8.Attrition and its casualties
One of the major problems which we faced in producing Socialist Review was the continual struggle to obtain articles for it. Cliff, despite being the most competent writer in the group, actually produced very little that was new during the first few years of the paper. Such was our predicament that we were forced to re-cycle articles that he had previously written whilst we had all been in the RCP. It was a continual battle, especially by Bill Ainsworth, to wrench an article from Cliff at this time. I am sure that there were reasons why Cliff was singularly unproductive, however he failed to convince us at the time.
But it was not just Cliff who failed to deliver, we had problems continually in filling the pages of the journal. As I have already said each issue was a triumph of will, and in this respect the production of articles was the main battle ground. For all of us in Birmingham writing was still a painful and laborious process, and consumed much of our already limited time.
All of these matters put considerable strains on us in Birmingham. Into this fraught situation there developed another problem. In Birmingham we had recruited two new members, Edward and Brenda Grant. They were students at Birmingham university, and seemed very eager to help and learn about the movement. The rest of us willingly lent them books and files of newspapers, and documents for them to read. I know at one point they had all my back issues of Socialist Appeal, Workers International News, and RCP internal bulletins, and Bill had loaned them many books. They used to make visits to London to meet the comrades there. At first all seemed to be going well. Gradually however relations between the groups in Birmingham and London deteriorated. The Grants would come back to Birmingham and report alleged criticisms of us made by comrades in London which we considered to be unjustified, and - as we found out later - they were reporting to London remarks that had allegedly been made by us in Birmingham which were disparaging of the London comrades. At first we were annoyed with the London comrades, and they with us, but then we all began to notice discrepancies in what the Grants were saying. Eventually we got together at an NC meeting and compared notes, and came to the conclusion that we were the victims of gossip. We then had to face the question of what to do with the Grants, we were not absolutely sure if they were provocateurs or merely stupid youngsters out to make trouble.
One thing we in Birmingham knew, we had to obtain the return of the material that Edward had been gathering like a squirrel. At first we wrote, but got no reply, then we phoned but were always met with evasive answers from both of them. By this time they knew the ‘game' was up and had stopped attending any meetings. So one dark night, Percy, Bill, Gerry Curran and myself, waited outside their house at a suitable distance in Percy's car. We saw them arrive home and waited until they were inside then went and rang the bell. Edward answered the door and looked very discomforted when he saw who was on his doorstep. At first he didn't want to let us in, saying it was late, they were tired etc. etc. We insisted. Once inside we demanded back all the materials that comrades had loaned them. We did not make any actual threats, but none of us were small people and Gerry and Percy were quite large and broad. Edward was small and thin, and I think he was suitably intimidated. What he did not know was that we had agreed beforehand that we should use no violence to get our material back. But naturally we did not tell him this, we merely let him draw his own conclusions seeing us before him!
Did this constitute violence? I am not sure, we certainly allowed Edward to assume that it might happen, since he was visible shaken by what happened and Brenda broke down and cried. Eventually he agreed to return all the materials, and opened a large metal cupboard, standing about six feet high, and it was full of materials that he had borrowed from us! It took us several trips to take it out to the car and it filled the whole of the back! None us quite realised just how much he had borrowed from us all over the previous few months. (Even then it turned out he had not returned everything. Some years later I came across some files at Nuffield College Oxford, which had been deposited by Dr.Brenda Grant, among them was my own full file of Socialist the small LLOY paper I had been associated in 1946/47. I had often wondered what had happened to them!) Gerry and I had to make our way back home by bus. All the material was taken to Bill's house and we later sorted it and returned it to its rightful owners.
