Remarks by Tony Carew at the Memorial Meeting, Conway Hall, London, February 14, 2004
Comrades, Brothers and Sisters:
My claim to fame as far as these proceedings are concerned is that I knew Walter well for nearly 35 years. I worked with him on the editorial board of Voice of the Unions and on various academic projects of a historical nature. Correspondence with Walter makes up one of my bulkiest files. I can safely say that knowing Walter affected my life in a major way. Had I not met him, it is most likely that I would not have pursued the course that I did in subsequent years. I owe him a great deal and so I am pleased to have this opportunity to pay tribute to him.
In reflecting recently on what I know of him, it became clear to me that I could talk for hours today. But that would deny others here the opportunity to make their contribution and so I will confine my remarks to aspects of Walter’s life that may not be well-known. People have recognised him as a significant labour movement activist and intellectual. But he was also a very private person, not given to talking much about himself, and so it is worth recalling the range of his interests in a very full life.
He was born and raised in East Ham. He won a scholarship to King’s College, Wimbledon and left early during the Second World War with just a school certificate. He was rejected for military service because of poor eyesight and so he began work as a clerk in the Ministry of Economic Warfare. It was at this stage, aged 18, that he joined the ranks of organised labour. It’s possible to map his subsequent development in terms of a series of hard and sometimes bitter experiences.
He came of age in labour movement terms during the early years of the cold war and was only 21 when he led his first strike as a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&GWU). At the time he was working at the giant American air force base at Burtonwood near Warrington and was in the process of organising fellow warehousemen attached to the PX, the American equivalent of NAAFI. When one of his members was fired, he called a strike which was solidly supported. There was the prospect of it spreading to the maintenance workers on the base: a potentially serious development given that this was at the height of the Berlin Airlift and Burton wood was the USAF’s main service and maintenance depot for that operation. But the local T&GWU officials declined to back the strike, Walter was transferred to a safer location within the base -- and because of this bitter experience he subsequently transferred his loyalties to the Union of Shop and Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW).
Reminiscing about this strike during his final months, Walter took some delight in the ironic fact that, but for the intervention of T&GWU officialdom, the strike might have seriously affected the outcome of the Berlin Airlift and, thereby possibly, the entire course of the cold war!
While working in various jobs in commerce and import/export shipping during the 1950s, Walter became a leading rank and file activist in USDAW. He was a member of the London District Committee and a regular delegate at the union’s conferences as well as Labour Party and TUC conferences. He was always a prominent speaker. Assisted by Audrey Wise, Walter led a major campaign which challenged the whole basis of USDAW’s recruitment and wage bargaining strategy. He had come to the conclusion that USDAW’s problem of chronic membership turnover would never be overcome unless it developed a more aggressive wage bargaining strategy among private sector supermarkets, with a focus on high wages for strategically important staff in selected stores. In a widely distributed pamphlet, he made the case for this approach even at the expense of USDAW’s traditional emphasis on national minimum wage rates. At USDAW’s annual conference, Walter moved a resolution on this in a powerful speech. The general secretary, Alf Allen, interpreted the move as a veiled motion of ‘no confidence’ in the leadership and hinted that he would resign if it carried. In fact it was passed with an overwhelming majority at the urging of national president Walter Padley – but then quietly ignored by the Executive Committee. It was another hard lesson for Walter.
He was certainly a thorn in the side of the union leadership. Yet he was later awarded Life Membership of USDAW – and was very proud of the distinction.
From his teens, Walter had been an active member of the Labour Party having first joined the Labour League of Youth in 1944. He also developed close links with Eric Heffer and Harry McShane who were prominent in the Socialist Workers’ Federation. From the outset, he was an uncompromising anti-Stalinist. And it was this that led him into the leadership of a press campaign to secure the release from a Soviet labour camp of Invergordon mutineer Len Wincott who had fallen foul of Stalin after fighting with the Red Army in Leningrad. As part of this campaign, Walter organised a picket outside Claridge’s Hotel where Nikita Khrushchev and Marshall Bulganin were staying during their famous visit to Britain in 1956. Prior to this action, there was little awareness in Britain that Wincott was in fact a political prisoner.
