Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Alan Woodward Interviewed by Ian Birchall

Introductory Note by Keith Flett

The obituary of Alan Woodward published in the Guardian and the interview with him by Ian Birchall below give a sense of the political history and ideas that he had. I’m adding just a brief word here about his historical activities. Alan was an enthusiastic chronicler of workers and labour movement history. I worked with him on several volumes of ‘Fragments’ which looked at workers struggles and activists in north-east London in the 1960s and 1970s. The sense here was very much a ‘hidden from history’ one.

In more recent years Alan was interested in the history of anarchist, council communist and libertarian organisations and activists and we sometimes discussed what little evidence there is for the existence of them in north-east London. The lack of evidence as we both knew does not mean that they did not actually exist and have real influence.

Alan worked with the London Socialist Historians Group over several decades. He contributed the occasional review to the Newsletter and spoke at the conference marking 50 years since the events of 1956. His contribution there became a chapter in the book 1956 and all That. He also ran for a considerable time, with others, a north-east London radical history network. Meetings were lively and enthusiastic reflecting a base of activists rather than academics. To keep such a group going for any length of time requires dedication and engagement with what the study of history can tell us about the present.
Keith Flett


I conducted this interview with Alan Woodward (1939-2012) in May 2008 as part of the research for my biography of Tony Cliff.  While the focus was on Cliff, Alan naturally talked of his own experiences, and discussed the evolution of his own political position.  I think it brings out both what he owed to the International Socialist tradition, and how he came to differ from it.  I have edited it lightly to remove hesitations, repetitions, digressions and remarks addressed to the dog, while keeping at least some of Alan’s characteristic “etcetera’s”.   I’ve pruned some of my own comments where they did not assist the flow of the argument.  A few explanatory points have been added in square brackets.

Ian Birchall

When did you first meet Cliff?

I first got involved in politics – I was on a train and I bumped into a man called Brian Lynam, who is still I understand living in West London,  having come back from being a Posadist in  Brazil or Argentina or somewhere, and from him I got involved in all sorts of activities in the South Paddington Labour Party, the CND and there was a Socialist Review readers meeting – it had people like John [Alan forgets name, maybe John Palmer or John Phillips]  and Brian Lynam and various other people and Cliff naturally came over to speak to this at some point in time. I had long conversations with in particular a man called Jim Plant who now runs a thing called Red Lion out at Stanton Abbots – he’s the British representative of the SWP or one of the old Trotskyist organisations.  In my recorded notes I have long accounts of the discussions I had with Jimmy Plant primarily and also Brian Lynam, etc. And that more or less set me into the philosophy that later became the International Socialists.

When exactly was this?

That would be from 1960, possibly 1959, onwards.   I finished National Service halfway through 1959 and then I did a teacher training course - one of these crash two-year courses at the college up there and while I was there I  was in constant contact with Brian Lynam. I used to live with him in the vacations in a flat in   Notting Hill.  I became great friends with Brian Lynam. He was the best man at my wedding in 1962. And we went on holiday in Scotland, where we slept in barns and railway trains and various things like that. I became very very close to him personally.
In terms of Cliff I invited him down to the college I was at - a teacher training college, St Mark and St John – and I was trying to get him to speak to a small socialist society that I had set up – there hadn’t been one  before and I had set it up. But in the end he came down and I met him at the gate in the King’s Road and we went in and there was a very small meeting – about four etc.  – However he spoke. I saw him to the gate – I’m not sure if we gave him any money. That was when I lived over in West London. 

How had you heard of him?

