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Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 3

If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan ’orses will jump out.
Ernest Bevin

Life in a Healy group when there are political differences is not much fun. In 1950, the differences involved the few who subscribed to Cliff’s state capitalist analysis; Ted Grant and the remnants of Haston’s followers; the ex-RCP Open Party faction and, finally, those who were united only in their contempt for the old RCP leadership who had abandoned them and in their dislike for Healy, his politics and methods. As Ken Tarbuck, then a young member of the group, wrote much later: “We found it difficult to adjust to the new regime and above all we found it extremely hard to stomach Socialist Outlook. [Healy’s entrist paper – JH) ... Gone were any criticisms of Stalinism or Social Democracy ... We found ourselves selling a paper which gave front page coverage to Stalinist trade union leaders or fellow travelling Labour MPs. As can be imagined this did not do much for our morale. On top of this we found as ex-majority supporters we were treated like second class citizens ... we began to hear rumours of expulsions or departure from activity of people who had been members of the movement for years ... our secret faction invited Tony Cliff to meet us, which he did and we had a long discussion about the Group and the International. He had a very plausible line that went something like this: ‘If one continues to see Stalinist Russia as a workers’ state and admit that the Stalinists can carry through a revolution (Eastern Europe and China) then you end up adopting Stalinist policies (e.g. Socialist Outlook, the IS line on Yugoslavia etc. and Stalinist organisational methods are used e.g. Healy’s group). The only way out of the dilemma was to adopt the state capitalist line.’ ... We were quite impressed with this line of argument, but at that point we refused to throw in our lot with his faction.” [1]

The youthful Tarbuck was elected as a delegate from Birmingham to the 1950 Group Conference, mandated to move a resolution critical of Socialist Outlook. Gerry Healy It was a conference where Healy had assured himself of a majority by dissolving and amalgamating branches and rigging the delegacies. Opponents were routinely abused. At one point Healy shouted out to Ted Grant, “Get back to the dung heap”. All of this behaviour was quite alien to party life in the RCP and, when Ken reported back to the Birmingham comrades, they decided that Cliff was right. Most of the other “state caps” had already been expelled, on one pretext or another, and so they resolved to go out with a bang. “It was then decided that Percy Downey (an ex-RCP member who, funnily enough, also happened to be a barber) would submit a resolution to the Birmingham Trades Council putting a third camp position on the Korean War. The upshot of this was an immediately summoned meeting of the ‘Club’ at which Healy was present. He laid a resolution for the expulsion of Percy and refused to allow any discussion of the political issues, he insisted that the only issue was, ‘did he, or did he not, break discipline by putting the resolution to the Trades Council.’ However, when the vote was taken there was a tie. Healy then called a halt to the meeting, declaring the branch was suspended until further notice.” [2] A little later Healy imported a “loyalist” to break the tie and carried the expulsion. Not only that, all those who voted with Percy Downey were also expelled. “Healy had fallen into our trap since we went on to help found the Cliff Group ... Had there been anything like a democratic regime such as had existed in the RCP we would not have wanted to leave the organisation. And of this I am sure, had there been a credible alternative to Healy around that maintained a workers’ statist position Cliff would not have made so many recruits. Despite being hampered by the immigration laws at that time Cliff was very active contacting people, meeting them and discussing for as long as it took to recruit them. This entailed some personal risk for Cliff, since he faced being deported back to Palestine and a very uncertain future ...” [3]

With the accession of the comrades from the Birmingham branch the way was clear for the formation of a state capitalist group in Britain. Altogether, there were 33 members, almost all of them young and ex RCP. (Although this is a very small number it should be compared with the 70 members of the ‘Club’ which, despite taking some 150 odd from the RCP, had managed to expel or repel most of them). Beside Ken Tarbuck [who, incidentally, remained an active Marxist until his death in 1995] and Percy Downey, there were a number of very talented people in the new group: Jean Tait, Peter Morgan, Bill Ainsworth, Geoff Carlsson, Ray Challinor, Duncan Hallas and Anil Munesinghe. [4]

The founding conference of the Socialist Review Group (SR Group) took place on 30th September and 1st October, 1950, in Camden Town. Of the 33 claimed members, 21 were in attendance, from six branches (London, Thames Valley, Crewe, Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester). The immediate area of recruitment was to be among ex-RCP members and the emphasis for Labour Party activity was to be the Socialist Fellowship (the organisational expression of the Socialist Outlook). Subscriptions were set at a minimum of 1/6d per week, with a likely income of £3 10s 0d

The SR Group secretariat was to be in Birmingham with a youth secretariat in London. The youth work would be around a duplicated journal that would hope to involve other groups (the most likely being the Grant/Dean group). The theoretical journal, also duplicated, was to be called Socialist Review and priced at 6d. The paper was seen as a vehicle for the education of the members and would emphasise Eastern Europe and Russia, with articles by Cliff, the Ukrainian group, Shachtman and Grant.

