August 19, 2022 | 22 minutes read | Tags: Long reads, The British Left, History

The Long Crisis of British Marxism in the Shadow of Thatcher

In the long and winding struggle for socialism, we should also keep in mind Sivanandan’s lesson, that ‘unity has to be forged and reforged again and again’.

The Long Crisis of British Marxism in the Shadow of Thatcher

Author: AH is a member of Midlands branch, and a writer and editor at Ebb Magazine. This article was written in the context of discussions within Red Fightback around the problems of the sect form of organising among Leninist parties in Britain.

In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.—Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940)

Red Fightback was formed four years ago in 2018 – the year I joined – a product of splits caused by sexual abuse apologism and various chauvinisms in British communist organisations. As Leninists, we were not surprised to witness Corbynism’s fatal inability to navigate the social and economic contradictions surrounding Brexit, or its cumulative capitulations to the right over national ‘defence’, borders, and policing. This was hardly the first time socialists in Britain had underestimated the risks of seeking a constitutional path to power within the imperialist state.

But while the democratic-socialist left is hindered by a failure to expand its horizons beyond Labour and parliamentarism, on the revolutionary left strategic thinking remains clouded by the accumulated bias ‘of political sectarianism, Cold War propaganda and pure ignorance of a forgotten past.’1 The dead weight of history envelops us, and we remain trapped in debates of the 1970s and 80s: a conjuncture in which the philosopher Louis Althusser declared a ‘crisis of Marxism’, and that culminated in a historic defeat for both organised labour and the anti-systemic ‘new social movements’ that emerged in the 60s. Within Britain, the intellectual crisis of the left was defined by the rift between New Left theorist Stuart Hall and Race & Class editor Ambalavaner Sivanandan over the meaning of the ‘New Times’ of neoliberal capitalism.

The problems identified then are the ones we face today of how to build counter-power in the community and the workplace, in the face of deindustrialisation and class decomposition. How to energise labour organising in the context of a weakened union bureaucracy that is no longer an integral bloc within the British state, but nonetheless a pillar of reformism. And how to maintain a favourable balance of extra-parliamentary versus parliamentary forces, to prevent statist co-optation of left movements. Most difficult of all, how to build a popular movement for democracy and socialism at the national level, which negates the dominant populist force of imperialistic nationalism. Relatedly, how to defend the vestiges of the welfare state, while addressing the historical interplay between the domestic class struggle, social imperialism, and industrial capitalism’s need to reproduce exploitable workers?

This article is not prescriptive, it rather maps the major left tendencies in Britain from the 1960s to the present, and how they have contended with such questions. Without understanding the history, the left will be unable to move beyond circular polemic – a problem recently underscored by Tricontinental Institute director Vijay Prashad:

It is important that the left produce an attitude of openness toward left-wing groupings and left-wing ideas. There is no need for a fundamental unity of all groups, but there has to be an attitude of common work and common struggle. Differences are important and should be held. But… I fear that the Western left is so divided not only by ideas but by sectarian arrogance and by even sectarian hatred that it will not be able to create a genuine flank against the hard right.

Mapping the post-war British left

Paradoxically, the British working class which emerged from the Second World War at the height of its political influence simultaneously experienced its most complete incorporation into state capitalism. Workers voted in the ostensibly ‘socialist’ government that built the welfare state and, limited though it was, this represented a real material gain. But the social concessions were at the same time an insurance against more radical anti-capitalist political demands, and the reforms were indelibly linked to economic imperialism abroad. Under Attlee, the Trades Union Congress and parliamentary left played an active role in the intensified exploitation of Britain’s colonial dependencies, all in the name of socialist ‘development’. This situation created deep structural obstacles to the growth of an anti-systemic left posing a revolutionary alternative to social democracy.

