An open letter to members of the Socialist Labour League and other Marxists

by

Peter Fryer

November 14, 1959

Dear Comrades,

The explanation given in The Newsletter for my resignation as editor was true as far as it went. But it did not say what had made me ill. Nor did it tell the members about the quite improper pressure that was put on me, through persons close to me, to try to compel me to return to a post that it had become impossible for me to fill. The methods used by the general secretary both before and after I left The Newsletter have nothing in common with Marxism, with socialist principles, or with the relationships that should prevail among comrades inside a revolutionary working-class organization.

If persisted in, these methods can only hold back the growth of the Socialist Labour League and make it impossible to carry into effect the programme and policy adopted by the League’s inaugural conference — a programme and policy which I support in all essentials.

We who came into the Trotskyist movement from the Communist Party, hard on the heels of the experience of Hungary and our struggle with the Stalinist bureaucracy in Britain, were assured that in the Trotskyist movement we would find a genuine communist movement, where democracy flourished, where dissenters were encouraged to express their dissent, and where relationships between comrades were in all respects better, more brotherly and more human than in the party we had come from. Instead we have found at the top of the Trotskyist movement, despite the sacrifices and hard work of the rank and file, a repetition of Communist Party methods of work, methods of leadership, and methods of dealing with persons who are not prepared to kotow to the superior wisdom of the “strong man”.

I personally joined the Trotskyist movement with many reservations, which were made quite clear verbally at the time of joining. The defects which I and others could see at the top of the movement we attributed to the exceptionally unfavourable conditions under which it had had to operate since it arose: above all, the persecution which we as Communist Party members bore some share of the responsibility for, even if we had not personally participated in it. We fully recognized that we, as ex-Stalinists, had much to learn from our new comrades. But we also felt — and we said so openly — that we had something to teach them as well. We were willing to learn. They, it appears, were not.

They were not willing to slough off the ingrained sectarian suspicion of other people’s motives, the cynicism towards other comrades and other socialists, which has been and remains the biggest single obstacle to the healthy growth and development of the Trotskyist movement in Britain. They were not willing to allow working-class democracy to flourish inside the organization, but insisted on retaining, even during the brief period of rapid growth, a regime whereby effective authority lay in the hands of one man, to whom his colleagues and co-workers were not comrades to be consulted and discussed with but instruments to be used quite ruthlessly. The outstanding feature of the present regime in the Socialist Labour League is that it is the rule of a clique — the general secretary’s personal clique — which will not allow the members to practise the democratic rights accorded to them on paper, and which pursues sectarian aims with scant regard to the real possibilities of the real world. The ordinary members of the Socialist Labour League, who have joined because they want to build a revolutionary leadership as an alternative to Stalinist and social-democratic betrayals, should know how this clique operates, and how the general secretary maintains his control of it. His domination is secured by a series of unprincipled blocs with various leading members against various other leading members who happen to disagree with him on any given point at any given time. There is scarcely a single leading member of the League whom the general secretary has not attacked in private conversation with me at some time or other, in terms such as these: “I have enough on P to get him sent down for seven years.” “I don’t know what game P is playing. He could be a police agent.” “C is a bad little man who would put a knife into anyone.” “There will have to be a showdown, with B. He’s trying to take over. I come back to find he is appointing his own full-timers.” “B is a primitive Irish peasant.” “I don’t trust P. He is not a Marxist. He doesn’t accept dialectical materialism.” “S won’t stay in the movement long.” “G is a lunatic.” “A is quite mad. He beats his wife.” “S is completely useless. He has built nothing and never will build anything.” “F is a stupid kid.” “H is only out for personal prestige.” There is no principle whatever in the general secretary’s attitude to his comrades.(Thus when he discovered that the wife of one leading member was having an affair with another leading member he criticised the latter very strongly, was going to have him removed from his position, etc. A few months later, when he needed this comrade’s services very badly for a particular job, he was prepared to turn a blind eye to the resumption of the affair.)

That the ruling clique is an instrument of the general secretary is shown by the way it was elected. How many comrades know that the panel presented by the panel commission to the inaugural conference was first presented in toto by the general secretary to a meeting of the executive committee, as if that was the most natural thing in the world, then presented by the executive committee to the outgoing national committee, then presented by the national committee to the panel commission. MB’s job on the panel commission and at the conference was to make sure that the general secretary’s list was accepted. This accounts for the general secretary’s anger when B muffed the job and when it was suggested that to comply with the constitution the conference has only just passed a ballot vote should be taken. In the Communist Party we criticized the way the new executive was appointed by the old executive. In the Socialist Labour League the national committee and the executive committee alike are appointed by the general secretary.

