Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1
THIS AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL account of the experiences of a Trotskyist during the years 1936–60 is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the development of the Fourth International in its British context. Harry Ratner’s account is of particular interest in that it describes the life and tribulations of a comrade who was drawn to the Trotskyist camp in the Labour League of Youth at the age of 16, joining the Militant group at the end of 1936 after meeting its leader, Denzil Harber. He insists that his ‘early Socialism owed nothing to Marxism’, and that it was not until he came into contact with Trotskyists that he learnt anything about Marxism. It was a development of his attitude to morals and ethics, repelled by the ‘narrowness and hypocrisy of the world of business’ which he glimpsed through his father. Only later did Harry became familiar with and accept Marxist historical materialism, which showed ‘that Communism was the next historical stage of society, and that the working class was destined by its position in society to overthrow capitalism. This would happen because the objective laws of the development of society decreed it, and not because individuals of good will decided it was desirable.’ He later speaks of ‘Marxist comrades’ who told him that he was reading too much determinism into Marx’s writings. He can be forgiven, however, for reporting on the ‘deterministic’ version of Marxism which won him over to a cause which he served faithfully for a quarter of a century.
As the Trotskyist groups and factions were expelled from the Communist Party in one country after another, and more importantly with Trotsky’s proclamation of the need for the Fourth International following the abject failure of the German Communist Party to unite in a united front with the Social Democrats to halt Hitler’s march to power in 1933, the position of the isolated propaganda groups became more and more difficult. Trotsky supported the ‘French Turn’, the entry of Trotskyists into mass Social Democratic organisations, and especially the youth sections, in order to break out of this isolation, and to ‘find a milieu’. Harry’s description of the ensuing three-way split in the British Trotskyist movement has a familiar, even contemporary, ring about it.
Within a short time, Harry was plunged into the battles in the East End defending the Jewish, Irish and working class communities from Mosley’s Blackshirts. The platforms from which he and other comrades spoke would be attacked by the Fascists as ‘dirty reds’, and the next evening by the Stalinists as ‘bloody Fascists’. He remarks laconically that ‘the chances of our platform being overturned and our meeting broken up by the Blackshirts or by the Stalinists were about equal’. Interestingly, Harry refers to the Jewish Habonim Zionist Youth movement which he had originally joined as being part of the united working class front blocking Mosley’s columns during the Battle of Cable Street.
The Trotskyists’ positions on the Spanish Civil War and, above all, on the Moscow Trials created difficulties for the comrades with the wave of sympathy for the Spanish Popular Front government, which was supported by Moscow, and was apparently fighting Fascism and Nazism. It was literally a case of comrades swimming against the tide, rather than with a current. Perhaps the most fascinating chapters of the book deal with Harry’s ‘return’ to Paris in the summer of 1938, the splits and schisms ‘which plagued the Trotskyist movement’, and particularly the Parti Ouvrière Internationaliste led by Pierre Naville and Jean Rous, and the Parti Communiste Internationaliste led by Pierre Frank and the recently deceased Raymond Molinier.
With the outbreak of war and his return to Britain, Harry joined the Pioneer Corps, as he believed that he ‘should be where the workers are, either in the factory or in the forces’. Trotskyists are not pacifists, and the option of registering as conscientious objectors was regarded as ‘being an individualist and useless gesture’. Here in the British army’s ‘foreign legion’ (as it was dubbed), Harry had a unique opportunity of spreading the internationalist ideas of Trotskyism to the Germans and Austrians, who were refugees from Hitler, Spanish Republicans, and Palestinian Jews and Arabs who comprised the corps. We have a perspective of the unfolding of the Second World War with the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily in 1943, the growing radicalisation of the British troops following the D-Day landing in 1944, and the collapse of the Nazi armies on the Eastern front, as seen through the binoculars of a Trotskyist. And this was not as a bystander or a war correspondent, but as a full participant.
