5.THE SPLIT IN THE RCP AND SERVICE IN THE AIR FORCE
As I have already mentioned, the faction fight in the organisation had been very fierce and had been going on for nearly three years, so by 1947 everyone was heartily sick of it. It was at the 1947 congress of the party that the split was prepared.
In fact although the formal faction fight had been going on since 1945/46, Healy had formed his own secret faction at the time of the founding conference of the RCP in March 1944, egged on by - and in collaboration with - leading members of the American SWP. The details of this can be found in Bornstein and Richardson's book. However, at a national meeting of Minority supporters in June 1947 a resolution was adopted which stated that in the event of their ‘platform' not being agreed upon at the forthcoming party conference they would request the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International to ‘allow the supporters of entry to work within the Labour Party under their own control'. This was a call for the de facto splitting of the RCP into entrist and open party organisations. At the conference of the party a few days later this call was decisively rejected. However, in the September of that year the IEC agreed to the Minority request. A special conference of the RCP was called in October to formalise this split, and the Healy minority departed to start their life as an independent organisation.
I had attended the national conference of the RCP in the summer of 1947 as an observer. I found it intensely interesting, being my first contact with many of the comrades and experience of a national conference.
I was able to take some holiday at that time and I had been to France, this being my first trip abroad on my own. I made my way to Paris and stayed with a young couple who were members of the PCI, the French Trotskyist organisation. The man was working at the Renault factory, and at this time there was a strike in progress. It soon became apparent that being known as a Trotskyist at the factory could be quite dangerous, since there had been several attacks by Stalinist goon squads upon members of the PCI. When I was taken to the flat of the young couple there was quite a prolonged discussion through the door before they were finally convinced that we were not a goon squad, and only then did they unbolt the door and let us in. They were both holding clubs that would have put baseball bats to shame, they were taking no chances. Although I did not speak any French I found that I was able to get around Paris quite easily because of the underground trains. Thus I was able to roam around on my own, seeing many of the usual tourist sights, and even the Communards graveyard. It was not that I was neglected by the French comrades, rather I had landed upon them at a time of intense activity, because of the strikes and also because there was a ferment going on in the Youth Section of SFIO in which the PCI had played some role. I know I ended up one day standing outside the office of Le Populaire helping to hand out leaflets, but that was the only event I took part in. It seemed that a number of the SFIO Youth had occupied these offices as a part of their protests against the treatment being handed out to them by the adult party. Never the less, I found my stay in Paris very satisfying, it gave me an opportunity to become acquainted with another way of life, one much the same as my own in some respects but so different in others. Being 1947 food was still rationed, and to eat in a small cafe one had to part with some food coupons, as well as money! However, I found one particular small restaurant that intrigued me, it was completely open plan, so that as you sat waiting for the food you could see it being cooked by the chef, I believe it was called the Cafe des Beaux Arts, I wonder if it is still open? Another small aspect of the food rationing that stuck in my mind was the lack of sugar, in most cafes there was no sugar provided. However, many of them provided sugar water to put in the coffee. This sugar water was in small bottles, very much like the vinegar bottles in British fish & chip shops, and when I first saw people shaking the contents into their coffee I was puzzled until I found out what it was! One aspect of life in France that I certainly appreciated was the cafes, these were - and still are - superior places to British pubs for socialising in.
I returned to London a day or so before the RCP conference opened and I was thus able to talk to a number of leading comrades informally, Jock Haston, Millie Lee, Roy Tearse, Jock Milligan, Heaton Lee, etc. These were the people that I had heard talked about in branch meetings, and had read about or read their writings in the publications of the party. I was in some awe of these people, since most of them had been active for many years, leading struggles, and had helped to develop the WIL and then the RCP. However, none of them had any pretensions, they willingly spent time talking to me - despite their busy schedule in the run-up to the conference - and made me feel at home and a welcome comrade. Mixing with the majority faction comrades I found the same warmth and comradeship that I had encountered in the Birmingham branch.
However, at the sessions of the conference itself one could visibly feel the tense atmosphere. Such was the factional animosity, which had been engendered in the previous years, that already the party was split in all but name. When the minority resolution on the question allowing them to enter the Labour Party became known it produced considerable wrath on the part of the majority. All the sessions of the conference were tense. However, I do recall that when John Lawrence spoke I was impressed. Lawrence had an easy platform presence, and an engaging manner of speaking. I cannot recall what he said, but I definitely remember wishing that he was with the majority. The other speaker I remember from that conference was Michel Pablo. He had to speak through an interpreter, so there was a slight lag in the reactions to what he said. He criticised the majority leadership of the party, and the longer he spoke the more hostile became the audience. At one point he was suggesting that the majority were taking a political course that would lead to the same position as Shachtman and Damaziere, at which point the hall erupted in boos and cat-calls. It did not endear Pablo to his listeners, and merely confirmed most of them in their already existing hostility. This hostility had been nurtured over some considerable time because it was suspected, quite rightly, that Healy's faction was supported covertly by the IS of the FI. This was further inflamed when Pablo was taxed with meetings with Healy unbeknown to the leadership of the RCP, and denied this. However, Millie Lee got up and said that he had been seen entering the cafe where Healy was sitting, shortly before the session of the congress began.
As I have mentioned the Minority resolutions were all defeated at the conference, but I think most people knew that was not the last of the matter. When the spilt was consummated in the October most people had been acclimatised to the prospect. Therefore, although there was a heightened bitterness engendered against the Minority for splitting the party, at the October conference it was accepted.
There were, and are, a number of points of view about the correctness of what happened at that point. Should the minority have been allowed to enter the LP as a separate group? Should they have been forced to accept the majority decisions and pursue the open party tactic? Should they have been allowed to enter the LP but under the control of the CC of the RCP? There were a number of options which could have been adopted, none of which would have satisfied everyone, and few would have satisfied either the majority or the minority.
