Tag Archives: is

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.

Christopher in Khaki (2001)



On the sad disappearance of the What Next website, I thought I should repost here a few of my favourites among the half dozen or so articles I published there, and which are no longer online anywhere else.

By all reckoning, Christopher Hitchens enjoyed a good war. In addition to his columns for the Nation, Vanity Fair and the Evening Standard, Hitchens recorded his Englishman-in-New-York perspectives for both the Guardian and the Mirror. Those of us who worked for a living could only wonder, where did he find the hours to write so widely? Hitchens told one audience that Bin Laden advocated ‘Islamic fascism’, another that Americans have stood up bravely to all inconvenience. ‘Americans are finding it quite easy to go about their business, and to stay committed to whatever it takes.’ I don’t know about Wall Street, but I am sure Hampstead was reassured.

A third article informed us that the September 11 massacre was chosen to meet Islamic deadlines. ‘It was on September 11 1683 that the conquering armies of Islam were met, held, and thrown back at the gates of Vienna … The Ottoman empire never recovered from the defeat; from then on it was more likely that Christian or western powers would dominate the Muslim world than the other way around.’ Even in the depths of September, the argument seemed bizarre. What Muslim fundamentalist would base their entire strategy around dates chosen from a Western calendar? Nor indeed does the failure to capture Vienna rank in the pantheon of contemporary Muslim anguish. Just compare Hitch’s date to the humiliation caused by the occupation of Palestine, and ask yourself which process most Islamists think of today?

They say that war bring out the best in people. Prime Minister Tony Blair, silent through years of cuts and privatisation, only woke up once that thousands of human lives are on the line. He did the same for Diana. Geri Halliwell, once a UN goodwill ambassador, reappeared as the new forces sweatheart. Christopher Hitchens was the thinking man’s Ginger Spice, blonder than his model, and rather portly these days. But he too was an ageing rock star with an agent in town.

The new Hitchens-incarnation informed us that Tony Blair was the greatest leader that Great Britain had ever possessed. But the last Hitchens was more sceptical – of Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger among other icons. There was even an earlier Christopher Hitchens who fulminated against Bill Clinton’s bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. But our hero had put all such youthful indulgence behind him now.

The last Hitchens I met in 1999 was still in his idealist phase. We spoke for no more than a minute. I was there to listen, not respond. ‘I hear you’re an anti-fascist. We need more of them.’ I nodded – how could I know then that his latest Hitchens would join in placing the Taliban, Bin Laden and Milosevic in the same magic box? His articles explain the spell – ‘In one form or another, the people who levelled the World Trade Center are the same people who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated two of the translators of The Satanic Verses and who machine-gunned architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry what they may intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced by advanced techniques.’

Of course the Taliban advocated religious theocracy – who has ever claimed otherwise? – but the passage remained incomplete. Hitchens’ practice was ‘only’ one of intellectual omission, but our back-seat bomber was telling lies, and he knew it. Unlike the Reagan-revivalists that surround George Bush Junior, Christopher Hitchens understands the basic laws of political analysis. There are always two sides, and the actions of one can make no real sense without some description of the other. This principle was most certainly needed this autumn, when our governments found themselves at war with a force they armed and prepared.

Those who followed Hitchens’ choice – and argued for the state to bomb the Afghan people – were morally complicit in a generation of further state murders, accomplished by the Bush twins George and Tony this time, our proxies the next, and then ourselves again, when our rulers wage just war against whichever force they appoint to take the Northern Alliance’s place.
One deliberate falsehood galled. ‘Islamic fascism’. Who could miss the lazy logic in placing all our enemies in the same camp, whether in power or out, secular or religious? The first post-war Moslem to get tarred with this label was Colonel Nasser. Would Hitchens have joined Eden in labelling Nasser the ‘new Hitler on the Nile’?

I have already mentioned Hitchens’ suggestion that the September 11 bombers were primarily motivated to seek revenge for historic Muslim defeats. When pressed to defend this claim, what evidence did he cite to defend the point? Christopher Hitchens appealed to the authority of an earlier generation. Describing the Islamic defeat of 1683, he wrote, ‘In our culture, the episode is often forgotten or downplayed, except by Catholic propagandists like Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton.’ Hitchens’ last reference was puzzling. Why were these two alone praised? Was it Hilaire Belloc arguments against the (‘servile’) welfare state that appeal to Hitchens, or Belloc’s 1922 book calling (in the words of one, friendly reviewer) for ‘the elimination of the Jews’? There is something truly nauseating about an ‘anti-Nazi’ argument that could justify itself only with reference to the work of real, self-acknowledged fascists.

