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


John Lawrence (1915–2002)

JOHN Lawrence, a well-known figure on the British left from the 1940s to the 1970s, died of pneumonia after protracted heart problems in Dulwich Hospital on 14 November 2002. He was aged 87. He will be remembered as the editor of the Trotskyist Labour Party paper Socialist Outlook between 1948 and 1954, as a meteoric pioneer of municipal socialism when leader of St Pancras Borough Council between 1956 and 1958, and as a principled campaigning trade unionist in the print jungle of Fleet Street in the 1960s and 1970s. His relentless, lifelong search for political truth led him from Stalinism to Trotskyism, from Trotskyism back to the Communist Party (CP) and on to libertarian syndicalism, before he found his final moorings in his own brand of anarchism.

Lawrence was born at Sandhurst, Berkshire, on 29 September 1915, the son of Gordon Lawrence, a sergeant instructor at the military academy, and his wife Grace, a domestic servant. His mother died young, and he spent much of his early years in a military orphanage in Dover before enlisting as a boy soldier in the King’s Regiment stationed at Liverpool. In what was a bleak and sometimes brutal youth, his talent for music provided a refuge and an eventual escape. Lawrence graduated from playing as a trombonist in the regimental band to the Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, where he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London.

The harshness of his upbringing left its mark in an enduring antagonism to injustice; it made him a natural opponent of intolerance and violence, and more specifically of fascism and war. In Liverpool and later in London, where he worked as a jobbing musician, he witnessed the ravages of the interwar depression. As a veteran CP member of my acquaintance used to remark, metropolitan musicians of that era were ‘a progressive bunch’. Contact with the National Unemployed Workers Movement, where he also encountered members of the CP, focussed his anger and crystallised his criticisms of capitalism. In 1938, Lawrence joined the CP, but his stay was brief. Developing differences over the coming war, and attracted to Trotskyist explanations of its rationale and the attitude socialists should take towards it, he decamped the following year to the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL), a small breakaway from the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), the British section of the Fourth International. Here he came under the influence of Bill Duncan and Hilda Lane, two older, experienced Trotskyists who saw the RWL as the catalyst in unifying the warring tribes of Fourth Internationalists. In May 1940, the RWL fused with the Workers International League (WIL) led by Ralph Lee and Jock Haston, which also stood outside the International, with the aim of transforming it into the basis for a new, healthier British section and outflanking the RSL. Unsurprisingly, it ended in tears. The result was further faction fighting, the speedy expulsion from the WIL of Duncan, Lane and, finally, in the summer of 1941, of Lawrence himself. Nothing daunted, he immediately enrolled in the RSL, where, by the end of the year, he had succeeded Starkey Jackson as national organiser.

A heart murmur ensured that Lawrence was not called up. During the war, he worked episodically in engineering and leather factories in Yorkshire and London, and also as a night telephonist. His main energies were devoted to politics. His career in the RSL passed through three phases. Initially he propounded the politics of the WIL, championing the Proletarian Military Policy – the attempt to give workers’ control over production and the war effort – against the RSL leadership’s sectarian invocation of revolutionary defeatism. For a time he was actually paid by the WIL, and as leader of the Trotskyist Opposition, one of the three main factions in the RSL, sought to bring over as many RSLers as possible to Haston’s organisation. From mid-1942, when he met and fell under the spell of Sam Gordon of the American Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), the mainstay of the wartime International, Lawrence changed course. He now attempted to rebuild the RSL and win it over to fusion with the WIL as a new British section of the Fourth International. Finally, as the March 1944 merger which created the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) developed, he again switched allegiance. Rejecting the leadership of the SWP-sponsored opposition faction in the RCP – the bauble was then picked up by Gerry Healy – he emerged as a loyal supporter of the RCP majority around Jock Haston and the party’s organiser in South Wales.

Two years’ hard work in the Welsh valleys provided much needed stability and experience of the labour movement after years of precocious politics and intrigue in a sectarian formation isolated from the working class. His political instability would continue. But, as if in reaction to his early political formation, he spent the rest of his life seeking to immerse himself in working-class struggles. After the heady excitements of the Neath by-election in May 1945, in which Haston stood as the RCP candidate, the going in Wales – as for the RCP generally – got rougher. By the spring of 1946, the party’s declining fortunes dictated cutbacks. Lawrence was taken off the payroll and returned to London. His political restlessness reasserted itself. He once more changed his political cloth, and he became a leading member of Healy’s opposition, and an eloquent exponent of its case of impending capitalist crisis and the consequent need to enter the Labour Party to clarify an emerging left. In a further abortive pursuit of the working class, he spent six months in 1947 working in the mines at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, seeking without success to build a base in the National Union of Mineworkers and the local Labour Party.

