Part Five

End of an Era - The Last Years of the RCP

[Section 1]

In the period between 1947 and 1949 we were painfully attempting to construct a tendency piecemeal. We were gaining ones and twos, and we were also losing small numbers. In general, our forces were relatively intact, but our financial resources were constantly depleted. All our difficulties became focused largely on financial questions. When the movement is going ahead you get money from sympathisers, contacts, and supporters. But when things go badly, these sources of finance dry up to a large extent. During the war, we had had a couple of well-off sympathisers who had given us reasonable sums of money. Now, their sympathies had changed. They were influenced by the moods that were developing in society. They said, in effect, we are in business, and we only deal with results. We want to see the revolutionary movement developing. But this is no longer the case and from being enthusiastic supporters of the revolution, they now started to look towards other things.

One sympathiser I have in mind made a fortune out of paintings. It started as a hobby with him. But as his enthusiasm for the revolution waned, his attention turned increasingly towards art and paintings. Then, one day, he decided he didn't want to waste any more money on the revolution, and so this source of funds dried up. He turned his energies to paintings, and he made a fortune. Our main rich backer, however, was a hat manufacturer called Spiregen. He gave us a lot of money and sustained the movement for a long time. But that source also dried up. So, recognising our difficulties, we were forced to cut down on the number of full-time professionals from sixteen to around six or seven. The costs of the paper had to be paid for and printing costs were rising astronomically at that time. So we had to cut down the size of the Socialist Appeal. In the end, because of lack of resources, we had to shift from a fortnightly to a monthly paper. We still looked forward confidently to a change in the situation, even if the current position should last some years. However, at this point, we were certainly swimming against the stream.

It was at this point that Jock Haston was feeling the pressure. He was ill and was suffering from stomach ulcers at that time. He was clearly run down. He had done an enormous amount of work during the war and in the years that followed. Jock was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the leaders of the International. It must be said, he had certain illusions in the International - illusions that were not shared by other comrades, myself included. Towards the end of the war and in the immediate post war period, Jock had become increasingly despondent with the wrong perspectives that we had put forward during the course of the war, epitomised by our 1942 pamphlet Preparing for Power. Of course, we had corrected the perspective, and analysed the situation that was unfolding. However, Jock was sick and worn out, and tended to see things in a negative way.

The roots of our difficulties lay in the objective situation. It bore down on all of us, including the leadership. Haston was a giant of a man. I have no qualms about saying this, despite his later abandonment of Trotskyism. He had without doubt tremendous qualities. However, although he had a lot of political acumen and a certain theoretical level, he tended to be more of a political activist and an organiser than a theoretician. Under these growing pressures, by the autumn of 1948, Haston began to look for a way out. He was becoming less active. In disgust at the way things were turning out, and no doubt influenced by his subjective doubts about the movement, he raised the question of entry into the Labour Party.

In December 1948 this question was formally raised by Haston in the Political Bureau. At the meeting of the Political Bureau he maintained that this proposal was being made without the illusions of Healy. There was no suggestion that big gains could be made in the Labour Party at this time. But what it amounted to, in effect, was that Haston was throwing in the towel. There was a discussion and a vote, and he found himself in a minority of one in the Political Bureau. He was completely isolated. So Haston decided to resign from his position as general secretary in order to argue his case within the ranks of the organisation.

Harold Atkinson, who was one of the leaders and organisers of the RCP, had just returned from America from a business trip. He was very agitated by the situation. If Haston wasn't supported, it would be a disaster for the organisation, he insisted. If the truth is to be told, Atkinson was unfortunately in the same demoralised state as Haston. He put his full weight behind Haston and said we had no alternative but to enter the Labour Party. So we arranged another discussion in the Political Bureau on Haston's proposal. This time, Haston and Atkinson between them managed to gain a majority, and the proposal was taken to the Central Committee on 8 and 9 December. Their resolution concluded:

"We propose therefore, to raise as the key question before the party, the dissolution of the RCP as an independent organisation and the entry of our members into the Labour Party.

"We propose that the dissolution should be by public declaration. The supporters of our tendency should be prepared by a series of articles and the leadership of the party should approach the Labour Party with the object of securing the best results from the public entry of the RCP into the Labour Party. It follows that the IS should be informed of the proposed orientation, and if it is accepted by the majority of the party, negotiations should be opened with the object of working together with our co-thinkers." (Statement on the Perspective of the RCP, by J. Haston, H. Atkinson, R. Tearse, and V. Charles).

