Renewable energy, cornucopian dreaming and ‘anti-capitalism’

Energy futures delusion

(The above image is from a feature on renewable energy in the ‘National Geographic’ magazine)

These notes cover a range of topics raised in a debate on Facebook (March 2020: ). It was triggered by an article by Bill Rees (

Part of the debate was the intrinsic limitations of renewable energy technologies (regardless of their desirability on other grounds) and the wider issue of what a sustainable society might be like. However, part of the exchanges extended to calls for the “abolition of capitalism” and the issue of ‘reform’ v ‘revolution’. One contributor to the exchanges called for a planned economy and international ‘state control’.


As a starting point, we collectively need to keep reminding ourselves of the fundamental reality of limits to growth as well as the extent of current ‘overshoot’ and the corresponding need for substantial degrowth in many sectors, not just obvious ones such as arms production. Specifically, Bill Rees is quite right to argue that ‘renewable energy’ could not sustainably power anything like current society, with its high (and still growing) population levels and high (and still growing) expectations in terms of physical per capita consumption.

As Rees explains, renewables are limited by their low power density and intermittency, while energy storage will also be limited in its capacities. To be sure there have been and, as seems likely, will continue to be improvements in efficiencies etc but there is not energy cornucopia awaiting us. This is a case backed up by many studies eg A particularly interesting paper is this one from Australia: It also looks at lifestyle implications, something avoided by those who glibly demand “system change” but do not explore what in detail that would mean in terms of diet, clothing, shelter, and so much more.

We do not, of course, live by energy supply alone but need land and water for many other things as well. That finite space is also needed by a myriad of other species for habitat (the scale of that latter requirement in terms of biodiversity conservation is suggested here: ). There are, then, unavoidable trade-offs between competing uses for what is a finite amount of physical space. In any case, only some of that land, river and sea is suitable for renewable energy devices such as wind turbines, thereby intensifying that inherent geophysical limitation. Abstract aggregations of theoretically possible output tell us little about those trade-offs and opportunity costs.

There are also side-effects of some renewable energy technologies such as the terrible impact of neodymium production (for magnets) that are also ignored. To date, the impact of large HEP dams has arguably been more destructive than that of the radioactive white elephant of nuclear power. Both local human communities and critical wildlife habitat have been destroyed by HEP schemes, which, in warmer parts of the world, also generate significant volumes of greenhouse gases (eg Large-scale biomass energy is another ruinous energy source, requiring vast chemically saturated monoculture to produce significant yields. It literally takes food out of the mouth of people and instead ‘feeds’ vehicles.

We have to look beyond carbon emissions and consider not just all greenhouse gases but also the sheer depth and breadth of the various ecological crises we face, from soil erosion and aquifer depletion to coming peaks in certain specific resources such as phosphorus and some rare earths. There is little to be gained ‘solving’ the energy crisis by making those other crises worse. Indeed, abundant energy probably would speed up the rate at which forests are being felled, wetlands drained, farmland overtilled, roads filled with vehicles and so on. The ‘rebound effect’ might also cancel out some gains in energy efficiency (to which there are ceilings anyway).

On a more specific  point, it is very ungreen thinking to perceive deserts as just wasteland, there to be exploited (cf; see also the work of Gary Nabhan in particular eg ). There are several critical studies of the dream that, say, the Saharan desert could power Europe with gigantic solar collectors and a gigantic grid, eg . It might be noted that dependence on solar energy from lands potentially ruled by the likes of Colonel Gaddafi might be as unwise as that on oil from the Middle East. [On the politics of the Sahara region, see, for example: ]. In any case, desert solar power towers are not unproblematic eg

Of course, many attack the notion of degrowth to a steady-state economy as some kind of ‘miserabilism’, probably needing a Mao-style dictatorship. Let us be clear, then, it is quite possible to combine the necessary degrowth with a stable, convivial, much fairer and democratic society. On many fronts, from personal health to a reconstruction of local community bonds, there is much to be gained. Indeed, there is much empirical evidence eg . Organisations such as Simplicity Institute (Australia) and Post Carbon Institute (USA)have also compiled a compelling evidence base. Renewables could supply enough energy for civilised living providing we keep human numbers in check. Indeed, Bill Rees point out that the USA of 50 years ago managed reasonably well on far less energy. I once spent a few days in Amish country. People there seemed healthy and happy but used far less energy than their neighbours. The key point is that ‘mass consumerism’ and renewables cannot go together. The community on Eigg gives an idea of what a renewable energy budget might power ( and, to be honest, it does depend on a fair bit of tourist income (ie on people who have travelled there courtesy of fossil fuels).

