Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1
NORMAN Harding joined the Trotskyist movement in the 1950s as a young man, and served it devotedly for over 30 years. This is a vivid account of his activities and experiences in that movement.
He was born into a working-class family in Leeds in 1929. His father had been an engineer in the 1920 and early 1930s, but had then gone to work on the railways after being made unemployed; his mother worked in a mill. Norman’s family background must have given him an early feeling for working-class and trade union culture. His maternal grandfather was a moulder, a union militant who became secretary of the Leeds moulders’ union, and, according to his relatives, a man of strong working-class principles. Harding recounts that when the workers at his Mum’s mill were refused a wage increase, she discussed the situation with her father. ‘Well Emma’, he said, ‘you will have to stop shop.’ ‘How can I do that?’ ‘Kick belt off pulley’, he told her. ‘Mum went to work the following day’, Harding writes, ‘and got the girls again to put in the request and put a deadline time for the answer. The time arrived and there was no reply from the management. I have the picture of her walking down the weaving shed in her long black dress and white apron with head held high. After kicking off the belt she walked back to her looms. How long it took I don’t know, but the end result was they won their increase.’ Another relative, a great uncle, joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) while working in Canada.
With that background, it is no wonder that when Norman Harding went to work in the clothing industry he soon became an active and militant trade unionist. He naturally was enthused by Labour’s coming to power in the 1945 election, and he was further radicalised by his experience as a national serviceman in postwar Germany where he witnessed the high- and low-level corruption in the occupation army, and made friends with Germans despite the ban on ‘fraternisation’.
After national service, Harding returned to his job in the Leeds clothing industry where the Communist Party had a strong presence. Right up to 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution, the Communist Party could muster 30 delegates, comprising members and supporters from the garment workers’ union, to the Leeds Trades Union Council. He says he was considered by the Communist Party as a contact, although they never actually tried to recruit him directly; instead encouraging him to join the Labour Party – which he did. By 1952, he was a regular reader of Tribune, and was recognised as a Bevanite and an active worker. On one occasion, having taken a day off work to help in the election campaign of a Labour councillor, he found out that the successful councillor had not only taken no time off himself but had even worked overtime during the campaign. Disgusted at such selfishness, Harding dropped out of activity, although retaining his membership of the Labour Party.
However, his activities and militant approach had come to the attention of the very active Leeds branch of the Trotskyist Healy Club, the former minority in the Revolutionary Communist Party that had entered the Labour Party and was publishing Socialist Outlook. Harding joined the Club in the early summer of 1954, and he remained in the Club, which became the Socialist Labour League and then the Workers Revolutionary Party till its implosion and the expulsion of its leader Gerry Healy in 1985.
Harding’s over 30 years of activity in this movement can be divided into two periods. The first was his time as a local activist in Leeds until the mid-1960s, and then 20 years as a full-time worker at the Centre in London.
The first thing that has to be said about the Healy organisation is that it expected total commitment from its members – as this reviewer can confirm from his own experience. When you joined, you committed your whole life to the movement. Your personal life, family commitment, personal relations were entirely subordinate to the needs of the movement. Harding accepted this and a punishing round of activity – in the Labour Party, in his union, selling papers, attending branch meetings, aggregates and conferences, chasing up contacts, etc. – on top of working full-time in a factory. He rarely came home straight from work. On occasions, he did not see his parents for weeks even though they lived in the same house. They used to leave notes for each other.
This dedication is of course admirable. A movement that aims to change the world, that aims to overthrow global capitalism through bloody struggles and civil wars and revolutions, whose members must face the prospect of imprisonment and torture at the hands of its enemies, needs that kind of commitment. The revolution is not for wimps. Harding and all of us in the movement tried to become like the hard steel-like Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution. We believed the terminal crisis of capitalism had arrived, and that we would soon be in the midst of revolution and civil war. But in the mid-1950s when Harding joined, and during most of his membership, Britain and the rest of the capitalist world was in the early years of the prolonged postwar boom, the longest period of full employment and rising living standards capitalism had so far enjoyed. And for years the Healy Club and its later incarnations, the Socialist Labour League and the Workers Revolutionary Party, denied reality, and year after year insisted crisis and revolutionary situations were imminent. There was no time to lose if the revolutionary party was to be built up in time to lead the masses. This was the justification for the hyper-activity that burnt out many militants over the years. Harding must have been dedicated indeed to have soldiered on for so long, especially during the 20 years as a full-time worker at the Centre subject to the unbelievably despotic and manic regime he describes in the latter part of his autobiography.