In this recent war, Hitchens shed even such left sensibilities as had persisted two years previously. He complained of tiresome anti-racists – we would do better, Christopher Hitchens told us, to acknowledge the generosity of those people who have applied with minimum vigour the lynch laws of the deep South. ‘The shameful attacks on random Sikhs and other ethnic-minority citizens were very few, and took place (as such things normally do) far from the scene of the crimes.’ You can read the passage many times, but it still make no sense. Why should a murder become forgivable, when it occurs ‘far’ from the acts used to excuse it?

In the Spectator, Peter Hitchens accused his brother of composing ‘a prose version of the Battle Hymn of the American Republic.’ When even that salon Tory was to the left of Christopher – you know something has gone badly wrong.
Hitchens was at his most servile in November, following the fall of Kabul. Most people I know responded to this event with a jumble of feelings, including in different measures, surprise, hope, anxiety and concern. After all, we knew that the new rulers of Afghanistan would be the men who had accomplished genocide in the mid-1990s. Hitchens was more direct, insisting once again that American was the best of states and therefore had deserved to win the war. It was a formula expressed in Christopher’s exemplary genre, the facile paradox. “Afghanistan, where the world’s most open society confronts the world’s most closed one”. (The most open society would be the one which has the greatest number of people in jail?) “Where the world’s most indiscriminate bombers are bombed by the world’s most accurate ones.” (These would be the same bombers who hit the UN’s warehouse, twice).

Christopher Hitchens was not only the most elegant advocate of bombing. More than this, he was the media’s pet leftist, a role he hawked with glee. ‘If the silly policy of a Ramadan pause had been adopted’, he wrote, ‘the citizens of Kabul would have still been under a regime of medieval cruelty … I don’t stop insulting the Christian coalition at Eastertime.’ (An impressive sounding-claim, until you recall that since Thatcher and Reagan came to power, Hitchens has never failed to back our Christian rulers in war). ‘As a charter supporter of CND I can remember a time when the peace movement was not an auxiliary to dictators’. (What is a charter member? The phrase ‘a founder member’ is more common. And if this was Hitchens’ claim, then fortunate indeed were the Aldermarston marchers to enjoy the leadership of an eight-year old boy.)

Even now, I have my memories of a different, more ambivalent writer – but a man still decidedly of the left. And if I am depressed by the contrast, what must his peers think? Those who knew him in 1972, during the miners’ strike and the dockers protests that killed Heath’s anti-union laws, who judged him then the liveliest of the best generation, the living embodiment of the potential smychka between a university and a trade union left?

The great chip on Peter Hitchens’ shoulder – or so they say – has been his failure to live up to the charm of his extraordinary older brother. The unkindest of former friends suggest that the great chip on Christopher’s shoulder was his inability to become a second Paul Foot, as if one could be produced as a clone of the living first. One strength which Foot possessed, and which Hitchens lacked, was the necessary humility of a talented man with more genius than the majority of his co-workers. For forty years, the older man has remained a part of the movement. In contrast, Hitchens lasted maybe four.

And so the dreary cycle continues from youthful activist to middle-aged advocate of what exists. A young man wanted to be a revolutionary leader, and then forgot his lines. In place of earnest optimism, the new tone Christopher adopted in the 1980s was more condescending … as if people could be argued into radicalism through being convinced of their own stupidity first. But hope remained, smudged by a certain condescension. And then even hope was lost. Elvis reappeared in his white jump suit to swat the A-rabs. Blonde Geri wiggled her hips – not for our side this time, but for the troops.

I miss the old Christopher Hitchens, lost to excess, alcohol, and the seductive embrace of the system. The man who used to warn us of trusting those prophets who could lead us into the promised land, because they would surely lead us promptly back out again … has proved the wisdom of his own rule.