After long reflection I have come to the conclusion that the way the Socialist Labour League was formed (I do not say its formation, which I supported and still support) was no less fundamentally undemocratic. That a turn of this magnitude should have been carried through without a national conference and without the production and discussion of documents was alien to all the Bolshevik traditions that the Marxist movement claims to uphold. It was unscientific as well as undemocratic. A number of quite different ideas has been canvassed at successive national committee meetings. The final form the new organization took was a panic reaction to the Birmingham expulsions and the hue and cry in the South London newspapers against the general secretary.

Over two years’ close work with the general secretary has convinced me beyond any doubt that he will permit no real criticism and no real differences of opinion within the organization. All the fine talk we heard two and a half years ago about the rights of minorities turns out to be so much eyewash when anyone who ventures to open his mouth is told he succumbing to “class pressures” — what a travesty of Marxism! — when critics are summoned to the executive and browbeaten into withdrawing their criticism, when critics are threatened, intimidated and expelled, when lies are told about them, when the details of their personal lives are ultilized for blackmail and character assassination. Month after month I was assured by the general secretary and BB that the Nottingham branch was a “centre of degeneracy”, that it consisted very largely of “drug addicts” and that one of its members had “indoctrinated young girls into drug taking”. To my shame, I accepted the slanders without any enquiry. I now find that they are quite baseless. I was told that KC was being expelled for “inactivity”. I now find that during his period of “inactivity” this comrade was studying for a degree, and that his work included the writing of a dissertation on the Marxist theory of alienation which has earned him a first-class honours degree. This original contribution to the subject, of which our whole movement ought to be proud, is likely to be published. I was told as a fact, over and over again, that John Daniels was going to see Pablo in Cannes while on the Continent. I now find that JD never had any intention of seeing Pablo and that in fact Pablo was not in France during the relevant period. The general secretary now states that this was a rumour retailed to him by a child. Wherever there is a comrade with a critical attitude lie after lie is told to discredit that comrade. I was lied to too much in the Communist Party to take a favourable view of being lied to in the Socialist Labour League, in which there should be no place whatsoever for those methods.

The lack of democracy in the organization, with the general secretary going to any lengths to prevent a real confrontation of ideas, provides the soil in which panic methods of political leadership can take root and flourish. The members are educated not through the clash of ideas but through alarms, emergencies and crises. The past year has seen a succession of attempts to pull ourselves up by our own bootlaces. BB will rush into the office in the morning seized with some burning idea for a poster parade, a leaflet, a “special” or a last-minute change in The Newsletter, and all the slender resources of the organization have TO BE GEARED TO THE FULFILMENT OF HIS IDEAS. Now it is excellent to have “ideas men”; but surely the task of the general secretary is to canalize their energies into fruitful team work instead of letting them fly off at a tangent. We have been operating without continuity, without proper planning, without thought, without Marxist analysis of the actual state of affairs, and without honest examination of how far predictions and “perspectives” have in fact been borne out by events.

A few weeks ago the general secretary told me that JD now “doubts the whole of our economic analysis”. I find this is a gross exaggeration. JD’s point, and I agree with him, is that the slump has not developed in the way that we expected: ought we not therefore to bring our analysis up to date? To this I would add that the turn to open organization was predicated on the continuing growth of unemployment. But unemployment, for the time being at any rate, has ceased to grow. So ought we not, as Marxists and materialists, be willing to look facts in the face to find out how far we were wrong and why? Failure to make a sober and frank assessment of our earlier forecasts is all of a piece with the general secretary’s constant braggadocio, his continual exaggeration of the movement’s achievements, and his consistent opposition to any scientific examination of those achievements and of its defects and shortcomings.

Panic methods of leadership are seen at their worst in the print-shop, whose administration is nothing short of a scandal. A large part of the London membership was transformed during the summer into a reservoir of voluntary labour for print-shop work. Some of these comrades wore working round the clock, some twice round the clock. The compositor, TB, works from 9am to 11pm or later and often till 1am, six or seven days a week. The general secretary now holds in his own hands the posts of general secretary, international secretary, editor of The Newsletter and … print-shop manager. This extraordinary concentration of responsibility makes it impossible for any of those jobs, least of all the last one, to be done satisfactorily. The general secretary bitterly resists any delegation of authority in the print-shop. There is no proper planning or progressing of work there. Extravagant promises are made to customers. Intolerable pressure is put on comrades working full-time at the print-shop in an effort to fulfil these promises. Slave labour is always uneconomical in conjunction with machinery. MB had had three hours’ sleep a night for a week and was dog tired when, alone in the machine-room, he failed to check that a forme had been tightened and a week’s work crashed to the floor and was scattered and irretrievably lost.

