Tag Archives: International Socialists

The Lefts and Letters of Peter Sedgwick: Part Three


sedge castle


picture source: http://www.petersedgwick.org/

The final letters at the Bishopsgate Institute begin in around 1968. Sedgwick was now in his mid-30s and had become an activist of some prominence within the International Socialists. In 1963, OUP had published Sedgwick’s translation of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, and in the revolutionary year of 1968 Serge’s autobiography had been read by hundreds of the student activists who streamed into the group. By the end of 1968, IS claimed around 800-1000 members; around 10 times more than a decade before. Together with Tony Cliff, Chris Harman, Colin Barker, Richard Kuper and Bob Looker, Sedgwick was one of six people on the editorial board of the group’s magazine, International Socialism. He had written important, detailed articles for the Group on the politics of Isaac Deutcher and George Orwell, as well as shorter articles on topics as diverse as capital punishment, CND and direct action, the perils of academic Marxism, the problem of fascism, and what IS should say about elections.

A good sense of the esteem with which he was held in the organisation is provided by the response to Sedgwick’s unease with new rules introduced in 1970, which would have limited the rights of minorities within the group to organise. Sedgwick resigned from both the IS Editorial board and from the IS National Committee, complaining that “To limit the propagation of ideas to ‘group members’ only is fitting only for a sect: to make such a limitation a disciplinary rule, to be infringed only at the risk of expulsion, violates every principle of revolutionary democracy, and to create a rule whereby comrades can be expelled or disciplined merely for meeting together is a hollow mockery of everything for which IS used to stand.” Tess Lindop replied, for IS’ NC, refusing to accept Sedgwick’s resignation. He had been elected by IS Conference, which was sovereign over the NC, and therefore the NC could not accept his resignation, only Conference could. Moreover, IS as a group, continued to hold that controversies were for the entire membership. Personal resignation could not resolve a political disagreement, which remained outstanding: “you were elected to go to the NC by the Conference and it is therefore your duty to fight for your position on this subject on the NC” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1970/05/factions.htm).

Probably in 1968, Sedgwick was approached by David Widgery, a medical student some thirteen years his junior, who had the ear of Penguin for a possible collection of articles and memorabilia to reflect the activist experience of the left in Britain (the publication was to appear in print, under that title, six years later).

“Many thanks for your letter and the copy of the letter to Penguin”, Sedgwick responded, “we seem to be in essential agreement on what the reader/commentary would look like. I have not been sure up till now how far you wanted my collaboration on any continuing basis for the project.  With your proposed timetable (late spring next year) it would tend to cut across my plans for other writing: but if we aim to get only a first selection together by then, it shouldn’t be too difficult.”

Sedgwick then went on to list his various writing projects: “I still have a lot of work to do on Serge, and want to finish Orwell.” Sedgwick published the first half of an article on Orwell in the June-July 1969 issue of International Socialism (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1969/xx/orwell.htm); the second half was never published.

Sedgwick was also thinking of writing something to take on what he saw as IS’ increasing – and wholly malign – shift towards Leninism.

“I would also like to write a commemorative article on Ten Years of IS (the journal) and get some work going on myths of ‘Leninism’: for the fact is plain that the main danger to the group does not come from the Troglodyte Tendency but from the widely diffused pseudo-hard line (“we are in The Trotskyist Tradition, except for State Capitalism and the 4th International”) which is in the course of destroying and denaturing everything rational in IS and which rests on ideas about ‘the party’ that should have been got over years ago.”

What Sedgwick was alluding to here was the adherence to IS of a group (“Workers’ Fight” aka “the Trotskyist Tendency”; the forerunners of today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) who had joined IS in 1968 and maintained their own organisation thereafter, with candidate membership, separate subs, and an autonomous disciplinary structure. In response to Workers’ Fight, the leadership of IS opposed the existence of a separate party within a party, a “permanent faction” in IS-speak (http://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1971/10/trottend.htm), and over time this hostility would be become a permanent organisational shibboleth of IS and its successors. Sedgwick was writing before this orthodoxy had hardened, but already he could see that the adoption of “Leninism” would tend to fix the International Socialists into ideas that went deep in the Trotskyist DNA (but which IS had always previously resisted): that capitalism was always on the verge of crisis; that a small party, so long as it was ideological homogenous, could grow rapidly into a force of millions; and that what the working class needed above all was “leadership”, Sedgwick, Cliff, Kidron, and their comrades in IS had spent much of the 1960s arguing that all these ideas were, in the words of one of Sedgwick’s early polemics, “Pretending” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1959/01/pretenders.htm). A turn now to “Leninism” would be, Sedgwick argued, a betrayal of the best of IS’ insights:

“I shall therefore have to give some attention to Bob Looker, to the internal front, just around the time when you want your book doing. (I should be grateful if you would sound out any other co-thinkers, the Hornsey people and the remnants of the microfaction, as to what they feel: I’m afraid that I didn’t like the first part of Mike Caffoor’s contribution to the probationary membership debate, anti-W[orkers’] F[ight] paranoia being in my view part of the problem rather than the answer, and I am very much afraid that we shall lose on the probationary question, with immense defeat that this would imply for free politics, at the conference.)”

In late 1970, Sedgwick accepted a one year post teaching in the Department of Sociology at Queens College and spent a year living in New York. American society was then at about its most left, as Sedgwick reported back to Widgery:

“The little left is ever so much littler and even more removed from daily life than the one back home. I have visited N[ew] Y[ork] IS, thirty-odd grave post-undergraduates plus the odd ex YPSL baldie all living on Manhattan, none with cars to get out to factories, acutely sophisticated and seasoned, whose favourite expression of approval seems to be ‘heavy’, ‘we must send by Sai, he’s one of our heavies’. It is rather a case of ‘heavier than thou’, with candidate membership (only a month, mercifully). A sub of 10% of income (less deductions as an afterthought) and long, very good informal documents (Draper is out on a paranoid limb somewhat out in the West, an atmosphere of fraternally controlled denunciation prevails, rather more pleasant than at Cottons Gardens. The IS national office has moved to Detroit but just what it is doing nobody seems to know.”

6 Cottons Gardens was the headquarters of IS (UK); “Draper” was Hal Draper, one of the founders of the American IS, who would break with IS the following year, accusing the party of a sect-method of party building (https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1971/alt/index.htm).

Sedgwick did not limit himself to watching the closest allies of his own party, but also spent some time among the American SWP (not to be confused with the British group of the same name), the largest Trotskyist organisation in the States, which was then moving from Trotskyism towards its subsequent Castro-ite politics. For the moment, it still seemed alive and full of health:

“The SWP is very impressive, intelligent and ubiquitous. Here they all are running for Governor, masterminding Women’s Lib and peace demos on a vast scale and producing an excellent weekly The Militant with good info on black, Chicano (Mexican-American) and kindred punch-ups and hassles. All very opportunistic no doubt, but the whole of the rest of the functioning Left seems tributary to them in one way or another. There was a meeting at college the other day (thirty present out of the campus enrolment of 20,000) with [Clifton] DeBerry, their Governor candidate, a real veteran of the labor organizing Thirties (and the SWP had a cadre of proletarian organisors unique for any Trotskyist movement), fabulously experienced and sensitive to history: he was debating with Lyn Marcus, the pro-theorist of the National Caucus of Labor Committees (one of the SDS relics with ex-SWP overtones, fairly established in our vicinity). Marcus had a hypotheticodeductive economics (‘if the UAW workers win their demands a depression will follow in which the only alternative will be fascism or revolution’), a neat flat bow-tie, a decent light blue suit, big cigars and a sense of Boston origins: an extraordinary doctrinaire with all the flavour of the second-international Marxist educator. His following, naturally, are all small, wet cocker-spaniel types who speak in paragraphs, as if to gatherings of thousands, even if one just asks them the time of day.”

More troubling were the advocates of armed struggle (against whose British counterparts the Angry Brigades, Widgery would direct a famous polemic, ‘Bomb Politics’, in Ink magazine, the following year)

“Somewhere, someplace else, but perhaps here and now in the next few seconds, the explosionists explode: at Wisconsin the score was one Army research building and one physics postgraduate, who had nothing to do with military work, an antiwar chap, father of three. The local post office has the FBI’s Wanted posters up for the suspected culprits”

Others were also in difficulty: “The [Black] Panthers sell their weekly with KILL THE PIGS and POWER TO THE VANGUARD on three quarters of its pages, with some sensible material in the rest, but all the obituaries, four or five different ones each week, are of beloved gunned-down brothers. Basically a Kamikaze squad without hope and therefore with no need to produce perspective or theory.”

