A “Trot of the milder persuasion”: Raymond Challinor’s Marxism

Issue: 141

Christian Høgsbjerg

In 1957 E P Thompson in a private letter to his friend, the fellow dissident Communist historian John Saville, described Raymond Challinor (1929-2011) warmly as a “Trot of the milder persuasion”.1 Thompson had recently resigned from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in protest at the repression of the Hungarian Revolution by Soviet tanks, and such praise from one of the “thought-leaders” of the first New Left in Britain not only testifies to Thompson’s appreciation for Challinor’s personal contribution to building that new movement. It is also in a sense a tribute to Challinor’s politics as a leading figure in the Socialist Review Group (SRG)-from 1962 the International Socialists (IS) and from 1977 the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Thompson’s respect for Challinor reflected how the politics of the SRG, formed in 1950 around the Palestinian Trotskyist Tony Cliff, were refreshingly different from those of other groups on the left at the time, in particular the distinctly catastrophist perspectives being fiercely propagated in this period in Britain by the main “orthodox Trotskyist” group around Gerry Healy, “the Club” (which formed the Socialist Labour League in 1959).2 Moreover, it might stand as a testament to the intellectual respect Thompson had for Challinor as a fellow Marxist historian of the English working class movement, indeed someone who would emerge, as John Charlton has noted, as “one of the leading British historians working in the Marxist paradigm and probably the best of his generation who had never embraced the Communist Party”.3 Perhaps the only other comparable figure to Challinor here would be Brian Manning (1927-2004), a student of Christopher Hill who developed into an outstanding and original Marxist historian of the English Civil War in his own right.4

Though a figure who became well known and well respected among labour historians internationally in his own lifetime, Challinor was also a unique and significant figure in the history of the post-war British far left in his own right who deserves greater general attention and wider recognition. This is partly because Challinor’s historical work stands firmly in a neglected and all but forgotten tradition of British radical and socialist historiography in the 20th century, one that was largely independent of the rightly famous Communist Party Historians Group. Yet Challinor’s own political and intellectual evolution as a Marxist together with the sense in which he always remained something of the “dissident’s dissident” among the British far left, never fully at home in the political organisation to which he committed most of his adult life-the Socialist Review Group-means that he also stands out as a distinctive figure.

This essay will not attempt either a full biographical portrait of his remarkable life or a systematic study of his wide-ranging work. Rather it aims to give a sense of Challinor’s creativity as a Marxist historian and political activist, using in part some of the notes I made when I had the privilege of interviewing him in January 2006 in the home in Whitley Bay he shared with Mabel, his wife of almost 60 years. In particular, attention will be drawn to Challinor’s thought-provoking and provocative work on the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), The Origins of British Bolshevism (1977), which taken together with its short companion volume, a splendid little biographical study of the forgotten “parliamentarian, poet and lion tamer” John S Clarke, stands as perhaps most representative of Challinor’s intellectual project. This essay will suggest that The Origins of British Bolshevism perhaps reveals some of the limitations of Challinor’s own slightly abstract and propagandist model of what “Bolshevism” represented. But it also signifies his distinctive and outstanding contribution as what John McIlroy called “a labour historian of the old school” in making one of the most consistent and dedicated attempts to make Bolshevism “British” through path-breaking historical research into the neglected “revolutionary tradition” of the British working class movement.5

The making of a Marxist

Raymond Corrick Challinor was born in Stoke-on-Trent, North Staffordshire, on 9 July 1929, the son of politically conscious schoolteachers, and after growing up in the depression-hit English Potteries he himself became radicalised and politicised during the Second World War. Moving first to Crewe and then to a Quaker-run boarding school in Lancaster, Challinor had a fine introduction to politics when in October 1941, barely 12 years old, he tried to support the anti-war activity of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a party supported by his mother, in a local by-election. At a time of war the electoral truce saw both Labour and the Liberals decline to challenge the Tory diplomat Fitzroy Maclean, representing the national coalition government, while an independent Liberal candidate stood on a pro-war platform. A leading pacifist figure in the ILP, Fenner Brockway, did however throw his hat into the ring and raised the banner “Shorten the War by Socialism”, urging nationalisation, an end to profiteering, a minimum wage and colonial liberation. Though encouraged in his activism by his teachers at the George Fox Quaker School, Challinor recalled how the ILP’s intervention was widely criticised, with the CPGB-themselves urging support for the Tory Maclean-accusing the ILP of being traitors and “friends of Hitler”. Indeed, the CPGB argued “A vote for Brockway is a vote for Hitler” and physically assaulted ILP members. As Challinor later recalled, “I came into politics as a result of the Lancaster by-election of October 1941… Communist Party members smashed an ILP election meeting and then went to offer their help to Brigadier-General Maclean, the Conservative candidate”.6 Yet despite facing such slander and intimidation, the ILP still got well over 5,000 votes, almost 20 percent of the vote, an indication of the radical anti-Tory mood that would ultimately culminate in the 1945 election victory for Labour.7

Other ILP members active during the Second World War recalled big “Vote National” posters with Churchill’s face at election time during the war, a poster that apparently influenced George Orwell when he came to write 1984.8 The totalitarian “Big Brother” tendencies in British society at a time when it was supposedly fighting a war against Nazism no doubt also left a lasting impression on the young Challinor, as did his own personal experience of being physically attacked by CPGB members for questioning their “No Strikes” policy during the war.9 Challinor’s politics were forged early on in the crucible of the dissident, radical and ethical socialist ILP, a party that was then led by such figures as James Maxton and Spanish Civil War veterans such as Bob Edwards and John McNair. The ILP also included independent Marxist intellectuals such as the historian and one-time supporter of Leon Trotsky, FA Ridley, who Challinor would later consider the lost Marxist theoretician in Britain.10

