Issue 268 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Duncan Hallas

AN AGITATOR OF THE BEST KIND

We pay tribute to the life and work of Duncan Hallas, who died recently, and reprint an article in which he argues the case for revolution against reform

'Duncan was modest about his outstanding abilities'

Chanie Rosenberg

Duncan Hallas--a brilliant agitator, writer and speaker
Duncan Hallas--a brilliant agitator, writer and speaker

For Duncan the personal and political were one--he never considered his own wellbeing and gave what he could to both.

My first meeting with Duncan was when he was an engineering worker in Manchester in 1952. Tony Cliff and I and our one year old baby went to Manchester with the aim of building a Socialist Review group in the town, and stayed with Duncan in his tiny room, which contained a single bed and chest of drawers. Out went the contents of a drawer to accommodate the baby, the bed was given to us, and Duncan slept on the hard floor with a thin blanket. Whatever comforts there were--food, a hot water bottle--were piled on us. He was totally self effacing. After giving us all he had he started on the politics and organisation we had come to discuss.

In the late 1960s he joined what would become the Socialist Workers Party, after a long absence working for the National Council of Labour Colleges in Scotland and getting a science degree at Edinburgh University (where he became the student chess champion). I handed him the application form and was astonished to see him putting down a monthly subscription to the party of two thirds of his teacher's salary. He turned out to be the only member I ever had to argue with to reduce his subscription instead of increasing it. He stood his ground for a long time before succumbing to our combined onslaught and somewhat reducing his subscription.

He gave the same total selfless commitment to his political and industrial activity. We worked closely together in the National Union of Teachers during the huge industrial strike movement of the 1970s, which for teachers lasted from the end of 1969 to 1975. We had to overcome the NUT executive's total opposition to teachers' strikes for half a century. London had to lead the way, as teachers in the capital were much more financially stressed by the low level of the nationally negotiated wage, and its teachers potentially more militant. The Finance and General Purposes Committee of the Inner London Teachers' Association was the main body that had to be won over. Of its 24 members, six were from the Communist Party and three of us, including Duncan and myself, were from Teachers' Rank and File. The rest--mostly headteachers--were reactionary opponents of strikes. Duncan, who had been active in a very militant Wandsworth Teachers' Association, had been fighting these reactionaries for some time.

When the Rank and File decided to call for pay strikes in 1969 Duncan took over the leadership of the movement and led a terrific, tireless struggle to get the vote for strike action. He was a magnificent debater, and coolly, in a restrained, teacherly manner, thoroughly outwitted all the heads in both knowledge and arguing ability time after time. The first month, three of the 24 (us Rank and Filers) voted to strike, the second month six (the CP split in half), the third month, nine and the fourth month all. This was after non-stop arguments, with Duncan, using the influence of the rising struggle of the working class at the time, towering over the opposition, leaving them no room for manoeuvre.

Top of the pops

This led to the most glorious chapter in the NUT's history, with constant strikes nationally up to 1975, which pushed teachers' salaries up massively both nationally and for London. One of our London Allowance strikes for £350 actually achieved more than we were asking for--£351 (because for some reason the computers could not manage a figure with a nought on the end). Duncan was the chief steward at our demonstrations and rallies. Teachers' social and political consciousness rose sky high, and Rank and File Teacher grew to be a substanial force with a regular broadsheet newsletter till the 1980s (which Duncan edited for many years), many educational and industrial pamphlets, conferences both educational and trade union, and hundreds of new members.

Duncan played a crucial role in the movement, which changed teachers' attitudes from being 'ragged trousered educationalists' who needed two jobs to keep their heads above water to being organised trade unionists and an integral part of the working class.

He did this while continuing to be active in general political work and the meetings and committees attendant upon that, and also being a main political educator in the party--'top of the pops' at Marxism every year, as most attenders acknowledged. At the same time he was totally self effacing, always pushing others forward, and ultra-modest about his outstanding abilities

A teachers' protest from the 1970s. Duncan was heavily involved in the dispute
A teachers' protest from the 1970s. Duncan was heavily involved in the dispute

'He built a movement and armed it with theory'

Frank Henderson

Duncan Hallas was a brilliant speaker on a wide range of subjects. So wide ranging was his knowledge that it was difficult to find a subject on which he could not give an interesting talk.