On the Political Bureau, only Jimmy Deane and myself were strongly opposed to entry. We were now in a minority within the leadership. The majority of the top leadership of the RCP had now gone over to a position of entrism - not the classical entrism that Trotsky had put forward, with a great perspective of growth. But entrism that would allow us just to hold our forces together within the framework of the Labour Party. The PB Majority wrote:

"At the September 1947 Conference of the RCP, after a drawn out and bitter struggle around the tactic of entry, the Party set its course with the utmost confidence on the basis of the open tactic.

"We believe we could go forward on the basis of modest gains, entrenching and consolidating our position, and thus maintaining our forces in the best possible way until the economic and political situation changed to our advantage. But the cumulative effect of our position has necessitated a reassessment of our past perspective…

"In this document we hope to place before the members our positive outlook on the future perspectives and tasks of the party. We leave aside here a number of problems which have been raised, some of which have already been dealt with in the Reply to the IS, others which we hope to deal with in future bulletins…

"It is now our opinion that it is wrong to wait until the Labour Party milieu is in ferment, then step into the left wing already formed and hope to take over the leadership. It is clearly an illusion to imagine that workers will follow us merely on the basis of our ideas. The workers will follow us when they have learned to trust us in the course of working together. An acceptance of the perspective that future political developments will centre mainly around the Labour Party, means acceptance of the need to participate in the left wing….

"We cannot, of course, build the revolutionary left wing in conditions which are not favourable for its formation. But we can create a basis for our tendency by building up a cadre of national and local leaders and crystallise the left critics who undoubtedly exist in the Labour Party…

"The whole nature of the objective situation determines that we face a period of hard and patient work. We hold no illusions of rapid growth. It is rather a question of building up over the next period a revolutionary trend in the labour movement which will form the basis for the future."[1]

The International lost no opportunity in sticking in the boot, accusing the Majority of liquidationism.

"This document is the expression of liquidationist tendencies", stated the IS. It went on to denounce the RCP for taking a quick "position which helped the opponents of the International, Morrow, Shachtman… Halt! Out of the road of Shachtman, Morrow, Demaziere and other deserters of the Fourth International!.. To enable the International to cooperate with you in drawing a clear political and organisational balance-sheet of your activity which has ended in bankruptcy…", etc. etc.

And again:

"There is great danger because the policy of the comrades depends on nothing. Nothing is to be done because reformism is transforming the working class; nothing is to be done because Stalinism is achieving victories for the working class. They have not much hope to build the Trotskyist organisation; they have no hope in the development of the Fourth International. The proposal of entry looks like the act of a desperate man drowning himself in deep water."[2]

Jimmy Deane and myself, isolated in the leadership, were in a profound dilemma. It was clear that entry into the Labour Party could not solve our problems. That is why we originally opposed it at the Political Bureau and the Central Committee. That didn't mean that the open party was going to produce miracles either. To be honest, given the objective situation, entry or non-entry would not have made any fundamental difference. Outside the Labour Party we wouldn't gain much under the existing circumstances, but inside the Labour Party we wouldn't gain much either! Looking back on it, we made an opportunist mistake. It was difficult to see at the time. In hindsight it is much clearer.

We believed that we had a fundamental responsibility to maintain the organisation. The WIL and the RCP had shown its mettle in the period 1938-48. The organisation had been reinforced by the experience of the whole period, during and after the war, when we had been educated in the debates on a whole host of question, including entrism and revolutionary tactics. We knew that if we conducted a political struggle over this question to maintain the open party, we would undoubtedly have gained the overwhelming majority of the organisation. Haston and the majority of the Political Bureau would have certainly been isolated. But the problem that we faced was that they were the top leaders of the organisation. We had built up this leadership in a period of common work for ten years or so, and we didn't want to throw it away.

Experienced cadres are precious. They are created in the course of struggle. Our cadres had been tested in the course of the war, the Newcastle trials, the Neath by-election, and so on. They had been tested by the war itself, the pressures of capitalism, reformism, and Stalinism. They had maintained themselves under fire. They were extremely talented people. Therefore, Jimmy and I were in a terrible quandary. What were we to do? We agonised over the question and decided, rightly or wrongly, that it was a question of attempting to preserve the leadership. We wanted to maintain the leadership at all costs for the future. And so we decided not to oppose the proposals of the PB majority. This was a bad mistake, and one that had unforeseen consequences.