The following year, with fellow members of the Club Hilda Lane and David Goldhill – the Trotskyist group in the Labour Party – Lawrence began work in the St Pancras Constituency. He was in charge of developing the Club’s entry paper Socialist Outlook, launched in December 1948. Despite his apocalyptic vision of economic disaster and a world hurtling towards war, Lawrence was responsible for building up the sales and influence of a lively and readable paper which emerged as a significant voice on the left in the constituencies and in the unions, particularly after the fall of the Attlee government and the burgeoning of Bevanism. He was prominent in the Socialist Fellowship, the left-wing pressure group proscribed by Transport House in 1951, with which Socialist Outlook was initially identified. With this platform he became a well-known of figure in the labour movement, and in 1953 he was adopted by the Woodford constituency to stand in the next general election against the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Labour’s leadership moved swiftly and refused to endorse his candidature, but he received extensive support from constituency activists and MPs, and the issue was debated at the Labour conference that October.

But Lawrence was also responsible for the very real concessions which Socialist Outlook made to social democracy and, more significantly, to Stalinism. In comparison with the press of the RCP or its predecessors, there was a tendency to conciliate Stalinism, embodied in the presence of the MP for Mitcham, Tom Braddock, and the leader of the Constructional Engineering Union, Jack Stanley, on the paper’s board. Both represented that constituency in the Labour Party which supported the Soviet Union with minimal criticism, while refusing to join the CP. The Club, with Healy and Lawrence as its main leaders, embraced the view developed by the leadership of the Fourth International around Michael Pablo and Ernest Mandel that the Stalinist bureaucracies in the East and powerful CPs in the West could project a rough revolutionary orientation and create workers’ states, albeit enduringly but not eternally deformed ones, propelled by the irresistible march of the revolutionary process aided and abetted by the Trotskyists. As a delegate to the 1951 World Congress, and subsequently as a member of the International Secretariat, Lawrence was a fully paid-up subscriber to Pabloism.

And in this case at least he stood firm. When the Club was put on the spot in 1953 when James P. Cannon bellicosely branded the SWP opposition led by George Clarke and Bert Cochrane as agents of Pablo, it was Healy and his supporters who changed, not Lawrence. In the ensuing barely political factional struggle, the Lawrence group – from December 1953 the new British section of the Fourth International – lost control of Socialist Outlook, and Lawrence resigned as editor in May 1954.

The new section proved short-lived. Lawrence was disappointed by what the faction fight had shown him of Trotskyism. He was pressing beyond Pablo. Both agreed that the Stalins, Titos and Mao Tse Tungs, the Togliattis and Thorezes, could do the job, or at least do most of it. Both were far from immune to confusion as to what precisely the job was, and both were susceptible to the lure of rose-coloured spectacles when observing precisely what was being done in the police states. But Pablo still perceived a significant rôle for Trotskyist parties as stimulators and safeguards of the objective revolutionary process that was centred on Stalinism. Lawrence began to see building them as a diversion, and even an obstacle, and increasingly viewed Trotskyism as a barrier to penetrating Stalinism and radicalising new layers of workers. He absorbed the powerful and increasingly influential ideas of Isaac Deutscher. Pronouncing the Fourth International ‘dead as a door nail’, he broke from Pablo. Together with Clarke, Michèle Mestre from Pablo’s French section and the Canadian contingent, he walked out of the Fourth World Congress in June 1954. Back in London that autumn, the British section was dissolved. The Lawrence group discarded the paraphernalia of democratic centralist organisation as ‘sectarian’. They agreed to continue only as a loose, informal network operating across the labour movement.

In this they emulated Cochrane and Clarke’s American Socialist Union (see Lou Proyect, Sol Dillinger 1920–2001, Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 2, 2002). For a time, Lawrence distributed the Educator and sold their American Socialist. But he possessed just as little opportunity, and probably less capacity, than they did for creating a new, more united and less sectarian left. Rather his political landscape was firmly bounded by the twin towers of Labour and the CP. His practice was located in the former, although he was increasingly influenced by and looked towards the latter.

Lawrence, Lane and Goldhill had attracted substantial support in the St Pancras Labour Party. Lawrence became a councillor in 1952, and in 1956 he was elected leader of the majority Labour group. He took up key issues with determination and élan. He fought courageously against the Conservative government’s legislation of 1955 and 1956 which required the restoration to the private sector of housing requisitioned by councils for the homeless during and after the war and imposed a means test for rent subsidies. Under Lawrence’s leadership, the council cut rents for all council tenants, and refused to apply the means test to subsidies. As a delegate at the 1957 Labour Party conference, Lawrence spoke passionately against the 1957 Rent Act which decontrolled the private sector. He established and was active in the Holborn and St Pancras Workers and Tenants Defence Committee. He took up a range of other issues, disregarding the council’s legal duty to organise civil defence and negotiating with the unions a hundred per cent membership agreement for municipal employees.

