The Labour Party: A Socialist Reading List

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s initial election as leader of the Labour Party in July 2015, the hundreds of thousands of people who have flocked into the party have been treated to something of a crash course on it.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s initial election as leader of the Labour Party in July 2015, the hundreds of thousands of people who have flocked into the party have been treated to something of a crash course on its culture, its organisation, its methods and, not least, the very substantial political differences contained within it. There is a vast literature on the Labour Party from left and right, ranging from the apologetic to the excoriating. There have already been two outstanding books on Corbynism itself - Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics and Alex Nunns’ The Candidate - both of which are essential reading.

As delegates prepare to gather for this year’s Labour Party conference, here are some more of the most important, insightful and otherwise useful books on the party, its nature, its history, its outstanding figures, and the often ferocious battles which have raged within it over the years.

1. Parliamentary Socialism - Ralph Miliband

“Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic - not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system.” So begins Ralph Miliband’s classic analysis of what he termed ‘Labourism’ and its shortcomings from a socialist perspective. Since its initial publication in 1961, Parliamentary Socialism has been a touchstone for generations of socialists both inside and outside the Labour Party. Indeed, during the dog days of New Labour it appeared Miliband’s thesis - that bringing about socialist change via the Labour Party was a political impossibility - had been thoroughly vindicated. While the ascent of Corbyn has called this into question once more, Miliband’s analysis remains highly perceptive and erudite, making this an essential book for any Labour Party socialist to get to grips with.

Recommended related reading:

  • Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (reprinted by Merlin Press, 2009): Miliband’s other great masterwork, systematically outlining - against social-democratic orthodoxy - why the capitalist state is structured to reproduce capitalist social and economic relations.
  • Ralph Miliband, Socialism for a Sceptical Age (Polity Press, 1995): In this book, published posthumously, Miliband appears to retreat somewhat from his Parliamentary Socialism thesis and moves towards a recognition of the necessity for socialists to work within social-democratic parties.
  • Ralph Miliband, Class War Conservatism (Verso, 2015): Includes the title essay - an impassioned attack on the iniquities of Thatcherism - and the essential ‘Socialist Advance in Britain’.
  • John Saville, The Labour Movement in Britain (Faber & Faber, 1988): A concise run-through of the history of the British labour and trade union movement from a distinctly Labour-sceptic perspective.
  • David Coates, The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism (reprinted by Cambridge University Press, 2009): A strongly critical analysis of the 1945-51 and 1964-70 Labour governments.

2. The End of Parliamentary Socialism - Leo Panitch and Colin Leys

An intransigent but not uncritical defence of Labour’s Bennite left and its fight to democratise and transform the Labour Party during the 1970s and 1980s, Panitch and Leys’ The End of Parliamentary Socialism picks up where Miliband - under whom Panitch himself studied at LSE - left off. Panitch and Leys trace the rise and fall of the New Left inside the Labour Party and examine the concerns that motivated it - combining a commitment to feminism, anti-racism and LGBT rights with a determination to bring about “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”. They cast a critical eye over Bennism’s shortcomings, but defend it against the charge that it was a vain, retrograde attempt to hold back the tide of progress, instead arguing that it was in fact holding out the prospect of radical, far-reaching modernisation - in dramatic contrast to Thatcherite ‘reactionary modernisation’, traditional Labourism and Blairite revisionism alike.

Recommended related reading:

  • Leo Panitch, Working-Class Politics in Crisis (Verso, 1986): A collection of sharp, penetrating essays on social democracy and corporatism, including the must-read ‘The Impasse of Social Democratic Politics’.
  • Gregory Elliott, Labourism and the English Genius (Verso, 1993): An entertaining and frequently waspish analysis of Labourism featuring a useful critique of Bennism.

3. Fightback! Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s - Dianne Hayter

The most comprehensive insider account of the counter-offensive waged by the Labour right against the Bennite left, Dianne Hayter’s Fightback! provides a useful corrective to most orthodox analyses of the era. Hayter - now a Labour peer - demonstrates that it was in fact rightwing trade union leaders and their allies, gathered around the St Ermin’s Group, who were most crucial to rolling back the Bennites’ gains, particularly in relation to the crucial 1980s battles over the composition of Labour’s National Executive Committee. Although the traditional Labourist trade union right depicted here is much weaker now, Corbynites reading this book today are likely to experience more than a pang of recognition.

Recommended related reading:

  • John Golding, Hammer of the Left (reprinted by Biteback, 2016): An unashamedly partisan account of the same period written by one of the Labour right’s central protagonists.

