By Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley

Lawrence & Wishart Ltd. 384 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-907103-41-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is, in the photo section of this book, a reproduction of the front page of The Daily Mirror dated 29th June, 1966. SEA STRIKE : EIGHT REDS NAMED BY WILSON announces the headline, and beneath it is a photograph of Bert Ramelson, who is said to be the “central figure” in the group. It brought his name to the attention of a wider public than would have previously recognised it. And in the atmosphere of the time, when anti-communist feeling was riding high, it almost certainly meant that his activities were being closely watched by the police and security services.

Bert Ramelson was born in Cherkassy, across the Dnieper River from Kiev, in 1910. His father was a Talmudist scholar, his mother ran a corner shop and looked after the family. He had several sisters, three of whom became Bolsheviks while another joined the Social Revolutionaries. His older sister, Rosa, had a particularly close relationship with him: “I was a revolutionary. Rosa had a tremendous influence on me. Not only Rosa……the Jewish School……the pogroms…….the saviours were the Red Army……Communists were against anti-semitism. At school they were all anti-Tsarism and anti-capitalist. So you had a tremendous environmental influence”.

In 1922 most of the family, Rosa excepted, emigrated to Canada. Ramelson thrived there, doing well at school, excelling at University, where he studied law, and eventually working for a local law firm. But he wasn’t satisfied with what might have become a respectable middle-class life, and his political interests took him to the Middle East and a kibbutz. He was disappointed with the anti-Arab attitudes of some of the people and returned to Canada.  Feeling that he wasn’t making a positive or practical contribution to left-wing political activity he volunteered to go to Spain, arriving there early in 1937. He served with the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau battalion of the 15th International Brigade, and was wounded twice.

Ramelson didn’t go back to Canada when the Brigades were withdrawn from Spain in 1938, but instead settled in Britain where he worked for Marks & Spencer for a time. He was called up for service in the British Army in 1941 and posted to North Africa, where he fought at Tobruk and was taken prisoner by the Germans. Moved to a prison camp in Italy, he organised lectures and classes on politics, economics, and what should happen in the post-war period. When Italy fell apart in 1943, Ramelson was involved in a mass breakout from the camp, linked up with anti-fascist partisans, and eventually found his way to British lines. Returning to the UK, Ramelson trained to become an officer and was posted to India. He was discharged from the army in 1946.

Already known in British communist circles, he was appointed to the post of Leeds Area Secretary for the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). His wife, Marian, a committed left-winger, was a full-time Party worker. Yorkshire was seen as an area with potential for both recruitment into the CPGB and influence on union activities. There was a concentration of industries, ranging from textiles to coalmines to metal and general engineering industries. And Ramelson “was quick to recognise that the big workplaces could become the centres of political struggles that were much wider than those traditionally engaged in by trade unionists”. He had much more than the next pay claim in mind and began to create a network of communist and sympathisers in various unions. The National Union of Miners (NUM) offered a particularly opportunistic area for developing a kind of power-base, and a strategy for future activities.

The 1950s were turbulent years for the British Left. The buoyant mood of the immediate post-war period began to fade as the realities of the Cold War changed people’s views of the Soviet Union and of communism. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Airlift, the Yangtse Incident, Klaus Fuchs and other spies, Korea, Russian development of the Atom Bomb. They all combined to install the idea, even in many left-leaning minds, that communists probably were plotting to sow mischief and mayhem in an attempt to cause chaos that could lead to the collapse of law and order and the possibility of a revolution. Some unions purged their ranks of known communists, others stopped them from holding any kind of union office. There were shake-ups among civil servants and at the BBC. And when the Russians stormed into Budapest to put down a rising in a brutal way, many Communist Party members handed in their resignations. Ramelson wasn’t among them but he did have grave reservations about what the Russians had done.

The situation was worsened by Kruschev’s revelations about Stalin’s crimes, and Ramelson was suddenly aware of how anti-semitism had continued to flourish in Russia despite what communists claimed. His sister, Ruth, had been arrested and sent to a labour camp, and her husband shot. There is a tendency to refer to “Stalin’s crimes”, but many others were complicit in what happened, and it was probably inevitable in a system that was built around the Dictatorship of the Party. Apologists for communism don’t want to recognise this possibility and prefer instead to pretend that it can be made to work and won’t inevitably lead to tyranny. There was a degree of contradiction in Ramelson’s involvements with the unions. Neither he nor they would have been allowed to function in Russia and the Iron Curtain countries in the way that they did in Britain.

