Dave Spencer, 1940-2012

Submitted by martin on 2 May, 2012 - 1:09

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.

Comments

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 02/05/2012 - 01:12

Dave and I were comrades together in the proto-AWL prior to a split in 1984, when Dave left with a group of people around Alan Thornett who he didn’t agree with politically. He spent a lot of his time after that complaining in various left publications about the “bureaucratism” of the “Matgamna sect.” He also did the rounds of various left groups (including for a while, even Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party!) looking for a political home he never found.

We’d got to know each other quite well in the late seventies and early eighties as we were in the same organisation and lived near each other, he in Coventry and me in Birmingham. I liked Dave and despite his later political trajectory, I choose to remember his early days and the positive contribution he made to the struggle.

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 02/05/2012 - 01:17

I got to know Dave Spencer in the 1970s when he recruited me to what was then, i think, Workers' Action.

He almost blew it when he told me, a keen if naive anti-Vietnam-war activist, that the Vietcong was a Stalinist outfit. After this stuttering start, we had many thoroughly enjoyable as well as politically rich meetings in Dave's front room with some wonderful comrades he brought together - including Eric, Sid, Adie, Jenny and of course Jean...

Dave was funny and engaging and had lots of curiosity into human foibles - including, alas, my own. I never quite understood why Dave got so hot under the collar about the split in the mid-1980s but in the early days he was a fine comrade for the proto-AWL. I want to register my sorrow at Dave's death and send my condolences to his family.

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 02/05/2012 - 01:19

I met Dave in the late 70's in Coventry. I was a very young Trotskyite and he led lots of discussion groups on the finer points of the proletarian struggle and such.

I do remember him with deep affection. He was a lovely man with some deeply personal struggles and big intellect and understanding that needed satiating.

I left Coventry in 1980 - I was 19 - when it really was a ghost town. By which time I had had political dialogue and involvement with Dave in a range of struggles - the call for democracy within the Labour Party, meeting reps form the political wing of the IRA, Zanu and Zapu and Cosatu. And of course we had been deeply involved in the anti-fascist activity and local issues, especially housing. On a lighter note Dave and I did lots with CND.

I often think about Dave.

Submitted by jean (not verified) on Sat, 05/05/2012 - 20:42

Dave recruited me to workers action in the late 70's. he was our branch organiser at the time. Dave was always ready to discuss any ideas that a new comrade wanted to sound off about and never made you feel unable to speak out. A rare gift on the left as we know it now. He was a very open, unassuming, friendly giant as I saw him until the split. Then he became quite bitter. Despite that, when he met me in town one day he could see that I was in a bad way. I was being bullied at work by an extremely sexist man. Dave's response was immediate. He wanted to wait for the sexist at the works gate and have a go at him. This wasn't macho bravado, it was support for a comrade in trouble. Good bloke.

Submitted by Pete on Sun, 06/05/2012 - 09:59

I met and got to know Dave when we were both in the process of being expelled from IS in 1971. I was a sympathiser of the 'Trotskyist Tendency', later Workers Fight. I met Dave briefly before he was required to speak on behalf of the 'TT' at the Birmingham IS meeting. I was the only 'TT’ person in Bham, 19 years old in a large branch of 80 people with some serious IS heavies, Dave Hughes, later leader of Workers Power but leading Cliff loyalist then, Roger Rosewall, IS Industrial Organiser (later trade union witch-hunter for the right-wing Economic League).
Dave was not a rhetorician and his whole approach in this large meeting was to appeal to people's belief in reason. The image I have of him there is, in a very typical pose, his shoulders raised, his arms outstretched appealing to reason. And as he saw the machine responses, the slurs and half-truths, Dave’s eyebrows raised and a look of disbelief appeared on his face. We lost the argument, we were expelled.
Dave in Coventry in Workers Fight always attracted some very decent and experienced working class activists. They were very much working class sages. And I always think they were attracted to the group by Dave's personality.
I rarely bumped into Dave after he left our organisation. When I did he was always friendly although I think he had me down as a Matgamna hack – he didn’t approve nor did he really understand the political ‘street-fighting’ that a small Marxist group has to do. I think it was all too reminiscent of his early days in the SLL which determined his overwhelming desire to be against the ‘sectarians’. I think he always wanted a too simple solution to that but there is no denying that he was sincere and genuine in that desire. And he continued to fight.

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