I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten ...
The Bible Joel 14
In that great and profoundly subversive picaresque novel, The Good Soldier Schweik, there is a section which details Schweik’s anabasis around the ruined Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Good Soldier wanders hopefully, but hopelessly lost, all the while maintaining his unfailing good humour while looking for his regiment, from which he was accidentally separated as it set off for the Russian front. By some quirk of a malignant fate that invariably afflicts him, it transpires he is walking in the wrong direction. In my own even less purposeful anabasis along the scenic route to the barricades I have, on occasion, felt that Jaroslav Hasek, rather than some higher power, was writing the script. As I emerged blinking from yet another blind alley, or myopically confusing, for the second or third time, a narrow cul de sac for the broad, straight highway to the socialist commonwealth, I have sworn that next time I would acquire better maps and more reliable guides. Unfortunately, the maps are old and seem to chart only the Petrograd of 1917, and the guides are mostly unreliable and habituated to blind alleys, while the broad, straight highway has yet to be constructed.
None of that should surprise or upset us. It has always been like that, or we would have made the revolution these many years ago and we would, today, in Ian Birchall’s phrase, “be lying in the long grass eating peaches”. For myself I would require one or two extra little goodies, like permanent sunshine and a big box of liquorice allsorts, to be certain that workers’ power was a fact, but I know what he meant. Marx did not envisage the commune until Parisian workers actually formed one. Lenin was deeply suspicious of the soviets until he saw their intrinsically socialist character. This is a rather neat reversal of his 1903 formulation, in What Is To Be Done, that socialist consciousness is brought to the workers by socialist intellectuals. In fact, we find that socialist organisation of society is revealed to the intellectuals by the workers who actually build it.
How the workers, in what remains of the 20th Century and the untouched 21st, will set about their tasks is not yet known and what is certain is that the current coven of gurus have not got a clue either. What we can be sure of is that it will not be a straight repetition of the past and that it will surprise those fortunate enough to he around at the time. In the meanwhile, there is still plenty to be done. Only the congenitally faint-hearted will conclude that, because there have been some bloody awful socialist organisations, we should withdraw from the struggle, plant a peach tree and then hide in the long grass until the crop falls into our nerveless fingers. To plead that some groups have not lived up to our expectations or, worse still, have exceeded our most lurid nightmares, is merely to describe capitalism’s ability to impose its authoritarian values even on those whose intention, at least, was to destroy capitalism itself. All of the: groups, without exception, have something to offer, something to teach, something to fill one or other of the traps in our understanding of socialism.
As a schoolboy during the Second World War, I remember reading the Daily Worker under my desk and feeling cheered as the tide of battle turned and all that tank-borne Russian infantry advanced on a 3,000 mile front. It was a time when the Communist Party of great Britain (CPGB), operating very much as auxiliaries to Mrs Churchill’s Aid to Russia Committee, achieved 60,000 members. This truly impressive increase, known as the “Stalingrad levy”, was composed in large measure of patriotic Britons thrilled by Russia’s war effort, the CP’s no-strike pledge and the cut of Joe Stalin’s jib. They disappeared like snowballs on a hot stove as soon as the war ended.
Impressed by the Russian peoples’ sacrifices, I was well prepared to believe that their fortitude was due to the socialist spirit engendered by the 1917 revolution. It seemed to me that the defence of October was also the defence of our Russian allies and I became adept at turning history, geography and religious knowledge lessons into a dialogue about soviet power. Mathematics and science were altogether less easy to subvert into this sort of discussion, although I do recall a fairly lively debate on Pavlov’s dogs during a physics class. With my friend Zammit, totally non-political but game for anything, we painted “Open the Second Front Now” in very large letters on the quadrangle wall. I was under suspicion for this outrage, but I had chosen well; Zammit would not peach even under torture. Some years later I met an ex-CP member who told me of his sister, an art teacher at a country school during the war, who was also in the party. She and her friend chose a nice large wall surrounding a church to paint their slogan. The letters were beautifully formed and artistically spaced: “Open the Second Font Now” it demanded. It may be a measure of the lack of class consciousness among the English peasantry, for the slogan was not thought to be the work of a dyslexic Marxist, but a wry comment on the presence of American airmen at a nearby air base.
