A review of
‘Don’t You Hear the H-Bomb’s Thunder’ by John Charlton,
published by Merlin Press, 2009 (£14.95: ISBN 978-0-85036-699-0)
Histories of left-wing politics tend to focus on major parties and movements as well as individual leaders and influential theorists. A small number of professional politicians and intellectuals thereby usually dominate the picture. The new book by labour movement historian John Charlton has the considerable virtue of looking at the movement’s rank and file at ground level, in this case, the North-East of England and particularly Tyneside.[i] The Left’s real soul is to be found amongst those many thousands, if not millions, of unsung individuals, inspired by some sort of socialist vision, who, in their workplace or local neighbourhood, have fought against exploitation and oppression.
Perhaps their actions concerned the defence of workers threatened with the sack or a pay cut. Perhaps they were trying to get homeless people housed, fight the closure of a local hospital or combat racist agitators. In such causes, other interests and commitments were put on the back burner, money lost, careers sacrificed and, especially under dictatorships, lives put on the line. Usually such people got little for their efforts, often not even a ‘thank you’. Indeed, frequently, they met hostility from the very people whose interests they were trying to serve to the best of their ability. Yet it was their time, energy and enthusiasm that kept trade union branches going, breathed life into tenants’ associations and other community groups, and got leaflets distributed, petitions collected, voters canvassed. They were the ones who could be relied upon to stand on the picket lines, march behind the banners…
Their struggles might have been about day-to-day ‘bread and butter’ matters or concerned fundamental rights and liberties. The thread that linked such activity was concern for the betterment of fellow working people and a belief that the status quo, which most of those appearing in John’s book would have defined as ‘capitalism’, was the major barrier to such progress. They are the people who did all the humdrum work on which all the well-known leading figures of the broader ‘labour movement’ have always depended.
John’s period of study is the late 50s and early 60s, an era when the economy was in the middle of a long boom, with unemployment low and wages rising, and when a political consensus about the desirability of a ‘welfare state’ reigned. That latter harmony was to persist, with only the odd interruption under Ted Heath[ii] until the advent of that most discordant of Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher. Many people agreed with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when he told them “they had never had it so good”. Indeed after the Conservative triumph in the 1959 Election, it was widely wondered whether the Labour Party, let alone the Far Left, was doomed to permanent marginalisation.
As the title of John’s book reflects, there were issues that did disturb what, later, economist J. K. Galbraith was to call the “culture of contentment”. The shadow of the nuclear bomb and the on-going “Cold War”, which threatened to heat up during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, alarmed many. The 1956 Suez fiasco had demonstrated both the delusions of imperial grandeur and utter incompetence of the ‘Establishment’, whose other vices were soon to be exposed by the Profumo Scandal. The rise of political satire such as the magazine Private Eye, first published in 1961 also reflected a certain disenchantment with the ‘power-that-be’. [It might be wondered whether growing irreverence also eroded political commitment as well. Later, of course, postmodernist ‘relativism’ was to further gnaw away at all-embracing political theories and programmatic policy]
What’s in a name?
There is, of course, an immediate problem with any discussion of the history of the Left, namely the difficulty of defining what exactly it is. Certainly when a serious student of socialism, the historian and novelist David Caute, attempted back in the 60s to define socialism in his book The Left in Europe, he could not come up with any satisfactory description that could satisfactorily encompass all varieties. Down the decades, there has jostled under the red umbrella a mix of cautious reformists as well as militant revolutionists, syndicalists and parliamentarians, Christian Socialists and atheist Marxists. Alongside the major parties there has been the fractious world of left-wing groupuscules as well as independent thinkers and circles around unaffiliated journals and bookshops.
John takes the sensible step of basically accepting into his history anyone who called him or herself a socialist. Thus one individual is accepted as a “Catholic Marxist”, even if that might strike some as a contradiction in terms.[iii] So ‘Healeyites’ (SLL/WRP) sit alongside ‘State Caps’ (the IS/SWP) as well as members of the Labour and Communist Parties.[iv] The major focus, however, is a group around what became known as the ’59 Club’, though some of its members did gravitate to those other bodies later, as John chronicles.[v]
Beyond these ranks are broader bodies which bring together not just political activists but also a wider layer of concerned citizens. So the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament features prominently in the book. Often such organisations would take the form of ‘solidarity’ movements supporting causes such as national liberation in distant lands. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 was a critical event in the period John covers, one that helped to build support for the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. The Cuban revolution the year before similarly reinforced the notion that the political way forward might be found outside the ‘metropolitan’ heartlands.