In order to consolidate his domination, the general secretary refrains from taking a position of principle on various controversial questions, preferring to ride two horses as long as he can. This was seen on the question of the character of The Newsletter, where the issue was whether it was to be purely an industrial bulletin eschewing cinema and theatre reviews and other articles of cultural interest, as BB demanded in a speech which included the words “I am a Philistine”, or a workers’ newspaper which, while giving all the news of industrial battles, strove to broaden its readers𔃅 horizons, as was Gramsci’s vision of a workers’ paper. The general secretary made a speech at the national committee which gave a sop to B and a sop to me on this question and avoided the issue of principle. He has done the same thing on many occasions, coming down simultaneously on both sides of the fence wherever it was inexpedient to challenge the Philistinism and the simplist and primitivist conceptions of Marxism that are rife inside the organization. This conflicts glaringly with the general secretary’s professed regard for “theory”, “principle”, and “the books”.

The denial of democracy to members of the organization is summed up by the general secretary himself in two phrases he has employed recently: “I am the party” and — in answer to the question “How do you see socialism?” — “I don’t care what happens after we take power. All I am interested in is the movement”. Politically this is revisionism, all too clearly reminiscent of Bernstein’s “the movement is everything the goal nothing”. Philosophically it is solipsism: if the movement is everything and “I am the movement”, then “the world is my world” — and “I” inhabit a fantasy world less and less connected with the real world. It is just such a fantasy world that the general secretary inhabits, in which “we” can “watch ports” (to stop me leaving the country!) and be “absolutely ruthless” to the point of carrying out “killings” (as the general secretary declared to PMcG) — when “we” have in cold fact fewer than 400 members.


It will be asked why I did not speak out about those things earlier and conduct a fight about them on the leading committees. A person with a different temperament might have done, though I doubt whether he would have got very far. But I have never seen myself as a politician or as a leader, and I certainly lack the ability to contend against the “strongmen” who have moulded the Socialist Labour League into what they want it to be. Moreover I did not care to admit to myself that the organization I had joined in the belief that it was very different from the Communist Party in fact shared many of the latter’s worst features. Ever since the end of 1957 I have fought a long battle within myself, trying to blind myself to what I saw going on around me, trying to excuse it, above all trying not to see the pattern running through a whole series of events and incidents. Considerable pressure was put on me to attend meetings of the executive committee. When I did so I found it merely a sounding board for the general secretary, packed with his own nominees who not merely never raised their voices against him but in some cases never raised their voices at all.

I tried to do The Newsletter and Labour Review jobs as well as I could; and I wrote The Battle for Socialism in the hope that the remarks there about leadership would become true as the League expanded; but it became less and less possible to do my work adequately without waging war on the sectarianism and lack of democracy, inefficiency and mismanagement, squabbling and capriciousness. I heard HO told that she was sacked — and then bullied by the general secretary until she wept. I heard the general secretary and BP come near to blows as each uttered threats of violence and vengeance. I saw the general secretary take off his coat and fling it to the ground in fits of rage that invariably hindered any constructive solution of a particular problem and so did harm to the movement. I used to ask myself what I was doing to be caught up in such a situation. Several times I offered my resignation, even begging to be released from the job, but it was made abundantly clear that my resignation would never be accepted. Last February, after one especially irrational tantrum of the general secretary’s, I walked out. I went back because I wanted to serve the working class in struggle. But precisely the same attitude to human beings that in the end produced the Hungarian revolution was rampant at the top of the Socialist Labour League. I dreaded the thought that comrades would say I had let the movement down if I left, and this dread expressed itself in bad dreams and a lasting mood of depression.

A different type of person night have reacted differently. But I had the Rajk trial, the massacre of Magyarovar and the whole Hungarian tragedy behind me. Since Hungary I had devoted my energies to a struggle against Stalinism. I lacked the inner resources for a new, long and probably bitter fight to put things right in the movement to which I had given my energies without stint. Finally I wrote a letter to the general secretary telling him in the plainest possible terms that I could carry on no longer. He met me the same evening and refused to accept my resignation. I told him I felt I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown. But he refused to contemplate the possibility of my leaving the job. Next day I saw the paper through the press. The day after that I walked the streets sick with worry and anguish. I decided that the only way to convince the general secretary that it was impossible for me to continue to work with him, that his methods, his approach and his attitude to people sickened me, disgusted me, and filled me with dread for the success of our movement, was to go where he could not reach me, have a long period of rest and reflection, and devote myself to some other kind of work altogether. So I went away.