With the end of the war and the election of the first majority Labour government, it seemed, for a short time, not only to me but also to a lot of wiser heads, that socialism might be ushered in through the ballot box. The enthusiasm for far reaching social change certainly existed in the working class and especially in the millions mobilised in the armed forces. The Labour Party, however, far from wishing to encourage this enthusiasm and channelling it to effective action, saw a landslide parliamentary majority as quite enough popular support to carry through the reforms necessary to set British capitalism back on its feet again; anything more would not only be immoderate, and Labour prided itself on its moderation, but also very dangerous. By 1947, I was 16 and eligible to join the Communist Party, and it was very clear that there was going to be no socialism forthcoming from the Attlee administration. At this time, the beginning of the Cold War, the CPGB was reverting to a policy of industrial militancy after its wartime social pacifism.
Having left school and become a Post Office Engineer I was pleased to find that in my branch of the Post Office Engineering Union (POEU) there was a thriving cell of the Communist Party. Without too much delay I found myself a fully paid up member of both the POEU and the CPGB. At that time in the Post Office Engineering Department, everybody earned very little, but apprentices’ pay was so bad it was almost Dickensian. For the princely sum of 14 shillings (70p) I put in a 48 hour, five and a half day week for my first six months on the job. If we had had to work all that time I am not sure it would have been bearable. Fortunately, there were some exceptionally long tea breaks, some marathon snooker sessions and, in the summer, sun-bathing on the Telephone Exchange roof.
At one stage in my training, I was attached to an Heavy Overhead Gang, traditionally a collection of very large and tough chaps who nipped up and down 80 foot telegraph poles with all the noise and agility of howler monkeys. In the mornings I was instructed in the mysteries of an overhead wireman’s job and, in the afternoons, taken off to the Frognal area of Hampstead, where our long ladders and climbing skills were perfectly adapted for cleaning the windows of the very large Hampstead mansions. In this way we more than trebled our wages. Rich beyond the dreams of avarice, I took to smoking rolled up Nosegay or Boar’s Head and, on Fridays after pay, drinking a few brown ales. This ill paid but relaxed working environment gave me plenty of time for political discussion and agitation – at one time I was the champion collector of signatures for the Stockholm Peace Appeal.
I was conscripted into the army in 1949, but several of the comrades wrote to me in Hong Kong, where I was stationed. Sid Gregory, the branch literature secretary – lit-sec in the party patois – was kind enough to send me copies of the the CP’s London District Bulletin and World News and Views. The magazines were wrapped in a carefully recycled Co-op paper bag in such a way that the imprint was clear for all to see: “Printed and Published for the Communist Party by Farleigh Press (TU All Depts)”. On mail parades the officiating sergeant would pass over my rolled up bundle like a Field Marshal passing on his baton, with the words: “And ’ere, Signalman ’Iggins, is your letter from the Kremlin.” Unmasked as a Red, it was decreed that I should not be allowed into the cipher room. This represented a problem because I was trained at some expense to the army as a cipher mechanic. For the next year and a bit I spent my time in the workshop trying to turn out one serviceable teleprinter from two duff ones. I never succeeded but it filled in the time until I got on a boat and came home to resume my work in the CPGB.
Life in an industrial branch of the CP was more pleasant and more productive than in a branch based on geography. In the latter there was a lot more time for extirpating heresy, precisely because there were fewer meaningful things to do. Once a year, however, we did have an event in our branch called the “Purge” in which we all sat around engaging in a joyful session of self and mutual criticism.
In Engineering No 2 (the name of our branch) we discussed the party policy and how most effectively to introduce it to the workplace and the union. We held education classes and we invited speakers. Our meetings were held weekly, usually in the West Hampstead flat of one of the comrades. The room was large, with plenty of chairs and a double bed for the comrades to sit on. I recall one meeting at which the speaker was considerably delayed. Our chairman, who had no watch, asked, “Has any comrade got the time?” With a happy squeal I fell back on the bed, legs akimbo, crying, “Anything for the party comrade chairman”. I paid for this sally for some years; at the annual purge I was commended for hard work and dedication but invariably castigated for “light-mindedness”. .
