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Ken Coates

Peter Fryer (1929–2006)


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4, 2008.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan forRevolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I am in no position to write a full-scale obituary of Peter Fryer, since I lost touch with him a long time ago and had only fragmentary knowledge of his doings after that time. But for a brief while we were fairly close, and indeed he lived in my house during the traumatic months in which he broke his relations with Gerry Healy.

The background to this episode could be said to begin with the assignment given to Peter to cover what became the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 for the Daily Worker.

Peter had joined the Communist Party in Britain in 1942, and became a member of the staff of the Daily Worker in 1948. The following year he received his first assignment in Hungary, to report upon a show trial of the eminent Hungarian Communist, Laszlo Rajk. This was one of a series of purge trials which were calculated to put the impress of Soviet control over the so-called people’s democracies in Eastern Europe. These both insisted upon Russian hegemony, and continued the frenzied vilification of President Tito and the Yugoslav Communists. In Hungary it was Rajk, in Czechoslovakia it was Slansky, in Bulgaria, Traicho Kostov. The similarities with the infamous trials in Moscow before the Second World War were all too evident to all but the true believers.

Peter dutifully wrote the official story for the Daily Worker and gathered plaudits for his loyalty, and the raw material for a tortured conscience, as the truth later dawned on him. Rajk was apparently promised his life and a secure retirement in Russia, provided only that he perjured himself in the Court in Budapest. Needless to say, the promise was broken, and he was apparently garrotted when the sentence was finally carried out. Huge posthumous ceremonies later celebrated his life.

Peter was sent off to Hungary again in July and August 1956, to write more articles about the events in Hungary. To his astonishment he found himself witnessing a full-scale revolution, and he wrote truthfully about what he saw. Far from being delighted with their scoop, the Daily Worker rushed to suppress it. The editor not only suppressed the contents of Peter’s stories from his newspaper, but even withheld them from the other members of the paper’s staff. On his return to London, Peter was shocked to find what had happened to his despatches, and felt that he had no alternative but to resign from the Daily Worker. Subsequently, he was expelled from the Communist Party.

Meantime, there were hundreds of other recently lapsed Communists who were agog to hear what he had to say. One of these was my friend, John Daniels, through whom, I am very sorry to say, he got in touch with Gerry Healy, the leader of the most strident of the several Trotskyist groups in Britain.

British Trotskyism was undergoing a very difficult passage. By 1956 there were three main groups, but none of them had more than fifty members. The largest group followed Gerry Healy, who had aligned himself with the French Lambertistes, whose most celebrated member was Lionel Jospin, later to become the Prime Minister of France, and with the American Socialist Workers’ Party led J.P. Canon and Joseph Hansen. Two other groups counted something like a dozen supporters each. One was led by Tony Cliff and published the newspaper Socialist Review, while the other proclaimed its loyalty to the Fourth International based in Paris and Brussels, under the leadership of Michel Pablo and Ernest Germaine (Mandel). In Britain this group was led by Ted Grant, who had a handful of followers in Liverpool and East London.

Healy was quick to seek support from the melt down among British Communists, and recruited John Daniels as the first of a number of influential Communist intellectuals. This group was to include Tom Kemp, Cliff Slaughter, Peter Cadogan and Brian Pearce. Healy persuaded Daniels to become the editor of a journal called Labour Review. In the beginning Daniels was very useful, in that he could prevail upon a number of his friends in the Communist Party to contribute to the journal. When they began to contribute unorthodox thoughts, Daniels was first demoted, and then dismissed. But by then, Peter Fryer had moved into the orbit of Labour Review, and within a short time had been offered the editorship of the Newsletter, a weekly broadsheet, which rapidly gathered influence for Healy beyond the milieu of Communist intellectuals, and recruited Brian Behan, and a variety of active and capable trade unionists.

In the beginning Peter Fryer was in constant demand for his stories of the Hungarian Revolution. He must have spoken to dozens of public meetings, and to a very large audience of Communists and ex-Communists who hung on his every word. But as he became identified with the Newsletter, Peter found that this reportage was an insufficient basis for his new reputation. He edited a pretty dreadful book on the then predominant view of the Healy group, called The Battle for Socialism or some such title, in which he spelt out some sort of party line. In the beginning, the Newsletter had reflected the thinking of the new left in Britain, and reported on the movement of socialist forums in different cities. It carried sympathetic accounts of the visit of Claude Bourdet to England, for instance. But inexorably the line hardened, and dissident opinion was treated with greater and more rasping intolerance.

