Remembering Dave Hallsworth
An obituary by Mick Hume.
Dave Hallsworth, an indomitable and inspirational figure on the British revolutionary left for half a century and a great supporter of spiked, died last week at his home in Ashton-Under-Lyne, Manchester. He was 78. A memorial event for Dave’s family and friends will take place in Manchester on Sunday 23 September (see below).
Dave’s lifetime spent fighting injustice stands as a testament to the indefatigable human spirit. In his time he was jailed for trying to organise a union in the Royal Navy, victimised for his part in a strike by Asian mill workers against racism and low pay, and witch-hunted by trade union leaders for his beliefs. He played a leading role in the historic occupation of an engineering factory to defend jobs, and in organising solidarity action in support of miners, nurses and many others. He campaigned for Troops Out of Ireland at the height of the Troubles, and fought against racism and the razor gangs of the far right. His unique political career stretched across the left, from joining the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1951 through various Trotskyite factions until he finally found his home in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in 1981.
The defeats suffered by the left and the labour movement over those years left many bitter and disillusioned. But Dave never lost his belief in the cause of human emancipation or his vision of a better future. As he said in an email to friends shortly before he died, he was ‘always a socialist dreamer’. He believed, however, that such dreams could come true only in the right conditions and if people armed with the right politics were prepared to fight for them. He was fond of quoting Karl (or ‘Charlie’ as Dave called him) Marx’s maxim that man makes his own history, but not in circumstances of his own choosing.
The Hallsworth era has passed into history, but his story can still be a lesson to new generations. Dave understood the importance of ideas, seriousness and education in politics. He had faith in the working class from which he came without ever being a ‘workerist’ – he was scathing of those on the left who tail-ended and patronised working people, by dressing-down to attend picket lines and protests or calling them ‘the salt of the earth’. He insisted that working people needed to be educated in order to understand – and change – the society in which they lived.
He was always an autodidact who read voraciously. But he often said that it was not until he joined the RCP that ‘the scales fell from my eyes’ and he learnt how to look at the world as a Marxist – including understanding why he had been banging his head against a left-wing brick wall all those years.
When Dave joined the RCP, it was little more than a handful of people who were highly critical of many of the accepted ‘truths’ of the British left, from supporting the Labour Party to banning fascists. But the heretical young group offered Dave something he had not found elsewhere. The RCP’s intellectual approach was rooted in the political reality of the times, rather than simply repeating the tired left dogmas of the past. But at the same time, it refused to be bound by the downbeat ‘realism’ that was prevalent on the left, and sought to raise people’s horizons towards a radically different future. Although Dave, like others, found the relentless questioning of conventional left-wing wisdom a tiring process, he quickly grasped that it was necessary if they were to make sense of contemporary developments. Marx’s favourite motto, ‘Question everything’, which became the slogan of Living Marxism magazine (published by the RCP from 1988), was always close to Dave’s heart.
I first met Dave Hallsworth in the summer of 1981, on the picket line outside Laurence, Scott and Electromotors, shortly after he had joined the RCP. I was a student in Manchester, he was a leading activist in an occupation against the closure of the factory and the loss of more than 600 jobs – including his own. He looked then exactly as he does in the picture at the top of this article. That was Dave’s natural habitat, at the heart of a struggle, and it seemed to me that he towered over the representatives of other left-wing groups on the picket line.
At every stage of that bitter 11-month dispute, Dave was the one arguing that they needed to up the action – to occupy the factory, to send out flying pickets to other works, to resist the bailiffs, to refuse the shabby compromise being negotiated by union leaders. And at every stage he was proved right. But the isolation of the Laurence Scott workers and union officials’ perfidy meant the strike was eventually defeated; armed bailiffs broke the occupation, and then 400 riot police cleared the remaining pickets – and the rest of us supporters – from the gates on a bitter February morning in 1982.
By then, Dave was already a 30-year veteran of the labour movement and the left. Born in Dukinfield, Manchester in 1929, he had left school at 14 to work in a local factory, but soon quit to join the Royal Navy as a boy sailor. He recorded many of his naval experiences in a long and fascinating interview conducted by Ed Barrett for the Imperial War Museum in London (the tapes are available at the museum for public listening): from joining a ‘mini-mutiny’ by boy sailors against their harsh treatment aged 15 or protesting against the treatment of Korean prisoners of war, to throwing US military police into the sea and witnessing the ‘butcher’s shop’ of a naval battle.
