Part Three

Making Our Mark

[Section 1]

Revolutionary Communist Party

As a result of the fusion, the Revolutionary Communist Party was founded in March 1944. At this founding conference, all the factions were allowed to put their case. Firstly, we discussed the question of the proletarian military policy, moved by myself. Harber, and then Robinson put forward their positions, but were heavily defeated. Haston moved the resolution on entrism, which was opposed by John Archer and Robinson, but won by an overwhelming majority. Tearse then moved the industrial resolution that was passed with only the "Left" voting against. Finally, the present author moved the WIL perspectives document, The World Revolution and the Tasks of the Working Class. Again only the "Left" were opposed.

After a debate, the name Revolutionary Communist Party was chosen. Following elections to the Central Committee, all factions, except the Left faction of Robinson, which soon split from the party, announced their dissolution. Arthur Cooper got up as a speaker for the Trotskyist Opposition and said: "We have absolutely no political differences whatsoever with the leadership". And this was true at that time; there were no political differences. He concluded, "therefore, we can't continue as a faction and so we're dissolving the faction." This remark was greeted with laughter and jeers on the part of the delegates. The comrades had known these people for a number of years and knew the value of such speeches. Mangan, the representative of the International Secretariat, and a stooge of Cannon, stood up, holding up his hands in holy horror: "Comrades," he pontificated, "when good comrades give an undertaking like this, it is unprecedented that they should be treated in this way." Of course, we just laughed and left it at that. Nobody even bothered to reply.

Although the conference had taken very clear decisions, we didn't force everybody into line. We were never advocates of the "big stick" approach of Cannon, but were always flexible in internal Party affairs. Those who had been in the Labour Party could remain in the Labour Party for the time being. We wouldn't insist that they leave the Labour Party. On the contrary, we said they should participate in our LP fraction, which in any case had two or three times as many members in the Labour Party as the RSL had! Although they styled themselves the "Labour Party fraction" they had collapsed, for reasons I've already explained, whereas we had developed a modest base in the Labour Party in certain areas. Thus, even though we were overwhelmingly outside the Labour Party, we had succeeded with our methods where the others had failed. As long as the official position was put publicly, we accepted that these opposition comrades had the right to hold their views, continue their activity, and publish articles in the internal bulletins if they so wished.

Despite all the talk about "unity", that very same night Sherry Mangan held a secret faction meeting in his room in the Dorchester hotel. Present at the meeting was John Lawrence, Gerry Healy, John Goffe and Arthur Cooper - the leaders of the Trotskyist Opposition. And what was the purpose of this gathering? It was to decide how best to get rid of the 'anti-internationalist' leadership of the RCP, headed by Haston and Grant. Without a single political difference they were already organising an anti-leadership clique, because that is what it amounted to. Hand-in-glove with Cannon, they wanted to get rid of a leadership that had demonstrated its viability, and political correctness during the course of the war and had demonstrated that it could build a real Trotskyist movement. We had shown in practice that we were conducting possibly the most effective wartime revolutionary work of any Trotskyist organisation. But they weren't concerned with that. They were only concerned with settling personal scores. Lenin once remarked there is nothing more destructive in politics than spite.

During the war, Cannon had developed a swelled head. After the death of Trotsky, he and the other SWP leaders thought that they must control the International movement, as they had controlled the American Trotskyist movement. They therefore needed pliable people who would follow their line. They had forgotten that with these methods, the methods of Zinoviev, and later the methods of Stalin, they would build nothing. They had forgotten the main principle that Lenin had tried to teach Bukharin: that if you demand unconditional obedience from the different tendencies within the International, you will get obedient fools. Not only that, but - as we predicted in relation to Cannon and CLR James - when it comes to the first big conflict, the stooges will end up on the opposite side of their erstwhile "Leader". That actually happened with the SWP on a number of occasions.

