Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven ...
William Wordsworth on the French Revolution
If the Socialist Review Group’s first decade saw little or no increase in membership, it had seen a notable increase in political clarity. The messianic pretensions of orthodox Trotskyism were almost entirely absent. The emphasis was on working class self-activity and initiative, as the pre-condition for socialist advance, rather than seeing the revolutionary group as the centre of the universe and, wherever necessary, rewriting cosmology to accommodate this astronomical presumption.
At each stage in the Group’s theoretical journey the ideas were developed to explain the new reality. State capitalism was a response to the increasingly untenable notion of a “workers’ state”; the permanent arms economy was an attempt to explain the post-war long boom; and the changing locus of reformism called attention to the fact that most improvements in working class conditions came not from social democracy or the trade union machine but from rank and file pressure. While these theories are not necessarily inter-connected (it is, for example, quite possible to believe in any one of them, without having to accept the other two) in the life of the SR Group they had a certain natural progression. The result was a group that still bore some of the marks of its Trotskyist origins, but also showed a refreshing willingness to accept the reality of the post-war world and a modesty in accepting that any revolution relying on the SR Group for its success would have to exercise considerable patience.
Armed with its theory, the SR Group was rather like the young man who was all dressed up but with nowhere to go. Then the Labour Party obliged by re-establishing its youth movement. Over the years the Labour Party had had an extremely troubled relationship with the young. The first League of Youth was founded in 1923. The Labour Party, from the beginning, was suspicious of the young and their tendency to adopt radical policies. Thus the LOY was permitted no national organisation or National Committee. After a troubled few years of existence, the real battles took place in the 1930s. The Communist Party saw the League as a rich pasture for their united front policy. Their main agent in the LOY was Ted Willis. (Subsequently Willis was the author of the Dixon of Dock Green television series, for which services to “art” he was ennobled, to end his days as a Labour peer.) After some battles with Transport House, he decamped, taking a large chunk of the League into the YCL and, in 1938, the LOY was disbanded. The Trotskyist movement did have people working in the League: Jock Haston, Ted Grant, and Gerry Healy, together with their comrades, operated around their paper Youth For Socialism, but their forces were small and their influence negligible.
Immediately after the war, a youth movement began to develop spontaneously, without any prompting from Transport House. This revived Labour League of Youth (LLOY) suffered the same restrictions as before – no national organisation or national focus in a conference, no elected leadership and no rights or function within the main body of the Labour Party. Its history was a muted repeat of the prewar model. Left wing branches were dissolved and any spark of initiative was firmly suppressed. The Trotskyist movement, slightly but not much larger, now committed to Labour Party entry, worked in the League and made some recruits, but lack of resources and the lack of a national focus, allied to the draconian regime imposed by the Labour Party, ensured that neither the movement itself nor the entrists got rich.
By 1955, the LLOY was so depleted by suppression and declining membership that the Labour Party closed it down before it fell down. In an attempt to keep a more docile youth movement, the Labour Party set up Youth Sections. These were integral parts of the local adult party with virtually no independence and an upper age limit of 21. In East Islington CLP, for example, it was not possible to join the Youth Section unless you were actually related to an adult member of the constituency party. This is even more restrictive than it might seem, because there were only a few tens of adult members in East Islington CLP, many of whom were some years beyond child-bearing age.
For the Labour Party, a youth appendage, despite its distressing tendency to be left wing and lacking in respect for its elders, had certain advantages. Quite apart from the fact that it promised a renewal of party members, it contained those who were, at least in theory, most able to carry out the onerous tasks of electoral politics. The Tories had been in power for nearly ten years (in fact, they lasted another four) and as recently as 1959 had, yet again, been re-elected. New blood was clearly the order of the day. The success of CND as an organisation was an earnest of the possibilities if only the youth could be persuaded to behave.
