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Nigel Harris

Duncan Hallas:
Death of a Trotskyist


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4, 2004, pp. 259–272.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DUNCAN Hallas is dead. Like most of us, he will not be remembered outside a small coterie of friends and comrades. But he was in many ways a man of remarkable talents whom it was a privilege to know. He was made – or made himself – for the great events of history, but history did not call him. His death is the end of an age, and those who mourn, mourn also the passing of that age and of themselves.

Duncan was born in 1925, perhaps of Irish mining stock. It was a different world in which the material reality of the nineteenth-century working class and its localities – the great working-class districts and slums of Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, East London – still existed: Welsh mining villages, back-to-backs in northern mill towns, steel mills, giant factories and docklands. They are all now swallowed up, their sharp and bitter teeth extracted, in the polite fictions of Coronation Street and a handful of nostalgic telly soaps (except that now there are few old enough to be nostalgic). On the land, a different army of impoverished labourers farmed with horses and pitchforks and lived in tied cottages, evicted when their work was no longer needed. Most people walked or cycled to work – car and air transport were for the rich. Few travelled much beyond the locality where they were born or worked – except men and women who went to war or emigrated. The wireless was brand new and still rare. There were no fridges, no television, no computers or credit cards, few telephones or bathrooms, outside lavatories were still the norm. It had become a world of seemingly perpetual war between countries and classes. Above all, the working class was a massive and palpable reality; its armies, organised in giant unions, seemed a force so great and growing, they could never be defeated. Their sheer massiveness was mirrored in giant places of work, and the institutions of the state – they seemed solid, immovable, eternal.

Of course, it was already partly illusion. Half a century before, when those institutions of the working class were still being built, Marx had become uncomfortably aware that the more organised and powerful the working class became, the more realistic became the objective of the self-emancipation of the working class, and the more its leaders came to temper revolutionary rhetoric with doing practical deals with the status quo, with reformism. And only 10 years before Duncan’s birth, the outbreak of war had shown that Europe’s organised working class had feet of clay. The Second International not only could not stop Europe’s ruling classes going to war, they did not want to, and they positively exulted – so it seemed – in the opportunity afforded each national working class to slaughter the other. Nor, a year after Duncan’s birth, could the brave and massive British organised labour movement defeat the government in the General Strike.

Nonetheless, for a working-class boy, growing up in one of the strongholds of organised labour, Manchester in the 1930s, the organised working class would have a material, not, as for many of us later, a hypothetical, reality. It could not fail to impress. He seems to have been prematurely conscious of the political world – he remembered being aware of the 1935 General Election (and the stunning defeat of the Labour Party), of the Spanish Civil War and the Abyssinian crisis. He was the child of a municipal employee, a paver, and his mother (born Edith Cretney) worked in a mill (starting, as he said, at the age of 10; his grandmother started at eight). The family were at some stage rehoused out of the slums (not so different from those described by Engels 70 years earlier) into the brand new Manchester council estate of suburban-style semi-detached dwellings of Wythenshawe (70 Sale Road). If Duncan was aware, it was again a massive demonstration of the power of the working class and of municipal socialism. It is now, once more, a slum, smelling of poverty and degradation. The housing, when new, may well have been a major upgrading for the inhabitants, but it could still conceal poverty. The Hallas family at some stage fell on hard times, and there is talk of chopping up the furniture to warm themselves in winter.

Working-class children in those days were usually excluded from the institutions of education beyond the age of 14, an exclusion which created, among some of them, a lifelong thirst – and respect – for learning. Through their lifetimes, they built up amazing libraries covering an immense diversity of subjects, from geology to the speculations of the utopian socialists. Of course, after the 1944 Education Act, many of their children were lifted out to go into higher education and into the middle classes. But Duncan missed that and left school at 14 in 1939, the year of the outbreak of the Second World War. By then, his self-education had already begun and was to continue for the rest of his life. That life-long passion gave his adult life an unmatched authority – his knowledge could match the best in the land even if he retained to the end the accent and style of his origins. His identity, rooted in Wythenshawe, never wavered.

