Al Richardson: An "unorthodox orthodox" Trotskyist

Bruce Robinson assesses the life and work of Al Richardson, historian of Trotskyism and editor of the journal Revolutionary History, who died unexpectedly in his sleep on 22 November, aged 61.

I first met Al in 1968 when he was an activist in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and a member of the International Marxist Group (the then British representative of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International). One thing from that time that sticks in my memory was his organisation of the "Karl Marx Memorial Pub Crawl" as a fund-raiser for the VSC. This involved a dwindling bunch of hardened drinkers following the route Marx would have taken from Soho to picnics on Hampstead Heath, stopping for a drink in each pub that Marx might have used. Historical research applied to a practical end! The prize for the final survivor was the door knocker from the house in Clerkenwell which Lenin had inhabited in 1903 which had become derelict.

In this period, Al played a role in my own political development. As someone who had come to the left in 1968 and identified as a Trotskyist without a deep understanding of what that meant, Al's knowledge and influence were valuable, though I took a different political path from that he advocated at the time. His ideas were usually communicated across the table in a "greasy spoon" café or a pub.

I write as a friend and comrade of Al's, who valued knowing him and will miss him. However we had serious political disagreements, which neither of us sought to avoid through false diplomacy. Both these aspects will be clear in what I have write.

Al was born into a working class family in the mining community of Barnsley in 1941. He became involved in politics while a student at Hull University, from where he graduated with a first in Classics. He then briefly worked as a lecturer at Exeter. After a few months in the youth organisation of Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League, he joined the IMG. Al visited Paris during May 68 and would tell of how striking workers came to the courtyard of the occupied Sorbonne, examining the stalls of the various far left organisations. By that time, the IMG, which led the Vietnam solidarity movement, was moving from an orientation towards the Labour Party and trade union left towards an adaptation to the largely student upsurge of 1968, accommodating to the ultra-leftism of much of that generation. Al was part of a faction in the IMG which opposed this, arguing for a continued orientation to the Labour Party and the working class. He was expelled from the IMG.

Two themes that were important in Al's political views for the rest of his life were apparent by this point. He continued to argue for Trotskyists to undertake work in the Labour Party, seeing it as a political party created by the working class. He opposed the idea that it was a viable alternative for Marxists to build their organisations by long term recruitment in ones and twos, seeing this refusal to engage with the existing labour movement as the mark of a sect.

Al also opposed what he saw as fads that led Marxists away from a clear class orientation. This hardened into a view in which any attempt to take up the specific oppressions of gender, race or sexual orientation was viewed as a manifestation of "popular frontism" which also split the working class. They were to be condemned without any distinction between different currents within movements or recognition that the oppression that they opposed was also real within the labour and socialist movements.

Al here consciously showed the weaknesses of a traditional, pre-70s Marxism, though it was often difficult to determine whether "the political" wasn't also "the personal". His repudiation of "political correctness" extended from these issues to such things as resolutely addressing women as "luv" and asserting the virtues of chips fried in lard and his right to smoke.

The expelled faction of the IMG joined up with a group from Militant around Chris Knight to form the Revolutionary Communist League, better known as the Chartists. (The name was taken from the "Socialist Charter", a left Labour initiative of the late 60s. Some descendants of this group are today to be found in Labour Left Briefing, others around the soft left journal Chartist.) This was to be the only period in which Al was involved directly in the leadership of a political organisation. He drew a number of people into the group and edited and wrote bulletins with both historical and contemporary material. This came to an end when Al dropped out of political activity for several years in the early 1970s, presumably for personal reasons.

When he returned to activity, it was as a historian rather than as an activist and this was to be his main role on the left for the rest of his life. While Al expressed, usually strongly, views on most political issues, he saw himself as above the concerns of what he called "the groups", though at different times he thought the Militant, the AWL and Workers' Action were the best on offer. He also wrote relatively little on contemporary issues. When I once challenged him as to why, given his views, he did not consider trying to draw people round him to form a political current, he replied, I thought evasively, that there were enough groups around already and there was no point in forming another - despite which he would continue to point out what he saw as the deficiencies of them all!

By the late 70s, he had begun to work with Sam Bornstein on the three books they wrote together. Two Steps Back dealt with the history of the Communist Party from 1935-45 as background to the two books on the history of British Trotskyism: Against the Stream, dealing with the period up to 1937, and War and the International, taking the story up to the end of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1950. The books were based both on documentary sources and on a series of interviews conducted with veteran Trotskyists, most of whose voices and experiences would have otherwise gone unrecorded by history. Al had an immense respect for the "old" Trotskyists, whom he thought considerably superior to his own contemporaries.

