Cyril Smith - passport photo

Marking the death of Cyril Smith,

Obituary by John Plant

Since his death, I have learned more about Cyril than I knew in his life. Not that he was secretive, or ever tried to disguise his past. The intensity of life that he discovered in his final phase, since separating himself from Trotskyist organisations with “Leninist” rules, was burning with a passion for the present – for the ignition of thought built on knowing his own past and trying to unknow what he knew he had known wrongly. To derive the conclusions and formulate them. To pass them forward to those who would be able to use them in the future, or who might be able to answer questions he had found.

In some conversations and emails I managed to extract some biographical information from him, but he several times refused to let me get from him “the story of Smith.” I have done what I can with the memories of the comrades and friends at different phases of his life, and of his family. None of them, of course, are responsible for any judgements and misjudgements I have made.

From his early university experiences in 1947 and ’48, he recognised that the “official” Communist Party had nothing to offer. Their best thinkers were compelled to waste time and energy in the risky refutation Lysenkoism, and supporting apparently capricious reversals of the party line. The benefit he won from these contacts was to disbelieve them. So when they advised him against speaking to the Trotskyists in the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party), he followed the opposite of their advice.

He investigated the available Trotskyist options in London diligently, while working with the RCP student organisation. Tony Cliff invited him to join the Socialist Review Group, assuring him that differences between his own theory of state capitalism and Trotsky’s view in “The Revolution Betrayed” were unimportant. Cyril never renewed that contact. Through Anil Kumaran (Munesinghe) he met Jock Haston for whom he had some regard, and also Ted Grant, for whom he had none. He remembered that Grant attempted to debate Heisenberg with him, and also that Grant had attended Cyril’s student group to deliver a lecture on dialectics, that he described as “quite the worst” he had ever heard. Despite this he spent a little time in membership of the Haston/Grant group, and subsequently became an important leader of the “Marxist Group in the Labour Party” (of which he was later to remark “big deal,” but which attracted a number of important militants in North West London, among them Jim Higgins). He was also very active at this stage in the Labour League of Youth, which had a broader geographical basis, but which was also an important source of recruits to the Trotskyist movement.

The Marxist Group merged itself into the organisation created by Gerry Healy, “The Club,” early in the 1950s, The Fourth International leaders had intervened into the RCP to split the organisation, and release Healy’s minority to carry out entry work in the Labour Party. (They must have regretted letting that genie out of its bottle later, when Healy employed all his factional repertoire on the international scale.) Out of this entry work “The Club” was put together. For somebody with Cyril’s background of work in the Labour Party, “The Club” would have had obvious attractions, being the only organisation with any experienced cadre carrying out systematic Labour Party work. After joining “The Club,” the Marxist Group’s paper “Keep Left” was upgraded from a duplicated sheet or two, to a properly printed, regularly appearing paper. Cyril was in charge of production, and began to emerge as a regular writer, often dealing with economic matters. The Marxist Group ceased to exist and the intervention into the LLoY .was the main Trotskyist work in the Labour Party youth.

It seems that Cyril negotiated some arrangements for his membership and work in “The Club,” including the printing and distribution of “Keep Left.” Comrades who remember this period understood that Cyril was not a “foot soldier” in the organisation. Writing and lecturing became his areas of focus. The corollary to this was that despite his prominence in the organisation’s work, he rarely undertook permanent leadership responsibilities. (An exception was his role on the Control Commission in 1974 which dealt with the opposition mainly led by Alan Thornett in the Western Region. Following the expulsion of Healy, Cyril was quick to apologise to Thornett, Tony Richardson and other victims of Healy’s brutal methods during the expulsions.) During this early period, those who had known Cyril as a student activist noticed that he had become a man of much harder character, little concerned with past friendships. In a meeting to mark ten years from the expulsion of Healy, Cyril recorded his admiration for the activity of Bill Hunter, then an important organiser of the industrial work. He had wondered why Healy, not Hunter, was the leader. Leading cadre had discouraged him from progressing this thought. Some of them at least remembered Healy’s ability to paralyse organisations by the invention of differences with the leadership, and they did not want any return to those days.

With the 1956 crisis, Healy’s organisation won over a number of important intellectuals from the Communist Party. Among these, Brian Pearce was to become a particularly important comrade for Cyril, somebody he could rely upon for clear and independent thinking whatever the internal state of the Party. Tom Kemp was another. It was shortly after his final organisational split with the post-Healy Workers Revolutionary Party that Cyril spoke movingly at a memorial meeting for Kemp. Cyril and Tom Kemp had been given the task, by Healy, of strengthening the philosophical basis of the Socialist Labour League (as “The Club” had become). He remember going with Kemp into the stacks under the London School of Economics and literally “blowing the dust off Hegel,” whose works had not been looked at in nearly two decades. It was here that he first saw for himself that the received views current among the revolutionaries were often at variance with those of the original authors. Cyril then recognised the importance of studying the original materials that formed the basis of the revolutionary movement., though it would be many years before he could carry this project forward in the thorough-going manner he was to achieve.

