Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


Jimmy Deane (1921–2002)

JIMMY Deane, lifelong Trotskyist, cadre of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in the 1940s and General Secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) during the 1950s and early 1960s, died from pneumonia on 21 August 2002 at the Rosebank Nursing Home in his native Liverpool. He was 81 years of age. Born on 31 January 1921, the eldest son of Gus Deane, a blacksmith who came from an Irish Protestant family in the Dingle, South Liverpool, and his wife Gertie (1894–1989) née Wilson, who had trained as a nurse, he was brought up in a socialist household in a working-class neighbourhood. He never abandoned the values he was taught there.

His mother was the daughter of Charles Carrick Wilson, a house painter who was a pioneer of the Social Democratic Federation in Liverpool and prominent as a city councillor and officer of the Trades and Labour Council. As a young woman she met many of the leading figures of pre-1914 Marxism, from Henry Hyndman to James Larkin. She was a close friend of the family of Mary Bamber, Merseyside socialist matriarch and mother of Bessie Braddock, and was active in the suffrage movement. After her husband’s early death in 1932, she raised her five children, including two sets of twins, with single-mindedness and self-sacrifice. Her council house in Hurlingham Road, Walton, became a centre of socialism far beyond Merseyside. She was active in the Workers International League (WIL) and the RCP. Her sons Arthur (born 1922) and Brian (born 1927) played a significant part in the Trotskyist movement from the 1940s into the 1960s. Jim’s twin, Dorrie, was briefly involved with the RCP. Only Arthur’s twin, Fred, took no part in revolutionary politics.

From his mother Deane acquired self-confidence, a powerful imagination, a sense of social purpose and a desire for self-improvement. He attended the Florence Melly school, and later the technical school in Byrom Street. When he was 16, he joined the Labour Party, and together with his friend Eric Brewer became active in the Walton League of Youth. Through the League, he encountered the Trotskyists of the Militant Group, who were seeking a new way to change society in the face of the denominational factionalism that scarred Liverpool Labourism, the emerging opportunism of the Braddocks, and the Popular Front aridities of the Communist Party and its fellow-travellers in Labour’s ranks. An early influence was I.P. Hughes, an old friend of his mother. A veteran of pre-1914 syndicalism and founder member of the CP in Liverpool who had served on the executive of the Minority Movement, Hughes was, at this time, a member of the Militant Group, led on Merseyside by Don James. Among Deane’s other early mentors were the local National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC) organiser and Liverpool Labour Party stalwart, Bob Briscoe, who introduced him to studying Marx and to decades of activity in the NCLC, and the future Labour Party MP, Bill Hamling, who was on the periphery of the Trotskyist movement and a mainstay of its front organisation, the Militant Labour League.

He joined the Militant Group sometime in 1937. After the fusion with competing factions presided over by James P. Cannon, the following year he became a member of the unified Trotskyist organisation, the RSL. The Merseyside membership of both groups were disaffected with the national centre, and at times led a defiantly semi-independent existence. By 1939, many of the older members such as James, the Haughtons, the former ILPer Harry Cund and Sammy Kossoff, were drifting away. The youth, in contrast, were becoming increasingly active, both in the Labour Party and in wider propaganda work. Four issues of the Merseyside Militant Bulletin, which they produced in early 1939 and which feature Deane’s first writing, survive in the archives.

This situation attracted the attention of the new organisation, the WIL, whose members had been expelled from the Militant Group at the end of 1937, and which had refused to join the RSL. Gerry Healy arrived in Liverpool in early 1939 seeking to exploit the growing malaise in the RSL. With characteristic dynamism, he quickly assembled a WIL group of Fred Bunby, Arthur Leadbetter Junior and Frank Foster, young socialists who were active in the Fairfield League of Youth. With characteristic persistence in the summer of 1939, Healy finally succeeded in bringing the young RSL members Deane, Eric Brewer, Tommy Birchall (a former member of the Marxist Group in the ILP from Crosby), and Frank Ward and Harry Matthews from the Kirkdale League of Youth, into the WIL.