That the timing of the launch, in 1960, was good is proved by the fact that after just a few months of existence the Young Socialists had over 700 branches. The constitution of the YS was comparatively liberal and good behaviour was to be ensured by having Bessie Braddock, a very large and formidably right wing ex-communist who sat on the Labour Party’s NEC, and George Brinham, a trade union official with a seat on the Labour Party National Executive, to supervise the new movement’s activities. Stern disciplinarians Brinham and Braddock may have been, but they had no chance of controlling a youth movement that was, in large part, a response to the growth of unilateralism in a Labour Party whose official policy was solidly, even enthusiastically, for the bomb. If the Labour Party leaders had actually intended the YS to be an ideological arena and recruiting station for the revolutionary left, they could not have done a better design job. With little yelps of glee, the revolutionary groups nipped smartly in to enjoy the pickings so generously provided by Transport House.
The first vehicle to carry the SR Group’s message into the Young Socialists, was Rebel, a four page A5 publication. It was produced, in Cliff’s back room, on a pocket size Adana press, by John Philips, Michael Heym, Chris Harman and John Palmer, among others. Truth to tell, it was a fairly nasty little product but it did have a certain power of attraction. In 1961, the supporters of Rebel and those of Rally, the youth paper of the RSL, came together to produce Young Guard. It was, in many ways, an uneasy alliance and the monthly support meetings could become rather fraught, especially because the Rally contingent, like Healy’s SLL, took the view that Britain should unilaterally disarm, while Russia, because theirs was a “workers’ bomb”, should not. One was reminded of the old CP ditty, The Song of the Red Airmen, whose refrain contains the immortal words, “We’ll drop the workers leaflets, while we bomb their bosses”. For all these disputes at readers’ meetings, the pages of the paper were, for the most part, pleasingly free from sectarian disputation, with art and religion getting a measure of attention as well as politics.
The early 1960s were a time of demonstrations, especially against the bomb, and there was invariably some activity to organise within the YS, ensuring that it was more than just a discussion group with responsibilities for canvassing. The Aldermaston Marches of Easter 1960 and 1961 were each attended by more than 100,000 people and the movement looked to the Labour Party, that was in any case about due for a period in office after so many years of Toryism to adopt the unilateralist cause. It was a measure of the growing radicalisation of the time that at the 1961 Labour Party conference, unilateralism was adopted as party policy. The following year, of course, after much arm-twisting and help from the trade union bureaucracy, multilateralist policy was reinstated, thus ensuring that Aneurin Bevan, had he lived long enough to become Foreign Secretary, would have been able to go fully clothed, in nuclear finery, to the conference table.
An early benefit of the work in the YS was the recruitment of a number of young Glaswegians, several of whom had been active in the engineering apprentices’ strike in 1960. In 1961, an advance guard of them arrived in London including Bill Thompson, Ross Pritchard and Gus Macdonald. Frank Campbell and Bill Kane arrived a bit later. Others, like Peter Bain and Ian Mooney, stayed behind in Glasgow. They were a particularly talented and personally attractive group of people, with an early dedication to that relaxed 1960s lifestyle, which is nowadays the object of considerable nostalgia. Before leaving Glasgow, they convinced Paul Foot that socialism was more about the working class than wine and cheese parties.
Gus Macdonald did not stay long but he briefly worked full time for the SR Group, edited Young Guard and was a useful publicist for the organisation.  Bill Thompson was an accomplished folk-singer and song writer. One of Bill’s songs, a celebration of the qualities of beer, had a chorus that went: “Dialectic, schmialectic. Oedipus schmoedipus too. Give me a bevvy, give me a brew.” Bill accompanied himself on the guitar although his preferred instrument was the trombone. Unfortunately this was not much heard in folk circles, especially if the performer wanted to sing at the same time. The talent for folk-singing was shared by others and this, together with a truly Glaswegian facility for consuming massive quantities of ale, made for some memorable social and political evenings, weekend schools and YS conferences. Bill also organised the Group’s first press, in a small shop off the Holloway Road. When we bought it the machine, a clapped out British Salmson Ranger, seemed to be a bargain at £300. This was an illusion as was proved a year or so later when we managed to unload it for £3. It displayed a number of inherent design vices, plus some crippling additions acquired over too many years. Despite the fact that Bill had no training as a printer, although helped by Ross Pritchard when in serious difficulty, he managed to produce Labour Worker and the third edition of Cliff’s book on Russia. A triumph of will power and dedication over the dumb insolence and pure sabotage of a piece of dead machinery.
