McFadden, Berit

Berit McFadden, who originally came from Schorndorf in southern Germany (pictured), died on 18 April 1997, aged 41, from a rare form of lung cancer.  This was 6 weeks after diagnosis and 11 weeks after the birth of her second daughter Sasha.  This is a slightly edited version of the tribute that Martin Levy gave at the funeral.

Friends and comrades

We assemble here today united in grief at the tragic untimely loss of a beautiful, courageous and remarkable person, Berit McFadden.  I come here to pay tribute to Berit in two capacities – as president of Newcastle TUC, and as Northern District secretary and an Executive Committee member of the Communist Party of Britain.

I got to know Berit in early 1986, on moving to Newcastle.  By then she was already a significant figure in the local labour movement.  Wherever a struggle –home or abroad – demanded solidarity, Berit was there – starting with the campaign against the Berufsverbot in 1978, and including the epic miners’ strike of 1984/5.  

This was an order of ‘professional disqualification’ under  West German law that banned Communists from being employed by the state. A Berufsverbot disqualifies the recipient from engaging in certain professions or activities on the grounds of their criminal record, political convictions or membership in a particular group.

She was deeply involved in the Tyne & Wear Anti-Fascist Association, and in its campaign against racism in football.  Through her union, the NUT, Berit became a delegate to Newcastle TUC, a member of its Executive and a dedicated Editorial Board member of Rostrum, the paper of the Tyne & Wear County Association of Trades Union Councils.

Berit had married Alec in 1979, and together they made a formidable activist partnership.  However, she was not simply an extension of Alec – she made a considerable contribution in her own right.  This was no mean achievement for a young Jewish girl from Germany in Tyneside with all its male chauvinist and xenophobic prejudices.  Her talents were justly recognised by Newcastle TUC when she was elected vice-president in 1988 and president in 1989, a post which she regretfully had to relinquish on moving here to Merseyside.  Nonetheless, Berit continued trade union activities and on moving to further education became a member of the Executive Committee of NATFHE in the Wirral.

Berit was also a lifelong communist.  This was the guiding vision to her life – she had a clear understanding of Marxist-Leninist principles and put them into practice on a daily basis.  She was dedicated to enabling working people, through struggle, to liberate themselves from the drudge of capitalism, to build socialism and to transform themselves in the process.  She saw the need for a Party, based in the working-class movement, to provide the necessary perspective and thereby to give leadership in the struggle.  She was a solid supporter of the Morning Star as a daily vehicle championing working-class and progressive causes, and Alec and Berit’s blue and orange tent became a focal point for Star sales at Tyneside May Day demonstrations in the 1980s.

At the time I arrived in Newcastle, Berit was the Newcastle West/Central branch secretary of the CPGB and a District Committee member.  But the Party had begun to lose its way, shifting to the right and engaging in a bad-list and witch-hunt against Morning Star supporters.  When in 1988 it became clear that all chance of retaining a Marxist perspective had been lost, a number of comrades – Berit and Alec included – took steps to re-establish the Party as the CPB on the basis of its original rules and programme.  

Berit became the Tyneside Branch secretary and Northern District secretary of the CPB, although – characteristically – she later relinquished the latter post because she felt she could make a much better contribution in the Branch.  She remained, however, District Chair, until the move to Merseyside, where she taught German, French and Spanish at Wirral Metropolitan College.

Subsequently she took on leading roles there, and in November 1991 was elected to the Party Executive Committee, but resigned in March 1993 following the birth of Alexis, although strenuous efforts were made to encourage her to continue.  I was not an EC member at the time, but I am told that her contributions were always highly regarded.

Berit was far from being a one-track political automaton.  She lived her life to the full.  Her family life, her love for Alec and her joy with her two children, Alexis and Sasha, will be related to you by others.  However, I must tell you that there are stories of ‘Cuba Libre’ drinking sessions at the end of Berufsverbot campaign meetings and of revolutionary songs on the train to London during the epic miners’ strike – and incidentally, I understand that the house was mortgaged to finance that train.  She certainly was the life and soul of any party: her singing voice was of tremendous vigour, and parties at the McFaddens’ house were memorable social occasions.

All of this, of course, only serves to emphasise the enormous pain that we all feel aeven at this distance of time in having to lose so suddenly a friend and comrade so vibrant, so full of life and at such a young age of only 41.

Martin Levy

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