Oh he’d come over to the Socialist Review meetings. I’d heard him speak before.
Then in 1962 I got married somewhat hurriedly. And I moved over to Islington, the only place where you could find cheap accommodation at the time, and this turned out to be Tony Cliff’s territory.  I was very active in CND and I met Jim Cronin, who was also very active, who was known to Chanie [Cliff’s wife] in one capacity or another, though he denies it subsequently.  We got invited to meetings at Tony Cliff’s residence. This would be 1962 onwards to 1964. There would be people there coming from all over London. I’m not sure whether this would be before or after the IS was set up. [The Socialist Review Group became the International Socialists in 1962.]
1962 to 1964 I was there. I would go to meetings, I would take my child, in a carrycot, put him in the other room. My partner at the time Maureen would go. People like Jim Cronin would come.  There was also a guy from Solidarity for Workers Power that I knew called John Lane, who had packed up doing his degree at Cambridge and gone to work on the underground. The meetings were quite lively. They were pretty standard meetings. A bit of business, collection of money, strange as that may be to believe, and then we’d have discussion.  Cliff was not a particularly adept debater or discusser.  He was very good on the line, he knew what the line was,  but then we knew what our line was. I acted as a sort of bridge interpreter between the bulk of the people who had just been pulled in from the Labour Party, or CND or whatever,  and the official line. I’ll give you one example. There was an interesting discussion one day where the question of charity came up. So Cliff came down like this [sound of a thump]. [Alan imitates Cliff’s accent]: “Charity is no answer to anything, it’s not the way forward, we have to have  …”  So some people said if people come round collecting for a good cause and you don’t donate any money you’re seen as a bit of a tightwad, etc. [Imitates Cliff] “No, no, that’s not the answer, you have to argue with them”. So I acted as mediator saying broadly that the political perspectives were that charity was no more than a system for keeping things going, for salving people’s conscience, etc. and so on  but if individual people felt they were donating to a  particular good cause, then that was something we had to live with. Subsequently I developed this argument that if you contributed to their collection then when you went round with a strike collection the next week you could say: “I put in your money-box, etc.” I later on developed the arguments on that.
So the meetings were quite full – Chanie of course was busy buzzing around etc. I went up there one day and they had washed the cups: I thought good God what is all this about etc.?  and it turned out not only had they washed the cups they’d made the beds. It turned out a chap from Glasgow was coming down, a chap called Paul Foot. The whole place had been turned upside down. He would shoot out the door to deal with the great man Paul Foot.
I can’t remember too much about the meetings. They were at Cliff’s old house, 52, Chatterton road, and people like Stan Mills, Jean Tait, and Sidney Bidwell came over at some point in time  and a lot of time was taken up with literature but the bottom end of the  meeting was local contacts like Jim Cronin and other people from the locality that Chanie and Cliff had been very involved with.
Then I moved up to Tottenham here. Again there had been a thriving IS group. I think that met most of the time in people’s houses, it met in my house for some of the time. At that period we had a normal programme of meetings where we would invite speakers in from various organisations and then we would discuss the politics of it afterwards. Various comrades were active, mainly in the Young Socialists but I was active, if you can call it that, in the Labour party, as you were.

I remember it well.

