Duncan Hallas

Schooled in the struggle

(February 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.161, February 1993, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Keeping My Head
Harry Wicks
Socialist Platform £5.95

This is a splendid book, rich in detail and anecdote. Harry Wicks (1905-1989) was a revolutionary socialist, a founder member at 15 of the Communist Party, a student at the Lenin School in Moscow from 1927 to 1930 and a prominent member of the tiny band of pioneer British Trotskyists.

There is a fascinating account of the life of a working class lad in Battersea during the First World War and the turbulent years immediately after.

Harry first came into a political organisation through the Herald League, a support organisation for George Lansbury’s Daily Herald (before the TUC took it over and castrated it). The Battersea Herald League went into the CP at the Communist Unity conference in 1920.

Equally important as a formative influence was work as a railwayman from 1919 (starting at 5 shillings or 25p for a 48 hour week). Harry became a very active and enthusiastic NUR member and later was involved in producing rank and file papers like the Victoria Signal and the Nine Elms Spark.

Then there was reading (including Gibbon and Macaulay as well as Jack London) made possible by the then excellent Battersea public library and the excitement of intellectual discovery in Plebs/Labour College classes.

Above all there was activity - the Irish national struggle, women’s rights, unemployed demonstrations and building the Young Communist League. This ferment reached its climax in the run up to the General Strike in 1926, the strike itself and then sell out and defeat.

Harry like so many others was victimised for the strike. “We all had to line up. There was a long table, a line of interviewers waiting for us all ....The company transferred me from the strategic heights of my Victoria Station indicator box to Deal ...There I was given general porterage duties ... cleaning out cattle trucks and sheep pens.” He was comparatively lucky.

A little over a year later Harry Wicks was selected to attend a three year course at the Lenin School in Moscow. This institution started operations in October 1926 ostensibly “to broaden and deepen the propaganda of the theory of Marxism-Leninism”. In fact, as Harry later remarked, it was a “school for Stalinism”. The idea was to create in the various parties a reliable Stalinist cadre. It evidently didn’t work in all cases!

Harry was one of 12 students from the CPGB. His account is both revealing and important and so far as I know the only account in English at any rate, of the actual working of the school.

After returning to Britain in 1930, he gradually became thoroughly convinced of the correctness of Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalinism. The story of the first British Trotskyists has been well told in Reg Groves’ The Balham Group, but Harry’s account casts a rather different light on aspects of it. In particular he says Groves’ account “underplays the role of Trotsky’s writings in our germination ... he wanted to keep the group as British as possible”.

In 1932 Harry was able to visit Trotsky in Copenhagen during the latter’s short stay there, which he found out about from a newspaper in a library. “Most of our 40 or so members were unemployed ... By scraping our pennies together we found we could afford one ticket as far as Copenhagen, although not enough to come back!” Nothing daunted, Harry set off on behalf of the group - and managed to get back. His account makes up chapter 6 of the book.

Logie Barrow, who transcribed and edited the book, a heavy and most valuable labour, writes: “As readers will have noticed, the pages after Harry’s meeting with Trotsky feel flat compared with the liveliness and sophistication of struggle which precede them.” This is too harsh. They contain valuable material-for example Harry’s account of the campaign against the Moscow Trials from 1936. But Logie Barrow is certainly right when he speaks of “years of defeat and growing isolation.”

Yet Harry did not give up. He joined IS (forerunner of the SWP) in the late 1960s and, though he left in a split in 1976, he continued to collaborate in various activities-most notably as a speaker at various Marxisms. Harry Wicks was a fighter and a comrade in the fullest sense. Read this book. You will certainly gain from it.


Last updated on 25.11.2003