But, to explore the transitional steps to get from here to there, we need to drop empty revolutionary rhetoric. The notion that all our problems could be solved by the “abolition of capitalism’ is simplistic, to say the least. Many anti-capitalists do not even agree on what actually is ‘capitalism’ (just look at the tiny Trotskyist movement to sample how definitions vary even in such small circles) so it is far from clear what is to be abolished. In any case, there are huge between countries and, within them, between provinces and councils at a policy level. It underlines how crude it is to think that there is one ‘system’ that dictates that things will be one way and no other.

Furthermore, it is false to pose ‘market tools’ versus ‘state control’. There is a place for both. As the fast and large-scale reduction in plastic bag usage shows, the price mechanism can sometimes work very well. In 1921, the ‘market; saved many Russians from starvation.

But we need to judge things on a case by case basis. As the ‘neo-Trotskyist’ theorist Tony Cliff argued, the distinctive nature of agriculture, as opposed to manufacturing, means that “the private farm (will have) a new lease of life under the socialist regime.” There is a case for public ownership of inherent ‘unities’ but many other economic activities could be conducted by other organisations, ranging from (regulated) for-profit enterprises to ‘benefits corporations’, producer and consumer cooperatives, land trusts and community banks. Often, the size of the enterprise, not its ownership, will be the critical parameter. We need in-depth debate about the best combinations, not empty sloganeering.

Demands to abolish capitalism actually leave begging all the key questions. How big would the overall economy be? What size of population would be sustainable, locally as well as nationally and globally? What levels of per capita consumption are durable? What technologies would it use and what ones would it reject? We cannot put off such questions until ‘after the revolution’ (a rather unlikely event in any case). All the evidence suggests that the only sustainable option is to ‘think shrink’ and the bigger the current economy the deeper the shrinkage will have to be if we are to avoid collective ruination (

Substituting planned production for social use for private production for profit makes no difference in itself in terms of sustainability. Ambulances made in a state enterprise have the same ecological costs as armoured cars made in a private firm, regardless of their different social value. Nuclear power plants will still need uranium mines and dump radioactive waste on future generations, regardless of social control and usage.

In any case, the historical record of centralised planning is not a good one, as dissident economists in the Soviet Bloc such as Oscar Lange came to recognise. Indeed, the worst environmental and humanitarian disasters of the 20th century happened in planned economies, ones comparatively insulated from the world market (see, for example: )

‘International state control’ could be a bureaucratic nightmare and likely to degenerate an inefficient, unbending and unresponsive ( What we actually need is radical decentralisation, ideally along bioregional lines, with each local economy and society adapted to the patterns, capacities and limits of their ‘ecoregion’ (see:

The posing of a reform v revolution dichotomy is false anyway. We need a transitional programme, with a myriad of changes, some big, others seemingly small but still significant in terms of cumulative impact. Berne Sanders, for example, is no revolutionary but a reformist. That does not mean he has no good ideas and ones that are quite practicable in the here and now ( ). Clement Attlee specifically denied being a socialist but his government did some very good things in what were very discouraging circumstances.

What the ‘Hard Left’ routinely dismisses as ‘reformism’ has delivered major improvements in the lives of ordinary people. The NHS as well as , before it, national insurance and pensions legislation reduced a lot of poverty, insecurity and sickness. Public housing took a lot of people out of slums as did private reformist initiatives such as Quaker ‘model village’ projects (Bournville etc). Accumulated health and safety legislation might not go far enough but we are better off with it than without it. Children benefited enormously from reforms on child labour. Much as I loathe Tony Blair, his government’s ‘Sure Start’ programme did help a lot of youngsters and their parents.

