Ralph Fox, who was to become a major figure in British Communism, was born in Halifax, England, on 30th March 1900. Educated first at Heath Grammar School in Halifax, then Bradford Grammar for his last year, he went to Oxford University and then became a lieutenant in the Devonshires. But the First World War was over before he could see action. On reaching military age, he was drafted into an officers’ cadet regiment in
In 1919, he was a member of the Oxford `Hands off Russia’ committee and, as a founding member, helped start the local branch of the Communist Party in 1920. Returning to complete his education in 1921, he was a steward at the first Party open air meeting in Oxford. Reg Bishop later recalled that he had first met Ralph Fox then. “The occasion was an outdoor meeting held by the Communist Party in that city; never had one been attempted before. Stormy scenes resulted from the attempt on the part of an organised undergraduate mob to break up the gathering and throw the speaker—that was myself—into the river. Ralph was the leader of the defence corps of stewards ranged round the platform, and right well he acquitted himself in the battle.”
Fox graduated with a first in modern languages in 1922. He went to Russia that summer and worked for the Friends Relief Mission in Samara. On his return, he worked with the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party. In his `spare time’, he studied at the School of Oriental Languages, preparing his “People of the Steppes”, which appeared in 1925. That year, he started work with the Communist International in Moscow. He met his wife in this period and they married in May 1926, returning just in time for the General Strike. He joined the staff of the Sunday Worker in 1928 and that year also published his only novel, Storming Heaven. In 1929, he and his wife returned to Moscow, where he was the librarian at the Marx Engels Institute until 1932.
Returning to Britain and joining the staff of the Daily Worker, Fox was to the first to write the Workers Notebook, a daily miscellany column, and was one of the founders of The Left Review and contributed to New Writing. He also wrote a biography of Ireland’ and the celebrated `The Novel and the People’ (1937). This was first published after his death and contains a particularly trenchant discussion of realism and politics. His other works include: “Class struggles in Britain”, “The Colonial Policy of the British Empire”, France Faces the Future (1936), and “Portugal Now”. As a member of the International Association of Writers, he participated in its many congresses. Lenin (1933), `Marxism and Modern Thought’, a book on Genghis Khan (1936), `Marx, Engels and Lenin on
In 1936, he acted as guide to a mixed trade union delegation to the Soviet Union. As Bishop recalled: “Consisting as it did of union executives, a member of the SPGB, Communists, and one Labour Party E.C. member, it must have been a difficult crew to coalesce. But Ralph managed to do so, and not one of the delegation but estimated him highly for his friendly helpful tact in the most trying situations.”
That year, Fox joined the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He became a political commissar in the British Battalion, the 121st battalion of the XIV Brigade. The English speaking company was involved in an attempt to capture the town of Lopera, about 30 miles to the west of Córdoba in southern Spain. Though a number had seen action before, many were completely inexperienced and the company was beaten back by the better armed and trained rebel forces. In the confusion, Fox was killed at Córdoba on 3rd January, 1937. A member of the Spanish Medical Aid Unit related how, in a conversation he had with Fox only five hours before he went to his death, he had sent this last message to his friends in Britain: “If any of you get back, tell the people of England that the fight in Spain is not only Spain’s fight, but England’s”. He had been scarcely six weeks in Spain when he was killed, in the first action undertaken by the Brigade to which he was attached as Assistant Commissar.
This circumstances of Fox’s death were described by a correspondent of the International Press: “The Fascists had advanced from the direction of Cordoba and the Government had thrown special troops into action for a counter-attack … in which the English-speaking company played a prominent part, made from the bottom of a hill. Ralph Fox was with the Brigade Commander on the road half-way up the hill, when it became evident that there was an unforeseen opportunity of our machine-gunners establishing invaluable positions covering the enemy’s right flank. Fox set off running, bending low across some open ground, to organise this manoeuvre. It was a supremely brave thing to do; the bombing and machine gun fire were at their most intense, and it was almost certain death for anybody to leave cover. Fox knew this, but he considered it necessary to take the risk . . . The military commander with whom Ralph worked said that it was difficult to find words to describe Fox’s amazing bravery.”
A book on his experiences in Spain `Ralph Fox: A Writer in Arms’ (1937) was published posthumously. After his death, Idris Cox, then the South Wales Organiser of the Communist Party recalled his personal privilege of working in close contact with Ralph Fox for almost a year before he went to Spain. “He joined the Daily Worker staff just after the start of the eight-pager. The big improvement in the character of our paper, the improvement of its language and style, was in no small measure due to the assistance which Ralph Fox gave to myself and other members of the staff. No sacrifice was too great for our paper. I well remember nearly a year ago, when there were rumours of the illness of the late George V. Ralph Fox prepared most of the obituary for the late King. He was at the Daily Worker office on the night of the King’s death. I can well remember waiting for the news. Midnight came. The minutes passed by. We tried to persuade Ralph to go home. But if there was a job to be done, he was there. He was there when the news came through and helped in the early hours of the morning to get the paper finished … He died as he lived always at his post.”
Sources: Daily Worker 5 January 1937; “Ralph Winston Fox – In Memoriam”, a compilation of tributes and memoirs (1937)
Contemporary cuttings from the Daily Worker reporting Fox’s follow:
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