In defence of Lee Rock

Jan Berryman responds to the criticisms levelled against a former SLPer in the pages of the Weekly Worker

What have Hitler’s SS, Stalin’s henchman Yagoda, Carolyn Sikorski, Mark Fischer, and Lee Rock all got in common? I’ll leave you to work that out while I proceed with the rest of the article. In Weekly Worker (January 15) John Bridge wrote a very good analysis of developments in the SLP and the split within the SLP Democratic Platform, which led to the exit and foundation of Socialist Perspectives. I found myself in agreement with about 98% of it. However at the end of the article he singled out one comrade, Lee Rock, for special criticism. In my opinion this was unfair and unnecessarily offensive.

I certainly do not write articles about everything I disagree with. There are not enough hours in the day for that. So John Bridge’s offending paragraph would have passed by. Then Lee wrote in to Weekly Worker to complain (Letters, February 12). This was followed by a full page reply to Lee from Terry Watts (Weekly Worker February 26). This included a picture of Carolyn Sikorski with the sub-head, “Scargill’s doorkeeper”. This repeats John Bridge’s line of argument, drawing a direct parallel between Sikorski and Lee Rock as doorkeepers. As a participant at the Reading meeting, I now feel I must comment.

First it is surely John Bridge who should reply to Lee’s specific complaint, either with an apology or with further explanation or justification for the original comments. A reply from Terry Watts is all very interesting. But he cannot sort out or solve the original complaint. Only John Bridge can do that. Worse still, if Terry Watts had been asked to reply on John Bridge’s behalf without this being acknowledged. This would be more reprehensible. It would seem as if John started a fight and then retired to a safe haven, whilst employing some ruffian to do his fighting for him.

Let us begin with the offending quotation. After a reference to Martin Wicks “cultivating his own policeman” (implied reference to Lee), John Bridge goes on to say: “Carolyn Sikorski can serve as Scargill’s Yagoda because of her knowledge and intimate contacts with the revolutionary left. In Socialist Perspectives that unenviable role is performed by Lee Rock - a man who previously defended communists with a degree of honour. Sad to say, he ensured that any communist who attempted to discuss the formation of a new grouping at the Reading meeting was fingered and excluded”.

First there is a correction of fact. John says that “any communist who attempted to discuss the formation of a new grouping was fingered and duly excluded.” This is simply untrue as Lee pointed out. There were communists (ie, revolutionary Marxists), including Lee himself, who participated in the ‘exit faction’s’ meeting. John Bridge and Stan Keable were not excluded because they were communists.

The Weekly Worker will not be able to find a single independent witness to support John’s claim that he was excluded because he was a communist. Yet John has so far failed to correct his own false statement. It is possible that John and Stan were excluded because they were thought to be members of the CPGB. I say “possible” because this is conjecture not proven fact.

There is a clear difference between being excluded because you are alleged to be a communist or alleged to be a supporter of the CPGB. This is no minor quibble. Unless John takes the view that they are one and the same? But that would betray a sectarian point of view.

Perhaps John’s factual error was a slip of the pen. All the more reason to correct it quickly rather than employ Terry Watts to avoid it. To tell the readers of Weekly Worker that Lee Rock is anti-Marxist or anti-communist, when you meant to say he is anti-CPGB is an important error. We must place a high priority on the truth. John’s statement was simply untrue. Whatever the reason for John and Stan’s exclusion, it was not what was stated by John.

The second problem is that we are presented with the very powerful imagery of Stalin’s secret police henchman Yagoda. Stalin’s right hand man controlled the entrances to meetings. Yagoda, Carolyn Sikorski and Lee Rock are linked together. But why limit ourselves to only these three. What about the Gestapo or the SS who stood guard at the entrances to various prisons and concentration camps. What about Mark Fischer, who guards the entrance to CPGB seminars? What about other CPGBers who take a turn on guard duty? Is it really helpful to lump all or some of them together in a rather arbitrary way?

I have yet to hear of any organisation that does not have doorkeepers or stewards. Of course under communism not only will classes have been abolished but doorkeepers too. Anybody will be able to go to any meeting, anywhere time or place. Lee Rock and Mark Fischer are unfortunate to have been born in class society and not communism. Consequently they or their comrades may be called upon to act as stewards and doorkeepers. As such they carry out the policies of definite organisations.

It is the policy of a definite organisation that has to be examined. If Mark Fisher excludes someone from a CPGB seminar, it is reasonable to assume he is carrying out the policy of the CPGB and not doing so at his own whim. In case anybody believes that the CPGB practices total and absolute openness at all their meetings, let me assure you that I witnessed one person being physically ejected from a CPGB seminar (not by Mark)

Door keeping, like war, is a continuation of policy by other means. We should have started with policy, rather than personal criticism of Mark or Lee as Chief Door Keeper, Yagoda’s younger brother or whatever. John was too busy having a go at Lee and getting carried away with his own anti-Stalinist polemics. He should have concentrated on seriously examining the policy decisions of the Democratic Platform, the ‘exit faction’, the CPGB, Marxist Bulletin, SLP Republicans etc. Then we would have got a more rounded view of the truth.

Let us begin with the policy of the Democratic Platform. The platform had no elected leading committee. Martin Wicks was acting secretary. As a proxy leadership, we can take those comrades who stood for the NEC - Martin Wicks, Lee Rock, Terry Burns, Chris Jones (Republican), Chris Earswell, and Terry Pearce. At SLP congress it was decided by a meeting of rank and file supporters of the platform to hold a meeting in London early in January to decide what to do after SLP conference.

