TRAINED IN A HARD SCHOOL
by John Archer
A Review of Bill Hunter's "A Lifelong Apprenticeship"
“Trained in a Hard School” was John Archer’s extended review of Bill Hunter’s first volume of autobiography, self-published as a pamphlet. JA developed increasingly strong criticisms of Bornstein & Richardson’s approach to the history of Trotskyism in Britain, which he articulated in letters and occasionally in reviews. When Bill Hunter’s book was in preparation he conducted a long correspondence about it, and when it eventually appeared he drew contrasts between the methods of B & R and those of Hunter. And the differences are important. For JA and for Bill Hunter, the primary purpose of history is to strengthen the struggle in the present and the future. B & R were more concerned, as a primary aim, to rescue the voices and documents of the past, and as far as possible, to let them speak for themselves. It might be thought ironic that I apply the method of B & R to JA himself, as far as possible presenting his material and allowing it to speak for itself. JJP
Here we have the first half of Bill Hunter's political biography, covering the period from his childhood down to 1959. It does not of course, pretend to be a complete study of the whole experience of Trotskyists in Britain, it is none the less, easily the best contribution so far to understanding that experience, and no one should criticise it for discussing some questions at greater length than others.
The book approaches its subject strictly from the standpoint of the international working-class. Its style is attractive, and recalls vividly the atmosphere of critical factory meetings and conferences, where our comrades asserted the interests of working people against the reformists and the Stalinists. It also reveals a fine sense of irony.
But none of these attractive features by themselves, could give the book its authority. That lies in its method. Bill Hunter explains clearly at the beginning:
'With former writers, all we learn is a one-sided definition of leaders; of processes we learn nothing. Politics in this way becomes a question of personal psychology, so beloved by superficial journalism. Like many other opinions on Trotskyist history which have found their way into print, everything becomes very simplified. However, we learn nothing that helps to build a movement today."
Together with this, there is what we can call a religious conception of Trotskyist internal struggles, as struggles between evil and good. This conception comes from writers who cannot understand the real contradictions of revolutionary leadership, and see only heroes and villains."
Bill Hunter's method is derived from Trotsky’s. It justifies itself by drawing out the inner relations between what he describes and other processes about which he could not possibly know.
No one who studies our history in the future can afford to ignore this book. Here at last we have a basis for rational discussion and rational activity.
Among his most important themes, in my opinion, is his explanation of the success of the "Club" in the 1950s, thanks to our skilful use of the tactic of "entry" into the Labour Party.
The reader may have the false impression that this was "discovered" by Healy at the end of World War II. Healy was, indeed, eager enough to claim the credit for it. But, in reality, it was a development of the general strategy of the Communist Party in the lifetime of Lenin. It was revived in its essentials in 1936 by the pre-war "Militant Group", under the leadership of Harber and Jackson, with the help of Leon Sedov and the International Secretariat, and was continued from 1938 by the Revolutionary Socialist League.
Let no one, then, blame Harber, Healy or even Bill Hunter for "entryism".
Readers of my thesis may recall that at the end of 1933 there was a split in the Communist League, the first Trotskyist organisation in Britain. A "minority" of fifteen comrades followed Trotsky's advice and "entered" the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The ILP had played a leading part since 1893 in preparing the ground for the Labour Party, and, after 1900, as an affiliated organisation, for building it up.
In the changed conditions of the 1920s, there was a long struggle between the "realism" of the Labour Party leaders and the expectations of the members of the ILP, who were at the same time individual members of the Labour Party. At the end of July 1932, a majority of the delegates at a special conference of the ILP resolved to end their affiliation to the Labour Party, and the ILP left the Second International shortly afterwards. They hoped, by this organisational change, to free their activists politically, and to save their Members of Parliament from being gagged by the discipline of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
This development was like that in several other countries, where the impact of the world crisis was moving bodies of workers into conflict with the reformist leaders. Some of these tendencies had already had bad experiences at the hands of the Stalinists Others tried in vain to co-operate with the Stalinists. None of them had in their earlier experience been in a position to acquire a serious understanding of Bolshevism, of the work of the First Five Years of the Communist International, or of the struggle of the Russian Opposition to defend the legacy of Lenin, without which they could not hope to build a leadership capable of overcoming the obstacles in the way of working people in the 1930s. On the other hand, they always brought with them some reactionary baggage from their past.
In Britain, our problem was to test how far the ILP could be won to declare for the Fourth International and to turn away from sectarianism by seeking means to work with the militants who were joining the branches of the Labour Party and winning seats in by-elections. A group of fifteen comrades, the "minority" of the Communist League, were allowed into the ILP by a leadership which imagined that it could make use of them in its struggle to avoid being taken over by Stalinism. Our comrades did not know much about either Marxism or the political features of the workers who they would meet in the ILP. At any rate, they had Trotsky's articles to guide them, on which they relied heavily. By October 1934 (when I joined them), they had built up “The Marxist Group in the ILP" to a hundred members.
We worked largely in a propagandist way, the only way we could. The "Marxist Group in the ILP" produced eight internal bulletins directed at the ILP members, It sold the publications of Pioneer Publishers, and produced in the winter of 1934 its own edition of Trotsky's article on the assassination in Moscow of Kirov, one of the top bureaucrats.
