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Ian Birchall

Harry McShane


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4, 1997.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Dear Editor

In his review of Les Forster’s Rocking the Boat (Revolutionary History, Volume 6, nos. 2/3), Ray Challinor states that ‘Harry McShane died cursing Tony Cliff and the SWP’. I have no doubt that Challinor is being scrupulously truthful in this claim, but political honesty requires that it be placed against the background of historical record.

Harry McShane became a member of the editorial board of Labour Worker (forerunner of Socialist Worker) when the paper moved to Glasgow in May 1963, and remained one, contributing to the paper, until it returned to London in September 1964. He continued to collaborate with the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party until his death in 1988. Contrary to Challinor’s claim that he was not allowed to make a ‘political contribution’, he made many such contributions. Thus he wrote a page-long article, Realm of Freedom, in the first issue of Socialist Review in April 1978, spoke — alongside Eddie and Ruth Frow — on the early years of the Communist Party of Great Britain at the SWP’s Skegness rally in 1980, and addressed a meeting at the conclusion of the IS-inspired Right to Work March in 1976 — the first time he had ever spoken at the Albert Hall.

In 1978 McShane published his autobiography, No Mean Fighter, written in collaboration with a (then) SWP member, Joan Smith. In this he commends the IS/SWP for their ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ line in CND, and for the way they built the Right to Work Campaign. He continued to attend Glasgow SWP meetings until shortly before his death. In Socialist Worker (8 March 1986) Paul Foot records that McShane, aged 93, had attended a meeting at which Foot spoke; he also scrupulously notes that McShane criticised him, saying ‘there wasn’t enough about the Russian betrayal, Paul’.

McShane was not in total political agreement with the IS/SWP. As he made clear in his autobiography, he aligned himself politically with Raya Dunayevskaya, and was involved with a small group of ‘Marxist humanists’ in Britain, as well as writing many letters to the American News and Letters in the 1960s and 1970s.

Dunayevskaya’s ideas were not those of the IS/SWP, but there is no evidence that McShane expected the IS/SWP to provide him with a platform to propagate ‘Marxist humanism’. Rather, in all the published examples I have consulted, he stressed what united him with the SWP. I know of no public utterance of McShane’s in which he criticised the IS/SWP, or in which he repudiated the positive things he said about it in his autobiography and elsewhere. Presumably neither does Challinor — or he would cite them, instead of relying on deathbed curses.

McShane showed considerable courage in breaking from the CPGB at an age when others would have been thinking only of retirement; it is unlikely he would have been intimidated from making a political break from the SWP if he had wished to do so.

Challinor’s review shows some of the dangers inherent in the current fashion for ‘oral history’. Oral testimony can provide a valuable source for historians, but should always be balanced against other evidence. The facts I have quoted are all available to any researcher in published material; they cannot be negated by hearsay and gossip.


Ian Birchall

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Last updated: 21.4.2012