Peter Fryer and Trotskyism

Submitted by cathy n on 15 November, 2006 - 2:40 Author: Sean Matgamna

Peter Fryer, who died on 31 October 2006 a few months short of his 80th birthday, is known now as the author of important books such as his history of black people in Britain, Staying Power. He once played an important part in the revolutionary socialist movement.

He was the correspondent of the Stalinist Daily Worker (now the Morning Star) who 50 years ago went for his paper to Hungary.

He sent back honest reports of the Hungarian uprising against Stalinism in 1956, which was bloodily crushed by Russian tanks, and had his articles suppressed by the Daily Worker, which backed the Russians and told wholesale lies to justify them.

Fryer revolted against Stalinism and very quickly was recruited to the Trotskyist movement.

He was one of two ex-CPers — the other was Brian Behan, a building worker and brother of the well-known writer, Brendan Behan — who led the way for some hundreds to go over the Trotskyism.

Fryer edited a small weekly paper the Newsletter, which began in May 1957. The Trotskyist organisation which Fryer joined was then, and for a long time afterwards, the main revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain (called “the Club”, and the Socialist Labour League after February 1959; later the Workers’ Revolutionary Party). But it was far from politically or organisationally healthy. It was, before 1956, a notoriously authoritarian organisation.

It loosened up, to accommodate the ex-CPers it recruited in 56, 57 and 58. Then the organisation’s leaders, in the central place Gerry Healy, moved to “tighten up” the organisation, to “consolidate” the considerable gains in membership which they had made. By late 1959, most of the best known ex-CPers had gone, including Fryer.

It was not only “organisational” issues, but directly political questions too. Fryer’s resignation was triggered by the expulsion of another once-prominent ex-CPer, Peter Cadogan, whose conflict with Healy and his co-thinkers centred on Cadogan’s contention that opposition to nuclear weapons superseded class politics.

Fryer resigned in mid-59, proclaiming that an organisation that had no room for Peter Cadogan was not for him. He had lasted two and a half years.

As he himself said at the time, he was temperamentally unsuited to the hard grind and sometimes intense conflicts of a small organisation such as the Trotskyist group he joined. The tragedy was that, on the evidence of his writings then and in the accounts of his contemporaries in the SLL, he was by far the most talented of the ex-CPers won to Trotskyism. He had a great deal to contribute. He might have helped save the organisation from the political derailment which it was to suffer.

Fryer wrote a series of books, some of them valuable to socialists, instead of building the movement. He resumed a loose association with one of the fragments of the WRP in the mid 80s, writing for their press. With books such as Staying Power, Fryer gave us a great deal. He was probably capable of giving a lot more.