Jim Higgins (December 2, 1930 – October 13, 2002) was a political militant and an organic working class intellectual. Having joined the Communist Party as a teenager, he became a Trotskyist in the Socialist Labour League and then an early member of the Socialist Review Group – forerunners of the International Socialists and Socialist Workers Party.
James Robert Higgins, December 2, 1930 – October 13, 2002
Jim Higgins, who has died aged 71 from an aneurysm, was one of the most remarkable and didactic figures in the British revolutionary socialist movement of his time, someone who drew generations of people to independent, libertarian Marxism. He was also the best read and most truly scholarly person I have known.
Higgins was born in Harrow and educated at Harrow County School for Boys. He joined the Young Communist League at fourteen and left school at sixteen. Two years later he was apprenticed to the Post Office as a telecommunications engineer. As a national serviceman in the early 1950s he served with the Royal Signals in Hong Kong – which reinforced his political beliefs.
Back in Britain he became active in both the Communist Party and the Post Office Engineering Union. He broke with the Communist Party in 1956 following the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev’s ’secret speech’ denouncing Stalin, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. These events, plus the Suez crisis, were catalysts in the New Left’s birth, but alongside that was a renewed interest in Trotskyism. Higgins read Trotsky voraciously and joined a small group – which was to become the Socialist Labour League and later the Workers Revolutionary Party – led by the pugnacious Irishman Gerry Healey, who brooked no opposition. Higgins quickly found himself in an opposing faction.
By the end of the 1950s he had joined the Socialist Review Group. This was then a forcing ground for new ideas in Marxism, where Tony Cliff and the economist Michael Kidron had developed the theories of the permanent arms economy – an explanation for the post-war boom – and state capitalism, categorising the Soviet Union as another variant of class society.
Higgins became secretary of what became the International Socialists. His conviviality, which mixed theoretical discussion, raucous laughter and a generous consumption of beer, meant that he was at home with trade unionists, Young Socialists and, as the 1960s progressed, revolutionary students.
His small home in Kenton, north-west London, where he lived with his second wife Marion, filled with meetings and parties – there was an almost invisible dividing line between the two. He lectured endlessly to Young Socialists branches and was probably the first man on the left to advocate the causes of women’s liberation and gay rights.
He also developed a friendship with Harry Wicks, one of the founders in the 1930s of the tiny, revolutionary socialist and anti-Stalinist Balham Group. Higgins became the acknowledged expert and historian of British Trotskyism.
By the 1960s he was Post Office Engineering Union (POEU) branch secretary and was elected to the union’s national executive. There was a strong possibility that, as the broad left’s chosen candidate, he would have gone on to become POEU general secretary, but, fatefully, he was encouraged to give up his union work to become IS’s full-time national secretary in the early 1970s.
As a result of the French and Czechoslovak events of 1968, and, domestically, the growth of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the growing wave of industrial unrest, by the early 1970s IS had picked up support from both students and trade unionists, while it’s monthly paper had been transformed into the weekly Socialist Worker.
Higgins used his trade union experience to refashion the organisation. But the group was about to embark on a bout of in-fighting. In 1973 Higgins resigned and moved to Socialist Worker, which I was then editing. He found no respite there. Those of us who opposed the policies of the new leadership were removed from the paper. In 1977, when IS was renamed the Socialist Workers Party – which Higgins opposed – we left.
Higgins had lost both his political organisation and his trade union role. Attempts to form a new group, the Workers’ League, foundered. He built a career as a journalist on Arabia, a Middle East news magazine, and then a short-lived news weekly, Events, where he met Jane Allen, who became his partner and later his third wife. He also wrote for the New Statesman and the Spectator.
Jane and he set up Greenwood Communications in the early 1980s. This was a specialist magazine design house, which operated from the Angel Islington, with a second office in the bar of the Old Red Lion.
In the 1990s they took the business with them to north Norfolk. Higgins continued to debate, lecture and contribute to left-wing journals. His homes – including that one – overflowed with books, classics of Marxism, Shakespeare, modern poetry and Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s novels. He fell in love with Norfolk and its bird life, and raised Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs that made visits to his home a daunting experience. Like their owner, their bark was far worse than their bite.
In 1997, he published a political memoir, More Years for the Locust. His last article was an obituary, for this newspaper, of his old comrade, Duncan Hallas. He is survived by his third wife, Jane, and his three daughters, Rachel, Julie and Judith, from his previous marriages.