Monday 26 April 2010

10 Years of the UK Left Network

How did that happen? Is it really ten years since a cpgb-supporting supermarket worker sat down in front of a university computer, loaded up and launched the UK Left Network discussion list onto an unsuspecting and uncaring world? Yep, it really is.

As with all things on the left, the UKLN (clunky looking initials if there ever were any) was the result of a split. The far left is not noted for harmonious relations between its constituent groups and rival activists, and this was as much the case among the few late 90s internet-traveling Trots as it is today. After graduating from uni in 1998 I spent a year on the dole unsuccessfully trying to land low paying casualised work to fund my first Master's. With a head full of ultra-left Weekly Worker-leaning politics and a heart pumped up with rage, I was drawn into the seamy world of internet Trotskyism.

Back then Yahoo had a pseudo-bulletin board platform called Yahoo Clubs. As you might expect the interface was primitive and very limited. You could post short pieces (probably about 250 words all told) in the clubs you were signed up to. After shillying about the then biggest left clubs on Yahoo - Red Square and Internet Promotion of Socialism - I fell in with a Californian comrade called Adina Storm who ran a small and not terribly active club called Commielove. What initially united us was our disappointment with the moderating team of Red Square who had allowed an anti-communist troll of alleged Cuban descent to mess up what was a promising leftist community. Adina and I decided Commielove would become a "safe space" for lefts to debate among ourselves, so she made me co-founder and very quickly - a few months - the club became the largest left forum on Yahoo with several hundred members and a respectable posting rate of between 100-200ish posts a month.

But like all tales of Trotskyist organisation, a serpent soon crashed the revolutionary garden. As the club grew Adina moved to London after being in touch with the International Marxist Tendency. Like the Northites/SEPtics of WSWS, the IMT back then were quick to realise the openings the internet offered revolutionary politics and had built an impressive and comprehensive website. You would often find youthful Grantites popping up in clubs, ONElist/Egroup discussion lists and the like to preach the gospel according to Old Ted. For whatever reason my fellow founder was drawn to their brand of Trotskyism and ended up moving to Brussels to help renovate an office/communal flat(!) for the IMT's Belgian section. Over a drawn out period we began to fall out. As a self-identified cpgb I was always of the opinion (still am) that differences between socialists should, where possible, be discussed openly. The tradition of the IMT has a rather different attitude. They may not be Scientologists, but Ted Grant doesn't do a bad job as their L. Ron Hubbard and Alan Woods manages a fair turn as chief operating thetan. Over a period of time Adina co-opted a few Grantites onto the Founders' committee and gradually discussion became more and more "guided", despite my open protests and public criticisms. I knew enough was enough when they intervened to try and stop an interesting discussion between an AWL comrade and a supporter of the Maoists in the Philippines on the role of the peasantry in socialist revolution. It was arbitrarily announced that henceforth "Stalinists" (i.e. anyone not subscribing to a Trotskyist critique of Soviet-type societies) would be banned. I publicly registered my opposition and the ban thankfully didn't happen, but I knew the writing was on the wall.

At the same time as all this, I was a member of an Egroup discussion list called the Cyber Communist Party. It was much smaller and basically consisted of the two "members" of the semi-comedic, semi-spartoid American Generic Trotskyist League (40% Off), and a few others including Ian Donovan and Owen Jones of Ian Donovan and Owen Jones fame. The debates were very much of the 'my position is more revolutionary than yours', but to my eyes it demonstrated the potential for something not too dissimilar based in a UK context. I remember canvassing the opinion of other Britain-based lefties I'd met via the CCP and Commielove, and on 26th April, 2000, the UK Left Network was born.

The legend that greets you when visiting the UKLN's corner of the internet is more or less unchanged from the day I wrote it. It reads:
This is a forum where communists, socialists, and other left-wingers who either live in the UK, or are interested in UK politics can meet and discuss. This forum recognises that no one left group has the monopoly on the truth, and that Marxism will only be developed if we are able to discuss our differences openly, and not behind the backs of our class. Comrades from all traditions, of any organisation or none, are welcome.
And the first post of the ensuing 111,191 reads:
Greetings Comrades

Welcome to the UK Left Network, a place which hopefully will come to be an important resource not only for leftists in the UK, but comrades internationally who have an interest in UK affairs. All solidarity info is welcome regardless of country, and every member can feel free to promote their organisations and publications.

Though I loath to set down 'rules', there are but a few to be kept in mind and almost go without saying;

1) Racist, sexist, and homophobic comments will not be tolerated and will result in instant expulsion.
2) No platform for fascists. These filth have no place here.
3) No flames. Debate should focus on political issues and not the alleged personal habits of any particular member and the like.

