In Defence of British Maoism: mostly harmless
Blimey, British Maoism is getting a bad press, which considering how few adherents it had even at its peak is quite an achievement.
Of course part of that is the media trying to conflate Maoism with anyone much to the left of Blair, which is silly enough to warrant a re-make of the Life of Brian.
It is true that the first issue of the Socialist Register in 1964 [edited by Ralph Miliband and John Saville] carried an article by the orthodox Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher on Maoism. It is very critical and it is available free on-line via Google.
To quote the late Senator I am not now and nor have I ever been, and I am not expert on British Maoism. The detail for those interested can be found here :
Still I think before matters get entirely out of hand we had better rescue the vast majority of British Maoists, those who preferred the pub to allegedly keeping slaves, from what EP Thompson called the enormous condescension of posterity.
British Maoists from Reg Birch [who wrote an introduction to a rather good book about incomes policy in the mid 1960s] an Engineering union official who was the leader of the first UK Maoist organisation the Communist Party of Britain Marxist Leninist [CPB-ML] were largely good activists in trade unions and the wider movement and the few who remain active today still have that characteristic.
Whether it was their rather idiosyncratic brand of Marxist politics or other motivations that kept them going most who have been active on the left over the past few decades will testify that most were good fighters for the cause.
Of course, and particularly at the wilder shores, there were issues. Unlike official Communism based in Moscow China was not over bothered [at best] about what its adherents elsewhere thought and did. There were many doctrinal disputes and some British Maoists preferred Hoxha’s Albania to China.
The point was, there was no easy reference point to suggest where someone with Maoist politics should sit on the left. Some, for example the adherents of the Ernest Bevin Society, were arguably more on the right of the left than the left as it were.
Then, and this is perhaps what is seizing the media at the moment, there is the question of the behaviour of sects, small groups cut off from reality who form their own, sometimes other worldly, perspectives on life.
Nick Cohen has blogged on Tim Wholforth’s book on the left and sects. I read a draft of this before it was published a while back now [given to me by an ex-member of the WRP]. Its point is that the sect, whether political, religious or other, succeeds by keeping its members engaged in mindless activity and off the realities of reality.
Well, up to a point Lord Copper. As Cohen himself notes the behaviour of obsession is hardly confined to small left wing groups or odd religious sects. Any organisation has to inspire some degree of belief amongst its members or it won’t work. Yes, even Spurs football club. That can go further and when it does as Cohen and myself would no doubt agree it is neither desirable or pretty. If people can’t act and think for themselves then there are problems.
But by that criteria the biggest cult going are the neo-liberals not the Maoists. A sort of Gradgrindism on speed for the twenty-first century, that means, so many tell me that they can’t tweet their actual views in case their employer finds out.
So in summary British Maoists, mostly good comrades and mostly harmless