7. Expulsion from the 'Club' and founding a new group
It is obvious that the most important event of 1950 was the outbreak of the Korean war. This clearly held the possibility of a general war breaking out, first in the Far East but also in Europe. In other words we stood on the precipice of the third world war. The fact that it did not happen was only because the faction in the US ruling elite who were in favour of a war against Russia did not at that point command sufficient support to carry this out. It is also clear, now, that neither the Russians or Chinese had been prepared for the war in Korea, both were hoodwinked by Kim Il Sung into giving support for his invasion of South Korea. The most important single factor pushing towards a generalised war in the Far East was the US military commander Douglas MacArthur, he wanted to push his troops right through North Korea and over the boarder into China, at the same time he was urging the use of atomic weapons against China. It was only when MacArthur was removed from his post by President Truman that it became clear that the war would remain localised to the Korean peninsular, as far as the US was concerned. At the same time, although Russia and China were supplying equipment to the North Koreans, and the Chinese put in ground troops (supposedly volunteers) neither wanted the conflict to escalate further. Both Russia and China were at that time struggling to overcome the ravages of the second world war, and were not in any fit state to pursue all out war again.
However, by then the McCarthy witch-hunt was already in full swing in the US and was spilling over into this country. This meant that in the US there was a very strong war party and an all-out war at that time was very possible. The war danger was not unreal.
When the Korean war broke in June 1950 the Socialist Outlook put out a special supplement dated July 1950. It was this document more than any other single publication that created the crisis within the Healy Club. It was a document indistinguishable from those that the Stalinists were publishing. There was no attempt to criticise the North Korean regime, but turned the whole of the blame for the war upon the South. It is true that the regime in the South, under the protection of the US, was brutal and corrupt, and needed to be replaced. But by the North? Certainly not. However, the Healyite line had been one of uncritical support for the North. What they were doing was to ask British workers to line up with one dictatorship and against another. This whole line militated against any attempt at presenting an independent working class or Trotskyist position in this conflict. This uncritical support for North Korea was at the same time run in tandem with uncritical support for Tito's regime in Yugoslavia in its dispute with Stalinist Russia, which had erupted in 1948.
The line of the FI up to 1948 had been that the Yugoslav regime, like all the other Eastern European countries under Soviet tutelage, were capitalist regimes. In 1948 there had been a 180 degrees turn, in which Yugoslavia became a workers state! It seems that the FI had not noticed revolutions taking place in Eastern Europe until some years after the event!! I will not bore the reader with a long recounting of all the twists and turns of those years as Trotskyists attempted to come to terms with the post-1945 reality, but I do suggest that they read Bornstein & Richardson's account in their book which I have already mentioned. However, I will say that both the FI and in this country the Healy group seemed to have moved from condemnation of the Eastern Bloc regimes to one of uncritical support for Tito's dictatorship almost overnight. It was little wonder that many comrades in the movement became slightly disoriented. We had been brought into the movement on the basis of unremitting opposition to Stalinism because of its counter-revolutionary character and role, and now we were being told that Stalinists could actually carry through proletarian revolutions. It is ironic that Healy, along with Cannon, was to split the world Trotskyist movement in 1953 on the basis that Pablo was capitulating to Stalinism! We had already seen this capitulation take place from 1948 onwards, culminating in some bizarre antics on the part of Healy. The Wandsworth LLOY which was under the control of Healy's supporters organised a work brigade to go to Yugoslavia to help build a railway in Bosnia. This was aping everything the Trotskyists had condemned when the Stalinists did the same type of thing in such countries as Bulgaria. At times it seemed as though Socialist Outlook was a propaganda sheet for Tito. It was even rumoured that Healy was receiving money from the Yugoslavs at this time, since Healy was desperate for cash and the Yugoslavs for any support in the West. What made this cosy relationship so hypocritical was that whilst Healy was supporting North Korea, Yugoslavia was giving support to the US action in the United Nations.
