Sean Matgamna: finding my way to Trotskyism, part 2: from "communism" to "orthodox Trotskyism"

Sean Matgamna

It was very hard to distinguish between criticism of Stalinism - which is what the Communist Party's "communism" was, of course - and basic hostility to the ideas of communism.

All I had, I suppose, was a general notion of a world which would be organised like a good family, a caring family. It was very primitive, but also very heart-felt.

I was torn for a long time - for two years, in fact - by inner conflict about such things as the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. I finally decided my indecision was self-indulgence, and I joined the YCL.

As I've said, a strange thing was that what I'd read about communism tended to be anti-communist stuff, writings by people whose names I came across in the press and other books. For example, Arthur Koestler.

I'd waded through a lot of criticism of "communism. But in Koestler, for example, behind the criticism there is a romantic soured commitment. You can take from Koestler different things from what Koestler himself intended. And of course Orwell was a socialist.

I joined the YCL because there was nothing else visible. The Communist Party in Lancashire at the time had about 1200 members. The YCL was big. Cheetham YCL had about 40 members. A lot of them were the children of CP members, and a lot of them were not in any real sense revolutionaries, but there was a lot of social life around the YCL. It was a good place to be. There was no official Labour Party youth movement at the time.

The Trotskyists were a tiny group. They had just recently become public after being buried in the Labour Party for a decade, but I wasn't aware of that.
I joined the YCL with many reservations. The great boon of that was simply getting access to literature - Lenin, for example.

As I described, around the same time I joined the YCL I'd been given a mild beating-up by cops in a police station. Was that a matter of the cops being anti-Irish? No.

I don't think I've ever experienced anything that could meaningfully be called anti-Irish racism. You got prejudice. You got anti-Catholic prejudice. You got assumptions that you were thick. But some years later I went around with a woman who was of Indian background and looked "Indian", and the sort of frozen hostility we encountered belonged to a different world from anything I'd ever met as an Irish person. Call prejudice against Irish people racism, and you have to use another word for what black people encountered.

Of course, there were a vast number of people in Manchester who were of Irish background. I think the days of real anti-Irish racism were probably well in the past by the time I came to Manchester.

I saw a lot of what little hostility I did encounter as class prejudice, or mainly class prejudice, not anti-Irish prejudice. From my background in Ennis I was aware of, and expected class prejudice, and I interpreted things as class prejudice which others have chosen to interpret as "anti-Irish racism".

I think the fact that so many things are interpreted as "racism" today when the truth (or a big part of it) may be one of class discrimination is a consequence of the eclipse of class politics.

Learning from Lenin

I was shocked to find that the Communist Party believed in the parliamentary road to socialism - a peaceful revolution in which the ruling class would meekly surrender to a communist-socialist government and allow itself to be expropriated and, as a ruling class, destroyed. The CP told me that this had been Karl Marx's "position" too (as indeed, in a different world, in relation to a different Britain, it had been).

Anyway, knowing what I did of Irish history, how could I think that the British ruling class would let itself be extirpated as a class peacefully? My mother had been in her late teens at the time of the Irish War of Independence, and I grew up hearing stories about that war. My inbred romanticism about revolution, rooted in Irish history and Irish Republicanism, also predisposed me to reject the idea. Those influences did not misdirect me, either.

Here too, I was very lucky. I was faced at the start of my active political life with the need to learn to think like a Marxist, or else to go along with what I knew from instinct and from my smattering of history to be nonsense. That is, I was faced with the question: what is Marxism? And the implicit question: what is a-historical dogmatism? And, though of course I didn't know that at the start: which tradition of those into which "communism" had split, Stalinist or Trotskyist, was the authentic Marxist one.

I couldn't believe what the CP people were saying. But they could quote Marx at me. In the YCL at the time, if you were seen to be a bit leftist, you were told to read Left-Wing Communism, Lenin's little book against the council communists from 1920. So I read Lenin.

I read State and Revolution. In State and Revolution, Lenin takes up Karl Kautsky on the idea of a peaceful revolution in England.

