From LSHG Newsletter #47 (Autumn 2012)
Comments by Tom Sibley on Ian Birchall’s review of Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson (By Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley)
Ian Birchall's sour and sometimes snide review (London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter, May 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.
Of course Birchall is right about the year of the Gaitskell speech on nuclear weapons. The incorrect reference to this in the book is an unfortunate proofreading error (N.B. not sloppy research as Birchall alleges) and nothing sinister should be read into it. However, Birchall goes on to make a great song and dance about this as he does about the book’s failure to correct a direct quote from Ramelson, made some 15 years after the event when he was recovering from a stroke, concerning the campaign to release Des Warren. As Birchall probably knows, this omission is acknowledged by me in the Socialist Unity blog (3/1/2012, Post 180 SIBLEY), and in no way detracts from the analysis of the campaign madein the book. It is good to see that in his later intervention (see LSHG Blog 29/7/2012) these errors, which in his original review Birchall found to be “appalling” and “shameful” are now said to be “very unfortunate”, which give or take a “very” is about right.
The CP fully supported CND activities from the beginning while expressing concerns and reservations about aspects of CND’s policy position. Once it became clear that international agreement was not possible following the nefarious U2 affair (a provocation by the Pentagon designed to sabotage the proposed Summit Talks), the CP abandoned its reservations about unilateralism and, like CND, accepted that both unilateralist and multilateralist measures had their place in the struggle for a safer world.
And by the way, the Party’s change of emphasis came in May 1960, nearly two months after the Aldermaston march which Birchall claimed was swollen by thousands of CP members released from
their leaderships’ alleged opposition to CND. The CP was the backbone of CND marches in 1958, 1959 and 1960 – the movement grew and so did CP membership participation.
On the release from prison of the London dockers (the Pentonville Five) on the 26th of July 1972, Birchall focuses on the decision of the Fleet Street printmakers to strike in protest and solidarity as the “crucial turning point”. In so doing he questions and downplays the leading roleof the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions and fails to take account of the widespread nature of the industrial action across key sectors of the British economy. Most left commentators saw it differently. From Birchall’s own stable, Darlington and Lyddon (Glorious Summer p.165) say this:
… the wave of solidarity action reflected the influence of socialists, particularly CP members, and the activity of the dockers centred around Pentonville. The LCDTU, which had played a crucial role in leading opposition to the anti-union legislation, sent a formal letter to affiliated bodies calling for the implementation of the 10 June conference decision to organise industrial action.
Here as with the Con-Mech dispute Birchall appears not to understand key strands of Ramelson’s strategy, while taking every opportunity to pour cold water on its achievements. Ramelson summed it up thus:
… it is the rank and file and their shop steward committees, which are increasingly dictating the course of events. They are the real focal point of powerful and consistent struggle against the Industrial Relations Act and the Donaldson Court which it has spawned to try to use the full power of the law to smash trade unionism …. this is the power that can force a change in the policy of a number of unions and in that of the TUC and compel an all-out struggle to repeal the hated Act … .
This link between rank and file industrial struggle and left development in the labour movement, was the essence of Ramelson’s approach. On Con-Mech Birchall simply doesn’t get it. The key issue is not who paid the fines and when. Rather it is the nature of the campaign which led the deeply divided (4 votes to 3) AUEW (Engineering Section) Executive Committee, to defy the Courts by refusing to pay the fines and then to call an all out strike when threatened by sequestration. In this as the book shows, Ramelson was able to use his contacts to mobilise rank and file pressure on AUEW leaders and to persuade Scanlon of the need to stand firm.
In dealing with Ramelson’s service in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, so anxious is Birchall to protect Chris Harman’s halo he goes on to justify what he clearly recognises as a lie.
It is difficult to take Birchall’s views on this seriously. Any comrade who in the face of irrefutable evidence, can smear the reputation of a brave and principled anti-fascist fighter like Bert Ramelson, deserves contempt not attention. As is well documented, the International Brigade was engaged solely in military activity against the fascist forces and had no part in the May 1937 Barcelona events.
