Review: Revolutionary Communist at Work

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Revolutionary Communist at Work: a political biography of Bert Ramelson by Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley (Lawrence & Wishart) £25

Review by Ross Bradshaw

Bert Ramelson was born Baruch Rachmilevitch in Ukraine in 1910. He spoke Yiddish only until he was twelve. Like so many small town Jews he was one of many children but, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, his religious father took him to Canada worried that he would become secular, or a Bolshevik like three of his older sisters who remained in the Soviet Union. In Canada, naturally, he became secular and a Communist, joining the Canadian volunteers to fight in Spain for the Republic, before moving to the UK.

After war service, and a period working at Marks and Spencer (according to this book, a firm that was then keen on employing ex-International Brigade members*), Ramelson joined the staff of the Communist Party, eventually becoming its industrial organiser at a time the CP was hugely influential in the labour movement and at a time when more than half the British workforce were members of trade unions. For a while Ramelson was considered one of the most powerful people in the trade union movement, and was one of those Harold Wilson described as a “tightly knit group of politically motivated men” undermining the economy with an “efficient and disciplined industrial apparatus”.

As this is a political biography, Seifert and Sibley concentrate on this period, which makes the book hard going at times, revisiting the incomes policies of the 1960s, the Social Contract and the Alternative Economic Strategy of the 1970s when the CP, though in decline elsewhere, had a strong following in mining, in engineering – in manufacturing in general, and was engaged in many industrial conflicts. It is hard to imagine any part of the left having such influence now, not least as the number of people in trade unions has fallen to a quarter of the workforce, primarily in the public service rather than within the private sector.

By the time of the miners’ strike of 84/5 Ramelson and the Communist Party had less power but there is an interesting episode half way through the great strike when Ramelson went to see Arthur Scargill, once one of his protégés, to persuade him to try to reach a negotiated settlement with the Coal Board. The CP privately believed the strike would be lost. The Government might not have agreed a settlement, by then scenting victory, but Scargill dismissed the idea.

After he stepped down as industrial organiser, Ramelson spent some time as the English editor of World Marxist Review but by then the Party was in decline. Ramelson tried to keep the show on the road but failed, being out-manoeuvred by the Euro-Communists, even having to re-apply for membership. After the Communist Party folded in 1991 he did not join any successor organisation.

By then Ramelson’s long-harboured concerns about “democratic centralism” were making him question the role of the Party. He took that view that the Soviet Union had started to go off the rails in the 1920s. Like many Jews of his generation Ramelson had felt that the Communist Party was the greatest buttress against fascism, that the Soviet Union had been the first country to outlaw anti-Semitism and that the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War saved Europe, and its remaining Jews. Nevertheless, though on balance he supported the invasion of Hungary in 1956, he was shocked by the release of information showing the extent of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, including the suppression of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the late 40s and early 50s. In 1956 he was re-united with his older sister, Rosa when visiting the Soviet Union. He found that she had spent ten years in a Russian labour camp and that her husband had been killed in the purges. Nonetheless, she remained a Communist.

The biggest break with the Soviet Union was in 1968 when it invaded Czechoslovakia. In the absence of the General Secretary of the CP, John Gollan (I read elsewhere that he was, in those pre-mobile days, on a walking holiday and out of contact, unaware of the invasion), Ramelson was called to the Czech Embassy to have the reasons for the invasion explained so that the British CP would back the Russian line. Ramelson, who of course knew many of the Dubček reform communists, simply did not believe that the Russians were “invited” and the British CP was one of many to condemn the Soviet invasion. Later, back in Prague, working on World Marxist Review he found the delegates from the East European Communist Parties to be dull placemen.

Here and there in the book there is mention of Ramelson being one of the CP speakers on the Middle East and the “Jewish question”. The CP had a disproportionately large membership among Jews, including in Leeds where he first became a full-timer. Many of his best friends in the Party were Jews and there are hints that later in his life he rejected his earlier beliefs that socialism and assimilation would be best for Jewish people. But this area is not explored fully. Indeed, with the book being a political biography, the authors omit much biographical detail. Of his family, Rosa is the only one who resurfaces. What happened to the other siblings, including his two other Bolshevik sisters?

Revolutionary Communist at Work is well-written, and it is worth slogging through the half-remembered days of the Wilson and Heath governments, but a full, personal and political biography would certainly have interested this reader more. The book is available through the Morning Star on line at £15 plus £2 postage, which is worth doing as otherwise the retail is £25, a big price for a 384 page paperback.

*though, because of its paternalistic ownership, not much enamoured by trade unionism