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Goodwin Dennis

Dennis Goodwin

Dennis Goodwin was born Dennis Charles Zihff, 1916 in Bethnal Green, London. (The name is more usually spelt `Ziff’ and is Hebrew for “wolf”.)  His father, Phillip, born in Russia in 1878, was a Jewish master butcher, who died in 1921. His mother was Leah who, in a British census, gave her birthplace as Russia and birth year as 1883. Of German-Jewish family background, her maiden name had been Goldberg.  Between 1905 and the birth of Dennis, Leah gave birth to four other children - Solle, Reuben (who kept the Zihff surname), Jenny, and Doris (who became a nurse and left for the USA in 1937). In 1911, the family had lived at 70 Old Bethnal Green Road.

His father died in 1921, leaving his older brothers and mother to fend for the family. Dennis won a scholarship to a school in Southend where he was a prize-winning student. He later delighted in telling of how he had once got 110% in a maths exam, for recognising and correcting a mistake in the question!

But he was obliged by family circumstance to leave school at the age of 15, in the height of the Great Depression, then going from job to job, with bouts of unemployment in between. Along the way, he joined the Transport & General Workers Union, and led a strike of some 50 young workers. Having entered the catering industry, he was responsible for organising over five hundred workers into the union. This being a period of intense politicisation, Dennis became involved in the heady world of anti-fascism and solidarity with Spain that so many of his generation also experienced. 

He was still very young when he met his life partner Joan in August 1937 at a holiday camp for young socialists. She had been born Phyllis Joan Benney in Falmouth, Cornwall, in late 1912 to a mother whose maiden name had been Solomon. Joan, as she preferred to be called, and her sister had already helped to establish the Communist Party more firmly in Cornwall during the 1930s and Dennis now also joined the Communist Party.

Joan had already married, in early 1936, Henry Ernest Degras (1910–1973), who began his adult life as a burglar in London. Having taken the nom de plume of Mark Benney, using his wife’s surname, he had rocketed to fame with the publication of his first book, the memoir `Low Company', in 1936. (His autobiography 'Almost a Gentleman' mentions Joan’s political work.)

Joan’s first marriage did not last long, and she divorced Legras in 1938. Dennis and Joan were married in London in early 1940, when Phyllis Joan Benney married one "Joseph Goodwin". He was recorded as being the son of a blacksmith, suggesting that Dennis had already adopted a completely false but new identity, perhaps fearful of a Nazi invasion of Britain and Jewish extermination (something the majority population still thought far-fetched), and also to separate his relatives from his political activities. It is believed his choice of name was related to that of a friend and comrade.

Dennis was, for a time, a member of the St Pancras Party branch committee. Rejected for military service on health grounds, he entered industry to work first in Huddersfield, where he became a member of the West Riding area committee, and then the Yorkshire district committee, then being appointed the full-time position of Propaganda Secretary. He moved to Staines to work again in industry and became a branch secretary. He was then the assistant district organiser, working with Phil Piratin (see separate entry).

He was the South-West London organiser and the South London organiser, joining the District Committee in 1944, before being appointed to the full-time post of London District Organiser the following year, a role largely devoted to internal matters, directing members to politically important work. John Mahon, the long-term London district secretary recalled Goodwin as being “at his best in outdoor speaking, where his quick wit and down to earth style” made him an effective exponent for the Party.

In the role of district organiser, he was one of the originators of the 1946 London squatters’ movement. Tess Gorringe (see separate entry) has written of how, on Friday September 6th, Goodwin “asked me to pop over and see him in Clapham. I went, and he said to me "Do you think people would be prepared to squat with no guarantee about anything?" I said "yes." She then went to Kensington High Street to begin the work.

In fact, the plan arose from a rather more collective experience based on a view across the London Party that action was needed. Before Goringe had met Goodwin, Ted Bramley, the London District Secretary, and Jack Gaster (see separate entries for both), both then Communist councillors met with Goodwin, who then called in members from various parts of London and asked them to identify suitable empty dwellings - blocks of flats for preference. These were then pared down to a few. Goodwin organised a massive exercise, so that during that coming weekend, local Party members across London got in touch with those people they knew who were living in bad conditions, and told them what was planned, reporting back to Goodwin who managed the entire exercise.