I have no doubt that Edward and Brenda had no intention of returning that material, just why they thought they could get away with such a blatant rip-off I do not know. Perhaps they assumed because we were usually quite friendly and comradely we would not push the matter to the point we did. They obviously were very shaken by our turning up they way we did, and had thus totally miscalculated us. But, all of us being highly political animals, we were prepared to go to the limit to recover our political material. Had they tried to rip us off for money or other types of material possessions they would have got away with it. None us wanted any scandal, and we were just pleased to see the back of them. And in fact we never saw or heard of them again. However, this was one more incident in a period which seemed to be nothing but setbacks. It was reported to the August 9-10th 1952 meeting of the NC that the Grants had been dealt with and this was endorsed unanimously. At the same meeting Percy and Bill moved that the Secretariat be moved to London along with the production of the Socialist Review, but this was not carried at this time.
There was another factor militating against our morale at that time. Although it is not recorded in the minutes there was a continual battle with Cliff. It happened like this. There would be a discussion at a NC meeting, say on the Saturday and after prolonged discussion we would vote and decide. Then on Sunday, in what was supposed to be another discussion, Cliff would raise the previous issue again and go on and on attempting to have decisions reversed which had gone against him. We would find ourselves plunged into another discussion on matters we had apparently decided upon the previous day. This was very time consuming, and exhausting. Both Bill and Percy found this whole business of Cliff's inability to accept democratic decisions very wearing.
Because of the problems we faced there was a continual discussion about the character of the paper, should it be a propaganda journal or an agitational one? The minutes of the NC indicate that this discussion was never far from the agenda. Of course such a discussion indicated that there were real difference about the nature of the group and the political climate we were operating in.
However, all was not gloom. We found, despite all those problems, our own work within the Birmingham Labour Party was paying dividends. We began to organise a loose discussion group of left-wingers from around the city, and about 25 to 30 people were regularly turning up. At this time one of the problems faced by the Birmingham Labour Party was the question of control of the Labour Group on the City Council. The Labour Group were very much a law unto themselves, and seemed to think that they could decide local policy without reference to the local party or parties. This had become a subject of friction and debate within Birmingham. We decide to call for an annual party conference on local issues. We took this idea to our left group and it was enthusiastically adopted. Soon there were resolutions coming into the Borough Labour Party from Wards, CLPs and Trade Union branches, calling for such a conference. Despite the opposition of the Labour Council Group this idea was adopted and a conference was organised.
The net result was that in early 1952 the first Municipal Policy Conference was called in Birmingham. Through our left group we co-ordinated a number of resolutions throughout the city, so that the majority of resolutions which appeared on the agenda had originated from the SR Group. The conference, which was held in Birmingham Town Hall, was opened by the National Agent of the Labour Party. He congratulated the Birmingham Borough Labour Party on its progressive development. It appeared that we were the first party in the whole country to hold such a conference. As a part of the proceedings, those Labour Councillors who where Chairmen of Council Committees were required to present a report on the work of the committee. For the first time in its history the party was able to put the work of their councillors under scrutiny. This was no mean feat for a small group like ours.
One of the results was that several of us were elected to the Executive Committee of the Birmingham Borough Labour Party that year. This meant that along with our own left supporters, plus one or two Healyites there was an even division on the committee between left and right. We seemed to be riding high. And, despite our difference with the Healyites we managed to work together reasonably well on most issues within the party. Where we parted company was, of course, on any international issues which involved Russia. But these did not intrude too often, so that usually the left on the EC could act together.
However, although we seemed to be riding high someone was waiting for us to slip up. This was the full time Secretary of the Birmingham Borough Labour Party, Harold Nash. Nash had a very shrewd idea of what was going on, but had nothing to pin on us. But he watched and waited. And we gave him the opening he needed.
At that time there was a popular TV show called Twenty Questions. We decided to issue a pamphlet for the next Municipal Policy Conference (i.e. 1953) and called it Twenty Questions. It opened with series of 20 questions relating to local issues and then proceeded to answer them. To produce this we involved all the members of our left group, asking many of them to draft sections. It was then pulled together by the two people whose name would appear on the pamphlet, Peter Morgan and David Mumford. David was not a member of the SR group, but was a member of our left group. It was printed and then circulated throughout the city. It was then that Nash pounced. One of the sections of the pamphlet was on municipal transport, and in it we had accused two leading Labour members of the council of playing a strike breaking role in a bus workers dispute in 1947. To have personalised the matter in this way was a mistake.