On those all too 'rare' occasions when we were having a drink together I would sometimes try to catch him out by talking about something so obscure that he wouldn't know anything about it. In most cases he would then reveal such a detailed knowledge of the subject that I was left open mouthed and gasping for breath. When I did occasionally find something that beat him he still managed to win. He would fold his arms and say, 'You know, Frank, I know nothing at all about that and I really should do. Tell me all about it.' I knew I was done for.

The sheer breadth of his learning was all the more remarkable because, like me, he left school at the age of 14 and went to work in a factory. To a great extent we were both self taught. The difference being that he had a great teacher.

Duncan was a great speaker and many thousands have heard him talk at the SWP's annual Marxism event on subjects as wide ranging as 'Marxism and pre-history', 'Marxist economics' and 'Understanding reformism'. But it was not just the big 'showpiece' meetings at which he excelled. He was just as brilliant speaking at small branch meetings and perhaps even better talking to the newest individual member after the meeting had formally closed.

There was, however, one subject it was hard to get him talking about--himself. If he was pressed he would admit to joining the Workers International League (WIL) at the age of 16. He would make it sound the most natural thing in the world. Yet the WIL was a revolutionary socialist Trotskyist organisation, just a couple of hundred strong and subject to the combined attacks of the capitalists, the reformists and a thoroughly Stalinist Communist Party. It took some courage for a teenager to join in the middle of a world imperialist war as Duncan did.

He was conscripted into the army and after being sent to fight in France and Germany was moved to the Suez Canal zone. Although the war was over the government was determined to keep a strong army in Egypt, to maintain control over the canal and the Middle East oilfields. The troops 'mutinied'--that is, they went on strike! Sergeant Hallas, as he then was, was jailed for being one of the leaders. When asked why he was jailed he would say it was because he was a sergeant. It was just a question of rounding up the 'usual suspects'. I was in the army in the Middle East at the time and I am sure it took more than the three stripes to qualify as a 'usual suspect'. You had to be a leader.

Totally committed

The WIL, which Duncan first joined, was the forerunner of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). From the RCP the Socialist Review Group emerged in 1950. This then became the International Socialists, which later became the SWP.

It is in this involvement that his reluctance to talk about himself lies. He was totally committed to the socialist movement. I do not believe he could even think about himself except as part of the movement. What happened to him did not matter. What happened to the movement was all-important. 'Without the movement we are nothing' may well be true. But within the movement we all contribute something and without Duncan's contribution the movement would be much poorer.

What Duncan really liked doing was travelling around and talking--and listening--to new people. So many young people learned about Marxism and the revolutionary tradition from discussions with him. Not just in Britain but around the world--Australia, South Africa and twice to Canada--Duncan went all over to help fledgling groups establish themselves within the revolutionary tradition.

Duncan Hallas spent 60 years as a revolutionary socialist. Not just defending Marxist ideas, but extending and developing them. He helped to build a movement and arm it with the theory that will help it rid the world of the barbarism of the 21st century--capitalism.


'Duncan had an astonishing range of knowledge'

Ian Birchall

I first met Duncan in 1968, around the time he rejoined the International Socialists. We had perhaps 500 members, almost all in their twenties. Five years later membership was around 2,500, one third being manual workers. The change reflected the enormous possibilities of that period of upturn, but it didn't happen automatically. Alongside Tony Cliff, Duncan played a key role.

If Cliff's analysis and drive were crucial, Duncan provided an ideal counterpart to him. Cliff often 'bent the stick' (overstated his point in order to convince comrades of the importance of a new strategy); on occasion Duncan would gently but firmly bend it back again. He had a patience that Cliff sometimes lacked; Cliff might make the keynote speech at the IS conference, but Duncan would still be in the bar many hours later, going over arguments with those who were not convinced. And while Cliff was phenomenally single-minded, Duncan had amassed an astonishing range of knowledge covering the natural sciences as well as the whole of human history. He had a long practical acquaintance with the British trade union movement, and understood its peculiar strengths and weaknesses. For those of us who had come to revolutionary politics in the 1960s, he provided a fascinating link with the early years of Trotskyism.

