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Any post second world war student of the British labour movement should be familiar with the name Bert Ramelson. However, this is not necessarily the case, due to the latent and overt anti-communism in academic and in left circles. As national industrial organiser of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) from 1965-77, Ramelson was at the centre of the fight against incomes policy, the social contract and anti-union legislation.
Of course he was not a one man band – the CPGB was well organised in a variety of industrial advisories, all of which were rooted in their trades or industries, as was the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Union (LCDTU), established in 1966. The great merit of this book is that it offers a well-researched analysis of this period without in any way descending to hagiography.
The authors trace Ramelson’s life from his early years in the Ukrainian ghetto Cherkassy, where he was born in 1910 named Baruch Rahmilovitch. To escape the appalling anti-semitism in pre-revolutionary Russia he was taken by his family to Canada. His first language was Yiddish, but very quickly he mastered English sufficiently to gain a first class degree in law.
From Canada he travelled widely: to Palestine; to Spain where he fought with distinction in the Spanish Civil War; and then in the British army as a tank commander in North Africa, India and Italy. After the war Bert moved to Yorkshire and took up full time Communist Party work first in Leeds and then as Yorkshire district secretary.
It was here in Yorkshire that he recognised the key significance of the Yorkshire NUM, then under right wing leadership: a situation which needed to be reversed given the key significance of the Yorkshire coalfield (the largest in the UK).
Bert was a strategist. He was able to appreciate the vicissitudes of the class struggle and so knew the importance of building the party in important regions and industries in an effort to forge left unity. He was never sectarian, and this was why he managed to chart a course which was often successful. It was because of this the ruling class regarded him as one of the most dangerous men in Britain.
Unfortunately, he did not win the battle in the party he loved and to which he had devoted his life. As the eurocommunists increased their ideological and organisational stranglehold, Bert was pushed aside, greatly to the detriment of the Party’s industrial work. This section of the book is well worth reading, even for those of us who were also subject to the whims of an over-mighty leadership faction.
All in all there is much to recommend this book, and much that can be learned from it.