In the 1938 unity negotiations prior to the Founding World Congress, Cannon had brought over with him a couple of young comrades from the youth organisation of the SWP, Frank Denby and Nathan Gould. We predicted at the time that the cynical manoeuvres of Cannon would have a bad effect on these youngsters, who would be completely mis-educated and start to behave in a similar fashion. We predicted that at the first serious test of opposition, they would come into collision with Cannon. And that is how it turned out. Gould entered into a bloc with Shachtman against Cannon and became a leader of the rival American Workers Party. In Britain, we saw that Cannon was spawning a monster in the person of Healy. Although Healy became an obedient tool of Cannon and Pablo, ending up as a complete political zombie and quizling, we predicted that he would come into violent opposition and the 100 percent support would turn into 100 percent opposition. As we know, after a period, that is what happened.

We deliberately took the name of the Revolutionary Communist Party - in complete contrast to the strike-breaking patriotic "Communist" Party. We wanted to contrast the genuine unblemished revolutionary programme of Trotskyism with the criminal role of Stalinism. The RCP had begun on a firm basis, continuing the revolutionary tradition of the WIL. Haston was elected general secretary of the RCP, and I was made the political secretary. Five-sixths of our membership were working class. We had a tried and tested leadership, and we had no real political rivals. It seemed that the future of our tendency and the future of the working class was assured. On the surface of it, we had solved all the problems of factionalism. We had become the official section of the Fourth International in Britain. We could now turn our attention to the really important task of building the movement. It seemed as if the situation was very favourable, and we could now begin to move forward at a rapid pace.

After the formation of the RCP, we took out a lease on a new headquarters in 256 Harrow Road, again in Paddington. Unfortunately, we didn't have the money to buy it and we didn't have a printing press. But it marked a new step forward and a new beginning for the RCP. In the Harrow Road office, we had a meeting hall that we used for party meetings. We had separate rooms for all the full-timers and some of the full-time comrades actually lived in the premises, including myself. Of course, the wages of our professionals were very small. We were earning less than one pound a week in the early stages of the war, which later went up to thirty bob and even the princely sum, in the last years of the RCP, of about 2 and 10 shillings, which was just about enough to live on.

As an amusing aside, in the early days of the RCP, the "Left" John Robinson used to say that he slept on the floor in the East End of London, and that all revolutionaries should do the same, as that is how workers lived. Well, I do not know about the workers, but we were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor in 256 Harrow Road, not by choice, but because we didn't have the money to buy furniture! It certainly wasn't a question of so-called working-class credentials. Of course, we had Cliff Stanton of the old RSL, who became a very successful businessman, who in those days used to go round saying that he didn't take a bath, because the workers do not bath! That was the type of people who were in the old RSL - middle-class elements who had a completely false and lumpen-proletarian view of the working class.

The apprentices' strike

There was a serious shortage of coal, reflecting the lack of investment of the coal owner for a period of decades and an aging workforce. In an attempt to solve the problem in 1943 the government introduced what was known as the "Bevin boys" - a system whereby a body of young men chosen by ballot from those conscripted to serve in the army would instead be sent to the mines. This was extremely unpopular, and was aggravated by the bad conditions that the young apprentices had to put up with. The discontent surfaced in the Tyneside apprentices' strike.

In March 1944, in the middle of the founding conference of the RCP, 100,000 miners went on strike. Haston wrote a front-page article for the Socialist Appeal: 100,000 Miners Can't be Wrong - Horner Selling Out. Almost within a matter of months, we had a new industrial upsurge, which reflected a new mood developing not only in the working class, but also within the army. First of all, we had the apprentices' strike in the engineering and shipbuilding industries, and particularly in the shipbuilding on Tyneside. They were striking over the introduction of the Bevin ballot scheme for conscripting youth into the coalmines. We intervened in this strike of apprentices and helped to spread it nationally. It took on a widespread character, but was especially solid in Newcastle and in the Tyneside area.

