From right hand man to opposition

I feel grievously saddened to hear of the death of Jim Higgins, coming as it does so soon after the death of Duncan Hallas. Jim was one of the great characters on the left in Britain. Although he came from an earlier generation of socialists, I knew Jim reasonably well in the mid-70s, both in the International Socialists and as a member of the International Socialist Alliance (later the Workers League). Jim was a member of my IS branch, along with other stalwarts from the Post Office Engineering Union. Jim's formative experiences on the left were during World War II, when he sympathised with the CPGB's line, famously daubing the slogan "Open the second front" on the walls of the inner quad of the local grammar school. On leaving school, Jim joined the Post Office engineering department as an apprentice and worked on the heavy overhead gang. He also joined the Post Office Engineering Union and the CPGB. He was conscripted into the army in 1949 and served in Hong Kong as a signalman, where he continued to receive CP literature, at the end of his service joining the Engineering No2 branch of the Communist Party. In 1956, following the Hungarian uprising, Jim - by now a CPGB branch secretary - resigned from the Party and joined Wembley Labour Party, where he found many of the members were ex-CPers. He also came into contact with Trotskyists, such as Len and Freda Knight and Cyril Smith, and began reading Trotsky for the first time. These contacts led him into Healy's Socialist Labour League, where he remained until 1959. It is hard to imagine Jim being confined within the rigid framework of Healy's organisation, although at the time Healy was in his least sectarian mode and anxious to win over Labour lefts. After Peter Fryer began to question the internal regime and was given short shrift, Jim joined a group of 20 SLL members called the 'Stamford Faction', which included Peter Cadogan. Jim was expelled from the SLL for his noisy intervention at the SLL's National Assembly of Labour and through Cadogan met Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron, soon joining the Socialist Review Group. By 1973, Jim had reached his political pinnacle as national secretary of the International Socialists, forerunner of today's Socialist Workers Party. He was thus centrally placed during the great wave of industrial militancy of the early 70s, when IS launched its network of rank and file papers, including The Collier, Dock Worker, Platform, Hospital Worker, Rank and File Teacher, Car Worker and many others. In some cases IS managed to connect with the emerging layer of industrial militants very successfully. When the Pentonville Five were arrested, IS turned its printshop over to the dockers' leaders and distributed thousands of leaflets calling for a general strike to "Free the five". Hundreds of dockers turned up to a victory rally in Stratford Town Hall. The paid circulation of Socialist Worker at the time was 28,000 and its estimated readership 50,000. By 1974, Cliff, immersed in his biography of Lenin, made a 180-degree turn away from the class, arguing that the shop stewards were now "bent" and orienting towards unorganised youth. He also began the process of encroaching on the independence of the rank and file papers and winding them down. Duncan Hallas, Jim Higgins and Roger Protz, the editor of Socialist Worker, resisted this ultra-left turn and the latter two were sacked from the paper, while Hallas recanted. Jim and the International Socialist Opposition continued to defend the independence of the rank and file movement and an orientation towards building in the unions. One of the central issues became work in the engineering union broad left in Birmingham, where a layer of carworkers supported the opposition. The expulsion of the ISO was not long in coming. Jim was genuinely hurt by Cliff's capricious treatment of him, but was never personally vindictive towards Cliff, recognising his attractive human qualities. He continued to rate him in the "top quartile of the Endsleigh League" of Trotskyist leaders, along with Ernest Mandel and James Cannon (he places Healy in the Beezer Home Freezer League). Jim's hilarious anecdotal autobiography More years for the locust fills in a lot of detail on the events of the 1970s. As a writer, Jim was one of the best on the left and it is to be hoped that there is a hidden treasure trove of his material yet to be published. Politically, he could be faulted for a number of things. He had no friends amongst the Matgamnites or Left Faction (Workers Power), both of which, as Cliff's right hand man, he helped drive out of the IS. The residual heat of this animosity endured, rather like the bottom of the crater on Mount Vesuvius. Jim titled one reply to a dispute with Workers' Liberty 'Sean MaxShactmana'. Jim could also be faulted for not holding together the organisation he was forced to create, or at least leading it into a principled fusion with another one. This is down to a number of things: he suffered quite a personal blow from giving up his job, then losing the national secretary position in IS. For a while, he started to become cynical and do questionable things. At one point he worked for the Libyan-financed magazine Events as a journalist. His marriage also broke up and he became provocatively 'politically incorrect', which began to annoy quite a few women comrades (this is not the time or place to recount some of Jim's choicer comments). He was an unreconstructed workerist in that sense, although I've heard a lot worse from some of the people he actually worked with. I did not keep in touch with Jim and cannot fill in anything on the later years of his life in Norfolk. But his writing shows that he continued to evolve politically and certainly remained a Marxist, if a little disillusioned by his experiences with those who claimed to be 'new Lenins'. I like to remember him as he was in the early 70s: a burly man, always in a button-up leather jacket. A mop of greying brown hair and bushy sideboards framing his black glasses and jowly face. A deep, resonating voice, that often broke into laughter, humour being his most effective political weapon. Like most people actively involved in socialist politics, the total opposite of the mythical sectarian robot of reactionary fantasy. He will be deeply missed by many and, I hope, commemorated in public soon. Alec Prianikoff