The Communist Party (CPGB)’s wartime Popular Front politics had enhanced its support base, and it retained significant influence in trade unions, playing a role in the resurgent industrial militancy that brought down the Conservative Heath government in 1974. But its strategy of courting broad ‘anti-monopoly capitalism’ alliances with the parliamentary left meant it often tempered its criticism of government policy whenever Labour was in office. The CPGB’s failure to convincingly oppose Labour’s neo-colonialism and support for racist immigration controls alienated many Black and Asian socialists.2

In the sixties new challenges to the social-democratic consensus arose, associated with the protest spirit of 1968. With its focus on traditional working-class struggles, the old far-left represented by the CPGB and orthodox Trotskyism (e.g. the entryist Militant Tendency) was unable to capture the dynamism of the new social movements. However, more creative Trotskyisms emerged which fed on the student and anti-war activism, shopfloor militancy, second wave feminism, Black Power, and anti-fascism. These were the International Socialism Group (the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party), which advocated ‘socialism from below’, and Tariq Ali’s International Marxist Group, the British section of the Fourth International whose leading theorist was Ernest Mandel – an intellectual mentor of Che Guevara.

Generally Trotskyism was weak on anti-imperialism, as its hostility to the Soviet Union and Mao’s China muddied its view of Third World socialist movements. Like the CPGB, British Trotskyism also mostly ignored developments in the theorising of neo-colonialism and unequal exchange by Third World Marxists like Walter Rodney. But this was not always the case, and the most significant anti-imperialist movement of this period in Britain, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, was formed in 1966 by the Guevarist-Trotskyist IMG. The VSC’s full support for armed Vietnamese resistance to the genocidal US invasion contrasted with the Communist Party-affiliated British Campaign for Peace in Vietnam, whose ‘alliance with a layer of Tribunite Labour MPs seemed to be more important than the agony and suffering of the Vietnamese.’3 This also reflected the CPGB’s patchy historical record on anti-colonialism, which was at various times subordinated to Soviet realpolitik.4

The VSC was a mass campaign of the left which galvanised opposition to US imperialism within the wider labour movement, but signs of any major lasting impact were limited. While trade unionists marched for various anti-war and civil rights causes throughout the 1970s, the unions continued to defend jobs in arms manufacturing, nuclear power and other industrial sectors generating enormous trade with NATO-aligned states. Building an anti-capitalist wedge in the labour movement which threatened the TUC-Labour alliance would have been a necessary (but not sufficient) prerequisite to a committed anti-imperialist trend. There were two main approaches on the left – firstly, the Communist Party-affiliated Broad Left in the trade unions, which exerted pressure on the Labour government within the push-and-pull of industrial management under social democracy. And secondly the rank-and-file shop stewards’ movement, supported by the ISG and also by CPGB members, which clashed with the union officialdom. The rank-and-file committees lacked the institutional power of the Broad Left, and often ended up reproducing the bureaucracy they had condemned.5 Ultimately the limits of the polarised approaches could only be overcome through a merger of a revolutionary political organisation with the labour movement, but given the weakness of the left that was never on the cards, and in retrospect this period marked the beginning of the long decline of industrial organising.

The ensuing pessimism reinforced a damaging tendency on the far-left of turning inwards. In the 1970s the ISG took a decisive turn towards the party form with leader Tony Cliff’s ‘rediscovery’ of Leninism, which entailed inappropriately adopting the militarised formulation of democratic centralism codified by the Comintern in the context of the Russian Civil War. The now-SWP joined most other Trotskyist sects in mirroring the bureaucratic inertia of the CPGB, leading to a clampdown on group democracy and spurious justifications for the liquidation of its Black and women’s caucuses – sowing the seeds of the 2013 ‘Comrade Delta’ scandal.6 The SWP also inherited the error of substitutionism (substituting a party sect for a real class vanguard), becoming one among dozens of competitors for the custodian of the ‘authentic’ revolutionary tradition. Ali’s IMG meanwhile responded to the waning of student radicalism by reverting to classical Trotskyist entryism tactics, with its cadre integrating into the reinvigorated Labour left.