Of course, our comrades, led by Heaton Lee and Ann Keen, gave them support and assistance, and even provided important guidance to the strike through Bill Davy, the apprentices' leader. Roy Tearse explained:

"The first contact with Bill Davy had been made by the members of Workers International League on Tyneside. It was purely a political contact at first. Bill was a political animal, at that time he was in the YCL as well as being an apprentice in industry, and the first contact that was made, was made by the comrades in Newcastle, like Heaton Lee, Jack Rawlings and so on. My first contact was really through them. By this time the apprentices' committee had been formed, Bill had become chairman of the apprentices' committee, and a possibility of a strike was in the offing. But once having made contact as secretary of the Militant Workers Federation that this meant an important link was being established. For instance, I was invited to speak to meetings of apprentices in Sunderland and elsewhere, and so the Militant Workers Federation, fairly rapidly had a considerable influence. What we were able to do as well, was that the apprentices on the Clydeside, with whom we were in contact at the same time. We put them in touch with the Tyneside people, also there were people in Huddersfield and elsewhere and so the Militant Workers Federation really had some effect in connecting these people together."[1]

As the strike spread, the actions of the apprentices were gaining enormous sympathy amongst the older engineers in Tyneside and throughout the engineering industry. With this, the Tories and their kept press were screaming about the effects of Trotskyist agitators in the dispute. The Home Secretary, Morrison, was under pressure from the Tories to take action against these "subversives".

As always, the mouthpieces for the ruling class attempted to blame so-called subversives for the developing militancy in the working class. So, true to form, the Special Branch, MI5, swung into action, using all the information they had gathered by phone tapping, spying and the like. In the early hours of the morning, simultaneously, in a military operation, every important RCP branch in the country was raided: London, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, Wallsend, Glasgow, Leeds, and elsewhere. Even smaller branches were raided. The homes of branch secretaries had visits by police at two and three in the morning and were searched from top to bottom. The police were looking in particular for documents, or any incriminating evidence that could be used in a trial of RCP leaders. Heaton Lee, the local RCP branch secretary, and Ann Keen who was also in Newcastle, were arrested. Then Roy Tearse, who was the industrial organiser of the Party, was picked up. Jock Haston, who was deeply involved in the strike, was in Edinburgh at the time on a lecture tour.

Haston knew they were looking for him when the news came on the radio and decided to play a little game of hide-and-seek with the police. So he managed to dodge them and went to a cinema to hide out. As the police searched all around Edinburgh for him, he was watching a show. In the meantime, they raided his mother's house, as well as the house of the Edinburgh branch secretary. Haston waited in the cinema until the evening. After that, he went and gave himself up at a police station with witnesses to show that it had been entirely voluntary. This was important from the point of view of possibly getting bail in the future.

Those arrested were all charged with evading the provisions of the Trades Disputes Acts of 1927, and of assisting an illegal strike. It was the very first time that this piece of vicious anti-labour movement legislation, brought in by Baldwin after the defeat of the General Strike, had been used - and scandalously used by a Labour minister into the bargain. The action was taken by the Coalition government, in which Herbert Morrison was Home Secretary. When the Tory Stanley Baldwin pushed through the Trade Disputes, he laid the onus for any action on the Attorney General. No prosecution could be taken without his permission. Of course, he would have to get clearance from the Cabinet before invoking any powers. Baldwin made sure that if the legislation was to be used, it could only be implemented with the say-so of the government.

While these arrests and attacks on our organisation rained down, our ranks stayed absolutely firm. They had been well trained and well prepared to meet these difficulties head on. There was not a single defection from the old comrades of the WIL. The majority of the old RSL membership that still remained active, also remained firm. However, there were some resignations from amongst the ex-members of the RSL. These great people of "revolutionary" principles tended to run for cover at the first shot. Ironically those defections were from the same r-r-revolutionaries, who had this intransigent policy of "revolutionary defeatism", and not at all from the ranks of the "chauvinist" Workers International League.

With the Tory anti-union laws being used against us, we immediately set up an Anti Labour Laws' Victims Defence Committee. We got in touch with Maxton, McGovern and the other ILP MPs, and through them with Nye Bevan, SO Davies and the Labour left. We succeeded in setting up a solidarity committee to raise support and money for the defence of our comrades. At the launch meeting in Conway Hall, London, there were speeches by WG Cove MP, John McGovern MP, V. Sastry, the RCP Midlands organiser, James Maxton MP, and myself. Although some of the Labour leaders, and even the left Labour leaders, supported the war, they sympathised with our support of the apprentices' struggle. Despite this, we proceeded from the contradictions of reformism and of left reformism, and sought to drive a wedge between them and the bourgeois, between them and the capitalist state. We had no puritanical ultra-left qualms about this question.