Having acquired additional experienced cadre in 1956 from the Stalinists, Healy’s organisation was in a strong position to win sections of industrial workers over whom the CPGB previously held unchallenged hegemony. Winning over Brian Behan (later to become better known as a playwright and prodigious quaffer) in 1957, the SLL was able to make a powerful intervention into a strike of building workers on the South Bank site in London. Behan was soon to become a disruptive ultra-left element, who probably prevented the full integration of the best elements won from the CPGB, (whose well-formed political views could not be fully taken on while Behan was agitating for the public announcement of the new independent party).

Behan and his supporters were not above playing the “workerist” card, and would refer to Cyril as “The Comrade Professor.” On one occasion Cyril’s patience snapped and he retorted “Anyone who agrees with me because I am a professor is a bloody fool, but anybody who disagrees with me just because I am a professor is a bloodier fool!” (I am grateful to Brian Pearce for this splendid recollection.) Behan and his group were soon to depart, and to have little further political significance.

In the following three decades, Cyril’s life was inextricably bound up with that of the SLL, and of the WRP as it was to become in 1973. It would have been difficult for somebody with his intellectual capabilities not to perceive the problems of the organisational regime. Some of the “generation of 56” departed (among them Cadogan, Daniels, McIntyre) as individuals, and their subsequent political trajectories would not have attracted Cyril or others who continued to value the conception of the “Leninist Party” which they had acquired. Healy would often charge Cyril with seeking out quotations, and assembling the political logic for positions he seemed to have adopted by instinct.

In common with others who lived and loyally worked through this period, he found ways to deal with the instabilities of the leadership line, but the difficulty of some of these instants must have been intense – such as the terror unleashed against Peter Fryer, and the shocking violence against Ernie Tate for having the temerity to sell the literature of a rival organisation outside a Healyite meeting. For Cyril in particular, but also for other intellectuals of worth such as Kemp, Slaughter and Pilling, there were no viable alternatives. Cyril had experienced Cliff’s unprincipled inveiglement and Grant’s posturing and would have nothing of either. For all their many defects, the Healyites and their international associates in the OCI and the (US) SWP showed themselves capable of organising, agitating and propagating. And as John Archer has explained, Healy had carefully constructed a false history of Trotskyism in Britain (with which Cannon conspired) that it was not possible to defeat until the late 1970s when source material became available.

The extent to which those who saw faults in Healy were capable of atomising themselves may be illustrated with an anecdote concerning the WRP’s famous/notorious training centre in Derbyshire “The Red House,” which was once raided by police and evidence of firearms planted. Cyril spent a great deal of time there in the late 1970s, preparing and delivering lectures at every level from contact to cadre. Not infrequently, after Healy had delivered one of his notorious lectures on his conception of “dialectics” Cyril would have to find ways to politely turn aside requests for explanation from cadre who had found it all incomprehensible. Perhaps the worst was when Healy had been intensively studying Lenin’s Vol 38 and transmitting his insights. He had misread “casualty” for “ causality” and his mispronunciation carried through several lectures. Geoff Pilling approached Cyril – should we not correct Gerry before this error goes too far? – Cyril rebuffed him, saying that Healy was “on to something very exciting, something entirely new.” Thus even those who were best in a position to recognise the problems of the leadership denied each other basic human solidarity. That anything of human and revolutionary value was eventually to be rescued is greatly to the credit of those comrades who achieved it.

What everybody who knew Cyril during the SLL/WRP remembers is the sheer force of his argumentation. “Like a blowtorch” is the phrase several of them used. I did not meet him until much later, when his everyday manner was not aggressive. It was a considerable surprise to hear him, in the mild context of a meeting of the short-lived “Open Polemic” project, say of a Maoist contributor “I am going to break this man,” before demolishing his entire thesis.

Cyril was not among the number of those who achieved the work of expelling Healy. The stresses of living with so many contradictions, together with the consequences of impossibly difficult relationships with the mothers of his two daughters, resulted in a “nervous breakdown,” during which he left the WRP. He had been responsible for much of the preparatory work on the publication of Marx’s “Mathematical Manuscripts.” Before the publication, and during Cyril’s absence, Healy became enthusiastic about the work of Ilyenkov and some other Russian philosophers.

Mistakenly, I like many others thought this was the preliminary to some attempted rapprochement with the Soviet bureaucracy, and I completely missed the importance of Ilyenkov. Healy did not, and promoted his book through Labour Review and the Paperback Centres. How Healy achieved this insight remains unclear. The Ilyenkov texts available in English revealed little of his radical opposition to the bureaucracy which was not to see the light of day until after Gorbachev.

Andy Blunden had written the first review of Ilyenkov for Labour Review, and in Cyril’s absence he was allotted the task of presenting the Mathematical Manuscripts publication at a series of meetings for academics in London. Cyril was persuaded by Healy to attend these meetings to support Blunden, and by this device Healy drew him back into party work for a further period, before he again resigned.

