Saturday, 28 April 2012
Out of Time
Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson
By Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley
Lawrence & Wishart,
London, 2012, £25.00
The period from 1966 to 1974 saw the highest level of industrial struggle in Britain since the General Strike. The Communist Party was the largest organised body of militant trade-unionists, and its industrial organiser, Bert Ramelson, was frequently vilified for his alleged role in fomenting unrest. So this first biography of Ramelson is of considerable interest.
The authors, a Professor of Industrial Relations [Seifert] and a former trade-union full-timer who knew Ramelson well [Sibley], provide a formidable combination of expertise. Their sources include Communist Party archives, Ramelson’s personal papers, taped interviews with Ramelson by Rodney Bickerstaffe, and interviews with a number of those who knew and worked with Ramelson.
The authors’ general sympathy with Ramelson’s political stance [though they are not wholly uncritical] is not in itself a problem, whatever the reader’s own position. For biographers to feel empathy with their subject is generally a good thing, as it enables us to get a grasp of the protagonist’s motivations. The author’s treatment of Stalinism is in fact somewhat mealy-mouthed; recognition of Stalin’s crimes is constantly balanced by reminders of the overall “progressive” role of the Soviet Union. We learn that by the end of his life Ramelson [whose sister spent years in a Stalinist labour camp] had come to believe that Russia “was not socialism at all”. 
Unfortunately Seifert-Sibley have, at least in part, squandered their opportunity, for the book is marred by some quite appalling errors. Thus we read : “Writing after the 1958 Labour Party Conference, at which Hugh Gaitskell won a majority to overturn the previous year’s vote in support of unilateral nuclear disarmament, Ramelson gave most attention to the failures of the left.”
As anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the politics of the period knows, the Labour Party conference resolutions in support of unilateral nuclear disarmament were carried in 1960, and Gaitskell’s reversal [aided by the CIA and by the left’s ineptitude] came in 1961. Was Ramelson’s prescience, based on a solid grasp of the dialectical method, sufficient to enable him to foresee all this three years in advance?
Sadly no. The article footnoted did indeed appear in World News in October 1958. [The authors attribute it to World News and Views, though the periodical had changed its name – abandoning “views” - some years earlier.] But its subject-matter was quite different from what is claimed.
Ramelson was lamenting the Labour left’s “obsession with unilateralism” in the period when this was still a growing current in the party, building up to a success two years later. Ramelson, however, would have preferred efforts to be focussed on the call for “Summit Talks”.
Now even the most conscientious historian can get a date wrong now and then. This is something quite different. The authorial duo are discussing and commending an article when it is quite clear that they have no idea what it is about or what context it was written in. If I were malicious I would suggest that they might have done this deliberately to gloss over the fact that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was opposed by the Communist Party for the first two years of its existence, and that the CP only jumped on the bandwagon in 1960 when CND had become a mass movement. This rather goes against the authors’ main thesis that all progressive developments on the left were inspired and influenced by the CP. [See Raymond Challinor, “Zigzag: The Communist Party and the Bomb” ]
But I shall be charitable and assume pure incompetence. One such mistake may be regarded as carelessness; two look like symptoms. So we read  extracts from a letter by Ramelson concerning the imprisonment of Shrewsbury building worker Des Warren. [The authors tell us they have quoted the letter “at length” because it tells us “much about the Party’s strategy and approach”]. In the final sentence quoted Ramelson writes: “Indeed the mass campaigning through Des’s imprisonment, which was probably the longest campaign in the Party’s history, laid the foundations for the campaign which led to the demand for and declaration of a 1 day General Strike by the General Council compelling the release of the Pentonville Five.”
In fact the Pentonville Five were imprisoned, and released, in 1972, while the Shrewsbury pickets were not sentenced till December 1973. Now Ramelson wrote this letter some years later, when he was an old man [even older than the present reviewer] and such confusion is no big deal. But for the authors to quote and extol the letter without comment will leave many readers wondering just how far the authors can be trusted – and perhaps enquiring just how you get to be a professor nowadays.
These errors are not merely shameful in themselves, they are indicative of a more general problem with the book. The central section of the book, by far the biggest, deals with Ramelson’s twelve years as Industrial Organiser of the CPGB. But the organisation of material is, to say the least, confusing. The important industrial struggles of the period are not presented chronologically, but in an order that often seems random.
