Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Importance of the History of the Left in the Present Day

By Jon Piccini, Evan Smith and Matthew Worley*

One of the outcomes of the populist shift to the right in many areas of the West has been a corresponding shift to the left. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, many traditional social democratic and labour parties have suffered from what has been described as ‘Pasokification’: a dramatic reduction in their vote and membership, which has partially drifted to the populist right as well as to the more radical left.

While far right parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, the Lega Nord in Italy and UKIP in the UK have garnered a significant slice of this vote, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain (as well as Melenchon in France) have offered popular alternatives to the main social democratic parties. In Britain and the US, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have attempted to shift the Labour Party and the Democrats to the left from within, while of course Donald Trump has commandeered the Republican Party in a right populist direction.

A range of progressive social and protest movements have also emerged in the extra-parliamentary sphere. These have been mobilised for certain campaigns, such as legalising abortion in the Republic of Ireland or legalising same sex marriage in Australia, but also to protest against the status quo, such as the anti-Trump protests in the US and the UK. These intertwine with more long running social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and anti-fascist mobilisations in the US, the UK and Australia.

At this moment, many more people seem to be willing to explicitly identify as part of the left, overcoming the stigma of the post-Cold War era. Polls in the US have found that millennials are more willing to identify as ‘socialist’ and on British morning television, Ash Sarkar recently told Piers Morgan that she was literally a communist. Many have emphasised that they embrace a left-wing political agenda and are keen to differentiate this from centrist (or liberal) politics, associated with the adoption of neoliberalism over the last thirty years.

A Corbyn or Sanders (much less a Syriza or Podemos) has not yet emerged in Australia, although both the ALP and the Greens have attempted, at times, to appeal to left-leaning voters. State branches of the Australian Greens have run on left populist platforms, Bill Shorten has been labelled a class warrior and campaign group Get Up has mobilised people via social media to highlight progressive issues.

This renewed enthusiasm for left-wing politics has also generated a groundswell of interest in the history of the left, with past struggles looked to as inspiration for and lessons on how to push forward in the present. Historians are revisiting the collective actions and movements of the twentieth century to outline how these actions have shaped the contemporary world.

Our work on the history of the British and the Australian far left has sought to reveal the impact of the radical left upon the political and social landscape in both countries. In both Britain and Australia, the Communist Party offered an alternative to Labo(u)r and established significant influence in the trade union movement, which challenged the centrist tendencies of the parliamentary Labo(u)r Party. In the first decades of the Cold War, the Communist parties were among the main voices for anti-colonialism, nuclear disarmament, peace, anti-racism and Indigenous rights.

In the 1960s, the new left (first emerging out of crises of Western Communist parties in the late 1950s), Trotskyists and Maoists appeared on the left and contributed greatly to the militancy and radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The movement against the Vietnam War, the Women’s Liberation Movement and the gay rights movement (to name a few) were considerably influenced by the far left in Britain and Australia, inspired by and interacting with similar movements across the globe.

The crises of the mid-to-late 1970s and the neoliberal revolution that began in the 1980s threw up new challenges for the British and Australian lefts in the forms of the Thatcher government in the UK and the Fraser/Hawke governments in Australia. These exacerbated long-term schisms in the left in both countries, further impacted by the left’s deliberations over how to engage with what many now describe as ‘identity politics’ and international factors, such as the turmoil in Eastern Europe.

By 1991, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of Australia both dissolved themselves, usurped by break away parties more sympathetic to the Soviet Union on one side and by Trotskyist groups on the other. The end of the Cold War required a realignment of left-wing forces around the world, which left its mark on the left in Britain and Australia over the last twenty-five years.

Our research is part of a growing field of historical scholarship on the political and cultural impact of the left in the Cold War era across the global West. As activists grow older, a wealth of primary source material is being made available in various archives, but also by the rapid amount of digitisation going on. This increasing array of archival and digitised material is bolstered by the oral histories being recorded by researchers. We are also assisted by the opening up of security service records in many countries, including ASIO records at the National Archives of Australia (which are generally more readily available than similar files held by MI5 in London).

Our hope is that the volumes that we have published help generate further interest in the history of the left in Australia, Britain and elsewhere, with an eye on the present.


The Far Left in Australia since 1945, edited by Jon Piccini, Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, was published in July as part of Routledge’s Radical History and Politics Series.

Against the Grain and Waiting for the Revolution, both edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, were published by Manchester University Press in 2014 and 2017 respectively.

*Evan Smith is a Research Fellow in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University, South Australia. He has written widely on the British and Australian left, anti-racism, immigration control and youth culture. His monograph, British Communism and the Politics of Race, was published by Brill as part of its Historical Materialism series in 2017.

*Jon Piccini is a Postdoctoral Development Fellow at the University of Queensland, where he is working on a history of human rights in Australia, to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. His first book, Transnational Protest, Australia and the 1960s, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. He will take up an appointment as Lecturer in History at Australian Catholic University in 2019.

*Matthew Worley is Professor of Modern History at the University of Reading. He has written widely on British labour and political history, including books on the Communist Party of Great Britain, Labour Party and Sir Oswald Mosley’s New Party. His more recent work has concentrated on the relationship between youth culture and politics in Britain, primarily in the 1970s and 1980s. A monograph, No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976–84, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.

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