He represented the London district on a Commission of local and national representatives established in 1945 to look at finding a better way to elect the executive of the Communist Party. This was a significant move towards a `panel’ system, whereby efforts to achieve balance of experience, age, locality, and background was considered more valuable than popularity or fame.

In 1949, there was a massive internal response to the sudden need by the Party to extra finance to shore up various security aspects following Harry Pollitt’s speaking tour in Devon, which had resulted in a virtual endorsement of violent riot by Royal Marine personnel at a rally to be addressed by him. This was at the time when the Royal Navy had been ineffectively shelled whilst sailing armoured vessels down the River Yangtse – well within Chinese territorial waters.

The reaction of the Party’s trade union activists was considered “best expressed in the message from Dennis Goodwin which came with the London District donation: "Comrade Pollitt's example, together with the courage and spirit of our Devon comrades is a splendid example to us all and there is no doubt that it contributed towards raising the spirit which resulted in a historic May Day in London." That May Day, the London Party had urged the wider movement to ignore a ban by the police on a march and it had responded. Goodwin was seemingly at the centre of the organisation of this.

In 1950, Goodwin was moved to a more trade union orientated position in the London district leadership. This is likely to have arisen from a strategic view put by Harry Pollitt that the Party should seek to focus its influence on the operation of the trade union block vote within the Labour Party that had so easily shifted the 1945-50 government away from social reform towards full scale backing of America’s cold war militaristic policies. Three unions dominated the block vote at TUC and Labour Party - the miners, the general workers (in what was then the NUGMW), and the TGWU. All were in the grip of viciously anti-communist right wing forces. Goodwin’s own union was still the TGWU, so he knew much of the internal dynamics of what was to become a major gain for the left in later years. (He would soon join USDAW, like many Party full-timers, the T&G being awkward about political revolutionaries being its members at this time!)

The Party was strong in London on the buses and also in the docks. Dennis’s son Phil recalls that, when walking with his father as a child in the early 1950s, he was frequently struck by how many bus drivers would hail ‘Hallo Dennis’ from their bus! But, because of the ban on Communists holding office, it would take time to tilt the union leftwards. If any group of workers could shift the union out of its moribund state, it would be port workers in London who would be able to contribute the most to levering away right wing power inside the union.

Towards the end of the term of office of the first post-war Labour Government, it had faced an unofficial wages strike by dockers in a number of ports, mainly London.  In response, in 1951 government ministers sought to use war-time regulations to smash the strike. Goodwin had been shifted to his new role just in time. Dockers’ rank-and-file leaders were now charged with conspiracy to incite contravention of national arbitration order number 1305 (introduced in wartime conditions in July 1941). This prohibited strikes unless the Minister of Labour had not referred the dispute for settlement within twenty-one days.

Seven `ring leaders’ were identified – most of them Communist Party members and four of them from London.  On the 9th February, police raided the White Hart public house Ratcliffe Highway, Stepney where a meeting of the Unofficial Port Workers Committee was taking place.

In response 7,000 dockers stopped work in London and 11,000 on Merseyside, on their first day in court 17,000 dock workers struck, after that London Dockers came out seven times on 24 hour protest strikes, under the slogan "If they're in the Dock, we're out of the Dock !". There is no doubt that a good part of the work of ensuring this happened would have been carried out behind the scenes by Dennis Goodwin, liaising non-stop with Party dockers who were not even permitted to be shop stewards by union rules. In one sense, the dispute was as much about the constant scheming against the men’s natural leaders by union bureaucrats as it was against the intervention of the state. 

Dockers turned up outside the Old Bailey to support the men throughout the trial and Vic Marney, Secretary of the Unofficial Liaison Committee, was arrested for obstruction. Finally, 8,000 men turned up to support the accused men on the day  the verdict was to be announced. Dennis Goodwin would have been certain to be at the very centre of this mobilisation. Dockers spontaneously sang rousing choruses and a moving rendition of the martyr song `Kevin Barry was given by those of Irish descent. The seven were duly acquitted on all counts and were carried shoulder high through police lines, leading to the "hostile" police organising a mounted “Cossack” style assault on the dockers.

