Life After Trotskyism: A Personal Account
AFTER READING Reluctant Revolutionary many people have asked me what I did after leaving the Socialist Labour League in 1960. Did I engage in any further trade union or political activity? How did my views develop, etc? There also seems to be interest among researchers into the history of the socialist movement about the subsequent actions and thinking of activists after they have left the movement. I gave a bare summary in the Postscript to my book. Here I will go into more detail. This is only partly to answer these queries. It is also partly from vanity, in the illusion that my doings might be of interest to others, and partly for my family.
What Commitment Meant
Christians use the birth of Christ as a dividing point between eras – before and after, BC or AD. For me personally the 5th of March 1960 marks the divide between "before" and "after". My leaving the Socialist Labour League on that day was a traumatic turning point in my life. Since I had joined the Militant Group at the age of 16 I had consciously dedicated my whole life to the movement. As I had explained to my future wife Olive, when we had talked about making our lives together: "You must understand that the movement comes first. If it requires that we go and live in a tent in the middle of the Sahara this is what we shall have to do." And this is how it was. Where we lived, what job I took was determined by the needs of the movement. After participating in the underground activities of a Trotskyist group in France in the early days of the war I returned to England in June 1940 on the instructions of the group to assist two of our leaders, Pierre Frank and Raymond Molinier, who had fled to Belgium to avoid arrest and then had to flee to England after the German invasion. (Incidentally, this was fortunate for me since if I had remained in France a few more days I would have been trapped by the German occupation and would have been on three Gestapo wanted lists, as a Jew, as a Trotskyist and as an enemy alien. In fact shortly after the Germans entered Paris the Gestapo raided my mother’s flat searching for me.)
Back in England, after Pierre Frank had been arrested and Molinier fled to South America, I could have avoided, or at least delayed, being conscripted, but went out of my way to be called up because I believed that revolutionaries should be where the workers were, in a factory or in the army. After the war and demobilisation I could have gone back to my old job with a City firm of chartered accountants, but after Olive and I consulted our faction, the Minority in the Revolutionary Communist Party, we settled in Manchester to start a branch there at their behest and I got a job on the shop floor at an engineering works as an unskilled labourer.
A Non-Political Life
There was also the change in personal relationships with other people. When in the movement, there were only political comrades, potential comrades whom we sought to win over, or political enemies. There was no room and no time for non-political, purely personal, friendships. So it gave me added pleasure to be now able to relate to people in a non-political fashion. For example, George Stonehouse was the treasurer of the East Salford Labour Party. He was a right-winger therefore a political enemy. After I left the SLL he and I started playing snooker at the local church hall once a week with two other men, one of whom was a policeman or ex-policeman. Unthinkable for members of the SLL – a case for expulsion or at least censure few weeks before! One evening walking home after the snooker he was telling me of some incident in the Labour Party. "I tried to tell them", he said, "but they never take any notice of me." I knew this wasn’t true as he had a lot of influence. "Oh, but they do", I replied, "Much more than you deserve!" I added. He burst out laughing and for months after kept on quoting my reply as the best example of a back-handed compliment he had heard.
As there was now no political need for me to be trade union militant on the shop floor I was free to find a better and more pleasant job. I could, I suppose, have gone back to accounting; but I did not fancy this. Instead I took advantage of the fact that I was registered as disabled (due to deafness caused by war service) and got accepted for a course on draughtsmanship at a Government Training Centre in Liverpool. With this new qualification I obtained a job in the drawing office at Ward & Goldstones in Salford. Then, when we moved to Derbyshire in 1963 I got a job in the tool design office at Erricson’s (soon to be taken over by Plessey Ltd) at Beeston.
Non-Factional Trade Union Activity
The 1970-74 Tory government of Edward Heath attempted to defuse wage militancy by introducing the so-called "Threshold Clause". In return for unions exercising "responsibility" in wage claims, the government advised that as soon as the Retail Price Index rose by a specified percentage this should trigger a proportionate increase in pay. When the time arrived Plessey refused such an increase. As a result both the manual unions ( the AEU, TGWU, Electricians etc) and the white collar and technical staff unions (DATA, ASTMS etc) declared a strike. This was the first time the manual workers and the technical and white collar staff had acted together. Not only did we strike but we occupied the site for three weeks and won.
