Mayday] Things are radically different: These days, says Alex Renton, only their optimism unites groups of the Marxist Left

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THE LAST left-wing bookshop in central London is a back room in a grubby shop in a street behind King's Cross station.

But there's no lack of reading: the newspaper rack offers an enticing selection - Red Action, The New Worker, Daily Worker, International Worker, Industrial Worker, Worker's Press, Workers' Power, Worker's Vanguard, Workers' Hammer, Socialist Worker, Socialist Organiser, Socialist Appeal, Socialist Standard, Socialist Review, Marxist Review, Living Marxism, The Marxist, Trotskyist Bulletin, Trotskyist International. And so on, more than 40 titles published daily to quarterly.

There are myriad different causes, different views, different feuds: 'The principal cause of splitting on the far left in recent years,' says John Callaghan, professor of politics at Wolverhampton University, 'has been the rise of desk-top publishing.' In the old days the revolutionary without a printing press was lost. Now everyone can have one.

There may well be more Marxist groups in Britain now than there were before the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe. 'We rejoiced when Communism collapsed because we could start to put up real socialist ideals again,' one Socialist Workers Party member said. 'For years we'd sell Socialist Worker on the streets and people would say: 'Go back to Russia]' They don't say that any more.'

But are these groups anything more than a tatty newspaper and an arcane argument with the ideological next-door neighbour? The old Communist Party of Great Britain is now several opposed factions: officially, it became the Democratic Left two years ago. The latter has a membership of only 1,000; in the words of its secretary, Nina Temple, it has 'a radical agenda centred on valuing people, equality and green issues'. Asked if it intended to field any electoral candidates this year, Ms Temple said: 'I hope not.'

The CPGB still exists in name - though the Democratic Left disputes the rights to it - and on ballot papers. It fielded four candidates in last year's general election. Its national organiser, Anne Murphy, is standing at Newbury. The CPGB publishes the Daily Worker, though all the worker gets some days is one A4 sheet.

The largest far-left group is the Socialist Workers Party. According to the listings section of Socialist Worker, 152 meetings were held across the country last week. These are weekly get-togethers of local branches, all with a headline discussion issue. 'Why do workers read the Sun?' (Clapham and Stockwell); 'Are all men sexist?' (Newport, South Wales).

At one of Sheffield's six SWP branches, 20 people, mainly in their twenties and thirties, met above a pub for a lecture on the 'end' of the recession. Then they discussed arrangements for the SWP May Day rally, which starts tonight at Alexandra Palace. Leaflets are distributed - one saying 'Good riddance' to the TUC's Norman Willis, who retired last week. Fast reaction like that, and brilliant organisation, are the hallmarks of the SWP.

If there is a demo on the television news, the chances are that the poster you read is an SWP one. The weekly paper, too, is smart.

Membership is probably around 7,000, but as Andy Hawke (aged 27, a bank worker) said, that is probably more active workers than Labour has.

But what do they want? Mr Hawke says 'We're not saying: 'Elect us and we'll run the country better than Labour.' We say: 'Follow us and working-class people will run the country.' ' A general strike remains their first goal. The revolution is still on.

The left also thinks it is the coming force in Scottish politics. 'We're no Labour any more. Youse are more fun]' announced one child to Scottish Militant Labour canvassers outside a polling station at a council by-election in east Dundee on Thursday.

Actually, it seemed merely that SML had more stickers to pass around. But the fun factor is not insignificant in SML's rise since one faction decided to start campaigning against the Scottish Labour Party in elections last year.

SML has Scottish politics' only folk hero. The ebullient anti-poll tax campaigner Tommy Sheridan stood from a prison cell - serving a sentence for non-payment of the tax - in Glasgow Pollok at the general election, and came a good second to Labour. Now he and four others are Glasgow councillors.

In Scotland, Labour is the establishment party, and as Dundee East's Labour MP, John McAllion, puts it: 'It's inevitable that Militant get a pick-up. They're a new party, and younger voters go for them.'

The SNP won the by-election by two votes over Labour; SML's Harvey Duke came a good third with around 20 per cent.

Still, where are tomorrow's revolutionaries? John Callaghan thinks that events have left the socialist parties becalmed.

'The only really interesting area is in anarchism - the rise of Class War and the animal liberation groups, and the New Age hippies. There are real numbers there.'

(Photograph omitted)