It is with great sadness that we inform you that our comrade Patrick Rolfe has died at the age of 24. He passed away on the evening of 10 June, following a long battle with a rare form of stomach cancer. Although he had been ill for some months, his death was unexpected and has come as a shock.
Patrick Rolfe joined Workers’ Liberty in 2008 as a student at Cambridge University. Although he was new to revolutionary politics, he immediately threw himself into building a student campaign against the marketisation of education and higher fees. In 2009 he organised an action for the Education Not for Sale campaign, where activists infiltrated a conference by the university bosses’ organisation Universities UK and shut it down.
After graduating from Cambridge, Patrick went to the Isle of Wight as one of a team of three young Workers’ Liberty comrades who sparked the struggle to save the Vestas wind turbine factory. Management had cracked down on attempts by workers to unionise the factory, and were planning to close it down. They expected little resistance; and many workers were convinced that they were powerless to stop the closure.
Camping outside the factory, with little time and few resources, Patrick and his comrades launched a campaign of agitation among workers and the local labour movement, which culminated in workers forming a committee inside the factory and staging an occupation of the plant.
Throughout this struggle and afterward, Patrick did more than organise – he wrote about the ideas of Marxist ecology, fleshing out a class-struggle approach to fighting climate change.
After the Vestas struggle, Patrick undertook a masters degree in environmental policy at Sussex University. There he helped build the Defend Sussex campaign, which launched a series of occupations against the management’s business plan to radically reform the University and sack over 100 staff. Patrick was victimised, as one of the “Sussex Six” he was suspended from his course.
The victimisation never fazed Patrick, and he and his comrades launched a national campaign for reinstatement, and won. At the same time, Patrick was organising the southern region of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, bringing activists from across the south coast to co-ordinating meetings.
Later on, Patrick developed disagreements with Workers’ Liberty and left the organisation, but he never dropped out of political activity. During the student movement of winter 2010, Patrick was organising protests with us at Leeds University.
Patrick will be fondly remembered by those who met him and who worked alongside him in the many campaigns he animated and took part in. He had a cool, rational approach and could be relied upon to work calmly and methodically, no matter what pressure he was under. He had a sharp, often dark sense of humour and a warm manner that endeared him to those who knew him.
For me the most impressive thing about Pat was his determination to always reason things through and pursue the truth, by his own lights. He never, ever ran away from his ideas. He was unafraid of the conclusions he drew. His political commitment never wavered, and he was writing articles, discussing politics with friends and planning campaigns from his hospital bed until the end.
The next issue of Solidarity will carry a fuller commemoration of Patrick’s life and political activism. We invite comrades to write in with their memories of Patrick.
More tributes to Patrick can be found at the Great Unrest blog, which Patrick wrote for; VentnorBlog, a news website for the Isle of Wight, which carried a lot of detailed coverage of the Vestas workers' struggle which Pat helped spark; the Really Open University, a blog run by education activists Patrick worked with in Leeds University; the Save Vestas blog, run by workers and supporters during the Vestas campaign, and the websites of other left groups and campaigns such as Revolution and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. Many more friends and comrades of Patrick have written tributes to him on personal blogs over the last few days.
A more detailed account of the early stages of the Vestas campaign, written by Patrick himself, can be found here.
I was saddened to learn of Patrick Rolfe’s tragic death. He was one of the finest representatives of a new generation of socialist activists. He combined a rational, cerebral approach to politics with audacious intervention in the class struggle. Patrick’s political achievements – particularly his endeavours in the Vestas workers’ struggle – will long remain an inspiration.
From Robin Sivapalan
Written for the ‘Vestas Library’ website:
Remembering Patrick Rolfe who died 10th June, one of a small group of young activists who came to the Isle of Wight in the summer of 2009, camped out in the Ryde Labour hall and the industrial estate in Newport, and helped kick-start the big campaign to keep open the Vestas factory and save 500 local jobs. Patrick had been involved, before this, in laying the groundwork of the politics that motivate this kind of unusual and radical intervention.
He helped set up the Workers’ Climate Action Network as a student, which took up and developped the growing demand for “Just Transition”. This demand is aimed at uniting the interests of those fighting for the environment, and those fighting for jobs: towards a transition to a sustainable economy – “just”, in that it should not create unemployment in areas that rely on the fossil fuel economy (aviation, coal, cars etc). Just Transition” and “Green Jobs” had become key slogans in the new red-green alliance that was slowly forming internationally.
