DUNCAN HALLAS, who died last week, was a lifelong fighter for revolutionary socialism. A whole generation of supporters of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) remembers him as an inspired speaker and teacher of Marxist ideas. Year after year he would fill halls with hundreds of people at the SWP’s annual Marxism event as he spoke about a range of topics – historical materialism, the struggle of the working class in Britain, the revolutionary tradition, the origins of humanity.
Duncan was not just a theorist. He was an activist and a fighter. He was born into a working class family in Manchester – his mother started work in the cotton mills at the age of ten – and he went on to get a job in the local engineering industry.
By the age of 16 Duncan was a committed socialist. He joined the Trotskyist movement in the middle of the Second World War, at a time when it was the only political organisation prepared to break the law and support strikes. Conscripted into the army, he was sent to fight in Germany, and then to Egypt, where he was a non-commissioned officer at the end of the war.
The newly elected Labour government wanted to keep a big army in Egypt, to maintain control of the Suez Canal and the region’s oil. The ordinary soldiers were not happy about this. Duncan helped lead a mutiny which forced their evacuation back to Britain. He continued his socialist activity as an engineering worker and became a leading light of the left wing grouping inside the Labour Party youth organisation.
This was at a time when most of the left worldwide still had illusions in Stalin’s Russia. Those who lost those illusions often went to the other extreme, and saw Western imperialism as somehow more ‘democratic’ and ‘civilised’. Duncan was one of the minority of socialists who insisted that revolutionary socialism was equally opposed to the barbarism of the Western empires and the barbarism of the Stalinist regimes.
He was a founder member of the small revolutionary group around Tony Cliff, and a regular contributor to its monthly magazine, Socialist Review. The 1950s and early 1960s were not an easy time for revolutionary socialists. Massive arms spending enabled the capitalist system to expand more or less continuously, creating full employment which allowed workers to push up their wages without confronting the system as a whole.
Fashionable thinkers like Labour’s Anthony Crosland claimed that capitalism would never again know economic crises or mass strikes.
Duncan never fell for this nonsense, but after moving to Scotland he lost contact with the isolated Socialist Review Group. He kept his socialist commitment as a student and then a tutor/organiser for the National Council of Labour Colleges. He was secretary of the Edinburgh Left Club in the early 1960s and by the mid-1960s, after moving to London, he was a key figure in Wandsworth National Union of Teachers.
The events of 1968 convinced him that we were entering a new period of class struggles, and that building a revolutionary organisation was possible. He was at the centre of a new militant current in the teachers’ union, Rank and File Teacher, and became an activist in the International Socialists (the new name for the Socialist Review Group) as it expanded from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand in membership.
My first memory of him is at a meeting in a living room in south London. There were about a dozen of us there, almost all students and all in our late teens or early twenties – except for this man in his early forties with a Manchester accent.
We were stunned by the clarity of his ideas, the sharpness of his mind and the depth of his knowledge of the labour movement – of which the rest of us were fairly ignorant. In 1969 and 1971 attempts by first a Labour and then a Tory government to introduce anti-union laws led to the first political strikes in Britain since the year after Duncan’s birth, 1926.
This took place against the background of the continuing war in Vietnam and the use of British troops to subdue a growing revolt in Northern Ireland. Duncan was central in showing the links between these different issues. He became a full time worker for the International Socialists and was a member of the organisation’s leadership for many years. He was editor of International Socialism magazine during the 1970s.
He went on speaking tours with the Irish civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) to audiences hundreds strong. He also wrote regularly for Socialist Worker, and authored pamphlets like Ireland’s History of Repression and The Meaning of Marxism, and the books Trotsky’s Marxism and The Comintern.
He played a major part in developing the understanding of hundreds of students from 1968 and thousands of workers involved in the industrial struggles of those years, helping to build the Socialist Workers Party. The Labour government that was elected in 1974 succeeded, with the help of the trade union leaderships, in bringing the wave of workers’ struggles to an end. The employing class set about getting its revenge.
It used thousands of police to beat strikes like that of Asian women at Grunwicks in north London, closed down militant plants like Speke No 2 in Merseyside, and sacked union convenors like Derek Robinson in Birmingham. This was followed by the Thatcher years, massive unemployment, and the onslaught on the miners and the print workers.
Much of the left became demoralised in this period. Duncan did not. He never lost his revolutionary optimism as he continued speaking three or four times a week, writing articles, and selling Socialist Worker on the streets. Above all he patiently passed on his knowledge of Marxism and the revolutionary tradition to groups of younger people. He managed to visit the Marxism event just a few weeks before his illness struck him down.
He is remembered by people all over the world, not least by groups of workers and activists in South Africa where he did a popular speaking tour before the fall of apartheid.
‘DUNCAN made Marxist ideas very accessible to working class people. The members of the Irish organisation will always look on him with a sense of affection. He was one of our own.’
Mary Smith, member of the SWP in Ireland
‘DUNCAN WAS a fantastically inspiring cocktail of working class intellect, socialist principle and fun. He once told me, ‘I’ve just been discussing the French Revolution with shop stewards from a glass factory. Drank a lot of beer in the process, mind you.’ He was the only person who could say that and you’d know it was all true.’
Mark Steel, writer and comedian
‘DUNCAN HAD a sense of loyalty to the movement. Irrespective of differences and arguments his loyalty to socialism never wavered. That was always a great inspiration to me.’
Frank Henderson,Revolutionary activist for 60 years and former Leyland shop steward
MUSING MISERABLY on the death of Duncan Hallas, three pictures come into my mind. I first heard him speak in public at a conference of the International Socialists way back in the late 1960s. An argument was raging, inspired by something called the ‘micro-faction’, whose line was that the coming of socialism could be left to the spontaneous movement of the working class.
At the time, dominated by continuous trade union victories and enormous demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the argument seemed persuasive. Duncan swept down to the front. ‘Lots and lots of workers vote Tory,’ he started, and I groaned. But in a few powerful sentences he utterly demolished the ‘spontaneists’.
Political development in the working class, he insisted, was uneven. The most conscious and socialist elements had to come together as a potential leadership. As he swept on, my groan developed into a cheer. I got to know Duncan more intimately some years later when I was working on Socialist Worker and Duncan would appear on Monday mornings to write the leaders.
He would grab himself a disgusting coffee, light up an infernal cigarette, bark out testy comments about the state of the world, and then, grabbing a biro, would scribble out in longhand an impeccable editorial. He was the most coherent socialist I ever knew, whether he was writing or speaking.
My third memory of him comes from a park in Leicester where we had gathered to confront the fascists. As always, Duncan started by addressing the strength in the opposing argument. Was it really permissible for democrats and socialists to deny free speech to the fascists? In powerful language Duncan recalled the violent intimidatory marches of Mosley’s fascists in the 1930s.
By the time he’d finished he’d proved beyond doubt that free speech for fascists leads to the crushing of freedom of those they harassed. Duncan Hallas was a great man, and our debt to him is immeasurable.
Karol Modzelewski, 1937-2019,
Anwar Ditta, a heroic anti-racist campaigner, died last week.