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Letter to 'Revolutionary History' on European revolutionaries and Algerian independence
Note from Keith Dickinson:
What is "Revolutionary History"?.
The journal Revolutionary History publishes now in book form once or twice a year. It attempts to relate and translate elements of the history of the workers' movement internationally - through the archives - in relation to Marxist and particularly Trotskyist organisations.
In the issue to which my letter relates, their coverage of the British support for the Algerian struggle for independence from French imperialism is very limited.
It is purely related from what is more a brief biography of the late Wolverhampton MP John Baird, which members of their Editorial Board researched and wrote.
From ignorance and lack of involvement flows distortion of the contribution our Party and its members have made to the working class struggles past and present.
I feel it is necessary to put the record straight if anyone is going to fulfil their chosen saying from George Santayana: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it".
My letter has been published on their website but only appended to their original Algeria issue. They are hesitating to publish it in their future printed issues, claiming it is too long, but much lengthier correspendence has been published by them in the past.
We publish here as it relates some little known early history of our Party, and also points to a crucial consequence of the theory of State Capitalism which is hidden by the SWP.
Keith Dickinson 28/11/2013
European Revolutionaries and Algerian Independence, 1954 - 1962
I have recently read your Edition No 4, Volume 10 which deals with the activities in Britain, in support of the Algerian people's struggle for independence. The contribution of the late John Baird MP is justifiably recognised. But you do not do justice to the support that was given by the workers' movement.
Despite you connecting John with our Socialist Fight group (the predecessor of Militant, now the Socialist Party), you don't seem to have bothered with much further research into our activities on the Algerian revolution. In your Editorial Board introduction you say of those who acted in solidarity: "These were internationalists who put their money where their mouth was".
With Ian Birchall, a long time leader of the Socialist Workers' Party (previously Socialist Review and then International Socialists), as guest editor of this edition of "Revolutionary History", readers would be entitled to ask why there is no mention of any support by the I.S. But this did not surprise me, as his then organisation did not seem very 'international' when dealing with the colonial revolutions.
For the new generation of activists it is important to try to understand why the main Trotskyist organisation - the Revolutionary Communist Party - split in the late 1940s and early '50s and what the different Trotskyist organisations are today. Although I was not involved as a member at that stage, I did witness some of the consequences quite sharply when I did become politically active in the late '50s.
The International Socialists' fundamental political theory drew no distinction between capitalism and the regimes of Russia, China and Eastern Europe. Trotsky's theory of 'Permanent Revolution' explains the impossibility of landlordism and capitalism taking relatively undeveloped countries forward. But, in a caricature of this theory, they held that the outcome of the Russian revolution was "state capitalism". These colonial struggles would end the same way, they maintained, including in Algeria. As Tony Cliff, their theorist, put it: "a deflected, state capitalist, permanent revolution".
Their analysis was reflected in their constant references to "class society, East and West of the Iron Curtain", drawing no distinction between the different social base of Stalinism and of capitalism. We in 'Socialist Fight', saw the USSR as a "degenerated workers' state" - with the benefits of the economy being nationalised, but being controlled by a huge corrupt bureaucracy.
While fighting for the victory of the Algerian revolution and actively participating in it, we did not foster illusions as to the kind of regime that would develop out of it. But we had a responsibility to support the revolutions in neo-colonial countries (in Vietnam and elsewhere, in addition to Algeria) because any victory would weaken imperialism. We did not join in the shouts of "Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Min!" but nor did we remain neutral.
The success in developing the centralised, nationalised economy in the USSR was what the capitalist class throughout the world campaigned against, for fear that the idea of nationalisation and a plan of production would be taken up by workers in the west of Europe and elsewhere. They used the monstrous lack of democracy in Russia in order to frighten the world's working class that this was socialism. When the Berlin Wall came down and these regimes collapsed, Thatcher and company acclaimed it as a great victory for capitalism. What, in the view of the 'state capitalists' was there to celebrate when their leader said it was a mere 'side-step'?
The IS youth interpreted Tony Cliff's theory of "deflected, permanent revolution" as meaning that Algeria would inevitably result in a "state capitalist" regime, similar to Cuba and China whose revolutions they also did not support. This belief over-rode any thought by them of defending the right of colonial peoples to self-determination. This theory, which had been developed in relation to Russia, then China, resulted in their slogan: "Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism!". It could be comfortably accepted by their middle class and "intellectual" milieu. It determined the nature of the SWP ever since - a workers' party by name but not by nature, despite good fighters having mistakenly joined their ranks.
