13.1962 A Year of decisions
The year 1962 turned out to be quite a busy one at all levels of my life. That year saw the Cuba missile crisis, the founding of the International Group, holding a summer camp at Kessingland, the publication of Union Voice, a trip to Finland and a decision on my part to apply for full-time education.
I began the year on a low as far as my health was concerned, I had been donating blood on a regular basis but after one session I seemed unable to recover my full energy. I then fell victim to a bout of shingles. The upshot of all this was that I was sent to Cadbury’s convalescent home at Harlech in North Wales for two weeks remedial treatment. This was a significant event, since it enabled me to recuperate myself both physically and mentally. I went to Harlech in April for two weeks, the weather was bright, sunny but still somewhat chilly. However, the accommodation was good, the food excellent and the chance for complete rest very welcome. The time there enabled me to consider my own personal future at leisure. I was able to take long walks on my own along a deserted beach pondering what I wanted to do. I knew that, given my time in active politics, I needed to fill out my very basic education, and this pointed in the direction of entering full-time adult education. On the other hand I also knew that if I did this it would mean that I would have to curtail some of my political activity, and that put me in a dilemma.
Since the re-founding of the faction and our separation from the RSL we had, as I have already mentioned, made some recruits among students and Labour Party Young Socialists in Nottingham and one or two more in other areas. We had begun the publication of duplicated monthly publication, the International Bulletin, and this had begun to circulate in those areas where we had some contacts. The publication of the bulletin placed a rather heavy strain upon our slender resources both financially and in terms of writing, and I also had the additional burden of making regular trips to Nottingham. These trips entailed long journeys by bus, since that was the cheapest form of transport, and in the winter they were particularly uncomfortable since the buses did not have heating. I had to make these trips for two reasons, firstly to visit my children who were still living in Nottingham with their mother, and to attend meetings connected with the faction. I was still working permanent nigh-shift, so I found that I did not have time to recover my sleep at the week-ends, and given my attempts to carry out other political activities I suspect that this had led to my bout of ill-health which had led to me to convalescent home in Wales.
It was thus that I found myself pondering a number of questions whilst walking alone on that deserted beach. It was possibly one of the most relaxing ‘holidays’ of my life, and gradually I regained my energy. The conclusion that I came to was that, despite the drawbacks, I would, within the next twelve months, seek to be accepted for full-time education. And that meant that I would have to prepare myself in the coming months.
In March of 1962 a NALSO (National Association of Labour Students) Summer School had been proposed at Kessingland. Several of our new young recruits had found themselves on the EC of NALSO, and we were thus able to influence the content and form of this event. The camp was due to run from the 7th of September to the 13th. The first session was devoted to ‘Reform or Revolution’ with E.P. Thompson and Henry Collins billed as the main speakers. The next session was ‘The Foci of Power in Britain’, with Ralph Miliband. Next there was a session on the Common Market and Europe, with Michael Barratt-Brown. This was followed by ‘The Collapse of Empire’ with John Rex and Michael Kidron speaking. Next was ‘The Cold War’ with Stuart Hall and Isaac Deutscher. Then there was a session entitled ‘Socialism, Peace, Labour — Which Way?’, with Clive Jenkins, John Hughes, Judith Hart and Alan Lovell. The final session was ‘The Political Future of Labour’ with John Saville, Ralph Miliband and Robert McKenzie. So, it can be seen that there was a wide spread of views represented and a fairly broad range of topics. How the event actually went I will relate later.
Looming on our immediate political horizon was a national conference. This it was hoped to bring together a wider circle than merely the members of our faction, and it was projected to be the founding conference of a new organisation. This was due to be held the week-end before Easter in April. People were coming from Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Derby, London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. The conference was held on the 14th/15th of April 1962. Unfortunately, because of my stay in Wales I was unable to attend the meeting, but I did not consider this to be a great misfortune since I was in broad agreement with the documents which were presented; and given my decision re. full-time education it meant that I could maintain low profile.
There were 40 people in attendance, roughly half coming from Nottingham, with the rest from the areas mentioned above. Without doubt the largest organised group outside of Nottingham was the Glasgow contingent, this group was the remnants of the old ‘Left Fraction’ which had had a modest rebirth, particularly having — like the Nottingham based faction — broken its ties with the Grant/RSL group. However, the Glasgow group were to play an ambiguous role in the new organisation, as will become clear later. Following on from Glasgow, London was the next largest group represented, being a mixture of ex-RSL members and new comrades who had become associated more recently.
