and the rest.

As for Sedgwick’s view of his proposed IS-NLR smychka, his 1964 obituary for the Left explained in detail the moves which Samuel had been describing to him:

“The confederate New Left fell apart in the autumn of 1961; the explosion was characteristically muffled. No statement was ever published on the differences around NLR which were brought to a head shortly before the retirement of the editor Stuart Hall and the radical reorganization of the movement … Edward Thompson became the chief spokesman for that section of New Left opinion that was eager for a more activist and purposeful approach; after six months of argument up and down the country, the journal was re-structured. Instead of a large and amorphous editorial board (which in practice had left the running of NLR to a metropolitan in-group with ill-defined responsibilities, subject to overwork and drift), the review was entrusted to a small team of four with a mandate to re-establish New Left journalism as a serious source of ideas. The projected series of New Left Books was written off, having in two years produced one collection of essays and one literary-critical reprint from the United States. Little was to heard henceforth of the Left Clubs.”

“By a mixture of design and default, NLR shortly became the preserve of a younger wave of New Left writers, most of whom had been involved in the production of New University, a student socialist journal edited from Oxford. Their elders on the New Left Board, lacking even a token editorial function, dispersed to catch up on their research, emigrate, help run CND, or just vanish. With the organizational passing of the Old New Left, whatever was distinctive in its ideas has perished also.”

What lay behind the decay of the New Left’s once vigorous organisation? Sedgwick blamed the movement for reconciling itself too easily to its own weakness. Rather than maintaining the Left Clubs, and rather than seeing the self-activity of its members as the left’s key asset in the war against capitalism, the New Left had allowed itself to drift into the role of supplying to the Labour leadership a series of technical reports into the functioning of various aspects of capitalism. “The New Left is almost consciously acting as a dynamizing Left Centre to the putative Centre-Left of Wilson, Callaghan, etc. What is particularly staggering is its failure to imagine that it might be out-manoeuvred; pursuing a tactic of total theoretical entry, all its eggheads have marched into the single basket of Left reformism, and are now busily appealing to the waverers outside, especially in the trade-union movement, to jump in as well. But the unknown factor in Left-reformist strategy lies not only in the possibility of sabotage or enticement from the business world. Equally doubt-provoking is (a) the immense responsibility that would attach to the leadership in a campaign of administrative encroachment; combined with (b) the desperate unlikelihood of any foreseeable Labour Cabinet that would answer to the part.”

For his part, Raph Samuel was to retain an (admittedly distant) interest in International Socialism and its successor the SWP for many years. He knew Sedgwick’s closest ally in the next generation of SWP-ers, David Widgery, and on Widgery’s encouragement attended the 1977 Rock Against Racism Carnival, describing it later as “the most working-class demonstration I have been on, and one of the very few of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion.” Thirty years after his letters from Sedgwick he was still extremely encouraging to young socialists from the SWP who expressed any interest in history.

Into the mid-1990s Samuel would even speak occasionally at the SWP’s annual Marxism events. I remember one talk he gave, in 1996 or so, which ended with him frustrated by repeated contributions from the floor to the effect of “if you’re a Marxist, you should be in the SWP.” Samuel accused the audience of sectarianism and said that the SWP was incapable of holding any allies – whether philosophical, literary or artistic. Perhaps he saw in us the same fanatical and closed spirit with which he, and Peter Sedgwick, had once been young Communists.

The Lefts and Letters of Peter Sedgwick: Part One

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The first New Left in Britain emerged from the crisis in the Communist Party of Great Britain following the sending of Soviet tanks to Hungary. The party’s support for the Soviet invasion exposed with absolute clarity the contrast between the rhetorical Leninism of its leadership and its actual practice as an occasional meeting place of ageing trade union bureaucrats barely to the left of the Labour mainstream. Falling back on the debating skills of the philosophunculist, editor of the party’s theoretical publication and Oxford-trained patrician Rajani Palme Dutt, the party’s local branches witnessed a series of lengthy meetings in which Dutt would rise to defend Stalin’s long campaign of murders and the party’s young activists would rise to protest against him. A favourite heckle of the critics, “Spots on the Sun”, was inspired by a notorious Palme Dutt editorial published on the opening pages of the party’s journal Labour Monthly in May 1956, “What are the essential themes of the Great Debate? Not about Stalin. That there are spots on any sun would only startle an inveterate Mithra-worshipper.” A series of branches voted to criticise Palme Dutt and the Communist Party’s leadership but over the course of a two-year faction fight those same leaders drove out around 10,000 of the most passionate members of the Party, enough to re-establish their control over those who remained.

