A good man fallen amongst Euros
To accompany Mark Fischer's review of Pride, here is the obituary of Mark Ashton featured in The Leninist, forerunner of the Weekly Worker
The death last month of comrade Mark Ashton from an Aids-related illness (February 11) came as a great shock to many people in the Communist Party. Although Mark had resigned from his position as general secretary of the Young Communist League in 1986, there was little indication that the comrade was seriously ill until very recently. His sudden death robbed the Communist Party of an enthusiastic comrade, in whose career can be seen the tragedy of the decline and degeneration of Eurocommunism.
Comrade Ashton came into the party and YCL with some subjectively good instincts. Drawing on his personal experiences in Portrush in the north of Ireland, Mark initially adopted a relatively healthy line on the struggle for Irish freedom. Understandably, he was thoroughly contemptuous of the YCL’s fraternal organisation in Ireland - the Connolly Youth Movement - due to their anti-republican stance and their opposition to the armed struggle. Of course, this and other leftist positions did not win him friends in some quarters of the YCL. Nevertheless, in 1985 he replaced the dull, deeply unpleasant bureaucrat, Doug Chalmers (of the Yard) as the league’s general secretary. His energy, life and flamboyant humour was a vivid contrast to his morose and police-calling predecessor.
Yet despite his verve comrade Ashton could do nothing to reverse the decline of the league. Indeed, by this time, he had fully embraced Eurocommunism. Thus, despite this young comrade’s flair, objectively he became part of the problem, not the solution. Mark had come into the YCL around the time of the emergence of a group of Leninists in its ranks, but despite his earlier left healthy impulses Mark was unable to break from opportunism. In fact, the ferocity of the battles inside the YCL drove him all the quicker into the dubious embrace of Eurocommunism.
From then on, Mark’s energy was effectively crippled and distorted by the politics he had adopted. The few initiatives that the YCL attempted during his brief secretaryship were unmitigated flops. Who could forget the YCL’s ‘Tent City’ stunt, meant to highlight the problem of youth homelessness, which attracted less than a handful of young people and only one tent? Or the way that YCL national organiser comrade Brian Jones wandered haplessly around a demonstration to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, forlornly looking for someone to hold the other end of the YCL’s banner?
We spoke to Mark earlier this year in connection with the Nick Wright scandal.1 Amongst other things, he gave us some impressions of his time as YCL general secretary. Clearly, in his comments we can see two things: his disillusionment with the frustrating experience of trying to build the league with Euro politics and also that unresolved inner tension between left and right that characterised this comrade’s outlook to the very end. He told us that the YCL“has been declining for a long time - at least since the 60s. Certainly, it’s fair to say that it has lost any base it had amongst young people ...” Weasked the comrade why this should be - surely young people in the 1980s desperately need a revolutionary communist youth organisation? Ashton’s reply spoke volumes:
I suppose it’s problematic coming to terms with our Stalinist past and making sure not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. We mustn’t lose touch with what we are actually after, which I suspect has been the case with some people who have been in the YCL.
So, after being general secretary, what did he now think of the YCL?
I tend to see it as a fairly irrelevant organisation. In my history of being involved with it, it was never really a very relevant organisation. In reality it wasn’t doing anything - it didn’t have a programme of action adapted from Our future. If Our future had been implemented, worked around and looked at, so we could have prioritised our work, then it could have worked. But because of its traditional role within the labour movement, among apprentices, in the trade union organisations, when there were lots of young people in those type of organisations, with the decline of the number of young people working in those type of structures and the growth of the numbers in non-unionised sectors like MacDonald’s or whatever and also the widening and diversity of demands that were raised in the 60s, that really knocked the YCL off its course.
Its only now in hindsight that we can start to construct a new programme for young people. But, then again, things are changing so fast and so quickly that it’s hard to pinpoint something and get people mobilised, because people are all over the place at the moment ...
It is instructive that comrade Ashton, the last general secretary of the YCL before it was effectively liquidated, should have been so thoroughly disorientated and disillusioned with his time at the head of the league and in general about communist politics. We have always looked to the YCL as the barometer of the state of the party: the confusion of comrades like Mark is indicative of the ideological bankruptcy that grips Eurocommunism.
Frustrated with the league and its inability to provide a channel for his energy, Mark increasingly adopted liquidationist perspectives. He threw himself into work in the broad movement. Yet unlike other Eurocommunists, who frequently have a gut-reaction distaste for the workers’ movement, Mark was often to be seen on the spot at major class battles, such as the miners’ Great Strike. The contribution he made to the work of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners during the strike was impressive.
This organisation, for all its severe limitations, did more to challenge chauvinist prejudices in the working class in the space of 12 short months than all the consciousness-raising sessions or sexuality awareness courses sponsored by his Eurocommunist friends could ever do. It linked the struggle of the oppressed directly to the struggle of the working class. Like the Women Against Pit Closures movement, it was limited because it was not under disciplined, ideologically correct and clear-sighted communist leadership. Nonetheless, for those who wrongly consider that simply being a women or a homosexual makes one anti-establishment, it did show a way forward for the oppressed. The presence of some of Mark’s friends from the south Wales mining village of Dulais among the 200 who attended his cremation testifies both to his personality and the impact of that movement that he helped establish and build.
Comrade Ashton was a member of our party whom we could have won. We mourn the comrade’s death because of what he might have done if he lived; we mourn him despite the fact that he was a political opponent and was hostile to Leninism. He lived bravely, with the courage of his convictions and a bold assertion of life.
1. Nick Wright was at the time a long-standing member of the London CPGB and a supporter of the left Stalinist faction in the party, Straight Left. In The Leninist No43 (November 20 1986) we featured comrade Wright - in his capacity as an employee of Haringey council, manhandling a gay activist attending a picket of the authority to demand that non-discriminatory textbooks be allowed into the borough’s schools.