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Nigel Harris


(Spring 1961)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.4, Spring 1961, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Proofread by Anoma Cartwright (April 2008).

Incorrigible Rebel
Arthur Horner
Macgibbon & Kee. 1960. 25s. 235 pp.

‘Lenin once said that it would take three decades for men to adjust themselves to new circumstances. I found this out when we began to build the nationalised industry. I found that old habits of thinking went on. Men’s minds did not change because the circumstances of their life were changing. Moreover, although we made so many advances, we knew, and most of the miners knew, there had been no real fundamental change in society ...’

This is the contradiction in Horner’s life and the one that makes his anecdotal biography curiously myopic. There is a contradiction between the young militant, the firebrand that swept through the Welsh coalfields and dedicated his life to the working-class struggle and the realization of communism, and the later official who ‘began to build the nationalized industry’, who was commended by the NCB on his responsibility and, on retirement, given a miner’s helmet bearing the signatures of all members of the Board in memory of his services. We might well say, with Ernest Jones, ‘Miners everywhere will invite their Secretary to review his position and take his handcuffs off.’ The paradox between a rank and file militant and a trade union official; between support for the Russian Revolution and carrying out the routine functions of helping to provide coal to maintain a war-effort against Russia; of dedicating oneself to working class victory while never calling an official strike since nationalization; of formally advocating workers control while never pressing for it (e.g. during the passing of the Coal Act) and, in fact, concentrating entirely on ‘protecting the interests of the miners’; of formally hating a ruling class while delighting in the pleasures of hobnobbing with its members and being praised by them – the paradox is a sad marginal note on the failure of a revolution. Like Russia, Horner had to be content with socialism in sentences. This is not a good autobiography – under the impact of success, the man has grown too large to allow much picture of the more interesting context which was his field of action. It is a series of anecdotes, stringing together what is largely already known. By far the most interesting part of the book is the first half where he recounts his life as a militant rank-and-file adequate testimony of his enormous courage and the tenacity that made him a scourge to the coal-owners. By the time he was ready for power, he had become ‘responsible’. His achievements in the mines were real and important, but they cost him the hard edge of genuine rebellion. As a biographer, he is obviously much more at home in the earlier period when the lines were clear. As an official, it must have cost him a great effort of personal control to reconcile his early experience with his later function – keeping the coal supplies running. The stock defense of socialists in doubt – the demand for a planned economy – kept him just in touch with the old life.

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Last updated: 18 February 2010