Forced out, the dissidents in the New Left had to decide whether they would continue to organise and how: The Reasoner, the journal of the CP opposition was renamed The New Reasoner and ultimately merged with its student counterpart The Universities and Left Review to become The New Left Review. A number of New Left Clubs and Socialist Forums were set up across the country. The most successful forum was in London where a Universities and Left Review Club meeting above the Partisan Coffee House in Soho was able to maintain events with a weekly audience of around 300 people. Within two years, however, the Club had gone out of existence; and while the subscription figures of NLR remained impressive, there was no longer a movement beneath it. The generation of the New Left would have left little trace had in not been for the launch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in winter 1957-8. The Communist Party ignored this new campaign; in almost every area the New Left provided CND’s initial cadres.

Of those who left the Communist Party, most remained active trade union or peace campaigners but did not join any new group. One mini-generation of activists (Peter Fryer, Brian Pearce, Brian Behan) joined up with Gerry Healy to launch a paper The Newsletter, the origin of Healy’s Socialist Labour League, later the Workers Revolutionary Party. Among the key figures within the New Left, the more common view of Healy was of initial interest giving way to open scepticism. John Saville (who had launched The Reasoner with EP Thompson), memorably dismissed Healy as “three faced”. The WRP was in turn to succumb to further splits: the building worker activist Brian Behan going on to work with anarchists, while Peter Fryer who had once been the Daily Worker’s correspondent in Budapest became a full-time writer. Martin Grainger, once of the WRP, founded the libertarian-Marxist group Solidarity. The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre made his way cautiously from the CP via the WRP to Tony Cliff’s Socialist Review Group (SRG, later “IS”, short for “International Socialism” or “the International Socialists”, the forerunner of today’s SWP).

Almost the only person to have made the journey directly from the CP to SRG/IS, without even a short Healyite interlude, was the psychologist and future translator of Victor Serge, Peter Sedgwick (1934-1983), who joined the SRG in 1958 and remained a member for two decades. On Sedgwick’s death, a group of his friends collected some of Sedgwick’s letters and deposited them at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. Altogether around 50 letters were deposited, and we can use them to reconstruct the political milieu in which he worked. There are many omissions from them, reflecting the partiality of these friendships. There is little mention in them of Sedgwick’s childhood as an orphan whose adoptive mother suffered dementia, or of his life as a Christian before he became a teenage Communist (a trajectory he shared with Alasdair Macintyre). They also give few clues as to Sedgwick’s professional life, successively as a university psychologist, a tutor at a psychiatric prison, and a lecturer in politics and then politics and psychiatry.

This article, and two further pieces which will follow it, use the letters to illuminate three periods of Sedgwick’s political life: first, his politics as a Communist before the 1956 faction fight; second, his membership of SRG and its successor International Socialism in the early 1960s, third his friendship with David Widgery in the 1970s.

They should be read alongside Ian Birchall’s political biography of Sedgwick (http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2013-peter-sedgwick-lenin-and-leninism/), the collection of articles about Sedgwick on the Marxists Internet Archive (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/index.htm), and the reminiscences and memoirs of Sedgwick that friends have published online (http://www.petersedgwick.org/navigation/Home.html)

One of the earliest letters in the Sedgwick correspondence is from July 1955 to Raph (or, as he was then known, “Ralph”) Samuel. A fellow student at Balliol College Oxford, and a younger cousin of Chimen Abramsky (Secretary of the CP’s Jewish committee, member of its international secretariat and chairman of its Middle East sub-committee), Samuel had been a Communist since his youth. Until Sedgwick’s arrival at Balliol, he was the dominant personality among the Oxford student Communists. What comes over is the loyalty of Sedgwick (and, we must also assume, his reader Samuel who had recruited him) to the Party: “I have just acquired British Soldier In India”, Sedgwick writes, “which is a really splendid collection of letters, making one both proud to be a Communist and desirous to be a better one.”

