Remembering an activist and a scholar

Report from Brent Admin

Published: 08/12/03

Al Richardson is dead

On Wednesday 3 December, the socialist historian Al Richardson was cremated following a ceremony in South West London. He had died nine days previously at the age of 61. Around a hundred people attended the ceremony, including members of the family, pupils and fellow teachers, as well as many revolutionaries who knew Richardson from his four decades of socialist activism. Richardson's coffin bore the red flag of the 4th International.

It was evident to all the mourners that Al Richardson had managed to separate successfully the different parts of his life. To his pupils 'Alec' was a shrewd and inspiring source of historical knowledge, a man who could make the distant debates of the Russian Revolution come alive, an occasional pedant, a source of pages and pages of closely written comments and advice.

To his comrades, Al was best known as the editor of Revolutionary History. He was a veteran of the International Marxist Group and The Chartist. He was one of a small number of revolutionaries who insisted that the Labour Movement could not be separated from the Labour Party. There was a red running through history, and Al's heroes, Frederick Engels and the mid-century British Trotskyists, were united in their support of work within Labour.

Al was a rare figure on the British left, a man who despised the pompous self-satisfaction of the university system, but who was yet an expert in third century Greek and fluent in Egyptian hieroglyphics. His history, however, was defensive. Like Isaac Deutscher, he seemed to judge that the record of human experience was a chronicle of popular defeats and collective misery, redeemed only by the possibility of successful revolt ahead. Such is a brave and necessary means of judging the world - but where is the hope?

For Al, that sense of redemption belonged overwhelmingly to the past. It was embodied in the lives of veteran Trotskyists, such as Sam Bornstein. Together with Sam, Al set about writing the history of Trotskyism in Britain. Their three books constitute an invaluable, detailed and reliable guide to the history of the movement in its first twenty years. Bornstein and Richardson were also merciless in their criticism of all the parties alive in their own day - none of which could match the model of the small groups 30 years previously.

A similar spirit has informed the journal Revolutionary History. Al was the founder, patron and editor. A broad unity was quickly achieved, members of the Labour Party rubbing shoulders with independents, Socialist Workers, bruised veterans of the International Socialists and the IMG, present-day supporters of Workers' Liberty, Workers Power and so on. The journal established a tradition of collective work through a practice of scholarship, and by drawing in the support of other left-wing veterans from Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Necessary decisions were taken. RH restricted itself (mainly) to the history of Trotskyism. Very little has been published on the post '68 period.

Years later, we find that ours is a time of unity. The European Social Forum is coming to London. Socialist Alliances wait to be replaced by still broader coalitions. The new anti-fascist force is to be called 'Unity'. For all our present-day talk of alliance I wonder how many of these united projects will succeed in building as strong a unity of diverse forces, as the one built by Al?

The last time I saw Al was sitting in the cafe opposite Housmans, just three days before he died. Al wanted to engage me in talk. The new issue of the journal was due. He had pressed another comrade to work on a review of one of my books (I was relieved to have been spared Al's close attention to detail!). He wanted to talk history, to discuss the first world war, the role played by infantry, the possibility of rebellion in all its wild and vigorous forms.

His death is a loss to the whole movement.