Born in 1925, Duncan’s father was a paver. His mother had been a mill worker from the age of ten, and his grandmother had worked in the same trade from an even earlier age (eight). He used to recall the sheer effort it took his mother to keep the house clean. “Hours it took her, by the mangle, with the stove”. It was a household where politics were openly discussed; he was aware of the Tory victory at the 1935 general election, the Civil War in Spain, and Mussolini’s victory in Abyssinia.
Duncan became an engineering apprentice at 14, joining the huge Metro Vickers engineering plant in Trafford Park where once Harry Pollitt the General Secretary of the Communist Party had worked. “All the electrical work”, he recalled, “was done by women, whereas all the machine work was done by men.” Duncan’s own route to socialism began in the same year. He joined the Young Communist League. The following year, he met Rachel Ryan selling the paper of the (Trotskyist) Workers international League. The very small WIL was in the middle of the merger talks that would lead to the formation of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).
The RCP’s position was that its members should serve in their country’s armed forces and agitate there. Duncan was conscripted into the infantry, the 1st South Lancashire Regiment, and served in France, Belgium and Germany. Later in life, Nigel Harris recalls Duncan keeping a shot gun to shoot pigeons.
In common with other soldiers, Duncan’s regiment was kept in service after the end of the Second World War, defending in his case Ismaliya in the canal zone of Egypt. A platoon sergeant, his troops refused to do guard parade and other duties. For “about three and a half weeks”, Duncan later recalled, “the authorities had no force. The only units they could rely on were the military police. But they were facing a whole infantry division who were trained to fight. So they couldn’t do anything.” Some 23 soldiers were eventually charged, with Duncan receiving 3 months in military prison. In the protest’s aftermath, the troops were demobilised rapidly.
Duncan returned to Metro Vickers, to engineering, and to his former life as a Trotskyist militant. On the RCP’s demise in 1948, he followed Cliff into the Socialist Review Group, and then worked as a tutor for the National Council of Labour Colleges, moving to Edinburgh in 1953. (I remember the contempt with which he uttered the words ‘Ruskin College’, when I was later foolish to bring up in conversation the name of the rival labour education institution).
Around 1954, Duncan dropped out of political activity, to reappear at the 1968 conference of the International Socialists, giving, in Cliff’s reckoning, “the most impressive intervention at the conference.”
The party was growing incredibly fast – quadrupling its membership in the space of a single, revolutionary year. Duncan’s wit, his skills as a speaker and debater, all helped to hold together what might otherwise have been an unsustainable mix of worker-activists, impressionable students, long-term cadre and new members.
Something of the tone of Duncan’s then Marxism is captured by a 1971 essay, ‘Towards a Revolutionary Socialist party’, which was then re-published with other essays by Cliff and others, in a collection ‘Party and Class’:
“The self-education of militants is impossible in an atmosphere of sterile orthodoxy. Self-reliance and confidence in one’s ideas are developed in the course of that genuine debate that takes place in an atmosphere where differences are freely and openly argued. The “monolithic party” is a Stalinist concept. Uniformity and democracy are mutually incompatible.”
“Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”
It is also worth noting the relative humility with which Duncan (in common with other IS authors) put the case for the International Socialists: a group several times larger than any party now to be found on the British left, more active and better-implanted in a much more confident working class. He began by noting that for many years the left in Britain (as a whole) had been noteworthy for its sectarianism,
“The root cause of the sort of sectarianism that has plagued the British left is the isolation of socialists from effective and influential participation in mass struggles. The isolation is rapidly diminishing but its negative effects – the exacerbation of secondary differences, the transformation of tactical differences into matters of principle, the semi-religious fanaticism which can give a group considerable survival power in adverse conditions at the cost of stunting its potentiality for real development, the theoretical conservatism and blindness to unwelcome aspects of reality – all these persist.”
IS sought to break with sectarianism; it did not pretend to be anyone’s vanguard:
“The[se effects] will be overcome when, and only when, a serious penetration and fusion of layers of workers and students outside sectarian circles has been achieved. The International Socialism group intends to make a significant contribution to that penetration. Without having any illusions that it is “the leadership” the group exists to make a theoretical and a practical contribution to the regeneration of socialism in Britain and internationally.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1971/xx/party.htm)
Duncan’s speeches, Nigel Harris recalls “were remarkable for clarity, precision, for consistency, without frills or pretensions – and for a solid non-conformist northern Englishness … Duncan’s strength was in a plain republican style, honed before the mirror in the morning bathroom.”
It was not just how he spoke, but what he spoke about, the ease with which Duncan would pass from the ancient Assyrians to the Oriental Mode of Production, from the class forces beneath the fall of the Roman Empire to the history of the international labour movement, Marxian economics, historical materialism and philosophy.
In the early 1970s, Duncan edited the SWP’s Internal Bulletin, which then appeared monthly in a print run of 1350 copies.
Paul Foot recalled working with Duncan on Socialist Worker: “He would grab himself a disgusting coffee, light up an infernal cigarette, bark out testy comments about the state of the world, and then, grabbing a biro, would scribble out in longhand an impeccable editorial. He was the most coherent socialist I ever knew, whether he was writing or speaking.”
In 1975, the International Socialists suffered the most protracted (and second-nastiest) split of the organisation’s entire history. The definitive account was published years afterwards by the split’s main victim, Jim Higgins, then a journalist on Socialist Worker, and before that the party’s national secretary (http://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1997/locust/).