This is actually one of the few instances that John might have explored in more detail. This ‘turn’ was to lure many away from the more traditional socialist politics he describes. Sometimes it took the form of activity amongst marginalised groups such as the homeless and unemployed, as opposed to the ‘organised’ working class in factories, mines and offices. More often, it focussed on what then was called the Third World, now the ‘South’, where theorists like Régis Debray were to identify as the new centres of revolutionary activity, effectively abandoning Marxist ideas about the class struggle.
There have been similar studies to John’s, albeit at a more national level and with far less personal detail. The sometimes wacky world of the Far Left in Britain is amusingly captured in a 1983 pamphlet ‘Go Forth and Multiply’ by Prunella Kaur (John Sullivan) and updated under the new title of ‘As Soon As This Pub Closes’ (1988), [vi] a quote from the Alex Glasgow song to which John’s book also refers. Then there was ‘More Years for the Locust’, an entertaining but, at times, bitter critique of the IS/SWP and of Tony Cliff in particular by Jim Higgins, who has also documented elsewhere, often with redoubtable wit, the failings of other sections of the Far Left. [vii]
Such accounts tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater, downplaying the genuinely difficult choices facing the Left and what, none the less, it managed to achieve in often unfavourable circumstances, if only in terms of its insights into how society really works. Certainly many groups have been too quick to announce the imminent death agony of capitalism. Yet socialist writers certainly did better than most economic academics and professional pundits when it came to an appreciation of the fundamental flaws of the system, as demonstrated by the recent downturn.[viii] In the many cases where battles over redundancies, cutbacks and the like have been lost, things might well have been much worse if it had not been for those prepared to stand and fight.
The struggle continues
John’s story does not feature any great victories. After all, despite the strong campaigning by CND and others, the current Labour government has been seeking to update, at enormous cost, the absurd Trident nuclear weapons system. He simply records a history of local left-wingers struggling to spread their ideas and fight the good fight. Some focussed on party politics, others trade union work. Community campaigning tends to become more evident later in the tale.
The well-written text rolls along at a fair pace and it very much benefits from the photographs John has collected for it. It follows a largely chronological order but also, in a separate section called ‘Taking Account’, explores what led individuals to become involved. There is, as he notes, a strong autobiographical strand but this helps to bind the narrative (appendices add some other personal reminiscences) while a necessary degree of detachment is observed.[ix] The book is admirably well referenced too.
The only section that does not quite work is one, ‘Directory’, relating what happened to the various people who feature in the narrative. The length of the different entries in this section does not reflect the role that named individuals play in preceding chapters. Inevitably, some of the latter are also missing, presumably because the necessary information was not available. Indeed a final note in the book does request help to fill in such gaps. This section is also clumsily laid out, unlike the rest of the book. But, overall, the material is well presented and consistently interesting.
John notes that it is a popular stereotype that people are radical in their youth but become more and more conservative as they age. His chronicle suggests that there are many exceptions to any such rule, even if some of the more naïve expectations held in teenage years may be dropped and active participation declines. After all, working all the work and then getting up first thing on a Saturday morning to sell a mere handful of papers on the High Street is not everyone’s cup of tea but that does not mean those who prefer to stay in bed have fallen by the wayside.
Of course there are always some who do go over the ‘other side’. Gus McDonald is mentioned, though there are far worse cases. The odious Roger Rosewell, for example, journeyed from the IS/SWP to the Aims of Industry and became an advisor to the even more repellent Dame Shirley Porter in the rotten London borough of Westminster. Many, many more, however, simply dropped out of activity. Yet several stayed the course and John shows that much fun was had en route, alongside the more prosaic activity. The activist’s lot may not be a happy one much of the time but, at time, it can offer stimulation, some satisfaction and, now and again, even some fun. Indeed good humour pervades many of these pages.
Carry on comrade
It is not clear if, in the interviews he conducted, John asked whether the individuals who populate the story would do the same again if they could relive their lives or whether they would opt for more wine, women/men and song instead. The two are not exclusive of course but most people have other priorities, such as spending time with their families, building careers at work, doing home improvements, going to the pub, holiday-making, pursuing all sorts of hobbies… instead of attending deadly dull meetings, knocking on unwelcoming doors, handing out leaflets that get thrown on the ground, protest marching in the rain and the like. The impression is left, however, that many found politics quite stimulating and do not feel that they wasted their time and energy.
