Book Review: Reg Birch: Engineer, Trade Unionist, Communist by Will Podmore

This biography by Will Podmore was published in 2004 on the tenth anniversary of the death of Reg Birch, Executive Committee member of the AEEU (Britain’s one time largest engineering union) a militant trade unionist and a communist. Reg Birch founded the first organisation to split from the Communist Party of Great Britain and which would side with the People’s Republic of China against the Soviet Union.

As far as political careers go then Birch’s too ended in failure according to the old saying. Not only a failure to build a successful revolutionary movement in Britain which was his aim when he broke from the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1967 but also for his failure to maintain a coherent theory and practise in the organisation he presided over.

It is obvious that the writer has uncritical praise for Birch and his organisation, even claiming that Sean Connery wanted to make a film of Reg’s life in the early sixties which the modest Reg declined. However it does not ruin the story of his life for there are many admirable moments in his leadership of organised engineering workers and of communists which we can learn from. There is also many political lessons which can be learned, in particular that of his serious political degeneration.

Reg was born just before the start of the First World War and grew up in a rather pleasant family setting and according to the author was an adventurous child and often went off exploring alone out of the urban area of Kilburn, North London where he was raised. Reg was involved in the working class struggle from an early age when, during the General Strike he delivered TUC papers to his family on his bicycle. In 1929 he became an apprentice engineer and a member of the AEU and employed at Park Royal in London, the beginning of his lifelong association with the industrial area. The author also places a strong emphasis (not without reason) on the role engineering workers played in the class struggle in Britain. However this is used to justify Birch’s (and the author’s) narrow craft unionism, a phenomena which was a root of reformism, entirely overlooked by Birch.

Birch became a communist in his early twenties but it is claimed he only joined the Communist Party of Great Britain as a ‘favour’ in repayment for a close friend and CPGB member helping Reg take care of his first wife during her fatal illness. It is clear that Birch had little time for the leaders of the CPGB like Harry Pollitt and Rajani Palme-Dutt, positively because he did not think they should ‘tell’ the workers what was best for them. It was less positive in that he was against their opposition to a trade union machinery encouraging reformism, or rather Birch refused to see there was a machinery of this nature in union leadership.

This tailing of trade unionism, which is at odds with Leninism, is a recurrent theme in the book and indeed in Birch’s political thought. This is not to say that Reg’s distrust of the CPGB leadership was all misplaced – it was mostly correct – and in this he continued the tradition of British revolutionaries like John Maclean in opposition to the revisionist leaders. It is striking to learn that Birch opposed the no strike policy of the CPGB during the war effort, although he certainly supported the war against Germany in order to aid the socialist USSR. Reg Birch was under no illusions as to the nature of British imperialism, its true motives and that of the employers, unlike Pollitt and the CP leaders!

Throughout the post-war period Reg Birch led many struggles for better wages and conditions for engineering workers in such factories like De Haviland, and rose swiftly through the ranks of the AEU. Birch also had no illusions in the Labour Party and their post-war government which led a vicious anti-communist campaign in Britain, which the CPGB seemed to do little to fight against as they desired to tail the Labour ‘left’. Reg had no illusions about reformism; he did however have illusions about trade unions.

The emphasis on Birch’s trade union work leads to the author unnecessarily reproducing pages of transcripts of union meetings, conferences and conciliation talks which becomes very tedious for the reader. The political aspects of Regs’ life are more interesting. After a visit to China, where he held court with Chou En Li, he was apparently encouraged to form an anti-revisionist party in Britain and so it was he helped organise, along with war hero escapist and ‘cooler king’ Bill Ash, a conference which led to the formation of the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) in 1967. This Communist Party, unlike the old one, was openly promoting the revolutionary overthrow of the British state and opposition to the Labour Party.

In placing the emphasis on Birch’s importance in the formation of this organisation the author fails to mention the earlier anti-revisionist pioneers and rebels from the CPGB such as Michael McCreery, Alex Tudor Hart and Ewan MacColl who organised a number of Communist groups from the early 60s. This is a reflection of the author’s uncritical praise of Birch. The CPB(M-L) was guided by Birch’s political thought, which was highly contradictory. Important as its formation was in the breaking with revisionism of the CPGB, it did not break with some of the economism and national chauvanism in the labour movement.

There were some very positive moments in the CPB(M-L) early years; opposition to Soviet imperialism in Czechoslovakia, support for Mao and China and Albania, supporting boycotts of general elections and later opposition to the misconception that workers in advanced countries are ‘privileged’ from ‘super profits’ and opposing the ‘Theory of Three Worlds’. In one of the pamphlets authored by Birch, Guerrilla Struggle and the Working Class, he does mention people’s war and revolutionary strategies although placing great emphasis on trade unions.

The less positive aspects were ‘working class nationalism’, his insistance that there were only two classes in Britain with no middle class, support for Soviet imperialism in Afghanistan, support for participation in elections post 1979 and tailing trade unions and eventually claiming the USSR had been socialist all along, something which goes against the very foundation of his organisation. Unable to grasp the development of capitalism in the late 20th century, he came to view certain aspects of the system as conspiracies against the British working class, such as the then EEC, rather then a logical process of capital centralising and expanding.

This demonstrates the highly contradictory outlook of Birch. This is not surprising considering the contradictory class location he occupied whether his supporters like it or not. Birch was a trade union official, an intermediate position between the ruling class and working class and it affected his outlook. Despite these weaknesses he played a major role in the working class movement in Britain, led the break with revisionism in the British Communist movement and led many struggles of engineering workers for which he rightly received great respect. He even managed to secure a trade deal with China for the British government.

Ollie Coxhead