John McIlroy

James Ritchie (Jock) Haston (1912-86): Trotskyist Leader and Workers’ Educator

Source: Keith Gilbert and David Howell (eds), Dictionary of Labour Biography, Volume 12, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005, copyright © Professor John McIlroy. Reproduced here with the permission of Professor John McIlroy. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Jock Haston was born in Edinburgh on 13 April 1912, the son of Joseph Haston, a cooper and brewery worker, and Henrietta Haston (née Ritchie). He was the second of ten children, five boys and five girls. His early life was one of poverty and harshness. The family lived in the teeming Victorian tenements around Easter Road, and four of his sisters died in infancy. His family were nominally Church of Scotland, but religion played little part in his upbringing. Rather he was inspired as a schoolboy by a teacher who had been a member of the Social-Democratic Federation and the British Socialist Party, and from the age of 12 he was involved in the activities of the Communist Party (CPGB), which had a cell in the street where his family lived. In 1927, when he was 15, he followed his older brother into the merchant navy. He subsequently joined the Seamen’s Minority Movement (SMM) and the CPGB.

Haston was a member of the short-lived Marine Section of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), created by Ernest Bevin after the expulsion of Havelock Wilson’s National Union of Seamen (NUS) from the TUC in 1928 in retaliation for its funding of George Spencer’s ‘non-political’ breakaway union in the mines. He was involved in the strikes in 1929 – led by the TGWU and supported by the SMM – against the notorious ‘PC5’, a system that required the signature of an official of the NUS before seafarers could be employed on Shipping Federation vessels. It was a practice that provided Wilson’s union with a closed shop and the ability to victimise militants and supporters of bona fide independent trade unionism. Matters were only partly resolved in September 1930 with the readmission of the NUS to the TUC. Intermittently at sea, Haston also worked as a builder’s labourer, steeplejack and butler to Sir James Wood. Dismissed and blacklisted in 1932 during a dispute over shipboard conditions, he eventually found regular work on a Dutch line that flew the Panamanian flag and traded with Germany.

After the advent of National Socialism in January 1933, Haston was involved in carrying Communist literature to Hamburg. He was struck by the number of Russian ships in German ports and began to ponder the extent of trade between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. He became aware of the disjunctures between the Comintern’s denunciations of the German regime and the accommodating stance the Russian state adopted towards the new order, and he began to reflect on the part that the Comintern’s prohibition of a united front between the Communists and the German Socialists had played in paving the way for Hitler. Laid up after an accident and with plenty of time to read, his doubts crystallised into disillusion. He recalled: ‘... it didn’t really make any impression until I was injured and, recovering in hospital, at home, I began to think the problem over and began to draw away from any active party work.’ (Haston, interview, 1978)

But like many others he was critical of the Labour Party and could see no revolutionary alternative to the CPGB. He left sea and married his first wife, Jessie Strachan, a young fellow Scot from Stonehaven, a fishing village south of Aberdeen. They had two children, Karl and Leonora, named for Marx and Trotsky. In 1934 the couple went to London to seek work and new experiences. An enhanced understanding of exploitation, duodenal ulcers and deep-vein thrombosis were enduring legacies of his years as a sailor. He still sold the Daily Worker. Unemployment and a series of casual jobs with limited supervision enabled him to read more extensively and more critically. For the first time he pored over basic Marxist texts such as Wage Labour and Capital and Value, Price and Profit, the volumes of the Little Lenin Library and Brockway’s Socialism at the Crossroads, as well as CPGB pamphlets and journals. Drifting away from the party and hungry for new ideas, he haunted the speakers’ pitches at Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner. There he came into contact with the Socialist Party of Great Britain, whose speakers strongly impressed him. He could not answer their arguments: the CPGB had not taught him to think. Throughout 1935 he attended their meetings and began a more systematic examination of Marxism. In Charlie Lahr’s socialist bookshop in Red Lion Square, Holborn, he came across Trotskyist material from the United States. He formed a discussion group of some dozen people from the Paddington area and studied Trotsky’s articles on Germany and the American Socialist Workers’ Party’s New International. The ‘Marble Arch Group’, cemented by a shared critique of the CPGB’s turn to the Popular Front, which they perceived as class collaboration, graduated to discussions with the competing British Trotskyist organisations. In 1936 they joined the Militant Group, which under the leadership of Denzil Harber and Starkey Jackson was working inside the Labour Party.

As Haston found his feet in the organisation he was drawn to the contingent from the Workers’ Party of South Africa, led by Ralph Lee, who had arrived in London and joined the Militant Group in the summer of 1937. Lee (1908-1946) was significantly more politically experienced: he had joined the South African Communist Party as long ago as 1922 and had subsequently served as General Secretary of the Workers’ Party. He exercised a profound influence through his insistence on practical work and agitation among workers. Haston found this approach a refreshing contrast to the tendency of the British groups to emphasise propaganda work inside the structures of the Labour Party and to concentrate on debate among the already initiated. Together with his wife, Millie Kahn Lee, a talented administrator, and his precocious protégé, Ted Grant, who could write effectively, Lee had an immediate impact. He was coopted to the Executive but was quickly perceived by the leadership of the Militant Group as a threat to its dominance. Their circulation of a rumour that Lee had absconded with the strike funds of the South African Laundry Workers’ Union led to an exodus from the organisation. This included Haston and concluded in the formation in December 1937 of the Workers’ International League (WIL).

Rejecting propagandism and the traditional Trotskyist milieu, and rebuffing the unity initiatives mounted by the leadership of international Trotskyism, Haston and Lee determined to go it alone. They built up a small working-class base by direct recruitment and drawing in new members from the youth organisations of the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the CPGB. Working inside the Labour Party, they emphasised the need to approach factory workers on the basis of dialogue, listening to their problems and learning from them. Membership meetings were held in Haston’s house in Warwick Avenue, Paddington, where he installed an ancient printing machine. Their paper, Youth For Socialism, which replaced the duplicated Searchlight, heralded their aspirations. Despite condemnation by the founding conference of the Fourth International in September 1938, the outbreak of war found them in a position to compete with the official British section, the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL).