The Labour left of the 1940s and 50s was wedded to parliamentary paternalism, with its view of the state as caretaker of the working class. Its leader Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the National Health Service, supported the Attlee government’s repression of strikes in newly nationalised industries and its alignment with US imperialism in the Cold War. However, a very different Labour left emerged in the 1970s led by Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn, which reflected ‘the emergence of a new generation of community activists that understood that class identity and socialist consciousness had to be reconstructed.’7 Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy enshrined the defensive reformism of the CPGB and Broad Left, but the Labour new left was also inflected by the participation of 1968, including the autonomous representation of minorities, and workers democracy at the point of production. In a real sense, Bennism entailed a taming and co-optation of these tendencies into the reformist electoral structures of Labour. But it also resulted in ‘democratic socialism’ being debated at the national level, and – then as now – the far-left made a mistake in ignoring what was novel about the new Labour left.

Still, Bennism’s mission to democratise the British state by building an opposition tendency within extant Labour Party structures proved to be a Sisyphean task. Benn also never fully cast off the stubborn inheritance of Fabian ‘empire socialism’, expressed in his paternalistic belief that Labour’s ‘socialist co-operation’ had facilitated a ‘relatively peaceful end’ to British colonialism, erasing the mass violence in Kenya, Malaya, India and elsewhere. Benn’s Fabian prejudice shaped his otherwise principled criticism of integration into the EU and NATO, when he argued that Britain, having lost its formal empire status, was itself being ‘colonised’ by America and Europe.8 This was careless patriotic rhetoric, particularly in the context of the New Right’s manipulation of imperial nostalgia.

At the opposite end of the left spectrum from Bennism was ‘anti-revisionist’ Marxism-Leninism (Maoism). This trend was exceptionally small in Britain vis-à-vis its counterparts in continental Europe – partly because anti-revisionism largely comprised splits from official Communist Parties, and the CPGB was relatively tiny, reflecting the historical dominance of Labourism over the British working class. The political strength of British Maoism from an anti-imperialist viewpoint was in connecting with Third World Marxism, Black Power, and Irish Republicanism. These politics were also taken up by a splinter from the SWP, the Revolutionary Communist Group – which broke from Trotskyism but remained distinct from Maoism. But overshadowing the merits of Maoism (and the RCG) was the lack of party democracy and dogmatism that plagued the rest of the western Leninist traditions. The framework of anti-revisionism, despite its utility in critiquing neo-reformism, was often backwards looking, promising a return to a past ‘purity’ of Marxism-Leninism.9 A further hindrance was the confusion sown by the Sino-Soviet split, which was a major setback for the global alignment against imperialism.

The difficulties of the left in navigating class contradictions within a neo-colonial metropole were shown in its relationship to the Black Power-inspired African-Caribbean and South Asian political movements. After the war, workers recruited from the decolonising empire to service Britain’s economy were met with a racist ‘colour-bar’ in housing and employment. Violent racism intensified with the waning of the economic boom, leading Black and Asian activists to adopt militant self-defence approaches. Self-organisation was also key to challenging racism in the workplace, in the face of marked hostility from white trade unionists. Failing to understand (or acknowledge) how (neo-)colonialism created deep material divisions within the working class, white leftists widely denigrated Black and Asian radicals’ strategic advocacy of autonomous organising as ‘Black separatism’. A notable exception was the IMG, which worked with the British Black Panther movement. British Black Power’s staunch commitment to anti-imperialism and the national liberation paradigm was also at odds with the abstract internationalism of much of the white-led left. The disconnect was not reducible to any obvious sectarian divisions – British Trotskyists, communists, New Leftists and Labourites were more or less united in their methodological Eurocentrism.

