14.A Change of Direction
1963 opened with the development of two threats to the stability of the new International Group. In the ranks of the FI there had developed a serious rift, this took the form of a difference on some basic questions between the International Secretariat and the Bureau of Latin America (BLA). BLA was led by Luis Posadas, who it appeared was a charismatic figure but with some rather peculiar views. Posadas had evolved a theory that it was necessary for the Soviet Union to launch a pre-emptive first nuclear strike against the West, and thus would be launched a new stage of the world revolution!! BLA had set up shop on its own in Latin America and had then proceed to try to set its own ‘sections’ in Europe and the rest of the world.
We had the first intimations that BLA was at work in our own ranks when it was discovered that the John Fairhead and Theo Melville — the two leading members in London — had organised a meeting for Ortiz the BLA representative in Europe. When this was queried it was passed off as being merely a ‘fact finding’ meeting. However, it rapidly transpired from the resolutions submitted by the London branch, firstly to the NC meeting and then for the forthcoming national conference, that what we were faced with was an active BLA faction which was attempting to subvert the organisation to a BLA line. It was one of the few times that Pat Jordan’s in-built paranoia had some basis in fact. It was Jordan who first alerted the rest of the organisation to what was going on in London, since he was the one most closely in contact with as secretary. At first I was wary of believing that the London group had indeed adopted the Posadas line on nuclear war, I knew that Pat Jordan had considerable capacity for suspicious, but in the event it was true. I was horrified by this development, at a time when we were attempting to integrate ourselves into the broad labour movement we were faced with this crazy idea that we should be advocating a nuclear first strike.
At the same time as this situation was developing we began to get some rather odd signals from Glasgow. I had taken over the job of treasurer and had been attempting for some time to get some subscriptions from Glasgow. At this time Harry Selby, who was an old stalwart of the original Left Faction, claimed that there were twenty (20) members in Glasgow. No one from Nottingham had ever been able to go to Glasgow and verify the claims of Selby, and we were suspicious that the membership figures were inflated. However, there was nothing we could do at that point other than to expect that subscriptions for twenty members should be paid. It was when I began to ask for the money that Selby reacted in a very hostile fashion.
One early intimation of the intentions of the Glasgow group was the re-publication of the document ‘Once More The Tactic’ by Glasgow, with the addition of two addendum. Glasgow had duplicated this document and sent copies to Nottingham for circulation, which we did by including it in an issue of the Internal Bulletin. We even put a note in thanking the Glasgow comrades for their work. However, both Bob Gregory of Nottingham and I disagreed with the two addendum which Glasgow had added, and we submitted items for the IB to that effect. I should make clear that the document ‘Once More The Tactic’ was devoted to the question of work in the LP, and had been written by Brian Biggins after considerable discussion with myself and others in Nottingham. Therefore, when Glasgow re-published the document no one thought that it indicated anything that would provide a basis for differences between Glasgow and the rest of the IG. On the contrary the document was always seen as being one of the basic documents of the faction, indeed I had quoted it myself in support of some arguments at various times. Therefore we were not opposed to the re-publication of the document at that time, but we were a little mystified as to why Glasgow should choose that particular time to go to the trouble of cutting stencils and duplicating it. This was the first and only time that the Glasgow group had contributed anything to the IB.