The group reached the peak of its influence at Easter 1935, but never was able to persuade the ILP to agree either to declare for the Fourth International or to give up its practice of standing "Independent Labour" candidates, who split the Labour vote and cut across the general movement of the working class. The ILP was in a serious decline, because its leaders were not politically able to take advantage of the opportunities which leaving the Labour Party gave them. No one would join it. We could not recruit to it, and in summer 1935 we began a discussion about what to do next
A number of us decided to leave the ILP and undertake to work in the Labour Party. The great question was, if we joined the Labour Party, what were we going to do there? But the decision was not an empirical one. I have described elsewhere, on the basis of the documents in Trotsky's archives and in libraries in Britain, how Trotsky advised us.
Meanwhile, Starkey Jackson, Edward Leigh-Davis, Margaret Johns and John Robinson (Harber joined them soon after) were working with a group of young comrades in the Labour Party League of Youth. The Labour Party League of Youth was attracting numbers of young workers, whose fathers told them about the horrors of World War One, and who had problems of their own with employers in the new mass-production industries and in the mines. The Stalinists, .led by Ted (later "Lord") Willis, were already on the scene, with a line which exploited the fears and the hopes of young workers and would lead them to place their trust in the leaders of reformism and an Anglo-Soviet Treaty, in other words, to prepare to support a future imperialist war backed by slanders about Trotsky.
Our young comrades produced a paper "Youth Militant", which made considerable progress with its early issues. But the leading cadre was very small, and was to make a tactical mistake. We all believed that the rise in the tempo of the class struggle in Spain and in France would soon be followed in Britain. We therefore raised the perspective that in Britain, as in France in the previous year, it would be correct to break from the "official" youth organisation of the reformists and set up an independent movement of revolutionary youth.
This proved to be premature, and enabled the Stalinists to isolate us, in the spirit of the "Moscow Trials", by presenting us as "disrupters". We were not strong enough to build much of a basis in the immediate demands and interests of the youth, and the Labour League of Youth went into decline.
Incidentally, I believe that this incident was to have an unfavourable influence on the youth work of the Socialist Labour League eighteen years later. In the early 1960s, when "Keep Left" was extending its influence, Healy met Bert Karpin, who had been one of the leaders of "Youth Militant", and who provided material for the Sirockin pamphlet. It may be that Healy did not fully grasp what was being explained to him. But this must await Bill Hunter's next volume.
We wound up our work in the ILP after Easter 1936. The remarkable oratory of CLR James at the Annual Conference of the ILP won a majority of delegates to support the Trotskyist line of organising the international opposition of workers' organisations to prevent Italian imperialism from over-running the independent African monarchy of Abyssinia. This was a defeat for reformists and Stalinists alike, because it implied relying on the independent action of the working class and not on the imperialist rivals of Italy in the League of Nations to "apply sanctions" to the Italian dictator, Mussolini, while the Soviet Union supplied to Italy the oil which the Italian forces needed.
At this point, the four ILP Members of Parliament, led by Maxton, refused to accept the majority decision of the conference. They could be in no doubt that implied a struggle against the reformists in the trade union movement as well as in Parliament, and for this they had no stomach, because it cut across all their politics. Fenner Brockway, who in later years was written-up as a model man of principle, could not bring himself to defend Trotsky against the Stalinists, with whose crimes he was well informed, or the people of East Africa against imperialist aggression. The archives reveal that he was secretly negotiating a return to the Labour Party. He managed to put together an otherwise heterogeneous political bloc against the "Marxist Group in the ILP”, consisting of left reformists, pacifists and a sectarian element, which refused to join the Labour Party with us, but some of whom found no objection to doing so later for the benefit of their political careers
This "bloc" supported the MPs, and went on to deprive the "Marxist Group in the ILP” of its right to organise an internal fraction, which had been conceded to it when the Trotskyists joined the ILP in 1934.
Harber, James and Klement (a German comrade in exile in France, who was a member of the International Secretariat and later murdered by the GPU) drafted a motion on Britain for the "Geneva" international pre-conference in July 1936. This accepted the need to draw the work in the ILP to a close and to seek involvement in the developing opposition in the Labour Party to the leadership. In October 1936 there was a conference of "All the Bolshevik-Leninists in Britain" Here the lines were drawn sharply, between those who intended to join the Labour Party forthwith, or, like Harber, had already done so. and those who wanted either to stay in the ILP or to start up a new group outside the Labour Party. The most distinguished speaker for staying outside the Labour Party was CLR James, whose mind had been changed when he came back from the pre-conference.
It was one thing to decide to join the Labour Party, and quite another to learn how to work as a revolutionary when one got there. What follows is a summary of the ideas which the "Militant Group", which was formed towards the end of 1936, developed in its work, and handed on to its successor, the Revolutionary Socialist League, in 1938.
We could understand Trotsky's insistence that the masses turn first, in times of trouble, to the mass-organisations which they have built and which they know. We formed our ideas in the heat of battle among the ranks of the Labour Party. Jackson used to say: "Harber makes the bullets and I fire them". We soon came to understand how deeply the Labour Party was rooted, not merely in the working-class, but in the running of bourgeois society, and how it influenced reformists elsewhere in the world. We regarded It as a historic arena of struggle, between militants who, however unconsciously, expressed the independent class demands and interests of working people, and the people who sought to subordinate the working people to the bourgeois political system. Experience soon taught us that the right wing of the Labour Party needed the apparatus to protect it against the impact of the working people who, at the same time, regarded it generally as "theirs".