Workers Climate Action, with Patrick heavily involved, worked within the Climate Camps protesting at Heathrow airport and Kingsnorth coal power station, to encourage workers in these workplaces to put themselves at the forefront of the struggle for the environment, and fight for alternative job creation. Workers Climate Action argued for a policy – with activists, local residents and workers – of “a workers’-led just transition”, asserting that those working directly in these polluting industries were key to bringing them down, but this relied on workers being won-over to fighting for, and actively shaping the creation of, alternative sustainable, socially-useful, skilled and rewarding work.
Patrick was among a few activists who researched the Lucas Plan from the 70s, where workers facing factory closures, developped an alternative workers’ plan that was submitted to management and government, in which they put forward some 250 alternative ways to deploy their existing skills and machinery. The workers at Lucas were leaving a legacy, that Patrick was keen to popularise, a challenge to future workers to relate to their work not as bees do, working unconsciously, but as active architects, designing the production of socially useful goods for the future. The Lucas workers decided that they would rather be designing and producing medical and mobility aids and green technologies than components for the arms industry.
Patrick saw not just the positive need for Vestas workers to keep making wind-turbines, but for workers at places like BAE on the island, to transition towards this type of socially progressive production, and for all production to be cooperative, free and publically-owned.
One of the lessons of the Lucas Plan was the need for cooperation and solidarity between the different groups of workers involved in taking forward new technologies and industries, academics, R&D workers, shop-floor, logistics, admin, etc. The idea is that through autonomous cooperation among the different sections of labour, workers could be rid of domineering and parasitic managers and bosses, and also overcome the alienation of doing (and understanding) just one part of the division of labour.
The Vestas campaign entailed mainly shop-floor workers, with the Research & Design being kept on, and very much separate in workplace, conditions and type of work, pay and background. They are relatively well-protected in an otherwise market-led company, where if the market dictates they will shut down a useable site on the Isle of Wight and build an entirely new one in Sheerness. If the R&D workers had had more loyalty to the shop-floor workers, then that would be the beginnings of a viable outfit for production on the Isle of Wight, accountable to the community not a trans-national company.
Pat chose to do a PhD focussing on the democratic issues entailed in the construction of wind-farms. He revisited the island last year to see the site at Cheverton Downs, where the Tory council had notoriously turned down the planning application that would have seen the first three wind turbines go up on the island. This was the other major issue holding back wind-energy production in the UK: planning policy and practice, especially in Tory areas.
Patrick and I talked, when he was here for the 1st Year anniversary of the Vestas campaign, about this project – the Vestas Library, independent working-class education – and he was very enthusiastic. He was also optimistic about local democratic planning, and we talked about the Ryde Community Plan. Had hoped to draft in his help at some point. The aims of this project, are very much in keeping with the kind of thinking that motivated Patrick, to help develop working-class self-education, confidence, creativity, cooperation and action, so that working-class people gain the perspective and the ability of taking control of the work they do.
I will remember Pat for his commitment to a socialist future. He wasn’t particularly dogmatic about what you called that better world, and he worked with anarchists, environmentalists, students, trade unionists, migrants – seeing that through solidarity, education, debate, party, music, work, love and struggle, a better world could be created.
I am weary with sadness at the loss of someone who offered so much to the areas of work I engage in. He was hugely active for free education, which meant to him, not just no fees, but an education shaped by students themelseves, in a world where distinctions of workers, students and teachers – and workplaces and universities – are abolished: every worker a student, every student a teacher, every workplace a university, every school a workplace etc. Built on equality, liberty, cooperation and solidarity against capitalism, greed, exploitation and alienation .
Pat was also a very good person, bright, funny, cheerful, thoughtful, creative, serious, earnest, humble, brave, hard-working. He is now even more to live up to, and we will all miss him.
I first met Pat as part of a group of activists who went to Vestas in early 2009. My lasting memories are of a man who was incredibly intelligent without being overbearing or patronising and very calm, but equally passionate. Almost everything for him was an opportunity for analysis leading on to specific and planned action, for example an understanding of the Vestas factory as post-Fordist, which translated in to a more thought-out approach to agitation at the factory gates.
