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Suppose He Had Been Enthusiastic

Review of Harry Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary, Socialist Platform, 1994. Paperback, 270pp, £5.95.

Jim Higgins

From New Interventions, Vol.6 No.3, 1995

IN THE American socialist movement they used to have an expression, "Jimmy Higgins work". This covered all the unglamorous, tedious and sometimes arduous tasks that have to be done to keep us going. The selling of papers at ungodly hours in the morning, making collections, bringing the soapbox to the appointed spot, manning picket lines, attempting to do serious mischief to police truncheons with one’s skull and other work of this kind. That, of course, is America. In Britain there is no such thing as Jimmy Higgins work, as those who know me will attest; here we have Harry Ratner work.

In his account of 24 years in the Trotskyist movement, Harry details a backbreaking and mind-crunching round of activity that must have required the stamina of a marathon man, the patience of Job and the dedication of Harry Ratner. It has, for example, always struck me that one of the more convincing arguments against entry into the Labour Party, and this is confirmed by Harry, is that it imposes on the revolutionary another round of meetings, canvassing, recruiting contacts and discussing the colour of the raffle tickets on top of the mandatory meetings of the revolutionary organisation that sent you into the Labour Party in the first place. I have a feeling that if the revolution just happened to break out, the vanguard would be found fast asleep on the barricades, completely knackered.

Harry details how this could happen. His diary for 1955 shows that he was: President of his AEU Branch, Chairman of his Shop Stewards Committee, Secretary of the Combine Shop Stewards Committee, Editor of a rank and file paper, member of his Labour Party Ward, Delegate from his Union to the GMC, Union delegate to the City Labour Party, on the executive of the City Labour Party, Delegate to the Trades Council and, to round things out nicely, an active member of Healy’s Club both locally and on the National Committee. This last little chore probably involved as much work as the rest put together. As well as holding down a full time job, one can assume that he occasionally spoke to his wife, perhaps as they passed on the way to their separate meetings.

Harry, by his own admission, is a reluctant revolutionary. He prefers harmony to argument and, left to his own devices, prefers to consider all sides of a question before coming to a decision. It is strange then that for most of his life in the Trotskyist movement, he has been associated with a faction that contained or was led by Gerry Healy. Here we have a homunculus created according to a blueprint designed by Kraft Ebbing and Lombroso. Gerry positively loved an argument. If one was not to hand, he would invent one. For him the idea of looking to the other man’s point of view was petit bourgeois liberalism, counter-revolutionary and strictly for cissies. A true "bolshevik" passes sentence and works out the charges later. But it was in close political proximity to Healy that Harry chose to spend most of the years from 1936 to 1960. This suggests that Harry’s commitment to the politics of the Club, which means Pablo’s up until 1953 and then Cannon’s well beyond 1960, were of such intensity that he was prepared to ignore, or excuse, the exactions of this pocket gauleiter.

In one revealing passage, Harry talks about his time as industrial organiser for the Club. At the time, 1957, Harry was still concerned about the 1953 split in the FI and was not sure that everything Pablo said was, by definition, rubbish. He worried about all of this, did not feel that there was anyone he could discuss with, and eventually found himself in the early stages of a breakdown, unable to remember simple details and unable to write reports. Finally, he was having a cup of tea with Healy in a cafe, the tea was cold and Healy roundly, rudely and unnecessarily abused the waitress. Seasoned Healy watchers would be surprised if Healy did not behave badly, but Harry was appalled and shortly afterwards, with only coppers to spare, took a train home to Salford. On the train he was in a state of euphoria, he says. "All the weight of the previous weeks and months had slipped off my shoulders, I felt a free man."