The "Militant Group" did not for a moment tolerate any idea that the Labour Party could be "transformed" into the instrument of emancipation of the British workers nor that a revolutionary leadership could "take it over", though we regarded ourselves as taking part in a historic process, by means of which working people would be able to learn by experience what a Labour Government would do and how to organise their struggle against capitalism mere effectively.
We knew that forces opposing the reformist leadership in the past had tried more than once to organise against it and its apparatus. We wanted to draw around us the material for another such movement, recognising that its construction must be consciously undertaken, as a process in assembling and selecting the members for the revolutionary party of the future. We therefore firmly rejected any notion that we were a "raiding party". !t was not our purpose to pull out a handful of militants into some small, hardly-known group, but would work with them to prepare the next step, inside the Labour Party, for the future mass break-away.
We tried to join in the struggles of the rank and file for their immediate demands. Those fights included curbing the bureaucrats who infringed their democratic rights. We learned, on the one hand, to discourage futile ultra-left gestures and, on the other hand, to cure the illusions of militants by enabling them to test their illusions.
This was the way in which we tried to apply the method of the "united front" to our situation. That same method would still be valid even after the expected break-away. Our influence would be needed to discourage tendencies to announce that the Labour Party was "dead" because we had left it. (It had been politically "dead" for many years, but still existing as a problem to be got round). We would discourage, moreover, any talk about the Labour Party being "one reactionary mass". As long as it could hold on to any serious body of workers, we had to seek an association with them, and would have the task of convincing the new organisation that it must campaign to force the reformists to break with the bourgeoisie and join in a united front with the new workers’ party.
We therefore had to drive for the Labour Party to win in elections and defeat the candidates of bourgeois or "splinter" parties, including the Communist Party. We worked with the other members of our local branches in election campaigns, while at the same time we proposed policies which would attract workers to vote Labour against the surrenders of the leadership to the needs of the bourgeoisie. Our monthly paper, "Militant", appeared regularly from January 1937 to 1940.
The developments of 1998 are precisely what we expected and on what we based our work. We accepted that we were living in the historical period of the death-agony of capitalism. We accepted absolutely no responsibility for the Labour leadership, but at the same time worked to be taken seriously by the militants and not regarded just as "maneuverers"
In those far-off pre-war days, we could advance these ideas only as individual members of the Labour Party. Everyone who accepted them would have joined the Labour Party and accepted the restrictions which its apparatus imposed. It seems possible today that there are plenty of forces on the left, who can accept this perspective, but who can operate more effectively outside the restrictions which "New Labour" is imposing. It is the perspective that counts most
In 1937 the "Militant Group" was glad to admit the four comrades from South Africa, who had been driven into exile after very courageously helping black workers in a strike. About the same time, we recruited several workers from the Communist Party, including Haston and Healy. Our forces were based in several provincial centres as well as in London, but the radicalisation which had begun in 1934 was beginning to die down, especially after the events in Barcelona in May 1937.
At the end of 1937 there was a split in the "Militant Group". This split was an expression of political problems which none of us could so much as formulate, let alone solve, for years afterwards. A long period of personalised, mutually destructive, warfare followed.
The new group called itself the "Workers' International League" (WIL). It went to work with energy clearly derived from conviction of deep political differences from the "Militant Group". At the same time, it produced documents, with a view to establishing its identity, and these conveyed the impression that they agreed with a tactic of "entry" into the Labour Party. However, it soon revealed that It did not share the views of the "Militant Group" in this matter, and developed a more "leftist" perspective, such as is not new in the British Labour movement and, in certain essentials like that of the Socialist Labour Party (with De Leonist aspects) early in the 20th century, and later that of Stalinism in the years 1927-1934, in what Bukharin called the 'Third Period" of the Communist International.
At Trotsky's request, Cannon and Shachtman came from the Socialist Workers' Party in USA in summer 1938 to help the sections to prepare to face the tasks which the coming world war would present. In Britain, he persuaded the leaders of the "Militant" Group and two smaller groups to combine in forming the Revolutionary Socialist League, which the Founding Conference of the Fourth International recognised as its British section. The leaders of the WIL rejected his invitation to join, and consequently spent the first part of the war outside the Fourth International.
Everyone could see that war was nearing in the summer of 1939; Political life in the working class was dying down, and was not revived when, in August, the press announced that Stalin had agreed to supply Hitler with materials which the German army needed, and made a non-aggression pact with him. Poland was immediately invaded from both the East and the West and divided between its neighbours. These events caused great disillusionment to millions of working people, who had placed their faith in the "anti-fascism" of the Stalinists and their earlier opposition to letting Hitler revise the frontiers in Central and Eastern Europe by "aggression." They led to feelings of deep anxiety for the future and of inability to influence it
In my opinion, the work of the RSL and the WIL down to the fusion in 1944 needs to be studied afresh. The principal account which has claimed to explain it so far is not reliable, because its method is defective. Here lies one of the great sources of value of Bill Hunter's book. The heat and subjectivism of the controversies has by now smouldered down almost to cold ash. A large archive exists of the documents of the two groups, and is open to any serious historian. Most of the leading figures in groups claiming in future decades to be more-or-less Trotskyist in Britain received their early ideas and experience in the WIL or the RCP, and this was to colour their work later The methods which Bill Hunter applies in his book will help to reveal how what they said or did was hardly accidental, or random or an expression of their personal psychology.