It is clear that the Trotskyist-influenced POUM in particular was actively promoting a campaign to bring down the Popular Front government while the latter was engaged in a life and death struggle with Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. POUM had to be dealt with in the interests of the war effort against fascism but this was a matter for the Spanish people, not the International Brigade. As a contemporary account by the redoubtable miners’ leader Arthur Horner, who was in Spain in 1937, put it
My feeling at the time was that POUM which had actually carried out an insurrection against the (Republican) government, was acting in a treacherous way against the Spanish people.
Incorruptible Rebel, p.158
Our book shows that Ramelson had the utmost respect for the soldiers in the militias organised by the anarchists. He did not, as Birchall claims, hate ultraleftists. What hatreds he had were reserved for the capitalist class. He did, however, as the book shows,find many of their leaders to be a pain in the neck.
Birchall criticises our organisation of material, particularly in those chapters dealing with the period when Ramelson was National Industrial Organiser of the CPGB (1966 – 1977). Readers should remember that the book is a political biography, not a history of industrial struggle. In this sense it is selective, concentrating on the enormous contribution made by Ramelson and the collectives in which he worked. It made sense to trace events both thematically and chronologically and by grouping for example the two miners’ strikes (1972 and 1974) to various events and developments in the struggle against the Industrial Relations Act (1971 – 1974) we felt it would assist readers’ understanding rather more than would a purely chronological account. Readers will have to judge for themselves.
However, Birchall is wrong to claim that links are not made between the various struggles and the development of confidence in the labour movement. Thus on UCS “On 28th February 1972 – the day the victorious miners returned to work having broken through the government’s incomes policy limits – the Tories caved in” (page 188). And on a more general level when assessing Ramelson’s role and the importance he gave to mobilising struggle, we summarise his approach thus,
…. struggle promoted organisation and, where successful, gave confidence in the potency of collective action as well as developing individual cadres.
Birchall is wrong to claim that the book gives “little emphasis” to the ‘disintegration’ of the CP in the 1980’s. Between pages 342 – 346 under the subheading “Analysing the Decline of the Party”, the book examines the effects of Thatcher’s policies, including mass unemployment and de-industrialisation, on the left in the labour movement.
Furthermore it states, “As well as the problems of the wider labour movement and left during the 1980’s, the CP also had to face the development of a world crisis for the International Communist movement. Ramelson himself summed up aspects of the decline thus:
The truth is that we have tended to underestimate capitalism’s capacity to adapt to the chronic crisis … while overrating our expectations of the speed with which socialism would spread its influence. In reaction to these developments many people, particularly but not exclusively those newer to the movement or from non-working class backgrounds and experiences, started to call into question basic Marxist-Leninist precepts and categories. This in turn led to enervating discussions within the international communist movement, presaging organisational splits, electoral decline and a weakening of its working-class base.
We can at least agree on one thing. Comrade Birchall correctly points out that our claim that Ramelson “had been the key political figure in bringing about the transformation of the NUM” is somewhat overstated. Ramelson was one of a small group of politically motivated activists, mostly working miners or union officials, which worked out a strategy for left advance in the industry. If you substitute “a” for “the” in the quote above, you have it about right.
CPGB & CND: Some comments on the exchange between Ian Birchall and Tom Sibley
I would like to add my tuppenyworth on the relationship of the Communist Party and CND. I was a CP member at this time, had close contact with the British Peace Committee’s then Secretary, Colin Sweet (former student organiser of the CPGB). But I was also a ‘premature’ supporter of and activist within the CND and the Youth CND (in 1958 I was 22).
I am now completing my autobiography, ‘Itinerary of an Internationalist’, which covers, well, 1936-now. In 1958 I returned to London after some two and a half years as English (and consequently Chief Sub-) Editor of World Student News. This was the periodical of the Prague-based
International Union of Students, the student front organisation of the international Communist movement. Here are a couple of hopefully-relevant extracts:
The Party had no job or even a task waiting for me. It also showed no possible interest in my views on Czecho or the IUS. I wasn’t even asked to do a report-back. Meanwhile, my eccentric ex-school and ex-Party friend, Raph Samuel, was busy with New Left Review, and with creating a Rive Gauche coffee bar and meeting place in the West End, eventually called ‘The Partisan’.