An attempt was made to bridge the rift between anti-racist movements and the left in the late 1970s. Initiated by the SWP, the Anti-Nazi League drew on existing anti-fascist networks of leftists and Black radicals and at its height mobilised tens of thousands of activists. Contentions over whether the League was a revolutionary ‘united front’ or reformist ‘popular front’ often reflected sectarian divides, rather than really insightful analysis. But the ANL’s faults were indicative of the major problems of the left. Its narrow focus on the far-right National Front, which it framed as an aberrant threat to Britain’s democracy, was in many senses a strategic retreat from the existing struggle against state-driven racism by the Black Power movement. The ANL’s rather uncritical alliance with the parliamentary left (e.g. Benn) also shifted attention away from the Labour government’s racist immigration and policing policies, along with its imposition of austerity measures, which had facilitated the growth of fascism. It was ultimately the inability of British social democracy to resolve the economic crisis of the seventies, and its increasing reliance on state authoritarianism – along with the left’s underestimation of the danger of racial populism – that paved the path to power for Thatcher’s New Right.

Facing New Times

Some Marxists in Britain sought to confront the limits of both the old reformist and revolutionary left. They drew on the trend of Eurocommunism – an attempt by Communist Parties in western Europe to adapt to post-war economic, social, and political conditions. The Eurocommunists looked towards Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s project to transcend the fatalistic economism of interwar communism, by looking at the way that class struggle is mediated by broader ‘national-popular’ social interests and blocs.

In abandoning the dictatorship of the proletariat, Eurocommunism often reproduced the same old social democracy but creative insights came from left-Eurocommunists like Nicos Poulantzas – building on Althusser’s structural Marxism which theorised the ‘relative autonomy’ of the political and ideological levels from the economic ‘base’ of society. Structural Marxism influenced sections of the British New Left10 intelligentsia who sought to confront the ‘New Times’ of emergent neoliberalism. These intellectuals were associated with the British Eurocommunist journal Marxism Today, whose sharpest analyst was the Jamaica-born Marxist Stuart Hall. Hall’s conjunctural analysis of the merging of contradictory social forces meant he was among the first to recognise Thatcherism as a hegemonic project which he termed ‘authoritarian populism’.

The theorists of New Times believed that capitalist restructuring entailed the need for novel modes of organisation, informed by the new social movements and Bennism. The interwar communist paradigm in Europe, of workers councils/soviets as ‘the vital link connecting a vanguard party and the masses’, was no longer sufficient.11 Some far-left sects in Europe and North America reacted to this reality by trying in desperation to emulate the protracted guerrilla struggles of Third World revolutionaries, resulting in calamity. But the Eurocommunists were themselves guilty of overcorrection in their polemics against the class struggle orientation of the traditional left, which had a highly damaging impact in terms of left solidarity – particularly amid the miners’ showdown with Thatcher.

More significantly, as Asad Haider points out, Marxism Today’s assessment of Thatcherism had failed to recognise that ‘this moment was also a defeat for the new social movements, just as much as it was for organized labor.’12 In the 60s, the autonomous movements such as socialist feminism and Black Power were rooted in debates about revolutionary consciousness, and anti-systemic critiques of capitalism and the liberal state. This changed in the 80s, when Thatcherite counterinsurgency was complemented by reformist co-optation. In the aftermath of the 1981 urban uprisings, government aid programmes encouraged a zero-sum scramble for state resources between newly constructed ‘ethnic blocs’, a trend which was paralleled among social activist groups caught up in ‘red Ken’ Livingstone’s ‘municipal funding bonanza’ in the Labour left led Greater London Council. The new social movements were also diverted into campaigns for representation within the Labour Party. These changes, along with the decline of industrial unionism, were accompanied with intellectual reconfiguration on the left. A narrower understanding of autonomy came to prevalence based on the post-structuralist neo-Gramscian theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who were central to Marxism Today’s retreat from materialist foundations.