As an 18 year old in 1947, Challinor joined the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), the “British Section of the Fourth International”, after first meeting Trotskyists T Dan Smith and Bill Hunter while a delegate to the 1945 ILP conference. The RCP seemed to offer a coherent means of being active and effective as a socialist at a time when the ILP was in terminal decline and most members had defected back to Labour, the party it had alongside the trade unions played a critical role in forming before disaffiliation in 1932. Challinor, after two years of horticultural work as a conscientious objector after being called up for national service in 1946, returned to the Potteries to work on a local newspaper. However, he was already displaying a remarkable talent for intellectual independence, even from the tenets of orthodox Trotskyism.11 For the young Challinor, state or public ownership of the means of production had nothing inherently to do with socialism, which was about workers’ power, collective democratic control from below and human liberation. So he disagreed with the claims of RCP General Secretary Jock Haston that the Attlee Labour government’s programme of nationalisation meant it was essentially “socialist”.12 In June 1948 Challinor extended the logic of this argument to the question of the nature of the Soviet Union, writing an article “State Capitalism-A New Order” in the ILP discussion journal Left, which declared: “It is criminal to call Russia socialist-this harms not only the cause of the Russian worker but also that of revolutionary socialism. The only thing to do is to tell the truth about Russia and to show it has nothing in common with socialism”.13

The argument itself was not particularly new-indeed in the pages of Left itself the Australian doctor and philosopher of science Dr Ryan Lyndal Worrall in late 1939 had been the first Trotskyist in Britain to put forward a substantial and sophisticated state capitalist analysis of Russia, which presumably Challinor, as a lifelong enthusiast for the historical literature of the far left, had taken note of.14 As Challinor himself put it to me when I asked him about this article in 2006:

There were two people who played an important part in terms of my evolution. One was FA Ridley, and Ridley said when the Indian Mutiny occurred [in 1857], Britain [under Lord Palmerston] had nationalised the Indian railways. When there was the mutiny, the British were concerned with being able to move troops quickly from A to B. This wasn’t to make the nationalised railways more effective, rather it was to make the troops more efficient.

The second thing is I was influenced by a man called Alan Montefiore, who was a tutor, and he said ‘All your views might be wrong, or they might be right. Now what would change your criteria?’ I found Trotsky’s analysis of the [degenerated] worker’s state, which you find in The Revolution Betrayed, was inadequate, and so I did this article.15

Challinor’s arrival at the position that the Soviet Union was state capitalist meant that in 1950, as the RCP splintered and split, it is not surprising that he would be one of the 33 founding members of the Socialist Review Group formed around the leading theorist of Russia as state capitalist in Britain, Tony Cliff, author of a substantial 1948 internal RCP document, “The Nature of Stalinist Russia”. “More than anyone else in my life, Tony Cliff has had the most profound influence on my political development”, Challinor later wrote. “His tigerish energy, his vast knowledge, his highly individual sense of humour, and his ability to explain complicated concepts in a way that made them easily comprehensible-in my opinion, these qualities he possessed to a greater degree than any other individual”.16 Challinor, who was now working back in Crewe on the local paper, would use his experience and skills as a journalist to assist Cliff by becoming the leading member of an editorial committee (which also included Robert William Ainsworth and Duncan Hallas) responsible for the initially duplicated paper of the SRG, Socialist Review.17

Politics in the 1950s British working class movement was
shaped-Challinor would have said strangled-by two massively dominant traditions embodied in institutional form. On the one hand, there was the social democracy of the Labour Party. After 1946, when it had become clear that the ILP was going nowhere fast, Challinor joined the Labour Party (or in the jargon of the day, “entered”) along with the rest of the tiny British Trotskyist movement in order to try and find an audience for their ideas. Challinor became a member in Crewe.18 While a student of economics and politics at what is now Keele University, Challinor was active in the local Labour Party in Newcastle-under-Lyme, near Stoke, standing for election to the borough council and meeting his future wife Mabel Brough in the Labour League of Youth. On the other hand, there was the CPGB, which by the 1950s was very far indeed from being a revolutionary organisation. As Challinor would later note, “from the outset it was riddled with contradictions”. In an echo of Cornelius Castoriadis’s quip that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics represented “four words, four lies”, Challinor, in his characteristically forthright and provocative style, asserted the Communist Party of Great Britain “was not communist, not a party, nor did it belong to Great Britain”. “Instead it followed every twist and turn dictated by the Russian Foreign Office. In the early years this had a harmful enough effect-it became catastrophic after Joseph Stalin imposed his cruel dictatorship in the Kremlin”.19

This is not to say that Challinor did not establish a good personal rapport with many individual Communists. With a considerable knowledge of world history even before attending university, he seems to have attended meetings of the Historians’ Group of the CPGB during the 1950s. The young Challinor’s own historical imagination was, however, no doubt most inspired by works such as Leon Trotsky’s magisterial History of the Russian Revolution (1930), “heretical” to the CPGB. Yet one suspects it was also fired by an emerging indigenous tradition of British radical, socialist and Marxist historiography which began to reach full fruition in the inter-war period, and which had seen important works by figures such as G D H Cole, Raymond Postgate, F A Ridley and Mark Starr as well as Trotskyists such as Reg Groves, author of But We Shall Rise Again: A Narrative History of Chartism (1938). This tradition would soon become overtaken and overshadowed by the path-breaking work carried through by the constellation of outstanding Marxist intellectuals who came together in the CP Historians Group in the aftermath of the Second World War. Challinor later recalled of the group that “unlike party hacks, eager to regurgitate the most recent CP party line, they were prepared, in a fair and open-minded manner, to consider seriously views different to their own”.20 Challinor even supplied some literature, including writings by Trotsky, to E P Thompson. In a 1993 letter to Socialist Review, he said of Thompson:

In the early 1950s, when I edited Socialist Review, I had a number of long discussions with him. Unlike other members of the Communist Party, he was not arrogant or aggressive…he already had doubts about the latest Stalinist encyclicals on subjects like Lysenko and linguistics…as his knowledge of the British working class grew greater and greater, he found it an increasing problem to reconcile the wisdom he had acquired with the inanities of Stalinism. The thought control the Communist Party sought to impose was deeply repugnant, a violation of his very being.21

Those like Challinor trying to build a revolutionary socialist alternative to what he once called the “two monsters” of Stalinism and social democracy were a marginalised, minuscule minority.22 Together with his good friend and fellow SRG member Stan Newens, Challinor travelled widely visiting political contacts. As Newens recalled, from 1952-6:

Ray and I were active in the Labour Party all over the West Midlands. We also travelled through the Midlands and the north on my motorcycle to promote sales of Socialist Review, of which Ray became the editor, we gave NCLC [National Council of Labour Colleges] lectures…and organised meetings like one for Joseph Murumbi, secretary of the Kenya African Union, in Newcastle-under-Lyme.23

Though small in number, the SRG succeeded early on in attracting around it some very impressive intellectuals thanks to the creativity of the group’s Marxism-as developed above all by Cliff and his brother-in-law, Mike Kidron. A few of those attracted to the SRG had, like Challinor himself, arrived at the critical theory of state capitalism at least partly independently of Cliff himself. Challinor later suggested that:

Some comrades like Seymour Papert-incidentally, a scientist who helped pioneer the development of computers-and James D Young, whose numerous books have been much neglected by the revolutionary left, were influenced more by the American Johnson-Forest Tendency [led by the black Trinidadian C L R James and the Russian Raya Dunayevskaya] than by Tony Cliff”.24

Challinor himself was later to correspond with both C L R James and Raya Dunayevskaya. He was to first meet James himself-”a massive, towering man”, as he later recalled-at the 1955 Labour Party conference in Margate, where James was an observer:

James had a big hat on, and a posh looking raincoat or overcoat but looked a wreck, a battered hulk. He’d been in Ellis Island [a detention centre, en route from being forced out of America during McCarthyism in 1953] and not been allowed to have medical attention.25

Challinor would doubtless have heard of James’s earlier political work in Britain during the 1930s before leaving for the US, when he had been the critical intellectual driving force of British Trotskyism, writing works such as World Revolution (1937), a pioneering history of the Communist International, as well as the classic history of the Haitian Revolution,The Black Jacobins (1938). Stan Newens, who also met James with Challinor during the 1950s, was impressed by James’s “presence”, “the black majesty” he had about him. But he remained distinctly unimpressed by the copies he now saw of James’s new American publication, Correspondence, with its apparent uncritical and apolitical strong focus on sport (in particular baseball)-an attempt by James’s group to understand and relate to American “proletarian culture” and wider American civilisation.26 Challinor was, however, more intrigued with James’s mature Marxism-and seems to have himself impressed James, who had high hopes of recruiting him to his own little group of Marxists in Britain, sending him literature of the Johnson-Forest tendency and its successor groups regularly. But Challinor stayed loyal to Cliff.27

In October 1956 the Hungarian Revolution erupted. For the tiny number of Marxists who held to some sort of theory of state capitalism, the appearance of workers’ councils challenging an alleged “workers’ state” was an electrifying development and seemed a complete vindication of their ideas. Tony Cliff described how “during the first week of the Hungarian Revolution, I could hardly close my eyes. I stayed up practically throughout the night, every night, listening to the radio”.28 The year 1956 as a whole exposed the imperialism of both East and West as a result of the Russian crushing of the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis. It was to be a critical year in opening up space for a “New Left” to emerge, with many rallying around the banner of “Socialist Humanism” raised by E P Thompson and John Saville. Challinor threw himself into the first New Left movement, intervening for example in April 1957 at a New Left conference at Wortley Hall near Sheffield that brought together dissident Communists with Labour Party members.29 Challinor was a very active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and supporter of the Committee of 100, a campaign for civil disobedience against nuclear weapons. He attended the first Aldermaston March in 1958, confronting the organisers when they attempted to take down the Socialist Review Group banner.30

Putting his talents as a socialist and energies at the disposal of the Labour Party, Challinor was elected to the Labour Party Advisory Committee of CND and appointed political education officer in Newcastle-under-Lyme Constituency Labour Party, becoming a local councillor by the early 1960s. He was even a prospective parliamentary candidate for Nantwich from 1961 to 64, though his hostility to NATO, commitment to CND and general refusal to compromise his revolutionary socialist principles by ideologically capitulating to social democracy meant his rise up the Labour Party machine was always destined to be rather slow and short-lived. He stepped down in 1964 with the contest little more than six months away.31 Challinor himself wrote about his growing frustration with municipal “council cretinism” as he had experienced it, in an article on “Socialism at the Parish Pump” for International Socialism in winter 1962, an issue which appropriately also carried the American Marxist Hal Draper’s magnificent article “The Two Souls of Socialism”.

Challinor’s personal credibility as a socialist, and wide range of contacts and friendships in the wider socialist movement were on occasion critical to helping ensure the SRG maintained relations with other groups of revolutionary socialists internationally.32 When the SRG became the International Socialists in 1962, John Palmer recalled how Challinor was one of the key individuals alongside Mike Kidron, Nigel Harris, Alasdair MacIntyre and Peter Sedgwick who helped make IS “appear more than just another Trotskyoid faction” to a younger generation of socialists.33 In the 1960s, after working as a schoolteacher in Crewe, Challinor found work lecturing in further education in Wigan, Preston and Bolton. In the summer of 1965, while living in Wigan, Challinor’s political courage and roots in the local labour movement enabled him to make an important intervention during the three-week Courtauld strike in Preston, joining the strike committee and helping to forge black, Asian and white rank and file working class unity and deliver material solidarity in the midst of an ultimately defeated struggle against speed-up. It was a struggle that received little support from the official trade union movement.34 As Ian Birchall notes of Challinor’s intervention (and that of IS more generally), “this was extremely important in establishing that it was possible to win support from white workers and that black separatism was a dead-end”.35 When student struggles internationally rose to a crescendo in 1968, Challinor-alongside other IS members such as Ian Birchall, Chanie Rosenberg and David Widgery-contributed to the popular new fortnightly radical paper launched in Britain that year edited by Tariq Ali, Black Dwarf.36