The letter continues with references to the 1955 Liverpool dock strike, now usually seen on the left as a key moment in the fracturing of the Communists’ industrial hegemony, after they had actively supported the old leadership of the Transport and General Workers’ Union against a new, rank and file union (the NASD / the “blue” union) which had the support of most Liverpool dockers. Sedgwick supported the line taken by the Communists, even to the extent of disapproving of an unofficial strike:

“We were both wrong: you in thinking that the party disapproved of the issue at stake we accept the idea of recognition now the Blue Union is here: they of course are now threatening to create a further breakaway – a Northern NASD all on its own. It wasn’t very clear from the Worker what our attitude was. Because a majority of Dockers wanted a strike, we didn’t attack the decision, and the comrades in the T & G came out in support, without strike pay, for a dispute they didn’t agree with. As soon as the majority of dockers had drifted back, the unofficial T & G committee up here was in a position to recommend a return – but it was tricky going…”

Another letter from August 1955 was a wild and humorous plea from Sedgwick for the return of money he had loaned Samuel: “I NEED THAT MONEY. Understand?  Though I speak with tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am nothing. Creditors of the world, unite. If money be the food of love, pay up. Give me back my ducats. Solvency will be preserved if the Peters of the world take their money into their own hands, and defend it to the utmost. Bankruptcy may become inevitable if the borrowers succeed in deceiving the Peters with a web of promises, and so leading them into catastrophe. In the beginning was the cheque. And debt shall have no more dominion. And so on.”

The rest is a poem begging Raph for money. Its opening must have been written with the tune of ‘Miss Molly had a Dolly’ playing in Sedgwick’s inner ear: “Hurry hurry hurry, quick quick quick / Or the bailiff will come with his brass-lipped stick”. There are threats of a metaphorical imprisonment if Samuel fails to pay a debt owed by him, promises of intellectual (“And the Master of Balliol shake your hand”) and sexual renaissance (“The queen will receive you into her bed / And put big ideas into your head”) if he does pay, and a hint at the end of another popular song, ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’: “All this and more will really be / If you will pay my money to me.”

Through winter 1955-6 Sedgwick corresponded regularly with Jean McCrindle, the Communist daughter of the blacklisted actor Alex McCrindle, recently of the radio series Dick Barton, then working full time for Equity and many years later General Jan Dodonna in Star Wars. McCrindle was following her father’s roots back to Scotland where she was a first year student at St Andrews. At times, Sedgwick would advise McCrindle, purely platonically, on the merits of different tactics for establishing a Communist cell from scratch at St Andrews (he proposed that she launch a Socialist Club, open to Labour and Communist students alike). In other passages, he would describe McCrindle as “lovely one”, “owl” or “my heroine”. He gives every impression of having been in love with her, and their correspondence deals with such difficult issues as Samuel’s equal love for her.

On 25 February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called Secret Speech denounced Stalin’s purges of other Communists. The speech was so named because the Soviet authorities, while distributing it widely among the governing Communist Party, had attempted to block its publication outside the governing nomenklatura (it did not appear in the Soviet press until 1989). Within a few months however it had been published internationally, including in Britain by the Observer (5 June 1956)

At the start of March 1956 (i.e. after the speech had been given but before its contents were known outside the USSR), Sedgwick told McCrindle for the first time that he was having difficulty defending the Party from its critics.

“This business of safeguarding the Party on shaky issues is difficult, particularly when the other side are being bastards and you want to show them. I’m always coming a cropper this way. One’s expected by these people to be a sort of walking encyclopaedia, producing information on Czechoslovakia, Finland, Azerbijan, the history of the German CP, the attitude of the British Party in 1939, Lenin’s will, and so on, all to order …”

Sedgwick’s initial answer, beyond encouraging Mccrindle (and himself) to read more deeply, was one with which he would not long remain satisfied:

“When all’s said and done, there still remain the genuinely worrying things about the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]. Here I think the main thing is not to rationalise and to be frank with other people. We’ve got a big future ahead of us to sort out these difficulties in, and it would be silly to think that what you rightly call ‘the most exciting and important movement in history’ hasn’t got its dark spots and queer patches, even very serious ones – not that this is any excuse for such things. Socialism, after all, is a bloody good idea, and really awfully simple and the criticisms of it are so stupid anyway.”