It was a branch of people with ages ranging from 16 to 60. Just to engage in casual conversation was to learn a great deal about the British labour movement during the course of this century. It was to be shown, if not immediately accepted, that there was a need for patience and for consistent and steady propaganda and agitation. In a telephone area containing three POEU branches and about 2,000 members we had 20 odd party members, virtually all of whom held some lay office in the branches, the region or, in a couple of cases, on the National Executive. It was a place to learn the essentials of trade unionism and to relate that experience to politics. It was also where you were trained to take on the various representative jobs in the union.
To be a member of the CPGB engaged in industry was to suffer a sort of schizophrenia. On the one hand was the Stalinist line of peaceful coexistence and on the other there was the Foreign Languages Publishing House, churning out translations of Marx, Engels and Lenin and selling them at genuinely bargain prices. It was possible to think Joe Stalin was jolly nice and that peace was the paramount consideration and at the same time pursue the class struggle with the utmost vigour. My affection for Stalin was somewhat reduced when I was elected to lead a discussion of the “father of socialism’s” last work, The Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. It was bad enough having to read it once, but imagine the horror if you had to read it several times to make notes. It was a truly grisly experience, Stalin having a style that Max Shachtman compared to, “a sandbag dragged through a puddle of glue”.
One of the lessons you had to learn was the importance of communications. The rank and file leader has to keep his members informed and to do it regularly. We produced two union branch journals that discussed local and national issues, both as far as the union and the employer was concerned, and suggested the way forward and reported progress. We developed a programme for the union that was regularly publicised in other branches where the left had some influence. We vigorously criticised the bureaucracy of the union and were sometimes subjected to its disciplinary powers. Even at the height of the Cold War, with Catholic Action operating at full blast, CP members were re-elected to local office, although there was a pretty comprehensive clear-out on the executive council.
Like most working class organisations the CP made its demands upon your time and your pocket, but did offer in return the comradeship that goes beyond mere friendship because it involves shared experience and commitment. The essentially reactionary character of Stalinism, its profound exploitation of the working class in Russia and the satellites, was quite difficult to discern from a small ginger group in a middling sized union in Britain. The bombshell landed in 1956. I was attending a POEU annual conference and on the Sunday morning before the start I purchased my copy of the Observer. The entire paper was given over to NS Kruschev’s speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU (B). It was a long catalogue of Stalin’s crimes, virtually devoid of any Marxist explanation, but for all that an effective condemnation. If it specifically excluded the various Left and Right oppositions of the 1920s and 1930s from pardon, it posthumously absolved those Stalinists who had incurred Uncle Joe’s wrath. Kruschev did not apologise. How could he find the words – he too was a Stalinist – for the millions of innocent workers and peasants who were executed or died miserably in some isolator? He did reveal that so vile was Stalin that, presumably in his cups, he had made Mikoyan – a man of advancing years and poor health – dance the gopak (a rather lively Caucasian folk-romp). Can swinishness go any further?
That was the breaking of the monolith. The ferment in the party did not die down. The cat was out of the bag and there was no way of putting the creature back. Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt did their best, but everybody knew that they had been privy to at least some of the crimes that Kruschev had brought to light. Both of these men, Pollitt the ace mass agitator and Dutt the ace theoretician, toured the country attempting to mitigate the effects of the 20th Congress speech. Dutt developed the telling analogy that although the sun had spots it nevertheless was the fountain of all life. Well Joe Stalin was like that. I attended a couple of meetings Dutt addressed along these lines and he was almost totally rejected and abused. The second time I saw him he looked what he was, a tired old man whose lies and evasions had caught up with him; it was not a pretty sight.
