Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3
A Footnote for Historians
The Open Party Faction, 1948–49
IT IS more than 45 years since the collapse of the Revolutionary Communist Party, sufficient time for its story to be history, and yet, equally, a recent enough period of time to ensure that there are a number of members still alive to provide a picture of events then. The picture I intend to give might be inaccurate, because we individuals see and obtain knowledge and experience, but discern it through our own prism. Nevertheless, the totality of our experience will, I hope, create a much more accurate picture of the events which led to the RCP’s demise. Therefore, I believe that my memories of this era will contribute to providing real substance to the documents of that period. Or, in other words, they will relate the documents to the body politic from which they arose.
Firstly, however, I will set out a resumé of the historical roots of the RCP which lay in the pre-Second World War period, for without the pre-war conditions and the illusions that arose from them, the creation and decline of the RCP would be inexplicable. For it was from the ideas and concepts of that period that the universal postwar optimism emerged. There was some justification for this optimism, for after the war a series of revolutionary and nationalist struggles did take place. At the same time, we, the Trotskyists, were growing, not at the rate of growth originally hoped for, but nevertheless we were growing.
In this period, in every country the Trotskyists had their own pattern of development and growth. Of course, in Europe this growth was affected by, and linked, to the disappearance of the movement’s old leadership, mainly due to the Hitlerite regimes established in Europe. However, in the Americas, particularly in the USA, the main leadership remained fairly stable after 1940. Even Max Shachtman claimed to be a Trotskyist. In Britain the pattern of development differed from that in both Western Europe and the United States.
In Britain, the two main centres of activity had been either around the open party orientation, or towards entrism, that is to say, the Labour Party. However, with the coming of war, both centres collapsed. With regard to open party work, the basic material conditions in which it had to operate no longer existed. Furthermore, C.L.R. James went to the United States, and those remaining seemed to stew in their own juice! Reg Groves had already dropped out of the Trotskyist orbit, whilst Harry Wicks appeared to be enmeshed in his own local area. The rest of that wing either disappeared, or became inactive. With regard to the entrists, certainly after the death of Starkey Jackson, they were stuck in inertia, and lived in a dream world. The Labour Party at this time being de facto dead, the entrists became more involved in internal documents and intrigues than the real world outside.
A year or two before the war there was a marginal split, in which the Paddington branch of the entrist faction split away from the entrist group. This split came about from factors other than entrism. This group of about 10 to 12 members called themselves the Workers’ International League. Whilst in normal circumstances such a group would have disappeared, as have many local groups before and after that period, the WIL continued, but it did have a number of factors working in its favour.
Firstly, the hard core of this group were South Africans who had experience in active small group politics. Secondly, the official, united Trotskyist organisations were not united, and were also in decline. Thirdly, the two year period before the war laid down the basis for the growth of the WIL. That is to say, there was a sufficient time before war began for the group to become established, and so not be destroyed by it.
However, the consequence of the beginning of the war was an acceleration in the tendency to decay or in the decline of the major groupings. As a result, whilst their leaderships did not entirely disappear, they ceased to exist as a dynamic force. The entrist tendency under Denzil Dean Harber became more involved in internal intrigues and manoeuvres than in revolutionary politics, whilst the open party tendency seemed to have no purpose or direction, with individual persons being active in their local areas, rather than expressing a force or tendency. It is in this context that one must understand the early period of the WIL.
In the early days of the WIL, Raff Lee was the dominant figure, and it was he, more than anyone else, who laid the basis for the growth of this group. He and his wife, Millie Lee, were the central core of the outward thrust. Most of the other members of that group were in those early days relatively immature, for instance Jock Haston, Ted Grant and Gerry Healy. The dynamism imparted by Lee into the WIL was the key to its growth. However, with hindsight, it has become clear to me that whilst Lee laid down the basic foundation, he lacked the abilities for long-term stability and continuity. Within a year of the start of the war, he became sick and returned to South Africa. There he built a group, but again he collapsed and dropped out, so confirming to me the above assumptions with regard to his character.
Nevertheless, under Lee the core of the new leadership was established, such as Haston, Grant and Healy. The key figure in this new set-up was Haston. However, it is not my intention to go into the history of the WIL or the RCP, as a fully documented work by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson has been published on this period.  Furthermore, there are two well-documented theses which have been turned out by John Archer and Martin Upham respectively.  Therefore, sufficient well-documented and serious research has been done of this period. The purpose of this note is to deal with and interpret the end of the decline and the final collapse of the RCP, a period in which I was actively involved.