In this the Plessey strike-occupation was merely one of the components in the biggest wave of industrial militancy seen in Britain for half a century. The ’70s saw two miners’ strikes (one of which brought down the Heath government), strikes by dockers and engineers, the Upper Clyde shipbuilders’ "work-in", strikes by building workers, strikes against the Industrial Relations Act, etc.
In spite of my intention of keeping a low profile and not becoming involved again in union activities, my previous union background and experience became apparent and I got pushed by my colleagues into taking a more active role than I had intended in these disputes – being elected to the branch committee, participating in negotiations with the management, organising the solidarity payments etc, sitting on the Joint Strike Committee during the stay-in strike.
But on these occasions my attitude was very different from the one I had had when I was in the Healy group and the Socialist Labour League. This time I was not trying to push a political agenda, not trying to build a political faction or recruit to an organisation. I acted on each issue free from any political preconceptions or agenda separate from the immediate issues involved. And as soon as I decently could I stepped down from any position in the union structure.
A "Non-Political" Campaign
This is the story of the campaign. It indicates how different was our approach then to what it would have been in our politically committed days
Early 1990 one of the block of five bungalows became vacant and was not re-let. Then a second one also became vacant and was not re-let, though we knew of pensioners in the area who wanted one. We wondered what was afoot, and Olive went to see the local councillor and expressed our concern and fear that the council intended to sell or dispose of these bungalows and asked whether there were plans to evict the three remaining tenants, including Olive’s sister. We also raised the matter at a meeting of the Parish Council, who wrote to the Borough Council.
The bombshell came in a reply from the Director of Housing of the Borough Council, dated 23 April 1990, that the site of these bungalows was considered "appropriate for redevelopment". The remaining tenants would not be evicted as they enjoyed a "life tenancy" but as each remaining unit became vacant due to the death or voluntary moving of the tenant it would not be re-let. Then when the last unit had been vacated the bungalows would be pulled down and the site "redeveloped".
Although we were assured that the existing tenants would not be moved, the appalling prospect was that when the next tenant left or died there would be only two left, and three empty units. Then, when the next tenant left or died, the one remaining pensioner would be left isolated among four empty units with boarded up or broken windows, in constant danger of vandalism or hooligans and probably infested with rats while the Council waited for him or her to die!
So Olive and I, supported by Joyce’s children, decided to organise a campaign to reverse this decision.
We decided that a lot of individual letters to the Council would have more effect than a petition. There was also the fact that writing a letter involved the individual more than just signing one’s name to a petition shoved under one’s nose. So we drafted a model letter embodying the points we thought ought to be made. These were the horrible prospects for the remaining tenants, the fact that they would not want to move voluntarily out of the village as they had family and roots there, the social need met by the bungalows and the fact that there was a waiting list for them, the adverse effect of the possible private development. We distributed this in the village and asked people to put these arguments in their own words. The response was very good. Over thirty people wrote to the Council.
Our next step was to organise a lobby of the next meeting of the Housing Committee. Over a dozen lobbyists sat at the back of the meeting while our local councillor, a Tory, rather weakly questioned the Housing Committee’s decision. After all, he was being pressurised by his constituents to oppose a decision of his own Tory group. Although the Labour minority supported us the Committee refused to budge.
After leaving the Housing Committee meeting all the lobbyists met in a downstairs room of the Town Hall to discuss what to do. Olive and I proposed that we set up an Action Committee and call a public protest meeting in the village.
Now I come to the point in the story where I have to explain how Olive and I acted completely differently to how we would have acted if we had still been Trotskyists. As such, we would have tried to ensure that we "controlled" the Action Committee. We would have worked to secure the positions of chair and secretary and tried to pack the committee with political supporters – that is, if we had any. We would have tried to "politicise" the campaign; that is, explicitly attacked the Tory majority on the Council, tried to draw the Labour Party into the campaign, emphasised the political aspect of the campaign and so on.