Sedgwick sent Widgery a second letter in spring 1971, containing vivid details of conversations with labour activists and the trends on New York demonstrations:

“Trotted down to Liberty St, right in the hardhat heartland where the big construction sites are, to meet Burt Hall, labor lawyer and friend of numerous unofficial tiny opposition groups in the unions. A mine of detail, multichannel polygraph of the microscopic minuscule murmurings among the rank and file.  It will take around fifteen years for the wildcat tremors to summate into anything; all these jobs are discovering the reality of their situation in total isolation from each other and from politics. How they manage to stick to is beyond me. Burt is a great soul, with an attraction towards Bakunin as a figure rather than as a theorist and a large practical knowledge of what precisely a rank-and-filer might be able to do.”

“Film: Battle of Algiers, made by an Italian director 4 years ago and now the urban-guerrilla rage, put in as evidence by the prosecution in one of the Panther trails here, tho’ heaven knows why since any Panther who saw it could only conclude that the Pigs will smash urban terrorism. But the movie has gotten surrounded with a penumbra of you must see it: the ululation of the Arab women that rises as the FLN goes into combat has now become a war-cry audible on demos here. Ice, another urban-guerrilla movie made by ex SDS people and starring themselves, their tape recorders and cine-equipment, and their favorite haunts on the mid-fashionable West Side, is an incredible load of balls…”

Sedgwick was still watching his comrades in New York IS. One thing he spotted early on was that the American group had a very strong need to root itself in an intellectual tradition. It was far more common for the American socialists than for their British counterparts to speak of an “IS tradition” (of course, in Britain, people eventually start to speak in much the same defensive way as the American comrades of the early 1970s about an IS tradition – but only much later).

To understand the looseness and caution with which IS (UK) spoke of traditions, a good place to begin is Tony Cliff’s “Revolutionary Traditions”, a speech from 1967 (which eventually made it into the Widgery and Sedgwick collection on The Left in Britain). Cliff, in this talk, did point out that IS had developed theories of state capitalism, and a scepticism about the rest of the left’s assumption that the 1939-1945 war would result in a period of capitalism slump, but these were the only parts of an IS tradition which he identified, and even then he prefaced these remarks with a series of comments to the effect that “tradition” has an immense capacity to deceive. “Traditions sound as though they are a subject for a Conservative Party conference … What I will say about the IS Group’s tradition is a very simple one – is that in reality we have changed all the time, and thank heaven for that.”

As a temporary exile from the less reverential culture of the British group, Sedgwick was surprised not merely by the New York comrades’ search for a tradition (with all the anachronism that involved), but also by the elements they chose to fix on. For although the IS in the UK and Britain shared the same name, they had a different history. The American an organisation which went back continuously (via Draper, whose departure had not yet been thought through) to previous American Trotskyist groups: the Independent Socialist Club, YPSL, and ultimately to a faction with the Workers Party of Max Shachtman. One difference between IS in Britain and the US was precisely over the question which Cliff had identified as most essential to IS traditions, i.e. how to categorise the Soviet Union. International Socialists in Britain saw the USSR as state capitalist, IS in America saw it as bureaucratic collectivist.

Sedgwick’s conclusion about the American group was that they were overwhelming themselves in a technical jargon and losing sight of rather more urgent tasks:

“[L]ast night the local IS recounted the history of the Workers Party and the ISC and several other acronyms I can’t remember, very much in the vein of What are our traditions? It was agreed that the traditions were awful but they were still ours. It’s a strange experience to hear a comrade saying what were we doing in 1949? As though she had something to do with people arguing at Schachtman’s elbow, when she was 4 or something. I said rubbish, we are all orphans, none of these people are my ancestors anyway, but they would not agree. No, at the 1963 YPSL Conference there were nine Tendencies two of which were Us, another was Widcat/Worker & Soldier, another was Wohlforth and so on so forth … I pointed out the traditional British-IS lesson of the Stalin-phobia inherent in one variant of the Bureaucratic Collectivist theory: ‘ah yes,’ it was said, ‘the Cliffites’ (with a nod in my direction) ‘have drawn such and such conclusions’, or words to that effect. Some of the younger people recruited later than the YPSL phase did agree with me though.”