Lee was the WIL’s guiding light, Haston his leading acolyte. In legend at least, Lee initiated the former steeplejack in the art of cat burglary. Haston certainly possessed an adventurous streak and felt less than reverence for the law. He rarely thought twice about commandeering private property in pursuit of the British revolution (Ratner to author, 23 April 2002). Matters were complicated in early 1939 when Millie Lee left her husband and began an affair with Haston. Upon the outbreak of war Haston headed a group of WIL cadres who moved to Dublin. They intended to establish an alternative headquarters and printing operation to pre-empt the expected outlawing of left-wing organisations in Britain, as heralded by a Scotland Yard raid on Haston’s house. They revived old Dublin Trotskyists such as Paddy Trench, worked in the Irish Labour Party with James Connolly’s daughter, Norah Connolly O'Brien, produced several issues of a paper, the Socialist Appeal, and made contact with the IRA.

In April 1940 Haston returned to London. His affair with Millie Lee continued, and Jessie Haston took their young children to Scotland. Lee, who was increasingly susceptible to illness, went home to South Africa. Haston filled the vacuum. Although they did not marry until 1953, Haston and Millie had become lifelong political partners. Born in Johannesburg on 19 January 1914, the daughter of immigrants, Meyer and Bertha Kahn who ran a millinery business, Millie had travelled to Palestine and lived in a kibbutz in the early 1930s before returning to South Africa. She had been attracted to Trotskyism by a friend of her mother, Fanny Klenerman, the wife of Frank Glass, a founding member of the Communist Party and South Africa’s first Trotskyist. Haston demonstrated an invaluable ability to orchestrate a collective leadership in which Millie provided the organising ballast, Andrew Scott and, more enduringly, Ted Grant elaborated jointly developed ideas in writing, and Haston provided direction, personnel management, recruitment skills and increasingly powerful platform oratory.

From the commencement of hostilities until the spring of 1940 the WIL produced a daily WorkersDiary, which was duplicated and circulated to all members and contacts. In 1941 Youth For Socialism was replaced by the monthly, eventually bi-monthly, Socialist Appeal. A journal, WorkersInternational News, was devoted to theory, albeit initially in the form of Trotsky’s writings. It carried the first material on the WIL’s Proletarian Military Policy. Haston argued that the war was being fought between competing imperialisms, and that sustained struggle by workers against British imperialism would encourage German workers to struggle against Hitler. From late 1940 he emphasised, against pacifist calls to ‘Stop the War’, the need to turn the war into a workers’ war against both democratic imperialism and fascism. Socialists should join up or work in the factories, campaigning for trade-union rights in the forces, the election of officers and their training by the unions, the creation of a democratic workers’ militia instead of the Home Guard, and workers’ control of war production. He had little time for conscientious objectors, as illustrated by the WIL’s treatment of the man who was to become, with T Dan Smith, its most famous member, the composer Michael Tippett, who was expelled for pacifism in 1940. Haston urged socialists to crusade for Labour to end the coalition and electoral truce, and to push for power on the basis of the nationalisation of industry under workers’ control. This position, he insisted, was an essential means of recognising the vitality and validity of the workers’ opposition to fascism and their natural desire to defend their families and freedom. But as he stressed in debates inside the group, opposition to capitalism at home should not be subordinated to fighting fascism abroad (Haston, 1941).

Haston heard about the German invasion of the USSR when he was serving a jail sentence of two months’ hard labour for using a National Registration Identity Card in the name of JF Gloster, which he had procured in Eire to enable his return from Dublin the previous year. He had given his own papers to a comrade who was threatened with call-up: Haston was registered as Medical Grade 4 and exempt from the draft because of his general health problems. Moreover, as the Ministry of Labour ruefully acknowledged, he had ingeniously and persistently circumvented various attempts to find him industrial work. He believed that in order to keep the organisation functioning it was necessary to preserve the leading cadres from the rigours of the forces and the factory. Operation Barbarossa, he urged, changed nothing. The best way for British workers to defend the USSR was to defend their own class and its conditions. They should make every effort to gain control over the workplace and the war machine. Policies of workers’ control should be counterposed to the CPGB’s support for joint production committees and should be raised within them.

The CPGB’s support for the Churchill government and the status quo in industry and its antagonism to strikes, provided the WIL with an opportunity to attract a small group of militant trade unionists who were disillusioned with the party and the conduct of the war on the home front. The Royal Ordnance Factories provide a good example of the potential of this – and its limits. In 1940 Haston recruited Bill Elliott, a leading shop steward in the Enfield factory, and built a small group around him. This provided an avenue into the Nottingham factory, where the WIL enrolled John Pemberton (the engineering union convenor), Claude Bartholomew (the branch president and secretary of the ROF stewards’ combine committee) and Eric Nightingale (the branch chair). From this base they gained some purchase in the Dalmuir plant and an influential position in the shop stewards’ combine. But they were never able to dominate it. The stay-in strike at Nottingham in April 1942 over the transfer of workers demonstrated the mobilising effect of demands for workers’ control over management decisions. The partnership provided the WIL with an understanding of the way in which shop stewards and union members were thinking. Subsequent experience in the Nottingham factory suggested that high output and increased wages and improved conditions could be simultaneously attained through union control over production, rather than subordination of the union and its members to management. And it suggested to Haston that the WIL could achieve a decisive influence over important sections of industrial workers.

But the Nottingham success was never emulated. From 1941, when 4000 women struck over the victimisation of a WIL supporter at Rolls-Royce in Glasgow, the organisation ‘intervened in all major industrial disputes and was more successful than any other party in its attempt to fill the vacuum left by the Communists’ (Upham, 1980, 335). Significant recruitment and decisive influence were different and more difficult matters. Workers appreciated the WIL’s energetic and efficient support of their struggles, but they remained at a distance from its revolutionary politics. In the Vickers dispute at Barrow in the summer of 1943, the stewards removed local CPGB activists from the strike committee. While they welcomed the WIL industrial organiser, Roy Tearse, as an adviser, they made it very clear that this was on the basis of the tactical and technical expertise he could provide in support of their objectives, not his Trotskyism. Although the local CPGB reported that the Socialist Appeal enjoyed ‘a mass sale’ in Barrow, the WIL could only enrol a handful of temporary adherents.

