revolutionary reflections | Peter Sedgwick and the British Left

Peter Sedgwick (1934-83) was a lifelong socialist activist and writer. Apart from his work to bring Victor Serge to the English speaking world, and his critical writings on psychiatry, Sedgwick produced a series of political pieces covering the 1950s to the 1980s (many of which are being rediscovered and published). In this piece Ian Birchall demonstrates Peter Sedgwick’s independent approach to handling changing political conditions, which offers lessons for revolutionaries today.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Ian Birchall’s blog Grim and Dim

A pdf of this piece can be found here: Peter Sedgwick and the British Left

In 2016 I was invited by the Ford-Maguire Society of Leeds to give a paper on Peter Sedgwick. The paper was written but unfortunately ill health made it impossible for me to travel to Leeds, then or later. So here is the paper for anyone interested.


Peter Sedgwick was one of the most remarkable individuals on the British far left in the second half of the twentieth century, and his work amply repays study. I knew Peter, as a member of the International Socialists, although not closely, from 1963 to 1976; I was familiar with his work even before this, having been impressed by his articles in Clarion, the journal of the Labour Students’ organisation, at a time when I was still a Tribunite.  I returned to Peter’s work in 2013, when, at the invitation of an Australian comrade, I was invited to give a paper on Sedgwick and Leninism at the 2013 Historical Materialism conference. This coincided with a crisis in my own political affiliation which meant that, rather late in life, I have found myself having to rethink a lot of my fundamental political assumptions. I found some of Peter’s insights very helpful in this respect.

Peter is perhaps best remembered for his critique of Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement  as presented in his only book, Psychopolitics,[1] and for his important work translating and promoting the works of Victor Serge. But he was also the author of a huge amount of political journalism (we’re still a long way from a full bibliography). In particular, he wrote a number of perceptive pieces of commentary and polemic on the development of the British left. These covered the period from 1956, when Suez and Hungary began to redraw the map of the British left, through 1968 and the ensuing wave of industrial militancy, up to the advent of Thatcher and the onset of what Tony Cliff christened the ‘downturn’. I should stress that what follows makes no claim to being comprehensive; Peter’s writings were extensive and covered a huge range of topics; there is much unpublished material still to be made available.[2] I am merely picking out a few themes which may illuminate the history of the left.

Peter had a number of qualities that made him a particularly acute critic of the British left. He had a sharp intelligence and an erudite knowledge of the history of the socialist movement. He was a very fine writer – editors like Paul Foot and Roger Protz were always keen to get him to write. In particular, he had a rare gift (shared by, for example, Dave Widgery and Eamonn McCann) of being hilariously funny and deadly serious at the same time.

I would add two other related points. The first is what I might call the inside/outside ‘location’.  Peter wrote as a partisan.  He was a member of the International Socialists for nearly twenty years, and also saw himself as a part of broader movements like CND and the New Left. He identified with those organisations and shared their achievements … and their failures. Yet he was always capable of standing back – or taking a certain critical distance, something his more orthodox or loyalist comrades were less able or willing to do. It is the combination of commitment and distance which gives Peter’s work its particular insight.

To this it must be added that Peter was always an activist.  At the commemoration held to mark Peter’s seventieth birthday[3] Professor Laurie Taylor, who had very briefly been a member of the International Socialists, lamented that Peter’s political campaigning was futile, and that he should have devoted all his time to writing. Many of us found this profoundly offensive. It is not that Peter was necessarily a particularly good organiser or agitator. But the fact that he was involved in activity, that he was aware of the problems faced by activists, gave his writing a cutting edge that is totally absent from the dreary output of, say, Professor Taylor.

Beginnings: The 1950s

Peter’s first political commitment was to the Communist Party as an Oxford student in the mid-fifties. Someone who many years later was a colleague of mine and who had known Peter at this time told me that he was in no way a premature anti‑Stalinist. In a 1971 article called ‘A Day in the Life of the ‘Fifties’[4]  he described a demonstration from 1955 and the way in which it was reported by the ‘bourgeois’ and Communist press. He powerfully evoked a world in which a party activist could become totally enclosed in his organisation’s world-view:

There was another better press, though, beholden to no trust of millionaires or Cold War liberals. The Daily Worker reported the lobby, the march and the police attacks, all magnificently. Any eyewitness could have compared the Worker with the newspapers of ‘the capitalist press’ (a title that was not simply bestowed on them but well and truly earned); such comparisons would be made, by workers engaged in labour disputes, and by participants in a host of other struggles, repeatedly over many years, and always to the advantage of the Daily Worker. There was then no ‘underground press’ of student militancy or independent Leftism. Only two visions of reality, one reflecting the standpoint of the rulers, the other faithfully reporting the struggles of the ruled, contended in mutual exclusion, many newspapers against one, millions of bank notes against the shillings of the Fighting Fund. Two visions: two versions. Two media: two messages. This being so, thousands of Worker readers, drawn from circles of political allegiance well outside the ranks of the Communist Party itself, were also inclined to give its reportage the benefit of the doubt when its version of fact clashed with that of its unfriendly competitors, on other matters: the Soviet Five-Year Plan, say, or the trials in Eastern Europe.

Hungary brought all this to an end. The Russian tanks, and the Khrushchev speech that had preceded them, meant that Peter, and many of his generation, would never again put their trust uncritically in an organisation.  I doubt if Peter was ever a great fan of The Who, but ‘won’t get fooled again’ certainly became his motto.