By now Peter was editing Labour Review as well as the Newsletter, but dependable old generation Trotskyists were carefully shadowing him. John Daniels was precipitated into outer darkness. The process by which this happened was quite tumultuous. Having greatly expanded its circle of acquaintances, the Healy group began to encounter more and more unorthodox opinions. True old timers would not have been surprised by this. But true old timers among the Healy circle were hard to find. Most had been fairly innocent recruits from the left wing of the Labour Party, and quite thoroughly insulated from the blasts of doctrine, heterodox or otherwise. A fairly basic party line was deemed to be sufficient for them.

Then, suddenly, there arrived a much larger core of supporters, whose curiosity had been stimulated by the traumas of the collapse of piety in the Communist Party. One such was Martin Grainger (Chris Pallis), who later helped to establish the broadsheet called Solidarity. He turned up at Labour Review meetings to make the perfectly sensible suggestion that the journal should seek an interview with C.L.R. James. James was by far the most distinguished independent Marxist within reach in London, and so his proposal aroused considerable curiosity, even among the less audacious of Healy’s old guard. But the alarm bells which were set up by this proposal did not brook hesitation. Healy had no-one on call who could match James in argument, and his standard method of polemic in such circumstances required a facility for common abuse. Developed though this was in his case, he now had a following which was more sophisticated. The time had come for the proclamation of a more ferocious orthodoxy.

There followed other earth-shattering polemics. Among them was the row about the Fourth International, which rumbled on over the years. The Fourth International sought to square the circle by developing a species of pluralism. The right of tendency, providing space for a variety of factions within a common political commitment was never easy to practise, and could be incredibly difficult in groups which were poor in human resources.

By the time that Peter Fryer was mastering the Healy orthodoxies on such matters, the Fourth International had nurtured a formidable faction around the Latin American Trotskyist, Posadas. This was convinced that the Third World War was inevitable, and drew a variety of unappetising conclusions from this premise. The largest mass movement in Britain at this time was the movement for nuclear disarmament, and young people who were coming in to some form of political activity were all touched by it. Gerry Healy’s conspicuous attempt to translate the commitments of CND into orthodoxy was based on the classic syndicalism which is intricately embroiled in the history of British Communism, and therefore of British Trotskyism.

“Black the bomb, black the bases” was the Healy group’s contribution to the anti-nuclear debate. More sophisticated arguments against nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare were available, so that the scope of this slogan to provide leadership to the anti-nuclear movement was severely restricted. But the pluralism of the Fourth International deprived it of the advantages which it could normally have anticipated in this discussion, because the thesis of the coming World War would inevitably be seen as a parody, and could not be taken seriously as a foundation for political organisation.

Much of this argument did not directly engage Peter Fryer in his editorial role in the Newsletter and Labour Review. I cannot remember the precise issues about which he fell out with Gerry Healy, and put into jeopardy his tenure of the editorial chairs. In any case, I was not privy to these arguments, which were internal to the then Socialist Labour League, which was the current embodiment assumed by Healy’s group.

Undoubtedly Peter had become disillusioned with the frenetic pace of political life in that group which consisted of endless campaigning, and ceaseless selling of newspapers. He wanted to follow a more rationally ordered trajectory, with time to think, not to say study. But every dispute with Gerry Healy had a tendency to go nuclear. Very quickly, Peter found himself threatened, and surrounded by intimidatory cadres who would skilfully impugn his every motive. There began an intense phase of denunciation which unsurprisingly led directly to Peter’s withdrawal from the field.

At this point began a nightmare of intimidatory threats. Gerry Healy proclaimed his determination to bring Fryer to book. He would not escape, Healy warned, “We shall search every rail terminal, and every airport”. This heady mixture of paranoia and megalomania was quite adequately forbidding, and Peter duly got the message. He fled to Nottingham, and the counsel of John Daniels. That was how it came about that he stayed in my house for a few months, together with his companion of the time, Pat McGowan. During these months he wrote another book, describing these strange days. It was entitled Twice Bitten. I do not know whether the manuscript survives in Peter’s papers, but I do remember it as being quite a hilarious text. Hand on heart, I could not be absolutely sure that it was intended to be as funny as it was. Healy had that kind of effect on people. More agnostic intellects would laugh, but many very decent citizens were quite liable to be scared out of their wits.

From that time on Peter was committed to earning his living from his writings. After staying with me, he went off with Pat McGowan to Portugal, where they produced a book which is still readable, and a good bit more than a travelogue. There followed a string of other works, about which others will write better than I can.

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Last updated: 11 May 2021