There are also plenty of examples of beneficial environmental reforms. Controls over CFCs for example, saved many people from skin cancer and worse. Sanitation reforms delivered huge public health benefits. Town and country planning did protect some beautiful environments while access legislations opened new recreational opportunities for ordinary people. A lot of successive reforms can, of course, create a huge overall change in the nature and functioning of society eg

Now let us consider ‘revolution’ (in the sense of a dramatic ‘big bang’ transformation). I’ve just tried to skip through Wikipedia’s very long list of revolutions. What struck me was how many of the ‘successful’ ones led to dire consequences, often the opposite of the original goals of their leaders. Indeed, revolutions regularly do ‘eat’ both their children and their parents. A dynamic of escalating violence has routinely been present. By far the most numerous victims of the French Revolution, for example, were poor people, many of them children (eg the ‘noyades”). Even less bloodthirsty revolutions could threaten ‘innocent’ groups eg the bad consequences of the then newly independent USA, post-revolution, for both native Americans and slaves).

Indeed, the speed of degeneration across many revolutionary regimes surprised me. Thus, after only a few weeks of being in power, the Bolshevik regime created a secret police organisation, the Cheka, to suppress striking workers, ie well before the ‘White’ counter-revolution. Even the remarkable Haitian revolution involved some terrible crimes, including the massacres of mulattos. There was indiscriminate violence on all sides. Revolutions do, then, seem to have a way of brutalising those that made them

At the very least, it might pay to be more circumspect in calls for the revolutionary overthrow of this, that and the other. We need ‘wins’ in the here and now otherwise there will be little left to save. But we also need a realistic vision of what a sustainable society might be like. To return to the original post, it won’t resemble the imaginings of assorted cornucopians, be they ‘Left’ and ‘Right’.

King Coal nostalgia?

Review of the ‘Close the Coalhouse Door’, Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2012.

Close the Coalhouse Door

Close The Coalhouse Door was a bit hit on its first outing in Newcastle in 1968. Written by Alan Plater, using stories by Sid Chaplin and with music by Alex Glasgow, it told in punchy dialogue and moving songs the story of ordinary local people, in this case the mining communities of the North East. Though there had been plays and films that touched on the same material, few were so political and hard-hitting. Perhaps only the 1940 movie The Stars Look Down, based on A. J. Cronin‘s novel of the same title (1935) and set in the pit village of ‘Tynecastle’, came close. Joan Littlewood had pioneered some of the techniques used by Plater and there is more than an element of music hall.

The play raised many political issues. Deep mines have of course, gone in the UK, though the scourge of opencast mining remains. But events such as the Durham Miners’ Gala live on. Their popularity would appear to reflect a certain misguided nostalgia for the old mining communities. Indeed there are some people who apparently want to reopen Britain’s coalmines. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for one has toyed with the idea. Close The Coalhouse Door also raises questions about the nature of community and solidarity therein.

Director Sam West’s revival was staged at the Northern Stage in Newcastle in Spring 2012. Local playwright Lee Hall basically added ‘bookends’ to update the story. Ironic reference is thus made to the fate of the communities Plater and Chaplin had brought to stage life in the original. Indeed there might have been many in the audience who had no idea what actual coal mines and mining communities were like such has been the obliteration of what used to be ‘King Coal’. The modern audience’s world is more likely to be one of office blocks, call centres, shopping malls and cul-de-sac housing estates.

But it is a story worth telling. Indeed it relates the rise of a force that could be said to have developed quite revolutionary power (it overthrew one government in effect) but which focussed on reforms. By means of flashbacks, the desperate need for such reform is made clear: grinding poverty, brutal working conditions, terrible accidents, swindles like company owned stores, the mass evictions from company housing. The first flashback tells how a union was first formed and, at various points, the play narrates other significant events in NE mining history. It is largely a story of big defeats and broken promises yet, over time, reforms were nonetheless won, thanks to collective action (as opposed to, say individual self-improvement or charitable measures from the powers-that-be).

These episodes are set in a narrative built around a wedding anniversary in the house of a retired pitman and his wife. There is also a grandson who works down the mine and his brother who has taken the escape route of university, a source of conflict between them. Other characters include the local vicar and an official from the mineworkers’ union. It is a situation that is easy to satirise, indeed brilliantly so by the ‘Monty Python’ team.[i]

Yet Plater and Glasgow managed to put together a story that is informative, moving, witty and, yes, inspiring. Lee Hall’s update does them proud, while actors and the production team carry off the whole show in a most lively fashion. The set alone deserves praise.

