Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3
Pat Jordan (1928–2001)
PAT Jordan died alone in a nursing home in Lincoln on 1 September 2001, having lived there since suffering a stroke in 1986. The loneliness and isolation of his death were very different from the vibrancy of the period in 1968, when one newspaper described him as ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’. This somewhat hyperbolic, apocalyptic description was a response to Pat’s position as Secretary of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign at a time when that campaign was able to organise demonstrations of over 100,000 strong, and when it was part of a global movement which eventually helped force the Americans out of Vietnam. It is doubtful whether anyone else in the nursing home knew he had once been perceived (and to an extent correctly perceived) as a danger to the world order – in spite of the fact that his room was stuffed with openly displayed revolutionary literature. Though Pat died largely forgotten, his positive role in the VSC should never be forgotten to history.
We should also remember Pat’s work in building the International Marxist Group. The IMG has been generally trashed by history as being some sort of ultra-left studentist indulgence. Pat’s death is an opportunity to provide a more positive appraisal of the organisation. It is also an opportunity to reflect on how revolutionary comrades, in this case one who was central to the major political campaign of his day, can become personally marginalised in old age and infirmity, whilst still retaining a socialist identity.
This obituary is written by someone who was in the IMG from 1970 until 1974, who liked and admired Pat, but who only knew him intermittently in this period, and who briefly renewed contact over two decades later on visits to the care home in Lincoln. I guess that like everything else, there is a politics of obituaries. The fact that it has fallen to myself to write this critical dedication/portrait, and not to some of the bigger luminaries from his past in the IMG or VSC in itself, shows the isolation in which Pat’s life ended. As far as I know, the only person prominent in both these organisations who has written an obituary is Tony Southall (who himself unfortunately died shortly afterwards). This was in the October 2001 issue of Socialist Outlook, the journal of the last surviving remnant of the IMG – the International Socialist Group. There has been no public meeting to commemorate Pat Jordan’s life.
Whilst in Lincoln, he was visited by very few of his old comrades – one who did visit him was Charlie Van Gelderen, who would travel up from Cambridge, but who is also now dead. Most of the personal and some of the political information recorded here has been gleaned from notes left by Pat and found after his death, from correspondence with his brother Peter (he had no other siblings), from Al Richardson, from obituaries by Ken Coates and Sean Matgamna in Action for Solidarity (28 September and 12 October 2001), from a couple of old comrades who kept in contact with him after his severance from the IMG, and from conversations with Pat himself in his last years.
Pat Jordan was born in Chelsea, London, on 17 July 1928. He had a brother Peter, who was eventually to become a plastic surgeon. His father, John Patrick, was an electrical telecommunications engineer who worked for Ericson’s telephones. During the pre-war and war years, the family moved to wherever his father’s job took him. Liverpool was one of those places. His mother became a factory worker when the family moved to Nottingham in about 1941. However, during some of the war they lived on the Isle of Man. Both of his grandmothers were Irish, as was his maternal grandfather. His paternal grandfather was Welsh. Both his parents were born in England. Pat’s education was continually disrupted by the family’s moves. He went to whatever state school was available, and excelled in mathematics – much of which was self-taught. Without ever formally qualifying, he then worked as an engineer, learning his skills from school, Ericson’s telephones and in a light engineering firm in Nottingham. He was married on 21 October 1950 to Leonora May Comrie, who was a school teacher and at the time a fellow member of the Nottingham Young Communist League. The marriage was annulled on 20 January 1958, and Leonora subsequently married Ken Coates, who was at that time a great friend of Pat’s.