In retrospect I believe that the splitting of the RCP was the correct thing to do, since it allowed the tactics to be played out without the overheated factionalism then rife. However, as to whether the manner of the splitting was correctly handled I have extreme doubts. To allow the minority to go off and in essence break all contact with the majority of the RCP merely accelerated and accentuated all the tendencies inherent in both groups. Above all it allowed Gerry Healy to set up shop on his own without any real scrutiny as to what he was doing. In this respect the IEC and IS of the FI had a very heavy responsibility, along with the Cannon faction of the American SWP. Without this outside support Healy could not have survived and flourished in the manner he did, both before the split and afterwards. At no time in his long political career did Healy display any original political ideas, he always picked ideas from others and used them - often in a blatantly crude manner - to suit his own ends. However, all such speculation is based upon the premise that there could have been a healthy development for the Trotskyists at this time based upon the basic assumptions shared by all tendencies, I shall comment upon that question later.
At the time I, like most of the Birmingham majority supporters, felt acute resentment that the minority was splitting the party. Yet, on the other hand there was a sense of relief when the minority departed, since now we felt that we could concentrate upon building the party instead of having to read the interminable internal bulletins that the faction fight had generated.
However, despite our best efforts there were to be no new recruits. We did our best, as I have described in the previous chapter, we were extremely active but there were no results. What the departure of the minority did was to reveal the isolation of the RCP from the mainstream of the labour movement, all its best days were well and truly behind it when I joined in 1947. The election of a Labour Government in 1945 had stripped away the conditions which had given rise to the span of influence that the WIL/RCP had achieved, i.e. the electoral truce and the coalition government. In fact the internal faction fight had become a substitute for external political activity, and when this too was terminated a type of desolation descended upon many people. It was as though they were being rudely awakened from a dream to the cold light of day.
I did not witness at first hand the final collapse of the RCP which occurred in 1949, since I had been called up for national service in the RAF in May 1948. My own inclination had been to register as a conscientious objector. However, the rest of comrades eventually talked me into accepting the party policy of ‘going with the workers', so I grudgingly accepted my fate and reported for duty.
I did my basic training at Padgate in Lancashire, learning the rudiments of foot-drill and ‘musketry', although I never became very proficient with the .303 rifle but at least I learned which end the bullets came out of. This lasted eight weeks, at the end of which we were graduated amid much bullying by drill sergeants and corporals, plus a lot ‘bull', i.e. spit and polish. Conditions at Padgate were at best bleak and most of the time just awful. As recruits we were bullied, chivied, talked at, shouted at and made to run practically everywhere from early morning to late at night. It was probably no worse than millions of others have had to endure in armies the world over, and it may have possibly been better than some, but at the time it seemed like hell. Nearly all of our instructors were ex-aircrew who had opted to stay in the service after the end the war, but had ended up as drill instructors for new recruits. Many of them seemed to resent their present situation, and seemed determined to take it out on us recruits. To us new arrivals their whole being seemed to be menacing, dressed in airforce blue battle-dress, razor sharp creases all over their uniforms, with ‘cheescutter' caps jammed on their heads so that their eyes were concealed, they clanked literally as they walked.
We found out that the clanking came from assorted whistles that were carried by instructors, plus the lead weights they put at the bottom of their trousers (above the gaiters) to hold them in place!! At first encounter they presented a ferocious sight and sound, particularly as they yelled at the top of their voice. I suppose the ‘theory' behind all this bizarre behaviour was that if they frightened us enough it would be possible to train us in the time allotted. Woe betide any ‘flight' that had to be put behind for further training, if we thought it was bad to begin with.... However, I had some insight to the reverse of this ‘theory'. One particular day we were on the drill square, and I was having some difficulty in grasping a particular drill movement. The more I tried the worse I became, the worse I became the more the instructor screamed at me, so I became more flustered....Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see our Flight Officer beckoning me. I thought I was in for ‘a right b********g'. However, he did not shout at me, he took me to the side of the square and said in a quiet voice ‘watch my feet', and then demonstrated the drill movement several times. Then he asked me to try, and when I didn't get it right, just quietly showed me again. After a few minutes I had the movement of ‘pat' and was able to return to the flight and carry on. What all the screaming and abuse had failed to do had been achieved by some quiet words and a simple demonstration! Incidentally, whilst I was doing this basic training there was a major change in drill. When we first arrived we were taught to complete most foot movements with a stamp of the foot. However, this was stopped after a few weeks and we had to re-learn many of our drill movements so that we eliminated the heavy stamping. It appears that someone somewhere had realised that all that stamping and bashing of feet down on the hard asphalt was damaging to the spine!! ‘We knew that'.
I left Padgate and went to a camp near Hereford to train as an Equipment Assistant (i.e. store keeper). This training only lasted four weeks and was relatively painless after ‘square-bashing'. The highlight of my stay there was the closure of one of the mess halls by the Medical Officer because it was so dirty. I was not pleased at first since I had been in a queue for about 20 minutes waiting for a meal when this happened. However, on reflection I realised I should be grateful, at least I had been spared food poisoning! Having been passed as an Air Craftsman 1st Class I was posted on the Yatesbury in Wiltshire.
Yatesbury stood on the Wiltshire downs, bleak and unyielding in winter. The soil was white clay, so that when it rained we trailed white mud everywhere. It was a hutted encampment, built during the war. The camp was a training establishment for Radar and Radio fitters, Engineers, and Operators. It was a huge place, being able to accommodate many thousands at its peak, but by 1948 only half the camp was in full use. I was assigned to the Headquarters staff, and worked in the main stores of the camp, dealing with radio valves, radar tubes etc., it was routine and totally un-exciting. I had struck up a friendship with Eric White, an Equipment Assistant like me and had arrived on camp on the same day. Knocker, as we called him, became my buddy for the rest of my service. Knocker was put in charge of one of the Wing Stores, which dealt with bedding, mugs, cutlery, clothing etc. for the trainees on the wing. It was a ‘cushy' number, and he made full use of its facilities....