We stated that we wouldn't campaign on the question in the ranks of the organisation. At this point, myself, Jimmy and George Hansen, the PB minority, issued a statement to all members.

"The discussion has not convinced us that in the present situation entry would constitute a superior tactic", it said. "However, faced with the fact that the overwhelming majority of the leadership and the trained cadres, and substantial sections of the rank and file are in favour of entering the Labour Party, and given that the objective situation will be a difficult one for the Party, we believe that a struggle would be sterile…

"We do not believe that there are great opportunities for the growth of our movement at present wherever we operate. In this period the most important task consists in the maintenance of the unity of the organisation, the intensification of the education of our cadres and raising the theoretical level of the entire organisation. These tasks will pose themselves as vital for the future, whether we are inside or outside."

The statement then concluded:

"Under these circumstances, we do not believe it is in the best interests of the movement to wage a struggle on this issue." (Letter to the Members by Ted Grant, Jimmy Deane and George Hanson).

Whatever we did - in or outside the Labour Party - we might gain ones and twos and very small numbers at best. It was a hard choice. In the present climate, it was difficult to sell papers, gain contacts, and generally get an audience for revolutionary ideas. We understood that inside the Labour Party or outside the Labour Party, it wouldn't make all that much difference. Under the circumstances, we were not prepared to wage a struggle. We said quite openly that our aim was to save the leadership. If we can go into the Labour Party and keep our organisation intact, then, perhaps at a later stage when the classic conditions for entrism existed, which would inevitably arise at a certain stage, we would be able to connect with the mass left wing. The conditions for entrism would inevitably arise in the future, and if we remained outside, we would have then had to enter the Labour Party under those circumstances. So, at this stage, and from that point of view, it wouldn't matter all that much if we were inside or outside.

Our overriding aim was to maintain intact as many of the forces as possible, particularly the leadership. Had we succeeded, there would have been no problem. In any case, it would not have been as disastrous as it eventually turned out to be. But, looking back on it, it is now clear we would probably have lost Haston anyway. We may also have lost Roy Tearse, as well as Atkinson, and some other leading comrades. It is not absolutely certain what would have happened. But, at any rate, most of the forces within the movement would have been retained, particularly the active rank and file. We would have at least kept the core of the RCP and had a national organisation and profile.

On 8 and 9 January 1949, the Central Committee endorsed the PB Majority statement, signed by Haston, Atkinson, Tearse and Charles. But then in February, the younger rank and file comrades of the organisation, led by Sam Bornstein, Sam Levy, Alf Snobel, Arthur Deane - none of whom were on the Central Committee of the organisation - raised the banner of the Open Party, and declared themselves a faction. They refused to go into the Labour Party and wanted to maintain the open party at all costs. They produced a statement entitled The Case for the Open Party signed by 14 comrades. The statement concluded by pointing to the low level of industrial struggle, the right wing ascendancy within the Labour Party and "that the conditions are the most unfavourable for entry that we know of, and the complete negation of the conditions necessary for entry outlined by Trotsky and by our party since." It also attacked myself under the heading of The Strange Case of Comrade Grant, stating that my position was contradictory. That the open party was correct for this period, but given the position of the leadership, I had acquiesced.

A further document was produced by the Open Party faction entitled Once Again - the Real Situation in Britain, which gave a fuller explanation of their position and quoting the past position of comrades who opposed entry, who had come out now in favour of entry. In conclusion it stated, "we believe not merely that the open party can be maintained, but that there is even the possibility of small growth. They accused the entrists of "clutching at 'entry' in sheer despair."

Jimmy Deane and I were taken completely by surprise. We weren't prepared for this and were taken off our guard. If we had foreseen this development, we possibly would have taken a different attitude. Given our "neutral" position, and our unpreparedness to engage in a struggle, these comrades regarded Jimmy Deane and myself with complete hostility. Because they did not have sufficient authority in the ranks, they could not gain a majority. As far as they were concerned, we had let the party down. So they organised an Open Party faction and gained support, possibly about 25 percent support, among the rank and file. The Haston position also got around 25 percent support, while the rest were mainly undecided.

