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Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 2

Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon;
... lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph
The Bible, Samuel Two 1:19

In September, 1946, Cliff arrived in Britain. That Britain of 50 years ago was, in LP Hartley’s phrase, “a foreign country, they did things differently then”. For Cliff, of course, it was quite literally, a foreign country. It had suffered severely during six years of war, it was a place of rationing, shortages and queues for practically everything. For a socialist, though, what was more interesting was the existence of a large, organised and distinctive working class.

Almost a million members of the Mineworkers’ union laboured in the pits, hundreds of thousands of engineering workers followed their trades in Scotland, the North East, North West and the Midlands, while the massive general unions organised their members the length and breadth of the country. The Communist Party, having shed the Stalingrad levy, claimed 40,000 members.

The most significant political fact, however, was the existence of a Labour government with an overwhelming majority. The year before Cliff’s arrival on these shores, the Labour Party was elected on a wave of popular enthusiasm, to its own astonishment and contrary to the advice from the Communist Party, which advised a maintenance of the wartime coalition of Labour, Liberals and Communists, together with, “progressive Tories, like Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden”. It was a time when spontaneous political discussions took place in bus queues, in British Restaurants and on street corners. In cinemas, for some time after the election, newsreel pictures of leading Labour ministers were cheered as they entered 10 Downing Street, or climbed into a ministerial Humber. According to the newsreels of those days, ministers did little else. Maybe the most significant political fact was the radicalism of the massive and still mobilised conscript armed forces. There had been soldiers’ strikes in the Far East and the Middle East and there was a rebellious spirit among the troops. Unfortunately, the party in which they put their trust, as the instrument of social change, was the Labour Party, an error of judgement both understandable and regrettable. The Communist Party, as already noted, clung to the warm familiarity of coalition politics, a comradeship of the Anderson shelter. Here, in a very real sense, was that crisis of the working class as the crisis of leadership so often alluded to by Trotsky. The only party offering that kind of leadership, however, was the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), the British Section of the Fourth International and, sad to say, very few soldiers and not many more civilians heard the message.

Cliff’s destination, however, was the RCP, a party that directed some 400 members from its headquarters in the Harrow Road, Paddington. Here was an organisation that had survived the rigours of the war and emerged, for the first time, as a united section of the Fourth International. The party had some industrial experience, especially in the Royal Ordinance Factories and in the mines and had been the subject of a government initiated prosecution for aiding the Tyne Apprentices’ Strike. [1]

The RCP was almost entirely working class in its composition and was led by a group of extremely talented people: Jock Haston, the General Secretary; Roy Tearse, the Industrial Organiser and a group of South Africans, Millie Lee, Heaton Lee and Ted Grant. These were the ones (together with Ralph Lee) who, in 1938, had refused James P Cannon’s advice to unite with the other British Trotskyist groups and help found the FI. The reasons for this refusal are complicated and concern an earlier accusation that the Lees, in South Africa, had been involved in some kind of defalcation of black workers’ strike funds. There was no substance in the allegation because, quite apart from the transparent honesty of Heaton, Ralph and Millie Lee, African workers just did not have any money for anyone to do away with, but the slander had been a useful weapon in an obscure faction fight. In 1938, relations over the accusation were bitter enough for Haston, Grant, and the Lees to sever relations with their accusers and to go so far as to refuse inclusion in the new International.

Whether or not Haston and Co were justified in their refusal, they were roundly castigated in the founding congress report as reactionary and nationalist. In addition, they seem to have incurred James P Cannon’s displeasure, a condition that carried a lifetime guarantee. In 1943, the first instalment of Cannon’s revenge arrived in the shape of Stewart (Sam Gordon), a member of Cannon’s faction in the US-SWP of some years standing. It was his task to assist in the unification of the British Trotskyists.

