Alex Callinicos

Duncan Hallas –
Thinker, orator, revolutionary

(October 2002)

From Socialist Review, No. 267, October 2002.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Online at the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Duncan Hallas, who died on 19 September, was one of the outstanding figures of British Trotskyism. In him the best traditions of the British working class movement fused with the revolutionary Marxist heritage. As a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party he played a crucial role in transmitting this heritage to the new generations who emerged from the movements of the past 35 years.

Duncan became a revolutionary socialist during the Second World War. He was one among hundreds of working class militants who gravitated towards the first substantial Trotskyist organisation in Britain, the Workers International League. The WIL won a significant constituency by agitating in defence of working class interests at a time when even the Communist Party was restraining struggles for the sake of the war effort. Duncan himself cut his teeth as an agitator as one of the leaders of the rank and file movement that developed in the British army in Egypt.

After the war Duncan returned to his native Manchester to work in an engineering factory. In his early twenties he already displayed his intellectual brilliance and incredible erudition. I remember Tony Cliff describing how, during his first involvement in the British Trotskyist movement in the second half of the 1940s, he was overwhelmed by Duncan’s talents.

Duncan was one of a handful of members of the British section of the Fourth International who supported Cliff when he first developed the theory of state capitalism in 1947–48, and he helped to form the Socialist Review Group at the very beginnings of the International Socialist Tendency in 1951. He drifted out of the group at the height of the boom of the 1950s and 1960s, though he remained politically active, particularly as a militant in the National Union of Teachers, and returned to the group in the decisive year of 1968.

The explosion of the student movement had swept hundreds of young activists into the International Socialists (IS), as we were then called. Intense debates raged particularly on the issue of party organisation. Should we – as Cliff argued – adopt the model of democratic centralism, or was Leninism irretrievably implicated in the crimes of Stalinism? Duncan, appearing from the blue, carrying all the authority of an experienced Trotskyist and displaying the most remarkable debating skills, played a key role in winning the organisation to the recognition that authentic Leninism was the antithesis of Stalinism.

Thereafter, Duncan served in the leadership of the IS and its successor the Socialist Workers Party till his retirement on grounds of ill health in 1995. In various capacities – as editor of International Socialism, as the author of two books, Trotsky’s Marxism and The Comintern, and innumerable pamphlets and articles, and, above all, as a brilliant speaker – Duncan played a critical role in shaping successive waves of new members into revolutionary Marxist cadres. His travels as a speaker to different parts of the world during the 1970s and 1980s helped to form the IS Tendency during its early years.

Duncan was deeply rooted in the Trotskyist and the broader Marxist tradition. But he was also a man of very wide culture. A voracious reader, he was particularly knowledgeable about history, archaeology and anthropology. He was a historical materialist in the most literal sense. I can remember a magical evening in Dublin a decade or so ago. Duncan and I were due to speak for our Irish sister organisation. While the two of us waited for the meeting to start, I sat rapt as Duncan discoursed on the origins of class society.

Duncan was a Marxist and an internationalist. But there was also something very English about him. He was immensely proud of his Manchester working class origins – to which his magnificent speaking voice bore witness. He was steeped in the classics of English historical writing – Gibbon and Macaulay above all – and this shaped the way he wrote and spoke. Not for Duncan the abstractions and obscurities of academic Marxism. He wrote plain English, punctuated by short pithy sentences.

Like Cliff, Duncan was immensely scornful of bullshit and bluster. His whole intellectual style was informed by a kind of pungent realism – an insistence on bluntly stating the facts and facing up to their consequences. This was immensely helpful in grappling with the twists and turns of the British class struggle in the past three decades. I particularly remember how Duncan’s hard-headed clarity helped to guide our discussions on the SWP Central Committee through the tortuous course of the great miners’ strike of 1984–85.

Duncan was also very well loved. For all his immense gifts and experience, he was a modest man who, if anything, tended to undervalue himself. Visiting South Africa in 1990 a few months after Duncan had spent some time there, I was struck by the great warmth with which seasoned activists in Cape Town talked about ‘Mr Duncan’, as some of them called him. Duncan Hallas will be mourned all over the world by the revolutionaries whom he taught.

Last updated on 10 April 2016