The books were not merely a narrative. Al's view of the history comes through strongly in their pages. (The books were genuinely collaborative and his view was also shared by Sam Bornstein.) This can be seen particularly in the chapters dealing with the foundation and decline of the Revolutionary Communist Party from 1944-50. Al sided with the RCP majority, of Jock Haston, Ted Grant and others, whom he saw as trying to work out a genuinely independent line on a whole range of questions given the failure of Trotsky's 1938-40 perspectives of the collapse of Stalinism and immediate revolution in the post-war period. This was in distinction to the mainstream Fourth International of Cannon and Pablo, who were condemned both for their factional manoeuvring in support of Gerry Healy's minority in the RCP and their perspective of immediate post-war crisis.

Yet on one of the major questions in dispute - whether to work in the Labour Party - War and the International argued that the RCP majority had missed a major opportunity by not going into the Labour Party from 1944 when it swung to the left. This was to be a life or death question for the RCP majority which went into crisis and collapsed when the perspective of a growing independent organisation was undermined by the post-war boom and the 1945-51 Labour government.

Whatever criticisms may be made of specific judgements in these books and whatever further work may deepen or dispute the material presented, they remain a foundation stone for the study of Trotskyism in Britain and one of the things for which Al will be most widely remembered.

In 1988 Al took the initiative for starting Revolutionary History as a journal dedicated to publishing materials on the history of the Trotskyist and other revolutionary movements. Al became the editor and, while he insisted on a broad editorial board, the journal came to reflect his own views about how to select and present historical material. Al was particularly concerned to publish documentary material that presented Trotskyist movements, their analyses and disputes in their own words, though in recent years there has been more analytical historical research. Part of his motivation was that the Trotskyists who had been hidden or slandered in bourgeois or Stalinist history should be able to speak for themselves. This meant that critical reviews of the material tended to be confined to introductions, often written by Al himself, which sometimes became the outlet for his more general political views.

He was resolutely opposed to making marketability or anything other than what he saw as the historical importance of the topic and material itself determine what went into the journal. While Revolutionary History at its best has provided fresh material and new insights into history of the Trotskyist movement, there has inevitably been an unevenness in the value of the material.

Al's politics were those of an "unorthodox orthodox" Trotskyism - with all the tensions and contradictions that implies. He would defend Trotsky's theory of the USSR as a degenerate workers' state but from his own viewpoint which was in many ways different from Trotsky's. For example, in his introduction to a collection of writings from the years after the Russian Revolution, he used Lenin's assessment of the existence of state capitalism in the USSR after 1917 and an abstract definition of a workers' state to minimise any qualitative distinctions between Stalinism after 1928 and what went before. Arguing often with him over this and other topics, I felt that his orthodoxy became increasingly hollow, but that he wanted to hold on to it. He continued to see himself as part of a broad Trotskyist movement, even though immediately after the end of the USSR he had written of the need for a "post-Trotskyism". Sometimes his love of historical parallels could lead him astray, as in a recent discussion we had on the AWL's position on Israel / Palestine, in which he based his argument on what happened to the Jews in the first century AD!

Al as a person could be both warm and prickly. He was personally concerned about his friends, towards whom he showed considerable loyalty, even if, in return, he could be demanding at times. He lived his life according to principles he saw as incorporating a basic political and human decency. He saw it as a matter of principle to make his knowledge and his archive of books and documents available to researchers and socialists. However vigorous a political argument, he never took it personally, sometimes shrugging his shoulders when he felt that he couldn't understand why his opponents' obtuseness prevented them from agreeing with him. Nevertheless he increasingly came to project a "grumpy old man" persona, which may have been related to pressures in his working life.

Al's vast historical knowledge will be missed. He was an authority on ancient Egypt (in relation to which he was a staunch defender of Marx's concept of the Asiatic mode of production), visiting tombs in Egypt to photograph hieroglyphic inscriptions some of which he later translated. Al could easily have pursued a successful academic career, but instead worked as a history teacher in a south London school. All of his reading and research was carried out in his spare time, yet he was always generous with that time when approached by others. I cannot judge his work as a teacher, but know his sense of duty towards his largely working-class students, his pride in their achievements and his enthusiasm and capacity for talking about and communicating history. He was apparently subject to an increasingly unpleasant regime in his school and was looking forward to his retirement in which he could devote himself to projects of his own choosing. Sadly, he had no chance to do so.

We send our condolences to his children, Eric and Charlotte, and to his family.

By the time this appears, Al's funeral will have taken place. A memorial meeting will be held in March.


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