Jim Higgins

Harry Wasn’t


From International Socialism (1st series), No.23, Winter 1965/6, p.31.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

George Thayer, The British Political Fringe, Anthony Blond, 30s

There is an American academic fringe, plentifully supplied with cash, whose task is to present in popular style detailed studies of some obscure facet of British political life. The popular style is for sales and the obscurity to ensure that slipshod research passes unnoticed. The final product is usually rewarded with a PhD for the author, and a pain in the fundament for the half-way knowledgeable reader. Mr Thayer was not after a PhD – he has probably got one already – but his book is set firmly within this school of writing.

The field covered ranges with splendid impartiality from the Neo-Nazis to the Socialist Labour League, taking in on the way the Cornish nationalists, the Liverpudlian Protestant party and many others. For socialists, if not for others, it is this impartiality which invalidates the book as a serious contribution to politics. Whatever Gerry Healy’s enemies may say about him there is no basis for comparing him to Colin Jordan. The closest they have ever been to one another is in the pages of this book, a distance measured in chapters and nothing else. The thesis that all are slightly mad or exhibit a pleasant national eccentricity ignores the fact that the “outside Left” is part of an international tradition. To discover similar groups and parties Thayer need not have left America at all. It may well be that Colin Jordan’s existence as a rather specky nazi is the result of incomplete potty training as a child, but the British far Left, whether Thayer and Transport House like it or not, is an integral part of working-class politics in this country.

Mr Thayer owns to being “within the mainstream of American political thought.” This may explain some of his errors and patent lack of knowledge of the terms and controversies he attempts to describe: for example the early Trotskyists did not spend the years 1932 to 1938 arguing the question “was the USSR a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ or a ‘bureaucratic collectivist state’.” This particular controversy did not arise until 1940, and only in the most passing way did it impinge on the British Trotskyists – the whole thing was in fact an American deviation.

Mistakes of this sort abound, together with a number of simple factual errors. To instance a few of these; Harry MacShane has never been the editor of Labour Worker; Red Flag is not the most expensively produced paper on the left; Martin Grainger and Peter Cadogan were not members of the Socialist Review group; Socialist Current does not claim “that they alone hold the classical Trotskyist position,” and finally, the term for work in the Labour Party is entrism not “enterism” or “entryism.” The mistakes would be supportable were it not that they are well mixed with half facts and half truths, which it would be playing into the hands of Transport House to correct in this review.

I have no way of knowing if these errors are repeated in the sections on the fascists and the lunatic nationalists but it seems likely. Some of the anecdotes are amusing and it certainly gives one pleasure to imagine that Colin Jordan celebrating the Sun festival of Lammas – named after the Celtic Sun-God Lugh – around the camp fire. Who can be dangerous who is that daft? But leaving aside the stories which may or may not be true this is a bad book. Indeed, I would go so far to borrow a word from President Johnson, another strong swimmer in the “American political mainstream” – this is a “chickenshit” book.


Last updated on 8.10.2007