During the early years of the war, Deane served his apprenticeship as an electrical engineer in Cammel Laird’s shipyard in Birkenhead. The Liverpool WIL was heavily hit by the call-up. Although a small Birkenhead group was built up from the shipyard and a handful of recruits were made on the docks, the decline in political activity around the Labour Party meant that he was plunged into the rigours of recruiting workers in ones and twos by argument, propaganda and force of personality. The NCLC proved a valuable arena, but foraging around, and entry into, the CP and ILP, work in Liverpool’s black community and with Zionist groups at the university as well as recruitment initiatives ranging as far afield as North Wales, Lancaster, Barrow and Burnley, produced limited results. Turnover was high. Deane remained, as he later recollected, ‘very close’ to and strongly influenced by the older Healy. Still inexperienced, he was drawn into Healy’s factional intrigues against the WIL leadership. However, he came to appreciate the virtues of Jock Haston, and he came increasingly under his influence. He finally broke with Healy before the latter’s expulsion from the WIL in 1943.

In January 1944, he was directed to work in the mines under wartime legislation. After a month’s training at Newtown Colliery, Swinton, he worked at the Nook Pit, Tyldesley, near Bolton, where he was active in the union, sold Socialist Appeal and recruited a small group around a former CP miner, Tom Jones. But despite his rather grandiose title of Lancashire and Cheshire Organiser, sustained effort, much burning of the midnight oil and the relatively favourable conditions of wartime, progress was slow. When the RCP was formed from the fusion of the WIL and the RSL in March 1944, the Liverpool branch had only 27 members, and its influence in the Labour Party and unions was slender. In the rest of Lancashire and Cheshire, outside of Birkenhead, there was only a sprinkling of members.

Towards the end of 1944, he was taken ill and invalided out of the mines. He spent most of 1945 working as a professional at the RCP centre at 256 Harrow Road, London. He was a member of the party’s Central Committee and the editorial board of Socialist Appeal, and was the London Industrial Organiser. He was active in the East London branch, and was particularly involved with work with dockers in the build-up to and aftermath of the great strike of that year. It was at this period that his lifelong friendship with Ted Grant, which had developed in the early 1940s, was firmly cemented. In London he matured as an effective public speaker and as an organiser, although the patience, exactitude and attention to detail that the latter rôle required were never his strong points. The RCP leadership considered him a talented cadre of immense possibilities. He possessed a particular rapport with working-class people, but his potential was arrested by a lack of consistency. He could fall prey to procrastination. He was easily distracted, particularly by a pretty face or a warm pub, and combined periods of intense application with spells of unreliability. However, Haston was impressed by the success he had made of his work in London. Early in 1946, he was sent to Paris to represent the party on the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International.

He lived in France for some 18 months. It was increasingly difficult work, as the hostility towards the British party on the part of the International Secretariat (IS) and its backers, the American Socialist Workers Party, intensified, and as Pablo and Cannon became increasingly impatient with the RCP’s resistance to their view that immediate entry into the Labour Party was necessary as economic catastrophe loomed. Perhaps the rôle of British ambassador in Paris demanded a more experienced actor; the lack of success of Haston in his own dealings with Pablo and Mandel demonstrated exactly what the RCP was up against. As Deane sought to counter the International leadership’s fostering of the Healy minority in the RCP and their moves towards splitting the British section, finally realised in the autumn of 1947, he was the subject of rumours circulated by Cannon’s representative, Sam Gordon, centring on his indiscipline and drinking. He was politically isolated and personally troubled by an unhappy affair with John Lawrence’s estranged wife, Lily. He often stood alone, although he made some friends, including the Indian representative, Kamlesh Banerjee, and some young members of the French section, the Parti Communiste Internationale, such as Louis Dalmas and Sylvie Clairette, with whom he corresponded for many years and who later visited him in Liverpool. But the financial pressure of maintaining a representative in Paris became an increasing burden on the hard-pressed RCP, despite a subsidy from the IS. In the autumn of 1947, Deane returned to London.

