Book review ‘Revolutionary Communist at work’ – Bert Ramelson biography
Posted by wcmlibrary on March 21, 2012
Older readers will remember Bert Ramelson in the sixties and seventies when he was the Communist Party’s National Industrial Organiser, denounced in the House of Commons by ministers in three different governments. Even older ones who were lucky enough to be in Leeds in the fifties will remember him as an energetic, inspiring and humorous Party Area Secretary. For younger readers: this is the biography of a remarkable man whose political values were forged in the Russian Revolution and the fight against fascism.
Bert’s journey from his birth in 1910 as Baruch Rachmilevitch Mendelson in the Ghetto of Cherkassy in the Ukraine to Leeds in 1946 was truly extraordinary. His early political education came during and after the Russian Revolution from his three older sisters who were Bolsheviks, the Hebrew School, the post-revolutionary educational reforms which, for a short period, introduced pupil power into the schools and the murderous anti-semitism of the White Guards during the Civil War. When his father, a Talmudist scholar, decided to emigrate to Canada with his younger children in 1922, the twelve year old Bert denounced his parents’ decision at his school-leaving party.
Despite his misgivings, Bert had within a year mastered English sufficiently to win a school debating competition. He went on to university where he gained a first in law. After working for a year as an articled clerk, he decided to emigrate to Palestine to work on a kibbutz. He described himself, somewhat confusingly, as a Marxist/Zionist and, at first, enjoyed the comradeship of working for a common purpose in a democratically run community. He became disillusioned when Histadrut, the Jewish-based trade union, called a strike against the employment of Arab workers. In rejecting Zionism, he realised that he ‘could only see a solution through international terms, through a Marxist approach’.
In 1936, after briefly returning to Canada, he travelled to Spain via London to join the Mackenzie-Papineau Batallion of the International Brigade where he was able to join the Canadian Communist Party which was illegal in Canada. Despite being wounded twice, he was elected to the Party Committee and became its official spokesman. In May 1939, on leaving Spain, he decided not to return to Canada but to stay in Britain. He joined the CPGB, got a job with Marks and Spencer’s in Yorkshire, married his first wife Marion, a full-time Party worker, and joined the shop workers’ union – now called USDAW.
In 1941, he was called up, trained as a tank driver and sent to North Africa where he was captured near Tobruk with thousands of others and was a POW first in the desert and later in both southern and northern Italy. Wherever he was, he organised very well-attended political classes. In 1943 he helped organise a mass escape, and whilst most were caught, Bert and a small group walked south and with the help of partisans, rejoined the British Army. He was sent to India in 1945 where he played a leading part in a forces parliament which voted for Indian Independence and was promptly closed down.
After demobilisation, Bert returned to Yorkshire where he was appointed CP Leeds Area Secretary. He quickly established himself with his powerful, booming voice an an outdoor orator at factory gates and on the Town Hall steps. The Leeds Area had well-established branches with members active in their unions, their communities and the fledgling peace movement. Bert and Marion fought hard against the right-wing leadership of USDAW and made links with key left figures in other unions such as the Yorkshire Area NUM. I t was in his years in Yorkshire that Bert developed in practice the strategy of the ‘British Road to Socialism’.
In 1956, in the wake of Krushchev’s revelations of Stalinist crimes, Bert was a member of a CP delegation to Moscow led by Harry Pollitt. There he met his older sister Rosa whose Bolshevik husband had been murdered in the 1930s and who had just returned to Moscow after 10 years in a labour camp. She was, despite her sufferings, still a supporter of the ideals of the revolution. In Britain there was a growing crisis amongst Jewish comrades over reports of Soviet anti-semitism. Whilst a Party delegation found these reports to be substantially true, Bert argued it was more important to hold the Party together and help create the conditions for socialism in Britain. This was a very difficult time and not only for Jewish comrades with the Hungarian Uprising, the Soviet invasion and also the publication of The New Reasoner by two Yorkshire academics – Edward Thompson and John Saville – who called on the Party to disassociate itself from the Soviet action in Hungary. Bert stood by the Party line that the invasion prevented a counter-revolutionary civil war.
In 1965, Bert took over as CP National Industrial Organiser and was, almost immediately, involved in the Seamen’s Strike during which he was named by Harold Wilson as one of the ‘tightly knit group of politically-motivated men’ orchestrating the strike. He went on to play a leading role in the Miners’ Strikes of 1972 and ’74. The Party opposed wage controls and, in the late ’60s, Bert was instrumental in developing the CPs ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ which was influential among the broad left in trade unions. Seifert and Sibley argue that the Seamen’s Strike ‘started a cycle of struggle which lasted a decade and achieved more than anything else in breaking the grip of the right wing – only the unity of the working class [could] compel a Government to declare “we surrender”’.
In 1977 Bert retired from full-time work and became the British representative on the Board of ‘World Marxist Review’. In Britain, CP policy was changing. The strategy of building influence amongst organised workers and party activists was being replaced by the ‘neo-Gramscism’ of the ‘Marxism Today’ section of the party leadership which gave greater priority to alliance-building with ‘special interest’ groups such as ethnic-minority groups, women’s groups, etc. Eric Hobsbawn’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’ formed the theoretical base for this approach.
Bert found himself more and more sidelined by this increasing influential group. For example, an article which he had written with Jim Mortimer, a former General Secretary of the Labour Party, was ‘sat on’ for months by Martin Jacques, ‘Marxism Today’s editor.
Bert became increasingly disillusioned. He was convinced that democratic centralism had in practice led to an ossified political culture and a badly informed communist leadership. The failure to develop democratic structures had led to ‘far too many’ time-serving opportunists holding positions within the parties of Eastern Europe.
He continued to be convinced that there was ’no capitalist way of life for the majority of the world’s population. But [he knew] of no socialist political party which [had] yet even tried to build socialism’. He continued to believe that class struggle was the key and socialism the only guarantee of human progress.
This is an excellent account of Bert’s life. Seifert and Sibley have drawn on a wide range of sources. My only quibble is that they have organised it somewhat confusingly, jumping backwards and forwards in time.
In summing up Bert’s contribution, Rodney Bickerstaffe writes that he ‘helped to develop a mass movement based on organised workers which was strong enough to block anti-trade union legislation and protect workers’ rights. We badly need such a movement today, with an even broader canvas. Much can be learned about how to do this from studying Bert’s life’.
REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST AT WORK : a political biography of Bert Ramelson by Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2012. Price £25 – available to readers of this blog for £15 inclusive of p&p by sending a cheque payable to Tom Sibley to Book Offer, 156 St. Stephens Road, Hounslow, TW3 2BW.
Maggie Cohen, library volunteer