Haston believed, with some justification, that recruitment from the CPGB provided the best opportunity for growth, although his expectation that the real communists would displace His Majesty’s Communist Party would prove exaggerated. By 1941, Labour Party activity had significantly declined and advising potential recruits to the WIL to join their local Labour Party was becoming counterproductive. Haston pushed the group towards the CPGB. In 1942 membership passed the 300 mark and sales of the Socialist Appeal amounted to as many as 12,000 copies an issue. This far exceeded the performance of earlier Trotskyist groups, but it was not without problems. The WIL’s increasingly high profile drew fire from the press, the authorities and the CPGB. There was sensational coverage of its activities in the Daily Mail and Sunday Dispatch. In April 1942 questions were asked in the House of Commons about suppressing the Socialist Appeal, and it is clear from Home Office papers and CPGB archives that, as well as intercepting mail and phone-tapping, Special Branch and Stalinist informers were reporting regularly on its internal affairs. The Secret Service had two agents inside the WIL between 1942 and 1944, and five provincial police forces infiltrated local branches (PRO, KV4/56). Moreover members were subject to intimidation and violence from CPGB activists incited by demagogy by their leaders. JR Campbell excoriated the Trotskyists as ‘loathsome political degenerates’ and ‘agents of the Gestapo’. William Wainwright urged workers who encountered a Trotskyist to ‘Treat him as you would an open Nazi’, and Trotskyists, including Haston, were assaulted in London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol (Campbell, 1941; Wainwright, 1942).

Abandoning his earlier insistence on the necessity of working within established union structures rather than creating malleable paper organisations, Haston became an advocate of the Militant Workers’ Federation (MWF), a joint endeavour with ILP activists and anarchist groups that superseded the more shadowy Committee to Coordinate Militant Trade-Union Activity. It attracted some support in Barrow, Nottingham, the Glasgow industrial belt and the London engineering factories, where the WIL had begun to pick up support among active individuals rather than groups of workers, but it never constituted a viable national rank-and-file movement or posed a real challenge to the CPGB’s Shop Stewards’ National Council.

The growth of the WIL outstripped that of the RSL and changed Haston’s mind about unity with it. He was a prime mover in the fusion of the two groups. On the formation in March 1944 of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) as the British section of the Fourth International, he was elected its first and only General Secretary. The rejection of substantial entry work and the appellation of the new organisation, which he chose against some opposition, affirmed his optimistic view that wartime success would persist. His faith in the open party tactic and his belief that the RCP could outflank the official Communists and emerge as a new British Bolshevik organisation overlooked hard facts. The RCP remained a propaganda group that directed the endeavours of no significant section of the working class. Nevertheless, within weeks of the founding conference, the RCP would be in the headlines and Haston in jail.

The engineering apprentices’ strike, which began on 28 March in the North-East of England, West Yorkshire and Glasgow, was part of a small wave of militancy, focused on the mines, that erupted in the spring of 1944 as the Allies prepared the second front and war weariness and confidence in victory took hold. The RCP had established close links with Bill Davy, a leader of the Tyneside Engineering Apprentices’ Guild, an unofficial body that campaigned against young engineers being drafted into the mines under the ballot scheme introduced by Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour. Davy had been expelled from the Young Communist League for his militant stance. While they counselled against the stoppage, Haston, Tearse and local members, notably Ann Keen and Heaton Lee, had been advising the apprentices on strategy. Amid a virulent press campaign, the Special Branch and police raided the RCP headquarters in London and houses in London, Nottingham, Newcastle and Glasgow on 5 and 6 April, questioning members and removing documents. A Daily Mail correspondent, Harry Procter, confronted Haston – ‘a 32-year-old, wiry little Scotsman who describes himself as the National Organiser of the Fourth International’ – in the RCP’s Kings Cross office, where he was photographed sitting under a large painting of Trotsky. Procter, who obviously believed he had stumbled into a John Buchan melodrama, ‘put to him the question: “Where does your money come from?” Haston responded: “Tell your readers Hitler drops me the money in packets when he raids London."’ (Daily Mail, 6 April 1944)

Keen and Lee were arrested two days later and Tearse on 11 April. Jimmy Maxton moved an emergency resolution at the ILP annual conference in Leeds condemning the arrests. Bevin took advantage of the furore to introduce the draft of a new Regulation 1AA, which provided for the prosecution, with a penalty of up to five years’ penal servitude, of anyone declaring, instigating or participating in a strike among workers in essential services. Home Secretary Herbert Morrison’s memorandum on the Trotskyist movement, which was laid before the War Cabinet on 13 April, was on the whole a sober document. It noted that while the RCP had influence in some areas and its members had been involved in strikes in Barrow, Glasgow and the Yorkshire mines, overall support for it remained slight. Morrison concluded that the RCP’s relative success lay in the fact that it was providing one of the few outlets for discontent, but observed presciently that such favourable circumstances were unlikely to continue (Cab 66/49, WP (44) 202, 13 April 1944).