The Anti-Labour Laws Defence Committee and its campaign had an immediate success within the trade union and Labour movement. Thousands of pounds were collected to fight our case and to pay for the legal defence. We conducted a campaign above all within the trade union movement, sending speakers around as many branches and shop stewards committees as possible. We circulated nationally all the trade union branches we could reach, which amounted to thousands of branches, and the support and money actually poured in. It was quite significant that the Stalinists within these branches had to keep their mouths firmly shut when this question came up, otherwise, they would have received short shrift from the workers. It was extremely difficult for them to oppose our class appeal and come out with their poison about fascism and all the rest of it. Even the Daily Worker after initial stories about "saboteurs" had to tread carefully. This didn't stop the Labour MP, DN Pritt, QC, a Stalinist fellow traveller, and the other hardened Stalinists howling for our blood. "As for Grant", snarled the Daily Worker, "all he knows about the British working class movement in his native city, could be put on the back of a penny stamp." Tearse, in turn, was branded a "third-rate inefficient shop steward."

Despite all their sound and fury, the Stalinists were in a difficult position and were forced onto the defensive by our Anti-Labour Laws Victims Defence Committee. We took maximum advantage of the publicity surrounding the case to launch a tremendous campaign, involving every section of the organisation. Our comrades were imprisoned and we would not rest until they were released. Although those arrested were initially denied bail, on appeal they were released as long as they reported to the police station on a daily basis. This allowed them to participate in the Defence Campaign, which was of enormous benefit. Nye Bevan and the other lefts became heads of the Defence Committee, which was of great help and assistance to us in approaching Labour Parties and trade unions nationally. The Defence Campaign really put the organisation on the map. We already had a basis in the trade unions, and on the basis of these attacks by the state, our support was extended further. The influence of the RCP began to grow, and we sunk deeper roots into the working class.

The comrades were tried in camera, under the pretext that the police had not had time to complete their investigations into the alleged offences. Meanwhile, the press whipped up a tremendous hate campaign against us, spreading all manner of scare stories. They actually committed contempt of court on a massive scale, but this was war - so who cared? The Stalinists joined in the chorus against "Trotskyist wreckers" who were allegedly betraying our boys at the front. But they got their answer from the soldiers of the Eighth Army who passed a resolution pointing out: "It is the right to strike that we are fighting for."

The case itself was very important as it was the only time that the Trades Disputes Act was ever used, before its repeal by the post-war Attlee Labour Government. The comrades received a sympathetic response from the jury, and especially from the spectators attending the court hearing. True to form, the comrades took a very dignified and firm approach to the proceedings, and took full responsibility for all their class actions. Without any hesitation, they gave full support to the struggle of the apprentices. They refused to knuckle under, or bend under the pressure of the prosecution or the bourgeois state. However on the day, unfortunately for the authorities, the jury found them guilty only on two counts.

"In so far as the trial and imprisonment was concerned, what was important was the political attitude of the apprentices," recalled Roy Tearse. "Now what happened was that I was, according to the judge and the press, the main defender involved, and the prosecution called the strike committee as prosecution witnesses. The entire strike committee was called as prosecution witnesses. What they had to do during the trial was to declare every witness, except one, as hostile witnesses. They were absolutely 100 percent in solidarity with the Trotskyists during the trial, and the stand made by Bill Davy was really exceptional. He was only nineteen at the time. If you look through the transcript of the proceedings, you can see how really able he was, and I think that was most important.