Some time after I arrived I was put in charge of the Advanced Ground Radar School stores. This was a unit outside the main perimeter of the camp, and had a high volume of stores transactions, mainly - again - in radio components, radar parts and tubes etc. Although I was only an AC1, I had a corporal Radar Fitter with me as a technical adviser, but I was responsible for the stores. Why such an arrangement had been set up I do not know, since I never found any need for a technical adviser! I had all the manuals to tell me what I needed to know about store procedure!! However, Taffy, as he was called, was actually invaluable, but in ways unforeseen by ‘higher authorities'. Taffy had a nicely fitted-out workshop at the rear of the store, and he spent his time manufacturing small radios from ‘gash' spare parts that we salvaged. There was a disused NAAFI building on AGRS site and this was full to the rafters with old radios, radar sets etc. It was from these that Taffy and I selected what we needed for making the sets. Later he graduated to making TV sets! By this time the BBC had resumed its TV transmissions, and Taffy was able to bodge up some TVs from old Radar sets. Unfortunately we did not benefit directly from these, since the three he made went to officers on the camp, the first being the inventory holder for the stores, and the others on the staff of AGRS. We did benefit indirectly however, since no one bothered Taffy and I in our snug stores. Neither of us attended any parades, not even pay parades since we usually got our money via casual payments when we were near the pay office!. Apart from the chilly bicycle ride to work in the winter this, like Knocker's job, was a ‘cushy billet', and it lasted more or less until I completed my service in February 1950. We found that so long as I kept the stores records in good order, kept a proper balance of spare parts available, and the stores looking neat and clean we were never hindered in our main pursuits!! One final side benefit from this activity was what was written in my discharge book when I was demobbed. The Warrant Officer who was the inventory holder for AGRS had written into my book ‘Has carried out duties above his rank'!!! I think he had a very good sense of humour.
This whole period, from May 1948 to February 1950, was for me, politically on a personal level, completely uneventful. The party's idea that we should go where the workers went had made sense during the war. During the war there was obviously a wide mix of ages being called up, with many experienced workers in the ranks. By 1948 when I was inducted we were all 18 year old youths with little or no experience, and as such proved impervious to any attempts by me to raise political issues. I had copies of Socialist Appeal sent to me, but I never found anyone who was interested in reading it. In fact no one was interested enough to report me for having such material with me. Overwhelmingly the main preoccupation of all my mates was their demob date. None had any ideas of doing their patriotic duty, all they wanted was to go home and get on with their life. Like me they all found their service life a boring hiccup in their real lives. There was no ‘great cause' for them to hook up to, only badly paid routine work in out of the way places. I think from my own experience I was correct when I first wanted to resist being conscripted, the party policy on this question - like so much else - had failed to move with the times.
At this time there were three broad categories of people in the airforce: Firstly, the small number of leftovers from the pre-war regular airforce, many of these were of fairly low intelligence, even when they had reached senior NCO rank, and were the butt of most people. Secondly, there those who had stayed in the service after the war, largely because they did not want to face going back to what jobs - if any - they had before the war. They did not have the spit and polish attitude of the older regulars, since they had gained their experiences in the war. But they were a slightly disgruntled layer, not really committed to the service but not having anywhere else to go. At this time it was possible to sign on for 5 years periods, so they did not have to make such long-term commitments as before the war. Thirdly, there was us conscripts, few of whom even reached the rank of corporal, since we had little incentive to make the effort to pass the examinations necessary, we were not going to be in long enough to bother. Any attempt to appeal to our patriotism was met by piss-taking and contempt.
If there was any friction it was between the conscripts and the older regulars. One of our grievances was that no matter what grade we passed out of trade training, as conscripts we not entitled to the full pay until we had served six months, regulars obtained all their pay immediately on ‘passing out' from training. But this was never a subject that was likely to set anyone alight, it was accepted as a fact a life, even if an unpleasant one.
It was whilst I was serving in the airforce that Rhoda and I got married, in June 1949. It was odd, although we both now had all our firmest friends in the RCP, none of them came to our wedding. It was as though we had two quite separate lives, our own very personal life and the one we shared with our families. Neither my family nor Rhoda's approved of our political activities, and since we were under 21 we needed parental permission to marry. We decided to let the families have their own way and organise the wedding as they liked, and once we were married we would be able to lead our own lives. We knew that if we had tried to invite any of our comrades Rhoda's father in particular would have dug his heels in and probably refused permission for the wedding. As it was her father barely tolerated me, and he took every opportunity to snub me. When I had first met him, when I was about 16, I had been intimidated by him, and in fact Rhoda was afraid of him right up to the time she left home to marry me. But as I got older I began to develop an indifference to him, recognising him for the bully he was, and avoiding him for Rhoda's sake. But even though we were still only 19, once we were married we were able to shake ourselves free of parental interdictions, the law recognised us as being fully adult!
Rhoda was able to find a small, two roomed flat, for us and we had fixed it before the wedding. My parents had been particularly helpful in this respect. After the initial shock when I told them that Rhoda and I wanted to get married (and that no, she was not pregnant) they helped in any way they could, particularly my mother. After all I was still her ‘baby'! Furniture was found, or bought and pots and pans etc. produced. So that in the end we ended up with most of the essentials, at least by those days standards. Rhoda's parents were far less forthcoming, and it was not for the lack of money, merely the lack of will. Rhoda by this time had a job with a dentist, working as his nurse, and I was able to make a married allowance to her of two shillings per day which was doubled by the airforce. So she was able to escape her bullying father and set up on her own. I was able to get home every two weeks for a week-end, so unlike so many forces personnel during the war we were not separated for years on end. In fact it probably helped us to get used to living together, not being together all the time to start with probably helped in the transition period.