The general economic and political situation was totally unfavourable to the development of any revolutionary working-class current. Full employment and the general improvement in living standards depoliticised large layers of the working class. Those who were at all politically aware generally accepted the parliamentary and reformist politics of the Labour Party. The revolutionary sloganising, ultra-leftism and sectarianism of the Healy current (as well as of the other Trotskyist organisations) further marginalised the Trotskyists. In addition, the Communist Party with its larger resources and benefiting from its association with the Soviet Union, the land of ‘actually existing socialism’ was, until the Twentieth Congress revelations and the Hungarian uprising, a far greater pole of attraction for socialistically-inclined workers. And, ironically, the reformist and ‘opportunist’ language of the Communist Party, which the Trotskyists so abhorred, was more acceptable to these essentially reformist workers than the ultra-leftism of the Trotskyists. Norman Harding very succinctly expressed the politics of the group he joined, writing: ‘I constantly supported the Russian Revolution and the need to overthrow capitalism and not try to reform it.’ (p. 56) But the trouble was that the majority of workers still believed it was possible to improve their conditions within capitalism, that is, ‘to reform it’.
In fact, despite and in contradiction to their essentially sectarian orientation, Harding and his comrades did engage very effectively in a number of working-class struggles for immediate improvements. Harding was active in the tenants’ movement, campaigning for lower rents and better housing, and he became secretary of the Leeds Tenants’ Association. He is rightly very proud of the part he and his comrades in the Socialist Labour League played in helping organise the tenants in slums in Loscoe, a mining village near Leeds, in a successful campaign to have them demolished and the tenants rehoused. The Leeds branch included a number of talented and hard-working comrades. Harding mentions John and Mary Archer, Jack and Celia Gale, Paula and Ray Bradbury, Lance Lake, among others.
An example of their drive and initiative is given by Harding:
We were having a branch meeting one Sunday morning in 1966 when Jack Gale raised that he had read a letter in the Saturday issue of the Yorkshire Evening Post from a housewife on an estate in Normanton complaining about the Normanton Council increasing the rent. The letter told us that the protest was already under way and urged others on the estate to support them by refusing to pay their rent. The branch decided that immediately the meeting finished I should go to Normanton, find this woman and then play it by ear … I introduced myself as secretary of the Leeds Tenants’ Association. (pp. 158–9)
Within days a tenants’ association had been formed, a mass meeting of over 1,000 organised and a mass picket staged outside the Normanton Town hall while the Town Council was in session. The Socialist Labour League and the Young Socialists mobilised their members to sell the Newsletter. This was a mining area and committee members of the local National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were on the Tenants’ Committee, and the NUM branches prepared for industrial action to back the tenants’ campaign. The threat of strike action by the miners resolved the issue. The Council caved in. The rent increase was ended, and all those that had paid the increase got a refund. As Harding explained: ‘A victory and what a victory!’
Harding’s account shows that there were two aspects to the Socialist Labour League’s politics. One aspect was ultra-leftism and frenetic ‘party building’ flowing from a completely erroneous analysis of the objective situation as one of imminent or actual collapse of capitalism and a revolutionary situation. The other was a pragmatic adaptation to reality and the actual level of working-class consciousness and militancy which was one of willingness to struggle for immediate demands on the housing and wages front, and of continued support for a reformist Labour Party. The comrades in the Leeds branch and other areas, who were workers and immersed in the organised labour movement, spontaneously and correctly adapted to and participated in the actual movements going on – when they were left alone by the Centre! Harding remarks: ‘Looking back on it, we all acted in quite the opposite way to what I suspect would have happened had we been in London. The success of the campaign was not going to be judged on how many signed our membership forms.’ (p. 162) In fact, the Centre’s only intervention was not helpful. When London heard of the proposed mass meeting, they instructed the local comrades to get Dave Ashby, the National Secretary of the Young Socialists, who had no connection whatever with the locality or the tenants, on to the platform. Harding comments:
As I remember no one in Leeds had intended to try and do this. I remember feeling uneasy when I made the suggestion that Dave should be invited to speak, but I did loyally carry out the instruction. It was agreed. Looking back, it was a mistake because it gave the right wing and the Communist Party the one and only opening to try and create an atmosphere of mistrust among a few of the activists, although not enough to sabotage the public meeting. (p. 161)
Harding records many other examples of his organisation’s involvement and help to industrial struggles. But this coexisted uneasily side by side with sectarianism and unreality. Harding had not been long in the group when he attended a meeting of the Leeds Trades Council at which a discussion was going on about a campaign on wages launched by the electricians’ union (ETU) when John Archer put his hand up to speak. Harding writes. ‘Our late comrade John Walls whispered. “Oh dear …”’ John Archer then proceeded to give the delegates of the Leeds Trades Council a lecture on Pabloism. Harding was horrified and embarrassed. At the next group meeting, Harding explained why he thought Archer had been wrong to make the contribution he had. He said he was due to move a resolution from his own union branch on the struggle on the docks at the next meetings of the Trades Council and of the Leeds City Labour Party and suggested Archer should not make a contribution on his resolution at either meeting. Harding writes: ‘At the end of the meeting John left more quickly than usual and the other comrades explained to me that no one had ever dared speak to John Archer in such terms before. Apparently in my innocence I had offended him and damaged his ego.’(p. 61) This incident illustrates the other-worldliness and sectarianism that often afflicted even the best of the Healyites. They spent more time and energy attacking other currents close to them over esoteric theoretical disputes completely foreign to the concerns of the workers they were addressing than in dealing with the issues that really engaged them.