It was an unhappy time for him. The split between the International and the RCP had widened. He had fallen in love with a Mexican socialist visiting France; his feelings seem to have been unrequited. Depression, drinking and dreams of sailing to Central America culminated in his spectacular disruption of a Central Committee meeting, which shocked even his friends and supporters. He returned to Liverpool to serve out his disgrace. As the RCP slid towards oblivion at the end of 1948 and Haston proposed belated entry into the Labour Party with Grant, Deane opposed the leadership on the Central Committee. But he gave no support to the Open Party Faction declared in February 1949. As the endgame unfolded, together with Grant and George Hanson, he threw his support behind Haston in the hope of preserving the cadre and maintaining a united leadership team. This swung the balance in the party towards entrism and against maintaining the open party. It was a stand never forgiven by many supporters of the latter.

In his last days in the RCP and his first days in the Club, the entrist organisation led by Healy, Deane threw himself into making contacts in the Labour Party and building the Socialist Fellowship on Merseyside. He was particularly proud of one of the first fruits of this work, the magazine Rally, ‘Read All About the Labour League of Youth’. It was launched as a journal of the Birkenhead constituency party by a team which involved Alf and Renee Rose, Alan Giles, Bill Smith and George Davies. It found a wide readership beyond Merseyside and, crossing the water to Walton, endured through the 1950s. But Deane was soon complaining about the low political level of the Club and the incessant invocation of security to circumscribe information and discussion and foster military-style direction from the centre. He was worried about Healy’s hounding of David James from the Newcastle branch, and infuriated by his characteristic declaration to Arthur, who was working in London: ‘You Deanes need a good beating.’

Haston’s defection from the Club in February 1950, closely followed by the resignations of Millie Lee, Roy Tearse, George Hanson and George Noseda, played into Healy’s hands. At the executive in March 1950, Deane argued that the resolution condemning Haston’s embrace of reformism should await a written statement from the latter. He later recollected that he had talked with Haston the previous day, and had received no inkling of what was afoot. He saw the resolution as writing off the whole history of the RCP, but under pressure he voted for it. When he subsequently informed Healy of his disagreement with the leadership’s approach, he was required ‘to indicate in writing political support for the EC resolution condemning Haston, without any reservations immediately’ (EC Statement on the Conduct of JD, 24 May 1950). He was expelled from the Club in June 1950 for failure to provide such a statement. Having settled old scores, Healy offered to shake hands and looked forward to Deane’s application for readmission after a period of probation. He concluded his decade-long association with Healy with the reflection: ‘… even the Stalinists don’t conduct themselves in this way. The Club is not a Trotskyist movement but a degenerate clique.’ (JD to Brian, 4 June 1950)

Back home in Liverpool, it was uphill all the way. He had married Cissie in 1949. With a wife and young child, he needed money. But he found it hard to find work. He was blacklisted by the big firms, and the Stalinist leadership of the ETU was far from helpful. The consequent need to travel impeded his political activity. Yet he continued the struggle. With barely a dozen members in Liverpool, where the branch seceded from the Club in October 1950, and scarcely a score in London, the International Socialist Group was launched on the basis of Grant’s Statement to the British Section of the Fourth International, circulated after his expulsion in the autumn of 1950. The groups’ journal, International Socialist, appeared sporadically, and progress was difficult. In Liverpool a base was established in the Walton constituency. By 1952, Deane was chair of the party, and he had formed a fruitful long-term political association with the secretary, Laura Kirton. Together with Pat Wall, a recruit from Garston, he became a regular delegate to party conference. But the only trade union base was in the Liverpool Central branch of the ETU. I.P. Hughes, George Macartney and Arthur Cowderoy were all that remained of the old RCP group, together with Brian and his wife Beryl, who performed miracles among the youth. There was a sustained trickle of young recruits, but few stayed the course.

Towards the end of 1954, he suffered a personal crisis. He was involved in a bad accident, he had housing problems, his marriage was breaking up, and the Club’s involvement in the Merseyside dockers’ breakaway from the Transport Workers to join the Stevedores and Dockers Union had brought Healy an influx of recruits. The tremendous efforts Deane put into securing the candidature in Walton for Grant failed, albeit narrowly. His old comrade, I.P. Hughes decamped with Eric Heffer, with whom the group had been collaborating in the Labour Party, to form the Socialist Workers Federation. At the start of 1955, Deane wrote to Grant informing him that the worst was over. Ted responded:

It was a heavy blow to me politically and personally to think you might be drifting away … You and I are the last of the Old Guard and I would like to see you playing the rôle which you are fitted for … I always thought that both on Merseyside and nationally you had a vital role to play in the building of the tendency. From this point of view your letter came to me like a hot cup of tea after a cold and exhausting day. (Ted to Jim, 12 January 1955)

Things looked up, if only a little. His enthusiasm was rekindled, despite his past treatment at the hands of Pablo, when in 1956 the ISG joined with the Committee for the Regroupment of the British Section of the Fourth International led by Sam Bornstein and John Fairhead, along with a number of individual Trotskyists in sympathy with Pablo, to form the Revolutionary Socialist League. Deane was appointed its first General Secretary, and the following years the group was recognised as the British Secretariat of the Pablo–Mandel International. But the fruits of the dislocation of Stalinism in 1956 fell to Healy, and not the RSL. The honesty, perhaps naïveté, of Deane’s approach and its contrast with the power politics that the Healyites employed towards opponents was suggested when he invited the manipulative Bob Pennington, then the Club’s full-timer on Merseyside, to attend internal RSL meetings in Liverpool. In 1957, he travelled to Morocco at Pablo’s request to put his skills as an electrical engineer at the disposal of the Algerian FLN fighting the French occupation forces. The same year he went to India, where he was again able to ply his trade while seeking to bring Trotskyists in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras under the umbrella of Pablo’s organisation.

On his return to Britain, he felt vindicated by the selection of George Macartney, his comrade since the 1930s, as Labour’s (unsuccessful) candidate for Walton in the 1959 general election. In later years, he was intensely critical of what he saw as the opportunism of Eric Heffer; rejoining the Labour Party after the collapse of the SWF, and benefiting from the work put in on behalf of Macartney, Heffer was duly returned to Westminster as MP for Walton in 1964. Deane worked in South Wales, and subsequently as a full-timer for the RSL in London. But it must have been with a sense of déjà-vu that he confronted burgeoning problems in the organisation with Pablo over the Sino-Soviet dispute and the nature of the Chinese bureaucracy, and internally with the Nottingham group around Pat Jordan and Ken Coates who had developed links with Mandel which eventually led to their expulsion from the RSL.

As the 1960s began, he was still trying to scrape a living. He worked a 12-hour day, and devoted his weekends to RSL activity. The small size of the organisation and the limited subsidy from the International did not provide for professionals beyond Grant. Both Socialist Fight, the group’s paper, and his second marriage to June were in trouble. Through it all he remained steadfast in his support of the ideas of Grant. And he always devoted time and attention to the nurturing of a new generation of Liverpool Trotskyists, many of whom, such as Keith Dickinson, Terry Harrison, Ted Mooney and Peter Taaffe, were to play a significant rôle in future years. His optimism remained undimmed. Despairing of splits, he insisted that it should and could be possible for competing politics to find their expression in a unified organisation. In 1963–64, as National Secretary of the RSL, he was a powerful advocate of reunification with the Nottingham comrades, now the International Group. He also supported collaboration in the LPYS with Tony Cliff’s supporters around Young Guard. Events repeated themselves. Neither initiative was successful. The failure of the former eventually led to the replacement of the RSL as the British Section of the Fourth International by the International Marxist Group. The only enduring legacy was the Militant newspaper.

Enough was enough. In 1965, he returned to India, and subsequently spent several years in Fiji. The strain of 25 years of daily involvement in Trotskyist politics, particularly the barren decade and a half since 1949, exacted its price. Re-run after re-run of the film of failure after failure and split after split, combined with living life in a capitalist society with its unrelenting pressures, finally took its toll. He always maintained his beliefs, but his enthusiasm for activity evaporated, and he never resumed his rôle in the RSL. His second marriage broke up, and he went to live near Wigan. He participated in the Labour Party, occasionally spoke at Militant meetings in the 1980s, and in the following decade declared his support for Ted Grant’s Socialist Appeal group. He was devoid of ambition except for his class. Like many other gifted working-class activists, the way of the world and his commitment to the fortunes of revolutionary socialism ensured that he never fully realised his unquestionable promise and potential. But he always inspired and cherished the respect and affection of his comrades. Deprived of his powers of speech by a stroke, he retained until the end the socialist vision and loyalty to Trotskyism he had embraced in the 1930s.

John McIlroy

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011