Pat was influenced politically by his father, who was a socialist and a member of the Labour Party. Though not directly involved in Irish politics, he talked to Pat about the great famine and the Black and Tans. He denounced Churchill as a warmonger. Pat’s first political experience was in 1945 canvassing for the Labour Party, which he then joined. He remembers an elderly woman in Nottingham telling him whilst he was out electioneering that she was anyhow going to vote Labour as ‘we’ve got to do what the Russians did, kick out all the rich people and take over’. Pat agreed with her sentiments, but soon disagreed that the Labour Party was the vehicle to realise them. So he quickly joined the Communist Party – impressed in part by their literature on science, ballet, opera and history. He was at this time a Stalinist, who named his cat Joe. He became secretary of the largest CP branch in Nottingham (he seems to have ended up as secretary to most organisations he joined – a reflection of his organisational abilities). He was also a full-time treasurer for the CP’s East Midland District, and had some responsibility for working with farm labourers in Lincolnshire. He undertook political activity in the St Ann’s ward in Nottingham – where the CP regularly used to stand a candidate in the local elections. It is not clear when he broke from the party, but it was sometime after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin, and the crushing of the Hungarian uprising. There was a small group in Nottingham, including Ken Coates and Tony Topham, who also departed from the CP. They established a local Socialist Forum. This retained a commitment to Nottingham civic politics – campaigning for the boycott of South African fruit in schools and for free bus passes for old-age pensioners.
Having left the CP, Pat consciously embarked on a political odyssey looking at other political groupings. Whilst in the CP, he had become a member of the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union. In his branch he met a Trotskyist, Mickie Shaw, who along with her husband Bob began to exert some political influence on him. The Shaws were in the Healy group. According to the document found after his death, Pat did join the Healyites, attended one conference and then left (though he also told Al Richardson that he had never associated with Healy). Along with other Socialist Forum comrades, he subsequently joined the Revolutionary Socialist League (later to become the Militant tendency) of which Ted Grant was the Guru, and which was then part of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. Pat edited the RSL’s paper, Socialist Fight, and wrote articles on industrial questions under the name of ‘An Engineer’. His relationship with the RSL was labyrinthine, to put it mildly. This relationship and its tortuous twists and turns were described by him in Aspects of the History of the IMG, a document he wrote in 1972 under his then party name, Peter Peterson, at the fusion conference between the IMG and its then youth group the Spartacus League. By 1958, he was an oppositionist within the RSL. His overall objection to the leadership of the RSL was that it lacked dynamism in its entry work in the Labour Party. He considered it was over-deterministic (like the Healyites passively awaiting some inevitable slump), and was over-dismissive of the war danger (with the political consequence that it could not relate to the growth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). In 1961, Pat and five other comrades effectively split from the RSL, and the International Group was born in Nottingham. Its birthplace and organisational base was the International Book Shop at 4 Dane Street in the St Ann’s district. The shop was run by Pat, and was later called Jordan’s International Book Shop. According to Ken Coates, whereas the object of the shop was to disseminate Marxist and in particular Trotskyist literature (which was still of limited quantity and not easily available), its main sales locally consisted of comics and sub-pornography. The International Secretariat made abortive attempts to unify the two groups, but the split became final in 1965 following the Eighth World Congress of the Fourth International.
By this time, the International Group had become the International Marxist Group, and was organised around the news-sheet The Week, which was largely produced by Pat. The IMG was recognised as the British Section of (the United Secretariat’s version of) the Fourth International at its 1969 World Conference. Around the late 1960s, its centre became a shabby three-storey building at 182 Pentonville Road in Kings Cross, London. For a time Pat again ran the bookshop located there. Its stock consisted solely of Marxist literature – no comics this time. The shop was called Red Books, and the IMG seemed to appropriate the brand name ‘Red’ – its paper was the Red Mole, and its educational classes were Red Circles. As I remember it, another comrade who helped in the shop was the Irish revolutionary Peter Graham – who was to be murdered by the gun in Dublin in 1971. On at least one occasion, the primitive accumulation of literature stock was enhanced by the shop-lifting of specific books from Colletts – the large Stalinist bookshop in Charing Cross Road.