When a warrant was issued for Haston’s arrest he travelled to Tyneside to meet the apprentices, and then to Edinburgh, where he turned himself into the Scottish CID on 26 April in the hope of improving his prospect of bail. He was brought before the Newcastle magistrates’ court, committed for trial and remanded in custody for 21 days. He and his comrades were charged under the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act and the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, which Bevin had so passionately denounced less than two decades earlier. They were charged with conspiring together to act in furtherance of a strike that was illegal under Section 1 (2) of the 1927 Act, and with individually acting in furtherance of this strike. They were also charged with aiding and abetting the commission of an illegal strike. Haston was belatedly granted bail on 9 May 1944. The prisoners were defended by the ILP and Commonwealth, and supported in the House of Commons by Aneurin Bevan. Bevan risked withdrawal of the party whip. He cited ‘telegrams from shop stewards’ committees all over the country’ declaring solidarity with ‘these poor people’, and condemned the press and ‘this venal government’. They were attacked by the CPGB fellow-traveller and supporter of civil liberties, DN Pritt, who demanded they should be interned under Regulation 18B, which had been used against the recently released Sir Oswald Mosley and other members of the British Union of Fascists (Hansard, 28 April 1944, column 1068 for Bevan, column 1107 for Pritt). In the CPGB press, Campbell vindictively claimed of Haston, ‘all this man ever did in the working-class movement in his native city could be put on the back of a penny stamp’ (Daily Worker, 10 April 1944). The National Council for Civil Liberties, in which CPGB influence was strong, refused to aid the prisoners.

The trial at the Newcastle Summer Assizes began on 12 May. Haston was enthused by the formation of an Anti-Labour Laws Victims’ Defence Committee. It involved the ILP MPs, Commonwealth MPs and nine Labour Party MPs, including Bevan and SO Davies, although only the ILP’s MPs Maxton and John McGovern appear to have played an active part. The defendants scored a propaganda triumph when they subpoenaed Bevin to give evidence, while witnesses such as Tom Trewartha, the convenor from Vickers Barrow, and the boys themselves, who were called by the prosecution, gave evidence that was largely favourable to the prisoners. The chief police witness described Haston as ‘the brains behind the Trotskyist movement’ (Manchester Guardian, 20 June 1944). Moreover the Trotskyists were able to use the dock as a platform to explain their politics. Mr Justice Cassels’ summing up to the jury on 19 June was hostile. Nonetheless the defendants were found not guilty on the charges of conspiracy, but they were convicted of aiding and abetting others in the furtherance of an illegal strike and acting in furtherance of an illegal strike. Portrayed by the judge as a dupe of the men, Keen received only 13 days in prison. Of the others Cassels remarked, ‘they were dangerous persons to be allowed their liberty at such a time’. Tearse and Lee were sentenced to 12 months and Haston to six months in Durham gaol. Asked by the judge if he had anything further to say, Haston replied: ‘My Lord, I hope that I have served my class as well as you have served yours here.’ (Daily Mail, 20 June 1944; The Times, 20 June 1944)

An appeal was lodged but the court refused bail, despite Maxton and McGovern offering to stand surety. In gaol Haston – who had registered his religion as ‘dialectical materialist’ and was duly listed with the ‘C of Es’ and ‘RCs’ as a ‘DM’ – studied labour law. The case argued before the Court of Criminal Appeal on 24 August 1944 proved successful. The court upheld the defence’s argument that to perform an act in furtherance of a strike presupposes the prior existence of a strike. Nothing that took place before the strike’s commencement on 28 March, including the RCP members’ acts of advice and preparation, could be in furtherance of a strike that did not yet exist. Most students of labour law had understood this to be the position since the landmark case of Conway v Wade in 1909. Mr Justice Cassels, however, had misunderstood the law and the trial jury’s verdict was struck down.

After his release in September 1944, Haston spoke at meetings across the country with Sidney Silverman MP, Rhys Davies MP and Maxton. The trial had provided the RCP with invaluable publicity and they were now able to recruit a small group of disillusioned Communists such as Davy, Alec Riach (an Invergordon mutineer, now deputy convenor at the Dalmuir ordnance factory) and the well-known Welsh miner and Spanish Civil War veteran, Bob Condon. There was no breakthrough but the episode was regarded as a triumph and one that raised the question of the RCP mounting an electoral intervention – another first for the British Trotskyists. An opportunity arose with the death in late 1944 of Sir William Jenkins, Labour MP for Neath.

Initially Haston favoured the idea of supporting an ILP candidate in the by-election. He suggested that this should be Trevor James, a popular miners’ agent who opposed the CPGB’s industrial stance. This failed to materialise, so in January 1945 the RCP decided that Haston himself should stand as their candidate. The pit-boy strikes of 1942-43 in West Wales and the stoppages over the Porter Award to miners in March 1944, suggested that Neath, a Labour stronghold, offered fertile terrain. While the RCP had few supporters in South Wales and John Lawrence had only recently been appointed as a full-time organiser, the Anti-Labour Laws Committee had attracted some support in Merthyr and Swansea. The by-election was seen as a potential short cut to building a base in a class-conscious area. Haston later recollected that he had been convinced he would garner no more than 400 votes. Such prudence was in order. In Labour’s DJ Williams, a long-time, respected activist in the South Wales Miners’ Federation, the RCP faced a powerful opponent. Williams – a former anthracite miner who had studied both at Ruskin and at the Central Labour College, a former organiser of the National Council Of Labour Colleges (NCLC) and the author of the pioneering Capitalist Combination in the Coal Industry (1924) – was at least as well versed in Marxism as Haston and just as disdainful of Stalinism. He would subsequently exercise an enduring influence on the younger man’s future political development. By the time the contest occurred on 15 May 1945, the war in Europe was over, the coalition was in question, and a general election and a new political configuration were on the immediate agenda. Haston’s programme had lost much of its earlier appeal.

In the event, the campaign largely resolved itself into a factional fight between Trotskyists and Stalinists. Jack Maunder, the leader of the West Wales CPGB, asserted with an uncertain grasp of jurisprudence that the Moscow Trials had unmasked the real nature of the Trotskyists. Alun Thomas, soon to become Secretary of the CPGB in South Wales, claimed: ‘They are a greater menace and far more dangerous than a Fascist paratrooper.’ (Thomas, 1945, 2) Haston responded with a detailed critique of the CPGB’s twists and turns since the Hitler-Stalin pact and its unconditional commitment to war production and the Coalition. He took up the issue of the Moscow Trials and quoted extensively from the report of the Dewey Commission, which had exonerated Trotsky. He was particularly scathing about the CPGB’s attempt to implicate German workers in war guilt. The RCP, in contrast, had attempted to establish fraternal links with German prisoners of war in Britain. He impressed many who listened to him. Bill Gregory, the Workers’ Educational Association organiser and ILP activist, remembered Haston’s appeal to the workers who attended his classes: ‘Jock was a very able man... bloody magnificent speaker... most Communists hadn’t read,... not scholarly people. But this fellow Jock and people like him, they had really read it, they knew it.’ (McHugh and Ripley, 1981, 73-74) However, Gregory concluded, loyalty to Labour was such that admiration was rarely translated into a vote for the RCP.