Duncan became an engineering apprentice, joining the ‘aristocracy of labour’ in another great fortress of working-class power, the giant Metro-Vickers engineering plant in Trafford Park. It had produced some of the iron giants of organised labour, from Hugh Scanlon of the Amalgamated Engineering Workers Union to Harry Pollitt of the Communist Party. At the age of 14 in 1939, he joined the Young Communist League. It was the year of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, for many the unequivocal sell-out by Moscow and its flotilla of dependent communist parties abroad. However, it was a brief liaison. On day-release to the Engineering Apprentices College in 1940, at the age of 15, he shopped for left-wing pamphlets, and outside the shop he met a woman, Rachel Ryan, selling Socialist Appeal, the publication of the Trotskyist Workers International League. He joined. He made the wager, no doubt, with that careless courage of which usually only the young are capable, as if, like cats, they had nine lives and could afford to lose half-a-dozen before worrying about mortality (as clear for Duncan as for the stunning courage of the Palestinian suicide bombers). But it carried him through his entire life. The sheer dazzling power of the word is nowhere grander than for Trotskyism, where the paltry means to do anything are so ill-matched to its gigantic historical ambitions. In 1944, the very tiny WIL was absorbed into the slightly less tiny, but short-lived, Revolutionary Communist Party.

Duncan can hardly have absorbed much before the Second World War summoned him to the slaughter of the young and brave of Europe. For many young working-class men, it was the most inspiring event of their lives. Duncan obeyed the RCP line which was to follow the workers into the armed forces and continue agitation there. He joined the infantry, the First South Lancashire Regiment, and served in France, Belgium and Germany. There is some talk that he was at Caen at the Normandy landing, was wounded in the leg, and grieved at the terrible task of killing young German workers. He became a marksman, proud of his capacity to shoot well with a lifelong passion for, and knowledge of, guns, a stout defender of the unpopular – and American – doctrine of the absolute right of the free citizen to bear arms. A lifetime later, he used to keep his shotgun at our cottage in Suffolk so that he could assault the innocent pigeons.

In 1944, word came that his mother was ill, and he was released to return to Manchester to find her already dead. Years later, in his cups, he would weep for the mother who faced such hardships to bring up Duncan and his sister, Margaret. This was perhaps the first great emotional crisis in his life. In later years, he rarely mentioned his family, apart from his great attachment to his mother, for his life was single-mindedly consumed by politics. His sister emigrated to New Zealand, and he lost all contact with her. Of his father he spoke little, although there is one story that a floating cable sliced off part of his face as he was riding his motorbike and sidecar.

Duncan was a corporal when the regiment, instead of being demobbed, was drafted – to its general outrage – to Egypt to hold down the restless natives and keep it British. He served in barracks in Cairo and Alexandria, and in tents in the Suez Canal Zone. He regularly sold the RCP paper, no doubt to the fury of his officers, the Military Police and intelligence services. He became a sergeant when the mutiny, demanding immediate demobilisation and not the defence of Empire, reached Egypt. It spread from the Royal Air Force in India. He must have been overjoyed at his first – and spectacular – opportunity to be effective. That episode earned him three months in military prison. But when he emerged, there was such a chronic shortage of good sergeants that he was immediately reinstated. As he told the story years later, with gales of laughter, he was even made military police sergeant on the ship coming back to Britain.

He returned to Metro-Vickers, to engineering and daily life with the RCP. That lasted until 1948 when, with the inevitability of Trotskyist sects, the RCP wrecked itself into three fragments on the contradiction between an obdurate reality and Trotsky’s predictions of 1938 – that the Soviet Union would not survive the war without a proletarian revolution, and that postwar capitalism was set for a return to the long-term irredeemable slump and stagnation of the interwar years. Duncan had already earned a name for being a ferocious anti-Stalinist (so ferocious, some of his comrades thought of him as right-wing and pro-American), so it was obvious that he would go with those who regarded Russia as state capitalist, grouped around the Jewish immigrant from Palestine, Ygael Gluckstein, known as Tony Cliff. The tiny Socialist Review Group, of which Duncan was a founder member, was the forerunner of the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party. He wrote in almost every issue of the group’s paper, Socialist Review.

But, as he put it, making weapons and panels for military aircraft deadened a mind now enriched with immense reading and lifted by the broader experience of war (and mutiny). Friends from that time remember the brilliant talk – of the Assyrians, of the Oriental Mode of Production, of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Despite leaving school at 14, he had now attained the capacity to teach. Through the good offices of another party comrade, Jock Haston, working for the TUC, he was appointed as teacher and organiser in east Scotland for the National Council of Labour Colleges, under the direction of a right-winger, J.P.M. Millar. He moved to Edinburgh in 1953, and stayed with the NCLC until he was sacked for excessive outside political activity in 1957.