Walter’s career as a writer for the left wing press began with contributions to the organ of the Wimbledon Labour League of Youth. Over time his articles would appear in publications as diverse as the ILP’s Socialist Leader, Eric Heffer’s paper Revolt, the Italian Socialist Party daily Avanti, the journal of the Imre Nagy Society and the Argentine Socialist Party’s publication.
In trying to make sense of the problems of the contemporary labour movement, Walter became interested in labour history and in so doing also developed a keen international perspective. In the early 1950s he had met Alfred Rosmer, friend of Trotsky and one of the founders of the French Communist Party and the Communist International, the Comintern, who was later expelled from the Party. Walter also came into contact with people from the dissident Italian left such as Giulio Seniga, who had broken with Communist Party leader Togliatti and had become a focus for disenchanted communists and socialists. Similarly, Walter met and befriended Bruno Rizzi, the theoretician of Soviet society. Walter spent holidays with Rizzi on Lake Garda and in his writings helped introduce his ideas on “bureaucratic collectivism” to an English readership.
However, Walter was not just interested in writing for socialist and union papers. He was beginning to explore the British revolutionary tradition and how this had been derailed after the First World War, and he wanted to write in depth about this. But how to become a historian without any formal grounding in the subject? To have more time for his research -- much of it in the Reading Room of the British Museum for which he held a readers ticket for every year from 1956 until he became housebound -- he quit a steady job in a merchant bank and qualified as a London tour guide for the greater flexibility of hours that this would give him. So, in the latter part of the 1950s one part of his existence involved mornings devoted to exploring the history of organisations such as the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist Labour Party, the Shop Stewards’ Movement, and their metamorphosis in to the British Communist Party. Afternoons were spent showing tourists around places such as the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and Hampton Court. What he didn’t know about Nelson’s Column wasn’t worth knowing! Over time, he extended his tourist territory, taking in Shakespeare country, Balmoral and even Blarney Castle in Ireland – where he kissed the Blarney Stone to obvious good effect.
But Walter found it extremely hard to get acceptance as a historian. By the late 1950s, he had produced an account of the British revolutionary movement. It was initially accepted for publication by Allen and Unwin, but then turned down. The reason? Allen and Unwin believed that, with his lack of formal academic qualifications they would have difficulty in selling copies.
It was this that made Walter determined to acquire some formal education and took him to Ruskin College. With a Labour Party scholarship, he enrolled at Ruskin at the age of 36. Two years later he passed out with distinction and won a place at St Catherine’s College, Oxford to undertake post-graduate study. There his thesis enabled him to develop further his analysis of the British revolutionary tradition. And this formed the basis of his famous Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-20 which was published in 1969.
By this time, Walter had been a visiting professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and was established as a research fellow at Sussex University. But that is running ahead of the story.
While still at Ruskin, in 1963 Walter had, in conjunction with Richard Fletcher and Ernie Roberts, taken the lead in founding the independent monthly paper Voice of the Unions as a forum for rank and file opinion. Launched at a critical time, between the death of Hugh Gaitskell and the election of Harold Wilson as Labour Party leader, its aim was to help shift the centre of gravity of the labour movement in the direction of democratic socialism. It was aimed explicitly at shop floor activists. The first edition proclaimed the need for:
A strong national Union Voice which will speak out for those in the trade unions and the Labour Party who are storming the citadels of capitalism and are actively changing society. We shall endeavour to become their loud, clear voice.
Walter soon became Managing Editor of the paper. It was his belief that the left could only win by emphasising the domestic concerns of the rank and file rather than the foreign policy issues that had divided the movement during the Bevanite battles of the 1950s. So Voice’s primary focus was on the then forgotten notion of workers’ control. Walter’s first signed article for the paper entitled “Job Control Now” insisted:
Socialism means more than state ownership and a horde of men in white coats. We want workers’ control and job democracy…The time to act is now.”
The aim was to raise working-class consciousness and encourage self-activity, lessen dependence on leadership from above and imbue it with a self-confidence of its own.
Voice itself was run on democratic lines with rank and file contributions published unedited. Walter and Richard Fletcher guided the work of the editorial board. On an entirely voluntary basis, Walter’s wife Pam kept the books, handled the paperwork and supervised the distribution. Along with half a dozen other comrades based in Brighton – some here today – I became part of the operation, sharing responsibility for assembling the copy for the “Industrial Notes” on the back page.
In attempting to empower workers in their daily struggles, Voice was willing to produce local or industrial editions – sometimes just a one-off – with the front and back pages carrying the particular message of the local group or campaign, while the centre pages carried the main edition of Voice. Thus we had up to a dozen of these – Nottingham Voice, Humberside Voice, Tyneside Voice, London Voice, Miners’ Voice, Dockers’ Voice, Voice of Ford Workers, and Engineering Voice. It was a non-sectarian operation, not financed by party or wealthy patron. It existed only on the basis of sales. Walter’s rule was: if workers won’t buy it, then it doesn’t deserve to survive.
By plugging away at the theme of workers’ control, Voice helped light a flame in the British labour movement. Local workers’ control groups began to spring up in the mid 1960s, and the Wilson government was nudged towards experimentation with worker directors in the steel industry. The payoff came in 1968 when, at a conference sponsored by Voice, the Institute for Workers’ Control was formed in Sheffield. Walter delivered the opening keynote address:
There is probably no more relevant idea to working people everywhere than the idea of industrial democracy-workers’ control. Five years ago the number of people concerned with this idea could have met in someone’s living room and sat around a small table. Now we have over 300 delegates…
Our task from now on should be to make industrial democracy a part of the bread and butter of labour movement issues, to assimilate it into the flesh and blood of the movement.
And he went on to suggest some very practical ways to advance the campaign. For Walter, workers’ control was not a piece of rhetoric referring to something that might happen “after the revolution” It was a realistic agenda for militant activity in the here and now.
Walter’s opening address to the IWC was delivered just months before the eruption of worker and student militancy in May 1968. As a leading advocate of workers’ control, he was much in demand as a public speaker in those heady days of 1968-69. Recently back from Detroit where he had been a visiting professor at Wayne State University, he appeared on a series of panel discussions on industrial democracy on BBC Radio and spoke at public rallies as far away as Bologna in Italy’s “red belt” and in Vancouver, the Canadian hotbed of trade union militancy.
One of the major achievements of Voice in 1968 was through its sub-edition Engineering Voice which successfully campaigned for the election of Hugh Scanlon as the president of the Amalgamated Engineering Union with a personal commitment to workers’ control. But the engineering Broad Left, for which Engineering Voice spoke, was an uneasy coalition of interests. There were tensions between those who simply saw the paper as a vehicle for electoral politics and those, like Walter, who saw it as a means for pressing for greater radicalism beyond mere wage militancy. Most of all, there was tension over Voice’s forthright criticism of soviet communism. The truth was that Communists felt very uncomfortable with Walter as editor of Voice. Their own shop floor publication The Metalworker had folded just as Voice was launched. Now for the first time in well over a generation the main shop steward journal in engineering was airing views that were not always to the liking of the Communist Party hierarchy. Bert Ramelson, the CPGB industrial organiser once referred to Walter as the most dangerous anti-communist in Britain.
