Sunday, 3 May 2015

Obituary: Jim Cronin 1942-2014

Obituary from LSHG Newsletter #55 (Summer 2015)

A Working-Class Intellectual:  

Jim Cronin, 1942-2014

I first met Jim on 4 September 1964, at a meeting of the Tottenham International Socialists (IS - forerunner of the SWP) at Tottenham Trades Hall at Bruce Grove. I’d just arrived in London, and it was my first IS meeting. Jim also had just arrived in Tottenham where he was living with Alan and Maureen Woodward and their two young children. Also at that meeting were Alan Woodward, who died a couple of years ago [see ] and Alan Watts, who is here today. Others here today who may not have been at that particular meeting, but whom Jim and I knew at that time are Mel and Gerry Norris and Fergus Nicol.

If anyone wonders why so many of us have kept  a political commitment over half a century, the answer is in two words – Tony Cliff. Cliff, the founder and chief inspiration of the International Socialists, was a remarkable figure who changed many lives, Jim’s among them. A few years ago when I was working on my biography of Cliff [ ]   I interviewed Jim about his early experiences.

Jim had grown up in a Catholic family and seems to have got little or nothing out of his formal schooling. But by the age of nineteen he had become heavily involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Labour Party Young Socialists (YS) in the North Islington area where he lived. He had also broken with his religion and was becoming an atheist; his family tried to send him to the Jesuits to be sorted out, but he declined the offer. He was in general very distrustful of adults and kept clear of the adult CND and Labour Party.

His Youth CND group used to hold regular weekly meetings which took the form of a political discussion group. The various members would put forward their views. Then Alan Woodward, whom Jim knew through CND and the YS suggested that they might invite a speaker on capitalism and the bomb. The next week Cliff turned up and spoke - his argument fitted ideas Jim had already been thinking about. Over forty years later Jim recalled that he had been “bowled over”.

A few weeks later Jim went to a YS meeting in East Islington where Cliff was again the speaker. Jim and a couple of other YS members got talking to Cliff after the meeting, and Cliff invited them back to his house. They sat up right through the night talking about a wide range of political questions. One issue Jim remembered arguing about was the question of what socialists should do in a workplace where there was a racist strike. If they failed to win the argument, should they join the strike or should they cross picket lines? At the time it may have seemed a rather abstract argument – at this time Jim was scarcely involved in trade-union activity – but it was a question which would acquire burning relevance a few years later when London dockers struck in support of Enoch Powell’s famous anti-immigrant “rivers of blood” speech.

Jim remembered this as a “fantastic experience”.  At around this time Cliff used to give a series of twelve lectures on various aspects of Marxism. Jim followed Cliff around and heard the lectures half a dozen times in various parts of London. He was deeply impressed, not just by Cliff’s intellectual analysis but above all by what he saw as Cliff’s “humanity”; Cliff seemed very different to the other adults he had known. He rapidly joined the International Socialists, at this time still a very tiny organisation; Jim may have been the hundredth member.

Cliff recognised Jim’s enthusiasm and took Jim under his wing. Once he had established that Jim was reliable and would return books, it was agreed that Jim was allowed to borrow any books from Cliff’s huge collection that Cliff was not using at the time. This began to satisfy Jim’s thirst for knowledge and to make up for the education that his school had failed to give him.

When in 1963 Cliff left London for several weeks to visit his family in Israel, Jim was allowed access to his house to borrow books while Cliff was away. Cliff obviously regarded Jim as having great potential to encourage him in this way. But there was no flattery. Jim had a Lenin-style beard, and Cliff would tell him: “Jim, you look like Lenin …. But that’s as far as it goes”.

The International Socialists in the early sixties was an exciting place to be. Although the group numbered only a couple of hundred, it contained, as well as Cliff, Michael Kidron, Alasdair MacIntyre, Nigel Harris, Paul Foot and John Palmer. It was the ideas that Jim acquired in this milieu that sustained him through the coming decades of political activity.

Over those years he was involved in a great deal of activity that was not particularly exciting or glamorous – notably Labour Party meetings in the sixties, and later activity on two Trades Councils - but which was absolutely necessary to maintain socialist organisation and animate local struggles.  It is unlikely that he would have found the energy and enthusiasm for this activity if he had not had a broader socialist vision and a sense of the historical process.

From Cliff and the International Socialists Jim got a view of the world that had two important characteristics. Firstly, it offered a radical alternative to the dominant ideology transmitted by the schools, media, churches etc., a view that permitted a radical critique of all the institutions and practices of capitalist society. But as well as being radical it was also realistic. It recognised that capitalism was a tough old system, that reformism had very deep roots. Jim never believed that the achievement of socialism would be quick or easy, or that there were any short-cuts available.