And that's all there is to it. I look forward to all future discussions.
Comradely Greetings
Phil Hamilton

List Moderator
It wasn't long before number three was torn asunder by the development of the list. I think it was a bit of trolling by a Stalin salutin' scribbler who went by the nom de plume of James Tait that led to the UKLN's first bad-tempered exchange (our James, naughty man that he was, sent the predominantly Trotskyist membership into apoplectic rage by suggesting a then recently-deceased former high ranking Stasi agent was a working class hero). That more or less set the tone for the list. To say I was out of my moderating depth was an understatement. Trotskyist clashed against Stalinist. Left nationalists faced down "Brits". Former CPGB'ers rose against contemporary cpgb'ers. SA supporters rounded on SP members. And toward the end of the UKLN's "golden period", comrade turned against comrade as the SSP/Solidarity split played itself out on the list.

The UKLN was a bear pit and no mistaking. It was my fault for letting it get that way and being afraid of consistently rooting out the trolls. Part of the reason for that was by the end of 2000 I had finally joined the cpgb, but was concerned with being seen to be scrupulously neutral. That wasn't easy considering most of the disputes on the list at the time were often about what the Weekly Worker had said or done. But balance was something I managed to my own satisfaction and eventually - after about three years(!) - the list settled down into a gentle equilibrium. Most trollers had slunk off to pastures new and comrades who were once the bitterest of internet foes found a grudging respect for each other, which then became genuine affection. The moderating team moved at about this time from being just me to including well-respected Exeter anti-fascist Dave Parks; "celebrity" cpgb catch from the SP, Harry 'H' Paterson; Mick Hall now of Organized Rage and SSP activist Jim Carroll.

As internet forums go, the UKLN was pretty rough and I do occasionally wonder if it ever put casual subscribers off socialism for life. But despite this, the UKLN has proven to be important for the far left for two reasons. First, it showed the far left off warts and all (mainly the warts). Apart from the incessant polemic (often with unpleasantness running at an order of magnitude higher than the most fractious Socialist Unity threads), one UKLN experience has always stuck in my mind as a clear demonstration of the far left's faults. Back on September 11th, 2001 I broke the news on the list about the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Over the coming hours, days, and weeks the disorientation and shock of this event was felt in a slew of anti-imperialist 'the bastards deserved it' polemic (one contributor went as far to call for "One, Two, Many New Yorks"). Conspiracy theoroids began turning up ("the jets were clearly holograms, and not very good ones at that"); and in our collective confusion debate turned away from the necessity to build a new anti-war movement against an attack on Afghanistan to ... the class character of the USSR. So yes, the UKLN was a petri dish that concentrated all of the British left's problems.

But more importantly was the overlooked role the UKLN played in bringing the far left into contact with one another. While members of Trotskyism's 57 varieties have always been welcome on the list (as have the few Stalinist fossils knocking about), from day one the biggest contingent of members and regular contributors were the non-aligned. Whereas in the past refugees from left groups might drift into the Labour party, trade unionism or back into private life, the UKLN meant former members could still do that - but keep their connection with the goings-ons in the far left. This might not seem a big deal now but before the UKLN there wasn't really a dedicated internet space Brit-based Trots and troublemakers could go to. To prove it, the UKLN casts a long (but often forgotten) shadow over the left's online community today. All the following bloggers are UKLN alumni and have at some stage actively contributed to the list. There might be a few surprises:

A Very Public Sociologist
Dave Osler
Harry's Place (Yes, founder Harry Hatchet and Brett Lock!)
Inveresk Street Ingrate
Islamophobia Watch
Labour of Love
Madam Miaow
Martin Wicks
Organized Rage
Owen Jones
Ragged Trousered Philanthropist
Random Pottins
Socialist Unity
Tendance Coatesy
The Daily (Maybe)
The Rotten Elements
Tony Greenstein
Union Futures

Apologies if I've missed anyone off.

There are a couple of mysteries around the UKLN that have never really been cleared up. One was the almost total absence of SWP contributors. That is apart from Geoff Collier from Leeds, who'd rarely engage in debate but often pop up with a snarky comment or two. Contrast that with SP/CWI members who were all over the list like a rash. Was the SWP's mid-90s ban on members participating in discussion lists the reason why they never showed up to the party?

Another was the irony that despite the UKLN name, there was a very Scottish flavour to the list. Comrades from the SSP were always frequent contributors, despite being formally committed to the break up of the UK state! I never understood why the Scottish left were over-represented - was it because they were largely free of the dead hand of sect discipline?

Here are some other UKLN facts:

* Dave Nellist was an avid follower of the list, despite only ever contributing the once.
* The UKLN was targeted by the forerunners of RedWatch and the bizarre (but definitely white supremacist) National Anarchist "movement", who used to take posts and email addresses and publicise them on far right lists and websites.
* Comrades from the UKLN exposed moves by two Green Party members to set up friendly debates with Troy Southgate of the aforementioned NA grouplet.
* Bad tempered exchanges probably contributed to Harry Steele/Hatchet (Simon Evans) setting up Harry's Place. I remember banning him for persistent trolling against the cpgb. When he finally set up HP in 2002 I remember looking over his blog and thinking "this will never catch on".
* The term 'UK Left' often bandied about on blogs and forums is derived from the UKLN.
* From the start there was a rare consensus around the need to fight the BNP politically rather than rely on 'dont vote Nazi'-style campaigning.
* I was a cpgb from late 2000 to early 2003. While it is true the UKLN remained independent from party direction (at one point I banned Ian Donovan, then also a cpgb member, for rudeness), discussion of its goings on were often a topic in the internal 'E-Caucus' party list (incidentally, it never had more than 32 members and mostly hovered around the 27-8 mark).
* All of the key developments in British politics, world affairs, and of course, the far left, received ample comment from 2000-2007. Therefore the UKLN, for all its faults, serves as an historical archive for what a group of (mostly) rank and file revolutionary socialists were thinking and saying during that period.