Before that, a major formative event in his life occurred. At a Labour League of Youth weekend rally at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Filey, he met Irene Gosling, a beautiful and talented young woman in her early 20s. They were both active in the Salford Labour Party. She must have brought out in him his immense resources of affection, of kindliness and sensitivity, his capacity – so vital in a teacher – to explain everything with care, starting from precisely wherever the listener was. He was, by all accounts, dynamic, energetic and, as Irene’s sister said wistfully years later, devastatingly handsome. They married in 1950, and set up house in Crumsall in Manchester. They honeymooned in what must have been for them then a deliriously exotic although still heavily war-torn Paris. They went to Paris the following year too, and Duncan met a host of people on the left (including, it is said, Sartre), in between consuming prodigious amounts of film, drama and café life. He was at this stage a voracious reader of novels, Dos Passos, Jack London and the other American greats. Back in Manchester, the couple resumed the incessant feverish pace of daily life, the writing, reading and speaking. Then they moved to Edinburgh, and Duncan became a teacher in workers’ education. But Irene made it possible that Duncan might have had, in addition to all this, a normal life.

It was not to be. Irene was peculiarly vulnerable, fragile. At 16, her mother had died, and six months later, she came down one morning to find her father had hanged himself. Indeed, perhaps she and Duncan bonded so well because both were orphans, both had the same emotional need. Whether these terrible events in Irene’s teens precipitated the psychiatric crisis of her time in Edinburgh, we do not know; psychiatry in those days was less sensitive than today. Prestwick Hospital in Edinburgh seems to have done her little good, and she was taken back to Manchester in 1957 where psychiatric care was said to be better. Duncan visited her several times, but Irene was now silent, immured in a private anguish that could not be reached, and she would remain so for much of the rest of her life.

This was perhaps the second, and by far the greatest, emotional crisis in Duncan’s life. It must have been a shattering and barely tolerable experience for him. Ever afterwards, he remained peculiarly hypersensitive to the problems of psychiatric vulnerability. But the tragedy cut him loose from the moorings, the anchorage, of ordinary life. He became exclusively a political bachelor, obsessed with the feverish pace of daily life and the great political issues of the time, to the exclusion of normality, of owning things and a decent living environment. He developed the indifference to these material things of the saint or the communist or the vagrant, an indifference to where he slept or where he lived. Most of his income was now devoted to the political task in hand. Stan Newins remembers going up to see him in Edinburgh on his motorbike (with Tony Cliff on the back) after Irene had returned to Manchester; the drains were blocked, but Duncan, a skilled engineer, had neither time nor patience to unblock them. The talk, the reading, the scribbling rolled on while the washing-up piled up in the sink and the lines of mugs, dark stained with tannin and half-filled with cold tea and fag ends, and the saucers with more fags stubbed out, marched up the draining board. It was a style of life – so similar to middle-class drop-outs – likely to horrify any decently brought-up working-class girl.

He continued to be active in the SRG, and helped create the Edinburgh chapter of the Socialist Fellowship to oppose the Korean War. Then the Suez Canal War, the Hungarian Revolution and Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party broke the spell of the Cold War and the fossilised Stalinism of the left. At last there was a chink in the armour of established society on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It seemed there might be an end to the awful intellectual oppression of the Second World War and the years that had followed, and of the marginalisation and silence enforced on the revolutionaries. Stalinism had imposed an awful intellectual mangling on Trotskyism, despite the best intentions. Now there was a new young audience, desperate to learn from the ancients as to how all these horrors had come about. It was a giddy and heroic time, bliss to be young at such a dawn. The New Left, fashioned out of the best of a group of former Communist Party intellectuals and a new generation, not only rediscovered Marx and his unknown early writings (the famous 1844 manuscripts), they rediscovered – courtesy of the splendid historian, Isaac Deutscher, whose three-volume biography of Trotsky was published then – the tragic hero of Leon Trotsky. It seemed suddenly as though Trotsky’s time had come; the little Trotskyist boat, so long becalmed in the side channels of history or pitilessly persecuted by Moscow and the combined forces of the communist parties and the social democrats, might now at long last escape and reach the broad waters of history.

Duncan threw himself both into creating the New Left in Scotland (and particularly, the Glasgow and Edinburgh Forums) and trying to pull together what was left of the Trotskyist fragments. The NCLC, understandably enough, resented paying a salary for this, and sacked him. He decided, with a small government stipend and the earnings from outside work, to rectify one of his great regrets and go to university. In 1961, he graduated from Edinburgh with a first in chemistry, and was offered a postgraduate place at Manchester. He turned it down to become a schoolteacher in the south. But before that he linked to a girl from Birmingham, visiting her sister in Edinburgh, Jenny MacArthur. She was herself psychiatrically fragile, but they moved together down to Wandsworth and set up house. The relationship lasted until 1968.

By then, however, Duncan had emerged as a magnificent leader of the rank-and-file teachers of Wandsworth. At last, his immense talents as a speaker and political leader – his authority, founded upon his prodigious knowledge, his debating strength, his sense of tactics (founded upon his detailed reading of the historical record) – were being seriously engaged, no doubt to the horror of the leadership of the National Union of Teachers. Had he been willing to bend, like so many of his working-class contemporaries with any talent, he might well have been propelled in the fullness of time into high office in the union and from there to the Labour benches in Parliament and finally then, to ermine cap and gown of Lord Hallas of Wythenshawe. Fortunately for his self-respect (and our great benefit), he remained obdurately true to the wager he made at 14, and scorned both the undoubted comforts of the route to the top and those who did not remain true to their wager.