Of course the sample of interviewees is inevitably skewed towards those who stayed involved to some extent and who were therefore contactable. There may well be many amongst those who ‘disappeared’ who were to feel bitter about their time in left-wing politics or just write off the period and perhaps all political engagement. Certainly the army of ex-Trotskyists is a big one. Indeed quite a few made it to the London and European Parliaments wearing rather different hats.[x]
Some sources of personal unhappiness do lurk within the text, however. Political involvement can open the door to new friendships and possible sexual dalliances, sometimes leading to a distancing from past friends and the wrecking of marriages. John chooses not to spotlight the more common pattern of wives and/or children left to their own devices when partners (and historically it has been men) become absorbed in trade union duties or political activity.
Sometimes such involvement opens participants’ eyes to new lifestyle possibilities. They might thereby leave their previous partners ‘behind’, creating further grounds for estrangement and divorce. In this case, it is more likely to be a woman who will put up no longer with the restrictions of her previous domestic role. Another variation of this theme is the politicised worker who then decides to go to somewhere like Ruskin College, perhaps becoming in due course a teacher or social worker. In other words, the movement has effectively lost a blue-collar activist, even if that person gains new opportunities and satisfactions in life.
Again John chooses not to spotlight examples but some local readers will identify them from his story. Yet perhaps it is best just to note that political involvement has many overheads and side-effects. To some extent, sacrifices are unavoidably involved. In any case, political activists are far from alone in these respects. Sports jocks, computer nerds, trainspotters, Trekkies, twitchers, and many, many more, not least those saddest of cases, workaholics, can encounter similar pitfalls. So politics is far from being the only path to perdition, though some of the Left’s more negative proclivities will be revisited in a moment.
John’s book is not just a set of anecdotes, however, nor is it merely of local interest. It provides much food for thought for any political activist. It is interesting, for example, that those who have stayed active have tended to become more involved in ‘movement’ bodies and community organising (including broader cultural concerns like music) rather than in organisations like the SWP, Socialist Party and their ilk. The question is begged throughout the narrative whether there is something intrinsically flawed about such bodies (including factions inside the Labour Party) that sets a ceiling on their growth, regardless of ‘objective’ circumstances.
John’s story does spotlight some less-than-appealing features of this world, ones which helped to explain the recurrent haemorrhage of members and limited impact on the wider public. Top of the flops must be the fetid SLL/WRP and John tells some revealing stories about it, though the truth turned out to be worse than was recognised by even severe critics at the time (especially about the malodorous Gerry Healey). But other organisations have not been free from oddballs, bossy boots, and nastier bits-of-work. The book sticks to national examples but they crop up at all levels. Even the local CIU club probably has that committee member who enjoys going around telling folk to shut up during the bingo game. The ignorant and officious Fred Kite from the comedy film ‘I’m Alright Jack’ is not unknown in real life.
Now names could be named from the local movement. But it would be somewhat pointless, not least when there are more people whose lives are worth celebrating. None the less one is left wondering whether there is some political law of magnetism in which like attracts like and which may explain why different political groupings have a differing internal environments, regardless of constitutions and programmes. John notes in passing that the early IS, for example, had a quite tolerant atmosphere and attracted people who valued that quality, though whether this came at the cost of effectiveness is a mute point.
Certainly the unsustainable ‘hot house’ atmosphere of many left-wing organisations (paper sales quotas, manic drives to ‘build the conference’, frantic membership campaigns) and the vituperative bickering over comparatively minor points of theory do not commend themselves as models for future advance. None of the smaller organisations that feature in John’s book has managed to break out of the ghetto. The sole big one, the Labour Party, has also shed members by the truckload and its local ward organisations have become skeletons.
Worse, in the name of The People, many left grouplets and parties have little heed is paid to the well being of actual people, including their own members. Obviously the most shocking examples come from the Stalinist years. Yet even powerless groupuscules have sometimes treated their members as mere cannon fodder to be used (some becoming ‘star cadres’ for a time) and then simply discarded when they outlived their usefulness to those running the organisation. At the helm – or challenging for control of it – are often to be found little cliques composed of people who desperately want to play admiral even if it dooms them to be in charge of a very, very small navy.
At the very least, traditional hierarchical structures have usually turned out to be more centralist than democratic, regardless of any formal constitution. Often the price has not been just high membership turnover but also greater detachment from reality and decreasing effectiveness, inevitable once the necessary conduits of feedback are lost in such organisational forms. High membership turnover means the newer recruits have no memory of past cock-ups and other own goals so the mistakes get repeated.
Yet attempts to find alternative models have also failed to break the pattern. At the time of John’s study, perhaps the most creative thinking about the changing nature of society and its implications on politics and political organisation was being done by the Socialisme ou Barbarie group. But its sister organisations such as Solidarity in Britain do not seem to have avoided many of the shortcomings that afflicted more conventional left-wing groups. Sometimes decision-making power simply fell into the hands of whoever owned or housed the duplicator.