We did none of this, for two reasons. The first, as I have explained, is that we had no political motive. We were not even in the Labour Party. Our concern was the purely practical one of getting the decision to demolish the bungalows rescinded and thus protect Olive’s sister and her fellow OAP tenants. The second reason was that we were guided by purely practical considerations.
The village was originally a farming community; but with most of the farms closing it had become a dormitory village. It had a large number of professional and managerial people, a number of skilled and white collar workers and many pensioners. In local and parliamentary elections it was a solidly Tory area. A political campaign with anti-Tory rhetoric would have antagonised the bulk of any potential supporters. The Labour group on the Council was in a minority and unable to overturn the decision of the Tory majority.
Our only chance was somehow to win the support of sufficient numbers of Tory councillors. Many of the people who had sent letters of protest and joined the lobby were Conservative voters. In fact the local Conservative Association, as well as the Parish Council and the local rector, had all expressed concern. Although various people had been prepared to propose myself and/or Olive as chair and/or secretary of the Action Committee as we had initiated the whole campaign, we deliberately avoided this. Instead I asked Alan Walmsley, who had been on the lobby and was treasurer of the local Conservative Association, whether he would take on the job of secretary. He did so, and Eric Green, the chair of the Parish Council, took on the position of chair of the Action Committee. I was just a plain member.
The public meeting we called, in the village Memorial Hall, was attended by over a hundred people – very good considering the size of the village. I was the main speaker and kept to the purely practical and humanitarian issues.
As a result of all this pressure the Council agreed to meet the Action Committee. At this meeting the Director of Housing said little or nothing about "redevelopment" but argued that because the bungalows were "prefab", built in the ’50s to the then "R.E.E.M.A" design using pre-cast reinforced concrete blocks they were now unsafe. Corrosion of the internal steel reinforcement could not be detected without destructive testing. The Council were now legally obliged by the 1984 Housing Act to pull them down.
Although other members of the Action Committee seemed impressed by these arguments I was sceptical and decided to check up on the 1984 Housing Act in the Derby Central Library. I discovered it had little to do with safety and did not require any local authority to pull down dwellings because of the use of pre-cast reinforced concrete. (If the use of pre-cast reinforced concrete had been a reason, then, logically, every structure in the country, motorway bridges included, using this was dangerous and would have had to be pulled down). The Act had been passed to deal with quite a different problem. Since council tenants were now able to buy their dwellings, many of them, when trying to resell found that building societies were reluctant to grant mortgages on any but brick-built buildings. To get over this problem the Act allowed local authorities to declare these buildings "defective". This formality entitled the owners to a refurbishment grant to incorporate brick walls, thus enabling them to get a mortgage. It had nothing to with safety. Researching the minutes and records of the Borough Council I also discovered that the Council had twice commissioned surveys by independent consultant engineers, the latest only recently, and these had reported the dwellings in good condition, in need of no major repairs and good for many years.
I knew councillors and council officials were not above pulling the wool over people’s eyes, but this was so blatant a misrepresentation that I wondered whether I was missing something. To set my mind at rest I contacted Brendan Killeavy, the senior Labour councillor on the Housing Committee and met him and the leader of the Labour group, Councillor Jeffreys. They confirmed my findings and also provided me with the number on the waiting list, which was higher than the figure given us by the council officials.
When I reported all this to the next meeting of the Action Committee the other members accused me of bad faith. I had all along insisted I wanted to keep party politics out of it; now I had gone behind their backs, conferring with the Labour Party! I replied I had not gone behind their backs as I was now reporting this contact. Moreover, if they were happy to accept the support of the local Conservative Association, which had itself expressed disquiet at the Council’s decision, why should they object to seeking information from the Labour group.