The fundamental basis of our decline and collapse, and this was applicable universally throughout the world Trotskyist movement, arose from our inability to understand the pattern and development of the stage of capitalism through which we were passing. We repeated and clung to pre-war clichés, clinging to the old instead of understanding the new. And what is more, we searched for a few statistics to confirm our correctness. Certainly, the RCP modified the exaggerated interpretation of the pre-war concepts, and in this we were amongst the best, although both Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman were ahead of us. We, like Morrow, raised and propagated the argument of the democratic counter-revolution. Furthermore, we (unlike Morrow) revised and brought more into line with reality our understanding of the rôle and functions of Communist (Stalinist) parties. Yet, in neither case did we get to the fundamentals because, ironically, both were linked together in a deeper way, which was reflected in the whole series of colonial revolutions. For example, our analysis of Stalinism lacked depth and clarity. In fact, years later, Ted Grant, one of the main contributors to our theory, proclaimed that both Syria and Burma were some form of workers’ states! He failed, of course, to understand that a new stage of capitalist development had taken place, similar to the change that came about when laissez faire became transformed into imperialism. For instance, in the early 1980s, Grant used to rehash the RCP Tasks and Perspectives, including a few new OECD figures to show he was with it! Pathetic stuff!
Historically, from 1947 the Trotskyist movement was universally in decline. We appeared to have been by-passed by history. British Trotskyism had its own pattern of decline, and a crisis of isolation was creeping in. The question became one of how to break out of this, but in reality it was a part of an even more fundamental question. But we could not find an answer of how to deal with our isolation without understanding what was driving and giving character to this period. The fact that no one had an answer did not, of course, prevent a thousand answers being given! However, in attempting to tackle and find answers to the period ahead, the RCP leadership came into conflict not only with their established opponents, that is to say, James Cannon and the American Socialist Workers Party, but also with the International Secretariat: Pablo, Pierre Frank and Ernest Mandel, who, in their turn, bolstered up and gave substance to Healy and John Lawrence’s faction. And when Cannon and the International Secretariat realised that Healy would be unable to take over the party, they decided to split it. 
In the previous period Healy had traversed a whole series of issues, dropping them when he found that they were fruitless, such as entry into the Independent Labour Party. Linking up with Cannon, Pablo and Mandel on an agreed position of entry into the Labour Party was a golden opportunity for Healy, one which he took with both hands. Of course, the International Secretariat et al did not really understand Healy. They thought that they had a stooge.
Certainly, the viciousness of the struggle within the RCP added impetus to the decline. For example, Healy, whose main strength was in South London, first drew members in as a part of his faction, and only then into the RCP. Therefore, in an area where the Healyites were dominant, the conditions for inciting and inflating the issues were perpetuated. Consequently, when that stage had been reached, the RCP leadership, pushed mainly by Jock Haston, agreed to the split, although at the time, whether one agreed with it or not, this decision appeared to have some kind of logic. However, with hindsight, it must be asked as to whether by that time the RCP leadership had come to feel that there was no future. For, in reality, this agreement to a split became the first major step in the collapse in the RCP. That after this Jock Haston began to slow down and drop out is quite clear, for I was told by Sam Bornstein that when he and Al Richardson researched Haston’s papers at Hull University there was no material for the last 18 months of the RCP.  Additionally, there were other incidents which indicated a dropping off of political activities.
This was the background to the last days of the RCP, and within about 18 months the consequences of isolation and demoralisation caused the leadership to raise again the issue of entry into the Labour Party, this time as its proponents. Again the key figure in raising this issue was Jock Haston. Haston’s dominance was not accidental, for he represented both the good and bad sides of British Trotskyism. Basically, he was an energetic and capable pragmatist whose empiricism meant that he felt the moods of the working class, and reacted to them intelligently. In the rising phase of the struggle Haston played an energetic leading rôle. Although the argument can be put that at the beginning of the Second World War there was no active and dynamic working class struggle, the following facts must be remembered. Firstly, everyone expected the outbreak of war and its early consequences, and had, therefore, prepared for it. Secondly, Haston at that time was still relatively fresh and had confidence, which was not the case in the late 1940s. Once conditions and moods changed, he gradually adapted to them. For example, Haston, like his mate Max Shachtman, had fantastic illusions in the Labour Party. De facto, before the entry into the Labour Party, Haston had broken with Trotskyism ideologically (although he did not express this openly). Therefore, his concept of entrism had little in common with Trotsky’s. In fact, Haston had become a left wing Social Democrat.