On relations with the FI, the founding delegates were anxious to display their loyalty: “... Being a Trotskyist tendency and believing that our position on Russia rounds off Trotskyism to the needs of our epoch, we shall fight for the building of the FI as a genuine Trotskyist organisation. We shall apply for membership of the FI. If we are denied admission, we shall propagate our ideas in the FI and in the organisations close to it. Open letter on these lines to be sent to the IS claiming recognition.” (Minutes of Founding Conference)

The conference adopted three documents by Cliff as the essential theoretical basis of the new group: The Nature of Stalin’s Russia (the RCP internal bulletin), The Class Nature of the People’s Democracies (a 50 page duplicated pamphlet dated July 1950) and Marxism and the Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism. At that time, when the worldwide Trotskyist movement was struggling to reinvent its theory in the light of the postwar reality, Cliff was setting out his marker against Trotsky on Russia, the FI on Eastern Europe and the alternative theory associated with Max Shachtman and his co-thinkers. If, like so much of Cliff’s work, it was of uneven quality, it is still among the best he has produced.

As a closing grace note to the proceedings the assembled comrades resolved: “To send greetings to Natalia and inform her of the formation of state capitalist group.” (Natalia [Sedova] Trotsky in Coyoacan, Mexico. She and the veteran Spanish Trotskyist Grandizo Munis were extremely critical of the FI and had adopted a state capitalist position.)

The SR Group saw itself as Trotskyist like the RCP except that it had a better theory about Stalinism. The constitution set out the rights and duties of membership in the standard democratic centralist format: “... All decisions of the governing bodies are binding on all members. Any member violating a decision shall be subject to disciplinary action... all minorities have the right to express dissenting opinions within the group, the NC shall maintain an Internal Bulletin as a medium for discussion of these dissenting opinions ... censure, reduction to probationary status, suspension and expulsion may be taken against any member committing a breach of discipline ... Charges against any member must be made in writing and the accused furnished with a copy, such charges are considered by the body in which they originate... at which the accused can attend and vote ... Any member has the right to appeal against a decision to the NC ...” (Article 8, SRG Constitution. As one can see, the 1950 constitution fairly evenly balanced the demands of centralism with the requirements of democracy, which is more than can be said for later constitutional novelties.)

Although a majority of the members lived in London the secretariat was based in Birmingham, which was handily placed midway between London and Sheffield. The secretary was Bill Ainsworth, a senior shop steward at the Rover factory and an experienced and talented ex-RCPer. Letters were sent out to dissident Trotskyists abroad: Lenz and Jungclas in Germany, Chaulieu in France, Mangano in Italy and Raya Dunayevskaya in the USA.

The members clearly saw themselves, with similar groups internationally, as the basis for a revitalised Fourth International. Like so many people to whom a blinding revelation has been vouchsafed, they found it difficult to understand that any one could fail to succumb to the power of the new theory. In pursuit of this objective, Bill Ainsworth wrote to the secretariat of the FI detailing the political and organisational bankruptcy of the Healy Group (the existing British section) and requesting that the SR Group be recognised as the British section: failing that, that it should “... at least [be] recognised as a sympathetic organisation of the 4th International”. [5] Pablo and Germain were strangely immune to the persuasive powers of state capitalism and neither of these requests was granted.

The group was now formed and its puny size dictated that it should work in the Labour Party. Contrary to some opinions, entrism is not the easiest way to spend one’s political life. A tactic that derives from weakness is always hard to apply for those who have so recently enjoyed the luxury of unfettered freedom of revolutionary expression. On first entry, the revolutionary must practice a modest stillness (it would be asking too much to ask for humility as well) while acquiring some familiarity with the personal and political differences between the existing members. Such reconnaissance work is vital if one is ever to have any influence in the future. The political agenda will inevitably be set by others; the preoccupations of Tribune supporters may be the closest approximation to your own politics there is on offer. A resolution calling for free treatment of pensioners’ bunions might well be preferred to one on nationalisation under workers’ control. The practical revolutionary entrist will on most occasions, have to be satisfied with increasing the tempo a little and enhancing the radicalism of resolutions. Recruitment in this kind of milieu is on a one to one basis and extremely infrequent.

If political fulfilment is in short supply in the Labour Party, there is no shortage of meetings: from ward to constituency party to borough party, each one of these tiers with its appropriate executive committee and a full complement of secretaries, chairmen etc. It was possible to spend all one’s spare time at meetings and in the process acquire the trappings of any number of petty offices. During his entrist phase Gerry Healy used to be introduced at public meetings as chairman of some obscure ward of Streatham Labour Party.

