History with the struggle left back in

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Three links which may be of interest to readers: First, many thanks to Shiraz Socialist for publishing Mick Rice’s obituary for Vic Collard, one of the Birmingham AEU shop stewards and IS members whose greatest moment came in 1972 when they were instrumental in calling the picket of Saltley Gates which effectively handed victory to the National Union of Miners in their strike of that year.

“Vic and I were both members of the AEU District Committee when the successful mass picket of Saltley Gates took place during the miners’ strike of 1972. It now seems almost unbelievable that ordinary workers could mobilise in tens of thousands to down tools right at the same time and set out to walk en masse to close the gates. This, the greatest act of solidarity of Birmingham’s working people, came about because of organisation and leadership. The AEU District President, Arthur Harper, the Convenor of British Leyland’s Tractors and Transmissions plant at Washwood Heath was a member of the International Socialists. Arthur Harper was a militant trade unionist. He was no socialist theoretician but he knew that trade unionism wasn’t enough on its own to change society. Arthur prided himself on being good at tactics. He was once instructed by the AEU Executive to end a strike and tell his members to go back to work. He did precisely as instructed and then said “As your Convenor, I’ve done what I’ve been instructed to do by the union – but as your mate I’m telling you, that you would be stupid to accept the union’s advice!””

“When Arthur Scargill came to the District Committee to ask for help, Arthur Harper knew what to do. A meeting of all the Shop Stewards was summoned for the following evening and over 300 of them agreed to pull out their members in the morning and march on Saltley! The remarkable thing is they had the confidence to know that they could do it”.

Rice also explains the haste with which IS lost these supporters – Cliff having fallen into the trap (as he sometimes did) of looking for a get-rich-quick scheme:

“At one time we had 31 AEU members in Birmingham who were also members of the International Socialists. I remember one comrade, a teacher, was involved in some School / Business Liaison meeting with a Personnel Officer from Lucas’s. He asked in an innocent a way as possible whether the company had any problems with subversives. The Personnel Officer replied that Lucas’s had IS like some people had mice! I think that Victor was rather proud of that for he was undoubtedly the “éminence grise” of the AEU group.”

“Unfortunately, a left-winger called Laurie Smith, who was a member of the Socialist Labour League, did extremely well in an AEU Executive election. In fact he was subsequently elected to a National Officer post. Laurie Smith was a long standing union activist in London and a Toolmaker. Toolmakers were the backbone of the AEU and, in my view, Laurie’s vote was largely due to support from fellow toolmakers as they were often regarded as “craft chauvinists” who referred to semi-skilled workers as “Tom Nods”.”

“The IS leadership (in the process of becoming the SWP) thought otherwise. Laurie’s vote indicated that the workers were moving to the left and ditching Labour. The IS /SWP needed to field candidates to all AEU positions to win the thousands that were moving leftwards. They called a snap meeting at the IS national conference to change the line. The AEU group in Birmingham could not go along with this triumphalism and we were systematically expelled for our failure to comply with the requirements of democratic centralism. We were characterised as “trade union routinists” by the central committee as the organisation went to rank and file extremes. I remember Tony Cliff extolling the virtues of workers who had not been tainted by trade union tradition. Shop Stewards and especially Senior Shop Stewards were the new trade union bureaucrats.” More (much more) here.

(And worth reading alongside Jim Higgins’ version of the same events here and here, and Ian Birchall’s reply here in Revolutionary History 7/1 pp 200-3, which frustratingly has never been placed online, although you get a flavour of it here.)

Second, Jeff Sparrow, the editor of Overland magazine and author of Communism: A Love Story has returned to the subject of one of the main characters of that book, Lesbia Harford, and has written a short review rescuing her from the latest editor of her poems, who in order to “explain” them to a fresh audience presented Harford as a poet of the intimate and the domestic, and in so doing appears to have replicated any number of subtle, sexist clichés. Harford – syndicalist, Bolshevik, and an archly-modernist poet – least of all deserves this treatment. Anyone who thinks that Harford’s friends – plebeian, comic and insurrectionary – “were grimly revolutionary” deserves (as Sparrow gives them) a metaphorical kicking. I also think Sparrow is right to criticise a second, shallow reading in which Harford’s intense and erotic relationships with other women enable her to pigeonholed as a precursor of today’s LGBT / Queer politics. The Edwardian period was not the 1950s; Australia was not Britain. And I’ve seen other women of the same generation (Elizabeth Gurley Flynn) subject to a similar, well-meaning but misplaced reading. Here.

Finally (at the top) – for today above all days – my fictional cousin Renton’s “other” speech from Trainspotting.

To anyone who could possibly still be undecided: Choose Life

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7 responses »

  1. Thanks for linking to the obituary of Vic Collard. I didn’t know Vic Collard personally, but of course I knew him by repute. He was obviously a very fine militant, one of a generation who in the 1960s and 1970s showed just what working-class power could look like. Saltley and the freeing of the Pentonville Five were the high-point of an epoch, and those who played a role in them should be celebrated. My condolences to Vic Collard’s family and friends.

    It’s a pity that the death of such an exemplary working-class fighter should lead to the raking over of the 1975 split in the International Socialists. But Mick Rice had given his view, and as one who took the opposing side and backed Cliff and the IS CC, I would just make a couple of comments. After all, the best tribute we can pay to both Cliff and Collard is to examine their achievements and their mistakes critically, so that future generations can learn. I attempted to do this, doubtless inadequately, in the account of the dispute I gave in my biography of Tony Cliff.

    My own feeling in retrospect is that both sides in the dispute are open to criticism. It is far too simplistic to see the events as Cliff looking for a “get-rich-quick scheme”. It was not simply Cliff and the CC who opposed the Birmingham engineers. The CC was supported by many of the younger engineeering workers in various parts of the country; it was also supported by Frank Henderson, one of the finest revolutionary militants of his generation, who remained an SWP member till his death a few years ago.

    Finally, Dave, you are wrong to say that my review of Jim Higgins’ book is not on-line; it is at http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/1998-review-of-jim-higgins-more-years-for-the-locust/ .
    And for the record, the “prominent Birmingham engineering worker” whom I proposed to add to the “unofficial slate” for the National Committee, and whom Higgins curtly rejected, was ….. Vic Collard. I’m afraid history doesn’t divide up neatly into heroes and villains.

  2. Thanks for the link Ian, and I was well aware that there are two sides to the story: if I had known of other sources beyond your review which give a sense of the non-Higgins perspective – on the Birmingham engineers – I would have provided a link for them also.

      • I know – and he had a heart attack the day before I was due to interview him for the Cliff biography – I should certainly have asked him about it.

      • It is *not* true that Frank Henderson supported the IS leadership over the AEU dispute: I knew Frank at that time, and know what he thought – which was that Cliff was wrong. But Frank decided to stay with IS.

  3. Fair enough JIm. I didn’t discuss the matter with Frank at the time and obviously I accept what you say. But by choosing not to openly oppose the CC (for whatever reasons) Frank effectively gave his support to the CC (and that was how someone like myself not directly involved perceived it), whatever his private feelings. That is all I meant.

  4. Ian – Jim is right on this. It was known among the IS Opposition that Frank Henderson was fiercely opposed to the expulsions of the AEU and other shop stewards and militants in Birmingham. Indeed Duncan Hallas thought that Frank would sign the Opposition declaration. But when Duncan switched sides at the last minute, Frank seemingly decided to remain in the IS.

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