“It’s good to follow a polemic in real time”

Submitted by SJW on 8 August, 2018 - 11:35 Author: Rob Marsden spoke to Solidarity
Socialist Organiser

Q. Tell us a bit about your websites, Splits and Fusions and Red Mole Rising.

A. Red Mole Rising came first, and it is now a nearly complete archive of the press of the Fourth International in Britain, that is, of the group best known as the IMG, from 1950s into the 2000s. It has complete runs of International, Black Dwarf, Red Mole, Socialist Challenge, Socialist Action, etc., and lots of magazines and pamphlets.

I’ve worked with loads of people on that. Some of The Week is up there, and I’m intending to do the rest of The Week some time soon.
Splits and Fusions is a much broader and more ambitious project, including archives from many different Trotskyist currents, in the broadest definition, and some other related currents. It now has material from most of the major traditions from the very early days through to today.

I tend to present the material in a fairly neutral manner, not to offer commentary or judgements but just to make it available.
The coverage so far, and the future development, largely depends on what comes in, on what comes my way from various sources.

Q. Doing these websites has been a lot of work. How did you get into it?

A. I’ve always been a collector of odds and ends, and always interested in the history of the Trotskyist movement, ever since I was a student in the 1980s. The impulse for these projects came about eight years ago, when an old comrade was getting rid of a lot of papers.

I realised that very little of that material was available online — especially back then — and thought I could and should fix that. So I bought a scanner and started. From that point, the work feeds itself, as people bring me more and more material.

Q. Piecing together these archives, you will have found different political tendencies changing their political positions quite markedly over the years. We take some pride in the Workers’ Liberty tendency that our changes of position — and they’ve been important — have been done through open and explicit rethinking, are conscientiously recorded, and are linked back in to the traditions of Trotskyist politics. Is that a fair judgement, or are we deluding ourselves?

A. It’s a fair judgement. You do see shifts as you go through the archives. There’s stuff from the Workers’ Liberty tendency from the 1970s on Palestine and Ireland, for example, which is very different from today. But all the polemics are there, in black and white.
It’s good to be able to follow a polemic in real time, in the press, and on the letters page as well as in the big set-piece articles.

Q. What has most surprised you when unearthing publications from long-unexamined archives?

A. With this work, I’m often in almost uncharted territory, looking at material which has not seen the sight of day for decades. That is always interesting.

For example, I came across a ten-page bulletin entitled Revolution, from 1939-40, published in the name of the Socialist Workers’ League, a group which does not appear in any of the standard published histories.

From my inquiries, most likely it was a publication of the Revolutionary Socialist League [a group formed by a 1938 fusion, which was the official British section of the Fourth International until 1944], under a false name.

With World War Two beginning, the RSL expected that it would be banned, and tried to deal with that by publishing under a false name and without giving an address or contact details.

Then again, a few years ago a friend of mine said he had at home the tape recording of the 1971 Red Mole interview of John Lennon by Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn. No-one had heard the interview for 30-odd years. Here we had 80 minutes of audio from an interview which previously existed only in a heavily-edited transcript.

Q. Do you get any sense of what readers are paying most attention to on your websites, and what they’re getting from them?

A. I get some idea from the comments on the linked Facebook pages. The people looking at the sites are a mix of older people who were around on the left in the early or mid-70s, and those younger people who are more interested in the history of the movement.
I also hear from people researching books and other studies. There is a lot of interest in the late-1960s material, such as Black Dwarf, and the women’s publications.

Last year a TV company got in touch because they wanted to reporduce some issues of Red Mole from the scans on the website. If you watch the TV mini-series Guerrilla, you will see copies of Red Mole on the floor in some of the scenes, and those were printed off my scans.

Q. Marty Goodman and others have done a lot of work on US Trotskyist archives, and made the results available on www.marxists.org. What do you know of comparable work on the archives of Trotskyist publications in other countries?

A. I know of nothing quite so comprehensive. I’m in regular communication with Marty Goodman and David Walters at the Marxist Internet Archive, and I guess they will also have contact with other groups round the world, but as far as I know the main archives elsewhere are in various libraries, and fragmentary.

That is one of the things that drives me to do the work. The libraries do an excellent job in keeping archives, but the material there is not freely and easily available. I want the history of the movement to be available to activists as well as to academics.

There is the Radar archive of French Trotskyist material, but, as I understand it, the person who set that up has moved on, and no-one is now working on it. It’s not really an ongoing project. There is also the online archive of Cermtri, which is being developed, but it is only a partial archive and only of the Lambertist current.

However, maybe someone will come back to Radar, for example. Sometimes I’ve paused on my project, even for up to a year, then something happens to get me going again.

If anyone has any interesting material, they can get in touch at redmolerising@outlook.com. In particular, I’m interested in locally produced pamphlet or bulletins from any tendency.

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