It was against this background that we in Birmingham planned our tactics for exiting the Healy group. It was decided that Percy Downey should put a resolution down for discussion at the Birmingham Trades Council which would put a ‘third camp' position on Korea. This would place before workers an independent position on this conflict. This he did and it was duly discussed and rejected, the Healyites, Stalinists and right wing Labour all forming a bloc against the resolution. Harry Finch was livid at Percy's action and called a summoned branch meeting to take place within seven days. A summoned branch meeting was of the order that one could only fail to attend because of illness, otherwise it was a disciplinary offence. All other activities, personal or political had to give way to this meeting. When we arrived at the meeting, in a pub near the Bull Ring, we found that Gerry Healy was present. The only item of the agenda was a resolution for the expulsion of Percy Downey for the breach of group discipline by laying the resolution at the Trades Council. When any of us attempted to raise the political issues involved Healy flew into a rage and insisted that the only issue before the meeting was ‘did or did not Downey move the resolution at the Trades Council?' Percy was not asked to speak in his own defence, he was merely asked if he had moved the resolution. He attempted to elaborate his reasons, but Healy flew into his rage again. The resolution was put, but to Healy's chagrin the branch was split down middle there was no majority for the expulsion. Healy closed the meeting, saying that the branch was suspended until further notice. When we got outside I recall Healy standing in front of Percy and jabbing his finger under his nose and saying in repressed fury ‘We'll get a unified branch in Birmingham one way or the other Mr. Downey!' with the emphasis on the Mr. Obviously Percy no longer qualified as a comrade.
About two weeks later there was another summoned meeting called. This time it was held in Sam Goldberg's flat, the significance of this was that Sam's wife would be present, I cannot recall her ever attending any other branch meetings apart from these two summoned ones. Sam's wife was French and her command of English at that point was very unsure, so she had obviously been reluctant to participate in meetings which would have been meaningless to her.
When we arrived that the meeting we found that John Williams was present. This was a surprise in itself, since John was resident in Coventry. John had been a supporter of the majority in the RCP but had lapsed his membership about two years previously. Healy had reinstated John into full membership with voting rights, instead of probationary membership. Again we went through the farce of attempting to raise the political issues around the Korean war, and again being fiercely rebuffed by Healy, but this time he was able to control his temper better.
After a short wrangle over this matter the resolution for Percy's expulsion was again put. However, before the vote was taken Healy told us that if anyone voted against the resolution they would be suspended from membership. The vote was taken and this time, of course, there was a majority of one for the resolution. I remember that Sam Goldberg's wife appeared nervous and slightly flustered and had to be prompted by Sam to put her hand up for a yes vote. I have often wondered if she really understood what was happening that night. I cannot recall seeing her again in political role. Immediately the vote was taken Healy ordered Percy to leave, which he did.
Healy then went round the room pointing his finger at each of us who had voted against Percy's expulsion and asked us to retract our vote. As each of us refused we were told that we were suspended from membership for one month. If after that date we wished to change our minds we would be readmitted to membership, otherwise we would be expelled. Of course none us did retract our vote, and one by one we were told to leave. So nearly half of the Birmingham branch was expelled for voting against the expulsion of another comrade.
Percy had been waiting for us, and when we had all emerged we found a local pub and had a drink to celebrate, I think it was a round of shandies, we were not much given to strong drink!. It was like an enormous weight being lifted from us to know that we were now free of the stifling, repressive atmosphere that we had endured over the recent months. At last we could meet freely and openly without worrying that the ‘branch secretary' might see us. I presume deep in some archive is a solemn record of the expulsion of all of us. I wonder what would have happened had we recanted? Healy would have been rather put out I think, he seemed to take a pleasure in purging the old majority and would have felt foiled. No doubt he would have got us next time around, but we didn't bother finding out.
All this was rather heady stuff, the planning of the resolution and our tactics when Percy was hauled up for judgement. However, we now had to face a rather uncertain political future. We had no group, no paper, only our own small group in Birmingham from which to start from. We had planned the manner of our exit from the Healy group against the wishes of Cliff, he had wanted us to resign from the group without going through the process of forcing our expulsion. We had insisted that we did not resign, on the contrary we wanted to leave fighting which we did. Cliff, of course, was anxious to get his own national group up and running as soon as possible, and we could understand that but having been let down by the Haston/Grant leadership we were in no mood to take orders from anyone, and we insisted on doing things our own way.