From its unreconstructed interior, however, publicity was being carried out for one of the first Ban the Bomb marches. These were organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). In so far as this had not been dreamed up by the international Communist-front peace movement (represented in the UK by the British Peace Committee) it was being ignored by the CP, which dismissed it as petty-bourgeois, pacifist and, in any case, anti-Soviet. Having lost much of my confidence in Communist Parties, even without power, I threw myself energetically into the 1958 Easter March of the CND, this one going from London to the nuclear arms establishment at Aldermaston.
By this time I had got involved with not only the Willesden YCL but the Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and its monthly newspaper, Youth Against the Bomb. The editor was John Hoyland, a schoolboy YCLer – as were several leaders of the YCND – from a friendly Communist intellectual and artistic family. I became, effectively, assistant editor – another unrecognised position. However, both John and the YCND leadership were congenial and committed people. So for maybe a year I was running around London during extended lunch hours, evenings and week-ends, writing, laying out, checking proofs at the North London printers, and trying to sell the paper of what was a new, attractive, autonomous and growing movement.
The CPGB had been originally hostile to the CND, with the Daily Worker ignoring or marginalising the growing Easter marches. Finally it gave way, at a London ‘aggregate’ on the Peace Question. Here, Party ideologue, Raji Palme Dutt, performed one of his customary ideological miracles, explaining why the Party was abandoning its unconditional identification with the British Peace Committee for a qualified recognition of the CND. The CP had, of course, been correct before and it was correct again now. I got up from the floor, steam curling from my head, but controlled:
‘Would this meeting not wish to congratulate those YCLers in the leadership of the YCND, for having foreseen the significance of this new peace movement before the Party leadership did?’
Johnny Gollan, then leader of the CP, turned to his fellows on the platform and said, aggrieved, ‘No one told me that we had YCLers in the leadership of the YCND!’.
Enough said? Possibly not, at least as far as I am concerned because I returned to Prague, 1966-9, to the Education and Solidarity Department of the World Federation of Trade Unions, recommended by Tom Sibley’s predecessor in the London office of the WFTU, Tom McWhinney.
Following the Soviet invasion of Communist Czechoslovakia, 1968, and WFTU’s rapid burial of this event, I returned to the UK. In my autobio I say that in 1969 I left the Communist world. And in 1970 the world of Communism. Part of the reason for the second step was that I was not prepared to accept the CP’s abandonment of international solidarity with the workers and people of the Communist world for militant trade unionism in the UK. Which seems to have been the option of Bert Ramelson. This was a trading in of ‘global ambition for militant particularism’ (I paraphrase David Harvey).
His option did not, however, prevent Bert Ramelson from getting involved in the turgid Prague-based World Marxist Review, the last gasp of a dying Communism. Here Bert was involved with a global ambition that was increasingly empty. This whilst he was apparently ignoring the ‘militant particularism’ of Czechoslovak workers or of Charta 77, signed by Václav Havel, Jan Patočka, Zdeněk Mlynář, Jiří Hájek, and Pavel Kohout, several of them ex- Communists, heavily involved in the Prague Spring.
I do not mean here to trash the book coauthored by Tom Sibley, which I find to be generally well documented, and which I think enables us to better understand the lives and times of such British Communists as Bert Ramelson and Frank Watters (mentioned in the biography, but who, as CP Secretary in Birmingham, put the particularistic nail in the coffin of my Communism). Despite the criticism of Ian Birchall, I find the work a useful addition to the literature. But we do need to avoid romanticising British Communists, people as contradictory as those they themselves criticised for their lack of revolutionary rectitude.
Edited to add: Tom Sibley responds to Peter Waterman here