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John Archer, 1909-2000: A Personal Tribute to a Revolutionary Life

Mike Calvert

WHEN ANY revolutionary militant dies, it is a loss to the cause, but when it is someone you were very close to, and moreover someone who had accumulated many years of experience in the movement, the loss is even greater.

John Archer, a founding member of the Fourth International and a veteran of the Trotskyist movement in Britain, died on Saturday 23 December 2000. John had been a dedicated militant during a political life that spanned seven decades. He had been a member, and leader, of the Militant group in the 1930s. He attended the congress of the Fourth International in 1946 that was raided on the instructions of François Mitterand. In the 1950s he was a leading member of the "Club", the political tendency led by Gerry Healy. For most of that time he had his companion of many years, Mary, by his side helping in and also leading the work of the respective organisations. (She died in the mid-1980s and a tribute to her appeared in Socialist Newsletter, then the journal of the Socialist Labour Group, which they were both members of at the time.)

The Healy group made some important inroads in a number of local Labour Parties during that period. Leeds seems to have been an area of particular strength, with John and Mary Archer at the heart of it. It was in Leeds that John and Mary recruited Bob Pennington to the Trotskyist movement. And it was another member of the Leeds group, Dulcie Yelland, who seconded the Club-inspired unilateralist motion at the 1957 Labour Party conference.

John very much identified with the International Committee (IC) tradition of Trotskyism associated with James P. Cannon and Healy, rather than with the International Secretariat/United Secretariat wing associated with Pablo and Mandel. Having broken from the Healy-led tendency, he became a convinced partisan of the politics associated with the OCI (later PCI), a French political group in the IC tradition led by Pierre Lambert. In 1971, along with Betty Hamilton and others, John helped to establish the Bulletin Group, which followed the Organising Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International (OCRFI), the international tendency led by Lambert and François Demassott. The 1970s was viewed by John and Mary as perhaps the most important period of their work in the Trotskyist movement.

John and other comrades worked to bring about a fusion with supporters of Nahuel Moreno’s international current, which resulted in the formation of the Parity Committee in 1980. This split within a few months when Moreno attacked the positions of the French PCI in relation to the perspective of the united front with the Socialist Party. John supported the forces that became the Fourth International/International Centre of Reconstruction (FI/ICR). In Britain these were organised in the Socialist Labour Group (SLG).

In 1986 some comrades in the SLG around Harry Vince began to become sceptical about Lambert’s project of reconstruction and his declared intention to "reproclaim the Fourth International", which he had earlier pronounced dead as a result of the 1953 split between Cannon and Pablo. Vince and his supporters backed Luis Favre and other critics of Lambert within the PCI/OCRFI, who argued that there had been historical errors and that the time to rectify the 1953 split was at hand. At a congress in 1987 the SLG – John included – backed the Favre faction, establishing a Liaison Committee which eventually resulted in the dissolution of these forces.

In 1989, after protracted discussions, John and the SLG joined the British section of the United Secretariat (USec) – the International Socialist Group (ISG), which was itself the product of a fusion between an organisation originating in the Socialist League (formerly the International Marxist Group – IMG) and another grouping around Alan Thornett. John and some of his closest supporters were highly sceptical, but went along with the democratic decision of the whole group.

I first time I heard John speak was at Conway Hall in 1988 at a rally organised by the ISG to commemorate 50 years of the Fourth International, where the main speaker was USec leader Ernest Mandel. John had opposed the political thinking of Mandel for nigh on 40 years, and he made a contribution from the floor defending the traditions of the International Committee.

John and I first met at a meeting of the Lambeth branch of the ISG just after the Romanian revolution. In Housmans bookshop I had found a booklet on the fall of Ceaucescu published by La Vérité, the French language theoretical journal of the PCI, and John saw it in my bag. He was fascinated to find someone else in this new political organisation he had joined who was interested in the politics of the FI/ICR. So in the pub later we discussed our common views, and I met him at his tiny flat in Bromfelde Road in Clapham the next day. This was a fateful meeting for both of us. Here was this veteran of the movement, who had been involved in Trotskyism for fifty years and this whippersnapper looking for a mentor. We then decided that we would begin discussing with the PCI about the possibilities of political work with them, and how we could construct a section of the FI/ICR in Britain.

