Dave Spencer died on 24 April 2012, at the age of 71.
He was one of the very first people to join the Workers’ Fight group, forerunner of the AWL, when it “went public” in the British labour movement in October 1967.
Before that Workers’ Fight, a tiny group formed in a faction fight within the Militant group, had put all its publishing efforts in working on Workers’ Republic, the theoretical magazine of the Irish Workers’ Group, hoping to help consolidate the IWG as a Trotskyist organisation.
Like many of the early Workers’ Fight members, Dave had first (from about 1960, I think) been active in the Socialist Labour League (SLL), led by Gerry Healy. The SLL was then, and would be until the early 70s, the most active of the revolutionary socialist groups.
In 1967 it was lurching through sectarianism towards craziness; from 1976 it would sell itself to Arab despots in order to sustain its daily paper, and then in 1985 it would explode, leaving almost no trace today.
Most ex-Healyites were deeply marked by the intense activism and sect regime of the SLL. Dave was less so. He was matter-of-fact, commonsensical, affable, where the Healyites were ostentatiously “theoretical” and shrill.
Dave would debunk the Healyites’ ballyhoo about their “theory”: in the hyper-active SLL, he would say, “theory” was what you did in the bus on the way to “practice”. He would recount how Healy had told him to “get rid of” his wife Margaret, a devout Catholic. Dave had had no qualms about refusing. Most Healyites had many qualms about defiance.
In 1968 Workers’ Fight took up a unity call from IS (forerunner of the SWP), and became until late 1971 a “tendency” within IS. In most of the few areas where there were WF members, by late 1969 IS was anathematising and ghettoising them.
Dave, in Coventry, remained unmarginalised even though he was a minority of one in the local IS. In part, I guess, that was because the majority saw him as no threat; in part, it was Dave’s way.
In debate he was good-humoured, and even when you disagreed entirely with him, you thought he really believed what he was saying.
He wasn’t striking a pose, or defending an interest, or seeking prestige. In the first years after WF was expelled from IS in December 1971, Dave was something of a one-person minority arguing for us to turn more to the Labour Party. (I was especially vocal against him, and I was wrong).
Dave was well-known and well-respected in the Coventry labour movement, as well as being for many years the Workers’ Fight organiser in the city.
He parted ways with us politically in 1984. In 1981 we had merged with the Workers’ Socialist League, a group led by Alan Thornett.
The fusion went bad, in part because the WSL was more demoralised than we had thought at the time of fusion, and disintegrated within the fused organisation, generating one after another dilute-Healyite subgroup which would rage against the “Pabloite” ex-WF core.
In the factional zoo which developed, Dave became a member of a small subgroup which agreed with the majority (mostly ex-WF) on all the big disputed political issues, but differentiated by being “for unity” above all else.
Early in the 1984-5 miners’ strike we finally resolved the impasse by expelling the rump group round Thornett, maybe a quarter of his 1981 crowd. It was already in a state of cold split.
We had to force a split or be paralysed in the great miners’ struggle; in fact, after the split, we bounded forward. But Dave and his subgroup rallied against the expulsion and allied with Thornett (whom they disagreed with) against the majority (whom they largely agreed with). Dave condemned us (and would to the end condemn us) as having once been healthy but then after 1984 become “a sect”.
After a short period of independent existence, Thornett’s reconstituted group went into the ISG (today Socialist Resistance). Dave went with them, but only briefly.
After that he ended up (in my view) stuck in repeatedly proving that the most sincere advocacy of unpretentious common-sense, anti-sectarianism, unity, and building-from-below may produce paradoxical results. He hiked through collaboration with or membership of a bewildering string of small splinter groups (ISG, SLP, DSA, CPGB, CMP, Commune, and I don’t know what else), and an endless series of storm-in-a-teacup faction fights.
In the 1990s sometime, I visited Dave in Coventry, and he described how he’d found the ISG intolerable.
Our conversation was friendly and it looked like we might re-establish dialogue or even collaboration. It didn’t happen. I regret that.
• Funeral: 10 May, 2.15pm, Canley Crematorium, Cannon Hill Road, Coventry CV4 7DF.