The Fourth International’s official section in Britain was the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), the result of the 1938 fusions. Harry Selby was a barber Immured in the Labour Party and riven by factionalism, it had about 75 members divided into three factions: a majority Militant faction, led by Denzil Harber; the Trotskyist Opposition, led by John Lawrence and Hilda Lane; and a Left Fraction, led by Robinson and Mercer and including Harry Selby – who was much later Labour MP for the Gorbals. Harry was a barber and, it is said, on Saturdays after having taken a drink or two, he would cut the comrades hair for nothing. As a result, you could always tell a Glaswegian left-winger by the rough hewn character of his hair style and the signs of long term scarring of the scalp. Haston’s group the Workers’ International League (WIL) had some 250 members with an occasional faction led by Gerry Healy, whenever he could think up enough grounds to mount one.

It was to these signs of internal unpleasantness that Sam Gordon applied himself with vigour. He was instrumental in bringing together Healy and Lawrence in a factional alliance that was to last into the 1950s. It was also Healy’s first association with Cannon, one that was to last into the 1960s. In 1944, the RCP was formed of all these contending elements. Despite the manoeuvring, Haston was elected General Secretary and the leadership of the new party was virtually the same as it had been for the WIL.

At much the same time, Cannon was also in the process of returning the International Secretariat (IS) of the FI to Europe. (The Secretariat had been moved to New York during the war.) It was, however, to be an FI created in Cannon’s own image. With his special brand of bluff arrogance, Cannon handed the reins of the International to, “Our young men in Europe”. The “young men” in question were Pablo (Michel Raptis) a Greek who had attended the founding Congress of the FI under the pseudonym of Spero and the genuinely young, Belgian, E Germain (Ernest Mandel).

The young men in Europe, naturally enough, joined hands with Cannon’s other proteges, Healy and Lawrence. In the light of Healy’s subsequent root and branch denunciation of Pablo and all things Pabloite, it is interesting to recall that for years Healy took his politics straight from Pablo and Mandel. It was possible to say that Healy’s faction was truly internationalist; it was formed in America, nurtured in Europe and offensive everywhere and in all circumstances.

This then was the party that Cliff had travelled so far to join, an organisation grossly undermanned for the revolutionary tasks it set itself and, in addition, riddled with internationally nurtured factionalism. It did have the advantage that it maintained a relatively liberal regime, protecting the rights of minorities and observing the provisions of its constitution and it was bigger and better than the Palestine section. Unfortunately, that is not saying very much. If these handicaps were not enough, it also suffered, along with the rest of the International, from serious political problems.

Much of the difficulty experienced by the Trotskyist movement rested on the pronouncements of Trotsky himself. In the 1930s he was convinced capitalism was incapable of developing the productive forces. Without the socialist revolution there was only a perspective of unemployment, hunger, misery and war. The renewed revolutionary wave, however, would surely come as a result of the massive social and political dislocation of the war. In Russia, the Stalinist bureaucracy, as a shallow rooted caste, would be unable to withstand the trauma of world war and the working class would retake power and rebuild the soviets.

All of us have a tendency to whistle in the dark to keep our spirits up and, in the encroaching blackness of the late 1930s, Trotsky gave expression to several such spirit enhancing whistles as in: “Ten years were necessary for the Kremlin clique to strangle the Bolshevik Party and to transform the first workers’ state into a sinister caricature. Ten years were necessary for the Third International in order to stamp into the mire their own programme and transform themselves into a stinking cadaver. Ten years, only ten years. Permit me to finish with a prediction. During the next ten years the programme of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions and these revolutionary millions will know how to storm earth and heaven.” [2]

Trotsky clearly believed this analysis, but the strident style of his message may well have been designed to enthuse his tiny cadre to Herculean labours. Unfortunately, for all too many of his followers, anything he said was revealed truth crossed with the eternal verities and, after his death, there was nobody able to evaluate the new reality. The speech of 1938 was seen as a promissory note ready to be cashed not later than 1948. Cannon, whatever his own views, encouraged this iconography while, at the same time, preparing the alibi. Just after the end of the war in Europe and the Pacific, a report of a Cannon speech appeared in the Militant: “Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think that the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage and is now in the process of regroupment and reorganisation for the second. The war is not over and the revolution which we said would issue from the war in Europe is not taken off the agenda. It has only been delayed and postponed for lack of leadership, for lack of a sufficiently strong revolutionary party.” [3]

Not everybody was quite as besotted as this. Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman in the US-SWP, relying more on the evidence of their senses, rather than ten year old exhortations, saw the signs of capitalist recovery. In Britain, Haston and the RCP majority agreed with Morrow and Goldman.