Yet he did not abandon either his hatred of capitalism or his recognition of the need for political organisation.  By 1958 he had joined the Socialist Review Group, one of the fragments which had emerged from the disintegration of British Trotskyism in 1950.  The mystery is not so much why he decided to join as how he found it in the first place. The SRG’s national membership was around thirty-six.  Yet tiny as it was, the SRG clearly had a real attractive power, based on the tireless enthusiasm of Tony Cliff and the cooler analytical abilities of Mike Kidron. Over the next few years, while still having a membership of fewer than a hundred, the SRG managed to recruit Alasdair McIntyre, John Palmer, Paul Foot, Nigel Harris, Chris Harman and others. Sedgwick’s presence was certainly an asset to the group; Peter’s name on the editorial board was one of the things that made me take the fateful decision to subscribe to the new journal International Socialism in 1960. Although there were differences in terms of both politics and temperament, Peter developed a relationship with Cliff and Kidron which, I think, went beyond mutual respect and became genuine affection.

One of Peter’s first contributions to Socialist Review was a critique[5] of a new appearance on the British left, the group headed by Gerry Healy which was to become the Socialist Labour League. This group had recruited a significant number of former Communist Party members and in November 1958 had held a Rank-and-File Conference. This, Peter recognised, with a typical willingness to give credit where it was due, ‘was obviously tremendously useful as a gathering of militants from all over Britain, and its Charter of Demands is an excellent programme indeed’.

But the main thrust of his article was to challenge what he saw as the obsession with ‘leadership’ in orthodox Trotskyist organisations such as the Healy group. Thus, he argued:

No Left-winger doubts that the leadership of the Labour movement is in bungling reformist hands. Some Socialists, though, seem to think that having said this very loudly, in greater or less detail, with the further proviso that their own brand of leadership is the only “correct” one, there is little else to talk about. For such comrades, faulty leadership is the missing sign in the equation that would otherwise add up to Revolution, the gap in the circuit whose closure would electrify the masses into active socialist consciousness.

Thus, he noted that:

Article after article is produced in Labour Review and the Newsletter, replete with minute facts and dates, to the effect that the Communist Party has, for some years, been getting the wrong orders from Moscow. If only Trotsky had been running the Kremlin, one gathers, they would have had the right orders. Strange to say, the whole system of giving and obeying orders from a centralized international office is never challenged.

The central point, he stressed, was that leadership was a secondary matter in relation to consciousness:

The workers, we are always being told, are waiting for a revolutionary lead. All that is needed is somebody to stir them up. The British working man prefers the TV set to the TU meeting, not because of full employment, not because of Imperialist prosperity, not because he likes being with his wife and kids, but because the Labour and CP leaders have betrayed his deep militant aspirations. The masses really want to abolish the H-bomb, unilaterally and all, but they would hate to see it done by any other means but direct industrial action. So – ‘Black The Bomb! Black The Bases!’ the cry goes up from the Bolshevik vanguard; to be parroted enthusiastically by Socialist Reviewers, guiltily by ULR[6]  types. The result is just about nil.

What is striking here is that while his main target is the Healy organisation, he does not exempt his own organisation from criticism. While the implication is clearly that the SRG is less guilty of these failings than the proto-SLL, Peter’s comment can also be seen as a recognition that his own organisation could easily lapse into following the same path as the more orthodox Trotskyist groupings.

The 1960s and the New Left

A major field of activity for the left around 1960 was the movement against nuclear weapons, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Again Peter was deeply involved, and as well as writing for Socialist Review, at around this time he also wrote for Peace News.[7] In particular, he became involved in the debate about the direct action tactics used by the Committee of 100. In an article from May 1961 called ‘The Direction of Action’,[8] he began by defending direct action against its ‘left’ critics:

The various vanguards of the proletariat and (on the whole) the New Left movement are conspicuous by their absence from the cold pavement outside the Ministry of Defence in February. Even Socialist Review permitted itself a cheap gibe at the sitdown (in last month’s editorial) – although most of its contributors seemed to be out there on that pavement.[9]

He went on to make a more general defence of ‘direct action’:

anything that tends to increase disrespect for the ‘law and order’ that protects Polaris is to that extent commendable. And above all any criticism of Direct Action, its methods, activities and participants, should be fraternal criticism. These people are, after all, trying to get a job done (the job of abolishing the Bomb unilaterally), and done quickly. Even the most wrong-headed Direct Actionist is at least right in his scepticism as to the possibilities of purely “constitutional” action in bringing about a better world.

He went to argue that the approach to direct action should be ‘empirical’ – i.e. that it was a tactic, not a principle, and quoted with approval the slogan of the anarchist paper Freedom ‘SIT DOWN – WITHOUT ILLUSIONS!’[10]

Later that year Peter wrote a second article ‘Non-Violence – Dogma Or Tactic?’[11] which, as the title shows, pursues the same analysis. He went out of his way to stress the positive features of anarcho-pacifism and to argue that it belonged to the same tradition as the SRG:

Direct-Action pacifism is part of the same family of beliefs as revolutionary socialism: Peace News shares with Socialist Review a commitment to ‘permanent-revolutionary’ politics, that is to say politics which see struggles on particular issues extending in a continuous dynamic to other and wider issues, and from particular places to other places and other countries, up to the point where an international revolution against the whole existing social order becomes the objective. The anarcho-pacifist and the revolutionary Marxist share a deep distaste for any form of ‘Popular Front’ politics, in which incompatible allies muck in and shut up about their differences on the wider issues involved, and for any two-stage view of struggle: first get rid of the Bomb, then talk about socialism, first reduce international tensions, then deal with domestic issues, first unite with anybody and everybody against Fascism, then (when the war is over) start to think about dealing with capitalism.