Marxism and history

During the 1960s, alongside and inspired by his tireless political activism, went Challinor’s pioneering and often ingenious historical researches into the rich “now open, now hidden” history of workers’ struggles. At a time when coal miners were still in many ways the most gloriously militant section of the British working class, Challinor played an important role as a leading member of IS (which would reach about 1,000 members by the end of 1968) undertaking historical research to try and ideologically arm miners for the battles ahead. In 1967 a short study, Alexander MacDonald and the Miners, emphasising the crucial tension between the rank and file and the emerging bureaucracies within trade unions around leaders like Alexander MacDonald, first president of the Miners’ National Association (formed in 1863), was published by the CP Historians’ Group.37 The following year, making full use for the first time of a hitherto little known “Pitman’s Strike Collection” in Wigan Public Library, Challinor, together with Brian Ripley, wrote a pioneering study of the Miners’ Association, which was inaugurated in 1842 and flourished as “a trade union in the age of the Chartists” for about five years. Challinor and Ripley’s work suggested that historians’ assumptions needed modification. The dominant view in the historiography at the time was that, as Eric Hobsbawm had noted, “miners-whether of coal or metal-were an isolated body of men…concerned less with politics than with their specialised economic struggles” who “took surprisingly little part in the radical and Chartist agitations”.38 In fact, as Challinor and Ripley stressed, “Chartism, a revolutionary movement, greatly influenced the Miners’ Association. Most of its prominent members had played an active part in Chartism”.39

The Miners’ Association, published by Lawrence and Wishart, further testifies to Challinor’s friendly relationship with many labour historians and scholars, including those either in or formerly around the CPGB. The authors noted in their foreword that they “received great assistance from Mr Edward Thompson and Dr V L Allen” among others. Moreover, at least some of the optimistic spirit of the 1960s seems to have found its way into the book, which maintains a defiantly militant tone and language throughout. As the authors wrote in their foreword, written in May 1968 no less:

We think our account has intrinsic interest. The 1840s was one of the most intense, heroic periods of working class struggle. Millions of people yearned for democratic rights and better conditions. Their attempts to achieve these objectives, the story of their fight, deserves not to be forgotten. In this battle the miners took a prominent part. Lessons that can be derived from their experiences may have relevance to the present day.40

Over the next few years Challinor embarked on a PhD at Lancaster University, extending his research into miners’ struggles over the 19th century as a whole.41 In 1971 he secured a post as a senior lecturer in history at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic, and he decided to publish the monograph based on his 1970 doctoral thesis with a local publisher, Frank Graham, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The Lancashire and Cheshire Miners (1972) was a beautifully produced, serious, scholarly work. As well as highlighting the various and often dangerous and powerful obstacles facing those who struggled to build miners’ unions over the course of the century-including the use of strikebreakers (known to striking miners as “knobsticks”), Challinor included a detailed discussion of “the Lancashire miner and his social life”, noting at one point that “prejudice against the collier in the nineteenth century is, in some respects, similar to racial prejudice today”:

The general public do not understand behaviour patterns that are markedly different from their own. They show their displeasure at the heavy drinking, rowdiness and violence of miners; they do not see that these result from the arduous and hazardous nature of their occupation. They do not, moreover, see the very positive qualities that miners possess-their comradeship, their willingness to assist the less fortunate members of their communities, and the courage displayed in times of adversity, such as strikes and pit-disasters.42

Reviewing the work in New Society, Raphael Samuel noted that “Raymond Challinor is a devoted historian. He has a fine knack of rescuing vanished organisations from oblivion. His accounts of strategy and tactics are convincing and unforced. He lets the facts speak for themselves and the reader is free to put his own construction on them”.43

Challinor was to stay at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic until his retirement in the mid-1980s, with his family moving to Whitley Bay. Now established as a respected labour historian, he played a leading role in such groups as the Society for the Study of Labour History and North East Labour History Society from soon after their inception, contributing many fascinating articles and book reviews to their respective bulletins and journals over the course of several decades.44 Over the next 20 years Challinor undertook the research necessary to publish in 1990 what many consider to be his finest work, a remarkable study of one of the heroic leading figures who featured in both of Challinor’s first works, “the miners’ attorney” and Chartist leader W P Roberts (1806-1871). A Radical Lawyer in Victorian England: W P Roberts and the Struggle for Workers’ Rights paid homage to a forgotten figure, one praised by Frederick Engels in his work on The Condition of the Working Class in England for becoming “a terror to the mineowners…such dread of this ‘lightning attorney general’, who seemed to be everywhere at once”.45 In general, Challinor was particularly keen to recover neglected revolutionary figures from the “physical force” wing of Chartism, contributing a fine pioneering biographical essay on Peter Murray McDouall to International Socialism in 1981.46

From the early 1970s onwards one can detect a slight shift in Challinor’s research preoccupations as a labour historian as he moved towards the 20th century, a period that had been essentially out of bounds to the CP Historians Group, particularly when it impinged on either party history or the Soviet Union. Challinor was free to investigate, and as John McIlroy notes, “the militancy of the 1960s and 1970s impelled labour historians searching for useable pasts to look at the years between 1910 and 1926 which witnessed a growth in class combativity and consciousness and intensifying conflict with the state”.47 In the 1970s Challinor was, alongside others including Logie Barrow, Sheila Blackburn, Alan Campbell, Richard Croucher, James Hinton, Richard Hyman, Merfyn Jones and Lawrence Marlow, a key member of the relatively short-lived IS History Group, clearly inspired in part by the original CP Historians Group. As McIlroy notes, the IS was about 2,500 members strong by the early 1970s, many of whom were former students:

With his balding hair, tweed sports jackets, corduroy trousers, well-polished shoes, and deliberate, schoolmasterly manner, Ray seemed to some younger adherents an unlikely member of IS. Any doubts were laid to rest by his erudition, optimism about the future, and taste for disputation, eccentricity, and beer.48

In November 1973 the IS History Group re-published John Wheatley’s 1907 satirical pamphlet highlighting Marx’s labour theory of value, How the Miners are Robbed, with an introduction by Challinor which went through the strengths and weaknesses of Wheatley’s politics as reflected in the pamphlet:

In it, we can see the rapier-like logic [of Wheatley], the ability to marshall a masterful argument, the capacity to make capitalism look ludicrous. Yet, at the same time, we see his fond illusions of the Labour Party and of the efficacy of parliamentary action. Even so, the pamphlet remains very useful. How the Miners are Robbed was written in 1907-and the miners are still being robbed today. Let more workers read it, and perhaps the dirty business can be ended.49

The Origins of “The Origins of British Bolshevism”

Challinor now set out to research what he boldly and provocatively declared to be “The Origins of British Bolshevism”. These origins he thought did not lie with the CPGB, but rather further back, in the Socialist Labour Party which had formed in 1903 under the influence of the American revolutionary socialist Daniel De Leon and had played an important part in the great unrest of 1910-14. Such a research project, which also yielded a short biographical study of the Labour MP John S Clarke-an important Marxist thinker and author of a short study Marxism and History and member of the SLP before becoming an MP-was perhaps influenced by the work of C L R James. During the 1940s, while in America, James had stressed the need for American Trotskyists to work towards “Americanising Bolshevism”. As James had insisted in 1944 in the American Trotskyist publication Labour Action:

To Bolshevise America it is necessary to Americanise Bolshevism… Every great revolution is a truly national revolution, in that it represents not only the historic but the immediate interests of the nation and is recognised as such. But every party which leads such a revolution is also a national party rooted in economic and social life, history and tradition of the nation…how truly Russian and national was Lenin, the greatest internationalist of his age. The Bolshevik Party was the same… In fact and in truth [it is] only until one has dug the principles of Marxism for himself out of his own familiar surroundings and their historical past that the Marxism of Marx and Engels, Lenin or Trotsky, and the famous European Marxists truly stand out in their universal application.50

Challinor’s historical studies (and indeed his entire life’s work) might well be understood as perhaps one of the most consistent and dedicated attempts to further efforts to make both Marxism and Bolshevism “British”. Challinor explored the historical roots of Marxism in the working class movement dating back to Marx and Engels’s relationship to the revolutionary tradition represented by Chartism as well as such neglected autodidactic “organic intellectuals” of the British revolutionary movement as Clarke. Some of the remarkable historians Challinor felt particularly close to in the 1960s and 1970s were American disciples of James. As he recalled, he knew “Marty Glaberman from Detroit, and George Rawick and also Michael Harrington-author of The Other America on poverty-this was in the 1960s”.51 In 1990 Challinor would establish, with the help of his wife Mabel and the historian Archie Potts, the independent Bewick press from his home in Whitley Bay. It is possible the title of the series was not simply in honour of the Northumberland engraver Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) but also inspired by Glaberman’s Detroit-based press of the same name-Bewick-founded in the 1970s to try and keep James’s works in print. Challinor’s Bewick Press published wide-ranging but mainly regional historical works relating to the radical north east, and re-issued The Miners’ Association in the aftermath of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.52

Yet such a project of relating the theory and practice of Bolshevism to a British setting was also in an important sense the project of the IS around Tony Cliff. In the 1970s Cliff was engaged in a full-scale four-volume biography of Lenin as part of a wider political project to transform IS from a rather decentralised propagandist organisation into a more democratic centralist and interventionist Leninist party at a time of rising class struggle in Britain. In 1977, the year Challinor’s The Origins of British Bolshevism appeared, IS voted to relaunch itself as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Challinor himself-while remaining a leading figure in the early 1970s and making important political interventions among the rising tide of miner militancy-would always have issues with this new trajectory. He later described himself as belonging to the “libertarian wing” of IS, among other veterans such as his friend the Victor Serge scholar Peter Sedgwick.53 However, Challinor did not join the split from IS led by Jim Higgins and Roger Protz in 1975, and-unlike Sedgwick-stayed with the organisation when it became the SWP in 1977. As John Charlton recalled, “Raymond’s relationship with the IS and SWP was always contentious. In debates from the 1960s to the 1980s he was often on the opposite side to Tony Cliff. His many talents were usually devoted to opposition to the group leadership” and like a few others “found party discipline irksome”, drifting in and out of formal membership of the SWP.54 Nonetheless, Challinor’s political activism from the 1940s to the 1970s, trying to build a revolutionary current of thought and action within the British working class movement, meant he had a unique privileged insight as a historian of the SLP. As Charlton notes, in The Origins of British Bolshevism, Challinor “shows his sharp eye for errors and missed chances drawing on his own experience in small groups vying for an audience”.55

A third, and possibly critical, influence on Challinor when embarking on his project was the contacts he had made with old-time revolutionary socialists who had been active in the period, including Sylvia Pankhurst.56 Challinor had built a firm friendship with the veteran Scottish revolutionary socialist Harry McShane, who had been at the heart of Red Clydeside. McShane was then an important CPGB member before breaking with them in 1953. In later years he was still remarkably active and open to new ideas (particularly the ideas of Dunayevskaya).57 Challinor had also been close to lesser known rank and file activists such as I P Hughes, part of the shop stewards movement in Liverpool during the First World War. Hughes had been one of the first CPGB organisers before becoming a Trotskyist in the group around C L R James in the 1930s and then again working with James in the 1950s before joining IS-he had died in 1972.58 The SLP itself had gone into terminal decline after the early 1920s but Challinor had met many former members of it around the Trotskyist movement-such as Ted Alcock in Crewe during the 1940s.59 Indeed throughout the footnotes of The Origins of British Bolshevism are references to individuals from the period who helped Challinor in the writing of it through providing either material or oral testimony. Clearly part of his concern when writing the work was to accurately record and reflect their own experiences and memories.

The Origins of British Bolshevism

It is impossible here to provide a full critical appreciation of The Origins of British Bolshevism, which looks set to remain the definitive history of the SLP. As McIlroy notes, Challinor’s “unquestionable achievement was to present a fully-fledged, meticulously researched history of the party” and “its significance was acknowledged even by those who felt labour history devoted too much time to revolutionary marginalia”.60 Challinor throughout stressed the SLP’s anti-statist revolutionary democratic vision, quoting from their 1903 founding statement, SLP A Manifesto to the Working Class, in which they declared that by socialism:

We do not mean what is variously called “State Socialism”, “Public Ownership” or “Municipalism”-that is, the ownership of certain public utilities by a community in which capitalism is still dominant…an industry controlled by an individual capitalist state differs from one controlled by an individual capitalist only in the superior powers of the former to rob and oppress those under its thraldom.61

As Challinor demonstrated, the SLP’s vision of workers’ control from below fitted with an increasingly militant wider working class movement in Britain in the period from 1910 to 20.