The conference that founded the state-capitalist group was held in London, at Jean Tait's flat. I think it was in October of 1950, but I cannot be certain of the exact date. There were representatives from London, Thames Valley, Manchester, Crewe, Sheffield and Birmingham present. However, not all the people had come with a definite mandate to join Cliff's organisation, if I recall correctly the Sheffield comrades did not adhere to the group after the conference. However, there was probably about 50 or 60 people represented at that initial meeting. This was probably reduced to between 40 or 50 members of the Cliff group when it was formally established. It should be mentioned that many comrades had left or been expelled from the Club who were not represented at this conference. Some people clung to Ted Grant, particularly a group in Liverpool. Others had left in disgust and dropped out of politics, or had merely continued activity in their trade unions and other organisations without participating in any of the groups. But it is almost certain that the Club lost over half its membership during 1950.
Bill Ainsworth, Percy Downey and myself attended this conference for the Birmingham group. As I say I am not absolutely sure of the date but it was certainly very cold so it must have been either October or early November. I remember the cold because we travelled to London in Percy's car. This was a 1932 Lanchester, and it had no heating, Percy insisted on having one window right down and I was in the back seat catching the full blast of cold air! And we all slept on the floor of Jean Tait's living room, which was the conference room as well.
I am not sure if there were any minutes taken of that conference, I certainly cannot recall seeing them. Nor can I remember any formal resolutions being passed, but I am sure that some were. Almost certainly we adopted Cliff's documents on State Capitalism in Russia and the ‘People's Democracies' as being group documents. Above all we were all determined to build a genuine Trotskyist group, as opposed to the fake one we now considered Healy's to be
It turned out that when the human resources available were considered, it was found that the Birmingham group had the largest number of experienced comrades in one place, so it was decided that the Birmingham branch (as we became) would also act as the national secretariat, i.e. the centre. We (from Birmingham) were not very happy about this. Before these events we had all been rank and file members, none of us had participated in any of the written discussions in the past (apart from the short document we had prepared for the July conference) let alone put ourselves forward for any leading committees. None of us had aspired to be ‘leaders' but we now found ourselves being pushed by circumstances into taking responsibility for organising a national political group. We were certainly rather subdued on our return trip to Birmingham, I was still only twenty years old and certainly did not feel confident enough to give political directions to other people.
Our problems were compounded by Cliff's position. He had not been able to obtain a residence permit for Britain, but was registered as a student in Ireland. This meant that he could only travel over to England on a visitor's permit for a few weeks at a time. Because of this he had to be cautious about appearing in public. However, despite all these problems he had been travelling up and down the country during 1950 meeting as many people as possible, trying to persuade them of the need to split from Healy and form another group. It was a remarkable achievement given his semi-legal status that so many people had turned up to the founding conference. By contrast we had heard nothing of Ted Grant since the Healy conference in July, he seemed to have withdrawn into his shell.
At that point Cliff was the most able writer and speaker in the group, he was the fountainhead of its theory. Under ‘normal' circumstances any political centre for the group should have had him in residence, but this was not to be. We had to communicate with him via his wife Honey, who fortunately did have a residence permit to live in England.
All of these circumstances were to provide problems galore for us in those early days, some of which proved to be near fatal for the organisation.
On our return to Birmingham we rented a room at the PPU headquarters again, (that same cold room we had had before in our RCP incarnation!) and set about gathering together the materials necessary for us to operate as a political group. We had amongst us one very old Imperial typewriter, and no funds. In fact we had to have a loan of £30 from Percy and Marjorie to enable us to buy a second hand duplicator. With these two essential items of equipment we set up shop as the Socialist Review Group. The name came from our journal Socialist Review, the first issue of which we produced in November 1950. It was a duplicated journal, supposedly monthly but I think the best we ever did was bi-monthly.
Fortunately Rhoda had agreed to join the new group, and we also we able to convince Gerry Curran to join us, he had dropped out of activity some time before. So in essence we started the SR Group in Birmingham with the old Majority members of the RCP minus Bert Atkins.
