Jim Allen: The flawed bard of the working class

Submitted by dalcassian on 11 July, 2014 - 12:44

JIM Allen, who has died after a long illness, on 24 June, 1999, at the age of 72, was an important working class writer.

He made the script for Ken Loach's moving and inspiring 1996 film on the Spanish Civil War, "Land and Freedom". In the 1960s and '70s he wrote a number of important TV plays about working class struggles. "The Lump" was about gang master-run non-unionised building workers. The "Big Flame" was about workers seizing and occupying the Liverpool docks. "Days of Hope", a TV series in the mid-'70s, told the story of the British labour movement in the years between the First World War and the General Strike (1926).

I knew him well, at one time and over a number of years.

Allen was never an anarchist, but there was a strong streak of anarcho-syndicalism in his best work. In many respects it was the best thing there – the depiction of raw, militant industrial revolt.

His later work – what Ken Loach in an obituary in The Guardian called his "mature" work – was less original and arguably inferior to his early work. Where "The Lump" and "Big Flame" pushed politics to the margins, and Days of Hope told a long-agreed story of politics, his later work dealt with politics in which Allen tended to get lost. Allen's play "Perdition" is, in my opinion, an awful monument to the state of the left, whose majority views it depicted.

Allen was "Manchester Irish", born in 1926 in the working class inner- Manchester district of Collyhurst. His first trade was that of a "maker" – someone who assembled/glued together the pieces of raincoats – in the garment industry.

He became a Trotskyist in 1948, recruited in the Labour Party by the group led by Gerry Healy, which published "Socialist Outlook". There is a fine piece of work by him in that paper, a letter to his new-born nephew, in which Allen, still in his early '20s, explained the socialism that would be central to his life.

For reform socialism, this was a good time: a Labour government was in power and setting up the modern welfare state. Real and important reforms were being won for the working class by the Labour Party in power. For radical socialists of Allen's type, it was a time of retreat and self-questioning.

They hated Stalinism. Nonetheless they felt obliged to side with Russia and its satellites, which they saw as deformed offspring of the Bolshevik workers revolution of 1917, against the capitalist West.

It was a time when Trotskyists were still being branded and persecuted by the Stalinists, and those they influenced in the trade unions and in the Labour Party, as "fascists" and "agents of imperialism". The Trotskyists were very few, and they had to be very tough to swim against the tides of seemingly vindicated Labour reform socialism, and of a Stalinism which controlled a third of the earth and was expanding.

Things did not ease until the mid-'5Os, when, in 1956, Nikita Krushchev, Stalin's heir, denounced his predecessor as a half-crazy mass murderer on a gigantic scale. After that, the Trotskyist movement found space in which to grow.

Allen was politically shaped in this world. In the '50s and '60s, he went to work where it would be politically most useful. He worked in the three great manual jobs of his time, with the men who did the heaviest and most dangerously demanding physical work. The docks before containerisation, when great armies of men humped and manhandled cargoes on and off ships and in and out of warehouses. The coalmines, nationalised by the Labour government. The building industry. Dockers, miners and builders were the workers he would idealise and glorify in his best work.

The Healy group led a major docks strike in 1955 and, working on the Manchester ship Canal, he was involved in that. Allen then worked at Bradford colliery, a pit in the suburbs of Manchester, surrounded by houses and factories. His brother John, who had the same politics, also worked there, together with other Trotskyists such as Jim Swann, Joe Ryan, and Tommy Byrne. They started a paper, The Miner, which Allen initially edited.

Allen was always restless and on the move. He had a very strong ego and sense of self, and a frustrated literary drive. He probably never took easily to the self-subordination demanded by his organisation. By the time I first encountered him, around 1960, he was effectively ceasing to be a committed militant, though he was in and out of the branch for years afterwards.

IN the mid-'60s, the BBC produced Allen's play, "The Lump". He then began to write for Coronation Street. He retained his connections with the Healy Group. I understand that it was Alan, noticing that the vast majority of actors where at any one time unemployed, who started what would become the very important Healyite implantation in the Actors Union.

The last time I talked to Allen was in 1987 on the telephone about his play Perdition. It was an angry, and brief, exchange.

The last serious discussion I had with him had been a decade earlier when I ran into him in a Manehester pub. Writing "Days of Hope", he was fu}l of his discoveries: he'd found a secret letter written by a trade union leader to the state authorities pledging his support in some upcoming clash, and so on. He struck me as one who was intensely reliving the working-class struggles of that time. It was good to see it.

And Allen's current politics then? Like a man being very daring he told me there were "serious questions" he would some day "ask Healy" about the state of the Trotskyist movement. By that stage the Healy Group had gone blatantly crazy – in the pages of its daily paper, for example, and was on the eve of selling itself as loyal propagandist and spy (on Arabs in Britain and on prominent British Jews) to Colonel Gadafy and Saddam Hussein. Allen had been 30 years in politics. He had still only "questions" to "ask Healy"! He hadn't kept up.

The tragedy of Allen's later work is that it was politically primitive. That was because Allen himself never seems to have come to terms with the degeneration of the left. His "mature" work is the proof of it. For instance, though it is very moving, the politics of Land and Freedom are all askew.