But he also drew attention to certain elitist and even authoritarian tendencies to be found, paradoxically, in anarchist politics:

Anarcho-pacifism is guilty of a more fundamental political vice. It makes no allowance for the spontaneous action of masses. The non-violent resisters must be minutely briefed and drilled in the spirit of active passivity. A few deviationists breaking a cordon, smashing a shop-window, shouting at the police or locking up the Prime Minister or even one such benighted idiot and the dreadful provocation will have been offered. If the attempt fails, it fails because of the undisciplined few.

But perhaps the main target of Peter’s polemics in the period up to 1968 was the New Left which had emerged after 1956, and, in particular, its publication New Left Review, launched in 1960, but which within three years saw a total transformation of both style and editing personnel. Here again Peter’s inside/outside approach was very visible. In a sense, he considered himself part of the New Left. He was personally acquainted with many of its members and he contributed two book reviews and a short story to the early issues of NLR.[12]  Yet at the same time he was able to stand back and be extremely critical of the journal and the whole political current.

In 1960 Peter wrote a satirical fiction called ‘Lidchester Leads the Way’[13] in which he satirised the electoral strategy of the New Left. One of his inventions was a New Left by-election candidate called Josephus Tomkins, whose 40,000-word election address contained photographs of working-class children in slum streets. (These last, by the way, did not go down particularly well among voters, on the curious ground that they could see real working-class children in real slum streets all round them, without the intervention of visual aids).

That Peter’s satire was reproduced, in part, in a subsequent issue of New Left Review,[14] showed that he was still engaging in fraternal dialogue.

But the criticism that the New Left looked at the working class from outside recurred in what was to be his most extended analysis of the New Left, the article ‘The Two New Lefts’.[15]

I was present at the International Socialism editorial board meeting when Tony Cliff proposed that Peter should write this article. Cliff wanted a hatchet job; what he got was something very much more complex and valuable. Peter traced the evolution of the New Left and the changes which had taken place in the journal. He recognised a great deal that was positive, but at the same time made a number of criticisms. In particular, he pointed to the way that the journal had failed to participate in the working-class movement from the inside. Thus, he wrote,

However, the brilliance with which the cultural anthropologists of the New Left reported on the folkways of the young was in the end hopeless: the only section of young people among whom the movement made any progress was its own further educated juniors. The Young Socialists, a solidly proletarian body, remained unscathed by New Left ideas. Among the thousands of youngsters who marched with CND the New Left never established an independent socialist presence.

Given the place of publication, he had no need to add the obvious comment that the organisations which had had a real impact among the Young Socialists were the SLL and his own organisation, the International Socialists, through their youth papers Rebel[16] and Young Guard.

And he believed that this failure was not accidental but implicit in the very structure of the New Left:

Of the few ‘industrial comrades’ with whom the New Left could claim any persistent contact, a high proportion were full-time trade-union officers. Shop stewards and rank-and-file worker militants were rarer here than in any left-wing grouping in Britain. This extraordinary defect in composition could not be corrected (as some of us tended to believe) by a more class-aware, more responsible orientation on the part of the New Left leadership. It was inherent in the terms of the group from its outset, in the Clubs no less than the Review; Fabian organizational forms cannot accommodate working-class (let alone revolutionary) politics.

One aspect of the New Left’s place on the British left was the emergence of academic Marxism, the work of professional academics who wrote books and articles which were intended to serve the socialist cause, but at the same time contributed to advancing the writers’ academic careers.  I recall a national meeting of the International Socialists at which Peter noted that Tony Cliff was unique in being an intellectual entirely rooted in the socialist movement, and without any academic links. He seemed to imply that this was the preferable model, though without condemning those who, like himself, had taken the alternative path.

As Peter put it in a review of the Socialist Register 1967[17] (a yearbook produced by some of the original NLR editors) we now had the phenomenon of ‘the left academic who is trying to ride the horse of his specialism at the same time as he sports Karl Marx’s colours.’  He noted the effect this had on the style of the book.

The first noticeable feature of the volumes of this annual is the slightly prissy, subdued flavour of nearly all the titles of the essays. This arises because the considerable time and energy spent in writing them may have to be justified to departmental colleagues or seniors, and their names may well be included in a list of published works submitted in application for a research grant or a job. …. Titles like Smashing Capitalism or Sukarno: the Last Betrayal are therefore out. (In view of current vogues, however, such variants as Smashing Capitalism, Towards a Conspectus of the Consensus or Bargaining and Betrayal in Elite Formations, Some Indonesian Instances might well be considered.)

The polemical thrust here is somewhat modified by the insertion of a short phrase in brackets ‘(How do I know? Guess.)’  Peter’s critique of Marcuse, ‘Natural Science and Human Theory’[18] had appeared in the previous year’s Socialist Register.

The same review contained a short comment on the New Left May Day Manifesto. With his usual generosity Peter praised the content of the book: ‘the Manifesto will remain the most readily available and on the whole best-written summary of Wilsonism’s crimes. It deserves its excellent sale.’  But he prefaced this with his most damning yet critique of the New Left as a political project:

My feeling is that this is one more doomed initiative. The old round of seminars, study-circles and similar suffocating trash is starting up again. I hope I will be proved wrong, but so far the Manifesto Campaign does not appear to be on its way to selecting revolutionaries, or possible revolutionaries. Several of the sponsors I know to be zombies or faint-hearts who have no intention whatsoever of carrying through the manifesto’s purported aims.

