Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Joe Thomas

Dear Comrades,

I found the obituary by Ernest Rogers a very moving and accurate picture of Joe Thomas and therefore hesitate to criticise it. I feel, however, that it left out part of Joe’s life and work necessary for an understanding of his political development. I refer to the period of the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, can I provide your readers with some idea of what Joe was up to during those years?

By the mid-1960s, Joe was editing, and mostly writing, a duplicated journal called the Workers’ Review, helping republish a number of forgotten classics such as The History of the Movement for Workers’ Councils in Germany, and trying to revive the Workers League. By the end of the decade, he and I and some others in London had come into contact with a group in Liverpool who, having been influenced by the ideas of Bordiga, had quit the Socialist Labour League and were publishing a paper, Class Voice. The two groups fused into a new organisation – Workers Voice.

Sadly, this was to be short-lived. There were bitter differences over such questions as the trade unions and participation in elections, and the London group, before folding, split off and published two issues of a new paper, Workers News Special.

However, Joe and I discovered a group of ex- and expelled SPGB members with views near to our own and eventually yet another group emerged – Social Revolution – with a paper of that name and a theoretical journal, Libertarian Communism. Joe took a great dislike to some comrades’ views on sexual matters, and left.

But he was not politically idle, and he helped form the London Workers Group, arguing for workers’ councils and the study of Marxist economics. It was out of the LWG that the Movement for Workers’ Councils emerged.

Whatever political differences one had with him one could not help loving Joe for what he was – a self-taught worker who gave his all for the liberation of his class. The memorial meeting held for him in the Woolwich Unemployed Centre underlined this, being attended by people ranging from trade union and Labour Party activists to Anarchists and Council Communists.

Terry Liddle

Dear Comrades,

I would like to make a few comments on Ernest Roger’s obituary to Joe Thomas in the Autumn 1990 edition of Revolutionary History.

He states that the bureaucratic conduct of an American ICC representative to the Revolutionary Workers Association “split the group”. I was a member of the RWA in 1946, and have no recollection of a political split taking place. What I can recall is that there was a personal dispute between the ICC representative and Dennis Levin which led to the ICC person being excluded from the group, and a request being made to the American party to recall him.

Comrade Rogers writes that “in May 1946 Joe Thomas and his colleagues broke with the ICC ...” This also I cannot recall. In fact Joe Thomas was writing for the Oehlerite Revolutionary Workers League journal, the International News, which had set up the ICC, as late as November 1950.

A further development to the organisation, which had renamed itself the Socialist Workers League, was a political split around the question of the development of a theoretical basis for the organisation. One of the League’s groups in Hackney, which included myself, argued that the development of the theoretical side of the organisation should be given greater emphasis than that of an agitational/industrial nature. We felt that we had to develop this side of the organisation in the struggle against the Trotskyist groups and their theory of support for Labourism. Although we obtained a majority for this position, Joe, in his usual obstinate way, refused to contribute financially or actively in the implementation of this position, which led to a split and the formation by ourselves of a group called the Socialist Workers Group which carried on the Oehlerite tradition through a bi-monthly theoretical journal. Dennis Levin was a participant in the early days of this new group, which later became the London section of the Socialist Workers Federation, with Harry McShane and Eric Heffer.

To my regret, I never saw Joe after the split in the organisation. Although I wrote to him suggesting a meeting a few months before his death, I never received a reply, possibly due to his ill health.

Joe was a very stubborn person, but in the best sense of the word. Once he was convinced of an idea or purpose, he would pursue it through thick and thin, often quoting Lenin in justification of his methods for realising his goal. He was an instinctive class fighter who hated reformism and the Labour and trade union bureaucrats, and who always referred back to the revolutionary traditions of the British working class, such as the Chartists, as examples to be followed. He was a true son of the revolutionary working class activist.

Tom Cowan

Ernie Rogers replies:

Several correspondents have written to tell of periods and events in the life of Joe Thomas which I have omitted. Not writing his life story, but a brief obituary, I concentrated on that period, the dockers’ strike, which I considered, as did Joe, his biggest achievement.

It was of course the Common Wealth Party, and not the Commonwealth Party.

Tom Cowan says I stated that the bureaucratic conduct of an International Contact Commission representative to the Revolutionary Workers Association split the group. What I said was:

According to a member of the group at that time, the ICC sent a representative from Chicago, who by bureaucratic methods and a lack of understanding of the British movement, split the group.

The member was Arthur Priest, and his statement about the split appears in Political Correspondence, no.2, December 1946 (New York), a publication of what was known as the Marlen group. In the same issue Joe was engaged in a discussion with George Marlen. The discussion was over the statement in the open letter of the Socialist Workers League, which “claimed that none of the existing parties in the working class movement served the interests of the working class”. In this discussion no mention was ever made of the ICC and its 14 Points. Arthur Priest remained a member of the SWL for some time after this letter and, to my knowledge, Joe never repudiated it.

Updated by ETOL: 23.7.2003