A review of Duncan Hallas: Indomitable Revolutionary—A Tribute, Alex Callinicos, Sheila McGregor, Jack Robertson, John Rudge and Dave Sherry (Bookmarks, 2023), £12
In a time of multiple crises and a growing pull towards socialist politics, this new book, presenting the life and writings of Duncan Hallas, should serve as a guide to all revolutionaries, both new and more experienced.
The book comprises a series of tributes from a variety of contributors, giving an overview of the remarkable life and times of Hallas, a founding member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) as well as its forerunners, the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialists. It also contains a collection of Hallas’s writings, many of which are foundational to the politics and practice of the International Socialist tradition. These include articles on the nature of the Stalinist Communist Parties and the need for a revolutionary party in Britain as well as razor-sharp analyses of the miniscule post-war Trotskyist movement and how the International Socialists stood out from it. There are also elaborate and varied articles and talks on Irish history, women’s oppression, human nature, the origins of class society and capitalism. As well as these topics being addressed by Hallas’s own writings, the book also contains tributes and articles from a series of contributors—Sheila McGregor, Alex Callinicos, Dave Sherry, Jack Robertson and John Rudge.
Hallas was deeply involved in the project of preserving and rebuilding the revolutionary socialist tradition in Britain from as early as 1940. Developing a sharp and mature political perspective from a young age, he was resolutely committed to the idea that Marxism must be rooted in practice, and his own politics drew upon his engagement in real struggles. He took part in a wartime apprentices’ strike in a Manchester factory in 1941 and an army mutiny in Egypt in 1946, then became a leading figure in the creation of a rank and file teachers’ movement in the late 1960s. After this, he participated in the full-time leadership of the SWP for almost 25 years.
Hallas had taken a hiatus from politics between the mid-1950s, but he returned to the International Socialists at a time of social upheaval across the globe in the late 1960s. As part of the organisation’s leadership, he was instrumental in transforming it from a chiefly student-based propaganda group into an interventionist force with roots in the working class. Hallas contributed to the building up of a new cadre within the organisation through his public speaking tours and prolific writing. Several of the contributors to this collection can personally attest to this; for instance, Dave Sherry, a long-standing member of the SWP in Glasgow, remembers his interactions with Hallas as some of the most valuable in coming to a clear picture of the politics of the International Socialists. The other contributors also attribute the same flair for clarification to Hallas.
Hallas wrote two books, Trotsky’s Marxism (Pluto, 1979) and The Comintern (Bookmarks, 1985). The latter is a profound but concise analysis of the history of the Communist International, the global league of revolutionary organisations that was founded by the Bolsheviks after they led the Russian Revolution to victory. The Bolsheviks sought to use the Comintern to generalise their experience of building a revolutionary party within the working class, and its foundation in 1919 came amid heightened revolutionary working-class struggle across Europe. Hallas’s book follows the history of the Comintern from its inception as “an essential, indispensable part of the revolution” through to its metamorphosis into a “tool of Russian foreign policy” and an element in the “strangling of workers’ power in the Soviet Union by the rising bureaucracy under Stalin”.1 The Comintern should be read by all those who wish to get a grip on the ins and outs of the organisation’s historical development. Nonetheless, Callinicos’s tribute in this new collection does a brilliant job of summing up the impact of Hallas’s work when it was published: “It introduced thousands of militants to the authentic Communist tradition as it was in its years as a mass force”.2
An example of the insight offered by The Comintern is brought out in an article by Dave Sherry, who writes about the Soviet-sponsored quashing of the 1925-7 Chinese revolutionary wave. Spurred by the brutality of British colonial control, a movement in Shanghai led to an explosion of workers’ uprisings, with effective leadership laying in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Stalin and Comintern general secretary Nikolai Bukharin subordinated the Chinese Communists to the needs of Russian foreign policy, providing support for Chiang Kai-shek’s bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang. This policy ended up with the butchering of the Communist-led workers’ movement and the crushing of workers’ organisation in China. Sherry reflects on Hallas’s demonstration that, from this point on, the Comintern’s role was one of “subordinating anti-colonial struggles to the needs of Soviet foreign policy”. By this point, Hallas argues, the bureaucracy in charge of the Soviet Union was a self-conscious social layer attempting to enforce its own interests, which were in utter opposition to those of the Russian working class. Indeed, this was clearly shown by the shifting orientation of the Comintern. During the earlier revolutionary period, Russian workers looked to spreading socialist revolution around the globe; the Stalinists, however, organised around the slogan of “Socialism in One Country”. This retreat from internationalism was fought against by Leon Trotsky, but Stalinism managed to retain an iron grip on Soviet society.
Hallas’s deep knowledge of Trotsky’s politics and the development of the Trotskyist movement is also addressed by this new book. Hallas was involved with the Trotskyist movement since its darkest days, when the dominance of Stalinism over the left was at its height, and he participated first-hand in the attempts to preserve the genuine Marxist traditions associated with Trotsky. From 1941, as John Rudge notes, Hallas was active in a small Trotskyist organisation, the Workers’ International League, while a factory worker in Manchester before being sent to fight in the Second World War. On returning to civilian life, he became involved in the Revolutionary Communist Party, which was the main Trotskyist grouping in Britain at that time. Following a damaging split in the party, what was left of British Trotskyism entered Labour. Hallas joined the grouping led by Tony Cliff, who advocated the theory that Russia was a state capitalist society rather than a socialist one. Hallas was active in this milieu between the late 1940s and early 1950s, becoming a founder member of Cliff’s Socialist Review Group, which later turned into the International Socialists. The Socialist Review Group held its inaugural conference in 1950.
