Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Sam Bornstein (1920–1990)

The death of Sam Bornstein was a shock and a blow, both to myself, who was a close personal friend for over 50 years, and to Revolutionary History journal and the comrades who take an active part in it, because he reflected all that was best in the revolutionary tradition, and because he combined a warm spirit and a liberal outlook with honest energy. Although his health had been failing for some time due to diabetes and a deteriorating heart condition, it did not, however, prevent him from being concerned and having as active an interest as possible in Revolutionary History, for which he had great hopes. In spite of his close connection with its members, and the fact that his advice and information, as well as himself and his connections, were put at the disposal of the Editorial Board, on account of his increasing illness he nonetheless refused to remain a member of the board, despite the constant requests of its leading members, because he felt that he could not function fully as an active member of the Editorial team.

As the revolutionary movement has too few people of the calibre and quality of Sam Bornstein, his loss was therefore a blow to the movement. He was, and remained, a Trotskyist for over 50 years. He had his ups and downs like everyone else, and whilst he may have lost faith in this or that organisation – after all, 50 years is a long time for human involvement, and much has gone on in the last 50 years to justify that – he never lost faith in his ideal, even though in no other period have there been such tremendous, radical and violent changes.

I first met Sam early in 1938, when we were both as young comrades moving towards Trotsky – he from the ILP Guild of Youth (he already had a sense of organisation), and myself from outside, having always had an interest in politics in the academic sense. Memory is a dodgy thing, and the older you get and the longer the period that has elapsed the more dodgy it becomes. Nonetheless, I will record it as I remember it. As youth we took part with enthusiasm in the building of the Workers International League group in Stepney – Sam, Morry Gordon, Alan Nelson, myself, and others. The person who collected us together and organised us was the WIL’s roving organiser, Jock Haston, who used to travel everywhere wearing his battered pork-pie hat. The lectures for our education were given by Raff Lee. The first lecture that Ted Grant ever gave was to us, and I remember Jock saying that he was “the brightest young Marxist in Britain”.

The group was growing in Stepney, but the war clouds grew very much faster. With the coming of war things changed rapidly. After about 20 months I was in the army and Sam went into engineering. During that period I mainly saw him when I came home on leave, and although I knew that he was active in the engineering shops where he worked and in the AEU, I did not, however, know the full extent of his activity. It was after the war that a really close association between us really began – we were known at 256 Harrow Road, in fact, as “the two Sams'. We became actively involved in the fight against Healy at a local level. There was no real Healy tendency in our branches, as he had his fiefdom in South London.

After the Healy faction moved out the decline of the Revolutionary Communist Party accelerated, along with the increasing demoralisation of its leadership, the first of many such experiences of the rise and decline of political organisations for both of us. Then the somersault of the RCP leadership took place, from support for an independent organisation to entry into the Labour Party. The reality of the situation was that the leadership was tired and demoralised, and tried to find a means whereby they could pass the buck. It was in this period that Sam, myself, and other comrades at a local level tried to fight it. Many years later now I still feel that we were correct. Our basic weakness was not ideological, but we were not an alternative leadership. The majority of the RCP were unhappy and were certainly not willing to go into the Labour Party. In this milieu three leading comrades headed by Ted Grant stepped in and de facto acted as a vehicle to justify entry under the banner of maintaining the leadership. Alf Snobel described their role in the main document of the Open Party Faction as going past the front door while spitting on it, and then going round the back and crawling in through a hole. The end result was a shotgun wedding with Healy, with the majority of the leadership of the RCP departing in spite of Grant's laments, whilst Healy carried out a purge of the “unreliable'. Although probably more walked out than were purged, after a couple of years Healy acquired a small rump of the membership of the RCP.

After this period there was a temporary divergence in our activity. Sam went to Paris, in contact with the International Secretariat under Pablo, and went with one of the workers' brigades to Yugoslavia. This was the period of the glorification of Tito. When he came back he worked closely with Pablo and the Greek Cypriots who were part of Pablo's personal faction in Britain. They promoted and sold a duplicated journal, The Fourth International, the organ of the International Secretariat. Sam was the leading light in the handling of this activity.