In the YS there was a ready made audience eager to discuss left politics in an open ended fashion. To meet this demand Cliff produced a syllabus for a course of twelve weekly lectures in socialist theory. The opening lecture was on dialectical materialism, and the whole course took in all the main features of Marxist study including economics, state and revolution, permanent revolution and the permanent war economy. The notes for the lecture on, the permanent war economy had its lighter side containing, as it does, reference to the “Olive Oyl dilemma”. At first sight this could be mistaken for some arcane economic phenomenon, derived perhaps from the Italian vegetable oil industry, and elucidated by someone who could not spell oil. Not a bit of it, this refers to Popeye’s girl friend who, like the capitalist who faced the contradiction of having to devote greater and greater resources to arms expenditure at the expense of investment to meet international economic competition, often found herself pulled in two directions. Like many full time revolutionaries, Cliff was much addicted to afternoon children’s television and the Popeye cartoons were a particular favourite. His mistaken assumption that people over ten, who actually worked for a living, would catch these obscure cultural references was one of his more attractive foibles.
It may be of interest to note that the twelfth and last lecture in the series, Tasks of Marxists in the Labour Movement, contains inter-alias “Marxists should not set themselves up as a party of their own. They should remember that the working class looks to the Labour Party as the political organisation of the class (and no doubt when a new wave of political activity spreads among the working class, millions of new voters will flock to its banner and hundreds of thousands will join it actively) ... Marxists should strive to unite with the Centrist Left in activity in defence of the traditional working class content of the Party ...” Entrism was firmly entrenched at the time, but not for too long.
The success of the work in the YS could be accurately measured and, by 1962, the SR Group had a membership of around 200. Many of these members had been schooled, one might even say overschooled, in the faction fights in the YS. As was to be expected, the main opposition was not the right wing, who were a tiny minority, nor the Tribunite left who were not much bigger, but the Healyites. Healy’s greatest, some would say his only, talent was the ability to produce a cadre of single minded clones well practiced in the extremes of vituperation that carried with it an underlying note of menace. In the pages of Keep Left, the SLL’s youth paper, and at countless meetings up and down the country, “Mr Cliff’s state caps” were accused of a list of crimes from collusion with the right wing, to anti-sovietism, syndicalism and being generally beastly to the SLL. Keep Left had been in existence for some years as the paper of the Healyite youth. For most of that time it had been a rather tatty duplicated product but now it flowered into a printed journal.
The official paper of the movement, financed by Transport House, was New Advance. Contrary to the over-optimistic expectations of the Young Socialists, the YS’s paper would not be controlled by them, nor would they appoint the paper’s editor. The line and direction of New Advance would be set by the Labour Party bureaucrats. As if to confirm their peerless judgement the NEC appointed Roger Protz to edit the new paper. Roger’s tenure of office was short lived. At the 1961 YS conference he issued a leaflet saying that the paper was undemocratic: “A paper for the Young Socialists, not a paper of the Young Socialists.” As if to prove his point, the Labour Party then sacked him. His replacement was the 47 year old Reg Underhill, an archetypal bureaucrat with all the flair and imagination of a brick privy. Having made the break Protz decided to go the whole hog and became the editor of Keep Left.