Nash called a special meeting of the EC of the Birmingham Party and pushed through a resolution calling for an investigation into the authors of the pamphlet. He was able to pack the enquiry with right-wingers and they presented a report to a specially convened Birmingham wide conference. The report condemned the two authors and called for their expulsion from the party and called for further investigations into ‘secret groups' within the party. The conference was held in a very hot-house atmosphere, even semi-hysterical one might say. The two people who had been named in our pamphlet as strike-breakers appeared and put on wonderful performances as martyrs who had been maligned. Nash had obviously packed the meeting, since it was held in a large hall, much larger than the Birmingham Party usually held its meetings in, and it was full to capacity. A flood of invective was unleashed against Morgan and Mumford, and a veritable witch-hunt atmosphere was whipped up. Very few people spoke for the defence, even most of our left group kept their heads down. However, to their credit the Healyites did get up and defend the accused. But it was to no avail, Morgan and Mumford were expelled. Nothing more came of the calls for further investigations. The two expulsions and that special conference had done their work. The left group disappeared almost without trace, and we were once more reduced to our own small SR group in Birmingham. At the next election for the city EC the left was practically wiped out, again Nash had organised his forces well in advance.
On the face of it one could argue that if we had not made that tactical mistake of personalising some issues we might not have suffered the way we did. I do not think that can be accepted as a full or proper explanation. What we had done was to build a house of cards. Our near domination of the city EC was based upon there not being an explicit set of political issues put before the Borough Party. Certainly we were known as left-wingers, but we did not put a clear revolutionary policy forward, since most of our activity was centred around municipal affairs. We had floated into positions because of a lack of real opposition, rather than positive support for our ideas. In the same way the left group which we had gathered around us, had not been drawn together on a definite left wing programme, but rather on a much more vague set of ideas of the need to control the local councillors. When put to the test most of the people ducked for cover, since they were not politically as committed as we were.
Nash still prowled around us after this, knowing we existed as group but unable to prove anything. But then he hardly needed to because by then we had been marginalised.
It became clear that the whole situation we were in was beginning to have its effects upon Bill and Percy. Let me reiterate, we had been through the desertion of Haston and the other leaders of the majority, we had been subjected to Healy's bureaucratic regime in the fused organisation, these coming on top of years of continuous political activity when to be know as a Trotskyist was to court condemnation and possible physical attacks from Stalinists. Hanging over us all was the real threat of war. Apart from the general problems that war would present, we expected that if war did break out most of us would be arrested. Should Russia win such a war we most certainly could expect to imprisoned and executed. And, if now that seems fanciful, let me point out that the imprisonment and murder of Trotskyists had been routine in any country that the Stalinists had power in, and even before they assumed full state power, e.g. Spain, Vietnam, Yugoslavia. The Tories had won the 1951 general election, and this had had dampening effect upon the whole labour movement, and there was an increase in McCarthyite witch-hunting in all spheres of public life. And of course all of us had the usual day to day problems that all people face and deal with. All in all those years of the early 1950s were extremely depressing, and anxiety ridden. It was no wonder then that Bill and Percy began to flag at this time.
Stalin's death in 1953 had begun a process of change within the Soviet Union that was not immediately apparent. There were some indications of these changes when the group of doctors who had been arrested and accused of plotting Stalin's and other leading Soviet figures death were released. It had been clear from the start of the ‘Doctors Plot', as it was known, that Stalin was preparing another bloody purge of the apparatus. Preparations for this had occurred in 1952 when at the congress of the CPSU the Political Bureau had been replaced by a Presidium with considerably enlarged numbers. The removal, arrest and execution of Beria, the head of the secret police, had been another indication of the changes afoot. However none of these changes prepared us for the events of 1956. Up to the end of 1955 it seemed as though the ruling bureaucracy in Russia had effected the transfer of power after the death of Stalin with the minimum of disruption.