Hallas returned to the International Socialists in the turbulent and radical years of 1968 and after. In this period, as Callinicos remarks, Cliff’s “theoretical focus was on Lenin, the master party-builder”.3 This left Hallas with the role of spelling out the International Socialists’ relationship to the rest of the Trotskyist movement. This period was marked by an influx of young revolutionaries into the organisation, raising the need for political education. Due to the rather messy splintering of the Revolutionary Communist Party in the 1950s, and the general isolation of Trotskyism from class struggle and mass movements, all sorts of sects and groups had emerged, each carving out their respective space. It was up to Hallas to define and explain what set apart the International Socialists.
Callinicos unpacks Hallas’s efforts in this area, delving into Hallas’s first book, Trotsky’s Marxism. This brilliant and concise work is full of well deserved praise for Trotsky as a revolutionary leader, but it is by no means an uncritical appraisal. Hallas highlighted the mistakes made by Trotsky in the final years of his life while also going to great effort to explain the situation within which he made them. The one-time leader and organiser of the October Revolution was in exile—a general without an army. He lacked the constant interaction with the movements and militants on the ground that helps to inform and clarify the ideas of great revolutionary theorists. Hallas explored the miscalculations that flowed from this, laying out Trotsky’s misreadings of the global situation, including his failure to understand the Soviet Union as a state capitalist society, rather than merely a “degenerated workers’ state” that was somehow preserving the gains of the revolution. This confusion was rooted in Trotsky’s misconception that workers’ states are defined by state ownership of the economy. In Stalin’s Russia, the party and state bureaucracy, Trotsky argued, had merely “politically expropriated” the working class rather than economically expropriating it by taking over its ownership of the means of production. For Trotsky, the Soviet bureaucracy acted as a “gendarme”, presiding over the distribution of goods. Hallas sharply criticised this analysis, arguing instead that Stalin’s bureaucrats represented a new form of capitalist class: “Trotsky’s implication that bureaucracy does not direct the accumulation process, that is, does not act as the ‘personification’ of capital, will not stand a moment’s examination”.4
Trotsky’s predictions about the development of global capitalism were also somewhat unfortunate. He failed to foresee a future in which Stalinism and reformism would be utterly dominant within the working class, instead seeing capitalism on the brink of collapse and world revolution. In late 1938, he founded the Fourth International as an alternative to the Stalinised Comintern, confidently proclaiming, “During the next ten years, the programme of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions, and these revolutionary millions will know how to storm Earth and heaven”.5 These sorts of expectations, as Hallas made clear, rendered “sober and realistic assessments of actual shifts in working-class consciousness, alterations in the balance of class forces, and tactical changes to gain maximum advantage from them (the essence of Lenin’s political practice) extremely difficult for Trotsky’s followers”.6 Rather than revolution, the end of the Second World War brought an unparalleled period of economic growth and relative social peace within the core of the global capitalist system. Because of its distance from these realities, the surviving Trotskyist movement in the post-war period splintered into numerous groups, often practising entryism into the big social-democratic parties. The Socialist Review Group emerged in this context, but it politically distanced itself from the “orthodox” Trotskyism of the Fourth International, seeking instead to operate in a fashion focused on assessing the real situation. It developed a model—“even if only an aspiration at times”—of “an active, flexible and interventionist (where possible) organisation whose fixed point of reference was working-class struggle”.7
Hallas also dealt intensively with the issue of the trade union bureaucracy, tracing its history of acting as a conservative social layer within the working-class movement. One of his contributions to this area is “In the beginning”, an article republished in this new book. Written in February 1984, the article was pertinent and timely, coming in the wake of the rise and fall of the huge industrial struggles of the early 1970s. The workers’ movement had been strong enough to force out a Conservative Party government in 1974; however, once in power, Labour collaborated with the formerly “left-wing” trade union leaders to impose new restrictions on industrial action and to suppress wages, clearing the way for Margaret Thatcher’s brutal anti-worker assault in the 1980s. Hallas’s article hoped to enlighten working-class militants about the long record of such failures and betrayals from the trade union bureaucracy.
Indomitable Revolutionary is a brilliant tribute to a remarkable revolutionary. Its stories paint a picture of a life filled with struggle, celebrating Hallas’s vast contribution to building a revolutionary party in times of great historical importance, even if these times were not always favourable. The book is filled with wonderful examples of the essays, articles and talks through which Hallas was able to inculcate the insights of the International Socialist tradition into new generations of revolutionaries. It showcases his rare ability to take complex concepts that can seem tiresome to some and explain them as matters of crucial significance.
In particular, Hallas’s work offers clarity to those hoping to understand the history of the British Trotskyist movement and the position of the International Socialist tradition within it. As a relative newcomer to revolutionary politics, I have fresh mem0ries of attempting to comprehend the muddled histories of the divergent tendencies within the socialist left and reflecting on where that leaves us today. This tribute serves as something of a guide to those muddled histories and is therefore of immense utility to revolutionaries who wish to better grasp the history of the revolutionary socialist movement. The lessons of this history must continue to be passed on and reflected upon so that new revolutionaries can be educated, enabling them to participate effectively in working-class struggles. In this way, we can nurture the hope that the struggles of the future can be pushed to their most radical conclusions: the victory of the working class and an end to oppression and exploitation.
Liam Winning is a member of the Socialist Worker Party and a student at the University of Edinburgh.
1 Hallas, 1985, p8.
2 Callinicos, 2023, p117.
3 Callinicos, 2023, p102.
4 Hallas, 1979, p110.
5 Trotsky, 1938, p112.
6 Hallas, 1979, p104.
7 Hallas, 1986.