As the 60s progressed and perhaps influenced by hippie ideas about ‘peace and love’, not to forget ‘doing your own thing’, there was to be more talk of ‘leaderless’ and ‘structureless’ modes of organising.[xi] Sections of the feminist movement certainly took up such ideas. In the 70s in Newcastle came the Tyneside Socialist Centre and then the Cradlewell/Days of Hope bookshops. Union convenor Jim Murray who appears in John’s book was one leading figure as was Hilary Wainwright, a co-author of ‘Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism’, that trumpeted these ‘other ways of working’. The Ecology / Green Party also entertained such fancies.
Yet such initiatives generally came to nought and not just because of hostile external circumstances. Internally, their organisational forms were often no more effective nor more truly democratic. Sadly there are no obvious answers to that old conundrum: “what is to be done”. Sometimes, as that of having full-timers, either at local or national level, it seems to be a case of swings and roundabouts. Yet one thing seems clear. Organisations functioning in the society of today cannot be totally modelled on the vision of some good life tomorrow. They have to cope with the exigencies of the here and now. So the Green Party eventually bit the bullet and opted for a national leader, not least since it seemed the best way to get the ear of the media.
It might be noted that the comparatively loose body at the centre of John’s story, the 59 Club (veterans of which still have reunions), disintegrated as key members chose to join groups like the YCL, SLL & IS. Perhaps there was something about the tighter organisation, more complete political ideology and stronger sense of some strategic direction that they offered which the 59 Club could not match. There was a similar organisation, the Left Club: it too suffered the same fate.
There are many parallel bodies today up and down the country: this network, that forum. If the story of the 59 Club teaches anything it is that such organisational forms may well find it hard to sustain them over any length of time. There are, of course, exceptions. One is the body in which there is some charismatic figure whose extra energy and commitment keeps things going, though, on his/her departure, things normally begin to disintegrate.[xii] Sometimes magazine production or some sort of research role might keep things rolling along. New Left Review has had a long run, though some may doubt its value regarding struggles in the real world.[xiii]
Another is the parasitic entity that feeds off some host body such as the Labour Party whose structures and processes provide the necessary stimuli for on-going activity. John’s book shows how the Labour Party Young Socialists became one such ‘fishing pond’. The danger is one of excessive adaptation in which the political parasite begins to resemble its host. Literally and metaphorically its work becomes a matter of going through the motions, a kind of ‘resolutionary socialism’. An alternative fate, as happened to the RSL/Militant, is expulsion and the desperate search for a new niche.
So more formal organisations may, in some ways, have the edge over more loosely structured ones. One advantage is that they usually have some sort of system for training inexperienced members (which is why so many former ones have done quite well in the outside world once they deploy skills they thereby learned for other uses). Yet, as discussed above, the groupuscules have often squandered whatever opportunities came they way.[xiv] In the meantime, they have been unable to sustain the commitment of many of those they do recruit. Here is a terrible conundrum. Perhaps all that can be done is to keep on experimenting and go with what works, dropping it when it ceases to do so.[xv]
Generally, socialist politics have been trapped in a rather small ghetto. Indeed this aggravates the above problems since, in such isolation, it is easier to turn on each other, denouncing this or that political deviation, instead of facing the realities of the indifferent, if not hostile, world out there. John does chart some of the external factors that kept the radical Left thus confined. He notes in particular the strength of traditional ‘Labourism’ in the NE. Indeed it is remarkable how many folk one meets who despise the current leaders of the Labour Party but who refuse to leave its ranks (“abandon the working class”, according to one mindless formulation).
John wisely avoids the trap of blaming every setback on ‘traitor’ leaders. It is too simplistic to see things merely in terms of a ‘crisis of leadership’. That said, one still comes across those who, bizarrely, explain a Tory victory by saying the Labour Party was not left-wing enough (Tony Benn has been a serial peddler of this illogical nonsense). The book generally resists rhetoric about treachery and betrayal. Certainly there are some downright anti-socialist elements in his story, not least Labour Party office holders and trade union bureaucrats. Yet most seem to have been open about their position and so can scarcely be accused of ‘selling out’ principles and policies to which they did not subscribe.
The causes of this marginalisation reside in wider economic, social and cultural forces. Discussion of that context must avoid the myth of some socialist ‘golden age’. Witness the deep hostility to socialist ideas amongst working people reflected in the famous novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell who drew on his own experiences of trying to win over his fellow workers to socialism. In 1914 a tidal wave of working class jingoism swept away the Second International. In 1917 power essentially fell into Lenin’s lap, decisively aided by Latvian bayonets and naval cannon. Arguably, many Russian workers did not support the Bolsheviks per se but rather backed the notion of Soviet power, thinking that the Bolshevik Party might be the best route to it. So down the decades radical socialist politics have been usually confined to the fringes and they odd moment of mass influence (the American SWP & the 1934 Teamsters strike, etc.) has proved very transient.