While the Young Guard supporters were most likely to take their pleasures in pubs and folk clubs, the focus for Keep Left was the mods and rockers phenomenon. Mods affected a rather smooth appearance, with well trimmed locks and neat attire and spent a lot of time customising their Vespa and Lambretta scooters. Mods drank lager. Rockers, on the other hand, favoured long greasy locks and the motor cyclist’s well-worn leather look, giving the appearance of having been marinaded in sump oil. Rockers drank bitter. At Bank Holidays the two groups would meet at a selected seaside resort, to chase and hit one another. The national press loved all of this theatrical, and in truth rather low level, mayhem. Keep Left, of course, supported and attracted the rockers. Presumably they thought the rockers were more authentically working class, especially if you think the workers are scruffy and rather thick. While it lasted, some YS meetings acquired a certain frisson of impending Bank Holiday violence.
On May Day 1962, the official Trade Union-Labour Party rally, which was organised by the London Trades Council, was to be addressed by George Brown. In opposition to this the SLL plumped for its own march, which Keep Left supporters were issued with a four line whip to attend. Came the day and the Trades Council rally was not all that well attended, but there was a fair contingent from Young Guard. George Brown, nowadays a forgotten figure but then a leading Labour Party right-winger of some talent, marred perhaps by ill temper that was in its turn exacerbated by his weakness for strong drink, addressed the crowd over the loud speaker system and expressed himself in provocative right wing terms. The response was immediate and noisy and a scuffle developed directly in front of the flatbed truck on which George was speaking. “You won’t silence me,” said Brown, “I have the microphone.” At that very moment the microphone was dragged from his grasp and busted. (The cover picture of IS, No.10, Autumn 1962, depicts the actual smashing of the microphone. I recognise one member of the RSL and some six Group members in close proximity and at least one, Pat Sutherland, actually manhandling the microphone.) George was reduced to a spluttering but enraged silence. It was very funny to watch. In Glasgow, at much the same time as Brown was being silenced, Hugh Gaitskell provoked a large scale walk out from his May Day meeting. More fortunate than Brown with his microphone, Gaitskell was able to abuse his departing audience as, “peanuts”.
George Brown was aware that the perpetrators of this outrage were lefties of some kind and probably Trotskyist and, anyway, they were young and that was crime enough. Keeping his rage warm overnight, he stormed in to Transport House the next day and set in motion the procedures necessary to have this heresy extirpated. The Glasgow YS Federation was disbanded and an enquiry setup to look into Young Guard. In June 1962, New Advance appeared with the less than startling news that Keep Left was connected to the SLL, which had been proscribed by the Labour Party in 1959. In not very much time Keep Left was added to the proscribed list, its three supporters on the YS National Committee were expelled, as was Roger Protz by his constituency Labour Party. The unfortunate Healyite youth, who were innocently engaged elsewhere in sectarian exclusiveness at the time when the original offence was committed, suffered for the transgressions of others. As Oscar Wilde said about the death of Little Nell, “It would take a man with a heart of stone not to laugh”.
Proscription did not do much to curb the Keep Left supporters, nor did the promise, extracted by the NEC from Young Guard that they would not be factional, hamper either group of supporters from carrying on much as before. Some of the joy was going out of it, however, and by the 1963 conference, Young Guard Editor Chris Davison reported: “Gone was the tremendous enthusiasm and excitement of the first conference. In its place was an air of suspicion, tension, even foreboding.” The elections to the YS National Committee resulted in a clear majority of supporters of the proscribed Keep Left with no seats at all for Young Guard. This was the result of an electoral pact between Keep Left and the right wing which, given their past accusations, was a bit rich. In September 1963, the RSL supporters of Young Guard split to start their own youth paper, Militant.
