Friday, March 27, 2009

A Turbulent Life

Book Review

by Andy Brooks

A Turbulent Life by Jock Nicholson pbk, 111 pp, illus, £8.99, Praxis Press Glasgow 2009.

WHAT MAKES a communist tick? We think we know that from our own experience. We recall the struggles against the revisionist “euro-communists” in the 1970s and the struggle that led to the foundation of the New Communist Party. Some remember the fight to save the Morning Star by the Communist Campaign Group in the 1980s. Others will turn to the legion of academic works and turncoats’ memoirs that followed the downfall of the old Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). But what of the “loyalists” who remained faithful to the Gollan and McLennan leadership to the bitter end?
Jock Nicholson was one of those who comprised the vast majority of the old party’s membership whose class-consciousness was borne out of the tenements of Hamilton in Scotland and steeled by Spain and the communist party in the 1930s.
Nicholson was a militant trade unionist who worked with Willie Gallacher in Fife and played a leading role in the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the CPGB. Veteran readers may remember him when he was on the NUR Executive. Jock was certainly no friend of the NCP describing us as “a club of fanatics who were still living in the atmosphere of the Bolshevik insurrection”. But don’t let that deter you from reading this autobiography!
Nicholson’s book gives us an insight to the struggle starting with the back-breaking poverty of Scotland during the Great Slump and the struggle to make ends meet and ending with the liquidation of the old Party and the counter-revolution in the Soviet Union.
It’s packed with anecdotes about Willie Gallacher, the charismatic communist MP for West Fife from 1935 to 1950 ; life on the railways; the St Pancras rent strike in the 50s which Jock helped lead and lots more.
Being a communist is never easy and many fell by the wayside. Others, like Jock, stayed the distance. He describes Gallacher’s defeat in 1950 during the height of the Cold War and the political clashes with the right-wing on the NUR.
Though he says little about the internal struggles within the CPGB what he does say raises many questions. For instance he controversially says that the old Party elevated the industrial struggle above the electoral fight in the latter days of the Gollan leadership stating that “the factory proletariat had been elevated above the political thinker” particularly after Bert Ramelson took charge of the industrial department at King Street. It’s a pity that he didn’t write more but we must be grateful for what we have.
Working class memoirs are few and far between despite the renewed academic interest in local history in recent years. No-one wanted to know when Jock sent his manuscript out in 1992. It’s at last seen the light of day, with a foreword by Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, thanks to the good offices of Praxis Press. Jock Nicholson certainly led a ‘turbulent life’ and his book is well worth the read. It can be ordered from your local library or bookshop or directly from: Unity Books, 72 Waterloo St, Glasgow G2, Scotland at £8.99 post free.