Another example cited by Harding, which showed the inability of the Healyites to work together with others on common issues, was the SLL’s participation in an international demonstration in Liege (Belgium) in 1966 opposing the Vietnam war. It was attended by over 2,000 French, Belgium, British and others. The SLL contingent insisted in unfurling a banner celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, knowing that this would divide the demonstrators. Harding writes: ‘This was the first time that I had experienced this kind of disagreement. It appeared to be one of personalities rather than a difference of opinion. In later years I was to understand that Healy was scared of not being in control.’ (p. 137) In fact, throughout the anti-Vietnam war campaigns the SLL refused to engage in any meaningful joint activity with other organisations variously described as ‘petit-bourgeois’, ‘Stalinist’ or ‘opportunist’.
As time went on, the sectarianism and Healy’s paranoia became even more extreme. Harding writes:
The miners’ strike of 1984–85 raised questions in the minds of many comrades … Healy did everything in his power to stop the WRP from getting involved with the mass rank-and-file movement that was developing in support of the miners’ strike. He told the members that we had to build our own support groups in mining villages in opposition to the community support groups that he described as middle-class, opportunist and anti-revolutionary. At the same time he pronounced that if the miners were defeated then the way would be opened for fascism. (p. 236)
Harding and some Young Socialists got involved with members of a women’s support group in the Kent coalfield and provided them with a van to take them to the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market where they had contacts among the market workers who loaded the van with food. Harding continues:
The YS members and I were delighted at being able to show our solidarity with the miners in such a way. Arriving back at Clapham we put Healy in the picture. He was furious and sent for Torrance. He ranted on that Covent Garden was ours (a fantasy) and if anyone was going to collect from Covent Garden then it would be the WRP, and we would take it to the miners. When Torrance came in she asked why nothing had been done with regard to setting up a branch of the YS … The YS leaders and I were accused of abandoning our responsibilities as ‘Revolutionary Leaders’. The YS members were dismissed and told to return to the YS office and get on with their work. As for me, he held me responsible for misdirecting these young comrades into middle-class activity. I was sent up to the canteen to write a statement explaining why I had succumbed to bourgeois ideology. I had a good idea of what words he wanted to read, so I did not bother too much. (p. 237) [!!!!!]
I have added the exclamation marks because this incident is so unbelievable. It gives a glimpse into a weird fantasy world. Working with miners’ wives to support a strike is ‘succumbing to bourgeois ideology’! Covent Garden ‘is ours’ – presumably because we have sold a dozen copies of News Line! Even more unbelievable is that a comrade of, by then, 30 years’ standing is asked to write a confession like a naughty schoolboy or errant novice in a catholic seminary – and does it!
The picture Harding paints of the internal regime of the SLL/WRP is horrific. I would not believe it if I had not personally witnessed the beginnings of this degeneration up till 1960 when I left the SLL. But if by then the cultism was already bad enough – witness the treatment of people like Ken Coates, John Daniels and Peter Fryer, and the insistence that I formally renounce any reservations, present or future, about the group’s policies before being re-admitted – it had become a thousand times worse during Harding’s time.