The war could not have taken place when it did, if the workers' movement internationally had not already been weakened by a series of defeats, to which the defeats of the Popular Fronts in France and Spain, following that in Britain in 1931 and especially that in Germany in 1933 had contributed. These defeats could have been avoided only if Bolshevism could have won the leadership of the working class. The workers had hardly anything more than their traditional leaderships to which to turn, and the urgent question for us was: how is the new leadership to be built? It is not enough to say that Trotsky had produced for us the Transitional Programme. We still had to learn how to apply it
The British Conservative government declared war on Germany on September 3rd, on the pretext that German armies had violated the frontiers of Poland, which Britain had guaranteed in the spring of the year. There were no popular demonstrations of protest against the war. All the MPs voted for the government in Parliament except the four pacifist ILPers. The leaders of the Labour Party entered into close co-operation with the government. As in the 1914 -1918 war, there was to be an "electoral truce", to avoid open disputes between the parties. Parliamentary and municipal elections were to be kept to a minimum. If a sitting member died or retired, his party would have the right to nominate his successor.
There were by-elections from time to time, but only when organisations which were not party to the "electoral truce", such as the Communist Party, the ILP, the fascists, and once in 1945, the RCP, stood their candidates against the "official" nominees.
At the outbreak of war, the Communist Party declared that it supported the government in the war, which, it said, would be an "anti-fascist war". However, the Kremlin soon called its leaders to order, and sent a special courier with the direction that the war "really" was an "imperialist war". The "Daily Worker" obediently wrote, in a leading article: “The situation has entirely changed. It would be pure madness to continue the war." The "new line" called for negotiations with Hitler and making peace.
The leadership of the Communist Party was divided, and its supporters were still further confused. But the party survived. It campaigned on its line for a "People's Convention", presenting itself as the opposition to the war, the politics of which have recently been well analysed.
Many historians in later years have used the relations between the governments of Stalin and of Hitler in 1939 to support a view that "Fascism and Communism are 'really’ the same". This, in my opinion, is reactionary nonsense. Stalin appears to have made up his mind in summer 1939 to put some pressure on the diplomats of France and Britain to guarantee the frontiers of the USSR as well as of the neighbouring Baltic states while at the same time he hoped to buy off German aggression and to prevent Poland from becoming a possible basis for an attack on Russia.
But the theory of an "anti-fascist war" had to disappear from the propaganda of the Communist Party - until June 22, 1941.
Neither the RSL nor the WlL knew what to expect when the war began. Both feared early air-raids and police repression. The WIL sent its leaders for what proved to be a brief stay in Dublin, while the RSL tried to deepen its penetration in the Labour Party and the unions. The declarations which both groups issued were almost identical. They denounced the war-aims of the governments on both sides as imperialist, and carried on the working class internationally to prepare for the opportunities which the war would provide of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a federation of socialist states.
The differences between the groups revealed themselves in a series of by-elections, in which the WIL called for support for the candidates of the Communist Party, while the RSL called for support for Labour candidates.
Then, early in 1940, two leading members of the RSL were excluded from the Labour Party. One of them had been able to convince a regional conference of the Labour Party to disapprove of the co-operation of the Labour Party chiefs with the government. Then, at Easter, Margaret Johns, a leading member of the RSL, who had come to the Fourth International in 1933, successfully moved at the Conference of her union, the Union of Shop Assistants, a motion denouncing the war. She got the support of the pacifist and Stalinist delegates.
However, the war was about to become more serious. In April the government sent troops to invade the North of Norway, in the hope of outflanking German invaders. The operation was a disastrous failure. The Chamberlain government fell, and gave place to the war-time coalition, which placed Labour leaders in important ministries, under the domination by Churchill. By midsummer, German armies were established down the whole Western seaboard of Continental Europe, from the North Cape to the Pyrenees. For the first time for nearly nine hundred years, the people of Britain seemed to face invasion, foreign conquest, defeat and capitulation.
The WlL interpreted the deep concern of working people (for example, in colliery villages in Yorkshire where they might well be in the German line of advance), to suggest that they might be led to take the road of an independent, class-based, self-defence movement, independent of the state. Indeed, the government was quick to establish its control over the Home Guard, and the only practical attempt to operate the policy of the WIL was quickly closed down.
The RSL argued that the mood of the masses tended towards "national unity" with the bourgeoisie, and. furthermore, that there never was, nor could there be, any real danger that a section of the bourgeoisie could "sell-out", or a regime like that of Vichy in France be established. American imperialism urgently needed British imperialism as an ally, because it could not tolerate, with its world-wide trading interests, that German forces should dominate the ports on the east of the Atlantic Ocean. Churchill had been put in charge precisely in order that Britain would fight to the end, and receive US aid. Hitler decided at the end of the summer not to try to invade, though in the autumn the South-East of England was severely bombed.
There was, of course, no possibility in war conditions as yet of consulting such international leadership as existed in New York. We had received the text of Trotsky's last great document, "Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution", from which Bill Hunter quotes. We all started from the standpoint that "the war is not our war", that it threatened the very future of civilisation and would inflict untold human misery, in the sole interest of imperialism.
