Lawrence John

John Lawrence


Lawrence was twice an active figure in the Communist Party, the second time most notably, reflecting a political trajectory before and after each of his two bursts of membership that encompassed many far left groups.


He was born John Gordon Michael Lawrence on 29th September 1915 in Sandhurst, Berkshire.  His father was Gordon Lawrence, a sergeant training soldiers at the military academy to fight in France, and his mother was Grace, a domestic servant who died when he was very young.


In 1926, when he was ten, his father, who had left the army and worked in a second-hand furniture business in Brighton where the family lived, died of cancer. Lawrence was separated from his sister Phyllis and sent to live with his grandmother in East Dulwich, London. He was eventually placed in a military orphanage in Dover. Then, Lawrence entered the British Army – now aged fourteen, before discovering his skill as a musician. His proficiency in music and talent as a trombonist led to training at the military school of music at Kneller Hall and later to an army scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London.


Having left the Army, he toured the country during the Great Depression. During this period, he was awakened to the suffering of millions of workers around the country, and joined first the unemployed workers' movement, then in 1937 the Communist Party. Two years later he left owing to his opposition to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Then he joined the Trotskyite Revolutionary Workers League in 1939, the Workers International League (WIL) in 1941, and then the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL). The WIL began paying Lawrence for his activities and, as a result, he was expelled from the RSL. Shortly after his expulsion, Lawrence was contacted by the Socialist Workers Party in the US, and began to work as its representative in Britain. He helped organise a fusion of the assorted Trotskyist groups into the Revolutionary Communist Party.


This bewildering period hokey-cokey performed by Lawrence between all the then ultra-left groups finally saw disagreements in the RCP during the 1950s that resulted in him begin contributing to the left-Labour Tribune. Now, bewilderingly, he began to turn back towards a pro-Soviet position. Although, in October 1954, he announced support for entry into the Labour Party, and by 1956 was elected leader of St Pancras Council. There he reduced rents, fought against restoring requisitioned property to the private sector, and declared May Day a paid holiday, symbolically raising the Red Flag over the Town Hall on May Day 1958.


Lawrence found himself working closely with Communist Party members in St Pancras, particularly through the Holborn and St Pancras United Workers’ and Tenants’ Defence Committee, and was on friendly terms with John Mahon, the Party’s London district secretary and other district leaders. Local collaboration led towards wider co-operation and he became an executive member of the CP-influenced National Association of Tenants and Residents. That by early 1956, possibly even late 1954, he was thinking seriously of joining the Communist Party is now fairly well established.


From the summer of 1956 through 1957, his group met with London Communists’ such as John Mahon, Sam Aaronovitch, Claude Berridge and Dennis Goodwin. Lawrence’s support for Khruschev's Secret Speech and the Warsaw Pact military intervention in Hungary in 1956 finally led to the dropping of links with those Trotskyite groups he had last been involved with.


The Red Flag incident finally resulted in him being expelled from the Labour Party and, on 17th October 1958, applied to join the Communist Party with around ten of his supporters, stating that he had been seriously considering joining the CP for three or four years. He was not re-admitted easily; the Party’s Political Committee split on the issue of readmission and Centre’s main expert on Trotskyism, Betty Reid, point blank raised her suspicions with the PC that he was an agent.


In 1959, together with 22 other councillors who had supported the decision not to pass on to tenants the increases required under the 1957 Rent Act, he was surcharged £200 by the District Auditor. In January 1960, the tenants of St Pancras implemented a mass withholding of rent increases. This was met by firm action from the Tories who immediately issued notices to quit. On 28 June, eviction notices were granted in the Bloomsbury County Court against three tenants, Don Cook, Arthur Rowe and Gladys Turner (whose arrears were later paid). Cook effectively utilised the court as a political platform, the judge was sympathetic, resistance stiffened – and an earlier strike was relaunched in July.

On 21 September 1960, the day before the evictions were scheduled, 500 tenants demonstrated outside the Town Hall where the Housing Committee was meeting. They were told to move along and then charged by mounted police and protesters forcibly dispersed. Lawrence was jailed for three months arising from charges coming out of the melee.

Lawrence was now branch secretary of the South St Pancras branch of the communist Party and secretary of the Fords shop stewards’ committee at the Dagenham plant, and editor of the Ford Worker bulletin.

Lawrence’s second stint as a Communist Party member lasted about five to six years but foundered on the rocks of the British Road to Socialism, with which he was in profound disagreement.  In pre-congress discussion during 1961, he stated that his recent experiences of struggle – and then reflecting on that in prison – for him said that a peaceful transition to socialism was unlikely: "Does this all mean that Communists don’t want a peaceful transition? … it is not what we want; it is what the bourgeoisie wants to give us. History teaches us. The Russian Revolution teaches us. It took fifteen years of civil war to establish the Chinese People’s Republic. All this history teaches us that the bourgeois will never relinquish power voluntarily and the Labour Party will never face the question. There we were, fighting against the Tory council in St Pancras … they hit us with everything … the violence came not from the tenants but from the police. We had members of our Party say in our branch that by organising these demonstrations and facing attacks from the police we were acting in contradiction to the peaceful road to socialism."

At the 1961 congress, as a delegate from the St Pancras branch, he moved two amendments to the main political resolution. His main aim was to change it so that it would not so positively say that Socialism could be achieved in Britain without civil war. He was reported in the Party press as saying he wanted a peaceful transition but did not believe that: “the capitalists would say you have won and we shall give way when Communists got a majority in Parliament.” The Party journal reported that “(h)is arguments were demolished in a point-by-point reply from Mr. Sam Aaronovitch, London. He said Mr. Lawrence was well aware that his proposals would tear up the Party's programme – `The British Road to Socialism’. Mr. Lawrence had shown a completely negative attitude to the transformation of the British Labour movement and the Left and did not even mention the Scarborough decisions.”


Lawrence’s disagreements with the British Road to Socialism led to him leaving the Communist Party once again from 1964. During 1963, Lawrence had been increasingly restive on the BRS issue, as pro-Chinese groups, with which he was not in sympathy, began taking their opposition to the Party’s programme into stances that would lead to expulsion. But, in contrast to his re-admission, Lawrence’s second departure was abrupt.


He then began to work for the Press Association and became an activist in the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades. Lawrence became a syndicalist, being first associated with Solidarity, then the Syndicalist Workers Federation, and the London Anarchist Group. In the early 1970s, he wrote extensively for Freedom, and worked on campaigns with Brian Behan.  In 1973, he was expelled from his union and moved to Shoreham-by-Sea into a semi-retirement. Lawrence died on 14th November 2002.



World News 22nd April 1961




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