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‘Straight Left” from Tankie Faction in the Communist Party of Great Britain to the Heart of the Labour Party.

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Straight Left.

“The hatred and contempt with which each side treats the others—as also the bewilderment and distress of the silent majority of Party loyalists—seems now to exceed that in the Labour Party at the height of Bennism. In the Eurocommunist camp, as then on the Labour Left, it is typically expressed in generational terms—‘Why don’t you just die?’ was the shout of one of the new wave ‘pluralists’ when, at a recent aggregate, an old-timer attempted to speak.

Whereas in previous Communist crises, such as those of 1939–40 or 1956, the factory branches remained solid or even increased in strength, while it was the ‘intellectuals’ who were then wracked by doubt, this time it is the industrial comrades who have been ready to put their Party loyalties in question. In their majority they seem to have rallied to the Morning Star. Trade unionists—‘white, male, middle-aged’, as they were recently characterized by the Party’s Industrial Organizer, after a week at the TUC—are no longer honoured in the Party but viewed with social and even sexual disgust.

As in other political formations of the Left, political disagreement has been exacerbated by sociological discomforts which it seems increasingly difficult for a unitary organization to contain, and although the outcome is different in the Communist and the Labour Party, it does not seem fanciful to discern the same fissiparous forces at work: a simultaneous break-up of both class and corporate loyalties.”

Raphael Samuel. The Lost World of British Communism. Part 3. New Left Review I/165, September-October 1987.

This, apparently, is the atmosphere that reigned in the party, the CPGB, that some of Jeremy Corbyn’s key staff, from Seumas Milne to the new deputy director of strategy and communications,  Steve Howell, were involved with  in their – relative – youth.

The faction, “Straight Left” appears to be a common tie,

The leading ideological force in the Straight Left faction was Fergus Nicholson, who had previously worked as the CPGB’s student organiser. According to Michael Mosbacher in Standpoint magazine, the faction was “a hard-line anti-reformist pro-Soviet faction within the Communist Party”. Unlike the leadership, they supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia  in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. They also thought the party should concentrate its work in Trade Unions , and not in social movements such as feminism and environmentalism.

Because the CPGB’s rules banned the formation of factional groups, SL operated in secret. Members of the faction contributed funds to the organisation through significant monthly donations, which helped fund the groups educational gatherings, often referred to as camping weekends. Its meetings were not publicly announced, and writers in their newspaper Straight Left and their theoretical magazine Communist wrote under pseudonyms like Nicholson, whose pen-name was “Harry Steel”. The Straight Left faction also produced anonymous bulletins to try to influence CPGB Congresses usually under the heading “Congress Truth”.

The faction produced a dissident internal pamphlet entitled “The Crisis in Our Communist Party – Cause, Effect and Cure”, which was distributed nationally but not under its name. This was authored (in all likelihood in conjunction with others), by veteran miner and communist Charlie Woods, who was expelled from the CPGB for putting his name to the publication.

The reason for the sudden interest?

After Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigns chief Simon Fletcher quit his role earlier this month, it was branded a victory for Seumas Milne. Fletcher was known to have clashed with Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications on a range of issues, including the EU. Now, in a sign things are moving further in Milne’s favour, Steve Howell has been appointed as deputy director of strategy and communications.

Happily, the pair are unlikely to clash over their political views anytime soon. They are old comrades who were both involved with Straight Left, the monthly journal in the Eighties that became associated with the ‘Stalinist’, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction that eventually split from the Communist Party of Great Britain. Described by Standpoint magazine as ‘a hard-line anti-reformist pro-Soviet faction within the Communist Party’, the Straight Left movement was also where Milne met Andrew Murray, the first chair of the Stop the War campaign who previously called for solidarity with North Korea.

Introducing Corbyn’s new spinner: the Straight Left comrade who is Mandelson’s old communist chum. (Steerpike. Spectator).

This was also immediately noticed on the left, provoking it must be said some jealousy on the part of former members of rival factions within the defunct Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

Bob from Brockley  posted,

Fletcher’s replacement is Steve Howell, brought in from a PR firm in South Wales. Howell has not been politically active for a while, as far as I can see, but does have history: like Milne and Andrew Murray he was active in the Stalinist faction Straight Left. Howell, then based in Sheffield, led its Yorkshire group. Their faction was called “the artists” – most of its key figures were Oxbridge types, in contrast to the salt of the earth workerists who led the main rival tankie faction, the Communist Campaign Group.

At that point in the 1980s, hardcore Stalinists (known as “tankies” for their support for the tanks sent in by the Soviets to crush dissent in its various satellites) were fighting to keep the Communist Party of Great Britain loyal to the memory of Uncle Joe Stalin, who was seen as something of an embarrassment by its Eurocommunist leadership. Straight Left sought to re-orient the party towards operating in the Labour Party and trade union movement.