It was in the mid-1960s that Harding was plucked by Healy from his involvement in the local working-class movement to work full-time in London in the party’s print shop. He comments that he was not cut out for this work:
Machines and I don’t get on well together. But it was pointed out to me that it was my ‘revolutionary duty’ to overcome this. While I was very proud to work full-time for the party it was obviously a great mistake for me to go. It is now very clear that Healy just wanted me out of the area, to train me as one of his circle where he would have control of me. (p. 158)
The regime at the Centre, which Harding now experienced, bore no resemblance to a democratic, egalitarian enterprise where decisions were arrived at after open debate and mutual consultation and people worked together in a spirit of revolutionary camaraderie. Rather it was a regime run autocratically by a petty dictator supported by a clique of privileged bureaucrats.
The fountainhead of the corruption was Healy. Not only did he act autocratically on political matters, suppressing dissent by bureaucratic means, slandering opponents and expulsions – a miniature Stalin – he abused his position as leader for personal gratification. We are talking here not only of the now well-publicised sexual abuse of female comrades.
He acted almost as a feudal lord. Examples abound in Harding’s memoirs. There was the saga of Healy’s kettle. His personal assistant Aileen Jennings had asked Harding and another comrade to take a vanload of rubbish to the dump. This included an old kettle that was faulty. On their return Harding and his comrade were told that Healy was in a vicious temper because she had thrown it out. He wanted it back so that it could be repaired. They knew what could develop when he was in one of these tempers, so they went back to the dump and waded up to their shins in rubbish until they finally found the kettle. ‘A few days later Aileen bought a new kettle anyway.’ (p. 219) On another occasion, Harding was woken up at four o’clock in the morning by one of the printshop guards. ‘Gerry wants some Perrier water. What can we do?’ Aileen had rung. If none was available, then Harding had to get some transport, find an open-all-night shop and bring it to Healy’s flat.
Harding describes a regime of physical assaults and fear and feudal subservience:
Whenever things did not appear as Healy thought they should, it would put him into a complete panic and rage. On one of these occasions Comrade Dot [Gibson] was on the receiving end …He kicked her so viciously on her legs that ulcers developed on her shins. I had to take her to hospital to receive treatment over a period of weeks. Dot insisted – and others, including me, agreed – that Healy should not be told of the damage he had done because it would upset him. He had to be protected from this kind of pressure. We had to sneak out secretly to make our trips to the hospital. On another occasion he caused permanent damage when he struck Aileen over the back with a chair. He constantly physically abused comrades … (pp. 219–20)
In addition to Healy’s personal dictatorship, the internal regime was full of class or caste distinctions. The theatrical coterie of the Redgraves and others received privileged treatment both politically and personally. Harding writes: ‘When they were recruited Corin and Vanessa Redgrave and Alex Mitchell were immediately put on the Central and Political Committees. This put them into a position of leadership.’ On one occasion, when Vanessa drove her car into a comrade’s parked moped the repairs to Vanessa’s car were paid for by the party, while the other comrade had to pay for her own repairs. On another occasion when Harding had an accident with one of the party’s vehicles, the cost of the repairs was stopped out of his ‘wages’. Shortly afterwards, Vanessa Redgrave had an accident in her car. Healy solicitously asked her how she was and told her that of course the party would pay for the damage. Obviously one standard for the élite, another for the rank and file. This was further demonstrated when there was a shortage of food in the canteen. The workers in the print shop joined the queue, but were then told that as there might not be enough food to go round they would have to wait until the editorial board members had been served, and if there was any left then they could have some. When they later complained, they were told that some of the newer members on the paper were not fully committed so they had to be treated differently from the committed members. In fact, it is clear from Harding’s comments that it was precisely how he himself rationalised his acceptance of this cosseting of the middle-class recruits and the theatrical coterie.
Harding had a low opinion of the Redgraves. He opines that ‘it seems that the only qualification [for Healy putting them on the Political Committee and in positions of leadership] was that Volume 38 of Lenin’s Collected Works had to fit under their armpits’. He relates an amusing example of Corin Redgrave’s naivety. Canvassing during an election campaign, Corin concluded a couple he had called on ‘were keen and ready to join’. He sent Harding to recruit them:
‘Come in, brother’, they said. ‘I understand that you both want to take part in the struggle for socialism’, I said. The young woman replied: ‘The only place we will find peace and socialism is in the Kingdom of Heaven.’ ‘Hallelujah’, said the couple in unison. They were both Plymouth Brethren! ‘Did you recruit them?’, asked Corin. ‘No’, I replied, ‘But they were keen! They called me brother. I spoke to them for about 10 minutes.’