Perhaps the most significant resolution adopted was the statement of aims which started with:
‘(1) The International Group declares itself a transitional group which is to ‘fill the gap’ whilst the necessary preconditions — organisational and political are established for the construction of functioning section of the Fourth International in Britain’
This was an important statement in two respects. Firstly, by declaring the organisation to be ‘transitional’ it was seen as being an attempt to overcome the doubts of those who had reservations about us being ‘the vanguard’ or ‘the Bolshevik-Leninist Party’. We wanted to leave such forms fluid until the organisation had time to determine its own precise character. Secondly, by saying we were hoping to lay the basis for a functioning section of the FI, we were rejecting the right of the RSL to be considered such. From being a ‘faction’ of the RSL, even if only formally, we now moved to complete independence. So, although our eventual aim was to become a section of the FI, we understood that the process would be fraught with some difficulties. This was further underlined by:
‘(2) The transitional organisation is necessary to enable comrades to work together fruitfully and at the same time conduct a discussion, thus clarifying a political programme theoretically and practically. It is not possible to carry out this work through the existing groups [i.e. the SLL and RSL] because of their factionalism, bad attitude towards the International and inability (proven over many years) to work correctly in the mass movement. To try to work as a tendency within any of these groups would only lead to the dissipation of our energy in faction fighting.’
Within the same resolution it was stated:
‘Our programmatic basis is:
(a) The need for the overthrow of capitalism and the rejection of the social democratic theory of the peaceful transition to socialism.
(b) The need for a political revolution in the Soviet Union and other workers states, to overthrow the bureaucracy and replace it with workers’ democracy.
(c) The need for a world revolutionary party, based upon democratic centralism, completely unified in action, democratic in structure, full discussion rights and with the right of tendencies.
(d) Unconditional support for all revolutionary colonial movements.
(e) Long term work in the mass organisation of the working class, that is the Labour Party, to help build a viable tendency around an appropriate transitional programme.
(f) An attitude towards other tendencies based upon unity in action, opposition to crude factioneering and a perspective of developing tendencies within them which are in political agreement with our ideas.
(g) The need for a high degree of internal party life through a continuous education programme with an internal bulletin. This is especially important in view of the tremendous pressures put on comrades because of ‘entry’.’
I should mention that in the draft of this resolution point (a) had read ‘The necessity of the violent overthrow of capitalism’. I had objected to this formulation, since it appeared to say that we were in favour of violence. It did not seem to me to be an appropriate manner of formulating the question, since historical experiences pointed to violence arising from reactionary forces opposed to social change, and the violence of revolutionaries being a response to this. And I am glad to say my argument on this point was accepted at the conference.
The report issued after the conference stated that:
‘The discussion around the draft resolution on the political situation merged with that around the statement of aims because certain underlying assumptions of the former rested upon formulations in the latter. On the questions at issue there was a lively and vigorous discussion. They comprised the conception of the entry tactic, the attitude towards the centrist organisations, the nature of centrism, etc. Although not formally rejected the draft resolution on the political situation was not proceeded with. This discussion ranged over Saturday afternoon and evening.’ 
It will be understood from this, despite the restrained language, that there were no cut and dried propositions, everyone who had had previous experiences in the Trotskyist groups were determined not to let anything slip past them unchallenged. Moreover, it was decided to immediately open up written discussions on some issues, to wit:
‘(1) During the discussion on the political resolution and the statement of aims, it was decided that the questions at issue, should be the subject of a written discussion through the internal bulletin. For the first issue there was (a) the document of comrade B. of Glasgow [Brian Biggins], ‘Once More The Tactic’, and (b) the document of comrade C. of Nottingham [Ken Coates] on trade union work and the building of a left centre, and other material if ready.’
There was a National Committee elected at the conference based upon geographical representation; this was Glasgow Brian Biggins, London L [?], Nottingham Ken Coates, Sheffield Martin Flannery, with Pat Jordan as Secretary. It was also agreed that other comrades who had particular contributions to make should be invited to attend the meetings of the committee but without vote.
