10. On the political roller-coaster again

I had run ahead of myself slightly in the previous chapter regarding my health and personal affairs, but now I have to retrace my steps a little to explain how matters were proceeding politically.

In Birmingham there was organised a short-lived Forum with ex-CPers in the main. I had been instrumental in organising this Forum but it was quite ephemeral, and had to be revived at a later stage as a New Left Forum.

In 1957 Peter Fryer, who had been the Daily Worker correspondent sent to Hungary to report on events there in 1956, came to Birmingham to speak at a public meeting on his experiences in Hungary and his expulsion from the CP. It had obviously been a traumatising experience for Fryer and he gave a passionate account of his journey from orthodox believer in Stalinism to a realisation of the enormity of its crimes. He had been sent to Hungary as one of the Daily Worker’s star reporters, and having witnessed at first hand what was going on there had duly reported this in his despatches back home. But after a couple of articles had been published, the rest of his material had been ‘spiked’, i.e. had been suppressed. Eventually another reporter was sent out, Charlie Coutts, and he reported events according to how the British CP leadership and the Soviet bureaucracy wanted it be. Having been freed of the constraints of the CP Fryer published his account of the Hungarian revolution as a small book, which rapidly sold out.

Seeing the people who had assisted in setting up this meeting for Fryer, I knew that it was the Healy group. After the meeting closed I had a short conversation with Fryer on my own. I attempted to warn him of the type of organisation that he was becoming involved with. He listened patiently and courteously but made no comments on what I had said. I expect he thought I was some sort of ‘nutter’, with grudge against Healy. Subsequently it became obvious that he had joined the Healy group, since the paper which he had founded, The Newsletter, became the official paper of the Healy group. Sadly for Fryer, he only lasted for about two years with Healy and then had to flee to Portugal to retain his sanity. I will deal with that latter aspect in a later chapter. Sufficient to say here that had Fryer heeded my warnings he might have saved himself a great deal of further grief.

I was invited to attend the 1st, founding, conference of the RSL. This was to be held on the 8, 9th and 10th of June 1957, at the Ambassadors Hotel, in London. I accepted the invitation, but my position was slightly ambiguous. I was asked to attend as an observer for the SWF, but as I have recounted by this time I was heavily leaning towards the RSL.

The conference was held in a fairly democratic atmosphere, observers were encouraged to participate in all the discussions. Right from the start of the conference it was clear that there was a fundamental division within the gathering. This essentially centred around the question of work in the Labour Party. The majority gathered around Ted Grant were in favour of both open and entry work. This was indicated by the production of Workers International Review, which was an openly Trotskyist journal, carrying, among other material, statements from the FI. There was also being produced a Labour Party journal called Socialist Current. The editors of this latter journal were Sam Levy, Morry Solloff, and Frank Rowe, and it was around these that a small opposition had gathered. However, despite contesting practically every one of the documents and resolutions that had been placed before the conference, this opposition had not produced any counter documents, merely some very short resolutions on the questions of entry work. The opposition wished to have the WIR produced as an independent journal with no formal links to the new organisation and, more importantly that the whole of the activity of the RSL be conducted inside the LP. In other words, the opposition wanted a perspective of total entry.

The resolution submitted by Levy, Rowe and Solloff said:

‘This Conference reaffirms the ‘entrist’ perspective of the group, and endorses the political stand taken by the Editorial Committee of ‘Socialist Current’ in relation to that perspective.

The Conference therefore resolves as follows:

1) to discontinue all activities and organisational forms calculated or likely to result in the creation of organisational expressions or forms exterior to the Labour Party.

2) To discontinue the usage of the title ‘Revolutionary Socialist League’, and to replace this tile with the style and form of ‘International Socialist Group’. This expression to be used purely for group and international purposes, i.e. for internal purposes.

3) That the journal ‘Workers’ International Review’, the English language organ of the Fourth International, be published in this country with a publishers imprint of a non-organisational character.’

On the other hand Marion Lunt placed a resolution before the conference which was diametrically opposite to such a position. Its opening paragraph stated:

‘Congress declares that only the orientation of the forces of the RSL towards the formation of an open party can provide the necessary spearhead for group work in the coming period. Only such a tactic can provide a precise direction to recruitment.’

And concluded:

‘Work in the Labour Party over the past period has tended to obscure the clear presentation of the Trotskyist programme. It should be the function of this Congress to reaffirm the confidence of the RSL in the programme of the 4th International and embark on the building of the RSL as a prerequisite for the building of a working class party preparing for power.’

