Duncan Hallas: A fighter for real socialism

Published: 25/04/2007

Written by: Vashti Kenway
Originally listed under: Edition 111 - Dec06/Jan07

Duncan Hallas was an outstanding figure in the Marxist movement. He was an active revolutionary for 61 years and helped forge a path for genuine Marxist politics.

He was a working class militant, a raconteur, a theorist and a significant figure in the revolutionary traditions in which Socialist Alternative stands.

Hallas was born in Manchester, England. His mother had been a mill worker from the age of 10 and his father was a paver. His early experiences of working-class life had a major impact on his politics: they fuelled his disgust at a system based on inequality and exploitation.

Between 1939 and 1942 Hallas became an engineering apprentice. During this time he discovered and joined the Trotskyist Workers' International League. This was a significant step for a young worker during World War II, when Stalinism dominated the workers' movement. During the war the Trotskyists managed to get a hearing amongst militant workers as the Communist Party restrained workers' struggles for the sake of the war effort.

Then in 1943, like thousands of others, Hallas was conscripted into the British army and sent to Egypt. A rank and file working class movement developed in the British army and it was here that Hallas cut his teeth as an agitator.

After the war Duncan returned to his native Manchester to work in an engineering factory. In 1950 he met and began his collaboration with the revolutionary Tony Cliff. Cliff and Hallas began to develop a critical attitude to the orthodox Trotskyist position on Russia. This position maintained that Stalinist Russia was some version of a post-capitalist society and only a step away from socialism.

Cliff and Hallas, on the other hand, started to recognise that Stalinist Russia was actually a state capitalist society: a society with all the class inequalities of capitalism but where industry and the economy were owned by the state. Such recognition was crucial in being able to keep alive a real Marxist tradition that maintained that Stalinism had nothing to do with socialism.

Cliff and Hallas established a small group around these ideas in 1951. When Hallas's work took him to Scotland in 1954 he dropped out, although he remained active in the union movement.

With the upsurge of struggle in 1968 Hallas joined the International Socialists. Chanie Rosenberg tells a story that highlights his immediate commitment to the organisation: "I handed him the application form and was astonished to see him putting down a monthly subscription to the party of two-thirds of his teacher's salary. He turned out to be the only member I ever had to argue with to reduce his subscription instead of increasing it."

He rapidly became a leading member of the IS and its successor, the Socialist Workers Party. He became a full-time revolutionary and was involved in the daily struggles of those years. As a leading member of the SWP he edited its journal, authored two books, and wrote numerous pamphlets and articles. He was also a popular speaker and his sessions at the yearly Marxism conferences were blockbusters. He played a crucial role in passing on the traditions of the revolutionary movement as well as giving a sense of the living importance of these ideas. Hallas was central to the organisation right up until his retirement due to ill health in 1995: he died in 2002.

Hallas's commitment to an expansive Marxist tradition of human liberation should be an inspiration to those of us who want to see an end to exploitation. His determination to build a genuine socialist organisation helped establish a solid base for revolutionaries everywhere to continue fighting for a better world.