He returned to his original home and joined the Balham branch of the SWP (or IS, as it then was), almost immediately joining the national leadership. It is said that when he rejoined, he offered the party two-thirds of his salary as subscription but was refused. He joined the IS at a special time. There were remnants of the intellectually innovative thinkers and thinking of the early 1960s still remaining, led by Michael Kidron, undoubtedly the most brilliant member ever of the SWG tradition (and among the most brilliant of the followers of Leon Trotsky which, in the 1930s, contained a galaxy of stars), married to both a new young cadre coming out of the rebellion of the universities then and a mature working-class cadre with solid roots in the organised labour movement, the best of whom, like Duncan and Jim Higgins, were now in the national leadership. For Duncan, it must have been the realisation of a dream – the first real opportunity for Trotskyism since the 1920s. That absurd wager, the heroic gamble he made when he was 14, seemed at last to becoming credible.

His 27 years in the SWP – he retired in 1995 – were perhaps his happiest, assuaging a little the tragedy of his loss of Irene. He had a secure political and intellectual framework within which his knowledge and his authority were put to best use. A lifetime of preparation – the long period of wandering in the wilderness – was now to come into its own and to be fully exploited. The SWP was now big enough to employ people with Duncan’s talents, and even though it was still a small stage, there seemed never to have been such high hopes.

He remained in the national leadership for the rest of his working life, a tireless speaker and writer with weekly contributions, masterly editorials and articles in Socialist Worker, in Socialist Review, and in the journal he edited for a time, International Socialism, as well as a stream of pamphlets and booklets. In 1969, he was briefly National Secretary. It was brief because he proved a hopeless administrator, and he was moved in 1972 to being ‘Political Secretary’, a post specially invented for him.

But it was in public debate, before the giant audiences and rallies of those days, that he was at his most brilliant (and it is surely most appropriate that his Canadian comrades should remember him with a CD of his 10 greatest speeches). Of course, to say he was an ‘orator’ would be impertinent. Not for him the rounded mellifluous cadences of a Churchill, let alone the enraged prose of Enoch Powell. Duncan’s strength was in a plain republican style, honed before the mirror in the morning bathroom. His speeches were remarkable for clarity, precision and consistency, without frills or pretensions – and for a solid non-conformist northern Englishness. In the great debates of those giddy days (now returning once again), he led the charge, and to the delight of us all, invariably laid waste the challengers. Even in the small events this was true. I remember a gang of us driving to Paris to negotiate collaboration with Lutte Ouvrière; they were a hard bunch of old-style Trotskyists. Immediately, they launched a heavy artillery bombardment upon our positions – we had scandalously betrayed proletarian principle by promoting that petit-bourgeois MP, Bernadette Devlin. We scattered in panic, searching desperately for any miserable hole in which to hide amid a blaze of shells, only to be astonished amid the smoke and confusion to see Duncan, for all the world like some latter-day incarnation of an imperial red-coated VC of the Brigade of Guards, marching into the enemy lines, steely-eyed with bayonet fixed, ready to smite all the unrighteous.

Or take a grander occasion, the pretentiously-named Debate of the Decade. Duncan was not even on the platform, which was divided between the Labour left (Wedgwood Benn, Audrey Wise, Stuart Holland) and the revolutionaries (Tariq Ali, Paul Foot and a third I have now forgotten), with the now Right Honourable Peter Hain in the chair (but not the now Right Honourable Lord Gus MacDonald, then an SWP Glasgow militant). After the great and the good on the platform had spoken, a forest of hands were raised to speak. At last, by dint of sheer persistence, Duncan was awarded his two minutes. I can see him now, leaning slightly forward with his hands on his hips like that picture of Lenin at the Finland Station. There was not a sound as he spoke – ‘Comrades! There are three points here – One…; Two…; Three…’ It was masterly, riveting tour de force. He sat down to tumultuous applause. He sliced through the guff with unerring accuracy. Of course, mere words never win real battles, then or now, but it raised our spirits no end to have won the skirmish if not the battle or the war.

And there were women, a moment of warmth and comfort amid the ceaseless activity. Duncan was amazingly gentle and caring, the model for a good husband and a father. But as he aged, the women were increasingly too young as if he endlessly searched for an Irene who had never aged. They lasted a time and passed on, and then at a certain point, ceased.