Haston held 70 meetings across the constituency, while the RCP distributed more than 100,000 leaflets and sold 7500 of an election issue of the Socialist Appeal. A victory of sorts came when the CPGB – which had resolutely refused to debate with the RCP, reiterating ‘A vote for Haston is a vote for Hitler’ – backed down. In an eve-of-poll rally he traded his by now well-choreographed verbal offence and riposte with Alun Thomas. Despite the mobilisation of the entire RCP, the party lost its deposit in a sobering verdict. With the voters’ emphatic endorsement of Labour, the poll constituted a warning for the future. Moreover the campaign had brought the RCP fewer than 20 recruits. Branches were established in Neath and Pontypridd, but the only transient industrial gain in a landscape dominated by the CPGB was a small group of anthracite miners, headed by Johnny Crown Jones, in indomitable Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen.

Neath by-election, 15 May 1945: electorate – 67,083, turnout – 58.0 per cent
DJ Williams (Labour) – 30,847 (79.2 per cent)
WI Samuel (Plaid Cymru) – 6,290 (16.2 per cent)
JR Haston (Revolutionary Communist Party) – 1,781 (4.6 per cent)
Majority: 24,557 (63.0 per cent)

Haston was 33 years of age at the end of the war. He was weathered, matured and not a little tired. He had spent six years in incessant activity, working full-time and at full stretch. He had little private life and less money: he was paid £1 a week at the start of the war and 30 shillings at its conclusion. He divided his time between the WIL centre, a loft in Northdown Street, Kings Cross, and, after 1944, the RCP headquarters at 256 Harrow Road, Paddington (he and Millie had a flat nearby in Marylands Road) and criss-crossing the country on party business in his battered porkpie hat. He had become an effective organiser. Unlike other British Trotskyist leaders, he was a skilled manager of people: he listened to and he took pains with the problems of the party’s members, and he favoured internal consensus and conciliation, although, as the record of expulsions from the WIL and the RCP attests, he still ran a tight ship. He was a slight, dark, handsome figure of about five foot eight inches in height. He resembled the contemporary Scottish film actor John Gregson, or even the young James Mason, his head thickly crowned with wavy black hair. He was a personable, gregarious and humorous man: he liked to be liked. He was not a naturally gifted speaker and he always had to prepare well, but he was an increasingly impressive one. Thus far he had exhibited little originality as a theorist: one young RCP member later recalled that Haston’s lectures on dialectics had drawn heavily on TA Jackson’s book on the subject. And he remained a Leninist, albeit a humane, pragmatic one:

I can remember once at an informal meeting at the Centre suggesting to Haston that an advanced working class, such as we had in this country, would, following a revolution, throw up its own organisation and leadership. Haston, who was always well-disposed towards me as I was a young comrade and majority supporter, stiffened, his face angry and he shut me up with a few sarcastic words. I was depriving him of his dream. (S Leslie to author, 5 March 1996)

Haston believed that the end of the war would provoke a capitalist crisis, substantial working-class radicalisation and a debilitated Stalinism (RCP Conference Decisions, 1945). He was wrong on all counts. Until 1945, he later remembered, ‘the theoretical bag and baggage that we had wasn’t very great, we were mainly followers rather than initiators, you know, of the broad Trotskyist view’ (interview, 1978). The WIL had adopted even the distinctive Proletarian Military Policy from Trotsky and the American Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). The Trotskyist point of view, however, congealed into dogma in a postwar world that stubbornly refused to acknowledge Trotsky’s prewar prognostications. Haston’s virtue, in the face of this failure of expectations, was that he knew he had been wrong. Conceiving empiricism as fundamental to Marxist theory, the working-class activist and organiser turned to analysing and understanding the changing world, and interpreting it for his members.

With Ted Grant and others he read, studied and argued. In 1946 he declared, against the leadership of the Fourth International, that British capitalism was entering a boom, albeit a temporary one, and there would be a period of decline in the class struggle (Haston, 1946; Workers International News, December 1946). He faced the fact that, in contrast to what he had believed earlier, the Labour government was delivering significant reforms in nationalisation, social welfare and decolonisation, and concluded that it was taking some steps towards socialism, albeit in a halting, uneven and unsatisfactory fashion. Moreover, he was forced to accept that far from the war undermining Stalinism, its conquests in Eastern Europe and the surge forward of the French and Italian parties had strengthened it. He judged that there was an immediate need to develop Trotsky’s thinking. At first he tended towards the view that Russia had become a state capitalist formation, a notion he had fleetingly embraced in the 1930s. By 1947 he had decided that if, as Trotsky had judged, Russia was a degenerated workers’ state because of its statified property relations, then the European satellites it was recasting in its own image must, in all logic, be bureaucratically deformed workers’ states (Haston, 1946).

Haston was a member of the Fourth International Executive and aired these views at its meetings in Paris. He made a minimal impact. The leadership – Michel Pablo, Ernest Mandel and Pierre Frank – and the power behind the throne – James P Cannon, the SWP leader – maintained that capitalism was in deep crisis. They religiously affirmed the revolutionary nature of the period and the trauma and counter-revolutionary essence of Stalinism. This ensured, a priori, that the East European satellites remained capitalist. For Haston, ‘it was a very disillusioning experience. It was disillusioning because they couldn’t recognise reality... In every major situation on which there was a debate, there was a complete failure to look at the facts. On a whole range of questions we were on collision course.’ (Interview, 1978)

Haston incurred the enmity of the Paris-based leadership. Cannon had never forgiven his refusal to bring the WIL into the International. This hostility was reaffirmed when Haston supported Albert Goldman and Felix Morrow, Cannon’s antagonists in the SWP, who also insisted on rethinking Trotskyist politics. By 1947 he had reluctantly concluded that the International leaders were determined to depose him as leader of the RCP and replace him with Gerry Healy, who led a minority faction in the party that staunchly adhered to the International’s perspective. The strongest point in their case was their demand that the RCP should direct the major part of its membership to conduct entry work in the Labour Party. While the rationale for this project – impending economic crisis and a turn towards revolution inside Labour’s ranks – was unsustainable, so too, it increasingly appeared, was the maintenance of an independent party.

