Patrick Rolfe, a revolutionary socialist activist and member of Workers’ Liberty between 2008 and 2010, died on 10 June from a rare form of stomach cancer. Patrick was a leading activist in a number of campaigns, particularly around issues of climate change and free education as a student at Cambridge, Sussex and Leeds.
He was one of the young AWL members who helped spark the occupation and solidarity campaign against the closure of the Vestas wind turbine blades factory on the Isle of Wight. He was later one of the “Sussex Six”, the victimised activists suspended by the University of Sussex for their role in an occupation and reinstated following a massive solidarity campaign. Here we print recollections of Patrick from comrades who knew him and worked with him.
Everything was an opportunity
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 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.
Committed to a socialist future
Patrick Rolfe was 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 that in laying the groundwork of the politics that motivate this kind of unusual and radical intervention.
Workers’ Climate Action, which Patrick was heavily involved in, 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.
Patrick was among a few activists who researched the Lucas Plan from the 70s. Lucas workers facing factory closures, developed an alternative workers’ plan that was submitted to management and government. 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.
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 about the Vestas Library, a venture in 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. 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 themselves, 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.
Robin Sivapalan (abridged from bit.ly/kdIDNO)
One of the finest representatives of his generation of activists
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.
A keen intelligence and a sharp wit
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 29 January 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.
Dedicated and warm
I knew Patrick from his time in Leeds as well as meeting him at various ENS events in London, and he’ll be sorely missed.
He was an intelligent, articulate, dedicated and open individual with an incredible sense of warmth and charm. It is incredibly sad to see him go before his time. My sympathies to his family, friends and comrades.
Dan Edwards, University of Leeds activist and Revo member
Patrick Rolfe was one of us
I never knew Patrick particularly well; something I regret. 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 affect 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 when we discussed the issue of the closure and whether there was anything we could do to help the workers organise some resistance. 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.
Patrick 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.
I’ve found that you tend to come across two sorts of people on the far left; one, the sort of person who — for whatever reason — you just cannot see making a positive contribution to revolutionary struggle.
The second sort of person is someone who — even if they’re not in the same organisation, or not on 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.
Ready to get stuck in
I met Patrick in 2009 during that peculiar episode in my life I call Vestas.
Patrick and some other idealistic young people went and persuaded some of the workers at a wind turbine blade factory on the Isle of Wight to occupy the factory rather than meekly accept job losses when the Vestas company decided to close it down. I was roped in to run the ‘Save Vestas’ blog and it dominated my life for a good few months in 2009. I remember Patrick above all as a very positive person. When you met him he would bowl up to you, fling down his bag, and be ready to get stuck in to whatever was going on.