Former Labour MP and MEP Stan Newens died on 2 March, at the age of 91. Newens got a jaundiced obituary in the Guardian, warmer ones elsewhere, and a tribute from Jeremy Corbyn which airbrushed out Newens' revolutionary Marxist activity in his 20s. In old age Newens wrote an autobiography, which I have not read, but is reviewed here by Ian Birchall.
In February 1995 Newens gave an account, in Workers' Liberty magazine, vol.1 no.18, of his earlier political days and what he then made of them, which we republish below. Below that are recollections by me from when we worked with him, including my time working as a teacher in the same school as him.
Newens' recollections in 1995
I joined the Socialist Review Group [forerunner of today's SWP] in 1952 and drifted out about 1960.
I was a left-wing socialist who believed that social ownership and democratic control should be extended. I believed in international socialism.
I was utterly repelled by the Stalinist show trials in Eastern Europe. That put me off the Communist Party. When I was approached by an organisation which was left-wing and clearly opposed to Stalinism, I was attracted.
The other organisations in the Trotskyist movement believed that the Stalinist states were degenerated workers' states which should be defended against imperialism. I did not think their ideas held up – what existed in Russia was not any sort of workers' state.
I wanted to take a clear stand against this sort of thing, while continuing to oppose American imperialism. These issues were sharply posed during the Korean war. I concluded that neither side could be supported. The idea expressed in "Neither Washington nor Moscow but International socialism" was quite correct and important.
I joined [Tony] Cliff's organisation [i.e. the SRG, forerunner of the SWP]. I thought that his analysis was quite inspired. Although I would modify my ideas on a number of matters, I still think that the work Cliff did was very useful.
"Neither Washington nor Moscow" came from the Americans – from [Max] Shachtman's organisation. For a while I was even business manager for the Shachtman paper, Labor Action. We had a good relationship with Shachtman's people. For example, when Hal Draper came over I met him and was very impressed.
The Socialist Review Group was clearly orientated to the working class. In 1952, as a student, I went down to Fords in Dagenham which was out on strike, to do work around the dispute. SRG members like Geoff Carlson had important positions in industry — he was a steward and then convenor at the ENV factory at Willesden.
Nevertheless the SRG was a sectarian organisation — like Socialist Organiser [our group was widely known then by the name of our paper] and all similar organisations it was concerned to build itself around a single political line and placed this project above the general work in the labour movement.
The SRG was a Leninist, democratic centralist organisation. I do not accept this now, and I did not do so at the time. It is a method of organisation which is totally opposed to democracy. Within the SRG there were a number of people who shared this view. Bernard Dix, who became a leading member of NUPE, was one such person and we took a much more Labour-orientated approach. In my opinion Cliff never really understood the British labour movement - his background was working in conditions of semi-legality, completely different conditions to those which we faced.
I had joined the Labour Party in 1949. There I worked with all sorts of people and thought it was particularly important to unite with others in a non-sectarian way.
Cliff had a powerful personality and denounced my "revisionism."
I wanted to maximise our role in the Labour Party and draw people in the Labour left together.
Suddenly we got a letter from the Hendon branch of the SRG, which denounced me and others for our attitude to broader work. Bernstein was bandied about. The letter was signed by a couple of young bus conductors — and it was quite clear that Cliff was using them to attack us. They were nice young men, but they did not know who Bernstein was.
Cliff was always concerned with the internal organisation, rather than broader work, which was for other people.
I was friendly with Roy Tearse, the old industrial organiser for the RCP. He was contemptuous of Healy and Cliff. Tearse had got out of the RCP to go and work in the Labour Party, and Tearse influenced me. In 1959 I joined Victory for Socialism. It seemed to me that Victory for Socialism had the possibility of a much broader, non sectarian alternative to the SRG, and from then I drifted away. In my view the SRG has developed and moved away from — and then out of — the Labour Party. This is utterly not what is required in Britain. It is based on ideas Lenin developed in Tsarist Russia in conditions of illegality.
Some of our recollections
Stan Newens was a left-wing Labour MP from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1983; then a Labour member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.
We worked with him at the 1990 Labour Party conference. Newens moved the composite to reverse the National Executive's decision - without clear "charges" or a hearing - to ban Socialist Organiser, a forerunner of Solidarity. In the backwash from the defeat of the miners' strike in 1985, the Labour Party was by then well on the way towards Blairism (Tony Blair became leader in 1994), but Newens' speech helped us win support from two-thirds of the Constituency Labour Party delegates. (Union votes, deferring to the Labour leadership, defeated us.)
When he was out of Parliament between 1970 and 1974, Stan Newens returned to his job teaching history at Edith Cavell School, near Dalston Junction, in Hackney, east London. Apparently he'd continued working part-time at Edith Cavell in 1964, even after being elected as an MP, to see his A-level class through their exam. I met him when I also worked at the school, in 1972-3.
It was a split-site school, and (I think) he taught at the other site, so I don't remember many conversations. (My memory of my whole time at the school is blurred. This was 1972-3, a hectic time of working-class struggle. Effectively I was working full-time in the office of Workers' Fight, forerunner of Workers' Liberty, as well as teaching full-time.)
I remember chatting to him when on one strike day, we organised a demonstration from the school. He was straightforward and without the pomposity expected from MPs. In those days it was a general rule that teachers over maybe 35 would be mostly conservative, compared to the feistier young people who activated the union, so I noted him as a welcome exception. Of course, in his early 40s then, he seemed to me ancient, a relic from the past compared to those likely to be active in the Marxist left.
I don't recall him playing any special role in the meetings of the local National Union of Teachers branch in those days, or in the school NUT activity. In those days, in contrast to today, district meetings of the teachers' union were big and lively, at least in an area like Hackney, but I have no memory of eventful school union group meetings.