11.New beginnings - old problems

One of the purposes of my move to Nottingham was to take over the running of the bookshop there, and thus enable Pat Jordan to move down to London and take over as the National Secretary of the RSL, Fairhead who had acted in that capacity was ‘moved aside’ to make way for this. As I have already mentioned my first reaction to Jordan had not been very favourable, however after working with him in the RSL I overcame my reservations and we became collaborators because of the work we were involved in. Jordan had been the Treasurer of the East Midlands District of the Communist Party in the early 1950s, but along with many others had been catapulted out of the CP by the events of 1956. He had extensive contacts within the Nottingham Labour Movement, and was thus able to help me quickly integrate myself in the city. I was able to join the local Labour Party and the Co-op Party, and soon began to establish myself in those organisations.

Nottingham, at that time, presented a much livelier political scene than Birmingham, and proved to be much more productive and interesting for political activity. Alongside the Labour Movement activity, there was a very lively student population which eventually proved to be quite productive for us. One of the other areas of activity was the Young Socialists, latter-day descendant of the LLOY.

Early in 1958 the production of Workers International Review had been stopped and in its place there was published Fourth International, this journal was wholly produced and printed on the continent and was the English language journal of the Fourth International. This step had meant a significant improvement in the quality and size of the journal, and was a considerable asset to our work at that time. Healy had by then begun publishing Labour Review and with Peter Fryer’s Newsletter had a relatively impressive press to work with. Labour Review in its first two years did indeed appear to have an open attitude towards discussion, and attracted some high quality contributions, mainly from Healy’s own group but also from outsiders as well. This meant that Fourth International had to compete with this array of talent, and although there was a dearth of British contributors, it was of sufficient calibre to attract a fair readership. As far I recall the only contributions in the Fourth International from Britain were one or two articles from Ted Grant (AKA George Edwards) and a similar number from John Fairhead. Never the less the journal did address the main political issues of the day.

One amusing sidelight on contributions came about as follows. As I have recounted during 1958 I had been given the opportunity for prolonged bouts of reading, and one of the books that I had re-read was James T. Farrell’s trilogy Studs Lonigan. This was the fictionalised account of childhood and youth of an American-Irish Roman Catholic, and it certainly rang some bells with me. I therefore decided to write an essay-review of the trilogy, and I submitted it for publication in the Fourth International. Eventually the reply came back that it was not suitable for publication in the journal. I accepted the decision, but it did raise in my own mind the rather narrow concept of the political which had motivated the rejection.

One of the tasks I had at the bookshop was handling all the British sales of the journal, and the production and despatch of another small publication called — I think — The International Information Bulletin. This was supposed to appear monthly, as opposed to the Fourth International which appeared quarterly. However, the bulletin was always dogged by the financial constraints that gripped us all in those days.

There was another publication which I became involved in at this time. A committee supporting the Algerian’s fight for liberation had been set up in London, one of the main sponsors being the Labour MP John Baird, who had been a long-time Trotskyist sympathiser. This committee produced a small information bulletin, and I — along with Brian Biggins — became involved in the production work. During this time the Algerian FLN were setting arms production factories in Morocco and Tunisia, and were in urgent need of skilled engineering workers to assist in this project. From Nottingham we were able to recruit several tool-makers and other skilled workers who were willing to go abroad and assist in this project. This had to be done in a clandestine manner since it was strictly speaking illegal to render such aid to ‘rebels’ operating against a ‘friendly’ power, i.e. France. To achieve our ends we had to use a number of subterfuges.

During 1959 I became closely involved with Brian Biggins. Brian was in the army at that time, one the last drafts of conscripts. His home town was Glasgow, and he was a member of the Left Fraction, which had been expelled from the RCP in 1946, kept going on its own for a time then some of its members joined the Healy group whilst the remnants held on working in the LP. This small group in Glasgow had been incorporated into the RSL in 1957. Brian had been recruited before being conscripted, and when he was posted to a camp near Nottingham, became a regular visitor to the bookshop and became active in the Nottingham Young Socialists. During that time he met a young woman in the YS, Tricia, and when he was demobbed in 1959 decided to stay on in Nottingham, setting up in a flat with her. Tricia was rapidly recruited into the RSL.

