In recent years, the British far left has experienced something of a comeback. Not, it must be said, in terms of electoral success, nor in a real-terms growth in influence, but rather as a subject which is once more discussed and thought about by those outside of the far left itself. This is primarily the result of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015, and the ill-fated fortunes of the party thereafter. Of course, like those shops that sell reclaimed 1980s and early 1990s fashion items for the discerning youngster who has seen a famous film from the period but did not live either decade first-hand or the current trend towards manufactured post-war austerity-nostalgia, this is a consideration of alternatives to social democracy from a safe distance. Few historians who peer beneath the ‘Ed Stone’ at the far left parties and organisations scurrying beneath truly believe in the revolutions they propose. (It is the ideas that matter.) For these alternatives were (and are) not so much against the grain as dreaming of a new world whilst others, primarily in the Labour Party, and its opponents on the right, got on with the art of practical politics. In their hands lay the levers of power and the mechanisms of change.
The editors, Matthew Worley and Evan Smith, have brought together a range of academics, writers, and political activists, and those who are a little of each, to examine those facets of the British far left that, for the most part, lay outside the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the fellow travellers found within the Labour Party. Like many edited collections, some chapters are less effective than others, some more guided by the politics they endeavour to analyse, but on the whole this is an important study of the British far left after 1956. The personnel, and the acronymic soup of which New Dealers would be proud, that emerges from the pages of Against the Grain are unlikely be familiar to those whose knowledge of the British left’s political history has tended to be framed by those larger parties: Labour and the CPGB. Nevertheless, as several of the authors demonstrate, particularly those dealing with anti-racism campaigns and the struggle for women’s and gay liberation, far left activists and self-declared revolutionaries often proved (albeit eventually) much more aware of oppression than their mainstream counterparts.
In her typically astute chapter on women’s liberation, Sue Bruley demonstrates this nuanced appreciation of the far left by drawing on her oral histories of women’s liberation. And, ‘as I fit the criteria for this study’, her own experiences of being active in the women’s liberation movement in London in the 1970s. In contrast to classic work on the movement, and recent accounts by historians such as Natalie Thomlinson, both of which suggest a middle-class orientation, Sue Bruley asserts the validity of working-class women’s involvement and the significance of working-class voices. She also shows, with parallels to her earlier work on communist women between the wars, how the relative rigidity of the Communist Party and its focus on class politics compared with the relative flexibility of the International Socialists and later the International Marxist Group encouraged a closer relationship between women’s liberation and the non-Communist far left than might have been expected. (A similar point might be made of nationalist parties, too, although this is outside the scope of Bruley’s London-centred focus.) Graham Willett takes up much the same relationship in his chapter on gay liberation – more properly on the policy twists and turns that accompanied the far left’s coming to terms with gay liberation and sexuality politics.
If there is a complaint to be raised, aside from any ideological ones, which have long occupied far more space than the review pages of scholarly journals, and are, in any case, best conducted elsewhere, it lies in the overwhelmingly Anglo-centric nature of the book and the evidence presented by contributors. ‘Britain’ is always taken as a given and its constitutional frame never analysed for what it is. Despite a few fleeting references made to circumstances in South Wales (and none to the northern counties), fewer still to Scotland, although more is made of matters in Northern Ireland, the limited sum total of these undermines a book which purports a ‘British’ focus. Given the rising tide of nationalism in Britain after 1956, not least Plaid Cymru’s and the Scottish National Party’s by-election victories in 1966 and 1967 (respectively), and the shifting engagement of the Communist Party of Great Britain with ideas of colonial and national liberation, and the Labour Party with constitutional reform, this is a curious absence. To what extent were these far left organisations unionist? Was there any internal debate on the matter of Scottish and Welsh nationalism? We await potential answers to these questions. As we do to the relationship between the British far left and the ‘European Question’.
The great value of Against the Grain lies in opening up sources and themes that have long lain dormant or are – rather more seriously – unknown to historians of modern Britain. A careful ransacking of the evidence marshalled by the contributors yields fascinating insights on more mainstream leftist politics and reveals a subcultural political world grappling with the intersectionality of class and of the relationships between class, gender, sexuality, and race, that makes the contemporary debates within the Labour Party seem rather timid. Yes, the far left was always a long, long way from power, but that does not invalidate their ideas or their lingering influence as this book effectively demonstrates; indeed, several of cabinet ministers in the Labour governments after 1997 began their political careers in such contexts. And perhaps it’s no surprise that, on those very issues that the far left began to take seriously in the 1970s, like gender and race and sexuality, it was those Labour governments with those cabinet ministers that made happen the changes that those whose politics ran against the grain long dreamed about.