John Archer

Mike Calvert mike.calvert at
Tue Apr 24 09:53:31 MDT 2001

Here is an obituary that I wrote that appeared in the British discussion
journal What Next? on John Archer, veteran British Trotskyist and supporter
of the current associated with Pierre Lambert internationally- Alan
Benjamin's group in the USA.
It is his memorial meeting in London on saturday this week.

When any revolutionary militant dies it is a loss to the cause, but when it
is someone you were very close to, who had an accumulated wealth of sixty
years as a veteran in the movement it is even more of a loss.
John Archer, a sixty year veteran of the British Trotskyist movement, the
longest surviving member of the Fourth International, died on Saturday 23rd
December 2000. John had been a dedicated militant in a political life that
spanned six decades. He had been a member, and leader of the Militant group
in the 1930's. He attended the congress of the FI in 1946 that was raided
on the instructions of Francois Mitterand. He was subsequently a leading
member of the Club in the 1950's.

The Healy Group in the 1950s made some important inroads in a number of
 local Labour Parties.  Leeds seems to have been an area of relative
strength with John & Mary Archer at the heart of it.  It was in Leeds that
John and Mary recruited Bob Pennington to the Trotskyist movement, more of
him later. For example, it was Dulcie Yelland who seconded the Club
inspired unilateralist motion at the 1957 LP conference.  People like Dave
Finch were Labour councillors in London.

John was also in the SLL in the 1960's. John split from the corrupt
Healy-led tendency in 1971 to help establish the Bulletin Group which
followed those who were organised by Pierre Lambert and Francois Demassott
in the Organising Committee for the reconstruction of the Fourth
International or OCRFI. For most of that time he had his  companion of many
years, Mary by his side helping and also leading work of the respective
organisations. She died in the mid 1980's and a tribute to her appeared in
Socialist Newsletter, then the journal of the SLG, which they were both
members of at the time.
The 1970's saw perhaps what John and Mary viewed as the most important
period of their work in the Trotskyist movement. John became a convinced
partisan of the politics associated with the OCI of Pierre Lambert. he was
instrumental in the founding of the Bulletin Group in the early 1970's
along with people like Betty Hamilton and others.

John and other comrades helped to bring about a fusion with supporters of
Nahuel Moreno's international current in the Parity Committee in 1980. This
split within a few months when Moreno attacked the positions of the French
PCI in relation to the perspective of the united front with the Socialist
Party. John supported the organised forces that became the FI/International
Centre of Reconstruction, or FI/ICR. These were organised within the
British Socialist Labour Group, or SLG.
In 1986 some comrades organised around Harry Vince began to become scept
ical about Lambert's project of reconstruction and his announced intention
to "reproclaim the FI" which he had pronounced dead in the 1953 split
between Cannon and Pablo. John very much identified with the International
Committee tradition of Trotskyist thinking associated with Cannonism and
Healyism, rather than the International Secretariat wing associated to
Pablo and Mandel.
The SLG-John included-embarked on a course of defence of those associated
to Luis Favre, and the others critical of this tradition, announcing that
there had been historical errors and that the time to rectify the 1953
split was at hand. Vince and his supporters won the day and at a congress
of the SLG in Woolwich in 1987 backed the Favre faction, establishing a
Liaison Committee which eventually dissolved these forces.
John and the SLG joined the ISG after a protracted fusion discussion in
1989, a process that lasted for fully two years.
John and some of his closest supporters were highly sceptical but went
along with the democratic decisions of the whole group anyway.

I first heard John give a speech at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square in 1988 at
a rally to commemorate 50 years of the transitional programme. The main
speaker at that rally was USec leader, Ernest Mandel, who died in 1995.
John had opposed the political thinking of Mandel for nigh on 40 years by
then. John gave a contribution from the floor defending the traditions of
the International committee, a body whose thinking he defended for so many

John and I first met at a meeting of the Lambeth branch of the ISG just
after the Romanian revolution. I had found a booklet on the fall of
Ceaucescu published by La Verite, in Houseman's bookshop, the French
language theoretical journal of the PCI, organised by Pierre Lambert, and
John saw it in my bag. John was fascinated by someone else in this new
organisation, that he had joined being interested in the politics of the
Fourth International/ICR, and so in the pub later we discussed our common
views and I met him at his tiny flat in Bromfelde Road in Clapham the next
day.  This was a fateful meeting that was huge for both of us. Here was
this veteran of the movement, who had been involved in Trotskyism for fifty
years and this whippersnapper looking for a mentor. We then decided that we
would begin discussing with the PCI about the modalities of some work with
them, and how we could construct a section of the FI/ICR in this country. I
was a residential social worker and a member of Lambeth NALGO. I would
bring round jars of coffee and milk and provisions after my shifts finished
and we would get to work: discussing everything from the crisis of what we
termed Pabloism to the state of the leadership of Lambeth NALGO, of which I
was a very minor player being a shop steward and Branch committee member.