This was the personal background to the political developments taking place in the RCP. I only used to see the other comrades occasionally, so most of my information came via the Socialist Appeal, internal bulletins and from Rhoda. It came as a great shock when I learned that Tommy Reilly had defected from the RCP and tried to join the Stalinist CP. Tommy had been a member of the CC of the RCP and a full time organiser, playing a leading role in the fight against the fascist British Union Movement. That someone could leave the party was understandable, even if disappointing, but to want to join the CP!! That was the really shocking thing. When Jock Haston came out in late 1948 in favour of entry into the Labour Party and the dissolution of the RCP it came like a bolt from the blue for me. Even after Tommy Reilly's defection I had not realised that matters were getting so bad inside the party. It may be that because of her own inexperience Rhoda was not fully aware of what was happening. And it seems neither were most of the other comrades in Birmingham fully aware of the situation, even though they began to feel uneasy about the way the party was moving - or not moving - nationally. Haston's letter delivered a blow to morale that was already beginning to sag, and it was really down hill from there on.
At first there was considerable confusion inside the organisation. Not all the leading members on the CC accepted Haston's position, particularly Ted Grant and Jimmy Deane. However they did not actively oppose Haston but stood on the sidelines. It was left to a number of rank and file comrades to form a new Open Party faction, notably Alf Snobel, Sam Levy, Marion Lunt, George and Sheila Leslie, Charley Sisley, Geoff Carlson, Arthur Deane, Norman Pentland, J. Ross, Hettie Snobel and Sam Bornstein. Their faction was proclaimed in February 1949. And initially the party seemed to be split 25% for the Haston/Tearse line of entry, 25% supporting the Open Party Faction, and the rest standing on the sidelines, even if not silently. What swung the issue was when Ted Grant, Jimmy Deane and George Hanson came out in support of the entry tactic. They admitted that they did not believe in it, but argued that it was necessary to keep the leadership and organisation intact. Let me quote a part of what they said :
‘The discussion has not convinced us that in the present situation entry would constitute a superior tactic. However, faced with the fact that the overwhelming majority of the leadership and the trained cadres, and substantial sections of the rank and file are in favour of entering the Labour Party, and given that the objective situation will be a difficult one for the Party, we believe that a struggle would be sterile.'
In other words there was a complete abdication of responsibility by these people and rather than face a political struggle with their own politically intimate comrades they ducked out.
In this situation it became almost a forgone conclusion when the special conference of the RCP met on the 4th to 6th June 1949 that the dissolution of the RCP would take place and the entry tactic be adopted. Most of the rank and file members only agreed to this with great reservations and very heavy hearts. They agreed to it out of loyalty to the leadership, and particularly to Haston.
Although I was not able to participate in the discussions, I too was opposed to the move and only followed the majority out of the same loyalty to the leadership. I had an unnerving experience before the conference met. I had been sent to an RAF station just outside London for a short time to help out in the store, which had become disorganised through most of the staff being demobbed. I was able to get down to London one Sunday and went to Jock Haston and Millie Lee's flat in Maryland Rd.
Whilst I was there Gerry Healy arrived with his small daughter, who was very much like her father. He and Jock were finalising the details of the unification of the two groups that was to take place once the RCP had been officially dissolved as a public organisation, but in fact the organisation continued in being. I was horrified to learn that Healy's group would be given a majority on all the committees of the fused organisation, this despite the fact that even after two years independent work in the Labour Party they would still constitute a minority in the fused organisation. This was supposed to change after the first conference of the unified organisation which was due to be held 12 months after unification. When Healy had left I had protested very vigorously to Jock and Millie. Millie remained silent most of the time, but Jock argued that it was necessary because the Healy group had adopted the entry tactic two years before and had that much more experience in such work. This did not satisfy me, since the open party faction of the RCP had a fraction working in the LP before 1947 and after. But in the end Jock said I must accept the discipline of the organisation and this meant the discipline of the international, since there would be no fusion except on those terms because it was what the international (i.e. Pablo, Mandel, Frank and Cannon) insisted upon. I went away feeling very uneasy, but I cannot remember if I communicated this unease to my comrades in Birmingham. As far as I can recall the RCP was officially ‘dissolved' in July 1949 and actually fused with the Healy group in the September of that year. I cannot recall much of what happened between these events and my demobilisation from the Air Force in February 1950. Only in retrospect was it possible to see that Haston at least, if not others of the RCP leadership, had deliberately connived at the handing over of the whole organisation to Healy. Haston must have been planning his own departure from Trotskyism well before he actually took the final step in February 1950. Obviously Haston wanted to dump his responsibilities as leader of the RCP, and the conditions of the fusion with the Healy group provided him with a way out of his dilemma. It was a sad end to what up to then had been a distinguished record of struggle for Trotskyism.
One of the few people who attempted to draw some political conclusions from the debacle of the RCP had been Frank Ward. In 1949 he had already raised some pertinent questions regarding the founding of the FI, but in 1950 he issued a document entitled ‘The Left and the Labour Government' in which he attempted to grapple with the contradictions between the perspectives of the RCP and the actual course of events. By this time he had, of course, been branded as a ‘deserter' and either been expelled or had left the movement voluntarily. Ward raised four basic assumptions of the Trotskyist movement which he said needed to be addressed:
‘1. That Parliament could never be the instrument of major social change.
‘2. That substantial nationalisation would lead to civil war.
‘3. That the old state machine had to be smashed. If it was not then it would grow constantly as a vicious anti-working class force.
‘4. That no such system as a ‘mixed economy' could maintain itself.'
Whatever one may think about Frank Ward's proposed solutions to these questions, and will look at them later, the fact remains that he had attempted to open up discussion around some quite pertinent and fundamental questions relating to the failure of the RCP, and Trotskyism internationally. But, it must be said, that he proved to be a very lone voice at that time, few of us were prepared to consider our predicament in the depth that Ward's questions required. Frank Ward was lumped together with Haston and Tearse as being demoralised, which was not true of Ward as a reading of his document demonstrates. However, this is not the place to attempt to analyse the reasons for the failure of the Trotskyist movement at this time. I merely record that there were a few isolated voices raised, Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman in the USA, and Frank Ward in Britain, that did attempt a theoretical accounting, and were damned for their efforts.