Lenin says: let's be Marxist here. Let's examine it concretely. The truth is always concrete. Why did Marx think that about a peaceful revolution at that time? Was he right at that time and in those circumstances? Are the circumstances the same now?

Marx thought a peaceful revolution might be possible in England and the USA because at the time there was no fixed and powerful state bureaucracy. In America there was almost no army apart from small forces fighting the Indians.

Lenin asks: is that true now? No, it is not. It was a lesson in how to think, in what Marxism is, and it helped me to deal with the nonsense in the YCL. It was a lesson against dogmatism. It has shaped and governed my attitude to the Trotskyist tradition for which I have enormous respect, but which I try to see in Marxist perspective.

I thought of myself as a Trotskyist from late 1959. But I wasn't a Trotskyist. I was a Deutscherite. The second volume of Isaac Deutscher's biography of Trotsky was published in late 1959. There was a lot wrong with it, but it was tremendously valuable in terms of education.

At that time a lot of people were still arguing that Trotsky had worked with the fascists, that sort of thing. Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956 had completely destroyed the structure of Stalinist dogma, if you looked at it logically, but in practice it was still strong.

The Cheetham CP had a big house, bought during the war when the party was very strong. The YCL had one room, and the party had another room - with Stalin's photo on the wall. I used to go into the adult party room after YCL meetings and turn Stalin's photo against the wall, but someone turned it back again. That, I suppose, isn't a bad metaphor for the way Stalinist two-camp politics has re-emerged on the left, after Stalinism's demise in Russia and Eastern Europe, but now focused on Islamist clerical fascism instead of Stalinism as the "anti-imperialist" force.

I was a Leninolator, an idolator of Lenin. But you can't be a consistent Leninolator and remain a Leninolator. You learn from Lenin to see his politics as he saw those of Marx and Engels. You learn to judge and assess them in their time and their circumstances. You learn that "the truth is always concrete".

Joining the SLL

I became convinced that Trotsky had continued Lenin's politics. Inside the YCL I argued specific issues. I subscribed to a magazine published from Amsterdam by the Pablo-Mandel Fourth International. I got Trotsky's Diary in Exile, which Max Shachtman had published in 1959, out of the library, on the recommendation of a review by Michael Foot in Tribune. I answered advertisements for Trotskyist literature in Tribune.

Trotsky's writings were very much out of print. The Healyites had reprinted Revolution Betrayed, but I could not get hold of that for a while. Most of what you could get was pamphlets from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). There was a big Trotskyist party in Ceylon at the time, and I got hold of some of Trotsky's pamphlets on Germany, on Spain... They were very badly printed, on cheap paper, and fell apart easily, but they were immensely valuable to us.

It finally dawned on me that the Trotskyists were right. In one of the pamphlets by Trotsky that was available at the time, he predicted exactly what would happen if the fascists were allowed to take power in Germany. There was a passage in it:

"There are among the Communist officials not a few cowardly careerists and fakers whose little posts, whose incomes, and more than that, whose hides, are dear to them. These creatures are very much inclined to spout ultra-radical phrases beneath which is concealed a wretched and contemptible fatalism. 'Without a victory over the Social Democracy, we cannot battle against fascism!', say such terrible revolutionists, and for this reason... they get their passports ready.

Worker-Communists, you are hundreds of thousands, millions; you cannot leave for any place; there are not enough passports for you. Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left!"

That passage still moves me. When I first read it, I found myself crying. When you consider the consequences of the victory of Hitler in 1933, there was an awful lot to cry about. And, in 1959, it was a lot less distant than it seems now. Crying solves nothing, of course; political activity, education, organising a revolutionary group, does, or may do.

So I became a Trotskyist. There were a number of Trotskyist groups then, but they were very invisible. The biggest was the Healyites. They were a party - a very small party, but a party. They had a very bad reputation among the other Trotskyists. I had read denunciations of them in the Pablo-Mandel magazine.

There was the Grant group, the RSL, that would later become Militant, and today the Socialist Party. It was utterly feeble. It published a duplicated monthly bulletin which you couldn't get hold of.