To his credit, Plater did not romanticise life in pit communities. Thus, in one flashback we encounter 60s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He is used as a platform for some frank observations about what was backbreaking work in filthy conditions. Adversity was, to a considerable extent, the mother of the much praised community spirit of pit villages and even then, as the dialogue spotlights at other moments in the narrative, solidarity was frequently absent. So the audience hears Wilson waxing lyrical about the ‘white heat’ of technology and economic modernisation. But, in actuality, no real alternatives were to be provided and, essentially, mining communities were just thrown on the scrap heap.

Lee Hall’s additions dramatically capture that fate. Rather than trying to bolt on whole new episodes, he opts for a much more imaginative device in which… but that would be giving too much away. Hall does indulge himself a little bit too much in his vision of how things might have been. So there is talk of new technology creating ‘clean coal’, in actuality a complete pie-in-the-sky fantasy.[ii] Yet the core points Hall forcefully makes about gross inequality and the utter disregard of our ruling classes for ordinary working people do spotlight the nature of contemporary society under both ‘New Labour’ and, at the time of seeing the play, the ‘ConDem’ coalition government.

To be honest, there have been some utterly tedious ‘agitprop’ productions but that is not the case here. The original play was a treasure and this update has given it a good polish. Outside the auditorium was an exhibition of Keith Pattison’s excellent ‘No Redemption’ photographs of the 1984-5 miners’ strike. They too are well worth seeing if you get the chance.


Sandy Irvine.


[i] (

[ii] For a critique, see , pp6-8

Keep Left?

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 ofAs 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.

Own goals

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]

Left behind

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?

Sandy Irvine

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.

[vi] See

[vii] See and

[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.

[xi] A stimulating look at these matters was Jo Freeman’s Tyranny of Structurelessness, now posted at

[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

[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

[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 @

[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.

Labour, Lisa Nandy & nuclear power

The appalling track record of the Tory govenrment is likely to stimulate more calls for a ‘progressive’ alliance against Cameron and co. The word ‘progress’ begs many questions however. Thus Lisa Nandy, Labour’s energy spokeswoman, has said in an interview published by Bloomberg today that the grotesque ‘white elephant’ of Hinckley C nuclear power station “still potentially has an important role to play for security of supply and low-carbon energy”.

She also says that research money pledged by the government for small modular nuclear plants is “really welcome,” and that “the government must explore other nuclear technologies too.” She also endorse the false fix of carbon capture and storage.

It must be wondered how any truly worthwhile alliance can forged with people with that kind of mindset.

For a more enlightened view, see, for example:;…/nuclear-pow…/small-modular-reactors…;….…/…/Beyond-the-Climate-Crisis.pdf

Providing information on nuclear power in the UK and why it isn’t the answer to climate change.

Labour, Anti-Semitism & Anti-Zionism

Nick Cohen makes some sharp points here about anti-semitism and the Labour Party:…/labour-antisemitism-ken-living…

Some of the people he indicts are the same people with whom some Greens want to form a progressive alliance. Some kind of progress! There is, however, a bigger and deeper problem across the ranks of the Corbynista and their ilk. It is not pure anti-semitism. It is a deeply entrenched habit of blurring the lines between real anti-semitism and anti-Zionism.

There is, of course, a huge grey area between the two. The reason why so many of the Left seem so prone to transgression in that area does not stem from racism. Most are genuine anti-racists. It stems from the poisonous politics of my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend. This leads them to deny, play down, evade or excuse bad ideas and wrong-doing by opponents of their prime enemy (the USA, leader of the ‘capitalist’ world).

It might be remembered how many played down just how wicked was Colonel Gadaffi. If he has any failings, it was the fault, it was said, of colonialism in the past or of American misdeeds today. The same people predicted that the American-led invasion of Iraq would encounter a Stalingrad, not foreseeing how Saddam Hussein’s regime could quickly collapse due to lack of popular support.

They then went on to romanticise the Iraqi ‘Resistance’ (to the thoroughly botched occupation), even though some of its victims were local trade unionists, guilty of being an independent secular force. In today’s crisis in Syria, the same people slag off the Americans but can only manage the odd tut-tutting when it comes to that cynical aggressive gangster Vladimir Putin.

