THE STRUGGLE for an INDEPENDENT TRADE UNION

by the DOCKERS IN MERSEYSIDE AND HULL DURING 1954 - 1955

some OBSERVATIONS BY john archer

The exchange of letters in "Workers' Press" about Bill Hunter's excellent book reached me only after the editor had decided to close the discussion. Had I seen it earlier, I would have contributed then, having been peripherally involved in the events of 1955, and having voiced opinions about them in later years.

First, I have to correct Tom Cowan's abuse of a point in my 1990 lecture. Secondly, we have to look at what the "Club" contributed to the dockers’ struggle. The third point, on which we can only touch, is what that contribution meant, and can still mean, for the construction of a section in Britain of Trotsky's Fourth International.

Cowan quotes what Bob Pennington told me. Pennington, Healy and Ratner had, in 1953, met a group of the dockers' "unofficial" leaders, and they agreed "to campaign for a mass shift from the 'White' to the 'Blue’ Union, and to reject the perspective of 'reform' of the 'White union"'.

But Cowan then has the un-wisdom to try to make me responsible for the conclusion which he chooses to draw from this report. But it was he, not I, who "suggested" that this was a "bureaucratic manoeuvre, to spite and out-flank the Stalinists". It was he, not I, who asked: "Was it to subject the workers’ struggle to the need of the 'Club'... to impress the Labour Lefts?"

I could "suggest" no such thing. It would have made no sense. The "Club" had barely a hundred members in 1955. The National Executive of the Labour Party had only recently forced it to close down its monthly paper, "Socialist Outlook", under threat of being expelled. Moreover, the NEC did this after the Communist Party's press "disclosed" the names of the leading members of the "Club" and the local party units in which they were active.

The very idea that anyone, least of all the "Club" could have imposed a "bureaucratic manoeuvre" on the dockers of Merseyside and Hull is, to put it mildly, far-fetched, especially after Hunter described the years of misrule by the employers and the apparatus of the T.&G.W.U. which had created the situation.

Does not Cowan's "suggestion" betray a certain contempt for the dockers? And is not this contempt typical of those trained by the wiseacres of ultra-leftism, reformism and Stalinism?

Constable, Aylward and the others were men of very different metal. They did not despise the dockers. They understood them. When the dockers gave them the chance to lead the "break-out", they did not throw it away.

Neither they nor the other dockers were adventurers. Thanks to years of experience, they knew about real struggles in the real world. They did not ask Healy for a guarantee in advance of success.

Nor did the Irish Citizen Army at Easter 1916, the Russian workers in October 1917, the International Brigaders and the Spanish workers in 1936, the Hungarian workers in 1956, the Czech workers in 1968 - and the British miners in 1926, in 1973 and in 1984.

This is not the first time that people have tried to be "clever" after the event, to take unfair advantage of hindsight. That kind of "wisdom" is useful only to sceptics and reactionaries. More properly, the first question that ought to be faced is: did the dockers, did Constable, did Healy take into account what they can reasonably be expected to have known? Did they reach their decisions on the basis of the information available to them at the time?

And secondly, who else was there, if anyone, who could credibly offer to the dockers what they wanted, the possibility of a real fight in the "White" union? They could hardly look to the Stalinists, who seemed more bent on being rewarded for good behaviour. I know of no others.

The Stalinists were hoping to persuade the strongly anti-Soviet, pro-American trade union chiefs to open full-time jobs to the Stalinists and their friends. What better way to prove their worth than by trying to calm down the biggest movement on the Merseyside docks for years?

In these concrete conditions, in this particular case, the "Club" could agree with the experienced "unofficial" leaders that they could best help to mobilise the forces that really could enforce change at the top of the T. and G. by helping the dockers to find a new, hopefully democratic, centre round which to organise.

Neither the "Club" nor Constable and his associates could ever favour splitting the union to fit in with some abstract dogma. The "Club", as we shall see, had leaders who had seen the German Stalinists split the unions in the late 1920s, to suit the dogma of the "Third Period".

In the middle of the docks dispute, I was able to fix up for Constable to talk to about a hundred miners in Hemsworth in Yorkshire. The miners wanted to discuss how to deal with the then right-wing leadership in their union. No one then was suggesting for a moment a "breakaway union". In the current conditions, the question did not arise.

