Sunday, 2 May 2010

Sources: Archives of the Far Left

From the LSHG Newsletter, 38, (April 2010)

The Special Collections section of the Senate House Library now contains a very extensive archive of material related to the British far left. A few years ago the Richardson Collection was established; this was the private collection, built up over decades, of Al Richardson, founding editor of Revolutionary History and author with Sam Bornstein of two classic volumes on the early history of British Trotskyism [Against the Stream, London, 1986; The War and the International, London, 1986] he was generally reckoned to be one of the foremost experts on British and international Trotskyism.
To this were added the archives of Jim Higgins, a veteran of the Communist Party till 1956, and later a member of the International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP) until 1975, and for a period its full-time National Secretary. These have now been complemented by the papers of Will Fancy, a veteran left activist since the 1950s who died last summer.
Together these collections contain a mass of material on the history and publications of the British far left. There are copious sets of minutes, agendas and internal bulletins. Of course much of the material deals with internal organisation, factional disputes and disciplinary matters, questions that are probably of interest only to a fairly restricted group of aficionados. But those contributors to left-wing journals who make a speciality of denouncing their rivals might be well advised to do some research here, rather than relying on mere rumour.
But the interest of these collections is considerably broader than this. For while the far left organisations have had only a limited membership, their influence on the wider labour movement has been of some significance.
The spread of revolutionary socialist ideas in the Labour Party Young Socialists in the early sixties certainly caused the Labour leadership some anxiety, as is shown by the report of a meeting between the editorial board of the independent paper Young Guard and members of the disciplinary sub-committee of the Labour Party NEC. The Richardson Collection contains documents, including posters, relating to the Neath by election of 1945, in which Jock Haston stood as a candidate of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Since independent left candidacies are a matter of current interest, this episode might be well worth revisiting.
A fair number of individuals have passed through the ranks of the far left before finding fame and fortune in the mainstream; there is material here for the biographers of Jack Dromey, Christopher Hitchens, Kate Hoey and Lord MacDonald of Tradeston. I discovered two substantial letters by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre which form an interesting supplement to the recent anthology of his Marxist writings edited by Paul Blackledge and Neil Davidson. [Alasdair MacIntyre's Engagement with Marxism, Leiden, 2008.] The Higgins archives are very rich, and contain items of considerable interest; I found, for example, an internal polemic by Tony Cliff about Cuba which I had despaired of ever seeing a copy of. But they have not been sorted and contain a good deal of extraneous material, including Jim’s electricity bills. Will Fancy was also an inveterate hoarder, but he carefully archived the material by subject and in strict chronological order, so that it is much easier to trace the development of events. As well as material relating to the International Socialists, his archives contain material relevant to the history of CND, the NUT and other organisations.
The period between the Roberts-Arundel strike in Stockport in 1966 and the miners’ strike of 1974 which brought down the Tory government was the most militant period of working-class activity in Britain since the aftermath of World War I. The question of how socialists could relate to and participate in these struggles, the complex interaction of the economic and the political, are central to a great deal of the material in these collections. Jim Higgins was a leading activist in the Post Office Engineering Union until he became a full-timer for the International Socialists in 1972. Will Fancy was a leading figure in the very influential rank-and-file organisation the NALGO Action Group. The Higgins and Fancy papers both contain much material relating to rank-and-file trade-union activity and organisation. These experiences of trade-union struggle and rank-and file organisation are an important aspect of our history, and hopefully these collections will open up new areas of research.
Outline catalogues of the collections are available at
Ian Birchall

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