Women’s Voice: in retrospect



In my last two posts, I’ve criticised the gender politics of Tony Cliff and of the comrades who came after him. Now I want to look a little deeper and focus on the more positive side of the story, because one irony of history is that within the SWP and in the SWP’s immediate predecessor the International Socialists (IS),  there had been a tradition of thinking about women’s politics which was much broader, and in which there was no obstacle to writing or campaigning even about “divisive” issues such as sexual violence. And nor is just the matter of praising a single individual such as Sheila Rowbotham; there were in fact a group of comrades who thought passionately, and deeply, about women’s oppression.

Women’s Voice was IS’ and then the SWP women’s newspaper and then magazine. It started in summer 1972 and continued until summer 1982, when the SWP’s annual conference voted to closed it down. There are accounts of the group and the magazine’s history in Tony Cliff’s A World to Win, where Women’s Voice is characterised as “a bridge out of the party”, and in Ian Birchall’s biography of Tony Cliff, which records that “Cliff did not show any great enthusiam” for Women’s Voice from the outset, and quotes Cliff terming the paper’s launch “a disaster”.

My own reading is that irrespective of the reservations Cliff may have had the project gathered momentum, especially under the Labour government, and between 1974 and 1978 the magazine flourished. There were 600 people at Women’s Voice rally in Manchester in 1975, and 1000 people attended a rally in Sheffield three years later.

In 1978 a decision was taken to establish women-only Women’s Voice groups, which were also open to women outside the SWP. Sherrl Yanowitz was an active member of the SWP and Women’s Voice during this period, “I have never been ashamed of it. Every morning during the Grunwicks Strike at Dollis Hill, I went with my Kilburn Women’s Voice group to the picket line. We fought the police along side Arthur Scargill and the miners who came all the way from Yorkshire in solidarity.”

The move to establish Women’s Voice groups, at an arm’s length from the rest of the SWP, was controversial, and its groups were closed down in 1980 with the magazine being closed down two years later. Birchall quotes extensively from Sheila McGregor and Lindsey German, who were successively the SWP’s women organisers during this time and who are said to have argued with Cliff for the magazine to continue, but neither woman, it must be said, had written much for Women’s Voice, which had a different core of writers, very few of whom were still in the SWP within a couple of years of the magazine’s closure.

The magazine was lively and iconoclastic. It had a strategy for turning readers into writers by describing, very practically, how to write for the magazine, how to write industrial bulletins, how to duplicate the bulletins using the available technology of the time, how to set up Women’s Voice groups, and even how to set up women’s refuges. International coverage was sustained (especially over Ireland, South Africa and Palestine) without becoming the sole focus of the coverage.

Much of the content is similar to articles which you might have found in Socialist Review in the last 20 years (eg columns titled “Why I became a socialist”), and the two magazines even shared the same font, save that the biographies of inspiring women socialists from history which accompanied them (Louise Michel, Flora Tristran) is a little wider than anything Socialist Review has ever published.

The more interesting thing is what Women’s Voice did differently from other left-wing monthly magazines. It tried to make itself open to women competing on the same terrain as the women’s magazines with their focus on sex, diets, marriage, etc. It deliberately approached many of the same issues. There were half a dozen different articles about the utility of different kinds of contraception, the advisability or not of having children in your thirties.

There were articles about the slimming industry (years before Susie Orbach’s famous book Fat is a Feminist Issue), about the safety of children’s playgroups, a two-page spread on books for children, and an interview with Ramilla Patel the woman who disrupted Martin Webster’s march through Hyde by holding up behind him the entire way an anti-fascist placard (only the latter of these could as easily have appeared in the SWP’s main monthly magazine, Socialist Review). There were articles about what was wrong with Miss World and on the gender politics of Mary-worship in Catholicism.

The magazine ran a number of reviews of various of Kollontai’s books, critical reviews of books by Beatrix Campbell, and an interview with Marge Piercy. A lifestyle-type piece looked at the lives of female fire control operators during the firefighters’ strike. The magazine defended the left from the argument that people should look up to Margaret Thatcher, simply because she was a woman. There were pieces on lesbian mums, the gendering of children’s clothes at Mothercare, the rip-off prices of children’s toys at Christmas.