If leading comrades’ efforts were devoted to finding me, I’m sorry they were made to waste their time. It is strange that the day after the general secretary wrote to me at my mother’s house in Yorkshire saying no one was pursuing me — there would be no calls, no visits, no molestations — CS arrived at 11pm looking for me. According to CS’s later account to JD, the general secretary himself was with him in the car!

The general secretary threatened JF on the telephone — he would have her expelled; he would seek me out and “destroy” me wherever I was; she had “destroyed” me, etc. etc. — when she refused to disclose my whereabouts. Then MG visited her and told her a whole string of lies, including the allegation that I had written letters derogatory to her (no such letters exist); that PMcG (with whom am living) had given BP details of our physical relationship, when they met on a poster parade the previous Sunday; and PMcG was an OGPU agent who had shanghaied me out of the country. He told her that if they did not hear from me within seven days The Newsletter would carry a banner headline: “Where is Peter Fryer? — Has the OGPU got him?” I do not think that this kind of thing has anything to do with socialism. What right has the general secretary or MG to utilize their knowledge of people’s private lives in this shameful way? In order to protect myself against these methods I caused solicitor’s letters to be sent to MG and the general secretary warning them not to interfere with me or JF any more, nor to spread false statements about me. I have no apologies to make to anyone for seeking this measure of protection against blackmail and political gangsterism.


It is up to the members of the Socialist Labour League who believe in the principles they profess — and I think these are the majority — to put things right. The removal of the general secretary and the establishment of a collective leadership which trusts the members and is trusted by them, the establishment of mutual confidence among members and a spirit of socialist brotherhood in place of suspicion, lies, bullying and blackmail: these are what is needed, in my opinion, if the League is to do the job it was founded to do.

September 19, 1959

POSTCRIPT. After writing the above I decided not to circulate it for the time being because I did not want to bring a personal complaint forward if it could be avoided. I thought then — and I still think — that comrades’ attention should be concentrated on abuses such as the Nottingham case and the attempt forcibly to enter the Knights’ house at 12.30am in the morning. Two circumstances have made me change my mind: (a) Many comrades are puzzled by my silence and want to hear my case and some think I have treated the members with contempt; (b) Peter Cadogan has been expelled on a formal point. To me the expulsion of Cadogan means that I could no longer remain a member of the Socialist Labour League. I am therefore putting out this personal statement, together with a few points in reply to the executive committee statement in The Newsletter of November 14.

This statement is wrong when it says that I “was charged with the main drafting of the present constitution”. In fact Brian Behan did it. The statement also suggests that I am in agreement with Peter Cadogan, where it says my “sympathies extend to” him. This is not the case. I have many disagreements with Peter Cadogan. But I regard his expulsion as a blow at the right of every member to discuss freely and to have full access to the information necessary for free discussion and intelligent decision-making. This right is not only a requirement of democracy in a working-class organization; it is also a requirement of any scientific consideration of events. The expulsion of Peter Cadogan is a nodal point in the development of the Socialist Labour League. From now on all honest comrades who went through the experience of the Communist Party crisis must repudiate this organization. It has gone wrong. The lessons of the recent past are too fresh in our memory to allow us to blind ourselves to the truth or to fail to take the necessary action. To those comrades who still feel as I did in the last paragraph I wrote on September 19 I say “Good luck”. But events since that time have made it clear to me that the reformation of the Socialist Labour League from within is no longer possible.

The offer in the last paragraph of the executive committee statement is disingenuous. With Healy as general secretary, the cards are stacked against anyone who wants to take “every opportunity to present their opinions to the membership in person and in writing”. Healy told Cadogan in September: “I am determined to have you out now.” This is the answer to those latest protestations and promises. Those who are treating the membership with contempt are those who behind the scenes do exactly what they like to critics and dissenters, and in public make pious pronouncements about “the fullest possible discussion”.

November 14, 1959

PPS. Three other things occur to me. Comrades should know: (a) As far as the libel action pending against me is concerned, Healy’s suggestion that my refusal to meet him is prejudicial to the conduct of the case is wholly false. I have every intention of fighting the case; all the parties are represented by the same lawyer; and if Healy has any problems about it all he has to do is go and see the solicitor in question. (b) I myself took the initiative in having legal ownership of The Newsletter properly handed over to the nominee of the Socialist Labour League. (c) On Friday, I received a letter from Ray Nash of the News Chronicle offering me “the usual rates” for an 800-word feature article on my differences with the Socialist Labour League. Needless to say, I tore the letter up.

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