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Response to Review of Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson

I would like to thank Evan Smith for his considered review of our biography of Bert Ramelson. Readers will not be surprised to learn that the authors do not share a number of Smith’s assessments.  But we hope that the review will encourage a wider readership for the book and that readers will make their own judgements about the criticisms made by the reviewer.

There are a number of contentious points in the review which I will deal with in the order they occur in the text.  In preparing the book we read Geoff Andrews’ account of the period 1964–91 with great care, recognising that it is an important, if deeply flawed contribution to Communist historiography. It is not the case, as Smith asserts, that Ramelson is presented by Andrews as a marginal figure.  In the first of some 30 odd references (in a 250 page book) to Ramelson, Andrews says this of the Party’s trade union work ‘… its strength in this area was rigorously renewed from the mid-1960s under the leadership of Bert Ramelson … and meant that the Party was to play a big organisational role in the major period of industrial militancy in the 1970s’.(1) And the experienced industrial journalist Robert Taylor (no friend of the Communist Party), in his analysis of the Social Contract’s demise in the mid late 1970s (just before Ramelson retired as Industrial Organiser) has this to say ‘… Ramelson was a key influence on the TUC General Council broad left … certainly the TUC leaders believe that the Communist Party had been very important in the collapse of the Social Contract (p. 249).  These are not descriptions of a ‘marginal’ person in a ‘marginal’ Party.

Our book is strongly critical of McIIroy and Callaghan’s work but it is to misrepresent the former to claim, as Smith does, that McIlroy’s position is that the Party ignored the mass base of the rank and file.  On the contrary McIlroy recognises the key role of Ramelson and the Party in developing the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions and the impressive mobilisation achieved against ‘In Place of Strife’ (1968) and ‘Industrial Relations Act’ (1971).(2) But he is not content to leave it there and goes on, incorrectly in our view , that the Party’s sole concern was to use rank and file strength to pressurise the official movement into action and to support progressive left policies.  Of course that was an essential part of the story.  But the objective was also to create a movement, parallel to but not separate from or reflexively antagonistic to the official movement.

During the Heath Government (1970–74) there was a constant battle between the left and right in the labour movement about the strategy and tactics to adopt to combat the Tory oĆ”ffensive.  The Party’s short term objective was to assist the left in mobilising mass action against the Tories while clearing presenting the case for socialism and revolutionary change in the longer term.  Generally speaking the Party’s approach to anti-Tory struggle prevailed and it was able, with others on the left, to advance a broad range of policies addressing important working-class concerns (both national and international) over and above traditional trade union demands.  Such campaigning involved developing new forms of struggle such as the use of flying pickets (the 1972 miners’ strike), workplace occupations (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders ,1971-72) and preparations for a General Strike (the Liaison Committee and the Pentonville Five dockers, 1972).  Our book shows that the CP was in the thick of all of these developments, often as the initiator, always in the vanguard.  But it also shows that there were setbacks and near things – the Shrewsbury Three building workers (1972-73) pickets were incarcerated for trade union activities and the decision to defy the Court judgements during the Con-Mech dispute (1973-4) was taken on the casting vote of the AEU President Hugh Scanlon.  So it was not the case that the CP simply mirrored the position of the broad labour movement.  Neither did the Party fail to present a revolutionary alternative.  In the event it was unable to make a political breakthrough but it was not for the want of trying.  But for the left as a whole significant, if unsustained, political progress was achieved.  The Labour Party, in particular, adopted policies far to the left of anything seen since the 1945 Election Manifesto while a number of unions, notably the NUM and TGWU, became centres of left-wing control.

The essence of revolutionary politics in a capitalist society is the pursuit of state power in order to advance the interests of the working class and its allies while creating conditions for the new ruling class to control all important aspects of society.  It is just as revolutionary to do this using parliamentary institutions as it is to storm the gates of the Winter Palace.  The crucial challenge is to destroy the capitalist state and replace it with institutions and personnel fully accountable to the working class and its allies.  How to do this and how the Party’s industrial strategy was a crucial component of its revolutionary programme is discussed in detail in our book (see pages 83–91), and we are disappointed that the reviewer appears to have overlooked this.

