The joint editor of two studies on the British far left since 1956, academic Evan Smith[i] posted an interesting thread on MI5’s assessment dating from the mid-80s on the state of the far left in Britain.
Estimates of membership numbers of communist groups in UK in December 1984 [ii]
From the anti-revisionist viewpoint one might rankle at the description of the CPGB as “the largest single subversive group in the UK” but in terms of membership even a terminal declining CP for most of its existence outnumbered the rest of the far left. It was frenetic activism that created an impression that Trotskyists – the dominant force outside of the CP – were prevalent. There was quite a variety to choose from.
The Far Left remains, to use Tariq Ali’s accurate description, and appears “even to its sympathisers, as a welter of competing factions, divided on minor and somewhat obscure doctrinal points and engaged in a continual battle against each other.”[iii]
Trotskyists have not been in a unified body since the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which was founded in 1944 but rapidly became a victim of the factionalism that has dogged Trotskyism in Britain and elsewhere. Despite their shared characteristics, they tended to be in competition with each other and rarely worked together. A recent study of British Trotskyism by John Kelly [iv] recounts much of the splits and realignments that has marked that history. However, when the author compares the size and influence of the CP with the plethora of Trotskyists groups – of whatever 4th international – and their achievements (even if Militant managed to control Liverpool local council and had three MPs elected in 1987), it is the despised revisionists/Stalinists that emerge as more successful, in no small part to their presences in the trade unions. The failure to develop any real mass base has accentuated its weakness and imparted a certain element of artificiality to the Trotskyists movement.
Assessing the size of the far left is largely an estimate, it does sustain a range of papers and journals (of undisclosed circulation) however this is not a case of meeting market demand but the creation of a product in search of an audience. And today an online presence is expected. In the production of a paper there is fidelity to the Iskra recipe of a publication serving many strands to building a revolutionary movement as organiser, propagandist, agitator and recruiter. The flaw in using this yardstick to assess effectiveness or strength of an organisation is illustrated by the one-time Socialist Labour League that metamorphosed into the Workers Revolutionary Party. It still produces a daily paper – a challenge to the Morning Star claims to be the daily paper of the left no doubt – however the achievement of a daily newspaper is not in itself a major breakthrough in political influence. Members spend a great deal of time as newspaper-sellers. For many far left groups the paper represents the organisation and every effort made for its publication even as a group declines in number. At best newspaper frequency is a lagging indicator of a group in decline and, in the case of the WRP’s Newsline at least, ability to produce the paper far outstrips the ability to sell or distribute it!
A recent example where membership figures can be flattering until considering what the ratio of active members is, was provided in the SWP’s Party Notes (January 9 2018) declaring:
“Our total party membership currently stands at just under 6,000, with just under 2,000 paying a regular sub. During 2017, 511 joined the party, with 128 of those taking out a regular sub by direct debit.”
That is declaring that only around one third of SWP current ‘members’ pay a subscription – the minimal expectation for an active contribution – anecdotal evidence is that a “majority never attend a meeting or take part in local actions, such as selling Socialist Worker or helping to run a stall. They are ‘paper members’ – comrades who have usually done no more than fill in an application form.”[v] The retention of activists – outside the core leadership – has been a perpetual problem for all political and campaigning organisations.
Weekly Worker, newspaper of the self-styled the Communist Party of Great Britain , largely online, devoted to left sectarian quibbling [vi], provides an example of a factional group having a couple dozen members with a canny approach surviving in the political marketplace. They are talked about more than the larger Croydon-headquartered Communist Party of Britain, the membership of which is less than 1,000 mostly elderly pale male nostalgic members, and are truer claimant to the tradition of revisionism.
This is not the picture of dedicated, tireless subversives, organised in secretive cells, ceaselessly plotting to implement tried and tested Leninist tactics and strategy to overthrow parliamentary democracy, a picture beloved of some sections of the mass media. The reality is that todays organised far left is aging, more divided and smaller even with a revival of a Labour Party that has lost twice in the midst of economic crisis to an unimpressive Conservative government partly engaged in its own Brexit civil war.
Should we take the MI5 positions seriously? Far Left is a bit of a misnomer given their actual activity which so often revolved, like the CP, around involving Labour Party activism. But generally anything to the left of Labour falls within its embrace including the anarchist mileu. The largest Trotskyist organisation at the time, the Militant Tendency (or for those in the know, Revolutionary Socialist League) worked within the Labour party, as did a number of much small groups, and both the Socialist Workers Party and Workers Revolutionary Party had campaigns that tried to draw upon a “broad front” support base that sought Left labour personalities.