1968 and the 1970s

1968 changed everything. For the International Socialists, and for Tony Cliff, in particular, it meant a sharp political turn. Cliff argued, and after two stormy conferences persuaded the membership, that the International Socialists should become an interventionist organisation, and should therefore adopt a more centralised and disciplined form of organisation. In arguing this, Cliff found his model in Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and in the Comintern. The argument was presented in the conclusion to a pamphlet (written jointly with myself) entitled France: The Struggle Goes On.[19]

Peter reviewed the pamphlet in International Socialism[20] together with a number of other books about the French events. While generously praising the pamphlet for containing ‘a mass of data and a deal of hard-headed argument’, Peter was sceptical about some of its conclusions. He revived his earlier argument that consciousness was more important than ‘leadership’:

The pamphlet’s listing of the sins of the Communist Party and the other ‘Left’ groups imply that for the revolution to have taken place there would have to have been a different leadership. The evidence, however, indicates that there would also have to have been a different working class.

In particular, while not rejecting the need for a revolutionary party, he felt that Cliff gave too much significance to the model offered by the Russian Revolution and the Comintern:

The formation of a democratic workers’ party can proceed in step only with the formation of democratic workers; and when it comes it is most unlikely to imitate the centralism-and-democracy mix prescribed by Trotsky. The ‘responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition’ (i.e., the same people get elected) ‘and in their attitude to their political line’ (i.e., they pretend not to change their minds) belong to the traditions of a religious order (the Comintern) breathing the stench of an era of defeat and recession within the international proletariat. That era is not ours.

The point about changing minds is significant; it was one Peter would return to.

In particular, Peter was very sceptical about the student vanguard theories that were current at the time. The International Socialists never went all the way with these, but he felt that even Cliff and myself made too many concessions:

The supporters of the middle-class vanguard have chosen as their revolutionary agency what is in fact the most problematic, the most unstable, the most helpless (in its own right) of all the constituencies of present-day rebellion. The most militant sectors of French student radicalism are much more aware of the weakness of their position than are our commentators. Cohn-Bendit has been at pains to deal very severely with the view that students form a cohesive social force which can mobilise itself for the revolutionary cause: the overwhelming bulk of them, he believes (and after the experience of the mass drop-out from CND and the Committee of 100, who will disbelieve him?) are destined to enter the social machinery of capitalism as cogs with consciences.

This critical attitude to the role of students perhaps set Peter apart from his own organisation, which at the time was growing rapidly largely on the basis of an influx of students. John Charlton, who knew Peter well at this time, recalls that:

I remember him being a VERY authoritarian lecturer. He would not indulge students who were late for class or had not done the reading. I recall him saying of students complaining about accommodation and food, ‘they could live in tents around the Library.’[21]

And in 1969, when Martin Shaw, a leading  student activist, referred in Socialist Worker to Ralph Miliband as being known to students as ‘Moribund’, there was an angry response[22] from Peter (writing with Bob Looker).  They insisted that:

On the evidence of past statistics, if 1 per cent of today’s militant students make as serious a contribution to Marxist exposition and analysis as Ralph Miliband has, we shall be very lucky indeed. If as many as 3 per cent stick to socialism after they graduate for as long as he has done, then we shall know the revolution is on its way.

Perhaps Peter’s scepticism about students can be explained in generational terms. Although he was only five years older than myself, his experience of being a student was very different. When Peter went to Oxford in 1952 students were a small minority of the age-group; going to university was effectively a passport to a privileged layer of society. For a student or ex‑student to commit to the cause of the working class was an individual moral decision; students did not perceive themselves as having a collective interest. By the early sixties the rapid expansion of higher education had begun, bringing to an end the notion that students were a privileged minority and making possible a collective student movement. This was something that Cliff grasped very well in France: The Struggle Goes On, but about which Peter seems to have remained dubious.

Peter also had a rather ambiguous attitude to the Third Worldism which was characteristic of much of the 1968 left.  Before 1968 he had engaged in two polemics in the pages of Labour Worker[23] – both with myself. In the first[24] he argued vigorously that we should not raise the slogan ‘Victory to the NLF’ in Vietnam:

One would be happier about calls for ‘arms to the NLF’[25]  if one knew that the weapons would never be used to suppress criticism and dissent in a Communist Vietnam.

In the second[26] (paradoxically it seemed to me, though obviously not to Peter), he argued that Che Guevara was ‘an exemplary model for the history of socialism’ and ‘something of a mini Trotsky’.   Peter had some interesting insights about what we then called the ‘Third World’, notably about socialism in Africa. Whether he had a completely consistent position is another question.

In 1969 Chris Harman of the International Socialists caused something of a furore when, at a memorial meeting for the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, he attacked the record  of the Vietnamese Communists, and notably the suppression of the Vietnamese Trotskyists in 1945.[27] When Black Dwarf , a paper which claimed to bring together the various strands of 1968 thought, criticised Harman,[28] Peter replied with a letter[29] that defended Harman’s intervention, noting that ‘the position adopted in your editorial is quite straightforwardly a rejection of any independent Marxist judgement vis-à-vis a national-revolutionary leadership’.  Black Dwarf appended a reply alleging that Sedgwick ‘knows little about Vietnam’. This was signed by, among others, Tariq Ali, Fred Halliday, Adrian Mitchell and Sheila Rowbotham. I suspect he knew rather more about Vietnam’s history than any of them.