Far from the proscriptions mitigating the faction fighting, it became worse and the atmosphere in the YS branches almost uninhabitable for those of a delicate disposition or a distaste for sectarian irrelevance. At the 1964 YS conference, held in Brighton, the extra curricular Keep Left meeting was addressed by Roger Protz who, in a low key speech, called for left unity.  The other speaker was YSNC member for Scotland John Robertson. He was having nothing to do with anything Sissy like left unity. “Young Guard,” said Robertson, “is an amalgam of political tendencies ... formed to lead a witch hunt to smash Keep Left ... If you are not 100 per cent with us, you are 100 per cent against us. Get out of our way or we will go over your bodies.” This was an almost perfect piece of Healyism, combining lies, slander, bombast, hypocrisy, sectarianism and the threat of physical violence. Robertson may well have earned extra brownie points for his performance. Shortly afterwards he was expelled from the YS for selling Keep Left. For a short time after the conference Roger Protz helped to produce Militant. He found the experience somewhat dispiriting and accepted a request from Gus Macdonald to help with Young Guard. For the next ten years he edited IS papers and later took Socialist Worker to its highest recorded circulation
The YS was now on its last legs: a Save the Young Socialists campaign supported by Tribune, Militant and Young Guard was really the last hurrah. In January 1965, Keep Left supporters announced that they were the YS. In consequence the movement now had two distinct organisations – an SLL controlled YS and a Labour Party YS (LPYS). At the time it was estimated that the LPYS had fewer than 5,000 members and the YS about 1,000. The experience had about run its course: all three revolutionary groups had benefited from the YS and Reg Underhill felt a lot older, even if he was no wiser.
Coinciding with the beginning of the YS, the SR Group made its first serious attempt at producing a theoretical magazine and International Socialism appeared with Mike Kidron as editor.  The new magazine was conceived in an ecumenical spirit, with a readiness to engage in discussion with left reformists and social democrats. The editorial board reflected this policy and, in the first few issues, such elements as Ken Coates, Michael Segal and Henry Collins filled the role of left reformists – typecasting really. Peter Cadogan, who also served at this time, is more difficult to place as he represented only himself and expressed no coherent, let alone identifiable, political position. Alasdair MacIntyre, having rejected Christianity and then Gerry Healy, presumably as another god that failed, joined the editorial board and then the SR Group. Here was a philosopher who, if he had not yet changed the world, had changed himself – several times. During his brief stay he made a contribution of some value, as speaker and writer and, for a time, he edited Socialist Review – and then he went back to Christianity.
John Fairhead was another peripatetic eccentric who came to the editorial board and membership of the Group. What was unusual about him was that he had been a full timer for the RSL, serving on the leading body of the Fourth International (United Secretariat). John had a great respect for Trotsky, although he disapproved of his elegant prose style because he felt it deflected the reader from the gritty reality of the message. On one occasion he reviewed a new edition of Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? in ISJ, and gave it as his considered opinion that so great were Trotsky’s prophetic powers that even now some of them had yet to come to pass. Now that is what I call a true believer.
Fairhead’s political life was extremely strange. He had been a member of the RCP before the RSL was formed. After he left IS, he joined up with the British section of the Latin American Bureau (BLA) of the FI. This was the brain child of Juan Posadas, a Latin American Trotskyist, who took the view that the nuclear holocaust should be welcomed as the necessary precursor to the triumph of communism. It may be that this was an early and unrecognised example of the species shift of BSE to humans. Readers will probably be surprised to hear that Posadas’ British group had as many as five members. They published a paper called Red Flag which was much addicted to the five deck headline, such as: THE DOWNING STREET STRIKE OPENS THE ROAD TO THE GENERAL STRIKE AND THE CONQUEST OF POWER BY THE MASSES. The strike in question concerned a handful of building workers who were refurbishing 10 Downing Street at a leisurely pace. Tiring of all this excitement, Fairhead then became a Labour councillor in Paddington. Attending the Labour Party conference he made a contribution attacking the left and, on his return to Paddington, joined the Tory Party. Shortly after this he joined the Monday Club, where he served on its executive committee. Whether in this capacity he advocated pre-emptive nuclear strike to ensure the victory of capitalism is not known. He died a few years ago.