Challinor was a sharp critic of Walter Kendall’s dismissive analysis of the SLP in his 1969 work, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 19001921, which had devoted just one chapter-13 pages out of 300-solely to the SLP, which was described as “a propagandist society”. Yet Kendall, whose work had been subtitled “The Origins of British Communism”, had noted, almost in passing, that:

The SLP, in its scepticism towards the Second International, its conception of the party as an elite force, and its view of the socialist society as an industrial republic, cleared the way for Bolshevism for more than a decade before the second Russian revolution began.62

In The Origins of British Bolshevism Challinor developed Kendall’s argument, showing how revolutionary socialist ideas and organisation emerged out of the struggles of British workers. As the SLP themselves had declared in 1918-with, Challinor insisted, some justification-they were “the only political organisation that stands wholeheartedly and uncompromisingly for the Soviet idea. Let it be known: We are the British Bolsheviks!”63

However, few other historians have found this claim-which is central to Challinor’s thesis-particularly convincing. Indeed, even Cliff echoed Kendall’s criticism, noting in his biography of Lenin that the SLP “always acted as an abstract propaganda group rather than a party in the Bolshevik concept of the term, ie an organisation that leads the struggle deciding the tactics the members have to follow”.64 As McIlroy notes of the SLP’s politics, “what Ray described elsewhere as its ‘dull and fatalistic Marxism’ arguably had more in common with the Second International than the infant Third”.65 Challinor acknowledged such a theoretical limitation, but explained it less as something inherent in the SLP’s Marxism but as an objective weakness resulting from the nature of its base among young skilled engineers on the Clyde, and the subsequent difficulties it had in attracting more traditional middle class intellectuals into its ranks as the Bolsheviks had been able to do. For Stuart Macintyre, Challinor was “insufficiently critical of the theoretical and political consequences” that flowed from the SLP’s Marxism, shaped as it was by both “De Leon’s insistence that the SLP must be ‘narrow and intolerant as science’” and by the “habitual condemnation of trade union leaders and Labour politicians as ‘Labour fakirs’ and ‘labour lieutenants of capitalism’”.66

What deserves attention, however, is the extent to which Challinor’s argument about the founding of the CPGB-a critically delayed and only partially successful merger of tiny sects-restated the essential arguments of experienced veterans such as Harry McShane who was close at the time to the Scottish revolutionary socialist John Maclean in Glasgow.67 As McShane recalled in his autobiography No Mean Fighter:

John [Maclean] had always admired the educational work of the SLP and its commitment to Marxist theory. It was the only organisation with any Marxist analysis of the state before the war; Willie Paul’s book [The State, its Origin and Functions] was the best the British revolutionary movement produced. They could also claim that they were the only people in Britain who had any idea of the future of workshop organisation, and that the Soviets were in line with their own ideas about working class power.68

Yet when it came to the founding of the Communist Party, McShane thought there was a problem-one exacerbated by Lenin and the Comintern’s preference for supporting the more heterogeneous and centrist British Socialist Party over the avowedly revolutionary SLP as the nucleus of the new CPGB:

Though there was a crisis situation in Britain and Ireland in 1919 and 1920 no unified revolutionary organisation existed. Many of us were awaiting the formation of the British Communist Party but it was held up by long negotiations between the different organisations. The SLP, the BSP, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s group, the Workers’ Socialist Federation, were all involved but nothing seemed to happen. While waiting on the negotiations the BSP began to take over some of the future functions of the Communist Party without any discussion with the membership. The leadership were obviously in touch with Moscow, particularly through Theodore Rothstein. Although our branch supported Rothstein in his fight with Hyndman before the war, a lot of resentment built up. Most of it centred on the attitude of the BSP leadership. The BSP became more and more inefficient, with no clear policy, but the people at the top were bureaucratic and authoritarian… John Maclean had known a number of them during the war and wasn’t impressed by them or the way they worked.69

When Challinor reformulated McShane’s argument in 1977, John Saville sprang to the defence of Theodore Rothstein in a lengthy rejoinder, describing some of Challinor’s allegations about Rothstein as “typical of the pathetic sectarianism that has infected certain of the minuscule groups among the gauchiste left in contemporary Britain”.70 Nonetheless, the essential truth of McShane’s argument still seems to stand:

Lenin and the other Russian leaders wanted to ensure that the new International would stick to its principles: the Third International was to be completely different to the Second-that is why there were 21 conditions of membership. But, in their anxiety, they were fostering some developments in different countries that perhaps shouldn’t have been encouraged. I think that Lenin’s LeftWing Communism: An Infantile Disorder showed an over-anxiety to support the BSP against people like Sylvia Pankhurst.71

Challinor’s discussion of the founding of the CPGB in his final chapters raises a number of fascinating questions that those interested in counter-factual history and “what if?” history are left to ponder. Alastair Hatchett noted in his review in International Socialism that:

Challinor’s argument that the reformism of many of those who joined the CPGB at its foundation made the organisation more susceptible to Stalinism in the later 1920s carries much weight. But given the level of class struggle in the post-war years could an alternative formation have made a crucial difference?”72

As John Charlton recalled, the final chapters of The Origins of British Bolshevism, challenging Lenin’s attempt at unity to be achieved in a top-down manner through the BSP, “created a stir on publication in 1977”.73 Cliff, in his volume on Lenin, would stress the fact that “the intervention of Lenin and the Comintern leadership in the affairs of the British revolutionary movement was vital…one can say without hesitation that without this intervention a Communist Party would not have come into being”.74 Yet even “Lenin’s magic wand could not obliterate the sectarianism of the British revolutionary left”, a left which had collectively missed getting the opportunity to regroup and form a Communist Party at a time of rising struggle in 1918 and 1919:75

