Marxists and reorganising the ports in the 1960s: How the dockers forged solidarity, and how they lost it

Submitted by dalcassian on 5 November, 2009 - 2:22 Author: Sean Matgamna

[A review of "They knew why they fought: unofficial struggles and leadership on the docks, 1945-1989", by Bill Hunter.]

Bill Hunter's book retells the story of the early struggle of the dockers, with great feeling and conviction. He also retells the story of how dockers in Liverpool, Manchester and Hull walked out of the savagely bureaucratic T&G in 1954 and attempted by way of joining the little, London-based NASD, the Blue Union, to create a responsive and democratic national union for dockers. Some dockers wryly called this "The Greatest Prison Break in History." In a six-week strike for the right to negotiate — the employers backed the T&G’s monopoly — they were defeated, primarily, perhaps, because CP influence in London led to the isolation of the northern ports. The hopes so many dockers placed in "The Blue" were crushed and destroyed.

This episode is still a matter of controversy. Most Trotskyists today condemn this great movement of workers, echoing the CP line of the time, and denounce the main Trotskyist organisation of the '50s — whose leaders were Gerry Healy and Bill Hunter — for its vigorous complicity in the breakaway. Here Hunter shows convincingly that this was a genuine movement of workers, not anybody's stage-managed sectarian stunt. I emphatically agree with Hunter, but it is too big a subject to pursue in detail here. [1]

About half way through, Bill Hunter's book changes character and his account of what happened on the docks in the mid-’60s becomes thin, unconvincing and sometimes downright misleading. The explanation for this lies in the evolution of the organisation of which Hunter was part until the mid-80s, known successively as the Club, the SLL, and the WRP. Essentially his book is a résumé of the politics, activities and perceptions of that organisation in the ports. There is no evidence here that Hunter has rethought any of it.

In fact, the story of the SLL in the two decades before it broke up is the history of a sect which did great harm to the working- class movement, and to Trotskyism. On the docks, during the defining struggles of the late '60s, it was a major part of the crisis of leadership, nearer to third period sectarian Stalinism than to Trotskyism.

It began as a serious organisation — politically inadequate and always sick with a stiflingly bureaucratic internal regime, but a serious organisation nevertheless, the British affiliate of James P Cannon’s SWP. That was the organisation that led the fight for the Blue Union. But it degenerated into a brutal and crazy sect which, by the mid-70s, was an affair mainly of actors and vicarious, petro-dollar Arab chauvinism. Before it reached that terrible end — it exploded into a dozen fragments in 1985-6 — the organisation went through a long period of sectarian degeneration, which inevitably affected its trade union work. It affects Bill Hunter's book too. This is shown most plainly in his account of the struggle over decasualisation in 1967. This is narrow factional "history", not history.

By that stage the SLL, whose version of 1967 Hunter half-heartedly presents in this book, was very sectarian and politically bizarre — for example, throughout most of 1967, when these events were taking place on the docks, they were avid supporters of Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution — the politics belatedly catching up with Healy's indescribably brutal internal regime! At the same time they joined the capitalist press in denouncing the big anti-Vietnam War movement demonstrations as "middle-class".

Openly crazy, they also claimed that the demonstrations were part of a press conspiracy to sideline the SLL. From 1964 — when the Devlin Commission was set up — they had conducted a vigorous literary propaganda campaign against Devlin, but instead of building rank and file unity on the ground with everybody prepared to fight, they concentrated on journalistic exposures of the CP. refusing even to try to link up with CPers working to organise the fight against Devlin, people such as Terry Barnett, Secretary of the London Dockers Committee (whose best-known member was jack Dash — by that stage a gutless media-star non- entity.) By then the CP — outside of Broad Left union machines — had little control of its members in industry. The CPers on the Salford docks were dormant, with the exception of Harold Youd, who soon ceased to be a CPer.

Without linking up and coordinating key militants in at least the main ports, and without presenting an alternative programme to that of Devlin — for work-sharing, workers’ control and so on — and organising dockers to fight for it, we had no chance of winning. For the SLL it was a matter not of building a united front of militants in action but of "exposing" "Stalinism" — the CP leaders — for the literary education of SLL youth. The class struggle, outside of local work in Liverpool, was replaced by newspaper commentary! It was all deeply sectarian and irresponsible — third period Stalinist stuff without the political catchphrases specific to it, but, like third period Stalinism, having also a soft opportunist underbelly. While being very "revolutionary" the SLL, incongruously, kept links of friendship with the Blue Union, whose progressive potential was long spent, whose leaders were supporting Devlin, and in Manchester [and maybe Hull. but I don't know] fighting for Devlin behind a bit of faking and demagogy, combined with witch-hunting young Trotskyist militants.