There was nothing ascetic about Duncan; he lived life to the full--most of us, if we had lived like Duncan, would have been dead at the age of 50. But Duncan came from the generation before the welfare state, when to survive at all you had to be as tough as old boots--and he was. He loved life, and wanted to make it better for himself and all his class.

Duncan was for a time national secretary of the IS, and later editor of International Socialism. But his real talent was not as an organiser, but as a propagandist and educator. For over 20 years he travelled tirelessly round the country speaking at meetings--he told me he knew virtually every active member of the party by sight.

A splendid comrade

And he wrote hundreds upon hundreds of articles, setting out every aspect of Marxism. His little pamphlet from the early 1970s, The Meaning of Marxism, would need only a few minor amendments to make it as up to date as when it was written. If you wanted the 'Glorious' Revolution of 1688, the French Revolution, the General Strike, the Spanish Civil War, sectarianism, the united front or the theory of surplus value, set out in a couple of clear, readable pages, Duncan provided it. To reprint a selection of these articles would not just be a tribute to a splendid comrade, it would be a very useful guide for young comrades now coming into the party.

In his last years Duncan suffered an appalling decline in health, but happily he retained his mental powers, and he never lost his insatiable intellectual curiosity. Even when confined to a wheelchair and in constant discomfort, he told me he had read Chris Harman's A People's History of the World--twice!--and that he was learning German. He was always eager for news of the party. He welcomed progress that was being made, notably by the Socialist Alliance, but he took nothing on trust and never lost his critical judgement.

This summer he and other residents of his home were taken to a Jubilee party. Duncan spoke contemptuously of the monarchist charade, but his most damning comment was, 'They gave us a drink--but a small one.' I don't think he had ever been offered a half pint before


The fight for revolution

Mass struggle by the black working class in South Africa forced the ruling class to concede the vote
Mass struggle by the black working class in South Africa forced the ruling class to concede the vote

How do working people win improvements in their lives, and how do they hold on to them? This is one of the biggest questions facing socialists today. Take the defence of the National Health Service, which concerns millions of people. The NHS is a very good example of a past reform. It did not exist until 1948. Its introduction was vigorously opposed by conservative forces. It was very much in the interests of the great mass of the people, and especially of working class people. It was also, from the beginning, something of a compromise, but a compromise more in our favour than otherwise. Of course, not everything described as a reform is anything of the kind. The Tories call their attacks on the NHS (and on many other past gains) 'reforms'. They are nothing of the sort. They are a reaction against past reforms, part of a drive to turn the clock back against the interests of workers and their families.

For reforms in the real sense are always the product of struggle, and that struggle, in the last resort, is a class struggle and cannot be otherwise in a class society, however much pious liberals try to deny it. Moreover, in all but exceptional circumstances these struggles are for concrete, limited aims. When Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in the late 1840s they discussed the development of capitalism, the necessity of socialism and many other topics, but the actual immediate demands of the Manifesto are more limited. Some of them are, in principle, compatible with capitalism--for example 'a heavily progressive or graduated income tax' or 'free education for all children in public state schools'.

The point is that it is the struggle for concrete objectives that changes the world. As Marx and Engels put it, 'The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.' Of course, objectives vary greatly in importance but what is and what is not of the greatest importance depends on the actual, ever changing circumstances.

In Britain the demand for universal (male) suffrage was of central importance in mobilising working class struggle. From the 1830s to the 1860s the British ruling class fought against the suffrage tooth and nail so long as it thought it could hold the line. When the ruling class concluded that it could not win on the issue it made a series of compromises. So in 1867 the vote was granted for a large minority of male workers, in 1883 for a majority of male workers, in 1918 for all male workers and a lot of women, and in 1928 for male and female alike over the age of 21.

