History of British Trotskyism Postcript

By Rob Sewell

[Section 4]

A difficult period

From the early 1950s, a small trickle of recruits were made by the Grant tendency, including in South Wales, which was later to became an important stronghold. In early 1950 in Liverpool, Jimmy Deane drew a young 16-year old Pat Wall into the tendency. Pat had joined the Labour Party during the general election, and within two weeks had been made secretary of Garston CLP. "He was very keen to find out more about economics and the theories of Marxism, and was told by councillor Bill Sefton (who ended up in the House of Lords) to go over to Walton and ask the Deanes," recalls his life-long partner and comrade Pauline Wall. "After that he read and read and read. He devoured all the Marxist classics." Pat played a leading role for the tendency on Liverpool Trades Council and in the Labour Party (which was one body at that time), serving to develop and train up a group of younger comrades such as Terry Harrison. Terry had joined the Labour Party and disillusioned by the experience was toying with the idea of joining the Young Communist League. However, he picked up a copy of our youth paper Rally in a ward meeting and decided to get in touch. Pat had become a Labour councillor in Liverpool and later in Bingley, and after a battle with the right wing and an investigation by the NEC, later became Labour MP for Bradford North. He remained a committed Trotskyist until his tragic death in August 1990. He will be remembered by many for his passionate oratory at Labour Party conferences and numerous public meetings, as well as his genuinely common touch. He was truly a great man.

The experiment of the RSL was wound up after possibilities within the Communist Party dried up. The tendency issued a new publication called Socialist Fight, edited by Ted Grant, which appeared irregularly from January 1958 to June 1963. Others on the editorial board included Pat Wall (Liverpool), Dave Matthews (Swansea), and Muriel Browning (Llanelli). At this point, finances were in a particularly bad state. The paucity of resources resulted in the Socialist Fight coming out in a duplicated form during 1960, only reappearing in print in mid-February 1961.

In 1955, Ted had been chosen as the Labour candidate for Liverpool Walton, the Constituency Labour Party where the tendency had the strongest roots, but was blocked by the Regional Official who had the full backing of the right wing National Executive Committee. "I would have been expelled anyway", commented Ted. However, another comrade, George McCartney, an experienced comrade from the days of the WIL and RCP, was put forward instead, got selected against the then Tribunite (and later extreme right winger) Woodrow Wyatt. After an NEC inquiry, George finally managed to get endorsed, but failed to win the seat in the 1959 general election, as did the Labour Party nationally. Soon afterwards Eric Heffer, a former member of the CP, became the candidate and won the seat in 1964. Nevertheless, Walton was to remain a bastion for the tendency until the Walton by-election fiasco in 1991. Despite his advanced years, George remains a supporter of Socialist Appeal to this day.

The Labour Party bureaucracy had closed down the Labour League of Youth in 1955 and no national youth structures existed. The tendency correctly predicted on the basis of the 1959 general election defeat that a youth movement would soon be re-established, as the Labour Party would need the youth if it was to fight another general election successfully. That took place in the February of the following year with the establishment of the Young Socialists. This coincided with a ferment amongst young people, with the national apprentices' strike in 1960 and the development of a mass anti-nuclear war movement around CND.

Ultra-leftism

In 1959, the Healyites swung wildly in the direction of ultra-leftism and set up the Socialist Labour League - typically, proclaimed by Healy without any consultation with the membership of the Club. They applied for Labour Party affiliation and were swiftly and predictably (given the 1946 conference decision) proscribed by the bureaucracy. Healy was keen to provoke expulsion. He advised Ratner to "let Transport House expel you and fight to get the local party to refuse to accept it, even if it means disaffiliation." It was clear to Ratner that "Healy and the Executive Committee adopted a policy of unnecessarily provoking expulsions from the Labour Party."[11]

Despite these clear provocations by Healy, we were attacked for our alleged capitulation to the right wing by Sean Matgamna, the ex-Healyite, in a pamphlet produced by Workers' Liberty called Seedbed of the Left. "The Grant tendency was so venomously hostile to the Healy tendency that it refused to specifically oppose the proscription of the SLL in February 1959", states Matgamna.[12] He goes on to repeat the bile over Ted's abstention in 1954, which we have already mentioned.

However, regarding our "attitude" to the proscription of the SLL, Matgamna clearly uses Healy's old methods to manufacture a slander against his opponents. After all, why let the facts get in the way of a good story? He ignores the fact that on the front page of the Socialist Fight for April 1959 there was an article entitled Socialist Labour League. It is worth quoting in order to nail this slander.