In the late Spring of 1959 Rhoda and the two girls came to live with me in Nottingham, and she also became active once more, in the RSL and LP. In Nottingham at this time also there was a thriving branch of the Afro-Asian West Indian Union, and two of its leading members, Dick Skyers and George Powe, were also members of the RSL. This meant that we had an ‘in’ to the politics of this organisation, both locally and nationally. So much so, that we organised several day schools for West Indian comrades in Nottingham during 1958 and 1959.

This meant that we now had a small but effective branch of the organisation in Nottingham, and we had influence in several areas of the city.

Problems were however looming on the horizon. The first of these was the character of Socialist Fight. I have already mentioned that it was rather lacklustre and we found that in Nottingham rather than being a help in our political work it was becoming a hindrance. Many of the articles were badly written, being turgid and repetitive. Moreover the type of issues being addressed were often remote from the everyday concerns of our political contacts. In many respects it was more like an open Trotskyist paper than an entrist journal, and not a good one at that. It was not that we had great difficulty in selling people a copy the first time, the difficulty arose in trying to sell them a subsequent issue. Those people who were sympathetic to us in the LP, trade unions or Co-op movement, would take the odd copy, but more out of friendship than interest in the paper. In contrast to this was the YS paper that Brian and Tricia began publishing, this was much more successful since it brought into its production local youngsters who were able to have their own inputs. This Nottingham Rally as it was called was quite successful and began selling copies nationally. This in turn brought us problems with the Grant ‘leadership’. But more on that later. Arising from this activity in the YS, one of the first successful Anti-Apartheid boycotts was organised in Nottingham in 1960, forcing the local Co-op to stop stocking South African goods.

The other problem came when the documents for the 1959 conference were produced. Once again the British Economics Perspective was couched in terms of the coming ‘slump’, even if a little more vaguely worded than the 1958 one. However, by this time it was quite obvious that the recession of 1957-58 had been overcome and the economy was once more booming. This produced a reaction by way of a critical document from Alec Acheson, who lived in Leicester. Whilst in Nottingham Brian and myself produced a document calling for a new approach to an entry paper.

During 1959 it had also become clear that matters were going badly wrong in London. The so-called political centre hardly seemed to operate, Ted Grant in particular being his usual self, i.e. as Chapple had described him. This meant that there was considerable friction between Grant and Jordan. In contrast to Grant, Jordan did have the capacity for prolonged hard work when the occasion arose, and during that period this was often. Moreover, there had been a decline in membership in London during the year.

Because of the fact that Jordan still had numerous ties with the Nottingham Labour Movement, and because of the nature of the work carried out at the bookshop, he paid fairly regular visits to the city. This was how Brian, myself and Jordan began to reach a certain agreement on some of the issues facing the organisation. Brian and I urged Jordan to make his views known at EC meetings, and thus to the wider membership via the minutes which were circulated. Each time we discussed this Jordan found some reason for not taking an open political stand within the organisation. However, he did agree to produce a document for the national conference on organisational matters, and this would compliment the one produced by Brian and myself on the question of the paper. Alec had independently produced his document on economic perspectives, which was highly critical of ‘the slump is coming’ forecast of the Grant’s document. However, Brian, Jordan and I found ourselves in general agreement with Alec’s document, insofar as it criticised the slump perspective of Grant & Co. In the event Jordan did produce a draft document on organisational question, which as the National Organising Secretary he submitted to the EC. This body refused to publish it as an ‘official’ document and suggested that Jordan publish under his own name. However, shortly before the conference met he decided not to publish the document. Brian and I were more than surprised that this should occur.

