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A towering figure in British Communism, Bert Ramelson was born Baruch Ramilevich Mendelson in Cherkassy in the Ukraine on March 22nd 1910, the son of a Jewish religious teacher, and he could actually remember the Russian revolution taking place. His two older sisters joined the Bolsheviks and stayed the rest of their lives in the Soviet Union. For reasons associated with his father’s fur business, Ramelson emigrated to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 1921, with other members of the family, where he won a scholarship to Alberta University.
After a year as a barrister, he went to fight in Spain from 24th August 1937 and was a Lieutenant in the `Macpaps’ (the McKenzie-Papineau battalion), the Canadian battalion of the International Brigade. He was wounded twice, on the Aragon and Ebro fronts. Settling in Britain, from March 1939, he worked for a time as a trainee manager at Marks and Spencer. In 1939, he married Marion Jessop, the author of a pioneering work of feminist history, `Petticoat Rebellion’.
Above: Ramelson in his last days
Below: a portrait of Ramelson in the 1980s
Right: pictured in 1965
He was a tank commander in the Second World War and was captured by the Germans at Tobruk in 1941. In 1943, after organising an extraordinary mass break out from his prisoner of war camp, he linked up with Italian partisans who organised his return to Britain. He then served in India for a time.
Ramelson became a full timer for the Communist Party in Leeds and was the Yorkshire District Secretary from 1953. He was quick to grasp the vital importance of connecting the left and Communist miners in Yorkshire into a vital political force. Displaying an understanding of the need to build a trained cadreship in the Party district, he held Friday might political education classes at his home in Quarry Hill flats. Bert also held regular Friday lunch-time open air meetings in Victoria Square outside the Town Hall, which became a noted feature of the political scene, and where he displayed his remarkable ability to deal with hecklers by deploying his acid sense of humour. This was particularly often directed at the ever-present company of uniformed and not-so uniformed police that attended his every move.
He became the Party’s National Industrial Organiser in 1965, a role that was to confirm Ramelson as a man at the very core of the politics of Britain. He was a powerful orator and effective pamphleteer. A man of powerful intellect, he was especially noted for his strategic thinking. An aspect of this was the care and attention he paid to the long-term personal development of countless individual Communist trade unionists.
He also played a key role in the success of the left in the trade unions in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the vital matter of maintaining trade union independence from the state. It was Prime Minister Harold Wilson who singled Ramelson out as the ringleader of the “tightly knit group of politically motivated men” in the seamen’s strike of 1966. Ramelson’s role in this period, in mobilising militant trades unionists to organise within and alongside official union and labour movement structures to oppose In Place of Strife, the Industrial Relations Act, mass unemployment and incomes policies was critical. As well as nurturing a lively relationship with all the key trade union leaders, Ramelson worked with activists in the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. His mastery of TUC annual conference procedures and policy making was unprecedented.
Ramelson would frequently and openly comment on way the Party’s influence was far wider than its size by saying that an issue could be prioritised by the Party in the autumn, for it to be union conference agenda’s in the summer, TUC and Labour Party policy by the following autumn and enacted by the spring!
Marion died in 1967 and he remarried Joan Smith in 1970. After formal retirement in 1977, Ramelson became the Party’s representative on the Prague based World Marxist Review. In the Party’s bitter factional conflicts from the early 1980s, he was a staunch advocate of class politics but remained committed to a strategy of winning the CPGB back, until its dissolution. Ramelson died aged 84 on April 13th 1994. A sympathetic political biography of him is in the active process of research and writing.
Sources: Guardian April 16th 1994; Independent April 15th 1994; Morning Star April 15th 1994; GS
Some of Bert Ramelson’s Communist Party pamphlets: