Farewell to Harry Ratner, but his legacy lives on
Harry Ratner, who died recently at his home in Derbyshire, must have been one of the few surviving members of a generation that came to revolutionary politics in the 1930s, and one who never sold out for selfish ambition nor, despite disillusion in dogmas and leaders, lost his faith in human beings or a socialist future.
Born in London in 1919, the son of a Jewish immigrant father who precariously tried his hand in various business ventures, his mother a French officer's daughter, young Harry was good at science and dreamed of serving humanity through medicine, or of what seemed like a new life of genuine communism that he heard about on the kibbutz in Palestine. But already at 16 he set out on the path that would be his for the rest of his life, joining the working class and the fight for socialism.
Though never so far as I can see aspiring to be a leading figure in the movement or possessing the kind of ego that the movement regrettably sometimes fosters and accepts in leadership, Harry had the intellect to think about issues and what we were doing, as well the dedication, honesty and integrity the movement needs if it is to be sustained, let alone to get anywhere.
I first met Harry in Manchester when I was about 16 myself, and though we did not remain in touch for long, he did have a lasting influence.
It was in 1959, the Socialist Labour League had just been formed that year, and already come in for witch-hunting attacks from two national newspapers, as well as denunciation in leaflets from the notorious employer-funded Economic League. The late Empire News, a Sunday paper which we had delivered on Saturday night so my parents could check their football coupons, carried a front-page story about Trotskyists plotting to ruin Britain with strikes and bring about a revolution. It said they had infiltrated the unions and the Labour Party, and had a newspaper called the Newsletter.
I'd heard of Trotsky as a leader of the Russian Revolution. As a matter of fact someone had even mentioned his name in our house several years earlier when the grown-ups were discussing unpleasant events in the Soviet Union. And Mr.Rosenfelt, a friend of my parents, had said approvingly "Ah, now Trotsky was a real communist." Which had stuck in my mind as interesting.
But a Trotskyist movement in Britain? Was it true? And could I agree with the nefarious methods it was using in industry - assuming one believed what was said in that Sunday newspaper?
One weekend, a friend at school persuaded me to go with him to a big CND rally. It was really big, the Free Trade Hall was crammed full, I think it was the one where Konni Zilliacus and the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg were speaking. I don't remember what either of them said. But outside the hall as we'd waited to file in I saw a bloke in a cloth cap and raincoat, selling The Newsletter. Naturally, 1 stepped over to buy a copy. That was my first encounter with Harry Ratner and with Marxism.
Some younger people with him sold me a Keep Left, and gave me a leaflet for a meeting the following week called "Youth Must Organise!". Before long I was actively involved, helping set up a Young Socialists branch, selling papers at the docks, and attending classes which Harry Ratner took on Marx' s Capital. Harry patiently explained the theory of surplus value, and illustrated the workings of the system from his own experience - he was a shop steward in a textile engineering factory.
Once, chatting over a coffee, Harry asked me about my background and what had brought me to Trotskyism. It never occurred to me, at 17, to ask about his life. Not till his book Reluctant Revolutionary came out did I learn that, like me, Harry Ratner had been a member of the Zionist youth movement Habonim, before he joined the Labour League of Youth, in Willesden, north west London. By an ironic twist, it was in Willesden, in 1964, that I was expelled from the Labour Party as it purged the Young Socialists.
A few years before I had attended my Labour Party ward meeting in Mandley Park, Salford, when the Party was expelling Harry Ratner, in its purge of Trotskyists. Not allowed into the meeting to defend his self, Harry would probably not have been surprised that the person who spoke against him was a Labour councillor who doubled as a leading Stalinist.
As he recounts in his book, talking about holding street corner meetings in London's East End in the 1930s, "One evening we would be attacked by the fascists as 'dirty Reds' and told to 'Get back to Russia', the next evening we would be attacked by Communist Party members as 'bloody fascists'."
The Labour League of Youth was divided between Stalinists, led by Ted (later Lord) Willis, and a smaller number inclined towards Trotskyism. Joining the latter faction, Harry met and worked with a young man called Gerry Healy, who was to have an important influence on his life and on mine. There is an amusing account in the early pages of Reluctant Revolutionary of their adventures out whitewashing slogans in Paddington at night. Later on, Harry was less amused by Healy's way of handling dissent, even when they were on the same side in some of the Fourth International's factional disputes.
Most telling, perhaps, is Harry's account of what might seem to some a trivial incident in the 1950s, when Healy bawled quite unnecessarily at a cafe waitress, and Harry thought to himself, "If Gerry is like this now what would he be like if we had power?" Notwithstanding the unlikeliness of that contingency, such insights, if shared and talked about early on might have saved a lot of trouble.
