FUSION AND FISSION
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.