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Rebirth of a Small Dark Stranger: The Black Dwarf, the British New Left, and 1968

A new online archive of the full run of The Black Dwarf allows the voices of 1968 to cut through and speak to us directly.

Ross Speer, Madeleine Davis 4 July 2023

Rebirth of a Small Dark Stranger: <em>The Black Dwarf</em>, the British New Left, and 1968

First published at openDemocracy

The enduring image of New Left activism, both in Britain and elsewhere, remains that of 1968. Britain’s 1968, however, really began the year before. Publication of the May Day Manifesto gave voice to disenchantment with the first Wilson government and sketched out an alternative socialist programme. Produced by a group that included Edward Thompson, Raymond Williams, Mike Rustin, and Stuart Hall, the Manifesto revived and radicalised an earlier New Leftism, but was quickly overtaken by a more avowedly revolutionary left culture. The Dialectics of Liberation conference brought to London Marxist intellectuals like Paul Sweezy and Herbert Marcuse alongside the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, radical psychiatrist R.D Laing and poet Allen Ginsberg. A nine-day occupation of the LSE signalled the arrival of students as a distinct agent of the left. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) was launched, carrying placards calling for "Victory to the NLF!."

It was in this atmosphere that The Black Dwarfnow digitised and made available in full for the first time via the Amiel-Melburn Trust archive, was formed. It was conceived by the literary agent Clive Goodwin, who owned the name; the poet Christopher Logue who came up with the name; Tariq Ali, already a leader of VSC; designer Robin Fior; and poet Adrian Mitchell, among others. Black Dwarf set out to fill a space on the rejuvenated radical left for a popular publication. A broadsheet pre-issue distributed free on May Day demonstrations announced the "birth of a small dark stranger," a fortnightly alternative to the "Un-Free Press" which would "write about real politics: the things done to this country by oil magnates, bankers, sterling and property speculators, insurance companies, strike breakers and press lords." Since no mainstream distributor would stock the paper, sales of up 25,000 for its most popular issues came via street sellers, small newsagents and personal subscriptions.

The paper’s name was selected in homage to a satirical newspaper published by radical reformer Thomas Wooler between 1817 and 1824 and rediscovered by Logue. The original Black Dwarf lobbied for parliamentary reform, for which Wooler was charged with seditious libel. In adopting his title, the new Black Dwarf was emphasising its continuity with an older tradition of British radicalism — it began numbering issues from where Wooler left off — just as it blended in Marxism, Trotskyism, anti-imperialism, third worldism, and student activism, all currents then flourishing within the New Left.

Invocation of older traditions was a habit shared with its own more proximate predecessors in the earlier British New Left that had arisen from the conjuncture of 1956. Then, Communists who had resigned from their party following the Khrushchev revelations and the suppression of the Hungarian uprising founded the New Reasoner. At the same time a younger generation produced the magazine Universities and Left Reviewcommitted to "socialism at full stretch" to fill the void between "the high citadel of Stalinist Russia and the 'welfare-state no further' jungle of the mixed economy." The "New Left" emerged from the confluence of these groups with a wider upsurge of radicalism in drama, art, literature, and anti-nuclear protest. It theorised an "expanded conception of the political" and practised an experimental cultural politics. Nationally, this meant involvement in CND and a strategy of "parallelism" in relation to the Labour party. There was also sponsorship of local clubs, whose members believed in community organising around issues such as housing, education, and in the case of the London ULR club, anti-racism.

The two magazines joined forces to create New Left Review, under the editorship of Stuart Hall, with Raymond Williams as a key influence. It was intended to act as a pivot for a new-style grassroots socialism, as well as to generate the ideas such a movement would need. Political reversals, over-ambition and organisational crisis ended this model, as it teetered on the financial brink. Perry Anderson took over in 1962 and reoriented NLR into an austerely theoretical journal, modelled on Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, with the project of internationalising the left intellectually and introducing European thought and theory to what was seen as a parochial country. Initially celebrating the advent of the Wilson government in 1964 it soon became radically disenchanted. Tom Nairn brought Gramsci into its pages and the "Nairn-Anderson Theses" argued that "The Origins of the Present Crisis" for the United Kingdom (to use the title of Anderson’s article) lay in its historic failure to become a modern, bourgeois society.

Thus while the inspiring, revolutionary challenge of 1968 came from outside — from Vietnam, Germany, France and the USA — a culture had already been growing around the New Left Review that effected a "sharp left turn" in perspectives. This led to a reversal of its previous rejection of Leninist politics as inappropriate for the West and spurred a far more uncompromising critique of the earlier New Left’s (and its own) "left-reformism." As well as Anderson, it included Robin Blackburn (who was to be expelled from the LSE in 1968) and Fred Halliday and fed into new energies and initiatives of which the Black Dwarf became the most famous.   

