Sunday, 11 October 2015

Book Review: Young Lives on the Left

From LSHG Newsletter #56 (Autumn 2015)


YOUNG LIVES ON THE LEFT: Sixties Activism and the Liberation of the Self
Celia Hughes
Manchester University Press 2015
320pp £70.00 ISBN 978-0719091940

How do individuals become revolutionary socialists? One might imagine that the organisations of the far Left, ever eager for recruits, would have devoted much thought to the question. But they have had little to say. Perhaps they are afraid of straying from politics into psychology. Or perhaps they think all the 99% are equally open to socialist persuasion, and all the Left needs to do is sell more papers, more vigorously. So Celia Hughes’ new book opens up some interesting new perspectives. Relatively little has been written on the subject, apart from Cold War diatribes seeking to show that all leftists are “psychologically disturbed”. (For a brief but devastating critique see

This is not the sort of history of the far Left that explains why the ABC split from the DEF, or why comrade G was expelled. Instead Hughes has conducted in-depth interviews with a group of activists from the 1960s, showing how they became involved in far Left politics and what problems they encountered when they did so. (Here I must declare an interest – I was one of those interviewed and quoted in the book.) Those interviewed were involved mainly in the International Socialists [IS] (forerunner of the SWP), the International Marxist Group [IMG] (Fourth International), the Maoist-influenced Camden Movement for People’s Power and the looser organisation of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Hughes makes no claim for typicality – those interviewed were those whom she could trace and who were willing to be interviewed. Only very tentatively does she point to possible patterns. (It is a pity that nobody from the Socialist Labour League was interviewed, and that it gets only a few negative mentions from those explaining why they didn’t join it. Until 1968 the SLL was the Largest organisation of the British far Left, and whatever criticisms can be made of its sectarian politics and organisational style, it undoubtedly had some talented and dedicated comrades; it would have been good to hear of their experiences.) Oral history has its Limitations, as Hughes is well aware. In particular interviewees tend to omit things of which they are ashamed or which might discredit them. (I certainly did.) But she has managed to coax some surprisingly frank and self-critical accounts out of her interviewees, which give us a real sense of what it meant to be a revolutionary socialist in the period stretching from the high point of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the great industrial confrontations of the early seventies.

In so doing Hughes draws out two very important points about the development of revolutionaries. Firstly, as she shows, people do not become revolutionaries for revolutionary reasons. Their commitment is rooted in experiences that dated from before the time they became revolutionaries. Some, Like Alan Woodward, grew up in deep poverty, which shaped their anger against a social system that permitted it. Others came from more comfortable backgrounds, but were outraged at the spectacle of exploitation and oppression at home or abroad (South Africa was very important here). Some came from Labour or Communist homes, others from an unpolitical or openly conservative background. Hughes gives full attention to school, family and religion, as well as the general context of the post-war welfare state (the generation that got free milk and orange juice). So the road to revolutionary politics was often complex and tortuous. Mike McGrath became an active and respected trade-union militant, but his first act of rebellion was refusing to kneel for prayers at Dulwich College. A recurring term in Hughes’ narratives is “contradiction”. Young people saw that the official ideology spoke of freedom and equality, but in practice the system suppressed these values. Parents preached values which they did not put into practice. Schools and colleges spoke of rights and freedom, but imposed petty regulations. Women were told they were equal, but soon discovered the limits to that equality. The Bible promised that the rich would burn in Hell, but organised Christianity endorsed the existing unequal social order. And even inside left organisations there was often a discrepancy between professed principles and the way comrades actually behaved.

Secondly, Hughes illustrates a crucial truth. People who set out to change the world change themselves in the process. It is true of social revolutions, where the oppressed classes transform their values and views of the world, often very rapidly, in the course of attacking the old order. But it is also true of individuals who become involved in a political movement, and who find that their personal lives are totally transformed. This transformation has many aspects. For some it was a question of developing a self-confidence they had previously not had, realising that they could stand up and speak in a meeting, or write articles for the party paper. Young workers like Alan Watts, Roger Cox or Bob Light did not go into the factory or the docks for political reasons; they went to earn their living. But when they became politically involved they had to become militants, agitators, paper-sellers – which in turn deeply affected their relations to their fellow-workers. Personal relations were profoundly affected and Hughes looks at the experience of various couples (unfortunately no gay couple is studied). The problems of child care and attitudes towards the rearing of children are examined. Some experimented with forms of collective Living. The rise of women’s liberation was a central feature of the period studied, and Hughes gives us much material about how it was experienced by both women and men. It was a complex and difficult process. Sexist attitudes were deeply rooted, and after thousands of years of male domination men did not simply roll over and surrender the first time they were called a male chauvinist pig. Hughes presents the difficult and painful experiences of many women in this period. But she also draws attention to an aspect that is frequently neglected: for many men the rise of the women’s movement was a deeply alarming and frightening experience, something that seemed to threaten all their assumptions about the world.

