By Paddy O’Regan
RAY ATHOW WAS a party member for 47 years and an organiser for over 30.
In all that time, what distinguished him is that he put the party first before everything else. He fought for the Marxist dialectical materialist outlook, and that this outlook must guide the party’s practice in opposition to the spontaneity of the revisionist movements who taught that ‘the working class united, could never be defeated’.
He understood that unless the revolutionary party was built to provide revolutionary leadership, the working class would be betrayed by the Labour Party and Stalinist bureaucracies and face defeat at the hands of the ruling class.
He devoted himself to building the party with a single-mindedness and sense of purpose that showed a deep understanding that the organisation of the British and world socialist revolutions was the decisive struggle of the epoch that we are living in.
He was a Norfolkman and had a very strong stubborn streak running through him. He would never give up in difficult situations, and believed in working to solve problems and never to run away from them.
He was born in December 1945 in Norfolk, and came from a poor rural background. His father was a farm labourer who was also an active trade unionist.
Ray battled to get an education and went to Southampton University where he graduated in biochemistry.
He also joined the Young Socialists Students Society there, and then the Socialist Labour League in 1966.
He met his wife Anna while both were at Norwich City College and both attended the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution rally in London in 1967 organised by the Socialist Labour League.
The 1960s was a very stormy period when youth were in revolt, with Labour governments under Harold Wilson being elected in 1964, and then 1966-70, in a period when there were major strikes and British imperialism was rapidly declining, having to go cap in hand with Denis Healey begging to the IMF for loans.
He opposed the treachery of the Wilson governments and the counter-revolutionary policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy. He opposed them with the necessity to build the revolutionary leadership so that the working class could take the power.
In 1968, revolution swept through Europe with the May and June 1968 revolution in France leading the way, and then continuing in Prague, with the ‘Prague Spring’, when the Stalinist bureaucracy ordered the Warsaw Pact forces into Prague to put down a workers political revolution. At the same time, the Young Socialists in the UK was being built into the biggest youth movement in the UK. It had already broken with the Labour Party, the split beginning in 1964 when the Young Socialists, led by the Socialist Labour League, set a target date of 1969 for the launching of the first Trotskyist daily paper. This was achieved on time.
Ray fought first of all to build a mass branch of the Young Socialists in Southampton, and helped to build a big branch of the SLL in the university and the City, before he moved to Harlesden in London while he did his qualification for teaching at the London University.
He then fought to build the YS in the West London area, alongside his wife Anna, whom he married on 31-12-68. He was training to be a teacher, she was training to be a doctor and a surgeon, and both were devoted to the revolution.
The class struggles of the 1960s provided the basis for his development, and spurred on his determination to study Marxism and in particular its philosophy, and its active side as developed by Marx when he wrote ‘Philosophy has up till now interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.’
Ray became more and more convinced that the building of the revolutionary party trained to do battle in the working class and the youth, guided by the dialectical materialist outlook to build a revolutionary cadre, was absolutely vital for the working class to be able to liberate itself, and the rest of exploited humanity with it, from capitalism.
He fought amongst the students and the youth to build a mass YS movement, organising big dances and social activities to attract the masses of youth, and regular YS meetings and schools to educate and develop a youth cadre.
This was a struggle. It was not a walk in the park. While working to build up the YS in Kentish Town, Ray was stabbed in the leg with a broken bottle by a gang of youth and hospitalised for a few days. He however emerged all the stronger from hospital to fight all the harder to build up the party and the Young Socialists. There was no retreat for him. He held fast to the unity of theory and practice, thorns and all, and that holding fast opposites was the only way that they would be transformed into each other.
In 1972, Ray and Anna moved into Romford, where he made a major contribution to the development of the party and the transformation of the SLL into the WRP in December 1973.
At this time, the employers and government were moving to containerise the docks and this produced massive struggles, that were led in London by the Communist Party.
Ray sold the party’s daily paper every morning on the Royal London Docks in Canning Town, and refused to be intimidated by the energetic opposition of the Stalinists.
The struggle came to a head when the Heath government used its anti-union laws to jail five dockers.
Ray was present on the picket line at the Midland Cold Store in 1972 when the Heath government sent the police in to arrest five dockers and put them into Pentonville prison.
The London dockers picketed out entire industries and under the threat of a general strike the dockers were freed from jail, by an ‘official solicitor’, whose existence had been unknown until then. In the course of this struggle the party, with Ray playing a leading role, built three docks branches in London and built up a big influence amongst dock workers and motor car workers in particular.
This party building work provided the base for the 3,500-strong December 1973 conference that transformed the SLL into the WRP, a decisive stage in the development of Trotskyism in the UK, and of the International Committee of the Fourth International.
In 1976, Ray and Anna moved to Norfolk where he worked full time as an organiser for the party and made a major contribution to the development of the region, particularly by giving carefully prepared lectures.
After the split in the WRP in 1985, when he played a big role in defeating those who tried to smash the WRP on the grounds that the working class had been defeated by Thatcher, Ray worked to refound the News Line as a daily paper and worked on it for a number of years. He also edited the Marxist Review and worked with the comrades who are leading the struggle of the Russian, Sri Lankan, Greek and South African sections of the International Committee. He also prepared many of the lectures given at our Summer School.
At the end of 1984/early 85 he had a heart attack, and from April 2011 he spent most of his time in Norwich as his chest disease worsened, but he continued to contribute in every way that his health allowed.
He died of chronic respiratory disease.
We send our condolences to his wife Anna and to his family. We urge all of our members, especially our young members, to emulate Comrade Ray’s struggle to fearlessly develop revolutionary theory by using it to drive forward the party’s practice to change the world through the building of a mass Young Socialists movement, and a much bigger Workers Revolutionary Party in the period ahead, along with a mass circulation of the News Line, to make sure that the next big crisis for British capitalism is its last and leads to the working class taking power and establishing socialism.
Ray Athow’s funeral will take place on Thursday
December 12th at 12.45pm