Even as he wrote these lines, the thought must have occurred to Sedgwick that a non-Communist who cared deeply enough about the left to know how the CP in Germany had behaved (i.e. with disastrous sectarianism) in 1930-3, or that his own party had switched overnight in September 1939 from support to opposition for the war, was probably not a “critic” of “Socialism” but quite possibly its adherent.

After news of the Secret speech had first begun to leak, at the start of April 1956, the Communist Party In Liverpool (where Sedgwick was staying for the Easter holidays) organised a meeting with two members of Executive Committee speaking, Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary, and John Gollan, his intended successor. Sedgwick’s account of the meeting attempted to hold a fine line between Soviet policy, where he accepted that Stalin had been wholly at fault to the detriment of millions, and domestic policy in Britain, where Sedgwick remained optimistic:

“Outside, various groups of Trotskyites and other dissidents were distributing leaflets that made me very pleased, in spite of recent disclosures, that I was and am a Communist. The contents of this literature raged from ‘We Told You So’, to ‘Down with the Reformist British Road to Socialism’, and were fantastically negative in tone. What it so peculiar is that a great deal of what these sorts of blokes were saying about the USSR was evidently right, and yet their political line over here – against the Popular Front, against peaceful co-existence … was plain mad.”

“As for the meeting itself, Gollan surprised me by being monotonous in tone and demagogic – Harry had much more variety in content and expression, dealing mainly (and brilliantly) with the Tory attack, the nature of capitalism and the possibilities for unity. His remarks on the Stalin question were pretty evasive, saying that the present leaders of the CPSU keep silent for the sale of unity (but they didn’t just keep silent, they acquiesced in terror and the deception of millions and the slander of many Communists, including those in Yugoslavia (which was hardly an act of unity).”

“I think that good many changes in our ideas are going to come about as a result of all this”, Segdwick wrote, telling Mccrindle that Samuel agreed. “The pity is that all this ferment isn’t displaying itself in the [Daily] Worker and that there has been no open self-criticism by our Party on the various errors we have obviously made.”

In his next letter of 1 May 1956, Sedgwick explained, the student Communists and their counterparts among the University staff had held a joint meeting to discuss Khrushchev’s Speech. Dennis Butt, a mature student at Balliol with Sedgwick and Samuel opened the meeting (and a mature student and former woolcomber), speaking in Sedgwick’s account, “with great humour, fluency and vigour, and then we all blew our tops”. A speaker from London was present, and did his best to reassert the party line, speaking “about what the USSR had done, e.g. for China, and quoted Nehru on Stalin’s great general influence for peace”. Sedgwick, perhaps surprisingly, described these as “very good remarks”.

“Actually, the worst of the meeting was that we didn’t really get down to anything very practical, in terms of resolutions or letters to the Daily Worker because we hadn’t time after all that heart-searching.”

Sedgwick was starting to form a more developed view of the crisis: “I think that it is quite clear that in respect of some of the things we are arguing for, which cluster around democracy and civil rights, we are at the sort of stage at which socialists were before 1917 – that is, for those things, we haven’t got a working model to cite and identify ourselves with. I think this does have implications for our attitude towards the USSR; it should be open and explicit as to what we support over there and on what principles. The achievements of the USSR must not be judged by the principles of socialism and humanism: we should not, as we have done, alter our socialist or humanist principles to fit what goes on in the Soviet Union.”

As for where, in the Marxist Classics, an alternative humanism might be based, Sedgwick referred very tentatively to Marx’s rules for the First International which “lays down some very simple and decent norms of truth, justice and morality for the conduct of Communists”.

It was probably this passage which he had in mind:

“The International Working Men’s Association has been founded. It declares:

That all societies and individuals adhering to it will acknowledge truth, justice, and morality as the basis of their conduct toward each other and toward all men, without regard to colour, creed, or nationality;

That it acknowledges no rights without duties, no duties without rights.”

(source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1864/rules.htm)

Writing to McCrindle, Sedgwick accepted that the Communists had been “deceived” about Stalin, but wanted to minimise any part they had played in deceiving themselves, “it wasn’t unreasonable or dishonest to be deceived”. And he was still hoping that the damage of the revelations might be limited, “it’s not very likely now that another of those massive transcripts will ever be published again in history”.

