Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Ken Weller 1987 Interview, Part 2

SOLIDARITY: Which direction did you move in yourself, out of all the sort of dissident things that there were?

KEN WELLER: I was fishing for about two years after ’56. I was deeply dissident, but not clear in which direction I was going. In fact I was involved in all these things; I used to go to the Forum and the conferences and so on; but I ended up, shall we say, in ’57, ’58, moving towards Healy’s trotskyism, and became a member of Healy’s group, which later became the Socialist Labour League, and I was in that for a couple of years, two  and a half years, something like that;  and then Solidarity was formed. The staggering thing is, the first conference of Healy’s outfit all us dissident CPers went to, I remember how shocked we all were when we saw that many of the organisational and conference methods, you know, like the panel election of conferences, were practised in that organisation as well, to a more extreme extent, because a smaller organisation is much tighter; and in fact under the pressure of all these new people, in a sense they trimmed their sails and moderated things. For a while the SLL was a much looser organisation and grew rapidly. Then when people began to realise what was what, in about 1960, they had about five different splits in about eighteen months.

SOL: In an interview with the Guardian of 20th October 1986, Eric Hobsbawm said that a lot of people stayed in the CP who had the same criticisms, but decided they would try and reform it from within. Do you think that’s true; and why didn’t you decide to stay in, if you think it’s true?

K W: In that interview, he said “The same criticisms as another group of people”. History tends to be perceived in terms of the people who actually write things, so in fact the events of ’56 will be perceived in terms of magazines like The Reasoner and the Universities and Left Review, in other words  people who find it easy to write, university, middle-class academics and so on, who become stars, and the other people who were involved, the vast majority, get forgotten. For example, there was a conference at which Andrew Rothstein was speaking about Hungary, and Jimmy McLaughlin, who was a famous CP industrial militant at Fords, was there. Rothstein was talking about the enemies of socialism, meaning the workers in Hungary, and McLaughlin got up in the middle of the conference and says “You’re the enemy, you filthy old swine!” [2] That’s the sort of thing which happened. Waves of people in industry went out of the CP, but they didn’t write about it. Now Hobsbawm was talking about a particular group of people when he says “They went out but other people with similar views stayed in”; he’s talking about a relatively small layer of people who remain crypto-Stalinists to this day; it doesn’t mean the seven or eight thousand people who left the Party, and the destruction of the milieu which the CP controlled, which is far more significant. What he means is that there were some people who left who had very similar views to some people who stayed to change things. What isn’t clear, in my view, is what influence Hobsbawm and Monty Johnstone and all those people had on changing things. The changes seem to be forced at every level by the change in the Party rather than any tiny group of people intervening at the top. The reason I didn’t stay on is I didn’t agree with the Party any more. How can you reform something when you increasingly disagree with every iota of what it is doing? It wasn’t a question of disagreeing with this or that, it wasn’t liberal enough or it wasn’t democratic enough; in every single aspect of its policy I couldn’t find any element to agree with, increasingly so as time went on.

SOL: In the aftermath of all these people leaving and so on, would you say the CP, what was left of  the CP, became more liberal in response to all these criticisms, or became more Stalinist and defensive in reaction?

K W: I think it became more liberal in structure and policy, it’s much more liberal now than it was.

SOL: It is now, but in the immediate aftermath?

K W: Even over a relatively short period. They set up commissions on inner-party democracy, they democratised slightly; in a sense they were trying to catch up with their members. I remember Harry Pollitt coming back from the Twentieth Congress, at which he was present, and there was an aggregate meeting in the Friends’ Meeting Hall [House] in Euston Road, which was packed – I mean, most people say “Report back, yawn”, but this time it was packed (and it’s quite a big hall) – and he got up to make his speech and he says, “I know people have been hearing reports about what’s been going on at the Twentieth Congress, and Khrushchev’s…” – no, he didn’t say mention that, because it hadn’t been admitted, as it hasn’t in Russia to this day, that Khrushchev’s speech was official – “I know what you want to discuss,” he says, “but I’m going to discuss the real business of the Twentieth Congress,” and then spent an hour telling us about how the agricultural plans had been fulfilled, and so on. People walked out of that meeting absolutely stunned. There were plenty of dissidents who stayed in the party, but what happened wasn’t simply people leaving; the underpinning of Party internally was also crumbling, and of course the liberalism is just a reflection of that crumbling, in that they really couldn’t restrict discussion any more; you couldn’t have a statement in World News, which was the official Party inner journal, saying, “The discussion on this question will now cease” – people will just give them two fingers and carry on; and the sort of thing like people getting expelled for discussing political views with people outside the organisation, that doesn’t happen much any more; not simply because they’ve become liberalised, but it’s happened because people are no longer prepared to tolerate the old monolithism any more.

SOL: So why were you attracted towards the SLL?

K W: Because they were there, basically. A lot of these things are historical accidents. They were the people I came in contact with. I was involved with a dissident group inside the YCL; we produced our own paper and had a circulation of up to eight hundred, which was massive, believe me. A group of us in the YCL all left together, mainly working-class kids, well, we weren’t kids, young men and women, I suppose, and we came in contact with Healy’s people. My own path was through Peter Fryer, who I’d known in the Daily Worker; I’d met him and we’d discussed, and he sort of convinced me that this was the path of the future. Funnily enough he left in ’60 [corrected by KW to 1959], and then I left a little bit later. But that’s my own particular path. They had a critique of Stalinism, a critique that certainly on the face of it, as presented, looks quite reasonable and feasible – the Stalinist bureaucracy, the degeneration, and all this sort of thing; it’s only when you begin to realise Trotsky’s own involvement, and the structure of the trotskyist groups themselves, you have questions. It’s a learning process. There was nothing around available, no accessible critiques of trotskyism, ‘accessible’ being the key word. We’re dealing with a completely different political scene to today. Accident, that’s often the way people join things. I mean, if you asked yourself how you came in contact with Solidarity: it wasn’t that you sat down one day and said “Right, there’s fifty-six political groups and here’s their political programmes, that’s the one for me”; it doesn’t happen that way. I’m not saying it’s entirely luck; there obviously have to be things that respond to what you want; but that was the way I was moving. After about two and a half years in the SLL I realised that in some ways I’d moved backwards from my dissident days in the CP, if you know what I mean; I had a deeper criticism of what was wrong before I went in.

Interview ends, but watch this blog for more about Ken Weller, coming shortly.

Comrade Weller confesses to errors:-
Solidarity JournaIssue 17, p.16
2. Ken amended this quotation:  ‘what [McLaughlin] actually said was “You’re the enemy, you lying old swine”’ adding ‘This is significant, precisely because it was Rothstein’s  lies which got up his nose.’

To read more about what had such far-reaching effects:-

Hungary books, from Solidarity Journal no.15, p.16 --> 

[(Blogger confesses to error:) i.e. same number as the interview, not Issue 16 as first stated here - apologies to anyone who was misled]

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