Beside them, you could read practical advice on how to limit the pain of pre-menstrual tension, pieces on sexual harassment, the stigma of illegitimacy, and even a series of articles on the politics of women’s sport (chiefly, rowing; there was not much on running I’m sad to report).

Abortion was a regular topic; which is not surprising because this had been the largest women’s campaign of the 1970s and the one best supported by the union movement. And there were of course several pieces on rape and domestic violence, and on women’s organising to support the victims of both of these.

The starting point of Women’s Voice coverage was always to accept that rape was pervasive and genuinely a crime, and to support anyone fighting back against it.

You can see some of the differences between Women’s Voice and the more recent politics of the SWP if you take a very straightforward example – the way in which the magazine reviewed Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will, the first big book in which 1970s feminism confronted the reality of rape. This was in the context of a two-page retrospective devoted to important books of the 1970s women’s movement.

In recent years, the conventional SWP approach has been to preface any analysis of Brownmiller with significant “health warnings” suggesting that its arguments are best avoided. So in Sheila Mcgregor’s 1989 piece on rape, there are a series of criticial mentions of Brownmiller who is attacked for having a “belief in the eternal existence of male violence“, for seeing all man as rapists, etc.

Compare the short review of the same book which Anna Sullivan wrote for Women’s Voice: “Susan Brownmiller’s book is an extremely objective and intense document on rape. The book is not just a set of case histories of rape but a close examination of every historical, social and racial situation in which rape has occurred: the way in which rape is used in times of war to oppress the defeated nation or group, the way prison system gives rise to rape and the way in which rape is used to impose racial oppression.”

“These reasons aside why do seemingly ordinary individuals rape? The question cannot be answered simply but Brownmiller does go a long way to explaining. However, she spoils the book by coming to some very strange conclusions. The strangest of all is that a revolutionary step forward in the liberation of women would be to have 50 per cent women in the police force!”

“In spite of this it is a compelling book to read and should leave us with the conclusion that however liberated women become in capitalist society the threat of violence will always be there and used unless we achieve socialism. Without books like these the question of rape would have stayed locked in the cupboard and women everywhere would have continued to accept violence as their lot.”

It is not a long review, but it is revealing. Sullivan criticised Brownmiller, but she placed her criticisms within what was essentially a positive review. She saw through the surface “edge” of Brownmiller’s book and grasped what was right with it.

The first SWP publication that Hazel Croft came across was Women’s Voice in the very early 80s, “I really loved it because it was a more dynamic/socialist version of feminist magazines like Spare Rib etc which I also read. There seemed to me at the time a wonderful sense of activism, and engagement with a whole range of issues that interested me as a young ‘socialist/anarchist/feminist’ at the time (I called myself all three) – maybe it was off-beam on some issues, but so what? It seems to me now that it really didn’t matter that much if it managed to reach and excite someone like me and connect me to a movement I later got so involved in.”

I know that some readers of this piece will think that Women’s Voice was “eclectic” to apply the politics of Marxism systematically to women’s lives. In truth it was nothing of the sort. Women are half of the world (indeed in Britain. America and Europe slightly more than half). If you want your socialism to be silent about women’s specific oppression (and in particular about male sexual violence) then you have to give up these parts of the struggle for women’s liberation to others. Your women’s politics are made vaguer and more general. And you should not be surprised if people angered by by rape, sexual harassment or domestic violence choose to express their anger by adopting politics other than yours.

Or, if you tried to have a Marxism which stated that it was, out of principle, uninterested in childcare, housework, the segregation of women into certain kinds of employment, key Marxist concepts such as the distinction between production and social reproduction would be lost and your Marxism diminished. Above all, you would lose the idea, central to what Marx himself thought his socialism was about, that socialism is the liberation of the whole of humanity from oppression and exploitation, and even the working class is merely the agent of change. It is all oppressed humanity who is supposed to benefit from workers’ revolution.

A healthy organisation could have integrated its socialism and its feminism; indeed, for ten of the best  years of the SWP’s existence the party had no difficulty at all in  being simultaneously both Marxist and anti-sexist. It kept a range of voices within, and the party was more interesting, and more effective as a result.

The last issue of Women’s Voice had on its back cover a full-page advert for the SWP’s monthly magazine Socialist Review, the not-so-subtle message being that in future the politics of Women’s Voice would continue to appear save in a new home.