There was a small group linked to Pablo and Mandel, the proto-IMG, Pat Jordan and company in Nottingham. They had just broken with the RSL.

The first Trotskyist I ever met was someone who came to meet me in response to my writing to Pat Jordan's bookshop in Nottingham for literature. A man called Theo Melville, an art historian, came over from Liverpool to meet me.

Two years later, he would be one of the founders in Britain of the Posadists, a Trotskyist group who believed that it was the duty of Russia to start World War Three. They also believed, or at least their leader Juan Posadas believed, in flying saucers!

Anyway, I eventually joined the Healyites. I was a secret member of the Healy group, working within the YCL, for about six months.

I went to the 1960 YCL congress. I had been nominated for the YCL National Committee. Nobody got on the NC without backing from the top. I got not a single vote. I discovered later, looking through some papers, that there was another candidate for the NC who had no official backing, and that was Arthur Scargill. He had the sense to withdraw. I must have encountered Scargill at that congress, but I have no memory of it at all.

The YCL congress was an education. For a start, it wasn't a congress. The secretary then was Jimmy Reid, who later broke with the CP, became a journalist, and played a foul scab-herding role during the miners strike of 1984-5.

Reid had been trained in Moscow. I remember vividly that whenever any speaker mentioned Russia or an Eastern European state, Reid would get up and lead the whole congress in applause.

I was more or less known as a Trotskyist by then, and for the congress in London they sent me to stay with someone they could rely on to contain me politically - Peter Kerrigan, who was the industrial organiser of the party. He resigned as organiser a couple of years later when the CP was exposed as having rigged ballots in the Electrical Trades Union, which they had controlled.

Kerrigan had been a political commissar in the Spanish Civil War. He was a hard core Stalinist. I asked him such questions as why the Comintern had been dissolved in 1943. To me at the time it seemed a big thing, an open abandonment of the socialist revolution, though that was a half-ignorant view of it: the CPs had abandoned working-class revolution long, long before that.

Kerrigan was absolutely imperturbable. Well, he said, that was to help the alliance between America and Russia. No qualms, no problems.

At first I hesitated about joining the SLL. It was very daunting. Eventually I decided I was being a Menshevik by hesitating, so I let myself be persuaded.

In Manchester the Healy group was then going through a crisis. Some long-time basic cadres had just left, and the group was in a bad state.

Cheetham YCL had 40 members. The SLL had about a dozen members for the whole of Manchester, and perhaps as many more people on its periphery. Some of them were very active in industry, but not particularly active politically. There was a nucleus of us who went round visiting them, acting as the live part of the branch.

Politically, I needed to be persuaded on one particular point - whether the bureaucracy that I had come to believe existed in the Soviet Union could peacefully reform itself or not. Deutscher argued that with the growth of prosperity in the USSR, the bureaucracy would gradually soften and reform itself out of existence. I wasn't sure about that. I think I wanted to believe that the bureaucracy could disappear. But I was convinced very easily. The SLL organiser, Ted Knight, lent me Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed.

Ted Knight became very well known in the 1980s, in London local government, and not in a good role either, but at the time he was a full-time organiser for the SLL. (He would still be a satellite of the SLL/WRP as leader of Lambeth council in the 1980s).

Knight was full-time organiser for Manchester and for Glasgow, on a nominal wage of £8 a week. He actually got £4 if he was lucky.

The SLL cadres, like the hardcore CPers and YCLers, were seriously dedicated people. The Trotskyists were a lot less easy-going than the CPers - more fraught, more terrorised and hag-ridden by the sense of responsibility. We were 'Protestants', with no pope in Moscow, Belgrade, or Beijing. Unfortunately, we tended to compensate by creating our own little popes and cultist organisations.

