CONTRIBUTION AT THE MEMORIAL MEETING FOR BOB PENNINGTON, in Leeds on February 8, 1997.
Other speakers will have more tales to tell than I, but no one disputes that Bob was a colourful, energetic and ingenious character. The essential thing is that he devoted himself to building the Fourth International as best as he knew how. He first met Trotskyists in Blackpool about 1949. Mary was secretary of the Blackpool South Labour Party and we sparred with the handful of members of the Communist Party there, of whom Bob was one. His own account was never quite precise, but he said that he had been in the RAF and then down a coal-mine, out of which he was invalided. We won him to the Revolutionary Communist Party, but then I lost sight of him until we moved to Leeds, after the RCP ended in 1950 and came across him there.
We put together a group of Healy's "Club", along lines that Mary and I had learned there before the war in the "Militant Group" and the Revolutionary Socialist League. This was Bob's first training in the strategy of combined "entry" and "open" work for socialism. Here I follow what Trotsky wrote about biography, in the preface to volume 2 of "The History of the Russian Revolution: "The purely psychological school, which looks on the tissue of events as an inter-weaving of separate individuals or their groupings can, even with the best intentions of the investigator, offer a colossal scope to caprice. The materialist method disciplines the historian. It compels him to take his departure from the weighty facts of the social structure. For us the fundamental forces of the historic process are classes. Political parties rest on them. Ideas and slogans emerge as the small change of objective interests. The whole course of the investigation proceeds from the objective to the subjective. This sets a rigid limit to the personal whims of the author".
Bob worked with us intermittently in Leeds between the early 1950s and about 1957. These were the years of the Bevan movement in the Labour Party. We based our work on what Trotsky wrote in 1940: "The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death-agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief intervals of truce, new wars and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective. History will provide it with enough opportunities to test itself, to accumulate experience and to mature. The swifter the ranks of the vanguard are fused, the more the epoch of bloody convulsions will be shortened, the less destruction will our planet suffer. But the great historical problems will not be solved in any case until a revolutionary party stands at the head of the proletariat."
Today there are people who say that we all, Trotsky included, have always based ourselves on the idea that instant catastrophe is just round the corner. This is false. Of course, ultra-leftism has always existed: it is not just a word of abuse to hurl at people you don't understand, but it was Healy, reinforced by ex-Stalinists who joined us after 1956, who re-introduced this vulgar error into our ranks.
Trotsky explained, in a speech to workers in Moscow in 1921 about the disastrous "March Action", a premature rising in Germany in that year: "We had to manage not to fall for that kind of revolutionary impatience which would led us to lose sight of the most important preliminary work which has to be done, and which invariably does the greatest harm to our cause."
Elsewhere he wrote: "Commonplaces to the effect that the present crisis is the final crisis of decay, that it constitutes the basis of the revolutionary epoch, that it can terminate only in the victory of the proletariat, obviously cannot replace a concrete analysis of economic development with all the tactical consequences which flow from it."
Bob and Mary and I thought that the economic revival in the 1950's showed that American imperialism was re-stabilising the world market, with the help of the Stalinists and of immense arms spending. But the decay of the capitalist world economy would continue. The revolutionary epoch had not ended. Whatever capitalism could do would simply create the conditions for future upheavals. But the whole course of the epoch would be more complex than some people thought, and, in any case, the whole business would go on until the Fourth International stood on a mass basis.
At the same time, the post-war revolutionary movements had been checked, except in Yugoslavia and China, not merely by the Stalinists but also by the Parliamentary socialists in Britain, France and elsewhere. We were hostile to people who told the workers to rely simply on Parliament. Trotsky wrote in 1928: "The possibility of betrayal is always contained in reformism. But this does not mean to say that reformism and betrayal are one and the same thing at every moment. Not quite. Temporary agreements may be made with the reformists whenever they take a step forward. But to maintain a bloc when, frightened by the development of a movement, they commit treason, is equivalent to criminal toleration of traitors and a veiling of betrayal."
We read in the "Transitional Programme", which in those days we did read:
"Of all parties and organisations which base themselves on the workers and peasants and speak in their name, we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers' and farmers' government. On this road. we.-promise them full support against capitalist reaction. At the same time, we indefatigably develop agitation around those transitional demands which should in our opinion form the programme of a workers' and farmers' government...
One cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.) the petty bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, may go further than they themselves wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie".
Bob and Mary and I agreed that we had to try to bring about the conditions in which workers could test how far the reformists would go, and draw their own conclusions. Hence our slogan: "Labour to Power. We saw ourselves as being necessary; otherwise the Labour Party would lose the confidence of the workers and fail to keep the Tories out. Were we so wrong? Of course, in these days no one but Ted Grant dreamed of the notion of "transforming" the Labour Party. We were confident that one day the Labour Party would break apart
Bob joined Harehills Ward Labour Party with us. We recruited workers and got elected to the council the best candidates we could. We saw in the circle round Gaitskell the unmistakeable signs that they were already moving towards what Blair stands for today.
Bob got Aneurin Bevan invited to speak on May Day in the park, and Bevan defended the Chinese Revolution and denounced American imperialism! Our group mobilised round Bevan and "Tribune" as it was then in order to shift the balance in the Labour Party. We fought the pacifists and the parsons in CND later on, with the slogan addressed to the TUC to "Black" work on nuclear bases, and the slogan addressed to the Labour Party to "Ban the Bomb". We invited representatives of colonial struggles to speak out in Leeds against imperialism.
As far as we could have said what were doing, we would have said that we were trying to work with and to help those people who wanted the working class to act independently of the property-owning class and to act in its own interests.
