by Ken Ruddock
Reg Birch:Engineer, trade unionist, communist by Will Podmore, Bellman Books, London 2004. Pbk, illus, 308pp, £8.00.
There are many books written about the history of the trade unions and the working class covering the period up to and during the Second World War, but there are very few that deal with the ongoing struggle that many of us took part in and who remember the part that Reg Birch took – a leading part.
The sub-title says it all – engineer, trade unionist, communist. He was all three in one.
Leaving school at the age of 15 in 1929, he became an apprentice toolmaker and joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU). Ten years later he became a shop steward.
He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1939 but parted company with it in 1968. By that time the CPGB had drifted away from its revolutionary principles, downgraded the importance of the industrial struggle and had adopted The British Road to Socialism (BRS) as its programme. Reg, like many other militant comrades, had long opposed the BRS as a left-social democratic programme and the style of work that followed, which in his words divided the CPGB into “thinkers” and “doers”, of full-time officers and passive dues payers.
Reg had great faith in the industrial working class, in its ability to defeat the capitalist employers in struggle, given the right leadership. He served the union as a branch officer, branch president, shop stewards’ convenor, and member of its London District Committee. Then he became its district organiser, executive councilman, and secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions.
Much of his time was spent in conflict with employers in the aircraft industry, in which the unions were militant and well organised in those days and this is covered at length in the book.
In 1968 Reg decided that it was necessary to form an “honest” communist party, a Marxist-Leninist party. And so the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) was formed, with himself as chairman, a post he held until he retired in 1985.
Some communists in engineering joined its ranks. Others, who later helped found the New Communist Party of Britain in 1977, felt that Reg’s move was premature.
But, under Reg’s leadership, the London North district committee of the AEU was not only concerned with national problems. It also had an international outlook and went on record in opposition to the repression of the Palestinian people.
It opposed the United States aggression against Vietnam – in fact Reg was in Hanoi during the bombing of Vietnam in December 1972. He had made many friends in his travels: Chou En-Lai in China and Enver Hoxha, leader of the Party of Labour of Albania amongst them.
Whilst the book of 308 pages is the story of Reg Birch, there is also included a chapter devoted to his wife Dorothy, a fighter in her own right and a great support to Reg. It is packed with anecdotes and stories about industrial struggle including a hilarious account of the AUEW’s presentation to the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the House of Commons in 1975.
Reg Birch was an outstanding union leader who fought for the class all his life which is why he is remembered with affection by many who knew him but did not necessarily agree with everything he said. His controversial decision to form the CPB (ML) in 1968 and the political line it subsequently developed can be studied in this text which includes some key Birch speeches and CPB(ML) pamphlets.
This is invaluable reading for all interested in the history of the class and the British communist movement. It can be bought in any bookshop or directly from: Bread Books, PO Box 1806, Coventry, CV6 1YJ. Please add £2.00 for p&p if ordering it directly.