Shocking loss

Obituary: Al Richardson

Al Richardson, long-time revolutionary socialist, historian, Egyptologist and editor/co-founder of Revolutionary History magazine, died on November 22 of a heart attack at the age of 62. His death at such a relatively young age is quite shocking in its unexpectedness.

A gruff Yorkshireman in demeanour, Al was a much loved comrade of many in the socialist and communist movement, both in Britain and around the world, as the many tributes that are flowing into Revolutionary History testify. I personally had known him since the late 1980s - he was one of the wittiest, most knowledgeable and personable comrades I had ever met - a long-time political friend of many, including myself.

He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of history in many fields: ancient history obviously, labour movement history, and especially the history of Marxism and the communist and Trotskyist movement. His political activity was long and extensive: in the International Marxist Group in the late 1960s, in the Chartists in the 1970s, and subsequently as an independent Marxist and trade unionist, active in the Labour Party, which he considered to be the crucial area for Marxist political activity. What he will be most remembered for, though, is his work as a historian of the Trotskyist movement, and through that of Marxism in general.

From the late 1970s onwards he formed a partnership with Sam Bornstein, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement since before the World War II, to write a proper history of that movement in Britain. This involved numerous interviews with many individuals who had been active at various times from the 1930s to the 1950s, and the process of gathering oral and documentary materials necessary for such an endeavour lasted for several years.

Then in 1986 their history was published: two volumes in fairly rapid succession: Against the stream in January, which was a history of the early British Trotskyist movement from 1928 to 1938; followed by War and the International in October, which dealt with the period of World War II, and the post-war period up to the fragmentation of the Trotskyist movement at the hands of Gerry Healy in the early 1950s. The second book contains a particularly graphic account of this bureaucratic abortion of the potential of Trotskyism in Britain during this difficult period.

The books were widely and deservedly acclaimed in many quarters; apart from a number of more obscure academic treatises on the subject, there was little accessible material on this subject available at the time. In fact, Al and Sam did much to put right that situation through their publishing arm, Socialist Platform Ltd, which put out a fair selection of the memoirs of veterans of the movement from the period their books covered, shedding a lot more light on some of these historical questions.

In the spring of 1988 Revolutionary History was launched. The initiative of Sam Bornstein and Al, it included on its editorial board a number of veteran Trotskyists, together with representatives of a selection of the smaller Trotskyist groups who were interested in such historical questions - later the Socialist Workers Party sent a representative. Though the participation of political groups has been erratic at times, the journal has established an enviable reputation through the wide, and indeed widening, selections of historical material it has published. Initially focusing on previously inaccessible documents from Trotskyist groups in a variety of countries - Greece, Scandinavia, China, Sri Lanka - more recently it has somewhat broadened out its subject matter. It has published materials on the origins of French communism through the writings of Alfred Rosmer and a few issue back the journal examined the history of mutinies in the capitalist armed forces.

The wide selection of materials thus published was what Al will be most remembered for: a real treasure trove of historiography that adds much to our understanding of where our movement came from, and points to many of the pitfalls that need to be avoided in the future. Right from the start, Revolutionary History proclaimed as its mot d’ordre Lenin’s maxim: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Indeed Al was not just a publisher of historical materials, but also a participant in the debates that took place on the contemporary left. He wrote sporadically for a number of leftwing and revolutionary journals, Workers News and its successor Workers Action being perhaps the most frequent: not really surprisingly since they shared a common view of the Labour Party question.

Al was for a long period quite antagonistic to the CPGB, due in large part to his suspicion of the origins of our organisation in ‘official’ communism: in the past few years bridges were built, however, and Al spoke at Communist University two years running, in 2001 and 2002. He also attended other events - most recently at our October 26 Communist Forum, where Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty spoke on Zionism just three weeks before his death. We reprint the earlier of his two CU presentations, on the Asiatic mode of production, in this issue.

The passing of Al is a real loss, to the left and particularly to serious Marxists everywhere. One did not necessarily have to agree with Al to understand the seriousness and gravitas that he brought to those political and historical questions he sought to address - and they were many. Indeed, for me personally, there are so many memorable political points he has made that echo in the mind, on so many questions, that it is somewhat difficult to take in the fact that he is dead. But sadly, dead he is, and very difficult to replace in terms of knowledge, experience and understanding of politics and the history of politics.

We extend our condolences to his partner, Jill; to his family; his friends and comrades and all who knew him.