There were other resolutions passed dealing with, the International Bulletin, Youth Work, Finance and the working of the National Committee. Considerable emphasis was also placed upon the production of an internal bulletin, since our experiences with the RSL had been particularly bad, having contributions held up, censored or refused publication. Our attitude was that every member had access to the internal bulletin as a right without qualification.
The International Bulletin was now being produced twice monthly, as a six page foolscap duplicated publication. Not very impressive by other standards, but it was all that could be maintained financially at that time. The bulk of the members were young comrades, all active in various branches of the labour movement and thus were not able to afford to make large contributions. Whilst we wanted to expand our financial resources, we also wanted to avoid imposing intolerable burdens upon comrades.
All in all, the conference was a modestly successful achievement for the four people who had met the previous April to re-found the International Faction.
It was during this year that a new trade union journal was launched, called Union Voice. This was modelled upon the Manchester Labour Voice then edited by Frank Allaun. Union Voice was animated mainly by Ernie Roberts and Walter Kendall and aimed at being a broad left trade union journal. We had some input into the journal mainly through Ken Coates, and attempted publicise it and expand its circulation. Such a journal was in line with our basic political approach of working as closely as possible with other people on the left without attempting to dominate. We saw such work as being a part of our general strategy of integrating ourselves into the labour movement as a definite political tendency.
At some point during the year I applied for an educational trip to Finland under the auspices of the Cadbury’s Works Council. My application was successful. And in August I joined a group of people who made up the party organised by the Workers Educational Association. It was a large mixed group and we stayed at a workers college in the suburbs of Helsinki. The group organiser was Fred Singleton. The trip proved to be very interesting and politically useful. We flew out from Gatwick, touched down at Copenhagen for refuelling and finally landed at Helsinki airport. As we came into Helsinki airport there was a panoramic view of the countryside, and it appeared to be dense fir forests dotted with innumerable lakes which shone silver in the bright sunlight. The dark green of the fir trees stood in sharp contrast to the silver lakes, giving an air of sylvan mystery in that northern land.
I think the one single thing that impressed me most about Helsinki was its cleanliness! After a day or so of travelling around the city I became aware of the total lack of litter. I mentioned this to one of our Finnish hosts and she said that if anyone dropped litter it was assumed that they were foreigners!! Such was the social discipline of the Finns. This lack of litter and general cleanliness stood in sharp contrast to the streets in Britain, and it came as something of a shock to me to realise just how I had become accustomed to the unkempt state of British cities.
The college where we stayed was a fine example of Scandinavian architecture, being well built, spacious and airy. It was surrounded by the ubiquitous forests of Finland, standing in extensive grounds, making it an ideal setting for study. The only drawback that I found was the beds! These were iron framed with very hard mattresses, which one did get used to but I never did find comfortable. I marvelled at the hardiness of the Finnish students who slept in them for most of the year. But this slight discomfort was more than compensated for by the food. The Finns seemed to be very fond of their food, not only in quality but also in quantity. There were three large main meals each day, and morning and afternoon tea/coffee. The main meals were abundant and very varied. Breakfast in particular was quite different to what most of us had been used to, it consisted of muesli, cold meats of many varieties, hard boiled eggs, bread, butter and conserves, all washed down to with tea or coffee. The Finns made their tea directly in the kettle. Lunch and evening dinner were both three course cooked meals of the highest standard, particularly tempting was the fish caught on the lake alongside the college. As if these meals were not sufficient to keep us going, the morning and afternoon tea/coffee breaks were practically meals in themselves. Not only were there beverages on offer, but also large quantities of cakes, current breads and other pastries. I can honestly say I have never before or since been faced with such large quantities of good food. Moreover, if we made an outside visit we would be faced with further helpings of cakes and pastries when we were offered tea/coffee, and one could hardly refuse because it would have offended the hosts. Some days I found I had to face three or four ‘coffee breaks’ between meals. I definitely put on weight in the two weeks I was in Finland.
The course provided at the college consisted of lectures on various aspects of Finnish history and contemporary society. Needless to say these were somewhat bland when it came to certain topics. And some events were not mentioned at all, i.e. the massacre of Finnish workers during the counter-revolution of 1918-19 or Finnish participation in the second world war as an ally of Germany. But nevertheless on the whole the lectures were quite informative. Interspersed with the lectures were organised visits to various institutions and places of interest, such as the Finnish equivalent to the TUC, the national parliament, political party headquarters, social services departments, children’s homes etc. And there were periods set aside for individual activity.