According to Harding, Vanessa was even worse. Once when canvassing an estate with her, a young woman came to the door, babe in arms, with two more youngsters clinging to her skirts, obviously a woman with a lot of pressure on her. She told them she was having problems with the council regarding repairs and rent. Harding continues:
I asked her if there was a tenants’ organisation on the estate that she could approach for advice and help. At this point Vanessa pushed past me, and started to tell her about the need to change the system. The only way to solve her problems, said Vanessa, was to demand a general strike, and so on. Then out came the membership application form. The young mother was left with ‘Vote for the WRP!’ ringing in her ears … VR told me she severely disagreed with my initial approach and that she was going to raise it at the report-back meeting as an example of how important it was to fight against social democracy. That evening I received a great deal of verbal abuse from Healy, Mike Banda, Mitchell and Co.
Harding continues. ‘The reason why I think it is important to describe the relationship between the WRP’s members and the Redgraves is because it goes a long way in exposing the corrupt and reactionary relationship between the party and this layer of the “leadership”, on a day-to-day basis.’ (pp. 213–14). Harding writes: ‘I felt that none of them could lead a pussycat across a country lane.’ (p. 211)
The whole bizarre set-up imploded in 1985 when Aileen Jennings finally exposed Healy’s sexual abuse of women comrades, and when the membership, including Norman Harding, finally turned against Healy and expelled him. But it was not only Healy’s personal abuse that motivated the revolt. It was also a rejection of the corrupt politics as the membership became aware of them; the corrupt relationship with Third World dictators under the guise of ‘solidarity with the colonial masses’, for example, the fingering of Iraqi communists and Libyan oppositionists to Saddam Hussein’s and Colonel Gaddafi’s police in return for the funding of the WRP with Arab money.
Harding’s account is very much a worm’s eye view – a very vivid personal account of how an active and dedicated member of a Trotskyist organisation in Britain saw things; his experiences and personal contribution. That is its strength, but also its weakness. There is no overall view of the general situation within which his organisation and, indeed, the Trotskyist movement as a whole operated; no assessment of Trotskyism’s influence or lack of it in the labour movement as a whole. One would never know from Harding’s memoirs that the organisation he belonged to was only one of several Trotskyist currents. There is no explanation of what divided Healy’s organisation and its ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’ from the other Fourth Internationalist currents and the other currents and organisations that claimed to be Trotskyist both in Britain and internationally. Of course Harding does not claim to be writing a history of Trotskyism, but only his personal memoirs. But some assessment, however sketchy, of how his activities and those of Healy’s organisation fitted into the overall picture would have been useful.
Missing from Harding’s memoirs is any account of the numerous expulsions and splits that occurred during his membership. The expulsions and exits of Ken Coates, John Daniels, Peter Fryer and Peter Cadogan in 1959–60, the split-off of Brian Behan’s ‘open party faction’, the split with Alan Thornett and the Workers Socialist League to whom Healy lost the bulk of his industrial worker membership. The latter split took place when Harding was working at the Centre.
Harding’s revelations cannot be dismissed as just the outpourings of a bitter disgruntled ex-Trotskyist getting things off his chest. Harding makes it clear, as the title of his book indicates, that he remains a socialist. His experiences of the degeneration of the organisation he joined have not dimmed his vision of a future socialist society. However incredible they are, his revelations only confirm the evidence already in the open. Harding was one of many dedicated socialists whose contribution to the cause was sabotaged, and whose undoubted talent and energies were wasted.
In his summing up, Harding writes:
If some get a chance to read this book and by so doing recognise the danger of putting too much trust in self-appointed leaders, it will give me a great deal of pleasure. My life has shown the dangers of putting too much trust in organisations which claim to be the only leadership that will free the masses … We have to move on from this kind of ‘vanguardism’.
The question remains. How could a movement which attracted people dedicated to creating a more just and happier society develop into this weird cult? Like many of us who went through the same experiences, Harding struggled to answer this question. His conclusion is that ‘the principle of building an élite leadership “for” (rather than “of”) the working class – and the corruption and abuse for which that concept provided fertile ground – was the primary cause of the downfall of the WRP’. It is a fact that practically all the far-left groups whose ideology had its roots in the Leninist concept of the élite revolutionary party shared the dogmatism, undemocratic internal regimes, lack of contact with the real world that plagued Healy’s organisation. However none – at least in Britain and to my knowledge – was as bad as Healy’s.
Norman Harding’s memoirs, as well as being the account of the life of a dedicated socialist, provide a valuable addition to our knowledge of the history of movements trying to achieve a better society.
Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011