The CPers were remarkably calm and placid politically. They had the law laid down for them by an external power, whereas the Trotskyists were not like that; they had to think for themselves. The CPers believed that everything was moving towards socialism on a world scale. Their role was to back the USSR's 'socialist camp'. It would be almost a decade before the CP first disagreed with the Russians on anything, when they opposed the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

As individuals, the CPers were pretty pleasant, certainly towards me. I think it was partly a matter of my age, and the fact that they could see that I was honest about what I thought, and seriously committed.

I never had qualms about deceiving them. Trotskyism was the truth, and I wanted to win them to it. It was right to do what was necessary. But eventually they nailed me as a Trotskyist. They gave me the choice of leaving the YCL and joining the adult CP. The Cheetham CP branch was dead, a bunch of old people from the 30s and 40s. So I decided just to leave the YCL, with the agreement of Knight and the SLL.

In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. I think I should have forced them to expel me: there was a big element in my decision to leave of just being soft. If I had forced them to expel me, it would have hardened me more - taught me to stand up for my politics against people whom I was friendly with.

The Healy group, when I joined it, was not the sect it became ten years later. It had relatively educated cadres who gave it some life. But for those who stuck in the Healy organisation there was a selection by personality type. You had to be very careful about saying anything outside the norms. You had to repeat a fixed 'line'. You had to go along with the deification of Gerry Healy.

We had a literature, which was the story of the struggle of the Trotskyists against Stalinism. But at the same time we had to hold to a fixed 'line'. That created tensions.

There was a great deal of bullying and ideological terrorisation in the top layer of the Healy organisation even then. Individuals would be picked on as epitomising some fault, and a tremendous assault would be staged on them. I saw that at the SLL conferences. You had to be tough to take that, but you also had to have certain psychological traits - and you had to lack, or have forcibly removed, certain political traits, including an understanding of what an organisation of militants must be. I came to the conclusion that the central core of the Healy organisation was fuelled by sado-masochism.

The Trotskyists had split in 1953, with the US Trotskyist leader James P Cannon breaking from Pablo and Mandel on the grounds that they were accommodating to Stalinism. The Healyites had sided with Cannon. We were very anti-Stalinist. And yet at the same time we were fundamentally committed to the USSR. For example, Healy had pronounced that we supported the USSR keeping the nuclear bomb. When Russia had the bomb, it was a deterrent. When Britain had the bomb, it was a threat to make war on the USSR.

We had a 'two-camps' view of the world alongside a very hostile attitude to Stalinism. It was all very contradictory.

But the question of Stalinism didn't figure in the criticism I would start to make of the Healyites. On second thoughts, that is not quite true. Let me explain.

The Cannon "orthodox Mark Two" Trotskyists were extremely anti-Stalinist. They accused the Pablo-Mandel group of effectively backing the East German bureaucracy and the Russians against the East German workers in 1953. The Healy group had been very active against Stalinism in Britain after 1956, and successfully: they recruited some hundreds of ex-CPers.

So we had a built-in hostility to Stalinism. And there was a pamphlet by Cannon from 1946 in circulation, American Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism. It says that it is the job of the workers to smash the Stalinists, rather than allying with the bourgeoisie to do that.

Laced in with that we had the idea that the Russian system was developing economically and technologically, and that would undermine the bureaucracy. Healy argued that you had to have a revolution in Russia, but the Healyites also partly accepted that the bureaucracy would begin to be dissolved by the objective conditions.

In reality the entire post-Trotsky "orthodox Trotskyist" current was caught in contradictions. We were anti-Stalinist. We were for a 'political revolution' in Russia, but the term 'political revolution' was misleading jargon: we wanted a workers' takeover, a complete smashing of the Stalinist state machine. We wanted a workers' revolution. At the same time we had the belief that Russia was progressive. That wasn't actually Trotsky's thinking, at the end, as anyone who goes through his writings after 1937 will discover, but it was what we accepted as Trotsky's thinking. We firmly believed that we had to back Russia against the West.

In January 1959 Fidel Castro and his comrades won the Cuban civil war and took over in Havana. They moved in the next 18 months towards establishing an early Stalinist state, partly by linking up and becoming dependent on Russia in response to pressures from the Americans against the reforms that Castro started off with. It was a relatively attractive Stalinist state. It didn't have the horrors commonly associated with Stalinism everywhere else.