Could we expect their youth to have had any enthusiasm for the revolutions against colonial rule when Tony Cliff was trying to explain what his theory of 'State Capitalism' meant? "What had gone wrong in relation to Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution," he said, "was that the processes of overcoming internally backward socio-economic relations and achieving national liberation from imperialism were spearheaded by a variety of forces mostly drawn from the intelligentsia, or the state, playing the part ascribed to the working class in Trotsky's permanent revolution theory. Although the political results in Africa, Asia and Latin America varied, state capitalism was, to a greater or lesser extent, the prevailing result". This completely disregards the tremendous self-sacrifice of the millions involved in the struggles on these continents, as well as those hundreds of thousands of Algerian workers in France who were sending most of their wages home to support the FLN in the fight for liberation.
The completely unprincipled opportunism of the I.S. was exposed during the Vietnam war. To save their credibility among students and academics, they had to belatedly join the massive protests in support of the struggle of the Vietnamese people against US Imperialism. This was borne out by one authoritative voice of theirs - that of Peter Sedgwick, with whom we had had friendly discussions in Liverpool. He was their platform speaker at a public meeting the I.S. organised in Kings Cross, London, on Vietnam. Puzzled about how this would fit into their theories, Peter Taaffe, by then the editor of Militant, and myself attended.
Peter Sedgwick's opening remarks were: "There are people in this room who will be surprised that the I.S. has organised a meeting in support of the Vietnam revolution". But, of course, he could not explain what it was that had changed which had prevented them from campaigning in support of all the other colonial peoples in revolt.
Personally, I sharpened my international revolutionary teeth in support of the Algerian revolution for independence, and in giving critical support for the FLN. It was the subject of my first speech to an adult audience in the Labour Party in 1957. We set up a Campaign Committee in Liverpool and in London with our small resources. We had constant material in the pages of our paper 'Socialist Fight' and the youth paper of the Walton Labour Party, 'Rally', which we influenced. Rally had a national circulation even prior to the establishment of the Labour Party Young Socialists. Not one of these articles nor their contents are mentioned by your researchers.
An indication of the campaigning we conducted in the Labour and Trade Union movement can be seen in the resolution drafted, and moved at the Executive Committee of Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party, by our comrade, Pat Wall (who later became an MP) and myself:-
"This meeting calls upon the Liverpool Trades Council and Labour Party to organise a demonstration outside the offices of the French Consulate, in Liverpool, to protest against the horrors being perpetrated by French Imperialism in Algeria.
"Recognising Sunday March the 30th as Algerian Freedom Day, we urge Socialists throughout the Merseyside area to turn out in full strength on that day, to register, with their banners and slogans, their strong condemnation and disgust at the activities of the so-called Socialist government of France in their attempt to crush the Algerian people".
For a serious Trotskyist group, action flows from perspective, programme and priorities, so when requested for the help of skilled workers by the representatives of the FLN, we agreed to do what we could. We considered the risks involved and the possible loss to our small political group, but decided to send two of our leaders - Jimmy Deane, our General Secretary, an exceptionally skilled electrical engineer, and John Smith, a shop steward and very skilled carpenter. As an army captain in India during World War Two, John had helped Indian workers to get organised into a trade union. He was also responsible for the initiatives of support for the Algerian revolution by Camberwell Trades Council which you mention. The task of these two courageous comrades was to help the FLN break the electrified barrier on the border to get equipment and personnel through from Morocco.
Whilst we and others were campaigning against this vicious colonial war, we faced obstruction by self-styled "International Socialists". The representatives of the I.S. on the editorial board of 'Young Guard', refused to print the articles we submitted in support of the Algerian revolution, on the grounds previously explained.
Contrary to what is claimed in the "History" of the I.S., written by Tony Cliff, 'Young Guard' was not an initiative of theirs. This paper was produced on the initiative of the Editor of the youth page of 'Union Voice', Paul Rose, in his attempt to bring together the youth of the various left groups into one left journal for the 'Young Socialists' organisation which the Labour Party had recently set up. We went along with this and produced 'A Programme for Youth' which the I.S. group initially agreed to, as did the 'International Group' (which later became the I.M.G.). We then got the Walton Labour Party to agree that we wind up 'Rally', and the I.S. wound up their youth paper 'Rebel'.