Walter dismissed the accusation that he was “anti-communist” as a lazy slogan designed to stifle legitimate debate about the merits of Communism. He was first and foremost a democratic socialist and even-handed in his criticism of the USA – he was twice denied a visa by the Americans – and the USSR. A glance at the pages of Voice reveals many hard-hitting pieces targeting the USA as much as the Soviet Union. Typical was the article entitled “Two Men Who Never Walked a Picket Line” in which Walter drew attention to an obvious similarity between the American business union leader, George Meany and his Soviet counterpart, Alexander Shelyepin, the former KGB chief. Under the heading “Is Your Union Affiliated to the CIA?” Voice was the first British labour paper to expose CIA dirty tricks in the trade union field. And in 1973 Voice ran a feature alleging CIA influence-peddling in respect of a top election in the International Metalworkers’ Federation.
This particular piece in Engineering Voice caused the president of the American United Automobile Workers, Len Woodcock to protest angrily to Hugh Scanlon. But Scanlon wasn’t prepared to be browbeaten and responded that it was time such trade union elections were conducted openly and without intrigue. Voice clearly had a point that had to be supported.
From the late 1960s to the late 1970s Walter was, by turns, a research fellow in the Centre for Contemporary European Studies at Sussex University, senior research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and then again a senior research fellow at the Institute for Manpower Studies at Sussex. His important study of the Revolutionary Movement in Britain had been published with glowing reviews from eminent historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Henry Pelling (though he took most delight in a review in Voice by Brian Nicholson, a Voice worker who was then a London docker and later national president of the T&GWU.) After this book, he started to trace the history and development of the labour movement in major western European countries. His aim was to track the dynamic – or, as Walter would have put it – the stalled dynamic of organised labour in Europe. Others present might want to say something about his 1975 book, The Labour Movement in Europe. I would just observe that part of his analysis of the failure of the labour to advance after the Great War pointed to the divisive influence of European communist parties operating in the interests of Soviet foreign policy. Part of his solution lay in the adoption of more vigorous policies of social ownership with full industrial democracy.
These international concerns were also reflected in Walter’s contributions to Voice. There was much informed coverage of international affairs at a time when the labour movement was only just wakening up to the challenge of multi-national companies. Of course, this was in no small part due to the good contacts Walter had with key figures in the international trade union movement such as Dan Gallin, general secretary of the International Union of Food Workers and Vic Thorpe, who had been a member of the Voice editorial board before becoming general secretary of the International Chemical Workers’ Federation – both of whom are here today. At a time when the international labour movement was divided by the cold war, Walter campaigned for the communist World Federation of Trade Unions to dissolve itself and for a revitalisation of both the Socialist International and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. At one point he called for the unification of the political and trade union internationals within the European context.
When Walter ceased to edit Voice he was free to devote more time to his next big project, a mammoth history of the Comintern, the Communist International. Remarkably he undertook most of this work without a permanent academic post. I believe that this was largely a matter of choice, even though it meant that he had no regular income. The fact was that he did not have a great deal of time for the niceties of academia. He had little respect for uncommitted academics who saw themselves as “above the battle” and no more for “armchair revolutionaries”. He once invited Don McGregor, the old brummie activist, ILPer and Voice stalwart of scores of campaigns to dine with him on high table at Nuffield and was tickled pink at the way that Don took issue with an analysis of Labour under Harold Wilson advanced by fellow diner David Butler, the guru of general election trends, offering his own more sophisticated analysis of what the Labour movement was all about..
And yet Walter himself had a very effective way of dealing with the grandees of academia. On one occasion while at Nuffield College he gave a paper at a faculty sociology seminar attended by the big names in the field. The paper was entitled “Some Problems of Methodology Encountered in a Study of European Labour Movements”. Walter began:
I have to introduce this paper with at least two disclaimers. The first is that due to occupation in other directions, I have travelled this far on my journey through life without ever giving a seminar paper before. The burden of probability suggests therefore that in form and perhaps in content, this contribution may leave a great deal to be desired.
The second confession, even more disturbing than the first, is that I am not a sociologist, I have never been trained in the discipline, nor read the masters of the faith. This paper may then be political sociology: it may not. I shall leave it to the audience to judge.
Why then, you may ask, am I here? I second that question. I am something at a loss to answer it myself.