Perhaps the most common answer to explain such isolation is the ‘media’. They are blamed for systematic distortion, twisting how ordinary people perceive reality. To be sure, the press and broadcasting have routinely sided with the ‘Establishment’ (falsely reporting mass returns to work during the 1926 General Strike etc.). Yet every piece of scientific research into media effects confirms just how varied and indeed unpredictable they are.
Readers, listeners and viewers tend to be very pro-active and selective in terms of what they take from the media and how they then interpret and act upon it. In other words, they are not some tabula rasa on which the media can inscribe anti-socialist thoughts and plant general ‘false consciousness’. Otherwise socialists too would be brainwashed into other ways of thinking. In reality, even the most carefully contrived media messages (e.g. wartime propaganda, public health campaigns and the marketing of new movies) often fall flat on their face.[xvi] The point is not to excuse Tory papers like the Daily Mail or right-wing radio ‘shock jocks’. Rather it is to suggest that serious analysis of the Left’s weaknesses must dig deeper into a wider context.
It is, of course, a commonplace to date the decay in the labour movement and of left-wing groups within it to the period after John’s book and particularly to the late 70s, when hopes of a mass radicalisation at the time of the two miners’ strikes were dashed.[xvii] Yet it could be argued that the rot had set in well before and that it stemmed from factors that hovering at the edges of John’s narrative.
From us to me
John picks upon ‘boom conditions’ as the defining feature of the period he describes. He claims that it gave workers “confidence” to fight for betterment. But the connections between the two, let alone likely knock-on effects in terms of general values and behaviour, are complicated. Certainly, as the IS in particular argued, better pay and greater job security can lead to a kind of D-I-Y reformism where social and economic improvement is sought through trade union militancy, not least when there is little danger of being replaced from the ranks of the ‘reserve army’ of (unemployed) labour.
Yet, when people are so poor that they have little to lose, they too can turn to militant struggle. After all some of the most violent struggles have taken place in the context of mass unemployment and during the Great Depression, millions flocked to extremist parties on both Left and Right, though, it must be said, the latter tended to benefit the most. Affluence can also have politically sedative effects. Generally, however, the state of the economy is only one variable. In the case of the individuals who feature in John’s story it is not clear it is far from clear whether economic factors per se played any direct or decisive role in their political itinerary.[xviii] [Of course what might motivate individuals could well be different to what sets mass movements in motion]
Other forces were at work in his period that may explain why the body politic evolved the way it did. This was the era when large-scale suburbanisation spread across the land, having first mushroomed in the Home Counties during the 1930s. Its cousin was mass consumerism, a social phenomenon that can be dated back to the 1920s in the USA. Its trappings took hold in the UK post-rationing in the 50s with spreading ownership of property, home furnishings and appliances, not least the private motor car.
Several people interviewed by John recall the sub-standard housing in which they grew up. This was, of course, an incentive to go out. Even attendance at unproductive political meetings might be better than staying in. All this changed with the advent of more comfortable housing. If it were sited far from the town centre and also distant from work, there was all the reason not to go back out on a night. Teenagers might have been an exception but this too began to change in recent years as bedrooms turned into electronic cages full of games consoles and the like.
The NE as a whole came to the party a bit later. TV broadcasting in the area only arrived late in the 50s, for example, while the shopping obsession, in the form of endless bouts of ‘retail therapy’, only entered popular lifestyles in the mid-60s (some readers may remember the arrival of such novelties as the boutique ‘Marcus Price’!). Large-scale restaurant going happened later still. Yet, from the mid-50s onwards there was growing separation in the region, as had started earlier ‘down south’, between home, work and leisure. It was not just in physical terms but also in the way people began to see their lives. Life became more home-centred as well as more individualistic, with people taking on a wider diversity of ‘identities’, often not work-related ones.[xix]
In terms of work itself, deindustrialisation had not yet cuts its swathe through the NE in the period John describes, though the regional nature of unemployment had long been an issue (that Tory buffoon Quinton Hogg being given special cabinet responsibility, 1963-64, to tackle it). Already underway, however, was the switch away from ‘blue’ to ‘white’ collar work. This did not necessarily mean the end of large concentrations of employment: witness the huge Longbenton ‘Ministry’ complex. Some jobs off the industrial ‘shop floor’ could be centres of militancy and, sometimes, definite left tendencies, notably amongst the draughtsmen at workplaces like C. A. Parsons (which John does spotlight).