We now found ourselves saddled with an enormous task for such a small group. We had to write, or get written articles for the journal, produce it and then go out and sell it. It was a real combination of theory and practice! There was no sitting back once the journal had been produced and letting the ‘rank and file' sell it, we were the rank and file and well as the ‘leaders'.
Bill Ainsworth acted as editor of the paper, he was very meticulous, almost pedantic, but his thoroughness showed in the finished product. Bill insisted that even though we could only produce a duplicated journal it should be done as well as possible. Looking at copies of the early issues today most people might not notice that both sides of the type are even, i.e. they are justified. This meant that every page had to be typed twice. Bill would go through the first draft and work out how many spaces had to put in to make the right hand side of the type justified! Rhoda did all this typing....
I agreed to take on the work of secretary, dealing with all correspondence and drafting replies to be put before the rest of the secretariat before sending them out.
Thus we had to combine our work as the national centre of the group with our local work. We usually met every two weeks, more often if necessary. All of us still maintained our trade union activities, work in the LP, which often included, Ward meetings, CLP meeting and Birmingham Borough Labour Party meetings. On top of this we continued as members of the Socialist Fellowship, being something of thorn in the side of the Healyites but they could find no legitimate reason for excluding us. (The Socialist Fellowship had been launched by Ellis Smith and Left Labour MP in 1949, as a sort of ‘ginger group', but this had rapidly been taken over by the Healy group and used as a method of organising on a national basis within the Labour Party.) We had to organise National Committee meetings, meet contacts in various places up and down the country as well as live our own lives, not always easy to do.
The meeting that could perhaps be considered the true founding conference of the Socialist Review Group was the first National Committee meeting held on the 9th and 10th December 1950, because it was there that a number of fundamental resolutions were adopted. The first one was a resolution submitted by the Secretariat, this said:
‘1) That the conception of Russia as a degenerated workers' state:
a) inevitably leads it proponents, despite criticism, to political support for Stalinism on all fundamental questions. (war etc.)
b) tends to lead to the adoption of Stalinist methods organisationally, as the H Club demonstrates.
c) is responsible for the disorientation and demoralisation of the F.I.
d) has been a major objective factor which made it imperative to build the Marxist Party anew in Britain. Our grouping, based on the conception of Russia as a State-Capitalist country, is the nucleus of that new Marxist Party, and can be built firmly ONLY on the acceptance of party discipline in the tradition of Bolshevism under Lenin's leadership.
2) Acceptance of the political attitudes flowing from the State-capitalist position on the Russian question, as and when these are defined, by the Party, shall be a condition of membership, but no-one shall be excluded from membership because of a different sociological estimate of the Russian society provide that Revolutionary defeatist conclusions are drawn from such an estimate. In discussion with close contacts, members must put [the] majority point of view. The party can decide to open up a particular discussion in public. The group must be satisfied that fresh applicants for membership are prepared to work loyally with the group, and accept its discipline before they are admitted to membership.'
This was the amended version of the resolution and was carried unanimously, although there had been various votes taken during the discussion.
It is amusing to note what was recorded in the ‘Any Other Business' item for this meeting: ‘It was agreed that Birmingham has done alright so far, as Secretariat'. What this meant was that all the comrades were acutely aware of how the Healy leadership had operated, and would be keeping a watchful eye on the Secretariat, and would comment on its progress - or otherwise - as necessary. In other words, merely because one group of comrades had been given the task of running the organisation did not make them immune from scrutiny and criticisms. I think this indicated how sensitive people had become on such matters after the experiences with Haston and Healy.
At some point we attempted to enter into negotiations with Ted Grant's group regarding collaboration around their youth journal Rally, which was produced by the Walton LLOY. Rhoda and I were detailed to go to London to meet them and negotiate with them. The meeting place turned out to be a very large caravan on a piece of waste ground in Dalston, where Ted Grant was living at the time. It was crammed full of books and papers, from floor to ceiling, so much so that we had difficulty in all cramming in, even though there was only half a dozen of us all told. Given the relationship of forces, i.e. the SR Group had many more members in LLOY, we were asking for a 50/50 split on the editorial board with joint responsibility for finance. Not only were the Grant group not prepared to give us this representation but the most they were prepared to offer was one or two people from our group on the EB. Despite our best efforts they were not prepared to budge. It was not negotiations, it was take it or leave it. After about 45 minutes we decided to leave it. It was clear that they wanted to use us to sell the journal but were not prepared to relinquish one iota of control. This was their idea of collaboration, which rather became the hall mark of Militant (which they eventually became) for ever after.