Newly arrived, Cliff supported this particular majority line. Indeed, he produced his All that Glitters [4], proving that capitalism was not completely finished. Where he diverged from Haston, Grant and the rest of the majority, was in the evaluation of the class nature of the Soviet Union. Jock Haston had, before joining the CP and later the Trotskyist movement, been close to, although apparently not a member of, the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). Since 1917, the SPGB had characterised the Soviet Union as state capitalist and whatever the theory lacked in sophistication, it made up for in consistency and longevity. The question arose in the Trotskyist movement because the post-war reality cast doubt on their traditional characterisation of Russia as a “workers’ state”. It became necessary to explain the existence of Russia’s satellites in Eastern Europe. What was their class nature? Trotsky, the normal fountainhead on these matters, presented certain difficulties. In essence, Trotsky said Russia was a workers’ state because:

  1. The working class took power in 1917,
  2. Nationalisation,
  3. The monopoly of foreign trade,
  4. Planning.

In Eastern Europe conditions 2 to 4 were all satisfied, but the working class had nothing to do with setting up these regimes. The FI answered the question by proclaiming that Russia was a workers’ state and Eastern Europe was state capitalist.

Jock Haston, in the cold uncertainty of 1946, basing himself, perhaps, on the proposed Labour nationalisations in Britain, or the drive to state control of industry in Eastern Europe or, because he had reverted, briefly, to the cosy warmth of the SPGB’s line, declared Russia state capitalist. Ted Grant, as was his custom, agreed wholeheartedly with Jock Haston, although always ready for a quick reversal if Jock should change his mind. Cliff, however, with the encouragement of the FI’s secretariat, vigorously opposed the notion that Russia was state capitalist. Briefly the debate raged and then, in a strange reversal, which if more widely applied to our faction fights would add immeasurably to their entertainment value, the opponents convinced one another of the justice of the other’s view. Cliff, with the enthusiasm with which he always lards his latest wheeze, proceeded to set out his new state capitalist ideas in a 200 odd page document. The RCP majority, presumably grateful that Cliff had set them straight by adopting their erroneous position, duplicated and circulated this monster Internal Bulletin.

No doubt Cliff would have gone on to form a faction on the basis of his new theory. Unfortunately fate, in the unprepossessing shape of Chuter Ede, the Labour Home Secretary, intervened with a letter requiring Cliff to leave the country with the minimum of delay. It is interesting to note that in those days the Home Office retained certain of the social amenities from a more polite age. The letter, having delivered its terse message concluded, “I remain, sir, your humble and obedient servant, Chuter Ede, His Majesty’s Secretary of State for the Home Office”. Rather than be sent back to the Middle East, Cliff applied to the Republic of Ireland for residence. The Irish, on the mistaken assumption that the British government were kicking Cliff out because he was a Zionist and thus acceptable to their nationalist sentiments, were prepared to allow him into the Republic. Reorganising the Irish Section of the FI The International Secretariat sent out the word from Paris that, “Comrade Cliff has been directed to reorganise the work of the Irish section of the Fourth International”. This is fairly rich, considering that Cliff’s only contact with Irish Trotskyism was to go to the pictures once a week with Johnny Byrne who, at the time, was a Shachtmanite.