Yes. George Page. [Wood Green LP agent.] Those were the days.
But once I’d moved up here I had not a lot of normal contact with Cliff or Chanie or any of the other members of the family.    I did have one contact with Donny Gluckstein. Jim Cronin had mended Tony Cliff’s watch and I had to get it back to him. I used to see Cliff because I was teaching at Woodberry Down. At the time I didn’t see him so I slipped the watch into Donny’s top pocket and said this is from Jim for your Dad, etc.  He was in a class. I taught backward kids basically but you were required sometimes to sit in on other classes. Donny was a student at Woodberry Down. He was in the top stream. I mainly dealt with the bottom streams. That was something I’d decided to do before I took our politics seriously and turned to the class and went to work in factories, which I did in 1966 or 1967. So I only saw Cliff and Chanie at aggregates, at all-London aggregates, and when he came to speak to the Tottenham branch. I seem to recall we had [Michael] Kidron more than Cliff.
I packed up teaching and went to work in factories from about 1966 or 1967 onwards. I was active industrially with the pamphlet for British Oxygen with the information I got from Labour Research. But I went to work in Enfield, in Brimsdown and made some progress.  I set the union up in the Enfield Rolling Mills, the staff union.   I was the staff rep and set up a staff side committee.
Because I was quite active in the industrial field and had made myself into a mini–expert in the industrial field, in the period after 1968, when the organisation was restructured in terms of the National Committee and so on, there was an industrial sub-committee set up, which met on the Sunday after the National Committee on the Saturday. Because of my experience I was made secretary of that, so what it meant was collaring the delegates who had come down for the National Committee. It met on the Sunday morning, which meant very few of them turned up, mostly pissed the night before.  This was about the time of the Tony Cliff book on productivity deals [The Employers’ Offensive].
So all that time 1968, 1969, 1970 I was quite active in sharing and doing some of the administrative work there. I didn’t work down the centre and I was in about 1971 replaced by a comrade from Kingston, one Roger Rosewell [later political adviser to Lady Shirley Porter]  who brought in some student comrades like Dave Lyddon  who were working down the centre full time. But for a time I did have this role of running the Sunday morning meetings and so on.
And about this period Duncan [Hallas] who had just been brought back into activity, had this idea that what was needed was a sort of administrative troika, which he proposed should be himself, Cliff and me – bright young things. There was an attempt to run that but I wasn’t really capable of doing that sort of work at the time, I was too much involved in industrial work.  That little administrative sub-committee never really took off, it ran for a few months I think. But it was always Duncan interpreting things, Cliff chipping in and me taking stuff down.
The long and the short of it was that by 1972 and the start of the Rank and File movement and the conference etc. I was gradually being moved out. [The first National Rank and File Conference was in March 1974.] A lot of my industrial contacts had gone – they’d been sacked from various workplaces, Keith Blackmans and all sorts of places. And I finished up labouring on building sites which was not very productive, though there some interesting discussions I had with people.  And then I finished up taking the course at Enfield College – Trade Union Studies course – the year immediately after John Phillips and various other comrades had taken it. From there I went on to Warwick University for some strange reason having done quite well in the exams. And once up there I got very involved in taking shop stewards’ courses both while I was taking the MA because I needed money urgently and after. And I persuaded the WEA organiser up there that I had done a lot of industrial tutoring; in fact I had not done a lot - some industrial tutoring but not a lot. I had done some industrial tutoring in the North London branch under the guidance of an old Communist called Eddie Hayes. We had run meetings on hazards at work and things like that so we had a little miniature education section up there so I managed to persuade the organiser up there that I’d done more; so he set up set up various courses for me in local factories including Rolls Royce and there was a bloke called Jim Sutherland, and I got full-time work in Solihull. Interestingly enough the convenor at Solihull Land Rover, whom Jim knew very well, was a man called  Joe Harris who is currently  secretary of the National Pensioners Convention.  And from then on I did a large amount of industrial work in Birmingham and political work in Coventry.
I had very little contact with Cliff. In the great dispute we had in with the Roger Kline-ites in 1975, at the time of the Right to Work Campaign [actually 1976], Roger Kline was the organiser – he’d been moved in there, he’d been on the Central Committee – he wrote that Anti-Freeze pamphlet and he organised a base around Peter Caldwell, who was WEA organiser and had a load of contacts in the factories, and there had been a putative group based around people like Paul Smith.    But a sort of political split developed about 1975. It was nominally about the Right to Work Campaign. We were active around the Right to Work Campaign and they took on responsibility for it but we found out the week the Right to Work March was due to come that they had done nothing, no work at all – no arrangements for accommodation.  So there was a long split. This involved people like shop stewards in various factories like the Massey-Ferguson where Kline himself worked and John Fisher  and Peter Binns and the Leamington group who more or less stood on the outside. A split developed between Roger Kline and his group  who probably had the majority of the IS and myself and a man called John [name inaudible] and Paul Smith of the old-stagers  and to sort that out they sent Jim Nichol up and the Kline-ites ultimately resigned. Their argument was that the rank and file needed to be “independent”. Which in its historical perspective meant independent of the trade-union structure. They thought it should be independent of political organisation. So Kline became a [trade union] full-timer and worked in Birmingham. I was extremely busy with industrial work, I was deputy in charge at Solihull College.   And I didn’t have much time after the Kline split for work within the IS. So my contact with Cliff would have been pretty  minimal – sometimes I didn’t even get to meet him.