At the same time, no one in Britain wanted to see either their homeland, or the USSR over-run by a foreign invader, especially on behalf of such a disgusting regime as Nazism, which had already destroyed the workers' organisations across the Continent. We could all agree, therefore, with Trotsky, that working people needed a "Proletarian Military Policy", by which to resist the military policies of the imperialists, in the real conditions of war. We rejected both pacifism and abstract defeatism, as can be read in the literature of the WIL, as well as in the documents and the "Bulletin" of the RSL. We agreed that, in the twentieth century, all great issues would be settled by force. We agreed that we could not construct a party of the working class by announcing that peace is better than war, or that we disliked Churchill, or that it did not matter whether Hitler won or not On the contrary, our movement could be built only through helping the working people, in the given conditions and in their given state of mind to assert their class independence and to avoid colluding with the war-aims of the Allied imperialists.
We would, therefore, have, as best we could, to avoid repression and to start from the resistance of working people to the hardships which the war was inflicting on them, to infringements of their trade union agreements in the name of "increasing output" We would demand that military training be supervised by the trade unions, that people in the forces could form a trade union, and we would expose incompetence and treachery for which working people had to bear the consequences. On the basis of such demands, we would aim at replacing Churchill's government with a workers' government, its hands free to make genuine offers of peace over the heads of governments to the peoples.
The RSL was disturbed, however, that the application of these policies might, in what they believed to be the existing patriotic mood of the masses, be taken to mean that the main enemy was not at home and that we would be led to make concessions to social-patriotism. Harber characterised the WIL, in one of his documents, as "the extreme left of social-patriotism". The RSL queried Trotsky's formulation that "A Bolshevik strives to be not only the best trade unionist but the best soldier”, which appeared at best to be ambiguous.
Bill Hunter today, who was not a member of either group before he joined the RCP in 1944, was able to carry the very successful defence of workers in engineering, which led him to his convenor's position, by using the same arguments as the members of the RSL in industry used, that at home we had to defend the rights and the movement for the people in the forces to come back to when they came back. In my opinion, he has no need to defend the WIL's position. I think now that the roots of the discussion, which occupied so much space and time and generated so much heat, have to be sought elsewhere, though that need not stop anyone from bringing back to light what the Spanish exile Munis wrote and his criticism of Cannon's presentation at his trial.
These arguments are now more than fifty years old. Nearly everyone who took part is dead. The principled questions which they raised may well re-appear in a new guise, and comrades in the future may have to return to the old ground. But I think that Bill Hunter was quite right in his article in "Labour Review" in 1958 not to raise the question of the "Proletarian Military Policy". The purpose of his article was to show the comrades whom we had recruited or were hoping to recruit that in the war we had never been either "Hitler's agents" or supporters of British imperialism.
There seem to me to be two questions which deserve the attention of historians. First, was there really ever a risk of "Petainism" in 1940 - 41? Secondly, what was the political basis for the destructively hostile attitude of the WIL to the RSL? After all, the RSL and the WIL were the best Marxists that history could produce. Where was there anyone else claiming the banner of the Fourth International? Our problems were political ones. To solve them we needed the help of the Old Bolsheviks, who had made the Russian Revolution in 1917. But Stalin had systematically exterminated them.
On June 22, 1941, the armies of German imperialism, under Nazi leadership, invaded the USSR. The Communist Party immediately dropped its policy of presenting itself as the "opposition" to an imperialist government Pollitt wrote for the party in a pamphlet at the time: "I tell you that, in a people's war, a war like the one we are waging at the side of the Soviet Union for our very existence as a free people, the industrial workers have as much right to make sacrifices as the lads in the armed forces."
This 'turn" also opened great possibilities for the Trotskyists, and the WIL was much better placed than the RSL to take advantage of them. In the particular conditions they could challenge the Stalinists for their positions of leadership in industry.
On this basis, however, the WIL was to develop a political perspective very different from that of the RSL. I think that this change may have been encouraged by the former members of the Communist Party and '”left”-inclined industrial workers whom the WIL recruited, if was expounded in a document drafted by Ted Grant called "Preparing for Power". He confidently declared that the process of radicalisation of the working class would lead many militants to '"by-pass" the Labour Party and come directly to the WIL. If a Labour Government were put into power at Westminster by a General Election at the end of the war, it would very soon be overthrown by attacks from the left. In any case, the WIL did not undertake to work for a Labour victory. They replaced the slogan of the RSL. "Labour to Power", with "Labour to Power on a Socialist Programme", which always seemed to be to be ambiguous, as well as liable to cause future confusion.
This not only excluded any principled reason for "entry", but reproduced the Stalinist conception of the Labour Party. None of the leading figures in the WIL, let us recall, had taken any part in the discussions in 1935 from which the perspective of the RSL had emerged
By 1943 we were receiving visits from comrades of the American SWP, who came to Britain in their capacity as members of the American forces, sailors in the Mercantile Marine or journalists. They were very impressed by the activity of the WIL, and set about convincing the leaders of the two groups that they must fuse, not only in order to get one common line, but to prepare for the revolutionary upsurge in Europe which was already happening in Italy and Jugoslavia, and would soon arise in France.
After much discussion, a Fusion Conference was held in Spring 1944. Superficially, it gave the impression of being a great success. The atmosphere was one of confidence and high expectations.
Within a few weeks, the newly-founded Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) had to beat off an absurd attack in the courts, which cost it much time, money and effort. Its success, and the stand which the accused took in court, especially that of Anne Keen, earned us prestige and publicity in the working class.