Yet offices in general and, of course, sectors like retail and leisure in particular (the latter two beginning to boom in the mid-60s with massive developments like Eldon Square just around the corner) have usually been difficult places to organise in trade union terms. Individuals who work there tend to be grouped in small numbers and more transient (though the latter characteristic only became really pronounced much later, with the rise of so-called McJobs and the spread of ‘contract culture’).
Ironically one of the most prescient people in John’s story was the much-maligned T. Dan Smith. To his credit, and unlike so many others at the time, he did foresee that dependence on the old heavy industries could not be long sustained and that change must come. The developments he helped to father left a very great deal to be desired of course, though the big turn-out at his funeral suggested that memories in his activities were not all bad.
Add all this together and the result is a much more individualistic, home-centred, and materialistic culture, one which is not fertile soil for a politics that deals in collectivities, prioritises public welfare, and focuses itself on the workplace. In other words, movements like socialism were going to find it harder to connect to the denizens of mass consumer society. John has called his book ‘Don’t You Hear the H-Bomb’s Thunder?’ Thousands of people answered positively, marching in support of CND. But millions more heard nothing or, if they did, remained passive.
Withdrawal into the ‘private sphere’ had various consequences. John spotlights several left-wingers who played leading roles in local workplaces. He is doubtless right to give them their due. But it must be noted that, up and down the country, many socialists had ‘captured’ such positions simply because no-one else was interested. Bodies like Trades Councils ceased to be a meaningful gathering of genuine workplace representatives. It might even be thought a bit of a lark to elect a Communist (the 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning hints at this as well as the broader disengagement amongst younger workers from both trade unionism and socialism).
It might be noted that such social and cultural changes did not just hit politics. Robert Puttnam’s study ‘Bowling Alone’ documented how all sorts of mass participation activities were hit in the USA (as the title spotlights, ten pin bowling clubs were badly hit). John has a chapter on the local poetry and music scene. It too has declined. Cinema attendances were falling well before the advent of mass TV ownership. Domestic television, then video and computers, reinforced such trends.[xx]
Of course there are always other factors (debits instead of physical payment of union dues, supermarket alcohol rather than the pub and club, etc.) but, together with the broader changes just noted, these developments progressively undermined community identity and mass participation. True there have been exceptions to the rule. There were, for example, the huge demonstrations against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq yet it is striking just how quickly the anti-war movement evaporated, leaving little trace, except, perhaps, just more disillusionment with politics. One wonders whether the world of John’s book is not an endangered but extinct species.
The position of women in society has not been mentioned here. John does devote quite a bit of space to the matter and his observations are shrewd. He spotlights a number of female activists in the area: it is not a male-dominated picture. But it has to be underlined that there were certainly sexist currents in some of the circles described. One leading female activist in the late 60s was labelled the “iron butterfly”, presumably because those behind the sneering thought it not lady-like to be so politically active. Female trade unionists often suffered patronising treatment at the hands of male ‘comrades’. One wonders whether it is more a matter of continuity, not change, here.
A cup of culture
John rightly devotes a discrete chapter to developments on the cultural scene. Of course, there is a great danger that artists can be reduced to ‘engineers of the soul’, with music and other art forms treated as but another set of weapons in the ‘struggle’. But the arts can be a genuine stimulant to political engagement, such Picasso’s painting ‘Guernica’ or Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’, the latter banned for many years in Britain. The book tells how Tyneside in the 60s did produce a left-wing songwriter and performer of note, Alex Glasgow, as well as some radical graphic designers.
It might be wondered whether there is a trace in the book of left-wing unwillingness to critique popular culture (with an attendant penchant for labelling critics as elitists). Perhaps it leads John to underestimate how ‘pop’ had already established a stranglehold on youth culture. This was the period of those anodyne teen idols who all seemed to be called ‘Bobby’ or Ricky’. This was also the era of TV shows like the ghastly ‘Perry Como Show’, whose popularity reflected the true state of mass taste. The cinema-going public quickly tired of innovative movies from the British New Wave, preferring Bond fantasies, ‘Carry On’ naughtiness and the warbling of a Julie Andrews. [xxi]
In any case, anything more radical always ran the risk of co-option, the so-called ‘revolt into style’ syndrome. [Newcastle was, in due course, to acquire a nightclub that had a giant image of Che Guevara outside] At the same time, the British Left’s role in cultural matters was often not a happy one. True it largely seems to have avoided the evils of Proletcult and, worse, Zhadanovism in the Soviet Union (though it try to silence dissident voices like George Orwell in the late 30s and 40s).