Some of the denunciations of its tactics by rival Stalinists from the time are amusing, but also a bit sinister now it finally has achieved getting some of its activists into key positions in the Labour Party.

This is from the ultra-tankie Leninist newspaper (forerunner of the Weekly Worker) in 1983:

And this is about Straight Left’s strategy of covertly using the Labour Party rather than Communist Party as the vehicle for promoting Stalinism, a strategy the Leninist denounced as “liquidationism”:

I have no idea if Howell has, like Murray, remained true to his Stalinist roots. (His schoolmate and old comrade in Hendon Young Communists, Peter Mandelson, clearly hasn’t.)

Now the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty have offered their assessment.

Corbyn’s Leader’s Office is dominated by the former Guardian journalist Seumas Milne and by people close to Andrew Murray, chief of staff of the Unite union. Milne’s political formation was in the Stalinist sect “Straight Left”.

Another Straight Lefter was Andrew Murray… Milne, like Murray, is still a Stalinist. Writing for the Guardian, as he has done for many years, he puts his views in urbane double-negative form, but he is still a Stalinist… Operators used to snuggling into the established political and media machines, ideologically imbued with and trained over decades in ‘top-down’ politics, will not serve Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and us well in opening up and revitalising the Labour Party” (Solidarity 382, 28 October 2015).

“Stalinist ideas were drilled into swathes of labour movements and the left in decades when activists could see the USSR (or Cuba, China, Albania) as practical examples of the alternative to capitalism. Today we have a more demoralised Stalinists and Stalinoids: while sometimes loud in denunciation of Tory misdeeds, they generally see no further in positive policy than what were only stepping stones for Stalinism in its heyday: economic nationalism, bureaucratic state-directed economic development…

The Article 50 fiasco, and the Labour leaders’ waffle about a “People’s Brexit”, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left. Stalinist bureaucratic manipulation fits with the Blairite heritage: “policy development” means not debate in the rank and file leading up to conference decisions, but formulas handed down by clever people in the Leader’s Office. The office’s response to the Copeland by-election has been to get another “Straight Left” old-timer, Steve Howell, seconded from the PR company he now owns….

Martin Thomas.  The dangers of Stalinism in Labour. Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

Of particular interest are the claims about the EU, “Fletcher was known to have clashed with Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications on a range of issues, including the EU.” and “the Labour leaders’ waffle about a “People’s Brexit”.

This article, published by those Simon Fletcher is said to be close to (aka Socialist Action), which argues against the fantasy that there is a “People’s Brexit”, may help explain his departure.

There is no ‘People’s Brexit’  By Tom O’Leary. Socialist Economic Bulletin. (Published by Ken Livingstone, Simon Fletcher’s former employer)

There is no socialist or even ‘people’s Brexit’. Everyone operating in the UK will still be subject to the laws of the market. The problem will be that the market will suddenly be much smaller and less productive than the EU Single Market the UK has been participating in for the last 25 years. If the Tories continue to get their way, there will also be a stripping away of the workers’ environmental and consumer rights that were instituted under the EU’s ‘Social Chapter’. These have long been a Tory target for abolition in the UK. Post-Brexit, the economy will be operating behind a series of tariff and non-tariff barriers as others protect their markets. All of these will make the economy less competitive and will increase costs.

Of course, the pound could depreciate sharply again to offset these disadvantages, but this would lower living standards and real incomes even further. If currency devaluations alone were the answer then Britain would be an earthly paradise. In 1940 there were 5 US Dollars to the pound. Now there are 1.25. Over the same period the relative size of the UK in the world economy has shrunk dramatically in real terms, to less than one-third its proportion of world GDP, 2.3% now versus 7.3% in 1940.

There is a widespread notion on the right that Brexit will lead to ‘taking back control’ of the economy. Unfortunately, this is also shared by important sections of the left. It is a delusion. The 1930s saw a whole series of countries taking back control, in what might be called an early anti-globalisation movement. Although the authors of these policies are now widely and rightly derided their arguments will actually be very familiar.

It was said that other countries were taking our jobs, they are dumping their output on us causing our industries to fail and that those industries need protecting and government support, or state aid. Once we have done that, then we would be able to trade freely with the whole world. Of course, the more virulent version also included vile invective against foreigners, immigrants, Jews, gay men and others. When the economic policies went spectacularly wrong, the racist invective became policy.

The reason these policies failed spectacularly should be clear. Behind the protective barriers, costs rise, potential markets are closed off (especially as they respond with barriers of their own), industry becomes less not more productive, profits decline and workers are laid off. The economic crisis that ensued was finally resolved only by general rearmament.

Economics aside Milne, it is said,  is equally no friend of the politics of the internationalist supporters of Another Europe is Possible.

And he has this in his file: Seumas Milne: Charlie Hebdo Had it Coming to them.