As I say, we were at this time embroiled in the conflict the BLA people in the London branch, and no one in the rest of the organisation took a great deal of notice of the Glasgow group’s activity in producing the document. We certainly had our suspicions that Selby and Co. were attempting some sort of ‘entry’ tactic in the IG, and their refusal to pay subs was a sign that they did not seem to have any great loyalty to the IG. But our attention was on London. However, in the late Spring of 1963 matters came to a head with Glasgow, and we received a double sided foolscap sheet statement entitled ‘Statement of the Glasgow Group in ceasing association with The International Group’. This confirmed what we had thought for some time, i.e. that the Glasgow group had never considered themselves to be an integral part of the IG, since it opened with ‘The Glasgow Group of the Left Fraction of the FI continuing the struggle to build the Revolutionary Party in Britain accepted as a basic position that the Party would be built in and through the LP.’ So, Selby & Co. still considered themselves to be the Left Fraction of the FI, despite having been expelled from the FI in 1946! And, for all intents and purposes had remained dormant for over a decade before briefly associating with the RSL and then the IG. We did not pursue this matter with any determination, I did write a reply to the Statement but it was never acknowledged. As far as I know this tiny group never expanded beyond Glasgow, and there were grave doubts about it exact size. There was never any open or visible sign of this group within the labour movement. The last known sighting was when Ted Crawford made contact when Selby opened negotiations with another tiny group in London 1966. This took on a bizarre aspect when it found that comrades, Solberg, MacPherson and Selby who had been conducting the correspondence were all one and the same person, i.e. Selby!! Selby did serve for term as a Labour MP for a Glasgow constituency in the early 1970s, and died in 1984. These activities in the late 1950 and early 1960s indicated the make believe world in which some people associated with the Trotskyist movement lived in. The main complaint of Selby against the IG was that it worked with CND, MCF, and other assorted people on the left of the labour movement. In other words, when reality intruded Selby took fright.
At about the same that this was happening the London group set up shop as the Revolutionary Workers Party, calling a founding ‘congress’ passing innumerable resolutions paraphrasing the BLA line and producing four page printed newspaper. It was this latter item, the newspaper, that indicated just how long the preparations had been in hand for this event. As far as we knew the London group took about 12 people with them, but the IG which supposedly had 50 or 60 members could only afford to produce a duplicated journal, printing was beyond our means. So when the BLA people produced a printed paper it told us that they were being funded from abroad and this had been in preparation for a considerable time. This ultra ‘revolutionary’ grouplet continued its shadowy existence for about ten years, and leading light John Fairhead ended up as a Tory councillor in Paddington I believe!
On a personal level I had applied for a place as a full-time student at New Battle Abbey in Scotland, and I was called for interview in March. The interview was held in Manchester by the Principal of the college. I had at the same time applied to go to Ruskin College in Oxford. At the interview in Manchester I was offered a place at New Battle for the coming Autumn. However, in view of the fact that what was on offer was only a one year course and with no recognised qualification at the end, I asked that I be allowed to given my answer later when I had heard from Ruskin. Much to my surprise I was allowed to do this and thus at least had one place at a college for sure.
I had applied to Ruskin about the same time as I had applied to New Battle. The method of selection for Ruskin was that one had to submit an essay on a topic selected from a list of suggested titles, and if the college thought fit you would be called for an interview. It was the interview that really decided if you were accepted. I had submitted an essay on the topic ‘Can There Be Democracy in a One Party State?’, arguing that it was possible for a short time but not in the long run. To anyone reading the essay it would have been quite clear that I was writing from a Marxist perspective, and to be honest I did not rate my chances of getting an interview very high, let alone obtaining a place.
However, I was called for interview. This was held at Transport House in London (then HQ of the Labour Party as well as the TGWU). There were three people on the interviewing panel, Billy Hughes the Principal, Henry Smith the Vice-Principal and one other who I cannot now recall. The interview lasted approximately half and hour, and I was called upon to defend the ideas that I had put forward in my essay. This went fairly well until Henry Smith rather triumphantly pointed to the increased standard of living that the working class had obtained in the western capitalist countries as being a refutation of Marx’s theory of immiseration. My answer was that taken on a world scale this was not true and in large parts of the world living standards had been declining. It was not a particularly sophisticated defence of Marx, but it seemed to flummox Henry Smith and he became a little flustered. I noticed Billy Hughes smiling to himself during this exchange. Anyway, I was dismissed and told I would be informed of the result by post. I left the meeting thinking that I had ‘blown it’ by upsetting Smith and did not expect to get a positive result.