This was the crux of the antagonism between Hall and Ambalavaner Sivanandan, the sagacious director of the Institute of Race Relations, who was steeped in the politics of British Black Power and Third World Marxism. In his 1990 essay ‘All That Melts into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times’, Sivanandan took Marxism Today to task for abandoning the struggles of those left behind by neoliberalism, and ignoring how ‘the brave new Western world of post-Fordism’ and ‘progressive consumerism’ was being built upon the renewed exploitation of Third World labour through capitalist globalisation. Not so ready to abandon revolutionary Marxism, Sivanandan also reminded the Eurocommunists that there were definite limits on the ‘autonomy’ socialists can attain within the state. Livingstone’s Greater London Council ‘might have succeeded in constructing all sorts of social blocs and movements (the pride and joy of the new Marxists) to challenge Tory hegemony, but all that Mrs Thatcher had to do was abolish it.’ Many of these critiques were echoed, in less sophisticated forms, by the Trotskyists and Maoists.

It was thus Sivanandan’s intervention, not E. P. Thompson’s intra-New Left polemic against the Althusserian Marxism of New Left Review editor Perry Anderson, which defined the problematic of British Marxism during the neoliberal transition. But Hall was not responsible for the failure of the old left, even if his solution, a form of Eurocommunism, was not the answer. Anderson summarised the general impasse, noting that orthodox Leninisms’

‘negative demonstrations of the incoherence and implausibility of central Eurocommunist assumptions were not accompanied by any sustained positive construction of an alternative scenario for defeating capitalism in the West. The blockage stemmed from too close an imaginative adherence to the paradigm of the October Revolution, made against the husk of a feudal monarchy, and too distant a theoretical concern with the contours of a capitalist democracy the Bolsheviks never had to confront.’ 13

Moving on…to what?

The left remains trapped in this same intellectual malaise today, with neither neo-reformism nor Leninism providing clear ways out. During the Corbyn interval, the heirs of the New Left and Bennism advocated for ‘moving on’ from ‘sterile polarities’ of ‘reform versus revolution, parliamentary versus extra-parliamentary’; encouraged by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s vision of a ‘social movement’ Labour Party working ‘in and against the state’.14 Corbynism’s ‘strong intellectual, theoretically informed fringe’, including the New Socialist magazine formed in 2017, was particularly influenced by the late comrade Leo Panitch (editor of Socialist Register) and Hilary Wainwright (founder of Red Pepper), who both championed Ralph Miliband’s critique of traditional Labourite parliamentary socialism. Proponents of the Milibandian viewpoint took inspiration from the left populist experiments in continental Europe, including Syriza in Greece. Panitch, following the left-Eurocommunist Costas Lapavitsas, attributed Syriza’s ultimate capitulation to the Troika to a deficit of extra-parliamentary pressures, and identified the same weakness in Corbynism – noting how Momentum became a ‘fast-track route for activists into representative politics’.15 But an emphasis on the balance of parliamentary vs extra-parliamentary forces leaves unresolved political questions. As Aaron Amaral, a founding member of the AKNY-Greece Solidarity Movement, suggests: ‘It may be that writing off the reform/revolution problem leaves good-willed revolutionaries without a road map for the necessary work (including electoral) of the revolutionary in a non-revolutionary moment.’

The non-parliamentary left understandably complained that Corbynism funnelled existing grassroots anti-austerity activism into electoralism, but the fact is there was no prior political project of the left – Corbyn filled a leadership vacuum. Stuck in its political nadir, British Leninism has failed to constitute itself as a historical agent in the crisis of neoliberalism, save for the Communist Party’s incubation of the Bennite Alternative Economic Strategy which informed Corbynomics. In Red Fightback some members, present author included, thought a return to anti-revisionism was the answer; others took shelter in the economic fatalism that blighted interwar communism, reassured the ‘final crisis’ of capitalism will put revolution back on the agenda. More promising has been a turn towards community organising inspired by the US ‘base-building’ trend, though ambiguities surround the question of state power. When inevitable difficulties arise, there’s a tendency to become trapped in an unhealthy cycle of criticism that cannot resolve itself, because the issues we are facing are structural problems outside the control of any political sect. These go deeper even than neoliberalism, to the long political containment of the working classes within the strongholds of capitalist-imperialism.