The period between the May events in Paris in 1968 and the mid-1970s (before Mrs Thatcher delivered the coup de grace from 1979) proved, not as we had all hoped, the beginning of a triumphal march to revolution and universal liberation, but rather the last grand flaring up of the old politics of the old labour movement, of the old working class and its ideals whether communist or social democrat. And what was a brilliant rebirth, rediscovery, of Marxism, faded with exactly the material foundations that had given rise to it. It was like Marx on the Paris Commune (although that was a much grander affair and ended in a terrible bloodbath) – he said it was the first herald of the arrival of a mass industrial working class and its politics of self-liberation, socialism. But it wasn’t. It was the last dying spasm of the old politics of the French Revolution, of the Jacobins, of small urban craftsmen and the poor. Something similar happened with the Russian Revolution. It also was not the herald of proletarian socialism in Germany and the advanced capitalism of Western Europe. If it was a herald at all, it was of the great national revolutions of the Third World, of China, of Vietnam and Cuba (with a leadership drawn from the intelligentsia and a rank and file from the peasantry, a force far closer to the politics of Bakunin than of Marx). How we did addle our brains on long sleepless nights trying to square the circle and discover a Chinese industrial working class hidden in the entrails of the Chinese Communist Party just so that the absurd theory could preserve its immaculate conception.

Organisations acquire a life of their own, independently of their rationale or purpose. The methodology might be straightforward, as it is with people who claim to follow the traditions of Marxism – we act on our theory and draw lessons from our successes and failures to guide future practice. But it is painful to admit to being wrong, and the instinct to preserve the organisation by refusing to admit failure usually takes priority (especially for governments). But we were wrong on so many things. The fact that there never had been a revolution in any advanced capitalist country (let alone a working-class one) nor anything close to it (pace war-wrecked Germany in the early 1920s) was dismissed as the result of the wicked ‘betrayal’ of the leaders of the workers, not the immovable lack of revolutionary feeling in the working class; reality thus made the aim of revolution here utopian. All the evidence suggested that the likelihood of a proletarian revolution here was as strong as that of the Second Coming. In the desperate search for revolution of any kind, we abandoned the industrial working class for the more backward countries – and were again wrong again, as in Portugal, as in Southern Africa (Rhodesia, Apartheid). And then most grandly in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the theory of Permanent Revolution, Trotsky’s triumph, never seemed to have worked. In a desperate struggle to avoid the mortal sin of sell-out, betrayal of the true faith, we adhered to the heroic language even if reality irritatingly diverged. But without test, theory degenerated into false consciousness, religion, faith; or as with Stalinism or Maoism, a decorative façade for actions decided on other unannounced grounds. In practice, the Trotskyists were the best of the radical reformists, albeit burdened with a bizarre doctrine that we opposed reformism and were doing everything for some revolution. In an ideal world, we should have drawn our absurd theory into consistency with our practice and dispelled this strange ‘Marxism’ (as opposed to learning something useful from some of the writings of Marx). Then we could have settled on the tasks of reformism where the prospects were not at all as ridiculous as they were for revolution. We usually forgot the old man: ‘No social order ever appears before the productive forces for which there is room have been developed.’ Could anyone doubt that capitalism is far from having reached its limits as it extends development to the limits of the world (and still there is Africa to go), as one after another, giant innovations – now IT, then biotechnology and so on – rush with ever-increasing speed to transform our way of life? There may be centuries to go. The ‘Marxists’ had grafted on to the works of the old man a Christian – or Judaic – sense of the immanent Apocalypse, the Second Coming. And we were endlessly disappointed when, yet again, it failed. In the early days, it was still possible to say such things – I remember Michael Kidron saying with a sigh that there would not be a revolution until the world had got rid of all these peasants.

Whether Duncan ever entertained any of these heresies before the old world collapsed, we cannot now know (he would never have been shocked by them or hiss in his teeth like Chris Harman). He had suspended disbelief as we all had. But in a more limited sense, perhaps some such thoughts occurred to his inspiration, Tony Cliff. The successive defeats of the great legions of organised labour – the miners, the printers, the dockers and so on, and the painful contraction of the others, the railwaymen, the steel workers, etc. – could not help but raise doubts about the old agenda. In the early 1970s, long before the picture was blindingly clear to all, perhaps there were doubts. Mrs Thatcher did not come to power until 1979, and when she did, the old labour movement had been so hollowed out by restructuring, by de-industrialisation, it had no fight, it was a paper tiger. All that remained were the proud titles, brave banners and an heroic past. Privatisation only delivered the death knell. The millions had gone to early retirement or obedience, their children into dot-com. The cultural origins of the working class were not now in the back-to-backs or Welsh mining villages, but in Jullundur, Jamaica, Lagos or Karachi.