This, essentially, was the background to the last stages of the RCP. It faced a crisis of existence. This crisis reflected the crisis of leadership to the same extent as it reflected the difficult conditions at that time. Because of the collapse of the leadership, secondary figures such as Alf Snobel, Sam Bornstein, George and Sheila Leslie, Marion Lunt, myself, etc., became actively involved. The first Open Party document was written by myself in Marion Lunt’s room at 256 Harrow Road, where a dozen or so comrades got together, discussed it and signed it.  Nevertheless, the document reflected not only those who signed it but many more, for 18 months after a bitter and dirty struggle with not only Healy and Lawrence but also with Cannon, Pablo and Mandel, the issue of entrism had emerged from a leadership which previously had apparently been in favour of the open party. The leadership had done a somersault, and this was bankruptcy writ large.
If ever a spontaneous opposition had arisen, the Open Party Faction was it. Formally, it was a pre-discussion of the entry tactic, in reality, it was something else. It was the struggle for the heart and soul of the RCP, for at least the Healy tendency pretended that there was a great movement taking place in the Labour Party, whilst the leadership of the RCP put forward no such pretence. Their argument was that little could be accomplished outside the Labour Party, and that, therefore, we must enter, and that even our industrial work would be qualitatively different as a member of the Labour Party. Here was the emerging, though not openly expressed, concept of a very, very long-term entry into the Labour Party. Roy Tearse expressed this when he declared that there was no possibility of Trotskyist growth in the next seven years, and, therefore, entry was the only option. Of course, when this raised a storm, Tearse tried to soft-pedal it. Therefore, the International Secretariat quite logically – and correctly – denounced the liquidationism of the RCP leadership , without, of course, mentioning their own rôle which had led to the liquidation.
The collapse of the leadership was striking. Harold Atkinson vanished, and many other formerly leading comrades also took that road. Out of this milieu of demoralisation, with many leading figures having become de facto ex-Trotskyists, emerged a small group of leaders under Ted Grant who attempted to square the circle. To them, the maintenance of the leadership was of the greatest importance and all other aspects became subordinate to this. The document of the three, issued by Ted Grant, Jimmy Deane and George Hansen , argued that whilst the period ahead was not favourable either inside or outside the Labour Party, and, at best, only marginal gains could be secured, what was of most importance was the maintenance of the leadership. This attempt to bridge the unbridgeable reflected the personal needs of these three. Despite being part of the leadership, they were not the key part. Haston, Millie Lee Haston, Tearse and the emerging Bill Hunter carried the burden of running the organisation. But whilst the three based their case on the maintenance of the leadership, the leadership was collapsing, a fact that the three knew better than anyone else. Ironically, in spite of this support from the three, the leadership became completely contemptuous of them. For instance, Tearse summed up both their calibre and essence when he declared that Grant was a pistol loaded with a fart! Since they knew more about Grant than did the rest of us, their contemptuous attitude was justified, something I learned later from personal experience.
Basically, the rôle of the three was despicable, for the majority leadership wanted out, liquidationism was in the air, and the leadership’s entry document was a farce. However, Grant, Deane and Hansen’s document, in demanding the maintenance of the leadership, pretended that this was not so. With regard to the Labour Party, the three argued that whether one was in the Labour Party or not, no large-scale growth was possible in the near future. Following from these arguments, Grant has travelled far, for not only has he denied that he ever was against entry into the Labour Party but he has de facto ended up as a Labour Party Trotskyist, just as a prewar group ended up as ILP Trotskyists.
Herein lay the crisis, a period of relative isolation with a liquidationist leadership. Under these conditions, the reaction, and the opposition, came from the lower ranks of the party/group. This was a natural reaction against the somersault of the leadership, but what about the alternative? The Open Party opposition expressed the mood and desires of the rank and file, although, looking back, probably badly. As far as we were concerned, entry was not a principled question. Now, whilst I have not got to hand the documents issued by myself and Alf Snobel, and must rely on memory, I think that I am right in saying that the Open Party Faction did not in principle oppose entry into the Labour Party. In fact, we maintained that we should continue to have a Labour Party entrist group, continually checking the conditions to see if and when there should be either an increase of members in the Labour Party, or preparation for total entry.  For us the question was not entrism, but total entrism under the proposed conditions. No doubt, among the Open Party Faction there was a minority who opposed entry on principle, but the only one I can recall is Tom Dunmore. Of course, the open RCP had always had an entrist faction in the Labour Party, whose leading member was Charlie Van Gelderen, a member of the Central Committee. In fact, he was recognised as the leader of the Labour Party faction. Whether we like it or not, the Labour Party largely affected revolutionary politics.
