the defection of 10,000 members (30 per cent of the total) from the British Communist Party in 1956–58 is already described as “the revolt of the intellectuals”; sometimes by those same historians who claim that the intellectuals formed only a tiny minority of the CP’s membership!
The contradiction is obvious. The bulk of the dissenters were industrial workers, though their dissent was more articulately expressed by those intellectuals (John Saville, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, etc.) who were determined that the Party must abandon its blind loyalty to the Soviet leaders. In industrial West Fife the CP admitted a drop of 25 per cent in membership. Not the least of King Street’s crimes was the fact that most of them vowed “never again”, and disappeared from political life. Others believed that the CP’s betrayal of Socialist principles made the need for a genuine Socialist organisation all the more urgent. They looked at the Labour Party and, in West Fife at least, could not see any possibility of its being won for a Socialist programme.
In most areas it was aged and declining. Young people would simply not join it. It was firmly in the grip of a Right Wing which supported NATO and the Bomb. Its MP, W. W. Hamilton, had drafted for it the only constituency party resolution on the 1954 Labour Party Conference agenda supporting German rearmament. Economy cuts were enforced by Labour-controlled local authorities to help Attlee’s increased armaments programme in 1951, and after.
In these circumstances we decided that the formation of a Fife Socialist League was necessary to conduct analytical, educational and propaganda work, free from the restrictions imposed by the Labour and CP machines. The foundation meeting was held in February, 1957, but informal discussions and activities had been taking place since June, 1956. In December, 1956 we had organised a public meeting for Peter Fryer in the mining town of Lochgelly, and we sold his book, Hungarian Tragedy and his pamphlet, The CP and Hungary. In August, I and another ex-member had addressed a packed meeting of miners in Lochore on the reasons for our resignation. We had read, sold, and discussed the three issues of The Reasoner in 1956 and felt attracted by its ideas, more so than by P. Fryer’s subsequent Newsletter, which eventually became the open organ of the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League. In March, 1957, we adopted a League constitution which declared the building of democratic Socialism to be our basic aim. For next the twelve months we were very much pre-occupied with the continued crisis in the CP, using the New Reasoner and, to a lesser extent, The Newsletter, to develop our case.
As the 1958 local elections approached, however, we began to look seriously at the possibility of an electoral challenge to the Labour/Communist tradition in the heart of the West Fife coalfield. My own division, Ballingry, the largest in the county, seemed the natural choice. I had already been defeated twice by Labour, as a Communist candidate, in straight fights, but had obtained a big vote. We invited a number of workers and housewives, who had never belonged to any political party, to assist us and we received an encouraging response. We entered the fray to the jeers of both the Labour and Communist Parties. A new CP candidate was also standing. The Labour County Councillor jubilantly forecast an overwhelming victory, thinking that the Left vote was hopelessly split. The CP reached the same conclusion and accused us of giving the Right Wing a walkover. Opinion in the League was divided. The trained dialectitians cautiously forecast either a narrow defeat or (less likely) a narrow victory. The “inexperienced” new recruits declared that we would win comfortably. The result was astounding. The League got 1,085 votes, Labour 525, and the CP 197. The CP could console itself with the knowledge that it took the District Council seat from Labour by a narrow margin in a straight fight and that it had brought off the double in another village a few miles away.
This demonstrated not only the depth of the workers’ disgust with the Labour Party but also their readiness to choose an alternative where Tory candidates could not reap the advantage from a split vote.
Since May, 1958, the League has held a public meeting in Ballingry every six months, on Council Affairs, at which I report back and invite suggestions and criticism. Prior to the meeting we issue to every tenant a bulletin indicating some of the councillor’s work over the previous six months and spot-lighting problems that still require to be solved. We realized, of course, that nothing less than a total Socialist offensive on a national scale was needed if the future of the people of Fife was to be assured. We had fought the election on a policy which demanded unilateral nuclear disarmament, extended public ownership, and more democracy in local government. For this reason we felt it necessary to develop our association with those Socialists gathered around the New Reasoner. And for the same reason we decided to contest the West Fife constituency in the 1959 General Election. We had held pit-head meetings in protest against the Nagy execution in June, 1958, and felt no qualms about opposing the CP, which had held the seat from 1935 to 1950, and had been the only “Left” alternative to date. We appealed to our friends of the New Left to give us their assistance, and many of them did so, financially and otherwise. (Their reasons have been outlined by John Saville in New Reasoner No. 10). Others considered that in principle they could not support a fight against the Labour Party, especially since it might help the Tories.