I was a residential social worker and a member of Lambeth NALGO at that time. I would bring round jars of coffee and milk and provisions after my shifts finished and we would get to work: discussing everything from the crisis of what we termed "Pabloism" to the state of the leadership of Lambeth NALGO, in which I was a very minor player, being a shop steward and branch committee member. John and I formed a tendency within the ISG, though at that point we had no formal links with the PCI.

Our politics were however very supportive of the positions of the FI/ICR and in particular of the Alan Benjamin group in the USA, who were able to establish a section of the FI/ICR there. I was privileged to attend and speak at its founding convention in 1992, and John helped me to prepare my speech. John himself spoke at one of their gatherings in 1995 – definitely one of the proudest moments of his life.

John and I had a meeting with François Demassott and Jean Pierre Barrois in a crowded night club in Brixton at which we decided to formally join the FI/ICR after breaking from the ISG. At the ISG’s 1991 conference we made our contributions to the discussion, and split to establish the British section of the FI/ICR with three other members. Subsequently we both agreed we might have been wrong to leave the ISG in that manner, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. John and I then travelled to Paris to meet with Pierre Lambert, Daniel Gluckstein and other leaders of the FI/ICR such as Marc Gauquelin, Miguel Cristobel and Andreu Camps with whom we held extensive discussions.

Over the years that followed, John and I continued to work closely together, exchanging letters on every subject under the sun. He was the most dedicated militant of the Trotskyist movement that I have ever met. Although I only knew him in the last ten years of his life, during his eighties and nineties, he had a profound influence over my thinking. I have a fat file of about 120 items of correspondence from the last ten years. John would write, often on scrappy bits of paper, or he would type on his trademark old typewriter, sometimes as much as ten pages. Whether he was lamenting the latest crimes of the USec or the fact that he couldn’t make us, his comrades, understand how to apply the entry tactic correctly, he would always have lots to say, but never in a way that made you feel inferior.

John used that typewriter for everything, including his many translations of books and pamphlets by Pierre Broué, an historian who was for many years a leading Lambertist. Professor Broué was a comrade John held in very high regard – even after Broué broke from the tendency that John was a part of. John was also tireless in translating the official documents of the FI/ICR into English so that they might be made available to young militants and answer the slanderers and detractors of Pierre Lambert and the FI/ICR, such as the infamous Christophe Bourseiller who wrote a 400-page book entitled The Mysterious Monsieur Blondel attacking Lambert and the Force Ouvrière trade union in France.

John was, as François Demassott observed, nothing if not an internationalist, and unlike many groups and individuals he was not afraid to admit mistakes. He did falter in the 1980s when he wasn’t sure whether reproclaiming the Fourth International was the correct international strategy. But together we read the documents of our comrades in the USA in Socialist Action, and became convinced of the worth of the Open World Conference and the method of the Fourth International. In fact we convinced one another – it was not, as many comrades think, that John was always convinced. Even the thought of leaving the relatively large and open ISG – it had 380 members – to start again with just five of us, was not a problem. John said that if you believe you are right, and that it is the necessary step, then you must take it ... we did. So we set about building a section of the FI/ICR here all over again.

In spite of the fact that John was strongly identified with one particular part of the world Trotskyist movement, that part associated with the International Committee tradition, and in particular with the FI/ICR, the comrades who sent messages to his family, and also to myself, were from a diverse range of tendencies.

There have been messages from Alan Thornett on behalf of supporters of Socialist Outlook – the paper published by the British Section of the USec. There was a message of sympathy from Bernard Regan – a leader of the NUT left wing, the Socialist Teachers Alliance, who was himself identified with the USec for many years. Keith Sinclair sent a tribute, having known John as an historian primarily. Dave Osler, a left wing journalist who was also in the ISG, sent greetings. Pierre Broué, who had a special place in John’s heart, sent his condolences, as did the group from France identified with the former PCI leader Stefan Just, known as Struggle for Socialism or CPS. Olivier Lestang, the editor of their bulletin, wrote: "We were very sad to hear of the death of the veteran comrade John Archer. Our thoughts are with his family. Please convey that to them."