"On the question of the trial, when I was first charged, I was charged with acting in the furtherance of a trade dispute, in the magistrates court. When we got to the assizes there were thirteen charges. If they can't get you on the swings, they will get you on the roundabouts. They introduced 'conspiracy' to add to 'the furtherance'. 'Aiding and abetting James William Davy to act as furtherance'. 'Conspiring to aid and abet James William Davy to act as furtherance'. By the end of it, there were thirteen counts."[2]

In the end, Mr Justice Cassels passed sentence, and Haston got six months and Roy Tearse and Heaton Lee got a year each. Ann Keen was immediately released having already served her 13-day custodial sentence. The comrades launched an immediate appeal, but in the meantime, were forced to serve their sentences while it was being considered.

"I remember what was staggering, when the jury came back, as far as I was concerned, that the first eleven were 'Not Guilty' and I thought, Jesus, what's going to happen?", recalls Tearse. "But on the last two they found us guilty. And of course, we won the appeal, and the reason why we won the appeal was because the jury had actually been contradictory, so the convictions were actually quashed, but Heaton Lee and I got a year each of two counts to run concurrently, Jock Haston got six months and Ann Keen got thirteen days which meant that she was released because she had been inside."[3]

One amusing footnote: when Haston and the other comrades went to Durham prison, they were asked to state their religious affiliation, as is normal practise in British prisons. So they answered mischievously "Dialectical Materialist". As the prison officer couldn't spell this strange-sounding religion, he simply put down "DM" as their faith!

"On another occasion", recalled Jock Haston, "it was the anniversary of Trotsky's assassination, I made an application to see the governor to have a commemoration meeting with the other two [Heaton Lee and Roy Tearse]. He denied the application and I pointed out he couldn't deny the application because it was a religious meeting, and we had a very philosophical discussion about what was meant by 'religion'. My argument was the regulations were that if there were three or more members of any denomination they had to be given opportunities to meet together. In the end, he denied the actual application, but he said, 'I'll see that you get together during the course of the day', which he subsequently did. So we actually had a commemoration meeting in jail."[4]

While in prison, Haston spent time studying law, which allowed him to give some sound advice to his lawyers. He was so diligent that he gave the lawyers the technical information relating to previous cases, where similar points of law applied. Especially as a general principle in law, you couldn't act in furtherance of something before it actually happened. The case against them had been ill prepared. That was a fact, and shows the superiority of Marxism, even on these questions!

At the Appeal Court, which we all attended, the scene was full of amusing side issues on points of law. The prosecution lawyers, for example, indignantly produced an issue of the Socialist Appeal which they hoped would strengthen their case. It had a picture of Ernest Bevin, right wing leader of the TGWU, on his way to catch his train and behind him a very small porter, overloaded with huge baggage. The caption underneath was something along the lines of: look at this - two men in the same union, but Bevin is getting so many thousands a year as a cabinet minister, while the porter is on three or four pounds a week. Very indignantly, the prosecutor handed it up to the judges, evidently hoping that their Honours would be similarly outraged. However, the photo was so amusing that in spite of themselves, the judges let out a chuckle.

At the Appeal Court, our defence council argued that all the acts with which our comrades were charged concerned the period before the apprentices' strike, but "furtherance" could only apply to a strike that had already broken out. Therefore, the jury had been misdirected and the sentences should be quashed forthwith. Obviously, the point sunk home as far as the judges were concerned. At any rate, Mr. Justice Wrottesley then turned round to the prosecutor, who was obviously preparing for a long and involved speech, and asked him: "Mr. so-and-so, if we accept your submission on such and such, will you rest your case?"

The prosecutor, who was supremely confident, was beaming with satisfaction at such a request. The appeal was surely about to be rejected out of hand! On the other hand, our legal counsel had a long face - and so did we. We thought the day was totally lost and that they had already made up their minds. So the prosecutor said, "certainly, your Lordships, I accept the submission. I rest my case." When he had sat down, Justice Wrottesley turned round and said the judges did not accept his submission on this case and that they would give a full judgement in writing later. But in the meantime, they dismissed the charges on the point of law that in acting in furtherance of a strike, before the strike had taken place, was not in breach of the Act. We had won! The convictions were quashed, and our comrades were released forthwith.

[To be continued]

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[1] Roy Tearse interview with Al Richardson, 1978.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jock Haston interview, op.cit.