Any serious socialist initiative must deal with national particulars, which was understood by the New Left intellectuals who sought to analyse the ‘peculiarities’ of Britain’s political culture. But they often neglected how Britain’s class structure is distorted by the global imperialist division of nations. Gramsci had originally advocated a left counter-hegemony drawing the subaltern classes of semi-industrial Italy around a proletarian political core – a rather different approach to his Eurocommunist offspring.16 The left populisms of postwar Europe also contrast with their counterparts in the Global South, where demands for democracy and wealth redistribution within the national-popular framework have often been organically articulated to a critique of global imperialism.17 Within Britain, a once-dominant colonial power, the challenge is building a popular democratic and socialist movement on a national scale which negates the hegemonic imperialistic nationalism that has roped the working-class majority to the capitalist state.

Corbyn’s break with the pro-NATO political consensus was certainly significant, as signalled by the intense ruling class backlash, but there were limits to his moral internationalism. Corbynism invoked the egalitarian ‘Spirit of 45’, yet didn’t interrogate how the golden age of social democracy was also the zenith of neo-colonialism, and populist racism targeting Commonwealth immigrants. To retain trade union support Corbyn needed policies to bolster Britain’s industrial base, but without tackling global unequal exchange these policies conformed to established patterns of social imperialism. Under pressure from Unite and GMB, Corbyn vowed to protect British arms manufacturing jobs while the touted ‘green industrial revolution’ which promised ‘skilled jobs’ and ‘clean energy’ domestically deigned to mention the requisite extraction of rare-earth metals in the Global South.

As was the case with Bennism, the democratic socialist left, in saying goodbye to Lenin, has lost sight of the ‘economic taproot’ of imperialism; of the polarised accumulation along the North-South axis achieved through centuries of colonialism and slavery – a notable absence in Panitch’s account of Euro-capitalism, US empire and the ‘new imperialism’. While opposing Euro-American imperialism, they have side-lined the fact underscored by the Movement for Black Lives, that ‘the UK is not innocent’. The British left’s deep-seated Eurocentrism (which western Leninists have not been immune to) ‘smoothed’ Corbyn’s capitulations to the right over military spending, ‘law and order’, and immigration controls.

Appreciating the global dynamics of polarised accumulation is also necessary for correctly interpreting new challenges to the US-led unipolar order, notably China’s autocentric development trajectory, in response to which sections of the western left are siding with their ‘democratic’ imperialism against the ‘totalitarian’ East.19 While the historical perils of uncritical campism are plain, so too are those of the abstract ‘camp of proletarian internationalism’ which submerges the special problems facing progressive forces in the Global South attempting to overcome imperialist uneven development and dependency.

Democratic socialism will remain the dominant anti-capitalist tendency in Britain for the foreseeable future, but Leninism is an unspent political force. Its contributions to anti-imperialism, and its reminder that the state, far from being neutral, represents (in Gramsci’s phrase) ‘the historical unity of the ruling classes’ remain indispensable. The democratic socialists would also benefit from a serious reckoning with the legacy of communism – an honest assessment of both the failures and ‘the kernels of the communist futures that manifested in the processes of the historical socialist project’, and of the fraught but intimate relationship with the epochal revolt in the colonised world. That the Leninist sects have remained sealed within their own traditions has however prevented them from effectively engaging even critically with those left tendencies holding the most institutional power. As Albert Szymanski argued in his obituary of the anti-revisionist movement in America, the far-left needs to reckon with the fact that ‘major twentieth century revolutions [and attempted revolutions] have been made without the leading role of a single classical Leninist Party’, though Leninists have typically played an important role within the revolutionary processes.