So Hughes has written a valuable book which will undoubtedly provoke debate and further research. Nonetheless I have a few reservations about her approach. The subtitle of the book refers to “Liberation of the self”. But if many of us discovered personal liberation, it was not our main aim; we were setting out to change the world, not just to change ourselves, and Hughes often seems to underestimate the importance of the political ideas that inspired us. She reminds us of the sixties slogan: “The personal is political, the political is personal”. It was a formulation that contained a powerful truth – but it could also lead to a neglect of the importance of political motivation. Firstly, Hughes seems to underestimate the truly dramatic nature of the period that stretched from 1968 (when France saw the biggest general strike in human history) to 1974 (when industrial action by miners brought down a Tory government). The events are alluded to, but not discussed in any detail. Yet they provided the essential context to our commitment. Maybe we were naïve, maybe we overestimated the possibilities. But we did believe that we could change the world, and that belief was an absolutely essential foundation for all we did.

Secondly, Hughes is often remarkably thin in dealing with political ideas. There are many references to ideas, to arguments, to reading; but there is very little on content. John Charlton is quoted as saying he was “seeking for an explanation for the world he lived in”, but there is nothing about what he thought needed to be explained, or what explanations he discovered. Phil Hearse, as a student at York, organised a meeting addressed by Ernest Mandel which attracted an audience of a thousand. Mandel was a formidable orator and a powerful analyst of contemporary society – but we are told nothing about what he said. A couple of interviewees refer to Michael Kidron and his theory of the “permanent arms economy” as a way of connecting opposition to nuclear weapons to fighting the capitalist system as a whole. But there is no account of the theory, nor even a reference to the many texts available on the Marxists Internet Archive dealing with it (Kidron does not figure in Hughes’ extensive bibliography). Now it was a complex theory, and few of us grasped all the technical details. But as an explanation of the post-war boom it showed that full employment (which greatly strengthened the working class) was real, but that it had two downsides – it wasn’t going to last and it entailed the danger of nuclear war. Such ideas were important to us, and Hughes’ preoccupation with “striving for self-change” and “sense of self-discovery” tends to underplay this.

And thirdly, a great deal of what we did was not particularly “liberating” – for example standing at a factory gate at 7.00 a.m. failing to sell papers, or taking the minutes of a dreary Trades Council meeting. We did it because we had a view of history and a belief that certain forms of practice could help to shape history. Maybe we were wrong or misguided, but our lives, private and public, cannot be understood without that vision. Finally a great many of those interviewed (of those known personally to me a reasonable proportion) remain politically active, half a century on. Some are still with their original organisational choice, others have found new forms of practice in a vastly changed world, yet have not abandoned the basic values that inspired them. Perhaps Hughes should consider a sequel, “Old Lives on the Left”, that might try to explain how commitment was sustained through defeats and setbacks. But despite these reservations the book is well worth reading. For us old-timers it is not just a nostalgia trip, but a chance to re-examine our past. Younger readers can study our achievements, such as they were, and perhaps learn to avoid our mistakes. At £70.00 it is expensive, but those in a position to do so should order it for libraries. And a good deal of the material is contained in Hughes’ PhD thesis, available at

Ian Birchall

1 comment:

  1. Fair enough review, if largely coming from a Trotskyist POV. [I read a good deal of the thesis, as £70's far too much for this OAP] All the subsequent avenues followed by the interviewees would indeed be interesting to pursue. Eg, the Richmans' CMPP members spread into fascinating directions, rarely Maoist but including what was once innocently called "libertarian socialism", which took in Solidarity, a bit of Situationism etc. There was a lot of (often v effective) community organising, and strong antipathy to vanguardist groups, in theory, history and contemporary practice.
    Hughes' psychology, such as it is, is naïve and not up to the task she sets herself -- indeed, you wonder what supervisor would let this go through to a doctorate!
    I'd argue that almost all politicos then acted from deeply moral convictions, even if we didn't admit that, preferring to impress an imaginary peer group with "rigorous theory". Ho hum...