Revolutionary Communist at Work is good at outlining all the ins and outs of Communist Party politics in the 1950s. There were attempts, notably by E.P. Thompson and John Saville, to mount an attack on Stalinism and lead a drive to democratise the Party. While Ramelson wasn’t a hardliner in many ways, he did believe in Party discipline and so disagreed with the reformers: “Here, it was felt, were two academic upstarts who thought they knew better than the collective Party leadership elected by the whole of the Party”.

Ramelson was appointed National Industrial Organiser by the Party in 1965, which necessitated a move to London. And, according to Seifert and Sibley, “From the mid-1960s to the late-1970s the trade union question was at the top of the establishment’s political agenda”. They also say that: “This was a period when for the first time since 1926 trade union powers were used to challenge and subvert policies which were seen by the state as vital to its interests”.

If that was the case then it’s easy to understand why someone like Ramelson was looked on with suspicion. His activities with various unions, and the influence he brought to bear on militants in their ranks, must have been known to the authorities. CPGB headquarters were bugged, and Ramelson was surely followed wherever he went. It’s more than probable that Harold Wilson wasn’t just red-baiting when he named a number of communists, including Ramelson, as being at least partly responsible for the conduct of the 1966 Seamen’s Strike. The communists may have been genuinely involved in what the strike was about – primarily pay and working conditions – but they could also “bring to the table a coherent and consistent set of answers, rooted in the theories of historical materialism and the requirements for left advance in Britain”. In this way they hoped “to win over to a broadly based Marxist approach the left-wingers in the movement at all levels, including MPs, shop stewards, union leaders, and local constituency activists”.

The Fifties had been a period when, despite some social historians claims that it was grey and dull and only enlivened by the first stirrings of youth culture, a great deal had been going on that had effects on society as a whole. There were clear signs of Britain’s decline as a world power in events like the Suez shambles, and the withdrawal from other one-time areas of influence. The same can be said of the Sixties which saw things happening that probably had a far greater impact in the long term than the spread of pop culture. And by the early-Seventies the situation on the economic and industrial front was becoming quite tense. Ramelson was active in some of the celebrated union causes of the time, from opposing Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife policies, to campaigning on behalf of  imprisoned strikers (the Pentonville Five, the Shrewsbury Pickets), and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-ins. Some were successful – the Pentonville dockers were released thanks to a massive union campaign and a threat by the TUC to call a one-day general strike, and the government agreed to invest in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to save jobs – but the Shrewsbury Pickets remained in prison, though many people believed they were the victims of an injustice.

Ramelson was also involved in the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, and he and Mick McGahey, leader of the Scottish miners, were named by security services as being especially active: “The intelligence officers also noted that Mick McGahey kept in regular contact with Ramelson. They found that there had been close contact between communists in the leadership, and between communists in the union at area level and with local CP officials”. Sefeirt and Sibley assert that “All this was overseen and sometimes co-ordinated by Ramelson…”.

I suspect that anyone reading this, assuming they’re not committed communists, might well think that all the suspicions about the motives of the CPGB had been confirmed. They were determined to oppose any sort of incomes policy and by doing so bring down the government, Conservative or Labour, attempting to impose it on the unions.

Ramelson retired in 1977 from his job in the Industrial Department of the CPGB, though he continued to play an active part in the affairs of the Party generally. It was in decline by the early-1980s and when the ill-fated miners’ strike of 1984/85 started he was not involved in any kind of capacity: “Ramelson made no public statements during the strike and there were no articles or speeches from him in this period”. He did meet Arthur Scargill, who he knew from his years in Yorkshire, and tried to persuade him that “a new more flexible approach to pit closures was required”. Mick McGahey was convinced that this was what was needed to salvage something from the strike, but Scargill was, in Ramelson’s words according to bugged evidence, “unable to admit that his current strategy is wrong”.

Bert Ramelson had been suffering from ill-health and he died in 1994. I don’t think it’s necessary to be in agreement with Ramelson’s political commitments to have a degree of admiration for his dedication to them. And he had fought in Spain and in the Second World War, so deserves to have recognition for his actions in that part of his life. I think he probably was quite sincere in his work with unions, in that he wanted to see workers getting decent wages and working conditions. He didn’t always succeed when he attempted to get involved in industrial matters. During the long postal strike in 1971 he was accused of attempting to influence internal union affairs by the general secretary, Tom Jackson. And there was a famous incident when Jack Jones, head of the powerful Transport and General Workers Union, a fellow-veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and possibly a one-time member of the Communist Party, shouted at Ramelson “to keep his party out of my union”.

Revolutionary Communist at Work is a book that not only throws light on the life of a dedicated British communist, but also has a great deal to say about the politics of the post-1945 period, particularly where they concern union matters and the role of the CPGB in relation to them. It is clearly extensively researched and has a detailed bibliography. And it stands as an informative corrective to accounts of the period concerned that attempt to push politics to one side.