At the actual conference Jordan gave an address to the meeting which was supposed be his report as Organising Secretary, but which turned into a full-scale attack upon the EC, and Grant in particular. Whilst his criticisms were in the main justified, i.e. almost complete lack of political direction, failure to produce material, failure of the EB of Socialist Fight to operate, etc., there was certainly a personal ‘edge’ to most of his remarks about Grant. Again, this took Brian and I by surprise, it was not the fact of the criticism of Grant that surprised us, rather the highly personalised and sustained nature of the attack. This set the tone for the rest of the conference and meant that the discussions around the documents of Alec Acheson, Brian and me, took on a slightly hysterical air. However, even though our documents were rejected by the conference, such was the general discontent that all the official documents were remitted back for redrafting, an event unprecedented to my knowledge. It was clear then that the Grant clique were in some considerable trouble, even with their own supporters. This, however, did not stop a wild outburst by the Liverpool delegates when at the end of the conference I asked for tendency rights on the basis of the platform that had been put forward. However, I felt that such was the hysterical reaction it would be better for me to withdraw the request, since I did not want to inflame feelings any further. After the conference Brian and I made it clear to Jordan that we felt that he had gone ‘over the top’ in his interventions. However, we agreed to keep on discussing and working with him, since he had now openly declared his position at the conference.

True to form Grant’s clique now raised a completely different issue and blew it up into crisis proportions. The bookshop premises in Nottingham had been purchased with a mortgage which was held in Jordan’s name. He had been paying the mortgage, even after the original ex-CP group folded. When I went to live in Nottingham I began making a contribution to the mortgage payments. Now the issue was raised that the bookshop must be placed under the control of the EC. It was claimed that it was group property. How such a claim ever came to be made I do not know, since to my recollection little or no money had ever been paid towards the expenses of running the bookshop, let alone mortgage payments. Thus a hue and cry was raised that Jordan and Tarbuck were ‘stealing group property’ if we did not agree to the bizarre suggestion. I should point out that no one denied the right of the EC to nominate who it wished to distribute the group’s journals, but this was confused with the question of the ownership of the property. Of course, if either Jordan or myself refused to accede to the demands of the EC we would then be in breach of discipline! Thus a wholly artificial crisis was manufactured which dragged on for some months.

All of this was not taking place in a vacuum. At the beginning of 1959 the Healy group launched the Socialist Labour League (SLL). This was turned into an open ‘party’ very rapidly, thus throwing overboard all the years of entry work that they had engaged in since 1947. This in turn produced a political crisis inside the SLL, which in turn brought forward all of Healy’s malevolent underside. The most serious incident in this was when Peter Fryer resigned from his editorship of The Newsletter and resigned from the SLL. Such was the pressure put upon him, before and after he resigned, that he fled the country, and went to stay in Portugal. Healy then began a hullabaloo about the GPU having kidnapped Fryer, and then when he found out where he was splashed his whereabouts on the front page of The Newsletter. As I said, Fryer was actually in Portugal, which at the time was still in the grip of the fascist dictatorship of Salazar, thus placing Fryer in real danger.

Amongst the others leaving the SLL at this time was John Daniels, Peter Cadogan, and Ken Coates. Since Daniels and Coates lived in Nottingham we contacted them and began discussions with them. It was then that I discovered what had happened about the letter I written the year before to Labour Review. Daniels had some doubts about the loss of the original copy of the letter, but became very suspicious when Shaw told him the same had happened to the second copy. Eventually Shaw ‘found’ the second copy, and then there had been some acrimonious discussion between them about the merits of publishing, or not, the letter. This is what made Daniels first begin to have doubts about the Healy organisation as a whole, and not merely about the Shaws. He had already begun to have serious doubts about Bob Shaw and his wife Mikkie, but had considered this to be a local problem peculiar to Nottingham. It is worth quoting from a letter that Daniels sent to Gerry Healy on the 9th September 1959.