The discussions were in the main conducted amicably, but there was certainly an undercurrent of acerbity to them. One of the problems for the opposition was the fact that they had produced so little in the way of written contributions, and this fact was played upon by Ted Grant and Jimmy Dean particularly. This lack of written counter documents certainly played into the hands of Grant and Deane. Moreover the fact that Levy, Rowe and Solloff had been given a great deal of time to state their case meant that there appeared to be no question of their views being suppressed. In the event the opposition resolutions were heavily defeated when it came to voting. At the end of the public sessions of the conference on the third day, the EB of Socialist Current announced that they were leaving the conference and the organisation, they refused to have their LP work compromised by any open work. Marion Lunt however stayed in the organisation.

So, right at the beginning of its life the RSL was faced with a split. What made it appear slightly bizarre was the line up of the contenders. Sam Levy had been one of the leaders of the Open Party Faction in the closing days of the RCP, whilst Grant and Deane had also said they were not convinced of entry work, but had accepted it reluctantly. Now, in 1957, Levy was for total entry much the same as Healy and Co. had argued for up to 1947, and operated in practice thereafter (until 1959). Grant and Deane now were also for entry work, but argued for a vigorous open activity in tandem with LP work. There was the same division between people but the nature of the division had somersaulted. In the RCP Grant and Dean had supported a perspective of boom after 1945, now in the documents presented to this conference they had adopted Healy’s perspective of imminent slump. Moreover, the opposition seemed to accept this perspective, even if there were disagreements about the ‘small print’ as it were. What we had, as usual, was a dogs-dinner of confusion all round. To bolster their position Levy and Co. had to exaggerate the differences with Grant and Deane, but there was no real fundamental differences of the perspectives for the economy. The sole real difference was whether there should or should not be an active open Trotskyist activity. This was blown up into a splitting issue. Ironically, Grant and Co. went on to become the Militant Tendency in the LP, and remained totally immersed within it for many years, eschewing all open Trotskyist activity!

At the time I supported both the economic and political perspectives outlined in the main documents presented to the conference. By 1957 there were signs of an economic downturn in the economy, and going on all our past experiences this suggested a slump of major dimensions occurring within the next twelve months or so. As far as political activity was concerned I was most certainly not in favour of total entry at that point, and believed it was necessary to have vigorous open work, particularly in view of the crisis in the CP. I should mention that before the conference I had been writing to Sam Bornstein and highlighting what appeared to me to be differences in approach in the Workers International Review and Socialist Current on the question of the LP and work with ex-CP people. Sam had brushed this aside as being merely the result of one journal being an open publication and the other one aimed at members of the LP. The conference had, however, revealed that my suspicions had been correct.

I must also say that Sam Levy did not present his own case at all well, his interventions into the discussions tended to be too long and rambling, and at times his audience became restive. The majority on the other hand, particularly Jimmy Deane, seemed to have a better presentation and to be much clearer in their own ideas. As the conference proceeded I began to solidarise myself more and more with the Grant-Deane positions.

By the time last public session of the conference closed I had decided to apply for membership of the RSL. This meant that I was allowed to stay for the closed session where the National Committee and other organisational matters were to be discussed and decided upon. When it came to the election of a National Committee, Jimmy Deane nominated me to serve on it. I declined, much to the surprise of most of those present. The reason for my refusal was that I was so new to the organisation, I was not familiar with most of those present, and, I argued, I needed time to prove myself to those members who did not know me. If I was to serve on any such committee I would do so on my own merit not on the say so of others. In the end it was agreed that I should be invited to NC meetings as an observer, this I was willing to do.

I must also admit that a part of my reluctance to accept full membership of the NC was that I still did not view Grant with unqualified approval. After my previous experiences with him, and Deane, in the RCP, they were on probation as far as I was concerned. The controversy with the Socialist Current EB had left me feeling slightly uneasy, particularly with their departure from the organisation. It meant that Grant’s personal supporters now dominated the organisation. After the conference this became more pronounced since the group of Cypriot comrades seemed to melt into the background, thus leaving those of us who had not followed Grant after 1950 in quite a small minority in the organisation. On the hand, I did support all of the main documents adopted at the conference, and the new organisation would become an official section of the FI, and this latter point was particularly important for me at that stage. I most certainly believed that it was necessary to not succumb to national particularism, and saw affiliation to the FI as a way of overcoming this. Far from viewing the split of 1953 as being a setback, I saw the removal of the Healy group from the FI as a positive event. Therefore there was quite a mixture of motives for me joining the RSL in 1957.