The revolutionary left is also a misnomer in describing the activities of those groups who disdained from focusing on parliamentary power. Despite the rhetorical flourishes, apart from occasional civil disobedience and minor flyposting offenses, their activities were exercised within the confines of democratic rights and political lobbying. Come the General Election most far left groups are encouraging its audience to support Labour critically which is largely what they were already doing.
Economical with the truth.
Stella Rimington – who went on to lead the organisation – in her 2001 memoir, Open Secret, describes how she was appointed as assistant director of one of the MI5’s counter-subversion sections in 1983. “We worked to the principle that the activities of organisations or individuals with subversive intent was of concern to us; the right to set up and join pressure groups and to protest was not.” [vii]
MI5 estimated that in August 1985
However the aging nature and fragmentation of all tendencies on the Far Left was noted by MI5 and allegations of sections of the radical left infiltrating and influencing the Labour Party is hardly new. A study by Jeremy Tranmer looked at what increasingly seems a golden age for the Far Left in terms of campaigns and membership, when amidst the crisis the left saw opportunity that was cruelly appropriated by a resurgent monetarist cabal by the end of the decade. [viii]
The ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain (had dissolved itself in 1991, survived by two early splits the New Communist Party (1977) and aforementioned CPB aligned to the Morning Star. The SWP, weakened by its own rape apologist scandal survived, the Healey-led WRP (which had not) although fragments kept the organisational name (and newspaper) alive. Whilst the Militant Tendency expelled out of its Labour Party nest became the Socialist Party of England and Wales (the unfortunately acronymed SPEW), Maoist adherents disappeared off of the political radar. The MI5’s estimates for membership of Maoist groups around 1985 – when the allegiance of two of the larger parties had been aligned to Tirana away from Beijing – should be halved to be a more realistic estimate.
It was thought that “the membership of all the Leninist groups at the turn of the millennium totalled no more than 6,000 – of whom perhaps one-third were active.” [ix]
There was a post- millennium bloom but despite the short-lived activism in the last decade of Stop the War Coalition, attempts at building the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), in existence since May 1996, Respect and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, the Scottish Socialist Alliance and even Ken Loach’s Left Unity, and with splinters like Counterfire, Commune etc appearing on the scene, the shrinking Left outside the Labour party continued.
The continual existence of last century’s Left is not unusual; momentum can be built (not meaning the pro-Corbyn group). Consider an organisation often overlooked in any consideration of the state of the far left, the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Probably the oldest active group, founded in 1904, based in Clapham High Street and, according to the BBC reports “has 300 members, has cash reserves of £452,250 and property worth £900,000.”[x]
The question is not whether the numerous groups will survive, even the CPB (ML) has celebrated fifty years, more usefully asked is what can the old left offer the next left that is now emerging.
In the assessment of one veteran who has done the rounds in IS, RCT, RCP and Spiked, Michael Fitzpatrick:
“Under Corbyn, the Labour Party has increased its numbers through offering cut price membership, but there is little evidence of an increase in radical activity or commitment. There were no apparent successors to the numerous campaigns that once mobilized tens of thousands under the umbrella of the Left, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, third world solidarity campaigns, even the women’s and gay liberation movements. Whereas the Left once supported a flourishing culture of newspapers, magazines and journals, most have now disappeared or are available only to online devotees. The Left, in short, has ceased to exist as a significant force in British politics.” [xi]
Is Fitzpatrick’s view – who wrote as Mike Freeman when he was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party – far too pessimistic – without the optimism required to sustain the coming struggles?
[i] Smith E. & Worley M, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956. Manchester University Press (2014) & Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 Manchester University Press (2017)
[iii] The revolutionary left in Britain. London: Jonathan Cape 1972
[iv] Contemporary Trotskyism. Routledge 2018
[v] Weekly Worker #1186, 18.01.2018
[vi] As explained by Peter Manson, Editor: “Our paper is aimed at its membership and periphery and constantly criticises its failings and inadequacies. Does that make us sectarian? Not at all. The aim is not to do down the others for its own sake, but to point to what ought to be.
To that end the Weekly Worker is a champion of open polemic. We regularly and willingly open up our pages to those with whom we strongly disagree – not just in our extensive letters columns, but in the main body of the paper. Only through rigorous, no-holds-barred debate can ideas be tested and if necessary amended, qualified or corrected.
That is what makes the Weekly Worker different from the rest.”
[viii] A force to be reckoned with? The Radical Left in the 1970s. French Journal of British Studies 2017 http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/1728
[ix] Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey http://littleatoms.com/left-their-own-devices 27/12/2015
[xi] Michael Fitzpatrick, The fatal embrace of the Left and the Labour Party: Ralph Miliband’s changing positions on Labour Platypus Review 97 | June 2017