Broué wrote as follows: "Dear Mike, Thank you for your messages. I could not answer, being blocked by a too long strike of my computer. But I was very moved by your help, assisting us in this bad moment. I loved John although I could not understand how he could return to an organisation of the worst type, worse than Healy’s. I know it perfectly because I was a member during 49 years. (It is true that from London or Huddersfield, the reality is not the same than from France.) Anyway, don’t forget in biographies that John was a delegate at the historic conference of April 1946."

A young comrade called Jonas Martinsson wrote from Sweden: "I am extremely sad to hear about John Archer, not just for his role in the movement, but I can understand the distress you feel about a valued friend."

John himself had never turned his back on comrades from other political tendencies. For example, he was always concerned with trying to unravel the mess the WRP got itself into. After the split in the 1980s, in order to answer the distortions peddled in the WRP paper, Workers Press, he spent a long time writing material on the dockers during the 1950s, which resulted in a pamphlet on the subject. John had a special interest in the WRP due to his role in seconding Healy’s membership of the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s, so he was most anxious to help the militants find a way through the morass. John and I spent hours poring over long WRP texts and copies of Workers Press in Bromfelde Road trying to make sense of it all.

When Bob Pennington, the former IMG/ISG leader, died several years ago, John spoke at the memorial meeting in Leeds and recounted how Bob had lived in the Archers’ attic for a while and had been very good to their two sons. Despite their being politically separated for thirty years, John still saw the positive side of Bob Pennington – the revolutionary "old sweat" as he put it. John was thrilled when comrade Bill Hunter, another "old sweat", published his autobiographical account of the early years of Trotskyism up to 1959, even though Bill was a supporter of the "Morenoite" current. John enthused that "this is how history should be written". When he saw Alan Thornett’s book Inside Cowley, he was even happier, saying that "it stank of the factory floor".

As people commented at John’s funeral, held in Huddersfield on 3 January, he was a man of high intellect and culture. He certainly bought a bit of culture and learning to my life and doubtless to many others. And, despite his commitment to politics, John was always concerned about the personal lives of his comrades, often offering almost fatherly advice. He continued to inquire about my health and relationship with my partner after he left London and moved to Huddersfield. John’s own personal life took a welcome turn when he met his second wife, Win, and found happiness all over again at the age of 83 years. Although Win was definitely not a Trotskyist, they were obviously very happy together.

John Archer should be honoured and remembered by the movement. There should be big, open memorial meetings in both Leeds and London, if it is practical. There also ought to be a fitting and permanent tribute to him: a library of resources open to all Trotskyists, not just those in the FI/ICR. All the Trotskyist tendencies and groups should get together on this and try to find a suitable place for research and storage of such materials.

One of John’s main concerns over the years that I knew and worked with him was to try and right the wrongs done to the Militant group of British Trotskyists during the 1930s that was led by Starkey Jackson and Denzil Harber. He believed that Al Richardson and Sam Bornstein had defamed the Militant group in their books on the history of British Trotskyism. He wrote a very long document on this subject that has never been officially published. We owe it to him and to the Trotskyist movement to make this piece, written in 1979, available in its entirety for the education of militants. I will strive to ensure that this text is published.

The thing that angered John the most, in addition to the fact that his former comrades, Harber and Jackson, were effectively dismissed from history, was that "Healy and the IMG have succeeded in rewriting the policy of entrism!" John wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject of entrism in the 1930s, and it is very necessary that revolutionaries today, especially with all the guff about Socialist Alliances and suchlike, should have access to and learn from it.

It is vital, and John and I always shared this view, that revolutionaries learn how to locate themselves within the mass movement of the working class: to engage not in leftist adventures, but in long term and patient work within the Labour Party. If we as revolutionaries are able to do that, then the legacy of John Archer will be preserved forever.