Looking back at the way the Socialist Current EB had been allowed to split the organisation I now feel that with some genuine compromises being offered it could have been possible to retain them in the new organisation. Why was this not done then? Socialist Current had been started by Levy, Solloff and Rowe, and this meant that they were independent of Grant and Deane. Given the way there had been a total lack of negotiations with the Socialist Review Group in 1951 regarding the Rally editorial board, I should have recognised what was actually afoot in 1957. If Grant could not totally control and dominate an activity, and the people engaged in it, he was quite prepared to provoke a split or see the activity whither. But I was not to recognise the pattern of behaviour until much later. Moreover, it seemed to me at the time that Levy and Co. were almost as anxious to depart as the rest were to see them go.

Arising out the departure of Sam Levy et al, came the need for the RSL to produce its own journal for entry work, and thus was born Socialist Fight. This was a four page tabloid, supposedly published monthly but did not always achieve that. Given the slender resources available the new paper was not too bad, but it certainly lacked any real sparkle, it was plodding and ‘worthy’. It certainly never achieved a significant circulation, its print run was 1,000 and I suspect that many of these were not actually sold. On the question of resources I should mention that right from the word go the RSL was dependent upon a subsidy from the IS of the FI in Paris. Moreover, the organisation never was able to achieve financial independence, it was always in a state of crisis as far as money was concerned, and without the subsidy it would never have been able to print the WIR and Socialist Fight and at the same time support two people full-time.

Initially the two full-timers had been Ted Grant and John Fairhead. Fairhead had already had a chequered career, of which I was unaware at the time, and his subsequent evolution was to be quite bizarre, but that is to run ahead considerably. However, later on Pat Jordan, the ex-CPer from Nottingham was appointed as full-timer in the place of Fairhead.

Thus the RSL was launched upon an unsuspecting world, and indeed on to an unknowing one, since the impact that the organisation had upon the wider Labour Movement was minimal. In late 1956 or early 1957 there had been hopes of drawing into the new organisation the group in Nottingham which had left the CP and set up on their own, Jordan and Ken Coates being among the leading lights, but there was also John Daniels a noted and respected educationalist at Nottingham University. However, the only one from the group who came over to the RSL at that time was Pat Jordan. The large majority of this Nottingham group went into Healy’s group, as did nearly all of the ex-CPers who adhered to Trotskyism at that time.

For a short time the RSL had friendly contacts with Frank Chapple who was in the process of leaving the CP and beginning his fight, along with Les Cannon and Jock Byrne, against the ballot rigging in the ETU, which was organised by the CP. Chapple gave an account of his meetings with Healy and Grant at this time in his own autobiography, and it is worth quoting since it throws considerable light upon they way such people viewed the Trotskyists:

‘Gerry Healy, the Irish-born Trotskyist leader of the Socialist Labour League (now the Workers’ Revolutionary Party) came to my home to persuade me that what I disagreed with in the Communist Party didn’t exist in his organisation. He was a nasty, unsmiling cloak-and-dagger type … I went to one of his meetings which convinced me that these people were not for me — they were too much like the fascist left I had just walked out on.

Ted Grant…was another suitor, a far more affable character than Gerry Healy. It was hard not to like Ted. He adhered to a French branch of Trotskyism and was a comic political figure, incompetent and inefficient. It is incredible that he should now lead young people — in those days he couldn’t get up in the mornings and worked after lunch… I’m told he hasn’t changed much. He turned up on my doorstep a few times and was always hungry; he got a cuppa and a bite from me but there was no political affinity, although I did once write an article for him.’ [3]

The above may be somewhat coloured by hindsight, and he had some of the dates wrong, since the SLL was not founded until 1959, but Chapple had indeed caught the essence of the two men. Chapple’s flirtation with Trotskyism, or any other left-wing tendency, was very short lived. He went on, along with Cannon and Byrne, to fight the ballot rigging in the ETU though the courts and won. It was a spectacular case at the time. However, far from the ETU membership being given more control over their union the net result was that an incredibly bureaucratic and reactionary regime was imposed upon them. One of the legacies of all this was at one point the EETPU (the successor to the ETU) was expelled from the TUC in the 1980s for its ‘sweetheart’ deals with the employers and ‘poaching’ from other unions. Any opposition to the new regime was even more ruthlessly dealt with than the old CP regime of Haxell and Foulkes. This meant that the world was presented with a picture of opposition electricians appearing in public wearing face masks to avoid being identified, the picture appears in Chapple’s own book.