Perhaps those looking back to such a time cannot fully comprehend just how gloomy conditions appeared to those of us who lived through them and at the same time were trying to build a revolutionary organisation. Those times took their toll on people in many ways. I know of two comrades who during those years succumbed to painful depression to the point where they were hospitalised and both died there. The first was a young comrade from Liverpool, Jim Shipman. Jim was a year or two younger than myself, and we had met once or twice over the years. The last time I saw Jim was when he had been called up for service in Air Force, and he came to see Rhoda and myself. I can still see Jim, he was tall, slim and a handsome intelligent young man. A few years later I heard that he had died in a mental hospital. The other was Bill Donnally from Manchester, and he went the same way as Jim. Both were relatively young people and had once been full of hope, but I believe that this period was a considerable factor in their early deaths.
If I seem to have painted a very gloomy picture that is because that is how it seemed to us in the SR Group. This is not to deny that there were certain trade union struggles during the early to mid-1950s. There was the fight of the Manchester, Liverpool and Hull dockers to join the union of their choice. In reaction to the bureaucratic rule in the TGWU at that time thousands attempted to transfer to the London based NASDU, this became know as the fight between the White (TGWU) and Blue (NASDU) unions, because of the colour of their respective membership cards. Some members of the Healy group were heavily involved in this fight, but eventually, after some initial successes most of the dockers were driven back into the TGWU. Although this dispute flared up on a number of occasions into strikes, it was essentially a fight between workers and bureaucrats, not one directly between workers and employers, although there were work related issues involved. The Bevanites became involved in this issue via the pages of Tribune, which the Healy group were then using as their means of propaganda. There will always be some differences about the role of the Healy group in these events, but it is clear that they had a considerable influence upon the decision by many dockers to leave the TGWU. Although there have been subsequent attempts to put a good gloss on the Healy group activities by various writers, the fact remains that when the dust had settled there were many dockers not in either union, something that had not happened for many years. Such a move against the bureaucrats of the TGWU could have only had a chance of success if there had been a general upsurge in working class activity which would have been able to sustain the dockers. The Healyites being wrapped in their catastrophist perspectives saw each struggle as the first round of a general workers offensive, they did not comprehend that it was possible for a section of workers to move on their own, because of particular grievances, and thus were open to defeat. So, although the dockers fight did seem initially promising, it ended in defeat because of the overall general political and economic situation. And this is what put its stamp on the period.
But as I said, all of us had to live our lives the best we could. On the 26th of December 1951 Rhoda gave birth to our first daughter, Avis Rosemary. And not long after this we moved from out two room flat to a small house. Just how it had happened I do not know, but the house came into my brother Bernard's possession as a part of a rather complicated deal he had struck to obtain a house for himself. However, Bernard agreed to sell me the house, and I had a mortgage from him with no down payment. It was a two up and two down house with a kitchen/scullery stuck on the end. The toilet was out in the back yard next to the coal house. It was in small terrace near the centre of the city. When we moved in we had to clean and decorate it. Of course there was no bathroom, so like millions of other at that time, we had to heat water in a copper boiler in the kitchen and use a zinc bath in front of the fire in the living room. However, we did not mind, at least we had our own house, and were luckier than many, many other young couples at that time.