The opposition aroused in the village to the Council’s decision was fed by two separate concerns. One was the humane concern over the plight of the elderly tenants. The other was concern that the "redevelopment" of the existing site and new access to land behind it would open the way to a new housing estate. There was a fear among some of the villagers that this would spoil the charm of the village and reduce the values of their properties.
The Council moved to allay this concern by announcing that there were no plans for a housing estate and that after the bungalows were demolished the existing site would be earmarked only for dwellings for the elderly.
The next meeting of the Action Committee decided to call another public meeting, report that they had achieved ninety per cent of their objectives and would therefore wind up the Action Committee. I opposed this, pointing out that the main humanitarian issue, the plight of the remaining elderly tenants surrounded by deserted bungalows had not been resolved. Moreover, the Council’s pledge about using the site for the elderly could mean anything. It could mean the erection of a privately owned residential home for profit, charging exorbitant rates affordable only by the wealthy. I said I would speak at the public meeting against the disbanding of the Action Committee and for a continuation of the campaign, if necessary, by a new Action Committee. Eric Green said I must accept the majority decision and he, as chair, would stop me from speaking at the meeting. The argument got very heated. I said we were not in Stalinist East Germany and he wasn’t Honecker! I don’t think he, a respectable Conservative chairman of a Parish Council, was too pleased at being bracketed with a Stalinist!
In the event I did speak at the meeting but we were unable to get a replacement Action Committee elected as two of our most likely supporters were unable, due to other commitments, to attend and the third person I had primed to propose the election a new committee did not do so.
It looked as if our efforts had come to nothing. However, the local elections were only a few months away. In anticipation of Labour winning a majority on the Council I wrote to the Labour group, thanking them on behalf of the OAPs for their support and trusting that if they won control of the Council at the elections they would reverse the decision to demolish the bungalows. In May 1991 Labour did win control of the Council. I immediately contacted Brendan Killevey, who was now Chair of the Housing Committee. Olive and I again got a number of letters written to the new Council.
The new Council immediately let the empty units to new tenants, and now, over ten years later, the five bungalows are still standing and occupied. In addition the tenants each have had a panic phone and panic button installed linked to an Emergency Centre. This had been one of our requests.
It is doubtful whether without our campaign and agitation the new Labour majority would have rescinded the decision of the former administration. More often than not, new council majorities usually leave in place the decisions of earlier ones unless pushed to do so.
After years of political campaigning in the Trotskyist movement, trying to change the world and achieving very little, here was a small scale campaign Olive and I started with a very limited objective which was achieved. We made no political capital, converted no one to socialism – but we did help preserve a better quality of life for a few pensioners.
Maybe there are some lessons to be learnt. In some circumstances a bit of pragmatism and acceptance of the limits of the immediately possible is more productive than the purest of revolutionary politics – which often turns out to be phrase mongering.
Once More on the Role of the Individual
To answer this question I must first explain what led to my break in the first place. As I wrote in Reluctant Revolutionary, it was the conclusion I had arrived at that my efforts and activity made absolutely no difference to the success or failure of the movement; either to the success or failure of the Socialist Labour League, or, more generally, to the struggle for socialism. I had, years ago, read Plekhanov’s The Role of the Individual in History. But while accepting his arguments in theory I had not, till then, related them to my own role.