One place where the SR Group made some serious attempts to operate as entrist was in Birmingham. The Borough Labour Party held an annual municipal policy conference where the party’s manifesto for the elections could be discussed and suggestions made for improvement. The SR Group comrades decided to put forward a document that not only suggested new policy but also explained the failures of the Labour Council and the drawbacks in local government finances. The pamphlet was entitled Twenty Questions, after a popular radio programme of the day. It was written as a cooperative exercise, with each member of the group taking responsibility for researching and writing a section. In 20 small pages, the pamphlet made a very good job of putting a socialist case for education, housing, direct labour, wages, de-rating, leisure and the ruinous effects of local government finance where practically all the income goes to pay off the monylenders. The pamphlet appeared over the names of just two of its authors: Peter Morgan, and David Mumford. This turned out to be a wise precaution. The right wing on the council, led by Denis Howell (then a councillor but later an MP and a Minister of Sport and now a member of the House of Lords), were most offended by the pamphlet and were demanding expulsions. Eventually the two miscreants were brought up on charges before a packed Borough Party meeting of more than 200 (they used to get meetings like that in those days). By 108 votes to 96 they were expelled. The headline over the report in the Daily Mail read: Twenty Questions: One Answer. Two years later both were readmitted to full membership. It was an instructive episode and one that indicated that there was, at the time, some life worth saving in the Labour Party.

The broad sweep of revolutionary politics had to be reserved for SR Group meetings. In 1951, the SR Group, as a newly formed state capitalist group, was particularly exercised about the Korean War and the fact that the British section of the FI was giving uncritical support to the North Koreans. With these thoughts very much in mind, the Secretariat met Ted Grant in July of that year. The discussion was on the possibility of unity between the two groups. The Socialist Review people argued that fusion could take place on the basis of the old RCP programme, plus the formulation, “Against both Moscow and Washington”. Grant, on the other hand, was already leaning heavily on the notion that nationalisation was the only necessary condition to define a workers’ state. His group was discussing the possibility that Labour might introduce socialism peacefully and took the view that if Labour nationalised industry then it would be a workers’ state. This obsession with nationalisation subsequently led Grant to bestow his favours in some very strange locations – Burma, Algeria and Egypt, to name but a few. Naturally enough, Grant and his followers were for unconditional defence of Russia in the event of war. For the SR Group comrades this was a capitulation to both Stalinism and Social Democracy and the idea that unity would result in anything constructive foundered on the rocks of Grant’s predilection for state “socialism”.

In the five years since Cliff’s arrival in the UK, British Trotskyism had foundered, not because of world shattering forces but from sheer miscalculation and irrelevance. The RCP had been founded in 1944 on the illusion that the party was on the threshhold of a new October Revolution. The years of hard work and sacrifice came to nothing and the Haston leadership resigned, with a sigh of relief, from the unequal struggle, leaving the withered stalks that remained to the locusts. The movement lost not only a gifted leadership, but most of the cadre as well. By late 1951, there were probably not many more than 100 organised Trotskyists in Britain. Healy ran his group of zealots with a set of principles deriving from Nechaev rather than Trotsky. Grant sailed his small and rudderless craft along the unfamiliar coastline of social democracy, rather like some early mariner before the invention of the compass; while the SR Group considered itself the proper successor, albeit writ small, of the RCP with an added entry tactic and a better theory on Russia. Just to prove that a better theory is no guarantee against vainglory, in September 1951, the NC passed the following resolution unanimously: “We believe that the world Trotskyist movement is divided into defensism and anti-defensism. The defensists capitulate to Stalinism; the anti-defensists are the only real Bolsheviks, headed by Natalia Trotsky. We declare that we will not make any fusion with any group that stands for the defence of either Russian or American Imperialism.” The strange usage here suggests that this resolution was probably written by Cliff.

Leaving aside the idea of dynastic succession implicit in the reference to Natalia, the resolution is a classic example of the minor sectarian bird as it fluffs up its, drab plumage in a vain attempt to appear big and rather beautiful. As usual, Marx has a word or two on the subject: “The sect sees the justification for its existence and its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguished it from the movement.” [6]



1. Origins of the SWP by John Walters (pen name of Ken Tarbuck) in Workers News April 1991.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Munesinghe subsequently returned to Ceylon where he joined the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaj Party and was later a minister in Mrs Bandarinaike’s coalition government.

5. Letter to the FI Secretariat, October 30 1950, handwritten by Bill Ainsworth.

6. Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, p.258.

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Last updated on 31.1.2003