Friday, May 16, 2008

Two good men gone

THE labour and socialist movement has just lost two characters who will be hard to replace.

Of Howard Andrews, who has died in Somerset after a short illness, aged 101, I've written before. Born in Kilburn, North West London, he heard the call for aid to Spain as a young man, and decided to go out there himself, delivering medical supplies and tending the wounded at the front, as Italian 'planes brought death overhead.

After military service in World War II, Howard returned to hospital work, and decided to move to the West Country. He helped his fellow-workers organise in the union, and then after retirement didn't pack it in, but broadened his activity. In recent years Howard, or 'Andy' as he was known to friends, and his buggy, were a familiar sight at peace demonstrations and picket lines. Even after celebrating his century with fellow-trades unionists and socialists (he'd turned down a telegram from the Queen saying he had never got on with that family) he made it to the left stage at Glastonbury, to address the young.

Cyril Smith grew up just up the road from Andy, but in a later generation. Though he attended Communist meetings as a student, he was one of the young socialists in the Labour Party who came into the Trotskyist movement in the 1950s. Opposed to Labour's imperialism and Cold War policies, but equally repelled by Stalinist brutality, many went with Tony Cliff's tendency at the time of the Korean war, becoming what we now know as the Socialist Workers Party.

Cyril was made of more rigorous stuff, in terms of Marxist theory and analysis. His youth branch in Wembley was one of those which launched the youth paper Keep Left, and he became a member of Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League.

When I met Cyril in 1962 he was leading the SLL's Willesden branch, using his wit and humour to impart his Marxism to a bunch of young building and engineering workers at Sunday evening classes, and occasionally bringing some clever LSE graduate student along to be tested and give us a change.

Listening and discussing with Cyril was always a pleasure, even when I was the butt of his wit. He did not confine himself to theory, or stay aloof from everyday workers' life and struggles. It was during a strike of mainly immigrant workers at a firm called Marriotts in Wembley that Cyril met Sybil, a Jamaican woman shop steward who joined the SLL, and became his partner for many years. They moved to south London, and had two daughters I believe.

It was said that when Cyril had a job working for the National Coal Board their switchboard receptionist would sometimes put callers through to the SLL headquarters in Clapham where he was doing an article for the paper. He wrote on various subjects, both under his own name and as "John Crawford". It might be a coincidence though that the SLL Newsletter and our miner comrades were kept well-informed and up-to-date on the economics of the nationalised coal mining industry, where the money was going (such as to ex-owners), and the impact of mechanisation on health and safety.

A story I heard, possibly from when he was at LSE, was of the BBC interviewing people in the street on Budget day. The interviewer was approaching Cyril with a mike when another person came hurtling out saying "Not him! Not him!" It was Cyril's brother Tony who worked for the Beeb and resembled him in all but politics, being a Fabian. Whatever he feared brother Cyril might say in a brief soundbite, BBC viewers had to be saved from the menace of hearing a Marxist at teatime!

My own lingering memory though is of the evening in 1964 when some of us made a foray to the famous Ace Cafe on the North Circular Road to sell Keep Left and see if we could interest the young bikers and ton-up lads in joining the Young Socialists. Nowadays the clientele who throng the Ace forecourt on a Sunday morning look middle aged or older, and have probably swapped their business suits for weekend leathers, but then they were young guys with a wilder image, and we thought we had to look the part.

Who should join us, saying he had come straight from work, but Cyril, bespectacled and wearing a tie, and if I'm not mistaken carrying a briefcase. Incongruous, I thought, but next time I looked he was chatting away to a bunch of bike lads who were listening intently to his every word.

It was after 1985, when the Workers Revolutionary Party without the disgraced Gerry Healy and his acolytes attracted former members like me to give it another go, that I resumed my acquaintance with Cyril Smith. Together with Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp, Geoff Pilling and I think Frank Girling he was one of the "five professors" as they were dubbed by a hostile faction for whom it seemed, being able to read, never mind write a book was evidence of dubious, even dangerous, activity. Oddly enough, the person to whom this breakaway faction owed allegiance while baiting the intellectuals and the "middle class" was an American who took pride in his efforts to challenge Healy on dialectics, dismissed our concern over Healy's treatment of women as "non-political"(and of course "petty bourgeois") and today heads a highly successful international printing business.

But what struck many of us as bitterly ironic was that though the comrades being attacked were academics with books to their name, none were in fact Professors - they had been far too busy doing political work and contributing to the movement intellectually, to attain the kind of career status (and establishment acceptance) to which their abilities might otherwise entitle them.

There were confused and stormy times to come, as the WRP-Workers Press tried to re-examine its ideas, as Cyril insisted we must after our experience with Healy, and to break out of the isolation to which his sectarianism had led us, with regard to the workers movement and to the left internationally. Exasperated by what he began to see as opportunism and shallowness, Cyril clashed with the leadership - and with me, separately -and decided to concentrate on his theoretical work. When I became branch secretary in SW London, not only did he absent himself from meetings, ostensibly on health grounds, but some of the other comrades skipped the meetings because they were attending Marxism classes at Cyril's place. I could not ask what he had that I hadn't, so I made do with grumbling that Cyril (a mathematician by profession) was seeking a "pure" as opposed to applied Marxism.

Perhaps after experiencing the "Marxism" of the Healy party and its results that effort at purification should have been understandable.

The WRP-Workers Press is no more, and I am not sure what was achieved by our efforts. From Cyril's later period came a stream of books, reflecting his discussions in the WRP and more widely, and attracting wide interest. Communist Society and Marxist Theory (1988), Marx at the Millennium(1996), Karl Marx and the Future of the Human (2004), Marx Myth and Legends(2004). Having taken different paths, I haven't kept track of Cyril's development, though I know others swear by some of his books. But I still value the memory of the Cyril Smith who tried to educate me many years ago, and respect the integrity which led him to take the side he did in 1985, and to be an "awkward" voice subsequently. I'm also glad we parted on friendly terms, when we last met, at Peter Fryer's funeral.

On the surface, perhaps, Andy and Cyril were two quite different comrades. Certainly for much of their lives they would have been in different necks of the left-wing political woods. And while Andy was most keen to carry on his activism to the end, Cyril considered his chief duty to
be his theoretical work. Yet each of them entered the movement when young, and committed themselves, whatever the difficulties and disappointments they encountered; and each in their own way showed a stubborn determination to persevere with what they thought right to the end.

Some of Cyril Smith's writings: htm

A review by Andy Blunden of Marx's Mathematical manuscrips, on which Cyril worked

Communist Society and Marxist Theory, available from Index Books:

Cyril Smith's funeral will be on Thursday, May 22, 11 am at Lambeth Crematorium, Blackshaw Rd., London SW17.


from Somerset, Dave Chapple writes (extract)_
Andy's funeral, organised by the International Brigade Memorial Trust, will be held at 2.30pm next Thursday the 22nd May, at the Taunton Deane Crematorium in Wellington Rd. I have been asked to pay tribute at the service. He requested no flowers and any donations to the Morning Star/Peoples' Press Printing Society.
If friends would like to E-mail messages they can be read out or displayed at the reception.

Dave Chapple

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At 3:49 PM, Blogger David Broder said...

A sad loss

At 2:18 PM, Anonymous Emma Smith said...

Thanks for that lovely write-up about my Dad, Cyril Smith. I'm really enjoying hearing the stories and memories that people have of him from over the years - I only knew him when he was already pretty old (he had me when he was 51!), so it's great to imagine him as a young agitator.



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