He was making it clear to them that he was not prepared to play the game by their rules. But then he went on to dazzle them with a presentation of a subject of which he was a complete master.
But to return to the point about his not having a permanent academic post. The main explanation was that he felt he couldn’t afford the time to go job-hunting when there was important research to be done on the history of international communism. On several occasions, I tipped him off about university job vacancies within his field, but basically he didn’t have the stomach for going out and selling himself to an interview panel. Years earlier he had turned down the offer of the research directorship of USDAW on the grounds that there were more important ways in which he could serve the labour movement. And his Comintern research was that way.
Yet in working on it, he set himself such a punishing schedule that he began to make himself ill. He would work around the clock for days and weeks on end. And then he would be so physically and mentally exhausted that he felt the need to retreat into the quiet of the countryside, sleeping long hours and re-charging his batteries. It was a very tough routine.
His completed study of the Comintern – running to well over 1000 typescript pages – proved too long for commercial publishers to take it on. But knowing that the importance of the work lay in the enormous detail he had collected, Walter was not prepared to cut it to please any publisher. And so it remains unpublished. I am one of the few people to have read it and I’ll make just one point about it. Its virtue lies in the emphasis it places on the role of Communist front organisations. This was Walter’s great insight. He makes it clear that by the early 1930s, with the failure of “open” Communist Party activity, the Comintern switched emphasis to undercover work through front organisations – the “popular” fronts as in France and Spain in the mid 1930s; the “people’s” fronts in Eastern Europe in 1946-47 that paved the way for the imposition of one-party rule, and the various fronts that accompanied the Euro Communism of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a dishonest politics -- organisations purporting to be what they weren’t: core members playing by rules different from those that applied to the generality of foot soldiers. Walter deplored it. Yet he had a sneaking regard for Willi Muenzenberg, the Comintern architect of the strategy and came to the conclusion that he was, in his own way, as important a strategist of Communism as Lenin himself.
In 1980 Sir Alan Bullock (Lord Bullock) Walter’s old head of college at St. Catherine’s, Oxford invited him to be one of a dozen or so internationally renowned contributors to a book he was editing on “Europe’s Achievements”. Walter was asked to contribute a chapter on “Workers in Europe”. In this piece he predicted the collapse of Communism “well before the end of the century”. He wrote:
Soviet “socialism” is not at all the pattern of the future. Well before the end of the century it is likely to appear as an ephemeral, highly aberrant special case. When the Soviet system disintegrates, the communist regimes in their present form in Eastern Europe assuredly will rapidly fall into ruins as well.
Who else was saying that in 1980? When the Berlin Wall came down nine years later, Walter was not at all surprised.
He continued to campaign, to research and to write during years of increasingly indifferent health. He wrote regularly for Tribune. He led a press campaign to secure the release from a Soviet “psychiatric hospital” of Victor Klebanov who had been incarcerated for launching the first free trade union in Russia – just as he had campaigned for Len Wincott’s release a quarter of a century earlier. And at the time of his death he had one last project in hand. He had located the private archive of Jacob Reich (known in Comintern circles as “Comrade Thomas”) a Czech national who, as paymaster-in-chief of the Comintern, had been responsible for floating and sustaining a slough of national communist parties in the 1920s. Walter was planning to write a biographical account of Reich, but this was never finished. Time caught up with him.
Not long ago, he wrote to friends saying that he still remained a member of the Labour Party – though, as he said:
More from an instinct of class solidarity than respect for the abominable clique of self-serving individuals who purport to lead the present government at this time.
I will remember Walter Kendall as indefatigable, determined, sometimes “difficult”, but mostly with a great sense of fun, a booming, unforgettable laugh and a fine line in boot-lace ties. He was also someone who remained optimistic in adversity. Towards the end, he would quote Oscar Wilde:
Look down and you see the gutter,
Look up and you see the stars.
That should be an inspiration for us to keep up the struggle.