There was a special meeting of the NC called to hear our report of the ‘negotiations' with the Grant group. On the basis of this report the NC meeting decided to go ahead and produce an independent youth journal which was called Young Chartist. This work to be done by the youth fraction in the London branch. Although a few issues were produced if did not survive very long.
Shortly after the group was set up, a letter was sent to the IEC of the FI appealing to them to set up an enquiry into the Healy group, plus a call for recognition as a sympathetic grouping of the FI. The only reply we received was that the IEC had every confidence in the leadership of the British Section, and we should apply for readmission!! Obviously there was not question of being given sympathetic status.
Also when we began producing our journal we sent some copies to the SWP in the USA and asked for an exchange of journals. Here too we got a brush off, we were told that we could obtain supplies of Militant and the journal Fourth International from the British Section. But off course Healy refused to sell us copies, not only that, anyone who was on his ‘blacklist' who sent in money for papers lost their money but never saw the journals.
At the first NC meeting of the new group which was held in December 1950 a long resolution was adopted reaffirming the group's adherence to Bolshevik-Leninism (see above). This had been drafted by the secretariat, but the record shows that it was only passed after numerous amendments. This indicates that no one in the new group was prepared to take anything on trust, each line of the document was pored over and if it was thought necessary changed. There was no acrimony involved in this, we of the Birmingham secretariat did not take umbrage at these many changes, we merely accepted it as a part of the democratic process. One thing that should be mentioned is that the new group adopted the ‘entry tactic' without discussion. I cannot recall anyone raising the question as an issue for discussion. By this time we were all members of the Labour Party, and no matter what stand we had taken in the previous discussions it was just tacitly accepted that we would carry on in the Labour Party. When one considers the huge amount of heat and energy expended on the discussion of ‘entry v. open work' over the previous few years it was very odd that it now became a non-issue, but that is what in fact happened. Perhaps there is a lesson there, that it is rare that factional fights are resolved in the course of such fights, only time and experience demonstrate the validity or otherwise of most political positions.
Throughout 1951 we attempted to slowly, painfully develop the group on a national basis. Starting with such a paucity of resources, it was a continually battle to make ends meet. Practically every financial report given by Peter Morgan, who had taken on the job of treasurer, indicated that we were in debt. Group subscriptions were always late in coming in, and always well in arrears. We were a mainly young, working class group and no doubt all the members had considerable financial pressures on them. However, what this lack of finance meant was that we were always struggling to produce the journal, each issue produced was a triumph of will over circumstances.
The resignation of Aneurin Bevan from the Labour Government in April 1950 over the issue of the imposition of charges in the National Health Service began a new period of activity on the left of the Labour Party, which was to culminate in the ‘Bevanite' controversy lasting right through until 1956. This gave us further room for manoeuvre in the LP, and we used it as best we could.
In October 1951 there was a general election, and this time - even though the Labour vote increased - the Tories won a small majority of MPs. During the election we all tried to work as hard as we could for the return of Labour candidates in whichever area we were working. However, during this intense period of activity a crisis blew up in the London branch that had to be dealt with. Tony Cliff laid a resolution for the expulsion of Ellis Hillman. It appeared that there had been friction growing between Cliff and Hillman for some time. It finally blew up in the middle of the election and the Secretariat decided to appoint a commission of enquiry. We appointed Bill Morris from Manchester, Percy and myself from Birmingham. We all felt rather annoyed that we had had to take on this chore in the middle of the election, so we were not well disposed to either party when we arrived in London. We sat and listened to charge and counter-charge, much of what we heard seemed to be trivial but was generating much heat in the London branch. When we tried to weigh up the balance of evidence we all came to the conclusion that it boiled down to who did one believe? Much of what we had heard seemed to us rather subjective. However, given Cliff's position in the group we decided to accept his version of events and recommended the expulsion of Ellis Hillman. This was done reluctantly. I think that our unacknowledged reason was we did not wish to place Cliff in the embarrassing position of having his word rejected. He was, after all, the leader of the organisation, even if not formally, that was his real position. However it did not bode well for the future.