The explosion of youth (and other) radicalism from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s vindicated Pat Jordan’s political odyssey. On a personal level, he was a man whose time had come. The decade following 1965 saw a revival of Trotskyism. The IMG was quite crucial in this, and for much of the period Pat Jordan was its National Secretary. Certainly some of its politics were ultra-leftist – such as its uncritical slogan of ‘Victory to the IRA’, and a cartoon on the front of Red Mole showing the decapitation of Barbara Castle, the Labour minister, with a caption ‘Let it Bleed’. However, compared with the Stalinism of the Communist Party and the crazy sectarianism of the Healyites, this was almost a breath of fresh air. There were many very positive aspects to the politics of the IMG in this period. It had a total commitment to launching and developing the campaign in defence of the Vietnamese revolution. As such, it had a real social and political impact which it is difficult to appreciate today. It was open and uncompromising in its stand against racism. It was active in support of the Irish struggle. It was genuinely internationalist. Within the milieu of Trotskyism, it was undoubtedly the most advanced on issues of sexuality and gender oppression – though ultimately both the women’s and gay movements were in many respects far more advanced politically than the Trotskyist groups, and there were often tensions within the IMG on these questions. From about 1967, it increasingly and deliberately oriented towards student struggles and the student milieu. However, this was not necessarily a product of ultra-leftism or crude ‘studentism’. The British state took the student movement and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the relationship between them very seriously. It was scared of them. A report drawn up in 1968 by a shadowy Government anti-communist intelligence outfit described student militancy as a ‘potentially dangerous adjunct’ to communist subversion (Guardian, 31 May 2000).
Moreover, it is wrong to claim that the IMG was dismissive of working-class politics and structures. The comrades of the International Group/IMG were instrumental from about 1963 in organising the Workers Control conferences around the newspaper Union Voice – an initiative which played some part in transforming the Amalgamated Engineering Union into a left-wing force. The Institute for Workers Control was established in 1968. It is true the IMG ceased to play a rôle within the Institute. As I understand it, this was because that organisation oriented itself towards the creation of a left bureaucracy, as opposed to the struggles of the rank and file. Instead, the IMG worked with the unemployed in Claimants Unions, and tried to build local Councils of Actions amongst trade unionists relating economic to social issues. It took ideas and the battle for ideas very seriously, and at one stage in the early 1970s New Left Review was almost its house journal – with several members of the editorial board (such as Robin Blackburn) joining the group.
The IMG was relatively non-sectarian, and it did not claim a monopoly or franchise on the revolution. It openly supported the right of (and advocated the need for) the self-organisation of the oppressed through, for example, black, gay and women’s groups and through the short-lived Schools Actions Union for those still at school. It never claimed to be the Party or that it would grow into the Party through some linear development – but saw itself as just a component of what may become a future revolutionary party through splits and fusions (though unfortunately the later life of the organisation, like most Trotskyist groups, was to be more one of splits and confusions). For a time its internal life seemed quite democratic – at one stage consisting of so many semi-permanent tendencies that eventually they were named alphabetically. Sometimes, however, this democracy was superficial. I remember the bad treatment as early as 1970–71 of comrades, such as Alan and Connie Harris and the Roberts brothers, who followed the line of the American Socialist Workers Party, which at that time was part of the Fourth International, but was drifting away from it.
The IMG generally placed the importance of political campaigns and social struggles above its own organisational needs (and hence, unlike other groups, never seemed to have much time for actual recruitment – peaking at a membership of maybe 1,000 in the mid-1970s). It provided its cadre with an excellent political education – with the inadvertent consequence that many of its members who later broke from revolutionary socialism were able to rise high in social democracy, particularly at a local level. (I’ve been told that some proportion of the British local education system in the early 1990s was under the political direction of ex-IMGers. This predictably did not result in the resurrection of the Schools Action Union, but maybe explains in part the national improvement in examination results!) Any failures of the IMG – and there were many – are viewed by this writer as a failure of the whole Leninist enterprise, rather than of the group itself.