It was during this time that I first seriously considered further full-time education. One of the candidates selected to fight the Rotten Park Ward for Labour in this time was Leslie Stephens, who was Principal of the Bournville College. I had been working for his return and thus came to know him. He urged me several times to apply for a place at the college, the implication being that I would have no problem in being accepted. I did seriously consider this, but Rhoda was against it because it would have meant some financial sacrifices on our part. Eventually I came to the conclusion not to apply, and put the idea of any further education out of my mind. Certainly the financial constraints were an important factor, since we had one child and another on the way, but I also think that there was an element of uncertainty in my own mind. This uncertainty arose from two factors, the first was my own lack of self-confidence and secondly a suspicion of such educational institutions. This latter aspect was almost certainly a throwback to my upbringing, reinforced by my political attitudes.
During this same time I was selected to stand for the city council for the Labour Party in the Beeches Ward in Perry Barr. This was the Ward that Bill and Percy worked in. I duly stood in May of 1954 and lost. I was actually quite pleased that I lost, since at this time expenses for councillors were extremely limited, I think they were only for wages lost on actual council business. Yet, as everyone knew if one were to carry out the work of a councillor properly one became involved in many other expenses. At this particular time I was earning £8-10-0d per week as the butcher at a local hospital, and I knew if I won the election I would have considerable difficulty in carrying out the job properly. But, as I have said, I lost, much to my own relief!
There was one quite interesting episode arising from my candidature for the council. The Perry Barr CLP had invited Aneurin Bevan to speak at a public meeting during the local election campaign. Of course by this time the ‘Bevanite' controversy, as it was called, was going full tilt in the Labour Party, and Bevan was depicted as some sort of devil incarnate by the press. He may have become the bogy-man of the press, but it also meant that wherever he spoke he could pull in a large audience. The meeting was held in a large hall in Perry Barr, and I - as one of the local candidates - was invited to take a seat on the platform. Of course I was there just to make up the numbers, but it did give me a chance to observe Bevan in action at close range. I sat slightly behind Bevan, to his left (where else!), and was thus in a position to observe both him and the audience. The meeting was packed, there were several hundred people in the hall and some had to be turned away. Bevan chose as the topic for his address the nationalisation of the steel industry. The Labour Government had passed an Act nationalising steel in 1950, but it had not been put into operation by the 1951 general election and the new Tory government had revoked the act soon after taking office. Therefore the steel industry was still a live political issue in 1954, even if not at the top of the political agenda. Bevan began his speech on a relatively low key, he recited a number of statistics, showing how much steel went to the building industry, how much went to arms manufacture and so, all rather dry stuff. However, as he proceeded he began to warm to his theme of the need for public control of the industry. By the end of his speech he was speaking most passionately and had the audience on their feet clapping and cheering. This is what made the event so interesting, I was able to watch a demagogue at close quarters, take a rather dry subject and turn it into a matter of passion. Bevan had played on his audience like a master musician, achieving a crescendo with his own peroration. The actual content of his speech was actually quite mild, he was only asking for nationalisation just the same as all the other industries had been nationalised by the Labour Government, there were no calls for workers' control, he was prepared to pay full compensation etc. etc. Yet he had managed to inspire his audience into a feeling of euphoria by his manner of presentation. It was a very good lesson in how the Labour lefts played on workers feelings, without actually committing themselves to a great deal. Bevan gave the impression of wanting to storm the heavens and seemed to be inviting his audience to join him, when all he wanted was for people to go into the voting booths and put their crosses on their ballot papers, leaving the rest to the likes of him!
Having got the elections out of the way I was then able to give some time to thinking about another job. This was becoming more urgent, since our second daughter, Louise Ann, had been born in the March of 1954. Eventually I found work at Cadbury Bros. the chocolate manufacturers, working on the night shift. This immediately increased my wages by over two pounds per week, and was thus a big jump in our family budget.
I have already mentioned that by the end of 1952 Percy and Bill were beginning to flag. I think it was the problems that we were having with Cliff that finally broke them. It was reported to the NC meeting of 21-22nd of February 1953 that both Bill and Percy had dropped out of the SR group, and by this time Gerry Curran had moved on. Rhoda was no longer active, and this meant that the effective membership in Birmingham was reduced to Peter Morgan and myself. Peter lived on the other side of the city, and this meant that our meetings were infrequent. The production of the journal and the secretariat had to be moved to London around this time, since it was obvious that we could no longer sustain the work in Birmingham.