Sedgwick’s conclusion was forthright: “The whole business was as crippling as the 19th century Socialists of New York talking to each other in German.”

By April 1974, Sedgwick and Widgery were in discussion about another writing project, a joint book on Sex and Socialism. Sedgwick, perhaps surprisingly, was seeking to discourage his fellow-author’s attempt to find a great general theory, combining Marxism and feminism:

“Sexual liberation is a license to kill. It is a form of freedom which each year deprives millions of people of stability, contentment and ordinary expectations of civilized conduct. Hundreds of thousands of these it plunges into unhappiness of a kind which may be permanent and which stands a good chance of depriving them of ever knowing again the delights of sex and waking up in the morning with one’s dear one near. I really don’t know if the constraints of legally enforced patriarchal monogamy and matrimony made women or men less miserable and deprived than what is going on now. The reason why the anti-abortionists can call millions of working-class people to their cause is less because of the attractions of the foetus than through the sense that a terrible destructive chaos is upon us. They don’t want to set the clock back, they just miss having the clock, all these little watches that people have been using as timepieces don’t synchronise and have a habit of exploding on one’s wrist.”

A further letter, on similar themes, followed in May 1974. The difficulty of writing about sex and politics, Sedgwick wrote, was how to avoid a vague and vacuous liberalism which offered not much more than a polite message of “do what you like so long as it does no harm to anyone else”:

“Last Wednesday I heard Bea Campbell get a CME meeting in Leeds going as a sort of truncated encounter group. After a critical but inconclusive opening on Engels, we had from her and several present (including men) a series of observations which (if they were not dauntingly inaccurate and over-generalised – more of this later) could have come from any enlightened sex manual recommending care, forbearance and tender attention to neglected parts of the body. Bea proclaimed her own gayness, not too obtrusively, and told various anecdotes about the sexual games or misdeeds of friends or relatives. She laid great stress on the male collective masturbatory culture of adolescence, contrasting it with female dependence on blokes for any sexual identity. I interjected to say that male patriarchy and the establishment of masculine dominance in micro (or macro) politics had nothing special to do with present day wank-fashions, since masturbation was unheard-of in some male cultures which still had the unusual leverage over women in bed, household and work. I found myself rather cornered here by Bea, Lee Comer and a couple of other feminists: I must give a very patriarchal impression myself being old, bearded and visibly irritated at all this intellectually unsound intuitiveness…”

“The politics of the whole discussion and its earlier correlates in published material seem to be validly liberal but only liberal. I can’t see what rational case could be made out for the political significance of any particular sort of sexual expression (it might be possible to argue that sadomasochism or paedophiles were always inherently reactionary just as rape is; but even that (accept for the case of rape) is disputable. There were people at the meeting saying that assertive sexuality was Ok for girls but Right-wing for blokes (one male there gained huge credibility from saying that he had had fantasies of being seduced rather than taking an initiating stance ever since he started adolescent masturbation). I fail to see how that adds up. You seem to be tending to say that monogamy is politically regressive or at least to dub some such arrangements as ‘marriages of political convenience’, I don’t see how you can know enough about those relationships, and those particular people (IS leaders you were talking about but it could easily be others) to say that monogamy is other than progressive for them. And if one can’t give a political endorsement to any practice and topical or social one is left saying that couples, or sets of other combination of people should come to some agreement on a fair and non-coercive basis about what to do or not to do. That is liberalism complete (Mill was prophet of sexual freedom no less than Kollontai. The Bloomsbury group was first rate at it). It doesn’t acquire any socialist meaning because the people who engage in it have socialist ideas or because there enough of them to constitute a mass movement.”