The events in the ETU were a graphic illustration of the corruption that Stalinism brought into the Labour Movement. There had been ballot rigging on a large scale to ensure the ‘election’ of CP supporters to all the full-time posts and committees. But just as bad was the light it threw upon the so called ‘education’ that the CP gave to its industrial militants. The subsequent evolution of Chapple into a rabid anti-leftist and virulent anti-militant, supporting the most reactionary political ideas, is an indication of the damage that Stalinism wrought upon those who fell under its influence.

There were several local ex-CPers in Birmingham that I attempted to draw into the RSL during 1957 and 1958, but with no result. If they were attracted to Trotskyism it was to Healy that they eventually gravitated. But to my recollection not many in Birmingham did, they mostly seemed to drift out of politics altogether.

Given the high hopes of 1957 by the time of the second conference of the RSL in 1958 I was beginning to have some reservations. Initially these reservations centred upon two questions: a) the results of the coming elections, which were due in 1959 or 1960, and b) the economic perspectives. The economic perspectives document produced for the 1958 conference was a more or less repeat of the previous years document. We were told that a slump was coming, and if not immediately, then in the very near future. At that particular juncture I merely had reservations on this question. However, I did not formulate these into a written form, and since I had witnessed how Sam Levy had marred his own case the previous year by seeming to appear to have contrary views but had not produced a written alternative.

I was however prepared to question the assumption that at the next election Labour would be swept to power. From what was going on in the country at this time I had grave doubts that there would be a Labour victory. There had been a six week strike of London Transport workers in 1958 but they had not won anything like an outright victory. There were other industrial disputes at the time, but none of these events seemed to me to suggest that there was sufficient discontents among the wider population to ensure the defeat of the Tories. By this time Eden had been replaced as Prime Minister by Harold Macmillan, and he had obviously made an excellent job of pulling the Tories together again after the Suez debacle. Therefore at the 1958 conference I raised this question of the possibility of the Tories winning the next election. I was laughingly indulged because of ‘pessimism’ and I believe a sentence was added to the document that mentioned the possibility of Labour losing the next election. But it was done in such a manner as to suggest that this was a remote possibility, and all our energies should be directed to the situation of a new Labour Government being elected.

One of the most spectacular political events of 1958 was the eruption of race riots on the streets of Britain for the first time. They were mainly centred around the Notting Hill area in London, but there were outbreaks in other cities as well. The RSL had several West Indian comrades at this time and was able to produce and publish a short pamphlet entitled Don’t Blame The Blacks which had quite a good sale in those areas where there were either RSL members or branches of the Afro-Asian West Indian Union. This was produced very quickly, and thus the RSL was the first off the mark in combating this terrible episode. The riots were quickly brought under control by the police, and the problem appeared at that time to be an isolated outburst, but it did give warning of what was to come in later years.

1958 also saw the fall of the Third Republic in France and the creation of the Fourth Republic by De Gaulle. De Gaulle had been swept to power on the back of a settler and army revolt in Algeria, and had been expected to pursue a more ruthless war against the anti-colonialist uprising which had been in process for some years by then. By some fluke of effort the RSL managed to produce a small pamphlet written by Ted Grant on this question. It is a document replete with clichés, sweeping judgements and prophecies which have been buried by history. The pamphlet was entitled France In Crisis, and to give the reader the flavour of it I will quote a few items:

‘Events in France have shaken the country from top to bottom. Coming on the heels of the developing slump in America, the crisis in the Iberian peninsula and the civil war in the Lebanon, they highlight the coming upheavals in the capitalist world.

‘Even in sleepy Britain the ‘bus strike, meat market strike and other strikes up and down the country herald a new period of class conflict.