But the fusion drew together in one envelope nearly all the conflicting tendencies in both groups, apart from the few who refused to join, mostly from the "Left Fraction" of the RSL. The rest of the RSL were weary of trying to work without success and of arguing without reaching agreement. They welcomed the possibility of work in the new environment. People like Harber and his followers were part of the history of the Fourth International, and they intended to be in the Fourth international, in a minority if necessary. Struggles were rising in the coal-mines. Our paper found a ready response in the docks at Leith.
Then the General Election put an end to speculation by returning a Labour Government with a large majority. The whole basis of the successful policies of the WIL during the conditions of the war began to disappear. War plants were quickly closed. The prevailing mood at home and among the demobilised ex-soldiers was: "Give Labour Their Chance". Militants alongside whom we had fought during the war now told us that they had appreciated our help, but that they did not need us now.
There were great expectations, and great illusions, about what the Labour Government would do. The 1944 Labour Party Conference had over-ruled the proposals of the leadership and demanded that India be freed from British rule. It would have been surprising if proposals had not come up in the RCP from sources other than the ex-RSL-ers that the old WIL attitude of simple hostility to the Labour Party be reconsidered. The RCP's candidate in the Neath by-election in May 1945 had been by no means a disaster, but held out no grounds for hoping that the RCP would get a large membership by direct recruitment in the visible future.
The questions which aligned the various tendencies into the main groupings, the "majority" and the “minority”, were very far from being based on personal dislikes or predispositions. But I recall an incident which may be symbolic. When the results of the General Election and the Labour victory were announced, the editors of the paper had, naturally to refer to them. They could not agree what to say. Should they welcome the Labour victory as a victory or as a defeat for the working people?
At the end of the war the individual membership of the Labour Party was rising sharply. In the RCP the "majority" disagreed with the forecast of the American comrades that we would face an early collapse of capitalism and widespread revolutionary situations in which we would play a leading role. This opinion was influenced by the experience of the intervention of US finance to re-establish the world market after World War 1. The "majority" drew the conclusion, incorrectly in my opinion, that the RCP should therefore expect to grow by "open" work. The ex-RSL-ers shared the economic forecast and voted for it, but rejected the conclusion which the "majority" drew from it. The "minority", on the other hand, supported the "catastrophic" perspective of the American comrades. They advocated "entry" but on the ground that “there would not be time to build the party by open work".
The international Pre-Conference in Paris in March 1946 could do nothing to help. (I think that Bill Hunter's account of it is a bit hard, but we were all disappointed.) None of us, of course, had ever met before. The conference was interrupted by police armed with machine-guns, and we ended the business in jail, in the middle of the night. The Minister of the Interior was a Stalinist! But, nonetheless, I came back encouraged by the fact that we could have met at all.
To return to the problems presented by the Labour Party. One of the decisions of the Founding Conference, on which the fusion was based, was that the RCP would continue some "entry" work in order to test its possibilities. Some issues of a mimeographed "Militant" were produced. Then, two former RSL-ers, Karl Westwood and Joe Pawsey, came back out of the army and opened a. café at Staines near London. They were members of the Labour Party as well as of the RCP. Their café attracted workers from neighbouring factories, and became a lively centre of political life locally, with our publications on sale.
Even before the fusion, during the war, Betty Hamilton, who was directed to work in an engineering factory at Newark, joined the Labour Party there. It was one of the local parties which managed to go on meeting all through the war, and. in 1943, she was its secretary, as her handwritten minutes reveal. They also reveal that what she was doing hardly differed from what members of the RSL were doing when opportunities existed for working in a Labour Party branch.
It was in 1948 that a certain dissatisfaction began to be expressed among those who regarded the Labour Government as "their" government. Not merely were industrial workers frustrated by the imposition of "wage-restraint" Not merely did Herbert Morrison announce that it was "time for a pause" in socialist legislation. Not merely was the cost of living rising. The policy of the- Labour government suggested also that it was enrolling in the camp of American imperialism in preparing a Third World War against the USSR.
Now Healy began to play a first-rank role. Bill Hunter has given a reasonable account of how political divergences had developed in 1942 - 43 into hard personal antagonism between Healy and the leaders of the future ''majority". Healy was always "difficult". Even before the decisive break, the London comrades of the WIL sent him off to Glasgow with a very small wage, to show how he could build the organisation as he proposed. We know that he found his way to the Mitchell Library, as well as finding that there were workers in Scotland who knew their Marxism.
However, as Bill Hunter shows, he was later to draw from differences, which were due, to inexperience and which, perhaps, could have been settled by patience and experience, the subjective conclusion that the people who opposed him were not only politically mistaken, but enemies of the working class. They were never reconciled.
The international proposed, in the conditions of increasing difficulty in 1947, that the "minority" should be released from the discipline of the "majority” and should test in practice how far "entrism" would deliver results. I do not know where Healy got his idea of "entry". He had come to Trotskyism by a route very different from that of the former RSL-ers . However, we soon had the lucky break that Ellis Smith issued the appeal that revealed the current which organised itself loosely in the "Socialist Fellowship". This was precisely what Harber had been counting on, and what he knew all about, from our pre-war experience, and the alliance which he formed with Healy was to be of the greatest importance, because this enterprise laid the basis for the "Club" two years later.
