Sunday, 13 January 2013

Debate: Ian Birchall responds on Bert Ramelson

From LSHG Newsletter # 48 (January 2013).

Polemical exchanges rapidly become wearisome, but I should like to respond briefly to comrade Sibley’s letter about my review of the biography of Bert Ramelson by himself and Roger Seifert. (LSHG Newsletter # 47)

I cannot but agree with Ramelson’sremarks quoted in his letter about “overrating our expectations of the speed with which socialism would spread its influence”. The hopes we all had in the 1968-75 period were not fulfilled, and we need to look critically at both the achievements and the mistakes of those years. Obviously an account of Ramelson’s life could be of great value in such a process; my concern was that the Sibley/Seifert book does not give a sufficiently critical analysis of the period.

In particular I felt Ramelson’s “interventions” were often described without an adequate presentation of the historical context and the dynamic of class struggle in which they were made. And while Seifert/Sibley certainly discuss the factors leading to the decline of the CP under Thatcher, my own view is that the crisis and ultimate liquidation of the CP had their roots somewhat earlier, from at least 1968, in both international (Czechoslovakia) and national (relations with the trade-union bureaucracy) factors.

Let me just refer to two specific points. Firstly, the role of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions in the struggle to free the Pentonville Five. I don’t doubt the existence of the letter referred to by Lyddon and Darlington (and I have communicated to Lyddon and Darlington my disagreement of their interpretation of its significance). The LCDTU may well have sent “a formal letter to affiliated bodies”. But given the structure of most labour movement bodies (monthly meetings) and the fact that the events took place in the summer holiday period, I wonder how many affiliated bodies received the letter in time to act on it - the dockers were released less than a week after their arrest. I was a delegate to the 10 June conference and I have no recollection of either myself or my branch receiving any communication from the LCDTU.

Nobody would wish to deny the very positive role played by Communist Party members in the campaign to free the Pentonville Five. But to describe the campaign as “a communist-led movement”  (Seifert/Sibley p. 183) does not relate to the reality of what occurred. And it is worth recalling that in the aftermath of the events the CP branch in the London docks collapsed; some leading activists like Michael Fenn and Eddie Prevost joined the International Socialists. (J McIlroy, “Notes on the Communist Party and Industrial Politics”, in J McIlroy, N Fishman & A Campbell, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: Volume II , Aldershot, 1999.)

Secondly, the question of the CP and CND. This was only an aside in my original review, but I have now checked the records and find that the position is rather more complex than I had believed. World News (15 March 1958) carried a long article by George Matthews entitled “unilateralism and the fight for Peace”. While the conclusion did note that those associated with CND were making “valuable contributions to the fight for peace”, the main thrust was to attack the demand for unilateral disarmament, which was the central distinctive policy of CND.

It is also true that on 7 and 8 April 1958 the front-page leads of the Daily Worker were highly favourable reports of the first Aldermaston March. However these reports made no reference to unilateralism and on 8 April the Daily Worker urged workers to support “the movement for nuclear disarmament and Summit talks”. Thus the CP supported CND – but not its central and defining demand. It is this context, of course, which gives meaning to Ramelson’s 1958 article cited by Seifert/Sibley on p. 58, in which he attacked the left’s “obsession with unilateralism”.

Whatever position one takes on the question, Ramelson’s article was a serious contribution to debate, so it is a great pity that Seifert/Sibley so totally mistook its context. How such a fundamental misunderstanding can be described as “an unfortunate proof-reading error” is beyond me.

And the statement that “the CP was the backbone of CND marches in 1958, 1959 and 1960” is a sectarian claim and quite simply false. (I was not on the 1958 and 1959 marches but I have talked to participants.) To minimise the contribution of the emerging “New Left” (which contained many ex-Communists), of the Labour Party Young Socialists and of the very many student CND groups is a gross distortion of the facts.

The rebuilding of a militant rank-and-file within the labour movement is an increasingly urgent task. Let us hope there will be maximum cooperation between different currents of the left. But romanticising the role of the British Communist Party between the 1950s and the 1970s will not help us.

Ian Birchall

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