Sadly there is a long history of this malign habit. Assorted tyrants, thuggish ‘strongmen’, religious fanatics and kleptomaniacs have been portrayed as voices of progressive struggle against the evil Satan of the USA (some examples from the Soviet era and after can be found here:…/the-legacy-of-the-…/). In the case of Northern Ireland, the evil was the ‘British State’ so there were ‘progressives’ who went around calling for ‘Victory to the IRA’, despite the inexcusable atrocities committed by those ‘freedom fighters’. I’ve even had correspondence from individuals who argued that ISIS is not as bad as made out by the ‘capitalist media’.

This is why Jeremy Corbyn is compromised. The latest crisis inside the Labour Party is not just another scheme to unseat him (though it may well be that too). Corbyn has indeed shared platforms with representatives of groups whose real politics are viciously reactionary simply because they seemingly opposed ‘western imperialism’. It is a very bad politics with which Green should have no part.

The party faces a huge problem that must be surmounted, if only for moral reasons

Labour and the ‘working class’

Many radicals support the Labour Party because they think it is the party of the ‘working class’ and that, by supporting it, they are placing themselves on the side of the ‘people’. Definitional problems abound regarding the exact identity of the said ‘workers’. Definitions range from all those who have to sell their ‘labour’ power to those who labour at certain kinds of work, traditionally defined as those of a more manual nature (ones in factories and mines now being a small percentage of the workforce in countries such as the UK, though far more common in, say, China).

Yet social position does not convey, ipso facto, any special kind of merit. The links between working occupation and political consciousness are complex and contingent, with all sorts of other variables at work, such as personality, family history, individual life experiences, neighbourhood, regionality, educational attainment, gender, sexuality, age, race, religion and other value systems.

Not surprisingly, all big struggles in history have tended to run across, not along, social classifications of an economic nature. Brothers have often been on different sides of the ‘barricades’, as have parents and their offspring. Commonly, those leading the fight oppression and exploitation have come from outside the ranks of the oppressed and exploited, not least the famous four of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin was, if anything, actually more ‘proletarian’.

The leader of the famous ‘slave revolt on Haiti in the years of the French Revolution, Toussaint Louverture, had worked as a slave driver and seems to have had slaves himself on a plantation he rented. But that does not detract from his great achievements. As has been all too common, the revolt itself was marred by internal conflict, i that case between ‘blacks’ and ‘mulattos’.

The Labour Party was largely shaped by trade union bureaucrats seeking legislative changes in combination with radical intellectuals, key ones being from the less than revolutionary Fabian Society. Support from horny-handed toilers for Labour was often patchy (something well caught in Robert Tressell’s famous novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’). Much of its success came from postwar desires for a break from a status quo deemed to be responsible for pre-war mass unemployment and poverty. The ‘Establishment’ was also held responsible for wartime blundering.

Labour only adopted that name in 1906. It adopted the famous / infamous ‘Class 4’ on nationalisation in 1918. There is, however, nothing inherently desirable about state ownership per se. It has been used by very different kinds of regimes for different reasons and with different forms. Thus it was the Liberal government of 1869 nationalised the private telegraph companies to create the Post Office. Many ‘right-wing’ parties in Eastern Europe after 1945 supported land nationalisation, for example, while politicians as varied as Bismarck and Churchill supported state ownership of the railways.

Sidney Webb, the main author of ‘Clause 4’, was an enthusiastic backer of the Stalinist dictatorship. Later, he and his wife called it a ‘new civilisation’ (see also their ‘The Truth About Soviet Russia’). This nationalised economy in fact slaughtered directly or worked to death millions of working class people, by far its main victims. This catastrophic ‘breaking of eggs’ didn’t even produce a good omelette since the economy was grossly inefficient too.

Labour eventually ditched Clause 4 in 1995, though a previous leader, Hugh Gaitskell, had tried unsuccessfully to amend it in the early 60s. Current leader Jeremy Corbyn has long defended ‘Clause 4’, though, at present, he avoids the issue by saying that he simply wants more discussion.

But one thing is now clear. However defined, working class support for Labour is fast haemorrhaging.:…/labour-struggling-attract-work…

What needs to go, however, is politics that is or claims to be based on the support of this or that (real or mythical) class or any other ‘identity’ group. Instead, we desperately need to build a politics for the sustainable common good, uniting people whatever their identities or immediate circumstances.

Fabian Society report on voting patterns in local elections finds party performed badly in its traditional heartlands