The events that led me to do this were the National Assembly of Labour organised by the SLL in November 1959 and the attempt to follow it up with regional assemblies including one in Manchester. The National Assembly had been a follow up on the previous year’s Industrial Rank and File Conference. Both had been relatively successful. According to The Newsletter the National Assembly had ben attended by over 700 people, of whom 283 were delegates representing shopstewards and local union branches from engineering factories, building sites, docks, coal mining, railways, peace organisations, Labour Youth sections, Labour and Communist Party groups. The Manchester branch of the SLL was instructed to follow this up by organising a Manchester Assembly of Labour and I was appointed to be the organiser. We proceeded to issue leaflets and circulated union branches and district committees, shopstewards committees, labour parties etc. Brian Arundel who was a National Union of Railwaymen branch secretary visited NUR branches and contacts; Jim Allen, Jim Swan and Joe Ryan concentrated on the pits while I started a tour of all the AEU branches. The response was very poor. As I visited AEU branches the same scene would be repeated night after night and branch after branch. Members queuing up at the table to pay their dues but walking out as soon as their cards had been marked up leaving barely half a dozen to participate in the branch business. I would be given permission to address this half dozen. The chairman would then say; "Well, you have heard what Brother Ratner has to say. Anybody interested in attending this Assembly?" Dead silence. "Thank you Bro. Ratner. Now the next item on the agenda is ..." Occasionally, particularly if a Communist Party member or a committed right-winger were present, there would be hostile questions. But no delegate elected. The response from other unions and organisations was no better. With a week to go we had received only a handful of requests for delegates’ credentials and it became clear that the Assembly would be a flop. If there had been violent opposition at least that would have been something. But apathy was demoralising.
It became clear to me that the SLL’s and Healy’s optimism about the situation being one of growing militancy, and of an actual or imminent radicalisation of the working class was very wide of the mark. On the contrary the real situation was that the post-war boom and rising living standards had, at best reinforced reformist ideas within he working class, if not led to a depoliticisation. Far from the situation being one of actual or imminent terminal crisis of capitalism creating pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situations we were in the middle of a prolonged boom and expansion of capitalism – a situation completely unfavourable to the building of a revolutionary party. This, by itself, was no argument for abandoning the attempt to build a revolutionary party. It meant only that we should revise our perspective, recognise the existing situation for what it was. It meant that we should abandon our frenetic activity and over-optimistic targets and expectations, based on the imminence of a crisis, and adapt our activities to the perspective of a long haul, merely keeping the flickering flame alive and preserving the nucleus of an organisation, ready to take advantage of the crisis and more favourable situation when it inevitably occurred if our general Marxist analysis of the contradictions of capitalism was correct. If that was so then I should remain in the SLL and argue within it for a change of perspectives and strategy; or join another Marxist current that had a more realistic approach.
The Irrelevance of Determinism
So it was these fatalist and determinist conclusions, rather than the doubts about the SLL’s perspectives and politics, that led to my leaving the movement. And since this relieved me of all responsibility or need for political involvement there was no reason for me to work out my political position. Thus for years I remained in a state of suspended animation as far as politics were concerned, having no contact at all with the movement. As already explained, Olive and I concentrated on our personal and family lives. I started playing chess seriously and plunged into a study of physics and philosophy – mainly to sort out my ideas on determinism, not merely in relation to human history but generally.
I eventually modified my "hard" determinist views. One could assume in theory that everything was determined, not only the physical development of the universe but the thoughts, choices and actions of individual human beings (since these were dependent on physical events in the brain and nervous system, themselves determined by physical and chemical laws). But even if one assumed this, it was impossible to base oneself on this assumption as a guide to one’s daily actions. One could not, for example, wake up each morning and lie passively with a blank mind waiting for the inevitably predetermined thoughts, choices and decisions of what to do this day to invade one’s consciousness. Since one did not know what these predetermined thoughts, choices and actions would be one had to act just as a non-determinist believer in free will would act. Sentient, conscious beings with a functioning brain and nervous system, i.e. human beings, are imbued with needs and desires that impel them to act as if they had free will. Even if, objectively, their wills and actions are determined, subjectively they still have to make choices and take decisions with the subjective feeling that they are freely made choices. And these choices and actions cannot but have an effect on other people in close contact and on one’s immediate environment. Obviously my actions affect my wife, family and neighbours; they are not free of consequences. But what of the wider context? The effect of my actions on society as a whole? Here we come back again to the role of the individual in history.
My current thinking is expressed in "Historical Materialism", in New Interventions, Vol.10, No.2 (Autumn 2000). I wrote: "One interpretation of the Marxist view of history – historical materialism – can lead to a fatalistic attitude. Why should you or I bother? The course of history, hence the success or failure of the struggle for socialism, is determined by large-scale historical forces in relation to which the influence of the individual is minimal. Que sera … sera. This was in fact my attitude when I dropped out of political activity many years ago.