Casting aside the restrictions of entrism and free of Trotskyist discipline, he galvanised the left with daring and charisma. A new flamboyance emerged, suggesting that a belief in socialism from above does not necessarily preclude serious attempts to stimulate struggle from below. Lawrence hit the headlines, locally and nationally. He slashed the mayor’s allowance, appropriated his council car and told him to hop on a London Transport bus. He announced that the civil defence headquarters would be turned into flats for the homeless. He chained himself to the railings when a government commissioner sought to repossess the building. His colourful career in pursuit of socialism in one borough climaxed in the spring of 1958. Lawrence declared 1 May a holiday in St Pancras, and gave council workers the day off. Early that May day morning, he ran down the Union Jack and raised the Red Flag over the Town Hall. At lunchtime he was arrested by the police when he refused to close a trades council public meeting at which he was speaking which was under attack by local fascists who were enraged at the new emblem of socialist St Pancras.

The Red Flag incident sparked a small social panic. It became a cause célèbre, broadcast across the media, and Lawrence became briefly a national figure of renown or notoriety, according to your political persuasion. But it represented a turning point. The Labour Party apparatus which had been monitoring Lawrence now moved decisively against him. The right wing finally organised, and some on the left recoiled, amazed at their own audacity. In late May, after he had survived an attempt to expel him by the St Pancras South constituency, Lawrence was suspended from membership by Labour’s national executive, and was subsequently removed as leader of the council. Despite a vigorous campaign and production of an imaginative pamphlet, The St Pancras Story, his expulsion was upheld at the Labour Party conference that autumn.

The Labour leadership knew that Lawrence had been working closely with the CP, although they remained ignorant of the full extent of his involvement. He had expressed his willingness to join the party as early as 1956, and supported the CP leadership over Hungary and unilateral disarmament. He found valuable allies in the CP in the struggles in St Pancras. He was employed as secretary of the shop stewards’ committee at Briggs Motor Bodies and by the Ford committee when the two companies merged. Like many of the best shop stewards, it was natural that he should seek a more extended network and political home. In this work he was involved with and impressed by the CP machine, as were his supporters, Fred Emmett and Norman Dinning in the engineering trade union, Sam Goldberg in the electrical trade union and John Goffe in the shop workers’ union. He believed that Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Russian party’s Twentieth Congress was an affirmation of the bureaucracy’s potential for self-criticism and self-reform, and a token of the possibilities of revolutionary revival in the Kremlin. As the CP haemorrhaged membership in 1956–57, Lawrence became to all intents and purposes a CP activist. But it was only in November 1958, after his expulsion from the Labour Party and after a prolonged investigation into his history by the party’s expert on ultra-leftism, Betty Reid, who feared infiltration, and finally a fulsome recantation of his Trotskyist past, that he became an open member.

His career in local government came to an end in May 1959. Standing as a CP candidate in Somers Town, he received a derisory vote and lost his seat on the council. He was caught up in protracted litigation when he appealed against a surcharge imposed by the district auditor for breaking the law by subsidising council rents. Stepping down from the council chamber to the council estates, he continued the struggle. He took a leading rôle in organising and prosecuting the 1960 rent strike in St Pancras. On 21 September 1960, the eve of a day spent fighting police and bailiffs hell-bent on evicting tenants, Lawrence was lifted in a mêlée outside the Town Hall. He was subsequently convicted of assault, and spent two months in Brixton prison.

Around this time Gerry Healy remarked on the glaring contradiction between Lawrence’s democratic vision of how the workers should rule London and his tolerance of their exclusion from running Moscow or Leningrad. But this intensive experience of rank-and-file resistance and state coercion now stiffened Lawrence’s belief in the working class, but shook his faith in the CP and the ruling élites it served. At its 1961 conference, he took the floor to assail the parliamentary path embodied in the party programme, The British Road to Socialism, and questioned the Russian bureaucracy’s subordination of revolution to peaceful coexistence. It was clear that he had joined a party whose policy he either did not fully understand or mistakenly expected to change dramatically in response to events in Russia and beyond.

The answer of the London district leadership was to move him out of St Pancras where he had support. But by 1962, disabused of most of his illusions in the party, he was under surveillance as a focus of opposition in Peckham and categorised as a consistent critic of CP policy. While he shared some of the criticisms of the reformism of the CP leadership developed by Michael McCreery’s Committee to Defeat Revisionism, he did not identify with McCreery’s Maoism. In 1963, in the aftermath of the mass victimisation of shop stewards the previous year, he lost his job with the Ford committee. By 1964, he had drifted out of the CP.