Within a few weeks he went back. At first he insisted on maintaining his mental reservations on Pablo, but the sub committee (Healy, Bill Hunter and Tony and Michael Banda) insisted that he should deny his reservations, even in the forum of his own skull. Michael Banda, whose total lack of charm was a compound of vainglory, menace and sub-Stalinism, said: "Soon, in the revolution, we shall be shooting Pabloites. So you’d better be clear." Eventually, wearied of all this, Harry conceded that he had "no reservations about the Group’s attitude to the Pabloites", another small Darkness at Noon. Healy and the Bandas won many "victories" of this kind, including some over Bill Hunter, who on several occasions was forced to confess his grave political errors and seek the mercy seat. In Harry Ratner’s case they did gain another two years of selfless and dedicated work, which is a great deal more than they deserved.

One of the threads that runs through Harry’s book is the question of the role of the individual in history. With Plekhanov, he believes that the socialist future of mankind does not depend on whether he, or any other individual, is active or not. This means, effectively, that all of Harry’s years in the movement, and they are not over yet, matters not at all. The revolution will take place, or it won’t. So if it gets a bit revolutionary while I’m not there, start without me.

Ever since Cyril Smith suggested ("What Was Marx Trying to Do?", New Interventions, Vol.3 No.1, 1992) – and this is the only part of his article I understood – that Plekhanov misinterpreted Marx and misled Lenin and subsequent generations of would be Marxists, I have felt the need to look a bit more carefully at the work of the Father of Russian Marxism. Plekhanov says: "... influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequences, but they cannot change their general trend which is determined by other forces" (G.V. Plekhanov, The Role of the Individual in History, quoted by Harry Ratner, page 243). Now all of that sounds pretty reasonable stuff, particularly as it is cast in the familiar terms of a Marxist guru speaking in papal mode. But what measure of proof is there here? If, Plekhanov says, Robespierre had been run over by a number 8 bus on his way to the convention, his place and his role would have been filled by another. Again, and more recently, in the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky were no more vital to their revolution than Robespierre was to his. The problem here is that all of this is totally unprovable. History happens and no subsequent analyst (unless he is a Stalinist or subscribes to the Healy school of metaphysics) can change the cast list retrospectively. You cannot play controlled experiments with historical events, adding and subtracting individuals to times long past. Plekhanov’s broad sweep of great social forces transcending the puny efforts of mere mortals, and also absolving them from the need to work for social change, is presenting the abstraction of social dynamics as a great all encompassing machine that once started will inevitably arrive at its determined destination.

It is fairly obvious that at different times, with different relations of forces in society, the role of individuals can be quite crucial. If, for example, you wish to have an aggressive war, try to be led by Napoleon I rather than Napoleon III. Similarly, in Russia in 1917, if you want to win and the class forces are very evenly balanced, put your money on Lenin, don’t even back Kerensky for a place

In a short article (unfinished and found in his papers after his death, later published under the title: "The Class, the Party and the Leadership") Trotsky makes the point that in 1917 Lenin’s presence was absolutely critical to the success of the revolution. According to Trotsky, the years of building the party had established a relationship of trust between Lenin and the party rank and file and, in their turn, that rank and file had built their reputation in the factories. It was that extended special relationship, says LDT, that made it possible for Lenin to change the political line of the bolsheviks and to bid for power. Let us consider our number 8 bus hurtling down the Nevsky Prospekt and catching Lenin a death-dealing blow, as he absent-mindedly attempted to negotiate the zebra crossing against the lights. Who would replace him? Not Trotsky, he was not a member of the party. Not Zinoviev or Kamenev, who were against the seizure of power. Not Stalin, who was neatly lined up behind the provisional government. Somebody else then – well who? As it happens it does not matter, because there were no number 8s or a zebra crossing in Leningrad and Lenin did actually survive long enough to play a crucial role, to the point that a reasonable man might well say that he was instrumental in changing "the general trend of events."

I take it as axiomatic that we all have something to contribute, no matter how modest that contribution may be. Harry, for example, has made his mark. He has recruited some people to socialism, he has influenced many more and, in his current efforts to clarify his own mind, he is helping to clarify others. We do what we can and, as Tony Cliff never tired of telling us, "Even the most beautiful woman in Paris can give no more than she’s got."

