Roger Seifert, Tom Sibley
London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2011, ISBN: 9781907103414; 394pp.; Price: £25.00
Date accessed: 26 September, 2020
Bert Ramelson, one of the leading figures of the post-war Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the Party’s Industrial Organiser during the era of heightened industrial militancy in the 1960s and 1970s, has been a widely debated person in the historiography of the CPGB, but a new biography by Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley attempts to reassess the characterisations of Ramelson by other authors. As Industrial Organiser from 1965 to 1977, Ramelson oversaw the Party’s ‘broad left’ strategy, which outlined that the primary focus of the CPGB was to attempt to seek influence in the trade union movement by obtaining leadership positions with the unions and promote alliances with other leaders of the labour movement who were on the Labour left. This period was characterised by Willie Thompson as the Party’s ‘Indian summer’ and has been described by a number of authors as a time when the CPGB had the potential to shape the political landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ramelson has been criticised from both the right and left over the years – by the right for being a dangerous and subversive Communist agent, by the Trotskyist left for being a reformist who had abandoned socialism for a mixture of labourism and Stalinism, and by the Gramscian/Eurocommunist left for concentrating on industrial action at the expense of other areas of political struggle. In the historiography of the Communist Party after its dissolution in 1991, Ramelson and the Party’s industrial strategy was depicted by Francis Beckett as a conspiracy that directed the actions of the trade unions and wielded powerful influence over the Labour Party, while Geoff Andrews criticised the same strategy for its failure in shaping the direction of the labour movement, and in Andrews’ book, Ramelson is a marginal figure.
But it was John McIlroy and John Callaghan who explored in most detail the industrial strategy and Ramelson’s role within it. McIlroy and Callaghan had, in different papers, argued that the Communist Party’s plan to shift the direction of the labour movement by occupying key positions in the trade unions and promote working with Labour left trade unionists, such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, had limited success in achieving this and relied on attempting to wield influence within the upper echelons of the unions, while ignoring the mass base of the rank-and-file. For McIlroy and Callaghan, the Communist Party’s claims of ‘victories’, such as the defeat of the Harold Wilson’s anti-union policies, the resistance to Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill and the Miners’ Strike which brought down the Heath Government in 1974, were spurious, as the Party’s industrial wing was largely in step with the broader leadership of the trade unions and did not seek to radically move the agenda of the labour movement at this time towards a revolutionary socialist programme.
The new biography of Ramelson by Seifert and Sibley is essentially a refutation of the arguments put forward by McIlroy and Callaghan and attempts to portray Ramelson as a revolutionary man of action, who was crucial to the direction of the labour movement during what Chris Harman called the ‘British upturn’. Seifert and Sibley claim that Ramelson and the CPGB were trying to link ‘militancy and trade union struggle to the development of a mass socialist consciousness’ (p. 340) and that the CPGB was a ‘revolutionary socialist’ organisation (p. 167), with Ramelson guided by an inherent faith in the class struggle and Marxism-Leninism. However, one of the major criticisms of this biography that can be made is that the authors do not really expand on what was ‘revolutionary’ in the Party’s industrial strategy or how the CPGB could be deemed to be ‘revolutionary’ after the adoption of the parliamentary road to socialism in 1951. The narrative contained within this biography is essentially based on the ‘traditionalist’ politics of the CPGB (now taken up by the Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star newspaper), which emphasised industrial militancy as the practical manifestation of the class struggle, combined with (critical) support for the Soviet Union. This wing of the CPGB, and its remnants in the CPB, were disapproving of Stalinism, but much more vocal in their criticism of the ‘Euros’ who took over the Party in the 1980s. The authors seem to suggest that to call the industrial/broad left strategy undertaken by the CPGB in the 1960s/70s ‘labourism’ or ‘reformism’ is a Trotskyist ultra-left slur, but the programme set out in The British Road to Socialism placed emphasis on using the trade unions to foster a Communist-Labour left alliance to achieve socialism via the parliamentary system. This is not a revolutionary programme. Even the major industrial struggles of the period when Ramelson was Industrial Organiser were not progressive struggles to expand socialist policies through the labour movement, but defensive struggles to protect trade union and collective bargaining rights, as well as the maintenance of wages in line with inflation.
The authors rightly argue that Ramelson’s life is worthy of a biography, as someone ‘who lived through remarkable times’ (p. 13), as Ramelson fled the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, lived in Depression-era Canada and British-ruled Palestine, fought in the Spanish Civil War and then in the Second World War, all before migrating to Britain in 1946 and joining the Communist Party (all dealt with in one chapter in this biography). But in their attempt to ‘trace Bert’s personal contribution to the struggle, and to show how this related to and influenced developments within the broader labour movement’, there is a tendency to overstate what Ramelson (and the CPGB) achieved in the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and downplay some of the more controversial episodes in Ramelson’s (and the Party’s) life.