The start of our group was encouraging. We had support not only from London members, but also from group members in the provinces. From the beginning, we had support from the Dunmore brothers, Alec Riach in Scotland, the Birmingham branch, and even Millie Van Gelderen. On this wave, a second document was turned out by Alf Snobel, called Once Again – The Real Situation in Britain.  Whilst this was a relatively hefty document, essentially it was a rehash of the official leadership’s reply to Healy’s tendency. The very title emphasised this, as his original document had been entitled The Real Situation in Britain. Snobel’s critical comment in this document with regard to the three was, I feel, totally justified, for their political perspectives came into conflict with their conclusions that the period ahead would be rocky. Nevertheless, the document issued by the three came to the conclusion that the present leadership must be maintained – a leadership which neither foresaw nor was able to combat the crisis, a leadership that was demoralised, and was either moving away from Trotskyism, or dropping out of politics altogether. Snobel’s comments were justified when he commented that the three went past the front door (that is, opposed the argument for entry), spitting at it, and then went around the corner to find a hole to crawl into! In fact, the three ended up on the same side as the demoralised leadership. As for Alf, he had many of the qualities of a leader, bright, capable and energetic, but only in spasms, as he was extremely lazy, and unable to carry anything through to its conclusion.
As can be understood, after the faction fight with Healy the mood was bitter, and, therefore, there was universal opposition to the leaderships’ somersault. Yet we of the Open Party Faction were relatively unknown outside London, and were not seen as possessing leadership quality. This latter fact took its toll, for after our initial success, many members had second thoughts, although how many there were of these we do not know. Nevertheless, the Birmingham branch which had supported us initially, moved away from our position, and after the shotgun wedding with Healy , they found Tony Cliff. Also Millie Van Gelderen changed her position. In this context, the document of the three had its effect. The fact that its conclusions supported a demoralised and collapsing leadership had a less immediate effect. It was the illusion it created of squaring the circle which was accepted. This acceptance guaranteed the shotgun wedding, and, as a consequence, the loss of members, particularly in the provinces, was sharper and more destructive than it need have been.
In hindsight, there are a number of conclusions that I would like to draw. Obviously, they are my personal conclusions, a part of which I have already expressed. Do I think that basically we, the Open Party Faction, were right? The answer, as far as I am concerned, is ‘Yes’. However, the basic problem was one of understanding. None of us understood what was evolving. Although, for my part, whilst like everybody else I never understood the emerging pattern, I realised that the basic crisis that affected us was theoretical, due to our lack of understanding, and whilst such understanding would not have prevented us from receiving further blows, we would have been able to overcome them more easily, use opportunities, and undertake work still left undone. Therefore, I emphasised the need in the interregnum before the dissolution of the party for the establishment of a serious theoretical journal which would have the aim of understanding the process (the interregnum period being the time after the conference when the Open Party Faction had a member on the Political Bureau). In this period I personally argued for the need for a theoretical journal as a basis of understanding and development. I am unaware of the views on this matter of other members of the Open Party Faction, who attended Political Bureau meetings irregularly.
The end result of the polemic opened up by the leadership debate was entry into the Labour Party, and the forced fusion with Healy on his terms. Whilst I know Ted Grant was bitterly opposed to this, nevertheless it ill becomes the bridesmaid to complain about the groom! Now the rapidly unfolding pattern proved the Open Party to be basically correct in its estimate, for the major part and the main core of the RCP leadership either moved to the right, or dropped out. Haston, after a spell in the National Council of Labour Colleges, ended up as the left face of the ideological hatchet men of the right wing reactionary bureaucrats in the electricians’ union. A similar policy was carried out in the USA by Shachtman and his associates when their fight against Stalinism lost all its Socialist content. At this time their left phrases were used by the most reactionary and right wing elements of the trade union bureaucracy, who in their turn were a cover for the defence of capitalism. However, Haston remained friendly and affable, but it was the friendliness of a paternalistic cynic. With regard to Frank Ward, he became even more blatant. Whilst equally friendly, he worked for the Labour Party, at that time in Transport House, where he acted as a fingerman and an agent of its bureaucracy.
As for the others, Roy Tearse became an academic who de facto dropped out of politics for quite a period. Then, some time later, he gathered a small coterie around his personal pretensions, and for a short period partially played with the Cliff tendency, although not deeply or seriously. Harold Atkinson, George Hansen, David James and a number of others dropped out and vanished. This is what became of the majority RCP leadership whom Grant thought had to be preserved at all cost because it was the future!