While Jean Allen’s influential 2018 paper on ‘organizational materialism’ has great utility in recentring social forces over ideological and sectarian hang-ups, it still skirts the problems of movementism without clear socialist leadership which were demonstrated, yet again, in the Kill the Bill campaign last year. Recent theorisation of the socialist party as an ‘articulator’ of social movements is also useful, but it remains an open question what organisational forms could constitute the link between party and masses, when class decomposition has undermined the blueprint of classical Leninism. Those most oppressed by what New Socialist dubs ‘Bad New Times’ are lost to the strategic vision of today’s left: the multi-ethnic unemployed, illegalised, lumpenised, ghettoised by gentrification – the constituencies of Grenfell, who also populate the dilapidated inner-cities of the Midlands and North. The task is still that identified by Hall, of understanding ‘how different forces come together, conjuncturally, to create the new terrain on which a different politics must form up.’

After Corbyn’s watershed election defeat in 2019, Sai Englert’s ‘Notes on Organisation’ in Notes from Below suggested the potential for non-sectarian left platforms and publications to become ‘political centres’ (a concept associated with American Trotskyist Hal Draper) laying the groundwork for a viable organisational alternative to Labour, by encouraging ‘practical unity wherever possible, while maintaining political tension and disagreement’. For Englert, political centres should promote constructive engagement between Marxists, grassroots socialist campaigners in Labour, trade union activists (particularly in newer unions like UVW and IWGB organising precarious migrant workers in the service sectors), organisers in tenants’ unions such as Acorn, autonomous socialist-feminist groups like Sisters Uncut, antifascist assemblies, migrant solidarity and anti-raids networks. Since that article was published, Palestine Action has used civil disobedience tactics and community mobilisation to great effect, shutting down arms manufacturing activities in several locations.

It’s unclear how Englert’s vision of diffuse political centres relates to the distinct but connected issue he raises of party formation. But a younger generation of activist militants organising across a range of networks does point to the possibility of building dynamic alternatives to the existing bureaucratic left fronts (the Stop the War Coalition, Stand Up To Racism etc.). This would in turn help facilitate the political crystallisation Draper (following Lenin) had in mind. In specific relation to the eventual goal of a unified revolutionary and anti-imperialist party, Szymanski suggested that with a ‘loose national structure based on fairly loose local groups and national factions and fractions’, most ‘honest revolutionaries would be working together rather than be split into mutually hostile sects’, and line struggle could occur in ‘an atmosphere of mutual support, rather than one of mutual undermining’. The difficulties of putting this into practice, though, were recently underscored by the implosion of the Marxist Center in America.

There has been limited realignment on the far left, following internal crises in the International Socialist Tendency (the British SWP and American ISO) which have led to a rethinking of the micro-sect model within new groups like rs21. Red Fightback, sobered by experiences in the established communist sects, has also broken from long-held dogmas, but there undoubtably remains much baggage to work through. A particular merit of RFB has been the attention it has given to theorising neo-colonialism and social oppressions, and its assertion of revolutionary Marxism against the transphobic moral panic that has gripped sections of the left. There are perhaps parallels with the revolutionary feminist group Big Flame in the 1970s and early 80s, which engaged with Hall and the questions raised by the autonomous social movements, while not losing sight of questions of imperialism, state power and political leadership.

Identifying strategic problems is much easier than offering tangible solutions. While it’s clear the crisis of Marxism identified in the 1970s cannot be bypassed, this article is unable to provide any real answers – these are as yet hidden within the historical process. Its aim is only a partial mapping of the political contours of the British left as it stands. Our history is both our burden and our source of strength, the cause and potential cure of the prevailing left melancholia. We have to proceed with our strategic horizons broadened, alert to the contradictions and openings contained within the emergent global multipolarity. In the long and circuitous road to socialism, we should also keep in mind Sivanandan’s lesson, that ‘unity has to be forged and reforged again and again’.


1 Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Intellectuals and the Spanish Civil War’ in Revolutionaries (London: Phoenix, 2011). As a longstanding member of the CPGB, Hobsbawm was himself hardly immune from these tendencies.

2 Evan Smith, British Communism and the Politics of Race (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

3 Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties (London: Verso, 2018), p. 200.

4 See Neil Redfern, Class or Nation: Communists, Imperialism and Two World Wars (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012).

5 John McIlroy et al., The High Tide of British Trade Unionism: Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, 1964–79 (Oxford: Routledge, 2018).