Some of the "orthodox Trotskyists Mark Two", like James P Cannon, decided that Cuba was a workers' state or moving that way. That led to a split with the Healyites, who said it was not a workers' state.

The split broke up the international network of the "orthodox Trotskyists Mark Two". Some of them fused with Mandel and his people in 1963.
The Mandelites and Cannonites responded to the Healyites by saying that it was utterly self-contradictory to say that Cuba wasn't a workers' state but China was, unless they were saying that only Stalinists - certified Stalinists from the beginning - could create a deformed workers' state. (Though they didn't say it was "deformed" - they just said it was a workers' state).
To a very large extent the Healyites were just factionalising, picking a line that would allow them to exert pressure. But the dispute did make some of us begin to think about the whole question. It was certainly unanswerable that if the Healyites were right about Cuba not being a workers state, then the whole orthodoxy about China and so on being workers states would have to be looked at again.

I broke with the Healyites with that question in my mind as very important. But when I broke with the Healyites I thought I was just being a Cannonite, in the continuity of "orthodox Trotskyism".

When Labour lost the general election in 1959, the Labour leadership made a drive to re-establish a Labour youth movement. There was a mushrooming of membership - 25,000 to 40,000 members within a short time. The Healyites were able to win a majority of that organisation.

By 1962-4, flushed with that success, the Healyites were ready to break with the Labour Party. Our youth paper, Keep Left, was banned in the middle of 1962. We decided to keep it going. To sell it, we had to exchange members, say, from Leeds to Manchester: Leeds members would sell papers at labour movement affairs in Manchester, and Manchester members would sell in Leeds, to avoid being expelled from the Labour Party. It was obviously untenable.

In 1964 the Healyites decided to launch an independent youth movement. They fundamentally became sectarians. They fundamentally became people who saw building their own party, cut out from the existing labour movement, as the main objective.

At first, to square their consciences, they talked as if they believed they could divorce a whole generation of young people from the experience of the working class in general. But they were pulling out of the Labour Party at the time when Labour was coming back to power (in October 1964) and the labour movement was about to learn the lessons of the Wilson government. It made no sense whatsoever, except that it was organisationally easier and more convenient to organise their own separate youth movement.

They built a youth movement that was sustained by agitation and existed on the outside of the labour movement. Essentially they started on a track that would smash up their own organisation.

Breaking from the SLL

I found myself at loggerheads with the SLL in 1962-3. The first thing was that I found the regime utterly disgusting. Nothing was done gently that could be done brutally. People were bullied and humiliated. But I stuck in the League because there was, I thought, no alternative.

I found myself in conflict with the League in 1963. A large part of the Manchester branch were very critical of the way things were run. The criticism was not very developed politically. Certainly mine wasn't. I knew the regime stank, but I had the belief, which is hard to credit now, that what was really wrong with the SLL was that we had a lot of young people who had been recruited without being properly educated, and that they had swamped the old cadre of what had been a healthy organisation and so allowed the Healy centre to do what it liked. The answer was to educate the young people and work to build the League. That is what I thought I was doing.

I had been marked out by the SLL leadership from very early on because they discovered that I had been reading the literature of the Pablo-Mandel tendency, and for other reasons. When it came out once that I was reading Arthur Koestler's Arrival And Departure, Cyril Smith, one of the group's intellectuals, attached himself to me like a hungry dog with a bone, and wouldn't let go for a long time. The central character in Arrival And Departure, an ex-CPer, was just a 'nutcase', wasn't he? My defence against that sort of stuff was only the experience of having been a Catholic, and being determined not to be bludgeoned. In fact, though, for a long time I let myself be bludgeoned. They targeted me as the designated chopping-block to teach the rest of the branch to behave itself and to be scared..

In September 1963 I was charged with "actions harmful to the League and the working class". The constitution said that you could be expelled for "actions harmful to the League and the working class".

