Jim Cronin, who died six days ago, was one of the several generations of workers who joined the International Socialists between 1960 and 1972, enabling that party to make the leap from a small propaganda group to a party of several thousands. I first met him in the mid-1990s. By then, he had been living in Tottenham for some 25 years, and had taken part in the campaigns which built the IS and its successor the SWP: the miners’ strike, Grunwick, the Anti-Nazi League. A delegate of the engineer’s union to Haringey Trades Council, he was a friend of two of the activists, Andy Strouthous and Keith Flett, who helped to set up the London Socialist Historians’ Group.
Jim was a regular attender in early years of the LSHG. He encouraged younger members, hoping always to kindle the spark that had accompanied his own early years on the left. A number of our meetings were by members of the SWP or about the history of the SWP, and he always defended the organisation’s record. I remember one occasion when my halting remarks had raised a doubt as to the historical necessity of a vanguard party, Jim took me aside afterwards, and fixed me briefly with a look of fury – the only moment of anger in the 20 years I knew him.
He would talk about the group of the early 1960s, and compare it unfavourably to the party of more recent years. But if you asked him to help you change a particular branch, he would smile and say that it was the younger generation’s turn.
A watchmaker from a Catholic working-class working-class family in North London, he would inspect the watches worn by his comrades, and tease anyone caught with an electronic or inferior plastic timepiece.
Jim had come into the IS in the early 1960s when he heard Tony Cliff address a meeting of the Labour Party Young Socialists in Islington. Invited back afterwards to Cliff’s home, and loaned books by the older activist, he made a point of attending several of Cliff’s meetings over the next few weeks and joined the group. Tony Cliff encouraged him but, as Jim told Ian Birchall in an interview in 2008, Cliff had a levelling humour, and remarked on the beard which Jim kept all his adult life, “you look very like Lenin, but that’s as far as it goes”. Jim’s humour was cut from the same cloth, serving to deflate the occasional egoism of some of his younger comrades. He had a very strong sense of the necessity for the individual to serve a collective and the more important interests of the latter.
He returned to Islington around a decade ago. We would talk sometimes about the party. Jim could be very cynical but disliked cynicism in others. His relationship with the organisation was expressed more and more through the medium of photography. He took vivid images of demonstrations, often in black and white, and shared them with friends but was reluctant to use them more widely.
In the aftermath of the SWP’s closure of first the Socialist Alliance and the Respect, Jim became one of the very large number of SWP members who never attended branch meetings which he found tiresome, and whose relationship to the organisation was expressed in a combination of quiet loyalty, subs-paying and visits to spend time with other veterans at the SWP’s annual Marxism conferences.
In 2012, he began to suffer from dementia and had to give up his job. He spent more time at home and his house became increasingly unfamiliar to him. He was sheltered by his illness from his comrades’ behaviour in the faction fight, and did not attend the fatal North London aggregates.
For the last 10 years of his life he seemed to have only a weak sense of what the SWP had become. In his mind, it seemed to be still the party of his late youth, populated by Tony Cliff and Duncan Hallas, Michael Kidron and Paul Foot, and with Sheila Rowbotham and Dave Widgery somewhere at its edges. He had seen how in previous generations other parties of the left – Labour and the Communists – had become stale and bureaucratised and either the possibility that the SWP had decayed in turn did not occur to him, or, just as likely, he knew the direction in which it was travelling, but would not criticise others when he lacked the strength to assist in turning the party around.
There are others who have given their best years to the cause and are innocent of the sins of the SWP’s leadership.I like to think that we will find a space yet for them at the rendez-vous of the victory that is still to come.