Peter also turned his attention to developments inside his own organisation. The new constitution of the International Socialists included arrangements for factional representatives on the leading body, the National Committee. Following IS proposals for left unity, a small group known as Workers’ Fight had joined IS, and they had representation on the National Committee. Peter was very suspicious of this, and at a conference in 1969 he circulated what was known as the ‘focument’ (an abbreviation for ‘forged document).[30] This imagined a character who possessed a special edition of the works of Marx and Lenin printed on one side only of gummed paper, with perforations between the lines, so that quotations could be easily pasted into articles and documents. The dénouement came when the unfortunate comrade, who owed his place on various leading committees to being a representative of a faction, changed his mind. Peter understood well that all the great revolutionaries had frequently changed their minds; it was only bourgeois politicians and party loyalists who made a virtue of obstinacy. Peter thus saw factional structures as a barrier to the kind of living debate he believed essential in a revolutionary organisation. In that sense he may be thought of as a precursor of the hostility to ‘permanent factions’ which the S,WP has shown in more recent years.

It is thus paradoxical that his next intervention on the question of factions seemed to come from a very different direction. The Workers’ Fight faction was operating as a party within a party, having its own democratic centralist organisation, its own membership subs and probationary membership. The National Committee attempted to draw up some rules to restrict the activities of this faction. Sedgwick’s response was angry; unable to attend the National Committee where the new measures were debated, he sent a sharply worded letter[31]:

The NC has now endorsed a political and organisational structure for IS which is anti-democratic in content and totalitarian in tendency.

If implemented, it would render IS more intolerant towards the minorities, in certain key respects, than the most sectarian Trotskyist groups. To limit the propagation of ideas to ‘group members’ only is fitting only for a sect: to make such a limitation a disciplinary rule, to be infringed only at the risk of expulsion, violates every principle of revolutionary democracy, and to create a rule whereby comrades can be expelled or disciplined merely for meeting together is a hollow mockery of everything for which IS used to stand.

I therefore terminate my membership of the National Committee and of the IS Editorial Board which I have been on for some while.[32]

Had Peter identified a crucial turning-point, at which the International Socialists had abandoned their previously democratic organisation in favour of more draconian and undemocratic practices? Some might argue so but I think not. Peter undoubtedly underestimated the extent to which Workers’ Fight were abusing their democratic rights and actually making internal debate more difficult; in the 1969-1971 period there were two major internal debates in IS – on British troops in Ireland and the Common Market – in both of which Workers’ Fight intervened for their own factional purposes and made a genuine debate about the issues more difficult. More generally, the evolution of internal democracy in the IS/SWP is a complex subject which cannot be discussed here, but which involved a number of elements.[33]

Another issue raised by Workers’ Fight – and by other ultra-Bolsheviks in the organisation (including, I am ashamed to say, myself) was the question of probationary membership. In a conference debate Peter dismissed this with a superbly memorable one-liner: ‘We do not put the working class on probation; we are on probation to the working class.’[34]

Another intervention came in 1972.  The IS were debating a party programme which would define the organisation’s aims and set the boundary lines for membership.[35] The York branch submitted an ‘Open Letter’ to the Internal Bulletin (almost certainly largely inspired and written by Sedgwick) which challenged the way the programme was constructed.  In particular it argued:

One main trend of the draft is a consistent attempt to legitimate ourselves in terms of lineage, in effect to indoctrinate new members of IS into the past ideological history of the older members of the organisation. This is at odds with the view of the group which has seen it as a place at which comrades from very different ideological backgrounds could arrive, agreeing in general method and orientation of work. We do not suggest that we can write off the past, but rather that different traditions from the past lead to IS. We should not try to consolidate a single political route leading from Marx’s day to our own, or encourage people to look back along this route and agree, as part of the basic collective definition of our organisation, that the search backwards for precedents is bad in that it tempts us to evade the central problem of revolutionary politics, that it is we, now, who create the precedents and forge the tradition.[36]

This was in effect a direct challenge to Cliff, who was becoming increasingly determined to assert a direct continuity between Leninism and the politics of the International Socialists. (Incidentally, the job of responding to York on behalf of the leadership’s orthodoxy fell to myself[37]  – I’m now far from certain that I was right.)

Peter’s argument was very much in continuity with things he had argued ten or more years earlier (and which at the time had not been challenged). In particular, he had argued back in 1960 against what he called the idea of an ‘apostolic succession’ in the socialist movement:

The task of socialist theory has too often been conceived as one of establishing an Apostolic succession from the ideas of certain revered forerunners to those of their (usually self-enthroned) successors in the present day. Part of this task naturally consists of casting documentary doubt upon the validity of rival ideological orders. To those confirmed in any of the various true faiths, it may be intolerable to confront a historical record which shows the saints as heretics, and the heretics as at least part-time saints. James Connolly in his role as Industrial Unionist or Morris as revolutionary, or Marx as anti-Semite, or Engels as advocate of Summit Conferences, or Lenin as authoritarian or as democrat, or Willie Gallagher as advocate of Workers’ Control. Some of the orthodox would no doubt like to forget their own past irregularities or those of their deities and devils. Socialist writers should always be reminding the world of these distasteful and untidy facts; not to make a fresh orthodoxy out of unorthodoxy, but in order that their readers and comrades in the working-class movement may never lose the mental suppleness and serious concern with principle that are essential for the planning of Socialist activity. Socialists must be prepared to undertake a perpetual dialogue with deviation.[38]

But it is important to remember that Peter was not just a stern critic of certain trends within the International Socialists but also continued to be an activist. There is a remarkable piece from 1972[39] where he describes a tenants’ campaign in a ‘Northern town’ (presumably York). The stress is on what the IS comrades had been able to achieve; there is a clear sense that, despite everything, progress is being made:

Two things are striking about the meeting: first the large number of experienced trade unionists who have been attracted to this association and the tasks of organising street by street: this, in contrast to many tenants’ gatherings, is a roomful of politically tough older male workers.

