What use is ‘radical history’? Does it have a role to play in emancipatory politics?
I would like to offer an example that has a relevance to this question, based on my research on the industrial politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) within the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). As a marginal party, largely resigned to life outside of mainstream British politics, the CPGB felt that its best chance of influencing the Labour Party was to develop an industrial strategy; this was not least because it believed itself to be the indispensable leader of the working class. By getting communists elected to the leadership of important unions, and also through politicising the rank and file of these unions, the CPGB felt that it could have some influence in shaping the agenda of the Labour Party annual conference, through the block votes of the affiliated trade unions (like the NUM who, as a large union, had a large number of votes at the conference).
By the 1970s the CPGB appeared ubiquitous, if not nefarious, in all of the major trade union struggles of the time. Certainly the CPGB was an important agent of influence in the industrial dispute; but it was by no means the organizing force. In the miners’ strikes of the 1970s, for example, the CPGB itself played more of a logistical role, propagating the miners’ cause. Party members in the NUM busied themselves with attempting to serve their members’ interests. Despite the party’s claims to the contrary, the CPGB failed to capitalize from these events; in fact, as the Labour Party itself moved to the left, the CPGB shrank, debilitated by internal disputes and ideological divisions. In a bitter twist of irony, it would be the very industrial politics that the party had earnestly believed it was nurturing, that would become the bitterest bone of contention within the CPGB itself. This was most obvious by the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, where the communists’ internal divisions spilled over into a criticism of the miners’ leadership.
But what lesson can this history teach us today? Does it example the failings of another marginal party, frozen out by the dominant two-party cartel? Or can we critique the failings of the CPGB in order to help us understand the best way for a party to become a credible, electoral alternative? There appears to be no definitive answer to this question; but one salient point remains, which is that looking at the demise of the historical ‘radical’ examples one failed attempt to make a change. Rather than being an inconsequential insect at the periphery of the British political sphere, the history of the CPGB is useful because it allows us to understand the perennial challenges of the British left; that, it must be argued, can only be a progressive and positive influence.
About Sheryl Buckley
Sheryl Bernadette Buckley is preparing her thesis for submission at the University of Salford. The thesis focuses on the CPGB within the NUM between 1945 and 1985, particularly considering the extent to which wage militancy was evident in the miners’ union. Her work has appeared in ‘British Politics’ and is forthcoming in ‘Capital and Class’.