Did Tony Cliff sense this? He always had an unrivalled nose for where society was going before society ever dreamed of it, even if this peasant shrewdness failed to be able to explain why the line must be changed now and immediately. Mike Kidron was even better. I remember him saying, years earlier, when, to universal mourning, he left the SWP, that we should scrap all this archaic nonsense about revolutionary parties and the working class; the cutting edge of future social change was with the Greens (a doctrine to which he remained loyal to the present and his large book is just about due to hit the bookstands). This was not for Duncan. He was, unlike Cliff, at his strongest only working within a codified tradition, although he could fully appreciate the genius of new thoughts in other people (like Kidron or Cliff). But he was suspicious of Cliff’s mercurial inventiveness (and, you might say, as some did, thorough unreliability), with his congenital inability, until long after the event, to explain and justify the need for change.

Perhaps, as early as 1970, Cliff was beginning to sense the implications of de-industrialisation, the audience slipping away into retirement homes, and the need to find a new clientele. Perhaps he never said – as the opposition maintained – that the shop stewards and rank-and-file movement were going and the SWP needed to find a new cadre of youth outside the old structures, but he roused in what was becoming the old guard of the SWP a furious defence of the old agenda. Duncan with his roots solidly in the old working class, in the ‘organised labour movement’ could not fail to oppose Cliff. Indeed, Jim Higgins (and he was not necessarily the most reliable source) later said Duncan had been among those most embittered by Cliff’s betrayal of the tradition, like Mao’s embrace of the Red Guards against the party establishment, ‘those in positions of authority within the party taking the capitalist road’ (by then – 1974 – of course, Mao had shut down the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and viciously suppressed the poor Red Guards). Much of the best of the old SWP cadre, the experienced working-class leaders and the intellectuals – Jim Higgins, Roger Protz, John Palmer, the Birmingham engineers and so on – felt equally betrayed. Higgins, as National Secretary, was peremptorily dismissed, but dug in obstinately with Roger Protz as editor of Socialist Worker. There was panic, alarm and confusion among the membership at large. Cliff could not dislodge his opponents so he conjured up the barons of the north – the SWP strongholds in Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, Manchester, etc. Ironically, these were what were left of the old northern working class, now in unlikely alliance with young zealots of the south led by the old magician from Palestine. Most of us in the leadership were bewildered, rooted from our beginning in the politics embodied in Hallas and Higgins, but knowing Cliff’s genius for sensing trends ahead of us all and knowing that, even if the opposition won, they would never rebuild a new SWP out of the fragments left behind by the split. We were given only one wager, and if it failed, we could not start again. We suspended disbelief and voted for Cliff. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Cliff was about the future, the opposition about the past. Others said, wearily, that Trotskyism was born with a virus that never allowed it to get beyond a certain size before it shot itself in its foot. Yet others said it was all personality squabbles, so absurd in the light of the great ambitions.

In fact, it seemed – and one could not always trust the figures – that the organisation continued to grow and capture new areas of the rank and file. That made it even more bizarre to launch a split. Yet everybody knows that mere faith can for a long time defy reality. And if mere numbers vindicated an organisation’s theory, undoubtedly the Jehovah Witnesses – with 20 million members world-wide – would have the edge on anything the Trots ever achieved.

The opposition would not yield. The more messy the fight, the more Cliff dug his feet in until all his efforts were single-mindedly directed, not to persuading anyone, but to digging out Duncan, Jim and the rest, regardless of the cost to the organisation. In the end, Cliff and his supporters carried the day, and the opposition was expelled or left in rage. The famous old Trotskyist, Harry Wicks, who had met Trotsky in Copenhagen in the 1930s and whose blessing on the SWP had been a kind of Papal benediction, a laying on of hands, a recognition that the SWP were indeed rightful heirs of Leon Trotsky, went in disgust with Higgins and the International Socialist Organisation. But before the final catastrophe, Duncan had a long talk with Cliff, and decided to join him. He not only betrayed the politics of his past, he stabbed in the back his closest comrades.

After the split, many of those who had backed Cliff, the bright young newcomers, students of the 1960s and the working-class cadre, dropped out, tired of the failure. The heart for a time seemed to have gone out of the organisation, and it retreated into the theory of Cliff’s youth – none of the bold intellectual innovations of the 1960s survived. Cliff now seemed impatient of new thoughts, as if only endlessly-repeated dogma could hold the cadre together. I was dumped from the leadership by the new guard a year after the split, and was effectively out by 1980 (although, always loyal and not wishing to rock the boat, I did not formally break my link until 1987). My wager on the SWP tradition, two decades, had failed.