I was the secretary of the party branch and, after a deal of heart-searching, called on the branch chairman to tell him that I was resigning from the party. He seemed unsurprised by this and sympathised with my position. Unfortunately, without saying anything to anyone, he also resigned. The net result was that I received an angry letter from the lit-sec suggesting that I, “make a self critical analysis of my gross failure to call a party meeting for two months”. For a while I toyed with the idea of calling a meeting and not attending myself but I finally let it rest and did nothing.
Without much expectation and largely to fill the meeting gap, I joined the Labour Party. At the time I was living in Wembley North constituency, in the area covered by the Preston ward. That ward Labour Party really was strange in its political composition. There was a couple who had been in the Austrian Social Democracy when Dolfuss attacked the Vienna workers’ flats in 1934. There was a German chap who had worked for the Comintern and Louie, a German lady, who had been engaged to Ernst Toller, a poet and Red army commander during the Bavarian Soviet in 1920. Among all this exotica my particular chums were Len and Freda Knight. Like me they were ex-members of the CP. Freda had had a particularly hard time working in a company founded by CPers to trade with China which apparently did a thriving business importing pig bristle and tung oil. The company recruited through the party, but did not permit its office staff either to join a union or form a party unit. This led to no end of aggravation, not least I trust for the party, because Freda was an extremely strong minded person with an acute sense of justice and fair play.
It was the Knights who first introduced me to world of Trotskyism. They had been converted by Cyril Smith, who lived on the other side of Wembley. Cyril was a man of seemingly inexhaustible energy and an enviable ability to keep plugging away at whatever was his appointed task. He was much aided in his work of conversion by the fact that he had access to a number of Trotsky’s pamphlets and an edition of The Revolution Betrayed. In addition there was the Labour Review, his group’s excellent theoretical magazine, and also the agitational paper, the Newsletter; edited by Peter Fryer. For a man like myself, who not too long before had suffered the cruel compulsion of reading Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, the chance to read Trotsky, a genuine Marxist who could also write with tremendous style and great clarity, was indeed a privilege. In much the same way, I imagine, as pre-historic man was especially grateful to the unknown genius who discovered fire, or the other chap who invented the wheel, I felt an obligation to sign up. Thus it was that I became a member of the Wembley branch of the “Club”.
If the Bolshevik party was “a party of a new kind” then the Club was “a party of an even newer kind”. Meeting followed meeting, paper sales abounded, you found yourself attending ward, constituency and borough Labour Party meetings in addition if only to make up your paper sales. Newsletter public meetings were held addressed by the likes of Peter Fryer and Brian Behan (with John Lawrence and John Palmer, Behan was one of the finest stump orators I ever heard).
Central London education lectures on the history of “Our Movement” were conducted by Gerry Healy. One such series was held in a quite large room above a pub, which had been booked in the name of a non-existent travel club. During the day the room was obviously a restaurant and you could hear the sounds of dishwashing behind the wooden serving hatch. On these occasions Gerry would start off mumbling into his chest in a soft voice that was almost inaudible to all but the people in the front rows. The comrades leaned forward, ears straining to catch the pearls he cast before them. Suddenly, without warning, he would switch to full bellow and the comrades recoiled, suffering from acoustic shock. This time, the unfortunate dishwasher dropped a pile of plates. Healy’s strength five oration, containing as it does blood curdling threats, dire warnings and accounts of past mayhem, convinced the publican that this was no normal travel club and that it could well prove costly in the delft department. We were no longer welcome at that particular hostelry.
The high point of my membership was the strike at McAlpine’s South Bank site. The dispute started when Brian Behan, who had been a leading dissident in the AUBTW the building workers’ union, got a job at the site. After a little while, the manager realised that this Behan could damage his mental health, so he fired him. This was a mistake, because there were a number of other serious militants on the South Bank, among them Hugh Cassidy. In short order there was a strike and the Club was put on a war footing. All the resources of the group were available to the strike. It was one of the first picket lines composed of building workers and revolutionaries. Healy occupied the cafe over the road from the site and meetings were in session there practically all the time. At one stage there was a bit of a fracas outside the gate and Brian Behan was arrested, subsequently getting three months in Shepton Mallett.