There was one event however that did have considerable bearing on what happened in Birmingham subsequently. And I shall deal with that in the next chapter.
As I have already mentioned the RCP officially dissolved itself in July 1949, and shortly thereafter the two groups, the RCP and the Club (as Healy's group was known) fused, with Healy's tendency having a Majority on all committees. Reluctantly the Birmingham comrades of the RCP began to work with the Healy people in Birmingham. The Club had grown somewhat in Birmingham since 1947, but mainly through members moving there from other parts of the country, nationally they had been almost as unsuccessful as the Majority in recruiting.
I began to hear from Rhoda that there was an enormous amount of pressure put on everyone to be super-active. It seemed as though she was out at some meeting or activity five, six or even seven nights a week. Now, for Rhoda to complain in this way was surprising, since even in our worst times the RCP had been very active, so the level of activity must have been stepped up several notches. At first I did not pay much attention to these complaints, until one day I received a letter from Rhoda telling me that she had resigned from the Club, but not from the Labour Party and LLOY. (I should mention at this point that she, and I later, had no difficulty in gaining readmission to the LP despite our resignations in 1947.) I was very disturbed by this turn of events, I had not realised that matters had become so desperate.
When I was able to talk to Rhoda face to face she explained that, apart from the enormous pressure put on her, she was very unhappy with the internal life of the Club. At that point it was difficult for her to be precise, what she said was that the Healyites in the branch seemed very cold and unfriendly, they always seemed suspicious of what any of the old Majority comrades said. The old easy-going comradeship of the RCP seemed to have disappeared. Because the group was now wholly inside the Labour Party everyone had to have ‘party names' for ‘security'. Some of the Healyites had chosen ‘party names' with heroic connotations, but since the old Majority comrades were contemptuous of such antics they chose names with much more mundane connotations, e.g. ‘Angler'.
The branch meetings were held in out of the way places, very rarely in the same place twice running. Altogether, Rhoda found the atmosphere conspiratorial. On top of this she had met Healy a couple of times, once in Birmingham and once a LLOY rally in Filey Yorkshire. She recounted that each time she had felt repelled by the man, he carried an air of menace around with him, and always seemed to have one of two ‘minders' with him. This ‘feeling' about Healy is important, since the year was 1949. It is true that those of us in old Majority faction had not been very well disposed towards Healy, but up to then I had never heard any suggestion of menace. However, Rhoda had unerringly picked something that it took the rest of us a little while longer to detect. There had been one amusing incident in Rhoda's trip to the LLOY rally. She had been allocated selling the Socialist Outlook outside the main hall as the delegates came in. This she did, and as was her way with some gusto, only to have someone nudge her in the side and whisper in her ear ‘not Socialist Appeal, its Socialist Outlook'. She had been blithely shouting the wrong name for some time apparently before she was checked! But I think that was the only laugh she got out of her trip.
I decided that since Rhoda was still continuing her other political activities it was best not to make an issue of her resignation. What I did not know at the time was that Healy and Harry Finch (the Birmingham Club secretary) had appeared at our flat door late one night and attempted to gain admittance to try to dissuade Rhoda from leaving the Club. She had the good sense, or was perhaps too afraid, to let them in and refused to discuss the matter with them. I only learned of this many years later, I think Rhoda did not tell me at the time because she thought - quite correctly - that I would have been angry at what appeared to be an attempt to apply unwarranted pressure. It should be remembered that Rhoda was only 20 years old at the time, and usually stood in some awe of older comrades, so to have two of them appear on her doorstep late at night asking to be admitted she found somewhat frightening. In the meanwhile she had kept in touch with the Ainsworth's and Downey's.
When I was demobbed in February 1950, I soon found work at the Austin Motor Co. (where I had gone to work some time before I had been conscripted). However, because of various problems with the low wages I was getting I decided to leave and return to my old trade as a butcher. I had been put on ‘rectification' at Austin Motors, so that I had to have my machine reset several times a day, and thus could not work up any speed to obtain a decent wage. I obtained a post at a local hospital as the butcher and stayed there for nearly four years.
Naturally I took up my membership of the Club when I returned. I assumed the ‘party name' of ‘Austin'! I attended my first branch meeting, which was held at the Nelson St. School near the centre of Birmingham. I cannot recall what name the room was booked under, but it had no political connotations at all. It was a dark foggy, wet night, and we seemed to sidle into this meeting in ones and twos in a rather furtive manner. The atmosphere when the meeting began was decidedly cool, I noticed that my old RCP comrades had very little to say about anything. It was as though they wanted to give as few ‘hostages to fortune' as possible. Everyone seemed wary of each other. All in all I found it a creepy experience. It certainly confirmed what Rhoda had said about the atmosphere of the meetings.
I remember after the meeting finished I walked out of the school and decided to wait for one of the ‘old gang'. I had to do this because it was a rule that we did not leave the meetings together, again for security reasons! I had glimpsed the look of relief on Bill Ainsworth's face as the meeting had been brought to a close, so I went to the bus stop I knew he and Percy would have to use to return home. I stood in some shadows in case any of the Healyites were about, but this was not the case. It is interesting how quickly I had adapted to the conspiratorial atmosphere. When Bill and Percy arrived I spoke to them and we fixed up to see each again fairly soon.
Just what the date of all this was I cannot recall, but I had been demobbed in February so it must have been some time in March or early April at the latest, 1950. When I did meet with the others, it was at Bill Ainsworth's house in Perry Barr, since it was the most convenient place for Bill and Percy who lived quite close to each other. When I arrived I found that Peter Morgan and Jerry Curran had also been invited. This did not surprise me at all, and the meeting was rather like a genuine re-union with my old comrades, unlike the cold atmosphere at Nelson St. Schools. We celebrated my return in true style then, with lots of cups of weak tea (rationing was still in force).