John and I formed a tendency within the ISG, which was the British Section
of the Unified Secretariat of the FI or USFI. it was led by Ernest Mandel
internationally and Phil Hearse and others in this country. We had no
formal links with the PCI but we soon left to establish the BSFI with the
other three British section members. This was in 1991. I have a letter
signed by Francois Demassott stating that we have been taken into
membership by the International Secretariat of the FI/ICR.

John and I also held several meetings with comrades such as veteran British
Trotskyist Bill Hunter and Martin Ralph- both activists organised within
the LIT current of Nahuel Moreno, but these never came to fruition.
Nevertheless, John kept in touch with Bill and Martin, and when Porcupine
published his autobiographical account of his political experiences
entitled: "Lifelong Apprenticeship" John  resumed his own personal contact
with Bill.

John and I formed a current within the ISG, although we had no formal links
with the PCI. Our politics were very supportive of the positions of the
Alan Benjamin group in the USA and the FI/ICR. One of John's fondest
moments was when we built up our links with the US comrades and they were
able to formally establish a section of the FI/ICR there. I was privileged
to attend the founding convention in 1992, and speak, but John had prepared
with me, what  I said.  John subsequently spoke at one of their gatherings
in 1995-definitely one of the proudest moments of his life.

John and I then had a meeting with Francois Demassott and Jean Pierre
Barrois in a crowded night-club in Brixton at which we decided to formally
join the FI/ICR after leaving the ISG. At the 1991 conference we made our
contributions to the discussion and left. We established the BSFI with the
other three British section members. This was in 1991.
Subsequently we both agreed we might have been wrong to leave in that
manner but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
John and I then travelled to Paris to meet with Pierre Lambert, Daniel
Gluckstein and other leaders of the FI/ICR such as Marc Gauquelin, Miguel
Cristobel and Andreu Camps for extensive discussions about the modalities
of becoming members of the organisation.

Over the subsequent years that followed, John and I continued to work
closely together, exchanging letters on every subject under the sun. I have
a fat file of about 120 such bits of correspondences over the last ten
years. John would write, often on scrappy bits of paper, or he would type
on his trademark old typewriter, sometimes as much as ten pages. Whether he
was lamenting the latest crimes of the USec or the fact that he couldn't
make us, his comrades understand how to apply the entry tactic correctly,
he always would have lots to say, but never in a way that made you feel

John used that typewriter for everything, including his typed scripts of
the translations of Pierre Broue's books and pamphlets, a comrade he held
in very high regard-even after his desertion of the Trotskyist movement
that John was a part of.

John was always concerned about the personal lives of his comrades,
offering almost fatherly advice at times about things that were going on or
wrong, not just at work but in all other aspects too. Then John met his
widow, Win, and found happiness all over again at the age of 83 years.
Although Win was definitely not a Trotskyist they were obviously very happy
together. John and Win continued to inquire about my health and about my
subsequent relationship. John actually got to meet my partner on his 90th
birthday at a meeting held in Conway hall and a party afterwards. He was,
he said in his last letter to me sent just before he fell ill, very happy
for us.

John Archer was the most dedicated militant of the Trotskyist movement that
I have ever met and known. Although I only knew him in the latter part of
his life, the last ten years, during his eighties and nineties, he had a
profound influence over my thinking. he was tireless as a translator of the
works of professor Pierre Broue, an historian who was for many years a
leading Lambertist, and of the official documents of the Fourth
International/ICR, translating their many texts into English so that they
might be made available to young militants and in opposition to the
slanderers and detractors of Pierre Lambert and the FI/ICR such as the
infamous Christophe Bourseiller who wrote a 400 page book entitles "The
Mysterious Monsieur Blondel"-this was an attack mainly on Pierre Lambert
and the Force Ouvriere trade union in France.

As people commented at John's funeral, held in Huddersfield on January 3rd,
 he was a man of high intellect and culture and he certainly bought a bit
of culture and learning to my life and doubtless many others. There should
be a big, open memorial meeting in both Leeds and London, if it is

John was, as Francois Demassott observed, nothing if not an
internationalist, and was not afraid, unlike many groups and individuals to
admit mistakes. He did falter in the 1980's when he wasn't sure whether
"reproclaiming the FI" was the correct international strategy. But together
we read the documents of our comrades in the USA in Socialist Action,
around Alan Benjamin and became convinced of the worth of the Open World
Conference and the method of the Fourth International. In fact we convinced
one another, not as many comrades think, John was always convinced. Even
the thought of leaving the relatively large and open ISG-it had 380
members-to start all over again with just five of us, was not a problem.
John said that if you believe you are right, and that it is the necessary
step then you must take it...we did. So we set about building a section of
the FI/International centre for reconstruction here all over again.