At the same time that I was attending this school the Helsinki Youth Festival was being held. This was one of the Stalinists periodic youth jamborees, organised allegedly to promote peace and international understanding, i.e. to indoctrinate youngsters on the current Moscow line on international affairs. The Fourth International had organised to send people to attend this gathering and had produced leaflets in various languages for distribution. I linked up with some of the FI contingent and helped them to distribute the leaflets, often dodging Stalinist goon squads intent on stopping any such intervention. I managed to make personal contact with several non-Trotskyist delegates from Latin America and was able to maintain contact with them after they returned to Colombia, Peru and — I think — Ecuador.
I also was able to arrange a trip to Turku, one of the provincial cities, where I was taken around the local chocolate factory. It was interesting to see the small scale of production compared to Cadbury’s, but unfortunately it was the works annual holiday when I arrived and was thus not able to meet any of the workers.
What also struck me particularly about Finland was the widespread knowledge of English. One would meet people, ask if they spoke English and they would say ‘yes a little’ and then talk to me in almost perfect English for hours on end. Because of this I was able to travel around on my own without fear of getting lost. It also made me realise just how insular Britain was, and how poor our education system was in the teaching of languages.
The trip to Finland was most educational on many levels and also reinforced my decision to pursue full-time education.
Upon my return from Finland I went almost immediately to the Kessingland Summer Camp. Kessingland is near Lowestoft on the East Coast, the camp being right on the seaside. The accommodation was in wooden chalets, with meals taken in a central dining hall. On the whole the event was quite successful, nearly all the billed speakers turned up, including Ernest Mandel. Those attending came from a fairly wide spectrum of the student left, the IS Group [now SWP] were well represented, but I cannot recall any members of the SLL being present, and the RSL/Militant hardly figured in those days. Nevertheless, the camp was held in a good spirit of comradeship, and the discussions were lively but without rancour. Only two minor events stand out in my mind about that gathering. First Ernest Mandel spoke on the ‘Common Market’, and said categorically that Britain would join. I remember this quite well because I had had my doubts about this and because I felt it was unusual for Mandel to be so firm in such a forecast. And as matters turned out Mandel was wrong, Britain was turned down, because of de Gaulle’s veto when the application was made and Britain was not admitted until 1972. The other minor event was even less important. I was sitting in the dining hall talking to a group of the students, and Peter Cadogan was sitting at the same table and he joined in the discussion. I cannot recall what the topic was, but at some point I made some reference to a point that ‘Comrade Cadogan’ had made. Cadogan almost snarled ‘don’t call me comrade’. I never did find out if he objected me calling him comrade, or being called comrade. It did however bring that particular discussion to a halt, since it introduced a discordant note that had been missing up to that point. Cadogan had been one the leading members of the Stamford faction of the SLL, which Healy had smartly turfed out, so I had assumed that the usual form of address of the left was appropriate. Cadogan obviously thought otherwise.
However, the camp as a whole was quite successful, being notable not only for the lively discussions formal and informal but also because of the very lively social life in the bar. All in all my memory of that camp is very good, and we did make a few more recruits to the International Group!
The crisis over Cuba had been gathering pace for some time during the late summer and early autumn of 1962, and it finally blew up into an acute phase in the October of that year.
When the Kennedy administration in the US put its ultimatum to Cuba and the USSR demanding the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba, this was followed up by a naval blockade. This was probably the nearest the world came to a nuclear war. For a short time the whole world held its breath and around the world there were huge demonstrations against the US threats of war.