But sometimes, as in the case of the Communist Party and the English folk song revival movement, it acted in ways that were ultimately restrictive. In some extent there was an attempt not just to revive but also ‘freeze’ the tradition. Fortunately there were those who did appreciate the need to continue development such Fairport Convention in England and, north of the border, the Battlefield Band. In the case of Tyneside, it might be argued the genuine innovators were not new 60s bands like the Animals (who looked to American blues) but later ones, notably Lindisfarne (“Fog on the Tyne” etc.). John somewhat ignores the classical music scene about which a comment might have been in order (this reviewer comes from Huddersfield where choral singing and symphonic music had real working class roots in the 50s & 60s).
See no evil
There is one matter, indeed the really big issue. It is one that scarcely features in John’s book. It is the unfolding, all-embracing and all-changing ecological crisis. The recession in the Earth life-support systems will make economic downturns look like small beer indeed. It will exceed the effects of World War 2. Its roots are long but the pressures driving it were beginning to accelerate in the 1950s. In that decade, several US newspapers carried stories about the prospect of long-term global warming and in 1962, in the very middle of the period covered by John’s book, Rachel Carson published that seminal warning cry, Silent Spring.[xxii]
It seems fair to speculate that many characters in John’s story did not know and, more importantly, did not care to know about the most significant development happening around them. However there is at least one exception and one that John, to his credit, does note. It was Harry Rothman whose 1972 book Murderous Providence has a good claim to be the first ecosocialist book written by a Briton, the American Barry Commoner publishing his The Closing Circle the previous year.[xxiii]
Nuclear bombs did thunder in anger twice and in tests more often. But nuclear annihilation mercifully has remained a threat, not reality. Ecological Armageddon is actually unfolding. It is a tragedy that more people were not thundering about it back in the early 60s. Who knows whether it is now too late?
Newcastle Upon Tyne
[i] John is Newcastle born and bred though later he taught in Leeds for a number of years before returning to his home ground. He was to become a ‘full-timer’ for the IS and, for a time, served as a Central Committee member. He has played a unique role in building the North East Labour History Society. On top of his quite varied writing activities, he also gives regular lectures at venues like the Literary and Philosophical Society.
[ii] Remember ‘Selsdon Man’ who was quickly interred after a strong trade union response to what was, to some extent, a short-lived precursor of Thatcherite / Reaganite policies. There were huge strikes and marches that effectively killed off Tory policies like the Industrial Relations Act. The Left played a leading role via bodies such as Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. Later came the two miners’ strikes that terminated the Heath government. It is hard to imagine anything similar today. The biggest protests such as those against the Poll Tax have taken place outside the traditional structures of the labour movement.
[iii] Most socialists are probably agnostics if not militant atheists, though some contributors to John’s book do make clear the influence of Christian ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, on their political development. Yet it is curious how a degree of religiosity pops up across left-wing discourse. It is interesting, for example, that the final section of John’s book is called “Keeping Faith”. Of course, those dropping out of this or that groupuscule are routinely accused of “losing faith in the working class”. Others will say that they “believe’ that the future will be socialist. The religious undertones are evident. Moreover, for all its talk about scientific socialism, the Left had been militantly disinterested in what sciences such as thermodynamics and ecology might teach about the human prospect, though Marx himself was very interested in what soil scientists and other naturalists had to say.
[iv] There is a thorny conundrum here, however. It is one which lies beneath ‘broad church’ bodies like the North East Labour History Society. It is the fact that such inclusivity brings together people who, in the past, would have killed each other. In particular, there are, in the ranks of the veteran Left on Tyneside and doubtless elsewhere, individuals who willingly, nay enthusiastically, would have shot innocent victims, including many socialists and trade unionists, in Stalin or Mao’s secret police cellars or worked them to death in the slave camps. Yet the logic of greater exclusivity about whom to accept under the great red umbrella leads, if stretched too far, to the position of organisations like the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It treats members of all other left organisations as phonies and, indeed, conscious or unconscious supporters of capitalism. Not surprisingly the track record of the SPGB is but an exercice in utter ineffectuality and one that perpetually hovers on the brink of oblivion.
[v] The sub-title of John’s book is “Youth and Politics” but this focus inevitably spotlights the more radical left at the expense of ‘ordinary’ Labour Party members and, for that matter, probably Communist Party activists too.
[viii] See recent issues of International Socialism, New Left Review and the American Monthly Review. Compare articles therein to the bluster of, say, a Robert Peston on BBC TV.