Back in Britain, post-war realities were pressing hard on the RCP Whatever Trotsky had promised, 1948 saw the revolution receding further and further away. The organisation was not growing, in fact it was contracting. Healy’s aggressive minority were happily firing the bullets prepared in Paris and New York. The politics of this minority were of imminent capitalist crisis closely followed by the struggle for power. If the RCP majority had the better of the argument, their policy of maintaining the open party condemned them to fritter away whatever strength they had in a world where Labour reformism held sway and industrial militancy was controlled by the CP.

Healy fantasised that there would be such massive and rapid radicalisation that there would be no time to build the revolutionary party. The place to be was in the Labour Party, to lead the masses as they flocked in their millions into that party. The analysis was rubbish, but the entry tactic made sense. It would have allowed the declining revolutionary forces a field of political activity that was being increasingly denied them outside. At this point the International intervened decisively, allowing Healy’s minority to exist as an entry faction in the Labour Party, in no way subject to the disciplines of the RCP which was, after all, the British section of the FI.

This piece of gerrymandering was, until then, unprecedented, contrary to the letter and spirit of the FI statutes, and it revealed a contempt for the rights of members and the responsibility of leaders. The Fourth International was an organization whose prospects had been suspended for the duration and turned out to have no past, a present that combined empty vapouring with sordid manoeuvring and a future that offered more of the same. Until 1948, most sections of the FI might have been forgiven for thinking that, while revolution at home was remote, the International was at the leading edge abroad, where revolutionary hopes were high. After the Second World Congress of the FI, only the most besotted could maintain this illusion. Trotsky’s highflown rhetoric of 1938 was exchanged for the flyblown vainglory of Michel Pablo in 1948. Ten years the mountains were in labour and gave birth to a pipsqueak. Max Shachtman, who had been the driving force behind the Founding Congress in 1938, abandoned all hope in the FI. Here is Shachtman on Pablo’s report of 10 years of the FI:

The only claim to distinction the report could make is that it was one of the most lamentable performances in the history of the movement. For carefully scraped out emptiness, it remained unexcelled by any of its rivals at other sessions. To be sure, the reporter took care to refer to the reactionary character of the Stalinist and reformist parties; he noted with pride that the centrist organisations had not become mass movements, whereas the Fourth International, in the face of great difficulties, had not disappeared; he did not fail to dwell loudly on his unshattered faith in the working class, his confidence in Socialism, and his conviction that the Fourth International would overcome all obstacles – including, presumably, such reports as he was delivering.
It is debatable if the speech sodden with cheerless commonplaces, would have been appropriate even at some anniversary celebration in a mountain village Its suitability as a report of the Executive Committee to a congress was not debatable. Consequently it was not debated – not at all, not by anyone and not for a single moment ...

Jock Haston together with most of the old RCP leaders began, in his phrase, “to walk away”. It was not an isolated phenomenon. This same old RCP majority leadership now suggested that the organisation should enter the Labour Party. Despite the fact that the RCP majority had considerably more members than Healy’s entry group, the ISFI decreed, with Haston concurring, that Healy should retain the leadership. On Haston’s part this was less a sign of self denial and more an indication of his intention to remove himself from the fray with the utmost despatch. This he did and, in the same way that some heroes are awarded posthumous VCs, Healy expelled him retrospectively. Gerry always wanted his pound of flesh.

For the second time, the British Trotskyists were united in one organisation, if smaller and with much diminished hopes this time. Healy, however, was about to ensure that this unusual state of affairs did not last much longer.



1. For a full treatment of British Trotskyism in the war and post-war period see Al Richardson and Sam Bornstein’s War and the International. The same authors’ book Against the Stream is an excellent history of British Trotskyism in the 1930s.

2. Recorded address to the SWP conference 1938, reproduced in the British Socialist Appeal, June 1942.

3. Quoted War and the International, Bornstein and Richardson page 173.

4. This is a quote from Gray’s unpublished Ode to a Distant Prospect of Eton College, which actually reads “Not all that glisters, gold.” In this case the misquotation is neither deliberate nor harmful.

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Last updated on 31.1.2003