Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1
Sean Hallahan (1946–2000)
THE death of Tony Cliff on 9 April marked the single most significant loss to the British Trotskyist movement in 2000. Six days later, on 15 April, the life of Sean Hallahan, a member of Cliff’s International Socialists from 1963 to 1976, ended. Sean’s contribution to the movement will not rate the numerous column inches devoted to Cliff in various publications, but is well worth recording.
Sean was born in 1946, the son of a print worker from Ireland and his English wife. The household was Catholic and mainstream Labour Party. The father, Peter Hallahan, worked in Watford’s print industry, and, on leaving school at the age of 16, Sean also became a print worker and, like his father, a trade union activist. During this period, the early 1960s, CND and the Labour Party Young Socialists were prominent organisations and Sean joined both before his seventeenth birthday. Tony Cliff’s IS Group was recruiting heavily from both organisations and, following a visit to Watford by Cliff and Jim Higgins, Sean and several others joined the IS Group. Two years later, Sean became a student at the trade union college, Coleg Harlech. Here he was exposed to the arguments of members of other Marxist groups including the RSL/Militant tendency and the Solidarity/Socialism Reaffirmed position. In later years, Sean often recalled that the political education which he had received from Cliff and Higgins was more than equal to counter such different interpretations of revolutionary Socialism. After Coleg Harlech, Sean returned to the print industry, becoming Father of the Chapel in his SOGAT branch and selling 30 or more copies of Socialist Worker each week in his factory. During the following years, he was one of the leading industrial militants in the south-west Hertfordshire area, functioning as an effective trades unionist whilst never disguising his politics. It was a close call as to who disliked him most – the employers, the reformists or the Stalinists!
By 1974, Cliff had succeeded in changing the nature of the IS Group from the ‘Luxemburgist’ stance of the 1960s to a Cliffite version of ‘Leninism’. Several opposition groups in IS were expelled, but the one which really riled Cliff was the IS Opposition whose leading members included Jim Higgins, John Palmer and Roger Protz, and which saw itself as maintaining the unique traditions of the group. Sean supported the IS Opposition. As a trade unionist who had done rather more than most of Cliff’s loyalists in spreading revolutionary ideas amongst workers, Sean was outraged at Cliff’s newly-forged assertion that shop stewards had sold out to class pressures. Cliff was touring the IS branches where the IS Opposition had influence to counter their arguments. At a typical meeting he responded to a contribution from Sean with one of his less glorious interventions to Marxist debate with the words: ‘Sean, you are a miserable little sectarian. You have always been a miserable little sectarian, and you always will be a miserable little sectarian.’ Why Cliff should have recruited such a sad person as he described to his group he did not explain, nor did he bother to justify why he had failed to level such a charge in the preceding 13 years. As for predicting the future, well, Tony Cliff was either a fortune teller or a visionary, according to your preference. Two weeks after this incident, which mortified Sean, he found himself on the receiving end of the clenched fists of one of Cliff’s lieutenants. Enough was enough. Sean left the IS Group wondering what had happened to the organisation which he had proudly joined some years before. He joined the Workers League which had been set up by ex-members of the IS Opposition. This attempt to promote ‘Cliffism without Cliff’ was doomed, and within three years the organisation had withered and dispersed.
Sadly, Sean never found his way back to the revolutionary movement. But he remained a militant Socialist until his dying day. He read Revolutionary History avidly, and stayed in contact with old comrades. He spoke to me several times during the final days of his life. Naturally, we discussed the death of Cliff, and, despite his unhappy experiences, Sean remembered Cliff as the man who taught him the essentials of Marxism, for which he was ever grateful.
Cliff’s loss will be deeply felt by the revolutionary movement. Sean Hallahan will be forgotten by all but his friends and family. But there are thousands of Sean Hallahans out there, and neither the post-Cliff Socialist Workers Party nor any other group will get remotely close to achieving revolutionary Socialist change unless they can retain the support of such cadres.
Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011