Under pressure, in Manchester they went through the motions of leading an inadequate one-week strike to let off steam and -—— fundamentally — to stop themselves being outflanked by the left. [2]

Bill Hunter's account of this period — the book’s nadir, though it picks up a bit later — consists in the main of large chunk of "oral history" from Larry Cavanagh, a member of the Blue Union in Liverpool. But oral history is an organically tainted way of compiling history; with people who have been passionately involved in politics, all oral history is likely to tell you about is the person’s and the organisations perceptions and constructions on events. Here, SLLer Bill Hunter establishes what happened mainly by way of an unexamined oral-history account of it from Larry Cavanagh, who was not an industrial militant but an SLL revolutionary, someone recruited in the Young Socialists by the Healyites and sent into the docks.

Normally to say someone is a revolutionary, not just an industrial militant, is to say that this person has a broader outlook. deeper understanding, keeps a more rigorous political account book, and so on. Here it means the opposite. As a dyed-in-the-printer’s-ink SLL sectarian Cavanagh had — as well as their crazy general politics — a narrow, blindly factional outlook on his industrial work. Cavanagh — who, like Hunter, evidently has not reconsidered any of it — can provide no proper overall account of what happened in 1967. Neither does Hunter. Without corroboration, I'd not accept Cavanagh's account of what happened even in Liverpool; and, although three ports struck over decasualisation, Hunter’s account of 1967 here is, except for a few sentences about London. only the SLL‘s version of what happened in Liverpool.

Hunter has nothing at all to say about the effort in the months before the deadline for Devlin (September 1967) to organise a national linking up of the ports for a concerted fightback — for the coordinated national fight that could have let us win. The prime mover in these efforts was the late Terry Barrett, with the backing of IS, which had no dockers, as far as I recall, and the collaboration of Workers Fight, which had two (40% of our group!).

IS — 500 or 600 strong, perhaps — affected a pecksniffian modesty in those days, and, politically speaking, was completely self-effacing. They just gave Barrett a devoted young comrade named Nigel Coward as assistant and chauffeur so he could travel around the country.

On the initiative of Barrett — he was, l think, still nominally in the CP, and Secretary of "Jack Dash’s" Committee; he would join IS — we held two national gatherings of militants from different ports in the Summer of 1967, the first in London in july and the second in Hull in September. Not Jack Dash, but some other leading CPers — Danny Lyons, a member of the CP EC, was one — came to advocate accepting Devlin for the best price we could get. One, or two, issues of a small, four-page newspaper were produced by Barrett in London — not a very good paper, technically or politically.

It was all too late, the difficulties to be overcome and the odds against us too great. The opportunism of the most important left-wing force in the ports, the CP, and the sectarianism of the second most important left-wing force, the SLL, were among the difficulties we could not surmount. The strikes that did occur were only about the price for accepting reorganisation.

The SLL played no part in this work to build a national and politically adequate response to Devlin.[3]

I made an attempt on the eve of the strike to see if, at the last minute, some co- ordination could be achieved between the Trotskyist militants in Manchester and the SLL militants in Liverpool —— 1 rang Bill Hunter — but it was hopeless. No love was lost between our group, Workers' Fight, and the SLL; and while Workers Fight thought the exigences of the class struggle might be allowed to moderate that, they did not.

Though they still had a presence in Liverpool, they were so far gone that they could not function as a serious Trotskyist force in that situation. Bill Hunter is, even in retrospect. incapable of understanding it.

Despite grave faults, Bill Hunter's book is useful because if does convey the author’s strong sense — based on over 50 years` experience — of the great things workers have achieved and will achieve. An adequate history it is not, but it does convey a vivid sense of what the dockers did, and for that reason, it should be read by young people who want a glimpse of the British working class in the future we work now to prepare.

  • See also: Militancy and solidarity on the docks in the 1960s. Remembering...


    1. Workers' Liberty republished Bill Hunter's 1958 article "Democracy in the docks" in issue no. 11, January 1989. In this hook Bill Hunter states that his 1958 article is the only such study. Not so. There is in International Socialism for Autumn 1960 an article on the NASD experience by Bob Pennington. A member of the Healy organisation, he worked full-time as a NASD official in liverpool for two or three years in the mid '50s, and then became London organiser for the SLL. Pennington'sarticle is politically gamey, in my opinion. He would be a central leader of the IMG in the '70s and of one of its offshoots in the ’80s, but when he wrote that article Pennington was, briefly, a semi-anarchist (Socialisme ou Barbarie/Solidarity). It is, nevertheless, valuable. Strangely, the very name of Pennington is absent from Bill Hunter's book.

    2. I do not know. but I suspect that by the time of the fight over Devlin the Blue Union in Liverpool in part played the classic sectarian role, of walling militants off in a ghetto away from the main body of workers in the main trade union. In Manchester, the Trotskyists worked in the main union. the White, even though we had at first to campaign to get the branch to meet!

    3. Indeed their — by now fetishistic — link with the Blue Union led to a little article in their weekly Newsletter reporting on the meeting in Hull in am ignorantly hostile way that, though they probably did not know it, reflected the views of the witch hunters in Manchester! In Manchester the ultra-revolutionary and in general deeply sectarian — and at that date still semi-Maoist — SLL, because of their links with the Blue Union network, looked with friendly eyes on the witch-hunters, Catholic Action Joe Barry and his sidekick Joe Hackett [who was later disgraced for fiddling Blue Union funds].

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