"The National Executive of the Labour Party has proscribed the Socialist Labour League and its journal the Newsletter this is a blow against democracy in the movement. There should be room in the party for all who stand for a socialist policy. With full and fair debate, it should be left to the membership to decide what policy should be adopted. Heresy hunting and proscription can only damage the party and not assist in building it up. All those in the party who believe in democracy will protest against this decision. Socialist Fight whilst disagreeing with many of the policies of the SLL, will support moves of protest against the banning." (My emphasis).

At the beginning, as we predicted, the YS attracted a large number of young people. However, Healy, who had gone on an ultra-left binge and had just written off the Labour Party, suddenly realised the possibilities, turned 180 degrees, and threw all his resources into the YS. With Healy's strong apparatus, and youth paper Keep Left, the Healyites were able to take control of the YS nationally by various dubious means.

The next largest group in the YS at the time was the Cliff group, widely known as the "state caps", which produced Young Guard, edited by Gus Macdonald (now Lord Macdonald, and a Cabinet Minister in the Blair Government) followed by Ted Grant's group, made up of a few dozen comrades. YS Conferences became quite heated, with accusations flying around about "Healyites" and "Pabloite revisionists" and the like, to the bemusement of the NEC representatives attending the conference. One year, a puzzled Ian Mikardo, the left MP, leaned over to his colleague, and asked, "why all these attacks on Pablo Picasso and Denis Healey?"

In Liverpool, our comrades produced a duplicated magazine called Rally through the Walton YS branch. It was edited by Beryl Deane, and was aimed towards the youth not only in Liverpool, but had a circulation in the YS branches of London, Tyneside and Swansea. The comrades intervened in the apprentice's strike and won a number of young workers to the tendency, particularly in Liverpool.

Breakthrough among the students

Another vital area that opened up for our development was in Brighton - which was hardly the Petrograd of Britain. In 1960, my elder brother, Alan Woods had joined the YS in our home town of Swansea. Our grandfather and mother were both members of the Communist Party. Our grandfather - a tin plate worker, an active trade unionist and a veteran member of the Party - had introduced my brother to Marxism from an early age. Alan's political upbringing resulted in sharp arguments in the local YS branch, which was dominated by members of the tendency, such as Dave Matthews, Colin Tindley, Bill Smith and Phil and Alan Lloyd.

Having been regularly defeated politically at the YS, and with our grandfather running out of arguments against Trotskyism, he was eventually won over. In 1963, Alan went to Sussex University, which at the time was a new and experimental university with only 300 students. One of them was Thabo Mbeki - now President of South Africa - who had an Anti-Apartheid group around him, most of whom were won to Trotskyism through Alan's work.

At the time, Alan was the only comrade in the whole of the South of England. After consistent work in the university and later in the town, he managed to establish a powerful group of supporters, including workers such as Dudley Edwards and Ray Apps, a local bus driver and regular delegate to Labour Party conference. Dudley, an engineering worker, had a long history in the movement, and played a leading role in the Revolutionary Policy Committee in the ILP. He subsequently joined the Communist Party, but left disillusioned. He had also been in Germany just prior to Hitler's victory, and spoke to many meetings about this experience. After many discussions with Alan (he later admitted he was testing us out) he eventually joined.

The work of the comrades in Sussex was a real breakthrough for the tendency nationally. For a number of years, a large part of the tendency's finances as well as leading personnel came from the Sussex area. Without Alan's work in Sussex, we would never have been able to develop the tendency nationally as we did. Nowadays, Peter Taaffe and the leaders of the so-called Socialist Party (the rump of the old Militant tendency) try to belittle the role of Alan, but the record speaks for itself. "Brighton played an enormous role both financially and politically in the past period", noted the report given to the National Editorial Board in May 1965.

Student comrades won at Sussex opened up many other areas of the country for the tendency. The comrades even won over the entire active membership of the Brighton Young Communist League, including Jim Brookshaw, a print worker and national chairman of the YCL, who remains a firm supporter. Through this work, we established a key position in the Brighton Kemptown Labour Party, with a building worker comrade, Rod Fitch, eventually becoming the parliamentary candidate in 1983.

The work in Sussex was therefore a decisive turning point in the fortunes of the Militant tendency.