During his years in the navy, he would later tell people, he had ‘fought against most of the oppressed peoples of the world on behalf of British imperialism’, from the ‘Amethyst Incident’ up the Yangtze River, to the Malayan Emergency and the Korean War. Ten years ago, Dave wrote an article in LM magazine about the West’s double standards on the issue of war crimes in which he described one incident:
‘In 1949, I served on HMS Jamaica transporting the 41st Royal Marine Commandos to Penang, Malaya, where the rebels were fighting for independence from the Empire. About a week after we arrived the marines invited us to go on patrol with them. We went on an armoured train to Kuala Lumpur. While on patrol they stopped at a village which was said to be providing food and shelter to insurgents. The marines found the two elders, tied them to a tree and slit their stomachs open with machetes, so their intestines fell out. Then they marched the village past them. A sailor by the name of Bertie Bell took photographs of this, but when he got back to the ship they were confiscated by officers. Of course, nobody was accused of war crimes; they were just Royal Marines, doing their job for Queen and Country.’
Years later, Ed Barrett recalls Dave breaking the ice with a group of striking miners by asking ‘Anybody here ever been shot?’
Dave’s life changed in his early twenties when he met Elsie Ashworth, later to be his wife and the rock of his life who, he said, ‘made me what I am’. Elsie was in the Young Communist League. Now Dave became a serious thorn in the Royal Navy’s side. He always said that the class system was laid bare on board ship, with different decks for different ranks and armed men to keep the lowly matelots in line. He took to making gestures of defiance – like growing a Joe Stalin moustache against regulations, blacked up with boot polish – and taking more serious steps to try to organise the sailors on board a warship, reading them ‘very boring’ speeches from Soviet Weekly.
After various punishments and warnings (including, he told Barrett, being told by an intelligence officer that ‘I shot a lot like you in the war’), Dave was finally court-martialled. He promptly informed the military court that this was illegal, since Britain had now signed the UN Declaration on Human Rights, which guaranteed the right to organise. After some deliberation they decided to charge him under the Public Order Act instead with, as Elsie recalls, ‘making provocating speeches intended to cause a disturbance’ (something which Dave was to make a lifelong habit). He was sent to Exeter prison for a month – where he became a jailhouse lawyer – and drummed out of the Navy.
In 1951 Dave joined the Communist Party; Elsie remembers them marching through the impoverished streets of Liverpool, with about eight young Communists and a big red flag. They married in December 1953. But their shared belief in the Soviet system was shattered in 1956 when the crimes of the Stalin era became clear, and then the Red Army tanks rolled into Hungary to crush the popular uprising. On the fiftieth anniversary of Hungary last October, Dave wrote movingly on spiked about how he called on the party to support the Hungarian workers and students at a meeting in Liverpool, and was denounced by the leadership as a ‘Trotskyist provocateur’ – even though he had never read a word by Leon Trotsky.
‘As I walked back from the podium to my seat in the audience, screams of “Trotskyist!” hit me from all sides. Communist Party comrades who had been my friends hurled abuse at me, their faces screwed up with hatred. By the time I got back to my seat I was shouting back, telling them that, like the AVO (Hungarian secret policemen) who were then swinging on lamp posts as a result of people’s anger, their time on the end of a rope was nearing. I would not recommend this as a way to win political arguments.’
After Hungary, Dave and Elsie left the CPGB along with thousands of others. But while many threw out the baby with the bath water and turned their backs on the left altogether, the Hallsworths went in search of some answers (despite having a new baby in a flat with no running water):
‘Thousands of us decided we were finished with the official Communist movement after Hungary 1956. But many continued to struggle in different ways for a revolution against capitalism, though circumstances were heavily weighed against us. For my part I decided that, having been branded a Trotskyite, I ought to go and read what that anti-Stalinist had to say – a real eye-opener.’
Dave became involved with the Trotskyite left and various of its gurus, from Gerry Healy’s SLL (later the WRP), to Tony Cliff’s International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party). But he never really got on with any of them, and by the early Seventies had been expelled from the IS.
Through all that, Dave continued fighting for a better society within the trade union movement. In the mid-Seventies he played a leading role in a strike over racism and low pay at Intex Yarns, the mill where he worked and where the workforce was divided along racial lines. The distinguishing feature of the dispute at Intex was the presence of a National Front cell inside the factory, which led to violent clashes and razor attacks. Dave held daily organising meetings with the mostly-Asian strikers at 6am in his family home. He was finally victimised for his activities. He never lost the willingness to take on fascists with force as well as forceful arguments; on one famous occasion when a meeting on Ireland in a Manchester pub was attacked by the National Front, Elsie and him were breaking up bar stools to use as defensive weapons while others on the left debated whether to call the police.