Inside the Party, Goodwin would have been feted for his role in this victory. It seems that it is possible that he was at one time responsible for a liaison between the Party and intellectuals and artists. This – and his leadership of Communist rank-and-file dockers - may account for his connection with a large original painting of the 1951 arrest of the dockers strike committee by Derek Chittock (see left, "being Burst Upon by the Police"), which was bought by the London District of the Communist Party and proudly displayed in Goodwin’s own office at London District at 75 Farringdon Road.

Dennis was considered sufficiently senior to be London’s representative on the Elections Preparations Committee (overseeing the election of the EC) during the national congress in 1957, when a safe pair of hands was definitely called for.

He had responsibility for the Party’s parliamentary contest in 1959, with candidate Joe Bent (see separate entry). Despite the modestly successful vote and contest, Goodwin’s report for the EC was both realistic and self-critical. “At the outset we agreed to put major emphasis, on the issues of Peace, Pensions and Housing … In fact we did not succeed in making Peace the central issue of the election, while we did do a great deal of work explaining our policy, demolishing the Tory claims to represent Britain at the Summit and exposing the weakness in the peace policy of the Labour leaders. But we did not, as a rule, get many questions at our meetings or on canvassing, on Peace. The mood would seem to be that the-'-danger of war has lessened; that the Khruschov visit marks an end to the Cold War; that in any event Russia and the U.S. will decide, and Britain's position is not decisive. At the same time there is support for our policy, especially for the clearing out of the U.S. bases. We found deep feeling on home issues, especially on Pensions, and Housing…”

More two hundred housing complaints were taken up by the Party and 22,193 electors canvassed with 61 recruits made for the Party.

During the early 1960s, the Party’s weekly internal journal, "Comment" carried articles by Dennis Goodwin under the title of "Workshop Talks". He also wrote widely on the shop stewards’ movement.

In 1965, Goodwin was the principal officer of the London district responsible for managing the process of the disciplinary action decided by the London district committee against Abhimanyu Manchanda, later a prominent figure in the Maoist movement. Despite later hyperbole about the Party’s actions, during the course of which Goodwin was selected for much personal abuse in hostile journals, Manchanda was actually only suspended from Party membership for three months. Having been given “every opportunity to be re-admitted to the Party”, Manchanda’s actions in circulating “material contrary to the policy of the Party” was held by the EC to be a flagrant breach of rule and he was expelled, as he had probably sought to be.

Goodwin also conducted the Party’s investigation into the activities of Reg Birch, a leading figure in the engineering union. Birch was suspected of conflating union work with factional activity that would eventually see the creation of a separate party.

During the 1966 seamens’ strike, Bert Ramelson (see separate entry) received most of the media attention claiming him to be the brains behind the development. But his effective deputy and the man who carried out much of the leg work in bringing together dockers and seafarers was Goodwin. 

Harold Wilson in his infamous speech about a 'tightly knit group of politically motivated men', described Goodwin as Bert Ramelson's 'principal lieutenant' and described the London docks as his 'hunting ground'. He was one of three spokesmen, with John Gollan, the Party’s general secretary, and Ramelson, who represented the Party at the press conference called to respond to that accusation.  

Goodwin was quoted as treating Wilson's comment rather humorously, as of the award of an honour. This was especially so of his special treatment as Ramelsons “No. 2” in much media harassment of leading Communists connected to the ports and docks sector. (See the kind of national coverage he experienced in the contemporary cutting below from the Daily Sketch, a defunct `red top.    

Goodwin died of cancer at the relatively young age of 51 in 1967.

Sources: many CP EC and PC minutes 1945-66; “Pentonville 5 – dockers in action: solidarity and the anti-union laws”, Graham Stevenson, CP History Group, `Our History’ New series, issue No.7 (2012); Johnny Mahon's speech at Dennis Goodwin’s funeral in Golders Green; contemporary newspaper coverage of Seamen’s strike; Phil and Sheila  Goodwin, son and daughter of Dennis and Joan Goodwin