Some members were fearful that women’s oppression would cease to be a priority for the SWP on Women’s Voice’s closure, but genuine efforts appear to have been made – for a couple of years anyway – to compensate by raising the profile within the ordinary routine of SWP activity, by writing about women’s issues in Socialist Worker and by having a range of meeting in branches or at the SWP’s annual summer conference Marxism which revolved around women’s oppression.  Charlie Hore was a member of the SWP in Leeds. He and most of his district had supported the continuation of Women’s Voice magazine: “In hindsight, I would [accept] that its abolition helped to integrate such work better into the SWP. I came away from [the SWP] conference [in 1982 which voted for the magazine to be closed down] thinking I would watch like a hawk for signs of the SWP getting soft on the issues, and I came round as I didn’t see it.”

In Cliff’s memoirs, he accepts his distance from Women’s Voice, but blames that gap on unnamed others; “Sadly, although I was in the leadership of the SWP, I was never allowed to be involved in the activity of Women’s Voice. I never spoke at a Women’s Voice meeting, I never wrote a line for the magazine. I did speak to women, and often, but did so in the context of their being engineers, hospital workers, teachers, students, and so on.” (Without being unkind to him, this may help to explain why Cliff’s book on women conceives of women in exactly those terms, i.e. as workers, teachers, students – far more clearly than as women).

In those memoirs, it is Lindsey German who is given the task of defending Women’s Voice‘s closure, saying that the magazine had accommodated “to autonomous [i.e. separate women’s] organisation … This was reflected in a whole number of campaigns taken up by Women’s Voice, for example, Reclaim the Night or against toxic tampons. In practice the move was away from class wide demands or demands which united women and men.” The reference to campaigns against toxic tampons seems unfair and even dismissive (although the magazine talked openly and sensibly about contraception, I have not seen that “campaign” in the 40 issues or so of the magazine that I have read). It is the reference to Reclaim the Night though which is telling. Those who have read my critique of Cliff’s book will spot that German is repeating of an argument which he had made in Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, namely that campaigning against sexual violence should in principle be avoided, because it is always likely to divide women from men. I don’t need to repat the points I have made previously about the futility of that approach.

In Ian Birchall’s Tony Cliff: a Marxist for His Time, there is a much more sophisticated history of Women’s Voice (at pp 464-66) than there is in Cliff’s own memoirs. Birchall emphasises the slow speed at which Cliff moved in taking the decision to close the magazine, and the assent, by the end, of a number of women comrades. Now, of course it is better if bad decisions are handled sympathetically; all of us have seen the damage which is done when a line is taken brutally through an organisationally causing hundreds to leave.

But to my mind, even Birchall’s account underestimates the damage done by the magazine’s closure:

First, there was a group of people who had been sympathetic to the SWP who were permanently separated from it. They felt the loss keenly. Unlike other groups who were pushed out at much the same time (eg the people who went into Red Action), they never found an alternative political home. Very few, as far as I can see, became active in the briefly re-energised feminist movement that had followed the publication of Rowbotham and Segal’s book Beyond the Fragments. Most contributors to Women’s Voice who I have met saw themselves as more “socialist” and less “feminist” than the supporters of Beyond the Fragments, and they were equally isolated from the Women’s Liberation movement which was then at a different point from the old socialist-feminist consensus of the early 1970s. (Women’s Voice, I should add, had published a number of articles critical of aspects of late 70s and early 80s feminism, and was viewed relatively suspiciously by many feminists; another reason why it is a canard to portray the magazine as radical feminism’s home inside the SWP). The skills of the people who had contributed to Women’s Voice, their ideas and their enthusiasm for socialism were lost to the organised left without any compensating benefit to anybody.

Second, the early 80s was an important period in the slow degeneration of the old IS into the more top-down, controlled party that the SWP has slowly become – it saw the displacement of local cadres, the replacement of a culture of local activism with one of central direction, the loss of democracy, and the institutionalisation of a supposedly super-talented leadership who were always the best placed people to initiate new SWP policies whether on abortion, industry or the dialectics of nature. The closure of Women’s Voice coincided with the parallel purges of the SWP’s black activists around the magazine Flame, and the removal of the squaddists. There had been similar possibilities of decay within IS; what restrained them was the existence of a local cadre within the organisation who had been through different stages of the group’s politics and were irreverent towards the leadership and restrained it. Women’s Voice‘s closure was a part of that loss, a step towards the more command-ist party that the SWP is now. It scattered a small but distinct group of people who could have been limited the lurches of our recent leaderships.