4. Labour: A Tale of Two Parties - Hilary Wainwright

Another valuable account of Labour’s Bennite new left, here Wainwright analyses and contrasts what she broadly designates to be the two main contending strands competing for ascendancy within Labourism: the centrist, traditional tendency aiming for a more ‘decent and dignified subordination’ through the economistic defence of workers’ living standards under capitalism, and the transformative tendency - which she observes to have been historically by far the weaker of the two - aspiring towards radical social, political and economic change. What makes Wainwright’s book particularly useful is its local case studies of Labour’s 1980s municipal new left - including Ken Livingstone’s GLC, Manchester and South Yorkshire - each of which are essential reading for those concerned with developing new (and urgently needed) socialist strategies for local government today.

Hilary Wainwright will be appearing at New Socialist’s ‘Corbynism from Below’ discussion at the World Transformed on September 26th.

Recommended related reading:

  • Patrick Seyd, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left (Palgrave, 1987): Another study of Labour’s Bennite left looking in some detail at its campaigning and organising methods in local parties.
  • Diane Frost and Peter North, Militant Liverpool: A City On the Edge (Liverpool University Press, 2013): A critical but balanced account of Militant’s role in the 1980s Liverpool Labour Party, including some useful background on the political and social environment which gave rise to it.

5. Parliament, People and Power: Agenda for a Free Society - Tony Benn

Arguably the single most outstanding tribune for socialism ever produced by the Labour Party, it shouldn’t be forgotten how Tony Benn - though recast as an avuncular national treasure in his later years - inspired both fierce loyalty among his supporters and apoplectic rage among his adversaries (both inside his own party and outside it). In this set of interviews with New Left Review, Benn concisely and engagingly outlines his own libertarian conception of socialism, founded on empowerment and attentive to the needs and aspirations of the marginalised, oppressed and exploited. He discusses his own political journey from centrist modernising technocrat to standard-bearer of the British socialist left, and how he sees a socialist Labour government: “a liberator unlocking the cells in which people live”.

Recommended related reading:

  • Tony Benn, The Benn Diaries: Benn was an avid diarist from his schooldays to his mid-80s. The diaries shed light on his political evolution as well as providing a gripping insider account of the Wilson-Callaghan governments of the 1970s, including the 1976 IMF bailout and the Winter of Discontent.
  • Tony Benn, Arguments for Socialism (Jonathan Cape, 1979) / Arguments for Democracy (Jonathan Cape, 1981): Here Benn again articulates his conception of socialism and its roots in non-conformist Christianity, Marxism, and the centuries-long tradition of English dissenting radicalism.

6. Aneurin Bevan: A Biography - Michael Foot

A protege of Aneurin Bevan as a young man - it was Bevan who helped get the young Michael Foot hired as a journalist on the Evening Standard - Foot’s two-volume biography is by no means a detached or academic treatise but instead a warm, celebratory and manifestly affectionate portrait of one of the Labour left’s outstanding figures. Foot follows Bevan’s trajectory from his upbringing in a Tredegar mining family to voracious autodidact and trade union militant, and then on to Parliament and his emergence as leader of the Labour left, the main architect of the National Health Service, scourge of Toryism, and one of the most combative debaters to which the House of Commons ever played host. The book also details Bevan’s dramatic break with the faction which came to bear his name, over the issue of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Recommended related reading:

  • Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear (Heinemann, 1952): Bevan’s personal political manifesto.
  • Radhika Desai, Intellectuals and Socialism: ‘Social Democrats’ and the Labour Party (Lawrence & Wishart, 1994): A critique of Gaitskellite revisionism which also provides a useful critical account of Bevanism’s political shortcomings and its eventual semi-reconcilation with Gaitskellism.

7. The Retreat of Social Democracy - John Callaghan

In this study, Callaghan examines the gradual breakdown of post-war social democracy in the 1970s and the challenges which arose to it from the socialist left - based on a recognition that failing to go beyond the reformist gains of the post-war decades would mean that many of those advances were lost. Callaghan analyses the defeat of the New Left and its various manifestations inside social-democratic parties - including Bennism in Britain and the early years of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency in France - and demonstrates how this helped to facilitate European social democracy’s slide into Third Way liberalism in the 1990s.

Recommended related reading:

  • Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party (Verso, 1992): A detailed and highly critical analysis of Neil Kinnock’s leadership of the Labour Party, featuring various members of Kinnock’s inner circle - including Peter Mandelson, Charles Clarke and Patricia Hewitt - who would go on to be leading New Labour figures.