Meanwhile, the internal disagreements were beginning to fragment the "majority" and the apparatus of the RCP. From beneath the differences about the place of the Labour Party in British politics, there emerged more fundamental problems. Events had shown that the serious uprisings of the working people in Italy and in France had been diverted by the reformist and Stalinist leaderships into channels which did not lead to overthrowing the capitalist states, though at a heavy price in concessions to the workers' immediate demands.
Did this mean that world capitalism, financed by US imperialism, and defended by the leaders of the mass-organisations of the working class, was being permanently stabilised? Had Keynes really discovered the secret of managed economic progress? Was the class struggle out of date? Had the Bolsheviks been wrong all the time to regard the October revolution as the first or a series, "the breaking of the chain at its weakest point"? Despite what Lenin and Trotsky had said, had we been wrong to define the period as that of "the death-agony of capitalism”?
Had we, therefore, been wrong all along to prepare our revolutions, when these were no longer likely to happen? Had we been wrong to attempt to influence working people with the ideas of Communism, of Marxism? Why could we not join the Labour Party and pursue political careers there, hand in hand with the right-wing and the apparatus? Alternatively, why not defect to the Stalinists?
But then came the events of Eastern Europe and Churchill's "Fulton" speech, in which he spoke of the "iron curtain" coming down across Europe. The battle lines were being drawn. What was the role of those who regarded themselves as politically advanced? Had we the duty of defending the USSR, and if so how, given our minute forces? Speculation grew about the class-nature of the USSR and the countries on its borders in which private capital had been abolished. The Fourth International, deprived of Trotsky and a number of its other experienced cadres during the war, could command little authority. There appeared a number of "revisions" which Trotsky had made of the evolution of the USSR into a degenerated workers state, step by step, before the war.
Had Russia ever been a "workers' state"? Alternatively, had a '''workers' state" emerged from the revolution of October 1917, and then been overthrown by a capitalist counter-revolution which Trotsky had failed to recognize?
Other people suggested that the USSR really was socialist, and that it was for that reason that the Russians had been able to introduce "socialism" from above by means of the Red Army. If that were so, as in the other cases, there was no reason for us to put ourselves to all the trouble of trying to build a revolutionary international. The consequence would follow that the Fourth International was not necessary and that the “Transitional Programme" was nonsense.
By 1949, there was little or no authority in the RCP. Haston left with a few others to join the trade union apparatus, where he was welcomed as an expert in defending the right-wing bureaucrats against the encroachments of the Stalinists and at teaching shop stewards how to induce their members to increase output The air was filled with recriminations between people blaming each other, as it was when the WRP broke up in 1985, and for the same fundamental reason, that the political problems could not be solved, though in a smaller scale.
Mary and I enthusiastically supported "Socialist Outlook". Of course, neither we nor Healy had forgotten the past, but, as in 1944, we wanted to go to where the action was, where we knew how to work and, indeed, had been working, in Blackpool. We saw this as the way out of the frustration of the later days of the RCP.
I do not know what led Healy to take up the development in the "Socialist Fellowship." To be sure, he was not a man to let a chance slip, provided that he could recognise it, and he was certainly not inhibited by the tremendous divergence between Harber's conceptions and those in which the YCL and the WlL had educated him. For the WIL had made an empirical "turn" in 1939, when it adapted to what it thought was the closing-down of the Labour Party. But Grant's "turn" in 1942 was empirical in a much deeper sense, an impressionistic adaptation to current appearances which had taken the WIL in the direction of the "left-ist” aspects of Stalinism.
None the less, there was in 1948 an obvious practical basis for an alliance between Healy and the ex-RSL-ers. "Socialist Outlook" offered to many people in the Labour Party an organ like no other one, in which they could express themselves, discuss what was happening and clarify their problems. The underlying internal difficulties surfaced only at the end of the 1950s, and we await Bill Hunter's second volume for the details,
At the end of 1950, when we were nearing our fifties, Mary and I moved back to Leeds and managed to get re-admitted to the Labour Party, having joined the "Club", which soon drew in our old comrades, Lance Lake and Dulcie Yelland, with Jack Gale and Bob Pennington. The city “fathers" and "mothers" showed themselves in Leeds as no less mean, petty and determined opponents as in East Islington, but by 1957 the meetings of the "Club" were attracting fifty people. Our impact on the Labour movement is remembered in Leeds to this day.
The Leeds group lost two members to Pablo in 1953, but all the rest stayed. I wrote to Healy at the time in the hope in of deterring him from precipitating a premature split, before the issues were clear to the members. He never forgave me for the suggestion that he might be impatient, and I did not know until reading Bill Hunter's book that Healy himself had had his hesitations.
Bill Hunter and I both have written, he at much greater length than l, about the contribution of the "Club" to the dockers' strike in Merseyside and Hull in 1955. The "Club" struck serious blows at the pro-American elements in the leading committees of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and of the Labour Party. We could do this, because we were in a position to involve Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot and their paper, 'Tribune" on the dockers' side. They gave the dockers' case far wider publicity than we could. The Labour Party had forced us to give up our paper, "Socialist Outlook" in 1954, under threat of expulsion. But Bevan and Foot had a strong personal reason to take the dockers' side. The reports in "Tribune" about what had been going on in the union mobilised defence also for Bevan and Foot against the efforts of the pro-American right wing to get them out of their places on the National Executive of the Labour Party.
