Book Review:Harry was a Bolshie
Keeping My Head. By Harry Wicks. Socialist Platform £5.95
Subtitled “The Memoirs of a British Bolshevik” this is a posthumous autobiography, based on tape recordings, of a pioneer British Trotskyist who died in 1989 covering the period 1920-46. At first sight not a title likely to appeal to Socialists like ourselves who fought the influence of Bolshevism on British workers since day one, but no one can write an account of working-class politics in this period without mentioning the Socialist Party.
Wicks grew up in the Battersea area of London which was in a sense the birthplace of the Socialist Party, as he himself explains:
Another pre-1914 organisation with influence on Socialist thought in Battersea, particularly in the building trade unions, was the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It was the Battersea branch of the SDF which had become the springboard for the attack on the Hyndman leadership that resulted in the SPGB being formed. From 1904-05 Sydney Hall in York Road became the centre of their activity and propaganda. It was from amongst the bricklayers that several powerful and erudite speakers and bricklayers came to the fore. The Irish bricklayer, Jack Fitzgerald, was one outstanding example . . . but there were others too, bricklayers and impressive SPGBers (Sloan, Cadman, Fenn and others). I believe each of them, in their day, taught their craft at the Ferndale School of Building, then sited in Brixton. Here. they pioneered or upheld extremely high standards of craftsmanship.
Wicks recalls attending an SPGB class on Marx’s Capital in 1922, but was never attracted to join. He recounts how he was shocked at being told by an SPGBer at the time of the 1922 General Election that he would be writing “socialism” across his ballot paper and not voting for the Communist Party member Saklatvala who was standing as the official Labour candidate. Wicks had been canvassing for Saklatvala (who was elected), but was told “you are wasting your time and energy, young man, Socialism, not reforms, is what is necessary”.
Technically Wicks was a founding member of the Communist Party, at the age of 15, through being a member of the Battersea Herald League which was represented at the founding conference of that party in 1920. In 1927 he was sent for three year’s training at the Lenin International School in Moscow. In his account of this period he remarks on the corruption of many of the officials from aboard of the Communist International who lived in the Lux Hotel and enjoyed a life of luxury compared with the lot of the Russian workers.
On his return from Russia he became more and more dissatisfied with the line of the British CP and was eventually expelled with a group of others in 1932 for trotskyism. Naturally, Wicks came across the SPGB in his existence as a trotskyist too. He has recounted how, at a meeting organised by the Communist Party in Conway Hall to justify the trial and execution of the Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1936, he was able to answer from the platform thanks to protests from the floor including from SPGBers.
The Socialist Party debated with some of the trotskyist groups Wicks mentions (even then they were divided into at least four competing sects): against Raj Hansa for the “Bolshevik-Leninists” in December 1936 and against CLR James, of the “Marxist Group” in January 1938 (James was later to be one of the first Trotskyists to realise that Russia was state-capitalist and maybe this debate helped sow doubts in his mind about the official Trotskyist position that Russia was still some sort of “workers state” however degenerate).
Unfortunately what was said at these debates was not recorded in the Socialist Standard but we can be sure that the Socialist Party speakers denounced the idea of the workers needing to be led by some elite vanguard to get socialism and saw the way to socialism as being through a majority of socialist-minded workers organising democratically and politically without leaders.