‘The Nottingham branch of the League (and its forerunner, ‘the Group’) has had a chequered history, all of which can be traced directly to the dominance and megalomaniac activities of Robert Shaw and (and I have to say this, for they are indeed ‘one’) Mickey Shaw. His devotion to the League is unquestionable, but his devotion to socialism, to the working class and to Group members is highly questionable. ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’. Bob Shaw is a psychologically peculiar man with a capacity to display before comrades and workers an extraordinary arrogance, superiority, ‘self-righteousness’ that repels (not ‘does not attract’ but ‘repels’) both comrades and worker contacts. If ever we try to recruit, we find ourselves having to explain away Bob Shaw and to assure them that: a) Bob is by no means typical of the membership; b) he’s quite a good fellow when you get to know him. Later, unfortunately, they find that all their worst fears about him are true. Bob is ‘saved’ and he lets all know that this is so. This ‘holier-than-thou’, this ‘Holy Willy’ attitude leads to toe-the-absolute-line activities which finally lead to grave breaches of Party democracy - and any methods (now lies) will do to achieve ‘unity’. This, as I have said, repels people. When I first joined the Branch there were, in addition to the Shaw’s and me, four worker-members. In six months, after the inhuman drilling of Bob, his complete lack of understanding of workers’ psychology, all four faded away. Three explained to me personally why: Bob!’

Daniels bile had finally run over, after months of repressing what must have been quite ordinary human reactions when faced with the Shaw phenomena. But he then had to find out that Shaw was ‘The League’ and merely duplicated Healy. No wonder he was very chary about committing himself to another Trotskyist group.

At the same time we reproduced and circulated a statement by Cadogan entitled ‘The 1959 Situation in the SLL’, whereupon Healy had his solicitor send us a letter threatening us with a libel suite if we did not stop immediately. The ‘great revolutionary’ Healy was not above using the despised ‘bourgeois state’ when it suited him, on this and numerous other occasions, if he thought he could silence his opponents. We went on circulating the statement, and heard nothing more from Healy.

It was during this period that I was to get a small further foretaste of the intimidation techniques used by the Healyites. One evening I was selling the paper outside a meeting in Nottingham when Bob Shaw appeared and began to abuse me in a particularly nasty manner. At one point he made some reference to ‘sweeping such scum off the street’, I immediately faced up to him and suggested he tried it himself, but he backed down. Since we were the only two present at that point I did not make an issue of the incident, but I feel sure that had Shaw had some backup he would have turned his verbal abuse into physical abuse. His attempts at menace were all part of what we were hearing about what was going on inside the SLL at the time. In particular there had been a rumour circulating that Bob Pennington had been beaten-up by Banda and Healy during an argument in their print shop. This was picked up by the national press. At that time Pennington denied the story. However, a few years later he admitted to me, when I quizzed him, that the story had been true, and had been the final straw which pushed him to leave the SLL. Pennington had denied the story because of a misplaced sense of loyalty to the Trotskyist movement, but what he did was merely protect Healy and his clique from the public exposure that they deserved. Healy was to benefit for many years from such misplaced loyalty before the floodgates opened and he was finally exposed to the whole world for the political gangster he was.

In the October of 1959 there was the long awaited general election, which — according to Grant — the Labour could not fail to win. The Tories romped home with an increased majority. On both of these major political events, the so-called leadership of the EC of the RSL remained practically silent. There was no public or internal statement made about the SLL by the RSL. And there was one statement issued on the general election, which was utterly useless for public distribution, since it was so appallingly duplicated that it was almost impossible to read, and its contents were almost equally incoherent.

At the time of the turmoil in the SLL many members were expelled or left, but only one joined the RSL, Martin Flannery. Such was the low esteem that Grant was held in that he became an utter liability. In fact several people that Jordan and I discussed with made suggestions about us leaving the RSL and setting up a new wider grouping of Marxists in the LP. Even after Pablo had been over to England and made a tour in the Midlands and East Anglia there was no ex-SLL people recruited. On the contrary, there was a decline in membership of the RSL during 1959!

By the end of the year the atmosphere within the organisation had become poisonous. The was an NC meeting held in Liverpool, and I recall vividly that one of the Liverpool branch screeched at me ‘How dare you criticise the greatest living Bolshevik’, because I had criticised Grant. Sam and Doris Bornstein came to Nottingham to try to talk me out of supporting Jordan. One of the main complaints they raised against him was that he was acting in an underhand manner and on a very personal level. I rejected their arguments at that time, but as I have already pointed out Brian Biggins and I had already had occasion to question the way Jordan had acted at the conference. And we had several times disputed with Jordan on the way the faction fight was being conducted.