This inevitably led us to regard the Communist Party and the various forms in which Stalinism presents itself as opponents. We regarded their masters in the Kremlin as an anti-working-class force, the operation of which tended towards not only weakening the working class outside the USSR but towards the restoration of capitalism in Russia and undermining the conquests of the revolution.
Bob's approach to people was simply to say, "Take politics seriously. You want Labour to win? So do we! If you want nuclear disarmament, don't waste time appealing to parsons or financiers. Go to the one force that can stop nuclear bases being built, the trade unions, and the one force that can renounce the bomb - a Labour Government. Ban the Bomb! Black the Bases!" The Stalinists, of course, were very hostile to this line, which counter-posed international class action to their anti-Americanism and anti-Germanism.
One day Bob seriously set about studying how the writers in the "Daily Express" could put their ideas so simply and clearly. It was widely read at the time in workplaces, and he wanted to express our ideas as well as they put theirs.
He often lived in our attic before he got a place for his wife and family. My sons liked him a lot, and he was very good with them.
But now we should turn to our international movement. It was Bob who ensured in 1953 - 54 that the great majority of the supporters of "Socialist Outlook" and of the "Club" supported Cannon, Lambert and Healy, the founders of the International Committee of the Fourth International, in the dispute with Michel Pablo. Einstein and Proust discovered, each in his own way, that time is elastic. You can forget what happened yesterday, but 1953 is here in this room today. The split was on an absolutely fundamental question. Was Trotsky's Fourth International necessary? Or, could the Soviet bureaucrats the Parliamentary Socialists or the movements of peasants provide the political leadership for the international Socialist revolution, with us perhaps to advise them?
Whereas the founding document of the Fourth International in 1938 said that the Fourth International was necessary because Stalinism had definitively gone over to the bourgeois order Pablo suggested, however, that in the current conditions of impending Third World War between US imperialism and its allies on one side and the so-called "Socialist Bloc" on the other, which threatened civilisation, the Soviet bureaucracy could be expected, to use his words, to "project a revolutionary orientation" instead of the openly counter-revolutionary role which it had played since the mid-1930's, for example in Spain.
I had scented in 1949 a tendency in a document from the International Executive to a kind of fatalistic trust in inevitable tides of history working in our favour, reminiscent of Kautsky. The Fourth International had remained since the war on the margin of politics, unable to find out how to grow.
However, Mary and I in Leeds decided that no force outside the Fourth International and based politically in some force other than the working class could play the role of the Fourth International. Otherwise the whole political basis of our work had been wrong and needed revision.
Pablo was first opposed by the minority of the French section, led by Pierre Lambert, who were excluded from the International. Pablo's supporters then proceeded to organise against the elected leaderships of the British and the American sections, who issued the "Open Letter" breaking politically with Pablo in the summer of 1953, with none of us yet being in a position to anticipate all the political experiences we have had in later years.
At first Mandel opposed Pablo, in a document called "Ten Theses", which went a long way towards laying down the political basis from which Pablo's opponents started. In 1953 there were risings in East Germany and the Red Army moved in to suppress them. Mandel called for it to be withdrawn. But then he solidarised himself with Pablo.
Bob played a very important role at this time. About his work for the dockers in Hull and Merseyside I need hardly say a word. Bill Hunter's autobiography is well advanced, I am told. But Mary and I were not involved personally, except to the extent that we raised support for the Blue Union in Leeds and, because our house lay midway between Hull and Merseyside, we had people coming in and out all the time.
So Bob helped Healy to lay the basis for what became the Socialist Labour League and the Workers' Revolutionary Party. This tendency was identified with Trotskyism for many years. It published far more of Trotsky's writings in English than ever before. It won the confidence of thousands of working people. It ended in a catastrophe which discredited Trotskyism and gave our enemies a bean-feast. It is part of our history.
Moreover, Bob helped to recruit Jack Gale, possibly the most effective tool that Healy ever had, and, to his credit, a man who never wholly lost his independence.
How did Bob and Healy come apart? I can offer no more than a conjecture. I believe that Healy was, inside himself, a deeply insecure man, who concealed what he knew about himself behind this tough exterior and big talk. In 1960, the SLL had serious problems. It was being witch-hunted out of its positions in the Labour Party, by Gaitskell. It had taken in some dozens of ex-members of the Communist Party, who brought their illusions in with them. It was now that Healy began to gather round himself the little apparatus of hacks to defend his position as the arbiter.
Bob may not have been a profound theoretician, but he had a good sense of practicalities. He got out of line, by being associated with a Greek comrade, whom Healy suspected of harbouring bad thoughts. This man was a prominent neurologist, whom I had known since before the war. I have the impression that he was advocating a sort of syndicalism, which would play down the role of the party, and that this could have perfectly easily been settled in a discussion and study of what Trotsky had written on the subject.
What I heard was that Healy was not paying Bob his wages as a full-timer. Bob had his wife and family to keep. None of us, I think, knew any political reason for Bob leaving us.
But Bob himself was not in a position to probe the political errors which Healy expressed. "Healy is a bad man" is not much help as a political programme. I suspect that the scepticism contained in his typically Anglo-Saxon practicality and impatience with theory was reinforced.
However, to conclude, we can explain Bob only as an important figure in the general struggle through which all of us have had to pass. I do not mean to suggest for a moment that our movement does not need or appreciate the talents of such people. Especially today. In our opposition to Maastricht, the USEC and my organisation, the International Workers’ Association, stand shoulder to shoulder. You are planning the European March. Last weekend we filled the Central Hall Westminster with contingents from all over Europe, to plan our campaign against Maastricht.
About twenty years ago, your international organisation and mine worked together to beat off Healy's monstrous slander that Joe Hansen was to blame for Trotsky's death and that we were all agents of the CIA. or MI5. We spoke from the same platform. I was one of Grogan's stewards.
 I take this to be Chris Pallis (JJP)