Six days later, Sedgwick wrote again to McCrindle. It seems that she had written to him in the meantime (her letter does not survive) reflecting on the trials of the 30s. Sedgwick – her senior in the CP by around three years – was trying to play the role of the mature, committed Communist able to lead his younger comrade through error, but his political compass was no steadier than McCrindle’s.

“The only consolation about these trials”, Sedgwick wrote, “is that it is very unlikely that anything like them will ever happen again, now that it has all come out. I don’t think one can say more than that, because nothing can or ought to mitigate their horror. We don’t know how much was true in them and how much lies. We don’t know if Bukharin had been in opposition in the years before, or not. All we can say is that it was terrible and must never happen again.”

“It was inevitable that someone good and generous like yourself should be deeply affected by what you read in the transcript. It would be wrong if you had not been affected. I can’t pretend to say anything that will make you feel better because none of us ought to feel better about it. Even if the intensity of emotion which we all feel at one time or another fades, as it will fade, we must always have the sense of deep wrong and loathing that these things took place so that we shall never allow our moral standards to be stifled or distorted to allow such things to happen here.”

Sedgwick who, unlike McCrindle, had not read Khrushchev’s speech, was struggling to grasp how much of his old beliefs had been falsified. To speak as he did of Communists as having behaved in a fashion that required “loathing” seems strong stuff, but the vacillation contained in his phrase “it must never happen again”, is also striking. How, practically, could a moral contagion such as Stalinism be stopped from happening again? Was Stalin’s disease limited to Palme Dutt’s preferred metaphor of spots on the sun; or was the Soviet Union (or indeed Marxism, in all its form) compromised? Sedgwick ducked these questions. “I don’t particularly want to defend my old belief that these trials were genuine”, he continued, “They convinced some of the best people in the world (some of the best weren’t convinced at all of course) and it seemed more reasonable at the time I joined that they were true.”

“You know, Jean, that most of the things we have been talking for and fighting for all these years have been right. This again doesn’t excuse the defence of evil things, but we are the best political force there is.”

The correspondence comes to a halt in early May 1956. Later that month, the Party’s Executive Committee announced a Commission on Inner-Party Democracy. While the CP leaders insisted that the Commission would usher in significant changes to the party’s procedures around which both wings of the party could unite, ten of its fifteen members were salaried Party full-timers. The diving line within the Commission was whether to maintain its preferred structure of top-down leadership. Suggestions by the few moderate critics allowed onto the Commission that members of the Communist Party might in future be allowed to stay in membership despite disagreeing with a decision of the EC were rejected by the Commission majority, who accused the critics of a lack of fealty to Leninism: “The minority report gives some lip service to democratic centralism, and then assembles a number of proposals into a sort of platform from which to wreck democratic centralism”

At the 25th Congress of the CPGB, which was held at Hammersmith Town Hall in April 1957, the Majority report was ratified by 472 votes with just 23 for the Minority Report. On the victory of the Majority, around a third of the party’s total membership (i.e. about 10,000 people altogether) left the party. Andrew Rothstein was typical in smearing the leavers as “backboneless and spineless intellectuals”. While it is untrue that the Party lost only middle-class converts (those leaving also prominent industrial workers such as Lawrence Daly, a future NUM General Secretary) the Communist Party’s shopfloor influence remained intact for another twenty years: until its core generation – the “1940s members” – retired at the end of the 1970s.

It would be possible to read this history as a vindication of Sedgwick’s passing reference to the old Rules of the First International, and in particular the phrase that the International, in its dealings with its members and constituent groups, “acknowledges no rights without duties, no duties without rights”. Among the many problems with democratic centralism, as it was practised by the CPGB, was its profound hostility to Marx’s older and richer conception of democracy. It gave the leaders the rights when it came to initiating politics, and limited the membership’s role to propagandising on behalf of decisions which had been taken for them.

As for Sedgwick’s promise to McCrindle that after the Secret Speech there could not be a second revelation of equal significance; the real hammer-blow for most of Sedgwick’s generation was not any second speech, but the entry of Soviet tanks into Hungary to crush a workers’ uprising.