The ability of the Russians to teach their British comrades to husband Bolshevik principles in British soil met with great obstacles. The British comrades came to Communism in their own way, and there were strengths and weaknesses in this rooted in the native land. The chief weakness was the inertia engendered by small group politics in the most conservative country in the world, which the mighty pressure of the Comintern leadership and the great prestige of the Bolshevik leadership which had won power was unable to overcome.76

As Charlton notes, though “it seems an arcane dispute” almost one hundred years later, “it does illustrate two of Raymond’s essential characteristics, his wicked delight in sparking discord and his determination to relate his historical enquiry to contemporary contexts”.77

Challinor’s last work was to be a return to the enthusiasms and passions of his youth. The Struggle for Hearts and Minds, a series of “essays on the Second World War” ranging from 1972 to 1995, some of which had previously appeared in various left wing publications, was published in 1995 by Bewick Press amid what Challinor called “the patriotic frenzy associated with the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War”.78 In The Origins of British Bolshevism Challinor in one chapter had provided a brief alternative history of the First World War showing the brutality, torture and bloodshed which accompanied the way the British state handled political dissidents including war resisters and revolutionary socialists. Now Challinor documented and emphasised the anti-war activism of those in groups such as the ILP and the repression of the British state against them. Sadly, Challinor’s active political and intellectual life would be interrupted by failing health from the early 2000s, and the much larger planned work on the Second World War, one that would recover some of the hidden history of the ILP which he felt had been neglected by 20th century British labour historians, with their stress on the much larger and more significant CPGB, was never completed.

Some sense of Challinor’s creativity, and range and breadth of vision as a Marxist historian, which remained undimmed to the end, can be glimpsed from a brief review in 1999 of a collection edited by John Rees, Essays on Historical Materialism, originating in a weekend school on “Marxism and History” organised by the SWP:

Naturally, the drastic transformation of the way people earn their livings affects other concepts. Some writers in the present collection appear to have forgotten that, in the course of history, “base” and “superstructure” have changed out of all recognition. We no longer live in the age of the coach and four. Now there is a mass media to transmit the ideas and values of the ruling class. In the early 17th century Francis Bacon argued that three inventions had transformed the world-gunpowder, the compass and the printing press. Gunpowder blew away the feudal lord, securely living in his complacent castle; the compass opened the way through the voyages of discovery, to vast additions to experience and knowledge; while the printing press provided the method for recording these and passing information to future generations. Feudalism could not survive. The big question is whether we currently are not living in an age that is analogous; whether the basis for a similar transformation has been provided by three seemingly “insignificant” inventions that may be lethal to capitalism: the splitting of a tiny particle, the small chip of silica, and nothingness. I am referring to nuclear energy, computing and cyberspace.79


Overall, Raymond Challinor should be remembered as a truly outstanding, original and in many ways ingenious and inspiring Marxist historian of the British working class movement. All of his many writings are infused with the revolutionary democratic spirit of “history from below” and “socialism from below” and deserve reading and thinking about. One of my favourite short pieces by Challinor was possibly the first piece of writing I ever read by him, “The Red Mole of History”-an article on revolutions in the 20th century written in 2001 for Socialist Review in the aftermath of the birth of the anti-capitalist movement. The essay remains particularly relevant given the recent return of revolution across the Arab world.80 Moreover, Challinor made an important contribution to the development of what might be called the “International Socialist tradition”, understanding the perils of both Stalinism and social democracy, and recognising the necessity for Marxists to not lose sight of what he called “the perspective of the long haul”, based on the central importance of building a politically independent revolutionary current in the organised working class, rather than looking elsewhere for any “saviour from on high” or “short cut” to socialism.

Raymond Challinor may have had his idiosyncracies and eccentricities, but as he wrote about the political lion-tamer John S Clarke, “in his writings he understood the need to maintain his reader’s interest in order to get over his message. Whatever he was doing, he always strived to amuse and entertain as he instructed…to him, socialism must have a human face-or it was nothing”.81 The same was as true of Challinor himself. His humanism and good humour together with the clarity, force and passion of his revolutionary politics shine throughout all of his writings. All those who had the great fortune to be amused, entertained and instructed by him over the years stand immensely in his debt.


1: Hamilton, 2006. Hamilton interviewed Challinor in 2005 for his doctoral thesis on E P Thompson, which has since been published. See Hamilton, 2011. This essay originated as an expansion of my brief obituary in the Socialist History Society Newsletter, and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss Challinor at the Historical Materialism conference in London in 2011. Many thanks also to Ian Birchall, Paul Blackledge, John Charlton, David Goodway, David Howell, Alan Montefiore, Kevin Morgan, John Palmer and Stan Newens.

2: On Healy’s group, see Hallas, 1969.

3: Charlton, 2011, p8.

4: On Manning’s contribution, see for example Holstun, 2004.

5: McIlroy, 2011. How much this essay owes to the obituaries by John McIlroy and John Charlton for the details of Challinor’s life will be obvious to readers of those two pieces.

6: Challinor, 2011, p97.

7: McIlroy, 2011, pp144-145.

8: Personal information from the late Eric E Robinson, 2006.

9: Anderson and Davey, 1994.

10: Charlton, 2011, p11. On Ridley, see Morrell, 2003.

11: McIlroy, 2011, p146.

12: Challinor, 2000, p185.

13: Challinor, 1948.

14: Worrall, 1939. See also van der Linden, 2007, pp57-60.

15: Personal information from Raymond Challinor, January 2006. On Palmerston’s nationalisation of the Indian railways, see also Challinor, 1977a, p282.

16: Challinor, 2000, p185.

17: Birchall, 2011a, p137. Challinor kept up his editorial duties for Socialist Review until 1956. See McIlroy, 2011, pp147-148.

18: Challinor, 2001a.

19: Challinor, 1977b, p67.

20: Challinor, 1999, p384. On the CP Historians’ Group, see Ashman, 1998.

