Over 100 people attended a book launch event at Leeds Central Library for the new publication ‘Revolutionary Communist At Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson’. Ramelson lived in Leeds for two decades becoming national industrial organiser for the Communist Party of Great Britain in the late 1960s and 1970s. Although the Socialist Party would be quite critical of several of the positions taken by the CPGB* in the past (not least their uncritical position regarding the Soviet Union and other Stalinist states), Ramelson and the CPGB occupied a critical position regarding the trade union movement and its opposition to pay resistraint and anti-union laws which we can learn from.
The meeting was introduced by Kevin Donnelly, Yorkshire CPB secretary and assistant secretary of Leeds Trades Council, who ironically currently works in the council where the the Communist Party had its local headquarters in Ramelson’s time.
The first speaker was Deanna Lubelski who had been the secretary of the Young Communist League in the post war period and had been recruited to the CPGB by Ramelson. She commented on Ramelson’s emphasis on making sure young people and women were involved in the CPGB. She was followed by former PTC and PCS General Secretary John Sheldon who reminisced about the open air meetings Ramelson used to hold every friday on the steps of Leeds Town Hall.
They were followed by two authors of the book, Dr Tom Sibley who had worked in the CPGB’s industrial depertment and commented on his reminisces of Ramelson whilst he was a student at Oxford and Prof. Roger Seifert who made a more substantial contribution. He pointed out the similarities between the period of the 1970s and today with a worldwide economic crisis ongoing and an increase in the tempo of workers struggles.
Whilst critical of the Labour Party, and particularly the two Ed’s, he argued that like in Ramelson’s day, the Labour is a mass workers party and the key to influencing it is the Communist Party, which references a famous statement attributed to Ramelson that through its position in the unions CPGB could be discussed and adopted at Labour party conferences. But this analysis is flawed. Today’s CPB is a shadow of its former self, whilst the Morning Star is still a daily paper, the party membership is aged as the audience to the book launch revealed, with no general secretaries of union’s adhering to it as in the 1970s (albeit several unions take out large adverts and assist the Morning Star in other ways too).
Moreover, it negates the role of the Militant in the youth and consitutencies of the Labour Party in that period, who moved motions including one which saw Labour adopt the demand to nationalise the biggest monopolies in society. It was around the time of the driving out of Militant from the Labour Party that moves began to turn it away from being a party that, although having a pro-capitalist leadership, had a mass working class base that could decide policy through the parties structures to today’s party dominated by professional politicians who put forward ideas little different to the Tories.
Marxists can learn from the life of Bill Ramelson and the activities of the CPGB, but only with a correct theoretical appraisal of the party’s strengths and weaknesses both in terms of actions and ideas. But also necesary is translating those from the cold-war period of yesteryear to the explosive situation today. A review of the book will follow.
*The CPGB ceased to exist as an organisation in the early 90s, the largest remnant of it is the Morning Star linked Communist Party of Britain