The most striking feature of their correspondence is the willingness of two attempted party loyalists to persuade themselves that their chosen party’s political explanation for its crisis was compelling – at just the same time that revelation after revelation showed that the leadership had been lying. It was not scepticism which forced Sedgwick out but rather belief (repeatedly betrayed) in the leadership.

Many years later, meanwhile, McCrindle would publish her own memories of this time in the journal History Workshop (yet another publication to have been founded by Raph Samuel). “I was learning to be a ‘Good Communist’ to use the expression Raphael Samuel … taught me, which meant being an exemplary student as well as a dedicated and tireless recruiting officer for the Party”

She describes Samuel as “fanatical” in his enthusiasm for Communism, and recalls Sedgwick – no less enthusiastic – sending her the complete works of Joseph Stalin for her nineteenth birthday in 1956. Enthusiasm was attractive. “Raphael and I became engaged and travelled up and down between St Andrews and Oxford until the events of 1956 overwhelmed us and shut out any thoughts of a private life.”

Departure from the Party hurt her, and others, she recalls: “It wasn’t easy psychologically for me to leave the Party, even with the events of 1956 as my solid reason”. But she was absolutely certain that they had made the right choice: “I was amazed and still am that several friends of mine went into the revamped 1970s Communist Party … as if Hungary and what it meant had been forgotten.” (http://hwj.oxfordjournals.org/content/62/1/194.full)

Sedgwick joined the Socialist Review Group, and within the Group and its successor International Socialism, was a sustained exponent of what might be termed the “dissident IS tradition”, i.e. a conception of socialism which drew as much from Luxemburg as from Trotsky, and which was sceptical about any idea of socialism which involved a short-cut from self-emancipation.

I will set out in further pieces his hopes for realignment between IS and the first generation of the New Left, and Sedgwick’s vision of a non-Trotskyist IS.

Peter Sedgwick to Raph Samuel, aug 1955

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I’m just putting together a long article (or perhaps set of articles) about Peter Sedgwick about whom I have written previously.

Here is Sedgwick (the future translator of Victor Serge and author of Psychopolitics) writing 8 months before Khrushchev’s secret speech a not-altogether-serious note seeking the return of a loan from his student friend and fellow Communist Raph Samuel.

“Hurry hurry hurry, quick quick quick
Or the bailiff will come with his brass-lipped stick
He’ll send you to Prison until you pay
And all your fat books will be taken away.

Deep in the dungeon you will die
The old smelly rate will scratch you in the eye
The ants will eat you, lying in the wet
Until you pay every debt

But on that day
When you finally pay
You will return to the light of the sun
Before your carriage white horses will run
The streets will be packed and the people will cheer
And stuff you with oat cakes, honey and beer.

Your fame will be spread throughout the land
And the Master of Balliol shake your hand.

The queen will receive you into her bed
And put big ideas into your head,
In the soft sheets, a night end more,
She’ll teach you things you never knew before,
And captivate by raging desire,

Fill in a red form, as you require;
All this and more will really be
If you will pay my money to me.”

Seeing both sides

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I see my friend Mohammed who came to Britain,
Failing to escape the pressure from his uncles, his brothers, to volunteer for the struggle
He had lived in the very same concrete blocks, a family of ten
Hearing the shells, attending the funerals,
From which the bodies of children are now being brought

Here, he worked in a cheap pizza shop
Sending back half the money he earned, cramped by the hot oven and barely able to move
Three times a shift he had to change his shirt,
His body aching with the pressure – “unbeliever”, “coward” – unable to say how the remittance should be spent,
Tied so tight to the earth which he had never left, and into which he has returned.

And then I think of Mary, the buzzcut Brit who could never decide if she was gay or straight,
Like a butterly she flew from Britain to Holland, from Holland to the US
And somewhere along the way, she decided that she has always been a Jew
She was too Orthodox for New York
And still she flew on

Finally choosing Tel Aviv where she could place her deckchair
High on a hill and cheer the beautiful fireworks
The yellow, the greens, the purples, the blues
All of them fading to such a glorious – Red!
And she was happy.

There is a mid-point, at which the whole world turns,
When yesterday’s excuse is no longer sustainable
And if not now, when?