Disillusioned with leadership, disenchanted with parties and an irreconcilable antagonist of Stalinism and Trotskyism, he maintained a fundamental belief in the revolutionary mission of the working class. Lawrence evolved into a pure rank-and-fileist. He increasingly perceived shop-floor power, grassroots organisation and workers’ control over production as presaging an autonomous, spontaneous movement towards socialism stemming directly from the struggle itself, and opposed to both capitalism and bureaucracy. He was briefly involved with the group around the journal Solidarity, influenced by the ideas of Cornelius Castoriadis, as well as the anarchist Syndicalist Workers Federation. He found work at the Press Association (PA) in Fleet Street, where he was elected Father of the Chapel (FOC), representing clerical workers in the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT) and animated the news-sheet, Rank and File Printworker. Many will remember the London May Day Committee in which Lawrence was the prime mover. Despite its slender base, the committee campaigned with at least a modicum of success for strikes to turn May Day itself, not the nearest weekend, into a workers’ festival in opposition to capitalism.

Lawrence was increasingly attracted towards his own version of anarchism based on the writings of Tolstoy. He contributed extensively to the long-running voice of British anarchism, Freedom, and became one of its editors. He was at the centre of a small group of printworkers, such as Pete Gold who worked on The Times, Bill Christopher, Jimmy Benjamin, Laurens Otter, then FOC at the Guardian, and the veteran Oehlerite Joe Thomas who also worked at that paper, who were active in SOGAT. In 1968, together with Brian Behan and Fred Emmett, many of them formed Workers Mutual Aid. They warned workers that ‘no trust can be placed in politicians and political parties’ and aimed ‘to encourage independent action by workers themselves to secure control of their lives. To give help to all who fight for better wages and working conditions …’

In SOGAT Lawrence was a thorn in the side of its corrupt, left-wing general secretary, Richard Briginshaw. In 1968, he was barred from holding office, although he was permitted to continue as FOC. In 1970, he was forced to utilise the state that he rejected and go to court, where he successfully obtained an injunction prohibiting the leadership from expelling him from the union because of his struggle against Briginshaw’s attempts to liquidate the SOGAT amalgamation and re-establish one of its components, the National Society of Operative Printers (NATSOPA). In 1972, Lawrence was victimised after leading a strike at the PA for a wage increase. Needless to say, the union leadership refused to take up his case, and his dismissal represented the end of his years in the frontline of the class struggle.

Lawrence moved to Shoreham near Brighton. He worked for a time in a small printshop and was once more active in SOGAT. He enjoyed this brief period living in a houseboat on the river near that of his comrade-in-arms, Brian Behan. But in 1976 he fell victim to serious heart problems. He returned to London, to Love Walk, Camberwell, where he lived until the onset of his last illness. He took little part in politics, but he was active in campaigns over Russian dissidents and political prisoners.

For much of his life, Lawrence was possessed by a political restlessness and an easily ignited enthusiasm for new ideas. Perhaps it stemmed from the rootlessness of his early life. At times, it precluded a more considered, critical, anchored view of things. It should not be exaggerated. After all, he spent more than 15 hard years of intensive activity in the Trotskyist movement with the tremendous pressures that that entailed. But even as a Trotskyist, he changed allegiances relatively rapidly. Beyond it, he crossed boundaries into territory barred as a wasteland to most of his contemporaries, who found such transitions extremely hard to understand. In the process, he sampled more than most of the competing creeds which the left had to offer.

His life suggests that like most of us, if more vividly, his politics were intimately bound up with his background, his values and his emotions. Like so many, he was bruised by his encounters with Trotskyism and Stalinism; in each case initial, intense commitment and boundless enthusiasm bred eventual bitterness and reaction. In anarchism he finally found a credo which liberated him personally and politically. It allowed free play to his anti-authoritarianism in the present, and it privileged his longing for a pure, undefiled world in the future. He is remembered today as an activist whose commitment to the working class was unquestionable and unshakeable, and whose incessant initiatives on its behalf were sometimes inspiring. He developed into a superb orator, an accomplished agitational journalist and a prolific leafleter of excellence.

Lawrence was married twice: to Lily, whom he met in his early days in London, and later to Janet Alexander, whom he met in the RSL, and who died in 1999. He is survived by a daughter, a son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

John McIlroy

An extended assessment of Lawrence’s life by John McIlroy appears in a forthcoming special issue of What Next?

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011