The RCP had entered 1945 with more than 500 members. By 1947 it had fewer than 300. With the absence of significant strikes, sustained support among the working class for Labour’s reforms and the CPGB’s turn to the left in response to the Cold War, the future seemed bleak. Despite intense activity, the RCP made no gains from the biggest strike of the period: the 1945 stoppage on the docks. It recruited key leaders of the 1946 building workers’ campaign but could not hold them. In 1947 the Militant Workers’ Federation finally faded away. However, there were still imaginative campaigns. For example, Haston wrote to Attlee requesting that the RCP be allowed to instruct counsel to interrogate the Nazis on trial in Nuremburg about their alleged links with Trotsky. But the initiative, which attracted the support of HG Wells, was unsuccessful. The handful of rich supporters who had donated generously to the RCP became more parsimonious. The Socialist Appeal appeared monthly instead of fortnightly and the number of full-time workers was reduced from 16 to six. Yet Haston’s ability to face the facts stopped short of facing the fact that the basis for an open party did not exist.

Haston was enough of a pragmatist to accept the Fourth International’s decision to split the RCP in September 1947 so that the Healy minority could enter the Labour Party. He felt that this was a lesser evil than continued factional conflict, but the split failed to arrest the decline of the RCP. Rather it exacerbated the RCP’s isolation in the Fourth International. At the 1948 World Congress he again clashed with the International leadership over Eastern Europe. Afterwards he began to think through the practical consequences of his theorising. If Stalinism, which he had deemed to be counter-revolutionary, could overturn capitalism and create workers’ states, whatever their bureaucratic deformations, then the basis for an independent revolutionary party and Trotskyist International was at least questionable. But his support for the view that the Stalinists’ adoption of the Russian model for the Czechoslovak economy had created a workers’ state after the coup of April 1948 drew an angry response from Czechoslovak Trotskyists, who were suffering under the new despotic regime, and deepened his uncertainty. Their criticism turned his thoughts towards the issue of democracy and his growing belief that Labour was democratically ‘doing the job’ in Britain. Despite political differences, his friendship with DJ Williams and the dissident American Trotskyist, Max Shachtman – whose overtures to the Fourth International had been rejected at the 1948 Congress and who now emphasised the importance of the Labour Party – strengthened his heretical inclinations, his turn to left-wing social democracy and his distance from the leaders of global Trotskyism.

At some point in 1948 those close to him sensed that he had given up on the Fourth International and the RCP. He needed respite from the attritional task of holding the RCP together, and was weary after a decade of relentless activity and factionalism. He still attended Fourth International meetings but increasingly sat shrouded in silence. He wanted to escape, but felt a responsibility to his past and to those he had guided, to whom he referred as his younger brothers and sisters. The RCP membership was now below the 150 mark; demoralisation and internal differences were deepening. When his proposal to move towards entry into the Labour Party as a means of holding the group together was rejected by the majority of the leadership, he threatened to resign as General Secretary, although he still declined to break openly with Trotskyism. After a prolonged debate, the RCP was dissolved in August 1949 on the basis that its members would join Healy’s ‘Club’ in the Labour Party. Haston became a member of the Club’s Executive.

He left the entrist group in February 1950, although it was some three months before he committed to writing the reasons for his resignation. His statement criticised the ideological collapse of the Fourth International, its failure to analyse postwar developments and its retreat into dogma. The debate on Yugoslavia, transformed in Mandel’s analysis in a matter of months from capitalism to a workers’ state on the basis of Tito’s break with Stalin, had been the last straw: the International and its British section were making significant concessions to Stalinism. Haston now believed that he had been mistaken to exclude parliament as a vehicle for socialist advance and to dismiss the idea that the Labour Party could be remade by socialists. This was in the realm of the possible, as was the alternative – that a socialist current would split the party. Revolutionaries, he now believed, should work within the Labour Party to test out these possibilities, not as a secret group but as an open, organic part of the left. He now wanted to ‘devote myself to doing straightforward, simple socialist traditional teaching and activity in the movement’ (Haston, 1950). He was ritualistically expelled by the leadership of the ‘Club’, and his ‘shameful desertion’ was denounced by the Executive of the Fourth International. Yet he later expressed few regrets about his years in the Trotskyist movement:

... they were the only people who established the falsehood of the Moscow Trials and the degeneration of the Russian leadership and the Communist International... I had great happiness, I thought that what I was doing was the right thing and I did it to the best of my ability... I learned to some degree how to swim against the stream, how to live in a minority situation, and, I think, how to handle people under very difficult circumstances. I learned something about internationalism. I learned how to read, how to develop ideas and how to defend ideas. (Interview, 1978)

For at least some of his former comrades, his contribution deserved enduring acknowledgement, despite his defection: ‘Haston was a giant of a man. I have no qualms about saying this, despite his later abandonment of Trotskyism. He had without doubt tremendous qualities.’ (Grant, 2002, 182) DJ Williams nurtured his ideas and encouraged him to apply for a full-time post with the NCLC, for which he had taken classes. Not surprisingly he got the worst of both worlds. Healy insisted that his former comrades break off not only all political but also all personal relations with him, announcing: ‘Haston has to be driven out of the labour movement and especially out of the National Council of Labour Colleges.’ (Haston, 1950) But the problem was getting into the movement, for, not unnaturally, he was suspected as an entrist. He acted as a full-time propagandist for the Labour Party in Acton during the 1950 general election. But his application for Labour Party membership in Paddington was referred upwards and came before the National Executive twice – in July 1949 and February 1951 – before he was finally admitted. The Labour College leaders, in their turn, ‘feared the Labour Party might take strong exception to his gaining access to party and trade-union branches under the flag of the NCLC. It was left to JPM Millar [NCLC General Secretary] therefore to make two visits to AL Williams [Labour Party National Agent] in order to convince him that Haston was a genuine convert.’ (Millar, 1979, 180) Unsuccessful in his initial application for an NCLC organiser’s post, he was appointed an honorary organising tutor in recognition of the number of classes he was taking. It was only in the summer of 1951 that he became the organiser for the NCLC’s London (South) Division.