21: Challinor, 1993. That said, Thompson didn’t always show his anti-Stalinism in this period. See for example his praise of “Stalin’s blueprint of the advance to Communism” in the 1955 edition of William Morris-Thompson, 1955, pp760-761. I am indebted to Ian Birchall for this reference.

22: Challinor, 1977a, p275.

23: Newens, 2011. This was a published version of a speech given by Newens at Raymond Challinor’s memorial meeting in London on 25 June 2011. Newens left the SRG in 1959, in opposition to Cliff’s hardline towards the Labour Party left as well as right, and later became a Labour MP.

24: Challinor, 2000, p187.

25: Raymond Challinor, personal correspondence, 8 January 2006. Newens, who met James during the 1950s as well, recalled James less as a “battered wreck” but rather as “a magnificent figure of a man”. Stan Newens, personal correspondence, 21 January 2013.

26: Personal communication with Stan Newens, January 2006.

27: On James’s Marxist Group during the 1950s, see Høgsbjerg, 2006.

28: Cliff, 2000, p64.

29: For Challinor’s intervention, see Peter Fryer’s report on “The Wortley Hall Conference”, in Widgery (ed), 1976, p84.

30: Challinor, 1958.

31: McIlroy, 2011, pp149-150.

32: John Palmer at Raymond Challinor’s memorial meeting in 2011 described an international gathering of independent socialist journals in Leeds, possibly around the early 1960s, organised by Eric Preston of the ILP and attended by among other groups the Spanish POUM in exile. A delegation from the Socialist Review Group (that included Cliff, Challinor, Alasdair MacIntyre and Palmer himself) were in danger of being excluded on the grounds that they operated inside the Labour Party. Palmer recalls how Challinor was key to persuading the organisers that the SRG’s credentials were acceptable. One of those who was hostile to the SRG’s participation at this conference on the ground that they were “Labourites” was Eric Heffer, then a member of the short-lived Socialist Workers’ Federation in Britain, but later to become a notable left wing Labour MP.

33: Quoted in Birchall, 2011a, p171.

34: Challinor, 1965, and Birchall, 2011b.

35: Birchall, 2011a, p251.

36: Harman, 1998, p150. For example, see Challinor’s pieces, “It Will Happen Here” in Black Dwarf on 19 July 1968, and “Britain’s Parliamentary Hypocrisy” in Black Dwarf on 22 September 1968.

37: Challinor, 1967.

38: Hobsbawm, 1957.

39: Challinor and Ripley, 1968, pp10, 244. For more discussion of this work, see Colin Griffin’s review of the 1990 reissued publication in Labour History Review, volume 57, number 2 (Autumn 1992), and Challinor’s reply (Spring 1993).

40: Challinor and Ripley, 1968, p3.

41: McIlroy, 2011, p151.

42: Challinor, 1972, p255.

43: Samuel, 1972, quoted in McIlroy, 2011, p152.

44: McIlroy, 2011, p151, and Watson, 2011. In 1983 Challinor, together with Maureen Callcott, a fellow lecturer at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic, co-edited a collection of essays by members of the North East Labour History Society entitled Working Class Politics in North East England.

45: Challinor, 1990, p87. One of Challinor’s last articles was an entry on W P Roberts for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

46: Challinor, 1981.

47: McIlroy, 2011, p155.

48: McIlroy, 2011, p153.

49: Challinor, 1973, p6.

50: See CLR James’s essay “The Americanization of Bolshevism” in James, 1993, pp283-287. This piece is from a longer document originally published by James under the pseudonym JR Johnson, “Education, Propaganda, Agitation: Post-War America and Bolshevism” in October 1944. See also McLemee, 1994, pp222-223.

51: Personal information from Raymond Challinor, January 2006.

52: McIlroy, 2011, p156. In 1984 Challinor helped make a documentary film, “Lessons of the Class Struggle”, interviewing Andy and Jack Lawther, two brothers from a famous Durham mining family, about the British labour movement from the General Strike of 1926 onwards.

53: Challinor, 1995.

54: Charlton, 2011, p13. Young comrades around Newcastle in the 1980s, however, continued to learn much from Challinor, whether by his making splendid five-minute contributions from the floor of branch meetings explaining the theory of the “permanent arms economy” or his organising Peter Fryer to speak to a Socialist Worker Student Society meeting at Newcastle University in 1986 to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. Personal information from Paul Blackledge, 2013.

55: Charlton, 2011, p15.

56: Personal information from Raymond Challinor, January 2006.

57: On Harry McShane, see McShane and Smith, 1978, and Challinor, 1989, pp247-249.

58: Challinor, 1977a, pp196, 213.

59: McIlroy, 2011, p147.

60: McIlroy, 2011, p155. So Stuart Macintyre-author of an important work on Marxism in the 1920s, A Proletarian Science-noted Challinor’s work was “comprehensive” and “meets the need for a study of this tiny but not insignificant group of Marxists”-Macintyre, 1979, pp721-722. See also Brown, 1979, pp55-56.

61: Challinor, 1977a, pp23-24.

62: Kendall, 1969, pp75-76.

63: Challinor, 1977a, p192.

64: Cliff, 1987, p292. In an implicit riposte to Challinor, Alex Callinicos suggested in International Socialism that perhaps the SLP might be best understood as part of “The origins of British propagandism”. See Callinicos, 1980, pp113-116.

65: McIlroy, 2011, p155.

66: Macintyre, 1979, p723.

67: See Challinor’s letter about Maclean in History Workshop Journal volume 22, number 1 (1986), pp220-221.

68: McShane and Smith, 1978, p123.

69: McShane and Smith, 1978, pp111-112, 120.

70: Saville, 1983, ppxii-xv.

71: McShane and Smith, 1978, p120.

72: Hatchett, 1977, pp29-30.

73: Charlton, 2011, p15.

74: Cliff, 1987, p304.

75: Cliff, 1987, p285

76: Cliff, 1987, pp304-305.

77: Charlton, 2011, p15.

78: Challinor, 2011, pvi.

79: Challinor, 1999, pp384-385.

80: Challinor, 2001b.

81: Challinor, 1977b, pp82-83. See also Challinor’s entry on Clarke in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


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