Pat Jordan’s energy and guidance were central to much of the above. Though described as the ‘most dangerous man in Britain’, he was in looks and mannerisms very different from most of the comrades with whom he worked. In particular he was a lot older. Most members of the IMG were in their early 20s. Indeed, the IMG was unique in that much of its cadre was younger than members of its short-lived youth organisation of this time (the Spartacus League). Long hair was the norm, but Pat Jordan most resembled Mr Pickwick in appearance. In many ways, he played a politically avuncular and nurturing rôle within the organisation – very different from the pathological despotism of Gerry Healy in the Socialist Labour League. Perhaps it was ageism, but Pat never seemed part of the dominant and dominating youth culture of the day (where the youth expected optimistically, in the words of Bob Dylan, to remain ‘forever young’, or pessimistically, in the lyrics of Pete Townshend, ‘to die before they got old’). However, he was very much part of that vital aspect of the culture that was revolutionary in spirit and intent. It is to his credit that he was able, at least in some way, to relate to a body of ideas that were not of his generation, particularly on the level of sexual politics.
No one is the repository of all virtue – and certainly Pat Jordan was not such a person. Around 1981, he was expelled from the organisation he had helped create for ‘conduct unbecoming’ – a stupid and unforgivable piece of personal misbehaviour directed towards its new National Secretary John Ross (using the pseudonym of Alan Jones). Though this was inexcusable, it can be explained politically. John Ross and his followers (together today in Socialist Action) represented the demise of the IMG. They exercised a form of intellectual thuggery over the group. They produced truckloads of internal documents which were of such a quantity that they resulted in a fundamental deceit within the organisation. Most people had no time to read them (let alone understand them), but pretended otherwise. Unfortunately, I suspect this is common within other organisations. Ross’ documents were explicitly philosophical in nature – but the philosophy was very bad. In effect, the whole purpose of the exercise was to take the organisation away from waging social and international struggles, and instead to lead it into economism and a spurious ‘turn to industry’. Here I make a personal self-criticism in not immediately and directly joining the internal battle to challenge this regime. However, Pat Jordan did form an oppositional tendency (the ‘New Course’) in 1972. This was unsuccessful in its challenge, but he continued with an internal fight. I suspect that the endless convoluted twists and turns and fundamental dishonesty of the new leadership probably disoriented Pat, and led to his personal misconduct against Ross. John Ross himself followed a strange political trajectory, and is now a well-paid advisor to Ken Livingstone.
Pat spent the last years of his life before his stroke as a revolutionary militant in Hackney Labour Party – doing what other revolutionary militants were then doing in the Labour Party (in my view, for what it’s worth, knocking their heads against brick walls). Within the party, he was active in the campaign which fought against the local council on the ‘Three Noes’ – no rate increases, no rent increases, no cuts. He participated in Irish and Palestinian solidarity work. History sometimes has a way of coming full circle, or at least half-circle. Four decades after quitting the Revolutionary Socialist League (the Militant tendency) and whilst still disagreeing with most of its politics, he helped set up Labour Against the Witch-hunt to campaign against its expulsion from the Labour Party – though by this stage the RSL was denying its own existence and had become the organisation that dare not speak its name. At the time of his stroke, Pat had put himself forward to the local party for selection as a Councillor for Hackney.
When I visited Pat in his last years in Lincoln, he was not in a good way. He had completely lost his short-term memory. However, he had memories of the longer term – not least his days in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, and his meetings with Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris to coordinate international events. His spirit remained unbroken, and he evinced no self-pity about his physical condition, or about his personal or political isolation. His somewhat stoic view seemed to have been that as a revolutionary the system was eventually going to get him – either through its armed bodies of men or through a stroke. I think he would have preferred it was the armed bodies of men! But best of all he would have preferred to have seen the triumph of the revolution. But then, wouldn’t we all?
Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011