The International Socialists (whose activists have been principally responsible for starting tenants’ work on this estate) would never have got to know any of these stewards if it had relied on ‘industrial contacts’ and the lists of names from official trade-union publications. We had to organise in the working-class community to find a way through to the factories.

The other oddness (perhaps it isn’t so odd) is to see how very respected the IS-man is who has been doing most of the spadework.

There is this obvious non-tenant, non-working class type, an energetic dropout in early twenties, delivering reports on the situation, consignments of leaflets, and bursts of Marxist political analysis.

Everybody accepts his place there and what he is doing.

The IS bloke is stood five pints by public subscription and the latest issue of this paper is bought by most present. Some of us can remember the days when we stood outside meetings.

While playing his part in the International Socialists Peter was also continuing to work on Victor Serge and to develop his critique of anti-psychiatry. He never achieved a synthesis of his work on psychology and his political ideas, but there clearly was an interaction.  Perhaps one way of looking at it would be to say that Peter tended to reject the oversimplified accounts of history often given by the left, which reduced everything to the correct – or incorrect – line adopted by a leadership at a particular moment. He believed that there were other, and more complex, elements involved in a political conjuncture. Obviously, this relates to a persistent theme in Peter’s work, that consciousness is more important than ‘leadership’. I just want to look briefly at two examples.

In February 1972 Socialist Worker published an extended review[40] by Peter of the Mercer-Garnett-Loach movie Family Life, which drew heavily on the ideas of RD Laing. While recognising with typical generosity that this was ‘an extremely powerful film made by a writing and production team of convinced Socialists’, he used his review to savage Laing’s work, arguing that Laing ‘has enjoyed a tremendous vogue among young people and older middle-class trendies, most of whom know nothing about the subject apart from what they have read in Laing’. And he claimed that the message of the film was fundamentally reactionary:

Unwittingly, the authors of this film have created a climate of opinion in which their audiences will no longer be so keen to resist the present massive Tory attack on the psychiatric facilities of the Health Service. For the Tories also want to close down the mental hospitals, to cut central expenditure on the aftercare of the mentally ill and throw them on the mercy of the local authorities who will find it easy to reduce expenditure for this powerless and unpopular section of the community.

The review produced a storm of responses from Socialist Worker readers – I think perhaps no Socialist Worker article ever has attracted so many hostile comments. Peter himself described it as ‘an unprecedented flood of angry letters attacking my article’.[41]

It is interesting to note that Peter’s article and the first responses appeared in the paper in the course of one of the highpoints of the class struggle in the early seventies, the 1972 miners’ strike which culminated in the Battle of Saltley Gate. I am sure many of the more hackish members of the International Socialists regarded the debate as a ‘diversion’ from the real struggle. It is entirely to the credit of the Socialist Worker editor, Roger Protz, that he published the debate. Peter wrote the article, obviously knowing it would provoke such controversy, as, I think, a recognition that the struggle for socialism was not a purely economic one, but also involved a broad ideological struggle.

Two years earlier, in a review of a collection of articles on fascism,[42] in which he had examined the role of economic and political factors, Peter had argued :

We will not get far in understanding Nazism without psychological explanation. If the necessity that stoked the Auschwitz crematories was not economic and was not political (in the sense of pursuing rational policy objectives in the public arena) what else can it have been but psychological? And it is not a matter of mulling over the case-histories of individual Nazi leaders, fascinating as these are for the student of psychopathology. What has to be determined is the function of anti-Semitism (and anti-Slavism) in the belief-system of the National Socialist movement as a whole. For, despite the programmatic timidity and opportunism of all the wings of Nazism, from Hitler to the so-called ‘Left Nazis’ like the Strassers, the ‘Socialism’ of ‘National Socialism’ has to be taken very seriously. All the militancy and sacrifice, all the hatred of privilege and corruption, all the determination to make a better and cleaner world, which among revolutionary Socialists is attached to a class perspective upon society, was present among the Nazi pioneers, only linked to a racial vision. Demagogy and conscious deception were practised constantly and consciously, but within the limits of a terrible sincerity.

It is worth noting that Dave Widgery, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism and a major influence on the politics of the Anti Nazi League, was a great friend and admirer of Peter, so Peter’s insistence on the psychological factors involved in fascism may have had some influence on the way in which the ANL waged a broad cultural struggle against fascism.


In December 1976 Peter resigned from the International Socialists after nearly twenty years membership of the organisation. The basic ground for his resignation was the decision to rename the International Socialists as the Socialist Workers Party, and the decision of the organisation to contest parliamentary elections which was closely linked to this. His letter[43] was published in the SWP Internal Bulletin, although technically he was ineligible to contribute, since he was no longer a member. Entirely to its credit, the SWP rejected a formalism into which it has on occasion lapsed in more recent times.

Peter was not opposed to participation in elections on principle, but believed in the present conjuncture it was a tactical mistake:

When we participate under our own party banner in a general election in the bourgeois parliamentary system, we are fighting on the terrain of the enemy and at a time of his choosing. This would be fine if we were strong: but we are, in electoral terms, quite insignificant. ….  Better to grit our teeth and admit that this is the class-enemy’s day, one day only.

In particular, he looked forward to the forthcoming by-election in Stechford (Birmingham) and argued:

The number of votes an IS candidate obtains will make a fantastic difference to our own perspectives, as well as to our supporters, supposing for example, that Ken Appleby[44]  gets 200 votes in Stechford and Tariq Ali gets 500?