I was very surprised when about a week later a letter arrived offering me a place at Ruskin and inviting me to apply for the Robert Addy Hopkins bursary! This latter was a Labour Party scholarship which went some way to paying my fees at the college. I applied and was awarded the scholarship. This meant that I would be looked upon favourably by Birmingham Education Committee when I applied for a student grant for my studies, since it would lower the amount of money paid out from the public purse. And so it turned out, I had no problem with a grant, and obtained the maximum amount allowable for a mature student including money for the two children. I felt that I was living in some sort of dream.
But not for long. On an international level the American SWP and one or two more ‘sections’ of the International Committee had effected a ‘re-unification’ with the FI. Healy meanwhile was denouncing such moves as capitulating to ‘revisionism’, and went off to become the dominating force of the rump of the IC. This at least let us — the IG — off the hook as far as any unity with the SLL was concerned, for which we were truly grateful.
However, this still left us with the problem of the RSL. I was totally opposed to any re-unification with that body, having been through such bad experiences over the previous few years I was convinced that there was no way we could coexist in the same organisation. But I seemed to be alone among the leading members of the IG who held to this view. I recall that on one visit to Nottingham I had a private discussion with Ken Coates about this question. He acknowledged there might be problems but was adamant that we must go through with a re-unification. His arguments boiled down to, a) we had to unify with the RSL to gain readmission to the FI and b) HE needed more ‘bodies’ to carry out our political work. I could see the logic of the first reason, but knew that the formalities of such a unification would not compensate for being tied down to a bunch of political deadbeats. On the second reason Coates advanced I was disgusted. For the first time it revealed the cynical and manipulative attitude Coates had towards people who, one assumed, should have been considered as comrades and collaborators not so many foot-soldiers to be commanded. I went away from that meeting rather downcast. I knew that if I attempted to push too hard against the proposed unification I would be isolated. Having just brought the group through the assault from BLA and the defection of the Glasgow group I knew that any further factional struggle would demoralise those younger members who we had managed to hold together. In the event I registered my opposition to the unification but did not press it vigorously.
Despite all the difficulties, we managed to hold a group conference on the 30th Nov./1st Dec. 1963, this was an achievement in itself considering all the traumas that had been inflicted upon us during the year. Because of all the problems that we had faced over previous period, and the fact that I had decided to apply for full-time education I found that I had slightly more time on my hand than usual. Therefore I had drafted three of the main resolutions submitted to this meeting: namely, On International Problems, on The Cuban Workers State and Algeria. The resolution on re-unification was I believe drafted by Ken Coates.
On the international scene the salient point I made was:
‘The growth and development of the European Common Market must be seen as the most important development on the post-war European scene. The economic and military strength of this new imperialist bloc presages a formidable challenge to the US and British capitalism, and will exacerbate the inter-capitalist conflicts. So long as Europe lay weak, with its economies shattered by war, and afterwards when the post-war boom was in full swing, these rivalries were muted. Now, with the recovery and re-equipment of industry, and the end of the boom, the normal capitalist antagonisms are reasserting themselves. This can also be applied to Japan which is once more seeking out new markets. These things are no longer something to be spoken of in the abstract; rather they are present realities. The Common Market has the possibility of becoming a contender with US imperialism. What Hitler failed to do, De Gaulle tries to continue in a new form.’
Regarding Cuba perhaps the most interesting thing about this resolution is what was deleted at the conference:
‘As Marxists, we do not deal with subjective desires, but objective reality. This why we have to see the present Cuban leadership as exercising a Bonapartist role. This does not, as yet, detract in any way from the real revolutionary role they playing, but it does place in perspective the need for a fully organised section of the FI. Just how such a section should operate we are not qualified to say. It might operate in the same way as we do in the Social Democratic party; it might operate as an open party. But however it operates, one thing we are sure of: it must direct its main activity towards the Fidelist party.