Race Today cannot fail: a new biography of Darcus Howe

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A review of Robin Bunce and Paul Field, Darcus Howe: A Political Biography

It would be possible to write a total history of racism and anti-racism in Britain since 1945 taking in the arrival of the Empire Windrush, the 1958 Notting Hill riots, the deaths of Blair Peach, Cynthia Jarrett and Stephen Lawrence, the stunts of Martin Webster and the brief electoral success of Nick Griffin, shifting popular ideas of solidarity or exclusion, and the changing approaches of the British state. If that story was ever written, Darcus Howe would deserve inclusion at three points.

First, in 1970-1 as a defender of the Mangrove restaurant, one of the most popular venues in Notting Hill, then still the beating heart of black London, and with a clientele taking in such varied names as the novelist Colin MacInnes, the veteran activist CLR James, and the journalist Lionel Morrison. At the end of that year, Howe was one of nine people charged with riot following a police attack on a demonstration protesting against police raids on the Mangrove. Potentially facing a jail term of up to ten years, Howe defended himself, and was acquitted by a majority-white jury of all charges. Four of the defendants were convicted on lesser charges, and none were sent to prison. “Racism”, in Howe’s ebullient summary, “had taken a beating.”

Second, from 1973, as editor of Race Today, originally the monthly journal of the Institute of Race Relations, based near Kings Cross, but taken by Howe to Brixton, where it investigated stories such as the strikes at three month strike at Imperial Typewriter in 1974 (where the recognised union the TGWU failed to support Asian workers) and the Grunwick dispute of 1976-8 (sustained for two years by solidarity from workers outside the factory, and by an extraordinary local mobilisation). Race Today was loosely inspired by CLR James’ ideas about organisation, philosophy and the potential of white workers to support black struggles.

Third, in 1981, following the death of 13 young people aged between 14 and 22 at a birthday party at New Cross, which many protesters believed to have been caused by a racist attack, Howe led a movement culminating in the Black People’s Day of Action, when 20,000 black people marched through London on a working Monday to protest at police, media and government indifference.

Bunce and Field – the authors of this new biography of Darcus Howe – cover these events sympathetically, adding to Howe’s memories their notes of interviews with other key participants and his friends, and (where they exist) such files as have been deposited in the local or national archives.

They also spend some time setting out the details of Howe’s media career from the mid-1980s onwards, including his lengthy stints as a main presenter of two programmes, the Bandung File and Devil’s Advocate, and Howe’s interview with Fiona Armstrong in August 2011, during the London riots, in which Howe (almost uniquely among those interviewed on television) refused to condemn those rioting but reminded Armstrong of the killing of Mark Duggan which caused the protests.

One place where I would have liked to have seen more detail was in Howe’s 12-year stint at Race Today, the culmination of Howe’s Marxism. Howe was James’ nephew, and the Race Today Collective included an extraordinary group of talented activists, including the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, the playwright Farrukh Dhondy, and Howe’s successor as editor the writer (and his partner) Leila Hassan.

I would like to have learned more about how Race Today worked, and why it eventually ran aground. Howe was born in 1943; activists of his generations corresponded, and we have more than one collection of letters written by James. It is a shame that not more of Howe’s private correspondence is quoted in the book.

From James, Howe had inherited a scepticism about the Leninist model of organisation (although this did not prevent friendships with at least a few Leninists), a belief in the revolutionary virtues of the whole British working class, white as well as black, and a feel for the reserves of hope embodied in culture and especially sport.

But, attractive as this combination must sound, these were ideas which were capable of ending, as well as making, political alliances. Race Today’s analyses of inertia within the trade union movement extended at times to the rest of the (“white”) political revolutionary left which was portrayed as complicit in the failings of the union leadership. Bunce and Field recall Vic Richards and Ian Botham visiting James in his declining years; what to make in this context of Botham’s avowed Conservatism?

There have been differences of emphasis between black political campaigns in the US and here; separatism has been a weaker current, and black Labourism and Marxism stronger. There is no British counterpart of the considerable harm (as well admittedly as the episodic good) done by the National of Islam. It would be nice to be able to ascribe this to James’ legacy, but it is hard to do so without a clearer balance sheet of how far Howe and the Jamesians ever got in winning an audience.