Not that Harry Ratner, for all his mild and modest manner, was any milksop. Having gone to visit his mother in France in 1938, he heard poet Andre Breton, hitch-hiked through the country talking to youth, and witnessed the end of the Popular Front and the Third Republic. Helping the Trotskyists Raymond Molinier and Pierre Frank escape as France fell, he was later arrested himself in London for sheltering Frank in his flat.
During the Blitz young Ratner was involved in another kind of shelter, and Underground movement, when Londoners took refuge in the tube stations, and he found himself on a shelterers' committee with a young Communist Party member, of later comedy acting fame, Alfie Bass.
Called up in 1941, Harry was drafted into the Pioneers Corps, with other misfits, including refugees and Spanish Republicans. He was involved in the Sicily and Normandy Landings, and the next time he turned up at his mother's flat in Paris he surprised her by arriving in British uniform, having hitched a lift with a Free French unit. He was able to report the liberation of Paris for the Socialist Appeal. But the defeat of Hitler's fascism was not the end of the struggle, it was a new beginning, as seen in the civil war in Greece, the strikes cum mutiny that were to come in the British forces in India in 1946, or the use of British troops against strikers in Belgium which Harry also reported for Socialist Appeal.
It was while he was on leave in 1942 that a different kind of event affected Harry's life. Going rambling with a pal in Derbyshire, he met Olive, who was to be his lifelong companion. She was bringing up a child and working in a laundry, where she led a strike. Having committed himself to the working class politically, Harry married into it. Olive initiated him into such important cultural matters as saving the best china for visitors. In his book he credits her with anchoring him in
real life and human relations.
Demobbed after the war, Harry found a job in a Manchester engineering works, then went on from pushing a broom to 'semi-skilled' status (to be classed as skilled you had to have served an apprenticeship). Though his way wasn't always easy, what with blacklisting and hostile bureaucacy, he became shop steward, works convenor, and AEU branch president.
He was involved in the factional disputes which rent the Trotskyist movement, over eastern Europe, Korea and the Labour party, as well as leading industrial struggles. He worked full time for the
Trotskyist movement in 1957, when it won to its side many disillusioned Communist Party members, such as Peter Fryer, who had been the Daily Worker's reporter in Budapest when Russian tanks invaded.
Having had a bellyful of bureaucratic Stalinism -his despatches from Hungary were suppressed and he was expelled from the Communist Party, - Fryer soon found Healy's bullying regime more than he could stomach, and this talented journalist was lost to the paper he started. But he never went over to the Right. After pioneer work on British Black history, Peter Fryer became a columnist for Workers Press after Healy's downfall, and he provided the Introduction to Harry Ratner's book.
Harry Ratner soldiered on, and contributed something to the education of younger comrades such as me, as well as helping the Socialist Labour League (SLL) establish itself for a time as a serious alternative to the Communist Party's leadership among trade union militants. He seems to have become pessimistic at a time when as a newcomer I was excited by the apprentices' and seafarers strikes. Maybe this was due to the difference in our ages, or maybe it was his experience with the SLL's increasingly narrow and repressive leadership, dishonest and sectarian, imposing changes of line.
Besides his disillusion with the gap between the Party's perspective and the real situation and mood in the working class, at a particular time, Harry Ratner makes an important point in Reluctant Revolutionary about a constant tendency for hyperactivity to isolate members from the very working class which they are supposedly trying to influence. Indeed my later experience was that the leadership seemed to want to break members' ties and relationships deliberately, just like a religious cult.
Not only was any kind of cultural or social life frowned upon, but as the WRP deteriorated comrades who became involved in struggles or took their trade union responsibilities seriously could find themselves in conflict with whatever meaningless "party tasks" were supposedly necessitated by the "revolutionary situation". (So "revolutionary" that half the party's members only existed on paper and more than half the branches never met).
Harry Ratner left the organisation for which he had done so much work, and came to question many of the ideas in which he had believed. But he never abandoned his loyalty to the cause of the oppressed or his honesty. The written work he has left is well worth reading, not just for his account of the past, but because he raises questions and issues which we continue to face. He has passed on the baton.
- His funeral will take place on Thursday 7th November at Markeaton Crematorium, Main Chapel at 2.00pm. As was his wish there will be a non-religious celebration of his life. His wife, Olive has asked that in lieu of flowers, a donation can be made, if you choose, to Breast Cancer Awareness. Donations can be made through the undertakers. A.W. Lymn at the Ilkeston office, 01159 444 121 where Scot will take your call. Or at Markeaton on the day.
Some writings by Harry Ratner