6 Martin Shaw, ‘The Making of a Party? The International Socialists 1965–1976’, Socialist Register, vol. 15 (1978).

7 Leo Panitch, ‘Socialist Renewal and the Labour Party’, Socialist Register, vol. 24 (1988), p. 339.

8 Tony Benn, ‘Foreword’ to The British Labour Movement and Imperialism (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), pp. ix–x; and ibid., ‘Bush and Blair: Iraq and the UK’s American Viceroy’, Socialist Register, vol. 41 (2005).

9 The definitive critique of the anti-revisionist framework is in Max Elbaum’s essential history of the US New Communist Movement, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2002).

10 New Left here refers to the British Marxist intellectuals who, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, sought a ‘third path’ between communism and reformist social democracy. A periodisation is often made between a ‘first New Left’ associated with E. P. Thompson’s New Reasoner which championed Marxist humanism, and a ‘second’ generation influenced by the spirit of 1968, linked to Perry Anderson’s New Left Review. The limits of this categorisation are discussed in Wade Matthews’s The New Left, National Identity, and the Break-up of Britain (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

11 Donny Gluckstein, The Western Soviets (London: Bookmarks, 1995), p. 235.

12 Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (London: Verso, 2018), p. 99.

13 Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (NY: Verso, 1983), p. 79.

14 Hilary Wainwright, ‘Once More Moving On: Social Movements, Political Representation and the Left’, Socialist Register,vol. 31 (1995), p. 79.

15 Jack Shenker quoted in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn (London: Verso, 2020), p. 253.

16 The prevailing academic tendency have been to abstract Gramsci’s thought from both his national context and the wider Bolshevik debates on hegemony. As late Indian Marxist and Gramsci scholar Aijaz Ahmad explained: ‘The first thing to be said about Antonio Gramsci is that he was a communist militant and the leader of the largest proletarian uprising that occurred in Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution … Not a single piece of his writings between 1918 and 1936—whether as editor of L’Ordine Nuovo or as leader of the Turin Factory Council Movement or as a key founder of the Italian Communist Party or as prisoner of fascism—makes any sense if we do not remember that his entire project had the single purpose of reconstituting a Leninism that would be appropriate to the conditions of a backward, largely peasant, indifferently industrialised society—in the face of fascism.’ Ibid., ‘Fascism and National Culture: Reading Gramsci in the Days of Hindutva’, Social Scientist, vol. 21, no. 3/4 (1993), p. 38.

17 Of course, reformism and nativism are not problems exclusive to the left within the imperialist centres, but imperialism determines the qualitative character of both. The point is highlighted by the Argentine Trotskyist Matías Maiello in his critique of American Trotskyist Charles Post: ‘When, for example, the bourgeois nationalist government of Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated the Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company, which belonged to British imperialism, there was an enormous difference between the alignment of the bureaucracy of the Mexican trade union federation CTM with “its” state and the expropriations, on the one hand, and the complicity of the British Labour Party with the actions taken by “its” imperialist state against Mexico, on the other. The fundamental consequence of this “social chauvinism” or “welfare chauvinism”, as some call it, cannot simply be reduced to reformism in general.’

18 As John Smith notes, Panitch and his colleague Sam Gindin have advanced a ‘theory of imperialism as a system of inter-state relations, in which neither the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations nor the super-exploitation of workers and farmers which this division makes possible gets a mention, let alone the central place it deserves.’ Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (NY: Monthly Review Press, 2016), p. 358 n. 23.

19 A notable example being Paul Mason, the self-declared ‘Gramscian social democrat’ turned NATO cheerleader who recently collaborated with state intelligence agencies in a covert ‘info war’ against his erstwhile comrades. Mason, an established social imperialist, decries ‘the ideological influence of Xi Jin Ping’s [sic] “Sinicised Marxism”’ which he believes threatens ‘the whole survival of Enlightenment thinking, democracy and the post-1945 charter system’.