There was issued a special edition of the International Bulletin, dated Oct. 23rd 1962 which called upon all readers to throw themselves into a ‘Hands off Cuba’ campaign. In this we were in line with nearly the whole of the labour movement, which reacted energetically to protest against the US ultimatum and blockade. Although I was in agreement with the call for such a campaign I was not wholly satisfied with some of the details in the Bulletin. The specific accusation against Cuba and the Soviet Union made by the US was that the Soviet missiles had been sited in Cuba, and these were aimed at the USA. There is no doubt that the Kennedy administration had whipped up a war hysteria over this issue, and given the fact that the US had placed a ring of similar missiles around the USSR it could be said to be hypocritical. However, initially both Cuba and the Soviet Union denied that there were any such missiles in Cuba. It was when the US produced photographic evidence of the missile sites at a meeting of the UN Security Council that these denials were shown to be lies. It should be recalled that this crisis was the end of a series of confrontations between the Russians and the Americans, which had touched upon various parts of the world, especially the status of Berlin. In particular the US had been attempting to subvert the Cuban revolution and had placed an embargo upon all trade with Cuba, and attempted to enforce this upon its allies world wide. Kennedy, in particular, had been sabre rattling against Cuba, and it did indeed seem that there was a possibility of a US invasion of Cuba. This would not have been difficult given that the US still had a large naval base on Cuba, which was a relic from the previous regime in Cuba. This base would have provided a ready-made springboard for such an invasion.
It was not surprising therefore that the Cuban government would seek to obtain military aid against such an eventuality. However, what was foolhardy was to install nuclear missiles which were only 90 miles from Florida. Nothing could have been more calculated to stir the Americans into a frenzy. And this was compounded by lying about the existence of the missiles until the evidence was produced. This being said it could not excuse the threat of nuclear war by the US over this issue.
As can be appreciated, since I was resident in Birmingham I took no part in the day to day production of the International Bulletin, this was mainly carried out by Pat Jordan on the spot with some editorial help from Ken Coates and technical help by the other comrades resident in Nottingham. In the special issue of the 23rd October the question of the missiles was not directly addressed. In fact the US threats were seen as a part of the mid-term election struggle in the US. Nevertheless, there was a call for action:
‘Immediate decisive action is necessary, there is no time to waste, we must not rely upon anyone else but do the job ourselves, we must break with routinism and complacency. A most serious situation faces us, the most serious since the threat to A-bomb China [during the Korean war], but out of this terrible danger we can show our revolutionary vigour and by bending every effort we can, we can really help our class bothers in the island of Cuba and advance the fight for socialism in a most decisive hour in a most decisive way.’
And given the overwhelming need to mobilise as many people as possible at that critical juncture it was correct to put all of the emphasis upon the need to stop nuclear war. There can be no doubt in those few days the world came close to a nuclear holocaust being unleashed. There were demonstrations world wide protesting at the US threats. And in this country there were demonstrations in cities and towns up and down the country. In Birmingham I had been contacting people as widely as possible, helping to galvanise the local New Left Club, trying to get my local CLP to send protests to the US embassy, helping the local CND to organise a public rally etc. The rally took place on the evening of Saturday 27th of October in the Bull Ring in the centre of the city. Despite the fact that it was raining quite heavily, and the short notice, eventually over a thousand people turned out and after hearing various speakers we marched around the centre of the town with a torchlight procession. It was noticeable that the march got a very good reception from the crowds and as we progressed many of the bystanders joined the march.
The following day, Sunday 28th October, there was a meeting held at the Digbeth Institute this being called by the ‘No War with Cuba Committee’. The main speaker was Julius Silverman MP and was attended by about 300 people. The committee had been formed by students and members of YCND (i.e. Youth CND).
Given the gravity of the situation it could be said that in a city as large as Birmingham it was surprising that so few people turned out for both meetings. Despite attempts by many people, myself including, it was not possible galvanise the official labour organisations to organise meetings. It has to be said moreover that there was an atmosphere of fear and apathy among most of the population. It was clear that events were moving so fast that most people felt that they were powerless to have any influence upon them. And in some respects they were correct, if that is, they acted individually and the crisis had blown up so rapidly that there was not time for other than the most rudimentary organisations to come together. It was a graphic illustration of the speed crises could develop and reach critical mass given modern means of communications.
Fortunately the Russians eventually backed down and removed their missiles from Cuba, and the crisis blew over almost as rapidly as it had come to a head. It had been a crazy gamble from the start, and indicated that Khrushchev was capable of acting quite irresponsibly on a world scale. This was the beginning of Khrushchev’s fall from power in Russia, since the climb-down over the missiles was seen as a grave diplomatic defeat for the USSR and gave his enemies within the Russian bureaucracy an opportunity to organise against him.