For Healy the strike represented a qualitative change in the class struggle. He saw, arrayed against us, the state that had arrested Behan, the trade union bureaucracy who denounced the strike by refusing to make it official, and the employers and their powerful association. If this typically cataclysmic Healy analysis goes much too far, there is no doubt that it was a serious strike aggressively fought on both sides, which could have been the springboard to greater involvement in the struggles that were beginning to develop. As part of that strategy the Newsletter Industrial Conference was held on a programme of democratic rank and file control of the unions and an end to bureaucratic privileges. It was quite a good conference: there were certainly a number of genuine delegates who were enthusiastic about the programme. Peter Fryer was in the chair and Brian Behan and Harry Constable, a leading London docker and Club member, spoke from the platform. Gerry Healy lurked, not too anonymously, at the back of the hall sending written instructions to the chairman with such annoying frequency that Fryer threatened to vacate the chair if he did not stop. .
This was really the high point in the fortunes of the Club. According to those who knew Healy much better than I did, he had been the soul of tact and discretion, a model of patience in recruiting and assimilating two or three hundred ex-members of the CP For these, his familiars, this was an unprecedented display of tolerance and good temper that could not, and did not, last. A series of pressures and events conspired to send him off the rails. First, he was under some pressure from Brian Behan, who took a distinctly jaundiced view of Labour Party entry work. Next, the press, alerted by the South Bank Strike and the Newsletter Conference, began to look into the affairs of the Club. A badly researched and inaccurate feature appeared in the News Chronicle, but a much more accurate article or two appeared in the South London Press. Much encouraged by Behan, Healy decided that this would be a good time to make a dash for freedom and the Socialist Labour League (SLL) was born. In tune with his gallows humour, Healy wrote to the Labour Party requesting affiliation for the SLL. It was not forthcoming.
For many of us who had joined from the CP, the policy of entrism was one that required some swallowing but, having done so, it seemed a bit light minded to chuck out ten years of work because of a couple of press stories. Having come to this conclusion we argued in that way in the branch and at aggregates. The storm of vituperation this called down on our unsuspecting heads seemed out of all proportion. As editor of the Newsletter, Peter Fryer was in the eye of the storm and found the atmosphere in the office unbearable and Healy’s conduct totally impermissible. He left never to return. Healy really did a number on this one. He claimed that he was having the ports and airports watched for sightings of Peter. He contemplated a special issue of the Newsletter with the headline: Has the GPU Got Peter Fryer? Unfortunately he did not print it, because it would have afforded Peter a bit of a laugh in Nottingham, where he was staying with his old friend John Daniels.
Although he did not choose to look for Peter in Nottingham, he did pay a visit to Len and Freda Knight on the same errand. This was a visit of the intimidatory kind that takes place on the wrong side of midnight. A peremptory knock at the door brought Freda from her kitchen where she and Len were imbibing their pre-bedtime cocoa. As she opened the door, Bob Pennington, at that time London Organiser of the SLL, started to push his way in saying, “We want a discussion with you comrade”. This message was delivered in the accents of a B picture gangster, so beloved of Healy and his satraps. Freda was a spirited person and shoved back, replying, “Then come back at a reasonable time”. Inevitably, Freda, who was quite small, was gradually pushed back into her hall, when out of the kitchen came Len. Unlike Freda, Len was big, about six foot two and chunky with it and he started swinging when he was level with the kitchen door. He stopped swinging when his fist connected with Pennington’s head by the front door. Less a tooth or two, Pennington landed in a rose bed and, when the dust had settled and Len had calmed down a bit, Healy and Cliff Slaughter appeared out of the gloom for their discussion. It was not a meeting of minds.
A faction was formed to air our discontent: it had about twenty members and was called the Stamford Faction, after the grounds of the stately home where it was formed.  A document was written, The 1959 Situation in the SLL, which was distributed by Peter Cadogan. Peter’s idea of distributing an internal factional document was to put an advertisement in Tribune. This resulted in the signatories all getting a letter from Healy’s tame solicitor claiming damages for libel. Cadogan rather airily replied that he would, “Try the case in the court of working class opinion”, wherever that is, while Len Knight went to the Labour MP Sidney Silverman who was a pretty nifty lawyer. We heard no more of the libel action but Len was expelled for punching the London Organiser and Freda and I were expelled for intervening noisily at an SLL public meeting: The National Assembly of Labour.