More detailed background:

WHAT WAS STRAIGHT LEFT? AN INTRODUCTION BY LAWRENCE PARKER

Straight Left’s origins lie in the left pro-Soviet oppositions that emerged in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1960s. In this period, a definite ‘party within a party’ emerged, with figures such as Sid French, district secretary of Surrey CPGB, becoming key leaders. The general critique that emerged from this faction was a concern over the CPGB leadership distancing itself from the Soviet Union (such as around the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) and other ‘socialist’ countries; a preference for a more ‘workerist’ identity (for example, the faction would have been happy with the CPGB’s paper remaining as the Daily Worker in 1966) and a concentration on workplaces/trade unions; and a sense that the party was squandering its resources in futile election contests and alienating the left of the Labour Party, with whom it was meant to be developing a close relationship on the British road to socialism (BRS), the CPGB programme. However, a significant part of the faction felt that the BRS was ‘reformist’ and ‘revisionist’ in all its guises from 1951, counter-posing a revolutionary path to the parliamentary road to socialism envisaged in the CPGB’s existing programme.

Read the rest of the article on A Hatful of History.

 

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9 Responses

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  1. Dear Andrew,

    thanks for the mention.

    You refer to The Leninist as ‘ultra-tankie’. If this was done tongue in cheek, then fair enough.

    If you mean this seriously then it’s a bit bizarre. Bizarre, because the real tankies in the old CPGB (Straight Left and others) dubbed it as ‘Trotskyite’ (which was nearer the truth, given the amount of Trotsky that the founders had imbibed). Bizarre also because a few groups on the Trotskyist left thought The Leninist was worth engaging with, including the group around Socialist Organiser.

    The ultra-tankie jibe actually originated with the Eurocommunists and, to be honest, they thought anyone who hadn’t hugged for a Greenham Common protestor for at least an hour was a bloody tankie.

    I’m aware that The Leninist group had shit positions on issues such as Hungary 56 and Czechoslovakia 68 but this stands as a rather livid contradiction against the rest of its stuff on, say, the miners’ strike, popular frontism, the third period and so on.

    Best wishes,
    Lawrence

    therottenelements

    March 2, 2017 at 7:41 pm

  2. I cut and pasted the article (as can be seen from the quote marks).

    I was also struck by that claim, but since there were more important things to concentrate on I left it ‘uncorrected’.

    Obviously the history of ‘The Leninist’ was not Tanky, though this may perhaps be the reason why people think it was,

    “The origins of the CPGB (PCC) lie in the New Communist Party of Britain which split from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1977. Under the influence of a faction of the Communist Party of Turkey, a handful led by NCP youth section leader John Chamberlain (who uses the pseudonym Jack Conrad) attempted to rejoin the then CPGB.”

    “Few actually regained party cards but the grouping began to publish The Leninist, first as a journal, then as a more or less monthly paper. Initially The Leninist appeared to some to be a Stalinist publication in its politics, but over time it mutated into something very different. This may be due to their interaction with various Trotskyist groups including a series of exchanges with the Spartacist League. The faction developed a critique of the Stalinist states as well as the bureaucratism and political liquidationism of the old CPGB.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_of_Great_Britain_(Provisional_Central_Committee)

    Far from being buried in the deepest obscurity, its development has been explained here:

    The Leninist: Before this there was that. ‘Jack Conrad’ recalls the genesis of the CPGB’s Leninist faction and its enduring legacy.

    http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1000/the-leninist-before-this-there-was-that/

    “The Leninist was a factional publication in the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain, published from 1981 until 1992, and the predecessor both to today’s CPGB and the W<em>eekly Worker. Its purpose was to carry on an open polemical struggle against the opportunists who ultimately liquidated the official party, and reforge the CPGB as a principled Marxist organisation.

    The politics of our organisation have evolved considerably since 1981, but were formed by the struggles of that decade. We republish the full run of The Leninist below – warts and all – as a historical record of those times, and our role.”

    http://cpgb.org.uk/pages/leninist/

    As no doubt the Weekly Worker, its descendant, would explain, in greater, ,much greater, detail, it has indeed evolved.

    For a start one of their best known figures, Mike Macnair was originally in the International Marxist Group, as was I, and as was Socialist Action, mentioned above.

    Andrew Coates

    March 3, 2017 at 11:22 am

  3. Incidentally Rotten, I would draw readers’ attention to the book you’re named after, well worth reading for anybody interested in the history of British Communism.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Upward

    Andrew Coates

    March 3, 2017 at 12:40 pm

  4. The Turkish communist group (Union of Turkish Progressives in Britain) which first inspired John Chamberlain and his friends in the late 1970s, was also initially oriented towards the hardline faction(s) within the CPGB. It even got Andrew Rothstein to pen an introduction to the seminal work “Turkey: Weak Link of Imperialism”.