“Liberalism says that individuals should be free to do what they want, to realize and fulfill themselves so long as don’t maximize their gains by worsening the lives of others. It is possible to fill out liberalism a bit by saying this kind of freedom can only be exercised on the basis of a genuine equality of all partners to whatever relationship it is. The assertion of a new basis for equality has tremendous implications in any number of areas of life outside bed, and this is why feminism has a connection with Marxism. But, while connected, it does not seem able to synthesise. Bea is able to be eloquent about sexual possibilities just because as a CPer who is making no complaints about the Italian Compromise (and none of the dissident C[ommunist] P[arty] intellectuals have any qualms about Italy) her general politics are liberal.”

Widgery and Sedgwick’s book was never published, but there is a reference to their collaboration in a talk, of the same title, which Widgery gave in 1987 to his comrades in Stoke Newington SWP. The “dear friend” is Sedgwick:

“[B]ecoming aware of the problem [of Sex and Socialism], the complexity of the problem, I and a dear friend decided to stop all the discussion a bit short by starting a theoretical journal on the subject which would abolish all of the debate because we were getting fed up with all the different tendencies and so on and so forth. So we started Red Wank, the journal of rank and file masturbation, and I would just like to briefly read an editorial that we wrote which was going to solve the whole problem of sexism on the left. We began:”

“The entire Trotskyist and libertarian movement is infected with sexism, i.e. the ideology and mystification of having sex. We believed the solution was stopping to have sex. Down with close relationships! Such must be the slogan for the future. Yet gays and hets, monogamous and promiscuous types of the Marxist groups, insist on the bourgeois romantic ideal of fulfilment through human relationships. The capitalist system is structured on the basis of bourgeois couplings, temporary or long term. Red Wank will attack this capitulation of consumer values of institutions. Only by the uprooting of feminism, machismo, polygamy, prostitution, one night stands, open marriages, bickering, depression, ecstasy, romance, and sexism generally will provide the proletariat with the correct perspective and, most important, peace of mind.”

“The next issue would contain the three following articles:”

“Great autoerotic revolutionary acts”

“Coming out as a worker – problems in a Trade Union branch”

“Instant masturbation and why it was suppressed in Romania.”

“Now that is meant to be a joke, but it was a sort of serious joke in as far as we were trying to say how something as simple as sex was getting incredibly complicated theoretically…” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/widgery/1987/xx/sex-soc.htm)

In autumn 1974 Sedgwick started a new job teaching Politics and Psychology at Leeds University, after which he moved to Leeds. His last letter in the Bishopsgate collection, shows Sedgwick still in contact with the leading circles of the International Socialists:

“I am sorry to have been out of touch with you and indeed everyone at Montague Road. Have been to London a couple of times but have generally stayed in an orbit around Camden Town Tube including the Harrises where I discourse on China and Schizophrenia, Bill and Linda for general grouses about the state of London and the defection of this and that person from whatever it was…”

Sedgwick was reading, urgently, for a course he taught on the politics of fascism:

“Addictive reading and analysis of the Third Reich for this course I still teach at York once a week (conclusion: Nazi Germany was not the dictatorship of mono[poly] cap[ital] but the dictatorship of the enraged petty bourgeoisie in alliance with mono cap: a most important difference and one which is destined to bring a Note of Qualification from Duncan H[allas] who will say the IS line on Nazi Germany is actually, let nobody mistake it, such & such)..”

IS in Leeds was busy, although the group was already having difficulty in replicating its previous success in recruiting manual workers:

“Political work in Leeds is coming on a bit. It’s a case-study in the overwhitecollarisation (as written in the text) of IS, students doing student work, teachers in their section, strong ATTI fraction, postgraduates raising Soviets three times a term on payment for invigilation frees for exams. I don’t like white-collar unions though it takes up quite a lot of my time…”

The correspondence stops before the decision to rename IS as the Socialist Workers Party in in winter 1976-7, which caused his eventual departure from the group:

“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.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1976/12/fraud.htm)

Nor does the correspondence offer much of a hint as to where Sedgwick’s writing would go next – towards a critique of the anti-psychiatry of Laing, Foucault and others resulting in Sedgwick’s 1982 book Psychopolitics.

Sedgwick died 31 years ago. Had he lived, he would have been 80 this year. I imagine him defying the pains of old age to attend the ongoing Palestine marches. No doubt, he would have lectured the comrades with whom he travelled down to London on the necessity of going beyond routine A to B marches, and then, in a quiet moment reflected to himself on the limits even of the most militant anarcho-pacifism.