There was one consequence of the return of the Tories which directly affected how the Secretariat operated. I recall that the night the results were announced Bill Ainsworth was very pessimistic, almost fearful of what was about to happen. I do not mean in the long term, but with almost immediate results. Bill seemed to think that the Tories would almost immediately begin dismantling the welfare state created after 1945, and that they would abolish the National Health Service, on top of this he thought there would be almost instant attacks upon trade union rights and wages. What he seemed to envisage was a return to all the appalling conditions of the 20s and 30s, that he had experienced as he grew up.
Bill had always had doubts about the Birmingham branch of the SR group acting as the national secretariat, and the return of the Tories to office in 1951 seemed to feed his self-doubt and anxieties. He began to be more and more reluctant for us to issue any documents as a Secretariat other than the most basic organisational reports. He said that it was the job of the NC to issue any political documents. However, since the NC was only supposed to meet once every three months, but often there were longer intervals, it meant that any political direction of the group was left drifting for long periods of time. For my part I recognised our limitations, but argued that unless we attempted to fill the vacuum the group would drift and eventually founder. Percy and Peter Morgan seemed to sway between these two poles. In the end we had to resort to issuing documents with only our individual names appended. But these did not carry the same weight as anything issued from a united Secretariat.
One of the questions that was discussed during 1952 was the role of Bevan in the LP, how far was he prepared to lead the left and attempt to take over the leadership of the party. Peter Morgan issued a short discussion document in March 1952 entitled ‘In The Near Future', in which he argued that Bevan would make an all-out effort to lead the left and oust Attlee as leader of the LP. I took a contrary view:
‘He [Bevan] can lead a campaign ... on limited issues, while at the same time becoming Tory Enemy No.1 in Parliament. Thus while the right-wing stand a little to one side, Bevan can have the limelight, without actually ousting Attlee. Thus Bevan will once more fulfil his role of pacifying the rank and file, without giving up the claim to the leadership. This I believe he is prepared to wait for.
‘Those comrades who expect Bevan to make a play, at the Conference in October, will, I fear, be disappointed. On the contrary, I do not preclude the possibility of he and the right-wing combining to stem the rising tide from the rank and file. Therefore we may see sharp attacks on the ‘irresponsible' elements who try to take the discussion further than the present narrow mathematical calculations on ‘rearmament'. We have already seen that Bevan came out strongly against industrial action by workers; this set the tenor for his ‘leftism'. (From ‘In Reply To P.D.M' dated 14-5-52)
However, the discussion did not engage many more people in the group, and it was quickly forgotten in daily grind of activity. Bevan himself settled the issue by not attempting to oust Attlee, then or later.
Although our work in Birmingham progressed during 1952, the work of the group internally began to decay. One sign of this was the failure to recruit new members (apart from two who I will deal with in the next chapter), and another was the failure to generate discussions within the group on many of the issues facing us. Although at this time we did have some contact with two South African Trotskyists (who were actually followers of Shachtman), Manfred Landau and Simon Joffe. I don't think they actually joined the SR Group, but we certainly had continuous contact with them for a quite a time. Eventually they both moved on from Birmingham and we lost contact with them.
There was one small bright light for us in 1952, this was the publication of Cliff's book Stalin's Satellites in Europe, this was published by Allen & Unwin. Unfortunately, this was of limited value to us in our general propaganda work since it was produced under Cliff's original name of Ygael Gluckstein, and because of his residence problems we could not officially link Gluckstein with Cliff. Nevertheless, it was extremely useful in providing us with ammunition about the role of Russia in Eastern Europe in the immediate post-1945 years. Indeed the book is still worth reading to gain some understanding of how the Soviet bureaucracy clamped down on Eastern Europe and proceeded to milk it for all it was worth.