Third, despite the intention that Women’s Voice contributors would be given a space in Socialist Review, which would then continue to run the same sort of articles as the ones which had been staples of Women’s Voice this did not happen in reality. Socialist Review did not show any lasting interest in women’s politics, which had as much priority in the magazine after 1982 as it had before. Its contents did not noticeably broaden after Women’s Voice was closed down, and that meant that the articles about contraception, dieting, etc, did not appear in the publications either of the SWP or of its any counterparts and rivals elsewhere on the Marxist left. An activist way of thinking about women’s oppression was lost, and if that thinking or campaigning continued afterwards, it was in the women’s movement , not within the socialist left. A move that was supposedly about integrating women’s oppression within the politics of the SWP, turned out over time to have the effect of raising the barrier between two parts of the left which should properly be allied.

I’ll be posting a number of articles from Women’s Voice over subsequent days and weeks, some to illustrate its broader politics of sex, love and sexual violence, others because they are well-written or inspiring.

A team of 17 friends have typed these pieces, which will then be offered, with the magazines, to the Marxist Internet Archive (my thanks and love to each of them).

I hope you enjoy the pieces as they are published;  they go beyond anything in any comparable left-wing publication today.

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?

Duncan Hallas; Party and Class


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The[se effects] will be overcome when, and only when, a serious penetration and fusion of layers of workers and students outside sectarian circles has been achieved. The International Socialism group intends to make a significant contribution to that penetration. Without having any illusions that it is “the leadership” the group exists to make a theoretical and a practical contribution to the regeneration of socialism in Britain and internationally.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1971/xx/party.htm)

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

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

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

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

In 1975, the International Socialists suffered the most protracted (and second-nastiest) split of the organisation’s entire history. The definitive account was published years afterwards by the split’s main victim, Jim Higgins, then a journalist on Socialist Worker, and before that the party’s national secretary (http://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1997/locust/).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from “Why do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts” (1972)


“Sexual love is the movement that breaks the rules; an uprising of the senses that abolishes propriety. Time alters. A gasp lasts an hour, a night separates into heaps of minutes, a conversation from bar to bed to bus stop and has it been a fortnight or a day? Objects floor you with sudden meanings; a weed becomes a flower beside a canal that is an ocean. A shell swells with feelings. Touches echo, nerves misbehave, hands ricochet. Eyes kindle and melt in a world of constantly altering surfaces. Love offers a glimpse of the most intimate communication that we have experienced. Everything that’s said about love is true, except the happy ending.

To love in capitalism has an especially bitter intensity. It is to repossess feelings to which we have come foreign. Emotions without rules or prices or power attached to them. In love’s bed, mutual subjectivity allows absolute altruism. The precious is given without price, the delight lies in delighting another. We recover that which we have been taught to withhold or avoid or simply have shaken out of us by parents and teachers and each other. It is a state of revolution against the discoloured flatness which is ‘normal’, sleep-work-play life. Lovers win a short parole permission to trail after the ditch-flowers, to stare through the swirls of harbour water to the stone and become entranced by the dart and hover of storm clouds. Sexual love cannot be hoarded, accumulated or displayed. Neither moth nor rust can corrupt it.

In general, the individualism so avidly developed in us by the capitalist system is for external application. We are persuaded to distrust our emotions when they conflict, as they usually do, with competitive success. If we are going to ‘get somewhere’ and ‘make something of ourselves’, education not experience should be our guide. The adverts school us, the slogans batter us down. Get without giving. take what you can. Look after No. 1. ‘The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being’, wrote Marx. But even the bourgeoisie flounders on love which it is obliged to honour however much it loathes its expression. For love is a zone of subjectivity which also has official approval, a precarious holiday where feelings and finance are supposed to rule. Love allows you, briefly, to return to what was once yourself…