Over the next thirty years Jim was involved in a whole number of campaigns in support of workers in struggle and in opposition to racism and the far right. Let me give just one example. Everybody knows about the Fords Dagenham women’s strike for equal pay in 1968; it’s become the subject of a movie and now a musical.
But the struggle for equal pay was a long one, and Dagenham wasn’t the only strike. In 1976 women at the Trico windscreen wiper factory in Brentford, West London, struck for twenty-one weeks before achieving equal pay.  The Lea Valley was then still one of the major industrial areas in London. Jim played a major role in organising to bring strikers over to North-East London, and to take them round factories and workplaces in order to raise money.

Many other activities could be listed. When I first knew him he was chair of Wood Green Young Socialists; later he was active in promoting and selling Tony Cliff’s two books on Incomes Policy and Productivity Deals. He was also involved in the campaign against council rent increases in Haringey.

In the mid-seventies he was active in building the Right to Work Campaign, and joined the pickets during the long-running Grunwick strike. In 1977 the National Front, then on the rise, organised a march from Duckett’s Common at Turnpike Lane. Jim was very much involved in the counter-demonstration which successfully challenged the NF and was an important prelude to the big demonstration at Lewisham later that year which turned the tide against the NF. On the back of this activity the Anti-Nazi League was founded, and again Jim played an active role.

On a more mundane level Jim and I were involved, not with any great success, in working in Enfield Trades Council and trying to turn it into a more effective interventionist organisation. A little later came the great miners’ strike of 1984-85, and once again Jim was heavily involved in solidarity work. Doubtless there are many more activities I have forgotten.

Besides this Jim was always involved with building the local organisations of the Socialist Workers Party, as IS had become. Many, many hours were spent on building and maintaining branch and district organisation, sustaining and encouraging comrades, and sorting out often debilitating internal disputes.

Two more things that Jim owed to Cliff. Soon after Jim joined the Islington branch of the IS, Cliff arranged for him to become chair of the branch, which gave him experience and confidence in chairing. I must have attended many dozens of meetings chaired by Jim, but on thinking about it, I cannot recall anything of them. That was because Jim realised that the job of a chair is to facilitate discussion in the meeting and not to obtrude him- or herself.

And Jim always remembered the way that Cliff had acted as a mentor to him when he was a young recruit to the organisation. Jim often tried to play the same role for new members, encouraging them to read and assisting with their political development. One particular example was Andy Strouthous, a young recruit in the 1970s, for whom Jim was a guide and mentor, who later became a Central Committee member, and who was a lifelong friend of Jim’s.

Two final observations on Jim. Firstly Jim was, above all, a rank-and-file activist. Back in the seventies we used to talk a lot about the rank-and-file, and Jim exemplified all that was best in the meaning of the term. As far as I know, Jim never served, nor aspired to serve, on any national body of the SWP; he was never on the Central Committee, National Committee or any other national body.

With the exception of his involvement in the rank-and-file engineers’ paper Engineers Charter, all his activity was confined to North London, at various times in the boroughs of Islington, Haringey, Enfield and Barnet. That was his patch; that was where he made his contribution. Without activists like Jim building on the ground, national organisations would be completely meaningless.

And secondly Jim was very much a working-class intellectual. He loved books, and was fascinated by ideas. His genuine enthusiasm for knowledge stood in sharp contrast to all too many who have the privilege of working in the academic world but are quite cynical in their attitude to ideas and knowledge. He was particularly interested in the revolutionary process, in the dynamics of the Russian Revolution and also of the French Revolution of 1789.

With the rapid expansion of higher education in the 1960s and after, many of the generation who got their first intellectual stimulus in the Young Socialists later, at various stages of their lives, entered higher education as mature students. The Tottenham IS, which never had much more than a dozen members, produced two (I think) PhDs, an MA and a few BAs.

Jim, however, never entered any formal academic study. (Perhaps his recollection of his unhappy schooldays deterred him.) For Jim the revolutionary socialist organisation was his university, and it gave him a better education than he could have acquired in an academic institution.

In his later years, when health problems were making him cut back on political activity, Jim, along with his friend Andy Strouthous, was a regular attender at seminars of the London Socialist Historians Group, and was always keen to participate in the discussions. While he did not tolerate pretentiousness, he was always keen to expand his knowledge and understanding of the historical process.

But while it was revolutionary politics that had awakened Jim’s thirst for ideas, he was never narrowly political in his concerns. His great pride in his three daughters, his abilities as a photographer and his love of Arsenal all testify to the breadth of his interests.

He was a remarkable individual and it was a privilege to have known him.

Ian Birchall

This a slightly expanded version of my contribution at Jim’s Memorial Meeting

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