    Francis

    March 3, 2017 at 1:24 pm

  5. I was in the CP back then and hated by both Euros and Tankies as I didn’t belong to either faction. If anything the Straight Left section of tankies were far from the worst, you could at least have a rational discussion with them with out finding a knife in your back when you got home. They also had access to the works of Marx and Lenin which they distributed for free, I remember getting a number of copies of the Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s ‘What is to be done from them’.

    The same could not be said for the other part of the tankies but then again I once spoke well of Trotsky at a district Committee meeting, regarded as an unforgivable sin by both them and Euros. As to the euro coms, most were to the right of Labour and had control of party machine. I wonder what did happen to the property and money after the DL imploded.

    Maybe Labour’s current general secretary served his apprenticeship with them. 😉 like the Euro coms he also seems to spend most of his time plotting and scheming against his own members.

    Mick Hall

    March 3, 2017 at 2:41 pm

  6. Hi Andrew,

    I slept with that book under my pillow for about 10 years until I knew it forwards, backwards and sideways. The name was a very conscious tribute to one of my heroes.

    Sorry, I missed the quote marks. Teach me to read more carefully.

    On Francis’s point — Yurukoglu’s group had links with the NCP; that’s where John would have come across it. There was a spectacular falling out later on. Yurukoglu also gave some pretty rank advice to The Leninist (i.e. back the rancid Eurocommunists against the rebels in the Morning Star dispute, after The Leninist had initially taken a stand against both sides. John has told me he suspected that Yurukoglu had done some sort of deal with the CPGB leadership over this.)

    therottenelements

    March 3, 2017 at 2:47 pm

  7. Mick — thanks to our Euro chums, the money ended up being used by people who had nothing to do with communism at all (a trend that started with their leadership using party money to fund baleful crap such as Marxism Today’s interviews with reactionaries and police chiefs).

    Read this and weep: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18351323

    It’s one of the most disgusting robberies carried out in the history. Legally I’m sure it was all watertight. Morally, it’s completely and utterly repugnant.

    therottenelements

    March 3, 2017 at 2:53 pm

  8. I tended to look on the Euros, from afar (remember I was in France when the main dramas were unfolding in terms of those in the NUS I’d come across (see what happened to Sue Slipman). That is machine politics dressed as as ‘new’.

    But some people on the left, including me, liked the early stuff in Marxism Today by, for example, Stuart Hall, on Thatcher and ‘authoritarian populism’. It was only by the late 1980s that the way Jacques was going with New Times that they had become not a form of Eurocommunism left (which I liked, as in Poulantzas) or right, but whatever you could call ‘new politics’ and the rest, a kind of amorphous mish-mash of liberalism, stuff on globalisation, futurology, and the ‘Third Way’.

    It is of interest that Laclau and Mouffe’s ideas, as they developed on ‘populism’ are at present the subject of reams of pages of debate in France and Spain.

    Of interest Francis is that the Revolutionary Communist Group (in the forerunner of Fight Racism and Fight Imperialism! and also of the faction that now runs the sovereigntist nationalist and ‘libertarian’ Spiked-on-Line also developed an interest in the New Communist Party, preferring them to the CPGB.

    Andrew Coates

    March 3, 2017 at 4:42 pm

  9. Throughout the communist years, the left has been thoroughly polluted in quite the same way British nationalist politics were by proto-Nazi whackjobs. But only on the left, genuine extremists have been feted and allowed into the centre of the mainstream – something Labour always tried hard to avoid as far back as when they introduced Clause 4. When fascists are found on the Right, they are shunned by the whole mainstream. When communists are found on the left, Jeremy Corbyn is proud to march with them under the Hammer and Sickle.

    The Left, for all their talk of unity, are born dividers. Class war, sex war, race war and social war are all key factors in their fight against the world and each other. Even other lefties are becoming sick at being told to check their privilege, when all they want is a better lot for themselves and their families.

    I enjoy that turmoil and running suicide, make no mistake. But where ideological leftists in power worldwide have ruined economies, oppressed populations and led a new social structure – where the rich and powerful party members get the pick of housing or plum jobs (as in Corbyn’s council when he was there) – they’re still not QUITE a laughing matter.

    ____

    Also, on a second read, the fundamentalist resurgent left also lose the game of life because they take the rest of us for idiots. They think they justify communism by saying its evil consequences were merely the rogue behaviour of ‘Stalinists’ and the like. That doesn’t explain Kruschev, who himself called Stalin a criminal but still continued to oppress his nations.

    And that doesn’t explain the likes of Castro or Mugabe, who came after Stalin and took power in way different circumstances to him. Communism’s anti-Democracy, with what happens under them at truthful variance to whatever’s put in the propaganda.

    Mick

    March 3, 2017 at 7:50 pm


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