Cowan conveys the impression that Healy could somehow have "tricked" the unofficial leaders. Of course, he faces a contradiction here. How could it be - in his formal world - that the same people who were fighting to help the dockers to get free from the shackles of the T. & G. bureaucracy, could also at the same time be members of the Labour Party and fighting to remain there. We were, of course, by no means "buried" in the Labour Party, to quote his elegant phrase. Ask anyone who was around at the time in the Labour Party in Streatham, in East Salford or in Leeds. They will tell you why the Labour leaders and the CP combined to silence our press!

We may ask ourselves whether Cowan had ever had any knowledge or experience to match that of the "Club". What may seem to a superficial mind to be a contradiction was, in reality, two aspects of the same struggle. As Trotsky wrote: "Pedants think that the dialectic is an idle play of the mind. In reality it only reproduces the process of evolution, which lives and moves by way of contradictions". But has Cowan ever had any experience, or even understanding, of principled "entry" work in a mass organisation like the Labour Party, in which reformist leaders have a reactionary apparatus to defend them?

We may doubt, indeed, whether anything in the experience of Cowan or of those neo-Stalinists who today are trying to show that their party "was not really so bad after all", can explain what the "Club" was doing. But back in the early 1920s, before Stalinism ever came on the scene of history, some British Communists, who did not disdain to learn from the Third International of Lenin and Trotsky, did actually devote thought and effort about locating themselves within that mass movement which the Labour Party represents, and about challenging reformism from within.

Yet we would concede to Cowan that in 1955 the essential research into the early history of Communists in Britain had not yet been done, and the story still lay hid in the dark into which the followers of the "infallible leader" had concealed them.

It may be, of course, that Cowan himself has studied these matters, or, even better, knows the details of the origins and formation of the "Club". If so, he should publish the fruits of his research; there will not be any lack of readers. However, since one should reject dubious conclusions in favour of simple ones, where simple ones will do, I form the opinion that Cowan simply jumps to any conclusion that he thinks can most discredit Trotskyism and the 'Club" - and here again exposes his ignorance.

The “Club" did not need to "trick" anyone. Nor did it need to "impress" anyone. We simply arranged, week after week, for "Tribune" to publish the dockers' case, and to reveal how the bureaucrats, who were trying to drive Bevan and Foot out of the Labour Party, behaved in their "own" union, what their appointed (un-elected) officials actually did on the Merseyside docks. What more was needed? What fools we would have been not to rely on the plain truth.

Moreover, let us remind our readers what kind of people the "Club" had attracted. Some were old pre-war members of the Communist Party. Some had been won to Trotskyism because, in 1933, the Trotskyists were the only people who could give an explanation of Hitler's victory that made sense. Others were young workers, many of them ex-soldiers and others yet were students who hoped for something better than the Cold War could offer. They were highly self-sacrificing people. At least one of them gave his life-savings to finance the early steps in the dockers' fight. We had nothing to gain from deception. We were in the business of constructing a Bolshevik Party, and, therefore, we did not need to rely on deception.

Under this smoke-screen of attributing bad motives to Healy, however, Cowan has raised, apparently unawares, a far more serious matter. He declares, as if it were common knowledge among "all decent people", that the Communist Party was campaigning within the "White Union" for the ban on Communists from holding full-time union jobs to be lifted. "Naturally they were against bleeding the union dry of its best militants whom they could use (!) in the internal struggle for democratic rights". This in any case is an example of the logical fallacy of "assuming your conclusion in your argument", but it is also a very dubious proposition, and we shall see later how the "Club" had reason to know that it was.

Cowan himself, however, revealed (overleaf) the real position of the Communist Party a few lines lower down, though differently:

"A democratic union, if it becomes the point of attraction to masses of workers, cannot hope to survive against the united employers and union bureaucracy... The struggle for democratic unions, whether through breakaways or internal campaigns has never been successful".

This is an example of what a recent writer, protective of Stalinist traditions, has called "the preference of Pollitt and Campbell for union loyalism over the illusory potential of militant, rank-and-file-ism". Of course, the Merseyside dockers already had enough, thanks to their own experience, of the Stalinists "internal struggle for democracy" not to take them too seriously. After all, the scandals in the Electrical Trades Union, which ended with that key-union firmly in the clutches of a right-wing dictator, were still brewing, and some people knew how the Stalinists ran the unions in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.