Both Bill and Percy carried on political activity in their local Ward Party and trade unions for some time after they left the SR Group, hence my acceptance of the candidature in their ward. However, by the end of 1954 and the beginning of 1955 I had lost contact with them, and my contact with Peter was intermittent, as was my contact with the group nationally.
Although the journal Socialist Review was being produced in London and it was now printed, it was irregular in its appearance. I gradually became disillusioned in my isolation and drifted out the group. There was no formal resignation, merely a winding down of contact until it stopped altogether. All the hopes of 1950 seemed to have dribbled away until for me there was nothing left.
Why did the SR Group fail at that time? I think there are a number of reasons, apart from the general conditions that I have already mentioned. Firstly, there was never established a cohesive leadership that was able to draw people together and develop political ideas. Given Cliff's problems regarding residence, he was unable to give much help in this respect. Secondly, we were all infected with the great fear of war which tended to distort all our judgments. Thirdly, there was never a national group created, only a collection of local groups which had some connection through the journal. There was never developed an organic relationship between those groups. The question of leadership was obviously crucial here. The Birmingham Secretariat did not grow into the leadership that was required, on the contrary in the end we were overwhelmed by the tasks we faced. We were tried and found wanting.
Of course the SR group did not collapse completely, it stayed alive in London, but like the rest of the left at that time it was merely hanging on, but it was not until the late 1950s or early 60s that it began to develop and grow. Indeed in 1955 the group was able to complete a project that had been under discussion for some considerable time, i.e. to produce a printed version of Cliff's Stalinist Russia: A Marxist Analysis. Up to that point the organisation had to rely upon using the original duplicated version, which as time went on became scarcer. The book was printed in Preston in Lancashire under the imprint of Michael Kidron, who had recently arrived from Israel. The production of the book was a considerable achievement at that time, since it meant laying out several hundred pounds, and this had had to be gathered slowly. Nevertheless, the small paperback book did at least give the SR Group an important weapon in differentiating itself from the Healy group and putting itself on record for a much wider audience. There have been at least two other editions of the work since then, but I doubt if they have been produced at such great comparative cost. However, it is also true that in the period up to the end of 1955 neither did the Healy or Grant groups prosper. The Healy group were forced to close down their paper, and ended up selling Tribune and organising readers groups for that paper. The Socialist Outlook had been ‘proscribed' by the NEC of the Labour Party in August 1954, and the SR Group responded by printing a condemnation of this in Socialist Review in September 1954:
‘A leadership which does not allow full freedom of political expression to its own members confesses its political bankruptcy...This action by the NEC must not be allowed to go unchallenged. Every member of the Labour Party who sets any store by internal democracy irrespective of whether he agrees with everything that Socialist Outlook advocates, must oppose this monstrous ban'
Despite the political disagreements with the Healy Group, the SR Group was always willing to defend it against the attacks of the right-wing. This will give the lie to those who in later years peddled slanders about ‘the state-caps' snuggling up to the right-wing.
The Grant group only maintained itself in Liverpool. Having produced a few copies of small journal in 1952/53 (i.e. two years after being expelled from the Healy organisation) it seemed to disappear, and did not resurface again until 1956. However, despite any small advances such as the production of Cliff's book, I became increasingly isolated and demoralised. I suppose that the winter of 1955/56 must have been the nadir of my political hopes. There seemed nowhere to go. I have a vivid memory of painting the kitchen wall one night, and I had been thinking about all that had gone on. I turned to Rhoda and said something to the effect that ‘I am giving up politics'. This was the lowest point in my political life, the one and only time that I had ever felt so depressed and demoralised that I took a conscious decision to quite politics. Looking back to 1946 it seemed to have been down hill all the way.