John's main concern over the years that I Knew and worked with him was to
try and right the wrongs done to the Militant group of British Trotskyism
during the 1930's that was led by Starkey Jackson and Denzil Harber.
He believed that Al Richardson and Sam Bornstein had defamed the Militant
group in their books on the history of British Trotskyism. he wrote a very
long document that has never been officially published by anyone. We owe it
to him and the left and the Trotskyist movement to publish this piece,
written in 1979, in its entirety. I will strive to ensure that this text is

A few last points are necessary to set the record straight. In spite of the
fact that John was strongly identified with one particular part of the
world Trotskyist movement, that part associated with the so-called
International Committee tradition, the wide and diverse range of people
that have sent messages to both Bob and his family, but also to myself,
shows the reason why we are all Trotskyists ourselves.

There have been messages from Alan Thornett on behalf of supporters of
Socialist Outlook-the group which publishes this paper is identified with
the British Section of the USec, the ISG. There have been outpourings of
sympathy from Bernard Regan- a leader of the NUT left wing, the Socialist
Teachers Alliance, himself identified with the USec for many years. Keith
Sinclair has sent a tribute also, he knew John as an historian primarily.
Dave Osler, a leftist journalist who was also in the ISG sent greetings.

Professor Pierre Broue, who had a special place in John's heart, sent his
condolences, as did the group from France identified with the former PCI
leader Stefan Just, known as Struggle for Socialism or CPS. Olivier
Lestang, the editor of their small mimeographed bulletin wrote:

Broue wrote as follows:
"Dear Mike, Thank you fo your messages. I could not answer being blocked by
a too long strike of my computer. But I was very moved by your help,
assisting us in this bad moment.. I loved John...anyway , don't forget in
biographies that John was a delegate at the historic conference of April

Lestang wrote:
"Please forgive my English, it is not what it used to be. We were very sad
to hear of the death of the veteran comrade John Archer. Our thoughts are
with his family. Please convey that to them."

A young comrade called Jonas Martinsson, wrote from Sweden: "I am extremely
sad to hear about John Archer, not just for his role in the movement, but I
can understand the distress you feel about a valued friend. It's always a
pity to get bad news at this time."

John was always concerned with trying to unravel the mess of the WRP. Even
after the split in the 1980's he spent a long time writing material on the
dockers during the 1950's in order to answer the lies peddled in the WRP
paper, Workers Press, which resulted in a pamphlet on the subject. John had
a special interest in the WRP due to his role in seconding of Healy's
membership of the Trotskyist movement in the 1930's, so he was most
concerned to try and help the militants find a way through the morrass.
John and I spent hours poring through long WRP texts and copies of the
Workers Press in Bromfelde Road trying to make sense of it all.

When Bob Pennington died, about three years ago John spoke at the memorial
meeting in Leeds and  recounted how Bob had lived in the Archer's attic for
a while and had been very good to their two sons. Despite their being
politically separated for thirty years, John still saw the good side of Bob
Pennington-the revolutionary "old sweat" as he termed it.

John was thrilled when comrade Bill Hunter, another old sweat as he put it,
published his autobiographical account of the early years of Trotskyism to
about 1959. John enthused that "this is how history should be written."
When he saw Alan Thornett's book, he was even happier, saying that "it
stank of the factory floor".

John should be honoured and remembered for the right reasons, not just for
the mistakes he made. There should be a fitting and permanent tribute to
him: a library of resources open to all Trotskyists, not just those in the
FI/ICR. All the Trotskyist tendencies and groups should get together on
this and try and find a suitable place for research and storage of such
materials. In fact, that is a challenge we should all address.

John wrote a long document entitled "Events from my militant life in the
working class" last year, which was a semi autobiographical account of his
life as a revolutionary militant. He explains how he answered the question
of the Trotskyist militants in 1934 and signed up...for life!!
John, in a speech he made on September 4Th 1998 at the Mutualitie meeting
hall in Paris said the following:
"That moment, 64 years ago determined the path in life which brings me
here, a journey which I began by working to organise militants in that mass
party of the working class, the British Labour Party, with its links to the
trade unions, of which in Britain we are still members and the very
existence of which we must defend against Blair's liquidations."

The thing that angered John the most was the fact that his former comrades,
Harber and Jackson were effectively dismissed from history and that "Healy
and the IMG have succeeded in rewriting the policy of entrism!"
John wrote a huge doctoral thesis on the subject of entrism between 1931
and 1937, and it is very necessary that revolutionaries today-especially
with all the guffaw about LSA's and such like, see this and gain access to

I need to add some stuff on this--look at John's own documents, letters and
then at the Richardson book and stuff about

It is vital, and John and I always shared this view, that revolutionaries
know how to locate themselves within the mass movement of the working
class: not just within leftist adventures, but with long term and patient
work within the Labour Party. If we, as revolutionaries are able to do
that, then the legacy of John Archer will be preserved forever.

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