Following the 1985 explosion in which Healy was expelled for extensive sexual abuse of female comrades, the WRP fragmented and its international work disrupted, a number of older cadre returned, to rescue and reconstruct what they could. Cyril was one of these, as was Peter Fryer. Bill Hunter, Geoff Pilling and Cliff Slaughter took on new roles, in fact undertaking real leadership work that had been impossible under Healy, and publishing a weekly “Workers Press,” consciously harking back to the daily paper that Healy had transformed into the Newsline.

But the old WRP could not be put back together; deep political differences erupted (Banda made overt his incipient Stalinism, and Healy was to assert that Gorbachev had achieved the political revolution in the USSR). The extent of the financial crisis in the organisation was revealed as overwhelming. Most of the physical assets of the organisation had to be sold to pay debts. Several groups arising from these events tried to hold on to the names WRP and International Committee of the Fourth International.

Cyril saw that, essential as the organisational work was, it was necessary to rework the theoretical basis of the organisation if the same problems were not to return in a different form. His lectures and writings at this period were condensed into the 1988 book “Communist Society and Marxist Theory,” in which he first set out systematically to rediscover and re-assert the core of Marxism from under the accreted habits of thought and errors of generations, and to bring it up to date. At this stage he was still prepared to write and speak of “Marxism” positively. It was the influences particularly of Kautsky and Plekhanov that needed to be rejected, for having misrepresented the core of what Marx had written and done.

Other leaders in the Workers Press group began to perceive Cyril’s orientation as purely theoretical, and were critical of his lack of involvement in the work of re-building the party and the international. They felt that theory had to be developed in the context of real struggles of the class, and put energies into projects such as Workers Aid to Bosnia, and solidarity with the Liverpool dock workers. A parting of the ways may not have been inevitable, but it happened nevertheless.

Cyril did not meet his comrades’ expectation by retreating into an academic ivory tower. He contributed and took from discussions with a number of groups and individuals. He was always on the look-out for heretics whom he might help develop into heresiarchs. It was in this phase that I met him. I had been taking part in a WRP/Workers Press discussion group about the Stalinist states, and had prepared some notes on Jugoslavia which he saw and wanted to discuss, as he saw in them a faint glow of heterodoxy.

The Workers Press WRP eventually wound itself up, overmatched by the scale of the tasks it had set itself. (Cyril described it as the leadership expelling the membership.) A number of former members set up the Movement for Socialism (MfS), and Cyril was, with Geoff Barr, running a small, very open correspondence circle that overlapped memberships with the MfS. A group called the International Socialist Forum emerged from this work, meeting regularly, producing a journal and a website. Cyril’s criticisms were deepening, throughout this phase and he was rejecting many of the central ideas that were presented as “Marxism-Leninism.” He found no basis in Marx for the “Leninist Party,” nor for the “Workers State.” They had nothing to do with bringing forth the core of humanity from the forms which imprisoned it.

One of my memories of Cyril at this time is his organising and leading a small group of us in reading Capital. With Ute Bublitz and Don Cuckson, we would meet, often on a landing at the Festival Hall after concerts had begun, to claw our way through the early chapters. Cyril’s intellectual tenacity was extraordinary – every uncertainty was probed to its roots. Different translations were checked against the German and against each other, until he was able to convince himself and the group that we had got there.

He established contact with the group of independents who publish the journal Herramienta in Buenos Aires, and visited them in the mid-1990s. He spoke at packed meetings – they warmly welcomed him as a “refusenik and troublemaker,” and he enjoyed every moment. It seemed that some of his work was finding a response. He became a member of the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History, but his deteriorating health prevented him from making regular contributions to that work.

Out of this breadth and depth of discussion he went on to formulate his two books “Marx at the Millennium” and “Marx and the future of the human,” each of them drawing more clearly his picture of the differences between what Marx did and what “Marxism” had become. He retained from his years as a Trotskyist, the determination to draw his insights from the everyday experiences and struggles of the workers and other oppressed.

He recovered from a stroke, which had interrupted his work, but his speech never lost the slurring quality that resulted from the damage. He went out less, and relied on email, and some visitors, for the stimulation to continue writing and thinking. At New Interventions we were always proud to publish his material, and took every opportunity to encourage him.

In parallel with this full revolutionary life, Cyril followed a long professional career as a statistician, much of it in teaching at the London School of Economics. And he found time and love for his two daughters, resulting from two different relationships ten years apart. Finally, no picture of Cyril would be complete without a mention of his great love of music. He regularly attended the Sunday afternoon concerts and Conway Hall, and encouraged his second daughter, Emma, to learn the violin through the Suzuki method from a very early age.

It is a cliché in British funerals to quote Dylan Thomas “Old men should be explorers.” Cyril undertook a journey of discovery on his own responsibility, following where it took him. When it needed him to break with his past, he never hesitated. I felt, and still feel, it was a great privilege to meet him during his explorations, and even to share a few steps with him.