Let us leave it to the critics of Constable, Healy and the others to reflect on who was really trying to "trick" the dockers.

None the less, the present-day reader, near the turn of the century, may well ask where the "Club" got its analysis of Stalinism. What was it that had prepared Healy and the "Club" in advance for Stalinist trickery?

Hunter's whole book is to describe and explain, from close knowledge, the objective conditions in which masses of dockers had come to think, to speak and to act as they did. It shows that the "jail-break" out of the "White" could not have been some triumph of demagogy. The employers, the union bureaucracy - and the Stalinists -had all shared in preparing the ground for it down the years. What the dockers needed was a group that could hear them, could listen to them, could understand what they had been through, and could help them to do what they thought had to be done.

Healy, Pennington, Hunter himself, though not themselves dockers, could understand, as Constable and Aylward understood, the years of injustice, betrayal and frustration that had prepared the dockers for the "break-out". The dockers' consciousness was not some accident, or some self-serving fantasy thought-up by a clique. Over twenty years earlier, Trotsky had written, in his Introduction to the Second Volume of the "History of the Russian Revolution":

"Changes in mass consciousness are not accidental, but are subject to an objective necessity, which is capable of theoretical explanation, and this makes both prophecy and leadership possible".

So much for the "objective necessity". Now let us consider the "subjective factor", the little group which could listen to the dockers, could gain the trust of their most important "unofficial" leaders, when neither the Stalinists, with all the international apparatus of the Kremlin behind them, nor the bureaucrats who ran the T.U.C. in Britain and all their alliances with U.S. imperialism could do so.

As a secondary question, we shall see how the even smaller group which made up the leadership of the "Club" could call in the docks struggle for such self-sacrifices from the members and their supporters.

There is nothing "impossible", "unimaginable" here. It was their political tradition which enabled the "Club", with its handful of members, to relate to the dockers better than all the Stalinists could, let alone the apparatchiks of the "White" Union and the Labour Party.

But the "Club" did not have to adapt its politics to enable it to play its role in the struggle. It traced its ancestry back to Stalin's first critics in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1923, when the nationalist slogan, "Build socialism in a single country", was rallying the bureaucrats, the kulaks and the traders behind Stalin, concentrating powder in the party apparatus.

The "Club" traced its political roots to the Russian Bolshevik Party, to the leaders of the Communist International, Lenin and Trotsky, and to the decisions of the First Four Congresses of the Communist International, in the years 1919 - 1923. It regarded itself as continuing, in Britain and in its efforts to lay the foundations of the Fourth International, the struggle of the Old Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union in 1923 against the growing encroachment of the conservative Soviet bureaucracy, of the rich peasants and of the new trading bourgeoisie on the workers' state. It saw itself as the continuity of those who had refused to make an idol of Stalin and who regarded the policies of the bureaucracy which he represented as endangering the conquests of the October Revolution. It rejected the national-bureaucratic conception of Socialism in a Single Country.

Our fore-runners had warned, in the mid-20's, that, in China, Stalin and his circle were using the authority of the October Revolution to force the Chinese Communists, peasants and workers to accept the political control of the war-lord, Ch'iang Kai-shek. When the latter butchered the Communists in thousands, the threat of imperialist intervention in the USSR was not lessened, but increased.

Likewise, our forerunners had criticised the basic policies of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the General Strike of 1926 as politically covering for the TUC leaders who hastened to call the strike off.

Our German comrades led the struggle there between 1930 and 1933 for a workers' united front against the Nazis. They faced, and in some places overcame, the resistance of the Social-Democratic and Communist Party leaders, whose conservatism blinded them to the Nazi danger. In Germany and Britain alike we warned that the policies of the Communist Party were turning it into an instrument to paralyse the workers and help Hitler to power, which would still more gravely endanger the USSR.

Briefly, the "Club" concentrated all those genuinely Communist elements who had survived politically from the break-up of the Revolutionary Communist Party at the end of the 1940s, and who, at the same time, remained closest to the tradition of the pre-war Trotskyists and to the ideas which Trotsky had set out in his writings in the 1930s and, in particular, in the "Transitional Programme".