In South Africa this year [1994] a ruling class which had always denied the vote to the great majority of the population was forced to concede universal suffrage at one blow. The point is that force was necessary to win this democratic right. A long process of struggle had finally convinced most of the ruling class that it was better to concede (and, of course, continue to fight for its interests by other means) than to defend what was becoming indefensible. Of course, universal suffrage is not going to produce all the results that millions of Africans expect, but it has changed the balance of forces in favour of the working class and it was the issue around which millions could be mobilised. It was a great gain. Nevertheless, it raises an important issue. Can the capitalist system accommodate itself to an indefinite series of reforms but still preserve the class system, exploitation and oppression?

The theory of reformism, a very different matter from the actual struggle for reforms, was that repeated success in achieving reforms could, over time, completely transform society, peacefully and without the sharp break represented by revolution, into a quite different kind of society. The idea was that capitalist society could grow gradually into a free socialist society. This was always the theory of the British Labour Party, in the days when Labour thought it necessary to have a theory of some sort, but was first argued at length and in writing by a German socialist called Bernstein. Of course, practice usually comes before theory and by the end of the 19th century, when Bernstein wrote, the practice of most of the Labour and Social Democratic [socialist] parties that had grown up in the previous 20 or 30 years was essentially devoted to the pursuit of reforms with little thought beyond that. The view that 'the movement is everything, the end is nothing' was widespread even before Bernstein wrote a line on the subject.

The capitalist state

Conditions determine consciousness, or perhaps better to say they shape it. There had not been a major war in Europe for nearly 30 years and, it was thought, there would never be another one. The future would be one of peaceful, if gradual, progress. We know today, after two world wars and innumerable lesser but sufficiently horrific conflicts up to and including the present, that this view was, to say the least, mistaken.

But why? First, it ignored the role of the capitalist state, the 'armed bodies of men' devoted to defending their respective ruling classes; second, it ignored the compulsive drive of the capitalist system, in the interests of profit and capital accumulation, to transform again and again the social structures and relations between people. In short, it ignored imperialism as a necessary and dominant feature of modern capitalism.

Today we can see these tw0 things in full flower. How can anyone speak of 'inevitable' progress in Bosnia or Rwanda? Socialist critics of reformism at the time were not, of course, opposed to the struggle for reforms--they were much more militant in fighting for them than those who simply called for gradual change. Indeed the winning of reforms is very often the product of militant revolutionary struggle. But they understood that no gain is permanently guaranteed so long as the means of production--and of destruction--remain in the hands of the capitalist minority.

Rosa Luxemburg, Bernstein's most trenchant critic in his native Germany, wrote of trade union struggle as the 'labour of Sisyphus'. Sisyphus was the figure in the ancient Greek myth who was condemned to perpetually push a large rock up a hill, only to find that each time he neared the summit it crashed downhill again. Applied to reforms, this was something of an exaggeration. We are not always condemned to go back to the beginning--'back to basics' in the current jargon. We can and we must build on what has been gained in the past, defending it and fighting always not only to defend it--which is where we are now--but to extend it, always understanding that to permanently achieve a decent society we must break the power of the capitalist class nationally and internationally.

Today this is more obvious than ever. Modern 'deregulated' multinational capital, with its International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Nato and United Nations, is a monster whose power cannot be reformed away. It must be broken. The reformists of yesterday--they call themselves 'modernisers' today--say now that we must accommodate to it. That means accommodating to retreat, to lower living standards, to worse social services, to more gross exploitation and oppression everywhere.

Reformism was always essentially a national perspective that was never realistic. Today it is absurd. Child labour in Colombian mines helps to destroy the coal industry in Britain, while sweatshops in the Philippines help to worsen working conditions everywhere. That is what the Gatt free trade agreements are about.

The fight for reforms, not reformism, is necessary everywhere in rich countries as in poor. It is the way workers can be mobilised to struggle. But the perspective must be internationalist--and revolutionary.

This is a reprint of an article by Duncan Hallas first published in June 1994 in Socialist Review Issue 176


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