It was agreed that Chris Davidson of the I.S. be editor, I would be business manager, and Brian Biggins of the Nottingham I.G.. would be technical editor. I travelled down from Liverpool, two weekends a month for editorial meetings. But - something which many of your readers will not be surprised at - the I.S. refused to collaborate. Not only did they refuse to publish our articles on Algeria, they were not prepared to discuss and publish the 'Programme for Youth' which the whole collaboration had been based on. As has been their tradition since, with the SWP, it is either 'rule or ruin'.
On these fundamental issues, I and all the other Socialist Fight comrades withdrew. The actions of the I.S. confirmed the view of most of our Merseyside youth comrades who had opposed the closing down of 'Rally'.
Out of frustration and dissatisfaction with the lack of democratic collaboration in 'Young Guard', our comrades on Merseyside supported the cyclo-styled journal of the Liverpool Garston Young Socialists - 'Youth for Socialism'. This is what we were selling at the Easter 1964 National Conference of the Young Socialists in Brighton. However our desire for a new national printed paper, prompted a campaign for funds, which was enthusiastically backed by our worker and youth supporters around 'Socialist Fight'. Your readers should be interested to know that the first issue of 'Militant - for Labour and Youth' was on sale in time for the October '64 general election campaign.
In the course of your biographical piece, you suggest that John Baird, was possibly the first Trotskyist MP and make the incredibly ignorant, if not cynical, statement that it would be, "of immense strategic interest to understand what, if anything, the Grant tendency were to learn from the experience of having three MPs in their tendency, and how what they learned was applied subsequently. Of great interest but as yet unknowable".
It was Peter Taaffe, as general secretary of the Militant tendency, now the Socialist Party, who was in constant discussion with these MPs. He has written a number of books - two of them dealing at length with these issues and the struggles of the working class in support of them. Both 'The Rise of Militant: the First 30 Years' and 'Liverpool: The City that Dared to Fight' (which he wrote with Tony Mulhearn) have been widely read and acclaimed by workers who were involved at the time, as well as by new younger activists. They have recently been reprinted. In addition, numerous pamphlets where written and many articles have appeared in our journals, plus public meetings for all to participate in. We constantly draw lessons from our history as with that of all past workers' struggles.
Some who live in the past, but had little contact with those events and with current struggles, may still prefer to refer to the 'Grant Tendency'. But they need to realise that the 'Militant Tendency' and its leadership has been considerably renewed. By 1964, at the time of its first issue, Peter Taaffe had been elected editor of Militant and in 1965 was elected general secretary of the tendency, although Ted Grant still played an important part. In his books, both before and after Ted Grant split away, Peter paid tribute to the past contribution he had made.
As I worked closest to Ted for 30 years, and Peter for 50 years, your readers should be informed that, of the national leaders who the Liverpool comrades and MPs were constantly in touch with, it was Peter alongside Tony Saunois (a past member of Labour's National Executive), Lynn Walsh, now "Socialism Today" Editor, and others, for advice and guidance. So much was this the case that Peter had to convince Derek Hatton - the prominent figure in the Liverpool struggle - that in the interests of party unity, he had to give some mention of Ted in his book 'Inside Left'. The complete opposite to this, of course, was the approach of the so-called 'History', attributed to Ted, by the few who split from Militant with him in 1991.
The MPs themselves played a huge role in the leadership and impact of our group at the time. The Socialist Party today still benefits from that. Dave Nellist, is still in the fore-front of backing workers' struggles and the campaign to build a new mass workers' party through the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). Pat Wall, who had to defeat the Labour leadership as well as the Tories, to get elected in Bradford, would have been with us in these struggles as are his wife Pauline and their son Simon today. I believe Terry Fields, who was imprisoned for refusing to pay the Poll Tax and disgracefully expelled from the Labour Party, would also have been with us in these current struggles.
Despite the political and organisational differences with the I.S. and SWP and consequent mistrust over the years, we in the Socialist Party have always made attempts to work with them in the cause of left unity. This is the case when working with them individually, in the trade unions, or as a party such as accepting them into the 'Socialist Alliance' and now trying to collaborate in the electoral field through TUSC. We will continue to do so as with other lefts who seriously represent something in the workers' movement.