One or two others of that leadership went over to Healy, such as Bill Hunter, Charlie Van Gelderen and, most cynically and less actively, Denzil Dean Harber. And, of course, this crumbling morass of the RCP leadership had its effect upon what remained of the active membership. Those who were not purged by Healy dropped out, the actions of the RCP leadership, Healy and the International Secretariat having brought this about.
However, in a sense, we of the Open Party Faction must take a limited share of the responsibility, but only in a negative sense, because we were neither strong enough, nor capable enough, to be what was needed – an alternative leadership.
As to how Healy and the entrist tactic panned out, that is for future historians to judge. Nevertheless, one cannot leave the story totally in mid-air. The Healy apparatus, after operating as the machine for neo-Stalinism within the Labour Party and playing a similar rôle for Labour opportunists such as Bessie Braddock, found that things came to the crunch in the Korean War. The crumbling of the ‘sphere of influence’ and the split in the Healy organisation took place with John Lawrence taking a faction, firstly as a supporter of the International Secretariat, and then further afield. Lawrence’s travels now became interesting, through the Communist Party, into the Labour Party, then again into the Communist Party, and ending up as a semi-Syndicalist, semi-Anarchist. From his new moral platform, he denounced the corruption and deals within the Trotskyist movement, apart from all his other criticisms! Lawrence, the person who had been involved in more intrigues and manoeuvres than anyone else I have known, now became the virtuous one!
With the Lawrence split, the downward decline of the Healy organisation continued, which was only partially halted by the influx of 20 to 30 members of the Wembley Labour League of Youth. This latter happening is something that Ellis Hillman, as an active participant, could better describe. However, the tight hold which Healy had on his organisation kept it going until the Hungarian Revolution, thus resulting in an influx of a number of Stalinist intellectuals, or at least those who did not move to the right or drop out of politics completely. This gave a new lease of life to the Healy organisation, and, in fact, the Healyites above all other leftist groups benefited from the crisis of British Stalinism. Nevertheless, within a relatively short period, the pressure of this new force compelled Healy to move out of the Labour Party – and that was the end of the entrist tactic.
As for the purges and split-offs from the ‘new unified’ tendency, quite early on two tendencies split off, the Cliffite and the workers’ state tendencies. There is little that I can say about the Cliff tendency, as I was never involved with it, but I can comment upon the workers’ state tendency, as I was connected with this. Firstly, at the beginning it was not the Grant tendency, for it was an attempt to start an RCP tendency Mark II. However, this flopped with most of the old-timers dropping out, and, therefore, over a period of time, it became the Grant tendency, and the hard core of its new and young leadership came from Liverpool.
In conclusion, I would say that despite the collapse of the RCP and its atomisation and fragmentation, from it arose all the future British Trotskyist groups. Whereas all previous prewar leaderships collapsed and in a political sense disappeared, the history of postwar Trotskyism is linked to and rooted in the original RCP, for the three main leaders and trends come from the RCP. Even those younger and newer elements, too young to be involved at the time, nevertheless have been influenced by the RCP. For Trotskyism in Britain is irrevocably linked to Gerry Healy, Tony Cliff and Ted Grant, whatever one might think of their abilities and qualities.
1. Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, War and the International, London 1985.
2. John Archer, Trotskyism in Britain, 1931–1937, PhD Thesis, Polytechnic of Central London, September 1979; Martin Upham, The History of British Trotskyism to 1949, PhD Thesis, Hull University, 1980.
3. Resolution of the International Executive Committee, 17 September 1947.
4. Clearly, this was not a question of mislaid documents, for some time after the split, on one occasion when visiting Millie Lee Haston’s premises, she showed me some Stalinist pamphlets of the early 1930s which were to be sent to Hull, that is, she was winnowing out material in memory of Jock Haston.
5. Sam Levy, Alf Snobel, Marion Lunt, Sheila Lahr, R. Ralph, George Leslie, Doug Harper, Charlie Sisley, Geoff Carlson, J. Ross, Sam Bornstein, Arthur Deane, Norman Pentland and Nettie Snobel, The Case for the Open Party, Internal Bulletin of the RCP, 14 February 1949. The RCP’s headquarters were in 256 Harrow Road, London.
6. International Secretariat, To All Members of the RCP, 5 February 1949.
7. Ted Grant, Jimmy Deane and George Hansen, Letter to the Members.
8. Open Party Faction, The RCP Labour Party Faction, in Once Again – The Real Situation in Britain, May 1949, pp. 6–17.
9. Open Party Faction, Once Again – The Real Situation in Britain.
10. See Bornstein and Richardson, op. cit., pp. 230ff.
Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011