During its height list traffic used to be upwards of 1,000 posts a month. Having your inbox cluttered with 100+ UKLN messages over the period of a day weren't unknown. But now the UKLN is a shadow of its former self. These last six months traffic hasn't even passed the 200 posts a month mark. One reason for this is the supplanting of Yahoo Groups (Yahoo annexed Egroups in 2000) by blogging and Facebook (the UKLN is far from being the only political discussion list to have declined in this manner). And I'd like to think another is there are more opportunities for left wing activism now than when the list started out.

What future for the UKLN? Who knows? Though unlikely one should never rule out a UKLN renaissance - political predictions are notoriously unreliable. But should the list forever now bump along at a hundred or so posts a month, it more than fulfilled its purpose. It did bring together socialists from wide ranging backgrounds and through the heat of polemic nurtured and facilitated networks between comrades that weren't there before. In its own way it contributed to the shape of online socialist activism today. If that is the list's sole positive contribution, then the UKLN should be saluted.


Anonymous said...

Gosh!! And it feels like yesterday..Ten years and Phil you must have a young pup yourself!

"UKLN alumni"

Do you get a prize or something to remember participation? I vaguely recall someone (can't remember who tho') invited me to the forum, I do remember thinking it was spam and wondering if it was 'one of those dodgy forums' you hear about a lot. And indeed it was :) Also, I subscribed indeed it took me ages to comment me being the cyber shy wallflower I am (you don't say!).

There were interesting discussions but equally there were some horrible exchanges (one misogynist who came out with some vile bilge about domestic violence made me unsubscribe 'cos it was far too near the bone for me).

But saying all that Phil, you did a good job in getting a Leftie forum going and indeed it possibly did lead to many of these mouthy cyber scribers following the comments on UKLN setting up their own leftie mouthpieces, include myself there.

Hey, you should put up some choice quotes (if archive material goes back). I remember someone telling me it was OK to be a Pabloite revisionist... Bless 'em!

ModernityBlog said...

Fascinating Phil,

You've indulged in a few organisations, eh ?

That will certainly give you a perspective on life.

I do hope that after the Labour Party that you are not tempted with Opus Dei membership :)

Apparently, for the want of a solid ideological centre Opus Dei has become quite popular with some of your comrades at SU blog!

But please, Phil, don't do it...

Jacob Richter said...

"With a head full of ultra-left Weekly Worker-leaning politics"

"I was a cpgb from late 2000 to early 2003."

What is "ultra-left" about the CPGB's solidified orientation towards a sort of Kautskyan Revival politics?

I can understand concerns re. some of their tactics (roll the eyes @ student militias), but even they recognize the Labour outfit as a "bourgeois workers" one, unlike SPEW.

evan said...

Phil, an off-topic question, but here goes...

Do you know whether there is any archive in Britain that holds old hard copies of 'Militant' from the 1970s-80s? I can find the 'Morning Star', 'Socialist Worker' and 'Socialist Challenge', but not 'Militant'. Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

Phil said...

No probs - a couple of years ago a large archive of Militant material was deposited by the SP in a Warwick Uni archive (at least I think it was Warwick, I remember nattering to Hannah Sell about it). Couldn't tell you if any of it is online.

evan said...

Thanks for the tip, Phil. Now I've just got to get to Warwick! (I guess it'd be at the MRC at Warwick)

Phil said...

I remember the bloke you're talking about, Harpy. He was a member of the SP here in Stoke (before my time) and seemed a strange, intense young man. I do hope he's outgrown his misogyny, but I doubt it.

Mod - I think it's more likely I'd sign up with the Moonies.

Jacob, yes the SP's position on Labour is ultra left and doesn't seem based on anything other than 1) crap policies 2) lack of democracy, but none of this is a fundamental break with the history of Labour considered as a whole.

But yes, the cpgb are ultra lefts - and idealists (in the Marxist sense). Their positions on left unity, the programme, and building a Marxist party contains all the proof you seek.

aberfoyle said...

So its ok if Karl and Fred hold hands.

Phil said...

Erm ... (?)

skidmarx said...

evan - back in 1989 or 1990, I obtained a photocopy of a front page of Militant from August 1969, I think it must have been from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They along with the British Library in St.Pancras in London, may be copyright libraries, holding everything published in the UK.

Phil said...

To what purpose was this front page put? I'm hoping it was for polemical reasons.

Phil said...

December 2012 update: Another UKLN alumnus was Owen Jones.

singapore sling said...

Was Elsby ever a member?