Was Duncan, approaching 50 now, taking his 30 pieces of silver, as Higgins and the rest said bitterly, or was he, like the rest of us, suspending disbelief and accepting that Cliff might be right and it was important to save the organisation? He never said, and the participants who might know are now beyond the grave. What we do know is that when Cliff died, Duncan wrote a most bizarre obituary. It was extraordinarily short, mentioned none of the remarkable achievements of Cliff, and made only the gnomic observation in passing that ‘Cliff had his idiosyncrasies. He always refused to learn to drive, but insisted on telling Chanie [his wife – NH] who was driving how to drive.’

Was this the third and final great emotional crisis of Duncan’s life? It was not now personal as it had been with his mother. Nor, with the second and Irene, one that shaped the rest of his emotional life. It was a crisis that fused his personal life with the great political task he set himself at 14, that gave the first warning that the working class had gone; the vehicle of revolution had been dismantled behind our backs.

The years that followed only brought further destruction of the old world and the ‘Marxism’ we had all believed. In 1989–90, to the shocked gaze of the world, an event entirely unanticipated by the Trotskyists (or by anyone else for that matter) occurred: the implosion of the Soviet Union, an even larger fortress, ‘the Socialist Third of the World’. And it occurred without serious challenge from the Russian working class, and certainly no opposition to the transition to Russian capitalism. Trotskyism was defined by the Soviet Union, and we all knew it could not be change without either a military coup or proletarian revolution. But, whatever the theoretical wriggling, there was neither, and the conceptual framework of 60 years was blown apart. It was not that Trotsky had made a mistake. It was that the entire conceptual framework that had produced the prediction collapsed like a house of cards, leaving the Trotskyists, you might say, following the Communist Manifesto, free at last to confront their very existence. The collapse was not with a bang for most Trotskyists – or any others (the Stalinists suffered more grievously) – but a whimper, since theory no longer disciplined perception or practice.

Less dramatic, the 1980s saw the beginnings of the amazingly swift development of the Third World (those of us who knew something about it had boldly said in the 1960s it was impossible before the world revolution took place – wrong again), and simultaneously the beginning of the supersession of national capital and the state by ‘globalisation’. And never before in the history of the system had it been so globally triumphant, so universal and so successful. Its prophets, let alone its opponents, were shocked, astonished at this unlikely outcome. Of course, Marx would have seen all this, not as a refutation of his analysis, but as a triumphant vindication. But then, unlike the ‘Marxists’, he took theory seriously.

Duncan was by now 65. Cliff and his followers, despite winning, had discovered no new mass revolutionary party of youth. The opposition, the ISO, had disappeared. And the new movement, bursting out globally with astonishing vigour and unprecedented numbers, had no interest in the narrow philistinism of the revolutionary party. It filled the NGOs in their thousands, perhaps millions. They were, if anything, anarchists and reformists. It was an extraordinary revival of opposition, now, to the world order. But it was all single issues, not a revolutionary platform, and they did not need the tedious scholasticism of ‘Marxism’, nor the self-appointed historical leadership and its centralised party discipline. Whatever Duncan’s thoughts on all this, he was silent. Still feverishly writing, travelling the length of the country and beyond to the far-flung satrapies of the SWP, speaking now less to the great meetings, more often to the tiny group in a pub in the pouring rain, drilling the cadre in the lessons of history. He was tireless, but he was loved. However, even when tired, he could not seek consolation, with his ‘Marxism’, like some old rabbi, lift his wrinkled eyes to the sun and say: ‘See you in Jerusalem next year.’ His mind was still razor sharp, an uncompromising, unflinching class warrior. But his body was decaying. Severe arthritis and circulatory problems, made worse by a lifetime of gargantuan drinking and chain-smoking, increasingly made it difficult to walk, and obstructed his punishing regime of work. At the SWP centre, he was still a calming and kindly influence over the wilder young who saw crisis around every corner.

Increasingly he retired into solitude, into silence, despite all his friends. It was perhaps a silence imposed on his parents and their parents by the sheer demands for courage, the tight lip, required in two World Wars and a Great Depression. Around him, younger generations, the children he and Irene never had, chattered of a different agenda – ecology, feminism, gay rights, poverty in the Third World (the place where revolution of whatever colour was still so often urgently needed – in China, in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Iraq and so on). The young bypassed the terrible thickets of ‘Marxism’ and the revolutionary party that waylaid our generation.