This is disconcerting to those of us whom lived through the period and must be bewildering for younger readers. So even when events are correctly dated, the connections of events are often lost. Thus the 1972 miners’ strike is discussed some fifteen pages after the movement to free the Pentonville Five. Yet without the confidence engendered by the Saltley picket it is unlikely that the movement would have responded so vigorously to the jailing of the dockers. Likewise the Con-Mech dispute is discussed without any mention of the fact that when the fine on the engineering union was paid by anonymous businessmen to avert a threatened strike, a Labour government had just been elected. If the Tories had still been in power events might have taken a very different course. By omitting this fact the authors contrive to present this as an example of “Ramelson at his most effective”. 
This leaves the general thesis of the book, the substantial influence of the CP in general and of Ramelson in particular, a little battered. If events are torn out of context and sequence, establishing influence and causality becomes a lot more difficult.
Obviously we all come to a situation with our own perspectives and our own assumptions. I was a rank-andfile trade unionist of no particular status throughout this period [a branch and regional activist in ATTI/NATFHE, president of a trades council and active in solidarity with the major industrial disputes]. When I read Seifert-Sibley’s account of events, it seems very different to the history I lived through.
The authors claim the growing influence of the CP in the early 1970s on the basis of the large number of Communists elected to trade-union positions; “by 1974 10 per cent of union full-time officials were estimated to be in the CP”. But that success brought problems with it. Communists holding trade-union positions had contradictory loyalties and were subject to competing pressures. My own recollection is of a party that was increasingly divided and undisciplined, with different members voting different ways and supporting different positions. The tensions that finally destroyed the party were already very visible from at least 1968 onwards. [For an analysis of this see Chris Harman, ''Communist Party in Decline'' ]
Seifert-Sibley make great claims for the role of the CP in the strike movement that freed the Pentonville Five. But if it is undoubtedly true that many CP members played an important rôle, it is less clear that the CP centrally – let alone its trade union front, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions [described as “the most powerful rank-and-file movement in the history of the British trade union movement ] - was anything like as important as they claim. The crucial turning-point was the fact that dockers persuaded Fleet Street printworkers to stop work. There is no evidence that this was a specifically Communist initiative.
[See recollections of several participants here ]
Ramelson’s personal influence is repeatedly stressed. He is said to have had the original idea of sending Yorkshire miners to picket Grunwick.  If so, well done. Apparently Arthur Scargill was his protégé. But when the authors write that “Ramelson … had been the key political figure in bringing about the transformation of the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] of these years [up to 1974]”, I suspect Ramelson himself would not have claimed as much – certainly not if Scargill was in the room.
Much is made of the large number of pamphlets written by Ramelson and their claimed influence. I must admit to having read only one - Productivity Agreements [London, 1970]. I found it slight, with little documentation and no reference to concrete workers’ experience; the style was abstract and there was no strategy for negotiation. There is praise for Ramelson’s theoretical grasp, but we are given little by way of concrete examples. His position is summed up as the rejection of “notions which effectively sidelined the need for revolution, based on the working class and its allies taking state power”.  This is a position which it is hard to say much about, since it is so abstract as to have little meaning. The claims of CP influence in the 1970s are pushed so hard that the disintegration of the CP in the 1980s [to Ramelson’s great chagrin] seems hard to understand. But Seifert-Sibley give us little explanation, beyond a few lines about the rôle of Labour’s Social Contract. A great deal of the blame is placed on the pernicious influence of what are described as “neo-Gramscians” – apparently the more usual term, Eurocommunists, is regarded as politically incorrect.
Seifert-Sibley do recognise the growth of what they disparagingly refer to as the “ultra-left”, and there are various side-swipes at the CP’s critics, but no serious analysis. Thus they respond to some rather intemperate remarks made by Des Warren when he was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party , but there is no mention of the much more serious critique developed in Dave Harker’s book The Flying Pickets .
The authors respond with indignation to Chris Harman’s claim that Ramelson was involved in shooting anarchists and Trotskyists in Spain, pointing out that he was still in a training camp at the time . But from their other comments on Spain it is quite clear that if Ramelson [who hated the ultra-left on the basis of his Spanish experiences  ] had been told to do so, he would quite willingly have taken part in the repression.
There is a good deal of useful information in the book, providing the reader is careful and checks dates. The opening section, taking Ramelson from Ukraine to Canada, Palestine and Spain, is of some interest. There is also one good joke. When Ramelson [himself an anti-Zionist Jew] stood in an election in a Jewish area of Leeds against Labour MP Alice Bacon, he suggested the slogan: “Don’t vote for Bacon –Vote Kosher – Vote Ramelson”.
In his preface Rodney Bickerstaffe states that the book will be useful because Ramelson “helped to develop a mass movement based on organised workers that was strong enough to block anti-union legislation and protect workers’ rights. We badly need another such movement today… Much can be learnt about how to build this movement from studying Bert’s life”.
There are lessons to be learned here – but not those that the authors intended.