[ix] As far as this reviewer can judge on his own experiences, John’s characterisations are fair and, if they err, it is on the side of generosity.
[x] Alistair Darling, a former IMG supporter, seems to have reached the dizziest height, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in the inglorious reign of Gordon Brown. One of the latter’s sharpest Labour critics would be Alan Milburn, an ex-Trot of sorts but one whose phoniness was obvious from the start, at least to this reviewer. Stephen Byers started out as a Militant sympathiser in North Tyneside on the trail from local council to Parliament and government ministry.
[xii] Chris Pallis might be said to have played that role in Solidarity in the UK.
[xiii] Once again Peter Sedgwick is a thought-provoking guide. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1964/08/2newlefts.htm
[xiv] In the period covered by this book, there was the possibility of a significant regrouping around the considerable number of talented and committed individuals who left the Communist Party following the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The opportunity was squandered largely thanks to Gerry Healey and his clique. Later came the disasters of the Scottish Socialist Party, and, south of the border, the Respect Party. In between there were various ‘unity’ initiatives, usually generating greater disunity (e.g. the IS-Workers Fight ‘fusion’)
[xv] The Newcastle-based North-East Labour History Society reflects many of the points being made in this review. Such is the decline of radical politics that the NELHS is just about the only organisation locally to hold regular meetings of a quasi-political nature. Those meeting places too have contracted. Once there were pubs like the Bridge Hotel where leftists of one hue or another could usually be found. Gone too are radical bookshops (the Communist Party used to run one, for example). The NELHS itself is in comparatively good health yet this owes a great deal to John Charlton himself. If he dropped out, the Society might well begin to contract. See http://www.nelh.org/
[xvi] One of the most famous examples occurred during the period of John’s book. It was the Never Alone with a Strand cigarette advertising campaign. It must have seemed a good idea to the company executives at the time and was certainly well made, but it spectacularly backfired, leading to a massive fall in sales. Reference is made by one of the interviewees in John’s book to Vance Packard’s celebrated critique The Hidden Persuaders but such pop sociology does not get to grips with the complex interaction over meanings, let alone subsequent thoughts and behaviours, between the media’s messages and the audiences receiving them.
[xvii] It is well worth reading Peter Sedgwick’s comments on the 1950s posted @ http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1971/xx/fifties.htm
[xviii] John makes some interesting speculations, including changes to the education system. Writing as someone who lived on a council estate but got to a grammar school, I cannot but agree with his comment that this whole experience helped to radicalise several individuals. In my class, there were only two others (twins) who lived in council housing. Certain aspects of the class system became so much clearer.
[xix] This reviewer has always thought that the differences between Series 1 and 2 of ‘The Likely Lads’ capture many of these developments, especially the title sequence of the latter. Another TV sitcom, ‘Only Fools and Horses’, was to identify changes in the working classes more perceptively than did many left-wing theorists at the time and accurately anticipated the appeal of Margaret Thatcher to previously loyal Labour voters, especially in sprawling suburbs of south east England.
[xx] An interesting local example is how the take-up of video by the Asian community (fastest group to buy the gadgets) knocked the nail in the coffin of the cinema in West Jesmond, which had been specialising in Bollywood movies.
[xxi] A germane example this reviewer encountered of where the masses’ tastes lie occurred at a strike benefit at which Alex Glasgow performed. He was barracked by several of the strikers present (aided, it must be said, by much alcohol) for being boring as he performed songs like ‘Close the Coalhouse door’). It might be remembered that the great Eisenstein films bombed with Russian working class audiences. Ordinary Italians were not turned on by Neo-Realism, preferring Hollywood pap. Dwight Macdonald’s critique ‘Masscult and Midcult’, published in 1960, are perhaps better guide to what was going on in culture in that period. The Left, of course, tends to bristle fiercely whenever notions such as ‘dumbing down’ are raised since it does not like nasty things to be said about the masses.
[xxii] It was actually predated by several other studies from the likes of William Vogt, Fairfield Osborn, Samuel Ordway and Lewis Heber (Murray Bookchin). The excuse that ‘we did not know then what now we know’ will not wash.
[xxiii] As John recounts, Harry’s father, Benny, had been a leading figure in the ‘access’ battles of the 1930s in the Peak District that helped to open the door to the creation of the National Parks post-war. However here is an example of how the environment can be despoiled not by capitalist greed but simply by too many people. Mass access has led soil erosion, water pollution, wildlife disturbance and so forth. This is not to defend land ownership patterns that activist like Benny Rothman challenged. It is to simply state that Mother Earth’s ills have many parents, ones which simplistic ‘anti-capitalism’ fails to address satisfactorily.