Any other recollections, rows you had with Cliff etc.?

I remember one day it was one of the early newspapers we had, I think it was Labour Worker where there was an article by a man called Sidney Bedwell.  I said to Cliff “that’s you under another name isn’t it?” . But [Alan imitates Cliff’s accent] “there is a man called Sidney Bidwell” [later Labour MP] – a railway person. He went on to work for the National Council of Labour Colleges. But I was gently taking the mick out of him, but he wasn’t having any. And he went on to tell me that the article made “very good sense”. That’s just something that sticks in my mind.
Over the years I would see Cliff and Cliff would always acknowledge me, and my partner as well even though she had dropped out of politics in the course of the 1970s and we split up eventually in 1979. Cliff always remembered her name which surprised me a little bit.
My political differences with the group developed over a period of time. I remember you commenting later on that I didn’t believe in the party.

Did I say that? I can’t imagine me saying that.

And I pointed out that I did believe in the party, but not the party that you believed in.
And my position now is that I do believe in the party, but not the party that the SWP believes in. And I disagree with the anarchists who don’t believe in any party.
My differences with the party developed over a time. But I got more and more involved in political activity on the industrial front, I became active in NATFHE. I did run a bookshop when the IS closed down all its bookshops. I took over the Coventry bookshop for a while. And then I bought the shop myself in the late seventies. But I was never centrally involved in any of the major arguments from then onwards. My position on the role of the party, and its increasing dominance was largely unstated. 

There clearly was a shift in Cliff’s position in 1968 when he started talking much more about the need for the party.

My own position was that the party that I was in was first class.  I don’t know if you remember but up here when we did that tenants’ activity [campaign against council rent rises in 1967] we thought about standing candidates and we wrote to the Working Committee [the leading body of IS before 1968] asking should we participate in the standing of tenants’ candidates and we got a letter back saying “Do what you like mate” basically. I’ve still got the letter somewhere. 
After 1968 that wouldn’t have happened.  At the time the party was OK, the politics were absolutely brilliant. People like Kidron were very persuasive.  John Phillips was persuasive as well. And I was basically convinced of the politics of the organisation. But I think after 1968 when you and Cliff wrote that little booklet on France etc. [France: The Struggle Goes On] which I discovered subsequently was quite heavily criticised by people like Solidarity for Workers Power. Akiva Orr wrote a long critique of it. There was a document done – “Akiva Orr writes”. The politics shifted the organisation. There was a long debate. You were in Enfield, I was in Tottenham here. We had a large number of students living in the area from the LSE – Laurie Flynn, Martin Shaw, Mike Millotte, Morgan O’Brien, etc. and they persuaded the branch mainly through nobbling people like Mel Norris who was quite close to Jim Nichol at the time that they should go for the centralised party option rather than the existing form of the organisation which was characterised as federal. I thought that was perfectly OK.   Subsequently I met Laurie Flynn and he said: “You were right in 1968, Alan”. There you go – it’s all water under the bridge now.
That did lead to some sort of split ideologically. My own position was that by this time I was dropping more and more out of things By 1972 I was on this course up at Enfield and by 1973 I was in Warwick. I’d moved out then anyway. I moved into Coventry and found myself an upholder of party organisation, which was a strange position for me to be in. The Kline-ites seemed to me to be out and out reformists. So it’s rather strange that the SWP supported him in the UCU election last year. There was a rank and file candidate who was a bit libertarian but he was better than Kline who’d been a full-time official for thirty years. And as people have pointed out if Kline and the SWP had supported the other guy he would have won.
However I opposed the Kline position and it was a very nasty fight. My position was that I accepted the basic theory of the SWP but that I wasn’t terribly involved in the organisation. I was living in Birmingham and working in Coventry, so I had links with both branches. Sheila Macgregor was the organiser in Birmingham, and there were shop stewards, I was living in Coventry. So that further alienated me from a close concern with the politics of the organisation. The SWP went its way and I went mine, more or less. And the two were growing apart. 

So looking back on Cliff, how do see his contribution? Was it positive or negative?

