Monday, 27 January 2020

Al Richardson - obituary (2004)

Al Richardson (1941-2003)
Written By: Ian Birchall
Date: January 2004
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 20: Lent 2004 

‘Against the stream’, the title of one of his books, summed up the work of Al Richardson, who died at the appallingly early age of sixty-one in November.

The sad history of British Stalinism is now trendy, and has spawned more books than it deserves. Those who fought against terrible odds for authentic revolutionary principles have been rather less studied - all too often by those with an interest in proving that their own tendency had inherited the apostolic succession.

In the 1980s Al, together with veteran Trotskyist Sam Bornstein, published two volumes, Against the Stream and War and the International, which remain the best account of British Trotskyism up to 1951. Using extensive documentation from the revolutionary press and internal publications, combined with interviews with surviving activists, they gave a vivid picture of a generation without whose determination the British left would not have the configuration it does today. It has the colour of oral history, but oral history scrupulously checked against the printed word.

The books were published by Socialist Platform, the publishing company Al helped to found. He was profoundly distrustful of ‘labour history’ as studied in the universities, believing the socialist movement should take care of its own history. For some thirty years he taught history in a South London comprehensive, and showed a certain disdain for the world of higher education. Despite this - or rather because of this - he cherished the highest standards of scholarship, visible in the meticulous footnoting of books and journals he edited. He laboured over these late into the night, a fact which may have contributed to his early death. He would phone me at 11.00 p.m. to check the dates of obscure figures from the French Revolution.

There are criticisms to be made of Al’s work. His wholly justified loathing of Stalinism meant that he underestimated the pernicious effects of social democracy on the British labour movement. He never grasped the argument about women’s oppression - though he did justice to the courageous women of wartime Trotskyism.

He accumulated a magnificent collection of Trotskyist literature, always made available to serious historians. Hopefully it will be preserved in an accessible location.

From 1988 onwards Al was editor of the journal Revolutionary History [see LSHG Newsletter Lent 2001]. Although he could be, to say the least, abrasive about - and to - those he disagreed with, he drew round him a group of people committed to the history of the international revolutionary movement. Initially Revolutionary History concerned itself primarily with the organised Trotskyist movement; in later years it broadened its scope. By the early nineties Stalinism had collapsed - though Al still saw baleful Stalinist influences in many quarters, notably in Blair’s Labour Party - and he was increasingly aware of the limitations of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’, becoming more interested in such figures as Rosmer, Souvarine and Serge.

By training Al was an ancient historian; he remained deeply interested in Egyptology. He was a talented linguist, but also fiercely loyal to his Yorkshire roots: he must have been the only Marxist historian to insist on pronouncing the word bourgeois as ‘boozh-waz’. In recent months I was helping him with a translation of hitherto unknown writings by Victor Serge on Russian literature in the 1920s. Happily, this was virtually complete and should appear next year.

Al’s funeral was moving and well-attended. Besides a large and affectionate contingent from his school, there were members and ex-members of most tendencies of the Trotskyist left, united, if by nothing else, in their respect for Al.

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