It rapidly became clear that no one was happy about the Club. Nor were the objections mainly due to the atmosphere and the antics we saw played out in the branch meetings. At that precise point we did not know whether what was going on in Birmingham was a general phenomenon or merely peculiar to Birmingham. However, finding out what was going on in the rest of the organisation was difficult. Under the new set-up we were forbidden to contact other branches of the group, all communications had to be via the national office. Even our ability to have serious political discussions on any internal bulletins that were sent out was severely limited by the rule that we could only keep them for one week and then they had to be returned to the branch secretary. Each document was numbered and it was checked off against your name as it was given out and returned. Even if one wanted to hang onto a particular document for longer by ‘forgetting' to bring it back the following week meant one risked censure. And one could not ‘forget' to bring such documents back too often or the secretary would begin to get suspicious. It has to be recalled that at this time there were no such things as photocopiers readily available. There were only three ways to copy such documents, one could type them, if one had a typewriter, they could be photographed, or they could be copied by hand.
However, for some reason I was able to hang on to a copy of a Club document which was a draft for their 1949 conference. The contents did not inspire confidence in the leadership that we were being placed under. Its main assumptions were:
1. ‘The world economic and political situation is dominated by the approaching crisis of overproduction in the USA. ...The political implications of this ...[for] the British capitalists are already obvious. They will resist any further wage increases, and even attempt to lower wages absolutely....The luxuries of social services, housing for workers and other reforms introduced by the Labour Government must go.
2. ‘We are entering a pre-revolutionary stage in the history of British capitalism when the problem of power will be posed ever more sharply before the workers and the revolutionary vanguard.... It is this developing revolutionary situation which must permeate all the activities of the group in the coming period.'
It should be noted that in the whole of this document there were no figures presented to support any of these wild assumptions. However, taking a few simple indices we find:
Hours lost due to industrial disputes fell from 2,835,000 in 1946 to 1,807,000 in 1949.
National income was £8,340m on 1945 and in 1949 it stood at £10,240m
Industrial production taking 1924 = 100. 1946 = 149.4, 1949 = 182.5.
In fact all indices of national income, production etc. for the period from 1945 to 1949 had shown steady increases. The only exception was for employment, there was an upwards surge in unemployment for the winter of 1947, but this was due to an exceptionally severe winter and low fuels stocks, this had entailed many factories being temporarily closed because of a lack of fuel. We also have to place along side the ‘revolutionary' perspective of the Healy group the sweeping gains made by the Conservatives (in various guises) in the 1949 local elections. It was not that these ‘perspectives' were wrong, but that they were so blatantly at odds with reality. No one who had any contact with reality could have suggested that in 1949 Britain was in a pre-revolutionary period. This was the leadership that we had had forced upon us. It was not a case of being wise after the event, even though it was obvious that there were social and economic problems in Britain and indeed the rest of the world, nothing suggested the type of catastrophe outlined in this document, which incidentally took its cue from the documents being put out by the IEC of the FI. It was little wonder then that some of us from the old RCP Majority were, to say the least, scornful of our ‘leaders'.
The meetings with the other comrades of the RCP quickly became a regular feature. We obviously had to keep these meetings secret from the branch, and it was often quite difficult to arrange them because of the heavy load of other activities that were piling up on us. However, the first thing we did was to contact as many of the old RCP that we knew by post. By then we had heard of Jock Haston's resignation from the organisation, and this had been a severe blow to our morale. Haston had sent his letter in February but I cannot recall at what date we were actually told, but it must have been very shortly afterwards. It appears that Haston was ceremoniously ‘expelled' from the Club a month later. As far as I know Haston's letter of resignation was never circulated to the members of the Club, we were merely informed that he had been expelled for ‘desertion to reformism'. Haston was not the last to suffer this fate, over the next few months there were a steady stream of expulsions from the organisation of ex-leading members of the RCP majority. These were often on the most flimsy excuse. It is true that in the case of Jock Haston there had been a clear case of his defecting not merely from the organisation but also from the ideas that he had held as the leader of the RCP. However, this was not the case with many other people who were expelled during the first part of 1950. Together with the official news that we were given about such expulsions, we began to get news from other comrades up and down the country that a veritable purge was being carried out of all those that refused to submit the Healy's dictatorial methods.
We comrades of the old Majority now constituted ourselves into a sort of secret faction with those meetings held away from the branch. At that point we could not formulate what we were going to do, and what platform we should adopt. What we did feel however was a burning sense of being let down by Haston and all the other leaders of the old majority. We felt particularly incensed with the Ted Grant and Jimmy Deane, we felt that they had covered up Haston's demoralisation during the last year of the RCP and had failed to warn us what was likely to happen once the two groups had been unified. In this sense we felt that we had been led to the slaughter, and had gone mainly because we had trusted our leaders. On the other hand we all felt repulsed by the politics and organisational methods of Healy and his clique. Our problem at that precise point was what should we do?
Having established our secret meetings on a regular basis we began to try to formulate some political criticisms of the political line of the Club. We also invited Tony Cliff to visit us for a discussion. Cliff came to Birmingham some time either in May or June of 1950, it was certainly before the Club's annual conference which was held in July. He attempted to persuade us to declare ourselves state-capitalists, i.e. followers of his theory. We had all seen his massive internal bulletin on the question of state-capitalism in Russia when it had been produced in 1947, but none of us had been sufficiently convinced to become followers of Cliff. Given all the other matters that had been besetting us around that time it is hardly surprising that Cliff did not make much impression. The outbreak of the Korean war in June gave us a further impetus to wrestle with our problems. This time Cliff was more persuasive and argued along the following lines:
‘If you continue to see Stalinist Russia as a workers' state and admit that the Stalinists can carry through a revolution (Eastern Europe, China) then you end up adopting Stalinist policies (e.g. Socialist Outlook, the IEC line on Jugoslavia) and Stalinist organisational methods, e.g. Healy's purge. The only way out of this dilemma was to adopt a state-capitalist line.' (This is a paraphrase, not a direct quotation.)