The Lefts and Letters of Peter Sedgwick: Part One



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.

Sheila Rowbotham, Women’s Liberation and the International Socialists


Through the 1960s a determined reader might have had access to much of the best of today’s social history. C. L. R. James and Eric Williams had shown the contested history of slavery, from its creation in Europe to the opposition to the trade from the people of Africa and the Caribbean. The British Marxist historians, including Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson, had pioneered the concept of ‘history from below’, the idea that the past should be witnessed from the perspective not of the rulers but of the masses. In France and Germany, the major forms of social history had been defined as ‘histoire totale‘ or ‘Gesellschaftsgeschichte‘. Through studying the total set of human behaviour, including protests of subaltern groups, social history could provide a total account of human history. The most important institution behind this trend was the French journal Annales, while the British journal Past and Present and the German Geschicte und Gesellschaft showed a similar ambition.

Yet for all the undoubted qualities of the new social history, it also suffered from certain, major weaknesses. In 1970 Eric Hobsbawm was invited to present a paper to a conference in Rome on ‘Historical Studies Today’. Hobsbawm was then at the left edge of the discipline and the most prominent intellectual within the Communist Party of Great Britain. Twenty-five years later, Hobsbawm was invited to include this same paper, ‘From Social History to the History of Society’, in a collection of his articles. The paper duly appeared, but it had to be published with an awkward preface, ‘The author cannot but note with embarrassed astonishment that it contained no reference at all to women’s history. Admittedly, this field had scarcely begun to develop before the end of the 1960s, but neither I nor any of the other contributors to this volume, among the most distinguished in the profession – all males – appear to have been aware of the gap.’

Had Hobsbawm taken a closer interest, in 1970, he might have noticed that the first signs of a growing women’s consciousness were already about. While the Communist Party showed little interest in the new politics, there were other traditions that were less resistant to it. The American women’s movement, which had been strong in the 1880 and the 1920s, had been reborn in the early 1960s. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique asked why so many of her friends felt ‘a sense of dissatisfaction’. They were articulate, well-educated women who played by the rules, so why were their lives incomplete? In 1963, Friedan launched the National Organisation for Women (NOW). Two years before Hobsbawm’s paper, American women had protested against the Miss America contest. There was a women’s liberation movement in the US and in Britain. Women’s history followed it.

One key figure was Sheila Rowbotham. Born in 1943 to a Methodist family in Leeds, Rowbotham’s mother was an office clerk and her father an engineering salesman. Even as a schoolgirl, she claimed that the story of kings and queens ‘left her cold’. Educated at St. Hilda’s, an all-women college at Oxford University, Rowbotham gravitated towards left-wing politics. In the mid-1960s she sided with the left inside the Labour’s Young Socialists. ‘I spent a long time watching how people reacted to each other and I became slowly versed in the intense if narrow rigours of Trotskyism, between the collapse of CND and the rise of the student movement.’

She briefly joined one particular group, the International Socialists or “IS”. According to Rowbotham, ‘In the sixties they seemed to be able to assimilate and learn from new movements while retaining an understanding of exploitation. This was important both for the student movement and locally for me in the Vietnam Solidarity Committee in Hackney. But before these, IS had supported various kinds of community action, a campaign about racialism in Islington and the organization of private tenants in Hackney which contributed to their involvement in the council tenants’ movement in the late sixties.’ For Rowbotham, the group’s combination of coherent theory and tactical flexibility continued at least until the end of sixties.

Another important influence was Rowbotham’s friendship with Edward (“E.P.”) and Dorothy Thompson, two socialist historians of the previous generation. Through their support, Rowbotham became an active participant at the annual History Workshop conferences. ‘I wanted to understand how people formed their ideas through action, collective action, and again, History Workshop, as well as its interest in subjective experience, personal experience, of education and things like that, was always more interested in a wider concept of collective struggle than existed within Marxist ways of thinking, because in Marxism there had always been this emphasis on production.’