People in later years have jeered at what they called our "messing about with Bevan" What staggering blindness! The "Club" was able, despite its small forces, to strike blows simultaneously against the right-wing and the Stalinist local leadership of the dockers, because it could intervene in the class struggle both on Merseyside and in the Labour Party.
Healy was hardly yet showing serious signs of the lack of political balance of his later years. We knew that the "Club" would be beset by spies and provocateurs, and took the steps which we thought necessary to counteract them.. But it was only years later that Healy would say that everyone who disagreed with him was not only a victim of bourgeois thinking, but in the pay of the CIA, the KGB or MI5.
In 1953 Hugh Gaitskell struck at the "Club". He could see that he might be the next Prime Minister, and had no desire to take office with the "Club" and its influence in the Labour Party Young Socialists attacking him from the rear from positions of influence in the Labour Party. A whole group of our leading comrades was expelled. "New Labour" was not born yesterday.
Bill Hunter mentions also from this period the article by Peter Fryer entitled "Lenin as Philosopher". In this article the author destroyed the superficial effort of E.P.Thompson to argue that several features of Stalinist thinking "really" had their roots in Marx and Lenin. This helped to establish that the Socialist Labour League, when it was founded, was in every sense a thoroughly Marxist, Communist, organisation. History had worked out in a somewhat different way from what the "Militant Group" had forecast before the war. But, as Bill Hunter points out, when the Socialist Labour League was founded, its founders did not intend and in fact did not make a "turn" away from its orientation to the struggles inside the Labour Party, despite the obstacles and despite the lack of experience of this orientation among the able people who had joined us after leaving the Communist Party.
Lastly, let me draw attention to Bill Hunter's report (p. 399) about how the SLL faced its responsibilities towards re-constructing the Fourth International after Pablo's revisionist declaration of confidence in Stalinism politically destroyed it in 1953. The National Conference in 1959 resolved to take up the suggestion, which Trotsky made in the late 1930s, of an Open World Conference, to which all who claimed to stand for the independence of the working-class, regardless of differences in their origin or their other ideas would be welcome to take part. In 1959 this proved to be a hope for the future. But in 1993 that hope was fulfilled. Delegates from seventy countries met in France to plan the international struggle against privatisation and de-regulation, against Maastricht and the Single Currency, against attacks on the past gains of working people, in defence of the independence of the trade unions and against the rising wave of poverty and violence m the Third World and spreading to Europe.
It was this Open World Conference which brought into existence the International Liaison Committee for a Workers' International, which our comrades in the current dockers' dispute know.
Much has had to be left out. What went wrong with the RSL in the war? What about its "Left Fraction"? What was the influence in the SLL of the comrades who joined us from the Communist Party brought in positively and negatively? What about the work of the WIL in Ireland, about which research has recently been reported? What about the sheer difficulty of assimilating and coordinating the different forces which came round the "Club" towards the end of the 1950s
When; we consider the dull, mendacious and expensive stuff that appears in official histories of trade unions, how much more valuable for working people have been the experiences of Trotskyists! And what about all these "histories" of the Labour Party, that leave out all the awkward bits?
Bill Hunter has created a keen appetite for his next volume. But writing a history that makes sense is by no means all that he has accomplished. He has now made possible a more rational discussion of our history than before, based on verifiable evidence, from which practical lessons can be learned. Our movement needs this discussion. There is a lot of scepticism, of talk about it never having been worth the effort, which we have to put down to the "good people, bad people" method of earlier writers. Can the historians meet, look over the archives and newly discovered documents, and follow up the Hunter initiative?
But there are immediate, practical reasons for some comrades to study our history afresh. Certain senior professors, some of whom used to be pillars of the Communist Party: are training future college teachers in anti-Trotskyism and in the belief that the Communist Party “always was a good, progressive, organisation" The intention, where it is conscious, is precisely to protect the Blairites and their bourgeois allies from those who will try to prevent them from carrying through their plans to whittle down social services and the other past gains of the working people. Their purpose is as in the 1930s, to divide the working-class and try to isolate the Trotskyists by discrediting us. It is an old game. Today that game is not yet ended. We shall defeat those who lie about us only if and when we have a truthful, coherent, rational account of what our history really has been.
Bill Hunter, characteristically, stresses that the battle against reformists and Stalinists is not merely an intellectual argument, in which we score points over them. It is fought out, in the end, in the workplace, on the picket-line, in meetings and in the streets. This is perhaps Bill Hunter's greatest contribution of all. He makes possible an end to the name-calling, recrimination and hair-splitting with which different rival groups attempt to justify their existence. The book is a challenge, a call to order. It challenges us all to face the problem which Trotsky said was the greatest that faces militant workers: "What should we do next?"
We can all see that, at their own speed and in their own conditions, masses of working people are seeking means to oppose the policies of the Blair government. Some of them still regard it as "their" government, while many others do not. They need an initiative to help them to form, first a network, then a paper to do the job that "Socialist Outlook" set out to do, and to test in real life who is contributing to meet the needs of the time and who, on the contrary, is just talking.
Where do we come in? Bill Hunter's book cannot answer the question for us, but it shows us where to look for the answer, because the struggles which he describes, and their human cost, have not been a waste of time, but can help us to go on fighting and fight more effectively.
©John Archer. 1998