What concerned me about the reaction of the IG to these events was the uncritical manner in which the Cuban/Soviet version of events had been accepted initially. I never placed any trust in the statements coming from Moscow, and had little faith in those coming from Havana. I was disturbed therefore when even after the crisis had subsided no analysis of the criminal activities of both the US and the USSR in this matter was provided for our readers or even our own membership. However, most of us gave a mighty sigh of relief when the crisis was over. It seemed as though we had escaped nuclear annihilation by the skin of our collective teeth. One very odd incident took place during this crisis. CND, which was in the forefront of the campaign against the threat of war, had as one of its most prominent activists Pat Arrowsmith. She was reported several times in the press speaking at various meetings, but then all mention of her stopped. Later it was reported that at the height of the crisis she decamped to the west of Ireland!! It seems that her nerve must have cracked at the crucial time. When the rest of us were slogging our guts out trying to do something, anything, to stop a nuclear war she upped sticks and did a bunk trying to put as much space between herself and the bomb targets in Britain. Not a very good advertisement for CND.
Meanwhile, during 1962 there had moves afoot by the SWP of USA to reunite with the Fourth International. As the leading organisation in the split of 1953 this was seen as something very positive by most people in the Trotskyist movement. Unity was definitely in the air once more, particularly as the Cuban missile crisis had thrown many people together, and demonstrated the wide areas of common agreement. This meant that there began a ‘unity drive’ by the International Secretariat of the FI and the SWP. Concretely in this country this meant, for us in the IG, unity with the RSL or SLL. This was not a happy prospect. By this time the SLL had effectively become an open organisation, since nearly all its members had been expelled from the LP. The one area of activity where they still maintained a foothold was the Labour Party Young Socialists. Throughout the whole of the period from 1957 up to 1962 both the RSL and ourselves had been subjected to some rather vile attacks by the SLL as being ‘Pabloites’ etc. etc. In other words, we had been demonised in true biblical manner, our crimes were supposedly legion, being revisionists, backsliders, the handmaidens of the right wing, enemies of the working class etc. Nothing was too bad to say about us as far Healy’s SLL was concerned. Now, if international re-unification took place we would be placed in the position of having to consider unifying with one or both of these groups.
I began drafting a document during September of 1962 and it was published as an internal bulletin in late October (after the Cuban crisis had been overcome). It was a very tricky document to write. I was absolutely opposed to any unity with either of these groups, but could not actually say so straight out, since it might look bad to the international comrades. I therefore examined the record of both the RSL and the SLL and compared it to ours as far as work within the broad labour movement was concerned. I attempted to demonstrate the particular attitude we had to such work, I said:
‘The International Group did not arise by accident or by some mental aberration on the part of some comrades. It arose from the day to day experiences within the broad movement. For what, above all, is the hallmark of the IG? It is its attitude to work in the Labour Party, in particular and the mass movement generally…Entry for us, is not a tactic, something that we undertake on a short term or raiding basis, nor are in because we are weak (which we are). Our concept arises from our understanding of the nature of the Labour Party. This party is much more than just the formal structure of the wards and constituencies; it embraces the whole organised working class…’
In sum I developed arguments to demonstrate just how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to unite with either the RSL or the SLL. And if my readers did not wholly grasp my drift I then proposed 12 conditions as a basis for unity, all of which would be impossible for the RSL or SLL to accept. Given the nature of the IG my document was largely ignored, either people did not fully understand what was at stake or they were too busy to take time to consider what unity meant to us. I had warned that:
‘All types of pressure and arguments may be used to get us to agree to unity ‘and then sort these problems out’. That would be the worst possible way, we must sort these problems out before unity so there can be no misunderstanding at a later stage.’
However, in the following year these warnings were ignored and the IG did unify with the RSL for a short time. Unity with the SLL never became a real issue since Healy chose to remain outside of the re-united International when it was brought about. Healy then went on to dominate his own ‘international’ using ever more extravagant abuse at all other Trotskyists.
It should be mentioned that at this time Algeria had won its independence from France after a long and bloody colonial war. Ben Bella leader of the FLN became the president of the newly independent country. Pablo, had been released from prison in Holland, and had been invited by Ben Bella to stay in Algeria and help to implement forms of workers’ control and self management within the country. This was a heady time, since it seemed that at last Trotskyism was beginning to acquire a mass influence. Just what the nature of the society was in Algeria became the subject for debate within the FI, some calling it a ‘Workers’ and Peasants Government’. Ken Coates in particular became involved in drumming up support for the new government in Algeria and made a couple of trips there, coming back full of enthusiasm for the new regime. However, all these developments came to a sudden halt when Boumediene led a military coup which overthrew Ben Bella, and installed a bog standard military dictatorship. Pablo and those other members of the FI who had gone to Algeria to help the new regime had to make hasty exits, since the military regime had little time for such niceties as democracy.