It is hard to separate the history and political activism of this generation. At the 1969 History Workshop conference, there was a long discussion of women’s work. Men in the audience responded critically, with at least one insisting that women did not want to work. Afterwards Sheila Rowbotham, Anna Davin, Barbara Winslow and Sally Alexander met together and decided to hold a women’s liberation conference in Ruskin. This became the first such conference in Britain. Five hundred people took part, including some forty men, who justified their presence by running the crèche, and around 50 members of IS. Not just women’s history, but the modern British movement for women’s liberation begins with the History Workshop movement.

In the ten years from 1969, Rowbotham produced an extraordinary series of books. Her first pamphlet, Women’s Liberation and the New Politics (published in 1969) was an early statement of the case for women’s liberation. Next came Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972), a history of women’s struggles to achieve equality. Hidden from History (1973) provided a short guide to women’s history from the seventeenth century onwards, covering not just the feminist movement itself but now such diverse topics as religion, birth control, rescue work, sexuality, motherhood and anti-feminism. Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973) was more of a personal memoir, mapping the path of her own development towards revolutionary feminism, and indeed of her generation. Another book, A New World for Women (1977) rescued the life of an early Communist and champion of birth control. Written with Jean McCrindle, Dutiful Daughters (1977) was an oral history of fourteen working-class and lower-middle-class women. Some were activists, others just chose to talk about their own private lives. It is useful to see this book as an expression of the Thompsonian belief that human stories are always valuable. Another co-publication, Socialism and the New Life (1977) told the story of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis, two pioneers of sexual reform. The second author was Jeffrey Weeks, one of the first British writers to publish lesbian or gay history. This creative period culminated in Rowbotham’s contribution to Beyond the Fragments, this was not an attempt to tell the story of the movement, but a challenge to remake it, arguing that socialist organisation should build on the democratic power-relationships of women’s liberation at its best. These books constitute an early zenith of women’s history, to the left of the 1970s what the British Marxist historians had been a decade earlier.

Rowbotham’s writing was influenced by politics of socialism and human liberation – the politics which also caused Rowbotham to join IS. At points she acknowledged this directly. Like all writers, Rowbotham was influenced by the friends she made, and by her milieu of colleagues and comrades. The preface to her book Hidden from History thanks socialist activists including Joan Smith, Richard Kuper and David Widgery (all from IS); comrades from the women’s movement, namely Anna Davin and Barbara Winslow; social historians from an earlier generation, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Keith Thomas, Christopher Hill and Bill Fishman. Finally, it mentions women in struggle, whose activism ‘directed many of the questions I was asking about the past’. They included ‘the Fakenham women who occupied their factory, the London cleaners who went on strike, and the women in the claimants union who in campaigning against the cohabitation clause are confronting patriarchy and the state.’ For Rowbotham, it would have been laughable to think that feminism was essentially a ‘bourgeois’ or ‘middle-class movement’, her heroes were revolutionaries and working class women. Now, it has to be admitted that the length of her acknowledgments indicates that this was not a “party line” book; the politics of International Socialism was among her influences and (this is important) it was not the only one. But it was there, a part of the whole.

Rowbotham’s biographies of Edward Carpenter and Stella Browne were both published by Pluto Press, then the in-house publisher of the IS, as was Hidden from History itself. In another book, Threads Through Time, she names women from IS in Coventry as among the constituents of the first Women’s Liberation Conference. In a further book, The Past is Before Us, Rowbotham quotes approvingly from a speech by Anna Paczuska of IS to the second, 1971 Women’s liberation conference: “For us in women’s liberation, the right of women to work is an important demand. We do not necessarily think that working women are liberation but we understand that the right to work brings many women immense social gain…”

Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World contains some of Rowbotham’s first published passages of autobiography. She described being on the left in the mid-1960s in Hackney and encountering types of left-ism which left her cold, “Like the man form Militant who solemnly told everyone that drugs, drink and women were a capitalist plot to seduce the workers from Marxism.”

Here she describes being in an IS-dominated branch of the Young Socialists: ‘I made some friends; the implications of my class background were drummed into me; my political perceptions grew out of a working-class-based local organization which was integrally bound to Marxism. Most important I encountered a Marxism in practice in which there was no single orthodoxy but much disputation.’ This was the style of the group which Tony Cliff had nurtured, young, argumentative and hopeful.