It is so structured that the whole argument as between the Stalinist-bourgeois bloc on one side and working-class revolutionaries on the other is focused on a debate about whether a militia or a regular army is best. That debate could not carry the weight and complexity of the major real dispute between the revolutionary socialists and the Stalinists. One could be for both a regular army and for the revolution... Worse, in the film's "discussions", the incipient Stalinist is – God knows why – allowed to win the argument!

The focus on the question "militia or standing army" also implies an analysis of what went wrong in Russia... Except that the leader of the revolutionary workers, in their victories and then in their terrible defeats, Leon Trotsky, was for a "bureaucratic" army and the leader of the future bureaucratic counter-revolution, Stalin, was one of his opponents on this question. It may indicate that somewhere in the back of Allen's mind there lurked implicit, un-thought-out criticism of the Russian Revolution..

All in all, somehow, it is the working class dimension of the Spanish revolution that is missing from Land and Freedom. One could take from it the resigned, sweetly melancholic, masochistic-romantic conclusion that "revolution" is "good" but hopeless and "impractical".

The Loach-Allen movie Hidden Agenda is a competent thriller, but its picture of the politics of Northern Ireland, against which it is set, is blinkered Catholic nationalism (the dominant point of view on the general left of course). Ireland's "troubles" are still what they were in 1920: it is an uncomplicated Irish war of liberation. By the time Hidden Agenda was made even the Provisional IRA was more wised up than that!

Perdition dramatised the anti-Zionist politics of the Healy organisation. the Workers' Revolutionary Party and the SWP, who had belatedly picked up the poisonous – and mad – equation of Zionism/Israel and the Nazis developed by the Stalinist movement of the late '40s and early '50s.

The first version of the play asserted that "the Zionists" conspired to help kill a million Hungarian Jews in 1944 because somehow – the play was utterly incoherent – that would help them set up the Israeli state. The version printed in two subsequent books has been radically bowdlerised. Most of the moral case of the critics of Perdition was thereby conceded; but the nonsense "thesis" remained.

All his writing life, Allen wanted to depict and champion working class socialism and be the bard of working class history. In some of his work, he succeeded brilliantly. In Perdition he succeeded only in portraying the poisonous incoherence of much of the left. Reduced to plain - albeit mad – statement, the thesis Allen picked up from the American writer Lenny Brenner and others, who had picked it up from the Stalinists, is this: a "world Jewish/Zionist conspiracy" exists and it is so all-powerful that even Hitler was its pawn and the Holocaust one of its cunningly self-serving devices!*

When Allen was becoming a Trotskyist, anti-semitism in Britain was at its highest peak since the turn of the 20th century. The Israeli war of independence against Britain and then against the British-officered Arab armies gave the reactivated Mosley fascist movement the opportunity to organise big anti-Jewish demonstrations.

In 1947, they led a large pogrom-minded mob up form the centre of Manchester to Jewish Cheetham Hill. Windows were smashed and people attacked, and afterwards there was debris everywhere as after a battle.
Collyhurst, where Allen lived, was just "up the road" from Cheetham Hill, paralleling it.

The Trotskyists of that time, and amongst them Jim Allen, took their proper place in the fight against those fascists. They did not back the Arabs in the 1948 War. They called on Jewish and Arab workers to unite. They denounced the Stalinist's malevolent anti-Jewish-anti-Zionists campaign. They denounced its equation of Zionism and Nazism. It took a long time for that piece of Stalinist lunacy to migrate to the Trotskyist movement, but it got there in the 1970s.

It is a savagely irony that Allan, who was for 50 years a Trotskyist, is probably now best known as the purveyor of this grotesque Stalinist libel against the Jewish people!

Allen leaves us better monuments to his better self.

He had a simmering hatred of full-time trade union officials and of old-style Labour MPs – the smug, self-satisfied, fat-arsed men who had done well out of muting the-class war, and who held the labour moveent back from realising its historical potential. He could do viciously accurate mimicry of their style, manner, ways of talking.

The sense of betrayal, the idea of betrayal and the intricate patterns of betrayal, are there in all Allen's work. It is of course the common theme of much of working class history – "The rich always betray the poor". Leaders climb up over the backs of their supporters to work, as "labour lieutenants of capital", with thosc who exploit workers.

It was the essential message of much of post-Trotsky Trolskyism in its political bewilderment. It is also one of the strongest threads in Irish nationalist history: in post-1921 Republicanism, its patterns match those of Trotskyism almost exactly. It is double and triple strength in Allen, and sometimes, as in Perdition, the obsession with betrayal misleads and betrays him.

According to his lights, Jimmy Allen remained faithful to his own kind and to the basic stand against the iniquities of capitalism and Stalinism that he made in his youth – siding with the exploited, the oppressed and the downtrodden and the defeated. And – to misquote a well-known comment on those who led the Easter Rising in 1916 – what if excess of anger and indignation and identification with and love of the oppressed, sometime bewildered him and led him astray, as in the Middle East I believe it did?

I was very sorry to hear that he is dead.

Solidarity, 2-7-99

* For a full discussion on the anti-semitic Stalinist ongins of this idea see Workers' Liberty no tO available for £2 plus 39p from PO Box 823, London SE15 4NA)