I think Cliff’s capacity to build an organisation was absolutely magnificent. I mean the IS organisation of pre 1968 or pre 1977 was grand. We did the job. We took initiatives like the tenants and there was the leafleting round British Oxygen.  It was all functioning very very well. I was quite satisfied with it. But Cliff’s perspectives – aided by yourself I think, that the need was now for a centralised Bolshevik-type Leninist party, which I think had been not very far from the front of Cliff’s mind all along, I don’t think the French event was any sudden charismatic event etc. Cliff had his perspective of building a Leninist party all along and the French events provided a pretext for announcing it.
Cliff was very astute and he knew what he was doing. He handled people very well but as time developed he began to be obsessive and he began to dominate and began to insist on his own perspective more or less at any price. And the politics of the eighties did lose lots of members. Many of whom went out of politics, like John Phillips and our brother [Jim] Higgins in 1976. There was quite a high toll of people who left. Curiously enough our local Radical History group has some ex-IS people. There are quite a lot of ex Solidarity for Workers Power people too. There’s Terry Burton, who I met in my National Service, who became an IS member. There was Dave Black – he’s a Hobgoblin [a journal based on the ideas of Raya Dunayevskaya] now. He and a bloke called George Shaw are the British Dunayevskaya organisation. 

I’ve been trying to find out if Cliff ever met Dunayevskaya.

I have a copy of Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, dedicated to George Stone. I don’t know who George Stone was. I think her contacts were with the ILP. [Ray] Challinor became quite bitter about the IS and then he was quite ill for a long time. He had a stroke. I wanted to contact him some time ago but he was too ill. When I knew Stan Newens [later Labour MP/MEP] he was Chanie’s protégé.  I saw him a few years ago. He was secretary of the group at one time.

Anything else on Cliff?

My final view on Cliff, Cliff built the party and I suppose that also gives him the right to destroy it etc..
And I wonder what he’d think about current events. [Presumably a reference to the recent split in Respect.] I’ll leave it at that.


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  2. I'm sure it's just a typo but when the late Alan Woodward refers to the following :

    "I had long conversations with in particular a man called Jim Plant who now runs a thing called Red Lion out at Stanton Abbots – he’s the British representative of the SWP or one of the old Trotskyist organisations. In my recorded notes I have long accounts of the discussions I had with Jimmy Plant primarily and also Brian Lynam, etc. And that more or less set me into the philosophy that later became the International Socialists."

    he should have actually have said the SLP (as in the old De Leon inspired version) rather than the SWP. Jim Plant was - maybe still is - a longstanding supporter of De Leonism in Britain. He was writing for the SLP's People newspaper as recently as 4 or 5 years ago.

    Cut and pasted below is a post that Jim submitted to the Left Trainspotter yahoo group in 2003 which touches upon his membership of the Socialist Review Group in the late 50s:

    "In post #21325 July 21, Darren urges me to "spill the beans"
    on the DeLeonist Tendency in the SR. There are not many beans to
    spill, but here goes: Becoming interested in revolutionary politics
    at about age 14 I was first attacted to the CPGB, but was soon cured
    of Stalinism by extensive contact with the SPGB, who had some fine
    public meetings & discussions in London in the late 1940's-1950's. In
    1952 I discovered the SLP's Weekly People, & De Leon's ideas
    henceforth played a big role in my political development. I did not
    formaly join a political organisation untill late 1958 or early 1959,
    when I joined the Socialist Review Group around Tony Cliff, after
    Cliff had spent a lot of time in discussion with me.
    I was in the SR group for about two & half years, and I did my best
    to propogate DeLeonist ideas in the Group. Internal life at the time
    was quite relaxed and open and my "DeLeonism" was tolerated, and
    Cliff, Chanie Rosenburg, Michael Kidron, Jim Higgins and two or three
    others read a number of SLP pamphlets that I passed onto them.
    However, I never gained any recruits to my "Tendency," but I think
    Cliff and Higgins in particular were greatfull for my helping to
    extend and round-out their knowledge of Marxism in the USA.
    Jim Plant"

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