That said, Bunce and Field have a fine ear for courtroom drama, and bring out well the radical legal strategies which Howe adopted – from challenging certain jurors before the trial began in order to maximise both black and white working-class representation, to the decision to represent himself (while other defendants were represented) and his effective cross examination of police witnesses. It is easy to see a synergy between confrontational tactics of this sort and Howe’s political radicalism. And their accounts of the protests in 1970-1 and 1981 are compelling.

Why brave is better than hard

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There is a story told about a friend that in the aftermath of the Martin Smith rape scandal he was invited onto a left group’s disputes committee. The young chair gathered the comrades together with an anxious greeting to the effect that they should disclose if they had ever been involved in a complaint. Most had not; one committee member had sat on a student union panel. “Well, I have to admit, I’ve been subject to complaints”, my friend began. “There was the two years I served for ABH. I’ve done time for GBH, and, of course, attempted murder…”

The friend is one of the kindest and best people I have ever met on the left. He is physically brave (there was the time that he broke a fascist’s nose, midway through that BNP member’s evidence in the Magistrate’s Court). And he is politically brave: at the start of the Rees-German leadership of the SWP, he campaigned for democracy in the party, and was slowly forced out of the group, fighting the leadership at every step, with his friends isolated and expelled one by one until he was the only one left.

Over the years, the revolutionary left has attracted many other people like my friend. Michel Pablo, best known these days for having urged the liquidation of the Trotskyists into the official Communist Parties, had previously organised gun factories for the FLN. There were the many Trotskyists who died in World War Two – Abram Leon, being one – fighting as best they could both the immediate menace of fascism and the social patriotic spirit into which too much of the rest of the left drifted.

I was reminded of my friend by two stories in recent weeks involving revolutionaries in countries several thousand miles apart. The first group published on its front page an article showing their country’s Prime Minister, and beside him the photograph of a razor and the words “one cut we’d like to see”.

The second group published a newspaper article about a boy aged 17, who had been attending the same school as their country’s Prime Minister. On a holiday, he had been killed by a polar bear. The newspaper celebrated the death, “Now we have another reason to save the polar bears”.

Both stories were atrocious propaganda. Something of how you should try to make socialists was captured long ago in a phrase of Leon Trotsky’s when he spoke of a “transitional demand”. The phrase may sound like the most atrocious jargon but the idea behind it is simple. One way the left can win adherents is by proposing ideas which sound modest enough but point to the possibility of a different society, and invite their audience to think about why this has not happened already. So a transitional demand might be something like the idea – being popularised just now in Spain by the left wing group Podemos – than no MP should be paid more than three times the minimum wage.

The demand sounds easily achievable and yet we all know that it would close off representative politics to precisely the people who are presently most likely to get elected (in Spain, or in Britain or anywhere in the world): i.e. middle-class people who enjoy the social power of representing others but who refuse to live on anything like the average wage. They would never agree to it. In other words, to win, we have to overthrow them.

Any general strike worthy of the name is, in principle, a piece of transitional propaganda pointing in favour of society run by millions rather millionaires.

Saying, “wow, a rich child was mauled by a bear!” is to revel in a tragedy for the boy’s parents, for the other children on the holiday (not all of whom were rich, not all of whom were in private education) and no doubt for several dozen other people who cared about the boy. It is to revel in a private misery rather than point to collective emancipation.

No doubt the writer imagined himself “hard” in the same style as the authors of a certain kind of mid-1980s anarchism. But people who are genuinely brave do not boast about their bravery. The friend I mentioned at the start would rather see his own teeth pulled out than own up to his many acts of courage. Bravery (unlike hardness) is a characteristic of people who struggle.

No-one is braver than the woman who leaves a partner who has been violent in order to bring up a child in poverty. Hardness is a virtue in managers not in those who are managed, it is a positive attribute in the worst of men. Hardness is the boaster’s vision of how he looks when he tells stories about his own bravery.

The French revolution gave even the children of the royal family a second chance – sending them to be educated as cobblers. It was their social strength, their victory, which made them magnanimous. The hardness with which the revolutionaries celebrated this recent accident is a sign only of their deep impotence.

So much for the second party – how about the other group of revolutionaries I have mentioned (the ones with the ill-judged razor front-page)? They withdrew the magazine, recognising in retrospect that the image they had chosen had been crass. They made a mistake and accepted it.

We would do well to learn from them. But, then again, revolutionaries in Britain have been pretty abject recently at saying sorry.