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Ian Birchall

Duncan Hallas

Response to Nigel Harris


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4, 2004, pp.272–75.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Nigel Harris has written what is in many ways a moving and well-researched obituary of Duncan Hallas; it reflects the great affection felt for Duncan, while also containing much information unknown even to those of us who were Duncan’s comrades over many years.

Unfortunately, Nigel has seen fit to set his account in a framework with which many will be in strong disagreement. There are a number of important questions here, which cannot be discussed adequately in a brief response; the debate that will undoubtedly follow Nigel’s forthcoming book will be a more appropriate setting for a full critique.

I would, however, like to comment briefly on two themes in Nigel’s obituary: the alleged disappearance of the working class, and Duncan’s continuing commitment to the revolutionary cause.

For Nigel, Duncan’s death was ‘the end of an age’, and he more specifically insists that ‘the working class had gone; the vehicle of revolution had been dismantled behind our backs’. Now unfortunately the abandonment of the proletariat is not an optional element in Marxism – without it, Marxism becomes nonsense. That last sentence is not mine, but Nigel’s own (International Socialism, first series, no. 30). Nigel has, of course, every right to renounce Marxism, though it seems a little odd to do so from the platform of an obituary for an old friend of whom Nigel was obviously very fond, but who would have vigorously contested Nigel’s new views.

It is of course true that a specific historical period in which the core of the working class consisted of miners, engineers and railway workers is now over (though rail strikes can still cause chaos). But whether that one phase of history can be identified with the working class as such is much more questionable – and certainly Duncan Hallas never believed it could be.

As early as the mid-1970s, Duncan was grappling with the problem of major changes in the working class. In his educational column in Socialist Worker, he argued that ‘for Marxists, a worker is someone who does not own means of production and so is forced to sell his labour-power … in order to earn his living’. In particular, he insisted that the working class included both manual and white-collar workers, both productive and non-productive workers (Socialist Worker, 22 November 1975). As he pointed out in another article ‘surgeons and sewermen are typical unproductive workers … they are also indispensable’ (Socialist Worker, 15 January 1977).

When Eric Hobsbawm first propounded his thesis that the forward march of labour had been halted, Duncan responded with a Socialist Review piece entitled Is the Class Contracting?, which drew much of its information on the changing nature of the working class from an article by Nigel Harris. He argued that the ‘golden past’ evoked by Hobsbawm was a myth, and that we should reject ‘the view that the only “real” proletarians are manual workers in industry’ (Socialist Review, November–December 1982). These were not the words of a man who confused his own roots with the still incomplete totality of the history of the working class.

Most important of all, in 1974 Duncan wrote a major article on white-collar workers. The IS Opposition (of which Duncan had originally been a member) was strongly opposed to the proposed branches for teachers and students, insisting that ‘factory branches’ should be reserved for manual workers; one of the ISO’s leaders, Jim Higgins, later described the proposals as a ‘laughable piece of froth’ (More Years for the Locust, p. 114). Duncan argued clearly and carefully that the working class was changing, and that revolutionary organisation must change with it. He began by noting the massive expansion of white-collar employment and the relative decline of the traditional manual working class, and went on to examine the Rank and File group in the NUT in whose building he had played a significant rôle. His conclusions, as always, were sternly operational: ‘It is no use looking with vicarious pleasure at members working in a big car plant or a steelworks if you work in a civil service office. The job is to build in that office.’ (International Socialism, first series, no. 72)

In so doing he was not alone, but very much part of the IS/SWP tradition. Chris Harman may indeed hiss in his teeth irritatingly, but he has written a number of articles in which he carefully analyses the way in which the working class has changed, in Britain and internationally, but remains a working class. (Among many others, see The Working Class after the Recession, International Socialism, no. 33; The Workers of the World, International Socialism, no. 96.)

Nigel is quite right that to situate Duncan as an individual it is necessary to place him in the Lancashire working class of the 1930s and 1940s. In terms of culture and lifestyle, he always remained to some extent of that world, untouched by Bill Haley, let alone the Clash. I recall that when the Executive Committee was agitated by the problem of members smoking dope at branch meetings, he growled to me: ‘Why can’t they stick to beer like I do?’