"The old Black Dwarf," an editorial declared, "was a political action, not just a means of communication, not just a way of striking attitudes." This conception of itself as an activist intervention set Black Dwarf apart from the theoretical orientation of the New Left Review, as did its adoption of the brash and confrontational style characteristic of the alternative and countercultural press. Nevertheless, the relationship was a close one, with the two publications sharing personnel and a Soho headquarters that became, as main editor Tariq Ali said, "a regular port of call for visiting revolutionaries from all over the world." After a group of anarchists daubed instructions for making a Molotov cocktail on the office wall, Scotland Yard also came to call.

Black Dwarf’s arrival on the scene, amid the excitement engendered by the May events in Paris, was timely, though delayed a little by an eleventh hour decision to incinerate the entire print-run of the first full issue because its lacklustre presentation failed to capture the spirit of the French events. Only collectors’ copies of the 22 May issue survive. Certainly, the now famous splash "We Shall Fight, We Will Win, Paris, London, Rome, Berlin" better evoked the optimism of the moment. Proclaiming "On the barricades, a new movement is born," it carried an hour by hour account of the night of May 10. The next issue, declaring students to be the new revolutionary vanguard, turned its attention to Britain’s, considerably smaller, student revolt. An autumn 1968 issue was devoted fully to the publication of Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries.

While clearly guided by a revolutionary Marxist perspective, Black Dwarf was driven by the spirit of the times. The May events in France, and their parallels in the USA, Italy, Germany, and Japan, taught the potential for students to destabilise the advanced capitalist countries, just as Cuba and Vietnam were demonstrating the possibility of peasants to fight (and win) in colonised ones. Black Dwarf declared the French May "the greatest revolutionary upheaval in Western Europe since the days of the Paris Commune."

Casual references to the May events as "the revolution" look overly confident in hindsight, and the paper’s militant vanguardism would alienate some who identified with the more pluralist spirit of the original New Left. 1968 remains an interpretive battleground, including amongst its left protagonists. Black Dwarf, though, provides a brilliant first-hand account that captures the intensity and aspiration of the moment:

The Sorbonne is packed with people, red flags, slogans. In every classroom and often spilling onto the landings and corridors Action Committees sit debating their next moves. These committees cover every aspect of revolutionary activity — from guerilla [sic] groups for contacting the workers to the organisation of food and medical supplies. Some, I was assured, are beginning to go underground in preparation for the long struggle ahead. In almost every faculty building in Paris it is the same scene.

In the middle of the Sorbonne is the vast amphitheatre. It must hold about five thousand people. All day and night the debate on the future of the revolution goes on. The speeches were calls for greater unity amongst the factions, demands for the students to declare their objectives, assurances from militant workers that whatever the Union leadership might say they were behind the students.

In line with its commitment to activism, Black Dwarf exhorted British students to follow the French example. "Students must make the revolution," an editorial demanded. But they could not do it alone. In France students had "proclaimed that democratic self-management was possible" against the backdrop of an apparently quiescent working class. In doing so, however, as Black Dwarf was keen to emphasise, they detonated a workers’ revolt. It was in this vein that Ray Challinor challenged André Gorz’s claim that the working class would no longer act as a revolutionary agent — "only a month afterwards France was gripped by a general strike and barricades in Paris stood in the same places as in earlier revolutions."

Just as Black Dwarf unapologetically promoted the novel politics of the 1960s, it integrated them into a recognisably Leninist conception of socialism and how it might be achieved through insurrectionary defiance. Yet Black Dwarf contrasted the solidarity of the French workers and students with the dismaying spectacle of "racialist demonstrations of dockers and meat porters in support of Enoch Powell." Amid the optimism of the moment was some recognition — characteristic of the broader and earlier New Left — that there was no latent majority that could simply be mobilised for socialism. Back-page posters of Powell as an SS officer were slapped on the doors of Conservative party offices in Middlesbrough. Posters, of course, were the media that would define the 68 aesthetic, and Black Dwarf produced some distinct and memorable examples.

The Dwarf also ran an open "Dear John" letter to John Lennon, telling him that his singing was not revolutionary enough. It was by John Hoyland, one of its editorial collective, and it captures some of the essence of the early Black Dwarf. Hoyland wrote it in the aftermath of Lennon being busted for drugs.