The Vestas struggle was chaotic for all involved, but I never remember Pat losing his temper or becoming aggravated. He would look at what was going on around him and piece together what seemed to him to be the next step, usually he was right. The last time I saw Pat was in Leeds, towards the end of 2010 and he remained calm, passionate and intellectual, above all with a wry sense of humour that was more disarming and thought provoking than a lot of what passes for debate on the left. I've been reading over a lot of what he wrote recently; his articles for Workers' Liberty and the Great Unrest are a tribute to his life that should be read widely.
I first met Pat at a youth dayschool the AWL held in early 2008 at the University of East London. His partner at the time had bought a ticket to the event but couldn't make it, so Pat came instead. A comrade who wasn't sure about him told me he was a Tory! In fact Pat was a left-wing, libertarian liberal (he had briefly worked for the Lib Dems and for the No2ID campaign if I remember rightly), but was developing fast in the direction of Marxism. As soon as I spoke to him I thought, this guy's not a Tory...
The last time I really spent with him was at Glastonbury last year, doing Workers' Beer. Pat was working for the Education Not for Sale team. As usual he was great fun (he had a laconic, super-understated, but hilarious sense of humour), but also a source of fascinating conversation and discussion which inspired the young comrades there. After that my only real contact with him was discussions while he was leaving the AWL and a brief chat on new year's eve at a party. I'm very sorry I didn't see him again.
I came to know Patrick through his activism in Education Not For Sale in Cambridge in 2008, and as part of the occupation of the Law Faculty in 2009 in opposition to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. As many others have said, Patrick combined a great warmth of personality with a sharp intellect and political life in Cambridge was greatly enhanced by his presence and activity. My main contact with Patrick after he left Cambridge was through our collaboration on the Great Unrest blog, and I was always very excited when he offered fresh thinking on a range of issues, especially his nuanced analysis of higher education. His writings will be a a great and lasting testament to a keen intelligence and a sharp wit. I last saw Patrick outside the Egyptian Embassy in London on January 29th 2011. My lasting memory of him is a fitting one, of a warm hug from a great friend and comrade in the springtime of the Egyptian Revolution. Many people will miss Patrick but no one will forget him or cease to recognise the positive contribution he made to life and to the struggle for a better world.
I never knew Patrick particularly well, something I regret because whenever we did spend time together we always got on well and I think we could've been better and closer friends than we were. I shared his dark sense of humour which, as far as I can tell, never left him. I last saw him in hospital in April; he was terribly weak and frail, and in almost constant pain. But he had not let his illness effect his character; he retained all his warmth, friendliness and humour. It seems trivial to write about how "nice" Patrick was, but on a far-left where basic human decency is very often in short supply, people like Patrick stand out.
I first met him at the Kingsnorth Climate Camp in 2008. I spent a lot of time, with Patrick and others, at all hours of the day and night up at "K5", the Camp's back gate that was periodically besieged - sometimes violently - by the police. Patrick didn't shrink from those confrontations when they were necessary and when we were just sat around - at some horrific hour in the rain - Patrick's conversation made the time a lot more enjoyable. In the political work we did there (attempting to engage with the workers at the Kingsnorth power station that the Camp was targeting), Patrick was incredibly hard-working and committed.
That commitment was also what characterised his role - his irreplaceable role - in the Vestas campaign the following summer. I remember a brief caucus at the AWL conference in (I think) May 2009 when we discussed the issue of the closure and whether there was anything we could do to help the workers organise some resistance. Some people in the caucus (probably me, to be honest; I have a streak of cynical pessimism that, despite his sometimes-sardonic sense of humour, I never saw in Patrick) were sceptical about the possibilities but Patrick was among those for whom there was never any doubt that we should do whatever we could to make links with the workers and try to catalyse a fightback. That a group of not much more than a hundred socialists, none of whom lived on the Isle of Wight, could catalyse and help shape the kind of campaign we did is a lasting testament to Patrick and his commitment, in the best of the spirit of James Cannon, to "do what's necessary, not what's 'possible'".
Others have already written about Patrick's abilities as a thinker and a writer. He was the beneficiary of an excellent education and he put it to excellent use in the service of the best cause possible. Even when I disagreed with his conclusions, as I did with a lot of what he wrote towards the end of his life, it was clear that he had given genuine thought to what he had written and was not writing out of knee-jerk sectarian impulses - something which is sadly all too rare, even amongst younger activists.