Sam Bornstein was particularly active in attempting to separate me from Jordan, and apart from the visit to Nottingham there was a steady stream of letters, for example:

‘You will no doubt remember a weekend you stayed here, when we discussed, among other things, Pat’s ability to do the job [of RSL national secretary]. I was defending Pat against some of his critics at that time. I had a similar discussion with Brian before he went to Nottingham. He will probably remember the occasion. I am going over all this now because I want to show that my attitude to Pat was comradely, and I regarded him not only able, but as a sincere Trotskyist militant. Over the past four weeks my political estimation of Pat has altered, and since this weekend, his personal feelings towards me have made me wonder about his whole approach towards people and towards the movement. This idea of taking political criticism as something personal must be, as far as possible, avoided in our movement. ‘[4]

To which I replied:

‘What you say about the calling of EB meetings, this is very weak, why was this question not raised at the EC by other members of the EB, and more to the point why didn’t the editor call the meetings? To single Pat out for criticism in this case is wrong, the EC as a whole are at fault…Pat is not a free agent but works under the control of the EC, any reflection on him is also cast upon them. The congress itself was a shambles, here again the EC as a whole is to blame, and Pat with them. … If Pat is taking all this personally then I will do my best to show him he is wrong…’ [5]

It is obvious that by this time, shortly after the RSL national conference, matters were particularly bad in London. At the NC meeting after the conference a motion of no confidence in Jordan had been passed, but he was still retained as the National Secretary! I considered this to be a ludicrous situation, and told Jordan he should refuse to carry on, but he did and the result was that personal relations deteriorated even further, as can be seen from Sam’s letter. Foolishly, I can now see, I attempted to calm down these personal dog-fights, but tried to keep to the political issues.

Eventually Jordan was forced to give up the full time position of Organising Secretary in London. He informed me of his decision in early August ‘I am definitely quitting the secretary’s job on Wednesday (I now realise you were absolutely right to advise me to do this before) and this will free my hands…’ [6] I replied:

‘One last point — I don’t want you to think that the Bornstein’s have influenced me, because Brian and I discussed this matter on Friday before he went to Glasgow. We think you should have informed us before now regarding the decision taken three months ago about the bookshop. Also I think you should have made it clear in your letter of the 30th of July, that only the addenda at the EC meeting was formally carried. … I think you must be very careful to be specific on these matters. I am glad that you realise that it is not possible to compromise on the questions in dispute. I think that in some respects that a lack of a positive stand on your part helped to create the situation in which we find ourselves.’ [7]

Jordan returned to live in Nottingham some time later. Having almost daily contact with him meant that we began to have a much better appreciation of his methods of work. Gradually I found that I was not being informed of the letters that were arriving at the bookshop, it was not merely that Jordan was on the spot and therefore able to deal with the correspondence, he was not informing me or anyone else about the letters. In other words, gradually I was cut off from any information.

Also we, i.e. the rest of the Nottingham branch, had assumed that he would have to obtain a job, since he was no longer a full-time worker for the RSL. I was working at that time for Servis Washing Machines in their Nottingham depot. So all my political work had to be done in my spare time. Upon his return to Nottingham Jordan began working full time at the shop. At first no one questioned this, since we assumed that he was probably living on some savings or unemployment pay. Eventually we found out that this was not the case and that he was being paid by the International and Arthur Cooper. Cooper was a shadowy figure, although not a member of the RSL he had for a number of years been a Trotskyist sympathiser and seemed to work as Pablo’s confidante on many matters. Jordan and I had a first class row about this. I refused to support what I considered to be underhand methods, it was totally inappropriate for the International to support someone full-time without the knowledge of the organisation, and particularly someone who had just been removed from a leading position for opposition. It also eventually transpired that the trip by Pablo had been organised behind the backs of the official organisation. In short what seemed to being set up was an alternative centre to the one in London, something that Sam and Doris Bornstein had warned about when they had visited Nottingham. The subsidy to the RSL from the International had been cut during 1959 and this had meant that Socialist Fight could no longer be printed, and was now being produced as a shoddy duplicated journal.