Its cadre had emerged, not from petty or personal disagreements, but from taking part in international events of the greatest importance. Though young and still few, though bureaucratically excluded from opportunities to gain experience in mass struggle, they were none the less steeled in the struggle against reformism and Stalinism, and, in that struggle, they had drawn round them still younger militants whom the movement against Aneurin Bevan was attracting to the workers' movement. They were politically and morally prepared to support that large body of dockers who felt that they must free themselves from the grip of the union apparatus and from the diversionary interventions of Stalinism.

However the political opposition of the "Club" to Stalinism had been discussed and re-affirmed in an international discussion hardly two years before the docks dispute.

In the face of the difficulties of constructing sections of the Fourth International in the immediate postwar conditions, a majority of the Fourth International was led to call into question the necessity for the Fourth International, to ascribe some historically "progressive" role to Stalinism and to go over to supporting what claimed to be the "socialist camp", which involved defending Stalinist repression of workers in East Germany in 1953.

However, in the so-called "Transitional Programme", which Trotsky wrote and on the basis of which the Fourth International was founded in 1938, our past and future attitude to Stalinism was codified in the reference to "the definite passing-over of the Comintern to the side of the bourgeois order, its cynically counter-revolutionary role throughout the world..." Having seen the disastrous consequences of Stalinist preaching of trust in capitalist forces which the Kremlin regarded as possible "friends", the "Club" members in their great majority accepted that our position was not that of defending one diplomatic bloc against another. We did not accept that our policies had to be located in relation to the existence of the two blocs.

The principal theoretician of the "majority", Michel Pablo, had in fact in early years, and especially in illegal work in Occupied France, contributed substantially to the struggle for liberation from the present society of exploitation and oppression. Now, however, he declared that the Third World War was likely to begin in two or four years' time, and that, in it, the Stalinist bureaucracy "would be obliged, through centuries of transition, to bring socialism in its own way".

The division in the ranks of the Fourth International quickly had political consequences in action, especially in the trade union work of the French section, in conditions where many leading trade union officials were Stalinists, but also in the press of the sections about whether or not to call for the Red Army to be withdrawn from East Germany.

The seriousness of the issues led the leaders of the American Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers' Party, to issue an "Open Letter to the Trotskyists Throughout the World'', appealing for an international defence to be mobilised on the positions of Trotsky and the "Transitional Programme" against the efforts of Pablo and his supporters to revise them. The "Open Letter" had the support of the S.W.P., the "Club", a minority which had been excluded in 1951 from the French Section and various individuals around the world, and organised itself as the "International Committee of the Fourth International".

That is how the "Club" was prepared to play the role which it did, a product of decades of political struggle to grasp and to defend the principles of Marxism.

But no decent piece of research can ever end without pointing to the new problems which it has raised. So it is with us. The writer, who knew Healy well from 1936 onwards, who often agreed with him and yet very strongly opposed him, advances the belief that Healy revealed himself at his best in these events around 1955, that here we have an indication of the most positive characteristics of the man.

But the present writer also believes that, in other conditions, especially from the second half of the 1960s onwards, other characteristics, which the environment of workers' struggles had kept in check in 1955, but which he was unable to restrain, came to dominate his activity. This is not the place to offer a reasoned account of how Healy could degenerate from being the leading Communist in Britain in 1955 to inflict the very serious damage for which the W.R.P. must bear the responsibility, feeding such confusion into the ranks of worker militants and enabling reformists, Stalinists and bourgeois journalists to befoul the image of Trotskyism.

We owe to the new generations of worker militants who are flexing their muscles for the task of re-building the British Section of the Fourth International, that they shall have an account of our efforts and our mistakes that makes sense, that does not rely on anecdotes about "good" and "bad" people, and which expresses the continuity of the struggle of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

July 1995

And finally:

The sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the Trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists, but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organisations corresponding more closely to the tasks of mass struggle against bourgeois society; and if necessary, not flinching even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions. If it be criminal to turn one's back on mass organisations for the sake of fostering sectarian fictions, it is no less so to passively tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative ("progressive") bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means on the road to the proletarian revolution. The Transitional Programme

A self-published pamphlet, available courtesy of Bob Archer