I've been active on the revolutionary left for ten years (almost half my life). In those ten years I've found that you tend to come across two sorts of people; one, the sort of person who - for whatever reason - you just cannot see making a positive contribution to revolutionary struggle. Maybe they're so twisted by sectarianism, so jaded by defeat or just "in it for the wrong reasons". The second sort of person is someone who - even if they're not in the same organisation or not always on exactly the same wavelength politically all the time - you would want at your side on a picket line, who you know has got basically the right instincts, who you know is, in the most fundamental sense imaginable, on your side. Someone of whom you can say "they are one of us", and mean it. Patrick Rolfe was unquestionably the second sort of person. He was one of us. Our cause is poorer for his loss.
At Patrick's funeral, a series of his family, friends and comrades from political work gave speeches commemorating his life. The following is the text of the speech I delivered:
I met Patrick Rolfe at a party at university in 2007. It was late at night and he was charging around dressed as a cowboy. He was a funny and profoundly generous person. But I came to know him best through political work. In 2008 and 2009 we worked together very closely politically, and it was in that time that I came to see what was most inspiring in Patrick's character, the thing for which I admire him the most. That was his attitude to ideas.
There is a letter, that Karl Marx wrote to a friend when he was 25 years old. In it, he writes about what he aspires to be, what he hopes to do. In it, the young man wrote that what was needed was “Ruthless criticism of all that exists – ruthless in the sense of not being afraid of the results that it arrives at; and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be”.
There is no more fitting description of the spirit in which Patrick lived and thought. That was the principle that guided Patrick's political work.
Patrick saw injustice in the world and he wanted to get to the bottom of it. He became a revolutionary, an anti-capitalist. He thought about the world and developed ideas that are not popular. They are considered extreme ideas, and the people who hold them a discredited minority. It is not comfortable or easy to hold to these ideas, if you take them seriously.
Pat didn't arrive at these conclusions through any kind of romantic enthusiasm; he didn't arrive at them lightly. He thought things through, methodically and clearly, and he found what he found.
Holding extreme ideas is not easy. But what's even harder is to make those ideas the organising principle of your life, to place yourself in that minority and dedicate yourself to a body of ideas that you constantly question. I don't think it ever occurred to Pat that he had any option but to do that.
Patrick consciously and deliberately ordered his life around his political ideas. They were the motor force that guided the decisions he made about the course of his life. From the moment that he became politically active, he was in constant motion. He organised university occupations, direct actions, meetings. He wrote a huge amount, of leaflets, pamphlets and articles of all kinds. He was always ready to try to educate the people around him. I remember, for example, when Patrick sat me down and taught me about inflation for an afternoon, with incredible patience. I've only met one or two people who had such a capacity to digest and explain information.
And Patrick was one of a group of three of us who went to the Isle of Wight to launch a campaign to save the Vestas wind turbine factory, a campaign that saw us sleeping rough for weeks on end, trying, ultimately successfully, to convince a threatened, un-unionised and demoralised workforce to do what seemed impossible and organise a factory occupation.
Patrick carried out his tasks without complaint, and stood up to adversity and took on impossible challenges with a singular calm and strength that came from having thought clearly about what he was doing. He couldn't turn his back on his ideas.
Even when put under great pressure by events, whatever it was, Patrick was always driven by an urge to understand and explain the things he saw around him. It was like breathing: Patrick would never stop interrogating and thinking, and writing.
In the last conversation I ever had with Patrick, I remember him wondering at and criticising people who built up a wall between their lives and their ideas about the world, people who refused to measure their lives against their beliefs, or who didn't measure their beliefs against reality, who relied on received wisdom. For Patrick, such a thing was unthinkable. I think he viewed it as turning your back on your own critical faculties, as renouncing the thing that made you human. He never did that.
All his life, Patrick renounced the comfort of received wisdom, of easy certainties. He was given over to a different kind of certainty – the absolute conviction that the only thing that should govern your life is your ability to think and to reason. He was unafraid of where his reason led him. He did what it told him needed to be done. The direction of his life, the choice of his studies, the struggles he undertook, the places he went to live and work, he didn't wander unthinking into any of these. All of these things, he chose - and he chose them in accordance with his conscience. To my mind, that is the greatest thing that one could aspire to, and it is the measure of what it means to be truly alive.