I felt that I had been sucked into a morass. What at the beginning of 1959 had seemed to be a very promising situation, both nationally and locally had turned into something of a nightmare. I realised that I should have refused to have anything to do with Jordan’s opposition within the RSL unless he was prepared to openly state his views to the membership. It would have been much better if Brian and I had acted completely independently. Whether this would have saved the situation I am doubtful, but it would have at least relieved us of considerable strain and we would not have been tarred with the same brush as Jordan.

My marriage to Rhoda had never completely been repaired, even after her move to Nottingham, and it was during this period that it finally came to an end. Given the overall situation I found myself in I decided to return to Birmingham, file for divorce and try to pick the bits of my life once more. And in early 1960 that is what I did.

However, before I left Nottingham I had produced a draft economic perspectives document, which incorporated Alec’s criticisms but went much further in raising some pertinent issues about the whole of the post-war period.

There were two major questions that needed to be addressed in 1959-60:

1. What were the changes that had taken place within capitalism in the post-war period. And,

2. How much longer was it possible for the boom to continue?

Here is how I attempted to analyse the situation:

‘Since the end of World War II there has been a relative stabilisation of West European and British capitalism, and a remarkably steady growth of the economy. The period after this war presents a very different picture to that following World War I.

Instead of analysing these events there has been a tendency to dismiss the real changes that have taken place and to pin the hopes of the movement on ‘The Slump’. Vulgar Marxism has equated slumps with capitalist crisis, and this has led to confusion. In particular the British movement has succumbed to a form of economic determinism, which resolves itself into an attitude of waiting for ‘The Slump’ and then will be our chance … We must stop living in the past and recognise the real changes that have taken place within the structure of capitalism. These changes cannot be brushed aside with a waive of the hand, but the challenge they offer to our movement must be met with real arguments, facts and figures. This does not mean that the basic laws of capitalism have changed. However much the state intervenes, no matter what means are used to distort the economy, the capitalist class is unable to resolve the fundamental contradictions of the system. Rather, these contradictions assume different forms with different rhythms of development, but even these will end in economic crisis or war, there is no other way around these problems. However, the paths by which these are reached are much more complex than in the past. [8]

I then went on to enumerate — very sketchily — the evidence for the changes. I listed U.S. aid (the Marshall Plan) to Western Europe, state intervention, nationalisation, exchange controls, arms expenditure, the changes in the nature of exports from the imperialist countries, with the emphasis upon the export of capital goods to the ‘third world’. Also ‘one of the things we have to seriously consider is that the nature of the trade cycle seems to have altered since the end of the war’. [9]

The conclusions drawn at that time related to the immediate situation and future:

‘It seems obvious that the recession of 1958 has been passed by now and the economy is, and has been for some months, once more on the upswing, ‘The Slump’ has not developed. We do not face another period of 1929-31, but something very different. We believe that for a long time to come a slump of the catastrophic kind can be ruled out. But rather we are entering a period of recession with a general tendency for them to get longer and deeper, so that they will be indistinguishable from a classic slump, in their breadth and scope.’ [10]

This was issued by me in February 1960. I had wanted to stipulate that there would not be a deep-going slump for at least ten years, but the other members of the faction demurred at this, so I substituted ‘for a long time to come’.

I had begun the process of re-evaluation of a number of basic propositions held by the Trotskyist movement, and Marxists generally. However, I did not return to these basic themes until 1966/67, and much else intervened between 1960 and that later time.

As I have stated I returned to Birmingham, hoping to sort out my personal and political life. This meant that for a time I withdrew from activity within the RSL and the faction, since I needed a period for reflection and recuperation. Moreover, it rapidly became clear that the faction had disintegrated by the Spring of 1960. The Glasgow branch of the RSL, which was composed of the ex-Left Fraction, had ostensibly joined the opposition faction, but had proceeded to abstain on all the crucial votes at the conference. They claimed that they were not under any discipline and were not in 100 percent agreement with the opposition documents. Other members of the opposition faction in London had left the organisation. And the RSL as a whole was in no better shape. From a situation where there had been five branches of the RSL in London in 1958, by the spring of 1960 this was reduced to one central branch, and that only seemed to operate intermittently.