In the course of the struggle in the SLL, I met Tony Cliff and Michael Kidron at Peter Cadogan’s home in Cambridge and Cliff extended an invitation to the Socialist Review Group’s next aggregate. Being at a loose end for the day in question I turned up. It was a very open meeting, as were all the SR Group meetings in those days. I recall Sam Levy was in attendance as was Ted Grant, who was selling copies of Socialist Fight that were so badly duplicated as to be unreadable. There were maybe 40 or 50 people in the room. It was the early days of CND and there was a great deal of talk at the time about the four minute warning we would get before extinction. Cliff put forward his own slogan: “In the event of nuclear attack put a piece of brown paper on top of your head”. For some reason I was much amused by this, and also by his injunction: “The comrades have got to start pulling their socks”. However, I did feel he should improve his articulation if he was to avoid giving offence with this catch line. A few days later I joined the SR group and the rest, as they say, is history, or at least the subject of this book.
It may be that some will find the title of this work confusing, or obscure, or both. It is quite simple really. The first article I ever wrote for International Socialism was in issue No.14, a history of British Trotskyism from 1938 to 1948, entitled Ten Years, for the Locust. Its point was that a promising organisation, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), with some very talented people had, through faulty politics and perspective, come to grief. They were, with one or two exceptions, not bad people and had all the very best intentions, but they foundered because they were irrelevant to the British working class movement. The members could run harder, stretch further and make even greater sacrifices but all to no avail, the locust had eaten the RCP’s years. Nevertheless, it was not all wasted; for ten years they kept alive the revolutionary tradition that, to a greater or lesser degree, informs most of the left today. That these new groups have found it impossible to transcend the differences of the past, and continue to live vicariously through the Collected Works of the heroes, is the reason why the locust can still find ample sustenance. To those who find that the story is too critical for their taste I can only apologise, and restate my conviction that the criticism is well merited, because the International Socialists (IS). successors to the Socialist Review Group and precursors to the Socialist Workers Party, was the very best chance we have had since the 1920s to build a serious revolutionary socialist organisation. It was a chance that was not taken and those who were responsible for that error have much to answer for and should be called to account if only in the pages of this book.
Life goes on, however, and we must keep trying. When the Good Soldier Schweik, after all his travails and adventures, is at last reunited with his regiment, the long suffering Lieutenant Lukacs tells him to hop up on the troop train. Schweik smiles seraphically and says: “Beg to report, sir, I am hopping up”. I hope that when I eventually find my way back to the revolutionary train, that is going somewhere other than the Eastern front, I will be able to report that I too “am hopping up.”
Finally, I would like to thank everyone who has helped me in preparing this book and especially: Bill Ainsworth, Peter D Morgan, Geoff Carlsson, John Palmer, Roger Protz, Richard Kuper, Cyril Smith, Ruth Nelson, Al Richardson, Ted Crawford, Stan Newens, Richard Kirkwood, Granville Williams, Alice Murray, Andy Wilson, Ian Land, Sarah Washington, Jules Alford and Phil Evans, whose cartoons will surely be the reason why anyone will keep this book. And to my friend and companion Jane Allen, who has suffered the re-enactment of several vicious faction fights over her dining table with little more than a whimper of protest and retained sufficient patience to go on and sub-edit the entire manuscript my gratitude and loving admiration. Finally, to Marion Higgins, whose unfailing support – in every way – during some of the hardest times, was always appreciated if never adequately acknowledged, belated but heartfelt thanks. Any faults or errors are, of course, all my own work.
Norfolk, September 1996
1. Among the members of the Stamford Faction were: Ken Coates, John Daniels, Dorothy Tildsley. Marion Cook, Peter Fryer, Pat McGowan, Len Knight, Freda Knight, Ellis Hillman, Peter Cadogan and Jim Higgins.
Last updated on 2.11.2003