Although we were very sympathetic to Cliff's position, we did not feel that we had had sufficient time to consider all the implications at that point. We decided to postpone a decision until after the national conference due to be held in July. But it has to be said that we were more than half-convinced by Cliff at our meeting with him.
However, we had already produced a document of our own for submission to the national conference. This was a criticism of the Socialist Outlook and the politics of that paper and by implication those of the Club. I had prepared the original draft of this document and after discussion and amendment at a meeting of our secret faction it was submitted in the name of Percy Downey and myself. We did not want it put forward as the document of a group of comrades, since to do that would have meant admitting that we had been meeting together. However, as it was Harry Finch the branch secretary was quite suspicious when we presented it, but he could not prove anything.
The document was entitled ‘A Critical View of the Paper'. We had attempted to keep our criticisms at a fairly low key, so as not to give an excuse for Healy to move against us and expel us before the conference. It is worthwhile quoting a few lines from this document since, as far as I know, it has never been reproduced or quoted from in any other writings on that period.
1. ‘ ...there have been a number of serious mistakes and omissions. The first and most serious of these is its failure to combat Stalinism actively and directly. Reference to Stalinism and its crimes are extremely rare in the columns of the paper, and in at least one of these rare references - to wit - the Editorial comment on the C.P. intervention in the General Election (see the issue for April 1950) - the subject is not dealt with in a creditable way. In the article cited, the comment is incorrect in emphasis, comes dangerously close to rendering assistance to the Stalinists in the propagation of their treacherous policies, and also betrays something of a misunderstanding of the reasons for their utter defeat in the elections.'
2. ‘It is especially regrettable that the Stalinist ‘peace Campaign' has not been thoroughly exposed in our paper for what it is; namely a cynical attempt to exploit, on behalf of the Soviet bureaucracy, the genuine and fast-growing feeling among workers for a reversal of the drive towards war. The paper ought consistently to have presented our clear alternative to this Stalinist treachery - and also, of course, to the policy of the Social democrats - but in fact, practically nothing has been done. The extreme urgency of this task us underlined by the Korean events, even if the not by the report of the I[nternational] S[ecretariat], dated April 1950, with its categorical and patently false statement that ‘the out-break of the third world war (is) impossible for long years.' ‘
3. ‘Another and not less serious point of criticism is the question of Yugoslavia. Whilst it is indisputably correct to support the Yugoslavs in their struggle against the Cominform, an uncritical attitude to their activities past or present, and their theories where these are false, is both unjustifiable and dangerous. We cannot forget for example that, even as late as July 5th 1948 (i.e. after the Tito-Stalin split), Comrade John G. Wright in the SWP Militant wrote ‘Tito knows no other school of politics that Stalinism. The hands of this shady adventurer drip with blood of hundreds of Yugoslav Trotskyists and other militants whom he murdered during the civil war in Yugoslavia. He began his service as a purger of Stalin's political opponents as far back as 1928...'...we are now expected to regard this previous attitude as being false and without foundation in fact, as has been suggested verbally by the British secretary [i.e. Healy] and other comrades - and this appears to be the reason for the silence of our part on this important question - the onus rests upon these comrades to advance some proofs that it is false...'
4. ‘In politics, suppression of criticism is much more serious than silence, as everyone in our ranks will readily agree.
In this connection it has been alleged, by M. Lee, that criticism has been suppressed by the editorial board of the paper, in respect of a letter critical of the Yugoslavian leadership. Whilst the allegation has been given fairly wide circulation, no denial has been issued, (unless to a limited circle). With view of the serious nature of this allegation, the facts should be given to the membership, and the charge rebutted, if, as it is to be hoped and expected, it is a false one.'
5. ‘Another extremely important question, which, although it has been dealt with in the paper, has been handled badly, is the wages issue. The ideas of the transitional programme of the FI. on this question centred as they are around the demand for a sliding scale of wages, etc., have not been presented clearly and consistently as the ONLY wages policy which meets the situation. ...OUR wages policy, omitting as it does, the all-important sliding scale demand etc., is, despite its protestations to the contrary, hardly distinguishable from the line of the C.P. on this issue...'
These five points represent the main thrust of the short document submitted to the 1950 conference of the Club. They represent a clear and unequivocal line of rejection of the slide towards Stalinism and reformism which was evident in the pages of Socialist Outlook. There was no bending towards Haston, nor any towards Healy. It is somewhat ironic that when certain people discuss Healyism and attempt to pin down the start of his ‘decline' no mention is made of this first statement against Healy in the British section of the Fourth International. Of course, in that particular document no mention was made about the Stalinist organisational practices of Healy, because at that point we did not want to precipitate our own expulsion. Nevertheless the battle lines were drawn around quite fundamental issues.
I was elected as one of the two delegates from the Birmingham branch to the conference of the Club in July 1950, Harry Finch was other delegate. This was evidence that our branch was evenly divided between Healyites and opponents, if the Healyites had had a majority they would have collared both delegates.
I had been informed that the conference would be held in London at one of the town hall's, either Battersea or Camden I cannot be sure. However a day or so before I was due to leave for the conference I had a letter telling me not to go the venue I had been given but on arrival in London to telephone a number (given in the letter) and announce myself by my party name and I would be told where to go. This I duly did, and was told to proceed to a different address. This was the headquarters of the forerunner of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, which was called the Anti-Imperialist League or some such name. Naturally, we were meeting in the basement, and when I knocked the door it was slid open a few inches and I gave my party name. The door was closed again, and I waited, presumably they were checking a list. Eventually the door opened and I was admitted. The room was not large and badly lit.
As more people arrived the small hall began to fill up, and I realised that there were very few people that I knew. I found a seat at the back of the hall. Healy opened the proceedings by saying that we might be raided by the police at any moment, and that lookouts had been placed to warn us if this happened. It also transpired that, apart from one or two selected individuals, there were no visitors allowed into the conference.