What did Duncan make of all this, and how did he reconcile it with his lifelong agenda? Perhaps his SWP friends know; as someone without the faith, I did not. I think he would not have been willing to follow the unequivocal logic of this account even if he came a little way. Someone remembers him saying that his world had changed so much, theory must be radically rethought, and that must lead to intense debates that would reopen all the old questions anew. When the SWP decided to ditch its US followers, I could not draw him out, but he remained on very friendly terms with Ahmed Shawki of the American ISO. On the occasion of an American edition of his account of the Comintern, Ahmed asked me to ask him what were the lessons of the Comintern experience; he replied tersely: ‘None. The world has changed so much, there are no lessons here.’ And again when they republished his little book on Trotskyism, he said also there were no lessons.

The evidence is too slim to support a conclusion, but in any case, it no longer matters. When Marx failed with the First International in 1872, he retired to the library and wrote millions of words, but published nothing. Duncan did the same. In a succession of places – with friends, on his own, and after his leg was amputated, in sheltered accommodation – he ploughed through enough books for 10 lifetimes – in ancient history and archaeology, in anthropology, in religion, in everything of the past, but little of the future. The window sill in his last place was always heaped with 30 or 40 volumes – from the library and from friends, spilling onto the ground. And he puffed his way through fields of tobacco, at first the devilishly strong Capstan Strong, the milder untipped Senior Service, till at last, punished by the doctors, he retreated shamefaced into tips and mild, ‘women’s fags’ in the masculine world of Metro-Vickers. And he drank the brewers dry until this was also forbidden. Some had earlier noticed that when some hint of his past was mentioned, the sadness at the centre of his being would overwhelm him and he would retreat to an alcoholic bender for several days at a time When he was still active, he was sometimes moody and would, in his cups, rage at enemies, real and imagined, but never with aggression.

He was always polite and charming (especially to women) – one cannot imagine him talking to a fascist without the normal courtesies, even with humour. He was a well-brought-up working-class boy. He was calm in a crisis when all around panicked, and always willing to talk, kindly and gently, far into the night. As someone from the working class, he never played that cheap trick, so favoured by the middle-class cadres of the SWP (to cover their insecurity) of saying you were wrong because you were middle-class, as if class were a form of logic (not unlike the Maoist treatment of class as a species of racism – you could be purged merely for being descended from a landlord family, as was Mao himself). Raise the major problem of the class nature of the Assyrians, and he would rummage among his books and in his phenomenal memory and deliver you a lecture of profound insight and scholarship on this vital question. And so it was on the rôle of ethnicity in the interwar Czech trade unions and their great debates of 1938. He did all this without a trace of vanity, of malice, of ambition separate from the cause in hand, of exaggeration, of pretension.

Of his sadness, his inner solitude, he said nothing. As the years passed, he shed more and more of his past, his belongings, the detritus of a long life, as if he recognised they no longer fitted the new age. At the end, there were no traces of a past, no mementoes, no souvenirs, no vanities. Even vagrants or travelling men have something stuffed in a plastic bag. But Duncan left nothing, no trace except in the minds of friends. He went naked to his grave as he had come to his birth in Wythenshawe so long ago in a different world.

Duncan, like hundreds of thousands of men and women, perhaps millions, some from the working class, some not, was a person of extraordinary integrity. They sacrificed much of their lives, their hopes and ambitions, and in some cases, much of their possessions, careless of personal gain, to help humanity liberate itself from the evils of the past. They remained true to the wager they made in their youth, the wager on proletarian revolution. It is not their failing that history betrayed them, moved the goal posts and thus invalidated the means they had chosen to push humanity on. The cause, the self-liberation of humanity, remains as valid as ever even though their ‘Marxism’ proved a false god. [1]

At the end, in Newham Crematorium, the brave tossing banners of the SWP, dipped in silent tribute to the passing of a remarkable old warrior. Like so many, he fought the good fight by his lights. One could almost hear in the ghostly background, the dignified painful cadences of the last post as we said goodbye, weeping for Duncan, for ourselves, for an age which will not return, for the years for the locust. [2]

Note: Many people helped in reconstructing Duncan’s life. I should hate to think that I have made too many mistakes, taken advantage of their confidences or been presumptuous, in, being outside the faith, daring to speak of someone so very much within it. I can only plead for indulgence and say that now Duncan belongs to us all.

Response by Ian Birchall


1. I suppose this account is part of the old Marxists making their peace with the record. Others from other directions are feeling the need to do the same, a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. See Eric Hobsbawm’s recent autobiography. Megnad Desai has now produced his wonderfully cheery and readable defence of Karl Marx against the Marxists, Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (Verso, 2002). My own much more lumbering and pretentious The Return of Cosmopolitan Capital: Globalisation, the State and War (Tauris, 2003) appears, Insha’llah, next February.

2. I have mislaid my copy, so the proper title evades me – but this is Jim Higgins’ bitter and wonderfully funny account of the split by the International Socialist Organisation.

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Last updated: 27.10.2011