"However, in view of all that has been discussed above, I must [now] conclude that this fatalistic view is wrong. The individual can make a difference. How much of a difference depends on the overall objective situation and the individual’s position in the social context. Lenin had more influence than a rank and file Bolshevik. A Tony Blair or Gordon Brown has more influence than a member of a local Labour Party Management Committee. But no one can tell in advance how much influence he or she may have in the future."
So the bottom line of all this for the ordinary man or woman, the rank and file activist, is that one cannot know in advance how much or how little difference one’s efforts will make. One can modestly hope that one will contribute one or two bricks to the finished structure. But who knows? It is said every soldier carries a field marshal’s baton in his knapsack. Neither Lenin, nor Stalin nor Hitler, at the start of their political careers, knew in advance the effect they would have on history.
In the same article I concluded: "[But] even if one interprets Marxism in the most determinist manner, it is still a fact that even so-called ‘impersonal’ social and economic forces are made up of the actions of myriads of individuals, even if these are themselves determined. Even so called ‘impersonal’ economic forces are the cumulation of the actions of individuals; individuals investing in businesses, workers selling their labour, traders buying and selling; all seeking to satisfy their personal needs through economic relations. There would be no classes or class struggles without individual workers, no trade unions or parties without individuals. So in the final analysis, there is no mutual incompatibility between the so-called "impersonal" and the personal, nor between the actions of individuals and the action of social forces. Social forces are the cumulation and summation of the interrelated actions of individuals. There is no incompatibility between determinism and voluntarism. The actions of individuals in their totality and interactions are the necessary links in the networks of cause and effect that make up the so-called ‘impersonal’ social forces and determine the course of history."
I still consider myself a socialist in the sense that I believe the present global capitalism is flawed and the source of much misery, and that world socialism is desirable. But I no longer believe, as Marxists do, that socialism is historically determined to be the next stage of social development after capitalism, or that the working class is historically compelled to arrive at a consciousness of its historical role to usher in this next stage, as described by Marx. Certainly all forms of society evolve, change and give way to new forms; and this is as true of capitalism as of previous societies. But how it will change and what form future society will take is unpredictable, and socialism is only one of many possible futures.
I reject the view that the Russian Revolution of October 1917 must be a universal model of how the change from capitalism to socialism must begin. In particular I believe that in the developed countries of the West which have long established parliamentary democracies an a priori rejection of the parliamentary road is wrong. As long as it is possible, i.e. not prevented by right wing military coups, socialists must strive to win parliamentary majorities and form governments based on these majorities. Reactionary attempts to abolish or subvert parliamentary democracy must be resisted. In the process parliament itself and the state can be transformed and made more democratic. Rather than October 1917 being the model it is more likely to be the English Civil War, with a radical parliament (a part of the state machine captured by the radicals) versus another part of the state machine controlled by the old ruling establishment.
I have great reservations about historical materialism and in particular the theory that the economic base determines the political and ideological superstructure of society. The political and ideological superstructures while resting, so to speak, on material foundations react on and radically alter the base. Causality runs both ways. Economic development and the class struggle are not the only motors of social evolution – though important ones. National, ethnic, gender and religious conflicts do not necessarily coincide with class struggles. Were the wars in former Yugoslavia, between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Kosovans class struggles? How far are the conflicts in Northern Ireland a struggle between classes? What class forces do Bin Laden, the Taliban and al-Qaida represent? Certainly Muslim fundamentalism fills the vacuum created by the collapse of Marxism. Certainly it attacks and threatens global capitalism and is a reaction against its effects but it offers no viable alternative; certainly not one envisaged or desired by Marxists and socialists.
Socialism, if it is to replace capitalism, will do so not because this is determined by the objective laws of history expressed in simple class struggle but because socialists have successfully fought for it.