By Roger Seifert & Tom Sibley
Lawrence and Wishart
Today, the Communist Party is only a small part of the labour movement, noticed mostly by the continued existence of the self-styled ‘daily paper of the left’, the Morning Star. Yet go back a few decades and it was the dominant ‘Marxist’ grouping within the labour movement with 50,000 odd members. This book charts the political history of Bert Ramelson, a leading CP activist who lived in Leeds for a period and is remembered most as their National Industrial Organiser during the great workers struggles of the late 60s and 70s against pay restraint and the beginnings of anti-union legislation.
Review by Iain Dalton
Although Ramelson was born in the Ukraine and was taken to see Trotsky speak by his older sister (the book describes her as a Bolshevik) in 1922, he and his parents moved to Canada soon after and the first opportunity Ramelson had to rejoin left-wing politics was volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the republic where he was wounded twice. He also fought in the second world war, organising a mass breakout from a POW camp in Ancona, Italy and took part in the soldiers parliament in Deolali, India.
After the war, Ramelson was invited to become the Leeds area organiser for the CP and he eventually became Yorkshire District Secretary. Ramelson played a role both within USDAW, attending several conferences as a delegate and speaking on several issues, and in Leeds Trades Council where he served as Second Vice-President. He also built up strong links with the left in the NUM and assisted in developing the strategy of flying pickets. He also ran educational classes in his flat on Quarry Hill as well as holding regular Friday afternoon open-air lectures outside the town hall.
But the book rightly takes the key period of the battles of the 60s and 70s, when Rammelson was CP Industrial Organiser, as its focus and devotes most of its 300+ pages to discussing the main industrial events of that period, particularly those of the ‘heavy battalions’ of the working class in engineering, mining and other such industries. We are given examples of the broad methods that Ramelson worked with, of a broad left strategy within the unions organising rank and file workers but using that as a lever on the official structures of the trade union movement and attempting to capture positions to further advocate a militant strategy, both in the unions, but also in the Labour Party which the major unions were affiliated to.
The highpoint of this was the efforts of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) against wage restraint and the anti-union laws. The jailing of the Pentonville Five saw the TUC was pressured into calling a general strike to demand the release of five arrested dockers union members who’d been jailed under anti-union laws (albeit, this was after pressure from below was forcing the government back anyhow), whilst the LCDTU organised a unofficial national strike involving over quarter of a million workers against pay restraint in 1971.
Yet unfortunately the book is short on detail of how these actions were organised – partially this is because Ramelson tended to let competent militants run their own disputes with limited discussion from him. But this is also a reflection of how loose the membership of trade unionists in the CP was (cited later as a reason for the CPGB’s eventual collapse), with Ramelson’s influence reduced to writing articles in the Morning Star that would hopefully influence strike leaders. Only on a few occasions do we get a glimpse of the co-ordinating role that such people could play such as on pages 186-7 discussing a union recognition dispute involving the AUEW (engineering union) where Ramelson advised leading activists on the unions executive, but also helped mobilise lobbies of union bodies by rank and file members to put the case for escalating action directly.
Instead of drawing out the lessons of the struggles of the period, the authors of the book are keener to argue the correctness of the ‘line’ that the CPB and Ramelson took at each stage – particularly offering straw-men arguments against any alternative taking the most outrageous idiocies of ultra-left groups to critique all Trotskyist groups during the period. The book glosses over the weaknesses of the CP’s programme, The British Road to Socialism, including advocation of popular-front type alliances (anti-monopoly alliance or Broad Democratic Alliance) which ultimately weakened the CP’s industrial and political position.
The one point where some genuine criticism does show through is discussing the 80s when a ‘Euro-communist’ trend took over running the CP’s journal, Marxism Today, and eventually leadership – particularly abandoning the key role of the working class within the struggle to change society. Yet this is done without criticising how such ideas could gain support within the CP in the first place and ultimately a criticism of its Stalinist origins. This also combined with discussions around Ramelson’s disillusionment with the USSR and in particular the careerists from the Stalinist states he met whilst on the editorial board of the World Marxist Review.
In addition to this in some parts the authors arguments are very sloppy – the book quotes a letter of Ramelsons approvingly saying the campaign to free the Shrewsbury pickets (Ricky Tomlinson and then CP member Des Warren) led to the successful threat of a general strike to free to Pentonville Five in 1972, despite the Shrewsbury pickets being imprisoned in 1973. However, equally they take up some sloppy arguments of Ramelson’s critics who argue he led a punitive detachment to Barcelona after the July days during the Spanish Civil War, however Ramelson had not arrived in Spain at that point.
Interestingly towards the end of his life Ramelson criticised the excessive centralism that often operated in the Stalinised communist parties and also began to argue that “Socialism has yet to be built anywhere. I believe the potential for a socialist system emerged in 1917, but in about the mid-twenties, the ‘socialist project’ was abandoned” (letter to Colin Siddons, quoted on page 300). The latter was somewhat different to the Stalinist position that socialism already existed in all the Stalinist states, instead of the transitional deformed workers states (states with a planned economy, but without workers democratic control) they were. However, these criticisms didn’t develop into a broader critique of the failings of the CPGB and his own politics (including still believing the workers uprising in Hungary in 1956 was a fascist counter-revolution!).
Unfortunately, due to the above mentioned deficits, this isn’t half as interesting or insightful as it could potentially have been. The huge workers struggles that raged in the 60s and 70s have many lessons for today, even if some of the mass workplaces that existed in many factories and mines are gone today. A key task for today is building a new movement of trade union activists that can have a similar impact as the LCDTU and the Minority Movement before it, but that can take the struggle beyond just resisting the onslaught of the Tory and in the direction of transforming society in the interests of the working class.