His pessimistic appraisal was largely justified; even though the SWP candidate was in fact its most well-known and popular public figure, Paul Foot, the result was that Foot got 377 votes, as against 494 for the IMG’s[45] Brian Heron, even though the SWP was a considerably larger organisation than the IMG. The SWP soon accepted the logic of Peter’s criticisms, and withdrew from electoral politics well in advance of the 1979 general election.

Peter was even more scathing about the decision to change the organisation’s name. He was not opposed to the aim of building a revolutionary party, but thought that the present conjuncture was not the time to do such a thing.

Since we cannot, in the present bad political climate, change class reality very much, the conclusion is drawn that we have to perform changes on the name of IS itself, in the delusion that this is some step towards the actual construction of a revolutionary socialist workers’ party. If the CC decided that we should walk around with our bottoms painted bright green, doubtless it would have an electrifying effect on the morale of our membership (for a short time at least).

He went on to give a brief but incisive analysis of the current conjuncture:

What we are short of, comrades, is not new initials but a new phase of class action. When the struggle rises, will it help that we have made ourselves electorally ridiculous and given ourselves a somewhat more inflated name? ….  From being an industrially based combat organisation in 1969-74, we have now moved to the role of a militant propagandist-action group. Most of IS’s main activities – anti-NF, Right To Work, electoral candidates – now fall within a propaganda perspective. This is at once an extension of our work and a forced retreat. It is no use bemoaning this turn – even though many of our industrial contacts have felt, understandably, that propaganda, making its impact primarily outside the workplace, does not assist their present isolated position. We have to work within the propaganda-politics of industrial weakness and social-democratic confusion, until we can wage battle on new fronts.

In many ways this analysis anticipated the argument about the ‘downturn’ which the SWP was to develop a couple of years later. What Peter did not foresee was the Anti Nazi League, perhaps the SWP’s greatest achievement, when it made a real impact on the course of events by obstructing a political take-off by the far right, something which did happen in several other countries, and could all too easily have happened in Britain too. The success of the ANL completely overshadowed the débâcle of the electoral tactic. But on the question of party-building – and party-proclamation  – Peter certainly had a point. Forty years on, the SWP, despite its real achievements in several fields, has made little or no progress towards its strategic aim of building a revolutionary party.

Unfortunately, Peter did not have a positive alternative to offer. He continued to write, incisively and with great erudition, publishing Psychopolitics in 1982. But there does seem to have been a trend towards greater pessimism. Obviously, there were problems in his personal life, of which I know nothing except at third hand and on which I shall not comment. Peter was – despite, perhaps even because of –  his enormous talent, a vulnerable person; his interest in mental illness was not ‘academic’.

But equally important was the political conjuncture. It was becoming clear that the great hopes aroused by 1968 and the rising tide of struggle that followed it were not going to be fulfilled. Hobsbawm announced that ‘the forward march of labour’ was halted, and Tony Cliff argued that a period of ‘downturn’ had begun. Peter must have recognised the truth contained in these analyses, yet he could hardly accept the solutions of either Hobsbawm (Eurocommunism) or Cliff (consolidate the party and wait for the upturn). The outlook must have seemed very bleak.

In particular, his last, posthumously published comments[46] on Victor Serge show him apparently turning on his erstwhile hero. On the basis of Serge’s writings from the early 1920s he argued that ‘what is evident in Serge’s public political alignment is an uncritical retailing of the official legitimations of Bolshevik statism’. As a result, ‘the quality of historical analysis in these early documents of his is crude, inconsistent and sometimes flagrantly deluded.’ For many years Serge had seemed to be a model of the kind of ‘critical support’ that Peter wanted to show to the existing revolutionary left. Now he seemed to be turning on Serge. Was the suspiciousness that Peter had manifested ever since the crisis of 1956 now being applied even to one of the main sources of inspiration of that suspiciousness? Given the fragmentary nature of the documentation, there can be no definitive answer.

But though there was obviously an element of pessimism, it would be wrong to think Peter had abandoned his basic commitment. One of the last people to discuss with him before his untimely death was John Palmer, who wrote to me:

I may have been one of the last IS old timers to have met with Peter just a few months before his death in 1983. He was passing through Brussels (where I was then based) coming back from a visit to Liège where he was examining some recently opened Belgian metal workers’ union files from the time when Serge was a key militant in that city…. He was very conscious of the profound changes occurring in the working class movement at that time of the Thatcherite offensive. … In spite of the obvious toll which political and personal developments were having on Peter, he seemed to me to be essentially the same humane, heretical and profoundly radical socialist thinker he had always been.[47]


What remains of Peter’s work? Any historian of the British left from 1956 to 1979 will find much of value in his writings, with many acute and well-informed observations on the British left. In particular, there is his remarkable ambivalence towards the political tradition with which he identified for most of his political life, but of which he was also one of the sharpest critics.

Within the political discourse of the SWP one of the harshest terms of opprobrium has always been ‘inward-looking’. The justification is obvious; any political movement must ultimately be judged on its impact on the world outside itself. Yet it is also true that a neglect of internal mechanisms can store up trouble for the future.

Here what I called the inside/outside stance taken by Peter is of real relevance. Peter was always committed to his organisation, and to the broader movement outside it. But he was also capable of distance, of reflecting critically on his activity even while engaged in it.