Two new tendencies emerged in the period after the forced fusion, the forerunners of the state capitalists and of the Militant Tendency. I took an active part in the early work of the workers’ statist tendency. This was a fusion of two elements in fact, one the Liverpool group run by the Deane family, upon which Grant rested, and the other a more disparate element, which included people such as Alf Rosen, Charlie Sisely, Jim Woods and myself. Antagonisms arose within a relatively short period, and I developed a small opposition to the way things were going. During that period, however, after Pablo had made approaches and gone through all the other organisations from Healy onwards, he approached our group, and it was at this time that Sam re-merged with our tendency. After about a year I walked out of what had by then become the Grant tendency. Sam played an active rôle in that organisation for some time, becoming the publisher of their journal, though it came out very irregularly. Then he, too, became increasingly dissatisfied with the inefficiency, incompetence and narrowness which Grant as the ideological leader had imparted to it.

Sam was nothing if not a fighter. After a period in the wilderness he felt that there was a need for the history of the movement to be written, and for this he was lucky in finding the ideal partner in Al Richardson; they balanced each other perfectly. Sam had the knowledge and experience and the understanding of the movement whilst Al had the academic background and method, with an equally fervent appreciation and interest in the Trotskyist movement. A long period of involvement in this began, covering the length and breadth of Britain. They contacted many old Trotskyist comrades, a number of whom had dropped out for many a year, and they went through many archive documents deposited in universities by people who had been involved in the movement, such as the material deposited at Hull University by Haston. They had many recorded interviews with anyone who had been involved. They searched even among Stalinist and bourgeois sources, for example in state sources about the ordnance factories in Nottingham during the war. They spent many a day in Marx House in Clerkenwell, acquiring the friendship of the people who worked there in the process. All this was done during their spare time, as they were working people who had to earn a living.

After writing up the history (which had to be constantly revised because of fresh information and new interviews being done), they then set about trying to get it published. Then they learned another lesson about ‘Socialist publishers’ – in fact, a book could be written about these Socialist publishers. They were in the unfortunate position of not being known as leading Socialists, the bottom line being not whether they were contributing to Socialism but whether a profit could be made. As a consequence, Sam spent his pension gratuity in getting the books published. Furthermore, realising that the only way that real Socialist thought (which was not kosher according to the petty bourgeoisie) could come out was to create a publishing house, he helped to found Socialist Platform as a publication firm.

The publication of Sam and Al’s books was not an end in itself. Its purpose was to educate the younger generation, and in this spirit they founded Revolutionary History. Sam took a leading role, particularly during the early days of Revolutionary History, when much of the material in it came from foreign comrades who had a relationship with Sam. He also publicised it to his wide circle of friends. He was proud of it to the end, and despite the restrictions imposed by his failing health, he kept up to date with telephone calls, visits by comrades, etc., but never losing his critical faculties, criticising what he thought was wrong.

The political life of a comrade is measured, though only roughly, by the people who pay their respects as a symptom of their appreciation of it. In Sam's case this was expressed in full measure. Apart from comrades who attended from outside London, even those who disagreed with him in one way or another attended his funeral. Among a few examples we might name Harry Ratner, whose friendship was relatively recent; old comrades who had dropped out of politics but who had renewed their friendship, such as Fred Jackson and Bob Wilsker, who had been the editor of the duplicated bulletin in German that the RCP had turned out for prisoners of war; and people who had never been Trotskyists, such as Staff Cottman, an old associate in the ILP. There were political opponents such as Frank Ward, who had gone over to the Labour Party establishment as a full time official in Transport House, and although Sam disagreed with both Ted Grant and Tony Cliff, both attended, recognising him for what he was – an honest, sincere and capable revolutionary.

Sam Levy

Updated by ETOL: 10.7.2003