Haston spent the next 12 years working for the NCLC in what was to prove its terminal decline. He became close to its General Secretary, JPM Millar. He was soon his trusted adviser, initially on the CPGB, Millar’s bête noir, but increasingly on the labour movement and NCLC policy in general. By the 1960s he had emerged as primes inter pares among the staff. He organised and taught evening classes and day, weekend and summer schools for Labour Party and union branches, shop stewards’ committees and the Cooperative movement across South London, Surrey, Sussex and Kent. Classes in Marxism were in decline: the tendency now was to teach the skills required by the movement’s functionaries and shop stewards. He became a gifted workers’ educator. He was a good listener who identified with trade unionists and understood their difficulties (Ward, 1986). His past helped in more ways than one. Locked in his room by boisterous students at a residential school for engineering apprentices, the former steeplejack and cat burglar clambered out of the window and descended three storeys down the drainpipe to greet his startled charges at breakfast (Millar, 1979, 203). His attitude towards education was ecumenical and he used tutors from all wings of the movement. He remained on good terms with many of his former comrades and indulged their current political preoccupations by hiring them to teach classes, although some recalled with a certain bitterness that ‘Haston remained friendly and affable but it was the friendliness of a paternalist cynic’ (Levy, 1996, 186).

He briefly nursed parliamentary ambitions. He was admitted to the ‘B’ list of potential Labour Party candidates but never took matters further (Labour Party Executive Minutes, 14 December 1955). He experienced periodic bouts of ill health: in 1955 he was hospitalised after an internal haemorrhage. Shaking off his past, he moved from Paddington to Clapham, where he held open house for comrades old and new. He moved from the left to the right of the movement, always justifying his position theoretically and preserving an intransigent anti-Stalinism at the centre of his concerns. He taught classes for the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and took a close and persistent interest in the struggle of the group under John Byrne and Les Cannon against Communist control and corruption in the union, viewing it as a necessary complement to the new phase of the struggle against Stalinism that had opened in 1956. He was unhappy about the planned takeover of the NCLC by the TUC Education Department in 1964. He could not envisage himself being comfortable within the cramped constraints that Congress House placed on its employees. He chose to accept the offer of a post as Education Officer with the ETU, where he did feel at home. He wrote to Millar:

It gives me no pleasure to tender my resignation. I owe a great deal to the NCLC and to the Executive for appointing me at a difficult stage in my political evolution. It gave me a wonderful opportunity of turning my back on the sectarian battles and going into straightforward socialist educational work. During the last twelve years I have learned a great deal in the process of teaching others. (Plebs, March 1964, 69)

He started work with the ETU in March 1964. The new leaders, Cannon and Frank Chapple, followed their CPGB predecessors in emphasising the importance of education as an arm of union policy and a weapon in committing activists to the apparatus. In the classrooms of the ETU College in Esher, Surrey, he trained thousands of shop stewards in the theory and technique of collaborating with management, and enthusiastically elaborated the details of ETU policy and collective agreements. He became an expert in management techniques, a powerful advocate of the union left’s pet hate, the ‘productivity deals’ of the 1960s and early 1970s, and a pioneer of joint courses for managers and union representatives. He invoked ‘the rule of law’ against militants who urged direct action against anti-union legislation and incomes policies. He placated the bosses he had once savaged: ‘I'm a socialist but we have a common interest to see the job is run efficiently.’ (British Industry Week, 30 October 1967)

His genuine convictions were lubricated by the exciting sense that he could now exercise real influence and get at least small things done, as well as the undoubted pleasure he took from rubbing shoulders with the power brokers of the labour movement. He became a great raconteur and the embroidered events of his youth were re-assembled as audacious adventures, a picaresque prelude to the safe harbour of the right wing of the Labour Party. He savoured a cigar and enjoyed a drink. He was a keen amateur carpenter. He was portly now, and greying, with bushy black eyebrows and a taste for good living. His former comrades critically registered how far he had travelled from his roots in working-class Edinburgh and the WIL loft in Kings Cross (Cliff, 1970, 166). The ETU’s historian recorded with affection and admiration: ‘He was an inspirational teacher who applied his charm and offered his Glenfiddich whisky to all-comers.’ (Lloyd, 1990, 529)

There was one last factional battle. In the early 1970s he grew critical of what he saw as the right-wing fundamentalism and conservatism of the now entrenched ETU leadership, as well as their increasingly cavalier attitude towards democracy. He was friendly with Mark Young, who possessed an impeccable anti-Communist record and was a longstanding member of the leadership faction. But Young now embraced a modernising, more democratic agenda for the union, including the election of all officials. Haston shared Young’s thinking and campaigned for him in his at times acrimonious contest with Frank Chapple for the post of General Secretary.

When Young was heavily defeated and left the union, Haston was so disappointed that he resigned his post in October 1972. Thereafter he worked for the General and Municipal Workers Union – which leant to the right but was more in the trade-union mainstream than the ETU – at its training college in Woodstock, outside London. He retired in 1978 but continued to offer his services as a management consultant.