One of the joys of Harry’s book is that one comes across people and events with which one was already familiar. I joined the Club in 1957, recruited by Len Knight and Cyril Smith. Despite the fact that I found Healy to be a deeply unattractive individual there was much to admire and a lot to learn in its ranks. Among the people who I rated most highly was John Daniels, a Marxist educationalist and an ex-candidate member of the CPGB executive. Here was a man of great cultural depth, with a tremendous sense of humour and a commensurate appetite for beer. He was excellent company and a persuasive man with an idea. He was exactly the sort of individual that the Trotskyist movement needed and obtained, briefly, in 1957. In very little time Daniels was coediting Labour Review, the Club’s theoretical journal, with another member of the Nottingham branch, Bob Shaw. It is difficult to imagine anyone more different from John Daniels than Bob Shaw. Here was a man who had seen the light with such blinding clarity that there was no room for doubt. The Club was 100% right and Gerry Healy was even more correct. This absolute certainty was allied to a temperament as fun loving as the Ayatollah Khomeini, a total absence of humour and a presentational style which put him in the Olympic Gold Medal class for boredom. His wife and "co-thinker" Mickie was, if anything, a bit worse than Bob. For such true-believers, time spent on entertainment, on holiday or on a hobby is both incomprehensible and reprehensible.

Daniels, culpably uncaring of how many Newsletters he might otherwise have sold, proposed to go to France for a couple of weeks holiday with Edward Thomson (Professor of Classics at Nottingham University and a member of the SLL). Shaw, in his cut price Savanarola mode, approached Edward enquiring what he and John would be doing in France. The reply was: "Lying on the beach and swimming." "What, all the time?" said Shaw – you can see Bob had a disconcertingly literal mind. "Well," replied Thomson, "there’s always Pablo to see over in Milan." Edward, who had first heard of Pablo a couple of days before, should, nevertheless, have known not to make jokes to people totally lacking in humour.

The very next morning Thomson awoke to find a copy of "Against Pablo Revisionism" on his front door mat. Shortly afterwards, John Daniels received a letter from Gerry Healy:

"We have been informed by the Nottingham Branch that you have planned a visit to Italy to see Pablo. We feel it is rather important that you should clarify the position between the yourself and the League.... The National Committee ... instructed me to write to you suggesting that you place in writing as soon as possible your objections and criticisms of the League."

This letter was written at the end of August 1959. It will surprise nobody that by December of the same year Daniels had been expelled from the SLL. I am grateful to Harry for reminding me of this golden moment from the past. As ridiculous as it is grotesque, it goes some way to explain why the movement has not only been unsuccessful in its own terms, but also by any other yardstick no matter how modest the scale.

Although all of this is 35 years behind us, it still retains its ability to make one laugh. Healy really did have an exceptionally good epistolary line in pomposity with an underlying note of threat. A few years after all of this I once wrote to him, under instruction of the IS group, for talks on unity. "Dear Comrade Healy ..." my letter began. The reply came not through the mail, but in the pages of the Workers Press: "Mr Higgins, By what impudent authority do you presume ..." A man who can write such delicious flapdoodle as that cannot be totally beyond redemption.

Eventually, in 1960, Harry had enough of Healy and the SLL. He could not ration his commitment; it was either 25 hours a day or not at all. He and his wife resolved to have a little "personal time". And quite right too. In the last few years Harry has started to write again, largely in the pages of this magazine. What he writes is always interesting and interestingly presented, whether one agrees or not. It all makes one think, that all those years ago, if he had been in different company and given time to think, his contribution might have been even greater. The movement could never have enough of the people who had a grasp of theory, an ability to expound it and the character to win the day-to-day confidence of industrial workers. His book is a totally honest account of his life in the movement and will undoubtedly help in making socialists and building new and better organisations for those socialists to join.