Sunday, 29 July 2012

Response to Ian Birchall on Bert Ramelson by Tom Sibley

[ In a recent issue of the LSHG Newsletter # 45 (Summer 2012), Ian Birchall wrote a brief review of Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson by Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley entitled Out of Time.  Tom Sibley has now written a brief response to Birchall for this blog - which we publish below - and he will write a longer piece in response for a future issue of the LSHG Newsletter.  Ian Birchall has said that he will respond to that longer response when it appears...]

Response to Birchall on Ramelson by Tom Sibley

Ian Birchall's sour and sometimes snide review (London Socialist Historian's Group Newsletter, 2012) fails to engage with the book’s central arguments dealing inter alia with revolutionary strategy, the relevance of Leninism to British conditions in the 1960s and 1970s, the role of the rank and file in this period and so many other questions which Ramelson addressed, analysed and offered leadership on.
Birchall implies that we deliberately mislead readers about the content of Ramelson’s report on the 1958 Labour Party Conference, (World News, October 1958) in order to, in his words, “gloss over the fact that the Campaign for Nuclear disarmament was opposed by the Communist Party for the first two years of its existence”.  This alleged fact is a fabrication and a total misrepresentation of the Communist Party’s position.  If Birchall had bothered to look at CP documents and reports in the two years referred to, including extensive coverage in the Daily Worker, he would have seen that the Party gave full support to the activities of CND from its formation in early 1958 (See World News, March 1958 pp163-5).  This is confirmed in the official history of CND (CND - The Story of a Peace Movement by Kate Hudson).  To quote the relevant passage “An important mobilising group for the march was the communist-influenced British Peace Committee, which continued with a high level of activity during these years.  In early 1958 it passed a resolution welcoming the formation of CND and urged its local groups to give support to the new organisation.  According to John Cox, Chairman of CND from 1971-1977, this backing was one of the reasons that the turnout for the initial CND demonstrations was so much higher than organisers expected.” (pp 56-7)
Birchall accuses us of deliberately misunderstanding the World News article referred to above. But what we wanted to stress from the article was Ramelson’s analysis of the weaknesses of the Parliamentary left, particularly on economic strategy, and the failure of the trade union left to address the need to confront Capitalism. It was necessary, argued Ramelson, to target the trade unions and win them for a Socialist approach.  It remains our view that this was the most important section of the article particularly since, as the book shows, Ramelson’s main work in the peace movement was in 1950’s Yorkshire where he did so much work with the miners in developing pit-based peace organisations (See Revolutionary Communist at Work pp53-7). We could, and perhaps should, have dealt with the Party’s peace work in greater detail. If we had we would have had no difficulty in showing what an important part the Party played in helping to build and sustain the peace movement over many years.  This is contra to Birchall’s snide conclusions which, without evidence and relying on misrepresentation, attempt to deny the Party’s leading contribution to a broad range of progressive movements and campaigns.


  1. When Comrade Sibley gets himself together to write a full critique of my review I shall be happy to respond to it. In the meantime may I make a brief comment. In my review I pointed out that Sibley and Seifert had quoted an article of Ramelson’s from 1958 as if it referred to events of 1961. This was very unfortunate and indeed unfair to Ramelson. Ramelson is certainly a historical figure who deserves to be taken seriously, and it is hard to evaluate his positions if the historical context is not given correctly.
    I did not give an opinion as to whether the mistake was deliberate or resulted from incompetence. [Indeed, I state that it would have been “malicious” of me to claim it was deliberate.] So I am happy to accept Comrade Sibley’s assurance that it was the result of pure sloppy research.
    As for my alleged “fabrication” I in no way deny the contribution of the CPGB to the peace movement in general. But CND’s specific position was for unilateral nuclear disarmament by Britain, and until 1960 the CPGB did not support this, as is shown by the following quotations from CPGB publications:
    ‘Whatever one’s views about the manufacture of the Bomb by Britain, there can be no substitute for pressure on the Government to change its attitude on international agreement ... The most disastrous aspect of the present situation is not that there is no campaign by Labour for unilateral renunciation of the Bomb but that there is no campaign for Summit talks’. [World News, 15 March, 1958]
    ‘Congress cleared up some mistaken ideas about our attitude to the demand for the unilateral banning of the H-Bomb. John Gollan pointed out that the Communist Party had always been against the bomb ... Experience has shown that unilateralism only divides the movement, and diverts attention from the real issue, namely, international agreement to ban nuclear weapons. This is the only way to banish the menace of nuclear war and also the issue on which the greatest number of people agree’. [ Report of CPGB 26th Congress in 1959, Marxism Today, May 1959. ]
    I might add that I took part in the 1960 Aldermaston March, which was considerably bigger than those of 1958 and 1959. It was widely recognised by participants that this was because CPGB members had joined for the first time.

    Ian Birchall

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.