On 9 June 1986 Jock Haston died of cancer after a painful illness. He was a charismatic figure and a shrewd, probing thinker. His dedication to the labour movement was lifelong and unquestionable. Although he was almost completely self-educated, one Labour Party veteran who knew him in the 1940s recalled him as singularly impressive and believed he was destined ‘to develop into one of the major Marxist thinkers of Europe’ (Derer, 1982). That promise was never fulfilled, but his analysis of the political landscape of the late 1940s and early 1950s was certainly superior to that of Mandel and Pablo, let alone the sterile ideologists of Stalinism. He was without doubt ‘a very impressive worker intellectual’ (Cliff, 2000, 51) in the real and sometimes prosaic sense of the term. Rather than proceeding dogmatically and relying on the conclusions of others, he learned to think for himself. In collaboration with his comrades, notably Grant, he attempted to understand the world afresh, utilising all the limited tools at his disposal. As a Trotskyist he was a beneficiary of the distinctive conditions of the 1939-45 war, and thereafter a victim of the successful restructuring of capitalism. He followed the pattern of the times, moving from left to right in tempo with the waning of the socialist impulse and the long postwar boom. His political transformation owed more to conviction than hardening of the arteries. Unlike some others on the right of the movement, in the 1960s and 1970s he still believed in progress towards a socialist society. However, he increasingly came to perceive the left, whose interests he had relentlessly pursued with adamantine conviction in the first part of his life, as a barrier to this objective.


Articles in Youth For Socialism, Socialist Appeal, Workers’ International News and Plebs



Haston Papers, University of Hull

Deane Papers, Harber Papers, MRC, University of Warwick

Public Record Office, Cab 66/49, WP 44/202, 13 April 1944, War Cabinet, The Trotskyist Movement in Great Britain, Memorandum by the Home Secretary; Public Record Office, KV4/56, The Trotskyist Movement, 1945

Labour Party, Minutes of the National Executive Committee, NMLH, Manchester

‘A Step Towards Capitulation’, WIL Internal Bulletin, 21 March 1941 (in Haston Papers)

‘The Military Policy As Applied to the Home Guard’, WIL Internal Bulletin, 27 April 1941 (in Haston Papers)

‘Dear Comrades’, 10 June 1950 (in author’s possession)

Jock Haston and Millie Haston, interview with A Richardson, 30 April 1978 (in author’s possession)

S Booton, ‘Wartime Trotskyists’, unpublished mimeo, nd (in author’s possession)

I Hunter, ‘The Ten Years for the Locust Reconsidered: The Legacy of the RCP’, unpublished mimeo, 1981 (in author’s possession)

Vladimir Derer, interview with J-P Steffen, 1982 (in author’s possession)

Frank Ward, interview with author, 12 December 1986

Sheila Leslie, correspondence with author, 1996, 2002

Harry Ratner, correspondence with author, 2002

II: Newspapers and Periodicals

Socialist Appeal, 1941-49

WorkersInternational News, 1938-47

Plebs, 1949-64

Hansard, Fifth series, Volume 399 (1944)

III: Books and Articles

JR Campbell, ‘How Leftism Helps Hitler’, Labour Monthly, December 1941

W Wainwright, Clear Out Hitler’s Agents! (1942)

Workers’ International League, Clear Out the BossesAgents! (1942)

Workers’ International League, The Communist Party and The War – Look at Their Record! (1942)

Anti-Labour Laws Victims’ Defence Committee, A Victory for Labour! The Case of Jock Haston, Roy Tearse, Heaton Lee and Ann Keen (1944)

A Thomas, Trounce the Trotskyists (1945)

Revolutionary Communist Policy: RCP Conference Decisions (1945)

‘The Dual Character of the USSR: Marxism Versus Phrasemongering’, in RCP Conference Documents, 1946 (1946)

‘Fourth International World Conference Discussion Material: Proposed Line of Amendment of the RCP (British Section)’, WorkersInternational News, November-December 1946

J Higgins, ‘Ten Years for the Locust’, International Socialism, 14 (1963)

‘Interview’, British Industry Week, 3 October 1967

T Cliff, The EmployersOffensive (1970)

JP Cannon, Speeches to the Party (New York, 1973)

P Jenkins, Where Trotskyism Got Lost (Nottingham, nd [1977]

JPM Millar, The Labour College Movement (1979)

J McHugh and B Ripley, ‘The Neath By-Election, 1945 – Trotskyists in West Wales’, Llafur, 3, 2 (Spring 1981)

R Croucher, Engineers at War, 1939-1945 (1982)

J Callaghan, British Trotskyism: Theory and Practice (Oxford, 1984)

S Bornstein and A Richardson, Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1924-1938 (1986)

S Bornstein and A Richardson, War and the International: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1937-1949 (1986)

T Grant, The Unbroken Thread (1989)

A Marsh and V Ryan, The Seamen: A History of the National Union of Seamen, 1887-1987 (Oxford, 1989)

J McIlroy, ‘The Demise of the National Council of Labour Colleges’, in B Simon (ed), The Search For Enlightenment: The Working Class and Adult Education in the Twentieth Century (1990)

J Gale, Class Struggle in the Second World War: The 1944 Police Raid on the RCP (1991)

D North, Gerry Healy and his Place in the Fourth International (Detroit, 1991)

J Lloyd, Light and Liberty: The History of the EETPU (1990)

H Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary: Memoirs of a Trotskyist 1936-1960 (1994)

N Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-1945 (Aldershot, 1995)

S Levy, ‘A Footnote for Historians – The Open Party Faction, 1948-49’, Revolutionary History, 6, 2/3 (Summer 1996)

J McIlroy, ‘"The First Great Battle in the March to Socialism”: Dockers, Stalinists and Trotskyists in 1945’, Revolutionary History, 6, 2/3 (Summer 1996)

B Hunter, Lifelong Apprenticeship: The Life and Times of a Revolutionary (1997)

T Cliff, A World To Win: Life of A Revolutionary (2000)

T Grant, History of British Trotskyism (2002)

IV: Thesis

M Upham, The History of British Trotskyism to 1949 (Hull University PhD, 1980)

V: Other

Information and papers from R Challinor, M Hasten, S Leslie, A Richardson