Marxist-Humanism in Britain 1940s to 1980s

A little project I have been working on, on and off, for about two years with a preliminary post in November 2020

Since then I have visited several archives, spoken to a few comrades from the Marxist-Humanist tendency and acquired a few more items.

Marxist-Humanism derives from the ideas of Raya Dunayevskaya- ‘Forest’ to CLR James’ ‘Johnson’ in the Johnson-Forest Tendency of the US Socialist Workers Party and then Workers Party.

This group published a paper Correspondence which had supporters in Britain as well as the USA.

A supplement to the paper Correspondence contains an article on Trotskyism in Britain (with a Manchester focus) which must have been written by Alan Christiansen, a supporter who had been in the British Revolutionary Communist Party.

AC also writes in Correspondence about the need for a similar paper in Britain (January 1955- see left) and talks about trying to interest the Federation of Marxist Groups.

We cannot say whether or not there was a more substantial group of co-thinkers around Christiansen nor what happened to them in the split between James and Dunayevskaya.

(The Forest side of the split made a detailed and scathing critique of the Johnsonites positions in at least one internal bulletins)

After the split AC continued to correspond with News and Letters- there is a letter from him on page 5 of v1 no2 July 1955.

However, AC remained a James supporter to the end of the 1950s.

According to a note introducing an article by Christianson on “The RCP and the Shop Stewards” in Revolutionary History vol6 no2/3 (p160) from 1954 onwards he published a journal State Capitalism and World Revolution. This may have been short lived -we have a letter, dated February 1957, from Christianson to James. In this he finally breaks off organisational links with James whilst remaining in political solidarity with the Jamesian ideas of state capitalism and world revolution.

Reading between the lines here it looks as if CLRJ and AC had different perspectives about where to put their efforts and the potential for building an organisation.

A biographical sketch by Ernie Rogers fills in a little more of AC’s subsequent development and a similar sketch, with more details of ACs earlier work with the Leninist League can be found in the Revolutionary History issue mentioned above.

NB we would still very much like to find a file of Correspondence as well as publications of the later James group Facing Reality which continued (in the US at least) until 1970.

****

The aforementioned Federation of Marxist Groups (of which we will say much more in due course) drew together a number of groups and individuals operating outside and to the left of both the Labour Party and the Communist Party.

This included the Liverpool group of Eric Heffer and the Glasgow group of Harry McShane, Les Forster and Hugh Savage, which had detached themselves from the Communist Party, along with the British Oehlerites- the Workers League and the Socialist Workers Group- together with sections of the Independent Labour Party.

Briefly some of these came these came together as the Socialist Workers Federation publishing Revolt / Socialist Revolt.

The leading lights of the SWF- Heffer and McShane were in contact with Raya Dunayevskaya.

In the later 1950s the SWF disintegrated and the Glasgow group resumed an independent existence.

The Glasgow group, and Harry McShane in particular, maintained links with N&L and Dunayevskaya.

In 1960, (following shortly after Raya Dunayevskaya’s visit to Britain) News and Letters established a British Labour News page which ran for 18 issues throughout 1960-61 and is to be found here- British Labour News compilation

The British Labour News page gave two addresses- one in London (Essex) and one for Harry McShane in Glasgow.

Some editorial comment was issued by a London based ‘FW’.  According to David Black, in his very useful chapter titled “Revolutionary Travels of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom”, this was Frank Williams who was to drop out of active politics shortly afterwards.

Whilst active, Williams energetically promoted News And Letters seeking to boost its circulation and pool of contacts.

At the same time, the Glasgow group established a modest newsletter, The New Commune, which is also advertised in N&L.

The group publishing this (McShane, Forster, Savage) occasionally styled itself the Revolutionary Socialist Association and tried to bring together other groups largely through sponsoring an anti-war workers conference.

The New Commune has proved exceptionally difficult to track down!

We already had an incomplete (single page) copy of no8 (I do not rule out the missing page turning up eventually) and a somewhat poorly scanned copy of no6 from the Spirit Of Revolt archive in Glasgow, which holds Les Forster’s papers. Surprisingly there is only this one copy of The New Commune and no copies of the later Marxist-Humanist papers in the Forster archive.

However, Peter Hudis’ pamphlet on Harry McShane and the Scottish Roots of Marxist Humanism does contain a reference (footnote 4) to copies of The New Commune being in the National Labour Museum (now Peoples History Museum Archive) in Manchester.

An extensive wade through the collection yielded just single issue- no1 plus a covering letter from H McS. There were at least 8 issues of The New Commune so if any comrades have copies of other issues, or leads to follow up, I would love to hear from them.

The New Commune

By 1962 the Scottish Marxist-Humanist Group had been established- again McShane, Forster and Savage- and began to publish an Information Bulletin.

Scottish Marxist-Humanist Group- Information Bulletin

This ran for 17 issues, of which we have 10, before changing its name to The Marxist-Humanist and continuing the previous numbering.

It is notable that in this period the group had some links, through Paul Foot who also wrote for the bulletin, with Cliff’s Socialist Review Group / International Socialists.

Some issues of The Marxist-Humanist are clearly miss-numbered or miss-dated with duplicate numbers and impossible combinations of date and number. However, we have 38 issues of the paper out of approximately 50 published.  

Again, if any comrades can fill any gaps, please get in touch.

Scottish Marxist-Humanist Group- The Marxist-Humanist

In 1974 a second series of The Marxist-Humanist was launched- this time by the Scottish Marxist-Humanists (note no longer a ‘group’).

We have only issue 1 for April 1974 and a summer 1974 special issue. It is uncertain how many further issues there may have been of this title.

Scottish Marxist-Humanists- The Marxist-Humanist new series

This was followed by a publication simply titled Marxist-Humanism, which may have simply been the work of Harry McShane acting alone.

We have one issue of a ‘monthly bulletin’ and two ‘special issues’ from 1976.

Marxist-Humanism (1976)

The same title, Marxist Humanism, was then used by the British News and Letters supporters for four issues in the early 1980s.

By this time it looks like a better geographical spread- with comrades or functioning groups at least in Glasgow, London and Manchester and articles signed by several different comrades.

Issues 1 and 2 are in tabloid format and 3 and 4 are 20 page magazines. This paper was preceded, in 1979, by a single pilot issue of a British News & Letters paper, which we have been unable to find.

This paper foundered after four issues but, we are told, a special British News & Letters issue appeared for the 1983 Marx centenary. Again, another paper we would like to obtain a scan of.

Marxist-Humanism (1980s)

Thanks to Richard Abernethy for answering many of my historical queries and for sending me Peter Hudis’ pamphlet, and to Dave Black for the book chapter mentioned above.

Other items are from the Peoples History Museum Archives and from comrades collections.

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