In an endeavour to frighten the organisation, and as a result maybe of inexperience, and possibly even of a certain political spite, the Open Party faction said that if the RCP decided to go into the Labour Party - and they saw this as a distinct possibility - then we would have to accept the leadership of Healy. My God! That was a terrible prospect. The Open Party comrades said Healy would have been shown to be correct in 1947. After all, he raised the question of entry into the Labour Party first, although completely incorrectly, and had pursued an opportunist path. Nevertheless, if the RCP dissolved and we entered the Labour Party, we would have to accept the leadership of Healy. Both Jimmy and myself were absolutely horrified at this idea, and we objected vehemently to this proposal, as we understood what would happen. I insisted on certain conditions otherwise we must totally oppose the fusion. But Haston, disoriented by the tiredness and ill health that was affecting his judgement, went along with this incredible idea of accepting Healy's leadership at least for a period.

We couldn't believe our ears! We had set the avalanche in motion and we couldn't stop it. There is always the danger, if you take an opportunist position, if you do not take a firm and principled attitude, even on a tactical question, you can box yourself into a corner. The Open Party faction was saying that there could not be two separate groups operating the same tactic. Although we opposed firmly the question of giving the Healyites leadership of the tendency, we couldn't stop the ground shifting under us. We argued that we had three times as many members as Healy, and it was ludicrous to accept his leadership. Then the International leadership intervened with great joy written all over their faces. Privas, following the orders of Pablo, underlined the point that the RCP would be disaffiliated from the Fourth International if they did not accept Healy's leadership. This was seized on by the Open Party faction comrades, who stressed the point that to enter the Labour Party meant to fuse with Healy on his terms, since this was the position of Pablo and the leadership of the International.

Theoretically, we could possibly have accepted the leadership of Healy - if the leading body, the national committee of the organisation represented the actual political balance within the organisation, as we had a majority of the membership. But that was certainly not Healy's idea. And he had the backing of the International. On 4, 5, and 6 June 1949, a special conference was called to discuss the question. A letter of "greetings" was addressed to the conference on behalf of the IS. After a series of attacks on the "liquidationist and pro-Stalinist" trends within the RCP, it concluded that "a correct attitude of the RCP to the International is yet to come and one of the main tasks of the leading comrades is to educate the organisation along these lines." The greetings also included an attack on my supposedly "soft" reply to David James. A reply was sent by the CC, drafted by myself, taking up their criticisms:

"You complain that James' conclusions have not been dealt with by Grant. How can you say that? James has illusions in Tito and Mao. We believe Grant answered in the only convincing and educational way - by dealing with the reactionary aspects of Titoism and Chinese Stalinism. The major part of Grant's reply deals precisely with the question of whether Tito and Mao are 'unconscious Trotskyists' 'bypassing' the Fourth International in the struggle against the Stalinist (Russian) bureaucracy. We cannot fail to comment here that your uncritical letter to the Yugoslav Communist Party precisely lends weight to the point of view that Tito is an 'unconscious Trotskyist'. If you think Grant's reply inadequate, the task is for you to reply to James. Nobody can prevent you from condemning us for failing to answer James in the way you think it should have been done. But having done so, you have to realise that theoretical problems are not solved by denunciations, particularly when these are not accompanied with any theoretical rebuttal. You cannot expect us to counter James with your theoretical ideas, particularly in the light of your position on Eastern Europe, and, speaking frankly, we are not sure how you will build a case against James in line with your letter to the Yugoslav CP." (25 June 1949)

In the end the Special Conference voted by a majority in favour of dissolving the RCP and entering the Labour Party. On the issue of Healy's leadership of the organisation, we voted against, but we found ourselves in the minority. One of the reasons for this was that the Open Party faction voted in favour of the proposal! The last special issue of Socialist Appeal, announcing the dissolution of the RCP, came out in July 1949. It read as follows:

"After a two-day debate, this fully representative Conference decided, by a substantial majority, to dissolve the organisation and call upon the members of the Party to enter the Labour Party - to which the majority already pay the trade union political levy - as individual members. Within the Labour Party they would carry on the fight for the overthrow of the capitalist system and for a socialist Britain".

It concluded:

"We would prefer to have the right to enter the Labour Party as an organised body, affiliated in the same manner as the Fabian Society and other organisations. But this is not possible owing to the 1946 decision of the Labour Party regarding organisations seeking affiliation. We have therefore dissolved our organisation and will fight as individual members, within the framework of the Constitution of the Labour Party, for the policy outlined above. By dissolving the Revolutionary Communist Party and entering the Labour Party as individual members we consider we will best play our part in aiding the British workers to reach their socialist goal." This was signed by Jock Haston on behalf of the Committee of Dissolution.

[To be continued]

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Notes

[1] Statement on Entry, March 1949, pp.1 and 5.

[2] To all members of the RCP, 5 February 1949.