The struggle in Cuba for Workers’ and Peasants’ Councils, Workers Control and full civil liberties for all revolutionary tendencies, is a struggle to prevent the decay of the socialist revolution. Therefore these are not secondary questions but central ones. Our support for the Cuban Workers state is unconditional; support for Castro conditional.’
I had included this passage because I already had grave doubts about what was actually happening in Cuba, I had never allowed myself to swept along in the general euphoria that had engulfed the FI. On the other hand I thought that the SLL line that there had been no real revolution on Cuba and that it was still a capitalist society was patently stupid. Given the complete smashing of the Batista state and the nationalisations that had taken place it was quite clear that something quite profound had occurred. Nevertheless, I recognised that this was a largely peasant based revolution and that Castro and Co. had made no moves to introduce genuine democratic control of the process. Indeed the same Bonapartist regime exists today (1995) in Cuba and my doubts and reservations were justified. But Ken Coates was aghast at the critical stance embodied in the resolution, since he was then in process of establishing himself as ‘A friend of Cuba’ and getting ready for a trip to Havana. He swayed the conference to excise my heretical thoughts.
The same happened with the draft resolution I had prepared on Algeria, I had said:
‘…it is impossible at this stage to give a sociological definition of the Algerian state or revolution. Undoubtedly there is a strong socialist current, viz. Workers Management, nationalisation, but it is not yet clear if this is the dominant one…
The Ben Bella Tendency has up to now been the one that has shown itself as groping towards a socialist road, and therefore should be supported, but in a critical way, not sectarian or dogmatic, friendly. The great danger for Algeria is a bureaucratic deformation, because many of the social conditions nurture this. This why a conscious revolutionary vanguard is vitally necessary. Our movement must take steps to see that this is created within the appropriate forms. Our attitude can be summed up as: Unconditional Defence of the Algerian Revolution; conditional support for Ben Bella.’
This too was neutered. Since it went against the prevailing mood of euphoria for Algeria. And again Coates was preparing for a trip to Algiers!! However, what was demonstrated was a general tendency on the part of Ken Coates and his immediate followers in the group to play down theoretical clarity in favour of snuggling up to ‘leaders’ and people with ‘influence’, especially in the trade unions. This was to have profound negative effects in the next few years.
Despite having spelled out why it was not possible to work inside the RSL at the founding conference of the IG, there was a presented a resolution on unity which went against all that had been said there. This was the handiwork of Coates and Jordan, although it appeared under Jordan’s when it was circulated. It opened with:
‘Conference welcomes this year’s re-unification conference as one of the most important advances for our movement since the founding of the Fourth International. Today, there are more cadres and more sections under the banner of the Fourth International than at any time in its history’
This was problematic, as events were to shortly demonstrate. It became clear that one of the conditions for re-unification on an international level was that Pablo would be dumped. Of course this was never admitted, but most people who had been active for any length of time could figure out what had happened. Pablo was sacrificed to save the face of the US SWP. As if this was not bad enough, the resolution went on to say:
‘The immediate question in Britain is the re-unification of the two groups which accept the political programme of the Fourth International. There are no differences now between the IG and the RSL which would preclude re-unification….
On such questions as the immediate slump perspective, the assessment of the war danger, the nature of the epoch we are in, etc. the previous political differences would seem to have been settled by the course of events. However important tactical differences exist between members of the RSL and IG on the all important question of Labour Party work — these are typified by different concepts of the entry journal.
In addition to the political and tactical differences, relations in the past were embittered by personal antagonisms and the usual tensions which beset small groups. However, since the factional fight of 3 or 4 years ago new forces have come on the scene, un-scarred by these events, and time has healed most of the antagonisms.
Thus we can see that there are no important obstacles to re-unification’
All of which was a travesty of the real situation. No doubt Coates assumed that he could dominate any fused organisation as he increasingly came to dominate the IG. There are a number of conditions laid down for the re-unification, which I will not go into now, sufficient to say that when the time came almost none of them were adhered to. What this resolution was a re-writing of the past differences and the history of the previous 4 years.