During the four years of the Heath government (1970-4), IS grew rapidly, both in terms of membership and audience. The paper reached its peak sale of around 40,000 copies a week. A party which had recently been a mere collection of former students took on something of the character of a workers’ party. From the start of the Labour government, there were fewer strikes, and the party began to stgnate. Cliff, as was his habit, sought to deal with the crisis by moving around the figures in the leadership, demoting Higgins and Roger Protz, the editor of Socialist Worker.
To Cliff’s surprise, the party’s second-rung leadership held firm in support of Higgins, with the party’s industrial militants in particular backing the victims of this purge. And when I say industrial militants, this battle was not 2013 in reverse: the SWP’s shop steward members were then seriously implanted in industry, and had played a prominent part in successful campaigns such as the miners’ victory at Saltley Gates. They were genuinely workers, shop stewards who had led mass strikes, with real roots in the factory democracy of the time.
Jim Higgins, Roger Protz, Ross Pritchard (printers’ union activist and founder of the SWP printshop), Harry Wicks (one of the few remaining Trotskyists of the 1930s generation), the Birmingham engineers, and the best of the party’s industrial cadre were now in open revolt against Cliff. Improvising furiously, Cliff denounced his critics, imagining new errors to blame them with and generating a self-serving assessment of the political period. Only a party of youth, Cliff now argued, could stand firm against Labour’s betrayals, and the support they were receiving from the shop stewards as well as the union bureaucracy.
In Higgins’ recollection, “He informed us that Socialist Worker had entirely the wrong focus, the emphasis on advanced militants was misconceived. The people moving to revolution were the young and traditionless, while their elders were bent, having established comfortable niches for themselves in the shop steward’s committees and union branches … At the time I failed to realise that Cliff did not believe in his prescription any more than I did. A moment’s reflection would have indicated that … [if Cliff had believed what he was now arguing then his] books on Incomes Policy and Productivity Bargaining were an exercise in daydreaming, not to speak of a more or less total denial of Leninism. If it meant that the whole trade union machine, both official and unofficial, was rigged, then our first task would be to see how we could assist in building new revolutionary syndicates, an essay into dual unionism, another Industrial Workers of the World.”
For most of its duration, the Opposition was marshalled by Hallas. Nigel Harris stood aloof from it and voted with Cliff: “The more messy the fight, the more Cliff dug his feet in until all his efforts were single-mindedly directed, not to persuading anyone, but to digging out Duncan, Jim [Higgins] and the rest, regardless of the cost to the organisation. In the end, Cliff and his supporters carried the day and the opposition was expelled or left in rage … Before the final catastrophe, Duncan had a long talk with Cliff and decided to join him.”
There has never been a proper explanation of why Duncan changed sides at the eleventh hour. I like to think that maybe some of Nigel’s own reasoning applies to Duncan too: “Most of us in the leadership were bewildered, rooted from our beginning in the politics embodied in Hallas and Higgins, but knowing Cliff’s genius for sensing trends ahead of us all and knowing that, even if the opposition won, they would never rebuild a new SWP out of the fragments left behind by the split. We were given only one wager, and if it failed, we could not start again.”
Higgins, to his immense credit, was able to recall this episode without rancour: “After a lengthy discussion with Cliff, Duncan informed us that he no longer wished to be associated with our opposition. It has to be said that this was disappointing. Not only was he one of the more persuasive speakers and writers in the group but he was also the most vigorous proponent of our original protest.”
Duncan’s “reward”, if that is the right word, was a further twenty years in the leadership, speaking to local branch meetings, drinking afterwards with activists until closing time.
Duncan was immensely popular within the organisation. I remember watching him speak at Marxism, and the rapt faces of his audience. He spoke with authority and a gentle humour. His tone was simple and direct. There was no artifice about him at all; he was in his element, a worker at the head of a party which if it was not very working-class (unlike the old IS), at least grasped the necessity of recruiting workers to socialism.
He was without ambition for himself. You could not imagine Duncan selling out a strike; you could not imagine Duncan engaging in the long wars of petty intrigue necessary to establish a Professorial chair.
I was fortunate to be in a branch with Duncan at the end of the 1990s after his retirement from the leadership of the SWP, and even to lodge briefly in the same house as him. I recall vividly the friends who gave Duncan the greatest support in this period. None are in the leadership of today’s organisation.
For a figure who had spent so long in the party’s senior positions Duncan had surprising reserves of scepticism. I remember going with him to a party conference and sitting with him as the sheets were distributed bearing the list of the next year’s Central Committee. I should explain that in marked contrast to its predecessor of twenty years before (or indeed its successor today), the Central Committee of the SWP was then a very stable organisation, the slate was never challenged at conference, its occupants appeared to have a job for life.
An announcement form the chair explained that the forms had to be returned for security reasons. For some strange reason, that year’s list had been printed on a different colour of paper to all the other pages in our delegates’ packs. “You know why they want them back”, Duncan muttered to a friend, “So they can put the same list in the packs for next year’s conference.”
Frail now, and only able to walk with a stick, Duncan remained extraordinarily loyal to the party (only a true hack would fail to gasp the close intersection of scepticism and loyalty). One week we began a new sale at a sweatshop in east Hackney. We continued this sale for four weeks, typically selling more copies of our Turkish paper, but always selling one or two Socialist Workers, to the mostly-female mostly-immigrant workforce. By the fourth week, the branch lacked a second person to continue the sale. I spoke to the meeting, with as much passion as I could muster, stressing the political importance of this work. While twenty-or-more of us recent ex-student comrades stared guiltily at the floor, Duncan Hallas waved his stick in the air. This was Cliff’s politics – always seeking to raise theory to the level of practice. Whether he could walk or not, Duncan insisted on doing the sale.