8. The Hard Road to Renewal - Stuart Hall

Perhaps the sharpest contemporaneous critic of Thatcherism (indeed, he is often credited with popularising the term), Stuart Hall was equally unafraid of slaughtering the sacred cows of the left. The Hard Road to Renewal collects some of his most important essays of the 1980s, where he traces out the intellectual contours of Thatcherism, seeks to explain its popular appeal, and ruthlessly criticises the shortcomings and failings of Labourism - both in its leftwing and its rightwing variants - as part of his efforts to help develop a socialist politics capable of chiming with the everyday experiences and needs of the masses of working people. Provocative, withering, insightful and never less than thought-provoking, there are still many valuable lessons Labour’s new Corbynite left can learn from this book almost 30 years on from its publication.

Recommended related reading:

  • Stuart Hall, Selected Political Writings (Lawrence & Wishart, 2017): Essays covering the period from the emergence of the New Left in the 1950s through to near the end of Hall’s life.
  • Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (Verso, 1988): Another important collection of essays including some of Williams’ writings on culture and art as well as analyses of Labourism and post-war social democracy.

9. Culture Wars - James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley

In the 1980s, Labour’s new left - with its vocal opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia, and its championing of the rights of women and minorities - found itself on the receiving end of an almost unprecedented hate campaign waged by much of Britain’s press and eagerly encouraged by Thatcher’s Tory Party. In Culture Wars, Curran (a former editor of the original New Socialist in the ’80s), Gaber and Petley look at the repercussions of the cultural dissidence of the 1960s as it eventually took root in the Labour Party, particularly in local government - and the backlash to it. The book provides a fascinating if at times gruesome account of the hostility, sneers and bigotry to which Labour’s new left, the causes it took up, its leading figures and their allies were subjected to - aided and abetted as this was by some elements inside the Labour Party itself.

Recommended related reading:

  • Peter Tatchell, The Battle for Bermondsey (Gay Men’s Press, 1983): The 1983 Bermondsey by-election campaign rightly occupies a special place in infamy, characterised as it was by virulent homophobia, egged on and indulged by much of the media and political establishment. Here Tatchell gives his account of the experience and recounts the series of events which led up to it.

10. Smear! Wilson and the Secret State - Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay

Although he was objectively a moderate, Keynesian technocrat, the atmosphere of the Cold War - and his earlier association with Labour’s Bevanite left - meant that Harold Wilson’s rise to the very pinnacle of British politics aroused a great deal of hostility and suspicion inside the murkier recesses of the British state apparatus. Dorril and Ramsay’s Smear! details the labyrinthine plots against Wilson as prime minister - within his own party as well as within the security and intelligence milieu, with the active complicity of sections of the press - all going on as the breakdown of British social democracy was gathering pace. Given that Corbyn himself first attracted the attention of the security services decades ago, this makes for a sobering read today.

Recommended related reading:

  • David Leigh, The Wilson Plot (Pantheon Books, 1988): Another account of the Wilson plots.
  • John Medhurst, That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76 (Zero Books, 2014): Focuses largely on Tony Benn’s period as industry secretary and addresses the opposition he encountered from his own civil servants (as well as from Harold Wilson) in his efforts to implement his radical industrial strategy.

Editorial note: It’s been pointed out to us that there is a lack of books from women featured in this reading list. We appreciate that this is the case: in part this reflects the imbalances inherent to the literature on the Labour Party (largely white and male as it is), which perhaps also partly reflects the culture of the party itself, at least historically. We should also add that this list was by no means intended as an exhaustive, definitive overview of that literature.

There are, however, numerous valuable socialist-feminist histories and critiques of the wider British labour movement (and hence somewhat beyond the intended scope of this list, focusing on the party itself), including, to name but three which the author would strongly recommend Mary Davis’s ‘Comrade or Brother?’, ‘Hidden from History’ by Sheila Rowbotham and Selina Todd’s ‘The People’. [2020 note: We would no longer recommend Selina Todd’s work owing to her transphobia. We have left this recommendation here for the record.]

New Socialist is committed to diversity and will always welcome, encourage and promote diversity in our commissions, articles and editorial staff. We are therefore very interested in feminist critiques and perspectives of the Labour Party, its culture and the surrounding literature (including that written by women), and we actively seek and warmly welcome pitches on these and related subjects.