But when Duncan rejoined the IS in 1968, the bulk of the members were young workers and students (often from working-class families) who had grown up since 1945, and knew nothing of the poverty and unemployment of the 1930s. They belonged to a cultural universe wholly remote from Duncan’s. But Duncan won their respect, not by making concessions to their lifestyle, but because of his political experience, and his willingness to argue at whatever length necessary.

Nigel says nothing of the Anti-Nazi League (although he himself played a significant rôle in it), the first time at which an IS/SWP initiative made a real impact on mainstream politics by blocking the rise of the far right. The ANL was possible because of the convergence of a creative and undogmatic application of Trotsky’s writings on fascism and a sensitivity to new developments in youth culture, especially the punk movement. Because politics was central rather than the superficialities of lifestyle or culture, two such diverse individuals as Duncan Hallas and Dave Widgery could coexist in the same party with mutual respect. That educational columns by Duncan were a popular feature of Socialist Worker at this time shows that he was not wholly limited by his Wythenshawe roots.

To a careful reader, Nigel is scrupulously honest in not attributing to Duncan any of his own views or analyses. Yet he certainly does suggest that Duncan may have had doubts about the validity of the SWP analysis in his last years. Now none of us can claim to have access to Duncan’s thoughts, but all the evidence is that he remained a committed and enthusiastic revolutionary till his death. Certainly, as an advocate of the ‘state capitalist’ theory, he was in no way depressed by the ‘collapse of communism’, but saw it as opening a new period of revolutionary opportunities.

Nigel reports that Duncan said that there were ‘no lessons’ to be drawn from the Comintern experience. Certainly Duncan was always impatient with those, like Sean Matgamna of the Trotskyist Tendency in the IS after 1968, who saw the ‘first four congresses’ as providing a recipe for all the world’s ills. And he was a man of great modesty, who undoubtedly underrated his little book on the Comintern, which remains an excellent introductory outline. Perhaps he overstated his point.

Nigel also cites Duncan’s obituary of Cliff in Revolutionary History (Volume 7, no. 4). Here the responsibility is entirely mine. Anxious that Revolutionary History should contain at least one obituary of Cliff by someone still within the SWP tradition, and remembering what a splendid job Duncan would have done a few years earlier, I badgered him into writing it when he was tired and ill and didn’t want to be bothered. Blame my stupidity and insensitivity, but don’t read any hidden political message into it. After all, in his Socialist Worker comment at the time of Cliff’s death, Duncan had described both Cliff’s ‘extraordinary consistency’ and his ‘remarkable ability to sense when the outside world was changing’ (Socialist Worker, 15 April 2000).

When I and other SWP comrades visited him in his last years of debilitating illness, he was always anxious for news of the party. Certainly he asked questions, but in the framework of a very firm commitment. The only significant point on which I remember him disagreeing with the SWP was that he thought we should not have called for a vote for Nader in the US presidential election in 2000 – because he was ‘not part of the working-class movement’. I think he was wrong – but it was not the position of a man who saw the working class as a thing of the past.

Just a year ago, in January 2002, he asked Andy Strouthous for assistance in filling in his SWP registration form so that he could increase his subs. Before Marxism in July 2002, I asked his advice on a talk I was preparing on Orthodox Trotskyism. His succinct comments showed that he still fully accepted the SWP view of the Marxist tradition. Despite his physical deterioration, he attended Marxism 2002 for a few hours, perhaps sensing that this would be his last chance to see old comrades.

Duncan was always a believer in left unity, providing that it meant unity in action and not just a paper fiction. He was keenly interested in the growth of the Socialist Alliance, and, as a resident of Hackney, was enthusiastic about Paul Foot’s campaign in the election for Mayor of the Borough. Even in his last weeks in Homerton Hospital, when he was often barely conscious, he had leaflets for the Foot campaign on his bedside table.

Duncan went to his death proud to be a member of the SWP. All those SWP comrades who knew him were proud to be members of a party for which he was a leading spokesperson for so many years.

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Last updated: 21 May 2021