Rowbotham continues: ‘I learned from older Marxist friends that alternative Marxisms existed beyond and behind my world of the YS. They talked to me about the Communist Party, about Hungary, Algeria, about the Social Democratic Federation in Leeds. They connected politics to the way you lived.’ There was no idea then that the politics of the group might be separated from the moral failings of its leadership; this was a Marxism which had an argument for everything.

‘It seemed I was just part of a great ebbing and flowing mass of people, who fell in love, suffered, activated, died, but who all took conscious if tortured decisions which had a small but not insignificant effect. Most important, some of these people were women. The socialism I discovered from them was one which was explicitly committed to human dignity and which assumed that women should be as proud and as responsible as men.’

Why did IS attract a young activist like Rowbotham? Part of the group’s success was that it navigated successfully between two false approaches to Marxism; one, in which the problems of politics had been solved by the early passages of the Communist Manifesto, and in which all human suffering was reducible to the problems of class, and a second in which exploitation was relegated altogether and became just another one of several, undifferentiated sufferings.

The point which Marx himself had grasped (not in his 20s, it must be acknowledged, but somewhere between the Manifesto and Capital) is that the workers are not the most downtrodden, dispossessed group in society. Their claim to primacy rests not from their greater suffering but from their better implantation at the heart of capitalism and their greater capacity to take over the workplaces and production.

IS did not consider itself ‘the party’; and would have laughed at the pretensions to ‘leadership’ of the modern-day self-declared ‘working-class vanguard’ in which educators outnumber fire-fighters by 150 to 1. It was modest; its members were not afraid to laugh at themselves. But what they understood best, and more creatively than their rivals on the left, was that any socialism worthy of the name must somehow join up the struggles of the oppressed and the exploited. More than this, IS grasped that ‘joining up’ does not mean ‘dissolving one into the other’. A perspective for women’s liberation, if you wanted to have one, should grasp both the specific suffering of women in society, and recognise and analyse its specific forms (equal pay, domestic violence, unequal resposibilities for childcare, etc) while at the same time championing a world run by the workers.

Like socialism, IS always had two souls. Rowbotham’s eventual reckoning with the group came at the start of the 1980s in her autobiographical contribution to Beyond the Fragments. In effect, she blamed Cliff’s Leninist turn for her departure:

‘I joined for about eighteen months, following a drive to recruit people who agreed very generally with their aims after Powell’s racist speech in 1968. A debate about organization was just coming to an end. I puzzled over various position papers in bewilderment. In a sense I’m still reeling, for ideas take years to sink in and grow out of me. Anyway in retrospect this argument seems to me to have been crucial. It involved discussion about the degree of autonomy local branches should have. The case for a centralized structure was eventually accepted. This debate came to be referred to as a closed issue – as if it had been settled. But its implications were critical for the course which IS was to take as an organization. Closing up on these issues was a mistake. It was implied there was no time for further discussion.’

IS, she argued, had not sustained in its initial interest in the politics of Women’s Liberation – despite the fact that several of the WL groups outside London had been established by IS members. There were other examples of sectarianism, she complained, including the group’s long hostility to gay liberation: ‘Why should a group which had rejected dogma hold its ideas as moralistic defences?’ she asked. ‘Ostensibly committed to learning from workers’ struggles, the initiator of rank and file groups, opposed to bureaucracy in the labour movement, IS baulked at extending these ideas into the wider issues of everyday life or at applying them within their own organization. Even the commitment to workers’ rank and file struggles and experience came to be narrowly defined in terms of recruitment.’

‘In its early days IS really did try and break with sectarian traditions and with the windbag rhetorical rituals on the left. But this hardened into a refusal to talk about the politics of what they were doing within the left.’

All this was written, of course, before the closure of the SWP’s women’s magazine Women’s Voice, a yet further crime which could have been added to Rowbotham’s indictment

We can see this hardening in our own time, as well as its potential antidote: a left which can grasp the politics of the intimate and the everyday; a left which is serious about democracy within; a left which is comfortable in the world of the present (rather than being chained to the repetition of ideas which have not been reconsidered in 30 years).

Wouldn’t this be a better place to begin?

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 (http://www.marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1967/xx/permarms.htm). 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.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1977/07/insights.htm)

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.””