The resolution on unity with the RSL was duly pushed through at this meeting and I had to accept that the attempt was going to be made, even if without my active support or opposition, and hoping that it would fail. Once again we were playing at politics in the worst sense of the word, and teaching the new young comrades nothing of worth.
I went to Ruskin College in the early October of 1963, and this was to open up a whole new life for me.
We — the students — were directed to make our way to the Annexe of the College located at Headington on the outskirts of Oxford. This building was called The Rookery, and was an old very large house which had had extensions built on it, set in quite extensive grounds. Upon arrival we were processed, allocated rooms, tutors, etc. and generally given an introduction to college life. All of us at The Rookery were first year students, but for that first day there a number of second years’ on hand to show us around and try to answer any questions we might have. The minimum age for students was 21 and if I recall correctly the upper age limit was 50. Therefore there was quite a big age range of students, in an intake of about 35. However, the number of women in those days was quite small being about 6 or 7. There was also quite a mix of backgrounds among the students, although the large majority were working class trade unionists, coal miners, steel workers, seamen, engineers, etc. plus students from overseas. We were quite a mixed bunch.
I had the good fortune to share a room with Richard Matrenza, who was a trade unionist from Malta. Richard was a short, plump young man who wore a short beard and always wore dark glasses because of an eye condition. The net effect was that Richard presented a rather Italianate aspect. However, Richard turned out to be a very good room-mate, he was always considerate and helpful and we became firm friends during our stay at The Rookery. We shared an end room which was slightly larger than average and it looked out over a large expanse of lawn and trees. Considering that we had to share a room, Richard and I had almost ideal conditions for study.
The Rookery had lecture rooms and its own library, so that we could if we chose remain on site for most of our studies during that first year. The main college building in Walton Street had a much more extensive library, and we also had access to the university libraries. Nevertheless, most of our study was done at Headington. And study we did. I had elected to take Labour History, Economic Theory, National Economics, History of the 19th and 20th Century (counting as two subjects) plus…..This meant that since we were attending for two years we had tutorials upon each of these topics for six terms, in succession.
I know that a few days after arrival we had met our tutors for the term, been given a reading list and told to produce an essay for the following week! We were thrown in at the deep end. Few of us students had had any schooling beyond the age of 14 or 15, and few still had written an essay in their life. To say that panic bells began ringing is to put it mildly. However, help was at hand. Along with the course work for our Diploma there were ‘remedial’ classes put on for those of us who need help with our English, spelling and general presentation. The person who ran these classes was Vi Hughes, who was the wife of John Hughes the lecturer in applied economics. Vi was a tower of strength to those of us who attended her classes, easing us through the worst of our ignorance without making us feel stupid. Moreover, she held poetry reading groups as an extra curricular activity which attracted quite a mixed bag from the student body. It was quite something to see men of 40 or 50, who perhaps had worked in a steel works since the age of 14 begin to open up in these poetry groups explore ideas and feelings that up to then they had either been cut off from or been afraid to express. I know that for the first time in my life I began to appreciate poetry. And some of the other participants began to try their hand at writing poetry.
John Hughes was quite different from Vi. Vi was very sunny and outgoing and no one was intimidated by her. John, on the other hand, was formidable. It was not that he was unfriendly, on the contrary like nearly all of the staff at Ruskin he treated his students with respect and courtesy. Nevertheless, after a tutorial with John Hughes one came out feeling as though you had been put through a wringer. It was not that he was rude, rather he was relentless. So long as you did your work and made a stab at answering the question he had set one came out with one’s pride intact. However, if one tried to flannel he pursued you with a razor sharp mind that forced you to admit your failure. Before each tutorial he had marked your essay, and each one was littered with red pencil comments, questions etc. And at the tutorial we would go through the essay paragraph by paragraph. John’s lectures were also of the same standard, each one was a small masterpiece, they were logical, lucid, eminently understandable and contained all the essential information on the topic covered. I never came away from a tutorial or lecture given by John Hughes without having learned something. In all my experience I think he was the best teacher I have ever encountered.