For instance, the account of the fallout within the Party in 1956 over Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ and the publication by E. P. Thompson and John Saville of The Reasoner to foster debate about the Party’s uncritical support of the Soviet Union during the Stalin era minimises the lack of debate that the Party leadership allowed and the reasons why people like Thompson and Saville ended up leaving. The authors portray Ramelson’s offer of more space in the Daily Worker and World News, as well as district meetings with ‘much sharper debates and many less unanimous votes’, as reasonable, while Thompson and Saville are seen as unreasonable, writing that ‘both had had lengthy articles published in World News and Views during the Reasoner episode’ (p. 66). But the Party still refused to publish radically dissenting opinions by Party members in its press, as seen with the non-publication of a letter to the Daily Worker by a number of the CPGB’s Historians’ Group in November 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary (eventually published by the New Statesman and Tribune in December 1956). In several spots in the same chapter, the authors seem to suggest that the CPGB was at the forefront of the 1950s peace movement and nuclear disarmament activism. This is in contradiction to the arguments put forward by Nigel Young, David Widgery, John Callaghan and Geoff Andrews, amongst others, that the CPGB was slow to support unilateral disarmament and the CND in the 1950s, preferring until quite late on to promote the idea of the ‘People’s Bomb’ (this is a point also raised by Ian Birchall in his review of this book for the London Socialist Historians’ Group bulletin).
As mentioned before, in the industrial struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, the Communist Party had leading members working closely with other high level labour movement officials and these were quite successful campaigns, such as the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions’ actions against Wilson’s In Place of Strife Bill, the flying pickets of 1972 or the Miners’ Strike of 1973–4 that forced Ted Heath into an early election. However it is this reviewer’s opinion that the authors are claiming too much credit for Ramelson and the Communist Party when they write sentences, such as this about the success of the victory of the Saltley Gates picket in 1972: ‘Only the CP in 1970s Britain could have provided the strategic guidance and the solidarity links so necessary for winning the dispute’ (p. 208). As McIlroy and Callaghan have argued elsewhere, while the labour movement had forward momentum, the Communist Party looked central to the struggles of the day and Party members were deeply involved in the practical running of these industrial campaigns, but the Party was not directing these campaigns and this lack of influence became increasingly evident when the momentum of the labour movement slowed in 1974.
In this biography, after 1974, Ramelson becomes a lonely figure of the ‘correct’ Marxist-Leninist line against the right-wing of the labour movement and the impending Eurocommunists. In 1974, Ramelson broke with Jones and Scanlon over the adoption by the TUC and the Labour Party of the Social Contract, a voluntary wages freeze and a promise of mediation with the trade unions over industrial action, with Ramelson famously calling it the ‘Social Con-trick’ (p. 227). The authors state that by 1977, ‘Ramelson had been proved right and the CP line was vindicated’ (p. 236), but there is a suggestion that too many in the Party, such as those influenced by Gramsci and Eurocommunism, as well as intellectuals such as David Purdy and Eric Hobsbawm, had lost faith with the centrality of militant industrial action. What the authors do not engage with is the argument put forward by many in the Party who were disillusioned with the emphasis on this broad left industrial strategy is that even after the successes of the early 1970s, there was little to show for the massive effort involved in these campaigns and that the CPGB was powerless to stop the labour movement from adopting policies such as the Social Contract, and the alliances with the wider union leadership turned to be less than satisfactory, after Ramelson was effectively dropped by Jones and Scanlon after the TUC and Labour Party agreed to wage freezes and industrial mediation.
Ramelson retired from the position of Industrial Organiser in 1977, replaced by Mick Costello, who was a key figure in the battles between the Morning Star ‘traditionalists’ and the ‘reformers’ coalesced around the journal, Marxism Today. But as the authors show, Ramelson still contributed to Party debates and disagreed sharply with the ‘Eurocommunists’ within the CPGB, believing that the Marxism Today group had abandoned the class struggle and misinterpreted Thatcherism as something different from preceding Conservative governments. The authors are obviously sympathetic to the same position as Ramelson, but it is interesting to note that Ramelson also disagreed at times with the Morning Star group and some of the figures that were instrumental in forming the Communist Party of Britain in 1988. Ramelson favoured unity between the two factions and the book shows that he tried to get General Secretary Gordon McLennan to more strongly intervene in the factional disputes in order to save the Party from splitting irreversibly. But by this time, it seemed that intervention by the leadership would only temporarily halt the decline of the CPGB, and not reverse its fortunes. Ramelson remained a member until the end, but did not join the CPB (unlike a number of his contemporaries), with the only position held by Ramelson after 1977 being the British representative to the journal, World Marxist Review, which was published for all the parties in the Soviet sphere and edited in Prague until 1989.
This biography oscillates between some very good historical details of Ramelson’s role in the Communist Party between the 1940s and the 1980s and some very grandiose rhetorical flourishes about the importance of the class struggle and the revolutionary outlook of the CPGB. Its use of Ramelson’s personal papers, interviews with leading CPGB activists and other primary source materials makes it definitely worth reading for those interested in the history of the Communist Party, and modern British labour history more generally, but some readers may be frustrated by the particular language used, as well as some of the claims made, by the authors.
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 oáffensive. 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.
- Geoff Andrews, End Games and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964 – 1991 (London, 2004).Back to (1)
- 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)
- J. Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: a History of the CPGB 1951–1968 (London, 2003), chapter 2.Back to (3)
- Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The forward march of labour halted’, Marxism Today (September 1978).Back to (4)
- John Green, (‘Working USA’, forthcoming).Back to (5)