In 1980, Dave persuaded his local Tameside Trades Council – a collective body of the trades unions in the area – to support a conference on Northern Ireland, at the time of the republican prisoners’ hunger strikes for political status. When this prompted the leaders of the British Trades Union Congress to kick the trades council out of the TUC, Dave led the resistance. This was when he became involved with the small Revolutionary Communist Tendency, soon to become the RCP. It was to help him make sense of the defeats he had been through, and convince him of the primacy of ideas and political theory in rebuilding a movement for change.
The Laurence Scott occupation gave Dave the opportunity to put those politics into practice. Afterwards he was active in organising solidarity with other groups of workers, especially during the miners’ strikes of 1984-5, and in many campaigns. I have fond memories of him alternatively electrifying and terrifying my fellow students at Manchester University, with his tales of the Reverend Rayner Stevens, ‘a revolutionary conservative’ from the Chartist era of the nineteenth century, who advised the workers to ‘burn down the mills – and put out the flames with the blood of the mill owners’.
He was also a fount of knowledge on the history of Manchester’s working-class movement, directing all visitors to the little-known Lincoln Memorial in the city centre where the president gives thanks to the mill workers of Manchester for the sacrifices they made in refusing to cooperate with the cotton-producing slave owners of the American South. Dave stood very much in that same tradition of solidarity across the sea, campaigning in support of liberation struggles around the world.
In the 1983 General Election he stood as the RCP candidate in Ashton, winning what was then a highly respectable total of 400-odd votes – which he bettered in the 1986 Knowsley North by-election, when he received almost 700. His speech at the count on election night 1983, when he informed the crowd that ‘we’ll be back to turn those votes into members and fight for the workers and unemployed’, sent shivers down the backs of the local Labour establishment on a warm June evening.
In later life Dave went to college to study for a degree in social studies – on at least one occasion booing his politics tutor during a lecture – before finally working as a school caretaker and, inevitably, stirring up the cleaning ladies. After his retirement Elsie and he travelled the world, from South Africa to the USA and Europe.
The RCP was wound up in the mid-Nineties, when its members decided that an organisation founded in the 1970s was no longer an appropriate vehicle for intervening in the politics of the post-Cold War world. But Dave never lost the capacity to take on new ideas or his willingness to get into a political fight. When I edited LM magazine and then spiked in the post-RCP years, he loved to ring and email to argue the toss about everything. The articles that Dave wrote for spiked reflect his own favourite targets – his traditional antipathy to the superstitions of religion, and his more recent hostility to the pieties of what he saw as the new religion of environmentalism. Indeed Dave and Elsie were among the first to recognise how the rising eco-cult of ‘the Planet’ meant subordinating the interests of humanity.
Dave was always a loyal friend, resolute and irascible in equal measure, whose warmth and humour set him far apart from the traditional dry caricature of a left-wing activist. Everybody who knew him has their favourite Hallsworth anecdotes, none more so than Dave himself, who entertained – and educated – us young Marxists for hours with tales from the trenches of life.
Shortly after we met, when I began to read the books that had so excited him, I remember finding this quote, from the Manifesto of the Second Congress of the Communist International – written by Trotsky in 1920, in the heat of the era of revolution and civil war in the Soviet Union – describing what a ‘true Communist’ would be like:
‘In all his work, whether as leader of a revolutionary strike, or as organiser of underground groups, or as secretary of a trade union, or as agitator at mass meetings, whether as deputy, co-operative worker or barricade fighter, the Communist always remains true to himself as a disciplined member of the Communist Party, a zealous fighter, a mortal enemy of capitalist society, its economic foundation, its state forms, its democratic lies, its religion and its morality. He is a self-sacrificing soldier of the proletarian revolution and an untiring herald of the new society.’
In more than quarter of a century since, I have never met anybody who better encapsulates those words than my old friend and comrade Dave Hallsworth. Our ‘untiring herald of the new society’ from Ashton has gone – but gone, as he and Elsie always insisted, with no regrets about the course they took in life.
Dave is survived by Elsie and their sons, Andrew and Duncan. He has left his body to science. I commend his spirit to the living.
David Phipps Hallsworth, 21 July 1929 – 30 August 2007.
Dave Hallsworth’s memorial event, for family and friends, will take place on Sunday 23 September at 2pm in the Whitworth Room at the Palace Hotel, Oxford Street, Manchester, M60 7HA. See a map here.
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