Cuba had generated a similar enthusiasm on the left, and among Trotskyists in particular. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became idols of the young and Ken Coates adopted a similarly enthusiastic approach having close contact with the Cuban embassy for a time. However, it had been clear from the start that Castro was no Marxist, and had only adopted the ideology when it became clear that the USA was not prepared to accept the revolution in Cuba. In 1959/60 Castro had made trips to the UN in New York with the obvious intention of winning US acceptance of the revolution. It was only after he had been rebuffed that an open turn was made towards the Soviet Union and the nationalization of private properties began in earnest. My own initial reactions to the Cuban events had been to welcome the revolution but to characterise the regime as a Bonapartist one. I saw nothing in the revolution of 1959 and subsequent events that would warrant Cuba being characterised as a workers’ state. In 1959 the ideological mentor of Castro was not Marx but José Marti an earlier Cuban nationalist leader who had fought the Spanish and Americans.
There were similarities and differences between Algeria and Cuba. Both countries were essentially colonial regimes, but in the case of Cuba the colonialism of America was maintained by a native Cuban regime. In Algeria it was a direct colonial regime, indeed the country was supposedly a part of metropolitan France and had a very large settler population. In both countries the war against the colonialist regimes had had to be fought in the countryside by partisans largely organised from amongst the rural population, what city proletariat there was remained inactive until the last stages of the war, largely became of the ferocious repression exercised by the colonialist regimes. In the case of Algeria the war had been very long, since the army of repression was overwhelmingly French, mainly conscripts, and was thus largely immune to ideology of Algerian nationalism. Moreover, there had been a split in the Algerian nationalist ranks which for a time had led to a bloody civil war being fought as a sub plot to the national struggle. In Cuba, because the army which carried out the repression was native Cuban, it was much more susceptible to ideological influence from the Castro camp. Indeed the struggle in Cuba was relatively short, and although the Cuban army did suffer some reverses on the battlefield it was not defeated. The Cuban army collapsed from within because of a mixture of the reverses in field and the corruption endemic amongst the officers and ruling elite generally. It was only when Castro began his spectacular advance through Cuba, as the army collapsed, that the city workers were able join in the struggle and began to strike against the regime.
The difference between Algeria and Cuba was the role of the revolutionary army. Castro’s army, such as it was, had been built in the struggle in Cuba and was therefore much more representative of the people it represented. The Algerian revolutionary army had grown in two quite different ways. The interior forces, i.e. those who had actually fought against the French inside Algeria had only been able to develop and grow because of the support of the local population. However, a larger and more orthodox military force had been constructed, mainly in Tunisia and to some extent in Morocco. This force never engaged the French head on, but marched into Algeria when the deal with France was struck. This meant that there was the nucleus of an Algerian army which had no roots within the country, and indeed it was from this force that the coup against Ben Bella came.
However in both cases what we had were revolutions that were anti-colonialist and used the socialist rhetoric to appeal to mass of the population and for support overseas. In both cases neither the Soviet Union nor such local Stalinist forces that existed supported these struggles other than by words. In the case of Algeria the French CP had taken a hostile attitude to the Algerian struggle in the immediate post-war years when it was in the coalition government. Later on it gave verbal support but little else. The only international political tendency that had offered material aid to the Algerians had the FI, with the provision of of technicians for the creation of arms factories etc. This is why, when independence came to Algeria, Pablo had been invited to help in the reconstruction of the country after the devastation of the long colonial war. Later on when Boumendiene had ousted Ben Bella the Chinese moved in with some limited economic aid. Ben Bella subsequently spent many, many years as a prisoner in the country he had led to independence.
And I might add in Cuba those native Trotskyists who showed themselves in the early days of the revolution, also spent many years in jail. Thus we had the spectacle of some Trotskyists, especially the SWP of the USA, singing the praises of Castro and the Cuban Workers’ State (!) whilst the Cuban Trotskyists were incarcerated in jail. It is wonderful what dialectics could achieve in the right hands!