The new magazine was well thought of and added a degree of intellectual respectability to the Group. It gave an arena in which the immediate political concerns could be given a theoretical underpinning and it afforded the editor, Michael Kidron, at the time the outstanding intellectual figure in the group, a suitable vehicle for his talents. Editorial meetings were often enlivened by impromptu discussions that were at least as informative as the printed copy. On other occasions, when the discussion of the appropriate cover picture became protracted, Cliff would suggest there be no picture, just a list of contents. This was guaranteed to drive Robin Fior, the designer, into paroxysms of rage at Cliff’s philistinism.
By the beginning of the 1960s, several of the people who had played a part in the 1950s had left the group. Stan Newens and Bernard Dix, having been denounced, resigned in 1959. The following year, James D Young, Seymour Papert nd David Prynn left. However, this was offset by the influx of new members. Peter Sedgwick, who had been a member of the CP until 1956, joined in the late 1950s. Sedgwick was a man of deep socialist conviction, a highly developed sense of humour, an enviable writing style and an eccentricity to match the scale of his talents. His politics were of a libertarian character but not, as some have suggested, anarchist. At that time unorthodoxy was no bar to membership. Ex-CP members Tony and Nessie Young joined, having passed through Healy’s Club on the way.
In these days of harsh “Leninist” orthodoxy, it is hard to recall the atmosphere at the cusp of the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialism Group. The regime was relaxed and activity was directed by persuasion and moral pressure rather than the threat of sanctions. The leading committee was, for most of the time, called the Working Committee because it dealt with correspondence, finance, future activity, branch reports and development plans – all the boring housekeeping that has to be done if the Group was to survive. Politics came up and were developed at meetings of editorial boards and at aggregates. It was also the case that changes in line would, as it were, spring fully fledged from Cliff’s left ear. This was less serious than it might seem because there was no insistence on a monolithic line before which the comrades must genuflect in a suitably humble fashion. If Cliff had an advantage, it was that his articles had a better than even chance of appearing once he had written them. On the other hand almost anyone else had a pretty good chance of saying the contrary and also of having it published.
It was this that was stimulating in the Group; it was open and open minded, there was virtually no need for an internal bulletin because there was nothing to be said, worth saying, that could not be said in the open press. Here was a Marxist organisation that seemed to have learned the lessons of the past. It did not require the mindless uniformity that characterises both Stalinism and graveyards, nor did it suffer from the delusions of grandeur that afflicted orthodox Trotskyism and Baron Munchausen. Unlike these two, it had noticed that the real world gave rise to problems for which received wisdom had no answer, and it attempted to provide a Marxist response to these difficulties. If some of the politics fitted only where they touched, this was of less consequence than that the gaps in them were not hidden and their originators were as likely to point out this fact as anyone else. Most significant of all was the insistence on the central role of the working class as the only agent for social change. For Cliff, at this time, the Group was a “post bolshevik” formation, not one that was lurking in a telephone kiosk only waiting to spring out, resplendent in Leninist underpants worn bravely over the trousers. For the young who were coming into politics for the first time it gave intellectual coherence to their spirit of rebellion and its libertarian style gave some feel of what a new life might be like under socialism.
With the 1960s, the quietism of the post-war years started to fade. The long night of Tory power at Westminster was drawing to a close. The working class was beginning to stir again and the chance to test the Groups’ theories would be not long delayed.
1. From the Group he went to Tribune, then the Scotsman and later Granada TV where he was a moving force in starting World in Action – known at the time as “the Trot slot” – and thence to become chairman of Scottish Television.
2. It was not known at the time, but Roger had already resigned from the editorship of Keep Left.
3. There had been one issue of an earlier International Socialism journal – a duplicated production with articles by Cliff, Kidron and Giacometti. The 1959 edition of Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg pamphlet was labelled IS issue 2 and 3. For a brief period after the restart there was contusion in the numbering of issues, but it was eventually agreed that the first of the 1960 issues was number one.
Last updated on 31.1.2003