What had I done? That was very unclear. There were some attempts to claim that I hadn't sent in to the centre sales money which I had collected as the branch newspaper organiser. But nobody in the branch would have believed it, so they dropped that.

I was summoned to a specially-convened meeting, and expelled. For fourteen months after that I remained loyal to the SLL, because I still thought its politics were basically right.

I was active in the Young Socialists, and secretary of the YS branch. There were a lot of young people around, including one, Phil Semp, who was recruited to the SLL by Cliff Slaughter to help expel me, but would later become of the founders of our tendency together with me. He was in our YS and I won him over.

The SLL was now beginning to go for full-scale confrontation with the Labour Party. I didn't agree with that. I also found myself the target of local SLLers, who organised secretly to kick me out as secretary of the YS branch, even though the guy they replaced me with wasn't a Healyite (he joined briefly, but didn't stay very long).

I had contact with the Grantites, the RSL. They didn't have a paper at that time. They were mainly in Liverpool. They had lots of tales to tell about Healy in the past, and had their own distinct political line.

By then I was very troubled by the question of the Stalinist states. I was inclined to reject the whole notion that they were workers states of any sort. The Grantites had their own theory. And whereas in the SLL you couldn't get hold of any of the old internal bulletins discussing these issues, from the 1940s, the Grantites were falling over themselves to make them available. I did some serious reading.

But I continued to go along with the Healyites until November 1964. There had a whole wave of national engineering apprentices strikes, and there was another one building up in 1964.

An apprentices movement was set up, including Young Communist League people, Grantites from Liverpool, and the Healyites. The committee decided to set a date for a strike in November 1964.

The Healyites said it was premature. The 'Pabloites' and the Stalinists were going to behead the movement. I thought the Healyites were right about the date being too soon. But what did they do?

The strike went ahead. On the day of the strike they turned up at the engineering factories in Trafford Park, Manchester, with leaflets telling the apprentices not to strike. They set a date for the following March for a strike, on which nothing happened. In effect they helped break the strike.

That forced my final break with the Healyites. I couldn't possibly endorse such a thing. And I suppose I had come to see the SLL more clearly from outside. I was privileged by them kicking me out.

I decided to fight the Healyites in the Young Socialists. But then I was in hospital for a couple of months. When I got back, the YS was virtually dead. The Healyites had split, and there was almost no life in what was left. I went along to a meeting intending to move a coded resolution criticising the Healyites, but the meeting didn't happen.

By this time I had contact with the Grantites. I eventually joined the Militant group - as it was then called: they had started the paper in October 1964 - with great scepticism. They had maybe 100 members all over the country, but they were very badly organised and decrepit.

By this stage I had decided that I was agnostic on whether the Stalinist states were "workers' states" or not. I wasn't sure of an alternative, and I knew it wasn't a matter of picking a label. It was a matter of a full-scale re-analysis, which I didn't have and quite rightly didn't think I could make. The Grantites had worked-out theories of Stalinism which were interesting, though I'm not sure I was ever convinced, even temporarily. Basically their theories were a form of "bureaucratic collectivism". Where Shachtman saw "bureaucratic collectivism" as negative, they saw it as positive; but under the labels of "deformed workers state" and "proletarian Bonapartism", they described a new-class form of society.

The Grantites were defined not so much by ideas as by what they called perspectives. The world revolution was coming in two stages, first Bonapartist workers states which would be created by Communist Parties, and after that, at some point, workers revolution. The labour movement in Britain was evolving towards becoming a mass 'centrist' (left-wing) movement within which the Marxists, i.e. them, would stick around until they in turn were raised to leadership.

They had a mechanical notion of the ripening of the labour movement towards socialist revolution. Some of them, Grant for example, also believed in a peaceful revolution. (Others said they weren't sure, but on balance thought probably not: Peter Taaffe, for example, and Keith Dickinson).

The great benefit I got from being in the Grantite group was they let me read their archives. I spent my summer holiday in 1965 in London going through their archives, back to the 1940s. It was a fantastically valuable experience.

Click here for part 1 of this article.