‘A new period opens up, similar to the stormy nineteen-thirties. In the last decade, illusions have been fostered in a slow, gradual, peaceful and progressive change in society. There were predicated on the temporary economic upsurge following World War II; and, unfortunately, in reaction against the excesses of Stalinism, on this economic background, dreams which should have been dispelled have remained in the consciousness of the working class, to paralyse the limbs of the sleeping giant of labour’ (p.1)

‘Hitler and Mussolini, moreover, were lucky enough in each case to seize power on the eve of a boom. De Gaulle, on the contrary, assumes office on the eve of a slump.’ (p.38)

‘De Gaulle’s take-over will be, therefore, premature from the capitalist standpoint. … De Gaulle, also will be unable to consolidate. The ruling class may prepare again for a retreat to a new Popular Front, counting on the confusion and demoralisation this would cause to prepare for a full-fledged civil war. (p.39)

‘We have confidence, however, that the best militants in the French Communist and Socialist Parties and in the trade unions will learn from these events. The Communist Party will split, and from its ranks the revolutionary elements will gather to them the best militants from the trade unions and the Socialist Party to create the Marxist party of the French working class. … From this death-struggle the French workers and peasants will emerge victorious and proceed to the construction of the Socialist order in France ‘ (40)

These few extracts will demonstrate the totally catastrophist perspective of Grant and the RSL. Note that the upswing of the economy after 1945 is still, after 13 years, seen as temporary! There is the grabbing and stitching together events from around the world, Lebanon, Spain etc. which had different and quite particular roots to present a picture of world-wide revolutionary upsurges. Note also that the CPF is still seen as being the main source of militants for the building of a new revolutionary party, when it was by then quite clear that such a party was only the source of confusion and mis-education among the working class. De Gaulle not only did maintain himself in office, but went on the ditch the Algerian settlers and arrive at a settlement of the Algerian war. He stayed in office for over ten years, and the constitutional arrangements of the Fourth Republic subsisted for years after he left office. The bulk of Grant’s pamphlet was taken up with historical re-hashes going back to the mid-19th century, which indicated that he was not analysing the new, current situation but was content to forecast that events would take a similar course as he thought they had historically. In this respect Grant indicated the intellectual laziness that has pervaded his ‘literary’ efforts since the break-up of the RCP. Not one of the ‘forecasts’ made in this pamphlet materialised.

One further episode from 1958 should mentioned. In the March-April issue of Labour Review, which was the new theoretical journal of the Healy group there appeared an article by Mike Banda on the Algerian war of liberation then being waged. At the time there were two main nationalist organisations in Algeria, the MNA and FLN. The Healy group were supporting the MNA, whilst the Fourth International was supporting the FLN. There was a fratricidal conflict going on between these two organisations, to the point of militants from both groups shooting it out with sub-machine guns on the streets of Paris. Banda’s article on the question was of the worst type of factional distortions, alleging that the FI was actively encouraging this intra-nationalist conflict. I wrote a letter protesting at the lies in Banda’s article, addressed to the editors. Now, the editors at the time were John Daniels and Bob Shaw and this was to be an illuminating experience for John Daniels. I had a letter from John Daniels, dated 5th August 1958, which told me that my letter had been lost and could I send him another copy, which I duly did. However, my letter did not appear in the August-September of the journal, so I wrote another letter to Daniels protesting at this and quoting what Labour Review had written about the New Reasoner, under the heading of ‘The Unreasonable Reasoner’, to wit:

In place of the common courtesies of the revolutionary Press, silence --Labour Review itself has never been afraid (and never will be afraid) to open its columns to root and branch criticisms of its own standpoint - since it believes that such free and frank exchanges can only help the Left, and, in particular, educate young people and foster respect for ideas, for theory, for socialist principles.’

Daniels wrote back a short letter, on the 25th September 1958, which is worth quoting in full:

‘Dear Ken,

Keep your hair on. It will be much better if you expend your energy against the real enemy instead of me, I assure you, an imaginary one. The answer to your query is simple. Mike has to prepare a reply and happens to be at the moment in Ceylon. He will bring back his reply in about a fortnight’s time and everything will appear in the next issue.

With very best wishes, Yours sincerely,

John Daniels’

My letter nor any reply to it ever appeared in Labour Review. But it was not the fault of John Daniels, and I will take up this tale in the next chapter.

As I have mentioned in the previous chapter, 1957 and 1958 was a period of ill-health for me, and I was not able to be as active as I would have wished. However, I did what I could, and that is all one can do. However, by the end of 1958 I had come to a decision to separate from Rhoda and leave Birmingham. This being the case I offered to go to live in Nottingham and help run the bookshop there which Pat Jordan was running. This shop had originally been used by the ex-CP group as a meeting place, but Jordan had become the residual legatee by a process of attrition. This meant that it now operated in effect as a centre for the RSL, although there had been no financial or other inputs from the organisation into its running. The shop itself was located in St. Anne’s ward near the centre of Nottingham, and this was one of the run-down areas of the city at that time. However, it did have living accommodation of sorts and that is where I went to live in January 1959.