Now do you see what was wrong with your record “Revolution”? That record was ‘no more revolutionary than Mrs Dale’s Diary, In order to change the world we’ve got to understand what’s wrong with the world. And then — destroy it. Ruthlessly. This is not cruelty or madness. It is one of the most passionate forms of love. Because what we’re fighting is suffering, oppression, humiliation — the immense toll of unhappiness caused by capitalism. And any “love” which does not pit itself against these things is sloppy and irrelevant.

Lennon was outraged, and wrote back telling "Dear John" that he was on a "destruction kick" and that he, Lennon, knew full well what he was up against, concluding, "Look man, I was / am not against you. Instead of splitting hairs about the Beatles and the Stones — think a little bigger — look at the world we are living in, John, and ask yourself: why? And then – come and join us."

Perhaps the crucial turning point was the huge October Vietnam demonstration. In March 1968, while France was still passive, the famous VSC demonstration headed for Grosvenor Square and the American Embassy. This was the demonstration that Mick Jagger was on and which he celebrated in "Street Fighting Man." The police horses charged the demonstrators in the confined space of the square and put London, momentarily, in the vanguard of the year’s militant images. Black Dwarf was its mouthpiece. It became the loudspeaker for the much larger October demonstration a few months later, urging everyone to join. The media amplified the sensationalism of the coming confrontation. "The revolution" was coming to town and streets were boarded up. But it was deemed impossible to funnel huge numbers into the confines of Mayfair and the march headed into Hyde Park. Instigated by a Maoist breakaway, a small number were incited to march on Grosvenor Square where they were easily controlled by waiting police. As Anthony Barnett recalled it, "The whole thing became a huge damp squib, and the hopes of the Dwarf were deflated. It was unable to respond, delayed publication, and never addressed the defeat."

1969 inaugurated "The Year of the Militant Woman?," a focus brought about by the involvement of Sheila Rowbotham, now invited to join the paper’s editorial collective, though she had been involved in the project from the start. Commissioning articles on contraception, equal pay, and childbirth, her own piece "Women: the struggle for freedom" put into words "a smouldering, bewildered consciousness with no shape — a muttered dissatisfaction — which suddenly shoots to the surface and EXPLODES."

The justice of her indictment of prevalent male socialist attitudes "Wait until the revolution — we’ll dole you out your equality then," and the difficulty of getting serious coverage for feminist politics on the radical left, was demonstrated in problems over the design for the issue. The assertion that "only women can define themselves" was undermined by the cartoonish femininity of the cover image, and though Rowbotham succeeded in getting changes that ensured her manifesto was not overlaid onto an image of a pair of breasts, a snide small ad slipped through: "DWARF DESIGNER SEEKS GIRL: Head girl type to make tea, organise paper, me. Free food, smoke space. Suit American Negress." The designer was sacked. Women’s Liberation groups began to meet soon after.

Black Dwarf continued for 40 more-or-less fortnightly issues, lack of money, police raids of its offices, and other political commitments of its editorial board causing intermittent interruptions. But its ideal of a "non-sectarian revolutionary paper," an alliance of socialists with a shared outlook but no "line," proved impossible to sustain after the collapse of the October mobilisation. Anthony Barnett was drafted in from New Left Review as an unofficial co-editor with Ali, who was also a leader of the Trotskyist Fourth International’s International Marxist Group (IMG). Clive Goodwin was unwilling to hand over the title or allow it to become Trotskyist, and Ali, along with some fellow editors of the Dwarf including one who had helped fund the paper, left to form the Red Mole as the public voice of the IMG. Barnett continued to help Goodwin produce Black Dwarf from Goodwin’s West London apartment, with a more explicit orientation towards non-sectarian coverage and a series of articles on women’s liberation. It ran "Football, Football" on one cover, with an article inside detailing the "penetration of capitalist values" into a working class game — an early signal of the direction things were going — and in September 1970 its final issue appeared carrying the political testament of Bertrand Russell.

Its editors, however, would revive the attempt to create a non-sectarian popular weekly a year or so later with 7 Days, a "socialist photo-news weekly," overseen by Alexander Cockburn. It lasted six months and its exhilarating contents are also included in the Amiel-Melburn Trust’s online archive, where they are introduced by Rosalind Delmar.

1968 looms and recedes with each commemoration and the heap of retrospective analysis grows ever larger. Radical archiving projects allow voices of the time to cut through and speak to us directly. As Black Dwarf reported Sartre, addressing the French students:

Something has emerged from you which surprises, which astonishes and which denies every­thing which has made our society what it is today. That is what I would call the extension of the field of possibility. Do not give up.  

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Filed under: 1968