Of the leading six, three decided to leave the SLP and three were opposed to that. The ‘exit faction’ planned to set up a new socialist group for those who wanted to leave. The ‘exit faction’ (comrades Wicks, Rock and Pearce) decided amongst themselves to hold the meeting in Reading, in defiance of the previous democratic decision. Comrade Wicks then tried to impose a certain agenda on the meeting which would have been helpful to his own faction. These decisions were undemocratic and opposed by comrades Jones, Burns and Earswell and myself.

One option was to hold an alternative meeting in London in line with the previous democratic decision. It was felt that this would defeat the object of the meeting. We were determined to meet the ‘exit faction’ and try to persuade them to stay in the SLP.

Nevertheless the stage was set for a fairly acrimonious meeting. Fortunately common sense prevailed and a compromise agenda was agreed. The vast majority of the Democratic Platform realised that a split was inevitable and wanted to maintain good relations afterwards. The agreed agenda began with a debate for staying and building the SLP versus leaving the SLP. Afterwards an indicative vote would be taken. The meeting would then split into two. Those remaining in the SLP would meet to discuss the way forward for the SLP. At the same time the ‘exit faction’ would meet to set up their new group. After we would reconvene as one meeting to discuss future cooperation.

This plan was known to all participants at the meeting. Marxist Bulletin and the CPGB were not formally part of the Democratic Platform. In the case of the CPGB, it is an independent organisation and not a faction of the SLP. There was no reason to consult with the Provisional Central Committee. This did not prevent the PCC from writing to Martin Wicks and putting forward objections. They did not do so.

The planned structure for the meeting was known and accepted by all participants. Nobody objected at the start of the meeting to the structure of the agenda. The meeting therefore implicitly endorsed the plan around which the pro and anti-exit factions of the Democratic Platform agreed. No SLP member, voided or not, was excluded from the meeting. Everybody present was allowed to speak and vote.

When the first part of the meeting finished, there was a break, after which it was agreed to convene the separate meetings. Marxist Bulletin, SLP Republicans, some independents, plus those sympathetic to the CPGB, agreed to meet in one room. The reason for this was definite policy. The CPGB, Marxist Bulletin and the SLP Republicans were in favour of staying in the SLP and were totally opposed to other comrades leaving to form a group. We were not in favour of disrupting or breaking up the other meeting. This would have been wrong in principle and counter-productive in practice.

It was suggested to me in the break that Stan and John try to go to the other meeting. I mistakenly went along with that on spurious libertarian grounds - ‘If they will let you in why not?’. This was an error on my part that I freely acknowledge. But this in itself should not have been a problem. A polite request to attend and an acceptance or a polite refusal should surely have been the end of the matter. I did not realise that John would present the resulting refusal publicly in the Weekly Worker as an anti-communist plot, masterminded by Lee Rock, the jack-booted henchman of Martin Wicks.

The reason for the exclusion of Stan and John was in line with pre-agreed policy. The ‘exit faction’ were more than generous. They allowed John to address the meeting as to why they should be allowed to attend. This was despite the fact that the SLP Republicans, Marxist Bulletin and the CPGB were totally opposed to what they were doing. The ‘exit faction’ then voted unanimously to ask them to leave. As far as I know this was carried out democratically and politely on all sides.

I am well aware that some members of the ‘exit faction’ are anti-CPGB and possibly one is anti-communist. This may have clouded their judgement. But Lee is neither anti-communist nor anti-CPGB. He disagrees with the CPGB, holding different views on programme and tactics. Whatever the disparate motives of various individuals in the ‘exit faction’ they were united on a common policy to hold separate meetings. This was accepted by SLP Republicans, Marxist Bulletin, independent lefts, all the Democratic Platform candidates, the ‘exit faction’ and as far as we can tell the CPGB.

We are not trying to guess what is in heads of each individual member of the ‘exit faction’. We are dealing with the policies of definite organisations. Had Lee turned up to attend our meeting, I would have had no qualms about excluding him on the grounds that he was in favour of leaving the SLP. We did not hold our ‘stay in the SLP’ meeting in Reading for a general chit chat with Tom, Dick and Harry, but for the serious business of planning future work in the SLP.

Neither the SLP Republicans nor the Marxist Bulletin sought to disrupt the ‘exit faction’ meeting that day. Despite the fact that Martin Wicks had behaved in a provocative fashion in the run up to the meeting, it was not our intention to reply in kind. We need to ask the PCC about their policy. Did they oppose the split into two meetings? Did they intend to disrupt the ‘exit faction’ meeting. Was it their plan to stage a provocation, ie try to enter the meeting knowing that they would be excluded, and then make political capital out of this by singling out Lee as a Stalinist and witch hunter? We need some answers from the PCC.

The ‘exit faction’ now call themselves Socialist Perspectives. The acid test of whether this is a sectarian organisation is not that they wanted to hold their own meeting. It is how they relate to other organisations on an open and honest political basis or on a petty bourgeois prejudice - ‘We don’t like this or that group so we are ignoring them’. The real test for Socialist Perspectives is whether they can establish proper political relations with the CPGB. If I was a betting man it is a test they will fail.

Unfortunately John’s offending paragraph does not help. It gives them an excuse. So I hope that this matter can be quickly sorted out by John. His article would have been better without that paragraph. Of course everybody can get carried away with the power of their own polemics. I include myself in this. But equally we need to be able to recognise this and have our feet sufficiently close to the ground to know when we get it wrong. What John said against Lee was offensive. But the real problem is that it was not true.