The section on The Reasoner, unlike Callaghan’s account (3), and challenging received wisdom, explains how Party leaders, in particular Ramelson, attempted to meet some of Saville and Thompson’s concerns.   However, the two lecturers did not reciprocate, and the Hungarian events ensured there would be no possibility of a rapprochement.  It is important to note that it was not in Ramelson’s gift to offer space in the Party press for views critical of the leadership – this as Ramelson pointed out was already being done, though not to the extent that the two contrarians were demanding.  And readers should bear in mind that many rank and file members took exception to two of their number, with access to publishing resources, arrogating the right to publicly defy Party decisions and challenge the collective judgement of a vastly experienced leadership elected democratically at Congress.  Such individualistic approaches by two academics were seen to be both arrogant and an offense to the norms of communist democracy.  But as the book points out, Ramelson recognised that ‘The Reasoner played a positive role in exploring a number of key issues … e.g. democratic centralism and Stalinism’.  In retrospect it would have served our readers better to have explained why, for example, the Daily Worker refused to publish certain letters, particularly those which appeared in Tribune and the New Statesman.  In this respect the reviewer is correct to accuse us of a certain imbalance.

In dealing with the peace movement in 1960s Smith gets it badly wrong.  Before CND (that is, up to 1958), the CP and the British Peace Council (a CP front) were almost alone, apart from the Quakers and other radical church people, in campaigning for peace and disarmament including nuclear disarmament.  From the late 1940s onwards (two years before the Soviets had developed the A-bomb) the Party campaigned for the total worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons.  It never promoted the idea of a ‘people’s bomb’.  There were some differences in the peace movement between those advocating multilateralism (the campaign to rid the world of all nuclear weapons by negotiation) and unilateralism (banning the bomb in Britain alone).  But this was resolved in 1960 when the CP recognised, following the US Pentagon’s scuppering of Summit Talks, that total abolition was not on the agenda of the Western nuclear powers and would not be for the foreseeable future.  At the same time CND accepted that, prior to 1960, its campaigning activities were too narrowly based and accepted that multilateral objectives such as the disbanding of NATO and a Test Ban treaty were essential complements to unilateral disarmament by Britain.

The section in the book on the miners’ strike (p, 207) is perhaps a little over done.  Ramelson was certainly a key figure but he would have been the first to object to being described as the player.  But our assessment of the role played by the Party holds up.  No other group in the NUM, least of all the right wing Executive, offered the leadership or the ideas injected by CP members in influential positions over a period of twenty years or so. As the book explains, the transformation of the NUM from a bastion of right wing control in the 1950s to a militant left union owes much to the strategic nous of Communist Party activists over some two decades.

Smith accuses us of ‘not engaging’ with the arguments of the neo-Gramscians including Eric Hobsbawm.  These centred on the role of the industrial working class in the struggle for socialism and its relationship to progressive social movements which could be described as objectively anti -monopoly capitalist e.g. the women’s movement, black people, small business people and so on.  And yet pages 342–9 do precisely that under the sub-headings ‘Analysing the decline of the Party’ and ‘Some critics’.  On pages 260–2 there is detailed analysis of, and comment on, Hobsbawn’s seminal article ‘The forward march of labour halted’.(4)

Lastly a comment on the language used in some parts of the book, and the often upbeat assessments made of Ramelson’s contribution to the Socialist cause.  Readers should bear in mind that we have written a well researched and thoroughly referenced book drawing on diverse primary and secondary sources.  This is a serious work which engages with many of the important debates in the labour movement and international communist movement over several decades but it is not a book written for academics in industrial relations and labour history faculties – threatened species both.  It is aimed primarily at a much wider audience, particularly at comrades active in the labour movement and others interested in the ideological struggle as well as the nuts and bolts.  So it seeks to be inspirational as well as analytical.  One reviewer has expressed it thus ‘both authors knew Ramelson personally and while this book amply demonstrated their admiration for their subject they do not descend into obsequiousness or hagiography.  They write well and engagingly, avoiding the density of style that so often mars academic books of this sort’.(5)

On the upbeat assessments – in our view we have satisfactorily backed these with rigorously researched and reason argument.  Of course readers will disagree with some of our judgements, and our book is far from the last word on Ramelson’s life and the issues and challenges that he faced.  We hope that readers and future generations will take inspiration from Ramelson’s example to better understand the pressing need to build a world free from capitalist and imperialist exploitation.

Notes

  1. Geoff Andrews, End Games and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964 – 1991 (London, 2004).Back to (1)
  2. J. McIlroy and A. Campbell, ‘Organizing the militants: the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions 1966–79’, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 37(1) (1999), 1–31.Back to (2)
  3. J. Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: a History of the CPGB 1951–1968 (London, 2003), chapter 2.Back to (3)
  4. Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The forward march of labour halted’, Marxism Today (September 1978).Back to (4)
  5. John Green, (‘Working USA’, forthcoming).Back to (5)