Henry Smith the Vice Principal was the tutor for economic theory, and I am afraid to say that he was definitely past his sell-by date when it came to teaching. Fortunately, I had John Hughes as my tutor for both theory and applied economics, so I did learn something. But it was clear from talking to other students who had Henry that they were missing out.
I should mention that the one student who made their mark from our year was John Prescott, who became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. I was not impressed with him whilst I was at Ruskin, nor since.
Just as there was a range of students, so there was a range of responses to being a full-time student. The vast majority of us got our heads down and worked hard. I know that I had not worked so hard for years, but I was also enjoying myself. I felt that I had been given a luxurious opportunity to read, think and discuss with like-minded people for two years and did not intend to miss any of it. After working in factories or shops for nearly twenty years I considered it to be a luxury not having to worry about work, next weeks wages, household chores etc. All I had to do was study and that is what I did. And in this respect Richard was a great help, since he was always available for discussion when required, but could also stay silent for long periods when necessary as we prepared our essays. However, there were a few people who did find it difficult to settle down to study and one or two were asked to leave at the end of the first academic year. This was rather sad, but became necessary since not only had they failed to settle down to study but had become very unsociable, to the point where they were disturbing the study of other students.
I had been warned that after working in a factory the change-over to a more sedentary style of life as a student could bring weight problems. I therefore resolved to avoid this, I began watching my diet and made sure that I took some form of regular exercise. This exercise took the form of a long walk each day, and since I was determined to carry this out come rain or shine I acquired an umbrella for the first time in my life. As it turned out I was one of the few students in my year who actually lost weight during the first year, nearly all the other men put on weight to some degree or other, some considerably!! This was the result of continuing their previous eating habits whilst at the same time not engaging in any real exercise. It was particularly noticeable in those men who had been steel workers or other forms of heavy manual labour.
All in all the first year 1963/64 was extremely interesting and rewarding. By the time we came to break for the summer in 1964 I felt that I was beginning to get on top of my studies, even though this had meant long hours of work, sometimes making my head ache as I came to terms with the intricacies of economic theory. The economic theory taught at Ruskin was purely ‘bourgeois’ economics, heavily weighted towards Keynes. This was an area of ideas that I had not had to grapple with before, and found that my lack of basic mathematics had to be made good in short order. Nevertheless, this was very good experience, and when it came to applied economics I was learning for the first time how to research and make use of the multitude of publications available. What my study of economics did teach me was that there really was a fundamental divide between Marx’s ideas and orthodox economics. The crucial difference was in the way phenomena was analysed, for instance Keynes had no theory of profit whilst for Marx this was a pivotal category of political economy and its critique. What my study of Keynes did was to focus my attention upon Vol.II of Marx’s Capital. For the first time my reading of it began to have considerably more relevance than hitherto. This work is mainly concerned with what is termed macro-economics in orthodox theory, and I began to appreciate the sweep and vigour of Marx’s analysis of how the system operated. In particular it made me focus upon Marx’s reproduction schemas, and begin to understand what a powerful tool they provided. I was to study this aspect for a number of years to come.
At the end of the college year each of the first year students was interviewed by Billy Hughes the Principal. When it came to my turn he told me that all of my tutors had made positive reports about my work. But then he said something to the effect that ‘You consider yourself to be a Marxist but your tutors report that it is little in evidence in your work’. I was surprised by this comment since I had never made any secret of my politics, but on reflection I came to the conclusions — which I told Billy — that during that first year I was more concerned to learn than formulate criticisms of orthodox economic theory. This he accepted. But what this incident indicated just how closely the students were observed and reported on. I wonder which member of the staff was reporting to MI5? However, I did not let this mar my enjoyment of Ruskin.