Fusions and splits

In the early sixties, there was a move to re-unite the two Fourth Internationals - the International Secretariat based in Paris (Pablo, Mandel, Frank, and Maitan) and the US-based International Committee (Hanson, Healy and Lambert). Since the original split lacked any principled basis and was just the result of prestige and clique politics, the question of re-unification should have presented no great political difficulties.

However, as Ted always says, the pseudo-Trotskyist sects are "unlucky at fusions and lucky at splits." If you do not approach politics in a principled manner, then every attempt at unification will merely unite two groups into ten. And this was no exception. Immediately, instead of two Fourth Internationals, there were four or more. Poasdas and the South American Bureau refused to accept the unification. So did Healy in Britain and Lambert in France. Meanwhile, inside the IS, Pablo had quarreled with Mandel and the others, who soon retaliated by expelling him!

Undeterred by these problems, the International leaders began to beat the unification drum and put pressure on everyone and his uncle to unite - irrespective of political differences. It was a case of "all in together, never mind the weather." A sure recipe for disaster. In Britain, under the auspices of the International, there was an ill-advised attempt to rejoin forces with a largely Nottingham-based group around ex-CP members Pat Jordan and Ken Coates - stooges of the Paris leadership - who had launched the Week magazine. Coates - an adventurer who ended up as a Labour member of the European Parliament - had been briefly a member of the Healy group, but had been expelled.

These people had previously joined the Grant group in the late 1950s, and Jordan became organising secretary for a period. However, they manoeuvred with Pablo, and established a faction. This didn't last long and they left to form their own International Group - a minuscule outfit, entirely petit bourgeois in composition and in outlook. In fact, just the sort of people Mandel could feel at home with. The politics of this group were one hundred percent pure opportunism. The Week had an entirely reformist content, involving various left MPs and such like. They were known as the Weak people - a little unkind, perhaps, but entirely accurate. These were the people in whom the International placed all its hopes.

The International had a big problem in Britain. One year earlier they had reunited with the American SWP but not with Healy, for whom an International leadership based in Paris was the kiss of death, since he would no longer rule the roost in Europe as the Americans had hitherto allowed him to do. He immediately started an hysterical campaign against "Pabloism" (conveniently forgetting his close relations with Pablo in the past) and the "betrayals" of Hanson and the American SWP (conveniently forgetting his close relations with them).

Paris demanded that the official British section should unite with the International Group to fight Healy. This was vigorously resisted by a large part of the tendency, but was eventually pushed through. Under the pressure of the International, a shaky fusion took place at a conference at Seven Oaks in Kent in September 1964. Jimmy Deane - the then secretary of the group - mistakenly heralded this as "a very important step forward for the Trotskyist movement in Britain." He continued: "In adopting its statement on unity, the conference showed its mature attitude towards the differing experiences of comrades and towards the existence of secondary tactical differences."[13]

However, there was a lot of wish-fulfilment in this. As usual, the leadership of the International displayed bad faith, immediately commencing their manoeuvres against the British leadership. The "secondary differences" soon developed into sharp differences and things fell apart within a matter of months, with Jordan and Coates boycotting the leading bodies and eventually walking out to build their own separate International Group (later the International Marxist Group).

This was a blow to Pierre Frank, a member of the IS with a grudge against Ted and those other comrades who refused to recognise him as a great Leader and Teacher of the International. By splitting away immediately, Jordan and Coates had deprived him of the possibility of manoeuvring against the British leadership. He did not hide his displeasure at this turn of events, chiding the splitters: "You are too cowardly to fight."

The tendency had learnt a painful lesson on the impossibility of short cuts. Unification with the Mandelites turned out to be a farce. A misguided attempt to collaborate with the Cliff group in developing the Young Guard paper also ended in failure. In both cases, the main mover was Jimmy Deane, who had illusions in the possibilities of unification. After the failure of these attempts, Jimmy became disillusioned and moved away from active involvement in the movement, although he has always remained loyal to the ideas. He is now very ill and incapacitated after a severe stroke. But this proletarian revolutionist with his thick Liverpool accent and impressive presence was a man of tremendous ability, and is fondly remembered by all who worked with him. He was a victim not only of the period, but also of the crimes of the so-called leaders of the Fourth.

[To be continued]

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Notes

[11] Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary, p.240 and p.277.

[12] Matgamna, Seedbed of the Left, pp.9-10, London 1993.

[13] National Circular, 1 October 1964.