It is not hard to see why such an unruly state of mind has to be strictly rationed and kept controlled with greeting cards, marriage licenses and marzipan cakes. It is unpredictable, disorderly and bad for industrial relations. It’s too simple and too difficult and doesn’t consume enough. For the effective growth of commerce, it should only occur once in life, its emotions must be surrounded with regulations, icing sugar and lace, made as well-behaved as possible. It would be easier of it didn’t exist, this love, and for many it never does. But it has proved quite impossible to remove the gnaw or eradicate the itch. So it has been turned into something quite different, a mouldy, consoling sort of emotion which, for men, is made palatable by bouts of ‘sexy’ sexuality which must be purchased of forced rather than discovered. Sex itself must be turned into work, with its own rules and games. It is forced back into the black sack of marriage, a contract to feel in a matter whose very essence lies in its voluntary nature.

It is not just a case of love ‘withering under constraint’, as Blake, one of the first rebels against the laws of trade, marriage and scholarship, put it. Love is buried by love’s forms and sexual love becomes an acted insincerity …

The echoing sense and unbreaked subjectivity are made silly and impossible to sustain, for such love needs leisure and more space than five football fields. That kind of love becomes, in practice, a privilege for the rich. The rest of us are left to read about the affairs of ballet dancers and the loves of princesses. Ordinary love is locked up in its own company, given guards called Jealousy and Fidelity, taken out in public once a month, and stifled to death beneath the TV and the nappies. The underside of love surfaces and passion now wants its penalties. A once equal love capsizes and itself becomes the subject of the division of labour. The man is the human being who has to be kept fuelled and sustained, fit to do his stuff in the outside world. As time passes, it is mysteriously the man who comes to determine the terms of the emotional bargain. It’s the woman who fits it, placates, anticipates, mollifies, sacrifices and then becomes bitter and made lonely by what love has become. The labour of love becomes just another labour.

Love can quickly become a species of tyranny, a word offered and withheld like a dog’s biscuit. A word that turns suddenly into a slap, a trap, a threat. ‘Do you love your mummy?’ means reward me for your dependence. ‘Mother knifed baby to prove she loved it’, says a local paper. Love becomes involuntary, a system of emotional green Stamps, promised, stored and exchanged. The platitude that love is close to pain becomes cruelly true, the intensity of violence replaces the gentleness of love. Not just broken alcoholic men but the smarty young executives find violence sexy when the fun has gone out of love.

Violence is the occupational disease of a wife. Men beat their spouses regularly who would never harm their dog. But the slow death of love is a different sort of pain, full of guilt and dread and exhaustion. Love becomes an oath or a pang or a regret; the grease in the spoon, the hook in the tune. Women are less keen to forget that is why they are called sentimental. But mulling over memories while contriving to be lovely-to-come-home-to is apt to produce a mawkish and sickly romanticism, no use to anyone. The evidence of loveless marriage lies concealed and unrecorded doorstep grumbles and corner shop intimacies and smoothed-over-rows in public bars, to be kept from the outside world if it can be…

How the economic set-up of the family mutilates the emotions of love and the unequal relations of the sexes turns a particular pair of lovers into sparring partners are not the most important crimes of a system which can starve whole continents and destroy and make ugly entire cities. But it is one of the saddest. Feelings which have regulated life itself are relegated to a mere memory. A glimpse of something which has become a taunt. Once mixed up with marriage and corrupted with cash, love is bent into a certain shape which no longer fits feelings. People are sorted into twos and marched up to the wedding cake while relatives make bitter jokes behind their backs and hire purchase agents lick their pencils. The family is a convenient self-financing unit of competitive consumption and indoctrination, the original sweatshop where production and repair and reproduction are carried out by an unsafe, unpaid and under-appreciated women workforce. For the state it is cheap at the price. How much easier than spending on good public transport or comprehensive group care for young children or community centres and restaurants which provided much better and cheaper food and entertainment than the commercial outfits if everyone does it at home one by one. Exhaustingly, inefficiently, expensively. And then sits in front of the TV to watch still more invented happy families serving out their Shreddies. The family provides certain certainties and keeps us all well wadded with stupidities. If it is breaking down, that is the occasion for rejoicing not dismay. We need to start finding alternatives and demanding the facilities to make them work, not trying to force the broken pieces back together again.”

by Dave Widgery (previously unpublished)