As the discussions proceeded it soon became clear that the large majority of those present were supporters of Healy. Those few opposition delegates sat together in a small huddle at the back of the hall. There were two supporters of Cliff who protested at his exclusion from the conference on the dubious grounds that he was not a member of the British Section. His document had not been circulated because ‘it had arrived too late'. Ted Grant was present, but as far as I can recall had not submitted any counter resolutions or documents. One of the most startling things was one of Gerry Healy's speeches when he shouted at Ted Grant that he ‘should get back to dung heap of history where he belonged'. I had never heard such abusive language used by anyone in the movement before, particularly to a comrade. Instead of protests this effluvia was met by wild applause from Healy's supporters. This was an indication of how degenerate the Club was already in 1950. The whole atmosphere which had been built up, secret names, clandestine venues, fear of police raids, etc. was hysterical. Any criticism of the leadership was met by boos, hisses or cat-calls. The full panoply of intimidation was in place at that conference. It is extremely unlikely that there would have been a police raid, even at that time since the political activity of the Club was legal.
During one of the meals breaks I managed to have a few words with Ted Grant. I told him that I in no way supported the way he had been abused during the conference but I could not support him in anyway whatsoever, since I regarded him as being as guilty as Haston for leading us into this mad-house. He had no real defence to offer.
So the opposition to Healy at the conference was small, fragmented and ineffectual. But this did not represent the true state of feeling within the organisation as a whole.
Another aspect of Healy's manipulation of the organisation was in the election to the National Committee. In the RCP when there had been organised factions it had been the practice for each faction to submit a slate of its supporters for election to the Central Committee, in this way the minority was guaranteed that it would be represented by those supporters who it chose. The numbers allocated to each factions slate was based upon the voting strength at the conference. Since there never had been any hint of manipulation by the majority in the RCP, no one doubted that the number of delegates to conference represented the true support within the party as whole. At the 1950 conference of the Club the outgoing EC presented a single slate of recommendations for NC members. Since there had been no organised factions represented at conference there was no question of separate slates. This single slate was a new departure as far as the practices of the old RCP majority supporters were concerned, and appeared to have been adopted from the Stalinists. Moreover, if anyone wanted to nominate someone who was not on the slate they also had to submit a name for deletion. This no doubt was included for ensure maximum friction between members. However, this did not stop me nominating someone, who I cannot now recall, but I do remember that since the only person who I was familiar with on the slate was Harry Finch my co-delegate from Birmingham I submitted his name to be removed. It did not help our subsequent relations, short lived though those were to be!
Another aspect of this conference should be mentioned. A short time before the conference we had had copies of an IEC document on the international situation sent to us for discussion. Of course we had had only one week to read it before handing it back into the branch secretary. At the conference we were handed copies of what purported to be an amended version of the same document. However, on close inspection I felt, and so did others, that the ‘amendments' had been such as to change the whole character of the document. But since no one - apart from the leadership - had access to the original version there was no way in which one could check.
A resolution on reformism was submitted by the EC, which some delegates objected to. However, we were told that anyone voting against its implementation would be subjected to disciplinary action, since once it was passed its acceptance became a condition of membership. Then a resolution was placed before the conference agreeing to the implementation of the resolution on reformism, and if you voted against this you would immediately be disciplined!! In other word we were forced to vote for a resolution we did not agree with or face expulsion.
I also learned from other opposition delegates that branches had been split up, unified and so on at the whim of Gerry Healy, so as to ensure the maximum number of delegates who were his supporters. This information supplemented what we had been able to find out for ourselves from Birmingham, confirming that expulsions and ‘reorganisation' had been going on over the whole country.
It was clear that once the unification had been effected between the RCP and the Club, Healy had proceeded to remove as many as he could of the old majority leadership and their more vocal supporters throughout the organisation. This had been done in a systematic and planned manner, and with one end in view, that Healy would command a loyal and obedient conference when it met and would thus ensure his continued leadership of the organisation. When I heard people praise Healy's organisational skills in later years, it was his manipulation of the internal life of his organisation that sprang to my mind first and foremost.
We were told at this time that because Jock Haston had ‘deserted' to reformism all personal contact must be broken off with him. I believe the first victim of this diktat had been Roy Tearse who refused to practice this Stalinist barbarism. However, even in such matters Gerry Healy could not be honest, for many years afterwards he maintained contact with Jock Haston and met him for political advice!! This was the level of hypocrisy that Healy could descend to, being prepared to expel members for doing what he did!! I know for certain that this relationship between Healy and Haston continued at least until the mid-1960s, when I personally witnessed their meetings on several occasions. I had never had any compunction about keeping in contact with ‘deserters', and I was renting a room from Jock Haston and Millie in 1965/66 at their large house in Larkhall Rise, South London. That is how I came to witness Healy's visits.
When I returned to Birmingham after the conference I met with the other members of the ‘secret' faction and gave my report on the proceedings and how I viewed the events. After considerable discussion we unanimously came to the conclusion that we had no place in Healy's organisation. Secondly we decided to contact Tony Cliff and tell him we were prepared to throw in our lot with him and help start a separate state-capitalist group in Britain. As I said in the previous chapter, we had already been more than half-convinced by Cliff before the conference, and my report of events there was sufficient to tip us all decisively in favour of Cliff's explanations for what was happening and support his theories.
Neither of these decisions were taken lightly, I had been a Trotskyist for four years, but for the other comrades they had been Trotskyists for much longer. We knew that when we left the Healy group we would be placing ourselves outside the ranks of the Fourth International. But none of us at that time considered that we were making any fundamental break with Trotskyism, on the contrary we now saw state-capitalist theory as being the rounding out of Trotskyist theory.
How we left the Healy group and helped to form the state-capitalist group in Britain I will explain in the next chapter.