This, I think, may have its roots in Victor Serge. Serge argued that the revolutionary should confront both the old order which was to be overthrown, and the forces within the revolutionary movement which could corrupt and undermine it:

I am guided by a rule that I believe to be indispensable for whoever wishes to serve the revolution: the rule of double duty. If literature wishes to accomplish its entire mission in our time it cannot close its eyes to the revolution’s internal problems. Whether it be victorious or defeated, growing or falling back, preoccupying the vanguards of the working class or lying dormant in the spirits of the masses, the revolution is everywhere today; its defects are above all ours. It must therefore be defended at one and the same time against its external and its internal enemies, in other words, against the seeds of destruction that it bears within itself. The latter task is a very great one. In order to accomplish it, so it seems, we risk giving weapons to reaction and discouraging the indecisive; let us admit it; I maintain that the opposite risk, of inadvertently stuffing heads with rubbish and creating a revolutionary conformity that is as conventional and dishonest as any other, is far more serious.[48]

In this sense Peter offers a model of what the cadres of a revolutionary movement should be like. Tony Cliff once said: ‘Every organisation should have one Peter Sedgwick, but no organisation could survive with two of them.’[49] Perhaps he was wrong.


[1] London, 1982.

[2] There are diaries, correspondence and other material at the Bishopsgate Institute ; I understand there are also papers in Leeds. David Renton’s excellent website Lives Running has carried some interesting material on and by Peter There is still plenty of research to be done.

[3] See  and I Birchall, “Peter Sedgwick Commemoration”, Revolutionary History 9/1

[4] Published in  N Harris & J Palmer (eds), World Crisis, London, 1971 

[5]The Pretenders”, Socialist Review, January 1959

[6] Universities and Left Review, one of the precursors of New Left Review.

[7] For example “Who Are the Troublemakers?”, Peace News, 7 December 1962

[8] Socialist Review, May 1961

[9] Reuben Fior of the SRG was one of the original members of the Committee of 100.

[10] The International Socialists later used the slogan ‘Vote Labour without illusions’, though as far as I know the possible anarchist origins of the slogan were never acknowledged.

[11] Socialist Review, December 1961

[12] ‘The Mind of an Assassin’, NLR No. 6 (1960) ; ‘Liquidating the thirties’, NLR No. 7 (1961) ; and ‘The Reader’s Digest’, NLR Nos. 13-14 (1962)

[13] Clarion No. 12, February 1960

[14] In ‘Letter to Readers’, NLR No 2 (1960).

[15] International Socialism No. 17 (1964)

[16] For which, as John Rudge has uncovered, Peter wrote an unsigned article called ‘Say No to NATO’ (Rebel, No. 2, 1960). See J Rudge, ‘Rebel, Rebel’ at  Sedgwick’s article can be found at

[17] ‘Thoughts in a Dry Season’, International Socialism No. 31 (1967-68)

[18] R Miliband & J Saville (eds), The Socialist Register 1966 (London, 1966)

[19] London, 1968

[20] ‘The French May….’, International Socialism No. 36 (1969)

[21] Communication to myself from John Charlton 29 October 2013.

[22] Letter to Socialist Worker, 8 May 1969,

[23] The monthly, sometimes fortnightly, paper of the International Socialists; it was renamed Socialist Worker in 1968.

[24] ‘”Victory for the Vietcong” Is it the right Slogan?’, Labour Worker, 5 August 1966  My reply ‘Vietnam – There are No Alternatives’ appeared in Labour Worker, 7 September 1966 http://.org/political-writings/1966-vietnam-there-are-no-alternatives/

[25] The International Socialists never used the slogan ‘Arms to the NLF’. The Socialist Labour League had raised the slogan ‘Arm the Vietcong!’, but dropped it very rapidly.

[26] ‘Guevara: Right or Wrong?’, Labour Worker, January 1968.  My obituary of Guevara appeared in Labour Worker, November 1967

[27] For an account of the meeting see D Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968, Harmondswoth, 1976, pp 412‑15.  There does not appear to be a record of Harman’s speech, but we can assume it was fairly similar to his article ‘Ho: He Gave the “Third World” Heart’, Socialist Worker, 11 September 1969.

[28] Black Dwarf No. 23 (1969).

[29] ‘Dwarf Letters’, Black Dwarf No 25, 26 November 1969

[30] I cite from memory as I do not have access to a copy at the moment.

[31] IS Internal Bulletin, May 1970

[32] IS Internal Bulletin, May 1970

[33] If anybody should be interested, my own views on the question are set out in ‘So Sad’

[34] Quoted from memory.

[35] For the context see I Birchall, ‘The Programme of the International Socialists’,

[36] ‘Open Letter from York Branch’, IS Bulletin March 1972.

[37] In the IS Bulletin March 1972.

[38] P Sedgwick, ‘The Fight for Workers’ Control’, International Socialism No 3 (1960-61)

[39] ‘Endpiece’, Socialist Worker, 18 November 1972

[40] ‘Who’s Mad – You or the System?’, Socialist Worker, 5 February 1972

[41]Family Life: The critic replies to his critics’, Socialist Worker, 11 March 1972

[42] ‘The Problem of Fascism’, International Socialism No. 42 (1970)

[43]The SWP Fraud’, Socialist Workers Party Bulletin, No.1,  February 1977

[44] An IS full-timer who, presumably, had at one point been proposed as candidate for Stechford.

[45] The International Marxist Group was the British Section of the Fourth International; Tariq Ali was a leading member.

[46] ‘The Unhappy Elitist’, History Workshop Journal, No. 17 (1984)

[47] Communication to myself from John Palmer, 29 October 2013.

[48] V Serge, Collected Writings on Literature and Revolution, London, 2004, p. 111.

[49] Interview with Richard Kuper, cited in I Birchall, Tony Cliff , London, 2011, p. 175.


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