Of special interest are Harry’s postwar experiences in the Minority faction of the Revolutionary Communist Party, led by Gerry Healy, John Lawrence and Arthur Cooper (an often overlooked figure), which took a serious attitude to industrial work, and gained the unreserved commitment of its members. Some comrades, such as Lawrence and David Finch, went down the mines, whilst Harry worked in various engineering factories in the late 1940s and the 1950s, becoming a leading shop steward. He combined a serious attitude to his position as President of an Amalgamated Engineering Union branch, a member of the General Management Committee of the East Salford Constituency Labour Party and Salford Trades Council, and the National Committee of the ‘Club’, as Healy’s group became known.
It is against this background of work within the trade unions, trades councils and the Labour Party that we see the emergence of the Minority faction of the RCP as the principal dominant faction within the Trotskyist movement, with the collapse of the RCP Majority around Jock and Millie Haston and Ted Grant. The issues which split the movement, such as the nature of the changes in the Soviet Union, the emergence of its satellite states, the survival of capitalism after 1945, the definition and redefinition of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, the apparently endless debates over entrism and independent work, and, above all, the nature of the Fourth International — all this features largely in Harry’s illuminating account of this difficult period.
Although Harry experienced the Healyite regime and its politics at a distance for the most part, his observations are of particular interest to those who also experienced them. He claims that Socialist Outlook took a stand of critical support for the ‘Soviet’ North Korean state during the Korean War against the puppet South Korean state backed by the USA. Here, one must dissent. The policy of Socialist Outlook was one of almost uncritical support for the Northern regime, and was almost indistinguishable from that of the Daily Worker. Although one can agree with the view that Harry expressed at the book’s launch meeting that the ‘state caps’ did not have to split from the Fourth International over the Korean War, despite their ‘Third Camp’ position of ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’, the rump of the RCP Majority certainly did not think so. The nature of Healy’s regime did not provide a healthy atmosphere within which these important differences could be contained within the columns of one journal, or within the confines of one organisation.
Harry is on firmer ground when dealing with the ‘Pabloite split’, especially in respect of his reservations about the methods employed against the Pabloites, not least the unprincipled arguments — the Club had, along with the US Socialist Workers Party, until then unreservedly supported the 100 per cent Pabloite line endorsed by the Third World Congress of the Fourth International.
Harry gives a very penetrating description of the period leading up to the formation of the Socialist Labour League, showing how it was set up by a press conference prior to any consultation with the Club’s Executive Committee and National Committee, still less with a conference to authorise its launch, as a result of pressure from recruits from the Communist Party led by Brian Behan.
This autobiography leads to more questions than it answers. How can one explain how a group of dedicated, fearless and self-sacrificing comrades — Harry being a shining example of those comrades who held fast to the torch of Trotsky’s ideas — could have allowed a Stalinesque regime to disfigure the ‘unbroken thread’ from the days of the Marxian League of 1931? Equally pertinent, how did so many ex-Stalinists who were won over by Healy after 1956 support a regime that was in some respects more Stalinist than the Communist Party from which they had broken? How can we find a satisfactory explanation for Marxists remaining silent all through Healy’s opportunism, not least his support for Messali Hadj long after he had broken from the Algerian liberation struggle against French imperialism? And, finally, can we hold to the historical materialist view of history and still attribute the deformation of Trotskyism as simply the work of a bad man, or the cult of the individual?
Harry’s Postscript is perhaps the weakest section of his book. It does, however, have the merit of honesty and frank self-appraisal. His final conclusion that Marx was wrong in saying that the working class is compelled to arrive at a Socialist or Marxist consciousness — with or without the assistance of professional revolutionaries — is itself a reflection of a mechanical (and in Healy’s apocalyptic) interpretation of history that is itself not Marxist.
Harry emerges from these pages as a profoundly honest revolutionary, free of the fake postures of the would-be Lenins and self-styled Trotskys who have strutted across the history of the Trotskyist movement all too frequently. Socialist Platform is to be congratulated on publishing this moving account of a soldier of the movement whose deeds shine through the darkness of imperialism and Stalinism. Together with Harry Wicks’ Keeping My Head, Harry Ratner’s autobiography deserves a secure place in the library of every Socialist who is concerned not only with history, but with the lessons to be drawn from it.
Updated by ETOL: 28.9.2011